Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lens, Too

The lens I talked about in my last post will be very useful under a lot of circumstances, but there are at least two situation where I'm going to need a longer lens; facial close-ups, and standing in front of my green screen without casting shadows.

So I bought one.

As you might be able to tell, this one is a zoom. I hadn't intended to buy a zoom, but I couldn't find a real bargain in the 60-90mm range I was looking in, and this one was less than $50. It's not a brand I'd heard of before, having been made by Sun Optics. After I had ordered the lens, I looked around for information on it and found that quite a few people are fond of the optics.

When I first got the lens, I couldn't get it to work. It would seat, but not lock into place. Some back and forth with the seller, who was very helpful, led me to think that an extra metal piece on the mount that I haven't seen on any other Nikon lens might be the issue. It was on with only two tiny screws, and when I removed it, the lens mounted perfectly.

And it takes very nice pictures and everything works very smoothly. There's only one remaining problem: it's a heavy piece of glass. So heavy that I worry that it could compromise the camera's mount if I place the camera on a tripod with no additional support. I can't find a collar specifically to fit this lens, so I think I'll be building some kind of tripod mount designed to hold the camera and the lens in concert, which might also serve as an adaptor for my poor-man's SteadiCam home-build.

I'll probably do some hand-held experimenting with the lens before I get to any kind of build, especially with more urgent building projects for my house which have to take precedence. Overall, though, I think that, between the two lenses, I have what I need to start doing the kind of movie shooting that I've been wanting to do for a while.

Now I just need to find the time. Between work and self-imposed book deadlines and a house perpetually under construction, it's going to be a squeeze.

But it will be worth it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Everything I Need To Know, I Learned By Playing Pool

I. No matter who you are facing in the game, pool is not you versus that person. It is you and that person versus the laws of physics. The player that takes the lesser beating is declared the winner.

II. The laws of physics are cruel.

III. Don't blame the tools. The table is not perfectly flat, the balls are not perfectly round, and the cue is not perfectly straight, and everyone who plays the game has to face up to that.

IV. Playing for position is an exercise in futility if you miss the shot.

V. Fancy trick shots mean nothing if you can't master the basics.

VI. When you make a lucky shot that you shouldn't have made, don't take credit for it, because then you can't blame bad luck for the shots you miss.

VII. Stroke, don't poke.

VII. Always follow through.

VIII. If you think that being an expert pool player makes you a very big deal, go humble yourself by trying a game of three-rail billiards.


As I mentioned in my last, all-too-long-ago post, I bought a lens for my new Nikon DSLR. It looks like this:

It is a modest lens, of a brand that has never garnered a lot of respect, though at one time Vivitar made quite serviceable low-cost lenses, of which I owned a few. The name has recently been sold off and the brand is not to be trusted, which I can unfortunately attest to from personal experience. But this piece of glass is from an older Vivitar tradition.

When I mount this new acquisition to my modern camera, I get a message at the bottom of the screen that looks like this:

This might seem a very disconcerting, even disheartening message, and probably would be for anyone who's used to shooting with a lot of automation. But to me, those are three beautiful words. They mean that the camera is not communicating with the electronics in the lens. Because, of course, there are no electronics in the lens.

Turning the control to manual solves this problem. The camera will not set the aperture or focus on this lens, because it can't, and it won't meter. But that's actually just the way I want it. With this lens mounted, I can use a thumbwheel to set the shutter speed and (while pressing another button) the ISO. And I can just leave them there, as I would normally do when shooting film, and use the aperture and focus rings to get just the effect I want.

I have not, so far, resurrected my light meter, and may not do so very often, because I can pretty well see the effect on exposure and depth of field using the viewing screen, which is the only viewfinder when shooting video, and shooting video is what this lens is for.

I have already shot a little video with it. I took it down to my green screen and set it up, It's a little on the wide side, and I have to stand closer to the screen than I normally like (I'll be fighting with the lighting to keep shadows off the screen), but this is just a test; I plan to get a longer lens sometime soon, something in the 75-85mm range.

The best part about shooting with this lens is focus. When I shot all of the other green-screen videos that I've made, I had to have a stand-in, not just for framing, but to lock the focus, and it didn't always work. Now I can literally measure the distance from the sensor (approximately—there's not film-plane marker on the camera that I can find; if you don't know what I'm talking about, I understand) to where I knew I was going to stand, then set the focus according to the markings on the focus ring.

That's right, markings. Actual distances that assist is setting the focus even when you can't see the image (or when you can't see it clearly), or when, as in the case of shooting myself in front of the camera, the object you are trying to focus on is just not there.

And the results? Amazing. Sharp and clear, with good color rendition. Not bad for what once was, even in the heyday of Vivitar, a relatively cheap lens.

Time has been a little short, but I expect I'll be back in front of the green screen sometime next week to show off my new acquisition.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The End For Mercator?

Boston public schools are ditching the familiar world map we all grew up with based on the Mercator projection, in favor of the Gall-Peters projection. The advantage of the latter projection is that it depicts continents with their proper land areas.

The Mercator has been roundly criticized for distorting land areas, making countries in the Northern Hemisphere appear larger than those in the Southern Hemisphere, thus giving the mistaken impression that they are somehow grander and more important.

But, all the political furor notwithstanding, that was not Mercator's intention. Mercator was creating an aid for navigation, and it worked for that purpose for hundreds of years, in fact, it revolutionized navigation in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He didn't put Europe in the center of the map as a political statement; he did it because the mariners most likely to use his map at the time were departing from and returning to that region.

In short, Mercator has been getting a bad rap.

I'm not saying that Mercator's map deserves it's position as the default depiction of the world, and I don't think Mercator, a brilliant cartographer, would have approved that application. What I am saying is that schools are taking altogether the wrong approach, and very much sending the wrong message.

Instead of arguing over which map is "fairer," they should recognize that any flat map of a spherical Earth is going to be distorted in some way. It's the nature of projection. Instead of teaching the lesson that one world map is better than another, they should be teaching the truth about maps: that they are created for specific purposes, and some maps are better suited to some purposes than are other maps.

The map that's best suited to teaching the proper size and distance relationships of the world's continents is a globe! But because a globe of usable size can't be carried about in the glove compartment, or pasted on a wall, cartographers have come up with different depictions to suit different purposes.

A lesson is geography should be a lesson about how geography is done. It should emphasize that the only way to get a true picture of the Earth is to look at something that's the same shape as the Earth. Maps are useful, but they are all fictions in one way or another.

To present the idea that Gall-Peters is somehow more "right" than Mercator is to propagate a lie in public schools. I hope that we are trying to get away from that.

And on that note, please stop teaching children that Columbus proved that the world is a sphere. Somebody made that up.

Monday, March 13, 2017


It's been a long time since I've had a decent camera, either still or video. But a new part-time job to supplement my writing and voice work has given me the budget to at least enter the world of the digital SLR. Not at the top of the line, but a something I can get some good control over.

The camera is a Nikon D3300, which I bought with two lenses. I haven't had much chance to play around with it, as it's been too cold outside and my schedule has been a little crazy. But I am learning how to use the features and take control of the camera. I've shot a few dozen pictures, most of them garbage, not because the camera isn't good, but because I'm working on doing as much as possible with manual controls.

The camera has a lot of features I'll probably never use, effects modes that I'd just as soon do using GIMP, if at all, and a guided feature that will take more time for picture taking than I plan to spend. The camera will spend most of its time in auto-exposure mode with the autofocus turned off, and maybe a fair bit of time in aperture- or shutter-preferred mode.

Manual mode is something I plan to avail myself of quite a bit, but I won't be using it much for day-to-day shooting, mostly because making the adjustments is a pain in the butt, especially compared to the way I used to do it with my 35mm SLR way back when.

Exposure, after all, is based on three components: sensitivity, shutter speed, and aperture. In days gone by, aperture was a ring on the lens, sensitivity was one dial on the camera (if it had a meter—some of mine didn't and so I used a separate incident meter, which I still have), and shutter speed was another dial.

Focus was a nice big ring on the front of the lens, with some solid mechanical feedback. The focus rings on these two lenses are un-marked, and they turn too easily. It's hard to get used to, but I'm getting better.

However, when I start using the camera for more serious video work, I may invest in a good used lens from an older film camera (many of them are compatible) to make follow-focus and aperture control easier, wresting them from the menus on the screen on the back of the camera.

Call me old fashioned if you must, but it was a lot faster to adjust those things without the menus.

I'm not complaining, though. It's nice to be able to tell the camera what aperture I want, and what shutter speed, even when it tells me the shot is too dark, because, in contrast to the point-and-shoot cameras I've been shooting with for far too many years now, I can tell it to go jump.

Sometimes, no doubt, I will discover that the camera probably was right. But I don't care; eventually I will know how the camera performs in different situations, and I will seize total control, and be able to create imagery on my own terms once again.

I can hardly wait.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Jeff Sessions: The Missing Questions

So, Jeff Session may have lied to congress. I can't say I'm surprised because it seems that lying, even under oath, just seems to be the way of things in this new administration. And I'm not surprised that Democrats are calling for Session's resignation (which is a position I agree with), or that the Republicans are not, though some are calling for him to recuse himself from investigations into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

And that is what surprises me. Not that they want him to recuse himself, but that no one seems to be asking the most obvious question in this whole affair: why didn't Sessions recuse himself the moment he took office? The Justice Department will be asked to investigate the administration of the man who appointed Sessions to head the Department, and there is always (always!) the possibility that the investigation will lead eventually to Trump himself.

There is no way that he should ever have anything to do with this investigation, regardless of what happened in Congress. Though now, with him being accused of lying to Congress, one has to wonder whether trusting him to stay out of the investigation is even possible.

And that is why I think Sessions should resign as Attorney General. You might argue that a man is innocent until proved guilty, but we are not talking about criminal prosecution (at least not yet). We are talking about a law-enforcement officer, whose integrity should be beyond compromise.

And in Jeff Session, we just don't have that.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Writing In a Winter Wonderland

It's cold outside here in New England; the temperature barely got into the double digits today, and there's snow on the way for the next three days. The house is warm, but the attic, where I do most of my writing, is not. Not so much anyway.

And yet here I am writing, because my outline is coming together, and I'm feeling good about the general flow of the story, and—cold fingers be damned—I am clicking away at my old ergonomic Dell keyboard (even though I write on a Mac) to try to keep that flow going as long as it will before I lose the energy or am forced to go off to bed.

And even that won't stop the writing, for when I am at a point like this, I do a lot of writing in my sleep. Not good writing necessarily (and definitely not good sleep), but writing nevertheless. And despite what it does to my sleep, the dreams will usually propel me into another day when I am champing at the bit to get to the keyboard.

There are usually things in the way. Work, snow, making dinner, more snow, shopping. More snow (I'm not exaggerating; multiple storms this week). It impinges on my keyboard time, but I am writing all the while. It is frustrating, sometimes, to have a great idea for a scene or a plot point or some dialogue and not be able to write it down. At least not without inconveniencing my family (I usually note these things using my phone, but taking a smart phone out when you're shoveling snow in 10-degree weather is a great way to kill the battery).

But the story and the people who populate it continue to fascinate me, and so when I do sit down at the keyboard, the words pour out, and it's slowly forming into a story. When it's done, I hope that you and your kids will find it as exciting as I do.