Been at our new place for over a month now. Part one of my plan to get back in shape is going well: I’m in the pool at least three times a week (not counting the swimming lessons for junior). I’ve also had the chance to pick up tennis again with new friends. But tennis is not good for me: it stresses the muscles that are already strained by too much mouse / trackball / camera usage. Part two: biking. Plenty of bike paths and biking opportunities in and around London. We’ll take advantage of them to explore the area, at least in the summer. Our last bike were lost a few winters ago, submerged by snow and plowed away. We’ll try to take better care of the new ones.
After a short but comprehensive research, we bought our bikes at Sport Chek Hyland in the Masonville shopping area of London North. They had exactly what we needed: good value for money. George, the sales associate, understood our needs immediately and gave us the right advice. Nowhere else did we find light and comfortable bikes at this low price. Costco? Steel frame. Wal Mart? Bad quality. Canadian Tire? Good quality, but more expensive, even if this week they had a 33% discount on selected models. What’s more: service at Sport Check Hyland was excellent as well. Competitive prices and good quality, what else could I want more?
We came home late but I had to take a picture. The RAW image was processed with Luminance HDR. I’ll have to wait almost four weeks until I can use my bike: next week I go back to Quebec to finish unfinished business. I use the opportunity to take junior on a summer trip. This is his summer with daddy. The bike and the trailer will wait for us.
It has been three months since I tried to process RAW files on Kubuntu. The out of camera JPEGs of my SONY Alpha 850 are so good that I don’t feel the need to process them any further. I can concentrate on the photography and forget the computing. Bliss!
Last week however a friend asked me for some “magic” (his word for tonemapping), and for this I need the RAW. Before rebooting into Windows I looked again at my problem with the washed out RAWs. Since I did not have much time I installed a prebuilt “daily” snapshot of RAWstudio, courtesy of Anders Kvist:
$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:rawstudio/ppa $ sudo apt-get update $ sudo apt-get install rawstudio-daily
The RAW files are shown correctly! What’s the difference from my self-built binaries from SVN? Since most RAW converter use the same dcraw code, maybe…? maybe!
So I tried with LuminanceHDR and at first it still looked off-color:
A quick check revealed that Ubuntu 9.10 ships dcraw v8.86 which fails my SONY ARW files. Current version as of writing is v8.99. With brute force (and in five minutes):
$ sudo apt-get install gcc libjpeg62-dev liblcms1-dev $ wget http://www.cybercom.net/~dcoffin/dcraw/dcraw.c $ gcc -o dcraw -O4 dcraw.c -lm -ljpeg -llcms $ sudo cp ./dcraw /usr/bin/dcraw
And here we go!
Bonus: LuminanceHDR recently introduced Mantiuk08 TMO (and new dependency on the GSL).
Why do Ubuntu 9.10 (October 2009) and the upcoming Ubuntu 10.4 (April 2010 and meant to be a long term supported version) ship with an outdated v8.86 (April 2008)?
Most Linux software that open RAW images depend on dcraw. LuminanceHDR and Krita are just two examples I care for. 18 months are eons in digital photography. Not updating means not supporting many of the new cameras/features that are released continuously. Dave Coffin does a great job at keeping up to date his code to read their files. Where is the bottleneck?
Between v8.86 and v8.99, support was added for many new and popular cameras that appeared on the market during that period, including SONY Alpha 850, Canon EOS 7D and 5D MkII, Pentax K-7, Nikon D700 and many, many, many more.
I don’t understand Ubuntu. On the one side they are totally bleeding edge. Sometimes even too much for my taste: they unleash on the average user software that is IMHO not ready for prime time such as grub2 in 9.10 that can barely deal with dual booting Windows but fails in many situations where the venerable legacy grub works just fine and does not need to be replaced any time soon (if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it; and if you want to promote the new kid on the block, at least give users an easy way back to the tools that are known to work). On the other side, they are totally outdated. Like with a two years old version of such critically important software as dcraw. At least they made some progress with Hugin: 10.4 will ship with Hugin-2009.2.0 while the default for 9.10 was still 0.8.0.
Next, I would need an intro on how to make packages from the binaries I made; and information how to submit them to Ubuntu for inclusion in the next release. Too late for 10.4, but things can only get better for 10.10 and later. Anybody care to help?
And here is the “magic” that my friend wanted to see:
Which one do you prefer?
I really should not be writing this post now. Too many critical deadlines before year’s end. But I could not resist. I upgraded. And the new toy is too attractive. Upgrading to SONY and not to Canon is specific to my situation. YMMV: you may find similarities and differences to your own situation; or you may want to skip to the rest of this post, describing what I like (and dislike) in the SONY Alpha 850 and how it plays with Ubuntu / Free software.
Why This Time I Choosed SONY over Canon
In a nutshell: another case of vendor lock-in. Sort of.
Before switching to digital I was shooting with a Minolta Maxxum 700si, hence my interest in SONY. I kept the very good Minolta lenses and accessories over the years. Adding similar capabilities to a greenfield system would set me back of at least 3000$. Their resale value had plummeted with the fortunes of Minolta’s photo division.
I also have a Canon 350D, with lenses and accessories. The Canon was primarily a business tool and the investment was limited (as in: ROI is bigger if the investment is smaller). It still serves me well but is at the end of its useful life.
The decision to go Canon in 2005 was partly motivated by the 350D game-changing nature (although I kept shooting film with the 700si). But first and foremost it was frustration with Minolta’s digital products hopelessly trailing Canon and Nikon by a generation or two, leaving users like me orphaned. Eventually Minolta went out of the dSLR business and SONY acquired the leftovers.
From the beginning it was clear that SONY was aiming for the top. And it got there. By 2008, in slightly less than three years, SONY caught up with rivals Canon and Nikon in the main markets. But that year I was not ready to buy a new dSLR yet: I needed FullHD video recording and preferred a dedicated camcorder over Canon’s 5D MkII.
In the autumn of 2009 I was in the market for a new photo camera. SONY and Canon launched two game changers: both the SONY Alpha 850 and Canon 7D offer radically more features than ever at a price tag of 2000$. And they represent two different approaches to the market.
Canon with an APS-C sensor and the continuation of the photo/video hybrids that seem to appeal to the general public. SONY with a full frame sensor and a camera completely designed for traditional photography.
Convergence of photo and video is a good thing that will happen when the manufacturers will get it right. For now SONY’s approach wins if you ask me. In my opinion Canon’s design will need another iteration or two before hitting a sweet spot. There are many. Same camera with a full frame sensor would be one. Lighter and smaller form factor like Sigma’s DP1 around the same APS-C sensor would be another one. I wish my camcorder had an APS-C sensor. For now, I don’t see myself using a dSLR to capture movies – I need a tiltable display and I need a weight distribution that allows me to ergonomically and steadily hand hold the device for a few minutes. From my perspective, the 7D is almost right for photography: only the sensor size is wrong.
SONY on the other hand might have cut a few things from it’s flagship A900 to fit the A850 in the right price envelope; but it got the most important details right. The full frame sensor expands my creativity range beyond the APS-C sensor.
SONY Alpha A850: The Pros
- Usability. SONY has added a layer of usability on top of the recognizable Minolta DNA. I did not need to read the handbook to start shooting and even to start accessing advanced functionality.
- Ergonomics. Most functions are quickly and easily accessible, and are sorted logically.
- In-body SteadyShot applies to all lenses. My good old Minolta lenses not only got an extended lease of life, they are more useful when shooting hand held and in low light conditions.
- Intelligent Preview helps deciding on the right exposure.
SONY Alpha A850: The Cons
- SteadyShot must be manually de-activated when shooting on a tripod, else the pictures will be blurry. I fell for this one on my first shooting day.
- Bracketing limited to -2/+2 EV, like Canon. When will SONY learn from Pentax? Also Nikon has improved bracketing.
- No speed improvement when limiting capture to APS-C size. What’s the point, then?
SONY Alpha A850: The Nuisances
These are no real disadvantages, just stupid details that could have been handled better in my opinion.
- Handbook lack important technical details, e.g. about the difference between the RAW and cRAW format (is cRAW lossy or lossless compression?) or the effect of creative mode on the RAW file (none – it only influences the JPEG and the default RAW conversion parameters). But who cares? Who reads handbooks anyway?
- Memory Stick. SONY is a sore loser on this one. The dead weight and space occupied by this relic of proprietary technology could have had better use for a second compact flash slot, with switching functionality like Canon and Nikon. Stupid but not critical.
- Proprietary USB plug. Sure it also features a composite video on the same plug, but what’s the point of displaying the camera’s output on a 640×480 low resolution display when it already has a built-in LCD with better resolution and an HDMI output? I rather have a standard USB plug. I don’t really use the USB (nor the video output) – just extract the compact flash card and plug it into the card reader.
- No support for my old Minolta 5400HS flash. It syncs at a paltry 1/200; and it does not set the exposure right. I’ll have to buy a SONY flash next year. Support for the 5400HS would have been too good to be true.
SONY has a track record for being very proprietary about its products and file formats. I feared they would not play well with Free software and I was ready to return the camera if it could not fit in my workflow.
The good news is that SONY’s own Image Data Converter SR plays well with Wine on my Ubuntu 9.04 notebook, even at its underpowered 1.6 GHz. There were a few display hickups, most notable the Area Selection Tool. I did not try the Remote Camera Control and I did not like the Image Data Lightbox.
RAWstudio is my favorite RAW converter in Linux. I don’t know what SONY does to its RAW files, but using the in-camera’s white balance in RAWstudio yields a washed-out picture with a reddish color cast. A slightly better result is achieved with auto white balance:
While I prefer to shoot RAW, I shoot RAW + JPEG initially until I am confident that my workflow can process the RAW files. So the following 1:1 crop is from a JPEG, slightly edited with GIMP.
Londinium was established as a town by the Romans almost 2000 years ago. It was common practice for Romans to adopt and romanize native names for new settlements. Not so the Brits: when they settled North America, they brought their names with them. So there are a dozen Londons in North America, one of them in Canada.
We’ve been to the original London many time, and we visted London, Ontario for the first time last summer. We were lucky to find the most welcoming bed and breakfast in London, Just For You. Owned and operated by Ron and Gerard two Dutch expatriates, this bed and breakfast combines the coziness and warmth of a B&B with a level of service that competes with the best five stars hotels of the world. It was an inspiring place to recharge our energy before and after our busy days in the city. Gerard served us healthy and creative breakfasts. One day he treated us to Poffertjes, a sweet complement to the varied and well presented fruit salad and accompanied with original Dutch Hagelslag and real cumin Gouda.
The room was so welcoming, I felt inspired to shoot an HDR panorama and to test if recent developments have made it easier on artists to create HDR panoramas. The bottom line is: things will soon become easier. For this panorama I had to work through some issues of the tool chain.
A New Approach to High Dynamic Range (HDR) Panoramas
Disclaimer: the author has been contracting with Photomatix.
Stacking and stitching or stitching and stacking exposure stacks has been discussed in the past, as a manually controlled workflow. It has been automated in Hugin 2009.2.0. As a reminder: stacking and stitching is generally more efficient but had a draw back for full spherical panoramas. Last time I tried it suffered from vortex-like artifacts at nadir and zenith. The upcoming enblend-enfuse 4.0 introduced new algorithms that may linder the problem. Time to try again.
The process in a nutshell:
- Shoot the brackets for a full spherical panorama using a tripod (i.e. perfectly aligned stacks).
- Merge the stacks to individual HDR pictures.
- Stitch the pictures as if they were LDR pictures (the current Stitcher tab in Hugin really need some explanation – details below).
This is how I did it, in detail.
1. Shot bracketed RAWs. Fed them to Photomatix Pro and batch processed into HDR. Optional: In the same batch Photomatix Pro can also generate an initial tonemapped version (needed to set up the stitching project).
There are many software to merge RAWs into HDR, some of them Open Source. The reason why I use Photomatix is the automated batch processing that includes fixing chromatic aberration and noise. This automates those deterministic aspects of the process and let me focus on those aspects where human creativity makes a difference.
Photomatix’ Manual recommends using a third-party RAW converter and gives detailed instructions for white balance, basic settings, and curves. I did not find any drawback in using Photomatix’ integrated RAW converter.
2. Identified control points between the images.
None of the control points detectors known to me support HDR files (out of Photomatix) as input at this time. Hence the need for the initially tonemapped images. For this specific panorama, taken with an 8mm fisheye, there were not that many images to link, so I opened the HDR images in Hugin’s Control Points tab and clicked myself through them. A passage through that tab is anyway mandatory to establish vertical control lines.
3. Stitch in “Normal” output mode.
This is the confusing part. Currently Hugin’s Stitcher tab has three main output modes, each with their variations: Normal; Exposure Fusion; and HDR merging. Intuitively, this is HDR, right? but it’s not merging. We (the Hugin team) need to do our homework and improve the interface.
Another confusing point is the output format selection for the “Normal Output”. The only options available are TIFF, JPEG, PNG. Don’t worry, choose TIFF and the result can be loaded and tonemapped in most HDR software, including Qtpfsgui (soon to be renamed Luminance) and Photomatix (correction: with Photomatix Pro 3.2.6 I had to open it with Photoshop first and save as EXR). It would be nice if we had also EXR there, like for the merging process. And Radiance HDR too. Or at least an indication that the TIFF output will be 32bit.
Hickups And Fixes
The resulting HDR equirectangular had an artefact at the Zenith. Enblend 4.0 pre-release, with default settings, produced a dark speckle instead of a vortex. Smaller, but still disturbing.
To study this, I pitched the panorama down 90°, bringing the Zenith to the middle of the equirectangular, on the equator (and consequently the Nadir on the 360° at the equator). And to make it visible, I used plain color images. The four images on the right are: a simple, unblended output of the six layers on top of each other; the blend with Enblend 3.2; the blend with Enblend 4.0; and last the working workaround: the blend with the –no-optimize option suggested by Christoph Spiel, release manager for Enblend 4.0. The not optimized version enabled me to produce a usable HDR equirectangular and continue the process. On Christoph’s request, I dug deeper in the code to isolate when the artefact is introduced. With his patient guidance and a few experiments it seems narrowed down to the seam-line vectorization or de-vectorization code.
The resulting HDR equirectangular is technically correct. Enblend 4.0 (pre-release) is an improvement, though not yet perfect. As an added bonus, on multi-core CPUs it is also significantly faster than previous versions.
The other obstacle left is tonemapping: many tonemappers, notably Qtpfsgui (soon to be renamed Luminance) don’t deal properly with zenith and nadir, limiting the user’s choices. The latest Photomatix is tested to deal with the 360° seam and the zenith. In the meantime this is just a post-processing inconvenience that can be solved with a brush in Photoshop or GIMP.
That was a much longer than expected processing for a panorama, but it was worth it. I hope it helps advance Enblend 4.0 toward release.
Managing and editing colors is central for the digital photography workflow. White balance is one of the cornerstones of color editing. Setting the “right” white balance is most often a question of subjective judgment, interpretation of the scene and its different light sources, or even plain, simple aesthetics.
Digital cameras have controls to make that judgment, automatically, by way of fixed setting, or by precise measurement of the light, usually when pointed at a gray card. And then they have RAW file, where the values are passed as-is, unbalanced, for further processing.
So when qtpfsgui or any other HDR programs merge a few RAWs into an HDR image, no color editing is done yet. Nor is it done during tonemapping. So the resulting tonemapped image often has a color cast, like the one below:
The next step is to open it in an image editor and do some color work. In many RAW converters, including proprietary Adobe Lightroom and open source RAWstudio there is a very convenient tool: click on a single point in the image that you think should have neutral (gray) tone. It will be sampled and color will be automatically adjusted accordingly. Despite a very complete set of color tools I did not find anything like this in the GIMP. I found a script by professor Luca de Alfaro to add this functionality. As a script it is slower than a native tool, and it takes more steps (specifically: one extra action in the menu), but it works.