Sign of the times

Shop to Let

A couple of days ago, I found myself in need of a replacement battery for my light meter. Less than £2 online… but I needed it now! So I headed off into Wokingham town to see if I could get one.

The battery is a slightly specialised one – commonly used in cameras but not universally available like an AA. As I parked the car, I noticed that Wokingham’s one and only photography shop had closed down. The next shop I tried, which sold batteries but not the one I needed, helpfully suggested that I could probably get it online. Finally, I was saved by the wonderful Wokingham Decor, a good old fashioned hardware shop with friendly, helpful and knowledgable staff. I’d give you a link to their website, but of course they don’t have one.

“Have you got one of these?”, I asked. “Great, I’ll take two” (a spare is always useful and spending a whole extra £4 would be like giving a tip for good service, wouldn’t it?). Oh dear, they only had one in stock… “but we could get you another by Saturday” the shopkeeper said hopefully. “I’ll just take the one” I said, feeling guilty but knowing that I could get it much cheaper online and not wanting to trek back into town a second time.

After accounting for fuel, parking and the high street price premium, my battery cost me more than twice what I could have got it for online. Not an issue for a low cost item that I needed straight away. But for higher value, bulkier items? No way. I guess it is no surprise that Wokingham no longer has a photography shop. But I really hope that shops like Wokingham Decor find a way to survive in the internet age, despite the odds.

Go Pro fun

Bird sitting on Go Pro
I’ve been experimenting with my new Go Pro Hero 3 Black Edition camera. I bought it with the intention of shooting some ski action in Val d’Isère next week, but thought I should practice using the camera first, rather than trying it out for the first time up a mountain.

My chosen subject matter was birds in the garden and I got some great shots. I’m really quite impressed with the image quality this tiny camera can produce. As you can see from the photo above, the birds weren’t at all put off by the camera and regarded it as a convenient new perch. A great feature of the Go Pro is the waterproof housing, which meant that I didn’t need to wait for dry weather to try it out. Without that, I think I would still be waiting, given the lovely British weather recently.

Anyway, here’s a short clip from the session, cropped from a larger high resolution movie file.

The challenges of digital engagement for business leaders

Text100 Report

I woke up this morning to a tweet from Text100, a global PR agency focusing on technology and digital lifestyle. Apparently, I am one of the most ‘digitally engaged’ FTSE100 directors and have been featured in their recent report “How top FTSE 100 executives are engaged in social and digital media”.

Having read the report (well, you would, wouldn’t you?), the most surprising thing is the inactivity of almost all the other directors. Why is this?

The authors comment that “any busy professional who’s tried to regularly maintain a personal blog will understand how hard it can be to find the time to write regular posts”, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that this is definitely a factor. They also point out that “Due to the environment of heavy regulation and intense and public scrutiny that the financial services industry operates in, few executives from this sector are willing to participate in social media since the associated level of risk is deemed too high”. I agree that this is a significant factor for business leaders, and not just in the financial service industry. The downside risk of being found to have “said the wrong thing” can seem to outweigh any possible upside of publicly participating in the online world in a personal capacity (better to leave it to professionals in the communications department, surely?).

But I agree with the authors that this risk adverse approach by executives is very short sighted, placing their own careers and the future of their companies at much greater long term risk. My approach has been driven by a mixture of fascination for the technology, and a strong belief that the only way I can remain current and truly understand how the new social media world works, is by fully participating in it myself.

And of course the reference to the fact that my blog is “infrequently updated” was a bit of a spur to compose this post!

DRM rant

Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

I have a complaint. The media companies and broadband internet companies have consipired to make me break the law and contribute to global warming. They are also wasting my time. And all for no good reason.

I can buy a high quality encoding of the latest films on blu-ray. I like it that they usually include a DVD version and a “digital copy”. When the media companies first started doing this, I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, the dinosaurs have caught up with the fact that increasingly people want to watch their media “on the go”, on laptops and iPads. Or set up a media server at home, streaming content around the house over WIFI. But to my dismay, I then discovered how low the quality of the digital copy is. Let me use the example of a recent acquisition, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (an excellent film by the way).

Format Resolution
Blu-ray 1920×817
DVD 1024×436
Digital copy 853×354

These are the output resolutions on the screen, excluding the black bars. This flatters both the DVD and the digital copy through the use of non-square pixels. The actual number of horizontal pixels in the DVD and digital copy files are really 720 and 640 pixels respectively.

The digital copy maches the quality offered as a purchased download from iTunes, which is worse than DVD. Why? With the latest iPad and Macbook Pro having screen resolutions higher than even the blu-ray file, it certainly isn’t because the quality is “good enough”.

Presumably, one reason is to limit the download sizes. But why make you download the “digital copy”, rather than include it on the disk? Forcing the customer to download the file unnecessarily uses up often scarce bandwidth.

The answer given to these questions by the media companies of course is “anti piracy” and “digital rights management” or DRM. But does all this inconvenience being inflicted on the honest consumer actually prevent piracy? Of course not. It is straightforward for the knowledgable (which certainly includes the professional pirates) to rip the high resolution blu-ray files from the disk. There’s a great guide here for example. It is even easier to rip the DVD.

In my own case, the distance of my house to the telephone exchange forces me to use satellite broadband, which comes with an impossibly constraining bandwidth cap, even with the most expensive plan. So even if I was prepared to put up with the lower quality, downloading movies from iTunes is simply not an option for me. To watch the content I have purchased at good quality on my high resolution iPad requires me to waste time and energy ripping the blu-ray files and re-encoding.

I suppose that the approach of the movie companies does reduce “casual piracy”. Making it hard for most people to make a high quality copy for their friends may result in a few more blu-ray disks being sold. But somehow, I can’t see how taking such a customer unfriendly and backward looking approach can be in the long run interests of the movie industry.

It certainly annoys the hell out of me!

The dematerialisation of Christmas

Endangered species?

Endangered species?

Choosing presents to buy is getting harder as our world shifts inexorably into the digital realm. Old stalwarts such as books, CDs and DVDs are no longer safe bets. If the person you are buying for has “gone digital”, the physical product is now a poor substitute for its digital equivalent. But for the giver, the insubstantial and generic nature of an iTunes or Amazon gift certificate is a problem, barely one step removed from the “I couldn’t think of what to get you” subliminal message of a cheque. For children, physical toys have now been displaced by computer and video games and here too, the preferred distribution model is shifting to digital downloads and away from boxes that can be wrapped up and put under the tree.

The social side of Christmas is also dematerialising, as Facebook and other online means of socialising take over from the old fashioned physical way of doing things. But at least nobody has yet managed to digitise that other great feature of Christmas time, food and booze. Perhaps in future, we’ll all have to concentrate less on the giving and receiving and more on the eating and drinking.

Somehow, I don’t think that is what the people who have long bemoaned the materialism of Christmas had in mind.


Hyde Park

Hyde Park

I’ve been having fun taking and sharing photos with Instagram. You can only post photos using the dedicated iPhone app. The low resolution and the creative filters it prompts you to apply really encourage you to concentrate on composition, creativity and interesting subjects. Sharing the results on twitter or facebook is a breeze. Highly recommended.

On safari in my garden

Hover fly

Hover fly

A beautiful sunny morning enticed me out on safari in my garden, armed with my Canon 5D Mk II and 100mm macro lens. This hover fly was particularly cooperative, staying calmly in position whilst I tested how close I could get.

It is incredible the amazing and beautiful things you can find so close to home if you take the time to look closely.


Spring flowers in Cambridge

Spring flowers in Cambridge

After what certainly felt like one of the harshest winters for a while, Spring finally arrived in the UK this weekend. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit my old University town, Cambridge.

As nostalgic trips go, it’s hard to beat clear blue skies, spring flowers and a pint of Green King IPA at a riverside pub.

Flash fun

Blue Tit Landing

Blue Tit Landing

I’ve been reading Syl Arena’s recently released book “Speedliter’s Handbook”. This wonderful tome covers everything you could ever want to know about flash photography in general, and about the Canon system in particular.

Full of information about both gear and technique, it is also a great source of inspiration for what can be done with flash. If you don’t know what you are doing and use the flash in the traditional “on camera” position, flash can make photographs which are lifeless and flat. With the improvement in low light performance of cameras today, flash had seemed to me to be something best avoided. I now know better.

I had a great time experimenting with using a remotely triggered flash to photograph birds in the garden. The ambient light was awful, a typical grey February day in England. Not conditions that I would normally think about shooting in. But with a flash, a radio trigger and a little patience, I got some great shots of blue tits and other birds feeding in the garden. This was my favourite shot, which could never have been achieved without flash. A highly recommended book.