Monday, October 28, 2013

Tripods Recommended

Micro Tripod

Sometimes you need a really small tripod, like for taking a "selfie" (picture of yourself) with a smartphone, or (in my case) as a stand for a digital audio recorder. The usual mini tripods (even the smallest GorillaPod) are a bit clunky. A cool alternative is the sleek, neatly folding Jelly Legs Micro Tripod by Square Jellyfish. The legs can be adjusted and locked for uneven surfaces. There's even a micro ball head available, and a bracket to hold your smartphone. Recommended.

Standard Tripod (Photo and/or Video)

A good, affordable tripod for general purpose photo and video use that's relatively light in weight but still solid is the SLIK U8000 Photo/Video Tripod. Features: 3-way fluid effect pan head. Quick release shoe for easy mounting and removal of camera or camcorder. Oversize, single action, speed release leg locks for adjusting tripod height in seconds. Geared center column. Length folded 23 1/4 in, Height extended 59 1/12 in, Extension center column 11 5/6 in, Weight 3 lbs 5 oz. Recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Windows 8.1 Woes

Work-Around Windows 8.1 Update Problems
(Error 0xC1900101 - 0x30017)

As predicted here in Windows 8 Preview, Windows 8 has been a big disappointment, confusing users and contributing to poor sales of Windows personal computers and tablets. Microsoft has attempted to respond to some of complaints with Windows 8.1, a free update, which restores the ability to boot to the familiar desktop and a Start button of sorts, but it failed to address other big issues, and missed opportunities raised here in Windows 8 Misses the Mark except for better integration of SkyDrive cloud services.

Still, half a loaf would seem to be better than none, except the update has been problematic for many users. Boot problems from the RT update were well-publicized and are now apparently corrected, but there are also less well-publicized problems with the standard update. Real world case in point (with possible causes and solutions):

Correct Windows 8.1 update
Starting point was a relatively current desktop PC with quad core Intel processor and large hard disk running Windows 8 without any apparent problems. Prepared for the 8.1 update with best practices: (a) checked hard disk for errors, (b) ensured backup was current, (3) applied all Windows 8 updates, (4) rebooted system. Opened Store app and encountered Problem 1: Instead of "Update to Windows 8.1 for free", the offer was Windows 8.1 "Preview", which shouldn't have appeared. Assumed this was just a display issue, and proceeded with install, but differences with a normal update suggest it may have contributed to the later problem (below). Problem 1 work-around (discovered later): Open Search, run "msreset" (to reset the Store cache), then open Store again. (It boggles the mind that Microsoft would create a utility to do this rather than fix the system to prevent the problem, but that's Microsoft.)

That started the update process, which is quite lengthy, in part because the update is a huge 3.6 GB, a long download even on a fast Internet connection. Even when the download is complete, the update is still a lengthy process, even on a fast system, as it slowly steps through checks, installs, configuration, etc. Problem 2: Finally, well over an hour into the process, it rebooted, but instead of starting Windows 8.1, it started checking the hard disk for errors (despite the disk being error free). After a long process it rebooted, and again started checking the hard disk for errors, repeating the same long process, but after another reboot, it then displayed "Restoring your previous version of windows". So yet another long process, followed by a reboot back into Windows 8, whereupon it reported that Windows 8.1 update had failed due to error 0xC1900101 - 0x30017 (a singularly unhelpful message, but again, that's Microsoft).

Searching online failed to turn up anything definitive on the error code, just hints that it might be due to device driver and/or software compatibility problem, notwithstanding all the time taken for "compatibility" checking in the update without any reported issues. (It boggles the mind how there could be such issues in Windows 8.1 that are not in Windows 8, but that's Microsoft.) Suggested Problem 2 work-arounds:
  1. Update all devices drivers to versions known to be compatible with Windows 8.1 (link).
  2. Check all software for compatibility with Windows 8.1 (at vendor and Windows Compatibility Center), and remove any that are incompatible.
  3. Disable all non-Microsoft services with msconfig (System Configuration) during the 8.1 update. (Click Services tab; check Hide all Microsoft services; then click Disable all.) Reverse process after the 8.1 update.
  4. Disable all non-essential Startup with Task Manager during the 8.1 update. (Click Startup tab; select all items; then click Disable.) Reverse process after the 8.1 update.
In this particular case, Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 11 was identified as a possible problem in Step 2, so it has been removed (along with some other non-essential software). Unfortunately, the huge update has to be downloaded again (why?!), so it will take some time to find out.

UPDATE: The update did complete successfully with Problem 1 work-around and Problem 2 work-around 2. (It was not necessary to use Problem 2 work-around 1, 3, or 4.)

  1. Microsoft Account part 1: Initial setup of Windows 8.1 seems to demand an online Microsoft Account. This actually isn't necessary. To use the existing Windows login, click Create New Account, then Cancel, and log into Local Account. (For more information see Quick Tip: Change to a local account in Windows 8.1Microsoft should make this easier and clearer.)
  2. Microsoft Account part 2: Some apps in the Store ask you to login to a Microsoft Account. This is actually only necessary for paid apps. 
  3. Default printer was changed by the update from the Epson printer installed on the computer to Microsoft XPS Document Writer. It was simple enough to change back, but this should not have happened.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Disk Usage for Windows

One of the annoyances in Microsoft Windows is the lack of a good built-in tool for managing disk space like the crude but effective UNIX (Linux) du utility that displays directory (folder) sizes.

True, there is the Sysinternals Disk Usage utility, but it only reports usage for a single directory, which isn't terribly helpful when you need an overall picture.

Here are some solid third-party alternatives that are free for personal use:
  • GetFoldersize
    Comprehensive multi-pane text display, but lacks helpful graphics. Explorer shell integration. No cleanup capability, just deletion. Print capability. No menus, just toolbars. Fast. Very good.
  • TreeSize Free
    Simple hybrid text and graphics view. Administrator mode. Threaded for speed, very fast. Print capability. Integrated update check. Limited, paid version more capable. Good.
  • WinDirStat
    Clone of Linux KDirStat for Windows. Small and efficient. Threaded for speed, fast. Useful (and colorful) "treemap" display. No Explorer shell integration, but can be hacked manually. Cleanup capability. No print capability, but can email report. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

eBay goats and sheep

In October 2013, without warning or real explanation, eBay users discovered that saved searches had been changed to "searches you follow", and saved sellers changed to "sellers you follow", together with other changes along the lines of social networking. In the process, important buyer functionality was removed, including the abilities to rename searches and to add notes to searches.

Cries of outrage from eBay users have mostly assumed these changes were due to bad design. Here in eBay's own words is what's really going on:

Sellers: This new experience puts great new tools in your hands for driving sales and developing loyal, repeat customers. You can use the new collections, following, and eBay profile to transform moments of inspiration into purchases of your great inventory. We’ll also be introducing new features and an exciting new look for your eBay Store. From bigger, bolder listing images to new ways to spotlight inventory and share on social media, subscribers will soon have even more tools available to them to turn browsers into buyers. All sellers will have this option by the end of January 2014!

Whether you buy or sell on eBay—or both—we encourage you to explore these new features, to tap into your passions and expertise to create collections of items for others to explore, to follow collections of our curators, valued sellers and eBay members, and to connect to the things you need and love.

In other words, it's all about Amazon (Newegg, etc). This isn't about buyers -- this is about sellers, and further transitioning eBay from a peer-to-peer auction site into a marketplace of storefronts. In the process, users are being transitioned from goats (buyers) into sheep (consumers) that follow sellers, curators, and other buyers. So tools that helped buyers to find what they want to buy are being replaced with tools that push consumers to buy what sellers want them to buy. Welcome to the brave new world. There won't be any going back unless a great many stop using eBay (which probably isn't going to happen), so goats (real buyers) will have to look someplace else.

Sellers are the eBay customers. Buyers are the eBay products.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Compact Digital Cameras 2013

Here's how I get great images and video: 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200
  • Fast f/2.8 aperture across full zoom range
  • 24x optical zoom (25mm wide angle to 600mm telephoto)
  • 12.1-megapixel MOS Sensor
  • Full HD 1080/60p video
  • 1.3MP Electronic Viewfinder
  • 3.0-inch Free-Angle LCD
  • High-speed autofocus
  • Hotshoe
  • External microphone compatible
  • Filter and conversion lens compatible
  • It's what I use
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1
  • Fast f/2.0 aperture
  • 7.1x optical zoom (28mm wide angle to 200mm telephoto)
  • Larger 1/1.7-inch, 12.1-megapixel MOS Sensor
  • Full HD 1080/60i video
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • 3.0-inch high resolution LCD
  • Pocket size
  • Wireless (Wi-Fi and NFC)
  • Great all-around camera for most people
What both Lumix cameras share
  • Fantastic Leica lens (glass matters more than megapixels!) 
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Stereo microphone
  • Intelligent Auto Mode
  • Face Recognition
  • RAW image capture
  • Excellent image and video quality
Honorable Mention: Sony Cyber-shot RX100
  • Fast f/1.8 aperture Carl Zeiss lens
  • 3.6x zoom (28mm wide angle to 100mm telephoto)
  • Large 1" CMOS, 20.2 megapixels sensor
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Full HD 1080/60p video
  • Compact size
  • RAW image capture
  • Superb image and video quality

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stereo Sound Off Camera

When my video needs high fidelity audio, I normally use the compact Zoom H2 recorder, selecting microphone pattern and adjusting level with the built-in meter to fit the particular acoustic environment. I place the H2 as close as possible to the audio source.

I typically record WAV-48kHz-16bit. While the H2 is capable of 24bit recording, I've not found a significant difference over 16bit recording in carefully controlled tests, and 96kHz is only needed for critical mastering.

To make syncing easy, I start the camera recording, start the H2 recording, then rap the H2 with my finger. It's dead easy in post-processing to match the "thunk" of the rap in the H2 audio to the rap in the video. (I don't use camera audio for matching because of audio delay at the camera.)

When I convert for YouTube, I encode video with AAC audio at a variable bitrate of 192 Kbps.

Why Stereo is Problematic for Camera Mics

A stereo camera microphone typically consists of two mono cardioid microphone capsules mounted next to each other, each of which has a pickup pattern like this (capsule facing upward in the diagram):

If the capsules are mounted in parallel (side by side), they will have largely overlapping patterns with poor stereo imaging.

A more common arrangement is with the two capsules angled 45° to the left (red) and 45° to the right (blue), 90° angle between them, which results in much better stereo imaging, but with much more side and back pickup of sound/noise.

Thus with a stereo camera microphone, generally speaking, you're either not going to get good stereo, or you're going to risk pickup of extraneous sounds from sides and rear, or both.

This is why for high fidelity ambient sound I prefer to use a good external recorder like the Zoom H2.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

External Microphones for Digital Camera Video

RØDE VideoMic on Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200

Roundup and Mini Reviews

Many digital cameras are capable of good video recording, but typically have poor microphones (and noisy preamps) that produce poor audio. For cameras with audio input jacks, an external microphone can be used to greatly improve audio quality.

Directional microphones (e.g., shotgun) are designed to pick up sounds from in front of microphone and camera (typically across an angle of 70-90°) and reject extraneous sounds and noise from sides and rear. Usually monophonic. (See Why Stereo is Problematic for Camera Mics) Roundup:
  • Audio-Technica ATR-6550
    Thin sound. Lacks shock mount. Lacks continuous power on light. Not recommended.
  • Bronstein BRN-900
    Not readily available.
  • Opteka VM-100
    Re-branded RØDE VideoMic (original version) at much lower price. Includes wind muff. Best buy.
  • RØDE VideoMic
    Good sound. Good directionality. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Good shock mount. Plastic construction. May pick up RF interference (e.g., from GSM cell phones). Original version pictured above; new version has red Rycote Lyre Suspension System.
  • RØDE VideoMic Pro
    Good sound (about the same as original VideoMic). Good directionality (although not quite as good as original VideoMic). Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Fragile shock mount. Plastic construction. May pick up RF interference (e.g., from GSM cell phones). Compact. Fairly expensive.
  • Sennheiser MKE 400
    Thin sound. Good directionality. Fragile shock mount. Metal construction. Switchable noise filter. Lacks continuous power on light. Not recommended.
  • Shure VP83 LensHopper
    Very good sound. Output level pad. Good directionality. Switchable noise filter. Metal construction. Good shock mount. Resistant to RF interference. Compact. Expensive. Best.
  • Shure VP83F LensHopper with Flash Recording
    Same as VP83 LensHopper plus high-quality integrated flash memory recorder, great for cameras with automatic level control. Best.
Ambient microphones (e.g., omnidirectional) are designed to pick up sounds from all directions when that is desired, but noise pickup from camera can be a problem. You will generally get much better results from a good external recorder like the Zoom H2. Examples:
  • MegaGear Shotgun
    Thin sound. Inexpensive. Widely available. (Not a true shotgun.)
  • Panasonic DMW-MS1
    Decent, but could and should be better for the money.
  • RØDE Stereo VideoMic
    Good sound. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Fairly expensive.
  • RØDE Stereo VideoMic Pro
    Very good sound. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Expensive.
2.5mm male to 3.5mm female
headphone adapter cable


  1. Use a wind muff ("dead cat") to reduce wind noise when outside.
  2. Bronstein WM-21 Wind Muff is good, inexpensive, and will fit the RØDE VideoMic (and Opteka VM-100).
  3. Get as close to your subject as possible. Directional microphones are not like telephoto lenses - they don't amplify sound - they just reduce extraneous pickup from sides and rear.
  4. Use highest output level without distortion to minimize noise pickup from cable and camera.
  5. 2.5mm male to 3.5mm female headphone adapter cable will be needed for cameras with 2.5mm sockets.
  6. Best output pad setting I've found for RØDE VideoMic (and Opteka VM-100) on Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 is -10.