Teens launch a Nikon Point-and-Shoot into Space.

MacGyver would be so proud!

A group of teenagers from Catalonia, Spain launched a $100 Nikon point-and-shoot into space using a helium weather balloon. The four students of the IES La Bisbal school call themselves Meteotek and under the guidance of their teacher Jordi Fanals Oriol, built the system in hopes of getting it to about 30,000 feet. It went over three times that height reaching an altitude 20 miles above the ground.

Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort launched the balloon on February 28th. The 18-year-olds built the electronic sensor components from scratch. Paretas explained the process to the New Scientist:

We used a cheap camera that you could buy for under €80 ($108). We had a microcontroller that could be called “the flight computer”, as well as a pressure sensor, a temperature sensor, a GPS receiver (used to determine position, altitude and speed over ground).

Finally, there was a radio transceiver that automatically sent us position and sensor reports, so we were able to follow the balloon all the time.

They followed the progress of their balloon using high tech sensors communicating with Google Earth.

Taking apart the Coolpix

Taking apart the Coolpix

They used a simulator from the University of Wyoming to predict the trajectory. Using the sensors on board, they were able to retrieve the camera which landed roughly 40 miles from the launch site.

One would assume that a cheap point-and-shoot went up and a pile of broken parts came back down. Not so, according to Paretas.

Only the servo – the motor that was used to orientate the camera – was broken. The other equipment, even the box, was intact.

After retrieving the camera, they loaded the memory card in a computer and were excited to discover dozens of pictures documenting the cameras exciting trip.

The group spent about $1,500 on the project from start to finish. They hope to raise the funds make improvements and launch again next year.

You can see the pictures the camera taken, along with images documenting the process on Meteotek’s Flickr page.

Camera Phone Photography

A study released last month by the Photo Marketing Association International (PMA) stated that camera phone use has steadily increased since 2006. Over half (53%) of all US households own at least one camera phone, up from 46% in 2007 and 37% in 2006. A Wirefly.com survey from last summer showed higher numbers with over 96% of adults reporting they used a cell phone featuring a camera.

Not surprising was the reason why people use their camera phones. Fifty-seven percent claim they use their camera phones as a stand-in for traditional cameras according to the PMA report. Social networking is also pushing up usage as anybody with a Facebook account can tell you. But an increasing number of camera phone users are turning their cell phone snaps into real art.

The key to creating camera phone art is to embrace its low-fi status. Sure, you could buy a camera phone that will take perfectly acceptable photos on par with any point-and-shoot digital camera, but what makes cell phone photography so unique is that it isn’t traditional photography. A camera phones a DSLR, why treat it like one?

Image taken with Nikon D70

Image taken with Nikon D70

Image taken with iPhone

Image taken with iPhone

The first step in turning your camera phone is remembering the rules are different. There are several websites with tips on taking better camera phone pictures including:

The key to all of these tips is to learn the technical challenges of shooting with a camera phone while remembering basic photography guidelines, such as the rule of thirds.

One of the many fun features of Apple’s iPhone is the selection of applications available for creating truly unique images. Like many camera phones, the iPhone’s pictures can be lackluster in color depth. CameraBag by NeverCenter allows you to take photos or convert existing photos through a series of filters, that replicate old analog techniques. My favorite is their take on the Lomo LC-A, but it is also fun taking camera phone polaroids and crisp black and white photos.

Another great iPhone app is QuadCamera by Art and Mobile. It mimics multilens cameras such as the ActionSampler or the Andy Warhol inspired PopCam. All of these options remind me of those old photo booths that filled malls and rest stops in the days before digital photography. QuadCamera can take a series of 4-8 images and allows you to set timing and change color saturation.

I’ve discussed in the past the debate amongst photo enthusiasts about the value of low-fi photography as an art form. A growing number of camera phone users are turning to their cell phones as a viable form of art as seen in exhibits and through numerous Flickr groups and websites dedicated to the form. A simple Google search will also uncover dozens of cell phone photography contests, such as this one from the Times UK.

The next time you take our your camera phone to snap a shot of a friend or a flower, consider making it more than just an average snapshot. You might just be creating a piece of art.

Instant Images Then and Now

It was with deep despair that many Polaroid fans watched a 2008 Sunday Morning piece about the demise of the company’s legendary films. Decades before digital technology, Polaroid offered photographers instant gratification in the form of a fully developed print in less than a minute. From the moment Edward Land’s instant film became available to the public in 1948, a cult was created.

Polaroids were a staple for amateur and professional photographers for decades. Pros working in other film formats used the technology to test studio lighting before running through their rolls of negative or slide film. The public loved the novelty of having a picture pop instantly out of their cameras. The company sold millions of cameras ranging from the 600, featuring Zeiss components, to pocket-sized I-Zone toy cameras. They were high-tech in an analog world.

As video killed the radio star, so digital killed the Polaroid. The novelty of instant photography disappeared when anyone could see their image immediately without the high cost of Polaroid film. The company was slow to embrace the new technology and, after numerous failures in all of their imaging categories, was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001. The company was acquired by OEP Imaging Company with plans on bringing it into the digital market while still manufacturing instant film products for the companies many fans. Polaroid fans happily snapped away, hoping their hobby could survive the digital revolution.

Petter’s Group Worldwide bought Polaroid from OEP in 2005. It was an affront to fans when CEO Thomas Petters happily declared, “I think what interested me most about the company was that famous polaroid pixel. The logo. The icon.” It didn’t take long for Petters to put the logo on dozens of products from DVD players to clocks. It was clear that the pixel was the only thing about Polaroid that interested Petters. In 2007, the company announced all instant camera and film production was being halted. The product that made Polaroid famous was going the way of the 8-track.

Petter’s Polaroid had a few ideas they hoped would appeal to the company’s avid fans. The Polaroid Pogo was announced on the heels of the plant closures. The mini-printer contains no ink, relying on special paper created by former Polaroid employees to create business card sized prints. A camera announcement followed and it looked like a Polaroid camera creating instant prints would be back on the market soon.

All of that is in jeopardy now following a September 24th raid on Petter’s Group headquarters. According to authorities, Tom Petters was using Polaroid to run a shareholder ponzi scheme. Polaroid once again filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December. The future of the company is unknown right now.

Fans of Polaroid have tried to move on. They have hoarded film and joined “Save Polaroid” groups. They have hunted on Ebay and Amazon to find replacement cameras from Fuji, the only company left producing instant film products. The Fuji cameras use different film and since that company cannot sell their instant products in North America or Europe due to a decades old patent infridgement lawsuit, it’s been a pricey alternative.

But there is just something about Polaroid. Prints are coveted not only for their distinctive appearance, but because each print was unique. Each print was a single snapshot that could never be fully reproduced. Sure, you could make a color copy or create an copy negative, but it would never be the same as that original print. There is such passion for the prints that a group of former employees have purchased an old Polaroid plant in Ensched, Netherlands in hopes of creating a new line of films that will work with Polaroid cameras.

Polaroid film fans still hold out hope that The Impossible Project will be possible or that Fuji will create products that will be compatible with their Polaroid cameras. Most of all they hope they will never have to contribute to “The Last Polaroid on Earth“.

High Dynamic Range Imaging

One of the primary complaints from photographers unwilling to embrace digital technologies are the lackluster results they achieve from even the most high end of digital cameras. It is hard to argue the point when many cameras do produce flat images, but just as no traditional photographer worth the price of a roll of Reala knows you don’t trust your work to the photolab at Sam’s Club, digital photographers know you their worth isn’t done until they take their files into the digital darkroom.

The human eye is capable of registering extreme light and dark within a scene and can appreciate these contrasts in ways cameras have never been able to do on their own. Gustave Le Gray reconciled this limitation of film in the late 19th century by taking two pictures of a scene and combining the negatives to create a composite image. Charles Wyckoff advanced the technique by creating film that could capture nuclear explosions in te 1940s and 50s. Film and camera technologies advanced and more contrast could be captured on film, but it has always been a challenge to capture with a camera what our eyes take for granted.

Large Wave, Mediterranean Sea, created by Gustave Le Gray in 1857 captured the brightness of the sky and the detail in the ocean in a way not seen before.

Large Wave, Mediterranean Sea, created by Gustave Le Gray in 1857 captured the brightness of the sky and the detail in the ocean in a way not seen before.

Digital photographers began to embrace High Dynamic Range Imagining a few years ago as a way of resolving this limitation with their equipment. Just as Le Gray took two photos and combined the negatives, digital photographers found they could take two digital images and combine the files to create a composite image.

Anybody can create an HDR image with the right tools. You will need camera with the ability to adjust exposure settings and access to photo editing software. There are several types of digital SLRs that can automatically adjust exposure settings, called bracketing, and several types of software that will do the digital editing for you. While these two alternatives make the process easier, they aren’t necessary for the photographer with a lot of creativity, but not a lot of money.

The building of the former Kansa-yhtymä insurance company, Sörnäinen, Helsinki, Finland by Matti Paavonen under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

The building of the former Kansa-yhtymä insurance company, Sörnäinen, Helsinki, Finland by Matti Paavonen under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Here are some websites you can visit that will walk you through the process of creating HDR images:

HDR101 offers some tutorials, but will also try to sell you their Photomatix software for combining the digital images into a composite HDR.

Stuck in Customs author Trey Ratcliff has some wonderful examples of his HDR work along with his detailed tutorials.

Visual Photo Guide has a few beginner tutorials.

Cambridge in Color has some excellent technical information in its article on HDR and Adobe Photoshop.

The Royal Photographic Society Journal in the UK (link in PDF form) had an excellent history and how-to in its November 2006 issue.

Like any new toy in the toy box, HDR photography takes some work to master. Hopefully these tutorials can help motivate even the most skittish of photographers to try out this exciting new trend in digital imaging.

Photo Management Software

I was going to write a lengthy blog post comparing Apple’s Aperture to Adobe’s Lightroom. I’ve been playing with both applications for a few months now, trying to find the perfect fit for my workflow. I discovered while catching up on my blog reading over Spring Break that the experts over at O’Reilly not only beat me to the punch, but did it in a way that would make anything I said redundant. I’ll provide links to their excellent reviews at the end of this post.

Instead I will focus on why every photographer, from the beginning to the professional needs photo management software and how to decide, not only how much to spend, but what will work best for you. I consider myself one of those in between shooters, photography is a passion, but I don’t use it to pay the bills. I do, however, have more than 11,000 pictures in my iPhoto gallery, and that’s without scanning the tens of thousands in my various photo boxes and negative safes. I’ve gone from hobbyist to loyalist and have a good feel for what it’s like to be both.

Organization was always a challenge for me because of the way I want to reference my images. Simply assigning a roll number and date never worked because it failed to cover subject data. If I included basic subject data, say, “Miami, March 1998” didn’t specify what part of the trip the roll covered. It was also a problem if, I wanted to find photos from different time frames of one subject (i.e. “Tara”). Before computers had the ability to organize photos, I would spend hours going through negative albums and boxes of photos looking for the perfect image for my project. My first steps into photo management were very basic, although they still work for many photographers out there.

The other challenge in this digital age is in work flow. There was never any doubt how I would handle image workflow when working in a dark room. Shoot, Develop, Print, Repeat – obviously with many steps under each category. Having instantaneous images with a digital camera confused the flow for me. Shoot, oh, there’s the picture. Print, wait, color is off. Adjust (taking the place of “develop” in terminology for me), print. Now I’ve wasted paper. You can see how it was a challenge. Four years ago, I embarked on the long-awaited journey of finding a better way of handling digital workflow. I had started photo management almost a decade earlier, but was slow to refine my work in the digital darkroom.

The everyday camera user may only need photo management software to keep their “albums” organized. There is no point in having shot a picture if you can’t find it. There are many inexpensive and useful products to handle this job, as long as you’re aware of their limitations. There are two products I always felt comfortable recommending to people new to photo management. The first is on PC platform, Thumbsplus. Thumbsplus used to be not only one of the best, but least expensive of the photo management utilities on the market. It’s gone up quite a bit in price ($140), but it still has excellent functionality. The user will be responsible to set up file structure, but the application does a good job of presenting not only image thumbnails, but also fonts and multimedia files. For the casual user, it’s an excellent choice.

On the Mac, I once loved iView Media Pro. Like Thumbsplus, it was fairly priced and easy to use. Sadly, Microsoft purchased the product and phased it out to make way for Microsoft Expressions. It seems far more feature rich, which isn’t what a lot of users need or want from a media management application. I have used iPhoto for the last few years and it works well, but has its own significant limitation. iPhoto imports images into it’s own file structure and builds a database around it. The problem with this method is that when you have a lot of pictures, the database gets very large. I found that after a few thousand, iPhoto started to hang. It was not only taking a long time to load, but a long time to scroll through and find photos. By the time I got up to 7000 images, it was significant enough to annoy me. Hence my move to Lightroom.

I should mention all of the applications mentioned here have the ability to create web galleries and do minor image corrections. I’ll discuss my favorite digital darkroom products in another post.

Lightroom vs. Aperture: The Results by Michael Clark
Aperture vs Lightroom: Field Test by Micah Walter

Googling Life

Google is a media behemoth. The company mastered search back in the nineties and has gradually worked to engulf just about anything else you can do on the web (or your phone) ever since. Usually I hate this type of activity, please reference Microsoft or NewsCorp as examples of companies earning my ire, but I still see puffy little hearts whenever I think of Google. I suspect my school girl crush probably has a lot to do with things like the Life Magazine Photo Archive.

Life Magazine was started in 1883, but it probably would have gone the way of Beadle’s Monthly or Potter’s American Monthly had it not been acquired by Henry Luce in 1936. Luce was a media titan in the early part of the 20th century. He owned Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated and it was figured that one in five Americans read one of his publications every week. He bought Life not for its general interest content, but for its intriguing name. He turned the weekly into what is regarded history’s greatest fount of photojournalism. The way in which the magazine covered the biggest stories of the 20th century made it the best selling magazine of all time.

If you were a photographer in the 20th Century, you dreamed of being in Life the way young ballerinas dreampt of dancing in the New York City Ballet. Life made words mere modifiers of the image. The New York Times points out this week that while text may have been secondary to the image in Life, it is necessary to the storytelling in this millennium. Google has done fantastic job of bringing these images to a world-wide modern audience, but without context, some of the relevance is lost.

While there is no easy way to browse content, it’s hard not to love what Google has done. Here are a few of the notable images you can find with a little digging on Google’s Life Magazine Archive:

One of Dorothea Langes icon images

One of Dorothea Lange's famous images

Dorothea Lange was on assignment for the Farm Security Administration documenting the hardship brought on migrant works during The Dust Bowl when she captured a series of photographs that would forever define that era. The magazine only printed one photo from her series, but kept the rest in its archives. The most famous of the series, Migrant Mother, is in the public domain and can be found all over the internet.

Alfred Eisenstaedt iconic image from New Yorks celebration of the Victory Over Japan.

Alfred Eisenstaedt iconic image from New York's celebration of the Victory Over Japan.

Alfred Eisenstaedt captured what is without question one of the most famous photographs ever taken at VJ Day in Times Square. He once said of the image, “I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all – young girls and old ladies alike… The sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed in dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. People tell me that when I’m in heaven, they will remember this picture.”

John, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy on the lawn at their home prior to his election as President.

John, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy on the lawn at their home prior to his election as President.

Paul Schutzer took this photo in 1960 in the months before John F. Kennedy was elected president. Henry Luce was a staunch Texas Republican and Life’s editorial staff often pushed the magazine towards more conservative viewpoints, but the magazine often ran features on the first family.

Is Digital Imaging Invading Your Privacy?

cctvChicago presents the latest point in the ongoing debate about privacy in our technologically advanced world.  The New York Times reported in an article yesterday that the city has tied surveillance cameras into its 911 network. According to the article, police dispatchers would have a video of a caller’s location sent to them within seconds of receiving an emergency call. The high-tech wizardry that sounds like it’s right out of a James Bond novel has privacy watchdogs once again calling foul.

Groups like the ACLU and the Center for Digital Democracy have been working at holding back the tide of what they see as a increasing invasion of personal privacy in our highly connected world. Google’s Street View has raised concerns on both sides of the Atlantic because it puts photos of millions of locations around the world on it’s Google Maps application. A couple in Pittsburgh just lost their suit to have the images removed and a town in Minnesota claimed the company ignored “Private Property” signs and demanded images be removed (although how an entire town can claim it is private property, I have no idea). The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California has reported numerous complaints about Google drivers using private roads to obtain images for the service.

It’s not just private citizens up in arms about the Google service. In March of 2008, the Pentagon had to contact the company to have it remove a number of images taken of military bases. The images not only showed the exact location of the bases, but the location of guards, entry points, etc.

Google isn’t just stopping with two dimensional images. The company has reported that it’s Street View team has been assembling 3D information for a future project.

England began it’s history with closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) when London implimented the devices for public surveillance during a visit by the Thai Royal Family in 1960. Camera installation was localized until 1985, when the coastal city of Bournemouth installed a street-based video surveillance system. Newcastle installed a city wide system in 1992 and by 1996, all but one of England’s major cities had full scale systems. There are over one and half million cameras in city centers throughout England.

The cameras were installed to help curb violence, but have they proven effective? Not really, according to a study recently completed by Scotland Yard. According to a Guardian article on the subject, only 3% of crimes were solved by the multi-billion dollar system. Steve Swain served for years with the London Metropolitan Police and its counter-terror operations before leaving for a job with Control Risk, an international security firm. He says any cities thinking of using the cameras to stop crimes before they are committed should save their money. “I don’t know of a single incident where CCTV has actually been used to spot, apprehend or detain offenders in the act,”  he said.

Cities like Chicago and New York should take all of this into consideration before installing cameras that cost taxpayers billions while invading their rights to privacy.