Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

Raindrops shot with a Sony RX100

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). 🤔

The Trouble with Instagram Stories

I enjoyed reading this TechCrunch interview with Kevin Systrom where he openly gave credit to Snapchat for their ‘Stories’ feature, and talked about how copying it for Instagram inevitably created something different.

What I’ve observed matches much of what’s been said: it gives most people a much larger starting audience compared to what a new Snapchat user has, which increases the likelihood of success; it’s really well implemented (I especially like that switching from one user’s Story to the next has a different transition animation than skipping a scene, making it much clearer that you’re on another person now); and it makes Instagram a more complete place to look into the two sides of a person’s life: the imperfect moment and the photograph worth sharing.

BUT one early side effect has also materialized, and it’s already changing the way I use Instagram. In short: I don’t want to see many of these Stories! I follow a variety of different accounts, from brands, obvious social media influencers/shills, dogs, cats, interesting strangers, and friends. It’s Day 2 since the launch, and many of them have flooded my feed with too much uninteresting stuff. For many of these accounts, I want their photographs worth sharing, but not their imperfect moments. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to only follow one type of content on a per user basis.

So I’ve started to unfollow people. Which I’m sure Instagram doesn’t want.

In fact, the last major feature they added (an algorithmically sorted timeline) was probably aimed at getting people to follow more accounts. It let me add people without cluttering up my feed to the point where I’d miss posts from those I really really liked. For example, I could follow Canon cameras’ account for their occasional spectacular photos, but still see more personally interesting updates from my friends first. No problem. This morning, I unfollowed Canon because their chatty video Stories were getting in the way of my seeing life updates from friends.

There isn’t this problem right now on Snapchat, which makes me think it might eventually win out if people want to keep these separate. I’m not sure how Instagram might resolve this, but there’s definitely a difference here. Namely, not all social content is created equal.


The one other reason why I’ll continue to use Snapchat is their new Memories feature. Instagram Stories doesn’t let me do the same things.

31 Days of Black & White

I spent the month of January shooting photos only in black and white. Not just the ones I posted on Instagram, but everything in my camera roll got converted and saved in black and white. When I scroll through my timeline in the future, this block of 60 or so shots is going to stand out.

I got the idea from @espresso on Twitter who shot monochrome photos for the entire year of 2015. That’s dedication. It only came to my attention in December when he started mentioning how much he looked forward to color again in the new year. You can see his Storehouse collection of photos here.

It was absolutely worth it. You can always learn a lot in any creative endeavor by putting restrictions in place; I think because it’s too easy to try to grow in many ways at once, especially when taking photos, you can go from landscapes to close ups to street scenes in a single day, and play with a dozen photo processes and apps at a time. Taking away some options can make you focus long enough in one direction to notice something new. Taking color away immediately makes you think about lines and composition and texture. All the habits you’ve formed around what looks interesting and when to raise your camera are rendered unreliable, and you’re made to look at everything through new criteria that you’re forming through practice.

It reminds you that the absence of color is actually a powerful tool that has gotten too closely associated with making statements or establishing mood. It’s a legitimate way of directing attention, and a different set of skills when doing post-processing. And it frees you up from taking photos of every meal, because it’s quickly apparent that most won’t turn out very appetizing.

If anything, a month might be too little time, especially with the demands of work and other hobbies. Now that it’s over, I intend to keep doing it, maybe at a 1:3 ratio with color photos.

Everyone should try it out some time (with the #bwchallenge hashtag). I highly recommend the Darkroom app, as always, because it gives you a ton of control over how tones are converted and shifted, going beyond the emulation of simple color lens filters.

Also check out my friend Cong’s feed, who did the challenge with me and stuck with it even through a trip to Osaka, which took some guts.

Edit: Forgot to add an observation. A lot of these photos were taken with my iPhone, and I found that turning a photo black and white negates the weaknesses of small smartphone sensors. Noise and muddy colors in dark scenes are no big deal, and the quality of available light (in gradations) seems to increase when you combine the color channels.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

Unboxing: Moment Case for iPhone 6S Plus

Today I received my new Moment Case (Dark Walnut Kickstarter edition) for iPhone 6 Plus after a long wait following the Kickstarter campaign. They hit a snag with manufacturing, and the release of the slightly thicker 6S series of phones necessitated holding back to make sure the original designs fit.

It works as advertised and is very easy to hold; slips into my jeans pocket comfortably enough too. Here’s a quick unboxing and look at the startup photo taking workflow. Note that you must use the Moment Camera app if you want to use the shutter button. It does NOT function as a regular Bluetooth remote shutter like the kind you use with a selfie stick.

Really Nice Images (RNI) Photo App for iOS

   
 

I came across this app a couple of weeks ago but can’t remember how, and since then it’s struck me as somewhat criminal that more people aren’t talking about it. So this is just a quick post to help you, my reader, discover a new app that brings realistic analog film simulation to your iPhone photos.

Sure, we already have VSCO, Rebelsauce, Faded, Afterlight, Litely, Priime… but there’s always room for one more if it does the job really well; the job being accurate reproduction of film characteristics. Then it’s a much shorter list. Mattebox (when it was for sale and updated) did a marvellous job of handling exposure adjustments in a very film-like way, VSCO Film in their desktop products are designed to emulate certain classic stocks, and a couple others like PicTapGo come from companies that also produce pro-grade Lightroom presets for a day job.

RNI Films falls into this general category easily. Their Lightroom presets are based on close study of classic films, they use real film grain scans and simulate old lenses with blurring, individual packs retail for $49 each (there are 5?), and online chatter from professionals indicate that their work is well-regarded as being competitive with and maybe even better than VSCO Film, now the biggest player thanks to the profile of their iOS app.

Unlike VSCOcam, which intentionally avoids naming its iPhone filters to match/cannibalize their more expensive Lightroom presets, RNI’s new app offers the same film simulations by name: Kodak Gold 200, Fuji Velvia 100, etc. I haven’t compared them, but I’ll guess that the iOS app produces results very close to the desktop product, at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps they have been tuned to the qualities of the iPhone’s camera for best results. At about $3 per in-app purchase pack, they are more expensive than those in most other filter apps on smartphones, but come on. In comparison to $49, we’re talking about a near giveaway.

I’ve been very pleased with the presets, and they look the way I expect them to. The app could use a few more features and a streamlined editing UX that allows for people who’d want to save versions, for example, but as of right now it gets the basics done about as well as the earlier generations of iPhone filter apps. Load > Stage 1 Edits > Stage 2 Edits > Save as new copy. It’s still faster at this workflow than VSCOcam! Hopefully the team at RNI are still iterating on it right now, although I sort of doubt it.

   
    
    
 

RNI Films by RNI (Free, with IAP)

https://appsto.re/sg/Wg7N8.i

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

Hipstamatic Vault Reopens — Old Friends for Sale

The Hipstamatic iPhone camera app is in the habit of releasing new “HipstaPaks” of gear (each one typically has a new “lens” and “film”; occasionally a “flash”) every month. Some of these disappear awhile later, to keep the available collection manageable and, I suppose, to create some artificial scarcity around their releases.

I discovered this a couple of weekends ago when I wanted the Swedish-themed Södermalm Pak and discovered it missing. I regularly buy everything they offer, not the idea of not having some drove me crazy. I promptly bought the remaining two or three I did not already have, proving their marketing technique works.

So if you also have an obsessive nature and need to have a complete Hipstamatic pack collection, this weekend will feel like Christmas has come early because they’re opening their “HipstaVault”, with almost everything from the past available once more.

As far as I can tell from Googling, the last time this happened was in 2012. I didn’t know it would actually happen again, so… predictably, I’ve now bought everything I missed.

An Old Man Tries Snapchat

If you have even a passing interest in social media and haven’t seen Casey Neistat’s video on how “Snapchat Murders Facebook”, you should.

Like my friend Vicki notes in this post, Snapchat wasn’t something that I immediately saw any value in. I installed it once ages ago, didn’t have any friends on it (a combination of age and geography), and promptly left. Then Instagram’s Bolt soft-launched in Singapore and got some interest going around ephemeral photo messaging, but it still isn’t something that friends in their 30s seem to want.

We’re a generation of digital hoarders; the people who abandoned other providers for Gmail en masse because it promised never having to delete an email again. Cleaning out my harddrive the other day, I found a folder of interesting photos I’d saved off the net in the early 2000s: movie posters, album cover art, photos of global landmarks, and the like, simply because the sight of them were scarce and valuable pre-internet! You have to imagine what it was like to live in that time. I ended up deleting almost all of them because these days, if you can put a name to it, you can find it online.

So behavior is changing slowly amongst older people, and much faster amongst those in their teens, but photo messaging still wasn’t something I needed Snapchat for. Every messaging app offers it now. The ephemeral twist is a footnote.

Snapchat’s Stories feature changed the way I look at the product. It turns it into something of a lifelogging and broadcast platform. I can’t name another app (still) on the market that lets you grab video snippets of your life, and share them in a stream that your friends can tune in to. The fact that clips disappear after 24 hours is actually the part I like LEAST. It seems Vicki’s with me on this, as she’s set up a YouTube channel to archive these Stories to after they’ve been erased. I may soon do the same1.

There are some other nascent thoughts I have on Snapchat’s bizarre UX; the more I think about it, the more brilliant it is — breaking many of the rules we use to design interfaces for users of all ages, in order to create an exclusive, obtuse, game-like experience (inviting the spreading of knowledge by word of mouth) that seems intended to make it a success with a younger crowd. I may be wrong, and it may simply be like this as a result of being designed by a younger team. Additionally, its overall visual clumsiness (check out that ghost icon) encourages you NOT to take it seriously, which makes it totally okay to fire off imperfect, portrait-oriented, poorly-shot, but authentic moments without too much thought.

If you’d like to follow me, I’m on there as “sangsara”.


  1. Sharing these vertical videos on another platform poses a slight challenge. I tried every video editing app on my iPhone, and just about all of them failed to stitch the short clips together without cropping, unexpectedly rotating, or distorting the videos. Even Apple’s own iMovie produced only a black screen with audio playing, probably because Snapchat’s video encoding/metadata in non-standard in some way. Amusingly, the app that finally managed to do the job perfectly was YouTube’s own Capture app

➟ The Beats Question

Apple’s Pursuit of Beats May Foretell a Shift
By BEN SISARIO, nytimes.com

If Apple makes a major marketing push for Beats’s subscription model — or, even better, if Apple integrates Beats into its ecosystem of online services and physical products — it could mean a big lift for streaming.

Apple entering the streaming music market (virtually overnight) with the clout and installed user base of iTunes would be massive, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say Spotify’s days as currently structured would be numbered. Looks like we’re in for the next phase of music industry economics.

Since the rumor surfaced a couple of days ago, people have tried to rationalize why Apple would buy the headphone and services company. Some good theories and analyses of both brands have resulted; I think it’s fantastic to have lots of smart people simultaneously indulge in a thought exercise, the answers to which we will probably have in the near future.

My resistance to the idea has largely been because I’ve heard several pairs of Beats headphones myself, and haven’t been impressed. It’s not about being overpriced, but being bad experiences, functionally. A pair of BeoPlay H6 headphones at S$700 is subject to many of the same criticisms one might use against Beats: they’re too expensive, they’re made in China, the margins are criminally high, you’re paying for the brand, and so on — except the H6s really do deliver on the music experience. I suppose many Beats owners will say the same, but there are an awful lot of people with taste who disagree. Apple’s brand, to me, has always been on the opposite end of that spectrum. Perhaps this is an effort to change who we currently think of as their customers.

The Beats Music service, on the other hand, has been really impressive in my short time testing it out. There’s a feature called “The Sentence”, where you fill in a statement that defines the mood and situation you’re in, and Beats Music provides the appropriate soundtrack. I wish Spotify had something like it. I said in a tweet the other day that $3.2bn was the complacency tax of being asleep at the wheel of the world’s largest digital music store, and @craigmod noted that it was a rather low price to pay, in that case. Quite true.

The iTunes reluctance to play the streaming library game appears to be a legacy of Steve Jobs’s (and the senior executive team’s) approach to music as a tangible possession. He used to rationalize the download model by explaining how people prefer to own their music, and have collections, possibly informed by his own experiences with vinyls and CDs and so on. While it may have been true in the early days of the iTunes Store, I’ve observed even in my own listening habits as an older person that it’s no longer true. Collections matter, but song access is becoming ubiquitous and hence irrelevant. In a world where everyone pays $10/mo for music, we can build all the collections we want, without having to think about first buying a digital copy or worry about losing access. Why should you? It’s $10/mo for the rest of your life and everybody stays afloat and happy. Sold.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Beats Music became the backbone of a new iTunes Unlimited offering, and the headphones remained a standalone brand, sold prominently (as ever) in Apple retail locations.

[I first wrote this entry on my experimental blog about technological change, entitled T-Axis. I’ll be cross-posting stuff here for awhile.]

➟ Turning Paper to Pixels with a New Game Design Tool

From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames
Bonnie Cha, recode.net

I loved play­ing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketch­ing out ideas for my own games like my broth­er and his friends did. (My doo­dles usu­al­ly involved cute ani­mals or spelling out my crush’s name in bub­ble…

The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 
Image

Shuttered Out

At a recent office balcony party, I spoke to a colleague who’s also into photography (by which I mean he’s also afflicted by the coin-draining hobby of buying cameras), and realized that maybe I’ve made some progress. My last purchase was the Sony RX-100, which he also bought, and then sold, and then bought a Fuji X20, and then sold, and then bought a used Fuji X100S (pictured). The urge has not visited me lately, unless you count the $200 Q Camera which no amount of money on Earth can buy at the moment because they’ve only made one sold-out and poorly handled batch.

I’m doing really well on just my iPhone 5S and excellent apps like the new Mattebox (do try my Velvius filter), and Cortex Camera. You can also explore all my posts tagged ‘Photography‘.