Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Final Step

Let's talk post-processing, the "final" step in digital photography. Often, this is the most involved, and can save even terrible photos. I rather like a shot I recently took and put through the paces, so I figured I'd document the high-level view here. Not the individual steps mind you (there are plenty), but enough to show why this is such a key part of the process. Each picture can be clicked to show a larger version.

My route home from Las Vegas flies over/around The Grand Canyon. Usually, I'm in an aisle seat, or asleep, or my camera is in the baggage compartment, or it's 1am and dark. My last trip, I made sure that none of these was an issue -- I flew home in the afternoon in a window seat on the right side of the plane, with my camera in my lap. Then I fell asleep. But I woke up just in time. One of the MANY pictures I took was this one:

Nothing special, it's washed out, poorly-composed, and looks very little like what I saw. But I loved the landscape, the plateaus and canyons and cliffs. I figured I had to be able to save something of this shot. So I ran it through a bunch of Lightroom editing to get to this:

Better,but I'm still not a fan of my crop, it's VERY blue, and the details are still ill-defined. So to Photoshop it did go for some sharpening. Then there was more editing in Lightroom after that to come to this:

Now we're getting somwhere. The colour is reaching something recognizable, the details are, well, detailed, I like the crop more, and the contrast is showing off the depth of the scene. I could have left it here and been fairly happy with it. In fact, I almost did. But then I decided to see if running it through Photomatix as a 1-image pseudo-HDR shot would add anything.

It was a good call. It cleared it up even more, brought out more detail, and was a measurable improvement. I went through another round of editing in Lightroom, now mostly tweaking, and called it day and uploaded it. Then I looked at the next day and realized how BLUE it still was. Being away from my computer, I opted to play with a few other options. On my phone with Snapseed I hit the "auto" button and was immediately sad that it had fixed it so well. Then I tried the same with Flicker's online editor and it automatically made the blue shot even better than Snapseed had.

Well, this upset me a bit, because I figured I should be better able to tune a photo on my desktop with all my fancy software better than an app on my phone or some Yahoo! web tool. So I returned home and started futzing with colours and white balance and saturations until I was able to replicate what my phone could do. This is the final product:

Deeper shadows, the blue gone, the haze lifted, the details popping out - what a difference from that original image up top. There are trade-offs to this - the noise is pretty obvious in some areas, and what noise-reduction I did apply smoothed out some of the rougher edges to the rocks. It's also developed a somewhat surreal, alien-world look, but I rather like it myself.

There's more that could be done here. I could work on specific shadows, do some localized noise reduction, manually edit details. I may still do some these things. Eventually though, I have to step back and stop, otherwise it's a paintbrush on individual pixels that nobody will ever notice.

Of course, not every shot needs all these steps, and a lot of an editing workflow becomes second nature over time. Still, the fact that I go through every shot I take to one degree or another has really slowed down the rate I post photos. But then again, it's also made me somewhat more picky in what I choose to actually show.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Canadian Cell Costs - Part I

I've been ranting enough on Twitter about this, so I figure it deserves its own blog posts. First, the background:

For around 13 years I was with Bell Canada for my cell service. From a monochrome-screened bar phone, to a slider, to a shiny LG flip phone, to my iPhone 4, and briefly, a 5s.

I've never really had much of a complaint with regards to the service (other than my folks' place being between towers in a bit of a dead zone), but man have their prices ever sucked. My first phone was under my mother's work plan because it was a huge improvement over what was publicly available and my company didn't yet have an individual cell plan deal in place. I moved to my own work's corporate plan when I upgraded phones.

The problems started with the next move, to the LG. I wanted a new phone. This meant a new plan. I said I wanted something close to what I currently had. They gave me a plan that I shouldn't have been able to get (I had no idea at the time). The next bill, Bell changed my plan without telling me. I didn't notice until a few bills later, and Bell refused to make any changes or refund the difference.

Luckily, I had an ace up my sleeve in a friend who worked high enough in the Bell hierarchy to complain on my behalf and get actually helpful people to call me. The problem was resolved beyond my satisfaction and I was happy. The next upgrade to an iPhone meant the inclusion of data - that whole move was actually painless, just add $25/month for 500MB of data. Not a great price, but the best option at the time based on how cheap my voice plan was.

Then came the end of that contract.

My Bell friend and I have long since drifted apart, so calling him up out of the blue would just be rude. Instead I opted to go through the regular channels. It consistently went something like this:

"My contract is up soon. I want to upgrade my phone, which I know means I need a new plan. Here's what your competition is offering. Can you match it?"


"So for 13 years I've been a loyal customer, paying my bills on time, using extra services like roaming plans, and you can't even make an offer?"


"I guess I'll be leaving then."

"Okay, have a nice day."

Wow. Considering I have my Internet connection and landline with them too, this was... surprising.

So I hemmed and hawed and finally, after months of wanting to toss my phone against a wall every day, walked into the Apple store and paid full price for an unlocked, non-subsidized phone. It was worth it to not be tied to any of the carriers in this country.

Then I did the math and discovered something - there are no real phone subsidies.

If you bring your own phone to the big 3 providers (Bell, Rogers, Telus) - you get $20/month off your bill on a two-year contract. That's $480 you're paying towards your phone.

iPhone 5s 32GB - $819. On contract? $329. Difference? $490. $10 in subsidies from the phone companies, if you don't include time value of money calculations. The rest is you paying $20 more a month to get a "cheap" phone up front.

Whoopdeefuckingdoo. That's not a subsidy, that's a phone mortgage.

I'll continue this in another post with some rough comparisons between my options, and how I think these guys will hurt themselves in the name of protectionism and short-term greed.