Category Archives: photography

Olympus technical service, color me impressed!

Quick follow-up on last week’s blog post about my bricked E-PM1: despite telling me on the phone that I should be expecting a four week service time, Olympus was able to service my camera within just two business days and have it sent back within a week! I’m impressed.

Surprisingly, they apparently had to repair the “main circuit board” to fix the issue. It really surprises me that a firmware update could have that kind of an impact on the hardware, but maybe this is an indication that there was something wrong with the camera from the very beginning.

Anyway, thanks Olympus for really quick service and for ensuring that I have a working camera over the summer!

Olympus, learn how to use proactive support to cut down costs

Wow, I didn’t even think this was possible in the modern IT world where software is constantly getting more intuitive and user-focused, but apparently it’s still possible to completely brick a modern digital system camera by accident. All it takes is poorly written software in combination with poorly written documentation (and just a second of not paying attention).

As I was packing my suitcase for the upcoming trip to the US the other night, I decided to give the new Olympus firmware a try. Having done the same process in the past with my old E-P1, I already knew that the process is a bit clunky and unintuitive with Olympus software, but I at least had a previous success in my memory, so it felt like an achievable task the night before traveling. (Three hours later, I definitely regretted that choice.)

The flaws in their documentation are obvious:

  • The instructions in the firmware update tool just tell you to plug in the camera to the USB port, but in reality, the camera then prompts you to choose one of three modes. It turns out after some trial and error that the correct mode is the one in the middle of the menu (not the default choice). Pointing this out in the documentation wouldn’t necessarily cut down on their number of support incidents, but it would make for a much smoother product experience and it would reduce the user frustration, which would lead to a closer attention to what’s going on in the process. Crucially, however, this is an indication of a deeper issue at Olympus, which is that there is a disconnect between the developers and the people doing support documentation.
  • After transferring the new firmware to the camera through USB, the update tool tells you that it finished updating the firmware and that you can either click Close to finish, or click the other button (I forget its label) to update the firmware on a different product, e.g a lens or another camera. However, the camera itself simultaneously shows a different set of instructions, or rather cryptic status indications. In reality, the update process is not finished, it’s just the USB transfer of the new firmware that is. Ensuring that the instructions on both screens are consistent would help reduce the likeliness of a user making the wrong choice in the process.

The latter point is where things broke down on my end, because I think I ended up turning the camera off by pressing the power button after having read the instructions on the computer screen to do so, but the camera screen was still showing some blinking icons that I paid little attention to at the time.

Boom. One second of not paying attention — two months without a working camera.

Documentation issues aside, having lead customer support for a major software product for the last five years, I’ve learned the importance of looking beyond documentation and rather focus part of the support efforts on fixing problems in the product itself and tightening up the loop between support and product development. Without this proactive type of support, you’re in trouble. Having gone through this painful experience with my almost brand new camera, I highly suspect that there is a disconnect between the support and development teams at Olympus.

Generally, you should remove as many possible points of user failure in the software itself as part of software design. In the case of the E-PM1, I have to wonder why it’s even possible to press the power button while the thing is updating — it’s an electronic button that they could easily disable during that critical moment, rather than exposing this ridiculously simple way of bricking your camera. I don’t know how many other people have had this problem, but having searched for it online, I know I’m not the only person. Another smart thing would be to ensure that there’s always a recovery bootstrap mode that enables the camera to communicate via the USB interface even after a failed firmware update attempt. That way, it would always be possible to retry and recover.

The brutal fact here is that I now have to send the camera to Olympus. The apathetic support rep that I was talking to on the phone today told me that their average processing time is at least a month due to their high support demand (no kidding!). Since I’ll only be in the Bay Area for a couple of weeks, this means I’m going to be without the camera for at least two months before I’m able to get back here again.

I tried to tell the support rep that I feel really strongly about improving processes like this that touch on customer support, because I have a full team of awesome people at Mozilla that do this for a living, and so I wanted to find the best venue to provide this type of feedback at a level where it would be listened to. He just politely said that he will pass on my feedback to “the customer feedback department” and that was the end of the discussion. Of course, what he really meant was “I’ll put some notes that I wrote into a system that will disappear among other notes that no one here really reads, and your problem won’t be solved proactively because I hardly talk to those that could do anything about this, and honestly I don’t really care either. Have a nice day.”

He didn’t really mean the last part — this is America after all. ;)

Olympus E-M5 – my next camera?

While I’ve only owned my Olympus E-PM1 a little over a couple of months now (read my review about that camera for more info), I’ve already got my eyes on my next potential upgrade: the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Of course, this kind of represents a 180 for me, since I most recently “upgraded” from the E-P1 to the more compact and lightweight E-PM1. If I buy the E-M5, I’ll instead get a much heavier and more bulky camera, but the improved continuous focus speed, the new sensor, the built-in electronic viewfinder, and the new steadicam-like anti-shake feature make the extra bulk entirely worth it.I also feel after having used the E-PM1 for a while that the lack of controls is a little crippling at time, so I would definitely appreciate the added controls on this new 70s rangefinder-inspired camera.

I’ll be looking forward to more in-depth reviews and samples of the actual photos taken with this camera, but on the surface, this sure looks promising.

Panasonic GF1 or Olympus E-PL1?

I’m currently owning an old superzoom (Canon Powershot S3 IS) and the Panasonic LX3 and am getting ready to move up to a “real” camera. emoticon - wink I’m convinced that the Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) system is the right choice for me, as I suspect I would never actually carry a full-size SLR with me.

Coming from the LX3, which is a camera I really love, I have a bit of Panasonic bias. I like the way it performs and handles, and that has at least up until recently made me convinced that I should get a GF1, especially since it has (had) a much better AF performance than the Olympus PENs.

So hard to choose!

However, I’m starting to slowly change my mind. I was recently playing with an E-P1 in a shop and was first very annoyed with the Auto mode which consistently chose slower shutter speeds than was possible to manage without a tripod. Then after about 20 shots, I realized that the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) was turned off. After enabling it, I suddenly got almost 100% sharp photos instead. (Btw, I guess this tendency to select too slow shutter speeds is a firmware bug or something? Shouldn’t it take into consideration whether IBIS is enabled or not?)

Unfortunately, Panasonic chose the route to put image stabilization in their lenses, but not in all of them (and obviously not in rivaling Olympus lenses). Olympys, on the other hand, chose the in-camera body stabilization instead, which means that any lens attached enjoys the benefit of stabilization. 3 stops of IS is pretty huge. In the Panasonic LX3, I can sometimes take sharp photos at 1/8 shutter speeds without a tripod I if set it to burst mode and take 3-4 photos at the same time.

This leads me to think that buying a camera without IBIS is a pretty bad idea, given that many lenses (20mm/1.7, 7-14mm, 9-18mm) don’t have IS in the lens either. Also, with the new firmware update, it appears that Olympus isn’t that far behind in terms of AF performance anymore, although the kit lens isn’t very fast of course (though I didn’t find it slower than my LX3).

So, I’m now a bit torn. I’m starting to lean towards an E-PL1 because it also has a built-in flash, and the out-of-the-box colors of the JPEG images are simply stunning. In general, it feels like it has many advantages over its bigger brothers E-P1 and E-P2 while at the same time being cheaper.

At the same time, I really want the Panasonic 20mm/1.7 lens and think I’d use that more than any kit zoom, and I realize that buying that lens separately ends up getting pretty expensive compared to buying it as a kit lens with the GF1.

Am I overrating the importance of IS here? It feels to me like buying any Panasonic m4/3 is a bad idea if you care about low light performance and want to also use the camera as a casual social setting camera.

It’s such a shame that Panasonic chose the in-lens IS route here, since it really makes me less interested in their cameras even though they seem to perform better in many aspects. At this point, I would even go as far as saying that I am hardly interested in what a future GF2 will look like, because I already know that it will force me to use 3-4 stops higher shutter speeds compared to any Olympus camera with the same pancake lens.

Nokia N900 impressions

I’ve been using the Nokia N900 for a couple of weeks now and I have both good and bad things to say about it. To give you an idea of what I’m comparing with, my previous phone was a Nokia N95. Here’s my list of impressions:

Pros

  • The screen is pretty good, and I rarely have a problem clicking on links and buttons using my thumbs. The fact that it’s resistive feels like an advantage in this incredibly cold Swedish winter. Next to a Nexus One, however, it’s obvious that the color reproduction could be better.
  • The Mozilla-based MicroB browser really is awesome. Scrolling and zooming is so smooth and quick that it feels like surfing on the iPhone, only this time you’re using the real web. By far the best web browsing experience I’ve had on a mobile device.
  • The fact that I can use it to call VoIP, Skype, Gtalk, and regular cellular networks is amazing.
  • The Conversations application seamlessly integrates IM and SMS in an intuitive manner.
  • The media player handles almost anything you throw at it after installing a few extra software packages.
  • Great synchronization with Exchange-based mail services (e.g. Zimbra, which Mozilla uses).
  • Nice multiple desktop solution (though lacks useful widgets).
  • Battery life is impressive in active use such as in a phone call. Though see the standby time below…
  • The “one-click” (actually a few clicks) publishing of both photos and videos to services like Facebook and Flickr is really neat. Though see below about the camera quality…
  • It really is fun to use it. And it’s open source! And it can run Firefox!

Cons

  • This thing is heavy! I thought my N95 was heavy, but this is significantly heavier. It definitely feels like a solid device, for better or worse.
  • The camera is actually worse than the 3-year-old N95 camera in a number of ways: terrible colors in low light, terrible metering, light leaks making the subject in focus appear washed out, and the field of view is narrower than the N95 camera. In comparison, here’s a photo taken by the N95. Both are 5-megapixel cameras.
  • The standby time is a joke. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but sometimes I can just keep the phone in my pocket during the whole day and it will discharge in less than 8 hours. I first kept all accounts logged in (Skype, VoIP, Jabber), but have since then compromised a bit and only keep Jabber online. Still, the battery isn’t impressive.
  • The horizontal layout is annoying most of the time. When I’m out and about, it feels awkward that I can’t use the phone with one hand. I understand the “handheld computer” legacy (I even owned an N810), but feel that my typical use is much more like a regular smartphone than a portable computer. Ideally, all applications should support both layouts.
  • The keyboard, while certainly better than the N810, is still not really good. It’s too easy to click on the wrong keys, and there’s no auto complete feature that can detect (and correct) common spelling mistakes.
  • The auto suggest feature only shows one suggestion, so 90% of the time it’s not suggesting the word you want and as a result you end up ignoring the suggestions altogether.
  • The physical unlock switch is only comfortable to use when in horizontal layout. It’s nearly impossible to reach with one hand if you just want to make a quick call.

Got myself a Flickr account at last

I finally decided that it was worth 25 bucks per year to have a permanent, safe, and easy to access backup of all my precious photos. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was how this would also bring back the fun of sharing photos again.

With my photo collection on my personal server (djst.org/gallery), I was constantly micro-managing the photo uploads by renaming image titles from e.g. IMG_1350.JPG to 01.jpg because I thought it looked cleaner with URLs like djst.org/gallery/v/tokyo2008/015.jpg.html compared to something like djst.org/gallery/v/tokyo2008/IMG_1350.JPG.html. If I had a complete set uploaded and later on realized I had forgotten one picture, I found myself struggling to insert that picture in the set and renumber all pictures.

Because of all this work associated with uploading images, I started to hold off on uploading photos until I found some free time for the micro-management, and the result is that I haven’t uploaded any photos for quite a while now.

The thrill of being drunk Flickr has changed all that for me now. The URL prettiness is no longer an issue because direct image URLs are ugly no matter how you look at it, and the title of the image is separate from the URL. Bandwidth and storage space are not issues either, and albums (sets) can be created on the fly with photos belonging to more than one set, making organizing photos simple and fun.

Have a look at my new and growing photo collection at fickr.com/photos/djst. I plan to move all my existing photo albums over there too, but one step at a time here! The most important thing was to get all the new photos up.

Some previously unpublished Mozilla albums:

All your photos are belong to Facebook

Just read this in the Facebook Terms of Use:

When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site. By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

Let me translate that into human readable English (although it is pretty readable as it is):

By uploading photos to your Facebook account, you automatically grant Facebook the right to copy, publicly display, and distribute your photos for any purpose, wherever they want. You may remove your photos from your account if you want, but Facebook still owns the copies you uploaded and can still do whatever they want with those copies.

I’ll think twice before I upload any photos or videos ever again.