First Test Drive of HDR Photos in iPhone 4

With the release of iOS 4.1, Apple added high dynamic range support (HDR photos) to the built-in camera on the iPhone.  So what is HDR?  In Steve Jobs’ own words, “when you take a photo (with HDR turned on), it actually takes 3 photos in rapid succession.  It takes 1 normal exposure what it thinks is the appropriate exposure, 1 that’s under exposed, and 1 that’s over exposed.  And it combines these 3 photos with some pretty sophisticated algorithm to produce a HDR photo”.  The photos below are examples from Apple’s 9/1 product launch that showcases the potential of HDR:

Over the weekend, I took my family to a local amusement park and decided to take some pictures with HDR enabled.  Unfortunately, I was unable to match the quality of Apple’s photos via HDR.  I took over 20 pictures with HDR enabled.  In reviewing the results in iPhoto, I’m only able to identify a couple instances where HDR provided enhancement over the normal exposure.  Below are some side-by-side comparisons, with the normal photo on the left (1st) and the HDR photo on the right (2nd).

In the 1st set of photos, the improvement is very subtle in the HDR version.  It’s barely noticeable, the removal of shadows from the foreground and the over exposure correction of the white color on the side of the cart. Upon closer inspection (click to view in full size), you will find a slight shadow casted around the human subjects in the HDR photo, either because I moved the camera or the subjects moved between frames.

In the 2nd set of photos, the improvement is more noticeable in the HDR version.  The over exposed background gets corrected in the yellow booth in the upper left corner and the trees in the upper right corner.  But the subject in the foreground remains dark.  Upon closer inspection, you will find the background human subjects to be a bit distorted in the HDR photo, most likely because they moved between frames.

The first two sets of photo were taken where the subject is relatively still.  I took many pictures where the subject was in full motion, and understandably those turned out poorly in HDR:

This was my first test drive of HDR in iOS 4.  Since it didn’t exact come with an user manual, I’m learning from my own experience.  I could simply enble HDR for all photos, but if the yield of good HDR photos from my weekend experience is an indication of the expected norm, I will waste a lot of time deleting HDR photos from my album.

From this experience, I have devised some simple rules on when to use and when not to use HDR:

  • Don’t use HDR to take pictures that involve any form of motion
  • Use HDR when taking landscape pictures with or without human subjects
  • Use HDR when taking pictures with drastic lighting variation between foreground and background

Hopefully by following my own guidance, I will be able to take better pictures by utilizing HDR under selective conditions.

Note:  Th Apple photos were borrowed from the Sep 1st Apple product launch.  You will find the HDR introduction around the 7 minute mark in this video.

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Kicking Off My Digital Library Project

I thought that technology is suppose to make life easier?  I won’t deny that the iPhone (my latest toy) has provided me with conveniences that a couple years ago would have required that I carry along a mobile phone, digital camera, MP3 player, and laptop computer.  While I love my iPhone, I still use my MacBook Pro, iPod Nano, Canon HD camcorder, and Canon DSLR regularly, depending on the occasion.  With 3 devices that can take pictures and 2 that can capture videos, I’m having a hard time keeping track of everything.  What I really need is a simple and cost effective solution for organizing, editing, sharing, and archiving all my photos and videos.

In this blog, I’m kicking off my efforts (a personal project) to define and implement a single system for managing my digital library, one that I hope will make my life easier.    As with any IT like project, before embarking on the design, it’s important to understand the requirements.  It this case, it’s a matter of articulating my own needs upfront, so I can be sure that I’m successful and happy with the outcome.  I anticipate that each key requirement will require additional analysis (topics for future blogs) before I can fully define and settle on the priorities (must-haves and nice-to-haves) for this system.  For now, I just want to capture the high level requirements.

I need a system that can grow (scalable) with my needs.  Although I don’t foresee buying any new devices in the near-term, it’s important that this system can easily accommodate additional data sources.  For example, if my wife gets an iPhone, I will need a way to easily import and manage all her photos and videos as well.  As technology is constantly evolving, I will need a digital library solution that can withstand the test of time.  I anticipate there will be new medias (e.g. Blue-ray) or social platforms where I would like to publish or store my pictures.  It would be great if the system does not lock me in to a particular social platform or external media type.

I enjoy taking pictures and videos, and I have seen my digital library
grow exponentially in recent years.  However, I prefer not to invest the equivalent increment in time to manage my digital library.  I need a system that will make it easy to organize and edit my photos and videos.  I’m not a professional, so I do not need a fancy editing tool.  Nor do I want to spend a lot of time on editorial tasks.  Generally, I’m quite content with the “I’m Feeling Lucky” touch-ups provided in tools like Picasa.  While I have typically organized my photos and videos by dates or events, I would like to evaluate and assess the benefits of organizing by other means such as geo tags or facial recognition.

One of the great joy of taking pictures and videos is sharing them with my family and friends.  Currently, I share my pictures with my friends through social media Web sites such as FaceBook.  I also keep my photos from the past year online in my Picasa Web album.  While I have uploaded a couple video clips on YouTube,  I have largely deferred the editing  of my HD videos from the past year.  That will change, as I’m motivated by this project.  For my family (who are less technology savvy), I need this system to also facilitate with the creation of slide shows and home movies for re-play on the home theater or distribution via DVDs.   Occasionally, I do printouts as well.

I currently have my pictures and videos scattered across my Mac and PC, with back-ups on an external hard drive, CDs and DVDs.  One of the key driver for doing this project is my constant fear that one day my PC or Mac will crap out, or that my external hard drive will fail, or that the CDs where I back up my picture are no longer readable by new hardware.  What I need is a fault tolerant solution for backing up and preserving my digital library.  Since my PC is dated and I work largely on my Mac now, I would like to build my digital library around the software and services available on the Mac.  This means I will need a way to migrate and import the pictures and videos from my PC.

Well, I think this is a pretty good start on the requirements for building a system for managing my digital library.  I have identified my needs for organizing, editing, sharing, and archiving all my photos and videos.  Now, I just need a solution.  Any suggestions?

Dolphins in the Monterey Bay?

I bet you didn’t know that Dolphins live in the Monterey Bay.  Actually, it’s quite common to spot Dolphins, Whales and other marine mammals, if you spend enough time on the Bay or if you go on a Whale watching tour boat.  What made our recent Dolphin encounter so special is that we weren’t seeking them out.  We were visiting Monterey for the day. We stopped by the Breakwater to admire the SCUBA divers, as we have done on every Monterey trip since we stopped diving.  Amazingly, this is the first time that I have spotted Dolphins so close to the shore, only about 150 feet away.  They hung around for a while, and provided lots of entertainment for the Kayakers, the people on the beach and the tourists on the glass bottom boat (typically not a great way to spot wildlife, just divers).  It was a very unexpected and unforgettable experience.

Click on the image below to views photos taken:

Dolphins Spotted in Monterey Bay – July 2008

Thriving Wildlife at Rancho San Antonio

Over the July 4th weekend, my wife and I went for a short hike at Rancho San Antonio, an open space preserve that borders Los Altos, Cupertino and I-280.  Rancho is one of my favorite outdoor playgrounds, since it’s conveniently located in the heart of Silicon Valley.  It’s where I first discovered trail running and where I trained (PG&E Trail) for my hike up to Half Dome at Yosemite.  It’s also where I return year after year to find a new generation of lambs, goats and piglets at the Deer Hollow Farm.

I have also had my share of wildlife encounters at Rancho San Antonio:  Bobcats, Rattlesnakes, Blacktail Deers, Wild Turkeys, Quails, Rabbits, Owls, Acorn Woodpeckers, etc.  Each time, I always said to myself “If only I had brought my camera.”  Well, I finally brought my camera this past weekend, and I was not disappointed.  I’m sharing my pictures in this Blog (Press Play on Slideshow below), out of complete respect for the wildlife and their home.  In shooting these photos, I kept my distance, tried to blend in with nature, and captured the close-ups through a zoom lense.

In a world of global warming and diminishing natural habitats, I think it’s great that open space preserves such as Rancho San Antonio is able to sustain an ecosystem that is thriving despite being in the shadows of encroaching home developments, congested freeways and high-tech business parks.  As a parent, I often wonder if such wonderful places will still exist when my daughter is old enough to appreciate it.  As a nature lover, I’m quite hopeful (based on my observations) that I will find a new generation of thriving wildlife at Rancho this time next year, the following year, and for the foreseeable future.

BTW in case you are wondering, I have not had a Mountain Lion encounter.  They are elusive, solitary animals that hunt mostly during the wee hours when the parks are closed.  By chance if I’m lucky enough to spot one, I will be sure to Blog about the experience.  Stay tuned!

Wild Life Encounters at Rancho San Antonio – July 2008