Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More musings on the differences between digital SLRs and compact cameras

Sigh, my Canon PowerShot S3 IS is now off to Akron, Ohio, along with the two lovely converter lenses. Yep, sold it on eBay. I'm feeling very comfortable with the new Pentax K100D digital SLR, but I feel like I'm finally coming to a balanced appreciation of what the different cameras can do. Here are a few more random observations.

1. I mentioned in my last post that that digital SLR's glass viewfinder is much nicer to use than the LCD in a non-digital SLR camera. I failed to mention that the Pentax K100D also has a much higher resolution back-panel LCD than the Canon S3 has. According to the excellent site, the Canon S3 has a 2-inch, 115,000 pixel LCD, while the Pentax K100D has a 2.5-inch, 210,000 pixel LCD. What this means is that I am able to make much better judgments about how my pictures are coming out from looking at the back of the Pentax than I could with the Canon. Or, to put it very practically, I am better able to tell when I'm doing something badly wrong. ADVANTAGE: digital SLR.

2. The digital SLR has a mechanical shutter that makes a noise when it operates. You can't do anything about that noise. With the compact camera, whether it makes a noise or not is up to you; so is the kind of noise it makes. I was usually fond of it making a shutter noise, which is a good thing, because it's what I'm used to now. But I could have configured it to beep or do some other things, or be silent. I don't see the inevitability of the noise as a plus. I would like, say, when shooting in a church, to be able to be silent. ADVANTAGE: compact camera.

3. I bought the K100D rather than the cheaper K110D because the K100D has shake reduction, Pentax's version of optical image stabilization. I'm glad I did. But I am quite sure that shake reduction does not help as much on the Pentax when I'm using a telephoto lens as it did on the Canon S3. At first, I thought perhaps Canon's IS was simply superior technically to Pentax's SR. Now I see a more obvious explanation. It's a simple matter of focal lengths. The compact camera's lenses have much smaller focal lengths, even though they may achieve greater magnification. Now, the shorter the focal length, the less camera shake matters. If you hold a twelve-inch ruler in your hand and twitch it slightly at your end, it will move only slightly at the other end. Do the same thing with a yard stick - or a ten-foot pole - and the movement at the other end will be much more pronounced. So image stabilization in the Canon may not be any better than shake reduction in the Pentax, but the Canon has less of a problem to deal with in the first place, so it's not surprising that it seems to do a better job. My brother-in-law Tom told me a while back that he doubted image stabilization would be adequate for shooting with a 300mm lens; he suspected a tripod is de rigeur at that focal length. I responded that image stabilization in my S3 was working fine, even with the 12x lens fully zoomed, which is supposed to produce an effective focal length of something like 450mm. I wasn't wrong, but neither was Tom. I suspect that, to take clear shots with a 300mm or higher lens attached to a digital SLR, you'd want to shoot with a fast shutter, and that in turn means either shooting only in bright sunlight or spending beaucoup bucks for a fast lens (that is, one with a bigger aperture). ADVANTAGE: compact camera.

I could go on, but I won't.

It seems to me now that the digital SLR is a good camera for hobbyists who really are into how you take good pictures, where the compact superzoom is for people who are satisfied that the camera takes good pictures. I am enjoying working with my Pentax very much and I'm not displeased with the pictures I've taken so far. But then I like the challenge for its own sake.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Superzoom vs DSLR, Revisited

A month ago, I tried to gather up my thoughts on the question of whether I should stick with the Canon S3 IS superzoom compact digital camera or consider purchasing one of the recently released, relatively low-price digital SLRS. In that earlier post I took a position that I suppose could fairly be called defensive. I had already purchased the S3. Now I was trying to persuade myself that I had made the right decision and at the same time talk myself out of the itch to get a digital SLR. The observations that I made in that earlier article were generally correct. In particular, I think I did a fair job describing both the advantages of the compact superzoom (cost, versatility, convenience) and the disadvantages of the digital SLR (cost, size, need for multiple lenses). But I think now that I failed then to appreciate the advantages or perhaps I should say the attractions of the digital SLR as well as I do now. What's changed? Well, in the last month, I've actually spent some time with two different digital SLR cameras: my brother-in-law's Canon Rebel XT, and my own brand new Pentax K100D. That's right, I changed my mind, or at least I've come to understand better than I did before the advantages of the digital SLR. I'm writing now not so much to correct what I said earlier, as to argue the other side of the case a little more fairly.

For me, the question now is, Should I keep the S3? What do I see now about the DSLR that I did not see earlier, or, if I saw it, did not regard as compelling?

1. The DSLR feels better

For starters, shooting with the Pentax feels better. I think there are four reasons for this.

First, the DSLR is bigger, and in some important respects, bigger is definitely better. The Pentax is easier to hold properly. I noticed with the Canon S3 that, until I put the converter tube on the base and left it there, it was almost impossible to hold it properly, with my left hand under the lens, partly because the lens kept moving in and out and partly because the whole thing was too small. Even with the converter tube attached, it was too small. The Pentax, on the other hand, fits my left and right hands nicely.

Second, the controls on the Pentax are more conveniently distributed on the body of the camera. The Canon S3 has a lot of very similar buttons plopped all over the case. When your eyes are on the subject rather than the camera, it's a bit tricky to tell the ISO button from the Fn button, or the Menu button from the Set button. It's very easy to hit Set or Menu by accident with your right hand, because there's really no place for the ball of the thumb or the thumb itself to sit on the camera comfortably. Nearly everything is done on the S3 with the right hand - zooming, touching control buttons, pressing the shutter - and this makes gripping the camera firmly a little more difficult. On the Pentax, there's empty space on the back of the camera on the right where my right thumb can lie safely. Zooming is done by the left hand. The other buttons are shared by the hands - Menu is a left-hand button, Fn is a right-hand button.

Third, the sharpness of the DSLR's optical viewfinder is simply much more satisfying than composing it on an LCD. I want to be honest here. This is not such a huge practical difference. After all, even the Pentax's digital viewfinder is a pretty small screen, so to a good extent, you are doing on the Pentax the same thing you do on the Canon S3: composing the shot, and counting on the various meters to get the focus and exposure exactly right. But gosh, seeing what you're photographing so clearly, so realistically, is great. It's tactile. I've gotten used to it very quickly on the Pentax, so much so that the LCD on the S3 strikes me not just as crude, but clumsy. The clarity of the optical viewfinder seems to go hand-in-hand with the fact that you must put your eye right up to the viewfinder and look at the subject straight on. Taking photos with the DSLR is straight shooting.

Fourth, the DSLR's shutter is more immediately responsive. I had gotten used to the "shutter lag" on the Canon S3, in fact, I was pretty good at anticipating facial expressions or poses so that I could depress the shutter a fraction of a second ahead of the shot I wanted to capture. Nonetheless, shooting on the Pentax, where shutter lag is comparatively absent, is like looking through the sharp optical viewfinder - a fact that makes working with the Pentax seem more natural, more direct.

Note that none of the advantages above means that the Pentax necessarily takes better photos. In fact, shooting under "normal" conditions - good lighting and reasonable proximity to a cooperative subject - I suspect that a competent S3 user will be able to take photos that were every bit as good as those taken by a low-end digital SLR. I have seen a fair amount of DSLR chauvinism on certain internet forums; it's ignorant and wrong.

2. The DSLR has some technical advantages

But the next two features do affect the quality of at least some photos.

The bigger CCD in the Pentax doesn't mean that the pictures it takes are sharper or that their color is better. But it does mean that the camera can do more with less light. Now, I have not yet had a chance to give this a real test, by shooting some more photos of my daughter's basketball team playing in the school gym, where the light is lousy and I can't use a flash. Nevertheless, my tests at home in low-light conditions give me confidence that I will be able to get less noisy, equally well-focused action shots.

Perhaps the clearest advantage of the DSLR is in the greater control it gives you over depth of field. The shorter lenses and smaller CCDs of the compact cameras inevitably provide lots of depth of field. The problem on a compact camera is reducing depth of field for artistic reasons. There's just not a lot you can do. To get control over the depth of field in a shot with the Canon S3, you may have to step twenty feet away from your subject and use the zoom lens, and, well, this is not always possible and a hassle even when it is. For a pretty clear demonstration of the superiority of the Pentax here, compare this photo taken by the Pentax K100D with this photo taken by the Canon S3. The goal of the shot was to get the middle ground in focus and have the foreground and background out of focus. It was easy to do on the Pentax; impossible to do on the S3.

In short, shooting with the DSLR feels better, to me, at least. And the DSLR can be pushed harder than the compact camera. The technical limitations of the compact superzoom are more obvious and there's not much you can do about them, besides wait until Canon releases the S4 next year with a handful of minor improvements.

The bottom line

If your budget maxxes out at around $500, then by all means, buy the Canon S3. It's a heckuva camera for the money, more camera than most amateurs need or know what to do with. But what if you have more than that to spend? Then the matter is not so easily decided.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

One of the funniest movies ever made?

I've been looking forward to the release of the Borat movie for months. I've seen several clips of the Borat character (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) on YouTube and I thought them hilarious. When I read the reviews of the movie, my eagerness was heightened. John Podhoretz, for example, writing for the Weekly Standard, declared it "one of the four or five funniest films ever made." I like Podhoretz as a reviewer and know him as a guy who doesn't say things like that without giving them at least a moment's thought. Now that I've seen the film, I have my own evaluation.

It is a funny movie. Well, many parts of it are funny and a few are truly hilarious. The funniest parts are those in which Borat himself is the butt of the joke. I loved the scene at the B&B run by a kindly Jewish couple, and the scene with the unflappable driving instructor, and the scene with the guy trying to teach Borat how to tell a not joke, as in "Borat is one of the four or five funniest films ever made - not!"

There are other elements of the movie that are simply good traditional comic writing. Borat keeps asking the salesman where the "pussy magnet" inside the Hummer is, but in the end, he can't afford a Hummer, having a more limited budget ("between $600 and $650"), so he ends up with a very used ice cream truck, complete with a serving window on the side and the ability to play "Pop goes the Weasel" through loudspeakers. Now, in addition to a means of transportation, he also needs protection from "the Jew" while in America. He can't buy a gun because he's not a citizen, so he ends up with a bear. Let's just say that these two acquisitions - ice cream truck and bear - set up a very funny moment. But as I said, it's conventional comic writing, and all in all, not nearly as funny as the scene involving a cougar in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

In many other scenes, I was more uncomfortable than amused. Podhoretz says that the movie "skewers" everybody. Not so. I've already mentioned several folks in the movie who are not skewered, and there are many more. Borat is given the chance to sing our national anthem at a rodeo, but he sings the melody of the Star Spangled Banner to the words of the (imaginary) anthem of Kazakhstan, which go something like this:

Kazakhstan is the greatest
nation on the earth.
All other nations
are governed by girls.

He goes on to talk about the superiority of Kazakhstan in the area of potassium production. The audience did not find his rendition of their national anthem amusing, and I felt the same way about the scene.

Another uncomfortable moment comes at a dinner party, where a southern family is trying its best to be hospitable to this strange guy from Kazakhstan. At one point, Borat excuses himself, and after a short while, he returns to the table after a visit to the W.C. with, um, a stool sample. Okay, it's not a sample, it's the whole stool, in a plastic bag. We are, I guess, supposed to think that there are no toilets in Kazakhstan and that he's made it to the southern U.S. without learning how to use one. This is funny, I suppose, because poo-poo is funny, and because Borat's behavior outrageous, and because it's supposed to be funny to see stuffed shirts put on the spot. But the hostess isn't a stuffed shirt, in fact, she reacts with extraordinary composure. Earlier one of the characters at the table says he is "retired." Borat thinks the man said he is a "retard." I was in early high school the last time I heard a retard joke told with the earnest expectation someone would find it funny. Ironically, the hostess treats Borat's outrage calmly and patiently, as if he were mentally handicapped. Where's the humor in that? Being outrageous is easy, once you resolve that you are going to do it and you accept the minimal risks. People with no talent at all do outrageous things when they think great money is involved, as on the television show where people would eat cockroaches without ketchup. I felt a little sorry for the dinner guests, as I did for a handful of people who tried to deal with Borat in good faith. They were victims of practical joking identical in nature to that of the the show Candid Camera from fifty years ago, except that the setups in Candid Camera were less gross.

Finally, there are scenes in which real people (well, I'm given to believe that they are real people) are caught saying things that they probably would not have said on camera had they known the movie was going to become a sensation in America. I have no pity for the frat boys, but I didn't get the joke, either. I think it's hard to tell which is their controlling vice: racism or stupidity. Without exception, the movie picks on easy, safe and hackneyed targets, most of them from the south, which is the route he takes as he drives from New York to Los Angeles.

Which leads me to the most serious criticism I have to level against the film, which is not that it's unoriginal, but that it's dishonest and misleading. The scene at the rodeo, for example, begins with some old dope going along with a few anti-Semitic remarks that Cohen himself makes first. The scene moves directly from the old dope to Borat's singing of the national anthem, with shots of the unamused crowd. My point isn't to defend the old dope, it's to criticize Cohen for the satirical argument implied in the editing of this scene. Introducing the rodeo the way he does, Cohen clearly implies two things: first, that the old dope is one of that crowd, and therefore they must all be racist, Jew-hating rednecks. Never mind that the president of a real country (Iran) has called publicly for Israel to be wiped off the map. The greatest threat to Jews today came from the rodeo-loving, redneck south? Give me a break.

John Podhoretz, whose review I mentioned at the start of this post, compares the wrestling scene in Borat favorably with the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' classic, A Night at the Opera:

The genius of Borat is that it works on you in all sorts of different ways. In one sense, it's a raunchy comedy in the tradition of Animal House whose highlight is a crazed and enraged wrestling match between Borat and his obese producer. They wrestle in a hotel room, then in the hallway, then in the elevator, then through the lobby and into a ballroom where an actual, real-world convention is having its annual dinner. The wrestling is wild, violent, cartoonish--and both men are naked. The sequence is a classic piece of slapstick--as indelible in its way as the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera 70 years ago.

If I may be permitted to quibble, they don't wrestle in the elevator. They get on the elevator and then stand there, naked and awkward among the other passengers, until they get to the ground floor. That moment of restraint is perhaps the funniest part of this scene. But forget that. What I want to get to is the unfortunate comparison of this scene with the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. As it happens, quite by accident, I had watched A Night at the Opera with my family just a few hours before going to the theater to see Borat. That might have something to do with my lukewarm estimate of the new movie. The stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers movie can be compared to the wrestling scene only by someone who's momentarily lost his mind. The stateroom scene starts out funny and builds steadily, joke after joke, not letting you catch your breath before making you laugh again, until Margaret Dumont opens the door of Groucho's room and what seem like a couple dozen people spill out like a tidal wave of clowns. The naked wrestling scene in Borat starts out not funny but gross (with Borat's producer getting caught masturbating while looking at a picture of Borat's ideal woman, Pamela Anderson), and goes downhill from there. I reckon I've watched Night at the Opera - and thus the stateroom scene - twenty or thirty times. Even so, I laughed myself silly when I saw it again last night. I can't imagine finding the wrestling scene in Borat funny twice.

The funny thing is the way people who are normally pretty sober lost their minds about this movie. I am tempted to try to list all the films I can think of that were funnier than Borat, but it would be a long list. I'll mention only one movie that is both recent and, in a way, in the same vein as Borat. Team America: World Police was funnier, grosser, and more creative than Borat, and more daring in its satire. Borat picks on evangelicals, rednecks, and luckless folks in a small eastern village who have no means of recourse, and it doesn't attack so much as ambush them. Team America involves a full-front assault on Hollywood, Broadway and the cultural elites in Europe.

I was excited about Borat because of the skits I saw excerpted on YouTube. Borat could have been one of the four or five funniest characters in the history of Saturday Night Live. But this is not the first skit character in history whose transition to the big screen produces a movie that is less than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What to buy: compact superzoom or dslr?

Superzoom or DSLR?

Should I buy a digital single-lens reflex (dslr) camera or a high-end point and shoot camera? I ask the question for myself, but you may be asking the same question. I speak as a moderately serious hobbyist, which is to say, I am emphatically not a professional photographer. I want to add further that this essay has a heavy undertow of special pleading. I have already made my decision and answered in favor of the non-dslr (specifically, the Canon PowerShot Pro Series S3 IS). Although I have years of desultory experience with film slr cameras in the past, I do not now own, nor have I ever owned, a digital slr. But I have done my research and I share here what I have learned and think to be true.

What's a "moderately serious hobbyist"?

This essay is addressed to moderately serious hobbyists, folks who not only enjoy taking photos, but moreover, want to take better ones and are willing to spend not just money, but time and effort learning. Now, if you are a really serious hobbyist, then go away; you will have your own opinions on these matters and will only want to argue with me. For those of us who are only moderately serious, photography is a keen interest rather than a passion. The moderately serious hobbyist may aspire to have a photograph bought and/or published (I've had both honors), but moderately serious hobbyists do not think of quitting their day jobs and becoming professional photographers. And more to the central point of this essay, moderately serious hobbyists, for the most part, are on tighter budgets than very serious hobbyists. There are exceptions, of course. Some people just have lots of money to spend on their toys.

Now some people are not hobbyists at all; some people are not "serious" in the way I'm using the term. If you are a professional photographer, you will almost certainly need the advantages of the dslr and you will find a way to pay for them. You may also want a compact camera for carrying around, but for you, this would be a second camera, so you don't face the either-or choice this article discusses, and thus I am not talking to you. On the other hand, if you are mainly a birthday-party snapshot taker, well, there is nothing at all wrong with that, and in fact, you are really in luck, because you have better cameras available to you cheaply than have ever been available before, and also because you certainly do not need a dslr. You don't need to read further, either.

"Point and shoot"?

Before I get to dslrs, let me say a word about the alternatives. These are often called "point and shoot" and cameras. I dislike the term, not just because the disparagement implied in the term is no longer justified, but even more because the literal meaning of the words "point and shoot" is simply inappropriate. For one thing, you can pick up a dslr and point and shoot and I suspect many amateurs do. But my feeling is that, if you just want to point and shoot, you shouldn't spend $1000 or even $400. Buy a mainstream consumer-level compact camera for about $150. In my view, if you're planning to spend three times that much for a high-end non-dslr camera like the Canon PowerShot S3 IS or the Panasonic Lumix FZ7, you should be aware that these cameras come with nearly as many technical options and controls as more expensive dslr cameras, and if you buy one of these excellent non-dslr cameras, you owe it to yourself and to the camera to learn how to make use of those options. The fact is, the non-dslr cameras are not appreciably easier to use than dslr cameras are. In fact, the opposite may be the case. So I want to frame the contrast as between dslr cameras and cameras that I will simply call high-end non-dslrs. Rob Sheppard, in his Digital Zoom Camera Handbook (2005), calls the non-dslrs "compact cameras." I can go with that term, too.

I want to add one more small point about the cameras I'm putting up against the dslr. I'm thinking mainly of a class of advanced compacts usually called superzooms or megazooms. These include the Canon PowerShot S3 IS and the Panasonic Lumix LZ7. The superzoom is distinguished by the presence of a built-in moderately high-power optical zoom lens, usually 10x or 12x. The 12x zoom on a PowerShot S3 is said to be the equivalent of a 432mm zoom lens for a conventional slr - in other words, a pretty powerful lens for non-professional photographers to have at their disposal. And if that's not enough for you, there are converter lenses available that will take that 12x image and multiply it by a factor of 1.5, or 1.7 (a lens from Sony), or 2.2 (the Raynox DC2020). Canon's 1.5x converter lens for the S3 gives the user the 35mm equivalent of a focal length of 648mm and the results are excellent. But it's not just about the telephoto range; the cameras I'm talking about also have truly outstanding macro and super-macro capabilities. So the superzoom offers, in one compact camera, the versatility of a full dslr kit - that is, a dslr with several different lenses. I'm focusing on the superzooms because the dilemma is heightened when the user (like me) wants maximum versatility. The Canon PowerShot G7 is a 10 megapixel advanced compact camera that has a great number of features in common with the PowerShot S3 IS - but the G7 costs more than the S3, and the G7 does not have a 12x zoom. If you don't care about the zoom, you might very well ask yourself whether you should get a G7 or a dslr, but in my opinion, if you're choosing between a G7 and a dslr, the advantages are starting to break in favor of the dslr, which, without additional lenses, is closer in price and capabilities to the G7 than it is to the superzoom S3. In short, if I didn't care about the zoom lens so much, there's a good chance I'd have bought a dslr already.

What is so special about dslr cameras?

Which brings us inevitably to the questions, what is a dslr? and what makes it special or different? A dslr is a digital camera that is designed on the same optical principles as the old-fashioned film slr or "single lens reflex" camera. The key advantage of the original slr was that you actually looked through the lens when you composed your shot; in other cameras of the time, you generally looked through some sort of rangefinder or a second lens. Looking at the subject through the camera's lens eliminated the problem of parallax, that is, the slight difference in perspective between what the lens down here sees and what your eye sees through a viewfinder up here, about three inches away from the lens. Parallax isn't a huge problem if you're photographing sunsets or seascapes, but it can be when you're shooting candids up close. The film slr also made focusing and eventually metering more precise and more intuitive or natural. The digital slr works the same way: what you see in the viewfinder is precisely what you will capture when you click the shutter. The fact that, with the original slrs, you used the camera while facing your subject, made them especially good choices for quick shooting, news photography and candids. The slr was, in fact, the original point and shoot camera.

But forget about all that. We don't care about the original slr, we're talking about the digital slr. And the truth is, the slr qualities of the dslr are not the qualities that matter the most. These days, the dslr differs from the high-end point and shoot cameras in a number of simple, practical ways that have little to do with the way that the optics work - at least down here in the under-$1000 market. What distinguishes dslrs in this market from the high-end compact cameras? Lots of things, but three matter to the moderately serious hobbyist the most: lenses, size and price.


The single most compelling distinction of dslr cameras today is that dslrs allow you to purchase and use a very wide range of lenses. They allow this because dslrs have lens mounts that have been standardized for decades. Many dslr cameras (like the Pentax K110D) will actually take lenses that were made decades ago, in other words, lenses you might already own, if you used to take pictures with a conventional slr camera. If you already have a collection of lenses that can be used with a modern dslr, well, you have a strong incentive to buy a dslr now. Even if you do not, if you spend $600 today on a Nikon D50 with a built-in lens, and you then spend a couple hundred dollars more for an additional lens or two, you may throw away the body of the D50 in a year or two, but the lenses you have now will work with the dslr you upgrade to in a couple of years, in other words, next time you buy, you'll be looking a buying just the camera body without the lens. When you are only spending a couple hundred dollars for a lens, this may not be such a big deal. But a major reason to get into dslr photography is so that you can start investing in very good (expensive) lenses with the idea that you're amortizing the cost of the lens over the next ten or twenty years. If you buy a cheap dslr now and a couple of pretty good (cheap) lenses, you may find yourself wanting in a year or two to upgrade everything, not just the camera body.

In the world of non-dslr cameras, on the other hand, there is always a built-in lens. (For that reason, these are sometimes called fixed-lens cameras.) And while many of the superzoom cameras (certainly the Canon S3) accept add-ons in the form of converter lenses, there are no widely-shared standard lens mounts, which means that your options are severely limited and your lens purchase cannot be regarded as an investment. I am happy that the Canon converter lenses I bought for my S2 work just as well with my S3, but as far as I know, the Canon converter lenses for the S2 and S3 do not work with any non-Canon cameras, and I have no guarantee that they will even work with the S4, if such a camera is released, or any other advanced compact camera I might buy in the future. And when in the future I do move up to a dslr, well, none of my current equipment moves with me. As a practical matter, this means I'm less willing to spend a lot on add-on lenses, because I am not sure I will be able to use them for more than a couple of years. And my reluctance to spend much for lenses translates into a reluctance on the part of manufacturers to develop a wide range of high quality, expensive add-on lenses for non-dslr cameras. Better lenses mean sharper, clearer pictures - other things being equal.

Nevertheless, I hasten to add that it does not appear to be true that lenses for dslr cameras are simply better, say, because they are bigger. Advanced compact cameras now have very good lenses indeed, due to advances in lens-making technology, and these lenses are capable of taking very good pictures. My brother-in-law, who is an outstanding amateur landscape photographer, put it nicely: "I think people say that dslr's have better lenses, but I expect they mean that better lenses are available for a dslr, but at an exorbitant price."

Size (and its implications)

Which brings us to size. Go to a store where they sell both types of cameras (say, Circuit City or Best Buy) and you can identify the dslrs from 50 feet away, because they are much bigger. Size matters, although it's not an unqualified plus.

The dslr can't be much smaller than it is and accommodate all those conventional lenses. And if you start with the lenses as a given, well, the next thing you know, you've got to make the CCD or sensor in the dslr bigger than the one in the advanced compact, in order for the conventional lenses to produce images at the appropriate size. Here's how Rob Sheppard puts it, just after he has noted that advanced compact cameras (non-dslrs) have very small sensors:

Lenses only need to produce an image on that small area, so they don't need to be as physically large [as the lenses used in traditional 35mm cameras]. The smaller, the sensor, the smaller the lens needs to be. As lenses decrease in size, focusing mounts and other parts of the lens structure diminish physically as well.

So when we're asking the chicken vs egg question about dslrs - which came first, the larger sensor or the lenses - the answer is clearly, the lenses. You cannot stick a lens designed for a conventional 35mm lens on a compact digital camera. Dslrs are physically bigger because they have to be to accommodate those lenses, and once the lenses are in there, you've got to have the bigger CCD. Now, there may be an inherent advantage to a bigger CCD, especially as the number of megapixels gets larger. Now, there are already 10 megapixel cameras (like the Canon G7) available for consumers; but most experts believe this is overkill. Remember, the Nikon D50 entry-level dslr is only a 6 megapixel camera. Unless you're printing posters of your photographs, 6 megapixels is a perfectly reasonable resolution for hobbyists.

Is the dslr's bigger camera body better than small body of the consumer point and shoot or the medium-sized body of the superzoom? Depends. For many ordinary folks, the small size of the lower-priced point and shoot cameras is a plus, because they want to put the camera in their pocket or their purse. For other users, the larger size of the dslr or even the advanced compact cameras like the superzoom is an advantage, as it provides a better grip, support for add-on lenses, and more controls on the back. Because the Nikon D50 is so much bigger than the Canon S3, the Nikon can leave some space empty on the back of the camera for your thumb and the ball of your hand to rest. The back of the Canon S3, on the other hand, is crowded with buttons, and there's a chance that you'll hit one of them by accident. But these differences, too, seem somewhat accidental. The Canon S3's form factor (like every other aspect of the camera) is a nice compromise: it's big enough to have a nice feel in hand, but small enough to carry with you almost everywhere - just not in your pocket! If you could get a lens for the compact camera that was just as powerful as a lens for a dslr but half the size, why would you not? The question is hypothetical, of course. I cannot get the equivalent of a 3000mm lens for my Canon S3. But I ask the question in order to make the point that size, in itself, is not necessarily an advantage. The original slr swept the field in part because it was smaller than the large-format cameras that were common before it. The large-format cameras had their advantages and continue to this day to be used for certain kinds of photography. But the relatively compact slr was a nice compromise between size and image quality. The same can now be said of the advanced compact cameras.

There's one final point to make about size, or rather, about the relationship of size to lenses and the kinds of pictures you can take. The smaller lenses found in advanced compact cameras have fewer aperture choices and shorter focal lengths compared to dslr lenses taking the same shot. The PowerShot S3 IS has a widest f-stop of f/2.8 and a smallest f-stop of f/8. Because of these technical limitations, the compact cameras have, by default, much greater depth of field than digital slrs. This can be a good thing. In snapshots, we often want maximum depth of field, so that everybody in the picture is in focus. It's easier with a dslr to go wrong here than with a compact camera, one of the things that slr photographers work hard at is getting greater depth of field. On the compact camera, however, as you get better at taking photos, you will have the opposite problem, that is, you'll find yourself working hard to restrict depth of field. Perhaps you want to focus on Grandmother as she blows out the candles on her cake, and you want everybody standing behind her to be a bit blurry. That's much harder to achieve with a compact camera. One way to increase the depth of field is to step away from the subject and increase the focal length, by using the camera's built-in zoom. But moving away from the subject and shooting with the zoom may be hard to do if you are shooting in your dining room.

Buying a dslr

At the present time, the single biggest difference between dslr cameras and the advanced compacts as consumer products is price. This is a bit like saying that the main difference between a Jaguar and a Honda is price. The Honda will get you where you are going, too, but there has to be a reason people keep buying Jaguars. I hasten to add that, when I speak of the price of the digital slr, I do not mean the base price of the body plus a basic 18-55mm lens; I mean rather the price you would have to pay to come close to matching the overall capabilities of the superzoom, both in terms of image quality and in terms of the various kinds of photos you can take.

The current rock-bottom price to break into the dslr game with a new camera seems to be about $600 - although if you catch a bargain online, you can pay less than that. For this amount, you will get you a Nikon D50 (if you find a bargain) or a Pentax K110D - both excellent cameras, to judge by the reviews. But for that price, you get one lens, and it's a very basic, standard purpose mid-range lens (probably 18-55mm), good for taking standard shots, but not a lens you'll be able to use to shoot wildlife or across-the-street candids. And for this price, you may not get a flash, optical image stabilization, macro capability. And you certainly won't get video, as this is simply not a capability of dslr cameras.

Some of these defects are either less important than they seem or easily remedied. If the dslr you buy has only a hot-shoe for a flash attachment, well, those attachments aren't expensive and you can shoot without until you can afford one; but it does add to the overall cost. I don't honestly care much about video, either, and would be happy to sacrifice that capability in order to get a better camera for still photography.

The lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) in the lowest-priced dslrs is more problematic. It would not keep me from buying either the Nikon or the Pentax, but I think I'd miss it. You can get OIS in the Pentax model K100D for $100 more than the K110D, but you won't need it initially. Image stabilization isn't a big deal if you're shooting in good light and close up. You need it mainly when the light is bad or, especially, when you're using a high-power zoom, which these cameras don't come with. The excellent OIS in the Canon PowerShot S3 IS makes it possible for me to use the 12x zoom while holding the camera in my hands, provided I can manage to stand still and shoot with a fast shutter. Nikon's lack of built-in OIS means that, if I wanted it, I'd have to pay considerably more for lenses that have this feature. For this reason, if I were going to buy a dslr today, I think I'd probably buy the Pentax K100D. That in-camera IS will make it possible for me to buy high-quality used lenses at reasonable prices and have the benefit of image stabilization with all of them. On the other hand, the more I use my camera, the more clearly I see that a good tripod is a photographer's most valuable accessory.

So, $600 gets you equipment with which you can step outside on a nice day and take very nice photos. I should add that, with this camera, you will be able to take a range of shots - not just snapshots from 8 ft away, but vacation pictures including beautiful landscapes. You can even expect to take decent action shots, say, your daughter playing volleyball. Here the dslr's advantage in ISO, aperture and shutter speed will to some extent offset the fact that you don't have a zoom lens. However, the quality of those shots will not be noticeably (perhaps not even technically) superior to the same shots taken by a competent photographer using an advanced compact camera.

Buying a superzoom

By contrast, standard street price today (11/13/06) for a Canon PowerShot S3 IS is about $400, and you can get it for less if you search for a bargain online. And consider what you get. The basic S3, right out of the box, gives you many very good features, including

- a good 12x zoom
- image stabilization (useful when you use that zoom)
- outstanding macro and super-macro capabilities
- excellent burst mode (continuous shooting)
- high-quality stereo video at 30fps (or even 60fps, for a smaller image)
- panorama mode, useful at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere
- a flexible LCD that can be pulled out and twisted

In addition to the above excellences, the S3 can take lovely snapshots, has a decent built-in flash, and, of course, has many many modes, including shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, and a variety of creative modes. In a word, the camera is versatile. And all of this versatility costs $200 less than the basic, much less versatile dslr. To make things even better, you could take the $200 you saved and buy the Canon converter lenses, so that you have the ability to take better wide-angle shots (buildings from across the street), or to zoom in tight from farther away when shooting candids or nature shots. But let's forget about the add-ons available and focus just on what you get out of the box. The 12x zoom lens built into the S3 is said to be the functional equivalent of a 432mm zoom lens on an slr. This comes as part of what you get for $400. By contrast, if I bought the Nikon D50 for $600, the next thing I'd really want would be this 80-400mm zoom lens from Tokina. It's selling today for $640 - just the lens - at, and remember, Amazon's prices are usually among the lowest you can find. My impression is that it's possible to get a 400mm lens for an slr for less money than that, but even if you find one for about $200, you're paying, oh, $800 to get a dslr kit that is still less versatile than the PowerShot S3 that costs half as much - and it does not take better-quality pictures.

And versatility isn't everything. The convenience of the high-end non-dslr can't be matched in a dslr, not at any price. The convenience of the Canon S3 comes from the fact that all these features are built into one relatively compact body. Grab the thing and go. To take good pictures, you will most definitely need to know how to use your camera. But that's true of the dslr as well as the compact superzoom. The more you carry you camera around, the more you shoot, and the more you shoot, the better you get (assuming you're trying hard and paying attention). You won't need to carry around a separate lens bag and change lenses if you see a nice shot that you cannot get close to.

You can't future-proof your purchase

You can't future-proof your purchase, at least not on a tight budget. I suppose that, if you were to spend $10,000 on dslr equipment and lenses, you would be getting stuff you really could use for the next decade or two, stuff that would be reasonably future-proofed. But a $600 dslr is only slightly less likely to be obsolete next year than the $400 compact camera. For example, both of the entry-level dslr cameras I'm talking about take 6 megapixel images. There are much higher-res non-dslr cameras available today (like the 10 megapixel Canon G7). Now, the megapixel count has more to do with selling cameras to naive consumers than with the image quality of the camera's output. But all things being equal, I would like to have more information about every shot rather than less. If in two years, most low-cost consumer cameras have 10 megapixel sensors, well, I'm going to feel bad about my crappy Pentax K110D or Nikon D50 with its measly 6 megapixel resolution. The thought that my daughter's Christmas camera might take a better shot than my dslr will keep me up at night. I might add that, while the Nikon D50 is the choice available today, there have been leaks that the D40 is coming. It's likely to be a step down from the D50, but if I'm looking to get into dslr photography on the cheap, that might be a better choice than the D50. So, the question isn't just, To dslr or not to dslr? You also have to ask, if you think a dslr is in your future sooner or later, is it sooner, or is it later? Just three years ago, Canon made history by releasing a dslr priced at $1000. I could buy a better camera than that original Canon right this minute on for under $500 (after rebate). That price may not be there by the time you read this article, but you see my point. Quality is going up, prices are staying the same or going down.

Resolving the dilemma

So, open and shut case - the high-end compact superzoom camera gives you much more for much less, right? Well, yes - maybe. If you buy a dslr, you will get some real advantages. For one thing, the sooner you get into the dslr world, the sooner you start spending money on lenses that you can keep for a very long time. The autofocus in dslrs is supposed to be better, generally, than the autofocus in compact cameras, especially in certain difficult-shooting conditions, like inside a gymnasium. The dslr is likely to support higher ISO settings (1600 or 3200, compared to 800 for the PowerShot S3). The dslr probably has smaller aperture settings (f/16 or higher) and a slightly faster maximum shutter speed (1/4000 for the Nikon D50 vs 1/3200 for the PowerShot S3). The dslr probably takes RAW format pictures. RAW format doesn't make the pictures better, but it does give you more of a chance of saving a shot that was well framed but badly exposed.

But that's not the end of the story, either. You now have to ask whether the superiority of the dslr is significant enough to you for you to abandon the versatility, convenience and price advantage of the non-dslr. This is a question only you can answer. But I'm tempted to say that, if you are unsure, then the answer is no, the superiority of the dslr is not significant enough to you for you to buy into that market today. I want to emphasize that the high-end non-dslr camera is not a toy. Take a look at this web site, which compares pictures taken with a $400 PowerShot S3 and a $5000 Canon 5D dslr.

The bottom line is that the dslr is a costly purchase. Don't be fooled by the $600 price tag. That's like being told that there are dishes on the menu at the gourmet restaurant near downtown that are under $30. Don't think it means you can take your date there and get out for $60! The $30 just buys the entree. Salad, wine, dessert, coffee and possibly even bread will cost extra. If you get out for less than $100, it's because you worried all through dinner about the budget, and how much fun is that? And remember also, if you're on a tight budget, when you switch to a dslr, there's a huge opportunity cost. While you're saving up to buy a decent zoom lens next year, you are missing shots that you simply can't take with the dslr that you could have taken with the superzoom. I could not have taken this picture of a female cardinal, standing eight or ten feet from the bird, without the S3's 12x built-in zoom. And I couldn't have taken these pictures of a great egret fishing without using the S3's zoom + the Canon 1.5x teleconverter lens. True, once I move into the dslr world, I can start to look forward to the day when I can afford a telephoto lens that is much more powerful, and much sharper, than the converter lenses I have for my S3. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and, to me, anyway, a pretty good bird picture today is worth two really good bird pictures at some indefinite point in the future.

Let's be unreasonable!

There is an intangible here: technolust. Notwithstanding the compelling logic of the argument above, I'm stuck with the fact that the idea of owning a dslr simply has more sex appeal than the idea of owning a camera that I know somebody thinks is for hobbyists. Never mind that I am a hobbyist. Technolust is not rational!

I've been through these arguments again and again with myself. When I began, I certainly believed that digital slr cameras were simply and obviously better, in the same way that a $40 bottle of wine with a nice label is simply and obviously better than a $20 bottle of wine, except that I couldn't afford $40 bottles of wine and didn't get interested in the pretty label until the price dropped closer to $30. I know now that this is an ignorant prejudice. Nevertheless, I confess without hesitation that, if I had $1000 lying around handy, I'd run out tomorrow morning to buy one of the dslrs I've been talking about and an extra lens or two. It would be my way of proving to myself and the world that I'm serious about my hobby.


Perhaps fortunately, I don't have $1000 lying about, at least not handy. Cost is a major factor in my decision, so I have to try to be rational. If the compact superzoom is a compromise, I know that at least it's a very good compromise, because within the $600 to $1200 price range, the quality of my photos has more to do with my skill as a photographer than with the quality of the camera. A lousy camera might keep me from ever taking a good picture, but the advanced compact cameras I've been talking about are not lousy, they are, in fact, good. And now that I've got good equipment, spending more money on great equipment is not going to make me a better photographer. I've read it over and over again, and I believe that it is true: If you are taking mediocre pictures with a decent compact camera, you're going to take mediocre pictures with a dslr. I know it smacks of sour grapes, but until I can afford a dslr, I am taking comfort in the well-known Ken Rockwell article, "The camera does not matter."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Coming Zune. No, wait a minute. It's here.

As far as I can tell, Microsoft's Zune music player is creating no splash at all. PC Magazine's web site doesn't mention the product at all on its front page today. PC World gives it a positive review, but the upshot of the review is signaled in the title: "Microsoft's Zune Won't Make You Dump Your iPod." Ouch. John Dvorak agrees, the machine is doomed to fail.

I'm sure somebody out there, perhaps writing for the Dubuque Telegraph, thinks it's an iPod killer, but I haven't been able to find anything by anybody that exhibits even a little bit of excitement. We're a month and a half from Christmas, and I am pretty sure nobody lined up last night to be the first on their block to get a Zune.

The Zune might be well-made. Everybody does say that the display is nice. But in photos, the overall design makes it look to me like the Soviet entry in the MP3 player wars. I can't believe somebody thought brown was a good idea.

Even the name is goofy. I guess "Splurd" was already trademarked by somebody. "iPod" is meaningful and hip. But what the heck does "Zune" mean? Or forget meaning, what does Zune make you think of? I suppose it's supposed to make you think "tune," but I figured that out only after thinking about it a bit. Or maybe "zoom" + "tune". They didn't even spell it right. "Zoon" would have been hipper.

What are these people thinking? Don't they like, know any kids under 25 that they could ask for help on stuff like this? I'm actually feeling sorry for Microsoft.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

How to steal a (digital) election

For those who have no idea of how the high-tech voting process can be hacked, there is an excellent article over at Ars Technica, perhaps the best computer site on the Internet. Actually, it's a great article even if you do have an idea how this would be done.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Keep Democracy low tech!

In a blog entry over two years ago, I said that only two kinds of people are in favor of electronic or computerized voting machines: people who are selling electronic or computerized voting machines; and people who know nothing about computers. I was wrong. There are three types of people who favor these devices: the two I just mentioned, and a third group - people who don't understand democracy.

Computerized voting machines are not inherently safer than traditional paper ballots, any more than your digital photo collection is safer than the old photos you've got in boxes. Nor are computerized voting machines inherently more secure. The old folks who volunteer as poll workers may not understand what it would take to commit fraud with computers, but that hardly means it's not possible, and poll workers do understand that. Voters do, too.

And that is the nub of the problem. Ordinary voters know that they do not know how computerized voting works, how secure it is, and so on. What voters cannot know, they cannot trust, and if voters cannot and do not trust the voting process - trust it not in their brains but in their bones - then our democracy is in deep trouble.

If you have ever volunteered to be a poll worker in an election, you probably have a pretty decent idea what would be involved in committing fraud with the ballots. You know that it's not impossible, but it's not easy - and it would be pretty tricky to keep your fraud a secret. You know that it's possible to audit the ballots - counting actual ballots from the box and comparing the count to the number of signatures in the poll register that voters sign. Even blind voters can put their hands on these things and feel them, and normal sighted voters can see all this with their own eyes. But computerized voting machines make the entire process invisible. You click a button for candidate X and trust that it counts as 1 vote, but there's no obvious way for you to know.

There's nothing that can be done about this. Making the machines "more secure" the way I try to make my client's databases more secure is not the answer. It is not enough for the county precinct chairman - or rather, the IT advisors to the county precinct chairmen - to trust the machines. That's almost irrelevant, like the question of whether the referees thought the game was called fairly or not. What matters is whether the voters trust the machines, and there is no way they ever can or will. Machines may provide printed receipts, but these receipts are almost comical. For the receipts to be trustworthy, you'd have to expect voters to review the receipt before committing or submitting their selections. After the voter leaves the polling place, the receipt is worthless, unless, of course, we eliminate anonymous voting and start tying individual ballot records in the voting database to known voters. If you're going to ask voters to review a printed ballot prior to clicking the "Submit Ballot" button, why not skip the expensive middleman and just give the voter a paper ballot to start with?

The only thing that computerized voting machines have going for them is speed. But it is far more important that elections be fair and trustworthy than that the poll results be posted in time for the ten o'clock news the same day. It would do our democracy some good, in fact, for people to be told to sit and wait for a day to find out who won.

No election is ever perfect. But voters trust traditional ballots because they know that large scale accidents are unlikely. But even computer-savvy voters can't know this about computerized voting machines. Posted by Picasa

What about your albums?

When you use a photo management program like Picasa or iPhoto or Photoshop Elements, there are basically three kinds of things you can do. First, you can edit the photo files themselves, for example, by cropping the image or fixing the contrast or color. Second, you can add "metadata" to the images, for example, captions and keywords. Third, you can organize your images into sets or groupings usually called albums. Photo management programs do many other things - make it easy for you to print pictures, upload images to a web site or email pictures to your friends, etc. But these three tasks - editing, captioning, and grouping - are the basic file management features shared by all of these programs.

Addendum: Perhaps I shouldn't call these "file management" features, as that suggests the kind of thing you normally do in your computer's desktop file management application, that is, the Windows Explorer or the Mac OS Finder. Perhaps I should call these "photo collection management" features.

In my last post, I noted that your image file edits get saved right in the files themselves. Ditto for the text captions and keywords, which, in Picasa at least, are saved as IPTC data inside the photo file. So, if you switch from one photo management program to another, you surely will not lose the edits to the picture itself and may not lose your captions and keywords.

You will, however, almost certainly lose your album groupings. An album is not a collection of files: that's what a folder is. An album a collection of file references, that is, of image references stored in the program's proprietary database. It's because albums consist only of file references that it's easy to put the same image in more than one album, without duplicating the image file. The point is that the information about these groupings is stored by each program in a proprietary database, that is, in a special file that can only be read by the program that created it. Now, if you spend tons of time grouping your images into albums, then you have an additional incentive to stick with one program through thick or thin. In fact, you don't have to change programs to lose your albums. With Picasa, at least, you will lose your album groupings if you move folders around, from one computer to another, from one hard disk to another, or even simply moving them around on the same hard disk. That's why it's best to import your photos into folders and then do all subsequent file management tasks inside Picasa. (If you're switching computers, you can preserve your albums by creating a special Picasa backup, using the backup command inside Picasa. When you copy the backup to your new computer, all your Picasa data - including album groupings - will be preserved.)

My solution to this problem is to create albums online rather than in my desktop software. The photos I have uploaded to Flickr and grouped as "sets" (albums) are actually stored on Flickr's servers and are thus indepenent of the different programs I used to upload those images originally. When I switched from iPhoto on the Mac to Picasa on the PC, it made no difference whatsoever to my photo sets on But this is an imperfect solution at best. I am one of Flickr's early subscribers and I have a lot of photos stored there; but lately I've been using Google's Picasa Web Albums. What happens if I want to move my Flickr pictures over to Picasa Web Album's? I lose the Flickr set organization, plus any comments that were added to pictures in Flickr.

This is not a problem unique to photographs. It's a problem found in nearly all computer applications. will read your Microsoft Word documents (meaning you can abandon Word for OO.o fairly safely), but Word won't open OpenOffice documents (meaning you can't change your mind and switch back). Solution there? Don't use OO.o's native file format - always save your files as RTF, which is as close to a universal standard as word processing applications have. Want to abandon Outlook and starting doing email in Thunderbird? You're in luck: Thunderbird knows how to import your Outlook mail store. Want to move from Thunderbird to Outlook? You're out of luck. Outlook can import mbox files, which in theory are a common standard for email; but in practice, moving your messages from Thunderbird into Outlook is going to be a nightmare.

The solution to all of these programs is open, shared file standards. Every computer text processing program can open and read plain (ASCII) text files, but until every word processor stores document structures as xml, you're going to have to worry about whether you can read your old files when you move to a new program. Every photo management program and every computer operating system recognizes JPG and JPEG files now; PNG, TIF, and GIF formats are also pretty universally supported. But until all metadata about photos - including album groupings - is stored in xml, then moving from one program to another is going to involve not only pain but also loss.

Best solution? Keep printing out pictures. That way, you can enjoy them any time and you don't even need a computer.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Few quick addenda to my earlier post entitled "Organizing those photos!"

First, Adobe Photoshop Elements 5 is available for purchase now, at least for Windows. As far as I can tell, the latest version for Mac OS X is still 4. My recollection is that version 4 for the Mac appeared a little after 4 for Windows, so I would assume that 5 for Mac will follow soon.

An old academic friend who's a long-time Mac user tells me that iPhoto 6 gives you the option of using your own folder hierarchy, as Picasa has always done. That's good news. Looking at Apple's web site, I see that it is possible to import video into iPhoto, but I can't tell if you can view the video in iPhoto. You can view video in Picasa but not edit it.

There's really no contest between Picasa and iPhoto, not because Picasa is clearly superior (it's not) but because you don't really have a choice. If you're running the Mac OS, you've got iPhoto but not Picasa; if you're running Windows (and soon Linux), you've got Picasa but not iPhoto. The real choice is whether to abandon Picasa/iPhoto for Adobe Photoshop Elements. My advice is, look carefully before you leap. iPhoto and Picasa are both very good programs and they're aimed at hobbyist photographers, which means most of us.

A final note or two about your metadata.

I mentioned in the earlier post that moving your photo collection from one program to another - from Picasa or iPhoto to Adobe Photoshop Elements, say - would involve the loss of captions and keywords that you'd associated with individual pictures using the program you worked with first. From what I can tell at the moment, that is still likely to be the case, but you might not actually lose everything and there seems to be some hope for the future. At least some text info about images (including captions and keywords) is stored by Picasa 2.5 as IPTC data, right inside the image file. This means that you can move an image from Picasa on one computer to another computer and possibly another program (one that can read IPTC data) and captions and keywords will not be lost. You can confirm this by giving a photo a caption and/or keyword in Picasa, closing Picasa, and then viewing the image's IPTC data in a utility such as Exifer. The caption is there. Adobe is using its own modified xml-based standard called XMP. My impression is that there is still no consensus on how to handle the metadata, but it appears that the industry is groping its way towards some sort of shared standard, which would be a big help. To read a little more about IPTC, XMP and programs that support them, click here or here or here.

I want to mention finally that moving photos around is easy in Picasa. As I said, Picasa stores captions and keywords inside the file itself; so that import info goes wherever the file goes. Picasa stores edits to the image itself (like crops and color adjustments) as text data in its Picasa.ini file inside each folder. The text data gives Picasa the info it needs to reproduce the edits; you can view the .ini file in Notepad and see it for yourself. Anyway, what it all means is that, if you're using Picasa, it's best to import photos to the computer hard disk into folders named by date of import, then after import from your camera, do everything else in Picasa. If you copy a folder from one computer to another, Picasa on the other computer will be able to see and reproduce all the edits, so long as the Picasa.ini file is available. I was able to move my entire photo collection from one computer to another on which I had just installed Picasa 2.5 simply by unplugging the external hard drive on which I have the collection stored and plugging it into the second computer. All edits and captions were available, which demonstrates that no crucial information is stored in a hidden database somewhere on the C: drive of the computer.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Organizing those photos!

I'm struggling once again with the problem of how to organize my growing photo collection and you might be, too. There are at least two questions here. First, what software (if any) to use, and second, what do to with that software. I've used various photo management apps over the years. I'm going to focus on just three: iPhoto 5, Picasa 2.5 and Adobe Photoshop Elements 4. (I have not used iPhoto 6, but as far as I can tell, it's improvements over iPhoto 5 don't materially affect what I'm saying here.) These are consumer apps, marketed to non-professional photographers. In other words, they are all aimed right at me and my needs. This article summarizes my experience with these very popular applications.

Software: Photoshop Elements 4

Photoshop Elements 4 is undoubtedly the most powerful and feature-laden of this little group that I have worked with. Photoshop Elements has some whiz-bang features, such as face recognition. If you're obsessive about labeling and organizing your images but don't need a pro tool like Aperture from Apple, well, you will like Photoshop Elements. It's organizational tools are outstanding - labels, tags, the ability to "stack" images. As for editing, the editing tools in Photoshop Elements are a substantial subset of Photoshop's tools, in other words, there's very little you cannot do in Photoshop Elements, if you know how. It's the knowing how that's tricky. Unless you're already an ace with Photoshop, Photoshop Elements is hard to learn and impossible to learn on your own; you'll need a book or a course and plenty of time to practice. I am more interested in wasting my time taking pictures than in wasting my time futzing around with pictures on the computer.

For my purposes, at least, there is another serious problem with Photoshop Elements 4 (and I doubt it will change much with Photoshop Elements 5). Photoshop Elements is primarily a desktop application, that is, it prefers that your pictures stay on your hard disk and that you view them there in Photoshop Elements. But like many amateurs, sharing my photos on the Web is the goal of much of my photography. I take the pictures, move them to the computer, edit them slightly if necessary, select my favorites, then upload them to Picasa Web Albums or Flickr so I can share them with family and friends. This is not a strength of Photoshop Elements. It will create a web album for you - create the html, etc. - and let you upload the album to your own web site, if you have one. But that's so 1990s.

Software: iPhoto and Picasa

Which brings me to Picasa 2.5 (Windows only) and iPhoto 5 (Mac only). My wild guess is that these are the two most widely used photo management apps going today. They have similar feature sets, they are both much easier to use than Photoshop Elements, and they include most of what most amateurs want to do with their pictures. And both are very much aware that you want to put your photos online.

Now there are differences. While iPhoto reorganizes all your images into its own folder hierarchy, Picasa 2 does not. In fact, I like Picasa 2 better for that fact alone. I have moved my photo collection to an external hard drive because it was too rapidly eating up space on my increasingly inadequate 80GB internal drive. Picasa doesn't care where the photos are; iPhoto does (and so, I believe, does Photoshop Elements). I am pretty sure that it's possible to move your iPhoto libraries to somewhere other than your laptop's internal drive, but it's not obvious or easy. And there is no getting around that iPhoto reorganizes your photos into its own labyrinthine folder structure, so that any attempt to get at your photos directly in the Mac OS X Finder is an exercise in frustration.

Another nifty and unique feature in Picasa 2 is the ability to "geo-tag" pictures, that is, to tie them to spots you view in Google Earth. I notice that Adobe Photoshop Elements 5 (not released yet?) will have a similar feature, but Google Earth seems to be the gold standard here and Picasa 2 and Earth work together very nicely.

And Picasa 2 works seamlessly with more online photo-sharing and photo-printing sites than iPhoto. For sharing your pictures online, Picasa Web Albums is both free and an up-and-coming service, while .Mac is not free and seems to be on its deathbed. The other day I clicked on the "order prints" button in Picasa 2. I was shown a dozen different options. I noticed that Walgreen's was one of the options, quickly determined that I could have the pictures sent to the Walgreen's a few blocks from my house. 45 minutes later - I kid you not - I picked up my prints. Not bad. There are plug-ins for iPhoto that make it a snap to upload either to Picasa Web Albums (yes, from iPhoto) or Flickr.

Finally, Picasa itself is free; iPhoto is not.

On the down side, Picasa 2's editing tools are easy because they're limited. I can live without layers (a feature that makes Photoshop and Photoshop so powerful), but one thing I do miss in Picasa is the ability to view both the before and after side-by-side as I edit an image - something that Photoshop Elements does. Picasa does have an "open in editor" command and I suppose I could still use Photoshop Elements just for editing, if I could figure out how to keep it from demanding its own copy of all my photos.

Organizing photos in Picasa 2.5

Some users will also feel that Picasa 2.5's organizational tools are limited. This is certainly not an obvious strength of the program as compared to Photoshop Elements, which if anything offers too many ways to organize photos, or even iPhoto. But Picasa is deceptive. It lets you organize your photos in four different ways.

First, Picasa is aware of the physical organization of photos on your hard disk, and it allows you to further organize those folders into "collections". I put every new import from the camera into its own folder (named "20061104 import" if I were to import photos today), which goes into its own parent folder for the year of the import. But after that, all further organization is done in Picasa. Picasa lists folders in a pane on the right, much like the folder panes used in email programs like Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird. But these folders are given a sort of super-organization into collections. Some of the collections are created by Picasa automatically (like Albums), but it is possible to create new collections. I've played with collections a little, creating collections for my folders by year. But I don't yet see the point of 'em.

Second, in Picasa, I can pick my favorite pictures and give them a star. That's it - star or no star. iPhoto lets you assign 1, 2, 3 or 4 stars (or is it up to 5 stars? I can't remember). If you like agonizing over whether to assign 2 or 3 stars, well, you'll prefer iPhoto. For me, a simple thumbs up or thumbs down is quite adequate. I don't star a photo unless I'm really pleased with it.

Third, Picasa lets you create "albums." Albums used to be called "labels" in Picasa, and I think labels was a more accurate term. Now, an image can be assigned to as many albums as you like, because an album is really just a collection of links to pictures, not a way of reorganizing actual files. So a single photograph with my daughter Catherine in it could be organized into albums named "Catherine," "Family", "Vacations", etc. The problem with this is that you're then likely to end up using albums both synchronically and diachronically, that is, some albums are organized by subject or theme, without respect to date, while you're likely also to want to create albums by date. If you had both labels and albums, you could use the labels for synchronic organization, and albums for display. One solution to this problem is to forget about creating display albums in Picasa and use Picasa Web Albums (or Flickr, or some other online service) for that purpose. This is a reasonable compromise, it's what I do and indeed, I think it's what Picasa expects you to do. There is in Picasa 2.5 a built-in search option that will show you all the photos you have uploaded to the Web. Albums for display - my best pictures from my vacation, etc. - end up online and I share them there. Albums in Picasa, on the other hand, are all defined by subject or theme. Picasa does not have "smart albums" that can basically create themselves, as iPhoto does, but I'm not a big fan of smart albums, so I do not care about this.

The fourth and final way to organize photos in Picasa 2.5 is by keywords. You can assign multiple keywords to a single picture, for example, "Catherine," "vacation," "pets". And you can search for pictures by keywords, using the simple search tool. Unfortunately, when you go to assign keywords to a photograph, you don't get to select keywords from a list, you have to type the keywords in manually. This is a bit more work than selecting from a list, but the bigger problem is that it means you may not use the same keywords all the time when you would like to. You might use "holiday" for a picture when you have used "vacation" for other similar photos. The other problem is that there's no way to find photos by keyword alone. You simply search for a word. If you search for "vacation," Picasa 2.5 shows you pictures that have "vacation" as a keyword but no caption, but also pictures that have the word "vacation" in their caption or even their folder name but no keywords. I must add that I doubt that this is an accident in Picasa 2.5. This is part of Google's general philosophy: it's finding that matters, not organizing.

All in all, my feeling at the moment is that Picasa 2.5 offers the best compromise in the many categories that matter to me. I should say that for me, anyway, the fact that Picasa 2.5 is free is the least of its advantages. I'd be willing to pay money for it. I like it because it allows me to organize my pictures my way, doesn't use its own proprietary library of photos, lets me organize my movies as well as my photos, and it integrates very well with the Picasa Web Albums service that I'm now using to put my photos online.

Don't forget about movies

One of the real strengths of my wonderful camera - the Canon PowerShot S3 IS - is its ability to take high-quality video as well as high-quality still photos. So for me, it's very useful to be able to organize everything imported from the camera using the same software. iPhoto works hand-in-hand with iMovie, and quite well, but I do not think that iPhoto directly handles movies. Picasa 2.5 and Photoshop Elements 4 will allow you to view movies and organize them, although you can't edit video directly in either program. Considering that more and more digital cameras take movies as well as still photos, this seems like something to consider. I don't have experience with Premiere Elements, but I understand that Photoshop Elements works hand-in-hand with Premiere Elements. Something to consider if you're making movies (say, with music) from your photos. Two years ago, my brother-in-law and I collaborated on a movie for my mother-in-law's ninetieth birthday. We got all the pictures into iPhoto (original digital photos and scans of pictures going back 100 years), selected a couple hundred pictures from the 1000 or so we started with, moved everything into iMovie, where I created the movie with music, transitions, titles, etc. It really worked out fantastic. I confess that if I were going to do that today in Windows XP, I'm not sure how I'd start but I'd probably consider doing it with the Adobe Products. Most of the time, however, I'm not worried about putting still photos into movies. Picasa has a "make movie" command but it's very, very basic and hardly worth mentioning.

I should add that there's a free and very easy alternative to the above options, namely, just use your computer's operating system to manage the photos. In Microsoft Windows XP, for example, you can view images as thumbnails or in a filmstrip, view EXIF info, add your own tags and keywords, etc. But it's a lot easier to use a program to do these things. Picasa is far from perfect, but it's free and it's a darned sight than doing without anything.

You have the software: now what?

Once you pick your software, then you're on to problem #2: what to do with it. As you can tell from the preceding, you can't do something if your software does not support it. But if the software has a feature, you will have to figure out how much time and effort you want to spend using it. The impulse to organize your pictures means really that you want to organize them in some way other than chronologically. I say that because you get chronological order by default and for free. Generally speaking, you're going to want to dump pictures into folders by import date, then use your software to add levels of organization on top (so to speak) of the organization by folders. So, do you want to start labeling pictures ("vacation," "Christmas", "nature", etc.)? Do you want to rank your favorite pictures, and if so, is a thumbs up-or-thumbs down rating system good enough for you, or do you want to have the fun of agonizing over whether to give a picture 3 stars or 4 stars? My advice about this is, start simple and work your way to something complicated when you feel you really, really have to get more organized. Organizing your photos - especially for an amateur - is something that sounds like a fantastic idea at first ("Gee, I'd like to see all pictures of Catherine that were taken on vacation") until you discover how much work is involved. So to anybody who's not sure how to start, my advice would be, start free with Picasa (or iPhoto, if your Mac came with iLife already installed).

However, I hasten to acknowledge a problem with this otherwise sensible advice. Every program stores "metadata" - all that info that you enter about your photos - in its own proprietary database, and astonishingly, there is, as yet, no open standard for this data that is supported by all the main apps. In other words, if you spend 200 hours typing descriptions of your photos into, say, Picasa or iPhoto, adding keywords or organizing them into albums, and later you decide to upgrade to Photoshop Elements, well, you're going to lose all that info. It just doesn't transfer from one program to another. (I would love to be corrected on this point if someone knows otherwise!) The EXIF data is embedded in the photo file itself, so you don't lose info about the date the picture was taken, what camera, camera settings, etc. But everything you entered into your photo management program AFTER importing the photos will be lost if you switch from one program to another.

I know of no satisfactory solution to this problem. I have from time to time tried moving all my metadata (especially comments about my pictures) into a database that I built myself. But it just doesn't work.

So the best solution is to pick a good program and stick with it. If you pick a high-end program like Photoshop Elements, tell yourself that you'll grow into it. If you pick an easier to use program like Picasa 2, well, you'll certainly find the learning curve less steep, and you can cross your fingers and hope that Google improves the program with version 3.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Beta dogs

FileMaker, Inc., has released a "public beta" of its own API for FileMaker Server Advanced and PHP:

But that's not what I want to talk about.

Today, on a list frequented by FileMaker developers, I saw a note from someone asking if it was safe to use this beta for production work, that is, on a "real" web site with real users. This rather predictably drew responses from a number of other developers who explained, as if to an idiot child, that "beta" software is intended for testing only, is inherently unsafe and should never be used for real work, etc.

Unfortunately, in the real world, things are more complicated than that.

Obviously, if you use software that the company designates as "beta" and a bug in the beta software causes your documents to be mangled so that you lose valuable data, well, you were warned. It was beta software. Fool.

But what if you use final release software and it has a bug that mangles your documents so you lose data? Well, you were warned there, too. Read the license. Buried in there somewhere is a clause that says something like this:

Use this software at your own risk. If it erases your hard disk, causes your business to fail and your wife to leave you for someone else who is more successful, you agree not to blame us. Loser.

So the biggest technical distinction between beta software and release software is that, with beta software, you're warned about the risks more explicitly. With release software, the warning has been moved to the fine print.

Nevertheless, it's difficult for users to know how seriously to take the warnings. There is a lot of beta software that is less buggy that software that has been in official release for a long time. Remember, all software is buggy. Software manufacturers don't even pretend that release software is free of known bugs. They know very well what bugs are left in the software when it is commercially released. They've just made a business calculation that those bugs are not important enough to be worth fixing prior to release.

If a company designates software as "beta" software, it simply means, "We are not quite ready to call this finished." On the other hand, when the company releases the software, it simply means the company feels that the software is more or less ready to release, which in turn means that the risks of release seem, to the company, acceptable. Their assessment of the acceptability of the risk may be different than the assessment you will make retroactively after a buggy piece of release software wrecks your hard disk. But it's their software, so they make the call.

Where's all this going?

Well, the basic point here is one I've made elsewhere: These are still the early days of computing. There's a lot of hype, but the raw truth is, the Mac OS sucks. Windows sucks. Everything is too hard to use, too prone to fail, too difficult to fix. Basically, computers are still in the early, experimental stages, kind of like airplanes in the 1920s and 1930s.

So what can you do?

First, if you are using a computer, you have to accept the fact that using computers is inherently dangerous, like horseback riding or even driving a car. When you ride a horse, you wear a helmet. Drive or ride in a car, you wear a seatbelt. Use a computer, you'd better be backing up your documents regularly.

Second, you can get some idea of whether release software is safe or not by letting other people be the first to use it, then waiting to see what they say. On the other hand, there's no real way to tell how dangerous beta software is. It is a fact that some beta software - especially late in the beta cycle - is generally as safe or bug-free than some release software, but you really never know. So the only safe thing to do is regard all beta software with suspicion.

Unless it's from Google.

Monday, July 31, 2006

SBCYahoo DSL: Shouldn't this be easier?

Popped over to my mother's house last night, expecting to spend 15 minutes upgrading her Internet connection from dialup to dsl from SBC/Yahoo! I've done this so many times I could do it in my sleep: install the filters on all lines, install the dsl modem itself and connect it properly both to the incoming phone jack and to the computer, open the computer and set the Internet preference to wireless/DHCP. Actually, I wasn't sure whether it was DHCP or PPPoE, but DHCP seemed a good bet. My impression is that PPPoE is out of fashion. Anyway, got it all set up - the work of maybe five minutes - powered on the dsl modem, got an IP address, and - nothing. Could not get to the Info Autobahn. Instead of fifteen minutes, it took me an hour and a half and three calls to SBC Yahoo! tech support to get things ironed out.

The first call was needed to get the dsl modem properly registered and working. This involved some sort of online registration process. Before calling, I had run the installer that comes on the CD (after failing to do it all manually), but it didn't do this for me. At the moment, my impression is that everybody must have to call tech support to complete an installation.

Except that this didn't quite complete it. Seems that the online registration process will not work properly if you use Safari as your browser. Huh!? In 2006 something doesn't work properly unless you use Internet Explorer 5.x? This is pretty shocking and there is no excuse for it. If you can't build a web site that works in Safari, Firefox and Opera as well as or better than it works in some five year old version of IE, then you should not be building web sites.

Anyway, the fact that I could not complete the registration online in Safari caused me to have to call back two more times to get email working in Apple Mail. The first time, I called just to get the addresses of the POP and SMTP servers. I tried to find this info online but was unable to do so.

Now, I'm by no means a networking guru, but I have installed dsl many many times before. I think I was one of the first dozen folks in Houston to get dsl about a decade ago. I remember having to help the installation technician (this was before self-install kits), who had been rushed through training and didn't actually understand what he was doing. If I have to call tech support three times, how does the general public do it? Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps the general public uses the installer, follows all the instructions explicitly, and perhaps if you do that, you don't have problems.

But really, this isn't the kind of thing that should require that you use an installer, is it? From what I could tell, the main things that the installer was going to installer were a Yahoo!-branded version of Firefox and a special Yahoo! chat client - neither of which my mother would want.

Why can't they put all the necessary information on half a sheet of paper, and title the paper "Info for folks who know what they're doing...."?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Coming Zune?

I've criticized the Apple ads and enjoyed parodies of them here, so I guess it's fair to link to a piece of online video that imagines what Microsoft might do when it tries to copy the iPod - but put its distinctive mark on the copy. Click here to view; warning - has sound. It would be funnier if it weren't so realistic.

But Microsoft might be changing its M.O. For what it's worth, here's the "Zune" prerelease buzz site. It's definitely not an Apple site. But it seems even less like what you'd expect from Microsoft. Maybe somebody at Microsoft has a clue - and an original idea.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Time to dump the desktop?

The lead article in the Technology section of today's Wall Street Journal today (July 24, 2006) is titled, "Is it Time to Dump Your Desktop?" It's interesting to see the question being asked so prominently, but the answer offered in the article is somewhat disappointing - perhaps because the question, as asked, is premature.

The WSJ stacks the deck heavily in favor of the desktop by focusing on the two main components of the standard "office suite," word processing and spreadsheets. It's pretty obvious that people aren't going to switch to using online spreadsheets to run multinational corporations any time soon.

Nonetheless, the trend away from the desktop is clearly established. I've blogged on this subject before. In an entry in June, I listed some of the things I actually do now in my web browser without launching any other locally installed application, such read and write email, manage my calendar, manage projects for my clients (using Backpack), blog, online banking, pay bills, make travel arrangements, buy almost anything that can be bought (books, CDs, comptuers, clothes, groceries), manage my online photo collection, read the news, do FTP, build a Web site, look up almost anything in an encyclopedia or dictionary, and on and on. Actually, I also mentioned word processing and spreadsheets: I do use Google's spreadsheet and I was a Writely subscriber before Google bought it. But even without word processing and spreadsheets, the fact remains: the application I spend the most time in is my web browser - and apparently, I'm not alone in this respect.

It's easy to grasp the appeal of web apps, if they are good. Users don't have to install anything (usually). The application is stored in some central location (on the application server) and users simply open a browser (or the appropriate client application) and connect. Because the application used by everybody is in just one location, it can be updated easily by the owners of the app and users get the benefits immediately. Data storage is also centralized so it's much easier to establish a sound backup program. And (as the WSJ article does note), if the documents being edited are on a shared server, then you can start talking about sharing the documents themselves, doing collaborative editing, publishing documents from the server, etc. Many of these benefits are available with any client-server system, for example, a database hosted on a machine running FileMaker Pro (in which case the appropriate client application would probably be FileMaker Pro, rather than a web browser). The web is, in many respects, simply a huge client-server system with a remarkably flexible client applicatio (the browser).

So the question boils down to this: how good can web apps get? Or to put it differently, can they compete with desktop apps?

The answer to this is, at least in many cases, not just yes, but hell yes. The most complex apps on my desktop (say, Microsoft Word and Excel) are not going to be replaced by web-based services until web programming gets a lot more powerful or our expectations from these kinds of applications get simpler. Or both. In fact, both things are happening. The tools available to Web 2.0 developers - Ajax, Ruby on Rails, etc. - are relatively easy for programmers to use and provide plenty of power to developer neat and useful web apps.

In the last twenty years or perhaps the last thirty, software developers constantly asked the computer to do more. The ultimate product of that era in software development is Microsoft Office, the product that can do almost anything, from making grocery lists to running a multinational company, from writing a business letter to writing and collaboratively editing a scholarly book with illustrations, notes, indexes, table of contexts, and computer-generated typesetting. I think that we've learned that computers can do a lot, but that they do some things better than others, and some of the things that computers don't do terribly well (or at least don't do very easily) may be done better by human beings using other technologies or other systems. The one thing that software developers have talked about for decades but never achieved is real ease of use. I cannot predict the future, but I think easy to use computing must be the Next Big Thing. And if computers are going to be easy to use, then applications need to have easy to use user interfaces, but they must also be shared and centrally administered.

Gmail domain hosting

Gmail domain hosting
Published 7/24/2006

Some months ago, I learned that Google was initiating a beta of its new hosted-domain email service for small businesses. I applied for admission to the beta immediately, got accepted, and I've now been using the new service for a full week. Do I like it? Yes, I like it a lot. Actually, I feel like I've finally fully entered the twenty-first century.

Why did I switch? Well, I suppose the sine qua non is that Google gave me the option to consider, by introducing this new domain-hosting service, which makes it legal for me to use Gmail for business. But I decided to take the opportunity for two main reasons. First, I finally convinced myself that the advantages of web mail outweighed the disadvantages. And second, after using the older Gmail for a couple of years, I knew that Gmail's online email application has some strengths that desktop applications don't have.

Gmail domain hosting?

This is not the regular Gmail service that everybody knows, where you have an address that ends with "". The new service completely replaces the email hosting I got as part of my domain-name hosting contract with Point in Space, an outstanding small hosting service. The web site is still hosted on Point in Space's servers, and I use Point in Space for other things, as well, such as FTP, discussion list services and database hosting. But as of one week ago, email sent to me or anybody else "" ends up on servers owned and managed by Google - and stays there. I wasn't even aware until recently that this bifurcated arrangement was technically possible. Google hosts the "MX" (mail exchange) servers for, while Point in Space continues to host every other aspect of the domain.

Advantages of web mail in general

The point of the switch, or at least the first half of the point, is to get the benefits of web mail.

Using web mail means that I can get my email from any computer. This matters to me as I switch computers fairly regularly, and also because on a regular basis I tend to work at more than one computer. I can now get the same email equally well from any of the four computers that I have handy, or from any other computer anywhere in the world. This is an unmitigated plus.

Using web mail also means that I have to worry slightly less about losing mail. It would, no doubt, be foolish of me to trust the safety of my email 100.0% to Google. I do remember the problem Hotmail had a few years ago, when it had a major glitch and irretrievably lost subscribers' email. So I will regularly download my messages to Thunderbird for archiving. But generally speaking, Google's (or Yahoo!'s or Microsoft's) technical folks are likely to do a better job than I have been doing about backing things up.

And even if I decide that I don't like the online user interface after all, the fact that I can nevertheless leave all my messages on Gmail's servers means that Gmail could solve another problem for me - the problem of switching desktop clients. During the last nine months, I've vacillated between Thunderbird and Outlook for Windows. The vacillation has been a waste of time and has caused me to lose messages, because getting messages from Outlook to Thunderbird is not easy, and moving messages from Thunderbird to Outlook is nearly impossible. But if I can keep all my messages on Gmail's servers, I can decide in a month to switch from Thunderbird to Outlook, and simply download to Outlook everything that's on Gmail's servers, which will be everything I have. With Gmail providing 2 GB of storage, I don't expect to have to delete messages from the server for a good long while, at least not for a couple of years.

But I don't expect to switch back to using a desktop app again. I'm committed now to Gmail and will use its online email application, for receiving, reading, composing and send all of my mail, from this day forward, until death (or a better deal) do us part.

Gmail in particular as an email client

Of course, none of the advantages just mentioned would be worth the trouble if the Gmail application itself were lousy. Luckily, it isn't. I was a little worried that I'd miss the editing tools available in a desktop client. But to my surprise, I'm finding that I can edit messages about as well in Gmail as I could in Thunderbird or Outlook. I do switch over to textSOAP occasionally to clean up quoted text in a message, but I did that in the desktop apps, too. Gmail's spelling checker works fine, and I'm able to provide ordinary text formats.

And in a couple ways, Gmail is - at least to my way of thinking - fundamentally and decisively superior not just to Yahoo! mail, but superior even to Thunderbird, Outlook, Eudora, Mailsmith and Apple Mail (to name just a few of the desktop clients I'm familiar with).

I'm very fond of the way Gmail organizes messages into threads or "conversations." Messages that belong together - incoming and outgoing - are always kept together. No desktop email client I know does this. Apple Mail gives you the ability to click on a message that you've replied to and find the reply that you composed. But Apple Mail, like every other desktop client I know, is a slave to its folder hierarchy. Incoming mail automatically lands in the inbox, outgoing messages land in the "sent" mailbox. You can move things around manually and you can use filters, too, but the fact remains that the program itself does nothing at all to keep together all the messages that belong together. Gmail's notion of an inbox is rather looser. Gmail calls it an "inbox" because that is the term people are familiar with, but it's really more like a "current messages" mailbox. The inbox in Gmail contains all messages that you have not archived yet, both incoming and outgoing - in fact, even draft replies that have not been sent yet are stored with the conversation that they are part of. It's a brilliant idea.

(NOTE: Gmail also has a "sent" mailbox that serves a fairly conventional purpose: it simply contains messages you have sent, without conversations. If you start a conversation by sending a new message to someone, in other words, by creating a message that is not a reply, that message goes to the sent mailbox and gets archived immediately, so it does not show up in your inbox - until the person replies. As I said above, the inbox contains active conversations. If a conversation has been archived, and a new message is added, Gmail brings it back to the inbox automatically.)

Which leads me to another novelty in Gmail: Gmail does not use folders. It doesn't require you to spend time organizing your messages, instead, it provides you tools that make it easy to find messages. Google is, of course, synonymous with web searching, and the find feature in Gmail is easy to use, accurate and fast.

And if you want some preliminary grouping of messages such as you normally get by moving messages into folders, in Gmail, you use labels. Labels, like folders, are an organizational tool, but with a twist. A single message in a desktop client can only be filed in one folder. The same message in Google can have as many labels as appropriate. So, for example, a single message from my associate Daniel can get the label "Daniel" (applied to all messages to or from him); and if appropriate, it can also get the label for a specific project that we're working on together.


Inevitably, the decision to switch to Gmail, while solving many old problems, introduces a few new ones.

My only real problem with the Gmail online application itself is that it doesn't have a stationery or templates feature. Thunderbird and Outlook both let you create stationery or templates - messages that have boilerplate text, or standard groups of addressees, so that you can use them over and over again without rewriting the message each time or even having to find an old copy and modify it. I'd also like to pay a few dollars to get the ads in Gmail to go away, but that's not an option.

There is a larger problem that may not really be Gmail's fault at all, namely, I can't configure Gmail as the default email client for my operating system. Windows XP won't even let me identify Firefox as my default client (although it does recognize Hotmail).

Finally, although Gmail was able to import addresses from Thunderbird, it is not able to import messages, that is, there does not seem to be any obvious or easy way for me to upload all my old messages to the Gmail servers, so that I can have everything in one place. Right now, I'm going to have to remember July 2006 as the birth date of this new service. If a message was received after that date, I can search for it online. If the message was received before that date, I'll have to dig through my Thunderbird archives.

Bottom line

But the bottom line is that Gmail is very good and I'm quite happy with the switch.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.