Sunday, June 07, 2015

[Tech] Technorambling

I see the laptop I selected a couple of years ago, the Dell XPS 13, is still discussed on the various review sites as the laptop-to-beat in most comparisons. It's a good one, I'll admit, and given my history with Dell it's a significant admission. I had battery go bad a few months ago, but was able to replace it inexpensively on my own. Lately the power cord has been flukey, but if that gets out of hand it's another easy replacement. I bought it from the Microsoft Store as part of their Signature Series -- they resell laptops that they have tuned and cleaned all the bloatware from -- which was another wise decision. All in all, it's worked out well, so I can readily recommend you make the same choice if in the market for a laptop. Although I must admit the new Surface looks awfully sweet. If I was in the market it would be the only competition for an XPS at this point. The Surface lacks the XPS 13's performance, but excels in convenience and flexibility.

In truth, I could probably get away with a $200 Chromebook of some sort. Everything I do is on the web. Writing, banking, shopping, reading, music -- all of it streamed. (If my internet connection goes down I'm pretty much dead. I have to resort to filling my time with housework.) The only software I run locally anymore is for editing photos. And while my photography has taken a back seat to time working on the house the past two or three years, that appears to be changing since I just purchased an new DSLR.

My old camera was a Nikon D50. I was a big ungainly thing, no image stabilization to speak of, but when I nailed it with that camera I was able to take some astounding pictures. Sadly it suffered from a known issue that caused it to have some sort of especially bad dust spots, which I had to remove from all my pics using Photoshop. Nikon eventually offered free cleaning and inspection to everyone in an attempt to resolve this, but by that time the shutter mechanism had given up the ghost. I probably could have sent it in to Nikon and told them to fix everything, but by then my frequent traveling was coming to a temporary end, and technology had advanced quite a bit making it fairly obsolete. So I left it on a shelf, where it still sits.

I picked up a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot a while back, only to find out the picture quality is really not that different from my phone. One important thing I have come to learn is that a larger sensor makes for better quality photos (this is not the number of megapixels, but the actual physical size of the sensor in the camera.) Sensor size is the primary difference between a quality camera and something consumer grade. Another thing I learned was that zoom is not that important, in fact most serious photographers spend their money on high quality fixed lenses called "primes" often trying to mimic exactly what that eye sees. Beyond a certain point zoom is detrimental to quality, especially for ad hoc photography, which is pretty much all I do. Lastly, I learned about taking photos in "RAW" mode -- creating an uncompressed image that allows more flexibility in editing. These RAW images can then be saved to JPG/PNG for presentation. That eliminated most point-and-shoots, which have smaller sensors and focus on gaudy megapixel and zoom numbers and don't support RAW.

So after I settled into the house I got back in the market for a quality camera. It's really quite confusing. There are new formats, differing standards, a lot has changed, but it's still safe to focus on sensor size. The smallest sensor you want for serious photography -- by which I mean a serious amatuer or hobbyist -- is called APS-C. This is the one you will get in most entry-level and intermediate DSLRs and also in some of the newer more compact formats.

The next size up is referred to as "full frame" and at this point you start to get into professional level territory. Naturally, having learned my lessons about image quality, I thought I should go full frame but in the end I couldn't justify the cost. The cheapest full-frame I found was the Sony A7 which, with lens, would have run me no less than $1200. I simply cannot delude myself into believing I am at the $1200 camera level as a photographer.

So I scaled back to APS-C and search for the cheapest one and happened upon a dealer on eBay selling a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR for under $500 with a short zoom lens (maybe 3x). That's a fair amount less than my old Nikon cost years ago, and it's probably many times the camera at least. Ain't progress grand?

Now it's up to me to re-ignite my photography hobby, which has been dormant the past few years, as evidence by my smugmug page. I just hope the house cooperates.