Photography and Art

Friday, January 20, 2012

When Did They Repeal Moore's Law?

Warning: this is a geeky post. If you have no interested in computers and technology, skip town.

You remember Moore's Law: According to Wikepedia, "Moore's law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware: the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The period often quoted as "18 months" is due to David House, an Intel executive, who predicted that period for a doubling in chip performance (being a combination of the effect of more transistors and them being faster)."

This has led us to believe that computer speeds should double every 18 months or so.

I've been mucking about with the Lightroom 4 beta and, finding its performance wanting, started to question whether it's time to upgrade my home computer. I bought my home desktop just over 5 years ago and it is pretty much state-of-the-art for 2006. It has a quad-core cpu with 4 gb of memory. Over the years, I've added a nice graphics card and an SSD drive to speed things up. However, Lightroom performance is leisurely on my machine and I'd like to get back to that snappy feeling when you see the image change in real-time as you use Lightroom's adjustment sliders, not with a 1 or 2 second delay.

Given Moore's law, conservatively, a new computer should give performance of 8 times my old machine (i.e. performance should have double 3 times between 2006 and 2012). 

My first stop was to look at Canada Computer for an inventory of parts needed to effect the upgrade. Here's what I decided to buy if I decided to buy (if you know what I mean):
  • A quad core Intel i7 cpu running at 3.4 gz, a pretty good step up in clock rate from my 2.4 gz cpu's and a huge leap forward to 2011 technology (32 nanometer chip) and moderately expensive at $334
  • A new motherboard to support the chip - an Asus board with high definition audio built in. This is surprisingly cheap at only $119.
  • 16 GB of memory for only $90
  • (optionally) A second 128GB SSD drive to take my Lightroom catalog, preview files and cache for $120.
The total comes to around $600-$700 plus tax. Not cheap, but less costly than a new computer!

My next stop was Tom's Hardware to look at the relative performance of my current machine to my projected new machine. Here's a sample of what I found out:

There are more benchmarks, but this shows the general trend. For most benchmarks, the new i7 is just about double the speed of the old Q6600 chipset. There are a few exceptions, like the encryption benchmark, but it looks like I'm going to pay $600 for twice the performance of my current machine.

What happened to Moore's Law? A lot of the performance gain can be explained just with the difference in clock speed. The aggregate clock rate of my current chipset is 4x2.4=9.6. The aggregate clock speed of the new i7 chipset is 4x3.4=13.6. This is about a 40% uptick in clock rate. All the other stuff invented over the last 6 years (larger on-chip cache, pre-fetching algorithms, 2 threads per core, turbo mode overclocking, 32nm process) accounts for the other 60% of the performance improvement. 

Based on this, I think we can declare that Moore's Law no longer applies to the desktop computer market. We are in the era of diminishing returns. 

The other interesting tidbit that I found out, speaking of diminishing returns, is that you really don't get much of a bang for your buck if you buy a six processor chipset. Going back to Canada Computers, you can buy an Intel i7 980 with 6 cores for $630, nearly double the four core chipset. The motherboard needed is an LGA1366 type and it costs just about double the one needed for four cores. 

What do you get for another $400? If you're interested, the results are here. The results are marginal at best, nowhere near the expected 33% improvement, showing that either software is generally not ready to leverage the additional 2 cores or that there is a lot of additional overhead involved in managing 6 cores.

So this leaves me wondering. Is it really worth $600 hard-earned dollars to double the speed of the home computer. This is a computer that still runs like a scalded cat for every application on it except Adobe Lightroom. Maybe it's time to think about another brand of raw conversion software instead since we're just about to be hit by a $200 upgrade cost for Lightroom 4. That $200 just might go to Phase One instead. Just thinking out loud here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter Photography Tips

Brrr! It was a cold morning out there, but I was up early and out the door to take a couple of shots that I'd happened on when I was driving into downtown Toronto last night.

The Golden City

After I got back from my little expedition (with my wallet lightened to the tune of $40 thanks to a parking ticket at 9 am on a Sunday!), I checked my e-mail and found a linkedin request from Cary, an old friend. Somehow, we'd lost track and he managed to find my profile. Now we're back in touch. Turns out, he's also taken up photography and he' pretty good at it too (see here). Cary was interested in winter photography and asked me if I had any tips.

As a matter of fact, I love winter photography and take the majority of my images in winter (something to do with getting sidetracked by golf in the summer). Here are a few tips for those of you who don't often get out with your camera in the winter:

  • Dress warmly! Don't be afraid to look like a dweeb. Wear a hat, a scarf and a warm coat. If you are going out into the wilderness in winter, wear a ski suit or a snowmobile suit. This will make your day much more comfortable and could save your life if you get lost or stranded.
  • If you are taking photos in a remote location, take your cell phone with you and make sure you keep it warm so the battery doesn't give out. Join AAA or CAA so that you can get rescued if your car gets stuck. Make sure you have a good idea of where you are at all times.
  • Battery life is much shorter in the winter. Always have a spare with you and keep it close to your body. If you are going any distance in the cold, take your battery out of the camera and keep it inside your coat.
  • The camera doesn't have much difficulty in cold weather, but lenses will fog up when coming inside from the cold. Some people put the lenses in plastic airtight bags outside and then bring them in and let them warm up. This prevents fogging and the danger of mold.
  • Get a carbon fibre tripod. Metal legs are really cold on the hands when you have to carry a tripod any distance. You'll also appreciate the lightness of weight of carbon fibre.
  • Trigger mitts (designed for hunting) are great for photo work. They keep your hands warm when you're not shooting and let you have your fingers to adjust camera settings when you need them.
  • Watch your histogram and adjust exposure. Often, the camera will underexpose snow and make it a dull gray. You might have to increase exposure.
  • Don't be surprised if the snow isn't white. If you're taking photos on a cold, crisp sunny day, the snow will reflect the blue in the sky. In the evening, as the sun sets and turns golden, the snow will turn golden too.

Cathedral of Religion, Cathedrals of Commerce

Friday, January 6, 2012

Predictions for 2012

2012 is going to be a terrific year for photographers. This year was a little lean, due in part to the tsunami in Japan and the floods in Taiwan. If all goes well and natural disasters don't interfere, we'll have lots of new hardware and software to buy in the coming year.

Let's look at software first. In 2012, we are going to see a lot of new stuff. We'll see a new version of Photoshop and a new version of Lightroom. I won't speculate on what's going to be in Photoshop, but I'm very hopeful that Lightroom will offer a few goodies that we've been waiting for. Here is my wish list:

  • Speed: it would be really nice if Lightroom could make use of the GPU in my graphics card like Photoshop does. Why can't the Lightroom team re-use some of that good code?
  • Networking: Most of the people I know have a small network in their house and have at least a desktop and a laptop machine. I'd like to be able to share my catalog on my network. I'm sure that professional photographers have even a more urgent need for this functionality.
  • Cloud integration: the ability to either have my catalog in the cloud or, failing that for performance reasons, have my catalog index images stored in the cloud. Also, let me edit images in my iPad or Android device and have those edits reflected in my catalog.
  • More and better tools: I like the tools that came out with Lightroom 3, but I'd like more control. For example, I'd like to be able to control the gradient adjustment tool so that I can vary the steepness of the gradient.
Cameras - DSLR FF
The first shots have been fired in the pro wars with Canon and Nikon announcing new generation tools for the sports photographer. The Canon 1dX and the Nikon D4 are evolutionary products. Curiously, both vendors seem to be coalescing around a megapixel count in the 16-18 range. This is driven, no doubt, by complaints from customers that they don't want to be messing with large file sizes for editing and uploading where the target vehicle is a web site, newspaper or magazine. Both cameras have sprouted excellent video capabilities reflecting the change in the industry to having reportage in video as well as text/still photography.

The next shots will be fired in the fine art photography space where the Canon 5dmarkIII waits in the wings. Here's where things get interesting:
  • Will it take the next step up to 36 megapixels or will it come in at 18 megapixes, a slight drop in resolution from the current 21 megapixels?
  • Will we see a 3d and a 5dmarkiii? 
  • Will there be a killer video camera with 4K video to drive the 4K TV's that are just starting to come to life? 
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that there will indeed be two cameras. One will be an 18 megapixel camera aimed at the video set with 4K video to keep Canon in the lead. The other will be a 36 megapixel art photographer camera aimed at still shooters. 

Of course, there will also be a slew of new APS/C cameras from Canon including the new 7dmkii. 

What will Nikon do? Things are a little clearer in the Nikon camp. There will be a D800 announced soon. It will be 36 megapixels, full-frame and will have video capabilities (probably not 4K).

Cameras - Mirrorless
This is going to be a very interesting spot to watch in 2012. Let's go vendor by vendor:
  • Nikon is all set. The V1 was announced and has been received with mixed reviews. There was some disappointment with the small sensor size, but on the plus side, the camera and lenses are in balance unlike Sony's product line where the camera looks like the tail on the lens dog. Look for more lenses in 2012 to fill out the line-up.
  • Sony is all set. The Nex 7 was announced to pretty much rave reviews for the sensor. DxOmark rates the sensor as better than a 5dmarkii, so it must be pretty hot stuff. The only issue with the Sony mirrorless cameras is the size of the lenses. The APS/C sensor format drives the lens sizes up. Look for more Zeiss lenses in 2012.
  • Canon is missing in action. I guess if you're the big dog, you can wait to see everyone else's strategy and then come into the market late with the winning hand. Will Canon introduce an APS/C camera or something with a smaller sensor? My prediction is that they will follow Nikon and introduce a camera with a smaller sensor. Why? They need to protect their entry-level DSLRs that are huge sellers. They also need to differentiate themselves from Sony, Nikon, Olympus and Panny, so my guess is that we'll see a sensor that is around micro two thirds in size but without joining the consortium. We'll see a full set of lenses and the camera will be loaded with video capability. 
  • Olympus is fighting a PR nightmare and will have a tough time getting over its distracting financial difficulties. We may not see a lot of product in 2012 which is too bad.
  • Panasonic will continue to build on its success in the micro two thirds market and will look to steal share away from Olympus and even Nikon. There will be lenses and bodies announced, but nothing revolutionary.
  • FUJI is going to be in the news. The new X Pro-1 will be out in the first quarter. Think of it as an X100 with interchangeable lenses. Rumors abound that the sensor will have multiple pixels per site like the Sigma Foveon technology. This should be a very interesting camera. Let's hope the image quality is as good or better than the X100! There are also rumors that Fuji will buy Olympus. Wouldn't that be interesting.
Printers and Paper

Epson will announce a model or two with marginally better gamut and performance. Ink prices will stay flat. Snore.

There may be a few new papers announced in 2012, but I think we're also at maturity in that space too. Snore.

In Summary
Get your credit cards out! Before the year is out, most serious photographers will be out buying not one, but two new cameras and a bunch of lenses. First will come the upgrade to either the 5dmkiii or the D800 to get those 36 megapixels. Better also upgrade some of your lenses to take advantage of all that resolution. Maybe a Zeiss lens or two will fit the bill!

Then, we'll all be buying mirrorless systems for those days when a big camera is too bulky or too obvious. The Fuji announcement will create a whole lot of buzz. The Canon announcement will create even more buzz. In short, the light will be shining on this product category all year and people will be lining up to buy as the economy recovers.

Not only that, but you'll have to be shelling out $400 to upgrade Photoshop and Lightroom, assuming that you upgraded to CS5 to avoid having to buy the license for Photoshop all over again.

And if that isn't enough, you should consider upgrading your computer to something with a quad Intel i7 and at least 16GB of memory so that your system doesn't choke on those huge files. Better buy some more disk while you're at it.

This is going to be one expensive year for a lot of people! Buy Japanese yen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Construction Site

There is nothing like a construction site to bring out the little boy in a man. As I mentioned in a previous post, a building next door to my client's office was being torn down. The building is now no more than a stump and the heavy machines that were needed to demolish it are now waiting for pick-up and transport to their next assignment. Just before the holidays, I looked down from the 20th floor and saw this wonderful site of brightly coloured heavy machines in a line-up. Do I hear the theme song to Bob the Builder in the background? Can we do it? Yes, we can!