Factual Distrust [#20]


Text reading
Interested much?

I’m currently in the Outer Hebrides (actually, I’m currently somewhere on my way back from them, but that’s where I have been for the last two weeks). As a result, I’m dipping into my archive of forgotten almost-posts to make sure that whole New 52 thing keeps on a-rolling.

But I do expect you to believe that part. That’s not really what the image above is about. No, the image above is a link to a comic by the ever-brilliant Oatmeal, attempting to explain why it’s so damned hard to convince somebody they are wrong. Present all the evidence in the world, be reasonable and clear, provide a bullet-proof argument… and that still won’t be enough. There are a bunch of reasons why that is the case, but the big two are these: the backfire effect and the energy-cost conflict. The comic details the backfire effect much better than I ever could, so if you’re unaware of it (or even if you know everything about it, to be honest) go and give it a read. You won’t regret it.

The energy-cost conflict is a term I invented, so it’s unlikely that you know anything about it. Stuart Vyse created a pretty clever illustration to explain why superstitions are a thing for Ted Ed, which sums it up nicely and is also definitely worth your time. In brief, it takes a certain amount of energy to learn something and a second amount of energy to unlearn it (not to forget it, that’s free, but to take what you know and alter it). Our brains are designed to reduce energy expenditure as much as possible, for the simple reason that it helps keep us alive longer. As a result, we’re naturally resistant to facts that would cause us to alter what we’ve learnt.

Combined, these two phenomena create a pretty large obstacle for reasoned debate and progressive change. Once someone, or a group of people, have accepted a certain belief as fact it becomes pretty hard to get them to accept that it isn’t; once that belief has become the basis for multiple other beliefs and ideas, it becomes incredibly hard. There isn’t much that can be done about this problem, as it effects everyone in the world. The most effective method is to educate people, which is what both of the links above are attempting to do. Personally, as I come to understand the way my own brain attempts to helpfully undermine me, I’ve found it a lot easier to have productive discussions with people. I’ve also found that the world is a lot more gray than black-and-white, but that’s actually a lot more interesting.

Vinyl Scratchings [#19]

Yes, I am one of those irritating people that have decided to resurrect an audio format that, by all rights, should be long extinct. And, further yes, I’m also now going to complain about my irrational decision and why the industry is ruining it. Have you got the rage and sighs out? Okay, let’s continue.

First of all, because it’s likely the number one question any vinyl ‘enthusiast’ (I am not a fan of that term) gets asked, why do I buy vinyl? Well, it isn’t because of ‘superior’ sound quality. I don’t have the time, or money, to become an audiophile. No, honestly, it’s because I like collecting stuff and I like music. Vinyl collections are just more attractive to me than CD collections, although I have quite a large one of those too, and I find no joy in having a large digital media collection at all. Plus, the audio industry was forever changed the moment Spotify launched. I have subscriptions to both Spotify Premium and Amazon Music, which combined account for over 90% of my music listening habits. I no longer have any need to buy music.

Still, sometimes, I want to buy music. Most of the time it’s so I can support a specific artist; the rest of the time it’s because a given record has some personal significance to me. As a result, my vinyl collection is not full of one-time release, special edition recordings from bands you’ve never heard of. It’s largely main stream, best selling albums from the likes of Linkin Park, Muse and the Killers. Still, because I’m part of the ‘digital generation’, a lot of these records are the first time I’ve owned some of my, personally, favourite and most influential music. As a result, I want these purchases to be special; I look at them as more than just ‘buying an album’ but as recognition of an album or artist that means something to me.

Yet, despite the enduring revival of the format, it seems that the prestige of vinyl is being forgotten. Most modern releases are a simple sleeve, with identical cover art to the CD (often not even at increased resolution), and nothing more. The records of the 70’s and 80’s delighted consumers with multi-hinge fold outs, ornate lyrics sheets, in depth leaflets about the album, artist, designers and everyone inbetween. Cover art was detailed and extravagant, with the entire package often being pain staking lay designed. Vinyl records felt special, rewarding your purchase with a product that somehow felt more than just an album. Conversely, modern CD albums tend to contain more of these features than the vinyl issue does.

This mass market reaction is predictable but should, theoretically, be matched in step by a shift in cost. However, far from making vinyl records cheaper, it seems that the resurgence of interest in the format has increased the expected RRP. As vinyl has become cool and collectable again, the price, particularly of sought after albums (even reissues), has steadily risen.

The result is a market where vinyl records now feel less special whilst costing more. There are some benefits to the mass market, such as the inclusion of digital download codes with vinyl purchases, but even these are hit and miss with little thought. A recent selection of albums I’ve bought contained a download code that had already expired (Sir Sly), a code with no corresponding website (Watsky) and a digital download given at lower than CD quality compression (Glitch Mob). Vinyl albums, especially ones that hold their value, tend to have long shelf lives, tend to be bought by people who have a decent understanding of audio quality and are largely purchased by fans of that artist. None of those interactions made me feel like my purchase mattered to the bands involved. They left a bitter taste in the mouth.

There are those that do get it, though. Cat Power’s Sun is a fantastic example of a vinyl that rewards the consumer. It comes with both a CD and digital download code (amazing) and the specially designed insert sleeves include lyrics, credits, interesting information and much more. Plus, it looks great and sounds amazing, making the purchase so much more special. Also, Florence & The Machine Lungs which has a proper bi-fold sleeve and some stunning album art. Ironically, both cost much less than other, rather disappointing vinyls. Hopefully artists will begin to take pride in the way their art is presented again as they used to.

Hyperfocal Stone Rows [#18]

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Dartmoor. We ended up visiting Wistman’s Wood for much of the first afternoon, which was so captivating we would have definitely spent the whole day there had the heavens not opened. It was our main reason for going and it definitely did not disappoint; there is genuinely something ethereal about that location!

Before the weather turned, we also managed to get up to a couple of tors and visit some of the wonderful stone rows that Dartmoor is (apparently) famous for. I come from the Lake District, so standing stones and Bronze Age circles are nothing new to me, but I have never seen anything quite like the stone rows of Dartmoor. Combined with their incredibly curated streams, the rows create a fantastical landscape that I really wasn’t expecting. I will definitely be back, during better weather and with more time.

However, the combination of rows and stones also offered a great opportunity for creating leading lines in landscape photographs. I’ll admit to spending far too long waiting for specific lighting conditions, wind directions etc. but I also had a lot of fun. The odd part was, I really struggled to get my shots in focus. To try and foreshorten the shots a little bit, hopefully creating a feeling of being ‘pulled’ into the photo, I was shooting landscapes using zoom lenses, which is not a technique I’ve tried before. Part of the reason I’ve steered clear of this setup is that zoom lenses tend to have tighter depths of field, making it harder to get the full shot in focus. Still, with scenes of prehistoric landmarks marching off to distant, cloud-shaded peat fells, I wanted to capture the sense of vastness that seemed to be all around me.

Logically, I know that the next step is to reduce the size of my aperture. But what I found was, on a windy day without a stable tripod, that at the apertures needed for full focus I was losing clarity. I was also struggling to get the foreground and distant background in focus, no matter the exposure I went for. I happened to notice that focusing on a particular stone, about a third of the way into my composition, was giving me much better results. I’ll admit, at the time I just went with it, though it felt counter intuitive. Having come back and done some research, it turns out my intuitions were just wrong.

Hyperfocal distance. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, doesn’t it? In reality, however, it may finally be the answer to one of my biggest ‘errors’ when taking landscape photographs. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this article about the whys and hows of hyperfocal distance (though if that’s what you’re after, there’s a reading list at the end) but just coming to understand it a little better has been enlightening.

In brief, the hyperfocal distance of your lens/camera/setup is the point within your frame that allows for the broadest depth-of-field when in focus. That sounds a little odd, so to understand first realise this: it is impossible to get an image completely focused in one shot. No matter how good the lens, how wide the focal range, how small the aperture you will always have some areas out of focus. But, the level of “out of focus” can be completely imperceptible, so a lot of photographs appear to be in focus. These shots are using their hyperfocal distance; the actual, truly focused region will be at the precise point in the frame that enables 99% of what’s left to be only slightly out of focus. Our brains fill in the rest.

Now, that isn’t something I’ve ever come across before and it’s not something I’ve specifically learned, but it does seem completely intuitive to me. My problem is that the solution I’ve been using for years fails to understand the actual cause of the issue. I think I have always assumed that focus works by focusing from me to wherever I set the focal point. Changing the aperture, I believed, then changed the focal grading from that point outwards, so a large aperture has a steep gradient and clear blurring/bokeh, whilst a small aperture produces a very shallow gradient where only the very closest extremes are noticeably fuzzy. In a way, I was right, but the effect is far more centred on the focal point then I had realised. It’s not a line in the image, in front of which everything is focused, but more a circle or ellipse, around which the focus slowly worsens in a semi-linear manner.

What that means is that focusing on the distant horizon, effectively to infinity, which has always been my go-to technique, will result in an out-of-focus foreground. Seems obvious, right? But it will also reduce focus in the mid-ground. Conversely, focus near to the camera and the horizon becomes blurred. The trick, as I had accidentally stumbled upon, is to focus somewhere in between the two, effectively allowing your focal circle the widest diameter possible.

Fantastic, right? I just need to focus at the mid point of the frame and everything will slot into place! Well… no, not exactly. Or at least, not easily. Drawing a line between yourself and the horizon and estimating the mid-point isn’t going to give you the hyperfocal distance. Why? Well, that’s because the camera doesn’t “see” in three dimensions, instead it effectively “sees” in 2-D. Especially with zoom lenses, that foreshortening of the landscape matters, moving the hyperfocal distance towards you. It seems a good rule of thumb is to focus somewhere around the one third mark, but in reality that will be wrong more than it is right. The internet is full of suggested methods to work out your hyperfocal distance, some easier than others, but as of yet I haven’t actually tried any of them out.

But it won’t be too long until I do. We’re heading to the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks and you can be sure that I will be taking a lot of landscape shots whilst we’re there. Learning about hyperfocal distance (as well as other factors that can result in reduced clarity) has really lit a spark in my mind. I’m itching to get out and try some of this theory in the field; it’s a nice feeling, one I haven’t had for a while (with photography, at least). Hopefully, next time I report back, it will be to say that I’ve finally answered one of my longest standing conundrums with landscape shots: how to focus, well, everywhere.

Whilst researching the topic I came across a whole lot of really informative and interesting articles around the web. Some are specifically about hyperfocal distance, but some are more focused on lens sharpness or landscape techniques. Hopefully, combined, they will form a good bed of information to start practicing with.

Hyperfocal Distance ExplainedPhotographyLife

How to Choose the Sharpest AperturePhotographyLife

What is the Sharpest Aperture on a LensImprove Photography

Panoramic Photography TutorialPhotographyLife

How to Calculate the Sharpest Aperture of Any LensEnvatotuts

Echoing Frustration [#17]

I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday. I honestly wasn’t expecting to, so it was a really fun and exciting surprise to unwrap; although, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “What am I going to use this for?”.

So, a month on, what do I find myself using the Echo for? Because we do use it, all the time (probably every day, in fact). The obvious use for an Echo is music. It syncs nicely with Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify, Pandora and a bunch of other services. Straight away though, we run into problem number one with the Echo: I live in the UK. So that long list of music services is actually just Amazon and Spotify. Sure, I have a Spotify premium account, so that list suits me just fine, but it is something to keep in mind. If you live in the UK, a lot of the features and services that actually use the Alexa platform just don’t exist.

But, still, Spotify works wonderfully. It took a few days to get used to the way Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, wants you to request songs but once we worked it out it became surprisingly natural. There are some issues, particularly with albums with unusual names such as Watsky’s X Infinity. It should be pronounced “times infinity”, but Alexa only understands “ex infinity”. Still, not the most irritating problem in the world.

No, that title goes to the single largest gripe that I have with the Echo and Amazon’s implementations in general. Because Amazon really want you to use their own music platform on the service, not their direct rival Spotify, the interaction with the service is as stripped back as possible. To be fair, Spotify has been removing features continually for years anyway, but I use most of what’s left pretty consistently. Chief amongst those extras is Last.FM integration which is frustratingly absent from the Echo. This has caused some pretty big issues and a whole lot of irritation.

I initially hoped to hook up a recipe in IFTTT, but Alexa’s API only allows you to know when a song is being played through Amazon Music, not third party services. It also turns out that IFTTT has dropped Last.FM support. That’s a whole other complaint for another time but… dammit, really?!

But, I thought, I’m a Prime subscriber as well. That means I can just use Amazon Music on the Echo and create an IFTTT to record a list to a Google sheet. Not the most elegant solution, but coupled with the Universal Scrobbler, it would be relatively low maintenance. Except, you see, Prime Music and Amazon Music aren’t the same thing. I hadn’t noticed this before, as I use Prime for shipping, storage and TV, but apparently Echo doesn’t work with Prime music itself. Sigh.

So, at the moment I’m stuck in limbo. For a brief time it looked like casting from my PC or phone would work, albeit at the complete loss of voice control, which is pretty much the main selling point of an Echo. Unfortunately, that appears to be hit and miss at best. I’ve temporarily accepted defeat, but I will say this: the moment a competitor comes out with a product that lets me Scrobbl music, I will be switching immediately.

Because, here’s the thing. In spite of this huge, gaping black hole of missing functionality, we use the Echo every day. It sits in our kitchen, where it has completely replaced a collection of speakers, digital radios and iPods with a single, elegant device. It lets you change songs, check the time or convert measurements whilst elbow deep in food preparation or washing up. It’s even replaced our old egg timer, allowing us to time multiple dishes all at once, and looks set to do the same with our shopping list. My initial thought of “What am I going to do with this” has been answered many times over with a wealth of surprising little features. Plus, it sounds great; we pretty much use it as our main audio player in fact. Despite everything I’ve said above, I am a complete convert to voice controlled audio players and cannot wait to see what functionality comes to them in the future. It’s just that, right now, the one piece of functionality I most want is missing. Fingers crossed, not for long!