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Real-time on the Social-web for the World Series of Birding

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Suppose, just for fun, that there was a 24 hour event happening, covering the whole state of New Jersey from end to end, and you, single-handedly, wanted to document it in real time, using the social web…twitter, blogs, and associated tools…so that anyone who wanted could experience it from, shall we say, ground level? Suppose. What tools would you use?

In my work life, I am the Observation Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, makers of binoculars and spotting scopes used in birding, and all types of wildlife observation. For 27 years we have sponsored a team, Team Zeiss, in the yearly World Series of Birding competition, and for 6 years we have been the sponsor of the Carl Zeiss Youth Birding Challenge. The WSB raises funds for conservation through per-species pledges to your favorite team of birders, who then go out for 24 hours, midnight to midnight, in the state of New Jersey (or some designated sub-section there-of) to count as many different species of birds as they can identify by sight or sound. It draws well over 200 of the best birders in the US, in over 50 teams, to Cape May, NJ each May. Most teams come in a few days (or weeks) early to scout the area where they intend to count…then there is the day itself…24 hours of driving crazy distances to hit the hot-spots and staked out birds…the Finish Line were, just before midnight, the teams bring in their totals for verification…and then, the next morning at 9AM sharp, the Awards Brunch where, after a lavish breakfast, the highest totals are recognized with various awards, and each team gets to briefly tell its best story of the day. It is marginally insane, considerably inspiring (if you are into birds…they have raised over $9 million for conservation in the 27 years of the event), and a whole lot of fun!

This year, I decided to try to document the whole thing in something approaching real time. I planned to be in a chase car, and follow Team Zeiss through some of the scouting and preparations, then through the 24 hours of the event to the Finish Line, and to the Awards Brunch the next morning. I planned to twitter and FaceBook the whole thing, with sound-clips, pics, and maybe some video…perhaps to do some live blogging on our WordPress blog…and, of course, to bring back enough photos and video for follow-up blog posts and web pages. It was only slightly more insane than the event itself.

You can see the results, all of the posts from the field, considerably expanded with images, video, and bit of commentary added after the event, at Team Zeiss: A Complete World Series of Birding Saga.

If you want to know how I did it, read on.

I have an iPhone 3G (not, unfortunately for these purposes, the 3GS with video), a Canon SX20IS which shoots excellent stills and HD video, an very portable Aspire Timeline 1810TZ CULV netbook/laptop, a Verizon USB mobile broadband doggle, a cigarette lighter power supply that puts out both 110 volt AC for the computer and USB power for the iPhone, and, obviously more enthusiasm than sense.

Experimenting before-hand I settled on the new Hootsuite app for iPhone for my twitter and facebook posts. I knew I would be twittering on 2 accounts: my own @singraham and the Zeiss account @zeissbirding_us. The facebook posts were going to my own profile. I needed an app that would post to all three simultaneously. Hootsuite looked like it would do the job. Since you can open it in menu mode, without downloading any streams, it is quick to post from. When I got to Cape May, I found that the Hootsuite app, on AT&T’s 3G network, was failing about half the time when I attempted to post a pic with the tweet/facebook update. Trying again sometimes worked, but I needed something more reliable.

I already have a Posterous blog set up, and have used it to post instant galleries of images via email when I have more than one image to post at the same time. You can set up Posterous to auto post to any number of twitter and facebook accounts, and if you make the title complete, it can act as a tweet or post in itself. You can even include hastags for twitter in the title. Posting from the iPhone is as simple as taking the pics with the camera app, opening Photos, selecting the ones you want to send and choosing email. You enter your Posterous address, and it is away, and posted to your twitter and facebook accounts soon after. The advantage is that Posterous automatically formats multiple images into a galley with an index and viewer.

Posterous will also take video, directly or as a link from YouTube…which is good, since I encountered the dread “caught in the processing loop” YouTube bug when attempting to upload video from Cape May. Not via 3G either…this was from my hotel room over a wifi network. I tired many times. Nothing worked. While Posterous video is not has high quality as HD on YouTube, it is certainly serviceable for my purposes with the WSB.

Posterous does have its own app for the iPhone, which allows you take pics directly and upload them into galleries on your blog, but I find that it is actually much easier to do it from the Photos App via email.

As it happens, Hootsuite updated their iPhone app while I was in New Jersey, and the new version seemed to work much better with pic uploads, even when I lost 3G and had to work on EDGE in the far reaches of the state.

I ended up using both Hootsuite, and Posterous via email, as the situation demanded and as the spirit moved me. 🙂

When I picked up my rental car, the first thing I checked was the number of cigarette lighter sockets, as I anticipated having to use my iPhone part of the time as a GPS. The Jeep Compass they gave me has only one cigarette lighter socket…but low and behold, it has an actual 110v, two prong socket, just like your wall sockets at home. I could plug the Acer in directly, and, since i use a Kensington Ultra Compact Power Supply while traveling, which has its own USB power port, and was packing a Griffen PowerJolt Dual with two more USB power ports for the cigarette socket, I was all set for power. I did not even have to set up the excellent Radio Shack compact power inverter I always have in my laptop bag.

As it turned out, I never even plugged the Acer in. It was just too close quarters with 3 of us and all our stuff in car, I was driving at least a third of the time, and we made stops too frequently to consider the laptop useful. That meant that I did not upload any video until the event was over.

Most of the pics were uploaded direct from the iPhone’s camera. I am impatiently waiting the arrival of the 4G iPhone with what one hopes will be a decent camera (rumors say maybe even HD video), but you make do with what you have. Since I was shooting most of the time with the SX20IS as well, the pics from the field were more or less placeholders anyway…I replaced most of them with SX20IS shots when I built the blog post…though I hope the iPhone shots added at least a little to the experience for those following my tweets and posts in real time.

I did process a few of the more marginal shots using the Adobe PhotoShop app for the iPhone before I posted them. I used, until this most recent version of the Adobe app, PhotoGene, which I really like. PhotoShop is just a bit faster on most operations, at least on my 3G phone, and, in the field, where you are posting mostly while hurrying back to the car or between stops, even that little speed difference can be critical.

While I had not planned to do it, since I was using Posterous, it occurred to me on a hill far into the outback of Sussex County, New Jersey, moments after mid-night when the team was listening for high flying migrants in the dark, that I could post audio. I made a few recordings during the night at various stops, while it was still too dark for photography, using the built in Voice Memo app on the iPhone, and uploading them to Posterous via email. Of course, since the Team was using their ears, I could not play them back to see what I got. They went out over twitter and facebook just as they came from the iPhone.

It was not long into the dark night when Hootsuite and Facebook stopped cooperating. I never did figure out what was happening. The app gave me a “failed to post on Facebook” message about 2 out of 3 tries. This was from the hinterlands and I suspected the EDGE connection, but when I got back to civilization and 3G it was no more reliable. It could have been an issue with Hootsuite at that particular time, or with Facebook, or with the iPhone. All of which make me rely more on the Posterous connection than I might otherwise have.

I am hoping, of course, that the folks who followed the tweet stream in real-time got a sense of how the event unfolded that is never available in hind-sight. (Though, honestly, I am pretty sure no one caught my tweets posted from midnight until 4 am. 🙂 )

Tuesday, safe at home with the Acer firmly anchored to a desk, and my wifi connection humming, I processed all the images (Lightroom) and some of the video (NeroVision) I shot with the Canon SX20IS. I also used Tweetake to capture all my @zeissbirding_us tweets into a spreadsheet, where I could sort and edit them into something like a coherent narrative. Using the tweets as the skeleton, I added images and video from the Canon, and a bit of commentary, to fill out the story. I used a few of the original iPhone shots where I did not have something from the Canon, but when I did, I grabbed them from Posterous or into Picnic for a bit of improvement before posting them back to the blog.

I intend to do a more reflective and thoughtful piece on the whole experience, the WSB experience that is, not the technical experience, when my mind fully recovers from sleep deprivation. (If my mind ever recovers…) But for now, the post referenced above stands as one man’s view of the World Series of Birding as done by Team Zeiss in May of 2010.

Next year I hope to have an iPhone 4G and even better apps. (I also hope, of course, that AT&T will have improved service throughout New Jersey, though I have to say, there were very very few places where I could not tweet!) In hindsight, and maybe foresight if the technology does not change much before then, I would set up a unique Posterous blog for the event, and post everything there, with auto post to twitter and facebook. Of course with the 4G iPhone posting live to WordPress may be practical by then. Who knows.

Much may change by next year’s running of the World Series of Birding. Team Zeiss is already committed to doing it again…for conservation…and for the fun of it…and I plan to be there, making the best use of Social Media I can, to give those who can not be there a ground level view of the World Series of Birding. As it happens. In real time.

Which is one thing, certainly, the Social Web can do better than any other tool we have ever had to work with. It can only get better.

Maybe I can take pledges: So much per tweet for conservation. That will make the birds happy. 🙂

Written by singraham

May 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm


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photo Everyone pretty much agrees that the iPhone camera, at least through the 3G, was a pretty poor excuse for a camera…and, of course, being the iPhone, that gave rise to a large number of apps for that. One class aimed primarily at overcoming user error…most obviously the inability to hold the iPhone straight or still enough to take a decent picture. Another class attempted to disguise the poor image quality by dressing the pics up with fancy filters and frames and effects…turning a poor image into questionable art. A final class actually attempted to do something about the poor image quality by providing basic editing tools to crop, straighten, adjust exposure, sharpness, color balance, etc.

My favorite of the editing class has always been Photogene. With a recent update to version 2.5 Photogene has, imho, pulled well ahead of the pack.

It always got the basic job done. Now it does it with panache. It always got the job done. Now it does it faster. And, with this version, Photogene moves beyond emailing the pic to contacts: you can now simply and elegantly post direct to Twitter and Facebook from within the app.

(There is also a Photogene specific gallery accessible from the splash page when you open Photogene. You can register for the Hall of Fame and add your images for other Photogene users to enjoy (and to vote on).)

You can take a pic from within the app, or work on one from your Photo Library.

The editing tools are impressive:

  • crop
  • rotate/straighten
  • filter: sharpen/blur, but also Pencil, B&W, Posterize, Sepia, Nightvision, and Heatmap (for a nod to the questionable art class)
  • Levels, Exposure, Saturation, Color temperature, and RGB sliders
  • Cartoon cutouts
  • Frames and effects: a good selection of attractive frame presets, custom, background color, a mirror effect, and vignette.

A simple enumeration of the features like that does not convey the power of the app. You have to take a pic with the phone, and then edit it in Photogene to understand how well designed and how able this little app is. Unless I am pressed for time, I always shot from with Photogene, because I know that I am going to want to sharpen and adjust exposure on just about every pic I take. Photogene makes it easy and does it quickly. And now that it posts directly to Twitter and Facebook…which represents the majority of my iPhone camera usage, it has become even more attractive.

The screen shots below are pretty much self-explanatory and include the features I use the most.

Photogene will not completely overcome the limitations of the iPhone camera, but judicious use of its set of editing tools will make every iPhone photo better, and make the iPhone a viable tool, at least for social network imaging.  What more could you ask?…oh…well, yes, there is already mention of a real 5mp camera in the iPhone 4G…but even so, Apple would have to show more understanding of the way folks use a camera phone than they have so far, or we just have the same image quality at higher pixel count. I have a feeling Photogene will survive Apple’s best attempts at a better camera. And by then we will undoubtedly be at version 3.0 and who know what power will be packed into Photogene by then!

Written by singraham

December 31, 2009 at 5:33 am

Netbooks for the Traveling Photographer: take two

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Acer Aspire One 10in. on top. HP Mini 311. Dell 13.1 inch below.

[NOTE: while much of this is still true, I have now replaced the HP Mini 311 with a CULV based Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ. To see why, read Atom + ION: empty promise?]

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece on my Point & Shoot Landscape Blog called Netbooks for Traveling Photographers. It is among the most popular posts I have ever written, and is still getting regular hits a year later. It is still worth a read if you are new to the subject of Netbooks, and have specific questions on how they manage a photographic work-flow.

Until a week ago I was still using the Acer Aspire One 250 that is described in that article. I have processed more than 2000 thousand images, primarily in Lightroom, on that little Netbook in the past year. I have had no reason to regret my choice and I still highly recommend a Netbook to any photographer who spends much time on the road. It is hard to match the simple portability, and they are certainly powerful enough from all but the most demanding tasks. And, there is nothing quite like a Netbook for ease of doing all the daily stuff you need a computer for. Load up a browser (I use Chrome for preference), subscribe to a Google account, and you can do email, calendar, news feeds, Twitter, FaceBook, etc. etc. With a copy of ThinkFree or Open office (or even the real MicroSoft Office), you can even tweak the occasional PowerPoint for work…or run numbers in Excel: all on a machine that requires very little effort to carry. I have made two trips to Europe in the past year without my work laptop: just carried my Blackberry and my Netbook and I was good to go.

Within the past five months, however, I have gotten more heavily into HD video, and, while you can edit HD on a conventional Atom powered Netbook like the Aspire One, no one would claim that it is an enjoyable experience.

Lightroom's Develop Module on the Aspire One

About that same time, the first announcements of a new class of Thin and Light laptops, some not much bigger than your average Netbook, began to appear. The smallest of the Thin and Lights are 11.6-12.1 inch screen machines with a screen resolution of 1366×768 (16/9 wide screen, HD video format), and are powered by the new CULV processors from Intel (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage). The CULV processors come in various shades of single and dual core, and are based on the more powerful processors used in real laptops. They are several times as powerful as the Atom processors used in Netbooks, but due to low voltage circuits, get just as good battery life. They are paired with the more capable Intel integrated GM4500 graphics as well.

Lr's Develop Module on the HP Mini's larger screen

Also, about that time the first ION based Netbooks began to be announced: primarily in the form of the HP Mini 311. This Netbook combines an 11.6 inch, 1366×768 screen with the same Atom processor found in the majority of Netbooks, but uses the NVIDA ION graphics processor instead of the usual Intel integrated GM950 graphics. Since graphic performance, especially the ability to render complex 3D graphics and video streams, is one area where Netbooks are noticeably deficient, the ION platform, at least on paper, offers the promise of real improvement. For one thing, today’s graphics rich OSs should be a lot happier on an ION based machine.

Couple that with the Adobe announcement of an upgraded Flash plugin which specifically takes advantage of the graphics acceleration offered by the ION and GM4500 graphics processors, and we are beginning to see some new possibilities opening for Netbook sized laptops.

As important as HD video was to my deliberations as I read the first reviews of the new machines, one of the major reasons I was looking was screen resolution. After a year of living with the 1024×600 10 inch screen on the Aspire One, I was beginning to feel just a little cramped. 1366×768? I could imagine how Lightroom would look on a screen that big (big being relative…I was determined to say as close to the Netbook form factor as possible: I really value the portablilty!)

Suffice it to say that I did my research and opted for the HP Mini 311 with ION Graphics. For one thing, while more expensive than a conventional 10 inch Atom powered Netbook, it was still less expensive than the dual core CULV machines. For another, reviewers rated the ION graphics performance significantly higher than the GM4500, and the new Flash beta is optimized for ION at a slightly higher level than it is for the Intel chipset.

And, perhaps as important in the end, the HP was available when I was ready to buy and the dual core Aspire 1810T (my other strong contender) was not. On such little things the tides of decision turn…at least, it seems, my decisions!

PhotoShop Element's Camera Distortion Filter

So far the HP Mini 311 has met all my expectations. It is not too much larger than my Aspire One. It still fits in the same over the shoulder backpack I used for the Aspire. The extra screen real-estate makes a huge difference in viewing images and working in Lightroom (not to mention Powerpoint and Excel). With 3 Gigs of memory installed, it runs both Lightroom and PhotoShop Elements at the same time…flicking back and forth between them instantly. And it runs both programs faster than the Aspire One ever managed. The speed increase in noticeable and welcome in Lightroom, on every operation, but especially on complex actions like the graduated filter effects…but it is totally amazing on PhSElements, turning a real sluggard, which crashed way too often, into a working proposition for the first time in my experience on a Netbook. This has significantly changed my post-processing work flow already, making it possible for me to use PhotoShop Elements as my external editor while running Lightroom: for those times I need to apply layers, local edits, or use, for instance, the Correct Camera Distortion filter (see Distortion City…and how to cure it! on P&S Landscapes). Slick.

With the Atom processor, HD video editing is still a challenge, but along with the new computer I discovered a new video editor: Corel Video Studio 12, which does the trick of creating low resolution stand in files for HD video as you import it into a project, so your editing is done quickly and easily, and then the edits are applied to the original HD files when the final project is burned to disk. Corel runs just fine on the HP Mini 311.

HD Video in Windows Media Player

The 311 even runs HULU desktop…something it should not, by the specs, do. And, with the new Adobe Flash 10.1 beta installed, it does really well on HD video from YouTube or other streaming sites. Windows Media Player handles raw MP4 video straight from the camera with ease. Impressive. Watching an HD video on a 1366×768 16/9 ratio screen is, in fact, a real pleasure.

I should mention that the HP Mini 311 I bought came with Windows 7 Home Premium. It provided my first experience of Windows 7, and while I will never be a real fan of Windows, it is the best implementation I have seen yet, and seems well suited to the Atom/ION platform. It is notably faster in almost every operation than Windows XP, at least on the 311, and many of the rough edges of XP seem to have been well and intelligently smoothed. Every program I rely on has, so far, run at least as well under 7 as it did under XP, and maybe even a bit better.

It is still Windows, of course.

I will have to wait for more extensive reviews of the newer CULV machines to see my somewhat impulsive buy was, in the end, for the best…but I am very impressed with the HP Mini 311. In another year there will undoubtedly be CULV machines with more powerful graphics processors. Combine the CPU power and a dedicated graphics accelerator and you would have a Netbook sized machine to rival almost any laptop on the market. We will see. Nothing is forever, but for now my HP Mini is pretty much this photographers dream of the mobile image processing station!

Corel VideoStudio 12

almost full sized key board for very easy typing.

Written by singraham

December 5, 2009 at 6:57 am