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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

••◊ Joshua Tree National Park Pictures

Last week I finally visited Joshua Tree National Park.  I've talked about it for years, but like most nearby locations I continually put it off thinking that it's something I could do anytime.  The Joshua Trees were named by Mormon travelers in the 1800's because they thought the trees reminded them of the biblical story of Joshua raising his hands in prayer.  By historical terms, the park is relatively new.  It was declared a National Monument in 1936 and became a National Park in 1994.  Just for reference, the park is larger than the state of Rhode Island and crosses both the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

We started out journey from the West visitor's center in the village of Joshua Tree.  The first thing you come across are large piles of rocks that were formed 100 million years ago from the cooling of magma.  Flash flooding has eroded the areas around the rock piles, leaving these rock islands among the trees.

Joshua Tree is also a popular place for rock climbing.  Below is one of the first markers I noticed in the park - for creatively named "Lizard's Hangout" and "Mel's Diner".  You quickly come upon Intersection Rock and Old Woman Rock near Keys' Ranch; a popular area for rock climbers.  On every high rock I saw adventurers up on top or descending.  It seems to be a very popular camping spot as well.  

Just a block away was a left turn toward Key's Ranch, Barker Dam, and the Wall Street Mill.  We opted to skip Keys' Ranch, since it's only offered as a park ranger guided tour at certain time intervals.  Bill Keys arrived in the area in 1910 and befriended Jim McHaney, a local outlaw and cattle rustler.  Jim owned the ranch, originally called Desert Queen Ranch, and Bill took it over after Jim's death.  For time's sake, we only visited Barker Dam, the only nearby source of water.  The trough that Jim and Bill used for taking care of their cattle is still there just below the dam.  If anyone is missing a pair of Minnie Mouse sunglasses, they might still be available on the hike.

As you leave Barker Dam you'll see a path leading up to this rock.  Inside the little cave there's petroglyphs.  Unfortunately the petroglyphs were vandalized by the Disney Company in 1961 as they were making a film there.  The production team painted over the petroglyphs so they showed up better on camera.

The next spot we visited was Keys' View.  It's quite a lengthy uphill drive from Keys' Ranch to Keys' View and you only know you've arrived when you come around a bend and see the parking lot.  Unfortunately for me the toilet was invaded by a large swarm of bees looking for water.  I braved the it and made it out alive!  Take that David Blaine!  From the view you can see the Salton Sea and Indio on the left, Palm Springs on the right, and the San Andreas Fault in the middle right of the picture.

Along the way to Skull Rock, we made a brief stop at Ryan Ranch.  This homestead was established in 1986 by J.D. Ryan and family, who owned the Lost Horse Mine.  Unfortunately the house was burned down in 1978.  All that remains today are the adobe walls and various "stuff" laying around the yard.  The middle picture below is a panorama I took while standing in the middle of the building slab.  The third picture below shows a defiant rock standing upright on the pile next to the ranch.  It will probably be standing there long, long after I'm gone.

We also stopped at the Hall of Horrors, which was a huge "huh?"  I only later found out that the area was nicknamed that by rock climbers.  There is actually a narrow "hallway" between the North and South Horror rocks.  We completely missed the "hall".  I guess I'll have to find it on another trip.  At least the bathroom wasn't infested with bees.

Just a little more south are the Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock.  Kids love to climb inside the skull eyeballs and have their parents take pictures.  I had to wait about 10 minutes to get a "clean" picture of the rock.  One little kid was so enamored with climbing the nearby jumbo rocks that he defiantly ignored his parents and tried to take off up the rocks until his parents have the ultimatum command voice.  I have to admit, they were fun to climb on.

The next to last stop of the day was the Cholla Cactus Garden, named after the large number of Cholla plants in this little area.  This area seemed to offer a kamikaze mission for caterpillars.  They were squished along the trail, road, and even off the trails.  These little buggers were able to maneuver between the cactus thorns.  The one in the third picture below even stopped to look up at me; like "what are you going to do to me?  I'm in between thorns!"

We did stop at Cottonwood Springs as well, but by that time neither one of us wanted to do a 2.4 mile hike (my feet were DONE) and the sun was starting to set.  So we walked down to the palm grove and turned around.  It had already been a long day.  The drive from the northwest entrance to the park down to the south entrance is nearly 70 miles, and that doesn't count the off shoots.  The flowers were blooming down by the south entrance near I-10, but I was too tired to get out and take a picture despite their beautiful back lighting.  Sean Penn's character was right in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Sometimes it's just about not taking the photograph and just taking in the moment.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

••◊ Camera Jib Tutorial

Dom has wanted to create a camera jib/crane tutorial for a few months now, so we finally got around to it.  Dom liked showing off his jib "skillz".

Monday, March 6, 2017

••◊ Tiffen 4 Point Star Filter and Mardi Gras

Last Tuesday I was given an opportunity to be a photographer for San Diego's annual Mardi Gras celebration in the Gaslamp Quarter.  I had an all access press pass from Henry's Pub thanks to DJ Yodah, which meant I could go just about anywhere I wanted.  Woo hoo!  ...and double woo hoo for samba dancers!  Normally I'm not much of an event photographer, and not even set up as such anymore.  I only have my little Fuji X-E2S, which struggles to keep up without a flash and with just the 18-55 kit lens.  Most of my photos were ruined by not having the right equipment, but I made the best of what I had. 

Given that this was going to be a party I opted to buy a small toy ahead of time; a Tiffen 4 point star filter.  I wanted to try one of these filters out for a while and I found this filter used on Amazon for $18 + shipping.  Lucky for me, it arrived just the day before the event.  I wouldn't recommend this filter for a wedding or corporate event, but it's a fun way to add some pizazz to concert or party events - definitely suitable for Mardi Gras.  You just have to accept that sometimes the filter is going to be appropriate and sometimes it's going to be completely overbearing.  This was Mardi Gras with three DJ's, so there was no such thing as over the top.

First, meet the DJ stage build crew...  That's Joshua on the far right.  He's the crew foreman and travels around with the DJ stages to various events.  If the stages look like something from Burning Man, that's because they are.  I even noticed Burning Man bumper stickers on the back of the stage.  Cassandra is on the far left.  She's one of the build crew and even took up dancing on one of the stages during the evening.

This is the stage that Joshua and crew brought to Henry's that evening - a giant neon moth with a DJ stage on top!

The crew also brought the "Candy Mountain" stage, which came with it's own motto: "Unicorning So Hard."  I still don't get it, but hey...it's from Burning Man and I don't do drugs.  The star filter was in full effect here.

Wolf Alexander, Christopher London, DJ Kurty, and Antonio (DJ Yodah) had people dancing outside Henry's all night.  I was grateful that I remembered to bring ear plugs!  I had to be very patient when taking these photos since I could only photograph people when they stopped moving.  I was really missing a high ISO camera, a fast prime lens, and a good flash.  I still think it worked out OK for the most part.

Mardi Gras would be a complete bust without samba dancers.  The star filter really helped them sparkle - literally!  Some of the headlights really over powered the filter, which may or may not have worked; depending on your opinion.

The star filter is a fun toy, but definitely not for everyday use.  Someday I hope to use it on a music video or commercial.

••◊ YouTube Channel Introduction Video (i.e. optimizing for YouTube part 2)

One thing I recently learned about YouTube is the fact that some channels have introduction videos that play when a viewer reaches the channel.  I took some of the suggestions from the YouTube Creators Academy and created a script for Video Gear that was largely based on these key points...
  1. Who are we and what makes us credible?
  2. What do we offer?
  3. What is our philosophy/mission statement?
  4. How do we build community around our channel?
I asked Dom to "Dom-ify" the script, and he countered by calling it "Legro-lizing" (after his hip-hop moniker El Gun Legro).  The introduction video needed to be personal and identify the brand, which is largely based on Dom's personality.  Finally, we shot this video...

Also of note: I found out that a Zeiss CP.2 35mm lens produces sun starts at T/2.8.  At T/2 they stars disappear.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

••◊ Grip Clamp Basics

Dom and I shot this short tutorial last weekend.  He wrote it; I directed.  Now I finally know the difference between a Mafer Clamp and Cardellini Clamp.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

••◊ Optimizing Videos for YouTube

I'm sure this will be a multi-part post as I learn more about YouTube. You see, Video Gear is now shutting down as a sales and rental house. San Diego has always been a small community for video; mostly wedding and corporate video. There's a strong contingency of indie filmmakers, but they typically don't rent equipment. When they do buy, they buy the cheap stuff from Amazon or B&H since it's not worth owning expensive/professional equipment for YouTube shorts. Even more so than Los Angeles or New York City, you have to develop your own thing here in San Diego. There's no infrastructure to rest upon.

What this means is that we are re-launching the Video Gear tutorials as their own thing. Dom and I plan to continue with the videos with ad and sponsor revenue from YouTube.  I've taken down the Vimeo site simply because they don't have a revenue stream.  I love Vimeo.  Honestly, their site management is so much simpler than YouTube and they let you update a video instead of just dog-piling a newer version or losing your view count.  We had more views from the artist community on Vimeo than the tutorial community on YouTube.

So,...getting back to the point of this post...I want to share a few things I'm learning about YouTube now that I've taken over management of the Video Gear channel.

1.  SEO matters (great big DUH!).  However, SEO isn't just about adding a whole bunch of keywords.  Use Google trends to identify keywords and key phrases that matter.
2.  SEO uses the *first* part of your video's title.  Make that count as much as possible.
3.  Numbering your videos lets people know that this is a series and more are available.
4.  Create playlists so people can binge watch your videos.
5.  Use "End Screens" to advertise more videos and let viewers subscribe.  This also means that you need to edit in 20 seconds of time at the end of your video for the End Screen elements to pop up.
6.  Use cards to advertise other videos related to the current content in the middle of your video.
7.  List social media contacts in the video description.
8.  Subscribe to related channels, and hopefully many with more subscribers than you.
9.  Ask viewers to share their work from your tutorial in the comments section.
10.  Make a "Creator's Video" that tells viewers who you are, what you do, and what you want to provide to them.
11.  Use thumbnails with large, bold text that can be identified at postage stamp size.

I'm still learning as I go, but these are the basics I've learned in the last few weeks.  The YouTube Creator Academy has been a wonderful resource to come up to speed and I highly recommend checking out some of their tutorials.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

••◊ DIY LED Light With High CRI

I've spent the last year on a personal electronics project, purely out of an engineer's propensity for exploring.  The project finally came to life during the holiday shutdown a few weeks ago. 

Since 2006 I've been working on films and watched the dawn of (terrible) LED lights.  They started out anemic with extremely poor color rendition.  In a nutshell, it was clearly a developing technology.  Only people who didn't care about color, or didn't know better, used the early products and their cheap-o knock offs from China.  That is...until they saw their footage and realized that there was *no color* in the talent's skin or everything looked extremely green (been there myself).  LEDs quickly developed a bad reputation, much like digital audio developed a bad reputation for it's early incarnations. 

Then along came the automotive industry and government energy policies to transition consumer LED lighting products over to LED.  All of a sudden people expected LEDs to actually look good and the video industry is still riding that wave.  Also, the video industry started to develop remote phosphor panels so the product developers could finally tightly control the color rendering capabilities of their fixture.

My initiative was started when I saw the new violet based "white" LEDs from Yuji.  I specifically liked the spectrum of the VTC5730.  The problem with most (not all) blue based "white" LEDs is that they have a large spike in blue, nothing in violet, a dip in cyan, a large "hump" in yellow-green, and not enough in flesh-friendly red.  It's a compromise to get something that looks decent to our eyes, but cameras don't adjust their perception based on the general color in the room and memory.  They just record what's there.  So blue-based "white" LEDs often had a reputation for making people look green (too much green, not enough red).  That's changes with violet based LEDs.  Now there's very little of any gap in the spectrum and the LEDs output very closely matches real daylight (I used the 5600K LEDs).

Here are a couple pictures of the front and back of the fixture, which you can compare to the CAD pictures above.

Learning CREO Elements took a few weeks and a few re-do's of the CAD when I messed up (big time!).  However, that was the point of doing a project like this.  I have no plans to enter the LED lighting market.  I just wanted to exercise my brain outside the familiarities of my paying job.  Learning the new CAM computers in our machine shop was likewise a growth exercise. Now I feel like I'm pretty confident in creating new parts if I need them. What I also learned is that machining is a pain and I'd rather be designing...so for my next project I plan to buy a case.  It's worth the money in terms of my sanity.

The PCB's were all done through ExpressPCB.  That's why all the boards are 3.8" x 2.5".  They offer a special deal if you use that specific PCB size.  It's also why there are six LED "bulbs" in the design.  The one in the lower left corner has a temperature sensor installed for safety since the LEDs are only rated to 70C.  The firmware debug cable is sticking up outside the top ventilation grill.  I've just been too lazy to remove in the last week.

I originally intended the LED light to be a platform where I could drive multiple types of LED "bulbs".  The drivers can easily handle 120mA to 700mA LEDs (standard driving currents).  If I was to do this project again I would just take all six LED driver boards and combine them into one with 120mA drive only.  That would have made cable routing much easier - it's currently a mess inside and something I need to think about for future projects.

A part of the project that was necessary from a development perspective was the LCD display.  Obviously it's not need for operation, but I wanted to be able to see specific drive levels and the thermal response of the system.  I didn't have a way to simulate the thermal conduction of the light before constructing it, so it was a matter of applying educated engineering practice/guesses and crossing my fingers.  It turns out that the bulb gets up to about 61C when fully cooking.  The LED max out at 70C, so it worked out.

I also included a forced cooling ventilation system at the bottom.  This really helps with keeping the bulb temperature down.  What I learned here is that the vendors don't exactly tell you what to expect in terms of fan noise.  The first fans I bought were TERRIBLE in terms of noise.  When I bought the second batch it made a HUGE difference in terms of audible noise. However, they still aren't silent, despite vendor claims.  What I did as a compromise is only make the fans turn on when the bulb goes past 40C and the speed ramps up all the way toward 60C.  I figured if the light was that close I wouldn't need the power output and it's best to have the fans turned off for audio recording.  One of the main issues here is that I didn't have the option of a custom heat sink extrusion, like Cineo or Arri LED lights.  I had to buy an off the shelf heat sink and machine it to work, which meant compromise.  If I had the option of a custom extrusion I probably would have ditched the fans altogether.

Here's the final working light - turned way, way down.  At 5 feet, ISO 100, 24fps, I measure f4 and a quarter at full power.  That's about 240 foot-candles, which is pretty respectable output - on the order of some expensive pro-level LED fixtures.  I can clearly see a difference in a fully sun lit room at mid day. Some improvements could be made by using actual white solder mask and other optical optimization around the bulb.  I'm sure I'm loosing some light just due to the 1/4" thick plexi-glass in front of the bulbs.  I had to cover the bulb boards in white silk screen because ExpressPCB didn't give me an option of solder mask color - yet another compromise.

Overall, it was a great learning and growth opportunity. I learned to generate my own mechanical CAD in both 2D and 3D.  I learned CAM machining.  I also learned about thermal management and developed a new LED driver topology that I haven't seen elsewhere (mainly for cost reasons).  If I was to expand this project I might add a mount for barn doors and a soft box.  I might also create bi-color LED bulbs boards, which is mainly a matter of soldering together new bulb boards with a mixture of LEDs, a bit of firmware magic, and adding another knob to the UI.

For now, I'm just going to move on to the next project.  As I mentioned, there's no commercialization initiative here.  I just wanted to create something as an engineering art project.  I've learned what I'm going to learn.  Now it's time to move into the wild world of audio.