Stuff I Use: The Mac

Macbook Pro

I’m a Mac fanatic.

I haven’t always been. In my Software Engineering days I slagged the Mac as a shiny, expensive toy. Outwardly hostile, inwardly I eyed them with envy.

On the side, I built a recording and IT consulting business based on the Windows world. I would make money off of the failures of Microsoft, fixing problems that ought not to have existed. In my own creative space, I chose PCs for music & photography out of necessity. I could get discounted PC hardware, leaving more money for paying the rent.

But as I grew out of enjoying the tinkering and into actually wanting to get work done, my enthusiasm for the DIY World of Windows quickly faded.

The final straw: one day, a well-meaning roommate inadvertently plugged my PC workstation into the internet without a firewall. Within five minutes, the machine was completely locked up with malware & viruses. Not only that, but it took two days of OS updates, driver installs, and software installation to get it back to a usable state.

Ever since then I’ve been sold on the Mac.

Not long before, I had set up my first video editing suite: Final Cut Pro, and a shiny new G4. Robb, my local Mac evangelist, dropped off the machine and took it out of the box for me. He plugged in the power. He plugged in the monitor. He plugged in the keyboard & mouse, and turned it on. He dropped in the install DVD and let it churn… and that was it. 15 minutes top to tail, and I had a working edit suite.

They’re still computers, and they still drive me nuts at times. But I’ve been won over. The user interface is designed & thoroughly thought through. The APIs given to third-party developers have been created in a way to make applications have an air of familiarity, even if they do vastly different tasks. There’s consistency. There’s simplicity, with the underlying power of Unix (if I really want to hack away).

And there’s the beauty of the thing, both in the software and Apple’s renowned industrial design.

With all that, I think my favourite part about the Mac is the ecosystem it creates for 3rd-party software. While Apple covers the bases well with the included applications, every productivity or creativity task you can think of, has been… and turned into a simple program to allow you to work. Apple’s design philosophy trickles down into these applications, where interface design and engaging me as a user is as important as the functions the software performs.

They still drive me nuts. Really. But if I have to choose a desert-island companion, my Mac just might win over my camera. Maybe.

Stuff I Use: The Drobo

Drobo

I’m a bit of a backup freak. My current house-transition aside, I consistently have two or three backups of just about every piece of data I consider precious (which is most of it). When I first started contemplating moving around the continent, I began to look for an affordable & portable storage solution for all my masses of files.

I’d been here before… I have only my laptop (a Macbook Pro), which eliminates several options. I wanted something with redundancy, so it could handle a failed hard drive – which, with their spinning platters moving several thousand rotations per second fractions of a millimetre from the read head, are not known for their reliability – while still being fast enough to be usable. In previous searches I’d discovered you had to pick one of safety or speed, or be prepared to pay 4-5 times more to keep your stuff safe.

Then I ran across the Drobo, short for ‘data robot’. It uses block-level redundancy (instead of disk-level), which means it can handle any single drive failing, but the drives don’t all have to be the same. You can stuff it with whatever SATA drives you have on hand (or can afford), and expand it as your storage needs grow.

So I bought two.

And then I bought a third six months ago for a project I’m working on, along with a DroboShare, which lets you access the drives over a network. In all, 10 Terabytes of hard drives are spinning in my Drobos.

They’ve been great. They work without any management or thinking required, chugging away in the background. I use them to back up my cheap-but-speedy striped SATA RAIDs – which are fast, but not saf. So in the end I ended up with two copies of everything, one on fast local drives, the other on Drobos for backup with their redundancy and set-and-forget working style.

The only downside has been that they’re not particularly fast – 15-20 MB/s is a reasonable expectation. Better than the competition, but 10 TB takes a long time to backup at that speed.

So today, I was happy to see that they’ve released Drobo V.2, with Firewire 800 and greatly improved read & write speeds – almost triple the performance in some cases. In my mind this takes the Drobos from being mostly for backup, to being a good primary drive solution for many uses.

So if you’re in the market for some safe, speedy, affordable storage… take a look.

Stuff I Use: The Red Camera

In 2006, DIY filmmakers were splashed with news of a hot new camera, the RED. I lined up with many other eager would-be camera owners and put my $1000 on hopes that it would deliver. After having shot with it myself in Rwanda and more recently back in Vancouver, and after prepping it for several high-profile shows, I can confidently say that this camera Kicks Ass.

4K, RAW photography, shooting to compact flash, flexible, tough, fast to work with, and it makes beautiful images. The proof is in the footage:

If you’ve got bandwidth to spare, here’s the clip compressed in 720p and full 2k. (right-click to download)

Stuff I Use: Hollywood Microdolly

This thing is pure gold: the Hollywood Microdolly. Sets up in two minutes, is smooth, light, and fits into a small handbag about 30″ long. It weighs maybe five pounds, and you can set up a new shot in less than 30 seconds. Fifteen feet of travel and it looks great.

This shot is from a tripod-mounted Red, sitting on top of the micro dolly. Saif was doing a press check at his workstation. Behind us is a 150-foot-long giant of a Heidelberg, pumping out four completed magazines every second.

We set this up while he was working. His movements weren’t coordinated – we tracked with him as he worked, guessing at each action. Having the Microdolly took this from a boring pan shot to a much more interesting movement that accentuates the speed of the action and the size of the workstation, while keeping the focus on his attentive character.

A Second Sun

24-70 f2.8L detail

Over time I’ve developed a kit of photo gear that I’m very happy with. On my shoulders is a sling bag holding my trusty 70-200 f/2.8L IS, spare batteries, angle finder, 17-40 f/4L, a small nalgene for water & a clif bar for stocking up on energy. In one hand is usually my 5D & battery grip, loaded with a 24-70 f/2.8L.

On this trip, I have a new addition:

Flash Device
It’s a wireless handheld flash contraption, in case you’re wondering.

For the last while I’ve wanted to try carrying a small strobe with me, for practical and artistic reasons. Practically, a flash can help manage contrast in mid-day equatorial sunshine – shooting dark skin often results in excessive dynamic range, beyond what a digital sensor can capture. Artistically, a strobe allows creative control over contrast, giving me a second light source. I’m no longer at the mercy of the sun.

I’ve rigged together something portable that I can hold while shooting, or have someone else hold for me (human light stands are more flexible than metal ones). It consists of a post mounted onto a threaded handle (actually designed for shock-mounting a microphone), onto which tightens an umbrella angle bracket. I’m using Pocketwizard wireless flash releases, one on the camera, the other on a custom threaded mount (a screw welded onto a hose clamp, which tightens around the handle). On top of it all is a Vivitar 285HV flash.

The results are dramatic. Otherwise unshootable scenes transform into photographic frames with pop. My favorite technique is to cross-light, using the sun as fill and the flash as key light. Here are a couple examples from a recent gallery:

Rwandan Kids in Field 1Rwandan Kids in Field 2

I’m very pleased with the results, and I’m looking forward to using this technique in Bulembu. The original idea for this combination came from conversations with Jesse and reading Strobist, a great online resource for photographic lighting.

Here’s a few photos of the kit all put together:

Strobist Kit 1Strobist Kit 2
Strobist Kit 3Trev in 24