Photography Experiments: Aperture, Focal Length, and Sensor Size

It snowed here recently, so I took a photo of a branch with some snow on it, which came out decently enough, but it prompted me to think: what would this look like at different apertures – or even different sensor sizes? So I decided to perform a little photography experiment to find out, and these were the results.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.6First is the original photo – taken at f/5.6, at max zoom (200mm, equivalent to 400mm on a full-frame camera) using my Lumix G2 camera. Even on my smaller micro four-thirds sensor, you can see that the background is completely blurred out – even more so than I could’ve gotten with my f/1.7 lens!

The depth of field in this photo is very shallow – if you look closely at the bottom right of the photo, you can see the bottom part of the branch is slightly out of focus (because it was angled slightly towards me). This gives you an idea of how thin a “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f22Next, I changed the aperture to f/22, but kept everything else the same. As you can see above, the background is still blurred out, but not as much. It is still blurred somewhat because I was focusing on a branch just a few feet in front of me, while the background is easily another hundred feet beyond that.

Compared to the first photo, you can see that the bottom bit of the branch is in focus – meaning the depth of field was greater, and a thicker “slice” of the scene was in focus.

snow on pine tree branch - f5.9 (compact camera)Finally, for this last picture I switched to a different camera – a compact Canon PowerShot ELPH 320. The aperture here is f/5.9, nearly the same as my very first shot, but as you can see the background is hardly blurred at all! The depth of field here is very deep – a very large portion of the scene is in focus.

Unfortunately, the little compact camera I was using couldn’t zoom to the same focal length – so this photo is at the equivalent of 255mm, instead of 400mm, and that contributes to the greater depth of field as well.

However, the smaller sensor size also has a significant impact – because the sensor is so small, there’s less room for the light to be “smeared out” (as it were), and so less of the background can be blurred.

So, what did we learn from all this? All else being equal:

  • A larger aperture (a smaller f-number) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A longer focal length (zoomed in more) provides less depth of field and allows for a more blurred background.
  • A larger sensor allows for less depth of field, which allows for a more blurred background.

This is why compact & cell phone cameras – which usually don’t have large apertures, don’t have long focal lengths, and have small sensors – are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting shallow depth of field & that nice blurred-out background look.

Nothing here is terribly ground-breaking in itself, and all of this should be basic “photography 101″ stuff, but I still think that actually performing photography experiments like this can be incredibly useful, in the same way that performing physics or chemistry experiments can be useful even if you already know the theory behind it.

As for myself, experiments like this help me develop an intuitive “feel” for how all the different settings and elements work together, so that I can just take the photos I want to take, without having to spend too much time thinking about which setting affects which aspect of the photo.

Perhaps this experiment will help you in the same way, or perhaps it will inspire you to perform your own photography experiments. Either way, I hope it’s been helpful, or at least enjoyable!

Windows 8.1 is Here – Is it any Better?

Windows 8.1Windows 8.1 was released yesterday, and it’s available as a free update for anyone who already has Windows 8. So, naturally, as soon as it became available, I took the plunge and installed it.

Windows 8.1 is kind of a strange mix of “service pack” and “new operating system,” but the really big question is – is it any better than Windows 8 was? Does it improve on the shortcomings I pointed out in my previous reviews?

Read on to find out!

Installing

windows store tileGetting the update was actually a bit confusing. It’s not a Windows update, and doesn’t appear as part of your standard updates – instead, you have to launch the “Store” app and hope that the offer to upgrade appears (I’m not sure what triggers it, as it didn’t appear at first for me).

The installation is fairly straightforward, although it does take a while – even longer than installing a Windows Service Pack used to take.

Still, there were no hiccups and eventually after a few reboots I was back at my desktop. Not a bad start to things! And speaking of “Start…”

Start Is Back, All Right!

start button is back in Windows 8.1

We missed you!

The Start button is back – as it should have been all along.

While I understand the reasons behind using the corners as “hot spots” for both mouse and touch gestures, when introducing a new user interface element like this, you need to give some sort of visual cue to… um… cue users into the fact that there is something there that can be interacted with.

The Start Screen, Take Two

The ability to have your desktop show through the Start screen is a very small change, but it goes a long way towards making it feel more “cohesive.” No longer is the Start screen this weird world of squares & rectangles, with no connection to your desktop – instead, it’s just an overlay of icons you can click on, just like the old Start menu was (but bigger).

Windows 8.1′s Start screen also now uses different colors for tiles – and not just Metro app tiles, either. All your application tiles now have individual colors, which usually (but not always) match the color of the icon.

windows 8.1 - start screen colors

Instead of being mainly a single color for non-Metro apps, your Start menu is now a real rainbow of colors.

All these colors certainly make the Start screen a bit more visually distinct, but it also makes it look a bit busy. Still, it’s a nice touch to help identify the program you’re looking for at a glance, since the color helps with recognizing an icon before you even read the text.

The ability to go to the “All Apps” view by just clicking a single chevron at the bottom of the Start screen is a welcome addition – especially since Windows 8.1 doesn’t automatically dump newly installed program icons on the Start screen like before. Now you can quickly bring up your “All Apps” (the equivalent to “All Programs” in pre-Windows 8 speak) and find your programs (relatively) easily.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - all apps

Much better!

Windows 8.1 also adds some new sizes for icon tiles – instead of “square” and “rectangle,” you now have “tiny square” and “even bigger rectangle.” Not a big deal, but it’s helpful to keep your Start screen organized if you have lots of icons – though only Metro apps can use the “even bigger” tile sizes.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - different tile sizes

Little icons, big icons, all sizes of icons!

Modern Metro Madness

One small but nice change in Windows 8.1 is that Metro apps can now be split-screened in any proportion – you’re no longer limited to the 1/3 and 2/3 split from Windows 8.

If you have multiple monitors, you can also run Metro apps separately on each one – though I can’t really imagine many people doing this.

(Also, what should we be calling these apps now? They were originally code-named “Metro,” then they became “Windows 8 Modern.” Are they now “Windows 8.1 Modern?” Seriously, they need a better name!)

Search the World

I never understood why Microsoft chose to make search in Windows 8 segmented – it just made no sense to me at all. Previously, searching from the Start menu searched both your Start menu and all of your indexed locations (by default, your libraries) – which is exactly what it should do. Simple, search once and find what you need, no matter where it might be.

But in Windows 8, you had to choose where you were searching – were you searching apps? Or were you searching settings? Or files? And it got worse when you realized that some things (e.g., system settings) were not under “settings,” but actually “apps,” depending on their specific implementation. It was maddening and just made no sense.

windows 8.1 - search everywhereFortunately, Windows 8.1 undoes this terrible design decision, and by default the search now searches “everything” again. (That is, it searches all your apps and all your libraries.)

On the other hand, Windows 8.1 does by default include integration with Bing for search results – but this is easy enough to turn off if you don’t want to search the Internet every time you try to search your computer.

Boot to the Head – er, Desktop

Yep, that’s right – you can now have Windows 8.1 boot directly to the desktop, instead of the Start screen. This option isn’t on by default, but it’s available – and again, something that really should have been there all along.

windows 8.1 - new start screen options

Some welcome new options

Is That It?

Yep, pretty much. Windows 8.1 brings a number of welcome changes – though some of these are less “changes” and more “putting things back the way they were” – but at the end of the day it’s a very minor update – just as it’s name would suggest.

The Bad Stuff

Although the installation itself went very smoothly, there were a few hiccups with my upgrade.

I did have to re-install a few programs because they ran as “services” in Windows, and for whatever reason the update had lost or removed the services. I also had to re-install my display driver – Windows defaulted back to the Microsoft provided driver, which works fine, but doesn’t have some features I like and need.

I also had to re-install my printer/scanner software, as it lost the ability to “Scan to” my computer (even though it still printed just fine) – although honestly this is probably more the fault of the printer manufacturer’s often finicky software.

Windows 8.1 also takes the odd stance of removing links for Libraries from the left-hand navigation pane of Windows Explorer window – though thankfully there is an easy option to bring this back.

Also, somehow my Windows theme had gotten changed so that the text in title bars and the task bar was black instead of white – and it’s not at all easy to figure out how to change this back.

Still, all things considered the problems with this upgrade were fairly minor – none of my devices malfunctioned (and I do have quite a few USB devices hanging off my computer) and all my settings were retained. Having to re-install a few programs, although slightly annoying, was not really that bad.

Windows 8.1 Final Thoughts

All-in-all, Windows 8.1 is still very “meh,” just like Windows 8 was – just slightly less so. Not exactly something I’d get excited about, but it is an improvement – albeit a small one.

The “Metro” side of things (or whatever Microsoft is calling it now) remains just as useless as before – although to be fair, there are more apps now and the built-in ones have improved a fair bit. For anyone using Windows on a tablet device, I’m sure these will be welcome improvements, but for the majority of people I’d imagine they will continue to be mostly ignored.

There are also some other changes I didn’t really go over, but to me they are just so minor as to be irrelevant.

If you already have Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is almost no-brainer, as most of the changes are definite improvements over Windows 8, despite the few glitches you might encounter along the way.

If, on the other hand, you’re upgrading from Windows 7 or purchasing a new computer, I would definitely say that you want Windows 8.1 over Windows 8 – mainly for the Start button and Start screen improvements.

More of the Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

So I went for a walk again recently, on a trail that goes beside the Passaic River near my house.

green reflections in the passaic river

It’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk, especially in the evening, since the reflections in the river can be amazing.

water like glass

I always tell people that New Jersey isn’t called “The Garden State” for nothing – everywhere I go, I find nothing but lush green growth. (Newark and the bits near New York are the exception, of course.)

a narrow path through lush greenery

Even more amazing is how the setting sun lights up the green of the trees and undergrowth along the river. It’s almost like something out of a painting.

setting sun through the trees

This time I went a bit further than I normally do, and as usual, I was rewarded with beautiful scenes. You never know what might be around the next corner.

gold and green at sunset

Finally of course I had to turn back – the trail probably goes on, but I figure I can save that for another day.

evening reflections in the passaic river

No matter where you are, there’s always something special waiting, hidden, in the most unlikely or even ordinary of places – if you just take the time to look. Often these special places are right nearby, around corners we routinely ignore.

Wherever you are, or wherever you end up, I hope you take the time – once in a while, at least – to look around you, to turn down that path you always walk by, or that place you’ve always seen but never stopped at. Your curiosity will almost certainly be rewarded.

Happy (backyard) trails, everyone.

A (Renewed) Case for Encryption

gpg encryptionI kind of hoped that this NSA/PRISM/wholesale government surveillance business would re-energize people into actually getting back into using encryption, and perhaps even trying to solve the problem of getting more people to actually use it.

One of the big problems with encryption – for example, email encryption using public key cryptography (PGP or GnuPG) – has been just getting enough people to start using it. With the way public key encryption works, you need to use encryption, AND the person you’re sending it to needs to use encryption, too.

In addition, there’s also the further complication of signing one another’s keys and assigning trust levels and so on… it’s just a bit too complicated and technical for your average user.

However, it doesn’t have to be complicated, and given what we’ve learned recently, it seems to me it really shouldn’t be - and that it is in all of our best interests to make it be as simple and easy as possible.

People have been harping on about the importance of encryption for ages, but widespread adoption has mostly been limited to SSL (for webmail & other web apps & services). This sort of encryption prevents a 3rd party from intercepting your communication with Google or Microsoft or Facebook or your bank or whatever, but none of that matters if your data is just going to be handed over to the government by the company on the other end anyway!

SSL encrypts your connection and your data during transmission, but the actual contents of your data are unencrypted at either end, and vulnerable to interception. It’s a good first step, but it isn’t enough – not anymore.

passwordOn the other hand, actually encrypting the contents of your communications – the email, the files, etc. – means that even if they are stored on a server (as your email is, for example), they are still encrypted – and most importantly, the server doesn’t have the decryption key -  only the recipient does.

What this would means in practice is that it would prevent the wholesale collection of data.  If the government wanted the contents of someone’s communications, they would need to go after that individual; they wouldn’t be able to just pull it out of a big database.

Since going after an individual takes effort and requires a subpoena or at least a court order of some sort, there’s protection built-in. Plus, now the government’s attempts to access your data would be limited in scope to one person at a time, and they can’t be done in secret – or, at least, they’d be less secretive.

The government may still collect other data about you, of course – encryption is not a cure-all. It may still collect “metadata” about you – times and dates and such – but at least the content of your data remains secure until specifically subpoenaed.

As a side note, the NSA has repeatedly said that this is what it does anyway, as part of an attempt to justify why we shouldn’t be worried about this – but because everything the NSA does is secret, we have no way to be sure that this is actually the case. All we have to go on is the NSA saying “trust us, we won’t read your email without a court order (that you aren’t allowed to see).” Doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of trust, now does it? Especially given the track record we’re dealing with.

Perhaps if our government had a long & strong history of being trustworthy, of being transparent with its behavior, of standing up for individual rights and privacy, and severely limiting the collection and access of people’s data to only what is explicitly needed for specific cases and actions, this whole wholesale surveillance thing wouldn’t be such an issue.

But sadly, this is not the case – our government has shown, again and again, that it cannot be trusted in this regard, and that when given the opportunity, it will make a grab for as much power as it possibly can get.

Given the recent revelations on exactly how much power (and, by extension, data) our government has grabbed as of late, making actual content encryption available, widespread, and easy to use seems like an absolute no-brainer.

Icons courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.