One or two things I wish I had known before starting macro photography

A friend of mine and me recently got ourselves a Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens. We thought we’d easily do plenty of good looking macro images, but not quite so. It turns out that macro photography is a pretty hard exercise, no matter what gear you have, and for some reason I haven’t seen too many resources discussing the difficulties.

It boils down to one thing : you’ll need light. Lots of it, a lot more than you’d expect, actually. And a tripod, because at 100mm, when closing in on the subject (around 30-40 cm), camera shake becomes a serious problem. Ah, but this lens has a 2.8 aperture, you say, surely light can’t be a problem. Well, it still is. The reason is that at 2.8, with a 100mm focal length, your depth of field becomes paper-thin as you close in on a subject. At minimum range, you can’t shoot a frickin’ ant without having, say, it’s head sharp and rest of the body blurry.

That’s why this lens also makes very nice portraits (although it still doesn’t beat the 70-200 f2.8 as far as I’m concerned). But the point is, at 2.8 the lens is hardly usable at close range so in most cases you’ll need to close down to 5.6 for a typical subject (a flower for instance). Now factor in the camera shake, and there’s your light problem, and why a tripod can really be a necessity, even though you’d think you have great light conditions.

Anyway, here are the results.

Nabaztag or chumby ?

A couple of days ago, I made an order through Amazon which included a nabaztag. Despite what I still view as a design flaw, it’s still a cute, versatile toy and I figured I could find a nice use for it. Then, thinking more about it, I changed my mind and cancelled the order. The only real use I could find for it was to have it report some events like new mail or someone trying to reach me through IM, allowing me to still know about these events even when I’m not in front of my machine and the screen saver is on. But two things stopped me. First, the nabaztag itself not having a screen, displaying any kind of info means using some kind of colored light / ear positioning combination. It can actually be practical (red nose light => you’ve got mail), but doesn’t scale very well with the number of informations to report (“er, what was the two blue, one orange, left ear up sequence for already ?”). Second, well, do I really need all this info ? I think I already compulsively check my email enough as it is :-).

Let’s still indulge the fact that an external display unit would save me some time, knowing immediately if it’s worth checking for mail/news/IM contacts. Searching for an external LCD screen, the only one I could came up with was this one. Nice, but USB only, and not very legible from a distance.

Then, chatting about this with other geek friends, one mentionned the chumby. Ah, now this one really seems to fit my needs perfectly, except it’s not available yet. The widgets are actually written in Flash Lite, which should be good enough, so I think I’ll keep an eye on this one.

Finally, yet another option is… the iphone of course :-). Wifi, really mobile (as in “no damn power cord”), it’s actually probably the best option, even though it will probably require a bit more tinkering to make it do what I want due to its lack of openness.

In any case, I guess I have to wait :-).

Eyeballs are a still a scarce ressource

I recently came across this article on Open Office and how buggy it is, despite the fact that it was Open Source (and therefore open to the scrutiny of thousands of hackers willing to help fixing it).

It perfectly illustrates the how ESR’s “enough eyeballs” are just about as mythical as the man-month.

The fact is, opening the source of any software is a requisite to attract hackers to help with it, but it’s by no means sufficient. After all these years dealing with OSS, I’m starting to think it can’t work at all except for a very small category of software. To gain a contributing community, software has to :

  • be a hacker tool (like a kernel, a mail agent, a compiler – forget about business-related stuff, hackers don’t use spreadsheets or word processors)
  • be easy to build (otherwise a would-be contributor will be frustrated before being able to do anything)
  • be easy to find your way around (which means be modular, and business-related apps generally aren’t, because while it’s relatively easy to break down a kernel into specific modules, it’s much harder for this kind of apps)

Other than that, while opening the code still brings lots of benefits, you won’t get a community of hackers like the one of the Linux kernel.

Thankfully, the OSS community has matured a bit, and the idea that OSS isn’t the Silver Bullet doesn’t seem such a blasphemy anymore (except to newbies or non-coding zealots).