Foodie Photography 101

As is fairly obvious from my umpteen food reviews, I take a lot of pictures of food. For such a static target, for a number of reasons, the plate isn’t so easy to photograph. Mostly this comes down to light and distance. Restaurants are often dark and food is fairly small and right in front of you. This distance factor throws it into the realm of macro photography (subjects at very near distances).

I use three different cameras. I’ll go over them all here, in ascending order of size, weight, and quality. As a general rule of thumb the bigger and more expensive a camera is, the better the pictures. It’s also worth noting that all food photos below were processed in Adobe Lightroom and are not “as shot”. I’ll discuss this at the bottom of the post.

The cellphone camera is ubiquitous these days, but for me only an option of last resort.

This sushi pic is about as decent as a good (iphone 4) camera will take, and even with post-processing, that isn’t very good.

And in a dark restaurant, you’re stuck with these hideous flash shots. The flash on these tiny camera has a range of about a foot and an ugly falloff. If you have to use the cellphone, try and hold it very steady, and home it’s lunch time and the window is behind you (keep the light behind the lens).

Next up, and pretty acceptable, is a snapshot camera that is good at macro photography. I use a Canon S90. This is older and has been replaced by the S95 and S100. Any of the three are good, the newer ones are better. They are among the only small cameras to shoot in RAW mode and to focus well at short distances. The S90 is small enough to pocket and I use it for casual meals.

A typical flash shot from the S90. It’s not bad. The camera has a small aperture and hence a very large depth of field which makes for easy focusing (but a flat look). It’s very useful to zoom the camera in and pull physically back so the flash doesn’t get too close to the food and easily blow out the image (overexpose).

My third camera is my “real” camera, the amazing Canon EOS 5D Mark II. But any Canon or Nikon DLSR should do fairly well. While the DSLR is much larger and heavier, it takes a MUCH better picture. Not only is the resolution higher but it handles low light far better. Still, shooting food with a SLR isn’t easy.

This is a typical bad result. A normal lens can’t focus on something less than two feet away and so you have to step way back. Without a flash (and a normal flash doesn’t work well on food) you can easily end up with a soft image like above.

The solution to this distance problem is a macro lens. I usually use the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. This is a very sharp prime lens (on a full frame camera 50mm is good for food, it might be even better on the more common crop sensor cameras, but you might have to pull back a bit). This lens is even cheap for a macro at $284, as many of Canon’s macro lens are two or four times that. It’s only problem is the non-USM focusing that’s slow as a dog. Food, fortunately doesn’t move.

But in a very dark restaurant (and despite the appearance of this color and exposure corrected photo, Pizzeria Mozza is very dark) one ends up at f2.5 and a high ISO. Combine that with the very short distance to the plate and you get an incredibly small depth of field. Hence, crust in focus, pizza blurry.

This and the light problem are nicely solved by the bulky Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring. Ideally, you’d want a light box (a big soft glowing box) but this is not practical in restaurants :-), but the white LED light from the flash ring is less directed than a regular flash (which will also do in a pinch).

It makes for a honking big rig, but with the macro lens and the TTL flash exposure adjustment it takes great close up pictures in a pitch black room (the flash can be used as a focus light too).

Hence this lovely photo, with just enough depth of field to give the dish some character and depth. Still, you have to watch the distance and f-stop, even with the flash, but you don’t have to pump the ISO up as high as without it.

Which finally brings me to Lightroom. Significant discussion of post processing is outside the scope of this post. Photoshop and many other products can allow you to clean up your images, but none do it as easily and quickly as Lightroom. Going through a 60 photo meal can be tedious, but with Lightroom you can do a decent job in five minutes, then quickly batch upload via a vast array of plugins.

To give you an idea how important this is. Check out this image right out of the camera, taken using the 5D and the macro lens, but no flash.

With light three clicks I fix the white balance, the exposure, and correct for lens aberrations. I see so many food bloggers uploading dim orange photos. There’s just no need.

Hopefully this quick little tutorial helps you get the most out of your food photos. Even if you don’t have a big fancy camera, the trick of pulling back and zooming in with a snapshot flash helps both exposure and dealing with the “too close to focus” problem.

Find all of my food reviews here.

So you want to be a video game programmer? – part 1 – Why

This post is a sequel of sorts to my How do I get a job designing video games. The good new is — if you’re a programmer — that nearly all video game companies are hiring programmers at all times. Demand is never satisfied. And the salaries are very very competitive.

The bad news is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to both be and become a great game programmer. Or maybe that isn’t such bad news, because you absolutely love programming, computers, and video games, right? If not, stop and do not goto 20.

I’m breaking this topic into a number of sub-posts. Although this is the intro, it was posted a day after the second, number 2, on types of game programmers, but I’m backing up and inserting this new number 1 (I’m a programmer, I know how to insert). Other posts will follow on topics like “how to get started” and “the interview.”


So why would you want to be a video game programmer?

Let’s start with why you might want to be a programmer:

1. Sorcery. First and foremost, being a programmer is like being a wizard. I always wanted to be a wizard. Given that magic (as in the D&D variety) doesn’t seem to be real (damn!) programming is the next best thing. Computers are everywhere. They’re big, complex, and all sorts of cool everyday devices (like iPhones, set-top boxes, cars, and microwaves) are really basically computers — or at least the brains of them are. 99.9% of people have no idea how this technology works. As the late great Author C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yay computers! If you actually know the arcane rituals, incantations, and spells to controls these dark powers then you are… drum roll please… a wizard.

2. Career security. Computers are the foundation of the 21st century economy. Nearly every new business is based on them. Knowing the above incantations is secret sauce. All the growth is in high tech (product possibility frontier and all that). Hiring is supply and demand too. The demand is for programmers and other high tech specialists.

3. Even more career security. Programming is hard. It requires a big New Cortex style brain. This means lots of people can’t do it. It takes years of study and practice. I’ve been programming for 30 years and there is still an infinite amount for me to learn. Awesome!

4. It’s a rush. Creating stuff is a rush. Making the infernal machine bend to your warlocky will is a huge thrill. It never gets boring and there is always more to learn (related to #3).

5. It pays really well. This is related to #2 and #3. People need programmers and they can’t get enough, so they have to pay competitively for them. Even in the late 90s early 00s at Naughty Dog it was very rare for us to start ANY programmer at less than $100,000, even ones right out of school. Good ones made a lot more. And if you’re a total kick-ass grand master wizard (nerd) like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg you can even start your own company and make billions. Take that you muscle bound warriors!

6. Solo contributions. You like spending time with machines and find all day dealing with illogical humans at least partially tedious. Sorry to say it, but even though most professional programming is done in teams a lot of time is spent at the keyboard. For some of us, this ain’t a bad thing.

7. Socialization. You need an excuse to hang out with others. On the flip side, because of this team thing you’ll be forced to socialize on and off between coding. This socialization will have certain structural support. This is convenient for the would-be wizard, master of demons but terrifying forces, but afraid of starting conversations.

So why would you want to be a video game programmer specifically?

8. Video game programming is really hard. Probably the hardest of the hard. It combines cutting edge graphics, effects, the latest hardware, artistic constraints, tons of competition, very little memory, and all sorts of difficult goodies. The really serious wizards apply here.

9. Other types. Video game teams have artists, musicians, and designers on them too. Lots of tech jobs don’t (although they sometimes have those pesky marking folks). Artists etc are cool. They know how to draw or compose cool stuff which makes your code look and sound much cooler.

10. Consumer driven. If you make it to work on a professional game they often sell lots of copies and people will have heard of what you do. This is much much cooler than saying “I worked on the backend payment scheme of the Bank of America ATM.” It’s so cool that it might even get you laid — which is an important concern for bookish wizards of both genders.

11. It’s visual. Seeing your creations move about the screen and spatter into bloody bits is way more exciting than that green text on the bank ATM. Talented artists and sound designers will come to you with said bloody bits and all sorts of squishy sounds which will make your coding look 1000x more cool than it would by itself. If you aren’t into bloody bits than you can work on a game where enemies explode into little cartoon rings. It’s all cool.

12. It’s creative. For me, I have to create worlds and characters. I’ve been doing so my whole life. Right now I’m not even programming but I’m writing novels, which is also about creating. Programming in general is pretty creative, but game programming is probably the most so.

13. Love. You love video games so much that working on them 100+ hours a week seems like far less of a chore than any other job you can think of!

I’m sure there are more reasons, but the above seem pretty damn compelling.

CONTINUED HERE with Part 2: “The Specs”


Parts of this series are: [Why, The Specs, Getting Started, School, Method]

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Or more posts on video gaming here.

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iPad 2 – Less is More

Second Generation iPad

Being the consummate gadget man, I succumbed to the iPad 2 upgrade. In fact, I even ordered it at 1:01am, only 1 minute after they went on sale (at the Apple online store). Despite my jumping on the bandwagon, it took 13 days to come too. Mostly because I got a 3G model and those were slow to ship.

In any case, over the last year I have been pleasantly surprised at how incredibly useful the iPad is. I’ve already written one article about it, which is all still true. I owned a kindle before the iPad and found that to be of very limited use. Primarily it was good for long vacations where I previously would have dragged 20-30 paperbacks (weighing down my suitcases). With the kindle, just one little device covered that. And the thing had a tremendous battery life. But reading on it was annoying, mostly because the page turning was so slow and the screen only held about 60% of s single paperback page.

Enter the iPad. Seemingly just a giant iPhone, it’s actually radically different. As a book reader it holds a full page, and it’s fast. You can flick back and forth fast enough that it’s “browsable.” This was excruciating on the kindle. The screen is a little harder on the eyes, and the battery life only 10-12 hours instead of weeks, but the speed and size are more important to me. Plus, when you get an email, or feel the obsessive compulsive need to check today’s blog stats, you can just flip over instantly (IOS 4.2 on — so useful I was running the beta for months). It’s also just a darn comfortable way to do all your casual computer crap in bed, in the kitchen, watching tv, etc. There are a number of reasons why. Unlike even a laptop, it’s instant on, you can tuck it in the couch and grab it when an email comes in or you feel the need to look up actors on imdb (which I now do constantly). The battery life is such that as long as you charge it while you sleep, you can do whatever the hell you want with it during the day and not worry. This is so not true of any laptop, including the amazing MacBook pros and airs with their long battery life. You still have to plug them in if you are going to use them all day. The iPad isn’t a necessity, but it sure is convenient.

The First Generation, in a Tuff-luv case

Now as to the iPad 2. If you don’t have an iPad and are at all interested (plus have the disposable $500-829). Get one. The first gen ones are going on sale cheap now too. But if you already own a first gen iPad, it’s more about personal tolerance for being slightly outdated. The new one doesn’t do anything the 1st can’t except for video chat. But it is thinner, lighter, and about twice as snappy. For me, that alone is worth it. As I said, I’m a gadget freak and I use the pad all the time, everyday. The thinness and weight are noticeable, as is the speed. It’s certainly snappier. Apps load faster, the muitasking flips between apps much more smoothly. Not that the first iPad was slow, but this is faster. If you are into the games the GPU is supposedly 9x faster. Infinity Blade and the like seem very zippy now, and they weren’t bad before.

One other thing worth mentioning is the developer only multitouch gestures added to iOS 4.3. Now to use these, you have to connect the iPad to your Xcode 4 enabled Mac and turn on developer mode. This is a free download for devs, or a $5 purchase from the new Mac AppStore. I’ve only been using these for a few days but they’re awesome. Here’s yet another example of how Apple likes gets the little things right. There are 4 gestures. One to bring up and down the multitasking bar. Another to go back to the home screen, and a pair to flip back and forth between apps. It’s surprising how convenient and natural these are.

I haven’t gotten used to the subtle button changes on the new iPad yet. There is more angle to the bevel and this gives the physical controls, including the docking jack, a slightly increased inset, but I’m sure in a couple of days they’ll seem normal.
I got one the the crazy new covers too. I love the cool magnetic lock and the auto turn on / turn off feature. We will see how well the cleaning component does. The thing is ultra slim and light in the cover, particularly compared to the cushy but bulky full leather case I had on the old one. But on the other hand it’s a bit slick, and I’ve already fumbled it once and certainly don’t want to drop it. I might have to see if someone sells some sticky little tape/decal. That was a nice thing about my old case.  I have a thin sticky rubber case on my iPhone 4 for just for the texture.

All and all the iPad 2 is like everyone says, a typical Apple evolutionary tuneup to an already brilliant product. Certainly it’s better in nearly all ways, and the combination of Apple design, software, and heavy vertical integration makes it hands down the only tablet worth considering. I’m writing this blog post on it while out on the town, and while theoretically I could do that on my phone, I never would.

My previous iPad article can be found HERE.

Side by Side

The thickness


Why the iPad is a Document game changer

iPadI work with a lot of documents. By this I mean things one reads, usually mostly text and often PDF’s or Word docs. I always did, but especially now that I’ve been writing. I have drafts of my books, drafts of other peoples books, notes on them, peoples screenplays, programming manuals downloaded off the internet, etc. Books and other printed versions of documents have always been the nicest way to read or edit these things as you can sit somewhere comfortable and you can mark on them easily, but books take a long time to print. The two traditional solutions were:

1. Print it out, which takes a while and wastes paper.

2. Sit at your computer, which is uncomfortable.

The iPad changes the game because it makes it  so easy to read these things. There are lots of ways to get your docs on the device, including just emailing a PDF to yourself and clicking “Save to iBooks.” But you can also use Dropbox. This free app allows you to drag files into a tree of folders on your computer and have them immediately accessible on any iPhone, iPad, or computer with a Dropbox client. You can read there or save to a better app.

Goodreader is a decent and cheap PDF/doc reader ($0.99), although for PDFs the free iBooks is great. Goodreader even allows you to do markup on top of the files and email out annotated PDFs. But the interface for this is a little clunky. For serious editing I use iAnnotate which admittedly is “expensive” for an iPad app ($9.99), but has a really slick interface for marking up documents. I’ve sat on my couch and highlighted, crossed out, edited 500 pages that way. If someone emails you a doc you can do it anywhere without even going to your computer, and no destroying a big hunk of tree for the ream of paper and toner needed to print. Not to mention that 500 pages of looseleaf is hardly convenient.

Basically if someone sent me a draft screenplay or something before I’d put off reading it because sitting at the computer was no fun. Now it’s no different than a published book — I read those on the iPad too.