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The broken state of the RAW file format

April 08, 2014

Last Saturday we went to a birthday party at a friend’s house, which was the perfect opportunity to take my new Olympus OM-D E-M10 out for a spin. I took a few dozen pictures and then a few more on Sunday, so by the end of the weekend I decided it was time to process the images on my computer and take a closer look to see if they were any good. I downloaded the RAW files and imported them into Aperture, but all I could see were black squares where the images should be. Apparently, Apple does not yet support the EM-10’s RAW file format in Aperture. Nor does Adobe’s Lightroom, by the way, so as of today, if you want to work with RAW files from the E-M10 on the Mac, unless you use the included Olympus Viewer 3 app, you’re out of luck. I keep asking myself, how can this be?

The EM-10 is clearly a popular camera, and it’s been available for a few months already. I find it quite odd that neither of the two most popular photography applications for the Mac support it yet. This made me wonder about the RAW format itself, and after a few hours of research I have come to believe it is a profoundly broken system, and I wonder why nobody has found a way to solve it yet. I’m sure pro photographers have found a way to work around this, but it’s an issue that every aspiring photographer is going to have to deal with at some point, and it can be really frustrating. Of course I’m by no means an expert, so please take this with a grain of salt.

From the Wikipedia entry:

This industry-wide situation of inconsistent formatting has concerned many photographers who worry that their valuable raw photos may someday become inaccessible, as computer operating systems and software programs become obsolete and abandoned raw formats are dropped from new software. The availability of high-quality open source software which decodes raw image formats, particularly dcraw, has helped to alleviate these concerns. An essay by Michael Reichmann and Juergen Specht stated “here are two solutions – the adoption by the camera industry of A: Public documentation of RAW formats; past, present and future, or, more likely B: Adoption of a universal RAW format”. “Planning for [US] Library of Congress Collections” identifies raw-file formats as “less desirable file formats”, and identifies DNG as a suggested alternative.

The photography industry is now going through a period of great innovation, especially in the mirrorless sector, but it’s also incredibly fragmented. Not only are there different RAW formats for each brand, but for each camera. So the OM-D E-M10 uses a different RAW format than the E-M5 and the PEN E-P5, even though all three cameras share the same sensor. It’s insane. I honestly don’t understand why the biggest players (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica, Fujifilm, Panasonic and Olympus to name a few) haven’t already come up with a common, openly specified RAW format.1 I guess it must be because they’re not interested, but I just don’t see any downsides to it, and I certainly don’t understand why they would prefer the current situation, where their customers are left to wait for months until they can fully enjoy all the features of their new cameras.

  1. There have been some efforts to develop an open standard, the most notable of which is the DNG format), but it’s still nowhere near being widely used.

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On self-doubt, photography and the new Olympus OM-D E-M10

April 08, 2014

NOTE: This was originally a longer piece, but I felt the second part had a different tone to it so I decided to break it into two different articles. You can read the other one here.

One of my favorite feelings is the sense of accomplishment that results from overcoming a personal challenge. When you pit yourself against something way out of your comfort zone you come out the other end changed. Improved. I love that sensation; it tickles just the right areas of my nerdy brain. A good example of that is photography. I’ve always found it profoundly interesting, but to me it was a bit like magic: fascinating and mesmerizing, yet obscure and impenetrable at the same time. I have a few photographer friends, and every time we met at a party I would listen to them talk about photography and their gear in such a passionate way that I couldn’t help but be amazed at their words, even though I understood very little of what they were saying.

I’ve always been intimidated by photography. For some reason I felt the barrier to entry was just too high for me and I would need to invest huge amounts of time and attention to learn my way in. As a result, over the years there were probably a million wonderful pictures I didn’t take. My Erasmus year in Finland. A week-long trip to New-York with my brother back in 2011, on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The month-long trip to Australia I took with my girlfriend a couple years ago. The 21 days I spent in Brazil with my good friend Daniel. These and many other special moments in my life that were committed only to my memory.

It’s not that I don’t have any pictures to remember those moments. Sure, some of my friends had nice cameras, and I also took a few pics with whatever phone I had at the time. They’re mostly OK to look at, but that’s not the problem. It’s the pictures I didn’t take that haunt me. The opportunities that went right by me because I was too afraid or discouraged to try and take them. This self-doubt has crippled my memories and it has made me depend on other people’s pictures to remember. Now when I look at those photos, part of me feels like I’m remembering someone else’s life instead of my own. To me, the thought and care that goes into composing a picture is as big a part of the magic as the picture itself: Photography is an active, creative process and if you’re missing that part then you’re only seeing half the story. It’s taken me quite a few years and a little help from my friends to finally realize that I’m not OK with that.

Shawn Blanc has been very forthcoming lately about his ongoing love affair with photography. His recent series of articles about his own experience was great to read, and it was the small push I needed to get me started. We’re always less scared to try something new when we’re not alone.

So I was determined, but were to begin? I decided I didn’t want to rush into things: first of all I would do my research, learn about basic technique, different camera types and so on until I felt confident I could make an informed decision. Then and only then would I spend any real money on buying my first camera. It seemed like a good plan, but when you’re trying to learn about something on the Internet, the only thing worse than finding no information about it is finding way too much information about it. Part of what makes photography so intimidating is that there’s an endless ocean of resources available: online courses, photography-for-dummies books, ultimate guides to photography and so on. For someone looking to dip their toe in for the first time, those certainly are some scary-looking waters.

Luckily, after some research I found what many people consider to be the best introductory book for the aspiring photographer: Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure.1 I read it cover to cover in a couple days, and it was a revelatory experience. Many of the myths I had feared for so long were quickly and definitively busted within the first few pages, and it only got better and better from there. I cannot recommend it enough.

With that out of the way, it was time to get my hands dirty and actually buy a camera. Which, of course, is easier said than done. This could be an article by itself, since these days there are so many great options that it really takes a lot of digging to find out what works best for you. Fortunately my requirements were fairly specific:

1 - The camera should be as small and light as possible without compromising on image quality. 2 - It should be affordable: I should be able to buy the camera body and at least a nice prime lens for under $1000. 3 - There should be a good enough selection of lenses, wherein I define “good” as being high-quality enough that they will not limit my creativity, and affordable enough that they won’t break my bank. 4 - It must have enough features to allow me to grow into it, but not too many bells and whistles that I’ll end up never using. Since this is about learning, a fully manual mode is a must.

With this in mind and after doing some reading, I quickly started leaning towards mirrorless cameras, and specifically towards the Micro Four Thirds format.2 A couple weeks ago I ended up buying a brand-new [Olympus OM-D E-M10](<a href=), following Shawn’s recommendation. I’ve been taking it out and trying my hand at it, and so far I’m very pleased. I got the kit with the new 14-42mm EZ lens and I must say it’s a nice lens, but after trying the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens and the Olympus 45mm f1.8, there really is a noticeable difference between them. The prime lenses are so much faster than the kit lens; they really make it a lot easier to hand-hold the camera and capture great images without the aid of a tripod or flash, not to mention the much nicer bokeh and the incredible sharpness they provide, even when wide open.

The E-M10 is a fantastic camera (easily the best I’ve ever owned) and I’m already taking pretty good images with it, which is very encouraging. I’m still mostly getting to know my way around it and trying some of the exercises from the book, but already there’s a satisfying feeling whenever my prediction for how a composition will turn out is confirmed by the actual image. It still feels like magic but now, I know how the trick is done.

New toy ^_^

  1. All links in this article are Amazon Affiliate Links. Use them to buy anything and I’ll get a small kickback from Amazon. Thanks!

  2. There’s plenty of information online about all the different mirrorless formats and their respective virtues and shortcomings so, again, this was what worked better for me. Your mileage may vary.

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Shawn Blanc's sweet Mac setup →

April 02, 2014 |

Great article and a very sweet setup indeed. I just have one comment regarding this:

AirFoil: In part so I can stream Rdio to my Apple TV-connected stereo, but also so I can manually adjust the EQ for Rdio, even when just listening on my computer.

AirFoil is not needed to stream system-wide audio to the Apple TV. OS X can do this natively over AirPlay by holding the Option key, then clicking on the Sound icon in the Menu bar and setting the preferred audio output (in this case, to Apple TV). See here for more details.

However, you’d still need to use AirFoil (or any other system-wide EQ app for the Mac) to manually adjust the EQ, since AirPlay doesn’t currently support that feature.

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Own your words →

March 25, 2014 |

Matt Gemmell:

I do have an issue with giving away your words just because it’s easy to do so. By default, your words should be yours, and that means more than being attributed: it also means gathering them together in your own publication, controlled by you, that serves as a place for your own voice to be heard above and instead of all others.


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24/192 Music Downloads are Very Silly Indeed | →

March 19, 2014 |

The Internet has been going back and forth over the past few weeks on the topic of high-quality, uncompressed digital audio files. It’s always been a sensitive subject, mostly due to terribly uninformed, so-called “audio experts” muddling the waters with their biased opinion. However, things got considerably worse after Pono, the Kickstarter project famously endorsed by Neil Young, was successfully funded a few days ago.

Fortunately, Christopher Montgomery has written a terrific (and scientifically accurate) article over at to set the record straight and explain why this obsession with uncompressed digital music is mostly nonsense:

I was also interested in what motivated high-rate digital audio advocacy. Responses indicate that few people understand basic signal theory or the [sampling theorem](, which is hardly surprising. Misunderstandings of the mathematics, technology, and physiology arose in most of the conversations, often asserted by professionals who otherwise possessed significant audio expertise. Some even argued that the sampling theorem doesn’t really explain how digital audio actually works. Misinformation and superstition only serve charlatans. So, let’s cover some of the basics of why 24/192 distribution makes no sense before suggesting some improvements that actually do.

I’m a Telecommunication Engineer, so I’ve known the sampling theorem on a first-name basis for a pretty long time. It’s the foundational rock of all signal processing; our understanding of it is what makes digital technology even possible. The fact that some people who call themselves experts would argue against it goes to show just how incredibly uninformed they are. I’m grateful someone has taken the time and effort to explain this issue properly.

Via Marco.

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Apple replaces 3-year-old iPad 2, brings back 4th-gen iPad

March 18, 2014

From 9to5Mac:

Earlier today,  we predicted that Apple had plans to bring the previous-generation iPad 4th gen back into production to replace the aging iPad 2. As expected, the fourth-gen iPad is now available once again on Apple’s website, this time with only an 16 GB capacity. Aside from the single capacity choice, there aren’t any changes to the device. This new model replaces the iPad 2, which has been around since the days of the 30-pin connector.

Now all iPads in the lineup are shipping with the new Lightning connector, which leaves the iPhone 4S as the only remaining iOS device with a 30-pin Dock connector available for purchase today. Come October, the 30-pin Dock connector will probably disappear from the lineup entirely.

And speaking of October: since the original iPad mini shares the same internals as the iPad 2, my guess is it’s probably going away too. Besides, the original mini is now the only remaining iOS device without a Retina display, which is another strong reason for Apple to replace it as soon as they can. Getting Retina displays to finally be a standard across all iOS devices would greatly simplify things for 3rd-party developers, and would remove quite a lot of complexity from iOS itself.

I find it impressive that Apple managed to get iOS 7 running smoothly on 3-year-old hardware, but it was clearly pushing it. Considering iOS devices tend to get at least two years’ worth of OS updates, I wonder how they’ll manage to squeeze iOS 8 into the original mini without compromising the experience too much. Actually, I wonder, and have for some time, whether this aging hardware is holding iOS back a little bit as a platform.

The original iPad mini, much like the original iPad and the original iPhone before it, was all about compromise. Apple has never been scared of replacing the old to make way for the new, which is why the iPad 2 was an abnormally long-lasting product for Apple. If the past is anything to go by, I fully expect them to go back to their usual pattern soon.

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Apple iPhone Will Fail in a Late, Defensive Move →

March 18, 2014 |

Matthew Lynn, writing for Bloomberg back in January 2007:

To its many fans, Apple is more of a religious cult than a company. An iToaster that downloads music while toasting bread would probably get the same kind of worldwide attention. Dont let that fool you into thinking that it matters. The big competitors in the mobile-phone industry such as Nokia Oyj and Motorola Inc. wont be whispering nervously into their clamshells over a new threat to their business. The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.

Wow. It’s actually pretty hard to be this wrong about anything.

Apple will sell a few to its fans, but the iPhone won’t make a long-term mark on the industry.

He totally nailed that one.

Via Hacker News.

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Companies who Spam Their Best Customers | Shawn Blanc →

March 17, 2014 |

Old article, but still very relevant today:

Getting junk mail and advertisements from companies I don’t do business with is annoying enough. But getting it from the companies which I have been a long-time and deeply invested customer is quite annoying.

This had always bothered me, but in the past couple of years it got so much worse that I finally decided not to put up with it anymore.

A year ago my bank started calling me up to sell me a new credit card (one that I couldn’t possibly afford, by the way). Of course, they always call during working hours, which makes their interruptions even more annoying. One day they caught me at a really bad time (and in a really bad mood), so I asked the sales rep to opt me out from all future offers, and to please remove my name from their marketing database. As far as I know, here in Spain they are required by law to oblige to my request.

Sure enough, a few days later I got another call from the bank, so I decided that was enough. I had been with my bank for more than a decade, but the very next day I canceled my account and went to another bank, one I was assured would never use my personal info to target me with unsolicited advertising. It wasn’t easy (it took me a few months to make sure I had transferred all my bills to the new account), but it’s been over a year and I am yet to receive a single call from my new bank. I am so glad I made the switch.

If a company I’ve trusted with my personal information abuses that trust, then as far as I’m concerned our business relationship is over. It really is that simple. There’s always another bank, another ISP or another cell phone provider. Sometimes that means giving up the cheapest plan or the fastest service, but I’m fine with that.

I’d argue that this isn’t an extreme reaction on my part. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the only way we can hope to change this obnoxious practice. Unfortunately, the only time these big companies listen to their customers is when they speak with their wallets.

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