Category Archives: Tech reviews

Christmas Gifts 2011: Headphones

Smartphones mean always having a soundtrack in your pocket, but their out-of-the-box headphones are generally pretty mediocre. And there isn’t much point in having an HDTV when you can’t enjoy the full aural glory of explosions, witty one-liners and the crunch of bodies on a 20 yard line without bugging your significant other.  Audiophile or not, it’s always nice to have a good pair of headphones kicking around, so here, to help you sort through the hundreds of options available, is a list of the best units you’ll see on store shelves this holiday season.

Bose Quietcomfort 15 acoustic noise cancelling headphones
Price – $349.99 On the Street
Six or less – Wow

I did not know sound could sound this good.  Solos wail. Drums pound. Explosions are like slap to the face.  These are excellent headphones that create a kind of cone of silence shutting out the world, making music sound like its originating inside your brain.
The 15s are also very comfortable to wear, but large, and a rigid design means they aren’t particularly travel-friendly. They also have a forceful built-in springiness—I got a painful smack to the head once when I lost my grip while putting them on.
The unit also irritatingly reqires a single AAA battery, and music stops when it dies. Despite a 35-hour charge, the 15s have no auto-off feature that I could discern, making it easy to drain their juice by forgetting to flip the power switch. But still, you won’t find anything sounding better for lsess than $400.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, Print, Tech reviews, Toronto Star

Christmas Gifts 2011: Portable Speakers

You’ve got your smartphone, you’ve got your music, now you need some head-turning speakers with thumping lows, popping highs and mids that wrap you in a warm aurel duvet. Some are perfect to get feet stomping at the next kegger, others for wirelessly providing a soundtrack while you read in a park, and some are just right to envelope your family in smooth jazz grooves while they sip their morning tea. I loaded up my playlist with everything from Metallica to Kanye to John Hiatt, found the best portable speakers available online, and dissected the listening experience of each to help you pick the perfect gift for your tech-savy, music obsessed loved one.

Altec Lansing inMotion MIX iMT800

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, Print, Tech reviews, Toronto Star

Christmas Gifts 2011: Top Apps

The staggering number of smartphone apps is overwhelming, especially to someone unboxing their shiny new device for the first time on Christmas morning. So here’s a list of the ten applications you need to download (most of which I personally use almost every day) as soon as the torn wrapping paper settles on your living room floor.

CARDSTAR
Price – Free
Platform – Android, Blackberry, iOS

I hate a bulky wallet, which is a problem, because I’m also a big fan of customer reward programs. It might sound unusual for a twenty-something guy, but Cardstar, an app that stores membership and customer reward cards, is my all-time favorite mobile program because it simply and practically solves this problem. Using your phone’s barcode reader, it scans  and stores card numbers—from Airmiles to Best Buy to Goodlife memberships. You present your phone, instead of the cards, at checkout for businesses to scan the on-screen barcodes generated by the app (numbers can usually be entered manually if a scanner can’t read from your device). It’s easy to add a dozen or so cards in only a few minutes, and considering this means an end to sitting on three inches of plastic, it’s well worth the download.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, Print, Tech reviews, Toronto Star

Christmas Gifts 2011: Pico Projectors

Technology gets continually smaller. The coolest result of this—next to increasingly powerful smartphones—is the emergence of pico projectors. These tiny devices, generally between the size of a small digital camera and large hardcover book, can fill a wall, or any other surface, with a fairly bright, high-res image. They’re a portable option for making presentations, showing off pictures or video once confined to a smartphone’s tiny screen, or keeping a big-screen HDTV in your pocket while travelling. Until recently pico projectors haven’t been bright enough for normal, everyday use, clocking in at less then 20 lumens (a measurement of emitted light—home theatre projectors easily hit 2,500). But recent advancements have led to the doubling and even quadrupling of that power, making the tiny technology one of the coolest gifts finding its way under Christmas trees this year.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, Print, Tech reviews, Toronto Star

How to shoot DSLR video

Shooting good video with a DSLR is one of the most headache-inducing, cursing-laden, blood pressure-raising experiences in which a human being can engage—and it’s worth every stress-filled second.

I’m a professional videographer who, after months of anticipation, saving and research, made the switch from camcorders and bought my first video-capable DSLR in October. It wasn’t an easy process. There’s an overwhelmingly diverse combination of bodies (that’s the actual camera part—there’s also an ocean of lingo to wade through), lenses, lights, mics, recorders, and mounts to buy. Cheap-looking, often crucial accessories tend to carry a price tag seemingly more appropriate for relics from the Ming Dynasty. It’s frighteningly easy to drop $10,000 on a rig, and you will have to spend hours, and hours, and hours, learning how to use the camera and its accessories. And your first videos are still going to look like crap. But shooting gets easier as you go, and results can eventually become so vivid, so cinematic, that every dollar spent and afternoon whittled away will be worth it. And it’s always best to start prepared, so here are some tips I’ve learned that can save money, shorten the learning curve, and keep you sane.

1. Set your price, choose your body, and ignore marketing gimmicks
Canon, Sony, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax are the big brands, and, since camera accessories (especially lenses) are often more important than the body itself, its best to stick with a name that has a lot of support from other manufacturers. Once you start looking you’ll notice, in big fat type on every flyer and website, text hyping a camera’s megapixel count. Forget about megapixels. Marketing has  turned them into a false shorthand for quality—any new DSLR, or point-and-shoot for that matter, will have plenty. Concentrate on sensor size instead. The sensor is tantamount to film, and its size will determine how much light your camera can capture. I settled on a 5D Mark II because it has a full-frame sensor, which means it’s the same size as 35mm film. But my camera, and equivalent models from other brands, costs well over $2000. Most consumers will want to aim for DSLRs in the $500-$1000 price range. Their sensors aren’t full-frame, but achieve similar results for the price, and are still far more powerful than point-and-shoots.
I recommend Sony’s entry-level products. I’ve used a Sony a350 for still photography for years. Their Alpha line of cameras are affordable, have a a tiltable screen—perfect for shooting from  high or low angles—and use proprietary technology allowing  them to autofocus quickly while shooting video, a feature most other DSLRs lack.
However, a new technology, called  mirrorless interchanageable-lense cameras (MILC), is probably the best overall solution for consumers looking to shoot DSLR-quality video. They’re just as powerful as DSLRs, but were designed with video at their core and come in a much smaller, user-friendly package. They also use the same lenses as their larger cousins, but can autofocus even better than Sony’s Alpha line, and, unlike DSLRs, aren’t limited to recording video in 12 minute clips. These features almost had me sold on an MILC (the Sony NEX-7) for myself, but in the end I just couldn’t say no to the siren call of full-frame.

2. Choose the right lens(es), and (maybe) buy a light
Lenses are more important than your body. They’re the first thing light passes through to reach your sensor. They have a bigger impact on the quality and look of your video than any other part of the camera, so picking the right ones are essential.
Most cameras come with what’s called a kit lens, a normally mid-range, bread-and-butter zoom lens. As long as it has image stabilization (this reduces camera shake in your video, and is important in a lens because, unlike camcorders, DSLR bodies usually don’t have it built-in), it’s probably all most consumers will need. But kit lenses rarely feature much zoom, and aren’t great for capturing in low-light, so it’s nice to augment them with additional options.
That being said, lenses often cost over $1000, but you can pay far less when you know what to look for. Lenses made by camera manufacturers are almost always a safe bet, but they’re pricey and products from Tamron and Sigma can achieve similar results at a large discount. Buying used is also usually an option, as most camera stores keep their pre-owned sections well stocked.
The first glass I always buy is a 50mm or 60mm prime, which is a fixed (no zoom) lens that falls in the middle of a normal kit lens’ zoom range. These are usually much cheaper than zooms—the one I bought with my 5D only cost $140—but capture brighter, more cinematic images because they have “faster” (meaning larger) apertures. An aperture is the hole through which light passes—the larger the hole, the more light makes it to the sensor. I love primes, they might be a bit less convenient—you’re basically always walking instead of zooming—but resulting images are of such a higher quality (especially low light situations) that the effort is made worthwhile.
My second purchase is normally a telephoto, which should start at the top-end of your kit lens’ range (about 70mm) and zoom about three or four times further (about 200-300mm). This is ideal for sports, or getting the perfect shot of your high-school grad walking across stage when you’re stuck at the back of a gymnasium. But remember that cheap telephotos tend to have small apertures—this can be remedied by skipping the zoom and purchasing a telephoto prime.
Finally, you may want to purchase an on-camera light. They make a huge difference in video quality, especially since most houses simply aren’t bright enough to shoot quality images at night. Pro versions cost around $300, but consumer-level lights work well for a third of the price. It’s best to stick with LED lights, as they use far less power than most alternatives, and usually have dimmer dials. However, they can be intrusive, and turning one on may result in frustrated, squinting relatives.

3. Spring for better audio
One of the first lessons I learned shooting for web was that audiences almost always forgive low-quality video, but a comment section will tear you apart over bad audio—in-laws aren’t much better. Unfortunately, DSLRs are almost universally terrible when it comes to audio quality. Sound from my 5D is literally unusable. Luckily there is a fairly cheap alternative in Zoom and Tascam recorders. These function as affordable shotgun mics (they normally cost between $100 and $400) you can mount to your camera and plug into its external microphone jack, instantly turning a static-filled mess into near-broadcast quality sound.
Higher-end recorders also include external mic inputs, allowing you to use separate shotgun, handheld or lapel mics. These are more than what most consumers need, and cost around $800 apiece. But, for the more adventurous DSLR filmmaker, a cheap kit featuring a lapel and shotgun/handheld mic combination from Azden is available for half that price. The mics aren’t quite as good as what the pros use, but they’re close enough for home use.

4. Find a good retailer and demand a bargain
All this gear can be purchased on Kijiji or Craigslist, but camera equipment tends to retain its value, meaning you’ll rarely find a big enough discount to make up for the risks of buying used online.  Camera stores, such as Aden or Vistek in Toronto or Henry’s across the country, are your best bet. They offer decent warranties, salespeople usually have more expertise than what you’ll find at a big box store,  and you can sometimes bundle gear for a big discount. And, best of all, they’re almost always willing to beat other stores when it comes to price. I asked for a quote before buying my gear, and spent a day biking around Toronto, testing cameras and showing the price to different retailers. I ended up buying at the store from which I got the initial quote, but not until a few hundred dollars were shaved off my gear.

5. Save another $1500 and build a shoulder rig (it only takes about an hour)
So, you’ve got your camera. But DSLRs were originally designed to take pictures, and they’re almost impossible to hold steady while shooting video. Humans are not built to handle a four-pound camera four inches in front of their faces, and if you do so for any length of time, you will be incapacitated by back pain. One possible solution is a tripod (about $150 to $250), but while great in some situations, they’re a bit limiting when chasing kids around a backyard. A better option is a lightweight shoulder rig, which turns DSLRs into miniature versions of the shoulder-mounted cameras often used by TV and documentary crews. Good ones cost anywhere from $500 to $1600—and up—but you can easily build one yourself for less than $20. There’s a huge selection of plans online, I recommend ones built with PVC pipe—it’s lightweight, won’t give you frostbite in winter, and easily slides together with plumbing joints—but pick whatever will best suit your needs. All you need is a $10 pipe cutter and a half hour trip to Canadian tire—I started mine on a Saturday afternoon and was showing it off by the time my buddies arrived to watch the Leafs Game. Once the rig’s finished you drill a few ¼ holes, insert ¼ bolts, and attach anything with a standard tripod mount. I customized mine with a coat of glossy black spray paint, bicycle grips on the front handles, and mounts for lights, counterweights, a zoom recorder, wireless microphone receivers, and a monopod (in case my back gets tired)—but all you really need is a single screw to attach the camera.

6. Buy a monopod
A monopod, which is little more than a telescoping metal stick onto which you can mount a camera, gives you stability without sacrificing too much mobility. A good model is normally  half the price of a tripod, and while not as versatile as a shoulder rig, is great for eliminating camera-shake, and preventing a weekend laid up with back spasms.

7. Learn how to white balance, change aperture and set ISO
DSLRs are complicated. There are literally hundreds of options buried within dozens of menus and sub menus. But there are only three that you really need to know to get started, and on a good camera they’ll each have their own controls right on the body. So, dig out your manual and figure out how to manually set:

White balance – Ever notice how a lot of pictures and movies taken around the house have a yellowish tinge, almost like they were shot through pea soup? That’s because a camera’s automatic white balance doesn’t do well outside of sunlight, and handles incandescent and florescent light especially poorly. But this is easily remedied by changing the white balance, either with presets (most cameras have sunlight, shade, incandescent, tungsten, florescent and more as defaults) or by setting it manually. This is a bit of a process at first, but should be clearly outlined in your instruction manual.

Aperture – The width of an aperture is measured in F-stops. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the lower the F stop (1.4 or 1.8 being the maximum width on many prime lenses, 3.5 on most zooms), the wider the opening. This is a simple adjustment that normally has a dedicated dial on your camera body. It’s crucial to know since it determines how much light reaches your sensor, and, again, should be easy to find in your camera’s instructions

ISO – This determines your sensor’s sensitivity to light—think of it as a volume knob. The higher you set the ISO, the more sensitive your camera and the brighter your pictures. But, like a volume knob, turning it higher increases “noise,” which shows up as grain in your pictures. You won’t need a high ISO in the park, but will almost always want to crank it up in a dimly-lit hockey rink, so its important to know how to make adjustments according to the situation.

8. Learn the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds helps you compose your shots. It basically means mentally dividing your frame into horizontal and vertical thirds and keeping a subject within them.When zoomed on a face you want it taking up the left or right third, with background composing the other two thirds in the direction the subject is facing. It works the same way when tracking someone skating or while shooting an interesting-looking rock. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and is meant to be broken, but it’s something every camera person learns because, simply put, it makes shots look nicer aesthetically.

9. Get comfortable focusing manually, and go shoot!
Focusing is easy on camcorders and point-and-shoot cameras. You aim at a subject and they do the work. DSLRs have the same function—when they’re in still mode and you’re looking through the viewfinder. But only mirrorless systems and translucent-mirror cameras like Sony’s Alphas can focus effectively while shooting video. The autofocus function on most other cameras is essentially useless. This means reaching out to the front of your lens and turning the focus ring manually. It’s a challenge, especially when you’re trying to focus smoothly while recording. The only way to get good is with lots of practice, but once you do your results will be far better than what’s acheivable with even the best autofocus.
Every other aspect of shooting improves with practice as well, so go out, create, and hone your skills. Your daughter’s rugby game, your uncle’s 85th birthday, the first snowfall in December, that punk concert you’ve been excited about or your dog chewing on a pillow. There’s a great video waiting to be shot every day, on every city block and country road, and you’ll only get better with every moment you capture.

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, Print, Tech reviews, Toronto Star