Tag Archives: hardware

Useful tools for homebrew media – my OS X workflow

As I’m sure regular readers are aware, I’m producing a wider range of media than ever before, now that I’m a regular podcaster and creating a range of video content as well. I thought it would be useful to talk a little about the range of tools that I’m using – far from professional level Final Cut or anything!

Hardware

The hardware is pretty varied. The core of the whole “system” is the MacBook Pro, which I use for pretty much all of my editing. That also has the iSight camera, which is adequate for videos which need to include my face, although I’d like something higher quality (any recommendations?). I’ve mentioned iGlasses before, which is useful for adjusting the iSight input. From an audio perspective I use a USB headset and also a Blue Snowflake USB microphone, which is absolutely great – compact, convenient, and it captures excellent quality sound.

If I need to capture video away from the computer, my current camcorder of choice is the Kodak Zi6 which can take HD 720p footage, albeit at a quality limited by the rest of the hardware (lens, sensor etc). I’ve yet to do a proper review of this, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a step up from either the Flip Mino or the older disgo Video Plus which I’d tried. I also sometimes grab snippets of video on my compact Canon camera.

Screencasting

For screencasts I use ScreenFlow. This is just a wonderful piece of software which is capable of recording both the screen, and from the iSight simultaneously. This allows the video to be overlaid into the screencast if required, so you can personally narrate what is going on. Even better than that, ScreenFlow lets you zoom in on windows and desktop features, and is really a general purpose compositing application… if you look at this video I made when I talked to a friend recently, you’ll see there are no desktop elements at all, just the video stream from the camera, a picture of him, and the audio, with some nice image tilt and reflection effects applied. ScreenFlow has also recently added text annotation features, which are really useful.

I’ve yet to use it for any practical purpose, but I also just downloaded OmniDazzle, which is now free. OmniDazzle lets you highlight areas of the screen with visual effects using a single keystroke – I can see this being useful in combination with ScreenFlow in the future.

Video editing

A few weeks ago I blogged about iMovie 09. I know a lot of people really dislike both iMovie 08 and 09, but I’m totally comfortable with both versions now, and I have to say that 09 is just beautiful. I’ve had no issues with it – it’s great for rapidly mixing and editing video, still images and audio. Watch my introductory series on YouTube or the whole thing as one movie on Viddler. I wrote a bit more about my use of iMovie back in December, too.

Here’s a tip: have you ever wanted to create some animated titles of your own? I have one word for you – Keynote! When I created the Home Camp TV title sequence it was a simple matter of creating a slide with some animated elements in Keynote, and exporting it as a Quicktime movie (which I did without sound, allowing me to overlay a choice of audio on the title sequence in iMovie). It’s great for quickly creating JPEG stills with text for titles, too.

In terms of finding audio to accompany videos… I’ve used both the pre-canned loops that come with iMovie, and also used some audio from Podsafe Audio. I do find that site a bit cumbersome to search though, so I’d be interested to know of any other useful, royalty-free resources.

Audio editing

I’ve not done a great deal on the audio-only side of things, but my essential tools here are Audacity for editing and cleanup; and Levelator for post-processing. That’s a really important point, by the way: only levelate your audio once everything is mixed together, the whole point is that it’s going to analyze everything and modulate the volume equally… if you have a bunch of snippets of audio and levelate them separately, then edit them together, you may well still end up with volume variations.

Another quick tip at this stage: to avoid issues with VBR MP3s showing up as weird (and incorrect) lengths in some tools, I bring the audio file into iTunes and do the MP3 export in there.

Imaging

For “proper” RAW photo editing and management, regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Lightroom. I use Pixelmator for finer adjustments on exported images.

Beyond that, I find that iPhoto is useful for quickly grabbing snapshots from the digital compact camera for compositing into iMovie clips. Skitch and LittleSnapper are both very useful tools as well as they enable me to rapidly take, resize and annotate screenshots or clips of web pages. For diagrams and so forth, there’s nothing that can beat OmniGraffle.

Extras

Finally, a couple of other useful bits and pieces. Transcoding to different formats is through either VisualHub (now defunct) or ffmpegX. QuickTime Pro is an essential (and highly cost-effective) upgrade too, since it lets you make very quick edits to QuickTime movie files and control the output format more finely.

There. Now, I imagine this may attract a range of “have you heard of…?” “why aren’t you using…?” and other responses, but that’s how I’ve currently settled things. Hopefully some of the tips and thoughts here will be useful to other amateur content creators, too! 🙂

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Polaroid past and present

I haven’t posted anything about photography lately 🙂

I was clearing a loft the other day and came across an instruction manual for an old Polaroid Land camera, which I can only assume my father owned at some point (his writing is on the back page, I’m guessing maybe he was costing out a kit purchase!). I thought I’d scan it in for posterity.

Manual cover


Diagram

As a child in the late 70s and 80s, I used to love Polaroids, even as the format was in decline with the widespread rise of 35mm combined with Supasnaps for processing. As we know, Polaroid have stopped making film now so it’s hard to actually find people using them, although I was captured on Polaroid at a Flickr party in London a while ago.

So what are the options? Well, nothing really gets close to the original pleasure of having a photo pop out of the camera and then the image appearing as it dried. However, there’s a nice piece of software called Poladroid which attempts to replicate the look and feel of the images themselves (down to the texture of the paper, and the slow drying film!).

Maldivian sunset


That’s still not good enough really, of course… it looks good but it’s not the same. Polaroid have announced that they will combine their PoGo mobile printer with Zink technology with a digital camera this year, although that will be starting off with a low pixel count sensor, and the Zink paper at the moment is fairly small… but I see it as a promising step in the right direction to bringing back a more fun, tactile photography.

Gadgets part 2: Bamboo Fun

Bamboo Fun Until recently I’d hankered after one of the higher-end Intuous graphics tablets from Wacom, but a few friends have bought Bamboo models lately so I began to think that this might be a good option for me[1]. So far, it seems that way. What’s this all about? Well I’ve wanted a tablet for a while to help with photo / graphics work, and to try out sketchcasting (see below).

The product

The Bamboo Fun is a bundle which includes the tablet and stylus, plus a mouse (slightly redundant given I have a Mighty Mouse already) and Photoshop Elements – only version 4 for the Mac, annoyingly, but I guess I could always upgrade. To be honest, I’ve not even installed it yet.

The Bamboo comes in very stylish packaging reminiscent of something Apple would make… the box unfolds neatly, each item is wrapped in that thin foam bag packaging, and the driver CD is in a square box exactly like the ones that Apple uses for OS X CDs! So, first impressions are good. After that, basically it’s just plug-and-play… there’s a driver to install which provides some System Preferences to customise the tablet sensitivity and behaviour of the shortcut buttons, but that’s it.

Negative marks go to Wacom for having their registration page (and most of the website, it seems) “temporarily unavailable” for over a week. Not cool, and they are ignoring my emails too.

Usage – OS X and a tablet

In use, it’s been something of a mixed experience so far. The tablet itself is great, but it takes a lot of getting used to over a mouse (which is something I fully expected). The issues have been around the software support, and specifically in my case Lightroom. Two major annoyances – one that the zoom wheel at the top of the tablet doesn’t work in Lightroom, and secondly that although a single tap/click will zoom in, it is then really hard to get Lightroom to zoom back out with the stylus (should just be a simple tap/click again, that’s how it works with the mouse anyway).

On the plus side, it works beautifully well in Pixelmator.

Although OS X has handwriting recognition built in (the “Ink” system), actually I’ve not found this entirely reliable so far. [For éampe ltd to intSome word Son tbeTABLET] For example, I tried to write some words on the tablet just then, and you can see what happened. There doesn’t seem to be a way for the system to learn handwriting styles either. There is some software called inkBook that looks promising and somewhat more functional than the in-built software in OS X, but I don’t think I need it just yet (here’s a review). Handwriting was never going to be the primary focus of this purchase.

Oh, and it turns out that there are some issues with Ink and 64-bit apps in 10.5.x … I found that iScrobbler started to crash, and it looks like Ink is responsible. Weird.

Sketchcasting / sketchblogging

One of my main interests with the Bamboo was trying out Sketchcasting. Dave Briggs blogged about this a couple of months ago, and I’ve been fascinated since then. My first effort, though, was not the best… it’s way over-long (mainly as I fumbled around to work out how to get the thing to work) and not as well-planned as it might have been. Actually I think the Sketchcast site is somewhat limited… there’s no way of making things private, no friending, few social features at all. So instead, I picked up ArtRage and will try using that and Screenflow to create sketchcasts, and probably share them via my Viddler account, which will at least enable things to be embedded on WordPress.com.

More recently I’ve also noticed that Sacha Chua has been sketchblogging… using her Nintendo DS. Sacha is very creative and this seems like a really cool way of using a DS, although it looks like you need a bunch of homebrew software to make it work. Worth a look if you are interested, though.

[1] and, evidently, the only way I’m going to get a custom header image is to MAKE ONE MYSELF. This comment is aimed at no-one in particular. That is all.

Review: disgo Video Plus

A new video device

Video PlusA couple of weeks ago I saw a short news item on Tech Digest, which mentioned a new handheld USB camcorder called the disgo Video Plus (also mentioned on Shiny Shiny and Slashgear). Something similar has been available in the US since last year – the Pure Digital Flip Video – but that product is not available in the UK. The disgo camera has a flip-out screen which the Flip Video does not have, but in other respects they seem very similar.

I’ve been experimenting a little bit recently with video. This device seemed neat – it plugs in directly via USB and is aimed at YouTube-quality, quick video capture. The only thing I was concerned about was that according to the specifications, it didn’t support the Mac… unlike the Flip Video, which has full Mac and Windows support, the disgo product is only listed as compatible with Windows. I contacted disgo’s support team and had an excellent conversation via email where we established that it should just be a USB Mass Storage device, and I might have to do some fiddling to get the AVIs to play on the Mac, but I was willing to give that a try.

Impressions of the Video Plus itself

The camera is extremely neat. It takes 2 x AA batteries (a pair are supplied), comes with a soft carry case, and apart from that… it’s ready to go. The height is less than the size of my hand from the base of the palm to my fingertips, and it is about the same width as a classic iPod. It’s light, too.

ScreenThere’s a 1.5 inch screen (which, incidentally, is really nice and clear) that flips out sideways to enable you to see yourself if the camera is pointing at you – it doesn’t rotate on the axis, though. On the back there are a few buttons: on/off; play/pause; delete (which enables individual clips to be deleted on the device itself); a four way next/zoom/volume button; and a big red button to start or stop a recording. And that’s about it – this is simple stuff.

On one side there is the battery compartment, an SD/MMC card slot which will take up to a 2Gb SD card, and a slider which when pressed causes the USB connector to slide out of the top of the camera to the right of the lens. On the other side there’s a switch to choose between high quality or long play recording, and an A/V connector for hooking up to a TV. There’s a tripod screw connector on the base, and a mystery port on the top with a rubber cover, that I’ve not identified just yet.

It was dead simple to get going – switch on, hit record, and start making video clips. The onboard memory will store 30 minutes of video at high quality, or 60 minutes at lower quality; beyond that, you can obviously add an SD card to expand the capacity.

Using the disgo Video Plus with OS X

There was no CD in the box, and I’ve not plugged the camera into a Windows PC. When I plugged it into my MacBook, it appeared as a USB drive called ‘disgo’ on the desktop.

disgoVideo-1.jpg

Interestingly, although the disgo website does not say that the device is supported on OS X, the ReadMe.txt file included on the disgo’s internal memory does give information about how to access the video files (i.e. you can get them from the DCIM/100VIDEO folder you can see in the screenshot). It is not clear whether files on an SD card plugged into the camera will be able to be read in the same manner – I suspect possibly not, and that I might have to use an external SD card reader, but I’ve yet to try it.

The AVI files played without problems in Quicktime on Leopard. Thinking about it, I did have all kinds of codecs installed already – the camera appears to record an XVID video track at 640×480 resolution, with an mpga audio track – so I may just have been lucky, and it might be necessary to find the right codecs before this will work for anyone else. The files would not, of course, load into iMovie, since that application does not recognise AVI files.

The solution is very simple – transcode to a more Mac-friendly format like a .MOV file or MPEG. The free option for doing this is ffmpegX, but you can also use VisualHub, which I’d previously bought for other purposes and is rather more user-friendly than ffmpegX. Once I’d done that, I was able to use iMovie ’08 to quickly edit together a movie. iMovie ’08 is quirky, and possibly less functional than the previous version, but actually it was ideal for this kind of rapid editing.

Availability

The disgo Video Plus is available via Currys in the UK or direct from disgo.

More photos on Flickr.

Final thoughts

There’s only one way to do this, really…

(I’ve also put this on YouTube)

Update: rebranding, and Windows software

My friend Heidi notes in the comments below that the camera is available in the US as the RCA Small Wonder EZ201. According to this ZDNet review, the original Small Wonder was based on the same technology as the Flip Video, but now RCA have tried to differentiate more (which they seem to have done, in adding the flip screen etc.). However, as we established above, although the ZDNet article claims that this is not Mac-compatible, and the manufacturer doesn’t supply software for the Mac, it seems to work.

The Windows software is on the device itself (remember, I said there was no CD in the box). Inserting the camera into the USB slot on an XP machine, it appeared in My Computer as a USB device called disgo, and when I right-clicked there was an option “Manage your videos” which started the software. It has a few simple features – a grid or list view to access the AVIs and play them; the ability to grab a single frame as a .bmp or .jpg; a section for “editing” i.e. using just part of a clip, or splicing clips together; and a section to email your video to a friend. I’ve added a screenshot on Flickr.

Update: SD card support and UK retailers

I’ve now tried plugging an SD card in. This is treated as an additional device. When you first plug the SD card in the camera copies its software to the card and creates a directory structure. When you then plug the camera into the computer, it continues to see the internal USB flash memory as the storage device, but if you then press the red button while it is connected to the computer the device vanishes (nasty unsafe device removal message), and then the SD card gets mounted instead. So it does work with OS X, but not entirely seamlessly.

Oh, and it looks like Amazon UK have the same device, but branded a Busbi BUSVP0010R Video Plus (and looking at the Busbi site, it looks like they and disgo are the same company since they are both handled by cleverstuff.ie).

Update: other reviews

Paul Knight has done a very detailed video review including a comparison with other cameras including DV tape, and an excellent screencast of how to get the disgo working with a Mac. Shiny Shiny have a short review on YouTube, too.

MacWorld: space, time, air

Having followed the MacWorld news (go look at Maholo’s fantastic 60-second summary of the keynote), I’m left feeling a little annoyed.

Maybe the feeling will pass, but the implication is that you need a Time Capsule in order to do over-the-air backups using Time Machine. When Leopard came out I got myself an Airport Extreme… currently I plug a USB disk into the side of the Macbook in the evenings, but it would be far neater if the machine automatically found an Airport disk and backed up to that (in a supported manner).

So the question is, have Apple killed the “backup to an Airport disk” feature originally touted for Leopard in order to sell Time Capsules, or will they now release some kind of Time Machine and/or Airport Extreme update to support the use of disks attached to AE base stations…