Windows Surface for Photographers – Further Thoughts

Rusted GloryAfter last week’s article on my experiment using Windows Surface Pro as my go to device for all things photography, I spent the weekend shooting at a workshop. Unlike my week long vacation, the workshop involved a high volume of shots and a short window to turn around images for display\discussion. It would be a good test of the Surface Pro in a real world scenario. It passed with flying colors.

Taking the Surface with me was a joy. Starting with the reduced weight of my camera bag, the Surface really did simplify my travelling. No more carrying a laptop\tablet plus incompatible chargers and extra cables. In fact, the charger for the Surface Pro doubles as a USB charger for my cellphone thanks to the inclusion of a USB charging port on the power brick. Just plug in the USB cable of choice and you can charge any device. I wish Microsoft could have used a universal USB connector to actually Charge the surface, but I assume the power draw would not have been enough so the proprietary design of the charging cable was needed. Still only one charger for all my devices is a huge plus.

Editing in the field worked well. It would have been nice if there was a full size SD card reader on the Surface Pro instead of the Micro SD port, that would have made transferring photos from my camera even easier – however the USB 3 port works well as I stated in the last review. And with the ability to add 64 Gigs of extra storage via Micro SD card, I had plenty of room to transfer my files to the Surface from my camera before copying them back off to external hard drive for permanent storage.

I should mention here that the Surface Pro turned heads in the room. There were a lot of Mac users there. In the photography world you just expect that. iPads and Mac Books covered the room. People chuckled a bit when they saw me pull out the Surface with its slightly boxy design and strange keyboard. The chuckles turned to OHHS and Wow’s when I folded the keyboard back and pulled out the pen. Suddenly it was a chorus of “what’s that? What are you using? Are you editing right on the screen?”

Yeah…it was like bringing the hottest girl to the prom. Heads turned, jaws dropped. People were envious.

Of a Microsoft product.

Apple people.

Speaking of the stylus I now have the screen calibrated the way I need it and editing in Lightroom and CS6 was a snap. Like other users I have found that the pen works less reliably in the corners – this is an issue with many digitizers due to how they work. Now that I have the hang of the stylus and how to work with it, I was able to fly through things. It was precise enough to work quickly and efficiently. They still have not fixed the pressure sensitivity issue I mentioned before, but since I’m not an artist that didn’t bother me at all. My mouse isn’t pressure sensitive either and I edit most of my work with that. Yeah I’m old school.

The last observation from the weekend I wanted to pass on is about the battery life. A lot has been made about the short (4-5 hour) battery life of the Surface. I admit I wish it was 2x that, but it held up very well. During the seminar I was able to edit using CS6, Lightroom, Photomatix and the Nik software suite and the battery life was on track for about 4 ½ hours. I was running in PowerSave mode so CS6 wasn’t quite as zippy but that was a tradeoff I was willing to make. I mean heck, I was running CS6 on a TABLET after all. I’m willing to compromise a little speed.

The battery also held up on the flight back. My 3hours or so in the air had the battery at around ½ (remember though that wasn’t a full 3 hours of use due to FAA regulations). Even better, and where you can see the genius of this setup, I laid the Surface flat on the seat tray and editing a whole series of photos. Hours of productivity saved. Any laptop I’ve ever had small enough to do that was too small to work on. Not sure it would make it the full flight from New York to LA but it would be close enough that the SkyMall magazine could tide me over.

So in the end I stand by my earlier review. The Surface Pro is a fantastic device for photographers that aren’t wed to Apple. It looks great, it plays great and it Works great. I can’t ask for much more.

 

 

 

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Surface Pro for Photographers

Editied completely on the new Microsoft Surface.

Editied completely on the new Microsoft Surface.

 

It’s Sunday Night and I’m sitting on the couch with my family watching the Oscars Ceremony. Sitting lightly on my lap is my new Surface Pro, the tablet\laptop\Windows 8 Super-machine from Microsoft. While the opinions on the Surface Pro as a general purpose machine have been mostly positive, I’m reviewing this device primarily as a photography tool. Though it is certainly true that I will use the Surface for more than just photo-editing, the main appeal for me is the idea of “tablet that runs Photoshop”

So let me get all of my pesky biases out of the way before we go on (don’t you wish every reviewer did that?). I don’t use a Mac anymore. Had one, appreciate the appeal – didn’t like it enough to stay with it. I’m a Windows guy and always have been. However I’m also a gadget freak and have owned an iPad 1, iPad 3, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S2, Galaxy Nexus, Amazon Kindle Fire, Asus Transformer TF101 and most recently an Asus Transformer Infinity – a tablet I love, love, love. I am very familiar with the pluses and minuses of the various platforms and have tried to use each and every one of these devices to help take\edit\store photos in the field. They have all worked to some degree but I’ve never been able to leave my laptop at home. My hope with the Surface Pro is that I would finally have the one device to rule them all.

Was it successful? After a week away from home floating around the Caribbean I can say without reservation (or at least very few of them) that yes it does. Does it work perfectly? No, not exactly. You have to know what you are getting. The Surface Pro isn’t a tablet even though it looks like one. It’s not really an ultrabook either. It’s something new – taking the best ideas of both worlds and marrying them together in a single package. If you look at it simply as a tablet, you’ll wonder why anyone would want the extra weight and lower battery life. If you look at it as a laptop you’ll wonder why someone would want to spend that kind when money you can get a laptop with better specs at a similar price. All that is true but misses the point. It’s the Mercedes-Benz GLK of computer world. A crossover device if you will.

First the good stuff about the Surface Pro if you are a photographer. It’s Windows not some mobile OS. Sneer if you want and make jokes. That’s OK. While you do, I’ll be enjoying the largest software base in the world. The Surface can run virtually ANY Windows application and that means the full Creative Suite from Adobe. No need for an App store (though the Windows App store is growing daily). No need for special versions or new versions or watered down versions of software I want. It’s Windows, Baby.

I was able to install CS6, Lightroom 4.3, In-Design and Adobe Premiere on the machine with no hassles. Same goes for Photomatix Pro, Nik Color Efex 4 and Siver Efex 2 – though there was a small hassle with the last two related, I believe, to the Intel 4000 HD graphics chip the machine uses. I had to turn off GPU rendering inside of Color Efex and Silver Efex. I’ve had this issue in the past on other machines with an Intel graphics card so this isn’t a Surface issue.

All the software ran smoothly once installed and the Surface Pro’s I5 processor and 4 Gigs of RAM were able to keep up with multiple programs being opened at once. Performance in Photoshop or Photomatix was what you would expect from a notebook computer such as a MacBook Air or I5 based Windows machine. It’s not as fast as my maxed out desktop machine – but then my maxed out desktop machine wouldn’t fit nearly as well on my lap while drinking a Mojito either. I can afford a slight slowdown for portability any time.

Of course all the non-photography related software ran fine too. It’s a JOY to have a real version of Outlook running on a tablet and not some watered-down mail client. Thanks to Steam, I had an assortment of PC video games loaded up and ready to go and they played surprisingly well. I finally made it through The Walking Dead game and wasted more than a few hours in Civ V again (damn you just one more turn syndrome).

As nice as it was not to have to settle for Photoshop Touch or Snapseed to do photo-editing on my “tablet” that’s not the best reason to consider the Surface Pro as the device of choice if you are a photographer. There are a few more features that make this a no brainer for me compared to my iPad or Android tablets. First is the full sized USB 3.0 port on the tablet itself. My Asus Infinity has a full size USB port on the keyboard dock, and my iPad of course has the easy to lose, easy to forget, only works with a limited number of items “camera connecter” dongle – but having a full, high-speed integrated USB port on the body itself means I can now do one thing I’ve been longing to do for years – shoot tethered on my tablet.

Before anyone sends me a long email about how they were able to shoot tethered on their tablet just by downloading this software, getting this adapter, etc etc, I already know it CAN be done. It’s just not done particularly well most of the time and never as easy as just plugging the cable into the port on my tablet and firing up Lightroom or even better Helicon Remote by Heliconsoft (I love this product). Now I can walk around with the device in one hand, really compose the photo properly and fire off a shot and check the results easily. It’s the best solution I’ve found so far, and I’ve looked at a dozen.

The other “killer” feature, the one that truly sets it above the pack, is the included stylus and built in digitizer. This thing rocks. Editing photos directly on the gorgeous HD screen in Photoshop is pure heaven. Cloning, healing, selecting etc all nearly as easy as on my Wacom Intuos 4 at home – only with the advantage of working directly on the screen like a poor-man’s Cintiq. The screen is capable of 1024 pressure sensitivity levels, though at the moment the pressure sensitivity does not work in Adobe products due to Adobes use of a non-standard driver. Adobe and Microsoft are working on resolving this I’m told. I quickly found myself zooming in on my photos on the screen with one hand, using the pen with the other to make a correction and sliding around to look at other areas of the photo that needs work. On a portable machine this is a true winner if you are a photographer.

One last feature I just thought of that really sets the Surface Pro apart from other non-Windows 8 tablets – printing and networking. Even if you can edit a photo decently on an iPad or Android tablet, printing is just not a lot of fun. No such issues on the Surface. I installed my Epson print drivers, downloaded my ICC profiles and was able to print from my machine from Lightroom with no issues. Same joy with networking – accessing the other machines in my house was straightforward. I joined the Surface Pro to my home network and I had access to all my photos, music, videos and the other printer that sits upstairs. Again I’ll say it, it’s Windows, Baby.

Before I finish the positive features I should quickly note that the Surface Pro is also a fantastic bit of design aesthetically. It’s a bit heavier than an iPad for sure, but it’s solid and sleek so the extra weight doesn’t feel awkward when I hold it. It’s made even better when paired with the Type Keyboard (the ones you see on all the Surface commercials Snap Snap Snapping all over the screen). Now the tablet becomes a true laptop all while weighing less than 2.5 lbs. It’s easy to type on, looks great and carries well. I’m actually a little amazed MS did such a nice job on the design.

Now none of this is to say the device is perfect. Far from it. Like any Generation 1 device there are issues that early adopters should be aware of. First and by FAR the biggest issue is battery life. Any review of the Surface Pro has already brought this up so you may already know but the battery just isn’t the same as your Apple or Android tablets. It’s maybe ½ that. If I was using it as a consumption device (ie normal tablet stuff) I could get about 4 ½ to just under 5 hours of life in battery saver mode. If I was playing games or doing heavy editing? Maybe 3. This is on par with many laptops including the 11″ Mac Book Air – but it does mean you can’t just run and gun with it all day without a little batter top-off time. This was not a problem for me – but if you need to work all day with no access to an outlet at all this is not the tablet\laptop for you.

Second negative issue is the screen, while gorgeous and plenty big for a tablet, is kind of small for a Windows OS desktop. It’s not that it doesn’t look good – it does, it’s just that the interfaces for most programs like CS6 and Lightroom, are not designed for tiny screens or touch enabled screens. The menus can be a bit small to work with. This isn’t a big problem (no pun intended) but it can get a bit frustrating when you are hitting a menu item and it keeps bringing up the wrong choice. We are in a mobile\touch world now people – let me scale my interface PLEASE.

Some people have complained that the amount of free storage is an issue, but I disagree. As a photographer I never expect my laptop to be my main storage so maybe I’m jaded, but the 128GB Surface Pro has nearly 90 Gigs free. After installing the programs listed above plus Office 13, Audacity, and a few Windows Apps from the App store I still had more than 50Gb free. That’s generally enough to hold my shots temporarily. If it’s not, you can add another 64 Gigs of memory via a micro-SD card. If that isn’t enough just plug in a portable hard drive to the super-fast USB 3.0 port. Voila – all the storage you want.

So do you need a Surface Pro if you are a photographer? No of course not. If you are heavily wedded to the Apple platform then you may hesitate to make the switch. If you don’t mind carrying a laptop AND a tablet when you travel you can get more mileage from each by buying a separate device. However if you are like me and you don’t want to carry multiple chargers, multiple device, extra dongles etc etc when you travel then the Surface Pro may be the perfect device for you. It exceeded my expectations and I’m constantly amazed at how this little beast of a machine works. Well worth the investment if you ask me.

 

 

 

 

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Cold Day at CSU – Cleveland, OH

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Been Waitin on the Bus all Day

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Train Wrecked – Cleveland, OH

Train Wrecked

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Hidden Gem

Just found this little gem walking through the woods Sunday. I just love finding unexpected stuff.

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Fall Leaves on the Grand River

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Modern Sensors Part 2 – HDR at High ISO

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ISO 100

On this weeks episode of Shutter Tripping I talked about wasting  a whole morning of shots by shooting at the wrong ISO simply because I didn’t recheck my settings. It became the topic of this weeks Foul Up From the Field segment. I almost deleted them, but decided to go ahead and process them in Photomatix for fun. I wanted to compare it to last image set I took at ISO 3200, to the same image shot at ISO 100 (eventually I did realize what I was doing!)

I really thought that the ISO 3200 shots would be useless, but in fact they end up quite usable. No noise reduction was applied to the photo, and they were both pretty heavily processed in Lightroom and Nik Color Efex Pro 4. Older cameras would have made a horrible picture but new modern sensors show a different story. You don’t need to shoot everything at ISO 100 to have a good photo.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ISO 3200

Now admittedly the 2nd picture is noisier. If you look at the sky or inside the building you can see evidence of noise. However this could have been dealt with easily using noise reduction software. For shooting at such an aggressively high ISO level, it’s really quite good.

Now some of you are asking WHY would you do this. Well if you are on a tripod and you can get all of your exposures that you need you may not need to. However what about hand-holding in bad light or indoors? What about those times where it’s so dark your over exposure takes more time than your camera will stay open for without bulb mode (on a Nikon that s a 30 second exposure). You might be able to speed things up by changing your aperture, but then you sacrifice your depth of field. By raising the ISO you can decrease the shutter speed and keep the same aperture without being killed by high noise levels.

Keep in mind this was daylight and the sun was getting stronger. The same shot at night at high ISO would have been noisier. I’m not sure if it would have been to noisy or not, but I’d still rather some noise than no photo.

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Steel Yard

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Wood Pile

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