"Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain... Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall - it's great when you stop."

Chris Darwin

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Climbing photography

No matter how finely sculpted the hindquarters of your climbing partners is, having their buttock have a central part in your climbing photos is bound to get old. So there are plenty of tips and trick of how to avoid the dreaded butt-shot.

Cartography

I've been frustrated with the driving instructions of quite a few climbing topos. No matter how good the verbal instructions, you just can't beat the map. However, if the map is rough, it can be even more frustrating than the verbal description.

If you have schematic map and not all of the roads are marked, figuring out which ones are marked is nearly impossible unless the map clearly identifies which roads are marked using either (or both) the road name and/or number.

Don't even consider drawing any map as a raster image. Vector is the only way to go for scalability and editability. If you need it as a raster image, fine, export it into a raster format of your choice, but don't ever consider drawing the map as a raster image.

My take on the best way of drawing maps is to draw them in scale. By far the easiest way of doing this is to use real geographic map as a guideline, then draw a vector map over it. Very easy to create scale-accurate maps this way. Using layers available in all remotely good illustration apps, it's even possible to easily create different versions of the same map within same image. This is very handy e.g. for different language versions and for different scale versions. Granted, vectors scale nicely but if you downsize a large map to very small size, there's often so much detail, that you just can't read the map any more. Not to mention that text needs to be certain size in order to be readable.

Furthermore, in the current era of GPS navigators the GPS coordinates are valuable help as well.

To ease the pain of drawing multiple maps, use symbol sets for common symbols.

Trad tips

I've tumbled on few interesting articles recently, mainly on trad climbing.

Dark chest of wonders

Web can be treasure chest for climbers searching for maps and information about the climbing destinations. Google maps is a good resource in planning. However, their maps don't offer sufficient details for mountain areas. Furthermore, when zoomed in into greatest detail, their maps cover only small area.

Google doesn't allow users to save a map for offline use either. This is easy enough to circumvent by taking a screen capture though. However, if you need a larger area than what fits into screen (or viewport if viewing embedded map), then you are out of luck. Well, sort of. This can be circumvented just as well, simply by:

  1. Taking multiple screen captures
  2. Stitching them together in image editing application

Depending on the number of screen captures required, this can be a very painful process. There are some tools to automate the process when working with Google Maps though, search and you'll find.

Very well, I found out that Map+ has maps about Switzerland available online, that zoom in all the way to great detail (looks a lot like 1:25.000 at least for mountain areas). The downside is that their maps are available only through small vieport, therefore, tens, if not hunderds of screen caps are required to cover larger areas. Which makes the manual stitching process rather time consuming and very boring indeed. So I thought there needs to be a better way. The best I've found so far (best and good are very different things, though) consists of

  1. using screen capture application/add-on, that allows capturing of selection only to a file. For Firefox, e.g. Screengrab add-on is such a tool
  2. Import the files into image editing application of your choice as layers.
  3. Carefully align the layers. Some image manipulation tools have features to auto-align the layers or separate images. Such a features are designed for building panoramas and can be a great help in stitching maps as well. Unfortunately I had rather poor results with such features though, as they tend to crash when you throw tens of images their way. Furthermore, they tended to rotate and/or distort base images thus producing inaccurate results. If such a automation works, it would be a time saver though.

Another nifty Google service is Google Earth. It can be a great help as well in planning the trip as it makes it easier to visualize the area, therefore it can assist in trying to figure out whether it is feasible to get from place A to B. And playing with it is great fun too.

Pimping my camera

I regularly read Lifehacker which often has a great tips and tricks. I noticed they had an article about CHDK firmware for Canon point and shoot cameras, which lead me to another article about the same firmware. I had heard about that earlier, but back then it didn't support my Ixus 850IS. This has apparently changed.

CHDK is a firmware hack for Canon point and shoot cameras that bring quite a few new features to those cameras. Most interesting of those to me are the ability to shoot RAW and bracketing options for shooting images to be used as ingredients of HDR images. So clearly I needed to give it a go.

After uploading the CHDK, I managed to get my Ixus 850IS (aka SD800IS with Digic III processor) to shoot RAW images (CRW), but none of the apps I normally use seemed to be able to read those. Apparently the RAW files produced by CHDK are not compatible with Canon official RAW files, so conversion is required. This was a kicker. dng4ps2 is able to convert Canon cameras RAW files into Digital Negative (DNG) format, which is ideal for this purpose. As it supports Powershot SD800 IS, which is American for Ixus 850 IS, one might thinks that all that is required is to simply select that as a camera from Settings - Camera options and be done with that. One would be wrong. This produces the error message "Can't find camera profile for this file". After some digging out, I found the solution:

  • Do NOT select anything under Settings - Camera types
  • Under Settings - Camera options, choose "Powershot SD800 IS" and press "copy". Type "Canon DIGITAL IXUS 850 IS" as camera name and "IXUS 850 IS" as short name.

Unfortunately, dng4ps2 loses your camera profile when you close the app, so this step has to be done every time you start the app. Interestingly enough, the created profile seems to be stored in Windows register but it doesn't seem to have any effect whatsoever. Anyway, I can live with that.

XnView, RawTherapee and Gimp armed with Ufraw plugin are also able to read the files and export the files as tiff, however not to DNG. The same goes for Google Picasa, except that it can't create TIFF either.

I did some experiments with bracketing as well. I am using Allbest build of CHDK which has several extra photo operations, one of them being Bracketing in Continuous Mode. Following the guide Bracketing I managed to get it to work. Well, sort of. I couldn't figure out the way to get to the sub menu where I am supposed to be able to adjust the number of bracketed shots. Other than that it seemed fine. There are more advanced options for bracketing involving the use of scripts. To use scripts for creating ingredients of HDR images, see Make ANY Single-Shot Intervalometer into an HDR-Bracketing Script.

As RAW files always, and uncompressed ones in particular, are much larger than jpeg images, I went on bought new SDHC memory card. Only to find out that my memory card reader doesn't want to co-operate with such cards.

Climbing photography

While I am at it, I though to throw min few links to articles about climbing photography.

One of the issues of climbing photography is that especially in the mountain environment, cameras in general and compact cameras in particular do a rather pathetic job of capturing the full dynamic range of the nature. Luckily, this shortcoming can be remedied with HDR images. the big idea of HDR images is to shoot multiple shots of the same image with different settings, then combine the images into a single image that utilizes color information from the multiple shots.

Often there's only need to combine multiple shots into a single panorama photo.

Cameraderie

I am considering buying new camera. As most of my photographing is done during the climbing trips, its suitability for climbing photography is the driving decision factor. Unfortunately, no one is producing s camera that would fulfill all my requirements.

My wishlist for climbing camera consists of:

  • Very small and light. Camera needs to fit in jacket pocked, otherwise it will see very little action. This rules out both SRL and larger compacts as well. We are talking about sub-200g range and as small as possible, especially depth is important.
  • Robust and weatherproof.
  • Lens. This is where it gets challenging. To be useful, the lens needs to have proper wide-angle. On the other hand, it needs to have reasonably long telezoom as well. Obviously the overall quality should be outstanding and it should not have any distortion to speak of. Tough order, I know. And it gets worse. As the lightening conditions are often difficult, large aperture is needed.
  • Controls. On top of proper automatic and metering, the camera should have usable manual controls. The key here is usable, which pretty much requires manual focus ring (you can't really use menus when trying to focus, can you).
  • Features. Ability to shoot RAW is probably on top of my list. GPS would be very handy for automatic geotagging.
  • Video. To be useful, optical zoom needs to be available when shooting video and the camera needs to be able to shoot HD video with normal frame speed, otherwise the whole feature is useless to me.

During my research, the following models made it to the short list:

Panasonic DMC-TZ7
Followup model of successful TZ5 with improved video features. Looks possibly the best compromise. However, based on reviews there are some rather alarming shortcomings. First and foremost, it has very small censor. This is almost a necessity if you want to pack an impressive zoom into a very compact body. The downside of this is of course reverse impact of aperture, noisiness and dynamic range. And sure enough, e.g. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and Fuji Finepix 200EXR reportedly boast vastly superior dynamic range. LX3 would shoot RAW as well, but unfortunately it has much shorter zoom, is quite a bit larger and its video features are far inferior to TZ7.
Fuji Finepix 200EXR
Reportedly very good dynamic range and boasts 5x zoom which would be acceptable I guess, but its video features are sorely lacking.
Ricoh CX1
Ricoh seems to have an interesting looking model in their offering as well, namely CX1 (only SD video, though). Very interesting features such as in-camera HDR.
Canon PowerShot SX200IS
Canon's entry into compact superzoom market. Sorely lacking in the video department (no zoom during recording, seriously?).
Nikon Coolpix S620, S610, S710
Nikon offering in its Coolpix S range sport both wide angle lens and reasonable zoom (up to 7x), however sadly not in the same camera. The video-side can't really keep up with the competition either.
Olympus μ9000
The Olympus µ-9000 (also known as the 'Stylus 9000') is the flagship model of Olympus' µ-Series line of point-and-shoot digital cameras. The µ Series consists of compact cameras characterized by small profiles, relatively great optical zoom function, and a focus on stylish outward appearance.
Samsung WB500
Interesting feature set but reportedly can't hold its own in image quality department.

If only Panasonic offered similar camera to TZ7 with larger censor (granted it would limit the zoom, but something like 6-8x would still be very good. Combine that with with lower pixel density (meaning that instead of 10MP, it would have "only", say 8MP) and it should sport greater dynamic range and shouldn't suffer from high noise as badly as it currently does. In my book, something like that would be very hard to beat in supercompact point and shoot market.

Auto-magic, take 2

I went on and replaced the "web 2.0" links available on some of the pages with JavaScript menu, which I reckon is less obtrusive and ultimately better from the maintenance point of view as well, as it would not require changes in markup. The script used on the site is based on JavaScript Context Menu by Luke Breuer.

The sample has been changed quite a bit though. Unfortunately my tweaking seemed to have broken compatibility with Internet Explorer 7, though. I tested the script with Firefox (3.0.7 and 3.1 beta), Internet Explorer 8, Chrome 2.0 beta and Safari 4 beta. Furthermore, it should work just fine with other browsers as well as long as they allow replacing right-click menu. The best part of this approach is that whenever the integrated services syntax requires changing or if I want to add new services, all I need to do is change the JavaScript. At this point, the integrated services are:

Essentially, the functionality pulled off with the JavaScript is rather similar to Accelerators, introduced in Internet Explorer 8. Those are pretty handy BTW; if you are using Firefox, IE8 Activities for Firefox comes highly recommended.

Caveats

Recently some book recommendation came my way courtesy of Amazon's marketing ploy. I've picked a habit of checking their "customers who bought this also bought" recommendations. Which is where I noticed Andy Cave's "Learnign to Breathe" and "Thin White Line".

As I had read Mick Fowler 's books not too long ago, the name immediately sounded somewhat familiar given that Andy was part of the same tragic Changabang expedition featuring in one of Fowler's book. As I found out that both of Cave's books are highly acclaimed, I went on bought both of them. So far I am in the middle of "Learning to Breathe" but already it's safe to say that it was money well spent.

Standards compliance

I recently noticed that Internet Explorer (including Internet Explorer 7) did a pathetic job of displaying this very site; (at least) all unordered (ul) and ordered lists (ol) were displayed incorrectly. This seems to be caused by IE:s inability to process such elements correctly whenever they are located within floated elements.

Which is rather sad given that many pure-CSS layouts rely on floats to build the layout. Which is the case with this site as well. To make matter worse, there's no real solution to remedy this. Fortunately upcoming Internet Explorer 8 (currently available as beta 2) seems to finally fix this.

However, since lists are heavily used on this site and lack of bullets and improper indents can seriously impair the readability of some of the pages, I added IE conditional comments along with CSS targeted to IE7 that fix this problem. At least up to the point where the layout is at least pretty close to what it should look like.

I also changed the mime-type to application/xhtml+xml which is what is recommended for xhtml 1.1. I am well aware that this may cause issues with old browsers. Tough shit. Furthermore, references to xhtml 1.1 schema are now added to html-root element.

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