Thursday, September 29, 2016

Focus F-1 Quick Rapid shoulder sling

For a long time I have carried my photography gear in a rucksack style camera bag and it has generally worked pretty well for me. The main problem is the time that it takes to get gear out and start shooting. So I decided I needed to carry a camera already set up for much more of the time in the field. Carrying a camera on a standard neck strap, especially when you also want to have binoculars immediately to hand, is not comfortable or practical. Therefore, I decided to go for a shoulder sling type strap.

The "top of the range" model seems to be the Black Rapid Sports-RS, but at £75-80 it is ridiculously expensive just for a strap! Whilst investigating alternatives, I came across the Focus F-1. This seems to be a Chinese made copy of the Black Rapid and  prices on eBay or Amazon were around £17-20, which seemed a much more reasonable price for a strap. I found a number of reviews which said it was comfortable, well made and good value, so I bought one. That was in Feb 2016. I have used it a great deal since then, including on several field trips when I have worn it pretty much continuously for periods of one to two weeks.

Canon 60D with 100-400mm lens on Focus F1 sling
It has indeed been comfortable and the strap itself seems well made and has shown no signs of wear or weakness. The original fastening on which to hang the equipment looked like this:
Original fastening

It consists of a D-ring and a carabiner style hook with a screw-gate fastener made from some sort of hardened aluminum alloy. This clips into a loop with a tripod screw which attaches into the tripod bush on your equipment. I didn't find this fastening terribly convenient because I often needed to unscrew it and then screw on a Manfrotto mounting plate to use the camera on my tripod or monopod. I quickly realised that I could just as easily clip the hook into the wire loop on a Manfrotto quick release plate. Carried like this, I only had to unhook the gear and put it straight onto the tripod or monopod.
Note the damage to the hook caused by the steel ring of the Manfrotto quick release plate - and the fact that the hook has pulled out of the swivel in the D-ring! The cut in the D-ring was done by me with a hack-saw to remove it from the strap.
This all worked well until earlier this month, although the steel ring on the Manfrotto plate was clearly causing some wear on the softer alloy of the hook - as can be seen on the photo above. Then, whilst I was on the beach at Titchwell on 6th Sept, the hook pulled out of its swivel! Luckily, the gear dropped harmlessly to the sand without any damage.

I decided to replace the fastening with a small, steel, screw-gate carabiner bought from Amazon for £2.35. (Stainless Steel M7 70mm Length Spring Snap Hook Stainless Steel Climbing Gear Carabiner Quick Oval Screw Gate Rock Lock).
Manfrotto quick release plate attached with a steel screw-gate carabiner.

As you can see from the photo, with the carabiner "upside-down" so that the big end is on the strap and the steel loop of the quick release plate through the small end, this works well. I was a little concerned that the lack of a swivel would be a problem, but it really has not been so far - and again I have used it pretty regularly over the past 3 weeks or so.

In summary, the Focus F-1 strap itself seems fine, but the attachment supplied with it is not really strong enough - at least not for a camera and lens combination weighing in at about 2.3Kg.The substitution of a steel carabiner, which is sold as climbing gear and is rated for far more load than this, should fix the problem.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Archiving my photos

As I reported in my last post, I store my photos on an external, 1TB, USB hard drive in a root directory called PhotoArchive. Within this directory, I organise them in a directory structure based on the date they were taken. So a photo I took today would end up in the path "F:\PhotoArchive\2016\09\28\". This is achieved using Exiftool - which I talked about in my previous post (which you should look at for installation details). I have a directory, F:\Work, also on the external drive, where I download the raw images from my camera and I have a batch file which, when run, uses Exiftool to read the date each image was taken from its EXIF information and then moves it to the appropriate directory (which is created if necessary) based on that date. The batch file, file_photos.bat, is placed in the root directory of F: and this is the command it contains:

exiftool "-Directory<DateTimeOriginal" -d "F:/PhotoArchive/%%Y/%%m/%%d" -r "F:\work"

So, my work flow is:
  1. Download images from the camera to F:\Work
  2. Assess which photos I want to keep. I do this using FastRawViewer which, as its name suggests, shows the image from a camera RAW file very quickly. I find it easy to view the image at 100% (keyboard shortcut Z to go to 1:1 and Z again to go back to normal view) and to delete the images I don't want to keep. It doesn't actually delete them, but moves them to a sub-folder called "_Rejected" which it creates in the folder containing the images you are viewing; F:\Work\_Rejected in my case.
  3. Once I am happy I have whittled down to the images I want to archive I delete the _Rejected subdirectory (which actually moves it to my Recycle bin - so another chance to change my mind) and run file_photos.bat. After this has completed, F:\Work is empty and the images are stashed away in the appropriate directories according to the date they were taken.
  4. Finally, I open my chose photo management software, Digikam, and it notices there are new files in the archive and scans them. This takes only seconds for a small batch of say a few tens of photos. I can then go through them, assign keywords and geotag them as necessary. Job done!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Moving my archive of photo from Picasa to Digikam whilst preserving keywords and geotagging

I have a ridiculous number of images archived: over 24.000 files occupying 390 GB of space and extending back to when I first had a digital camera in 2003. I store them on an 1TB external USB hard drive and use an online backup service (Crash Plan) to make sure they are continuously backed up both locally on a NAS box and offsite, to cloud storage.

Clearly, such a vast collection of images is useless unless you can find the ones you want, so they need to be organised and catalogued in some way. I have used Google Picasa to do this:
  1. Adding keywords, such as the identity of the species depicted - e.g. Syrphus ribesii, Syrphidae, Diptera, Fleabane.
  2. Geotagging the photos with the location where they were taken.
Unfortunately, Google announced it was no longer supporting the desktop version of Picasa as of March 2016 and has moved to the cloud-base Google Photos. This is useless to me because it doesn't support keywording or geotagging. The last version of Picasa released was 3.9 in October 2015. Of course, Picasa has not stopped working, but it gets steadily less useful because:
  1. I have recently bought a Canon 80D and, for that model, Canon have yet again changed their RAW format (images still get a .CR2 extension). Whilst much software has been modified to support the new format, Picasa will not be updated and doesn't display the files properly (the thumbnails come out pale and mauve).
    Picasa displaying Canon 80D RAW files as thumbnails.

    The Google Maps API has moved on since support stopped and the geotagging functions in Picasa 3.9 no longer work properly making it impossible to geotag new images.
So I looked for a new tool to replace Picasa and, after lots of searching, reading reviews and trying out several pieces of software, I decided on Digikam which provides the facilities I want.

Up until 2010, I had a Nikon Coolpix 4500 and that did not support RAW format. The images it produced were stored as .JPG files. With JPEG images, Picasa stored keywords as IPTC format metadata and geotags as EXIF data directly in the image file. This is all available to Digikam and the keywords are picked up and stored in Digikam's database and images are shown or queried correctly on its maps. All good! However, Picasa did not modify RAW files. Keywords and geotags were not stored in the .CR2 files produced by my Canon DSLRs but in a ".picasa.ini" file placed in each directory of my archive. Here is what one of these files looks like:

keywords=Brent Goose,Holkham NNR
keywords=Holkham NNR,Pink-footed Goose
keywords=Holkham NNR,Wigeon

Digikam does not know how to deal with stuff in this format. So I am left with an awful lot of images which I have geotagged and assigned keywords, but my chosen tool cannot use them!

I spent some time searching for solutions to this and got a hint from a blog post by a French photographer Michaƫl Delorme from which I was able to download a php script. This finds the .picasa.ini files in the directory structure it is pointed at, reads and parses each .ini file in turn and then uses the excellent command line tool Exiftool by Phil Harvey to write the required information directly into each image's metadata. I have taken on this idea, but written an R script to do the same job. Here is the R script I came up with:


archivePath <- "F:/PhotoArchive"

inis <- list.files(path=archivePath, recursive=TRUE,
                   full.names=TRUE, pattern="*ini$",
         , all.files=TRUE)

pb <- txtProgressBar(min = 0, max = length(inis), style = 3)
for(i in 1:length(inis)){
    ini <- read.ini(inis[i])
    setTxtProgressBar(pb, i)
    for(f in 1:length(ini)){
        fname <- names(ini)[f]
            doit <- FALSE
            args <- " -overwrite_original_in_place"
                kwds <- unlist(strsplit(ini[[f]]$keywords, ","))
                args <- paste(args, " -iptc:keywords=",
                              paste("\"", kwds, "\"",
                                    collapse=" -iptc:keywords+=", sep=""),
                doit <- TRUE
                xy <- unlist(strsplit(ini[[f]]$geotag, ","))
                lat <- as.numeric(xy[[1]])
                lon <- as.numeric(xy[[2]])
                if(lon>=0) lonref <- "E" else lonref <- "W"
                if(lat>=0) latref <- "N" else latref <- "S"
                args <- paste(args, " -GPSLatitude=", lat,
                                 " -GPSLatitudeRef=", latref,
                                 " -GPSLongitude=", lon,
                                 " -GPSLongitudeRef=", lonref,
                                 " -GPSAltitude=0 -GPSAltitudeRef=0", sep="")
                doit <- TRUE
              args <- paste(args, paste(dirname(inis[i]),fname,
              x <- system2("exiftool", args=args, stdout=TRUE)

This is not necessarily written in good R style (it uses loops rather than being vectorised) and it is certainly not fast! But it did the job for me (taking some hours to run) and is only needed once.

So, here is the step by step how to, if you find yourself in a similar position. Use it at your own risk!

  2. Download and install Exiftool. I downloaded the zip version for Windows (I am on version 10.27). There is no installation involved, you just unzip the executable and put it somewhere - but that somewhere does need to be in your path (so Windows can find it). The simplest way to achieve this is to pt it in you C:\Windows directory. Otherwise, add the path where you chose to put it in to your PATH system variable as follows (Windows 10, earlier versions differ slightly):
    1. Right click on "This PC" - either the icon on your desktop or the item in your start menu - and choose "Properties". 
    2. Click "Advanced system settings". 
    3. Open the "Advanced" tab in the System Properties window and click the [Environment Variables...] button near the bottom.  
    4. Select the PATH item in the System variables list and click the [Edit] button. 
    5. Add your path (without a trailing \) to the bottom of the list in the Edit environment variables window. 
    6. Press OK about 3 times to close all these windows.
  3. The file that is unzipped is called "exiftool(-k).exe". I changed this file name to "exiftool.exe" so it can be executed just by giving the commad "exiftool". 
  4. Test it is all working correctly by opening a command window (press Windows key-R, type "cmd" and click [OK]), type "exiftool" and press return. You should see a load of help information from the tool. If instead it says "'exiftool' is not recognized as an internal or external command", then it isn't set up correctly! Check you renamed it and it is in a directory in you path.
  5. I assume you already have R installed (I am using version 3.3.1) and I am using RStudio (I am on version 1.0.12) to provide a convenient GUI front-end. If you haven't used R before, there are plenty of good tutorials out there.
  6. Install the ini package for R. This will be used to parse the ini files. In RStudio, open the Packages pane in the lower, right hand window, click Install, type "ini" in the Packages prompt and click the [Install] button.
  7. Open a new script (File - New File - RScript) and paste in the above script.
  8. Modify line 4 archivePath <- "F:/PhotoArchive" to point to the root path of your archive. Note that R is, at base, Linux software so it expects file paths to be delimited with "/", not "\" as in Windows.
  9. As it stands it is looking for Canon RAW files with the extension .CR2. If your photos are from some other make of camera, you will need to change the extension it searches for in line 16 if(file_ext(fname)=="CR2"){. For example, if you use a Nikon, this should read if(file_ext(fname)=="NEF"){.
  10. As it stands this will OVERWRITE your RAW files with a new version containing keywords and/or GPS metadata. By default, Exiftool will also save the original version of the file, adding ".original" to the end of the file name. If you want it to do this, remove the tag -overwrite_original_in_place from line 18 which will then read args <- "" (i.e initialised to an empty string).
  11. Save the file and run it (click Source at the top-right corner of the script window).
  12. It shows a % done progress bar as it runs. Go and have a cuppa or mow the lawn whilst it does its thing...