Project Updates: The Small Challenges to Overcome

As I continue to find myself in a new city, the ideas and thoughts for new projects seems to be never ending. Whether it’s thinking about improvements to my proposed time-lapse rig, or brand new project ideas that seem darn near impossible, it’s hard for me to just focus on one thing and work towards it.

Right now I’ve indicated my plans to do a few things. First off, I was going to build myself a skateboard grind box and secondly, I was going to build myself a time-lapse rig for my new DSLR. These were two good projects to start off with, however I’ve run into a bit of a snag with them.

With the skateboard grind box, my first concern is purchase and transportation of materials. Most of the lumber I need can be purchased at a home depot very close by. This is a good thing, however the one concern I face is getting the materials home. I drive a 1998 Chevy Malibu right now, and from what I can tell, it’s likely that I won’t be able to close my trunk with the lumber in the back. While this shouldn’t be a huge issue, it just makes me a bit nervous to drive on the road with lumber sticking out of the back of my car.

The next issue is tools. In an effort to not put myself into debt right off the bat, I haven’t bought myself that many tools. The only thing I got myself was a massive set of Mastercraft Wrenches and Sockets. They’re normally about $700 at Canadian Tire, however they tend to go on sale for $200 every now and then. If you’re looking to get a solid set of tools, I highly recommend this socket set. It has everything for the beginner hobbyist looking to build a tool collection. (Note that it’s only available in Canada. If you happen to be in the enviable position I am, being 20 minutes away from the Canadian border, make the trip and pick up a set.)

Luckily my dad has an old circular saw that he’s offered to give me. That makes the cutting process much faster than using a regular hand saw.

Another thing that makes a project like the grind box a heck of a lot easier is having some kind of work bench. It makes life so much easier when you have a place to work on your projects, whether they’re big or small. Another option is sawhorses, however I like the idea of a workbench because it gives me yet another project to blab on about.

While I’d like to say I’m getting started on my skateboard box right away, I might be working on a workbench first. It would be nice to have a solid workbench to do woodworking on before I start off the any other big projects. I found this great site that discusses an easy build using 15 2″ x 4″ x 8″ lumber pieces and a 4′ x 8′ sheet of 1/2 plywood. You can see it here.

So in the interim, I’ll be putting together a work bench prior to making the skateboard box based on the plans above. This at least give me something else to blog about.

The time-lapse rig has stalled a bit as I’ve figured out that I’ll need to develop a DIY time-lapse function for my Nikon D3300, since an intervalometer isn’t a standard feature on the Nikon D3300. There are a number of methods of interfacing with a DSLR to do time-lapse shots, whether it’s a wireless connection through your phone, or through a physical USB connection to your computer. In the future I’ll indicate some of the methods you can pursue, one of them likely being similar to this one here, though that may be a bit ambitious for a short term solution.

While this post may seem like I’m just stalling on my projects, it’s just another step in the planning process. I want a decent workspace and the right tools to work on my grind box, and I’ll need to figure out how to make a working time-lapse function for my DSLR. Hopefully my next post can show some progress I’ve made towards these goals. Only time will tell.

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Nikon D3300 DSLR Update: What I’ve Learned So Far

While I continue to play around with my new DSLR, I’ve learned a few things just from toying around with the camera. It’s been a lot of fun playing around with a camera that has much more advanced settings than an ordinary point and shoot. I’m much happier with the quality of the photos I get from the DSLR than my normal point and shoot cameras.

One thing to note is that it doesn’t mean you can’t get spectacular shots with a DSLR only. Some of the best pictures I’ve taken have been with the camera on my smartphone. Most smartphone cameras have more than enough megapixels to take great photos for everyday point and shoot photos.

Since I’ve gotten my DSLR, I’ve had a chance to try it in a few difference scenarios. I’ve taken some photos at Island Lake State Park here in Detroit, I’ve taken some photos at the Quicken Loans 400 NASCAR race, and I’ve tried the 1080P 60 FPS (frames per second) video capabilities of the camera just outside my home. Below are a few of the photos I captured. I’ve taken a lot more, but I’m keeping it to a few photos for the time being. Maybe later if I want to showcase more photos, I’ll set up a photo sharing site on Instagram or something. Who knows.

Island Lake State Park. I was trying close up shots.
Island Lake State Park. I was trying close up shots.
Another Island Lake Shot. I was using my zoom lens for this photo.
Another Island Lake Shot. I was using my zoom lens for this photo.
Quicken Loans 400 NASCAR Race. Crazy big grandstand.
Quicken Loans 400 NASCAR Race. Crazy big grandstand at Michigan International Speedway.

Below is a video I took of myself skateboarding. It’s only a couple of clips, but it also includes some close up action of the NASCAR race at the end. Already I like the filming quality of this camera a heck of a lot better than other cameras I’ve used. For example, I’ve used my GoPro lots, and while I like it, there’s a crazy amount of barrel distortion (rounding of the edge of the video frame, see here for a better explanation of distortion in photos). That being said, you can beat up the GoPro and it still works (putting a GoPro under your skateboard will beat it up really quickly).

There are certainly a lot of positives to having this camera, but there’s also a few negatives.

The Pros

Amazing Image Quality

For just using the auto function, this camera captures amazing photos without doing too much work on the users end. You can open the box up, charge the camera battery, and start snapping great photos right away (this model anyways, other models might not be so intuitive).

Amazing Video Quality

As I said earlier, the video quality is awesome. I like the quality of the videos I can get with this camera, especially with the 1080P video at 60 fps. It’s smooth and crisp.

There’s Lots of Features

This could be good or bad depending on what you want, but it’s fun to see all the different aspects you have control over. Whether you want to control the aperture, manually adjust the focus, remotely control the camera from a computer (while not exclusive to DSLRs, this is a cool feature), shoot RAW photos (I have yet to understand this better…I’m still learning, but apparently it’s a valuable feature for photographers) or manually adjust a ton of other things, it’s good to know the features are there.

Lots of Additional Lenses to Develop Photo Styles

There’s a ton of different lenses out there that will work with the body depending on the kind of photography you want to do. If you like macro photography, there’s macro photography lenses out there. Sports photography? There’s telephoto lenses out there if you’re a ways away from the action. Prime lenses will give you a very high quality image, despite the fact that they don’t zoom.

The Cons

The Camera is Big and Bulky

One of the biggest trade offs is carrying this camera around. If you want to get good photos, it usually means your not only carrying this behemoth of a camera, but also the lenses, extra batteries, memory cards, a tripod, and if you’re really into it, additional lighting fixtures. You can accessorize pretty quickly if you start getting into the hobby.

It Gets Expensive Quickly

Depending on what you want to do with photography, DSLRs are not cheap. The Nikon D3300 was an entry level DSLR, and it still cost $650 dollars with the lenses. While this is a pretty good price considering what I got, it’s still $650 for a camera.

What really gets expensive afterwords is the additional lenses and accessories. A good lens can easily cost you over $300, and can even go up to over $1,000! A better flash than the stock one can cost you $60 – $300 depending on what it delivers.

While it really comes down to how involved you want to get with photography, it’s not a cheap hobby.

True High Quality Images Take a Lot of Work

I have to be honest, so far I’ve only used the “Auto” function on my camera. Even though I have Adobe Photoshop on my computer, I have no idea how to use it effectively. It’s not something that can be learned quickly, as the art of photography is not intuitive to me.

To create a truly high quality image, you have to understand all aspects, whether it’s the lighting of the scene, the aperture and focus of your camera, the lens used for the scene, or using filters and effects to process your photos afterwords. There is a lot to learn and while you can get good quality photos using just the “Auto” function, getting outstanding photos requires a lot of work and a lot of time.

I’ve had fun so far just getting to learn about my camera and how to use it. The next step will be figuring out the kind of photography I want to get better at and what I need to do to develop outstanding images.

Project #2: DSLR Time-lapse Rig (Part 1 – Prototype)

While I’d planned on starting a skateboard grind box, I’m finding my broken toe is still a bit tender. As much as I’d love to get to work on the box, I figured I take a stab at a photography based project while I give my toe a little more rest.

This is more of a filming based project, but it involves taking images at a set frequency and then compiling the images into a high speed video. The easy way of doing this is taking a video at normal speed and speeding up the video playback. I’ve done a few videos like this before, like the one I’ve attached below.

All of the time-lapse videos I’ve created in the past have had one limitation. The camera has always been fixed in one location. While this isn’t a huge problem, it limits the types of time-lapse videos you can make if the camera is fixed in one position.

A DIY project I’ve wanted to take on for some time is creating a time-lapse slider. This is basically a rail which moves the camera at small increments along one axis while the same takes it’s pictures at set increments. The difference is you get a high speed video with slow moving motion along a given axis. It’s hard to explain with my limited vocabulary, so I’ll point you to a blog post that gives a good breakdown of the type of project I’m looking to work on. David Hunt has made a DIY time-lapse slider and documented the whole project here.

This project is also a good one to start now that I’ve gotten myself a decent camera. However, having blown my project budget for June, I didn’t exactly have the funds to purchase the materials required to build the slider. I don’t even have a bill of materials or a slider concept to work towards creating. Until I have some kind of concept idea or idea of material costs, I won’t be rushing out to purchase components.

That being said, I do have this wonderful thing call Lego Mindstorms. It’s a solid way to at least test out the concept on a microcontroller platform that’s pretty easy to learn (luckily I meet the ages 10+ criteria…who says Lego is for kids only?).

So while the construction of the moving platform could have been a bit more solid, I made a small moving platform that moves a small amount once a minute. Right now I only have my GoPro attached to the platform since it has a built in time-lapse function, whereas my DSLR does not (more to come on that later in the post.)

Lego Mindstorms Timelapse Rig
Lego Mindstorms Timelapse Rig
Timelapse Rig With GoPro Hero 2
Time-lapse Rig With GoPro Hero 2

So with the prototype complete, I ran a trial with it to see how it worked. Basically I set it up to do a time-lapse of me while I write this post! It’s poetry in action.

 

While it’s not perfect, it’s a start. It’s pretty short since I had to speed up the video quite a bit. I did a sequence of photos every 2 seconds and advanced the dolly about a 2/100ths of a full rotation of the wheel every minute (or about 8 degrees/minute). While I was able to get an OK video, I had to speed up the motion quite a bit to get the motion somewhat fluid. Luckily, there’s always room for improvements.

The next part will dictate some of the challenges I face in regards to the design. There’s a couple of obstacles to get over, but hopefully I can make something that (sorta) works as a usable time-lapse rig. Stay tuned!

First Project – Skateboard Grind Box (Part 1)

Now that the summer is here, and my toe is finally healed (or so I think…) it’s time to get skateboarding! While there are a number of decent skateparks in Detroit, sometimes it’s just nice to be able to skateboard at home on my driveway. Unfortunately, I can’t practice any of my ledge tricks without a box! Luckily, I have a solution. For a first project, I figured it would be good to start with something relatively simple.

To give you an idea of what the box would look like and how I would use it with my skateboard, this link here shows a similar DIY build.

I made a model of the box in Google Sketchup. The thing I like about Sketchup is it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, even if you haven’t used a solid modelling program before. Like so many things Google offers, there’s a plethora of tutorials out there along with a great knowledge base to get you up and running with Sketchup (see the tutorials here).

3D View of the Grind Box
3D View of the Grind Box

I originally had thought the box was going to be 8 ft, however after measuring the dimensions of my car, the max size of lumber I can fit in my car is 7 ft. The next standard length I can purchase for lumber is a 6 ft size, so I’ll likely just end up purchasing 6 foot lengths.

Below is an exploded view of the box with displays the different parts of the box.

Exploded View of the Box
Exploded View of the Box

The next steps will be purchasing the materials and actually building the box. The box will likely cost around $100, however I’m hoping to get the angle iron at a scrap yard. Two 6 ft angle iron pieces with a 1/4″ thickness and 2″ length and width runs at around $25 a piece.

Prior to performing the actual build, I’ll need to set up my garage a little better for woodworking. While I don’t need many tools to build this box, I’m still missing a few items that will make the build a little bit easier, such as a work bench or a couple of sawhorses, a countersink bit for drilling through the angle iron, and a circular saw for cutting the 2 x 4 sections. While the plywood and hardboard can be cut at the home improvement stores, I want to cut the smaller 2″ x 4″ sections as I go so I can account for any play in the longer 2″ x 4″ sections.

More coming in part 2!

 

My New DSLR!

So, after much researching, researching, and second guessing myself, I pulled the trigger and forked over a decent chunk of change for a new Nikon D3300 Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera (DSLR). I’m supposed to get it in the next day or two, hopefully I’ll be able to take some pictures of it before I release this blog post.

Buying a DSLR camera wasn’t an easy decision, but it ultimately boiled down to my curiosity and desire to take a process better photos. A lot of people could argue that you don’t need a DSLR to do this, many point and shoot cameras will take wonderful photos if you understand the mechanics of photography.

Nikon D3300 Body with Two Lenses
Nikon D3300 Body with Two Lenses

I ended up getting a Nikon D3300, because the places I looked on the internet all pointed to the Nikon D3300 as a good starting point for beginners looking to get into photography. Plus, one of the nice things was that I got a great deal as Nikon was offering a huge discount. Normally the camera pack (body and two lenses) would have cost almost $1,000, I got it for $600. I’m a happy camper.

So why did I chose to get a DSLR?

Get a better grasp on photography

I enjoy taking pictures when I go out and about, however I’m usually disappointed by the quality of the photos. Some could argue that I’m not doing the appropriate post processing, or I’m not taking the photos properly, but I wanted to get a better sense of how to take good photos. Whether it’s getting a better sense of aperture settings, shutter speed, ISO, or post processing, there’s lots to learn.

Get a better grasp of filmography and cinematography

While the camera I got is not a dedicated camcorder, it still takes very videos. I’m interested in getting better videos and learning about filming techniques. I hope to look into more video stabilization methods, such as creating gimbals for getting stable and smooth footage.

Use my home built computer to its full potential

A couple of years ago I built my own desktop for the purpose of doing more filming and video editing. I was able to get a good discount on a full suite of Adobe video and photo editing programs, including photoshop and premiere pro. Sadly, I haven’t used it for it’s purpose in the last couple of years, other than to play Starcraft II or Civilization at a decent frame rate. Even for gaming, it appears I don’t play enough from my win-loss record. I’m going to try and put at least Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere Pro to good use.

Test of the Auto Function
Test of the Auto Function
A Beautiful Mug my Mother Made Me
A Beautiful Mug my Mother Made Me
My Backyard
My Backyard

The above photos were just images I took with the camera without any kind of post processing. I was just testing out the camera to see what the images were like. As you can see in the first two images, the focused image is pretty sharp while the background is slightly blurred. This is known as “depth of field” which is related to the aperture of the camera (the part which lets light in). With this camera, you can adjust the “f-stops” of the camera to adjust the aperture to let more light in, which gives a shallower depth of view, or let less light in, giving a greater depth of view. Depending on the type of photo you want to take, you adjust the aperture accordingly. (If anyone reads this and knows that my info is incorrect, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. I’m an absolute beginner, and don’t need to start off with the wrong information.)

More to come in the future as I learn more about photography!

 

Sunday Blues: How I (almost) Bricked My Desktop

It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the birds were chirping…

Just kidding. It was a rainy day, it was cold because I’m too cheap to turn up the thermostat in my house, and I chose to start the day by looking at my computer.

While researching an idea for a home based server (which I’ll get into with later posts) I discovered something. The idea of having my own server at home to access my videos, music, photos, etc… is something I’ve thought about for a while. While there are numerous cloud solutions out there (i.e. Dropbox, Google Drive, Onedrive, etc…), the server at least allows me to keep my files on my own machine at home.

One of the inherent issues with a server is that they’re usually meant to be running all the time. My problem with this is it runs down the life of the components, wastes energy, and seems unnecessary to have it on all the time.

It so happens that there’s a fancy function out there called “Wake on LAN”. What this basically means is that if you have in internet connection (wired, not wireless) you can turn on a computer remotely using another computer, a phone, or a tablet.

In technical terms, what you’re doing is send what’s called a “magic packet” (I kid you not, this is what the term is) over the internet to your computer, and so long as the packet is received by the computer (i.e. not blocked by a firewall), the packet tells the computer to turn on.

(There’s a better technical explanation here. I didn’t want to go into too much detail considering I hardly understand it myself.)

This sounded awesome to me. Why not create a hard drive that can be accessed by all my computers and devices (smartphone, iPad, etc…) and when I need to access it remotely, have it power on when I need it to rather than have my computer on all the time?

After reading a few blogs, a lot of people indicated that this is supposed to be a straightforward process to set up. All you needed to do is access your BIOS setting and ensure the “Resume from PCIe Device” (or some form of it) is enabled, check the windows setting for the same box and ensure it’s enabled, find your IP address (not the one the internet sees,  your home IP address, they’re apparently different), find your MAC address, your subnet mask, and forward your ports to your IP address. Then Voila! It should work. That should be easy to set up.

Oh, I was so wrong about that.

From the moment I decided to try and implement it (10:00 AM) to the time I had my first idea (spoiler alert: it was a bad idea) I had spent 6 and a half hours trying to make it work. Sadly, it just didn’t work.

From trying to check if my ports were forwarded correctly, to checking and re-checking that the windows settings allowed for Wake on LAN, to re-checking the BIOS over and over, I was out of ideas. I came across a forum of someone who had the same issue as me. One suggestion was that I try to update the motherboard BIOS of my computer, because sometimes updates fix issues with previous versions related to Wake on LAN.

My grand idea: Let’s update the BIOS on my motherboard. (BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System; its a set of instructions that communicates with the processor after start up, and communicates with connected devices in the computer, such as the hard drives, ram, power supply, motherboard, etc…)

Without hesitation, I found the BIOS update on the motherboard manufacturer website and proceeded to update my BIOS. After what I thought was a freeze up during the update process, I decided to restart my computer. Bad Idea.

Then I tried to start my computer again. Hmm, all I’m getting is a black screen. Let’s try again. Hmm, black screen again…

After searching the web for what could be happening, I came across the same theme.

Don’t update the BIOS unless you absolutely know what you’re doing. You risk bricking your computer.

Be patient when updating the BIOS. If you turn off the computer or lose power during the process, you risk irreversibly damaging your computer.

Is my great computer building accomplishment now a $1400 paper weight?

My Beautiful Computer
My Beautiful Computer (Luckily, Not Dead Yet)

After frantically searching the web for solutions and trying all sorts of reset options on my computer, I was panicked. I discovered that the BIOS was likely updated incorrectly, and although it wouldn’t boot windows, it would still show the splash screen (this is the screen that comes up initially when you turn on a computer, usually it’s the manufacturer of the computer or of the motherboard). What were my options?

The next step was to flash the current BIOS. It was incorrectly configured and needed to be completely wiped. Similar to formatting an entire computer, except for the motherboard.

While I should’ve just accepted that maybe someone with more experience should deal with my computer, I decided to flash the BIOS then install the update using a USB boot drive.

I created a USB boot drive with the update software and managed to flash the BIOS and update it using the pre-existing graphics user interface that came with the motherboard (sorry I’m getting into geek speak, but I partially want to remember this for myself in the event I have to do it again).

In the end, It worked! Praise the Lord! I had never been happier to see the windows logo screen after that scary situation. I almost everything by performing an operation I really shouldn’t have needed to do.

So what did I learn from this?

  1. I have no idea how to make Wake on LAN work. It’s supposed to work, but I can’t figure out how.
  2. Don’t update or flash the BIOS. This is the last time I ever attempt to flash and update the BIOS. I got exceedingly lucky that I was able to get my computer up and running again, but I certainly don’t know enough about BIOS updates and how to do them properly.

In the near future I hope to have some kind of server for all my files, folders and such, as I’m getting tired of going through all the duplicates of photos, movies and music. I’ll make a few posts of how I do it, but it certainly doesn’t look like the Wake on LAN is going to be in my future unless I learn a lot more about computer networking.

 

The Road to Detroit

This might seem a bit out of order considering it probably would have made more sense to put this up as my first post. Last December, I embarked on a trip across the country, from Western Canada to the US mid west.

The 3,500 km Trip Across the Country
The 3,500 km Trip Across the Country

I got to stop at a number of interesting places along the way. While there was a lot of long prairie roads, there were some very interesting places along the way. So what did my trip itinerary involve?

First Stop: Billings, Montana

The Open Road
The Open Road

The badlands of Montana were an interesting extension of the Southern Alberta Prairies. I was only doing a quick stop over in Billings and I didn’t get a chance to see much of the elevation change up to Billings. I didn’t stay for long, as there wasn’t much to see in Billings other than the badlands.

Next Stop: Rapid City, South Dakota

Rapid City is home to the great American Monument Mount Rushmore. After missing a turn or two on the highways leading up to Rapid City, I just barely managed to get to Mount Rushmore before the sunset. Although, I found out it didn’t matter too much as they shine huge lights onto the mountain at night, so you can see it during the day or at night. There’s also a whole lot of info in regards to the architect who devised the plan for sculpting Mount Rushmore (I can tell it sunk in considering I can’t remember his name. Good thing we have Google).

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Third Stop: St. Cloud, Minnesota

While it might seem kind of odd that I would stop in St. Cloud versus stopping in Minneapolis, I stopped in St. Cloud because this is where my winter indoor skatepark trek would begin. I tried to get some photos of the skateparks I stopped at along the way, however my camera (my phone) doesn’t take very good photos indoors in low light. The pictures all ended up blurry, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I stopped there.

On the way to the St. Cloud, I found a museum in Murdo, South Dakota. It’s a small town in South Dakota that just happens to have a massive classic car collection. Amongst some of the cars I saw, there happened to be an original Dodge Charger “General Lee” from the original Dukes of Hazzard, an original 1968 Shelby GT500, and a 1954 Corvette. Sometimes, a detour is necessary.

The General Lee
The General Lee
1968 Shelby GT500
1968 Shelby GT500
The General Lee
1954 Corvette

Fourth Stop: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

My trip started to get interesting as I was heading towards Milwaukee. It was around St. Cloud that I had noticed a grinding sound coming from my brakes. That can’t be good. I dropped my car off at a shop in Minneapolis to get it checked out. Turns out both my brake pads and rotors were shot, and the drivers side wheel bearing was shot. Great, car troubles and I’m halfway across the country. On the bright side, I did some skateboarding while I waited for my car to get fixed.

3rd Lair Skatepark
3rd Lair Skatepark

Once I found myself in Milwaukee, I managed to find myself in an interesting section of town. Not too far away from Miller Park, I took a bit of a detour on the freeway as I was low on gas. The gas station I picked just happened to be right next to a women`s correctional facility in what seemed like a very sketchy neighborhood. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous and got out of there as quickly as possible.

Fifth Stop: Chicago, Illinois

After some skateboarding in Milwaukee, I decided to spend a few nights in Chicago. The day in Chicago led me to a number of interesting places. I spent the day trekking through the downtown and then walked to the Navy Pier.

View from Willis Tower
View from Willis Tower
Willis Tower
Top floor of Willis Tower
Chicago Skyline
Chicago Skyline

Even though the sky looked a bit gloomy, it was actually a very nice day. The clouds rolled in just as I was trying to take my shot of the Chicago Skyline. It was a long day, from going to the top of Willis Tower to walking along the shoreline of the Lake Michigan, Chicago is yet another US metropolis that has lots to offer. I`ll be heading back at some point in the future to experience more of Chicago.

Sixth and Final Destination: Detroit, Michigan

Four hours from Chicago, I found myself at the end of my journey. It had been a memorable trip across the country. I`m not sure I got all the pictures I wanted, it would have been nice to get a few pictures of myself along the way, just to feed my narcissism. All in all, it was a great journey. And at the end of any great journey, it was necessary to enjoy a good pint of beer.

Monument to Joe Louis
Monument to Joe Louis
A good brew at the end of a long trip.
A good brew at the end of a long trip.