Big Bend #VantagePoint

I often get asked about my travels through the Big Bend and where my favorite spots to shoot are. This is a tough question for me to answer. And I’m sure my attempts have been met with some frustration and eye rolling :-)

I do not have a favorite spot. Anywhere in the Big Bend region is my favorite spot. Well, just about anywhere… maybe not that lumpy, sloped and spider-infested spot that I tried to sleep on once while tent camping near Dominguez Springs.

However, I can think of one spot, a #VantagePoint that stands out and is a frequent stop for me during my travels to the Big Bend region.

Just east of the western entrance gate of Big Bend National Park along Highway 118 is a small parking lot on the north side of the road. You’ll probably not notice it as you drive past. I rarely ever see anyone parked there. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wandering out in the desert near that little lot.

Lat. 29.2945°
Long. -103.4940°

Hike just a few yards to the north and you’ll come to a broad, open arroyo. This mini-canyon is a dry, wide opening in the Earth that is filled with interesting curves and colors. You can stroll right up to the edge of this impressive viewpoint and enjoy a quiet slice of desert. Several mountains spread across the horizon in front of you.


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You’ll be greeted with an amazing silence. Nothing is more relaxing than to NOT hear the din of man-made sounds that we’re all too used to. You’ll hear the crunch of gravel under your feet and probably the wind blowing through the tall, spindly ocotillo. But gone are leaf blowers, car horns, angry people, giant freeways, and huge commercial jets.

The smell of the desert is clean and sometimes colored lightly with fragrance from the creosote bushes all around. The refreshing dry air will remind you how much you hate humidity when you feel the lack of it.

The sights? It’s probably not the greatest view in the park. It’s certainly not one of the iconic views you see online and in publications. But it’s still an amazing spot. It’s amazing because it has all the elements of what makes the Big Bend so great and it’s super easy to get to.

Even more amazing is to wait until after dark. Look in a southerly direction from this parking lot, and depending on the time of year, the Milky Way will stretch up above the horizon.


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I have enjoyed this spot and also photographed it many times over the past 10 years with a variety of different cameras. I even take my workshop students there sometimes.

It’s a location that you can hit quickly and move on if you have to. I prefer to spend more than just five minutes there, but that’s not always possible depending on my travel companions.

It helps to have good quality and highly portable camera gear if you’re going light and moving fast. My post from the other day described some of the cameras I’ve used when trying to minimize the gear needed.

Building upon what I said and looking ahead to new options, there is a new camera out now that has the features and specs to potentially be a superb go-fast-n-light pocket-able camera: the Light L16.

I’ve yet to see any reviews from real-world users, so I’ll reserve my judgement until later. The L16 has a unique approach and technology to capturing images that could potentially put it on a level with cameras that use much larger sensors considering the quality of the images.

I look forward to seeing what the L16 can do. Based on my good experience with the 2-year old camera tech in my current cell phone, I think the L16 has a ton of potential.

And it runs on Android. THAT is exciting.

Making Stuff

Time seems to flit by in stretches. Wasn’t new years just the other day? Somehow it’s March now.

This phenomenon gets worse as I get older. That’s scary.

I’ve been engaged in a number of non-photography projects lately and also some photography-related projects. Since I’ve had my head buried in the details, I’ve forgotten to come up for air and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The spring flowers are already starting to bloom here, for one thing.

PROJECTS

Some friends and I helped our kids make a small cart for a competition. It’s made mostly from spare parts and junk we had laying around. It’s basically a giant pull-back car that uses large rubber bands.

Turns out the bands didn’t work so well. I bought some large diameter surgical tubing, and it was more suited to being repeatedly stretched while keeping its elasticity.

My older son and I built a PC for his birthday. I picked out the parts (just a basic-level PC with an Intel processor) and then showed him how to put it all together. He’s 11, and I’m not sure how much he learned. But he did seem to enjoy the process.

And that’s something I want my kids to learn – that making things is often well within your capability if you put your mind to it.

My younger son competed in his first cub scout Pinewood Derby contest. They had an adult category, so I also made a car of my own. Of course there I put a camera in it ;-)

Here is the video from the car: youtu.be/Iwj0jLU7RyM

The ongoing saga of my old Sony 5.1 receiver…

It stopped working a couple of years ago. It kept tripping into protection mode. I tore it apart and found some bad capacitors. I’ve recently replaced them, and it still doesn’t work :-(

This thing should go to the junk bin, but the geek/engineer in me cannot stand to let it go. Next on the list is to test all the power transistors.

Another interesting repair was an old set of powered computer speakers that stopped working. Turns out there was a small ball bearing rolling around inside the speaker that contained the amp. It was rolling around on the circuit board and shorting things out.

Typically, speakers don’t contain any ball bearings :-) But, living in a house with two young boys I’ve learned to accept that things end up where they don’t belong quite often.

Both of my boys deny having anything to do with this…. naturally.

I suppose this is just pay back for all the times I broke something as a kid.

PHOTOGRAPHY!

Well, not quite. But photography related, yes.

The used ballhead I recently bought came with a semi-broken lever clamp. I say semi-broken because it was still somewhat functional, but not 100%.

The small pin that held the lever bolt in place (preventing it from rotating) had sheared. The lever bolt was also bent.

I engaged Really Right Stuff about fixing it. I sent them a detailed description and photos. They told me to send it to them if I wanted it repaired.

Once they had it, they then informed me that they could NOT repair it. It was a “legacy” clamp, and they had no spare parts for it. And since I’d bought it second-hand, it was not eligible for their upgrade policy.

I like RRS products. I’ve used them for many years. And I like the new products that they develop. They show great ingenuity and intelligence in developing devices and aids that can help photographers.

But, it bothers me that they couldn’t make a repair after they said to send it in and I had disclosed to them exactly what model the clamp was and what was wrong with it.

Anyway, being slightly pissed off about it, I decided to attempt to fix it myself. I “un-bent” the bolt and drilled out the broken keeper pin. I then put the bolt back in with a bit of red Loctite (permanent) and shoved a sanded-down pin into the hole.

Moving on…

I also got a used tripod. It’s an old Gitzo model that has the design flaw of a round, center plate with no secondary locking mechanism.

I’ve read about this issue many times. The round, center plate gets clamped into the spider (the central part of the tripod where the legs attach). However, if the clamp loosens during use, the center plate (along with the attached head and possibly also camera + lens) has a tendency to fall out unexpectedly.

I fixed this potential issue by drilling and tapping a hole through the spider and center plate.

A small (#10-32) stainless steel bolt goes into the hole (just snugly with a bit of blue Loctite).

Maybe it’s overkill… But I really like backup methods and secondary systems to ensure that something works and stays working as it’s abused, er… used.

And finally, I did not like the way the head attached to the tripod. There was only a stub of a 3/8″ bolt sticking out of the center plate.

Every single tripod I’ve used that employed this design has had issues with the head unscrewing itself during handling and use.

So, I drilled and tapped three holes through the center plate. Set screws go into these holes and tighten against the bottom of the ballhead.

Now I just need to get out and shoot! :-)

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Tear Down

I recently bought a used BH-55 ballhead. I’m fulfilling an eight year old equipment need to have a tall, robust but lightweight tripod and head.

Actually, I have a large, robust tripod but it weighs just shy of half a ton. Well, probably not quite that much, but that’s what it feels like on long hikes.

Dirty Head

The used BH-55 came to me looking well used and dirty. That’s okay, RRS makes great products, and I knew most likely the head would be perfectly fine.

For reference, I’ve had a BH-40 for about eight years now. I’ve used it quite a bit and abused it some. It’s had several hard knocks and the battle scars to prove it. It continues to work perfectly.

I decided to take the well-loved BH-55 apart and clean it thoroughly. The head was difficult to rotate down into the front two slots, even with the tension (drag) setting reduced. There was a lot of gunk and debris built up around the ball.

Breaking it Down

First step was to remove the panning base. There are four small screws on the bottom that must be removed. This is a great video that shows how to do it: youtube.com/watch?v=pZFAaUT7fnA.

Note that the following images were taken during re-assembly. So that explains why it looks clean :-)

As shown in the video, you have to remove the small brass bushing. It will slide straight out, but you may need to knock it around a bit to free it.



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Then you unscrew the stainless steel plate that the brass bushing had locked into place. This stainless steel plate may be hard to start. There are a few blind holes in the bottom where you can insert something like an Allen wrench to get leverage and break it free.



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Next there is a round, stepped flange piece that you pull straight out. I didn’t get a shot of it by itself, but it’s the piece in the center of this image:



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Now, there’s a split collar that has to come out. This collar is held in place by the screw (and knob) that locks the panning base function of the ballhead.



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But first, the panning lock knob has to be removed. It has a plastic cap on the end that must be removed. Prying this cap out will likely destroy it, so beware.

After the plastic cap is off, you’ll see a screw head down inside the hollow knob. Remove the screw with an Allen wrench. NOTE that this screw is held in place with Loctite. So, it takes some torque to break it free and remove it. If it’s too difficult, then you can apply heat to the split collar to help loosen it.



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Once the screw is removed, the split collar comes out:



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All Stop

I chickened-out at this point. The next step WOULD be to remove the blind snap ring (aka circlip, or evil metal thing designed by satan). This would be very difficult because unlike normal snap rings that have tabs with holes, this blind one does not and therefore there is no special tool to remove it.

Removing it would be a matter of prying it out with a flat screwdriver or similar tool.

I made a few light attempts to do this, but the snap ring is substantially strong, and I feared that I would scratch-up the insides of the ballhead receptacle and the ball itself.



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However, at this point, the ball was very loose, and I was able to jiggle it around while using WD-40 and q-tips to clean all the small debris that had collected inside the head. And that was the whole point of this exercise: just to clean it thoroughly inside and out.

Here’s everything disassembled:



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Re-Assembly

Reversing the steps above gets you a clean and fully functioning ballhead again.

Wait… there are a few important details.

Remember the panning lock knob and screw that was held in place with Loctite? This will have to be cleaned (clean the screw and also threaded hole in the split collar) and new Loctite applied. Use Loctite #271 – red.

The red Loctite is supposed to set up in 10 minutes. I waited a few hours just to be sure.

I didn’t mention it above, but the panning base has lube inside of it. New lube will have to be applied. I used Super Lube All Purpose Grease. (remember, only the panning base parts get lubed; the ball itself stays dry).



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Adjustment

After initial re-assembly, the panning base was too tight to move. I had to go back and adjust the base one time to get the panning function to work properly. Basically I went through the procedure that was shown in the video (the first link above), except I loosened my panning base rather than tightened it (as shown in the video).

Post adjustment, the ballhead worked perfectly. It panned snugly and the ball dipped down into the two front slots with ease. And it looked much better all clean and fresh.

Tools and Materials Needed

• Set of metric Allen wrenches
• Set of standard Allen wrenches
• WD-40 (for cleaning)
• Knife and small flathead screwdriver
• Bunch of old, soft rags
• Lube and Loctite mentioned above

Thoughts

Throughout the whole process I was continuously impressed by the build quality and design. It really made me appreciate the good design and engineering that went into it, and I certainly can understand the price. In fact, I’m kinda surprised how low the cost is considering what goes into these things.

For example, I removed the ballhead lock screw and discovered a set of bearings where the knob makes contact inside the ballhead frame. This is quite a nice touch.



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I’m an engineer and a geek and I love this kind of stuff. This info will serve for future reference. I’m pretty hard on my gear and drag it around outside in dirty places, so I’m sure I’ll be cleaning it again at some point.

Update / Stuff / Still Alive

It’s now full-on hot-as-hell season (mid-August) and my head is spinning at the quick passage of time. Where did it go?

I’ve been busy with a number of different things, one of those just happens to be photography. Although I can’t seem to find much time to update my blog or my website.

The honest truth is that I spend 9 – 10 hours every work day staring at a computer monitor doing engineering-type stuff (gotta pay the bills, you know), and the last thing I feel like doing when I’m at home is to stare at a computer monitor.

My phone has become my main communicator simply because it’s easily accessible and fast. I did have things set up where I could make blog posts from my phone, but it’s continually crapped out on me. It doesn’t seem to like it when there are a lot of apps installed and I actually try to use it like a computer.

So much for buying a top of the line phone. All that memory and processor speed works great at first, but over time and a few dozen apps later, it makes me want to dump it in a wood chipper. I wonder if my ancient Nokia, aka “the brick”, would still work?

If you really want to keep up with my current work, please check me out on Instagram. I’m also on Facebook, but that’s a personal account. I’ve thought about starting a photography page on Facebook, but then I really don’t want to have one more thing to update and keep track of.



I just bought a cheap 14mm lens for my Canon DSLR. It’s a Rokinon branded lens, which apparently is the same, or nearly the same, as many other brands (eg Rokinon/Samyang/Bower).

I debated long and hard, and then debated a lot more, and then debated until I was just sick and tired of thinking about it, but I finally decided to ditch my 16-35mm zoom and sold it.

At the end of it all, I hardly ever shoot wider than 24mm. When I want to lighten my camera kit (which is often because most of my outings involve hiking and I just don’t want to haul a lens that I may use for only one shot), the 16-35mm was always the first to be eliminated from the bag.

I almost got a Voightlander 20mm. It’s a nifty pancake-style lens. Very light and very small. I could easily stuff it away in my bag for the few times when I want to shoot wider than 24mm. But after all my debating and thinking, I’d much rather prefer a 18 or 19mm prime lens, and right now, there aren’t any out there that are relatively small. (and I’m looking at YOU, Samyang… please make a good 18 or 19mm!! :-) )

So, as sort of an “in the meantime” fix, I bought the 14mm. It’s not all that small. And it’s definitely heavy. But it’s fun to play with, and for $300 for a 14mm…. why not? But I still won’t be taking it on long hikes in the desert.

I took a series of test shots last night with the 14mm.



crops from test shots – click to see larger

The crops are 100% from different parts of the frame. I’m fairly impressed with the performance. At f/2.8 it’s noticeably soft and there is heavy vignetting. But stopping down to f/4 makes a huge difference. And by f/5.6 and f/8, I honestly can say that it’s just as sharp as the 16-35mm f/2.8L II Canon lens that I used to own.

Eat THAT Canon!

A Recent Backpacking Trip

Overnight backpacking and quality photography, or rather, strapping your necessities to your back and heading off into the wilds while carrying all your favorite image making gear: a quick story of my recent journey into the open desert of the Big Bend.

The plan was to take my 9-year old son on a series of one-night, overnight backpacking trips, and we completed this quest recently. Below are some notes for the main purpose of reminding myself of what I did so that hopefully I learn something when I decide to do this type of trek again :-)


We practiced at a local park just to make sure we were up for the challenge. We stuffed water and weights in our packs and spent a few hours on the trail.

Part 1 was packing and preparing for the actual trip. It was a frustrating affair. Even removing the grip from my Canon 5D3 and taking only two lenses, my camera bag, a large waistpack, weighed in at 10 pounds.

Combined with a 48 pound pack full of the necessities (including, most importantly, A LOT of water and a tripod), this became an issue. I had reduced, trimmed, and omitted as much as possible, but with the safety and well-being of my son paramount in my mind, I had to take what I had to take. 48 pounds was the default load and any further lightening had to be in the camera department.

At the last minute, I decided to leave the Canon gear behind and bring into service my mirrorless kit (which I own for this very reason). The Olympus E-M5 and two lenses packed in a small waistpack came to a package that was 4.5 pounds and about half the size.

This was a hard decision. But 5.5 pounds less load on my back was significant and welcome and, in my mind, worth the compromise.

Part 2 was hauling this stuff in the field. The Oly is frustrating sometimes, and the image quality doesn’t make me happy. But I don’t want to get into that now.

The camera gear, except the tripod, was put into a lightweight Lowepro waistpack. This pack was strapped around the top of my backpack. It was easy to access and provided a nice method of carrying when I wanted to go light and venture away from basecamp. (Plus I was insistent on carrying some form of padded enclosure to keep the body and lenses due to the inevitable hard knocks and rough handling that happen in this type of venture.)


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The tricky bit was attaching the tripod securely while allowing easy access. The method used was easy and convenient provided that my pack was off my back.


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The tripod (just below the head) was attached to the backpack by a clip. The clip was tied to the tripod with a bit of nylon rope. Then one of the legs, slightly extended, was slipped through a loop at the bottom of the backpack.


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The next time I do this sort of thing I probably will insist on taking my Canon gear. This past trip was during a full moon, so I didn’t engage in my typical high-ISO shooting of static star shots. But the next time I will need use of the 5D3′s clean high ISO as well as my fast 24mm prime, i.e. the camera gear will be heavier and the other necessities must be lighter! I will spend more time optimizing the gear as well as swapping out some items for lighter versions.

Stay tuned for scenic photos from the recent trip!

Constant Companion

I’ve been meaning to post this for a long time now. About a year ago, I purchased a Sony RX100. I wanted a high quality camera that was truly pocketable. At the same time, I bought an EyeFi SD card.


This post isn’t intended to be a review of this equipment. You can find tons of reviews online. My quick summary is that both devices work as indended, and I’m  very pleased with them. The image quality of the RX100 is superb for what it is.

I want to focus on purpose and result and also the effect on my photography.


I got this set up because I was dissatisfied with the camera in my cell phone. I wanted to be able to take better quality photos and have them transferred to my phone immediately. The camera in my HTC Inspire phone is pretty horrible. It’s far worse than my first little point and shoot digital from 12 years ago.

Having the RX100 in my pocket (on most days) has allowed me to capture things when I feel the urge to and to produce a decent quality image file (especially in low light scenes).

It has also worked the other way around. Because I have it, I am more likely to shoot and engage in photography.


The other impact is that I share photos online (Instagram and Facebook) quite often.

I feel better connected to photography on a daily basis, and I feel that, simply because of the photographic “exercise”, my photography has gotten better. (well, at the very least, it hasn’t gotten much worse)


I’ll keep this short. But I just wanted to highlight what an impact this little bit of equipment has had on my photography.

Note: The last three photos in this post were shot with the RX100.

Equipment Loss

A few days ago, when I was shooting in Closed Canyon, I lost the batteries from my camera.

The battery grip on my camera holds two Li-Ion battery packs on a removable tray. The tray is captured and held in place by a latch mechanism. It is a single point of connection, ie there is no secondary latch or catch to hold the tray in place.


The camera had been functioning fine. I had not dropped it or jarred it. I had been gently working my way down the canyon with the camera and tripod.

Without warning, the tray and both batteries slid out. They clattered down the slickrock and into a deep pool of stagnant water. It was too far down and too deep for me to attempt to recover. It just wasn’t safe.


I cannot figure out how it happened. Fortunately I had the alternate battery tray (holds 6 AA’s) back at the hotel. It uses the same latch mechanism. I played around with it and could not recreate the accident.

I’ve contacted Canon. Their response is for me to simply buy a new one. Since the battery grip is out of warranty and the tray that failed is gone (ie cannot be inspected), they won’t take any responsibility.

I can see their side. But I think they should have at least offered to check out their design and look for latch failures in other circumstances.

Tripod Hack

I have an old Bogen-Manfrotto tripod that I use for short range (ie when I’m not hiking long distances), heavy duty purposes. Many years ago I gave up on the crappy center column design, stripped it off, and planted a big Kirk ballhead on it.

The problem with it is that sometimes it’s just too short.

I figured out that 5/8-inch diameter aluminum rod fits inside the smallest leg section.


This modification will give me a 14 inch boost. The new 4th section can be either fully out or fully retracted.



The end result is 72-inches max, just a couple of inches shorter than me. I’m not sure how it will hold up to the abuse it will see in the field, but I’m about to find out :-)

High ISO Noise Comparisons

I had an opportunity earlier this month to shoot along with a Nikon user (Dave Chudnov) that had a D800e. I also was able to put my new 5D mark III to use shooting high ISO scenes.

This is a quick comparison of three cameras at ISO 3200. Both the 5D cameras (mark II and mark III) are mine. All shots were taken at about the same settings using the same lens (A Canon 24mm f/1.4L II on the 5D’s, and a Nikon 24mm f/1.4 on the D800e). Dave sent me some of his RAW files so that I could process them along with my files and make a good comparison.



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The samples are all 100% crops from about the same area on the photo. The overall photo for each of the samples is basically the Milky Way on a dark clear night in Big Bend National Park.

Each row has a different level of noise reduction. The top row has no noise reduction applied at all. The bottom row has a little noise reduction applied in RAW processing (ACR for the Nikon file and DPP for the Canon files), and then a final run of noise reduction using the Neat Image plugin in Photoshop.

Also, just for comparison, is a reduced, side-by-side comparison of the 5D mark 3 and Nikon D800e:



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The Conclusion?

This test attempted to keep the variables the same per shot, but there are some slight differences. And there’s the obvious difference in resolution amongst the cameras: 21MP for the 5DII, 22MP for the 5DIII, and 36MP for the D800e.

My take on it is, after considering the final output and real world applications, there’s not much difference between any of them regarding high ISO noise performance.

This is a little disappointing considering the two Canon models. I’d hoped that the sensor in the 5D mark 3 would have had better noise performance than the 5D mark 2. What I’m seeing in files between the two cameras is that they’re essentially the same at ISO 3200 in a 25 second exposure (ignoring the obvious color balance differences between shots).

I had expected a significant improvement. Canon had about 4 years between models, and they did not increase the pixel count by much. Following the general trend in sensor technology, you could easily assume that the 5D mark 3 would have much better high ISO performance than the 5D mark 2. But this has turned out to be false.

The jump between the original 5D and the 5D mark 2 was a significant improvement. The mark 2 had nearly double the megapixels, and the high ISO noise performance was at least 2 stops better!

I don’t know what Canon has done (or NOT done) in sensor technology going from the mark 2 to the mark 3. Perhaps the advancement is mainly with the video side (something I don’t do).

I’ve also had a chance to inspect my other photos from the 5D mark 3- my daylight landscape photos shot mostly at ISO 100. What I expected here was an improvement in dynamic range. It’s not that the 5D mark 2 had poor DR. I was pretty happy with it. It’s just that the general trend in sensor technology lately has seen increases in the DR capability of sensors at their base ISO settings, and I expected that the mark 3 would have a bit more DR than the mark 2. This is not so. Both cameras seem about the same.

My conclusion is that I’m very disappointed, and if I’d known the mark 3 was going to perform at this level, then I wouldn’t have bought the camera. I’m, however, quite impressed with the upgrades to the body, AF system, menus, etc., but it’s not worth it to me considering the lack of improvement in sensor performance.

Considering the high megapixel count of the Nikon D800e, I’m very impressed with its performance. The noise is no worse than the 5D 2 or 3, yet it accomplishes this with 60% more pixels.

I flirted with the idea of switching to Nikon. However, I don’t think the improved performance of the D800 is enough to justify the switch, especially considering the substantial investment that I’ve made in Canon-mount lenses and the amount of money I’d lose in switching systems.

The Audio Learning Curve

Earlier this summer I bought an H2 Zoom digital audio recorder.



It’s somewhat small (pocketable, if you have big pockets and don’t mind a substantial bulge in the side of your pants). I bought a protective silicon jacket for it. It’s not smooth and that makes it easy to grip and hold, but it’s rubberiness makes it a pain to slide in and out of your pockets.

I’ve made several recordings of ambient sounds. Capturing sound with this device is fairly easy (i.e. it’s an intuitive and simple device) but as with anything, there’s a learning curve.

I’m far away from being a novice at sound recording, but here are some things I’ve learned so far:

- The H2 has sets of microphones, each set is suited for a particular application and the rear set captures a field at 120° – this is about right for what I’ve been recording.
- The Low/Med/High microphone gain switch is very important – “High” is necessary to get ambient noises such as birds and insects at a somewhat decent level. This switch is very easy to accidentally bump and change.
- The recording levels flash on-screen in real time. These need to be considered when attempting to get a recording at an acceptable sound level. It’s a lot like looking at the histogram on a digital camera.
- The recorder is very sensitive to handling noise. My cleanest recordings have come from setting the thing down somewhere and not touching it while it records.
- It picks up everything, especially when it’s in high sensitivity mode. Distant planes and vehicles plus any movement I make (footsteps, breathing, sniffling, etc.) get captured.

I’ve had fun with it and enjoy the results, and I’ll keep on going up the learning curve, hopefully. And maybe I’ll use it for recording my own thoughts on photography ;-)

(Hope that answers all Kent’s questions :-) )