New Laptop

02 12 2012

I frequently get asked “What laptop should I buy?” Everyone’s needs and budgets are different, so there’s no one correct answer for everyone, but I wanted to walk through my thought process in deciding my most recent laptop purchase.

The hard disk in my wife Caroline’s laptop died yesterday. It was an 8-year-old hand-me-down laptop (Dell Latitude D800), so instead of replacing the hard drive, we decided to buy her a new one.

Our requirements:

  • It has to have a 4 year life as a primary laptop. (In other words, it should be able to handle everything we throw at it for at least 4 years.) After that, we’ll continue to use it, but it may not be able to handle high-end games and applications.
  • 15″ screen, because a 17″ screen is too heavy and too hard for her to carry on an airplane, and a 14″ screen is too small.
  • It has to be able to handle the games that Caroline plays.
  • Total price must be under $2500.

What we chose:

  • Dell Latitude E6520, since it will work with our existing Dell E-series docking station, and because we’ve had good luck with Dell’s Latitude line.
  • Quad-core i7 processor. Nothing else is going to have the 4 year life we want.
  • 8GB RAM. Unless you have an extremely tight budget, there’s no point in getting any less.
  • nVidia NVS 4200M discrete graphics card. Required for Caroline’s gaming.
  • 128GB SSD. The performance difference between an SSD and a regular HDD for the boot drive is tremendous. If you want a fast computer, an SSD is a must.
  • Bluetooth module. This lets her hook up an external keyboard, mouse, headphones, etc, without cables or a proprietary dongle.
  • The E6520 has an integrated webcam and mike.
  • High-end integrated WiFi card. Since the laptop will be used in WiFi mode most of the time, having the strongest possible WiFi connection is a must.
  • 9-cell battery (the standard is 6 cell). The quad-core processor really needs this for halfway-decent battery life.
  • Standard DVD burner. This is becoming increasingly unnecessary; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was my last laptop purchase with an optical drive.
  • Windows 7 Ultimate with recovery media. Recovery media is important if your disk dies and you need to reinstall, or if you decide to replace the internal drive yourself.
  • MS Office Starter 2010. Caroline doesn’t need anything other than basic Word and Excel.
  • 3 year on-site service. We didn’t get any of the add-on “advanced” services, since I can do all my own software support and troubleshooting. We did get the accidental damage add-on, since we have two kids and will be traveling a lot. Also, the accidental damage add-on makes it harder for them to refuse warranty service on some random pretense.

Other people have different requirements and different budgets, so please don’t treat this as a recommendation of what anyone else should buy. However, it is a good example of how I go through the process of deciding what to buy, and hopefully will help other people decide what’s right for them.



Know Your Camera!

02 12 2012

I’ve started writing a recurring column for Cosplay Blog With a Brain titled “Better Cosplay Photos”. My first article, “Know Your Camera!”, is now up at http://cosplaybrain.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/know-your-camera/.

I am interested in hearing people’s comments and feedback! Please post them here or on the original post.



DC Superheroes Shoot

01 29 2012

On the way back from Nancy’s maternity shoot in Sacrameno (see earlier post), my assistant Bekalou and I stopped by Vacaville to do a DC Superheroes shoot with Carladawn as Black Canary, Winken Goodfellow as Green Arrow, and Jessica as Supergirl.

After replacing a burned-out headlight, Bekalou and I made the short drive to Vacaville. After a little bit of driving around, we found Andrews Park, parked, and met up with Carladawn, Winkin, and Jessica. Andrews Park is a very pretty medium-sized park in downtown Vacaville; it has a wide variety of backgrounds, making it an excellent location for this superhero shoot.

Like with Nancy’s shoot, I used my Canon 5D Mark II camera body, Canon EF 135 f/2L lens, a Canon 580 EX II flash, and a reflector. Unlike Nancy’s shoot, though, I used a Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe softbox (held by bekalou) for many of the flash-lit shots. Also, for the shots after dark, I switched to the Canon EF 24-105 f/4L lens, and used a second handheld Canon 580 EX II with a Lastolite Big Bounce diffuser to create multiple light sources.

Group shoots are always fun because characters are more interesting when they’re interacting. Also, cosplayers get breaks while someone else is posing, giving them time to come up with more ideas for poses and shots. In this case, not only were all thre cosplays from the same universe, two of the characters (Canary and Arrow) have a complex personal relationship. This provided lots of fodder when brainstorming poses. In addition, all three cosplayers patiently (even when freezing their butts off in skimpy costumes) worked with Bekalou and I to get each shot set up perfectly. (Incidentally, this type of careful set up is next to impossible at convention shoots, which is why I prefer non-convention shoots.)

The downside of having such an amazing group of cosplayers at such a pretty location, though, is that it makes for a very long shoot. We met up around 1:30pm, and were shooting by 1:45pm. We were starting to wrap up around 4:15pm when Jessica mentioned that she had ridden to the shoot with her boyfriend on a motorcycle. After a brief round of “Wow that would be great for photos! Why didn’t you mention this before?”, we shot Supergirl, then Canary, and then Supergirl again on the motorcycle. This took us all the way through sunset around 4:45pm.

At that point, Jessica and her boyfriend had to leave, but the rest of us moved to an alley in downtown Vacaville and took some more urban-looking shots, including a very amazing “Alley Fight” set. We finally wrapped around 5:30pm, having shot for almost 4 hours straight.

The photos from this shoot are now posted on my site at http://l.oscarc.net/wv9OD6. Here are a few of my favorites:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can view more photos from this shoot on my site at http://l.oscarc.net/wv9OD6.



Nancy’s Maternity Shoot

01 21 2012

In early December, I had the privilege of doing a maternity shoot with Nancy at Land Park in Sacramento. I’d shot with Nancy before at Fanime and DragonCon, and was very excited to work with her again. I was also going to meet and shoot Nancy’s husband Andrew for the first time.

Because the shoot location was 3 hours away, my lighting assistant Bekalou and I hit the road early that morning. Bekalou has been my lighting assistant at many shoots over the last two years, and has gotten quite adept at translating my grunts and cryptic statements into meaningful requests. She’s a great lighting assistant and I really enjoy working with her. (She’s also a top-notch cosplayer — check out her site!)

Traffic was lighter than expected, so we had plenty of time to grab lunch and relax before the scheduled 1pm start. Fortunately, the rain that had been forecast earlier in the week never materialized; the day was clear, with few clouds in the sky. It was also a bit chilly (in the 50s) and windy, but that isn’t unexpected for early December. Shooting in bright sunlight isn’t ideal, but in December it’s a lot less harsh than, say, July. We also tried to stay in the shade until about 3pm, when the sun was lower and the light more diffuse.

For this shoot, I brought my Canon 5D Mark II camera body, Canon EF 135 f/2L lens, and a Canon 580 EX II flash for fill. I purchased the 135 f/2L lens at a Black Friday sale a week before the shoot, and after taking a few test shots, was very eager to try it out “for real”. It proved to be the perfect lens for this shoot, letting me pick up more of the scenery than the 200 f/2L, while blurring the background better than any zoom lens could. Also, for some shots Bekalou held a reflector for fill. I brought some other lenses and gear along for backup, but I didn’t end up needing any of it.

The shoot itself was tremendous fun. Nancy was as wonderful to work with as I remembered, and Andrew was great too! For someone 9 months pregnant, I was amazed how well Nancy handled a 2 hour shoot that involved walking around a large park. Bekalou did an excellent job handling the gear, allowing me to focus on the shoot itself. We wandered around the park, shooting in various locations with various poses. Nancy and Andrew’s love for each other shined through clearly throughout the shoot; the photos of them as a couple made me feel like I was doing an engagement shoot. Despite some wind-related challenges, we got many excellent shots before wrapping at 4pm.

When looking at the shoot results, I was surprised to discover that in only two hours, I’d shot 661 frames. Part of the reason for the high count was because at f/2, perfect focus is absolutely critical; missing focus by an inch can be catastrophic. I shot more then I normally would to ensure that one misfocused shot wouldn’t cause me to lose a nice pose. Also, we wanted to take advantage of the many beautiful shoot locations at Land Park. The biggest reason for the high count, though, was that Nancy and Andrew were such great models, with lots of ideas for poses, and a willingness to try my and Bekalou’s suggestions.

With help from Bekalou and my wife Caroline, I was able to bring the photo count down to 121. After my usual processing in Lightroom and Photoshop, I posted them to my site at http://l.oscarc.net/zi2nkI.

A few of my favorites are below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can view the rest on my site at http://l.oscarc.net/zi2nkI.



Best of 2011

01 13 2012

A few of my favorite photos posted in 2011 are below. You can view the rest at http://photo.oscarc.net/keyword/BestOf2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can view the rest at http://photo.oscarc.net/keyword/BestOf2011.



Mic Costumes Interview

12 11 2011

A big thank you to Mic Costumes for interviewing me for their blog! It’s now up on their site at
http://www.miccostumes.com/blog/photographer-interview-with-oscar-cwajbaum/

The birth of child #2 and a new job has been taking up most of my time for the past 6 months, but things are beginning to settle down. I exoect to start posting regularly again soon!



NorCal Spring 2011 Cosplay Gathering

05 18 2011

This year’s NorCal Spring Cosplay gathering, organized by Bekalou and me, was a lot of fun. We decided to hold this year’s gathering at Kelley Park in San Jose. Previous Spring gatherings were held at Hakone Gardens, but Hakone’s restrictions and fees were a concern. Even more importantly, Hakone was starting to feel cramped given the number of people who were attending. Also, the previous two Summer gatherings at Kelley Park convinced us that Kelley Park is better when it’s cooler, and that we should find a new, less hot location for this year’s Summer gathering.

My first photography decision for this gathering was to rent the Canon 200mm f/2 lens. This is one of Canon’s best lenses; it’s very sharp and has great bokeh. Its only downsides are its weight and its price. (It’s also conspicuous as heck, which doesn’t matter for gatherings.) For lighting, I brought along two AlienBee lights with softboxes.  To trigger & control them, I used my PocketWizards with the AC9 AlienBee adapter and the AC3 controller.

It was windy in the morning, so I shot with natural light for the first few hours. The 200/f2 lens was a dream, and let me get some really great shots:

After a while, the wind started to die down, and I found some volunteers to hold to light stands in case an unexpected wind gust came along. I set up my lights, and with my volunteers’ help, I started using the lights for my shots:

The PocketWizard AC3 controller made shooting with the AlienBees a breeze. It gave me three dedicated dials for controlling the power of my lights. No more digging into the menus or walking up to the lights to make adjustments! This was especially convenient with the 200/f2, which, because of its long focal length, required me to stand fairly far away to get full body shots. I can not imagine shooting the ABs without the AC3 any more.

Thank you to everyone who came and made this gathering a success, with a special thanks to everyone who posed for photos or helped me with my lighting gear! Also, an extra-giant thanks to Bekalou for organizing this with me! I look forward to seeing everyone at the NorCal Summer Gathering at our new location!

More of my photos from this gathering are on my photo site at http://l.oscarc.net/jBKCLz.

Other photos from the gathering:



ConDroyd, my new ALA 2011 schedule app for Android

01 03 2011

ConDroyd is a FREE Anime Los Angeles (ALA) 2011 schedule app for Android phones & tablets that I wrote. It includes the latest published schedule and all the cosplay gatherings posted on cosplay.com. It lets you star your must-attend events, and then you can filter to display just those events. You can also enable reminders for your starred events so you don’t miss them.

For more info, please go to http://www.condroyd.com/

If you’re coming to ALA and have an Android, please download my app, give it a try, and let me know what you think.



2011 Cosplay Photo Calendar

12 03 2010

My 2011 Cosplay Calendar is now available. It has 13 of my favorite cosplay photos that I’ve posted in the last year. The calendar itself is 11″ x 17″, press-printed on 110# semi-gloss paper, and spiral bound at the top.

I will be selling copies of this calendar for a limited time, for $24 each. Shipping is $3.50 a calendar. If you live in the San Jose area or are coming to Anime Los Angeles, you can save on shipping by requesting hand-delivery of the calendar. To purchase one, or if you have any questions, email me at photos@oscarc.net.

Below are a few sample pages from the calendar. You can preview all the pages in the calendar at http://photo.oscarc.net/Calendars/cosplay-calendar-2011/14909383_e7kCg

Calendar Cover

March Preview

October preview

 

See more at http://photo.oscarc.net/Calendars/cosplay-calendar-2011/14909383_e7kCg



DragonCon 2010

09 14 2010

DragonCon was extremely fun as always this year, despite a number of annoying glitches. It’s definitely well worth the (relatively high) cost of attending, and we have already purchased our badges for next year.

High points

  • Denise Crosby storming off the Star Trek: TNG panel after being repeatedly teased by Jonathan Frakes and the other cast members on the panel. From the sound of things, she does not appear to get along with the other cast members. Brent Spiner was hilarious as always, and all the actors (except Denise) were enjoyable to listen to.
  • Despite having to watch Mai half the time, I made it to a number of panels in person, and was able to watch others on DCTV. Among my favorites:
    • The aforementioned TNG panel.
    • The Eureka panels were a blast. The actors love working together and it showed.
    • The “I Dream of Jeannie” reunion panel was interesting. The actors are old! (Not surprising for a show that aired about 40 years ago.) Barbara Eden still sounds exactly like she did on the show.
    • “Tips on Running an Anime Convention” was great as always. That panel had an amazing amount of experience  from conventions around the country.
    • Voice Actor panels are always fun to watch, but after a while they get a bit repetitive because (for the most part) the same set of voice actors come to the California conventions. The panel at DragonCon was interesting to me because it had mainly Atlanta-based voice actors who don’t come out to California for conventions very often, so I got to hear new stories and new voices.
  • The many excellent costumes. No convention I’ve ever attended has come close to DragonCon for sheer variety, and many costumes were very clever (like Elfvish, the Elf Elvis). Although it seemed there were fewer people in costume this year, there were still a lot of great costumes to see and photograph.
  • DragonCon Security and crowd control. They kept traffic moving without being too heavy-handed.
    • There were fewer photography restrictions than in previous years, and the ones that existed were very reasonable.
    • There were various restrictions issued (like shutting down the Hyatt/Marriott tunnel Sunday night), but they were understandable given the crowds. When you have 60,000 people in attendance, it is inevitable that there will be some idiots and jerks, but security appears to have done a good job at keeping a lid on things almost all of the time.
  • The Georgia Aquarium private event itself was great. Mai loved looking at all the sea animals, and I got some good photos. Their cafeteria food was also very yummy, if a bit expensive.
  • I don’t normally schedule shoots at DragonCon, but this year I had shoots with two different people, one of which I shot in three different outfits. They were great to shoot with, and we were even able to find some spots to shoot despite the crowds. I’ll be posting those photos soon.

Low points

  • DragonCon always has crowds, and in the evenings, a lot of drunk people. This year, it seemed like the evening crowds were more drunk, and were carrying around more open cups of beer, than in previous years. Crowds and open containers of alcohol always make me nervous when I’m carrying my camera.
  • The lack of Con security on the walkways. The Marriott/Hyatt walkway, especially, is long, and could have used a few security people to prevent traffic blockages, enforce the photo restrictions, and generally keep an eye out for people trying to start trouble.
  • The convention was very spread out this year. Events were held in five hotels. The Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton are within a block of each other, and are connected via tunnels, but the Westin and Sheraton were harder to reach. Given the sheer volume of events and attendees, I suppose this was inevitable, but I still miss the days when you could walk past every track room during the 30 minute between-panel break to see if anything looked interesting. The long distances also made me more reluctant to gamble on a panel if it was in a far-away hotel; if the panel turned out to be boring, I would have walked that far for nothing.
  • Three years ago, the Marriot was under construction during Con; this year it was the Hyatt. With half the lobby gone or taken up by the relocated registration desk, moving around the lobby was a challenge. Fortunately, the core late-night photography / socialization area has shifted to the Marriott over the past two years, so it was less of an issue than it could have been. Still, the location of the entrance of the walkway to the Marriott relative to the escalators and bar made the Hyatt lobby very challenging to navigate.
  • Some years, the DragonCon masquerade is the highlight of the convention; this was not one of those years. We watched it from our room on DCTV as we usually do to avoid the crowds, and were very glad we did. Among the issues:
    • The MCs were awful, especially Peter David. They made fun of the costumes, the contestants, and generally acted like jerks. Peter even let his daughter (who was on stage with him and looking very bored) take some swings at one of the contestants with a prop sword. We ended up muting the TV whenever the MCs were speaking. Next year, please bring back Anthony Daniels!
    • There were a few excellent costumes and two or three great skits, but on average the costumes and skits were nothing to write home about.
    • Many of the judges were apparently picked because they were famous, not because they were qualified to judge. This led to a second issue, where a previous winner entered a slightly modified version of a winning costume. The judges, being new, didn’t know that, and awarded a top prize to this repeat costume.
    • The stage lighting was a bit off, so a lot of contestants ended up with only their lower bodies illuminated during their skit. On top of that, DCTV’s camera was apparently set to auto-expose, causing most of the masquerade to appear very dark. (Hint: unless your backdrop is 18% gray, your camera or video camera will not correctly auto-expose things on a stage.

    DragonCon has been doing masquerades for a very long time; you’d think by now they’d know enough to avoid these amateur mistakes.

  • Registration was a disaster again this year. In previous years, pre-reg badge pickup opened around 4pm on Day 0. This year, in an attempt to improve the wait, badge pickup opened around noon. This did help somewhat — when Caroline went to pick up our badges at 1pm, it only took her 3 hours to get her badge, and an additional hour to get mine. We heard that the wait got much worse later in the day. The good news is that DragonCon has announced they are moving to a bar code system for next year, which should help a lot. Simply eliminating the last-name-letter lines will make things go smoother. Still, this is only moving them from a mid-80s registration system to a late 90s registration system, though I suppose expecting them to move to a modern system similar to what’s used by other large conventions was too much to ask for.
  • While the Georgia Aquarium event itself was a lot of fun, the logistics around it were not. The pickup location for the shuttle bus was confusing, causing people to line up in the wrong spot. There was only one shuttle bus in operation; coupled with the long and confusing lines, it was faster to walk the four blocks than to wait for a bus. The event also ended half an hour early, for no apparent reason. Mai was getting really tired at that point anyway, but other people might have wanted to stay for the full time listed on the ticket.
  • AirTran was the worst airline Caroline and I have flown in a long time. Some of the many issues we had with them are:
    • At SFO, they had the wrong departure gate posted on the monitors the entire time, including while we were boarding.
    • At ATL, they had the wrong luggage carousel posted the entire time, even as the luggage arrived elsewhere.
    • The flight attendants would skip you during beverage service if you weren’t paying attention (e.g. talking to your neighbor), and would look annoyed when you asked for your drink.
    • The ATL check-in agents gave contradictory instructions, measured the luggage with a tape measure, and weighed it twice.

Overall, we had an excellent time, though, and are looking forward to next year, especially since Mai should be old enough for DragonCon Daycare.

I’m posting my videos from DragonCon to Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/ocwajbaum. Given the size of 1080p video files (and therefore the time it takes to upload them), it will likely be another week or two before they are all up.

I’m a bit behind on photo processing, so I probably won’t have many hallway photos posted from DragonCon for a few weeks.