the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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8/365: Death Star De-Christmas

8/365: Death Star De-Christmas

Even on the Death Star, there comes a time to take down the Christmas decorations. Here we find Darth Vader supervising two storm troopers as they carry the Detention Center's tree to the garbage chute.

Possibly useful trivia: it's easy to crop to Cinemascope's 2.35:1 aspect ratio in iPhoto or other programs that want whole numbers--it's 47:20. Hooray, math!

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My DIY Photo Lightbox


It all started with the Legos.

I love building Lego kits, and have for many, many years. And I've found that for the bigger kits, like the Star Destroyer, it's a lot of fun to shoot photos as I go, so that I can look back at the building process in time-lapse fashion. So when my daughter and I started assembling the Death Star together, it was only natural that I'd take pictures every few steps so that we could have a record of our achievement.

That, of course, led to silly pictures of Stormtroopers busily assembling the dreaded space station under the stern supervision of Duplo Jessie.

And that led to the inspiration to use silly photos of minifigs in a Keynote deck for work. What better way to highlight the dangers of SQL injection attacks than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker infiltrating a group of Stormtroopers and wreaking havoc?


And that was the kick in the pants I needed to build my own little lightbox for macro photography. It's basically the same as the recipe from Strobist, WikiHow, and others--a cardboard box, some tissue paper, and a sheet of white posterboard. I spent about seven dollars in all, and most of that was on the box. Assembly pretty much goes like this:

Try not to cut yourself on the box cutters or X-Acto knife you use for slicing out sections of the box (luckily my experience in life-size cardboard ninja preparation had prepared me for this, but that's another story).

When you're all set up to shoot, it might look something like this:

I can't tell you how exciting that moment is, as an amateur photographer, when you do something that looks like that. You really feel empowered, and there's a wonderful feeling that you know what the hell you're doing. It's great!

Here's how my first test shot (the cyborg-versus-alien scene shown in the photo above) turned out:

Gun Fight
Gun Fight
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

Lessons Learned

I learned several key lessons that are worth passing on:

  1. Brighter, Whiter Lights

    I grabbed whatever was handy (the reading lights from my bedroom, in this case) to provide lighting. Great idea in terms of directionality and ability to get lights close to the box, but a seriously bad move overall because they were loaded up with low-wattage "soft white" CFL bulbs. You really have to up the exposure to compensate for the lack of brightness, but with a tripod and a remote shutter release, that's no big deal. What really sucks is the sheer, awful yellowness of the "soft white" bulbs, which guarantees that you'll be spending a lot of time doing color correction in post. I had to do quite a lot with temperature, exposure, color balance, lightening of shadows, etc. in order to get acceptable colors. Halogen work lights ought to do it, as long as I keep them far enough back from the box to keep from lighting the tissue paper on fire.

  2. Start Small on Tissue Paper

    Like a good engineer, I decided to evenly allocate all of my tissue paper so that I was able to use the maximum amount out of the eight sheets in the package I bought. (Waste not, want not, right?) Well, it turns out to be a dumb maneuver because it's easier to add more layers of tissue paper than it is to remove them once they're taped into place. I had three layers on mine; I think two would have done the job (or mabye just one?).

  3. Clean Your Lens, Clean Your Sensor

    Given the tripod and remote shutter release, I figured I could narrow down my aperture to F22 and beyond and thereby maximize my depth of field, thereby ensuring that i didn't have characters (or parts of characters) that were inappropriately out of focus. Turns out that when you do this, every piece of dust on your lens or sensor (I suspect the latter may be the worst of my problems at this point) comes into sharp relief, and once again you're spending a ton of time in post. Retouching the dust spots out late isn't too bad... until you're doing it to a full batch of 150 or so images. At that point, you've entered a whole new world of pain.

  4. Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

    This kind of work is impossible (or next to impossible) without a stable platform and a way to shoot without jiggling the camera, because you will be taking shots that may need a half second or a second (or more!) to capture. It would be a shame to set all this up and not have the camera equipment you need.

  5. Low ISO

    I went with ISO 400, which is okay when I'm shooting hand-held indoors, but if you've already got the luxury of the tripod and remote release, you might as well go with longer exposures that yield less noise. I was frustrated by the amount of noise I picked up at 400, though it may be due in some degree to shooting in JPEG (where the all-white background leads to poor-looking compression artifacts).

The most important lesson, of course, is that this is fun and that you can do it too. It's cheap, doesn't require much skill, and leads to highly satisfying results.

I'll post some of my Star Wars minifig shots next time. Promise.

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The Feline Singularity (and Other News)

Originally uploaded by mikepirnat.

Our cats have so completely taken over my desk chair that they are collapsing into one another into a sort of feline snuggle singularity, an adorable two-headed mass of sleeping fur so dense that only cuteness can escape. This makes it somewhat difficult to do much of anything in the proximity of my computer.


In other news, I am now hooked on Rome (thanks to the local library), am enjoying Lego Star Wars 2 (thanks to a CompUSA store closing discount), and I am now included on the official Planet Python feed (yippee!!).

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June Link-o-Rama

A day of bush-pruning and art-show-wandering has left me in the mood to close some browser tabs and have a happy little link-o-rama for June. Joy!

First off, how about 101 versions of "Stairway to Heaven"? And if your ears aren't bleeding too much from that, let's chase that down with the best 50 video game ending songs.

While we're on the subject of "top-N" lists, check out the top 10 strangest Lego creations; Han Solo frozen in carbonite looks pretty badass to me. (Now where could I put that?)

Thanks to some clever video editing, we can finally settle the debate about how it'd go down if the Enterprise tangled with the evil Galactic Empire. And even though Gnarls Barkley isn't really my cup of tea, I have to say that Chewbacca on drums totally kicks ass.

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January Link-o-Rama Redux

Some part of today managed to melt what's left of my brain, so I settled for skimming rather than chiseling away at my reading, and that has degenerated into a need to close browser tabs and assault you all with another installment of...

LINNcircle k(idd valley)One Letter / ORAmA

My cool flickr-based link du jour is Spell with flickr, which lets you spell words using letter images found on flickr, just like what you see here. Nifty!

Some geek reading: Joel Spolsky on "Great Design" and Michal Zalewski on "Cross-Site Cooking" (potentially dangerous shortcomings of how cookies have been implemented by pretty much every browser).

While we're on blogs, who would have ever thought Chewbacca needed his own blog? I guess you could consider it a scathing satire of "the blogosphere" (a term I really loathe), asserting that any random bloggish drivel is about the same as Chewy grunting and growling unintelligibly (and you probably wouldn't be too wrong). It's really, really daft, but it makes me giggle. What a Wookiee!

Artie attempts to scan your iTunes library, find tracks that are missing album art, and fetch covers from Amazon for you to review and drop into iTunes if they are what you're looking for. As my iTunes library--currently closing in on the 45 GB mark--continues to grow, this seems like an utterly brilliant solution that will save me much time, hassle, and pain... Too bad it doesn't seem to like my increasingly ungainly iTunes Library.xml file. Mostly it seems to time out trying to upload or process the data. Your mileage may vary--let me know if you have success!

Which leads me to the obligatory Mac geek section... I have a new favorite browser: Shiira, a nifty treat from Japan that so far seems lighter and faster than Safari and Firefox, and which sports some wicked visuals (I particularly enjoy the page forward/back that peels the webpage away like a piece of paper). I also ran across a pretty good list of must-have Mac software.

Some amusement for the gamers among us: a library of video game endings for those of us (like me) who were too lame to ever finish most of their games, and, when you have eleven minutes to kill, perhaps this short film will help you conquer your "Fear of Girls". (I'm glad to say I overcame that a long, long time ago!)

Finally, something to get us all ready for lovey-dovey season: SVU Valentine cards. Gosh. Um. Yeah. That's not creepy or anything.

Next time, I promise some real content, even if it's lame, or pictures of the cats doing stupid things.

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Two Weekends for the Price of One

Had two completely different weekends in one the past two days--one lazy and relaxing, and one busy and productive.

On the lazy front: sleeping in, watching the snow fall, playing with the cats, watching TV and movies of varying badness (from Hellboy to a Gene Autry movie whose title I never caught, but which was excellent MST3K fodder), wine and cheese, and staying up obscenely late playing KotOR2 (aka "The Next Damn Star Wars Game").

Busy? You bet: we set up and lit the Christmas tree, put some paint samples on the wall in the guest bedroom (and possibly chose a winner), renewed the repainting effort with the master bedroom and master bathroom doors, shoveled snow, cleaned up the kitchen a bit, prepped the annual Christmas letter, wrapped and shipped family gifts, roughed out the schedule for the upcoming visits from my mother-in-law and my parents, and researched replacement doorknobs (as ours are, to put it politely, "dated").

It would be nice, at some point, if perhaps it could stop snowing for more than a day or so at a time, but it's so far looking like my only recourse is to either grump about it here or simply shut up and cope.

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