I was looking for some photo gallery software for my wife’s photography site with a couple of strict criteria: it had to look professional, render fairly quickly, and be easy to administer. Oh, and I’m cheap, so I didn’t want to spend alot of cash (hence the anal consumer thing). After demoing countless products, I found one that stood out among the rest: Simpleviewer. It’s Flash-based with a simple, but elegant implementation. It uses the Flash – XML interface to pull in image and album information and is customizable to an extent. Oh, and it’s free (or a small $45 if you want the source). Best of all, you can also get this terrific admin interface. Written in php, it allows my wife to log into her website and administer the photo galleries – add, delete, reorder, captions, colors, and more. I also used the php functions provided by this program to learn more about php myself and ended up completely rewriting Simpleviewer from Flash to php. Of course, the Flash version is way more slick, so I’m reserving the php version for the two people who don’t yet have Flash installed in their browsers – it was more of a learning exercise anyway.

This was the best viewer/admin combo I found out there, free or paid. The fact that this was on the free end of the spectrum was icing on the cake.

Well, I’m sure there are already a billion sites that aggegate podcasts, but I’m just starting out in this phenomenon and this is the first I came across. Odeo uses tagging (a la Flickr and del.icio.us) to organize the podcasts on the service (and there are thousands of them). You can post a URL to your own podcasts and they’re planning on having a service that would allow you to create podcasts from your computer microphone, an existing MP3, or over the phone. So far, it looks pretty cool, but we’ll see how good the content and the accuracy of the tagging is.

So, I haven’t yet joined the ranks of people who have completely abandoned the old paradigm of bookmarks and have started tagging them a la del.icio.us. I was using Yahoo! Bookmarks in conjunction with Yahoo! Toolbar to make sure I had access to my bookmarks across browsers and over the web. Yahoo! Toolbar, however, doesn’t have universal support for all browsers out there (IE and Firefox are covered) and it has a bunch of other functionality that I frankly didn’t use and didn’t want to clutter my browser UI. Hence, my use of FavoriteSync. This is a nice little agent that runs in your system tray and automatically syncs your IE and Firefox bookmarks with a central server. You can create an account on FavoriteSync’s site, or you can select an FTP server of your choice. I sync with my own FTP server, but have tried using a FavoriteSync account and both work well. The sync puts an XML file on the server containing your bookmarks and the sync program is smart enough to do two way syncs and the understand that the “Links” folder on IE is the same as the “Personal Toolbar” folder in Firefox. There’s also a XSL style sheet that they provide to customize the look of the display on the web. Pretty nice for a free product!

I’ve been trying out Avant Browser and it’s really quite good. I usually use Firefox, but there are occasions where I know I need to use IE. Avant Browser is basically a new shell for IE and supports most of the functionality I’ve grown to love on Firefox. Tabbed browsing, robust ad and popup blocking, configurable toolbars, several good skins, RSS feed handling…all there. It doesn’t support the Yahoo! Toolbar, but I was only using that for bookmark handling and found a potential alternate for that as well (more on that in a seperate post).

I bought a new tripod! OK, I know that’s not really that exciting, but it signifies the culmination of hours of research, so it’s all good. I got the Manfrotto MF0553, which is made of magnesium and carbon fiber (some blend they call “Magfiber”). It’s a little heavier than a carbon fiber tripod, but still lighter than aluminum with the stiffness and strength of cf and priced somewhere in between. $650 for a tripod? I don’t think so! So here’s the skinny: If you’re looking for an OK tripod that’s light and will hold your SLR and most lenses and won’t break the bank, the Velbon EF-3 is a pretty good bet. It weighs under 4 pounds, you can get it with a pan head (or no head at all), is reasonably tall, has three-piece legs that will splay out to three different angles and will only set you back less than $100. If I were to buy one for myself (and didn’t have a wife in the photography business), that’s the one I would have gotten. There’s also an EFL-4 that has 4-piece legs if you need something that packs down to a shorter package, but it also doesn’t extend quite as far. There’s a pretty good synopsis of the Velbon here. As it is, a good tripod is an investment that you should be able to use pretty much indefinitely, so I decided to scale up to the Manfrotto. It’s a highly respected brand and has a build quality that’s obviously better than the Velbon. It’s also rated to carry significantly more weight than the Velbon, so if you want to slap that new 600mm lens on your camera, this tripod can deal. It has a cool, though questionably useful, feature that allows you to mount the center column horizontally – which is supposed to be good for macro photography so you can point your camera downward. It also has three-piece legs that adjust to three different angles and extends to a very good height (eye level for me without extending the center column). It will, however, set you back $300 and then you still need to get a ballhead for it. If all you have is a point and shoot that you’d like a more stable platform for, you have the option of getting one of the ultra-lightweight tripods like Manfrotto’s Digi line (something like the 728B) or the Velbon MAXi343E . These things are under 2 lbs., which is pretty remarkable. The problem is that they’re pretty flimsy and almost too light – you need a little weight in a tripod to keep it stable. So yes, it will hold your camera steady, but might be susceptible to wind and vibrations. I’d probably still opt for the EFL-3/4 – they seems to have a great balance between weight and stability. If you really want a lightweight travel tripod, you can check out this report. It’s a little outdated, but not much has changed and it’s the single most comprehensive compilation of specs I’ve seen on this class of tripod. Or you can take my word for it and just buy the Velbon (which is what the article says to do).

As far as using a tripod, there are a couple of tricks that are good to know. First, make sure that you can do the majority of shooting without the center column extended – consider it an emergency feature only. Raising the center column introduces a much higher chance that flex and vibration with affect stability. Also, with some of these lightweight tripods, it’s sometimes a good idea to hang your camera bag from the center column to provide more weight and therefore more stability. And even with the stability of a tripod, you can introduce shake with something as minor as pushing the shutter release, so I would recommend either getting an external shutter release (wired or wireless) or using your camera’s self timer mode to take the shot. Alot of current cameras even have a 2 sec. self timer mode specifically for this.

Actually, this is pretty well covered in my friend’s blog. In this post, he picks the point-and-shoot cameras that I’d recommend. Namely, if size is your main priority, the Canon Powershot SD300 (also mentioned in my previous post) is my favorite. It has a 4MP sensor, which is more than enough for anything up to 8×10 or even a little bigger, which should satisfy most people’s needs (especially for a little walkaround camera). It also takes little video clips (up to 3 minutes) – a feature I’ve come to know and love. Who needs a camcorder anymore?

If you want more creative control, get the Panasonic Lumix FZ20. A 5MP sensor, 12X image stabilized Leica lens (and a f/2.8 lens all through the zoom range!), TIFF mode, movies up to the limit of your memory card,…. And all for under $500 street. If you want a true camcorder replacement (so a really good movie mode is your priority), I’d go with the Canon Powershot S1IS. In fact, if this camera had a higher resolution sensor (it’s a 3.2MP), I’d probably give it a higher recommendation than the Panasonic. What it does have is a super quiet ultrasonic, image-stabilized 10x lens and a movie mode that lets you shoot to the capacity of the memory card. The differentiating factor is that you can use the zoom during a movie. Most point-and-shoot zooms are too noisy and the camera’s microphone picks up all that noise when zooming. You will, however, sacrifice picture quality and some creative control over the Panasonic.

What am I carrying in my camera bag? Well, in my pocket I have a Canon Powershot S400. It’s a 4 megapixel camera in a tiny package. I bought it specifically for its size, but it takes great pics too. Yes, that link is to an article that published one of the pics I took on my hike to Mt. Whitney taken with the S400. If I were to buy a camera today and my priority was size, I would probably opt for the Powershot SD300. It’s even smaller and has a big LCD for viewing images.

When I need more creative control, I use a Canon Digital Rebel. It’s a 6.2 MP digital SLR and takes the entire range of Canon EF lenses. When I bought it, it was the only digital SLR under $1000 and the little brother to my wife’s camera, the 10D. We primarily bought Canon because she already had a Canon film camera and an assortment of lenses and we had great experiences with Canon equipment in the past. Since I bought my camera, Nikon came out with their sub-$1000 competitor, the D70. If I had a strict budget to spend for a digital SLR and no other affinity to Canon (like an existing set of lenses), that’s probably the one I would get. It costs a little more than the Rebel, but it’s features match or exceed Canon’s 10D. If, however, I had $1500 to spend on a camera, it would hands down go toward Canon’s new 20D. It has a 8 MP sensor, Canon’s new DigicII chip (faster with better noise reduction), and is lighter than the 10D. Don’t tell my wife, but she’s probably getting one for her birthday (which, of course, means I get to upgrade my Rebel with her 10D!). More on cameras I don’t own but would recommend later.

Let’s start with Photography. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no pro (though I did win $25 in a contest once!), but I’m definitely an avid enthusiast. I’ve been shooting digital for about 8 years, which means I took some pretty crappy pictures 8 years ago. Between my wife, Jean, and myself, we have 3 digital cameras we actively use (more on that later). There are several sites I use as great references for a number of different purposes. For equipment reviews, the must read digital photography site is DPReview. They have the most comprehensive reviews I’ve seen and their forums have a very high participation rate (you often have your questions answered in minutes). Steve’s Digicams also has good reviews and is where I go to find printer reviews. If you have a digital SLR and are looking for new lenses, check out Fred Miranda’s site. I usually go there for good, user-contributed reviews of an assortment of lenses (especially Canon, Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron). They also have some tutorials, but many of them involve purchasing Fred’s Photoshop Plugins (haven’t actually tried any of them yet).

There are several sites that have product information as well as tutorials to improve your photography. My favorite is probably Luminous Landscape. They have very comprehensive reviews (including field tests), though mostly of higher-end equipment (digital SLRs and accessories). They also have really good lessons on how to use your camera more effectively and how to maximize your photography through post-processing in Photoshop. Photo.net has tutorials that cover the basics and reviews from contributing pros. What I find interesting there is that readers can comment on many of the articles and the authors will actually respond. So don’t stop at the end of the article, keep reading the comments. I use Vivid Light Photography mostly for the tutorials, though they do have some reviews (not nearly as good as dpreview). They also have an monthly email newsletter highlighting their latest articles (one of these days all these sites will learn about RSS!).

OK, why do I think I’m qualified to even suggest what to buy and where to buy it? Well, for one, I’m really cheap. Which, of course, means that I have a natural urge to try to get the best deal. That sometimes bites back, though, as it’s occasionally necessary to pay a premium either to buy quality product or buy it from a reputable source. My garage is a testament to bad purchasing attempts – all kinds of random electronics and computer gear that either don’t live up to their promise or just plain stopped working. I’ll make sure I document all those experiences, too, so you can learn from my mistakes.

I also love gadgets. I admit it. My name is Jeff and I’m a gadgetaholic. Let’s see…Treo, portable video player, MP3 player, plasma TV, noise-cancelling headphones, those goofy glasses that are supposed to project your computer screen, point-and-shoot digital camera, digital SLR, 4 computers (in actual use, about 4 more in parts), DSL, wireless network, firewall, Linux server – you get the idea.

Speaking of gadget freaks, if you’re one and you’re not regularly visiting Engadget and Gizmodo, then do it now! And they both have RSS feeds so you can track them everyday in your reader. Speaking of RSS readers, the RSS capabilties of My Yahoo! are pretty darned good for getting a little snapshot of your favorite feeds. For a more comprehensive view, I’ve been using the Sage extension for Firefox. There are readers out there that may organize feeds better, but I like how Sage renders the feeds – almost like reading a magazine (complete with pictures!). Check out Engadget and Gizmodo with Sage – I rarely need to visit the actual sites anymore!