Sunday, August 30, 2015

We Got Lucky: New Blue Whale Shots

I was fortunate to spend time in the open ocean off Baja California recently, hoping to photograph kelp patties -- floating masses of kelp -- and the many types of fish that gather under the patties. 
We got real lucky one day.  

This is a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on earth.  Like all whales, they are pretty shy and are extremely difficult to get close to.  We lucked out with this individual, who approached our boat closely.  

With any encounter with a whale, the opportunity to make photographs of the animal is exceedingly fleeting.  Having more than 10 seconds to actually see the whale and photograph it is about all one gets.  Taking still photographs involves knowing your camera gear so well that you don't have to think about it.  There's no time to set focus, so you need to set focus before the encounter.  You need to know what the light conditions are so that you can set your ISO and shutter speed beforehand.  If you get anything wrong, you will end up with nothing to show for this once-in-a-lifetime encounter.  Shooting video is even harder -- you have to hold your breath, dive down at least a bit to get away from surface chop, and try to shoot steadily for at least 15 seconds without shaking the camera. 

Several divers and photographers have obtained photos of blue whales both topside and underwater, but obtaining photographs of such large, fast-swimming animals can only be considered a rare, special event.   As an example, perhaps only one or two dozen photographers have ever captured images of blue whales; and film teams have routinely spent 60 days hoping to film blue whales with no success.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Consumer Tip: You Can Buy Alcohol and Prescription Medications at Costco Even if You Are Not a Member

I recently learned about this consumer tip when I saw the following question in a newspaper or magazine: 

Question: I hear if you are going to just buy alcohol or pharmacy you are let in (to Costco) even if you don't have membership. True? 

Laws prohibit pharmacies and liquor stores from discriminating. If you want to sell to anyone it has to be available to everyone. Hence the no membership required for prescription drugs or alcohol.
I discovered that yes, you can use Costco's pharmacy as a non-member. However, you won't get the member's discount if you are a non-member.  Costco offers most prescription and other medications at a pretty nice discount if you are a member.  

Consumer Finances: Credit Card Interest and Debt

I have several credit cards, but I have never, ever carried a balance on those credit cards.  I use them for nearly all purchases, because I get airline miles and/or cash back on my purchases, and I get up to a 30-day grace period on all purchases.  I pay off my credit card balances each months and I never carry a balance.

If you use your credit cards this way, you never pay interest, late fees, or other fees.  The card is essentially a free way to delay paying for the things you buy -- but only a short delay.

If you ever carry a balance on your credit card (you don't pay the account in full each month), if you are late on a credit card payment, or you get cash advances from the credit card -- then watch out!  This is one of the worst things you can ever do from a financial standpoint.

Credit cards charge a ridiculous amount if you are late or miss a payment.  If you miss a payment, you will be charge late fees (usually around $25).  Even worse, you will now be stuck paying interest on ALL purchases from now on.  There is no longer a grace period.

Ask this question to your credit card issuer, for instance.  Let's say one month you don't pay off your entire balance, or you are late with a payment.  This is a general question, not specific. 

You had a balance of $250.  You were late.  Or you only paid $150. 
You have a small balance left of $100.  You have to pay a late fee.  You have to pay interest on that original balance of $250. 

Here's the question.  Normally you would have a grace period for new purchases.  For instance, you had a balance due of $250 on 7-22.  You paid late, on 7-23.  Therefore the bank charges a late fee and interest. Normally, you would pay off the entire balance before 7-22.  New purchases after that date would not be subject to interest and would not need to be paid until 8-22. 

Now, however, you are carrying a balance.  You buy stuff after 7-22.  You will be charged interest immediately on the stuff you buy after 7-22. 
To repeat:

If you are late on payment, your ENTIRE balance will be charged interest. This will include all new charges.  Once you pay off the last statement's overdue balance, then interest stops being charged.
You will be charged interest immediately on the stuff you buy after 7-22.

By the way, I never use my debit cards, which my bank gives me -- except to get cash at my bank's ATM machines. When you use a debit card, the withdrawal occurs immediately from your bank account -- there is no grace period.  That's not that big a deal, but merchants who accept debit cards often charge a fee to use them, and not credit cards.  I was in a fast-food restaurant a few weeks ago and noticed that they charged $1 for use of a debit card, and nothing if I used a credit card.  Last and worst -- you are not as well protected against fraudulent use of a debit card than a credit card.  With a credit card, you are AT WORST liable for only $50 of fraudulent transactions.  With debit cards, it is up to your bank whether they will reimburse you for fraudulent use of your debit cards.  Don't take my word for it and do check other sources than this blog post for further explanation.  An example:

More consumer information coming.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Insuring Your Camera Gear: An Update

This is one of the most popular articles in my blog.  My blog has had over 134,000 pageviews in its  history, and this post has had numerous comments and over 3000 pageviews (hmmm, I am pretty sure that Blogger said this post had over 3800 pageviews back in June 2015!).  Thanks for reading my blog!

The original article can be seen at:

Insuring Your Camera Gear
A Partial Guide
by Norbert Wu

Second Update, August 23, 2015:
For the first time in ten years, I had to make a claim for flooded camera gear.  Short story: Rand Insurance, the agent for Chubb Insurance, came through for me big-time.  I've heard for years that Chubb Insurance was among the best insurance companies that anyone could hope for, particularly folks in my business of photography and filmmaking.  My experience with them has been nothing but great.

Here's a summary of what happened.  I was flying a DJI Phantom quadcopter, with a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition camera mounted on it.  For some reason, the quadcopter lost power (or lost a propellor) and fell into Puget Sound, 20 feet away from me, in 12 feet of salt water.  It was not a good feeling.  I have not lost or flooded a camera in many years.

Like all accidents, a series of small mistakes led to a big one -- the drowning of my camera and quadcopter.  I was in a rush to film my nephews who were kayaking in Puget Sound, so even though the Phantom told me that it had not collected enough GPS satellites to return home if battery power became critically low, I ignored the warning.  I had flown this drone a few hours and was over my careful beginner stage of flying, and into the more dangerous zone where I actually felt more confident of my ability to steer the drone.  I had flown the drone earlier in the day with no problems.

I ended up having a great time flying the drone over my nephews.  The first-person-view (FPV) gear that I had installed on the drone was working OK, and so I let the drone get too high.  When a drone gets too far away, it is extremely difficult to see the direction it is going.  The only way to see is to delicately touch the controls and attempt to see how the drone responds.  I had a few adrenaline-releasing seconds where the drone got much too close to my neighbor's huge cedar trees.  I got the drone away from the trees, but as I brought it home, the drone suddenly vibrated a bit and then dropped straight into the water in front of me.  Ouch!  I either ran out of battery power (which I don't think was the reason) or a propellor fell off the drone.  When I recovered the drone the next day at low tide, one of the props was missing, which leads me to suspect the latter reason for the failure.

 I gave Rand Insurance a call.  Rand is the agent that issues the North America Nature Photographer's Association (NANPA) equipment insurance policy.  It's a great camera equipment insurance policy, and I've had it for perhaps 20 years.  My experience could not have been better, and the following describes some of the issues that I raise in my article on photography insurance of July 2007.

I periodically send Rand a list of my gear along with the value of that gear.  For instance, my DJI Phantom was listed at $600, which is the price that I purchased it for.  When the Chubb Insurance representative talked to me, she asked me to send in quotes for the equivalent gear.   My Phantom model was no longer made, so I sent in a quote for the model that was currently available.  This model sold for $900.  Because Rand/Chubb provides replacement value for listed gear, they paid me $900 to replace my $600 quadcopter.  This way I could buy the equivalent model of drone for my loss.

Needless to say, this is impressive -- and this is what you should look for in an insurance policy.  In other words, let's say this is a car insurance policy and you've insured your brand new 2015 Toyota Camry which you purchased  for $30,000.  The car is somehow damaged beyond repair.  You cannot find another 2015 Toyota Camry in the same condition, so you send your insurance agent a quote for the closest equivalent Toyota Camry that you can find -- a 2016 model that will cost $35,000.  Your insurance company does the right thing by you and sends you a check for $35,000 (minus the deductible) so you can replace your damaged vehicle with another vehicle that is the closest replacement that you can find.  I have to say that this is just superb, awesome service.  Thanks, NANPA, Rand, and Chubb. 

An aside:
A friend recently recommended Divers' Alert Network EQUIPMENT INSURANCE PLAN to me.  I decided to give this insurance a pass.  Among the things that I found objectionable with this plan were the following clauses:

First, the rate for this insurance, from my calculations, is about 3.5%.  In other words, if you insure $10,000 worth of gear, then the premium will cost $350 per year.  There is a minimum but it is difficult to ascertain from their website, which simply asks you to enter the value of your gear and then comes back with their premium cost. 

(Rand/Chubb's insurance is lower, at 2.45% annually on the value of the gear insured.  )

This clause is a bit unfair: "The premiums are fully earned, meaning there will be NO REFUNDS if the policy is cancelled before the Insurance Certificate expires or if there is a reduction in coverage due to sale or loss of an item."  In other words, if you insure an item and then sell it, you get nothing back if you remove that item from the list of insured gear before the year ends.  

(Rand/Chubb's policy allows me to remove or add items to my insured list at any time.  They will even send a refund check if my total after removing items results in a lower total amount being insured.  )

And beware of this clause from Divers' Alert Network EQUIPMENT INSURANCE PLAN: 
We DO NOT provide coverage for items that are lost underwater while you are diving, that fall off the back of the boat, or are swept overboard. 

OK, I can live with this, and I am glad that this omission is clearly stated.

I found this last clause to be very objectionable, and to be hidden in the fine print:
$100 unless claim is for water damage. In the case of a water damage claim, the deductible will be the greater of 10% of the claim or $250.

 This clause, frankly, stinks.  Let's say you flood a camera housing with a $3000 Canon or Nikon camera in it, and a $1000 lens.  You are able to save the camera housing, but the $4000 in camera gear is a loss.  If you have this insurance policy, you will get back (hopefully) $4000 minus the deductible, which will be the greater of $250 or 10% of the value of the loss, which in this case will be $400.  Therefore, you will get back $3600 from this insurance company at most -- and I bet you will get far less.
(I don't want to repeat myself, but the NANPA/Rand/Chubb policy will send you a check so that you can truly replace your camera gear -- even if that amount is MORE than declared on your policy.  They do have a $250 deductible). 

I'd like to say that I am just a "regular" customer of Rand Insurance.  I have not been paid in any way, shape, or form for the above recommendations. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reef Photo Comes Through Again -- These Guys are Good!

The emails below are self-explanatory.  I was stumped.  Hours of research.  Nothing.  Reef Photo came through yet again!

Dear (guys at Reef Photo): 

OK, just spent 2-3 hours trying to figure out if this is possible, and I give up.  I don't know if it's me, but this camera is difficult to learn -- and confusing if one does not use it all the time.  

I am trying to use a SmallHD DP-4 monitor with the GH4.  I can see the same image on the DP-4 as on the camera screen.  But I am unable to figure out how to get the on-screen displays onto the DP-4.  Can you help?  

I tried this briefly underwater.  It was great to see the image on the DP-4, but I was unable to see information like aperture, time, shutter speed -- and most importantly -- if I was recording or not.  

Thanks as always.  
Norb Wu

Reply from Reef Photo:
I'm very familiar with the GH4 and DP4 monitor so I thought I'd step in to help you out with this.

In order to get your DP4 monitor to display the camera setting just follow these steps:
Turn the top camera dial to the M movie mode( looks like a video camera on the dial)
Select the "Menu" button
Scroll and select the "Motion Picture" on the available side menus(it's at the top)
In the Motion Picture Menu scroll and select "HDMI Rec Output"
In the HDMI Rec output menu select"Info Display"
In the the Info Display menu select "On"
Than power up your DP4 monitor and you should see all of your camera setting displayed on the monitor.  Hope all of that help and if you have any trouble or any other questions just let us know.

All the best:

Lee Burghard
Reef Photo & Video
2303 N Andrews Ave
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Scotland Trip: Basking Sharks and Puffins

I just returned from a trip to the Island of Mull, part of the Inner Hebrides Islands of Scotland.  I was very pleasantly surprised by the the wildlife that I encountered.

Five of us (Howard and Michele Hall, Marty Snyderman, and Steve Ando) traveled to Tobermory, on the Island of Mull, and stayed there for six nights.  Tobermory is a charming small town, and it is the gateway to the wildlife and scenery of the Hebrides Islands of Scotland.  It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Glasgow and involves a ferry ride from Oban on the mainland to the island of Mull.

We traveled to these islands hoping to see and photograph basking sharks -- the second largest fish in the ocean.  Nearly all of us had seen and filmed basking sharks off the California coast, 25 years ago.  However, since then, no one had seen any basking sharks off California.  The popular belief is that these magnificent animals had been fished to death, caught by open ocean driftnets off the California coast.  Basking sharks are, however, a known and relatively common sight off the coast of Scotland and Cornwall.  (True to form, while we were sitting out bad weather in our cottage in Tobermory, we heard that a group of 50 basking sharks had been sighted off the Big Sur coast -- in my backyard!). 

Our first four days were blown out due to bad weather and winds.  We were able to spend two afternoons on the Island of Lunga, where there is a wonderful puffin colony.  One morning, thanks to our friend Leigh Cobb, who saw and dove with 3-4 basking sharks the day before, we spent a windy morning with a few basking sharks.

The last day of our trip was the best -- as often happens.  We had encounters with several sharks, which were intent on feeding on swarms of reddish copepods.  You can see those small copepods in my photograph. 

Thanks to Henderson Aquatics, yet again, for making their Aqua Lock line of wetsuits.  I own a 3mm Henderson Aqua Lock wetsuit, and it is the warmest wetsuit that I have ever had.  It's thin, warm, light, and flexible -- all good.  I wore this wetsuit and an old hood instead of bringing a drysuit.  The water there was a cold 55 degrees F, but I was just fine in the water.  I was in a group of four other professional divers and underwater photographers - - all of whom wore drysuits.  I was just as warm as these folks for a good three hours in the water, on the one day that we had so much time with the sharks.  I did give myself a good wash of hot water that was on the boat, and I was able to swim much faster than the others on the group since I was not encumbered by a drysuit (as always, I must add the caveat that Howard Hall swam and free dove better than me, even though he was in a drysuit).  That guy is too much -- a true underwater filmmaking artist, and a superb free diver and diver.

I came home to Monterey, and the surf off Asilomar Beach was going off pretty well.  I jumped in, the water is 60 degrees, and once again -- I have to thank my Henderson Aqua Lock suit for making this morning's boogie boarding session enjoyable and fun rather than cold and miserable.

Thanks to my diving friends for hanging out and making this trip so enjoyable: Howard and Michele Hall, Marty Snyderman, Steve Ando, and Leigh Cobb.  Thanks to James and Rona of the Hebridean Sea School for letting us get close to both the puffins and the basking sharks.  Thanks to Andy Murch for serving as a trip leader for a few days.  Thanks to Henderson Wetsuits for making their truly awesome Aqua Lock line of wetsuits.  And hey, thanks to United Airlines for actually providing comfortable travel to and from London Heathrow Airport from San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Solution: My MacBook Laptop Charger Won't Charge on on a Plane

I recently flew in a business class seat from  San Francisco to London and back, on United Airlines.  On the way over, I could not get my MacBook charger to charge my laptop.  United's new lie-flat business class seats have standard US 110V power outlets under the seats. 

I thought that perhaps my 85W MacBook power adapter was drawing too much current.  However, after browsing some online forums like flyertalk, I decided to use an adapter.  Voila! with the proper adapter, my MacBook charger started working 

I bought an international travel adapter at Heathrow airport.  It has a "Euro" style plug that has round pins, but fits deeply into the power outlet beneath the seat.  I could tell that this adapter was getting power, because a light for the USB ports turns on when the adaptor has power.  This was very helpful.  I then  plugged my MacBook power brick into the international travel adapter. 

The item on the bottom right is the international travel adapter that solved the problem.  The "Euro" pins stick out a bit further than the flat blades of the MacBook charger, as you can see in this photo.  These pins make a connection to the airline power sockets in the seats.  I plugged in the MacBook charger on the opposite end of the adapter. 

Other suggestions from forums:

Bring an international travel adapter with you (e.g. use the 3 pin UK plug on the power brick, and attach it to an adapter for the US 2-pin style -- if your adapter is a standard size, it's likely to fit into the recessed socket).

I've had that poor charging issue since the lie flats were introduced; my solution is to use a cheap 3 prong to 2 prong adapter - it seems to ensure a good connection that the apple power bricks cannot achieve. Or, bring along the long AC cable that comes with the MacBook power adapters.

The below suggestions could still be an issue, but I can confirm that once I got my MacBook charger to work, it definitely charged my MacBook Pro laptop.  I had no cycling or shut-off problems. 

I have had one instance (on a 777) where the plug didnt work. It kept cycling on and off like every second.

I carry an Apple 45W MacBook Air charger specifically for aircraft.

The common MacBook Pro 85W charger seems to overwhelm in-seat power systems; I've seen it super flaky on older UA, CO, and AA aircraft.