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.  

Discounted Rates from La Quinta Seaworld in San Diego

I spend a lot of time in San Diego, and I've been looking for a place where I can stay along with my two dogs -- 70-lb Labrador retrievers.  I am one of those dog-crazy people.

I like La Quinta hotels because when I am driving somewhere with my dogs, I can pretty much count on La Quinta hotels to allow me and my two dogs at no extra charge.  There's no fake "pet-friendly" policy where you make a reservation only to find upon reading the fine print that only dogs under 15 pounds named "Fluffy" are allowed.  There's no usurious pet cleaning fee of $150 that is applied and is nonrefundable.

The sales manager at the La Quinta Seaworld in San Diego reached out to me and offered me discounted rates at their hotel.  I stayed there for a few days this year.  It's not a five star luxury hotel, but the price was great for such a large room.  I stayed there during their summer season (without my dogs) in a king 2-room suite.  The room had two separate rooms, but no door between the rooms.  The toilet and bathtub were in the bedroom area, as was the sink (outside of the bathroom).  In the living room, separated by a wall but no door, was a sleeper sofa, a second TV, and a small breakfast nook area with microwave, fridge, and sink.  For $99 to $109 per night, for a 2-BR suite in San Diego during the summer season, this was a great deal.

Anyone who mentions my business name (Norbert Wu Productions) can get reduced rates on queen or king suites all this year and through 2016.  The rates and conditions are below. 

Some tips:
1.  My Garmin consistently gave me the wrong exit when trying to get to this hotel, from the west.  It would direct me to take the exit just before the correct one.  When you are going east on Highway 8, when you get near the hotel, you want to take the Mission Center Road exit to Auto Circle -- NOT the exit right before this, which is Hwy 163. 

Better yet, use Waze or Google Maps, which seem to give the correct directions.

2.  This is by no means a luxury hotel.  It's a motel.  It's fairly inexpensive, but it seemed relatively clean (no hotel rooms are really clean) and safe.

3. Get a room toward the back, which is quieter, except for noise from the pool in the back of the property.  There are two buildings surrounding a central outside parking lot.  There is also an underground parking lot.  I would try to get a room on the lowest floor, towards the back of the buildings.  Then use the outside parking lot.  The hotel property slopes UP to the back, so if you have a room near the front lobby, then you face a fairly long flight of stairs to get to rooms in the front.  If you have a room in the back, then you have to scale only a very short flight of stairs to get to the first floor of rooms.  This is always hugely important for me, since I have a great deal of gear.

The elevator is very slow and did not work the night that I checked in.  I had a room at the back of the building, which turned out to work out great.  I could go past the pool, around the back of the building, to my room, without having to wait for the elevator or lug my 12 cases up the long flight of stairs at the front.

The outside parking lot, between the two buildings, is far more convenient than parking in the underground parking lots.  There's only one elevator in each building -- at the front -- a long hike if you park underground and then have a room in the back of the building.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Resurrecting Faded, Old Faxes

Who would have thought that this would be so easy? 

I have folders of old faxes, which were printed on thermal fax paper over ten years ago.  I do need to keep some of these records, unfortunately. 

There's a couple of ways to resurrect faded old faxes. 

First, you can scan an old fax in a scanning machine.  I have a five-year-old Canon Pixma that does scans.  There's a setting where I can set the scanning settings myself.  By doing so, I can control the contrast, brightness, and most importantly -- the "levels" of the resulting scan. 

I show the settings that I used to resurrected some faded fax sheets a few days ago.  It simply involves moving the left slide for the levels (the black level) almost all the way to the right (white).  By doing this, you are bringing out any possible dark text on the white sheet of paper so that it appears even darker. 

You can see the resulting scan of the faded fax here.  It's amazing -- all the text is legible.

A second way to resurrect faded faxes is to simply photograph them with a digital camera.  I simply took a photo of the faded faxes  and opened it in Photoshop.  I then went to "Levels" and crushed the blacks again.  Voila!  The faxes are readable again.  This is amazing -- digital cameras are capable of seeing far more than the human eye.  It was impossible to read the most faded part of these faxes, and simply by taking a digital photograph and adjusting the black level of the image -- I can now read the faxes.

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