Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Thriving in Photography (Toshiba style)

One frustrations I have always had on photoshoots is showing the pictures to the model(s), the makeup artist(s) and any other collaborators involved.  While the monitors on the back of the camera have gotten steadily better, the (at best) 3 inch screen they offer is nothing like an ideal way to judge whether the pictures are actually working or not.  So I have always been interested in finding some larger, better screen, that would nevertheless be almost as convenient to use as the camera's own monitor.

For a while I had great hopes for netbooks: a better screen to be sure... but the user interface was never ideal (the keyboard is fiddly when you're holding the device with one hand, standing in the middle of a park -- and what do you actually hold it by, come to that?).  So I had great interest in tablets, right from when they first appeared -- well before the iPad, in fact.  But it was the iPad that really captured my excitement -- here was a device that was actually meant to be used with one hand, no keyboard, while holding it with the other!

Alas, the iPad (both models) suffers from one horrible drawback: it can't read the SD card from the camera.  There's a dongle you can buy, yes, but once you put it in, you first have to copy all the pictures you want to review down onto the tablet before you can start looking at them.  Not terribly useful when you take a lot of pictures (e.g. with any normal professional fashion model), not what I had in mind at all!  And as for the iPad's ever more numerous would-be competitors, e.g. the Samsung 10.1 and HP's short-lived TouchPad, none of them had full-sized SD slots either.

Honestly, I would have been okay with something that had even a full sized USB slot! (I already have an SD-to-USB dongle.)  Just provided it was prepared to find some kind of picture storage there...

So when Toshiba announced that they were going to ship a tablet called the Thrive, with the latest release of Honeycomb (then 3.1), and that included -- quelle joie! -- a full-sized USB port, plus -- mirabile dictu -- a full-sized SD card slot as well, they certainly had my attention!  The one question I had left was whether it would read the pictures in place on the card, or force me to copy them onto the tablet first.  However as the device reached the hands of reviewers, many of them confirmed that the device could in fact view the pictures directly on the card.

It was a bonus that Toshiba was pricing the Thrive competitively as well :-).  So when in due course the device finally arrived for sale in Canada (that would be about two weeks ago), I was at the store the very first morning to get one!

It was amusing, in fact: the store's sales staff really weren't up to speed on the device at all.  I wasn't about to put down my hard-earned monies without actually verifying that the device really did do what I wanted, but they didn't even have a demo model out yet, and had pretty much no idea of what the Thrive did that was different from any of the other tablets on the market.  But I persevered, I verified, and eventually was allowed to walk out of the store with my newly purchased box in hand.

The timing was good, in fact, as I had a shoot a couple of days later, The Ice Queen Confronts the Summer Sun, with Donya Metzger as model and makeup by Anne Szilagyi, to be shot outdoors in a park in blazing sunlight.  A more rigorous test would be hard to imagine :-).

The good news is, we liked it :-).  The Thrive's 10 inch display has a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, higher than either the current iPad or Samsung models, and its 3x2 aspect ratio is almost exactly the same as the pictures my D90 takes (unlike the 4x3 ratio of the iPad).  So the pictures fit the hardware very well.  The colours are bright and vivid -- I'm sure they'll be better once the colour correction folks get around to porting their stuff to Android, but it's definitely good enough for field work.  And the usability factor: pull tablet out of shoulder bag, turn it on, pop the SD card out of the camera and into the tablet, look at pictures, was almost as good as I hoped.

The Thrive also proved useful during the preparation, in fact, as its forward facing camera (even at 2 megapixels) makes a quite decent mirror to let the model have a look at how the makeup is coming along (why do makeup artists never bring a mirror to the shoot? ;-)).

So what about the bad news?  Well, to begin with, the screen is close to useless in bright sunlight.  For that matter, so of course is the camera's monitor, so this is not exactly unexpected.  You have to find some way to shade the tablet in order to look at the pictures, and you need more shade for a 10 inch tablet screen than a 3 inch camera monitor (fortunately, it turns out a 33 inch reflector provides quite a lot of shade ;-)).  I could also wish the screen were less reflective (le sigh).  But it did work, and all three of us agreed that we would far rather look at the pictures on the tablet than on the camera monitor.

More surprising was the amount of time needed to get from "insert SD card into tablet" to "look at pictures".  While the Toshiba's Gallery app (much better than the file manager for this, btw) doesn't make you copy the pictures to local storage, it does want to scan them all to create thumbnails.  When you're dealing with an ex-dancer like Donya, you're taking pictures very fast :-): by the end an hour's shooting we had more than 300 pictures on the SD card.  And by that point it was taking the gallery app (backed by the Thrive's 1 GHz NVidia Tegra 2 processor) about 90 seconds to be ready to show us any of them.  Donya and Anne felt that was acceptable -- perhaps partly because I know to keep the conversation going while the tablet does its thing! :-)  But in future, I might want to switch SD cards to a new one every 100 shots or so.

It turns out that the tablet is also good for a few things besides reviewing pictures during a shoot :-).  One is that the gallery app actually makes for quite a nice portable portfolio -- rather than carrying a folder full of heavy photo paper!  One hint if you do that: copy the pictures to your tablet at (at least) twice the resolution of the tablet.  That way, if your client oohs and ahs over a particular shot, you can quickly zoom in on particular parts of it and show them at even higher levels of detail.

Oh, and one other hint: always clean your screen before showing your portfolio to a client.  The smudges do show ;-).

Let's see, what else? The Thrive does a decent job of showing video as well, although you'll likely want better speakers if you're showing off your work professionally.  It also features an HDMI slot (full-sized, as usual), so you can connect straight into a newer TV as well (I haven't tried this myself yet).  It even has a replaceable battery, and nobody else seems to have that -- though I have been getting a good six hours out of one charge on mine.

On the negative side, you don't want to do any serious typing on the Thrive, or indeed any other tablet -- unless you get some kind of real keyboard for it. The on screen keyboard is okay for taking brief notes... but so you know, I'm typing this post on my netbook :-).  And the Thrive is both fatter and heavier than than the latest iPads or Samsungs (1.6 pounds, in fact).  That's the consequence of all those ports of course.

In summary I am fairly pleased with my new Thrive.  It does the one thing that I purchased it for quite well -- I am very much looking forward to my next studio shoot!  (And to getting my custom printed shoulder bag for it! :-))  And it does a few other things well enough that it will certainly get plenty of use!

So here's a picture of it -- and a preview of The Ice Queen! :-)


1 comment:

  1. Hi Donald,

    What a great blog post, very enlightening read!

    We would like to talk to you, could you send me an email to