Sunset at Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall

Despite being an overcast day, the clouds cleared late afternoon and treated us to a spectacular Cornish sunset. The rest of the week featured plenty of different weathers, from glorious sunshine to driving rain.

Configuring SPF for toobusyto.org.uk

As of last week, the toobusyto.org.uk domain is now configured with a Sender Policy Framework (SPF) DNS record. This is a special type of DNS record which identifies which mail servers are allowed to send mail on behalf of toobusyto.org.uk users.

The aim of SPF is to prevent the unauthorised impersonation of users, a tactic frequently used by spammers. In practice it is not reliable because it can cause problems for a number of legitimate use cases related to mail forwarding, including mailing lists. In fact, Google explicitly recommends configuring an SPF record for “soft” failure rather than hard failure because of these issues.

The record was easy to setup once I realised which servers I needed to include. I send mail from toobusyto.org.uk directly via mail.toobusyto.org.uk, which is a CNAME to another system, and occasionally from Gmail’s web interface. Google have clear instructions on how to permission the latter but use of CNAMEs in SPF is discouraged to prevent receiving servers needing to perform an excessive number of DNS lookups so it is necessary to hardcode the name of the target of the CNAME. There is a risk the two can become out of sync but hopefully this is mitigated by the proximity of the two records in the BIND file. You can query the current record using your favourite DNS client but for the record the initial setup is:

; SPF record
toobusyto.org.uk.  IN TXT "v=spf1 a:saturn.retrosnub.co.uk mx include:_spf.google.com ~all"

The result is that Gmail can now successfully authenticate me as a sender and for many users no longer shows a red question mark next to my name. Some experimentation has shown that the red question mark can still be present where I have emailed someone@their.domain.com and he or she forwards to a Gmail account because their.domain.com is not authorised to send mail on behalf of toobusyto.org.uk. This is actually the no worse than those users experienced prior to the configuration of the SPF record and some quick research turned up some forum posts that indicate there are potentially steps email forwarding services can do to mitigate this, although it was not clear whether the mitigation was feasible and/or effective.

RAW Power for MacOS

One of the power features lacking in Apple’s Photos application is the ability to tweak the built-in conversion from RAW to JPEG. The now-discontinued Aperture application allowed manual control of these RAW conversion settings giving the photographer the ability work with more of the captured data to unlock hidden detail without needing a separate specialist application.

RAW Power is a Photos extension that enables this fine-tuning from within Photos. I learned from a YouTube interview with the Developer that he is the former dev lead for Aperture, having left Apple over a year ago, which suggests to me that Apple will likely cede advanced editing functionality to third party developers as I previously speculated.

As a tool with a very specific purpose, its focus makes it simple and effective to use. The interface is clearly laid out and performance nimble, and if it becomes apparent that RAW modifications are not able to improve the photo then you can cancel your edits and return to Photos with one-click.

RAW Power currently costs £9.99, and although this is labelled as promotional pricing, it is my opinion this represents very good value.

Skiing in Cervinia and Zermatt

The first four days there were constant blue skies ensuring fantastic views of the beautiful Alpine scenery, including the iconic Matterhorn. This was my second ski holiday in the Italian Alps and once again the pistes were quiet, the lift queues non-existent, the food delicious and the coffee excellent. The connection to Zermatt also provided a huge ski area and diversity of slopes.

When the weather was slightly less good, we also enjoyed warm and friendly mountain hospitality.

Photographs from Wellington

It has been almost six months since our visit to Wellington. After travelling through the beautiful vistas of the South Island it was great to finish our holiday with some hip cocktail bars and late night espresso.

iPhone migration: restore from backup or setup from scratch?

In moving to my fifth iPhone I decided it was time to try a fresh install instead of transferring state from my previous one. Apple’s transfer process has always worked works seamlessly but that Star Trek-like transportation of your old phone to the new makes the new one seem, well a little less new somehow. Previously I would have feared losing something small but vital by not using the transfer process but with so much now synchronised between devices by iCloud, it seemed that the most painful and important items were covered. My willingness to experiment was also mitigated by the knowledge that if it all went wrong I could still re-install the new phone from my old backup.

Without the need to wait for a gigabyte of data to be transferred to the new phone, I was up and running very quickly and enjoyed seeing what differences there are between an out-of-the box configuration and my own. With the exception of turning off the sound and vibration notifications for new email, I have customised very little to start with: I want to see if there are any settings or features I have previously overlooked because of some decision I made 7 years ago. Working through my list of apps and choosing to only reinstall those I know I have used recently was also enlightening—there were applications I had forgotten existed buried in never-opened folders, and including some that now crash on startup. I noticed others that are no longer being updated but the developers have instead issued a whole new app instead. I learned that the telltale sign for this is when you tap on the application in your “purchased” list and it fails to display anything about it.

Having chosen which apps would survive the migration and downloaded them all, the main pain point was having to re-authenticate in all of them. The reduced number of apps kept this manageable and I would guess about 50% enabled the use of iCloud Keychain which made it a two-tap process. Given the tedious and error prone nature of typing in a complex password onto a phone keyboard I am shocked that the other 50% do not enable this. Those apps which forced me to lookup and retype my password are certainly strong candidates for deletion if there is an alternative.1

By not restoring from backup, any applications that store state locally and not in the cloud would lose their data. I was a little worried about my Angry Birds progress but then realised I had not played the game in a very long time anyway, and so far I have discovered only one application which stores data I would like to keep. It is a free app and its paid for version supports data export, which seems fair enough. WhatsApp messages were restored from its own iCloud backup (which it performs nightly) but I did lose my SMS and iMessage history (going back to 2008). Recent iMessages are on my mac anyway and after reviewing the older messages they were all very temporally contextual—“I am here / outside, where are you?”—type stuff. It is noticeable how much longer messages have become recently, perhaps an inevitable consequence of removing the 160 character limit of SMS.

In conclusion, unless you have apps or games that depend on local data, setting up from scratch was not at all painful and it felt really good to have a spring clean. Deleting something always requires metal energy to assess its value, or downside of its loss, and with storage so cheap it is rarely worth the effort. Consequently we accumulate bits and bytes rather too easily, and sometimes a platform migration is a good moment to assess what is no longer required, and start afresh.

  1. Anecdotally, many of those which failed to implement keychain were companion apps from established non-digital companies, for example, airlines and hotel chains. Developers competing for users on the strength of their app alone were far more likely to have implemented it. [back]

Too Busy To… available on Apple News

Subscribing to a blog via RSS remains a niche and decidedly geeky activity. Having said that, Apple devices now come with a built-in News.app which, for all the usual Apple gloss, does use RSS. To view this blog in Apple News, visit this link on your iPhone or iPad and tap the + sign in the top right hand corner to subscribe.

If you do not use News.app, Safari’s shared links feature (the @ tab in the bookmarks pane) also allows you to subscribe to this and many other blogs.

Photography: An unorthodox position in the RAW/JPEG debate

In my post, A macOS Photo Editing Workflow, I admitted to taking the somewhat unorthodox position of capturing both RAW and JPEG versions in-camera and normally working with only the JPEG version. The conventional wisdom in photography is that RAW is the more flexible option, providing greater opportunity for correcting and improving the image in post-processing than when the camera is allowed to make all the decisions on your behalf. There are traditional reasons for not using RAW files such as the increased file size, but these are normally only relevant in specific situations—there seems to be few generic reasons not to use RAW unless you are operating under specific constraints.

I was therefore intrigued to see a recent article entitled, Is RAW Dead? in Photography Week. In addition to examining all the usual issues, it points out that in-camera JPEGs are now so good that in the majority of situations the camera will probably do a better, or at least no-worse, job of rendering the final image than you. This makes sense: unless you actively tweak the settings in your RAW processor then you are simply handing the conversion over from one algorithm (your camera) to another (your RAW processor), and while in the past the processing ability of a camera was limited compared to that of a PC, the advances in mobile chips and image processing have removed the PC’s previous advantage. Moreover, since the JPEG output is the version seen by potential buyers and new owners of their products, the camera companies themselves are highly incentivised to make the JPEG output as attractive as possible. The article does list a specific benefit of RAW as being able to recover an additional 1-2 stops of highlights and shadow detail compared to JPEG, although it also points out that a wider range can be obtained using the camera’s automatic exposure bracketing or even built-in HDR.

For the moment I will be having my cake and eating it by using RAW+JPEG: JPEG for convenience but with the RAW available as an option should the trade-offs and technology change in the future.

Top of the South Island

The Lonely Planet guided us to a fantastic morning coffee stop en route from Motueka to Nelson, the Jester House Café. Despite being a popular tourist spot, the car park was not large and I was very glad we were the only camper van attempting to use it! In addition to three varieties of dairy-free cake they had excellent coffee and some impressively large native eels in the stream outside.

Our stop in Picton was only long enough to enjoy its relaxed ambience and take a short hike around the awesomely beautiful harbour. Our early morning sail out of the harbour was also blessed with fine weather and the crossing to Wellington allowed for some more fine views.

A macOS Photo Editing Workflow

This is part of a series of posts describing my move from Apple’s Aperture to Photos.app for managing and editing digital photographs. Previous entries include a feature comparison, third party applications and extensions.

Although Aperture has not received a significant update in three years, I did not feel it was deficient in any way. Having now used a number of recently released other applications1 in the last few months I have now become aware that Aperture does lag behind the state of the art and it is time to update my toolbox. Another consequence of using different tools is that I now recognise that Aperture is in fact three products in one: RAW converter, photo manager and editor. Given the convenience and advantages of using Apple’s built-in image management, including the iCloud library for device synchronisation, it seems obvious that Apple’s Photos.app should be the starting point for a replacement solution.

When editing, for many photographs I found I could produce the same or better results in Photos.app compared to Aperture, unless I needed to tweak the RAW conversion. Photos’ superior plugin implementation also means that when it cannot get the job done alone it only takes one click to call out to another application. Consequently while Aperture has more built-in tools than Photos.app, the high quality of external applications means that Photos.app plus plugins can get better overall results with no loss of efficiency.

Photos.app handles RAW files but offers no editing abilities above and beyond what is offered for JPEGs. Given the additional time and bandwidth required to upload them to iCloud, along with the greater space consumption on iCloud storage, there seems to be no benefit to offset those costs and I have decided not to store RAW files in Photos.app. Storing my RAW files in a standard folder hierarchy without the obfuscation of a management application also makes it very easy to move these files between tools2 and platforms in the future.

I have been using Nikon’s Capture NX-D software to convert the RAW files into JPEGs. This is free from Nikon and produces lovely JPEGs which match what is shown on the camera screen, but I found too slow and too difficult to use to make even the most basic edits. I tried a 30 day demo of DxO Optics Pro 10 which produced reasonable JPEGs and was very good at improving certain aspects of a photo (noise removal and some lighting scenarios) but for the average photo is no improvement on the built-in Apple RAW conversion, and not as aesthetically pleasing as Capture NX-D.

In light of these findings, on recent shoots when SD card space has not been an issue, I have set my camera to store RAW+JPEG rather than RAW-only. I have then imported the camera JPEGs directly into Photos.app and reserved RAW edits for only those where the in-camera JPEG is not good enough. In that situation I do then import the RAW into Photos.app and use the excellent DxO Optics Pro for Photos plugin if I think that will solve the problem, or resign myself to fiddle with Capture NX-D if necessary.3

  1. Nikon’s Capture NX-D, On1 Photo 10, Polarr and DxO Optics Pro. [back]
  2. Such as the recently announced On1 Photo RAW. [back]
  3. I have on occasion also loaded the RAW into Aperture to compare the results with the other two, and in four out of five cases found Aperture could not do a better job. [back]

Photographs from the Abel Tasman

We had a fantastic day in the Abel Tasman National Park. I took a lot of photos, so here is a selection of the most interesting.

Stonehenge

After a wonderful view of this ancient monument while driving past in a slow moving traffic jam, the lack of rain meant it seemed a great idea to pay a visit to this World Heritage Site. Sadly, being July, hundreds of other people had the same idea and a limited schedule meant I did not have time for the full £18 experience. In theory you can walk up quite close to the stones without enduring the long queue for a ticket, but the pedestrian approach from the visitor centre did not surpass the drive-by view from the A303. Lesson learned: next time I will pre-book and get up close.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

Photographs of New Zealand’s Westland

The epic amounts of rain did not get photographed, but I did capture a lovely rainbow and the pancake rocks.

Wanaka to Lake Matheson

Wanaka is a fun town in a beautiful setting. It was also our entry point to New Zealand’s wild, and famously wet, West Coast.

Pixelmator Retouch Extension

Previously I noted that moving from Aperture to Photos.app meant giving up the ability to selectively apply enhancements using a brush. I speculated this advanced functionality would be something third parties could provide via the extensions API, and the latest version of the superb Pixelmator provides all the brushes I remember having actually used in Aperture: burning, dodging, colour and sharpening. The retouch extension also provides access to Pixelmator’s very impressive repair tool for removing unwanted objects, a serious upgrade to the built-in retouch function.

Also worthy of mention is the Mac version of the Polarr Photo Editor. A slick and efficient editor in its own right, it makes the popular curves adjustment easy to apply without leaving Photos and its de-haze slider is also useful for increasing the clarity of hazy or misty photos.