MacOS External Storage Setup

A combination of a growing volume of personal media from 24+ megapixel cameras/4k HD video-recording phones, the switch to smaller solid-state internal drives, and the increasing life-span of our desktop computers, means that at some point you are likely to find yourself needing to offload data to an external storage device. Having gone down this path earlier in the year I thought I would share my experiences with the WD My Book Duo.

Continue reading “MacOS External Storage Setup”

The complexities of Apple’s Photos.app

Since I have recently written about and recommended multiple Extensions for Apple’s Photos.app, I thought I would share a link to this article by the author of the RAW Power application on what happens “under the covers” when using an Extension. It also covers the difference between an Extension and the “Edit With..” functionality. What is happening is far more complex than you might imagine and will probably explain various inconsistent behaviours you may have observed.

Blog news: self-hosting photographs

A few months ago I noticed that the home page of this site was taking multiple seconds to load. Common wisdom is that a “good” loading time is under 200ms, and even though a photo blog such as this might be a bit slower than a text-heavy site, multiple seconds is just too long to wait.

The best lead I had as to why this was taking so long was the comment inserted by the WP Super Cache plugin at the bottom of every page recording how long it took to generate in seconds. This was frequently more than 3 seconds which suggested that the problem was either my web server being too slow or a problem with my WordPress setup. Discounting the first as unlikely, I did some reading up on WordPress performance-tuning. The most practical advice was to minimise the number of plugins you use, and turn off each plugin in turn and check the effect on load-time before and after. I use few plugins but had been fond of Flickr Justified Gallery for displaying my Flickr-hosted photographs, and of course this was the culprit. The problem is not the plugin itself but Flickr’s own API—generating each gallery requires a query to Flickr to retrieve the list of photos in the album.

My preferred solution was to host my own images. This blog is 14 years old now and as I learned last year, third party services can disappear or change unexpectedly. Sadly the built-in gallery layout with WordPress 4.x remains an old-fashioned looking grid of square thumbnails that can fail to represent the underlying photograph properly (example). The JetPack add-on comes with a more attractive gallery layout but automatically uploads and serves all your images from their servers, which has its own downsides.

I looked at a number of third-party gallery plugins but anything outside the WordPress core also has the same “third-party risk” as Flickr: the code could stop working in the future, breaking all my old posts. None could also match the slick efficiency of Flickr’s upload workflow for optimising, arranging and captioning images. Fortunately while I was investigating this, WordPress released their new Gutenberg Editor. This comes with a new Gallery, the first version of which was a bit buggy but has the modern look that I wanted, and has improved over the last few months. (At time of writing there remains a bug where clicking on any photo in a gallery displays the first photo in the gallery not the one you clicked on. This is due to be fixed in mid-January.)

Switching to the new gallery improved page-generation times but without Flickr to optimise my images, I need to do this prior to upload to keep page-load times acceptable. This involves a two-step process:

  1. Use ImageMagick to resize images to no more than 2048 pixels on their longest edge: mogrify -resize 2048x2048 *.jpg (be careful, this changes the original files!)
  2. Reformat to be progressive JPEGs and apply lossless optimisation. There are a number of tools that can do this but ImageOptim is an efficient open-source drag-and-drop option for MacOS.

The final tweak, as recommended by Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, was to defer offscreen images. This should make the initial page render faster by not loading images that are not yet viewable, and was already available as part of the Jetpack add-on (Lazy Load Images).

Software Review: On1 Photo RAW 2018

On1 Photo is one of the many editing applications I use to process my photographs. I have previously written about my journey from using a single application (Apple’s Aperture) to many so an update post about the latest version seemed overdue. [Due to a delay in publishing this article, RAW 2019 is now available and 2018 is no longer the latest version!]

The upgrade from On1 Photo 10 to On1 Photo RAW had been a bit bumpy. The new features were great but some older ones had not made the transition. While I did not directly experience too many bugs, there were frequent bug-fix releases with the consequence that it seemed like every time the program was opened it wanted to update itself, interrupting my photo editing session. Consequently I did not rush to upgrade to the 2018 version when it was announced, the new features were not initially compelling and the current version was working well enough.

A few months ago I received a significant discount offer to upgrade. (This was before On1 had announced the 2019 version.) I also noticed that their most recent point release (free upgrade within the 2018 version) had added the ability to manage RAW+JPEG pairs in Browse.  Since this is how I shoot, I had found managing the sets of files separately to be tedious and been looking for a better file management solution.  I was also looking forward to trying out the panorama feature since I capture them too infrequently to invest in dedicated panorama software.

Immediately after starting with Photo RAW 2018 I realised that this was a more significant upgrade than I had expected. The interface felt comfortably familiar but also subtly tweaked to be more streamlined to use. The performance was significantly better too—I could not help feeling that this was how Photo RAW should have been at release, and had now arrived after 18 months of feedback and iterative improvements. 

If you were disappointed with the initial release of On1 Photo RAW then I can thoroughly recommend the upgrade to the 2018 version if you have not settled on some other tool instead. I have not upgraded further to the 2019 version, for similar reasons to why I did not upgrade to 2018 at the beginning. I am also waiting for Luminar 3 to be released since its promised libraries feature is very similar to the browse functionality that I use extensively in On1 and it will be interesting to compare them before committing my money. If you have yet to try On1 Photo RAW then their extensive collection of video tutorials is the best starting point—they can really help you understand how to get pleasing results from it.

Photo Editing Application Round Up

The use of Adobe Photoshop® to edit photographs is so ubiquitous that to photoshop became a verb. Photoshop is an incredibly powerful image manipulation program for which the only limit is your imagination, or possibly your knowledge of how to drive it. Given then the maturity of the market, a surprising number of new applications have appeared in the last 18 months. Many of these delineate themselves from the metaphorical 800lb gorilla by providing a very different user-interface paradigm to that of Photoshop, often the “filters” approach popularised by Instagram. This has enabled them to appeal to the large and rapidly growing market of casual photographers for whom the cost of Photoshop’s monthly subscription model is unsuited.

Of the applications I have tried, each one has its strengths and are continuously improving. Consequently I now have a toolbox of different apps I use when when editing a photos but fortunately Apple’s Photos.app makes it very easy to call upon each one as the situation demands.

DxO OpticsPro for Photos: A specialist application with just three functions that earns its place for its tremendous noise reduction. The lens correction and haze removal can also be very useful, and the small number of functions make it quick and easy to use.

RAW Power: I have previously written about this application and continue to find it indispensable for adding advanced RAW editing facilities to Photos.app.

On1 Photo RAW: This is currently my primary tool for comparing and culling photos prior to loading into Photos.app, and occasionally when selecting for publication too. It has a great “Compare Mode” for comparing an arbitrary group of multiple images side-by-side full-screen—a feature that Apple removed from iPhoto in 2010 and still has not been restored in Photos.app. This is also the only tool to provide an edge-detecting brush for creating masks. 1 The filter-based editing approach can produce some impressive images but knowing which filters will achieve the desired result requires considerable retained knowledge acquired through experimentation or watching On1’s excellent and extensive selection of tutorial videos.

Luminar: Similar in concept to the Effects module On1 Photo RAW this provides editing through the paradigm of tuneable filters, which can be masked and stacked to produce an output that ranges from subtle enhancement to heavy stylisation. 2 Luminar wins its place in my toolbox because the filters and presets are more accessible than those in On1—it is easy to see what needs to be done to a photo to improve it and choose the appropriate filter to achieve that. Another reason to like Luminar is that while it is now available on multiple operating systems, its native Mac origin means it seems to integrate much better with the MacOS than On1. 3

Polarr's approach to editing is closer to that of Photos.app: a series of sliders grouped into adjustment blocks of a technical theme. The controls are significantly more sophisticated than those in Photo.app and it also allows some adjustments to be applied to selected areas (masking). There are some interesting presets of the “highly stylised” variety. The face detection is impressive but the automatic enhancement is completely over the top to the point where it noticeably changes the features of the subject. Overall it is an impressive app, but except for the presets and face detection it requires technical skill to understand how to get the best out of it and I do not find myself reaching for it very often.

All of these apps, except RAW Power and DxO OpticsPro for Photos, are available for Windows as well as MacOS.

  1. Disappointingly the previous version, On1 Photo 10, had even more powerful masking tools.[]
  2. Both Luminar and On1 also have an object removal tool that makes automatic what, a few years ago, would have taken hours of careful cloning and puts the repair tool in Photos.app to shame.[]
  3. Specifically, On1 uses a Windows-style installer instead of just being copied to the Applications folder. This became tedious when they were releasing monthly updates. I also suffered a few months where the Photos.app extension just failed to work with an “Unknown Error”.[]

Repairing broken links on this site

Whilst browsing the Google Search Console for this site I noticed that some of my older image galleries were returning errors. This gallery is run by 15 year old PHP code that I occasionally have to hack to keep running on newer versions of PHP so it was not a complete surprise that it might need some fixing. I should pay more attention to webserver upgrade notices though as the logs indicate it has been broken since 1st October.

The error was a bit puzzling at first:
PHP Parse error: syntax error, unexpected end of file
but eventually a helpful StackOverflow page made me realise that I needed to replace all instances of <? with <?php and the problem was solved.

During testing of the fix I found a more serious problem. All my links to picasaweb albums where I had hosted my photos from 2008 and 2009 were dead. This was unexpected since Picasa was run by Google and even though they replaced the service with Google Plus/Photos, I knew all my photos and albums were still online at the latest incarnation of Google’s service and I had trusted that Google, a company who place high importance on links for generating their search results, would not break links. It turns out that my trust was mis-placed as Google had broken some links but not others. Any link containing a username was broken but a userid would still work. So, if I could find my user id I could restore the links. Fortunately my Picasa user id turned out to be the same as my Google Plus user id, and because this was only a small number of posts over a 2 year period I could work through each one and replace the user name with that id to repair the link. There were a few direct links to photos that I was unable to repair because the URL did not contain my username.

These problems make me want to reconsider whether my current photo hosting solution with Flickr is the right one. While WordPress has improved since 2015, and has add-on features to make photograph-heavy websites go faster, those add-ons are still third-party integrations so these potential problems of what is known as “link rot” remain. I have recently been thinking about some of the other disadvantages of using WordPress, but I shall leave those for another post.

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.

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.[]

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.

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 applications 1 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 tools 2 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.[]
  2. Such as the recently announced On1 Photo RAW.[]
  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.[]

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.

Photo Editing Apps for Mac

As a follow up to my previous post, I have been evaluating some of the many photo editing apps available for Mac to see how they might fit into my post-Aperture workflow.

For the problem of comparing sets of images the best tool I have found so far is MacPhun’s Snap Select. Although it can only display two photos side by side and not the 8 that Aperture can display simultaneously, I have found it to be effective at picking a single “best shot” from a selection of similar ones, which is my usual use case.

The majority of other apps appear to be focussed on editing and not managing a collection. On1 Photo 10 has a ‘browse mode’ which supports star ratings but it lacks side-by-side viewing and can only display thumbnails—the main focus of the suite is editing. It includes an easy to use portrait editing as well as a versatile effects module with a flexible masking option to apply effects to only parts of an image. I originally came across them because they offered a free set of presets for Aperture which I have used quite a bit. Having purchased this app on the Mac App Store—where it is currently much cheaper than direct from their website, and apparently the same full version although this version does not integrate with applications other than Photos.app. I also found the Resize module to be very useful in making a high resolution 30×20″ print from an older photo I only had as a 16:9-ratio jpeg. I had always thought that up-scaling an image in this way was bound to lead to poor quality but it turns out there are clever algorithms that can be applied to maintain quality. Resize also supports generating an extra border for the image which is then “wrapped” around the edges of a canvas. Without this “gallery wrap” feature, an image can lose a substantial section from the edges when the canvas is 3-4cm thick.

The power of On1’s Effects can be seen in this video. I have yet to really explore this module but initial experiments showed that while using smart layers brings some file format compatibility with photoshop, the resulting files are around 200MB each. This is not relevant if the module is used as a plugin to Photos.app because Photos does not allow edits to be modified further once the plugin has exited, but for advanced work a more compact file format is needed to avoid making the user decide whether they want to ever revisit a set of edits again in future.

My favourite Photos extension so far is definitely DxO Optics Pro. It only offers a small number of enhancements, including noise and haze reduction, but the noise reduction is excellent and worth the money alone. It works best with RAW files, but I have achieved some pleasing results even with camera phone photographs. Highly recommended, and on the strength of the extension I will be trialling their full DxO Optics Pro software when I next have a good batch of shots to process.

New website look and feel

This blog is run using WordPress, a very powerful piece of open source software that now claims to be used on about 25% of the web. I had been using the previous theme since early 2012, and since then I have come to believe that a good website should work well, and load quickly, on a greater variety of screen sizes as well as the need to optimise for higher latency and less reliable mobile networks. The new theme is a customised version of WordPress’s latest, Twenty Sixteen, which I hope brings a modern feel to all platforms while remaining an evolution of this site’s own identity. Using Safari’s “responsive design mode” was very useful for understanding how a page would look on a variety of device screen sizes, including different orientations.

While updating the theme I also spent some time looking at how to optimise the site’s Web Page Test score. The most significant gain seems to have been made by switching the caching from WP Super Cache to W3 Total Cache. Both plugins were configured using the default/recommended settings but W3 Total Cache seems to be able to significantly reduce the First Byte Time, taking the score from an “F” to an “A”. The high number of photo posts, plus the embedded youtube videos, means that the front page is currently just under 10MB.

Either the new theme, the new cache plugin, or a combination of both, did not work with the SyntaxHighlighter Evolved plugin. It has been disabled and may or may not be replaced at a future date.