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Gastronomic Fight Club SM

Mischief. Mayhem. Soup.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Best Adjustable Spice Rack

posted by snekse

Check Out My Spice Rack

With title apologizes to "Mama Spice". It's an inaccurate title anyway. It should be "Check Out the Spice Rack I Want, But Can't Seem to Locate".

So here is the rack. It's the one in the upper left that I'm looking for. Pretty basic, kind of obvious, yet I have never seen one in the US.

I have looked up and down the internet for something even remotely close to what I'm looking for. There is a HUGE selection of spice racks available, but none that fit my needs.

So all of you manufacturers of spice racks out there, listen up as I spout some design logic for a wall mountable spice rack with a focus on something that could be mounted on the inside of a cabinet door.

It's impossible to create something that is going to fit everyone's needs. The best you can hope for is to create a flexible system to fit most people's needs. Usually with flexibility comes complexity and/or a lack of stability. Luckily there are few technical requirements for a spice rack, so a flexible system won't become overly complex or unstable. So let's build the ultimate adjustable, inside-the cabinet-door spice rack.

The first requirement of a wall mountable spice rack is for it to be adjustable. What I mean by that is after I install it and put holes in my cabinet door, I don't want to ever have to do that again. If we can avoid holes all together, even better. The point is, I might adjust the shelves in my cabinet, and I'll want to adjust the shelves on the spice rack accordingly. The easiest why I can see doing that is a vertical rail system or a peg-board like system.

Next up, handling different cabinet sizes. Not everyone has 4 foot cabinet doors. Since cabinet doors vary in height and width, different options should be made available. The easiest way I can see doing this is to actually sell the baskets and rails separately. Have 2 foot cabinets? Buy the 18 inch rails. Then buy the number of baskets that make sense for your situation. Only buy those squat spice containers? You could probably get away with more baskets per rail set. Along the same lines, producing baskets of varying wall heights and/or depths would be a good idea. To keep the spices from bouncing all around and falling out when I close the door a little too hard, make sure the connection between the baskets and rails is snug.

Okay, that's really all I have. Like I said, it's not really too complicated, yet it's nothing I've really ever seen before. Here's what I like about the rack linked to above:
  • It has two rails you fasten to your cabinet doors with just 4 screws
  • You can easily move the baskets up and down without needing to drill new holes in your doors
  • The baskets are large without being so large that the spices will flop around
  • The front wall of the baskets is high enough to keep tall containers in
  • I can keep the spices in the containers I purchased them in
Maybe not perfect, but pretty close. The biggest problem with this particular rack is that it would cost me $50 just to ship it to the US! So this is my open plea to OXO, The Container Store and all of you other kitchen gadget companies - build this spicerack please.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

REVIEW: Tamron AF17-50mm F/2.8 Lens

posted by snekse
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lens
So you just got your super cool Canon Rebel dSLR camera, but as every dSLR user learns quickly, the camera body is only half of the equation. If you want great pictures, you have to invest in great lenses. Unfortunately, the camera tends to be the cheap half. Those funny pieces of curved glass can get really expensive, really quick. Fortunately a good lens can last a lifetime, so over the long run, it's really worth spending more to get a durable high quality lens early on.

Welcome to the world of dSLR

Almost every first time SLR camera buyer has a decision to make: Do you buy the package that includes the camera body with a lens, or do you buy just the body and buy your own lens? If you're thinking long term, the answer is usually pretty easy. Though the kit lenses have been getting better, in general they are inferior to a lot of the other products available. Now your decisions get a whole lot harder - what lens do you buy?

Since I didn't want to do a lot of lens switching, I knew I wanted a zoom lens. I also wanted something in the 35mm equivalent range; so a basic standard zoom lens. My next criteria actually narrowed my selection down quite a bit.

As I stated in my Canon Rebel Xsi review, I like to take photos using only the available light. The easiest way to get sharp pictures in low light is to open up the iris on the lens really wide to let in as much light as possible - just like your eyes. So the lens had to have a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. And since I didn't want to worry about what aperture was available to me at different zoom magnifications, it needed to maintain that maximum aperture through the entire focal range. That left me with just a handful of lenses to choose from.

The Tamron SP AF17-50mm F/2.8 Di II LD Aspherical (IF) Lens with hood for Canon DSLR Cameras

Yeah, that's a mouthful. And don't ask me what all of those cryptic letters mean, because I have no idea. All I know is this lens is sa-wheet. With an 'H'. Like Ca-hool h-Whip.

Sure I could have bought the drool inducing Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM. But where's the fun in just buying your way to great photos with a 5-star rated lens? Okay, really I'm just a cheap bastard and wanted the same results for half the cost. So does the Tamron deliver the same results? I don't know, since I don't have the Canon lens, but if someone want to send one to me, I'll let you know :-)

Actually, that's one of the greatest things about this lens. It's a great value. It's almost the perfect "walk-around" lens. It has a very usable zoom range, it's lightening fast, it's fairly light weight - yet has a solid construction, all for about half the price of the comparable Canon lens. It also includes a 6-year warranty and lens hood to reduce lens flare.

Some other minor things that I appreciate are not so obvious. The 7 diaphragm blades is relatively high, so your images will come out nicer with less distortion. The labeling is large and bright, so it's easy to read info like your focal length. The hood is designed so you can flip it when not in use, so you always have built in storage. And related to that, when the hood is on and in use, the lens cap is designed to easily be used by pinching a two tabs in the center of the cap. A lot of lenses require you to take the hood off before you can put the cap on. It's those small touches that I really enjoy.

And even though I'm just starting out, so far I really enjoy the images that this lens has been able to provide me. The large aperture allows me to use faster shutter speeds, so I have far fewer blurry pictures. This is useful for taking pictures in dark restaurants. It also allows me to be more creative and artistic with my shots. When shooting with the lens wide open, you force a shallow depth of field, so the subject you focus on will be nice and sharp, while the background and/or foreground will be blurred. This draws the viewer's eye where you want it and gives your photos a more professional look. This can be especially valuable in food photography since you can add a level of interest by focusing in unexpected places when your subject matter may not always be that interesting.

So what sucks...

Well... ...nothing really...

Honest...I haven't found anything yet that really bugs me about this lens. Some people complain that the zoom ring turns in the opposite direction as the Canon lenses, but since I don't have a Canon lens, that doesn't bug me. And I do know that one of those descriptors in the full lens name means this lens will only work on cameras with "smaller imagers", meaning entry and "prosumer" level dSLRs such as the Canon Rebel and the Canon 40D. So if you move to a multi-thousand dollar professional camera, you won't be able to use this lens. Again, who cares.

It's true that the Tamron doesn't have the fancy USM or IS features like the Canon lens. Both are things I'd love to have; they would be especially nice for restaurant shoots. The USM would almost guarantee that I don't bother other tables, but honestly I've never felt the Tamron was all that loud. The IS would be for those times when I want more items in my shot to be in focus. To get more items in focus, I'd have to bump the aperture to something like f/4.0, but to keep the image sharp, I need to maintain my shutter speed or stabilize the camera. The only way to maintain my shutter speed (without degrading the photo quality) is to ask the restaurant to turn up there lights. That's probably not an option, so we look to stabilize. The only way to do that is with IS (or a tripod). That said, those features aren't usually cheap and I'd rather have the cheaper price tag.

Tamron 17-50mm F/2.8 Di-II Aspherical Lens

Rating: 95

Official Tamron product page
Popular Photography Review
Bob Atkins Review
The Digital Picture Review
Sample Shots: Tamron 17-50mm F/2.8 Lens
Foodies Guide to Father's Day Gifts

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

REVIEW: Canon Rebel Xsi 450D dSLR

posted by snekse
* Some of you may have noticed a slight improvement in the foodporn pictures posted here over the past month. There's a reason for it. Say hello to my little friend...

The Canon EOS 450D / Rebel Xsi Digital SLR

We'll, not so little compared to my previous camera, the Sony CyberShot T-9, but fairly compact for a dSLR. And I've bonded with my Xsi in a way that I never did with the T9.

Remember when you first got your point-and-shoot (P&S) digital camera? Remember how great it was that first time. Snapping away all day long, never having to worry about running out of film. It changed the way you took pictures and looked at photography. But there's still that one nag almost every small digital camera user has; wait - everyone hold still...click - wait...snap. Shutter lag. It's fine for posed portraits, but it sucks royal when you're trying to take candid shots. You either miss the shot completely, or they are over/under exposed because the flash fired and it was too strong/weak, or they come out blurry because the camera isn't sensitive enough to shoot with the available light.

So your dad has an excuse for lusting after this new toy to add to his collection. He wants to use it to get better pictures of his grandchildren as they grow up, even if they did break his new Super-cool, super-fast Thermapen last week. Oh, and if he can just happen to also get much better food shoots because of the better sensor technology and faster shutter speeds available in the many different lenses he can choose from, well that's just an "unexpected" bonus.

Alright, so we've established that digital SLR (dSLR) technology is the bomb digity, but what makes the Canon Rebel Xsi 450D so special? Why not the Nikon D60, the Sony Alpha 350, or the Olympus E-520? Or for that matter, why not the older Canon Rebel Xti 400D? For me it came down to a couple of things.

Lens Selection: I didn't want to buy a camera and then be limited when it came to buying lenses. It's kind of a PC vs Mac thing. Sure Macs are great, but when you have 10 times the amount of software to choose from on a PC, why cripple yourself from the beginning. With that in mind, I narrowed my choices down to Canon and Nikon.

Low Light Performance: Whether it's taking pictures of a squab risotto in a dimly lit restaurant or a smiling child sitting on the floor at home, I often like to take pictures using nothing more than the natural available light; that means no flash, so your camera better be sensitive enough to pick out the difference between black and gray with what you give it. Canon has a strong reputation in this area, often getting applauded for the low noise at high sensitivities (AKA high ISO ratings).

User Friendliness: In the epic ongoing battle between Nikon and Canon, two truths seem to hold true. The Nikons have a slight edge in picture quality and the Canons have a slight edge in usability. For me, the picture quality of the Canon EOS line was more than sufficient for me, so I went with the ease of use. I put the Canon's self-cleaning sensor under that umbrella as well.

Autofocus (AF): Coming from a P&S world, I was looking for something that would make my transition easy. The Canon Rebel had a fast AF system that performed well. That's good. The Nikon D40 (which was the most direct competitor at the time) lacked an internal focus drive motor. That sounded bad. And it was. It meant that you were limited on which lenses you could buy if you wanted AF capabilities.

That settled it, I was getting a Canon Rebel. Now the question was, do I get the Xti or the Xsi? To make the decision harder, the Xsi wasn't even announced, so I had to guess when they were going to release it and what features they were going to add. I'm glad I waited because the Xsi kicks ass. Canon threw everything they could at the Rebel update just short of stepping on the toes of the EOS 40D, their next model up the chain from the 400D Xti.

Here's a list of just some of the features they added:

12 vs. 10 megapixel
Smaller SD/SDHC vs. CF Card
Live view (to preview your shot on LCD)
3.0" LCD
Larger viewfinder
High ISO noise reduction
14-bit A/D converter
Improved 9-point AF system
Larger, higher capacity, battery

My main decision to buy the 450D Xsi over the 400D Xti was the Live View. Again, coming from the P&S cameras, I was used to seeing what I was shooting on an LCD before I took the shot. The thought of not having that LCD terrified me a bit. It turns out I didn't really need it and the Live View implementation by Canon sucks. It's the most disappointing thing about this camera. It will not show you what the resulting picture will be when you press the shutter, so really, what's the point.

The other shiny new features, however, are the bees knees. Sure pixels aren't everything, but when you want to crop a photo and print an 8x10 from that crop, they're nice to have. The 14-bit processor, high ISO sensitivity and new AF system helps in that department too. The large view finder, mongo LCD and amazing battery life allows me to shoot comfortably for days on end (at 3.5 fps). And using SDHC cards just allows them to cram all those goodies into the camera body.

The things you can't put on a spec sheet are how easy this camera is to use. I put it in my mother-in-law's hands, and she took great photos. The only instructions I gave her were "look through here and push this button. Turn this ring to zoom in and out." It's really almost a point-and-shoot camera. Sure you can tweak the settings until the cows come home to get the exact shot you want, but you don't have to. And the buttons and menus are laid out well enough that you can gradually learn those things without needing to study the manual.

What you might need the manual for, is to figure out what to do with the Live View. I know it has a purpose, it's just not immediately apparent to me, so it tops my nag list. Followed similarly by the Depth-Of-Field preview button. It's supposed to show you - through the view finder - what will be in and out of focus before you snap a picture; Instead, it just makes everything darker. The final item under the predictability motif is the autofocus(AF) point selector.

When you have multiple objects in frame at different depths, the camera's AF system will, at times, pick the wrong object to focus on. This happens more frequently than I deem acceptable, so I often leave the focus at the center of the frame and manually select a different focal point when I want a different composition. You won't always have time to do that, so you'll either miss some shots or have to compromise on how the shot looks. If you always shoot with your subject front and center, this is not an issue.

Finally, it would be un-American of me to not complain about the cost of something that's cheaper than it should be but more expensive than it could be. The Canon Xsi is not cheap, but honestly, if you really think about it, it's not very expensive and should probably cost a lot more. I'll leave it at that.

As you can see, the flaws I've found are minimal, especially when compared to the highlights. So now you just have to ask yourself, "Am I..err, I mean is my dad, ready to make the jump to a dSLR"? For me, moving to a dSLR was almost as big as moving from a film camera to a digital camera. The small, compact digitals will still have a place in my bag, but it's hard to shun the reliability of the dSLR. And if you're ready to make the move, I'd recommend the Rebel Xsi to most users. If you know you want to make the switch, but are still not sure which camera is right for you, I suggest checking out the Related Links below. Be sure to check out the foodporn down there too under the Sample Shots :-) Next up...lenses...

Though I still love my Canon Rebel Xsi, there's a new bad boy on the market.

The Canon EOS 500D / Rebel T1i Digital SLR

The Canon T1i is about $200 more than than the Canon Xsi. It's your call if the bump in price is worth the features upgrade. Here's what's new in the Canon Rebel T1i vs. the Canon Rebel Xsi:
  • Record 1080p HD Video! (However, mono-sound and 20 FPS @ 1080p
  • 15 megapixel CMOS sensor like the professional 50D
  • Digic 4 processor
  • Auto Lighting Optimizer (Not sure what this is, but it sounds cool)
  • Extended ISO range to ISO 3200
  • Better High ISO noise reduction
  • Face detection in Live View (cool, but I wish it wasn't just in Live View)
The video is a great upgrade, but don't expect much other than basic performance from it. I also read that the kit lens starts to show it's flaws more when it's expected to resolve images at 15 Megapixels, so you might consider buying just the body and investing in better lenses. I believe the current price of the Rebel T1i is about the same as the release price of the Rebel Xsi when I bought it about a year ago. That makes it a pretty reasonable buy, but the cheaper Xsi is still tempting. I'd say the decision boils down to how badly would you like to be able to shoot video without having to pull out a different device and/or how much would you like those higher ISOs for those less than ideal shooting conditions? Here are some reviews for the Canon T1i to help you make your decision. Good luck! And don't forget to check out the related links below for more information.

Canon Xsi

Rating: 94+ RELATED LINKS: DPReview.com reviews the 450D Gizmondo dSLR Shootout Sample Shots: Canon Rebel Xsi 450D Foodies Guide to Father's Day Gifts Tags || | | | | | | more... |

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Equipment Review - Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9

posted by snekse
When I started this blog, I was never really planning on doing any equipment reviews, and I certainly would never have guessed I'd be doing one about a digital camera, but since I bought this camera specifically to take pictures of food to better share my experiences with others, I figure I should share my experience with this camera as well.

We just got back from a 10 day food orgy in the San Francisco bay area. Well, 10 days and 10 pounds later, I'm ready to weigh in on this camera. And I swear that pun was not intended.

Let me preface this review by indicating what I was looking for in a new camera.

First off I wanted something small. Something that I could slip into my pocket. Our current Sony DSC-S50 (***UPDATE: We now have the Canon Rebel Xsi) is a bit of a beast. I've used the Canon ELPH's and decided I wanted something practical that I could have on me at all times; at least while we're on vacation.

Since the DSC-S50 that we have is only 2.1 megapixels, the resolution wasn't much of a concern to me. I was willing to accept anything above 3 MP, but preferred to have at least 5 MP. Anything beyond 7 MP would have been pure icing.

Next, it had to have some features that would help me take better low-light flashless photos. I'm not a professional photographer or even an advanced amateur, so I need all of the help I can get. Here were some of the features I was looking for.
  • A Cuisine/Food Scene Mode, such as the ones found on the Pentax Optio S60 and the Casio Exilim EXZ750, that would select the right settings for taking food pictures in restaurants.
  • An image stabilizer typical only found in larger cameras such as the Canon Powershot S2 IS and the Sony DSC-H1 to reduce the blur caused by a reduced shutter speed.
  • High ISO levels and/or larger sensors found on most prosumer cameras like the beautiful Canon Digital Rebel XT for greater light sensitivity to compensate for the lack of flash.
At the very least, if I couldn't find even some of these features on a compact camera, then it had to have manual controls over each and every aspect of shooting such as the shutter speed, ISO level, aperture, etc... (A very rare thing to find in compact cameras) If I couldn't find at least that, then I would simply wait.

When the Sony DSC-T7 was announced, I got very excited because it was such a great looking camera. It didn't meet most of the feature requirements I was looking for, but I thought maybe it wouldn't matter. Unfortunately the reviews weren't kind to the T7.

So when the Sony DSC-T9 was announced, I wasn't all that interested until I saw two items in the spec sheet. Super Steady Shot optical image stabilization & high light sensitivity up to IS0 640. Whoa. Now my curiosity was peaked. Red lining actually. I couldn't wait for the reviews on this thing.

Long story short, the reviews have been slow, I've been impatient and my Christmas money has been spent. I ordered my camera just after the new year. And boy did I hate it...at first.

Let me start off with my biggest complaint. This camera takes horrible snap-shots of people indoors. I often get blurry pictures, terrible red-eye, poor skin tones and painfully slow response times for candid shots if the focus is not primed. This could easily all be due to me not knowing how to use my camera, but I really wish I could just set this camera to Auto and take decent snapshots. I think not being able to select the white balance while in Auto mode really sucks.

While I'm in the bitching mode, let me rattle off my other annoyances.
  • The fact that you have to remove the battery to charge it unless you buy the docking station.
  • As others have pointed out, the battery compartment door seems a little flimsy.
  • The battery life. I understand that it's an ultra compact camera, but 120 mins is just barely enough. I'd like that extra cushion, though it might be unrealistic for a camera of this size.
  • At the max ISO the camera indicates you're shaking even if it's resting on a table.
  • Taking low light pictures at ISO 640 results in a lot of noise. Again, probably unrealistic to expect more from something so small.
  • The Program Scene menus change depending on what's selected, so certain menus disappear - very hard to learn that way.
  • Lack of some really useful manual controls such as white balance.
  • A semi-ineffective flash bulb.
Now, what I liked.

It honestly comes down to one thing. It takes great food pictures in dimly lit restaurants without using a flash or being the size of a softball or costing over $800. The 640 ISO is fantastic. I really don't know if the image stabilization plays much of a role, but I like to think it does.

Other nifty features that I think help make this camera great are
  • The sliding lens cover. At first I didn't care for this, but I like how quickly I can turn the camera on and off to save battery life.
  • The construction. Very sturdy. I wouldn't want to drop it, but if I did, it could probably handle it better then most cameras.
  • Lots of built in memory. Great for emergency purposes, like filling up your memory card with an hour left in an event.
  • It's cool looking. Not a huge thing, but it's not a bad thing.
  • It's a small thing. About the size of an iPod - which is a huge thing.
  • The LCD screen. It's a huge thing for being on such a small thing.
So all-in-all, a pretty decent camera. Unfortunately I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. If you have kids, do yourself a favor and buy an dSLR that can hit a fast moving target. If you only take snapshots of people indoors under poor artificial light, get something with a stronger flash and more point-n-shot know how like the Canon Powershot A620 or the more affordable Canon Powershot A520. If, however, you are serious about food photography and want something small, fairly affordable and takes great pictures, then I would strongly suggest checking out the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9. This could prove to be an invaluable weapon in any gastronomic warrior's arsenal.

RATING: 8/10

SAMPLES: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 Examples

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 - 1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 - 2

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 - 3

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 - 4

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