The Mother of All Throwback Thursdays

My Throwback Thursday entry today carries a bit more weight than usual. It was exactly thirty years ago today that I loaded my 1958 VW Bug with as much of my worldly possessions as possible, gave the rest away or entrusted it to my girlfriend’s care, and drove out of Colorado Springs to take a two-year assignment in Emeryville, California.

The itinerary I’d planned called for me to head south on I-25 to I-40, then west to I-5, then north to the Bay Area. The first leg of this trip would be critical, because a major winter storm was expected by the evening of the 29th; I needed to get south on schedule, no matter what. And, in fact, that part worked out properly — but after that, things degraded fast.

I expected to complete the trip in no more than three days. It actually took me five. Here’s how things worked out:

1/29/85: I deposited the last paycheck from my old job at an ATM at Boulder and Union streets, Colorado Springs (11:35 AM). I drove to the downtown office of Colorado Springs Public Utilities, paid my last utility bill, then headed onto southbound I-25. After stopping for lunch in Pueblo, I pushed through to Albuquerque and spent the night there, expecting to head west early the next morning.

1/30: During a rest stop in Flagstaff, AZ, I noticed that oil was dripping from the engine (the snow on the pavement made it much easier to see). I spent the night in Kingman, amid much worry about whether my engine was falling apart and how I would get out of the desert if it was.

1/31: I attempted to continue onward. However, the clutch had become saturated with motor oil and finally lost its grip as I was crossing the California state line. I spent the night in Needles.

The winter storm had caught up with me at this point and the motel room where I was staying was very cold. If you haven’t ever been to Needles, you might not know that this is an extremely rare occurrence — so much so, in fact, that no heaters had ever been installed in that motel. But the thoughtful, solicitous staff provided extra blankets as needed.

2/1: Fortunately, a mechanic in Needles was able to drop the motor out of the Bug, pop in a new crankcase seal, and clean the clutch. Thanks to his concerted efforts, I was back on the road by afternoon. I spent the night in Bakersfield after a genuinely terrifying descent of Tehachapi Pass late at night with weak headlights. (Note: I don’t recommend this. Either make sure your headlights are powerful enough to give you a good, long look ahead, or cross the pass while it’s still light out.)

2/2: Heading across the Central Valley to I-5, the Bug developed a loose brake drum. (My fault — I’d replaced them myself.) I fixed it on the shoulder of a rural road, then continued on. When I approached Pleasanton that evening, I found myself in the midst of more cars than I had ever had around me in my life; when I went to Disneyland with Mom and the other kids a few years earlier, we’d managed to miss the really bad traffic in LA. I had arranged to stay with my new co-worker in Point Richmond, CA, when I arrived — which I did later in the evening.

My original plan was to meet my two-year commitment, picking up new job skills along the way, and return home to get an improved job. It didn’t work out that way, though. I married my girlfriend and brought her to Oakland, and the two of us became further and further ensconced until I finally took a job in Seattle and we moved north. We have never moved back to Colorado, even though we have always wanted to.

I realize that my occasional protestations along these lines must sound appallingly ungrateful at this point. After all, my time in Northern California has opened doors for me; I’ve worked with brilliant minds, traveled the world, and enjoyed all kinds of amazing experiences. I now live in a small town surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery and waterfalls hundreds of feet high. But every so often, I’ll see a photograph of Ouray in winter, or Trail Ridge Road, or even the old cliché shot of Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods, and it can get painful. The only way I can explain this is to say that it’s like turning your back on a loved one; no matter how many fish there are in the sea, the one that got away is still the one that got away.

A Summer with the Ricoh Theta

I’ve been a Pentaxian for about a quarter of a century. I’ve recommended Pentax cameras to others for longer than that, based on the experiences of other photographers I knew, back when I was still tinkering with large format photography. So, naturally, when Ricoh bought Pentax a few years ago, I was interested in what they would do with it.

So far, for the most part, I give Ricoh good marks. They have made a few changes that I’m not sure about (specifically, their emphasis on a huge raft of custom body color options for certain Pentax models). But they’ve maintained the core strength of the Pentax brand – durability and creative potential in even the lower-cost models – and as the rest of their strategy rolls on, I think I’m beginning to understand it.

If a manufacturer of photo equipment intends to get back into the game these days, technical competence (or even excellence) isn’t enough. Professional and amateur photographers both have too many options now. To interest amateurs in particular, you have to give them a reason to use something other than their smartphones. Many of them will appreciate that a dedicated camera can provide better pictures, but you have to get them to pick it up first. Promoting it as a fashion accessory is one way of doing that.

It also helps if the camera works closely with the smartphone, or does something the smartphone can’t – or, ideally, both. And that’s where the Theta comes in.

About the Theta

The Theta is a compact, smartphone-integrated, 360° by 360° spherical snapshot camera. All of those terms are significant. All smartphones have software to create panoramas with the phone’s built-in camera, but that software is usually awkward to use. It can easily mangle the images of the people the photographer wants in the picture, and in any case, it creates cylindrical panoramas instead of fully immersive, spherical ones. The Theta overcomes all of those limitations in a tiny package that is about as point-and-shoot foolproof as one could ask.

What the Theta does not do is create professional-quality panoramas. A community of panoramic photographers already exists out there, and with their nodal alignment jigs and specialized optics, they create tack-sharp spherical panoramas with no trace of the photographer, the camera, or the tripod. However, to do this, they have to create a group of source photographs and integrate them later. At this time, as far as I know, only the Theta can create a spherical panorama instantaneously.

Ricoh Theta

The back of the Ricoh Theta. The front looks much the same: no status light, shutter button, or markings, but there is a second fisheye on that side.

To promote their new gadget and all of its underlying technology, Ricoh sponsored a contest called Spherical Report 360. In the first phase of this contest, people would be invited to apply for an initial giveaway of 360 Theta cameras. The winners of this phase, and any early adopters who had bought their own Thetas, would then submit photographs to be judged each month over a four-month period. From the monthly winners, a grand prize winner would be selected. The grand prize winner would receive a new Pentax K-3 DSLR, a camera featuring groundbreaking design and aimed at serious photographers only (as evidenced by its availability solely in black).

Much to my surprise, I won a Theta. I have been submitting photographs over the summer, making sure to honor the rule that contestants must submit at least one photo per month to keep the camera. (I like getting cameras. I don’t like giving them back.)

My impressions of the Theta and the contest appear below.

The Good

As I’ve used the camera, it has amazed me more and more how much stuff Ricoh packed into it. Initially, I wondered how they programmed it to stitch the halves of the picture together and edit out as much of the camera as possible. As it turns out, a lot of it is done optically, with an incredibly intricate sequence of small bits of glass.

Obviously, when you pick up the camera, you can see a 180° fisheye lens on either side of it. Inside the camera body, the optical path from each lens passes through a tiny prism (presumably located at the “nodal point” where the light rays cross, but I can’t prove that) and additional tiny lenses, before being projected onto a similarly tiny image sensor. The two prisms are bonded together back to back, to eliminate as much parallax error as possible. Ricoh has published a short white paper to provide additional detail about the optics and software inside the Theta.

The Theta contains a Wi-Fi server to support the smartphone app, which manages remote triggering, manual exposure settings, image library maintenance, and uploads to the Theta360 website. From the app, the photographer can also designate social media sites where links to the uploaded pictures should appear.

In addition, the camera includes accelerometers to allow correct positioning of the pictures on the website no matter what the camera’s position was when each picture was taken.

All in all, in terms of how the camera was built, it’s well worth the asking price of $400. That isn’t immediately obvious, though, as I’ll explain later. Meanwhile, I’ve received software and firmware upgrades from Ricoh that have expanded and fine-tuned the camera’s capabilities.

And by the way, people love it. I’ve gotten into more conversations with strangers this summer than I have in years, and the Theta gets the credit. (It can’t be my socializing skills, trust me.)

The Bad

The only thing I’d consider genuinely bad about this whole experience was the contest website. The advertising department at CNN.com ran the contest on Ricoh’s behalf, and that included setting up and maintaining the website. As a result, the website was almost impossible to deal with. It took me ten to twelve attempts to apply for the initial giveaway; I received a “server not found” error at each attempt (except the last one, of course). While this was going on, because I follow Ricoh on Facebook, I kept receiving messages there urging me to apply for the contest. The whole experience was hugely frustrating, and by the time my application was accepted, I’d boiled down my response about why I wanted to participate to such a degree that I was shocked to learn that I’d been included in the competition.

Once I began submitting pictures, the irritations continued. I found it necessary to navigate to the submission form from scratch for every picture I submitted. On the form, my input appeared in capital letters regardless of whether I capitalized it or not, but my combination of upper and lower case was actually retained. I have no idea whether I described any of my entries in CaMeL cAsE.

After the pictures were accepted and published, it was impossible to confirm they were there. It was possible to scroll through the pictures submitted each month, but each additional screenful of pictures was selected at random. It was almost impossible to find a specific picture (to confirm that my own submissions had made it safely onto the site, for example).

And lastly, I had to manually download my submissions from the Theta to my computer before uploading them to the contest site. Because I was trying to be conscientious about not sharing these photos on my regular Theta site on theta360.com, I now have to publish them through 360cities. The problem with that is that 360cities doesn’t read the camera position information included in the photos, so if I wasn’t holding the Theta bolt upright, you can see a little tilt. Once you have removed the photos from the Theta, you can’t put them back and upload them to theta360.com, and you can’t post to theta360.com any other way. Meanwhile, there doesn’t seem to be an orientation adjustment in 360cities.

The Ugly

My learning curve on the Theta was higher than I expected, for a couple of reasons. First, I hadn’t reckoned on how hard it would be to rethink the process of taking a picture. With any sort of conventional camera, you start by deciding how to distance the camera from the scene. But the Theta is always dead center within its field of view. To take a picture of a group of people with a conventional camera, for instance, you stand to one side and have everyone else gather close together so that they’re all in the frame. With the Theta, you put the camera in the middle and have everyone gather around it. The two fisheye lenses make it even more important to put the camera in the middle of the action, because fisheyes tend to push away distant subjects.

Posing for Prom Photos

(As a side effect of these two facts, it’s impossible to take a handheld Theta photo that’s not a selfie. To get yourself out of the picture, you have two choices: hide and use the app to trigger the camera, or use what I call the “Statue of Liberty” posture, holding the Theta above the crown of your head. But such a posture lifts the camera away from your subject, unless your subject is quite a bit taller than you are.)

I also struggled a bit with the contest theme (citizen journalism). It’s not even close to the worst theme I’ve ever heard of; that dishonor goes to “Robots Vs. Monsters,” the theme of an instant photography contest I entered a year ago. But coming up with hard journalistic value on a contest timetable is difficult. One of the first ideas I had for an entry was to take the Theta to Oso, the site of a lethal landslide last spring. I did not follow up on that idea, because I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of intruding on the people trying to recover in Oso for the sake of a photo contest. With hard journalism mostly out of reach, I concentrated on feature journalism, and most of the other contestants seem to have done likewise. I did manage a little bit of actual reporting, though, during wildfire season in the eastern Cascade Mountains this summer.

After the Fire

Neroesque

But for me, the most awkward aspect had to do with the software and firmware upgrades. Ricoh released a major upgrade that gave the Theta manual controls — for the first time, the photographer could adjust ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, and white balance (the Theta has no aperture mechanism). Forcing a low ISO and selecting a manual white balance setting made a huge difference in some of my shots after the upgrade. The only problem was that they didn’t release it until two weeks before the end of the competition, causing considerable consternation among the contestants.

The Upshot

I enjoyed the competition, both my own entries and those from other contestants. There was a lot of ingenuity and imagination on display (and occasionally nerves of steel; one contestant tied a Theta to a kite, and another dangled his out of the gondola of a hot-air balloon).

If I could make one request, it would be for more resolution. Although six megapixels is a reasonable amount of detail for a conventional point-and-shoot camera, the Theta has to spread it much thinner to cover a 360° by 360° sphere. As people dig in and look for details, the effective resolution drops further. This is by no means an easy or straightforward suggestion, though; the Theta is designed to support social media, which means that the pictures have to be small enough to upload, download, and view quickly. Perhaps, as the original Theta takes hold, Ricoh could bring out an 18-megapixel Theta Pro, geared toward large, high-resolution screens. That’s what Lytro has done, and based on the reactions I’ve seen to the Theta so far, the interest is there.

Meanwhile, I’ve been finding more reasons than I expected to keep bringing the Theta along with me now that the competition has finished, so you’ll probably be seeing more “snapshots in the round” from me every so often.

Competition Entries

The list below shows a selection of pictures I contributed to the Spherical Report 360 competition. The two wildfire pictures shown earlier were entered in July.

May

Rowing crews

On the Dance Floor

A Break in the Action

Red Rocks, Blue Sky

On the Cathedral Rock Trail

Keynote Address, STC Summit 2014

Unconventional Camera Convention

This is the Airstream trailer used by the Impossible Project (www.the-impossible-project.com) to promote their new lineup of film for old SX-70-style Polaroid cameras. I was not the first Theta owner to show up at their trailer; they’d seen one at SxSW in Austin.

June

Volcano

Over the Lake

Waiting in Line

VidCon 2014 Expo Floor

(With this picture, I wandered off of the journalistic path into commentary. By photographing the VidCon expo floor from the Canon booth — which was for some reason the only camera booth there — I intended to ask why Ricoh [plus Sony, Nikon, and others] had no presence in the midst of all of these future videomakers and photographers. This can’t have done me any favors in the judging.)

 July

Household Fireworks

(This is actually a composite of three individual exposures taken from the same spot on the same tripod, then colorized red, white, and blue, and superimposed.)

Fishing for Prizes

August

Undevelopment

(I had one “journalistic” possibility in my own neighborhood, which was hit hard by the real estate crash of 2008 and never recovered. This adjacent neighborhood was hit even worse; there are practically no neighbors in it.)

Gas Works Park

(Here, I gave up on the journalism theme entirely and sought out a colorful, enveloping subject to photograph as a way of closing out my involvement in the competition.)

Why This Blog, and Why the Name?

About fourteen or fifteen years ago, I wrote and posted a personal web site. My inspiration was a similar personal site published by Zak Nilsson, eldest son of Harry; he wrote about his personal interests and things that were going on in his creative life. So I cheerfully ripped off Zak’s idea. I posted copies of photographs I was particularly proud of, wrote summaries of my career and interests, and so on.

About thirteen years and change ago, Kim and I found out we were going to be parents, and my web site changed. Both of our extended families were in other states, so I added a news column to my site to let everyone know the latest about how the unidentified kid was shaping up. When we got our first ultrasound images, I posted one of them so that the family could see. And eventually, when Anya was born and as soon as Kim was resting, I ran to the one-hour photo lab, then home to the film scanner, and finally posted Anya’s birth photo about three or four hours after taking it. (Getting a photo online was a lot of work back in those days.)

Within a few more years there were blogging platforms, so I retired the news column on my web site and started a blog called The Sultan’s Tent. I planned to publish a combination of family updates and short articles about life here in Sultan, Washington, so that our extended family could get a better idea of what was going on. I kept it going for a couple of years or so, and then the ultimate vehicle for family news — Facebook — appeared on the scene.

So now I’ve got a trail of obsolete technology a mile long behind me, and I no longer need to provide my relatives with updates about Anya. She’s 15 now and provides the updates herself, through Facebook. Every so often, though, I still feel the need to hold forth about certain things, particularly language disputes and nonsense coming in through the media. Hence the blog you have before you now.

And what about the name? What exactly is a runcible pompatus?

Well, no one really knows. Both words are coinages, and no hard-and-fast definition is known for either one. Edward Lear first used the word “runcible” in his poem “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”, in reference to a spoon. So my mother — an Edward Lear groupie if ever there was one — used to tell me that a runcible spoon was a slotted spoon. But although many people believe that, it’s not true. Lear needed a word with three syllables, so he threw one together. “Pompatus,” of course, was coined by Steve Miller (whom some people call the Space Cowboy). After I found out about “runcible,” though, every time I heard Steve Miller sing “The Joker,” I would think to myself, “What kind of pompatus, Steve? A runcible pompatus?”

And in the end, this blog may come to be of no more import than that runcible pompatus. But the term is fun to read, at least, and I’ll take that as my goal as well.