30 September 2004

Digicams: Curing the shakes

Camera shake is one of the most common afflictions of the amateur photographer, second only to camera envy. And while digital cameras encourage you to have a few goes until you get it right, it's not that easy to spot blurry images on a little LCD screen unless you zoom into them and check focus. The traditional solution has always been to carry a tripod or monopod, but non-pro snappers have always been averse to that.

Enter image stabilisation. It's been on video cameras and professional lenses for a few years, and has now made its way to mid-range digicams. There are a few competing systems out there. The Canon and Panasonic solutions cancel shake in the lens. The Konica Minolta solution moves the CCD sensor. The new Nikon solution just transfers the shake to your hip pocket, at least for now. The question is, do these systems work?

And the answer, from my experience so far, is a resounding 'yes'. I've seen excellent results from the Canon IS digicam, with its 10x zoom, and recently had a play with the new 4 MP Konica Minolta Z3. It looks like a Star Trek prop, and has rather too many shiny surfaces which I'd find myself rubbing fingerprints off all the time, but it's very compact and has an astonishing 12x zoom (35–420 in 35 mil-speak). Standing in the camera store I took photos of posters at a shop across a wide arcade, and at 12x zoom the text was crisp and shake free at about 1/100 of a second. Zooming in on-screen I could read the crisp fine print which I could only just detect with the naked eye. There's a bit of purple-fringing and noise levels are average, but overall this is a marvellous thing.

I'm looking forward to playing with the forthcoming Panasonic FZ20. With 5 MP and Leica lens which achieves f2.8 across the whole zoom range, I expect the results to be better, but it's also a vastly larger camera. Choices, choices...

29 September 2004

Digicams: The quest for the holy grail

It seems like much of my life is consumed by the search for the perfect digital camera. And of course, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle of Shopping applies--the longer I look, the more things change. At least I think I've defined my requirements now. All I'm after is a digital SLR with a stabilised 12x zoom and swiveling screen, of at least 8 megapixel resolution. And it has to be small enough to fit comfortably in my pocket, and cost no more than $500 US. Simple, right?

There have already been some interesting encounters on the quest--stay tuned!

Movie Review: Peter Sellers

I am usually the last one out of a movie theatre who isn’t being paid attendance money. Having a friend in the film-making business encourages me to pore over every word of the credits, savouring every funny name and future legend.

So it came as a surprise to see several groups still debating ‘Peter Sellers’ as I rose to my feet. They clearly were not discussing the merits of the film, as that, alas, would have been a fairly short topic of conversation. A little eavesdropping led me to the conclusion that they were instead discussing the accuracy of several aspects of the tale.

And let’s be clear, this is a tale, rather than a biographic film. It starts at the end of Sellers’ ‘Goon Show’ years, when I would really have like to see the background to how he came to be there, his relationships with Milligan, Seacombe et al. It then presents a theory of Sellers’ life which can be pretty well summarised in two sentences. I can just about picture it in my TV Guide now—“Peter Sellers was a flawed comic genius whose character was shaped by his domineering mother. He was therefore bereft of actual character, existing largely in a miasma of invented characters, both on and off screen, leading to a series of failed relationships, dependence on a charlatan psychic and his ultimate death from a dodgy ticker”.

Well, that’s a perfectly good theory, but it’s all a bit simple. One only has to look at Sellers’ improvisation in the Goons, Lolita or Strangelove to realise that he was a very rare sort of genius indeed, and I for one would rather have a wider picture of his life and come to my own conclusions, rather than have an interpretation of a man whom I have related to in film over many decades thrust upon me. In a sense this is a myopic biopic and manipulative to boot.

Sure, director Steve Hopkins tries to make the journey interesting. Reality and film sometimes blur into an attempt at stream of consciousness. Like a Sellers film, Geoffrey Rush moves in and out of Sellers various persona, and also those of key players in Sellers’ life. It’s a valiant attempt, but ultimately it’s all a bit to obvious and indelicate. To me, the artifice of a film should be like a skeleton—I want to know it’s there, but I’d rather not see it all the time.

What nearly saves this film is the performances. Geoffrey Rush is perfectly cast and shows real versatility, particularly in the excellent recreations of vignettes from Sellers’ films. He is ably supported by Emily Watson as first wife Anne, Sonia Aquino as Sophia Loren and Charlize Theron who is spot on as Britt Ekland and continues to grow in stature as an actress, as well as being pleasant to look at. John Lithgow overacts horribly as Blake Edwards, which makes him just about perfect from my recollection (what did Julie Andrews ever see in that man?) and Stephen Fry tries to play Oscar Wilde again, but in the wrong movie. Frankly the film would have been better (and shorter) without his character.

But even fine performances are not enough to make this a good film. It is ultimately too deliberate and too obviously manipulative for that. And the clever vignettes recreating actual Sellers’ films actually made me want to rush out of the theatre to borrow those Sellers originals rather than prolong the agony much longer. For a true Sellers fan this film will be disappointing, but one will have the satisfaction of the self-importance which comes through recognising many of the filmic references. For the person unfamiliar with Sellers’ work, it will hold no interest whatsoever. Whichever camp you are in, rush to your video store and demand a copy of Dr Strangelove. It will teach you much more about Sellers’ confused comic genius than any myopic biopic.