Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dirty Sensor, No More.

February 23, 2010

After receiving, depositing, and saving all my Christmas, birthday, and holiday checks I placed my long-desired order for my first digital SLR camera.  The debate between new and used camera bodies and lenses required hours of online research, from professional guides to enthusiast forums, settling with the most weight on new.  The new vs.used price differences among entry level DSLRs was minimal at the time, whereas the technology advancements between emerging models was moving at a much quicker rate.  I decided to buy a new camera body and lens knowing I would likely not replace it for many years and wanting the longest life-span I could achieve.

I bought a new Canon 450D/XSi camera body literally the day before the 550D/T2i was released, hence getting a good price at $485.  Usually this camera body was sold in a set with a kit lens, the EF-S 18-55mm IS f/3.5-5.6, but I decided against that option for two reasons; first, I saw how saturated the used lens market was with these kit lenses and assumed there was good reason; second, I vaguely knew what style of photography I was leaning toward and took my brother's lens advice.  The same day I ordered the camera body I also ordered the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, otherwise known as the "nifty-fifty", for $89.

March 29, 2014

Now, 24,969 shutter actuations later, I am still using the same camera body.  The 50mm lens is upgraded to the lovely f/1.4 USM version, with heart-warming gratitude towards my Canon brother.  I have two other lenses in the bullpen that fulfill specific needs (and a third I forget about) but the 50 is my favorite.

Now lets talk about the sensor, the four year-old, 12.2-megapixel, APS-C, CMOS sensor.  I will not write in detail about the sensor because I do not know all the technical details; but you can compare a digital camera's sensor to traditional film -- it collects image information.  I do know that I have a crop sensor, meaning it is smaller than the standard of 35mm, capturing less light and information than a full frame sensor.  That is also why is costs significantly less, but that is not my point.

My point is that everything, over time, gets dirty.  Just how dirty does a camera sensor get?  Well, I performed a test, provided by the Photography Club I belong to, and discovered.  Without even zooming in dark specks were plainly visible in the photo, specks not from a dusty lens either because I made sure to clean that beforehand.  My sensor needed a good scrub.

Regardless of how carefully you change lenses, when the camera body is open the sensor is exposed.  A sensor is, well, sensitive, and not something you simply wipe off with cloth.  It should be cared for in a cleanroom with no dust, a rare environment.  Members in the photography club, both Nikon and Canon users, knew the respective service centers that provided camera repairs and cleaning.  Living between Tokyo and Yokohama puts us right in the center of multiple locations, the most convenient being in Shinjuku.  I recall somebody saying it costs around ¥3500, or $35, and is done same day, within a few hours.  Sign me up.

Saturday was a beautiful spring day in the Kanto Plain, breezy, mostly sunny, and about 20° C (70°F) -- perfect for a day in the city.  We found our way to the Mitsui Building where the Canon Service Center is and received the efficient and professional attention Japanese businesses are known for.  The gentleman helping us knew enough English to give us the pertinent information and answer our questions.  My only disappointment was that they do not clean lens interiors, only the outer glass, but my sensor was really the priority anyway.  The great news: it only cost ¥1000!  With tax that comes to $10.50!  $3,390 less than the dreamy 5D MK3.

The only difficulty of filling hours in Shinjuku, or any other ward of Tokyo for that matter, is time management.  I prepared a short list of craft brewpubs in the area (thank you Craft Beer Japan!) and made it to two of them, Little Delirium and Watering Hole, sampling some great beer and tasty food.  In no time at all it was time to pick up my camera and head home.

Today I replicated the sensor test, using the same clean lens and settings.  Spotless.  I'm not sure if the clean sensor will make a noticeable difference in my photos but I am thrilled nonetheless.  I cannot afford to upgrade to a higher quality, full-frame camera but I can certainly continue to care for my Rebel, the Little Camera that Could.

~40% crop of upper right corner BEFORE:

~40% crop of upper right corner AFTER:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Finally, My Chair.

One rainy evening in Washington State my husband and I went out together for dinner and a movie.  The restaurant was adjacent to the theater on one end and a furniture store was at the other.  On a whim we decided to visit the Recliner Land and look at their selection of sofas.  Having only been married a couple years we still had his old futon in the living room as our primary seating.  We basically knew the style we wanted, a mutually acceptable black leather sofa with three seats and nap-worthy without being obnoxiously over-stuffed.  We found it, rather easily, and within a half hour we purchased it and scheduled delivery.

We still use and dearly love our sofa, with its dual recliners and soft leather, and it has survived two moves with minimal damage (the thing is beastly heavy and awkward).  Yet often when I sit back on that sofa and rest my head I think about the chair that got away.  Yes, the ladies'-size, straight-back reclining chair tautly covered in a smooth, rich, red leather that I fell in love with at the Recliner Land. (Similar to this.)  At the time, our apartment was too small for any additional furniture so I had to walk away.  But I have not forgotten.

Finally now we have a living room large enough for a television viewing area with the sofa and a sitting area for armchairs, so I made sure to request a chair when selecting our temporary furniture.  Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the armchair was incredibly uncomfortable and unsuitable for curling up with a book.  So shortly after we settled in I began a low-level search for an armchair, not actively looking but paying attention.

Last week, while planning some free or cheap local activities, I decided to go back to the Yamato station area and browse a craft store I had come across last summer.  When Google mapping my route I saw a little star on the map, without a description, that I did not remember placing.  I figured it was some place I read about and wanted to check out, so I added it to my itinerary.  Boy, was I ever happy I did.

It turned out that little gold star was Smile Company, a three-story recycle shop, the largest second-hand store I have found here so far.  I slowly looked around the first floor, with clothing and accessories; then the second floor, with housewares and electronics; and finally the third floor, with furniture.  At the far end of the large room, among tightly-packed rows of chairs, I found my armchair.

Everything about this chair was perfect, the (surprisingly neutral) versatile teal leather, the low arm rests, deep seat, and a style resembling mid-century modern but with softer lines.  It is almost timeless and can safely be placed the styles of many past decades without strictly adhering to one.  On top of all this the price was unbeatable, ¥4800 less 10% because of a sale.  That works out to be about $42.  Wow!  I had to have it.

Since I was travelling on foot that Monday I planned on returning the following morning with our car hoping the chair would fit.  I had not measured it at the store so I prepared best I could and measured the hatch opening at the back of the car.  At one meter wide inside I had hopes of it fitting but realistically knew it was doubtful because the opening itself was not that wide and or tall.

The drive to Smile Company on Tuesday morning was a bit stressful -- I do not drive on local Japanese roads very often and especially not very far.  The transit system here is incredible and I love it, why drive?  Using Google navigation I arrived successfully in about 40 minutes and as soon as the doors opened at 10:30 I was skipping up those steps, yen in hand, for my chair.  It was still there!  I found a store employee nearby to help me.  He spoke very little English, matching my extremely limited Japanese, but with photos on my phone and metric measurements written down we concluded that the chair would not fit.  I was sad but still hopeful that I could find someone with a bigger vehicle to help me.  So I left the store with a few small items I had seen the previous day and crossed my fingers on the ride home.

By evening it was obvious that I, alone, would have to accomplish the mission and I was motivated.  I scheduled a rental van for the following morning for two hours at $10 an hour with no fuel charge.  The timing was tight, no doubt.  I arrived on Wednesday morning to pick up the van a little ahead of my scheduled time so I could take advantage of every minute.  First off, I measured and took a photo of the rear opening of the van.

Oh, it was going to fit all right but was I ever nervous about driving a van on the tiny roads in Japan.  I have driven large vehicles before, full-size vans and moving trucks included, but on wide roads in the States.  Local roads here are entirely different and don't forget that in Japan the driver's seat is on the right and we use the left side of the road.  But I figured if other people could do it, I certainly could too, and I did.  In order to not totally freak out I divided the mission into manageable parts.  First was to drive there, which I did successfully and safely with lots of deep breathing.  Then I had to purchase the chair, which included showing photos and measurements, and asking for help getting it to the van.  This was all accomplished with some flipping through an English-Japanese translation book and many smiles and arrigatos.  Step two done, the chair was mine!

At this point I had only an hour remaining and time was more nerve-wracking than driving.  After making it though many traffic slow-downs (local "Utility Repair Day"?) I finally made it to the house.  Step three done.  I backed the van right up to the front porch, which required jumping the curb and driving over a lot of grass, and hefted the chair onto the porch.  Step four done. Then I got back in the van, and drove to return it. Step five done!

At this point I relaxed a little, knowing the hard part was over.  Once I drove back home in our car I struggled a bit getting the big chair to angle through the doorway, at one point thinking it wasn't going to fit.  But I did it, all by myself.  You should have seen my happy dance after I shut the front door.

Since it was barely after noon I had plenty of time to enjoy the set-up process.  Aided by some loud music, I cleared the living room, cleaned the floors, and put it all back together, making some adjustments for the new chair, which I also cleaned and conditioned.  By the time I was done, pleased with the results, it was time to leave for a meeting.

It wasn't until Thursday morning that I first got to really use the chair and it was fabulous!  I am so lucky that I found it and so happy that I overcame every obstacle to get it.  I will use it every day I live in this house and I will be thankful that this wasn't another chair that got away.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

To the Produce Stand.

Returning home from a long vacation usually involves greeting an empty refrigerator. Instead of immediately rushing to the grocery store to randomly select whatever looks good I am finally attempting to form a meal plan. So far I’m still in the thinking and researching stage. Until pen hits paper, though, we need to eat.

My pantry is well stocked with canned food and dry goods and the freezer contains meats and leftover meals so there is no need to rush, except for the produce. My Tuesday focus was fresh produce.

Empty fruit and vegetable drawers are a sad sight, so I pulled them out for some loving cleaning and figured I might as well wipe out the inside of the fridge while I’m at it. Then I stepped out into the beautiful, sunny, fifty degree day for my favorite errand, walking to the local produce market.

I’m not sure the name of this particular produce market, but it’s tiny, with an open storefront, and all the prices are written in marker on pieces of cardboard. The prices are good, the quality is great, and, as is customary in Japan, the customer service is warm and friendly. There is usually one person near the front packaging and stocking, one person near the back manning the cash register, and a couple others are in the back room (from what I can tell).

Not having a plan at the produce stand is perfectly acceptable, as long as you keep your purchases to one bag so you have time to use everything while still fresh. I generally choose various items that are easy to use along with one unfamiliar vegetable.

When my arms are full the woman near the back helps me to the register. Even though I can’t yet speak more than the basic handful of frequently used Japanese words, she smiles and talks to me as if I understand everything, which I like because she is treating me as she would every other customer. I’m still working on Fukuro kekko des which I was told means “No bag thank you” because I usually carry my own.  This time I had my awesome, new Whole Foods bag that my sister lovingly gave me; it is big and sturdy and shows a dinosaur loving up on a giant beet.

After paying for my produce with ample arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) I walked up a couple stores to the Family Mart, a konbini (convenience store). Whenever I go out locally I like to stop at more than one place just for the interaction and the experience and I sometimes combine that with a small snack purchase of something new and unfamiliar.

Curious about what I came home with?

Broccoli/Burokori – I tossed the florets in olive oil, roasted them in the oven, then sprinkled sel gris French sea salt on them and ate almost all of them while standing at the stove finishing the main course.  Yum!

Carrots/Ninjin – One of these is cut up the slow cooker right now.

Ginger/Shoga – This is the package at center bottom with the panda face. It is not a dry root but two knots that are moist; the taste is the same because I used it to fancy-up leftover beef guydon last night.

Potatoes/Jagaimo – Just simple white potatoes.

Apples/Ringo – Local apples are delicious, which comes at a price, ¥398 for 5 apples ($3.90 with today’s exchange rate) but so worth it. These particular apples are crisp and juicy without a single flaw or blemish.

Mushrooms/Kinoko – I love mushrooms and frequently buy these three types (from top to bottom of photo): Bunashimeji, Maitake, Shiitake.

Garlic Chives/Nira – This was my mystery vegetable. (Well, a mystery to me). I assumed correctly it was a type of green onion but the flat leaves threw me off. With the help of Google Images I learned about it and used it last night in the guydon, this morning with eggs, and tonight in an experiment.

All that produce came to ¥1458 ($14.28), a deal here because the price of produce certainly gave me sticker shock right after we moved, it still does actually. Notice that nothing was over ¥180 except the apples.

Now, what treats did I find at the Family Mart? 

Gokuri Ume – I knew ume is “plum” so it had to be good, and it was. The bottle reads 1% of something, I assume juice (?) because I didn't see kanji for “alcohol”.  Fruity- and soda-like alcoholic beverages are popular here and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. Gokuri seems to be a line of juice drinks produced by Suntory, a leading beverage company in Japan. It cost ¥158.

Sweet Potato-something – This was 100% sweet deliciousness with a smooth, slightly chewy outer layer and silky-cream sweet potato interior.  I highly recommend it even though it seems rather small for the ¥115 price.

This small excursion took a little under an hour in time and just under two miles in distance. I am so happy and thankful that such a short journey provides so much fulfillment.