Yes, it’s that time of year again when Bell’s Hopslam hits the shelves. Actually, it didn’t even hit the shelves, but more like the receiving area and straight into my hands. The entire shipment of this rare, seasonal beer has sold out in one day. Maybe not all, but certainly all of the stock around here. So, I’m pretty excited that I managed to obtain 2 full cases of this rare liquid gold. That means I can have 1 per week if I want it to last an entire year.

I had a good amount last year, but it wasn’t quite two cases. This year, I should be able to make it stretch out further.

I had my first one tonight and it’s as good or better than I remember.


What’s In A Name?

After attending so many sessions at the Imaging USA convention, it has be come clear to us, especially since Laura is so key a part of our photographic endeavor, that the name “Jeff Phillips Photography” is an insufficient and incomplete name and that we should find something more appropriate.

Our dilemma, though, is that we are having trouble putting a label to what we do. We’re having trouble because of several things. First, we are not just “me” now, but “us”. Second, we don’t really have a specific niche, so the name has to be flexible enough to use regardless of the kind of photography we do [for example, to say “Phillips Portraits” may be incomplete if we do more, and we do]. Third, we want the name to be reflective of our style – which we haven’t defined yet. We want our name to be high-end, yet not out of reach; stylish, but not snooty; artistic, but not pretentious [well, not TOO pretentious…] and elegantly simple. We also want it to be something we can grow into. You can see how hard this is. It’s especially hard for us since we are very new to this realm.

If anyone has a suggestion, we’d be glad to hear it.

Imaging USA: Days 2 & 3

Okay, so I’m not going to blog about them separately since the days are a week past and they all run together, but I did want to mention some of the great things that I learned.

First of all, we met some great people and learned a lot from them. One of our favorites was actually part of the Microsoft featured speaker booth in the Expo: Angela Carson-Post who owns a studio up near Detroit. Angela was great to listen to and extremely informative on the business of running a studio – which was exactly what we needed to hear. I think I took the most notes of the conference at her sessions. She did three sessions, one each day at the EXPO.

Another favorite, possibly because they were first and from Texas, were the guys of TriCoast Photography. What I came out of that session with was that I needed to learn more about lighting and using the tools that we already have, like both the big lights and the camera strobes. They taught me a few techniques that I’m anxious to try out [I’ll have to wait until the snow stops, though!] for outside lighting. They also raved on the native wireless communications abilities of the Canon flashes and how they use them to create modern lighting for their portraits as well as save lots of room when they travel.

Also on my favorite list is a photographer from Chicago named Bob Davis. Bob was very encouraging, since as a high-end photographer, he has photographed many famous people and has a passion for what he does. He told us to get back to the basics of photography and “practice, practice, practice!” which we certainly need to do.

Overall, there were many sessions which gave us inspiration and motivation and we hope to continue that and bring excellence, consistency, and passion to our work as photographers. It will take time and work, but I feel we can do it.


It’s rather cold today. Temperature outside is currently 17 degrees. Wow!

I’ve been recuperating from our trip to Phoenix where I picked up some kind of bug. I’m convalescing today and hope that I will be good tomorrow, since I have to go to work anyway – even if I feel bad.

I did learn quite a bit at Imaging USA and I will post more when I can get around to thinking about it. But for right now, I’m just glad to be home and a little rested.

Imaging USA: Day 0

It hasn’t started yet, but we’re here in Phoenix and have done some early reconnaissance to find out where we should go, where to park, and how to get there. It looks like we will have to really push getting up early – the convention starts at 7AM. Luckily for us, that’s 7AM Arizona time – 2 hours earlier than where we come from [that’s actually 9AM “our” time].

We first found some things to eat [which of course is VERY important] and then headed to the downtown convention center. We walked around getting our bearings and then made a few more stops for groceries to keep in the room. We’re going to have to get up so early, that most breakfast places won’t be open, so we had to get our own to keep in our tiny little fridge.

I’ll try to post as the days go on about interesting things that may happen here – or I may collapse with exhaustion and not type a single additional word until we leave. I hope to get some great perspectives on running a photography business as well as some additional technical education on both photography and the tools associated with it.

None of this blogging or email would be possible without the help of my mother-in-law Norma. So, Thank You Norma! for staying up late and obtaining for me the decryption key for my laptop which failed to boot up properly on the first night here. She painstakingly read out the 400 digit code [not really, but it SEEMED like 400 digits] to unlock the machine so that I could boot into Vista. I have since turned off Bitlocker for the duration of the trip. I needed to anyway since I’m going to upgrade to Windows 7 Beta soon. I hear it’s much faster… 🙂

And I have to try out CS4 and Lightroom 2 on the next version of Windows!

Fun With Windows Media Center – An Epic Journey

It may not be quite "epic", but it has been quite a journey.

First, let me explain what Windows Media Center [let’s just say WMC from now on] is. WMC is an application that runs on Windows [for the sake of discussion, let’s keep it Vista specific] and allows you to host music, pictures, videos, TV, DVDs, radio, etc. on a computer which is connected to you home entertainment system [TV & stereo system usually].

As a small point of history, Laura and I have moved around a little in this area discovering the good/bad/ugly of the local cable systems and DirecTV. Not that DirecTV in and of itself is bad, but the outages during high winds and storms was unacceptable. We tried local cable: Comcast first and now Cox. Verizon Fios is out but not yet at our house. In the course of trying out the different cable systems and DVRs, we fast discovered that both cable system boxes are VERY bad. The Comcast box was better, but the guide was awful and had advertisements all over it. It was slow and never quite worked for On-Demand videos. The Cox  box works just fine – if  you like slow and non-responsive at times. However, the DVR portion of this box is absolutely horrible. There’s no "series priority" setting that the Comcast box had – in other words, you couldn’t program 3 shows to record at once [of course, since there are only 2 tuners] and have it chose the top 2 in case of a conflict in time. I can’t even view the list and settings of my scheduled recordings. I have to guess. Also: I can’t record a series with the settings: "all new shows on all channels". Even recording "all shows on this channel" isn’t smart enough to know that it has already recorded that episode – it records it anyway and fills up the disk.

So I thought I’d remedy the problem by using Laura’s "old" computer as a WMC station. By "old" I mean only a year old. The only newer computers in this house are the server and my work laptops – only 1 of them, actually. So it’s not really that old. It came with a tuner and has a 300GB hard drive which at first glance is enough to be a basic media center.

Configuring the basics of the WMC and connecting it to the TV/stereo was a joy: everything worked great. I had digital audio connections and a VGA jack right into the TV. It would have been better with HDMI I’m sure, but that would have been an upgrade at a later date when I found out if it worked like I wanted it to. The only initial problem was WiFi signal strength [don’t do this, by the way – go for wired connections] which I have now solved by using an Ethernet over power line adapter. The great thing about this is that I could now [once the network problems were solved] listen to all of our music CDs which I painstakingly ripped to MP3 over a series of months and stored on the server. Now, there is no need to dig through a box of disks searching for the right one. I just load up the music library and Boom! Tons of music. Success!

It also worked great for some downloaded episodes from Amazon Unbox – some NCIS or CSI episodes we missed and needed to catch up on played very well. DVDs played wonderfully as well, even transmitting digital surround signals to the amplifier [I don’t have all the speakers mounted yet, but will soon… I hope…].

Then came the big problem. The whole reason I started this journey [not the "whole" reason really – I did want to play our music and videos from the server as well…] was to eliminate both the extra cost and evil [yes, I mean "evil"] interface of the cable guide and DVR. If you’ve ever seen the interface of WMC, it’s really slick. I’m not just saying that out of loyalty, but out of experience. The WMC interface is quick, intuitive, and very pretty. It makes the cable box interfaces look like 80s video games… like "pong" or "Space Invaders" instead of "Halo".

So – what’s the problem with that, you ask? Well, the tuner. Yes. The tuner. The system itself ROCKS. As far as analog cable shows go, it’s the system to have… if you have only analog cable. Digital cable is another story altogether. I found that my tuner would only work with analog signals and over-the-air HDTV signals. Anyone who lives in a hilly or mountainous area will immediately recognize the flaws with that. Right – over the air in Virginia? Not. In Houston, I know this is not only possible but works quite well. It just doesn’t work for me. So I tried another tack: many cable companies will send digital channels over "clear QAM" or unencrypted digital signals over the cable. My card didn’t support this, so I picked up one at a nearby store and tried it out.

Success! I could now view digital channels… but… wait… only 13? I thought I was paying for 150 or so. Where’s all the other channels? It seems that only local broadcast channels are sent in the "clear". All the others are encrypted. What should I do? After some research, I discovered that there is a system that will support this called CableCard. This is a method by which encrypted signals are decoded and able to be played by a media system or even TV which has this capability. I thought I’d found the solution.

The more I read, though, the more disappointed I became. CableCard tuners only seemed to work on pre-configured systems with special BIOS that would support them. What this means in English is that in order for me to get the channels that I wanted on my WMC PC, I would need to spend about $1500 or more on a new computer just to escape the ugly interface and clunky DVR. I wasn’t ready to do that. I am glad I didn’t buy the tuners – returning them would have been a pain. So I was stuck. Well, not only stuck, but I found out that Cable Labs who makes these "standards" for the cable industry keeps changing things. There’s now a new standard for bi-direction digital cable encryption/decryption that cable companies will be utilizing, thereby obsoleting any system that I would have purchased or configured.

The conclusion of this story is that I have relocated Laura’s computer back to the basement, created a virtual desktop running Vista, installed WMC, created a local copy [which is synchronized via Live Sync] of all of our music, and connected a Media Center Extender to the stereo and TV which now lets us play our music and videos on the main entertainment system.

Oh – and that now includes a Blu-Ray player which I had intended to add into the WMC computer.

I’m not giving up, though. Verizon Fios will be coming soon and their DVR system and cable box is based on Windows CE and a custom version of what looks a lot like WMC.

Maybe one day, cable companies will do something smart… or helpful… or maybe not.

One can hope, yes?