tech, simplified.

Instead of spending time on something that might be sold or shut down tomorrow I much rather put on some safety goggles and build my own thing.

A brilliant call for a return to DIY from the guy behind Kirby, this time in building your own tech. Just the thing most of us should do more of.

Don’t find an app for it. Make your own app from it, even if you’re doing so just by mashing up open tools you can already get. You’d be surprised what you can build with just a CMS as your base.

When your business is selling hardware and software to customers—that is, when the people who use your devices and software are your customers—you can actually care about your users’ privacy, and make that a selling point. With almost every other tech company giving away everything for free and making it back in ads, their users aren’t their customers—their advertisers are—there’s no way they can advocate for privacy as a feature.

This article from Macworld sums up Apple’s privacy focus today. It’s another great reason to love Apple stuff.

The New Flow is Really Nice

The more professional the tool, the uglier it must be—or so it seems if you look at most business software. The new, simple apps get the stylish new designs—typically simple todo list, reading, and photo filter apps—while tools like Office keep the same traditional style forever. Even newer business web apps typically stick to a more utilitarian style, focusing on features more than UI.

When it comes to team task management apps, though, there’s one that’s always been a showcase of design, even as it’s filled with pro features: Flow. Several years back, I worked with their team doing copywriting and support, and even then it was beautiful for a task app. The design then leaned more heavily towards shiny, almost plastic graphics—a notch above, say, Things for Mac’s style. But over the years, it’s gotten lighter and flatter design while still maintaining its great usability, and today it could be a showcase of what OS X Yosemite designs should look like.

flow

Plus, it’s got more features now than ever. There’s an Android app (the most requested feature when I did support for Flow) along with an iOS app and even a Mac app now (though the latter is just a web view, but still is nice). You can add sub-tasks to your tasks, format notes with Markdown, and more. It’s a seriously powerful team todo list app, one we used at AppStorm, and I happen to find it exciting to see how its continued to improve over the past few years.

If you’re looking for a nicer team task app, you can’t get much nicer than Flow. It’s gotten so much nicer over the past 3 years, it’ll be exciting to see what the next years bring.

Download Files Directly to Dropbox with Ballloon

It’s way too easy to fill up your computer’s storage, especially if you have an SSD. My MacBook Air does good to have more than 15Gb of free space at any given time. Thus, I’m careful with what I store locally, offload most of my pictures and movies to external drives, and selectively sync Dropbox folders to let me store files online, but not have them take up space on my Mac (that’s Dropbox’ best secret, by the way: open your Dropbox app preferences, select Account, then click the Change Settings… button beside Selective Sync. Unselect the folders you don’t want on your Mac, and voila: they’ll stay in the cloud a click away, but won’t take up local storage).

Selective sync is a small patch to one of the broader things that cloud storage doesn’t do right—devices come with terribly small amounts of local storage today, but then say they also have cloud storage. And yet, that does you precious little good if said cloud storage takes up as much local space as it does in the cloud. We need something better—but for now, at least there’s that option.

Except the only problem is, adding files to those selectively synced folders is a pain. You’ve got to upload them through your browser, or add them to another folder then go online and move them.

Now, there’s a simple Chrome add-on that lets you download files directly to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder of your choice: Ballloon. Find a file online you want to download—that image for a project, or an eBook you just bought and need to sync with Dropbox to get it on your phone, or whatever—right-click on it, and select the Ballloon option, and it’ll download it directly to your online storage.

ballloon

That’s handy for the use-case I mentioned previously, but could be a serious usability improvement on a Chromebook, which lacks traditional file management anyhow, and could be the perfect extra for your work computer so you can “download” files and have them automatically show up in your personal Dropbox on your computer back home. And it’s fast—no more waiting for downloads to finish, as Ballloon takes care of it in the background and saves your files online.

So hey. If you’ve ever wanted to download files directly to the cloud—that is, save them to your online storage without downloading them to your computer—Ballloon is the Chrome add-on for you. Enjoy.

So you want to take better pictures. Here's the camera you should buy.

Don't buy a camera.

No, really. The first thing you should do when you want better pictures is not to buy a better camera. Instead, learn how to take the very best pictures you can with the camera you have.

If you have a smartphone from the past several generations (say, an iPhone 4 or newer) or a point-and-shoot camera that’s no older than a half-decade, you can take very good shots with the camera you already have. What you need is practice and techniques to get better pictures with your camera. Learn how to focus and adjust exposure—yes, even your relatively basic camera can do that, and more if you’re using a smartphone with photography apps.

Now, learn to organize and tweak your photos on your own. Don’t use pre-made filters: use tools that’ll let you adjust brightness and contrast, tweak the highlights and shadows, and more. Don’t try to make your photos look old or artificially blurred—instead, try to tease the best colors out of the photos themselves. On your phone, you can use apps like VSCO Cam for that, but again, focus on tweaking the photo itself, not the filters in the app. On your Mac or PC, consider getting Lightroom—it’s a great app to organize and tweak your photos, and even works on iOS these days, and you can get it with Photoshop for just $9/month with a Creative Cloud Photography Program subscription. Again: don’t go buy Lightroom presets, the desktop version of mobile photo filters; practice tweaking your photos by hand instead, and even take a course on Lightroom itself instead if you really want more. You’ll learn far more, save money, and have one less thing to not worry about.

Organize everything you want to keep, tweak those shots to make sure they’re the best they can be, and organize them and back them up so you’ll keep them forever and be able to find them easily later. You’re taking photography seriously now, remember.

If you want more than that, pick up a book about the art of photography—perhaps even one with that exact name: The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression (which, by the way, is as good an eBook as a paper book, and works great on the Kindle since its photography examples are Black-and-White). You’ll learn how to frame your subjects and use light and tone to get the best pictures possible. And you just might find that the camera you have is quite enough—or you might get lured even deeper into the art of photography, and end up back at square one wanting to buy a better camera. That’s ok: this time, you’ll know more about photography—what aperture and ISO and focal length and more mean—and will be ready to actually put your new camera to better use now that you’ve maxed out your iPhone or point-and-shoot photography skills.

Then, and only then, consider buying a camera. And here’s where you’re going to get overwhelmed. There’s a million point-and-shoot cameras, which you can ignore. If you want better than your phone, you either want a larger sensor (see Wikipedia for a comparison of common sizes, and marvel over how tiny your phone or point-and-shoot’s sensor is) which allows more light in—and which means far more than megapixels (in fact, go ahead and quit worrying about stats: they stop mattering for the most part right here). That means you want an interchangeable lens camera, and likely means you want a DSLR.

But here’s where you need to stop and think for a minute, before you go read any reviews or compare cameras. The new fad is mirrorless cameras—they’re smaller and lighter than DSLRs, and often feature cool retro styling. And they can be nice. But the cheapest ones often don’t have a viewfinder, which takes away one of the very things a better camera usually has that can help improve your photography, and their lenses and accessories are often more expensive. And, aside from Sony and Fujifilm’s offerings, they all use Micro Four Thirds sensors, smaller—thus letting in less light—than the sensor in a DSLR.

Entry-level DSLRs are also cheaper, almost always, for similar features—and here we’re looking for photo shooting performance, not extras like Wifi that don’t truly matter when you’re taking a picture. And any DSLR from the last several years will be great—I own a Canon Rebel T5i (otherwise called the 700D or X7i), but the T3i or T3 from a few years back are still great. On the Nikon side, there’s the 5000 series that’s the most similar to Canon’s Rebel line, and the 3000 series that’s a tad cheaper. There’s a ton of other models for both brands (typically, the shorter the number, the more professional—and expensive—the camera from both Canon and Nikon). You’ll find a number of models from each in the $3-500 range in Amazon’s best-selling DSLR list, or could even get one used.

Don’t worry too much about which one to buy. If you want to focus on specs, you can endlessly compare—and if you want to do so, The Wirecutter’s DSLR and Mirrorless camera guides are a great place to start. But really, don’t worry too much about which camera you get. Any decently new Canon or Nikon will be great. In fact, I’d most strongly suggest checking what camera your friends own; if they mainly have Canon, get Canon. You’ll be able to share tips, and perhaps lenses and more.

I promise: I thought way too much about which camera to buy, made comparison charts and asked countless people for help. And in the end, the camera I bought was the Canon a friend recommended at first—I went the whole way around and, even though it wasn’t the top spec’ed camera, it ended up being the one that made the most sense for me. But any of the cameras could have made sense. Just buy one, and start shooting photos.

Wait: don’t shoot photos just yet. You need one more thing: a prime lens. Your camera likely will come with a so-called “kit lens” that’ll go from somewhat wide to somewhat zoomed-in shots. It’ll be ok, but not amazing. For those amazingly sharp photos, and ones with a sharp focus on one object and a blurred bokeh background behind, you’ll want a prime lens—a fixed lens that only lets you shoot at one focal length (so you can’t zoom in or out). For that, the default choice is the 50mm or 35mm prime for your camera—or for Canon, there’s a 40mm “pancake” prime that’s smaller, and right between the focal length of those two (and that’s the lens I bought). If you can, try them out in a store and see which one feels nice to you—and buy it. That’ll cost you less than $200, and will be the key to taking far better pictures than ever before. Do not buy any other lenses yet; use the ones you’ve got now until you know enough to know for sure exactly what you’d use another lens for.

So, all told, you’ll buy a entry-level DSLR, a prime lens, and that’s it. Unless it’s free, don’t bother getting a camera case and SD card just yet; you can likely pick them up cheaper later, and you’re almost guaranteed to not get a better deal with a set of stuff. You’ve also likely got an SD card laying around somewhere, and the case isn’t that big of a deal—you want the camera around your neck most of the time anyhow.

Now, put that prime lens on your camera, and start taking pictures. Lots of pictures. Shoot in Raw, shoot at your maximum aperture to get the great effects you’ve so desperately wanted from a better camera—and then experiment back up until you know what you can achieve with each aperture—and tweak your photos in Lightroom. Don’t buy a book about your camera itself—read the manual that came with it. Then go back to your photography book, and practice. And practice. And have fun.

Inspired by Stu Maschwitz’ “How to Take Good Photos for Under $1,000” post from last year, which was one of the many things that prompted me to get a DSLR.