Saturday, December 30, 2006

Newer Kid in Town: Canon SD700 IS Camera

Our household has always had a "small" and a "big" camera. My wife typically uses the small one and I use the big one. (Once I got a Canon 20D SLR, the former big one became the "medium" one.) This Christmas, I figured it was time to upgrade the small and medium cameras, to get better resolution, low-light capability, storage capacity, zoom, movie capability... and lots of other things.

For my wife, "pocketability" was the main factor holding her back from taking the camera everywhere, so the small camera got upgraded from a Canon S30 to a Canon SD700 IS. It actually has a bigger screen than the Canon S3 IS that we also got! Most of the familiar Canon controls are there, but in different configurations that present a bit of a learning curve for long-time Canon users. For example, the mode dial is on the side; review mode is a choice on the mode dial, so you can't just hit the shutter button to resume taking pictures; and "Manual" mode just lets you adjust things like flash and white balance, not shutter speed or aperture.

I'll put a full review up on Epinions.

Photoshop Tip for OS X: Use Aliases for Sorting and Sifting

This tip is all about ways to categorize pictures in multiple ways, without wasting space with multiple copies.

One of my big challenges with photography is figuring out what pictures to use in different contexts. When I come back from a trip, I might want to pick one batch of pictures to print, and different batches to enter in camera club competition, turn into panoramas, and so on. Yet I'd also like to dump the whole batch of originals into one directory for ease of backups and viewing thumbnails.

The way I have settled on organizing these different categories is with OS X's "alias" feature. Drag and drop one or many files while holding Option and Command, and OS X will create tiny files that point back to the originals. (The icons have little curved arrows in the lower-left corner.) Photoshop can work (reasonably well) with aliases; you can view their thumbnails and open them for editing. What I typically do is "Select All" in my Originals folder, and Option-Command-Drag all the files to a different folder. If it's easy to select a group of files, like a sequence of pictures all of the same subject, I'll only select those files before dragging. The other folder will be something like "Panoramas", "Black and White", or camera club competition categories such as "Travel" or "Pictorial".

Once these folders are full of aliases, I can look at the thumbnails in Photoshop. At this point, the Trash Can becomes my friend. As I decide which photos are relevant for each folder, I can trash all the others through Photoshop or the Finder. The alias goes in the trash, not the original file. If the choices are not obvious, I keep a large set of aliases in the folder and flag only the ones I think are best. This way, the same picture can be flagged in one category, but not in another.

Aside from the freedom to trash pictures without losing the originals, using aliases has two main benefits:

You can use the same pictures in many different contexts without creating separate copies. I always wait until the pictures are converted to PSD before copying aliases. Each PSD is on the order of 20 MB. So it wouldn't be practical to file separate copies under Travel, Nature, etc.

Any edits you make to the picture, either through the original or one of its aliases, are reflected everywhere. For example, if you improve the contrast while preparing a photo for a camera club Nature competition, you'll see that same improvement when you go back to the Originals folder to make a slideshow. Any dust removal, Levels, and so on only needs to be done once. For pictures that I want to try as black and white, I'll create the Channel Mixer adjustment layer, but turn it off before saving, so the B&W effect does not show up in all the other folders.

I find that having folders of just the relevant photos is more convenient than assigning keywords in Photoshop for all the different categories and doing a keyword search -- less typing, fewer dialogs, and the finality of trashing photos that didn't make the cut is reassuring.

Now, Photoshop's support for aliases is not perfect. Although you can do things like flagging and ranking, where Photoshop remembers your choice, you can't go through aliases to assign metadata that's stored in the file itself. So any keyword assignment has to be done using the originals. I'll typically go through a folder of pictures from Yosemite and assign relevant keywords like Deer, Hawk, etc. and then filter by keyword to identify all the pictures to create aliases in my Wildlife folder.

The other big drawback with Photoshop's alias support is that you can't run a batch operation on aliases you've selected. If you want to boost the saturation of every picture by using Automate->Batch and an action, you've either got to go back to the originals, or open all the files and choose Opened Files in the batch dialog.

When sending photos to get printed, you typically need to crop them to a particular aspect ratio such as 4x6, 5x7, or 8x10. Although you can sift through aliases to pick out candidates for printing, be careful not to save the cropped version and overwrite the original. What I typically do is to make a selection using the Marquee tool with a fixed aspect ratio, and then do Select->Save Selection and give it a name like "4x6 Crop". I might even save more than one selection if I plan to make both a snapshot and a framed 8x10 of the same picture. I save the uncropped version after doing "Save Selection", so that I have the full-sized original, but at any time I can load it, load the selection, crop and save the cropped version under a different name for printing.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Tennis: Don't Let That New Racquet Hurt Your Arm

Got a new racquet because I didn't feel like I was getting quite enough power behind my shots. The Babolat Z/OS felt the best in practice. Once I started using it "in anger", I realized that I needed to do some things to protect my arm from the extra shock that comes along with the extra power. (Not to mention, I overheard someone on the next court say they had to stop using Babolat because it hurt their arm.)

The first thing to remember is, since the ball is coming off the racquet with greater force, all things being equal, you can slow down your swing a bit and hit the same type of shot as before without any extra strain on your arm. This is especially important to keep in mind with any kind of awkward shot, like a wrist-flick to save a ball that's almost out of reach, or a desperation drive down the line while running wide. Don't hit these as hard as you can; chances are you're off-balance or not using ideal form anyway.

For normal rallying shots, what you need to keep in mind and practice is a return to good old "classic" form. With today's lightweight racquets, you might have adopted bad or sloppy habits like taking the ball late, hitting with all arm, or using excessive wrist. The heavier Babolat will make you pay for bad form -- the ball will jump off the racquet and zip through the air with a lot of spin, but all that extra force comes back to your arm. So remember what your earliest coaches told you:

  • Step into the ball, so much of the force comes from the forward momentum of your body.
  • Swing early and smoothly, don't wait until the last moment and make a rushed swing.
  • Get the ball out in front, don't let it crowd you or get behind you.
  • Get racquet speed by turning your hips and shoulders. I find it especially useful on the forehand to bring the left arm around as well as the right, and start the forehand by turning the shoulders so it feels like the left arm pulls the right along with it.
  • Keep wrist motion to a minimum; get the racquet in position and on course early so you don't need any last-second adjustments with the wrist.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Stuffed" Sweet Potatoes

Since John and I are both vegetarians, I keep running across variations on Stuffed Acorn Squash recipes as suggestions for Thanksgiving and holiday dinners. In fact, this was my choice of entree at our Thanksgiving dinner at Millennium. I decided to create my own version for our dinner the day after Thanksgiving. Since John prefers not to have to separate out skins or shells from his food, I baked one each regular and one Japanese white organic sweet potato, peeled and mashed them (one on each side to maintain the two separate colors) as a low bowl. I drizzled freshly-made pesto on these, and then filled the center with bhutan red rice, and added organic broccoli, onions, and chopped almonds and more drizzles of pesto. This was a rousing success and was heartily enjoyed by all!

I would like to dedicate my first food blog post to two of my favorite food bloggers, gluten-free girl and vegan lunch box, who write passionately about eating on diets limited, but not restricted, by health or ethical reasons. You are truly inspiring! I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday.

iPod, oh iPod, Where Art Thou?

When John bought his first iPod, it came with a bright blue case, and so was fairly easy to find. By the time he bought his 3rd iPod, the Nano version (which we affectionately call "Nanoo"), he also had a Palm, a cell phone, and a digital camera, all stored in small black cases. We took Nanoo on a trip in May and hadn't seen him since we got home until mid-November, when John did a massive desk clean-up and found the little black case resting quietly under some larger items! So my (self-imposed) project for the Thanksgiving week-end was to make the case more visible. I showed John the choices of colored ribbons I had available, and he rejected pink (you think?) for this pumpkin version. I gave the black case a kind of belt. I joked with him if I was Martha Stewart I would have needlepoint hearts or flowers on it! We haven't lost Nanoo since!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Photoshop Tip: Semi-Opaque Adjustment Layers

When exactly would you use an adjustment layer that's not at 100% opacity? Seems like a silly thing to do. If the effect didn't turn out exactly right, wouldn't you just re-do the layer from scratch or tweak its slider settings?

That's the way I worked for a long time, and still do in most cases. But there are certain times when it makes sense to create an adjustment layer that goes too far, then dial it back a little by lowering the opacity using the slider in the Layers window. That's a different technique than, say, applying a gradient to a layer mask to darken the sky but not the foreground.

When a photo has a colour cast, the natural adjustment is to do a Levels layer and set the Gray Balance. However, sometimes the photo doesn't really have any gray -- the rocks, street, or whatever is made out of the wrong-coloured material, is under reddish sunset light, and so on. In this case, pick the closest-to-gray colour to apply the Gray Balance, which will swing the whole photo too far towards blue, yellow, or sometimes magenta. Instead of endless re-doing the Gray Balance looking for an elusive speck of pure gray in the photo, lower the opacity of the Levels layer until you find the accurate-looking percentage.

When a subject is a little too dark, but the background is pretty much the right brightness, I like to apply a "spotlight" effect by doing a Levels layer and using a circular gradient for the layer mask, centered on the person's face, their whole body, or whatever subject is too much in shadow. But sometimes, the Levels adjustment that makes the subject look realistic is too bright to blend well with the rest of the picture. In this case, lower the opacity of the Levels layer until the falloff in brightness is imperceptible. You'll still have the "ideal" Levels adjustment setting that you can apply if later you decide to sacrifice the background by brightening the whole picture.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mac Tip: Auto-Connect to Shared Drives

I don't use shared drives on OS X as much as I would like. It sounds great in theory: access a folder or entire hard drive on one computer, when it actually lives on another. Using drag-and-drop is simpler than ftp for copying files over to the laptop, or sharing song files between two computers, or editing a file from a different computer without making a separate copy.

In practice, this technique has always had a few glitches. OS X tends to be clumsy when you're connected to another computer and then that other computer goes to sleep, or you start a VPN which cuts off all other network connections. You might see a complete freeze for several minutes before OS X realizes the other computer isn't responding. You'll see that freeze at random times, for example when OS X puts up a File Save dialog and decides to check all connected drives. Once it decides the shared drive is kaput, you have to reconnect, which involves a sequence of dialogs even if you've stored the password in your keychain.

Lately, OS X has been improving in this area. There hasn't been as much freezing, the timeout period is shorter, and when the error dialog comes up, you can unsleep the other machine and the operation goes ahead without you having to reconnect.

One time-saving tip that I just discovered recently: If you make a shortcut to a folder on a shared drive, you can drop a file on the shortcut, and the shared drive is automatically mounted without any password prompts or other dialogs. The file is copied, and the shared drive stays mounted. I use this trick to do timed audio recordings on one computer, then shoot them over to the Music folder on another computer, even though most of the time the shared drive isn't connected. To make the shortcut, drag the original item while pressing Command and Option, so the mouse pointer changes to a little curved arrow.

The next trick will be to figure out some way to auto-mount the drive in the absence of a file I really want to copy. Perhaps have some dummy file that always gets copied to the same place. Also, this technique doesn't work when copying a file from the command line. The copied file just overwrites the shortcut.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Photoshop Tip: John's Shortcuts for Cropping

With a 24-inch screen and a DSLR that takes super-sized pictures, cropping is more of a concern than it used to be. Here's some Photoshop advice to make the process simpler.

  • Use the Marquee tool to make a rectangular selection, then the Image->Crop menu choice, rather than the Crop tool. Using a selection gives more flexibility than the Crop tool, for example the ability to make a selection with a fixed size or to save selections as alpha channels.
  • If you plan to make a photo print of the picture, make a selection with a fixed aspect ratio of 6x4, 7x5, 10x8, or whatever dimensions you plan to use for the prints. Reverse the numbers for pictures printed in portrait style, i.e. taller than wide.
  • If you need to have different-sized crops of the same picture -- for example, to print both a 4x6 and make an 8x10 enlargement -- make the selection and choose the Select->Save Selection menu item. Save the selection as an alpha channel. You can make several selections this way with different sizes, save them as part of your .psd file, then later do Select->Load Selection and Image->Crop. Just remember to always save the file under a different name after you've cropped it.
  • If you will be projecting the photo or displaying it on a laptop, crop using an aspect ratio that matches the projector or laptop. For example, my local photo club uses a projector with 1024x768 resolution, so I crop competition photos to an aspect ratio of 4x3. That way, I can always resize the cropped image to 1024x768 and not lose anything.
  • For pictures where the subject doesn't take up a lot of the frame, such as a wildlife shot taken from a distance, consider doing an initial crop to match the dimensions of your monitor. You'll need to use the rectangular Marguee technique with options set to a fixed size. That way, you can do the rest of the work looking at the picture at 100%, and only later decide whether to crop even more. This technique works best if your screen resolution is greater than on the projector, laptop, etc. where the picture will end up. For example, I do my photo editing on a 1900x1200 screen but typically display slideshows on a 1280x960 laptop. If I am reviewing and working on dozens of surfing pictures where the surfer is surrounded by lots of ocean, I can work faster and save disk space by cropping out lots of blue. Using an absolute size of 1900x1200 means I don't have to worry about cropping out too much, there's always some excess to trim later.
  • Once you've made a selection, you can preview how the cropped version will look by pressing Q to go into Quick Mask mode. The part of the picture outside the selection turns red, so you can visualize how the photo will look without the extra parts, the same as when you select with the Crop tool and it darkens the unselected portion. Quick Mask mode has many other uses, but for cropping purposes, just press Q again to go back to normal.
  • Once you've made a selection, you can resize or move it with the Select->Transform Selection menu choice. Press Enter once you are satisfied. By default, the transformation ignores any size or aspect ratio options; hold down Shift while resizing to keep the selection consistent with those options.
  • I find it inconvenient not to have keyboard shortcuts for Image->Crop and Select->Transform Selection. In Photoshop CS, you can assign your own keyboard shortcuts with Edit->Keyboard Shortcuts. Photoshop already has shortcuts using most combinations of letters and modifiers, but whatever operations used Shift-Command-C and Command-T, I never used 'em and so reassigned them to Image->Crop and Select->Transform Selection.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New Kid in Town - Canon S3 IS Camera

I recently recommended the Canon S3 IS to some friends as a good choice for a modest-sized camera with good zoom, good picture, and good movie capability. With my reputation behind it, what choice but to buy one too?

I'm already finding it very educational, with a live histogram showing how well the picture is being metered. The dedicated movie recording button is also a boon. Look for a full review soon on Epinions.

Memories, of a PC2-5300 DDR2 667 DIMM...

You know it's time to upgrade memory in the new Intel iMacs when it starts to make noise. Every switch between one big program and another involves grinding and endless waiting. Even switching to Finder or Terminal can be interminable. You start regretting keeping all your songs in one iTunes library, or keeping Firefox open with a week's worth of backlogged tabs.

Unfortunately, the stock memory comes as 2 512MB modules. Meaning any upgrade you do means selling or otherwise disposing of one or two old memory chips. You can upgrade from 1GB to 1.5GB by swapping in one 1GB module, or to 2GB by swapping in two 1GB modules. Upgrading to 3GB is way too expensive still, with 2GB modules running from about $600 all the way up to $900+.

The little latch door on the bottom of the iMac screen is easy to get off with a small eyeglass-size screwdriver. The screws are attached to the door so they can't get lost. The old modules come loose when you push on a couple of plastic levers. If you don't seat the new modules firmly enough, when you power up you won't hear the chime and the light flashes steadily. Since you might have to fiddle around with the chips a couple of times, leave the latch off until you've successfully powered up again.

With the extra memory in, you should see an immediate speedup in application switching or user switching. An application like Photoshop can be running a batch job while you switch over to iTunes or Firefox with everything running at full speed and no grinding (technically, paging).