Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Living in an Apple Commercial

So out of the blue, someone asks my opinion on a computer question. I must have seemed knowledgeable when we talked about iPods. Turns out he bought a laptop the day before... and it runs really slowly... and of course the word "Vista" comes out during the same sentence. Just like in the Apple ad, I tell him the only solution (for a Windows-based laptop) is to "upgrade" from Vista to XP. Thanks to Apple for their ad that told me this was possible ("PR Lady")! :-)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Photoshop CS3: Problems with Stacks

Although I like the "stacks" feature in the Bridge, as discussed in my last Photoshop post, it's not without flaws. Let's look at things I would classify as problems, or at least unintuitive.

First up, there are 2 operations, "ungroup from stack" and "expand all stacks" that are a little too similar. "Expand" makes all the stacked pictures visible like in the original list of thumbnails. "Ungroup" makes a stack disappear and all the pictures are separate again. If, in a moment of distraction, you select all pictures and do "ungroup", poof all your stacks are gone. I lost a couple of hours worth of tedious work this way, after stacking together zillions of triplets produced by auto-exposure bracketing.

But, you say, "Undo". Sorry, Edit->Undo doesn't work for stack or unstack operations.

The menu operations would be less likely to get confused, if they employed consistent terminology and structure. You've got "Ungroup from Stack" and "Open Stack" right next to each other. "Open" does the same as "Expand All", only for a single stack, so why not use the same verb in each case? To ungroup all stacks you must select all, there's no menu equivalent to "Ungroup All" like there is for "Expand All". So the menu operations are indistinct in terms of what verb is used, and whether you need to select all first.

I wouldn't have been futzing around with "Ungroup" except that the "Group" operation has a problem with keyboard shortcuts. If you select a bunch of separate pictures, Cmd-G groups them into a stack. Select multiple stacks, or some pictures plus another stack, and Cmd-G does nothing. It doesn't work if any of the selected items is already a stack. To do that via the keyboard, you have to ungroup the existing stacks, then add new thumbnails to the existing selection, then group again. Yet you can drag-and-drop separate pictures onto an existing stack, although only when the stack is closed, er, collapsed. So a mouse operation doesn't have a keyboard equivalent, even though it would make sense for Cmd-G to handle the case of merging or adding to a stack.

The online help says that selecting the top picture in a stack means that operations apply to all pictures in the stack. But that's only true if all the pictures in the stack are selected, which they are when you first group them, or if you click on the thin 3-D border around the right and bottom sides. So in experimenting with stacks, I ended up with several cases where labels or keywords intended for the whole stack were only applied to the topmost photo. Also, when you mouse over the bottom region of the border, a tooltip comes up that obscures the whole clickable bottom area, so in practice it's only the right part of the border that you can use for selecting the stack.

The Bridge can be sluggish to process input events. A number of times, I've done a Group or Open operation on a stack, selected other pictures and done Cmd-G to group them, and had the Bridge decide I really wanted to open those pictures in Photoshop. So even though stacks save time overall, while putting them together you have to pause between clicks to give the Bridge time to catch up.

One nice feature of stacks, related to the drag-and-drop idea, is that you can stack photos that aren't in sequential order. Have you ever taken several shots of some landmark, taken shots of something else, then more shots of the first subject? (Anyone who has photographed Half Dome in Yosemite knows what I'm talking about here.) With a stack, you can put all the pictures of that one subject, even from different days, into one pile where it's easy to pick out the best one. Or, once they're in a stack, you can give them the same keywords or label.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Photoshop CS3: Looking Back vs. Charging Ahead

I just had my first in-person Russell Brown seminar, where he demonstrated some of the nifty features in Photoshop CS3. CS3 is the first release in a while that's tempted me, since CS2 is so unusably slow running emulated on an Intel iMac. With CS3, the Bridge + Photoshop combo is actually fast enough to make sense to make them separate programs, and some of the processor-intensive features like HDR and Photo Merge run in reasonable time.

I was struck by the way several of the features have to do with that scary 4th dimension -- time! That's a trend I'm seeing a lot lately across many types of software (cf. "Time Machine" in Leopard, "flashback query" in Oracle).

On the one hand, CS3 will make you want to go back and re-examine pictures you thought you were finished with. The enhanced Photo Merge makes doing panoramas a snap, with very good auto-aligning and even auto-blending to match colours across the different pictures. If you're like me, you have tons of photos filed or tagged with the intent to turn them into panoramas later, but the process was tedious and error-prone enough that it never seemed worth the trouble.

Also, you can bring JPEGs into the Camera Raw editor and apply some of the settings (sharpening, white balance, chromatic aberration, etc.) in there. The information gets stored as metadata inside the JPEG, and applied only when the file is opened in Photoshop. I expect it will be a big space-saver vs. taking every halfway decent JPEG and turning it into a 20+ MB PSD file just to improve levels and saturation.

If those were the only features, you might say CS3 is a time sink, because you're just going to go back over your old pictures. But with the ability of the Bridge to group pictures into "stacks" (similar to the feature by the same name in Aperture), you can display a folder full of images and see just the unique shots -- all 50 shots of the same waterfall, bird, etc. can be condensed into one thumbnail in the Bridge, and you can work preview the pictures in a stack together and pick the best one. This should prove especially useful for:

* Auto-exposure bracketing where you have 3 copies of every shot.
* Portrait and landscape versions of the same scene.
* Wildlife shots with many close-together pictures of the same animal.
* Individual frames from panoramas, which can be collapsed into one thumbnail entry.

With stacks, you can do your ranking in 2 stages. First, pick which compositions and subjects deserve a place in the final portfolio, then pick which exposure, orientation, or moment in time is the best for each stack. If that faraway bird was just a speck in all 50 photos, just disregard that stack; the individual pictures won't get in the way of critiquing the rest of that folder.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nitpicking "The Bionic Woman"

I think this last episode exhausted my (considerable) patience with this show. I waited for it to find its footing, but it's just sinking into quicksand!

Forget that the tired cliche of a plot (good guy must protect bad African dictator from assassination attempt) would work just as well to set up a skit on "Whose Line is it Anyway?". Forget that they're trying to introduce characters who are separated at birth from the daughter from Gilmore Girls and Xander from Buffy.

You know your show is in trouble when the viewers start nitpicking the lighting. The stock tech geek guy looked like he was wearing fluorescent lip gloss in his scenes. Isiah Washington's big death scene (oops, sorry, spoiler) was overshadowed by all the weird glare that made it look like one eye was still open after he was dead. Did the writers call in some pre-strike favours from the gaffers?

Nitpicking "Bones"

The only CSI-style show I watch is "Bones". Yes, I know the test results would take weeks in real life, and you'd never be able to draw firm conclusions from tiny scraps of evidence. But I expect at least the first level of facts to be accurate -- Latin names for microbes, things like that.

So the last episode was like fingernails on a blackboard for me when they brought in an Amiga (yay!) which they said was based on the "Motorola 6800 series" (er, dropped a zero there) and said that a Doom-style first-person shooter for it in 1987 would have made the creator "a billionaire several times over". Yeah, well, "Defender of the Crown" had first-person jousting, and where are those guys now? (Cinemaware went bankrupt in 1991.) The ones who prospered did so because they went least-common-denominator and ported to the PC et al. The best animation was actually in European demos -- mindless fun, but did anything more ever come out of it? Lastly, the Amiga used 3.5" fairly rigid floppy disks (an oxymoron I know). The black 5.25" floppy they held up on the show would only have been readable by someone using a PC-style drive (probably with a Sidecar for full PC compatibility). Someone running 5.25" floppies on an Amiga would not likely be a super-secret game coder.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Photo that's Too Good to Win

Here's a picture that I figure should do well in several competition categories. It did OK in Nature and Pictorial at the local club.

Yet when entered in a regional competition, the judge ruled it out saying "It looks like something was done to the wings", i.e. Photoshopping outside the rules. That's a Catch-22. The wing detail popped out after I did just the normal (allowed by the rules) amount of Photoshop sharpening. I sharpened the picture as a whole. The startling translucent effect is because the bird in flight is actually shot from above -- a very unusual angle -- with the afternoon sun hitting the wings from side-on. What am I supposed to do, put all that in the title?!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Watermarking Pictures in Photoshop

I've just started using this technique for watermarking photos, like the Carousel picture in the previous post. If you've only done photo retouching with Photoshop, this technique opens up the whole new world of text rendered as vector objects, paths, and all those layer styles and options like drop shadow, bevel, and so on. Until you lay down some text on a picture, all those things don't have much use.

I've saved my original watermark as both a custom shape, and as a single layer in its own file. The custom shape can easily be stamped onto any picture, while the layer can be dragged from the layers window onto another picture (carrying along all the layer options).

A Photo That's Too Good to Lose

I've taken maybe half a dozen photos in my life that qualify for a personal "hall of fame". This one just keeps winning awards in different categories. It illustratesmany aspects of photography and photographic competitions.

When I first entered this photo in competition, our club was still only judging slides. So I had to send the original file to a service that produced slides from digital images. In fact, it projected much better as a slide (more detail, brighter colours) than ever since as a digital image. It won "Creative image of the year" at the Berkeley Camera Club, even though I was only competing at the beginner level.

Savvy photographers know that you have to get as much mileage as you can from your best images. So I entered it again, in the Pictorial category. This time, it got an honourable mention at the year-end BCC competition.

This year I entered the Fotoclave competition for the first time. That's a regional competition for all of northern California. I entered it separately in several different categories, but it was only accepted in the Journalism category. It received an honourable mention, going through 2 rounds of judging -- top 20 pictures forwarded from the local group of camera clubs, then judged in a pool of 60 images from all across NorCal.

As a potential money-maker, the knock against it is the lack of a model release form. The iStockPhoto site, for one, won't sell an image with a recognizable face without a model release form. Obscuring the faces would solve that problem, but I think would weaken the image.