Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEW: Adobe Acrobat XI

Adobe is promoting Acrobat XI as a productivity enhancer for a variety of markets:

  • Increased editability and cloud service integration for business professionals
  • Integration with Microsoft Office and SharePoint, and increased efficiency for IT departments
  • Much easier text and image editability for content creators and designers
  • Security measures and PDF protection is now easier to apply, for data security personnel

One new feature in Acrobat XI is a complete sea change from previous versions and something I personally would never have expected to see—full PDF editability. From the reviewer’s guide: “Professionals frequently need to edit content from existing PDF files without wasting precious time locating and revising source files.” This is very true. As a designer, I’ve asked for native files a hundred times from clients who delivered PDF files and then needed changes (and didn’t want to pay the original designer). There have always been tools to make PDF edits and Acrobat has had ways to revise certain elements such as images, but the PDF format has never been conducive to editing. That has changed in Acrobat XI.

Edit Image

Edit Text

This new editability is handled by the new Edit Text and Images tool. When it’s active, text and image elements can be scaled, rotated and edited. Text will usually reflow during editing, which cures a major pain point for designers editing PDFs. Images can still be sent to Photoshop or Illustrator and back again. And you can execute find/replace commands to make text changes across an entire PDF. Acrobat XI’s new editing tools are an improvement but I see some problems with it:

  • PDF pages are treated as individual documents, so changes on one page will not cause text to reflow across pages. In fact, if you add enough text to a block on the bottom of a page, it will flow beneath the next page.
  • Acrobat XI segments a PDF into text and image blocks during editing. Each one will reflow but they are not aware of each other, and this causes problems. For example, each bullet and item in a bulleted list is its own text block, and editing one will not cause layout changes for the other items. Paragraphs are separate text blocks and will not move up or down due to text changes around them.
  • For some reason, I have also seen single paragraphs and captions composed of multiple text blocks. Editing these would be tedious.
  • As with any document, missing fonts will be replaced with a default font. It looks like images are embedded, so they don’t need to be linked with native files.

I think Edit Text & Images is a decent improvement but it doesn’t replace native files. You can edit pretty much anything in a PDF with Acrobat XI, but it is not easy unless revisions are small. It’s great for typos, but major edits causing page reflow would be a nightmare to deal with strictly in Acrobat XI.

Moving files with drag-and-drop merge

Drag-and-drop merge is another major feature in Acrobat XI. Recent versions of Acrobat have provided ways to build large PDFs (PDF Portfolio comes to mind) and the “Combine Files in a Single PDF” command is buried in the File > Create menu and in other places including the Welcome dialog box. Acrobat has a lot of features nowadays and this one can be hard to find. When you do invoke the command, a dialog box is provided to add, reorder and remove files.

PowerPoint Export

Corporate users will appreciate Acrobat XI’s new Export to Microsoft PowerPoint feature. Entire PDFs or text selections can be exported as PowerPoint documents, and Acrobat XI does a great job preserving formatting and document structure (including master layouts). I see fewer PowerPoint presentations nowadays—Apple’s Keynote actually shows up quite a bit in my work—but PowerPoint is still the industry standard in corporate environments. Along with PowerPoint, PDFs can also be exported in Word, Excel or HTML file formats. I can’t think of any export formats missing now in Acrobat except for Keynote, although Acrobat can export a PPTX file that Keynote can work with.

Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint now also integrate Acrobat XI’s enhancements in PDF security. Protect PDF is an option available when saving PDFs that will basically restrict copying, editing and printing. These restrictions are themselves not new but Acrobat XI makes it easier and faster to deploy these options. Along with Protect PDF, Restrict Editing in the Protection menu quickly password-protects PDFs from editing. This happens to be the restriction I apply the most, and it is an easy thing to do now. My only complaint—and it’s one that has been around for many versions of Acrobat—is that I have to apply the security to a copy of the PDF, not the same one I’m working on.

FormsCentral integration

This is the first version of Acrobat that really integrates with the Acrobat.com online applications and leverages those services. Acrobat XI ships with a desktop app for FormsCentral, the online form builder and response analytics service. FormsCentral is quite useful and I have used it for more than one project; it makes building robust forms easier and presents complete analytics. The Forms > Create menu item launches the FormsCentral desktop app, a portal to the online app, and from there you can command all FormsCentral features. One of the benefits of working with an online app is you can manage forms and analytics even if you’re away from Acrobat XI.

EchoSign integration

Another online application that Acrobat XI integrates with is EchoSign, the digital signature service. Acrobat has relied on digital signatures in PDF forms for years, and EchoSign provides another layer of features including online distribution and tracking, delivery confirmation with Adobe Certified Document Services, and hand-signed electronic signatures applied via touchscreen devices. Over the years, Acrobat’s electronic signature features have not changed much and I have found them to be confusing. EchoSign helps relieve the confusion, but what really clarifies things is the Place Signature option in the Sign panel. The Place Signature dialog box provides four options for electronically signing a document and it’s pretty easy to use. EchoSign’s real benefits come with document distribution.

One more feature that I think is really useful: Custom tool sets. Acrobat XI is a quite mature app and it has grown a long list of tools and toolbars. It has been particular long since the sidebar tool panel was released a couple versions back. There are almost too many tools, and definitely too many toolbars to be useful at once. Custom toolbars allow users to remove, add or move tools around in existing tool sets or create new tool sets. Tool sets are included on top of the sidebar panel. I don’t know how useful this is in the creative professional market: Adobe creative products have used task-specific workspaces for years now, but customizing tool panels have typically not done well. In this case, Acrobat XI might have a good use for custom tool sets in the corporate market, where there’s time, resources and motivation to build custom tool sets for department tasks. Another use for this could be in prepress and print production, where users work with PDFs regularly but have no need for Acrobat’s collaboration and commenting tool panels.

Acrobat XI provides several new features that really stand out, and it’s part of the Creative Cloud so it’s available to many users without extra cost. The standalone product costs US$449/$199 full/upgrade. FormsCentral and EchoSign are both services with monthly costs—both are just under $15 per month.

Acrobat XI
Adobe Systems
US$449/$199 upgrade
Rating: 8/10

How Adobe FormsCentral Saved My Project

Adobe FormsCentral, one of their growing number of apps at Acrobat.com, has been on my review list for some time but didn’t have a great angle to write about until recently. Adobe FormsCentral literally saved a recent project of mine, and I was surprised how its strengths dovetailed with the technical issues I was facing.

The project objective was straightforward:

  • Build an online registration form
  • Include payment integration with PayPal
  • Send email notification to the user and the client on submission
  • Store registration data or send it via email to the client

The client’s website is constructed with Ning, which made its name as a social community builder but now is a blend of that and a typical content management system. Unfortunately, Ning’s backend is fairly difficult to work with unless you are doing basic CSS or HTML changes. The Perl script that we used last year to submit the form data was not allowed by Ning, effectively scuttling our existing solution. I was worried that Ning would force the form to be hosted elsewhere until I thought about FormsCentral, which has a few characteristics that made it ideal for this job:

  • A robust set of form elements covered all the inputs I needed.
  • The ability to embed my form on any webpage with an iframe let me put this form on a Ning page with no problem.
  • The FormsCentral service handles all the notifications and submission data storage, so I didn’t have to write code to handle it myself.
  • Multiple user accounts through FormsCentral meant that my client could run reports and check registrant data as easily as I could.

FormsCentral comes loaded with 50 templates for various industries, but I only needed five text fields so a blank template was adequate. In the Design tab, I was able to make fields required, limit the total characters, include help popups and restrict input to certain types like text, number or email. These are all typically included with forms services like FormsCentral. The one design feature that is completely absent is the ability to dictate design with CSS, which I’d normally use to design a web form. I understand Adobe’s focus on non-programmers, but CSS could really make it easier to apply design elements throughout forms.

The Options tab pretty much covered the rest of my project requirements. I created a Submission Receipt that is sent to all users after they complete the form. I also set up a notification to be sent to the client and myself after every submission, though I was a bit disappointed my client had to create an Adobe ID and log into FormsCentral in order to be added to the notifications list. I also noted that I couldn’t create my own HTML email template to be used for notifications or receipts.

Payment processing is also set up in FormsCentral’s Options tab. Configuring PayPal payments with this form was the most difficult step to master. Registering the PayPal account with the form is easy enough but connecting the form fields to the purchase functionality can be confusing. In the Payment Processing settings, I had to specify the purchase field, quantity field, price and description. The user selected their quantity in a particular field on the form, so that was used for the quantity field. (I also could have set it for exactly one item, which is helpful in some situations.) The purchase field is what confused me because, in this case, the form’s Submit button is also considered a valid purchase field. It was what I needed for this project.

FormsCentral forms can be distributed up to three ways:

  • An HTML page hosted at FormsCentral. An example is https://adobeformscentral.com/?f=zGP2-N2bVVS-pV5I4D7hMQ.
  • A PDF form with interactive form fields. This can be submitted by the user when offline, and the data is stored locally until an Internet connection can be made.
  • Embedded via iframe into an HTML page. The embed code looks like this:


script type=”text/javascript” src=”https://formscentral.acrobat.com/Clients/Current/FormsCentral/htmlClient/scripts/adobe.form.embed.min.js”>
script type="text/javascript">
var fzGP2_2dN2bVVS_2dpV5I4D7hMQ = new ADOBEFORMS.EmbedForm({formId:"zGP2-N2bVVS-pV5I4D7hMQ", server:"https://adobeformscentral.com/", width:640, showHeader:false, transparent:true, widthAfterRedirect:640, heightAfterRedirect:400});
fzGP2_2dN2bVVS_2dpV5I4D7hMQ.display();

You can see some embedded parameters, such as background color, form width and the iframe size after the form is submitted and a redirect URL is specified. (I didn't use this because FormsCentral lets you show a confirmation message after submission.)

The View Responses tab is where the client and I could see the submitted data. Everything is stored, and PayPal even returns the transaction ID and total dollar amount to FormsCentral so the payment data is complete. A report can be exported from the File menu within FormsCentral, or you can view the Summary Report tab to see some charts based on your data. These did not help me much because most of my data was non-numerical, and the charts can only display data as a full count or an average. My client and I focused on the View Responses tab, which had all the data we required.

The Ning platform could accept FormsCentral's embed code since it's pure HTML, and the form itself worked perfectly. This got us around the limitations imposed by Ning and also provided me the data handling that I normally would have executed with my own scripts. Ultimately, FormsCentral gave me more tools with less work and helped both me and my client be more efficient. FormsCentral does have its limitations, mostly imposed by the product's emphasis on the non-programming user. However, FormsCentral is designed for projects like this one and I was lucky to consider it!

FormsCentral can be run as a 30-day trial for 99 cents or paid monthly for $14.99 per month. This allows up to five forms and up to 500 responses. An annual rate of $143.88, recently reduced, provides 5,000 responses per form with unlimited data storage and unlimited forms. Note that the Acrobat.com apps, including FormsCentral, are not included in Adobe's Creative Cloud product.

BOOK REVIEW: Node Up and Running

Front-end web developers everywhere know JavaScript and use it for everything from DOM manipulation to Ajax applications. That’s why I am really excited that Node.js exists—JavaScript running on the server side, running applications from the server rather than the browser. The exciting aspect of it is it opens up server-side programming to front-end developers who until now have focused on the browser.

Node Up and Running by Tom Hughes-Croucher and Mike Wilson provides a primer on Node that I really enjoyed. I have not worked with Node before but I’m experienced with JavaScript—in other words, I’m the ideal reader for an introductory book such as this. The most useful chapter for me was actually the first, which introduces Node and—most importantly—explains the scalability of Node and its ability to handle large applications. I wasn’t sure it was suitable for these things compared to Java or other server-side languages. I wish the book dived deeper into these questions, but the chapter was enough to make me feel comfortable using Node in these situations.

The rest of the book covers basic Node concepts like loops, error handling, APIs and data handling. All the basics you will need are here, but there’s more to Node and I will be looking forward to a more extensive Node “cookbook” from O’Reilly in the future. (Tom Hughes-Croucher said on Amazon.com that it is in the works.) Node Up and Running is short so you don’t get into all the details, but I was impressed it packed in as much useful details as it did. I also liked that the very first project code in the second chapter consisted of a chat server and a Twitter service—both look impressive and show off Node functionality.

One complaint about Node Up and Running is that the book covers a quickly-changing framework and some parts of the book are outdated at this point. Another criticism is that the book is too short—it’s not even 200 pages, so it’s really just an introduction to Node. But as an introduction it serves its purpose very well and entices front-end developers with some great server-side code that can be built with their JavaScript skills. It’s an exciting time to be a JavaScript developer!

Node Up and Running
Tom Hughes-Croucher and Mike Wilson
Published by O’Reilly
US $34.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy at Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: Joe McNally’s Sketching Light

Sketching Light cover

Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash is the third of photographer Joe McNally’s books that I’ve reviewed, and I never really grow tired of reading his stories. The quality of his storytelling and the depth of knowledge he has gained from years in the field is what makes his books so interesting, and Sketching Light is no different.

As you can gather from the title, Sketching Light focuses on using flash in photography and there are a variety of stories about the topic. Unlike The Art of Photographic Lighting, which I just reviewed, Joe’s chapters are full of text, intriguing and imaginative photography, and a lot of storytelling. All this is on top of technical details supported by first-hand field experience. The book really is an awesome read, and I’d recommend it to any professional photographer. (Amateurs and prosumers will enjoy it too, but Joe’s writing as a professional and some material just doesn’t apply to what they are shooting.)

I was also inspired by some of Sketching Light that did not really pertain to lighting. Joe works with a lot of models and subjects and he writes quite a bit about working with people. There’s also a section, “How Do You Get Fired from LIFE?”, that I was particularly interested in because I grew up reading LIFE magazine in the 1990s and surely saw Joe’s work without knowing it. He doesn’t even mention lighting in this section; instead, the section is about the actual value of accolades and how temporary the perfect gig can be.

There’s a couple criticisms I want to make about Sketching Light. Joe has published three highly-regarded books now, and I think the content is starting to sound the same. The previous book, The Hot Shoe Diaries, is also about lighting and I’m not sure another book about lighting was the best idea. The content is appealing but it also seems too similar to the other two books. I’ve also noticed that Joe’s writing style is very conversational, which I usually enjoy, but it makes for longer books. Sketching Light is over 400 pages long, and I think some editing could pare that down to 350 or even 325. Some of the verbiage in Sketching Light is not necessary. I criticized Eib Eibelhaeuser for an unusually dry writing style in The Art of Photographic Lighting, but I’d say Joe McNally’s writing style could be more streamlined and direct without losing its impact.

Despite this, Sketching Light is a wonderful book and any pro photographer would do well to have it on his or her shelf. I’m putting my copy next to Joe’s other two books, which I refer to regularly.

Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash
Joe McNally
Published by New Riders
US $49.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy from Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Photographic Lighting

Art of Photographic Lighting cover

Eib Eibelhaeuser’s The Art of Photographic Lighting is an interesting book and not the typical book that I see written for photographers. Many books about photo lighting focus on the fieldwork—lighting setups, equipment, handling natural light and other details. The Art of Photographic Lighting is part history book, part art theory book and part photo lighting book. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Eib’s writing style is clean and clear, which I appreciate. There aren’t many anecdotes or stories from the field, so the writing is not very vivid or interesting like other photographers’ books. (Joe McNally’s books on lighting are practically the opposite.) I also was somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t more actual writing in the book: subjects are sometimes given just a few pages, and the pages often have plenty of white space and photography. The book design is nice and clean, but there is not as much content as I’m used to.

The content is solid. Eib is knowledgeable about many different aspects of photography lighting, including light bulb structure and history, flash configurations, color temperature, and quality of natural light at different times of day. I liked the chapters on natural light the best, and sections were well-defined (“Day,” “Night,” “Indoors” and more). As mentioned above, The Art of Photographic Lighting does not dive deep and these subjects aren’t always covered in detail.

Many pages in The Art of Photographic Lighting are devoted to photography, but quite a bit of it is bland and not very memorable. They do a good job of illustrating the lighting principles described in the text, and the images are technically good, but they are really just not too imaginative, exciting or artistic. I’m not sure how I feel about this because The Art of Photographic Lighting seems more of a textbook and the images do their job. Maybe Eib should strive to find or make images that do more than that.

Ultimately, like I mentioned above, The Art of Photographic Lighting is a good example of a textbook on photographic lighting. Its spare, clean style and comprehensive survey of lighting history and composition make it a very useful guide. However, I think the artfulness of lighting is lost and there’s very little text that sparks the imagination. That should be added to this book if it is ever given a second edition.

The Art of Photographic Lighting
Eib Eibelhaeuser
Published by Rocky Nook
US $44.95
Rating: 6/10
Buy from Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

I enjoy David duChemin’s books because he speaks about artistry and philosophy, and not just about the technical details in his photography. Many photographers do the same thing and talk about composition, light and other aspects of photography beyond the camera, but David really brings his thoughtfulness into his writing.

duChemin book cover

Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images is David’s latest book and one more example of his inward-looking style. The book considers what makes a photograph successful and how to apply these qualities of visual storytelling to future images. There are many techniques illustrated here that you can get in many other books—the rule of thirds and the golden spiral come to mind—but the real takeaway is how David explains these concepts and examines them at their most philosophical level.

For example, there’s a small sidebar on “reading” versus “viewing” photographs where David describes the difference between passive viewers and active “readers” of images. I learned a similar concept when I was studying music history: to really understand a work of art, you have to go beyond your superficial reaction to it. In today’s saturated world of images, it’s easy to jump at first impressions when viewing photography, but David is wise enough to avoid that and frame the discussion with that single word.

The last section of the book—almost 100 pages—is devoted to 20 of David’s photographs. Those are a lot of pages to devote to just 20 images, but I appreciate the focus. In this section, Photographically Speaking applies the concepts of visual language that were developed in the previous section, such as orientation and the rule of thirds. I enjoy the philosophical aspects of the first section more than the technical focus in the second, but it does help make the book well-rounded.

Photographically Speaking is a very enjoyable book with beautiful images and very thoughtful writing from David. Photographers who have a firm grasp of their craft and want to really think through the images they produce can’t go wrong with this book.

Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images
David duChemin
Published by New Riders
US $44.99
Rating: 10/10
Buy from Amazon.com

Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things You Need to Know About People Books

Designer book cover

Three years ago, I highly rated Susan Weinschenk‘s book Neuro Web Design, which explained how to apply psychology principles to web design and build websites that are more appealing, easier to use and more memorable. Susan has written two more books that continue to apply psychology to technology and appeal to designers and presenters. Both follow a similar format: 100 Things Every ____ Needs to Know About People, with 100 ideas grounded in psychology and applicable to designers’ and presenters’ projects.

As with Neuro Web Design, both 100 Things books are well-researched. Susan has a deep knowledge of various studies and psychological findings and explains them without being too technical. The studies are also quite interesting and revealing in themselves, and I liked reading those before anything else. The book designer also did a good job building charts when needed to illustrate psychological concepts. The rest of the books’ design is colorful, incorporates useful sidebars, and provides a “takeaways” callout at the end of each section to communicate the most essential points.

Presenter book cover

Susan also does a good job connecting psychological truisms with scenarios in the design and presentation worlds. The “completeness” ratings you see on online profiles—such as a LinkedIn or Dropbox account—plays into the fact that “people are more motivated as they get closer to a goal.” “People read in a certain direction,” so be sure to stand beside your presentation so you can be the point of entry in how attendees “read” the stage. Rule 18 in the designer’s book—”People read faster with a longer line length, but prefer a shorter line length”—even explains the differences between text on a webpage and text in print, and it’s all based on recent research. These books are based on evidence and tied directly to our industries.

However, Susan doesn’t always do a good job connecting the rules specifically to the designer’s or presenter’s world and some don’t apply to our work as well as others. “People can be in a flow state” and work with focused attention, but this applies to any work—not just designers’ work. Same thing with “people can’t multitask.” I think the book for presenters is more focused on aspects of presentation than the designers’ book is focused on design. Ultimately, I think every point Susan makes is useful but some are more useful than others.

Still, both books are great material and a good value. Designers and presenters sometimes build their products by the book and don’t always think about why some approaches might work better than others. Susan’s books help you understand the “why.”

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People
100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know about People

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
Published by New Riders
US $34.99 for Presenters, US $29.99 for Designers
Rating: 9/10
Buy Designer and Presenter from Amazon.com

REVIEW: Lightroom 4 Prepares For The Future

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 has been available a few months but only in the last week Adobe has included Lightroom in Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions, which is potentially even bigger news than the new version 4. Photographers who have purchased Creative Cloud subscriptions now get Lightroom whenever and wherever they want it, and that makes Lightroom even more relevant than before. I’ve been working with Lightroom 4 since it was released and Adobe has made some smart improvements to the application that embrace new digital technology.

I believe the most vital improvements in Lightroom 4 happen in the new adjustment brush features. Lightroom became much more useful when the adjustment brush was added a couple years ago, but Lightroom 4 lets photographers make spot adjustments to counter moiré, reduce noise or adjust white balance. The white balance adjustment is very useful and I was surprised no one thought to spot-adjust white balance before. I was so surprised I actually launched Lightroom 3 to confirm it!

Lightroom 4 white balance adjustments

Basically, the Temp and Tint sliders in the Develop module can now be adjusted within a single adjustment brush point on the photo or as a general adjustment across the photo. My color correction techniques have always emphasized correction across entire images—color casts and white balance mistakes will almost always affect everything the camera sees. However, there are a few times when multiple light sources can skew results in a part of an image. There are also many photographers today who want to be more creative with their images than just getting the color correct. These photographers will really enjoy the new controls available in Lightroom 4.

I am also really excited that Lightroom 4 now supports video formats. Prosumer cameras have been shooting video for a few years now and it’s becoming mainstream—some photographers like Vincent Laforet are experimenting with the art form while wedding and event photographers are supplementing their income shooting video as well as their usual photos. Adobe worked to make Lightroom 4 provide a complete video workflow. I don’t think Lightroom 4 provides a complete workflow—it’s missing basic features like sound editing, though Creative Cloud users will have all the software they need for video editing. But Lightroom 4 does provide easy importing and exporting to Facebook and Flickr as well as to your hard drive. I think exporting to YouTube is essential though.

Lightroom 4 does provide Quick Develop module tools for video editing, which is where workflow comes in. Photographers can change exposure, white balance and all the tone controls used for images. You can also trim clips and capture a poster frame for presenting the video. This is the extent of video editing in Lightroom 4, and I think it’s a decent enough editing suite for photographers in the field but a photographer who wants to sell his video footage should invest in Creative Cloud, CS6 Production Premium or Adobe Premiere Elements. Amateur videographers should really consider Premiere Elements, though serious photographers might want to invest in CS6 Production Premium (or, better yet, hire someone who already has mastered Adobe’s video applications.)

Lightroom 4 map module

One of the most visually spectacular new features in Lightroom 4 is the Map module, powered by Google Maps, that lets photographers place their photos in specific locations. It’s a thrill to navigate the world in Lightroom 4 and see exactly where your photographic journeys have taken you, but I have a feeling Adobe will have to constantly play catch-up with advances in GPS and mapping technology. 3D mapping is starting to emerge and I think tagging photos by building floor as well as GPS location would be useful. I also thought the process of matching photos up with their locations was tedious (except when the photo already had location metadata). If there’s no location data, you can drag-and-drop photos onto the map to set their location. This is probably as good of a manual system as you can get, but it’s still a slog.

Lightroom 4 boasts improved shadow and highlight recovery, and you’ll have to learn some new sliders in the Develop module to master this. In Lightroom 3, the Basic sliders in the Develop module included exposure, recovery, fill light and blacks along with brightness and contrast. (Brightness and contrast have been together in Adobe’s settings lineup since the early days of Photoshop.) In Lightroom 4, exposure and contrast are together and the other four sliders are highlights, shadows, whites and blacks. It’s confusing to consider whites and highlights two separate things (same with shadows and blacks) and there aren’t many differences between the two that I can see. Generally, the Highlights and Shadows sliders will affect darks or lights without ruining the other and will avoid excessive contrast. I still prefer working with the Tone Curve settings to pinpoint the tone regions I want to work on, though I like how fast and easy I can produce results with the Highlights and Shadows sliders. If you don’t have time to work with the curves, try the new sliders.

Lightroom 4 soft proofing

For photographers who make prints of their work, the new soft proofing in Lightroom 4 might be useful. A “soft proof” is an on-screen representation of the final printed product, and it’s often hard to get a precise soft proof since a screen and a sheet of paper are two totally different substrates. I’ve relied on hard proofs on paper since the beginning of my career. Lightroom 4′s soft proofs look like they might be helpful but I still don’t trust them completely—there are too many factors in printing that can skew the results. But what I do find really useful in Lightroom 4 are the new gamut warnings which will show regions that are too bright or too dark to display any detail. Lightroom 4 will provide not only printer gamut warnings but monitor gamut warnings too, which I’ve not seen before.

Lightroom 4 book module

Lightroom has always had a fairly robust set of output modules (Slideshow, Print and Web) but in version 4 there is a new Book module for creating photo books. I have seen photo books offered by several photo production websites but I usually like to design my own in InDesign. I wondered if Lightroom’s Book module would be easy to use as well as robust, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn there’s a balance between software-generated layouts (see the Auto Layout panel in the sidebar) and fine controls. The Cell panel lets you put white space around images on all sides or each side separately. I found the caption and type tools very intuitive—text was overlaid on images right where I wanted them to be and I didn’t need to handle text frame corners. Everything is done inside the Book module sidebar. I found one user interface element to be particularly annoying: the inability to add photo cells on my own. The pages’ photo layouts are determined by the Auto Layout presets; you can make your own presets but they still adhere to predetermined layouts. You cannot simply drag and drop new images onto the page either, unless a photo cell already exists. The only real way to tweak photo placement is to add padding to photo cells, but this isn’t a great way to do it.

Lightroom has had integrated social sharing for awhile now, but it’s been improved in Lightroom 4 in a way I didn’t really expect. If you share to comment-capable albums (a Facebook album, for example), photos’ comments will be shown in Lightroom 4′s sidebar and you can write your own there as well. Your comments will then appear on the Facebook album entry. I thought this was a really neat way to leverage Facebook’s API and integrate social comments directly into Lightroom. I also love how you can include your Facebook albums in the Publish Services panel and push photos up to it just by dragging them onto the album name.

Lightroom 4 is another quality upgrade for a quality product, and its inclusion into Adobe Creative Cloud makes it available to even more people. On the other hand, I feel Lightroom is a mature application now and some of the features are not so exciting or unique. Other mature applications, including Photoshop and Illustrator, deal with the same problem sometimes. But the improvements in spot adjustments, shadows and highlights, and photo book layout in particular make me say Lightroom 4 is an upgrade worth buying.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4
Adobe Systems
US $149 full/$79 upgrade
Included with Adobe Creative Cloud
Rating: 8/10
Buy at Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: Visual Stories by Vincent Laforet

Visual Stories cover

I wrote in my recent review of Jerod Foster’s Storytellers that the best storytelling techniques seem to span across art forms and can be applied to writing, composing and design as well as photography. I think that is one reason I really love Visual Stories: Behind The Lens With Vincent Laforet—the storytelling comes through not just in the pictures but in the words and the storytelling in the book itself. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Vincent is a top-notch photographer with a diverse portfolio—he shoots landscapes, people and nature equally well (though I think his people shots are the best). He’s also shot for a variety of publications and has lived and worked in many different locales around the world, so his subject matter and light are always changing and providing opportunities. The breadth of material makes Visual Stories a great resource for photographic storytellers.

The real gems of storytelling in Visual Stories come through in the writing. I’m not sure what makes Vincent’s stories compelling, but I think it’s through experience. Vincent writes about shooting in a Pakistan refugee camp; catching match point in an Olympic fencing match; making only two decent shots at a Super Bowl; and many more exotic situations. Vincent is lucky—not many photographers get such juicy assignments. His lucky break with the fencing match, described on page 91, just might make you sick with envy. (Don’t worry, I’m sure there are five failures for every success in Vincent’s career.)

Fortunately, Vincent’s luck and his ability to write stories have given Visual Stories beautiful writing to go with the photography. His stories are vivid and sometimes fairly personal, which I also like—this is a book about a photographer as much as it is a book about photographs. Visual Stories does provide some good details on lenses and camera settings, but they are not emphasized often.

I don’t really have anything bad to say about Visual Stories. I enjoyed reading it and photographers of all kinds will find it fascinating. All photographers have some stories to share, but Vincent seems to have more than most and they paint a vivid picture. The book’s price is a little high but it’s worth purchasing.

Visual Stories; Behind The Lens With Vincent Laforet
Vincent Laforet
Published by New Riders
US $54.99
Rating: 10/10
Buy at Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: Jerod Foster’s Storytellers

Storytellers cover

There are two types of photography books: the nuts-and-bolts variety with detail on apertures, lenses and lighting setups, and the artistic variety that attempts to explain the ephemeral aspects of photography like creativity, inspiration and storytelling. Storytellers by Jerod Foster is in the second category and the book contains almost 300 pages devoted to the art of photographic storytelling.

There’s lots of beautiful photography in Storytellers and I found myself enjoying the pictures as well as the writing. The photographs are not just Jerod’s either but other photographers who are profiled and interviewed in the book. Note that Jerod and several other photographers in the book are based in Texas, so there is a noticeable emphasis on Texas photography in Storytellers.

The test with any artistic photography book is to transcend the mundane aspects of photography and describe the creative photographic process in a way that rings true. Storytellers doesn’t always pass the test—it’s a fun read and I learned some things, but some of the processes Jerod describes in the book are typical things like shot selection, composition and the use of light. These are all important topics and certainly related to storytelling, but I felt that it danced around the heart of the art of storytelling.

I studied and wrote on creativity back in my college days and I’m convinced the most illuminating writing on creativity can be applied to all creative art forms and be made to “fit” with minimal changes. Storytelling techniques apply to writing and music as well as photography. While reading Storytellers, I had a hard time applying some of its lessons to those other art forms and so the lessons appealed to photographers and not always to storytellers.

Storytellers is still a very fine book and fine art photographers will certainly enjoy it. It’s well-written and contains some very nice shots. I think the book will also help photographers understand how their craft builds stories and how to hone their storytelling craft. My main complaint is the lack of focus on storytelling and overemphasis on nuts-and-bolts photography topics that are probably covered in more detail in other books.

Storytellers
Jerod Foster
Published by New Riders
US $44.99
Rating: 8/10
Buy on Amazon.com