Tag Archives: photo

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Answers In Taking Stock

I’ve been waiting for a book like Taking Stock: Make money in microstock creating photos that sell, which focuses on selling stock photography. Some clients pay big money for photography but practically all clients who I work with are happy with spending a few dollars—or even $20—on a stock photo. Moreover, the quality of stock photography continues to improve as cameras become more advanced and amateur photographers take in training from people like Scott Kelby, whose business and training seems to focus on photography nowadays.

I haven’t read a book by Rob Sylvan until Taking Stock but I like his style. The writing isn’t particularly flashy or humorous but what Rob nails down is his insider knowledge on the stock photography market. There might be other photographers who have sold more stock photos than him, but Rob has been in the stock photo industry since its early days and understands the history as well as what has worked over time.

Considering that the book is about selling stock photography, I’m disappointed that almost half of the chapters in Taking Stock is general digital photography tips and techniques. There are many other books out on the market that will help you get a good exposure or importing photos into Photoshop Lightroom. Taking Stock is not a large book—220 pages—so these chapters cut into content specific to the stock photography field.

That content specific to stock photography is very good—it’s the kind of information that’s hard to obtain but can mean the difference between success and failure. Knowing what gets photos accepted and rejected, how to approach multiple (or single) photo sources to show your work, and knowing what an inspector will flag as unsuitable are all vital things to know.

If you’re looking to enter the stock photography field, Taking Stock is a good resource. Many serious photographers won’t find much they don’t already know in the chapters on taking good photos and managing their library, but the chapters devoted to the stock photography process are essential to having the best chance for success.

Taking Stock: Make money in microstock creating photos that sell
Rob Sylvan
Published by Peachpit Press
US $29.99
Rating: 8/10

Adobe Releases Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9

psepre9-boxes

Adobe Systems announced today that Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9 have been released and are immediately available at www.adobe.com, and will be available soon at retailers. The Elements applications are Adobe’s consumer photo and video editing applications and I’ve always been impressed by the amount of advanced features and also the clean organization of the tools and digital asset manager, the Organizer.

Photoshop Elements 9

pse9-photomerge

Content-Aware Fill is used to finish up panoramas and fill in the gaps caused by warped edges.

As with Photoshop Elements 8, Photoshop Elements 9 borrows the best technology from its professional counterpart, Photoshop CS5. The Spot Healing Brush has been enhanced with Content-Aware painting, which was a hit with the Photoshop community from the beginning. Content-Aware Fill has also been added to the Photomerge Panorama creator so the unavoidable gaps left by stitched photos can be filled in automatically. I thought this was a great way to make Content-Aware Fill even more useful.

pse9-healing

The Spot Healing Brush has been improved with Content-Aware technology.

Other additions to Photoshop Elements 9 include:

  • Five new guided edits including a Lomo effect, portrait retouching workflow, reflection builder and a step-by-step process for making foreground subjects “break the frame” of the photograph.
  • Photomerge Style Match, which applies the tone and color of one image to another. This reminds me of Photoshop’s Match Color feature.
  • The Photoshop Elements product manager tells me Facebook is now the number-one way to share photos online. Photoshop Elements integrates with Facebook and will resize and upload images, and also create albums.

There’s several more new features in the reviewer’s guide but I want to test them and report back in my full review.

pse9-edits

Five new “fun edits” help consumers create some cool effects without handling advanced tools. Layers are created during the guided edit process so users can dive deeper and tweak things with other tools.

pse9-reflect

Convincing reflections can be created with a new guided edit in Photoshop Elements 9.

pse9-popart

A new guided edit creates “pop art” out of your photos. My first graphics on the computer were colorized clip art in the pop art style, so I have a soft spot for this feature.

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Step-by-step directions help users “break the frame” and make three-dimensional pictures.

pse9-lomo

Lomo camera effects give images a saturated, vignetted look.

BOOK REVIEW: Photography Unplugged

photography-unplugged

Harald Mante‘s Photography Unplugged is not much more than a book of photography, with a foreword and blurb on the back cover offering very little copy. I personally like to read more than look at photography, so this is disappointing, but the premise of the book beyond featuring Harald’s images is a very intriguing one. Given the fact that practically every image published today is retouched to perfection, Photography Unplugged presents photography in its raw Kodachrome state by a film photographer from Germany, “one of the prominent contemporary photographers in Germany today” according to the dust jacket.

The photography itself is candid and beautiful, showing a refined taste and judgment on the part of the photographer. Much photography shown in books by Scott Kelby and others who revolve around him are often commercial and/or focused on people, so it’s jarring to see very few people in Photography Unplugged. Most images reveal everyday objects and places in the more exotic places in Europe, the kind of material one might expect from art photography. This makes Photography Unplugged a refreshing volume.

At almost US$50, this is an expensive book but art books often are. Film photography fans and especially Kodachrome fans will enjoy the book a lot: Kodachrome was discontinued just before this book went to press, and Harald considers it his final paean to the film stock that helped produce the bulk of his work.

Photography Unplugged
Harald Mante
Published by Rocky Nook
US$49.99
Rating: 8/10

Photoshop/Premiere Elements 8: New technologies, same ease of use

pepe_8_boxshot_3in

Photoshop Elements 8 and Premiere Elements 8 are interesting upgrades because some cutting-edge technology from the professional-grade Creative Suite 4 (CS4) has migrated to the Elements consumer lineup. CS4 users like myself who have used this new technology for a year now know that consumers will be excited about the new features because they represent the most jaw-dropping advances found in CS4.

The first basic difference previous users will notice is a change in the interface: Elements 8 applications now use the same panel-based system in CS4. This includes the tabs, buttons and double arrows familiar to CS4 users. This interface was met with some debate a year or two ago but I think people have become used to the interface and I don’t hear any complaints about it. Perhaps this is because it’s easy to maintain the same palette layouts longtime users are used to (including myself). Elements users should feel pretty comfortable with the new interface, though it does function differently.

Auto-Analyzer and People Recognition

One of the major additions to Elements 8 is the Auto-Analyzer, an automatic tagging and rating system that analyzes images upon import. Metadata handling and tagging is probably the most tiresome aspect of digital asset management and professional workflows for products like Photoshop Lightroom have always assumed photographers would be looking at every photo, rating or flagging every one. The Auto-Analyzer and the “Smart Tags” it adds to images is designed to do all this automatically.

pse8-analyzer

I think the Auto-Analyzer works very well: imported images are given quite a few tags and the keyword make sense most of the time. If anything, the Auto-Analyzer can add too many tags to an image, even ones that are debatable. But the Auto-Analyzer generally gave appropriate tags to almost all images and made it very easy for me to separate good and bad photos. When used in tandem with other keyword tags, the Smart Tags helped me find good photos for specific subjects very quickly.

pse8-tagcloud

Quick Tip: It’s easy to miss the Keyword Tag Cloud feature, new to the Keyword Tags panel in the Organizer. An image’s tag cloud can help you differentiate between an image’s major tags and minor tags.

The Find Faces feature in the Elements 7 Organizer has been replaced with a People Recognition feature in Elements 8. Find Faces was simple and easy face recognition but People Recognition is smarter: it finds more faces and it also tags names to images in a more intuitive way. This is done by asking the user who people are—the more people the user confirms, the smarter People Recognition gets and the more images are tagged automatically by the Organizer. It’s an improvement over Find Faces and the “Who’s this?” questions don’t get annoying, but I find that People Recognition can be easily thrown off by a variety of things such as changes in headwear, photo angles, stuff on the lens (like water droplets) and others. The Organizer recognized many more people in still portraits and not many at all in candids and active shots.

pse8-peoplerecog

Quick Fix is surprisingly helpful

pse8-quickfix

I say “surprisingly” because I’m an experienced professional so I am used to seeing sliders labeled “Vibrance” or “Midtone Contrast,” but I still fiddle with sliders often because I’m unsure what modifications a slider will produce. Enter the Quick Fix previews, a set of nine icons that appear below a slider to show potential results (very similar to Variations in Photoshop). Sliders in Photoshop Elements 8 now have an icon beside them that reveal the Quick Fix previews. Click a preview and the modification is applied to the image. You can also click and drag within a specific preview to tweak its settings. This is a great consumer addition, and also helpful for professionals. Photoshop Lightroom could benefit from a similar preview feature.

Stealing from CS4, Part 1: Photomerge Exposure

I believe it was Picasso who said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” and I have no quarrel with products that borrow great features from other products. Photoshop Elements 8 has borrowed two great features from Photoshop CS4, both of which were exciting when released over a year ago and still excite CS4 users.

pse8-exposure

The first is Photomerge Exposure, which borrows technology from Photoshop CS3 and CS4’s Auto-Blend Layers feature. The original feature was designed to composite images with different depths of field but Photomerge Exposure uses it to automatically composite images with different exposures. The user marks the foreground object with the Pencil Tool; Photomerge Exposure transfers it to the image with the good background. The result avoids the poorly exposed images that are hard to avoid at night or in odd lighting situations.

Stealing from CS4, Part 2: Recompose

pse8-recompose

Photoshop Elements 8 offers Recompose, which Photoshop CS4 users will immediately recognize as Content-Aware Scaling. Content-Aware Scaling predicts which objects belong in an image’s foreground and manipulates the background for seamless stretching and resizing. The end result is magical. Recompose uses the same technology and even offers a couple improvements:

  • Protect and Remove brushes help fine-tune the Recompose process: paint over objects you want to keep or lose and Recompose will get a better result. This gives Elements users the added ability to remove people or objects during the process.
  • Select a print size from the Preset pull-down menu and Recompose will make the image the proper size, removing and protecting pixels where needed. This feature makes Recompose even smarter.

pse8-protect

The only downside to Recompose is its interface, which you have to use in order to apply Recompose to an image. I’m not used to it because Content-Aware Scaling in Photoshop CS4 doesn’t have one—it’s built into the general editing interface. However, Photoshop Elements has always been designed around multiple interfaces for things like this so I’m not surprised, and regular users of Photoshop Elements will only be blown away by Recompose.

Premiere Elements now integrated with Organizer

In the past, the Organizer was exclusive to Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements had a different organization tool built into the application. Adobe has moved away from that arrangement and Premiere Elements 8 now shares the same Organizer as Photoshop Elements 8. I think this is the right approach and now Premiere Elements users can organize assets, auto-analyze clips and more. The Organizer can also do a few nice tricks with video clips, such as full-screen previewing with sound and transition options for quick and dirty slideshows. It didn’t make much sense for Premiere Elements not to share the Organizer with its still-image counterpart, so I approve of this change.

Making things easy with Online Albums

pre8-album

The Premiere Elements team really focused on making things easy and “smart” in version 8. One of the new features designed to make things easy is Online Albums, basically online templates for building simple video albums. They’re easy to produce and the album designs remind me of iMovie’s album designs. There are a lot of designs to choose from (and more on the way for Plus members) and in the usual categories (fun, family, travel and more) but while iMovie merely makes designs difficult to modify it seems Online Albums can’t be customized at all. Users select their images or videos, select an Online Album and then publish to FTP, hard drive or a couple other options. It always surprises me how users almost always want to use canned designs like this but then modify the heck out of it, so I am disappointed Online Albums have no customization options.

A suite of “Smart” adjustments

Premiere Elements has gone “Smart,” introducing three adjustment features with the “Smart” moniker and one, motion tracking, that could have been. These four new features are designed to “make video editing less work” for customers.

  • pre8-smartfix

    SmartFix is basically an automatic exposure and camera shake adjustment tool. Premiere Elements will change brightness and contrast levels in a clip for optimum exposure, highlights and shadows, and it will also reduce camera movement. Exposure adjustment is often hard to pull off realistically so I found that SmartFix worked well for minor cleanup of video clips or to increase contrast, but caused some unwanted effects when handling very underexposed or overexposed clips. These effects included murky or shifted colors, plugged shadows and other problems. I think SmartFix does as good a job as it can but it shouldn’t be counted on to save bad clips.

  • pre8-smarttrim

    Smart Trim is a very convenient tool for trimming boring or poorly shot segments of a clip, or trimming to fit a specific duration. Thanks to the new Organizer and its Auto-Analyzer, Smart Trim can use the clip’s Smart Tags to decide what to cut and what to keep. The result is a more interesting video, and it does a really good job. I like to use Smart Trim to cut clips to a specific duration. Smart Trim also handles fade transitions around each cut so the automatic trimming is seamless.

  • pre8-smartmix

    SmartMix maintains a healthy volume when sound and video tracks play together. This is probably the easiest of the “Smart” tools to apply: Audio Tools > SmartMix > Apply will take care of it, and it does a great job of reducing the audio clip volume so it doesn’t drown out audio brought in with the video clip. There’s also a SmartMix Options window for fine-tuning the results, but I didn’t need to really use it to get a good result.

  • pre8-motiontrack

    Motion tracking should have been named “SmartMotion” or “SmartTrack,” because it’s another new feature that automatically analyzes and applies effects to your video clips. In this case, motion tracking finds movement in a video clip, defines the moving object and then will track another object to the same motion path for synchronized motion. Premiere Elements 8 has new libraries of clip art that make this easy but I prefer to add color keyed video that has had its background removed. In any case, it works well and it’s a very exciting addition for consumers. As with Photoshop Elements 8, Premiere Elements 8 has outdone itself in terms of the intelligence and jaw-dropping effects of its new features.

Now synchronize content across multiple computers

The Elements Organizer has had a backup/sync feature that takes advantage of the 2GB of space offered for free with Photoshop.com membership, included with Elements 8. 2GB isn’t much space anymore but it can be helpful and it can be upgraded to Plus, which provides 20GB.

pre8-sync

With Elements 8, backups can now sync across multiple computers—this is handy for multi-computer families and users with multiple computers such as a laptop and a tower. There’s also a new Backup/Sync icon at the bottom of the Organizer. It’s at the bottom of the interface and not very visible, but it gives access to all the backup and synchronization preferences, allows manual syncing and resolves conflicts manually among other things. Handling backups is one of the major pain points of consumers, who don’t often see the need for backups until personal photos are lost for whatever reason. Any tool that helps make backups easier and personal photos safer is a major benefit.

Pricing and conclusion

The cost of Elements has remained the same:

Standalone products (Photoshop Elements 8 or Premiere Elements 8)

  • $99.99 full
  • $139.99 full, includes Plus

Bundled product (Windows only)

  • $149.99 full
  • $179.99 full, includes Plus

There are also some holiday deals coming soon, see below!

Black Friday (Nov 23-30)

Holiday – North America (Dec 7-21)

There aren’t a whole lot of new features for either application, but what’s been added are major advances in organization and in ease of use for consumers. In particular, cutting-edge technology that Adobe has acquired or developed is now paying off for Elements users as much as CS4 users—Recompose and the “Smart” tools in Premiere Elements 8 are prime examples.

Some of the new technology, such as People Recognition and SmartFix, are solid but not foolproof, and I’m not sure they can ever be foolproof. I do think they can and should be improved in the next release. But both Elements applications are excellent consumer choices and a good value for the money.

Photoshop Elements 8
Adobe Systems
Rating: 9/10

Premiere Elements 8 (Windows)
Adobe Systems
Rating: 9/10

Photoshop/Premiere Elements 8 Bundle (Windows)
Adobe Systems
Rating: 9/10

Tutorial: Use Stitcher Unlimited 2009 To Build Interactive Panoramas

Photoshop has been able to produce good panoramas for years with the Photomerge plug-in, and it’s a popular tool for some photographers who use Photoshop to build sweeping vistas from multiple shots. Other users find Photomerge very handy for combining images for use in QuickTime VR (QTVR) projects such as 360-degree online tours and other immersive interactive media.

st-stitcher

I have always used Photoshop and a $49 program called CubicConverter to build QTVR: I combine images in Photoshop and then output the movie file with CubicConverter. However, Autodesk offers an application called Stitcher Unlimited 2009 that handles both functions extremely well. There are some pros and cons to using Stitcher versus Photomerge, but I like the fact that it’s a complete solution for VR professionals.

Create your panorama

In this tutorial we’ll learn how to import images into Stitcher, stitch them together in a panorama, fix any bad stitching or mismatched exposures, and export to QTVR. The five images in this tutorial are of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

st-photos
I stitched these five photos of St. Stephen’s Green.

1. Import your images into Stitcher.

The easiest way to do this is to drag the image files onto the Stitcher interface, but there are also menu and icon commands that do the same thing. I recommend that you make the exposures consistent outside of Stitcher. During the import process Stitcher will detect the lens type and focal length, which you can accept or revise.

2. Use the Stitch Shots command to automatically begin the stitching.

Stitcher does a good job stitching shots together on the fly, every bit as good as Photoshop’s Photomerge feature. You’ll have greater success if your shots have a healthy amount of overlap: in my example, the first and last shots have very little overlap with the image next to them and Stitcher did not attempt to stitch them together.

Photos that are successfully stitched are marked with green in the Thumbnail View strip below the main window. Stitcher uses green, yellow and red to mark successful and problem images. The stitched images show up in their panoramic glory in the main window, and the three tools to move around are in the View menu—pan, zoom and roll. The menu bar doesn’t show it, but there are vital keyboard shortcuts for the Pan (Alt/Opt-drag) and Zoom (Cmd/Ctrl-drag) tools. These shortcuts make moving a lot easier and the menu commands are comparatively slow.

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The Stitch Shots command is the easiest way to combine photos with Stitcher, as long as they don’t have exposure differences or too little overlap. Click the image for a larger view.

3. Manually stitch any missed images.

I dragged my two missing images from Thumbnail View to the main window. The left image stitches nicely just by dragging the image so it overlaps the image next to it. Stitcher fades the two images together to make a seamless transition, though in my case a man in the left image ended up losing some opacity due to blending with the second image’s background. Unfortunately, Stitcher does not have any retouching tools like Photoshop does, though you can stencil out part of an image and retouch it in Photoshop or another application.

st-left
See the man in the background who is 50% transparent? He’s right on the seam between two photos. These photos aren’t stitched, but Stitcher is smart enough to blend images when they overlap.

The right image is a good candidate for Stitcher’s Manual Stitch command—images that overlap and have common landmarks do well with Manual Stitch. Select the right image and the one to be stitched to it and choose the Manual Stitch icon or menu item. An interface appears that allows you to pin common points on both images. In my example, the statue in the background and one of the railing posts were good common points. Once the pins are in place, click Stitch and Stitcher brings them together. Note that manually stitched images are marked with yellow while non-stitched images (like my left image) are marked with red.

4. Equalize images

There are two methods for equalizing images: use the Equalize All Images command or, if you have 32-bit High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, use the HDR exposure controls in the HDR menu. In my example, the fourth and fifth images have some overexposure compared to the three on the left. However, Equalize All Images doesn’t seem to work with unstitched or manually stitched images and it of course can’t fix incorrect colors like the sky in my fourth photo. The sensitivity of Equalize All Images is also buried in Stitcher’s preferences, making it a chore to tweak it for the best results.

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The transition between the rightmost image and the one next to it. I left the exposure difference in the final product; Photoshop is the best choice to fix this problem.

Photomerge seems to do a better job of automatically equalizing images, though it doesn’t have the specialized HDR features that Stitcher offers. Photomerge produced a fully equalized panorama with the St. Stephen’s Green photos, and even figured out how to stitch the right image so I didn’t have to do it manually.

5. Render the final QTVR output

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Stitcher provides many options when producing the final output.

The real value of Stitcher is in the various formats it can produce: JPEG, QuickTime movies or QTVR, Pure Player Java or HTML and KML. The KML file is suitable for use with Google Earth. To publish a QTVR, select “Cylindrical QTVR” or “Spherical QTVR” from the Type menu and change the various settings as needed. The Render dialog box has four panels full of options for quality, output and scripting so it’s a complicated process but also very robust, and there’s a panel for saving and recalling settings so the process runs smoothly.

Conclusion

The coolest thing about Stitcher Unlimited 2009 is its range of features: there are several I did not write about, including hotspots, stencils, alignment and working with fisheye images and full spherical panoramas. I was impressed by the wide features that Stitcher offers to creators of panoramas and QTVR, and I think there is potential for more interactive images and multimedia with these tools.

REVIEW: Serif PhotoPlus X3 Adds New Features, Still No CMYK

photoplusx3

Last year I published a lengthy review of Serif’s suite of desktop publishing, art and photo software. Serif is based in the UK and this suite was its initial foray into the American market. I found the suite to be intriguing, with some polished gems (PagePlus X3 Publisher Professional was a good product) and others that had promise but could be improved. The first of these products to be improved was DrawPlus, which was upgraded to X3 and reviewed earlier this spring.

PhotoPlus has now graduated to X3, and it boasts several improvements. In my previous review of X2 I lamented the total lack of CMYK image support and compared PhotoPlus X2 to Photoshop Elements rather than Photoshop. PhotoPlus X2 did not have the necessary professional-caliber tools but was a fair product for photo hobbyists and amateurs. PhotoPlus X3 makes some welcome additions for pro users as well as some for amateurs, but one thing still bothers me….

No CMYK support

PhotoPlus X3 has exactly the same weak CMYK support as its predecessor. CMYK images are automatically converted to RGB, and the application doesn’t seem to handle the black channel effectively because the resulting RGB image doesn’t much depth in the shadows. RGB and grayscale are the only two available color modes. Lab isn’t an option either. However, a look at the image modes will show one of the major additions to PhotoPlus X3: support for 16-bit images. 16-bit images can carry more data in each channel so the resulting image can capture a greater tonal range and make High Dynamic Range (HDR) images possible. The downside is that these images naturally have more data and thus more file size, plus some industry leaders argue that the extra bits don’t result in any noticeable differences to the eye. It’s also not quite as advanced as Photoshop, which supports 32-bit images.

Serif was smart to include an HDR Merge function with X3, now that it can support the necessary images. HDR Merge works pretty well but I am used to Photoshop’s Merge to HDR feature which only has a few simple controls; PhotoPlus X3’s HDR Merge offers six sliders. Some users might like the added control but I prefer to fine tune HDR images with Photoshop’s other tools. Nevertheless, HDR Merge is a welcome addition to PhotoPlus.

Raw Studio is raw indeed

I know of only one point-and-shoot camera that writes Camera Raw files; they usually shoot JPEG alone. This explains why PhotoPlus has not supported raw files—until X3 arrived. Now it boasts Raw Studio, a module for processing raw images. The price of cameras keeps dropping and the camera manufacturers have many more SLR models available now, so a lot more prosumer cameras (and raw images) are out in the world. Photoshop and Photoshop Elements both have their own Adobe Camera Raw modules for handling raw images.

Raw Studio is underpowered compared to Camera Raw. There’s not many sliders, other than a few for exposure, black point, noise reduction and chromatic aberration. The White Balance menu does not have most Camera Raw options, such as cloudy or tungsten white point. I also seemed to pick up color noise in the shadows of my test image (a DNG shot with a black background). Camera Raw and Lightroom produced excellent blacks with the same image. Still, I am impressed Raw Studio was even able to read a DNG file (Windows had no idea what to do with it) and with some tweaking of the controls I was able to get decent results. It’s ironic that I complained about the excessive controls in HDR Merge and minimal controls in Raw Studio, but I use a lot of sliders when working with raw images. It’s surprising how often I use Camera Raw’s minor controls like Fill Light and Clarity. But the most important control for any raw photo is Exposure—exposure control is one of the killer features of raw photos—and Raw Studio has that covered. For those who haven’t shot raw before, this is a big step forward.

Noise reduction?

PhotoPlus X3 sports a new Noise Reduction feature, found in the Raw Studio and also in the Effects menu and QuickFix Studio. I tested the feature with my noisy DNG file but the results were average. Before I even began, I was frustrated by not getting any results in the QuickFix Studio. The Noise Reduction effect was also grayed out in the menu. I eventually realized Noise Reduction does not work on 16-bit images. After I converted down to 8-bit RGB I tried Noise Reduction and the algorithm seemed to blur the color while retaining the details. The resulting image had poor color (almost like sepia tone) and the black/white noise remained.

If you need to use Noise Reduction and are shooting raw images, I recommend using the Noise Reduction control in Raw Studio. It seems to knock out both color and black/white noise, though I’m not quite satisfied with its results either—it blurs important image details as well as noise, and my images often ended up with the soft blur you see in glamour shots.

Print multiple photos much easier

Serif has replaced the Print dialog box with the Print Studio, which gives much greater printing control and enables printing of contact sheets and photo packages. Photoshop used to print these as well but the features were jettisoned with CS4; Lightroom prints both and does a wonderful job. The Print Studio doesn’t have the flexibility Lightroom does when printing photo packages but the contact sheet capabilities are excellent. The photo package (called Print Layout) capabilities are also quite good and easy to use with many presets available immediately. Some users may wonder how to reach the Print Studio since it doesn’t have its own button, but once they learn how easy it is to reach they’ll start using it immediately.

Other improvements

Serif’s has a few other improvements in PhotoPlus X3:

  • The How To panel has a new “Black and White Studio” to make grayscale conversion easier for novices. It walks users through a series of options for producing good black and white images, and it’s handy for new users but experienced users will not need this tool.
  • As with DrawPlus X3, PhotoPlus X3 supports Microsoft’s HD Photo file format.
  • The QuickFix Studio has several new adjustments besides Noise Reduction: Hue/Saturation/Lightness, Exposure and Black And White Film are all new features and work well. It also has a histogram that makes things easier for Photoshop users and others who know how to read histograms. I suspect a lot of PhotoPlus users will sooner use the image itself as feedback.
  • There are five new effects: Film Grain, Kaleidoscope, Page Curl, Plasma and Shear. They all make nice effects and are easy to use, and Shear and Page Curl are particularly useful. Plasma is basically Photoshop’s Render Clouds filter, and is good for producing textures. Film Grain works well for high-resolution images but it was hard to get a small enough grain on web-resolution images.
  • 3D effects now support mapping of reflections, bumps, patterns and other attributes for 3D image creation. This is not true 3D like Photoshop is supporting nowadays, but manipulation of light sources and maps to make 2D images look 3D. The 3D layer effect process seems kind of complicated but it can produce some fun results.

Conclusion

If Photoshop Elements did not have Camera Raw, I would have considered PhotoPlus X3 to be a compelling substitute. However, Camera Raw is in that product and Raw Studio needs some maturation before it’s comparable. Serif made all the right additions—Raw Studio, 16-bit and HDR support, noise reduction, contact sheets and photo packages—however, users spoiled by Photoshop and Photoshop Elements might be disappointed in their execution. I would recommend Photoshop Elements over PhotoPlus X3, though if you’re already a Serif customer and like using their products then you will enjoy PhotoPlus X3.

PhotoPlus X3
Serif
US$79.99
Rating: 7/10

BOOK REVIEW: The Hot Shoe Diaries Enlightens and Engages

hotshoediaries

Last year, “Legendary Magazine Photographer” Joe McNally published The Moment It Clicks, which was hyped as one of the greatest photography books ever published. I thought it was a great book, but not perfect—the handling of terminology bothered me, and I had hoped for more writing in a book over 250 pages. But that was in 2008, and this year Joe has published a new book, The Hot Shoe Diaries. Maybe it’s because I’ve had my head down the past few months working for my clients, but this book seems to have had less hype thrown at it—which is ironic, because I think The Hot Shoe Diaries surpasses its year-old predecessor.

More text, more stories, more enlightenment

The Moment It Clicks focuses on a relatively broad collection of photography stories and insights; The Hot Shoe Diaries focuses on lighting, and that focus really brings the book together. The first section of the book is an excellent survey of lighting equipment, settings and Joe’s own secret recipes for success in the field (look for his camera grip technique on page 40). The rest of the book presents a variety of Joe’s stories about lighting problems and solutions he’s encountered—everything from one-light jobs to assignments requiring lots of lights (up to 50!). You’ll also find a small appendix that covers some settings on the Nikon speedlights, but The Nikon Creative Lighting System by Mike Hagen is a far more comprehensive resource.

The Hot Shoe Diaries seems to have a lot more text than The Moment It Clicks, and the stories are just as compelling. I think the focus on lighting actually helped Joe bring together a more interesting collection of tales that really teach readers something great. And I think it’s interesting that there are no footnotes as there were in The Moment It Clicks—I didn’t even notice they were missing.

Something should be said about Joe’s writing style, which is a treat to read but might put off a few people. I prefer a clear, concise writing style with some humor, and sometimes I shake my head a little bit at Joe’s constant use of vernacular, pop culture references and otherwise goofy lines (“Say hello to my li’l frenn!”, “word editors who wouldn’t know a good photograph even if crawled up their zeppelin-sized pantaloons and bit them in their ample buttocks”). Writers normally avoid clichés, but in that second phrase Joe is recharging two clichés with words normally found in children’s books. Despite all this, I still think Joe’s books are fun to read without quite getting too annoying—and anyone who references The Uncanny X-Men at Photoshop World deserves a pass!

Good design, plenty of content and essential focus are what makes The Hot Shoe Diaries a must-have for photographers who use lighting beyond their camera’s pop-up flash. This book does more than give us some cool Joe McNally tales—it gives us a long glimpse into Joe’s working world, complete with camera settings, equipment recommendations and detailed lighting setups for some of his most compelling images. This is where great lighting really happens.

The Hot Shoe Diaries
Joe McNally
Published by New Riders
US$39.99
Rating: 10/10

BOOK REVIEW: The Nikon Creative Lighting System

nikoncls

After reviewing The Hot Shoe Diaries, I have lighting on my mind and another lighting book to review: Mike Hagen’s The Nikon Creative Lighting System. Unlike Diaries, this book is a nuts-and-bolts compendium on Nikon’s lighting gear combined with chapters on how to get the most out of the gear and case studies for real-world instruction. It’s very well done and I think photographers working with Nikon speedlights should consider picking it up.

Definitive directions

What I like (and don’t like) about this book is the extensive coverage of Nikon’s speedlights, including the SB-600, the discontinued SB-800 and its replacement, the SB-900. Also covered in detail are the Speedlight Commander Kit (R1C1) and Speedlight Remote Kit (R1). The bulk of the book is devoted to the operation of these five products, which is good for those who sometimes need instructions for all these products in the field. However, it’s not such a good thing if you only own one speedlight—the rest of the pages are fairly useless in this case. I’ve owned a SB-800 for a few years and just picked up a SB-900, and I’m using this book to help master my new gadget.

The rest of the book—which doesn’t constitute many pages—covers general flash knowledge such as flash theory, how to successfully use wireless flash, white balance, using gels and case studies that really help apply the theory to practice. These case studies are really helpful because they are written so each one applies to a particular kind of photography (travel, portraits [outdoor and indoor], events) and lighting setup (one light with cable, pop-up flash, commander and remote, multiple remotes and more). However, while they are helpful they do suffer from a lack of space (each scenario has only a few paragraphs) and might not necessarily present that one scenario a reader really wants to figure out. For a real wealth of real-world experience, The Hot Shoe Diaries is a much better selection.

Take it for what it is

The Nikon Creative Lighting System may not devote enough space for using flashes in the field, but as a comprehensive overview of the Nikon Creative Lighting System it is well-done—clear, well-written and complete. Some readers may feel a glorified book of instructions is not what they need, and if that’s the case then steer clear of this one and use the instruction books that came with the products. But for that particular type of reader who uses several Nikon flash products and can use a book that covers it all, The Nikon Creative Lighting System is very well-done.

The Nikon Creative Lighting System
Mike Hagen
Nikonians Press/Rocky Nook
US$34.95
Rating: 9/10

REVIEW: Bokeh Makes A Mean Bokeh

bokeh

At the end of last year Alien Skin Software released Bokeh, a Photoshop plug-in designed to recreate the “bokeh” effect that’s commonly used when photographers want to blur or tone down a background. I was a beta-tester for the software and was included in the Case Studies page for some Bokeh-improved images of mine. But now I have to remove by beta tester hat and put on my reviewer’s hat, and what I see in Bokeh is a very handy plug-in for photographers retouching with Photoshop.

The Bokeh effect

Bokeh can apply a wide variety of effects to an image:

  • Radial and planar bokeh, applying the effect in a circular or gradient fashion.
  • Aperture effects: areas affected with bokeh can reveal a diaphragm shape of anywhere from three to 11 blades, or a circular or heart-shaped diaphragm. Blades can also be curved inward or outward.
  • Bokeh can have varying amounts of creaminess.
  • Highlight boosting, which can create hot spots if you’re not careful but punches up the image pretty well if you’re judicious with the settings.
  • Vignettes: vignette shape, color, intensity, size and feather are all controllable in Bokeh.

If you’re a photographer, the vast majority of your work with Bokeh will be in creating true bokeh: soft backgrounds, sharp foreground or subject, and possibly some aperture effects or vignetting. For this purpose Bokeh does its job exceedingly well: everything I’ve seen Bokeh produce looks like it was photographed that way. If you’re a mix of photographer, artist and designer like I am, you might find Bokeh useful for more than just recreating bokeh. I found that with a combination of colored vignetting and creamy bokeh I was able to age photos in a very nice way. For the bald eagle photo you see below, I played around with the aperture diaphragm settings to create some five-sided stars. A blue vignette and a little highlighting on the eagle’s head (done in Photoshop—Bokeh can’t do such spot retouching) made the image into a patriotic one.

This bald eagle image was created with Bokeh's standard effects plus some out-of-the-box application of vignette and other effects.
This bald eagle image was created with Bokeh's standard effects plus some out-of-the-box application of vignette and other effects.

More flexibility

If you’re hoping to use Bokeh for artistic effects like I did, be prepared to run into a few obstacles. Bokeh is designed for photographers, and so the plug-in isn’t designed to create a wide variety of effects. I loved using the “Heart of Hearts” diaphragm shape—it’s included with the plug-in—but there’s no way to create other shapes unless they’re based on a circle or conventional bladed diaphragm. Also, Bokeh cannot do anything to an empty layer, which would have been helpful if one wanted to mask or modify it later. Bokeh does allow you to duplicate the current layer when applying bokeh (click the “Create Output in New Layer Above Current” checkbox) but it flattens the effect with a copy of the original.

Conclusion

Bokeh is another well-designed plug-in from Alien Skin and for photographers who need to recreate true bokeh it’s an excellent tool. I recommend it for any photographer who falls in this category. Creative photographers and designers who want to play with the effects will find a lot of useful tools in Bokeh but keep in mind the plug-in was not really created for this kind of work and there’s sometimes more flexible ways in Photoshop to create the same effects. But Bokeh can do a lot, and I know from personal experience that it can make good photos great.

Bokeh
Alien Skin Software
Rating: 9/10
US$199.00

BOOK REVIEW: The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers


Companion

Derrick Story’s The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers is an interesting book, in that it strives to be a slim “companion” book for photographers out in the field but still aims to cram itself with all the information pertinent to a photographer using Photoshop. The end result is something in between, a book I enjoyed for its compact size and portability but ended up questioning whether it simply has too much information.

Great book for the studio

Don’t get me wrong—I’m the type to encourage information overload. And with that being the case, I’m impressed by the amount of information the Companion packs into its pages. Like many other books, this one focuses on workflow at the beginning and spends a chapter discussing importing images with the Photo Downloader, a component of Bridge that I’ve not found much use for until now. Derrick considers it a very powerful tool for importing photos, and I agree although there are other solutions (I personally use Photoshop Lightroom) and I would doubt most photographers are shooting in the field without an importing strategy already in place.

The book continues with a chapter on rating and keywording in Bridge (again, I use Lightroom for this—but Bridge is the next best thing) and two chapters on Camera Raw, and then the book moves into Photoshop territory with coverage of a variety of tools (Clone Stamp, Levels) and techniques (blemish removal, sharpening, hue/saturation, panorama stitching). The book ends with a small chapter on printing, which (like workflow) seems a little out of place because one would expect a photographer to worry about printing only after returning from the field.

Not enough Photoshop

Out of the eight chapters in Companion, only two cover Photoshop itself. This bothers me—I know Derrick wanted to avoid packing every Photoshop tip into this book, but I think more could have been done. Since this book is about Photoshop CS4, CS4-specific information would have been helpful: not much is said about the Adjustments and Masks panels, two of the most noticeable changes in Photoshop CS4. A photographer out in the field might want a comprehensive overview of these panels handy when he/she is working on images. There’s also plenty of other tips and tricks a photographer may want to reference in a companion like this book.

A lot of copy

When I think about companions, handbooks and pocket guides—whether they are travel guides or Photoshop books like this one—I hope to see the right mix of imagery, copy and information design. These small books get too jam-packed without white space and visual aids like headings and such. Companion does a pretty good job of mixing images in the right place but the copy is served in huge blocks that are rarely broken up with callouts, boxes or other aids. This makes the book somewhat difficult to use when looking up a particular bit of information, which is often the case out in the field. As I alluded to in my subheading above, this book works best in the studio—or reading room, where one can read the book cover-to-cover. A photographer in the field who has to find out fast how to apply a photo filter to an image for a client will be hard-pressed to find the information in Companion.

Conclusion

The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers is a good book, and I would recommend it for beginners or amateurs who could use a small, easy-to-digest guide to workflow, Camera Raw and a few Photoshop techniques for photographers. It is not a complete Photoshop guide or a full survey of new CS4 features, and I might stick it in my camera bag for “just in case” situations but the lack of Photoshop-specific information and ease of use out in the field might keep it unopened.

The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers
Derrick Story
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 7/10
US$24.99