Photo layouts at high speed

Over the past few weeks I seem to have had a mini-season of columns on the topic of what to do with digital images.

Before going on to something else, however, I thought I would mention a specialised little program called LumaPix FotoFusion. It is designed solely for creating layouts for photo books, greetings cards, business cards, models’ Z-Cards, or whatever else you can think of to do with it.

2009-110  Layouts can be as complex…

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Photoshop Elements 9 launch

Some exciting news in the few weeks was Adobe’s launch of the latest version of their entry-level image manipulation program Photoshop Elements.

Available simultaneously on the PC and Apple Macintosh platforms, Photoshop Elements 9 is the latest in a line of products that was brought out to fill the gap in the market for a less costly and less complex version of their industry-standard Photoshop application.

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Photoshop Elements 9 links

I’m going to be posting a review of Photoshop Elements 9 later in the week but here are some links in the meantime:

  • Adobe TV: Learning to use Photoshop Elements 9. Also, don’t forget to take a look at the Elements 7 and 8 videos (linked from the same page) because those features will still be in this version.
  • Scrapper’s Guide and their associated Digital Scrapper blog: There are some videos on Elements 9’s new features and a general video on how one would use Elements and the templates they provide to create scrapbook layouts.
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Huge big photo fun

This week I was planning to write about my experiences installing Linux on an old computer I have lying around.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t have made much of a story as my activities have been so far been confined to looking at the computer tower squatting on the floor of the spare room, acting as a bedside table, and thinking; ‘Hmmmm!’.

So that’ll have to wait for some time in the future but, talk about writing, I am really having a lot of success with the Dragon Dictate speech recognition software that I have mentioned before.

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Live performances

By a strange quirk of coincidence, both items I’m going to discuss today come with the word Live in their names.

First off, is a neat little drawing program called Livebrush. It basically gives you a canvas and the ability to draw lines in an unlimited variety of styles and decorative flourishes. Every aspect of the brushstroke can be controlled via on-screen control palettes and each line is created on a new layer. You gradually build up your picture, layer by layer, until you’ve got what you want on canvas.

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Exploring the Commons

One of the few pleasures left in life, now that the sugar, fat and salt have been denied to me, is photography. [ I may have mentioned this before 😉 ]

When I can’t actually be out taking pictures, I am very often to be found looking at them, and one of my most frequent online destinations is the photo sharing site Flickr.com. It’s where I display my personal pictures and regularly check in to see what friends and contacts have been up to.

This column is not about us individual photographers however, but about organisations who are using the site to post their pictures. Quite by chance, I came across pictures posted by the U.S. Army Materiel Command, which included the greatest inventions of 2008, and showcased the XM-153 Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station.

I challenge any man to see this thing and not have visions of setting one up to cover the approaches to his house, and using it to blow away the baddies as they come sneaking up the driveway. Anyhow, my interest was aroused, and I went looking for other organisations using Flickr to host their pictures.

There is no direct way of searching for these, but I did find quite a few including the US Marines, who post a variety of current pictures. Another is the media section of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and, although I should be getting used to the Internet by now, I still find it incredible viewing pictures taken the day before in a war zone halfway across the world.

Moving away from organisations for just for a moment, I also discovered that one can find collections of pictures on Flickr on just about any topic, by entering a key word into the search box. I managed to find pictures on such diverse subjects as Camp Bastion, Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and the London Eye.

But back to the topic, I was surprised to find that there are a number of heritage institutions using it to post sections of their photograph collections online. These include the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, the Imperial War Museum, and an apparently growing number of others.

They have a dual motive in posting their pictures to be viewed by a wider audience. The first is to share their pictures, which such institutions like to do, and the second reason is that the viewers might know more about the pictures than the institutions themselves, and contribute this knowledge.

Visitors to the site, seeing anything they recognise in a picture, are asked to add a tag, or keyword, to the picture and, if appropriate, some information in the form of a comment. This area of Flickr is known as The Commons and a note at the bottom of the contents page says it all; “Any Flickr member is able to add tags or comment on these collections. If you’re a dork about it, shame on you. This is for the good of humanity, dude!!”

One amusing thing I found in the Library of Congress collection is a colour picture of a couple of people hanging out backstage at the Vermont State Fair in 1941. Off to one side, there is a young boy kneeling with his back to the camera.

There is speculation in the notes on the picture about what he might have been up to. One commenter said he was probably playing with matches, because he looked like her twin brother had looked, as he set fire to their mother’s trailer home.

The pictures in the Commons are displayed on condition that there are no known copyright restrictions on them. They may be in the public domain, the copyright holder may have decided not to enforce copyright, or it may be unknown if there is a copyright holder.

I’m no legal expert, but I interpret this to mean that you are broadly safe to use the pictures for your personal purposes, but you might find trouble if you started selling posters, and the copyright holder suddenly appeared.

I had meant to do this column on a completely different subject, but when I sat down to do my Internet research, I was distracted for hours by all the interesting pictures I found in the Commons. They covered all manner of subjects ranging from a group of workers in an Australian cake shop in the 1930s, to a glamorous picture of a woman, apparently used in a cigarette advert.

And, if you don’t get distracted by something like that, you have no soul.

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Gotta publish

Gene Kelly sang Gotta Dance in the immortal musical Singin’ In The Rain.

I know how he must have felt because I often get the feeling that I Gotta Publish something. I have published a book, various websites, these columns and yet, it seems, that is not enough for me. For some time now, I’ve been having the urge to do a Blog on photography even though I’ve done my best to resist by reminding myself that the last thing I need is more time spent in front of the computer.

That didn’t work and I soon started considering how, rather than whether, to go ahead with it. My usual blogging platform it is a Blogger, where these articles are kept in an archive and, while I’ve got nothing against it, I was starting to think that it is a little less professional than I would like.

One blogging service that crops up often nowadays is WordPress which offers anyone free blogs at www.wordpress.com. You get 3GB of storage space for, which will hold a whole lot of words, and you can upgrade that for a nominal amount.

The sign-on process is very quick and once you have an account, you can go ahead and create a blog which will end up like end up having an address like http://allanjackson.co.za/fn/, to pick a random example. There are a large number of layouts (or themes) to choose from to give your blog the look and feel that you want.

You also get integrated statistics which tell you exactly how many people are viewing your blog, a list of people linking to your blog, and you get can import existing blogs from other locations, including from Blogger.

One very handy feature that WordPress has is static web pages which can be linked from your blog’s header or sidebar, and which don’t change as you update the blog’s pages. This feature fixes one of the great lacks that I found in Blogger, which is that everything is filed in date order and there is no direct way of keeping pages, such as a biography for example, near the front.

The key to using WordPress is the dashboard which is an admin page that allows you to view all the information to do with your blog. It is where you create and edit pages and blog posts, change the appearance of the blog, choose a new theme, and much else besides.

I had a quick look through the list of templates that are available and picked out a very clean and uncluttered black-and-white layout, which suited me perfectly. That particular theme allows you to add a picture to the header section of your page which I did very easily because it told me exactly what size to make it.

I found the WordPress interface to be really smooth and easy to use and I had a professional-looking blog site up and running in a short while. The first post took an additional couple of minutes using some text I had created and a picture from my online Flickr account.

The interface for creating and editing posts and pages is like a basic word processor which you use to enter text, apply formatting or insert pictures, video clips, or whatever. Pictures can either be uploaded from your computer and stored in your web space or you use pictures stored elsewhere on the Internet, such as in Flickr.

WordPress is a very easy but powerful publishing tool which would be ideal for keeping a day-to-day blog, or a much bigger website. I don’t intend to remove my current blogs from Blogger, but I must say that I very much prefer the features and power of WordPress.

Highly recommended!

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Fun with panoramas

Doing full justice to a beautiful scene or the interior of a building is often quite difficult with normal cameras because their relatively narrow field of view make it impossible to fit everything in at once.

The answer, of course, is to shoot the view in sections and to join these up together later. In the bad old days of film, we would get jumbo prints and cut them up and, with glue and a great deal of sweat and patience, you could come up with a picture that at least that showed the whole scene that had attracted you in the first place.

Now that we have digital photography and software programs that can join many pictures up into one, I decided to experiment with shooting some panoramas. I used a number of different programs, including one given away free with Canon cameras, and Photoshop.

I started getting pretty decent results but there were occasions the programs would fall over and just refuse to join, or stitch, the pictures I had taken. Then, in an online forum somewhere, I came across mention a program called AutoStitch which, it was claimed, made the process of creating panoramas so much easier.

I went along to the website www.autostitch.com and found that the program is a technology demo created by Matthew Brown and David Lowe at the University of British Columbia in Canada. It is free to download but is only available for Windows computers.

AutoStitch is only just over a megabyte in size and, to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it after I unzipped it into a folder and started it running. To say that the interface has no bells and whistles is to put it mildly but, as I discovered, it has all the essentials.

You start by selecting the pictures that are going to go into making up your panorama and it puts those images together and shows you a low resolution preview of what it’s done. If you like the result, you can go into the settings menu and increase the resolution of the panorama that it’s going to create.

The first set of pictures I fed into it were taken from the pier in front of Ushaka Marine World in Durban and showed the work going on at the new North Pier and the remnants of Vetch’s Pier, made visible by the very low tide. Photoshop had already flatly refused to stitch these pictures together but AutoStitch had no problem, and produced a very nearly perfect result.

The only real fault was that it missed out a child playing soccer on the beach and, instead, produced a little blurry patch where he had been. I was even more impressed to find out that AutoStitch could not only cope with joining up a single row of images, shot from left to right, but that it could also join up more than one row of pictures, or even a vertical panorama.

I was very impressed with AutoStitch and I will certainly be using it in the future. The free demo version is only available for Windows computers but its’ technology has been licensed to a number of commercial software producers and there are versions that will run on Apple computers and Linux-based machines.

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Social networking on the Internet

Big Al participating enthusiastically on the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk

I have been on the Internet for a long time and have used it time out of number as source of information and entertainment.

I never quite got the social networking aspect of it until fairly recently. The light began to dawn when I started to play an active role on photo sharing website Flickr.com.

I had been a member of Flickr for quite some time and was using it to display some of my photographs but hadn’t taken it much further than that. Things changed when I managed to persuade some fellow members of Hillcrest Camera Club to get Flickr accounts and we soon began sharing pictures online.

The system is cleverly set up to display new pictures, which have been uploaded by your contacts, on your home page and I found that wasn’t at all long before Flickr was my first stop on the Internet each morning, and quite often, the last one at night.

It is very interesting, after having gone on a photo outing, to get back home and then, over the next couple of days, to begin to see the pictures taken by other members of the club appearing in our Flickr group. The next thing we discovered was that there was another group on Flickr, called the Durban Flickr Meet Up, who were about to have an outing of their own to the beachfront.

A number of Hillcrest members went along on that outing, had a wonderful time and, instantly, our circle of local photographers expanded. We have since been on a joint outing to the Moses Mabhida Stadium, and there are many more in the pipeline.

I then got to hear of local photo magazine Pix’s website which also allows you to network with other like-minded photographers. It turned out that they also had a Durban and KZN Group, who were just getting organised, and about to start organising their own photo outings.

The social highlight, so far, was last weekend’s Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk on 18 July, when over 30,000 photographers in many cities around the world went on a Photowalk. There were 50 Durban photographers and we had a very successful walk, starting at dawn, from Wilson’s Wharf to the Bat Centre, and back.

For security reasons, the SAPS weren’t keen to see us photographers busily recording views around the bay but they soon threw their hands up in despair when confronted with the impossibility of controlling 50 leather-stetsoned people out having fun. We should have had some I-AM-NOT-A-TERRORIST signs but, as it was, I have had my picture taken playing the Lying Down Game (see here), which is gaining popularity all over the Internet.

Social networking is working for me so far and I’d recommend it. As with most things in life, however, one does have to be a bit careful about what one gets up to.

If you are a teenage girl, for example, it would most likely be unwise to run away to South America with someone you meet on the Internet. This person doesn’t love you and you will end up working in bordello, wherever you happen to end up.

I’ve even been doing a bit of Facebooking lately, but I must confess that one thing I still don’t get is micro-blogging site Twitter, and I doubt if I ever will. It’s probably a bit like Tom Waits music in that regard; not a taste I’m likely to acquire.

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More digital slideshows

Last week I discussed a program that will allow you to package up your digital pictures as a slideshow to send to Auntie Mabel living overseas.

Today, I’ve got two other possibilities for creating photo slideshows or movies. These include Google’s Picasa image viewer (picasa.google.com), which is free and makes creating movies very easy, and Pictures2Exe which is also very easy to use, but not free.

Picasa is Google’s image viewer and organiser and can be used to copy pictures from any source, like a camera, onto your computer. It is quite powerful and to can be used to fix and apply special effects to pictures, send them by e-mail, create contact sheets, burn pictures onto CDs, and export web pages.

Among its many talents is the ability to make movies out of any combination of pictures and existing video clips that you might have. It doesn’t offer many options during the process of creating a movie but this will be viewed by most as a blessing because there are no confusing choices.

All you do is select your pics, movie clips and a tune for the background music, if you want that. The only other options are adding a caption to each picture, choosing the size that the movie will be, and what transition to use between pictures.

You then click the Create Movie button which, if your computer is any thing like mine, will take quite some time, depending on the number of pictures that you’ve included in your movie. Once the hard drive on the computer stops whirring, you’ll get the option of exporting your movie as Windows Media Video (WMV) file, or uploading it to YouTube.

WMV files will play on any computer which has Windows media player installed on it cannot burn the movie to a DVD disc in such a way that it will play on any common DVD player. You will need some extra software to create a DVD from the files you create.

Just before I leave Picasa, I should mention that it does have one other interesting feature which is that it can create a picture collage out of any number of pictures that you select.

Last week I suggested that you try Microsoft picture story, and this week have gone into a little bit of detail about Google’s Picasa program. The final word on the subject for the time being at least, is that I would preferably not use either of these programs but, instead, one called Pictures2Exe.

I have been using a very old version of it and, although I find it now costs $49 for the standard version, it would still be my preferred solution. Like the others, it makes assembling the pictures for your show very easy but it offers far more control and flexibility of output.

By default, it creates a slideshow in a single file, that can be played on any PC, but it will also export your slideshow in video format, upload your files to YouTube or Vimeo, and the Deluxe version can also directly create DVDs. The new version includes a lot of visual effects such as panning and zooming, narration for individual pictures and plenty besides.

Trial versions of Pictures2Exe are available from their website (www.wnsoft.com) but, be warned, the trial version is severely limited and can only import 10 pictures at a time. It also puts a watermark on your shows but, it’s enough to give you a general idea of the program’s capabilities so you can gauge whether you’d be prepared to shell out your hard earned money for it.

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