Nik Software now offers educational discounts

Nik Software produces some pretty cool tools. Even better, they announced today that they are offering up to 50% off for students through a new educational pricing program. As the parent of a college student who also enjoys photography and all of the post production possibilities that shooting digital offers, I appreciate what they are doing.

Discounted pricing for Academic versions of Nik Software products are as follows:

  • Dfine 2.0 – $49.99
  • Viveza 2 – $99.99
  • Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete – $149.99
  • Silver Efex Pro – $99.99
  • Sharpener Pro 3.0 – $99.99
  • Complete Collection for Lightroom and Aperture – $149.99
  • Complete Collection Ultimate Edition for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture – $299.99

Free fully functional 15-day trial software, live online training, and over 80 training videos are available for all Nik Software products at: www.niksoftware.com

It makes sense when you think about it. Hook a student for cheap, then they are in the annuity cycle for upgrades as they get older. A lot of companies grasp this model, and with the good products from Nik, I am glad to see them participate.

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Why I Continue to be a Smugmug Pro User

Side Chapel at Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Arizona

I have now been a SmugMug Pro user since November. Prior to that, I used a competing site called Zenfolio (for one year). I fully intend to renew my Smugmug Pro site once it comes up for renewal. The key features they were lacking versus their competitors are now available (namely coupons and packages), but this is not the only reason I’ll still be here.

The one thing that continues to set SmugMug apart from the rest of the serious image hosting companies is their commitment to their customers. Sure, they are privately held with no debt load, so sometimes features are slower to appear than at a VC funded competitor. However, this creates an environment where they are only adding things that are essential to the Pro user, and they only do it if it really makes sense. No knee jerk reactions to odd requests, or doing things just because they can. The end result is an ongoing financially viable service that won’t disappear out of the blue someday (without warning no doubt). In fact, they also provide an easy to use and democratic method to submit feature requests.

The commitment to customers is carried over to customer support as well. They truly are fanatical about this. In fact, I think the only other company I have dealt with that is comparable is ExactTarget (an email service provider). SmugMug will respond to you extremely quickly via email for any support requests you might have. And they are actually pretty quick to respond on their message forums as well, although that is not the official channel (seriously, if you have an immediate support need, email, don’t go to the forum). The General Manager, Andy Williams, is generally the first person to respond to posts in the forum, and provides great insight for why items are or are not possible.

The last place that this commitment to customers is so evident is the creation of the SmugMug User Groups (SMUGs). These events are actually open to any photographer or videographer, but the conversations at times can be of direct benefit to SmugMug users (such as in the Denver meeting last December when feedback was solicited about the coupon and package systems). So many companies toss up a forum or a Facebook page and call it done. I love that SmugMug is sponsoring these in person gatherings. Paralleling my experiences with ExactTarget at Connections (I cannot sing their praises enough), a SMUG meeting is a great way to get feedback on your thoughts, as well as make your voice heard to the people who are really involved with this company. That in itself is priceless.

Customer service isn’t the only reason to stay with a company of course. The whole reason for having images hosted by a site like SmugMug is the ability to sell them. People who have purchased my prints have been quite pleased by the final product quality. Fulfillment by Bay Photo (one of two choices SmugMug Pro users have) has been flawless. When you couple this fact with the customer service commitment I see, that is the reason I do not need to look anywhere else – nor should you.

If you have been looking at similar services, or if you belong to one and have been thinking about moving, I would encourage you to take the SmugMug 14 day free trial. All features are active during the trial, so you will be able to get a real feel for how it will fit with your needs. You won’t be sorry you did.

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HDR – I Still Love It

HDR image of a gondola car taken near South Fork, Colorado with an Olympus E-510

I started shooting High Dynamic Range (commonly known as HDR) images roughly 2 years ago. I don’t shoot many (26 in my flickr gallery), but I enjoy shooting them. The gondola rail car in the photo above is the best one I have shot I think. Shooting HDR takes patience, at least with older dSLR’s like my Olympus E-510. Newer camera models, mainly ones that have arrived in the last 6-12 months, might have enough exposure bracketing built in to them to accomplish HDR captures with one click of the shutter release. Still others might have had a firmware update to accomplish this. It is my biggest hope that whatever Olympus brings out to replace the E-3 will have this feature.

I could write a tutorial on taking HDR images, but really, it would pale in comparison to the master, so I’ll let you have a look at Trey Ratcliff’s HDR Tutorial instead. I would also encourage you to check out his new book – “A World in HDR“.

After the captures, you need software. I have been using Photomatix HDR since I started doing HDR images, and highly recommend it. Trey does too, and he has even worked out a 15% discount with Photomatix (follow the link to see how to get it). Once again, Trey tells us the best way to use the software. For me personally, I usually play with a couple different settings in Photomatix to get the photo looking just the way I want to. For the gondola above, I think there were 4 versions, this one being the best (in my eyes). I would encourage you to experiment as well, and get the look that pleases you the most.

If you are looking for inspiration in other people’s HDR work, or if you have your own portfolio of images to show people, you need to take a look at hdrspotting.com. This collection of images is extraordinary, and I hope I produce something worthy of inclusion. To become a contributor, you need to obtain an invitation code. While it is not clear to me how people get codes to give away, if you watch #hdrspotting on Twitter or ask around in the HDR group on Facebook, you should see a code pop up. I will post them to my Twitter feed if they ever come my way.

If you are a flickr user, you should look into the HDR and Photomatix groups. Great pictures and discussions happen in both.

Get out and try your hand at HDR, and put links to your pictures in the comments below. I love seeing what other people do with this new type of imagery.

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Helicon Focus Flower Macro Composite
I have been using Helicon Focus off and on for a little over a year now. I love the program. I haven’t really tried depth of field stacking in Photoshop, mainly because the results of Helicon Focus are so good. If it is good enough for scientific work, it’s good enough for me. However, I recently became aware of a free tool similar to Helicon, called CombineZP, so I had to give it a try.

Call me crazy, but even though Helicon Focus has a retail price of more than $0, I find it to be a superior program. The interface is easier to use, there are export plugins from Adobe Lightroom, and the resulting product, in my mind, is superior. I created the images below using the 2 programs, each using a stack of 4 shots from my Olympus E-510 to create the resultant image. You be the judge, but I know I will continue to use Helicon Focus.

CombineZP
 CombineZP Comparison Shot (by Chester Bullock)

Helicon Focus
Helicon Focus Comparison Shot (by Chester Bullock)

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Photoshop and Lightroom

P1134434-Edit
As I sit here editing some of the photos I have been shooting today, I can’t help but notice that there are some things I still need to use Photoshop for. Luckily the integration between LR2 and CS3 is pretty good. I did recently pick up a good book on LR, entitled Photoshop Lightroom 2 for Digital Photographers Only, that might help me learn how to do some of these PS things in LR. But honestly, things like Clone Stamp are just too handy.

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Jennifer & Chester Bullock
Watermark and copyright notices are something that everyone should use, especially if you are on Flickr. Naturally you want to put copyright information in the files themselves too. I haven’t been putting this information on my images in the form of a watermark until now because I didn’t know of an easy way to incorporate this into my workflow.

Lucky for me I recently came across Timothy Armes’ LR/2 Mogrify plugin for Lightroom 2 (it works on Windows and Mac). In order to use this on a Windows machine, you also need to download ImageMagick, a useful program I have used in the past in a LAMP environment for web applications. Lastly, you need a transparent PNG image to use as your watermark. The image I used for the photo above is at 30% opacity in Photoshop. If you don’t know how to create a transparent PNG image in Photoshop for watermarking purposes, I highly recommend Heather’s Watermark Tutorial.

My images typically start out between 7-9MB in size. Typical dimensions are 3648×2736 in size. Because of this, and wanting to ensure the watermark was visible, I made my watermark 200px tall. YMMV, but this works for me. If you are exporting to Facebook with the Friedl Plugin, you will likely need to adjust your settings substantially from what you use for Flickr. Just make sure you use Presets to save your settings for each type.

Once you have the file completed, it is a simple matter of using the plugin via Lightroom (after you have added it of course). The plugin gives you 9 base reference points you can anchor the plugin to, and then you can offset the placement in both the vertical and horizontal planes. You will have to experiment for a bit to see what works for you. One option you will see is whether or not you want to put the watermark on the image before you create any borders, or after. If you aren’t using borders, you can ignore this. I have seen some examples of incorporating the watermark/ logo into the border. Take a look and see if you like it.

Adding borders can be a bit confusing the first time you do it. At least it was for me. I thought that as you add numbers, you were working from the inside out. This means that the highest number would be the innermost frame, at least in my mind. It didn’t turn out to be the case though. Border 1 is always the innermost border. For my standard template, Border 1 is 15px all the way around and black. Border 2 is also 15px all the way around, and is white. Border 3 is the big one, at 30px all the way around and black in color. To me it gives images a nice framed and matted look. I only do this for the photos that get uploaded to Flickr and Facebook. Anything going to photos.chesterbullock.com (Zenfolio) gets no treatment, as I want the prints to be printed in original form without the borders and watermarks.

One thing to be careful of with the LR2/Mogrify tools – if you export later for a different purpose, make sure you disable the LR2/ Mogrify plugin. It stays on by default all the time in the Export window, and you could export something with edits you don’t mean to.

I truly wish I had come across this useful utility sooner. I am just very thankful I came across it at all.

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Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays

Christmas Lights HDR
Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays to all. I have been seeing great pictures of holiday lights this season, and finally decided to try and take one of my own. The photo above is an HDR Exposure Blend (using Photomatix) of 7 exposures I took one morning. I also took some photos just using the ambient light and not doing the HDR thing. After reviewing these shots on the computer, I decided the white lights just aren’t very interesting. Normally we decorate the two large fir trees in front of our house with colored strings, but we opted not to this year. Rest assured, we will next year. That will give it some “life” I think. So instead, I will go out in search of other homes in our neighborhood to take pics of. I had better hurry, only a week to go before most people take their lights down.

Oh, and I should point out that the inspiration for this, besides the photos I linked to above, was a Strobist article about holiday light pictures. As is the norm with Strobist help, this article was wonderful for a rookie like me.

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Boat Pulley

Toronto, Canada Wooden Boat Pulley
When I was in Toronto last year, I was treated to a number of great photo opportunities. From vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, to the wonders of Niagara Falls, and all the neat things in Downtown Toronto, I had a wonderful time. This particular image is quite popular on Flickr, and I think it really speaks to anyone with sailing experience. Given the marks on the pulley, it is not just for decoration. And that adds even more character to the item.

I hope I can make it back to Ontario, or other parts of Canada, in the near future. The people were nice, the change of culture from the US was interesting, and I love to explore.

Order your print today. For a digital download, or for commercial licensing, please contact me directly.

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HDR Done Right

Ferringway #8 As previously mentioned, I took some time while in Durango recently and worked on my HDR images, specifically where real estate is concerned. I even followed the directions from the Photomatix people. While I actually took several HDR images on my trip, I was particularly pleased with the real estate ones.

The best one, the exterior shot above, is a combination of 4 exposures. I imported all of my images form the weekend into Lightroom, then selected them and corrected the white balance. I had shot them without resetting my settings from earlier experiments – thank god for RAW and Lightroom. I then took the 4 images and exported them using the HDRSoft Photomatix Lightroom export plugin. I then combined the images in Photomatix, adjusted the tone map until I had an image I liked, then saved it and went back to Lightroom.

I had some really bad converging verticals though, so from Lightroom I chose to edit the image in Photoshop CS3. Once in PSCS3 (say that 5 times fast), I used the Distort feature to straighten the verticals and make everything look proper. All in all, I am quite pleased with the outcome. I know there are free tools out there to generate HDR images, but none of the ones I tried came anywhere close to Photomatix in terms of resultant quality or ease of use. If you are seriously considering HDR photography, you really should invest in Photomatix.

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Using Photomatix to Blend Exposures

Photomatix Test 3
When you are shooting a room with a great view, it is a good idea to show that view, if you can. But that is more complicated when you think about the exposure levels outside versus inside the room. Since I was in an awesome location recently (the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, Colorado), I decided to use the property to do some practice on. I have posted a few images from this test in the Photography For Real Estate Flickr group (yes, it is a Flickr complement to Larry Lohrman’s excellent site/ blog) and have received some useful feedback from it.
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