Gear Review – Wacom Intuos4 Tablet

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Back when I edited this image in Lightroom, I used the selective exposure tools to bring out some contrast in the clouds and sky. It was painful, and the result was less perfect than I would like. Next time I revisit this image though, I will have a new tool to help. You see, the first time I did this, I was using a mouse. Granted, it is a Razer optical mouse with on-the-fly adjustable sensitivity, but it is still a mouse. Kind of like when I am trying to drive a nail with the handle of a screwdriver. It works, but a hammer is more efficient. Well, now I have the right tool for this kind of editing – a Wacom Intuos4 tablet.

It all started with a gift card I won at a conference (also won an iPod 16GB Nano, which I gave to my wife). I had always wanted a tablet, but didn’t know much about them. So I started out small. I got a Wacom Bamboo Craft. The price was right, and installation was a breeze. But then I started fiddling with the controls. I didn’t want to use it to navigate my whole desktop. And the resolution seemed goofy since I am running a dual-monitor setup (my 17″ laptop screen and an HP w2007 widescreen monitor). It just didn’t feel right, and none of the settings let me do what I wanted (namely, limit the input to a specific program). OK, do I take it back and get something better (ie, more expensive) or do I just say screw it, I’m a mouse guy. No, I wasn’t going to give up. It’s my friend Jeff’s fault, he has a tablet and swears by it. So I had to give it an honest try.

Back to the retailer to return the Bamboo. And as luck would have it, they had the Intuos4 Small. Now we’re talking. Supposed to do what I want, AND comes with a mouse and more robust pen. OK, I am pretty excited at this point. Get it home, and let it sit for a few days. I do have a real job after all, and I had more important things to do than play with pixels (or maybe it was the 3 business trips in 5 weeks – my head is still spinning).

About 4 days later I installed it. Went just as easy as before. But this time, I found the settings the Bamboo was lacking. A few simple dialogue boxes later, and I can isolate it to one screen. Good enough for me. Open up a picture in Lightroom and start playing. Wow, this is a dream come true. Such control, and the quick buttons are helpful too. Not long and I am feeling really confident. Yep, this will ease my workflow for sure.

And then my 4 year old came down to see what Daddy was doing. She took to it instantly. I now have two original works of art created digitally by my 4 year old. She loves it, and still asks to use it. Way better than crayons she says.

The bottom line is this: if you do any sort of image editing, you owe it to yourself to try one of these. There are a couple of brands out there, but Wacom is the recognized leader. And speaking from experience, I can say I wouldn’t buy any other – and yes, I actually paid full retail for mine!).

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Photoshop and Lightroom

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 (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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Taken on a cold winter morning in Lakewood, Colorado, this portrait of a windmill with forboding skies behind it has been given the watercolor treatment in Photoshop. This would look great on anyone’s wall, especially printed on canvas. Order your copy now.

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Composite Images

Happy Halloween  (by bridgepix)
Photo by bridgepix
I have been reading a lot lately – books, magazines, online articles and blog entries (always been a voracious reader really). I have been noticing a trend in all the materials I have been reading – composite images are ok.

When I say composite, I mean images that are created using pieces of other images. For example, there is an article(PDF) in this months AfterCapture about a well respected (and well paid) photographer who is creating wonderful compositions (the theme in the article is Halloween related).

A book I have been reading recently, Shooting & Selling Your Photographs, also has a couple of examples where the author has sold composite images for respectable sums of money.

I am sure this has purists screaming, and artists gleaming. It’s the perfect hybrid for this medium though, in my eyes. You can still deliver an image that people want. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is really what it is all about – deliver what the customer wants. And that is why the purists scream. But I am not making images just for myself, to remember something exactly as it was. And if I do, then I don’t really modify it that much.

I see a lot of potential here. I think real estate photographers have already been doing this for some time, and clearly advertising does it. So if it will help me to make more marketable images, who am I to argue. I have a Photoshop class coming up soon. I hope it will give me the skills needed to make these images look natural. Can’t wait to try it.

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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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Review: The Art of Black and White Photography

Book Cover
“The Art of Black and White Photography”, by Torsten Andreas Hoffman, is the latest Rockynook book that I have read. So far, only one Rockynook title has disappointed me. “The Art of Black and White Photography” was definitely not a disappointment.

Black and white photography has interested me for some time, but I haven’t really found the right subjects for it. When I thought I had a good candidate, it turned out to be much better in sepia than b&w. This book went a long way in helping me to understand what subjects woiuld do better in black and white. It also presents a wealth of knowledge about using modern tools (Photoshop CS2 was quoted) to refine images and get the most out of the exposure. The insistence to shoot in RAW was spot on. I learned this the hard way, but if you haven’t gone to that exclusively yet, you need to.

While the title of the book implies exclusivity to B& photography, there is still quite a bit of useful information that crosses over to the color world also. Since I plan to keep shooting color and selectively convert to black and white in post processing, I was happy to see this. Every aspect of photography is addressed – landscapes and portraits, motion and still life, day and night exposures, you name it. Extensive sections cover Genres and Concepts as well as Composition Rules. Perhaps most useful to me (and well worth the price of the book) is the last section covering “The Digital Darkroom”. I love getting useful Photoshop tips, and this book does not disappoint. Hopefully future editions will also include Lightroom tips.

“The Art of Black and White Photography” is one book that I could not put down once I started reading it, and I cannot wait to apply some of the concepts I learned.

Megan’s Headshot

Megan - Yearbook HeadshotAll in all I have taken somewhere around 200 pictures of Megan in the last couple of months. We did it mostly in 2 location, Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Of those photos, Megan and my wife narrowed it down to 24 that they really liked. Using the guidelines set forth by the Lakewood High School yearbook staff, I narrowed the field down to 6 images I thought would be suitable for a headshot for the yearbook. I then exported these 6 from Lightroom 2 into their own slideshow online (the first time I had used this feature, and it worked pretty well).

Of the 6, the image above is the one she wants to use in the yearbook. After adjusting some of the lighting levels in Lightroom, I took it into Photoshop to apply some effects with Portraiture. The end result is pretty good, and I am sure will look great when printed at 2″ x 2″, or whatever yearbooks are printing at these days.

In the coming months we will be taking more photos. Why? Well, since the bulk of Senior Pictures are sent out in the spring with graduation announcements, party invitations and so forth, we have some time yet to get more pictures in more surroundings at different times of the year. Besides, she is going off to college next year. As her parents, we can never have enough pictures when she is out on her own.

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Breakdown of my first paid shoot

Lakewood High School Cheer Squad 2008/09
I think it is going to be important for me to keep notes of what went well, what I learned, and what I can improve on when I do a shoot. I haven’t been doing this for Megan’s Senior Pictures, although I have been thinking about it all in my head. But after photographing 16 cheerleaders (333 pictures in total on Saturday), it’s good to get this down while the experience is still fresh.

What I did right:

  • Prepared 16 individual galleries in Zenfolio (click on the link to save $5), underneath one password protected collection. This way the girls can go straight to their galleries, but can browse across them all.
  • Pre-printed notices, customized for each girl, with their unique gallery URL and also a date for when they can expect to see the photos online.
  • Had the cheer coach schedule the girls in a staggered fashion, so they wouldn’t all be standing around or a long time waiting their turn.
  • Shot early in the morning, starting at 9:15am.
  • Researched and printed cheerleader specific pose examples for the girls to review.
  • Used my Cactus Wireless Flash Trigger.

What I learned:

  • The sun is very bright, even at 9:30am.
  • You’ll get sunburned doing a long outdoor shoot (we were there for roughly three hours).
  • Bring water.
  • Backgrounds can be hard to manage in a public park.
  • When allowing “group” shots, try and manage how many you allow so the other people don’t lose interest.
  • Lightroom 2 is wonderful, as is the Zenfolio Plugin from Jeffrey Friedl, but they aren’t overly fast (or it could be my network connection).

What I can improve upon:

  • Have a giant diffuser made for the sunlight.
  • Learn more about manual flash settings.
  • Develop more skills for dealing with mid-day light.
  • Learn more about Lightroom/ Photoshop.
  • Learn more about posing (reading a book right now actually).

All in all I still think it went well. The proof will come when orders are placed. Uploads should be finished today, we’ll see how it goes.

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Review: Beyond Portraiture

Book Cover I picked up Bryan Peterson’s “Beyond Portraiture”, not because it was written by Bryan (that alone would have been a good reason), but because I have been looking for help on some specific things where portrait photography is concerned. I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but as with all of his books, I did get a lot of helpful insight into making better photographs.

Before I get to what it was I was looking for, I want to tell you what this book does bring. Aside from what you would come to expect (discussions on lighting and exposure), the author starts off by getting you comfortable with talking to people, helping them to understand what you are trying to achieve, and making them into willing participants. For someone like me, this was a very valuable section. From there, the book moves into considerations in actually working with people, and the different types of people you might encounter. Some example of corporate report types of work are included in the book, which I found interesting given how much I follow the work of notable Colorado-based photographer David Tejada.

After the sections on dealing with people, the book then moved into a discussion about light (and I think Bryan is a master at this). From there we get an in-depth look at composition. This was particularly useful, as composition considerations are definitely different for people than they are for landscapes, etc.

The last section was perhaps one of the most useful for me, covering different techniques to digitally edit photos. As long as I have been using Photoshop (since 1995), you would think that I would know a lot more than I do. But for me it has always been a tool for editing web images. I have always known the power that Photoshop has, but never taken the time to learn more about it. The edits that Bryan presents are relatively simple and could be immensely useful if you don’t already know them.

All in all, I highly recommend this book. It didn’t have “posing” information that I have been looking for, but I got far more out of this book than that one subject is worth. Pretty sure I can find that info somewhere else.

With this photography thing, I sometimes I feel like I am cramming a lifetime of learning into as small an amount of time as possible. But I am learning, which is always a good thing to do. I hope you are continuing to learn as well.

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