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Digital cameras rock, but many of us have always wondered about the best way to get prints. Wonder no more, as Alex Hoffman compares online photo printing services. If you want moving pictures, turn to Jeff Carlson's advice on shooting video and editing it in iMovie. In the news, Microsoft releases a security patch for Office X, Apple both wins a technical Grammy and pulls out of Circuit City, and CS Odessa hosts a ConceptDraw conference in the Ukraine.
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Patch Office X for Network Vulnerability -- Microsoft has released a Network Security Updater for Microsoft Office X that eliminates a network vulnerability made possible by a flaw in the application suite's network-aware anti-piracy mechanism. Office X checks to make sure that every copy running on the network is using a unique product identifier (PID); if an Office application detects a duplicate, it shuts down. As discovered by Marty Schoch, the problem is that the checking code doesn't correctly handle a malformed PID announcement, causing the first Office application launched to crash, with the possible loss of data. So although someone could cause Office applications to crash by sending malformed PID announcements, there is no possibility that data could be created, deleted, or modified. For full details, see Microsoft Security Bulletin MS01-002. [ACE]
Apple Receives Technical Grammy -- For many people, the Grammy awards are an annual event wherein the music recording industry congratulates itself for selling lots of albums, and shamelessly uses the occasion to sell a few more albums by putting some hot-selling acts and half-naked celebrities on prime time television. Beginning in 1994, however, the Recording Academy began awarding technical Grammys for individuals and companies which have made "contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field." Past winners include Les Paul (a pioneer of the electric guitar and multitrack recording), Ray Dolby (noise reduction technology), Digidesign (high-end digital recording tools), and George Massenburg (parametric EQ, mix automation, and other production tools).
This year's technical Grammys will go to Robert Moog and Apple Computer. Bob Moog was an early developer of analog synthesizers whose instruments brought electronic music into the mainstream beginning in the late 1960s, while Apple is being praised for playing a leading role bringing computer technology into the process of writing, producing, and recording music. Although Windows-based PCs have made some inroads in the last few years, professional audio is one of those niche markets where Apple sells a lot of high-end hardware, and since the late 1980s Macs have led the way in professional and semi-professional computer-based recording (often in combination with hardware from companies like Mark of the Unicorn and/or Digidesign). It's nice to see the industry acknowledge that Apple's systems and inventiveness continue to play such an important role, although that merely adds to the irony of the record labels' online music services not being compatible with the Mac. [GD]
Blink And You Missed It -- Apple quietly announced last week it will no longer sell Macs or Apple merchandise through Circuit City. Apple had recently returned to Circuit City only in mid-2000, following a 1998 pull-out from Circuit City, Sears, Best Buy, Office Max, and other high-profile technology retailers which had failed to showcase (or even properly set up) Apple merchandise. (Apple pulled of Sears again in March 2001.) Neither Apple nor Circuit City gave reasons for the current disassociation, but Apple has been hinting for some time it hasn't been happy with all its channel partners, and would be making changes both to promote its own retail storefronts and support the CompUSA "store within a store" concept. [GD]
ConceptDraw World Conference 2002 -- We don't normally mention conferences in advance, mostly because there are so many of them and they're all so similar. But CS Odessa's upcoming ConceptDraw World Conference tickled our fancy because of the fascinating choice of venue - they're holding it in Odessa on the Black Sea in the Ukraine from 28-Mar-02 through 30-Mar-02. There's no question the trip is a bit of a haul from the U.S. (less so from Europe, of course), so the conference includes plenty of time for sightseeing and parties. The weather is supposed to be pretty good around that time of year, and a few days after the conference, on April 1st, the city bans cars from downtown and has a huge April Fools Day parade that draws half a million people. CS Odessa was the first company from that part of the world to exhibit at Macworld Expo back in 2001; serious ConceptDraw users who want to repay the visit and learn more about ConceptDraw should take a look. [ACE]
by Jeff Carlson <email@example.com>
If you wanted to edit video in the recent past, you needed a room full of specialized equipment and a fair amount of training and experience just to get started. Now, most what you need is probably sitting in your Applications folder. Apple's iMovie enables anyone with a recent Macintosh to import video footage and edit it into a professional-looking movie.
In "Dipping into Digital Video" in TidBITS-615, I covered some of the basics of digital video and what to look for when buying a digital camcorder. Now I want to share some tips I picked up while writing my latest book, iMovie 2 for Macintosh: Visual QuickStart Guide. If you're just starting to get your feet wet with digital video, these pointers will help you during shooting and when editing in iMovie.
A Stable Working Relationship -- Most people equate home video footage with the jittery movement of home movies and police pursuit shows. Except in rare circumstances, that look isn't a matter of style: the diminutive size and weight of most camcorders make it difficult to maintain stability while filming. Mounting the camera on a tripod is your best bet for keeping the camera stationary, but a tripod is often a pain to carry and set up. Instead, maintain stability when shooting by tucking your elbows into your sides and hold the camera with both hands. Although most cameras offer digital image stabilization, which does a good job of compensating for small variations in camera movement, don't rely on it to reduce larger tremors.
Zoom Zoom -- One of the first things potential camcorder buyers do is test the product's zoom capabilities. And why not? Unlike Hollywood movie directors, who can place a camera wherever it suits them, you may be trying to get a shot of a grizzly bear from hundreds of meters away (and, in the spirit of recommendations, I strongly encourage you to stay hundreds of meters away from grizzlies in the wild). Punching up the telephoto zoom can be the difference between fur, blur, or getting munched, for those that ignore these tips.
As you're zooming, try to keep the motion steady and measured. The zoom control on most camcorders is pressure sensitive, so pressing hard makes the lens zoom quicker than a lighter touch. Try not to zoom in or out (or heaven forbid, both in succession) as fast as possible, unless you're trying to nauseate your audience. If you have the opportunity, practice zooming in on your subject before you begin filming.
Also, turn off your camcorder's digital zoom feature. Unlike optical zoom, which describes the amount the lens mechanism can zoom (usually 10 times the normal setting), digital zoom is a technique where the camera's processor interpolates the image and enlarges the pixels to approximate a higher zoom level. In essence, the camera guesses what the higher zoomed-in image will look like, and it shows: digitally zoomed footage is highly pixelated, and it's often hard to tell what was originally being shot. Although a 200x digital zoom sounds nifty, it's more marketing gimmick than filmmaker's tool. Turn if off now while you're thinking about it, so you don't scold yourself later when reviewing unexpectedly blurry footage.
Do You Hear What You Hear? As you're recording, use headphones plugged into to your camera to ensure that the audio you're capturing is the sound you expect. Any pair of headphones will do, as long as what you hear is what the camera's microphone hears. You won't want to begin editing your footage and realize that traffic noise drowned out the rest of your footage's audio.
Cover Your Assets -- When you get to the editing stage, you'll want to assemble a tight movie, with no scenes that can make your audience lose interest. However, when you're out shooting, record plenty of extra coverage. Linger at the end of scenes, and don't stop recording when the action ends. Take a few minutes to shoot the scenery, the reactions of people around you, or objects that catch your eye but may have nothing to do with the subject of your video. You want to go into the editing stage with more than enough footage to work with, because in most cases you won't be able to go back and reshoot something. That extra coverage can be essential when you need to add a few seconds of footage to maintain your movie's timing and rhythm.
Dumpster Diving in iMovie -- With the shooting complete, it's time to import your footage and begin cutting together your movie. As you begin to chop, crop, and rearrange your clips, it can become difficult to know which sections were once whole in case you want to go back and try a different combination of clips. Fortunately, iMovie offers a few methods to retrieve footage. First, you'll find yourself using iMovie's ten levels of undo often, though remember that the counter resets when you close your iMovie project.
If you can't undo changes, you may still be able to restore an original clip. As you make edits, iMovie records only the changes that have been applied to the original clip you imported from the camcorder - it doesn't actually split the clip's media file on your hard disk. For example, suppose you imported a 10-minute original clip from your camera and split it into a number of smaller clips. Now suppose you deleted one of those smaller clips, not realizing until too late that you needed it. Unlike the Finder's Trash, you can't open iMovie's bin and pull out a discarded clip. Rather than reimport from the camera, select another one of the smaller clips and choose Restore Clip Media from the Advanced menu - iMovie reads the entire 10 minutes of data from the media file on the hard disk and turns that small clip into the full clip, which you can edit down to the necessary footage again. Be warned that if you use the Empty Trash command at any point, the clip is gone for good - iMovie edits the media file on your hard disk and removes the portions you threw away.
Transitions -- Leave enough padding in your clips to accommodate transitions. A transition such as Cross Dissolve overlaps portions of the two clips it's bridging in order to display both simultaneously. If the action begins immediately in the second clip, it will be partially obscured by the dissolving portion of the first clip. Leaving a few seconds of neutral footage gives you the transition effect you're looking for without disrupting the content of the scene. If you end up with too much padding, you can always trim it out later.
Speaking of transitions, don't go crazy adding every type of transition you can find (and there are plenty - in addition to Apple's, check out GeeThree's Slick Transitions and Effects). In most situations, you'll probably use Cross Dissolve, Fade In, Fade Out, and Overlap. Although others can be appropriate in context, using too many different flashy transitions in one project tends to distract from the movie itself. It's the same principle as using too many fonts in a word processing document: with more than a few on the page, it no longer matters what the words say.
Sizing Up Titles -- From an ease-of-use standpoint, the slider that determines a title's font size is wonderfully simple: slide left to reduce the size, slide right to increase the size. However, this approach can be maddeningly frustrating if you want precision. It doesn't make it any easier that the longer your title, the smaller the text will appear, even at the largest font size. Also, iMovie's rough title preview can be deceptive about text sizes and where longer phrases are wrapped to the next line. So, apply your titles to a few dummy clips that you can export back to tape and preview on a television to see exactly how the title will appear.
Using Music Tracks -- iMovie features what must have once seemed like an ingenious method of adding music to your movie: you can record song tracks from an audio CD directly into the program. You must start playing the song and record it as it plays, much the way you import video from your camcorder's videotape. However, with MP3 music files and iTunes, this technique has become archaic. Instead, use iTunes to extract music as MP3 files, then use iMovie's Import command to add the song to your movie. If you want the highest quality audio (which takes up significantly more disk space), use iTunes to extract the song in AIFF format; that's how iMovie's built-in audio recorder stores music, but iTunes provides a far superior interface to getting it done.
The iMovie Effect -- Once you start editing in iMovie, you'll never watch movies or television the same again. You see scenes in terms of shots, angles, lighting, audio effects, and visual narrative. My wife, after using iMovie only a few times, proved this to me when we watched the online trailer for the movie The Man Who Wasn't There. It's a great work of editing, but I didn't realize how good until Kim casually pointed out that each shot ended in a cross-dissolve transition, except when the main characters were on screen, which used jump cuts to show another shot of the actor before dissolving. If that doesn't demonstrate how iMovie's ease of use and editing power can get into your brain, I don't know what can.
by Alex Hoffman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I recently bought a new Nikon Coolpix 775 digital camera for my wife. We were about to get married and I thought we'd enjoy taking lots of pictures of the wedding weekend and the honeymoon week. I was right: we took more than 1,000 pictures over nine days.
Although I'm most interested in putting together a CD showing off most of our pictures (hundreds, I tell you) for our guests and friends, my wife prefers old-fashioned photo albums and wants to print some of the pictures.
This situation prompted the question of the best way to print digital photos. While we might want to print only 50 to 100 pictures now, eventually we'll have many more. Should we buy a photo printer, or should we send them out to be printed by a photo service? If the latter, which one? Since these aren't just everyday snapshots, I decided to investigate both options.
Buying a Printer -- Although I had no doubts about the quality of prints coming from digital photo labs, I wasn't so sure about the photo quality of any printer we could afford. I've used inkjet printers for years, and have never been truly happy with the quality of their photo output.
However, I've never owned a "photo printer," a printer whose quality is supposed to be good enough to approximate a photographic print. I've also never used real photo paper, which is specially coated to make such high resolution printing possible. Unfortunately, this paper is expensive: around $0.30 for a 4" x 6" piece, and $0.50 for an 8.5" x 11" piece. I also know that while inkjet printers are relatively cheap, ink cartridges are expensive and printing photos uses an enormous amount of ink per page (text covers about 5 percent of a piece of paper, but photos typically cover 90 to 100 percent of the page).
Expensive ink cartridges, plus the cost of photo paper, made me rule out buying a photo printer. I didn't see any monetary savings, and I am still distrustful of the quality. This doesn't mean you can't get good results, especially if you plan to print relatively few pictures. But since we already own a black-and-white laser printer, we didn't see a compelling reason to add a photo printer.
Digital Photography Labs -- In the past, I've read about different digital photo labs, but I never paid full attention. I understood a few of their major issues and that their services cost a lot more than normal film developing. But one of the major benefits of digital photography, in my mind, is that you print only a small percentage of your pictures, which leads to overall savings. So I decided to try some of the photo labs listed in Yahoo, the most popular of which were Shutterfly, Club Photo, ImageStation, Ofoto (owned by Kodak), dotPhoto, Snapfish (owned by District Photo), PhotoAccess, eFrames, and searsphotos.com.
I added Walmart to the list, since it has such a huge retail presence, and I also added Apple's iPhoto-based service, which uses Kodak's Ofoto for prints. After a quick run through their sites, I developed some criteria for comparing the services: cost, ease of uploading, quality of the Web site, and range of products offered. I naively assumed that quality would not be an issue, thinking at the time that their output would be highly similar.
I should have known better. First, working in information technology (including supporting ad agencies) drilled into me a long time ago that color correction is a huge issue. Second, I know that traditional photo labs aren't identical (a roll of film that comes out poorly is not necessarily your fault). I knew better, but my optimism about the possibilities of digital imaging blinded me at first. I quickly learned.
Cost - All of these services offer the same basic print sizes, 4" x 6", 5" x 7", and 8" x 10". Some offer wallet and larger sizes as well, but for price comparisons, I stuck to the three basic sizes. For the most part, the prices are roughly the same as well (most also offer 3" x 5" prints at the 4" x 6" price.)
Size Cost ----------------- 4" x 6" $0.49 5" x 7" $0.99 8" x 10" $3.99
However, there were few standouts on price.
On the negative side, searsphotos.com charges three times as much for 4" x 6" prints if you want to do even the simplest of image manipulation (including cropping and red-eye correction). Snapfish charges 20 percent more than the others ($0.59), and both are clearly set up for film developing. Although I did send a few samples to Snapfish to be developed, both companies failed the price test and were eliminated from competition. The searsphotos.com price was so out of line that I didn't even include them in the quality test. (The searsphotos.com service also limits files to 500K, clearly hurting their print quality, while Snapfish's ordering Web pages are horrendous.)
On the positive side were PhotoAccess ($0.45, $1.09, and $2.95), Walmart ($0.26, $0.96, $2.98) and dotPhoto ($0.29, $0.95, and $2.95). Though Walmart also offers packages (one 8" x 10", two 5" x 7" prints, and 16 wallet-sized prints for $9, for example), dotPhoto beats everyone on price and pricing options, offering subscription and bulk pricing. For $5 per month, you can order up to 26 4" x 6" prints ($0.19 per print), or you can pay $10 per month for 60 prints. Both plans offer lower prices on other sizes as well. Amazingly, any prints you do not use in a given month do carry over to the next month. The only downside is that dotPhoto requires one year subscriptions. dotPhoto also allows you to purchase prints in bulk, where you pay up front for many photos, and have two years to use up your credit ($70 for 400 4" x 6" prints, $35 for 50 5" x 7" prints, and $50 for 25 8" x 10" prints). If price is your main criterion, no one comes close to dotPhoto.
Shipping costs vary by the size of your order and your chosen transit method. There wasn't much variation here, other than from Club Photo, which offers free standard shipping using the U.S. Postal Service. Walmart offers the option of picking up prints at a Walmart store free of shipping charges, but takes an extraordinarily long time to make them available if you do. Apple seems to be at the high end here, but not by enough to eliminate them from the running.
Ease of Uploading -- The most obnoxious part of using online digital photo labs is uploading multiple photos at once. Every site allows you to select files to upload manually, but this process involves clicking a Browse button and locating the files on your hard disk. The process gets old fast when repeated more than a few times.
Fortunately, most of these services offer alternatives. For some, a standalone application can send multiple image files. Others use a plug-in for the Windows version of Internet Explorer. Requiring easy uploading from a Mac knocked a few of the services out of the running including eFrames, Walmart, dotPhoto, and ImageStation.
The remaining services - Apple, Club Photo, Ofoto, PhotoAccess, and Shutterfly - each have a Macintosh application onto which you can drag the photos you want to upload. Apple is the only service to offer a Mac OS X-native application, but because iPhoto runs only under the new operating system, Mac OS 8 or 9 users are out of luck. Of the others, only PhotoAccess even mentions that they're working on a Mac OS X version. All four of the other companies' applications do run under Classic.
Web Site Evaluation -- Each of these sites relies on the picture album metaphor for organizing pictures. You can name photos and add new ones as often as you wish. ClubPhoto charges customers more to keep their photos accessible online, with two packages ($25 and $35 per year) that also include discounts on all orders. Regardless, charging to keep photos from disappearing after just 30 or 90 days seems out of line.
A great thing about digital photography is that you can edit and crop your photos before you print them. Any digital photo lab for consumers must make this process practical, especially for users who lack image editing software. The remaining contenders differentiated themselves in this round.
PhotoAccess offered the most minimal editing capabilities. Its upload application can rotate pictures, but the Web site offers no further editing possibilities, most notably no red-eye reduction. ClubPhoto also lacks red-eye correction, although its Web site can brighten or darken each picture.
Ofoto's image uploading program can fix red-eye and crop images. Their Web site offers further capabilities such as adding borders to your pictures; however, this becomes Ofoto's most distressing feature, because the border covers most the image, rather than resizing the image to fit within the border. Ofoto can also print the images in black and white, sepia tones, or sepia-like tones (in red, green, or blue). Last, it can "fix lighting," which lightens dark images and darkens washed-out images.
Shutterfly's Web site offers the most options, though its software does nothing but upload photos. At Shutterfly, you can add borders to images (which are automatically resized), fix red-eye, switch to black-and-white, change the color saturation, soften or sharpen the focus, or change the color tone. Shutterfly's site is also the easiest to navigate, especially when looking at albums with many photos in them.
Apple uses a completely different model, with iPhoto handling all the organization and editing of your photos. Its editing capabilities are limited to rotating images, performing red-eye reduction, cropping (with a nifty aspect ratio tool), and conversion to black-and-white, although all Macs now ship with Caffeine Software's free PixelNhance, which extends iPhoto's editing capabilities nicely. There are no tone controls (for sepia-like prints) or any of the other effects offered by the others. Although iPhoto is far easier to use than any of the Web sites, it doesn't offer as many features, and nothing at the level of Adobe PhotoDeluxe. That said, I expect that future versions will address most of my concerns in short order.
Finally, although I didn't test this feature, each Web site lets you share your photos so that other people can order their own copies of your prints. Apple's solution here is that iPhoto makes it extremely easy to turn photos into a Web-based photo album at homepage.mac.com, but the free space Apple provides limits the number of high resolution photos you can share. Services which remove photos after a short amount of time limit the usefulness of their sharing functionality.
Range of Products -- Most of these services don't stop at printing photos. A few also sell digital camera and digital video equipment, though not at competitive prices. Mousepads, customized greeting cards, and mugs are the rule, and most offer picture frames as well.
Shutterfly offers only the basic items that they all share. Ofoto adds a huge range of frames and photo albums, along with Archive CDs priced starting at $10, based on the number of photos). Club Photo offers $8 Album CDs, which contain up to 60 photos, and Archive CDs (also starting at $10, based on the number of images), which contain all of your photos. Other products from ClubPhoto include frames, food (really!), checks, stamps, Post-It note pads, puzzles, posters, stuffed animals, aprons, t-shirts, jewelry, and even a night light. PhotoAccess extends the basics with t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, puzzles, aprons, playing cards, canisters, tote bags, slides, and even customized wrapping paper. Most interestingly to me, PhotoAccess is the only service to offer "digital prints" whose proportions match that of most monitors, televisions and cameras.
Only Apple's service offers an impressive hardcover book (measuring 11.5 by 9 inches). The linen cover comes in your choice of black, burgundy, light gray, or navy, and you can choose six formats when designing your book and laying out the photos. Unfortunately, the price is high ($3 per page with a 10 page minimum and a 50 page maximum) and the paper/print quality isn't amazing (something like magazine quality). That cost quickly adds up, especially for larger books, even though you can have multiple photos per page. Although others haven't experienced the same problems, I had troubles - particularly when rearranging pages in book mode - building books larger than about 12 pages. Rearranging photos in organize mode and designing the book left-to-right worked better.
iPhoto is actually a front end to a Web service called myPublisher. Although ordering directly from myPublisher offers a few more options, including leather covers and dust jackets, iPhoto makes the process of building and ordering a book vastly easier. For all the trouble I had with iPhoto, I can't imagine trying to use myPublisher's Web site for a real project, which requires uploading photos individually from a browser.
Shutterfly also offers a book to its customers, albeit a very different one. The Snapbook is a spiral-bound book with a translucent plastic cover containing up to 40 pages, available in a 4" x 6" or 5" x 7" size (priced at a maximum of $25 or $30, respectively, depending on the number of photos, up to 40). You can choose from a handful of designs, but unlike Apple's books, they offer only one picture per page. Although I like Shutterfly's Web site, I had a few problems putting my book together. Still, the Snapbook's price is compelling, especially given that the largest Snapbook costs less than buying the pages individually, and is the same price as a 10-page book from Apple.
After examining all of the companies' Web sites and ordering prints from each, I couldn't name a clear winner. Different services had different strengths, whether price, variety of products, site design, or ease of use. However, as soon as I received my first set of prints, I realized that there was a lot that I hadn't considered properly. In the next installment of this article, I'll detail my mistakes and the surprising final result.
[Alexander Mishra Hoffman is an IT Manager in New York City, a Red Sox and Pats fan, and a newlywed.]
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