Disc Cover Software Review

By Robert Lachman

After spending hours, days, or weeks working on a multimedia project and burning it to a DVD, why would you just label it with your Sharpie Permanent Marker? Sharpie’s do a great job of writing on CDs or DVDs, although there always seems to be a question about the archival problems with the ink.

It’s just such a weak link in the chain. You’ve drank endless cups of coffee, cleaned up the sound, picked out the perfect transitions, chosen the music, made those still images come to life with the “Ken Burns Effect” turning it into professional looking movie.

disccover1Then it’s “Sharpie Time.” Well, now I’ve seen the light. I am going to finish what I’ve started and I’m going to finish strong. After checking out a number of products, I chose from Disc Cover 2.3  (updated March 2009) from Belight Software for my disc labeling. The program works with iPhoto and Aperture.

This new version of Disc Cover is simple and fun to use. This software is another example of how great the Mac developer makes things easy and so simple for the user.

When you open Disc Cover you start with the assistant which gives you a choice of numerous templates and they show up in a nice cover-flow looking window.

disccover2They ask you to choose a design from a drop down menu: Music, Photos, Files and Data, DVD, General, and Blank.

I picked the Photos which gave me a choice of about 40 templates. I picked Lady Sketch for a friend’s 40th birthday party pictures. Then I clicked on next which took me to my iPhoto library

I clicked on finish and now my photos of the birthday party appeared in the left window pane of the software.

Now I could drag over the photos individually, but I went for the collages menu. I couldn’t resist. I went for a collage called photo-cross. I dragged over the collage ungrouped it and and removed two of the photos to customize it. Now I dragged photos over from my iPhoto library to replace the placeholder photos the software put in. Now I double clicked on the photo and was able to crop and rotate as needed. The program gives you complete flexibility.

Five minutes later I’m ready to bring to my Epson R200 printer which can print directly on the DVD.

Other very nice features in the software include: importing your song titles automatically into the project. Also can redesign each element of your work independently. There is a large clip art gallery, which also features a place where you click on the small globe and the software will search for art on the internet based on the information from your iTunes data. There’s a random background generator, a good selection of layer masks which can also be applied to images, drop shadows, a variety of borders and the option to curve the text.

I give the software five out of five stars. If there was a fault with this program, I couldn’t find it. The cost is $34.95 via download at www.belightsoft.com. The also have excellent tutorials available on their website.

Steve Lopez & Nathaniel Ayers

Check out the video from the 60 Minutes segment on homeless street musician Nathaniel Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. It’s based on stories Lopez wrote, and from his book, “The Soloist,” which will be released as a movie in April. There’s a 15-second ad in front of this very touching and interesting story, but it’s worth the wait.


Watch CBS News Videos Online

Check here to read the stories about Mr. Ayers
by Steve Lopez in the Los Angeles Times.

doubleTwist Software Review

By Robert Lachman
This week I am going to review doubleTwist software. This is a free program to organize and transfer your media from your Mac to a cell phone like a Blackberry.

doubleTwistlogoSince I use a Blackberry, this software really piqued my interest. It is possible to move media around, but it’s a pain, because you need to manually resize your movies and photos and then drag them onto the phone’s flash card.

doubleTwist makes all of this very easy. It’s simply a matter of point, click, and drag.

The software supports a variety of phones including the Blackberry Curve, Pearl, Storm, Bold along with G1, Android, Nokia, Sony, Ericsson, LG, and Motorola.

According to doubleTwist software company,

“Browse through your media and play anything. doubleTwist supports all major audio and video formats.

doubleTwist works with your phone, MP3 player, PSP, camera, video, and other media where you go.”

The multimedia software requires an Intel Mac with OSX 10.5 Leopard.

The software uses your basic iPhoto-like looking interface. It allows you to move media from Aperture, iPhoto, Lightroom, and the Pictures folder. You can add any folder on your hard drive to the media selection pane.
doubleTwist
I just plug in my Blackberry Curve via USB, and after it appears in the left pane, I just drag photos, video and music onto the Blackberry icon. doubleTwist sizes down your photos and videos automatically. I couldn’t find any way to customize the sizes.

The answer to the big question is NO. It does not remove the copy protection from your protected iTunes music. You’re either going to pay Apple 30 cents extra per track for DRM free music, or figure another way to turn them into an unprotected format like MP3s.

doubleTwist, which is now in public beta, also has a web component which makes it a breeze to upload your photographs to Flickr and Facebook. You can also email links to the photos or movies. For now, the web based cloud service, is free to store the media on your doubleTwist account.

I did run into a problem when I tried to move an AVI movie file from my iPhoto library. The video looked good on my Blackberry, but had sound problems with only static noise on my audio track.

Also, I thought it would be nice if you could eject your device from the interface.

I posted my problem and suggestion on the doubleTwist community help forum and received a quick response from the developer. The software is new and it seems like they are happy to take your suggestions and work them into a promising and much needed software.

Since doubleTwist is in the developing stages, you may find some minor problems along the way. As a Blackberry user, I’m looking forward to a more polished version to solve my cross-platform multimedia needs.

Topaz Simplify Review

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Car photographs by Elaine Lachman @ 2009

TopazSimplify2

By Robert Lachman
This week I am going to review Topaz Simplify from Topaz Labs software.

Simplify is a plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements which basically removes small stuff from your photographs. Sounds confusing. I mean it specializes in removing really small details, although this software lets you adjust how small. I guess you’re not sold on it
Topaz Labs demo at Macworld 2009
yet. Especially when you buy expensive cameras to give you more pixels, more information and more details.

This software almost sounds counterproductive, but this isn’t the case.

The main effects produced by this software is converting your photos into color or black-and-white line-drawings or making your photographs look like paintings. topazsimply3-1
I know, Photoshop and Elements have these features, but the Topaz Simplify plug-in makes it so simple with very fine controls.

Topaz Simplify is very easy to use and it works great. Maybe if I went through one of those giant photoshop books, I could figure this stuff out on my own, but I don’t see that happening. I need simple and fun, Topaz Labs’ plug-in Topaz Simplify hits the mark simple and fun mark.

Simplify should come with a warning: “Don’t download unless you don’t want to spend a lot of time trying out the cool effects.” It’s amazing to watch the process and how easy it is.

Victor Cajiao of Typical Mac User & Typical Shutterbug Podcasts.
Examples of Topaz Simplify painting effects.

If my explanation makes you more confused you can go to their website where they have a great video tutorial which explains how it all works. They even use different side dots to illustrates how it all works and how all the small elements are affected by the software.

According to the developer:

“The software turns any regular photo into a masterpiece of art with the sophisticated Topaz Simplify plug-in tool for Photoshop. Blur the distinction between photographic realism and art to give your viewers something truly unique to look at.”

Topaz Simplify creates artistic simplification and edge effects on regular photos in a unique way.”

The plug-in interface looks similar to the other Topaz Labs. You can view the images at 100-percent or the photo can be blown up if you need a close-up view for close detail work.

Next, you have the choice of your output preview mode: Combined Image View, which shows both the image and an edge detection view, next is Base Image View which just shows the details which have been removed and the third choice, Edge View which just shows the edge detection for line drawings.

Again, like most of the Topaz Lab software, you work from left to right. Your first tab choice is the presets which include: cartoon, image crisp edge, colorful and hard color painting, painting oil, painting watercolor, sketch color, sketch hard pencil and sketch light pencil.

The next tab is Topaz Simplify which it main slider you will use the most Simplify Size. This changes the sized of your features. I do recommend working on a duplicate layer so you could bring back details you may want later. Other sliders will bring back some of the details like details strength, boost and size.

TopazSimplify5Other tabs include Adjust which includes: brightness, contrast and saturation.

Next comes the Edges tab. This is where you have all sorts of control turning you photographs into line drawing. In the Edge tab you have a Type menu which gives you the chx oice of edge thickness and color or black & white.

I think Topaz Labs has done a lot of great work with the Topaz Simplify plug-in and I would highly recommend it.

Topaz Labs v.1.0 cost $39.99. They have a free 30-day free trial offer on their website. They’re also offering a suite of three of their products: Topaz Adjust, DeNoise and Simplify for $99. It should be available at this price for the next couple of months according to the developer.

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Photography by Robert Lachman © 2009

Bokeh Software Review

By Robert Lachman

This week I’m going to review Bokeh from Alien Skin Software, a plug-in used with Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

The basic concept of the software is to make your subject stand out or pop by using the software to create vignettes or shallow depth of field with the background. The software makes things fuzzy, but that’s a good thing if you can control where the out-of-focus goes. Sounds complicated, but not with Bokeh from Alien Skin. It’s very simple and well designed software. Let’s take a look at who the program is designed for.

Alien Skin Bokeh Software -  AFTER
Alien Skin Bokeh Software - AFTER
Alein Skin Bokeh Software -  BEFORE
Alein Skin Bokeh Software - BEFORE

First you need Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. It can be used by the professional or amateur who wants to bring some isolation or snap to the subject matter. Maybe you have a very distracting background and too much depth-of-field.
Alien Skin says, “Bokeh is the only software that accurately simulates the distinctive blurring and creamy highlights of real lenses.

You can manipulate focus just like fast expensive lenses with Bokeh, Alien Skin’s lens simulator Photoshop plug-in. Bokeh can draw attention to your subject by manipulating focus and depth of field after the shot has been taken.” It is true, the software you can really make your subject jump out or snap.

And, in the long run, you can save yourself some money on buying specialty lenses because this software can replace them in some situations. Certainly, if your shooting in a journalistic or editorial situation, I wouldn’t recommend it, but for the wedding, portrait shooter or amateur photographers it would be ideal.

A tilt-shift lens is out of the realm of most amateur’s budgets. Very few know what a Lensbaby is to add the creative tilt-shift effect and most would have a hard time reaching into their pockets to buy a 85 mm f/1.2 lens to isolate your subject with a super-shallow depth-of-field.

Bokeh does a great job simulating all of these lenses after shooting your images. For the testing, I used Bokeh with Photoshop Element 6. You just open your image, then go to the filter menu, then select Alien Skin Bokeh. Next you can select from three tabs, Setting, Bokeh and Vignette.

Selecting vignette will give you a chance to select the color, size and feather of the effect. Choosing the Setting button gives you choices of the blur type. You can pick setting like Canon EF 85 mm f1.2 or a Nikon, Sony or Carl Zeis lens. How is that for lens control?

Bokeh3When you go to the Bokeh tab you get a chance to select your focus region regions like radial or planar. If you choose radial you get a circular tool with four handles which allows you to adjust the rotation and size of your sharpness area to give you the vignette.

Picking planar gives you the tilt-shift lens or Lensbaby effect where you control the blur from the edge to where you want if to be sharp on your subject. You have compete control with two handles. One larger circular handle which is the protected area and a smaller square handle which is the blurred area. You can push and drag the handles in any direction for complete control.

Next, for those who want add shallow depth-of-field, you will need to know how to make a selection to a new layer in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Once you have your selection on a new layer you can add Bokeh and have a very realistic looking shallow depth-of-field.

The success is dependent on your competence in making a good selection. But once you do the effect, it is stunning.
This price of the software is $199 which isn’t cheap. I always tend to think plug-ins should be a more inexpensive, but it does take a lot of work by the developer to work out the formulas.

Bokeh, does speed up your workflow for isolating focus and vignetting. Alien Skin is offering a 20% discount on their website of all their software until December 24 of this year (2008). It would be tough to figure this stuff out in Photoshop for most of us. For the Mac, the software requires Photoshop CS3 or later or Photoshop Elements 4.0.1 or later.

Alien Skin does offer a full feature 30-day trial download of Bokeh from their website. I definitely would recommend Alien Skins’ Bokeh software.

Topaz Adjust Review

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After Using Topaz Adjust

Before Using Topaz Adjust
Before Using Topaz Adjust

By Robert Lachman

This week I’m going to review Topaz Adjust software by Topaz Labs, a plug-in for Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

It’s a little hard to explain what this software does, except it’s fun to use and adds a lot of pop to your photos.

According to the company line, Topaz Adjust uses advanced algorithms to achieve unique exposure effects and adjustments in seconds. It offers the user full control over creative exposure, color, and detail effects, and has the ability to save and reuse presets for maximum convenience.

I always love when the software companies say they use advanced algorithms. I can barely pronounce it, how am I going to explain it.

This software takes your boring low-contrast photographs and gives them an HDR end result with added color saturation or the David Hill effect on your portraits.

It makes things a little more contrasty, brings out the color and just adds a different look to your photographs. I really recommend you try it just to see the different outcomes which can be achieved with Topaz Adjust.

The software is very easy to use. It’s a plug-in and I tested it with Photoshop Elements 6. It’s nice when the software will work with both Photoshop or Elements so more people will be able to use it.

It couldn’t be simpler to use. Just open your photo, go to the menu item filter, scroll down to Topaz Lab, then select Topaz Adjust.

The program opens your photo into a new adjustable size window. You can then decide the magnification of your image.

Now the fun part begins. They do have some presets which includes, vibrance, color blast clarity, photo pop, and enhance contrast. Double click on any of these to give you an idea of some of the effects which can be achieved.

The presets give some nice examples but move on to the sliders. This is where you can experience the power of the software. Work in a left to right order as the tutorial on the website recommends.

The first manual setting is is Exposure which reveals six powerful sliders. The important sliders here are adaptive exposure and regions. Give these a try first. A little goes a long way.

Next  try Details which includes the strength and boost sliders. Move to the right and pick Color for added saturation. You may start to see some grain and noise as you work with some of the sliders.

The Noise option will smooth out the grain. It does take the computer time to work out the computations so be patient.
With  large photographs this will take some time. You may be used to blazing speed with your high-powered computer but you’ll need to relax and let the software do it’s work

One important note, this is an experimental and artistic process so it doesn’t work with every photograph.

Topaz Adjust from Topaz Labs is just one of those programs that’s very enjoyable to work with, especially since you only use one photograph and unlike HDR software which relies on multiple images.

You just need to fire it up and start working the sliders. Find a photograph which needs some added pop and color to the clouds or sky or a building which doesn’t have enough saturation.

It can almost make your photographs look like stylized cartoons as you ramp up the effect. It gives your simple photos a super-graphic look.

It’s not for every photograph.  A lot of times you might not want this, but for so many flat boring-looking photographs an extra-cool boost may just be the ticket. Be sure to check it out.