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March 2008 Archives

March 2, 2008

El Fuego with Creator by my side....

I just discovered another really cool thing I can do using Creator 10. I’m in the process of creating an anti-smoking sketch for the state of Florida (yes, another YouTube contest, only this time I’m not in it for the prize since the prizes are only going to be doled out to legal residents of Florida). I think smoking is just gross enough that I’m willing to dedicate some of my time (let’s call it pro bono work) to bettering humanity.

As I've said before, it’s always more visually engaging when a video is augmented with interesting photos, unusual clips that help tell the story, etc. So I visited my favorite stock photography site, istockphoto.com (you can buy royalty-free stuff pretty cheaply there) and found this awesome video of a lit/smoking cigarette on a black backdrop. I was able to take that clip and “overlay” it onto my video by first creating a solid black panel in my production, then adding the mpg as an "overlay on the internal panel." The results are pretty stunning (considering I’m no pro I think this looks pretty darn cool).

Once I finish the piece you’ll get to see another cool effect in which I’ve taken what looks like a smoke-filled room and inserted myself in it, again just using footage that has a solid background and then mirroring the same background in the panel where I’m overlaying it so that the end effect is a seamless image (you can’t see where the image and panel behind it come together – or apart as the case may be).

Sometimes I find myself in a position where I have a mental block...I’ll get stuck on something – either trying to come up with some new angle I haven’t already tried….or exploring a new setting I haven’t exhausted a zillion times (I think that’s a real word actually). Surfing the web for ideas can help. You probably know you can go to google.com and perform an image search for the topic you’re working on. All kinds of things come up – some you may have never thought of – and often this can create new ideas or build on the ideas you already have.

For example, there is a section in my anti-smoking song that speaks to putting something “sweeter in your mouth” and I was able to find an image of a giant lollipop against a white backdrop. My plan is to take footage of me against a white backdrop, and then layer that into the panel with the enormous sucker and sort of wrestle with its sheer magnitude (the lolli will most definitely be bigger than me in the final cut). Kinda fun, right? It’s just a way to jumpstart the thinkin’ when you’re tired of the same old footage.

Let's say you recently went camping or on a fishing trip (or whatever floats your particular boat)…it’s way more fun to “delight” (that word is something a grandparent might use but it delights me nonetheless) the people who will be watching your photo slideshow or video with random photos of say Bigfoot or a massive hammerhead shark that you “caught effortlessly.” Know what I mean? F-U-N.

bigfoot.bmp

But if my idea of fun isn’t necessarily yours, that’s ok too. Stick to the footage you actually shot yourself and add neat transitions and effects between segments. My favorite transition is the “dissolve” feature because I love the way one image fades slowly as another comes up on screen. It’s such a softer effect than jumping from shot to shot. And with borders (like the “old photo” or “newspaper collage”) you can make what was a more ordinary series of photos something that jumps off the screen.

Do I sound like I’ve been paid to wax on? I’m feeling a bit prolific even for my own standards….but as I write this, my boyfriend is putting the final touches on a marketing plan that I’m supposed to be writing - so I’m attempting to look very busy so he’ll keep on going. More later! ;)

March 12, 2008

Digital Photo Frames: Art or Science?

Being a tech geek, I guess you could say I'm a numbers person, and so this statistic really rattled my cage last week: in 2008, more than 20 million digital photo frames will be sold worldwide, or about one for every 15 people in the U.S. And that's up from a good-sized 12 million in 2007. (For those who just walked in the door, a digital photo frame is a small LCD panel with a memory card slot that displays your digital pictures.)

Philips-frame.jpg

Just who is buying all those photo frames? It's not me. I'm normally on the bleeding edge, but thus far, this is one tech trend I've managed to avoid (another being online multiplayer games like Second Life and World of Warcraft -- I like my tech to save me time, not eat it up...). It's not that I wasn't aware of them. I've been writing about them in computer publications for years, and even testing them out.

But somehow, as a photography nut, the idea of substituting a relatively low-quality LCD display for a brilliantly-colored glossy color print enlargement on my nightstand or side table just never appealed to me. I look at my photos as art, and rotating digital snapshots seem more like ephemeral newspaper headlines than eternal displays of beauty.

And that's when it finally sank in. That people don't buy these frames as art, but as means of communication. They buy them to give to relatives, and load them up with all the latest photos of their kids. Or use them to display photos of last month's vacation or holiday celebration. They have become substitutes for printed photo albums. (Although photo books are also becoming extremely popular, a topic we'll cover another time.)

As for myself, I'm finally considering buying a digital photo frame for two main reasons: to hold some of the vast numbers of old family photos I don't have room to display elsewhere, and to keep up with the latest pics of my far-flung quintet of nephews, all of whom are too cute for words.

I haven't yet picked out a winning frame, but I'll be looking for these features:

* Wi-Fi for receiving photos over a network and the Internet.
* The ability to automatically download new pics from a service like Flickr or Picasa.
* USB port for flash drives or computer connection.
* Remote control and memory card slot.
* At least 5x7, probably larger, depending on my budget.
* Resolution that matches typical digital camera aspect ratios, so that edges won't be cut off or letterboxing needed.
* Slideshow capability with music background.
* The ability to play back short videos, too.
* A clean frame design that blends in with most decor.
* A bright and colorful LCD with excellent picture quality from all angles, not just straight on.

What I don't need: built-in printer, RSS newsfeeder, weather and traffic reports, alarm clock, Internet radio, or Bluetooth for beaming over cell phone photos. All nice features that will appeal to some, but my laptop and clock radio already serve them better than any photo frame could, so I'd rather not pay for them. David Pogue reviewed a bunch recently in The New York Times; none fit all my criteria, but some come close. I'm betting I'll have a winner soon, and will report back on what I choose.

In the meantime, let us know about your experiences with digital photo frames. Have you taken the plunge? When and why? Which frame did you choose? Are you happy with it?

March 14, 2008

Disc Label Spin Art

If you're lucky enough to already have a direct-to-disc printer already (a few Canon, Epson and HP inkjets have a special CD/DVD tray), you can skip this article. On the other hand, if you burn a lot of discs and you're interested in fast, top-quality CD/DVD printing, the new Dymo DiscPainter is the coolest kid on the block.

DiscPainter.jpg

This unique printer works by printing while the disc spins, from the inside out, keeping the print head steady as the tray moves under it. The end result is fascinating to watch, much like making spin art paintings at the school fair. I saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, and had to try it out for two reasons: first, stick-on labels are just not good for use in many drives, especially cars and slot-loading Macs, where they can gum up the works; second, I'm creating more and more video and photo CDs as gifts for relatives, and Sharpies just don't cut it anymore.

The DiscPainter comes with a few blank CDs to get you started, as well as an ink cartridge good for about 100 discs. It works with both PCs and Macs, and can be used with the Label Creator software in Easy Media Creator 10, as well as the Disc Cover application included with Toast 9 Titanium. After a bit of experimentation I got things working perfectly on both platforms. Here are some tips for getting great results right off the bat:

Choose the Right Media: Be sure to buy special "inkjet-printable" CDs or DVDs for use with the DiscPainter or any other direct-to-disc printer. These have coatings designed to absorb the ink so that it does not smudge and the colors show up properly. They come in a variety of surfaces: matter white, glossy white, silver and colored. They also vary in how much of the inside "hub" of the disc is printable.

I tried several types, and my clear favorite was glossy white, which yielded the most vibrant colors and most professional-looking results. I also liked the hub-printable disc better since they provide more space for background images and text. Buy a few small samples and test before buying in quantity, however, since there was at least one brand that didn't take the ink properly. The Dymo discs and Verbatim inkjet printable CDs both worked well for me.


DiscPainterEMC9.jpg


Using with Label Creator on a PC: In the Print dialog box, choose the DiscPainter as your printer, and then set both Properties and Preferences. In Printer Properties, choose either "hub-printable" or "non-hub-printable," depending on whether your disc has a print area that goes all the way to the middle or not. Also select the desired print quality and ink density for your disc. Different densities are used for matte white, glossy white and silver or colored discs. With the matte Verbatim discs I used the lowest ink density, higher densities obscured detail.

Finally, since the DiscPainter is too new to be listed as a predefined "Paper Type," I selected the Epson PM-4000PX as a proxy, then adjusted the offsets slightly to center the image on the DiscPainter. To adjust offsets, click Preferences, then use Fine Tuning settings of -.8 for vertical, and -1.6 for horizontal.

Using with Disc Cover on a Mac: Printing in Toast 9's Disc Cover involves two steps. After pressing the Print button, select the Output (Direct to CD/DVD), Tray Type (Dymo DiscPainter), and Printer (Dymo DiscPainter) in the window that pops up. If you will be printing at Best quality, also choose 600 dpi output.

DiscPainterToast1.jpg

Clicking Next brings you to the standard Mac print dialog, where you can set DiscPainter-specific Printer Features like hub diameter and ink density. For Best quality on matte Verbatim discs, I used Matte1. For the correct inside and outside print diameters, check your disc manufacturer's Web site or product label, or simply measure the disc in mms.

DiscPainterToast2.jpg

I'm now dreaming up all the ways I'm going to use my DiscPainter, including a few holiday projects that I'd better get started on pronto!

The 15-Second Challenge.....

Faced with yet another YouTube challenge I accepted the mission. The objective: create a 15-second spot (15 EXACTLY per their rules and regulations) that illustrates how much simpler life would be using Microsoft Sync (smart voice recognition software). You’ve probably seen the commercials….woman holding latte walks purposefully toward glass double doors, calmly says, “door open” and then slams into it, coffee spraying everywhere. Or, the guy who firmly commands, “treadmill on!” and then proceeds to take a running leap for the still stationary machine, nearly decapitating himself in the process. Fun, huh?

So I had to think of something along those lines but of course that hadn’t already been done. I brainstormed….I came up with some fairly obvious choices; “computer on!”…..”toilet flush!”…..then I found that one of the simplest executions was really most “on strategy” – my “elevator up!” concept. Check it out:

So what I did was I took my Sony Cybershot camera (yes, I’m still using it which will explain why the clarity isn’t fabulous), I mounted it on one of the obnoxious oversized planters in my office’s “foyer”, took a look through the viewfinder and made sure that I was getting the shot I was after. Then it was truly as simple as hitting record because once the camera was rolling I could walk into the picture and have it continue rolling as I got inside the elevator, waited for the doors to close, then quickly press the “door open” button and assume my position of confusion/frustration again at not having moved. You get the picture.

When I was done (and this literally took all of two minutes to film) I imported the footage into Videowave (integrated into Creator 10) and quickly edited out the bits I didn’t want – like me hitting “record” on the camera and then scurrying stage left. Right? Left.

I then silenced the native audio because I didn’t want that strange humming sound that accompanies poor audio – it’s like the lights in a cheap department store. Creepy and depressing. I found this cool instrumental version of the main theme to “GoldenEye” and then (now this is going to sound confusing but it’s sooooo not) I imported the unprotected audio into Mixcraft, took EXACTLY the 15 seconds of it that I wanted, then saved it.

Next I overlayed the audio on my 15-second video clip and I had myself a little story going. The best part, I used the narration feature again (remember how perfectly that worked in My Nature Valley?) and I dubbed my “elevator up!” voiceover just as my mouth was saying the words. The narration layers on top of the background music (cool) and doesn’t sound weird or thrown in “after the fact” – just more like what you’d expect from a commercial. Ya know? In fact, I’ll take this opportunity to show you what my video would have sounded like had I NOT done anything at all to the audio. Check this out:

Pretty big difference huh? I know!

So anyhoo, if you were to check out my YouTube channel you’d see I executed on the “toilet flush” concept as well – but I felt my elevator clip was stronger and likely wouldn’t be done by many. Toilet humor is far too obvious. But always funny. At 36 I still love a good toilet joke. I digress.

Stay tuned cuz I’m in the throes of wrapping two new video/song compilations: the final anti-smoking pitch and a road trip video that I had wanted to submit to a contest but unfortunately I couldn’t finish it in time because I actually had some work (yes, real work – the kind I get paid to do) conflicting and messing up the rest of my life.

Bye for now!

March 20, 2008

The Myth of the 100-year CD

I've written previously about the damage the wrong pen or marker can do to your CDs and DVDs. But really, the biggest danger to the long-term health of your discs is the media itself -- some discs are just more reliable than others, made with better materials, equipment and quality control processes. A couple years ago, the UK Independent published an illuminating article on CD longevity, citing studies where media became unreadable after just two years in a dark cupboard -- even without exposure to sunlight or humidity, the usual culprits in CD degradation.

While some disc formats are better than others (RW discs tend to have lower rated lifespans, for example), the bottom line is that no CD or DVD lasts forever, and the professional archivists responsible for major CD and DVD collections use only top-quality media, make multiple copies, check them every few years, and recopy as needed.

So what are the best strategies for home users looking to preserve family photos or financial information? I asked Verbatim spokesperson Andy Marken for advice. He recommends looking for special "archival-grade" discs, and burning, handling and storing them with care. Archival discs are available from most of the major CD and DVD manufacturers, and may include special hardened outer coatings, more stable dye layers, and oxidation-resistant reflective metal layers. All of these things add to the cost of the disc, but are worth it when it comes to storing your most valuable data.

ArchivalDVDs.jpg

Interestingly, when I asked Andy whether he'd recommend DVD-R or +R media, and single or dual-layer, he said that while there isn't much difference between R and +R, "Conventional wisdom recommends that you use single-layer as opposed to double-layer media just because you are multiplying the chances for issues." The Sony Studios library, for example, divides up its video files and spans them across multiple single-layer DVDs. (Both Easy Media Creator and Toast can perform disc spanning automatically.)

Andy also wrote a great article for Audioholics about the longevity issue that ends with some dos and don'ts for CD and DVD handling:

DO:
* Handle discs by the outer edge or the center hole
* Use a non solvent-based felt-tip permanent marker to mark the label side of the disc
* Keep dirt or other foreign matter from the disc
* Store discs upright (book style) in original jewel cases that are specified for CDs and DVDs
* Return discs to their jewel cases immediately after use
* Leave discs in their spindle or jewel case to minimize the effects of environmental changes
* Remove the shrink wrap only when you are ready to record data on the disc
* Store in a cool, dry, dark environment in which the air is clean -- relative humidity should be in the range of 20% - 50% and temperature in the range of 4°C - 20°C
* Remove dirt, foreign material, fingerprints, smudges, and liquids by wiping with a clean cotton fabric in a straight line from the center of the disc toward the outer edge
* Use deionized (best), distilled or soft tap water to clean your discs. For tough problems use diluted dish detergent or rubbing alcohol. Rinse and dry thoroughly with a lint-free cloth or photo lens tissue
* Check the disc surface before recording.

DON'T:
* Touch the surface of the disc
* Bend the disc
* Store discs horizontally for a long time (years)
* Open a recordable optical disc package if you are not ready to record
* Expose discs to extreme heat or high humidity or rapid changes in temperature or humidity
* Expose recordable discs to prolonged sunlight or other sources of UV light
* Write or mark in the data area of the disc (area where the laser "reads")
* Clean in a circular direction around the disc.

March 25, 2008

Earbuds, Schmearbuds

I'm betraying my age by saying that during my college days, the coolness of your stereo was judged by the wattage of your power amp and the size of your (stereo) speakers. But headphones were what we used for studying in the dorm at night, and there Koss reigned supreme with its PRO4AAs -- originally introduced in 1970, and amazingly still made and much in demand today.

koss.jpg

We also spent hours debating the merits of turntable cartridges, adjusting our tone arms for the best pickup, and carefully making mix tapes for the car using the then-revolutionary Dolby noise reduction system. We knew all about dynamic range and "clipping," and normalized our tapes manually by watching the signal meters and cueing and recueing each song to get the perfect gaps on tape. Making a cassette mix tape was easily a weekend job, and making the even higher-quality reel-to-reel tapes we used for parties was a group effort of the entire floor. We rearranged song lists ad nauseam, and delivered the requisite vinyl to the guy with the best system, who then spent a week making the tape under the watchful eyes of the rest of us constantly dropping by his room to listen and critique.

Our never-ending quest for sonic superiority seems light-years removed from today's "good-enough" culture of $20 earbuds and highly compressed music formats. Price and convenience seem to have dulled our sense of music appreciation. You rarely see a portable music player actually evaluated for its sonic fidelity, rather than its capacity and user interface.

But I'm here to tell you that your musical experience can and will be greatly enhanced by paying attention to reproduction quality. Really, there's nothing more mind-blowing that listening to great music through an equally great sound system. Fortunately, you don't have to compromise or spend a lot of money to enjoy both convenience and brilliant sonics. You can rip music from CDs in lossless quality in several formats: Apple lossless, FLAC and Monkey's Audio and Windows Media Audio lossless are some of the most common. The best one to choose depends on what is supported by your ripping tool and player of choice. (Easy Media Creator and Toast support most of these.) The basic point is that they preserve CD quality (hence the term "lossless") while reducing the space needed by about half. Thanks to freefalling hard disk prices, you can store a 3000-disc CD collection in lossless format on a single $250 terabyte hard drive.

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Once you've ripped in lossless format (and note that I'm not buying a digital download until they come in lossless -- the local used CD shop is cheaper anyway), all you need to do is listen through a top pair of headphones, like those from Koss, Sennheiser, Grado, Shure, Bose and others. (Head-Fi.org has recommendations.) You'll hear a big difference even on a portable player, but for true audiophile action, run the optical audio output from your computer to a good receiver, and thence to your headphones. The quality of the digital-to-analog conversion circuitry matters a lot, and it will be much better in the receiver.

Have some other tips for getting the best sound out of your music player? Or think your MP3s sound just fine the way they are? Tell us in the Comments!

About March 2008

This page contains all entries posted to MyMoments in March 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2008 is the previous archive.

April 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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