Monday, July 20, 2009

Software Review: Vue 7.5 Infinite From e-On Software

Written by T. Michael Testi

Vue 7.5 is the latest update to the line of e-On software’s Vue solutions for natural 3D environments. There are seven versions of Vue. Pioneer is the entry level version for newcomers to 3D graphics. Esprit is designed for artists and illustrators. Pro Studio is geared for the advanced artist, and Complete is for the small studio. Vue Infinite designed for the professional 3D animator and production studio. Vue xStream is the integrated solution that can work directly in other 3D applications such as Maya, 3ds, Lightwave, and Cinema 4D. To see all of the differences, you can check out the comparative matrix from e-On software.

Vue 7.5 InfiniteVue Infinite contains all of the features that the other product lines contain plus more. The only difference between Vue Infinite and Vue xStream is that Vue Infinite is meant to run as a standalone product and xStream is built to run in other products; other than that difference, the features are the same.

What do you need to run Vue 7.5 Infinite?

• Windows (2000 or greater), or Mac (OS X 10.4 or later)
• 2.0GHz or faster processor
• 1 GB RAM (2 GB or more recommended)
• OpenGL-enabled graphics card is not required but highly recommended
• 1024x768 in 65K colors/16 bits (24+ bits recommended)
• 200 MB free hard-disk space
• Multi-processor rendering is only available on multi-processor OS X, 2000, XP Pro and Vista systems

E-On software was founded in 1997 with the release of Vue d'Esprit 2. Embraced initially by artists and animators, it has now become a fixture in Hollywood and has been used to create scenes in such movies as Pirates of the Caribbean II, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Australia. It is also finding its way into advertising and the fine art industry.

So, what's new with Vue 7.5 Infinite?
• Material Mapping on Terrains now makes it possible to not only sculpt terrains in real-time, but now you can define how materials will be distributed at the surface of the terrain by painting them in. You can also load, view and modify terrain material maps as well as paint material maps manually.

• Planetary Rendering supports infinite procedural terrains that extend forever. You are able to move the camera as far as you like and the terrain continues to render as you continue to find new parts of it. In 7.5 you can now render entire planets. You can render flat terrains for close-ups, spherical terrains for mid-range shots, and planetary terrains for long-distance shots of entire planets. With the new spherical abstraction gizmos, it is very easy to move around and align elements on the surface of the planet. You can even import cloud maps to recreate real-world skyscapes over entire planets by using any map including daily maps from the Internet.

• Improved Cloud Technology adds a cloud shadowing option called cross-shadowing. This allows clouds to not only cast shadows, but also receive shadows from other cloud layers. This is much faster than Volumetric Light option and is ideal for rendering of airplane shadows on clouds. You also have the ability to generate a color and alpha mask of your cloud in the multi-pass renderer.

• Support for V-Ray in Max in the xStream version is now compatible with the Max Renderer V-Ray from the Chaos Group. This handles cross-shadowing, refractions, and global illumination.

Vue 7.5 Infinite• Improved OpenGL Display has enhanced the quality and responsiveness of the sky preview in the main OpenGL camera view. It uses a progressive refinement method to provide an increasingly detailed view of the sky and clouds. MetaClouds are now displayed as a series of shade particles to better represent the final aspects of the MetaClouds. The sun will cast realistic shadows in the OpenGL views giving you instant feedback on the shadows that the will be cast in the final render, and the plant previews are now dynamically adjusted to account for the complexity and number.

• Animated EcoSystem Populations now make it possible to create populations of elements that evolve over time giving you the ability to create effects like a forest that gradually covers a mountain over time.

• Enhanced Multi-Processor Usage has been enhanced throughout the system including multi-CPU panoramic rendering on Windows and Mac, and procedural terrain construction and EcoSystem population on Windows.

• Camera Mapping makes it easy to create camera mappings, render an image, and then project this image back through the camera onto a simplified variation of your scene giving you the ability to create animated matte paintings without the cost of rendering with full geometry.

As with the prior version, Vue 7.5 Infinite is nothing short of incredible! At first blush, one might look at this product and say that this is really only useful for animation and film production, but that would not be taking into account all of the other industries that could benefit from its use.

For example, if you are a builder, architect, landscape designer, or other professional that needs to emulate an environment, Vue 7.5 is the perfect application to model your design and/or prototype as a proof of concept design. If you are in advertising, what better way to provide backgrounds and other layout art without having to go on location or pay a high dollar firm to do equivalent work. The uses are endless.

With seven different version of Vue 7 ranging from $49.95 to $1495 USD there truly is a version for everyone and considering what this product can do, each are well worth the price.

Vue 7.5 InfiniteIf you want to see what some have done with Vue 7 Infinite you can check out the gallery that is located on the e-On software website. There is also a pretty active community forum available as well.

If you are still not sure, try out the free Pioneer version. You can get a Personal Learning Edition (PLE) of either Vue 7 Infinite or xStream that are full versions that never expire. The only restrictions are 1) that it is not to be used in commercial products, and 2) that the renders will contain a logo and a watermark for sizes over 800x600 and after 30 days. But if you want to learn the software, everything else works.

From a personal point of view, this is a fun product. Really, very easy to use, and if you are fearful of how hard it is to learn, just Google "Vue Tutorial" and you will find all sorts of cool things that you can do with it. There is also a new book that I have recently reviewed called Vue 7: From the Ground Up that walks you through the Vue system very nicely. I very highly recommend the Vue 7 product line, and especially Vue 7 Infinite.


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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Video Training Review: Photoshop CS4: Learn By Video from Peachpit Press in Association with Adobe Press

Written by T. Michael Testi


Photoshop CS4: Learn By Video is a complete training program that was created by the Graz, Austria company Video2Brain for Peachpit Press in association with Adobe Press. The aim of this course of instruction is to teach you not only the fundamentals of Photoshop, but to also show you how to use the program to create effective forms of digital communication. Video2Brain is an Adobe Certified Training Provider.

Photoshop CS4: Learn By Video contains 19 hours of video that is presented by Gabriel Powell and Mikkel Aaland. Included as well are lesson files, assessment quizzes and review materials. Also included with the DVD is a 120-page book that provides a topic-by-topic guide to the video. The video has a unique interface that allows you to jump to any topic as well as tag individual topics for later review. The project files are included on the disc so that you can practice along with the video. There are review questions to help to reinforce what you have learned.

Lesson 1, "Getting Started with Photoshop," shows you how to get up and running quickly with Photoshop. In this lesson you will learn about a lot of techniques that will have you working more efficiently. Along with touring the interface, opening and organizing documents, and saving your workspace, you will learn a number of basic techniques including creating a panorama, photo enhancements, creating a collage, and creating a basic 3D image.

Lesson 2, "Image Editing Concepts," introduces you to the basics of image editing. These provide the foundation of your Photoshop knowledge. Each video shows you a specific concept beginning with the differences between a raster image and a vector image. You will then look at image size and resolution, color modes, nondestructive editing, selections, layers, and masks.

Lesson 3, "Importing and Organizing Images," begins by showing you how to place files into a document, how to import scanned images, as well downloading images from your camera. You will see how to work with Adobe Bridge to compare, rate, add metadata, organize, and assign keywords to your images. You will also learn how to work with Adobe Camera Raw to do preliminary enhancements to your photos.

Lesson 4, "Tools," examines the tools panel and takes a look at each of the tools, what they are used for, and how to use them. Here you will delve into the inner workings of each tool. Each of these videos contains the contents of an individual panel and the tools that make up the panel. There are twenty-four videos covered in this section.

Lesson 5, "Making Selections," now focuses on how to isolate and select a portion of your image. Making selections is an important skill that one needs to master if you are using Photoshop. Just about everything that you do can be made easier if you know how to select areas in your image. Here you will look at selecting color ranges, combining selections, refining selections, and saving selections. You will then see how to accomplish some specific tasks when using selections like combining photographs and changing the color of a selection.

Lesson 6, "Layers and Masks," now looks at two more important Photoshop tools. You will begin by working with layers and learning how they make up the fundamental building block of a Photoshop file. You then learn about Layer Masks and how they can be use for compositing and merging images. You will then see examples of painting special effects on layers, advanced photo merging, how to change facial structure, and more.

Lesson 7, "Color Correction and Retouching," examines what color correction is, and how you can improve an image by adjusting the color to better reflect what is seen in the image. In this lesson you will see how to use a histogram, adjust tone and color. You will see how to do each with both Levels and Curves. Then you will see how to limit adjustments with layer masks as well as other photo retouching techniques.

Lesson 8, "Working with Type," looks at the type tools and what you can do with type within Photoshop. You will start off with using point type, move to paragraph type and then you will begin to get more creative by typing on a path, applying layer styles to type, filling type with an image, and adding type to a perspective plane.

Lesson 9, "Preparing, Saving, and Printing Images," is really all about doing something with your images outside of Photoshop. This includes preparing for commercial printing, preparing for the Web, creating a photo gallery, preparing images for video, and printing images as well.

Lesson 10, "Color Management," now looks at working with color space. If this is a topic that makes you want to turn and run, then stop and watch. In the first video, you will see how a color space looks on screen and what it is really all about. You then will see how to soft proof your images, how to assign color profiles, and how to use color management in the print dialog box.

One thing that is noticeable about the training in Photoshop CS4: Learn By Video, is that it is not focused on photography. It is not going to tell you how to take a better shot, nor will it make your editing easier when you shoot, considering some item. Instead, it is all about Photoshop.

The goal with Photoshop CS4: Learn By Video is to make you a better Photoshop user so that if you want to take the Adobe Certified Expert test, you will have the skills to pass it. Keep in mind that this course is aimed at the beginning to novice user and is much wider in its scope than it is deep. But for that user, and at this price, I can very highly recommend this course.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Product Review: Intuos4 From Wacom

Written by T. Michael Testi


If you use a product like Adobe Photoshop, or Corel Painter, and you are not using a pen tablet, then you don't really understand what you are missing. A pen tablet allows you much more control than you can get with a mouse. It gives you much more efficiency in movement and the pressure sensitivity gives you the same kind of control that you would get from a pen, pencil, or paint brush.

The Intuos4 consists of a digitized pad that plugs in to the USB port on your computer. Your computer then treats the device as though it were a mouse. Through the use of a product like Photoshop or Painter that can take advantage of the rich technology that the pad enables, such that when you use the pen, you can apply more or less pressure which translates to various thicknesses and more or less affect on your image.

Intous4There was a time when the pen tablet was geared just for the commercial artist. They were expensive and the limited amount of software that was enabled to use the device was also geared toward the professional. Then came the Intuous3 which, while having a reasonable pricing structure, also seemed to work with more products, and now had traditional artists as well as photographers getting in on this technology.

Now enter the Intuos4 line of pen tablets. Not only has the price remained reasonable, there are now four sizes to choose from, and the quality of the product has improved dramatically. The total shape and surface have been completely re-engineered to give you more consistent strokes over longer periods of time.

I have worked with the Intuos3 (the 6 x 8 inch) for a number of years and it has become a mainstay in my workflow. Early on, that workflow was primarily photography where it has helped me with things like dodge, burn, sharpen, and blur effects as well as other techniques enormously. Over the course of the last couple of years, I have added Painter to my arsenal and would be hard pressed not having a Wacom tablet. The control is just phenomenal.

In the new Intuos4 line the tablet sizes are small (3.9 x 6.2), medium (5.5 x 8.8), large (8 x 12.8), and extra large (12 x 18.2). The one I now have is the medium and it is roughly the same size as my Intuos3. It is a tad bit smaller on the overall area, but as I realized with the longer width and smaller height is that it works better with my widescreen monitor.

Intous4What do you need to run the Wacom Intuos4?

• Windows XP (SP2), Windows Vista, or Mac OS X10.4.8+
• Color Display
• Powered USB Port
• CD/DVD Drive
• Internet connection to download the bundled software that comes with the tablet

What do you get with the Wacom Intuos4?
• The Intuos4 tablet
• The Intuos4 Grip Pen
• The Intuos4 Mouse
• Pen stand
• Ten replacement nibs (five standard, one flex, one stroke, and three hard felt nibs)
• Nib extractor
• 5' USB cable
• Quick Start Guide
• Installation CD (includes tablet driver software and electronic user manual)

OK. This stuff is all cool, but what about the tablet? Well let's start off at the beginning. While it does not bring anything to the table from a quality of the tablet standpoint, it does show me that they are taking everything into consideration, and that is the very well designed packaging. From first look, you just know that there is something special in the box.

Opening the box you have the re-stylized tablet itself. Its black appearance is much sleeker than the previous grey look. The eight programming ExpressKeys are grouped on one side and they are highlighted with illuminated labels that light up in blue and really make it stylish. The pen holder is a little taller, and the pen itself is much sleeker.

Installing the software is a snap. Pop in the disk and follow instructions. You do want to wait till prompted before you plug the tablet in. One of the new things about this tablet is the fact that, unlike the Intuos3, the keys are set on one side and in the middle. There are two USB ports on the unit and you can switch which one based on if you are right-handed or left-handed. Again, well thought out.

So what is new with the Wacom Intuos4?

Intous4New tip sensor now gives you ultra control. The Intuos4 now gives you the ability to capture the slightest nuances of pen pressure right down to a single gram of weight.

Twice as much pressure as the Intuos3. The Intuos4 now gives you 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity. This will let you dynamically adjust the exposure, brush size, line weight, and opacity.

More natural feel has been given to the Intuos4 pen style. It features a more contoured barrel which is designed to maximize your grip. It will even reduce the stress to your hand and wrist as well as better emulating your favorite writing, drawing, or painting instrument.

More efficient shortcuts have been implemented by the use of the ExpressKeys. These will give you the ability to activate your own unique shortcuts and modifiers in each of your applications. You can even see your settings change in the illuminated display areas when you switch between applications.

New Touch Ring will give you better control for zooming, scrolling, changing brush size, rotating the canvas, or layer selection. The toggle button in the center allows you to control up to four different functions in each application.

User-defined switches that are located on the pen are preset to right-click and double-click, but you can change them to be what you want based on your most commonly used functions.

Slimmer profile is more comfortable than the Intuos3. It has a more gently sloping feel and an "easy glide" palm rest that provides for more support while working on all areas of the tablet.

Pen tip storage is now in the pen stand. Remember when I said that the pen holder is taller? It is taller so that you can store pen nibs in it. Just twist it off and you will see the ten replacement nibs. In the center is also a small ring that you pull out and it can be used for extracting nibs that wear out from excessive pressure.

Intous4Visual references are available on the Intuos4 medium, large, and extra large tablets. The illuminated displays provide a visual reference to each key's function. On the small tablet, pressing the default ExpressKey will display the setting to the screen.

Additional Software is available when you register. You get Nik Color Efex Pro 3 Wacom Edition 6 which are a set of photographic filters for the use in digital photography and transforming your images. You get Wacom Brushes 3.0 which are additional brushes for your use in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. And you get to pick two out of these three products: Photoshop Elements 7 for Windows or Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac, Autodesk SketchBook Express 2010, or Corel Painter Sketch Pad.

Reversible table makes much more sense than two sets of buttons on each side. Now you can maximize your productivity of both of your hands by having everything on the side that you would use it most on.

The mouse is not really new, but not something that I use much. Along with the pen, there is also a mouse that comes with the Intuos4. Like the pen and tablet, the mouse too is black. For those who use the tablet 24/7, the mouse is there to replace your mouse so you can keep your tablet on your desk the whole time.

The more I work with the Wacom Intuos4, the more I appreciate the 16:9 aspect ratio. I am not sure how this will affect someone with monitor that has a 4:3 aspect ratio, but I think that this can be rectified by limiting the area within the configuration setup.

While it will take some time to really get use to, I do like the ExpressKeys. The reason I say this is that with the Intuos3, the keys were different shapes and different directions. Here they are all the same size and right next to each other and it is easy to think that you are hitting one when you are hitting the one next to it. Not a big deal, just a bit of retraining.

Another great innovation is the Touch Ring. With the old tablet, you had the Touch Strip, but you could only assign it one function. Now the new Touch Ring can support four functions. And switching is all with the press of the central button. The Ring functions much like the ring on an iPod.

The Pen, which is black like the tablet, is also much improved. I liked the old pen really well, but the new one is just so much better. The grip is rubberized and it is so much more comfortable than before. It really feels like you are holding a natural pen. The enhanced sensitivity really gives you the feel of control. The pen stand is also outstanding in its design and use ability.

Intous4The tablet itself is a big improvement. The surface has a better feel to it. It is almost like you are drawing on paper or canvas. The ergonomic design is more comfortable than drawing on a paper tablet, but without losing feel.

My only real complaints beyond the closely spaced ExpressKeys are that the black styling is a finger print magnet and a dust collector. It is to a lesser degree the same with the pen.

That said, if you are considering a graphics pen tablet, and are still on the fence, then let me give you a little push. For the price, the Wacom Intuos4 Medium is really a good deal. One thing to keep in mind that from the stand point of size, the medium is probably the largest that most people will need. It takes up a good bit of desk space, but is balanced with the size of the new monitors.

I had my last one for over four years and it has served me well. Once you get accustomed to using the pen tool, you will wonder how you could have survived without it. It is for that reason that I very highly recommend the Wacom Intuos4 Medium Tablet.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Review: Canon 50D: From Snapshots to Great Shots by Jeff Revell

Written by T. Michael Testi


You just got your new Canon 50D. It is an amazing camera and you can figure out some of the basic features, but you want get the best possible images out of it. Well you could read the manual, but even in the best of manuals will only show you functional topics and they never get into when and why you should use one feature over another.

That is where Canon 50D: From Snapshots To Great Shots comes in. What you really want is someone to show you how go beyond the camera's features, and show you how to actually use the 50D to take great images. The goal of Canon 50D: From Snapshots To Great Shots is to blend photography instruction with camera reference so that you can take your skills to the next level. Canon 50D: From Snapshots To Great Shots is 288 pages in length and divided into 10 chapters.

Chapter 1, "The 50D Top Ten List," consists of elements you can use to make you more productive right out of the box. Whenever anyone gets a new toy, they want to unwrap it and start playing. But many times you would be better off if you spent a bit learning about your toy first. Many of these are fairly basic things like charging your battery, setting up the image quality, setting the correct white balance, and turning off the ability to shoot without a card in the camera, but once they are done even your first images will come out better.

Chapter 2, "First Things First," now examines some of the other details that you should take care to ensure you take the best quality pictures. These things include how to choose the right memory card, updating the camera's firmware, and cleaning the sensor. Here you will also get a primer on RAW vs. JPEG, ISO, exposure, and working with depth of field.

Chapter 3, "The Basic Zone" now examines some of the basic modes that your camera can be put in to take an image. These include Full Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, Flash off, and Creative Auto. After all of this is explained, the author will also explain why you will never want to use the basic zone again.

Chapter 4, "The Creative Zone," is where anyone who has been shooting for any length spends their time. It is known as the backbone of photography. It is here that you are able to control the aperture and the shutter speed. In this chapter the author guides you through what each of these modes do and when to use them. They include Program Mode, Shutter Priority mode (TV), Aperture Priority mode (AV), Manual mode (M), and Auto Depth of Field mode (A-DEP).

Chapter 5, "Moving Target" is hard to hit unless you have the correct settings. In this chapter you will learn the best settings to have when trying to capture a moving target. Along with composition, lens selection, as well as other considerations, what matters is shutter speed. Here you will examine all of the factors that you need to take into consideration when shooting speed.

Chapter 6, "Say Cheese!" slows things down by shooting people. Even though you cannot change how someone looks, you can control how they appear. In this chapter you will look at camera features and techniques that will help you improve your portraits. Here you will look at what mode to be in, how to meter your shots, and other techniques like focusing, working with black and white, and the use of fill flash.

Chapter 7, "Landscape Photography," will challenge you because of the ever changing conditions of the environment, but the 50D has some features that will not only improve your work, but make it easier to take great shots. In this chapter you will look at working with tripods, selecting the right ISO, selecting the correct white balance, and how to tame bright skies with exposure compensation as well as many other techniques.

Chapter 8, "Mood Lighting," explores how to shoot when the light is turned down low. When the sun goes down, the 50D has some great features that will let you work with available light. These include increasing the ISO and the use of Flash, but there are other concerns like red-eye, and dealing with the reflections of flash off glass.

Chapter 9, "Creative Compositions," will show you that a great photo is more than just the correct settings on your camera. It also includes how the elements within the frame come together. Here you will look at depth of field, angles, point of view, color, patterns, contrast, and other things that affect how someone looks at your image.

Chapter 10, "Advanced Techniques," will take your techniques beyond the ordinary and give you an added advantage in obtaining a great shot. These include spot metering, mirror lockup, the use of manual mode, bracketing exposures as well as other more advanced techniques.

Canon 50D: From Snapshots To Great Shots is definitely not a re-do of the user's manual. It is very well thought out and well executed. It makes for a good introduction to digital photography while working with the 50D. While it is geared for the 50D, anyone could learn some lessons from it.

One of the things that I really like are the photographic images that populate the book. At the start of each chapter are a couple of images that fall into a category called "Poring over the Picture" where, in a two page spread, the reason for the image is explained and particular points are highlighted. In every image the camera settings are displayed as well. If you have 50D and want something more than the manual to learn from, then this is a must have, if you have one of the other new Canon DSLR's you will probably learn enough from this book to warrant the cost and it is for that reason I highly recommend this book.