Software I Use

Several people I know got new digital cameras for Christmas, so I think it’s time for me to finally publish my thoughts on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (I’ve had a half completed draft sitting around that I’ve been meaning to finish for a couple of months now). Let me preface this by saying that I am in no way a professional photographer, or even a “pro-sumer” as the popular category goes these days. But I do have a digital SLR camera, and I do shoot everything in RAW format, and what I really needed was a tool to organize my photos and let me tweak the (many) photos I take that need a little bit of help. And after trying several alternatives (there are many on the market), the best tool for me is definitely Lightroom.

Lightroom is basically the RAW processing engine from full Photoshop, along with a great set of features for managing a large number of images. One nice thing about Lightroom is that it’s a bit less than half the price of Photoshop (roughly $280 for Lightroom vs about $630 for full Photoshop). Lightroom has everything you need to work with photographs, including cropping, increasing or decreasing the exposure from how the image was actually shot, bringing out details from shadows that were a bit underexposed, toning down highlight areas that were overexposed, adjusting color balance, removing red eye, noise reduction, sharpening, and adjusting overall brightness and contrast. You can also use some more advanced tools that let you correct for chromatic aberration and lens vignetting. It also does a very good job of converting color photographs to black and white. It’s missing some of the things in full Photoshop, like combining two images into one or removing one person from a group shot or other things like that, but I’ve found that I don’t really use those functions much when I’m working with photographs that I’ve taken.

One of the key things about Lightroom is that it is designed from the ground up to work with RAW images. Internally, Lightroom never alters your original RAW image. It stores the image exactly as it comes off the camera, and each change you make is just stored as kind of a script of changes that is applied to the original image. So you can change your mind and go back to the original image at any time with no damage whatsoever to the original file. Since the changes you make are stored as a script, you can also make multiple “versions” of changes to a single image. You can have one where you fix the issues in the color photo, another where you convert the image to black and white, and a third where you do something else. All three “new” images are just three scripts of changes that are run against the same original image.

The other great aspect of Lightroom is that it is designed for managing a large volume of photos. This is what really sets Lightroom apart from most other image editing programs (including full Photoshop, which does not include such extensive features for managing photos). I’ve shot all of our digital photos in RAW format since Charis was born, and I have all of them loaded up in Lightroom (well over 6000 images now). It automatically sorts images by the date the photo was taken, the date I imported the photo into Lightroom, what camera was used, what lens was used, what ISO the image was shot at, and quite a few other things (and it picks up all of that information automatically from the RAW file from the camera). Beyond that, there are lots of things that you can do to sort images in other ways. You can “tag” an image with any kind of tag you want. For example, I created tags for each person that commonly appears in our photos, and I mark each image with those tags when I import them into Lightroom. A picture of Charis and Cai gets two tags, one for Charis and one for Cai. Once the images are tagged, I can have Lightroom show me all of the pictures with Charis in them, or, even cooler, show me every picture with Charis and Cai in the same shot. It’s pretty handy to be able to find those images almost instantly from a pool of over 6000 photos. I also have other tags for location (at home, at work, vacation…), subject matter (sunsets, flowers, family…), major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays…), and several other things. Beyond that, you can also give star ratings to your pictures so you can record which photos are your best. So then I can combine star ratings with tags and view all of my 5-star images from Charis’s birthday parties. It’s quite amazing, really, and immensely useful as your collection of images grows.

One other Lightroom feature that I find very useful is a set of tools for comparing similar shots to pick the best one. Suppose you have a dozen shots of a similar scene. You can tell Lightroom you want to just work with those 12 photos temporarily, and then flip through each photo in turn. As you flip through, you may be able to quickly mark photos as “picks” or “rejects” by clicking small flag icons in the corner of each photo. Once you’ve done that, you might want to pull up all of your possible “picks” (not looking at the rejects anymore) and look at them at full resolution, either individually, or in sets of two side by side. The side by side view is great for picking the better of two images. Then you can give your final pick a five star rating and either given the unselected photos a lower rating or completely delete them and just keep the one you chose.

So I’m a big fan of Lightroom. It has pretty much everything I need to manage our growing collection of digital photos, and it’s pretty easy to use. I’ve always found full Photoshop to be a bit intimidating because there are so many options and tools, but Lightroom is streamlined and straightforward. I picked up a “how to” book from Borders to get me started, but once I read the book and got going, I didn’t need to refer back to it because everything is so easy to use. There are, of course, lots of tools out there for working with RAW images, and Lightroom may not be right for everyone, but I’m very happy with it.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Ever since I got a digital camera, I’ve been searching out efficient tools for managing and processing all of the pictures we take. Considering how poorly I’ve been doing at updating the kids gallery lately (or *not* updating it, if you want to look at it that way), you might think I’ve been doing a rather poor job of searching, but that’s beside the point. For quite a while now I’ve been using several small programs to do various tasks. I had one that had a nice interface for cropping, another that had a good tool for resizing, and several more for other small tweaks. That was working pretty well, but it was a bit of a hassle to have to move through several tools in order to get things done.

A few days ago, though, I found a single tool that does almost all of what I need to do, and that tool is the FastStone Image Viewer. It loads quickly and has a fairly straightforward user interface. Both the cropping tool and the resizing tool are nice, and it does lossless JPEG rotation, including automatic rotation based on the EXIF tag. I’ve been able to remove four separate tools and replace them all with this one. I still use Lightroom for my RAW images, but the FastStone Image Viewer is the only tool I need for basic operations on JPEG images. The program is free for personal use, but I went ahead and purchased a commercial license for it anyway because I appreciate what the author is doing.

I took a couple days off from work a few weeks ago because our vacation time at my new job is use-it-or-lose-it each year and my hire anniversary date was approaching. There was no way I was going to let vacation go unused, so I had three extra days around the house, and one of my big tasks for myself was to get Vista installed on my desktop machine. Both of our notebooks already have Vista, and it was getting a little annoying for me to switch back and forth between my XP desktop and my Vista notebook. So I made all of my paranoid backups and then wiped the drive clean to begin installing Vista. Everything actually went quite smoothly, and once the operating system was in place, I reloaded all of my software programs and got things configured the way I like them. So I think I’m all set now and hopefully I won’t have to do a complete reinstall of everything for quite some time.

While uploading pictures from home last night, I did a little searching around on Google to try to figure out what the problem was with the internet connection at the hospital. And what I found was lots of people with the same issue: able to connect to the access point, but only in some kind of “local only” mode without access to the internet. It turns out this is a problem with Windows Vista. Apparently Microsoft changed the way the operating system tries to configure a DHCP address compared to how XP and previous versions of Windows did things (something to do with the “Broadcast flag” in DHCP discovery packets), and the result is that Vista will not work with “certain routers” without tweaking a few obscure registry keys by hand. Now “certain routers” is Microsoft’s description of the problem. The hospital is using a Cisco wireless hotspot system, and you would think that Cisco equipment is used widely enough that Microsoft would want Vista to work with it. So maybe “certain routers” really means a whole bunch of routers don’t work with Vista. Anyway, the registry key information for the fix is in this Microsoft knowledge base article if you ever run into the same problem.

Whenever I’m working on my computer, Joy calls the motherboard and/or CPU “the brain” of the machine. Well, Wednesday night my order arrived from NewEgg with a new brain for my desktop at home. When I built my machine last year, I used an Intel D975XBX motherboard, which was supposed to support the new Core 2 Duo processors when they were released. However, it turned out that there was some kind of voltage problem running the new C2D processors on the board, so Intel eventually released a new version, creatively named the D975XBX2.

I ordered the new motherboard and a C2D processor (E6600 for those keeping score at home), and I was hoping to be able to switch the motherboard and processor out without needing to reinstall the operating system. The motherboards are quite similar (but not exactly the same), so I thought I at least had a chance of getting things to work. I couldn’t find anything online where anyone had swapped out the two motherboards, but I decided to take my chances all the same.

The first thing I did was split my RAID 1 mirrors back into separate disks. I didn’t know how my RAID setup would work from one motherboard to the other, so I decided splitting the mirrors was the safest thing to do. Then I cracked open the case and swapped out the motherboard and processor, which wasn’t too terribly difficult since the boards are physically arranged the same way. I booted into the BIOS setup and configured the settings for the new board to be identical to how I had the old board set. And then I booted up the machine to see what would happen. XP started right up just as if nothing had changed, which was really nice to see.

XP picked up everything on the motherboard without any complaints. I had to reinstall newer versions of a few of the Intel software packages once XP was up and running, mainly the Desktop Utilities package and the Matrix RAID Console. Once I had the new RAID Console installed, I was able to rebuild both of my mirrors without any problems at all.

The main reason I wanted to swap the processor (other than the always appreciated speed increase) was because my previous processor (a D930) always ran pretty hot. It idled around 60C and just went up from there under load. The new C2D idles between 34C and 36C. I used an Intel tool to run the CPU at 100% load for 30 minutes and the temperature never went above 59C. So the old processor idled at the same temperature as the new processor under full load. Nice! I’m sure part of that is the difference between a D930 and a C2D, but another part of it is likely because I used an Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro CPU cooler instead of the stock Intel cooler I used on the old D930. I’m not sure which made the bigger difference, but I’m very happy with the results.

Microsoft has a deal going on now where if you watch two online video tutorials on Visual Basic and fill out a survey afterwards, they will send you a free copy of Visual Studio 2005 Standard. I have Visual Basic Express and Visual C# Express on my machines now, but the standard version of Visual Studio adds several nice features that are missing from the Express versions. So I dutifully watched my two videos and filled out the survey, and then a few days later I got an email from Microsoft telling me how to order my free copy of Visual Studio Standard. That was an awfully easy way to save several hundred dollars over buying the software!

I finally gave up and purchased a copy of full-blown Photoshop. I’ve been using Photoshop Elements for a while now, and it just got really frustrating when I would find a Photoshop tutorial on the web that I wanted to learn more about, and then I would discover that Elements had everything referenced in the tutorial except one feature that was only in full Photoshop. That happened enough times that I was starting to think about getting full Photoshop, and then with the forthcoming releaes of Photoshop CS3, Adobe sent me an email offering me the chance to upgrade from Elements to Photoshop CS2 at a significantly reduced price. That was just too hard to pass up. True, my copy of Photoshop is one version back from the absolute newest version, but it still has pretty much everything I was missing from Photoshop Elements, and if I ever decide I need something from CS3, I can get the newer version for the upgrade price instead of the full price for a new license.

For most of the last year and a half or so I used FeedDemon as my RSS feed reader. I started using it just about the time the product was purchased by NewsGator, so I was part of that transition. One of the key features for me was the ability to sync the read state for articles between multiple computers. But once I started using it on a regular basis, I discovered that the sync system didn’t work as well as I would have expected. Using the NewsGator system, the sync only matched read states for articles that were still in the active feed at the time the sync was performed. For sites that publish many articles per day, that basically meant that you had to keep FeedDemon running 24/7 on all of the machines you wanted to sync, which to me at least kind of defeated part of the purpose of syncing across machines. During some of the earlier days, there were also quite a few outages of the NewsGator service itself, and the way FeedDemon was written caused it to rely completely on the NewsGator service. It did not automatically fall back to checking the feed directly when the NewsGator service was down, which was pretty frustrating.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that I have now been using Google Reader for about 4 months. While I really like the speed and screen layout of FeedDemon (when things are running properly), I’ve adapted to the point where Google Reader is just a useful to me. It’s a little slower than FeedDemon, probably at least partly due to the fundamental differences between a web application and desktop application. The only thing that I really wish Google had was a tag for “save this to read later”. They do have the concept of “shared” and “favorite” articles, and both of those functions are great, but I’d really like them to add a folder for stuff I don’t have time to read right now, but I definitely want to read later. But at that point, I don’t know yet if it is worth sharing or if it really belongs in my favorites or not, so I need a third option.

So overall I am quite happy with Google Reader, and I’ve uninstalled FeedDemon from my machine and cancelled my NewsGator account. Yet another case of free software winning out for me over software that I have to pay for.

I don’t usually see a lot of television commercials because we fast-forward through them with our TiVo, but last night I happened to catch a new mac vs pc ad from Apple that was absolutely hilarious. It’s about the User Account Control feature in Vista that I complained about earlier this week. When we saw the commercial, Joy turned to me and said “hey, that’s the thing you were talking about in Vista that you said was really stupid, isn’t it?”. Why yes, yes it is.

You can check out the commercial by going to the “get a mac” ad page and clicking on the “Security” commercial.

I decided to go ahead and install Vista on the new machine. Lenovo already had drivers available for all of the hardware, so that made things pretty simple. The installation of Vista itself was very straightforward, and then I went through a series of install driver –> reboot actions until all of the drivers were installed. In the grand scheme of things, Vista really doesn’t seem all that different from XP. In some ways the interface looks a little snazzier, and they moved everything around in the control panel, but in most respects it’s very similar.

The most annoying new thing (to me at least) is the User Account Control which basically asks you “are you sure?” any time you do anything beyond a basic activity like running a program. Installing anything new, doing something on the internet, or changing almost any settings in the control panel ends up prompting you to ask if that’s really something you want to do or not. That might be okay for somebody who doesn’t know what they are doing, but even then I have serious doubts about it. However, when you do know what you are doing the extra prompt showing up all the time is incredibly annoying (as in the “yes I want to do that which is precisely why I even clicked that button in the first place” kind of annoying).

I have to say, though, despite all of the differences and new annoyances, I’m still glad I went ahead and installed Vista. I will be using this new machine for a long time, and sometime over the next few years I know I would definitely want to move it to Vista, so it just made sense to go ahead and install it now to get that out of the way.

I was a bit worried about how fast Vista would run compared to XP, and while it does take a little longer to reboot, it seems reasonably quick and snappy once it is actually up and running. And the time required to sleep or hibernate seems to have been improved quite a bit, which is very nice on a notebook. So now that the operating system is up and running, I need to install all of the various programs that I use and then I should have everything all set.

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