Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop Elements 9 might be worth the upgrade

Earlier this year I was very excited about a cool new feature in Photoshop CS5: Content-Aware Fill. As Photoshop Elements 9 was announced, it looks like the folks at Adobe were kind enough to make this feature available to the rest of us that can’t spend in excess of a thousand dollars on a piece of software. Elements now has an enhanced Spot Healing Brush. Check out the video at the official Top New Features page to see the magic in action or this article discussing some of the limitations as well.

Photoshop Elements has become a pretty mature product that – at least in my opinion – hasn’t seen any revolutionary new features since version 5 or so. Consequently I’m still on version 7 having skipped 6 and 8. With this new feature, however, it looks like it would be worth upgrading to v9.

Internet Explorer 9: looks good, but Firefox is still my favorite

I just got the latest beta version of Internet Explorer 9 from Microsoft’s promotional IE site: http://www.beautyoftheweb.com. And I must say that this release is a huge step forward for Microsoft. Here’s what I liked the most after playing around with it for a while:

  1. Of course the number one thing is speed. The improvement here is spectacular. For JavaScript-heavy sites like the WordPress dashboard, it feels noticeably faster than Firefox.
  2. I am not sure whether this might have been in IE8 already, but as I have to use IE7 at work, I just hate that I can’t re-open tabs I accidentally closed. IE9 now keeps a history of previous tabs. That’s great.
  3. The address bar has also been improved nicely over IE7. Being able to type a couple of letters to incrementally search my bookmarks is huge for me. Given the number of bookmarks I have, having to find something in IE7’s Favorites folder is a huge productivity killer.

Nonetheless, I don’t feel like I would want to switch back from Firefox just now. Here’s why:

  1. Having the tabs next to, instead of above or below the address bar gives them too little room. I tend to have a lot of tabs open at any given time, so I want the tab bar to have available the full width of my monitor. It’s small enough as it is.
  2. It’s not possible to close the last tab by middle-clicking it. I oftentimes want to close all the pages and have a clean slate. This is something I have to enable in the advanced options in Firefox, but IE makes me open a new, blank tab and then close the other tab to mimic that behavior. I just find it strange that the last tab behaves differently when it comes to middle-clicking.
  3. As I was switching between tabs, for a brief second a ghost image of a previously closed tab appeared. I guess this is just be a glitch as this is just a beta release that will be ironed out for the final version.
  4. I want my browser to always accept cookies, but throw them all away (along with the history, cache etc.) when I close the browser. This way, I know I start with a clean slate whenever I close and re-open my browser. This level of control over cookies doesn’t seem possible in IE.
  5. It’s still too much work to bookmark stuff. I love that it’s just one click in Firefox to add a bookmark for the current site under “Unsorted Bookmarks”. I often use this feature to quickly bookmark pages I want to revisit and classify later. IE always wants me to choose a folder first. Normally, I’m all about freedom of choice, but sometimes things like this just get in the way. There is a nice discussion of this in chapter 3 of Joel Spolsky’s excellent book User Interface Design for Programmers.
  6. Finally, the lack of something like AdBlock and NoScript: These are the two Firefox extensions I can no longer live (or at least surf) without. Not being able to meticulously control what sites may run scripts and add-ins in my browser is a deal-breaker for me.

So in the end I will probably stay with Firefox for the foreseeable future. I did check out Chrome once, since all the cool kids seem to be using it these days, but the thought of having my browser report to Google is just a bit too scary for me.

Playing with Light

A couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Faszination Licht (called “Light fantastic” in the English version) by Max Keller who is the Head of Lighting at the Munich Kammerspiele. The 85,00 EUR price tag is a bit off-putting at first, but the book is well-worth the investment.

This book is like the ultimate stage lighting book, covering everything from the early history of stage lighting, the technical basics (such as types of lamps, connectors and cables), to the artistic aspects of stage lighting, e.g. what kind of colors help convey what kind of emotions and how different lighting can present the same stage in many different ways.

Having a several years of experience in the basics stage lighting from my high school days, it was the latter part that made me get the book. A good part of the book is dedicated to pictures that showcase what can be done by a professional on a big stage with the right kind of equipment (a couple of these pictures are on his website as well, so go check out the gallery there). But for those of us that have to work with less, it’s still a great source of inspiration. The only downside is that it gives the director ideas. Ideas that can be extremely difficult to implement on a school stage that lacks the proper facilities.

Hands on

So in order to find out what’s possible on our stage, I spent a Saturday afternoon with the dedicated individuals from the stage crew at my old school. Over the years, the school has accumulated nice stable of equipment. Although some of it is a bit dated, some 30 fixtures of the 1KW class with a nice mix of PCs, PARs, Fresnels and spot lights gives one something to work with.

Historically, we have avoided using color gels, because while color can be used to help convey certain emotions and set the mood for a particular scene, color is very easy to get wrong leaving one with an effect that would be OK in a cheap disco but look ridiculous in a serious theater. Also, as the number of fixtures is limited, having gels in some of them reduces one’s flexibility as this makes it impossible to re-use the fixtures in other scenes that don’t use that particular color.

One interesting use of color that we experimented with yesterday is that of lighting with complementary colors. For instance, having one spot in blue and one in yellow will produce white light where they overlap and a blue-yellow gradient at the fringe of the light cones. As the two lights produce two shadows, one of the shadows will be blue and the other yellow (see page 57 in the book or this stagespot.com article for more details).

This can produce quite an interesting effect in the right kind scenes. While it looks OK on a black background, the effect will be even greater on a white one. Essentially, all color effects work much better on white than on black. However, we learned that it is important to get exactly the right kinds of gels or else one will end up with a weird, slightly off, non-white color. Also, the angle between the two fixtures is important. If it is too big, parts of a person’s face will be hit by only blue or only yellow, creating yellow and blue shadows that can look a bit creepy. Although this can of course be part of the design if the scene calls for this kind of effect.