review

Shooting in the Dark by Simon Abrams

After reading all the effusive praise people have been lavishing upon the Fujifilm X100s -- particularly it's low-light performance -- I decided to put it to the test during a walk to Union Square last night (right as the temperatures were dropping, and the storm was gearing up).

The ESB, as seen from 7th Ave. Straight out of the camera.

The ESB, as seen from 7th Ave. Straight out of the camera.

I'm still getting used to the camera's controls, and I have yet to decide whether I prefer shooting through the viewfinder or the LCD, but one thing is for sure: the thing is a rockstar at low-light. I'm accustomed to cameras like my G10, which barely likes to go above ISO 400, and even on my 7D groans a bit at 3200. But this thing took 3200 and shrugged it off like it was nothing. I even cranked it to 5000, and while it got a little soft, I didn't see the multi-colored confetti-like noise I would have seen on the 7D. As a bonus, it's svelte form-factor makes it comfy to hand-hold even at low shutter speeds like 1/10s.

I won't go on much more - I don't have that much to add to what's already been said about this camera. For my personal shooting style, it's going to be a bit of an adjustment working with the prime 35mm-equivalent lens, but I can already tell I'm really going to like this camera.

All of the following images are straight out of the camera, except for the second one, which was cropped slightly.

The Big VSCO Cam™ 2 Review by Simon Abrams

Last summer, I wrote a review of the first release of Visual Supply Company's fantastic VSCO Cam app, so I thought I'd follow up with a review of the newly released - and newly free (with-in-app-purchases) VSCO Cam™ app.

Apologies in advance for the length of this review - I know I got a little wordy here. The fact is, every time I was about to wrap this up, I thought of something else to say, which should be an indication of the depth of this seemingly simple app. And in case you hadn't figured it out by now, I'm a huge fan. There are still some interface quirks, but in many ways, the app is a substantial improvement over the original, and for the first time, something other than Camera+ has taken the number one spot in my iPhone's dock.

The camera view in VSCO Cam, with the square guide and split focus and exposure reticules.

Shooting

Shooting is pretty standard in VSCO Cam. Like the original app, it's designed for shooting images in succession, and editing them after the fact, as opposed to apps like Instagram, which force you to shoot, then edit and share before being able to shoot again.

New in this version of the app are advanced shooting modes. Tapping anywhere on the screen with two fingers splits the focus reticule into distinct focus and exposure locks, as is possible in apps like Camera+. Double-tap on the screen to re-unite the two reticules.

The shutter is triggered by tapping anywhere within the grey area surrounding the camera icon (other than the thumbnail of the most recent image, which opens up the app's photo library). If that's not a big enough target, there's also a button in the camera settings that toggles "big button" mode, allowing you to tap anywhere on entire screen to trigger the shutter.

There are a few other nice additions to the camera settings: on-screen guides that divide the screen into the either the standard rule-of-thirds grid, or into a square composition, which is nice for previewing how your image is going to look on Instagram.

There's also a low-light setting, which, when enabled, allows the app to take advantage of the iPhone 5's high ISO mode, and a button to enable the use of the LED flash. Finally, there's a white balance lock that lets you lock in the white balance of your subject, then recompose and shoot.

I noticed an intermittent bug when shooting where the photo sometimes gets auto-rotated to landscape mode. I couldn't reliably reproduce that bug, but it seems like it may have been occurring if the iPhone was tilted forward beyond a certain angle. Hopefully, this is something that gets fixed in an update.

Editing

The presets in VSCO Cam are what set it apart from the multitude of other camera apps out there. This makes sense, because the careful emulation of classic film looks is literally Visual Supply Company's bread and butter, in the form of their flagship VSCO Film presets for Aperture and Lightroom.

The new version of the mobile app sports a very nice, diverse selection of free presets that many users could be perfectly happy with. Those seeking a greater variety of looks, however, can tap over to the new store, where a wealth of additional preset bundles, which are available via in-app purchase, for the very reasonable sum of .99¢ per bundle. The store is nicely presented, too - each bundle has a very useful descriptions of the of the types of images they're best suited to, as well as sample images which illustrate the look of each preset. This is a huge improvement over the trial-and-error approach of the previous incarnation of the app.

There are currently a total of 48 presets; they can be filtered by category, such as "black & white", "portrait" or "vivid"; or alternatively, they can be sorted by "popular" and "recent", making them easier to browse through and pick from.

To get to edit mode, tap the edit icon - it's the one with the little paintbrush and wrench on (or double-tap a photo's thumbnail). This brings up the preset menu (don't forget to swipe from the right to see additional presets, which could be easy to miss). Each preset's button now shows a tiny preview of what the effect will look like on your photo.

Slide up from the bottom of the screen, or tap the little arrow below the presets, to reveal additional editing options. Tapping on the wrench icon brings up the Toolkit, which allows you to do things like color-correct, crop, sharpen, tint, add a vignette, and adjust shadows and highlights; while tapping on the paintbrush icon brings you back to the presets. Tapping the third icon repeatedly steps backwards through the edits that have been made to the photo in the current edit session (that is, before you hit the Done button), and the last button is the "bring me back to the original photo" button, aka the nuclear option.

One of my issues with the original app was that it took forever to export full-resolution images to the camera roll. Well, there's good and bad news on that front. The good news, I'm happy to say, is that there have been exponential performance improvements in this version of the app - saving to the camera roll is blazing fast, as is sharing to the various social sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Weibo (another great feature: you can choose which of these services show up in the Sharing menu via an option in the app's preferences). The bad news is that I experienced several nasty crashes requiring a hard reset of my iPhone when epxporting more than a handful of photos at a time - another issue which will hopefully be addressed soon.

Using the App

Using the app is a lot of fun. As I was taking notes for this review on the subway, I actually spotted a fellow passenger using the app, and when I asked him about his impressions, he said he was obsessed - he just couldn't stop playing with it. And a woman on the train who overheard us gushing about it later tapped me and asked me for the name of the app and downloaded it on the spot as soon as the train emerged from the tunnel and cellular service returned.

In addition to the beautiful presets at the heart of VSCO Cam, the numerous other details, like the ability to rearrange your presets, or to set your preferred licensing options for your photos (all rights reserved, or creative commons) are a testament to the thought the developers put into this offering. Then there are the filtering options for your Library - tap to display only edited or flagged images. (It would have been nice to have a "not edited" or an "exported" option as well.) Finally, there's the Discover section, which is full of videos, articles, and tutorials for inspiration.

The app's only (minor) drawback might be its interface. It looks really nice, and you can tell that a lot of thought went into the visual design of the user interface elements. However, those pretty icons take a little getting used to, since they don't look like the standard camera app icons we're all familiar with. And though the mini previews that accompany each preset button are definitely appreciated, the color-coding within each bundle of presets seem a tiny bit arbitrary, and doesn't give any indication of what you might want to use those presets for. Also, from editing mode, it takes at least three taps to get back to camera mode - it would be nice to have a faster way to get shooting again.

It also took a little while for me to remember that the X icons are used for returning to previous menus, rather than for deleting images. Then again, when an image is selected in the Library, a trashcan icon (that does delete the selected image or images) appears right where the camera icon used to be. That could be seen as poor interface design (or I could just slow down a little when using the app).

Again, I consider these drawbacks to be fairly minor, after a week of using the app, I've already pretty much gotten over them.

VSCO Grid

VSCO Grid

VSCO Grid

One of the biggest and most ambitious new features added to VSCO Cam is no less than a publishing platform. That's right - the good people at Visual Supply Company had the gumption to develop a "minimalist publishing platform", as they describe it, and toss it in along with the new version of their app. They state pretty clearly that they're not trying to be a new Instagram (in fact they actively encourage sharing to that platform). Instead, VSCO Grid is a stripped-down venue for curating, publishing and discovering beautiful photography. It's not available to everyone right away (in fact, I'm still compulsively checking my email for my activation notice), since they're still working on ensuring that the platform will scale properly with heavy usage.

Conclusion

My minor gripes aside, there's a whole lot to like about this app. It's available for iOS only, and there's currently a huge launch sale on all of the 48 of the available presets for $5.99 (which is around 70% off of the price you'd pay if you bought each bundle separately). Additionally, if you were a user of the original VSCO Cam app, and you ran the last available update of that app, you got a nice little gift of the original presets for use in the new version of the app.

Get it now; highly recommended.

Photoshop CC Favorite Features: Editable Rounded Rectangles by Simon Abrams

Editable Rounded Rectangles in Photoshop CC

This is the first in a series of posts I'm going to be doing about my favorite new features in Photoshop CC. For the uninitiated, CC, or Creative Cloud, is the new designation that Adobe is giving their suite of applications as they move away from the "boxed" retail model of the Creative Suite to delivering their software via digital download.

Today, I'm focusing on a new feature that I, and many, many others, have been begging for for ages: editable rounded rectangles.

It might sound like a small thing, but it really is a big time-saver. In previous versions of Photoshop, you'd create a rounded rectangle Shape layer and whatever settings you used when you created the shape were immediately baked in the second you released the mouse. If you had to replicate that shape elsewhere (either in CSS or maybe as a vector shape in Flash), there was no easy way to figure out what the radius of that shape was without a whole bunch of trial and error, especially if you weren't the original designer that worked on the file. Now in Photoshop CC, you can simply click on the rounded rectangle vector shape and you'll notice that the Properties panel is now populated with all the editable properties of that shape (or Live Shape, as it's labeled in the panel).

The Live Shape Properties Panel in Photoshop CC

Not only do the radii of the rounded rectangle remain editable (or live) after the fact, you can independently edit the radius of each corner, allowing you to create irregular shapes like the ones shown in the screenshot above, without having to edit the shape's vector paths using the pen tool, or by combining shapes with boolean operations, as you would have had to do in previous editions of Photoshop.

I'm thrilled with this new feature - it definitely goes a long way towards solving at least one of the issues that interface and icon designers have had with creating and resizing HiDPI (aka Retina) graphics, and is a big part of Adobe's continuing enhancement of Photoshop's vector graphics capabilities.

Stay tuned for more posts highlighting additional new features in Photoshop CC.

VSCO CAM: App Review by Simon Abrams

VSCO CAM

A friend of mine hipped me to an amazing set of plugins for Lightroom, Photoshop and Aperture called VSCO Film. The point of these plugins is to very carefully and precisely emulate the look of classic film in your high-end photography, and I think they do so really well.

Visual Supply Company, the folks who make VSCO Film have just released their first iOS app, VSCO CAM, which aims to bring the same high-quality film photography emulation to your iPhone. I know that the market for apps that make your iPhone photos look like they were shot in 1974 is pretty saturated, but VSCO CAM is different - in general, the effects just seem to feel more timeless and less heavy-handed than what a lot of other apps produce.

The app itself is very minimal. It works sort of the same way Camera+ does, in that you can shoot continuously, and your photos get saved in a “lightbox” holding area until you’re ready to process and/or save them to your Camera Roll, or share them to a handful of external services, including the usual suspects like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Once you’re ready to edit, there are ten preset filters to choose from - three black and white, and seven color filters. (It took me a couple of days to realize that there were, in fact, ten filters, because there’s no indication that you can swipe to the right and find the five additional filters that aren’t visible on the initial editing screen.) Once you’ve chosen a filter, you can stop right there and save or share your photo, or you can refine the photo further by clicking on the little wrench and screwdriver icon to adjust various settings, including contrast, grain, saturation, temperature, and one that’s unique to VSCO CAM: fade. (Again, swipe to the right from the settings screen to find additional items you can adjust.)

Saving images took a really, really long time.

My one complaint with the app is how long it takes to save your processed images. On my way to work, I selected about 14 images that I had edited the night before,  and chose to save them to my iPhone 4’s Camera Roll at full resolution. I started the operation right as I was getting into the subway station near my house in Brooklyn and it wasn’t done until I was almost all the way over the Manhattan Bridge - that’s a solid 20 minutes at least, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Brooklyn. The progress bar that appears when you’re saving more than one image is not very responsive, so I almost force-quit the app a few times, thinking that it had crashed.

Overall, the experience of using the app is clean and minimal. With judicious application of the presets and settings, the photos that VSCO CAM produces really do capture that classic film feeling. The slow output ws the only thing that marred the experience for me - hopefully this is something the developers can optimize in an update to the app.

My 10 Favorite New Features of Photoshop CS6 by Simon Abrams

So Adobe’s been teasing it with the many sneaks they’ve been releasing over the past several months, and it’s finally here - the public beta of Photoshop CS6, code-named Superstition. It’s like some kind of design geek Christmas. Before you run off to download the beta, though, I thought I’d take this opportunity to list, in no particular order, some of my top ten favorite new features. 

Dark UI

Photoshop’s new dark UI is designed to match with other pro level appsLike me, some of you will love it, but I can already hear the moans of anguish from those of you who will 
fire up the new Photoshop and be appalled at the new dark interface. First of all, relax. You can switch back to the grey interface you know and love. In fact, there are four different UI color options in the interface preferences. 
The Interface preferences give you four choices of colors, as well as custom options for Photoshop’s three screen modes
Second, there are reasons for the dark UI, including knocking the application’s interface back so that it’s not competing with the amazing content you’re creating. Also, it makes Photoshop consistent with the other apps in the Creative Suite (and other pro-level apps in general - think Final Cut, Aperture, Lightroom, etc).
Finally, the UI update is far more than skin deep. The good people at Adobe have gone in and redone every single one of the thousands of radio buttons, icons, sliders and other elements to make them all uniform, consistent and pixel-perfect. It’s a big deal. 

Layer Search

The Layers Panel can be searched by layer name or typeHoly smokes. If you’ve ever opened up a Photoshop document and gazed in despair at a Layers panel full of “layer 2 copy 2 copy”, then this feature needs no explanation. You can not only search for a layer by name, you can filter the list by layer type (pixels, text, adjustment, vector and smart object). Once you see it in action, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.

Auto-Save

Yay! Crashes happen, but there’s nothing like hitting that “reopen” button after dismissing that damn crash report, and seeing your document pop right back up like nothing ever happened. It’s so good that you might start to secretly hope Photoshop crashes.

Blur Gallery

On-canvas editing is big in the new version of Photoshop, as seen here in the Iris Blur tool.Nowadays, everyone is doing all sorts of tilt-shift and selective focus trickery with their smartphones. You didn’t think that Adobe, the predominant imaging software makers, we’re going to sit back and not get in the game, did you? Not that there weren’t already ways of achieving these effects in Photoshop, but three new dedicated tools have been added to the Blur menu to give you these effects with pro-quality results. Field Blur blurs the entire image, Iris Blur creates an oval or rounded blur region, and Tilt Shift creates that miniature effect we’re all so familiar with now. Each of these tools has super-fast and responsive on-canvas editing tools that let you edit the effect without having to go off and fiddle with numbers in a dialog box.

Character and Paragraph Styles

Here’s another one that doesn’t need much explanation. Editing more than a handful of text in Photoshop has, until now, been sort of a pain in the rear. Now, like in most programs that involve any sort of text editing, you can create and edit styles and apply those changes to blocks of text throughout your document. Awesome. 

Vector Layers 

Your Vector Shapes can now have strokes - and those strokes can have solid, gradient, or pattern fillsIt’s a subtle change, but Shape Layers are now Vector Layers, and along with the new nomenclature comes the ability to add all sorts of strokes, including… dashed and dotted lines! Yes, you read that right, no more copy-pasting from Illustrator - you can do it all right in Photoshop. Another feature that’s sure to be hugely appreciated by those doing pixel-precise work is the new Align Edges checkbox, which lives up to its name, forcing Vector Shapes to align to Photoshop’s Pixel Grid, eliminating those fuzzy, anti-aliased edges that we’d sometimes see when creating vectors in Photoshop.

Enhanced Video Editing

Video editing in Photoshop has gained powerful, but simple to use featuresThis is another area of Photoshop that has been improving progressively over the last several iterations of the software, and this version is no exception. New to CS6 is the ability to preform basic audio edits on a separate track, as well as to quickly add simple transitions between video clips. Also, where video has always been a feature of the Extended version of Photoshop, Adobe has decided that video editing is for the people, so now it’s in the Stsndard version as well. 

Content-Aware Move Tool

Content-Awareness has been all the rage in the last few updates, starting with Scaling in CS4 and then Fill in CS5. CS6 brings Content-Aware Move, allowing you to easily remix images by moving elements from one place to another, and filling in the background contextually, based on the surrounding pixels. More voodoo magic from the big-brained engineers at Adobe. This one works better as a video demo, so check out Photoshop PM Bryan O’Neil Hughes’ sneak peek from a few weeks back:

Revamped 3D Engine

The 3D engine has been revamped completely, focusing on usability and performanceIn another lifetime, I was a pretty hardcore 3D guy, so the consistent, iterative improvements in the Photoshop 3D engine hit a special note for me. The difference between what Photoshop was capable of back in CS3 when 3D was introduced and what it’s capable of now is sort of mind-blowing. From the more streamlined interface, to the beefed up ray-tracing and image-based lighting capabilities, this is a comprehensive and welcome update. 

Performance, Performance, Performance

If I had been making this list in some sort of order, this feature would be number one, because Adobe has really pulled out all the stops as far as making Photoshop scream in this update. Wherever possible, they have offloaded the heavy lifting to the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) via what they’re calling the Mercury Engine. All that on-canvas editing, the new rich cursors, the Blur Gallery tools, the insanely robust retooled Liquify filter, 3D, painting and video - they all benefit from a significant performance boost if you have even a remotely recent graphics card. 

Bonus Pick: Adaptive Wide-Angle

The original image, stitched from 15 carelessly shot images, and the results, produced using the Adaptive Wide Angle filterSeverely distorted fisheye images can be unwrapped using the Adaptive Wide-Angle tool, and it’s really, really impressive.
Trace lines in the photo that are supposed to be straight, and the tool, using lens profiles and metadata embedded in the photo (if available) will figure out how to correct it. This is another filter that elicits “oohs” and “aahs” when demoed, and for good reason, as the results are dramatic.

There you have it - some of my favorite new features of Photoshop CS6. I will be posting some more detailed tutorials on some of these features in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned.

Of course there are hundreds of other improvements under the hood, but since this is still considered a beta release, nothing is set in stone. Speaking of which - there’s still time for you to have a say in what makes it into the final release of the software. Download the beta, and vote on features, and add your feedback and questions to the forums. See you there, and have fun with Superstition. 

When an Upgrade is Actually a Downgrade by Simon Abrams

Canon 7D with Holga HL-C AdapterI just got myself a Digital Holga Starter kit for my 7D, turning my rather expensive DSLR into the equivalent of a plastic-lensed Russian Chinese toy camera. There’s no way of overstating this: this lens is really cheap. It feels cheap, it’s 60mm focal length is brutally unforgiving, the aperture just is what it is (roughly equivalent to f/8), and it demands that you crank your ISO way beyond what your good sense tells you you should be using. But it’s really fun, and definitely makes one appreciate the niceties of autofocus and the like, and getting a good result (whether by happy accident or otherwise) makes it all worth it.

Drawing kit, shot with HL-C Macro lens adapter

I got the close-up/macro lens kit. The “lenses” in the kit range in focal length from 500mm to 30mm, and are even tougher to focus with than the base lens by itself (particularly that 30mm), but again, the results can be quite beautiful. The restrictiveness of the lens definitely makes me slow down and think more about what I’m about to shoot. This is definitely a bit of an adjustment for me, given that I’ve been spoiled with the instant gratification of a purely digital background.

So, is it really a downgrade? Well, technically, I suppose it is, due to its inferior quality and what not. But all in all, it’s definitely a worthy investment at around $50.