Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travel Blog #1: "Why Mimes Have It All Figured Out"

I'm pretty sure mimes have it all figured out.

They don't talk.

If they don't talk no one can really get annoyed with them. This has been on my mind all day because my wife has been packing. Packing makes her crabby. Exceptionally crabby. Maybe dangerous crabby.

"Just say the word if you want to do this job," my ordinarily mostly pleasant but much better half will snarl. I stand to be corrected, but I think her eye teeth grow a couple of inches and her fingernails lengthen and sharpen all on their own.

Yes. It is a good day to be a mime.

We are sitting together right now. The bags are packed and waiting by the door. We've reserved a taxi driver. I met him the other day: he has an impossible name -- so he told me to just "call me Bob."

We've negotiated a fee for a trip to the airport -- which is going to be a lot more economical because parking there for nearly three weeks will be ghastly expensive as opposed to only mildly unpleasantly expensive.

These past few days have been a blur: getting Brazillian money, working at the company doing a huge payroll for the performers, the last six hundred and seven details that need to be taken care of before we charge off onto our trip.

The snow started this morning and it hasn't stopped. Being basically a pretty anal person, I have checked the flights at the airport. (Okay...Sheree told me to check the flights.) A bunch of them are delayed. Not ours. Yet.

The happy anticipation has given way to a few tendrils of anxiety. I am not sure exactly why. Don't get me wrong -- I am still really excited about the trip -- but there's something about jumping off the high travel diving board (an overly flowery way of saying "boy we are going a long way from home") that usually makes me take a few minutes to pray for safety, great pictures, wonderful encounters with people and splendid travel memories.

We'll be using our Nexus passes for the first time tonight. Nexus, for those of you who don't know, is a way of getting across the US/Canada border more quickly. Applying takes some time, background checks and scans of your eyes -- but the immense satisfaction of taking the fast lane through customs will be worth it. (I am usually the one in the line-up glaring at people like me, muttering "who they think they are? " But tonight I think I'll wave at the person trapped at the end of the line who is REALLY in a hurry. Maybe I'll wish them a cheery "Happy New Year" as I pass them. This should be a relatively safe course of action since there is always ample security at airports.)

So here's where we're going, since you are coming along, okay? We're flying to Toronto. From Toronto, we fly to Fort Lauderdale and from Fort Lauderdale, we get on the cruise ship.

I've checked the documents at least a dozen times. Passport: Yup. Yellow Fever Certificate: Yup. (I am PDG "Pretty Darn Glad" Sheree remembered that certificate since I forgot all about it and you can't get onto the ship without it...which would SERIOUSLY suck) Brazillian visa inside passport: Yup.

Camera, charger, lenses, lens pen, lens wipe, camera manual, flashlight, silica -- yup, yup, yup, yup, ummm yup...yup, yup. iPod, Palm Pilot and laptop? Yup. Power cords for all of the above? Yup.

Since we've flown before, let me suggest you do what I've done. (Okay: what Sheree TOLD me to do.) Pack your toothbrush and all the things that make you feel fresh and acceptable to the world -- along with a clean pair of underwear in your carry-on bag. This way if (God forbid) you get messed up at the airport, you can be a sweet smelling mega stressed out traveller.

Sheree has promised a glass of her world-class egg nog before we go. I'll ask her to make one for you too.

We'll get on the plane a few minutes before midnight and take off about twenty minutes into the New Year. I've led a relatively sheltered life and actually think that's pretty cool.

Now we just need Bob, a couple of planes and a ship.

Monday, December 29, 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Yup. It's a holiday classic, isn't it? Andy Williams warbling his way through "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The song was recorded before I was born and has played every year since.

Let me tell you about the last time I heard it. It was about five days ago. I was in an elf costume about to do a show in a downtown restaurant. There were, of course, two significant things figuring into my particular situation at that moment:

1) A six foot tall guy lugging sound equipment and magic props through downtown streets invariably attracts well as the odd rude comment and/or slack-jawed stare, which is why I make a point of whistling Jingle Bells REAL loud.

2) Since it was -28, I really just wanted to stay in the car. Where it was warm. And strangers don't point and laugh. And a cold wind doesn't freeze the important stuff under my tunic -- which, come to think of it, is a really stupid notion for "clothing to give someone who lives at the North Pole." (I suspect Santa gives his little people tunics to ensure they stay inside.)

But it is being a magician and special events fella at Christmas time that enables my wife and me to hit the TRULY "Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I am speaking specifically about that golden period between Christmas and New Year.

What makes this time of year so special?

It's the time when the work is done and Sheree and I are joyfully getting ready for our Big January Trip. It's what I look forward to throughout the Christmas season. Last year we were off to Australia and New Zealand. It was a classic. We met wonderful people, took great photos and did some serious travelling. (I see a tremendous difference, by the way, between "travel" and "vacation." Vacationers rest. Travel isn't restful. It's an experience that takes you to places you'll never see sleeping in or grazing a buffet. Travel makes you tired...and happy...and, well, awed.)

In two short days, both of us get on a plane to Fort Lauderdale -- and will board a cruise ship bound ultimately for the Amazon River and Manaus -- deep inside Brazil.

THIS is one of the best parts of the trip. This is when we pack up clothes and photography equipment. My wife makes lists. It's when I ask her if everything on the list is really necessary. She just sighs and continues packing.

It's when we buy colorful money from a nation we've never been to, because we are going's when we both feel a joyful anticipation over where we are going and who we will meet, the places we'll see and the food we'll eat.

I LOVE this part. I really do. It's the difference between being a kid and looking in anticipation at the glittering tree and being that same kid on Christmas afternoon, after the presents have been unwrapped and all the mysterious rattles revealed. We are, right now, in that happy travel state of having no idea what's going to happen...with the whole trip before us.

Why am I telling you all this stuff?

Because I'd like you to come along. Here's my proposal: let's take the trip together. I'll take pictures and think hard about how to tell you about the things we see and the people we meet. And I will send you blogs at every possible location...every day if I can.

Yup. It's true that I get to do the fun parts. (Which is only fair since, y'know, I was the guy in the elf suit freezing his bells off to pay for this trip.) But I'd really like to share this with you.

So get out your sun screen and a trashy novel. Reserve a deck chair near the pool and consider yourself invited along on a cruise to ports we've never heard of, down the Amazon River and finishing everything up with a few days poking around Key West, Florida.

How does that sound?

You want to come along? I hope so...because you're invited.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve This Year...

When I was a kid the big Christmas Eve event was sitting on my father's lap and having him read "The Night Before Christmas." As the story neared it's conclusion (the same conclusion every year) we'd breathe a little faster because following the story, we'd be allowed to open ONE Christmas gift -- as long as it wasn't the "big one."

That was then. This year, Sheree and I packed up her brand new Canon 50D (which she loves, by the way) and my eVolt and went to a cemetary.

It was freezing outside, with temps below the -26c mark. (You guys know about shooting in cold weather, right? You simply accept that the cold will suck the life out of your battery and make your camera cranky. It's best to keep the camera inside your jacket so it can stay warm.) We did a lot of shooting, ran back to the warm car and then headed out again.

It was a memorable afternoon. I love graveyards, especially when I stop to consider that under each tombstone is something that used to be a person, and that what is on the tombstone is what the people left behind think you should know about them.

Sometimes it's just their last name (which I have always suspected is because that's the least expensive package) and sometimes there are grand displays. Like this angel.

I've seen her in summer under the blistering heat. Here she is in winter, with her fall foliage covered in the dusting of snow we got a few days ago.

I've added the bokeh to the edges to direct the eye to the subject of the shot. I increased the vibrance on the leaves inside Photoshop. Because she came off as "way too grey" -- I first used the Burn Tool to accent her lines. Then I used the nifty new CS4 Vibrance setting.

The shot from behind really worked for me as well. I loved the shell look of the wings, contrasted with the snow coating her head and her wings.

It's the same statue -- just two completely different views of it. See how changing your position can radically change the way your image is presented?

The shot at the top of this blog was something I set up. Those are my tracks heading off into the distance. I put them into the snow at that angle because I wanted them to head away from the tombstones, apparently going nowhere.

If you take a look at the largest tombstone, you will see why I did it this it an end to Xmas if you like.

Cemetaries are wonderful places to shoot. Your subjects aren't going anywhere and they never ever complain about the cold.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas to All!

It is a quarter to three in the morning as I sit here and start on this blog.

My grandchildren are sleeping soundly as is my wife. Our old lady cat slumbers too, curled up into a contented ball of softly breathing feline.

I am sitting in my favorite chair with my computer on my lap. I've worked up some images, done a little work on my novel and now am sitting up with you in the wee hours of Christmas Eve day.

There's something very powerful about Christmas, isn't there? I hear the music I listened to as a child and I am taken back immediately to the smell of the Christmas tree and the odd scent it had when the hot bulbs had pressed against the needles for too long. I remember the most miraculous tree decoration: it was a keyhole shaped string of lights. These ornaments were lit from within and filled with a liquid and I very clearly remember watching a small bubble slowly rise to the top of the bulb and then work its way down again. There was such mystery and excitement, something breathlessly exotic about a real Christmas tree.

I am thinking about the fact I never really bought the whole Santa Claus thing. I always suspected my father ate the cookies we'd left out. My father, who grew up without a father of his own, loved Christmas more than any of us, I think.

At his insistance, usually on the most frigidly cold night of the year, the entire family would be loaded into a freezing frost encrusted car and we'd go out to a tree lot (sometimes a LOT of tree lots) to pick out our family tree.

My mother would start preparing Christmas dinner before any of us were up and the scent of cooking turkey conjures up Christmas morning memories more powerfully than anything.

Christmas mornings in our house were orderly affairs. We would have been appalled at the very notion of all of us tearing into presents all at once. They were opened one at a time, with the whole family watching. As the ripped paper rose to knee level, my internal countdown started toward the "big" present. There was always one for everyone.

My mother is gone now and my father is lonely without her. I have only the barest of relationships with my three younger brothers. We have all flown off in different directions and have lost touch with each other -- if indeed we were ever in touch.

Christmas has become a very long season of magic shows, late night road trips, setting and tearing out props and so many shows that they all blend together into one blurry memory. It is a season of missing time with my wife and sleepless nights like this one. In a single day I can be an elf, a New York gangster, a road manager, a producer and a tuxedoed magician.

Over this season, I have thought often about Christmas Eve because by Christmas Eve all of the work is done. (It's remarkable to me, by the way, that Christmas Eve never feels like I think it will. Having the work done produces more of a sigh than a triumphant pumping fist. It's not a bad feeling. Come to think of it, it's more an absence of feeling.)

But a few nights ago, I was driving by a Christmas tree lot and the scent of evergreen was in the air like fairy dust. I was listening to Bing Crosby singing White Christmas and for just a moment, I was five again, looking in wonder at a Christmas tree and the whispered promise it represented. In my mind I was wearing a bright red cowboy hat with a natty yellow whistle, my all-time favorite pajamas with brown horses and cowboys battling outlaws, smelling turkey and listening to my mother and father laughing together in the kitchen.

You can't go back, can you? And would we want to? It's been my experience that the way I choose to remember something isn't necessarily the way it was.

So I am here at a quarter after three now, and I am choosing to think about Christmas...the real Christmas...and the very best gift Anyone ever gave anyone. I am choosing to think about a squalling, crying pooping baby delivered by a teenager in a backwater town most people had never even heard of. And I am thinking about this in the truest context of wonder that the arrival of this child brought a light into a dark place -- and hope to a genuinely hopeless world. The reality of what was done on the first Christmas is so vibrant and powerful that I feel a lump form in my throat, and I have a precious and tender desire to get onto my knees and weep.

So Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to YOU. May your heart be filled with joy and hope and true love. May your spirit swell to bursting with creativity. May your imagination be a warming fire compelling you to create!

Thank you for sharing this time with me.

Good night. I think I will go to sleep now.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Everything New is Old Again!

I suppose it was inevitable: as tech gets better and better that digital artists would want, one day, to make new stuff look like old stuff.

The photo to the left is a theater somewhere in rural Montana. It's a bright and vibrant building with colorful signage.

But, like so many things (including me) it seemed out of place, like it had been lifted out of another decade by some giant with a sense of humor and plunked down here.

This image was aged in under three minutes using some plug-ins and Photoshop tech. Here, in broad strokes, is how the image was created:

1) CONVERT IT TO BLACK AND WHITE. CS4 has a fabulous Adjustment Layer for this purpose. You want the B&W image to be sharp, so don't be afraid to us the Smart Sharpen tool from the Filters Menu.

2) Put the image into Sepia using any of a number of options. The fastest way to get a pleasing sepia tone is to go with Image> Adjustments> Photo Filter> Sepia. There's a live preview so you can get the precise amount of Speia you're after.

3) The edges were burned using a great little utility called (understandably enough) "Burnt Edges" from Alien Skin's Xenoflex 2 filter set.

4) The final effect, that pleasing little acid wash, was done with OnOne's Photo Frame Pro. (Which is NOT compatible with CS4 without an upgrade, by the way.)

The great thing, the REALLY great thing, about Plug-ins, is that if you take the time to learn them, they can save you TONS of time and still give you the exact effect you were after.

This shot of the Sydney Opera House was taken from a balcony on a cruise ship. Sheree and I (and about three thousand other people) were docked beside it. Frankly, it was a little disappointing. It was dirty and tired looking and I stood there, snapping shots and wondering if I would get any kind of worthwhile image out of it.

This effect was completed in about three minutes as well.

1) Convert to Black and White with CS4's B&W Adjustment Layer.

2) Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to define a square and COPY that square onto it's own layer (PC: Control J).

3) Create a Stroke around this slightly smaller layer with the Layer Style options menu (That odd "fx" symbol at the bottom your Layers pallette) and choose a nice dark border (maybe 3 points). I like to add a Drop Shadow from the same menu as well...but that's just showing off.

4) Older Photographs had grain. I took a short cut and added the grain with Alien Skin's Exposure 2 package.

5) I manually added the Vignetting effect around the border of the image using the Burn Tool from the Toolbox.

It's always interesting to take a modern image: a race car, a space ship etc. and age the photo, so it looks like it was taken with a very old style camera. This creates a visual that makes an impact on the viewer because the visual style and the image portrayed don't match.

The effect can be very powerful. Try using in on a portrait. Add some bokeh. Use layers to create sepia and lens barrel effects. Blend the layers. Play around (oops I mean "investigate") the various blending options as you try one layer on top of another.

Have fun! If you come up with anything really cool, feel free to send it to me. I'd love to see it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Photographing Kids: The Picture AFTER the Picture

I am blessed in many ways. I am married to a splendid woman and we travel the world together. I have a world-class cat. I love what I do for a living and...I am blessed with little people in my life who are happy to pose.

This young lady is one of those people. Here are three pictures from dozens taken during a fifteen minute session on our back porch one summer afternoon.

She has known me since birth. We are comfortable together. But she was still only five years old. In working with "little people" there are a lot of things to keep in mind.

First: you need to keep talking. Photographers have a lot to think about: settings, the subject, the light, the composition. We have a tendancy to want to concentrate on taking the shot and ignoring the subject.

This doesn't work with kids.

You need to keep communicating. You need to keep the child engaged in the process. You need to make them laugh, to look in the directions you want them to look. You need to keep your model engaged in the whole process. There has to be a powerful link to the process between the photographer and the subject.

You need to keep shooting. We (as in the royal "photographer we") have a habit of checking the LCD screen and the histograms to see what we got.

Don't do this when you are working with kids. The idea is to have nothing coming between you and the child. The camera has the potential to become one of those things: it's a big mysterious box to little eyes. Ideally, the camera becomes part of the whole adventure and doesn't represent something scary or misunderstood to the child. In order to keep shooting there are a couple of things that make the process smoother:

1) Do all your settings and camera fiddling before you start with the child. That's important because you need to concentrate on just shooting once the session starts.

2) Use a Burst or Sports Mode. Kids move very quickly and emotions flicker across their faces like vapor. You need to shoot very quickly so you can catch every nuance of what they do.

3) Keep the atmosphere positive. There should be lots of laughter and lots of positive words spoken. The child needs to feel confident and have the ability to relax in front of the camera.

Take the picture AFTER the picture. This is one of the most valuable things I have learned from watching my wife work with people. She's done a ton of portraits. One day I realized how she got such great candid looking shots.

She would take the shot they expected her to take. Just as they were leaving, she'd engage them in conversation and then she would say something funny. When they responded, she would take the shot and she'd consider that the portrait.

It's a technique I have used (okay copied) many times. It works like a charm.

You will get "real person."

And the "real person" is much more interesting than those unnatural posed shots, which are particularly awful when children are in them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bokeh in Black and White

When I was brand new to Photoshop, I discovered plug-ins -- also known as "filters." For those of you who are not yet privy to these marvellous things, they are software packages designed to work with Photoshop to create specific effects.

One of the first ones I discovered was by Flaming Pear. It had the unlikely name of "Melancholytron." It created a heavy blur around the bottom of the image and built in a sepia tone. I loved it. Lens blur adds such a wonderful atmosphere to an image, making it moodier. The blur also allows you to draw the viewer's eye to a specific aspect of the image. (I still use Melancholytron on occasion. It's available through Flaming Pear for about twenty bucks.)

But since I started working with Alien Skin's Bokeh plug in ( for $199.00) I haven't looked back. Read the full review a few blogs back.

I started thinking about combining the Bokeh effect with that other great conveyer of emotion and atmosphere: Black and White photography. I've been working with this idea for several days now (or at least as much spare time as a magician at Christmas can muster) and have been delighted with the results.

Have a look at the old couple at the top of this blog. I saw them one afternoon at Coney Island. It's called "A Little Off Center" because this couple seemed just a little out of step with the rest of the world. His arm is draped around his bride and the way they are sitting together watching the world go by makes me smile. But the image is about them...and the relationship they share. Everything else is a distraction.

Come to think of it, the initial image was full of distractions. (You can see the intial "finished picture" here: -- like any image is ever finished.) Using Bokeh, I blurred them out and brought tight focus back onto the subjects. It made a better picture.

Cropping, and the whole processing of any final image, is a lot like writing a story. When you get into the fine tuning, you start cutting everything that doesn't fit smoothly with the tone or the story. There were a lot of people on the beach...and some litter as well. None of this added to my subject. So with the application of the Clone Stamp Tool and some specific blur, I was ready. The LAST step is the application of Bokeh -- so the effect is uniform.

Here's an image taken in July. It went from raw format to finished in less than five minutes. These two sisters were in a playground. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the little sister raced across the playground and ran to her big sister for a hug. Then she went back to playing. I have no idea what pushed the "I need a hug" meter into the red zone. But I find the whole idea of an urgently needed hug very charming.

The post processing was very simple: using CS4's new-and-improved Black and White Adjustment Layer, I was able to create a punchy high contrast Black and White image. I sharpened it a little with Sharpen> Smart Sharpen to bring up the highlights in the younger girl's hair. Then I added a very light Bokeh and a drop shadow frame and the image was finished.

Bokeh isn't for every image. But when it fits, it's perfect.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When Photographers go Cruising...

I like cruising. You don't have to unpack three times a week, the food you eat will not kill you and there are lots of people nearby to bring you cool drinks and herd you toward the next buffet.

I hate cruising because you just don't get very long in each port (usually about a day), sometimes your formal dinner table companions are just slightly more animated than drying spackle and all of the "extra fee" options you can pick up during those "at sea" days can really make for a nasty surprise when the bill comes due.

But on the balance -- I love cruising. Since Sheree and I will be celebrating New Year's eve by sitting on a runway to start a trip that will ultimately take us down the Amazon, cruising is on my mind. Having braved a number of cruises over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there are FIVE RULES for GETTING GREAT SHOTS ON CRUISES. Here they are:

1) Take a Power Bar. The people who design cruise ship staterooms think one plug-in for two photographers is plenty. It's not. Take a power bar with at least four additional plug-ins so you can power those batteries and laptops. This keeps you from having to make the decision of whether or not to throw your companion overboard so you can definately hit the next port with two charged batteries.

2) Do Your Research. The great thing about taking a cruise is that you know where you're going in advance. The internet is a WEALTH of great information on the places you are going. You will need to be well organized and decide IN ADVANCE where you want to shoot.

Local people can be a great resource. Don't be afraid to take a cab. The fellow in the image above is a cab driver in NZ who gave us a truly wonderful day. His name's Lance and he took us to vineyards and some of the most amazingly beautiful places only locals know about. Cabs are more expensive...but they can be truly wonderful.

3) Dilly Dally at Your Peril. You'll want to be the FIRST off the ship or the first in line for the tender boat. (Sometimes cruise ships need to ferry the passengers off the ship and to shore in tender boats. This results in LONG lines and a ton of wasted photography time.) Get there first, using elbows if necessary, to get off the ship before the aggressive people do. Those extra ten minutes of sleep can cost you BIG when the line up forms.

4) Don't Be Afraid of Excursions. These are extra cost "tours" available when you are in a port. (The image above is from one of the Great Excursions of All Time: a Lord of the Rings tour we took in New Zealand. It's written about elsewhere in this and you may find it, Frodo.) If you buy them from the cruise ship company you can count on two things: they are going to be more expensive, and they will take good care of you. The cruise ship will wait for you if a cruise-line tour runs late. But you'll see a pile of tour operators waiting for you at each port. Some operators are wonderful...some aren't. But if they don't get you back to the ship on time, you will need to borrow a snorkel set from the guide because the ship will be gone.

5) Be Nice. Be nice to your cabin steward, the locals in the ports, the tour guides you use. Be nice to the shop-keepers and the kids selling chicklets to the tourists. Talk to them before you take their picture...and don't be cheap. Give them a couple of bucks for posing. You may even try your hand at speaking their language. Whenever I do, it provides everyone with hours of amusement.

5a) Don't Be Stupid. You are in a foreign land. In many cases you won't speak the language. It probably isn't a good idea to follow that scurvy looking guy down a dark alleyway for a shot. If your gut is telling you "no" don't go. Stay where the people are. You need to be alert and stay alert. This means it's also not a good idea to get loaded when you are in a port. Your pictures will come out blurry and crooked...and you will probably get rolled and/or lost on your way back to the ship.

5b) Don't be a Pansy. You travel to meet people and have an adventure. The idea here is simply not to get stabbed, shot, mugged or sold to white slavers. None of these makes for golden cruise ship memories. Also: don't hang around the tourist traps in ports. Diamonds International etc has all the same crap you get at home. Be reasonable. Have fun. Be smart.

5c) Check on Local Regulations. For the Amazon, Sheree and I needed Yellow Fever shots, a visa from Brazil (which took nearly three weeks) and Malarone, an anti-malaria drug. Usually the cruise ship company will let you in on this stuff, but not always. (We couldn't get into the famous Monte Carlo casino because we didn't know we needed to take our passports with us...) Check into local customs too. For example: there are some places in the mideast where women need to dress a certain way to avoid offending the locals and drawing unwanted attention.
There are a ton of sites filled with helpful advice on local sites, customs and highlights. Just go to Google and input the name of where you're going, and type words like "Customs" and "Tourism" or "Activities." You'll get more information than you could possibly use within seconds.
If you are interested in cruise info try for specifics on the ports and the boats. These are serious cruisers and they can provide tons of useful tips.

Follow these rules, grasshopper, and you will be happy cruisers.

How many sleeps till I go?

Eighteen. But who's counting?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Visual Creativity. Honest.

I don't know of a single writer who hasn't glared at that blinking cursor. It just sits there like an insensitive insect waiting for you to come up with the words while it does nothing except sit there blinking stupidly. It's a tyrant, really.

Visual artists have the same issues. We sit there with our hands in our laps looking at the computer screen. Sometimes we have a germ of an idea that can be developed. Sometimes (okay rarely) we know exactly what to do. But most of the time there's this tickle of a concept at the back of our brains that runs away like an arm-flapping idiot each time we try to trap it.

Peter J, from New York, wrote in to ask if I had any ideas on how to be creative. Later this morning I was on the NAPP board and the same topic came up again.

"How do you learn how to be creative?" asks the Photoshop newbie. "There must be a course somewhere."

Nope. There are courses about creative techniques. Oodles of them. And there are books about getting in touch with your imagination. I mean you could dance naked in the woods and pound on drums for a few days -- but I seriously doubt that you will find yourself with a perfectly formed notion for how to break that creative block. All you may wind up with is a nasty rash.

There are even courses on how you can take an idea and develop it into a striking visual. (Check out "Photoshop for the Creative Soul" at for our course on this. Hint. Hint.)

But if someone tells you they can teach you how to BE creative, they're lying.

You can be taught how to copy someone else's method. There are tons of Photoshop books that teach this stuff. You can look at an artist like Ben Willmore ( and see what he's been up to. I really respect the guy -- and the quality of his work is unreal.

But, personally, I don't want to be Ben Willmore. Why would I want to copy his work? I'm happy to sit and listen as he teaches me stuff -- but only so I can apply said "stuff" to my work.

Why's that?

Because true creativity isn't the result of inspired copying of someone else. You can learn stunning technique this way...but you only learn how to be creative by pouring all that knowledge through the filter of YOU.

True creativity is the direct application of 24 carat, 100% YOU to an idea. Think of it as a one of a kind Photoshop filter: There's only one you. That means there's only one person who can apply imagination and execution to an image that is the direct outgrowth of who you are.

The only way I can suggest for getting creative isn't to take a course. It's to roll up your sleeves, stick your hands into the muck and start pushing stuff around. It's going to be messy. And you are going to have disasters. You will have moments when you want to throw the computer through the window and then follow it (given that you're far enough away from the ground) because NOTHING is turning out right.

I 100% guarantee there will be dismal awful images if you do it this way. You'll delete them, you'll flush with embarassment whenever you think of them. You'll pray that no one you ever showed them to kept a copy...and you'll start putting a little money aside each week in case they DID keep a copy and want to blackmail you with it later.

Being creative and turning that "creative switch" on inside your brain and spirit would be pretty easy if you knew where it was. I often can't find mine...particularly when deadlines are looming. So I have to thrust my hand into a lot of dark holes and smelly caverns as I look for it.

And the real pain in the butt? That damn "creative switch" often disappears minutes later and you have to start looking for it all over again. That's when you think to yourself "Gee...I thought I had a great idea. Where was I going with this again?" Now you have a name for it: Switch Slip.

See the image above? I spent four hours on this one day many moons ago. I'd just discovered Photoshop and had a hankering to do..."something." I entered it in a contest and it placed in the bottom third. How come? It's not creative. It's a mess, really. What it lacks in creativity it makes up for in pseudo-artsyness. It has vague ideas about money and fighting on top of it and women.

Yup. It's one of those "I can't believe I posted it ANYWHERE" images. It's pretentious crap. There. I admit I can stop paying off that guy in Germany who keeps getting those installments in small unmarked bills.

What's the upside of this whole creativity thing?

Once in a while...sometimes for a really long feel your spirit soar and your heart beat faster. You feel the blending of mind, spirit and body pouring itself into the project. Your hands blur over the keys or the controls and the sensation is better than a triple fudge sundae.

And less fattening.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bokeh is Here

"I am absolutely not buying any more filters or plug ins," I told myself as I looked in relative wonder at Alien Skin's latest contribution to the Photoshop universe.

It's called "Bokeh" and is a very easy to use simulation of the effect photographers spend a ton of money on specialized lenses and years of careful study to achieve.

Simply put, it's the selective blurring of portions of the image. This allows the artist to gently draw your attention to the precise area of the image he wants you to see.

Photographers are all a-flutter about bokeh technique because it also has the potential to add atmosphere and mood , create professional looking images and make you look way more skilled than you actually are. (I'm all for that.) It also hints that you have cash to burn, since actually shooting bokeh requires some pretty expensive lenses.

"Can't hurt to download the demo," I told myself with an innocent shrug. "It's only a demo. I'll use it for the thirty days and then I'll delete it. If tempted, I shall simply apply my iron will and remind myself this is simply a learning opportunity." I would have patted me on the back at this point if I could have reached back that far. I settled for squaring my jaw and looking sternly into the computer screen.

"Who's gonna spend two hundred bucks on a lens blur?" I said to myself. Again. I think I may have sputtered just a little in indignation at the very thought. But when I started using this plug-in my reserve started to waver and my iron will developed immediate rust. Bokeh by Alien Skin simulates the effect you'd get using some very specialized glass and it does it so easily that it's hard not to fall in love with it.

I still wasn't going to buy it, you understand. After all, I just upgraded to Photoshop CS4 and bought HDR software. In these times of economic uncertainty, you'd have to be crazy to drop another pile of cash on software, right?

With Bokeh, you can create a "Focus Region" using an oval selector or a planar. Make it big or little. Define the precise amount of blur you want. Set the precise areas of focus. (This is very precise stuff.)

The basic process takes about thirty seconds.

My mind started turning to some of the uses for Bokeh -- on the very off chance I would even consider buying it...not that this was an option I was actually considering, you understand.

Portraits could be softened in an instant. Streetscapes could be created that would allow me to highlight the exact elements I want the viewer to see. Clutter is blurred away. Bokeh would add a whole new dimension to statue and building photography. I could even do campy things like make hearts in the blur area. (Okay. Probably not that.)

At this point I really started to investigate the options. Hugely expensive lenses are simulated flawlessly (I am "using" a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2LII @ f/2 here, which creates a 20% blur).

Use your imagination and pretend that you can source all the lenses in a camera store, pretend you understand precisely how to use them and that you've spent nine years on a mountaintop somewhere with a guru learning the disciplines and techniques of Bokeh. Okay?

Now pretend that you have the ability to take precisely the same shot with each of these lenses and that you know exactly what you're doing to create the bokeh effect you want. Yup. That's a lot of pretending, right?

Like let's pretend that I decided to take the exact same image again but this time I really wanted to highlight my subject...and created a 50% blur with some slight vignetting on the fringes which is the image just above.

Alien Skin's Bokeh starts falling into the "way cool" category pretty quickly.

Two hundred bucks suddenly didn't seem all that expensive. When you've stacked a little pile of money against the many thousands of dollars it would cost to outfit myself with all the necessary cameras, glass, classes and books I'd need to get these shots, two hundred bucks didn't seem too bad at all.

A bargain!

Why I would be insane to pass something like this up! Moreso, it was clearly my duty as a graphic artist to add this software package to my arsenal of visual options. In fact I owe it to the whole freaking world to pick it up!

I emailed Alien Skin, asked if they gave a discount to NAPP members and they took 10% off. Okay. So it's still $179. But I have to say that I am seriously thrilled with the package. Thrilled. I have been working with it for hours and I just keep getting "thrilled-er."

As with all Alien Skin software, the initial use is very simple (which is good because I am a very simple guy) but there are a ton of options and settings that will allow the artist to get the precise effect he is looking for. I haven't even really scratched the surface of what this software will do. But I wanted to tell you about it right away because it's something I really suggest you take a look at.

Download a fully functioning Bokeh demo from and tell yourself that it's only for 30 days and there's no way you will ever buy it.

Yeah. Sure.