Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ferndale’s Main Street, Christmas Night 2013

Ferndale’s town Christmas tree is the tallest living Christmas tree in the United States. When last measured, it was 162 feet tall, and every year, the Ferndale Volunteer Fire Department decorates it with 19,000 watts of Christmas cheer.

For the last 12 years, as a member of the fire department, I have helped with the task of putting the lights up the first Sunday in December. I also like to get one photograph of them each year while they are lit.

Some years weather and scheduling make it impossible, but this year looked like it was just going to be cold, not wet. Cold I can deal with.

I missed out on a couple of really nice sunsets that I just caught the tail end of from home. I would have loved to get the tree photographed with one of them.

Then one night that looked like a good possibility, I got called out for a river bar fire that ended up being aa 30 minute drive on the river bar just to get there. By the time we had dumped our tankful of water, got back to the hall, and cleaned up, it was already dark.

I finally decided to try Christmas night. I figured stores and restaurants would be closed, people would be at home, and Main Street would be clear of cars, so you could actually see the little Christmas trees on Main Street too.

My assumption proved correct. Other than occasional traffic in and out of J&W Liquors, Main Street was clear. Traffic was so light I was able to get this picture standing in the middle of the road.

This photo, and other Ferndale Christmas photos can be viewed and purchased in the gallery.

20131225-Main-Street-39-40

Morgan – A Victorian Boudoir

Picture of the Month – May 2012

My supply of models to work with on personal projects seemed to have dried up lately, as my favorite models either moved away, or were busy being moms. So I was happy when I saw an ad in Craigslist for a local woman interested in modeling.

I hadn’t met with Morgan before our shoot, so I had planned to do some demure shots featuring some of Lori’s Victorian clothing so I could add those items to her vintage clothing website. Morgan arrived a bit early, and already she had impressed me. We made small talk for a bit while I waited for Lori to arrive, and we quickly realized that we were on the same wavelength on how we felt the world should be run. I was liking her even more.

I explained that the set I was using was something I wanted to use someday to recreate a Victorian style nude portrait, and she told me she’d be up for that. So, change of plans, and this is one of the results. I had fun with a lot of the photos, changing them in Photoshop. This one has had a lot of work done to it, mostly desaturating it and adding a couple of texture layers. While not truly representative of what a Victorian photograph would look like, I think it has a good vintage feel to it.

You can view and purchase photos from this set in my Naughty Victorians gallery.

Victorian Lady in a boudoir pose

Converting color images to black and white in Photoshop

In a recent forum discussion, the question was asked what’s the best way to convert color images to black and white using Photoshop. As with almost any task in Photoshop, there are a number of ways to accomplish it and while some are personal preference, some methods do offer advantages to creating better images.

First, I’m going to define the “best” way as the method that allows you to fine tune the image the most. While some of the methods are easier and quicker than others, they provide little control over the final image.

There are 5 methods that I’m going to review and I’m going to present them in the order of least desirable to most desirable. They are:

  1. Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer
  2. Image>Mode>Grayscale
  3. Gradient Map Adjustment Layer
  4. Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer
  5. Black & White Adjustment Layer

There are two other methods that I’m not going to cover. First is making the conversion to the Raw file before it gets into Photoshop. Converting the raw file can produce better results in some cases, but the Black & White Adjustment in Adobe’s Camera Raw works similarly to the one in Photoshop. The second alternative is using a plugin which might give you even more options. But since I am happy with the amount of control that the Black and White Adjustment Layer provides, I haven’t explored purchasing a conversion plugin.

To help demonstrate the results of each of the 5 methods, I first created a sample file made up of 7 gradients. The first three gradients go from black to one of the primary transmissive colors (red, green, blue) and then to white. The next three gradients go from black to one of the primary reflective colors (yellow, cyan, magenta) and then to white. The last gradient goes from black to white using shades of gray.

Then I used the different conversion methods to see what effect they had.

Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer

As you can see, reducing the saturation treats every color the same. You’re simply getting rid of the color. There are no options for this method. The black and white gradient is a bit different, and that might be due to the way I created it.

Image>Mode>Grayscale

I was actually surprised by the result of this method because I expected it to be identical to reducing the saturation to zero. Especially when you see the warning message that Photoshop throws up.

It sounds like it’s going to do the same thing that the saturation adjustment would do. But this method uses some algorithm that treats colors differently. This is just a setting that some Adobe engineer decided looked good for most images. It might look good for your image, then again it might not. But like the saturation method, you have no control over the result.

Gradient Map Adjustment Layer

Using a Gradient Map to convert to black and white is a method that I wasn’t familiar with until reading about it in the forum discussion mentioned earlier. So I looked it up on the web and found an article on how to do it but the author wasn’t sure exactly what it was doing. I don’t know either. It does provide a different result than the prior two methods. It also offers one level of control. You can change the softness value in the gradient to get slightly different results. Here are two conversions. The first one was converted with a softness value of 100% and the second was a softness value of 33% which the article recommended.

Softness set at 100%

Softness set to 33%

The effect of using a gradient map is pretty close to that of the grayscale method, except that it seems to darken the blue channel more. The effect of changing the softness level is subtle at best. So even though the method has some control, it’s not related to anything that you’re trying to accomplish in the image. Which gets me to the next method.

Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer

33% Red, 33% Green, 33% Blue

Photographers who have actually shot black and white film know that the best tools to improve the photo are contrast filters, a set of colored filters. By restricting the colors that hit the film, the photographer can change the contrast of the image. Since a black and white image can only convey information from contrast, this is very important. The channel mixer method allows you to use some of the control that contrast filters do for film. The advantage that digital has over film though is that the decision of which filter to use can be made later. You can even use one “filter” on the sky, and another “filter” on the foliage, something totally impossible in the film world.

For example if you want to lighten the leaves on the trees so they stand out better, you would increase the green channel. The example above shows all three channels being set to 33%. This gives a result identical to the saturation method.

But the wonderful thing is each of the three channels can be tuned from -100% to +100%. When I was using Photoshop CS and before, I used the channel mixing method and as a starting point for most images I used settings of Red 60%, Green 40%, and Blue 0%. This difference is illustrated in the image below.

I’m not saying those are the best values to use. But for the camera that I was using at the time, and the type of images that I take, that seemed to be a good starting point.

Black & White Adjustment Layer

When I upgraded to Photoshop CS3, I found there was a new conversion method available under Adjustment Layers called Black and White. Similar to the Channel Mixer, it allows you control the mix of colors, but instead of just the transmissive primaries available in Channel Mixer, it also has sliders for the three reflective primaries. I now use this method for my black and white conversions. Most of the time I make adjustments to the red and yellow channels. But once in awhile one of the other channels becomes really useful. For example if you’re trying to make a purple shirt show up better, sliding the magenta higher can help. The six controls allow you to target individual colors better.

This image shows the output of the sample file with the settings at each slider set at 50%. This gives you the same output as the reduce saturation method.

Here is the difference when you change the magenta to -200% and the cyan to +300%.

Finally, here is the output using the default values of Red 40, Yellow 60, Green 40, Cyan 60, Blue 20, Magenta 80.

Conclusion

While all of the methods will get you black and white image, if you want to control how the final image looks, the Black and White Adjustment Layer provides the most control, and I think it is also the most intuitive. Remember also, that in addition to the color conversion, your black and white image may need further changes to the contrast, either globally or locally. Global changes can be made with a Contrast Adjustment Layer. I usually darken the shadows and sometimes I lighten the highlights as well. Local changes can be done through dodging and burning. Like color conversion, there are numerous ways you can dodge and burn in Photoshop. That’s an entirely different subject to explore.

Here is a summary then of the different methods.

  1. Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer – Just throws the color info out. No user input. Every color adjusted equally.
  2. Image>Mode>Grayscale – Color info removed, but Photoshop applies it’s own algorithm of what it thinks is best. No user input.
  3. Gradient Map Adjustment Layer – It does something similar to Method #2, but not sure what it does. Minimal non intuitive control
  4. Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer – 3 channels x 200 levels = 8,000,000 options and intuitive control interface
  5. Black & White Adjustment Layer 6 channels x 500 levels = 15,625,000,0000,0000,000 options and intuitive control interface

If you’ve used method 5 and have also set the global and local contrast of your image, but you’re still not happy with your black and white image, then maybe it’s an image that just isn’t going to work as a black and white. Maybe it needed different lighting and/or composition to begin with to make it an effective subject in black and white.

Spammed if I do, Spammed if I don’t

Dealing with spam has become one of the least enjoyable aspects of being a web designer. Currently about 90% of the emails I receive are spam. Because many of the web sites I design have an email address that eventually finds its way to me I often get multiple copies of the same spam. Not only is the amount of spam that I receive a waste of my time and resources, but I also have to deal with unhappy clients who receive spam, or worse, those that can’t get their mail sent or received because someone else is blocking their good messages as if they were spam.

Intercepting Spam

There are three places that spam can get intercepted, and how well the first two work affects how much you’ll need to rely on the last defense, which is your computer.

The Sender’s ISP

The first line of defense is the spammer’s ISP. Spammers used to get caught because they would connect to their own ISP and start sending out thousands of emails. That was pretty easy to track and shut down. So spammers got smarter by trying several different approaches.

  • They search for mail servers on other ISPs that are open and send the mail through someone else’s server. Fortunately, most ISPs are smart enough to not allow relaying so this is becoming less common.
  • They search for web pages that use insecure forms processing and attack those to send spam. Older versions of the Perl script, FormMail were notorious for being hacked this way.
  • They craft trojan programs that make their way onto your Windows PC that allow them to take over some of the processing power to send their spam from your computer to your ISP. This is the most common way that spammers are currently sending spam. If you use Windows you need to make sure that you have taken steps to prevent viruses and trojan horses from infecting your computer. 

Still it would be best if ISPs could detect the spam as it’s being sent and just prevent it from going through the system clogging up everyone’s bandwidth. 

The Receiver’s ISP

The next step in the mail delivery process is the receiver’s ISP. ISPs try to determine if mail is spam on a continually evolving set of characteristics. There are also options on what they do with the mail they suspect is spam. They can refuse to accept it, they can accept it but archive it in a spam folder, they can mark it as suspected spam so that your PC can take over, or do nothing.

The problem for ISPs is that while they might catch a lot of spam and prevent it from reaching your mailbox, they can also catch good mail and prevent you from ever receiving it. That’s why these days it’s always best to follow up on emails that don’t seem to be answered. It’s entirely possible that your email never made it to the recipient.

For this reason I prefer the ISP to take a conservative approach to combating spam on the receiving end. I’d rather have ISPs prevent it from getting in the system, but once it’s there then unless they’re 100% sure it’s spam, they should let it through.

Your Mail Program

Whether you have a Mac, Windows, or Linux computer, your mail program has some built in tools to help solve your spam problem. Computer users need to learn how their email program works for setting up filters and take some responsibility for taking care of the spam that does get through. There are also add in programs that work with some email programs to make the filters work more effectively. For the Mac I can recommend SpamSieve. For Windows users, I would recommend that you switch to a Mac.

I set up filters that look at the subject line, the from line, the content, and other criteria. Then depending on the confidence that I have in the filter only trapping spam, I do one of three things.

If I absolutely know it is spam (for example, it’s coming from an address that has sent me spam before) then the filter deletes the message immediately.

The next level down I move the message to the trash folder and mark it as read. That way if I find a good message goes missing I can still search the trash folder and recover it.

The rest of the suspected messages go into a spam folder. I scan the contents of this folder at the beginning and end of each day. If I find any good messages in there they are moved to my inbox. Then I select the rest and delete them.

Further Spam Suggestions

If the spam is coming from anyone other than a legitimate business (and you can identify that it really came from them) DO NOT reply to the email asking them or telling them to stop sending you spam. You won’t get your name removed and you’re simply confirming that their spam reached you and was read. You will end up getting even more spam. Also it is highly likely that the FROM address was forged. So replying back to that address will just make an innocent victim suffer even more.

Add a filter to delete emails with your email address in the FROM address. Unless you’re in the habit of sending yourself emails. Spammers commonly forge the FROM address making it the same as the TO address.

If you have one or more email addresses that forward to another email address, be sure when tracing a spam problem what address is initially being attacked. You can view the full headers in your email program to see what address the message initially went to. To figure out how to do this, use your email program’s help menu, or Google “display (your email program here) full headers”.

Personally I wish the whole email system would adopt something similar to the phone system caller ID. Then you’d have the option to send email either anonymously or with your proven ID attached. It would also mean that you could choose to receive or block anonymous emails. But until something like that gets implemented, spam will be with us, and you need to learn how to control it on your own computer.

 

Common small business web site mistakes

Along with knowing what makes a web site good, it is also important to avoid the mistakes that can ruin a small business web site.

  1. Sites designed with Front Page – This program has allowed just about anybody to be a webmaster, and while that is a noble cause, the implementation of it is very flawed. Front Page creates the most bloated code of any program I’ve seen, and it is so Microsoft dependent, that sites built with it often don’t work when used with browsers other than Internet Explorer. Fortunately, Microsoft realized the error of their ways and discontinued the program.
  2. Flash – I’ve seen very few instances where I thought having Flash on a web site added to the appeal of the site, and they were all entertainment sites. For business web sites, I guess I’m just more of a substance kind of guy. Usually when I go to a web site it is because I’m looking for information. I don’t need to be entertained with animations that take forever to download and play. Flash not only requires a plug-in, it seems like you never have the latest version. Worse than the Flash intro (which thankfully can usually be skipped) is when the whole site is navigated by Flash. Often buggy to the point it doesn’t work at all, most implementations of Flash navigation are not very intuitive. I’m not going to spend much time trying to figure out how to navigate a site. I’ve seen several sites where they just have some weird non-intuitive symbols and you have to roll over each one of them to see what they go to. Flash also hurts your search engine rankings because there isn’t any text to index on a Flash page. So where do most people put their Flash animation. Yep, right on the home page, the most important piece of real estate when it comes to search engine indexing. Need a second opinion?
  3. Music – I have over 400 music CDs burned onto my hard drive so that I can listen to my favorite music whenever I want. The music is played through a set of nice speakers. It does not need to be accompanied by some cheap MIDI interpretation of Muzak. Music also takes extra time to download. Also since a lot of non-business related web surfing goes on during business hours, the person planning their next vacation while the boss isn’t looking isn’t going to appreciate your music giving him away.
  4. Frames – Frames were a good idea, unfortunately the way they were implemented in HTML was very poor. Frames make it hard to navigate, bookmark, and print web pages. Search engines are getting better at indexing them, but due to their design, it’s hard to get the user to the right complete frameset.
  5. Browser or page size requirements – Best viewed on IE or best viewed at 1024×768? What a nice way to make me feel left out if that’s not what I have.
  6. Tiny font sizes – Usually a result of designers using Style Sheets and not checking their work on Macs. If I was granted three web design wishes by a magical genie, the first would be have PC’s and Mac’s display fonts equally. 9 point on a PC looks a lot larger than 9 point on a Mac. People designing sites on PC’s often use legalese sized fonts that display so small on a Mac that they can’t even be rendered well enough to read. It’s not a question of having good eyesight, but there simply isn’t enough detail to make out what the letters are. It’s further complicated by the fact that Internet Explorer’s default font size is 16pt, which for most people is too big. So designer’s make the fonts smaller and if the user has already chosen a smaller font, it can get really hard to read. I prefer to use the default font size for the body text, and let the user change it if they need to.