11-24-97 - This is a great time of year. Yes, it’s getting colder (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), but there’s something restful about that. It’s also the time of year when people generally give gifts. And since it’s better to give than to receive, I’m giving you a list of things that I personally recommend will make great gifts--even if you give
them to yourself. I even include things you can tell yourself to justify these items (you may even be able to write them off--but you’ll want to confirm this with the IRS or your tax accountant)!
>Olympus Digital Camera
If you have the bucks (as little as $500), you can’t get a better digital camera than those made by Olympus. From their lower-end DL-200L, to their high-end D-600L, the proof is in the pictures--these things take damn fine photos. The new D-500 ($899) and D600 ($1,299) are both single lens reflex digital cameras. They have built-in 3X zoom lenses, f-stop control, spot metering, and resolutions of 1280 x 1024 for the
D-600L, and 1024 x 768 for the D-500L. Just a year ago it cost $15,000 to get this kind of digital resolution.
If you haven’t yet used a good digital still camera, you just can’t imagine what a pleasure it is. First, because they all have color LCD screens, you can instantly see if your picture is good, or if you need to retake it. It’s like Polaroid without the wait. I’m always surprised at how amazed people are with it--as if they’d never seen a video movie
camera. But there’s just something about it that everyone responds to.
Then there’s the convenience--plug one cable from the camera into your computer and the pictures download in seconds--in .JPG format, ready for use on the web. The newer cameras include three levels of JPG compression, so you can store more picture (with more compression and therefore loss of quality) or fewer pictures with more quality. The cameras all use tiny “smart media” cards that contain between 2 and 8MB of
memory to store images (the 4MB version costs around $40).
Despite what you might think, these digital photos actually do look good, even in print. And for web work, they’re perfect. Yes, the cameras are more expensive than traditional cameras--but they can pay for themselves. Traditional 35MM cameras end up with a cost of about $1 per shot (this includes film and processing). On digital cameras, you only need to replace the batteries, so it works out to about 2 cents per shot.
Take 400 pictures, save $392. (One tip--you may be able to find the new lower-end D220 for less than the older D200, at least that’s what I found on the pc-connection site.)
Besides, once you use a digital camera you won’t want to go back to film. Justification: Think of all the money you’ll save in film, and all the graphics you can add to your work!
Taken with an Olympus Digital Camera. Edge effects by Auto/FX
>Umax Astra 610
OK, so let’s say that even $600 is a little steep this year. Or let’s say you have a lot of existing prints and drawings you need to scan. Now there’s little excuse not to have a flatbed scanner. In the past they were
expensive, difficult to install, and fussy. Now they’re inexpensive (how’s $129), easy to install (just plug it into the parallel port), and they come with easy software that does a great job, even with the automatic settings.UMax is known for their scanners, and the new Astra
610P is a real gem. I’ve tried some other low-cost flatbed scanners, and they were like cheap, lightweight toys (and hard to install even with the parallel connection). But the Astra is solid (it weighs at least twice as much as the other low-end scanners), well-built, and the software is the same found on their higher end scanners.
The Astra 610P is a 30-bit scanner with a resolution of 300x600 (it can scan higher, but it then uses interpolation). This resolution is more than adequate for
color images, and even black and white line art.
The scanner includes “Presto! PageManager” which scans and files your images, and performs OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on your documents. I scanned and accurately OCR’d a newspaper article in a single click. For touch-ups and more advanced photo manipulation, Adobe’s PhotoDeluxe is also included. Tech support is free and is even open on Saturday.
So dump that hand scanner, or whatever else you were
using because you couldn’t afford a good flatbed scanner. 'Tis the season to get one. Justification: As well as scanning photos (because you didn’t spend all that money on a digital camera), you can scan Dover books. They cost about $10 yet have priceless, copyright-free art in them. A flatbed scanner gives you fast access to all these fine, inexpensive graphics.
“PhotoShop Plug-ins” have become (at least for some design) the brain-dead “automatic-transmission” of design. Take any old-image, run it through a plug-in filter, and voilá, you have art. Unfortunately, most of these designs look
like they were done entirely by computer, without the aid of a designer.
But recently I’ve found some plug-ins from Auto/FX that are quite useful. The first is called Photo/Graphic edges. It takes any rectangular graphic and gives it nicely distressed edges--edges that look like an old
Polaroid print, or a transfer print, or watercolor-like edges... or any of 325 different edges. The edges can be softened, have shadows, and be combined, with controls that really do give you a lot of control. But frankly, I like just the simplicity of being able to alter the hard edges of graphics--it really gives them a much warmer, less mechanical feeling (you can see how I’ve used it on this page
, or at www.mankas.com). At $179, this product isn’t cheap, but here comes the justification--if you can use it in just one design project it may pay for itself.
Typo/Graphic lets you distress your text. It roughens
the edges of type (or other line art), in any of 460 different ways. This is a great way to rid your pages of literally “laser sharp” edges and give them more texture. The plug-in features a lot of controls so you can get just the look you want (or so you can create several different versions of the same type--great for web animations). At $99, this would make a good “stocking stuffer” for anyone who wants to make their designs slicker by making them rougher. Justification: It’s just
a really handy tool.
Here's what I'm personally recommending to anyone who cares about creating great graphics: CorelXara. I've used virtually ever piece of graphic software over the past 15 years, and this is, quite simply, the best. I can create every piece of graphics for a web site in really
short order--with perfect anti-aliasing, perfectly optimized palettes, and compact files. I can also create full four-color separations for the most complex package or book cover. The program is lightning fast, absolutely true WYSIWYG (down to anti-aliasing on-screen that matches exports), and includes transparency features simply not found in other software. I can do, in three steps, what it takes 12-18 steps to do in PhotoShop. And it’s reliable
. You can trust this software with your data, and with your output.
Look at the design office on my site and you'll see some examples (look in the packaging page--and on all the web sites I've designed, most recently www.softwaremadesimple.com, www.brianstokes.com and www.mankas.com.
Here’s a case of where I’m doing better by giving than
receiving--Xara is such great software I know I'm doing a favor when I recommend it. It will set you back less than $200--less than the price of an illustration program upgrade, if you get my drift. Justification? You don’t need justification, this program is such a great tool you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Right now the top contenders for most popular and powerful web creation program are NetObjects Fusion and Microsoft FrontPage. I used to like FrontPage a lot, but the more I used it, the less I liked it. It won’t let you
name your home page index.htm--it wants to use default.htm then rename everything as you upload--which gets messy. It’s very technical and not very streamlined. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine software, but NetObjects Fusion is just so much better that it actually makes me feel sorry for people who are using Front Page.
Fusion automates so many things that you still do by hand in FrontPage. While FP has copied some of Fusion’s automatic navigation features, if you’re a real
designer, Fusion is much more flexible in what it will let you do--so that sites look totally custom and unique, whereas FrontPage’s automatic navigation almost always ends up looking like FrontPage automatic navigation.
Fusion also offers page-layout-like web page layout--draw boxes, move them around, fill them with text or graphics. You don’t worry about making tables or hacking HTML--it does it for you, and it does it well.
Every time I create a new web site I’m thankful I have Fusion--it makes the job faster, easier and the results more reliable. They’ve recently lowered their price and have a great upgrade price of less than $200. It’s worth it. Justification: Here’s software that honestly will save you time and let you make your work better. I use it to create this site--and all the sites I design.
So there are a few suggestions for what should make a publisher happy this year.