Switching to Mac Part 5: Finding a Photo Editor

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

Latest Update: See the ‘Update’ section at the end – a useful extra feature in DoubleTake makes it even better.

One thing that struck me as a bit odd about the whole process of switching to the Mac was that there didn’t seem to be an obvious choice for photo editing. On Windows, I’d happily used The GIMP, and loved it. I didn’t see any reason to change, until I tried actually using The GIMP on the Mac. It doesn’t run as a native app, it runs under the X11 interface. That means it doesn’t get a real menu bar, and it doesn’t look or feel like a real native app.

Things that look and feel a bit crap aren’t so jarring on Windows. On the Mac, though, it’s a different matter. The machine is beautiful. Most of the software is beautiful. Running The GIMP under X11 in the midst of all that just didn’t feel right.

Photoshop is available, but it’s expensive. Really expensive. The vast majority of the editing I do is pretty simple, so there’s just no real need to spend that much. There’s Photoshop Elements. That’s a much more reasonable price. It’s a version out of date on the Mac, I’m not sure I like the direction it’s going anyway, so a step behind isn’t a problem. The feature set isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough for me.

A while ago, I ran a little test. I had trial versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, along with a couple of good Mac native photo editors – Pixelmator and Acorn. I took an image that wasn’t very good, but worked out a few steps that would make it usable. It was a mallard. I selected the duck, inversed the selection, and desaturated the background. I then reverted the selection to the duck, and over-sharpened it to make it pop.

  • In Acorn, the selection was really hard work. Feathering the selection seemed to be ineffective. The adjustments didn’t turn out well.
  • Pixelmator was better, but still not great. The results took some work still, but less, and looked ok in the end.
  • Photoshop was great – easy to make the selection, as if it was doing most of the work for me – and the result was nice and smooth.
  • Photoshop Elements was harder than Photoshop, but not much harder. The difference was probably due to it being based on an earlier version of Photoshop.

I concluded that Photoshop Elements was the one for me.

I didn’t get around to buying it.

This weekend, I started trying to work on photos again, and happened on an article that listed some useful Mac apps for photographers.

PhotoConstruction - Birmingham Crowne Plaza Car Park The main thing I like to do with my photos that requires anything beyond what Aperture can handle is making what I usually call ‘Photo Constructions‘. Think of panoramas, where you take several photos of a scene, with the camera setting locked, and then stitch them together to make one big image. The usual aim is to make the joins invisible. After seeing an article in Practical Photography magazine about Michael Hallett, though, I didn’t want to hide the joins. I loved his style of rough panoramas, or Constructions. I loved his habit of including his own shadow, or even a foot, in the final work. I’d always thought that the last thing I needed, then, was software designed to seamlessly stitch panoramas together.

Minehead Harbour Photo Construction The article mentioned DoubleTake, though, and I decided to give it a go. It was very quick and easy to use. I threw a pile of images at it, intended for one of my Constructions. It seemed to have a pretty good idea of what to do with them. It did try to stitch them together, but seamless stitching wasn’t possible with such a rough heap of photos. I rather liked what it did with them. I rearranged them a bit, and liked the result even more. I put a few images from the same set around the merged result, and liked it a lot.

Construction from DoubleTake

The only problem was that it tried to merge any image added to some extent. I couldn’t layer another image over an ‘empty’ part of the original (like an area of grey sky), which I like to do. I realised that I needed two things – one panorama maker, and one more general photo editor. Pixelmator was pretty good at the image editing, and DoubleTake was pretty good at making the base panorama.

I had some doubt, though. Photoshop Elements had a routine for making panoramas, and could certainly do the rest of the job perfectly well. I wanted to try it out again, but installing a new copy still knew my trial had expired. My gut feeling was that Photoshop Elements was the final version I’d get for the money, and it wasn’t a good well-written Mac app. Both Pixelmator and DoubleTake were nicely written, and felt very Mac. I installed the latest version of Pixelmator, and it gave me another chance to try it out.

DoubleTake did it’s job perfectly. Pixelmator is very fast and does it’s job well. It isn’t perfect, but a new version is due soon, free to owners of previous versions, with more features. And, it’s from a small independent developer, not from Adobe. It’s written from the start as a Mac app, not something derived from a bigger app, written primarily for Windows.

I bought licenses for Pixelmator and DoubleTake. Using the SmokingApples coupon code, I saved 20% on Pixelmator, which helped a little. DoubleTake was more expensive than I’d expected, as they seem to have decided that UK VAT is 25%, not 15%, and the Euro exchange isn’t as good as I’d remembered, but even at £20, it does a job that’s otherwise a lot of work, with ease.

I’ll know better when I’ve spent more time with them, but I’m pretty happy with my choice at the moment. They both work very nicely with Aperture, too. I can select the images I want in my basic panorama, and drag them straight from Aperture to DoubleTake on the dock. It attempts to fit them together, so I just need to tweak what it’s done. I then just click the Aperture button on DoubleTake’s toolbar to send the image back to Aperture at full resolution. From there, I can open that image in Pixelmator as the external editor, drag any further images to layer over it straight from Aperture, and save the result straight back. Aperture just shows the final image as a new version of DoubleTake’s original export.

Update

It’s a week later, and I’ve learned a little more. The developer of DoubleTake, Henrik, contacted me to let me know that it actually can build constructions without merging at all – just hit ‘0’, and it stops merging images. I’ve tried it out today, and it works. I’d hoped it would let you turn off merging, and drag another image or two into place, leaving the rest still merged. What it actually does is just turn off merging completely. All the merged images un-merge themselves. Hit 0 again, and they all go back to how they were.

For doing constructions the way I always have, it can do it very quickly and easily, so it’s an even better buy than I’d thought. I may well still play with its merging functions, though, as I do like the results.

Henrik also explained about the VAT calculation. As I really should have known, EU states collect VAT at their own rate, and Danish VAT is much higher than UK VAT. PayPal displays it badly as ‘UK VAT’, but it’s being collected correctly.

Switching to Mac Part 4: In Use

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this post, but here it is at last.

When I last posted about switching, I’d just got the machine unboxed and started up. I was impressed with the experience so far, but hadn’t really started using Mac OS yet.

How did I find the machine to use? Did it just work?

Generally good, and yes and no.

The User Interface

The new interface didn’t take as much getting used to as I’d expected. The Dock is quite a nice thing to use, and I even quite liked the animated effects. I switched the interface to grey, getting rid of the blue highlights – the less colour involved in the basic interface, the better you can judge colours when fiddling with photos.

Having the menu bar fixed to the top of the screen, when it relates to the window you’re using at the time, seemed a little odd, but again, it wasn’t as difficult to get used to as I’d expected. The location of it doesn’t entirely make sense, but you always know where it is, and it’s very quick to get to.

The strangest part was finding myself having no idea how to do some quite simple tasks. I already knew that Mac apps usually arrive bundled in a .dmg file – a Disk iMaGe. It was no surprise to double-click one, and find it mounted itself on the desktop, and auto-ran the contents. I knew I had to drag it to the trash can to unmount the image. I had no idea what I had to do with the contents to install the application, though. I had to Google. Just to find out how to install an app.

It turned out to be quite straightforward. For most apps, the window that opens up contains the app itself, and sometimes a shortcut to your Applications folder. You just need to drag the app into your Applications folder, and that’s it installed. Some apps actually do need to run an installer, though, so it isn’t entirely consistent. Uninstalling an app is usually just a matter of taking the app back out of the Applications folder. If it needed an installer, though, there isn’t always a straightforward way of uninstalling. As far as I can tell, though, even these apps only commonly add a few bits to a folder of their own under one of the ‘Library’ folders.

An app is just a single ‘.app’ file. Except it isn’t really. I guessed what they really were, as it’s the same as the old Acorn Archimedes used. The .app ‘file’ is really a folder, which the OS makes look like a file. Double-clicking on it lauches the application, by running a file or script from inside the folder. Under normal circumstances, you don’t need to know or care that the app is a folder. If you need or want to, though, you can open the folder by right-clicking and selecting ‘Show Package Contents’. Probably best not to fiddle with the innards of your apps, though, unless you know what you’re doing.

Speaking of the Archimedes, the dock has its similarities to the old Archimedes bar – apps live there when they’re running, and can stay running there even when their last window is closed. Unlike the Archimedes, though, you can get any app to stay there, even when closed.

The only part of the interface I still find frustrating is creating new documents. I was in the habit of using the ‘New…’ right-click menu in Windows, and it had always made sense to me. Go to where I want the document, create a document of the type I want, then open it and start working. Many people have never worked that way, and would find the Mac way of doing things perfectly natural – run the application you want to use, start working, then save the document through the application when you’re ready, using the Save dialog to put it where you want it.

I’ve always found that an awkward way of working – the Save As dialog isn’t a nice way to get around the filesystem on any platform, and until you get around to saving the document, you have a load of data sitting there with no home. The first save is harder to do, so you put it off longer than you should, and have the risk of losing unsaved work. I’ve found a couple of neat work-arounds for this whole issue, though, which I’ll post about another time.

The Hardware

The hardware is beautiful. It all feels wonderfully solid and well-made, too. I get on surprisingly well with the tiny wireless keyboard. I mostly love the Mighty Mouse. The little scroll ball on the top of the mouse, though, gums up fairly often. Apple, it seems, forgot that there was a reason we all gave up on mice with balls. The same thing on a smaller scale, being rubbed around by your finger all day, with no way of opening it up to clean it, is a bit of a bad move. I’ve always been able to get it going again with a bit of firm rubbing with the mouse upside-down, but it feels like a bit of a design fault. On an Apple product. That’s just wrong.

Software

There’s very little software I miss. TrackMania would be nice to have back, but it’s not worth dual-booting or running a VM for.

Oddly, for a machine so rooted in design and photography, image editing software is the one area I haven’t quite got settled on yet. On Windows, I used to use The GIMP. It’s available for the Mac, but it isn’t a pleasant experience. It runs under X11, so it doesn’t get its own menu bar, and doesn’t act like a Mac app. There are a few decent independent attempts at making image editors native to the Mac, so I tried pretty much everything I could find. Once I had a few options, I tried making the same set of simple edits to the same source image in them all. Photoshop Elements stood out as being much quicker and easier than the others. Making a selection was much easier, and making changes to the selection ended up with something that looked right, while the others ended up looking a mess.

I haven’t quite taken the plunge and bought it yet, but I probably will soon.

I actually do very little editing of the sort that needs a real image editor, though. On Windows, I’d been trying out Adobe Lightroom, but really didn’t get on with it. It felt slow and awkward, and seemed to have real performance problems when dealing with the number of images I had. I could get around it by splitting into multiple libraries, but switching between them would be more hassle than I wanted. I bought Aperture at the same time as my Mac, and loved it from the start. I still do. Almost everything I want to do with my photos can be done without leaving Aperture, and with a neat little plugin, I can export directly to my Flickr account.

The Result

I’m glad I made the switch. I still use Windows at work, and switching between the two every day makes things a little harder, but there are far more things I miss from the Mac when I’m using Windows than the other way around.

A colleague told me he’d bought a Mac because he hates computers. I told him I bought one because I love computers.

Switching to Mac Part 3: The Unboxing

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

Apple I’ll start by saying there are no photos here, and no videos.  Sorry.  I’m sure that’s been done plenty of times before.

I’ve unboxed a pretty good share of new PCs from various makes.  It’s mostly a pleasant enough experience, though there’s usually that big chunk of time at the end removing all the crapware that’s been preinstalled for your convenience.

So, how is opening an iMac different?

Well, the box was quite well designed, with the introductory bits sitting neatly at the top, so you get to them before the computer, but that’s not too unusual.  I was a bit puzzled by one of the little CD-sized packages, which turned out to be a plain black microfibre polishing cloth, with a small embossed Apple logo.  A simple extra, but nice.  Gives you a little message up front that you’ll be wanting to look after this machine, and care for it, rather than just agreeing to lots of EULAs.

The machine itself was heavy.  Especially considering that at the moment, it’s just sitting on a folding table that wobbles rather more than I’d like.  The power cable plugs neatly into the back, and has a ring around it that fits flushly with the back of the machine, to make it look more like a hard-wired cable.  There are a few other sockets, but nothing else was needed to get it going, as my keyboard and mouse were wireless, and it has WiFi built in.

On powering on, the machine seemed to know it should have a wireless keyboard and mouse.  It displayed a couple of diagrams, showing me where to put the batteries in my mouse, and how to switch it on.  Once I’d done that, it found the mouse, and a ‘next’ button appeared.  It found the keyboard without much trouble, though I don’t think it actually explained where to put the batteries and find the power button in that case.  It wasn’t difficult.

I told it what account to set up, and confirmed that I didn’t have another Mac to migrate from, and I was pretty much done.  There are apps preinstalled that I may never use, but it isn’t full of demo versions and crap nobody would ever want.

The main impression I had on having it all set up and running at home, after seeing it in the store, was that it was big.  It didn’t look small in the store, but in our living room, it really looks big.  I guess it’s not long ago that 24″ would have been a pretty impressive size for a TV set for a family to watch from the other side of the room.  Now I’m sitting at a screen that size to work and play.

The odd thing is that if anything, I seem to have more desk space spare than when I was using a small notebook PC.  It’s a big screen, but a small footprint on the desk.  The keyboard is tiny, and when I’m not using them, the keyboard and mouse can both sit on top of the ‘foot’ the machine stands on.  It’s all very neat.

I’ll continue soon with more thoughts on how I’ve settled in to using a Mac after I’d had a bit more time to get used to it.

Switching to Mac Part 2: The Retail Experience

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

I recently bought a Mac after years of using Windows PCs.  If you want to know how I came to the decision, see part 1.  The act of buying a Mac from an Apple store is kind of unusual in itself.

Getting In

The Apple store in Exeter is welcoming.  Very welcoming.  Maybe a little too much so, with staff on both sides of the doorway waiting to pounce, and numerous staff around waiting to speak to you as you look around.  They’re not pushy, though, just chatty.  I felt a bit uneasy going in – I’m nowhere near hip enough to enter an Apple store, and wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed in without becoming much cooler somehow.  It turned out not to be a problem.  I suspect I got away with it because I had a Lowepro bag – there are probably special rules to let photographers in even if they’re a bit unhip.

On the second visit, I was there to buy.  I bypassed the door guards swiftly, and headed straight for the 24″ iMacs.  A friendly assistant called Hannah turned to ask if she could help, so I just said “Yeah, er, 24-inch iMac, wireless mouse, and a copy of Aperture”.

There was a short pause, and she said “Oh.  You want that?  That was easy!”

Choosing

She explained that upgrading to wireless keyboard as well as mouse was almost no difference in cost compared to buying the extra wireless mouse, so I went for that option.  She then explained a special offer they had on printers, that would give me a fairly decent HP inkjet for free through a cashback offer.  Since our only printer at that point was a Windows GDI printer, which wouldn’t work with a Mac, I took that too.  She offered me Apple Care, which I turned down, but may consider later anyway.

Ringing up the Sale

This part was the first real surprise.  There are no tills.  Hannah just opened a browser on the display machine we were looking at, and logged into Apple’s retail system from there.  The sale is rung up through a web browser on the display machines, and set for delivery to one of the two desks in the middle of the sales floor.  The browser then showed the progress of the order being picked and brought to us while we just chatted about cameras.  Sam wandered off to fondle the iPod Touch.

After a while, the stuff was all brought down the glass stairs.  Hannah pulled a card machine off a holster on her belt, and took the payment.  She took my email address, and the receipt was emailed to me there and then.  No paper needed.

…and Out

All done.  She made sure I had the details of their training courses and demos, and where to do the rebate for the printer.  The iMac box turned out to be surprisingly heavy, but I turned down the offer of help taking everything back to the car, and made away with my new toys.

Switching to Mac Part 1: The Decision

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

Apple I’ve used Windows PCs for a lot of years now – since the days of Windows 3.0. My first PC ran MS-DOS 4.01. The last time I bought a new computer, I considered the idea of getting a Mac, but ended up with a Tablet PC instead. That little tablet has done me quite nicely since, although I never really used it as a tablet any more. It was starting to show the strain, though, when processing RAW files from new 12-megapixel cameras.

We’d decided a while ago that when we sold our house, we’d both be buying new computers. I considered a Mac again then, but decided to spend the money on a new camera kit instead.

I started speccing up a new PC, and it started to get quite pricey to get the sort of machine I wanted. Still cheaper than a decent Mac, but not as cheap as I’d been hoping. On a wander around PC World, I came face-to-face with the 24″ iMac screen. Wow. Big, bright, clear. I started to consider spending the extra to get a Mac again.

  • I’d tried out Adobe Lightroom, and liked it, but it didn’t really fit well for me. I wanted everything in one catalog, so I could search all my photos. That seemed a pretty basic thing to want to do, and Picasa could manage it just fine. Lightroom seemed to start having serious performance issues with a big catalog, though. My photos folder comes to just over 30,000 files. Aperture may be better, but I had no way of trying it out without having a Mac.
  • I started doing a bit of searching around online to see what people thought was best for a photographer to use. Some people didn’t think it made a lot of difference, but a lot through a Mac was much better. There don’t seem to be many people who think Windows is actually better for photography.
  • Big screens are expensive, especially if you want quality. I could find a PC much cheaper, but adding a good quality 24″ screen soon pushed the price way up.
  • I’d changed phones recently, and was now using a Nokia. Before that, I used Windows Mobile, which was a bit limited when syncing with a Mac.
  • They’re way prettier than almost any PC. When looking at PCs, I was considering a Sony Vaio, mainly because it looked so nice. If I was willing to pay extra for Sony’s design, Apple’s design was certainly worth a bit.

The one thing that was stopping me was the thought that if it turned out I really didn’t get on with MacOS, it would be a very expensive mistake. Then, I woke up at around 04:00 in the morning thinking “Bootcamp and Parallels! Idiot!”. Of course, if I didn’t get on with MacOS, I could buy a copy of Windows Vista, and use the Mac as a PC. OK, I’d have over-payed somewhat for a very pretty PC, but I’d still have a good quick PC with a great screen.

So, off we went to the Apple store in Exeter to hand over a whole lot of money. But that’s for Part 2.