A Few Unsung Heroes Of Digital Imaging; Stamps Of Approval

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting."--Ernest Rutherford

There's nothing a photographer likes better than ripping the shrink wrap off a new software tool, image-editing program, or plug-in. The expression on their face reminds me of kids opening brightly-colored boxes during the holidays. While these kind of toy-like tools allow us to create dramatic and unusual photographs, there is, alas, more to digital imaging than that. There are many unsung products, including productivity software, that also make it possible to fashion images in creative ways. Some of them represent the less than glamorous side of photography, such as storing images, reducing digital noise, or putting stamps on letters, but they're just as important as the creative tools. Here are a few new ones...

Speedy Memory Cards
If you think you're familiar with all of the players in the memory card biz, let me introduce you to RiDATA's 150x PRO Series CompactFlash cards. Advanced Media, Inc. (www.ritekusa.com) is the manufacturer of RiDATA recordable CD and DVD media, flash memory cards, and USB flash drives. Its new 150x PRO Series CompactFlash card is available in 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB capacities. This fast memory card has a read speed of up to 22MB per second and a 15MB per second write speed. Users can expect up to 500,000 power-on hours MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure), something not often quoted for this kind of media. The PRO cards have a low power-consumption design with automatic power management that prolongs camera battery life, and its zero-power data retention functionality requires no power. I haven't tried these fast 150x cards but have been using an 80x RiDATA CompactFlash card for some time with no problems. Their DVD-R discs are pretty cool, too.

Plug-In Of The Month
Sometimes you need a mask to create special effects. Vertus' (www.vertustech.com) Fluid Mask 2.0 is a masking plug-in for Photoshop and compatible applications. When an image file is loaded into it, Fluid Mask's segmentation engine analyzes the distribution of colors, finding natural groups within the photograph. Together with information calculated about edges, gradients, and textures, a model is constructed dividing the image into objects. To build a mask, it's just a matter of selecting those objects that are displayed in the Edge Overlay view using a process similar to "paint by numbers."

Adjustments are made using easy to understand controls found in a floating palette and can be used to produce new object boundaries. The Global brush has a slider permitting fine adjustments to its sensitivity and is capable of identifying not only similar colors throughout the image but similar textures as well. The Local brush Strength slider helps it discriminate and group objects of similar color in areas of complexity and fine detail, such as hair. The plug-in supports 16-bit as well as 8-bit RGB and CMYK color image files. Fluid Mask 2.0 costs $199, including six months of upgrades. Free demos are available for Mac OS and Windows users.

Print Your Own Stamps
In the January 2006 "Digital Innovations" column I showed you a Photoshop Action that made photographs look like stamps. Now I'd like to show you how to print real postage stamps with your computer. The DYMO Stamps software and service works with the company's LabelWriter 400 Turbo, Twin Turbo, and Duo label printers. Instructions on how to install the free software and sign on to the no-monthly-fee service come in every box or can be downloaded from their website (www.dymo.com). DYMO Stamps lets you print USPS-approved postage using a Mac OS or Windows computer, eliminating the need for expensive postal meters or having to stand in line at the post office. It also makes it simple to print the precise amount of postage you need for each piece of mail so you might even save a little money over what the labels cost ($15.99 for 200 stamps). OK, that's a 12.5 cent per stamp premium to make your own stamps. Ask how much gas it costs to drive to the post office and the decision may be easier. Software and hardware setup is a snap and as much as I like the folks down at the Brighton post office, I like printing my own stamps with a LabelWriter Duo better.