Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Open CS- Inkscape (Vector Images)

I am not much of an expert on vector graphics, but having discovered Inkscape I threw myself into the vector world for a week and found Inkscape quite natural to work with. To test out the program I decided to ink and color an entire comic book page that I wrote and drew some years ago. I quickly learned that while I was able to ink and color the entire page, it does take time to get use to vector tools versus raster tools.

There is one tool that is unique to Inkscape which Illustrator does not have, and that is the bucket fill tool. This was developed by a comic book illustrator in conjunction with some of the Inkscape developers.

I won't go into a ton of detail on the tools in this document, however, I did find a well made series on Youtube which more than covers the basic tools in Inkscape:

User Interface

I did want to spend some time on the UI which to me was the most confusing part of Inkscape. Depending on your monitor proportions, part of the menu migrates to the right-hand side. This can be changed by clicking View > Default or View > Custom.

When I work, I prefer to have the “Layers” dialogue and the “Fill and Stroke” dialogue open. These can be opened by pressing Shift+Ctrl+L (Layers) and Shift+Ctrl+F (Fill and Stroke) The dialogues sit to the right of the work area.

When you select a tool, the options for that tool will appear in the bar along the top of the work area, this is particularly important for the node editing tool since that is where you will find the options to add and remove nodes and segments. The color swatches along the bottom can be added to vectors and nodes by clicking on the swatch with the vector or node selected, they can also be used via "drag and drop."

Basic Tasks

Navigating the Canvas
The easiest way to zoom in and out of the canvas (there are several) is to hold Control and scroll the mouse wheel. To pan the canvas, center click and hold to drag the canvas around.

While I cannot give a detailed look at every tool, I will cover the most commonly used tools, particularly those I found somewhat troublesome. A full shortcut list/cheat sheet can be found at:

Select (F1)
Use the Select tool to move, scale, skew, or rotate an object. If you click the vector once, you get the move and scale arrows around the perimeter of the object. If you click the object twice, you get the rotate and skew arrows.

Edit Node (F2)
Allows you to edit objects via the nodes around the perimeter and in the center.

Bezier/pen (Shift+F6) To create straight lines just click to create nodes that will automatically connect in succession, if you click on the first node when you have completed the vector, it will fill the inside of the vector with the current fill settings. to create a line that doesn’t rejoin the first node, press “Enter” to end the vector.

To create Bezier curves, drag as you place the node. This will add the Bezier handles to the node which you will be able to adjust later with the Edit Node tool.

There are lots of options with the Bezier tool, play around with them until you are comfortable. If you need more in depth information on this or any other tool, click on the YouTube link mentioned in the introduction.

Fill (Shift+F7) This tool was developed by a comic book artist who needed a faster way to color his pages, this tool does a raster-like fill, then converts it to a vector. Because this tool uses a raster-like fill, you will want to zoom in until the vector fits just inside the work area to get the best possible fill.

Gradient (Ctrl+F1) The default gradient is from the selected color to clear. To add another color, select the node on the clear side of the gradient, then select the color swatch you want to transition to.

Intermediate Tasks

Stroke and Fill
Once you have created a vector you can change the Fill and Stroke using the “Fill and Stroke” dialogue. If you have just drawn the vector it will automatically select it and you can make changes, otherwise use the Select tool (F1) to select the vector you want to change.

Duplicate a vector
To duplicate a vector select the desired vector with the select tool, then press Shift+D.

Z-order, Select under
To change the order of a vector, select the vector, then use the “Page Up” or “Page Down” keys to move the vector up or down within a layer. You can also use the “Home” and “End” keys to move the vector to the top or bottom of the stack respectively.

If you need to select a vector that is beneath another vector (such as a drop shadow), use “Alt+click” to select the lower layer.

Multiple selections
Hold “Shift” as you use the select tool to select multiple vectors at the same time.

Similar to GIMP, Inkscape lets you define layers to better control what you are doing. For example I used Inkscape to ink and color a comic book page. I had one layer for the original raster image that I scanned in, one layer for the ink, one layer for the colors, and one layer for the conversation bubbles. By dividing my layers this way, I am able to print off a black and white version of the comic by hiding the colors layer. Thus saving me printer ink when I do preliminary reviews of the page. Vectors can be moved between layers via cut and paste.

Export ".png"
The default file format for Inkscape is “.svg” or Scalable Vector Graphic. To export a raster version of your graphic, click File > Export Bitmap to create a “.png” or “Ping” file which can be read by most other programs. You will need to browse for the location you want to export to, and will need to provide a filename. If you choose to export the page, you will get everything that is visible, even if it is outside the page boundary. To prevent this, I recommend creating a layer with a single background vector that is the dimensions you need. Select this layer just before you export and it will save you a lot of trouble.

Sample Comic Book Page

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Open CS- Blender (Video Editing and 3D Modeling)

I have looked at lierally dozens of free video editors, and none of them hold a candle to Blender. Blender is more widely known for its 3D modeling capabilities, and as a result I would have to say that the Video Sequence Editor (VSE) is the best kept secret in Blender. Most of the reviews online state that Blender has a steep learning curve. While that may be true for the 3D modeling aspects of the program, that is not neccessarily true for the VSE. A little coaching about the interface and video clip preparation, and the learning curve practically disappears.

Default Interface

User Interface

When you first open Blender the gut reaction is "What have I gotten myself into?" The default interface is for 3D modeling and is quite intimidating. Never fear, just a few guided clicks to open the VSE and the interface becomes much more user friendly.

VSE Interface
First, (1) click on the icon to the lower left and select the video reel. This opens the VSE, to make it more user friendly (2) click the "preview and timeline" view. Finally, (3) click the "+" sign in the top-right corner of the preview area to get the clip properites dock. Now we are ready to edit!

Note the bottom of the VSE view has Start, End, and current frame boxes, you can use this to control the length of the video and the current frame will be used when you trim video and for other tasks.

The far right column controls the video properties and is also where you will set up your codecs for rendering your finished video. If you make changes to the framerate after you have loaded clips, you will need to reload the clips using Strips > Reload strips and adjust length.

Basic Tasks

Preprocessing your video
Blender does not handle multiple framerates, so you have to preprocess your video using a program like Format Factory or Handbrake so that all your videos have the same framerate. (Some cameras use a variable framerate when recording, these are particularly important to process before you bring the clips into Blender.) If you use the same camera for all your shooting and it doesn't have a variable framerate, you can import video directly into Blender no problem.

Setting up the video dimensions and framerate
Once you have your video ready, open up the file properties in your operating system so you can see the dimensions and framerate. These will need entered into Blender in the column at the far right. This will help your audio to sync up and will also be the output dimensions of the video. If you enter the wrong framerate, the audio clip will be either longer or shorter than the video clip and the audio wont sync.

Intel Graphics Card Error
Some Intel and other Graphics cards don't handle the Blender VSE preview because their OpenGL version is too old. If you discover your computer falls into this category, set the dimensions to 512 x 512 until you are ready to render, then set it back to the original video dimensions. You will want to build any text or graphic overlays to the original dimensions so they are the correct proportion when you render the output video. The preview will appear squished, but at least you will have one so you can see what you are doing.

Import video, audio, and images
To insert video clips, audio clips, and images use the "Add" option on the menu beneath the timeline. I recommend selecting just one clip at a time so it retains the filename as the clip name. If you select multiple clips, they will all be named the first filename imported, followed by a number. Images need to have the "Premultiply" box checked in the clip properties dock or they will pixelate when rendered.

Audio Sync
Near the bottom right there is a dropdown option which defaults to "No Sync." You will want to change this to "A/V Sync" so the audio matches the video.

Trimming Video and Audio
Select the clips by right-clicking and holding Ctrl. Once the clips are selected, move the current frame position by left-cliking or changing the current frame at the bottom of the window. Press K to make a soft trim, or Shift + K for a hard trim. Soft trim allows you to adjust the end of the trim later and shows the previous and later footage as a ghost clip. A hard trim cannot be adjusted, it is as though you have cut the clip in two and they exist only as separate clips.

Once you have things trimmed up nicely and want to lock them down you can create a meta strip by selecting all the clips and pressing Ctrl + G. This groups them together and treats them as a single strip. Press Alt + G to ungroup the meta strip. (These functions can also be done through the Strip menu.)

Cut, Wipe, and Fade
To cut between two clips simply line them up end to end.

To wipe between the clips overlap them on separate lines in the time line then multiple select the video clips (the first clip selected is considered the "from" the second clip selected is considered the "to"). Select Add > Effect Strip > Wipe from the menu, you may have to play with the properties of the wipe strip to get it to wipe the correct direction on the screen. Use multiples of 90 to get the cardinal directions (up, right, down, left).

To fade betwen two clips, line them up like you would for a wipe, then select Add > Effect Strip > Gamma Cross. This type of cross fade is smoother than a regular Cross. Again the order you select your strips will determine which way the fade goes.

Fade to black
Click Add > Effect Strip > Color. The default will be black. Lengthen the strip to the desired length of your fade (25-30 frames per second is a good rule of thumb) Overlap the strips like a fade or wipe. Select the video strip then the color strip using Ctrl, then click: Add > Effect Strip > Gamma Cross. To fade audio see the Intermediate Task entitled "Key Frames and Volume Control."

Zoom and pan timeline
To zoom in or out of the time line use the scroll wheel of the mouse, to pan center mouse click and drag the timeline. Ctrl + center-click will let you streatch and squish the timeline both diretions. You can also press "Home" to fit the entire timeline in window.

Intermediate Tasks

Key Frames and Volume Control
Change volume to “0” where you want the zero audio and press “i” to insert a key frame. Set audio to “1” where you want full audio and press “i” again to insert another keyframe. Audio track may need to be moved to a different row if an error pops up.

Titles and Credits
Create a .png file in GIMP using the same resolution as the film so it doesn’t distort. (Make sure it has a transparent background!) Premultiply the super when you insert it, place it above the clip or clips you want it to appear over, then multiselect the super followed by the clip it will appear over. Click Add > Effect Strip > Alpha Under, the transparent background of the PNG should now allow the clip underneath to show up with the text over top. Repeat for additional clips the super appears over. Can also be faded in and out using Add > Effect Strip > Gamma Cross after the Alpha Under is in place.

Image manipulation
To manipulate an image use the clip properties dialogue. X and Y offset control where the image appears in the video. Under "Filter" you will find the "Premultiply" check box mentioned previously. Further manipulation of images or video beyond these clip properties requires the Transform Effect Strip (Add > Effect Strip > Transform). This will let you scale the image or video, rotate, etc...

Color Correction
Select a video or image clip and click the dropdown in the clip properties dialogue marked "Add Strip Modifier" You can select several types of color and hue correction.

To render your video you need to go back to the far right column and set your render settings. For "Post Processing" select Sequencer only unless you have added 3D components to the video while in Blender. Under "Output" browse to your output location and give the file a name including the file extension. Select MPG instead of PNG on the dropdown. Under "Encoding"  Pick a codec for Video / Audio. MPG, MPG-2, seems to work the best for me. The audio codec defaults to "none" so remember to select an audio codec or you will have no sound! (If Intel GPU error, change resolution back to original size.) When you have everything selected correctly go back to the top of the column and click "Animate" to render the final video.

Blender Cheat Sheet

Shortcut/Menu Action
Add > Movie Import Video
Right click Select clip
Mouse Scroll Wheel Zoom
Center Mouse Click + Drag Pan Timeline
Home Fit in window
G Move clip (select clip first)
K Soft Trim
Shift + K Hard Trim
Overlap video, or trim and line up back to back Cut
Select two video clips, Add > Effect Strip > Gamma Cross Fade
Select two video clips, Add > Effect Strip > Wipe Wipe
Ctrl + Z (Shift + Ctrl + Z) Undo (Redo)
Add > Effect Strip > Transform Change position, resize, overdrop etc...
Shift + D Duplicate Strip
X Delete Strip
H (Alt + H) Hide/mute (unhide/unmute)
Add > Effect Strip > Color Add black (so you can fade to or from black)
Select two strips, Add > Effect Strip > Alpha Over / Alpha Under Overlay text, etc. that has a transparent background (remember to premultiply the image so you get better antialiasing). Which one you pick depends on which clip you selected first.
Ctrl+ Center Click Shift or stretch the timeline both horizontal and vertical
Add > Image Remember to premultiply image or they look really bad!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Open CS- GIMP 2.8 (Image Editing)

The GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is probably the most well known of the Open Source programs.

GIMP has been referred to as “free Photoshop.” This is both true and misleading. They share a large portion of functionality, but they accomplish that functionality through different processes. Their toolboxes alone are 60% identical, but how you use those tools is slightly different. The bonus that GIMP has over Adobe Photoshop is that it is free, and with a few pointers you can make professional level edits at no cost to your pocket book. Like all programs, GIMP has its quirks; I have tried to outline the more common ones in the “Trouble Spots” section. If GIMP has one downfall it is CMYK support. Fortunately both Scribus and Inkscape do support CMYK, so you can import your GIMP creation to one of these programs before you send it off to your printer.

Download and Install

To download gimp, go to:

There you will find the Windows installer and User manual. You will want to download both! The current build (2.8.11) uses a regular browser window to display the user manual. Once you have both files, install GIMP first, then the User Manual.

If you are on multiple computers throughout the day, you may want to get the portable version (for your thumb drive) at:

First Run

The first time you run GIMP it will take much longer than subsequent runs. This is because it is searching your computer for all the design components you already have. (Fonts notably take the most time.)


When the program comes up you will see three windows. One work area (center), and two toolboxes with movable docks (left and right). I recommend the following configuration for beginners. To change to a single window mode (version 2.8.0) click: Windows > Single Window Mode.

I like to have just my Toolbox on the left. The two most important tabs for the right dock, are the Layers tab and the Tool Options tab. The History tab is good to have handy, the other tabs are not necessary for beginners. The tabs are drag and drop, so you can configure them however best suits your work style. Those who have used Photoshop will notice that many of the icons in the toolbox are similar to those found in Photoshop, with minor variations. The “Tool Options” tab will automatically show you the options for whichever tool you currently have selected.

Basic Tasks

This can be done three ways:
  1. Select View from the menu, then Zoom and the depth of zoom you want
  2. Use the “+” and “-” keys (Note: you need to push “Shift” to zoom in)
  3. Select the Zoom tool from the toolbox (magnifying glass) then choose Zoom in or Zoom out from the Tool Options tab.
.xcf is the native file type for GIMP. It is a layered file, I recommend saving your working copy as an .xcf then “Export” (from the File menu) as a “.jpg” or “.png” for your final copy.

Re-size-The basic re-size tool in Gimp is called “Scale” it can be found in the Image menu. This tool will let you re-size the image, or change the pixels per inch (ppi). In the Image menu, you will also find an option called Canvas Size. This changes the viewable size of the image, but keeps the original image the same size as a layer.

If you want to re-size a layer, use the Layer menu, then Scale Layer. (You will notice that the Image and Layer menus are almost identical, make sure that you use the right one!) There is also a Scale tool that allows you to scale layers, selections, or paths.

There are many ways to crop in GIMP, the two most common are the “Crop tool” and “Crop to selection.” The Crop tool looks like a razor blade or Xacto knife. Drag a box around what you want to crop, then adjust using the bars that appear when you hover near an edge. When you are done adjusting, click in the middle of the box to make the actual crop.

The other option is to use any of the select tools to define the edges of the image, then select Image- Crop to selection.

Screen Capture-
To make a screen capture press Ctrl + PrtScn on the screen you want to capture, then in GIMP click File- Create from clipboard. What was on the screen then appears as an image in GIMP.

Another option is to use the screen capture tool, File – Create from Screenshot. This tool allows you to grab a single window and import it as a new picture.

Color Levels-
Sometimes you receive a picture that is too bright or too dark. The best way to handle this is to select: Colors- Levels, which will bring up the window to the right. This allows you to adjust your highlights, lowlights, and mid tones individually until you get them just right. You can also perform a white balance using the white eyedropper. You can also click auto to see what the program thinks is best, you can always use the Reset button at the bottom if you don't like the adjustments (as long as you don't close the window!). If you do close the window and need to take the adjustment back, use the History tab.

Intermediate Tasks

Drop Shadow-
Filters- Light and Shadow- Drop Shadow

A drop shadow adds depth to your image by adding a shadow between layers. The shadow itself is a new layer. On layers near the edge of the image, it may expand the canvas size. To fix this just use Image- Canvas size and change it back to your original image size. If you need to move a layer and its shadow, link them together in the Layers tab, then just select one layer to move and the other will follow.

Layer Mask-
Right click on desired layer in layer dock- Add Layer Mask

This tool lets you hide or “mask” part of a layer. When you add a layer mask you will see a second box appear on the layer in the layer tab. Select the second box and begin painting the picture with black and white. Black makes that part of the layer invisible while white makes it visible again. This is a good way to cut a layer without losing the image data, like you would using the Eraser tool. When you want to move the layer, make sure you click the first box in the Layers tab, or you will move the layer mask instead. You can also right click the layer and select “Apply layer mask” when you are satisfied with your mask of the layer. It is also fun to play with gradients on the layer mask to make something fade away slowly. (See Gradient tool below.)

Clone Stamp-
Select tool, Ctrl + click where you want to copy from.

Sometimes you get a picture that is really nice except for an unwanted person or item. If you have a generic background, you can use the clone stamp to cover the unwanted item. I recommend duplicating the layer before you begin using the clone stamp. Ctrl + click where you want to copy from, then start stamping over the area you want to cover with it. Remember that each click will reset to the reference point you defined.

Gradient tool-
To use the gradient tool you need to first select the starting and ending colors with the color swatches at the bottom of the toolbox. Select a blank layer from the Layers tab, then click and drag where you want the gradient to start and stop. The Tool Options tab will let you change the rate of change from one color to the other with the Offset slider. You can also change the type of gradient with the Shape drop down menu. By doing a black and white gradient on a layer mask, the layer fades gradually into nothing.

Text tool-
Select the text tool and click anywhere on your image. A cursor and toolbox will appear on the image. The Tool Options tab, will let you tweak your font, color, leading, kerning, etc... To move a text layer after your initial entry of text, click the move tool, then the text layer in the Layers tab. Next click in the work area and use the arrow keys to nudge the text around until it is where you want it. To edit a text layer, select the text tool and double click the thumbnail in the Layers tab. If you add effects to a text layer, then need to edit the text, you will have to redo the other effects afterward. The text tool is much better in GIMP 2.8 than in past versions.

Trouble Spots

Layer vs Image
These two menu items are right next to each other, and are nearly identical when opened, make sure you are using layer when you want to affect a layer, and image when you want to affect the image.

Are you on the right layer?
Sometimes you try to do an action and nothing happens, this is usually because the wrong layer is selected in the Layers tab. Or you need to anchor a floating selection by right-clicking the floating selection in the Layers tab and selecting “New Layer.”

Layer vs Layer Mask
This one has bitten me more than once. I will go to fix a Layer Mask and end up painting the layer, or I will move the layer mask when I meant to move the layer. Ctrl + z is the best way to undo these actions. If you go too far, Ctrl+y will redo the action you just undid.

Please re-read the Text tool entry, moving and editing text layers that already exist can be frustrating if you don't select them correctly. As of version 2.8.0 the text tool allows you to adjust each letter independently, so you can have multiple styles of text in the same text layer.

Toolbox by Icon

Monday, October 7, 2013

Adobe CC vs Open CS

Yes, I am going there! The Adobe Creative Suite (now Creative Cloud) has been the industry standard for years, and people have had to pay through the nose for it. There have also been open source alternatives for years, and with the recent change in Adobe’s pricing structure ($600/year for Creative Cloud) to mitigate migration to less expensive programs, I think it is high time we recognize how good the programs in the “Open Creative Suite” really are.

First and foremost, I would like to clarify that I am not saying Adobe software is bad. What I am saying is there are lighter weight counterparts that can do just as good a job for those of us who can’t afford their software, let alone the hardware to run it on. I would also like to clarify that these programs offer comparable functionality, not work flow. For example, both Photoshop and GIMP can create a drop shadow. However, the steps to create that effect will be different because they are different programs.

If these free programs have been around for so long why don’t more people use them? Good question. I think the biggest factor is the learning curve. These programs do have different icons and menus, so unless professional designers and editors are willing to take the time to learn a different user interface, they are not likely to switch. (I personally have used GIMP long enough that I now know it better than I know Photoshop.) Colleges and Universities teach industry standards, so unless the professional world is willing to accept these alternatives, these educational institutions will continue to teach Adobe.

Another reason these programs haven't gotten much attention is that many of them are just now coming into maturity. Adobe has been the standard for decades and has a large programming staff to maintain and update their software. Open Source programs are created and maintained by small groups of programers often in their spare time, and most have only been working together over the last five to ten years if that.

If you are a Windows user, you can get all the programs in the Open Creative Suite from and take them with you on a thumb drive. Total size for all five programs is less than one Gigabyte. That is half the size of just one Adobe program, which means you don't need a top of the line computer to run them either!

As a follow up to this article, I will be posting a series of articles showing the basic functionality of each of these Open Source programs to help reduce the learning curve, and to help promote these programs as viable alternatives to Adobe software for those on a budget.

Photoshop (2 GB) vs GIMP (247 Mb)
The GNU Image Manipulation Program is probably the most well known of the Open Source programs, and for valid reasons. It has been called “Free Photoshop” for years to the great fury of Photoshop users. (In their defense, I would be mad too if I spent hundreds of dollars for a program that has a free counterpart.) The toolboxes alone are 80% the same (again referring to the functionality, not the icon artwork). I have been told there is additional professional functionality that GIMP doesn't offer, but in my 5 years since abandoning Photoshop I have yet to find out what that is, since I haven't needed it. If you are curious about Photoshop Elements vs GIMP there isn't even a contest, GIMP wins hands down on the feature count.

Illustrator (2 GB) vs Inkscape (150 Mb)
Confession, I have not done a whole lot with vector graphics, however, what I have seen is possible with Inkscape has matched up quite impressively with what I have seen in Illustrator. My wife recently found an Illustrator tutorial on Youtube for a project she was working on, and we were able to recreate the exact same effects in Inkscape by trial and error in about 15 minutes.

Premier (4 GB) vs Blender (120 Mb)
The thing that scares most people away from Blender as a video editor is that the initial screen looks so complicated they don't think it is worth the effort. After the first three clicks (to set up the Video Sequence Editor) most people would do just fine. I should also state that Blender actually covers the functionality of Premier AND After Effects. My experience is limited to the Video Sequence Editor (VSE), and there are countless reviews about how great the 3D tools and special effects are so I will let you look those up on your own.

The VSE is probably the best kept secret in Blender. I have tried countless free video editors, and none of them even come close to the functionality of Blender. (Windows Movie Maker can only crash so many times per project before you realize you need a real editing program.) The reviews you will find online state that Blender has a “steep learning curve.” I found a couple of well made tutorials about the VSE on Youtube which chopped the learning curve down considerably, and I have been happily video editing ever since.

InDesign (2.6 GB) vs Scribus (178 Mb)
I have been using InDesign since it was called Pagemaker back in the 1990s. Compared to the rest of the Open Source programs mentioned here, I have the least amount of experience with Scribus. One look at the documentation, however, tells me that I am in good hands. There are also many tutorial videos about the basic use of Scribus on Youtube, and from those I know this program is a keeper. This was the last hole I needed to fill in the Open Creative Suite, hence why I am now writing this series of articles.

Audition (2 GB) vs Audacity (40 Mb)
I don't know that many people who use Audition, but Audacity is too good a program to leave out, so here it is. If you need a free audio editor, Audacity is it! Make sure you get the LAME codec so you can edit mp3s and you are set. I don't even know what half the filters in this program do because there are so many of them. I have used Audacity for over 3 years and have never looked twice for another audio recording/editing program.

Operating Systems:
Adobe CC- Win, Mac ($50/month or $600/year)
Open CS- Win, Mac, Linux, etc (100% Free)