Learning UltraFractal

My love affair with web graphics started shortly after I did my first homepage back in June of 2012. It was a simple page, made up of graphics I found surfing the net. People on the web are incredibly generous in putting up great graphics and everything you need for a decent page can be grabbed with your browser or an FTP program.

The one limitation I ran up against very quickly was the size of the graphic. So I bought JASC Paintshop Pro from their website. It turned out to be a lucky choice. Not only could I re-size graphics, but I could add borders, text, contour, change their colors and more. Most of my 2012 Christmas graphics, my first venture into original stuff, were made with Paintshop.

At $65, Paintshop is a real bargain and will satisfy your urge for creativity for a long time. The tutorial that came on the CD ROM was excellent and there is more help now at the Paintshop site to get you started plus there are many websites that offer tutorials.
Which Is the Right Program for You?

Selecting a graphics program is determined by (1) what you want to do, (2) the size of your pocketbook, and (3) your ability to learn the program. Graphics programs come in two major varieties

  • Bitmap programs and
  • Vector graphics programs

Bitmap programs manipulate files in various digital formats (filename.gif, filename.jpg, filename.tiff, etc.). The images you see on the web are bitmaps. So if all you want to do is make great web pages you need a bitmap graphics program since web graphics are in .jpg or .gif format. This type of program also allows you to manipulate the files scanned and made into digital formats.

Vector graphics programs are designed to allow you to make digital pictures from absolute scratch. They are powerful, expensive, and hard to learn. By and large, I would say they are more suited to the serious artist, graphics professional, or advanced web junkie.

The granddaddy and standard for bitmap programs is Adobe Photoshop. The list price is about $550 and even the “real” price is around $250. Adobe has the advantage of being widely used and therefore is very well supported both by third-party software developers and sites on the web where you can get help. If you have the money and the right operating system, you can’t miss with Photoshop. To get introduced to fractal art terminology, check out this post.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of price, is JASC’s Paint Shop Pro for $90. Don’t let the low price fool you……PSP is powerful right out of the box.

It accepts Photoshop plug-ins, which you can purchase or find free on the web. And there are plenty of devoted PSP users who are willing to share their tips on making great graphics. For the beginner with a budget…either monetary or in terms of hard drive space… I’d definitely recommend PSP.

After a year of using only PSP, I purchased Corel Draw 8 and the full set of Kai’s Power Tools. I am thrilled with both, but they are pricey in terms of hard disk space as well as dollars. Corel 8 uses about 200 megs for a typical installation. Compare that with the modest 7 megs used by Paintshop. Kai’s Power Tools take up about 18 megs and is priced at $99.

Corel Draw 8 is somewhere between $200-$250. However, Corel Draw has both a bitmap program (called Photopaint) and a vector graphics program (Draw 8) and comes with lots and lots of “stuff” and plugins.

To add Adobe’s vector program, Illustrator, to your kit of tools you’d have to shell out another $300 or so. Therefore, comparatively speaking, Corel is giving you way more for your dollars. Plug-ins work just fine with the Corel products.

I worked with Photoshop briefly and couldn’t see any obvious reasons for choosing it over Photopaint at twice the price. I’m slowly struggling to learn Draw 8 and don’t have any experience with Illustrator, but I assume it is comparably powerful and difficult.

Kai’s Power Tools are plugins (Adobe Photoshop standard type) that let you add many effects to your bitmap graphics. They are great fun to have but I wish I had known about all the free plugins on the web prior to my purchase. I might have waited to buy Powertools.

Many, many, many other graphics programs are available and I suggest you check for sites where you can get product reviews. If you are planning on buying a scanner in the near future, I believe you should defer buying software until you get it. The scanner will come with at least a bitmap graphics program for you to try. Many printers come bundled with a graphics program these days as well.

Learning Your Program

A powerful program you can’t understand isn’t very useful. The “best” program is one that provides tools for learning such as tutorials and manuals and is widely used so that you can benefit from the help of others. PSP, Photoshop, and Photopaint all meet these criteria.

Before you decide to download or buy a program, do some surfing and see if you can find sites that offer hints on that program. Even if you are trying a demo, you will be investing time, since no graphics program is “intuitive”…….I don’t care what the advertising or reviews say!! Don’t waste either your time or money on an unsupported program.

If you download a program, make sure you get a CD if one is offered. PSP has excellent tutorials, but they are only available on the CD version. Expect to spend time with the tutorials, hints you find and experimenting with your program.

Learning graphics took me far more time than learning….say….word processing….because I had to see (and remember) what a whole new set of terms meant….terms like…solarize, posterize, mask, float, gradient, saturate. These terms are meaningless in a manual.

Well-organized utilities are also wonderful when learning a program. Quickly adding a border to a picture or making a button with two or three clicks really encourages the beginner. Some of the utilities are mysterious until you see them used ………which is again where getting hints from others is so essential. I think PSP’s utilities are superbly selected and organized.

Scanners – Making the Decision to Buy

Scanners have come way down in price recently. A perfectly decent flatbed can be had for $250. A scanner allows you to convert pictures into a digital format so you can add photos of yourself, pets, etc. to your webpage. I scan pictures from catalogs to make a lot of my graphics and snapshots for my tour pages. The scanner can provide an endless source of material.

However, if your main interest is digital photography, a scanner may not be the best alternative. Digital cameras are coming down in price now too. Or, you can send your film off to a lab that will return both your processed photos and a disk of digital images. Seattle Film Works does great work and is geared toward mail order if you don’t have a lab locally.

For $4 per 20 shot roll (in addition to processing), you get a disk of your photos in Seattle’s digital format. However, they also give you software for free so you can turn the photos into web formats. The software also allows you to run a slideshow on your computer, which is great fun. Check their website for a complete review of their services.

Another downside to scanning yourself is the time you have to invest in post-scan processing. I find I almost always have to do some color adjustment (for which I use Photopaint) and often some cropping. In and of itself, scanning takes about one minute per snapshot.