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How I spent my summer vacation

Setting out on a roadtrip requires more than maps and beef jerky. It demands a really superior digital camera, for snapping photos of everything from the cute to the quirky.

As I drove through a Nevada desert on my way to a July family reunion near Sacramento, Calif., I got my first glimpse of a dust devil–a sand tornado formed by intense heat and high winds. Looking back at that drive from the comfort of my adjustable desk chair, the dust devil makes an apt metaphor for my summer. The California trip was one of several summer excursions. As a freelance travel writer, naturally, I do a lot of traveling. I logged several thousand miles in my little car with my family in tow. My digital camera was an indispensable companion, helping my feeble memory capture countless moments.

While it was a great luxury to recreate the feel of my frantic family reunion with the digicam, it was a necessity on my travel assignments. In one trip to Door County, Wis., I captured more than 400 images. I took at least one picture in every little sea town or state park to remind me of the look and feel of the place. Later, at our resort, I was able to download the photos to my Mac and stitch them together with text to build a detailed travelogue. I’m now in the process of turning the travelogue into a feature for a magazine. With the digicam, I don’t have to worry about my faulty gray matter forgetting a crucial aspect of what is often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. And if I’m lucky, the magazine might even print one or two of my photos.

Of course, I wouldn’t be able to be so thorough with a traditional film camera. First of all, I couldn’t afford to shoot so many pictures. The costs of film and developing would eat into my small writing fee to the point where it’s hardly worth taking the job. Even if I could afford it, I can’t always count on a one-hour photo lab conveniently located near our lodging. And even if our host town has a one-hour photo place, I’m not about to lug a scanner on the road to digitize my photos for placement into the travelogue.

No, I can’t picture my travel-filled summer without my trusty Olympus C-3040 hanging from my shoulder.

The whirlwind summer was centered around managing digital images. Throughout the summer I learned a lot about organizing, fixing, and sharing the shots I tookÑusually the hard way. While I knew ahead of time that I needed to get pieces of software for my Mac to handle these tasks, I didn’t take the time to acquire and learn the programs before needing to download hundreds of megabytes of images.

I know it’s ungeek-like, but I don’t like to futz around with my machine more than I actually use it. Before I decide to get to know the ins and outs of a program, I do a quick return-on-time-investment calculation: Whatever geek time I invest in a program needs to pay for itself in user-time savings within two weeks. For example, when I found myself working overtime managing all my e-mail (user time), I spent just enough time automating e-mail management in Outlook (geek time), saving me at least an hour a day. I still left the office after everyone else (I got in after everyone else as well). But I no longer had a nightly conversation with the janitor.

The trouble is, I’m at a computing crossroads. In order to manage my photos better on my current machine, I need iPhoto, which requires OS X (no, I haven’t upgraded yet). If I get OS X, I should also get new versions of most of my other software. As long as I’m in for three days of geek time to load all this stuff up, I might as well look at getting a new machine. And, as long as I’m getting a new machine, I should revisit the platform issue. I love Macs, but there are more software choices on the PC side and I can probably get a better value if I switch. Plus, I envision a desk with a PC on it at my next job, and it would be nice to have the same system at home.

Once I climbed all the limbs in the computing decision tree, I realized I have one week of geek time ahead of me to save maybe 30 minutes of user time per week (not to mention the cost). So I went back to doing it the old-fashioned way–creating folders, dragging files into the folders, and renaming the files one by one. If a photo is marginal, I put it in a folder named “Fix Later,” like that picture of me at the family reunion luau wearing a grass skirt and crooning “Blue Bayou” into a karaoke machine. I don’t quite know how I would fix it, or even if it can be fixed. For one thing, red-eye reduction doesn’t retouch the whites of the eyes.

I did make one change to my photo-sharing system, and it cost me very little geek time and even saved me some user time. When my ISP changed its maximum file size for sent e-mail to 350KB, I went to Ofoto.com to share photo albums. Ofoto is a free service that lets you upload a bunch of images into a photo album, make minor adjustments to the photos, create captions, and send an e-mail to all your friends and family that links back to the album. Ofoto makes its money selling prints of the photos in albums. I was hesitant to make my friends and family members go through the hassle of signing on and dealing with all the print marketing. But it beats sending them a dozen separate e-mails with one compressed image in each.

Ofoto is just a cheap way to share photos without having your own password-protected Web site. But it is no replacement for photo album software, which helps you download and organize photos on your hard drive, archive them onto CD, and optimize them for Internet sharing. And Ofoto can’t do much photo editing. For one thing, it can’t make me look thinner or digitally remove back hair from beach shots. (I hope you’re not eating.) All my wife’s beach pictures of yours truly are in the Fix Later folder, waiting for the day when I can retouch them. So I will soon get a new machine with all new software. And I will eventually need to change to an ISP with more photo-friendly practices, especially in the Web-hosting area.

A lot of software out there would enable me to do more than just retouching. Photos are just the starting place for a whole new artistic medium. Even I could create some frameable art with a product from Jasc, Ulead, Microsoft, or Adobe. (Full disclosure: I do consulting work for Jasc Software, so I’m biased toward Paint Shop Pro 8, especially the Background Eraser tool.) It doesn’t take a lot of geek time to get down to business with modern graphics programs, as long as you count playing around with effects as user time. Productive playtime sounds likes an oxymoron, but it describes the way most graphics artists work with the powerful tools available.

Trial and error are as important as craftsmanship in the digital age. Control-Z is the most frequently used keyboard shortcut (Command-Z on the Mac). If you base my keyboard skills on the shortcuts I use, I would fit in real well with the graphics arts set. So I’m going to give photo-illustration a try as my new artistic medium, and a digital camera slung from my shoulder will become a permanent accessory.

Maybe I could even invent a new Paint Shop Pro tool–Back Hair Eraser.

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