Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Easy depth of field for SL pictures

It was Bella March's latest blog posts on renderview and an aside about the "depth" option in the snapshot tool that got me wondering about the possibilities of this option when taking pictures in SL. Maybe I'm kicking in open doors here but what at first seemed a rather useless option, apart from using it like Bella did to create a very powerful effect shot, all of a sudden made sense. I'm sure I'm not the first to figure this out, but I have never seen this trick mentioned before. A few Google searches revealed nothing either so here it goes...

SL shots lack so called "depth of field". In RL you focus on something and the elements in front of your focus point and behind it become increasingly unsharp as they are further from the focus point. How blurry they become depends on a number of factors that are not really important here like the focal lenght of your lens, the aperture etc. What does matter is that applying some blur to the background of your pictures brings out your main object and feels more real.

Making a decent blurred background can be a tedious job if you do it the traditional way as explained very well in Vint Falken's tutorial by making a mask. Not anymore...

In the snapshot interface select what Bella calls the "Matrix view" i.e. the "freeze frame" option and also select the "keep open" option. Now make your composition and save your picture to disk. Before anything else change the selection "color" to "depth". Save this gray-scale picture to disk as well.

The rest of the story is Photoshop editing. Open both bitmaps in Photoshop. Use control-a to select the whole "depth" picture and and control-c copy it. Now go to the actual colored picture. If you're lucky enough to have CS3 duplicate your background layer* and convert the copy to a smart object (right click the layer for the menu). In the layer thumbnail you should now see the smart object icon. From the filter menu select blur > Gaussian blur and apply a generous dose. In your layer appears a smart filter thumbnail. Click it while holding down the alt key. This will open the filter mask. Simply press control-v now to paste the "depth" image into the mask. Click back on the "background copy" layer and bingo, you used the depth image to determine which parts of the picture will be blurred and which not and how much they will be blurred. You can play with the brightness and contrast or the curves of the filter mask to optimise the effect or you can even get a brush out and make some manual adjustments.

If you don't have access to CS3 you can do it another way. Again open both the color version and the depth version of your picture. Start by inverting the depth picture by hitting control-i (or go to the top menu image > adjustments > invert). Select and copy the inverted depth picture as before. Select the color version and make two copies of the background layer. Of the three layers you have now select the middle one and apply some degree of Gaussian blur to it. Now select the top one and drag it down to the bottom of the layer box to the little icon looking like a rectangle with a circle in it to add a mask to it (or from the top menu select layer > add vector mask > reveal all). The top layer should now have a white thumbnail next to the regular thumbnail representing your pic. Click it while holding the alt key and use control-v to past the depth pic in your mask. There... two ways to get the same effect.

However, there are some drawbacks. The "depth" picture doesn't pick up on transparent objects so they take on the blur of what's behind them and there is the fact it doesn't account for foreground blur. On top of that the grey areas in the mask are actually partially transparent so the sharp smart object or underlying layer is showing through to some degree which gives those areas a somewhat haloed look. Nevertheless I'm sure it can serve its purpose as a quick way of enhancing a picture.

as an example:

This one...

... plus this one ...

... makes this one :-)

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions on refining this technique and I'd love to see your pictures created using it.

On a side note: sorry for the somewhat messy layout of this post, the template was not intended for tutorials :-)

* I like to keep the original background layer untouched so I can always go back.

Monday, 16 July 2007

My date with an Australian fire fighter and more.

Got your attention didn't I ?! No, I'm not coming out of the closet. This particular fire fighter is actually a very nice and bright young lady. Ember is the girl I bid for and won at the auction for Relay for Life I wrote about earlier. Because we both have busy schedules and are in opposite timezones it wasn't until last night we finally went on our date. I put on my tux and took her dancing and although that may sound a bit boring I had a great time. I guess it's the company that counts and they don't come any sweeter then Ember. I hope we can do it again sometime.

Upon logging off way too late for a Sunday night I found a rather strange mail in my inbox.

Dear Loki

I am really sorry to send you this unannounced. I am looking for some kind SL enthusiast to do me a big favour and your terrific blog suggested that you might be be that person ... it also, of course, gave me an email address.

I am also an SL enthusiast - not as experienced as you, though. It is a boring story (to do with my Internet connection being by proxy) but my system now automatically blocks access to SL. I am missing the fun of exploring SL but mostly I am missing chatting to my two best friends in SL and they will be wondering where I have got to. Please would you be kind enough next time you're in SL to send by IM two messages for me? I would be so pleased and grateful if you would.

I'll write them out below so that you can simply copy and paste.

I'll understand if you do not feel that you can do this for me - but either way I'd appreciate a very quick reply so that I know where I stand.

Thanks Loki and apologies for bothering you. Have fun in SL !!

(messages and names removed since that's no ones business)

Being the good soul I am and not entirely immune to the flattery (hey, he called my blog terrific... ) I logged back on and found both ladies online, sent them their messages and mailed my mystery mailer their replies. In a way it felt really good doing that. If for some reason or another I would be cut off from friends in SL I think I would try to find ways to get in touch too.

Which brings me to a topic I talked about with a friend a while ago. She and I met online over two years ago and became "e-pen pals" (for lack of a more apt word). At one point she stopped responding and since all I had was her e-mail address there was no way of finding out why. For all I knew she could have been in a car accident or ill or mad at me for some reason. It goes without saying I was worried to say the least. Thankfully, after not hearing from her for several months she resurfaced and explained why she had been silent for so long. I told her I had been worried something might have happend to her. Talking about it we both agreed to make sure that if anything happened to either of us we would make sure the other was notified. It's a small thing to take care of but it could make such a difference if something bad really happened.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

SL & traditional media

Second life is a hype in the traditional media, here in Belgium anyway. Wouldn't it be lovely if they also knew what they were talking about?! A while ago I read a column in a respected computer magazine in which an editor of the games section got all upset because someone had the audacity to compare Second Life to World of Warcraft. He ranted that there are no red light districts in WoW and SL is a non-game and the two shouldn't be compared. Fair, that's his opinion, after all it is a column. Unfortunately it was also very clear from the article that he had never even been in SL.

Now, whether SL is a game or not and whether or not it can be compared to WoW, I don't really care. What I do care about is the general tone used when traditional media report on SL. It seems that whereas a year ago SL was sniffed at as something novel and potentially interesting, these days it seems to be fashionable to reduce SL to a playground for perverts, nitwits without a social life and gold diggers. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but they should be based on something. More often than not I read articles written by journalists who actually claim they created an account and had a look around. Based on that they decide SL is only about getting laid or making Linden dollars. What about events like SL4B, beautifully crafted sims like Svarga, communities built around SL like, the vibrant blogsphere related to SL, the creativity of people posting in world pictures at Flickr, the friendships forged in world?!? That's the Second Life I've experienced and got to enjoy in the past 19 months.

Anyway, such sloppy journalism is not what I would expect from generally well respected magazines and newspapers. Honestly, I still have to read the first piece written by someone who has actually been in world for a decent amount of time. But maybe there is a glimmer of hope. Dutch writer and poet Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer has published a book about his adventures in SL. Born there in October last year as Lilith Lunardi (yes ladies and gentleman, sorry to burst your bubble but the big-boobed bombshell is a guy with a moustache) he has written a number of short pieces about SL that are now bundled into a book. I'm really curious to read it and to see if his take on things shows a bit more nuance. From the pictures of Lilith Lunardi on Flickr I'm afraid it might be more of the same but until I get my hands on the book he has the benefit of the doubt.