January 29, 2008

Book Review: Mikkel Aaland's Photoshop Lightroom Adventure

Mikkel Aaland's tutorial of Adobe's next generation digital photography application is called Photoshop Lightroom Adventure, and its a high-concept spin on a photography expedition to Iceland that resulted in a book.

The idea behind the expedition - Aaland's brainchild and sponsored primarily by Adobe - resulted in a team of photographers spending time in Iceland during summer. The idea was to shoot pictures and then bring them back for processing in Lightroom, thus unlocking its potential. The project also served as a test bed for the application - resulting in a number of tweaks and features that were incorporated into Lightroom eventually.

Aaland starts the book by introducing his team with pictures and thumbnail bios - this is a nice touch and allows you to get a feel for the virtual team of authors who provided material that went into the book.

As far as the book goes, its a fairly conventional tutorial - but the layout makes it stand out. Filled with colorful pictures on glossy paper, Lightroom Adventure is part coffee-table book, part technology tutorial. Its pages are divided horizontally into thirds: a third is devoted to text while the other two thirds are reserved for screen caps and photographs.

Its a format that is hugely engaging to read. Periodically Aaland will break with a two page splash of a particulary striking photograph shot by someone on the team. It is embellished with something personal about the photographer and the circumstances under which the picture was taken. The pictures may interrupt the flow but actually do a stellar job of integrating the book under the Icelandic Expedition theme.

Because all the pictures used by Aaland also have the same theme, they hold the tutorials together really well. Of course, it helps that the pictures themselves are gorgeous, taken by a highly competent and creative team of photographers.

This brings us to the intended audience of the book. In his forward Aaland identifies his audience as "Anyone...be they an amateur photographer or a professional". And here lies one of the problems with the book. There is coverage of a lot of complex photography (and digital photography) concepts. But they are skimmed over assuming the reader understands them.

In a section on digital sharpening, Aaland explains why the number 25 is the default for the sharpening amount. "Every RAW file is subject to a demosaicing algorithm that includes purposeful blurring. This blurring helps prevent color fringing by slightly blending adjacent pixels." Huh?

For the most part the sections are pretty crisp and engaging although there were times when a little more explanation would have clarified the picture, so to say. The section on sharpening, mentioned above, is outstanding in its balance of "how to" and "how does it work". But several other sections aren't as fortunate in their treatment.

The book also covers impressive ground in terms of exploring and explaining the features of a complex application. There is coverage of virtually everything you'd like to know about Lightroom - which pretty much encompasses all the recent advances in PC-based digital picture processing. Thus the book is also a really good tutorial of the subject as well.

The second half of the book contains a chapter called "Develop Recipes from Iceland" in which Aaland takes one cool treatment of a photograph and breaks it down step by step. This is the closest the book comes to in terms of helping you understand when to use the many slick features provided by Lightroom.

I closed the book having thoroughly enjoyed it, but also wishing the collective experience of the talented team had been harnessed to provide some invaluable tips on digital photography along with its processing in Lightroom.

You can try Adobe Lightroom for 30 days by downloading a copy from this location.

January 11, 2008

Book Review: Learning ASP.NET with Ajax

Built on top of the .NET framework, ASP.NET is Microsoft's flagship technology for building web applications. By tightly integrating it with Visual Studio, which remains the premier development IDE across all platforms, Microsoft has made ASP.NET a compelling technology.

The important thing to understand about O'Reilly's Learning ASP.NET 2.0 with AJAX is its guiding purpose. As stated in the preface: "What is the quickest way for me to build real web applications with the least handcoding?" In essence its a beginner's guide to ASP.NET and in that, it remains true to its purpose throughout the book.

Aligned to the purpose, the authors (Jess Liberty, Dan Hurwitz and Brian MacDonald) focus heavily on the tool used to build ASP.NET applications - Microsoft Visual Studio (or Visual Web Developer). All the code is in VB.NET. This bothered me a bit initially because I program primarily in C#, but while going through the book, I realized that this barely slowed me down in terms of understanding the code. In fact, translating some of the examples into C# was not only a breeze but kept my eyes from glazing over.

I'll get one more issue with the book out of the way: its treatment of Ajax is cursory, primarily coming in Chapter 3. And its tightly bound to its usability within Visual Studio. Given the goal of the book, this is fairly consistent because the authors resist digressing into a discourse of Ajax and instead stick to integrating Ajax into the overall ASP.NET tutorial.

This singularity of vision is the strength of this book and makes it a pleasure to read. It comes with some really good samples and code discussions, and it guides you through the major features of ASP.NET as exposed by Visual Studio. At some points I did long for some real-world discussions (what are the cons of using Master Pages, for example).

The book covers useful ground for beginners: there is a chapter on maintaining state, one on interacting with a database, another on errors and exceptions, yet another rather useful one on security and personalization. Again, because the book is a starter course in ASP.NET, the authors keep it light, expecting you to fill in the gaps yourself. Everything you learn in the book is tied together in the end in the final chapter where you read about building a basic commerce application. (The author's don't cross-reference material from individual chapters, however).

Learning ASP.NET with Ajax is an excellent text on table stakes ASP.NET. Its very well organized and contains a good balance of text, pop out tips and source code.

You can download ASP.NET here and the AJAX extensions here. Visual Web Developer, which is a web-centric version of Visual Studio, along with the .NET 2.0 framework is available for a free download here.