10 September 2009

There is no silver bullet, not even for photo editing

I acknowledged of being an ass in the past and I am ready to do it again: I have no problem being labeled as such after this story.

So I got a phone call from this person, let call her B, who gets to me every time when she got a computer problem. The conversation went something like that:

B: I need to cut something from a photo and replace the background with something else in Photoshop...
(note: she told me one she used to use Photoshop about 10 years ago)
N: OK, go to that GIMP software I installed on your laptop and showed you how to do things with it before... and open the photo in it.
B: Done
N: Now press that, that and that to make it transparent, so we can see trough the cut parts
B: Done
N: Then use the Scissors tool to select on the contour...
B: But is hard, the contour is very complicated, with hair and stuff...
N: Nobody said is easy, is not like in the movies, where you can do this in 2 clicks. Some work is needed
(note: I figured out telling her to use SIOX would be too much and, honestly, selecting the foreground with SIOX is far from perfect, it needs a lot of manual adjustments)
B: I can't manage this tool
N: Then you can use that Eraser tool and delete the unwanted background
N: But to make your work easier, use the Lasso tool, select and cut large parts of the background
B: But it is deleting all my image...
N: Because you do not close the selection, you must see the area bordered by a dotted line
B: I don't understand...
N: Then stay with the eraser. Here you can make it bigger or smaller to make your work faster or more precise.
B: OK. Now how I make the new background of a certain color?
N: Go to the Layer menu and Add a new layer
N: Go to the Layer dialog and move the new layer below the photo, they are like a stack and we want the photo on top
B: Where to go?
N: To the third window, the one which is not the photo or the tool box
B: I don't see that
N: Then go to the Windows menu, open Dockable dialogs and then Layers
B: I can see it now
(note: actually this step had a lot more questions and answers, but this was the essence)
N: go to the tool box, select whatever drawing color you want and then use the Bucket tool
B: Done
N: See, now when deleting from the photo you don't see the checked pattern any more, but the desired color
B: Ah, but I don't like the solid color, I want to use instead a picture downloaded from somewhere.
N: OK, this is getting a bit more complicated: you can add that picture as a new layer, but you must ensure both images are of the same size...
B: Ah, this is getting too much and too complicated, I thought is easier... I have lo leave the house in 45 minutes and still have to do some other things before that.
(note: I am so familiar with this excuse for a conversation end... it is second only to "someone is calling me on the other line")
N: It does not take much time if you know what you are doing, I can do that very fast.

And that was not all, it continued about a half hour later with another phone call:

B: I managed to do something in the end, made the background white
B: But I sent someone the file and he can't open the .png.xcf
N: Of course, you have to save it as .png or .jpg. Use Save as and type something.png or something.jpg ad the file name
B: But it is adding an .xcf automatically at the end...
N: Then look at the File type selector in that dialog and select something else. Save and send that.
B: Marvelous!

You thought that was all? Nope! One half hour later, yet another phone call:

B: How can I get Photoshop on my computer?
N: Easy: the license is about 600€.
(note: my mistake, actually here a license for Photoshop CS4 is more than that, B is not a student, so won't qualify for a discount)
B: But you can't install it from a disk or from somewhere?
(note: B is an artist, so should have a good understanding of the copyright)
N: Sure, the install CD, but that is the cost of the license.
B: Oh, then I'll forget about that, is out of question. I thought I can get it from somewhere.
(note: yeah, I am an ass, I understood the question perfectly but acted like didn't)

There was any point in this long and boring story with I am sure happened a lot of times to a lot of other people? Yes, there is no silver bullet with graphic editors, for the task at hand (replacing a background in a photo and then adding a little text), no matter what application do you use, be it Photoshop, Photoimpact, GIMP or something else, the technique is about the same, the steps are about the same, the amount of work is about the same.

PS: As the ass I am, right now I'm thinking: how about she spent the money on Photoshop and sicovered herself back to the square one, needing to do exactly the same work?

PPS: Do you want to hear a similar story from the day before when she was trying to do a tri-fold brochure in a word processor (OpenOffice.org)? ...good thing for me this does not happen that often, it was a punctual case since a big fair for NGOs is taking place this week-end in Bucharest.

PPPS: Of course it would have saved me a lot of time and stress if I just did the editing, but that is not a good policy. And I can't either say 'NO', since the request is half personal, half business (even if I gon't get money from it).


  1. I admire your patience. I myself get a lot of „Nothing is working” (really? nothing?) or „It won't let me do this” (what, is the program trapping your hands?).

    I do the same when people ask me for proprietary software. I think it's the right thing to do. Telling people to steal because no one really cares is not.

  2. I've wound up in a similar situation at work a few times. This is an academic computational biosciences lab with various image processing needs. All of the desktop systems run Fedora and I maintain the software setup. Every now and again people ask about how to do this or that in Gimp and what software to use instead of PowerPoint or Corel Draw. I explain and sometimes people get frustrated when the job requires more than two clicks of the mouse. A lot of the time the slightest difference in the UI makes people quit on Inkscape and go find a Windows machine with Corel Draw somewhere. A couple of times I've just responded to the people saying the they don't have time to learn how to do something, that that's ok, if you don't want to learn then maybe you're just not going to know how to do it. That made at least one person put in a real effort and she did become quite competent with Inkscape, very quickly I might add.