Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Digi-Scrap Tutorial: Hybrid Pages Using Picasa's Collage Tool

As I work through last year's scrapping backlog, I've come across a couple of places where I had a Ton of photos to fit on my page - 10 or 12 or even more.  I could see myself spending Hours not just scouring the web and my magazines for adaptable page maps to scraplift, but also simply doing the photo re-size and placement on the page.
Picasa's Collage tool to the rescue!
If you've played with Picasa to any great extent, you may have come across this fun little toy, hidden away under the "Create" menu.
Here are two sample pages I've created using this tool, followed by a brief run-down on how to create a collage

Pre-Requisites for this Tutorial

1. Working knowledge of  Google Picasa
2. Digital scrapbooking experience in a editor such as Photoshop Elements or Gimp

Creating a Collage in Picasa

1. In Library view, select the photos you wish to include in your collage.
2. From the "Create" menu, chose "Collage."
3. Decide which of the 6 collage styles you want to make, or try several.  Hint: I use the Mosaic and Picture Pile options almost exclusively.
Picasa automatically arranges your photos on the page for you based on the selected options.
Note that it also *crops* your photos as it sees fit - and sometimes you'll lose important parts.  Thankfully, you can edit the result substantially.
4. If you are making a Mosaic collage, use your mouse to drag and drop photos within the collage so that they trade places - i.e. to make sure your favorite photos are largest, or move a photo Picasa cropped and oriented as Landscape into a more appropriate Portrait slot, etc.
5. If you are making a Picture Pile collage, use your mouse to resize, rotate, and send photos forward or backwards as necessary.

OK, I'll step away for a 30 or 45 minutes now while you play with things.  Then I'll come back and answer your burning question:

"But how do I actually Use my beautiful collage on a scrapbook page!?"

Let's start with the simpler option, the Mosaic collage.
I'll assume you've followed the instructions above and come up with a Mosaic style collage you're happy with.
In order to use it on a page, the first thing you'll want to consider is aspect ratio - or, as it's called in the Collage tool, the Page Format.
I was making a two page spread, but wanted space above, below, and to the side for embellishment and journaling. So I created a custom 12x6 ratio - in other words, twice as long as it is high.  Note that I could just as easily called this a "2x1" ratio: Picasa *always* creates collages of the same width (5120 pixels) regardless of aspect ratio, meaning a 12x6 collage will have the same pixel count as a 1x2.
But I digress.  In any case, you can create a custom aspect ratio by scrolling to the bottom of the "Page Format" drop-down and choosing that option.

Note that I have also selected the "Draw Shadows" option.
But here's the real trick: the "Use Image" option under "Background Options."
This is a little non-intuitive, so bear with me.
1. Select "Use Image" from the Background Options dialog.
The background image automatically defaults to the image in your collage that is currently selected.  This, of course, is not what you want.
2. Near the top of the page, note the second table labeled "Clips."  Select it.
3. Now, click the "Get More" button.  You will be returned to the Library view.  Navigate through your image library until you find the background paper that you want to use.  Take your time: the collage isn't going anywhere!
Once you've found it, simply click the "Collage" tab that appears at the top of the screen next to the Library tag.
You should arrive back at your "Clips" menu, with your background paper appearing in your thumbnail set.

4. Here's the particularly non-intuitive part: Ensure that *only* your background paper is selected, then click the green "Plus" to add the image to your collage.
Yes, I know that you don't want it to appear like a photo in there: we'll take it back out, I promise!
5. Your background image will appear as a photo in your collage.  Click it to select it (an orange border will appear), and then click the "Set As Background" button at the top left.
Your "paper" will appear beneath your collage.
6. Now, click the undesired paper image in your collage again, and this time select "Remove."  It will disappear, and your collage will snap back into shape.
Take a close look: it probably moved some of your photos back to their original locations: you may need to drag and drop them around again.

Now you have a collage with a pretty background image.
At this point, it is as simple as
7. Click the "Create Collage" button.
Picasa will think for a while, and then your finished collage will appear in the library.
8. Now, simply open your collage in your favorite editor (Gimp or PSE for me!).
Resize it so it will fit on your page(s), and then create the rest of the page around it using your favorite techniques.
Of course, your collage is a single, simple layer, a fact you will no doubt find limiting before you finish adding embellishments, titles, and text.  Be patient with yourself: eventually you'll learn to plan ahead for these things.
Keep in mind that you can always go back to your collage in Picasa, edit it as desired, save it, and bring it back into your editor.  I've done this plenty of times.

Taking It a Step Further: a Picture Pile on a Multi-Layered Page

Let's refer back to my second example

I like the "Picture Pile" collage style quite a bit, but have found it even more difficult to work with when building a finished page.  My primary difficulty is in getting the page to look "balanced:" I never seemed to leave gaps in my collage in just the right places for my title and journaling, leading to a lop-sided look.
Here's an option for working around this.

1. First, use your editor of choice (today I used PSE) to create your background, title, and even your journaling.  In other words, this part:

2. Save your page as a 3600 px file in JPG format.
3. Now, create your Picture Pile collage in Picasa, making sure to chose the Square page format
4. Use your page image as the background! Now you can see exactly where your photos will fit: you can even make them overlap your journaling card, title, or etc.

5. Save your collage, and then bring it Back into your editor.
Add your embellishments (staples, flags, flowers, etc.) and save once more.

While there are certainly a lot of steps involved here, I am sure you'll find that after doing it a couple of times, you'll be spending much less time using this method than laboriously inserting that many photos one-at-a-time in your editor.

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pattern Pegs

Another Toddler Toys post for your today.
A few weeks ago, I came across a pin linking me to a fun looking Pound-A-Pattern toy.  The pinner had helpfully noted that this toy consisted essentially of a piece of foam, a toy hammer, and golf tees.  I was inspired!  (Even though my kid is only 3, not the "8 and up with adult supervision" suggested on the product page!)

Here's how I made an equivalent


  • Plastic Hammer (on hand) 
  • Colored wooden golf tees ($5 for 100 on eBay: I expect you could get a smaller package for less at the local sports shop) 
  • Two 7x3x3 green floral foam blocks (Dollar Tree, $1/ea) 
  • Brownie Pan at least 8x8 to contain the mess (Dollar Tree) 
  • Number dot templates (free download from this link; find lots more dot templates linked here)
  • Laminator (technically optional, but not if you want to reuse your templates!) 
  • A very long handled hole punch, or equivalent - I have a punch you use with a mat and a hammer
  • Duct tape 
Putting it Together
I printed out my number templates, cut them apart, added some color with markers (I don't have a color printer!), and then laminated them.  I then used my punch to put a hole in each dot. Again, my standard squeeze hole-punch wasn't long enough to reach everything, so I had to use my hammer punch.  (An older child might be able to use the tees to punch right through unlaminated paper, if you want to save yourself that step. I don't think my kid could manage it, though.)  

I considered using glue to attach the two foam blocks, but my 3-year-old was really excited to get started, and besides, I hate glue!  So I used a couple of loops of duct tape.  Not perfect, but good enough. 
Immediately recognizing how crumbly the foam is, I popped the whole thing in a Dollar Tree brownie pan - which has the added advantage of containing the golf tee "nails."

Play Testing 
My 3-year-old Loves it!  He immediately got the idea of using the hammer to pound in the golf tees, and worked through 6 or 7 numbers on his first session.  He's starting to recognize them and also count, so this was really a good learning activity.  

Of course, I really don't want golf tees scattered about the house, and frankly he's not quite responsible enough with the hammer to let him have access to it full time either, so this will remain a supervised activity for the foreseeable future. And certainly the blocks won't last forever before they're too holey.  But I am sure we can rotate through all four surfaces, and they're not terribly expensive after we've done that.  Some sorts of packaging Styrofoam may be a reasonable - and free - substitute.  

I am considering creating some more punched templates with pictures and shapes - see links above for a good list of resources.  Just be prepared to use an image editor (like Gimp, free) to resize anything originally made for pom-poms so they'll fit on the 6x7 play surface.

By the way, last week I put together a pom-pom activity very similar to the one described here on Sew Fantastic, and both the 2-year-old and the 3-year-old love it! 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Digital Scrapbooking: Asset Management

Managing Your Digi-Scrap Supplies

It's been a very long time since I've blogged about digital scrapbooking, so I hope you will all find this post about managing your scrap supplies helpful!
By the way, if you've read my original series on "How To Digi-Scrap For Free, (Or Very Nearly)," this article should be considered a supplement to Article #3 (see links in left sidebar.)

In this article I will cover how I store scrapping supplies on my hard drive, and then review two programs: Picasa (free), and ACDC (commercial) as potential solutions to the supply management problem

The Problem

If you've downloaded a good sized collection of scrapbooking supplies, it probably won't take you long to realize that actually Finding what you need to complete (or even start) a scrapbook page can be a real challenge.  As your collection grows, the problem grows with it.  You Know you've got a great stitched frame that would be Perfect for your page, but where in the world is it?  Was it from Shabby Princess? Maybe ScrapCop or My Dreams Fulfilled?  And what about that cute pink heart-shaped button? Was that in a Design House Digital kit? You could be wasting half your time just looking for stuff.

"Physical" Storage Strategies 

Being rigorous and disciplined in how you store your scrapbooking kits on your hard drive is part of the solution, but it will only get you so far.
However, if you'll allow a brief diversion, I will describe how I store mine as my strategy has evolved over the past few years.
I initially established a single master sub-directory to hold all of my scrapbook kits.  Initially I dumped everything into this directory in sub-folders that merely contained the name of the kit.  After some time, I realized that my scrapping style was evolving even as my collection became more unwieldy.  Some kits were never used as they no longer reflected my current style, and created clutter in my collection. I also discovered that in many cases I could remember the name of the designer (or shop) from which I'd downloaded a certain page kit or set of papers more easily than the fairly arbitrary collection title. So, I added add another layer of folders: specifically the name of the shop or designer. Eventually I ended up with something that looks a little like this:

   - DesignHouseDigital
      - Kit 1
      - Kit 2
  - Shabby Princess

      - Kit 1
      - Kit 2
   - etc

Of course, browsing your kits through the Windows Explorer remains tedious to say the least, but good organization at this level still help.  

What you really need, though, is a program capable of assigning tags or keywords in addition to browsing your collection by basic folder structure.  Thankfully, there are options out there - some of them free! 

Free Option: Picasa 3

Let me start by saying that Picasa 3 is a fantastic photo manager, with a wealth of tools for doing basic edits, face tagging, and creating collections.  I use it daily for my photography.  
However, as a digital asset manager (industry speak for what we're attempting to accomplish here!), it has some serious shortcomings. 
First, its internal organization is 100% date based.  The underlying folder structure is completely flattened, with only "leaf" folders displayed, and these entirely by creation date.  
This is, as I mentioned, great for photos, which are inherently date-connected objects.  But it is darn near useless for scrapbooking supplies. 
I immediately found it annoying to have all my folders full of papers and whatnot randomly intermixed with my pictures of the kids, simply because the designer had created her collection of Thanksgiving papers about the same time my youngest was taking her first steps.  

Second, and frankly even more damning, Picasa does not support the PNG format.  In case you haven't noticed, approximately 95% of all digital embellishments - your buttons, lace, flowers, and whatnot - are PNGs.  These will not appear in Picasa, period.  Where it not for digital designers' habit of creating "contact sheets" (or preview images) of their collections, Picasa would be entirely unusable for management of anything but paper, which is nearly always in JPG format.  

Balancing these weaknesses, Picasa has a very good search function (which makes sense for something published by Google!), plus fields for entering keywords or captions.  So if you're willing to go with some kludges, you Can make it a "good enough" solution. 


The first thing I wanted to do was get the scrap kits out of the way of my photos, and all grouped together so I could scroll through them quickly without being distracted by cute kids. 
Thankfully, Picasa allows you to change the date on a folder. I arbitrarily chose to set the year field to 2005 for all my scrap kits, since that happens to be well before I have any photos on my hard drive. 
To change the date, double click the name of the folder or its icon, where the red circle indicates above.

And now, while you're in the pop-up dialog, you can  implement my second workaround. In the "description" field, I enter a number of keywords - colors, shapes, patterns, and (when applicable) some of the more useful embellishments that are stored in the same folder - for instance, stitching, buttons, staples, or etc. Remember you cannot See these embellishments individually in Picasa since they are PNG format, but you can check out the kit's contact sheet to see what's in there.  
Filling in the "Description" field creates an ersatz keyword, or Tag, set, which can be searched (more or less) using Picasa's built in tool as shown above. 

You can take this labeling a step further by taking advantage of the "caption" field on an individual image.  (Double-click to view the image at large size in the Picasa window.)  This field too is returned in searches, and it might be especially useful to use it on the contact sheets in an individual collection to label embellishments 

The search function also returns file and folder names, which is useful if you've ensured that the designer / shop is included in the folder name.  I find myself using this search method frequently.  

Please note that Picasa also supports the concept of Tags. These are Individual key words that may be applied to images or sets of images.  Again, they're returned in searches. To find the Tag function, look under the "View" menu and choose "Tags" from the drop-down.  You could create an entire set of tags for color, shape, pattern, element type, etc, and apply them to individual images.  To a certain extent, Picasa will even help you keep the tags straight and save you some typing by putting your most recently used tags on buttons (labeled "Quick Tags") you can click while your image(s) are selected in the Library view. 

I've never gotten into using tags. While there are obvious advantages over my folder description or image caption kludges, applying them is Much Slower. Many more clicks involved, and you're still prevented from creating a static and hierarchical set of keywords.  I eventually decided that the return on time investment was insufficient.  

Taken together, these workarounds bring Picasa from "essentially useless" to "good enough to limp along" for asset management. However, it's not great. While it can easily locate (for instance) all of your Shabby Princess kits, it's not going to (easily) solve your problem of "where is that white, heart-shaped button I used a week ago?" 

Enter our non-free tool... 

Commercial Option: ACDSee 15  (~$25) 

A recent hard drive disaster wiped out a good deal of my Picasa scrapbooking organization, and I decided that time was ripe to look into a tool a little more intentionally designed for managing non-photographic images.  A little research lead me to ACDSee 15, which I remember from its earlier (and free-er!) days a decade ago.  

A disclaimer: I've only been using the program a week or two so far and have by no means explored its entire capabilities.  There may be better ways to accomplish some of my goals.  But here's what I've found so far. 

Right up front, ACDSee eliminates two of Picasa's weaknesses.  First, its default organization in its browser reflects the underlying Windows file structure, with all branches and leaves intact.  So you benefit immediately from all your discipline in where your supplies are stored: if you didn't mix them all up with your photos, ACDSee won't do it for you.
Secondly, it supports PNG files!  You can actually See thumbnails of your buttons, staples, journal cards, and stickers.  
ACDSee supports a whole host of labeling possibilities, including ratings (1-5 stars instead of Picasa's binary star system.  Heh heh: little geek humor for you there!), categories (People, Places, etc.), Labels (the defaults are colors), Tags, and Keywords. I messed with Labels for a while, hoping maybe there some was built in logic to recognize the primary color in a file, but I didn't get far.  And once again I am skipping Tags.  Instead, I have gravitated to Keywords. 
What I immediately liked was that the program allowed me to create a hierarchical sets of arbitrary Keywords - in other words, something very much like a Windows File Structure - and then drag and drop any one to an image or set of images.  

How you set up your keywords is entirely up to you. I chose to go the deepest - and add the most detail - with papers, because they are the foundation of a page. So I have color family in addition to color, patterns (with several sub-categories), grunge and overlay options, etc, etc. I don't always use all possible labels on a given paper - I may not always use the color family options, for instance, or all possible colors on a multi-colored item.  Frankly I'm being a bit random about it, but in general I think I am adding enough info that I will probably be able to find what I am looking for - if not a specific paper, then at least its collection. 
And that's what really counts most of the time (in my experience) when it comes to paper: finding the Collection or Kit that it belongs to.  It's not that I never mix and match papers from different kits, but it's the exception rather than the rule.  And I'm trying to support the exceptions by going deeper in certain categories - for instance, it is 2-3x more likely that I will use a piece of neutral, kraft, or white paper from a different kit than the rest of the page's papers, so I added several keywords to describe those papers and am being extra careful about applying them.  

I am Not going to the trouble of labeling colors on things like fasteners (which I divided into brads, buttons, staples, etc.) or stickers or word art.  First of all, it's a ton of effort.  Secondly, it's mostly unnecessary. There are fewer of these items than the papers, and I think I can scan through a set of "all possible buttons" without needing to narrow it down further.  Secondly, you can change colors on these items much easier than papers!  

The best part is that if I change my mind on this later, I can go back and fix it without starting over.  You can drag and drop keywords from one level to another, rename them, and etc.  I've already done this frequently as I've explored my collection.  

Does ACDSee have some weaknesses?  Sure.  One that immediately pops to mind is that there does not appear to be a way (at least an obvious one) to take an image and find out which keywords are applied to it. This is a bit annoying.  But So far I am quite happy with this solution overall.  It is unquestionably more labor intensive than the Picasa kludge, but - and this is a big deal for me - I can finally see a Whole Bunch of Ribbons from a Whole Bunch of Kits all in the Same Place!  No more poking through folders, trying to remember which designer or shop, etc, etc. 

I am rating this program "worth the money."  

Conspicuous by its Absence: Photoshop Elements Organizer 

If, like me, you're a Photoshop Elements user, you might have noticed that I didn't mention its Organizer as one of the options I'd tried out for supply management.  
In fact, I did try. I was quite excited about it when I got the program a year or so ago, because it seemed to promise what ACDSee has delivered.  Unfortunately, I found it all but impossible to use.  On top of a mystifying interface that is convinced that It (and only It) knows exactly what I want to see at any time, it is Ridiculously Slow.  If you can actually convince it to scan through a certain directory, you might as well go get yourself a cup of coffee while you wait for the thumbnails to load.  On top of that, I had a bunch of directories get deleted that were on Organizer's "watch list."  But they didn't disappear from Organizer!  They were still there, as ghosts, and I couldn't figure out how to get it to refresh and make 'em go away.  
So I gave up.  

In conclusion, 

The free option, Picasa 3, was good enough for me for the better part of three years, but its weaknesses eventually built up to the point that I was willing to spring for a commercial product, ACDSee 15.  There are other commercial products on the market that will probably get you to the same place - Lightroom is another one I've seen mentioned - but I am not convinced that you can get a really good solution for free.