The Importance of Images
By Christopher Schmitt
In the early days of Web development, the only imaging tool available for creating quality GIFs was the GIF89 export plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. We've awakened to a world of choices in Web applications and new imaging tools geared specifically to Web delivery, like Ulead's PhotoImpact and GIF Animator. PhotoImpact is designed to help deliver your photos to the Web, and GIF Animator is a low-cost alternative to more expensive tools like Adobe's ImageReady and Macromedia's Fireworks.
Ulead's PhotoImpact is a complete Web-image editor with tools for component and background design, interactive rollovers and buttons, GIF animation (GIF Animator 3 comes bundled), and image optimization and slicing.
PhotoImpact's Component Designer lets you create Web graphics such as banners, 3D buttons, separators, icons, and bullets. You select a component, which works as a template, and modify the attributes until you get the look you want. You see your changes instantly, and can either save the component as is for further editing, or save it to Image Optimizer for file efficiency. The Background Designer works the same way, letting you choose from any combination of four schemas, 22 textures, and 23 background types.
GIF Animator 4.0
PhotoImpact 5.0: $79.95 box version; $74.95 download version; GIF Animator 4.0: $49.95 box version, $39.95 download version.
For adding image effects, the EasyPalette offers a wide range of galleries for styles, filters, frames, and more. For example, filter effects are easy to achieve with the Particle Gallery. All I had to do was click on the desired look. Other effects include fire and snow.
Figure 1 shows the various tools available to manage different image layers and objects.
While PhotoImpact provides robust color support, it has virtually no Web-safe color integration. I could work with the colors only if I mapped an image to the Web-safe palette. If you have a photorealistic image, this process isn't only limiting, but detrimental: All the image colors will be transferred to a Web-safe palette, which represses the other gradient colors. Similar imaging products have features that lessen such damage by moving colors that are near Web-safe values on a sliding scale. So, instead of forcing an image to accept only Web-safe colors, an image will contain its own adaptive palette. Granted, picking Web-safe RGB values isn't rocket science, but it would be helpful to beginnersand absent-minded design technologists like meif feature were automated in this program.
Also, while the documentation does provide enough direction to produce digital images, I found the user interface less intuitive than Photoshop or Freehand. In PhotoImpact I had to click through several dialog boxes to achieve effects I had already learned in other tools. Ulead needs to create a user interface that's on par with Adobe's if it hopes to maintain customer loyalty.
Despite these flaws, PhotoImpact does have the power to perform in the same small pond as some of its big-name competitors in the digital imaging field, and the price tag makes it a compelling choice.
Developers who use animation seem to opt for Flash technology rather than GIFs. Many prefer to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to use an animation-delivery system that requires a plug-in, or to take the "old school" route and tweak a GIF for animation. Personally, I opt for GIF animation over Flash when I'd like the site to be viewable by as many browsers as possible. It reduces headaches for everyone in the Web chain.
GIF Animator's real effectiveness is not in retouching frames but in post-production. Compared to that of PhotoImpact, the work environment in GIF Animator is laid out nicely, allowing easy access to different aspects of development with the new tab-style interface.
There's also a filmstrip view mode to view frames in true scale, with clear reference numbers. I could tweak GIF animations without getting befuddled, and easily amend timing of a sequence with the delay box. I just typed in the number of hundredths of seconds I wanted to delay until the next frame appeared, and then hit the preview tab. This program saves considerable time in the post-production process.
On the other hand, it was painstaking to move frames around to take them out of order or simply to reverse the order to try a new effect. To move a frame up or down, I had to select the frame and then click either an up or down arrow in the Attributes toolbar. Users should be able to click on the frame and drag it up and down the animation timeline, and drop the frame at the desired location.One nifty feature of GIFs is that you can append a comment tag that goes along with the image, usually hidden to the Web surfer. Some image editors append a comment tag along with the image's animation, like a GIF animation stating which product produced the image. Personally, I find this annoyingespecially after paying for the application and putting in the work to create the image. With GIF Animator you have the option of stripping other applications' (as well as the default GIF Animator's) comment tags from the final output. Coupled with the batch processing feature, you can add a copyright notice or a URL to each image easily.
Ulead makes powerful programs on the cheap. However, the programs' bulky user interfaces make them difficult to integrate into a Web-development workflow. On the other hand, if you're a Web developer strapped for cash, or you don't want to make a huge software investment but want to experiment with adding a quick splash, Ulead products are a good choice.
Christopher created the Web Design PadWeb-safe colors arranged in a color wheeland was the moving force behind the design magazine High Five (www.highfivearchive.com). Currently, he works for MindComet.com as a design technologist and production lead on various projects. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.