Making of a Christmas Card, 2020

This year’s card ended up being relatively simple, though it didn’t start that way.

I started work during the weekend after Thanksgiving. My initial thought was that I would start with a picture of snow covered trees at the golf course I’d taken last winter while cross-country skiing:

Ponkapoag Golf Course under snow. Taken while cross-country skiing
Original picture, taken last February

So, I started the whole day to night conversion, converting it to a blue-ish duotone, then adding a couple of gradient layers on top to darken the sky. Then I draped lights over the trees. I was looking for a Boston Common type look:

Scene converted to night, or at least dusk.
Converted image

The problem was, it just wasn’t working for me. The lights weren’t tied properly to the trees, and it all felt very static. They didn’t look like real trees with lights, and the light on the snow wasn’t tied in well. I suppose I could have made it work, but I’ve done this several times before:

(I think the 2008 and 2009 cards worked well, and the 2015 card was a swing and a miss.)

So I decided to start over, and found this image I’d taken with the phone of an ornament on last year’s tree:

Glass Bell ornament
Original picture.

Changes were minimal this time. I darkened down the light, and made it greener, as it was printing a blue. I blurred the background a little to give better separation, made the bell a little more vibrant, and may have sharpened the foreground a little — I don’t remember.

This year, I decided to invite Mum to join me on cards sent to people we both knew. I knew she would want to send out cards to a few people, but I also knew it would be difficult for her. So I set up a card interior with text from both of us. I ended up saying something to the effect that we wished we could see people, but that COVID was making it impossible. For people my mother doesn’t know, I made a separate revision of the text to something more appropriate.

The night before, I printed a bunch of outsides, then put the cards back in the printer and ran off the shared insides, then came downstairs and set up an assembly line in the dining room. I would sign each card, often times with a note, then hand it off to her for signature and sometimes a note.

Overall, I’m pleased with this card, though I think they would have turned out better with different card stock — all Staples had was embossed stock, and it simply doesn’t print as well. Something to remember for next year.

2020 Christmas Card - Glass bell ornament with the words "Merry Christmas"
Finished card

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The Christmas That Isn’t

It’s Christmastime… but it isn’t. Not with COVID it isn’t.

Normally we would have a big family get-together Christmas Eve. Not this year. Last year, we weren’t able to, with Mum in rehab for her strokes. I was really hoping at the beginning of the year that we could have our get-together again this year. Nope. We’re going to have to content ourselves with video calls this year. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it in 2021.

We’ve gone up to Rockport most years for the past several years, to shop the stores on Bearskin Neck, and see the decorations. Mum was very fond of the Christmas pageant, because it was a re-enactment of the Nativity. Even if we wanted to take the risk, it’s just not feasible this year.

I’ve gone Christmas shopping every year since I was in college. This year, I ordered a couple of things off Amazon, and that was it. (To be fair, most of this is due to the fact that none of the nephews and nieces are little anymore, and most of my siblings agreed long ago not to do packages.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a tree this year. I’m frankly not feeling it much this year, and I was concerned about laying out the living room — Mum now spends most of the day in her chair in the living room, and whatever I did, I would need to ensure that there was room for the chair and room for her to maneuver with the walker.

Most years, I like to make an occasion of putting up the tree, but not this year. I was also aware that I’d be doing most of the work of putting it up and taking it down. In the end, Mum wanted one, and I realized I did too, so I picked up a relatively narrow tree.

As it happened, there was a gash in the bark about 4 inches from the bottom. We had this a couple of years ago, and ended up with a tree that dried out pretty rapidly, so this year, I made a new cut above the gash, and cut off the lower branches. This had the benefit of making the tree smaller overall — both narrower, and shorter. I was able to use two fewer strings of lights. This meant I was able to skip the older LED lights I’ve been using for the past couple of years. My first set of LED lights were too blue for my taste; eventually, I found a couple of strings of warmer colored LED lights that I like much better. With only the warm LEDs and one string of mini-incandescent lights, this year’s tree is much more pleasing to me. And I was able to fit the angel on the top easily for the first time this year.

Christmas tree and Mum
Christmas tree and Mum

Even though it’s smaller, it’s still a pretty nice tree. And there’s still room for Mum next to it.

Making of a Christmas Card, 2019

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a Christmas card this year, with everything that’s going on. But at one point, Mum indicated she would like to join my card (she later changed her mind), so I started looking though my photo library to see if I had anything suitable. I knew that even more than most years, I did not have the spare time to devote a lot of time to cards. Fortunately, I was able to spend some time on them Thanksgiving weekend.

I quickly zeroed in on a picture I took at First Night last year of Boston’s 2018 Christmas tree. I would have liked a scene with snow, but this picture was decently framed, didn’t have any passers-by standing in front of it, and I felt that with a few simple enhancements, it would do.

Boston’s 2018 Christmas Tree, at First Night 2019

It was pretty simple. Unlike most years, I didn’t use Photoshop, as my ancient copy of Photoshop CS 5 has given up the ghost, so I used Pixelmator Pro. I cropped the photo, to change the aspect ratio to 4:5 and to get rid of most of the empty foreground. Then I added a translucent layer over the tree, and blurred it slightly, to lend a glow to the lights. Finally, I added another blur layer over the remaining foreground, to make the texture of the dirt a little less obvious. I briefly considered adding snow, but realized that it would take several hours that I don’t have this year.

I then moved to Pages. I used to lay out my cards laboriously in Illustrator, but then macOS dropped support for PowerPC software (I detect a theme) and I wasn’t able to use it anymore, so several years ago, I looked into Apple’s Pages, and found it had a built in template for quarter-fold cards.

(Aside: I like both Illustrator and Photoshop, but I don’t use them enough to justify keeping them up-to-date, and I don’t like Adobe’s pricing model of charging an ongoing subscription, so I’ve had to find substitutes. I use Illustrator so little that it hasn’t been a problem, but I do miss having Photoshop available.)

I started by duping my 2016 card, which was also a vertical photograph. I removed the old photo, added the new one, and then chose a different font and text treatment for the text.

The inside was the harder issue this year. My normal holiday greeting didn’t seem right this year, but how much to say about Mum? I ended up with three versions this year — blank, with a hand-written note, and two versions that addressed her stroke, with one version being a little more personal for recipients who know her themselves.

For card stock, I went back to quarter fold card stock this year. I hadn’t liked the half-fold cards last year, and besides, the quarter-fold cards print faster, since you get two per sheet. This year, all Staples had when I picked it up was textured paper. I liked the feel of it, but it lowered the contrast of the photo. But I didn’t have time to go chasing around for plain stock, or to order some online, so the textured stock it was.

I’d accidentally forgotten one of my old friends last year (Hi Trixi!) , and she asked me about it when I saw her this spring, so I made sure she got card #1 this year.

Fortunately, the printer behaved itself this year, and I was able to manufacture the cards relatively simply and without too much waste, and was able to get them out without too much trouble.

Finished 2019 card

Merry Christmas everyone.

This Year’s Tree

2017 Christmas tree

2017 Christmas tree

I got this year’s Christmas tree relatively early. We were expecting rain and snow later in the week, and I figured most of the trees for sale this year had already been cut anyway. So one day in the first week of December, I went over to  the garden center to pick up a tree. I found this one, well shaped and thick, and brought it home, and set it in a pan of water out in the garage for a couple of days. The person at the garden center put a fresh cut on the end. Continue reading

Making of a Christmas Card, 2017

I’m not exactly sure where the idea for this year’s Christmas card came from. I started mulling it over in late November. Last year’s Snow Globe was easy and successful, but I wanted something more than just a picture of a Christmas decoration. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a scenic, but I couldn’t think of anything in my library that would suit. Finally, I remembered the tradition of leaving a snack out for Santa, and everything fell into place. I’d imply a scene of Santa relaxing, taking off his hat, having a sip of his milk, and taking a bite out of his cookies. The actual scene would be the hat, the milk, and the cookies. Once I had the idea, it simply became a matter of shooting it.

I tried two different approaches. The first was on a small table from the living room, shot in the arch between the dining and living rooms, with the dark living room behind the scene. I chose that spot because I could bounce flash off the white dining room ceiling. The second approach was to use the same table top studio that I used for the snow globe last year.

I placed the table and scene in the arch, and then started shooting without the flash, to just get a sense of how to frame the scene, and place the items in it. Then I put some milk in the glass, added some cookies to the plate, attached the flash, and started shooting. Once I finished, I set up the table top studio, placed the scene inside it, and took some more pictures.  After a few shots, I decided the hat needed to be a little “peakier” and placed a can inside to make it stand up some. After shooting some more scenes, it was time to see what I’d gotten.

They weren’t good.

Truth be told, I actually liked the very first, test shot I took best.

The very first shot

I liked the clean look of this frame, and the “Old Master” feel of the existing light and dark background. In addition, I decided I liked the original placement of the hat best. Unfortunately, this frame was handheld, so there is motion blur, and it’s a test shot, so I hadn’t placed the milk or cookies yet.

I reshot it the next night. This time, I didn’t bother with the flash; instead, I used the tripod. I tried to replicate the look of the hat, used a nicer glass for the milk, (after taking a sip of it) and a more festive plate. This time, I came up with a shot I was happy with:

I then took the picture into Photoshop for some relatively minor modifications. Because of the existing light, the milk and plate were kind of yellowy-green. The inner part of the hat needed to be lightened up. And finally, I noticed that the top of the table had some scratches in it; after all the dust and scratches I’ve retouched out of slides, fixing the table was a piece of cake. Finally, I added a rough, deckle edged mask to the edges of the picture.

I then took the picture into Pages. I made a copy of last year’s card layout, placed the picture into it; and experimented with the placement and font of the text.

For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me before to see if this printer supported two-sided printing, so I’d been in the habit of using two layouts, and running them in batches. This year, the light bulb went off; I checked, and sure enough, the printer supports it. So I changed the card layout to two pages and ran them off two-sided. When I think of all the years I spent feeding card stock sheet by sheet into a balky printer, this was so quick and easy.

2017 Christmas Card

Merry Christmas everyone.

Absent Friends

Christmas is a time to get together with friends and family, but it’s also a time to remember those who aren’t with us anymore.  My brother was showing some old videos from 19 years ago, and it was striking how many of those people aren’t with us anymore.

I miss my Dad. I miss his picking out the perfect Christmas tree, and how he’d play the piano downstairs. It’s been mostly silent since he died.

I miss Grandma. She always reminded me of Miss Marple, all white haired and fluffy, but always wanting to be part of things. Whenever she came for Christmas Eve, my uncle (from the other side of the family) would always flirt outrageously with her, and she’d lap it up.

I miss Fran, the neighbor from across the street. She had been a friend of my mother’s mother, then a friend of my mother’s, then a friend of the family. Opinionated, no-nonsense, but had a great sense of humor; we called her “Auntie” and she was, except for the DNA.

I miss Anne and Bob. Anne was the fun aunt of all my aunts, the one most likely to play with her nephews and nieces. It took a while for her husband Bob to grow on the family, but grow he did; he stuck by Anne by thick and thin.

I miss Dot. She was the widow of the uncle I never knew, and the mother of the cousin who died as a teenager. In spite of all that, she was fun to be around. She had a great sense of humor, and a funny, very plainspoken way of expressing herself. She seldom filtered herself, even when she probably should have. She was a great companion for my mother.

I miss my Aunt Sandy, my mother’s older sister. She too had a great sense of humor. She was very much a gourmet cook, with adventurous tastes, and my Dad and I used to joke about how she was going to be serving “Roast Platypus” for dinner sometime.

Then there are the friends, who are still with us, but literally absent for the evening: brother Tom, Kip and Joanna, Chrissie, and my two sisters, who I’ll be seeing next weekend.

Christmases are like a long running play; older members leave, and new members join the cast. My nephews and nieces are now young adults, as are my cousin’s kids. Over time, the play continues, but the cast evolves.

But here’s to absent friends.

 

Making of a Christmas Card, 2016

This year was a bit unusual in that I actually had two competing ideas for a card, and I was able to do them with a minimum of stress. The first idea was to get some pictures of Christmas lights at night, and I actually brought the tripod with me into work, and went out shooting afterwards at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I did get some good stuff there, but in the end, I decided to go with my second idea.

I’d gotten a “Table Top Studio” kit the previous Christmas. Essentially, it’s a small square tent with white nylon sides to soften the light coming from the included pair of quartz lights. It came with four backgrounds: red, white, blue and black, and I decided to pick up a small snow globe and photograph it.

My initial thought was to use the red background, because red’s a Christmas color. I shot a number of frames. The snow globe lights up and has a small impeller to stir up the glitter inside, so I shot a a number of pictures with the globe both on and off.

I found that the moving glitter didn’t really read as glitter (or snow) but rather as noise.

I also decided, more or less for the heck of it, to try it with the white and black backgrounds:

I found I really didn’t like the black ones at all, and the white ones were underexposed and the white background was wrinkled, so I decided to shoot a few more with more exposure. I also got the idea to hide the bottom of the background with some fluffy cotton, to make it look more like snow. I shot both red and white versions:

The cotton balls in both are a little too obvious, but I figured that would be easy to fix in Photoshop. The red one was more in line with my original conception of the shot, but there was something about the white one that I liked. The red one was a little cleaner; the white one had some color casts that needed cleaning up. The snowmen in the white one were a little easier to read, and the reflections of the lights on the globe were a little less prominent on that one too. It would also take less ink to print. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to go with the white one, and took it into Photoshop.

All these steps took a lot less time than it usually does. The photography took maybe 45 minutes, and I had the Photoshop work done in less than an hour.

Next, I imported the picture into the card template in Pages. This was a little ticklish since I had to rotate everything 90°, because the template is designed for horizontal pictures. For the text, I used Museo Slab, the same font I use here for headings. I ended up choosing golden text with red rules above and below.

All in all, pretty simple, but I’m pleased with the result, more so than I was with last year’s card.

Final Result

Final Result

Merry Christmas everyone.

The Perfect Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

We just finished putting up the Christmas tree. It’s always a lot of work, and it’s always nice to bask in the glow of the lights when it’s done. This year’s tree isn’t perfect, but it is pretty nice.

I remember growing up, my Dad always picked out the family tree, and he had a well earned reputation for picking out a Perfect Tree. Our trees were always much nicer than the Charlie Brown trees my cousins had.

So when he died, my two brothers and I all felt strongly that we had to live up to his reputation, and none of us was willing to cede responsibility for getting the tree to the others. So off we went, the Three Wise Men — or is it the Three Stooges? on a bitterly cold December day to find The Perfect Tree. It took forever, because of course, there is no such thing, and even less so 36 years ago when shaped trees were less common. It took nearly an hour for the three of us to agree on one. It was a great tree though.

Nowadays, it’s just me. I still like to get a nicely shaped tree, but it’s easier now, because trees are more likely to be nicely shaped, and I have less enthusiasm for standing around a windswept tree lot trying to find The Perfect Tree. But every time, I always think of Dad.

Making of a Christmas Card, 2015

I was really of two minds as to whether I wanted to make a card this year. For some reason, perhaps the weather, perhaps the compressed calendar this year, I really wasn’t feeling it. Still, I spent some time going through my photo library to see if I could come up with some ideas, and quickly zeroed in on a series of pictures I took out in Colorado five years ago after a snowstorm. I wanted a picture with evergreen trees that were Christmas tree shaped, and decided I would transform it to a night scene, and ‘decorate’ the trees with lights. I decided to go with this picture, taken in the Arapaho State Forest, as we traveled from Breckinridge to Canon City: Continue reading