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Review: Photodex ProShow Producer and "Official Photodex Guide to ProShow"

By Ron Eggers

Photodex ProShow Producer professional presentation software is easy to learn, simple to use, and contains an extensive feature set that's not readily available in other software packages. While Microsoft PowerPoint still leads the pack for creating business presentations, Producer has become a favorite among professional photographers for their needs. That's particularly the case since the company wisely dropped the necessity for a USB dongle to load and run the program.
The Official Photodex Guide to ProShow

To help users get the most out of the program, Course Technology just released “The Official Photodex Guide to ProShow.” Written by James Karney, the book aims to help users master the art of making great slide shows using ProShow Gold and ProShow Producer. This review covers both the performance of the software and the effectiveness of the book as a guide for users.

As Karney explains in Chapter 1, "The simple slide show is a thing of the past. Viewers expect sizzle. Movies, television and even our cell phones and MP3 players bring high-quality video and eye-catching special effects into every aspect of our lives." One of the things that makes Producer powerful is that it can produce output for almost every type of presentation and communications device. The book ships with an instructional CD that includes individual sections for each chapter, as well as trial versions of ProShow Gold and Producer, and the Photodex Presenter plug-in.

To get the most of the book, and the program, open the program and start from the beginning of the book and work your way through it, page-by-page, chapter by chapter. Producer opens with the main interface screen, which is used to bring items into a show, arrange their order and access individual menu items. Most of the other detailed work, such as optimizing images, adding motion effects and non-image content (such as text and audio clips) is handled in separate windows. Individual concepts and controls are explained in considerable detail.

Images, referred to as slides when they're added to a presentation, are the primary presentation elements. The images aren't actually imported into the program, nor are they modified by any of the actions in Producer. Rather, the book terms it as "borrowing" the images and other multimedia files, which means that they have to remain accessible to the program until the final presentation is rendered. Once the presentation is complete and compiled, the images and other presentation elements no longer have to be available to view the show.

Karney suggests you place all the files that are going to be used into a separate folder to simplify the process. Drag and drop the images into the Slide List strip near the bottom of the screen. You can re-arranged the slides, add additional images and blank slides, and assign the duration that each slides stays on the screen.

Click on a slide to access the Slide Options window, which contains eight creative choices. These include Layers, Editing, Effects, Motion, Captions, Caption Motion, Sounds and Background. Each option brings up the appropriate editing screen. It's possible to control brightness and contrast, add special effects like motion and scaling, reduce saturation or enhance color, and modify the opacity to individual slides. Each of those modifications is covered in considerable detail in the book.

One of the choices that should be available in the different Slide Options screens is the ability to cancel out of the screen without applying the changes. The only choice available in the eight Slide Options windows is Done. Even closing the Edit window without selecting Done applies the changes. That means you either have to apply whatever changes you made, revert all the individual settings you made, or delete the specific slide and re-import the image. It would be much better if there were an easier way to experiment with different settings and then opt out.

Producer is also very strong at working with text, and Karney does a good job explaining how text elements integrate with the images. The chapter on captioning includes the basics of font selection, sizing and positioning, as well as using multiple creative fonts and blending text and motion.

One of the fundamentals of Producer is Keyframing, the points of reference that tell Producer how to build an effect. It is an essential concept to getting the most out of the program, and the book. By setting specific starting and ending points for design elements within a presentation slide, Keyframing, in effect, disassociates the timing of those creative contents with the duration of the slide on the screen. Each element within a frame can be assigned its own keyframing timeline.

Three full chapters are devoted to it. The first, Chapter 6, defines the concept and shows how it applies to text and working with typography. Karney starts with covering keyframing for captions because it's a little easier to comprehend some of the concepts when first starting out.

Chapter 7 relates keyframing to advanced motion effects while Chapter 8 explains keyframing for editing effects. It's possible to set an image so that the editing adjustments or special effects are progressively applied as the slide is being displayed. Both motion effects and editing effects can be applied to the same slide, for the potential of very creative results. Chapter 8 covers that thoroughly.

Layer support significantly expands creative possibilities. As in Photoshop, Producer layers are overlaid onto individual images. They are covered fully in Chapter 9. Layers can hold images, video clips, gradient fills and text captions. Getting the most out of layers takes a little time. Techniques like masking, to hide portions of a lower layer; vignetting, to control the shape and transparency of a layer's edge; and chromakeying, to make specific colors in a layer transparent, take practice to master.

Finishing working with the individual slides doesn't mean you're finished with the presentation. Individual slides are separated by a transitional effect. There are some 280 different transitional effects and variations that can be inserted. Some are very subtle. Some are more dramatic. Each transition is assigned a duration that it stays on the screen.

Another step is adding a sound track to the presentation. That's actually covered much earlier in the book, Chapter 4, as Karney is discussing the basic capabilities of the program. But it's generally the last step in compiling a presentation. The durations of the individual slides and transitions have to be set to integrate the audio track effectively.

Hitting the Tab key when the cursor is below the slide strip brings up the Audio Editor. There are several audio options available, including working with CDs, MP3s and user-recorded voice-over.

Audio files can be added, deleted and previewed in a Show Option window. They can also be modified and trimmed, as well as to do things like fade in and fade out tracks and synchronize the audio to the slides. There are master controls that apply to all the audio, and there are commands that can be applied to individual audio clips. But audio editing capabilities are limited. A full audio editor is required for more sophisticated requirements. Besides prerecorded audio clips, it's also possible to directly add voice-over annotations with the computer's microphone. The timeline above the Sound Editor can be expanded for more precise timing and syncing.

Presentations in progress can be previewed full screen, or in a preview window within the program. I did encounter a hangup in the presentation once after I added an MP3 audio track to the presentation and synced the timing to the audio. I couldn't duplicate the problem, however, so it is likely a fluke.

Producer shines when it comes to output. As covered in Chapters 12 and 13, the program can be used to produce video CD and DVD disks for TV playback; various formats for communications and multimedia devices; files for online, Flash, Web and YouTube, and PC screen savers. It can produce e-mail and PC executable shows, as well as interactive shows. You can also share completed presentations on the Photodex Web site. That pretty much covers the whole spectrum of output requirements.  

With a strong mix of power and ease of use, Photodex Producer really has a lot going for it. It's easy for anyone to quickly become productive. Yet, it provides the power required to produce very professional looking results. ProShow Producer requires a Windows Vista, XP or 2000 system and has an MSRP of $249.95 for the full version or $89.95 for an upgrade.

While I think that Producer users could become proficient with the program without referring to the book, James Karney's "Official Photodex Guide to ProShow" would take them to proficiency levels that difficult to achieve otherwise. It's priced at $34.99.