Be creative with your computer

Features Roland Waddilove Jan 15, 2013

Roland Waddilove shows how to use your PC more imaginatively

The PC is a Jack-of-all-trades and it has many uses. Lots of people use one to play games, either online or offline, a billion people have Facebook accounts, Twitter is catching up, and if the web has shown us one thing in the last 15 years, it’s that we’ve taken time-wasting to whole new levels. Such ‘trivial’ pursuits are fine, but why not put your PC to a better, more creative, use? There are many ways in which you can be creative on your PC and they include photography, film making and movie editing, music, web design, writing and more.

Instead of taking snapshots for Facebook on your mobile phone, why not splash out on a rugged camera that you can take with you on your next safari, mountain climb or kayaking expedition? There are waterproof digital cameras that can take great shots in extreme conditions and with some photo editing software on your PC you could have some cracking photography. You could even turn them into a coffee table book. Book publishing has never been easier or cheaper and anyone can create printed books and ebooks using their computer and an online service.

You might want to have a go at stop-motion animation of the type made so popular by Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit. Did you know that there are kits for under £50 that enable you to create your own movies? You can buy the kit but do you have the creativeness and skills? Have a go and see. Why create dull movies when there are some great camcorders that you can attach to helmets, bolt onto bike handlebars or even attach to surf and skateboards, for extreme action. You don’t have to be diving from a plane or scuba diving under the sea to capture amazing clips (although it doesn’t hurt), and we think you’ll be surpised how cheap and easy it is.

There are countless websites already, but there is always room for another. If you have an unusual idea, why not get creative with website design. Alternatively, you could create apps for the newly launched Windows Store; Microsoft is giving away software that could make you a millionaire with a bit of creativity and inspiration.

Here are a few ideas to get your brain ticking.

Creative photography

It is easy to see why digital cameras have replaced film models by allowing you to be much more spontaneous and creative. You can shoot as many photos as you want because there is no cost, they are easy to store on your computer, share with friends online, problems can be fixed and they can be used in a variety of projects.

Mobile phones are used a lot for snapshots and top of the range models take quite good 5MP or even 8MP photos. However, if you are serious about photography you need a proper camera. There are lots to choose from, so let’s take a look at some that are worth considering.

The Samsung PL120 is a sub-£100 budget digital camera, but still has a 14.2MP sensor and a 5x optical zoom starting at 26mm. The PL120’s stand-out feature are the dual screens: the usual one at the back, alongside another on the front. This is useful for self-shots when you hold the camera at arm’s length and take a picture of yourself or you and a mate. The Olympus TG-1 is an interesting camera that has a 12MP sensor and wide F2 aperture, making it good for low light shots. Its ruggedness is the main selling point, though. It is shock-proof for drops of up to 2m drops, waterproof down to 12m, freeze-proof to -10 degrees and crushproof up to 100kg. It takes shots where other cameras can’t go and is brilliant for walking, climbing, swimming and so on.

We’ll mention just one more for serious photographers to consider, the Canon EOS 1100D. It is a digital SLR body and you can choose from any of Canon’s range of EFS and EF lenses. It costs between £350 and £450 depending on what lenses and accessories are bundled with it and it’s excellent.

A really useful accessory for any camera is the Eye-Fi card. This is an SDHC digital camera memory card with built in wi-fi that transfers photos to your computer wirelessly.

If you want to be creative with your photos then Corel PaintShop Pro and Adobe Photoshop Elements are obvious choices. Both programs offer a large range of photo editing tools, repair, enhancement and special effects. PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate for example, has high dynamic range tools, you can split RAW photos into three exposures, simulate graduated lens filters, there are REALLUSION FaceFilter Studio portrait enhancement tools and NIK Color Efex Pro filters. Photoshop Elements 11 can turn photos into comics, graphic novels and pen and ink artwork. It also makes it easy to take elements from one photo and merge them with another, so single people can be put together as a group shot for example. Soft edges like hair are normally difficult, but Photoshop has the tools you need.

There are numerous photo editing programs of course, but here are a few more favourites. Microsoft’s free Image Composite Editor lets you load several photos and then it automatically stitches them together to make a panorama. ToolWiz Pretty Photo is free, yet comes with over 100 filters and hundreds of objects. You can do lots of fun things with your photos. Photivo is an open source project designed to enhance your photos with filters and effects. It can be integrated with GIMP and like GIMP, it requires some effort to learn, but it’s worth it. FotoSketcher is another free tool and it turns photos into artwork like pencil drawings, watercolours, oil paintings and so on. It can produce fantastic artwork with just a few mouse clicks.

Filming and video editing

As with digital photography, mobile phones have had a serious impact on traditional hardware and many people prefer the simplicity and spontaneity of a smartphone. Some of them are capable of shooting quite good quality video and in high definition too. However, they can’t compete with the features offered by some camcorders. Take the GoPro Hero3 White Edition for example, a £199 digital camcorder that accepts up to 64GB memory cards for storing video footage and can shoot 30fps at 1080p or 60fps at 720p resolutions. It has built in wi-fi and a wi-fi remote.

That’s not the best part though, it is mountable and wearable, comes with a waterproof case that can go down to 60m and there are handlebar mounts, helmet mounts, roll bar mounts, chest mounts and even a surf board mount. How cool is that? Get creative with your videos and then transfer them to your PC via wi-fi!

Another very unusual digital camcorder is the Sony TD10E. This packs two high-quality lenses, sensors and image processors and shoots 3D high definition movies. Of course, you’ll need a 3D TV to enjoy them, but if you don’t yet have one you can still shoot and view regular 2D high definition videos too. It can store 26 hours of video on a 64GB memory card.

Let’s look at just one more product, the Hue Animation Studio. This is a stop-motion animation kit. In the box is an HD webcam, cable, software and... modelling clay! The aim is to create a Wallace and Gromit style animated movie, which is a brilliant idea and for under £50 you could be the next Aardman. You can actually buy the software that Aardman used to create A Matter of Loaf And Death and it was shot with Stop Motion Pro, which is only £211 on Amazon.

Getting back to traditional video editing, a popular choice is Adobe Premiere Elements. It is, of course, a cut down version of Premiere Pro but, unless you are a professional, it’s the better choice (and a lot cheaper). Adjust the colours, use blend modes to enhance one clip with the colours of another, add watermarks, add slow and fast motion effects, use FilmLooks to apply cinematic styles and more.

An alternative is Magix Movie Edit Pro Premium 2013, which is just £79.99 yet has video editing on 99 tracks, HD and Stereo3D support, multicam editing for two cameras, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and Blu-ray output. There are cheaper versions with slightly fewer features if your budget won’t stretch that far. Corel MotionStudio 3D will add 3D titles and animated text to your movies. It can also add fire, smoke, explosions and more. Every movie needs special effects and MotionStudio 3D is where you can create them.

Windows Movie Maker and Avidemux are basic video editors with far fewer features, but you can still produce some interesting movies with them and they are both free. Movie Maker is part of Windows Essentials and you can grab videos from a webcam or load them from disk, trim and rearrange them, apply effects and so on. It’s simple, but useful.

Music creation

It was the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST that brought computers to the attention of musicians over 20 years ago. The MIDI standard was invented around the time, and this enabled computers to control music instruments, notably MIDI keyboards and synthesisers. Those computers are long gone, but there are lots of programs and hardware that enable you to get creative with music on your PC.

To connect a keyboard or synthesizer to play and record music you must add a MIDI port. This is straightforward and there are USB to MIDI converters like the Roland UM-ONE priced around £29. Roland, Yamaha, Korg and others make a variety of keyboards and synthesizers with MIDI interfaces and prices range from a couple of hundred to several thousand depending on how serious you are about music. To record quality vocals a good USB microphone is required and the Audio Technica AT2020 USB is a fine one for £99, but some say the similarly priced Blue Yeti Professional USB microphone is better. If you need recording software then MixPad enables you to mix an unlimited number of music, vocal and audio tracks, and record single or multiple tracks simultaneously. It includes a royalty-free sound effect and music library.

If you want to learn to play a real instrument there are lots of PC programs that aim to teach you. For example, eMedia Guitar Method features over 180 lessons that take you through chord strumming, rock styles, playing melodies, and fingerpicking. You will also learn guitar tablature and standard music notation. There’s eMedia Piano And Keyboard Method, which features 300 step-by-step full-screen lessons and 70 video demonstrations. Playground Sessions is a great piano tutor for all abilities.

You don’t have to be a musician and there are software packages that enable you to drag and drop sound samples and loops using the mouse to build tracks. Take a look at Magix Music Maker, which is available in Hip Hop, Dance, Rock and other editions. Music Maker Rock Edition 4 for example, provides over 1,000 sounds, riffs and audio effects to build tracks from and they can be uploaded directly to Facebook and Twitter. More expensive, but with more features is Samplitude Music Studio 2013 from Magix. This provides an excellent set of tools such as a mixer with 128 channels, recording in 24-bit/96kHz and more. It is aimed at professional and serious amateur musicians.

A very popular music production system is FL Studio. It enables you to mix up to 99 tracks, it has a step sequencer for drum tracks, bass lines and melody creation, a pianoroll to enter music, an audio editor and more. There are several versions and the cheapest, Express is just £31. If that is too much, check out LMMS, which aims to do the same thing, but for free.

If you want to become a DJ then Mixxx, Zulu DJ, and VirtualDJ are all free, at least for home use. Play your music through your PC, cross fade tracks, apply effects, loop sections, and much more. They are great fun.

Create software

Some people choose to channel their creative skills into programming. Of course, some software applications are developed by large teams of programmers working for many months or even years. You may be happy to join one of these teams and become part of a team working towards a common goal, but many freeware and shareware programs are written by individuals working on their own. With nothing more than a computer and a programming language they create useful and sometimes amazing programs.

It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but programming computer software can be fun in an odd sort of way. It is quite mentally challenging, but with a bit of effort you might make some money selling your software. The Windows 8 Store hasn’t been open long, but there are already thousands of apps for it and it is quite likely to mirror the success of the Google Play store and Apple’s iOS store. Some people are going to get rich from apps in the Windows Store and as the number of Windows 8 users grows, so does the size of the potential market for your software.

From a hardware perspective you don’t need anything special to be a programmer. A fairly ordinary PC will do fine unless you are creating a fast action game that stretches the capabilities of the processor and video card to the limit. One of the downsides of trying to become a programmer is that you need to know a lot before you can create a program that someone might actually want and find useful. A good place to start if you have never done any programming is with Microsoft’s free Small Basic, a very simple development system that is designed to teach rather than create top selling software. There are just 20 commands, online and downloadable guides, tutorials, lots of examples and discussion forums. You could master it in a week or two and then move on to something more powerful.

The next step up is Microsoft Visual Studio Express Edition. This is another free programming package and there is an Express for Windows 8 and versions for older Windows systems. It is a cut down edition of the full Visual Studio, which is a £1,000+ development system for professional programmers. You don’t need that, though, and Express for Windows 8 lets you create Windows 8 apps for the Store and it is a great way to get into programming. Who knows, you could be the next app millionaire.

An alternative that is worth considering is Real Studio. It comes in several different versions and Real Studio Personal is a reasonable £64 and the Pro version is £202. An interesting feature of the Pro version is that you can run it on Windows and create a program, but when it is compiled you can choose whether it is to run on Windows, Apple Mac OS X or Linux. It is probably the easiest way to create Linux software.

If you are interested in developing 3D games you should take a look at BlitzBasic. It is cheap compared to other programming languages, at £47, and there is lots of online information and forums.

Web design

There are several options if you want a website. While getting a professional to design it would be the choice of some people, you may fancy geting creative and designing your own. There are website makers, editors and services for every ability level, and sites can be created with no knowledge of HTML, JavaScript and the other technologies involved - or you can get dirty and hand code it all yourself.

WordPress is a popular website and blogging platform, and if you are a complete web design novice you can get a free account at wordpress.com and have a site up and running in minutes. Even though it is very simple and the facilities are basic, some creative skills are still required to produce a great site - and you must design logos and headings, select colour schemes, decide on and build the site structure and so on.

If you want to take WordPress to a whole new level, go to bitnami.org and download the WordPress Stack. This installs it on your PC as a local web server. The advantage is that you can modify the WordPress code, configure it, extend it and become a WordPress expert. You can then design sites for others.

Also at the Bitnami site are other popular content management systems like Drupal and Joomla. There’s money to be made from designing and maintaining websites using these.

Creating websites need not be difficult and there are some great software packages that make the process really easy, like Avanquest WebEasy Professional. It is template-driven and mostly point and click, but you can still be creative and add or delete pages, change links, fonts, images, text and background colours. Among the new features in the latest version are an extra 120 templates, YouTube videos can be embedded, there’s support for Facebook and Google Maps can be placed on pages. There are ecommerce facilities for creating online stores and an eBay Page Wizard that generates eBay-compatible pages. A great page design could boost your eBay sales.

There are many web design packages that will let your creative juices flow and Artisteer is a good one for non-technical designers. It is menu driven, so it is straightforward to use, but the interesting bonus is that you can export your designs as Blogger, Joomla and WordPress templates. It allows you to concentrate on design and not code. If you do want to hand code a site, though, then a good free open source editor is Komodo Edit. It supports PHP, Python, Ruby, JavaScript, Perl, Tcl, XML, HTML 5, and CSS 3, automatically colour coding and suggesting tags and parameters as you type.

Microsoft’s free Visual Studio Express For Web is another option for hand coding websites and it supports the latest HTML5 and CSS3 standards. It also has tools that enable you to optimise your site for mobile devices, which are increasingly being used for accessing the web. Alternatively, try Microsoft’s WebMatrix 2, which is a free and lightweight web development tool optimised for open source apps, mobile browsing and more.

Creative writing

It has never been easier to get yourself published and if you have a story to tell then using your computer, a word processor and an online service you can share it with the world. eBook readers and tablets have really taken off in the last couple of years and creating an ebook is fairly straightforward; it need not cost anything, either. There are even services that can print individual copies your book as and when there is a sale.

Lulu.com for example, is able to print paperbacks and hardbacks with various bindings and a choice of sizes and you receive 80% of the cover price. The site helps you to distribute print books through Amazon and others, or as ebooks through popular online stores. Lulu accepts books and ebooks in popular file formats like PDF and doc files, and covers can be jpg, png and so on. Microsoft Word is a popular choice for writing the text of course, but there are free alternatives like LibreOffice. It can save your book in the file formats needed and it is pretty good for large jobs like a book.

Blurb.co.uk is a service worth considering and it is able to produce books in small quantities. Prices vary with the size, cover type and so on, but a 100-page soft cover 6” x 9” book for example, costs just £4.95 and there are discounts for larger quantities that bring the price down further. Download the free BookSmart book-making software and you can create photo books, novels, diaries, portfolios, notebooks and more. You can print and sell your books yourself or sell through Blurb, and your work can be placed in the online store.
Amazon is one of the biggest sellers of ebooks and it has massive sales. The company provides a Kindle publishing service (kdp.amazon.com) that enables you to create your own ebooks and to sell them in the store for all Kindles and computers, tablets and smartphones with the Kindle app.