Digital Photography and Computers

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2427, 2006-07-07, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 12 and 14) and their website.

Computer users are often quite creative, and this creativity lends itself well to exploring the world of photography, including the digital variety, which has experienced phenomenal growth. But unlike the relative simplicity of analog photography — with images captured on rolls of film, and the majority of processing done by commercial labs — digital photography and computer image enhancement can be much more involved.

While advances in both digital photography and home computers have unquestionably been a boon for purchasers of such products, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for consumers. Untold numbers of digital photographs have been lost or ruined as a result of power failure in cameras, accidental deletion by confused users, and even misbehaving 3.5" diskettes, for the now-defunct cameras that used those sometimes-unreliable floppies for image storage.

Part of the problem lies with the advances in the digital cameras themselves, which became more complicated as manufacturers packed in greater functionality — both to enhance the capabilities of each camera model, and to improve its marketing attractiveness. A camera's user interface can become more daunting as the manufacturer tries to fit more controls on the outside of the camera, and select the optimal words and symbols to display on the tiny LED screens.

Image Input

Fortunately, the computer has also provided many advantages to the budding photographer, including the essential step of getting the photographs onto the computer's hard drive. In the case of digital cameras, most if not all of the current models utilize USB cables or variants thereof, which are faster, more reliable, and less bulky than the older serial cables. For analog cameras, photographers can have their film rolls processed by labs into transparencies, which can then be scanned on a flatbed scanner. The quality of such scanners and the resultant digital images, have improved dramatically, as prices have declined.

Photographers who have not yet purchased a digital camera, generally have two options: They can choose a point-and-shoot (PS) camera, which automatically make intelligent choices (well, most of the time). PS cameras tend to be smaller, cheaper, and more compact than alternatives. In addition, they offer built-in zooming, sharpening, and contrast adjustments. That first advantage obviates the need to lug around zoom lens.

For non-PS cameras, you can choose one with single-lens reflex (SLR), which displays in the viewfinder exactly what the lens sees. These cameras offer more megapixels and thus higher resolution, plus the use of interchangeable lenses. Also, the ability to shoot in "raw" mode allows you to use the full memory capacity of the camera, which can produce a more detailed image. For fine art photography, raw mode is recommended by the pros.

Wise consumers should decide ahead of time — before being accosted by electronics store salespeople — just how much camera they truly need, and how much they are willing to pay. An old rule of thumb was that a 5-megapixel camera was fine for 8.5x11-inch images, but insufficient for larger ones, e.g., 2 ft. x 3 ft. Now special software is available that can enlarge images from such cameras. Camera makers of course want people to upgrade to 8 megapixel or even 12 megapixel cameras, but 5 megapixels is sufficient for 99% of photographers.

Image Processing

Once your priceless visual memories have been captured and downloaded to your personal computer without loss of limb, byte, or sanity, it is time to decide just how raw you want to leave each image, versus how much of Uncle Herman's ghastly pallor you would like to digitally enhance away.

This is where image manipulation programs come into play. As with most other types of software, there is quite a range of features, price, and usability. That third aspect can prove critical, and can be the deciding factor in whether you stick with your new hobby, or switch to stamp collecting.

For some people, once the images are on their hard drive, that is when their artistic troubles really begin, as they waste countless hours trying to learn how to correctly use their chosen image program. Such a program might be entirely comprehensible to an experienced graphics artist who works with it all day long, but to the typical home user, the tremendous power of such programs can prove overwhelming. Even worse, the user interface alone can be quite intimidating, laden with an excessive number of toolbar icons — making some users feel like they are trapped inside the cockpit of a 747.

If you experience sticker shock when considering the industry heavyweight, Photoshop, then take a look at the GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is free. The GIMP runs on Mac, Windows, and Unix computers. If the impressive functionality of either Photoshop or the GIMP would be overkill for your needs, and all you want to do is basic image cropping and resizing, then look no further than IrfanView, which is free, fast, and easy-to-use.

Image Output

Once you are happy with the digital photographs on your computer, you can choose if and where to publish them. Options include the Web, in a book, or printed on an inkjet printer. In the last case, you might opt for a 360 dpi image, and strive for an over-sharpened image, to compensate for the printer reducing the sharpness.

Going from what you see on the computer screen to what comes out of your printer, is fraught with peril. There are many factors that could cause them to be different from one another. Firstly, they are different media, with different levels of detail. Most monitors are 72 dpi, with a higher color gamma, making the image seem sharper on the screen. If your monitor is not calibrated, and the colors are off on your monitor, then the printer output will always be different from what you see.

Such color management is critical, and thus so is setting up a good printer profile, which is the right combination of paper and ink. This is the area where most amateurs give up in frustration, because they never get the printer output to look exactly like what they want on the screen.

For printing images, the ink itself is important. For instance, how long will the ink last? If you are simply printing copies of personal photos for family and friends, the longevity of the ink may not be a major consideration. (For some photographs, fading is a good thing.) But if you are selling prints of your work, then the archival quality of the ink is paramount.

Most digital photographic artists publish their photographs on websites devoted to their work alone, or to that of a group of artists. A San Diego-based example of the latter, is the well-respected Ordover Gallery, which represents nationally known artists. Another example of outstanding photographic art is the Ordover Project, which represents prominent artists in San Diego County.

Even if you have not reached their level of expertise, you certainly can have a lot of fun with a digital camera and a computer.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.