Al Campbell, Field Editor

January 6th, 2003

Digital Imaging Part 1
By Al Campbell

A while back I did a series of articles on close-up photography. That inspired a couple of people to buy new digital cameras. In fact, my e-mail was fairly active with questions about cameras and features. Then, people started asking questions about how to manipulate their images and get the most out of their photography. In other words, one thing led to another, and that other is a new series on digital imaging.

I don't claim to be a great expert on digital imaging, but I do know enough about the subject to improve the looks of most digital images fresh from a camera or scanner. I also know a few tricks that can make your web site, family photos or public presentations look better. It's all in the way you handle that image after you save it on your hard drive as a digital file. To do that, you need a few tools. Let's look at those tools first.

First, you need a computer. Since you all seem to have one of those at your disposal (it takes one of those to read this), I'll specify a little more. You need a computer with a good monitor to view your pictures. You need enough random access memory (RAM) to handle those digital files without locking up your computer (the more the better, but at least 128 to 256 meg). You need a hard drive big enough to store all those pictures (at least 20 gig is a starting point). Finally, your computer needs to be fast enough to handle the image; at least the Pentium two class, but faster is better.

Next you could use (but don't absolutely need) a few other things. A color printer that does a good job printing photos would be nice. A CD burner to store and share those pictures would be a nice touch too. Also nice is a camera or scanner that will produce images big enough to print well. So many cheap cameras and scanners produce images too small to print well, so shop wisely for cameras and scanners that will at least produce a 1024 X 768 pixel or bigger image (2048 X 1536 is much better).

The next thing you must have is some sort of imaging software. The software that comes bundled with your scanner or digital camera is usually good enough to handle basic imaging tasks, and it is often faster and less complicated than other programs, but it usually lacks the better tools that allow you the freedom to really work that picture over. As this series progresses, we'll look at several brands of software, and the reasons I like them more than, or don't like them as much as other types of software for certain uses.

One thing you should remember is that you never want to destroy the original image you are working on. For each set of images, I have a folder called "Raw Images" where I store the original images in folders that I can identify for later use. As I work on each image, it is stored in a different folder that is stored in a larger folder called "Refined Images." That way I can keep the original image as it was to begin with, and I can keep the "refined" image in another location where it can be easily retrieved. If anything goes wrong with the image I'm working on, I still have the original image, so I can start over.

I usually have several folders inside other folders so I can keep things well organized. Think of it like an electronic or digital file cabinet. I have a file cabinet called "digital images" and another called "photo files" and yet another called "magazine articles". In each cabinet I have drawers with labels like "Raw Images" and "Refined Images" on the drawers. Inside the drawers I have hanging folders with labels like "Belize 2001" or Al's Files."

I have other folders inside those hanging folders with labels like "El Pescador" and "Robert's Grove."

Eventually I get down to the image files I'm working with. I do it all electronically, but that's the way I try to keep everything organized so I can quickly and easily find a specific picture among the thousands of pictures I have stored on my hard drives.

Once I have my images stored in the right files, I need to do a few things to them to make them look right. Like it or not, photos direct from a scanner or digital camera are almost never ready to use without some manipulation. That manipulation is called "Digital Imaging." First, I need to choose the program I want to use to do that manipulation. If you only have one program for digital imaging, your choice is fairly easy, but I have several, and each has its strong and weak points. We'll look at several programs in the next few weeks, and observe how they work best.

This week I'll pick on the simplest program I have for digital imaging. It came bundled with my flatbed scanner and it's the program I use most often because it's small, simple and fast. It doesn't do a lot of complex tasks, but it does all the basis tasks with ease and it does them fast. That program is from U-Lead and is called "iPhoto Plus" (version 4). The program that came with your digital camera or scanner will probably do the same things, and it is likely much faster to use than the complex programs that cost hundreds of dollars more.

The first thing I usually do to a picture is crop it to only show what I want to show. That is done with a crop tool. I simply outline the part I want to save and crop the rest out of the picture.

crop screen

Next, I adjust the brightness and contrast to produce a picture that's pleasant to look at. In some cases I may need to darken the picture a little, in others I might need to lighten it some. Increasing the contrast makes dark colors darker and bright colors brighter. Work a few notches at a time and use the preview feature to look at the results until you get it just the way you want it to look.

bright contrast

The next thing I do is adjust the saturation and hue until the image on the screen has the same vivid colors and hue as the subject I took the picture of. This is the tool you can use to compensate for slight (very slight) changes in hue due to artificial lighting. With practice and a little work, you can adjust the image to look very close to the original item, and save your work for later use. I might also adjust the focus a little if it needs to be adjusted.

hue and saturation

Depending on the software you use, you'll probably have a few other features like color pallets, erasers, clone tools and text tools. The basic software that comes with your camera or scanner won't usually have a lot of complex tools. However, it will almost always have enough tools to make that picture you just scanned or captured on your digital camera look a lot better than it did before you adjusted the image.

effective pallet

The last thing I want to show you this week is a couple of before and after pictures I captured off a web site owned by one of our readers. With his permission I'll show you how big an impact minor adjustments to brightness, contrast, saturation and focus can have on a photo. All those adjustments are considered basic tools that are found in virtually every digital imaging software package you can buy. Those tools will also be available in the software that came with your camera or scanner.

The photos on the left are the way they looked before I adjusted a few basic elements. The photos on the right show the same picture after some basic adjustments of brightness, contrast, saturation and focus.

left before, right after

left before, right after

left before, right after

Can you see the difference? This week we're looking at basic software and basic tools. We'll dig a little deeper into this subject next week. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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