On Digital Photography

By Stephen Voss

Nearly every day that I leave my apartment, and walk on 23rd Ave. in Portland, I see someone shooting away with their digital camera. Like most new technologies, the appeal seems to be the “gee-whiz” factor rather than the camera’s actual function as a tool to make photos. It’s easy to see why this is so. It’s simply fun to take photographs without worrying about film. You’re given the freedom to be creative, take funny shots, and just mess around, all the while seeing your digital experiments immediately on the tiny LCD screen.

In my forays into digital photography in the last four years, I’ve encountered a number of issues and learned a lot about making pictures sans film. With any new technology, one is forced to deal with both the same old issues and arguments, and also, brand new ones that have never before been considered. Rather than make any attempt at cohesiveness, below are some various points and lessons I’ve learned.

The Sham of the Megapixel (or: Choosing the Right Digital Camera)

Now that you have approximately 6328 varieties of digital cameras to choose from, making the choice is easy, just get the one with the most megapixels, right? Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, just like late night infomercials, it’s easy to get sucked into fancy descriptions and “cutting edge” technology with these claims of increased megapixels. Just because a camera is advertised as having 3 megapixels doesn’t mean that it’s using all 3 of those megapixels to capture an image. Furthermore, the size and shape of these pixels play a huge part in the quality of the information they capture. As an example, a professional 3 megapixel will often outperform (in terms of detail, color captured and overall image quality) a consumer-grade 5 megapixel camera due to having a larger imaging chip, in addition to better in-camera image processing.

What does all of this mean? Well, I don’t know. But I do know that there is a lot more to take into consideration when buying a camera than reading what’s written on a box. You’re looking for the camera you’re happy with, that is what’s most important. This means it should meet your needs in terms of handling, picture quality, and the intangible factor. The quality of the images your camera produces is not about numbers, but about the quality of the chip inside of it, the lens used to capture the image, and the software in-camera that processes the image. So, in the end, read as much as you can about the different digital cameras available, and try to hold one in your hands before you commit to buying it. And welcome to the digital world.

Professionally Speaking

Having worked with quite a few professional photographers before deciding to make the plunge myself, it’s interesting to see their varied approaches to adopting (or avoiding completely) digital technology.

One of the biggest myths that vanish soon after one begins to consider transitioning to shooting with digital equipment is that it saves the photographer money. Depending on the amount of film shot, this certainly may be true. Some of the earliest proponents of digital cameras were photojournalists who could easily shoot 500 photos at a noteworthy event, and for them, digital technology was a godsend for both its cost-benefit and the ease of transmitting digital files to meet deadlines. But, for the average commercial photographer, digital technology is not often a sound investment. For a quick example, looking at the cost of the top of the line Canon digital camera (the EOS-1D): $5,500, as compared to its film counterpart (the EOS-1V): $1,600, shows that you could buy 3 film cameras for the cost of one digital body.

In addition to that, given the range of accessories needed to shoot digitally (include storage cards and a computer) one would have to go through quite a bit of film before the digital alternative becomes cost-effective. Furthermore, while the EOS-1V will remain at the top of its class technologically-speaking, the EOS-1D will seem laughably archaic just a few short years from now.

With all of that said, one of the most common phrases I hear on pro photographer mailing lists is, “I wish I had switched to digital earlier.” Without the cost of film hindering their shooting, one is more likely to experiment with different setups, and in the end, produce a better product. Also, if a client needs a quick turn around on a photoshoot, not only can you do that for them with digital photography, but you can charge a hefty “rush fee” in order to pay for that new camera. Lastly, digital photography is the future, there’s no getting around that, and the sooner you start shooting digitally, the better equipped you’ll be to evaluate and handle new technology as it comes out.

Managing Color

Color management is like making chocolate chips cookies, in that there are a number of approaches to it involving varying degrees of effort and money. One might choose to go down to the grocery store, purchase a sausage-shaped tube of cookie dough, and take advantage of the fast-food consumer culture we live in. Or, one might grow some wheat, waiting patiently as it turned a golden yellow, harvest it, grind it down to flour and… you get the idea.

Given that we’re dealing with the web, and not print, color management is really only as big of a deal as you want to make it. Photoshop offers a rudimentary monitor calibration wizard that will at least get you started.

If you want to go further with it, one might purchase a piece of hardware (like the Spyder) that attaches to your monitor and gives you more precise color calibration. The catch is this: people are going to be looking at your web site with a vast assortment of monitor brands and color settings. All of your careful color calibration will be lost on them if their monitors aren’t similarly calibrated, and believe me, they aren’t.

So, the short answer is, do the best you can. I personally haven’t gone beyond calibrating my monitor using the Photoshop tool, and I have yet to hear a complaint from any client regarding the look of any of the photos/graphics on their site.

Prepping Images for the Web

Digital photography and the web go hand in hand. Just minutes after digitally capturing your pet hamster Murphy doing that cute thing he always does when you poke him, you can have the image up on your site for your appreciative viewers.

Getting images ready for the web is not an especially hard task. The key, whether you’re dealing with photos of Murphy or a client’s ultra-spiffy new site, is to start with the best possible source image. Photoshop is a magical program, there’s no doubt about that. But even in its most brilliant moments it won’t be able to do much with a bad source file. Getting good source files from a client can often be a simple matter of knowing the right person to contact. Many of my clients have had a design person, and this outstanding person often was the gate keeper to a magical land (or CD-ROM) of color-corrected (more on this later), high-resolution digital images.

Now let’s say for a minute that you don’t have that great source image, but just an average one. How, dear reader, does one go about making this into an eye-catching image on your client’s site?

Below is the way I worked with one particular image. It is by no means the only way– just what I’ve found works best for me. Before you start, I’d recommend making the room as dark as possible, so that the monitor is the brightest light source. This will give you the best possible view of the image you’re working with. One might argue that since this image is being used on the web, one should attempt to mimic the average user’s light setup. This, of course, is difficult for a variety of reasons, and because of color space issues (to be covered later), it is the least of your worries. Your job is to create the best possible image, look at it on as many different monitors as you can, and hope for the best.

Original photo of Eagle Creek in Oregon

This photo was taken while standing in (a very cold) Eagle Creek in Oregon, using Fuji Velvia, a slide film known for having saturated colors and excellent contrast. The image was scanned on a Polaroid Sprintscan 120 at 4000 dpi, producing a 55 megabyte file.

My initial impressions: The colors are dull and unsaturated, and definitely need some livening up in order to match the slide. Also, there’s some dust on the slide that needs cleaning. Lastly, those branches in the lower left are distracting, and without compromising my nature photography ethics too much, I think the photo would benefit from having them removed.

So, let’s fire up Photoshop, and start by cleaning up the image. Please note: Image resizing is the last thing you should do before optimizing the image. For as much of the process as possible, it’s a good idea to have the image at its highest resolution. By zooming in on the problem parts of the image we can get rid of the branches, and any dust artifacts. The Rubber Stamp tool is the right tool for the job. The key is to use a small brush size, and go very slowly. Amateur Rubber Stamping will stick out like a sore thumb, and since we’re all pros here, we’re going to take it slow, and do the job right.

Using the rubber stamp tool

Now, it’s time to deal with the actual color. Generally, the wrong way to do this is with the brightness/contrast controls (Image>Adjust>Brightness/Contrast). These controls affect the entire image, when we really only want to deal with isolated tones (i.e. highlights, midtones and shadows). So, Levels are a good way to do this (as are Curves, which allow even finer control). Let’s bring up the Levels dialog box (Image>Adjust>Levels), and we’ll see something like this:

Adjusting the RGB levels

Now, you’re looking at a histogram (basically a mapping of the colors) of the image. What we’re going to do now is adjust each color separately. So from the Channel drop-down box, we’ll choose Red, and then the histogram for only the color red (in all of its varying intensities) will be shown. Now comes the crucial part: on the straight line directly underneath the histogram, take the solid black arrow on the far left, and drag it until it is directly under where the histogram begins to rise. After that, do the same for the outlined arrow on the far right:

Adjusting the channel levels

After doing this with Red, go ahead and do the same thing for Green and Blue, choosing each one separately, and individually modifying their histograms. After I do so, the image looks like this:

Photo with touch ups and level adjustments

See a difference? I sure do. Still, it doesn’t quite have that Pop! I’m looking for. Incidentally, these Levels can also work really great by selecting a specific part of the image, and dealing with its Levels separately.

Next we’ll deal with the colors in a more direct way, using Hue/Saturation (Image>Adjust>Hue/Saturation).

Like all steps in this step-by-step, you’re going to have to eye this one yourself: too much saturation, and the image looks freakishly colored (this is especially true when working with skin tones, be careful!), too little, and it looks dull and unappealing. My goal is to make the image look as close as possible to what I saw when I looked through my camera’s viewfinder. Firing up the Hue/Saturation dialog box, I give it a nice dose of saturation, and a little bit of lightness, in order to bring out the grayish color in the rock:

Adjusting the hue and saturation

If you want to be even more precise, one might choose to edit the colors individually, but for my purposes, I generally find this unnecessary. With all that said and done, we’re here:

Photo with adjusted hue and saturation

Quite a bit better, eh?

Now would be a good time to resize your image. The last step before you optimize the image is to sharpen it. Sharpening an image basically means that you are increasing the contrast between individual pixels in the scene, giving the image a crisper look. This is done, strangely enough, by using the Unsharp Mask (Filters>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask). When I met famed nature photographer, John Shaw, he suggested to set the Unsharp mask to about Amount: 100, Radius: 1, Threshold: 3. This seems to work well for this image, and it is a good starting point for any image:

Photo with Unsharp Mask applied

Still, it is crucial that you experiment with these settings and find ones that work for each particular image. A good way to see the effect sharpening is having on your image is to move the dialog box to the side, and check and uncheck the Preview box and see the difference it makes. Also keep in mind that once you sharpen an image and save it, you can’t go back, and further editing on the image when it is sharpened often degrades it badly.

And there we have it, a quick comparison:

Original photo next to the cleaned up photo of Eagle Creek

Okay! I think you’re now ready to do some basic image preparation for the web. Good luck, and be sure to CC: me in the mass e-mail you send about Murphy.

In Conclusion

With some luck, you’re now ready to speak intelligently, and expound upon various trends and theories within the world of digital photography. No doubt you’ll be the hit of the next party. Crowds will gather to hear your thoughts about color management and your swift dismissal of those who buy cameras based on megapixels.