|Volume 1, Number 2||10 October 1999|
Welcome to the second edition of the Imaging Resource Newsletter! Thanks to everyone who wrote in with such encouraging words after our first issue! The response was literally overwhelming, but we were glad to hear from everyone, and gratified by how much people seemed to enjoy the first issue. In answering the 500+(!) emails we received, we realized we forgot an important piece of information in the first issue: How to subscribe to the newsletter! We received a lot of email from people who'd been sent copies by friends, and who wanted to subscribe, but didn't know how. To remedy this, every issue will now have full instructions at the top for subscribing, unsubscribing, or changing your email address with our list server.
Our first issue was really just a "get acquainted" version, this time you'll see a bit more content, and the publication looks more as we'd envisioned it.
This issue of The Imaging Resource News is sponsored in part by:
Cameraworld.com -- 800/226-3721 -- Cameraworld is one of the premier suppliers of cameras and other photography equipment in the US. They have an unparalleled reputation for quality and customer service, and we're very happy to have them as sponsors! If you're in the market for almost anything photographic, you owe it to yourself to pay them a visit! They currently have the Nikon CoolPix 950 in stock at $899, with free shipping in the "lower 48" states. http://www.cameraworld.com/adtemplmap.asp?invky=95585&affky=700557
Advertisers: Are you in the digital photo business? This newsletter is going out to nearly 40,000 US readers, all with an interest in digital photography! For information on how you can participate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
With all the server mechanics associated with the newsletter behind us, and some of the behind-the-scenes site work nearing completion, we're about to get dug out from the ongoing overload of new camera and scanner reviews. We have a couple of new reviews and articles to share with you, and should have even more when our next issue comes out.
Fuji MX-2900: 2 Megapixel camera with lots of "enthusiast" features - Full-manual exposure control option, external flash via a "hot shoe," manual focus, etc. Also, exceptional resolution, at the top of cameras we've tested to date. http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/MX29/M29A.HTM
Nikon Coolpix 800: A "First Look" at Nikon's latest, a "little brother" to the wildly popular Coolpix 950. 2x zoom lens vs the 950's 3x, but many of the 950's key features. A very impressive set of capabilities for ~$200 less than the 950. http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/C800/C800A.HTM
Fuji MX-1700: A tiny, portable 1.5 megapixel digicam. "First look" review was posted last time, we now have the full review up, with all sample photos. http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/MX17/M17A.HTM
Digital landscape photography: Fall foliage. Photographer/teacher David Halpern is an IR reader with literally decades of experience in photography. His first love is nature and landscape photography (he leads in-the-field seminars every summer in the West), and he's been a pioneer in using "consumer" digital cameras to turn out professional- quality work. We're very pleased that David has agreed to share some of his experience on our site! We've just posted his first article on digital landscape photography on the site, at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/ARTS/HALP/LAND1/LAND1.HTM The article has a particular focus on photographing fall foliage. Check out this very timely article, and be inspired by David's beautiful photography!
How does it stack up? Last issue, we made brief mention of Kodak's new Picture CD product, a service whereby you can order high-resolution scans (1536x1024 pixels) on a CD along with your normal film processing, for an added charge of "less than $10". (The actual cost apparently varies depending on the outlet where you're dropping your film for processing, the region of the country, etc. Here in Atlanta, our local Target store charges $8.95 for the service.) The picture files you receive back are in the industry-standard JPEG file format, and can be read by just about any program that can handle image files, on either the Mac or PC platforms.
As we stated last time, we think this is an exceptionally important development in consumer imaging, because it "lowers the bar" for digital photography, so that literally anyone with a computer made in the last three years or so can experience digital photography for less than $10! As the last issue "went to press", we'd just dropped off a couple of rolls of film at our local Target store for Picture CD processing. This issue, we've picked up the finished prints and CDs, and can report on the overall experience. (We'll be writing this up into a full-blown review on the site, but you newsletter readers get an advance look at the results of our tests.)
We actually sent two separate sets of film through the process, with somewhat different experiences each time. The first set went through very quickly, with the finished prints and CD back in under 2 days. The second time took closer to a week, and the store personnel seemed much less knowledgeable about the product and process. - This brings up a point to beware of: Picture CD is a relatively new product, and staff turnover at photofinishing outlets tends to be very high. As a result, it's entirely possible you may be greeted with blank stares when you walk up to the counter and ask about Picture CD. There are two other Kodak products that store clerks may think you want, as both have been around longer than Picture CD. Photos on floppy are cheaper, but give much lower-resolution images. The original "PhotoCD" has been around for years and gives very high-resolution scans, but is generally more expensive, and uses a less-standard file format.
So, the big question is: How's it look? We shot several of the standard test subjects we use for evaluating digital cameras, using fine-grained film and a known-sharp lens on a 35mm camera (Kodak Gold 100 film, a Nikon 50mm, f/1.4 manual-focus lens). The results were very encouraging: The scanned images showed resolution somewhere between that of a 1.5 and a 2 megapixel digital camera, and sharpness and detail were markedly superior. Not to mention of course, that the lens-related characteristics (corner sharpness, distortion, and contrast) were dramatically better than most digicams.
Resolution: Not all pixels are created equal Wait a minute, you say - I can count (or multiply), and 1536 x 1024 pixels is about 1.6 megapixels, the same as many "1.5 megapixel" digicams out there, and nowhere near 2 megapixels. So how could the resolution be better than a 1.5 megapixel digicam? A large part of the answer lies in the difference between digicam pixels and scanner pixels. In a digital camera, the "megapixel" rating generally refers to the number of raw sensor elements in the CCD, but that's only part of the story. In order for the camera to "see" color, red, green, and blue color filters must be applied to the surface of the sensor array. The computer chip inside the digital camera interprets the information from the red, green, and blue-filtered pixels, and combines it into an array of image pixels that each have all three colors of data present in them. Usually, the final image size (in terms of pixels) is about the same as the total array of sensor elements in the CCD. If you think about it though, you'll realize that at least some of this data is "made up" or interpolated by the camera electronics. If it takes a red, green, and blue sensor element to produce one pixel in the final image, there are at best only 1/3 as many "true" (full color) pixels in the sensor as the camera's megapixel rating would suggest.
In practice, the digicam resolution picture isn't as bad as we've just painted it: There are a lot of image-processing tricks that can be applied to extract luminance (brightness) information separately from the color information, and end up with a lot more resolution than you'd first imagine. Still, the fact remains that you don't really get the full benefit of all the sensor pixels in your final image resolution.
Scanners are quite a different story however: With their CCD sensors not subject to the same cost and size constraints as digital cameras, scanners can sample the image with separate red, green, and blue measurements at every pixel. Thus, a 1.5 megapixel image from a scanner potentially contains three times as much information as that from a 1.5 megapixel digital camera!
In the case of Picture CD, we found that, while our resolution test target showed about the same absolute resolution as the best of the 1.5 megapixel cameras we've tested, the sharpness and detail with "natural" subjects was significantly better.
Sharpness and "detail" vs. Resolution When thinking about image quality, it's useful to consider the difference between resolution (an absolute measurement), and sharpness or "detail" (two very subjective image characteristics). Our point here is that there's more than one measure of what makes an image good from the standpoint of "sharpness." On the resolution target we use to test cameras, sets of alternating black and white lines grow progressively closer together. The point at which you can just barely distinguish the lines from each other is considered to be the "resolution" of the camera.
Note though, that this "resolution" number is only measuring one aspect of the image quality. Another characteristic is how sharply the image values change from light to dark and back again. A third measure is what level of detail is apparent to the eye with ordinary subjects. Two cameras could produce identical "resolution" numbers, yet the output from one might look soft and mushy (gradual light/dark transitions), while the other one could look crisp and sharp (abrupt light/dark transitions). Likewise, it's possible there could be significant differences in the amount of detail your eye would see in two pictures having essentially the same resolution.
It's in the area of sharpness and detail (especially "detail") that we think the Picture CD images really shine over those from digital cameras: We've put two sample pictures from a Picture CD into our Comparometer(tm), so you can compare them with images from various digital cameras. To see them, go to: http://www.imaging-resource.com/IMCOMP/COMPS01.HTM. Click on the "House" image in the left-hand navigation bar, and you'll see two lists of cameras in the top frame of the browser window. (Sorry, frames-capable browsers only!) Click a link in each list to view the image from that camera in the window below. Note that the very first entry in each list says "Comparison: Kodak Picture CD". If you click on this, you'll see a sample "house" image scanned by Picture CD. You can thus compare PictureCD with the whole range of digital cameras we've reviewed. (There are also preliminary shots of the resolution and "Davebox" targets there as well.)
Picture CD Image Quality - the bottom line We have more testing to do, to duplicate all our standard digicam test shots on Picture CDs, but our first reaction is that Picture CD produces images easily the equal of any 1.5 megapixel digital camera, and probably equal to many 2 megapixel ones.
What's this mean? Obviously, there are a LOT of reasons why you'd still want to use a digital camera rather than simply shooting on film and having Picture CDs made of everything: For starters, there's the immediate feedback you get with a digital camera. With film, you don't know what you've shot until you have it processed. Another obvious factor is cost. With a digital camera, you can snap pictures all day long without it costing a dime. (Provided you use rechargeable batteries, that is!) With Picture CD, you have the cost of the basic film processing, plus the cost of Picture CD itself. No question, Picture CD won't substitute for a digital camera for all occasions.
Let's look at the flip side though: What are the advantages of Picture CD? First and foremost, it's a great way to experiment with digital photography, before you plunk down $300-1,000 on a digital camera. For the sake of $10 or less, you can have great digital images with remarkably little fuss or hassle. Another huge benefit has to do with the flexibility of all the myriad types of color film available. Do you have an extreme low-light situation? Just buy a roll of ultra- speed film, stick it in your film camera, and voila, you've just bested any digicam selling for less than about $3,000! How about lenses? If you're an SLR enthusiast (like us), you probably have at least one or two nifty auxiliary lenses that simply aren't available in the digicam market. With Picture CD, I can drop a roll of ISO 800 film in my film camera, shoot pictures of my son's evening soccer game with my 210mm f/4 tele, and get sharp shots that'd never be possible with my digital arsenal! For the sake of $8-10 per roll, it's a great adjunct to my more purely digital undertakings.
Conclusion (for now)
As noted, we're working on a full "review" of Picture CD for the site, treating it much as we do the digital cameras we test. We're hoping the full review will be up by the time the next newsletter issue is due out. Meanwhile, next time we'll cover the software that ships on the current "edition" of the Picture CD disk, letting even the rankest newcomer get started using their digital photos.
Last issue, we had a special deal on Dennis Curtin's excellent book "Choosing and using a digital camera." This issue, Xoom Inc. (the company that brought us the incredible Corel Photo-Paint offer last issue) has arranged a special purchase of a phenomenal new digital photography book by John Odam, called "Start with a Digital Camera."
John Odam is a professional designer and photographer, with extensive experience writing how-to guides. The book he's created this time is both beautiful and visually appealing, as well as a wonderful source of hints, tips, and background information. It's probably obvious, but we've found that digital photographers are very visually-oriented people, so the beautiful design of this book is bound to be pleasing. (We found it so, anyway.) It's also a book that's well suited to both novice and experienced users alike. It starts with the most basic principles of how digital cameras work, and goes on to cover subjects such as choosing a subject, arranging lighting, composing your images, working with models, shooting "tabletop" product photographs, and on and on.
When we saw our eval copy of this book, it immediately struck us as the ultimate FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) resource for our site. - We particularly like the way it's divided into sections, with coverage of a wide variety of different types of picture-taking our readers ask about over and over again. What's more, it covers the entire process, starting with a digital camera (as the title suggests), but continuing on through image manipulation and preparation to final output on anything from a laser printer to a printing press.
"Start with a Digital Camera" is not only a great reference book that you'd refer to again and again, but it's attractive and useful enough to make a great gift for someone you know who's interested in digital photography. (For us, it's almost an occupational hazard: Knowing the business we're in, friends and relatives are always asking us for advice on digital cameras and photography. Dave's buying no less than 6 of these himself, for inquisitive acquaintances: Balanced against the time he spends answering questions, it's a sound investment!)
We mentioned that Xoom had put together a special deal for our readers on this book: The list price of "Start with a Digital Camera" is $34.99 (and worth every penny, IOHO). By committing to a major volume purchase from the publisher, Xoom is able to offer the book to Imaging Resource readers for only $21.95(!) - That's almost 40% off the retail price! Like the Corel offer last issue, this is a limited-time offer, as once the batch of books Xoom's ordered are gone, the deal will be over. To order your copy (copies?) go to the following URL: http://orders.xoom.com/swadc/pirswadc0929/ (This web page also gives some additional information on the book and its contents.)
How often have you looked at an image from your digital camera or scanner, realized that it needed some tweaking, but weren't sure where to start? Or worse, how often have you worked and worked on an image, only to end up with something that looked worse than what you started with? Or, perhaps you've noticed that pictures from your digital camera tend to all have the same problems: An overall slight color cast, poor contrast, undersaturated colors, etc.
There's a really remarkable program on the market that addresses these problems, and is revolutionary enough that we've been trying to do our part to publicize it a bit more. PhotoGenetics, by Q-Research offers a completely different approach to "fixing" images that requires NO advanced knowledge of color theory and tonal reproduction, or familiarity with complicated image-manipulation tools. It's so easy to use, and so powerful, we've taken to calling it the "$30 camera upgrade." Even people expert in image manipulation will find PhotoGenetics useful for quickly getting to a better starting point for their manual adjustments, and there's really nothing else out there that can so quickly correct large batches of digital images. Q- Research has just come out with a new version of the product, so we thought we'd take this opportunity to tell our readers about it, and point you to the special $5-off offer Q-Research has made for you.
"I know what I like when I see it." If you can make that statement, you're well on your way to better digital photos! The whole beauty of PhotoGenetics is that it never asks more of you than to choose which of two versions of a picture you like better. The program works by showing you variations of an image one at a time, and asking you to compare them to the current version. As the program shows you each variation, you "vote" on how much you like it, compared to the reference picture. "Behind the scenes," PhotoGenetics is doing some pretty sophisticated processing, adjusting about a dozen different image parameters, including brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, sharpness, "gamma", etc. All of this happens without your being aware of it though: You just decide whether you like picture "A" or picture "B" better. After it's shown you a set of four different variations, PhotoGenetics will create a new "generation" of the image, incorporating the changes it's figured out from the votes you've cast. In this way, by randomly trying various combinations of image adjustments, and seeing which ones are most pleasing to you, the program gradually "evolves" your picture into a better one.
Depending on the image, it may take quite a few "generations" to get the image looking the way you want it, but for most people, the time spent will be less than would have been required with a general- purpose image editing program. One new feature in the latest release of PhotoGenetics is an "undo" function, that lets you return to previous versions of an image, if you feel the process has taken a wrong turn along the way.
Here's one of the best parts of PhotoGenetics though: Once you've gotten an image set up the way you like it, you can save the "genotype" used to create it. Whaa?? Genotype? -- We have to admit feeling that Q-Research got a little carried with the "evolution" metaphor, to the point that some of their terminology is a bit obscure. What they call a "genotype" is just the final set of all the adjustments that PhotoGenetics has made to the image, to get it looking the way you wanted. The benefit of saving "genotypes" like this is that you can then apply them to other images, without going through the whole picture A/picture B voting process each time. If you want though, you can always just use the prior genotype as the starting point for further image refinements.
This ability to apply previously-created genotypes to new images is phenomenally useful, given how common it is for many pictures to need similar adjustments. (For instance, a batch of pictures shot on a dreary day that all need a little contrast boost, or indoor shots from a party that all have a yellow tinge from the incandescent lighting.) The ability to apply genotypes en masse to groups of pictures is also the source of our "$30 camera upgrade" concept: In our testing of dozens of different cameras, we've noticed that (a) none are perfect in all respects, and (b) many of them have very consistent shortcomings in their images. A given camera may produce images with a consistent yellowish cast, undersaturated colors, or some other minor problem. Often a relatively small adjustment would dramatically improve the quality of the images. Sometimes, the "standard correction" required will vary depending on the type of shot, with one set of adjustments needed for sunlit scenes, another for shots taken under cloudy skies, a third for indoor shots, etc. With conventional image-editing programs, the need to individually adjust each photo makes the process of applying such corrections too laborious to be practical.
With PhotoGenetics though, you can create your "standard corrections" for various types of photos, and save them as different genotypes. You can then select entire groups of images and apply the genotypes automatically. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can fix literally dozens of images! The ease and simplicity of the process makes it feasible to apply it to every picture you take. The results can be really eye-popping, akin to wiping a dingy haze away from your photos. It's like getting a dramatically better digital camera or scanner, for a scant $30 investment! (The "$30 camera upgrade.")
Actually, for our readers, it's only a $25 investment, as Q-Research has offered a special deal to Imaging Resource subscribers and visitors. If you visit http://www.q- res.com/php3/downloads.php3?refid=imgresource you'll be able to download a free trial copy of the program with no obligation. If you decide you like it, return to that same URL, and you can order an "unlock" code that makes your trial copy permanent for only $25! (Beleaguered Mac owners will be pleased to learn that PhotoGenetics is fully cross-platform.)
New Features: Add-Ons (No more barrel distortion!!) We mentioned at the outset that Q-Research has just come out with an upgraded version of PhotoGenetics. One of the new enhancements is that the program now supports "Add-Ons", small programs that can add to PhotoGenetics' already impressive capabilities. There are three add- ons currently available, IsoColor, "Artistic", and one called "Dewarp" to deal with barrel and/or pincushion distortion in camera lenses. This last will be particularly welcome to many higher-end users who've been frustrated by their digicam's tendency to turn straight lines into curved ones near the pictures' edges. This is quite a common lens defect or distortion, especially at the wide angle end of a zoom lens' range. (The effect is referred to as "barrel distortion" because the bulging appearance of objects makes them resemble old-fashioned wood- staved barrels.) Barrel distortion is by no means unique to digicam lenses, as most zoom-equipped conventional point & shoots have it as well: The big difference with digital cameras is that you can actually do something about it. It's possible to largely eliminate barrel distortion using advanced image-editing tools like Photoshop and Corel's Photo-Paint, but the process is laborious and time-consuming to do right. Now though, the PhotoGenetics Dewarp add-on provides a quick & easy way to correct for this common lens problem. Again, the tool is incredibly cheap, compared to other alternatives available: The Dewarp add-on sells for only $14.95.
Overall, PhotoGenetics is one of the most useful tools we've seen for digicam owners, as well as one of the most inexpensive. At $25 for the basic program (with The Imaging Resource discount), and a free trial download available over the net, it's hard to beat! (For more details on the program, see our in-depth review on the site, at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/SOFT/PGEN/PGEN.HTM)
We announced the "Tip of the Month" contest in our last issue, and had a great response from our readers. The key here is that something you may consider "old hat" could turn out to be a lifesaver for someone else! If you have a tip to share, send it via email, to email@example.com - All the currently-submitted tips are posted on our site, at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM. We'll be putting up a voting page in the next few days, to let people decide who should get the $100 gift certificate prize from Cameraworld.com. (Check the site early next week, we should have the voting page up by Tuesday or so.) Meanwhile, enter your tip now for next month's contest!
An example of the great, simple sort of tips we're looking for is one reader Red Varnum submitted, on making a "chain pod". Ever find yourself in a situation where a tripod just isn't practical, but you need to take a picture that you just know is going to blur when you try to hand-hold it? Red's solution is to make a "chain pod" that you can carry along in your pocket. This is just a length of light chain with a 1/4 inch bolt at one end to fasten to the tripod socket of your camera. Screw the bolt into the tripod socket, step on the dangling end of the chain and pull it tight, and your camera's stability will improve dramatically! Red points out that camera shake is a particularly critical issue with the current crop of digicams, as most have rather low ISO (light sensitivity) ratings, making for longish exposure times. Read Red's full description of his contraption (and all the other great tips) by visiting http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM. Thanks, Red!
Have a general or specific question on digital photography? Visit our general discussion forum at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/FORUM.HTM!
- Next Issue: Kodak's Picture CD - Last installment: Included Software Comparing Camera Resolution - The importance of Aspect Ratio (Sorry, we promised this last topic last time, but the other articles ran so long we decided to leave it until the next issue.) Other interesting topics & great offers! (Meaning we're not quite sure exactly what yet, but we have a LOT of ideas...)
- Signoff We hope you've enjoyed the second issue of our newsletter! We welcome your comments and suggestions: You can leave a comment on the special bulletin-board we've set up for suggestions and feedback. (That way, others will be able to comment on your input, and everyone's remarks will be preserved for posterity.) To give us feedback, go to: http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a.tcl?topic=irnews
We're very excited by the prospects for this newsletter, and look forward to expanding it into a great resource for the digital photography community. The response to our first issue was absolutely overwhelming! Stay tuned for the next issue in about two weeks, and drop by the special bulletin board mentioned above to leave us your comments and feedback!
Daily News: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS.HTM New on Site: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEW1.HTM Digicam index: http://www.imaging-resource.com/DIGCAM01.HTM Q&A Forum: http://www.imaging-resource.com/FORUM.HTM Newsletter Forum: http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a.tcl?topic=irnews Tips: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM
Thanks for your support!
Dave Etchells, Publisher