(Reader Notice: This review is on Version 1.0 of PhotoGenetics. Version 2.0 is *greatly* enhanced. We've now updated our review of PhotoGenetics, to address the new version. This review is now online, and can be reached by clicking here.)
01/08/2002 - READER NOTICE: This software has been discontinued by the manufacturer.
How often have you looked at one of your digital pictures
and said "gee, if it were only a little brighter"? If you're like
most of us though, knowing what you like, and knowing what to do about it are
two entirely different things: Translating "brighter" into the appropriate
series of operations in Photoshop or other image-editing program often requires
a fair bit of expertise. As often as not, a tyro's attempts to improve their
photos results in images that look worse than what they started with.
Personally, I've gotten to the point (after years of fiddling with digital images) that I can get an image to at least an approximation of what I want fairly quickly in Photoshop(tm). On the other hand, it's taken years to get to that point, Photoshop is a multi-hundred-dollar imaging program, with an enormous range of sophisticated tools for dealing with almost any aspect of an image, and I still have a long ways to go, skill-wise. Even knowing what I need to do to correct color or tone problems in an image often does me little good when using entry-level imaging programs: While the sorts of programs included with digital cameras and scanners do much to reduce the complexity of image editing, they often leave you without the power you need to actually address the problems at hand.
A company called Q-Research has developed a unique approach to dealing with this dilemma, through their "PhotoGenetics" software application. PhotoGenetics intelligently optimizes your images in response to input you give it on how much you like the (quasi-) random variations it produces. In a matter of a few minutes, you can arrive at a significantly improved picture, without knowing the first thing about tone curves, color theory, or the controls of a sophisticated image-manipulation program. Once you've found a formula ("genotype" in their parlance) that works, you can save it and apply it to other images requiring the same modifications. The process really couldn't be simpler, provides surprisingly good results with a little patience, and best of all, is packaged in a software product that costs a paltry $29.95! Not enough? The program also includes a nifty printer-calibration routine that helps adjust you printer's output to match what you see on your computer screen. Oh, yes: It also works on both Mac and Windows platforms!
In this review, we'll take a brief tour through PhotoGenetics, showing you the steps you go through to correct an image, and a "before/after" example of a typical digital photo needing adjustment.
Easy to be a Critic
It's often been said that it's much easier to criticize to create. Recognizing this fact, particularly as it applies to digital imaging, Q-Research's PhotoGenetics program lets you adjust your pictures by simply stating which of two versions of an image you prefer! By creating a whole series of variations and asking your opinion of each, PhotoGenetics develops a "genotype" that matches the image to your preferences. All you need to do at each step of the process is to say whether (and by how much) you prefer the current variation of the image to the previous version. Let's step through the process:
Choosing your image: The Browser
The process begins with choosing an image to work on. This is accomplished through the PhotoGenetics Browser, shown below. This is a fairly standard thumbnail-based browser, showing you small versions of any images in the directory currently selected in the left-hand window. Operation of the browser window completely follows Mac & Windows user-interface standards (double-click to open a folder, etc.), so we won't spend any additional time on it here.
Following the "genetic" theme derived from their underlying software technology, PhotoGenetics calls the process of modifying an image an "evolution." Once you've selected an image to work with (by double-clicking on the thumbnail), you can either apply a previously-saved "genotype" (image modification), or begin the "evolution" of the image. The opening screen of the evolution process is shown below.
In each "generation" of the evolution, you view a succession of four images one at a time, comparing each of them to the results of the previous stage in the image's development. An example of this is shown in the screen shot below: The program has actually made a very good guess at the desired result right at the start. (Here, we want to lighten the main subject and increase the contrast slightly.) Because we like the variation the program is offering, we're clicking the mouse button with the cursor pretty far over to the "Better" side of the scale at the bottom of the screen. In our experience with the program, we found that this was pretty important: Often we weren't particularly excited by ANY of the program's offerings for a particular generation, but found that it seemed to produce the good more quickly if we would indicate at least some preference between the images presented.
How well does it work?
Of course, the natural question is "How well does this work?" This is certainly a very different approach from most image-manipulation programs, so it's fair to ask if it's an improvement on conventional methods. To answer this fairly, we need to remove our "image expert" hats, and try to place ourselves in the shoes of a beginner: If you're already comfortable with an advanced program like Photoshop or PhotoPaint, you'll probably be frustrated by the lack of control with PhotoGenetics. (On the other hand, we can see a place for PhotoGenetics even among imaging professionals, as a way to apply a "rough draft" correction to a large number of images quickly.) Harkening back to our early days on the computer though, wee feel that PhotoGenetics does perform a valuable function, in that it consistently leads to improved images, and in fact requires NO knowledge of image adjustment to do so. The before & after shots below shows the result of an "evolution" of the image shown at the outset. While we feel we could have done better in Photoshop, we doubt there's anything else out there that would do as good a job for $29.95, particularly for a user without a strong underlying knowledge of photo manipulation.
These before/after pictures show an example of PhotoGenetics' work...
PhotoGenetics calls a specific set of image adjustments a "genotype." Once you've achieved the result you like on a photo, you can save the combined modifications made to the image as a "genotype," for subsequent application to other images. This saved genotype will then appear in the list of genotypes that appear in the lower right-hand corner of the opening screen. You can apply the saved genotypes (each of which may represent a complex combination of image-adjustment operations) with just a click or two of the mouse in the future. This can be particularly useful if you have a whole series of images shot under similar conditions, or if you've decided that your digital camera consistently needs a standard adjustment applied to all of its images. (We expect this last to be a particularly common use of the program: We're aware of several cameras that produce excellent images, but have a consistent failing, whether it be a slight overall color cast, a lack of color saturation, etc.)
The "unlocked" version of the program (see "Getting PhotoGenetics" below) enables a couple of more-advanced tools that modify the evolution process. The Color Temperature control (shown at right) lets you adjust the overall hue of an image in fairly fine increments. (It expresses its adjustments in the technically correct but rather arcane units of degrees Kelvin: You can safely ignore this and just watch the results you obtain, letting yourself be guided by the rainbow on the slider control. More to the left makes the picture warmer, more to the right makes it cooler.)
The other advanced control is the "Genotype Intensity" slider, shown at left. This lets you adjust how strongly a chosen effect is applied. This can apply either to a previously-saved genotype, or to the current one you're working on. (Q-Research suggests this as a way to "back out" of a genotype that's gone awry, without losing all the improvement you've achieved along the way.) - Overall, we see this as most likely an infrequently-used option.
Another common obstacle to getting good prints out of your computer is the problem of printer calibration: Different printers use differently-colored inks, make different assumptions about how to translate the on-screen color to the paper, etc. While by no means a complete color-management solution, PhotoGenetics provides a useful printer calibration tool that works much the way the main program itself does: You examine a series of sample images, and choose the ones you think match the on-screen display most closely. Separate calibration images are used for grayscale brightness and contrast, and for color calibration. A sample of the printer color-calibration control panel is shown below.
After working with the program for a while, we decided that we needed to be a little more generous in our evaluation of the image options it was presenting us with. (This led to one of our suggestions we have for the program's authors, described below.) Our first inclination was to make a decision based on the totality of what we were seeing in the image: "No, overall I really prefer the reference image to the current variation." We eventually decided that we were better off responding to just some of what we saw in the photos: "Well, I like the reference image better overall, but I do like the fact that this variation is a bit lighter than the reference." It seemed that we got better results faster when we gave the program a bit more of a range of preferences to deal with. We don't have any hard and fast test results to prove this, but it was a distinct impression we developed as we worked with it.
Room for Improvement?
There were several things we'd like to see appear in future versions of the program: Our hope is that by listing them here, the authors will be motivated to "evolve" the program some in response! ;-)
- Ability to "guide" the process more at the outset. In the particular sample image we chose to work with for this article, the program actually made a very intelligent guess at the outset as to how to correct it. We found though, that some of the other images we tested it with gave it a much harder time: For instance, one of our highly-colored "indoor portrait" digital camera test shots, taken under incandescent light took a LONG while to correct. We feel it would be MUCH faster if we could somehow guide the program a little more proactively to arriving at the right color balance. (For instance, by showing it at the outset something in the picture that should be a neutral color.)
- Ability to tell it how much you don't like the current offering. When viewing the options in each "generation", the preference scale runs from "a little better" to "lots better", with the only option for expressing dislike being "Not better or even worse." We often felt it would have been very helpful if we could have expressed DISLIKES as well. Many times, we'd find ourselves not liking any of the options offered, but felt that some were truly horrendous, while others were close to OK. We think it would be useful if more options than just "Not better or even worse" were presented, to help guide the program away from really fruitless directions.
- Capability for the program to remember more about your preferences from session to session. The current version of PhotoGenetics seems to develop a sense of what you like as you work on multiple images within a given session with the program. Once you quit though, you start over when you next enter the program. It would be useful if PhotoGenetics could "remember" your preferences in images (how contrasty, how saturated the colors are, etc.) from one session to the next.
- Wider range of adjustment in the printer calibration utility. While PhotoGenetics' printer calibration is a useful tool (and one that we'd like to see in more programs!), we felt the range of alternatives it presents for adjusting the printer are somewhat limited. We'd like to see more options for overall lightness/darkness, and perhaps some more options for color balance as well. Some indication of what the variations actually were in the color samples would also have helped guide us in what to look for in the printouts. (In other words, if it had told us that sample 'A' had the color saturation boosted, while sample 'B' had the blue channel pulled down, we feel we would have been able to rank our preferences more accurately.) As to the lightness/darkness scale, there seemed to be brightness/contrast options, but we felt that the "genotype" we ended up with for our (rather elderly) Epson Stylus printer produced prints that were a bit light overall.
- Returning to the browser view? We missed this on our own, actually had to ask Q-Research how to get back to it: Once you've opened and worked with an image, you don't immediately see the Browser view when you close the picture again. To bring up the browser again, you need to go to the File menu, and select the "Open Special" option. - This could be clearer in the user interface, and we'd overall prefer that the program return you to the browser by default.
The Bottom Line
So what's the bottom line? It depends a bit on your experience level, interests, and existing software library, but we think just about everyone with a digital camera or scanner could find a use for PhotoGenetics! -- If you're a relative newcomer, and have no sophisticated image-manipulation programs, PhotoGenetics should be an easy purchase decision: It can produce excellent results with a little patience, and literally no knowledge of image manipulation, color theory, or the like, and at a very low cost to boot!
Even for the experienced user, we can see it serving very useful functions. As we noted earlier, most digicams tend to have a standard bias in their images, with some producing flatter, less-contrasty, less-saturated images, others creating a consistent color bias in their images, etc. For owners of most digital cameras we believe, a single well-honed "genotype" could be batch-applied to all your files very quickly and efficiently, bringing the output of your digicam much closer to the ideal before you even think about custom-tweaking the individual pictures. In most cases, we suspect this is all you'd need to do to the images. (Think of it as a $30 enhancement for your $300 camera that will dramatically improve the picture quality!) A similar situation occurs with low-end flatbed scanners: Color on these units is often off somewhat, and varies from unit to unit. A specific scanner is always pretty consistent in its behavior though: Thus, you could develop a genotype in PhotoGenetics for your cheapie scanner, to quickly and automatically perform a rough correction on your scans to improve color, tonal range, etc. We suspect in most cases, this would be enough, but you could always use the PhotoGenetics-adjusted scans as the basis for further tweaking... Another application for experienced users could be to quickly get pictures into the "ballpark" before resorting to more laborious manual adjustment methods.
Q-Research makes 30-day demo copies of PhotoGenetics freely available on the web, on their website. These versions are fully-functional, with the exception of a few advanced features (printer calibration, color temperature, genotype intensity, and adjust red-eyes). You can download a demo copy of the program from there, try it out, and see how well you like it. If you decide to purchase it, you can return, give your credit-card info, and receive a registration code that unlocks the program's full potential. To try it out, visit QBeo's PhotoGenetics Web Page.
For more information (including an on-line demo of the product),
Visit QBeo's PhotoGenetics Page.
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