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Optimizing Files
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OPTIMIZING DIGITAL CAMERA FILES
Jim Doty, Jr.

Rachel. Oroginal and optimized images.

Rachel. The original file straight out of the camera is on the left, and the digitally optimized image is on the right.

Ansel Adams, one of the best known landscape photographers (and trained as a classical musician), wrote that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. The same has been true for other photographers who have worked in the black and white darkroom for decades. Hours are spent spent bringing out the best nuances in the negative and wonderful prints can be the result.

When you take your color negative to be printed, the same is true bu to a much more limited extent. The lab technician makes quick decisions for you in a matter of mere seconds in terms of the exposure, contrast, and color balance of your prints. That is why the same negative can produce a flat looking photo from one lab and a great looking photo from another. Skill still matters, even in a one hour photo lab. If you shoot color negative film you can prove this to yourself. Take your favorite negative to 5 or 6 different labs (make sure at least one of them is a pro lab) and have each one make an 8x10 print. You will be probably be surprised and you might end up changing labs.

For those of us who have used color slide (transparency) film for years, "what you shoot is what you get." The slide is both score and performance. We would send our slides "as is" to be published (and sometimes be puzzled by the final published result). Virtually every published photo (slide, negative, or digital file) is digitally prepared and enhanced for publication, so the interpretation of the final image is in the hands of whoever prepares the digital file and whoever prints it.

Original and optimized files cropped from a head and shoulders portrait of Kati. To view this "Flash" file You will need the free Macromedia download .

The explosion of digital photography, home computers, and reasonably priced software has brought the digital darkroom to a lot of photographers. To borrow from Ansel Adams, the original camera file is the score and the optimized file is the performance.

Point and shoot digital cameras are designed to produce punchy (colorful, high contrast) photos right out of the camera. This saves the average person from doing a lot of digital work on their computer. There is a  cost: images that lose valuable photo information that shows up in lost highlight and shadow detail. Pixelation, banding and other problems can show up in large prints. Fortunately, many of the better point and shoot cameras will allow you to tone down the in-camera image processing if you want to work with the digital files yourself and maximum quality is important.

Professional digital cameras are designed to capture maximum data with minimal in-camera processing. The images may look flat coming out of the camera, but more data has been saved so the skilled digital darkroom artist has the maximum potential for beautiful enlargements. Levels, Curves, Hue-Saturation, Shadow-Highlight, Channel Mixer, Adjustment Layers, Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask, Layer Masks, Clone Stamp, and Healing Brush are just a few of the tools and options available to make the most of an image. Just as in the old black and white darkroom, skill and experience are still important.

The online examples posted here are small digital files and only give a hint at what is possible with a properly optimized image from a professional digital camera. The real proof is when you see the difference in an 8x10 or larger print.

Optimizing images is important in landscape as well as portrait photography. I posted a basic illustration and story of this in my article on Fixing CAmera Files.

I usually spend about an hour optimizing an important digital image. For me, it is time well spent to get the best possible image quality.

May 24, 2006

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