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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2004-03-03
Image Size: It may be everything (First of two parts)
By Tom Braid, Edmonton Sun
After talking to Robert Hanashiro about interpolating digital images up to much larger file sizes and the different to accomplish this most important function, Bert remarked that this would be a good subject revisit since it had not been addressed since the April 2001 issue. www.sportsshooter.com/news/499
LizardTech's Genuine Fractals Print Pro 3.0 interface running inside Photoshop 7 and on Windows XP.
To tell you the truth I was honoured to be asked to contribute to this awesome newsletter. I hope you enjoy what I have put together.
It is time to get the latest and current how-to information and some personal experiences on interpolating digital images.
My goal by the end of this column is to make this most important digital image function understandable so you can go out yourself with confidence and blow-up your images to the size and resolution that you need to go to press or to print. This column has easy to understand information on interpolating, as well as some information that just might make your head hurt - I know it hurts mine.
You just might be amazed at how big you can go with a very small digital photographic file. I was! In fact I am still amazed that one day last spring while on deadline during a major breaking story we were able to take a not so good quality police mug shot of a bad guy that was only 140k (yes 14% of one megabyte) and blow it up, I mean "interpolate" it to just under 4 megabytes and run it our front page. And big too! What we did was interpolate a very small digital file to just around 27 times its original size....and it held together! It was starting to fall apart but the original file at 140K was falling apart.
This was both a shocker and amazing to everyone at our newspaper when that edition hit the streets. If this one example of what you can do will not keep you reading this column I do not know what will?
It would be a huge understatement to say that there has been many improvements and changes to interpolating the past few years. In fact there have been many improvements to the older original programs; like Genuine Fractals, many brand new competing programs have hit the streets just in the past 12-months and some programs and companies have disappeared all together.
The most important factor that has helped interpolating programs become practical, especially in a daily newspaper environment, is the much faster and better computer processors. The computer processing power required to interpolate your digital files up to a much bigger size can push even the best computers to the maximum. Older computers can get bogged down by demands of interpolating and when you are on deadline this is not a good thing to say the least.
What is Interpolation or Interpolating?
Interpolation - Many words are used these days when people are referring to interpolation but in the end it is all the same thing, upsizing, resample, resampled, resampling, up-scaling, etc, etc in the days of negatives we just used to call it enlarging your image, a blow-up or a major blow-up, or one of my personal favourites, "let's blow the crap out of it!" Anyone that has been around for a few years will know what I am talking about - when you had a good picture but it was loose for whatever reason. So you had to turn your enlarger around and drop the easel to the floor and get someone to help you focus the enlarger before exposing the paper.
People can call interpolating anything they want but just do not get confused by all the different terminologies and names it has been given these days, in the end it is all the same thing. The bottom-line is that interpolating an image just means that you are taking your original digital file and enlarging it to a bigger size - a digital enlarger as it were. Then you can output the image at an acceptable quality level for whichever way you may want to reproduce it. Very simple stuff!!
Many publications and photographers have different acceptable quality levels so to give you a simple answer where I can tell you to use only one program or one method is just impossible to do at this point. There are many factors in digital pictures that can make them a better candidate for running your digital images through one method or program over another. This is where you have to educate yourself, experiment and learn what the different processes can do and accomplish in the end for your digital images. Sorry for not being able to tell you there is a magic bullet, but after all what in digital photography is that simple?
What is an algorithm?
Now your brain may start to hurt here so please stay with me! The easiest answer to this question is that an algorithm is the math inside and behind interpolating programs, it is a complex mathematical equation for solving problems; it is in fact true rocket and computer science!! Which is interesting since the word "algorithm" has its origins all the way back to the year 800 in Iraq... nearly 1200 years before computers and even longer before NASA was ever founded.
Here is the official science dictionary version.
Algorithm-The term algorithm (pronounced AL-go-rith-um) is a procedure or formula for solving a problem. The word derives from the name of the mathematician, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was part of the royal court in Baghdad who lived from about 780 to 850. Al-Khwarizmi's work is the likely source for the word algebra as well. A computer program can be viewed as an elaborate algorithm. In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm usually means a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. Here is a link to an on-line bio for Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Al-Khwarizmi.html
If that is not enough to exercise your brain cells you could always check out and learn more about Algorithms from Steven Skiena a Professor in the Computer Science Department University at Stony Brook New York, he has a book called "The Algorithm Design Manual" this book and this generally really hard to understand information is feature on this site www.cs.sunysb.edu/~algorith/
Okay now that is done with; I will come back down to earth and explain this the only way I can understand this technology. And that is keeping it simple for regular everyday dummies like me! Make no mistake; I am not the world's best and biggest expert in interpolating, far from it. I am just an end-user that is still learning and one that has figured it out through experimenting, taking chances and in the end actually getting some amazing and surprising published results from some very, very small files! Getting over this roadblock of disbelief is the toughest part. Believe me every person I have dealt with in the past year has gone through the same thing! Try it at least once; what do you have to lose?
I started my search for a computer based "blowing up" (I mean interpolating) program over a year and a half ago when I found out that our budget to go 100% digital in our photo department was going to fall a little short.
Instead of replacing all our old gear, I would get stuck with two of the 1.9 megapixel Kodak DCS 520 cameras. Now these were great cameras when they hit the streets over six years ago.
The 520 is the Canon lens mount sister to the Canon EOS D2000 and Nikon lens mount Kodak DCS 620, they produced an uncropped 5.7 megabyte file. I needed to find a Mac-based program (as we use no PC's at work) that was inexpensive, one that would be easy and fast to use on deadline at our daily newspaper where our full-time staff, freelancers and students have to do all the front-end digital photography work before it goes to imaging. That meant I needed to find a program everyone in our department could use with little or no training, and one that would at times take very small files and blow the living c#&p! out of them when we needed to. Sounded easy enough, right?
To tell you the truth I was really not 100% sure that I could do this task but it is one that I just had to accomplish. Failure was not an option for me on this one as I was sick and tired of having files that were too small and at times what we believed were unpublishable at any decent size. We would run these pictures smaller, down play them or not run them at all. Has anyone else had that experience at your paper over small digital images? I am betting that I am not alone and there are many shooters nodding their heads with a BIG "yes."
When our first real digital cameras (not counting the point and shoots) came into the Edmonton Sun photo department some six years ago, our imaging department dropped our final output down to 150dpi from 200dpi to help get around the small files size. Everyone just got used to lower quality of many of the photos in the paper. Turns out, thanks to interpolating, shortly after the start of 2003 things were about to change at our paper BIG-TIME.
Like everyone else I had heard of the Photoshop's built-in bicubic interpolation, but we were told and lead to believe that enlarging digital images really was not a good idea, so we just did not do it.
Then there was the Photoshop plug-in called Genuine Fractals, the granddaddy and original specialized interpolating program to hit the market. But I was on a tight budget and at $300US (which is just around $500CND) and an interface which I had remembered from earlier uses as a little difficult to use. I was worried that for a department full of interpolating beginners that it could cause problems. I had to find something easier and cheaper if I could, that was my challenge - and I am also up for a challenge.
Genuine Fractals was really ahead of it's time back in 1998 and the original programmers and designers at a company called Altamira that released it really deserve a huge amount of credit for what is now happening in the interpolating market today. The early Genuine Fractals even with its tricky interface did work right from the start, but the slow computers of the day with limited RAM and slow processors, interpolating images up to big sizes took a take a long time to process and get the task completed.
My partner in www.interpolateTHIS.com local and long-time Edmonton desktop publisher Alan Schietzsch has years of experience with this subject of waiting and waiting. Alan would sit there for 20 minutes on a small interpolating or on the bigger interpolations of his digital images he would go to the store as his computer worked for 3 to 4 hours and even longer to get just one enlargement. And then there were the crashes! Today you can do a final enlargement in just seconds to around 15 minutes for the huge 300+ megabyte final upsized files.
Back a few years ago this kind of time may have been okay for a graphic house, but at the daily newspaper environment with its generally unsupported photo departments, it never really caught on in a big way. Genuine Fractals did get a huge push into the mainstream marketplace and spotlight back in February 2000 when Poynter Online's Kenneth F. Irby featured a story about how California based ICON Sports Media Inc. used Genuine Fractals to interpolate "the" picture from Super Bowl XXXIV. Sports Illustrated ended up publishing the picture as a spread. It is a great story and it is still online at www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=3512
My search continued and I became very frustrated over the next couple of weeks as I searched the Internet high and low using every keyword for interpolating and enlarging images that I could think of. I searched through all of the top digital sites, their bulletin boards and forums reading post after post and looking for the answers to this burning question.
There were just no clear-cut or solid answers anywhere and in fact the contradictions and people complaining about the programs on the market made me ask even more questions about interpolating digital images up to bigger sizes. There was talk about programs called VFZoom, S-Spline 2, a PC only program called Qimage, Fred Miranda's Stair Interpolation and of course Genuine Fractals. But in the end it was all very confusing.
Digital Domain's: Qimage interface running on Windows XP.
Being a journalist I am pretty skeptical on the best of days, I need to see it to believe it. What I was hoping to find was one of the world's digital experts (like Rob Galbraith) being quoted somewhere saying, "Use program A or B because it works! Because it is a really good, solid and safe way to interpolate your digital images up to much larger and still usable quality."
If that quote is out there somewhere I sure could not find it. The only positive things I could find being said about interpolating programs all had direct ties to the individual websites of the products that were for sale. I was getting more cynical.
Alan, being a long-time Genuine Fractals user, also wanted to explore any and all possibilities regarding interpolating software on the market. Alan had been doing all the same searching that I was and had become equally frustrated with the lack of solid answers online or in print for this very important subject. We really started to wonder if this was a loss cause and a waste of time trying to find proper and safe ways to interpolate your digital images up to much larger sizes beyond the original resolution.
I had sent a pretty strong letter challenging the president of Shortcut Development the makers of S-Spline 2 (just renamed to PhotoZoom) asking him if his program was actually as good as they were bragging about on their website. If so, why were the top digital websites around the world not talking about the software? The company president, Vincent Weberink actually answered my e-mail personally. He said that they were not photographers but actually a young group of mathematicians who built a new, advanced and patented interpolating program to be used for the small megapixel digital cameras and the new line of camera phones coming onto the market.
They did not build the program with professional digital photographers or the publishing industry in mind. That is why S-Spline 2 has been built as a stand-a-lone product that runs on all platforms by itself with no need to have Photoshop on your computer to plug-in to. He also sent me a review copy of S-Spline 2 and he challenged me to test it out as hard as we could.
Shortcut's PhotoZoom PRO 1.094 interface running on Mac OS X Panther.
It turns out I was the first daily newspaper photographer in the world that had contacted him directly to try it out. He also asked for a list of the best digital sites I was talking about so I sent him this information; www.interpolatethis.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6
Being told that I was the first newspaper shooter to ever try and bring this program into the workplace did not exactly give me any confidence in this program right from the start. I figured that if this program actually worked. I would have read about it somewhere.
We tested it out and the results we were getting from the images we worked on looked pretty good and were impressive onscreen. But what about in print? We really were very unsure because we had heard like everyone else that had a digital camera, "what you have is what you have and you can not go much beyond that point." YA RIGHT!!
It was also really nice to not have to be operating inside Photoshop for once while working on a picture; S-Spline 2 is a totally stand-a-lone multi platform program; it does not do any colour management so you still need Photoshop for that. It was very nerve-racking to actually go to the stage of sending a picture to output and press for one of Alan's actual paid desktop publishing projects or for a picture that was to run in the paper I work for.
Alan and I kept saying, "What happens if these pictures actually fall apart and they look horrible in print? Someone is going to be really pissed at us!"
This is the very difficult roadblock and mindset that all shooters hit when they enter into the interpolating world. Believe me when I say, once you get past this roadblock and mindset you can really do some amazing blow-ups!!
Then came along a job from one of Alan's regular customers, one he could not disappoint. The job was to photograph a semi-truck and trailer with the best digital camera he had, the Canon D-60. The final 11 meg cropped image had to be interpolated up to a 154 meg RGB which of course is a 205 meg CMYK when later converted before being printed out as a mural. A mural that was just around 27 feet long!!
We had huge doubts about this ever working out where the client would be happy. We used both Genuine Fractals and S-Spline 2 to make two very large 154-megabyte images. After much nail biting and side by side comparisons it was clear that S-Spline 2 had done a better job and kept the fine detail with very little artifacting especially in the chromed honeycomb grill of the semi-truck.
The deadline had arrived and it was late at night and Alan had to deliver the mega file via an FTP site, then there was more nail biting for several days. To make a long story short the client was blown away with the final output and product. The whole story with pictures can be found at this link; www.interpolatethis.com/reallife1.html
Next it was my turn at the Edmonton Sun. Shortly after the truck project we had a big tactical unit takedown of a hit man and murder suspect. One of our shooters had an exclusive shot of the cops with there weapons pointed at the head of the bad guy as he lay spread eagle on the ground.
Problem was it was shot using the Kodak DCS 520 with an 70mm to 200mm and a 1.4 converter - from a block or more away - and it was just a little back focused to boot.
Bottom-line was I had great spot news image, but when cropped down it was just around 1.2 megabyte! The editors saw the picture on the screen and we all know how good pictures can look on those 72 DPI screens and said, "That is main art".
GULP! We are a tabloid and we run our pictures big on the front page.
I was standing there saying but it is only 1.2 meg and we had to keep it small.
I asked for a half an hour to try out this new program I have been playing with, S-Spline 2.
I had to e-mail the file to Alan as I did not have the program at work, like I said the confidence to blow up digital images was not there yet.
Alan interpolated the image up to around 9 meg and sent it back to me. I was amazed that I could not see any difference between the original small file and the new bigger file. The only difference was that one of them was now big enough to publish on the front page.
After working directly with the imaging department, who did all the final pre-press preparation and sharpening on the picture, it actually look pretty good...I told the editor that we could in fact run this picture on the front page.
Now I had several hours of nail biting before I saw a paper come off the press. I was just flat out amazed at the final printed image.
Alan and I were laughing and joking the next day over coffee that we had just discovered the fountain of youth for digital images!! This was awesome but the best was yet to come.
A couple of weeks later the police made an arrest of a murder suspect from a 10 year old case where a six-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and murdered. This was a huge story that touched the whole community deeply. We checked our database and found that we actually had a police mug shot of the suspect that was now being charged with this horrible crime. But it was a very, very small digital file and it was only 140k RGB too boot, this picture was so small and bad quality it was a joke.
We had bought a copy of S-Spline 2 (now PhotoZoom) for the office after our first success story above, so I told the editors that I would try and make this picture useable at maybe an inch or two tops, "But do not expect too much because there was just nothing there for information."
I started blowing the original file up to a number of different sizes. One try after another I took the original and set the final output to a bigger and bigger and then even a bigger final size. I was shocked at what I was getting for results because the final picture looked like it was actually holding at just under 4 megabyte. The file was now some 27 times bigger the original 140k file!!
I had to add contrast and do some standard and simple burning and dodging because the original had almost no true blacks in it, like I said it was junk. Again I worked with imaging and after a number of printed-out press proofs I signed the picture off as good enough to publish.
Again more nail biting and second thoughts for several hours. I went home and had to wait 'til the paper arrived at my front door in the morning. It was nerve racking because if that picture fell apart on the press and our front page looked like crap I would be in some trouble for saying it was good enough to go to press.
The next day in the office it was all high fives as the picture and paper looked pretty darn good all things considered. The competition had a little tiny mug shot on its front page that could have not been more than an inch wide - ours was huge in comparison. We smoked them again thanks to S-Spline 2!
Now the buzz was on about interpolating and the things you could actually do with digital files. This was amazing stuff, to be able to take a digital file and now know that you can blow it up 10 times and beyond its original size and still maintain a good solid digital image. The digital file size handcuffs were off.
It was not long before our newspaper chain bought a site license for S-Spline 2. In the past year I have lost count on how many times we have used S-Spline 2 to save small files and make them publishable throughout our paper. It has been fantastic.
Alan and I sat down for lunch and said, "this is nuts" - we have all this information and there has to be thousands of shooters out there that are having the same problems we used to have.
Right there at lunch we came up with the name www.interpolateTHIS.com and I drew up the logo on a piece of paper. A website for interpolating information was born. A whole year has now past for us, and our website is still small but it is growing, the photography, publishing and interpolating industry in general is starting to take us seriously. And they better because interpolating is here to stay and the programs are only getting better as the days go by.
All of our photographers now know that if they are shooting loose at a breaking news event or any other good picture opportunity and they are far away, all they have to do is get it in sharp focus, and have a cropped down file that is somewhere between one and two megabyte. After that interpolation will take care of the rest.
There is a lot of power given back to the news photographer when they know that a cropped down in focus digital file of just one to two megabyte can be easily blow back up 10 or even 20 megabyte!! Not something you want to do everyday - shooting tight in the first place will always give you better results on the finished product. But when you are in an uncontrolled situation and the final cropped digital file is tiny, being able to interpolate it to a usable file size can be a real lifesaver.
(Tom Braid is the chief photographer Edmonton Sun and co - founder www.interpolateTHIS.com. Tom also serves as the secretary of the Western Canadian News Photographers Association, www.wcnpa.ca.)
Tom Braid's member page
Western Canadian News Photographers Association
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