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|| News Item: Posted 2004-11-03

It's all about quality
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

Photo by Aaron Kehoe

Photo by Aaron Kehoe

Reed Hoffmann, right, helps Peter Read Miller with his presentation at the 2003 Sports Shooter Workshop and Luau.
Are you getting the most out of your digital photography? It's worth a few minutes of your time to review the steps and see if there are any changes you should make.

Camera set-up
Are you making the right choices in the menus on your digital Camera? We used to just pick a film based on ISO needed, load and shoot. Now there are any number of decisions to make in file format, JPEG compression, resolution, sharpening, tone compensation, etc. Have you learned which are best for you, your camera and your paper? How do you do that? Test, test, test. It's easy with digital. When you make changes and test, what are you looking for? First, be sure to view the test images at 100%. That means your computer will use one pixel on the display to show one pixel in the image. 100% is the only way you can really see what's going on with your file, whether you're looking at sharpness, noise (usually most noticeable in the blue channel - Command-3 or Control-3 to view, Command or Control - tilde to take it back to RGB) or any other detail-related issues.

There are two things that will kill you when shooting digital cameras, and they're the same two issues photographers face shooting slide film - exposure and white balance. Blow the exposure and there's no saving the image. Ignore the light you're working in and the color casts in the images will ruin them. The difference between slides and digital is that digital makes these much easier to deal with. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to handle both of these issues with a little knowledge and a little care. First is to make sure you're taking advantage of the flashing highlights (sometimes called "Highlight Alert") and histogram display on your camera, so you're warned if there's an exposure problem. Secondly, learn how to capture a preset white balance. It's the single simplest way to make sure the camera is processing the image for the correct color temperature. Auto white balance is getting better and better, but still isn't completely reliable and has its limits.

Download - Backup
I love thinking back about what we were told when we first went digital: "You'll be able to spend more time shooting pictures, and less work to do at the office." Right. Has that been the case for you? There is truth to that statement, though, and that revolves around your digital workflow. If you use your camera properly (see above) use the right tools to prep and download, and learn a few simple, effective techniques for healing photos, then yes, you can spend less time on office (or computer) work. Unfortunately, too few photographers take the time to learn these things. One of the keys to speeding up and minimizing your workflow is to use the right tools to get your photos into your computer in the first place. That starts with fast card readers (FireWire, USB 2 or the new 32-bit CardBus adapters), Photo Mechanic to automate download, captioning and filling of IPTC fields and renaming, and small portable, external FireWire or USB 2 drives for immediate backup.

I'm always amazed at how photographers on deadline will race back, throw gear onto tables to start downloading and then spend 15-minutes tweaking one single image. If it takes you longer to crop and touch-up an image in Photoshop than to write the caption, you've got problems. There are a few simple techniques for removing color casts and burning/dodging using Adjustment Layers (NOT the burn and dodge tool!) that you should be using. There are many good books out there ("Real World Photoshop" is excellent) and a host of good seminars. Invest some time in learning how to use Photoshop properly. It will pay you back in better photos and less time sitting in front of the computer. Lastly, unless your paper has told you to sharpen at specific amounts, DON'T. It's a great way to wreck your pictures for reproduction.

Again, why spend all that effort to make a nice picture if you're going to ruin it by saving at too high a compression level? What's too high a level? If your version of Photoshop goes up to 12 for best quality, you can save at a setting of 9 and feel confident the photo won't show compression defects at almost any size your paper might run it. Can you go lower? Of course you can, but then you risk problems. Here's the issue: even though your paper may be planning to run the photo small, you can almost be guaranteed that the photo you've submitted will be the one that goes into the long-term archive. Why is that a problem? If at a later date the paper decides to run the photo again, larger, you may have quality problems. Don't sacrifice long-term image quality for short-term time savings. Find other ways to save time, with fast readers and improved workflow

I thought we were all past this issue, that everyone understood the importance of saving at least the most important images. Recently, though, I came across a paper that doesn't save any images its photographers shoot. It's critical that the most important images are saved long-term with a solid archiving strategy. I'd even argue for saving everything. Can you say "Monica Lewinsky?"
As I write this, I'm also copying all of my early digital images (both film scans and digital captures) from CDs to a hard drive (a BIG one). I'll then catalog them with Extensis Portfolio and burn them to DVD. When I got started in all this I bought whatever CDs were cheap, and thus have no idea how long they will last. If you care about your photos, take care of them. Buy good quality CDs/DVDs, and better yet, just buy and burn to DVDs. They have a longer expected life than CDs, and you'll have fewer to keep track of. And lastly, where are your photos stored? Your best images should be in two separate physical locations. I keep one set at home and one at my brother-in-law's house.

Software and old photos
This is a nasty little issue. How many of you shot with the NC2000, or the DCS 520 or 620? Have you tried to open one of those files recently? If you don't have some of the old Kodak software tucked away, then good luck. This is one of the reasons that Adobe recently announced the DNG (Digital Negative) format. The idea is to create a standard file type for RAW images so that there's a better chance of actually being able to open those files in the future. While I feel confident that the major manufacturers like Nikon and Canon will support their RAW formats over the long-term, I would have said that about Kodak too a few years ago.

Digital photography's given us more control over our images than ever before, but that also means we have more responsibility to get it right. Take some time to explore what your camera's truly capable of, go through your digital workflow and find ways to streamline it and be sure to save your images properly both for tomorrow's paper and the future. Remember, digital photography is not about sitting in front of the computer - it's about making great pictures.

(Reed Hoffmann is a partner in Blue Pixel, a company specializing in digital photography and workflow issues. Before that he was a newspaper photographer for over 20 years. He'll be presenting one of the breakout sessions at the Sports Shooter Luau, and can be reached at

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Reed Hoffmann

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