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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).


For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.


Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.

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Book Revew: “The Digital Print,” by Jeff Schewe

index

Recommended

This book is the companion to Jeff’s “The Digital Negative” (see my review). I view this 2- volume series as the modern day (“digital”) equivalent of the Ansel Adams 3-volume series, “The Camera,” “The Negative,” and “The Print.” Since these reviews come quite far apart, I recommend a quick read of my review of “The Digital Negative,” which was done way back in 2012.  There are a couple reasons for the long gap.  First, when I read the first book, the second was not out.  Second, though I finished it many month ago, I am just now getting my thoughts together.  🙂

This 2-volume series is a distillation of the essentials for capturing, processing and printing for the digital photographer

While I am not by any means comparing Mr. Schewe, the photographer, with Ansel Adams, the photographer, I can say with some confidence that he, along with the late, great, Bruce Fraser, were two of the foremost pioneers of digital processing of images. I have read a number of other, fairly technical books written by them, this 2-volume series is a distillation of the essentials for a digital photographer, of capturing the best quality image, and printing it.  Like anything in life, some of us will relate to the writing style of certain authors.  This book is far from a “for dummies” style book.  Yet it is not a mind-boggling technical tome, either.  I appreciate Jeff’s conversational style of writing, with some dry humor interjected here and there.  Others like the more entertaining style of a — say Scott Kelby.  To each his own.  If you think you will never have an image printed on paper (or other substrate), read the first book and skip the second.  Most of will want to read them both.

I have previously noted that I am a “get under the hood,” type. For those who just want to get on to printing, today’s printers, with their built-in drivers, will probably produce a satisfying result for you, “out of the box.”  Or perhaps even easier, upload your images to one of the many, very good, commercial printers out there. But if you like to see how to optimize the pixels you have captured on your “mega-pixel” camera, then these two books are a “must read,” in my view – and will probably mean you don’t have to read any other books on post-processing and printing.

I am a “get under the hood,” type

Before executing the “send to print” command, there are a number of (some of them very technical) steps that must occur to get the image ready for printing.  If you are interested in getting the most out of your digital image, this book gives you all the information you need, in a manner that — to my mind — has just the right mix of technical and down to earth.  The companion (first in the series), “The Digital Negative,” covers both the Adobe Photoshop (ACR) engine and the Adobe LightRoom engine thoroughly.  As one might expect from a continuation series, “The Digital Print” does likewise.  But in this book, Schewe goes into a bit more detail about the two.  Toward the end of the book, in the section on actual printing, he opines that Lightroom (generally) is a better place to print from.   But first, he gives us a brief, but interesting history of the development of digital printing technology.  I have become set in my ways.  I need to spend some time in Lightroom.  I have never printed an image from Lightroom, but I will be trying that in the very near future.

You don’t have to read any other books on post-processing and printing

He next gives some insight into choosing a printer and the different “flavors” available today. Printer and ink technology continues to evolve favorably, so look for updates to these texts in time. The book spends a fair amount of time discussing use of printers and drivers on different platforms, and printing from two software sources: LightRoom and Photoshop. He also covers printer-specific settings, and when and how to choose between printer and software drivers. There is also some coverage of B&W printing. Different printer technology creates the print differently and Schewe explains how to “purpose” your digital file for the particular output method.

There is a chapter on color management.  There are a number of great books available on the subject of color management.  Though the term, itself sounds intimidating,  the concept is simple enough.  When we go from one display medium to another we need to have a way to “communicate” the information so the viewable result is consistent.  Because of the different technologies employed in capture, post-processing, and displaying, that is much more easily understood in concept than in actual practice, however.  When you do “look under the hood” of your Photoshop or Lightroom (or any other) printer driver, you see lots of scary words and checkboxes like “color space,” “rendering intent,” “profiles,” etc.).  So most of us need some “plain-English” interpretation.  This book does that.  Schewe does a good, and succinct job of making this very complex subject understandable to us laypersons.

The Digital Print completes the journey following capture and post-processing, to final output

The Digital Print spends some time covering important aspect of post-processing for preparation of a file to print.  For those who did read “The Digital Negative,” there will be some repetition here.  I have two observations about that.  First, a little repetition/review will do most of good.  Second, and more practically, the author had to consider the at least a percentage of his reading audience would not have read the first book.  So he includes the essentials again. :-).  It then moves on to an oft misunderstood topic:  resolution.  Schewe gives us an understandable explanation of image resolution vs. printer resolution and why the really aren’t identical concepts.  Most importantly, he explains how it relates to the final print and how to choose resolution, re-size images for print, etc.

There is coverage at the end for purposing your digital file for a third party printing company.  If there is a weak area in the book, this is it.  I am not sure it matters, given what I percieve to be the intended audience:  those of us serious (geeky 🙂 ) enough to want to do our own printing and own our own printers.  For those who spend significant time and effort getting images ready for the third-party printer, perhaps an entire short text could address the more aptly.  In my case, for the few times I have engaged a third party printer, I have worked closely with them, obtaining specs they want, giving them proofs, and discussing my vision of the final image.  That has worked well for me.  The book concludes with a discussion of inks, papers and other media, viewing distances and environments, longevity, and workflow.

A little repetition/review will do most of good

The Digital Print completes the technical journey following capture and post-processing, to output.  In my view the books are a great companion series, but are not necessarily equally weighted. If I only had the interest, patience, or budget for one of the two books, I would recommend the first book, “The Digital Negative.” But for those who like closure and the whole picture (pun intended), I can wholeheartedly recommend both books in the series.
Recommended

Book Review: “The Digital Negative,” By Jeff Schewe

513wTTJA-FL._AA160_Recommended

My first digital images were scanned images from some of my 35mm slides, and later, direct captures from a Point & Shoot camera and were either jpegs or tiffs. I was an early user of Photoshop, probably starting with about PS 2.0 or so. But I used it more like Photoshop Elements, though, not even remotely appreciating or understanding its power and complexity. Somewhere along the line, I learned to use levels, and eventually curves, to bump up the contrast and “fix” the exposure issues. I learned selection techniques and some painting techniques to start to work with selective parts of an image, to blend and even roughly, to composite.

“The Digital Negative” completely met my expectations

But I didn’t really begin to appreciate the power and utility of Photoshop until some years down the road. Over the years I have observed that as humans, we learn in different ways. Some of us learn by doing, others by watching. I tend to learn more by reading and then doing. And I am the kind of guy who likes to know not only the “what,” but the “why.” So, reading works that get “under the hood” a bit are very attractive to me.

In the early 1990’s, as I began to embrace digital photography, I acquired my first scanner (an HP Photosmart Slide scanner) and suddenly was plunged into the world of photographic bits and bytes. Trying to understand what makes a good scanned image was (still is) intimidating (thankfully, I work mostly from original camera-captured images today). Browsing in my local bookstore, I picked up a copy of “Real World Scanning and Halftones” and took it home. I actually have read it through (a couple times). I have been a “fan” of the “Real World” series by Peachpit Press ever since. These books are definitely for the “under-the-hood” type like me. They are detailed and go into what makes things happen and why, rather than just telling you what they do and giving examples. I like that. I think I learn best that way.

Reading a book called “Real World Color Management,” I became acquainted with the work of one of its co-authors, the late Bruce Fraser (Bruce died a few years back, leaving a void in the digital photography world. I understand that Bruce was also a great friend and family man to those who knew him and/or worked with him). I avidly read Bruce’s Real World Image Sharpening and used his sharpening actions in my workflow (I have always been a bit bewildered by image sharpening – I understand all the theory, but the art of putting it practice is again, another thing).

If you have not already embraced raw, “The Digital Negative,” may persuade you to reconsider

Like many other followers, I was saddened to learn of Bruce’s death, after a long struggle with cancer. At the same time, I became aware of a new release, “Real World Camera Raw.” I learned that Jeff Schewe and Bruce were good friends, collaborators, and business partners. They were part of the group of gurus who started the “Pixel Genius” company that brought us Genuine Fractals, among other things. Today, I use their PhotoKit Sharpener software almost exclusively. I figure they were the original experts on sharpening, so among all the very good sharpening softwares available today, why not go with these guys?

Jeff was asked by Bruce to see the “Real World Camera Raw” book through and he did an admirable job. I was pleased to find his writing style, explanation of the “why,” and wry sense of humor very similar to Bruce’s. So, when I see Jeff Schewe’s name on a book, I have high expectations. Having carefully read the book from cover to cover, I give Jeff an “A.” “The Digital Negative” (copyright, Jeff Schewe, Peach Pit Press, 2013) completely met my expectations.

If you have not already embraced the use of raw, “The Digital Negative,” may persuade you to reconsider. The book is based on the premise that raw capture is the equivalent of a “negative.” And Jeff makes a very persuasive argument that not only should you use raw capture, but much (if not most) of the post-capture image editing can and should be done in the raw image editor!

Lightroom and ACR share the same basic engine

This book mainly confines itself to Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, but I do not see any reason why the principles will not extend to other raw image editors. I have primarily used Photoshop and its embedded Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) editor, but may have found a reason to re-consider my workflow after reading the book. I have Lightroom (LR4) and have—up to this point—used it mainly as an image management database. However, I have advised several friends making the “upgrade” from programs like Elements that they very likely only would need LR. I am a creature of habit. So I have developed (pun intended) a PS-oriented workflow over the years.

The good news for those of us who have not gotten heavily into Lightroom’s Development Module, is that most of raw editing is essentially similar, as both Lightroom and ACR share the same basic engine. So the book really addresses both. While Jeff is a Lightroom user (using Photoshop only to do the things it can uniquely do that LR doesn’t), he does a good job of bouncing back and forth in his explanations, highlighting the similarities and differences in workflow between the two. I have generally made a series of basic adjustments to the raw image (primarily following Jeff and Bruce’s advice from “Real World Camera Raw”), and then opened the image into Photoshop to do most of my other work. “The Digital Negative” suggests that this might not be the best approach.

One of the primary benefits of Lightroom (and ACR) is so-called “parametric” editing vs. “pixel editing.” Once an image is opened in Photoshop you begin to make actual physical changes to the pixel structure of an image (assuming, for the moment that we are not talking about “smart object” editing – a topic for another discussion). In a bit of an oversimplified way, what parametric editing is, is a set of “instructions” kept in a side file to apply to the image when it is finally “baked.” The advantage of this approach is of course flexibility—the ability to go back and apply or un-apply certain changes, without having made permanent changes to the pixel structure of the digital file.

The primary benefit of the Lightroom and ACR raw image editors is “parametric” editing

After a nice (at least for an “under-the-hood” type) explanation of how camera image sensors capture images and what makes up a “digital negative,” Jeff leads the reader through a discussion of how ACR and Lightroom works, including some history on the how and why of Lightroom’s departure from the Photoshop workflow.

Chapters 3 and 4 get to the “meat.” In these chapters we learn how to make basic image corrections such as white balance, setting the highlight and shadow points, and making mid-tone contrast through the vibrance and clarity adjustments; all accompanied by an explanation of what these adjustments actually are doing to the image. We then learn how to make more specific adjustments (most of which I have traditionally made after taking the image into Photoshop), like local adjustments, gradient filtering, and sharpening.

Jeff next gives the reader some insight into his workflow for fine-tuning images in Photoshop. He suggests, however, that in many cases, the image can be made ready for final output right in the raw image editor. Finally, he gives us a suggested “workflow” much of which I saw in the “Real World Camera Raw” Book. I guess there is something to be said for consistency (particularly since many readers of “The Digital Negative” will probably not read, or need to read, the Camera Raw book).

I use books the same way I do any other photographic tool. They are not “bibles.” They are informational tools and some of what they contain is very useful to incorporate into your personal workflow. Others may not work for you. As I said at the outset, we learn (and work) differently. Schewe’s style is never preachy. It has a bit of a “this works for me and should work for you, but to each his own,” flavor. He has an understated sense of humor that comes through the book nicely, making a fairly technical subject easy to read and understand.

I use books like any other photographic tool; they are not “bibles”

The Digital Negative” is really the first of its kind as a book that takes us through the process of capture to output, using raw image capture and manipulation. It is a book that, in my view, should be in the library of every photographer who uses raw capture files and does any significant post-processing. I highly recommend it.

Recommended