An Easy Path to Great Digital Images

By Larry Allen

For the past two years we have been doing what a lot of other photographers around the country have been doing……trying to get the image quality of medium format film from a “pro” level digital camera. Over the course of our two year journey we talked with numerous photographers and retailers, attended seminars, read countless articles and experimented extensively with our digital system.

While we ultimately achieved our goal, we know that there are many other photographers who would like to find a method of improving their digital work without duplicating our investment of time and experimentation. We can tell you that we have seen first hand, 30” x 40”, tack sharp images printed from a 6 mega pixel camera file. High quality digital images are not only possible; they are much easier to create than many have been lead to believe.

The objective of this article is to present the major topics of our digital process as a simple overview. This is neither a technical or in depth approach to this subject however we strongly encourage anyone on the digital path to learn as much as they possibly can about all aspects of the digital imaging process. It also bears mentioning that this discussion is not an endorsement of any products or services for which we have been compensated. Those that we do mention are included simply because they work for us and other professional photographers in our area.

THE CAMERA SYSTEM
With the availability of so many great camera systems and the constant flow of new innovations into the market place, it would be foolish to recommend any manufacturer or particular camera model. This is the area that you must do your own homework and find a system that best fits your needs, your budget and your style. Invest the time to make a knowledgeable decision and it will save you a good deal of grief in the long run.

Talk with retailers, read relevant articles, attend trade shows and use the Internet as it is one of your best resources for in depth and up to date information. It is equally important to talk with your peers. Their information and experiences are going to be first hand and if you can see the work they are producing from their camera system, then there is little doubt that you should be able to achieve a comparable level of quality with the same system.

There is always a great deal of discussion as to what lenses work best with a particular model of camera. Again, review the resultant images from a camera/lens system before you make your purchase decision and your risk of making a poor decision will be minimized. Too often highly technical reviews of products can be more confusing than informative, where as seeing images can be a clear validation of what works and what does not.

KNOW YOUR CAMERA
The first task with a digital camera is to become familiar and efficient with the controls. Manufacturers strive to make their digital cameras easy to operate and ergonomically comfortable, but there are many more functions and controls than are present on your film model.

Once you find yourself in the trenches of a paying project you will want to maneuver your cameras controls with ease and that means a good deal of pre-shoot practice and reading of the cameras manual. As will become evident later, the LCD display on the back of your camera will become your “Command Center” and knowing how to read it and maneuver its menus it is absolutely essential.

THE ACQUISTION
Any discussion about digital must begin at the point of acquisition, and for our purposes that will be the camera. From start to finish your single minded objective when working with digital must be to attain what we call ACQUISTION ACCURACY. The old computer adage of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”, applies equally as well to digital cameras. Unless you capture your images “accurately”, more often than not it will be impossible to transform them into acceptable prints. Unlike print film, there is little latitude for error with digital.

WHITE BALANCE AND EXPOSURE
Towards the end objective of “Acquisition Accuracy” we must concentrate on setting the cameras exposure and white balance. While you are familiar with setting “exposure” for your film camera, the term “white balance” may be somewhat less familiar.

Just as you select the correct color temperature film to fit the lighting conditions of your photo environment, the digital camera needs to know that information as well. While most cameras come with an “Auto White Balance” setting, we’ve found that to insure the best possible image it’s important to manually set white balance for every different shooting, (lighting) environment.

HISTOGRAMS
If the LCD on your camera is truly your digital “Command Center” then “Histograms” are the “Heads up Display”. For many photographers as well as our own studio, Histograms are so effective that they have allowed us to eliminate the need for a light meter.

Once you understand the relationship between Histograms and what your camera is actually seeing, you will quickly understand the value of this small graph. You will find it easy to determine if your exposure is accurate and if your white balance is set correctly by simply reviewing the histogram.

Because this is such an important aspect of getting great digital images, we have attached what we believe to be one of most informative articles on the subject. We would like to express our appreciation to fellow photographer and educator Ralph Tomaccio of Korday Studio for contributing this article.

WHITE BALANCE AND EXPOSURE MADE SIMPLE
This year we were fortunate to be exposed to a very simple system created by Ed Pierce and Photo Vision Video. Ed’s targeting device and procedure for setting white balance and exposure has enabled us to get dead-on accurate settings in less that two minutes….and that’s without a light meter.

If your objective is to find an efficient method of achieving accurate exposure and white balance settings, Ed’s system works. For more information and pricing visit Photo Vision Video’s web site at: www.photovisionvideo.com

CALIBRATING YOUR MONITOR
Now that you have created images with great potential you must address the next important step of calibrating your monitor. In the digital world nothing gets done without instructions and that certainly applies to color projection.

There is no way for your monitor to know what colors to project unless it receives instructions about color management from the computer. In order to do that the computer must have instructions to know how to read your wonderful digital images and to then tell the monitor what it should do to project the image with accurate colors.

The foundation of these color instructions falls into a technology called “Color Spaces”. Suffice it to say that there are volumes of information available on the subject of color spaces and an equal amount of debate surrounds them. The important thing to remember is that a color space provides a uniform method of communication between your camera, computer, printer and potentially your lab regarding color.

There is a very good chance that your camera will produce a file with a color space of “SRGB”. This means that your camera understands what specific colors look like in SRGB as does your computer and your printer. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

The X factor here is that the actual colors that your eyes see on the monitor will vary from monitor to monitor as well as over time on the same monitor. So even though we have kept our color space consistent from the camera to the computer that does not mean that what we see on the screen is truly accurate color.

To overcome this obstacle color engineers have created calibration systems that are truly amazing. Our studio uses a system called ColorVision, (by Pantone) that includes a light sensing device, (commonly called a spider) which is temporarily attached to the monitor. The accompanying software program then runs a routine of projecting prime colors into the receptor and then instructs the operator on the appropriate adjustments to make on the monitor to achieve accurate colors.

Again, the importance of this step can not be over emphasized. Attempts to print your own images from an un-calibrated monitor will produce far more frustration than quality prints. Review the market and select a calibration system that has good reviews and that you know other photographers are using successfully.

WORKING WITH YOUR LAB
One of the wonderful benefits available to photographers shooting digitally is the ability to work with a color lab over the Internet. Your digital images can now be uploaded through the Internet and printed by your lab in a fraction of the time it took to route and process traditional film images…and the benefits don’t stop there.

Saving money by printing your own images is very much a lure for many photographs and for some it is a viable alternative to using a lab. We found however that after making the investment in a top-of-the-line photo printer that doing our own printing was not an efficient use of our time.

Spending countless hours on our computer system and trimming the prints was consuming valuable time that could have been spent in marketing and in the camera room. We had traded dollars and we were coming up short.

At the same time we knew that our local lab, (Bay Photo Lab) had developed an “Online” system and we felt that the potential benefits merited a testing of the system. The ROES, (Remote Order Entry System) system offered by Bay Photo Lab is now our system of choice for a number of reasons.

The ROES software interface has been well thought out and allows for on screen cropping, a complete spectrum of prints sizes as well as edge options and composite templates. Processing a print order requires a minimal amount of time and is extremely easy to accomplish.

In addition to eliminating the time we were investing in doing our own printing, we no longer need to trim our own photos, and when it comes to wallets, that’s a savings in time as well as aggravation. Because ROES offers mounting, texturing and art work services, those are time consuming issues that can be eliminated from our side if we so choose.

We are fortunate enough to be on a Bay Photo deliver route which means that Bay delivers our photos right to our door. In most cases an order we submit on one day through ROES is delivered to our door the very next day by Bay’s driver. It’s unparalleled speed and service.

One of the subjective issues for our studio was the feel of the prints. While many photographers would disagree, we felt that the prints from our ink jet photo printer just didn’t “feel” the same as lab prints. Through ROES we are now able to present our customers with prints that are indistinguishable from film prints and that tends to dispel any suspicion and/or discomfort that the client may have about using digital to record their images.

The important thing to remember when working with an on-line lab is again color coordination. Most on-line labs provide their customers with a screen calibration system that enables the photographer to adjust his monitor to match that of the lab. Also if your lab is using SRGB printing machines, make sure that the color space of your image files, (known color mode in Photoshop) is also in SRGB. Work with your lab and determine their recommendations then run a few tests.

WEB SITE RESOURCES