Digital photography has come a long way from where it was just a
few years ago: Though light years from maturity, it’s safely past the early-adopter stage. Turning digital now brings enormous creative power to the photographer, with far fewer early-generation problems. Cameras capture enough data to produce good-size prints-at the high end, extraordinary prints. Onboard processing power arms you against difficult light situations. Photo software and an inexpensive photo printer turn the PC into a desktop darkroom and print lab, minus the chemicals. Add a scanner and you can repair pre-digital
photos as well, then save all your treasures by burning a photo archive to CD or DVD.
Even the silver-halide purists, who are right that film retains advantages over digital–more data in the medium, richer tonal range in
the print–concede that digital could fuel a renaissance
in amateur photography.
But to be a good digital photographer requires new hardware and software chops. You need to understand storage media, data transfer, formatting and how to wield
picture-editing tools like the polygonal lasso and the clone stamp. Here, a guide to the technology that powers digital creativity–and a peek at the tech of tomorrow.
1. CAMERA CHOICE: HOW MUCH DATA WILL DO?
Digital cameras record light as digital data. If you’ve always been a snapshot shooter and don’t need much enlarging, today’s 3-megapixel pocket cameras represent the tempting sweet spot between price and data-capturing power. But if you’re the sort who likes a turbo under the hood, plasma on the wall, and flat-panel speakers for SACD sound, consider moving directly to a 6MP digital SLR. This is especially true if you plan to resume a serious hobby–if you have darkroom habits in your past and more than one Nikon F1 body in the drawer. The combination of high resolution, fast operation and lens choice is unbeatable.
The Tech Right Now
Three-megapixel pocket cameras offer a huge range of features; more expensive 5MP models are also available in the same general configurations with more manual controls.
New-generation 6MP SLR digitals have advanced dramatically over recent top SLRs.
Capacity of removable storage media continues to rise as prices plunge. As little as $60 will get you 256 megabytes. For SLRs, up to
4-gigabyte capacity is available in
a matchbook-size card.
A proliferation of scene modes and other assists makes shooting easier in tricky light conditions.
Some digital cameras can still suck battery juice faster than frat boys drain Budweisers–carry backup.
These cameras can be slow thinkers: If you push the shutter when Johnny rounds third, you may get a picture of third without Johnny in it. Take advantage of action-shot settings designed to correct the problem.
Some cameras are cluttered with menus, cryptic icons, buttons and
toggles. We suggest not buying a
camera online until you’ve handled it.
Even at the 5MP level, image pixelation, which is much more irritating than film graininess, remains a problem in tight enlargements. Always shoot at the highest-resolution setting.
For the Snapshot Shooter: 3MP Cameras
We tested four of the best 3MP models: Minolta’s Dimage Xt, Nikon’s Cool-pix 3100, Olympus’s Stylus 300 Digital and Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-P8. All feature 3X optical zoom and removable memory cards. With each on full auto mode, we took several photos, then asked Popular Science photographer John B. Carnett to rate the results.
In our Coolpix test shot of a spool of thread, each strand was visible; the camera also produced the most natural flesh tones. The Minolta delivered accurate color, but details were less distinct. The Sony’s images had subtle magenta shading and the Olympus’s were slightly yellow. (Manually adjusting the Sony’s and Olympus’s settings would have improved these results.)
The Coolpix also stood out for simplicity of use (not a trait shared by all Nikon digital cameras). It offers the most scene modes (14), which automatically adjust the camera for difficult-to-take photos, and provides clear labels like “Snow/Beach” or “Night Portrait.” The Sony Cyber-shot, by contrast, identifies its seven scene modes with ambiguous icons.
Three of the cameras come with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; buy a spare ($50 to $100) and bring a charger when you travel. The Nikon comes with disposable batteries, but will take rechargeables. Sony’s Memory Stick, Nikon’s CompactFlash card and Minolta’s SD may be easier to find on the road than Olympus’s xD-Picture cards.
Our overall favorite was the Nikon Coolpix 3100, for the beautiful color and sharply defined details of its shots.
Real Digital Power: The 6MP SLRs
Today’s 6MP SLRs are nearly as good as many pro-level models were not long ago. Three years ago $3,500 bought you a camera that had resolution no better than the current 3MP pocket cameras and somewhat slow shot-to-shot time. The new “prosumer” cameras achieve the fast-paced firing that pros require, and their sensors allow for stunning 8×10 inch blowups of tight crops.
Manual controls–shutter speed, aperture, contrast, data processing and lens type–give you more options as you frame pictures directly through the lens. Because these SLRs are compatible with standard 35mm lenses, photographers may even be able to use old glass on the new digital bodies. The price has plunged to just over $1,000 for a body. Right now, the Nikon D100 and Canon EOS 10D own the market, along with the Sigma SD9, which employs the new Foveon X3 sensor.
To test the cameras, we fitted each with a 28â€70mm lens from the manufacturer, as well as a Sigma 17â€35mm, and took a series of shots designed to evaluate ability to capture color, detail, edge sharpness and highlights. Thanks to advanced processing algorithms in the camera’s firmware, the Nikon D100 took the sharpest pictures straight out of the box. But that’s not the end of the story: SLRs allow you to manipulate raw image data on your computer using the camera’s acquisition software.
In our test we converted the data into uncompressed Tagged Image Format Files (TIFFs) to adjust sharpness, color and other attributes. Sigma’s software is the easiest for neophytes, thanks to clear graphics that take you step by step through each process. To adjust color in an image, you merely click on a color wheel display and drag the cursor across the wheel until you reach the shade you want. Overall, though, we found that Canon’s acquisition software included the most sophisticated tools for experienced enthusiasts.
Next we imported each picture into Photoshop to make further enhancements. In Photoshop, the Canon 10D’s shots overtook Nikon’s, producing the best combination of color, sharpness and detail. When we added Canon’s new 24â€70mm f/2.8 lens to the 10D’s body, the photos got even better (as they should; the lens costs about $1,300.) Image quality is everything, and the Canon 10D is our top pick.
Be aware that the sensors used on these cameras aren’t large enough to capture the full image that a 35mm lens yields on film; you lose around the edges. At the pro level, we suggest the $8,000 Canon EOS-1Ds, mainly for its full-frame, 11MP chip.
In the next couple of years, 6MP SLRs will capture full-frame images. You’ll also see cameras based on a new standardized 22.5mm sensor, which will mean smaller lenses and camera bodies. Then watch as 10MP models become the SLRs of choice at the prosumer level.
–Suzanne Kantra Kirschner
The Future of Digital Cameras: A Discerning Eye
Cameras have already been wedded with cellphones. The next step: a fully wireless digital camera system. Sanyo has already demonstrated a prototype that allows photographers to instantly upload pictures to the Internet–as long
as they’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot–giving the camera unlimited “storage” capability. That’s just the beginning. While cameras have always functioned as a sort of artificial eye, before long they’ll be supplementing your brain as well, coming loaded with intelligent image-processing software that will be able to identify what–and who–is in the picture. Your camera will know it’s Grandma in the viewfinder and will be able to automatically index
all the photos in which she appears. Smal Camera Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is already working on a proof-of-concept “smart camera” system with built-in image-recognition algorithms such as human motion detection and
2. YOUR CAMERA HAS A BRAIN. USE IT.
The scenes we photograph seem singular and personal but fall into general categories that can be reduced to algorithms that instruct a camera how to behave. Better math and more processing power have made possible a proliferation of “scene modes” (beach, fireworks, museum) in the newest hardware.
Manufacturers claim they optimize photography under tricky light conditions.
Landscape mode, for instance, is designed to turn off the flash, adjust the focus to infinity, lengthen the shutter speed, and decrease the aperture. In auto mode a camera might mistakenly focus on a foreground object (such as a tree) for a shot of a sunset, fire the flash to illuminate the object and render the rest of the shot dark.
We pitted auto against scene modes on five cameras in three difficult lighting situations: backlight, low light and action. Not every camera had the same menu of scene modes for all three settings. No single camera performed flawlessly. But the test demonstrated that digital cameras do benefit from the new math.
–Suzanne Kantra Kirschner and John B. Carnett
TEST A: BACKLIGHT
Light pouring in behind a subject often causes cameras to close down the aperture, leaving the foreground dark. A flash will be needed. Balancing flash and natural light, foreground and background, is the goal.
Only the Canon chose to use its flash in auto mode, yielding a well-lit foreground while retaining some details out the window. Shots from the other cameras were dark.
The Nikon’s backlight mode manages to illuminate the subject while retaining a lot of background detail. Other cameras tended to blow out the background with the flash.
TEST B: LOW LIGHT
Our subject sits in a dimly lit room, away from windows. To accurately capture the difficult scene and avoid under- or overexposure, the camera will have to find the right balance between ambient light and flash.
The Canon gives the best auto performance (left). The image is clearly exposed but lacks warmth. Three other cameras underexposed it; one blasted too much flash. In party mode, the Nikon delivers a warm mix of flash and ambient light (right).
TEST C: ACTION
The goal: to shoot just as the front wheel passes the cone. The camera must focus, read the light, and assign aperture and shutter–then capture the data. Even in this fairly easy test, auto mode is too slow in some cameras.
In auto mode the Nikon (left) and Canon take too much time. The HP and Sony do better, but the Minolta misses the bike entirely. In action mode, the Sony (right) and Canon win: The tire almost exactly aligns with the cone. Close third: HP.
Canon PowerShot S50; HP Photosmart 935; Nikon Coolpix 5400; Sony Cybershot DSC-P10; Minolta Dimage F300
3. SOFTWARE MAKES YOU A PHOTO DOCTOR
A PC loaded with advanced photo-editing software is far more than the digital equivalent of a home darkroom–it’s like having a world-class photo-retouching department on your payroll. This can be dangerous. In a fit of glee, the neophyte often employs the awesome array of photo-manipulation tools to commit hideous aesthetic crimes and picture-doctoring pranks, even feeling the need to e-mail them.
Eventually, though, you focus on the two important uses of photo software: correcting faulty pictures (red-eye, exposure) and altering pictures for aesthetic reasons. The latter ranges from cosmetic surgery–removing a shadow, smoothing a blemish, much as magazine art directors do–to combining multiple images into a scene, even if that scene exists nowhere but in the recesses of your hard drive.
WHAT FLAVOR TO BUY?
Digital-darkroom software for nonprofessionals comes in two flavors: introductory programs ($35 to $50), including Microsoft Picture It Photo and Roxio PhotoSuite 5 Platinum; and power tools for the enthusiast ($90 to $110), such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, JASC Paint Shop Pro 8 and Ulead PhotoImpact 8. The basic programs offer a nice, inviting, icon-clicking interface and step-by-step wizards that take you through the editing process. But you forgo the precision that comes with manual control options. The advanced programs produce far better photos, though they can intimidate with palettes and menus that clutter the screen. Here, we size up the top contenders in each category.
The One-Click Fix
No matter which program you choose, one-click repair options for color, sharpness and other improvements are a crapshoot: Sometimes the results are remarkably accurate, sometimes they create psychedelic travesties saved only by the Undo command. PhotoSuite offers a very convenient one-click fix-all feature, but in our tests the fixes were rarely satisfactory–an underexposed Christmas photo became a grainy, washed-out horror. The other programs separate autofix into separate categories (color, brightness and more) so you can choose the ones that actually work. We particularly like the Paint Shop Pro approach, which offers before-and-after comparisons and a slider control to fine-tune the strength of each correction.
Color & Exposure Repair
The introductory programs offer two choices for correcting color and exposure manually: You can change the entire image at once or meticulously pre-select individual areas. We found PhotoSuite, with its precise controls, performed best. Higher-end programs add tools for dodging and burning that are more exacting and convenient. Camera- and darkroom-emulating tools are getting more and more sophisticated: For instance, when a shot taken under the shade of a tree renders its subject in darkness, you can add a virtual fill flash that will create more light and detail within an otherwise murky image. When tweaking color and exposure, Elements and PhotoImpact required the fewest steps.
Among the basic programs, PhotoSuite did the best job of correcting the dreaded red-eye, providing natural-looking results. Armies of Satan’s warriors were returned to normal in a few clicks. More sophisticated manual controls helped Paint Shop Pro beat the other advanced programs in correcting severe red-eye–you can choose the proper color for the iris and specify pupil lightness and even the size of the glint in the eye. When dealing with a scan of an old damaged photograph, automatic scratch- and dust-removal tools tended to
create blurry results across the board. Paint Shop Pro’s combination of an automatic small-scratch filter and a manual dust removal tool produced fewer artifacts and blocky areas and less obvious blurriness.
Filters & Special Effects
The programs offer an array of tools to emulate old darkroom effects like sepia tone, as well as layer on special effects that have more to do with fine art (brush strokes) than photography. (For fun, we applied filters to a mediocre shot of poolside palm trees and wound up with a painting-like image with a brush-stroke texture and improved color.) Overall, PhotoSuite is the superior beginner’s application, offering more filters and adjustable settings to help achieve “artistic” effects. Among higher-end programs, Photoshop Elements and PhotoImpact provide a tremendous array of lighting and textures, all with extensive user control to adjust the intensity of the effects.
The PopSci Picks
Roxio PhotoSuite is slightly less accessible than the other basic programs, but its sophisticated controls make it our top choice. For enthusiasts we like Photoshop Elements for its simple interface.
CLOSING THE FILM GAP
In many ways the purpose of editing software and the complex math that runs digital cameras is to emulate
the aesthetic effects of film photo-
graphy and printing. As a result, the debate among film loyalists concerns whether digital can ever equal the gamut of hues found in large-format film and the beautiful prints made from such film. If it does, it will
happen in part because of advances in editing software–filters that can manipulate huge data files from high-capacity digital cameras to yield
aesthetic results. In other words, get ready for the Ansel Adams filter on Photoshop 10.0.
DO THE PIXEL TWIST
Sick of relying on a mouse to prod your pixels from place to place? Meet the ShapeTape, a device that will
let you twist, curve, and otherwise manipulate an image with your bare hands. The prototype device, a
surrounding a spring-steel core,
is the product
of a Canadian
the software that will allow changes to this real-world device to show up in the virtual onscreen world is being developed at the University of Toronto. Expect the technology–as well as other new hands-on manipulation devices–to hit the market within the next five years.
SHOULD YOU TURN PRO? THE LURE OF PHOTOSHOP 7.0
Adobe Photoshop 7.0 reigns supreme among photo professionals in two key areas: cranking out the four-color separation files used for commercial printing, and editing image files with extreme precision. For retouching problem areas (like the bags under a hard-partying celebrity’s eyes), Photoshop’s unique Healing Brush and Patch tools make the process tantalizingly simple. Add advanced color-management capabilities and sophisticated layering options and it’s clear why Photoshop has become the industry standard for bending visual reality to artistic will.
Yet Photoshop 7.0 is a $600 program in a market where $100 buys an awful lot of image-editing power. Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements provides many of its brand mate’s features, including layering for nondestructive editing and a full suite of image filters and painting tools, plus compatibility with nearly all of the Photoshop plug-ins. But if you want the ultimate in editing, go pro.
4. PUT YOUR FILES IN ORDER, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!
WHEN you’ve paid for your digital “film” –a 256MB Lexar card, say, which holds more than a hundred shots taken at the “fine” setting on a 5MP Nikon Coolpix 5700–there is no cost to taking more pictures except in the free space on your PC’s hard drive. Your collection can quickly get out of hand. If you’re not disciplined about weeding out second-rate photos in the camera or during transfer to the PC, you’ll end up with file bloat, and it becomes hard to locate that one right shot among hundreds of poorly named and unsorted files.
Software to the rescue. The basic organizing principles are simple: You assign photos different labels and group them by category. You can then scroll through all the photos in your library or retrieve specific images and groupings using keyword searches or icons. Below, three cataloging applications to help you get your shots together.
Apple iPhoto 2 (free, Mac)
Strong points: Visual browsing is iPhoto’s forte. Slide the onscreen control left or right and, with breathtaking velocity, iPhoto zooms in on individual photos or out to look at thumbnails of your entire collection. You can also create sophisticated photo books for uploading, printing, and binding.
Weak points: Keywords can’t be organized into subcategories (such as “family/pets/Rex”). While it’s easy to search for a single photo that fits into multiple keyword categories (“John and Christmas”), you can’t call up a group of photos that fit into several separate categories (all photos from Christmas and Thanksgiving). Step-by-step directions would make learning the program much easier; as is, we were forced to play hunt-for-the-feature in online help. Grade: Bâ€
Adobe Photoshop Album ($50, PC)
Strong points: Album welcomes users with a startup Quick Guide, and the well-organized interface is clearly labeled. To create your first library, the program searches your hard drive, finds all the images, then lets you select the ones to add to your library. Chronological browsing is another strong suit: At the top of the screen, bar graphs tell you the volume of photos taken on particular days, with thumbnails displayed underneath. It’s a nice device: Staring at the graph instantly reminds you of a vacation or long weekend when the camera had heavy use. Weak points: The procedure for distinguishing between “and” and “or” searches (“Becky and Dan” versus “Becky or Dan”), a vital distinction, can take several attempts to figure out. Grade: Aâ€
Jasc Photo Album 4 ($49, PC)
Strong points: This program excels in photo sharing. The easy-to-create video CD slide show plays on standard DVD players. For e-mailing, the program automatically resizes images to about 640- by 480-pixel resolution. Keyword structure is another plus: You can organize keywords into an infinite number of subcategories. Weak points: The browsing interface, organized by folders and subfolders on your hard drive, makes it difficult to get an overview of all your photos. And although an image-adjustment tool offering side-by-side comparisons of your photos at different color, exposure, saturation and sharpness settings is a good idea, you have no control over the degree of change, so it’s nearly worthless. Grade: B+
For free organizing software for the PC, try Kodak‘s EasyShare.
5. GET YOUR PRINT SHOP GOING
Although printing from film still far outpaces digital printing in the market–and plenty of digital photographers still use shops to print their files–desktop printers are getting so good that in the future every printer may come with photo-printing capability built in. That wouldn’t kill the commercial photo-printing business, but it could radically downsize it as digital power moves to the desk.
The Tech Right Now
Color photo printers costing as little as $79 can match digital output from commercial print services.
Printers use four to seven inks and employ thermal or piezoelectric technology to spray thousands of tiny drops per second on special paper.
Ink drop size continues to shrink, and dots-per-inch (dpi) resolution increases.
Printers are inexpensive but ink cartridges and paper are not. A 4×6 home print may cost 56 cents, compared with 26 cents from a drugstore.
It’s difficult to choose a printer on specs alone, because so many factors influence picture quality.
Photo printers can be pokey.
We tried out four mid- to high-range printers: Canon’s i9100 ($499), Epson’s Stylus Photo 960 ($349), Hewlett-Packard’s Photosmart 7550 ($299) and Canon’s i950 ($249). We also looked at Epson’s Stylus Photo 2200 ($699); it uses special, long-lasting ink designed for archiving photos.
All can print 4×6 or 8×10 images, and do double duty as regular inkjet printers on 8.5×14 paper.
We shot three images with a pro-level Canon EOS-1Ds, then loaded the data onto a Windows PC and asked the machines to print 8×10 photos using the highest-quality print setting and manufacturer-supplied paper.
These are among the factors that affect the quality of printer output:
Resolution Three of the printers produce 4,800- by 1,200-dpi images, while the two Epsons make pictures at the 2,880- by 1,440-dpi level.
Drop size Generally, smaller drops yield sharper details, but larger drops create richer colors. The Epson 960 and Canon i950 lay 2-picoliter drops, the Photosmart 5-picoliter, and the others 4-picoliter.
Ink Four of the printers come with standard dye-based inks, which yield more vibrant colors but tend to fade over time. The Stylus Photo 2200 uses more expensive pigment inks, which are claimed to last for 50 years, twice the estimated life of dye inks.
Control Epson’s printer driver lets you adjust color saturation, brightness and more. The Canon will remove randomly colored pixels from the image. The HP lets you add flash and adjust sharpness and contrast.
The Bottom Line
The HP Photosmart 7550 stood out. It was a snap to use and consistently
generated the best-looking pictures straight out of the box without adjusting the drivers or images. The Canon i950 was also excellent, although its color density did not quite match HP’s.
The Canon and HP printers let you hook up select same-brand cameras for direct printing, but only the HP has slots to plug in a memory card and an LCD to preview stored images.
The Photosmart is the slowest of the bunch, and its ink cartridge system could prove more expensive to use. In an extreme test like this (printing a massive 30MB file), the Canons were almost twice as fast: 1 minute 6 seconds versus 2 minutes 4 seconds for a 4×6 image. If you value speed and like large data files, consider the Canon i950.
In 2004, models will come with PictBridge, a way to connect a camera made by one manufacturer to a printer made by another. Later, so-called smart printers will be able to directly fix basic problems such as overexposure and red-eye.
—Suzanne Kantra Kirschner
You may need to calibrate your monitor to get better prints. Click here for help.
The Future of Printing: Virtual Backlight
The next real breakthrough in 2-D printing may come not from the tech but from the ink. Using inkjet printers and a special light-emitting polymer, or LEP, University of Arizona researcher Ghassan Jabbour has been able to print light-emitting images that glow without a backlight. In the distant future it may be possible for the illumination of the polymers to be selectively controlled –allowing you to print a page and have the image move through an entire mini video. Meanwhile Jabbour claims his LEP techniques can be commercialized within the next two years.