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Picture Perfect

Making the most of your digital photos with great tools and software
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

Back in your Instamatic youth, pressing the shutter button at just the right moment was all the control you had over the final photographic outcome. Sure, there were guys who lurked in darkrooms full of gear and chemicals to get more positive results from their negatives (myself included), but we were the lunatic fringe of amateur photographers in a drop-the-film-at-Fotomat world. • Now that mainstream photography has gone digital, anyone who wants to enjoy better pictures can load up inexpensive software and turn straight-from-the-camera snapshots into impressive photographs, without having to black out the windows or stink of hypo solution. Going digital improves the way we organize our photo collections, too, and makes sharing pictures point-and-click simple. In the next few pages we'll explore the latest ways you can get better results, enjoy your photos more and reel in the compliments while you're at it.

YOUR DIGITAL DARKROOM

Dozens of photo software packages are available today that handle everything from basic editing to sophisticated image manipulation. You may have even received a good beginner's software package with your computer, printer or camera. (HP software products are particularly easy to use, yet powerful.) I've focused here on four affordable ($100 or less) software solutions that let you start simple and work up to fairly advanced photo editing.

The verb "photoshopping" has entered the vernacular as a digital synonym for any picture tweaking, whether it describes the removal of any blemish that might make a celebrity look vaguely human on a magazine cover or the juxtaposition of George W. with space alien leaders in Weekly World News. You don't need the full version of Adobe Photoshop (a $600 investment) to employ most of the same tools the pros use, however. The basic version, Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, may leave out some features useful for preparing pages for the printing press, and simplifies some of the filter options that professional photographers obsess over, but it delivers all the image enhancement power that even an advanced amateur is ever likely to need, plus a comprehensive and comprehensible system for organizing your photo collection. The system that lets you create separate layers containing additional elements (text, objects) or even filters and effects, turning them on and off at will to judge the results, is incredibly powerful. Be forewarned: with a wealth of tools just a mouse-click away and a manual that's heavy slogging, this program can be intimidating for newbies. My suggestion: start with the basic tutorials provided in the software help system and then play around with your images, learning each tool's function as needed. You'll master the basics in a few hours and then progress to discover new and interesting image enhancement options lurking just below the surface. It's worth the effort.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 is another worthy contender. The Microsoft approach is more task-oriented than the toolbox-oriented Adobe Photoshop Elements. Here you get an on-screen menu with plain-English options (Color and Saturation, Fix Red-Eye), each of which leads to a separate menu offering options and settings. While the editing capabilities don't quite match Adobe's sophistication at the high end, they are easier to grasp. The photo

collection organization tools are first-rate, and so is the manual, once you find it (there's no printed manual, a major mistake in my book, but you can read the 288-page magnum opus on your computer screen).

Ulead PhotoImpact 11 makes up in power and flexibility what it lacks in organization. Its image enhancement options are as good as Adobe's, with an array of filters and effects ranging from demure to deranged. On the plus side, you get side-by-side before-and-after comparisons of many enhancement options and thumbnail previews of others, eliminating a lot of guesswork. And I like the fact that you can customize the menus and toolbars to meet your own needs, starting with a basic layout and adding more elaborate options as you progress.

Macintosh buyers get a copy of iPhoto, an excellent program for organizing and sharing photos that also offers basic photo fix capabilities. As we explore your image-editing options below, though, you'll find valuable tools and capabilities that aren't included in iPhoto (working with selected areas of a photo, for example), and Apple's next step up the photo software ladder is the $499 Aperture program, designed as a pro-level Photoshop competitor. My recommendation: pick up a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0. The Mac version of Elements 4.0 won't be ready for several months, but the key features we'll discuss are already built into 3.0, and you can expect a significant upgrade discount on the updated software when it's released.

Each of these programs brings a different style and procedure to the image-editing process, and your personal preference may lead you to one or the other. The good news: you can try before you buy, since Adobe, Microsoft and Ulead offer free downloadable trial versions of their programs at their respective Web sites (they're big files, though, so a high-speed Internet connection is highly recommended).

GET ORGANIZED

Before we start adding digital hair to your ever-expanding forehead and putting your girlfriend's face on Miss February's body, let's get your digital photo collection organized. Shooting digital creates a potential organizational nightmare by encouraging us to take lots of pictures, but it also means we can apply tools that make even enormous photo collections far more manageable than your old snapshots-in-a-shoebox system.

First things first: start by making copies of all your digital photos before you begin editing the images. Given the low price of huge external hard drives today, that's the solution I prefer. A 200-gigabyte Maxtor OneTouch II drive, for example, which sells for under $200, can hold more than 80,000 high-resolution images. If your computer crashes, you can just plug the backup drive into the USB port of another computer, and your files are ready to use.

Another popular backup solution is burning files to DVD. Each burnable DVD holds 4.7 gigabytes (roughly 1,800 high-res photos) and costs about half a buck. What's more, you can burn extra DVDs and stow them in a safe deposit box or at a friend or relative's house—useful natural disaster protection. If your computer didn't come with a built-in DVD burner, I recommend the HP DVD Writer dvd740e ($160). It's an external box that connects to your computer via USB cable, so you don't have to crack open the computer to install the drive. It features HP's cool LightScribe disc-labeling technology, so after burning your files to a blank DVD, you can then use the same drive to burn text and images onto the top of the disc. It looks 100 times better than scrawling a disc name with a laundry marker.

Finally, while I wouldn't upload all of my images for storage online, I do keep copies of my favorites at an online site—what people miss most when their house burns down is their photo collection, after all. More on online storage in the Sharing Your Success section below.

So much for the take-your-medicine part of our discussion. On to the fun stuff. And organizing your photos actually is fun, if only for the pleasant discoveries you make, first when creating an organizational structure, second when you use the resulting system for browsing images in new ways. The key to making this effective is software that sorts through thousands of pictures in an instant. Some programs call this "assigning keywords," others call it "tagging" or "labeling" your photos—it's all fundamentally the same. You assign one or more labels to each photo, either by drag-and-dropping or mouse-clicking. A photo of my wife on vacation in Hawaii might get two tags, "Helen" and "Hawaii," while all the photos of my daughter have a "Jessica" tag. Now, with thousands of photos on my hard drive, I can instantly display thumbnail images of all the pictures of my wife just by choosing her label. That's good as far as it goes, but the real power comes from the ability to combine tags. For example, I might want to see only photos of my wife in Hawaii, or every picture with my wife and daughter together—I can switch between the two very different views in a matter of seconds. All the programs mentioned above have some keyword cataloguing system. Photoshop Elements and Digital Image Suite are the most powerful, Ulead gets the job done with some additional work, while iPhoto offers speed and simplicity but can't handle more advanced searches.

One caveat before you start organizing your photo collection: there's no standard format for tagging pictures, so if you change from one program to another, you'll have to start over from scratch.

ENHANCING YOUR PHOTOS

There's always some way to improve a photo, whether it's something subtle (brightening up a shot taken on an overcast day) or severe (what did Cousin Frankie have to eat to generate such a spectacular zit?). The first step: tweaking the overall lighting and color.

Every consumer-friendly image-editing program offers automatic one-button fixes for these functions, and they're good places to start—you can always experiment with additional subtle corrections after the computer takes its best guess. Often I'm pleasantly surprised with the degree of improvement I can get with a single mouse-click, especially when the photo is your basic Mom-and-Dad-on-a-green-lawn kind of image. On the other hand, the computer can also make horrible assumptions and turn a mediocre image into a catastrophe. Remember, the undo command is your best friend with any photo-editing project. Be sure the image on-screen is large enough to evaluate the results of your fiddling, and immediately reverse any changes that look wrong.

When you move beyond automated improvements, you'll have several powerful tools at your disposal. Manual color correction can be intimidating—most of us don't know which color is off in a picture, we just sense that the photo doesn't look right. I find the best way to get some direction is to grab the controls and make large adjustments first. The result won't be perfect, but you'll start getting a sense of whether the red is off or there's too much green. Then you can back off to a more reasonable level of adjustment.

As for fixing brightness and contrast, it's worth moving beyond the simple overall image controls to the levels tool that lets you separately adjust the shadows, middle values and highlight areas. For example, I once rode in a pace car at the Indy 500 and grabbed a photo of the driver as we roared around the track. Straight out of the camera the picture looked awful—the world outside the car windows looked fine, but the driver was completely lost in shadow. By enhancing just that shadowed area, though, I could see the driver clearly without blowing out the correctly exposed windows.

Now we move from reproducing reality more accurately to altering it for the better, through image retouching. Think of all those film-based photos you took that were ruined by demonic red eyes (caused by the flash hitting the blood vessels in the subject's retina, if you're interested). Digital-imaging software can get the red out automatically most of the time and, if it doesn't succeed completely, a few manual mouse clicks will finish the job.

It used to take a skilled airbrusher to remove an actress's wrinkles or an out-of favor Politburo member from a photograph. Now a layman can tackle the job thanks to an image-editing program's ability to take a desirable section of an image—the background wall, for example, or a clear patch of skin—and plaster it over offending or distracting elements (a process often dubbed cloning). Is there a guy walking on the beach behind your family? You can "pick up" the existing blue-sky background and use it to paint over the intruder. Same goes for facial blemishes—find some clear skin and spackle over moles and blemishes. It takes a little practice to figure out the best section to clone (thanks again, undo command), but at least the software will automatically smooth out the edges of your patched section, to make it blend in more naturally.

That's fine for removing the evidence entirely, but what if you just want to give reality a softer edge? Each of these image-editing programs offers the digital equivalent of cosmetics, tools that handily smooth out wrinkles and unfurrow brows with little manual dexterity required.

Until now, we've been fiddling with entire images, but sophisticated image-editing programs offer the option to select a precise section of an image and manipulate only that part. Choose just the sky, for example, and make it more blue, without affecting the other colors in the picture. Or choose a pumpkin in a Halloween picture and turn it pink, if you like, just to mess with people. One of my favorite photographic tricks is selecting the foreground person or object in a picture and subtly blurring only the background, making the important part of the image stand out.

Of course, once you've selected an object in an image, you can cut and paste it at will, putting new heads on bodies or pinning an image of a first-place ribbon on your last-place son's chest. Until recently, making selections with enough accuracy to fool the eye was a painstaking process, but the latest iterations of these programs make automated selections much more likely to be successful, especially if you experiment with the selection tool settings a little.

Once you have the exposure right and have tampered with reality for the better, it's time to think about sharpness (always save this step for last, by the way). If your image is just a bit out of focus, using a sharpening tool adds a degree of crispness that will fool most viewers, especially in small print sizes. While programs usually offer several tools for sharpening an image, the one that yields best results for

photos (as opposed to illustrations) is called unsharp mask. Of course, crystal clarity isn't always a good thing—a softer focus often makes portraits more appealing. Again, most programs offer a few tools, but the filter of choice for photos is gaussian blur.

A quick word of advice when it comes to saving your images: your camera most likely takes pictures in JPEG format (creating files that end in .jpg). This is a compressed format that sacrifices just a skosh of image detail for the sake of creating smaller, more manageable files. However, if you do a little image editing on a picture, then save the new version as a JPEG and continue to reopen and resave the file in JPEG format, the image is recompressed each time and starts to deteriorate. Your best bet: while working on your photo, save it in the image-editing program's own native file format (that's PSD for Photoshop, PNG for Digital Image Suite) or as an uncompressed TIFF file for Ulead. That way you can continue to make changes without recompressing with each save.

Now that the overall image is looking good, it's time to carve away extraneous areas to create the most effective composition. In the primordial days of digital photography, you were limited in how much you could crop out—the image barely included enough precious dots to print a decent 4" x 6" without cutting anything away. But with today's multimegapixel cameras, you can focus on just a small portion of the original photo and end up with a perfectly printable image. This is certainly good news for parents eager to eliminate ex-spouses from family photos, but it also opens up lots of creative possibilities for your photo collection.

SHARING YOUR SUCCESS

Once you've mastered a few simple techniques for getting your digital images into shape, you're ready to show them off, whether via prints or on-screen display.

When it comes to printing, you can always let the professionals handle the job—an increasing variety of services are available to accept your digital files and print them out, including neighborhood photo and convenience stores, self-serve photo kiosks and online

services, all of which charge about the same as traditional photo film finishing. One handy new option is uploading your images to an online service, then retrieving your prints a few hours later at a local store. You get the convenience of online ordering and don't have to wait around for the mailman to deliver your photos.

When I take pictures at family gatherings, I do resort to online printing services (I've had good luck with both Shutterfly and KodakEasyShare Gallery). That way everybody can order the pictures they want, and even have a mug or puzzle printed with their favorite nephew's puss. For my own prints, though, I'd rather handle the job on my own, which lets me completely control the process and enjoy instant gratification. And with the latest crop of photo printers, the results are indistinguishable from professional output, and last just as long.


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