My 4/27/08 Missoulian column
If you’ve got a digital camera or if you’re about to buy one, I have to leave it to you to learn your particular camera. The basics are similar: a screen, a selection menu, knobs and thumb wheels for exposure, still and movie modes and memory cards and USB cables to download images. But there are so many models of cameras and so much software available that most of the time it’s just us and the instruction books.
One of the next steps you’ll take in life with a digital camera is software. You might like your photos they way they appear on the camera’s screen and print them that way, but sooner or later you might want to try software to work with your images.
Software works hand in hand with digital images, of course, because your images are made up of the same digital information that all computers are based on – a staggering number of ones and zeros – so in effect, your images are software themselves. Digital images are made up of those ones and zeros called bits, but in the context of images, you’ll be dealing with the pixels they visually represent. That’s what the overall resolution of your camera is measured in – megapixels – and that’s what you’ll be working with in your images on the screen: pixels.
Some software probably came with your new camera and it should be easy to use. It will help you crop, as well as tweak colors and contrast, and repair red eyes, if the camera doesn’t already do those things automatically. Beyond that, there is all kinds of other software available, ranging from open source and shareware to expensive high-end stuff. And the newest thing in the last few years is lots of companies that offer free, reasonably easy-to-use image editing software on the Web, which I’ll cover next week.
The software that arrives with a camera will be mostly geared toward importing your images from your camera and getting them ready to e-mail or print. But those programs sometimes seem like little more than marketing ploys to sell you prints. Lots of that same software has automatic operations to fix color, contrast and image orientation, which can be helpful to a beginner.
Start with the programs that arrived with the your camera and see how you like them before you buy another package, such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture. Those programs are very powerful but can be pricey and difficult to learn.
Canon included several programs with the SX100 I got, including a program with automatic color and contrast features, but I didn’t install it, preferring to stay with Apple’s iPhoto for day-to-day importing and Photoshop for finer work.
I do use Canon’s PhotoStitch, which automatically “sews” together a series of images into a panorama. It works by arranging each photo by its frame number and analyzing the pixels along all the vertical edges through sheer processing power and matching the edges of the images together. If you shoot a level horizontal sweep of three or four photos, PhotoStitch will give you a pretty good 180-degree panorama that requires little extra editing to make it presentable in a small print or on a Web page.
Higher-end software like Adobe’s Photoshop has a steep learning curve, but is nearly limitless in possible effects, tweaks and editing. That’s why “Photoshop” has been both a generic term and a verb almost since the product came out. And that’s also why Photoshop is behind many of the hoax images that circulate on the Web, such as the monster many-pointed elk and the older one showing a shark leaping to snag a man dangling from a helicopter.
Applications such as Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture can also be difficult to learn, but they also double as programs that download and manage your images, too, and are a choice of professional photographers. But before you dive into another software package, try what came with your camera (or the free stuff on the Web I’ll review next week) and see if you like playing with your photos enough to pay for the software to play even more. Then check Adobe’s and Apple’s Web site for demos or look at books in the computer section of the local bookstore. If you want to be more than an amateur, higher-end image management software is pretty much the only way to go.
For everything from easy-to-use iPhoto to the warhorses such as Photoshop, it’s a good idea to get a manual to go with the software package. You’ll get on-screen help and tutorials (sometimes even demo movies to watch) with the software, but there’s nothing like a good book to lie open on the desk while you learn. Try a book from the Missing Manual series from David Pogue of the New York Times and O’Reilly Press or Adobe’s Classroom in a Book series or the Apple Training Series. Check your local bookstore, too.
One thing to remember with any camera: Be sure to set the time and date when you first start up a new camera. It might not seem important, but lots of software depends on the date and time data that is invisibly attached to an image into order to import, sort and avoid duplicate photos. If you currently have problems with importing photos and getting lots of duplicates, check to see if the date and time on your camera is set. The date can be set to April 27, 1963 – it doesn’t matter, just so it isn’t set to the default of no date at all.
And don’t forget a backup for your digital images. All of your photos can all be gone in less than a blink of the eye with a hard drive crash. You might want to archive images on camera memory cards or an external drive, or on CDs, but CDs won’t last for years. Check the documentation that came with your software to learn how to make backup copies of your image libraries.
Next week: a review of web-based image software