Digital Help
Q&A For Digital Photography

This department will attempt to provide solutions to problems readers may have getting into and using digital cameras, scanning, and using digital photographic images with a computer and different kinds of software. All questions sent to me will be answered with the most appropriate information I can access and provide. However, not all questions and answers will appear in this department. Readers can send questions to me addressed to Shutterbug magazine, through the Shutterbug web site, directly via e-mail to: editorial@shutterbug.net or fotografx@mindspring.com or by US Mail to: PO Box 2830, Lompoc, CA 93438.

Video Cards For The Best Photo Performance With PC Windows Computers
Q. I live in the UK and have visited the US twice to visit my sister, who married an American. On the last occasion, which I think was in 1998 or '99, I bought a copy of Shutterbug, which had a very interesting article on the best ways of setting up a computer for digital work. It made what seemed to me a very valid point regarding video cards, namely that a card optimized for 3D effects for game playing was going to be less satisfactory for photographic purposes than one optimized for 2D. The author went on to name one or perhaps two cards of this type that he thought would be the right choice.

I kept the article against the day when I would be able to replace my computer with a more powerful one, when I would make sure to have such a card fitted, especially as I have no interest at all in computer games. But now that that time has come, I can't find the article! (I daresay that even if I could, the recommended cards would no longer be available.)

So, can I ask your advice as to which currently available card(s)--not too high-end--would be your recommendation? Thank you for your help.
Glyn Duggan

A. I believe it was one of my articles to which you are referring. The same technical considerations are applicable to the current PC market. The video cards that are optimized for games, 3D, and animation are not necessarily those which will provide the best 2D image reproduction and support optimum Photoshop performance.

Although the main players in the video card business remain the same, the video card models you can choose from to obtain the best 2D and Photoshop performance are new and somewhat different than in '99. I believe at the moment the ATI Radeon 9000 series cards are a top pick among those that are affordable (but shy away from All-In-Wonder models). The closest competition to ATI remains Matrox and the Millennium model cards. Prices will vary on the basis of whether the processor is 64 or 128 bit, and the speed and quality of the ramdac chip, as well as support for dual monitors and compatibility with various motherboard design requirements and capabilities.

To obtain specifications and prices on a large selection of video cards, I would suggest visiting the www.cnet.com site and type in the search box "video cards"--there are many pages of offerings with specification details and the retail US price range, which is not all that different from prices several years ago.

Panorama Photographs, Film Or Digital?
Q. The digital vs. film discussion poses a problem for me. I have the chance to buy a Widelux swing lens panoramic camera at a reasonable cost. It takes good-quality 35mm photos covering a 140Þ angle. But is it worth buying in view of the continuing advances in digital technique?

Could I get as good or better panoramic results by investing in a digital camera and stitching together digital photos? Or alternatively scanning in photos taken on a film camera and stitching those together? Thanks for your thoughts on this.
David Baird

A. Creating a successful panoramic photograph is in itself a complex and involved challenge, whether it is done with a specialized camera like the Widelux or whether a "normal" camera is used to make a series of exposures in a very controlled way. Which is more effective and the best choice, I think, is influenced by the kind of subjects a photographer chooses as scenes for panoramas. Then there is the question of whether a photographer is going to make panoramas frequently, which would justify specialized equipment, or just occasionally, which calls into question the investment in special cameras. You also need the means to print or scan the resulting film image. I'm sure those factors are things you have considered.

Software that is capable of stitching images together has been available for several years, and some of it is extremely effective. This attests to the fact that it is a viable and quality solution. Even the latest Adobe Photoshop CS includes specialized software to effectively stitch together a series of individual photo images, resulting in high quality panoramic photographs. And from what I have seen of the results done digitally by stitching images together, they can be very effective. Often they give no visual clue that the resultant panorama originated as a series of discrete individual exposures.

Personally, I would be inclined to go the all-digital route. But that inclination is because I have a great deal of experience in the digital darkroom and enjoy the work. A camera like the Widelux is a challenge to use effectively, so I think the choice must be influenced by personal considerations as much as it is by technical quality issues. Both methods, film and digital, are capable of good results.

The Mac Vs. PC Debate Continues
Q. I don't want to contribute more fuel to the fire of the Mac vs. PC debate but I have a question. You have been clear about the superiority of Mac color management, and you have stated that the Mac is more crash resistant than the PC. The photo/graphic/publishing industry is Mac oriented. My question is this: If the hardware and software cost for the Mac is significantly more ($1500-$2000) than a similar PC-based system, is the Mac worth the premium?

I was disappointed to learn that software upgrades from Adobe and others cannot cross platforms. So buying a new system (Mac for me) would require purchasing all new software to support it (Office Suite, Photoshop, Toast, and others). If I stick with my PC I can purchase the upgrades. Your advice is always on point and your answer to this question would be greatly appreciated.
Sandy Noble

A. First of all, your assumption a Mac costs more is incorrect. To obtain equal graphics performance and component quality (like the same video card) the same quality of RAM chips, etc., etc., the PC will cost you more. If you want to compare prices for equal quality and performance of a Mac G4 or G5 you have to select one of the PC workstations made specifically for graphics, and the price is usually higher than for a Mac.

The quality of the low-ball price leading box deals for brand PCs is not a true comparative--especially when you look inside those products. They are offered at those low prices because they have cheap, no-name dubious quality components inside, mostly made in China. Yes, there is a one-time hit for some software, like the full version of Photoshop and Microsoft Office. But for Shutterbug readers who are not professional photographers, I wonder why they would need or want applications that are at that level because they are very unlikely to ever use but a small part of the capabilities. In other words, they are paying for a lot of stuff they'll never have use for. On the other hand, Toast and many utilities are an included part in the Mac and the OS 10.3 operating system. The old adage, you get what you pay for, still applies.

Mac vs. PC, Part II
Q. In the December issue of Macworld the G5 dual processor was compared to other equal PCs. The article clearly stated that the PC outperformed the G5. This really put some doubt in my mind about purchasing the G5. If you read the article, could you please comment on it? I am using a PC now and really wanted to switch over to Apple buying the G5 with the dual processor.
Phil Merola

A. It has been a few years since processing speed has been a significant issue, even to someone like myself with years of full-time experience. Even an inexpensive eMac is more than fast enough working in Photoshop so I never have to wait for it, except maybe when processing 250MB 48-bit files, and then it is just a few seconds pause to apply a process like a Hue/Saturation adjustment, not even enough time to take a break.

The real issues involved in the choice between PC vs. Mac are quality issues, both in terms of hardware quality and in terms of color reproduction quality. In the hardware department comparing the top of the line Mac to today's typical PC is like comparing a 700 series BMW with a Toyota Camry--there is no comparison! Whether a car can go 150mph or 125mph is irrelevant in the real world of speed laws and traffic, but which provides a better driving experience is significant.

On the issue of reproduced color quality, it is a top, primary concern for Apple and they apply continuous, major R&D toward it. That is a major part of Apple's market and they dominate in the professional printing, publication, and photography areas. On the other hand, Microsoft abandoned any serious effort to compete in that market after 1998 when the last version ICM 2.0 of their color management engine for Windows was released. They have applied minimal development to color reproduction quality in the last five years, using the same old ICM 2.0 engine.

Horse races are no more significant to digital image computing than they are in politics or who is the most popular celebrity. Nothing of importance is accomplished by who is ahead in a meaningless race that has minimal or significant affect in the real world of individual graphics computing.

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