Imaging Software Primer
A Program For Every Need

"I just got a digital camera. What software do you think I should get?" Truth is, there's no be-all, end-all answer to this question. It's like saying, "Hey, I just got a kitchen. What kind of food should I cook?"

There are so many choices available that the person who posed the first question (the user) is actually the source of the first answer. Think about it for a moment. You just shelled out a few hundred dollars for a digital camera. What do you realistically expect to do with it? Once you've figured that out, the rest is fairly simple.

Image Editing
If you bought the camera with intentions of replacing your trusty old point-and-shoot, then chances are that you're in the market for an entry-level software package. This is a perfect place to be for three reasons. One, most titles for this market cost under $50; buy anything over that and you're just paying for a name. Two, there are many titles available for people like you. Three, chances are good that your camera already comes with some free software to fit your needs. This software will allow you to perform basic photo correction with the least amount of effort possible. Best of all, it will usually run well on older computers.

Users looking for more challenge and functionality than offered in the software that comes with the digicam should take the next step to advanced-level editing software. The transition to these more advanced programs is very easy for users who understand the basics. Though they're probably the most commonly overlooked, these titles offer the best value. Titles like Adobe Photoshop Elements, Corel PHOTO-PAINT, and a few others come packed with some professional-grade features at a much more reasonable price--usually between $90 and $200, depending on how much program you want. This grade of software will typically require an average, up-to-date (less than 2 years old) computer to run reliably. Mid-grade software has also proven its worth in the business world. This is particularly the case for small businesses that have imaging needs but an insufficient budget to hire a full-time graphics worker. Once you get used to their digital cameras, this will probably be the next market to explode with new titles.

Finally, there is commercial-grade software. Though much more expensive (upward of $700) than the others, professional-grade software offers the most number of features and probably the greatest level of reliability. There is no substitute for people who spend 40 hours a week creating, handling, manipulating, and enhancing digitized images. These few programs also appeal to professional photographers and hard-core enthusiasts. Though they are the most advanced, these programs guzzle resources like an SUV going uphill. These programs run best on faster, newer computers.

Take To Your Peers
Once you've decided which niche is right for you, the next step is finding the right title. Here's where a little word of mouth goes a long way. The best suggestion I can give is to ask users who are on the same experience level as yourself. Find out what they like and hate about the program they're using. Ask them if they really think if was worth the money.

Next, do a little searching on the Internet. Many sites like Tucows, Zdnet, and Cnet specialize in giving readers information about tech-related products such as photo-editing software. More importantly, they all offer two very reliable sets of opinions: theirs and the readers'. Just imagine how bad a program has to be for someone to take the time to write about it on someone else's web site. The same logic goes for programs that receive rave reviews from the readers.

Test Drive
Once you've narrowed it down to a few potential programs, be sure to take them for a test drive before parting with dime-one. These same sites that offer reader/writer reviews will often link directly downloadable trial versions of each program. These offers can range anywhere from interactive movies highlighting the software's capability to fully working programs that will cease functioning after the 30-day trial period expires. Either way, there's no excuse to pay a single dollar without knowing it's being spent on software that will fully meet your needs.

Web Software
Increased Internet development yielded a tremendous effect on the high-end segment of users. It used to be that graphic professionals had a rather simple method of deciding which programs to buy: "Just find the boxes with Adobe Photoshop written on the cover, then look for the one with the highest version number." While it may sound myopic, this sort of loyalty can only be given to a high-quality product that, for years, offered its customers a powerful and reliable tool to get their work done. Brand loyalty shifted slightly when traditional graphic artists found themselves developing web rather than print pages. The long-reigning king of this market was slow to add features that would address the often-repetitive natural of site development. This opened a window for titles like Macromedia Fireworks to enter the party. While Adobe is still on top of the game, this brief wobble showed loyal users that alternatives do exist.

Now the race is on and the overall photo-editing software market is expanding in more directions than ever before. Titles are now packed with more and better features than ever before and users are sure to reap these benefits.

Programs like FrontPage, Dream-weaver, and GoLive brought usability and efficiency to developers who are always so technically inclined. It might not sound like much, but it revolutionized the online industry's work environment. Suddenly code-fed techies were encouraged to push the limits of back-end expertise while look, feel, and content issues were assigned to print- industry carpetbaggers.

The secrets to these programs' success lie in their oh-so basic interfaces. They often try to mimic the usability of word processors and print layout software while integrating a host of web-only features. Users who are already comfortable working in programs like Word, PageMaker, or QuarkXPress need only learn the elements of site design and basic HTML code to build an original site.

Albuming
While web-related features will certainly appeal to the professional, the average digital camera owner has not been left out of the picture. In fact, recent releases of beginner-level software are making life a lot easier for those consumers who are not so inclined to spend hours behind the computer.

Photo album features are becoming more and more common in entry-level and advanced programs. These allow users to store and browse photos on their hard drives without going into the directory tree. Pictures are thumbnailed and viewed in an interface that looks like a real photo album but acts similarly to a web site. These programs usually allow owners to select and e-mail their images without ever leaving the album's software environment. In fact some titles provide basic photo retouching commands within the album itself. Expect to see more of this sort of integration in the future.

Digicam Dedicated
Speaking of integration, many software houses teamed up with digital camera manufacturers to improve the process of digital photography. The advantage of OEM deals come to users in the form of software specifically intended for use with the camera or scanner they just purchased. This often means there are shortcuts in place for downloading pictures directly from the hardware to the imaging software. The best example of this sort of software/hardware integration is Kodak's new line of digital cameras that share a common docking system. Users need only place the camera on the dock and press a button. This starts recharging the camera's batteries and automatically launches the image transfer system which then re-sizes and re-names the pictures according to user specification and finally opens them in a photo-editing program. Yes, all those steps can be accomplished with the push of a button and a couple of mouse clicks.

Memory Requirements
Imaging software consumes more memory than most other programs. Programs that constantly crash might be competing with other software for the computer's Random Access Memory (RAM). Any computer system, no matter how new, will become unstable when all its resources are being used at one time. So try to turn off as many programs as possible when running an image editor. Not only will that program run faster, but it will be less likely to lockup and crash.

Special Effects Made Easy
Almost any photo editor sold today comes with a set of "filters" already included. This term is an adaptation from the days of traditional photography when special effects were achieved by attaching optical distortion devices to a camera's lens. This method can still be employed with most standard-diameter SLR cameras, but more photographers are applying their special effects in the digital darkroom. After all, once a photograph is shot through a filter, there's no changing it back to normal and no way to control the amount of effect applied to that image. Software filters offer users numerous degrees of severity with which their effects are utilized. Most importantly, filters too harshly applied through digital means can be undone with a quick stroke of the mouse.

As you might guess, these features were originally designed to mimic traits commonly found in professional photography. For instance, the Gaussian Blur function imitates the effect of a screen placed over the camera's lens. In real life, this technique creates a softened image. While the same romanticized look can be applied to digital images through software versions of this filter, its power goes much further now. Images that have been enlarged tend to take on a grainy or pixilated look. Light use of the Gaussian Blur automatically smoothes over these rough spots. Other filters include motion blur, lens flare, zoom, watercolor, and anything else programmers can dream.

Picture Frames
The most basic of effects titles is a framemaker program. This allows users to quickly add a digital framing effect to their pictures. This is perfect for adding that old time (early 1990s) feel to nearly any shot. Traditional framemakers may be going by the wayside since digital photography consumers have so many professional printing options at their disposal.

360 View
One booming fringe segment of the industry is panoramic and 360 photography. Both these genres required extremely expensive camera equipment and limitless talent. That is, until programmers made it easy enough for an 8-year-old. It used to be that full-view pictures of the Grand Canyon required a good memory, a steady hand, and lots of Scotch tape when you got home. Now the simplified process has users adhering digital images together in some fairly inexpensive software. The resulting product is far more seamless than five 5x7s stuck end to end with a wad of 3M products.

Like most things in digital photography, this has been applied practically on the web. Now realtors give potential buyers the ability to scroll and zoom through detailed interior pictures of the houses they sell. In fact, popularity with consumers has made 360 and panoramic photography a standard feature in automotive and travel sales as well.

3D, Too
Three-dimesional imaging is certainly coming of age in the consumer market. Imagers who aren't afraid to log some time behind the monitor have a wealth of software at their disposal. Not only is it perfect for creating entirely synthetic images, but digital pictures are also be enhanced to achieve an eerie sense of surrealism. Sure, many photo editors come with 3D tools already installed, but this is a task best left to specialized software. Like straight photo software, the number of titles, functionality, and prices range as wide as your needs.

Organizing Software
The directory browser is often a cold and confusing environment for novice users who just want to find their pictures. This is where a recent slew of photo album programs prove their worth. These relatively inexpensive systems give users an easy and graphic way of sorting through numerous image files at a time. Though look and feel might differ across titles, all album softwares share some basic characteristics and functionality. Foremost, they allow users to sort, move, and view images in a manner very similar to that of a traditional album. Photographers can easily drag, drop, re-name, and print their photos from one easy window without ever having to look at file icons. The software also maintains thumbnail versions of each picture to avoid confusion.

This sort of technology may sound revolutionary at first, but it's really little more than a photo-friendlier version of a computer's directory browser. And as with everything else in digicamland, software manufacturers have taken this potentially time-saving feature and flooded the market with numerous titles, features, and price ranges.

Manufacturers/Distributors

ACD Systems--www.acdsystems.com
Adaptec--www.adaptec.com
Adobe Systems Inc.--www.adobe.com
Alien Skin Software--www.alienskin.com
Altamira Group--www.altamira-group.com
Arcsoft--www.arcsoft.com
Auto FX Software--www.autofix.com
Canto Software, Inc.--www.canto-software.com
Cerious Software, Inc.--www.cerious.com
Corel Corp.--www.corel.com
Deneba--www.deneba.com
eBook Systems, Inc.--www.ebooksys.com, www.flipalbum.com, and www.flipbrowser.com
Extensis Corp.--www.extensis.com
G & A Imaging--www.photorecall.com and www.ga-imaging.com
GIMP--www.gimp.com
GJC Software--www.gjcsoftware.com
HomeSite--www.allaire.com
iPIX--www.ipix.com
Irfan View--www.irfanview.com
Ixla Software--www.ixla.com
Jasc Software--www.jasc.com
Macromedia--www.macromedia.com
MetaCreations--www.metacreations.com
MGI Software--www.mgisoft.com
Microsoft, Inc.--www.microsoft.com
MySoftware--www.mysoftware.com
Pegasus Software, LLC--www.pegasustools.com
PhotoDisc--www.photodisk.com
Photo Folio & Streamrocket Voyager--www.voyager.com
PhotoSoft--www.photosoft.com
PictureWorks Technologies--www.pictureworks.com
Pinnacle Systems--www.pinnaclesys.com
QBeo Inc.--www.qbeo.com
SoundPix--www.soundpix.com
Spinwave--www.spinwave.com
Trellix--www.trellix.com
Visual PackRat Plus--www.spectrumshopper.com
VR Interactive--www.surroundphoto.com
Xaos Tools--www.xaostools.com

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