Secrets Of Digital Imaging
Getting Started In Digital Doesn't Have To Be Expensive Or Confusing

Not for the fainthearted--recharging your ink jet cartridges can save a fortune, but can get messy. Here's the process for the Epson printers.

I have begun shooting digitally at home more and more, only because of the darned convenience of even a modest digital Ricoh camera. I have a moderately priced consumer megapixel camera that takes those matchbook sized wafer-thin Smart Media memory cards.

Once I shot the first photo of my kids and they could see their faces on the LCD screen instantly, the whole family was hooked. I shot pictures all the time, erasing the ones I didn't like, saving the good ones to my hard disk. My kids warped their faces with Power Goo, and the grandparents received daily pictures via e-mail. Now, when I bring out the Canon EOS and the fast lenses, everyone is disappointed. They ask, "Where's the digital camera? We want to see the pictures now." Just like the Polaroid craze of the '60s, your subjects are always willing to tradeoff image quality for speed.

Convenience aside, you can get great results from digital photographs, especially if you plan to scan your original images, manipulate them in the computer, and then make high quality prints. If you think you're going to save money over conventional wet processing, forget about it. I have been amazed at how quickly those ink jet cartridges, sheets of glossy paper, and alkaline batteries make their way to the garbage can. To try and lighten the load of digital imaging, and as a handy guide to first-time digital camera users, here are a few resources that I have taken advantage of.

Recycling Ink Jet Cartridges. Refilling an ink jet cartridge is a great way to stretch your imaging dollar. While a brand new color cartridge for a printer might cost $20-$25, refilling that cartridge only costs about 50 cents. Keep in mind that refilling different cartridges from different manufacturers requires different techniques, and some cartridges cannot be reliably refilled. Even those that can be refilled will often be more trouble than they are worth. I regularly refill my Epson cartridges with ink and syringes from V-Tech, but I meticulously clean the cartridge after I refill it. I only refill a factory cartridge once, and I keep my printer clean and neat. On my HP printers I do the same, but the cartridges can be refilled twice before they become unreliable.

As you can probably guess, doing this totally voids your printer warranty, so if you are at all squeamish only try this on an out of warranty printer. It can also be quite a mess, especially the finicky "direct-injection" refill technique used on Epson cartridges. While the savings can be spectacular, you've got to have the do-it-yourself personality to get into this. (Count me in.)

Paper for ink jet printers is expensive if you like the good stuff. I've found a few less expensive papers that will work with the popular Epson Piezo printers such as the Photo Stylus, like these from Konica and Mitsubishi.

Bulk Paper. One of the most expensive items you'll run into has to be high quality ink jet paper. I love Epson Photo Glossy Film, but at over $2 a sheet, every wasted page hurts. I have found that the Piezo print heads on the Epson printers do not work well with papers that do not absorb the ink into the top layer of the paper. Epson and Canon paper work great with Epson printers, but the excellent Kodak papers are better suited to HP and Lexmark printers.

For my large format Epson 1520 printer I searched long and hard to find some large format glossy paper, but no stores in my area carried it. Since I was sick of ordering 10 sheet packages mail order, I looked around for larger quantities. While I was able to find Epson Photo Quality Glossy Film in 13x19" packages, at around $6 a sheet I decided to pass. Luckily I found an ad in the back of Shutterbug. The little classified ad from Pasco resulted in a call to Steve Brocking, who promptly fired off a couple of sample sheets of the papers he carried.

I found two excellent papers, one for my large format printer and one for my photo printer. For large format printing I love the Mitsubishi Diamond Jet Mirror gloss paper. This heavy seven mil paper is very nice for photographs and absolutely superb for graphics. When purchased in 100 sheet boxes of 13x19", it is a fraction of the cost of the primo Epson paper. For photo printing on an Epson or Canon photo printer, my new favorite paper in the world is Konica Photo IJ paper. This stuff is very heavy, about postcard weight, has a brilliant gloss, and dries instantly. While it is available in any number of photo shops, when purchased in large quantities it becomes quite reasonable. At well under $1 a sheet, you can gang four 31/2x5" photos on a sheet, which makes it competitive with one-hour lab prices. With this paper, a good image really looks like a conventional photograph when printed on an ink jet printer.

The Top Secret Battery Source. Almost all digital cameras suck power at a frightening rate. My little Ricoh doesn't even have an optical viewfinder, so the LCD screen drains the battery even faster. A fresh set of alkaline batteries often lasts less than one day in a modern megapixel camera. This can get expensive very fast, but NiCd batteries don't offer enough life to be of any value. There are two solutions to this, and the first is the new generation of high capacity NiCds. Panasonic makes very nice 1100 mAh NiCds that offer a decent lifespan and are very inexpensive. They are available in most electronic stores for about $20 for a set of four and a charger.

Ni-MH, Nickel-Metal Hy-dride, batteries offer quick charging, high output, and no memory. In digital cameras they offer great battery life and can save you a fortune over alkalines. Ni-MH batteries are available from any number of sources, including most camera stores. I have found, however, the ultimate sources for Ni-MH batteries at terrific prices. A lot of portable shortwave and CB radios take standard AA batteries, so a few radio battery suppliers are now offering high capacity Ni-MH alkaline batteries. Since many of the purchasers of these types of radios are large municipalities and police departments, replacement batteries are available in bulk at inexpensive prices. Both Thomas Distributing and Bill's 2 Way offer Nexcell 1300 mAh and Ni-MH AA batteries in bulk. I bought 12 batteries from Bill's 2 Way for only $2.29 each, and they charge up in one hour flat with the inexpensive one-hour charger from RadioShack (Cat No 23-405). If you own a digital camera that accepts AA batteries, you've got to step up to Ni-MH.

The White Balance Secret. It's no secret that pros use a carefully calibrated color chart to calibrate their systems. The Macbeth color chart is manufactured to exacting tolerances and has become the standard of the still photography, video, and motion picture world. I use a Macbeth chart to establish white point, black point, and gamma on all my digital studio work, but I don't take one with me when I travel. If you have had a hard time getting a decent neutral image with your digital camera, try this little trick that I have used for a while.

Your friendly hardware store has a rack full of free for the taking paint sample charts. While not crafted quite as well as the Macbeth chart, they're fairly accurate and very consistent. I like to make a handful of little mini cards that I can pack in my bag and stick in the corner of one shot on every roll of film, or in the corner of the first digital picture in each lighting condition. If you want to build a few of these yourself, you can use my colors--I like the Behr Paint "Interior Color Palette" chart, which is item No. 930315 at your local Home Depot store. I like to use London Fog 1532 for neutral gray, Ultra Pure Black 1350 for black, and Ultra Pure White 1050 Flat for white. I cut out the paint chips and stick them to a sturdy piece of cardboard with double stick tape.

If I have a series of photographs taken in a mixed light environment, I stick the chart in the corner of the image, then individually adjust the curves and histogram for each color layer until I have a good white, a neutral gray, and a solid black. By using the curves, rather than the white and black point eyedropper tools, I can create a repeatable setting that can be applied to all the images taken in the same lighting condition. This gives me a simple way to color correct as many images as I want.

Online Bargains For First Timers. If you're curious about digital imaging but loathe to spend any real money, consider buying an end-of-life product through an online auction house. The few problems I have had have been rectified almost immediately, and I've managed to find some real bargains. Right now with decent megapixel cameras starting at around $500 and up, VGA resolution cameras from Fuji, Ricoh, and Philips are showing up online at prices from $150-$200.

For digital peripherals, you'll usually do better buying your memory cards and cables from a place that knows what you need, like the many camera stores that advertise in Shutterbug. I have found that trying to save a few bucks buying memory cards, paper, and accessories online often results in incorrect products being shipped. For stuff like this, it pays to talk to a pro.

It doesn't have to cost a fortune or be overly intimidating to get into digital photography. An inexpensive digital camera, computer, and printer are a good first step. While there is practically no limit to how much money you can spend in this business, you can take halfway decent snapshots for e-mail purposes with a camera that sells for under $200. Once you really get a handle on what digital cameras, scanners, and printers can do, you can decide for yourself how to incorporate them into your own work.

Manufacturers/Distributors

Bill's CB & 2-Way Radio Service
PO Box 306
Morgan Hill, CA 95038
(888) 710-4094
(408) 782-0064
fax: (408) 782-2985
www.bills2way.com

Thomas Distributing
128 E Wood
Paris, IL 61944
(800) 821-2769
www.thomas-distributing.com

V-Tech
2223 Rebecca
Hatfield, PA 19440
(215) 822-2989

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