Deja Vu: Kodak Photo CD Revisited

Adobe Photoshop 6.0 provides a more extensive Open dialog for Photo CD images than previous versions, and some occasional users of the format may find it's all they really need.
Photos © 2000, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

While Kodak's Photo CD process was originally announced in 1990, it wasn't until the summer of 1992 that a photo lab in my area offered the service. The original concept behind Photo CD was at once simple and complex. The digitized images stored on a CD-ROM disc were easy to have made and to use. You gave a roll of unprocessed film to your lab and they give you back a disk full of digitized images along with your prints and negatives. But this approach aimed at the consumer market, flopped. The home imaging infrastructure we assume today wasn't present and people were asked to buy a fairly expensive player to see their images on TV. It was a format and service that was way before its time. Luckily, pros caught on that this was a great way to digitize their images and get a variety of resolution scans at one time. To understand why pros took to Photo CDs--and still do--let's take a look at how they work.

To produce a finished disc, an operator at a Photo CD Transfer Station converts your film images into digital form using a high-resolution film scanner, a computer, image processing software, a disc writer, and a color thermal printer. Each image is pre-scanned and displayed on a monitor, where they check the orientation (portrait or landscape) of the image. Color and density are adjusted and a final, high-resolution scan is made. On a Photo CD Master disc, each 18MB file is compressed to 4.5MB using Kodak's proprietary Photo YCC format and written to the disc. Five different files at five different resolutions are actually written of the same image using Kodak's ImagePac format, which provides images from 128x192 up to 2048x3072 resolutions.

The Windows version of the Photo CD Acquire Module looks almost identical to the Macintosh version and has all of the same functions and controls.

A Photo CD Master disc accepts 35mm negative and transparency film. The Pro Photo CD Master format can be used to digitize film up to 4x5 sheet film while offering an optional sixth resolution of 6144 x4096 pixels. The dynamic range for a Photo CD scan, an important measure of image quality, is 2.8, while a Pro scan is 3.2.

At a time when film scanners were much more expensive than they are now, Photo CD had immediate application for serious amateur and professional photographers. Since the dynamic range of the Photo CD Master disc closely matches that of color negative film, I started creating more images on color negative stock for projects I knew would be delivered in a digital form. Since a digitized image could be easily converted into gray scale mode, color film became more popular with photographers. Color negative film became the choice for photojournalists, even if the image would ultimately be published in black and white.

Just Click Open
One of the simplest ways to acquire or capture the images stored on a Photo CD disc is to use the Open dialog in your image-editing program. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop have supported the format since it was introduced, and the latest version provides the most comprehensive support yet for the Photo CD format. Photoshop 6.0's Open dialog allows you to select which resolution you want, what size, as well as what colorspace. You can also specify the orientation of the image--portrait or landscape--saving you the extra setup of having to rotate horizontal images to vertical, previously the default in Photoshop. The Open dialog in Photoshop 5.5 and earlier versions is not as comprehensive as in Photoshop 6.0. Also, be aware that not all programs will open Photo CD images. MGI's PhotoSuite 4.0, among several others, will not open images from Photo CD discs, but since the program does support Photoshop compatible plug-ins you can use Kodak's Photo CD Acquire Module to capture images.

The first thing the author does with a Photo CD file is sharpen it. You can use Photoshop's Unsharp Mask control or the industrial strength and easier-to-use nik Sharpener Pro plug-in.

Whether you use nik Sharpener Pro or Photoshop's built-in Un-sharp Mask filter, one thing's for certain: Photo CD scans almost always need to be sharpened. When using Unsharp Mask, a good rule of thumb is that the larger the file is, the more sharpening you can apply. A 72MB Pro scan, for example, can easily handle an "amount" as high as 200 percent, while smaller images can only support a factor 30 percent before looking "oversharpened." Experiment with different images to avoid oversharpening and be careful. Use Unsharp Masking like salt--a little goes a long way.

Kodak Photo CD Acquire Module
While you can use your image-editing program's Open command, you can also access images on Photo CD discs using Kodak's free Photo CD Acquire Module plug-in. The advantage of using this approach is that the plug-in lets you manipulate an image before it's actually opened. For example, you can convert an image into black and white, crop, and sharpen it. If the image is in color but you need it to be gray scale to use in a newsletter, you can open it that way. When you select Photo CD Acquire from your image-editing program's Import menu, a dialog box opens and shows a thumbnail of the images that are available, allowing you to choose the image you want to open at a specific resolution. The minimum choice might be the Base (512x768) image but, if you have enough memory in your computer, working with the larger 16Base (2048x3072) will produce better quality results when output on an ink jet printer.

Once an image has been selected, a large preview window allows you to crop, resize, and tweak the image using any of SilverFast Ai Photo CD's controls, including the ability to apply Unsharp Masking as the image is being imported into your image-editing program.

Photo CD Accessory Software
Photo CD scans are rarely perfect and often need a little help to extract their full quality. Extensis' Intellihance Pro 4.0 plug-in consolidates all of your enhancement choices into a single dialog box that includes presets for many scanning and digitizing methods, including Photo CD. In addition to the obvious enhancements to brightness, contrast, and saturation, image tweaking tools include a Clipped Pixel Display that shows which pixels are too bright, too dark, or too saturated. A Dust & Scratch Re-moval control finds dust specks and scratches and removes them without destroying too much detail, which is often the case with similarly named tools.

Over time, digital imagers can create and save their own presets which can apply up to 50 adjustment steps at a time for specific projects or sets of images. Intellihance Pro's PowerVariations feature has a multi-pane window where a single image can be split or repeated across user-defined previews. With a maximum of five rows and columns, up to 25 variations can be simultaneously viewed. Image adjustments can be made and previewed and a test print made. The plug-in contains paper and ink settings that will automatically adjust images for output to specific devices. You can download a demo from Extensis' web site at:

One of the easiest ways to enhance a Photo CD image is by using Extensis' Intellihance Pro 4.0. This indispensable plug-in includes preset settings for many digitizing methods, including Photo CD. Here it's used to tweak a photograph of a colorful painted VW Beetle that was originally made with a Contax G2 and 90mm f/2.5 G-Sonnar lens. If you look closely at the preset menu in the upper left-hand corner, it says "Photo CD+." The plus means the default settings were changed, in this case I changed the sharpness to "soft" because Intellihance Pro invariable oversharpens Photo CD files.

Acquisition Alternatives
The ultimate way to acquire an image from a Photo CD disc is with LaserSoft's SilverFast Photo CD 5.0 plug-in. It allows you to acquire images from Master or Pro Kodak Photo CD discs and enhance them using all of the powerful tools and capabilities normally found in scanner plug-ins. SilverFast Photo CD's controls can be dragged and moved to a second monitor, permitting the image preview to be enlarged to the full size of your main monitor. The plug-in's pre-scan feature allows you to rotate and resize the image to a specific size and resolution before being acquired by Photoshop.

If you're new to image acquisition, SilverFast's ScanPilot automatically guides you through the process of making individual image corrections. All operations are done in real-time allowing you to immediately see the effect of any changes you make and unwanted modifications can be undone on the fly. Photo CD novices can use the plug-in's built-in presets and auto-adjust features, while more experienced users can work with numerical input and monitor exact values with SilverFast's built-in densitometer. SilverFast Photo CD allows you to define and match input and output color spaces using ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles and is compatible with color management systems such as ColorSync for the Mac OS and ICM for Windows 98 and 2000. You can download a demo from LaserSoft's web site at:

Prices for Photo CD scans vary based on whether you order standard or Pro discs and by individual service providers. As with any lab service, ask for recommendations and do your own tests. For the photographer who doesn't own a scanner--or doesn't want to own a scanner--Kodak's Photo CD pro-cess is an excellent way to digitize slides and negatives for personal or professional use.

Kodak's Picture CD is a less expensive, somewhat lower resolution alternative that's limited to 35mm and Advanced Photo System color negative film and is made at the time of processing. This is the interface of the Mac OS version of the built-in software.

Kodak's Picture CD
Kodak's Picture CD is an auto-loading CD-ROM that incorporates your digitized photographs along with image manipulation software which lets you enhance those images. Each Picture CD holds photographs from a single roll of color negative 35mm or Advanced Photo System film. Ordering this service is as simple as checking a box on the film-processing envelope provided by your local photofinisher. After processing, which can vary from one hour to two days, depending on the retailer, you'll receive prints along with a Picture CD and index print. The cost of a Picture CD varies per retailer with prices in the $8.95 and $11.95 per roll range.

After inserting the CD-ROM in a Windows computer, your digitized pictures appear on the monitor displayed in a magazine-style format, using a table of contents. On a Macintosh computer, you'll need to click the "StartMac" icon to see them. The software on the Windows version of Kodak's Picture CD lets you view and tweak images; with the less comprehensive Mac OS version you can rotate your photographs as well as add text or captions. The software lets you create full-screen slide shows using transition effects between the images. You can print single or multiple pictures as well as print a single image at different sizes and quantities. If you want to send an image by e-mail you can copy one or more of your pictures onto your hard drive, then attach those images to a message. You can find more information about Picture CD at:

Adobe Systems Inc.
345 Park Ave.
San Jose, CA 95110
(408) 536-6000
fax: (408) 537-4031

Eastman Kodak Company
343 State St.
Rochester, NY 14650
(716) 724-4000

Extensis Corporation
1800 SW First, Ste. 500
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 274-2020
fax: (503) 274-0530

LaserSoft Imaging, Inc.
5350 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Ste. 201B
Longboat Key, FL 34228
(941) 383-7496
fax: (941) 387-7574

6549 Mission Gorge Rd., Ste. 220
San Diego, CA 92120
(619) 562-4456
fax: (619) 562-5583