Image Processing Digital Style

Gone are the days when we might be discussing the merits of stock vs. dilution ratios for film processing and the uses of potassium ferricyanide for snapping up highlights on prints. While these are still items of interest for those working in the chemical darkroom, the talk these days is more about raw image converters and which plug-ins are optimum for gaining a "Velvia look" on output. Now that the image has become "information," and we talk more about bit depth than density and dye, the whole sense of what constitutes image processing has changed.

Interestingly, the discussion retains a certain purist outlook, with some feeling that the image that comes out of a digital camera is sacrosanct, and that any manipulation is somehow a defilement of the moment the shutter was snapped. It smacks of those who insisted on full frame-only printing, where any cropping somehow was a cop-out. But when digital arrived all those bets were off; the image that comes out of a camera these days has undergone a fair share of processing, by default, before it even hits the memory card. If you could see any image without that processing you'd quickly put away your digital camera and rush back to film. The real raw file is flat and colorless; the integration, sharpening, resampling, noise reduction, and color boosting that goes on in the camera's microprocessor would make your head spin. To extend that processing post-exposure and enhance the image further is only a logical next step in attaining the best image quality you can.

Image-processing software these days ranges from the all-in-one editor/processor/webpage maker/printing package to so-called plug-ins that attach themselves to the main image software architecture. The latter choices are as wide as you can imagine, from software that can be used as one-button emulators of film emulsions past to those that create seamless panoramas from two to 10 images. You have specialty items for re-sizing and resampling, collators that help you lay out a book and even those that can yield watercolor-like illustrations from even the most humble image.

There are expensive boxed packages, downloadable and fully functional trials, shareware, freeware, and the constant drumbeat of upgrades for every new operating system and main software host. The blizzard of offerings can make your head spin, reminding me of the hundreds of filters once offered by companies who sold you special effects via threaded, metal rimmed glass that you placed over your lens. Each week we get literally dozens of notices about some new products for manipulating the image, organizing on the web, or making poster-size prints from 2MB files. Code writing entrepreneurs are out there blazing through the night seeking to create the next big thing.

There is a seductive quality to all this, one that, if you wish, could take up a good deal of your precious time. In some instances it is comprised mainly of fancy tricks, conjurer's algorithms that take advantage of the malleable nature of the medium and your desire to get as creative as you can with your images. The challenge is sorting it all out to make the best use of your time to make images that express your vision, and get the most in terms of quality from every shot.

The good thing is that you can often try out software before you buy (one source for free trials of all sorts is our Co-Op link on the Shutterbug homepage) and see if what it offers does the job for you. It's not like souping film in a new developer and being stuck with a certain density or contrast; with the digital image you can perform all sorts of backflips and then go back to the original, with no harm done. That's the blessing of digital software; the curse is that there are so many choices to wade through before you find the one that suits you best.