Change directions -- go digital!

 ... digital photography is a whiz -- but it's no small investment

by Don Norris

Things will never be the same -- photographically speaking.

I heard a photography instructor recently urge his students to "forget all this digital stuff. It's developing so fast, two years down the road you won't be able to read your files."

I differ with that idea. To me, digital photography is the way of the future. I don't think we will ever do away with traditional continuous tone film photography, but the trend today is to digitize everything -- words, music, pictures, sound, type, movies -- if it makes a noise or creates an image, it can be digitized.

Take a look at this photo I shot and used in an August travel story, in the Melrose Mirror. It was taken with a digital Nikon 950, on total automatic exposure, no filters -- in fact, it was a grab shot between really heavy rain showers.

The larger picture is what was published. The smaller flick is a reduction of the original file, which, by the way, was some 24 inches wide. That is what I have to work with -- a picture two feet wide!

What I can do with a computer and a good photo editing program goes way beyond what I could ever accomplish in my darkroom at the local newspaper. Further, I was never able to edit anything in color, for color work had to be sent to Kodak. And you got back a print that the processing guy thought was a good representation. His choice, not yours.

That's all changed today. That is, if you own a $1000 computer, if you buy a $500 to $700 photo-editing program, have a decent $200 printer, and can afford to buy a quality digital camera -- $400 to $1000. Now add a couple of years of study to learn your computer and the editing software, and you're in business. At least you qualify as an advanced amateur. It's not a small investment -- and it's about the same cost as equipping a new darkroom for B&W.

There are many other pluses and minuses to going into digital photography, and perhaps I'll address them next month. But for now, let's get back to editing the photo of that beautiful, original New England farm house.

After downloading some 39 shots I made during our two-day mini vacation to the Berkshires, the first thing one must do is to save the original files -- preferably at their original very large size. In my case, each of the 39 flicks was roughly 400 kilobytes of space on my harddrive -- but that's okay, because I have a huge 20-gigabyte harddrive, and sooner or later I will transfer all those files -- the originals -- to a compact disk.

The photo of the house was one of a kind. No back-ups, no different angles, no waiting for the sun to come out. I grabbed one shot and ran.

First item in editing. Fire up Corel Photo-Paint8, and load the file DSCN1337 -- the Nikon automatically numbers each shot -- onto the screen. I can see maybe one quarter of the picture on my 17" monitor. Click on "Fit to screen" and this copy of the photo is reduced to, say, 48 percent. I can see all of it now.

I made so many changes in the photo, where do I start? First, I cropped the toys and much of the foreground, which was part of the dirt parking lot. I changed that by copying the lush grass in front of the house, sort of like copy-and-paste, except the program does miraculous things in auto-copying. In short order the dirt yard became a green lawn. I even left a winding dirt path leading to the house, and added footprints yet.

At the right was a green awning that just destoys the antiquity of the scene. Here I copied sections of the carriage house wall and the green branches, right over the awning and its supports.

Now for the sky, which was ominous and colorless. From the color palette that Corel provides, I picked a nice sky-blue and began painting -- setting the "brush" so that it painted thinly. And when I was satisfied, I added off-white clouds.

The problem is that the day was gray. A sunny day is delicately yellow. Everything has a very subtle yellow brightness to it -- even the reflected light in the shadows. So, from the palette I selected a pale warm yellow, and applied it in very, very thin layers until I had the warmth of a spring day.

Good so far. A blue sky, puffy clouds and a warm spring day. Things are looking up.

I removed lots of background trees to enhance the roof line.

There were aluminum storm windows installed that didn't fit the scene. So, by blowing my picture up to, say, 600 percent, I could fill the screen with one window. Carefully, I copied the wood of the window jambs over the aluminum. Then I enhanced the mullions, and added reflected light to the window panes.

I also allowed sky light to filter through the trees in front of the house -- to emphasize its shape and the texture of the old clapboards.

Turning to the garden, I carefully copied the orange blossoms -- are they tiger lilies? -- so that the garden became more colorful. I also thought the addition of some small blue flowers would enhance the scene. And some nice yellow blooms, as well as some nice fuchsias. And dandelions in the lawn. Subtle but powerful.

There wasn't much I could do with the roof of the greenhouse, but then it sort of fits with the picture, and provides a center of contrasting light.

I thought, back in 1981, that I was so fortunate on being there at the beginning of the computer revolution, and I made good use of it. Now I feel just as fortunate to be here for this digital revolution -- it's the way of the future.

And if you're not convinced by this time, I'll be back next month with a few more practicalities of digital photography.

November 2, 2001

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