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Digital Processing

The magazine article An Introduction to Digital Imaging which I wrote for Photo Techniques magazine in the fall of 1998 gives a general overview of how to get started in the new electronic "darkroom". It's remarkable though how quickly that article became dated.   Therefore, this section exists as on on-going "notepad" for updates on digital image processing equipment and techniques — at least that of which I am aware and which affect me directly.  It also contains links to other articles on digital topics that I have written.  

Also read Digital Manipulations, A Digital Printing Class, An Introduction to Digital Imaging, Gaussian Blur Overlays, White Sky Blues and Archival Digital Processing for information on digital image processing techniques.

PhotoShop users will be particularly interested in Instant PhotoShop — a primer on advanced techniques for newcomers to this program.

Finally, there are several additional articles and product tests, some by guest contributors, that you will find links to in the frame on the left of this page.

If you are an advanced imaging processing user and would like to contribute to this section and make it broader, please contact me.

Current Equipment & Plans — An on-going revision by Michael Reichmann

I bought my first serious digital image processing system in 1997. It consisted of the following;

Dell 300Mhz Pentium II computer with 256 MB of RAM (PhotoShop 4.0)
Nikon LS1000 scanner for 35mm
Agfa Duoscan for medium and large format scans
Epson Photo EX printer
HP 2X-write CD ROM for archival storage
18" CRT monitor at 1280 dpi resolution

This system was state-of-the-art — once.  But, alas, today it's no longer even an also-ran. So, in the late summer of '99 I upgraded to what I considered to be the current state-of-the art home computer and digital imaging systems. 

The system that I have now put together consists of the following;

Dell 600 Mhz Pentium III computer with 768 MB of RAM and PhotoShop 5.5
Imacon FlexTight Photo for 35mm and medium format — ( see here for greater detail)
Agfa Duoscan for 4X5" and flat artwork
Epson Photo 1270 printer ( see here for greater detail)
2X/4X/20X CD-RW for archival storage
Eizo Flexscan L66 LCD Flat Panel monitor (see here for greater detail)

PC

The move from a 300Mhz to a 600Mhz machine significantly speeds up processing.  Similarly, the increase from 256MB of RAM to 762MB not only speeded things up but also allows me to handle high-res scans from the Imacon, and 4X5 scans from the Agfa Duoscan.   While 768MB of RAM may seem like overkill, if you've ever tried to handle images larger than 150MB or so you quickly discover that you can't ever have too much RAM.  PhotoShop wants between 4 and 5 times the amount of RAM over the image size, so for 150MB scans 762MB of RAM is just about right.  

Update: I'd started off with 512 MB of RAM but after a couple of  months I increased it to 762MB. This became necessary when I go the Imacon medium format scanner and started producing 150MB scans from 6X6 transparencies. With Adjustment Layers in PhotoShop this meant working with 250-300MB files. Also, full-res scans of Fuji 617 transparencies produce 375 MB files without Adjustment Layers, so I then needed all the RAM I could get. I would have even gone to I GB of RAM, but the Dell can't take that much.

As for the computer brand I am pretty-much wedded to Dell machines.  I have personally owned several of them over the years and my company has owned hundreds.  I have nothing but praise for their construction quality, and my experience with their customer support services have been exemplary.

Monitor

l66.gif (27837 bytes) I have long been tempted by the latest generation of 18" high-res LCD monitors.  Though they are pricey, whenever I finish spending 6-8 hours using PhotoShop with a screen inches from my nose I think that the clarity, lack of radiation and heat, and space-savings offered would make them worthwhile.  I've now upgraded to the  Eizo FlexScan L66 Flat Panel monitor.

This 18" LCD is less than 4 inches thick.  It has 1280 X 1024 resolution with 24 bit (16 million) colour.  I have read comments from some that LCDs are not the ideal screens for digital image processing, but for the above reasons I am more than happy with my purchase.

 May, 2001

Big Mac Attack

I've been a DOS / Windows / PC user for almost 20 years, but I'm not a Macophobe. In fact in the mid-80's when the Mac was introduced I was running a small software publishing company and became very excited about supporting the new platform. I even had an original Mac on my desk for 6 months or so, but have always used a PC in my business activities since.

In the mid-90's as I got into digital image processing I was told that most imaging professional preferred Macs. But I had PC hardware on my desk and ignoring that advise continued to use the PC. In fact, this wasn't that bad a decision.

Sure, in the early days of Photoshop some 10 years ago Windows was pretty primitive. But today Windows 98 and especially Windows XP are much more sophisticated products than they were then, and in many ways offer equal if not superior functionality to Macs. (Colour Management is one of the areas where PCs fall short. Windows now has ICM profiles, but only the Mac has system-level colour-management).

By early 2001 it had become clear to me that I needed a second computer. Not a new one or a replacement, but a second computer that I would dedicate as a Photoshop machine. My existing PC was a Dell 600Mz Pentium III with 762 MB of RAM and 2 ‹ 50GM drives married to a superb Eizo Nanao L66 flat-screen monitor. A state-of-the-art machine when new in 1999 and not too shabby even by 2001 standards. For web site management, browsing, writing and the myriad of normal chores that one uses a computer for it needed no replacement. But for Photoshop (along with digital video editing ‹ one of the most demanding tasks one can give a computer), it was becoming a problem.

I mainly work in medium format; 6X6, 6X12 and 6X170cm sizes. Using my Imacon Photo scanner at 3200 DPI I regularly produce scans of between 150MB and 300MB in size. The Dell was becoming annoying with its slowness when working with these large files, and if I had Photoshop, FrontPage, and Internet Explorer all open at the same time I was asking for instability and crashes.

My solution was to buy a second computer, network the two, and devote the newer, faster machine to Photoshop. My research showed me that a Dual Processor 533Mhz Mac G4 was the fastest Photoshop machine around, in large measure because Photoshop on the Mac can use both processors, and also because the G4 has the Velocity Engine, unique to the G4 chip.  In fact this dual-processor machine is faster running Photoshop than either a single processor 733Mhz G4 or a 1.5 GHz Pentium IV.

Because I wanted to be able to test Mac-specific software and hardware as well, and also to be able to view my web site with other platforms for quality control purposes, the Mac seemed like a good choice. Because the 22" Apple Cinema Display had just dropped in price by $1,000, and because I think it's possibly the finest display screen available for high-end image processing, I bought one as well. Two 60GB hard disks and 1 Gigabyte of RAM completed the picture, not to mention a huge dent in my wallet.

Another financial hit was having to buy another copy of Photoshop 6.0. Unlike many software publishers Adobe does not put the PC and Mac applications on the same disk and also does not offer any discounted migration path between platforms.

First Impressions

This is written just a couple of weeks after commissioning the system and so my impressions are preliminary. The Mac is no better and no worse than the PC. It crashes just about as often. The OS (9.1) has some nice features, but then there are things about Windows that I prefer. OS X will be exciting when Photoshop is upgraded to utilize it, and Epson produces drivers for their Photo printers, but Windows XP is potentially exciting as well. There's no clear-cut winner.

The Dual Processor 533Mhz G4 is one fast Photoshop machine! In some areas I'd gauge it to be twice as fast as my Dell 600 Mhz Pentium III, which is not surprising. Having 1 gigabyte of RAM is also a pleasure. Large files no longer need to be swapped to disk and workflow is much improved.

For someone like me who on some days spends 8-10 hours in front of a screen, the Apple Cinema Display is a superb tool. Like my Eizo Nanao L66 it takes up little desk real estate, produces no heat or radiation and is incredibly sharp. It has profiled beautifully.

 May, 2001

Networking a PC and a Mac

In contemplating running both a PC and a Mac on the same desktop the area that caused me the most concern was networking them together. I have a cable modem and wanted to be able to use the Mac online as well as the PC. I also wanted to be able to share and transfer files freely back and forth between the two machines. It turned out to be fairly simple to set-up, though I did have a few hiccups that needed customer support calls as well as the assistance of a networking guru at one point. 

I purchased an Asanté FR3004 Cable/DSL Router and DoubleTalk Mac/PC networking software from Connectix. Both are relatively inexpensive. The router allows the PC and the Mac to share the cable modem and also network to each other. This was a breeze to set up, except that one of the 4 cable connection on the box was defective, and this caused a lot of confusion until I discovered what the problem was. Moving to a redundant connector was all it took to get things going.

Installing DoubleTalk on the Mac went smoothly at first but ultimately I needed the assistance of a networking expert, because somehow my PC's TCP/IP settings were screwed up and needed to be set right. I expect that without these two unusual problems I would have had the system up and running in less than 30 minutes.

Now both PCs are on the Net via the cable modem yet are independent of each other. The router also acts as a firewall, which is reassuring. The Mac and the PC are able to share files, and since it's via a 100 Base-T connection transfers of even large files and directories are quick and painless. No, I can't share printers or run programs across the network (something I of course would be able to do with two similar systems), but for my purposes the set-up works well and provides the functionality that I need.

As for transfer speed, for example ‹ 4 large Photoshop files totaling a combined 380MB transfers from the PC to the Mac in 64 seconds. That's about 6 Megabytes per second, or 50 Megabits / second. That includes hard disk read and write times on both machines.

Scanners

I first upgraded from a Nikon LS1000 to a Polaroid 4000 scanner.  This was a significant upgrade. The full story on this upgrade, and a full review of the Polaroid is located here.

For medium and large format work for several years I had been using the original Agfa Duoscan. This is a twin-plate scanner that in addition to a large flat-bed for translucent materials has a separate glassless internal bed for negatives and transparencies. It has a true optical resolution of 1000 X 2000 PPI and a DMax of 3.4. Scanning results with 120 rolls film and 4X5" are "OK", though not great. 

In the fall of 1999 I upgraded for medium format work to the Imacon FlexTight Photo, a very high-end desktop scanner with a DMax of 4.1 that scans up to 6X17 format film at 3,200dpi. This scanner can produce output from 35mm and 120 roll film that's equal in every way to scans from $100,000 drum scanners in commercial labs. A really impressive product. As noted above, with Adjustment Layers in PhotoShop this means 150MB raw scans grow to 300MB files. I therefore had to increase the amount of RAM in the Dell to the most that the machine can handle, 768MB.

Printers

Epson's "Photo" printers continue to represent the state-of-the-art in affordable desktop photographic quality printers.  I have tested most of the alternatives and none can match the image quality obtainable from the Epsons.  I owned the original Photo model, then the Photo EX,  the Photo 1200 and now the Photo 1270 and the 2000P. Each has offered a noticeable step-up in quality.

The Epson Photo 1270 along Imacon Photo scanner finally make my chemical darkroom obsolete. I can conveniently produce on my desktop up to 13X19" prints having traditional photographic quality, with control and flexibility beyond what I could ever achieve in the traditional darkroom — even after more than 30 years of experience. A properly made Epson 1270 print is unequivocally superior in every way to traditional chemical prints, and when printed on Heavyweight Matte Paper has archival stability equal to Cibachrome, the gold standard for the past quarter century. There no longer is any contest.

Update: March 2001 

The Epson 1280/1290 models were introduced this spring, and use the same inks as last year's 1270. They offer theoretically higher resolution, but as my review shows, in the real-world offer no compelling advantages. 

Because of the importance of the Epson 1270 printer, due to its archival papers and inks, I have written a separate review. The Epson 2000P, a true archival printer utilizing pigment inks and offer print stability for upwards of 200 years is also now part of my arsenal and is reviewed as well.

As for other printer brands; the HP PhotoSmart was quite good a couple of years ago but has not kept pace, including not offering print sizes larger than 8X10".  The Alps line, in dye sublimation mode, promised superb quality but no one I've ever talked with has had one that didn't have objectionable banding problems — including the one that I bought, and returned a week later.  Canon's, HP's and Lexmark's ink-jet printers regrettably appear to be also-rans in comparison to Epson's Photo printer line, at least when it comes to photographic quality images. 

Update: December, 1999

There is also one additional major reason why Epson printers appear to dominate the fine-art photography scene. As George Wedding points out in an in Digital Camera Magazine, printers from H-P, Canon, Lexmark and others incorporate their printer nozzles into the ink cartridge. This means that using purchased or self-generated printing profiles (required for very accurate colour work) ‹ would mean re-profiling each time a cartridge is changed. 

Epson printers have the nozzles and print head built into the printer and thus changing ink cartridges does not change the subtle and very fine spray of coloured inks going onto the paper. This helps explain why there are countless third-party inks and profiles available for Epson's Photo printer line, and none for the other major printer manufacturers.

CIS Announcement: March, 2000

For anyone doing high volume printing with Epson printers, or for someone experimenting with various ink types, a new product from Continuous Inking Systems appears to have great promise. While I have no personal experience with this product I'm hoping that readers who do will provide some feedback on this fascinating development.

Printing Paper

Like most people I have experimented with a broad range of printing papers on the various Epson printers that I have owned. This includes papers from Ilford, Kodak and Polaroid, as well as a number of lesser brands.  In each case I have gone back to using Epson brand paper.

Update: April 2001

As regular readers know over the past few years I have documented on these pages the various papers that I've used. As of early 2001 I have switched to just two papers; Epson Semi-Gloss and Epson Archival Matte. I use these papers on both the 1270 and the 2000P and use Archival Matte exclusively for portfolio and sale prints.

If I need prints larger than 13X19" I have a commercial lab make prints on a LightJet 5000, as described below.

LightJet 5000 Vs. Epson Inkjet

Ink jet prints have come a long way over the past few years. How do they compare though to the finest archival quality continuous-tone prints from a LightJet 5000 printer on Fuji Crystal Archive paper? The results will surprise you.

CD-ROM

I use a CD writer to archive my images.  Today high speed CD writers with CR-RW capability offer reliable, flexible and inexpensive long term storage of image files.  Just remember — CDs are not archival. There is evidence that CDs may start to lose data in as little as 15 years, so it's a wise long-term plan to re-archive ones image files whenever a new technology comes along. DVD-RAM will likely be that next technology, but at this time ( late '99) it isn't stable enough to make a firm commitment to it.

If you have LightJet 5000 or other large format archival prints made by a lab from your digital files a CD burner is a must. Files that I deliver to the service bureau from medium format scans are typically 100MB TIFFs. A 250MB ZIP is also usable for this application but a CD is less expensive.

PhotoShop

In 1999 I upgraded to Photoshop Version 5.5.  In late 2000 Photoshop 6.0 was introduced. Since PhotoShop still remains the image processing program, all that remains is to improve my skills using the program — a never-ending task. The upgrade to 6.0 is definitely worthwhile if you already have an earlier version. 

Though expensive, I regard Photoshop as a must for the serious photographer. The raft of $100 image processing programs on the market are all competent, but only Photoshop has the broad range of tools needed for quality work. Skip buying that new lens and get PhotoShop 6.0 instead. You won't regret it.

If you're a newcomer to Photoshop you may be interested in my tutorial for beginners ‹ Instant Photoshop.

System Calibration

I can't stress enough the importance of system calibration and profiling. Click here for a brief introduction to the topic and then read my tutorial on Monitor Profiling.

As I become familiar with each piece of new equipment I will provide reviews and comments based on my experience. (The essay above on System Calibration is an example). Of course this section will continue to explore the best tools available for digital image processing as they become available. Check back from time to time. The What's New page will always indicate and link to any fresh content.

Archival Digital Processing

Since the advent of ink-jet printers there has been both joy and despair among fine-art photographers who have embraced digital image processing. Each succeeding generation of printers has produced increasingly finer image quality, till the point we're at today where printers like the Epson Photo 750 and 1200 can produce prints superior in most ways to traditional photographic media. Except one! Archival permanence. Read the following article to learn about how that is changing and about the new inks and papers that are revolutionizing digital image processing and printing.

This article is now dated but is retained for historical interest. For more up-to-date information on archival inkjet printing please see my review of the Epson 1270 printer and the pigment-ink based Epson 2000P.

Storage & Archiving

With typical digital files of scanned photographs now consuming 50MB each, how to store and archive these large files can present a challenge and an expense. This article summarizes the approach that I currently take.

Understanding Resolution

There is much confusion and wasted effort on the part of digital newcomers due to not understanding the basics of Input and Output resolution in digital imaging. This tutorial explains the basics.

Soft Proofing

Understanding and using the ability in Photoshop 6.0 to view your printer's colours on-screen.

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