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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Five Tips For Better Photography

Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it, and if it stops moving, subsidize it." — President Ronald Reagan

Events in Egypt seem to be going on with continued street demonstrations and behind the scenes machinations. It has been reported that the richest man in Egypt, telecommunications giant Naguib Sawiris, has been backing the demonstrators. Sawiris urges a go slow approach to avoid chaos and to keep the Muslin Brotherhood at bay.

This is also the beginning of the silly season in domestic politics with the Republican conservative CPAC conclave to open February 10th in Washington, D.C. No doubt there will be plenty of talk and blogs about potential presidential candidates. With this in mind I decided to write about photography for a few days while world and domestic events became clearer to me.

Sunday at my brother’s Super Bowl party I was asked several questions about photography and film and photo preservation. This got me thinking about the 5 most important tips I could offer the reader for taking better pictures with their digital cameras. Before I get into the 5 tips I will deal with the issue of film and image preservation.

No film or printed photo will last forever. Light, atmospheric gases, ultraviolet radiation, and gases emitted from storage media such as plastic sleeves have an adverse effect on all physical photographic prints, negatives and slides. Also digital photo files can be affected by several things. The first being the risk of losing the digital photos on your computer’s hard drive. This can be prevented by immediately backing up you digital photos to an external storage device such as a CD, DVD or external hard drive. Once backed up you should not use these files again. They should be considered as the original negatives. The second danger to digital files is using them. A digital photo file is usually created in the camera and stored as a JPG or JPEG file (Joint Photographic Experts Group). These files are created in your camera from the information captured by the camera’s sensor. To save space the files are greatly compressed usually at a ratio of 10:1 or higher — the greater the compression the smaller the file size. This allows you to store more images on the camera’s memory card.

The problem with JPG is the compression. Digital photo files are comprised of bites of information contained in each pixel of the photo file. When you open the JPG file on your PC you uncompress the file for viewing. When you close the file you recompress it. This recompression loses a few bites of information each time you do it. It’s like stretching a rubber band. Each time you stretch the rubber band it loses some of its elasticity until eventually it breaks.

There are three ways to mitigate this problem. The first being to back up your JPGs to an external source and never uncompress the backed up files. If you need to use the file simply copy it to your hard drive and use it like an original. The second is to shoot your photos and save them in something called camera Raw. The camera will create two files for each photo. One is the JPG and he other something called a Raw file. The JPG file will be created after your camera’s internal software has processed the image captured by the sensor and made some adjustments to it based on the type and brand of camera you are using. The Raw file is just as its name implies, the raw, unprocessed data from the sensor. The file is not compressed and is usually much larger (at least 3 to 4 times) larger than the JPG file.

Raw files will take up a lot more space on your camera’s storage card and your computers hard drive. But, with the low cost of today’s media cards this no longer present much a problem or financial problem, especially if you transfer your digital files to your PC’s hard drive right away and hen reformat the media card. YOU SHOULD NEVER KEEP YOU DIGITAL PHOTOS ON THE CAMERA’S MEDIA CARD. YOU SHOULD TRANSFER THE FILES TO YOUR PC IMMEDIATELY AFTER SHOOTING THEM. Also after you transfer the files do not delete the files from the media card using you PC or the delete function on the camera. The card should be formatted each time using the camera’s formatting tool.

You should also be aware that you will need software like Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements to work with the Raw files. You can open and close Raw files as many times as you wish without losing any data as they are not compressed. In essence you can open a Raw file in your editing software and hen save it as a JPG and you have what can be considered an original JPG file and an original Raw file.

The only problem with Raw files is that each camera manufacturer has their own proprietary format for the file. There are no standard Raw files. Photo editing applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements have the ability to open almost all of the Raw files in use today — Canon, Nikon, Sony, Minolta, Panasonic, etc. They are constantly updating their applications each time a camera manufacturer releases a new Raw file format. Also, we don’t know how long these Raw files will be used. Right now there is no indication they will ever be discontinued. JPG files will be around for a very long time.

The third way to archive and preserve your digital photo files requires that you use a photo editing application such as Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements to create a DNG (Digital Negative) file. is an open raw image format owned by Adobe used for digital photography. It was launched on September 27, 2004. The launch was accompanied by the first version of the DNG specification, plus various products including a free of charge DNG Converter utility. All Adobe photo manipulation software (such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom) released since the launch supports DNG

DNG is a universal file format that converts the Raw file captured by he camera into a digital negative (DNG) format. This file can be opened by any DGN converter and use as the original Raw file. Many professional photographers convert their prized images to DNG and magazines, like National Geographic, and museums prefer DNG files. Right now the DNG file format is accepted as an international image file format by the ISO commission. DGN files have all of the advantages of camera Raw files with the added advantage of being universal.

When it comes to prints, negatives and slides there are no known perfect archival media. Prints, especially those horrible Polaroid prints, will fade in time. Light is their worst enemy. Some paper manufacturers such a Kodak, Ilford and Epson claim that their premium ink jet prints will last for 50 years if properly displayed. They haven’t been around long enough to to prove this claim.

Negatives, both black and white and color, will deteriorate if not stored in a dark, cool environment and in a non-corrosive sleeve. Cheap plastic storage sleeves used for negatives and 35mm slides emit gasses that can fog a negative or slide. When it comes to negatives no doubt he biggest danger is scratches. Dust and finger prints can be removed, but scratches are forever. A minute scratch on a 35mm negative or slide will look like a giant gash on an 8x10 enlargement.

When it comes to 35mm slides there are two types of film. They are classified as E-6 and K-14. These designations refer to he way the films are processed. E-6 films are Extachrome, Fugichrome, Anscochrome and Agfachrome. K-14 refers to Kodachrome.

E-6 films were introduced in the mid 1940’s and were able to be processed by professional labs or in home darkrooms. The films had a higher sensitivity to light than Kodachrome and therefor were preferred by amateur photographers and even some professionals, especially wedding photographers where film speed was important. The films, depending on the ISO (ASA) speed rating had more grain than their slower cousin Kodachrome. The problem with E-6 films is that they are not considered archival and he colors fade with time. I have seen 35mm Extachrome slides that are 35 years old and the colors are faded to all magenta tones. Sometimes this color fading can be corrected with high end scanners and scanning software, but it’s a hit or miss proposition.

Kodachrome was a true archival film. Introduced in 1935 with a film speed of ISO 25 Kodachrome was considered as the best archival color film for its 74 year life span. Kodak stopped making Kodachrome in 2009. Over the years the film speed of Kodachrome was increased to 64 and then 200. It was also the favorite film for National Geographic Magazine photographers and other magazines. Landscape photographers loved Kodachrome. As of this writing I have Kodachrome 35mm slides that are 58 years-old and they are as sharp and rich in color as the day I received them back from the processing lab.

You can read more about Kodachrome in my newsletter by clicking here and you can view a gallery of scanned Kodachrome images by clicking here.

In my next blog I will give you the 5 most important tips that can improve you digital photography.

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