OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

December 5, 2002

Making Memories With Megapixels

peele02.jpg (32741 bytes)

by Frank Peele

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library

Making Memories with Megapixels

Photography has been the recipient of many scientific and creative advances in its brief history. From wet plates to dry, sheet films to miniature formats, and primitive lenses to high-resolution optics, these changes have fundamentally altered the photographic process and its outcome. Now digital technologies are revolutionizing both the art and the science of photography in far-reaching ways, and one can scarce imagine where these developments will enable photographers to venture in the future. Light-sensitive film emulsions, long the picture-taker’s main tools in cameras of every variety, are already giving way to electronic sensors. The traditional wet darkroom, with its smelly chemicals and potential health hazards, is steadily being replaced by the computer as “darkroom-on-a-desk”.

This revolution in photography is having impact at every level – from casual snapshooter to working professional – but the promise for the future is even more amazing. This paper analyzes today’s trends, not only in digital cameras but the computers and software needed to support them. It also looks toward the future, with modest predictions about the impact of technologies to come.

Accompanying the presentation of this paper is a demonstration of several aspects of digital imaging, with an emphasis on image enhancement and manipulation using Adobe Photoshop software.

Biography of the author

Franklin D. Peele was born in North Carolina in 1940. After high school he entered the U. S. Navy, where he rose through the enlisted and warrant officer ranks to earn a regular commission and eventually retired as a Commander. All thirty years of his naval service were in various aspects of photography.

            He earned the Bachelor of Arts in Cinema and the Master of Science in Film Education from the University of Southern California.

            Since retiring from the Navy in 1988 he and his wife Susan have made their home in Redlands. They have two grown children and six grandchildren. A commercial and fine art photographer, he is the owner of Pacific Photographic and also teaches photography courses for the Redlands Adult School.

            His local activities have included service on the boards of the Kiwanis Club and Kiwanis Scholarship Foundation, San Bernardino County Museums Foundation, Redlands Meals on Wheels, Redlands Camera Club and Friends of Prospect Park.

            Professional affiliations have included the Audio Engineering Society, Information Film Producers of America, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and Wedding and Portrait Photographers International. He is a Life Member and past national president of the Association of Naval Photography, and is a member of the Professional Photographers of America and Professional Photographers of California. He currently serves as president of the Inland Empire Professional Photographers and Videographers.

He was named Inland Empire Professional Photographer of the Year for 2000, California Scenic Photographer of the Year for 2001, and next week will be named Inland Empire Professional Photographer of the Year for 2002.     

Making Memories with Megapixels

This being meeting number sixteen hundred seventy-three of Redlands Fortnightly, it’s interesting to look back to the year 1673 – two years before the death of the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer of Delft. Although the very idea is met by scorn from many traditional art historians, it’s thought by some analysts like David Hockney[i] that in his later works, Vermeer didn’t paint just “by eyeball”. To achieve such accurate perspective and realistic detail, he may well have used an optical device to cast an image of the subject upon his canvas. He would then have painted over the projected image to create his masterpiece. Lady standing at the virginals, completed in 1673, has been exhaustively studied to the convincing likelihood that Vermeer had the aid of one or more lenses – perhaps gotten through his contemporary in Delft, the legendary microscope pioneer van Leeuwenhoek. In his painstaking research of the subject, Philip Steadman has gone so far as declaring Vermeer’s mature works to be more akin to “photographs”[ii] than paintings. His brush strokes over the projected image take the place of photo-sensitive chemicals, which didn’t come along for another century and a half. But this whole controversial notion of Vermeer and other old masters utilizing “cameras” to create their art would make fascinating material for another Fortnightly paper.

The brief history of modern photography recounts, above all, a series of improvements in the technologies used to record images. Most of these changes have been evolutionary, while a few have been life-changing for photographers of all skill levels. From the inception of the Daguerreotype in 1839, various chemical processes have been developed – pardon the pun – to make the more-or-less accurate recordings we know as photographs. Unbelievably cumbersome procedures in their early days, a photographer’s routine included mixing noxious (even explosive) chemicals in the dark confines of a hot, unventilated tent or wagon, then coating the resulting goo on metal, or later, on glass plates – still in the dark – and exposing the plates for lengthy periods in heavy, bulky cameras while subjects did their best to hold still.

Difficult as the process was, many stirring images were thus created to document the American Civil War. An 1862 account in Scientific American put it this way:

"Decidedly one of the institutions of our army is the travelling portrait gallery. A camp is hardly pitched before one of the omnipresent artists in collodion and amber bead varnish drives up in his two-horse wagon, pitches his canvas gallery, and unpacks his chemicals. Our army here (Fredericksburg) is now so large that quite a company of these gentlemen have gathered about us. The amount of business they find is remarkable. Their tents are thronged from morning to night and "while the day lasteth" their golden harvest runs on. Here for instance near Gen. Burnside's headquarters, are the combined establishments of two brothers from Pennsylvania, who rejoiced in the wonderful name Bergstresser. They have followed the army for more than a year, and taken the Lord only knows, how many thousand portraits. In one day since they came here they took in one of the galleries, so I am told, 160 odd pictures at $1 each. Their style of portrait affected by these travelling army portrait makers is known in the profession as the melainotype, which is made by the collodion process on a sheet-iron plate and afterward set with amber-bead varnish."[iii]

One photographic revolution came along in the 1870s when pre-coated dry glass plates became available, eliminating the messy and hazardous chemicals previously needed just before making an exposure. Then, in 1888, George Eastman invented flexible roll film, and photography became possible for anyone with a few dollars and the desire to record his or her family’s activities for posterity.

In the century following Eastman’s invention (which, of course, created the photographic dynasty called Kodak), evolutionary improvements in film and in processing chemistry were legion. Among these, now taken for granted, was the ability to reproduce color. Films have come along with ever-increasing sensitivity to light, allowing images to be recorded in nearly any circumstance by just about anyone. Paralleling these improvements in photo-sensitive materials were advances in cameras, lenses and darkroom tools. Over the decades, photographers could create bigger and better images with increasingly smaller and more sophisticated equipment.

The common ingredients in all of this evolution have been light-sensitive films and the chemical processes necessary to develop and print an image. The revolution that is our main subject today, which broke onto the photographic scene just about a century after Eastman’s first flexible film, is digital imaging. Even though still a technology in its infancy, digital photography has already shown its promise to replace film and chemistry as we have known them.

Just as traditional art historians decry notions that some old masters resorted to the “trickery” of optical aids, some photographic purists lament the inroads of new-fangled electronic gadgets in their field. Advances like automatic exposure control, zoom lenses and, especially, automatic focus, were accompanied by cries of “over my dead body” by hide-bound old-timers – many of whom, on giving the new cameras a try, adopted the technologies willingly or at least begrudgingly. But now comes “digital” to replace our beloved films, and the rush to get in on the ground floor has been an amazing phenomenon to observe. Hardly a meeting of professional photographers goes by without some well-established user of film announcing that he or she has “gone digital”. And who among us hasn’t at least considered acquiring a digital camera for family snapshooting, perhaps waiting on the sidelines while capabilities go steadily up and prices plummet?

What, exactly, are the potential advantages of digital over film photography, and what should one consider in making the transition? We’ll go over these, and other, issues as we take an overview of today’s technologies and prognosticate a bit about what may come along tomorrow. But to the skeptics, should there be any among us, I’ll say that the question of digital replacing film isn’t “if” – it’s “when”. And the answer isn’t way off in the ether, it’s just around the corner, relatively speaking. The advantages this new technology brings are so broad and so deep that few will want to continue exposing film for most kinds of photography as we know it.

To begin an exploration of this digital imaging business, one might well ask “What’s a megapixel anyway, and why is it important?” Taking a step backward to look inside a film image, we find that the smallest individual element making up the picture is a tiny grain of light-sensitive silver. When these grains are microscopically small, they aren’t detectable as individual elements unless one enlarges, or magnifies, the image greatly. When the grain IS visible, we describe the image as “grainy” – a characteristic we would usually want to avoid.

In a digital image, the equivalent to the grain of silver is the individual picture element, or “pixel”. If each one is small enough, an array of pixels will present a smooth appearance, a faithful recreation of the original scene. If, however, the pixels are too coarse, an image will appear blocky or “pixilated” – an effect even more objectionable than graininess in a film image. A megapixel is simply one million picture elements. It could be, for example, an array of 1,000 pixels wide by 1,000 pixels high. If those pixels were packed into a space just one inch on a side, we would say the pixel resolution is one million pixels per inch. Another way to express that resolution would be to say one million dots per inch – the term we’d use if we were referring to a printed copy of the image. A million pixels or dots per inch would be a very high picture resolution, neither needed nor possible to create with consumer digital equipment. Resolution or “pixel density” of 300 DPI is adequate for most printed images, and for the computer screen just 72 DPI is appropriate.

Bear in mind, however, that pixel resolution is needed at the final size of the reproduced image. If, for example, we start with a digital image that is one inch wide and we enlarge it to eight inches wide, to end up with 300 DPI resolution we have to start with 2400 DPI – the factor of eight used in this example applies to both the magnification and the resolution requirement.

One of the first criteria we would consider in looking at any digital imaging equipment is its resolution capability. In a digital camera, for instance, the “megapixel count” is usually the first specification given. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s a logical starting point. As with so many decisions when buying technology, it’s best to start out with the end in mind. A camera that would be perfectly adequate for capturing images to be sent over the internet for distant family to enjoy on a computer monitor, for example, could be woefully unsuited to taking pictures for use as mural-size display prints.

Nowadays even an inexpensive digital camera should be capable of at least one megapixel resolution, fine for internet use and for making photo-quality prints up to about 5 x 7 inches. To get consistently excellent 8 x 10 prints, a better choice would have three megapixel resolution, especially if one needs to crop from the full original image size. Cameras of five or six megapixel capability are at about the top of the average shopper’s price scale, and they can capture images which do quite well in prints as large as 16 x 20 inches. Actually, there can be magic performed with software that can give any of these cameras somewhat greater effective than actual resolution, but the figures cited are a good general guide.

Nearly every week brings new heights in the race for digital perfection. Just this past September at Photokina, the huge trade show held every other year in Cologne, Germany, Eastman Kodak introduced a fourteen megapixel camera that is the current rage on the “how soon can I get one” list. Interestingly, Kodak’s announcement came on the heels of a similar camera introduction by Canon, with eleven megapixel resolution. Unfortunately for Canon, their model was to come to market at eight thousand US dollars, while Kodak’s price point is around four thousand. Needless to say, Canon retreated to the drawing board after Kodak unveiled their new baby.

Among the other factors to consider, most are similar to ones important in choosing a film camera: do you want the ease of a point-and-shoot design, with all of the decision-making about things like exposure done for you by the camera? Or will you require the flexibility to make decisions yourself when it’s appropriate? Will you need the capability of interchangeable lenses? What about flash – will a simple built-in flash suffice, or will you choose the greater power and versatility of an add-on unit? A camera’s means of storing its images is vital: in place of film, one will need one or more “memory cards”. Not only do these vary in their storage capacity, but there are several competing non-interchangeable formats to consider. And always important is the question of ergonomics: how does the camera feel in your hands, shooting as you normally would use it? For most of us, price will also be a factor in making a purchase judgment.

These decisions can be aided nicely by reviews in trade magazines and in unbiased publications like Consumer Reports. Web sites, as well, abound with comparisons and recommendations – a Google search on the keywords “digital camera review” will return over a million responses. A good camera club might provide a valuable forum, as well, to get the benefit of first-hand experience with some of the equipment available. Once you’ve done some research, however, it’s time to get to a retailer and try out the equipment with your own hands.

There are many variables in this process, and plenty of room for confusion and even anguish. In fact, there’s only one hard and fast rule: As soon as you finally decide what to buy, someone will introduce a better, cheaper and faster one before the ink is dry on your check. Just know that at the outset, and be prepared to make your decisions and move on. He who waits for the absolute best-cheapest-fastest will never have one!

Cameras, of course, aren’t the only hot area in digital imaging equipment. What about all those negatives and/or slides you’ve amassed over the years? Would it be advantageous to be able to digitize those images?

Indeed, there are several compelling reasons to store images digitally. Available computer software makes it easy to enhance photos, correcting for such things as poor color balance, incorrect exposure, even retouching skin blemishes, removing unwanted telephone wires, and the like. (More about these things later.) The logical organization of files on a hard drive lends itself to keeping your library of images readily at hand, just a click away from transmission by internet or printing with your own inkjet printer.

A word about printing your own: while most modern inkjet printers offer the amazing ability to output photo-quality work, the archival keeping qualities of their prints are typically much poorer than old-fashioned wet-processed photographic prints. For this reason, many digital shooters are taking their images as electronic files to photo labs like Swanson Photographics in Yucaipa, where they are well-equipped to make real photographic prints which are processed by machine in the same chemistry as traditional labs employ for making prints from color negatives. The cost is pretty well in line with the cost of ink and paper to make your own, and the results can be both better and longer-lived.

Getting back to your boxes full of old negatives and/or slides, the device you want to consider for digitizing them is called a scanner. There are two fundamental types: scanners for opaque copy, usually called flatbed scanners, and units designed specifically for film scanning. Some of the latest flatbed models can handle both tasks, although typically not with the same level of precision as a good dedicated film scanner.

Just as with cameras, the search for a scanner should begin with the end in mind: most particularly, how big will you need final enlargements from your scans to be? Once again, published reviews and the advice of others can help you narrow down the bewildering array of choices on the market.

As an aside, the availability of inexpensive scanners has created quite a problem for professional photographers. Believe it or not, there are people out there who would knowingly take, say,   the paper proofs from a family portrait session in a photographer’s studio. Placing them on the handy scanner on the desktop at home or office, in minutes they could be making their own 8 x 10 prints  or sending the images in emails around the world. Why pay the photographer’s exorbitant prices, when you can do it yourself? The answer to that, of course, is that it’s both an illegal infringement of copyright and most unethical to boot. How big is the problem? Mass market scanner sales are expected to top one billion US dollars this year[iv]. At an average price of around a hundred dollars, that’s a lot of scanners. In my own practice, I no longer use paper proofs for this very reason. I don’t knowingly deal with people who would set out willfully to cheat others, but today there’s a growing feeling that, because technology is so readily available that any child can use to duplicate the images or the recorded songs of another, that it must somehow be “all right”.

Whether one starts the process of digital imaging by digitizing existing negatives or slides with a scanner, or with a digital camera and its inherent electronic files, the next essential tool is a computer. Chances are, you’re already using one, and it may well be adequate for image processing. The guidelines are simple enough: for storing and working with very many or very large image files, there’s no such thing as too fast or too much! Things go better if you have a lot of memory, a large hard drive, and a fast processor in your machine. (If these terms are as Greek to you, then a computer course might be a good preliminary before venturing into your own “desktop darkroom”. Attempting to learn the ABC’s of computing and of digital imaging at the same time could be a frustrating experience.)

One axiom from other computer-related disciplines that rings true here is this: the computer you use is important, but the software is even more so. For image processing, the industry standard is Adobe Photoshop. There are other packages in use, and all are good in one way or another. But Photoshop is the “real deal”, and its capabilities are simply mind-boggling. Before we take a few moments to demonstrate some of them, it’s interesting to look just a few years back in time and notice the excitement generated by early image-enhancement software. This example is hauntingly prophetic. In 1983 Discover magazine ran an article with before-and-after photos illustrating primitive digital manipulation of the New York skyline. Architectural features have been added here and there, a pier removed, trees and vehicles duplicated, and an entire building made to vanish. That building was one of the towers of the World Trade Center[v].

A word here about image enhancement vs. manipulation. The terms can mean the same thing, but there is some agreement within the industry that enhancement refers to the correction of color, retouching to remove blemishes, and other effects to optimize an image for presentation. Manipulation, on the other hand, can mean swapping one person’s head with another, placing people in scenes they never were anywhere near, and other editing which can mislead the viewer. Images thus manipulated should, in my opinion, be clearly labeled as such. One convention, used for example by The Los Angeles Times, is a picture credit which, instead of “Photo by Jane Doe”, reads “Photo illustration by Jane Doe”.

Let us now look into some of the editing techniques made possible with a computer and software like Adobe Photoshop. I’ll bring up before-and-after images to illustrate each feature:

  • Color balance

  • Contrast

  • Brightness

  • Image Mode

  • Image Size

  • Cropping

  • Image manipulation

    • Removing unwanted elements

    • “Cloning” elements

    •   Repairing damage, especially to historical images

  • Applying special effects

            Today we have but skimmed the surface in this overview of image editing and of digital imaging in general. Digital technology represents arguably the most significant revolution to come along in the fascinating world of photography, and it’s advancing at breakneck speed. Some of what we’ve reviewed today will be out-of-date tomorrow, but you can count on this: Photographers of all sorts – you and I – now have tools available to us that were only dreamed of a few years ago. They will surely be better, faster and cheaper next week. But in the meantime, I encourage you to explore them and use them, with the confident prediction that we’ll never look back.


[i] David Hockney, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2001)

[ii] Philip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: The Truth Behind the Masterpieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

[iii] Author unknown, Scientific American, October 18, 1862

[iv] Author unknown, Photo Marketing, October, 2002 (Jackson, MI: Photo Marketing Association International)

[v] Gary Taubes, “The Fiendish Hell Machine”, Discover, April, 1983

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