The Digital Darkroom

The Digital Darkroom

What follows is a brief description of the hardware and software we use in image acquisition and editing.  We got most of the equipment for use in our own digital photography.  The exceptions to this are the flatbed scanner and the copy stand, which we obtained primarily for use with vintage photos.



A supervisor - everyone needs someone to ensure they produce the highest quality work.   Below is our overall supervisor here at Stunning Cat Productions.  She demands the finest of everything.

supervisor.jpg (15245 bytes)

A large monitor - we're using a 19" NEC monitor for editing.  I try to keep the lighting in the room dim, with no lights on behind me so that there will be no glare on the glass.

A big hard disk - photos take a lot of space.  The largest files I have are scanned 35mm slides (which are not too germane to this discussion) which as uncompressed files can be up to 30-50MB!  The uncompressed files I take with my digital camera are close to 5MB.  If you have a few working copies of the files, the space on your hard disk will fill quickly.

A CD-writer - we use an HP 9200, for archiving photos on a durable medium, and for distributing photos.  As of now, I archive photos to CD shortly after getting files onto my hard disk.  Previously, I only archived the files once I've edited them, or files for which I did not have an original photo elsewhere.  Having recently lost a hard disk (actually 2 in 2 months, but the other had nothing to do with photography), I now put a copy of my files on CD as soon as it goes on computer.  Did I mention you should backup your files?  Ideally, you should have at least 2 copies of important files archived in 2 separate places.  CDs are inexpensive, and provide 650MB of storage each, so it never hurts to make a couple of copies.

A word or two about file storage here:  Why a CD, and not a zip disk, floppy disk, backup tape, etc?  I chose to go this way for several reasons.  I use CD-R (i.e. the record once type), so I don't have to worry about accidental erasure or overwriting.  They have lots of space, 650 MB, and can be bought in bulk for less than a $1 apiece, encouraging storage.  You can also distribute files easily with them - most systems today have a CD or DVD reader (note that if you use the read/write version, CD-R/W, regular CD-roms may not read them), so we can send files to others (this becomes a big deal when you are trading access to photos for a CD and prints of the electronic copy).  Since DVD roms will read CDs, my totally uninformed guess is that this medium will be able to be read by standard home computer systems longer than some of the other currently available media.  This being said, in the future if you are going to get a system without a CD-reader, remember you will need to copy your files to something you can access (though there are still places where I could get my old 8" floppies read from the pre-IBM PC era, I'd hate to have to pay someone to read my files for me).

I chose a CD-writer also because of my file storage format.  There are many common file formats for storing graphic images: TIF, JPG, GIF, PCX, TGA, BMP to name a few.  Mr. Sid and JPG2000 are newer formats that use wavelet compression algorithms (don't ask - I have no idea) to compress file size with less loss of image quality than some of the other (notably JPG) compression algorithms.  I use TIF (of TIFF) files for storing images and for saving images I'm still working on if I stop mid-editing.  TIF files are lossless, i.e.  you get an exact record of the image and do not lose any quality when you save the image.  It has some other advanatages, such as being common, so most image software will recognize it, and it will allow embedding of ICC profiles (when and if I'm really brave, I'll discuss color management and ICC profiles - until then, look on some of the photo sites in the links).  The disadvantage of TIF files is that they are big.  So, you need lots of storage space for them, and thus the CD-writer (see, this actually had something to do with the CD-writer).

One more side note here on file storage format.  None of the images you see on this site are TIF files, they are all JPG files.  Why?  (Say it with me now:) TIF files are BIG.  The original TIF files for the images on this site range from 3-10MB.  I have a measley 56K modem with which to upload or download web pages.  If I used the TIF files, it would take a 56K modem hours to load one of the image intensive pages.  So, I use JPG files, which can be compressed much smaller (I also have the pixel density set to 72 ppi for the monitor, while I would try for 200-300 ppi for printing - this also reduces the size dramatically).  Unfortunately JPG compression is a "lossy" compression format, i.e. every time you resave an image using JPG compression, you lose a little of the image detail, and more detail is lost for higher levels of compression.  For example, here is the same photo of our supervisor, saved 10 times as jpg with 80% quality (moderate compression).  Look closely around the eyes and around the fur on her hindquarters.  The photo is starting to get fairly noticable compression artifacts.  If you download both photos, and view each at 2X magnification, you will see that the compression artifact in the one below is actually pretty severe.  Not only that, but You will see some JPG artifacts in the one above that was saved only once as a JPG (well, actually twice - the camera was set to fine quality JPG mode).

These issues in file storage formats lead me to two important points: 1)  If at all possible, save your files in a lossless format, such as TIF files (If you don't have room for this and must use JPG, then avoid opening and resaving as much as possible), and 2) Please, if you send me photos via e-mail, do not send in uncompressed formats such as TIF or BMP unless I ok it (my e-mail inbox has a limit of 4MB - chances are a TIF file will go over that limit, and I most likely won't download it anyway since it would take way too long).

A photo quality printer - We're using an Epson 1270 photo printer.  The prints coming out of this printer are absolutely fantastic.  We had an HP Photosmart printer (the original) previously, but the new printer produces a much better image.  Epson (of course) recommends using their own papers for the printer, and the older photos look very nice on the heavyweight matte paper, but we've found that the Pictorico Premium Watercolor Cardstock paper is absolutely terrific for reproducing old photos.  This paper adds just a bit of texture that gives the photos a classic touch.

Epson is claiming a life expectancy of prints on the 1270 similar to that of modern color photographic prints, if the print is stored in the right conditions (for those who don't know, there has been an issue with color changing for some with the 870/1270 models especially, but not necessarily only, if left to open air and sunlight - see for more than you ever wanted to know).  Some inkjet printers will only give prints that last for a year or two without color change even under the best of conditions, so whatever printer you use, you will want to check the specs on longevity of the prints.  For those who are nuts about archival prints and wish to spend more money, the Epson 2000 photo printer is designed to produce prints with a >100 year life expectancy under the right conditions and with the right papers.  This printer uses pigment-based inks, which reportedly will last much longer (though you will need to look at some of the reviews - apparently some of the pigments show up as different colors in different lighting).

A graphics tablet - we use a Wacom graphire USB tablet.  We picked it up for $79 on the web.  A pen-based graphics tablet is much easier to use than a mouse to trace a line on a photo.

The following represent our means of obtaining an image of a vintage photos.  Case 3 has details on using them to get an image for editing:

A flatbed scanner - We use an HP Scanjet 6200C, which will provide an optical scanning resolution of about 1200 dpi.  I've read that most prints will not provide more than 300 dpi of information, so we usually scan photos at this setting, occasionally at 600 dpi for small photos.  While flatbeds take much more space than the "feed through" scanners (I'm sure they have an official name), you don't run the risk of damaging a photo by running it through the motorized rollers (and the feed-through type would not be able to handle glass or metal).

A digital camera - This is handy for things which can't be reproduced on the scanner.   We have a nikon coolpix 950 - a 2 mega-pixel camera with very nice macro capabilities.  I'm told this is also helpful on the road, e.g. when going to an archive and you don't want to take a laptop computer and a flatbed scanner with you.

A copy stand - shown below.  We couldn't use a scanner to reproduce photos in albums without physically damaging the albums, so we got a copy stand to provide a stable camera mount and even lighting.  Not shown is the Nikon 950, which was used to take the photo.  This stand has 4 - 150W bulbs for lighting (also not shown is the pair of sunglasses I wear while using the stand!).

copystand.jpg (30290 bytes)

The album shown on the stand contains the image used in the following tutorial.   The mount on the vertical bar is set for the camera to shoot the album pages.   I use the maximum zoom on the camera (35mm equivalent of a 110mm lens) to minimize distortion from a "wide angle" effect.  I shoot uncompressed TIFF files for restoration work - which produces a 5.6 MB file for each image (5 images per 32M compact flash card).  The Nikon 950 does not have a cable release mechanism (though you can get 3rd party devices which will let you do it), we get around this by using the self-timer to shoot the photos.



Photo editing:  There are many excellent photo editing packages out on the market.   We use Picture Window Pro v3.0 by Digital Light and Color.  I've found it to be a very powerful editing program, as you will hopefully see as you progress through the tutorial.  I purchased a prior version when I was still new to digital imaging (I had Microsoft Picture It at the time, since it came with my original photo printer - ok if you want to add a cute border to your photo, but...).  Picture Window had enough automated and easy to use tasks that I could make a scanned modern color photo look nice enough to print out an 8x10 without a huge learning curve for the program.  As we have gotten into digital photo restoration, I've taken time to learn the program in depth (they have some excellent white papers on different topics that come on the program CD).  The advanced features of the program have been incredibly helpful in restoration.  At the original time of writing up this section we used PW Pro v2.5.  The main difference between 2.5 and 3.0 is that the newer version can handle ICC color management profiles for monitors, scanners, and printers, and can allow you to work in different color spaces.  I got Praxisoft's WiziWYG color profiling software with this, to create profiles for my hardware for color management.  I'm still playing with this, so you'll hear more once I've got it tuned.

The de facto standard for photographic imaging is Adobe Photoshop.  This is a powerful editing program, and allows plug-ins from third party manufacturers.  This is the main thing that I miss in using Picture Window is the plug-in support.  Photoshop also allows (and indeed encourages) using adjustment layers, so that different transformations can be done in different layers and subsequently undone.  While PW pro does not support layers, so far I've not run across anything where this is necessary, though at times it would be helpful.  I have not used the full version of Photoshop 6.0, though I have used the LE version.  I keep it on my computer (came free with my printer) so that I can use plug-ins that I really like.  So far, though, I've still only used Picture Window for any serious editing.  While photoshop is powerful and is the industry standard, I find it somewhat user-hostile, and the full version is quite a bit more expensive the PW Pro. 

A popular program on the newsgroup is Jasc's Paint Shop Pro.  It apparently supports photoshop plug-ins, and is reasonably powerful.  I have not used it, but as I mentioned, it has received good press in the newsgroup.

Both Picture Window and Paint Shop Pro have free downloadable demos at their website, so if you are in the market for a program, you may wish to visit their sites.  PW Pro is a full downloadable version which works for 30 days, one day when I get to Jasc's site I'll let you know the details.

This site is written using PW Pro as my editing program, so the commands are geared towards this program.  Any of the 3 programs above (and indeed many others) will be able to accomplish what is done in these case studies - it is just a matter of finding the corresponding commands.  You can still accomplish much of what we will do in the case studies with some of the simple programs, such as Microsoft's Picture It or Adobe Photo Deluxe, to name two, but for the dollars I would get one of the more powerful programs to gain the huge increase in flexibility of editing.

Photo Printing:  Any of the photo editors will, of course, print your photos for you.  However, I have a separate printing program which easily allows me to print multiple photos on a page.  You can do this with any of the 3 editing programs above, you just have to work at it.  Q-image lets you use a drag and drop interface to put multiple images on a page, and does an excellent (and I mean excellent) job with pixel interpolation to enlarge your prints while avoiding a pixilated look to the enlarged image.  It also has capabilities for handling ICC color management profiles.  A free demo is downloadable, which is time limited (14 days if I recall), and does not allow much queuing of photos for batch printing.  This program is definitely worth checking out if you print many photos.

If you are interested in enlargements, you may wish to check out the Photoshop plug-in Genuine Fractals.  If you have photoshop (of Photoshop LE), this program will reportedly allow you to make very large enlargements while maintaining a viewable image.  I've played with the program some, and while it is excellent at what it does (it is the state of the art), I tend not to print over 8x10", and Q-image has done quite well in this range (not to say that it won't go larger, it's just that I tend not to go larger).


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