Sunday, February 08, 2009

Digital Photography 101 - Quickie Version

I was going to give a homework assignment for Lesson 1, but I realized there might be one or two things that need to be clear before that. If you're using a digital camera, there is one rule you must follow. The rest are just helpful tips.

Rule 1: Use the highest quality setting for your pictures.

This is not negotiable. Don't let the guy who's putting himself through college by working the camera counter at Target (Wal-Mart, for some of you) convince you otherwise. He's going to tell you that, since you're just taking pictures of your family, you can get by with the lowest quality setting (or maybe medium, if you really insist), and you can get so many more pictures on your memory card that way.

That kind of talk is of the devil, who disguises himself as an angel of light. Memory cards are cheap and getting cheaper all the time. Get a bigger one than what came with your camera. And if you upload your pictures to your computer regularly and delete them from the memory card after that (you can always back them up to a CD if you're worried about losing them), you won't have a problem with running out of room on your memory card.

Here's why this is important:

1. What if you take an utterly gorgeous picture (even if it's by accident) that you want as an 8 x 10 to frame and put on your desk? If you've taken it at low quality, you can kiss that 8 x 10 goodbye.

2. What if you have a bad picture that you want to crop to make it into a great picture? If you've taken your bad picture at low quality, after cropping it, you may end up with a printable size of 2 x 3, and nobody can even see that.

The math: To make good prints, you need 300 dpi (dots per inch). If your final picture is 640 x 480 pixels, your biggest good-quality print is just over 2 x 1-1/2 inches. Not exactly framing size.

My original Charlie the pelican photo (the bad one that I cropped to be just the top of his head) is 2304 x 3072 pixels. This means I could get about an 8 x 10 out of that picture. After cropping, Charlie's head shot is only 615 x 759 pixels. Good enough for the computer but not for a print I'd want to frame.

And my absolutely favorite patterns photo (coming as the calendar picture in July) is only 2304 x 1728 pixels, which is slightly over a 5 x 7 print size. It's the kind of picture that deserves to be a 16 x 20 print, matted and framed and hung on the wall, but because I took the picture with a 1-megapixel camera, that can never happen.

In digital photography, size counts. So get the biggest-size photos you possibly can.

Homework: Stop reading now and change the picture quality setting on all your digital cameras. Right now. Don't come back until you've done it. Find your camera's user manual if you have to.

Helpful Tips:

Get Adobe Photoshop Elements. This is not the full Photoshop, which runs around $700 (last time I looked). Elements has about 80% of the full version and is priced around $99. If this price is a concern, look on the clearance rack for an older version of Elements that's been marked down. I'm using Photoshop Elements version 3.0. I bought version 5.0 a year or two ago and never installed it. Version 3.0 does everything I need, which isn't much, but what I need is crucial.

With Photoshop Elements you can straighten your tilted horizon lines (use: Free Rotate Layer in Image menu), remove zits or that annoying spot my Nikon puts in the sky (see first picture) because there must be a speck inside my camera (use: Band-Aid tool), crop your photo (use: Crop tool), add text (use: Text tool), and make the saved photo smaller for publishing on your blog so it's not too big to load (use: Resize Image Size in Image menu).

If you want to know more about what Photoshop Elements can do, ask somebody who does a lot of scrapbooking, because I've told you everything I know.

You can do some of these things using Microsoft Paint, which comes included with any Windows-based PC. You'll find Paint under Accessories.

Keep your original uploaded photos untouched and work with copies.

Don't take a chance with your originals. Treat them the way you used to (or knew you should) treat your negatives. Put them in a safe place and leave them there. When you find a photo you want to play with or fix, copy the picture into another folder and fix that one. If your fix turns into a disaster, you still have the original to go back to .

Shrink (resize) your photos before posting online.

I hinted at this already. Computers show pictures at 72 dpi, so your photos look bigger on the screen than they would on paper. There are still people out there surfing the internet with slow-speed dial-up. Be kind to them and make your photos smaller. I usually make mine 640 pixels on the widest edge. It makes the image small enough for the computer to load yet still large enough that people can enlarge it a bit and see it better.

Put a copyright message on your photo (Optional).

As your pictures improve, you may start to get paranoid (yes, that's me) that strangers will find one of your photos on the internet and take it and use it to make money for themselves. This is galling to think about. Slapping a copyright message (or any other message, for that matter) across part of the picture can discourage the filthy-rotten, no-good, dirty thieves from doing this to your picture.

My cousin told me (I'm a little vague on the details on this one) that some underhanded website owners will find a great picture on someone else's site and link to it in a way that makes it appear on the bad guy's site as if it's that guy's photo. But all the while, his link is using your bandwidth every time someone loads your picture on his site. And that can drive up your internet costs if the bad guy gets a whole lot of hits. So having a copyright message prevents the guy from using your photo. He'll choose a photo that he can pretend is his.

One related note about Photoshop Elements: Once you place text on your photo and try to Save As, it defaults to saving the file as a Photoshop file (file extension: filename.psd). Don't let it do this. You'll need to change the Format in the Save As pop-up to JPEG (file extension: filename.jpg). This will ensure that your blog software will be able to recognize and load it properly.

One more note about Photoshop Elements: When you've saved your fixes and you close the photo or close Elements, it will ask you if you want to save changes. JUST SAY NO! This is asking if you want to make your changes to your original copy that you opened. You should have already saved your changes, so you want to leave the original alone. Tell it NO, and your life will be happier.

There. Now you should be set for the main Photography 101 class.


Charlie said...

Photoshop Elements is a great program for a reasonable price. I use it for all of my digital (and scanned - I have tons of 35mm slides) photo retouching. I often play with the artsy filters, where you can make a photo look like a watercolor, for instance.

It really is important in this age of Google image searches to put your name and copyright info on your photos. Not only as you do, with a visible tag, but using Photoshop's ability to set the hidden photo ownership info (File, File info...). You can add a web URL, copyright notice, and camera data there, all of which is carried along with the photo to prove ownership.

Finally, I suppose I should be honored to have a pelican named after me. There is some resemblance...

This is a great idea for a series, Skye! Thanks for letting us share your knowledge and experience.

SkyePuppy said...

Thanks, Charlie! You're way ahead of me with Photoshop knowledge.

I already went into one of the photos I'm preparing for a future lesson and put in some File info. And it worked!