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article imageOp-Ed: What programmers can teach us about art

By Jack Kapica     Aug 3, 2011 in Technology
Processing digital pictures promised us more artistic control, but it came at a steep cost in learning and equipment. But there is no shortcut to creating digital art
Wow, we said a decade ago. Imagine, being able to take pictures with a digital camera and process them by ourselves without having to pay someone to develop and print them.
What the hell were we thinking?
I see little evidence we’re doing anything of the sort. Most people upload their pictures to their computers … and that’s about it. Some end up on Facebook pages or get emailed. But when I ask whether they’ve done anything to improve them, I get blank stares.
That’s because pictures made by most digital cameras range from serviceable to hideous. The cameras are improving, but not fast enough. The pictures need improvement, but the hobbled teaser software that came free with the camera was designed to be good enough only to make us want to buy the full package.
And we also had to shell out for a colour photo printer, photo paper and endless new ink cartridges, which are expensive because manufacturers want the high profit margin to offset the loss they take on the printers. And then we discovered manufacturers are clobbering us again by putting half-full cartridges in new printers.
Phooey on them all.
The edge effect is by onOne Software s Photoframe
The edge effect is by onOne Software's Photoframe
Lutz-R. Frank
So you buy a camera ($250), a printer ($200), a simple software photo editor ($150) and a a constant series of ink cartridges. That’s $700 or so for a modest setup. You’d have to process a dozen rolls of analog film before you’d spend that much. Scattered over a couple of years, film still makes a reasonable argument for saving cash.
Of course, we can’t go back. Kodak doesn’t even make Kodachrome any more. We’re stuck with an expensive hobby.
But wait, there’s more.
When handed the levers of artistic control, many of us had to face our ignorance of photography. It was no longer enough to identify a badly framed picture; we had to learn a whole new vocabulary, such as colour noise, resolution and dynamic range. Faced with a drab photo, we were at a loss how to fix it — never mind doing cool things, such as putting our heads on X-rated bodies or making our back yards look like we’d hired Matisse as a landscaper.
We were sold on the idea of digital photography because it offered the illusion of control. But this Wonderful World of Wow did not tell us how to fix a picture, despite the glib assurances of software hucksters that all you need to know is how to press a button.
That, surprisingly, takes a lot of learning — old-fashioned, book-cracking and forehead-wrinkling study.
Our desire to exercise an artistic freedom few of us can muster had driven us down a no-exit highway to a serious hobby. It takes up time, time we hadn’t counted on when we bought into digital photography, never mind the up-front costs.
I ask again: What were we thinking?
I too fell into some of these traps. I was a serious amateur film photographer years ago, so I figured I knew enough to be ahead of the digital photography game.
Not so. While I knew my way around a darkroom, I understood only a fraction of digital imaging.
I taught myself Adobe Photoshop and made some decent pictures, but not great ones. So I studied how dedicated amateurs made plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop, Corel’s PaintShop Photo Pro, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture and others. Their amateurishness forced me to check out some professional plug-ins from Nik Software, Alien Skin Software and onOne Software, as well as an interesting toy called Wingnut Lo-Fi.
View from Via del Monte  Palos Verdes Estates  California  with an effect created by Wingnut s Lo-Fi...
View from Via del Monte, Palos Verdes Estates, California, with an effect created by Wingnut's Lo-Fi filter
Professional filter-makers do not want to make life easier for casual photographers, but to make it easier for knowledgeable photographers to achieve the effects they want — meaning you have to look at a picture and be able to declaim, “it needs more dynamic range,” “this would look good in high key,” or “the shadows are washed out.”
And to do that, you have to learn a lot. There’s no way around it. Sorry.
So I figured, let’s learn something.
The most important lesson was that these tools need practice — think art school. I don’t want to sound pompous, but it’s the closest thing to an artistic process you can do on a computer, and it can be an extremely satisfying experience.
The secret is in studying the manufacturers’ video tutorials. They’re usually very good. (I’d offer examples of what the filters can do, but I urge you to visit their websites, which can describe the results in greater detail than I).
For instance, there’s “U-point technology,” which is part of Nik’s noise-reduction filter Dfine 2.0 and several other Nik products. (“Noise” describes imperfections in the image-capturing process.) The filter can reduce colour noise either by the entire picture or by colour tones. Or you can place a “control point” on the image, from which a tree of options emerges.
The tree options are sliders. Click on them, and adjust them to control or remove noise. Nik’s tutorial suggests that before using these tools, you change the mode of the picture from RGB, the usual mode for photos, and select one of two masks — a colour noise mask or contrast noise mask — which result in a black-and-white image that shows the areas you’re interested in— ironically, without looking directly at the picture.
If that’s tough to understand, remember that this technology has been praised as a model of simplicity, and it won the Technical Image Press Association award this year.
Nik filters are sold separately, but they cost less if you buy the Complete Collection suite — $299.95 (U.S.) for a bundle that works with Apple’s Aperture or Adobe Lightroom, or the Ultimate Edition — $599.95 for the same list but including Adobe’s Photoshop. It’s wiser to buy the collection because it’s cheaper, and Nik conceived the filters as a series of steps in a work flow.
Start with Dfine 2.0, which mutes digital noise, then move on to Viveza 2, which controls light and colour. The next step, using Color Efex Pro 3.0, uses filters to stylize the image. An optional next step is Silver Efex Pro, which converts colour pictures into black and white. (Use this and you’ll understand that converting to monochrome is more than a matter of replacing colour pixels with gray ones of a similar density.) Finally, Sharpener Pro 3.0 not only defines edges to make the image appear sharper, but has presets that apply to a monitor, an inkjet printer or a continuous-tone print. This is one of the most satisfying sharpening tools I have ever used.
An example of the selective focus of Alien Skin s Bokeh filter
An example of the selective focus of Alien Skin's Bokeh filter
Monica's Dad John Martinez Pavliga
An impressive filter is HDR Efex Pro, which gives a photo a greater luminance spectrum. Take two or more shots of the same image, each one “bracketed” (with slightly different exposures), and the HDR filter then merges the best of each into an image of startling depth. This tool is a revelation.
Nik’s toolbox is one serious package for a photographer.
A suite from onOne Software called Perfect Photo Suite 5.5 ($299.95 U.S.) offers six plug-ins: FocalPoint 2 makes a selected part of a picture its focus, a process often called bokeh, Japanese for “blur”; PhotoTools 2.6 offers enhanced photographic effects; PhotoTune 3 corrects colours; Perfect Resize 7 blows up digital images; PhotoFrame 4.6 adds edge and framing effects, and Mask Pro 4.6 is a tool for removing backgrounds, especially in difficult pictures of hair, smoke and water.
The onOne people offer two “modes” — Wizard Mode (hand-holding) and Pro Mode (you’re on your own). The Photo Tune 3 tool, for instance, offers two Wizard Mode choices: images with people and images without people; a third option jumps directly into Pro Mode. Selecting Wizard Mode results in the image displayed twice, side by side, one automatically corrected, but adjustable; click the one you prefer and move to the next step. Pro mode offers you all the tools without advice.
The suite’s presets are playfully named. They include 45 Speed, Funky Senior, Brian’s TKO, Grandad Mike O’s Secret Sauce, le Freq Show (is that supposed to be pronounced “freak”?), The Ayyyy Nayyy Aussie Cry and The Stair Whisperer’s Story.
They’re very funny names, but they don’t tell me much.
Focal Point can keep the subject in focus and, if used with a deft touch, will make a photo look as though it had been taken with careful attention to depth of field. The most impressive is Perfect Resize 7, which uses fractal geometry to make a photo as much as 1,000 per cent larger. Perfect Resize makes a good argument that fractals are better at enlargement than the mathematical method of interpolating pixels.
Another impressive series of filters, from Alien Skin Software, is called Photo Bundle ($595 U.S.). One of its best tools is Exposure 3, aimed at those who know how the chemistry in analog film affected images — each film had its idiosyncrasies and professionals chose their stock carefully. There are 500 effects here, such as cross-processing (developing a film in the wrong developer), high-speed black and white images and even Daguerreotype. The idea is to make a picture that doesn’t scream “digital.”
The suite also includes Blow Up 2, an enlarging process that differs from onOne’s Perfect Resize in that it temporarily converts an image’s pixels to vectors, blows up the image, and then reconverts the vectors back into pixels, a major improvement on the mathematical system. There’s also Bokeh 2, the same idea of refocusing a part of an image as onOne’s Focal Point.
Image Doctor 2 can repair ripped or scratched old pictures; it can eliminate a pimple, a photo bomb or even an ex-spouse. The process is called Smart Fill, which takes an intelligent sampling of the nearby background and fills in the offending area. It can also be used to fix blocky and ragged edges in images that have been damaged by over-compression. I was surprised how often I have used this feature.
Snap Art 3 is the process of inviting a dead artist into your computer to turn your boring picture into something resembling classical art — great if you want a photo to look like you hired Rembrandt to paint your new baby’s portrait.
And finally, Eye Candy 6 is a set of 1,500 presets for Web design for such items as logos, decorative objects or navigation buttons.
A peculiar filter is promoted by its maker, Wingnut, as a kind of toy for instant effects. Called Lo-Fi, it’s a standalone program collection of retro photo effects that make a picture look like it had been taken by that really cheap camera you threw out long ago. Many failings of bad cameras were once called flaws, but are now called “happy accidents” by fans of the retro sensibility. The editing process shows you the back of a camera with an LCD screen; drag a photo into it and mix and match effects from a variety of preset effects.
Yes they’re fun, but I can see Lo-Fi being used by professionals such as advertising agencies to evoke memories of the past as well as to create a childhood you never had. Wingnut’s Lo-Fi results are really good enough for the program to be used professionally. (Not surprisingly, it turns out Wingnut is a bunch of rogue programmers at Alien Skin.)
I can’t guarantee that if you study all these programs you’ll become an artist. But I can guarantee your pictures will improve.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about photo filters, Nik, onOne, Alien skin
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