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Creating Compelling Still Images

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What You'll Learn in This Chapter:

  • Digital or film cameras—what will work best for you
  • Digital camera buying tips
  • Making high-quality photos—tips and tricks
  • Importing and scanning images
  • Formatting images for videos and DVDs
  • Editing images with Adobe Photoshop Elements

Photos and other still images can play a major role in your video production. Consider the Ken Burns documentaries that consist almost entirely of old black-and-white photos.

But simply taking a bunch of poorly exposed or composed snapshots and dropping them into a video or slapping them on a DVD will not transform them into works of art.

In this chapter, I offer tips on digital camera selection. I also present some picture-taking dos and don'ts and cover three new digital image technological developments.

Even if you are a digital camera devotee, you still probably have scrapbooks loaded with photos shot on film. To get them into your video productions and DVDs, you'll need to use a scanner. In this chapter I give you scanner buying and usage tips. Finally I introduce Photoshop Elements, the younger sibling of the most popular image-editing software.

Digital or Film Cameras—What Will Work Best for You

My quick answer is film for sure. Digital? Maybe.

I am not a big fan of digital still cameras. They cannot yet replace film cameras because they have too many drawbacks, including the following:

  • Shutter lag time—You must press the button and wait for up to two seconds to actually take the photo (see the sidebar titled "Consumer Digital Cameras Don't Do Action," later in this chapter).

  • Delay between shots—This ranges from two to five seconds.

  • Battery consumption—They devour batteries.

  • Slow autofocus.

  • Poor flash metering—They use "pre-flashes" instead of responding to light during the actual exposure.

  • Frequent color or white balance miscues.

  • Digital focal multiplier—Your 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) camera wide-angle lens won't work properly on a digital SLR (see the sidebar titled "Three Rapidly Changing Digital Image Technologies," later in this chapter).

  • Rapid obsolescence—You can buy a digital camera one day and see a better, less-expensive model advertised the next day.

  • Learning curve—Yet another technology to learn with frequently complicated, arcane, and incomprehensible controls.

  • Poor low-light capabilities.

  • Expensive printers and paper.

Despite these drawbacks, millions of digital camera users can't all be wrong. Digital cameras have the following advantages:

  • Immediate feedback—if you don't like how the photo turned out, you can erase it and try again.

  • You never have to buy film again.

  • You don't have to pay to process your film.

  • You can print only the photos you need when you need them.

  • You can quickly and easily upload pictures to your PC.

  • You don't need to use a scanner.

  • Prices are dropping, and quality is increasing.

  • You can give a digital camera to your kids without worrying about them wasting film.

Digital still cameras are not completely ready for prime time, but they can be tremendously useful for certain applications:

  • Real estate agents emailing photos of homes to out-of-town clients

  • Insurance adjusters photographing property damage

  • Employee security badges, credit card photos, or driver's license photos

  • Posting images to websites

Consumer Digital Cameras Don't Do Action

The first time you try a digital camera, I guarantee you'll wonder what's going wrong.

You'll look through the viewfinder and see nothing. You'll think, "Oops, I need to turn the darned thing on." You'll press the On button or open the sliding lens cover, you'll wait, and the camera will finally finish its startup process and be ready to shoot.

You'll then compose a shot and press the shutter button, but nothing will happen. You'll probably press the shutter again, a bit harder, and still nothing will happen. So, you'll hold it down longer—a second or two—and finally you'll hear a click and whir and an image will appear. But it won't be the image you thought you were going to get—it won't be that moment, frozen in time, that you visualized when you pressed the shutter.

That moment passed your digital camera by. Why? Electronics, surprisingly, can be slow.

Here's what occurs as you press the shutter: As with a film camera, a digital camera emits an infrared signal to set the focus, then adjusts the autoexposure by changing the aperture (f-stop) and the shutter speed, and (if it's dark) sends out a small burst of light to determine how much flash to use. At this point, a film camera snaps the picture. But a digital camera has much more work to do.

The digital camera flushes the photosensitive computer chip's electric charge to prepare it to receive a new image.

Photons from the subject hit that chip. It converts them to electrons, changes them to digital data (typically at least two million chunks of color and brightness data), and moves them to an interim storage location. From shutter press to image capture, up to two seconds elapse.

If you're ready to take another picture, you have to wait from two to five seconds while your digital camera recycles. The camera has to compress that digital information and store it before it's ready to take another photo.

Shooting action photos is just about out of the question, and expecting portrait subjects to hold that smile for a second and a half is asking a lot. No longer is it, "Three, two, one, click." Now it's "Three, two, depress shutter, one, click."

There is one way around this, though. You can spend a few thousand dollars for a professional digital camera, which uses one-click/one-shot, or sequencing, technology.

But even then, depending on the camera, you might need to wait more than a second between photos. Also, you can't use the flash (it can't recycle fast enough), the photos might have lower resolutions than normal, and the color balance might be off.

So, if you use a digital camera, you'll need to make some adjustments. See the section "Compensating for Lag Time," later in this chapter.

Digital Camera Buying Tips

Other than convenience, I see no compelling reason to buy a digital camera specifically for a video or DVD project. If you need to use archived photos in any project—family history DVDs, for instance—you'll use a scanner to import them into your PC. Therefore, you can continue to rely on film.

But the demand for digital cameras continues to grow. Despite my reservations, you might want to buy one, or you might already own one and want to replace it—new technology is so tempting.

So, here are my digital camera buying tips:

  • Megapixels—These are millions of picture elements or data points on the light-sensitive CCD chip (the charge coupled device) that I covered in the previous chapter. The higher the number, the more you can enlarge the printed image and not lose details. Two megapixels is the minimum to make an average-quality 5''x7'' photo printout, three megapixels is the minimum for an 8''x10'' printout, and four megapixels is the minimum for an 11''x17'' printout.

  • Storage capacity—Larger megapixel images require more storage space. Note how much capacity comes with the camera and the cost for additional memory modules: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Secure Media, or Memory Sticks. Don't buy cameras with floppy disk or CD storage because they're too slow.

  • Try before you buy—The feel, size, and weight of the camera along with the location of its controls are important.

  • Optical zoom capability—2X optical zoom capability is the minimum you should get, but 3X is much better. Ignore references to digital zoom; that just reduces the resolution of the image.

  • Rechargeable batteries and a charger—These are a must. Buying them separately adds $30+ to the total price. NiMH (nickel metal hydride) rechargeable batteries are better than NiCad (nickel cadmium). Always keep a second set on the charger, and keep in mind that many rechargeable batteries tend to lose power over time.

  • Burst—This is also called sequence shooting mode, and it compensates for shutter and shot-to-shot lag times.

  • Check out the software bundle—Some cameras come with some excellent products, but most do not.

  • Color liquid crystal display (LCD) panel—You use this to preview photos and determine whether exposure or color balance adjustments are necessary.

  • Macro function—You use this to make extreme close-ups, from an inch or so away from the subject.

  • USB PC connectivity—It's ubiquitous.

Three Rapidly Changing Digital Image Technologies

Digital camera technology does not stand still. Here are three recent developments:

  • CMOS versus CCD—Most still cameras and video camcorders used CCDs (charge coupled devices) to capture images. Kodak and Canon have challenged that dominance with two ultra-high-resolution digital still cameras: the 14 megapixel Kodak DCS Pro 14n ($4,000) and the Canon EOS Digital line (from 6.3 to 11.1 megapixels and ranging in price from $1,000 to $4,000). Both use CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) chips.

  • CCD chips with the same resolution would be more costly and bulky. And CMOS chips use far less power than CCDs. Another advantage is that the CMOS chip has the same frame size as 35mm film, meaning there is no need for owners of SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras to buy new lenses.

  • Digital focal multiplier—That CCDs are smaller than 35mm film creates a sometimes expensive inconvenience for owners of digital SLR cameras using their 35mm film SLR (single lens reflex) lenses. The smaller image-capturing area effectively increases the focal length of any interchangeable lens used on a digital SLR camera. That boosts telephoto lens power—arguably a nifty benefit—but narrows the view of wide-angle lenses. Creating distortion-free wide-angle lenses is an expensive art—buying a new one just for a digital SLR camera can easily cost more than $1,000.

  • Olympus, Kodak, Panasonic, Fuji, and two other firms think they have an answer: the Four Thirds System (http://www.four-thirds.org/en/index_01.htm), a standardized lens-mounting scheme for digital SLRs. If enough companies sign on, this will resolve the digital focal multiplier issue (you'll still have to buy new lenses, though). It will also lead to smaller, lighter lenses and ensure uniform lens mounts across all brand lines, something that does not exist for 35mm SLRs.

  • Foveon X3 image sensor—CCDs and CMOS technology pale in comparison to the image clarity of Foveon X3 (http://www.foveon.com). These new chips capture three times the color resolution, feature a simpler design, and offer higher overall performance for digital still and video cameras.

  • Standard digital camera chips use a mosaic pattern of pixels in groups of three red, green, and blue photodetectors. The resulting image, when viewed up close, looks like a checkerboard.

    As illustrated in Figure 3.1, Foveon embeds three layered photodetectors in silicon at every pixel location to capture all colors within each pixel. The result is sharper images with more accurate color reproduction.

    Figure 3.1FIGURE 3.1 Foveon X3 Technology. Illustration 2002, Foveon, Inc.

    Three professional digital still cameras use Foveon X3 technology: Sigma SD9 ($750), Sigma SD10 ($1,200) and Polaroid x530 ($400).

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