Digital cameras remain one of the hottest pieces of hardware in the technology world, with ever-higher resolutions and ever-lower prices. However, the vast number and variety of digital camera models means you're best off reading reviews and comparing models at one of the digital photography Web sites listed below. When it comes time to purchase, it's worth shopping around since prices vary widely. All the digital camera review sites offer price comparison services, as does TidBITS sponsor dealmac, with their new dealcam site. That said, make sure to buy from a reputable retailer and avoid "gray market" cameras that lack the manufacturer's warranty. Sometimes those incredibly low prices really are too good to be true.
So this year I want to focus on some useful accoutrements that make taking and working with digital photographs easier, plus some that can help you get even better results from your existing camera.
Show Your True Colors -- To match your printer's output to the image on your monitor, you first must make sure your monitor is accurately displaying your original photo. Your printer can't see what's on your screen; it prints from the image file on your computer. If that file doesn't display properly, making changes to it in your imaging program is like shooting in the dark - you won't know the results until you see a print. ColorVision's Spyder colorimeter (with PhotoCal software) is a device that automatically calibrates your monitor in a few seconds so it'll display your camera originals properly. The result? Prints that match what you see, and enough savings in ink and paper to pay for itself quickly. Calibrate periodically to correct for color shifts as your monitor ages. A model for CRT monitors only is $160; one used with both CRT and LCD monitors is $288.
The Incredible Shrinking Reflectors -- Are your outdoor portraits plagued with deep shadows or burned out highlights? Reflectors can easily solve those problems and an ingenious solution is PhotoFlex's MultiDisc 5'in1 that compresses five 32-inch (81 cm) reflectors into a zippered container just 12 inches (30.4 cm) across and weighing less than two pounds. Kids love to watch them expand - it's pure magic. For $115 you get five of the most popular reflectors used in the photo industry today: gold, soft gold, silver, white, and translucent. They'll fill in shadows, cut harsh sunlight, and much more. Need smaller or larger sizes? They're available, too. And they're just as useful when used indoors with PhotoFlex's new digital photography lighting kits or your own source of light.
What's a Podmatic? Tripods are a pain to tote around. If you just need to steady your camera, the Podmatic will do as well or better. This is the best monopod in the world - an improved version of the famous German Linhof Monomatic that sold for several hundred dollars until it was discontinued. Demand was so great, photo retailer Adorama decided to make their own ($90) and it's a dandy - only 14 inches (35.6 cm) collapsed and 58.5 inches (148.6 cm) when extended. It's perfect for steadying your camera at those slow, "iffy" shutter speeds when the light is low or when you're at full zoom and a shaky hand can ruin your shot. You'll also want to add a Slik Compact Ball Head ($25) for even more versatility.
More Power To You -- If your camera takes AA batteries, you can extend your shooting time with a Quest Q2 Platinum Charger Kit ($50), that comes with four 1800 mAh, Platinum NiMH AA batteries. Each battery is charged on a separate circuit and then supplied with a trickle of current to keep it up to snuff until needed. For industrial strength power, Unity Digital has three, lightweight power pack models ($70) that will keep most any digital camera juiced up for a full day (or more) of continuous shooting (you'll run out of energy before it will). Each model comes with a charger and the appropriate cable for your camera. And if you have a camera that uses a Lithium Ion battery, Maha Energy has a new line of replacement batteries in various sizes and voltages, all of which are less expensive ($30 to $40) than the original manufacturer's batteries and last a whole lot longer.
Adobe Has You Covered -- Okay, so you have a great camera and some nifty accessories but what about a versatile image editing program to do some photo-fixing and fiddling? Tasks like removing backgrounds, darkening and lightening areas, correcting bad color, trimming, sharpening, and eliminating that satanic gleam called red-eye used to take hours in a darkroom (if you could do it at all). Now it's just a matter of minutes at your Mac in either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X. Photoshop Elements 2.0 ($100) is easy to learn and loaded with features specifically developed for photographers. It's probably all you'll ever need in an imaging program, but should you decide to step up to the big guns - the $600 Photoshop 7 - you'll have all the basics already mastered.
The Miraculous AutoEye -- AutoFX has some amazing filters that do, well, amazing things. They wisely designed their AutoEye ($130) program to work as a plug-in to popular imaging programs or as a stand-alone application; it can miraculously (well, almost) ferret out lost detail and color in your images to transform dull and dingy pictures into absolute stunners. AutoEye uses a totally different set of adjustment methods that don't rely on standard curves and histograms to correct the entire image. Download a trial copy; once you see for yourself how easy it is to make these high quality image enhancements, you'll be asking "How'd they do that?" Use code #88991 and get $30 off.
Sharp as a Tack -- Most people discover that using their imaging program's unsharp mask feature to sharpen images can drive them crazy. Although it gives far better results than a generic Sharpen command, unsharp masking involves setting three variables (amount, radius, and threshold) that can be confusing especially to those who don't use the feature regularly. Nik Sharpener Pro! Inkjet Edition ($170) is a plug-in for most imaging programs that knows all this stuff and automatically matches the degree of sharpness exactly to the desired print size of the image and your inkjet printer's resolution- there's no guessing. Nik Multimedia also has a complete line of other imaging effects filters that are tailor-made for photographers.
Chameleon Software -- Ever want to change one color in a picture without going through the hassle of laboriously using a selection tool to outline the portion you want replaced? Digital Light & Color's $50 Color Mechanic Pro lets you do this with just a couple of mouse clicks and doesn't affect any other colors in the image- only the one you want changed. This powerful color correction plug-in works with Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and most other imaging programs. It's a great tool to use when you want to change a red car to a blue one or Junior's sweater from putrid green to cheerful yellow. And it's far more precise than other methods that only give limited adjustment. You won't believe how easy this is to do!
Actions Speak Louder -- Most full versions of Photoshop can play back pre-recorded commands in an Action palette; once you get a sequence down pat, you can repeat it exactly again and again. Fred Miranda has developed some actions that would normally take you hours of experimenting to come up with (assuming you could do it at all). His actions reduce noise, give soft-focus effects, get rid of unpleasant artifacts, emulate infrared (and black-and-white) pictures, and more. One of the most innovative actions increases the dynamic range of your pictures so that details can be seen in both the darkest shadows and brightest highlights - better than Ansel Adams could ever do. The actions are priced at $8.50 and up.
Rabbit Round-Up -- Digital photos tend to proliferate faster than rabbits and before you know it, they're all over the place. Extensis Portfolio is a slick, powerful, image-cataloging program that will quickly organize and keep track of where they are. You'll never again have to search through nested folders to find the photos you need- they'll always be at your fingertips, even if they're in different locations. And you can also rename, categorize, and copy photos directly from your camera's memory card in one easy step. Order before 01-Apr-03 using the second link below to get $100 off the regular price of $200! Extensis Portfolio works with Mac OS 9; a preview for Mac OS X is available.
Greeting Cards on the Cheap -- If you haven't noticed, the cost of greetings and postcards have risen like flu fever. Red River Paper has a remedy for that - make your own custom cards for under a buck apiece! You supply your own images and messages and they supply cards and envelopes in different sizes (up to 5 by 7 inches). The cards are pre-scored (for easy folding) and come in gloss, matte, or watercolor paper with clear, pearl, or rainbow "see-thru" sheets and elegant white, eggshell, or brilliantly colored envelopes. Postcards allow you to do small, targeted business mailings without having to pay for large minimums you'll never use. You can order a sample set for $5.
Stripping the Light Fantastic -- Test Strip is derived from the age-old darkroom technique of printing variations of the same image on a small piece of paper to see which looks best before committing to a large, final print. Test Strip is a plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements under Mac OS 9 that shows you a comparison preview of your image - adding or subtracting colors, density, contrast, or saturation. You can easily change the orientation and the number of strips that are displayed and then print a test proof. If you've had trouble matching your printer output to what you see on the screen, just print out a test strip, pick the image that looks the best, and then select it to print out at your desired size. Order the Show Special and get $100 off the regular price of $200! Mention Digital Camera Magazine if asked.
Crash Parachutes -- If your digital camera's memory card goes south with priceless images on it, all's not lost. Don't reinitialize it! Just call Southwest Stars Data Recovery for a quote and then send it to them for resurrection. If they can't bring it back to life, bury it.
Learn, Baby, Learn! Plenty of knowledge is available out there that can bring you up to speed on digital photography. VTC has a huge library of training CDs that you can buy or subscribe to. For only $25 a month, you can browse any title at any time of the day. Web sites also abound; go to my Digital PhotoCorner site to get a listing of the best. While you're there, look in on the Digiphoto 101 online class to see if you might want to enroll. For more personalized instruction, think about attending a Workshop At Sea, where you'll learn about digital photography, imaging, and printing while you cruise to exotic ports, enjoy the company of fellow enthusiasts, and have the time of your life.
Books Are In -- Here are a few titles that stand out among the many. A classic that's still in print, Essentials of Digital Photography by Akira Kasai and Russell Sparkman, is filled with vital information that clarifies difficult concepts. Real World Digital Photography by Deke McClelland and Katrin Eismann is another oldie-but-goodie that's great for beginners to intermediates. Ben Long's Complete Digital Photography is loaded with excellent information for more advanced photographers who want to make the transition to digital. Creative Digital Printmaking by Theresa Airey and Michael J. McNamara is a fine mixture of creative and technical information about inkjet printing. Finally, Photoshop Elements 2 Solutions by Mikkel Aaland is a "must have" to keep at your side (if you use a full version of Photoshop, you probably already have a groaning shelf filled with Photoshop-related tomes).
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, educator, and feature editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He lives in Miami, does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises.]
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