Charles Maurer anchors this issue with an in-depth discussion of tools and techniques the perfectionist can use to polish digital photos. Glenn Fleishman radios in from high above Seattle… via iChat AV and the Connexion by Boeing Internet service. In the news, we cover the releases of StuffIt Deluxe 9.0, Tinderbox 2.3, Keyboard Maestro 2.0, and The Missing Sync 4.0.1, along with mentions of two new sponsors and the PowerBook G4 White Spot Repair Program.
New Sponsors: easyDNS and HobbyLink Japan — We’re extremely pleased to welcome back as a long-term sponsor easyDNS, the DNS registration, hosting, and management company where we’ve kept all the TidBITS domain names for several years now. They aren’t the cheapest DNS service, but when it comes to something as critical as a domain name, I’ll take reliable and easy to use over cost any day. After years of horrendous (to put it mildly) experiences with Network Solutions before switching, working with easyDNS has been a huge relief. Also joining us this week is a company that’s unusual among our sponsors because they sell not computer-related products but hobby kits, toys, books and anime-related gear direct from Japan. Fun stuff! [ACE]
Allume Ships StuffIt Deluxe and StuffIt Standard 9.0 — Allume has upgraded their long-standing compression, archiving, and expansion utilities, improving performance (particularly on dual-processor Macs) and improving the interface and user experience. Both StuffIt Standard (comprised of DropStuff and the free StuffIt Expander) and StuffIt Deluxe 9.0 include an improved version of DropStuff that provides a single interface to creating StuffIt, Zip, and .tar archives. DropStuff can also now archive files directly to CD/DVD and FTP servers, eliminating the need to create an archive and then burn or upload; if an archive is larger than a single CD or DVD, DropStuff automatically segments it on the fly. On the other side of the equation, the new StuffIt Expander makes restoring archived files to their original locations easier. Changes in StuffIt Deluxe 9.0 include an enhanced ArchiveAssistant tool that helps users archive any folder to any local or network drive, CD/DVD, FTP server, or iDisk. Also improved is the StuffIt Express automation utility, which now allows distribution of automation drop boxes to others. Also, compression and expansion tasks invoked via Magic Menu and the StuffIt contextual menu are now multi-threaded, so you can keep using the Finder while they run. StuffIt Standard costs $50 (although StuffIt Expander remains free as part of the 6.3 MB demo download); upgrades from any previous version are $20. StuffIt Deluxe costs $80, with upgrades from previous versions of StuffIt Standard or StuffIt Deluxe at $30. Both require Mac OS X 10.3 or later. [ACE]
Eastgate Fires Up Tinderbox 2.3 — Eastgate Systems has released Tinderbox 2.3, a free update to its program for storing notes and other information (see "Light Your Fire with Tinderbox" in TidBITS-651). This version improves the display of text and maps, speeds up spell checking, and beefs up the program’s agents feature with new queries and actions. Tinderbox 2.3 costs $70 for a new license, and is a 4.5 MB download. [JLC]
Keyboard Maestro 2.0 Makes Macros — Michael Kamprath’s utility Keyboard Maestro has found a new home at Stairways Software, which has just released version 2.0. The revision is a rewrite of the original program, which lets you create macros to automate tasks based on hotkeys, application actions, specific times, or even the use of a Griffin Technology PowerMate. The new version also adds button clicks and scroll wheel simulations, window manipulation, multiple named clipboards, and the capability to collect macros into application-specific Macro Groups. Keyboard Maestro 2.0 costs $20 for a single user license, with prices for 5-, 20-, and 100-seat licenses ranging up to $695. The program is available as free trial version, which is a 4.4 MB download; Mac OS X 10.2 or later is required to run it. [JLC]
The Missing Sync 4.0.1 Fixes CLIE Bug — Mark/Space, Inc. has released an important update to The Missing Sync for Palm OS, the company’s utility for synchronizing Palm OS handhelds with the Mac (see "Missing Sync 4.0 Fills Palm Gaps" in TidBITS-743). Version 4.0.1 solves a problem where Sony CLIE owners would experience a Mac OS X kernel panic when trying to mount Memory Stick media on the Desktop. It also adds support for FMSync and Vindigo conduits, adds keychain support, and more. The update is free for registered users of version 4.0, and is an 11.6 MB download. [JLC]
PowerBook G4 White Spot Repair Program Announced — If you were an early owner of Apple’s 15-inch Aluminum PowerBook G4, you may have found an unwelcome surprise: faint white spots on the display. Until now, Apple has been repairing them on a case-by-case basis; my PowerBook exhibited the problem once and was repaired successfully, but I know others whose PowerBooks went back to Apple numerous times. Now, Apple has created a repair program to get the white out. The program covers the Aluminum 15-inch PowerBook G4 (1 GHz or 1.25 GHz processor) or the Titanium 15-inch PowerBook G4 (867 MHz or 1 GHz processor) with a serial number between V7334xxxxxx and V7345xxxxxx, or QT331xxxxxx and QT339xxxxxx. The LCD replacement program is offered worldwide. [JLC]
iPhoto Workshop in Malta Cancelled — We’re sorry to announce that Techie Tours has been forced to cancel our iPhoto workshop in Malta, scheduled for the second week in November. Although there was plenty of interest in the event, too few people actually signed up, making it financially infeasible for Techie Tours. The specific timing of the event (right after the U.S. presidential election) may have been the factor that kept people from signing up. I hope global political and economic conditions improve to the point where Techie Tours will be able to hold the event in the future; the concept of mixing Macintosh training with an exotic vacation is still a good one. [ACE]
Last week I flew up and around the Puget Sound region, and my broadband connection came with me. I was invited with other journalists to take a trip in the Connexion by Boeing test plane, a craft equipped with Boeing’s high-speed, in-flight broadband service that’s currently available only on a handful of Lufthansa jets, but which mostly Asian and European airlines should start rolling out later this year and into the next.
Connexion by Boeing uses a satellite transceiver, mounted on a gimbal on top of the plane, that’s controlled by on-board electronics. The connection allows from 5 to 20 Mbps of download bandwidth and up to 1 Mbps of upload. On the test flight, we had 1 Mbps down and 128 Kbps up.
The flight was unbelievably gorgeous: Washington looks great from the air. We could practically touch Mt. Rainier, with just 2,500 feet of lateral and 3,000 feet of vertical distance as we flew around it (we also flew that near to Mt. Adams).
But the view on board was quite good, too. Inspired by Eric Zelenka of Apple, who used this service on a Lufthansa flight (see "iChat AV Takes Flight with In-Air Wi-Fi" in TidBITS-736), I was able to use iChat AV and an iSight to push video to my dad (his iSight wasn’t hooked up), video both ways with Adam Engst (his audio was screwy), and audio and video with Jeff Carlson (I could barely hear him and he heard what sounded like a digital rendition of the loud airplane noise; we suspect that the noise was caused by iChat’s audio compression, which is tailored for human speech, not loud background noise).
I was also able to make some test voice-over-IP calls, but the airplane noise was too loud; I tried a noise-cancellation headset that the Connexion folks had with a Wi-Fi telephone they were testing, and it was extraordinarily clear and offered low latency: better than a cell phone in many respects. And, interestingly, the noise-canceling headset almost forces you to talk more quietly because it pushes some of the microphone input back into the headphone: I was talking at what I thought was an above-normal voice, and my seatmate said he could barely hear me.
The idea with Connexion is to reclaim lost time on the long flights that businesspeople take. The cost will range from $10 to $35 depending on how much time you want to use and how long the flight is. This test flight was awfully convincing that broadband Internet access while in the air will be a compelling use of technology.
I have two modes of taking pictures: point-and-shoot and perfectionist. In the first mode I use a pocket-sized camera with no manual controls. It processes the pictures, I throw them onto my hard drive, and the only editing I’ll ever do is remove some occasional red-eye. In perfectionist mode I revert to a previous incarnation and become a commercial photographer again.
This year my perfectionist mode has gone digital and my computer has replaced my darkroom. To effect this change, I reviewed all of the photo-editing software available for the Mac. In this article I shall summarize my take on the most suitable products available for the perfectionist to finish photographs.
Since some readers will come to this from photography and others from computers, I shall not assume that anybody understands the jargon from either side and shall go back to basics frequently. My intent, however, is to point out an approach and products that go far beyond the basics.
The Raw Truth — The digital sensor in a camera generates a file of raw data that requires an enormous amount of processing to become converted into a usable image. This processing can be done in the camera or by a computer. A computer allows more control and the opportunity to change your mind in the middle.
The conversion of a raw file into an image is not straightforward. Many algorithms are possible, so different programs come out with different results. Try the converter that came with your camera, try Adobe Photoshop, try any others you might have on hand, and see what you like the best. Note that Photoshop and perhaps some other applications will permit you to enlarge the images from the different colour channels to slightly different extents, to compensate for one cause of colour fringing, lateral chromatic aberration. This is useful but don’t expect much. Most colour fringing comes from other causes.
Raw files can be converted into TIFF or JPEG. TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) contains full information but is large. JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is compressed but impoverished. It is sensible to convert raw files to TIFF, keep the TIFF files for editing, then convert them to JPEGs as needed for distribution.
You are likely to be offered the choice of converting your raw files to 8-bit or 16-bit colour. Eight bits ought to be sufficient, but if a picture is poorly lighted or poorly exposed, rescuing it may require teasing apart nearby tones. In that case smooth tonal gradients may break up into discrete bands unless you have more steps. However, 16-bit files are twice the size and take much longer to process. I prefer to use 8-bit colour normally and to take the risk of needing to reconvert a file on the odd occasion that eight bits aren’t enough.
Most raw converters allow you to sharpen the pictures. Indeed, most of them sharpen pictures by default. However, never sharpen pictures at this early point in the process. Sharpening of this sort, "unsharp masking," distorts the image at edges, which then prejudices other manipulations. Moreover, the amount that is useful depends upon the size and purpose of the final image. Sharpening an image should be the very last thing you do.
Noise Ninja — A digital sensor always records a certain amount of random noise. Usually this is an insignificant proportion of the image, but it may become objectionable with long exposures or higher amplification (i.e., higher "film speeds" or "ISO speeds"). It can also become noticeable in smooth areas under ordinary circumstances. It is possible to characterize mathematically the noise produced by any particular sensor at any particular amplification and to subtract that noise from the image. This subtraction needs to be done before you modify the image. However, at this stage in the process, it is important that you remove only noise, not detail. Later, after the detail has been brought out as best as possible, it may seem sensible to remove some of it to clean up some more noise, but that comes later. At this point, you want to retain all of the detail.
I have not tried many noise-reduction packages because wherever I read comparisons, one of them always came out at the top for both Macs and Windows: PictureCode’s Noise Ninja ($30 or $70, depending on whether you need 8-bit or 16-bit output). Noise Ninja can discriminate remarkably well between image and noise. I have found that with images from my Sigma SD-10 shot at ISO 100, Noise Ninja’s default settings (other than turning off sharpening) eliminate all the noise that ever becomes visible, yet never affects any detail. Noise Ninja has shown itself to be so reliable that I am about ready to start running images through it automatically in batches – but only for pictures shot at ISO 100. The higher the sensitivity, the more noise, so that the difference between detail and noise becomes less clear. Where there is more noise, it is even more important to use Noise Ninja, but I prefer to run it by hand for greater control.
FocusMagic — Once you’ve eliminated noise, it’s time to wave a magic wand over blurry parts of the picture. If the lens wasn’t focused properly or had too little depth of field, or if the subject or camera moved, this magic wand may remove the blur. The wand is Acclaim Software’s $45 FocusMagic. It can’t produce perfection, but 8" x 10" enlargements can show astonishing improvements.
Although FocusMagic sharpens the picture, it works quite differently from ordinary sharpening routines. Ordinary sharpening routines enhance contrast at sharp edges; FocusMagic forms sharp edges out of blur. Be sure to use FocusMagic before any other optical correction. To fix focus blur, FocusMagic works at least as well as the $60 FocusFixer from Fixer Labs and is a bit easier to use. To fix motion blur, I don’t know of any alternative.
Unfortunately, although a stand-alone version of FocusMagic is available for Windows, only a Photoshop plug-in is made for Macs and requires Photoshop; it will not run in GraphicConverter.
A Better Perspective — Now comes the time to compensate for basic optical problems in the photo:
Compensate as best you can for colour fringing caused by lateral chromatic aberration, if you did not do this in the raw converter.
Straighten lines that are curved by barrel or pincushion distortion. Straight lines evincing convex curves show barrel distortion; straight lines evincing concave curves show pincushion distortion. With a digital image you can remove so much distortion that you can even straighten the lines of a fish-eye photograph, but with any lens, if the distortion is not simple and symmetrical, then some residual waviness will remain.
Rotate the image if the camera was not quite straight.
Correct perspective so that buildings don’t appear to be falling over. This can be done horizontally as well. Both corrections make scenes look more natural.
Correct light fall-off toward the corners caused by wide-angle lenses.
Correct the magnification toward the edges of wide-angle lenses.
For these corrections I use a quartet of plug-ins by The Imaging Factory: Debarrelizer, Perspective, Squeeze and Vignette ($40 each, other than the $20 Squeeze). They are easy to use and combined they offer more control with greater sophistication than any similar products I have found, except for one lacuna: they offer no compensation for pincushion distortion. Unfortunately (in this context), I happen to have no lenses that cause pincushion distortion, so products to repair it are beyond my ken. In theory the $40 plug-in LensFix from Kekus Digital offers more precise compensation for distortion and chromatic aberration than any other product but with my lenses I found it to be no better, merely difficult to use.
Asiva — Up to this point, all of your manipulations are straightforward and mechanical. Now we bring in artistic judgement because we need to adjust tonality and balance colour. The usual approaches to this employ the adjustments built into Photoshop, but I find something else that is easier to use, more subtle, and more powerful: the $70 Asiva Shift+Gain. This is a product fundamentally different from anything else on the market and fundamentally more useful.
Whenever you edit a photograph, the first thing you need to do is select the pixels you want to change. Often this means complicated masks and careful manipulations of the mouse. The procedures in Photoshop can be anything but simple, even when they happen to be straightforward. Instead, Shift+Gain will "see" and identify the objects that you want to change much as you see them yourself.
If you can see a face or leaves or twigs or hair, then you are seeing areas of a certain range of brightness and colour. This range must be distinct from what’s adjacent, else you would not see the object. If they are different, then the computer can find them automatically and change them.
Incredible as it may seem, the Asiva folks hold a U.S. patent on this idea. Shift+Gain is one of their implementations of this patent. With Shift+Gain you define some arbitrary region of the photo and instruct the program to find and change therein all pixels of an arbitrary range of brightness and colour. If the object you want to change is too variegated to define – well, then you can define the colours of the surrounding objects and tell the program to change all the pixels that it did not find.
Although computers create colours from red, green and blue, and most programs deal with colours as mixtures of red, green and blue, people do not easily conceive of colours this way. It is easier for us to think of colours as having one place on the rainbow, more or less pure or concentrated, and lighter or darker on a continuum between black and white. Those dimensions are hue, saturation and value.
Asiva Shift+Gain lets you think about colours that way. It provides three graphs with hue or saturation or value on the horizontal axis and amount on the vertical axis. You shape a curve on each graph and Shift+Gain selects the colours that fall under those curves. The selection appears immediately. You can work on the whole photo or on regions that you have selected with the marquis or lasso. You can then make changes to your selection’s hue, saturation, value, red, green, blue, or any combination of the six. The changes are in direct proportion to the amounts you specify with your curves (Shift). On top of this, they can be made to increase more when the saturation and/or value is greater (Gain).
This is difficult to understand abstractly, and using the product feels strange at first, but it can make sophisticated transformations trivial. A master painter will model his subject in light and shadow – chiaroscuro – and also in colour. Chiaroscuro and colour are limited on canvas. To add contrast, to define a scene better, a painter will mix the two dimensions by colouring highlights and shadows. Photographs have an even more restricted range of tonality and colour, so mixing the two dimensions becomes even more important in photography, but it is usually difficult. Shift+Gain makes it easy.
Look at the sample picture linked below. I took this snapshot with my point-and-shoot camera on holiday then transformed it with Shift+Gain. This transformation could not have been wrought in Photoshop without a lot of skill, but in Shift+Gain it was simple. The highlights were right but the shadows were too dark, so I tried lightening all the tones that were a little above black. That lightened some shadowed leaves too much, so I played with the saturation curve until things looked right, which turned out to mean lightening only weakly saturated dark tones. This left the shadows fine but the mid-tones were still too dark, so I lightened all of the mid-tones. At this point the tonality was okay but the picture still looked flat. It needed more saturated contrast within the midtones – i.e., brighter colours – so I increased ("shifted") the saturation. That didn’t look good, so I tried increasing the gain of the saturation, making more-saturated colours still more saturated but changing less-saturated colours less. That was the right direction but the colours needed different amounts of this treatment and saturated blues needed to be decreased rather than increased.
Asiva also makes three other plug-ins that offer the same visual method of selecting areas. Correct+Apply Color ($50) replaces one hue with another, or overlays a hue as digital make-up, in both cases maintaining the original saturation and value. Sharpen+Soften ($70) sharpens or softens the selected objects. (Note: do not use Sharpen to sharpen everything. It still isn’t time for that.) Selection ($40) creates a selection in Photoshop for use with other Photoshop tools. All four of those plug-ins are excellent products that are convenient to use and work with alacrity. A $200 bundle includes them all. Asiva also sells a $50 plug-in, the just-released JPEG Deblocker, that is designed to enable Shift+Gain to work properly with JPEGs, if TIFF files are not available. I have not tried it.
Unfortunately, each of these plug-ins requires Photoshop. Asiva does make a stand-alone application – Asiva Photo – that does the job of all four plug-ins, but I cannot recommend it. I find its user interface inflexible and awkward, and it is so slow that on my 800-MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 I need to twiddle my thumbs for 10 to 30 seconds after every click of the mouse.
Photoshop, At Last — Finally we have finished our Asiva detour and are ready for Photoshop. This is the point when you can do almost anything else that you want other than enlargement and sharpening. I usually need to retouch out a few specks of dust but not much more. To remove a lot of dust, you might try a free product from Polaroid, Polaroid Dust & Scratch Removal; it’s available as either a stand-alone program or a Photoshop plug-in.
PhotoZoom and the Finishing Touch — If you want to crop your photo, crop it now and save the cropped file under another name. When you want to make an enlargement, enlarge the file in Shortcut’s $50 PhotoZoom or $130 PhotoZoom Pro to create a new file with the optimal number of pixels for the size of print and the resolution of your printer. By default, both of them sharpen the photo too. This, finally, is the time for sharpening and I have found one of their default settings nearly always to be appropriate, although occasionally I have wanted some of the fine-tuning available in PhotoZoom Pro. These products are significantly better than any other enlarging package for the Mac. I’ve found PhotoZoom Pro 1.0.95 to be buggy, but it makes such superb enlargements that I have not regretted its purchase. Finally, if the enlargement turns out to show too much noise, open the enlarged file in Noise Ninja and optimize it.
With dye-sublimation printers and some inkjet printers, it is possible to send the printer a file prepared in PhotoZoom that defines precisely every pixel that the print-head is to print. On my Olympus dye-sub printer, this technique generates photos that are strikingly sharper than any I get by sending the printer a smaller file and having the system software fill the page. Unfortunately, most inkjet printers do not have a fixed resolution, so the printer’s software has to fudge whatever file you send it. If the printer’s specs show a number of pixels or dots per inch that is somewhere around 300, then it probably has a fixed resolution of that number; if its specs show dots per inch in the thousands, then the number bears no relationship to the resolution you will see. Indeed, in this case the resolution of the print is likely to be undefined and variable.
To understand this, consider a printer that prints 1,440 dots per inch. Each colour of ink is laid down as individual dots and the dots cannot overlap. One dot from each ink required to produce a colour is the number of dots required to form the smallest possible bit of that colour; i.e. a pixel. If different numbers of inks are required to form different colours, the number of dots per pixel will change with the colour. On top of this, the dots are likely not to be laid down in a fixed pattern but scattered about stochastically.
If you are unhappy with your printer’s sharpness, then you might try testing it with files created at different resolutions, to see if one of those files prints better than the others. If it does, then you are likely to get better results by feeding your printer files of that resolution. I made a few test files for this purpose; download them in the Zip archive linked below. These are 1-, 2- and 3-pixel stripes with headers showing different numbers of dots per inch. Print them with Photoshop or GraphicConverter, not Preview, because Preview will change the patterns’ sizes to make them fit the paper. Examine each one to see how smooth the patterns are; if one particular resolution prints better than the others, then scale your photos using that number of dots per inch. However, do consider that what matters is your photographs, not tests. This test can make any printer look bad. If you are satisfied with your printer’s sharpness, there is no point to investigating this particular bit of imprecision. It would be better to let ignorance remain bliss.
On the other hand, for everything else involved in printing colour, ignorance is not bliss. With most aspects of colour, it is useful to know the slop in the system, so that you know when you need to be precise and when there is no point to trying. To this end, my next article will introduce you to the wonders and absurdities of colour and ColorSync. It will show you a few simple things that matter and describe a world of complexities and costs that you can ignore.
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Clipboard History Applications — Readers suggest several utilities that can store more than one chunk of clipboard data at a time and perform various manipulations on the clipboard contents. (4 messages)
Macintosh Version Control Systems — The Mac boasts a few version control systems, such as Perforce, which is also supported by BBEdit. (3 messages)
Wireless iPods — Apple took every Mac wireless long ago; how long will it be before the iPod frees itself of its cables as well? (6 messages)
Address Book Auto-complete Values? Apple’s Address Book features an aggressive auto-complete feature, with no indication of where those values are stored in the event that you want to change them. (4 messages)
More on Apple Remote Desktop — Adam’s review of Apple Remote Desktop 2.0 prompts additional comments and comparisons to other remote-control applications. (8 messages)