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© Vincent Oliver 2005


Don’t De[con]struct It!

How digital cameras and their success change the market for
image processing applications

Article by Dierk Haasis

For more than 10 years Adobe Photoshop has dominated the market. Today it is an all-in-one solution with everything thrown in but the kitchen sink: With the addition of Bridge it offers all a photographer may ever need to manage, correct, composite and process his images. Or does it?

I will not go into a Photoshop-bashing cruise here. Personally I do use it and find it a superb application, just like Corel’s PhotoPaint, PaintShop Pro, or GIMP. The latter three are obviously modeled after Adobe’s flagship, which is why I mention them. While they offer more or less the same as Photoshop they come much cheaper, hence are an interesting alternative when it comes to money. The photographer getting one of these, however, will still use the paradigm developed by Adobe. Not necessarily a good idea.

Although Adobe and Corel put ‘photo’ into their best-known applications they weren’t created for photographers in the first place, they were tools for graphic designers. Only recently the companies added features specifically for photographers – from perspective control and colour correction based upon classical photo filters to RAW converters. Most of the tools are little helpers to change finished photos into something a graphic designer deems his creation. To drive this point home: Graphic designers even use Photoshop to create newspaper ads, magazine titles and Web sites!

Graphic designers and photographers

The main difference between a graphic designer and a photographer is that the former sits in front of an overpriced monitor all day gathering bits and pieces, while the photographer is out hunting. Experience tells me that these characteristics very rarely come together in one person. How many photographers have the ability to sit still for long periods unless they are wilderness specialist?

We want to take pictures not sit in front of a computer. Unfortunately it took the industry very long to cater for us hunters. And why should they have, the films were developed by the laboratory and sent – more or less immediately – to the agency wanting them. The photographer went out to shoot and re-shoot, graphic designers scanned the films, then fiddled so much that the photographer would not recognise his picture anymore. Admittedly this is a bit too grim and shows I have a few years of working with advertising agencies behind me; magazines and newspapers are a bit better.

When the first photographers ventured into digital they went naturally for the industry standard, Adobe Photoshop. Their agencies worked with it, the few computer people they knew worked with it, printing houses worked with it (BTW, the second industry standard was Quark’s XPress for page lay-out). In 1999 Nikon brought the D1 to the market, not the first digital camera but the one taking digital imaging into the mainstream. In the following years the market exploded and today almost every pro-shooter and enthusiast owns a digital camera.

This changed the view of applications and work-flow. Nobody wanted to limit himself to tools created for quite different tasks. So we all started to look for the perfect, or at least suitable, application to work with our photos – from managing, developing, interpreting, correcting to printing. And we found that there is no single solution, contrary to what software companies claim. Combining those solutions and working around the limitations led to the concept of work-flow: how best to handle and process images to achieve consistent results.

Delineating the photographer’s work-flow

Let’s have a look at what we do and see what software we install for that. Regardless of the technology behind the camera we use, we will first take a picture and then bring it into our computer. For most of what we do it doesn’t really matter if we use a Digicam – I define this term as meaning an all-in-one digital compact camera -, a DSLR, a classical film loaded camera in conjunction with a scanner, or even a mobile device with built-in Web cam module.

Our very first thought should be, “how do I keep track of my photos”. Which is what every one of us really thinks, the more pictures and experience the more obvious this thought is. Beginners may not be aware of this idea but they do have it. While it is easy to get a photo onto a hard drive, it is not so easy to consistently follow ones files around. Scanning from film will save the data directly as a TIFF or JPEG in some predefined directory, usually a place called My Pictures on a Windows machine. Microsoft took this disingenuous scheme over from Apple: putting everything in one place and hope or pray nothing earth-shattering will happen to the hard-drive. As a small aside, define your own directory on a separate Work partition preferably on a physically separate hard drive! Thus you avoid any problems your system’s partition may develop; problems which may cost you your precious photos.

For the rest I will concentrate on digital photography, which is the future; many of the problems we encounter here can easily be adapted to scanning, in some cases just more so.

Going forth

What we all need is a simple, quick work-flow from downloading through annotating, processing, annotating to printing or Web publishing. All image processing tools out there promise us less downtime and some actually deliver – in their own small niche.

For many of us the process starts with a raw converter which downloads the file from the camera and allows enough correcting to come up with a publishable image. Raw converters work non-destructively, storing the instructions to process the raw image into a JPG or TIFF file, without the overhead of 1 or more intermediate files – or many Photoshop layers.

If you use, for instance, RAW Shooter|Premium (RSP), it transfers your files onto the computer, creating its own previews during this process. After the transfer start the RSP slideshow, assess the images, correct or throw them away (individually!), rename, copy and move your files. RSP has the added advantage that each sidecar file it creates stays with the original RAW. Except for retouching tools it offers everything you need to correct your photo to get a usable picture.

As much as many RAW converters already offer – RAW Shooter|Premium is only one example, Nikon Capture, Bibble, BreezeBrowser are as capable – they are still missing out on many features photographers need. Interestingly the foremost is not image editing but image management. At the time of writing this I need two programs for management, and two more for correcting and editing: BreezeSystem’s Downloader Pro (DP) offers the most flexible first-step-management solution, iView MediaPro is my catalogue; RAW Shooter|Premium and Photoshop help me bring out the best in my photos.

Alas, they are not too well integrated, which wouldn’t be a problem if manipulation steps in one program would automatically be reflected in the others. Only DP really helps in this respect as it changes names and IPTC-data before any of the other applications come in contact with the files. The logical next step is importing the new photos into the catalogue, get a quick overview, sort, rate and label them, after which they should be handed over to the developing (RAW conversion) stage.

What really happens

You download your images and want the fastest and most accurate preview possible. Since RAW converters are specifically written to handle RAW files they provide exactly that. Instead of using your cataloguing program, which usually relies on so-called SDKs from the camera manufacturer, you open your converter, flip through the images with its slideshow feature, rate and label everything. You may even apply some quick conversion settings just to see what you can do to a problem image. When you are finished, you remember cataloguing.

Importing your files into your catalogue you realise that all your ratings and labels have been lost, so you go ahead and do everything over again, only much slower. You now start annotating – or keywording, adding metadata in IPTC/XMP format – your photos to make it easier for yourself and potential clients to find the right image for later use. During this process you also want to give some or all of your picture files better names, helping you find images on OS-level, and move your files to other locations.

Finishing that task, going back to your RAW converter, realising that you have lost all your previous conversion settings because the sidecar file names do not reflect the picture file names anymore. You have also moved some files, so you now go hunting for those. In the worst of circumstances you now have to switch directories a lot, or make copies of your files into one physical location to access your RAW files.

When you are done with your conversion settings and conversion you have to go back to your catalogue, import the new TIFFs and JPEG's, perhaps rework the metadata … I guess everyone’s had such days condemning his computer just because of this convoluted work-not-flow. Currently you cannot even use your various applications’ versioning meaningfully, Adobe’s VersionCue only works within the Creative Suite, MediaPro’s Version Folder only works within MP, RAW Shooter’s Tabs will only be saved within RS. What’s more, of these only RAW Shooter uses proper non-destructive editing, that is you won’t lose much storage space because only commands are saved for conversion settings, not whole images.

To the rescue

Late in 2005 Apple published Aperture offering an all-in-one package for photographers. For a variety of reasons I will not go into Aperture, but rather concentrate on its direct competitor: Lightroom (LR), developed by Adobe for some time and currently only available as a public beta for Macintosh.

Before going on here is an important disclosure: I am not using an Apple computer or any Macintosh system, hence I am unable to convey practical experience with Lightroom. Everything that follows relies on information published by Adobe, by Adobe associates, by reviewers having hands-on experience, and by following Usenet discussions and podcasts closely. ‘Lightroom’, thus, is used as a shortcut and illustration of the ideas on how a photographer’s tool on the computer should be. Bear also in mind that the end product, which is slated for late 2006, may be quite different in certain areas from what is tested at the moment.

Lightroom is specifically targeted at photographers, breaking with a lot of Photoshop traditions we got used to over the years: It is based upon Adobe Camera RAW and developed around it. Where it is possible with some tricks to work non-destructively in Photoshop, this is the major difference between LR and PS, from the beginning LR is designed to work non-destructively (like ACR) on all image files. Furthermore, Lightroom incorporates database-driven image management, taking it one step further from Bridge, an image browser. The last big difference between old and new concerns available tools, Lightroom has much less than Photoshop, stripping it down to the essentials for image correction.

“It's not about the buttons, bells and whistles, it's about the UI and speed. People don't want to sit in front of TFTs and CRTs, they want to go out and take pictures. Full stop.”

None of the people responsible for Lightroom – developers, photographers, consultants – claim to make Photoshop superfluous, to the contrary they maintain that there are tasks you will need the old hog for, particularly with the first run of Lightroom. Compositing is one area that comes to mind. But most tasks a photographer needs and wants to do are present in the beta already; some tools will surely be added till the first release.

The Four Step Programme

Consider this: A computer is just a tool enabling us to work more efficiently. Any program will have to be geared towards what we humans can understand; most of our evolution was spend on honing us towards our environment. As uncomfortable as it may seem to many people what we have done during the past 10,000 years – our cultural evolution – was adapting our environment to our capabilities. Sometimes this leads to poor solutions bearing more on historical developments than logic. A case in point is the keyboard lay-out of our computers, which was developed for mechanical typewriters which would jam if you typed too fast. Yes, our computer keyboards are designed to slow you down, not for speed.

Many work-flow solutions in the physical world, however, are particularly well suited to our minds and bodies. A good computer program uses these often centuries old habits as a metaphor to ease our life; only rarely do we come upon an application which cannot successfully traced back to a real world example.

Adobe Lightroom accommodates the classical post-shooting work of a photographer by delineating it into four categories:

is the management aspect, sorting, rating, putting away

is the laboratory, the dark room, the wet process

is the first kind of presentation

is the second, often final, kind of presentation

There may be a lot of differences between our non-digital behaviour and the computerised version of photography, the main being that now virtually everyone is able to control the complete process from taking the picture through processing the photo to presenting the image. But the overall course is the same, which is now reflected in some rather new programs.

Non-destructive manipulation

Beside the general design of the new all-in-one-place applications – Aperture and Lightroom – it is the aspect of working non-destructively on our photos making the big difference. Yes, there have been ways to preserve the original, even most of the intermediate steps, when manipulating a picture. It involves lots of discipline and even more storage space. With Photoshop and similar old style editors we had to save what we did often and always with a new name; layers, layer groups, adjustment layers, history palette and snapshots only slightly lightened the burden upon us and our hard drives.

iView MediaPro, Extensis Portfolio and Adobe Creative Suite gave us ‘versioning’, a half-automatic process of saving older versions when working on a picture. It didn’t really change anything as we still had to set up special folders, had to remember special saving shortcuts, and had to provide enough storage space. It took until digital cameras came up with RAW shooting before we saw one of the strengths of computers being made available to photographers: saving not the result but the commands to achieve it.

Curiously the new paradigm has been used in vector-based drawing applications and compression programs for decades. Instead of saving every single pixel they use sophisticated mathematical concepts to describe the limiting factors. A red circle can be described by its circumference and one number for the fill – “draw a line conforming to the formula 2 p r and fill everything in it with red.” Add to that what a compression algorithm does – “111111111011111 is the same as 9 times 1, change to 0, change to 1 five times” – and you have a perfect way to work with photos non-destructively: Look for changes and limiting factors.

While RAW converters still have to put out a file in a standard format for other programs to work with it, a solution like Aperture or Lightroom mostly drops this. You put in your original regardless of the format as long as it can be read and interpreted, process it, the program saves only the changes as commands, present and print it.

Neither Adobe nor Apple were the first to apply this logic to an image processor, as mentioned before, all RAW converters work this way, and if they feature a Web gallery, e-mail or print option you won’t need much else except good image management. It is beyond me why Extensis, iView and Canto haven’t come up with this relatively easy concept before. They had most of the functions now in Lightroom implemented, it was only the last step of non-destructive editing that was missing.

Curiously Mike Chaney of Digital Domain Inc. qimage uses the non-destructive paradigm in his brilliant printing application QImage. Once upon a time he incorporated RAW conversion, too, but decided to take it out (mostly) again when ever more RAW formats hit the market. The only thing missing from his program – but it wasn’t designed to be a one-step solution – was a database-driven image management. He still trumped many competing programs by using the rather old-fashioned idea of a queue, which essentially works like a virtual folder. To print different photos residing in different directories or even drives one just adds them to the queue. Other photo browsers need to print from the original directory, one image at a time (worst case scenario). Luckily other developers took up this virtual folder/queue concept as ‘collections’, some being ingenious enough to utilise the shortcut or alias facility of the OS (BreezeBrowserPro can use Windows’ shortcuts).

The future

I am quite sure we will see lots of programs adapting what Aperture and Lightroom brought us in 2006. This is not just another image processor, this is a whole new paradigm of working with photos on computers. The past decade saw the advent and rise of digital photography, the latter part of that decade focussed on hardware, particularly on the Megapixel Race.

Now the software companies begin to catch up, seeing a new market: Photographers, not graphic designers and tech heads: “Some days back all programmers on the Photoshop team got a digital camera as a bonus for Christmas. Now being photographers they noticed how hard Photoshop is for photographic tasks.” An observation by Mark Hamburg, Kevin Tieskoetter and Jeff Schewe, made in Adobe Lightroom Beta Podcast #.)

© Dierk Haasis 2006


24 April, 2006

© Vincent Oliver 2008 www.photo-i.co.uk
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