for the digital and film photographers
by Gary W. Stanley
As you might imagine, photo editors sometimes find themselves swamped with invitations to test new products by photographic marketing people. While this may sound like a lot of fun and a way to get free stuff, there comes with it the responsibility to do a thorough job reviewing a product even though the product may not be of interest to the editor. Keep in mind that we aren't reviewing $10,000 600mm f/4 lenses and new 14 megapixel digital SLRs every month.
Sometimes, it's something as simple as reviewing a new software plug-in from every company who thinks they have found a magical new way of making your editing chores easier. With all due respect, and because I'm more a photographer than a techno-geek, I sometimes find these tests to be a little, well, boring. Sometimes it even takes a little "gentle" persuasion from my editor to get me moving.
Such was the case this past month when Jim asked me to take a look at Kodak's three new plug-ins: Digital ROC Professional, Digital GEM, and Digital SHO Professional These were formerly products from Applied Science Fiction which is now part of Kodak (http://www.asf.com/).
If these sound somewhat familiar it's because Digital ICE, GEM, and ROC plug-ins are found on many of the quality film scanners that we see on the market today.
As luck would have it, I had been frantically trying to get my slides scanned into the computer in order to set up and size images to offer as gallery prints on my website and to use in the seminars I do around the country. This can be a daunting task, so any reasonable shortcuts would be appreciated. Well, I must confess these plug-ins from Kodak couldn't have come at a better time.
Let me explain what these three plug-ins are supposed to do, and let's see if they live up to their billing.
Digital ROC: The Digital ROC Plug-In, for Photoshop and compatible programs, is designed to automatically correct, restore, and balance the color of digital images. The new professional version adds the ability to control image contrast and brightness in addition to color, and it supports the use of 16-bit color images.
How well does it work? Fine for its intended use. I found that it seemed to work best when correcting color balance and lighting inconsistencies common in every day snapshot use, the kind we might take at family gatherings, or when shooting pictures of your children. ROC worked well to balance light in a poorly lit room where there wasn't enough power from your flash to light everyone evenly. Digital ROC also worked well outside to provide front lighting exposure against a backlit subject.
However, much like the Auto Color Balance feature in Photoshop, it works well for average lighting situations but not in those very dramatic lighting situations such as early and late morning light, that we as nature photographers often find ourselves in. The program assumes that you want the image to look like a shot taken in average daylight and that can be a problem with images containing dramatic light such as at sunrise. Digital ROC will also works well when you are trying to restore the original color of old photographs that have either color-shifted or faded.
There are color adjustment slider bars and an adjustment for brightness providedyou're your more difficult color correction problems. For a newcomer lacking Photoshop skills, using Digital ROC could save you a lot of time, especially when you need quick color editing. Holiday photos being an example.
Digital GEM: The DIGITAL GEM Plug-In, for Adobe Photoshop and compatible programs, automatically reduces and manages noise and grain in digital images without causing excessive softening or blurring.
The plug-in "isolates and manages noise/grain in both highlight and shadow areas separately". And I've got to tell you, WOW! Yesterday, I scanned probably fifty of my favorite slides, including some twenty year old Fuji 50 and Kodachrome transparencies. Whenever I felt that the image could use some overall smoothing of obvious grain, this program handled it extremely well. I was equally impressed with GEM when editing my digital images as well.
As with any plug-in of this nature, you do have to exercise a little finesse. You can't just bully your way through the adjustment process and expect great results. Remember, over-adjustments for film grain or digital noise can soften the overall sharpness of the image (it starts to look like you used the Watercolor Filter effect in Photoshop). With GEM, you are able to control and adjust Highlight Noise, Shadow Noise, and Clarity. After I had played around with a few images and got a feel for what each of these settings could do for me, I was off and running. While capture software like those offered by Nikon provide a noise reducing feature both in-camera and afterward in the software, it was nowhere near as flexible and as precise as Digital GEM. It truly is a gem!
Digital SHO Pro: The DIGITAL SHO Professional Plug-In, for Photoshop and compatible programs, automatically reveals image details hidden in shadow areas with the professional version also revealing details from highlights. It is great for fixing common exposure problems caused by backlit subjects, uneven flash illumination and partial shade.
Not only was there digital noise in the shadow areas of one of my favorite scanned images, it was lacking detail in the shadows. If I had tried using the tools I normally use in Photoshop I would probably blow out my sky, losing highlights and rendering it virtually colorless - not to mention how much work would be involved.
I know, I know, there are ways to do it, and I'm familiar with most of them. Yes, using a graduated neutral density filter in the field would help. Yes, I could have exposed two images, one for highlights and one for shadow detail, then combined them after-the-fact in the computer, and on and on. But let's be frank here, for most of us this is not an easy thing to do. Digital SHO Pro does an excellent job for anyone who can stare at a monitor and recognize the difference between the Before and After settings that you have just made.
In Photoshop, I have used the Lasso tool, the Magic Wand tool, Dodge and Burn, all with some measure of success. But Digital SHO Pro is just easier. After adjusting the shadow and highlight details in my images, I might find that I need a little touch-up to reduce any additional grain or noise introduced while adjusting the image. I go back into Digital GEM, make a quick adjustment and then do my final sharpening of the image before saving it. I have one minor complaint with all three of these plug-ins. Why use separate Before and After buttons? I would prefer the ability to simply click a preview box off or on as in Photoshop.
Finally: Everyone may have his or her own method when it comes to making these kinds of adjustments to an image, and that's fine. But why not let someone else figure out shortcuts that can easily match, and possibly exceed your current results with a click of a button? If you edit a lot of images you should give Digital ROC Pro, GEM and SHO Pro a try.
The two plug-ins, ROC Pro and SHO Pro are $99.95 each, and GEM is $79.95 with all three available in trial form ready for you to download.