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Introduction to Digital Photography

There is still a lot of confusion surrounding digital cameras and digital photography. With all the new cameras and options it just seems to get more confusing instead of clearer. It is easier to approach something if you can take it in small bites. So in an effort to make digital easier to approach and understand I've grouped together everything you need to know to get started in ten easy to understand lessons. 

Lesson 1

Lesson 2 Lesson 3 Lesson 4 Lesson 5
Lesson 6 Lesson 7 Lesson 8 Lesson 9 Lesson 10

Lesson 10: Using Your Digital Camera - Digital Workflow

If you've read the rest of this series, then you know enough to decide whether or not to take the if you're reading this section I'll assume you've done your research and bought a digital camera and all the related accessories you'll need.

The following is the methodology I use and have found works well if followed routinely. The steps include: File Transfer, Image Processing, Image Storage, Digital Negative Storage, Image Backup, and Print Processing.  Taken together these steps are called Digital Workflow. 

This assumes you want to do your own printing and archiving of images. If not the easiest option is to take your camera's memory card to a camera shop, drug store, or even a photo kiosk in the mall and have prints made from your digital images. This is certainly easier for beginners, but there are still a few things you need to know. See the sidebar The Digital Photo Lab  - The Easy Printing Solution below for a complete explanation.

Step One: File Transfer
Getting the images onto your computer has gotten much easier than it once was. The easiest of all is when you can transfer the photos from the camera onto your hard drive through "drive letter" access. In other words treating your camera like a hard drive. 

All cameras provide you with a cable that can be plugged into your USB port. Your camera then appears as a drive in your Windows Explorer window and you can transfer files to your hard drive as you would move any files. There are a couple of problems with this approach. First it's slow, especially with today's big files and memory cards. Many computers, especially if they're a few years old, only have two USB ports on the back of the computer. Other devices may already be plugged into those ports and if your computer is under the desk it's a hassle to pull it out and connect the cable every time.  

USB card readers can be plugged into a USB or Firewire port and left connected. When you want to transfer your images you just plug the card into the reader and the card becomes visible in Windows Explorer as another drive. The problem with card readers is they can be fussy and the drivers they require may create problems with Windows. 

If you have a laptop you can get a PCMCIA (card slot) adapter that allows you to plug your camera's memory card directly into your laptop and read it as another hard drive. This is a nice clean approach, and like the USB cable that comes with your camera requires no additional driver to cause problems with Windows. 

A similar approach can be found on many new computers that include memory card slots for digital cameras built right into the front of the computer. This allows you to treat your camera's memory card like a floppy disk. When you want to download your image you simply slide the memory card into the front of the computer and read it like a disk. 

No matter how you transfer files onto your hard drive, you'll need to initially copy them into a "staging area" where they can be viewed and processed.  In my computer I have a folder called "Digital Photos" and a subfolder under it called "Unprocessed".   I simply copy (not cut) the photos directly from my card into the area called "Unprocessed" where they will wait for me until I begin Step Two.

Step Two: Image Processing.  
Now that you have copied your photos into a staging area (called C:\Digital Photos\Unprocessed\ on my computer), you can begin to evaluate them and decide which ones you want to keep for your photo albums.  

To do this, you'll need some image editing software.  Some version or another most likely came with your camera, but I personally like Microsoft Picture It! for beginners. I believe provides the best balance of tools and ease-of-use for a very modest price ($30 to $50).  

If you want something a little more advanced and powerful, try Adobe's Photoshop Elements or the advanced version of Picture It called Digital Image Pro, or Jasc's Paint Shop Pro. Each lists for around $99, but you can usually get them for significantly less if you watch the sales and rebates.  

When you start most image editors you have the option of previewing a "thumbnail" view of your photos, which is like a gallery of tiny photos so you can see what they look like at a glance. You can use this thumbnail viewer to sort your shots and to get an idea of which of your shots are the best. Starting with Windows ME, Windows Explorer also provides "thumbnail viewing" (but not editing). To see a thumbnail view such as the one below click on the View menu and pick Thumbnail.

Once you've chosen the shots you want to edit and print, your next step is to get rid of the shots you won't be using. You can either move them to your permanent "Digital Negatives" folder or delete them. Leave the ones you're going to edit in the "Unprocessed" folder.  

Once you start the actual editing of photos, it should take place in the following order: Crop, Color Balance, Brightness and Contrast, Resize, and Save As.  You won't necessarily perform all of these actions on every photo.  

Also, please note that I used the phrase "Save As..." instead of "Save".  I recommend keeping two copies of your best images. One an original "digital negative" and one in the form of a "final photo" for printing. That way you can always go back to the original later on if you want. 

Step Three: Image Storage 
As I mentioned in the preceding paragraph I never overwrite my original images. But once you start editing and saving photos you'll need some way to organize and save your images. Personally, I have a directory on my hard drive called "Photos" and subfolders under it named for particular subjects such as "Pets" or events (i.e. "Christmas 1998").  A good friend of mine likes to name his subfolders with a date (such as "2004-12-31" for this Christmas) so he can call up photos based on a given year, month, or day.  The point is there is no right and wrong. Pick out a system that works for you, but if you design a very descriptive and wide structure from the beginning, it will make keeping up with your finished digital photos much easier. After a while you'll be shocked at just how many images you have ! Think of these subfolders as you would individual little photo albums of printed photos, all arranged in the order you want...then name them accordingly.

Step Four Digital Negative Storage 
I have one rule that I adhere to strictly: I never, ever delete any photo that I have shot unless it's an absolute mistake, such as accidentally taking a picture of my foot.  Remember, hard disk storage is cheap, and you never know when you might want to go back and see or use those "bad" shots.  For this reason, I have a directory folder on my hard drive called "Digital Negatives" and under it a subfolder with the model name of my camera, and under that I divide the original "digital negatives" into sets of 100 at a time.  For example, my first 100 shots with my Canon G1 are stored in "C:\Digital Negatives\Canon G1\Set01\" and are named "IMG_0001.JPG" through "IMG_0100.JPG".

When you have finished processing your negatives and have saved them into your "Photos" directory under new names, then you simply do a "Cut and Paste" (a move) on the originals from your staging area (i.e. "Unprocessed") into your "Digital Negatives" folder.  Please...never "throw away" any negative that was not an "accidental"'s just too easy to simply keep them and you'll be surprised later on at what you find in those folders.

One final (and significant to beginners) benefit of saving digital negatives is that if you do a bad job of editing a given photo, you can always go back to the original and do it over again.  If you don't save the original in its original state, you'll never have that safety net. And I can promise you that after a year, when you're better at editing your photos you'll want to go back and re-edit some of your originals.

Step Five Image Backup 
Next, if you're wise, you'll find some systematic way to backup your work, both your digital negatives and your edited photos.  As a beginner, you may find it easy to simply back up the files onto CD-R.  But once you build up many hundreds of megabytes of photos and negatives, you will find it much easier to use a scheduled backup to an external hard disk.  I use two Iomega 80Gb USB2 hard drives with Handy Backup software, which runs each night and completely backs up my system, and I rotate the drives to my office each Monday in case of fire.  This may sound like overkill, but I've invested a tremendous amount of time and effort in my photos, and I cannot afford to lose will soon feel the same way.

Step Six Print Processing 
I've covered this in detail in the section Getting Glossy 4x6 Digital Prints, but I'll leave you with one more thought on workflow here. If you're using more than one printing method, say your own inkjet and printing at a camera shop, you may notice that your prints look a bit different depending on who's doing the printing. To get exactly what you're after in your prints you may find that making subtle (or not so subtle) changes to the image are necessary depending on who's doing the printing. If I'm making these kinds of changes I save the file with a name that indicates which printer the image is intended for such as KidsAtBeach_MyPrinter.jpg and KidsAtBeach_Lab.jpg so I can keep straight which is which.

This may seem like a tedious process, but it's mostly habit, and if you stick with it there will be long-term rewards.  Just remember to keep your file structure descriptive, save your negatives, and backup your work.

The Digital Photo Lab - The Easy Printing Solution

It's truly amazing how many places now advertise "Digital Printing". But just what is digital printing and are the results better in some places than others. 

Drug Stores and Super Markets. The digital printing offered at these locations is done with an automated machine. In most cases there are no human eyes looking at your prints to determine if the colors and exposure look correct. Today's printing machines are quite sophisticated and are capable of making quite a few adjustments automatically but they're not perfect. More importantly, since there is no one checking the print quality (in most cases), problems with the machine or prints may go undetected until you get your prints home. 

The advantage? Cost. These machines and photo kiosks will be your least expensive option for prints.

Photo Kiosks. These are becoming more common. Essentially they are the same automated machines used to process your prints in drug stores and super markets, but they allow you to interact with them in producing prints using a touch screen. You can choose what photos to print, what size you want each print to be, and even apply special filters such as red eye removal and exposure adjustments to images that don't look quite right. Payment is either done through the machine via credit/debit card or a receipt is printed that you take to a check-out clerk.

Camera Shops. Most good camera shops also have a photo lab and a staff of technicians whose job it is to process and print your photos. Every print is looked at by a technician who can make adjustments to make your prints look ideal. They'll pick up and remove red eye, and adjust exposure without your ever having to worry about it. 

The downside? Cost. This personal attention costs more and the quality of technicians can vary from store to store. If you're really fussy you'll even notice a difference between employees as to who processed your prints. But if you're willing to spend a little more and don't want to hassle of doing your own printing a good lab in a good camera shop is still the best option. 

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