Digital Imaging Software for the Not-so-advanced Amateur



Camera Manufacturers algorithms embedded in their digital cameras do a fine job in providing good exposures for a great many occasions. But they do make standardized assumptions about what the "correct" result should be and/or what the majority of users would like to have.

But those most especially precious shots of yours, do they get the full, individual attention they really deserve? Or do the manufacturers' standard menus truly cover your particular subjects and scenes? If not, you should consider giving your best - or otherwise most valuable pictures - the finishing touch in the digital darkroom.

Do you remember - or have you seen - what it took the amateur of not so long ago to optimize his or hers pictures in the days of the wet/chemical darkroom. Enlargers, filters, clocks and timers, lamps, sink and trays, paper, chemicals, thermometers ---- and most of all time !

Today we can have it all in our comfortable studying room at the tips of our fingers; we have no costs on paper and chemicals before we are ready to print that ultimate masterpiece of ours; we can do it in broad daylight - and we don't have to spend a fortune on costly equipment and consumables, (including the film itself).

So, if you like good pictures there is really no excuse. Go get started with some digital imaging. Besides being rewarding in regards of making good pictures excellent, it is also a lot of fun. But one word of warning, though: The more you improve and the more possibilities you discover, the more you will explore and want to try out - so, the digital darkroom hobby may turn out to be quite time consuming after all !

Now, this is not intended to be a digital imaging tutorial - there are so may, so excellent tutorials out here on the internet already. But I would like to point to some basics for you to consider, if you would like to try a bit of image processing yourself. 



However, before we proceed: REMEMBER that your original photo right out of the box is your valuable "digital negative". It may look a little dull; not so snappy in contrast; not so vivid in colour as you would like. But it may contain more useful information than you would know at first sight - and when you start increasing contrast, pushing brightness, sliding colour balance etc. you start discarding some of that information. And that precious information may in a great many instances be irretrievably lost, once you press the save-button. Therefore, keep the original in a safe folder/directory and do your work and experiments on a copy of your original. As you do your experiences and learn, you might want to return to that original more than once!!!




Bundled Software

Most cameras come with some kind of software that can do more than just assist you in downloading your pictures to a computer. A few are just rudimentary viewers but most have capabilities beyond that. Typically they will at the minimum allow for modifications in brightness, contrast, gamma and colour balance. They will also have an "autofix" or "autoenhance" function and possibly some means of sharpening.

If you are new to this game, try playing around with these functions to get an idea what they may do for you: Try increasing gamma on an underexposed (too dark) image and see if you can bring out hidden detail; try if you can make a dull, flat image more vivid by means of contrast and brightness changes.

You will soon discover that small, simple modifications may sometimes (but not always) bring additional life to your photos.


More advanced software packages:

The King of digital imaging software is Photoshop. It is an excellent software suite for the professional/semi-professional/very serious amateur; however, it is quite costly and it also has more functions and options than most amateurs will probably need (or learn) to utilize in a life-time. Less can do for a start and there are smaller yet very efficient siblings in the "photoshop-alike" family. There is also a lot of freeware available and if you cannot find all you need in one package, you may start with building up a small library of software packages, each with its own particular strengths. I started that way and learned a lot until I grew tired of opening and saving images all the time. What you see here on these pages are the results of my work in PhotoImpact 12 and X3 - a software suite that was very modestly priced, yet has so many options available that I am still exploring them after several years.


What is important is that you get a rater graphics (also called bitmap-) editor. That is:Software that

works by manipulating each individual pixel thereby allowing you to do a lot of relevant transform,ations and manipulations such as adding, blending and subtracting layers, creating High Dynamic Range Images and many more. Most pixel-based image editors work using the R(ed)G(reen)B(lue) colur space model, which is also what you would normally want for web-presentations and inkjekt colour printing. Some editors also allow the use of other color models such as the C(yan)M(agenta)Y(ellow)K(ey black) colour space model, which is mostly for professional printing with advanced printers.

Anyway, here are some essentials regarding functions and controls that I recommend that you consider before you start downloading or buy your first software:

(Note on terminology: Each manufacturer uses brand-specific names for certain functions. However, they more or less do the same as described below, and they should be readily identifiable from a study of the product literature for any specific brand)


General- and Auto-functions





At the outset and from thereon after such functions should be treated with the utmost suspicion. They perform a series of operations automatically and quite often either have no effect or degrade the original picture. In my PhotoImpact, Autoenhance and definitely overdo things, while Autocontrast and Autocolour only work to an acceptable degree in a limited number of cases.


One exception is Autolevel and related operations (Stretch and Equalize) that will be dealt with below.


You may give such functions a try, but should not trust that they are the route to rescuing poorly exposed pictures.


Other, Basic Manipulations





Batch processing

For basic editing you will often want to resize your images (i.e.: making smaller or larger in pixels for upload to the web for instance); to compress (to make the file-size smaller - not to be confused with resizing. You degrade the quality of the image a bit and get a smaller file as measure in kB) to crop (for artistic/aestheatic reasons); convert format (for example from BMP to JPEG); convert from colour to grey scale or negative.

More advanced programs will allow you to perform many such and other operations in a Batch process. I.e. the software may do the same (exactly the same) series of manipulations on a whole set of pictures once, you have set-up the routine for a singele picture - a great convenience, once you have learned how to use it!!!





These functions are simple to use and may give a useful hint whether a given picture has room for improvement; however, they should not be used for serious work, as they will mostly result in degraded quality/definition and cplour in some tones in the final. Used with care, they may be useful for giving images a finishing touch when other possibilities have been exhausted.





Levels and Curves are MUST HAVEs for any photographer. They allow you to manipulate the levels (c.f. sections 6. and 7. in the foregoing page) in a much more selective, individual and controlled manner than you can do using Brightness, Contrast or Gamma. There are further pointers ("eyedroppers" in PhotoImpact) that allow you to set the black, grey and white points in an image and thus change the balance of that picture so that the black becomes truly black and the white truly white.

And the Histrograms? They are merely mathematical representations of the distribution of levels so that you can readily see, where an image is imbalanced both in the overall brightness ("Master") and in the individual Red, Green and Blue brightness distributions.

When it comes to special applications such as analogue film duplication - both negative film and slides - or astrophotography, these tools are indispensable.





As mentioned above, Auto-operations should in general be treated with suspicion. However, the three mentioned here can be very helpful tools - at least for a primary assessment of what detail has actually been recorded. Before you venture into individual camera curves and High Definition Images, (next page) they can actually also be used as the tools of choice for salvaging underexposed or low contrast images.


They each work with standardized "assumptions" of what the distribution of levels should be based upon the actual contents of your image. Autolevel and Strech basically make assumptions that fill in gaps of underrepresented areas (the "Input levels" in PhotoImpact) in the Histogram, while Equalize make assumptions regarding the differences in the magnitudes of the levels recorded, (the "Output Levels" in PhotoImpact).


I still use Autolevel quite a lot for pictures that I find to dull or flat.



White Balance To me, this is also a MUST HAVE. Many digital photographers insist that their cameras must have a manual white balance setting in order to make corrections for the colour temperature at the very moment before shooting. To me, it is much more convenient to set the cameras white balance setting to Auto and then concentrate on just shoot-and-shoot. Afterwards, I can then choose the few / best that I want to print or display and make white balance corrections if needed at ease in my digital darkroom.
Colour Cast Rather similar to White Balance this function allows you to correct for an overall tint of your picture by setting a point in the as neutral, (i.e.: a point that you know should be neutral in colour). Again, this is a very useful tool for "difficult" pictures such as negative and slide digital duplication.

Colour Balance,

Colur Adjustment,

Colour Replacement

These are functions that behave very differently. Colour Balance somewhat resembles Colur Cast above in that you may pick one colour, replace it with another and change the whole colour balance of the picture accordingly.

Colour Adjustment allows you to shift each of the primary colours (red, green, blue) individually towards towards their complementary colours and can as such be used for fine-tuning the colours of an image to your personal taste. One should use this with great care: It is an entirely subjective operation based upon the operator's own colour perception (and relying on proper calibration of the monitor as well). There are no fix-points or histograms to guide you here, but it may be the last resort for rescuing images with imbalanced colurs "in more directions".




Copyright 2010 - Steen G. Bruun