First things first: welcome to my little corner of the Web.
It's a pretty crowded corner, with paper stacks littering every horizontal surface, inkjet print samples from the twentieth century, and partially opened boxes erupting cameras and camcorders. Yes, I'm a pack rat, and yes, Tatiana, who's charged with disposing of all our stray packing peanuts, occasionally injures herself while attempting to reach my garbage basket. But I suspect I have--or will eventually acquire--the answer to any imaging problem I might ever encounter buried somewhere in all this clutter. All I need is sufficient motivation to go digging for it. That's where you come in.
In her Get the Picture column, my codoyenne Aimee Baldridge shares her wisdom regarding every decision up to and including the initial photo or video capture. That's a lot of ground to cover. My responsibility is guiding you through subsequent activities. That's an insane amount of territory to cover. In order to narrow down the field, I'll need your help; I want to know what you don't know and what you want to learn. Are we talking quick fixes for red-eye or going bloodshot poring over details about MPEG-4? I can only cover what interests you if you drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts with us. There's also tons of useful info floating around on the Web if you know where to find it. I'm neither proud nor omniscient; if others have already mapped an area adequately, I'll gladly stay in the tent and send you off in their capable hands.
The 12 steps
If you don't feel like reading my column every other week, consider the following an executive summary of what I expect it to encompass:
- Learn as much as you can. Sure, you can make a DVD or print photos simply by letting the software do all the work. But one of the empowering aspects of digital imaging is your ability to control the results and provide a personal touch. That requires knowledge about the possibilities, impossibilities, and technical hurdles, and it makes you far more self-sufficient at dealing with problems that arise.
- Educate your eyes. The ability to spot artifacts, incorrect colors, poor exposures, and other errors is crucial for proficient imaging. If you can't spot 'em, you can't fix 'em, that is, unless you like to be embarrassed by amateurish-looking Christmas cards and boring vacation videos.
- Buy the right gear. My motto: Never underestimate the importance of a good monitor. Most people don't realize what a difference a decent model makes in everyday use, and it's twice as important when you're trying to retouch or edit images and video. Plus, there are tons of software tools, accessories, and peripherals that can make working in a digital studio far more productive and fun.
- Make the most of what you have. Unless you calibrate and profile your equipment, as well as integrate color matching into everything you do, you'll never get consistently great results, even with the best equipment. Though color matching occasionally--and serendipitously--happens automatically, more often you'll end up with adequate but suboptimal colors.
- Get organized. In this case, I have to echo my mother: Do as I say, not as I do. I may not be organized, but I can tell that I'd be a lot happier and work a lot faster if all my photos and videos were cataloged, if I'd written Photoshop Actions for repetitive tasks, and if I didn't leave my print samples on the floor where I roll over them.
- Plan ahead. Always have at least one intended use in mind when you're shooting, and make your choices based on it. For instance, if you're taking vacation photos, how do you plan to share them? Online only? 4x6 prints? T-shirt transfers? There are few things more frustrating than getting a great shot, only to discover that it looks horrible blown up to an 8x10 because you left the camera on the default compression setting. The corollary to this rule is...
- Supersize it. Of course, you don't always know what you'll be doing with your shots down the road. So the best rule of thumb is to shoot at the highest resolution, lowest noise, and lowest compression rate possible under the circumstances. In the case of video, that means avoiding long-recording modes.
- Bring work flow home. A work flow is simply a consistent, efficient procedure for performing a set of tasks. In imaging, the order in which you perform certain tasks can affect the final quality. So, like learning the hierarchy of poker hands, it pays to follow a consistent path. Plus, developing the habit of performing a few predetermined operations when you open a file helps ease you in slowly to the creative aspects of your task.
- Sweat the details. Fight the urge to do a quick-and-dirty job simply because you can. True, not everyone will notice the ugly hard edge on the photo you've pasted into a backdrop. But wouldn't you like to know it's not there for anyone to spot?
- Archive everything. My hard disk's partition table imploded a few months ago, taking along with it many of my unarchived digital photos. I'm still weeping. 'Nuff said.
- Stop for a reality check. I consider this the troubleshooting equivalent of counting to 10. Things will go wrong, especially if you experiment a lot. The difference between a merely competent troubleshooter and a sane one: the latter, after having exhausted all the reasonable causes, considers the impossible ones. And if those don't work, she goes to bed. No joking--I have had seemingly insoluble problems fix themselves overnight.
- Get creative. These days, everybody and their grandmothers can benefit from the great automatic technology in most cameras and camcorders, as well as software that can turn your images into "art" with one click. Don't you want to stand out? Even if you don't, it takes some creativity to turn unusable photos or videos into usable ones.
Of course, increased creativity requires more learning, which leads us back to step 1. So there you have it--an entire year's worth of columns. If you want the pesky details, such as how to execute these or what products out there can help, you'll have to check back every other week. More importantly, you'll have to ask questions. I look forward to hearing from you.
An educated consumer is our best customer
Aimee and I see boatloads of questions from readers, most of which ask, "Which should I get: model x or model y?" Unfortunately, we don't have time to answer most of them. I'll try to address the most common of your shopping questions in this spot, but for today, I'd like to leave you with a more general word of advice: Trust your own judgment. We can't make the decision for you; we simply give you our advice and opinions, as well as those of other readers, as inputs to help you make an informed choice. Once you've researched and narrowed your alternatives to two or three models, there's rarely a right or wrong answer. Go with your gut. Remember: No one ever died from buying the wrong digital camera.