Recently, it hit me. We are well into a new golden age of photography. With across-the-board improvements in innovative technologies, equipment costs, ease of use, and image quality, photographers can now choose from an amazing range of possibilities to be creative and share their work.
Not long ago, advances in digital imaging technology were uneven. Some tools worked as promised; others didn’t. Or, an advance in one phase of the capture-to-print process would outpace progress in another phase, creating partial or complete mismatches in capability and compatibility. For example, each increase in digital-capture resolution required subsequent improvements in computing power, storage, processing and archiving. Before adopting any new technology, you really had to stop and ask yourself: What new headache might this “solution” introduce elsewhere in my workflow?
Not any more.
The new and updated digital imaging products released over the past 9-12 months are dramatically superior in terms of ease of use, automation that really works, production values, and image quality.
Now, cameras, software, and printers really deliver on the promises of digital imaging. We can capture, process, and print our images at quality levels that were previously difficult or impossible to achieve. And we can do so at much lower costs in time and materials. (These days the only time you might need to worry about workflow implications is immediately after a new operating system is introduced.)
Manufacturers seem particularly intent on improving the ease-of-use of their products.
For example, I recently captured a panorama of a mountain scene in Central California. I shot eight frames, using a Hasselblad H-series camera with a digital back, a 100mm lens, and a simple panorama bracket from Really Right Stuff. The final image printed quite easily at 100 x 25 inches on the HP Designjet Z3100, a 12-ink, archival-quality printer.
The quality of my large-format panoramic print is among the best I have ever seen. The color is superb and image has remarkable detail and clarity. Yet, the amount of time I spent producing this print was about 75% less than it would have taken in the past.
Originally, I shot ten frames. All the frames were captured using manual exposure, and the frames overlapped by about 20%. I loaded all ten frames onto my Macbook Pro and used Adobe Camera RAW to process eight of the frames. I used identical, minor adjustments for exposure and made only slight color adjustments to each frame.
After saving the eight files to disk as 16-bit TIFFs, I used the Photomerge utility in Photoshop CS3 to merge the frames into a single panorama shot. (The CS3 version of Photomerge is a head-and-shoulders improvement over previous versions.) Once the panorama was assembled, I made some basic adjustments to prepare the image for printing.
Without any upsizing, the image dimensions were 100 x 25 inches at 300 ppi. Although you obviously won’t be able to see it as clearly on this web version, the actual print shows incredible detail. You can see every blade of grass, pine needle, and ripple in the water. The shadow and highlight detail are also amazing. (Figures 1 and 2)
Note that I didn’t feel the need to make a proof of the complete image before I output the final print. Considering the combined capabilities of the camera and lens, the digital back, the processing software, and the printer, I was confident that the end product would be good.
But I did want to preview how some of the detail would be rendered in high-contrast areas of the image. So I simply printed two 8 x 10 sections of the image to scale of the final print.
In the past, I sometimes felt that the camera could capture better images than the printer could render, or vice-versa. Or, I wasn’t always sure that the processing software was capable of getting the job done. Occasionally when I came up with an idea for an image, I could usually figure out how to create it, but only after spending a lot of time in research and production.
Now, it is easier than ever to link capture, processing, and printing to achieve excellent image quality. All of the components of a capture-to-print workflow can easily be locked down for consistent quality and efficient production.
For the first time since the dawn of digital photography, we have a complete set of digital tools that really deliver consistently high quality at reasonable cost. It has become increasingly easy to create beautiful images that we can really be proud of.