Digital Photography 101, Part 2

File Formats, PhotoShop Elements and Epson Printers

All of the pictures in this article were taken in Mt Rainier National Park in Washington. To see these pictures in larger sizes plus many more pictures of Rainier National Park, click here.

In Part I of Digital Photography 101, we looked at setting the shooting modes correctly. In Part II, we will discuss choosing the proper file format for your digital camera. This sounds a bit technical and complex but it is actually very simple. Once you understand the basics, you can set the proper file format in a few seconds or easily change it when your photographic goals change. Even though setting the file format is very simple, it is also very important. If you make the wrong choices in your original settings, you will have to live with the pictures you take with these settings forever. If you're like me, you will resurrect a picture you shot five years ago which is a terrific shot and exactly what you need for the present project but it is totally unusable because the wrong file format was used. As a matter of fact, this holds true of all your original settings choices, not just the ones discussed in this part of the Settings Article: once you shoot a picture using these settings, you can't go back and change it later.

Like the first article in this series, this essay contains a bit more than just choosing the proper file format for your digital camera, it is also an introduction to digital imaging programs and printers.

The basic file formats for digital cameras are TIFF, JPG and RAW. Different cameras vary a bit in which buttons to use to set the file format, but a little research in your camera manual usually makes it simple.

I would not use TIFF file format. TIFF files are either so small they are useless or if they are large enough, they are so slow they will bog your camera down to the speed of an ant stuck in molasses; you may have to wait 30 seconds or a minute or even more between shots, depending on the speed and buffer size of your camera. Waiting this long between shots is pretty worthless. Don't use TIFF files. TIFFs are high quality images when they are in large sizes, but when they are large they are very slow. There are much better ways to get both high speed and high quality images.

JPGs (pronounced J-Pegs) are probably the best file type for everyday shooting. These are compressed files. All compressed files are lossy files, i.e. the compression causes them to lose a little bit of image quality. However, JPG compression is so good that you loose very, very little quality; what you lose is invisible to the naked eye as long as you don't save the JPG files multiple times. Thus, you should not save JPGs over and over in your computer. After you get the JPG file into your computer, open it once and then save it as a TIFF file. Your computer is a much larger and faster digital device than your camera, and large tiff files will be plenty fast in your computer.

So, choose JPG file format for general shooting. They will give you very fast, very high quality pictures for everything from landscapes to family pictures to travel shots. I use the JPG setting for all of my family photography and in fact for everything except my professional landscape photography where I often enlarge digital files to 40 inch x 50 inch size prints and where I want to get every last ounce of quality I can from every digital file.

A couple of paragraphs ago I mentioned saving JPG files as TIFFs once you have them in the computer. To do this conveniently, you need a good digital imaging program. So, let me briefly introduce the subject of digital imaging programs. These are computer programs that you use to do things like changing from one film format to another, editing your images for size, color balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness and many, many other things. If you are ever going to be a serious or even a good digital photographer you must have a digital imaging program. The grand-daddy of all imaging programs is of course Adobe Photoshop. The full version of Photoshop is a huge, professional program that is very, very deep and very, very expensive, about $700.00 now-a-days. Even professional photographers seldom learn it all or use more than a small percentage of it.

Don't despair though, Adobe makes a smaller, less expensive version called Photoshop Elements for $99.00. If you are not a professional photographer, Elements will work just fine for you. If you are serious about making and printing good pictures, the full Photoshop is an absolute essential. If you just want to go to WalMart and have them print your pictures as 5x7s I would skip Photoshop. (At WalMart, you put your camera card in their computer, make a few basic image choices and they do all the rest. )

However, if you love photography and want to spend a little time learning to edit pictures, and want to print some absolutely mouth-watering, gorgeous prints, buy the full Photoshop. As I have mentioned many times in my photography articles, one of the real keys to great photography is to print your own pictures and in digital photography, PhotoShop is the key to printing.

One more aside before getting back to digital camera setup. Now that you have Photoshop Elements or the full photoshop, you might as well get a good printer to print your pictures with. Again, if all you want is a bunch of 5x7's that are basically OK, go to WalMart. But if you want serious, quality pictures you can be proud of in large, frame-able sizes you need your own printer. Digital printers can cost anywhere from $100.00 to $500,000.00. However, if you are just getting started, I would buy a lower priced Epson printer.

All of the Epson photographic printers are quite good; these printers are called Epson Stylus Photo Printers or Epson Stylus Pro Printers. Over the last ten years I have owned six Epson printers, both stylus and pro, and I thought all of them were wonderful. My latest Epson is a 44 inch wide professional behemoth that I am madly in love with. The lower end printers start at about $150.00 to $200.00 and even these cheaper printers are quite good. I bought the $150.00 version for one of my sons a four or five of years ago and it makes prints just as good as my $6000.00 printer except in smaller sizes. I'm not sure if they make printers quite this inexpensively now, but I'm sure they make a very good one at a very affordable price.

If you seriously want to make great photographs and want to invest a little time and money, buy the best Epson printer that your budget will allow and you will be all set up to make some really great pictures. Epson has recently come out with a new printer, the R2400 which looks very good. The 3800 and the 4800 printers are also very good printers for a little more money. I have an Epson 7800 and and Epson 9800 which will print pictures 24 inches and 44 inches wide respectively. Be sure that you get a printer with the new UltraChrome K3 pigmented inks. These inks do a wonderful job and will last for 65 years to 200 years, depending on the paper, without fading or discoloring.

When I have time I will write a series of articles about using Adobe Photoshop and printing with Epson Printers. Both can be a little confusing at first but with a little key information anyone can be making professional level pictures very quickly. I can't teach you all of Photoshop, all I can do is give you a tiny little bit of an introduction to this very deep subject. However, if you know nothing about Photoshop, even this little bit will enable you to improve your pictures hugely.

If you really want to learn photoshop, you need to buy some good books and start studying. I use Martin Evening's books titled "Adobe Photoshop for Photographers." Martin puts out a new book every time a new version of Photoshop comes out which is about every two years. So far I've got four volumes of the book, each about 600 pages long. Needless to say, I am way behind in studying these books. Don't panic though, you don't need to read nearly all of this material. A lot of what he writes about is more for very specialized types of photography.

Back to camera setup and choosing the best file format. We have already discussed TIFF and JPG file formats. The other popular file format included in almost all digital cameras is RAW Format. Unfortunately, some of the less expensive cameras don't offer RAW, so, this might be something to consider when you buy a digital camera. Personally, I would spend a little extra money to get a camera that allows you to shoot in RAW format; you may not use it at first, but after you get a little experience under your belt, you may want to have this option.

RAW format is for the more experienced photographer who owns an imaging program such as Photoshop Elements and an Epson printer and who wants to get everything out of his pictures that he possibly can. Pictures taken in RAW format are just that, raw files. The camera doesn't process the file in any way except for white balance (more on this later); it contains just the original information as it came off the CCD. There is no sharpening, no added saturation (what the beginning photographer usually calls enhancement), no contrast, no noise reduction, no compression, no nothing. It is just raw data.

There are several advantages to shooting RAW files that have no in-camera processing. For one thing the file is usually quite small and fast but of very high quality. Another advantage is that you, the photographer can do any editing that is needed in the computer and produce exactly the finished picture you want. These edits can be performed much better using Photoshop in your powerful computer than they can be done automatiacally in your tiny digital camera. The contrast, saturation, and sharpening added by most digital cameras can actually be very destructive to pictures. Sharpening can be particularly bad. In-camera sharpening that looks really good in a 5x7 print will be absolutely hideous in a 16x20 enlargement: small detail will be completely missing, medium detail will be harsh, nasty digital noise will be added and the picture will be ruined for even medium size enlargements. And these problems are unfixable once you shoot the picture; they are part of the picture forever. When you shoot in raw format, you, not the camera edits the picture to get the exact finished product you want. The final picture will generally be of far higher image quality.

One word of caution about shooting in RAW. Don't shoot in RAW unless you are set up to edit your pictures in a computer using Photoshop or another good imaging program. RAW pictures right out of the camera will look flat, not very colorful and not terribly sharp. This is because they are completely unedited. You have to edit them yourself in a computer.

There is one other consideration in shooting RAW format: your photographs will not open directly in your computer unless you open them in a special program designed to open RAW Files. For this you will need Photoshop or other programs that are made by camera companies like Nikon and Canon and Olympus. The Photoshop program, which is called Camera RAW, is in my opinion the best. This program is built into both the Full Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

When your files open in Camera Raw, you can edit them in several special, lossless ways not available in regular PhotoShop editing. For instance, if you have under or overexposed a shot, Camera RAW can losslessly correct the exposure by one and sometimes even two stops in either direction. Without Camera RAW, this lossless editing is impossible. Camera RAW can also losslessly correct the color and automatically achieve the perfect color balance in a picture, and believe me, this is a huge advantage. There are many other wonderful edits that you can do in Camera RAW but all this is the subject for a separate article which I will get to one of these days. In the meantime, just keep it in the back of your mind, that the ability to shoot in Raw Mode opens up huge new opportunities that have never been available to photographers before. As a serious photographer, it is something you will someday want to do.

So, for everyday shooting, choose JPG file format and if you are serious about photography and are willing to spend the time and money to buy an imaging program like Photoshop and a decent digital printer, you should seriously consider shooting in RAW Format. It requires an investment in equipment and time, but it can also have great benefits.

Go to part 3 of the Digital Photography 101 series