September 23, 1999 / Fall 1999

Digital Wonder

Written by John Scott

Understanding limitations crucial to succesful digital photography

First, it was the point-and-shoot camera.

Almost every professional school photographer from coast to coast touted this little automatic wonder as the solution for yearbook advisers. Some even added a free point-and-shoot as a signing bonus.

“Just pop in the film, point and shoot. Forget the light meter, forget the focus, this little baby does it all,” was how they were hyped.

And, after a little experimenting and reinforcing that there was still a need for sound composition skills, the point-and-shoot camera found its way into the yearbook work flow.

Next came the auto-focus SLRs from Minolta and the stylish Rebel from Canon.

In the early 1990s, Santa heard quite a few Christmas wishes like the following: “All I want for Christmas is a Rebel like Andre Agassi’s with a bunch of big lenses and a fully-functional TTL flash system.”

And, quickly, the auto-focus camera found its way into the yearbook work flow.

Now there is a new kid on the block the digital camera. And, like all the other innovations of the decade, it will soon find its way into the yearbook work flow.

The best way for a yearbook staff to introduce the digital camera into their work flow is gradually. Doing away with the tried-and-true cameras is not recommended just yet. The move to digital should only supplement an already well-developed photo program; it should not be a replacement.

This past year, our yearbook staff used a Nikon CoolPix 900 digital camera for several candids and for more than 150 quote shots, all of which were in color. The candids were “slow-moving” product shots, ad photos and photo illustrations. The term “slow-moving” is used because there is considerable lag time from when the button is pushed and the actual photo is taken. It is also important to note that the film speed or ISO index of even the best digital cameras is only 100. And, the built-in flash systems of these cameras do what most built-in flash systems do: create hard shadows, wash out flesh tones and create the dreaded “red eye” effect.

Despite all of this, the key limitation of any digital camera is the actual amount of data it is capable of capturing. This data is measured in pixels (pixels per inch or ppi). The higher the ppi of the original image, the higher the image quality. For example, a mega-pixel camera, one that captures an image at a resolution of 1280 by 960 pixels (1,228K pixels) will produce a superb 5.6 X 4.26 inch photo suitable for printing in a yearbook.

Why only 5.6 X 4.26 inches? Because even though the image captured by the digital camera is much larger, it is captured at 72 dots per inch (dpi). The resolution needed to print the image in a yearbook is 225 dpi. In order to achieve this conversion, it is necessary to reduce the file size in order to compress the pixels.

In technical terms, keep in mind that in order to correctly print a photographic image with an offset press (used by publishers) from a PostScript file that was created in PageMaker or QuarkXPress, each photographic image needs to contain at least 225 dpi of data. The resolution factor used for offset printing is measured in lines per inch (lpi); the present standard is 150 lpi. Reams of research data suggest that the best quality factor is a range from 1.5 to 2 dpi per lpi (i.e.: 150 lpi X 1.5 = 225 dpi). To determine the maximum size of a digital image for offset reproduction, simply divide the ppi by 225.

Most digital cameras can save captured images in three different resolutions which are generally referred to as fine, normal and basic. (Note that not all digital cameras are the same. Some may have different or fewer resolution settings.) Typically, these resolutions are structured so that fine is the maximum, normal is 50 percent of fine, and basic is 50 percent of normal. The average mega-pixel camera would save at 1280 X 960 (fine), 640 X 480 (normal), and 320 X 240 (basic).

When it comes to using a digital camera, data rules the details. Photos taken for reproduction should be shot at the highest resolution to ensure that all the information is recorded. If a lower resolution is selected, the camera will arbitrarily throw away data when the photo is taken.

Keeping in mind that data rules the details is even more important when considering color depth. When a resolution lower than fine is used, the camera does not record all the information available, critical details and color information are reduced resulting in a poor quality image.

Do not be fooled by how the images look on the monitor or how it might appear when printed on high gloss paper with an inkjet printer. The image on the monitor is 72 dpi (less- than one third of resolution used for offset)it is also transparent, backlit color, which is not a true representation of how the image will look once it is printed on paper with an offset press. Remember, when it comes to resolution, density equals quality. An image captured at 72 dpi is less dense than one at 225 dpi.

It should be noted that the inkjet printer can produce some beautiful images, complete with stunning color and great detail. However, submitting inkjet prints for publication creates a host of problems and is not recommended.

David Clark, Walsworth’s digital imaging specialist, explained the problems inkjet prints can create.

“Inkjet prints are printed with a fine pattern of dots,” he said. “These dots are too fine to see except with magnification, and that is exactly what our drum scanners do. They magnify this abstract pattern of dots, and the scan comes out with strange colors and artifacts. A partial cure we employ in emergency cases is to blur the image until you can’t see the pattern anymore, but this still results in a blurry image with strange colors.”

Clark also indicated that the inkjet is a great way to proof for content (not color), but if the user is going through all the work to create a great print with an inkjet printer, it is not that much harder to correctly format the Photoshop file for digital submission with the yearbook page file.

Once it is understood that the key limitation to using a digital camera is the reproduction print size, it becomes apparent that a digital camera can be used for a significant number of photos in the average yearbook. If a yearbook has more than six photos per spread, the majority of the photos are well within the maximum reproduction size from any mega-pixel camera, as long as the student photographers are composing their images and filling the frame.

Attention to composition is all the more important when a digital camera is placed in a photographer’s hands, especially in light of the fact that a digital image will maintain its quality if it is used at 100 percent or smaller; images can only be reduced, not enlarged. So, until cameras can capture more data, the key rule to memorize is: “Shoot it right. Shoot it tight!”

To ensure the best results when shooting digital photos for reproduction, it is recommended that staffs purchase large memory cards so that photographers can store more photos at high resolution. A typical 8 MB card, which costs about $60, only allows for the storage of about seven to eight photos at high resolution. In contrast, a 40 MB card allows for the storage of nearly 30 high-resolution images at a cost of about $250. These memory cards are reusable and can be easily removed or replaced in the camera, not much unlike reloading a conventional camera. There are also a number of memory card readers that will connect these cards directly to a computer so that the images can be downloaded almost immediately. Having additional memory cards on hand will allow the camera to stay in use while the photos are downloaded via a card reader.

Shooting with a digital camera is very similar to using an auto-focus point-and-shoot. And, like most point-and-shoots, even the best digital cameras handle backlit situations poorly. They have the tendency to expose for the brightest area of the frame, leaving subjects in the shadows with little image data. With some cameras, the photographer can expose for the shadow area, but the highlight data gets lost and contains little detail information. These cameras work well when the photographer uses another basic photography rule: “Keep the camera between the light source and the subject and keep the sun to your back.”

The quality of light in the digital environment is just as important as it is with conventional film. Open shade will cure a multitude of problems when shooting quote or mugshots. Avoiding high noon or hard shadow situations is also important. The earlier student photographers learn to find the good light, the better. The rich colors that everyone looks to record on film in the early morning and later afternoon hours are just as rich in a digital format; north light is also just as nice in a digital environment.


Timing continues to be everything in photography and a decisive moment is all the more elusive with a digital camera. These cameras force photographers to develop a new sense of timing. Since there is shutter release lag time with many digital cameras, it is best for the photographer to become accustomed to the delay when attempting to capture the peak action of a situation.

For staffs just starting down the digital path, try shooting quote pictures in this format as a first step. Gradually increase digital camera use based on your individual success rate. Our staff used the following approach in our book this year: To avoid confusion, one computer was designated as the storage site for all of our quote photos. The raw files were saved/archived in last name, first initial format. An added benefit of storing files in this format was that staff members could easily determine whether or not a person had been used on an earlier deadline, and thus allow for more students making it into the yearbook.

One final thought: It is extremely vital to clarify the importance of saving a copy of all digital images and only working on the saved copies. Remember, once a digital file is altered, there is no getting it back to its original state. So, be sure everyone on staff knows the rule: save originalsalter copies.

Digital cameras are here to stay. Within the coming months, cameras with higher resolutions will find their way into the marketplace. Three years ago, high-end cameras (units that will accept interchangeable lenses, TTL flashes, and capture at higher ISOs) had an average cost of more than $10,000. Nikon just recently released its D1 model for $4,400. This model will capture a dominant-size image at ISO 1600.

Although that may sound like a lot of money, compare it to what 1,000 rolls of unexposed color film would cost. Once the cost of processing is added, going to high-end digital photography becomes well worth it.

John Scott