April 22, 2001 / Photography / Spring 2001

Riding the Wave

Written by Bob Esler

Digital images are hot commodities in today’s yearbooks

Digital images are a hot commodity today with digital special effects showing up everywhere from magazines to television to movies to the Internet. More and more yearbook staffs are using digital images each year. It is truly the wave of the future in desktop publishing.

There are many reasons for the popularity of digital imaging. Some of the most notable reasons are:
1. Cool graphic effects are relatively easy to create.

2. Digital cameras and scanners are affordable.

3. “Regular” photography is a big pain for most staffs.

4. Professionals are doing it.

5. Digital imaging skills are in demand in the “real world.”

6. It is fun.


The hardware and software needed to create digital special effects is now available to just about everyone, including most high school yearbook staffs. A few years ago, most digital images were created by scanning an existing photo. These days, more people are using digital cameras to create the image. The latest, most affordable digital cameras are capable of producing “yearbook-quality” images as large as six by eight inches. Digital imaging is replacing film and paper photography because it is faster, cheaper in the long run and creates more consistent quality.

In my yearbook advising days, the biggest hassle was the photography. Getting good quality photos out of our darkroom was always problematic and time consuming. We eventually relied less on our own darkroom and more on a local “quickie” photo lab. Our budget for color film and processing grew to about $1,500 per year. At that rate, a good digital camera can pay for itself in a year by eliminating the need for film and processing. Plus, it eliminates those last-minute dashes to Wal-Mart.

The educational and vocational implications of digital imaging are worth considering. With computer skills a given for future jobs and the Internet taking over world commerce, digital imaging will soon be one of the skills demanded by employers. Journalism students have an opportunity to master critical technology that few other high school students will even hear about.

Most students take to digital imaging quickly and enthusiastically. After teaching Photoshop to photography students, few wanted to go back into the darkroom. Many could create wonderful images after just a few hours of training and practice.

But, digital imaging is not without its drawbacks. Some staffs are going digital without proper preparation or even an awareness of what can go wrong. Some are trying to do too much, too soon. Before attempting to go digital in your school:
1. Have the proper equipment.

2. Learn how to use it correctly.

3. Do not attempt to do too much, too soon.

4. Do not expect perfection.

5. Be sure to allocate enough time.

Equipment
The proper equipment is very important. To do digital imaging properly, you will need:
1. A powerful computer.

2. A good monitor.

3. Additional removal storage.

4. A scanner.

5. A digital camera or two.

6. Adobe Photoshop software.


At least one very powerful computer is essential. A laptop is not a good choice for digital imaging because its screen cannot display images as accurately or as a good monitor can. The computer used for digital imaging should be fast, at least 250 MHz. This means at least an iMac or Macintosh G3 or a Pentium III processor.

The computer should have a large hard drive and have at least 64 MB of actual RAM installed, with 96 MB or more a better choice. A 17-inch or larger monitor is preferable to anything smaller. Additional removable storage, such as a Zip or Jaz drive, is also a good idea. A good scanner is another must-have item. Luckily, good scanners are very affordable, in the $100 to $200 price range. Look for a 36 bit, 600 dpi flatbed scanner from Microtek, Hewlett-Packard or Umax.

Digital cameras are considerably more expensive. A digital camera should be able to make digital images that contain at least 1200 by 1600 pixels, often referred to as “2 megapixels.” Cameras with this capability cost from $500 to $1,000. Since new digital cameras are introduced each month that are better and cheaper than ever, it may be wise to go slowly – buy one camera now and wait for a year to purchase an additional camera.

Of course, you will need Adobe Photoshop software to do digital imaging properly. It is expensive, currently costing about $300 for one copy and $1,600 for a 10-user education pack. Only the full edition of Photoshop will work for yearbook staffs. The $95 Photoshop LE (Limited Edition) cannot be used for yearbook digital imaging because it cannot create CMYK images, which are essential. Also, it cannot be used for a raw digital image straight from the camera or scanner. For important technical reasons, yearbook digital images must be run through Photoshop before they are placed on a page. The explanation for this will be explained in future columns.

Training
Schedule at least four hours of training and practice time for each student. For the teaching curriculum, Walsworth’s “Photoshop Primer” is recommended. It contains self-guided tutorials geared for yearbook staffs. For more advanced information, use Adobe’s “Classroom in a Book” or the “Photoshop 5 Bible” publication.

Ease into it
Do not try to do too much in the first year. Definitely do not try to go all digital in the first year, or possibly ever. Time is one reason; others are the need for massive storage space and archiving complexities. A school will need to store and retrieve hundreds of digital images. A system of labeling and storing the many digital images must be created and followed religiously.

These images are very large, more than a megabyte each, and take up lots of storage space. Large photos, such as the dominant photo on each spread, will probably have to be conventional photos since digital cameras cannot produce really large images of sufficient quality. Six-by-eight inches is about the maximum for today’s $1,000 cameras, assuming no cropping of the full frame.

And finally, it makes no sense for a school to scan a perfectly good photograph for use in the yearbook no matter what its size. Walsworth’s scanners are better and the plant is equipped to scan quickly and efficiently. If a photograph has good quality, just put a sticker on its back and send it in.

Limit the scanned digital images to a few montages or special effects or a few photos that need quality improvements. Limit the images from a digital camera to smaller photos.

Do not expect perfection
Digital images are not going to have the quality of a good photograph. The best sub-$1,000 digital camera produces images of lower quality than a typical $300 35 mm SLR camera. Affordable flatbed scanners are not able to produce scans of the quality of Walsworth’s expensive drum scanners. Even more important, there is ample opportunity to mess up a digital image.

The flip side of the creativity and control possible with Photoshop is the chance to turn out a disaster. Especially dangerous is trying to improve the color balance of an image. Quality hinges on the skill of the user, the calibration of the monitor, the ambient lighting, and other factors. One school sent in dozens of digital images one year and was disappointed with their noticeable red hue when printed in the yearbook. It turned out that the Photoshop guy on the school’s yearbook staff was color blind and could not see red hues properly, so adjusted each image incorrectly to compensate.

Do not expect to save time
The iron rule of everything desktop is that it takes more time than expected. Digital imaging takes more staff time overall than conventional photography. Downloading images from camera to computer takes time. Storing and retrieving images takes time. Adjusting images in Photoshop takes time.

So, why is digital imaging so popular? In spite of the cost and the time needed to do it correctly, the payoff is in more control and creativity because digital images can be placed in exact position on a spread and cropped precisely.

Bob Esler