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Quality control

Summer, such as it was, is now all but a memory. But in all likelihood you've a PC or a media card filled with images of how you filled your days. Whether those pictures end up being treasured memories you return to time and again or simply sit in a corner of your PC gathering dust depends on several factors.

A great photo isn't just down to careful composition, the right amount of light and an interesting subject. We all take snaps that capture a moment but aren't in themselves accomplished images. This is where image-editing software comes in. As well as tweaking defects it can transform a photo you may otherwise discard.

Even if you're happy with the photos you've taken, most will benefit from a little retouching and rebalancing before you send them to print. In the next few pages we'll look at how to take more interesting snaps, edit them on your PC and prepare them for print -- both at home and at a photo lab. And since you won't always want to fork out, we've a rundown of the free photo editors in this article.

Love that label

Before you begin editing photos, it's useful to rename them for archiving. If your photo editor has a batch-processing feature you'll be able to change all your files in a trice. This means that rather than having to overwrite each file name to, say, 'Florida' followed by the image number, you can apply the Florida tag to the whole folder and let the software do the rest.

Programs such as Adobe Photoshop Starter Album and Paint Shop Pro have this capability, as well as advanced tagging and searching that make it easy to locate images.

To manually rename files, click once on the first file's name, overwrite the existing info except for the last couple of digits. Click on the renamed file again, highlight the name (but not the number) and press Ctrl C. Now, on each successive file name, press Ctrl V to paste in the file name,

Format that

The format in which you edit your photos may not be the one in which you end up saving your final image to in order to print it. Ideally, you'll want to be working in a lossless file format so there's as little degradation as possible -- both Jpeg and Tiff can be compressed to varying amounts, but it's also possible to specify an uncompressed version of Tiff.

Similarly, if your camera supports RAW, you can set it to take snaps in this format. It requires appreciably more memory than the Jpegs you'd usually save to, but has the advantage of preserving all the detail the camera's CCD (charge-coupled device) captured in the first place.

Not all photo editors are able to read RAW files, though, so check the supported formats for your software or you'll end up with unusable photos or having to fork out for a different photo editor.

Another useful camera feature that can ensure you end up with better prints is Exif. Exif stores information about the camera setup and the conditions when you took each snap.

It then uses this to optimize your print settings.

Again, not every photo editor supports Exif, so check.

As soon as you import a photo into your image editor, save a copy that you can work on so you don't lose the original. Remember to specify a lossless format if possible -- otherwise, as successive edits are performed the image will have less and less detail.

Although programs such as StudioLine 2.10 are able to get around this by always referring back to the original image, we recommend you work in an uncompressed -- or lightly compressed -- format.

When you're ready to print, you'll probably find Jpeg most suitable. Pretty much any printer will read this format -- but, again, use as little compression as possible. If you've been working on your image in uncompressed Tiff or RAW format, save a version for print if you're going to downgrade it to Jpeg.

Turn, turn, turn

One of the simplest ways to improve the look of a photo is to rotate it. Remember back to art and technical drawing classes at school where you were taught that uprights have to be truly vertical in order for the perspective to make sense? Exactly the same principle applies to photos.

If your image editor has a View, Guides option turn on this feature. Now use the Edit, Rotate, Free Rotate option in your photo editor to make walls rise exactly on the perpendicular from the ground.

You may need to turn the image through single degrees to line it up properly. Alternatively, select the whole image -- this is Ctrl A in most programs -- and use drag handles to align the image.

Or you could try Picasa 2.0, which auto-aligns images for you.

Keep in trim

Whether it's down to operator incompetence, the subject moving at the last moment or a slight discrepancy between what's framed in the viewfinder and what the camera CCD actually captures, you'll often find that shaving off one or more edge of the image can make it appear more balanced.

It's also usually the case that cropping in tightly to a subject can give it more impact. And you can make a photo more striking by cropping the image so that the subject is off to one side rather than slap-bang in the middle.

In fact, the latest version of Microsoft Digital Imaging Suite, reviewed on page 67, has an Intuitive Cropping Tool that ensures you get the best edit.

Stay sharp

Use your software's sharpen tools to make the photo look crisp and fresh. By selecting particular areas of the image and applying the sharpen effect to these alone, you can add impact and emphasize your subject.

And for more depth as well as to emphasize one area of an image over another, you can soften or slightly blur the surroundings to throw the subject into relief.

To do this, trace around the subject you want to remain prominent. Some software is able to automatically detect the edges of people and other objects, although it is generally better to do this manually. To create a mask, select Inverse to make the background the bit that will be altered, then choose the option to blur or soften it. Alternatively, you can alter the amount of contrast or reduce the brightness of the background to make a subject stand out.

Ol' blue eyes is back

Rid your photos of unsightly red-eye and they'll look loads better. You'll find a tool specially for this task in any photo editor, but not necessarily in a graphics-focused package such as Acrylic. Select the Red-eye tool, drag across the eye that needs sorting and hit the Apply button. The software should distinguish between the pupil and iris and apply the red-eye reduction in the right place.

Get the balance right

Another way to get better photos is to experiment with brightness and contrast. The human eye distinguishes between objects, colors, textures and distances much better than a mere camera lens is able to do. So if your snaps are too dark, overexposed or otherwise off-kilter, root out the image-adjustment tools.

Depending on how strongly you apply some of these tools, such as hue and saturation sliders, you may end up with a photo drained of all color info. Although this can make for an interesting effect, you'll get a richer feel by using the mono or sepia options, if your photo app has one. Some digital cameras have built-in software filters that can create sepia and similar effects but, for our money, taking a full color shot and then removing the color on a separate copy of the image is a better bet.

That way you keep your options open.

Make a resolution

Digital cameras -- and even camera phones -- are now able to capture an incredible amount of detail. When it comes to printing your photos, you need to know how your megapixels translate into picture size.

The number of pixels needed per square inch depends on the mode of printing you choose. Basic cameras offering only 1Mp or 2Mp will be fine for 6x4 inch or 7x5 inch prints. To generate an 8x10 inch print worth framing, you'll need a resolution of at least 3Mp. If you're after photo prints that are A4 or larger you'll need 5Mp resolution.

To check how large a print you can reasonably produce, locate the image information dialog in your editing software. Change the resolution to 150dpi (dots per inch) and the overall dimensions

will change, giving you an idea of a suitable print size.

This resolution setting will be suitable for outputting your photos on an inkjet or direct photo printer as well as for sending away to an online photo lab. You only really need higher resolutions than

this for professional printing.

Taking travel pics

When taking travel photos try to avoid typical postcard shots. You really don't want to end up with the same photos that everyone else has already taken, so try and find new ways to shoot well-known scenery and popular tourist attractions.

You can still capture the essence of whatever locale you're in. Paris, for instance, is virtually defined by the Eiffel Tower. But rather than shooting it from the courtyard along with everyone else, try capturing the tower from more distant neighborhoods.

Or consider the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. A picture of the Grateful Dead house or some of the more famous storefronts would immediately identify the city, but when you get right down to it, what says Haight Ashbury better than the actual street sign?

Shoot some panoramas

Take a few panoramic shots of interesting vistas when you're out on the road. These can be stitched together -- but ensure you retain the originals. It's all very well creating a relatively low resolution wide-format picture of your family crossing the road in front of Abbey Road studios but there may come a time when you want part of the montage rather than the assembled panorama.

Weave people into your picture

It can be tempting to capture famous landmarks and beautiful scenery without any people marring the scene. Likewise, you might want to take pictures of your friends and family in front of those same locations -- the classic 'I was here' photo.

A more subtle approach is to weave people into your photos less obtrusively as if you were

telling a story or capturing a scene from a film.

Rather than getting your other half to pose in front of that famous monument, take a snap of him or her looking at it and make them integral to the image rather than being removed from the subject.

Stitched up

Cameras such as HP's latest Photosmart compact models make it easy to take a series of snaps as a panorama that can then be made into a montage for printing or other form of display. But once they're on your PC, how on earth do you go about matching them up and readying the resulting image for printing?

To create your panorama, open up the individual image files, create a new, larger blank document and paste each overlapping image into place on a separate layer using the software's drag handles and arrow keys to position each section. As with the alignment tip earlier on, you'll probably need to turn on the guides in your image editor to give yourself a fighting chance.

Alternatively, there may be a panorama creator included with your photo editor -- or even your camera. For example, Canon includes a panorama maker with its snappers while some HP Photosmarts have a built-in horizon capture function that does a similar thing.

If wide-format imagery is the sort of creativity that appeals, check out Autostitch, Panorama Maker (www.arcsoft.com/en/products/panoramamaker) or Panostitcher (www.pixtra.com/Downloads/PanoStitcher_download.htm). Photo-sharing enthusiasts may be interested to learn that the Flickr photo blog site comes with built-in Autostitch tagging. Simply go to www.flickr.com/photos/tags/autostitch.

Preparing your pics for online printing and sharing

If, rather than printing your photos yourself, you're going to use an online service, you'll want to be as sure as you can be that your photos are going to look good when printed. After all, you're paying for it. Similarly, you need to get them into decent shape if you want to post them online so your friends can have a gander.

Here's what you need to do to ready your photos for the world:

The name game Overwrite the photo file names so that, rather than a string of numbers.jpg, they've got meaningful titles that will jog your memory about the subject. As well as helping you organize your snaps, you'll be far more popular when friends come to view and download your pics. Plus, most photo print services label your snaps with the file name, on the back -- another useful memory jogger.

It's a fix Edit your photos as described in the main part of this feature before you upload them as the tools built in to the online photo labs aren't as capable.

Load 'er up Upload your snaps to a photo album, give it a memorable name and specify whether it's to be a public or private album. Some online sites let you send invitations to specific people who can then view, download and order prints. On other sites you can simply order prints.

Size matters Having checked the maximum print size you can reasonably expect given the amount of detail in your photo, select a suitable size print and specify a finish. Depending on the exact dimensions of your edited photo, you may need to crop it to ensure it fits the photo-paper dimensions.

Top 10 free image editors

Photo and image editors vary wildly in price and capabilities. Just because your photo app can't do everything, it doesn't necessarily mean you need to slap down some cash and replace it with another. There are plenty of free image editors out there that may provide that extra something your existing software just can't.

Here's a quick rundown:

Microsoft Paint

You probably don't need to do a thing to get your hands on this free photo editor. Why? Because it's included as part of Windows. If you've yet to discover it, go to Start, Programs, Accessories and you'll see it listed there.

While Paint doesn't offer anything like the number of features of some of the others listed here, it's useful for simple edits such as cropping and artifact removal, applying colors and other effects.

Good for: useful built-in Windows app to have if you need to perform simple fixes and have nothing else to hand

Available from: included in Windows

Google Picasa 2.0

Available as a standalone app this free program archives each and every image file on your hard drive, sorts them by date and organizes them into folders. It then offers large thumbnail views of each and has some extremely capable auto-editing tools. It even integrates with the Photobox online printing and sharing website (www.photobox.co.uk).

Good for: organizing and quickly fixing up your snaps

Available from: www.picasa.com

Adobe Photoshop Starter Album

Batch process pictures for easy renaming and use the enhanced keyword search to sort by subject, title, date taken, dimensions and more.

Good for: organizing your snaps

Available from: www.adobe.com

Ultimate Paint

Ideal if you want to perform some fairly drastic surgery on your photos and turn them into something altogether more artistic. You get a generous number of toolbox options, brushes and filters -

with plenty of control over how strongly each is applied

Good for: creative takes on your original snaps, photo-painting, good editing options so you can ready your images for print

Available from: www.ultimatepaint.com

The Gimp

An open-source image editor that's freely available to all and is maintained and updated by users. Not as intuitive as some more recognizably Windows-centric editors but it's easy enough to get to grips with and its range of tools ensures perseverance pays off.

Good for: a free editor that won't nag you to upgrade to a paid-for version, offers multi-layer support, several color models and has just as many toolbox options as the other editors listed here

Available from: www.gimp.org

Pixia

Don't be put off by the garish color palettes and sheer number of options; Pixia is a great little photo editor. And, although not as capable at auto-fixing your less-than-stellar snaps, it's got a comprehensive toolbox that you can spend hours investigating and use for manually editing your images.

Good for: manual photo adjustments; those who need more control over their photos and don't like quick fix functions

Available from: http://park18.wakwak.com/~pixia

Microsoft Acrylic

Unlikely to remain free, Microsoft Acrylic is currently in beta and available as a download until 3 October. A hybrid photo editor and illustration tool, it offers both vector and bitmap-based editing

Good for: excellent auto-contrast adjustment tools

Available from: www.microsoft.com

IrfanView

Batch-process your files, create slide shows, work with photos that contain Exif data to ensure your printer has the optimal settings and your prints shine.

Good for: archiving and editing your photos in a range of file formats and readying them for print

Available from: www.irfanview.com

Serif PhotoPlus 6.0

If you don't need all the features in Serif's PhotoPlus 10.0, you can pick up version 6.0 for nothing. It will let you enhance images, adjust brightness and contrast and even remove red-eye. It includes advanced creative tools, a utility to optimize photos before export and support for image effects and plug-ins.

Good for: touching up and correcting images and experimenting with more advanced tools

Available from: www.freeserifsoftware.com

Vicman Mobile Phone Enhancer

Although camera phone resolutions are on the up, it can be tricky to take a sharp image on a mobile handset. Coloring is often way off and you really need supplementary lighting for many shots. Mobile Phone Enhancer seeks to rescue snaps that capture a moment but haven't done so all that brilliantly. Take a look at www.vicman.net/mobilephotoenhancer -- you'll need to fork out US$30 if you decide it's for you.

Good for: tinkering with your grainy mobile snaps and making them that wee bit sharper and less discolored

Available from: www.vicman.net

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