I got started with digital photography in January 1999, with the purchase of a Hewlett-Packard Photosmart scanner, a SCSI card, Windows 95*, and Jasc Paint Shop Pro 5 image editing software. This Web site first “went live” on 18 April 1999, with 97 pictures. Since then, that collection has grown to 1,982 pictures (as of 18 April 2016). Although those first efforts at turning my negatives and slides into digital images seemed good at the time, I have gradually been replacing them with better versions as I’ve upgraded my hardware, software, and skills.
In the much-reduced JPEG images on this Web site, the differences between the original and improved versions are often subtle, even when the improvement is dramatic when viewed at full resolution or printed. But with some of them, the difference is visible and instructive. Here are side-by-side comparisons and discussion of eight pictures I’ve updated.
Note: The new versions of all these pictures are larger than the old ones. I initially made the standard size for “large” pictures on this Web site 240x360 or 240x305 pixels, depending on how I cropped the original images. That seemed appropriate for the 1024x768 or 800x600 resolutions commonly found on CRT monitors at the time, and also for glacially slow dial-up Internet connections. A few pictures were slightly larger when I thought it was necessary. But as monitor resolutions have increased and broadband connections have become more common, I’ve been increasing the size of the “large” pictures. The new versions are also noticeably sharper, as over the years I have learned much about sharpening images correctly for Web viewing.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, 1991. Fujichrome RD100 slide.
This was among the first pictures I prepared for this Web site in 1999. The computer I had then (which I built myself around a 200MHz Cyrix 6x86 processor) was unacceptably slow when I tried to work with full-size 2400dpi scans from the Photosmart in Paint Shop Pro 5. So I used the “8x12 print” setting in the scanner’s native software, which yielded a 1800x1200 scan. The finished image looked fine to me at the time, and this reduced version remained on the Web site for eight years. The new version has somewhat more color saturation (vividness) than the original slide; the old version has somewhat less.
Minerva Terrace in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, 1991. Fujichrome RD100 slide.
Another one of those first images from 1999. Although I rather liked the marshmallow whiteness of the old version, I selectively increased the saturation to reveal the pink hues that previously were just a darker shade of white. The additional color and texture enhances the other-worldly feeling of this travertine formation. The new colors necessitated a change of title: White Travertine became Minerva Terrace. “Reality”— at least as reflected in the original slide— is somewhere between these two digital renditions.
Although the Photosmart was a breakthrough in affordable film scanners, Hewlett-Packard’s software for it was notoriously limited. With a kindergarten-cartoony user interface, it was designed to make scanning negatives, slides, and small prints as simple as possible for complete novices. But its lack of usable controls, fixed sharpening of all scans, and use of only 8 bits of the 10-bit hardware effectively crippled an otherwise decent scanner. In response, Ed Hamrick painstakingly reverse-engineered the Photosmart to produce VueSmart, an advanced replacement for Hewlett-Packard’s scanner software. It took full advantage of the scanner’s capabilities to produce much better images. I bought a VueSmart license in 1999, and have used it ever since. Hamrick soon expanded VueSmart to support other scanners and renamed it VueScan.
The cemetery at La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, California, 2001. Kodak Supra 400 negative.
At the end of 1999 I built a new computer with a rare 450MHz AMD K6-III processor (the fastest processor ever released for the “Socket 7” format used by the original Pentium), upgraded the dodgy Windows 95 to the much improved Windows 98, and replaced my 17-inch Sony monitor with a 19-inch Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 900u. By then I had abandoned the Photosmart software in favor of VueScan. The new computer could easily handle full-sized 2400 dpi scans.
VueScan at that time produced rather low saturation in scans from negative film, requiring me to crank up the saturation slider in Paint Shop Pro. That probably contributed to constricted colors, especially greens, in many images I scanned in 2000 and 2001. But like the two Yellowstone pictures, this one looked fine at the time. Ed Hamrick has continually improved VueScan, so I can now rely on it to produce beautifully saturated color from negatives and slides.
Patricia Lake in Jasper, Alberta, 1992. Fujichrome RD100 slide.
I sometimes update perfectly fine pictures to reflect my changing taste and notions of what they should look like. The first version, which I made in 2000, is a faithful reproduction of the original slide, including the magenta cast Fujichrome RD100 film tended to give shadow tones such as the wooden steps in the foreground. It was on this Web site for over seven years, and I liked it enough to hang a print of it on my wall.
I updated this picture twice. The first time was in 2007. I think that version rendered the scene better than the slide did. It showed the warm morning light with saturation and warmth reminiscent of Fuji Velvia, a film favored by many landscape photographers for its extremely vivid color.
Many of those pretty landscapes you’ve seen on calendars over the last 20-odd years were originally Velvia transparencies. Landscape photographers still use Velvia in large-format (4x5 or 8x10 inches) view cameras, one of the few applications where digital has not yet supplanted film. I never actually used Velvia because I considered its slow speed too cumbersome. But I find its drippingly saturated “palette” very appealing. With digital processing I can get that palette even with the ISO 400 negative film I preferred for travel, or with the digital cameras that replaced it.
When I overhauled the Canadian Rockies Travel Photo Essay in 2014, I made new versions of all the pictures I had originally prepared between 2000 and 2002. For this one, rather than making a new scan of the original slide, I retrieved from my archives the “raw” (cropped and cleaned, but otherwise unprocessed) scan from 2007. I also retrieved the iCorrect EditLab Pro color correction settings file I saved while making the 2007 version. The 2014 version started with the same color balance and density, but I’ve further improved the color and detail with tools and techniques I didn’t have seven years earlier.
If the 2007 and 2014 versions aren’t more accurate depictions of the scene, they surely offer a more compelling impression of it.
Pier at Kalaupapa, Molokai, 1998. Fuji Superia 400 negative.
I added this picture to the Molokai Travel Photo Essay in 2001. I apparently thought the non-standard aspect ratio suited the scene better than the normal 3:2 35mm frame.
I completely reworked the Molokai Travel Photo Essay in 2010, with new scans of all 17 pictures. For the new version of this one I used a standard 3:2 cropping, and took full advantage of the wider color palette my current workflow provides. I’ve opted for high “Velvia” saturation because Hawaii really is full of eye-popping colors, particularly blues and greens. Whether or not they’re truly “accurate”— and with color negatives it’s difficult to define what’s “accurate”— these vivid colors reflect my impression of Hawaii.
Cobblestoned alley, Québec City, 1996. Fuji Superia 400 negative.
This is a “problem” image. The foreground and sky are in bright sunlight, but the alley is in a shadow. The negative was correctly exposed for the shadows, which made the bright parts of the scene very dense. A satisfying digital rendering of a negative (and scene) with this much range of brightness (“dynamic range”) takes some special handling. I wasn’t quite up to that in 2001.
I completely redid the “Nice Day in Old Québec” Travel Photo Essay in 2012, with new scans of all 7 pictures. For this one, I separately adjusted the brightness and contrast of the bright foreground, dark alley, and sky.
New software and techniques can also improve old digital images. This one particularly benefits from improvements Adobe made to camera profiles in Adobe Camera Raw, providing more accurate and vivid reds and blues. (A camera profile measures the sensor’s color response, to calibrate software that converts raw files to images.) I got a cleaner color balance from the mixed twilight and tungsten light, and processed the image for more “punchy” contrast.
The cruise ship Monarch of the Seas anchored near Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, 2007. Kodak UltraColor 400UC negative.
My old Minolta Freedom Zoom Explorer misread the ISO speed code for the film on which I took this picture. That’s what I deduced after noticing the “camera shake” viewfinder warning light turning on in fairly bright light. Cleaning the camera’s contacts before loading the next film fixed the problem, but that was too late for the pictures on this one. The camera apparently defaulted to ISO 25 when it couldn’t read the “DX” code on the film cassette, overexposing the ISO 400 film by four stops.
Although color negative films tolerate overexposure well, severe overexposure can cause strange color shifts that are difficult to correct. Here the blue sky and water turned purple, and the land lit by morning sunlight turned magenta. The overexposure also inexplicably exaggerated the vignetting and light-fall off from the wide-open lens, making the corners darker and even more purple. I couldn’t adequately correct those faults in the original version.
In the new version I was able to correct the color shifts enough for a pleasing natural rendering of the early-morning scene, and to greatly reduce the vignetting. It’s not perfect, but I think it the residual imperfections would be hard to notice without an explanation and side-by-side comparison.
This example also illustrates the benefit of saving unprocessed versions of film scans. I started with a saved file from 2007 that included all the preparatory work— cropping, straightening, cleaning, noise reduction, and sharpening— before any I did any color correction or further “creative” work. Using this file let me avoid repeating the tedious chores of making a new scan and cleaning up the little dust spots and scratches that inevitably end up on film scans even with automatic infrared cleaning. Images from digital cameras require much less preparatory scut work.
I replaced the Photosmart scanner with a Canon FS4000US (now discontinued) in 2003. Its higher resolution and bit depth, along with 16-bit processing in Photoshop, contributed to the improved color, contrast, and detail of the newer versions. A properly calibrated monitor ensures better and more consistent color even for Web images viewed on diverse uncalibrated monitors. Using Photoshop’s iconic Curves tool makes a difference too, providing precise control over specific tones in an image. Paint Shop Pro also had Curves even in version 5, but I didn’t know how to use it then. When the Canon scanner died in 2012, I replaced it with a Plustek 7600i.
Also very helpful are plug-ins like PictoColor’s iCorrect EditLab Pro; that makes getting an accurate neutral color balance very simple and also allows selective adjustment of individual colors, a key to keeping enhanced saturation from jumping off a cliff. Local contrast enhancement is an amazingly useful “secret sauce” that can provide the punchy appearance of higher contrast and tactility while retaining color and detail. I use it with layers and masking to optimize the effect for each image. The enhancement effect that so enlivens a landscape ruins the perfect cloud-strewn blue sky above it by destroying the fluffiness of the clouds. Another ingredient in the recipe is the use of a wide-gamut color space (Adobe RGB or ProPhoto), which I’ve found yields better color even after conversion to sRGB for Web use.
Perhaps the most important thing to note is the value of retaining original negatives, slides, or camera raw files. When improved hardware, software, or techniques become available— or even if you have a new or different concept of what an image should look like— it’s easy to “upgrade” an image. Just make a new scan of the film, or process the raw file through the latest converter.
*My preferred operating system from 1996 through 2000 was IBM’s now-discontinued OS/2 Warp. The Photosmart scanner forced me to install Windows 95 because no usable scanning or photo editing software existed for OS/2. I used the Boot Manager included with OS/2 to set up a dual-boot configuration, and ran Windows 95 only for scanning and photo editing. Although my computer was rock-stable with OS/2, it continually froze up and crashed under Windows 95. I got into the habit of saving my work after every editing click in Paint Shop Pro, to minimize the lost work and frustration when the system inevitably froze solid and needed a hard reset. Digital imaging became much more enjoyable after I switched to Windows 98 (Second Edition), which froze and crashed a lot less often.
If your recollection of ancient history has faded, OS/2 was originally a collaborative effort between Microsoft and IBM in the late 1980s. It was intended to replace MS-DOS, and to bring multitasking and a Macintosh-like graphical user interface (GUI) to the PC. By the early 1990s IBM and Microsoft had parted ways. IBM was left to develop and market OS/2 on their own, while Microsoft put their formidable development and marketing teams to work on what was originally a stopgap GUI product called Windows.
OS/2 was technologically superior to the DOS-based versions of Windows available at the time. In addition to running 32-bit GUI software written for it, OS/2 ran DOS applications better than DOS and 16-bit Windows programs far more reliably than Windows. OS/2’s stability and reliability— which Microsoft couldn’t match until Windows XP in 2001— made it a common platform for automatic teller machines.
Unfortunately, IBM’s decades of experience selling multi-million dollar mainframe computers to corporate executives did not prepare them for selling a mass-market operating system to ordinary people. While Microsoft kept delaying the release of their (partially) “32-bit” Windows 95, OS/2 Warp was a genuine 32-bit operating system already on store shelves. But instead of properly exploiting that golden opportunity, IBM’s marketeers fumbled, stumbled, mumbled, and bumbled OS/2 into oblivion while Microsoft monopolized the world with Windows.