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I got a Pentax K110 digital SLR camera last month

When the Nikon D40 came out in November priced at $599, it seemed like the whole world went ga-ga over it. After all, we’ve pretty much been conditioned to expect to pay $1,000 to get into the digital SLR game.

But then I found out about the Pentax K110D. It’s also a digital SLR, and costs about $100 less than the Nikon. There wasn’t much information out there about it. So, after consulting the one person whose opinions on cameras I trust, my wife and I got one.Pentax isn’t the biggest name in cameras but is hardly a no-name either. The Pentax K1000 camera, first released in 1976, is a legend.

The K110D is a basic 6-megapixel digital SLR. It uses SD flash memory cards for storage and rechargable NiMH AA batteries for power. (Batteries are included, an SD card isn’t. But I couldn’t tell if the batteries were rechargeable because the writing on them is in Japanese.)

Most importantly, someone like me, who knows very little about photography, can take a good shot with this camera. While you can set all of the ISO settings you want, you can also put the camera on fully automatic, where it decides everything for you. In fully automatic mode, if you can frame a decent shot and get it in focus, the camera will take care of the rest.

You can see some shots I took this way with the camera at The Gauge. I shot these through a department store window, so there’s some glare. That’s not the camera’s fault.

The camera’s quality is good. You don’t want to play catch with it or expose it to any rough handling that you can possibly avoid, but it doesn’t feel fragile in your hands either. In case you’re wondering, the camera is manufactured in the Phillipines, while the lens is manufactured in Vietnam.

While 6 megapixels may seem a bit wimpy in this era of 10-megapixels and above, you don’t really need the extra resolution unless you’re making really large prints. A cheap 10-megapixel point-and-shoot could actually take a worse image than this camera if its optics and sensor aren’t of comparable quality.

If you’re looking for more versatility than a point and shoot will give you, but don’t care to spend four figures on a camera and a couple of lenses, the K110D or its bigger brother, the K100D (which adds image stabilization) is a good bet.

I like this camera a lot and would buy it again without hesitating.

A good tool for salvaging really bad photographs

I’ve been playing around with the perspective correction feature in Gimp 2.0, and while it’s invaluable, I’ve noticed that it really has a tendency to blur up a picture.

You can reduce this some by not editing JPEGs–it’s always best to convert JPEGs into PNG or TIFF format before editing anyway–but it only reduces the problem. And Gimp’s sharpen tool leaves a lot to be desired.

Enter SharpControl.There’s something of a tutorial available online. To be honest, I really don’t know what most of the things he’s saying mean. What I do know is that I can just load an image into it, take the defaults, and get a better-looking image than with any other program I’ve ever used. And if I fumble around a bit, sometimes I can get lucky and improve it even more.

Hey, I was trained as a writer. I had to stay after class one day to get what little Photoshop training I did get.

The program only speaks TIFF or JPEG, so you’ll have to convert to TIFFs if you decide to load into the program from files. The alternative is to paste the contents of the clipboard into the program, manipulate the image, then copy it back to the clipboard and paste into your imaging program.

It’s a free download, so if you’re playing with fuzzy images, go download it now.

Taking decent photographs

I’m not a serious photographer and I don’t play one on TV. But I’m tired of looking at dark, fuzzy, tiny photographs that don’t tell anything, so here’s a way someone who knows nothing about photography–such as Yours Truly–can take a decent picture.For some examples of my photography, which I consider barely acceptable, here’s a windup train and an American Flyer electric.

The second photograph is worse than the first, for two reasons. I took the second photograph indoors, and used a rug as a backdrop. The texture of the rug detracts from the photo. As does the lack of light.

I took the first photograph outside. It wasn’t all that sunny of a day, and it was about 9 in the morning on a Saturday. I used a white towel as a backdrop. A neutral-colored sheet would have been even much better, but I had the towel handy. The photograph is small enough that the towel’s texture doesn’t detract as badly as it normally would.

So the first trick is to use a decent backdrop.

Light is trick #2. Get enough light on your subject to not need the flash. Light up the room, take a shot, and see what happens. If the camera flashes, get more light. Better yet, take the object outside. In the daytime, of course. Ideally, the majority of your light should be coming from behind you and the camera, rather than from behind the object. A little bit of light behind the object to eliminate shadows is a good thing, but too much will look harsh.

Focus is trick #3. I assume you know to push the button halfway to focus it. That’s the first step. The second step is to take five or six shots because one of them is likely to look better than the worst of them.

The rule of thirds is something they actually teach you in school. (I spent about a month studying photography in journalism school because they make everyone do that. The rule of thirds is about all I remember.) Professional photographers can disregard this rule the way professional writers sometimes disregard rules about sentence fragments. People like me need to follow it. Look at an existing photograph. Mentally draw two horizontal and two vertical lines, dividing the photograph into thirds. The intersection of each line is what the human eye is going to find interesting. So at the very least, position your object so that part of it is hitting as many of those points as possible.

Use a tripod. You’ll get sharper pictures because a tripod holds the camera steady. I didn’t use a tripod for either of these shots, so it’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps. For small objects, a three-inch pocket tripod from Kmart will do just fine. Mine cost about $5. For larger objects, a larger tripod is necessary. Generally speaking, even a cheap and nasty tripod is better than no tripod, so long as it isn’t so wobbly that it can’t hold the camera straight.

And finally: Crop. After you’ve taken the photograph and you get it into the computer, crop it. This lets you make the picture smaller without losing resolution. It also lets you get rid of unnecessary whitespace and/or objects. Did you catch the edge of your backdrop, revealing the concrete or table underneath? Crop it out. Did you forget the rule of thirds? Crop the picture to move the object into place. I cropped both of the pictures I used as examples because otherwise you’d have seen two pictures with lots of towel or carpet and itty-bitty trains. But I wanted pictures of trains, not man-made fibers.

If you follow these simple principles, you can set your camera to auto everything and get a decent shot. The idea is to make the job as easy on the camera as possible. If you halfway follow the rule of thirds, you get an even better shot.

I almost forgot one other thing. I cleaned the objects in the photos. You might be reluctant to clean objects for sale on Ebay for the legitimate fear of damaging them, but at least brush the dust off with a soft brush, such as a makeup brush or soft paint brush. Chances are, anything you photograph looks better without loose dust covering it.

Following these tips won’t make you look like a pro, but your Wikipedia articles will look better and so will your Ebay listings. And on Ebay, a good, clear photograph means more bids and higher prices.

Reports on the death of film are [you know the rest]

Giddy Slashdotters are proclaiming the death of film since Kodak has announced it’s not going to sell film cameras anymore, at least not in the United States and Europe.
It proves to me that whoever wrote that story summary knows little or nothing about serious photography.

For many years, Kodak was a big name in serious photography. But come the 1960s, you started seeing serious cameras from a lot of other manufacturers. For the duration of my lifetime, Kodak cameras were pretty much relegated to the casual point-and-shoot arena.

But meanwhile, Kodak remained one of the largest producers of film. It remains so today. Go into any store and look for film, and the two brands you’re most likely to find are Kodak and Fuji.

Serious photographers have only recently begun to prefer digital. Some serious photographers still prefer the look of film. Pictures shot on film have a different look from digital shots, and they probably always will. Neither type of camera’s view on reality is necessarily more correct, but they’re certainly different, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.

Casual photographers like digital point-and-shoots because they can take hundreds of pictures and only print out (and thus only pay for) the good ones. And there’s the perception among certain laypeople that digital is always better. CDs sound better than cassettes, so digital pictures will look better than film, right? That’s what the girl I was dating a year ago thought, and I never convinced her otherwise.

The money is in disposable cameras, film, and digitals. There’s just not much money to be made in the traditional point-and-shoots–too many companies are making them, and the margins are too thin. So Kodak is concentrating on the areas where it can make money. And Kodak can make a lot of money selling $150 digital cameras to people year over year (people will want to upgrade so they can make bigger prints, after all), or disposable cameras to people who forget to pack a camera, or film to people buying razor-thin-margin cameras made by someone else.

Once you can buy a $40 digital camera with resolution comparable to film, you’ll be able to declare film dead. But you can’t do that yet, and you won’t be able to for a few more years.

But I’m sure you already knew all of this, so I’m not sure why I’m writing this. But I feel better now.

Preserving those new (and old) holiday memories

Sorry, I never got around to those promised posts because, well, I’ve become a genealogy addict. But don’t you worry, this post is relevant even to people who are sick of reading about genealogy.
Mom and I were going through some old photo albums, and some of the photographs were in pretty bad shape. For all the talk about concerns over how long inkjet prints of digital pictures might last, some of Mom’s 30-year-old prints are, well, fading fast. Meanwhile, Mom has some prints that were taken 30 years ago that look like they could have been processed yesterday, except for the clothes the people were wearing.

I remember almost 15 years ago, when a neighbor’s house burned, going through their rescued photo albums, opening up the drenched pages, taking out whatever photos would come out in one piece, and putting them on towels scattered about the house to dry. I noticed that Polaroids are very difficult to get remove intact from sticky album pages, even under ideal conditions. Well, now I wonder if anyone pays attention to the acid content in those album pages and what else might contribute to pictures deterriorating.

But I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about that (why not leave that to the infamous self-proclaimed aristocrat and scientist?) because there’s an easy solution.

Scan those bad boys.

Most people have mountains of photographs, so it’ll take a while, but if you set out to scan a page a day, or a few pages a week on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll eventually get through them. Burn them to a quality CD–I know among the name-brand discs you find in stores, the most consistent performer you’ll find is Kodak. If you buy in bulk, your best bet is either Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden, which are the two brands that CD duplicators most frequently use. The estimated lifespan under reasonable conditions for a high-quality CD-R is around 100 years. Some of my cheap house-brand CD-Rs haven’t lasted two years. So buy good stuff, and store the discs at room temperature. Don’t put them in the attic unless they’re full of pictures of former significant others whom you wish you’d never met. Remember the basic scientific principle that raising the temperature 10 degrees doubles the speed of a chemical reaction, so in theory, raising the temperature 10 degrees halves life expectancy. Storing your CD-Rs in a closed box in the basement, assuming it’s not terribly humid down there (40% relative humidity is optimal, according to Kodak), would be a good idea.

Actually, that same principle would be just as true for your prints as well.

Anyway, what do you do when the prints have already started to fade? Scan them anyway. Sometimes the scan ends up looking better than the original. If not, then try turning them into B&W pictures. Use your imaging software to convert it to greyscale, then play with the brightness and contrast. You’ll lose the color, but you might very well save the print. In the case of some of the old pictures of me, it’ll be harder to tell that I had blonde hair when I was really young, but it’ll at least be possible to tell what I looked like.

If you don’t have a scanner or you’re dissatisfied with the speed or quality of your existing scanner, I can recommend Canon’s LiDE series. They’re inexpensive and offer a very nice combination of speed and image quality. Most of them get their power from the USB port, which saves you a power outlet. And they’re small and light enough that they can fit into a laptop bag, making it possible to take a scanner and laptop along with you when you visit family and scan some old photos.

Getting those photos into digital form gives you other advantages as well. Some imaging software allows you to add captions or descriptions to the photos. If you’re Linux-savvy, you can set up a nice family website using one of the 12 bazillion gallery programs out there. You can keep it on your local LAN if you don’t want that stuff on the public Internet–you and your family can still enjoy punching through pictures on a strategically placed computer the same way you flip through old photo albums. If you’ve got a nice color printer, you can make as many reprints as you want, and if they fade, you can always just print them again. And while you’re burning CDs, you can burn an extra copy or two and keep them in someone else’s basement. If disaster strikes, insurance can replace most material items, but not the one-of-a-kinds like your photographs. Fortunately it’s easy to ensure they’re no longer one-of-a-kinds.

Work miracles on your photos and scans with Qimage Pro

A little over a month ago, reader Gary Berg suggested I give a program called Qimage Pro a look and see what it would do for my digital camera output. And I finally got around to doing it.
If you’ve got a scanner and/or a digital camera, I’ve got just five things to say to you: You gotta get this thing.

OK, OK, I’ll elaborate a little.

I took a few design classes in journalism school, and I remember one cardinal rule when it came to dealing with images: Reductions are fine, enlargement is a feature you should never use. If you’ve got a 5×7 image at 300 dpi, it’ll get pixelated if you try to enlarge it. You can go smaller, but you can’t make something from nothing.

Qimage Pro is supposed to work miracles. So I threw the worst-possible test at it.

I took a 640×480 image taken by a Sony Mavica digital camera. I blew it up to 8×10. Then I printed it on my 600 dpi laser printer. On cheap office-grade paper (not even the highest grade available).

Now I’ll gladly admit, the resulting picture shows a little bit of pixelation. A little. But from a slight distance (I’m talking two or three feet here), I wouldn’t know the difference. That picture would look fine hanging on my wall, and I’m not just saying that because I’m supposed to like looking at the subject matter.

I’m amazed. Based on previous experience, I wouldn’t dare try printing a 640×480 image any bigger than three inches across.

I suspect printing in color might give me less leeway. I plan to test that theory on my girlfriend’s color inkjet later today.

That test knocked my socks off, but there’s more to Qimage than just giving high-quality enlargements that look better than anyone has any right to expect. Photo paper is expensive, and it will arrange photos on the paper to maximize the available space on it. Depending on how you’re currently printing your digital photos, it might pay for itself in paper savings.

I also like its redeye reduction and blemish removal. To take out redeye, you click on the center of the pupil and drag your mouse to the right. To do a digital makeup job (or fix other problems–I swear that Sony Mavica must have had dust on its lens at some point), click on the center of the spot you want to remove and drag left. It sounds weird, but it took me about two tries to get the hang of it.

And the autocorrect functions are pretty intelligent. You don’t want to go blindly turning all of them on. On some pictures, it looked pretty good when I did that. Others took on a really artificial look. So experiment to get the hang of the tools, but be selective.

If you want to crop an image, it has a Crop Wizard. Who needs a wizard to help you cut out a piece of an image? Don’t worry, this isn’t a worthless wizard like Clippy from MS Office. Its recommendations, believe it or not, are intelligent. This wizard really does help you.

If you have a scanner, Qimage Pro will give you an easy way to make quick-and-dirty enlargements and reprints. Scan the picture at your scanner’s highest hardware or optical resolution (check your scanner’s manual). Load the scan into Qimage and size it however you want, do any touchups and/or cropping you want to do, then print. You’ll definitely want this if you ever get to spend an afternoon with the stash of photographs your grandmother kept under her bed in a Russell-Stover candy box.

It’s not a serious photo manipulation tool like Photoshop. If you want to cut out your head and put it on the body of a supermodel, Qimage Pro won’t do it. But most people are just interested in touchups and printing and don’t want to spend an hour futzing around with each image. For those kinds of people, Qimage Pro is perfect and it costs 40 bucks.

The only downside to any of this is that the quality of most inkjet printers is anything but archival–the ink fades fairly fast. But Qimage can’t do anything about that. It does an amazing job at everything else.