5.6 Image Processing Software

While instruction in the use of image processing software is deferred to Part III of this book, here we will very briefly consider some of the issues involved in selecting such a software package, including a survey of the important features offered by various packages, as well as some advice regarding compatibility issues.
    The most popular option (among those who can afford it) is obviously Adobe’s well-known Photoshop program, which has a well-deserved reputation for being extremely powerful, though also somewhat difficult to learn how to use.  Of the competing commercial products comparable to Photoshop, the most prominent is probably Corel’s Paint Shop Pro, or PSP.  While PSP does appear to offer most or perhaps even all of the essential features used by casual Photoshop users, and at a seemingly far reduced price (under $100 US for PSP, versus many hundreds of dollars for Photoshop), PSP is currently available only for use on Windows machines (i.e., on PC’s, but not Macs).  Furthermore, while the full version of Photoshop is indeed extremely expensive, the
lite version, called Photoshop Elements, is nearly the same price as PSP, and is available for both Windows and Mac systems.  Also, students and others affiliated with educational institutions can get the full version of Photoshop at a fraction of the price that the general public pays.  I paid about $200 for my copy a few years ago, instead of the full $600, since I work at a university.  Though I previously used Photoshop Elements, I did find that the additional features included in the full version (called Photoshop CS3, which has now been upgraded to CS4) did occasionally come in handy.
    Regarding the use of competing products, keep in mind that as the industry standard, Photoshop is much better documented, via internet-based tutorials and the like, than competing programs such as PSP.  There are untold numbers of Photoshop tutorials available for free on the internet, showing in detail how to achieve the most amazing visual effects.  There are also many add-on products from third-party software companies (so-called
Photoshop Plug-ins) that seamlessly integrate with Photoshop and extend its functionality in various ways (such as more intelligent noise-removal algorithms).  Many free plug-ins are available as well.
    For those readers with recently-purchased Canon or Nikon DLSR’s, there is another, far more economically palatable option than either Photoshop or its various commercial competitors—namely, the free software that came bundled with your camera.  In the case of Nikon cameras, this would be View NX, while the Canon product is called DPP (for Digital Photo Professional).

Fig. 5.6.1: An OEM photo processing program: Canon’s DPP (Digital Photo Professional).
Nikon has a comparable product called Capture/NX2.  Although far less powerful than
Photoshop, these programs let you adjust the sharpness, saturation, contrast, brightness,
and color balance of your photos.  They don’t allow complex editing, such as erasing
 a stray branch, or separating the foreground from the background.

    These free programs from camera manufacturers are obviously not meant to compete with the likes of Photoshop and other commercial products, but for many casual bird photographers, they are probably quite adequate.  In fact, there is one aspect of these OEM (original equipment manufacturer) products which can potentially outperform all competing products, and that is the OEM software’s RAW-conversion engine.  Though we’ve not yet discussed RAW files, they’re the files with the most image information (as compared to inferior file formats such as JPG) that are exported by your camera onto the memory card, and must be read in by whatever image-processing software you opt to use.  Since each camera manufacturer uses their own proprietary RAW file format (e.g., CR2 for Canon, NEF for Nikon), software companies without an explicit business relationship with the camera manufacturer have to reverse-engineer that company’s RAW file format in order to be able to work with it in their software.  Since the OEM will generally have a more perfect understanding of its own file format, the RAW conversion engine produced by that OEM can be exepected (usually
though not always) to produce the highest-quality conversions (i.e., from RAW to JPG or other target file format) of their RAW files. 
    If you spend any significant amount of time lurking in online photography tech forums like dpreview.com or fredmiranda.com, you’ll see that the true zealots will always insist that systematic comparisons between competing cameras’ images be done via their RAW files and using only the appropriate RAW converters.  A poor RAW converter may result in image artifacts such as moire patterns, and potentially other issues affecting image quality, so this is a factor worth considering when shopping for image processing software.  It is, of course, possible to use any arbitrary RAW converter to convert your files to a common format such as TIFF or JPG, and then to import these converted files into whichever editing software you elect to use, though it’s much more convenient when your editing software can do the RAW conversion itself, since this simplifies your workflow.  Photoshop in particular is very convenient in this regard, and though not everyone agrees that Photoshop’s RAW converter is the best, I’ve found it to work exceptionally well for my photos.
    Yet another option—and I personally did this for several years—is to simply use the built-in or bundled software that came packaged with your computer’s operating system.  In the case of Mac systems, there is a program included in all current distributions called
Preview, which is intended largely as a utility for viewing images as well as other types of documents (e.g., PDF files).  This program also includes a very limited set of image manipulation functions, including adjustment of brightness, saturation, contrast, and sharpness, as well as a primitive but surprisingly effective method for performing color correction (e.g., fixing images in which parts that should be white actually look yellow).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t include any noise reduction functionality.

Fig. 5.6.2: The Preview program that comes standard with Apple’s OS X operating system;
a comparable utility is available for Microsoft’s
Windows operating system.  These programs
alllow basic but rapid adjustment of image properties, such as brightness, sharpness, contrast,
saturation, and color balance.

One very large advantage of programs like Preview (and whatever happens to be its current counterpart in the Windows world) is the speed with which you can use it to process very large numbers of images.  By double-clicking a file with the mouse, I can bring up Preview on my Mac, and then with a few quick adjustments to sliders on the Image Correction panel, I can typically get a photo very close to its optimal settings for publication on the internet (i.e., as low-resolution images on web pages).  For those who take lots and lots of bird photos but have very limited time for adjusting the images prior to posting them on the internet, simple solutions like Preview can be ideal (especially when they’re also free). 
    What simple programs like Preview can’t do is to permit detailed manipulation of specific parts of an image, and this type of manipulation turns out to be desirable in more cases than you might imagine.  A simple but highly representative example is the selective removal of noise from parts of an image.  As described previously, noise is typically much more noticeable in smooth background regions than in the foreground (i.e., in the bird).  Although most commercial software packages provide for noise removal, they typically also result in a reduction of detail in the subject, which is especially noticeable for highly detailed subjects like birds.  Thus, a very common workflow for processing bird images is to first separate the bird and its background into different layers, and then to apply the noise-removal filter to only the background layer of the image, so that the parts of the image with noticeable noise are cleaned up while the subject retains all of its original detail.  These types of manipulations tend to be either impossible or extremely laborious in many software packages, whereas in Photoshop they can be extremely easy, due to Photoshop’s advanced tools for separating foreground subjects from their background.

Fig. 5.6.3: Separating the foreground from the background in Photoshop.
Differential processing of the bird and its environment is one of the most powerful
techniques in bird photography postprocessing.  Just the ability to selectively reduce
noise in parts of an image arguably justifies the high price tag of Photoshop, since
it arguably offsets much of the value offered by more expensive cameras boasting
lower noise output.

    One final issue to consider when shopping for image processing software is the compatability of the current version of the image processing software with the operating system version that you currently have installed on your computer.  It’s not uncommon for software packages to require that the newest operating system (OS) updates and patches (called service packs in the Windows world) be installed before the application software you’ve purchased can be properly installed.  In some cases, the application software may even require you to upgrade the version of the OS before installing the application.  This can be very time consuming, typically involves additional outlays of cash, and in extreme cases can potentionally even result in loss of data (which is why you should always back up your entire hard drive before upgrading the operating system).
    In Part III of this book we’ll show in great detail how to perform many image processing tasks in Photoshop.