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Low-Cost Photographic Software

Back when I was shooting slides, almost all of my technical and esthetic decisions were made prior to the moment of exposure. Once I pressed the shutter release, the rest was in the hands of a professional film lab to turn the latent image into a finished slide, and the end result was carved in stone... or at least carved in film. But in the digital world, the image produced by the camera can be manipulated in infinite ways after the fact using all sorts of specialized software. Although it's possible to use a digital camera without any supporting software, nearly every shot I take can benefit from some type of post-processing; and so I have a collection of favorite tools for such tasks. Most of the programs I use are inexpensive, and quite a few of them are free.

Reasons for manipulating an image after the fact could include any or all of the following:
Some condition or limitation of the lens produced a result that I don't like, such as rectilinear distortion or chromatic aberrations.
Some condition or limitation of the camera produced a result that I don't like, such as visible noise in the image.
I made a mistake or a poor decision such as exposing the shot improperly, or using the wrong white balance setting.
I captured the image well enough, but I see ways in which it might be improved esthetically with creative manipulation.

The right kind of software can deal with all of these situations, and it doesn't have to cost a lot.

 Computing Platform: Windows 7

I have three computers at home and I have also developed and supported content for thousands of computer users in corporate environments. Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit is the operating system used on my computers - although that's not to say that it's the best OS out there. There are some good reasons for choosing Apple products or Linux instead, but in my case that decision was made long ago. I mention this only because the choice of hardware and operating system platform in turn dictates what options exist for photographic software. Most of the software I use was developed in the days of Windows XP but still works under Windows 7.

Industrial Strength Image Editor: Photoshop

 Everybody knows about Photoshop, the granddaddy of photographic software. I've used the program since the mid 90's because it was available to me through my work. I think the first version I worked with was 3.0, and I presently use version CS3, which is itself several years old. At this point I wouldn't want to use anything older than version 6.0, not difficult to find on eBay for next to nothing. At the other end of the scale is the current CS version, which I do not regard as affordable. But also in the mix these days are various versions of Photoshop Elements, a simplified and much less expensive variation of the program. It's possible that when I need to upgrade to something newer I'll choose Elements.

Regardless of the specific version, Photoshop provides an astonishing, sometimes bewildering, assortment of editing and manipulation tools. The program is so intricate and powerful that it has been the subject of thousands of detailed how-to books, articles, and tutorials. Almost as important, the more recent versions of Photoshop also support a standard type of sub-program called a plug-in. People are developing great new Photoshop plug-ins all the time, and I rely on several of them. Some of the other popular image editors like Paint Shop Pro and IrfanView also support Photoshop plug-ins.

For now, and into the foreseeable future, Photoshop is likely to be the first and most important stop for any image of mine that needs attention.

 General Image Editor and Photo Manager: Picasa

Picasa is almost the antithesis of Photoshop, but nearly as useful. This program is designed to handle almost everything you might need to do except for the detailed technical work that Photoshop is so good at. Picasa provides a way to organize, enhance, print, and share your photos while at the same time hiding its powerful capabilities under an easy-to-use interface. It also integrates easily with Google's PicasaWeb photo sharing service, which I like. Both Picasa and the PicasaWeb service are free.

It's worth mentioning that Picasa was the first program (as far as I know) to utilize non-destructing photo editing. In normal operation, changes made in Picasa do not modify the original file in any way. Instead, the changes are saved as separate instructions. This approach has interesting potential. Adobe must think so too, because they designed Lightroom to work the same way.

Alternatives: Lightroom, Paint Shop Pro, IrfanView, FastStone Image Viewer

 Lens Correction: PTLens

In the days of film, experienced photographers knew that the lens, rather than the camera, was the one piece of equipment most likely to make or break an image. Substandard lenses might exhibit anomalies like rectilinear distortion, chromatic aberrations, and vignetting. Good lenses whose design carefully controlled these characteristics were expensive. And so were the special tilt/shift lenses that were required for dealing with certain problems of perspective, for example, in architectural photography. Today, any of these issues that might affect an image can be addressed using sophisticated software. This means that I can happily use relatively inexpensive lenses and easily correct most of their shortcomings after the fact.

PTLens is provided as both a standalone program and a Photoshop plug-in and is amazingly effective for handling rectilinear distortion, chromatic aberrations, vignetting, or perspective adjustments. I bought my license a couple of years back, and it was easily the best 15 bucks I've ever spent on software! The current price is $25.

Alternative: DxO Optics Pro

 Dynamic Range Enhancement: ReDynaMix HDR

This is the newest addition to my software list. The advertised purpose of ReDynaMix HDR, a Photoshop plug-in, is to simulate the creation of HDR (High Dynamic Range) images without having to actually shoot and combine multiple photos. How well it does that I won't try to say, since I'm not really involved with HDR stuff. But I can say that it does an extremely fast and good job of general dynamic range improvement - and more.

I've spent a lot of time and effort over the last couple of years exploring various methods for recovering and enhancing the dynamic range of some of my difficult 8-bit images, with very limited success. Now, this thing literally works wonders with a few mouse clicks. Once you learn how to adjust the program parameters, it's easy to produce almost any level of enhancement ranging from very subtle to over-the-top. If dynamic range enhancement was the only thing it could do, the program would still be a fantastic value. But it also offers B&W conversion, Orton effects, gamma control, and numerous color adjustments that make it even more useful and fun. For $16, it's phenomenal. It's likely that I'll soon write an in-depth article about this product.

Alternatives: I don't know of anything else out there that can do this much, this well, this easily.

Dust and Scratch Removal: Polaroid DSR

I often use a film scanner or my camera to digitize 35mm slides. Either way, dust sometimes remains on the film despite my best efforts, and produces tiny spots that need to be removed from the image. The Polaroid Dust and Scratch Removal utility (which until recently was officially available through this link) is another free tool that is provided as both a standalone program and a Photoshop plug-in. It won't necessarily remove all dust and scratches, but it works surprisingly well on film dust and can save a lot of time previously spent on laborious work done by hand. (Note that the other common problem of dust on the camera's internal sensor is different. That produces only soft blobs that are not correctable through this method.)

Alternative: A film scanner with Digital ICE

 Noise Reduction: Noiseware

The Konica Minolta 5D is very good regarding digital noise, so I rarely feel a need to resort to noise reduction. But I also own and use a Konica Minolta Z5, which is visibly noisy at anything over ISO 50. I did some some testing with the free Community Edition of Noiseware on some of my images, and it really seemed to do the job well. It is highly configurable to provide exactly the level of noise reduction needed without overdoing it. Some important features are not available in the free version, so I purchased the Standard Standalone Edition of the program for $30. Professional and plug-in versions are also offered, but at higher prices.

Alternatives: Noise Ninja, Neat Image

 Special Minolta Support: Dalifer and MRWFormat

Dalifer is a jewel of a program for owners of Minolta digital cameras. This $20 (or free with limited functionality) utility integrates itself within the Windows Explorer interface and reveals a wealth of information hidden in Minolta image files. It knows about a unique subset of EXIF data stored in the file - things like exactly which lens was used, the particular section in the image where the lens was focused, the exact distance at which it was focused, and a myriad of other details about the camera's settings and operation at the time of exposure. It also allows me to preserve this important data and re-insert it in an image file when other, less aware programs destroy it.

A related program from the same author is MRWFormat, another plug-in that allows Photoshop 6, 7, or CS (8) to read Minolta RAW files.

Dalifer and MRWFormat are the work of one person and have not been updated for several years. Nevertheless, they are excellent and worthwhile tools.

Alternatives: None for Dalifer, many for MRWFormat

 Photo Album Creator: JAlbum

In the remote past (like around 2000), I used to program my own simple photo albums for use on my site using HTML code. More recently, software has appeared that allows much more freedom and variety in album design. JAlbum is probably the most powerful and flexible album creator imaginable. It comes with a collection of nice customizable templates while also supporting complete album design from the ground up. And it's free. I'll be using this for designing all of my portfolio pages.

Alternatives: I don't know. Who needs an alternative?

 Finding the Software and Reviews

I've provided links for obtaining most of the programs I use; but it should also be possible to find anything mentioned above, as well as related reviews, through any good search engine.

Text and images 2007-2012 Ray Lemieux