Chapter 14 - Picture perfect

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps setting up your computer as a state-of-the-art graphics system is a thousand times more important than installing a word processor.

Sharing pictures with family is one of the top reasons seniors are drawn to computers. Whether you want to view e-mailed pictures, scan old photos to preserve your family history or take digital pictures of your vacations, some familiarity with graphics software and digital imaging devices is imperative.

Digital cameras

In the old days, amateur photographers would have to hole up in a dark cellar to develop their own photos. If someone opened the door to ask if you wanted another cup of coffee, your film was ruined.

Soon we had send-off photo labs, which turned our film into pictures within a few days. Then it was one-day labs, followed by in-store, one-hour developing. Now, thanks to digital photography, it's instant.

Once considered a toy too expensive for the masses, digital cameras are quickly becoming the norm. Although they look and feel much like their film-happy cousins, digital cameras don't use film. Their operation, however, is quite similar.

Look through the view finder, point and shoot. Most feature a small LCD (liquid crystal display) screen on the back, which can instantly show what your picture will look like. That view screen is the most power hungry component in the camera. Overuse it and it'll kill a new pair of batteries rather quickly.

When you click the button, the image seen through the lens is sent to an internal memory card, floppy disk or mini CDs. Digital cameras that save to memory cards (which make up the majority on the market) typically ship with either a USB or serial cable, allowing you to transfer images taken with the camera onto your hard drive. Many now feature fast USB card readers or docking stations that allow for even quicker transfers.

Depending on the features and resolution capabilities, you can pick up a digital camera for anywhere from $50 to $1,000 (although professional digital cameras can cost well into the thousands).

Digital developing

Even if you don't want to invest in a digital camera, you can still get your family memories onto your computer.

Many photo developing companies will transfer your 35mm film to CD instead of printing your photos on paper. That gives you the ability to print only the photos you want, crop and enlarge your images and add in captions.

Scanners

With their price dropping to the $75 to $200 range, you can't go wrong with flatbed scanners.

They're great for getting computer images of printed pages or photographs. Most come with OCR (optical character recognition) software, allowing you to scan typewritten pages and convert them to text files. Although OCR technology has undergone many improvements, it's still not 100 percent accurate.

Most scanners in stores today connect to your USB port, making it quite simple to install. These newer flatbeds can scan at ungodly-high resolutions, but scanning at 4800 DPI is often overkill. It will also yield some images that could eat up a good portion of your hard drive.

But, their high-resolution capabilities can have a benefit. We could scan in a small picture at a high resolution, and then resample it into a larger picture with reduced resolution. So that wallet size could actually look good as full-screen wallpaper.

Some older Mac scanners might connect to your SCSI port. Many older PC models will connect to your printer port, which might make you wonder, "Where do I plug in my printer?" The scanner features a "pass-through" printer port on the back for your printer to plug into.

Although this cooperation is nice in theory, sharing parallel ports often creates conflicts. If you have a conflict you can't resolve, you can always buy an A-B switch, allowing you to turn it to A to use the printer and B to use the scanner.

What to do with them

Once you get your images into the computer, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

You can e-mail your photos to friends and family. You can enlarge a picture, print it on specialized photo paper and put it in a frame. You can use a graphics editor to crop out part of the background, lighten a dark part of the image or eliminate red eye.

Graphic editors

Like desktop publishers, graphic editors can be grouped into two categories, home and professional.

Adobe Photoshop (now in version CS2) is widely considered the professional standard, used by graphic designers and photographers alike. Its $650 price tag might scare away some home users, but its wealth of functions, filters and effects make it a must have if you're serious about graphics.

The ton of features might be a bit overwhelming for newbies, but Photoshop is simple enough to use on a basic level while you play around with the cool stuff.

If you're designing specifically for Web applications, check out Fireworks 8 ($300), also from Adobe, which packs in many of the same capabilities that Photoshop offers while adding numerous Web specific features.

If you're not yet ready for such an expensive investment, there are plenty of lower-priced options in the home market. Some titles include Microsoft Digital Image ($49), Adobe Photoshop Elements ($90) and Corel Paint Shop Pro ($99).

Before shelling out any money for a graphic editor, check to see if any were packaged with your computer or scanner. You might have one installed on your computer that you don't even know about!

Graphics basics

Graphics can generally be broken down into two categories - raster and vector. Raster graphics comprise the majority you'll encounter in the real world.

With a raster - or bitmapped - graphic, the image is a giant grid, with each individual dot or pixel taking on a specific color to create the full image.

The number of dots the image takes up is called the image size, and it's the same concept we talked about in Chapter 9 while discussing screen size. If your monitor is set to 640 x 480 pixels, it shows 640 dots across and 480 dots down.

Graphics are described in those terms as well. A 320-x-480-pixel graphic has 320 dots across and 480 dots down. A picture of that size displayed on a 640 x 480 screen would take up half of the monitor.

Image size is just one of the factors that determines how much disk space an image file will take up.

The second is color-depth, which refers to the number of colors in the image's palette. We might have our screen set to show millions of colors, but different file formats can use different size palettes. A larger palette will typically increase the amount of disk space an image will occupy.

A third factor is resolution, which is a setting expressed in dots per inch (DPI). You'll hear DPI quoted when talking about monitors, printers and scanners. Your computer monitor displays images in 72 DPI. An image with a resolution higher than 72 DPI will take up more disk space, but will not appear any clearer on your screen.

But if you're planning on printing those images, you'll want the resolution to be much higher, typically between 200 and 300 DPI. That will ensure your printout doesn't appear "pixilated," meaning you can really see those little boxes that make up the grid. If you've ever seen a picture in which the edges of diagonal lines look more like staircases, you're already familiar with this effect.

The final factor that determines file size is the format. The four most popular types of raster graphics are JPEG, GIF, BMP, TIFF and PNG. Let's take a look at each:

GIF: GIF (an acronym for Graphical Interchange Format) was the original Web graphic format and it's still quite popular. It's limited to a relatively small 256-color palette, which is why it works well for logos with solid colors and cartoon-style images, but not as well for full-color photographs. Photographs require a heck of a lot more color shades than 256.

Despite GIF's palette limitation, the format does hold a few benefits for Web designers. GIFs support transparency, which means you could float a logo over a background image when creating a Web page. The format also features a built-in "lossless" compression, meaning it will make the file size as small as possible without affecting quality.

Another benefit is that we can combine several GIF images into a single animated GIF image. This is not high-level animation, but it's great for rotating banner ads and those little Web icons such as the e-mailbox that opens and closes. Animated GIFs are the cyber version of an old-fashioned flipbook, in which you thumb through individual pages to create animation.

In order to create animated GIFs, you'll need software such as the shareware GIF Construction Set (available at www.mindworkshop.com/alchemy/gifcon.html). Both Macromedia Fireworks and the latest version of Adobe Photoshop also include GIF animators.

TIFF: The TIFF format is an uncompressed format that holds millions of colors. It's the standard for print design, but impractical for online use. A large, full-color photograph saved in the TIFF format would simply take too long for us to download.

In general, you should save any photos you're using for high-quality print jobs as TIFFs. If you're putting images on the Web, it's a good idea to use the TIFF format to save originals to your hard drive to ensure no quality loss.

You then can convert those images to JPEGs (explained below) before sending them through e-mail or posting them to a Web site.

JPEG: JPEG, which also sports a palette of millions of colors, is the most popular format for photographic images. It balances high quality with small file sizes.

Converting a TIFF file to a JPEG can typically reduce the file size 10 to 20 times without visible quality loss, or 30 to 50 times with small to moderate defects. When saving a JPEG file, you choose a compression level ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 giving the proving the best quality with a larger file size, and 10 giving the smallest file with the poorest quality. The JPEG's compression is considered "lossy," as quality is sacrificed in the name of file size.

In case you're wondering, JPEG got its name from the Joint Photographic Expert Group, which helped develop the format.

BMP: The BMP or bitmap format is native to Windows, and users can create their own BMP drawings using Windows' free built-in program Paint program. To run Paint, click on Start, then choose Programs - Accessories - Paint.

There's no compression with BMP files, so large images can take up a lot of room (which is why you seldom see them on the Web. Their primary use is for Windows wallpaper files, so you'll want to save images in that format if you want to use them as background images.

PNG: The newest of this graphic format, pronounced, "ping," is used by such Web graphic design programs as Macromedia Fireworks, and is catching on as a mainstream Web format. It combines a palette of millions of colors with other features such as variable transparency and gamma correction, allowing graphics to adjust to lighting differences between the Mac's and PC's monitors.

Resizing versus resampling

Resizing a bitmap or raster graphic typically will not yield very pleasant results. Say you've downloaded a small image from the Internet and you're trying to resize it up to 200 percent of its previous size. Doing so will make it appear boxy or pixilated, yielding results similar to trying to blow up a wallet photo to an 8x10.

Conversely, shrinking an image it to half its size will often make it appear blurry.

Resampling involves changing both the file size and the resolution, and when used correctly, it will produce much better results. If you take a 400 x 200 pixel at 144 DPI and resample it to an 800 x 400 image at 72 DPI, it will look fine on screen. (Remember, our screens only show up to 72 DPI.)

The lower DPI, however, will affect print quality.

Vector graphics

We mentioned that raster images comprise the majority of graphics we'll encounter, but there is another type called vector graphics.

Unlike raster graphics, which are made up of a grid of tiny dots, vector graphics are created with smooth, mathematically defined lines and curves.

The advantage of vector graphics - unlike raster graphics - is they're scalable. You could take a 3-by-3-inch vector graphic and blow it up to 8-by-8 inches and it will look just as good as the original.

Unfortunately, the software to create these images is not cheap. The big three are Corel Draw ($400), Adobe Illustrator ($500) and Macromedia Freehand ($400). Vector graphic software is also more difficult to master than simple photo editors.

Although you'll seldom stumble upon a Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator file in a middle of a Web page, the designs you see were actually often created in vector graphics software.

You can create a vector file, then export it to a JPEG, TIFF or GIF file using exactly the size you need. The quality will be excellent, since there's no resizing involved.

Clip art collections often contain a wealth of vector images you can browse. You can then import them as raster graphics into a desktop publisher or word processor for use in your documents.

By the way, vector graphics can always be exported to a GIF or JPEG, but it doesn't work the other way around. Once bitmapped, the image is bitmapped for life.

Clip art

Clip art collections are multiple CD sets that can offer hundreds of thousands of images for use in your programs, typically for around $50.

The graphics are compatible with most word processors, desktop publishers and image editors. The collection might throw in a few photographs, but you're mostly getting colored line-art drawings.

Clip art is royalty free, which means you're able to use it for personal use without having to worry about copyrights. Many clip art is also royalty free for commercial use, but it's best to first check an individual collection's disclaimer.

A good clip art collection is important source if you're publishing a newsletter or Web page. Remember, you can't just grab a photo off the Internet and use it in your own document or Web page!

If you're looking for royalty-free photos, you're not going to get off so cheaply. High-quality stock photographs from such companies such as Photodisc, West Stock and Eyewire can cost $15 to $50 for individual images, with CD collections running well into the hundreds of dollars.

NEXT - Chapter 15 - Music to your ears