From pupil to page: digital imagery

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Digital images, once loaded into the computer, usually need to be manipulated in a variety of ways. Image enhancement and adjustment is, perhaps, the truly significant difference between conventional silver halide and digital photography. For a variety of reasons - not least cost and accessibility - the creative process is complete for all but the most enthusiastic photographer the moment the shutter button is released. Images are captured; photographic labs develop them. End of story.

No longer. Now that the darkroom has become, in effect, the computer screen, children can learn about image editing as easily as they absorb text editing skills by word processing. And familiarity with image manipulation leads to a greater understanding of its application and use in mass media.

Digital camera software performs a number of key functions, some of which are particularly suited to the needs of school photography. The first could be defined as restorative. Images can be enhanced and corrected, resized, sharpened, colour balanced and cropped. In practical terms this means that mistakes made through inexperience or lack of technical skill - the sort children are likely to make - can be corrected. Image editors should also be able to read and create files in the most widely used formats; this becomes particularly important if a school uses a variety of digital cameras and file formats. Most are for PC and Mac - Acorn users should consult their ICT co-ordinator, Acorn community or Castle Technology.

Photoshop, Adobe's flagship product, remains the editing choice of professionals and offers a plethora of tools. It also has the advantage of being highly integrated with other graphics programs from the same company. Such powerful and sophisticated software doesn't come cheap, however, and many schools may baulk at the asking price. There are alternatives. Adobe PhotoDeluxe, and PhotoShop LE could be described fairly as cut-down versions of Photoshop and contain many of the same core tools - layers, colour correction, text overlay - with the advantage, in PhotoDeluxe, of built-in cue cards and guided activities to assist the inexperienced user.

Good image editors also contain an array of creative tools able to enhance, even transform, the original image. Watercolour, stained glass, impressionist, charcoal, vignettingI it can all be done. Painter, from MetaCreations, imports photographs which can then be used as the basis for a marvellous range of visual and painted effects. The only limit is the user's imagination - and taste. Painter Classic and Art Dabbler - also from MetaCreations - offer much the same fun, ease of use and creativity but are far cheaper.

Mid-range graphic packages with excellent photo-editing capabilities are widely available at pound;100 or under. PhotoPaint 9 has helped re-establish Corel's reputation as a creative software house. PhotoPaint is a serious contender to Photoshop and comes with a battery of supporting applications including Intellihance Pro (for sophisticated image enhncement) and Desktop (for font management). Photo retouching, image enhancement, over 200 special effects and some superb artistic filters put this program in the forefront of image editing.

PhotoSuite III comes with Internet connectivity (Internet Explorer) for connection to the MGI website, where it is possible to download a range of additional tools and future updates. New features in this version include Auto-stitching (to create panoramic images) and PhotoTapestry for making composite pictures. PhotoSuite is especially strong on organisational tools, allowing pictures to be collated and displayed in albums or as thumbnails.

Another program under pound;100, Paint Shop Pro 6, supports over 40 file formats has a good range of effects including Emboss, Sharpen, Dodge, as well as layers technology which allows the user to edit and preview effects quickly and creatively. Version six also allows users to add animations to websites and create a variety of picture frames for their digital images. Text on a Path lets you make text flow around an object.

PhotoImpact 5 offers pressure sensitive tool sets that will appeal to artists and students who work with graphic tablets. Web creators are well catered for with a Web Designer component and a GIF animator. Other impressive aspects of this software are the PhotoImpact Album that can store thousands of images, some stunning special effects filters and a powerful text tool.

At the budget end it's worth looking at Picture It 2000 from Microsoft, PhotoExpress from Ulead and Kai's Photo Soap whose quirky interface conceals a powerful image restorer and manipulator. And, generally, consider any graphics product from Extensis, which offers an innovative range of programs that include digital framing (PhotoFrame) cataloguing (Portfolio) and PhotoShop plug-ins. Before buying, do check the system requirements of the software as some programs require a hefty amount of RAM and will take up a large slice of your hard disk.

As those digital images accumulate, archiving and storage issues need to be addressed. The popular storage options are removable Zip and CD-R with the CD format being the most economical. Most image editors contain compilation and retrieval tools but any school intending to establish an extensive archive of digital photographs should consider some dedicated cataloguing software - all those beautiful and painstakingly edited pictures and no way of finding them! Consider NBA PhotoWallet, K5 Photo or Extensis Portfolio; these three programs provide flexible and well-designed tools for managing large digital databases.

Image Editors Adobe Photoshop 5.5 (Windows and Mac) Painter 6 (Windows and Mac) Under pound;100 Adobe PhotoDeluxe 3 (Windows and Mac) Adobe PhotoShop 5 LE (Windows and Mac) Corel PhotoPaint 9 (Windows and Mac) Paintshop Pro 6 (Windows) PhotoSuite III (Windows) PhotoImpact 5 (Windows) Painter Classic (Windows and Mac) pound;50 or under Microsoft Picture It 2000 (Windows) Art Dabbler (Windows and Mac) PhotoExpress 3 (Windows)

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