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I'm here in my office looking at this 20x30 print of Snow Geese exploding in flight in front of a New Mexico thunderhead. The white birds against the dark black sky are very dramatic. It's an older image printed from a scanned 35mm but I've loved the image and print for years. That is until April of this year. Now the print drives me nuts and as I write, a new print is being made. What was wrong with the old print? Me!

Long, long, long ago, I spent every non-shooting moment in the darkroom either at school or at a friend's house. The magic of seeing an image appear in the developer so hooked me that I just had to keep seeing it over and over again. It was magic! When I "grew up," printing was delegated to a lab for simple economics, space economics, so a part of that magic of photography I so enjoyed had disappeared. That is until April when I was introduced properly to the excitement of the digital darkroom. Yeah, I had heard many expound the glories of the digital darkroom, but personally I had never seen any prints that really grabbed my attention that came from a digital darkroom. Nor had I seen a master take an already prefect image and turn it into a print that was a mastery of the heart. When I did in April it changed me, which brings me back to that print of the Snow Geese.

I've had images enlarged to 4x7 feet taken by Coolpix cameras that looked just fine, most folks never knowing the image came from a small 1MB file. My office has a number of 20x30 prints from the D1, which look great but no matter the camera or scanner, they all have that "digital" look. Even my Snow Geese image that was an original 35mm but printed from a scan has that look. What is that look? Noise, artifacts, little things that once you've been shown them stick out like a sore thumb. Many have asked why I don't have a gallery and the main reason in the past has been that the quality I use to get in the darkroom I wasn't seeing in the enlargements I had made (I'm really picky about my prints).

Then came the pied piper of the digital darkroom, Vincent Versace, who quickly showed me and began to teach me just what I had been missing. I hinted towards this in the last issue of the Journal but in the three months since that article, my skills and passion for the digital darkroom have grown leaps and bounds. They've grown so much that my favorite print of the Snow Geese had to go because all I could see were all the defects (which are now all gone). Getting that print quality I had from a tray from the digital darkroom involves many steps, much more than I can devote space to in many issues of the BTJ. But one of the keys to making a beautiful print from the digital darkroom comes from a software program we explore at our Digital Landscape Workshop Series.

If you want great prints from your digital darkroom, but haven't been able to obtain them, I can NIK that problem. Nik Software makes a suite of software plug-ins for Photoshop that you cannot live without, NIK Dfine, NIK Color Efex and Sharpener Pro! Let me explain how these plug-ins have brought the magic of the darkroom back to me by producing prints I want to sell in my gallery!


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Before We Begin

First and foremost, I need everyone to be on the same page. I'm working with a photograph already taken right, right from the start! Nothing has changed there, nothing will. To quote my good friend, I'm not fixing broken pixels, but bending those I've captured. What I'm doing is using the tools in Photoshop to maximize the quality I've already captured to create the perfect print. I'm figuratively and literally removing the artifacts of my favorite medium, digital, in order to print the quality I demand of my images. I'm doing this while recapturing the fun of the darkroom in the digital space. While these same techniques will help you if you have to crop your image or use curves to fix exposure problems, you won't get the same image quality compared to capturing the photo right, right from the start! It's still the person behind the camera that counts!

NIK Dfine

The very first step in making a gorgeous print and I mean literally the very first step is NIK Dfine. What is NIK Dfine? NIK Dfine & Dfine Selective are two plug-ins that literally clean up digital's act. By a process I won't even profess to begin to understand (the math behind Dfine is amazing!), with a click or two Dfine cleans up what digital leaves behind. But like any tool in photography, you cannot blanketly just say "globally fix this" by using one setting on every image and obtain the best results every time. Like everything else in photography, you've got to become a knowledgeable craftsman to make the most of Dfine. (Now don't you go on to some other article because you don't think this applies to you or that this might be over your head. You just sit right down and read all of this. No matter if you're a conventional or digital photographer, this can make a vast difference in your photography!)

There are two things about digital, be it original capture or scans, that you need to understand to start using NIK Dfine and that's noise. There are two types of noise we're working with, Luminance Noise and Chrominance Noise. Right from the Dfine IB comes these definitions of these two types of noise:

Luminance Noise is noise that appears as small, dark spots that often look like film grain. Chrominance Noise is noise that appears as small off-colored spots or specks in the image.

Understanding which noise you're working with and trying to rid it from your image as well as what other detail you could lose and need to preserve in the process, are key concepts to making gorgeous prints! I can't stress enough that is not the defining (had to use the pun, sorry) word nor recipe for using Dfine. Every image requires a little different treatment based on the camera you used, the image you captured and how you want the final image to appear. By the time you read this piece, I know I will have learned even more on how to better use these products. That's kind of the exciting part of the digital darkroom for me right now because like photography, you can learn something new every day!

This is my basic routine I use when working on an image. When I open a Jpeg (viewing images in DigitalPro, select image and depress Ctrl E) in Photoshop, the first thing I do is create a copy of the file (right click on image's top frame, select Duplicate). I never work on the original, so I close it and begin to work on the duplicate. When working a NEF file, I first go into Nikon Capture and do the Advanced RAW processing, then save the file, 16bit, TIFF format RGB and then open in PS. I then call up Dfine (Filter > Dfine 1.0) which brings up the Dfine user interface. Next I select the Mode 5 for previewing the image within the Dfine UI (right above the photo and click on the five thumbnail image preview). I start by working with Luminance Noise. You could just use the settings under Luminance in Dfine and come away with clean results, but you can do better! The amazing thing about the folks at NIK is they didn't settle to make Dfine just some blanket fix, oh no! When you get Dfine and before you use it for the first time, you need to go to their website and buy the individual camera profiles, in my case I got the profile for the D1H. Now you're cooking!

The individual camera profiles help you optimize noise reduction for your specific camera. Once loaded on your computer, you simply click on Load Profile >Load from Disk and then find the file under the Photoshop directory. When you select Luminance Noise, the last option in the option menu is the profile for your camera (camera profiles are organized by ISO range, select the range that fits the image at hand). With that selected the camera profile control feature is launched. The camera profile controller manages the range of noise reduction for the camera selected. This is based on the manner in which the selected camera captures and processes an image (very important), varying image structures and detail and the relationship of those details and color in the image.

In the five image mode, you take the eyedroppers, select sections of the image where you want to maximize noise reduction and then with the sliders, affect a change. With a calibrated monitor you can actually see the noise reduction right on the monitor. This very powerful tool for maximizing your print quality has just begun. This is just the first step of maximizing your image quality.

Next on the Dfine user interface is Chrominance Noise & Artifacts. This dialog box provides you with four more options to maximize your noise reduction. You'll find one option is Protected Reduction. I tend to use this option the most, using the slider to dial in what is the most appropriate for the image I'm working on. Now neither of these two incredibly useful tools can be just blanketly applied as quickly as I just implied in my description. I learned this the hard way luckily in the very beginning.

Working with a Greater Prairie Chicken photo (BTJ vol 8-2, pg 8), I first did a simple sharpening (using Sharpener Pro!). I instantly saw how sharp the eye of the bird in flight should be. I Ctrl Z that and went to Dfine and did a global Luminance and Chrominance correction. I instantly could see how I reduced the noise and artifacts, especially in the out of focus background, but the eye of the chicken in flight was no longer sharp. That can happen when you do global anything in Photoshop and Dfine is no exception. How do you clean up the noise and artifacts while maintaining detail?

There are a number of ways, the way I did it in this instance was to very carefully select the two chickens using Magnetic Lasso Tool (L), inverse selection (Select > Inverse) and then call up Dfine to clean up everything but the two chickens. When the Dfine UI comes up, you'll see what you've selected and in the case of the two prairie chickens, I saw the whole image except the two chickens were missing. Only the transparent checkered background was present where they would be in the photo. The resulting print is spectacular, but it took time and knowledge of the product to put it all together.

I use Dfine on every image, including not only Jpegs, but also NEFs (yes, I'm shooting those now and with the D2H I will be using the Raw w/Jpeg feature almost exclusively) and those images I submit to clients. Dfine is the first thing I do to any image before doing anything else. It radically improves a photo in cleaning up those pieces of the digital image that are a natural part of the digital process. If you're in the business of selling digital images, I don't know how you can submit images without first taking the time to clean them up. This is just the start of how the Nik Software suite can improve your images!


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NIK Color Efex Pro

This plug-in is incredibly powerful for the photographer who remembers that digital photography is still photography. When you call up Color Efex Pro (Filter > nik Color Efex Pro!), a large drop down menu appears with lots of filter options. There are only two that I have extensive practice with and used so far and are ones you should be aware of, Polarization and Skylight Filter.
Yeah... I said it's important to get it right, right from the start. This includes using filters on your camera like a polarizer. It is a tool that can dramatically affect the way you communicate! There are two instances though when using the Polarization Filter in Color Efex that is a better option than attaching a filter to the front of a lens. One is when you forget to bring a polarizer with you, and second is when you can't afford to lose the two stops of light. (Way cool, you can polarize and not lose light. That makes the Color Efex a plus right from the start!)

There I am on a guided float trip in gorgeous Montana with my son. I pull out the 24-102VR attached to a D100 and line up a gorgeous scenic. Then it hits me, I left my polarizer back in the truck, way up river (I had fishing on my mind)! Do I panic? Nope, I just shoot away! Later that day we watched a Bald Eagle, trying to grab trout from the river. It was late in the afternoon and the light levels were getting pretty low. Now, if I had a polarizer I wouldn't want to use it because the loss of two stops would have made stopping the action pert near impossible. In both cases, I knew I had the tool to make it all work.

Knowing that I had the Color Efex Polarization Filter back in the computer and how it works, I shot accordingly. Again, I was shooting knowing what I wanted and how I was going to get it. Photoshop and these tools do not turn garbage into flowers! The end result was the same, whether I used a polarizer at the time I took the photo or used NIK Color Efex Polarization Filter. A polarizer is designed to remove reflections; it's physics. Generally I use a polarizer to remove the blue reflection the sky causes on subjects. The NIK Polarization Filter works in the exact same way and in the same manner. This means that if a real polarizer wouldn't have helped the situation at the time the photo was taken, the NIK Polarization Filter wouldn't either. The math that the NIK boys have done to make this work truly boggles my mind!

The Color Efex Skylight Filter is one right out of the Moose Play Book. I've written countless times on how I use an 81a filter all the time on every lens. There is a psychological and technical reason for its application. The technical reason is much like the use of the polarizer, to remove the blue cast from our image, warming it up. This blue cast in digital is easy to capture with our fixed WB space (soon to be increased with the D2H). It has to do with shooting a scene with a fixed color temperature with a different and higher color temp. The folks at NIK know their photography, which is why they created the Skylight Filter. The Skylight filter doesn't just arbitrarily "warm up" a scene like using Saturation or some other color balance adjustment in Photoshop. The Skylight Filter works the same as if we could dial in a white balance of 10,000k when we are shooting a scene of 10,000k. Since we can't dial in such a white balance setting, the Skylight Filter brings the color temperature back so what we saw with our hearts and minds matches how the final image appears.

The way these two filters work is similar to Dfine. You call up the filter in Photoshop that you want to use and a user interface appears. You'll see the photo you're working on in the user interface. In the lower left corner is a slider that permits you to adjust the strength of the filter (there is a filter rotation slider in the Polarization Filter UI). It's really just that simple. Personally, I use the filters as the second to the last step when finishing a photo. (Before you ask, yes, I use the Skylight Filter even though I've shot the image with an 81a. Even with an 81a, I often cannot match the WB with the CT.) What's the last thing you should do? Sharpen.


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NIK Sharpener Pro

Sharpening of digital files no matter their origin has been the ruin of many a fine image. It is easy to see in magazines when an image was first sharpened by the photographer and then again by the magazine. Like everything else, you can't just blanketly sharpen an image. On the other hand, sharpening portions of an image three times isn't the death of it. It's the person behind the computer that counts!

I know, you have Unsharp Mask already, so why buy a plug-in to do the same job? I asked the same thing until I knew better because Sharpener Pro! is nothing like Unsharp Mask! The Unsharp Mask in Photoshop is an algorithm that creates the illusion of sharpness, but it neither creates added detail nor color protection. You can see it for yourself. Open an image in PS and depress Ctrl Alt + until all you see is a screen of pixels. Next, call up Unsharp Mask and then click the preview on and off. You instantly will see the illusion of sharpness is a mere contrast change. You could say it's smoke and mirrors by changing the appearance of a color of pixels rather than actually sharpening those pixels.

The standard user interface when applying an Unsharp Mask asks the user to enter Threshold, Radius and Percentage in order to perform the sharpening task. Using the example from the folks at NIK (because I sure don't want to do the math), if you have an image at 275dpi that you want 3x4 inches for a 75lpi offset printer, what numbers do you use for those three settings? To achieve this you would need to figure out the math equation to arrive at a threshold of 33, percentage of 120% with a radius of 1.61pixels. NIK Sharpener Pro! doesn't make you jump through such hoops to correctly sharpen an image. How does Sharpener Pro! work?

When you first launch Sharpener Pro! and before you see the UI, Sharpener Pro! does an Autoscan of the image. One of the image inspections that the Autoscan performs is determining the image's real resolution. What Sharpener Pro! reads is not the dpi in the EXIF file but rather analyzes the actual detail in the image. Factors such as the quality of the CCD and how well you focused and held still are what it's looking at, not what in a perfect world you should have captured. This is incredibly important to the final output! (It's really cool to look at the dialog box at the bottom of the Sharpener Pro! UI to see what the real resolution is of an image. I've used that feature every so often to compare two images for which one is technically the sharpest.)

The Autoscan feature communicates to the user if the image that it's being asked to sharpen is good enough to be sharpened. Ouch! I had one photographer email me about this and asked if it was accurate. I told them to make a print and send it to me to see for myself. Sorry to say, the software was quite accurate and the enlargement should never have been made that large and sharpened.

Sharpener Pro! has six different settings that you can change as per your preferences. The change in the settings you make will be reflected in the dialog box at the bottom of the UI based on the info obtained by the Autoscan. Now's when my knowledge base runs thin because to be quite honest with you, I haven't learned the "whys" only the "hows" and the outcomes. The first two options are the Image Width and Image Height. These two when you launch Sharpener Pro are set to whatever image size you set your image to in PS. (You set the image size as the second to last thing before finishing an image and then sharpen as the very last step.) I don't mess with these settings.

Next is the Printer slider. I always set this to 2880x1440 photo. Why, because that's what I was told by those in the know as being the best setting. Next is Printer Quality, which is always set at average. Why? Again because I was told that was the best. I could find out the answers but since I'm just a simple mountain boy, getting the best without having to learn the math behind it is just fine by me. The last two settings are kind of the same. Eye Distance is set to Large Poster and Personal Profile is Anna. I do understand the reasoning behind Eye Distance and that's based on proper viewing distance of an image, which is really smart.

When you've done all of this, the dialog box at the bottom of the UI will have changed the info to reflect your selections. It's when the moment of truth about the quality of your image is displayed. If you wonder why your images don't look as good as you thought or hoped they would, this can be a big part of it. I'll be the first to admit that looking at an image on a computer monitor, especially one that's not calibrated, can be real difficult. Judging quality is not the same as putting a loupe up to a slide. Sharpener Pro! though makes the learning curve and great print curve a whole lot less steep!


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Do I believe in what I'm saying?

I'll bet that right now somewhere in the world emergency medical teams are rushing to the home of a BTJ reader because someone can't believe what Moose just wrote (just kidding). Moose, using Photoshop and writing about a plug-in for it, what is the world coming to? While my attitude towards Photoshop and NEF files have changed my attitude about getting it right, right from the start has not. What has opened my mind is how Photoshop has replaced the enlarger, Poly Contrast filter pack, developers and the rest so what I see with my heart can be outputted to the printed page.

Nik Software suite is a set of tools that can aid us as photographers in being better communicators. We're using the tools of photography, light, lens and composition to capture the perfect image from the start. We're then taking this image in a program and with the aid of Dfine, Color Efex and Sharpener Pro! putting our talent, quality and passion onto the page for others to enjoy. All I can say is, if you still don't think the quality of digital is there yet, I can easily NIK that idea!

Nik Software - www.nikmultimedia.com

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