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Friday, October 1, 2004

High-Tech Route To Better Image Quality

Now you can get more out of all lenses, even making low-priced optics perform like the best

When I first started photographing seriously years ago, I wanted to expand my lens choices for my SLR, but I couldn't afford it. So I did the best I could, buying budget lenses that weren't sharp wide-open (but were useable stopped down), inexpensive "preset" lenses and so on—maybe not the best lenses in the world, but they worked and I got by.

image qualityModern lens technologies have allowed incredible results from less-expensive lenses. Low-priced lenses are no longer a cheap compromise—they can offer very good performance which, for the price, is amazing. This gives the photographer on a limited budget much better choices than I had.

It's true that you still get what you pay for—high-priced lenses will have heavier-duty construction, usually somewhat better performance at the widest apertures and often exhibit higher contrast and brilliance. But what if you could improve performance from low-priced lenses? Or get more out of the extended range zooms?

With the computer, it's possible to do exactly that. Four software programs, in particular, offer a great deal of promise for maximizing your lenses' quality, and they cost a lot less than buying a new lens. They're the plug-ins LensDoc from Andromeda Software (www.andromeda.com), 55mm from Digital Film Tools (www.digitalfilmtools.com), DxO Optics Pro from DO Labs (www.dxo.com) and the Adobe Photoshop CS RAW converter (www.adobe.com).

One key problem with less-expensive lenses, especially wide-angle zooms, is distortion of lines so that they bow out at the edges (barrel distortion) or bend in (pincushion distortion). Extended-range zooms, such as those 28-200mm or higher, are especially susceptible to barrel distortion at the wide end. The new 8-megapixel advanced compact cameras have some outstanding lenses attached to them, but the demands for focal length range (28-200mm in 35mm equivalent terms) usually results in some barrel distortion.

In many natural scenes, this doesn't have a significant impact if there are no straight lines. Where this shows up and becomes a problem is when shooting wide-angle scenes with a strong horizon at the top or bottom of the scene. The horizon will bow.

LensDoc and 55mm offer easy-to-use tools to quickly correct these types of distortion. 55mm is a package of 47 different plug-ins (16-bit compatible), ranging from color correction to color grad to a unique tool called Ozone that lets you adjust tonalities separately in 10 zones of brightness. Its Lens Distortion adjustment allows you to control distortion in four ways, all using sliders: distortion (quickly bows and pinches an image); anamorphic squeeze (stretches or compresses an image); and curvature x and curvature y (controlling distortion on one axis at a time).


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