I remember the first time I became aware of megapixels and how they related to the quality of the final image. More than three years ago, I was in Costco, and the store was promoting the sale of 2- to 3-megapixel cameras. The 11x14-inch print of a mountain goat caught my eye. I closely inspected it and searched intently for the telltale signs of digital capture. There were no jaggies, no noise. The colors were superb and there was excellent detail in the fur of the snowy white animal.
I flipped the print over to see a note that read "Nikon Coolpix 775, 2.1-megapixel camera." I was surprised because all of the articles I had read said that a print like the one I held in my hands was impossible. I bought the camera, for my wife, of course, and a new era in photography was born.
Seeing The Big Picture
Within the next three years, I came to invest in a Nikon D100 and a Nikon D2H, but the final proof of the quality of digital cameras came this past February when Nikon produced a poster for PMA using one of my own digitally captured images from the 6-megapixel D100. The image of a colorful tree frog was made into a 19x28-inch poster that has detail and sharpness every bit as good as any 35mm film. I was excited to finally see an image produced on a lithographic press and sized larger than 99 percent of all the sales I typically make. The quality was simply outstanding, despite the fact that many people believed that such a poster was impossible using a 6-megapixel camera.
So, how is it possible? I'll share with you what I learned as to how Nikon's pre-press house produced the poster.These specifications provide the highest-quality image necessary for lithographic printing, and they can be applied toward producing prints on an inkjet printer.
Creating And Downloading The Image
I start by shooting my digital images in the RAW format, which in Nikon's system is called NEF. Think of NEFs as digital negatives. Unlike images that are saved as JPEGs, NEFs are the original files created on the camera's CCD with minimal enhancements. This allows you to make changes to the white balance, exposure, contrast, brightness and other aspects of the image without permanently impacting the original file. All of my NEF processing is done with Nikon's proprietary software, Nikon Capture, although Adobe Photoshop has the ability to process NEFs.
After adjusting the contrast of the image using a Levels-style control in Nikon Capture, I save the files as RGB TIFFs in 8-or 16-bit format. I don't sharpen any images in-camera or in Nikon Capture if they're going to an editor for publication. I often leave it to the pre-press house, as it has the best knowledge as to how the image will be used. If you're printing your images yourself, sharpen them at the end of your workflow.
When sharpening images, I use the Unsharp Mask tool for the greatest control. If you're uncertain about the correct settings for sharpening, plug-in software such as nik multimedia's Sharpener Pro! offers an easy way of achieving optimal sharpness for any size print.
Extensis (pxl SmartScale)
nik multimedia (Sharpener Pro!)
Going To Press
Once the pre-press operator gets the file, he or she goes to work with his or her own set of requirements for enlarging the photo and massages it for publication. In the case of the Nikon poster, pressman Ed Barchowski of Tana-Seybert Printing in New Jersey chose Genuine Fractals to upsize the original 17.5-megabyte file to an 89.5-megabyte TIFF file for reproduction. Genuine Fractals as well as several other applications, such as PhotoZoom, Stair Interpolation Pro and pxl SmartScale, use advanced algorithms to interpolate the size of the image with minimal evidence of digital artifacting, such as jaggies. Photoshop CS also has improved its own interpolation engine when working with RAW files. It has an option called Bicubic Smoother, which provides cleaner upward interpolation of image files.
Interpolation is a process where the computer software adds information to and rebuilds the original image, adding more pixels to achieve the size needed to produce the poster. It's an amazing process that's getting better and better with each new generation of interpolation software. In the case of Nikon's poster, the results were so good, I'd have never guessed it was produced from a 6-megapixel camera.
Making Me A Believer
Like many of you, I started small, just to try digital capture, and soon it became evident how incredibly efficient and fun this new medium is for photographers. But as I earn my living taking photographs, I need the quality to be good enough to satisfy even the most demanding photo buyers. After shooting with the Nikon D100 for the last two years, I'm happy to say that, so far, not one of my images has been turned down due to lack of quality.
There are legions of folks who will tell you that what we've achieved shouldn't be possible. You'll see the results, however, when Nikon releases these posters to dealers by the time you're reading this article. I suggest you take a look for yourself and make your own decision.