Editor's note: This piece was written for a military vehicle magazine. It's written primarily for vehicle owners who want to submit photos of their personally-owned military vehicles for publication. However, most of the suggestions apply to all photographers.
© By Mark M. Hancock for Supply Line magazine
Professional images in newspapers, magazines and books have several commonalities. First, they’re sharply focused. They are properly exposed. They have some element of timing or time (including timelessness). They have good composition. Most importantly, they contain enough information for reproduction in the medium.
How large a photo can run (be reproduced) is determined by the final file size. This size is determined by the capture size minus any crops. While film can be scanned at higher resolutions, there is no way to “add” size to a digital photo. Once a digital image is made, it can only be degraded. Consequently, it’s vital to capture images at the highest resolution possible.
Television promotes a misconception that images can be “enhanced” beyond the original. This is false. An original image cannot be improved or repaired. Color balance, saturation, contrast and definition can be adjusted, but the information contained within the image is set.
The highest quality any image will ever produce is determined at the exact moment the shutter is activated. Furthermore, each step away from this original is an opportunity for the image to be degraded.
Professional digital cameras capture images in the most direct-to-press method. However, not all digital cameras are alike, and sometimes it’s better to use quality film cameras rather than inferior digital cameras.
When film is used, it’s best to scan directly from a negative or transparency. This process ensures the image is close to the original source. If the image was shot on film, printed onto paper, and scanned into a computer, the image is already at its third generation.
A grandson may look similar to his grandfather, but it’s not the same person. Only the original is the original.
The fidelity of the image becomes most important when it is submitted for publication.
Each print medium has a set pixel per inch (ppi) requirement. Newspapers are often 200 ppi, magazines and books can be 400 ppi. By comparison, most computer monitors are 72 ppi. Consequently, an image may look fine on a home computer monitor, but it wouldn’t look good in print.
This image of a retired M41 Bulldog was made with a Nikon D300 digital camera at a medium-fine setting. The quality is good enough for newspaper publication.
This image the same M41 Bulldog was made with a iPhone 4. The quality is surprisingly good enough for newspaper publication. However, it has major limitations.
Publications most often reject submissions because the images lack enough information or clarity for reproduction. There are several steps photographers can take to get their images published.
* All images start or fail with the quality of the lens. It doesn’t matter how large an image is if it was shot through a dirty fishbowl. Cheap cameras have cheap, plastic lenses. Likewise, quality cameras can have quality lenses. The quality of the lens determines the sharpness of the photo.
The sharpness of a photo is determined by the “circles of confusion” it produces. Lenses that produce the smallest circles of confusion are the best.
* The camera itself plays a significant roll in image quality. With film, it’s less important to have a top-end camera as long as the “glass” (lens) is good. With digital cameras, the camera, its sensor and internal processing software are often the difference between instant success or failure.
It is vital that a camera doesn’t artificially increase the file size. All digital cameras interpolate to some degree to make digital images. However, cameras that immediately increase the number of pixels, have also immediately destroyed the image fidelity because more of the image is fiction than reality.
The camera adds extra pixels and “guesses” about the pixel colors between other pixels and most often averages surrounding pixels. The average between red and blue is magenta (bright pink). Magenta is not a great color for a combat vehicle.
Professional cameras have better software algorithms and more sensors to capture an image with minimal immediate destruction.
Some micro and cell phone cameras are starting to achieve significant gains by reducing the size, but increasing the number of sensors. However, they still aren’t up to the same professional standard, nor are they anywhere near professional-quality film.
* Crops play an equal role in the ultimate size of an image. A crop reduces the area viewed in an image. There are three basic crops. These are camera, software and presentation crops.
Camera crops are perfectly acceptable. The photographer simply moves around or changes lenses to isolate a specific scene. These images reproduce best because no information is lost between the shoot and publication.
Both of these images were made seconds apart with the same professional camera. The top image was not cropped. The bottom image was cropped and artificially enlarged. Professional shooters get close for detail shots.
Never use the “digital zoom” or “digital crop” software built into some consumer cameras. The camera automatically discards the excess information rather than expanding the number of sensors used to collect the image. Instead, get closer to the subject rather than throwing away those valuable pixels.
Software crops are a deliberate decision to discard valuable image real estate. If the camera was tilted, the photographer was too far away from a subject or other visual elements intrude into the frame, it’s common to crop the image in digital photo software.
Publications often have formats for specific types of images. Oddly-shaped images will often suffer crops to fit these parameters. Even if the publication accommodates odd-shaped images, the editor may choose to crop “extraneous” elements out of an image to make the main subject more noticeable.
All of these crops reduce the effective size of a digital file. When an image is 192 megabytes (Mb), such as many color Library of Congress photos from the 1940s, crops have little effect on the ability to publish an image. However, a 5 Mb image can’t take a severe crop and still be large enough for use in most magazines.
* Camera stability helps determine the sharpness of an image. Without getting too technical, greater light allows for better images through faster shutter speeds, lower film speeds and more depth of field. Low light has the opposite effect.
Camera shake is a direct result of an unstable camera. With low light, camera shake is inevitable unless a sturdy tripod or other platform is used. While it isn’t foolproof, a good tripod is the single most valuable tool a photographer can use to improve image quality.
* Interpolation is an artificial increase of a digital file’s size. As mentioned above, this can happen as the image is captured. It can also happen by well-intentioned people increasing the size of a file to make it fit a publication’s parameters.
Unfortunately, interpolation can also make images completely useless to publishers. Many publishers have specialized software and camera techniques to slightly increase the usable size of an image. However, the increases are limited and also amplify any image flaws. A larger, flawed image is simply a bigger mess.
Most software is capable of increasing file sizes. If it can be avoided, DON’T ARTIFICIALLY INCREASE FILE SIZES. While the software is helpful, it isn’t as good as a full-size original because it artificially increased the file size. Specialized programs still invent “stuff between stuff,” but it does so better than other software programs.
Many publishers can scan prints and film at resolutions as high as 9,600 ppi to ensure clarity. However, if an image was already degraded (via previous artificial increases or other software manipulations) before it gets to a publisher, nothing can be done to salvage the image.
Photographers submitting scans to publications need to maximize every scanner setting to acquire the highest resolution image possible. There is no such thing as an image that is too large to publish. It takes much longer to make several high-resolution scans, however, each second spent on the scanner is more than equally rewarded on the press.
It’s wisest to spend the same time tightly editing which photos will be submitted rather than scanning and submitting many low-resolution images. The low-res images won’t be used and wastes an editor’s time.
In short, no program “improves” images by making them larger, artificial increases only degrade images. It’s best to get the original capture medium (film, digital file, etc.) and work forward from there. Then, scan the original at the largest file size possible and run it in a location smaller than the actual file size.
German plane C.L. III A 3892/18 was brought down in the Argonne by U.S. machine gunners, between Montfaucon and Cierges, France on October 4, 1918. (Pvt. J. E. Gibbon / U.S. Army)
While photographers have complete control over the quality of their own images, sometimes historic images are needed to completely tell a story.
The most important issue when submitting images to a publication in the U.S.A. is ownership of copyright. In the United States, the person submitting the images must either have made the images, have reproduction permission from the copyright owner, or have acquired an explicit “public domain” image (from a governmental organization).
The image above is an example of a public domain image acquired through the U.S. Department of Defense official internet site (www.defenseimagery.mil). It was made by Pvt. J. E. Gibbon for the U.S. Army in 1918. It is a 1.1Mb scan of a print from a film camera.
Additionally, it illustrates that high-resolution historic images are available from the Civil War to present day.
Unfortunately, the digital image above has also been manipulated by someone along the line and would be rejected by most newspapers and magazines as a credible image. However, it illustrates today’s topic while image manipulation is a subject for another day.
Recently, photographers (and other copyright owners), have voluntarily elected to allow their private images to become part of the public domain through Creative Commons agreements (www.creativecommons.org). While there are various licensing agreements within this range, many photographers have released all claims to images.
However, most publicly accessible photos on the internet are protected by copyright and permission must be acquired to use them. Without getting too deep into media law, here are some copyright basics.
The second a photographer makes an image, it’s protected by copyright. Nobody else can use or has any claim upon the image (latent or digital) unless the photographer has expressly given his or her rights to another person or entity. Professional photographers generate income and perpetuate their profession by leasing limited reproduction authority.
Some employees of several companies automatically surrender this copyright to the company while working on the behalf of the company (such as news organizations or military manufacturers).
When displaying an image in public, there is no legal requirement to notate an image as copywritten. Through its existence, it automatically has a copyright. Smart photographers also file for an explicit (hard) copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov) to collect additional punitive damages for infringement, but it isn’t required by law.
There are always exceptions concerning image ownership, but it’s best to ask before assuming ownership or availability of images.
Furthermore, possession of an image (in print or digitally) doesn’t equate to ownership. The purchase of a print or digital file doesn’t equate to ownership. Only original creation, signed reproduction permission or verifiable public release of an image allows others to legally publish images.
Another issue with images found online is file size.
Images posted online are expected to be viewed on 72 ppi monitors. Furthermore, designers want pages to load rapidly to keep the attention of visitors. When both of these demands collide, low-resolution images will be used.
An image that appears to be 5.5 inches on a computer monitor may only reproduce at 1 inch in a magazine due to the ppi conversion. Therefore, it’s imperative to ask image owners for high-resolution images while getting publication permissions.
Digital processing of photos is a relatively new process. Although the first digital camera was created in 1975, almost all images made before the 1980s should have been made on film. If a low-resolution image exists, a high-resolution image or original document (negative, slide or even a print) should also be available.
Again, it’s best to use the original source materials to get the best reproduction materials at the highest resolution to meet any dimensional requirements.
Image dimensions are expressed in various terms. The actual number of pixels an image contains is fixed until it is cropped. A 4,000-pixel-wide image remains 4,000 pixels wide even if the file format or image resolution is changed.
Understand megabytes (Mb)
The image above is a tightly cropped version of an iPhone 4 photo. It held up better than expected when compared to images from a professional camera. However, the dynamic range (steps between white and black) doesn’t have the same quality, nor does it have the same overall .jpg file size or color clarity as its competition.
Some publishers prefer to receive images with specific pixel minimums (photographers are welcome to exceed this number). This ensures an image will fit into a “hole” on a page. Unfortunately, if a crop is needed for proper display, a just-large-enough image could be rejected.
Other publishers prefer to have a minimum megabyte count. While megabytes of information ultimately determine if an image has enough information, various factors play into an image’s megabyte size.
The camera determines the file size. Cameras are sold based on megabyte (Mb) count. In theory, an 8Mb camera should make a better image than a 3Mb camera. However, this could be an illusion.
If the camera artificially increases the file size to get a larger Mb file, the images are largely useless. Furthermore, if the camera’s lens or other optical qualities are inferior, no Mb count is going to make it better. A 100Mb image shot through a dirty goldfish bowl is the same as a 1K image to a publisher. Neither will run.
Additionally, file formats increase and decrease Mb count.
Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG or .jpg) images are the most common photo compression format. It compresses the file size to its smallest possible size to save computer space and speed movement from machine to machine. These images can also move freely among various software programs.
However, each compression creates a loss of information. Publishers prefer .jpg images to move directly from a camera to a pre-press operator. The direct route limits number of Saves (and image compressions).
The next type of file is a Tag Image File Format (Tiff or .tif). Tiffs are more “change friendly” because it doesn’t compress and lose information on each Save. Tiff images tend to be four times as large as .jpg files. Consequently, if a publisher requires 5Mb .jpg images, the Tiff equivalent would be 20Mb.
The largest common file format is Encapsulated PostScript (EPS or .eps). This is actually a vector format designed for graphic artists. Because photos are pixel-based (raster), it’s not an ideal format for photographs. However, it creates a large, loss-free image file. It’s best to avoid this format.
A 5Mb .jpg image can save as a 28 Mb .eps file. This is essentially a temporary size illusion because the file will be converted to a .jpg or .tif file by the publisher. When a publisher requires a 5 Mb .jpg, a 5 Mb .eps won’t work.
Photographers should also remember to make vertical images and move around to get multiple angles of the same subject to show the environmental context. The results may reveal something unexpected.
Enough for now,