Through this section I will focus mainly on digital images as most people are working in the digital world now (myself included). Should there be a demand for info on post production with film I will add more.
Now you have taken a bunch of photos and you need to do something with them. If you are like me and you never get rid of any images, even the bad ones then make sure that you have some budget for a storage system. When you take a lot of photos they start to take up a lot of storage space really fast. Ideally you should have some kind of local storage system like a hard drive and some off-site backup in case there was ever a disaster in your home or office that leaves your primary storage unreadable. Off-site storage may be a network drive at your office, a commercial network drive like Apple’s iDisk, or a service like SmugMug or Zenfolio. I also like to create a master set of CD/DVDs of every shoot that I make. If you work as a professional you may consider keeping master disks in a water and fireproof safe.
Image File Types
As I am sure that you have noted, I have mentioned multiple file types that are available to use. Most DSLR cameras offer three different file formats: JPEG, TIFF, and RAW. JPEG is a compressed file format and one of the most commonly used for image distribution. TIFF is an uncompressed format that should yield superior image quality and edit-ability compared to JPEG, and RAW is a compilation of all the data that the imaging sensor collects during an exposure but the image data is not processed by the camera.
Many cameras are also capable of shooting two different image formats at the same time. Usually you can shoot RAW+JPEG so that you can have the convenience of having JPEG images needing little work for a fast turn around and then you can work your RAW images as you have time. Shooting in a multi format mode can take up significantly more space on your memory cards and hard drives.
JPEG, which stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group” is one of the most common image formats in use today. JPEG is a compressed file format. It is considered a lossy format as to make the compression a lot of image data is dumped. JPEG images only store and display 256 shades of the primary colors (8-bit resolution). This can sometimes make subtle transitions in shade appear as hard lines. If your primary outlet for images is small prints and web, or if you don’t have a lot of time to do post processing work on your images, JPEG is a very useful format.
When you shoot in JPEG mode on your camera, the camera’s processor does all the calculations for downsampling and compression. In general most cameras do a very good job at this but there are definite benefits in image quality if you take a RAW image and covert it to JPEG on your computer which has a much more sophisticated processor and software.
I spent a lot of time shooting almost exclusively in JPEG format due to the fact that it is very easy to work with. I have even made some very nice looking large prints from JPEG images. I still shoot a lot of images in JPEG format due to time requirements on my workflow. You have to consider things like deadlines when you think about what format to shoot in.
Most cameras also allow you to choose from multiple image sizes and/or quality levels for JPEG images. Usually the choice in size is small, medium, or large. Depending on the resolution of the sensor and the camera these sizes may have different pixel dimensions. If you also have quality settings, they typically are fine, normal, and basic, these settings usually effect the pixel density of the image or ppi (pixels per inch)/dpi (dots per inch). If you are shooting JPEGs with the intention of being able to print them you should probably shoot at the highest quality setting available.
The TIFF or Tagged Image File Format is an uncompressed format. This format is generally a lossless format and very usable for editing, however most cameras only support an 8-bit file format. So like JPEGs, you loose a lot of color information when the camera processes the image. The TIFF file format in general can support up to 32-bit RGB information so this is a useful format for outputting processed RAW images as you can preserve all of the color information. TIFF files can be very large which can make them more of a hassle to store and distribute. Even though this is a file format that is available to shoot in, most photographers prefer to soot in RAW for uncompressed images as it is a more flexible format for editing.
RAW image files are just a collection of the raw data that the imaging sensor records. The camera applies no processing to these files, and many entry level image management and editing suites like Apple’s iPhoto cannot natively display a RAW image. Even Adobe Photoshop requires you to do some image processing before it can open a RAW image. Programs like Adobe Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture are designed to make RAW image “processing” and handling a streamlined part of your workflow with tools specifically designed for working with RAW files.
The benefits to the RAW file format are many. First off, when you bring the file into your computer, you have the ability to almost “re-shoot” the image. You have control over almost every variable like exposure, brightness, contrast, white balance, sharpening, color balance and many many more. You also have significantly more bit depth for each color. Most cameras that support RAW will shoot in at least 12-bit mode which gives you 4,096 shades of each primary color. Some cameras support 14-bit RAW which gives you 16,384 shades of each primary color. Because of this, RAW images will give you the smoothest transitions between shades of colors.
Once you “process” your RAW image you need to convert it to a file type that is usable by others. You can convert your images to JPEG format which is the most widely used and compatible format. Doing this conversion you will loose some quality as detailed in the above section on JPEG images. However, when you use software that is designed to do this conversion on your computer you have significantly more processing power that can make for a better final product.
You can also convert your RAW images to the TIFF file format. TIFF is an uncompressed format that can support the same bit depth as RAW so this conversion is essentially lossless, but will yield a huge file.
Since every shot is different it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to go into too much detail about how to process your images. Sometimes I find that the basic controls available in iPhoto suit my needs just fine. When I work in RAW I do my processing in Aperture. When I need to get down to the real nitty-gritty I power up Photoshop. There are books available for your favorite image editing software, if you want to really learn the software, get one!
The most common edits that I make are adjusting white balance, contrast, brightness and exposure. Sometimes I will crop images if they need it or if an image is better suited to a different aspect ratio, like panoramic for example.
Image Distribution and Display
So now you have processed and stored your images and you are ready to show them to the world. How do you do that?
Please make sure that however you choose to display or distribute your images you follow any applicable union rules if you work with union actors or designers.
If you are a designer or design student (or any student) with a hard copy portfolio you probably want prints of your images to put in your portfolio. There are many options for making prints of digital images. If you own a good color inkjet printer you can print them yourself. You can go down to your local drugstore and use their digital image printing stations, you can go to your local photo lab, or use one of the many online services.
Personally I think the cost per page and the effort required to print your own images at home is not worth it. Granted if you need to have the image tomorrow it is a pretty darn good way to do things though. If you do a lot of printing anyway and have a nice printer and know how to optimize your images for it then there is no reason not to.
In general I stay away from the print-your-own images kiosks at drugstores and wal-marts. Again, in a pinch it is a useful service, but you have even less quality control than printing at home and the cost per image may actually be higher.
Personally, I prefer to go with the online services like MPIX.com or my local photo lab. They usually offer the best range of products and the prints are usually the best quality. Sure, using an online lab like MPIX incurs a shipping charge and take a little more time but the results, in my opinion, are worth it. Also, they generally have better customer service than the wal-mart kiosk!
This is one of the real conundrums for many professional theatre photographers. More and more people want to get digital copies of images. They want to put photos on their website or on facebook to show all their friends who didn’t see the show or to attach to their resume. As a professional photographer trying to sell images, protecting yourself from misuse and unapproved copying and distribution of images is not easy.
Due to the ease of copying CD/DVDs I have chosen not to offer this as a distribution method. I sell single images available for download on my website, which is powered by SmugMug. I will talk about services like SmugMug later on. To do a digital distribution via disc I feel like I would have to charge more money than most actors are willing to pay to make it worthwhile since the odds are that every cast would only buy one disc and copy it for eachother. It also seems that in general people only want 4-5 images with them in the shot, and they really don’t care about the rest, so when 4-5 images costs less than a full CD, that seems to make more sense. I am certainly open to suggestions on how to make distribution by disc a viable option, but at the moment I can’t think of a way to do it.
On the other hand, if you are not in this to make a profit, then burning a CD/DVD that you can pass along to the cast, crew, and friends is a very easy and relatively inexpensive way to distribute images. Especially for students, if only one of you is taking photos of the show, but you all need photos for your portfolio then this is a great way to pass them around.
Websites and Services
There are currently two major players in the web-based image hosting services, SmugMug and Zenfolio. Both companies offer multiple annual paid subscription plans that give you unlimited storage space for JPEG images as well as ways to display your images to the public. With higher level subscriptions you can have access to printing services and storefront services for image sales. Higher level accounts also allow you to customize the look and feel of your website including using your own URL. Services like these are generally a pretty good deal. The annual cost for unlimited storage and a storefront is a pretty nominal expense. The fact that you get unlimited storage space by itself makes it a darn good deal.