Getting the Most Bang for Your Bits
Pixel count aside, one of the more interesting advances coming to market in the wonderful world of digital imaging would have to be the jump to 14-bit color (up from 12-bit color) in several of the newer DSLRs. And if you do the math, you know this is more than a 2-bit improvement.
In a break from the pack, Canon's EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1D Mark III, 40D, along with Nikon's D3 & D300 have the ability to capture 14-bit RAW image files, which have the potential to produce up to 16,384 shades of gray. Most all other 35mm-based DSLRs currently feature 12-bit capture, which can reproduce 'only' 4067 shades of gray, which in itself isn't too shabby if you consider JPEGs, at 8-bits, contain a maximum of 256 shades of gray regardless of how they were originally captured.
These numbers can be misleading at first, because an 8-bit image can contain up to 256 shades of red, 256 shades of blue, and 256 shades of green. And when you multiply 256 x 256 x 256 you end up with a total of 16.7-million possible colors from your average JPEG. The newest Canon and Nikon DSLRs (along with Mamiya's ZD medium-format back), capture images in 14-bit color, which has the potential of reproducing up to 4-times the volume of tone of the average 8-bit file.
And in case you're wondering what you get for a digital camera that costs as much as a tricked-out Mini Cooper S, Hasselblad's H3D-series medium-format cameras capture images at 16-bits, which works out to 65,536 shades of gray, which when multiplied by itself three times over (RGB) comes out to 281 trillion colors… give or take a few billion if it's overcast.
Now the human eye can 'only' differentiate between about 500 shades of gray – or about 7 to 10 million colors - and the finest desktop printers cannot come anywhere near reproducing this volume of tone and color. Magazines? They're on par with entry-level laptop printers, which actually aren't all that bad nowadays. So at the end of the day, what's the big deal?
Perhaps the big deal can best be illustrated by examining the histogram of the last JPEG you tweaked in Photoshop. What probably started off looking like a peaked mountaintop bordered by diminishing hills and valleys suddenly became a jagged, comb-like graph with major gaps of image data visibly missing as a result of diddling around with Curves, Levels, and other tonal adjustments.
The same image captured in 14 or 16-bit color, which starts out packing far more image data than the 8-bit economy model, can survive most any adjustments you make and come out the other end with nary a hint of data loss on the resulting histogram. Even after conversion to 8-bit color, the resulting image remains far more robust with smoother tonal transitions than a comparable file that started out in an 8-bit color space.
If you've invested – or are thinking of investing - into a 14 or 16-bit camera, but continue to work in an 8-bit environment you're probably not getting your full monies worth. The following products take advantage of 14 to 16-bit color spaces, and if you're curious about how much better your photographs can be you might want to check out the following expanded-gamut holiday gift ideas.
Perhaps the best place to start is with your choice of monitor. Most every monitor sold today is designed for 8-bit image display, which means regardless of what you're shooting with, a box of donuts says your monitor cannot display the outer limits of what your new camera is seeing. The best way to illustrate the difference between an 8-bit output monitor and a 14 or 16-bit output monitor is to open a blank file in Photoshop, and using the Gradient tool, draw a line from left to right across the screen.
On most monitors you can clearly see striped gradations due to data loss as the image goes from black to white. The same gradient viewed on a 14 or 16-bit LCD will appear seamless as it travels from black to white. To ensure you're seeing everything you paid for from your new DSLR, we offer a selection of LCD monitors from Eizo and LaCie capable of working beyond the limitations of 8-bit color display.
The 24.1" widescreen (16:10) Eizo ColorEdge CE240W (EICE240WBK) is hardware calibrated at the factory for 2.2 gamma, and features 14-bit color and independent 6-color (R, G, B, C, Y, M) adjustment. A key advantage of hardware calibration is that while software adjusts color by manipulating the output of the computer graphics board, hardware calibration adjusts color by changing the output of the monitor, which results in zero loss of viewable tonality. By hard-calibrating all monitors at the factory, there's a better guarantee your CE-series Eizo will match the color of any other CE-series Eizo monitor.
The CE240W also features a 1000:1 contrast ratio, a wide 178°/178° viewing area, a quick 8 ms response time, and a dual USB 2.0 hub for peripheral devices.
The Eizo CG211 (EICG211BK) at 21.1" diagonal and Eizo CG241 (EICG241WBK) at 24.1" diagonal, go one step further by offering the ability to open your image files in Adobe RGB color. Equally powerful is the ability to make the finest of tonal adjustments in 16-bit color, which results in far fewer conversion errors when taking images down to shallower bit-depths. Both CG-series monitors include hoods and support ISO-coated and US web-coated CMYK color spaces, which should warm the cockles of all you graphic designers out there.
Every Eizo monitor comes with ColorNavigator Software, which utilizes 12-bit Look-Up Tables for color temperature, brightness, and gamma adjustments using colorimeters from Gretag, X-Rite, or ColorVision (not included), and are guaranteed to be dead-nuts accurate for five years.
Another notable wide-gamut LCD worth considering is the LaCie 526 (LA526CABEPC), which at 25.5" diagonal, can recreate a CRT-grade 91% NTSC color gamut with 12-bit gamma correction with 16-precision. The LaCie 526 covers 95.5% of the ISO-coated gamut, 95% of Adobe RGB, and includes LaCie's Blue Eye Pro software, a Blue Eye colorimeter, and a monitor hood.
Software is another avenue for mining the details of your image files. Adobe's Photoshop CS3, Photoshop CS3 Extended, Photoshop Elements, as well as Adobe Lightroom each offer support for 16-bit color, as does PhaseOne Capture One Pro, which is recognized as one of the very best RAW file converters on the market regardless of whose camera you're shooting with.
If you're a Nikon shooter, you also have the option of processing and editing your NEF files using Nikon's NX software, which features Nikon-specific processing tools such as Color Aberration Control, D-Lighting, Image Dust-off, Vignette Control, Fisheye-to-Rectilinear, Image Control, Noise Reduction, and other tone control options.
If you're the kind of person who tends to roll up the sleeves before editing image files, nik Software has a trio of 16-bit-compatible software packages designed to make your images that much better than you-know-who's images. nik Dfine 2.0 is an advanced noise-control application that enables you to eliminate noise and artifacts from your images globally and/or selectively. Dfine 2.0 allows you to smooth a models skin, while leaving hair details untouched, or 'clean up' a sky while maintaining fine details in buildings, and texture in landscapes. Automatic camera profiling enables you to establish batch-processing parameters based on the sensitivity characteristics of your camera's imaging sensor.
When used sensibly and responsibly, enhancement filters can add that extra touch to a good photograph, as well as raise the Wattage of so-so images. nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 – Standard Edition and nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 – Complete Edition, contain 19 and 75 imaging filters respectively, and enable you to take your images to the next level by adding infinite levels of color, tone, and special effect enhancements with real-time previews each step of the way. An updated, user-friendly interface makes the goings intuitively easy.
The last step of the editing process is sharpening, and you'll be hard pressed to find a better sharpening application than nik Sharpener Pro 2.0. nik Sharpener 2.0 enables you to sharpen your images based on a set of parameters that include the final image size, anticipated viewing distance, and final output method– i.e. inkjet, halftone, electronic display, etc - resulting in images that probably contain more snap than the standard-issue un-sharp mask you've been using up until now.
If all three of the above-mentioned nik products strike your fancy, the nik Software Professional Suite 2.0 contains all of them in one neat package.
From DxO Labs we have DxO Optics Pro 5, a very cool image processing application capable of turning your camera's RAW files into sharp, artifact-free images. Other tricks up the DxO sleeve include the ability to correct for keystoning, barrel and edge distortions, highlight recovery, a variety of color and tone adjustments, as well as dust removal and noise reduction.
One other very cool, 16-bit compatible application available from DxO l is DxO FilmPack, which gives you the ability to emulate the look of your favorite film stock – i.e. Kodak Portra 160NC, T-Max 3200, Tri-X, Fuji Provia 100F, Velvia – as well as an emulation of cross-processing for your digital image files. DxO FilmPack is available as a standalone application or as a plug-in for Photoshop and DxO Optics Pro.
One additional 16-bit enabled plug-in for all you filter fiends out there is Tiffen's Dfx Filter Kit, which contains 94 individual filters that according to the nice folks at Tiffen, allow for over a thousand filtering options.
And if you're truly passionate about print quality – and you're running Mac OS 10.5 or higher - you might want to have a look-see at the latest ColorBurst Editions of Epson's wide-format Stylus Pro inkjet printers. Available in 17, 24, 44, and 64" widths, these RIP-driven printers can take advantage of the expanded tonal ranges afforded by 14 and 16-bit image files. Canon's large-format ImagePROGRAF inkjet printers also allow for high-definition printing of 16-bit image files through the use of a Print Plug-in Module designed to work with Adobe Photoshop 6, 7, CS, CS2, and CS3. Further details about these wide-format workhorses can be found in our Holiday Printer Roundup.