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Digital photo imaging: manipulating pixels and beyond

Image manipulation is as old as photography itself.

Artists and photographers have been manipulating–i.e., enhancing, editing, doctoring–their images since Aristotle’s time, when artists would trace and manipulate their drawings using the camera obscura technique: images were projected on the wall of a small, darkened room with light admitted through a tiny hole opposite the drawing surface, and then traced by the artist.

In the 1800s, professional photographers followed Niepce’s heliographic process to coax images onto bitumen/pewter plates using silver halide concoctions–an eight-hour exposure process. Or they chose to "develop" images on silver plates, “Daguerreotypes,” using iodine vapors and mercury fumes to sharpen image features and permanently affix them. Calotype negatives followed enabling photographers to reproduce a captured image again and again, allowing for refinement of the printed picture.

Throughout most of the 20th century, photographers used arcane processing tools and techniques such as special developing solutions or light and color filters or airbrushes to improve or manipulate the content of their photographs before printing.

And like many things that are either complex or expensive for the average user, these image manipulation tools and techniques remained concentrated in the hands of the professionals–scientists, artists, photographers and dark room technicians–who understood and/or could afford them.

Today, there have been great advances in computer technology. The development of transistors, solid-state electronics, programming technology and eventually silicon and miniaturization brought computers and artful image editing tools to the desktop. Next, affordable, pocket-sized digital cameras were in the hands of users.

As a result, the desktop digital darkroom became not just a possibility, but a reality.

Are consumers interested in manipulating their digital photos?

So the obvious first question is: why would consumers now want to get involved with this, historically, "backroom" process?

The simplest answer is that they will get involved because they can.

On an intuitive level, humans are creative beings. Digital image editing allows them to be part of this creative process in ways that are both interesting and fun.

If image editing is so natural and desktop tools so readily available, are consumers actually doing it?

Yes, they really are.

From the advent of the first desktop image editor–PhotoMac for the Macintosh in 1988–users have been purchasing and using desktop image manipulation tools. Today there are dozens of software tools on the computer store shelf: Adobe’ Photoshop (now in its 7th iteration) and Elements, Ulead’s PhotoImpact, Corel’s Photo Paint, JASC’s Paint Shop Pro, Roxio’s Photosuite, Microsoft’s PictureIt!, SoundPix’s PLUS and more. Virtually all digital cameras sold (and many PCs and scanners) come bundled with at least one basic image editing software package. Many digital devices come with several types of software that offer varying degrees of complexity in order to "cover the bases" of user needs and preferences.

Think about it: Hardly a day goes by that each of us doesn’t receive a "manipulated" image of some sort whether it be an email with a humorous animated gif attached; a postcard with a cropped nature scene from someone’s vacation; a printed photograph with enhanced colors, brightness and contrast; a digital photo album with text annotations applied to each image or even a picture message from a friend’s camera phone with a voice annotation to provide context.

The empirical data also supports the fact that users are manipulating pixels. A recent (9/2003) Infotrends’ survey of 1000 Internet-connected households found that 85 percent of the households that owned digital cameras (51 percent of the survey sample) edited photos on their desktops. Adobe Systems estimates (10/2002) that 28 percent of the 25 million "photo enthusiasts" and 15 percent of the 50 million "memory keepers" have purchased digital imaging software. And in a survey of 1200 "active digital enthusiasts," Microsoft Corp. found that about 1 in 4 (28 percent) liked to "edit/create" with their images.

However you define the users, they are doing "it" with a growing desire to do more. In 2000, InfoTrends Research Group, the leading digital imaging market research and consulting firm, found that digital camera users have a high propensity to manipulate their digital images on the desktop: 56 percent of users “play” with photos now (73 percent in the future). More than a third (i.e., 36 percent) of all digital photos taken are touched up or manipulated in some way by users. And, nearly two thirds (i.e., 65 percent) of users want “advanced image editing” software bundled with their cameras.

Infotrends noted the most compelling personal imaging application to be “emailing photos” (81 percent) or “creating electronic photo albums” (63 percent). “Capturing audio” was also desired by 12 percent of users, with many more indicating they would use this feature in the future.

So, what exactly are users doing with their images?

The low- to mid-tier image editing packages–many of which are bundled for free with digital cameras and scanners–are enabling users to at least do the basics, including: rotating and flipping images; cropping and resizing images; removing imperfections (dust, scratches, noise); removing red-eye; adjusting color, brightness and contrast; sharpening focus, etc.

Users are also doing more fun things like applying text or sound captions, artistic frames, borders, edges and special effects (textures, shadows, color gradients, -), or using pre-configured templates to create photocards, calendars and albums.

What more do they want to do with their images?

"Advanced image editing" could mean different things to different people depending on their current skill level and prior image editing experience. Though it’s probably safe to say that advanced image editing is primarily about three things: 1) doing the basic image editing functions more easily, and perhaps automatically, 2) actually doing some pretty elegant pixel manipulation, and 3) doing things with images you never dreamed possible.

The more basic "advanced" functions consist of tools such as thumbnail browsers and manipulators that allow you to view the contents of an image file, or perform basic manipulation functions without actually opening the file; tools that automatically (on the fly) translate files from one format to another; tools that automate things like color correction or image contrast; tools that use metadata tags to automate organizing and archiving functions; tools that automate the printing of "picture packages" or tools that that track the history of changes made to a particular image.

The second category might be comprised of neat advanced features like Photoshop’s Healing Brush, which removes blemishes in an image subject (similar to a cloning stamp), while preserving such subtleties as shading, lighting and texture. Or tools such as color converters, paintbrushes, distortion effects, or pattern creators that allow photographers and enthusiasts to alter images in interesting and creative ways. Beyond these, there are many many more esoteric (and advanced) things that can be done to digital images–dithering, feathering, layering and masking.

I characterize the third category as "beyond pixel manipulation." It encompasses all the fancy and frivolous things that can be done to or with digital images that both enhance the images themselves or their usefulness. Some of which are really far out there and some that are just over the horizon.

So, what does lie beyond "mere" pixel manipulation?

Until now, photo imaging has been almost exclusively about manipulating pixels to enhance or change a raw photo itself. It has acted as an extension of the photographer’s darkroom onto the desktop where the objective is to create a more interesting or fun photographs.

And while we’re sure to see many useful advancements in image editing tools as time rolls forward, the future of photo imaging will be more about pictures as information and/or “information containers”. The objective will be to increase or enhance the value of a digital photograph by either 1) extracting more latent information from the photograph using digital techniques, or 2) by incorporating new and different types of information into the image itself.

With respect to the former, digital photographs are themselves information. Using special image processing tools, digital images can be analyzed and scrutinized for latent information –subject imperfections or identifying characteristics, measurements of features, shapes, colors, distances, surface texture–that can’t otherwise be discerned with the naked eye or conventional analytical tools. One example is Earth or space imaging by satellite or telescope where terrain features, or distances or textures are digitally rendered and analyzed. This is nothing new: scientists have been using such techniques since the dawn of the space program. What is new is that with the availability of cheap computing power these tools and techniques will move down to the personal desktop, just as image editing has.

As to the latter, incorporating new and different types of information into the image itself will enhance and extend the photographic experience beyond the image–or in other words “beyond just the visual dimension”. Foremost, it’s about having the ability to add additional information to the image. Moreover, it is about capturing and digitally encoding important sensoral (sound, smell, taste); spatial (space, location, speed); and temporal (time, secularity) information (i.e., the natural dimensions) so as to add context to digital photographs to make them more interesting and informative to the user. (And in some cases, to make them appear more life like.)

Imagine digital still photographs where the subject’s voice is captured and then played back upon viewing of an image. Or having additional relevant data also embedded (text and/or financial information, additional images, web and database links) in one or multiple layers within the image. Or where sensors automatically "see" and record location or secular data so as to pinpoint where and when an event occurred. Or, perhaps where an image automatically recognizes and securely archives itself based on embedded contextual information. Imagine applications such as those of the sciences where all the context that is relevant to a particular image–space, time, sense–is/are automatically captured and encoded into the image for future analysis.

With digital, almost anything is possible.

The stuff of science fiction? Perhaps. But so was the digital darkroom a mere century ago when Niepce, Daguerre and Eastman were bringing photography to the masses.

By Eric Severance is CEO of SoundPix, Inc.

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