Friday, July 11, 2014

Digital Image Software for Underwater Photography

By Jim Garin
Today, it is very easy to take almost any digital camera, take a picture and have it come out pretty well.  Cameras have auto face recognition, smile recognition, pet recognition and more modes than one could possible use.  Even phones can take reasonable images.

But as soon as you take a camera underwater, all bets are off. At most a camera will have an underwater setting…one that only works underwater for bright tropical conditions, and divers aren’t always diving in those places, or with artificial light sources like strobes.

Thankfully, there are two things that can fix this:
  1. Raw images (what the camera actually sees before making a picture you can use).
  2. Image processing software (so you can turn that raw image into a different file type to have on the screen or print).
If you are shooting JPEGs, then almost any software will work, as there is only a very limited amount of adjustment that can be done, but raw is a very different story. Raw images contain all the machine-code information that the camera originally creates (as much as twice) that of a JPEG, and that information can be used to adjust the image to the way you want.  You can adjust, correct and make improvements  on almost any aspect of the picture, and undo all the effects that water has on the image.

Assuming you have a camera that can store raw images, you need software to work with it.  Most cameras come with the manufacturers’ software, but it is very limited, except if you buy a more premium version. While there are dozens of different software programs that can work with raw images, three stand out above all the rest:
  1. Adobe Lightroom This is the original, biggest selling, most used software, one that does everything you need and everyone knows. It’s strength is creating a catalog and adding metadata to photos so that you can find them later.
  2. Adobe Elements  A much less involved (and less expensive) program that has much of the manipulation abilities of Lightroom, but doesn’t work in pro color models, or do the cataloging that Lightroom does.
  3. Silky Pix  As a simple version of this comes with lots of different cameras, this is the next most known software.  However, the professional version is not used that much outside of Japan.
  4. DXO Pro  Newest kid on the block that takes advantage of DXO's huge library of camera/lens testing.
All three of the above programs are easy to learn, and fairly easy to work with, with the exception of Lightroom.  Lightroom software is no more difficult than the other two, but it has it's own filing system for all your pictures.  It creates an image catalog, and if you move photos they will have to be re-linked  You have your choice of either moving the original photos into a new catalog, or leaving them where they are. It can be initially a little confusing to figure out. But it does track everything about the images and saves a complete history of all the changes made with it, so that if you want to roll something back you can at any time. The other two let you use any method you like.

A lot has been written about Lightroom elsewhere, so I will concentrate on DXO’s features.

DXO does not allow you to put your own watermark on the image, the other two do.  It does allow you to put your info attached to the image and you can put a simple name on the image, but not add in metadata information like what the other two can.  DXO says, that feature is to going to be added in an upcoming version.

Each software program has versions of all the important manipulation tools, but they don't work the same way, and a lot depends on what you plan to do with your images. If you just show full-size images on the internet, then all three will do an excellent job.  If you ever make prints, or want to zoom in on something, then there are differences.

Here is what will need to be adjusted:
  1. Color, or more specifically “white balance”.  Water changes of the color of light, and if you use strobes, they will not be the same “color” as the one the camera has.  In both cases, the correction is to adjust the images’ white balance.
  2. Clarity, sharpness, contrast, etc.  Water is not clear, so images get duller looking the farther you are away from the subject.
  3. Saturation.  Not only does water cause the subject to loose sharpness, it also reduces the amount of color you see.
  4. Exposure.  Sort of goes with contrast, as one typically needs to adjust both.
  5. Some way to remove backscatter or particles.  Not needed if you dive in clear water, but can be very helpful if you need minor corrections.  With large prints, tiny issues can become huge, so if you make large prints it is a must have.
  6. Image tilting and cropping.
  7. The ability to turn the image into the size and compression you want your jpg image.
All three allow you to apply a set of changes to a folder, where you apply changes to every file in a group, but after a little practice, one can adjust all the setting for any image in around a minute and only do the ones you plan on using. They may, or may not also allow additional direct editing in Photoshop.

So which is the best software?  Well, I shoot mostly macro images, where detail is everything and I do large commercial prints, where overall resolution is important, so my choice is DXO.  With cameras that Silky pix works directly with, one could easily give the nod to them.

So what can you expect?

Start with an image taken in terrible water:

The color is off, the contrast is low, the saturation is low and the fish is tilted to the side. Keep in mind that any adjustment that increases contrast, resolution or clarity will also make any backscatter show up more...

So, crop a bit, straighten the image and remove lots of little white junk and you get this second image.

 So why DXO?

Sharpness is controlled with a setting called “Lens Softness”, and it has three adjustments:
  1. Global
  2. Details
  3. Bokeh
You can adjust each of them sharper or duller, and the settings are adjusted to the camera and lens you are using, so you cannot over do the adjustment.

Color is adjusted by two controls:
  1. Saturation
  2. Vibrancy (similar to Clarify in Lightroom)
These are much softer effects than Lightroom and you will not produce image artifacts (which Lightroom can).

Contrast is divided into micro contrast and contrast.  Micro is seen by most people as sharpness.  Again, one cannot over apply either setting.

Other Functions:
  1. You can adjust the light/darkness of any general area (like highlights) or even specific colors.
  2. Spot repair is an automatic function.  Cover an area and the software will figure out what should be there.  Works well most of the time, and can do things no clone tool can do.
  3. No software does a better job at making a sharp image...purple fringing, for example, is automatically corrected before you start to work on an image.
  4. When finished working on the image, you make up saving options, and you can make several different size and compression images with one click.  I have a Facebook size, an email size and a lossless jpg for making prints and they are all made at the same time and stored in different locations.  Lightroom cannot make a lossless jpg.
  5. DXO can print direct from a raw if you want the best quality, the less handling you do the better, and this is as good as it gets.
So how much better is it?  Would guess around 10% sharper over Lightroom.  You can make a print 10% bigger without seeing any quality drop.   Or you can crop 10% more and still have a sharp image. That means you can only see the difference if you are pushing the limits.

One other thing about DXO is that it knows which lens and camera you are using and makes automatic adjustments before you start correcting for distortion and resolution issues - specifically for each setup. The other programs can do the same thing manually, but not with the detail that DXO can do.

In short, I really like the quality and detailed adjustments that DXO Pro provides. If youo've used some of the other products, you might want to give it a try.