You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til You See It!

Sometimes I'm too clever for my own good. Doesn't happen very often, admittedly. But at times you can get too far ahead of yourself and lose sight of the basics. The technology we all have to try and battle with these days can sometimes baffle the brain and lead to missing the basics.It came up while road testing the last Colortrac large format scanner, featured on page 16. It turned out to be a more sophisticated device than a number of the push-me pull-you scanners I'd tried before and as a result I was pleasantly surprised at its speed, reliability and performance.As one of the pioneers in scanner manufacture and development, Colortrac have also produced some equally impressive software to compliment the hardware, and I was interested to read on their website blog (ed. yes I know I need to get out more...) that one of these involves transforming the original scan from a bitmap image into vector file.This algorithm alchemy is performed not with a magic wand but by putting a trace over the pixel based image and translating it into linear information that is not resolution dependant, and can therefore be enlarged infinitely. Simple. So simple that it's easy to forget the need to explain to people who don't need to know the difference between a file that has been created as a bitmap and one created as a vector.A scanner is basically a large digital camera, or rather several small digital cameras with a stitching device. It takes a picture, and the picture is made up of pixels - electronic values for each of the tiny dots of colour or black and white it has captured.How many depends on the output resolution chosen but for most large scans the familiar print resolution of 300 dots per inch is more than sufficient.An A1 sized picture at 300 dpi, for example, is over 200MB in size. Scanning at higher resolution, even though the scanner is capable of it, will produce a bigger file size but not necessarily capture any more dots. The scanner can only see what is there, after all. Scanning smaller items at a higher resolution can be useful if they are to be enlarged because you are effectively creating an enlargement at source.Any pixel based file, and that means JPEGs, TIFFs, PSDs and the like, will ultimately be made up of dots which will have a finite amount of stretch before they begin to show.The only way to achieve a seamless enlargement at large scale, and have a reasonably sized file, is to use a vector-based creation - using Illustrator or any other design programme. But this is essentially a drawing package not an image one.The difference between the two is so simple yet so fundamental it's not surprising that it gets missed. I have to confess that when I started in digital printing I used to do pretty well everything in Photoshop, because I knew it, regardless of whether it was really suitable for the task.It's only when you have to spend time recovering customers work with tiny text and horribly pixelated images you see the error of your ways and consider it might be advisable to start to practise what you often preach.One useful tip in Photoshop is that while any images are bitmaps by their nature, things like text layers and coloured shapes retain a vector-like property until they are rasterized or the image is flattened or layers merged. Rasterizing is that process of transformation into pixels that will be the same resolution as the base layer.The base resolution will dictate anything imported into it. That's why it's important if importing another image that may be a lower resolution one, to do any enlargement first so there is no conflict of properties to be resolved. Trying to stretch a small picture inside a bigger file will not look good, but is easily missed until the resulting print comes out poor.

Checking the original resolution, and the resolution of any imported files is absolutely basic in handling bitmap files for print, especially as 72dpi digital camera images are common imports. I mentioned last month the issues of size variation when printing images of different overall resolution. When it's easy to make that mistake yourself, don't assume a customer won't have done the same. I have had six different files in the same folder with the instruction just print the size they are!Having suffered the dreaded hard drive failure on my own computer, together with the trauma and general wastage of time and money that goes with it, the importance of back-up is very close to my heart. Almost any digital storage device seems liable to failure at some point, so it seems the only solution is to back-up everything - at least twice. That's certainly what I do now with all my photographic images. It's time consuming, but for things that can't be repeated or replaced, there is no real alternative.For storage I use CDs, DVDs and a large external hard drive, which has no fragile operating system to cause it to throw a wobbly at an inconvenient moment. To cover that latter eventuality I have now also installed Ubuntu as an option on my hard drive.This not only gives me an alternative front door if Windows fails to boot up, but is also free.You can find out more about it at www.ubuntu.com, including how it got its funny name.When my external hard drive is full I shall buy another one, which by then will be twice the size at half the price. I now have a whole pocket full of Compact Flash cards, memory sticks and the like for temporary use, as a result it is easy to forget what is on which. I have to sit down regularly to check what I have saved where, and to make sure I have not overwritten anything valuable.Like any digital storage device, unless you completely overwrite or format the space the original information should still be there. It's just a matter of recovering it.There are specialists who can do this - at a price - with hard drives but with flash memory there are a number of downloadable programmes that can be purchased on the web.I have used Image Recall's 'Don't Panic' before with success
www.imagerecall.comAnother good programme is 'Recover my files'
www.recovermyfiles.comOf course the catch here is that, like a trashed hard drive, the files can only be retrieved if the drive can be read. A little problem that has come up several times now is customer camera cards which cannot be read on a computer card reader, and yet the images can still be viewed in the camera. The computer does not recognise the data and will try to format the card. It's important not to proceed and risk damaging or completely wiping the customer's memory.

There seems to be a connection between this and the use of some stand-alone picture printers now common in high street stores. Whatever the cause, the effect is that the images cannot be recognised straight from the card.The way round this is to use the customer's own camera as the import device and download direct by using a USB connector. There are two types of simple connector that will do this that normally come with the camera, but are also often on other devices around the studio.I now keep one of each in the drawer as spare for just such a crisis. Believe me, you are just such a hero to the customer who thinks they have lost those priceless baby shots when no one else in town can help.