News from Microsoft’s Pro Photo Summit
At Microsoft’s third annual Pro Photo Summit, held earlier this summer in Redmond, Wash., some of my favorite parts were the “Five Minutes to Wow” segments. Basically, each presenter had five minutes to demonstrate a product or technology and elicit a “wow” from the audience.
The presenters were from Microsoft’s research group and from several other companies, and they showed some pretty amazing things. Multigigapixel images; 3-D models of landscapes and cities constructed from hundreds of images; a new image file format; new and better techniques for sharpening images – all these and much more were presented during the two-day summit.
Here’s a selection of the ones that really wowed me and why.
I purchased a copy of Bibble back in 2002, not long after getting my first digital SLR, the Nikon D1x. I liked the fact that Bibble was able to process the NEF files better than Nikon’s own software. I’ve used Bibble on and off since then, but it had seemed to me that the product had never reached its full potential.
At the show, Eric Hyman, Bibble’s creator, gave a demo of the latest version and a sneak preview of what is coming in the next version, and it looks like Bibble is back. It has evolved into a product that actually matches up well against the likes of Lightroom or Aperture in its RAW file processing capabilities.
Bibble now has support for third-party plug-ins. Picture Code’s Noise Ninja is built into the product, as is Athentech’s Perfectly Clear one-click image correction. It is also the only software of its kind that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.
One of my favorite Dewitt Jones quotes is, “I read Playboy for the same reason I read National Geographic; they take me places that I will never get to visit.”
Well, Photosynth can provide people who may never be able to ride on the Space Shuttle or visit South Korea’s Gyeongbok Palace with the ability to have a truly immersive experience via a simple viewer and an internet connection. Although Photosynth has been around for a while, the team at Microsoft Live Labs has been continuing to develop the technology and recently released it for public use.
Photosynth starts with a large collection of digital photos of a particular subject or scene, analyzes the images, finds connections and similarities, and then constructs a three-dimensional space in which to display the images. Using the Photosynth viewer, a user can move through an entire scene, zooming in and out seamlessly. It doesn’t matter how big an image is, Photosynth will handle each one quickly and accurately.
Imagine having 100 guests at a wedding and each one has a digital camera, snapping away during the day. At the end of the reception, the cameras are collected, the images uploaded and “synths” are created of the couple being pronounced husband and wife – the toast, the first dance, all the key moments of their special day. Friends and family who could not attend could view it as if they were standing right next to the bride.
With the Photosynth viewer, a photographer can also see exactly where the person who took the shot was standing, and can walk or fly around a scene or subject, viewing it from any angle, all from a web browser. At this point, Photosynth works in both Internet Explorer and Firefox.
The technology has the potential to transform even the most mundane web search. An online product catalog, for example, can become an actual store. Shoppers can “walk” through the aisles, browsing the racks and shelves. If they see a really cool jacket, they can zoom in on it and check out the stitching on the collar, the texture of the fabric, even the teeth on the zipper. A commercial photographer could have a field day shooting the products in new and exciting ways, knowing that the images will be displayed using Photosynth.
One of the powerful technologies behind Photosynth is Seadragon, named after the company that Microsoft acquired in 2006. Seadragon allows a Photosynth viewer to zoom in and out of images quickly, easily and seamlessly, regardless of the number of images or the size of each image.The Seadragon technology appeared in several of the Photo Summit demos and, from my understanding, will be incorporated into the next version of Windows, making it available to both Microsoft and third-party developers.
Seadragon, however, is not limited to photographic images. It could be used to navigate map files, or search through the Library of Congress digital-book archive to find references to, say, leafy seadragons. (Google, are you catching all of this?)
Another technology that Microsoft has been working on for a while is HD Photo. Bill Crow, the HD Photo program manager, gave an excellent demo and update at the summit. HD Photo has been designed to be a better file format for digital images, with enhanced quality and performance and smaller files – qualities that every photographer wants.
The ubiquitous JPG file has been around for a long time, and we all have a love- hate relationship with it. Attempts have been made to update and improve JPGs, but without a lot of success. Microsoft has submitted the HD Photo file format specification to the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) for consideration as a new standard called JPEG XR. If approved by JPEG, this becomes an open standard, completely controlled by JPEG with royalty-free rights granted by Microsoft.
With HD Photo, images can be created at eight, 16 or 32 bits per color channel and the files can be stored with a lossless, or “lossy,” compression, which means that each time you save the same file, some data may be lost. The current JPG format works only in eight-bit with lossy compression. Anyone who has worked with JPG files has seen that happen.
Today’s digital camera sensors can record at 12-bit resolution; 14-bit and higher resolutions are coming soon. For those who are not “bit-oriented,” eight bits per color gives you 16.8 million colors and 12 bits per color provides 68.7 billion colors. So if your camera is recording at 12 bits, but the file can only store eight, you are losing 99 percent of the colors. (For those of you keeping score at home, 32 bits give you more than 281 trillion colors. Talk about hi-res and high dynamic range possibilities!)
Now let’s imagine a collection of HD Photo images being synthed and displayed with the Photosynth viewer. The user navigates around the scene, zooming in and out, going from the smallest detail to the entire scene, and Seadragon is handling all that quickly and efficiently.
Holy wow, Batman!
A few weeks after the Summit, Adobe released Lightroom 2.0, and for me this is another major “wow.” Lots of articles and reviews have already been written about all the new features, so I’m going to focus on the ones that really caught my attention and may not have gotten a lot of coverage.
Obviously, localized corrections, known in the final release as Adjustment Brushes, have gotten a lot of notice in Lightroom 2.0. I love being able to choose a specific color with the Gradient Tools feature and apply a gradient right in Lightroom. I can then fine-tune in gradient with the exposure, brightness, contrast and other sliders.
The Library module has probably seen the most new and improved features. The Volume Browser, for instance, allows me to easily see where my images are located physically and determine whether that media is online or offline. It can even tell me how much space is remaining on the media. The volume can be a hard disk or CD.
I can further select what images I want to view using either the familiar Collections panel or the new Smart Collections panel. Smart Collections provides a way for me to pre-define what images I want in a collection. I simply define my rules for the collection and then, as I ingest or edit images, they will be automatically added to the Smart Collections that are applicable.
When I need to filter my collections even further or search for particular images, the new Filter Bar is an extremely useful feature. The Lightroom team has smartly combined the metadata browser, the text search and the attribute filters into one consolidated and convenient tool.
Lightroom 2.0 has also taken a different approach to the whole third-party plug-in situation. By providing the Plug-in Manager (on the File Menu), all of your favorite third-party tools are available. (Jeffrey Friedl has released a set of export plug-ins so you can easily export to Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and so on. Check them out.)
But what may turn out to be the biggest benefit in Lightroom 2.0 is the public beta of the camera profiles and DNG Profile Editor. Adobe is providing profiles to be used in Lightroom and Camera Raw for specific cameras. There are two sets for each camera: the Adobe Standard and the Camera Matching profile. Both are just like other developed presets you would use or create, but they are designed for specific cameras. There is a Standard profile for my Nikon D3, but then there is a whole set of Camera Matching profiles for the D3, including three profiles for what Adobe calls the D3 D2x mode, so I can make my D3 images look as though they came from a D2x.
But the pierre de resistance is that Adobe has also released an editor for these profiles, so you can customize them to your heart’s content. Check Out for more info on the profiles and Profile Editor.