The software giant gets serious about catering to professional photographers with a new web site and a host of advanced image processing tools for Windows.
Although many creative types consider the Apple Macintosh to be the platform of choice for serious graphics work, most working photographers out there still are wedded to their Microsoft Windows-based systems for image processing and management, as well as for running their businesses. However, market dominance has not stopped Microsoft from continuously working to optimize Windows (both the current XP version and the forthcoming Vista) in order to meet the needs of today's digitally focused pro shooters.
For Microsoft, digital photography really came of age in 2003, when sales of digital cameras began to outpace those of film cameras. The company decided it needed to do more to meet the growing demand for new tools to handle the increasingly complex requirements of this new breed of professional photographer. In response, the company launched its Rich Media Group; at the time, a one-man operation run by Charles Mauzy, an industry veteran and renowned nature photographer. (Mauzy left Microsoft last November to become president of Seattle-based Digital Railroad.)
Today, the group, part of the Platform Technology and Strategy organization, headed by Microsoft senior vice president and chief technology officer David Vaskevitch, employs more than a dozen full-time developers and strategists, most of whom are accomplished photographers in their own rights.
During its first couple of years, the Rich Media Group focused on establishing a presence within the professional photography community by networking with photographers in order to solicit feedback regarding how the Windows environment could be improved. Then, in June of last year, the group expanded its offerings by launching Microsoft's pro photo web site (microsoft.com/prophoto), which now serves as a virtual locus of operations for the group. Photographers who visit the site can participate in community forums, browse through hundreds of free articles and book chapters outlining various digital imaging best practices, and even download free Windows software to augment their workflow.
According to Tim Grey, a group program manager and the author of several how-to books on digital imaging, the web site has exceeded expectations in terms not only of traffic but also impact on the professional photography world. "It's been a great way for us to share information about how professional photographers can get the best use out of the Windows platform," he says.
Go tell it on the mountain
One way Microsoft is using the web site to educate customers is by posting detailed case studies outlining how some of the world's best-known pro shooters are taking advantage of the Windows platform to ease their transitions into the new age of digital photography. One example focuses on noted portraitist and fine-art shooter Joyce Tenneson, who needed to upgrade her systems in order to meet the growing demand for digitized versions of her images. She worked with the Rich Media Group to set up a high-speed network of Dell workstations running Windows XP in her Manhattan office.
Tenneson, who is busy preparing a retrospective exhibit slated to begin next year at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., extols the virtues of her Windows-based system for the flexibility that it affords her in choosing software and peripherals to streamline her workflow.
"I went digital about eight years ago, but the first 25 years of my work had not been properly scanned and organized," says Tenneson. "So I just did the research and felt that Windows provided the best platform for the huge project I was undertaking."
Besides the four networked Dells, her studio's hardware setup consists of LaCie external IEEE 1394 hard drives; Sony monitors calibrated with Monaco OPTIX systems; scanners by Imacon and Nikon; and Epson inkjet printers. On the software side, Tenneson relies on Microsoft's Small Business Server for network and business administration, along with Adobe Photoshop for image processing and Extensis Portfolio for image management.
Some of the other notable shooters the group works with include Art Wolfe, Matthew Jordan Smith, Steve McCurry and George Lepp. In fact, before coming to Microsoft, Tim Grey was employed full time as an instructor and overall digital imaging guru at the Lepp Institute, the teaching facility in California where Lepp runs photography classes and workshops. While there, Grey helped set up the Windows-based digital imaging lab still used by thousands of students every year.
"At the Lepp Institute, there was really never any debate about which platform we'd go with," Grey says, adding that Windows systems were, and still are, less expensive to operate and maintain, while boasting better performance than the alternatives. Although some Mac aficionados might debate the latter point, Apple's recent conversion to the same Intel chips used in Windows-based machines lends credence to Grey's perspective.
Beyond prices and processor performance, Grey insists that the main advantage of the Windows platform is the diversity of third-party software and hardware available for it. "Microsoft has done a really good job of engaging independent developers and providing the tools that they need to create the best products possible for the platform," Grey says.
Out from within
Although most of the tools encompassing the system Grey refers to are created by independent developers and other software companies, Microsoft has been coming on strong with its own products geared toward professional photographers.
One example is the company's recently released RAW Image Thumbnailer & Viewer, which allows Windows XP users to preview uncompressed high-resolution digital camera files instantaneously on their PC desktops without having to resort to unwieldy third-party image conversion software. Part of the company's PowerToys suite of free Windows XP add-ons, this tool supports most models of Canon and Nikon cameras capable of RAW capture, including the recently released Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D2x.
Another current PowerToys offering is the company's Color Control Panel Applet for Windows XP, which streamlines the formerly cumbersome process of managing color spaces and profiles between different input and output devices, such as monitors, printers and scanners. This free utility enables users to control disparate types of color information in one place within the Windows XP operating system, and even generates nifty 3D-gamut plots to facilitate comparisons of different color-space options.
SyncToy rounds out the PowerToy offerings designed to enhance digital photography workflow. The free mini-application can manage multiple sets of folders at the same time, and can combine files and mimic renames and deletes across collections with ease. Unlike other file management applications, SyncToy keeps track of renames to files and will make sure that those changes are carried over to synchronized folders.
Beyond these PowerToys, Microsoft incorporated feedback from pro photographers and other media developers who requested more processing power to handle memory-intensive applications, such as Adobe Photoshop. The resulting special x64 edition of Windows XP can work with as much as 128 gigabytes of RAM and 16 terabytes of virtual memory, offering users dealing with large amounts of complex data significantly improved performance over the standard version of the operating system.
Vista on the horizon
Microsoft's Windows XP offerings catering to shutterbugs' needs are impressive, and the company has even bigger plans for its as-yet unreleased Windows Vista operating system. Although digital imaging was more of an afterthought in XP, it is central to the function of Vista. Details on what will be in the new operating system are still sketchy (Vista is not scheduled for release until late 2006), but the staff at the Rich Media Group is brimming with excitement about the possibilities.
One thing that's certain is that Vista will take an entirely new and integrated approach to color management. Through Microsoft's alliance with Canon, Vista also includes the new Windows Color System (WCS). The system promises improved fidelity and predictability of color, including better screen-to-print matching and overall color appearance, as well as support for higher-fidelity printing.
Microsoft also claims that the new WCS will resolve the myriad inconsistencies in the International Color Consortium (ICC) standards. According to Grey, flexibility was of paramount concern in developing the WCS, which will facilitate the creation and management of color profiles by third-party developers.
Native support for RAW files also will be built into Vista from the get-go, allowing for speedier previewing, processing and file management. Recent collaborations with Adobe, Canon, Fuji and Nikon will ensure that Vista's RAW codes are all-inclusive, meaning that those who purchase new camera models won't be left out in the cold. In addition, Vista will include a more powerful version of the Windows Media Transfer Protocol, which facilitates wireless download of photos directly from the cameras of the future.
Indeed, if the recent offerings for the XP operating system are any indication, Microsoft's photography tools in Vista are sure to please the estimated three-quarters of pro photographers who have chosen the Windows platform over the competition. The Rich Media Group might not be the largest or highest-priority team at the Redmond, Wash., headquarters, but one thing is for sure: its staff's passion for digital photography is evident. "We work very hard to make sure we are meeting the needs of professional photographers," says Grey. "We want to do everything we can to make their work as easy and effortless as possible."