Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Blog Number 1 for 2014

Kath, Kacy and Jono at Kaikoura

A New Year beckons and another passes into memory, I’m going to turn 54 this year and so positive thoughts abound for a better year ahead, new resolutions of losing weight, writing a more regular blog, traveling, visiting friends and developing my career abound.

Road Bump#1 – the curse of propriety image acquisition software

The other day I went in search of some old photos. Now for those as old as me that means photos shot last century, so after shifting through boxes full of B&W and colour prints and what few old photo albums that had survived the shifts from Auckland to Asia and back to Dunedin,  I thought “Okay let’s look at what digital files I have to use” so out came the zip-folders containing literally  thousands of CDR’s, DVD’s and old Hard drives
The purpose of the search was the compiling of a body of photos to celebrate my son and daughters 18th birthdays over the next couple of years and to also find any photos of Kath and my wedding, shot by a mate, Wayne Martin, using a Kodak DCS-520 camera.
Kath at our wedding day in 1999 - photo by Wayne Martin using a Kodak DCS-520
This is how the images appear now, washed out or with blown out highlights or over exaggerated magenta casts
Yes time has moved on fast it seems, and I have been recording the major moments of my two kids’ lives on various digital formats since I first went totally digital way back in 1998.

Now comes’ the big - BIG problem.

While post 2000 I was using NIKON D1 and then CANON EOS digital systems plus over the years many other types of digital cameras, all merrily shooting in the universally accepted JPEG format, from 1998 to late in 1999 I used the hot new Kodak DCS-520 camera with its Kodak DCS propriety image software.
This means that as I surf the hundreds of images I have on file from this period I see lots of good shots from our time as a family in Auckland. Rows and rows of really good pics of the children as babies, my wife looking radiant and beautiful (I was so lucky to meet her) and a trimmer version of myself (LOL), plus a small body of work from our Howick Beach wedding just prior to moving north to Singapore in 1999, all parading past me on screen as 156x104 pixel .TIF preview files. 

Now comes the first BIG problem- when I tried to open them in Photoshop, expecting the Adobe RAW converter to do its job just as it did all those years ago - nothing happens other than an annoying ‘sorry end of file problem’ window appearing, advising me that maybe these images are getting too old to be opened by Adobes latest versions of Photoshop etc. 

But they are only 17 years old.
So the search for a solution began.

Oddly enough the usual oracle of everything – the internet - yielded very little of value other than reference to an old Kodak site advising me to install in their DCS software again, but it only comes in XP format and I am using 8.0 now.
So in desperation I downloaded pre-21st century Kodak’s DCS handling software – KODAK’s Photodesk - and yes it did install, so did it work? – NO. Again it said there were problems with the file.
The next line of inquiry I pursued was to consider if there was a problem with the original file? – Was I trying to open a corrupted copy? No it was in the original DCS .TIF file format I shot and burned on the day of capture to one of those expensive supposedly 100 year permanence Kodak Gold CD’s, you know the ones that we all paid heaps for because they promised long life etc. Well Kodak’s gone the way of the Dodo and I am beginning to see that their CD’s are all going the same way as well.
Back in the day and I suppose even now today - no one will officially tell us how long our digital files burned to DVD’s or stored in portable Hard Drives will retain their formatting, coding and colour permanence.
I know that it’s all about the JPEG and how many times you open it relates to the level of degradation in the image quality per generational copy you make but what about .TIF’s.

  • (It about 10 times for a JPEG file if you are wondering- that’s opening a file and saving it back to itself – at around 7 times it starts to blow out highlights then the magenta coding starts to take over and turns everything red so by the time you reach 10 the image is so grainy and corrupted it’s no use to anyone – so always remember to use ‘Save As’ rather than simply saving back to the original. It’s all about how the JPEG code works as it expands and then re-compresses the image data in lines across your digital photo).

But what about the original files?

Well here are .TIF images (a format supposed to be able to stay stable), shot 17 years ago already breaking down and looking decidedly second hand even though they are still the first generation originals and not resaves.
The more I tried to find software to open these valuable files the more frustrated I became as PS Elements and CS4 didn’t work, neither did Adobe Lightroom nor Adobe’s DNG convertor.
I heard Photo Mechanics may work but I don’t have it as it costs and as I had already used a 30-day trail copy during a student trip last year I couldn’t re activate it again, but still determined to succeed I started working backwards in versions of Photoshop as I am sure one would work.
I hit the back room and dug out an old and tired APPLE iBook that I had from year one of the 21st century – 2000, which carried PS  CS Version One on it plus Graphics Convertor, an old but very capable piece of Mac based software I used in the past for image renaming and batch file conversion processing back in the old days when I ran PHOTOVIDEOi magazine.
Here I found some success for while PS CS couldn’t open the files, the little Graphics Convertor program allowed me to open images individually and re-save them as full sized JPEG’s but at a cost in terms of colour detail.
The images I saved sadly became very blown out and colour deficient. So I was stuck – what to do lah?
Then it hit me! I had stored somewhere else an even older APPLE iMac G3 slot loader with a 4Gb HD running Mac OS-9 on a Power PC 750 CPU,  from 1999 and I was sure it was still running Photoshop 7 on it and I remembered that I had used it once before to access those pesky DCS files before.
So off I went in search of this dinosaur of computer technology – Yes, I’ve even seen one of them in the local museum.
The bright indigo blue iMac was easy to find, it’s huge, but the search began again for all the peripherals and cables I would need to get it powered up to see if it would do the job for me.
Making a big mess that Kath will no doubt chide me about later, I began searching through the boxes out back until I finally found enough cables, power plugs, USB expanders plus a working mouse and keyboard combination to fire the old iMac up.
 Kath is gonna scold me for making a mess
 Jono on the iMac back in 2001
Joy and happiness as it still worked and yes – Adobe Photoshop 7 still had the proprietary Kodak DCS acquire software installed and so began a day long exercise in slowness as I was forced to open each file up individually and then resave them as JPEG’s then transfer the files by USB thumb drive working on USB 1.0 technology – slow, slow and slower.
 All on just 32 MB’s of RAM and a processor many generations older than the very quick i5 and 8GB of RAM I’m using today.

But despite the nice previews I saw I found many of the original files, once expanded, showed they have lost a percentage of their image information, especially in the areas of colour density, contrast and highlight detail.

The Canon EOS -1N based KODAK DCS-520, while a pivotal camera and leader in its field back then in 1998, it was however only a 2.01 Megapixel camera and yet it produced many wonderful pictures in its day.
In its short model life span (1998-1999) it proved to be the first affordable (for some with deep pockets), purpose built digital press camera capable of shooting newspaper quality  images from the field without the tiresome exercise of lugging big bulky cameras and the host of peripherals needed to process images from earlier models.
Nikon and Canon at this stage in the history of digital photography still didn’t make their own digital DSLR’s. That started after 1999 with the intro of the NIKON D1 and the CANON D2000.
The DCS-520 was the first truly press camera, War photographer Christopher Morris took it Russia for work and shot many great pictures there in the late 1990’s. Check out for the story on PDN Online.
You can see his photos on under portfolio #2.
His images from Russia were used on Kodak’s DCS-520 promotional material and after using the camera on assignment in Russia, Christopher Morris said "I have a completely new outlook on digital photography." "I love the digital quickness of things - to be able to see the image, not when you go back to your hotel and you take out the disk and you put it in the computer - but you see it right away," Morris says. This and his images convinced me back then that digital was the future.
It was much lighter and easier to use than its predecessors, the DCS-100,200,300 series etc., but it still had a host of annoying features which time and technology overcame.
Waiting at the Auckland Airport for the fist flight of the new century with my DCS-520
First it used large PCMCIA standard storage cards of 128MB in size. They were actual spinning Hard Drives so if you bumped your arm while shooting then it often caused the platters to wobble and you lost all your photos. Then there was the very pronounced 125th of a second shutter lag which meant when shooting sport you had to pre-empt the shot or stroke by the player in order to get the ball in the frame. And then there was their lack of high ISO capability as anything over 400 ISO was a lottery and you learned quickly not to under fill the frame. Many users took out the anti-aliasing filter because it was often shattered when using earlier EF lenses that moved externally in the back of the lens body when focusing and often shattered the very small $800 filter. The last fault the 520 had hardly rates a mention today and it was the excessive purple fringing or chromatic aberration as it was called then, this occurred whenever you caught a brighter light source such as a lamp or window on the edge of your frame.
(left) Graeme Cox from the Sunday News using a Mac Powerbook to send images from the side line at Eden Park using dial-up from a Nokia cell phone
My photo from the same event taken at 800 ISO on my new DCS-520  - just love the grain ah.

with my DCS-520 at Times Group
another award for one of my first digital images
some more local press shooters with their DCS Kodak's at the 1999/2000 celebrations
In the Straits Times with a D2000
But in 1998 they were essence of coolness, if you had one you were it. The little stable of newspapers I was Group Picture Editor for at the time – the Times Group of Howick in Auckland - invested in the technology and we were the first totally digital newspaper photographers in New Zealand back in 1998.
While the Press/Dom/Herald still relied on film for their daily assignments, they would often only use their one DSLR camera for late breaking news events. This all changed after 2000 when the NIKON D1 revolutionised the world of newspaper photography.
Wayne Martin, Adrian Dirks and I each had a DCS-520 camera and set of new Sigma lenses which we took to assignments each and every day.

They worked well and delivered many good pictures, they even paid for themselves after just one year.
I even won the Community Newspaper Photographer of the year award with images shot on a DCS-520 them in 1999.
Even though they cost NZD$34,000 per body when I first brought them back in 1998 the KODAK DCS-520 are now mere paper weights or museum pieces. I see you can even pick up one today on eBay for a couple of hundred bucks.
At that time one had to rely on the Kodak NZ salesman to learn ways to make them work effectively and it was here that I discovered that in order to understand how digital photography worked in a newspaper environment there was only one person to turn to – Canadian Rob Galbraith.
The new internet provided me with all the info I needed to work this new technology and to also fix its short comings, I learned by emailing Rob nearly every week pestering him on this and that.
It was years later in a happy quirk of fate that I discovered both Rob and I had attended the same 1991 Missouri Photo Workshop in Ste Genevieve but in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Rob was the man who wrote the book on how to make the DSLR’s of the time work for you in the newspaper world.
I finally met him again in 2000 in Jacksons Hole Wyoming, during the first ever world conference on digital newspaper photography held by the famous Rich Clarkson – a wonderful class reunion where I thanked him for his help over the years with a large bottle of JW black label.

Images from that first conference in Jacksons Hole Wyoming USA
Reed Hoffman (centre) and Nat Geos's (left) Kenji Yamaguchi
Reed Hoffman and Nat Geos's (left) Kenji Yamaguchi
Jay Maisel front left chats with others on the course
Rob Galbraith (right)
the really nice Mr Rich Clarkson (right)
They do things differently in  cowboy country of Wyoming
a stack of new D1's
and G4 macs
But sadly now as I search my DVDs I have found the few JPEGs files I had stored from those original DCS files all those years ago, have also degraded to being almost unusable in many cases.
looks good in the preview but when opened it has a nice shade of green.
So my time is spent lately slowly working my way through the DCS files to preserve them as JPEG’s and hope that they too can be opened by the software of the day when my children want to reminisce over their childhood photos in future years.

Points to note: 

  1. Regardless of what we think about old stuff, this journey shows only too well the value of not throwing everything out in today’s modern consumer society.
  2. Digital files do degrade over time and no one has an effective answer yet as to how long they last. Let’s not go into discussing how film while seemingly stable (as long as you store in cold dark places), lasts a whole lot longer as we have moved on technologically and todays digital images must surely have a use by date before they degrade too far to be useable anymore.
  3. If you have images from that period before 2000, shot using a digital camera saddled with propriety based image acquisition software, then you should start thinking seriously about finding ways to reopen them and store them in a much more archival friendly format.

Just like using Photoshop I started to go back in versions of Lightroom and found Lightroom 3 actually still allowed me full colour control and access to a large percentage of the .TIF DCS files so it’s sped up things now although there are still more than few files which will never be recovered due to the end of file problem. 
Now Lightroom 3 still only gives me what it can read so back to the old iMac
Kath and I on our big day in 1999
happily I can get enough images off the file to at least remember the day

Kacy working the photo desk at Times in Howick
on top of the world with my DCS520