Magazine Article


PMA and the Age of Magic

image with distortion on the left
The above screenshot, from DXO’s Optics Pro v4.2 shows the original image with distortion on the left; perspective is corrected in the image on the right.
photo was taken with a fisheye lens
The photo was taken with a fisheye lens, and shows the perspective distortion.
Photo using Image Trends' Fisheye-Hemi software.
The photo shows the correction using Image Trends' Fisheye-Hemi software.

Something else has changed: the composition of the market. It has dawned on many people that digital cameras are, in fact, digital. They do things—or can—that film cameras never did. This is another form of magic, details of which we covered last month in our first PMA wrap-up. What's to be afraid of in digicams today? The simple fact, as startling as it sounds, is that there are people now who are taking pictures who have never used anything but a digicam.

So the yearning for the 35mm tradition is not what it used to be. Nobody posted snapshots or home videos on the internet a decade ago. Today, a whole generation that's entering adolescence thinks that's exactly what cameras are for.

The final part of the equation was, of course, the retailer. The paradigm of photo marketing used to be that the camera is the gateway to the aftermarket. Does software breed an aftermarket?

We dunno. What if software is the aftermarket? Some companies—Ulead and ArcSoft are two that come to mind—have been saying so for years.

So what if the industry decided to say presto-chango, and reform the market?

You Are What You Buy

There's a tendency among marketing folks to worry about what people want. Consultants assemble survey groups, where they hear-out the designated savant in the hopes of there being a jillion of like minded. But before market surveys, what people wanted was something inventors understood in their guts. George Eastman didn't do surveys to see if people wanted film. He simply assumed they did or could be made to, he produced the stuff, and it did pretty well for the next 110 years.
They could be made to want film? Well of course, that's what salesmanship is about. Does the desire for designer clothing, label and all, come from the human genome? How about iPods and spiked hair? They are all conditioned responses to forces which, like the products themselves, are carefully manufactured.

So what happened to guts? The intelligence in guts, that is? The intelligence that inspired film, in the fiftieth year of photography, when snapshots were long-established and didn't need a revolution?

If people say ho-hum to software today, can they be snapped out of it? With magic?

Step Right Up

Take a company like DxO Labs, which at PMA '07 presented DxO Optics Pro v.4.2, with compatibility for a few new camera and lens combinations. This software's magic is definitely not metaphysical, but it is supernatural.

Supernatural in the sense that the laws of nature dictate optical distortion—such as you'd find in a wide-angle lens—and the point of Optics Pro is to put photographers above it.

Not only wide-angle lenses, but normal lenses can bend lines in a picture, or seem to, if for example the camera isn't parallel to the subject. If you slant it upwards to take-in a tall building, architectural lines may seem to converge a bit excessively. It was for this reason that shift lenses were created. Optics Pro can unbend the lines without benefit of the optical shift.

Other software programs can unbend lines, too, but many do so at the expense of picture size. They may squoosh in the sides, requiring the finished result to be cropped if it's to have straight edges again. There are instances where Optics Pro will do the same, but maybe not as much—and in other instances, for all practical purposes, maybe not at all.

Taking the distortion out of pictures, without distorting them some other way. Is that magic, or what?

The software package does a lot of other things as well. It can reduce noise in raw files, for example, improve colors, and show details in burned-out highlights, among other things. And many of these things it does automatically. The result? Pictures that look weird from natural laws are made to look like they're natural.

That's supernatural, and magic.

DxO software has been around a few years, long enough that everyone could consider it. But its own precision has restrained its ubiquity. To do what it does, it must be calibrated and set up for each camera/lens combination. It takes time to develop these custom matches.