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Executive Summary: it is possible to have a full 16-bit workflow without spending tons of money.

An affordable 16 bit workflow

Look at my page on why you want 16 bit (and also why you want raw mode) for some background. The idea is that keeping 16 bit files around will give you higher quality, but is it possible to do so front to back (camera to print) without spending lots and lots of money?

The answer is yes and here are the components I chose - I list the tools here (and prices) and what they do, more detailed reviews will follow soon:

  1. Grab and convert the RAW images with the tools supplied with the camera. Alternatively, spend US$49.95 on BreezeBrowser or something similar (if you buy BreezeBrowser, buy the bundle with Downloader - the latter one is a timesaver because it will store the images on hard disk exactly the way you specify). At this stage, I usually make sure that the image histogram fills the whole dynamic range to make sure that I make full use of the space of 65536 values - compressing can always be done later on.
  2. For stunning results, swipe your card again and spend US$69 on Noise Ninja Pro. If anything, download the demo and let your jaw drop on the floor. After Noise Ninja, you'll have a 16bit TIFF image that people in the 90's with Medium Format cameras and expensive drum scanners probably could only dream of (ok, I'm kidding - but still, it gets quite close to such a setup for not even a tenth of the money).
  3. Next site to visit is the site of the makers of Picture Window Pro. Picture Window Pro will let you do anything that Photoshop or PaintShop Pro do, but more targeted at the photographer. If you're used to Photoshop (or any of its clones), it'll be a bit of a switch. If you're used to analog darkroom work, you will feel right at home. Picture Window Pro costs US$89.99 and you'll never need that illegal copy of Photoshop again.
  4. Fine, you've got a beatiful picture. Of course, you want a beautiful print. Time to profile your printer - even though the out-of-the-box setup is astonishingly good with some printers (with my Epson Stylus C82 I only changed the gamma from 1.8 to 1.5 in the advanced printer options dialog to make the images come out just that bit lighter, but apart from that I have to look good to see glaring differences between what's on screen and what's on paper), a profiled printer is always better. Profile Prism comes with everything you need for profiling your printer (and, less important, camera) except for a scanner, and will only set you back US$79. This is an optional bit - if you are happy with the match between screen and printer, leave it (note: I think it's worth it, so I ordered it. I will report whether it actually works later on; more important, whether it actually works with my cheapo Mustek scanner)
  5. Finally, printing time. DDI Software, the makers of Profile Prism, have a solution here as well: Qimage, a photo printing software that'll quickly prompt you to remove the garbage program that came bundled with your printer from your hard disk and never look back. Believe me, it is fully worth the US$44.95 they ask for it.
  6. If you want to organize lots and lots of images, look at Imatch. I still fail to understand why a company asks only US$49.95 for such a tool - it can organize, categorize, batch process your images; it understands EXIF and IPTC annotations, lets you query on image content, etcetera.
All of the software mentioned here is available as demoware, so don't take my word for it - download it and test it. You will minimally want to spend US$134.94 on Picture Window Pro and Qimage, but if you spend the additional US$148 on Noise Ninja Pro and Profile Prism you'll probably be much happier with the quality of your prints, and with a final two times US$49.95 on BreezeBrowser and IMatch you will have a top-quality image management system. Indeed, you will have much, much more than when you spend US$700 or so on Photoshop - even when you use Photoshop, you will want to buy Noise Ninja Pro, Qimage, Profile Prism and IMatch...

Note: there is some overlap in these tools. Picture Window Pro can print; IMatch can do RAW conversion for you; however, all these individual products represent what I think is the best of class for each step in the whole digital darkroom workflow (yes: best of class. I think PWPro is better than Photoshop for this kind of work). Install the demo versions, see what the software can do, test a lot and make up your mind about your own workflow.

Disclaimer: No, I don't get any money for sending you to these websites. I'm still negotiating ;-)


 
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