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Photokina report: Part 3  
Thursday, September 28, 2000 | by
Photokina is primarily a hardware show. Several software vendors, however, were on hand to demonstrate existing and new Mac and Windows applications for photographers. Vendors included Adobe, which of course was showing off Photoshop 6, and Fotoware, which offered a sneak peek at the upcoming FotoStation Pro 4.5.

Part 3 of the Photokina report is broken down as follows:

FotoStation Pro 4.5

When the D1 began to ship late last year, it quickly became clear that the included Nikon View DX software was not suitable for efficient browsing of the camera's JPEG files. Enter Fotoware's FotoStation 4.0. The latest release of the image browser offered most of what photojournalists needed, including clear thumbnails, batch captioning and good integration with Photoshop. This was, for North American photographers especially, an introduction to a Norwegian program that had already been in wide use for several years at newspapers on the other side of the Atlantic. Thanks to bundling arrangements with Nikon in Europe, among others, Fotoware's Ole Christian Frenning claims that there are about 200,000 copies of FotoStation 4 on the hard drives of photographers worldwide.

But FotoStation 4.0 is not Fotoware's flagship application. That honour is bestowed on FotoStation Pro 4.0. The Pro version includes all the features of the standard version, plus a raft of industrial strength image management features that make it the mainstay of photo departments across Scandinavia, and elsewhere. The Pro version is about to revved to 4.5, where the most significant change is under the hood: the entire code base has been rewritten to use Apple's QuickTime software to handle the display of photos being browsed and previewed. This means that any format that QuickTime can handle, either by itself or with the assistance of a QuickTime plug-in, FotoStation Pro 4.5 on both Mac and Windows platforms will be able to handle as well.

JPEG and TIFF support is still there, as it was before, but file formats such as MP3, QuickTime VR, IPIX and even the medical image format DICOM can now be browsed, IPTC captioned (Mac, Windows NT/2000 only) and previewed, all from within FotoStation Pro 4.5. All that's required is that files be in a format that either QuickTime or an installed QuickTime plug-in can understand. Support for the upcoming JPEG 2000 standard should be quick and easy to add to FotoStation Pro 4.5, says Frenning, simply by loading a JPEG 2000 QuickTime plug-in. When not serving up obscure Belgian beer (see photo below), photojournalist and Fotoware distributor Marc De Waele demonstrated that FotoStation Pro 4.5 could preview multiple QuickTime format files simultaneously, making it possible to play a QuickTime movie, listen to an MP3 audio file and move about within a QuickTime VR panorama, all at the same time.

Photojournalist Marc De Waele and "Delirium Nocturnum,"
one of the many obscure Belgian beers served up at the Fotoware stand

In addition, v4.5 will support HTTP file uploading. With the appropriate switch flipped in a newspaper's web server software, FotoStation Pro 4.5 will enable a photographer to select a group of files, choose a menu command, select the destination server from a pre-configured popup list, then move on to other things as the files transmit across the Internet.

FotoStation Pro 4.5's HTTP Upload

HTTP uploading should be comparable in speed to the FTP uploading feature already present in the Windows version of FotoStation Pro 4.0, but will be easier to implement than FTP for some organizations as it more easily skirts firewall concerns presented by IT departments. That's because the port on the firewall that is often already open to enable the web server to function is the same port that is used by FotoStation Pro 4.5's HTTP upload.

FotoStation Pro 4.5 is to be officially unveiled at IFRA Expo 2000, a newspaper trade show being held October 9 - 12 in Amsterdam. Wide availability is to follow shortly after that. Owners of FotoStation Pro 4.0 will be able to upgrade to v4.5 for free next month by downloading an update from Fotoware's web site. Owners of earlier versions will be eligible to upgrade for approximately 25% of the full purchase price of v4.5. Eroket, Fotoware's North American distributor, is currently offering a steep discount on FotoStation Pro for North American customers only. The software is available for US$399, with the same free upgrade to v4.5.

Fotoware hasn't yet announced which, if any, features from the Pro version of 4.5 will make it into a revamped standard version.

Luratech: JPEG 2000 is almost here

There are many ways to squeeze a high-resolution photo enough to permit quick transmission and efficient storage. The dominant method is JPEG compression. So dominant is JPEG that it's safe to say that more digital SLR images ends up as JFIF or EXIF format JPEGs (JPEG, strictly speaking, is a compression method, not a file format) than anything else.

There are, however, two other approaches to compressing a photo that are gaining in popularity: fractal and wavelet. Genuine Fractals uses fractal geometry to encode an image, and while it offers only moderate compression rates, it is often the best choice for scaling D1 and Kodak/Canon pro camera photos to the resolutions required for poster-size and larger printing (at standard enlargement sizes, fractal scaling is often no better than Photoshop on its own - but that's a story for another time). Wavelet compression, on the other hand, is purpose-built to provide greater compression of photos than is possible with either discrete cosine transformation compression (JPEG, in other words) or fractal encoding, while still retaining good quality. The emerging JPEG 2000 standard employs wavelet-based compression.

But it isn't necessary to wait for JPEG 2000 to go wavelet. Products from two companies are available right now that can compress photos in a manner similar to that of JPEG 2000. One of the companies, the German firm Luratech, showed off their wares at Photokina 2000. They include US$79 Photoshop plug-ins for Mac and Windows that include lossless or lossy wavelet compression, producing files in the Lurawave (.LWF) format.

Options screen in Luratech's Photoshop plug-in

Also available from Luratech is a free, Windows-only application called SmartCompress Lite. All offer wavelet compression and decompression. For more information see the product descriptions on Luratech's web site. Note that it won't be possible to open Lurawave files using JPEG 2000 software when it comes available. Luratech may release a Lurawave-to-JPEG 2000 translator, but no decision has been made.

The other company that dominates in the wavelet arena is Seattle-based Lizardtech. Lizardtech has two products of interest to photographers: a US$249 plug-in for Mac versions of Photoshop called MrSID Photoshop Edition, and a free (or US$49 for commercial use) standalone application for Windows called MrSID Photo Edition. Both provide wavelet compression and decompression.

If you wish to get a head start on wavelet compression before the advent of JPEG 2000, either Lizardtech's or Luratech's products will allow you to do just that. While I haven't spent a great deal of time comparing wavelet to regular JPEG compression, it's clear to me already that for moderate compression rates (10:1, 20:1, for example), JPEG can just about hold its own. For extreme image shrinkage that will enable speedy transmission over slow satellite phone or mobile phone links, wavelet compression easily bests JPEG.

Luratech staff showed three 5 x 7 prints of the same lower-resolution digital camera frame. One was compressed as a best-quality JPEG in the camera, the other two at 50:1 and 90:1 compression in the Lurawave format. The three prints were nearly indistinguishable. It was an impressive demo, and one that highlights my earlier point: In situations where absolute maximum compression is required, wavelet compression is going to be hard to beat. For moderate compression levels, however, the old, stodgy JPEG remains an effective choice.

Of course, wavelet compression won't move beyond its current niche status in pro photography until it's directly supported by Photoshop. And that isn't going to happen until the JPEG 2000 standard is locked down. JPEG 2000 should be formally ratified as a standard in December, at which time Adobe will begin to feel the pressure to release a JPEG 2000 file format plug-in for its pro image editing application. According to a Luratech representative, JPEG 2000 will make it into Photoshop by one of three avenues:

  • Adobe will develop their own JPEG 2000 plug-in. This will take 15 man-years for Adobe to develop once the standard is released, says Luratech. While it's unlikely that it would take that much Adobe horsepower to get a JPEG 2000 file format plug-in written, it will obviously take longer to start from scratch than to build upon the existing wavelet code out there.

  • Adobe will use a free JPEG 2000 software development kit (SDK), already posted by a student on the Internet, as the basis for JPEG 2000 support in Photoshop.

  • Adobe will contract with a third-party company to either supply a supported, commercial-quality SDK, or simply have the file format plug-in written for them.

Luratech is hoping that Adobe chooses the last option, and that their company is selected, since the royalty fees generated would be a huge source of revenue for the company. Luratech has already struck a similar deal with MGI, maker of the image editor PhotoSuite. They see their principal competitor in this regard to be Lizardtech, though there are a host of outfits that are not as well known that could be chosen, should Adobe go this route. Luratech demonstrated a JPEG 2000 plug-in for Photoshop at Photokina 2000, so they obviously view themselves as well-positioned to provide either an SDK or a finished product.

JPEG 2000 is an important development for digital photojournalists. Here's hoping that Adobe doesn't delay in bringing support for the file format to Photoshop late this year or early next.

Adobe dazzles in demos of Photoshop 6

Photoshop 6 is a vast revamp of the industry standard imaging application. Watching as Adobe reps rip through its enhanced text and Layers effects and controls, it's hard not to get a bit dizzy. That's because the results, and how one achieves them, are that cool. The apparent changes that will benefit a daily news shooter are fewer and further between. The one change I did spot that could be of benefit is the ability to attach notes, both text and audio, to photos, then save them in the PDF format (with optional JPEG compression). Receivers of the photo will be able to open it in either Photoshop 6 or Acrobat Reader 4 and see the photo, view the note and listen to the audio clip. Whether this nifty trick can translate into a useful workflow tool remains to be seen.

After reading detailed reports of Photoshop 6's improved and expanded colour management support, I began to fear being able to create a configuration for the program in environments that don't use colour management. Fortunately, it appears that in those environments, switching off most or all of Photoshop 6's colour management features is a snap, and is perhaps even easier than Photoshop 5 and 5.5.

File Info is unchanged; the same fields in the same arrangement with the same limited ability to apply any sort of batch IPTC info exists in Photoshop 6.

Note: All photos (except for press handouts) shot with a Nikon Coolpix 990 set to Auto colour, manual exposure, and lit by an SB-28DX flash diffused by a Westcott Micro Apollo mini-softbox.

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