What hardware and software do you need to get started in digital imaging? Our whistle-stop tour of computers, peripherals and programs will put you on the right track.
by John Henshall

All aboard!

Over the years, many innovations have been received with mixed reaction. The typewriter: "I can write by hand." The telephone: "It's better to meet people." The calculator: "Mental arithmetic exercises my brain." The Cellphone: "Damn yuppie phone." The computer: "I've got no use for them." The eMail: "It can be there by Airmail in only three days." The camera: "Nothing wrong with paint and canvas."

Throughout the years of technological development there have been the early adopters and the doubters. It must now be clear that digital imaging is here to stay. Maybe you blame Chip Shop for that? If so, I'm flattered. But how many of you don't have uses for most of these innovations today? No one - though there are still those who have yet to buy their first computer.

Digital imaging is like a train - it's easy to get on at the station but if you are late you have to sprint along the platform. Miss the train and you have to take a fast car to catch it up at the next station. Sounds like bad news, eh?
Not necessarily.
That particular train might not have been the right train for you - too early a departure, or not going in the right direction.
There's always another train - maybe this is it?


William Henry Fox Talbot's negative/positive method has seen a hundred and sixty years of refinement. A frame of film is a superb, economical device which both acquires and stores an image. In some cases - transparency in a projector - it trebles as the output device. So why bother with digital imaging?

If you want to manipulate, repair, restore or apply special effects to a photograph it is much easier to do this in the digital domain. And images are following typesetting and design onto the desktop. If you produce images for reproduction they will all be digitised at some stage. No more use of process cameras.

If you are a social photographer, taking images on film and producing large prints by the long-established photographic methods is still better, easier and cheaper. Yet many social photographers are already using digital imaging to offer a service of restoration of old faded and torn photographs and to experiment with creative new tools, winning for them coveted awards.

If there isn't enough of this kind of work to keep the equipment fully occupied, no matter: the computer can also do the accounts, run a customer database, print price lists and letters and keep them up to date and in touch through the Internet. Your colour processor can't do all that. These days, multi-tasking is the name of the game. Like it or not, there is a great buzz about digital imaging, especially in the amateur photographic press. Your customers are hearing about it in magazines and newspapers and on radio and television. Offering new high-tech services is bound to promote the image of your company at the leading edge of photography. You could even offer a design service incorporating photographs - or maybe you'd prefer to wait for the local copy shop to offer photography with their design service. It will not be a long wait, so get in there - soon.

Bear in mind also that the worldwide trend is to distribute pictures and sound as bits instead of atoms. For this it has to be digital.


When we are new to a subject, one of the major turn-offs is the jargon. Those who are 'in' bandy buzz-words around with assured abandon. The rest might as well be lost in Tokyo - everyone seems to be talking a language we don't understand. If you haven't taken the plunge into computers they might seem daunting. The important thing is, don't panic.

I well remember the first computer we bought. It was magic but really scared me. I thought, "Oh, heck, I'm past it. I'll never understand this thing." I bought a computer magazine to see if that would help. Was it written in English? Well the gibberish was interspersed with words such as 'the', 'a', 'it', 'and', 'to' - maybe it was English, I thought, as I dropped it into the bin. Then someone gave me the most useful piece of computer advice I have ever received. Until then it was all I could do to turn the darned thing on, type 'The cat sat on the mat' and watch in amazement as the printer spewed those words out onto a piece of paper with green lines and lots of holes down each side.

The advice I was given was, of course, extremely valuable. Yet, like so much sensible advice, it was basic and 'obvious': "If you can switch the computer on, save your work to disc and print it out, that's all you need to know. After that you can experiment - you can't break it!"

This was enough to give me the confidence to try things out. And then the fun really started. I could get to a safe point in my work, save it away from harms way, then start to experiment. If I liked it, I could save it again - a different version with a different name. Now I had two versions: one the safe option, the other more adventurous. At this point that the late nights started! There was no stopping me now.


If you are thinking of buying a computer for the first time, make yourself familiar with just a few key words and heed my definition of a digital imaging expert carefully:

Digital - Something represented by, or using, numbers - digits. In the case of digital images this usually means an unbelievably long string of millions of '0's and '1's. These days you can hardly go wrong describing something as 'digital', it's synonymous with 'of today'.

Computer - 'Hardware' which makes calculations using all those digits. Usually a rather boring box with a few slots to stick things into, lots of plug holes and a fan which whirrs away. This box is the essential hub of a digital photography system.

Monitor - A piece of hardware which displays pictures. It looks like a television set, though the images it displays are usually of much higher quality.

Program or Application - 'Software', the really clever bit which tells the computer how to calculate and present the digits to us in a way we can understand, such as words or pictures on the monitor.

RAM (Random Access Memory) - Memory used by the computer to hold its calculations temporarily, until the power is shut off. Measured in megabytes (about a million bytes), abbreviated to MB. The more the better - but watch out for the cost.

Hard Disc - A memory device, usually fixed inside the computer, which has a spinning disc used to record the strings of digits and store them, even after the power is turned off. Also referred to as Hard Drive.

Floppy Disk - A memory device which can be removed from the computer. Originally they were eight or ten inches across and bendy - hence the name. Now they are three and a quarter inches across, with stiff cases - though the disk inside is floppy. Spelled with a 'k' because 'disk' is a shortening of 'diskette'.

File - A package of related digits, which may represent just one digital image or document.
Scanner - An input device used to transmute pictures from a form we understand into the form only computers can understand: digital.

CD-ROM (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory) - Another acronym which appears to have been invented by an engineer. The 'seedy' part is the same as in the discs which replaced 'LP' records (Long Playing - for those too young to remember), 'ROM' means simply that you can't record on them.

Modem (MOdulator/DEModulator) - A device which enables your computer to connect and talk to other computers all around the World for the price of a local telephone call. Connects to your computer and plugs into a normal telephone socket.

Those few words will empower you, so that you can bandy jargon around with the confidence of a veteran. Oh, I almost forgot the definition of a Digital Imaging Expert - someone who manages to convince you that they know just one thing more about the subject than you do. You have been warned. Get advice from a recognised expert or well-established company which specialises in the field. Ask them for the names and phone numbers of clients they have done work for. Ring up some of them and ask what the service was like.


If you already have a computer and are wondering about its suitability for digital imaging, you may be in luck if you bought it in the last year or two.
Does it have a CD-ROM drive? Enough RAM? Can it display 24-bit colour? Is the hard drive big enough? Even if the answer to some of these questions turns out to be 'no', you may be able to upgrade it.

The computer is the hub of your digital lightroom - yet it is the one thing which no photographic manufacturer makes.
Whether buying new or upgrading, computer specifications can be bewildering. Don't just go down to your friendly neighbourhood computer superstore. Go to a supplier who understands the requirements for graphics and digital imaging. Be prepared to pay just a little more for this advice - unless you enjoy risk.


First you must decide which system to go for. Here brand (or system) loyalty is at its best, prejudice at its worst.

Many DOS PC users can't stand the thought of Macintosh, delighting in Apple's recent difficulties, conveniently forgetting IBM's past problems. Apple, who make the Macintosh, kept their operating system to themselves until recently. This helped maintain high prices and produced good margins for Apple. IBM, on the other hand, invented the PC but allowed anyone and everyone to produce clones. This competition resulted in lower prices. Today the difference in price is minimal, if any, especially when you take into account the 'extras', such as sound card, SCSI (linking for scanners and printers) and Ethernet (networking - interconnecting computers) which Apple include as standard. And, finally Apple have begun to license their operating system to other manufacturers - including IBM!

For digital imaging the choice used to be simple. Macintosh. The Mac was adopted by designers and pre-press folk over ten years ago, when the PC gave you nothing more than a defiant 'C' prompt flashing away in the top left of an otherwise blank screen. At that time, the Mac already offered an intuitive interface. Understandably, this was loved by creative folk. That's why the Mac dominates the graphics world.

Today you will rarely see the 'C' prompt on a PC. Almost everyone uses Windows - or Windows 95, which makes a PC almost as graceful as a Mac. The difference is that Windows 95 is still an interface sitting on top of DOS, which actually drives the computer. The Mac interface, on the other hand, is the operating system. One of the major limitations of DOS is the limitation of using eight character filenames, plus three character extensions. Macintosh allows up to 31 characters. Thus, 'Girl on beach in red hat' would have to be 'GOBIRH' on a DOS machine. Not very descriptive. Windows 95, however, now beats Mac at its own game, providing file names up to 256 characters long. You get the idea, 'Girl on beach in red hat and yellow polka-dot bikini and a bright blue beach ball' - and that's less than one third the maximum length.

There are other differences. Floppy disks - even from a PC - automatically appear on the 'desktop', the screen, of a Mac. (The 'desktop' is your virtual desktop - on the computer screen.) Exchanging files used to be a problem but now it's easy in the Mac direction. Windows 95 has multi-tasking abilities, enabling it to do more than one job at once. Sounds great but you'd better buy plenty of expensive RAM or things slow down unbearably.

Perhaps as a result of its long dominance, imaging software tends to be available for the Mac first. Superb applications such as Live Picture are still only available for the Mac. A few years ago I had to change to Macintosh to be able to use Adobe Photoshop. After years of editing DOS's AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files the change to Mac was a rest cure. How could it be so easy, I wondered? I still use both DOS and Mac, which puts me in a neutral position, though I prefer the ease and elegance of the Mac. It's like the difference between two makes of cars - they feel different but eventually get you to the same place.


More important than which operating system you adopt are the facilities the particular model has.
As a photographer you will be fussy about image quality. A 24-bit display which gives you 'millions' of colours is the optimum for displaying photographic quality. You can get away with 16-bit - 'thousands' of colour - at a pinch but nothing less. Upgrading in this area may mean buying extra VRAM (Video RAM), though this is not very expensive.


Go for as large and as high quality a monitor as possible. A fourteen inch involves a great deal of moving things around the screen and finding things which get covered up. Seventeen inch monitors are very reasonably priced these days and a good compromise. Nineteen to twenty one inch monitors are a good deal more expensive, though they save time and workflow interruptions by virtue of their sheer screen acreage. Bear in mind that you may need an extra graphics card to drive a large monitor. These can be more expensive than the monitor itself.

A good tip is to use two monitors, feeding a second (smaller) monitor via an additional video card. You can drag things from one monitor to the other, as though their screens were joined. This way you could buy a cheap monitor and eight bit (256 colour) card, using it to store all the Photoshop toolboxes, leaving your main screen free for images. A black and white monitor would suffice but, if you buy a small colour monitor, you can always substitute it for your main monitor in an emergency. The main video card will drive the monitor in at least as many colours as it drove the larger monitor.

Although we spend a great deal of time configuring our computers, it's a sad fact that most computer monitors are not adjusted to view all the detail in the images displayed upon them. This is hardly surprising when computer manuals ignore this important area, leaving users to set Brightness and Contrast using nothing more than guesstimation. Correct monitor adjustment is a neglected area of computer setup. Be sure to line up your monitor carefully. Two years ago we offered a 'Chip Shop Chip Charts' disk for £5, to help you achieve this. Now the advice is freely available here at our Website.


You must have a CD-ROM drive. A lot of software comes on CD these days and you need to be able to take advantage of using Photo-CD - not to mention all the 'free' discs stuck to magazine covers.

Get one which runs as fast as possible - 4x or 6x means that many times faster than the basic speed. You will appreciate a fast drive as your life slips away waiting for large images to load from CD.


Modems start at about £100. These days a modem and Internet access account is essential. It's a convenient way to get new scanner or printer driver software, information about new products and communicate with the world via eMail. You can look at your own page at the BIPP Website and see how it compares with that of other photographers. You can also send and receive faxes. Get a 28,800bps fax/modem - nothing slower or you'll spend the difference on higher telephone charges. I use a Global Village TelePort Platinum. Remember, your biggest future clients could be looking for you on the World Wide Web right now.


You need lots of RAM for digital imaging, in order to make applications such as Adobe Photoshop work at an acceptable speed. How much RAM you need depends on what kind of images you are dealing with.

I have used Macintosh LC475 machines (now obsolete but still good) running Photoshop on just 8MB but would not recommend it. We have now upped the RAM in these machines to 20MB and this should be regarded as the minimum. Go for 32MB or 64MB if possible - up to 256MB if you will be dealing with large image files. RAM has never been cheaper than now. Performance Direct (01784 477 477) are currently offering 16MB of RAM at prices starting from £139. These prices are a fraction of what RAM cost a year or two ago - but they might not stay so low for very long.


Murphy's law of Hard Drives seems to say that, whatever size of hard drive you buy, you'll soon be within 10% of its total capacity. Go for at least a 1GB drive - up to 2GB if possible. You can easily expand, adding an external drive later.


The industry standard is Adobe Photoshop. It is, after all, the program that started the desktop imaging revolution, though worthy challengers such as Macromedia's xRes and Live Picture are now hot on its tail. The full version of Photoshop is now down to as low as £250. There is also Photoshop LE, a slightly de-featured version, which is cheaper. You may get either 'bundled' 'free' when buying a scanner.


There are many types of scanner but flatbed scanners are inexpensive and versatile and should be high on your list. I use Agfa and Nikon flatbed scanners (note the photographic names) but there are plenty of inexpensive scanners to chose from.

Ignore impressive sounding resolutions, such as 2400x2400, which are interpolated up. Ask for the true optical resolution. MacLine (0181 401 1111) are offering the Microtek ScanMaker E3 for £279, or £324 and £428 with Photoshop LE, and full Photoshop respectively. The E3 has an optical resolution of 300x600, which means that it analyses you images into 300 parts for every inch, by up to 600 steps per inch as scans across a print. Spend another £279 and you can get the transparency hood, enabling you to scan transparencies too. But don't expect full repro quality from a low cost scanner.

Pay more and you will get a superb flatbed scanner. The Agfa DuoScan is a 1000x2000 scanner with a density range of over 3.0 - 10 -stops or a 1024 to 1 contrast range - which has a street price of around £3,000 but is in short supply at the moment. The DuoScan features a separate tray for transparencies, which may be loaded while reflective material is being scanned.

Other scanners take transmissive material - negative or transparency, colour or monochrome - and digitise it. These tend to do a better job of digitising transparencies but be