Digital Cameras in Technical Communication

Subject: Digital Cameras in Technical Communication
From: "F Cameron Sipston" <c_sipston -at- hotmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2001 13:19:40 +0000

Digital cameras in Technical Communication

Some time ago, when I was actively evaluating potential jobs passed by
Internet, I was invited to interview for a contract which offered the chance to work in that sector of the craft best described as where proprietory operating instructions meet bespoke training materials.

Some criticisms of the recruitment process, based on this particular agent's assumptions about mobility of labour and socio-economic demography not translating effectively into contemporary economic reality, notwithstanding (the interview was to be at a roadside restaurant/motel simply not accessible without an automobile - not much use to out-of-town applicants reliant on trains and buses but capable of temporary relocation), the job was documenting machinery for use in commercial food packaging. And the documentation consisted of the training and operating materials for the machinery, presumably with temporary workers in mind.

Now, with a bit of goodwill and permissive schedules I could have blagged a lift to the venue but, personally, I was dissuaded by the mention of a digital camera for use in taking photographs of the machinery.

Now I'm a competent, but not expert, photographer with long, perhaps rusty, experience in monochrome film work, particularly the use of filters in enhancing detail through contrast, as well as experience in colour work and the obligatory grasps of concepts such as composition texture, film grain and how ambient lighting has traditionally called the shots WRT field-focus & shutter speed.

Yet the prospect of a digital camera struck doubt into my mind. And visions of being "left to it" with inadequate materials by a fast-talking agent, but being held accountable by the clients for a job badly done, haunted my nights.

Eventually, after assessing everything, I cancelled the interview. But I
wonder how the job might have turned out. Oh that I'd had an indemnity
policy at the time...

My experience with digital cameras

At this point I had no experience of digital cameras. Since then I've seen a few, results from more, and I've tried, unsuccessfully, to borrow my Dad's - he seems worried, notably because his own results have been inconsistent (which suggests, to me, that a second opinion would be valuable) and ,also, that I might somehow "break" it [1].

And I've also had a digital camera demonstrated to me by a friend, back in the country for PhD tuition but tenured overseas [2], the only difference between my friend's camera and domestically-available models being, I was assured, of cost compared to the effective RAM in the camera. How RAM available in the States compares to that here in the UK I don't know. Where my Dad's has 30-40 pictures at an acceptable screen resolution his offered about 400-600 for a comparable outlay.

The results? Sadly the overseas camera went missing from the university
halls, thought stolen. So I never got to see how those pictures of me turned out past a preview through the case-mounted LCD on the back.

Sadly because I was keen to see how they took being manipulated, refined, enhanced and suchlike on-screen as compared to prints digitised with a desktop scanner.

It was too late for the contract by this time. But certainly not too late for others.It was only later, when spending more time scrutinising previews on digital cameras, I noticed the effects, familiar to lap-top users, that both the physical screen angle and the crystal polarities had on the way the pictures previewed with this system looked at any given moment.

JPEG and digital cameras

It is, perhaps, both a boon and a limitation that the JPEG standard utilises different levels of compression. Those I've received through e-mail in the past which have been compressed at a comparatively high standard have, on older kit, displayed with dusts of anti-aliased pixels approximating tonal variation, but, not in any obviously filterable manner. Though when viewing the same images with a newer computer (but, notably, the same monitor), some time later, they rendered perfectly on screen.

And on opening my first images taken using a known digital camera,
compressed at JPEG level 6 with 3 scans, I noticed that, though they look impressively crisp at apprehensible zooms (50% for a 72ppi RGB image), when you get down to a pixel-level close-look (say, 100% at 72ppi or 25%-50%at 300ppi), noise and distortions are very noticeable in places.

This seems to be most noticeable in areas of both high contrast and fine
detail - round the ears of a subject wearing a dark wedding suit standing in the sun-drenched doorway to a darkened church [3].

The effect is comparable, in some ways, to "camera shake". Indeed, this was what I first thought it was. But the distortion was localised. And classic camera shake affects the entire shot. Also, there was no comparable distortion noticeable at highly mobile, frequently gestural, extremities such as the hands (think of how quickly and how far you can move them compared to your ears - and the rest of the groom's face rendered just fine). As such the quality loss appears neither to result from camera shake nor from subject-movement (my second hypothesis).

Admittedly, movement is not something one would expect from the control
panel of industrial machinery one might be engaged to photograph. Fine
detail and marked contrast, particularly involving curves, however, are
often characteristics of such artefacts and the way we, as technical
designers, use friendly, round, buttons and high-contrast curved edgings as our stock-in-trade for functional delimitation in interface design. And very effectively for day-to-day operators.

Now, as a caveat, it's possible this experience simply reflects the limits of JPEG level 6 compression and the originals are photo-perfect. I do, however, doubt this. If the originals were photo-perfect then it seems to me there would be more, generalised, data-loss in the shots as a whole.

And, even if the originals are photo-perfect, it hasn't taken a massive
compression-step, assuming they were shot at a higher, home-printer
friendly, resolution of 150 or 300 dpi (but, remember, memory is a known
limiting factor with this camera), to irretrievably lose critical information.

Again this seems to be a scale thing. Blowing the precise contour of the
groom's ear up to 3x magnification at 2400dpi is of no importance to me,
personally, and nor will it be to most viewers of these particular photo's.

But the groom's ears are as large in real life as the largest of round
buttons on, say, a photocopying machine. And the distance which would be
required to photograph industrial machinery is comparable.

Even with a massive camera RAM, something a look round English photographic, electrical and computer shops still suggests is unlikely to be manifest cheaply for some time, the scope for error in digital photos for top-end composition by a print house running at, say, 1200 or 2400 dpi counsels caution.

And not only caution but time-consuming test runs and detailed negotiation with the print-house and, implicitly, added budgetary requirements. Things I got the impression the digital camera had been specified as a project tool to negate in the first place. And not something anybody involved seemed comfortable talking about when I asked directly (indeed, it was the way various assurances the camera was fine signified what was clearly a closed subject that prompted me both to cancel the interview and to get a better idea of the reality of digital photography).

Thus, while it's arguable that for some applications - such as inclusion in an Acrobat, or HTML, technical marketing document or workplace instruction - the digital camera would prove adequate, as this contract specified the deliverables would be paper-based and sent to a print-house it seems my bells of alarum were well-rung and, indeed, cancelling the interview was no foolish surrender at all. Just think about the shots of cars, bikes, boats, even computers, in the technical (hobby) press...the way you need to visit the showroom because the ad or review doesn't quite answer your questions on
what parameters that panel of indicators to the left of that prominent meter in the photo' relate to...

And, as such, having considered, assimiliated and now tested digital cameras from a basic competence with analog (chemical) photographic media, technical competence in market leading image processing applications and access to both a reasonable scanner and digital images from a known source, I can only suggest the scope for image degradation and data loss in digitally-generated photograph formats is something anyone considering working with digital cameras in technical photography for the first time should be-a-wary of.

And, as such, I can see drum scanners remaining with us quite some time yet.

Lighting and digital cameras

Back to the camera at the wedding. My experience as a subject [4] of the
same camera, later on, at the somewhat darker "evening do", without which no British wedding is complete [5], demonstrated nicely that the
multiple-scanning processes on which digital cameras work may require some following winds, and flashes configured around this over-sampling gave me borderline palpitation level shock and an irritable streak.

This was mainly the result of being bombarded, without warning, by intense, repeated, flashes of strong light in mid conversation (presumably in the interests of taking "candid" shots) and wasn't a reaction I could control. I do, now, wonder whether the red eye effect is minimised solely because of involuntary blinking rather than any bona fide application of advanced technology. The question of whether or not this might trigger a petit-mal fit in anyone prone to epilepsy is one I'll wait awhile [6] before asking.

But, surely, they wouldn't be on sale if they did...


As it is, my experience leads me to suggest that rookies out there,
particularly those without extensive photographic experience, and those with a background specialising in writing or DTP but under corporate, agential or other financial pressure to branch out into the new, beckoning, wider world of fully integrated communication products by taking their own technical photographs, do spend some time looking into why many traditional applications of technical photography have used such bulky, costly, apparati as tripods, close-up lenses, composition beds, benches and tables, and complex flash-rigs to capture the required levels of detail in images on transparency before they jump into contracts which offer a digital camera not only as a working tool but also as a job perk or completion bonus.

Remember when you got that fantastic computer system that could do all kinds of previously complicated things at "the click of a mouse"? And look how many people still write here for help the first two years they're learning to use it...

So, for now, as far as digital image processing is concerned, whilst it may be true that 2400 dpi laser-setting boasts no discernible difference from analog printing, even to a typographic purist, and renders any kind of curve smooth and crisp, it seems digital cameras may well still have to play catch-up before we can all dash out to buy one tax-deductible as working capital and expect screen-resolution fidelity to translate to print-shop accuracy. Digital cameras are, however, just fine for weddings, barbecues, birthdays,
holidays, picnics, rallies, meets, a day at the races, beach parties &c.

And I'm sure they're well-suited to under-the-hood shots off the engine layout in the new-style Cadillacs recently launched into the UK market.

Ideal for paparazzi applications also I'd've thought. But, please, be careful with that flash, Eugene, when you're in a dark room at a party!

From my experience the flash functions do influence people in such
environments. I just wouldn't go collocating that with anything suggestive of "winning friends" [7].

And, as they become increasingly cheaper, it would be nice to know those
places in the UK still offering courses in Technical Communication as a
generic vocational qualification have invested in a few units so students can learn for themselves when, and under what conditions, they're genuinely suited to technical photography applications as well as when, and under what conditions, the traditional 35mm SLRs they mimic wouldn't be up to the job.

Anyone who has mitigating experience of this medium and can expand on what kinds of technical photographic work the digital camera is ideally suited to is invited to follow up. As are education providers in the public sector who deal in Technical Communication welcome to demonstrate how they have integrated this limited but, potentially, versatile and powerful new medium into their existing curricula.

Just remember, don't send binaries to techwr-l...

[1] he's also like this about his computer despite the questions I keep
answering for him about why it keeps behaving in ways he doesn't expect. And what a heat sink is. I keep having to remember that the fetish value of computer operation in the days when liquid nitrogen was a pre-requisite for calculations requiring more than 1K of RAM is something those of us who cut our teeth on MSX contemporaries and ATARI VGCs just don't appreciate. It's perhaps best exemplified by the BBC's properties department's iconic approximation of "a computer", notionally situated in the Tax Office, in the long-running '70s sit-com "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em...". In this instance "a computer" was the casing from an upright overstrung piano, paintedwhite,
with 2 spinning tape reels, disproportionately large light panels thatmade
MB's Simon game look compact and audio feedback that gave theRadiophonics
Workshop a chance to employ all manner of previously unusable sounds.Not
forgetting, of course, the copious amounts of white smoke billowingwhich,
as we all know, substitute adequately for incomprehensible error-codesto
signify operator-induced dysfunction in any well-designed machine tothisday ;?).
[2] which reminds me why it is I knew how to operate most functions onmost
digital watches a couple of years before I owned one and raises thequestion
whether the most effective approach to product testing of interfacedesign
isn't giving your product to the denizens of 10 Primary Schoolplaygrounds
and, if less than 80% of pre-syntagmatic schoolchildren know how to workit
within a week then you redesign it.
[3] wedding photo's appear to be by nature promiscuous. But nobodyrushes to
offer you shots of, say, a close-up of their new motherboard, the
heat-shrinker in their warehouse or a step-by-step outline of how todilute
concentrated HCl.[4] or victim - OW!!! Those things HURT!!!
[5] except those which sneering voyeurs, without invitation or, indeed,any
explicit connection at all, arrogantly poefy, safe, from day-to-day,between
their shelves.
[6] 'awhile': indefinite quantifier, relating to time, and featuring a
compound Diectic - the only compound Diectic lexicographically admitted
AFAICT - and a form Ruqaiya Hasan appears not to comment on despite
structural and functional similarity with its durative equivalent
'meanwhile', itself a rather interesting compound archaism worthy of an
essay by more astute etymologists than I (Halliday, MAK and Hasan,Ruqaiya;
COHERENCE IN ENGLISH; Longman Harlow/NY, 1976; ISBN 0-582-55041-6).
[7] ditto paparazzi applications

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