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|Kodak's New "Sea Processing"
A technological breakthrough offers dramatically improved color prints for underwater photographers.
by Stephen Frink
Test Procedure: Sneaky | Results: Startling
Kodak Picture CD: The Future, Now
Bottom Line: You Gotta Love It
What It Is: A Giant Step
Kodak has partnered with another processing giant, Noritsu, to create the state-of-the-art Noritsu 2711 Digital Printer. Kodak contributes scanners and image science for this machine, and has authored an enhanced software package specifically to facilitate printing. Your color print film is first processed normally (standard C-41 chemistry), but then the film strip goes through a scanner and is digitized. The whole batch of thumbnails (small, low-resolution images) is then visible on a monitor. The Kodak Sea Processing technician can then pick each individual image, go to edit mode, and enhance color and contrast according to one of three levels: (1) "Low" for when color is essentially correct, but contrast needs enhancement. (2) "Medium" when changes in color and contrast are needed. (3) "High" for more aggressive changes to both color and contrast. These controls are designed to improve the flat light and cyan bias so typical in underwater photos.
If the operator is not happy with the effect, there is an "undo" control, and the option of no correction at all. When corrections are called for, they are digital rather than optical, allowing the computer to perform the effects instantly. There is no more of the old tedium of dialing in filter packs, doing test prints, and then printing again for necessary corrections.
With a calibrated monitor (and you can be sure Kodak's computer monitors are accurately calibrated at all times) and this new software and printer, what the operator sees on the monitor is what you receive in your package of finished prints. To a certain extent the product still depends on the eye of a human. But since the flow of work to the Sea Processing lab will be from underwater photographers, these technicians will be skilled at the various edits necessary to get the most out of an underwater image.
To gauge the results of the Kodak Sea Processing, I shot two rolls of film, one with a Sea & Sea MX-5 and one with a Nikonos RS and 28mm lens. I chose the 28mm on the RS to replicate the angle of view of the point-and-shoot MX-5, and also to give me the option of off-camera flash to minimize backscatter. This was a significant factor on our test day because we only had about 25-foot visibility.
I first had the negatives processed and printed by a local drugstore lab. The reason for the local processing was simply to use it as a control. I wanted to be sure the comparison minilab photos from Kodak weren't intentionally bad, just to make the Sea Processing look good. The negatives were then shipped to Kodak for both minilab and Kodak Sea Processing. As it turned out, the Kodak minilab results were better than our local drugstore lab's, allowing a three-way comparison.
Nikonos RS Images: Almost all were improved with Kodak Sea Processing versus the Kodak minilab. I didn't necessarily expect this because the RS allowed me to get closer and to use a pair of off-camera strobes on articulated arms. This increase in strobe power and ability to reduce the water column would reduce the cyan color bias of the water. So, if the negatives were properly exposed and the strobe used to proper advantage, what could Sea Processing bring to the table?
In fact, there were a few shots, most notably the shots of schooling goatfish, which were actually more authentic in the minilab version. The Sea rendition introduced some red bias to the fish. To my eye, a correction factor of "low" or "none" might have been better than the medium correction seemingly applied. But for the rest of the roll, Sea Processing was definitely better.
A porkfish, obviously overexposed in the minilab version, held highlight detail in the Sea Processing prints. A sea fan, which was too yellow in the minilab version, was rendered a natural lavender by Sea Processing. A French angelfish too warm in color and blocked in shadows in the minilab version appeared perfectly color-corrected with detailed shadows in the Sea Processing.
Sea & Sea MX-5 Images: After the first comparison rolls I was pretty well sold on the validity of Sea Processing. But when I looked at the results from the Sea & Sea MX-5, the advantage to the new process was startling. With this fixed-focus camera, the minimum focus was greater than with the RS, so naturally there was more blue filtration from the water. The goatfish in the minilab photos were an almost monochromatic blue, but the Sea Processing brought back the whites of their bodies and the yellow of the lateral line.
A barracuda shot with highlights overexposed due to the reflective nature of the fish suddenly held the highlights and offered a far better overall color balance. But the best improvement of the bunch was with a simple shot of a blue parrotfish. In the minilab version, the fish is muddy and bland, barely separated from the background. In the Kodak Sea Processing, it records a vibrant turquoise color, the gorgonian in the foreground is a natural color, and the wreck in the background has more visible detail. This will never be a terrific shot because of the backscatter, but the enhanced Sea Processing clearly made it the best that it could be.
Kodak Sea Processing includes negatives, prints and an index print, but you can also order a Kodak Picture CD at the same time. This is a $10 option that is a terrific bargain, given the time and money investment in scanning individual slides or negatives. CDs are digital, meaning they won't fade or degrade with time. Plus, the combination of the Picture CD and index print is a perfect way to archive photos, and most importantly, find them again when the need arises.
The Picture CD comes with an Installation Wizard that will guide even modestly savvy computer users. Integrated software by Adobe (makers of the popular PhotoShop program) allows the application of numerous enhancements to the photos, including changes in brightness and contrast, cropping, sharpening and special effects like posterization or shift to black and white. There is even a special tool to remove red eye. (Hey, Kodak: Here's an idea. While I've never had the call to remove red eye from a fish, how about a tool to remove backscatter? Now that would be a boon to photographers everywhere.)
The negatives are stored on the Kodak Picture CD as JPEGs, suitable for sending via e-mail, creating computer slide shows, making screensavers or wallpaper for the computer, or printing via a color laser printer. There is a link to Kodak's Photonet Online if you'd like to send the photos to friends and relatives via the Internet, or order reprints and enlargements. You can even specify which of your photos you might like to see printed as custom mousepads, T-shirts or coffee mugs. All in all, this is a hell of a deal for a $10 bill.
Bottom Line: You Gotta Love It
|© 2012 Stephen Frink Photographic, site by bits|