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Chapter 4. Digital Imaging > Communicating with Digital Imaging

Communicating with Digital Imaging

If you're a digital artist creating art for art's sake, the world is your oyster—your work can communicate anything your heart desires, or nothing at all. For graphic design professionals, however, digital imaging has a very specific job to do. That job is to make images that look great and communicate. Sometimes you won't notice that any digital imaging work was done at all, which is quite a compliment to the designer. Other times, you'll be knocked out by the unmistakable application of digital imaging techniques.

The first category is the retouching and correction of original photographs, an important skill for designers in the publishing world. Such work can be as simple as making the sky more blue in a vacation ad or as extreme as lengthening the legs on a supermodel for a fashion cover. Designers go to town on model shots, performing such subtle tasks as slimming the waist, coloring the lips, enlarging the eyes, and correcting skin imperfections.

Even outside the world of glossy magazines, most photos that are published are first retouched and corrected, with the goal of removing features or blemishes that would distract the viewer or make a person or product seem less than ideal. These techniques also help designers and photographers out of some tough jams, such as when the lighting or weather on a photo shoot isn't ideal. Why reshoot when you can retouch?

Digital imaging also affords the designer the ability to make a surreal concept a reality that grabs viewers' attention and sticks in the memory. Let's say a pet food company asks you to design an upcoming campaign for a new cat chow that makes cats feel younger and more playful. You instantly picture dozens of kitties at the amusement park riding the coasters and bumper cars. It's not a situation that a photographer could ever hope to capture. With a handful of photographs and some digital imaging prowess, though, you could certainly make a scene that was convincing and memorable—and a moneymaker for the client.

Figure 4.2. Retouching is a common tactic in digital imaging. In this image, created by photographer Ken Milburn, the car and background were separate photos that were enhanced, then combined to make a finished scene.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Every designer must ask himself this question when embarking on a digital imaging project. Since there are no limits to what you can do to an original photograph, some ethical concerns are raised. Digital imaging can be so realistic and convincing that it can be misleading. How perfect should you make that cover girl? Is it OK to put that guy's head on this other guy's body?

The answer to these questions depends on the medium. In the news media, for example, only minor corrections to color and lighting that help balance an image are permitted. Newsweek and TV Guide have both been in hot water over cover designs that included one person's head on another's body, leading readers to believe that the images were actual photos. In fashion magazines, where readers expect the ideal, heavier retouching is more acceptable.

In advertising and packaging, color and lighting corrections are used to make product images appealing but attainable. In a hamburger ad, for example, the lettuce and tomato might be touched up so that they appear more vibrant and appetizing, and reflections on the meat highlighted so that it seems extra juicy.

Creating a scene that is patently not real can also be acceptable. If floating that same hamburger in space or placing it on top of Mount Everest through digital imaging helps communicate a specific message, there's nothing stopping you. Viewers will understand that it is an unrealistic situation made to look convincing—just like the cats in the bumper cars—and will not feel misled.

What all the above scenarios have in common is the use of photography as source material. Most digital imaging assignments begin with photographs, obtained from photographers or stock photography sources. But it should be noted that photographs are by no means a requirement, as skilled Photoshop pros are able to create abstract and photo-realistic art from scratch. These pieces, formed with brushes, filters, and other tools, present an alternative when photos simply won't achieve the objective. The challenge of creating them helps keep digital imaging experts at the top of their game.

Figure 4.3. With a blank slate and plenty of Photoshop expertise, Colin Smith painted this realistic, detailed guitar.

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