Better Light delivers awesome clarity to images

By Stevie Jeung / IET Student Writer

Imagine a tiny bug that looks a little like a bee, only it's about 1 millimeter long. Now imagine a digital picture of this bug, in crystal clarity, blown up to the size of your head.

Mediaworks, a department in Information and Educational Technology (IET) devoted to serving the instructional technology needs of the campus, recently purchased a device that makes this image possible. This technology, made by Better Light, Inc., improves the precision of film photography and pairs it with the convenience of a digital camera. The new equipment yields an extensive range of potential academic uses.

The Better Light unit is a digital scanning device that works with a traditional 4x5 inch camera to capture a super-high resolution image. The scanner fits in where the 4x5 film would normally go, and must be connected to a computer for editing and storage.

Although the scanning system does not work well with a moving subject, it does capture still pictures with astounding accuracy. The quality lets a viewer zoom in without losing clarity, making it ideal for studying maps or scrutinizing artwork. Mediaworks photographer Gabriel Unda has already used the camera to capture maps for the Native American Studies department at UC Davis.

Using an attachment that allows panoramas, Mediaworks has also duplicated a silk scroll painting, creating an image so sharp that one can zoom in to see brush strokes on the strands of woven silk.

Mediaworks photographer Sam Woo has been using the camera in photo microscopy, which involves capturing images seen through a high-powered microscope. This relatively quick method of precise imagery makes the Better Light unit a potential tool in many detail-sensitive fields, including medicine.
< br> Before Better Light technology, photographers faced a difficult disparity between digital and film photography. Although digital cameras surpassed film in efficiency, convenience, and editing power, they denied the photographer certain elements of control, accuracy, and quality.

A 4x5 camera, for example, is built to control for distortions that may result from shooting the picture at an odd angle. A digital camera is constructed differently and is more prone to such distortions. The Better Light device takes the best of both worlds.

In a sense, Better Light even improves upon both worlds. Digital images are valued partly for their editing facility. The fact that the scanner is connected directly to a computer allows the scanner to perform a "pre-scan"--a quick, low-resolution preview that shows exactly how the final photo will look.

Then the photographer--using something "like a Photoshop set of tools, but instead of editing the picture after it's taken, you can do it beforehand," says Mediaworks photographer Gabriel Unda--adjusts the contrast, saturation, and tone of the image before the final picture is taken.

Better Light also improves upon a couple of the major advantages of film: quality and color accuracy. The scanning unit at Mediaworks can create a 1 gigabyte panoramic image: something that would require a 341.3 mega-pixel digital camera. Most personal digital cameras hover around the 5 mega-pixel mark.

The scanning device and pre-scan option also make it very simple to ensure that the subject's color is matched exactly. This is very important, for example, when reproducing art.

Mediaworks had borrowed a piece of equipment similar to Better Light occasionally since 1997. Owning the device makes the technology much more readily available for campus projects.

In the meantime, the photographers at Mediaworks test the power of the Better Light unit with projects of their own. Us ing a microscopic technique called "dark field," Sam Woo turned an abandoned microscope slide into a stunning photo and a testament to the literal magnitude afforded by his equipment.

The slide, discarded in Sam's desk sometime before he began work with UC Davis, is probably more than 20 years old. The bugs on the slide are microscopic, their origins unknown, their bodies imperfect. But their portrait is immense.


The Better Light device is available on a recharge basis for researchers, and educators wishing to use it can apply for an Educational Technology Research Award (ETRA) at Mediaworks.