Digital Photos Online
Published in the TechEdge 2000-02
We live in a digital age. In his book Being Digital, MIT Media Lab founder, Nicholas Negraponte, begins his explication of our modern era by describing the differences between "bits" and "atoms." Although "we are undoubtedly in an information age, most information is [still] delivered to us in the form of atoms: newspapers, magazines, and books....." Negraponte goes on to define a "bit," the foundational element of our digital age, as having "no color, size, or weight," and the ability to "travel at the speed of light...It is a state of being: on or off, true or false, up or down, in or out, black or white." A string of 8 bits is called a "byte" (a term commonly used in computing discussions but rarely understood), and "has 256 permutations of 1s and 0s, starting with 00000000 and ending with 11111111." (1) The complexity of data transmitted in this way, as "bits," can vary from a simple yes or no answer, to a complicated photograph containing millions of colors or even a full motion video clip.
In the past, when classroom activities were photographically documented, traditional cameras were used. Film was purchased, pictures taken, film developed, and finally shared with students, parents, and other teachers. Although relatively costly one-hour processing could speed up these steps that relied on "atomic exchanges," there was usually a considerable delay between the capture of an event on film and the sharing of resulting photos with others.
Digital photography, based on "bits" rather than atoms, is dramatically changing this process. Today, teachers and students all over the United States have increasing access to digital cameras and digital tools, including computers, software, and Internet connectivity. Thankfully, it is not necessary to fully understand the language of "bits" to appreciate and utilize the power of digital photography. This article describes several ways to share digital photographs with others on the Internet, using free online services and software available to all educators connected to the information superhighway. Equipped with the proper equipment and these techniques, teachers can almost record and share classroom events in "real time." As described later, the ability to share images almost instantaneously is not always instructionally appropriate or desirable, but that potential is exciting and can open new windows of opportunity for students and teachers alike.
Why Digital Photography in the Classroom?
On his website dedicated to this topic, Educator Keith Lightbody lists over twenty-five different uses of digital photography in the classroom (www.ozemail.com.au/~cumulus/digcam.htm). These include "enhancing newsletters, pamphlets, food preparation notes, science reports...sharing photos, global collaborative projects...merit certificates, student of the week...recording information on excursions...recording student progress," and others. (2) The possibilities seem endless.
As with all uses of technology in education, it is important to focus on instructional goals and be wary of using devices merely because they are "trendy" or "cool." (The rush for some campuses to adopt Palm Pilots or other handheld organizers may demonstrate this tendency.) Photography, however, is a familiar technology to teachers with proven instructional applications. The digital side of photography promises to make these applications faster and more easily accessible. (For more ideas about appropriate and inappropriate uses of technology, refer to "Remember the Luddites: Asking Critical Questions About Educational Technology" at www.wtvi.com/teks/luddites.)
Step 1: Capturing Digital Images
Two primary methods are available to obtain photographic images in digital form: 1) use a digital camera or camcorder to capture the original image as "bits" (digital form), or 2) use a scanner to convert a printed photograph from its atomic form into digital form.
Capturing images digitally with a camera or camcorder is increasingly preferable for several reasons:
Many professional photographers have resisted the urge to move into digital photography because potential image resolutions have (until recently) been insufficient to permit very large, studio portrait sized enlargements. Amateur photographers (including teachers) need not share these reservations. A few years ago, maximum image size on digital cameras was 640 x 480. Now, a myriad of camera options is available with maximum horizontal resolution in excess of 1000 pixels. What does this mean for educators?
Digital camera experiences of this writer include models by Kodak, Casio, Canon, and Sony. Although this usage has not been comprehensive by any means, the results have been consistently pleasing (and even amazing) with Sony models. Sony Mavica cameras (which accept standard 1.4 MB, 3 1/2 inch PC formatted floppy disks) and newer "memory stick only" Sony cameras (like the DSC-S50) are top choices for ease of use, quality, and affordability.
Most digital cameras today offer several choices of "file formats" for saved images. The most common format is JPEG, often abbreviated JPG. JPEG stands for "Joint Photographic Experts Group," and technically means a digital image that retains 24 bit color. In layman's terms, this means the photo can contain millions of colors. This contrasts to the other common Internet graphic file format, GIF ("Graphics Interchange Format" developed initially by CompuServe.) GIF images are limited to an 8 bit color palette (256 colors), and are best for simple graphics with fewer colors.
If presented with an option, choose the JPEG file format on a digital camera for maximum compatibility with web publishing services and software. JPEG images can be compressed to varying degrees, with a corresponding loss of image quality but reduction in file size. The level of JPEG quality would depend on how many photos will be taken, and how many megabytes of storage are available on the camera's removable media card. As an example, with low JPEG image quality selected, over 100 640 x 480 pictures can be saved on a 32 MB Sony memory stick. If photos will be posted online, this image quality and size is adequate. If images will be printed or will need cropping, larger image sizes at greater resolution should be used.
Capture digital images by framing the subjects clearly in the center of the viewfinder. Unlike traditional film-based cameras, most digital cameras now offer a small LCD preview window which displays the scene visible through the camera lens. On cameras with zoom capability, remember that an incremental loss in image quality corresponds to higher levels of digital zoom magnification, so consider moving the camera closer to the subject instead of zooming in excessively. Avoid complicated backgrounds behind subjects, if possible, since this will make the process of creating a mask on the photograph later much easier (A mask removes all background clutter.). Finally, use the camera's preview option to check if the new photograph is acceptable. Most cameras will show this preview for a few seconds after a photo is taken. This is adequate time to see if a student closed his/her eyes or was was otherwise out of place.
Step 2: Transfer Images from Camera to Computer
Whether using a Sony digital camera or another brand, it is a good idea to use a camera with a "removable media" option. Cameras relying solely on cable connections to transfer photos (particularly older serial cables) can be frustratingly slow. As with most technologies in the digital age, speed is paramount, and thankfully, new storage options like Sony's "memory stick" storage and USB cable connections deliver much more satisfying results than older cables.
"Removable media" options include Sony's memory stick, the CompactFlash card, and Smartmedia cards. Each of these storage devices are small and removable (as the name implies) like a floppy disk, but can hold much more data than a floppy. Memory sticks and Smartmedia cards are presently available in sizes up to 64 MB, CompactFlash cards up to 256 MB, and IBM Microdrive disks (compatible with some CompactFlash card readers) in sizes up to 1 GB. (3) These sizes will doubtless increase in coming months, with a corresponding drop in price according to Gordon Moore's Law (which correlates doubling in processing speed with price reductions.) Each commercial entity promoting these removable media options is competing with the others to make its product "the standard." As yet it is difficult to predict if one technology will decisively win out over the others.
Images captured on a digital camera can be transferred to a computer using several methods:
When the driver software has been installed on the computer, plugging a cable connection from the camera to the computer will allow the contents of the camera's memory to be accessible just like a floppy disk or CD. For Windows users, a new drive letter will appear in "My Computer" for the digital camera. For Macintosh users, an icon of the digital camera will appear on the desktop, with digital photos included inside just like another removable computer disk.
Card reader peripherals can alternatively be used instead of a cable connection, which may offer faster transfer rates. Card readers can include "PC card" adapters, which fit into the PCMCIA slot of laptops. When using a card reader, the actual camera is not handled by students or the teacher. This is advantageous, since the more the camera is handled, the more opportunities there are for dropping or otherwise damaging it. If digital cameras are used often in the classroom or computer lab, a card reader is a wise investment. Although digital cameras continue to come down in price and be relatively hardy devices, they are still expensive enough to be handled with the utmost care.
Whatever method is used, once the camera's drive letter or icon is visible on the desktop or in My Computer, double click it to open and reveal the folder containing the photos. If the camera allows movies as well as still photographs to be captured, two folders may be present. Unless continuous numbering was selected as an option before taking photographs, files in the image folder will be numbered chronologically starting with a name like "DSC00001.JPG." To copy these photos to the computer's hard drive:
The speed of this transfer process will depend on the size of the images saved, and the speed of the cable connection or removable media card reader in use. Depending on the intended use of the photos, it may be best to open each photo separately in an image viewer application, then close and rename the files to easily recognize their subject matter. A suitable image viewer program should already be installed on the computer, but if not, a web browser will serve this purpose. Alternatively, rather than renaming the files, view the files and make notes on a sheet of paper concerning what filenames correspond to certain photographic subjects.
Step 3: Transfer Images from Computer to Internet
The idea of creating a webpage on the Internet is intimidating to many teachers, and in the past, this perception may have been justified. Today, however, it is not necessary to be familiar with the term "HTML," know any type of programming whatsoever, or even use webpage creation software like Netscape Composer (free) or Microsoft Frontpage (commercial) to create a basic webpage on the Internet.
Free, web based services are available that allow educators (and any other Internet user, for that matter) to create webpages including images taken with a digital camera. Before creating a classroom webpage, however, it is important to know district policy on teacher or student created webpages. Most districts prefer, and some mandate, that all webpages created by teachers as official school webpages be "housed" (or saved) on the district webserver. Thus, when a visitor views the page, he/she can validate the authenticity of the page's content by looking at the address, which will likely include the school district's name, the "k12" designation, and the state and country where the district is located. (For more on webpage validation, refer to "Validating Information and Resolving Information Conflicts" at www.wtvi.com/teks/98_99_articles/validate.html.) If a district prohibits teachers from creating webpages stored on servers other than the school's, refer to the steps below for using software tools to include images on webpages. When in doubt, ask before posting educational photos online.
In addition to this caution about receiving district permission to post pictures online, it is imperative that educators obtain student and parent permission before posting photographs online! Although it can be troublesome, this permission should be obtained in writing from both parties. For an example of an Internet publication permission form for both student work and photos, refer to www.wtvi.com/teks/elecform.pdf.
iTools: Easy and Powerful for Mac Users
Those with access to a computer running Macintosh Operating System 9.0 have access to one of the easiest and most powerful webpage creation tools available to date: iTools. A free iTools membership qualifies members for up to 20 MB of online server space for images, movies, and webpages, as well as a mac.com email address. To sign up for iTools:
Once iTools software is installed and a user is logged in, photos may be uploaded to the Internet:
Next, create a webpage (or several) that includes one or more of these photos:
After clicking PUBLISH, the actual Internet address of the newly created webpage on the Internet will be displayed. Copy and paste this address into an email program to let others know where they can view the online photos. Click on the link once to access the page, then make that page a bookmark / favorite on the computer for easy access later. The photos are now online, accessible throughout the world by anyone who knows the web address and has Internet access!
iTools is designed to be used by educators for more than publishing photographs online. Design templates for school newsletters, showcases of student work, and other educational webpages are also available. Compose text for these pages offline in a word processor, then copy and paste paragraphs into iTools form fields when creating webpages.
Sony ImageStation: Photo Publishing for Mac and Windows users alike
An important term in the Internet community today is cross-platform. "Cross-platform" refers to the ability of a service, feature, or file to be accessed by computer users, whether using Macintosh OS, a version of Windows, Linux, or something else. While the webpages created by iTools (described above) ARE cross-platform in their accessibility (anyone can view them online), they are not cross-platform in their creation potential (only Mac OS 9 users can make them).
Enter ImageStation, a free website from Sony offering many of the features of iTools as well as additional features such as password protection and commercial print services. Whatever computer operating system chosen, a user may sign up and use ImageStation:
Once you are logged in, "upload" the photos to the Internet and create a webpage to display them:
Next, under ACTIVITIES share the album by choosing either:
After the album is created and others are notified of it, they will be able to link to it and view the photos. If a password is required to view the photos, be sure to provide it to those parents / students who will see the album. This feature can help provide additional security for photos published online, but the same guidelines described above for obtaining parent and student permission before publishing photos should still be followed.
Both iTools and ImageStation are powerful yet user-friendly free services for creating webpages. Some educators may not be able to use these services because of district policies, or may want to avoid the commercial aspects of the webpages (included in ImageStation pages). For these users, freeware software tools are available that can make image publication on the Internet faster and easier.
One of the most difficult parts of creating a webpage with images taken with a digital camera involves "FTP," or file transfer. Images must be uploaded into a specific folder along with a webpage (written in HTML) which includes references for these images to be included. This process can undoubtedly be complicated.
Numerous software programs are available which can address the need for quickly creating webpages and "thumbnails" (small versions) of included images. Two of particular note are:
Download links for these programs (which are too long to include in full here) are available from the online version of this article, at www.wtvi.com/teks/00_01_articles/digitalphotosonline.html. Both programs create HTML pages and thumbnail versions of digital camera photos. The folder containing both the HTML page and image files can be uploaded to any Internet webserver, including a school webserver. During a school fall festival at Rush Elementary in Lubbock, students and parents visited a booth where they "purchased" a digital photograph that was taken and posted to tje school internet website. Using Photopage software, almost 100 photographs taken at this event were converted into thumbnailed webpages and posted online in a relatively short amount of time (less than an hour). These photographs and webpages can be viewed on www.lubbock.k12.tx.us/rush/rushfestival2000/page1.html.
For more information about creating and uploading webpages, refer to www.wtvi.com/html.
Digital Photography is an "attainable" technology for teachers
Thanks to relatively nontechnical, user-friendly web services like iTools and ImageStation, educators can jump into the arena of digital photography with both feet. The advantages of digital photography are considerable and can pose exciting opportunities for classroom instruction. Whether or not we understand Negraponte's explanation of "bits" and "bytes," teachers can enjoy the cutting-edge benefits of the digital age through digital photography to share them with others across the street or the globe, with cross-platform Internet technology and the "tools for the TEKS" described here!
Other online photo resources include:
2 - Lightbody, Keith. "Digital Cameras in Education." http://www.ozemail.com.au/~cumulus/digcam.htm. Accessed 2-11-2001.
3 - "Removable Media for Digital Cameras." http://www.sherwoods-photo.com/periph_media/s_media_fs.htm. Accessed 2-11-2001.
Wesley Fryer is a computer teacher and technology facilitator in Lubbock ISD. He presents a wide variety of technology staff development courses for K-12 organizations. A listing of his current workshops is available on www.wtvi.com/teks/workshops.html.