Start doing any sort of work with graphic files, especially photos, on your PC, and the different file format options soon start to seem as endless as the flavors at Baskin-Robbins.
But graphic files really only come in two flavors: bitmapped and vector. Bitmapped graphics are made up of dots or picture elements called pixels. (Imagine taking a felt-tipped pen and drawing a face dot by dot.) Photographs are a good example of bitmapped graphics.
Vector graphics use coordinates to make a picture; that is, they're based on mathematical formulas using curves, lines, circles, rectangles, and such to make the image.
Because a vector image is not composed of dots, they tend to look better than bitmapped ones. And when you change the shape of a vector graphic or resize it, it isn't distorted like a bitmapped image is. Most design and illustration programs used to create company logos, charts and diagrams save images as vector images.
When you work with photos on your PC, you probably will be using bitmap files, not vector files. Photos taken with a digital camera or developed by a lab are usually in .GIF format, .PCX format or .PCD format. (Kodak developed the .PCD format for its PhotoCD product.)
You can also manipulate photos in .JPG (pronounced "jay peg") format. This format is usually reserved for a high-quality photo that is compressed. A .WMF (Windows Metafile) can be just about anything (it's a format used by many Microsoft applications). Scan a photo and it will probably be a .TIF file. Luckily, most graphic programs will open and "save as" any one of the popular file formats.
Which file format should you use? It depends on where the image is going to end up. A .BMP or .GIF file is the best all-around file format choice, offering good quality and general use in the most software programs. For example, if you want to e-mail the latest photo of the kids to your Great Aunt Ida across the country, send her a .BMP file and she can open it in Windows Paint. Send her a .GIF file and she'll have to convert the file to a .BMP before opening it with Windows Paint.
If you're not graphically inclined like I am, you don't want to learn a complex software program or spend a bundle of money to simply convert file formats. That's why I use the shareware try-before-you-buy program Paint Shop Pro from Jasc Inc. ( 622-2793; http://www.jasc.com) to convert files. It opens almost all graphic files and saves that file in any one of the popular formats.
Paint Shop Pro also lightens, darkens and sharpens images. You can resize photos on the fly, add special effects and custom backgrounds, as well as capture screen shots. I've tried other shareware image manipulators and viewers but always come back to Paint Shop Pro.
Go beyond shareware and you'll want Quarterdeck's $50 HiJaak 95 ( 683-6696; http://www.quarterdeck.com). The program supports more than 75 graphics file formats, performs batch file conversions, has sophisticated screen capture tools and has a database management system that tracks image type, image class, color level and other attributes. You can see thumbnails of files before opening them, too.
There are certain things graphic converters and viewers just don't do. Let's say you want to add some real special effects, almost cartoon-like morphing, to your photos. Here's where the $50 Kai's Power Goo from Metatools ( 566-6200; http://www.metatools.com) excels.
Pick the effect you want (bulge, smear, squeeze, etc.), and then highlight the portion of the photo you want to change. Instantly, the photo turns into something you might expect from a movie. In fact, you can use Kai's Power Goo to make a movie in .AVI format showing photos morphing.
If you'd rather clean up the rough edges of a photo instead of morphing them--say you want to remove some wrinkles or red eye--you can use the professional standard of photo retouching, Adobe Photoshop ( 888-6293; http://www.adobe.com). For $895, though, you need a good reason to buy such an elaborate program.
Home users will usually be better off with Photoshop's little brother, called Adobe's PhotoDeluxe. For $50, you get a super program that is geared for the nonprofessional who merely wants a good edited photo and doesn't have to worry about color separations and palette issues. PhotoDeluxe also comes with canned templates to use your photos in greeting cards, calendars, flyers and signs.
Kim Komando is a Fox TV host, syndicated talk radio host and founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online (keyword KOMANDO). She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com