Plugged In: Tips, technology for better photography

By Joe Kashi for the Redoubt Reporter

Our discussion this week is a collection of practical tips intended to help you protect your family’s photo memories and to make the most of photo opportunities.

  • I would not trust important family memories solely to the memory cards found in virtually all cameras. It’s not uncommon to find people continuing to take pictures until the memory card is completely filled, to the point that their camera refuses to store even one more image file. Memory cards are not really intended as long-term storage in the same fashion as a computer’s hard disks. Nonvolatile, solid-state memory tends to be unreliable in the medium to long term.

Rather than using memory cards as your primary photo data storage, I suggest that you regularly copy all images from your memory cards to your computer’s hard disk. This can be done by manually copying files to appropriate folders or with a program like Adobe Lightroom, which automatically starts in “import” mode when you insert a memory card or connect a USB device like a flash drive or cellphone. Regular data transfer to your computer’s hard disk is particularly important for cellphone camera users. These seem to be more likely than dedicated cameras to act erratically and lose data. Where possible, copy data files in their original RAW file format.

Computer hard disks can also lose data, although not quite as often as cellphones or memory cards. Regularly back up all of your hard disk data, including your photos, to another storage device that you can remove from your premises to avoid data loss in the event of fire, theft or other casualty. DVD and CD disks are not particularly reliable backup media. Not only are optical disks slow to read and write, but they have a very low storage capacity and tend to be unreliable over five to 10 years. I’ve found that the most effective and least costly backup device is an external SATA hard disk USB docking station. These use standard SATA hard disks, mounted as plug-in USB devices that easily attach an inexpensive hard disk to your computer, just like plugging in a flash drive.

I only consider data to be safely backed up when there are at least two complete copies, including one off-premises. Where possible, install a second, physically separate hard disk on your computer and use that hard disk to store all of your data. Storing data on the boot hard disk that contains the operating system is unsafe because, of all computer components, the boot drive is among the most likely to fail in a manner that requires reformatting the drive and reinstalling the operating system. Unless done by a competent technician, that process is likely to result in the loss of all data on the boot drive.

  • Once you’re sure that your photos are safely backed up in at least two different locations, then it’s OK to delete those same photos from your memory cards. Memory card manufacturers recommend that you use your camera’s “format” command, usually found in the setup menu, to clear the memory card by reformatting it. It’s best to format each memory card in the same camera in which it’s to be used. That’s the best assurance of compatibility and reliable data storage.
  • Discipline yourself to take the time to make the most of each important photo. That discipline has several facets. First, be sure you’ve tightly framed your image to include all important parts of your subject while excluding anything that detracts, such as bright, sharp background objects. A telephone pole seemingly growing out of a person’s head is a frequent, and classic, oversight arising from hurried, careless framing. I’ve done this many times myself.
  • Another aspect is ensuring accurate focus. Again, when in a hurry, it’s not uncommon for people to just point the camera, press the shutter, and expect the focusing hardware to deduce our intent. Discipline yourself to slow down and, at a minimum, be sure that the camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen indicates that your camera is focusing on the intended subject rather than randomly grabbing some secondary foreground or background object.
  • At least some care and attention should be given to correctly determining exposure. As we’ve mentioned previously, you’ll need to make some “exposure compensation” when taking photos of very bright subjects or those which should look dark, with bright subjects receiving more than the indicated average exposure and dark subjects receiving less exposure. How the camera determines that average exposure is controlled by how it “meters” the overall scene.

Most cameras have several rather different metering modes that can be set either using an external switch or button on higher-end digital SLR cameras, or a software menu choice in the case of most consumer and compact cameras.

“Spot” metering measures a very narrow area that’s usually in the center of the frame. When used with care by experienced photographers, spot metering can be very accurate, but its success relies on the photographer’s experience and willingness to slow down, take several exposure readings of subject, shadow and highlight areas, and then mentally calculate the best exposure. Generally, spot metering is not a good choice for the average photographer.

Another variation, one that I prefer for quick, day-to-day work with compact cameras, is “center-weighted” metering. This metering mode assumes that your most important subjects are generally in the middle third of your frame. It averages exposure by giving more weight to the brightness of objects in the center of a frame, with increasingly less importance given to the brightness of objects nearer the edges. Center-weighted metering was a favorite approach of better film cameras during the 1980s and 1990s, and I believe that it retains merit, especially when used with the exposure bracketing technique that we discussed in last week’s article.

The third common metering option is “matrix metering,” in which the camera basically does everything, taking many different exposure readings from different parts of the sensor and then deciding upon the best overall exposure. When used in common photographic situations for which your camera is preprogrammed to recognize, matrix metering can be quite effective, though not all cameras do equally well. However, you should be sufficiently familiar with your camera to know the circumstances when matrix metering works well and when it may fail. If in doubt, then use center-weighted metering and bracketing for important subjects.

  • Image stabilization hardware is one of the most useful and important photographic advances in the past 25 or 30 years, but it has limitations. Depending on the make and model of your camera or lens, image stabilization may be effective with a shutter speed as slow as one-quarter second or so, a far longer exposure than nearly anyone can hand-hold without blur. If you’re planning to shoot that slowly, consider taking several exposures in rapid sequence. At least one may be stable enough to sharply render detail.

In the same fashion as when shooting a firearm, control your breathing and gently squeeze off that slow-shutter-speed photo. Try to find some stable support, such as a wall or a tree. When a stabilized camera or lens is mounted on a tripod or used at very high shutter speeds, on the order of 1/500 or 1/1000 second, then occasionally image stabilization may actually cause more blur than it cures. I suggest that you experiment with your cameras and lenses to determine whether it might be better to turn image-stabilization off under these occasional circumstances.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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