Frequently Asked Photo Questions for April

Have a question about digital photography? Don't keep it to yourself. Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting ones about once a month here in this newsletter.

For more Frequently Asked Questions, read my Digital Focus newsletters from January, February, and March.

Bright Lights, Dark Subject

What's the best way to shoot a subject that is in front of a bright window? For example, suppose I'm taking a picture of a pastor at the pulpit who is positioned in front of a bright stained-glass window. I don't want the stained glass window's highlights to be blown out, but I also want a light enough exposure on his face so he doesn't appear as a silhouette.
--Brian Johns, Wichita, Kansas

There several ways to tackle this challenging photographic situation, Brian. If you can use an external flash (not the puny little built-in flash that comes with many digital cameras), that's your fastest road to a good shot. The flash can expose your subject, while the right shutter setting will help get a good exposure in the background. Check out "Take Better Flash Photos" for more on this.

If flash photography isn't practical, then you need to expose for your subject--and that probably means you'll "blow out" (overexpose) the background. Or you can try to split the difference: Underexpose the whole scene, and then selectively brighten the subject using your favorite photo editing program. If you'd like to learn more about this technique, stay tuned--I'll detail the process in the near future.

Recovering Lost Photos

I take a lot of pictures and I have been doing this for years with no trouble. But recently, my memory card has started to display an error and I can't see or load my pictures. Do you know of a free recovery program that will find my pictures?
--Niron Virch, Marquette, Michigan

There are several recovery programs around, Niron, so you might be able to salvage some of your photos. That said, I want to set your expectations appropriately. Most of these recovery programs are good at finding photos you've accidentally deleted from a memory card, but they're not nearly as good at salvaging files from a genuinely corrupted or damaged memory card.

So now that you know not to expect miracles, you might want to try Digital Photo Recovery. After all, it's free. Another option is ImageRecall, a $40 utility that might be more effective at working with damaged memory cards. You can use the free trial to see if it can detect any photos on your bad card.

Subjecting Cameras to Airport Screenings

They say that there is no safe level of radiation exposure for the human body. I am of the opinion that the same holds true for electronics. I am told that the government/airlines claim that X-ray scanning of cameras is safe. I would like to hear your informed opinion on the subject.
--Ron Graziano, Toledo, Ohio

Ah, this is an especially tricky subject, Ron. The engineer in me wants to debate your premise about human exposure to radiation (and after all, without exposure to radiation, how are we ever going to get superheroes?), but instead I'll tell you what I think about the danger to electronics. Here's the deal: All modern electronics have a certain tolerance for various levels of radiation. There is virtually no risk to cameras, memory cards, laptops, or digital photography equipment when they're subjected to screening equipment at airports.

One caveat: I have been advised by other photo experts to avoid those lead-lined bags designed to shield film from X-rays. Those containers can force airport security screeners to boost the equipment's energy to dramatically higher levels In order to see through the bag, and that could be enough to corrupt data on memory cards. I've been unable to find any studies to back up those claims, but it sounds like good advice.

Blurring the Background

How do make the background a little blurry and the focal point of my picture stand out? I have seen this done, and I'd like to do it with my own digital camera.
--Cindy Carlson, via AOL

What you are trying to do is capture a photo with a shallow depth of field, which means that the background is not in focus. You can do that when you take the picture by using a large aperture, or you can selectively blur the background in a photo using your favorite photo editing software. Read "Master your Camera's Depth of Field" to learn how to do it using your camera, or read "Fake a Soft Background" to learn how to do it afterwards in Corel Paint Shop Pro. Want to know how to do it in Adobe Photoshop Elements? You'll find out in next week's newsletter.

Do Batteries Affect Image Quality?

I have had the same digital camera for almost five years and am wondering if the quality of a photo decreases as the battery ages. The battery I have is the same one that I bought with the camera. The images don't seem to be as sharp as they once were. Could it be the battery? Or maybe the camera after many years' use? (Hopefully it isn't me!)
--A. Herbert, Nebraska

First the good news: It isn't the battery. The age or charge level of a battery has no effect on a camera's ability to take sharp photos, unless, I suppose, the battery is so weak that it can't move the auto-focus mechanism around.

Another possibility is that your old camera could be a victim of a degrading image sensor. The CCD or CMOS sensor in a camera will suffer from failing sensor sites over time, which might cause a noticeable loss of image quality. That said, any camera should last far longer than 4 or 5 years. If you're worried, you could get the camera serviced.

First, though, I'd investigate simpler explanations. Is the lens badly scratched? Are you shooting in a different mode that might be causing the photos to blur? Are you shooting at a lower resolution or compressing the JPEG images more aggressively than you used to?

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Awaiting the Fall," by Trey Campbell, Dallas, Texas

Trey writes: "I took this photo on the southern coast of Oregon. I was taking pictures of the setting sun, when I looked at the rock on my left side and saw the beautiful warm glow it had. I turned my camera, composed the shot, waited for the tide to roll up the shore, and shot it. The picture is named after a song from my favorite band, Mothers Anthem."

Trey used a Nikon D80 and exposed the scene for 1.5 seconds.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Humpback Whale Tail," by John S. Rollins, Kansas City, Missouri

John says: "I took this photo in Puerto Vallarta with a Nikon DX40 and a 300mm lens. We came upon a pod of six whales, and this male was showing off for one of the females in the pod. I had the camera set to shoot at three frames per second, and I shot the whale's tail as it flipped up and then descended back into the water."

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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