Frequently Asked Photo Questions for December

Have a question about digital photography? 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 questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from September, October, and November.

Managing Lots and Lots of Photos

I volunteer for a large nonprofit organization. They would like to take their photographs (which I suppose number in the tens of thousands) and organize/archive them. Can you be able to point me in the direction of software designed for this sort of thing?
--Jeff Ross, Kansas City, Kansas

What you're describing, Jeff, is sometimes called digital asset management, or DAM software. It's possible that a simple consumer program could satisfy the organization's needs; even Microsoft's free Windows Live Photo Gallery can easily manage thousands of photos, and can be configured to organize and manage images stored in multiple locations on different hard drives. If you need a more professional solution to do more advanced tasks like manage workflow, handle archiving, and generate contact sheets, then you should investigate programs like Microsoft Expression Media and Extensis Portfolio.

CCDs Versus CMOS

CCD and CMOS: What is the difference between these two technologies? Are there real-world advantages of one over the other? Should I care?
--John Taylor, Shelby, North Carolina

For the most part, John, I'll say that no, you needn't care. The important thing is finding a high-quality camera that takes good pictures; the particular way in which the pictures get made is, I think, kind of irrelevant to most people.

But since you ask, any given camera today will feature either a CCD (charge coupled device) or a CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) image sensor. Both are analog devices that convert incoming light into voltage, which is later converted again into a digital signal. In a CCD, all the pixels on the sensor send their signal to a central location for conversion. In a CMOS sensor, each pixel has its own charge-to-voltage conversion. Both of these chips have a laundry list of advantages and trade-offs, primarily only of interest to engineers and tech geeks. You can get a sense of some of the biggest differences at How Stuff Works.

Back in the 90s, CMOS sensors were unable to generate high-quality images, and were thus relegated to cheap, low-res cameras. But a few years ago, fabrication technology improved to the point that some of the highest quality cameras now sport CMOS sensors. These days, very-high-end digital SLRs are equally likely to have either type of sensor. I'd say it's far less important what kind of sensor a camera has than just finding a model that suits your needs and gets good scores in camera reviews like those at PC World.

Minimizing Lag

I'm buying a new camera and would like one that can take pictures quickly. If I take a shot, but I have to wait a few seconds before it's ready to take another, I've missed my shot. What should I look for to avoid this?
--Amanda Cellar, Las Vegas

This was an important question to consider a few years ago, Amanda, but this kind of lag--in which your camera would need several seconds between every photo--is largely a thing of the past. It's rare that I encounter a camera unable to take multiple photos in quick succession.

There's a different kind of lag you should keep an eye out for, though--shutter lag. This is the pause that occurs between the time that you press the shutter release and when the photo is actually taken. It can range from almost instantaneous to about a full second. You'll typically find longer shutter lag in less expensive point-and-shoot cameras.

My advice is to try any camera with your own two hands. Most camera shops will let you test a camera before purchase.

Archiving Photos for Eternity

I have a question about storing digital photos. Is it true that backing my images up to CD or DVD will not preserve them indefinitely? I've heard that over time the burned CDs and DVDs degrade. I've had at least one CD over the years that became unreadable for no obvious reason. What are your suggestions for protecting digital images for the long haul?
--Joanne Thatcher, Lynnewood, Washington

It's true, Joanne, that optical media like CD and DVD will not last forever. That's why I don't recommend using optical media to back up photos at all; you'll have to keep duplicating your archives every few years just to stay ahead of the inevitable decay. How long will optical discs last? That's a difficult question to answer, with experts suggesting anywhere from just a few years to dozens of years. But either way, you will only know that a disc has failed when you can no longer read data from it, making it a rather unreliable archive.

Instead, I suggest just keeping your photos on a hard disk, and diligently back everything up to a second hard drive. That's right--just use the plain old hard disk you already have. Traditional hard drive storage is safe, reliable, and it gets cheaper every year. Today, you can buy a 1-terabyte hard drive for about $100. Compared to the thousand-dollar 40MB hard drive I bought 15 years ago, that's approximately free. If one of your drives ever fails, you can replace it with a bigger, cheaper drive later--and as long as you keep a backup, your data is always safe and sound.

The Best Camera

I'm an amateur photographer aspiring to be great. What's the best camera to purchase this season?
--Candice Garay, Quebec

Get a digital SLR, Candice. It doesn't matter which one; just get a model that you can use to learn about the craft of photography.

I think people worry too much about the best camera to buy. You might want to make a list of specific features that are important to you, like manual exposure mode, video recording, auto bracketing, or time-lapse shooting, and be sure your prospective camera has those things. But the reality is that almost any high-quality camera on the market has the ability to take better pictures than you or I are capable of coaxing out of it. Consider this: Even though cameras get better and better every single year, there are very few people that can take photos that rival what Ansel Adams did 80 years ago.

The biggest variable is you. Get a digital SLR and learn how to use exposure modes like aperture and shutter priority. Master depth of field. Get to know RAW mode, and coax better exposure and color information out of your images using photo editing software. And you can do all these things no matter what kind of camera you buy. You don't have to learn all that on your own, either. Ou can find all sorts of videos, tutorials, and how-to articles to help you master your camera on the Web. Be sure to read "Treasure Trove of Photo Tutorials."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

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: "Beetle Juice," by Christine Hoffman, Lutz, Florida

Christine writes: "After hours of patience, the parents of these little Sand Hill Cranes allowed me to capture a good shot--just as they started eating a snack. I have been photo journaling the same pair of adult Sand Hill Cranes for the past four years. They are very protective of their chicks (called colts), and for good reason. The pair lays two eggs each February and take turns sitting on the nest until March, when one chick will hatch a day before the second. Usually only one chick will survive to adulthood. I took this picture with a Canon EOS 40D and a 500mm lens."

This Week's Runner-Up: "New York City Sunset," by Howard Polley, Danbury, Connecticut

Howard says he took this photo from Pier 45 on the Hudson River, overlooking Jersey. He used a Pentax Optio digital camera and had to steady the camera on the railing, because he had no tripod.

To see all of our December winners, visit our slide show. 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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