Frequently Asked Photo Questions for May

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 February, March, and April.

Better Exposures for Dark Complexions

I frequently volunteer in Haiti, where the Caribbean sun is usually very bright and the people are very dark skinned. I use a compact camera and, in nearly every shot, the camera compensates for the bright surroundings, so facial features are lost in shadow. What adjustments can I make to try to solve this problem?
--Brandon Johnson, San Francisco

You've got a tricky exposure situation, Brandon. In very bright sunlight, your scene probably has a broader range of exposures (from sunny background to dark skin) than it's physically possible for your camera's sensor to record.

If your camera lets you attach filters in front of the lens, you might want to invest in a neutral density filter, which will reduce the overall exposure by a stop or two. Or you can use the camera's flash as a "fill flash" to put more light in your subject's faces. If you find that it washes out the subject too much, see if your camera lets you reduce the intensity of the flash--set it at 50 percent power, for example, for more subtle results. Or finally, try the camera's exposure compensation setting (usually marked EV) to overexpose the scene a bit. That might "blow out" the background, but will improve the exposure of your subject's faces.

Owning Photos From the TV

Recently I took some shots of a travel program on the TV. Are those my shots? Can I use them any way I wish? What are the legal ramifications?
--Al McConnaha, Huntsville, Alabama

First, my standard disclaimer when issues of copyright arise: I am not a lawyer, so don't take anything I write as legal advice. That said, when you take a photo of something on TV, you've made a copy of someone else's intellectual property. It's no different than making a copy of a photo, painting, song, or movie. You don't have any legal right to use these photos in any way except for personal use.

There is an exception, though. Artists can generally incorporate other people's work into their own--this is the root of concepts like "sampling," "remixing," and "mash-ups." Oh, and another point: Any media created by the U.S. government is automatically in the public domain, so I suppose you're free to reuse anything you photograph on C-Span.

Long-Term Photo Storage

I have a lot of pictures saved in my hard drive and make back-ups on DVD and flash drives. But what is the best way to archive my pictures long term?
--Efrain R. Camara, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

The best long-term storage that money can buy is a second hard drive. You can get a terabyte of storage for under a hundred dollars, which is a mind-bogglingly good value. So buy an external terabyte drive, plug it into your computer's USB port, and use it to make regular, automatic backups of your photos and other data. The drive will last for years. When it eventually fails, replace it with an even bigger, even cheaper drive.

I don't suggest messing with DVD backups. No one really knows how long they'll last--25 years? 50 years? And you won't really know they've failed until you try to use one and discover it's dead. But archiving your valuable stuff on a backup hard drive is easy, economical, and you'll know instantly when it has failed. As long as you also maintain a copy of your stuff on your computer's main drive, you'll always have two copies and you'll be safe.

The truly paranoid among us make occasional backups to a third hard drive and store that one off-site for safekeeping, such as in a safe deposit box.

Card or Cable?

I enjoyed your column about the care and feeding of memory cards. Do you have any thoughts on whether the best way to transfer photos to the PC is to use the cable that came with the camera, or whether it's better to use the memory card for the transfer? I'm inclined to use the cable since it minimizes the handling of the card.
--Bill Lavezzi, Victoria, Texas

Unless you're using ancient Smart Media cards (those long-obsolete wafer-shaped memory cards used by early digital cameras), I don't think you have anything to worry about from handling memory cards--even kind of roughly. Memory cards have been known to survive falls out of five-story buildings, trips through the washing machine, and even being lost at sea.

I strongly recommend using a memory card in a card reader, since it means you don't have to drain the camera's precious battery life just to copy files from the camera to the PC. And if you have concerns about damaging hardware, I'd be a bit more worried about the sometimes-delicate cable connector on your camera.

Eye Damage from Flash?

I enjoyed your article on "Five Tips for Better Flash Photography" and it offered really great advice. One question that I've always wondered about: If you are taking pictures of your pets or babies, approximately how far away should you be when using the flash to avoid subject eye damage?
--Marcia Richardson, Manchester, New Hampshire

Here's another standard disclaimer: I am not a doctor, so don't take anything I write as medical advice. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's proceed.

While I wouldn't cite this as one of the Great Myths of Photography, it certainly ranks up there with the most persistent misinformation that simply won't go away. I've heard people worry about this for years, but the reality is that you can't damage anyone's eyes--adult, baby, animal--with a camera flash, no matter what distance. It takes a sustained, long duration beam of high intensity light to damage eyes, Marcia, and camera flashes are too brief and diffused to come even close to doing any damage. Indeed, doctors will tell you that they routinely use camera-like flash devices to diagnose eye issues and that flashes pose no danger.

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: "Threads of Tranquility," by Russ Raines, Huntingtown, Maryland

Russ says: "I took this picture at the Baltimore Aquarium using a Canon Rebel XTi and a 24 to 70mm zoom lens. I didn't use the flash, but set the shutter to 1/60th of a second and the ISO to 800."

This week's runner-up: "T-Rex in Pursuit," by Rob Petershack, Madison, Wisconsin

Rob writes: "A very delicate piece of ice formed on our deck just outside of our patio door. I took dozens of pictures of it over a period of three days. Here is one of them, which I took with my Panasonic DMC-TZ5."

To see last month's winners, visit the April Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

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

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