Frequently Asked Photo Questions for September

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 June, July, and August.

How Long Do Flash Memory Cards Live?

Do Secure Digital cards have a live expectancy? Should you replace them on a regular basis, such as every year?
--Bob Coker, Chicago

Yes, memory cards do have a life expectancy, which is related to the number of times you can reliably write information to them. The good news: It's a really big number. As a rule of thumb, you can expect to get about 8-10 years of service from an SD or CompactFlash card that gets moderate amounts of use, so there's no need to replace them every year. I have cards that still work just fine after 10 years.

I recommend that you write the month and year that your card enters service directly on the card, using a marker. As your cards approach their expiration date, recycle and replace them. I made this same recommendation a few months ago in "Taking Care of Your Camera's Memory Card" and readers wrote to me, complaining that memory cards become obsolete far faster than 8 years, due to increases in capacity. I disagree. Now that cards are available in multi-gigabyte formats, they should be useful far, far into the future. There's no reason a 4GB memory card won't be every bit as useful 8 years from now.

How Do I Shoot the Moon?

I take many photos of the moon. I want to get a lot of detail (like craters) on the surface, but I usually only get a very bright, featureless moon. What settings should I try using?
--Jerry Scott, Hackensack, New Jersey

It sounds like you're overexposing your photos. If you leave the camera on automatic, the dark night sky is going to mislead your camera's exposure system. Instead, switch to manual exposure and try about 1/100 second at F/16 (with the ISO set to 100). You might need to fiddle with the exposure a bit, but that should get you pretty close right off the bat. Remember that this will properly expose the moon, but anything else in the picture will be dramatically underexposed. You might want to employ some digital trickery by combining the moon photo with another shot, using layers in your favorite photo editing program. Read "Photo Editing Basics: Working With Layers" for tips.

Making Free Enlargements

Do you know any free programs I can use to enlarge a photo?
--Joseph Green, Ontario

Enlarging is a tricky business, Joseph. It's a snap to reduce a photo using any photo editing program, but enlarging a photo generally results in a blocky, ugly mess. There are programs, though, that use sophisticated math to enhance detail on enlargements, so the results are pretty good.

The best free tool I've found is SmillaEnlarger, which does a downright remarkable job of retaining detail and sharpness in photos even when they're enlarged dramatically.

Shooting Flowy Waterfalls With Automatic Settings

On my camera, I can choose between Sports, Animal, or Night settings. Which one should I choose to photograph waterfalls?
--Fran Nault, Portland, Oregon

If those are the only options available to you, Fran, I am afraid that you won't be able to shoot the sorts of waterfall photos I wrote about in "How to Photograph Waterfalls and Moving Water."

Sports mode is a fast-shutter-speed setting designed to freeze the action. I'm not familiar with your camera's Animal setting, but I assume it would be a similar fast-shutter option designed to capture animals in motion. Night mode is the closest to what you need: It fires the flash, but also leaves the shutter open a bit longer to help capture the dark background (which the flash can't reach). I'd give the Night mode a shot, but you'll get even better results if you can use Aperture Priority mode, as I explain in the article.

Another Take on Waterfalls

Your recent article on shooting waterfalls did a good job of explaining the slow-mo technique, but I personally don't like those sorts of blurry photos. I prefer the reality of the moment the shutter acts. What settings should I use to freeze the action instead?
--Harry Wijnen, San Antonio, Texas

That's the great thing about photography, Harry. You're free to express yourself by capturing the world any way you want. Of course, I wonder what "reality" is in photography--all photos are inherently artificial, at least as compared to how we perceive the world with our human eyes. If you freeze water with a fast shutter speed, for example, that's not "reality" because it's not the way our eyes see fast-moving water.

That said, you can take these sorts of pictures with little effort. When set to Automatic, your camera will tend to use a fairly fast shutter speed and freeze moving water, mainly just because you'll be outdoors in daylight. It's a lot more difficult to slow the shutter down sufficiently to get a blurry effect. You can fiddle with the amount of freeze in your photos by switching to Shutter Priority mode and varying the shutter speed. You can try taking pictures at the fastest shutter speed available and increasing the ISO for even better frame-freezing speed.

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: "Dancing in the Mist," by Jeffrey Kirchner, Orange, California

Jeffrey says: "I took this at Crystal Cove Beach around sunset with my Nikon D300s. I got the shot as a light fog had rolled into the cove."

This week's runner-up: "Lighthouse at Byron Bay," by Hans Samios, Windsor, Ontario

Hans writes: "I got this photo of the Lighthouse at Byron Bay, the east-most point of Australia. I used a Pentax Optio W60--proof positive that capturing a pretty image does not require an expensive camera."

To see last month's winners, visit the August 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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