How to Always Get the Perfect Shot

There’s one technique that I’ve found useful, when you’re waiting for the perfect photography moment, to never miss it.

Snap so many shots, you can’t miss.

You’re bound to get a good shot of those falling raindrops if you take 50 photos instead of one. Now, there are a few pre-requisites. First, you have to have the shot well composed. The shutter speed must be adequate, and the exposure dead center. If you mess up this, you’ll just end up with 50 bad shots instead of one. Focus can be a problem, because the camera may change itself automatically between shots. Switch to manual focus once you’re locked in if possible, or keep your eyes peeled for blurriness through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

If you’re working with a digital compact, switch to burst or continuous shooting mode first. With a DSLR, you can just click away. Here’s an example of what I shot yesterday of raindrops on my front porch:

Overshooting in practice

Click to enlarge, and you can see I took no fewer than 35 distinct photos. All in a period of two minutes. But for something as chaotic as falling water, you need to do this to get the perfect moment. The masters in film photography did it despite the terrible expense, but the cost is nothing besides wear and tear on your camera in the digital age. You can delete all but the best afterward, but you won’t even get the best unless you shoot ten times more than what a normal person would.

As you can see above, my favorite was the second one. So why didn’t I just stop then? Because I had no idea what would come afterward. I just parked myself in the same space, and kept clicking away, because who knows what may appear? Perhaps the drops will form a heart shape, or collide with each other in mid-air?

If you really want to go overboard, you could film it instead, and then grab the best frame from the video. My Canon PowerShot A620 offers this. But a standard camcorder is only about 640×480 pixels, which is 0.3 megapixels (compare to 10 with my Canon Rebel XTi). The optics and picture quality are lower, and there are more compression artifacts. You won’t be able to freeze action with a 1/4000 second shutter speed like with my raindrops. And many frames will be blurry, because their meant to be watched in succession, not picked apart. An HD camcorder may be better. But overall, I don’t recommend it.

Generally, the higher-end your camera is, the bigger it’s storage buffer, so the quicker you can take shots. On my first camera in 2004, I could only take a shot every three seconds, max. But on my DSLR, I can shoot ten shots in five seconds, and then only wait a few seconds to take some more. And that’s in RAW mode. You want to use RAW mode if you can, because if there’s a problem with exposure or white balance, you can recover from it, and you have more editing leeway in general. But if your camera has a fast processor and you switch to JPEG, you may have a much larger buffer for burst shooting.

Now you know how to not miss the moment. You have to do this to get a good action shot; I’ve done it on all my best work, like Raindrops and Speed. Sometimes it takes dozens of shots. But if it’s a good scene, and you have the other factors right (exposure, focus, composition, aperture, shutter speed), then it will work and it’s the way to go.

Of course, you can’t even get the best shot if you don’t even have your camera at the ready. Read 8 Tips for the On-Cue Photographer for advice with that.

How to Use Zooming for Explosive Photos

This is an interesting technique that I used in my latest photo, The Explosion. Simply, you zoom the lens as you take the photo, and you get some cool motion blur, no Photoshop required.

The Explosion — the world pops using zooming

Now, there are some concerns that you wouldn’t face with your normal photo, where the focal length stays constant through the exposure. Namely, these are:

• You can’t do it on most compacts, because the zoom is locked while taking the photo, as it’s controlled electronically. Using the method on a DSLR, where you turn the barrel yourself to zoom the lens, is usually the only option.
• You can’t do it with a prime lens (non-zooming), such as my favorite, the Canon EF 1:1.4. There’s just no zooming to be had.
• You need a slow shutter speed. It has to be fairly dark out, or in daytime, you have to close down the aperture as far as it goes, and maybe use a filter to keep more light out.
• With a slow shutter speed, you need a tripod. Camera shake does not look good, even in a zooming photo.
• Don’t try this with film, unless you want to waste a whole lot of film. Getting the process just right will take dozens of shots, and you’ll need to see what progress you’re making immediately to have any idea how to improve. This is really a place where digital shines.

To cut down the light, I screwed on a polarizing filter for the photo above, on the Canon Rebel XTi with the kit lens. It will work just fine; any 58mm circular polarizer will do for the lens. It cuts down about 1.5 stops of light (like F5.6 to F9.5), and makes the sky dark blue, depending on how you spin the ring. You can also cut down on light with a neutral density filter, though I haven’t tried one.

I opened up to F14 for The Explosion. Granted, I could’ve gone up to F22, but there wasn’t a need to. A 1/8 second exposure was plenty slow. I turned the timer on, held the camera down firmly with my left hand, and began zooming with my right just before the shutter tripped. That’s one thing you have to watch out for—it’s easy to jostle the camera while zooming, and it usually doesn’t look good because you won’t get a sharp center. So hold it down firmly.

Try over and over to get something cool-looking. Zoom slowly and just a little through exposure, quickly and over a wide range of focal lengths, zoom in steps rather than smoothly, and try different subjects. A simple subject works best. I zoomed at a moderate speed and evenly for the trees photo, and though it’s a complex subject, it draws the eye nonetheless. Try doing this on flowers, still life such as marbles or a baseball (I should’ve tried it with those), or even a highway (that’s motion blur, but zooming could’ve worked too).

Try starting zoomed out all the way, then zoom in. Then try zoomed half way to full telephoto, or wide-angle to medium. Next, go from telephoto to wide-angle (zoom out) as you expose; the world will look like it’s imploding rather than exploding.

An example of stepped zooming

The above is an example of stepped zooming. This was with a long exposure of 2.5 seconds; since it was dark and indoors, exposing for that long wasn’t a problem. The picture is of a door at the end of a hallway, with the light from outside flooding in from around the door. There’s a brightly lit door on the left also. Instead of zooming smoothly, I zoomed from 18mm to 55mm using the in nine steps over the period of the exposure. This gives the light a cool staggered effect. I did 30 similar shots and this was the best; it’s important for the line around the center of the door to be sharp for my purposes, meaning no motion blur. I put the camera on a milk crate and held it down myself, since I don’t own a tripod. You can improvise in the same way.

If you don’t have a zoom lens, you have a digital compact, or you just want to try something different, you can hold the camera steady while walking and get a similar effect; perhaps even better. It’s going to take a lot of tries and good luck, or a tripod on wheels or tracks to avoid other types of motion blur. I can see some cool results coming about if you try this in a hallway; maybe one at school or a hospital (and you’ll get quizzical looks from passersby).

This is a good technique to add to your arsenal, and I don’t see many people doing it. I’m sure you could work something similar in Photoshop, but getting it straight from the camera is much more fun.

How to Brand Your Prints

the back of a photo, annotated with laser printing

Photos in print are much harder to brand than photos on your website. If your printing in any great quantity, the tedious process of writing out your name, website, and other pertinent information on the flip side becomes insurmountable. Secondly, most photographic papers have a resin-coated backing, which stubbornly refuses any water-based inks. My methods in this article are aimed toward unframed 4*6 prints, as that’s what I deal with myself, but they can be easily applied to other formats. In fact, the fundamentals of permanence at the end are essential to any print medium.

Whether your printing photos for your friends, family, art, or business, it is doubtless that any copies floating about can make convincing advertisements. Your very livelihood is at stake; what can you do to make sure that everyone knows that you are the creator of those photographic masterpieces? Luckily, you do have options.

1. Put your name right on the front of the print, straight from the digital source files. This is an easy way to demarcate your work; you don’t have to deal with any hand writing or messy backprinting. Unfortunately, it’s a bit distracting, and anything more than the title and your name is pushing it; include your website and the text will get more attention than the photo. Plus, if you’re going to put the info anywhere, it’ll have to be at the edge of the print, perhaps in a border surrounding the image. You’re going to have to deal with the bleed edge, and it’s a pain because what looks fine on the screen will often get cut off in a borderless print. This becomes especially important if you’re out-sourcing to a lab, as they often crop tightly, and you have less control than with home printing. Nonetheless, as long as you use a big enough border, this is effective, especially if you’re drop-shipping your prints and can’t intercept them to label the backs elegantly. I’m using this very technique for The Freedom Project, my free print offering; the image area is 5×3.34 instead of 6×4, and the extra space is used for a border, with the title and my name at the bottom.

2. Label the back of the print by hand. This is fine in low volume, and provides a connection to your audience. There are downsides though: it’s slow and eats away at your time, your handwriting won’t be as readable as printed type, and getting the ink to stay without damaging the print is a challenge. Don’t even think of using a ballpoint pen; the point will leave a noticeable impression on the front side, and if the ink is water-based, it’s not going to adhere anyway. Your best choice is a pigment-based permanent marker; a Sharpie or equivalent. Ultra fine point is good, as long as you don’t press down too hard.

3. Rely on your lab to label your prints. Usually, they print a tiny dot-matrix label, including the file name or custom text. Winkflash prints the file name, and SmugMug offers custom text, for example. Both are limited to about forty characters—hardly enough space for your name and website. This post by dogwood at the Digital Grin forum sums it up:

Just my two cents, the backprinting option is a GREAT idea… though in reality, it does look pretty poor. The printing is tiny, there are frequent errors, you can’t use symbols (including the copyright symbol), and it looks like one of those 1980’s dot matrix printers is used to create the text.

The provided backprinting is a step up from nothing, though.

4. Label the back of the print with a rubber stamp. You’ll run into the same problem as above: dye or water based inks will never dry. Your only choice is pigment-based or permanent ink, which are less common and more expensive. It’s hard to clean either off your stamps, and the former has the con of not being permanent. Read more here: Ink Pad Basics. Look into alcohol based inks if you pick this route, as they will stick to even plastic.

5. Label the back of the print with an ink-jet printer. This won’t work at all. Trust me, I’ve tried it. It’ll come out looking fine, but as soon as you touch the ink, it smears all over the place, even if it’s sat out for two weeks. It’s fine if you’re using double-sided paper, but if you are, you don’t need to read this anyway.

6. Label the back of the print with a laser printer. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is what I do for all my 4*6 prints using a Lexmark E450dn; the opening image is an example. This won’t work with many printers, and has some problems. For starters, many laser printers get too hot and will damage the finish or curl your prints permanently. Don’t expect any specs on this from the manufacturer. You run the risk that the plastic in the print will melt and get caught up on the rollers, immobilizing your expensive machine. This happens more often with inkjet photo paper, which isn’t designed to stand up to heat. And many printers don’t like to label 4*6’s; you’ll have trouble setting up the tray, and getting the print to be centered. The upside is if it works, you have a cheap and fast way to batch label prints, even with lengthy annotations that fill up the whole back side, like in my example image. The “ink” will always stick, because it’s in fact toner, ground up particles of plastic, which are burned to the paper with a fuser as hot as 400 degrees (Fahrenheit). I lose about one in two-hundred prints, because the printer messes up and crinkles them. But I can run a stack of seventy-five through in eight minutes, usually with no intervention, provided their all the same photo.

7. Use water-based ink, but cover it with a piece of scotch tape. The ink smears a bit under the tape, but remains legible. This looks really ugly. It works, but leaves a bad impression, so I don’t recommend it. Another downside is that the tape may peel with time or under wear.

8. Use printer labels. Get a pack of 2000 clear inkjet labels (just over a cent each), then print on them with your inkjet printer. The ink will absorb into the label, and then you can just stick the label on your print. This is a good method because it overcomes the problems of the prints’ non-absorbent surface, but applying the labels is more time consuming than printing directly as in method five, stick-on labels don’t look as good, and they’re expensive. Plus, they can be easily peeled off.

9. Give up and do nothing. No, no, you can’t do this. Moving on . . .

Now that you know how to do it, the next question is what to do. By do, I mean write. Pick facts to stand the test of time. Your name is a good start, but unless it’s terribly unique (like mine), you’ll want a bit more information so people can track you down—not to stalk you, but so they can buy more of your work and commission you to take photos of their children and pets. Put your website on the back, but be wary that a URI like doesn’t inspire much confidence. It isn’t good for you either—what if Flickr bans you for some unjust reason, or you get tired of the limitations and want to move out on your own? All the photos you’ve labeled and distributed are going to be out of date. Fortunately, you can have the best of both worlds; register your permanent domain for about $10 a year, then set it up to forward to your Flickr account (or SmugMug, or deviantART, or whatever). Any good registrar will offer forwarding, and then if you change photo services or start using your own domain, you can change the settings. All your photos and t-shirts you’ve printed will never go out-of-date, because they’ll be forwarded to the right place as you so smartly set up.

Regarding permanence of information, the same applies to phone numbers. While your number may be better relegated to a business card than to the backprinting on a print, either way, get one you can stick with. You can’t count on your parents or roommates to forever take your calls, but a good solution, if you don’t mind a new number, is GrandCentral, a free proxy phone service with voice mail, multicast forwarding, and other perks. I use this for the 510-936-2417 phone number I bandy about on my contact page and elsewhere, yet it forwards to both my secret home and cell phone numbers, simultaneously. When I change numbers, I just update the record at the website, and start receiving calls at the new number, even though I’m still using 510-936-2417. Since Google has acquired the service, it should remain free and reliable for a long time. You have to sign up for a waiting list, but when I did it, I was chosen in about a day.

So now that you have your shiny, permanent web address and phone number, what else do your fans have to know about their beloved artist? It’s debated, but I feel that every great photo deserves an equally wonderful title, and if there’s anything your print viewers should know, it’s the title of the gem which has entered their collection. Flaunt it proudly on the label. It’s the first thing on mine. An index number is a good idea, so if you’re called for reprints, you can look up the photo by number right away. If each of your photos has a unique title like with mine, I suggest skipping it, however.

Now, what not to write. Unless it’s photo-journalism, don’t write the date. Photos like my Raindrops are timeless, but if I announce that it is from two years ago, people will think it’s old and not valuable, especially when I want to pass it off, implicitly, as recent work. Put the name of your photography studio if you run it, but not if you’re an employee, unless your employer requires it. I have an aversion to “copyright” and “all rights reserved” for backprinting. It’s a waste of ink, your work is copyrighted regardless in the U.S.A., and it won’t deter any thieves. Going with this theme, don’t watermark prints, ever. Even if you’re giving them out. It’s bad karma. Besides, a scanned print won’t be near the quality of your master files.

Do write some notes, if you’re labeling with an efficient laser printer. I do this on a lot of my pieces now, and my friends enjoy reading of the method behind my creative madness. Sign a few prints with a blue Sharpie, so it’s not mistaken for a facsimile signature; they might be collectors’ items someday. Put your website down, but don’t think of detailing your pricing or photography services; people can contact you if they’re interested, and that information is perishable anyway. Whatever you print, make sure it’s big and readable. I use Arial, size 14 for my branding, size permitting, so even blurry-visioned folks can read the title without glasses.

I do hope I’ve helped you in tackling this issue. Marking your prints is a major step toward developing your personal photographic brand, and the virtues of the printed format continue to complement Internet publication. May your followers never wonder who you are, and may your contributions shine through the photography community.

Dynamic Galleries and Random Images for WordPress Photoblogs

I was looking for ways to optimize my website . . . to make it quicker and easier for me to maintain and update, while being fun to browse for my visitors. The problem with the old gallery and random photos at the top of each page, was that I had to make the thumbnails and update the page and database for both (I was using the this randomizer plugin for WordPress), each time I added a photo. It was good because I’d crop, scale down, and sharpen each image to look its best, but the extra work was too much. I found the Post Thumb plugin is the perfect solution. I installed it, set it to make 100×70 thumbnails, and then added this code to my blog header:

<?php the_random_thumb(“link=p&limit=5&category=8”); >

That makes it show five random photos from the category for my photos, linking to the page for each instead of the file. The great thing here is that the thumbnail folder and accompanying MySQL table is updated automatically, so photos are added to the pool as soon as I publish them. A random photos section is good for the casual browser, who just looks at what catches his eye.

Next, I wanted to create a dynamic gallery and random image page. I added the Exec-PHP plugin so I could use PHP code in pages and posts, but found that WordPress inserts a line break between each thumbnail, against my wishes. For that, I added this modified version of Text Control by Jeff Minard, then setting it to not auto-format the gallery and random pages.

The code for page one of the gallery is:

<?php the_recent_thumbs(“subfolder=g&width=200&height=160&link=p&limit=60&category=8”); ?>

and for page two:

<?php the_recent_thumbs(“subfolder=g&width=200&height=160&link=p&limit=60&offset=60&category=8”); ?>

The parameters with all the ampersands tell the script to make 200×160 thumbnails instead of the default, to save them in a subfolder named “g” (for gallery of course), to link to the posts the photos are in, to display sixty thumbnails per page from category 8 (my photos), and, on the second, “offset=60” means to start with photo #61 (computer programming languages count from zero). When I get over 120 photos (I’m at 83 now), I’ll have to make page three manually. I don’t mind that, since mine is a low-volume photo-blog focusing on quality, so I’ll only need to make a new page every few months. I’m stoked enough by what can be done without my help.

Next up was the random page:

<?php the_random_thumb(“subfolder=g&width=200&height=160&link=p&limit=24&category=8”); ?>

This is almost the same as the first gallery page; the function is the_random_thumb instead of the_recent_thumbs, and I reduced the number of photos from 60 to 24. It worked great, except the random photos would not be refreshed on each visit to the page. The problem was the caching module I use, WP-Cache, so I solved it by adding “/random” to the list of rejected URIs in its settings. Unfortunately, this makes the random page the most computationally expensive on the site, which is especially a concern because I’m on cheap, shared hosting. I’ll keep an eye on it, and if it gets too popular and things start crashing, I’ll reduce the number of images or pull the plug.

As if this wasn’t enough, I had another feature to add: a link to a random photo for sale in my expensive shop (powered by YAK), at the top of the sidebar on each page. After doing the above, this was easy:

<?php the_random_thumb(“subfolder=s&width=128&height=86&link=p&category=389”); ?>

This time, there is just one thumbnail per page, so “limit=” is omitted (it defaults to 1). The subfolder for the thumbnails is “s” for shop; you can make the subfolder’s name longer, but I’m keeping it short for simplicity. The width and height are different to match the size of my sidebar , and the category is #389, to show only posts from my shop for framed prints. I’m letting WP-Cache in place, but it clears every day (a.k.a. 86400 seconds), so each page will show a different print each day.

Is that enough? No, Post Thumb isn’t done helping me. I normally create the thumbnails and HTML code showing them for each photo, but the plugin can take care of that automagically. I made these choices in the settings:

Alakhnor's Post Thumb auto-thumbnail settings

For the screen capture of the settings you see above, I added the rel=”nothumb” tag after the alt text, because it’s 475 pixels wide, so resizing to 400 isn’t needed. But I’ll be letting it auto-thumbnail most of the time. For Sunrays 3, for example, I would normally make a thumbnail, upload it, and write this HTML for the post:

<a href=”” title=”Sunrays 3 — orange rays of sunshine pierce black clouds”><img src=”” alt=”Sunrays 3 — orange rays of sunshine pierce black clouds” /></a>

But now, I write this:

<img src=”” alt=”Sunrays 3 — orange rays of sunshine pierce black clouds” />

. . . and the plugin resizes and saves the photo, uses the new version as the image, links to the full-size version, and specifies my alt text as the hover title, while showing the abbreviated code when I return to edit the post. And this is all done before sending it off to LiveJournal and Xanga (with LiveJournal Crossposter and Xanga Crosspost). Very cool, and better than what WordPress does out of the box.

Post Thumb finds the first image in a post, then using a thumbnail of it to represent that post. Since I only put one photo to an entry, it’s perfect in my case. I have both the convenience of a photo-blog and the versatility of a text blog. I can write text articles like this one right alongside my photos, both show up to my RSS and email subscribers, and I can include lengthy descriptions for my photos, while WordPress and Post Thumb do the heavy lifting to compile a detailed blog and minimalist gallery. This is more than can be said for WordPress 2.5’s built-in galleries, or the add-on solutions. It is much preferable for teaching galleries like my own, with lots of text and information accompanying images, than for people who just want to put up scads of photos with no details. I use Gallery2 for the scads of photos (my gallery is private). WordPress and Post Thumb bridge the gap.

While I was at it, I switched default fonts on the site from Lucide Grande to Arial, because it’s included with Windows, and renders better at small sizes in Firefox. I also changed the banner from olive green to a powerful black. The last step was to add links to the new gallery pages below the banner. Changes are good.

The “Pure Photography” Myth

Pink and Purple Sunset 3, an example of heavy editing

I do whatever it takes to make the photo look good, but I try to avoid spot editing like removing stray tree branches, power lines, etc. Unlike most, it’s not for “ethics,” but because it’s a terrible pain to remove elements while holding to a realistic ideal (no smudge marks, dark spots, obvious cloning, etc.). Spot editing with a soft brush for dodging, burning, or desaturating is easy, but for removing distractions, it’s easier to recompose or chop down a tree than to fix it in Photoshop (usually). If you’ve spent three hours meticulously removing telephone poles, houses, and reshaping trees like in the title photo, then you know why (right is mirrored to show continuity).

I get a few hecklers saying that efforts are no better than a forged bank note, and must be labeled as photo-manipulations—the Scarlet Letter to any “real” photographer. To them I say: how could I dare claim that of my work when I’m doing basic stuff like color shifts and increasing contrast, while others are spending days weaving dozens of photos into a cohesive vision? If anything, it’s not the ambitious photographers that are the trouble, but the people who press “auto levels” and then call their pieces digital art.

To all the fledgling digital photographers: don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “cheating” by editing your creations. This is the new revolution; this is your photography. Go wherever your art takes you. You’re stymying your creativity by not enhancing your photos. Know that when to stop is not when the image is looking too different from the “original,” but when it is looking bad on its own accord.

Over-saturated version of Pink and Purple Sunset 3

^ This is no good. When colors go to solid pink or blue, there is no detail or brilliance there; just an unshaped blob of light. Sometimes, like in the silhouetted trees, no detail looks good. It takes a human to know this, not Photoshop. You are that human. Let no one stand in your way. You are the artist, and the world is your canvas.

For more about this, read Being a Free Photographer.

Energizer’s AA/AAA Chargers

Energizer CHFM1 Energizer CHDC7 Energizer CHUSB

This is Energizer’s current lineup of budget AA/AAA battery chargers. I was fortunate enough to have Margaret Welch of Blick & Staff Communications send me these on Energizer’s behalf, and I’ve had plenty of time to try them out.

All three work with AA and AAA; with AAA, there are smaller contacts that flip down to accommodate the batteries’ smaller lengths. None of them are made for the forgetful person needing power for their camera at the last minute; to fully charge four 2500 mAh AA batteries, it takes 5 hours, 6.5 hours, or 8.5 hours (from left to right, respectively). However, if you rotate sets, or let them work overnight, these are perfect for use at home or when traveling. If you want a charger that works quickly, Energizer offers a 15-minute charger (, and it has a fan, so your batteries shouldn’t get too hot. I didn’t get one for this review, but customer opinion is positive.

From left to right, as labeled on the packages:
Energizer CHFM1: e2 Rechargeable
Energizer CHDC7: e2 Rechargeable Compact Charger AA/AAA
Energizer CHUSB: e2 Rechargeable USB Duo AA/AAA Charger

These newer chargers turn off automatically, not based just on a timer, but rather they detect when batteries are done, which extends the life of your investment.

In case you’re in the dark, you can use these to power any AA or AAA Nickel-metal hydride batteries, even if they are a different brand. This includes the new low-discharge variants, such as the Rayovac Hybrid brand.

My favorite of the three is the compact one (middle, CHDC7). The charging part retracts into the body, so you can throw it in your bag without wasting any space. The light indicators are innovative; when one is blinking, the charging is begun; when two are blinking, the it is past half way, and when two are solid, it is complete. This makes it easy to track the progress. Plus, it looks cool, and the charger isn’t as wide as the first. It took just over six hours to empower a fresh set of four Energizer-brand AAs, and I’ve taken over 300 shots with my Canon PowerShot A620, with no low-battery warning in sight. I don’t use the flash as I prefer ambient lighting; the batteries will drain faster if you do. Back in the stone age (a.k.a. 2005), I used Mattel’s Juice Box as my MP3 player; it uses three AA batteries, and I always hated that many chargers would only work in groups of two. This one is no different, unfortunately; you can only charge two or four batteries at once, not one or three. Two can be AAs and two can be AAAs, at least.

The Energizer CHFM1 (left) isn’t much different from the compact charger, except for being bulkier and slower (8.5 vs. 6.5 hours). It too charges batteries in groups of two. You can change the face plate; there is white, silver, and black, which is a nice touch. I like the black one, though the back is dark gray and doesn’t match. The only indicator light is red for charging and green for done; there is an on/off button, so that you can turn it off but leave it plugged in; I just unplug it, so I have no use for the button. One thing that worries me about both is that they have no extension cables, but instead have a plug that flips out, so if you plug them into a power strip they’ll block a lot of outlets, and they weigh a pound each with batteries, which puts stress on the outlet. If you’re using a regular wall outlet, it shouldn’t matter, and the simplified plug saves space.

The USB charger (right) touts itself as working in two hours, but actually needs five hours for Energizer’s current 2500 milliampere-hour AA batteries (mAh, generally a measurement of battery capacity). Don’t expect to restore your Fujifilm A900‘s two AA batteries from deadness before your laptop’s battery gives out, but you can get the boost needed for fifty shots if you have your laptop, and a half hour to kill, right in the field. The charger will power up a pair of AAA batteries in two hours, but no serious cameras use them because they drain so quickly. The Fujifilm and Canon A series cameras are still being made and all utilize AAs, though many of the Canons, such as my PowerShot A620, use four AAs, so this charger will be less practical. You can refill one battery at once if you choose, unlike with the others. I can see this being useful for my MP3 player/voice recorder, it being powered by one AAA. The charger also comes with a wall plug so you can use it in a standard U.S. power outlet, away from your computer. The USB cord is just six inches long; that saves space (the cord wraps around the body), but can be inconvenient.

A unique feature of the USB charger is that you can download software at that displays how long you’ll have to wait. The software is available for Windows 2000 or Mac OS 10.4 and above; the Windows version is 3MB, occupies 13MB of space, and is non-portable (writes to the registry), so you can’t keep it on your USB flash drive. It adds a shortcut in “Programs” in your Start Menu AND at the top, which is overkill because the program starts automatically when you plug the charger into a USB port. When I was installing it, Windows XP gave this message:

Energizer USB Charger warning on Windows XP

It’s a pointless warning message, but will confuse many unexperienced Windows users.

Here’s what it looks like when the charger is plugged in but with no batteries:

Energizer USB Charger software: insert battery

And with a battery, the remaining time is displayed; 3 hours, 48 minutes here:

Energizer USB Charger software: count-down

If you are charging 2 batteries, the time displayed is just that of the battery that will take the longest. The software is really basic; you can change the color (mine is orange, as you can see), and configure the software to start and terminate when you attach and detach the charger, but that’s all. I have no idea why Energizer UsbCharger.exe is 12.3MB, nor why it eats up 31MiB of RAM all the time, other than inefficient programming.

The left one (CHFM1) comes with 4 AA rechargeables, the middle with none (CHDC7), and the right (CHUSB) with 2 AAA rechargeables. I used the AAs from the first in the second, and they work great. They can be more expensive, but, if you’ve read my article, Simple Advice on AA Chargers & Batteries, you know the dangers of cheap, gray-market batteries. Energizer batteries always work well and last a long time, so I have no hesitation in recommending them. Plus, I have Duracell batteries where the labels peel off after some use, but this annoyance doesn’t crop up with Energizer, which is nice. All of Energizer’s new peripherals are good despite my gripes; I’m glad we’ve finally passed the age of timer-driven (or even timerless), “dumb” chargers that I’ve complained of. While AAs don’t last as long the Lithium-Ion battery in my Canon Rebel XTi, they’ve come quite far, are cheaper, and are far easier to find.

The Death of CompactFlash?

CompactFlash slot of a Canon Rebel XTi

Canon has announced the Canon Rebel XSi (EOS 450D outside the U.S.A.); the sequel to my beloved Rebel XTi (EOS 400D). While there are many revisions, the one that sticks out the most is the switch from CompactFlash to Secure Digital memory cards.

CF vs. SD

CompactFlash is 14 years old; it is the oldest and largest memory card format still in use. It owes its longevity to having the controller in the card instead of the camera, so that the technology can evolve with old devices still working with the new memory cards (for the most part). Other formats have gone through revisions that sacrifice a lot of backward-compatibility, such as the Sony Memory Stick PRO (2003, overcame 128MB limit), xD Type M (2005, overcame 512MB limit), and SDHC (2006, overcame 2GB limit). CF cards are also sturdier because there are no exposed contacts, and they’re bigger and harder to lose. The interface is pin-based like parallel ATA (used for hard drives), as you can see from the photo of the Canon Rebel XTi’s slot at the top. If you break or bend the pins, you’re in trouble, which is one thing that’s worse than SD.

The Rebel XSi will take SD and SDHC cards; a 4GB card is not unreasonable as the RAW files are 12MB each. Back in the day, CompactFlash cards were common in consumer-level cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot A95 (2004-09), but now they’ve disappeared in even entry-level DSLRs, such as the Nikon D80, Pentax K10D, and now the Canon Rebel XSi. How much longer before SD takes over entirely?

One thing I can say for sure: CF cards do not make good flash drives.

CF card reader

“Use as a USB Flash Drive by inserting Memory Card”

Look mom, I have the biggest flash drive ever.

CF card reader, diagram

Now I can block four ports at once!

No Safety in Multiple Memory Cards

For years, I’ve been hearing this wonderful argument: don’t put all your eggs in one basket; it’s better to have several smaller memory cards than one large one, so that if one fails, you’ve only lost a portion of your prized photographs, instead of all of them.

Seems to make sense, no? Distribution and redundancy are the core of safe computing, so we take this argument without question, spending extra to get four 512MB cards, even if the best bang for our collective buck is at 2GB. Yet do we ever stop to think that the entire concept is flawed?

The multi-card proponents convince us that all things equal (reliability and failure rates), four 512MB cards is the safer option.

But hold on a second there. Are the extra cards going for live, RAID-style backups? Are we afforded the advantage that while we sacrifice the space of one card, if any one card fails, no data is lost (RAID 5)? No. We have nothing. Until you get your pictures copied to your computer, there is only one copy in existence, and your work is in danger, either way. Your camera isn’t going to mirror your data for you. Maybe your fancy $3000 Canon EOS-1D Mark II does, but for us mortals, such extravagance cannot be afforded.

Remember that everything is equal, and we’ve just reached the beautiful world of digital permanence by splitting our eggs into four baskets? Billy’s 8th birthday will not be lost, because you had to spread the shots across four cards. If one fails, all is well, because you still have great shots on three other cards, right?

But it is that if that is important. Have you noticed that when you have multiples of something, you’re more likely to have one fail? In a family with three computers, one is constantly on the fritz. With five school-aged children, one is always sick. And with four memory cards, you’re four times as likely to have one short-circuit. The question is, do you want to lose a day of photos every two years, or an evening of photos every six months?

Our friend Murphy says that you will be losing the photos of Billy blowing out the candles, rather than the guests or the clean-up party. You’re going to lose digital photos occasionally, and the multi-card philosophy does nothing to prevent nor reduce this.

Someone is going to protest: “Richard, all memory cards are not the same. Some are more reliable than others; you cannot pretend they are all equal. Plus, you are more likely to have one memory card fail under intensive use, than to have one of four fail under intermittent use.” For them, I want to take this out of the realm of theory, and into the realm of practice.

How often does a door spontaneously fall of its hinges? It doesn’t; it fails when you open it. I have a Canon Rebel XTi, and it relies on a flimsy plastic hinge to stay attached to the camera. When the door is open, the camera magically does not work at all. This is one part I don’t want breaking in the middle of my adventure at the Grand Canyon (no, I’m not going to the Grand Canyon, this is an example). And when is it going to fail? When I open it in the dry, sweltering sun to swap cards, of course!

Memory cards and readers are usually rated for 10,000 insertion/removal cycles. We cannot assume that they’ll last this long; every time you swap, it’s wear and tear on the camera and cards, and with something as important as our photos, we want to avoid as much risk as possible.

Technicalities aside, trading out tiny, expensive, static-sensitive, photo-filled memory cards in the field is just bad practice. No matter how careful I am, I’m ten times more likely to drop my postage-stamp SD card in the grass at the park, or trip and have it fly into the river, than it is to fail on its own accord. Plus, you’ll miss great photos by having to switch memory cards. It doesn’t matter how well you schedule it—you’ll be clicking away, and the Kodak moment will pop up just as your camera flashes “card full.” It happens to me; I don’t even keep half the photos, but there isn’t time to delete on the spot. You can’t be ready for anything if you have no space.

You should have two memory cards, so that when one fails, you can order a cheap one online (with caution, of course), without your camera being completely useless for a week. Beyond two, there are no advantages.

Simple Advice on AA Chargers & Batteries

Rechargeable AA batteries and chargers — Photo by Richard X. Thripp

Normal alkaline AAs are fine for the casual shooter, but in the long run, you’ll save money with rechargeables. Duracell and Energizer are good, but my favorite is Tenergy (sold at, which are cheaper and have worked well for me. Get a charger that is “smart,” in that it doesn’t stop just on a timer. I like the Duracell CEF90NC 30 Minute Charger, though I have an older version. Mine doesn’t take long (one hour), has built-in cooling, stops based on some sort of charging detection system that works well, and has worked without fail for 2+ years. The new model should do the same, unless they’ve messed things up. Then, you won’t have to change batteries often, unless your camera is particularly power-hungry. The charger runs $30 and comes with 4 Duracell batteries. Avoid 15 minute or faster chargers, as they stress your batteries more, are prone to overheating, and cost more.

When I got my first digital camera, I bought a charger with four AA batteries for $10. The charger took 16 hours, and would not stop automatically. It was inevitable; I charged the batteries for 24 hours once, but fortunately there was no apparent damage, likely because the charger is less apt to damage batteries for being so under-powered. One month later, one of the batteries leaked acid. If it had been in the camera, it would have corroded the contacts and perhaps render it unusable. I bought new batteries, but continued using the original three for my CD player. Another month later, I opened the player to find that the battery had leaked, and the acid had burned through the compartment, onto the CD, corroding it so that it was unusable. It was a CD I burned, but if it had been a commercial release it may have been a loss of up to $20. I stopped using those batteries, filed down the corroded part in the player so that the CD wouldn’t touch it while spinning, and used aluminum foil to fit the battery against the corroded spring. After several months, it became such a hassle to keep the aluminum foil in place that I stopped using the player; the batteries would frequently fall out of place despite my efforts. I paid $33 for that CD player; this was three years ago, and it was one of those fancy models that would play MP3 files from CDs (flash memory was expensive back then), so it was quite disappointing to lose.

That is my cautionary tale: be careful of the batteries you choose; the cheesiest option isn’t the best. Digital photography is expensive, but this is no place to skimp, as your camera is useless without working batteries.

In the banner, the chargers, from left to right: Tenergy V-2833, Duracell CEF80N, Energizer CHDC, Digital Concepts CH-1800. The Duracell CEF80N is the one I’m saying good things about above; the Digital Concepts CH-1800 is the one I’m saying bad things about. The Energizer one uses an 8-hour timer, so I don’t like it. I haven’t opened the Tenergy one, but it says it takes 18 hours, which is too long. The batteries on the left are Rayovac Hybrid brand, which are low self-discharge batteries. I’ve kept them for a year without charging and they still work, but I only recommend them if you use your camera infrequently, as they’re pricier. The middle ones are Tenergy brand, which I like. The Energizer brand batteries on the right are good too, but are $10 a pack.

If you don’t want to worry about changing batteries, or want some spares to keep in your bag just in case, lithium AAs are a good choice.