Archive for February, 2007

Shooting in the Snow

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Everyone has their favorite time of year. For me, it’s summer–warm days, refreshing lemonade, scuba diving, and nary a driveway or sidewalk to be plowed or shoveled. Indeed, there’s nothing I hate more than dealing with heavy, slushy, slippery snow.  On the other hand, there’s nothing quite so picturesque as a fresh snowfall. Snow makes for great photos, so I have an uneasy truce with the white stuff. The deal goes something like this: I’ll take pictures of it, as long as my son does most of the shoveling.  

Prep Your Camera 

If you want to take pictures out in the cold and snow, it can help to prepare your camera gear for the job. Most digital cameras handle the elements pretty well, but cold, snowy days can push your hardware to its limits. The most important thing to keep in mind is that batteries conk out more quickly in the cold, so having a spare, and keeping that spare warm, can come in handy. Here’s what I do: I keep a second, fully charged battery deep inside my jacket, where my body heat can help keep it warm and healthy. If my camera’s primary battery dies, I swap them. My body heat revives the first battery while I shoot with the spare, so I can get a few more shots out of it if necessary. People often ask me if there’s also a risk of condensation and fog forming on the camera lens. Some photographers even place their cameras inside plastic bags to avoid this problem. But the reality is that such condensation can’t form when going from warm to cold, so you’re safe outdoors in the snow (just don’t drop your camera in a snow bank).   

Adjust for Snow 

When you finally get your camera out in the winter wonderland, remember that snow is a somewhat different kind of subject than most of the things you typically photograph. Snow is extremely reflective, and it can confuse your camera’s exposure sensor. In the presence of a lot of snow, many cameras will try to underexpose the photograph. There are a couple of ways around this common problem. The simplest solution is to set your camera to its Snow or Beach “scene” mode, if it has one. This is a pre-programmed exposure setting that takes bright, highly reflective subject matter like sand and snow into account and overexposes the picture automatically.  Alternately, you can overexpose the picture yourself using the camera’s exposure compensation dial. Overexpose the shot by setting the control to about +1, which will overexpose the scene by one stop (which admits twice as much light into the photo).  

Mind the Time of Day

You probably already know that the color of light changes during the day, and that’s especially true when you’re shooting snow, which will add up to a predominantly white scene. If you take your camera out very early or late in the day, you’ll end up with warmer photos, in which the snow takes on reddish hues. If you stick to midday, you’ll get much cooler, more blue photos.  

Try Some Close Ups 

When people think of winter photography, they instinctively imagine grand, snow-laden trees and a picturesque row of houses covered in snow. Those subjects are fine, but you can get some really interesting shots by getting close to your subject and shooting in macro mode (which is activated by the button with the little “tulip” icon).  If you get close enough, you can capture individual ice crystals on blades of grass or the edges of pine cones.

How can you replicate these kinds of images? For starters, it helps to use a tripod. Since you’re so close to the subject, even small amounts of jiggle will ruin the photo. And since it’s cold out, it’s a lot harder to hold the camera steady. So even if you could pull off shots like these in the middle of summer, I doubt you can do it in the middle of January. Also, experiment with the flash both on and off. If the flash is on, the extra illumination can help freeze the photo, but it can add an artificial, antiseptic look to the shot. Better to try it with natural light, though you will probably want to increase the camera’s ISO setting to shorten the exposure time.

Check out a somewhat longer version of this story in my Digital Focus newsletter for PC World.

I’m Wiped

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

I’m wiped; I’m so tired. That’s what Kristin Hersh wails towards the end of Your Dirty Answer, a song from her incredible (but apparently undersold) Sunny Border Blue album. Unfortunately, based on hearing her tonight at her free performance at Mercer Street’s Easy Street Records in Seattle–along with any number of other concerts I’ve attended for the last few years–it’s clear that it is her voice that’s tired. Kristin’s poor voice has grown steadily raspier with each passing year, which probably speaks volume about how badly her vocal chords were punished during their time in Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave.  

Be that as it may, Kristin is still my hero. She’s a brilliant songwriter; a mesmerizing performer; an artist of epic proportions. Yep, I idolize her. Her show tonight was short by necessity–apparently, after the show, she starts driving for the east coast, where she’ll be catching a plane to start a European tour. She did some songs from the new album–Learn to Sing Like a Star–as well as some older material.

It’s a good album. But it was Your Dirty Answer that got to me, as it always does. I’m wiped, I’m so tired. Carry me, Carry me for a little while. The most intensely sad song I’ve ever heard, like industrially concetrated melancholy so heavy it hurts to think about it. 

So, excuse me. I’m going to sit back and spin up some Hunkpapa. After all, I just drove home from Queen Anne, and I really am wiped.

Cats are Flammable

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

The week before Christmas was memorable in my home this year becuase of the Great Windstorm of 2006. You might have heard about the storm that knocked out power for a million people around Puget Sound. Well, we lived at Ground Zero, and we were powerless for just about the longest of anyone: six days. Six agonizingly long, electricity-free days. no TV, no computer, no Internet. No Xbox, no Colbert Report. But strangly, what I found that I missed the most was something that’s been around for a century: the light bulb. Every day, I’d wake up in darkness, spend the day in murky, dim-grey overcast dusk-like Seattle Day Darkness, then watch it get ever dimmer until we were plunged back into the blackness of evening. It didn’t help that we broke our hurricaine lamp on day 2 (here’s a fun family activity: try picking up hundreds of shards of glass from the carpet in near-total darkness with just a few flashlights).

Each morning I’d get up, light about four candles on the kitchen table, feed the cats, and then sit down to a bowl of cereal. Round about day 4, Marin’s orange tabby, Muff, jumped up on the kitchen table and waddled over to greet me. What happened next was startling and unexpected: he brushed past a candle, which caused his right side to instantly burst into flames with a dramatic foosh! And dramatic it was; flames leapt inches above the top of Muff’s back, like he was feline kindling.

Now, a brighter (or less obese) cat might have shouted (in catspeak) “oh my god oh my god oh my god” and darted out of the room, complicating an already “flammable” situation. But not Muff. He stood there, blinking at me, while I jumped to my feet and patted him down. It only took a second or two to extinguish him, and he was no worse for wear. In fact, the only evidence of the accident was some singed fur.

And that’s how I spent my Christmas vacation.

Get Your Photos Organized

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Over the holidays, I took about a hundred photos around the house. I also managed to fill up a memory card while photographing wolves at the nearby wildlife refuge and, just a few weeks ago, I snapped a truckload of “light trail” style night photos from a pedestrian overpass in Las Vegas. Every one of those photos has found its way onto my PC, and that’s in addition to the thousand or so photos I took during 2006 alone. Finding a specific photo is a daunting task. Heck, with so many photos, I often completely forget that some shots ever happened, and I’m surprised when I find them by accident months later. Clearly, it’s time to get organized.

Rename or Tag?

The first bit of advice you’re likely to hear when it comes time to getting your photos organized is to use a logical system to rename them. But I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think that renaming your photos is a particularly effective solution for getting organized. It’s slow and tedious (just the sort of combination you want when there’s an activity you aren’t especially motivated to do in the first place), and when you’re done, it only makes your photos marginally easier to find. I far prefer the newfangled solution of tagging your photos with metadata.

If you haven’t heard me rant in my weekly Digital Focus column about the virtues of tagging already, here’s what I’m talking about: using photo organizer software, you can assign “tags” or “keywords” to each of your photos. If you put a little thought into your tags, you can create a dozen or so categories that reflect all the common photo subjects you routinely shoot: family, pets, holidays, soccer practice, Elvis sightings, and such. It’s about the same amount of work as renaming photos, but when you want to see all your holiday photos, just click that tag in your photo software and you’ll see them all. Plus, you don’t have to type the same tag over and over. Create a tag once, and then just drag and drop photos to that tag to assign it.

If You’re Not Daring

That said, I understand that not everyone wants to go to the trouble of tagging–or you simply might not own the appropriate software. If that sounds like you, at least you can rename your photos from obscure camera-speak like DSC000023 to “Barbara at the beach.”

If you really get into organizing your photos by file name, the Windows method may start to seem kind of anemic. For beefier file naming, try a favorite program of mine: for just $10, Name Dropper lets you create a slew of name fragments and assign them to a dozen customizable buttons. To rename photos, combine the fragments into descriptive compound names. Or try Siren, a free program that gives you access to the metadata associated with your photos. You can combine snippets of info like your camera model, ISO, exposure data, lens information, and date taken to create truly informative file names for your photos, automatically.

Tagging: Like Renaming Without all the Lame

As I already mentioned, renaming your photos was fine in 1997, but these days I highly encourage you to try tagging. There are some superb photo organizers out there with great photo tagging features. My favorites include Adobe Photoshop Elements–which comes with Photoshop Album–and Microsoft Digital Image Suite, which features Digital Image Library. Both programs let you assign tags (Digital Image Library calls them Labels) to your photos and then swoop in to see any set of photos that correspond to any term you choose. And if you’re considering stepping up to Windows Vista, the superb, built-in Photo Gallery stores its tags in the photos as well. And that I really love, becuase now your tags are baked into your files at the operating system level.

Check out a somewhat longer version of this story in my Digital Focus newsletter for PC World.

The Clumsy Path to Here

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

So how did I actually find myself getting a new domain name? After all, it’s a PIA to tell all your friends, relatives, co-workers, web sites, and animatronic kittens about your new e-mail address. Which is why I had the same one for so long.

I could claim that I’ve been subjected to mental anguish by the maddening length of my old domain name. I could assert that typing “” just took too darned long. After all, I’m a busy guy with things to do. And I know all my friends are busy too, so having such a long e-mail address was really a lose-lose situation all around.

There’s some truth to that, but the reality is that my old web host was really expensive. For years, I was too lazy to do anything about it, and chalked up the quarterly hosting fees as the cost of doing buisness. But recently, I saw that Office Live had a free web hosting offer. I scanned the terms, and it all seemed pretty cool, so I signed up and transferred my domain name. I did all this while literally packing to leave for a weekend trip, so I failed to read the fine print.

When I got home a few days later, I discovered that my free service didn’t include POP e-mail — you could only get mail via a webmail application. Ugh. And it turned out that upgrading to a subscription service that would give me POP email again proved to be nearly as costly as my original plan.

So, I turned to I’d heard good things about them, and a friend uses them. This time I really did read the fine print, and man, they offered a ton of cool features and services for a very reasonable fee. So I bit.


Now, right about this point I learn that in order to mitigate fraud, you can’t transfer your domain name more than once in a 60-day period. D’oh. So, I did the only thing a sloppy, impulsive person like me could do: I bought a new domain name and started over from scratch. Voila!

Dave Johnson’s web site v2.0 is, in other words, the result of me bumbling along as usual, only reading the words next to pretty pictures and trying to make major life decisions while putting underwear in a suitcase.

Smells like fresh paint

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

After the better part of a decade with my old domain,, I thought I’d start fresh. Totally fresh. I have a new domain, a new hosting service, and I’ve even decided to try WordPress, which I’ve heard great things about.

The old site was admittedly lame; it was so dusty that I’m pretty sure archeologists could have analyzed the fossilized links to draw conclusions about Aztec religious ceremonies. So today, we try a blog-based site and see if that helps prod me into making this more current.