FAQ: Blurry Action Photos, Inexplicable Underexposure and When to Format a Memory Card

We cover some frequently asked questions about photography

Banquet Photography

I am often asked to take photos at conferences in hotel banquet rooms. I get a lot of bad shots that are blurry or dark. Do you have any advice?

--Darci Sears, Sacramento, California

This sort of photography is especially hard, Darci, because the light in those big hotel conference rooms and banquet halls is deceptively dim.

Your best bet is to set the camera's ISO as high as it will go. The ISO control adjusts the camera's sensitivity to light; read "Use ISO to Take Low-Light Photos" for more on using this setting to take photos indoors.

Be sure you're shooting at the camera's highest shutter speed--switching to Action or Sports mode can help. And turn off the flash unless your subject is only a few feet away, since the flash won't reach across a large banquet room. If your digital camera accepts an external flash, consider getting one of those, since they can illuminate a scene 50 feet away. Check out "Photo Flash Tricks" for tips on getting the most out of a digital flash.

Recovering Photos From a Bad Card

I would like to recover some deleted pictures from a CompactFlash card. Also, I have an Secure Digital card that stopped working, and the camera doesn't recognize it anymore. What do you recommend?

--Elmer Plett, via Gmail

You're in luck with the CF card, Elmer, since there are programs around that can salvage images from a memory card that's been erased or formatted. You'll have the best chance of recovering your photos if you haven't done anything with the card since the accidental erasure (like take more pictures). As for the dead SD card, I can't offer much hope: Photos on a dead card are probably gone for good.

I recommend that you try using Digital Photo Recovery with your CompactFlash card--it's free, and I've had good results with it. It might also be able to recover some photos from your unresponsive SD card, but that's a lot less likely.

Blurry Action Photos

I cover football games for a local newspaper, and I purchased a digital camera with the expectation of getting some really nice action shots of players in motion. To my dismay, however, the pictures are often out of focus. I use a tripod with a 75-300 zoom lens and set the mode to Action. Could you give me some pointers?

--Jacob Bars, Dayton, Ohio

You say the photos are out of focus, Jacob, but are they really? You need to figure out if they're out of focus or if they're blurry from motion.

If the photos are out of focus, then you need to work on your focusing technique. It's possible you're far enough away that the focus can be set at infinity most of the time; if so, set the focus on infinity, and that'll help solve the problem. Otherwise, work on tracking your fast-moving subject and using the pre-focus control (holding the shutter release halfway down) to lock in the focus when you need it. For more advice about this kind of shooting, you might want to read "Capturing Subjects on the Move."

If the problem really is a case of motion blur, you can apply the same technique I suggested to Darci for her banquet-hall photos: Push up your ISO so that you can shoot at faster shutter speeds. Also work on your panning technique so you can catch your subjects as they move. If you leave your camera stationary, your photos will always be blurry.

Inexplicable Underexposure

I use my camera's automatic exposure mode most of the time. But I'm seeing something strange when I use the flash under some lighting conditions. If I take a photo in a reasonably well lit area with the flash turned on, the photo comes out underexposed. What is happening?

--Nathan Latour, Toronto

It sounds like your subject is too far away.

The flash built into your digital camera has a range of maybe ten feet. If you try to shoot something farther away, the flash can't reach. Because the camera has selected a shutter speed that works for the flash, not enough light reaches the sensor--and you get an underexposed mess. If you turn the flash off the camera is free to shoot the scene at a slower shutter speed, giving you a better-exposed photo.

When to Format a Memory Card

How often should I format my camera's memory card? I've been doing it every time I download to the computer and erase the pics on the card.

--Bill Whiters, Miami, Florida

Every expert has a different opinion on this subject, Bill. The reality is that it doesn't matter a whole lot. Feel free to format the memory card after every download--you won't wear it out.

There are some benefits to formatting the card frequently. Formatting "defragments" the card, enabling photos to be stored faster and more efficiently. But if you usually just erase the card, that's not a big deal either. You'll want to format the card if you notice slower camera performance or if the card causes errors with your camera or your PC.

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Dave Johnson

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