Deflating the ‘Eggs in One Basket’ Myth

I’m currently in the process of upgrading my memory cards to Lexar 128GB 1000X/150 MB/s cards, as they are on sale for about $60 each in packs of two.  I do this quite often (my last stop was in 64GB territory), and I’m always reminded of the “Eggs in One Basket” myth that has dogged incremental memory expansion for the last several decades.  The debate about whether it’s better to use one large memory card or several smaller ones has been going on since even before there were memory cards!

I can remember when computer users wondered whether it was smarter to install a pair of 200MB (not gigabyte) hard drives in their computer, or if they should go for one of those new-fangled 500MB models. By the same token, a few years ago the user groups were full of proponents who insisted that you ought to use 128MB memory cards rather than the huge 512MB versions. Today, most of the arguments involve 16GB cards vs. 32GB cards, and with dropping prices, 64GB and 128GB cards have found their way into the debate as well.

I have some professional photographer friends who chortle at the folly of  using large memory cards (I’ve actually witnessed the chortling), and they have special reasons for their preference.  But most of us have no cause to fear using mature memory storage technologies.  I don’t want to be a pioneer in working with 512GB memory cards (and have no need to do so), but I’m perfectly comfortable with my 128GB cards for the following reasons.

1.  Memory cards don’t magically wait until they are full before they fail.  You will not automatically lose 128GB worth of photos, rather than 32GB if a memory card implodes.  If you typically shoot 6GB worth of images before you have a chance to copy them to your computer or laptop, then that’s the most you are at risk for under average circumstances.  Whether you’re using an 8GB, 16GB, or 128GB card,  the amount of images you shoot in a typical session will be the number you actually lose.   All a larger memory card does is give you greater flexibility for those times when you want to shoot more in one session and don’t want or don’t have time to swap cards.  Many photographers change cards when they are 80 percent full to avoid missing a crucial shot.  A larger card helps you stretch that a bit.

The biggest danger comes from waiting too long – say several days – to back up your images.  We all know photographers who have New Years Eve, July 4, and Thanksgiving images on a single card, and who never backup their photos.

2. 64GB cards aren’t twice as likely to fail as 32GB cards, although many seem to feel that’s so.  Indeed, I’ve heard the same advice to use “safer” 256MB cards, 2 GB cards, or 4GB cards virtually up the line as capacities have increased.

3. Using multiple smaller cards may increase your odds of losing photos.  Memory cards do fail, but that usually happens from user error.  The first 128GB card I bought, a Sony model, failed within a few months, because I put it in my wallet for “safekeeping” and accidentally folded it in half.  It’s also common for photographers to lose cards, put them through a wash and dry cycle, or perform other atrocities unrelated to the reliability of the card itself.

Yes, if you use smaller cards you may lose half as many photos, but you might also find that more cards equates to a higher risk of losing one or damaging one through stupidity.  I find it’s better to use the minimum number of photo “baskets” and then make sure nothing happens to that basket.   If all your images are important, the fact that you’ve lost 100 of them rather than 200 pictures isn’t very comforting.

4. When your family goes on vacation, do you split up family members to travel in several smaller cars?  After all, in a terrible collision, you might lose only a couple of your kinfolk rather than all of them.  Keep in mind that your family is much more important to you than your photos, and the odds of being in a traffic accident is much greater than encountering a faulty memory card.  Humans are susceptible to the cognitive fallacy “neglect of probability.”    I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of pictures and lost two memory cards, and I know three other photographers who’ve had memory card problems.  I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles and been in four traffic accidents and know a dozen people who have had auto mishaps.  Should my family be riding around in different cars while I stick to 16GB memory cards?

5. The typical memory card is rated for a Mean Time Between Failures of 1,000,000 hours of use. That’s constant use 24/7 for more than 100 years! According to the manufacturers, they are good for 10,000 insertions in your camera, and should be able to retain their data (and that’s without an external power source) for something on the order of 11 years. Of course, with the millions of cards in use, there are bound to be a few lemons here or there.

So, what can you do?  Here are some options for preventing loss of valuable images:

Interleaving. One option is to interleave your shots. Say you don’t shoot weddings, but you do go on vacation from time to time. Take 50 or so pictures on one card, or whatever number of images might fill about 25 percent of its capacity. Then, replace it with a different card and shoot about 25 percent of that card’s available space. Repeat these steps with diligence (you’d have to be determined to go through this inconvenience), and, if you use four or more memory cards you’ll find your pictures from each location scattered among the different memory cards. If you lose or damage one, you’ll still have some pictures from all the various stops on your trip on the other cards. That’s more work than I like to do (I usually tote around a portable hard disk and copy the files to the drive as I go), but it’s an option.

Transmit your images. Another option is to transmit your images, as they are shot, over a network to your laptop or smart device.  Many cameras have that option.

External backup. It’s easy to physically transfer your images to a laptop, smart device, or other backup storage, particularly when you’re on vacation.

Be smart. If you’re having problems, the first thing you should do is stop using that memory card. Don’t take any more pictures. Don’t do anything with the card until you’ve figured out what’s wrong. Your second line of defense (your first line is to be sufficiently careful with your cards that you avoid problems in the first place) is to do no harm that hasn’t already been done. If necessary, decide on a course of action (such as using a data recovery service or software) before you risk damaging the data on your card further.  If you take a picture of your business card as the first photo in a session, should the card be lost your odds of having it returned to you are increased.

What does the new Sony a7r II mean?

It’s no secret that the original Sony a7r full frame mirrorless camera is one of my two or three favorite cameras, which I have been using on a daily basis since late 2013. Coupled with the Zeiss “holy trinity” of lenses (16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm optics, each with an f/4 maximum aperture), I’ve prized the high-end model for its combination of image quality, high resolution 36MP sensor, compact size, and full feature set. And, since the introduction of the first of the new generation mirrorless full frame models — the 24MP Sony a7 II — I’ve been looking forward to the successor to my original a7r, which was introduced on June 10, with availability slated for August, 2015. Does this new model justify the level of anticipation that we’ve seen? I’ve put together a list of the most important new features.

  • Surprise! The new camera’s 42.4 megapixel resolution is not the most significant feature. What Sony owners will absolutely love is the potential autofocus speed increase possible with the a7r II. To understand why, you need to consider that the largest image capture bottleneck in most mirrorless cameras (and in dSLRs in “mirrorless” Live View mode), is the crippling slowness of conventional contrast detect AF.

When focusing using the image captured by the sensor alone, a camera must tediously examine the edge contrast of parts of the subject and, frequently, hunt back and forth until the highest contrast (sharpest) image is found. Many mirrorless cameras use nothing but contrast detection, and even optimized systems may not be as speedy in achieving focus as the slowest dSLR that relies on contrast detection. The chief advantage of contrast detect AF is that focus isn’t restricted to a small set of AF sensors, as well as the systems’ relative simplicity.

The a7r II’s back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor has 399 phase detection AF points embedded within its full frame. That means the camera can use rangefinder-like phase detection to achieve focus much more quickly, up to 40 percent faster than the previous model, according to Sony. “Hunting” isn’t necessary; by examining the AF points, the camera knows instantly which direction to focus, and exactly how much of an adjustment to make. This superior phase detect AF can bring the a7r II up to the level of premium dSLR cameras in terms of autofocus. An additional 25 contrast detection points are also used as required in Sony’s Fast Hybrid system.

  • Five-axis image stabilization. Sony introduced 5-axis SteadyShot IS with the 24MP a7 II. It’s an in-body system that works with virtually every lens, and makes adjustments along the x and y axes, and compensates for pitch, roll, and yaw, too. (In plain English, x and y movement of the camera is along the focal plane in the left/right, up/down directions, respectively; pitch is tilting the camera up or down; roll is rotating the camera along a line passing through the center of the lens; yaw is rotating the camera from side to side along the axis of, say, the tripod socket.) Depending on camera movement, any one of these or any combination may occur as you frame and shoot.
    This enhanced SteadyShot should give you a conservative minimum of two or three stops (i.e. you can shoot at 1/30th s where 1/250th s might be required before), and potentially much more. (Keep in mind that IS does nothing to prevent subject blur.) Since the a7-series cameras are so compact and light in weight, the ability to use them without a tripod in many situations is a significant advance.
    As a bonus, if you own a lot of old Minolta or newer Sony A-mount lenses, you can use them with the a7r II and the EA-LA4 adapter. You lose a bit of compactness, but gain versatility without sacrificing AF speed.
  • Back-illuminated CMOS sensor. Sony pioneered back-illuminated sensor technology, and cleverly applies it to the new a7r II. With conventional sensors, the matrix of photosites and the “wiring” they require reflect some of the light striking them, preventing that illumination from reaching the photosensitive layer that actually captures the image. For a back-illuminated sensor, the order of the layers is reversed, so the illumination falls directly on the photosensitive elements, with the matrix and wiring relegated to the reverse side. That allows the sensor to use virtually 100 percent of its area to capture light, making it more sensitive. There is no optical low pass “blurring” filter in front of the sensor, enhancing resolution (you may need to remove moire manually.)
    This configuration provides three benefits. Sony has been able to squeeze 42.4 megapixels onto a 24 x 36mm sensor without needing to reduce their size as much as would be required with a conventional sensor. That translates into improved sensitivity, too. The a7r II should provide improved image quality at ISO settings up to 25,600. When production models are available, we’ll see whether the improvements will make photography at the equivalent of ISO 102,400 possible as well.
    The back-illumination configuration also allows improving the wiring on the back of the sensor (because there is no longer any concern about its interfering with light gathering), such that Sony says data transmission can occur up to 3.5x faster than with the original a7r.
    An anti-reflective coating on the surface of the sensor helps improve light gathering — and also should reduce problems you might face from light bouncing off the sensor, and then bouncing back from the rear elements of your lenses (frequently older, pre-digital lenses.)
    Don’t expect the a7 II to rival the current a7s for the low-light championship, but the results should be good. Best of all, you won’t need to make some difficult choices about bumping up the ISO while reducing image quality. You should be able to have some cake, and eat it, too.
  • Other goodies: Videographers will like the ability to shoot and record 4K video in multiple formats including Super 35mm (without pixel binning) and full-frame format, a world’s first for digital cameras . The rest of us should love a shutter with 50% less vibration, and which includes a (virtually) Silent Shooting mode. The optional electronic first curtain shutter can further reduce shutter shake. The XGA 2,359,296-pixel organic light emiting diode (OLED) viewfinder now boasts a 0.78 magnification, and the 1.2MP rear-panel LCD remains. Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communications) allows the a7r II to communicate with your favorite Android and iOS devices.

The best job in the world is to be an amateur!

One of the interesting things about being a professional photographer is that you’re hired because of your vision and creativity (and other things, including reliability, price, value, etc.), but still, in the end, must please the client. When it comes to portraits, especially, the client may want creativity, but only if it flatters the subject. I remember senior portraits from my high school days that made it very difficult to identify exactly who was pictured in the photograph.

Today, one of the most popular tools is Portrait Professional, a stand-alone/Photoshop plug-in utility that can automate and streamline the retouching that sometimes is needed to produce the kind of results that the client (but not necessarily the photographer) wants to see.

The image at left is more or less right out of the camera. In the center is a PortraitPro rendition using the default preset. (You’re actually given a considerable amount of flexibility in choosing your own settings.) At right is a less drastic version.

I’ve made my living emphasizing how to get the best results possible right in the camera, with a minimum of post-processing. When you do that, you probably don’t need textures, excessive HDR, or batch processing plug-ins that give your images that ’60s high school yearbook look.

That’s why amateur photographers have an almost ideal “job” as an image creator. The only expectations they must meet are their own; they follow their own timetable, and if they goof nobody gets upset (or, if results are unexpectedly good, they can claim “I meant to do that!”)

Three views…

Photographing a living legend…

Some things stick with you all your life…and in my case two of those things are sports and concert photography.  One of the very first photos I ever took was a double-exposure of my brother playing baseball with himself when I was 11, and after four years of shooting basketball in high school, I was hired by a daily newspaper as a sports photographer/reporter.  I shoot sports year-round even today.
My other love was taking pictures at concerts, at first local guitar heroes like Joe Walsh (before the James Gang and Eagles), and soon immortals like B.B. King.  In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot living legends like Ronnie Spector (pictured) from 12 feet away, and always enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to capture the excitement of both classic and contemporary performers.  This shot was the result of careful timing, as I watched the soulful singer well up with emotion as she worked through a sensational oldie.    At the venue I frequent most, I generally shoot at 1/200th second at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 with a 70-200mm zoom lens.  I always shoot in continuous mode, both because the performer’s mood can change quickly between frames, but because I find that in any given five-shot burst, the middle image is often the sharpest.  At 1/200th second hand-held, even with image stabilization, excellent bracing, and shooting technique you’ll experience a bit of camera movement during a burst, and the middle shot is frequently the best.