Frequently asked photo questions for February

Tips to get the most out of digital photography

Removing the Background From a Photo

I've tried removing the background from photos using techniques like the one you describe in "Two Ways to Remove the Background From a Photo," but it doesn't work for me. Each time I wind up with a checkered background instead of a white one. What am I doing wrong? --Rexx Behring, Oslo, Minnesota


Actually, you're doing everything right, Rexx. That checkered background, like the one in this example, indicates that there is no background--it's transparent.

You now can grab the part of the photo that's not checkered and copy it into a different photo--transplanting the subject into a different scene--or just save the modified image. When you save the file as a JPEG, you'll find that the checkered area of the photo has become plain white.

Moving Tags With the Photos

I have spent many hours on a project preserving over 31,000 photographs for my church. I scan them and then store the images on an internal hard drive at my home, periodically copying them to an external USB drive, and then update the hard drive in the church library from the USB drive.

I would like to use Windows Live Photo Gallery to tag the people in these photographs with their names. Is it possible to insert these tags on the files I have on my hard drive and then see them when I copy these files to the USB drive and hard drive on the computer in the church library? --Darrell Ard, Dallas, Texas

People ask me this question a lot, and it's easy to understand why. You don't want to put a lot of effort into tagging photos only to discover that the tags don't "go with" the photos should you ever choose to use a different program or copy the photos to another PC. And certainly, some photo organizers work this way, selfishly recording photo metadata in an exclusive internal database.

Well, I've got good news: Windows Live Photo Gallery copies your tag information directly to the image files using a standard known as XMP, which is read by a lot of different photo programs. So not only do the tags go with the photos to new hard drives and computers, but they'll also be readable by other programs if you ever choose to leave Windows Live Photo Gallery.

Double-Check Your Camera Settings!

I recently took a bunch of outdoor pictures. Upon getting home to view my pictures, they were all in something called "Text mode." Is that another name for GIF? The images look like negatives, only worse. Is there any way that I can convert them to JPEG so I can view them? --Roger Thorpe, Olympia, Washington

I am afraid I have some bad news for you, Roger. There's not much you can do to revive those photos. This is a great example of why it's super important to be sure you know what mode your camera is set to before taking pictures.

Text mode tries to make your camera mimic a document scanner to take readable photos of text-based documents. It probably captured the image in just two colors and made a number of other changes that are not especially flattering if you're shooting anything besides photos of pieces of paper.

You're not alone, though. I've left my camera in High-ISO mode when taking ordinary daylight photos--resulting in extremely grainy, noisy shots--and even Sepia or Black and White mode, both of which are impossible to undo after you press the shutter. So it pays to check your settings before you start clicking.

Night Photography Conundrum

I'm having trouble taking low-light landscape photography at night. To increase the depth of field, I set Aperture Priority to its minimum value. The shutter speed can't be set too slow because of moving subjects. With the minimum aperture value and high shutter speed I have no alternative but to increase the ISO from 400 to 1000. But then the output becomes so noisy that it loses its quality. What's the remedy? --Utpal Saha, via e-mail

You've run into a classic optimization problem. If you want to shoot with a fast shutter speed, you need to open up the aperture. Can't open the aperture as much as you'd like? You need to increase the ISO. Those three interrelated values are the only "levers" at your disposal in digital photography, so your photos depend upon making wise compromises among those values.

You do have a few options, though. Most importantly, I suggest that you slow down the shutter speed instead of increasing the ISO. You can take advantage of blurry, moving subjects for artistic purposes. If you have to increase the ISO, try running noise reduction software afterward to minimize the deleterious effects (check out "Reduce Digital Noise in Your Photos.)" Finally, you might consider investing in a higher quality camera. Specifically, look for a "faster" lens that opens to a larger aperture, or a camera with better low-light performance that you can push to higher ISOs without getting as much noise.

Read "Take Exciting Photos at Night" for more tips.

There Are Orbs in My Photos

I've noticed that some of my photos have odd, octagon-shaped white artifacts in them. They are all different sizes and in different places in the pictures. I was wondering if these were orbs. I asked a woman who is supposed to be experienced in orb pictures, and she told me they were something like a repetitive pattern on the pictures. --N. Hickman, Portland, Oregon

I don't know much about orbs, but your orb expert is on the right track: These are simple reflections in your photos. They're octogonally shaped because that's the shape of your camera's aperture. Under certain conditions, when you take a picture, a reflection of the aperture bounces around in the camera lens and gets recorded onto the image sensor. These "orbs" have been around for as long as there has been photography, long predating digital cameras.

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Dave Johnson

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