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Make White Backgrounds White, Shoot a Wedding, Photos in Court, Best Time to Sharpen, and More

Dave answers questions about unexpected spots in flash photos, detecting foul play with the date stamp, digital workflow, and more.

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me [mailto:question@davejoh.com]. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus.

For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from March and April.

Gray Instead of White

I have been taking product photos for my Web site and eBay. I have a problem, though: the background behind my products should be white, but they turn out gray. I spent way too much time turning the backgrounds white in a photo editor. Is there any way to be able to get white background when I take the shot?

--Kaya Atli, Springfield, Missouri

It sounds to me like you simply aren't putting enough light on the white backdrop, Kaya. To get that gorgeous white backing behind whatever you're shooting, you'll probably want to point a couple of lights at the background--one on either side of the product you're photographing--with a third, "key" light on the product itself. You'll want to use a lower wattage light or a diffuser on the key light. If you can't set up that many lights, then you'll probably need to whiten the background manually in your photo editor each time.

Spots When Using Flash

I just bought what I thought would be a pretty good point-and-shoot camera. Things went well until I tried to use the built-in flash at night. I got lots of spots all over the photograph. Is it reasonable to expect spots all over the photograph?

-- Wayne Johnson, Fallon, Nevada

Sorry to hear about your trouble, Wayne. This kind of problem is more common than you might think. I would say that the most likely culprit is dust particles suspended in the air in front of the camera when you take the photo. Many point and shoot cameras place the flash extremely close to the lens, and consequently it's easy for light to reflect into the lens and ruin the photo.

If that's indeed your problem, then there isn't much you can do to avoid those spots of light in nighttime flash photography; they'll happen whenever atmospheric conditions conspire against you.

Photographing a Wedding

My daughter got engaged last month and they have asked me to take the engagement photos. As a non-professional photographer, this scares me. I would love to do them but I am quite concerned about the selection, composition, backdrop, lighting, and so on. Do you have any advice?

-- Pat Pone, Trafalgar, Indiana

Congratulations, Pat! I understand your concern, but you can get take some excellent engagement photos even without a studio and the accompanying lights and backgrounds. I recommend shooting a series of photos outdoors--go to a local arboretum, city park, or some other scenic location. The most important thing to keep in mind is lighting--don't shoot at mid-day, when the sun is going to create lots of contrast. Go with a small f-number for a narrow depth of field, and be sure that your photos are sharp as a tack--I'd put the camera on a tripod and make sure the shutter speed is 1/125 second or faster.

And feel free to be unconventional and take photos that reflect the personality of the happy couple. For inspiration, I refer to you to this awesome series of engagement photos by a couple with an unusual hobby.

Foul Play with the Date Stamp

I am in the middle of a court battle with an "ex." He has submitted to the court pictures with date stamps that originally did not have date stamps. I know that his camera used to take the photos does not have the ability to date stamp. My question: Can someone analyze these photos for authenticity?

-- Anna DaSilva, Omaha, Nebraska

Let me start by saying in no uncertain terms that I am not a lawyer (or, as the kids say, IANAL) and can't dispense legal advice. But here's what I do know: It is ridiculously easy to add a date stamp to the corner of a photo with almost any photo editor; I certainly hope no court would consider some text printed on a digital photo to be persuasive evidence.

One thing you could follow up on is the photo's "Date Taken" metadata. Digital cameras record the date and time that photos are taken in the file itself, and it can be displayed in most photo editors, viewers, and organizing programs. The bad news is that this data isn't highly trustworthy, either: Not only does the Date Taken metadata depend upon the camera's clock being set accurately to begin with, but this metadata can be easily changed with free software as well.

Your best bet is to have a computer expert determine for the court if the Date Taken metadata matches the date stamped onto the photo. If they match, it might mean your ex is computer savvy and changed it when he added the date stamp, so that's not especially helpful to you. But if they don't match, I'd say that's almost certainly evidence of funny business. Good luck!

Sharpen First or Second?

In my digital work flow, should I sharpen a photo and then convert/compress it to JPEG, or should I convert it to a JPEG first and then sharpen it? Why?

--Wandal Winn, Anchorage, Alaska

This is a really confusing subject, Wandal--and somewhat contentious among some photo pros and enthusiasts, so there's no single official answer. That said, the conventional wisdom is that sharpening should be the very last thing you do in your digital workflow. So do all of your ordinary editing, resize the photo if necessary, and output it to the final file format (like JPEG or TIFF). Then when you are done manipulating the pixels, apply the appropriate amount of sharpening. This is important because the amount of sharpening you apply depends upon the pixel dimensions of the image as well as the contrast within the image, and the local contrast within a photo can change slightly when you convert it from a RAW image to a JPEG. So I'd vote for sharpening last.

Hot Pic of the Week

This week's Hot Pic: "Dolphin at Play" by Ed Dickau, Alexandria, Virginia

Ed writes: "On a recent visit to the west coast of Florida, I took a 'dolphin hunting' boat trip. I captured this with a Nikon D70 set to an ISO of 400 so that I could get 1/500 second shutter speed. I used a "two eyed approach" so I could keep one eye on the dolphin in the viewfinder and other eye on my surrounding so I didn't get hurt on the boat.

Some advice: If you have a chance to do something like this, get away from other folks on the boat to make sure you have a clear shot of the dolphin, and the dolphin has a clear view of you. They are curious, playful, and as you can see, they will pose for you."

This week's runner-up: "Mischievous" by Jeff Saffle, Reno, Nevada

Jeff says that this picture was taken at a birthday party for a friend of the family. He used a Canon 5D Mark II.

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