Preserving those new (and old) holiday memories

Sorry, I never got around to those promised posts because, well, I’ve become a genealogy addict. But don’t you worry, this post is relevant even to people who are sick of reading about genealogy.
Mom and I were going through some old photo albums, and some of the photographs were in pretty bad shape. For all the talk about concerns over how long inkjet prints of digital pictures might last, some of Mom’s 30-year-old prints are, well, fading fast. Meanwhile, Mom has some prints that were taken 30 years ago that look like they could have been processed yesterday, except for the clothes the people were wearing.

I remember almost 15 years ago, when a neighbor’s house burned, going through their rescued photo albums, opening up the drenched pages, taking out whatever photos would come out in one piece, and putting them on towels scattered about the house to dry. I noticed that Polaroids are very difficult to get remove intact from sticky album pages, even under ideal conditions. Well, now I wonder if anyone pays attention to the acid content in those album pages and what else might contribute to pictures deterriorating.

But I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about that (why not leave that to the infamous self-proclaimed aristocrat and scientist?) because there’s an easy solution.

Scan those bad boys.

Most people have mountains of photographs, so it’ll take a while, but if you set out to scan a page a day, or a few pages a week on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll eventually get through them. Burn them to a quality CD–I know among the name-brand discs you find in stores, the most consistent performer you’ll find is Kodak. If you buy in bulk, your best bet is either Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden, which are the two brands that CD duplicators most frequently use. The estimated lifespan under reasonable conditions for a high-quality CD-R is around 100 years. Some of my cheap house-brand CD-Rs haven’t lasted two years. So buy good stuff, and store the discs at room temperature. Don’t put them in the attic unless they’re full of pictures of former significant others whom you wish you’d never met. Remember the basic scientific principle that raising the temperature 10 degrees doubles the speed of a chemical reaction, so in theory, raising the temperature 10 degrees halves life expectancy. Storing your CD-Rs in a closed box in the basement, assuming it’s not terribly humid down there (40% relative humidity is optimal, according to Kodak), would be a good idea.

Actually, that same principle would be just as true for your prints as well.

Anyway, what do you do when the prints have already started to fade? Scan them anyway. Sometimes the scan ends up looking better than the original. If not, then try turning them into B&W pictures. Use your imaging software to convert it to greyscale, then play with the brightness and contrast. You’ll lose the color, but you might very well save the print. In the case of some of the old pictures of me, it’ll be harder to tell that I had blonde hair when I was really young, but it’ll at least be possible to tell what I looked like.

If you don’t have a scanner or you’re dissatisfied with the speed or quality of your existing scanner, I can recommend Canon’s LiDE series. They’re inexpensive and offer a very nice combination of speed and image quality. Most of them get their power from the USB port, which saves you a power outlet. And they’re small and light enough that they can fit into a laptop bag, making it possible to take a scanner and laptop along with you when you visit family and scan some old photos.

Getting those photos into digital form gives you other advantages as well. Some imaging software allows you to add captions or descriptions to the photos. If you’re Linux-savvy, you can set up a nice family website using one of the 12 bazillion gallery programs out there. You can keep it on your local LAN if you don’t want that stuff on the public Internet–you and your family can still enjoy punching through pictures on a strategically placed computer the same way you flip through old photo albums. If you’ve got a nice color printer, you can make as many reprints as you want, and if they fade, you can always just print them again. And while you’re burning CDs, you can burn an extra copy or two and keep them in someone else’s basement. If disaster strikes, insurance can replace most material items, but not the one-of-a-kinds like your photographs. Fortunately it’s easy to ensure they’re no longer one-of-a-kinds.

My first lengthy exposure to digital photography

Well, I took the plunge. I’ve entered the world of digital photography.
Panasonic lowered the retail price of its Lumix DMC-LC20 digital camera to $249. That, along with a promotion that threw in some memory cards, made me bite.

It’s a 2.1-megapixel unit (2 megapixel usable, according to the sticker on the front of the camera–kudos for truth in advertising) and its main selling point is its Leica lens. Leica, for those who aren’t hard-core into photography, is a German camera maker known for its high-quality and very expensive lenses.

I’ve been playing with it a little, and here’s what I’ve found (besides my need to practice some more).

You’ll probably have to take precautions for the included single set of charged AA NiMH 1600mAh batteries to have enough juice to take more than 16 meg worth of pictures. That’s not a lot. They aren’t the bottom-line batteries available (an awful lot of people seem to be selling 1400mAh batteries), but you can get 1800mAh or even 2000mAh batteries. The 1800s are a proven, mature technology. Buy at least two pair of 1800s, charge them up and take them with you. This thing munches ’em fast.

The included 8-meg SM card doesn’t hold a lot of images. Of course, people go ga-ga over the Sony Mavica cameras that use floppies, and a floppy is less than 1.5 megs. Be glad that Panasonic is throwing in a couple of bigger cards.

USB transfers from the camera’s SM cards are quick and easy, which really makes me wonder what the big deal is about Mavicas.

Image quality is very good. I’ll share some images once I’m not posting over dialup.

Professional photographers aren’t too keen on consumer-grade digital cameras, because a 1600×1200-resolution image is only enough to print a 4×5 print with acceptable quality (and it’ll look better smaller). But the only way to get good at taking pictures is to take a lot of them. An inexperienced photographer is going to take a lot of bad images. With digital, you don’t have to pay to process and print all the bad images. And digital gives you instant feedback. You’ll find youself compensating immediately for the effects of lighting.

The downsides of printing your own photographs are the cost of the prints (no less than the individual cost of a print off film, by the time you figure the cost of the ink cartridges and the special paper), and the longevity, or lack thereof. Inkjets aren’t known for producing long-lasting images. Inexpensive color laser printers will eventually give great strides in the right direction towards solving both problems, but right now “inexpensive” means $1,000. It’ll be a year or two before they hit the magical $499 mark.

But if you figure $1 per print, it won’t take long for a digital camera’s savings to pay for itself and for that printer.

It’s very easy to increase the Lumix’s exposure time for taking night shots, and I got some good ones. But I was missing my tripod. My hands aren’t steady enough to take sharp images without one once you lengthen the exposure time.

I’m not feeling any tinges of buyer’s remorse over this thing. Especially not after a night on the town with it. (Kansas City on the night after Thanksgiving offers lots of interesting subjects.)

Increase the speed of your Web pages

There are commercial utilities that will optimize your HTML and your images, cutting the size down so your stuff loads faster and you save bandwidth. But I like free.
I found free.

Back in the day, I told you about two programs, one for Windows and one for Unix, that will crunch down your JPEGs by eliminating metadata that’s useless to Web browsers. The Unix program will also optimize the Huffman tables and optionally resample the JPEG into a lossier image, which can net you tremendous savings but might also lower image quality unacceptably.

Yesterday I stumbled across a program on Freshmeat that strips out extraneous whitespace from HTML and XML files called htmlcrunch. Optionally, it will also remove comments. The program works in DOS–including under a command prompt in Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, and it knows how to handle long filenames–or Unix.

It’s not advertised as such, but I suspect it ought to also work on PHP and ASP files.

How much it will save you depends on your coding style, of course. If you tend to put each tag on one line with lots of pretty indentation like they teach in computer science classes, it will probably save you a ton. If you code HTML like me, it’ll save you somewhat less. If you use a WYSIWYG editor, it’ll probably save you a fair bit.

It works well in conjunction with other tools. If you use a WYSIWYG editor, I suggest you first run the code through HTML Tidy first. HTML Tidy, unlike htmlcrunch, actually interprets the HTML and removes some troublesome information. But in some cases, HTML Tidy will add characters, but this is usually a good thing–its changes improve browser compatibility. If you feed HTML Tidy a bunch of broken HTML, it’ll fix it for you.

You can further optimize your HTML with the help of a pair of Unix commands. But you run Windows? No sweat. You can grab native Windows command-line versions of a whole slew of Unix tools in one big Zip file here.

I’ve found that these HTML tools sometimes leave spaces between HTML elements under some circumstances. Whether this is intentional or a bug in the code, who knows. But it’s easy to fix with the Unix tr command:

tr "> indexopt.html

Some people believe that Web browsers parse 255-character lines faster than any other line length. I’ve never seen this demonstrated. And in my experience, any Web browser parses straight-up HTML plenty fast no matter what, unless you’re running a seriously, seriously underpowered machine, in which case optimizing the HTML isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. Also in my experience, every browser I’ve looked at parses CSS entirely too slow. It takes most browsers longer to render this page than it takes for my server to send it over my pokey DSL line. I’ve tried mashing my stylesheets down and multiple 255-character lines versus no linebreaks whatsoever made little, if any, difference.

But if you want to try it yourself, pass your now-optimized HTML file(s) through the standard Unix fmt command, like so:

fmt -w 255 index.html > index255.html

Optimizing your HTML files to the extreme will take a little time, but it’s probably something you only have to do once, and your page visitors will thank you for it.

Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux