Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nikon D300 Auto-focus for Sports

I shoot a lot of soccer games with a Nikon D300 and a 200-400 f/4.  I am regularly asked how I set up the camera for best auto-focus.  Here's what I do:

1) Set the camera to AF-C (continuous focus).  This is done via a small lever on the front of the camera near the lens mount.  You want the setting marked "C" (continuous) as opposed to "M" (manual) or "S" (single).  This will allow you to track the action and have the camera continually focusing whenever you trigger focus.

2) Create a shooting bank for Sports.  Since you will want to return to these sports settings regularly, but won't want to use them all the time, it's a great time to make a custom setting bank.  First, create a normal shooting bank.  At the top of the "Custom Setting Menu", pick one of the four banks and name it "Normal".  Then pick one of the other ones and name it "Sports".  Make it the current custom setting bank.  Now all settings we create from now on will be part of the Sports bank.

3) Set custom setting a1 "AF-C priority selection" to "Release".   Since I assume you're going to want to shoot in continuous mode with multiple frames per second, this setting allows the camera to deliver the desired frame rate.  If you set it to "Focus", the camera will wait until it is sure it has acquired focus before firing every frame.  Except in very bright and very contrasty conditions, the D300 will sputter and not shoot as many frames as you want.  You WILL miss the point of action you wanted.  The D3 has fewer issues with this setting, but the D300 needs it set to Release.  In reality, if you have good focus tracking technique, the camera will have focus most of the time and you will get more keepers this way without missing the key point of action you wanted.

4) Set custom setting a3 "Dynamic AF-area" to 9 points or 21 points.  There is no hard science here on which is better.  I think that the more you can constrain the AF sensors while still managing to keep them on the desired focus target, the less likely the camera is going to pick a focus target you don't want and the less computation you are asking it to do so the more likely it can keep up with the action.  So, if you have good focus tracking technique and can keep at least some of the center 9 points on your target as it moves, then I recommend 9 points.  If you have trouble doing that, then switch to 21 points.  I do not recommend 51 points.  There are just too many things for the camera to think about switching the focus point to.

5) Set custom setting a4 "Focus tracking with lock-on" to "Short".  There are many long discussion threads about the effect of this setting on the responsiveness of focus tracking.  Without some real technical documentation from Nikon it's hard to know how it really works under the hood.  Here's what we know.  If you set it to "Off", the camera will immediately respond to a new focus target with no delay.  The moment the 9 or 21 focus points fall off your subject, the camera will snap to a new subject.  If you set it to "Long", the camera will wait a significant amount of time (waiting to see if it sees your subject back on the target focus points).  If it does, it will continue tracking it without having switched to another subject.  If it doesn't see the subject come back after some wait time, then it will pick a new subject and jump to that.  Short and Normal (the other two settings) are obviously in between.  When shooting soccer, I've found that I really don't want a long delay before it snaps to my current subject.  I may want to pick a new subject without releasing the focus trigger so I want it to be responsive.  But, at the same time, if you shoot with the most responsiveness (this setting "off"), the camera is very demanding for accurate focus tracking.  You HAVE to keep the 9 or 21 points on your subject.  If you slip off, the camera will acquire a new focus target and that will probably not be what you want.  I have shot games with it on "off" before.  With intense concentration on the focus tracking, I can get very good results.  But, I'd rather have it on "Short" because I don't feel like I'm sacrificing any responsiveness to a purposeful target switch, but I still get a little forgiveness if I vibrate off the subject for a brief moment.  Is shoot with on "Short".  If you are having trouble tracking your subject, you probably first want to go to 21 points.  If you still need more help with tracking, then change this setting to "Normal".  Nikon says that this setting is designed for situation when an object might momentarily go between you and your desired subject (temporarily obscuring it).  With a long tracking delay, the camera will not jump to the new subject, but will wait a period of time for the temporary object to leave.  There appears to be more to this setting that just that type of case because it also affects the responsiveness when you just drift off your intended target (even if it's still in the frame, but not on the 9 or 21 points you have configured).

The controversy in this setting is that some people believe that the longer you set this setting to, the worse focus tracking is on objects that are changing distance rapidly (come towards or away from you).  The people who believe that is a strong influence, recommend setting it to "Off" to get the best focus tracking performance.  In practice, it takes a lot of skill to successfully track an unpredictable subject like a soccer player or a darting bird in flight on 9 points so it's nice to have just a little forgiveness.   I'm getting very good results on "Short".

6) Select the "Dynamic Area AF" Area AF mode for focusing.  On the back of the D300, just to the right of the viewfinder is a level that has three options for focus area mode.  These three options are Single Area AF mode (only use one of the 51 sensors), Dynamic Area AF mode (use a group of sensors to make intelligent decisions as the subject moves) and Auto Area AF mode (the camera decides what to focus on).  I use Single Area AF mode for things like portraits or landscapes.  You know exactly what you want to focus on and it's not moving so Single Area AF mode allows you to unambiguously do that.  Dynamic Area AF mode tells the camera that you're going to acquire the subject you want on the selected focus sensor, but if the subject moves to one of the other focus sensors within your range (9 points or 21 points from the previous settings we discussed), then the camera should track it to that other focus sensor and keep focusing on it.  This is what works best for sports.  Auto Area AF mode is what point and shoot cameras do.  The camera is going to look at the scene and try to guess what you want to focus on.  I can't imagine how this could ever work consistently for sports.  When two players are in the scene, there's simply no way for the camera to know which one you want to focus on.  I use Dynamic Area AF (the middle setting) for sports.  It works well.

7) Select a "cross hatch" focus sensor as the center of your focus targeting.  The 51 focus points are not all the same.  If the camera is in the horizontal direction, then the three center columns of 5 sensors each are all "cross hatch" sensors.  These cross hatch sensors can work in two directions which makes them work better on a some subjects.   The other focus sensors are unidirectional and don't work as well on some subjects (it depends upon the geometry of the target and whether it has vertical or horizontal contrast lines in it).  Without really understanding all of this, I've found drastically different results in focus performance when using the center 15 sensors vs. the outer ones.  I shot 4 hours of hurdles in a track meet one day with the camera in the vertical orientation and the focus point purposely up two rows (which puts it on the first non-cross-hatch sensor).  My focus tracking results were horrible.  I had nearly 60% of my shots with unusable back-focus.  Switched back to the center sensor and the problem disappeared.  The outer sensors seem to work fine for less demanding tasks (such as a static subject like a portrait), but I never use them for action.  Further, I've decided that I want all the sensors around my chosen sensor (which is what I'm using in 9 point mode) to also be cross hatch.  That pretty much means I'm always using the center sensor for action.  Because I don't always want the focus target in the center of the shot, I may just shoot a little looser (zoomed out a bit more than normally required) and then fix the framing with a small crop in post processing.  An action shot that doesn't nail focus is going to trash bin so that I feel like I have to do what I have to do to nail the focus.  For action shooting, there are some benefits to including a little more of the scene outside the intended subject.  If an extremity (arm or leg) suddenly gets throw up or out from the body for balance, your shot may still have room for that without cutting it off.  Likewise, you sometimes capture other good things with the ball or another player in that extra room.

8) Set custom setting a8 "AF point selection" to "51".  The D300 has 51 focus points.  If you want to be able to select any of the 51 focus points as your central focus point, you must set this to 51.  If you set it to 11, then the 4-way button that lets you move the desired focus point skips every other sensor and moves in bigger jumps.  Because of the previous point I made about getting on a cross-hatch sensor, I want to be able to move in fine granularity, not big jumps so I always set this on "51" to let me pick any sensor.  I should add that for sports shooting, I very rarely ever change the active focus sensor.  With all the concentration required for focus activation, good tracking, anticipation of where the action is going, awareness of what is happening outside the frame and trying to trigger the shutter at just the right time, I don't find it a wise use of my brain cycles to be thinking about moving the focus sensor around.  Occasionally I will move it when there's a pause in the action and I know what's coming up next (corner kick, penalty kick, etc...) and I want to for the shot.  But, usually I just shoot a little looser, put the center sensor on the desired focus point and crop a little in post.  For good sports shots, you're going to be cropping a little in post anyway because you can't possibly frame everything perfectly.

9)  Turn VR off.  If your lens has VR, turn it off.  VR helps you stabilize an image when you are using slow shutter speeds and don't have rigid camera support.  VR does not help you keep a moving subject from being blurry.  The only way you can do that is with a faster shutter speed.  Once you have a faster shutter speed, you no longer need VR.  Further, VR has a few potential downsides:
  • It can add shutter delay.  Because the camera has to stabilize the VR system before it takes an image, it can sometimes add some shutter delay that is not helpful for capturing the exact moment you want in action photography.
  • It uses more battery.  This might or might not matter to your situation, but the VR action uses more battery power.  In a sports setting where you are frequently tracking for long periods of time, the VR will be engaged a lot more than other kinds of shooting.
  • It can degrade the bokeh in your image.  Bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus areas in your image (typically the background behind the subject in a sports setting).  Because VR works be decentering a lens element that is especially designed such that the decentering action can be used to exactly counterbalance lens shake.  When this lens is decentered, the quality of the out-of-focus areas in a shot can take on some weird artifacts.  Exactly what happens and how noticeable it is depends upon the particular lens design, what aperture you're shooting at and the relative distances of subject and background. On my 200-400 VR lens, the difference is pretty noticable.  I get weird doubling-type artifacts in the out-of-focus background areas if VR is on.  I don't get them if it's off.
10)  Shoot as tight as you can.   In point 7 above, I said to use the center sensor and don't worry if you have to crop a little to make the framing of the shot exactly what you want.  This is the corollary to that.  A focus sensor will only be able to give you the best results if the focus target is larger than the focus sensor.  If you're trying to take a picture of a player all the way across the field and the focus sensor is twice as big as the target you're trying to focus on, you can imagine how hard a job it has.  The same focus sensor is getting some reflected light from your intended target and some reflected light from your background.  It's getting mixed signals for what to focus on.  Usually, it will favor the thing you're actually aiming at, but I've see regular back-focus errors where it ends up with some sort of compromise that isn't exactly on your subject and isn't exactly on your background, but is somewhere in between.  It is common for newbies at action sports to not zoom in enough.  They take a wide shot of the field and the desired subjects are only in the very middle of the frame.  If you're taking an image of a single athlete, try to get their height to fill at least 2/3 the height of the frame.  That will get them large enough to get good data on the intended focus sensor.  Don't be afraid to take some shots with just their upper bodies.  Shots in this tight are harder to track, but can also come out really nicely.

11)  Practice and learn how to do focus tracking.  One significant skill in action shooting is learning how to acquire focus on your target and then to track focus on that target while you follow the subject waiting for the exact moment that you want to fire.  Besides developing the skill to do this, you also need to be able to do it subconsciously such that the main part of your thinking brain is thinking about framing the shot with the right zoom and aim, thinking about which moment you actually want to fire the shutter and thinking about what's going to happen next in the action.  It is initially hard to think about all these things at once.  You need to practice the focus tracking enough that it just becomes second nature.  In portrait shooting people will talk about getting the focus "on the eyes".  In action sports shooting, you aren't aiming for anything that precise.  Usually, I'm aiming for anything on the body of the person.

12)  Pick the best types of focus targets.  The focus sensors work off reflected light.  The more reflected light there is from your desired focus target that gets to the focus sensor, the better chance they have at giving accurate results.  The two main things that affect how much reflected light comes off your subject are the overall amount of light in the scene (bright day vs. late evening) and the reflectivity of the target (black soccer jersey vs. white soccer jersey).  If it's really bright out, you don't have to worry so much about this.  But, if I'm shooting in marginal lighting conditions, I may adjust what I'm aiming the focus sensor at to get it the best light.  If I'm shooting a team with black jerseys and white shorts and the overall light is low, I'm going to aim more at the shorts than the jersey even though the jersey is a bigger target.  This really makes a difference.  I regularly shoot a team that has black jerseys and my keep rate goes way down if the overall light is low and I'm only targeting the black jersey.  If the shots are any brighter go for them when the light is low.

13) Get yourself some stability.  It is way, way easier to track a moving target when you have some support for your camera/lens that you can adjust from.  Shoot for a couple hours and that support becomes even more important (your muscles will get tired).  I predominately shoot sports from a monopod.  It gives me a base of support, but still has plenty of versatility to aim anywhere I want.   As we said before, focus tracking skill and accuracy is very important to getting good results and some form of stability really helps.

14) Think carefully about your depth of field and background.  This article is about focus technique and focus settings, but one characteristic of an image that can have as much to do with the perception of sharp focus as anything is how your image is positioned in the background.  In a sports setting, it is rare to have a nice clean background.  Usually there are fans, stadium seats, fences, benches, coaches, other players, even sometimes houses and cars and powerlines in the background.  None of these complications help your image.  The cleaner a background you can get, the more likely your subject will stand out and appear sharp.  So, the first thing to consider in this regard when setting up for shooting is to try to position yourself for as clean a background as possible.  Sometimes I get lucky and one direction has a nice empty grassy hill that forms a non-complicated, non-competing background.  Sometimes, due to the logistics of lighting and where you are allowed to be, there are no good choices, but you should at least think about it and see if you can improve your situation.  A clean background will make your subject look better.

Then, think about your depth of field.  The best thing you can do with a less-than-ideal background is to make it go blurry.  A relatively sharp subject on a blurred background really, really looks nice.  In fact, you don't even have to have killer sharpness in your subject for it to look pretty sharp because the contrast in sharpness is so great.  There are two ways you can get the background to go blurry.  The most effective (it works at any aperture) is by using relative distance.  If you are close to your subject, but the background is a long ways behind your subject and you focus on your subject, the background will go blurry, even at f/8.  And, the opposite is true too.  If your background is right behind your subject (very close to it), even if you're at f/2.8, you may have trouble getting the background to blur.  I generally shoot sports around f/4 because I find that that is usually enough depth of field for my shot, but gives me some good background blur as long as I have some decent relative separation in distance.  Shooting at a larger aperture (f/2.8 - f/4) requires more focus accuracy because there's less depth of field to absorb focus errors.  But, once you've developed the technique for it, you can blur away some of the complication in the background and your subject will look sharper.

I find that shooting for a lower height (often kneeling on the ground) gives me several advantages.  To this point, because I'm shooting at a little bit of an up angle, it raises up the point in the background that's in the shot and skips over near parts of the field that would be in the shot if I was shooting down.  This is even more important with little kids where a standing position means you're angled down to shoot them, but works for all ages.  The slight up angle also sometimes lets you skip over things on the other sideline so that you get more relative distance for your background.  And, lastly when you're shooting from a lower angle, you are more likely to be able to catch their eyes and face.   Particularly in soccer, players head and eyes are often pointed downward.   A lower angle lets you see more of the face.

15) Think about how you want to trigger focus.  This is a more advanced topic and is not required for getting good results.  I include it here for completeness and because it's an additional focusing option that I like to use.   On the D300, you have three main options for trigger the start of continuous focus:
  • A half press of the shutter.
  • The AF-ON button
  • The AE-L/AF-L button.
By default, the camera comes set up for a half press of the shutter trigger continuous focus to start so that's what most people do.  If that feels comfortable to you and you like it, there is nothing wrong with doing it that way.  You will not get better focus accuracy by doing it any other way.  There are, however, some other options.  I won't talk about athe AE-L/AF-L option just because I haven't studied it, but I do really like the AF-ON option.

To use the AF-ON option, you tell the camera that focus is triggered ONLY by the AF-ON button.  A half press of the shutter does not trigger focus.  While this creates a little bit more to think about (you have to press a different button to start focusing) and it takes several days of shooting for it to become completely natural and automatic, it has some significant advantages.  As you will recall, item 1) above is to set the camera to continuous focus (AF-C).  That means that once you activate auto-focus, the camera continues to focus until you stop activating auto-focus.   That means that you can't really acquire focus, reframe, then shoot.  When you reframe, the continuous focus will keep changing focus and you won't be able to keep the focus on the original target.  But, there are times in sports shooting when you'd like to pre-focus on a particular spot, frame your shot and then just fire the shutter at the right moment.  In soccer, I want this behavior at a couple different situations in the game.  For example, if I'm trying to get a shot of a player making a corner kick, I'd like to pre-focus on the ball placed on the ground and then be able to just fire three frames as they come through on the kick.  If I'm trying to shoot the goal area during a corner kick (expecting the ball to come through the air near the goal with lots of players up in the air), I like to prefocus on the goalie and then just fire off shots as I see the ball come into the frame.  So, if you're using continuous focus and have a half-press of the shutter activating focus, you just can't do this without switching your lens to manual focus or switching to the AF-S focus mode and then immediately switching back for the next part of the action.

The answer is to stay with AF-C (continuous focus) but move the focus activation off the shutter button and onto the AF-ON button.  For regular focus tracking of a moving player, you simply press and hold the AF-ON button.  Point the center sensor at your target, press and hold the AF-ON button to activate focus tracking, track your subject, the press the shutter when you want to take the shot.  So far, it's not a lot different except there's another button involved.  Now, imagine the corner kick scenario from above.  You point the center sensor at the static soccer ball on the ground where the corner kick is going to be.  You press the AF-ON button until it focuses on the ball, then you release it.  You are now pre-focused on the soccer ball.  Because you released the AF-ON button, the camera is no longer continuously focusing.  You can now follow the player with whatever framing you want for the shot and just fire the shutter at will.  The lens will stay focused at the distance of the ball.  Anytime you want to start focusing again, you just press and hold the AF-ON button again.

In a nutshell, you get to switch between AF-C continuous focusing and AF-S static focusing without changing any settings on the camera, but merely by how you press and hold the AF-ON button (continuous focus) or press and release it (static focusing).  It gives you the best of both worlds.  In fact, I now use AF-ON focusing for all types of shooting.  It works great for macro shooting to.  I can press the AF-ON button to do initial focus, then release it, then decide if I want to do any fine tune on the focus by turning the lens barrel.  In that case, I'm getting a combination of static focusing and manual focusing again without changing any camera settings.  For spontaneous portrait work, I aim at the eyes, press and release the AF-ON button to acquire focus on the eyes, then reframe for the portrait and shoot.

To set your camera up for AF-ON focusing, you set a5 "AF activation" to AF-ON only.  As we already suggested above, a1 "AF-C priority selection" must be set to "Release" because otherwise, it won't fire if your focus sensor isn't currently focused on the target because you pre-focused and reframed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why I use Smugmug for Displaying Photos Online

This slideshow of animals from Kenya is hosted on my Smugmug account

Nowadays there are many online choices for hosting and sharing your photos online.   No two services are the same so it's not particularly easy to compare all of them.  I've been with Smugmug now for 5+ years and am often asked why I chose or use Smugmug.  Here's a quick article on why I use Smugmug and also some things to think about if you're choosing a photo service.

To start out, I made a mental list of things I wanted in a photo service.  On that list were these:

  • No ads of any kind.  This pretty much rules out the free services (because they use ads to pay for the service), but that is fine with me.
  • Beautiful online presentation of my photos.  This is the point after all.  This should include gallery styles that work optimally on both small screens and large screens since both are prevalent now.  That means that I want it to work pretty well in a small mobile browser and great on both a 14" laptop screen and a 30" screen.
  • Unlimited storage.  Unlimited bandwidth.  I'd rather be able to put up anything I want and leave it up for eternity without worrying about charges for excess storage or bandwidth or having to manage to some limit and I want to be able to upload my high resolution originals without having to downres them or make them smaller.
  • Reasonable annual fee.  I'm willing to pay, but it should be reasonable.
  • Good, reliable uploaders that are convenient to use.  If I'm going to be putting lots of photos up, that process out to be easy and reliable.   I want to upload my originals and have the service automatically create the web display versions from it.
  • Has a decent reputation for online stability and up-time and runs an infrastructure that's built for fault tolerance.  This isn't always the easiest thing to figure out.  You have to either ask someone who's been a customer for awhile or do a bunch of searching through various online discussion forums to find this out.  Fault tolerance can really only be seen by either great uptime or by understanding what kinds of issues they've had.
  • I can share originals for family/friends (if I want to) to download to their own digital albums or make their own prints.  Services that make most of their money by selling prints often don't let you share originals because it lowers print sales.   Services that make their money off subscription fees are fine with letting you share photo originals.
  • Family/friends can order prints at a reasonable price.  Probably not as cheap as prints at Costco, but still fair prices.  They should have some sort of guarantee on the quality of the prints because they can get damaged in shipping or come out too dark or come out with a color cast if something isn't done quite right.
  • Supports public galleries, password protected galleries and private galleries.  I don't want everything I share to be wide open to the internet so I want some access options.
  • Has an option for customizing the look of the site.  This is really up to you.  I like to tinker with the look of my site and make mine look different than the tens of thousands of standard sites.  Some sites don't offer customization.  Some sites offer only pre-built templates.  Others let you also tinker with your own HTML/CSS to really make your own look.
  • The company seems profitable and stable, likely to be around for a long time and not likely to be bought up by a larger company anytime soon.  The last thing you want to do is get everything all set up on a site, get your friends and family familiar with where it is and find out they are going out of business or changing their business model.
  • Good online support.  When you have questions, you need answers.  Lots of web companies claim to have a support organization.  You need to know if the one you're considering really works.
  • Appropriate security for my images.  If I don't want people to be able to get access to my originals or be able to download a large enough version of an image to make an 8x10 print from, then I'd like to be able to protect the larger sizes of my images.   This can be done with watermarking or by limiting the max viewable size.
  • There's a community to help you with customization.  If you're going to be doing customization, you will want help at some point.
  • Allows external linking without attribution.   I regularly post in online forums and want to be able to link to my own photos.  Some services do not allow this (often the ad-supported services).  I wanted to make sure this was allowed.
  • Try it before you buy.  Most online services now have the ability to try before you buy (14-day trial period).  You really ought to upload at least a gallery's worth of images to see what the upload process is like and see what your own images look like online.  Obviously, you won't want to do this with lots of services at once, but if you've narrowed it down to one or two, give them a try before deciding.
  • They support color management.  You may not know what this is, but it is the only way for a viewer with a color-calibrated system to view your images with accurate color in the best and latest browsers.
And, then some other things that might not be universally interesting, but mattered to me:

  • Option to have your own domain.
  • Ability to sell prints of digital downloads for a profit.  I'm not doing this yet, but I'd like to go with a service that would give me that option.
  • Ability to see statistics on what images are being looked at and when.
  • An uploader that lets me upload 1000 images across 30 galleries in one unattended session overnight.  This is what I do when I upload images for a whole soccer or softball season.
  • Service has a public API that I could use if I wanted to do special things with it.

So, Here's How Smugmug Measures Up

  • They never put ads on your pages.
  • They have four main different views for your images and all of them scale to fit your screen automatically.  You really should see them on a 30" screen.  These include the Smugmug view (thumbs and a main image), Thumbnail view (all thumbs that you click to open), Journal view (a scrolling list of large images) and a Slideshow view (images play automatically one after another).
  • Unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth.  Smugmug has this.  Just to make sure you believe this, I have more than 34,000 photos (88GB) online with Smugmug in two accounts.  I pay nothing extra for that privilege.
  • Smugmug has three account levels (standard: $39.95/yr, power: $59.95/yr, pro: $149.95).  All the differences are described here, but in a nutshell power lets you customize your site with your own CSS/HTML or have your own domain while pro lets you sell photos for a profit.  Currently, you have to use a credit card to pay for service.
  • Smugmug has many different uploader choices.  Because they have a public API, there are many third party choices including uploaders that integrate into Windows or integrate into Picasa or Lightroom.  I personally use an uploader that you have to buy called Star Explorer because it's really robust and lets me upload across many galleries at once in one unattended session (a feature that isn't easy to find elsewhere).  Their standard default uploader works well and is fast.  It doesn't have as many features as some of the others, but you should certainly give it a try in your trial period.
  • Smugmug is architected for fault tolerance.  They store a copy of your image in three different data centers.  This doesn't mean they don't occasionally have downtime.  They do.  Usually, it is planned (in advance) maintenance (often on Thursday nights), but sometimes it's not planned.  I'd probably give Smugmug a "B" on this one.  They were really solid for quite awhile and then I think their subscribers grew a little faster than they planned and it caught them off guard for a couple months until they could beef up the infrastructure.  Even then, it wasn't bad ( an occasional few hours of downtime).  It's been solid again lately.  They seem to have the right people to do this right and aren't afraid to spend money to do it right.
  • When you upload a full resolution original, you get the choice of allowing viewers access to that (so they can download it to make their own prints or add to their own digital album) or you can decide that you don't want to share the originals and viewers can only have access to web-viewable versions of the image.  You can make this setting on a gallery by gallery basis.
  • For the standard and power accounts, Smugmug uses the EzPrints lab for prints and prints are shipped directly to whomever ordered them.  They have a 100% satisfaction guarantee on the prints.   If you don't think they came out right, you just email them on their support line and tell them what isn't right.  They will look at the order, fix whatever needs fixing and ship you off a new set of prints - no questions asked even if the problem was caused by the photographer not by them.  For the pro accounts, they also support another print lab (Bay Photo) that offers the option of hand correcting on each photo before printing.  This is particularly valuable for event photographers (weddings or sports) that shoot and post a lot of images and can't take the time to hand correct every one of them.
  • Smugmug has what you would expect for access options.  You can have public galleries open to all.  You have assign a password either to your whole site or to an individual gallery.  And, you can have what they call "unlisted" galleries.  These are galleries that don't require a password, but they aren't browseable from your homepage so nobody will find them unless you give them the direct link to them.  In addition, Smugmug also offers options to control searching so you can control whether Google (and other search engines) will index any given gallery or not.  There are apparently folks who want their galleries to be public so the family has easy access, but don't want their galleries showing up in Google searches.
  • At the power or pro account level, you can do a lot of customization of your site.  At the simplest level, you can replace the standard Smugmug header and footer with your own.  With more advanced techniques, you can create your own gallery themes or customize just about any colors, fonts, borders, etc...  There's a whole gallery of a bunch of different sites people have done to give you an idea of the level that things can be customized.  Advanced customization requires knowledge of HTML and CSS though there are lots of cookie cutter things on the forums that people can start with.
  • Smugmug was cash-flow positive from their very early days.  They are a privately held company so they don't divulge their financials, but they do say that they are successfully funding the company growth through retained earnings (kind of like profit) which means they are solid financially.  They started as a family run business, though they've grown to have many folks outside the original family.  Many of the principles have made good money in previous startup companies and that's how they funded the starting of Smugmug.
  • It would be hard to find a company that has a better online support staff and better responsiveness.  There's a set of online forums where the community helps answer questions and there's an email hotline for direct help questions that is staffed 24 hrs a day.  People are regularly surprised at the level of support received.  More than half the company's employees work in support and most (or perhaps all) were originally Smugmug customers how are passionate about photography.  The guy who runs the support organization is himself a pro photographer.
  • If I have images that I don't want to share originals, I can control (on a gallery by gallery basis) what the maximum image size is that I allow to be shared on the web.  And, in a pro account you can even put a custom transparent watermark on the image (the best protection available).
  • The same community forums that you can use for general support questions also have a section for people who want help with site customization.  It's an invaluable place to go.  I've never seen any place like it on the web where very sharp people will regularly help you design and customize your site for free.  There are several lists of cut/paste customizations that others have done before too that you can start with.
  • Smugmug allows you to do external linking so you can post images elsewhere on the web that are hosted on Smugmug and referred to by direct links.  This lets me post images on sites like dpreview that don't have their own image hosting.
  • Smugmug has a 14-day free trial.  Give it a whirl yourself before paying.  Last I checked they had something like a 90% retention rate on free trials.  That is nearly unheard of and clearly means most people like what they find when they try it.
  • Smugmug has been following the latest trends in color management.  When Safari and Firefox first started supporting color management on images, Smugmug added support themselves so that the colorspace of the image is now present on all web sizes of the images.  This allows color-aware browsers like Safari and Firefox to display the most accurate image colors on computers that are color calibrated.  If you're a photographer and you go to great pains to get the color right in your image, you want the best chance that those colors are going to show properly on someone else's color calibrated system.

So, that's basically it for Smugmug.  There are lots more features that I don't use much (like support for HD video right in your galleries along with your photos), but these are the ones that I thought were the most important.

I have not done an exhaustive review of all the other choices available, but I will share a few comments on some that I know about.  Flickr is the largest.  It has a free version and a pay version.  What Flickr really has going for it is its social system where people post images and others comment on them.  If that's your main goal for posting images, Flickr might be the best choice.  It also has a really good keywording system for photostreams.  I don't personally like the way the galleries work on Flickr and don't see all the advanced options for customization.

Zenfolio is probably the other option that is the most like Smugmug.  They are a couple years younger than Smugmug, but seem to have found a growing constituency.  They have nice looking galleries (much nicer than Flickr) though I still think Smugmug's work better.  They've generally been a little behind Smugmug in some of the more advanced features, but have been catching up lately.  If you really want to try out another option, it's worth giving them a look.

If you something that's free and fast and don't care all that much about fancy looking galleries, it's worth looking at Picasa by Google.   I know their features that well, but they seem to follow the classic Google style - get the basic features right and keep it clean and relatively simple (and don't try to make it look fancy).  The Picasa web albums are also integrated right into the Picasa photo editor which is actually quite good.  I personally use Adobe Lightroom, but I set my wife up with the Picasa photo manager/editor because it's one of the best for doing simple photo edits.

To learn more about Smugmug, you can see an overview of Smugmug's main features or a list of what's available at each account level.

Oh, one more thing.  Smugmug has a referral system where people signing up for new accounts can get a discount on their first year and people who already have accounts can get credits towards their next annual renewal fee when they refer new customers.  If you want to sign up for Smugmug, you can get a $5 discount by using my referral code.  You can either enter the code 3elo1xh75JSiI into their sign-up screen (paste it in the box when prompted to) or you can just start your sign-up by clicking on this link and it will be added for you automatically.  You can do this on your free trial too.  And then, of course, once you have an account, you can accrue some referral bonuses yourself.  I've referred so many people to Smugmug that I haven't yet paid a renewal fee myself on either one of my accounts so it works.

For a full window slideshow (on my Smugmug site) of our trip to Kenya, just go to my Smugmug homepage and make your browser window as large as you can.  Enjoy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Upgrading Your Personal Email

Are your personal communication tools not as good as what you have at work? Are you on your own now and don't have access to the same tools as people do at work? Are you a smart-phone user and want access to your personal communication tools in addition to your work tools? Are you a longtime Outlook user and just tired of how poorly it's written and how little it advances every year. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, read-on. You can assemble a pretty darn good personal communication suite that's server-based, works well with access from multiple computers and works well when mobile on a smart-phone.

I'll start with the punchline. This is what I use (I'll go into detail on each piece later):
Using this toolset, I can have multiple computers (desktop and laptop) and a smartphone (most likely an Android phone) all looking at exactly the same data. I can also see everything from any computer on the web. I set it up once and everything is automatic after that. The total cost is $39.95/yr (for fastmail) + $39.95 one time (for Postbox) + whatever your domain costs you.

Here's some more info about each piece.


It's a derivative of the open source Mozilla Thunderbird and founded by one of the long time engineers on Thunderbird (a really smart guy that I originally hired out of MIT a long time ago at Netscape). You can read more about the PostBox folks here and also visit their main site.

Postbox has a lot of capabilities beyond Thunderbird, but the #1 killer thing for me is that everything is completely indexed. Just type a piece of text and anywhere it exists in Postbox up it comes. Searches can be without context or can be directed to find text in a particular field of email). Beyond that it has the best conversation view I've ever used which can help a lot when you've got a lot of email. Unlike Thunderbird, it isn't free, but it doesn't cost much either and I find it more than worth it, particularly when it's paired with the other tools in the set.

You can find a more comprehensive list of features here. (great IMAP)

I've been a long time IMAP user. The benefits of server-based email are obvious to anyone who accesses their mail from multiple places. But, nowadays you need a lot more than just plain IMAP. I've had previous IMAP providers that were very poor compared to When I started with, Google didn't have IMAP. Google is a more interesting option now that's it's free and has IMAP, but they still don't have everything you will see below. These are the kinds of features I use at Fastmail:
  • A large amount of storage (fastmail gives you 6GB of space in their enhanced package that I use). The whole deal about server-based storage starts to break down if you run out of storage and have to start archiving your email somewhere. As soon as you do that, you can no longer get to your stuff from anywhere. You need lots of online space. Fastmail also has a nice feature that you can set certain folders to "age" away after an email gets to be a certain age. This works great for implementing a document retention policy or for just cleaning up your trash folder regularly or for folders where I have mailing lists sent to as they just automatically age away old emails in 90 days - never any manual cleanup required.
  • Server-side filter rules. If all your mail filters aren't on the server, then they don't work everywhere. Fastmail has a rich server-side set of rules. You can either define rules in their web interface or you can even geek out and define your own logic in SIEVE which gives you limitless logic possibilities for rules. You can base a rule on any RFC 822 header field. Compared to Outlook, here's where it's nice that you have full access to everything that internet mail has and knows about.
  • Great anti-spam. There's nothing more frustrated than being so inundated by SPAM that email is just frustrating to use. You crank up the protection and then you start losing important emails. I honestly don't know how fastmail does their anti-spam, but it is simply amazing and it really works. I went from hundreds of undesired spam emails a day to one or two a week and I've had no reports of a missed email from a false positive in the last year. I know that their server blocks lots of attacks before they get to your mailbox by blocking many techniques that spammers use. If you want to make it even better, you can train it with Bayesian techniques by just giving it a bunch of samples of good mail and bad mail. It also has white lists and black lists, but honestly I don't use that stuff. What they have just works. By comparison my gmail email account (which I don't even use of give out the address to anyone) gets multiple SPAM mails every single day.
  • Web Access. has a pretty decent web access. I don't use it regularly and it's not meant to compete with gmail for web features, but if you need access to your mail from the web, it works.
  • My own domain. has lots of different options for using your own domain.
  • Multiple mailboxes. I use an anti-spam technique where I give a different mailbox address to every single web-site on the web that I use (facebook at, linkedin at, smugmug at, for example). lets me send these all to the same mailbox or designate some of them as separate mailboxes. This way, if I start getting a bunch of SPAM from somewhere, I can see who gave out my email address, I can change my email address on that site (if I want to stay a member with them) and I can then block all the email from that address forever. You'd be surprised to see who sells your email address. It's really pathetic. Those of you who know me know I love to play golf. As such, I use some of the online golf reservation systems. These guys are terrible. They either have horrible security and get broken into or they sell your email address all the time. Fortunately, I can just kill a SPAM email address in a minute or so and never get another bad email on an email address that got away to the spammers.
  • Good, rock solid IMAP. Oh yeah, the big one is rock solid IMAP. Fast, reliable, secure (runs over SSL), hierarchical folders, etc... This may seem like a no-brainer, but I've seen some bad reliability on the service I used before this one. I have literally never seen an IMAP outage with
  • Good, rock solid SMTP. Let's me do what I need to do (including sending from all my various email aliases). Authenticated SMTP, ability to send large files, works over SSL, etc...
  • Allows good sized attachments (sending and receiving). allows attachments up to 50MB in size. I've lately been sending around a lot of legal documents (doing work for lawyers, not in trouble with the law) and it's really nice to be able to just attach and send and not wonder if you're bumping into the 2MB attachment file size limit that many systems have.

Lightning for Calendar

If you install the Lightning add-in for Postbox, you get a decent individual calendar inside of Postbox. If you further add the Google Calendar plug-in, you can keep your calendar on Google (as a server-based calendar), but access it through Postbox. Just configure multiple copies of Postbox on different computers to point at the same calendar and you now have the same calendar view everywhere. You can also use the web access to Google calendar at anytime to see/modify your calendar from a browser. In a nice twist with Google calendar, you can also specify one or more users that you can share your calendar with (like my wife or an assistant, for example). You can designate them separate access without giving them your Google login. And, now that your calendar is on Google, you can of course synchronize a range of phones with Google. Google supports ActiveSync for contacts, calendar and email so any phone that supports ActiveSync can sync with Google (that's a lot of phones - all Windows Mobile phones, iPhone, many Nokia phones and Pre for example). And, of course, all Android phones can sync with Google. This is by far the richest mobile support you get anywhere.

Zindus for Contact Sync

Zindus is a another plug-in for Postbox and it gives you contact sync with Google Contacts. While I don't use Google Contacts directly, what this lets me do is to sync multiple computers of Postbox with the same set of contacts. And, in a pinch, my contacts are available online if I need to look something up.

Zindus works great, but it is a bit in it's infancy. It will currently only sync one address book so if you use multiple address books, it is a bit compromised in that regard. It also doesn't handle distribution lists in Postbox yet. Apparently there is some design flux in the how the APIs access distribution lists and that has kept Zindus from getting this done. There also isn't a perfect match between the address book fields in Postbox and Google Contacts, but all the basics that I use are there. Here's the FAQ on syncing the two. I had to tweak a few things to make it work well, but after that it's been trouble free. To handle the few distribution lists that I use regularly, I put them into Google groups so they are now true mailing lists (and thus they work everywhere).

Virtual Identity

One of the ways I manage SPAM is by using lots of disposable email addresses. Since I have my own domain, I can configure to go to the same mailbox. Then when I sign up for a new web-site (let's say it's and I have to supply a working email address in order to register, I just give it the email address of Now that web-site has a unique email address. If I suddenly start getting a bunch of new SPAM, I can see exactly what email address the SPAM came from and I can kill that email address if I want. So, what does all this have to do with the virtual identity plug-in that this section is supposed to be about?

Well, the virtual identity plug-in for Postbox makes it easy to reply to a disposable email address using the same "From" address that the email was addressed to. So, if I am using a disposable email address in an online forum and someone sends me an individual correspondence, it will come into that disposable email address. If I then want to reply to that individual, I don't want to reveal my real email address, I want to keep using the disposable email address. Microsoft Outlook plain can't do this. Thunderbird or Postbox can do it by themselves only if you set up an identity for each disposable email address. Since I use hundreds of these, that is kind of a pain. This is where Virtual Identity comes in. By default, every reply is sent From the same address that it came in to. So, if the email comes in from and I reply to that email, it will be sent out as From: It's not quite as simple as that because the plug-in doesn't always know which address it should use, but when composing the reply, you can simply set which identity to use as the From address at any time. All-in-all, it makes using disposable email addresses just work.


OK, now you want all of this functionality to be mobile on your favorite smart-phone. Only two years ago, this was basically not possible. Now, you can do a pretty darn nice job. Email is on a first-grade IMAP server. Lots of smart-phones support IMAP. That gets you you email. And, because it's server-side storage, when you read an email or delete an email or file an email, it all happens on the server so all your other views of your email will reflect the change automatically.

Contacts and Calendar are on Google and they can be synced with just about any smartphone these days. Google supports Microsoft ActiveSync so any phone that supports ActiveSync can sync with Google (that includes all Windows Mobile phones and iPhone). All Android phones come with built-in support for syncing with Google. There are other phones and sync options listed on the site above. Getting my contacts synced to the phone is a big deal to me.

And, all this syncing is over-the-air so you never have to plug your phone into your PC to do any sort of USB sync. I don't currently have an Android phone, but I am thinking about the upcoming Droid phone from Motorola on Verizon as it's about iPhone size, has full slideout keyboard and has the latest release of Android on it and could do all this.