Every picture may tell a story, but there are stories behind the pictures too, ones that could have led to a very different set of pictures. Simply put, we could have ended up returning from Venice without most of those nice photos.
The constraints of memory
A week before we left for Venice, we decided to buy a new digital camera. We already had a pocket-sized digital camera, and our earlier plan was to carry it in addition to our bigger SLR camera that used film. Then, after discussing the pros and cons of upgrading our SLR to a digital one (with which we could still use the lenses of the old SLR), we decided to go ahead.
So with three days to go, we bought the Canon Digital Rebel.
Digital cameras come with a price (apart from being pricey in the empty-your-pocket kind of way): you need to be equipped with enough storage capacity to last the length of your stay. Our usual strategy with the older digital camera was to carry our laptop on long trips, and upload photos to the laptop before emptying the memory card for a fresh round of photos. This time, as our luck would have it, the new camera’s software refused to work with the laptop (it worked with our desktop, however). We had purchased a memory card that could carry around 150 photos, which, by our estimates, was not enough for even two days at Venice.
So on the day of the trip, a few hours before we left, we bought a compact hard-drive into which we could insert our memory card and store our photos. It was a flimsy looking device with an LCD display that indicated the file transfer from card to hard-drive. The transfer of files from this hard-drive to our computer could not be tested – we had no time on our hands – so when we left we were feeling rather uneasy about our decision to go completely digital so late. What if the photos we transfer to this hard-drive cannot be retrieved?
I decided on a backup strategy: at the end of each day we would transfer all photos from the memory card into the hard drive, but instead of emptying the memory card we would retain the best photos in the card and delete the rest. This would leave us, at the end of the trip, with at least 150 good photographs (which was the capacity of the card), even if the hard drive refused to work when we got back.
The idea sounded reasonable, but it had some interesting consequences. At the end of the first day, I deleted all but 25 photos. After day two, I had 50 “good” photos preserved in the card. Now that meant on day three there was space to take only 100 more photos! We exhausted the limit before day three ended, so I had to fish out the hard drive in the middle of a bridge, transfer from the card to the hard-drive, and then clean up the not-so-good ones from the card before we could go ahead and take more photographs.
As the days went by, I had to be more ruthless in deleting as many as possible and retain only the “masterpieces” (relative to the other ordinary ones). I also had to stop more and more often to perform the transfer-and-delete operation.
The deletion was not always easy – amongst the photos were many taken by my wife. I had to be objective, of course, but since different people have different notions of beauty there was a good chance that what I found a candidate for deletion was thought to be otherwise by my wife. Fortunately, she let me do as I wanted.
The last day left us with space for only around 25 photos. We spent a lot of time that day simply absorbing things around us without worrying about the best possible angle to capture something.
In the end the strategy turned out unnecessary – the hard-drive worked well and we were able to retrieve all of the 700 odd photos we took in Venice. And some of the ones I had deleted turned out better than the ones I had retained. “So much for your objectivity and aesthetic sense”, I almost heard my wife saying.
The auto power-off mystery
Very early on our trip, I noticed a strange behaviour of our new digital camera: every now and then the camera would shut its power off on its own.
My first guess was that it had something to do with the auto power-off setting, which could be set at different intervals (or even switched off completely). I verified the setting – it was at a comfortable two minutes, which was fine with me. I let it be.
Along the drive to Venice, when my wife was at the steering wheel, I would try to capture elements of the surrounding scenery whenever possible. On a few occasions, during the short window of time where I had to click, I found the camera off. I was almost sure there hadn’t been a gap of two minutes since the time I used it last.
After a while this got a little frustrating; I decided to probe further. It was clear that the auto power-off was not functioning normally. Further, I had noticed another curious aspect: once in a while the camera would switch on automatically, as if the power-off was a temporary phase. Was there a pattern in this strange behaviour?
There seemed to be a pattern, I thought. The interval between the camera switching itself off and then coming on automatically seemed to coincide with the auto power-off interval that was set. I decided to verify this: I set the auto power-off interval to four minutes, and waited for it to switch itself off. That happened soon, and I noted the time on my watch. Then, four minutes later I lifted the camera to check if it had come on, and as I had expected, it switched on before my eyes! I tested this behaviour again by setting the interval to two minutes, and the pattern repeated itself.
I told my wife we had received a freaky piece of equipment, with an inverted power-off logic programmed into it. She didn’t believe me; she thought I hadn’t learned how to use the camera.
After we switched driving-seats she tried it and fared no better – the camera went off and came on irregularly (and I allowed myself a short laugh). But even my hypothesis about the inverted logic failed when she tested it – there seemed to be no correlation between the setting and the time intervals with which the camera went off and came on.
Initial frustration slowly turned to resignation; we decided to make do with whatever photos we could capture when the power was on.
It was during lunch on the first day at Venice that I decided to take a closer look at the troubleshooting section of our camera manual. (The first attempt had revealed nothing more than some description about the auto power-off setting, but I wanted to check again). It was a bit of a struggle deciphering the contents of the German instruction manual, but after a while I came upon a point that seemed promising: check whether the battery compartment has been shut properly, it suggested.
I turned the camera over and gave the cover of the battery compartment a gentle push. There was a small click. My heart almost leaped.
The loose battery compartment cover turned out to be the cause behind all the unpredictable off and on behaviour. It also explained why my initial tests surrounding my theory had worked: after the time interval I had set passed and I lifted the camera to check if it had automatically come on, I probably put enough pressure on the battery compartment lid to ensure an electrical contact that resulted in the camera receiving power from the battery. If you are looking for something, chances are good you’ll find it.
The episode reminded me of what I sometimes hear at my workplace, when developers are irritated by customers who report trivial issues: always read the f***ing manual!