Thursday, December 03, 2009

It's not "IF", it's "WHEN"

Did you miss me? It's been a while since I posted, but as you might have guessed from the title, I suffered a computer crash. My other excuses involve some medical issues and some work stuff that's kept me busy for the past couple of weeks. So not only haven't I posted anything, I've hardly pushed a shuitter release in the last month. I do have a couple of things to talk about and show you, though.

So in today's post, I'll talk about being prepared for that big day when your computer crashes, share some new purchases with you and show you a few images. Fair enough? Let's get going!

When your computer crashes.
As I said above, it is inevitable. Your computer is going to crash. Everybody pretends it only happens to someone else, never to you, but ignoring the fact that it WILL crash isn't smart. You have to be prepared.

I lost zero data. None. But then the computer that I use most of the time wasn't the one that crashed, it was my old desktop. I brought it up North about a month ago. The other day I walked into my computer room (OK, my third bedroom/office) and booted the machine, or tried to, because my scanner was hooked up to it. "Blue Screen of Death". Then nothing: "please insert a boot disk...". The hard drive was toast. My computer guy (Bob, the Greek Geek. He's really good: contact him or check out his website and be sure to tell him I sent you!) had a look at it and told me it wasn't worth fixing. Hardware + labour > new. Besides, it was an old P4 system and not worth it.

So I bought a new machine. The best deal I found was an HP bundle at Costco: a quad core system with 8Gb of RAM, a 750Gb hard drive, a 25" high resolution monitor and Windows 7, all for under $1000.

Now even though I didn't lose any data, I've spent the better part of 40 hours getting this thing up to speed. Configuring it (thanks, Jim — I don't what I would have done without your help!), installing basic software, then physically installing it up North. I discovered that my wireless stick won't work, so I can't get it online until I hit Tiger Direct and get another one tomorrow, and my attempt at networking it with my laptop using my old router was fruitless. Windows 7 seems to work OK, but I haven't spent enough time learning how to take advantage of some of the new stuff. I will eventually.

Imagine how much more painful this would have been if I had lost data. Imagine yourself losing your computer. What about your emails? How about your address book? All your passwords and accounts and favourites. Your accounting and banking information. Your documents. Your photos... are you backed up?

I don't have the world's best backup system. Far from it. But what I do have, saved my bacon. So I'm going to suggest you might want to consider doing something similar. There are two parts to the backup, the data and the programs. I did not have the programs backed up and to tell you the truth, I don't really know how. I know it can be done: people talk about "ghosting" a drive or creating a system backup. I ran one yesterday on my laptop (a system backup). It took almost 12 hours to do, but it worked away in the background while I did other stuff.. I tried to do the new system too, creating a set of System recovery DVD's, but my DVD drive doesn't like my disks, apparently (it works, though -- I did copy some data onto a DVD). So I would have saved several dozen hours if I had done a system backup on the other machine — not really, though because who needs to save old Photoshop CS2, or my XP operating system? Or Office 2003?

Anyway, let's talk about something easier: backing up your data. First thing you need is something to back it up onto. DVD's are not OK. They degrade with time and are not totally reliable anyway. What you need is an external hard drive (Jim, I know, not good enough for those who use DROBO systems and multiple redundant backups, but I'm talking to folks like me who don't really have those extreme needs). Here's the drive I have: go buy yourself one for Christmas. It's only $109 at B&H. It's a Western Digital MyBook USB drive and it holds 1Tb (that's 1000 Gb!) of data. Click here to see the specs and you can order it at B&H, probably the most reliable place to buy stuff.

How do you do the backup? Couldn't be easier. Plug the drive into a USB port on your computer, and into power, then drag your entire "My Documents" folder onto it. Be careful not to just drag the shortcut, you need the whole folder. Open it, then back up a level to see the folder itself. My 'Documents' folder is almost 3Gb in size. That's only 0.3% of that 1Tb drive! Once it's there, rename it so that you know what date it was. Next time you do a backup, keep this one and give the new backup a fresh name. Because you have such a nice big backup drive, you don't need to delete it, but I generally delete the third one back, just to keep things clean.

Not finished. If you have Vista or Windows 7, your pictures are not in this folder! You need to do the same thing with your pictures folder. Am I making any sense? Here comes the hard part: your address book and your emails! They are likely not in the Documents folder. You need to open your email client (I use Outlook  2007, for instance) and locate where the data is stored. In Outlook, click on Data File management under the File tab, and it should tell you where the files are. Mine is at C:\Users\faczen\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook. Or you could just search for *.pst. Once you find it, drag a copy (Outlook has to be closed) to your backup drive. Do the same thing with your "Favourites" list in your web browser. Now you're done.

So if your computer crashes, and you fix it or get a new one, you can plug the external drive in and copy all that stuff back into the machine. How often you do a backup is up to you: I do a full backup every month, plus I keep critical stuff in other places, like my active database and my QuickBooks files. I copy those every night to a USB flash drive and often to my backup drive and other computer. I'd be dead in the water without this data.

OK, I've rambled on enough about doing backups. You know you have to. If you haven't done one recently, stop reading this and get going. You'll be sorry if you don't, when (not if) your computer crashes.

I bought a Kenko Telextender.
Against my better judgement. I really wanted the Nikon TC-17e which is a 1.7x extender, but they're over $400. The jury is still out about the Kenko one. It's a 2x extender and yes, autofocusing works on my 70-200 lens. It does help you reach out and touch stuff, but I'm not convinced it's terribly sharp. I'll do some more testing, but here's a shot that shows what it does:

This paddle was over 100m away. This is the full frame image, cropped only slightly, reduced in size to make it manageable to post here. It was shot at 1/2000 second, f/11, ISO =800. On a tripod.

Here's another shot, comparing images with- and without the extender.

The main picture was taken without the extender, lens zoomed to 200mm. ISO=800, exposure = f/5.6 @ 1/2500 sec. The inset on the right is blown up out of this image. The inset on the left comes from the same shot taken with the 400mm (200mm x 2) at exactly the same settings.

There is a clear quality difference between the two shots: by virtue of the fact that the crop was bigger on the 400mm image. Not a great test, but it shows that there is a place for this converter in my camera bag. It was quite inexpensive, roughly 1/4 the price of the Nikon. BTW, I can't shoot pictures with this thing worth a damn without a tripod.

I'll take some more comparison shots later. There weren't any birds around today to shoot!

If you want to see and/or buy these telextenders, click here:
I promised you some images
Well I have two groups of photos to show you today.First, I got interested in shooting star trails. I set the camera up at about 1am and left the shutter open for a good hour, plus.

The top image is the original. The others are the same shot, manipulated a bit. The exposure was 3816 seconds (63 minutes) at f/8, ISO 400. Lens was my 24-120, set at 24mm.

These two images are "as shot" and with some extra noise reduction. Exposure was 4209 seconds (70 minutes) at f/10, ISO=200. For noise reduction, I used the "median" filter at a moderate level (9 px) on a new layer. I changed the blend mode to 'overlay' and reduced the opacity of the layer to about half, then used curves to bring the brightness back. Note the softness in the tree branches.

The D300 has some amazing noise reduction algorithms built in. I just found out how it works: the camera creates a second image with exactly the same duration as the original -- so this shot actually took almost 3 hours before i could see it. It mixes the two images together, subtracting any noise generated by the sensor. The colour of the image is a mystery. There's no light pollution in the direction I shot, so I don't really understand why the image is yellow. Someone suggested it's a white balance issue. The camera was on auto WB, and it selected a colour temperature of 4150K.

Here's another neat shot

 Exposure was 4915 seconds (82 minutes) at f/10, ISO=200

Here's another kind of star shot. It's Orion's Belt. This was shot at f/1.8 using my 50mm prime lens,
for 10 seconds at ISO=1600.

Let me leave you with a couple of family images. There's one of Maria, my daughter-in-law and one of my mother, both with my new granddaughter Leah. I selectively reduced the clarity slider on my mom's face, but otherwise, the pictures are pretty well as shot!



  1. Crashes, fun fun.


    "Ghost"ing is only useful for rebuilding with the same (or very similar) hardware. e.g. instead of buying a new computer, you replaced the drive in the old one. There, ghosting is very handy.

    For recoveries / upgrades like you did, you have to reinstall the programs. There are so many driver differences and such that you really want your Operating System installed clean; you otherwise will be removing/replacing/updating drivers, and that just introduces more stability risk than is worth it, in my opinion.

    DO make sure you keep backups of all Installation programs, and serial numbers, and that sort of thing.


    I used to shoot a lot more nighttime stuff... I just liked the fact that it produced images you didn't often see. For whatever reason, all lond exposures tend to trend to yellow. I think I read the reason for this once, but forget now.

    I'm amazed your hour-long open shutter shots didn't quickly degrade into dust fests!

    Glad you're back into the swing of things.



  2. A comment and a few questions...

    For my back-ups I have a second internal drive. It's a little cheaper and faster to do my back-up.
    I also have an external drive that I keep off site that I back-up every three months or so. That way if there is a power surge that takes out anything electronic (a surge protector isn't a fool proof protecter) or a fire that destroys the home I still have all my data.

    On the extender. Do you think that would work on the 70-300 Nikor lens? $80 isn't a bad price even if I only rarley use it.

  3. Nuthatch: My opinion? An internal second drive is better than nothing (not a partition on the same drive, right?) but what if someone breaks into your house and steals your computer? Or a fire or... you said you have an off-site backup drive, why not use it more frequently?

    About the telextender: the only caveat is what I read on the specs page for the Kenko extender: "However, full AF operation is only possible with lenses with open aperture of f/2.8 or brighter.". So you may have to manually focus. Remember, you're losing two full stops.

    Your reasoning is the same as mine: for $80, why not? The results are better than shooting at 200mm (or 300mm in your case) and cropping. Be fully aware that you can't hand-hold this sucker, though!


  4. Kevin: you're right. Backing up the programs doesn't work when you go to a different machine, especially with a different operating system. And I would have saved a lot of time if I had the installs and serial numbers handy (today, a lot of software comes via download not with a DVD or CD: be sure to store that file somewhere!)

    Dust? Why? Although the shutter is open, not much gets between the lens and the sensor when you're not moving things. Besides the D300 has a dust removal function. Noise is another consideration, but IMHO that's where Nikon beats Canon! LOL


  5. Yes it is a second drive and not a partition.

    If you have a fire or theft and the external drive forever sits on the desk, well it's pretty much useless as an internal drive

    For me and external drive off site is redundancy in case my primary back-up fails in some way (mostly by example above) I only bring it home for updating every 3 months because I don't have the amount of daily input that you might have. The internal back-up has an automatic weekly back-up

    If I ever needed to use my computer professionally or had an increase in files I would probably move the frequency up to monthly or even weekly as needed.