February 23, 2015

Shutter Release Problem Resolved

It may (or may not) come to a surprise to you that I didn’t know anything about the technical side of photography when I bought my first DSLR in 2009. How little did I know? Well, on July 4th, after just owning the camera for a few weeks, I took some photos of fireworks. When someone asked me what settings I used, I responded with:

I’m not really sure what settings I used, I’m still figuring out what all the buttons do. The shutter was all the way open, and I think “M” and “A” pretty high.

I’ll give you camera gear nerds a minute to pick yourself off the floor from laughing. (For the uninitiated: Aperture priority mode (“A”) overrides shutter speed, “M” is full manual mode and lets you change the shutter speed after you’ve set the aperture speed. Order matters! Also you can have the shutter speed be fast or slow, but you don’t set “manual” to high. Anyway, I digress…).

For the past six years now I’ve been mostly self taught figuring out what all the different settings do, and what all the little icons on my camera mean.

In 2012 shortly before the arrival of our first daughter I purchased a new lens. Shortly there after a new camera body. A few months later I started having problems. Occasionally when I’d go to take a photo nothing would happen. There’d be no whurr of the auto focus, no snap of the shutter. Just a little beep, indicating an error had occurred. It happened in good lighting and in bad, and seemed to be timed perfectly for when I was getting the best baby smiles. A moment or two later the camera would behave as expected. We had lots of theories – bad lens, faulty contacts – but the problem was too intermittent for me to test any hypothesis and I was too cheap to send in the camera for repairs without a good idea what was wrong. I also didn’t want to be without my camera or lenses for weeks.

After moving to Silicon Valley the frequency with which I’d encounter the shutter release issue increased and I became more intent on identifying the problem. I figured since the shutter wasn’t releasing, and there was a beep that was clearly digital and not mechanical – some component must be detecting the issue and trying to signal to me what it was. I just had to figure out where to find the error message. Alas, here’s where not knowing much about DSLRs (and not having bothered to read the manual) was hurting me. I had no idea what half of the icons on my menu view finder screen mean!

For the past weeks (months?) when ever the camera would beep and the shutter refused to release I’d quickly scan every screen I could. I was looking for anything that would appear whenever there was an issue, and not otherwise. It took me a while to notice the little bottom right hand corner had an “[ r# ]” at the bottom, and that the number was typically low when the shutter wouldn’t release. Then I realized that number was always zero.

A quick internet search later (because who keeps around paper manuals these days?) I had my answer. I was looking at the internal buffer indicator. The number was the Number of shots remaining before memory buffer fills. I was taking photos at a faster rate than could be written to my memory card. Momtographer likes to take a lot of photos, apparently.

That’s when it dawned on me. Way back in 2009 when I purchased my first DSLR a photographer friend advised me to get a fast memory card. I did, and I haven’t updated since. When I upgraded my camera in 2012, I went from 10 mega pixels to 16 mega pixels. Once Nicki started smiling I learned burst mode is the best mode for the greatest chance of capturing optimal baby smiles. When she started running, I never took my finger off the shutter button. It wasn’t a progressive problem after all, just reflective of a change in the equipment and the way I used it.

Through empirical study I’ve determine it takes ~10 seconds for a photo to be written to the old memory card, and only ~1 second to be written to a new, much faster one. For the last three years I’ve been having problems stemming from not having a fast enough memory card. When I think of all those missed opportunities where the shutter wouldn’t release, I could kick myself.

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