Webcam. Digicam. Why Is There a Difference?

MicroShaftedMicrosoft purchased Skype, a free service, for $8.5 billion dollars a few years ago and the program’s users howled in protest. They’d seen that movie before, and knew about Microsoft’s “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy. Microsoft promised Skype’s users that they wouldn’t screw it up. A recent OS reinstall and upgrade of the program broke a major component for my employer though, and we’re not happy about it.

Let’s go back into time a bit. Several years ago we had a Polycom videoconferencing system installed in our conference room. We’d used it a lot in the past but the system had gotten old and the university’s gatekeeper wouldn’t support it anymore. We were quoted $15,000 to upgrade it. Department management weighed the cost against other needed upgrades and instructed me to dismantle the old system. I then purchased a Sony PTZ low-rez (NTSC) videoconferencing camera, Vaddio camera shoe and converter box, and a Grass Valley ADVC55 video digitizer. After installing two CAT-5 runs I put the camera on the upper back wall of the conference room and put the rest of the equipment in the presenter’s podium. The camera was then connected to the Mac through the digitizer with a FireWire connection. After also installing a Panasonic PJP-25UR USB conferencing microphone and Skype the system worked flawlessly.  We used it several times for online course sessions and job interviews, but mostly used the system for lecture capture using Tegrity. All was well with the world.

Last week we received a request for two remote connections into a workshop. Knowing Skype couldn’t handle it I decided to try GoToMeeting by Citrix. Meanwhile the podium PC needed a software upgrade so we allowed the campus IT folk to load a new image, after which I downloaded and reinstalled Skype as well as GoToMeeting. I first brought up GoToMeeting and the program couldn’t find our camera. Then I brought up Skype and it couldn’t find the camera either. Hmm. Time for serious troubleshooting.

I soon eliminated the cabling, digitizer, and camera as the source of the problem. I hooked the signal chain into the FireWire connection on a Macbook and got a great picture using different software. Then I hit the web. It seems that a number of people had developed the same issue after a Skype “upgrade.” Skype now only works with devices that identify themselves as webcams. After sending a Tech Support request to Citrix I discovered that GoToMeeting only supports webcams as well. Tegrity still works fine with the setup, so it seems that the support for my equipment is on a per-program basis and not at the OS level where it should be.

This makes no sense. I can (sort of) understand if Microsoft wants to derail businesses from using Skype in that manner since it’s a consumer product, but GoToMeeting’s stated premise is to allow conferencing with anyone, anywhere—and you’d have to believe that one of those locations would have a bunch of people at a big conference table.

It turns out there’s a workaround. Several companies offer software that allows a DV (digital video) camera to emulate a webcam. Programs such as ManyCam, SplitCam, TrackerCam, WebcamDV, and Webcam Studio (for Linux) are used for that purpose. Some of these have trial versions; some allow additional features such as titling and transitions. All of them require running their programs first, then minimizing them while you run Skype or GoToMeeting. You also have to go into each application’s setup menu and choose the camera “shim” software as your video source before your camera can be used. It’s not an ideal solution. I’d like to have a free program that performed the shim function silently, in the background, without all the other features that I don’t require.

I used to have a setup where someone could go into the conference room, boot up, launch the desired program, and they’d be ready to use the system. Now I have to be there to set up and tweak the system for them. Citrix’s GoToMeeting software has been around for a while, and it’s inconceivable that they still don’t support DV cameras.

As for Microsoft breaking something that already worked? Perhaps they’re finally learning some things from Apple…

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Canon EOS 7D Battery Error Fix

Or, How to Beat Canon’s Money Grab

Canon 7D with main battery removed.

Canon 7D with main battery removed.

I purchased a factory refurbished Canon EOS 7D digital SLR camera several years ago. It’s worked great and I’ve been pleased with it—and I’m still using the original proprietary battery pack. Several weeks ago I’d picked it up after several months of disuse and tried to turn it on. The camera was dead. I wasn’t too surprised, so I pulled the battery and put it into the charger. After a charge I put it back into the camera. Still wouldn’t turn on. Pulled the battery again and placed it back into the charger, which thought it was fully charged. Hmm.

After reinstalling the battery and futzing around a bit I finally got the 7D to turn on, but with an error message on the display: “Cannot communicate with battery. Use this battery?” I selected ‘Yes’ and was able to use the camera, but there was no feedback as to the battery’s charge level on the status display. It turns out this is a common problem with the camera, and the most common solution is to return the unit to Canon with a $250 payment for repair. Although the problem seems widespread Canon has not enacted a recall. This is an unsatisfactory situation and seems to me like a money grab by Canon.

I wondered whether or not the battery contacts (on the battery itself or the contacts within the camera) had become fouled. I removed the main battery from the camera as well as the memory backup coin cell (a CR1616) from the battery compartment. Next I dug out my trusty can of Caig Laboratories Deoxit D5 (available at most fine electronic parts retailers, or at Parts Express and MCM Electronics) and some cotton swabs.

Here’s what I did to restore the camera’s normal operation:

1)      Remove the main battery from the camera and look at the flat side. You’ll see two silver rectangular contacts side-by side. There are also two side-by-side slots halfway between the left and right sides on the same end of the battery. There are contacts within these slots as well.

2)      Wet one of a cotton swab with Deoxit. It should be damp when you’re finished, but not dripping wet. DO NOT SPRAY DEOXIT DIRECTLY INTO THE CAMERA OR ONTO THE BATTERY.

3)      Look into the camera’s battery compartment, using the location of the contacts on the battery itself to guide you as to where to apply the Deoxit. NOTE: when looking into the camera you’ll see a lot of copper-colored circles at the bottom of the battery compartment, as shown in the photo above. THESE ARE NOT BATTERY CONTACTS. The contacts will be on the wider, flat side of the compartment down close to the spring. Wipe the four contacts with Deoxit.

4)      Now wipe the battery contacts with Deoxit. For the contacts in the slots, you may have to pull and shape the cotton on the swab to make it thinner and flatter. Alternatively, you can take a corner of a paper towel and fold it several times, spray it with a little Deoxit and work the towel into the slots.

5)      Re-insert the battery into the camera, but pull the white latch to the side with one finger and hold it while you repeatedly push the battery in and allow the spring to pop it back out again. Do this fifteen or twenty times to help polish the contacts and ensure they’re coated with Deoxit. When finished remove the battery and set it aside for ten minutes or so.

6)      Take the opportunity to remove the CR1616 coin cell from the battery compartment and change it if you’ve never done so. With the carrier that holds the coin cell out of the camera you can see two sets of silver contacts in the slot. Wipe those with Deoxit, then carefully insert and remove the battery/carrier a few times. (This battery’s contacts aren’t as robust as the other set so be careful.) When finished, insert and leave the coin cell in the camera.

7)      The last step is to insert the main battery and try turning the camera on. You may still have to futz around with the controls a bit for the first turn-on cycle; I didn’t.  You should be greeted by a prompt to change the time and date.

Fortunately this routine allowed me to resuscitate my camera and one week out it’s still working. Now what could possibly have caused the issue? My theory is that some small amount of gasses produced by the battery’s internal chemicals may have escaped and fouled the contacts as the battery slowly discharged inside the camera. Perhaps this is why it’s recommended to remove the batteries from your electronics when they’re not being used for a period of time. In the future I intend on following that advice. If this helped you please pass it on. Why should anyone spend $250 that they don’t have to?

UPDATE: November 2, 2014

This blog post has gotten a lot of interest since it was published! I have a few updates for you.

First, you’ll notice a very well-documented comment post by James Holtzman, which reflects something that many Canon 7D owners have discovered–the cause of the issue may be a loose screw inside the camera. Thank you James! James sent along a picture but was unable to post it (and I could not put it inside his comment) so I’m placing it here:


Please read his post below for more information. So for some of you this may be the fix. I’d add that there are two additional screws you should remove that are not mentioned in the disassembly video James linked to. These make it a little easier to remove and re-attach the bottom plate. Since my only camera is the 7D I’m unable to make the pics of the screw locations, I’ll describe them:

1) The first additional screw is black, and is directly below the lens mount on the bottom of the camera. You can’t miss it.

2) The second screw is below the rubber grip, near the lens and closest to the bottom of the camera. It’s a silver screw.

Now for my own experience…I purchased my camera several years back as a Canon factory refurb. When I opened the camera the screw was firmly in place. Gentle tapping on the table did not produce any other loose screws from the camera’s guts. Despite this it developed the battery communication issue as I had described. There may still be some validity to my theory of battery outgassing, but the loose screw issue may be the primary cause of the 7D’s problem.

I wonder if the new 7D Mark II will have this same problem?


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Powerball Illogic


In mid-May of 2013 an 84 year old widow, Gloria C. Mackenzie, walked into a Florida Publix supermarket and purchased a quick pick Powerball ticket. It turns out that one of her sets of numbers won the $590 million dollar jackpot. As she waited in line to purchase her ticket, a fellow resident of Zephyrhills Florida named Mindy Crandall gave up her turn in line and told Gloria to go ahead of her.

Now the media is up in arms, relating the story and playing up Crandall’s “bad luck” (and poor choice of timing). Lots of people are apparently wondering if the elderly widow will give her benefactor some of her winnings in gratitude. The entire situation is ludicrous, both on the winner’s side as well as the loser’s. Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, the “loser’s” side. This was not a contest where, for example, the thousandth customer would win, and Crandall was that thousandth person but gave away her place in line. Nor were Mackenzie and Crandall purchasing scratch-off tickets, where there was a possibility that they were going to purchase tickets from the exact same game and each person’s place in line would be important. The lottery is a game of chance with astronomical odds of winning. The winning numbers weren’t hand-picked–they were automatically generated by a computer with a ‘supposedly’ random seed. (At least, that’s the way these things are supposed to be run.) I don’t know if Crandall also had her numbers auto-picked, but with the odds stacked against the players anyway, there’s little chance that she would’ve gotten the winning numbers had she kept her place in line.

Second, let’s look at Mackenzie’s side. She was in the right place, at the right time, and received a ticket with randomly-chosen numbers. Her odds of winning were as improbably high as anyone else’s. Is there a reason she should split any part of her money with Crandall? Not particularly. If she were going to reward an act of kindness shown to her, shouldn’t she also give money to the person who filled her gas tank so that she could drive to the store? How about the clerk who handed her the winning ticket? Any reasonable person can see where this could go. She owes no one a thing, and if she didn’t share her winnings it wouldn’t matter a bit. I firmly believe in there being a plan for each person’s life, and she would have won that prize whether she’d gotten the ticket earlier in the week or an hour after she originally purchased it. She wouldn’t have needed to go to that particular Publix, or even to play more than one set of numbers.

Now let’s look at the ludicrousness of Mackenzie’s win. According to news reports she’ll take home approximately $278 million after taxes. Did I mention that she’s 84? Being older I’m sure her personal needs are modest. She’s reported to have four children and I’m sure she’ll give each of them something. Even so, she’ll have a lot of money to manage and it’s very likely she won’t live long enough to fully enjoy her windfall.  Unfortunately lottery winners have a history of having their lives ruined by their good fortune. It gives credence to the old saying that God shows his disdain for wealth by the kinds of people He gives it to.

And, if the lottery is really a tax on people who are bad at math, what can we say about those people making the erroneous leap of logic in this situation?

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Caroline Glaser and Rachel Bilson: Separated at Birth?

I’ve been watching “The Voice” off and on since it started this season. I haven’t cared to get into it too deeply; I have a belief that America’s love affair with reality shows has lessened the number of quality scripted TV dramas, and so I despise them. However, I’d flipped the TV on last evening as I was doing something else and heard this wonderfully quirky singer named Caroline Glaser. When I looked at the TV I had to blink a couple of times. This extremely talented young lady bears an incredible resemblance to a woman I’ve had a huge crush on for several years. See for yourself:

Caroline Glaser

Caroline Glaser, singer/songwriter.

Rachel Bilson

Rachel Bilson, actress.

Caroline could easily be mistaken for Rachel Bilson’s sister. Both are extremely easy to look at, though Caroline brings a little guilt to the table as she’s just 18. But still…wow.

Add the fact that my best friend’s stepdaughter bears a striking resemblance to Rachel as well, and there’s a Battlestar Galactica moment in the making. “I like Number 11 a lot. Is she available in blonde?”


Addendum 10-24-2013: The title of this post has bugged me ever since I published it. It’s impossible for them to be separated at birth–Caroline was barely eighteen and Rachel was, I believe, about 30 at the time of this posting. A more accurate title might have been “Sisters?” or “Are They Related?” Oh well. The toothpaste’s long out of the tube. I still think they’re both talented, beautiful women–and would be happy to spend time with either one.


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The Sweet Smell of Old Technology


I’ve noticed a phenomenon with older technology (mainly computers) that I cannot find an answer to. It’s odd, a real head-scratcher, and doesn’t necessarily mean something’s wrong with the unit. I first noticed it a few years back when working on a friend’s computer. I’d hooked it up on my test bench and turned it on. After a minute or so I could smell a distinct odor coming from inside the unit’s case. It was slightly sweet, almost like a perfume. Since this guy was living alone at the time and I knew he wasn’t given to wearing Liz Taylor it was puzzling. I’d opened the PC’s case and looked around—nothing was amiss—and decided to give the unit a good dusting out.

After going over it with an air compressor and a clean dry paintbrush to dislodge any hangers-on, I let the case air out overnight. When I turned the power on again the odor returned. Most people might think that an electrolytic capacitor had blown up and caused the smell, but that leaves a visible mess as well as a very distinct odor which is unlike what I smelled. The PC’s problem was a corrupted software installation so I repaired and returned it. The computer functioned well for several more years before being retired.

The same friend upgraded his family’s computer a year or so and gave me his old one. Guess what? It exhibited the same smell.  Okay, I thought, it must be something in his home environment that’s getting sucked into the computer’s air vents.  Again, the computer itself worked fine but had a dead power supply. I removed the motherboard and transplanted it into another case. When the computer was turned on I could still smell the odor but more faintly.

Recently a different friend gave me a netbook so that I could attempt retrieving some files. This one had been dropped which shattered the built-in LCD display. I hooked it up to work on it, and guess what? The same smell filled my workroom. This time, however, the friend is female, has children, and multiple dogs. There’s one small fan in the netbook from what I can tell as it uses an external brick-type power supply.

I mentioned this to a friend who runs his own electronics repair shop. He’s never noticed the phenomenon with all the various electronic detritus that has crossed the doorway of his shop.

Several weeks back I acquired a Playstation 3 that had ceased to operate in the hopes of fixing it for myself. It also has the smell.  I only had it on for a short time and I can still smell it well over a week afterward. Scented electronics…surely there’s a market for that.

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Some Weeks…


…It ain’t easy being Geek.

I’ve had my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx cell phone for nearly a year and I love it. However, it shipped with an outdated version of the Android OS named “Gingerbread” when the next version, called “Ice Cream Sandwich” was already being rolled out. Verizon sent out the ICS upgrade within a couple of months; but by then the NEXT version, known as “Jelly Bean,” was being rolled out. I’d been waiting anxiously for JB for months when Verizon announced they were releasing JB a few days before Christmas last year. After a short time they stopped because the update was bricking their customer’s phones. (Oops.) Fortunately I didn’t get that upgrade. I settled back into waiting mode again and twiddled my thumbs.

Several weeks ago I heard that Verizon was rolling out JB again, this time for real. I checked for available updates on the phone and was told it was ready to download! I allowed the download (at about 40 minutes) and then attempted the upgrade. Everything looked good until I saw the picture of an Andy the Android on his back, chestplate open, with a red triangle with an exclamation point beside the hole in his chest. The phone rebooted and gave me a message that the update had failed. No reason given, just failure.

I went online and discovered that I wasn’t the only one. The main failure reason being posited was that the end user had disabled some apps on their phone. I’d rooted my phone after getting ICS and disabled a number of Verizon bloatware apps like their navigation service and music apps, so I re-enabled them and attempted the update again, still unsuccessfully. I was getting frustrated.

(Before I continue, a few words on rooting are called for. Rooting a phone gives the user access to areas of the phone’s operating system that they normally can’t get to. This allows a finer degree of control over how the phone operates. It also allows the use of utilities like “Titanium Backup” which allows me to make back copies of my phone’s data and apps. I also installed a WONDERFUL app called AdAway, which allows the blocking of streaming ads, including those within other apps. TB also allowed me to disable apps and, in some cases, completely delete them. Rooting also allowed me to transfer custom ringtones into the same directory where the phone’s ringtones are kept, which allows all ringtones to show up in the same list. I highly recommend the practice if you’re savvy enough to do it.)

Next, I decided to try a “sideload” installation, wherein you download an app (or an OS upgrade) and force an install from the phone’s SD memory card. I found the official Verizon Jelly Bean update and downloaded it, then tried connecting my phone to my PC after loading the necessary Motorola USB drivers. That was an exercise in frustration as I had to try several different sets of drivers. The phone had to be placed into USB “MTP” connection mode, and the PC didn’t find the necessary drivers among those I’d downloaded. After several hours I finally got the correct driver and Windows was happy. Then I copied the file to the phone’s SD card and powered the phone off. Then while pressing and holding the phone’s power button as well as holding down the Volume Up/Down buttons I got a special boot menu. I navigated to “Recovery” mode, and then chose the proper file on the SD card. The upgrade progressed as before, except this time I got verbose feedback on what was happening. The upgrade failed again (of course), but this time I got a long message with the phrase “assert failed: apply_patch_check” saying that the upgrade program couldn’t find an app called “Music2.apk.”  Now I was getting somewhere.

I remembered that I’d been playing around when I’d loaded Titanium Backup and used an option to completely remove a few programs. That had obviously been a bad idea. Now I had two options: I could either find the appropriate .apk files on the web (because I knew I’d get a different missing app error after this one was re-installed) or I could perform a “factory reset” and wipe the phone back to out-of-the-box condition. Because I didn’t want to do the latter, I found and installed a program called “Android Commander” on my PC. That program would allow me to look at the system file areas on my phone and copy programs into the normally-inaccessible system areas from the PC. Next I found and downloaded the missing Music2.apk file, used the file selection windows in AC to find the file on the PC side, then chose the appropriate directory on the phone side and tried to perform the copy.

Android Commander told me I needed ROOT level access. What? I was already rooted, you stupid program! Indeed, TB said I was rooted. Android Commander didn’t believe I was, and it wouldn’t allow me to copy a damn thing to the phone. An investigation led me to a FAQ on AC’s site that explained there were two types of root access. The first type gave apps on the phone itself root access to the phone’s system areas. The other type, which I needed and didn’t have, allowed access to the phone’s system areas from a connected PC. To get that type of access, the FAQ explained, I’d have to download the phone’s boot image, decompile it, change a line in a configuration file, then re-compile the boot image and upload it back to the phone. While I have some ‘mad skillz’ this is not one of them at this point in my life and I did not have the time to learn. By then I had gone into the next phase in my frustration, one that a careful geek avoids at all cost if they want to be successful.

I was pissed. I just wanted to load the damn OS upgrade, and I was tired of being denied. I decided to do the factory wipe. At least I had the foresight to load the Verizon Backup Assistant to dump my contacts to the cloud, but didn’t give a thought to my pictures or any other data on the phone. I was syncing with Google so that should be taken care of, right? I knew that my apps would automatically download back to my phone from the Play store so I believed I was set. I booted the phone again using the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, then chose Recovery mode and the option to do a factory wipe. I clicked through the warnings and let the wipe proceed. After all was done and I was back with a working phone with ICS again, I decided to attempt the sideload upgrade again. You can probably guess what happened next.

The upgrade failed. Again. With the same missing app error. When I deleted the apps from the phone using TB, they were completely wiped from even the backup image. I was right back where I started. Why the hell was this program attempting a selective “upgrade” rather than a complete OS install? Then I realized it was probably to ensure that the customer’s data was retained.

Now I knew what I needed. I’d have to find some way of installing the OS, this time as a complete load regardless of what was on the phone. It took a little while but I eventually found what I needed. A user with the handle mattlgroff on had written a program called “Matt’s Razr Utility” that would do just what I needed. Version 1.82 is for the Verizon Razr and Razr Maxx ICS version, but I wanted to go right to Jelly Bean so v1.83 was what I needed. I downloaded and installed the program, then followed the prompts and connected my phone when told to do so. The utility did its magic, and in no time I was running Jelly Bean v4.1.2. Hooray, finally. Now I could re-install my apps, contacts, and calendar.

Well, my apps and contacts at least. It seems that the phone’s OS comes with its own Calendar app which stores information on the phone itself by default. The Google Calendar app, which is downloaded from the Play store, will sync with Google. I had inadvertently been storing all my schedule information on the phone and it was totally gone. I made sure to download the Google Calendar and set it up to sync with Google, then disabled (not uninstalled!) the phone’s calendar app. It took a while to re-enter my schedule but I was finally good. Over the next few days I had to open some apps and re-accept their terms-of-service as well as reset their preferences.

I also discovered that AdAway hadn’t re-installed. After more research I found that Google very recently had removed all ad blocking apps from the Play Store, sending their developers a notice that they had violated a clause in their Developer Distribution Agreement.  Apparently they didn’t like the fact that these programs interfered with the possible revenue stream from streaming and in-app ads. That explained why I couldn’t find Adblock Plus in the store either. Fortunately I discovered a link for the F-Droid App Repository which allows the download and installation of AdAway. Adblock Plus can be downloaded directly from the company’s website and sideload-installed, so I got that program next.

After going through this hell I now have my phone loaded with the “latest” version of the Android OS, Jelly Bean. I used the quotes because, as it happens, v4.1.2 is NOT the latest version of JB. Version 4.2 has increased speed and more features—and Verizon blew an opportunity to get their users current. Well, I’m done with waiting on Verizon. When I can find one of the Razr enthusiast sites that has version 4.2 of JB I’m going to install it. I might as well get used to it; I seriously doubt that the next iteration of the Android OS (known as Key Lime Pie) will be made officially available for the Razr / Razr Maxx.

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eBay: Some Words of Wisdom

Hard-won tips and observations about what works and what doesn’t.


eBay Sign

eBay…My Frenemy.

I’ve been on eBay over twelve years—the first few were simply as a buyer. Eventually I tried my hand at selling and was good enough at it to move a lot of my old stuff. As an eBayer  I’ve seen and experienced many things that delighted me, some that disappointed me and a good quantity that irritates me to this day. As eBay has tried to evolve into something more than a Wild West, anything-goes-type of trading post it has alienated many basement- and garage-cleaners like me. This is primarily through their push to regard all their customers as professional dealers. This has forced a migration by their smaller sellers to their competition while volume-based companies have moved in–that all sell the same imported Chinese crap at less than desirable prices.

eBay’s management has enabled dishonest buyers by allowing them to leave any type of feedback they want while preventing sellers from leaving honest feedback about their bad customers. They feel that, from a seller’s standpoint, the only type of buyer there can be is a “good” one—even if they’ve stiffed you on a payment, were very late on making payment, or fraudulently claimed to get defective goods and try to screw you out of your item while getting a refund. Yes, that really has happened—browsing the eBay Seller Central forums reveals all sorts of horror stories like these. Yet eBay claims these policies level the playing field for everyone. John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, must have belonged to the generation who taught their kids that “everyone’s a winner, and everyone gets a prize.” Most eBayers believe that he needs to go and the sooner the better.

So why do I and the other dedicated stalwarts who stick it out continue to do so? Despite the negatives, eBay is still the big player in online auctions and commands a significant amount of traffic. While other players like Amazon now allow the little guy to sell there, let’s be honest–not everything can be sold on Amazon. I can dump an old 386-class motherboard and ISA expansion cards or a broken camcorder on eBay that would gather no interest on Amazon. For people like me who have a LOT of that kind of merchandise eBay is where those types of prospective buyers reside…and so we stay.

Over the years  I’ve seen many poorly-designed auction listings.  These design faux-pas range from poorly-worded ad copy to having crappy pictures (or the wrong ones!). I’ve tried to learn from these examples and make my auction items more appealing. I’m going to share some things I’ve learned with you to try and prevent more of these atrocities, and in doing so give you some tips to help you shop and sell your own stuff.

Tips for Sellers: Product Photography

1.  Get a good digital camera and learn to use it properly.

Judging by the mediocrity or outright crappiness of many auction pictures a lot of sellers think their cell phone camera or cheap point-and-shoot is all they need. WRONG! Look at your own behavior as a shopper/buyer when you‘re evaluating items. How many things have you purchased that had blurry, darkly-lit or indistinct pictures? Probably not many, if any at all. If you’re a brave soul who took the plunge because the price was irresistible, how many of those items weren’t what you were expecting? If you’re like me you’ve probably tried at least once or twice; maybe you weren’t burned too badly. The simple fact is that good pictures go a long way in helping you sell your items.

Make sure that whatever camera you choose can take in-focus and up-close pictures. You want the ability to fill the frame with your item, and it has to be sharp. Keep in mind that pictures of very small things require a camera/lens capable of “macro” photography. The inherent problem with macro photography is that, the smaller the item, the harder it is to keep the entire item in focus. That problem deals with something called “depth of field,” meaning the amount of space in front of and in back of the point you’re focusing on. A good photography tutorial will explain this better than I in this short article. In general, increased depth of field requires more light and a smaller aperture.

2.  Light It Up!

If you take a picture of your item and its dark, throw some light on the item and try again. Place the item on a table by a window, or invest in a tabletop light tent in a kit with several lights. If you’re handy, make your own like I did. (Google using the terms: “build photo light tent.”)  For lights I took the reflectors off a couple of clip-on utility lights and married them to some gooseneck table lamps from Lowe’s. For bulbs I used 100-watt equivalent spiral CFLs with a “daylight” color temperature between 5000 and 7000 degrees Kelvin. By building your own setup you’ll invest less than $50.00 and have the basic equipment to light and showcase all your items.  The only downside of CFL lighting is that it’s not bright enough for fast shutter speeds.

Why not use the camera’s built-in flash? If you have the experience, great! I don’t recommend it because, for most people, flash photography of “products” is difficult to do well. The most-often seen result is that the item is washed out (too bright). Flash photography can be done well, but it requires external equipment and more finesse than the typical eBay seller can (or is willing to) muster.

3.  Use a Tripod

Lower light levels mean longer shutter speeds which make it difficult to handhold a camera. Putting the camera on a cheap tripod (and using a remote shutter release or the camera’s self-timer) practically guarantees sharp photos.

4.   “Hey Buddy, Am I Bidding on the Doll or the Coffee Cup?”

Isolate your item from other distracting things when taking your picture. People looking at your auction item want to see that thing alone, not how nice your living room is or that you’re drinking from a 49ers mug.  If you have a stack of stereo equipment you’re trying to unload, PLEASE separate the items and photograph each one by itself.  Being lazy by taking one picture and saying “only the CD player is in this auction—the other items are in their own auctions” is lame and says to the world that you’re an amateur.

A corollary is this: if you’re photographing an item that is reflective or shiny, look to see what’s reflected on the surface of your item. By now I’m sure everyone’s seen the picture of the teakettle with the naked photographer reflected in it. Don’t be that person.

5.   Clean Up Your Act

Before photographing your items take a few minutes to clean them up. A clean item will photograph better and will bring more money than something you picked up off a dirt floor and blew on a couple of times.

General Selling Tips

 1.   Be Brutally Honest in Your Pictures and Descriptions

I’ve been burned a few times by sellers who only showed the good side of an item in a picture and didn’t disclose that the back half was partially melted. Or that it was missing its battery cover, had a hole drilled in it for who-knows-what reason, or a major crack in its plastic case.  If you don’t have all the item’s parts, say so. If there really is a crack in the case or a seam in the pants is split, tell the prospective buyer up front AND show it in your pictures. Do you really think that the buyer will keep your wonderful P.O.S. once they discover the defect on their own? If you disclose the item’s flaws, the buyer will not only appreciate your honesty but have no excuse to come back on you for having a fraudulent auction. If you’ve listed an item’s flaws honestly, and spelled them out explicitly in word and picture, you can be reasonably assured that the buyer doesn’t care about purchasing a flawed item.

You should also functionally test your item (if that applies) to make sure it works. A phrase like “I couldn’t test it because…” has become an inside joke among buyers and is interpreted as “It doesn’t work and I’m trying to screw you.”  This also marks you as an eBay hack and someone to avoid.

2.   Do Your Research Before Listing Your Item

This requires a little work on your part but prevents you from looking like a clueless idiot. eBay has a tool called “What’s My Item Worth?” (You can search eBay help on the terms “item” and “worth” if the link doesn’t automatically appear on your main page.) With this tool you can find out what prices an item like yours have recently sold for. If most of the items came without all the accessories or their physical condition was poor, they might have been priced lower or brought less money than items that were complete with their original boxes, packing, and documentation. There are some items I’d wanted to list but changed my mind when I looked them up.  My time was better spent taking those things to a thrift store. If you have a number of similar things that are valued low, you could also lump them together in a “bulk lot” and sell them in one auction.

With that said you should be realistic with your pricing. I’ve been looking to pick up a dbx 3BX-DS dynamic range expander. The 3BX was made for years in a number of incarnations.  On the model I want, most of the auctions start out low but end up bringing several hundred dollars. Yet I see the early 3BX units being priced hundreds of dollars higher than the newer units with more features. These overpriced older units don’t have a great sell-through rate. Be realistic. I’d like to get more money for some of my stuff too but I acknowledge that I won’t always get the amount I’d like.

3.   Don’t Get Cute in Your Item Titles and Descriptions

I enjoy writing creative descriptions and have used humor to sell things. I’ve never gotten a comment back about my writing style, and I’d like to think that someone has enjoyed my prose. However, I’ve never used cutesy-pie terms such as  “minty” or “L@@K” in my item titles and descriptions. If you use either of these conventions there’s no question that you are an eBay loser. Why? When I see items with those terms in the titles I pass them by without reading the descriptions no matter how much I’d want them or how reasonably priced they are. I’m an average guy and I know that I’m not the only person with these dislikes. If I’m willing to turn away from an item I want based on this I know that others will too.

4.   Don’t Even Think of Holding a Reserve Price Auction

Most people rationalize that a low initial price will get bidders into an auction early so they go with this type of auction. If the highest bid amount never meets the reserve price (meaning the least amount the seller would take for the item) by the auction’s end time, then the seller isn’t obligated to sell it. Let me ask the sellers who employ reserve prices this question: Have you ever been on the losing end of a reserve price auction? No? How would you feel if you had the highest bid on an item you really wanted to own but didn’t win the auction because your bid didn’t meet the minimum price? Reserve price auctions alienate customers.

Make things simple for yourself and your prospective buyers. Run a regular auction but set your starting bid as the least amount of money you’d accept for the item. If it goes for that amount, great! If it goes for more it’s a bonus. Or, list your item in a fixed price auction for the amount you want. If you don’t sell the item it should tell you that your asking price is out of line.

5.   Shipping Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t Turn Shipping Into a Profit Center

This simply means that you should make your shipping costs reasonable. Use the lowest cost shipping that provides the ability to track the shipment and gets the item to your buyer quickly. If the item’s valuable select the appropriate amount of insurance and include it in your shipping costs. It won’t cost you anything since your buyer pays shipping and provides great peace of mind.

There was a widespread practice among vendors where they’d advertise an item for a low cost, say 99 cents, and then charge $30.00 for shipping.  This was to avoid eBay fees. eBay then started charging fees that included the shipping costs, taking money out of legitimate seller’s pockets. Unfortunately some of these yahoos still persist in the practice.

If you ship your item(s) free then ignore the above advice. But why would you ship free and lose money?

Pack the Item Well

I purchased an old laptop from someone who crammed it into a Priority Mail box and shipped it to me. There was no space around the item as it just fit into the box. They didn’t even bother to use a simple layer of bubble wrap for padding! Another seller sent me an Xbox 360’s outer case in a box that was slightly too small, so they wrapped it liberally with packing tape to hold it together. The best bad example was the guy who put a 60-pound subwoofer into a box using only foam peanuts for packing, then put that box into a bigger box with literally a handful of foam peanuts “separating” the two boxes. Of course the unit was trashed in shipping.

Pack your item like you are shipping it to yourself. Put it in bubble wrap. Choose a sturdy shipping box that provides enough room around your item so that you can fill the space with foam peanuts.  Tape the box well and, if the buyer should open a particular side of the box, mark that info on that side using a black marker.

State Your Handling Time and Ship Properly

eBay says you have 30 days to ship. I list in my auctions that I will ship within three days of receiving payment and I keep my word. Ship your customer’s stuff promptly to keep them happy.

Establish Accounts With Your Carriers of Choice

I set up accounts with both UPS and the Postal Service. Because of this, I get preferred rates from UPS and by purchasing and printing the labels at home I no longer stand in line to ship things. When I have personal items to ship I can also purchase labels on-line to save time.


Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful in your own eBay dealings. My next eBay article will recount some of my purchasing experiences, both good and bad.

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