Dry Run

I'm not clear on the origin of "Dry Run."

My personal favorite is from, "...prohibition when moonshine runners would run the route without carrying any alcohol to get to know the route better, and improve their speed for the actual run (hence a "dry" run)." (Joel Glovier). But it's most likely from fire departments giving exhibitions of their prowess at carnivals or similar events.

Regardless, I'm on one right now.

Even though I'm traveling by car through Southern California, I'm pretending that I'm in an exotic land with few services. That is, except when I'm hungry and need to make a dash to the nearest Mexican restaurant. (BTW: I had a chicken mole yesterday to die for!)

So far, I've discovered just a few flaws in my packing strategy. My approach is to put what I think I need in my Lowepro Pro Tactic 350, which would be my carry-on across the hemisphere. Then put the questionable items in my suitcase. If I discover that I need something that isn't in my backpack, I still have it with me.

So far, the only adjustment I've made was moving the WD My Passport Wireless hard drive. It was in my suitcase. I need to find a place for it in the backpack. I've discovered that I have to have it with me.

Other than that, just a few tweaks here and there. I still have a couple days to go on this trip, so there might be more fiddling to do.

But for now, I'm ready for the whiskey.

(Hmmm, that might not be allowed on the plane.)

-Derrick

How Much Camera Do You Really Need?

Yesterday, while I was writing a piece about the Nikon D810, I was thinking to myself, "How often would I need 36.3 megapixels?"

Certainly, my spontaneous candids of Dibs the cat don't need that much resolution, nor my vacation photos, high school basketball games, or product shots for the blog.

When digital photography was emerging, the common thinking was that a 6 megapixel camera would approximate the quality of a 35mm negative. Looking back, I think that was a bit low. But 6 megapixels was a rarity in those days. Now I'm more inclined to say 16 megapixels will get the job done.

One of my cameras, the Canon 5D Mark II captures RAW at 21 megapixels. The only time I use that body is for commercial shoots. I like having it among my choices. But I'm also happy it's not my only camera. Quite honestly, the body and the lenses that go on it, are too big for my nimble lifestyle.

For 90 percent of the work I do, and I'm serious about photography, I would say that 16 megapixels is the sweet spot. 12 megapixels feels a bit light to me, especially if I need to crop the image. And the 20 megapixels on my Canon 70D, or 21 on the 5D Mark II, feel like luxury.

The one caveat I would add, is that I do like a decent-sized sensor. I think 16 megapixels on a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor performs better than on a sub-1" sensor that we see on many compacts and smartphones. This is especially true in low light.

And yes, I do walk my talk. The most important trips of my life, such as two weeks in Europe this past summer, or my visit to Cuba coming in January, have been and will be recorded with my Micro Four Thirds kit. 

Will I someday regret leaving my DSLR behind?

I seriously doubt it.

-Derrick

The Miracle of Micro Four Thirds

There are days when I just marvel at the design of my cameras and lenses. Today is one of them.

I'm testing the new Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 35-100mm f/4.0-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. lens that solved a real problem for me. I needed a longer zoom for upcoming trips, but did not have the room or the spare weight for my larger Olympus 75-300mm zoom. (Yes, by Micro Four Thirds standards, the 75-300mm is a big lens. How times have changed!)

By contrast, the new Panasonic weighs less than 5 ounces and is only 2" long. Yet, it provides me with the equivalent of a 70-200mm zoom. Let's take a minute to digest that. This optic is smaller and lighter than a plastic 50mm lens for DSLRs, yet covers 70-200mm. Incredible.

So what's the catch? I mounted the zoom on my Olympus OM-D E-M10 and went outside to take pictures. After studying the results on my Retina Display Mac, I'll tell you that the catch IS NOT image quality. The photos looked great, edge to edge.

Maybe chromatic aberration is the problem. I photographed tree branches against a bright sky and studied the edges at 100 percent on the computer. Nope. Not that either.

Well, then it must cost a lot. Wrong again. I bought it for $397 at B&H. And that included a lens hood. Cheap design. Nada. Beautiful metal housing and mount.

So the only drawback is the f/4.0-5.6 maximum aperture. This is not an indoor zoom. It is for working outside in the light of day... which is exactly what I needed. If I want a tele indoors, I'll use my trusty Olympus 60mm f/2.8. (A miracle lens itself, BTW.)

This Panasonic optic, and so many like it, are what I call the miracle of Micro Four Thirds. It's the sweet spot of nimble photography - with a sensor big enough for great image quality, but small enough to allow for amazing, compact lenses like the Panasonic 35-100mm.

I am truly impressed.

-Derrick

The Jigsaw Puzzle

One of the reasons why I start packing so early is because I view my gear bag as a jigsaw puzzle. And like all such challenges, they take time to complete.

I'm not sure why I enjoy this activity so much. I view it as my opportunity to defy physics. "Can I pack the perfect bag?" It's like finding the only configuration that accommodates four suitcases squeezed into a car trunk - with success follows a sense of clever accomplishment.

But camera bags are even more thrilling. They're nomadic. Once perfected, they provide the illusion of "I can go anywhere at anytime and do my thing." All I need is this backpack and a place to hang my hat.

There was a missing piece to my current puzzle. I needed a longer lens, but didn't want to lug the 75-300mm for my trek across the country, and ultimately to Havana. Then I found it. The just-released Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 that's only a few inches long, yet provides an equivalent of 70-200mm zooming range when mounted on my OM-D cameras. I ordered it and am anxiously awaiting its arrival.

I have the perfect spot for it. And it will only add 7 ounces to the weight of the bag. 

Will this complete my jigsaw puzzle?

I get excited just thinking about it.

-Derrick

 

The Worst Starbucks Ever

I don't normally visit the Starbucks in my neighborhood. Why would I? I have plenty of French Roast in the carafe on the kitchen counter.

But today was different. I was on foot checking-off errands from my ToDo list when a client called needing some information. 

"Not a problem," I thought. I'll just duck in to the Coddingtown Mall Starbucks in Santa Rosa, treat myself to a Skinny Peppermint Mocha, and send my client the details via the iPad mini stashed in my Walking Man Shoulder Bag.

I ordered a grande (feeling somewhat festive) and paid using the Starbucks app on my iPhone. Yes, the Nimble Photographer was firing on all cylinders. I found a sturdy table (a rarity in most coffee shops) and selected their WiFi via Settings on the iPad.

Nothing happened. I waited for the "yes I agree to everything in small print on this page" screen to appear, but was left hanging. I walked up to the counter.

"Excuse me, but it appears that your WiFi is down. Could you please take a look?"

"Oh, it's always like that. It's really slow here."

"Ummm, it's not slow. It's dead. Maybe the access point just needs to be restarted."

"That won't help."

I smiled. "Well, is someone working on this?"

"Oh yes. But it's been this way for a year."

A year!

That's not working on it. We're talking about WiFi, not a room addition.

I always have a Plan B. In my case, it was Verizon on the iPad. Funny thing, however. Not even my cellular would work. I was in the Twilight Zone. This place must be encased in aluminum.

Starbucks isn't just about coffee. They know that.  It's a place for people like me to escape the drone of the city, rest my feet, and get some work done. I can get a drink anywhere. I pay $4.95 for a Skinny Peppermint Mocha so I can log-on and take care of business.

I once read a survey stating that adding WiFi to your retail business helps attract customers. However, if it doesn't work, they won't return, regardless of how good your core product is.

This is particularly true for hotels and Starbucks. No matter how adequate my Skinny Peppermint Mocha may be, I'm a dissatisfied customer without a few spoonfuls of my promised WiFi. It's the unspoken agreement.

Oh, and to make matters worse,

the restroom was out of order too.

-Derrick

After the Rain

I noticed the light changing in the south window - a new color on the fringe of my computer screen.

The rain had stopped for the first time in two days. I can't remember the last time we had consecutive storms. For the better part of the workday, the light was steely blue - but now, some warmth.

I needed break anyway. It was 4:30 pm, and I hadn't even stopped during lunch. But it was raining then. Now it's calm. I could hear the tires on the wet street as I stood on the front porch in my socks. (Yes, definitely some color in the sky.) It was time for a walk.

I put the compact Canon S110 in my back pocket, laced up my red and gray Nikes, and locked the door behind me. The clouds in the west parted slightly. A streak of orange leaked out, but too many buildings to see much more.

I walked faster. Maybe down the street there was a clearing.

A few hundred yards away, I saw a woman standing in her front yard holding up a smartphone. That's promising. I walked faster.

And there it was. The opening, the colors, the perfect moment to shoot a sunset. 

Some photographers say that sunsets are trivial shots. That we shouldn't even bother. Nope. I love sunsets. And if I have a camera with me, I'm going to take a picture. 

I held the Canon up to the sky. The colors were perfect. In just those few moments my day became spectacular.

I'm so lucky. The minute clouds part, I have the freedom to open my door and leave. And the best time to do that

is after the rain.

-Derrick

 

How I Prepare for Travel

I have a big adventure to Cuba this coming January, and a few shorter business trips before then. I'm preparing for them right now.

I embrace the "dry run" school of thought for packing. It's my belief that we cannot conceptualize everything we need (and just as importantly, don't need) without physically trying things out first.

My preliminary kit for Cuba includes:

That bag is packed now. I carry it back and forth to work everyday, and it will accompany me on two business trips between now and Cuba. 

During that time, I will determine if the backpack is too heavy, if there's gear that I'm not using, are their additional lenses I should add, and am I self-sufficient?

I could not answer those questions properly the night before the flight to Havana.

I need to know now.

And that's how I prepare for travel.

-Derrick

 

Chasing Down Kids

There's another class of Nimble Photography that I rarely discuss: parents photographing young children.

These intrepid souls are perfect candidates for a life of nimbleosity. They already have to schlep more stuff than they ever imagined possible - bags full of snacks, water, extra clothes, books, toys... and things I don't even remember anymore.

And the irony is, even with all of this gear, parents have to move fast.

It's like watching basketball on TV. You don't realize how swiftly players move until you stand court side at an actual game. It's the same with children. Look away for 5 seconds, and they are disappearing on a distant horizon. You have no choice but to hobble after them.

When we're not wrangling, cajoling, or admonishing, we want to photograph these dear angels. That's what parents do. And pushing beyond the smartphone snapshot requires a little practice and some decent gear.

In my opinion, most compact cameras react slower than the children we're pursuing. On the other hand, DSLRs don't fit in backpacks already stuffed with granola bars and jackets.

I think the preferred tool for chasing down kids is a good mirrorless camera. Maybe a Panasonic Lumix GX7 Micro Four Thirds camera with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. That tilting electronic viewfinder could come in handy for knee-level kindergarteners.

What I'm driving at is this: I want to officially welcome parents to our world of traveling light with lots of might.

I know you're a bit tired right now. But trust me, you'll feel better

in 20 years or so.

Derrick

Traveling Light with Lots of Might

The first four lines of the Happy Wanderer song go like this:

I love to go a-wandering, 
Along the mountain track, 
And as I go, I love to sing, 
My knapsack on my back. 

Part of the reason why our wanderer was so happy was most likely because all he or she had in their knapsack was a lunch and light jacket. Clearly this tune was composed long before the Nikon F SLR. (...by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund in the early 1800s, actually.)

And thanks to advances in technology and design, the Happy Wanderer these days can pack a high-performance imaging device capable of producing mural-sized prints. Many of the new cameras released this Fall affirm that we can travel light with lots of might.

This is top of mind for me right now because I'm putting together holiday gift guides for publication. As I review new cameras such as the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX100 and the Canon PowerShot G7 X, I'm impressed with how much capability can be packed into a case that weighs less than a pound.

It's the return of the Happy Wanderer.

Except now when he walks through the front door,

he comes back with not only a tune in his heart,

but an SD card full of memories.

-Derrick

 

The Pounding of the Drum

It's my last morning in Manhattan. I'm ready to go.

For me, New York City has one thing in common with Las Vegas. When it's good, it's great. When it's time to leave, I can't get out of town fast enough. 

Guess I'm more country than I realized. 

I'm writing this on my iPad in the Tick Tock restaurant on 8th Ave and 34th St. I need the chatter of a hundred voices to help me write. Everyone is talking, but there are no words. It's a soft blanket of sound.  It's heaven.

In my room on the 20th floor, all I can hear is endless drumming and chanting. Word is the Dali Lama is coming. I like the Dalai Lama. In fact, I think he's incredible. But it's difficult to collect my thoughts against a chorus of which I am not a participant. 

Boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom. 

It's the city. You have to be tolerant. You need to creatively solve the problem. 

There's no tapping the culprit on the shoulder and politely asking, "Can you keep it down? I'm trying to write."  It doesn't work that way. The noise is too big.

Boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom.

For many seekers, the Dalai Lama is their guiding light. 

For me, these 100 souls in the Tick Tock, 

are my saviors. 

-Derrick

RoW

I think I've figured out why so many photographers insist on bringing everything they own on every shoot.

It's a safety blanket.

(I leave mine at home.)

I rarely need more than a couple lenses when I'm working. Before the shoot, I think about the subject and environment, decide which camera and lens is best suited for the task at hand, then bring a logical alternative or two. 

But the fact of the matter is, I rarely stray from the initial plan. And what additional gear I do bring, often remains in the bag. Sure, I'll change a battery or swap out a memory card. I might even add a filter. But that's about it for extra cirrucular activity.

What I've noticed with my Pelican-case-packing-comrades, is essentially the same. Generally speaking, they are using a lens or two, changing a battery when needed, and that's it.

So why so much stuff?

I think it's the same emotion that leads to overpacking a suitcase for a trip. We bring too much because "we might need it." Just in case. It's insurance.

Insurance is based on numbers. So let's look at the math of overpacking. If you carry 30 extra pounds on 10 trips, that's 300 pounds of discomfort. Divide that by the one or two times that you actually use an extra item. Then look at the resulting photos. 

In business, we think in terms of ROI. So my question would be: "What was your return on weight?" I call this RoW.

After this exercise, your conclusion could be that the result clearly justified the bulk. That's great. At least you thought it through. Keep on truckin'.

If your RoW isn't as positive as you'd like, do a test. Think about the next shoot beforehand, carefully select the gear your need, then pack a smaller bag.

If it works out,

this could be the beginning 

of a lighter, more nimble, you. 

-Derrick

Backpack or Shoulder Bag?

It's the most common question in camera-toting lore.

And I think you'd have to be a photographer to appreciate the significance of this decision. Having the wrong bag for the situation is like wearing pants that are too tight or a shirt that's too short. It just feels wrong.

I'm thinking about this because I just switched from a messenger bag to a backpack for my trip to the Eastern Sierra. There's no way I would carry my black Urban Reporter down the streets of Bridgeport. I'd look like someone who got lost on his way to San Francisco.

My blue Photo Hatchback was the perfect choice. It felt right around town, and performed brilliantly while hiking along the Walker River in search of the perfect Aspen grove. With its secure shoulder straps and waist band, I could hop from rock to rock with my gear snugly hugging my body.

Next week I fly to New York City. There's no way I'm carrying a blue backpack down 34th. I'm switching back to my discrete, black Urban Reporter 150. I can easily slide it to my front when riding public transit, it looks good sitting next to me in a coffee shop, and I can quietly pull out my camera for a few quick frames when walking to work in Manhattan.

(I'll be frank. I find giant backpacks very annoying on crowded subways and buses.)

By now, you've figured out the answer to this carrying solution quandary.

You knew what I was going to say all along.

Any photographer worth his or her salt,

has one of each.

-Derrick

A Cold Night in Bridgeport

There were a lot of things on my mind as I drove out of town.

Sonora Pass was ahead of me, Bridgeport behind. I left a few things there. I won't be missing them. 

In the trunk of the car there were two bags. One contained a dusty change of clothes, toiletries, and some basic hiking gear. The other, a backpack, was used to transport an Olympus E-M10, four lenses, an iPad mini, wireless hard drive, and a few accessories. It's my version of traveling light.

Just a few days earlier, I had slung these two bags over my shoulder and walked up the back stairs to the second floor of the Bridgeport Inn. I had room 23.

"It's the one with a power outlet," Laura told me when I checked in. "Plus it's near the back door and the bathrooms."

The Bridgeport Inn was built in the late 1800s. Downstairs was a restaurant and saloon. There was also a large common area "where guests once smoked, read, and kept warm."

Upstairs was divided into two sections. On the left side were deluxe accommodations that contained a bathroom, heating, television, and other comforts. They cost more than what I was paying. The right side featured a long hallway with open doors on both sides. An open door meant the room was available. If you peered in, you would see a 9'x9' space with a bed, dresser, and a single light overhead.

With the exception of room 23, there wasn't even a power outlet. No heating, and the bathroom was at the end of the hall.

I normally camp when working in the Eastern Sierra. But this was a last-minute trip, so I booked the cheapest room possible instead. I knew it would be Spartan. But there was more there than I anticipated.

Nobody told me this, but I had a pretty good idea of how the Inn once worked. My room, along with the others on the right side of the building, were short-term accommodations. The interior stairs led from the raucous saloon to the long, darkened hallway.

I woke up cold at 3am the first night. The temperature outside was in the mid-20s, and my room was probably in the upper 30s. I had to sleep curled up. I was too uncomfortable otherwise.

"This is how it was," I thought. I remember one story about life in Bodie where the prostitutes would stay all night with the miners who had hired them. It was for the warmth. And in many cases, I'm sure it meant the luxury of a night's sleep.

First thing in the morning, I went downstairs to the heated restaurant. The coffee was good. I ate a full breakfast. I felt great.

This might sound odd, but I loved the experience. By the second day, I was already in rhythm with my life in the Eastern Sierra. I ate bigger meals, found an extra blanket, and worked hard while the sun was out.

I thought about how my life is different than when the Bridgeport Inn was built. And on my way to the Sonora Pass, I realized that I would have been fine then too.

Thanks to a cold night in Bridgeport,

I gained a lot of confidence

from a little discomfort.

-Derrick

Packing for Bridgeport

I'm heading to the Eastern Sierra on a scouting mission.

Bridgeport will be our headquarters during the June 2015 Photography Workshop for Bodie and Mono Lake. I love this area, and Bridgeport is a wonderful place to hang my hat for a night while exploring the rugged terrain of the High Plains. 

Fortunately, the Quaking Aspens still have color right now. So I'll be able to capture a few photographs, find a good homebase for our event, and breath some clean air.

I have a room reserved at the Bridgeport Inn. It's one of those places where you wish the walls could talk. It was built in the late 1800s and has hosted adventurers, fisherman, hikers, and those seeking their fortune in the silver mines of Bodie.  I've never slept there before. Who knows what I'll encounter.

At the moment, the Bridgeport Inn is my leading contender for workshop headquarters in June. But I'm not going to make a final decision until I spend a few nights there. I'll also scout locations for our photo shoots, and of course, test places to eat. 

This is the part of my job that I love. Having the freedom to go off and see something beautiful, then figure out how to share it with others. 

I'll finish packing my rucksack this morning, record the podcast for the week, then hit the road.  I'm traveling light, of course. I'm taking the Olympus OM-D E-M 10, a couple lenses, the iPad mini, and a pocket camera. That's all I need -

Oh, except for the camping stove and some French Roast. 

I love the taste of coffee 

at 6000 feet. 

-Derrick

 

Wish Upon a Blood Moon

I had already decided that I wasn't going to photograph last night's lunar eclipse.

I just wanted to enjoy it. And who knows if I were to see anything, anyway.

So as I went to bed, I told my internal clock to wake me at 3:30 am so I could poke my head outside. It was closer to 4 when I opened my eyes. At first I wasn't sure why. Then I remembered.

The blood moon.

Theresa woke up too. She looked at me inquisitively.

"The eclipse," I whispered. "Come see it with me."

I put a blanket around her shoulders and we ventured out back. There it was, hanging in the west. Beautiful.

The air was clean, revealing a sky filled with jewels. The veiled moon dimming her beacon, allowing the stars to cast their light. 

We stood silently.

At 4 am that morning, I loved my life, my family, and the creator of such magnificent moments. The experience lasted only minutes. I'll remember them forever.

I was half naked. Cold was setting in. We shuffled back inside and upstairs to the warm bed. Heaven.

Normally, I would have cast a wish up that blood moon. But not that night. Because, as I stood there, eyes upward into the sky, I knew that I had everything

that meant anything

to me.

-Derrick