Why Personal Projects are Important

I do a lot of work for other people. And I enjoy it. But it's the personal projects that truly satisfy.

This web site is an example. If I didn't have The Nimble Photographer, I wouldn't keep up with my journal entries. Seeing it there daily as a tab in my web browser reminds me that I need to write something with an opinion - not news, not an article, but words from the heart.

Posting to Instagram is also a personal project. Seeing its icon on my iPhone Home screen reminds me how much I love photography. Instagram is my visual journal, a place where I can share something interesting that I saw that day. 

If I hadn't established these platforms for sharing, then I know that the days, weeks, and even months would go by without me creating something that wasn't an obligation.

I have friends who do the same thing. They set up a project and tell themselves that they are going to finish it by the end of the month. And in order to do so, they often have to set aside a few tasks that would otherwise occupy their time.

There will always be tasks, but not always time.

My personal opinion is that life should be more than a checklist of duties. I value my family, friendships, pets, and personal projects.

I don't know what was on my work ToDo list earlier this month. But I do remember writing From the Bad... and publishing a photo on Instagram of a man reading a newspaper in a Chinatown alley painted green. I'm smiling right now thinking about them both.

These are the endeavors that keep me going. Because at the end of the day, I'm more than a job.

And this is from a guy who is very lucky at work.

-Derrick

Starbucks Listened (I Hope)

I'm sitting in a Starbucks right now drinking a Tall Americano - I know, the irony of my drink choice doesn't escape me either. 

This is the very Starbucks that I criticized not long ago for its terrible WiFi and flippant response to my complaint about it. I'm writing this post on my iPad mini connected to a very fast Internet. That's right, the problem is fixed. 

I spent $6 for a coffee and breakfast sandwich, not expecting a thing more. But when I checked my iPhone while standing in line, the login screen for Starbucks WiFi appeared, and it's been nothing but love ever since. 

I don't know how this came about. Nobody contacted me. Starbucks just did the right thing and fixed the problem.  

So it's only fair that I now proclaim: The Starbucks in Coddington Mall, Santa Rosa CA, presents a clean hospitable atmosphere, serves good coffee and food, and has excellent WiFi.

You should stop by if you're ever in town. 

-Derrick  

 

From the Bad...

I'm not even going to look at my todo list for today. Why should I? It's nearly dinner time, and I haven't been able to yet.

This has been a remarkable day. One in which problems lined up at my doorstep ready to cross the threshold without an invitation. There were technical difficulties, such as the most important podcast of the year not being served to my subscribers. And I could not figure out why.

On the personal front, my boy was so very sick with an exam scheduled that did not allow for makeups. He didn't know what to do. Then, I had a dear friend going through a tough time with what appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel. And there was more.

It would have been an easy day to give up on people and withdraw. "There's nothing I can do about it."  But instead, in each instance, I stepped into the breach and was honest about the situation. And each time, people responded.

My The Digital Story audience rallied around technical alternatives and keep me posted on the progress of the repair. By mid-morning, we were able the fix the problem. The teacher who had a "no makeup test" rule came up with a solution that allowed my boy to stay home and get better, without failing the class. And my friend reached down inside and found the courage to overcome the challenge.

Most people would say that I had a terrible day. Yet, much like my visit to Cuba, my belief in human character has been affirmed once again.

I'm impressed that time and time again, from what appears to be the bad,

is really an opportunity for good to emerge.

-Derrick

The Movie Deal

When I say that I got a movie deal, it's a bit different than when Brad Pitt signs on the dotted line.

His contract is worth 7 figures. Mine is four. Brad's film will be screened from coast to coast in theaters, then available online. I jump directly to the online part. And of course Brad's debut will be accompanied by launch parties and TV appearances. I'll bring a couple six packs for the production crew once we complete filming.

Even though my world is much different than Brad Pitt's, I love making movies. And I just got the green light for "Travel Photography in Cuba" with lynda.com

This is a project that I began totally on spec. My friend Neil Bauman offered me a photographer gig on a People to People tour that he was putting together. He helped defray costs, but I had to come up with airfare to Miami, my own gear, spending money on the road, and hotel rooms in Florida. I scraped the money together.

There are some things you know you should do, and this trip was one of them.

Before departing for Havana, I wrote my content director at lynda, Jim Heid, and asked him if he were interested in a travel movie set in Cuba. He wrote back the same day. We decided that I'd go shoot, then we'd iron out the details upon my return.

The shoot went better than I could have ever hoped. And when I returned to California, we crafted the storyline for presentation to the lynda brass. Just a week later, I signed the contract.

I'm lucky that I can make a living doing things that I love, such as sharing stories and adventures from an island in the Caribbean. It's a risky business. I take my best shot, and hope for the best. There are no guarantees.

I guess that's one thing that Brad and I have in common.

-Derrick

One American Flag

We were all a bit weary upon our return to Havana from Santa Clara. Our eyes were full, but our stomachs were empty. And a glass of 3-year-old rum never sounded better.

We checked in at the Melia Cohiba Hotel, and agreed to meet back here, downstairs, at 7pm for dinner. I then pulled my suitcase over to the elevators and went up to the 12th floor. When I opened the door, I was greeted to my best room yet in Cuba, much bigger than during my previous stay. I had a view of the ocean to one side and surrounding hotels on the other. It was spectacular.

Somewhat reenergized by this good fortune, I treated myself to a Cristal that was chilled in the fridge alongside two Cuban colas and 3 bottles of water. Unlike American hotels where a beer would have cost me $6 or more, I only had to pay a couple pesos. I finished the beer, changed clothes, and closed the door behind me.

A few of us got to the lobby early and were comparing notes from the day. Someone asked, "Did you see the American flag out front?" 

"What?"

"Yes, I was told that it's the first time ever here. They just put it on a pole out front."

The Melia Cohiba Hotel was built in the 1990s when the Cuban government opened its doors to specific types of foreign investment. Since it was a choice for many diplomats and other working visitors from all over the world, the hotel began a tradition of flying flags out front representing the various countries of its visitors that day.

That is, unless you were American.

"Derrick, you have to get a picture of this."

"I will. I want it in the morning light. Morning will be good for this shot."

At breakfast, I had two cups of Cuban coffee, two fried eggs on a pancake, and a banana. I then went out front and photographed the first American flag ever flown at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. I watched it flapping in the breeze for a few moments, then put away the camera and greeted my friends.

We boarded our bus for the meeting in Havana. Our driver, Pedro (whom we all had become quite fond of), pulled a small U.S. flag from his shirt pocket. It was attached to a wooden stick, looking like a table decoration from a Fourth of July picnic. I had no idea where he got it.

He attached it to the Rosary hanging from his rear view mirror. I was tickled seeing it hanging there in the front window. We then departed for downtown Havana to attend to the day's business ahead:

Fourteen North Americans, two Cubans, 

and one American flag.

-Derrick

The Plaza in Santa Clara

A few of us were feeling full after dinner. It wasn’t that we ate too much, but the fresh evening air seemed the wiser choice for dessert.

We were in Santa Clara, the heart of Cuba, about a 3-hour drive from Havana. The night air was still, especially compared to last night’s breezy walk in La Habana.

We decided that we were going to explore photography on the plaza. It was only two blocks from the hotel. Each of us had a camera of some sort, but inside we knew that we just wanted to see what people were doing.

I was surprised to see so many locals out on Tuesday night. I’m not sure why, because I don’t really know what Cubans do on Tuesdays. I’m usually at home.

They were sitting on park benches conversing with one another, gathering in the music clubs that lined the square, or kissing and holding hands like lovers who had just found one another and weren’t quite ready to part ways.

I counted at least three groups of teenagers on the plaza. They were talking and laughing as teenagers do, with their private jokes that often go undeciphered by adults. One had a guitar and played accompaniment to others singing.

The odd thing was, not one person was texting on a phone. In fact, I didn’t see any electronic devices. Their hands were used for gestures, not typing.

We talked among ourselves in the group, comparing notes to make sure that we were all seeing the same thing. And we came to a single conclusion. Something special was happening here.

We circled the square one more time, then headed back to the hotel. None of our phones were working in Santa Clara, so we were either chatting with one other, or stayed quiet with our thoughts.

I was thinking about those kids. I felt protective, as if they were my own boys. What they had there, on that comfortable night in Santa Clara, was beautiful.

And I feared that someday soon

it may be lost.

-Derrick

South Beach Miami

I have visited just about every other major city in Florida, except Miami.

I felt like there was something here that the universe did not want me to see. So when I learned that our jumping off point for Havana was Miami Airport, I knew my time had come.

I booked a room in the Harrison Hotel on Washington St. in South Beach. Being a few blocks from Ocean Drive, it was affordable for my budget, but still within walking distance to all the action. Mostly Spanish and English overheard here. And I find myself conversing in a odd mix of both.

The best part of my room is, well, location. It's Spartan. But there's a mini refrigerator and everything is clean. So I'm happy here.

My first exploration of Ocean Drive was Friday late morning. I was scouting for the evening ahead. I'm glad I did. Not so much to ensure good shooting for later, but because it was fun.

On one side of the Drive are street vendors selling wares and delicious food such as arepas (hot, sweet cornmeal cheese sandwiches), BBQ chicken, sausages, and lemonade. With the ocean park behind them, it's a combination of alluring smoke and sea air that's impossible to resist.

Across from them are the art deco hotels and restaurants. Here's where you can treat yourself to a sit-down meal, colorful tropical drink, and music. Tables line both edges of the sidewalk, so you're actually walking through the restaurant as your explore Ocean Drive. It's the best marketing possible, because you can see the food, drinks, and help without making an immediate commitment.

Walking in general is easy here. Miami closes off the Drive to cars between 6th and 14th (or so). So you can stroll down the middle of the road, street vendors to one side, restaurants to the other, music everywhere. It's like a wholesome Bourbon Street.

I had a BBQ chicken skewer and an arepa for lunch. I could have had more, but I was working. By 2:30 pm the light was flat, so I headed back to the room to process the images and plan my attack for the evening. 

After a nice break and a bottle of water, I was back on Ocean Drive by 5pm, ready for twilight and neon. My favorite night shots aren't really at night. They're at twilight, with some color in the sky just as the building lights come on.

I was shooting with my OM-D E-M10, switching between the 17mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8 prime lenses. Ocean Drive did not disappoint. Color, music, people, food, drink, and street shooting. I finished off the adventure with an Americano at Aroma Expresso on Collins Ave.

Now I know why the universe had denied me Miami. This is a special place for photographers.

And one that I can now fully appreciate after all these years.

-Derrick

Author's Note: It often pays to be lucky. I just learned from Fred, one of our readers, that I landed in South Beach on Art Deco Weekend. I walked right in to a festival, and didn't know it. The good news is that this happens every year. Plan accordingly :-)

62 Pounds

At first, 62 pounds seems like a lot.

I’m thinking about this because 62 pounds is how much my luggage weighs. I know it for sure. I put the suitcase on the bathroom scale, and the readout was 44. I then tested my backpack. There’s another 18. Total: 62 pounds.

As I fly east over the heart of America, 62 pounds is the sum weight of everything I own: shirts, socks, flashlight, camera, laptop, and phone. Items at home in the closet doesn’t matter. They can’t help me here.

It’s a weird feeling having everything you think you need in two stylish containers with padded grips. I think about such things when I walk by the man curled up behind the Radio Shack. His stuffed shopping cart of indistinguishable content is at his feet. For someone sleeping on the concrete, he looks content. Is it because he believes he has everything he needs?

I’m probably wrong about this.

In my case, however, it’s true. I’m ready for anything. Rain? I reach for my compact umbrella and Eddie Bauer hiking jacket (thanks dear!) Medical misadventure? My personal first aid kit is fully stocked. Amazing photo op? You know I have cameras.

In this light, 44 plus 18 doesn’t seem like much. New cities, new adventures. And with fingers tightly curled around each handle, me and my 62 pounds

are ready for the world.

-Derrick

What We Leave Behind

There are always decisions involved with leaving.

The starting point is figuring out what to take. I usually start with gear, because those are the more complicated decisions. It doesn't do any good to bring your favorite camera on an extended trip if you forget its battery charger. It's like a puzzle, and you need the right pieces.

Weight plays a critical role. For example, I love the functionality of a laptop computer. But relative to the other things I bring, it's heavy and bulky. If I can get by without it, I will. Tripods fall in to the same category.

Then we get to the suitcase itself. Here too, I only pack what I think I'll actually need. My thinking is that if I forgot something, I can always buy it on the road. One of my favorite sayings is, "It's not like we're going to Cuba." I might have to modify that for my departure this Thursday.

For my trip to Havana, I need to have everything I need. I can't go to the corner drugstore and buy insect repellent or Ibuprofen. That has to be with me. So, in the same fashion as packing my gear bag, I have a checklist, and I'm starting the process early.

This next part is closer to home. Every time I walk out the door, I leave my family behind. To be honest, I would prefer that they come with me, especially my wife. But that's not practical for them. I'm the one who wants to explore. They have their jobs, school, friends, and responsibilities here, not there.

I realize the risk that comes with adventure. Something could go wrong. I try to comfort myself by saying that things could go wrong anywhere. But even if everything runs smoothly, I'm still disrupting the rhythm of daily life.  And even while visiting the most beautiful places on the planet, I think of them.

The fact of the matter is, what we leave behind

is more valuable than what we bring.

-Derrick

If I were a Lightbulb, I'd be Glowing

I try to temper my expectations before stepping through the doors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 

What I'm hoping for is innovation that will make my world brighter and more fun. But it's really a copycat's paradise. For example, in the realm of photography, it seemed like everyone felt that they needed to offer an action or 360 degree camera. So in 2015 we'll see dozens upon dozens of cameras that you can clip to a helmet, position in the nursery, or dangle overhead while crossing the river via a rope bridge - because that's how we all get to work in the morning.

Photography in general was disappointing this year. Basically, what we saw were reconfigurations of existing technologies. New cameras by Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic felt more like product cycle releases than innovations. 

"What are we going to release at CES?"

"Hmmm... let's look at the product roadmap. We could push up these compacts."

"Perfect, let's do it."

What was interesting to me was the world of home automation. It's finally coming of age. And many of the announcements were both clever and useful. Things like the OORT SmartSocket, the Smarter coffeepot, the netatmo Weather Station, and the entire ecosystem building around Nest Labs is truly interesting. 

Being able to better control my home environment, save energy, and possibly protect what's inside my house is good stuff. Along with the development of Bluetooth related technologies and the evolving car, I felt that this was the area of CES that met my expectations.

My final thought probably won't surprise you. I love lighting. And what's happening with the common lightbulb is fascinating.

These were my shining knights in Vegas.

-Derrick

 

Second Doubts

Right now, I'm really missing my OMD-E-M10 with its beautiful 17mm f/1.8 prime. Here's why.

I'm logging a lot of miles on foot in Las Vegas right now covering the CES show. For this type of work, I like a small messenger bag with a camera, extra lens, iPad mini, and a nano tripod. That's all I need.

Backpacks are terrible at trade shows. They are just too damn big. And their owners don't factor in the added girth as they cut in front of you and swing around a few times. So I need cameras that fit easily in a messenger... like my E-M10 with a prime lens or two.

The reason why I'm lamenting this is because I fell in to the "I'm a professional photographer" trap and brought the wrong gear for this trip. I have the largish E-M1 (by mirrorless standards) with the PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom lens. Great camera. Fantastic lens. Too big. Too heavy.

Already, just after one day here, I'm reaching for the Samsung NX3000 with its diminutive 30mm f/2.0 prime lens. The tandem is as light as a feather and fits easily in my shoulder bag. It's what I'm shooting with.

What I should have packed also is the smaller E-M10, 14-42mm power zoom pancake lens, 17mm f/1.8 prime, and 45mm f/1.8 telephoto. But alas, they are back at the studio in the lens safe.

It's funny, I do great work when I'm not being a pro. I'm free of gear pretenses and just shoot with what I want.

Something to keep in mind as I prepare for Cuba.

-Derrick

Las Vegas, Ready or Not

Every year I know CES is just around the corner, and every year it surprises me.

This Sunday I'll board Southwest Airlines in Oakland and touch down in Las Vegas 90 minutes later. By 4pm, I'll be at Mandalay Bay for the first press event of the week.

Aside from the usual suspects, CES (short for the Consumer Electronics Show) will highlight home automation and wearables. Of course, the biggest wearable of the year, the Apple Watch, won't be present. So that feels weird. How can I get excited about anything else until that shoe drops?

As for home automation, well, it has been a slow train coming. I think 2015 will be the year, however, where some of this stuff becomes practical for the average, somewhat nerdy, consumer. To be honest, I would like a coffee pot that I can turn on from my smartphone. 

There will  be lots of news about drones in every shape and size. Lots of them. I might write a story on the latest and greatest quad-copter. Or I might not.

As for photography, which is our collective first love, there will be some news. I'm just not sure how much of it I'll be able to report right away. I have a handful of meetings with nondisclosure agreements, presumably about new products in the pipeline. I'm hoping that I'll be able to discuss some of those in January. I like new photography announcements. 

CES will also be my final dry run before stepping on a plane to Miami later this month for the Cuba assignment. I'm feeling confident about my gear selection. If my final test goes well, I'll publish a report with the kit I've packed. There'll be some surprises in there. And I think you'll enjoy the post.

Until then, it's Las Vegas time. You'll hear from me there. And I promise,

there won't be one article about 4K televisions.

-Derrick

A Short Pause in the Program

I'm already thinking about 2015. I can't help it.

In my line of work, which is flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship, I constantly have to think ahead. A perfect example was earlier this year. When I felt my days were coming to an end at Lowepro, I started a search for a new client. As it turned out, I lost one and gained three. (It doesn't always go that well.)  

My crystal ball is still a bit foggy about 2015. On the plus side, there's the trip to Cuba, two fresh titles for lynda.com, a new photography workshop in June, and for the most part, my clients seem happy. On the negative side, there's all the stuff that's going to happen that I don't know about yet. And to be honest, there's probably not much I can do to prevent it, especially right now.

So I should take a little break. Visit with my friends and family - share a few stories, have a beer or two, and give thanks for an amazing 2014. 

I don't think it makes any difference what particular holiday we celebrate. There's a theme that runs through all of them: be thankful for the blessings and share them with others.

2015 will be here soon enough. And when it arrives, I'll be ready. But for now, I'm going to press the pause button and think about how darn lucky I am.

Then go spend the evening with my family.

-Derrick

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