Tossed Aside

It's amazing how many rituals I have.

When I get home, the car keys go on top of the family room hutch and my shoes go beneath. The backpack with my camera gear fits perfectly on the left side where there's a small space between the furniture and heating vent. 

I say hello to whoever is downstairs. I then take a seat on the couch for a few minutes, check my iPhone, and head upstairs to freshen up.

It's like clockwork. And I have a similar sequence for departing.

No one else in the house behaves this way. Generally speaking, items are shed in random locations as each member arrives. Car keys may be tossed on the dining table, floor, couch, rocking chair, ottoman, or inside a backpack or purse. Items then must be relocated and retrieved before departure.

In an already messy world, that approach just wouldn't work for me.

For the most part, I know where all my stuff is at any given moment. My backpack represents my utopia. Each lens has its home and is never misplaced. The laptop slides into a dedicated compartment, spare batteries go in a specific pocket, and the iPad is quickly accessible from the top.

My question is: "Did I develop this obsession because I'm a photographer, or the other way around?"

Few things are more unsettling than having a great photo opp appear before me, and my not being able to find the right lens to capture it. A misplaced battery to replace one that just died can drive me nuts in the middle of a shoot. So, there are practical reasons for my organization.

But there's an emotional component too. Life is messy. 

There are so many thing of which I have no control. Most things in fact. And as far as I can see, there's no formula for success. In fact, survival is a crap shoot.

My camera bag is the one thing that I have complete control over. Its contents were selected because of their practical value and aesthetic nature. There's no surplus, no waste, no inefficiency. And most importantly, there's no room for cruelty, ignorance, and greed.

When life just doesn't make any sense - which is a daily occurrence - I can open my camera bag and marvel at its logic.

After a few minutes,  I take a deep breath, zip it closed, and head back into that messy world.

-Derrick

The Cure for Shyness

One of my most difficult social settings is a party where I don't know anyone.

Small talk really isn't my thing. Part of it is, I don't enjoy waxing on about my own accomplishments. I don't like to be drunk in public.  And I don't care how much money someone makes. So there goes 75 percent of the conversation right out the window.

These are the times that I love being a photographer.

Instead of standing there like a statue with a drink in my hand, I can circulate through the crowd looking for interesting images. I have something to do. I can be myself.

Photography is my cure for shyness. I'm not an introvert. I actually like interacting with people. But I need something interesting to talk about. And taking pictures often opens that door.

The only thing better than a camera is a puppy.  Bring one to a park and you don't have to do anything. Just stand there with a dog and people race toward you with a smile on their face. Too bad they don't rent puppies for social events.

So instead, I bring my mirrorless. The moment I feel trapped in a meaningless exchange, I say: "Excuse me, there's a photo over there I want to capture. Nice chatting with you."

OK, I admit it, I'm not perfectly honest at cocktail hour. But my intentions are good. And if I take your picture, that might start a conversation that we both enjoy.

And I would like that very much.

-Derrick

Opting for Plan B

I've never understood success.

Why is it that some things are wildly popular while others remain anonymous?

Have you ever noticed that if people don't want something, you can't give it away? Lowering the price only prolongs the agony. Remember the Hasselblad Stellar? It was released for $2,195. You can buy it today, brand new, for $895. And I bet they're still not selling. I'm sure Hasselblad thought it was a good idea when they created it. Who knew?

We all run into this, one way or another. We're creative. We make things. Many of us hope that others will appreciate our efforts.

If I post a photo on Instagram, I check back in a couple hours to see how many likes it has garnered. When I release a new title on lynda.com, I want to know how it's performing in relation to others on the site. I find positive reinforcement motivating.

Some artists say they don't care how others respond to their work. I think I know what they're getting at. The act of creating is rewarding in itself. That's true. But, just like having a quiet moment to oneself is satisfying... as long as that isn't a permanent condition.

Lack of success is often mystifying.

I have a lot of empathy for talented people who are unsuccessful. Most of the time, I can't figure out why. The ideas seem good, The work ethic is there. Yet, failure engulfs the project like a curse that can't be seen as it repels from all sides.

To tell the truth, I've never been wildly successful myself. I've had my victories over the years, and I'm lucky enough to make a living doing what I love. By the same token, however, if I let go of the rope for even a moment, I'll surely drift off into oblivion. To me, that's not success; that's a job.

So what is the deciding factor? How can anyone predict if their work will be successful or not? I doubt there's a concrete answer. So we opt for Plan B.

We leverage the little victories into momentum. This is why we need to celebrate the good things that happen. They provide the fuel that we'll need to get through the next day.

When someone complements your work, acknowledge that. Soak it in. Every success should be squeezed for all its goodness.

Odds are that neither you nor I will ever be rich or famous. But we can be happy.

Because the one thing we have control over is perception. When we learn how to see what is good and then show the wisdom to embrace it, we live to create another day.

And we all know that anything can happen tomorrow.

-Derrick

Moments and Compacts

My entry into digital photography was with a compact camera.

In those early days, digital SLRs were $20,000. That was way too much of an investment for a rapidly changing technology. So I opted instead for compacts such as the Olympus D-400 zoom. It featured a 1.3 MP sensor generating 1280 x 960 images that were viewable on a 1.8-inch color LCD postage-stamped on the back. And it cost less than $1,000. This was late 1999.

Compacts thrived in the early days of digital photography. We didn't have iPhones and Samsung Galaxies. So we recorded our family memories with compacts, then uploaded them to computers for sharing, most often as email attachments.

Before long, the rise of smartphones spelled demise for these compacts, and manufacturers have evolved their form factor into expensive replacements for larger cameras. The Sony RX100 IV, for example, is currently selling for $950.

There are, however, still reasonably priced, highly versatile compact digital cameras available. They don't get the attention they once did, but they're fun to shoot with. For a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I packed an Olympus SH-2 that's selling for $350.

For me, it's like stepping back in time. The camera slides easily into my front pants pocket, its zoom lens extends when I switch on the power, and I compose the image on a fixed LCD positioned on the back.

Of course today's models are high resolution, include WiFi, and have a host of creative functions that we could only dream of 15 years ago. But the experience is still very similar.

This really hit home last night. A group of us were sitting on the beach near Stearn's Wharf as the sun was setting. Everyone had their mobile devices. I pulled out the Olympus SH-2.

The kids had just been through freshman orientation at UCSB. They were excited and tired. The adults we feeling something different, a sense of pride, and of loss. We're going to miss them.

I pulled out my compact camera to capture the moment. The photo already looks like an image from the past. One that I'll want to hang on to forever.

-Derrick

One Prime One Zoom

Once again, I've found myself extolling the virtues of the 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.

This time it was to a pair of high school students who had been relying solely on their capable, but sluggish kit zooms.  "If your first lens is a zoom, then your next needs to be a large aperture prime," I said. "That's just the way it is."

For beginning photographers, this is a no-brainer. They can purchase an f/1.8 optic that's perfect for a variety of artistic shots for only $125. In the world of primes, that's a steal. And kids do amazing things with this glass.

But this optical tandem is for the young at heart too. My street shooting rig is typically an Olympus OM-D mounted with a 14-42mm EZ zoom on the camera, and a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7  stashed in my pocket... or the other way around. The zoom is a good all-purpose optic that can capture a row of interesting brick buildings one moment, then the smile of a beckoning shop owner the next. Its versatility is quite satisfying, that is, until the sun begins to set.

Then, as the day's shadows grow longer, the fast prime becomes my new best friend. I open its aperture all the way, increase the ISO a few notches, and set off to explore the darker side of urban life.

Maybe I want to isolate a subject, such as the image of a street vendor with soap bubble car lights floating in the background? This is not a problem for the fast prime lens.

I've photographed the streets of San Francisco, Boston, New York, Glasgow, Beijing, and Nagasaki with these optics. Essentially, I'm using the same two lenses that I recommend to my high school student photographers.

I just hope, that all these years later,  I'm still half as creative as they are with this glass.

-Derrick

There's Always a Gimbels Down the Street

One of my favorite scenes in the classic movie, Miracle on 34th Street is when the manager at Macy's changes his thinking (thanks to St. Nick) and recommends Gimbels Department Store to Macy's customers whose needs aren't being met. It turns out to be a brilliant strategy that Gimbels adopts later in the movie.

There's plenty of subtext also, and you could argue that Macy's was still acting in its own best interests by taking this stance. And in large part, I'm not so interested in the motivation as I am the action, at least in trivial matters such as this.

I bring this up because I too am a businessman. I have a variety of products, such as the TDS Photography Podcast, my movies on lynda.com, and the work I do for clients. It's a lot of stuff for a one man show trying to make a living in a competitive market.

From the beginning, my approach has been to write and broadcast about my activities. Whether it's sharing a photo tip that I just discovered, talking about a book I just finished, encouraging others to participate on a social network site that I oversee, or support publications that I write for, I choose these relationships carefully. That way I can enthusiastically talk about them publicly. 

Unlike other larger businesses, I don't have a big team behind me. The podcast, for example, is conceived, written, recorded, edited, and produced by me, usually late at night. The content is based on what I've seen and experienced in the last week. And I share it freely with my audience.

Every now and then I receive mail citing that I've just published a infomercial. Everyone is entitled to their point of view. My perspective is that I'm excited about the projects I'm working on. Others see it solely as self promotion. The content varies from week to week depending on my activities. I realize that some weeks are more promotional than others.

The bottom line is, however, this is my life. I don't want to work for a company, and I don't want to talk about things that don't interest me. I've done that. Quite honestly, it sucks.

My hope is, that on the balance, people enjoy most of what I discuss, and are willing to tolerate the weeks when I disappoint. It's really the only practical way I can manage this.

If that doesn't work, I feel badly about it. My goal is to inform and entertain. And I know there's always a Gimbels down the street offering something different.

-Derrick

Cohiba

I've been thinking a lot about Cuba lately... in large part, because my movie and eBook on the subject were just released. But there's something else going on.

When I look back on my time there, and  what I learned, a few things stand out: beautiful people, classic American cars, interesting architecture, organic food, intoxicating rum, and Cohiba cigars. 

I'm going to make a connection here that may not seem logical at first. To be honest, it took me a while to figure it out.

Photographers tend to think of craftsmanship in terms of cameras and lenses, and rightly so. These instruments are marvels of technology and skill. But when I learned about the art of Cuban cigar making, I saw a few parallels.

I won't detail the entire process (although you can read about it here), but a top quality cigar takes years to produce and involves great skill and patience. The wrappers are grown in the shade, other types of leaves cultivated outside, and every step, from harvesting, to curing, to assembly are a model of time-tested precision.

Yet, when we strike a match and push the flame against the wrapped leaves of sweet tobacco, we may not fully appreciate the very item we're about to enjoy. 

This sort of thing happens daily. Whether it's the complexity of flavors mingling in the wine served with our meal or the marvel of components puzzled together in our mobile devices, we typically don't realize how high others have reached to create these works.

I'll admit, it's asking a lot to understand the melding of rare earth metals and silicon that result in a phone. But all of us can wrap our heads around seeds planted in soil, nurtured to maturity beneath the sun, then carefully harvested and cured to perfection. That is, if we care to do so.

I've finally discovered the haunting feeling that has followed me home from Havana. It has to do with reaching one's potential. I have much more than seeds and soil. But I haven't perfected anything.

The more I learn about the craftsmanship of a Cohiba cigar, the more I want to grow as a writer, interleaving words and ideas into a seemingly simple work of art. And to do so lightly, like smoke carried off on the heels of a breeze.

It doesn't matter what I have to start with. It's what I do with it that counts.

-Derrick

 

Hardware Lust

"Why do guys like cars so much?" She asked the other day.

"I don't know, really," I said. "I think it's all the mechanical stuff."

She asked, because even though I have three cars (all paid for BTW), I'm always checking out the latest models humming down the freeway. My son Max got to drive a Tesla the other day. That's just not fair. He's an 18-year-old kid.

All that being said, I'm glad she asked me about cars and not cameras. That answer would be more difficult.

At my disposal, I have an army of compacts, mirrorless, and DSLR soldiers. Their batteries are charged and memory cards are clean. On a moment's notice, I can switch from a Canon 5D Mark II with 70-200mm f/2.8 telezoom to an Olympus OM-D E-M10 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 prime. And there's a lot of artillery in between.

So the real question is: why do I like cameras so much?

I think it's because they are precise instruments that can create art. I can hold a camera in my hand and marvel at the finely machined dials one moment, then flip the On switch and photograph a twilight landscape the next. That's an irresistible juxtaposition of sensations.

It's funny how I am with these devices. I will carry a silver E-M5 Mark II around for a couple weeks and shoot only with it. Then I'll switch to a black E-M10 and marvel at it for a while. Those changeover days are very exciting. Because, of course, I have to adjust the complement of lenses too. 

I've never been one of those guys who say it's all about the art. I'm not wired that way. I'm a gearhead nerd with a good eye. Don't make me choose between a wrench and the car.

My camera collection will be our little secret. I know you won't rat me out.

Because you have a few stashed away yourself.

-Derrick

How Do Actors Do It?

I'm not talking about memorizing lines, although I think that's difficult too. What I'm referring to is watching themselves on the big screen. How do actors do it?

There's a logical reason why my thoughts have drifted this way. Yesterday, my latest lynda.com title was released: A Photographer in Cuba. It's what we call a live action course. Instead of you listening to me while I work at a computer screen, I talk directly into the lens. Yes, lights, camera, action.

The story goes something like this. Photographer gets an opportunity to work in Cuba. He tells his producer about the trip and receives a contract to make the movie. He returns home with SD cards full of photos and videos. Photographer then goes to the lynda.com studios in Carpinteria, CA to tell the story in front of a film crew. Months later, the title is released.

After watching a few of the scenes with me yesterday, Theresa asked: "Do you have a script, or are you just winging it?" Well, I make movies the same way I record podcasts. I write an outline containing the key points, I memorize those highlights, then I just tell the story. In other words, I wing it.

Here's a scene where I talk about music and art in Cuba. I basically know what I'm going to say before the camera starts rolling. I'm just not sure how the words are going to come out.

This might seem crazy to you. But reading a script off a teleprompter, or memorizing 90 minutes of monologue feels even more insane. I look like a droid when I read off a prompter.

All of this is like sipping rum compared to the really hard part: watching myself in action once the title is released. How do actors do it?

How do you sit there with other people and not cringe at every gaff, awkward twist of phrase, or expressions and gestures that you didn't even know you had?

Here's how I survive. I wrap myself in the story. Is it interesting, worth telling, helpful to others? Yes. Do I care about my subject? Yes. Am I sincere in my endeavor and even manage the periodic dash of humor? Yes.

Then, quite honestly, I need to get over the other stuff. And as a result, I'm feeling good about A Photographer in Cuba.

Just ignore my occasional clenched fists.

-Derrick

How Instagram Changed Our Eyes

I was meeting with a client yesterday because she wanted me to update their corporate head shots. 

She had printed out examples of the style she was looking for. The images had a natural feel to them with existing light and maybe a few reflectors. There were no muslin backdrops or studio lighting rigs. The subjects were smiling, talking, looking at others, and in general, engaged with their environment. The color scheme was slightly pale.

Then she showed me the existing portraits they had hanging on the wall. "These need to go," she said.

How things have changed. Up until a few years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to stand stiffly in front of a backdrop with your best suit and a nervous smile. The photographer would employ his standard head shot lighting scheme, snap a few dozen pictures, and call it a day.

Then people discovered Instagram.

What at first seemed like a gimmick, such as applying the Hudson filter to a snap of your child splashing in the pool, became popular art. Why? Honestly, because the pictures weren't boring.

A perfectly aligned - exposed - color temperature correct - image might be required for Architectural Digest, but it's not how we want to portray the life that radiates from our friends, family, and coworkers.

Because it's so competitive on social media, photographers have pushed the envelop in every direction. Scrolling through my Instagram feed is both entertaining and inspiring. I haven't been this excited about images since the days of Life and Look magazines.

Smart businesses know this. They don't want their CEO to look like he was lifted from your dad's yearbook. They want to say to their customers, "Yeah, we get it." And they're doing that by changing how their images look online and in print.

As a photographer, I couldn't be happier. I've always bristled at the thought of a technically perfect photograph. And for Pete's sake, don't explain to me how you did it. I don't care.

I'm too busy figuring out how to make this shot interesting.

-Derrick

If There's No Joy

At the start of summer I began conducting private photography lessons for two high school freshmen. Both young women are smart, motivated, and talented.

We meet once a week. The mother of one brings them to the studio, then she sits back and takes notes while these students learn about composition, storytelling, aperture, and shutter speed.

These two hours I spend with them are completely different than anything else I do. They're so happy to be here. Their love for taking pictures radiates from their smiles. And they're good at it. I wouldn't want to compete against them a few years up the road.

This experience has been on my mind since the first session. And I've been trying to figure out why there's so much joy with these women compared to the daily cynicism that appears in my inbox? Is it their youth? I don't know.

I received a letter yesterday from a podcast listener who stated that he will no longer be following my show. It was because of a joyous remark I made in a tweet - not because I criticized someone or cast aspersions against an institution. I was just happy.

Other typical notes obsess about technical nits or question artistic choices made by various photographers. And what I started wonder is, how good are the photographs made by these critics? Are their images as compelling as those produced by a pair of 13-year-old girls?

Again, I don't know. But I have a guess. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that photographs need to be happy. But I do believe that passion for the craft, and life itself, leads to better pictures. Whether you're capturing something that's heartwarming or heart wrenching, it's your compassion for either that can help elevate your art.

I've known this for quite some time. But I was reminded again by two young women. They think that taking pictures is supposed to be fun.

And I'm not going to tell them anything different.

-Derrick

In Order to Move Forward

I've been off the grid for nearly 3 weeks. 

My normal routine, which I like a lot, has been disrupted. I haven't posted a journal entry, balanced the books, cleaned the studio, answered the bulk of my email, or photographed anything purely for fun.

Why? Because I've had big projects to address. They were things that meant a lot to me. I finished my work on the Cuba movie (it should be out soon), recorded an entirely new training titled "Dropbox for Photographers," wrote an eBook on photographing Cuba, lead a 3-day workshop in the Eastern Sierra, and completed a big photography project for my favorite commercial client.

One of the things that I learned when I first started writing books was this: I had to be willing to put my normal life on hold if I were to accomplish big things. I couldn't write a book and continue to work 10 hours a day on daily stuff. Something had to give.

It's difficult for me to stray from routine. I find it hard to look out the window and see the garden overgrown. But those are the tasks that turn authors into procrastinators. And that's the reason why most writers don't finish books.

In order to move forward, you must break routine. 

Today is my first day back. I feel great. I've cleaned up the garden, organized my office, made a haircut appointment, paid the bills, and have now returned to the journal. 

My joy stems not only from being back in the daily groove, but because I know that I've accomplished things. I've moved the ball forward.

People ask me how I get so much done. The answer is this: You have to be willing to let go of what's comfortable, at least for a while.

-Derrick

My Favorite Subject of All

After we returned from our sons' high school graduation ceremony last night, I pulled the memory card from the E-M5 and started copying the pictures to my MacBook Pro. Theresa warmed up a pot of soup she had made earlier, and we each had a bowl with a glass of wine.

We were both thinking about the events of the evening. The boys were so happy. We were so proud. Theresa set down her spoon and looked at me.

"Have I told you how thankful I am for the pictures you make?"

I looked back at her, "I think so. But this is really a good time to say it again. Thank you."

We then relocated to the couch and started to relive the moments of the evening, frame by frame.

"Is that the picture you're going to choose of us?" she commented about one group shot.

"I love it," I replied.

"But it looks like I'm talking, and Max too."

"But it has great energy. And everyone looks so present. It just sums up the moment for me."

Theresa smiled and we moved on to the next photo. We'll probably discuss my shot selection more later.

If I ever begin to think that this was all just a dream, I have these pictures to remind me otherwise. The images we've collected of two boys growing up, and their family around them, capture virtually every milestone in their lives.

In a couple months, they'll both be leaving for college. One goes to Santa Barbara and the other to Santa Clara. This will be a big change for their mom. She has given every ounce of energy to raise these kids.

And the change will be dramatic for me too. I won't be there to document the next phase. I know that's the way it should be. But I'm going to miss them.

Even though it's my work, photography is very personal for me. I've seen so many wonderful things through the lens of my camera.

But my favorite subject of all,

has been watching Max and Zach become young men.

-Derrick

Cheap Glass

Photographers tend to be obsessed with sharpness. The first question most will ask about any optic is, "How sharp is it?"

The question I'm asking these days: "Is it sharp enough?"

There's a big difference between the two queries. And it really depends on your view of the world.

There are a million perfectly sharp images on Flickr that bore the hell out of me. Yes, everything is in perfect order: excellent exposure, spot-on color, and corner to corner sharpness. Excuse me while I check my email. If those are the only elements that you think make a good photograph, then I think you might be missing the boat.

The images that attract me are the ones that surprise me, make me feel something, show me a different view of the world. And those photographs can be created with practically any camera sporting just about any lens, even a cheap one.

I've gone through an interesting period with my DSLRs lately. My camera of choice is now mirrorless. I love them. But I still use DSLRs when appropriate. 

I sold off many of my expensive Canon lenses to upgrade my mirrorless kits. But I still have two "L" lenses: the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS and the 24-105 f/4 L IS. If I need superb image quality, I can mount either of those on the 5D Mark II and get it.

But the lenses I've been shooting with most often are the Yongnuo 35mm F/2.0 ($129) and the new Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM ($125) - cheap lenses. Why? Because each have characteristics that I can't get with other optics. It's their imperfections that I crave. 

They are definitely sharp enough where I focus. But at wide apertures, all sorts of interesting things start to happen everywhere else. Instead of living in a sterile edge-to-edge world where everything has the same weight, the images take on a magical quality.

Fortunately, I have a client that loves this look. And I'm having a blast with these shoots, and making good money while doing so.

Don't get me wrong... I'm all for sharpness.

Just not all the time.

-Derrick

A Day in the Life of an iPad on the Road

I spent Friday working my way back home from New Jersey. Anyone who has ever made the trek from the East Coast to California knows that this journey requires endurance and patience.

Over the course of 12 hours of waiting and traveling and waiting some more, I had my fully charged iPad available to help me pass the time. I'm  amazed at the versatility of this device. So I thought I'd share the many ways it served me on my trip.

Internet Access Point at Newark Airport - Unlike many other airports that offer free WiFi, Newark uses Boingo that wanted $12 for me to connect my laptop to the Web. I would rather use that money for my lunch, so I instead tapped into the high speed Verizon connection on the iPad. As a result, I was able to publish an article on The Digital Story without a hitch.

Read Time Magazine - During the boarding process for the flight from Newark to Dallas Fort Worth, I read the latest issue of Time magazine. The iPad version is quite good. And it's great to have an entire library of magazines ready for the reading without having to deal with the overpriced airport newsstand.

Watched the Movie Frozen During the Flight - American Airlines was offering a few free movies on their WiFi network in the cabin. So I logged on with the iPad, plugged in my red Beats earphones, and throughly enjoyed the Disney production of Frozen. The Retina Display produced a much better film presentation than those terrible screens on the plane.

Answered Email and Checked Bank Balance - Once we landed in Dallas, I took care of a couple online chores with the iPad. I even had to make a bank transfer, which would have been too late the next day at home.

Watched the Warriors on ESPN - My favorite NBA team was playing the Grizzlies for game 6 of the playoff series. Fortunately, the matchup was on ESPN, so I was able to watch it live on the iPad while sipping a coffee in the waiting area. DFW has free WiFi, so I didn't even have to use my cellular connection to  root for Golden State. The video looked great, and the commentary came through crisp and clear on my earphones.

Once we were in the air and on our way to San Francisco, I put the iPad away. It was time to sleep. But after all of this activity, I still had 45 percent battery left. And it fits so easily in my carry on camera bag.

I'm not a guy who particularly like airline travel. But I have to say, the iPad mini has made the experience substantially better.

-Derrick