The Photo Assassin

Even though I'm not a violent person - firmly against murder for any reason - I've always been intrigued by those assassin kits we often see in espionage movies.

You've probably seen the same scenes. Some rough-looking guy opens a violin case with neatly arranged rifle components inside. In just a minute or two, he precisely assembles the parts resulting in a weapon  that can be employed for his evil intentions.

From this point on, I'm pulling for the intended victim. "Please, just quickly step to the left and avoid your demise!" (They only hear me half the time...) 

I was thinking about this today as I devised a grip system for my Olympus Air camera. I wanted a better way to hold the device, so I dug around in my photo junk box and found a flash grip from the late 90s. 

It's a classic "L" bracket that breaks into two pieces for easy transport. I mounted my ikan micro spot LED light in the hot shoe, and used the tripod socket to connect the Olympus Air to the bottom of the bracket. All that was left was to attach the iPhone 6S to the back of the Air.

My assembled kit includes the 16MP Olympus Air, zoom lens, adjustable LED light, iPhone 6S, and grip.

My assembled kit includes the 16MP Olympus Air, zoom lens, adjustable LED light, iPhone 6S, and grip.

The rig balances extremely well in my hands, is light, and the large Retina Display on the iPhone is a joy to compose with. Originally, I was only using the Olympus Air for  GoPro-like action shots or for hanging off tree branches. But now, it's totally fun to shoot with handheld too. (The only drawback was when my wife called during video recording. I felt odd talking into my camera during the conversation.)

My disassembled kit ready for packing in my camera bag. (Photos by Derrick Story)

My disassembled kit ready for packing in my camera bag. (Photos by Derrick Story)

But here's the really cool part. When it came time to pack my rig and stash it in my camera bag, the parts took up hardly any space. I could fit the baseplate here, the light there, and slide the grip between those two thingies. 

Yes, I am the photo assassin.

I admit, I shoot people all the time. But I never hurt a soul. And I much prefer my Lowepro FastPack 150 to a violin case. 

But make no doubt about it... my aim is true.



Why Podcasting?

I just published the 500th episode of The Digital Story, a project that has spanned 10 years. 

At the time of the first show, October 2005, I was working for the publisher O'Reilly Media and writing photography books. My side business of shooting weddings and other events keep my photography sharp. And I had developed a good reputation in the Apple community as a writer for Macworld Magazine, speaker at Macworld conferences, and the editor for

So, with all this going on, why get into podcasting?

One thing I had learned in my years of technology, is that you can't stand pat. A lot of people hate this reality. But as I watched companies like Netscape rise and fall, I knew that this possibility applied to me too. My position at O'Reilly and in the Mac community had an expiration date. And it came sooner than I thought.

I embraced podcasting because I felt it was the best way for me to become a legitimate publisher on my own, not depending on anything other than the Internet and unfolding news. I would build the site, record the shows, and syndicate them using RSS and the new capacity that the iTunes Store added for podcasters. That decision turned out to be a good one.

Months later, I was laid off from O'Reilly, followed by severe cutbacks at Macworld Magazine, and the closing of the Macworld Conference. I was now on my own, whether I wanted to be or not.

The Digital Story became my career lifeline. Its popularity secured press passes to major events, access to manufacturers and their products, and raised my standing in the photography community. It bought me time while I reinvented myself once again.

Even though the show is free to download, it gives back in so many ways. That's why I love to thank listeners for their support.

Now I'm working on a new endeavor: The Nimble Photographer Show. I'm taking a different approach with it, and I look forward to sharing the details with you soon. 

I'll continue with The Digital Story for as long as the audience supports it. I like that show. And The Nimble Photographer podcast will start a new chapter in my continued effort.

Which is as always, to ride the winds of change. And try not to be swept way in the process.


El Capitan is a Breath of Fresh Air

September ended on a high note. Apple released their latest version of Mac OS X, El Capitan, and it's a beauty.

I installed it on my test machine, a 2012 MacBook Pro 15", and put it through its initial paces. So far, only one application is incompatible: the software that communicates with my Transporter. After uninstalling it, everything else is running fine - even Aperture survived to fight another day (except for one minor casualty).

Aside from faster smoother performance all the way around, the big news for me is a refreshed Photos for OS X app. This latest version accepts Photo Extensions. They're applications in their own right, but they integrate seamlessly with Photos. I posted about them on The Digital Story.

Even with the first few Extensions available, I can see the potential for this approach. Because the integration is so smooth, in large part because the workflow is totally nondestructive, Photos for OS X can become just about anything that the developer community envisions.

We'll still need some help from Apple on the front end of the workflow with organization. El Capitan did not bring improved ratings for pictures or better metadata handling. Apple needs to un-dig its heels on those issues and give enthusiast photographers the organizing tools they need.

But the editing front is promising. And I can't wait to see what developers bring to Photos. If OneON and Nik/Google join the party, we're going to have some serious fun.

But for the moment, I'm going to enjoy the new tools we have. With an iPhone 6S in hand and a revitalized computer, this Fall looks more promising than ever.


Capturing Moments with Modern Cameras: The Super Moon

The eclipse of the super moon last night was the perfect finish to a lovely weekend. I wandered outside during an advertising break after the Putin interview had concluded on 60 Minutes and observed the phenomenon with my binoculars. Now that's what I call a quality commercial.

I hadn't originally planned to take a photo. I was just going to enjoy the moment with my binoculars, then head back to the couch for the Donald Trump interview. But the moon was so pretty. I felt so good standing outside on a quiet, temperate evening watching this rare phenomenon. I changed my mind. I wanted a picture to commerate the night.

I went back inside and dug around in my camera bag. I had the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II with me. My longest fast lens with me was the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 prime. I was hoping that I had the 75mm with me, but no luck. It was back at the studio. I'd make this work.

I took the E-M10 with the 60mm back outside. The eclipse was just starting to recede. Perfect. I raised the ISO to 3200, lowered the EV to -0.3, leaned against the car to steady the camera, and recorded a few frames at 1/10 second at f/2.8. I then used the digital zoom to increase the magnification to 2X. So pretty!

I know I could have been more serious about the photo, getting out the tripod, making sure I had a longer lens, and finding a better location. But not that night. I just wanted a momento in my Dropbox that reminded me of this lovely evening. And thanks to the imaging technology in today's cameras, I could do that... even when the subject is an amber moon hanging in the night's sky down the end of my street.



The Unlocking of My iPhone Carrier Plan

I have an appointment tomorrow morning at my local Apple Store to purchase an iPhone 6S and investigate the new iPhone Upgrade Program.

My goal isn't to purchase a new handset every year, although I could if I wanted. What I'm more interested in is that my new iPhone will be unlocked, allowing me to use any carrier I want at home or abroad.

I once had some loyalty to AT&T. They provided me with a new state-of-the-art smartphone for $199, and I agreed to be a customer for two more years. Given how much I spend monthly for me and my family, I thought it was a reasonable deal for both parties.

But the last two times I purchased phones from them, one for each of my boys before heading off to college, they changed the rules. Essentially I was buying the device at full price and making installments over a 2 year period... and paying the same amount for my data.

AT&T said this approach is better. It is. For them.

But why should I chain myself to their service if I'm not receiving any benefit for doing so? If I'm going to purchase the phone outright, then I want it unlocked. I want to be free to use whomever I want for connectivity.

Very few business opportunities get by Apple. They saw what was going on in the marketplace with the carriers. Customers who buy iPhones tend to keep buying iPhones, so why not create a program for them?

For the time being, I'll keep using AT&T. But as better deals surface from other carriers, I'll be looking at each carefully. Not only for me, but for my family.

In all honesty, I'm tired of businesses telling me that the changes they make are in my best interests when indeed they are not. It's BS. And I seriously doubt I'm the only one that will be unlocking from my carrier.


Two Cans and a String

When I was a kid, there was this goofy science demonstration where you could attach two tin cans with a string. Supposedly, this showed us of how sound waves could travel on a device. 

Each person would pull the line until it had good tension, then talk into their can. The receiver should hear the voice in their tin can a short distance away. But you could hear the voice anyway because your counterpart was only a few feet away.

I thought it was one of the worst science displays ever. Fortunately things have improved greatly. 

This last weekend our family had to split in two. And we hated it. But that was the hand we were dealt.

One boy had to check in to Santa Clara College as a freshman and the other at UC Santa Barbara. This was their first move away from home. I took Max to Santa Clara and Theresa drove Zach down south. This means that each of us missed out on one of the biggest moments in our sons' lives.

The boys were focused on their move, as they should be. But Theresa and I used our iPhones to text updates, photos, and short video clips back and forth during the entire process. We had this running conversation that helped make hundreds of miles feel like next door.

As I scroll back through the notes and images now, I can't imagine getting through the weekend without these devices. I'm going to archive the conversation. It's my experience of Zach's move in, and the things that Theresa was feeling during the process.

We hear a lot about how distracted we've become because of our mobile devices. And there's truth to that. But there are moments, like this weekend when a family is trying to hang together during a big event, that I'm truly thankful for this technology.

I'll take the good with the bad in this modern age. Because if all I had were two cans and a string, I would have missed one of the biggest moments in my son's life.




Firmware Updates Preserve Our Investments

In large part, the digital age has been marked by parade of devices with two-year shelf lives before being shipped off to the local landfill or reseller. Based on what I see, we're upgrading hardware more frequently than necessary, when it's the brains that we should be enhancing.

The first examples that come to mind are our smartphones. Both Apple and Samsung tempt us annually with new devices that eclipse our current abilities to communicate with one another. But camera upgrades seem to be on a similar cycle. I know I spend a lot of time testing and reviewing the latest models.

But just because they're there, that doesn't mean we have to buy them. And thanks to consumer-friendly companies such as Fujifilm and Olympus, we can often enjoy new tech with older models. This seems particularly true with their flagship cameras.

Fujifilm release Firmware 4.0 for the X-T1 in June of this year. It's a substantial upgrade that once again improves an already excellent camera. Sony is in the process of bringing uncompressed 14-bit RAW to its A7 series. And Olympus just announced a mammoth firmware update for its flagship OM-D E-M1 to give it much of the same technology that was introduced for the E-M-10 Mark II.

Personally, I'm quite fond of the OM-D cameras. I have the original E-M5, the E-M5 Mark II (also getting a firmware update soon), the E-M10, and I'm testing the E-M10 Mark II. As happy I am with the updates that Olympus has released, I think they could do even more. I would add enticing features, such as silent shutter, to the original E-M10. And I don't think it's out of the question to enhance the original E-M5 with functionality that's compatible with its hardware.

Building trust with your customers promotes brand loyalty. I think Fujifilm, Sony, and Olympus are showing us glimpses the real promise of the digital age, which is better management of the earth's precious resources though intelligent software evolution.

It's a good start. Let's do more.


Needles Highway

I've never been to Laughlin, Nevada before.

I know many Southern Californians frequent the resorts there because it's positioned just on the other side of the California/Nevada border. So it moves legalized gambling two hours closer than a trip all the way to Las Vegas. But since I don't gamble, I never had a reason to visit.

That is, until my niece decided to get married there. Laughlin is a central meeting point for the families that live in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and parts of So. Cal. Basically it's a 3-hour drive for all of them. Me, being the odd duck in Northern California, had a 10 hour journey to the Aquarius Casino standing alongside the Colorado River.

The first part of the trip was a familiar drive south down Interstate 5. I know that route well, and even enjoy it. I tend to shoot along the way, such as my ongoing collection of highway overpass shots.

But then I had to head east instead of my normal bend to the west. And this, at the 9 hour mark, is when I was introduced to Needles Highway. The fact that a two-lane desert road with a faded yellow stripe down the middle can be called a highway is humorous. The 108 degree afternoon heat added a bit of surrealism to the adventure. Asphalt undulations up and down peppered with jack rabbits gave me the feeling of driving through a chapter of Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

Then, without warning, the road became perfectly smooth. No more potholes. The rumbling in the car cabin quieted. And the road widened. I had crossed the border from California to Nevada.

It was startling how different the two realities were. And it all had to do with funding and attention to detail. Even the searing environment of the southwest desert can be mitigated if desired.

Not long after crossing the border, I parked the Audi in a multi-story garage and rolled my suitcase and camera bag to the casino. I had a lot of work ahead of me. Weddings are complicated to photograph.

Thank goodness I had been paying attention to the details of the event. And because of that preparation, I anticipate a smooth ride.

That is, until I depart the Aquarius Casino and cross the border on Needles Highway.


The Cycle

I was reading a blog post on Photo Shelter about bicycles at Burning Man. There were lots of great shots of owners with their wheels. At one point the author wrote something like, "San Franciscans have an ongoing love affair with their bikes."

Yes, he made a jump there somewhere, but I just rolled with it.

I would expand that statement to all of Northern California. Practically everyone I know has at least one bike, and most of them ride regularly. I have a 2006 Marin Redwood 22 at the studio that's perfect for errands and shopping. 

Hanging upside down in the garage at home is a 2008 Cannondale Bad Boy XL that I've modified  with 700c knobby tires and comfy palm rests. Indeed I'm smitten with both vehicles. The Cannondale is one of the last models still made in the U.S. before production was moved to Asia. It has a small American flag embossed on the frame.

The fact that I know so much about each of these models speaks directly to the love affair. But why do we care so?

It's actually hard to explain. I think it has something to do with life in Northern California. The combination of beautiful weather, outstanding scenery, and mind-numbing traffic are the perfect ingredients for cycling. Once I park the car in the garage at the studio, I don't use it again other than to go home or drive to a business assignment. Everything else is on foot or by bike.

I don't shoot while riding, but recently I've mounted an Olympus Air on the handlebars of the Marin Redwood. I've done so because in the past I've missed some shots because I didn't want to retrieve a camera out of my backpack. Now, it's right there. And I anticipate that I'll be posting images on Instagram from my daily riding.

All of that being said, there's still one more aspect to this passion: freedom. When I'm riding, I only depend on my two legs to get me there. I'm not beholden to oil companies, monthly payments, expensive repairs, or rush hour traffic.

I firmly believe that people who love their bikes also love their independence. And when you get right down to it, few things feel better than that.


The End of Photo Help Desk

A reader wrote to me the other day asking, "Derrick, I'm wondering why you stopped doing 'photo help desk'? It was a great idea!"

Even though I appreciate his comment, as it turns out, Photo Help Desk was a fair idea at best. My original concept was based on the notion that if one person had a question, that hundreds of others were wondering about it too. So by posting and answering these technical queries, we could build an audience who were interested in photography problem solving.

Plus these questions and answers would appear in search engine results, bringing new people to the site. And if things really got cooking, readers would add their wisdom via the comments, thereby making Photo Help Desk a valuable online resource.

Unfortunately, none of that happened.

The reality was that people were generally only interested in their specific questions, and not the site as a whole. So the exercise devolved into the very interactions that I was trying to get away from, which is me answering emails one-on-one about specific photography problems.

And with no measurable site traffic, there was no hope for any sustainable revenue model to support it. Things being the way they are, if there's no revenue, I can't afford to do it.

I have left Photo Help Desk online, at least for another year. There's a lot of helpful information there that I want to continue to make available. And I will still answer questions to the site as I have time. But for all practical purposes, we're closed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still glad I tried it. Every new venture teaches me a bit more about the online business world. And I certainly gleaned a few lessons from PHD. The most valuable being, that tech support is a very personal matter.


Clumsy Photographers

Photographers should be reporting the story, not creating it. But my word, we have been in the news a lot lately.

The latest episode was when Usain Bolt [was] Floored by Segway-Riding Cameraman.  The fastest man in the world run down by an out of shape journalist. Thank goodness he wasn't seriously hurt. Add this reported incidents of shooters causing bike racing accidents, damaging precious objects, and being disruptive in general.

The first rule of medicine is to do no harm. I think we should adopt this for our craft too. Being nimble (and aware) while we work to ensure that we don't get the shot at the price of others.

I'm always touched, and a little embarrassed, when I notice that someone on the street has stopped while I take a picture. They didn't want to ruin my shot. When I lower the camera from my eyes and see them patiently standing there, I immediately wave them through and thank them for their courtesy. For the rest of the day I make sure I'm extra aware of those around me.

If I'm wearing a backpack, I'm quick to remove it when entering a train, tram, or bus. And I try never to block anyone's path with a tripod.

I talk a lot about nimbleosity from the photographer's point of view. Traveling light has many benefits for us. 

But I also realize that stepping lightly through the world as I photograph it is a kindness to others.

As we used to say in the wilderness...

Leave only footsteps and take only memories.


Reinvent Again

"So, what are you going to do about it?" she asked.

"I'm not sure yet," I replied while tugging on my left sock that was already straining against its heel. "But I'll think of something."

On this day, if you were to ask me what the most important ability was to survive as a sole proprietor, I probably would have replied, "the ability to reinvent oneself."

This is a challenge that makes many folks uncomfortable. For example, If your idea of a job is to log 8 hours a day, then collect checks on the 1st and 15th, then running a business probably isn't for you.

I know a lot of people say, "If I just had that one great idea, then I'd be set." How about 10 great ideas? Because that's what you're going to need to make a career of it, that is, unless that one idea is really, really good.

Case in point: Steve Jobs co-founded Apple and has 5 amazing revelations attached to his name: the original Mac, the iMac, iPod/iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad. All of them were refinements of existing technology. Dare I say reinventions? Steve was fired from Apple after the Mac, resurrected himself twice (NeXT and Pixar), before returning to Cupertino for four more curtain calls.

So what's a guy like me, who doesn't have a Thomas Edison lightbulb glowing over his head, do to stay in the black? He constantly creates.

I was in the audience when Steve Jobs debuted the iMac. Apple was on the rocks at the time. The economy was bad. I'll never forget what he said that day.

"We are going to innovate through this recession."

I loved that. No excuses, no whining. It was the only game plan that made sense. I have all sorts of variations on this theme, such as: "When the going gets tough, the tough innovate." And of course, there's the classic, "Innovate or die."

There's a reason why I'm bringing this up. Once again, there are changes in the wind. I'm not going to let them blow me over. Instead, you'll be seeing new ideas coming from me soon.

"Are you worried?" she asked.

"Actually, I'm not."


Fighting Thieves with Nimbleosity

I read a disturbing article today titled, Photography Team at Olympics Cycling Event Robbed in Rio de Janeiro. It said:

"Photography safety is a growing concern leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This past weekend, a group of photographers were mugged and had their expensive equipment stolen while covering a road cycling test event for next year’s Games."

These guys weren't mugged while stumbling back to their hotel at midnight from a seedy bar, they were working. And this isn't the only incident I've read about. More than ever, photographers are targets for thieves.

Once again, nimbleosity comes to mind.

I've written about how traveling light helps simplify your shooting, increases your energy, and promotes creativity. And now I think we should add safety to the list.

There's still the perception that a big camera with a long lens is more valuable than something that fits in your hand. Unless it has a red Leica dot on it, you're just another amateur with an inexpensive device.

Heck, you could probably hand your mirrorless to a thief for s portrait of you, and he'd most likely hand it back. I don't recommend testing this theory, however.

The point is, traveling with a discreet bag with minimal equipment is wise. And not insisting that you bring every optic in your kit probably isn't a bad idea either.

Figure out what you need for the day, pack only the essentials in shoulder bag, wear it across your shoulders, and keep it close to your body. Along with a bit of street sense and a dash of good fortune, this is your recipe for success.

I think Hill Street Blues Sgt. Phil Esterhaus summed it up best: "Let's be careful out there."






Mom's 80th Birthday

She and I were sitting in the living room. It was well past 10 pm and everyone else had gone to bed, that is, except the cat who was perched on the coffee table cleaning herself.

Mom was 80 years old.

When you have a challenging life, you hope to make it to 60, maybe 70. But here we were talking about how she had left home as a young woman with my father, and all the changes she had navigated in the decades that followed.

I'm the oldest son. I was conceived in a duplex in Chino California and raised in a home with a $500 down payment and a mortgage of $80 a month. 

"We sold that place for $13,000," my mom said. "Made $3,000 that we put toward the new house. That was a pretty good deal."

Every time I sit with my mom, usually on hot summer evenings with the air conditioner rattling in the background, I learn something new about my life. How a mom can keep a family together through sheer will.

And how a world often seems determined to tear it all apart. Yet there she sat, still in her pretty dinner clothes, a great grandmother with her family intact. 

All of this comes at a time when my boys are getting ready to leave home. My wife is going to give them each a hug while standing at the threshold of their dorm rooms, then cry as we walk back to the car.

But her sons will come back, just as I've done year after year. And they too will probably sit with their mother on hot summer nights and discover just how powerful a woman can be, 

when there are children to be cared for and dragons to be slain.


Number 1 Question

I've spent a lot of time in the Rocky Nook booth here at Photoshop World in Las Vegas. Even though I'm there to help people learn about books and magazines, I end up spending much of my time talking shop. 

The Number 1 question I'm asked centers around camera purchases, specifically mirrorless and compact models. A lot of these folks say that they're shopping for their wives, but I'm guessing that they'll do the bulk of the shooting. 

"You're the Nimble Photographer. Maybe you could help me with a question." 

"Sure, what' on your mind?" 

"My wife would like a camera that she can carry around easily, yet it should capture in RAW and have high ISO performance." 

"Hmmm, your wife sounds like a pretty good photographer." 

"Not really." 

"Oh, I see. Well, I do have a few ideas for you..." 

We usually compare the virtues of Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic. But I feel like my comrades often had their minds made up before these conversations began. Maybe it's conformation they're after.

I enjoy these chats, however, and I do hope my thoughts lead to useful gear purchases... 

for whomever ends up with the new camera.