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. 


Vegas, Baby!

"You kinda like Las Vegas, don't you?" Leah asked.

"Yeah, I do."

By most accounts, however, my Las Vegas experience is boring. I haven't placed a bet in 20 years. I breeze through the casinos moving from point A to point B without even a thought of stopping at the blackjack table. I do like the people watching, however.

I can't remember the last time I was drunk there. OK, that probably came out wrong. What I mean is that I don't drink much either. Cocktails are either too watered down if they're free, or too expensive if I have to pay. I'll have a Makers Mark Manhattan after work. I like the bar overlooking the NYNY Casino. But that's about it.

I don't go to shows either. I think I've been to one. I remember is that they brought me 3 beers before the curtain went up and placed them neatly on the little table in front of me. All I could think about through the opening act was that two of the bottles were getting warm.

So why do I even bother to get on the plane? Well, I have work there. This week, for example, I'll be attending Photoshop World. It's a good event. I'm looking forward to it.

I remember one reader commented in the past that Las Vegas doesn't like conference goers. "They're cheap," he said. So I'm wondering... then why do they keep having events there? Why not Portland, for example?

Anyway, I don't really care what they think. I have my favorite places to eat - they're good and reasonable. Then I'll go out for a couple hours of night shooting. Once the memory card starts to fill up, I'll treat myself to a Starbucks coffee and head back to the room to publish the day's work.

I think it's fun. Oh yeah, Vegas baby!


The Best Camera Is Not...

... the one you have with you. That's ridiculous. 

It's like saying the best woman is the one sitting next to you on the bus. Really? What would your wife think about that?

I mean, yes, I get the point of the cliche; I just don't agree with it. When a photo opp presents itself, I will capture it with what's available at the moment: my iPhone, OM-D, X-20, whatever I can get my hands on. And hopefully I'll get a good shot. But that's triage.

The best camera is the one that I've bonded with. It's the tool that I don't even think about operating. We've become one. I can solely concentrate on the subject before me without having to leave the creative side of my brain.

There's something to be said for really learning how to use your favorite device, regardless of what it is. If you're an iPhone shooter, then find an app that feels natural for image capture. Learn every aspect of it. Know that software and your smartphone inside and out.

In my case, it's the OM-D. I have a default mode for my settings, so all I have to do is turn it on and take the picture. No fussing. Just photos. If I need a bit more reach, I press the Fn2 button next to the shutter to double the magnification. If I need exposure compensation, I rotate the knurled collar next to it to lighten or darken the image. I don't have to pull away from the viewfinder to do this. It just happens. I'm in the moment.

The best things in life are those we invest in. I put energy into learning my craft. I know my camera, the software I rely on to process the images, and the audience to whom I present the final product. I know this sounds odd, but I even have a feeling for who you are and what matters in your life. 

I'm not settling for the woman on the bus. I'll wait a bit longer to see my family. I know who they are. I like them. And they make me better.


A Fresh Breath of (Olympus) Air

A new piece of equipment presents both excitement and a challenge.

The excitement is obvious. New gear! In this case, it's the Olympus Air - a 16 Megapixel Micro Four Thirds attachment for my iPhone that provides great image quality in a very compact package. I can use any of my MFT lenses with it, although I will probably attach the Olympus 14-42mm EZ zoom or Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 for starters.

I'll be able to field test it in Las Vegas for the upcoming Photoshop World. That's going to be fun on all counts. And I plan on it becoming a permanent resident in my camera bag.

Which leads me to the challenge. Where to put it? Something must go.

Sounds funny, doesn't it? Something so compact as the Olympus Air won't fit in my existing camera bag. Yes, it's packed that tightly. Remember, camera bag packing is an art form for me.

Reminds me of the time my aunt gave me a light box for my 25th birthday. I needed one to view slides. I was tired of holding them up to the desk lamp for viewing.

Problem was, I had a tiny studio apartment that was also used as my office. Everything had its place, and there wasn't an inch to spare. So my effort to work the light box into the configuration resulted in my tearing up the entire room.

One thing led to another, and two days later the place was still a mess. It took me a week to restore sanity to my abode. And yes, the light box survived the upheaval. I used it happily for years.

When I look at my camera bag, I like every item in there. I honestly don't know what I'm going to remove to make room for the Air. I have a few days to contemplate this.

I'll let you know how it turns out.


Beyond the Glass

It seems like I've know the phrase "There's more to life than meets the eye" forever. I can't remember not knowing it. And like a lot of truisms, it doesn't really mean anything without further thought.

I look a my garden often. I can see it through the back window at the studio. Mainly, it's a exercise in procrastination. I tell myself I'm thinking about things. But I'm really looking at the pretty flowers, birds in the bath, and how it all fits together so nicely. Hmmm, maybe there is more going on there than I realize.

My approach to gardening is what I call controlled chaos. I spread seeds now and then, but I pretty much let the plants decide where they want to grow. And it's fascinating. They organize themselves so beautifully. All I have to do is water occasionally and enjoy.

When the cat goes outside, she has a completely different experience than me. I watch her sniff the air. I never think to do that. She knows the hummingbird is perched in the tall bush on the east side of the fence. She patiently waits for it to call. And she seems to find it all very entertaining.

More often than I care to admit, I photograph this garden - but only after spending a few minutes experiencing it. And months later, those pictures remind me of how much I enjoy summer mornings at the studio. It's like hearing a song from your high school days and remembering that girl who made you blush.

I know people who are struggling with life right now. And instead of a garden, everything looks like a wall. They can't figure out how to break through it to make something happen.

I want to help. Even though I'm not the preaching type, I want to tell them that there's more to life than a canvas of obstacles. There's some sort of organizing power behind it. And if you gently push your finger against the surface, you might be able to feel the pulse. Then new ideas appear. It's a kind of magic, really.

This is what happens when I put the camera down for a moment. I have a better sense of what's going on behind the canvas. Then I bring it back up to my eye and take a picture. Now I have a bookmark for the moment.

I love photography. Because my pictures not only show me where I've been, they remind me of how I felt. There's magic behind those images. And when people say there's more to life than meets the eye, that's what I think they're talking about.



A Stroll by the Mantel

I was alone downstairs the other night, with two lights on and the French doors open. The breeze blowing through them helped cool the house.

I was standing in front of the fireplace looking at the pictures that spanned the length of the mantel. I hadn't noticed them for a while. There were many new additions.

This is the place where all the family photographs are enshrined. We keep threatening to hang them on the wall in the hallway. But we never get to it. It's less spontaneous than placing them on the mantel.

If we were to hang these images, we'd have to make decisions. Who would make the cut? Do we go with the group shots from Hawaii or Paris? Shall we go with grandma as a young woman, or the shot recorded just weeks before she passed away? Nope, too much work. I'm more comfortable with serendipity.

Some prints just show up on the mantel. Many of them don't even have frames. They're propped up against someone else, looking like unannounced visitors just stopping by. I think most of them are friends of the kids. I know some of their names.

My personal favorites are the family shots. Because I have long arms, I'm pretty good at capturing group selfies. I know selfies get a bad rap these days, but I like them. They force family members to squeeze in tight against one another - something we don't normally do. One of my favorites is a B&W I took of us with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Boy, that was a great day.

I spend a lot of time writing about how to share photos online: Dropbox, iCloud, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and countless others. Those services certainly have their place. And when you can't be near those you love, receiving an email attachment is a wonderful surprise.

But when I'm missing my boys this Fall, I probably won't be combing through the image library on my Mac. Most likely, I'll take another stroll by the mantel and soak in those memories for a few minutes. I never get tired of those photographs.

Once I've had my fix, I'll close the French doors, turn off the lights, and thank God for my good fortune.


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.


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.


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, 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.


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.


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.