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 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Agony and Ecstasy of Price Drops

 Because I follow industry news daily, I have a pretty good eye for deals.

I've had scores such as the Canon S110 for $199 and the Samsung NX3000 with power zoom lens for $289. Those purchases feel great, especially after the price escalates again when the special offer expires.

But I've had my share of misses too. And those hurt. For example, In April, Olympus was offering the premium kit version of its OM-D E-M10 for $875. It included the body with a special leather texture, a $300 power zoom lens, leather neck strap, and commemorative lens cap.

Considering that the standard body alone was selling for $699, and the premium kit had been $1,250, I considered this a deal and bought it. I absolutely love the camera and have already taken many beautiful shots with it.

My enthusiasm was dampened a bit last weekend when Olympus dropped the price $200 on the very same kit that I had just purchased. It is now available for $675 (which is a steal, BTW). The reduced price for the E-M10 was also available at many online retailers.

At first, I said to myself, "That's the way it goes sometimes." Purchasing technology is always a dicey affair. I know people ask me frequently, "Should I buy now, or wait for the next model." The real answer is, nobody knows for sure. My general rule of thumb is, do your research and purchase when you need the item. Beyond that, it's mostly luck.

But for some reason, this price drop bothered me. $200 is a lot of money, and just a few weeks after my purchase. One of our other virtual camera club members, John, had a similar dilemma with his purchase from B&H. He wrote me:

"Great B&H story for you. I was so impressed by the E-M10 body you showed me in SF that I ordered one from B&H (linked from TDS!) - just 3 days before a 25% price drop. I figured that if you don't ask you won't get, and shot off a note to customer service. Within an hour a refund was in process for the difference between the $599 and $449. B&H has a customer for life."

And you know, he's right. It can't hurt to ask. So in the same spirit, I sent off a note to Olympus customer service asking if there was anything they could do for me. They replied right away asking for my order number so they could look in to it. I'll post a comment on the outcome as soon as I hear back. Regardless of what happens, I feel better for asking about it.

My bottom line here is this: On the whole, smart shoppers who do their research will save many dollars over those who impulse buy. But if you do experience a price drop just a few weeks after a purchase, write a polite note asking if anything can be done.

You never know. They may surprise you.


I Know Why We Sometimes Hate Computers

I remember this poster from the 1990s that read something like this, "If you want a job screwed up, give it to a person. If you want it really screwed up, do it on a computer."

I think most of us can relate, even today. The fact of the matter is that computers haven't really made us happier. Yes, they're faster, sleeker, and more powerful. But friendly... not really.

I'm really good with technology. It's been part of my living for decades. And I have weeks where it feels like the silicon chips are conspiring against me. (Or is it something more sinister?)

Where it's particularly annoying is when something that was working just fine, suddenly decides to go haywire. I could see if I was tinkering with it then broke it. But more often than not, this isn't the case. 

Everything is so darn connected that a worker bee changes a setting on a server thousands of miles away, and suddenly you don't have access to your website anymore. A not nice person, someone you don't even know, decides to attack you. Or for some unknown reason, your Internet doesn't work anymore because of a system upgrade by your provider.

More often than not, the reason why we hate computers is because they're not reliable. They mess up our schedules, productivity, and frame of mind.

The problem is, people do too. In fact, they're often behind the technology problem. And there's where the expectation breaks down. We thought that computers might save us from human shortcomings.

And the reality is,

it's still people messing things up.


Greetings Earth from a Digital Photographer

I posted a story today on TDS about a free set of film profiles from VSCO. They allow Lightroom users to apply the look of TRI-X and Kodak Gold 100 emulsions to their digital images.

Just minutes after going live, a tweet came my way stating, "Why not just shoot the real thing if you want the look of film? Lots of us still do!"

OK, fair enough. But I actually have my reasons.

In my own twisted, making obscure connections way of thinking, I thought this was a perfect topic for Earth Day. Because one of my greatest concerns as a film shooter was dealing with those nasty chemicals that eventually found their way into our sewer systems, or even worse, our ground water.

Even as a teenager working on the school newspaper, I had concerns about those chemicals - which was interesting, because I rarely cared about much outside of my own sphere in those days. Of course I know there's proper handling guidelines for photographic chemicals. But I also realize that not everyone follows them.

Yes, I love film. But I like digital even more. It's faster, cleaner, and more versatile. My computer is a laptop that manages energy quite efficiently. And the gear that I'm not using, I sell to others so it doesn't go to waste - and that includes me buying used equipment too.

I know I'm not the greenest person on the planet - far from it. But I do try to conserve water, fuel, and electricity. And I don't like careless pollution. And even though I love the look of film, I make no apologies for using lines of code to produce my images instead of celluloid, D-76, and rapid fixer.

So, hello planet earth from this digital photographer. I'm thrilled you survived another year, despite our callous efforts. And I promise...

I'll try to do even better moving forward.


The New Lightroom Tempts Aperture Users

Adobe released Lightroom CC today with performance improvements and a few slick new tools. They have steadily refined their photo management app for enthusiasts and pros, and to be honest, it's still the best option for those looking to migrate away from Aperture.

The problem of course, is getting there. 

There's no magic button you can push, or single lever you can pull, to move your thousands of images from one application to the other. Adobe's migration tool is clunky at best, and 3rd party options aren't much better. It's not really their fault, however.

It's truly trying to change an apple into an orange. The two systems for handling your files are different, especially the image editing engines, and there's no real getting around it

I like Lightroom CC. It may even become my new go-to app for handling photography. But I'm not going to try to convert years of Aperture work into Adobe's system. I'm going to leave that exactly where it is: in Aperture.

If I decide to make the jump, then I will start using Lightroom fresh and go from there. It's not convenient by any means. But this is the hand we've been dealt. 

And if there is a silver lining, it's that Lightroom continues to get better with each release.


I Feel Like I Can Shoot Anywhere

After Saturday's wonderful adventure at Oracle Arena for Game 1 of the NBA playoffs, I'm more convinced than ever that nimble photography is the best approach for events - at least for me. It's just so darn painless.

I entered Oracle Arena the standard way through security. I was carrying my Walking Man Shoulder Bag that contained the Olympus E-M10 with a Panasonic 20mm pancake mounted and ready for action. The guard opened my messenger bag, looked at the petite camera, and waved me through... as he should have. It's well within Oracle regulations.

I also packed the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 prime, again legal for NBA action and shot with it during the game using the 2X digital zoom function (giving me an effective 180mm f/1.8 prime lens). That's all I had: one camera, two lenses.

As I explored Oracle before the game shooting candids of the fans, people were not bothered in the least by my photography. I kept the camera around chest level using the LCD screen for composition. So I wasn't pointing it directly in anyone's face, causing that uncomfortable feeling that results from someone lining you up in their sights.

I was just another fan (which I am) in a Warrior's T-Shirt taking photos before a big game. Just like everyone else shooting with their Samsungs and iPhones. The difference being, I had a quality sensor, great glass, and a much more artistic look to my images.

Afterwards, I was reminded again at just how fun nimble photography is. I travel light, capture great shots, and am not a nuisance to others. Does it get any better for a street shooter?

This coming weekend I'm leading the San Francisco Street Shooting Workshop. Not everyone there will embrace my extreme nimbleosity. But that's OK. Those who do, will enjoy a stimulating, picture-filled weekend without tired shoulders and aching back. They will feel great.

I've never enjoyed photography more than I do now. And for a seasoned veteran such as myself, that's saying something.


Why I Didn't Buy an Apple Watch Today

I wasn't online last night shopping for an Apple Watch. It's rare that I pass on a new tech product designed by Jony Ive.  But to be honest, I'm not really that interested in it. I like my existing chronograph with leather band.

The Apple I fell in love with focused on desktop publishing, photography, and filmmaking. I thought Think Different was brilliant, even though personally, I preferred Think Differently. 

The tools they designed helped me become a better artist and an entrepreneur. Actually, I'm not sure what I'd be doing  today if it weren't for Steve Jobs.

But the Apple Watch is a departure from all of that. A $500 timepiece for the wrist is a fashion item. In my world, that's an accessory.

On the other hand, the iPhone is a necessity. And based on what we might see with the new camera in the 6S, it may become even more important to my work than it is already.

So I won't be writing any articles about the latest product from Apple.

That is, until later this year.


Pimp My Ride

Some guys like cars, others like cameras. (OK, well I love cars too, but you get my point.) And during the last week, I've been souping-up my E-M5 Mark II.

I started with a few stock accessories. First, I added the HLD-8G External Grip that looks sharp and provides more stability. Plus I gain an headphone jack to monitor the audio.

Then I switched optics to my all-time favorite, the silver M.ZUIKO Digital 17mm f/1.8 lens with metal lens cap. It's the closest thing to a chrome bumper that you can get for a camera. And to protect that beautiful glass, I added the Hoya 46mm EVO Antistatic Protector Filter that has 16-layer super multi-coating.

For the finishing touch (and after much searching), I scored the Gariz Genuine Leather XS-WB1 Camera Hand Strap for Mirrorless that looks absolutely sharp and feels great. And just to be on the safe side, I added a 3" screen protector for the articulated LCD. Nobody wants an unforeseen scratch to mar the glossy sheen of their viewing screen.

If you want to see what this all looks like, I've posted a shot of the E-M5 Mark II on my Flickr page.

When it comes to obsessive, photographers can hold their own with anyone.

And that especially applies to me.


We Need Something New

Here's where things stand at the moment.

Lightroom 6 is just around the corner. I'm sure it will be fine. Just fine. And the official release of Photos for OS X is imminent also. Yay.

Both present decent business opportunities for me. But it's a loveless relationship. I'm not excited. We'll go about our work and get the job done. But that's about it. It's boring sex if you ask me.

Am I jaded? Hardly. I'm spinning cartwheels over my latest camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. I can't get it in my hands often enough. I want to write about it all the time. I feel like a 17 year old with a new muscle car. 

So I know I'm alive. Really, it's not me. It's them.

With Apple selling out to iPhone snapshooters and focusing on Dick Tracy watches, and Adobe plodding along with their mandated release schedules, who's left to knock our socks off? C'mon guys, what happens after we take the picture can be exciting too.

When it comes to photography software, we need something new. Someone, somewhere has to step up to the laptop and give us code to cheer about.

Cloud storage is not the answer. Hell, not even Apple can keep their servers online. I watch what Olympus is doing with pixel shifting sensors, Fujifilm with killer film emulators, Sony with jewel like cameras that take big pictures, and wonder why they can cause tingles when supposedly the smartest companies on the planet settle for catering to the masses.

I wrote about a free app called Fotor recently. Have you seen this thing? It's terrific. Can you imagine if those creative minds attempted to do something big like Lightroom? You would be racing to your computer after a shoot to play with the images.

Here's the thing... I'm not ready for an iPhone-only, cloud storage, auto everything world. I love photography. I want applications that live up to the standards of my cameras.

Right now, I'm a bachelor when it comes to post production. I'm not tied to anyone.

So, someone please,

thrill me.