The Plaza in Santa Clara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I feared that someday soon

it may be lost.


South Beach Miami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

62 Pounds

At first, 62 pounds seems like a lot.

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

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

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

I’m probably wrong about this.

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

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

are ready for the world.


What We Leave Behind

There are always decisions involved with leaving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fact of the matter is, what we leave behind

is more valuable than what we bring.


If I were a Lightbulb, I'd be Glowing

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

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

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

"What are we going to release at CES?"

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

"Perfect, let's do it."

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

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

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

These were my shining knights in Vegas.



Second Doubts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to keep in mind as I prepare for Cuba.


Las Vegas, Ready or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Short Pause in the Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then go spend the evening with my family.


Dry Run

I'm not clear on the origin of "Dry Run."

My personal favorite is from, "...prohibition when moonshine runners would run the route without carrying any alcohol to get to know the route better, and improve their speed for the actual run (hence a "dry" run)." (Joel Glovier). But it's most likely from fire departments giving exhibitions of their prowess at carnivals or similar events.

Regardless, I'm on one right now.

Even though I'm traveling by car through Southern California, I'm pretending that I'm in an exotic land with few services. That is, except when I'm hungry and need to make a dash to the nearest Mexican restaurant. (BTW: I had a chicken mole yesterday to die for!)

So far, I've discovered just a few flaws in my packing strategy. My approach is to put what I think I need in my Lowepro Pro Tactic 350, which would be my carry-on across the hemisphere. Then put the questionable items in my suitcase. If I discover that I need something that isn't in my backpack, I still have it with me.

So far, the only adjustment I've made was moving the WD My Passport Wireless hard drive. It was in my suitcase. I need to find a place for it in the backpack. I've discovered that I have to have it with me.

Other than that, just a few tweaks here and there. I still have a couple days to go on this trip, so there might be more fiddling to do.

But for now, I'm ready for the whiskey.

(Hmmm, that might not be allowed on the plane.)


How Much Camera Do You Really Need?

Yesterday, while I was writing a piece about the Nikon D810, I was thinking to myself, "How often would I need 36.3 megapixels?"

Certainly, my spontaneous candids of Dibs the cat don't need that much resolution, nor my vacation photos, high school basketball games, or product shots for the blog.

When digital photography was emerging, the common thinking was that a 6 megapixel camera would approximate the quality of a 35mm negative. Looking back, I think that was a bit low. But 6 megapixels was a rarity in those days. Now I'm more inclined to say 16 megapixels will get the job done.

One of my cameras, the Canon 5D Mark II captures RAW at 21 megapixels. The only time I use that body is for commercial shoots. I like having it among my choices. But I'm also happy it's not my only camera. Quite honestly, the body and the lenses that go on it, are too big for my nimble lifestyle.

For 90 percent of the work I do, and I'm serious about photography, I would say that 16 megapixels is the sweet spot. 12 megapixels feels a bit light to me, especially if I need to crop the image. And the 20 megapixels on my Canon 70D, or 21 on the 5D Mark II, feel like luxury.

The one caveat I would add, is that I do like a decent-sized sensor. I think 16 megapixels on a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor performs better than on a sub-1" sensor that we see on many compacts and smartphones. This is especially true in low light.

And yes, I do walk my talk. The most important trips of my life, such as two weeks in Europe this past summer, or my visit to Cuba coming in January, have been and will be recorded with my Micro Four Thirds kit. 

Will I someday regret leaving my DSLR behind?

I seriously doubt it.


The Miracle of Micro Four Thirds

There are days when I just marvel at the design of my cameras and lenses. Today is one of them.

I'm testing the new Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 35-100mm f/4.0-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. lens that solved a real problem for me. I needed a longer zoom for upcoming trips, but did not have the room or the spare weight for my larger Olympus 75-300mm zoom. (Yes, by Micro Four Thirds standards, the 75-300mm is a big lens. How times have changed!)

By contrast, the new Panasonic weighs less than 5 ounces and is only 2" long. Yet, it provides me with the equivalent of a 70-200mm zoom. Let's take a minute to digest that. This optic is smaller and lighter than a plastic 50mm lens for DSLRs, yet covers 70-200mm. Incredible.

So what's the catch? I mounted the zoom on my Olympus OM-D E-M10 and went outside to take pictures. After studying the results on my Retina Display Mac, I'll tell you that the catch IS NOT image quality. The photos looked great, edge to edge.

Maybe chromatic aberration is the problem. I photographed tree branches against a bright sky and studied the edges at 100 percent on the computer. Nope. Not that either.

Well, then it must cost a lot. Wrong again. I bought it for $397 at B&H. And that included a lens hood. Cheap design. Nada. Beautiful metal housing and mount.

So the only drawback is the f/4.0-5.6 maximum aperture. This is not an indoor zoom. It is for working outside in the light of day... which is exactly what I needed. If I want a tele indoors, I'll use my trusty Olympus 60mm f/2.8. (A miracle lens itself, BTW.)

This Panasonic optic, and so many like it, are what I call the miracle of Micro Four Thirds. It's the sweet spot of nimble photography - with a sensor big enough for great image quality, but small enough to allow for amazing, compact lenses like the Panasonic 35-100mm.

I am truly impressed.


The Jigsaw Puzzle

One of the reasons why I start packing so early is because I view my gear bag as a jigsaw puzzle. And like all such challenges, they take time to complete.

I'm not sure why I enjoy this activity so much. I view it as my opportunity to defy physics. "Can I pack the perfect bag?" It's like finding the only configuration that accommodates four suitcases squeezed into a car trunk - with success follows a sense of clever accomplishment.

But camera bags are even more thrilling. They're nomadic. Once perfected, they provide the illusion of "I can go anywhere at anytime and do my thing." All I need is this backpack and a place to hang my hat.

There was a missing piece to my current puzzle. I needed a longer lens, but didn't want to lug the 75-300mm for my trek across the country, and ultimately to Havana. Then I found it. The just-released Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 that's only a few inches long, yet provides an equivalent of 70-200mm zooming range when mounted on my OM-D cameras. I ordered it and am anxiously awaiting its arrival.

I have the perfect spot for it. And it will only add 7 ounces to the weight of the bag. 

Will this complete my jigsaw puzzle?

I get excited just thinking about it.



The Worst Starbucks Ever

I don't normally visit the Starbucks in my neighborhood. Why would I? I have plenty of French Roast in the carafe on the kitchen counter.

But today was different. I was on foot checking-off errands from my ToDo list when a client called needing some information. 

"Not a problem," I thought. I'll just duck in to the Coddingtown Mall Starbucks in Santa Rosa, treat myself to a Skinny Peppermint Mocha, and send my client the details via the iPad mini stashed in my Walking Man Shoulder Bag.

I ordered a grande (feeling somewhat festive) and paid using the Starbucks app on my iPhone. Yes, the Nimble Photographer was firing on all cylinders. I found a sturdy table (a rarity in most coffee shops) and selected their WiFi via Settings on the iPad.

Nothing happened. I waited for the "yes I agree to everything in small print on this page" screen to appear, but was left hanging. I walked up to the counter.

"Excuse me, but it appears that your WiFi is down. Could you please take a look?"

"Oh, it's always like that. It's really slow here."

"Ummm, it's not slow. It's dead. Maybe the access point just needs to be restarted."

"That won't help."

I smiled. "Well, is someone working on this?"

"Oh yes. But it's been this way for a year."

A year!

That's not working on it. We're talking about WiFi, not a room addition.

I always have a Plan B. In my case, it was Verizon on the iPad. Funny thing, however. Not even my cellular would work. I was in the Twilight Zone. This place must be encased in aluminum.

Starbucks isn't just about coffee. They know that.  It's a place for people like me to escape the drone of the city, rest my feet, and get some work done. I can get a drink anywhere. I pay $4.95 for a Skinny Peppermint Mocha so I can log-on and take care of business.

I once read a survey stating that adding WiFi to your retail business helps attract customers. However, if it doesn't work, they won't return, regardless of how good your core product is.

This is particularly true for hotels and Starbucks. No matter how adequate my Skinny Peppermint Mocha may be, I'm a dissatisfied customer without a few spoonfuls of my promised WiFi. It's the unspoken agreement.

Oh, and to make matters worse,

the restroom was out of order too.


After the Rain

I noticed the light changing in the south window - a new color on the fringe of my computer screen.

The rain had stopped for the first time in two days. I can't remember the last time we had consecutive storms. For the better part of the workday, the light was steely blue - but now, some warmth.

I needed break anyway. It was 4:30 pm, and I hadn't even stopped during lunch. But it was raining then. Now it's calm. I could hear the tires on the wet street as I stood on the front porch in my socks. (Yes, definitely some color in the sky.) It was time for a walk.

I put the compact Canon S110 in my back pocket, laced up my red and gray Nikes, and locked the door behind me. The clouds in the west parted slightly. A streak of orange leaked out, but too many buildings to see much more.

I walked faster. Maybe down the street there was a clearing.

A few hundred yards away, I saw a woman standing in her front yard holding up a smartphone. That's promising. I walked faster.

And there it was. The opening, the colors, the perfect moment to shoot a sunset. 

Some photographers say that sunsets are trivial shots. That we shouldn't even bother. Nope. I love sunsets. And if I have a camera with me, I'm going to take a picture. 

I held the Canon up to the sky. The colors were perfect. In just those few moments my day became spectacular.

I'm so lucky. The minute clouds part, I have the freedom to open my door and leave. And the best time to do that

is after the rain.



How I Prepare for Travel

I have a big adventure to Cuba this coming January, and a few shorter business trips before then. I'm preparing for them right now.

I embrace the "dry run" school of thought for packing. It's my belief that we cannot conceptualize everything we need (and just as importantly, don't need) without physically trying things out first.

My preliminary kit for Cuba includes:

That bag is packed now. I carry it back and forth to work everyday, and it will accompany me on two business trips between now and Cuba. 

During that time, I will determine if the backpack is too heavy, if there's gear that I'm not using, are their additional lenses I should add, and am I self-sufficient?

I could not answer those questions properly the night before the flight to Havana.

I need to know now.

And that's how I prepare for travel.