Kung Fu and the Nimble Photographer

When I was a kid, I loved watching the TV show Kung Fu.

I admired Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, who came to the American West in search of his half brother. If there ever were a case for a journey eclipsing the destination, Carradine’s encounters were that. The stories that fascinated me were the lives of those he met along the way.

Years later, I have embarked on my own journey as the Nimble Photographer, in search of artists who have navigated their way through the financial challenges of life. How did they do that? What is the answer?

They have surprised me with their stories. I go into a conversation thinking that I have a sense of what is about to transpire, only to discover that there is far more to the experience than I could ever imagine.

Like many journeys, I wasn’t really planning to take this trip. A series of unexpected events happened, and the next thing I knew, I was on the road. Kwai Chang Caine had to flee China because he killed the man who murdered his mentor. Fortunately, I have done no such thing.

But as I perceive it, there has been death. The casualties are the careers of thousands of writers and photographers. In the span of a decade, I have watched how much of the business world has devalued professionals who excel at honest communication, creative thought, and insightful storytelling.

And even though many of those opportunities have gone away, the people who are skilled at them have not. They are still among us. Many of them continue to perfect their craft without the safety net of financial security, health care, or paid time off. Or… some have managed to recover those things, and they are willing to say how.

In the end, Caine did find his brother. And I hope that I find the answer to my question as well, which is: what are the best ways to adapt the skills that I admire to today’s society?

If you enjoy a good quest, then I hope you’ll travel with me on the Nimble Photographer podcast. I may not be able to fight for these people as Caine did, but I can share their stories. And there’s power in those words.

My Eccentric Attraction to Old Cameras

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday after I had been up all night working on a podcast. My brain was tired, and all I wanted to do was take a nap. Too late in the day for that.

So, instead, I climbed the stairs to the workroom on the second floor where I refurbished 35mm film cameras for my online store, TheFilmCameraShop.

There was this Nikon FE that I had been meaning to work on. I sat down at the bench and lifted the camera to my eye. The viewfinder wasn’t too bad. There was a bit of dust, but I could drop down the focusing screen and hopefully blow that out. Seems like a good place to start.

That is, until I touched the mirror bumper with my index finger. It was sticky and ready to fall apart. Can’t let that happen or it will drop goo all over the mirror and the focusing screen. Cleaning that up is a far more difficult task. I better replace the mirror bumper first.

So I carefully scraped away the old gooey foam, cleaned the metal beneath it, then cut a new bumper and installed it. Nice. Now I can drop the focusing screen and blow out the viewfinder. Got it all. No dust in the viewfinder.

I then tested the shutter button, only to discover that it was sticking on the higher speeds. Darn. I tried a little lubrication, and wouldn’t you know it, it worked. What a magnificent sound that shutter is, and the film advance lever was equally satisfying as I pushed it forward with my thumb after each exposure.

I opened the back of the camera to discover that its door seals had long ago crumbled away. I cut new seals and installed them by rolling a penny in the narrow channel around the film chamber to pat them down securely. I then cleaned the entire body and the lens.

I looked at my watch and it read 5:45 pm. An hour and 15 minutes had just passed in seconds. During that time I never once felt fatigued, worried about my clients, or fretted about the unchecked boxes on the ToDo list.

I raised the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter button again. It sounded beautiful. What mechanical miracles those 1980s film cameras were. Nearly 40 years later, this Nikon FE still had its looks, and sounded good as well.

I know that some people think that I’m eccentric for working on these old cameras. Maybe so.

But I know that this Nikon will soon provide great joy for a photographer that I’ve never met. He or she may live in North Carolina or Idaho. I won’t know anything about them except for one thing - we share a deep appreciation for this mechanical device that is both handsome, and can make beautiful images.

I sat the camera down and got up from the workbench. What a satisfying way to end the day.



I still think about that morning in the Winter of 2009 when we were all called into a conference room. A dull anxiety had been in the air for weeks, and that unsettling vibe was finally coming to fruition. On one hand I was relieved to learn was the mystery was all about, that is, until I actually found out.

There were a stack of packets on the table. One for each of us. Inside the envelopes were details about our departure. There were forms to sign and agreements to be made. If we wanted our severance pay, we would dutifully follow each step.

When I walked out of that conference room, I, along with all of my co-workers in the department, were unemployed. And so began my solo career.

You don’t always start a business; sometimes you’re thrust into it. I had a few friends who were willing to help get me started. I got a phone call from Bruce, the co-founder of lynda.com. “I hear you have some extra time on your hands. Let’s make some movies.” I began to put the pieces together.

A decade later, I’m still on my own. It’s so different now than having an employer. When I was in the publishing business, I never really worried about my job. It was just always there, until one morning when it wasn’t.

But now, every day seems to bring some new surprise. Clients and sponsors come and go. One moment you’re in a meeting at corporate headquarters, the next you’re a line item in a budget cut.

I can vaguely feel those changes before they materialize. It’s like a cold coming on. You don’t want to believe it’s real. It’s just a scratchy throat. Until it isn’t.

So I’m always thinking about what’s next. I have to. What can I do that’s new, that’s different. One of those new things is going to happen right here. It’s a funny story, actually. I can’t tell it quite yet. But I will. Sometimes you have to wait until the coast is clear.

Timing is everything, right? At least for the good stuff. As for the bad… well, there’s never a good time.

Thanksgiving 2018

I was siting at my desk when I heard the first few raindrops splash on the roof. We had been waiting for this moment for weeks. The insidious high pressure system that was parked off our coastline finally gave way to a low pressure system that opened the gate to Alaska. The storms could now pass through.

I pulled on my shoes and stepped outside with the laces untied. I could breath the air. For the first time in days I could inhale deeply into my lungs. The air tasted sweet as it flowed passed my lips. This was the morning before Thanksgiving.

The next day broke with sunshine, wet pavement, and billowy clouds. Sonoma County had been washed clean and was hanging out to dry. It was time for a walk.

I felt like a reinjuvinated Scrooge greeting every passerby with a hearty “Thanksgiving!” Some were surprised by my enthusiasm, others meet me full force with their response.

I know there are challenges all around me. I know the work has just begun for our neighbors to the north. I know all of these things.

But I also know that small victories are to be savored, or we’ll never survive the long haul. Today, this Thanksgiving, is one of those moments. And I plan on cherishing every second of it.


Photography Is Different With Others

There was this moment that I remember during the second night of our Lassen Workshop in Sept. of 2018. We were all sitting around a table at an Italian restaurant near Lake Almanor, high in the mountains of Northern California. I took this picture. It had been a good day followed by a great evening.

Thursday Night Dinner.jpg

We were tired, hungry, and happy. The group had really come together after a day of working together. Everyone was relaxed and could be themselves. The guy on the end, Kirk, was on east coast time and really feeling the lag. We would jab him back to life every so often.

The interesting things about photography workshops aren’t the pictures as much as the people. Each of these artists could probably get many of the same the shots on their own. But it’s a much different endeavor when working with others. And I think, every now and then, a necessary one.

I keep putting together these events because I believe that photographers need to rub elbows with one another. It’s so very different than traveling on your own, with your family, or even with friends who don’t share your same passion for image making. There are a dozen little things that make the shared experience more satisfying. This night was one of them.

Maybe I keep doing these so that I can attend four workshops a year myself. Maybe I do it for the pizza. Whatever the reason, I’m doing it again in 2019. And I’m hoping that maybe this year you’ll take a seat at the table as well.

It’s the only way that you’ll ever really know what I’m trying to say here.


The 2019 TDS Workshop Season

Joshua Tree National Park - March 13-15, 2019 - This will be our first workshop visit to Joshua Tree. This fascinating environment is perfect for landscape work by day and night photography once the sun sets. We'll also visit the Salton Sea to capture migratory birds and to explore this unusual body of water. During our lab sessions, there will be instruction on maximizing your results with Aurora HDR, Lightroom CC, and Luminar. Add a little aerial photography, and we're set for photographically satisfying adventure. Three days, $725

San Francisco Street Photography - April 26-28, 2019 - We'll work entirely on location in San Francisco. We'll book a hotel in picturesque Union Square that will serve as our headquarters during the event. No rental car will be necessary. We'll explore the City's hidden treasures and capture them through our lenses. And we're adding new shooting locations again this year, including twilight assignments. This is San Francisco like you've never seen it before. And as a bonus, Olympus Trailblazer Mike Boening will be joining the teaching staff and leading sessions on street shooting and night photography. Two instructors, three days, small group, and all for just $725. (That's right, it's 3 full days in one of the most photogenic cities in the U.S.)

The Sonoma Coast Exploration - July 17-19, 2019 - Northern California's rugged coastline is the perfect setting to fine-tune our landscape and long-exposure water images. Plus, we'll visit a former Russian fort, movie locations, and interesting fishing villages. This workshop is the perfect escape from summer heat and humidity while adding hundreds of beautiful images to your photo library. During our lab sessions, there will be instruction on maximizing your results with Aurora HDR, Lightroom CC, and Luminar. If a workshop could be relaxing and stimulating all at the same time, this is it. 3 days - $725.

Humboldt Redwoods Photography Workshop - Sept. 18-20, 2019 - There is magic in the forest. If you've never experienced the magnificent redwoods of Humboldt County, you are in for a treat. Every detail of this vibrant ecosystem presents a photographic opportunity. The fern-covered floor with Dogwoods and azaleas, the towering Redwoods, fallen logs across bubbling streams... so much to work with. Additionally, we'll explore the fascinating Eel River and its wildlife. During our lab sessions, there will be instruction on maximizing your results with Aurora HDR, Lightroom CC, and Luminar. This workshop will delight your eyes and satisfy your soul. 3 days - $725

You can reserve your spot by visiting the 2019 TDS Workshops page and placing your $100 deposit for the event of your choice. If you have questions, please use the Contact Form on this site. I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.