Cold Brew

When photographers discuss tools of the trade, the conversation usually focuses on lenses and cameras. But there’s another important accessory in my bag of tricks: coffee. It’s a luxury that I can always afford.

Like most independents, the artist’s journey is a route than traverses both hills and valleys. Good months are celebrated with a few extra indulgences. Leaner times require more discipline.

There is, however, one constant during the entire ride. A bag of ground French Roast costs $7. That’s a week’s worth of enjoyment that’s absolutely independent of good times or bad.

Mornings begin with a hot, aromatic cup slightly sweetened from the drip machine. A few hours later, I prepare a pour over with a single-cup filter. Then, when I want an afternoon pick-me-up, I reach for a jar of cold brew that I have squirreled away in the fridge.


Most coffee drinkers are familiar with electric pots and paper filters. But I’ve noticed that many have not experienced the joys of cold brew. It’s a smooth and mellow delight that provides plenty of kick.

I make mine in an everyday Bodum French Press that’s essentially a glass beaker with a fine-mesh screen and a plunger. In the late afternoon, I put 5 scoops of medium ground French Roast in the bottom, slowly add cold water to soak all of the grounds, then let the mixture mingle in the fridge for 15 hours.

The next morning, I “press” the grounds to the bottom of the container, then pour the filtered coffee into jars for consumption as needed in the waning hours of the day.

If you like coffee, but haven’t experienced homemade cold brew, I highly recommend it.

Artists are fueled by many things, and for me at least, this is one of the most important.


Just Outside Our Door

For some time now, I’ve understood that writers need to read quality works and photographers should study great images in order to improve their craft.

The impact of this activity might not be obvious at first. But over time these positive influences will seep into the deeper recesses of creative consciousness.

Writers, for example, will hear the meter of the language they read. They might not realize it, but their brain will remember the patterns that make one sentence effortlessly flow into another. And at some point, these melodies will mingle with their own written expression.

This works for photographers as well. They can examine a print and dissect how the composition is constructed, then emulate it in their own creations. And beyond that, they may also feel how the image touches their emotions. Realizing that a picture can have this power is an important moment for a photographer. I’ve experienced this myself.

But what I didn’t realize was that these encounters don’t need to be limited to the confines of our own craft. Photographers can step out of the frame into other forms of expression. That’s because an artist is an artist regardless of the particular medium that he or she chooses. Photographers who explore creativity outside of their specialty will see the world from different angles. And I believe that this will help them make better images.

I decided to test this theory with a series of interviews that I’m sharing on a podcast called The Nimble Photographer. I wanted to find out if I could improve my pictures by learning from musicians, illustrators, filmmakers, street artists, and yes, other photographers.

After just a few months, I can say that I’m blown away by what I’ve heard. Here are just two of the lessons that have emerged from these conversations.

George Shaw, Musician, “Say Yes”

At a young age, George learned that his ticket out of the rural South was through education. He was both studying and playing music along the way. What he didn’t realize at first was that his formal education would intersect with his creative expression. And that’s what propelled his success.

I learned a couple of things from George. First, the importance of developing your awareness to recognize opportunity, then knowing when to seize it.

He doubled-down on this skill by leaning toward saying “yes” when presented with something new, even if he wasn’t totally comfortable with the challenge. This approach led him from one adventure to another, helping him develop as an artist along the way.

When I asked him for advice for upcoming musicians, he responded with, “Know your craft.” It’s one thing to be in the right place at the right time, but it’s another to take full advantage of that situation. You have to be excellent at what you do, or opportunity will be wasted.

In his case, musical skills were vital. But his advice also applies to my work as a writer and photographer. Job one for me is to know my craft. George reminded me of that important lesson.

Tom Rodrigues, Illustrator, Nobody Bats a Thousand

One of the questions that I ask every artist is how they define success. You would think that recognition and financial reward would be at the top of every list.

The reality is that it’s more complicated than becoming rich and famous. Every artist that I’ve talked to acknowledges that business has to be part of the equation if they are going to continue their creative pursuits.

But what I learned from Tom Rodrigues, an illustrator, is that financial reward is bigger than any single project. Creative people fail all of the time. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move forward. The value of our efforts are more than revenue and praise. Projects that don’t succeed financially are just as important as those that do because of the lessons gained from the experience.

Tom achieved financial success through his innovative designs of wine labels. But he also lost money endeavoring big projects that he loved. They just didn’t work out. His definition of success is becoming a better artist. Creatively figuring out how to pay the bills along the way is part of the art.

Facets of the Same Diamond

Bringing all of this back to the world of photography, I realize that if I open myself up to other artists, I can learn from them and energize my own craft.

This is advice that I’m also sharing with photographers who complain about falling into a non-creative rut. Instead of trying to solve the problem by grasping at new cameras or running off to exotic destinations, why not investigate the world of music, painting, theater, and other art forms as well?

A simple start is to visit a museum and study the paintings housed inside - really looking at the use of color, line, and composition.

Then go beyond that. Listen to how Mozart constructed a symphony, or see how the lighting helped create the mood for a theatrical performance. And what about the challenges those artists overcame to achieve their success? I bet that’s interesting.

Maybe go so far as, when presented with a creative roadblock, ask, “What would Meryl Streep or Andy Warhol do?”

I find it comforting to realize that I am part of a larger creative community that spans well beyond photographers. Many of the things that energize me also fuel musicians and actors.

My quest is to learn as much from them as possible, and bring that knowledge and inspiration to my own craft - and hopefully to yours as well. I realize that every lesson might not be a perfect fit. I will pick and choose accordingly.

The important thing is to realize that there’s an endless supply of inspiration in the world. We just have to look for it. Why settle for a microwave dinner when there’s an entire feast just outside our door?


Artists in Action - A New Feature Debuts

As I continue to think about the best ways to tell the stories of artists, it dawned on me that sometimes I’ll need visual components as well as audio. As a result, I came up with the concept called Artists in Action that will soon debut on this site.

The foundation is still based on my interview with the artist. But instead of being a straight audio podcast (which we will continue to do with great enthusiasm), the post will include text, audio, and video - all in bite-sized servings. This allows the viewer to get to know the artist in a different way.

You could simply read the story based on my interview, listen to the artist share an anecdote via the embedded audio player, or watch the short video that’s also included in the post. Not surprisingly, my recommendation is to do all there.

We don’t always have 20-30 minutes for our dose of daily inspiration. But for those moments when we’re waiting in the doctor’s office, enjoying a coffee break, or just need a positive breath of fresh air, I think Artists in Action will be a wonderful fit.

Stay tuned for next week’s debut. I can’t wait to hear what you think.


Know your Craft

One of the common themes that I’ve gleaned from my conversations with successful artists is the commitment to knowing their craft.

Creativity is almost a given. Everyone of my interviewees knew they were artistic at a young age. But channeling that natural talent into something unique and wonderful required learning the tools of the trade.

In his interview, Tom Rodrigues mastered the art of stained glass as a youth. This played an important role in his later success as an illustrator. And when he explains the steps of how a wine label goes from conception to completion, the technical detail is amazing.

Musician George Shaw cited “know you craft” as his primary advice to upcoming artists. “As a musician on stage, you have to be ready for everything,” he commented. “And if you make a mistake, you have to make sure that it never happens again.”

As photographers, we’re in an interesting space right now concerning this notion. At one time, knowing the technical details of image making was enough to separate ourselves from snap shooters. If we could consistently deliver a good looking image, we could find work as artists.

But these days, technology does much of the heavy lifting in terms of exposure, color, sharpness, and even depth of field. And I think the advice of “knowing our craft” now applies to post production.

Just about anyone can capture a technically sound photograph with their smartphone. Of course there’s still artistry in the composition, but the other elements can be handled by the camera itself. And this is where it ends for most casual photographers.

I’ve learned that I can separate myself from weekend warriors is in the second half of the process. What I do in image editing makes my pictures look different. And I’ve had to become highly proficient in that area to survive as a working artist.

I have one client that provides an option for its photographers: hand over the original files and let them edit, or post produce them ourselves. If we choose the later, we’re paid for the post production as well.

I was talking with one of the other photographers recently, and I was amazed to learn that he takes the path of handing over the original files. I would never choose that option.

The work that I do in post is one of the things that makes my photographs unique. I don’t want to just fulfill the assignment, I want to kill it. My goal is to have the best possible rendering of the subject.

Some people think that technology has killed the craft of photography. That’s not true. But it has upped the ante. We can no longer get by just because we know how to set an f/stop.

We have to know our craft. And these days, that means using the tools of post production to help express our artistry.

The concept hasn’t changed, only the process.

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.