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.