Friday, December 18, 2009

Do You Remember Sweet 16?

I remember my 16th birthday like it was yesterday. Mom picked me up after school in our light blue Mercury Montego station wagon and we were off to the DMV. We checked in and drove around and got in line. The man got in the car and we were off. Left turn there. Right turn here. He didn’t make me drive farther than about 6 blocks. Park here. Here? Here. Great .... between two trucks, parallel. Little street. Station wagon about 51 feet long. Space about 11 feet long. Miracle. We’re in. Ok, let’s go back. That’s it? That’s it. You can drive.

I had a rehearsal that night so I asked mom and dad if I could take the family wagon. Sure. My first experience of driving alone. Winding down Chevy Chase canyon listening to the radio station I like. My window down. The wind blowing through my Parker Stevenson-esque, quasi mullet, perfectly acceptable feathered hair. Nothing can stop me now. Driving home after the rehearsal. The same.

When I got home my folks were in the family room watching TV. Mom asked me to take out the trash. Take out the trash? On my birthday? Trash needs to go out. K. Opened the door to the garage and my heart stopped. There, parked in the garage, gleaming in the dark, was the 1970 Camero Super Sport that I’d wanted since I was about 13 years old. THE car. Not some substitute. Robert Mogster had driven me home from countless church youth events in this very car. Now it was here. Unbeknownst to me, Dad had called Robert and they’d talked and Robert was ready to sell it and dad thought the price was fair and there it was. I didn’t go anywhere that night, but I think I sat in the garage with that car for the next two hours, until mom made me go to bed. Then I sat on my bed and dreamt about it.

For the next 11 months that car and me were inseparable. I washed it every weekend, cleaned the AC vents with a Q tip, polished the rims and tires, cleaned and treated the vinyl seats, changed the oil, coolant, power steering fluid, spark plugs, battery, everything. I drove it too fast. I made up excuses to go places. I drove it to the Sierras to go backpacking (by myself) mainly so I could drive the car.

On a chilly early November evening while I was sitting in the stands at a high school football game, someone stole the car. When you loose something like that at that age, it changes you. I never really got over it. Things don’t mean that much to me anymore. It’s not because I’m “better than that.” It’s for protection. Someday I’d love to have that car again. Mostly, so I can say good by on my own terms if it comes to that ...

All of this came to mind the day before yesterday when my son Mitch had his mom pick him up at school so he could go to the DMV. Things are tougher for kids now (which is probably good) but he squeaked through and got his license. He didn’t have a rehearsal, but he jumped in his car and went to Burger King for a milkshake, pretty much because he could. Yesterday he went to Starbucks on his way to school. He’s on his way. I remember what that feels like. It feels good. Have fun Mitch. We’re here for you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The society of coat hook thieves...

I have to confess that I'm an almost insatiably curious person. I wonder about almost everything. If there was a curious-people anonymous I'd have to be there. My friends would have committed me a long time ago. I try to avoid Cliff Claven-ing, but sometimes when someone asks a question I just have to answer it. I can't control it. It's an addiction of sorts. Oh well ...

I've wondered for a while why the coat hooks are always missing in airport bathroom stalls. Could it be that there is some strange organization that collects these? Are they like little, free souvenirs that people like to take home? "Check it out honey! O'hare, terminal two, the hidden men's behind Starbucks at gate 37D! THE FIRST STALL!" "OOOO ... that's better than the new Indianapolis, terminal gallery women's stall 3 I got last week!"

Like I said, I'm curious (and my curiosity tends to like time to run around a little in my mind collecting interesting explanations and there are few places where this can happen for longer than in a stall in an airport bathroom during one of those all too brief moments of solitude while I'm on the continuum between origination and destination). So when I got to the airport this morning and went to (insert your favorite euphemism here) go potty and closed the stall door and went to hang my jacket up only to find the hook was missing I pondered again ... Is it one person collecting these from everywhere or is it an underground organization? Do they put little cameras in there when they take the hooks out? Are they weirdoes who like to watch people in the bathroom? (I've checked. There are no cameras. I've read a lot of spy books on the road so I know how to check too!)

While I was sitting and pondering someone "checked in" next door. Usual sounds, trying to figure out how to fit person, suitcase, briefcase, coffee, obligatory bag of food, magazines, etc., into less than one square foot behind the door that inexplicably swings IN to the stall. Then hanging the jacket. WAIT - HE'S Got a hook! They haven't gotten it yet! Hm .. maybe it's that I have a weird case of no-hook-luck? Is this a syndrome? I wonder if you can bet on that? Like is it a thing like Ed TV where everyone is watching and laughing when I can't find the hook? Probably not. That would be boring as hell.

He's also on the phone which I've always thought is the most interesting form of party foul. The person on the other end must be saying/thinking, "What are you doing? It sounds like you’re... uh .. how do I say it politely ... forget it ... I’ll just sit and hope it’s not what I think." "No - (flush sound from stall next door - ME! -I flush on purpose when someone is on the phone) - I don’t really feel like Thai food tonight sweetheart” - Flush sound again from ‘flushman’ - “huh? Oh, uh, I’m, uh .. (BUSTED! Flush) in the bathroom at the airport.” “Ah common, don’t make me (FLUSH) ... “Crap.” “Ok I’ll call you back...” If you're ever on the phone with me and you need to go let's just hang up and you can call me back.

Then, it happens! I hear this strange sort of scratch - creak sound. He can’t be stealing the hook? Can he? "Uh ... No", he sort of grunt moans and then, the unmistakable sound of metal giving way and nylon or leather sliding on metal, grunt, FART, lunge, crash, ... His briefcase hits the ground, thud, (He hung his briefcase on the hook? What an idio... ) then I hear it hit the ground and I briefly see it under the stall, THE HOOK, screws still in it, before he reaches down and picks it up and for a moment, you know what? He was saying and doing and thinking the same thing. That’s not easy for a man...

I’m not sure this explains all hook vanishings. But that said, it explains a lot. One less thing to ponder I guess.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

There’s this thing about being the boss. It’s not always as fun as it seems. When I was just starting out I thought - hey, when I make it to the top I can have the big office with the big chair and I can come and go as I please and that will be great. Well, now I sit in that office and I have that chair (I went and bought it on sale from a local Plummers) and I can come and go as I please, and it’s still not easy! When you’re the boss you really only have one job. It’s to make decisions...

I had a boss once who was a little insecure. He hated that the management team would get together and have candid conversations about the business, sometimes without him. He particularly hated that I seemed to disagree with him a lot. I was effective, so he never fired me, but I’m sure he got close. One night he scheduled a dinner with us and arrived late. We were used to this so we just went to the bar and had a drink. We were sitting around laughing about something when he arrived. He wanted to know what it was and it was one of those things where the story is long enough that the retelling would rob any humor. He naturally assumed we were laughing about him. (yes, this sadly happens even at my level).

He looked at me and said, you know what? I think you should be called the CEO because you’re running the place anyway. He was angry (no idea why) and he vented. I looked at him and said, “You don’t get it do you?” “You could call me the CEO or the COO or the CQO or whatever you want.” I was with the other “C” level staff so I pointed at all of them. “You could call each of them whatever you want, too, and it doesn’t matter.” “Do you know why?” He shook his head. “Because in the end you’re the CDO and we’re all COO’s.” Naturally he wanted to know what that meant.

“We’re all ‘Chief Opinion Officers,’ I said, and you’re the ‘Chief Decision Officer.’ You may not get that you actually pay us for our experience and the opinions we form about the business, but ultimately you make all the decisions. That’s your job. It’s my job to tell you when I disagree so I can keep you from looking like a fool if you’re wrong. That said, you tell me you want to go ahead and do something anyway and I turn around and tell my staff that that’s what we’re going to do because that’s what the company has decided...”

It’s really the one scary thing about making it to the top. In every other position failure can always be blamed on the guy upstairs. When you make it to the top the decisions are yours to make and the better you are at making decisions, the more effective you’ll be as an executive.

Two factors contribute to bad decisions. These are analysis paralysis and ego. Analysis paralysis is caused by especially tough decisions. Most decisions are easy. There is a clear black or white. But every once in a while you get one of those ... A decision where no matter what you decide people are going to be upset. Mature leaders get this and they also understand that in any organization making decisions sooner rather than later is better. Less angst and less frustration while you decide. Less posturing, less emotion sown into one position or another and ultimately less risk. Ego gets in the way because it makes it harder for the leader to hear the opinions of the people whose opinions count. Eventually, these people will stop voicing their opinions or leave. The organization will likely fail.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be President of the United States. I have an Ego to be sure, but I would simply never want that job under any circumstances. I voted for this President. I did so for reasons clarified earlier on this blog, reasons relating to concerns around Senator McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin. I also had a hope that with his election some of the angst around the US’s position in the world and some of the angst and bitterness at home would subside. My party has done little to help with any of this and it was clear to me that a change needed to occur. Some of these things have happened and I think there is some good emerging. That said though, there is no question that I also have a concern.

I see the signs of analysis paralysis on the economy and more so on Afghanistan. Both of these issues are large and complex. For what it’s worth, the economy has always been more or less ambivalent about the President. Parties love to take credit or place blame based on the market, but the market largely determines its own course. There are things that politicos can do or say that mess it up, but these situations are usually short lived.

War, and in this case Afghanistan is another matter. The challenge is that there is no right answer. If we send more troops it will cost more, some of them will die and there is no guarantee that things will get better. If we bring everyone home there is no question that Afghanistan will fall back into economic, political and social turmoil. It is the playground of terror. The terrain, tribal influences and well placed fear prevalent in the general population mean that the country will likely retreat to where it was before. It is a nation that has never known real peace for long and then only under the hand of tyrants.

Personally I believe that we must commit more troops to Afghanistan. If it were up to me I would commit a LOT more. Here’s why. I think it’s a chicken and egg thing. I think that some of the socio-political sunrise we saw after the recent fall - women regaining their social losses during the Taliban reign when they suffered unspeakable atrocity, an emerging freedom of religion espousing a truer form of Islam and an emerging appreciation for the arts and sport that generally leads to cultural emergence, were real. Afghans were hopeful that the US would stick it out this time and they were willing to help. To be sure, Karzai is an ineffective leader, but the recent elections and the pull out of any opposition is more about a concern that the US will leave then about anything else.

Those who say that we should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans are naive. Millions upon millions of dollars flow into the country from terror oriented nations. These funds, along with the ragged bands of immigrants whose activities they make possible serve to destabilize the native population’s attempts at autonomy. There is only one country on earth that will actually conquer a country in order to set it free. That’s this one. That’s our mission there and it’s a mission worth pursuing because it would signal hope to all oppressed people everywhere that the United States is not just interested in foreign oil and a christian ideology. We have nothing to gain from a peaceful Afghanistan except a peaceful Afghanistan.

Terror is rooted in poverty. Poverty is rooted in economic and social instability. We’ve messed up in the past by assuming that if we simply take the guns away terror will also fade. The only way to truly address those factors in Afghanistan is to create a peaceful nation where the people have the power to determine their own future, and where the international community understands that investment is safe and where these investments can begin to create an economy powerful enough to overwhelm poverty and where these factors can be sustained long enough that a generation rises believing that its future is in its own hands.

What’s next Mr. President? This one’s not easy. I get that. No answer will make everyone happy. There is always more analysis that can be done. There are always questions whose answers may be debated. In the end sir, you’re the chief decision officer. This one’s a doozy to be sure. It’s time to step up and make a call. Your opinion officers are counting on it.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Veggie Recipes

Easy Veggie Recipes for my too busy to cook photog buddies. I'm no cookbook writer, but these should all work pretty well as I make them all the time at home.

First - understand that I use all fresh produce with the exception of spinach (which is a way better deal frozen), and broccoli (which I buy in the microwavable packages). I’m lucky enough to have a weekly farmer’s market near my home and I also have a produce oriented grocery store that I buy from. Want great veggies? Start with fresh and be very very simple and it’s hard to go wrong.

Asparagus: I don’t know why but it’s a staple in my house. I use it in Pastas and I also cook it all the time on it’s own. Here’s some really quick, easy ideas:

Oh: The tall fancy asparagus steamer thing? Get rid of it. It’s way too easy to overcook aspargus when you steam it.

Some simple ingredients I always have on hand.

Olive Oil - Extra Virgin and Not Extra Virgin. I use EV as a flavor enhancer but not as a saute oil. The reason is the better your EV the more vegetable matter will be in the oil and the quicker it will burn. I buy most of my Olive Oil at Trader Joe’s where it’s much cheaper than the corner grocery.

Sea Salt and Black Pepper (in a mill). I buy sea salt at Trader Joe’s. I don’t know that it tastes better, but I salt by hand and it feels better and is easier to control. Make sure you get the rough - flaked stuff and not ground or rock. I have a cheap old Pepper Mill that works great and I love it.

(most of what I do needs only what’s above. For other things I have the following ingredients around).

Canned diced tomatoes. (I buy these in boxes of a dozen at Costco)

Vermouth: Sweet and Dry. Any store brand works fine.

Madeira: This little known fortified wine is the secret of the gods. It’s hard to find and you don’t want the cheap stuff from the stores. I buy mine at a local wine store that stocks some of the excellent Rainwater Madeira’s. (By the way - the most expensive bottle of spirits I’ve ever purchased was a 70 year old Madeira).

Spice Islands Brand Italian Herb Mix. Buy this and throw out most of your old, dead, dry herbs.

Onions and Garlic. (I use both fresh and dried and bottled depending mostly on my mood).

Parmesan Cheese. (I buy the pre-shredded stuff again at Trader Joes.)

Simply Roasted Asparagus: (This recipe also works great for Carrots - or Asparagus and Carrots).

Ready? This one is really hard! Here goes:

Leave the rubber bands on the Asparagus. Cut off the bases above the white portion and throw out (or mulch) the tough ends. Toss the spears in a bowl with a tablespoon or two (I never measure anything) of Olive Oil and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Pour out on a baking sheet and slide it in a pre-heated 400 degree oven. Check for doneness in about 10 minutes. (Carrots will take a little longer). If you want to disturb the veggies do so by tossing them with a spatula.

For asparagus they’re ready to serve when they’re still crisp but not tough.

For Carrots, drizzle a little honey on them when they come out of the oven. Pour in a bowl and serve. (by the way - you can use the little raw carrots that come in bags from the store if you want - I use these sometimes in a pinch).

Sautéed Asparagus (or Green Beans) with (or without) Onions, Garlic, Red Pepper Flakes, or whatever.

Most people overcook their vegetables. I try to slightly undercook them which means that with the distractions of home cooking usually they turn out just about right.

Slice your veggies - Asparagus or Green Beans into 1-2 inch lengths.

Slice an onion into strips. (Halve it, then slice it through into whatever size you want).

Get a saute pan to medium hot and add olive oil. If you like garlic, sometimes I’ll add it with the olive oil just to flavor the oil. Just be careful not to let it burn as it gets bitter. Add onion to saute pan and saute until translucent. About 5 minutes. (Keep your burner on medium hot to keep from burning the onions.) When the onions start to look about right turn the heat up and add the veggies. Keep them moving in the pan. (If you have Vermouth (dry - white - for this), or Madiera add a dash of it now along with a dash of salt and pepper (or red pepper flakes). You can also add Italian Herbs if you wish. Saute the veggies - moving constantly - for about a minute, then turn the heat down to low, put the lid on and leave it alone for another five minutes for asparagus or another 8 minutes for green beans. (test them before you serve them). This whole recipe - start to finish takes less than 15 minutes of kitchen time.

Small Squash Sauteed with Tomatoes, Onions and a Little Wine. (use the smaller squashes you'll find - such as italian).

Cut up squash into bite sized chunks. Follow onion/garlic preparation from above. Add squash and saute for a minute, then add entire contents of a can of diced tomatoes. Heat until tomatoes are starting to boil, reduce heat to low and cook uncovered for another five minutes or so. Season to taste and serve. (If you want, you can add a little of whatever wine you’re going to have with dinner to this. You don’t need much, 1/4 cup or so. It marries the flavors to your dinner.

Asian style Broccoli Florets.

Ok, Broccoli is another veggie I buy in the microwavable bags. Buying it fresh is a rip off because you pay for the stump you won’t use. I start by microwaving the broccoli according to the directions on the bag. I just undercook it slightly so I can finish it in the pan. When it’s done I pour it out into a bowl.

In a hot skillet I add green onions (chopped), and a dash of vegetable oil. When that’s screaming hot I add a tablespoon of garlic and saute for about 5 seconds, then I add the precooked broccoli and toss it all together. Last I add a dash of asian hot sauce and a dash of soy (instead of salt) and toss one more time before turning out into a bowl. Practice this once or twice and then do it when friends come over and they’ll think you’re a genius.

These are all very healthy recipes. All can be made in just a few minutes and all are simple, tasty sides. I have some other, more complex recipes, Little Lasagnas made with Eggplant, Homemade Roasted Tomato sauce and Goat cheese, for example, but these are among the best for quick, simple meals.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Buy your VinoTemp at Costco or not at all.

Last year I bought a Vinotemp wine refrigerator thing. We had shopped around a bit and we needed one. Storing our wine collection in the semi-converted linen closet wasn't working. I'm kind of a conservation freak and the house gets to 80-90 inside on summer days when we're not home and I won't leave the AC on, so we were losing very good wine as the corks just can't handle that. We looked at a bunch of different brands and decided the Vinotemp was the best price-capacity-look combination for where we needed to put it.

BTW - tangent here - There are people who like these and people who don't. Vinotemps let the temperature fluctuate about 8 degrees. Wine aficionados don't like that. I'm not an aficionado. I'm a drinker. So I don't mind. The vinotemps are also noisy, so you don't want one anywhere in your house you don't mind a little noise.

Ok - back to Costco. I was going to buy the thing from off their web site. Then my wife and I were at Costco and we saw it sitting there. I didn't want to deal with putting it in my truck, etc., so I went to and sure enough it was there. We saved about $150, delivery was free, etc. Perfect.

Fast forward one year and two months. The thing died. I called Vinotemp. 'Sorry, it's over a year old. We can't do anything for you.' (no lie - pretty much that abrupt). (actually makes me want to start another company that makes these things so I can kill them with good customer service as theirs is simply horrible in every respect - but that's yet another tangent). Then about 15 minutes later I got another email saying that "as a goodwill gesture they MIGHT be able to arrange a call with a service tech so he can tell me what parts I need to fix it myself." Huh? I emailed them back and said, "Can I just pay for someone to come out and fix it?" "no." SERIOUSLY?

Anyway ... (breathing now as this all happened yesterday and this kind of stuff really does get under my skin.) (anyone want to start a wine cooler business with me? We'll call it "Don'tbuyaVinotempbecausetheydon'" (I have a degree in marketing so I'm really good at coming up with catchy names like that.) (do I have enough hanging ('s in this now?)

About 3PM yesterday it dawned on me - while I was meeting with the lovely and wonderful Sara France - that I had ordered the damn thing from (not that while I was meeting with Sara I was thinking about other things. Of course, I was only thinking about fun, new, catchy things to put on the Pictage Blog!) I went to their website and found a number and called them. A very helpful customer service rep said, 'oh - yes, you bought that through us, of course you can return it for a full refund.' I had two options, I can take it to the warehouse or they'll stop by and pick it up. Either way I get my money back - no questions asked. I decided to take it to the warehouse because the thought of the thing bouncing around in the back of my truck makes me smile.

Now I have to figure out what other options will work? Moral of the story? Don't by a Vinotemp unless you're going to buy it from Costco.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aperture vs. Lightroom - a competition

Well ..

In case you missed it. My post about not hiring uncle Bob (or me) to shoot your event contained a small side note that I hadn't yet chosen a post production software package. Obviously, I was looking at Lightroom and Aperture and I poked a little fun at Kevin Swan and Jason Aten (hey - I spelled that right on the first try Jason!) about telling me which was best.

57 follow on posts (or more) later and Jeff Youngren stepped in to suggest a bake off. Kevin may call me a chicken, but I'm going to say right here that I actually believe which one is better depends largely on what you want to do with it and on your personal preference and what you know. There are features in each package that trump the other - and - Lightroom has been around longer so it has more features. Lucky for you, if you don't have a Mac your decision is made - as Aperture is not available for a PC. If you have a Mac and haven't figured this one out, hopefully the bakeoff links posted here will help.

No matter what, I want to give a HUGE respectful shoutout to Jason Aten and Kevin Swan and the others, including Jeff Youngren (who submitted images from a recent event), Nathan Holritz who is also doing a Lightroom edit and Sara France, who may also do an Aperture edit. We're posting the links here and elsewhere so the entire pro-photo community can benefit from their hard work.

Onward and post away fellas.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dinner last Sunday Evening

Last Sunday evening we had some friends over for dinner. I left the camera in the bag for the evening and put on my apron instead. Here's the menu we put together - along with some notes. All of the produce came from a nearby farmer's market. Fish from Fish King, a legendary, Glendale based fresh fish market that supplies a lot of the high end restaurants and the meats from Whole Foods. Wines were supplied by Patrick McClenahan (yes, President and GM of KCAL, KCBS here in Los Angeles and a close friend). Richard Villa (CFO of TCW) and I did most of the cooking. The menu is mine ... for good or for bad. The evening was lovely - why we live in California - high 70's nice breeze, so we ate outside. 15 people in all.

Summer Celebration Dinner

Appetizers: Bruschetta of Summer Tomatoes, Salmon Cakes with Fennel, Zucchini slaw and sweet pepper aioli. (second recipe adapted from one I saw in either Bon Appetite (BA) or Gourmet. We served this course with a nice summery Pinot Grigio.

Salad: Spray of Summer Greens with Grilled Apricots, Feta and Simple Vinaigrette. During this course we transitioned to the first of two amazing Chardonnays, a Far Niente and a Cakebread. I was worried about the vinaigrette pairing with the Chardonnays, but the lightly caramelized apricot (and a drizzle of honey) calmed the acidity enough that it worked.

Seafood: Grilled Halibut Brochette with Mango Avocado Salsa over Basil, Jasmine Rice. The halibut was lightly marinaded in a tequila, lime, cumin base prior to grilling. We had this course with a stunning, 2001 Reserve Pinot Noir from Cakebread Cellars. While I was happy with the salsa fish and rice, I would change the marinade next time to be less acidic to match with the Pinot. (any ideas greatly appreciated).

Entre: Miniature Applewood Smoked Bacon Wrapped Center Cut Filets with Port Reduction. Simply roasted fingerling potatoes. Wok'd Light Pepper Verts. The wine pairing for this course was perfect, two wonderful 2001 Solaias from Antinori in Tuscany, Italy. A wonderfully balanced super-Tuscan style Cabernet blend. This course was as near perfect as it could have been from amateurs.

Dessert: Homemade Simple Vanilla Ice Cream over lightly macerated summer berries with a drizzle of light Coconut Carmel and Zinfandel/Chocolate sauces. Topped with a few toasted coconut flakes. Paired with a wonderful dessert wine. EOS. A late harvest blend from Napa.

I love these evenings and the opportunity to celebrate with friends. Patrick's son Eric was married the Friday evening before, and Richard's daughter Steph was married this spring. In truth, I'd put together a dinner like this in celebration of a particularly green lawn or pretty rose. The time we spend together is priceless. Doing it all ourselves is the most fun of all.



Monday, August 3, 2009

Don't hire Uncle Bob (or me for that matter!)

I was thinking about the difference between what our photographers do and what I can do. I'm an uncle Bob - sort of. As Jeff Youngren can attest, I stay out of the way of the pros and shoot my own stuff. I'm really basically looking for one image that I can give my friends as a gift after the event. (Jeff shot my closest friend's daughter's wedding). Frankly, that event really brought this subject home for me.

I've been shooting since I was 11 years old. I currently own a Canon 5D Mark2 and a 5D. I have a 70 200 2.8L IS, a 24-105 4.0L IS, a 17-40 4.0 L, and a 50 1.4. I’m buying a 24-70 2.8L right now. I also own and know how to use a 580EX. (all in, that’s about $8K worth of gear). So here's the deal ... The equipment I have isn't just as good as the equipment the pros have, it's the same. But does that mean I can shoot an event? In a word, no.

First off, I only have one of each. Having a spare body is nice, but if my flash died I’d be up the proverbial smelly creek. Each of my lenses is useful, but if I knocked my 24-105 on something, or God forbid dropped it, the 17-40 is not a stand in. Granted, I can use the 50 for most things, especially with half decent post production skills. (which I don’t have because Kevin Swan hasn’t taught me how to use Lightroom yet and Jason Aten is too busy to teach me Aperture. Yes, I’m still trying to decide). But the real thing is it’s not about equipment.

My very best images are average for a professional. Their command of light and focus and their vision gives them an enormous advantage. If I see something that works, it’s basically luck. A professional creates their own luck. They are aware of the light sources. They are experienced with the events themselves, and the flow. They physically move to places that allow them to take full advantage of the venue. They are tireless.

Once the event is shot their expertise in post-production takes over. They know how to use the new software to their full advantage, and they have the good stuff. They’re not using iPhoto to de-noise an image because the presets in Lightroom or Aperture work way better. They have an ability to see the hidden gems in an otherwise unremarkable image, and then reframe the image to highlight them. They will make the entire event look contiguous. They do this by manipulating the colors, but what you’ll notice is that it looks like everyone is wearing the same clothes for the whole event. You won’t see green dresses in one setting and blue dresses in another. You won’t be healthy and tan in one image and sickly pale in the next. There won’t be a blemish, a crumb or a smudge on any of your images.

I own the higher end software products, but I have a day job, so I don’t really know how to use them. Likewise, I own some of the best camera gear that money can buy, but I have no idea how to change my white balance in camera to deal with the florescent lighting in the room, which creates an ugly, green hue. I am too slow to capture you on the move and I will likely miss important moments because I’m in the wrong place.

Am I a bad photographer? No. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to look at my stuff and ask me whether or not I’m a pro. It’s just that for me the ratio of good to bad is like 1 in 50, and every once in a while I will miss something that I really wanted to get. (I’m sorry Edgar, Tera, Steph and Sean!)

Take it from me, hire a pro. You’ll be happy you did.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why Pay a Pro?

When it’s time to cut costs, a lot of folks who are planning life’s special occasions look at their photographer’s contracts and costs and wonder if they really need to spend all that money anyway. I have to confess that I get calls all the time from friends who know I have a big, black camera and some cool looking lenses and some nice pictures on my walls. They want me to come and shoot their special days. If these are birthday parties or quick Christmas card portraits I’ll usually say yes, but on the occasions when someone has asked me to shoot something more important I say no. Here’s why.

If you are hiring a real professional here’s what you’re getting. Some of this you know, some of it you don’t. It’s all worth considering…

Your professional has taken thousands upon thousands of pictures, in almost any setting and in almost any circumstance, so they’re never seeing something for the first time when they shoot your special day. They know their equipment so well that they don’t have to think about how to make their camera do what it needs to do to make sure your face looks beautiful in direct sun, shade, or near total darkness. They know how to get the whole group in focus and they know when the only thing that should be crisp is the tear under your eye. They know what you will want to see in the images before you do. They know that at a certain distance in certain lighting and with certain lenses, cameras, etc., that if they’re not careful the tip of your nose may be in focus, but your eyes won’t be and they know that when you’re looking at an 8X10 of a special moment, your eyes are the only thing that matters.

In many cases, but not all, your professional went to a school for photography. Even if they didn’t, they’ve attended workshops costing thousands of dollars offering hands on training in extremely advanced techniques for everything from how to use an on camera flash for dramatic results (rather than the flat, over-cooked, red-eye prone images we see all the time) to editing workshops covering the features of professional editing solutions such as Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop. They’ve studied and practiced framing images on the fly. They can see what is special in a moment, and they have the tools and experience to capture things you may not notice until you see their proofs. They’ll give you new angles for the memories you carry from your special day.

It’s not all about equipment, but equipment matters. Having a “blurry background button” on your camera doesn’t ensure a blurry background. These images we all love, where your hand pops but the fabric it’s resting on is out of focus, are not happy accidents. “Uncle Bob’s” big black camera and lens may look like professional gear, but chances are it’s not. (and if it is it only matters if he knows how to use it!) Why? The glass in professional quality lenses and the processing power of professional cameras costs much, much, much more than hobbyists are willing to spend. Most professional lenses cost over $1000. Knowing that in your photographer’s bag there will be three or four of those along with a camera body that averages over $2000 kind of brings it home. (Then consider that they carry at least two camera bodies, two flashes, etc., because they KNOW they can’t miss an important moment due to equipment failure.

Why pro gear is worth the price ..

Consider this situation. You’ve just emerged from the Limo and you’re getting your first look at the venue you chose for your special day. You don’t notice your professional photographer standing by the door, 15 feet away. You also don’t notice your limo driver picking his nose right behind your shoulder, but your photographer does. With uncle Bob’s ‘kit’ zoom lens, (average cost around $500), his minimum depth of field (area that will be in focus) is determined by the light gathering capabilities of the glass in his lens. It’s not GREAT, so he’s unable to get you “in” and the driver “out” and you end up with a crisp image of the two of you on this special moment. The professional on the other hand has positioned herself in advance to shoot this moment. She will see you emerge from the limo and notice the driver in the background and she’ll “open her lens up” so your face, captured in perfect sunset light is in perfect focus but everything else, including the driver’s finger filled nose, are so far out they’re indiscernible, even though the driver’s standing right behind you. Is this luck? No way. Your photographer knows that at 15 feet, their lens (wide open) has a maximum depth of field of 4 inches and they’re using that to create a memory you’ll cherish instead of just another snapshot.

Your professional photographer also doesn’t go to the party. When the open bar opens up they stay away. They don’t dance, they don’t toast, they’re rarely apparent, but always there. Uncle Bob may be regaling the bartender with stories of his fraternity bartending days, but your professional photographer is scoping out the best lighting angle to capture you dancing, laughing, cutting the cake or sharing a private moment with a friend or loved one. In an average shooting day they will capture literally thousands of images. (on average a wedding professional will shoot ~5000 images, an average portrait session several hundred). They don’t drink because they are working. With a technology as complex as a digital camera, that matters.

Midway through the reception, right before the toasts, the kit camera, or even the pro camera that Uncle Bob is using, fails. Now what? Do they have an extra battery? Is it charged? (Pro Camera batteries cost around $100. You can shoot hundreds of images on one, but when you’re going to shoot thousands, you need spares). What about spares for the flash? And what happens, if God forbid, they drop their camera? Your pro has a spare. Spare batteries, spare flash, spare lenses … everything.

Ultimately, the question is simple. How important to you are the memories you’ll have from your special day? How important is the day itself? Will you want to share it with your kids, your grandchildren? Do you want to look your absolute best? The answers to these questions will lead you to an answer that works for you. Hope it helps.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Art and artists ...

So I have to confess that I’m pretty much just flat out a sucker for art. Pretty much any art, too. I’m an incredibly lucky guy because I run a company called Pictage, a service organization dedicated to helping professional people photographers succeed. That means I get to actually contribute in some small way to giving them the freedom to explore their art/profession. That’s pretty cool and it definitely fuels my tank.

But last night I found myself getting positively misty watching “So You Think You Can Dance!” Not with the judging or anything like that. I wish they all could win but that would be bad for ratings. Just watching these people perform is incredibly moving to me. They’ve practiced their hearts out since they were kids and they have a deep seeded talent that simply compels them to dance. I can’t dance. Not like that anyway. I like to dance, so long as it’s dark and there is a sense of anonymity, it’s a fun way to express joy. But these people, through their art, find ways to connect so much more. That moves me.

I like to watch people paint, but I don’t like paintings all that much. I don’t know why. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful works in the world and I think I’m just unable to appreciate what it takes to make a beautiful painting so I just look at it and think -cool - and move on.

Singers and musicians move me easily. As a musician myself it’s easy for me to ‘get’ how hard the easy looking things they’re doing really are. It’s a rare concert where I don’t find myself at some random point celebrating their talent and the joy of their success with a tear or two.

With all of that said though, and it’s not because of Pictage, there is something about photography that I find transcendent. I think it’s because these are real things and real people and real moments. I’ll even stop and look for a while at a particularly good fashion photograph or tabletop image of a watch or food or whatever. I find myself staring at them and wondering, Canon or Nikon or Leica? Who knows, these days maybe a Sony, Video? Whatever. 50MM 1.2 or fisheye? Where’s the light source? Who’s eye was on the viewfinder? What were they thinking? I wish I could do that.

Images of places move me, too. Whether far away or nearby, nature or city. Clean and natural or gritty. The subjects almost don’t matter. I just like to stare.

Images that capture real moments though, these are the ones that tie me down. I can stare at these and wonder on both sides of the lens. I can be the photographer and frame it and see it and feel it. I get the light. I know the feeling of waiting for someone to turn their head just a bit to the left and hearing the click and knowing without looking, because when I learned there was nothing to look at, that you’ve got something special, captured in the camera in your hands.

And I’ve lived long enough now to know the other side. I know the joy of birth and mirth and marriage. I know the fullness of life with friends. I know the sting of death. I love that art is a gateway to these moments in our minds and I celebrate the artists who render it just so ...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

United Airlines Steals Luggage

United Airlines

To Whom it May Concern:

You’ve denied my claim. I understand you don’t cover electronic equipment. That’s why I never check my bags. On this flight I had to check it at the gate because there was no overhead space left. The customer service agent and the baggage guy were having a loud argument on the jetway and when I set my bag down the customer service agent told me I didn’t need a claim ticket and that I should get back on the plane or it would “leave without me.”

When I got to Chicago my bag did not appear back on the jetway. It also didn’t appear at baggage claim. I immediately filed a claim. We followed up on several occasions (you never initiated a call, email or anything to let me know what happened). Finally, we got a call that my bag had “appeared” in the baggage claim office in Chicago. The bag was delivered to me by United. We had already been informed that the electronics had been stolen.

Here’s the problem. The bag never left UNITED Airline's possession. It was checked at the gate in Los Angeles. It did not reappear at the gate in Chicago. So, YOU stole my stuff. I realize it wasn’t the person who is reading this (if by some miracle it is read), it was one of the folks who works in baggage handling in Los Angeles or Chicago. They work for YOU. So UNITED AIRLINES STOLE MY STUFF.

Now, you’re not even willing to pay a claim. I would understand this if I’d checked the bag on the curb with a skycap, or even through the standard baggage claim process. I do not understand it under these circumstances.

In truth, I would have been surprised if things had turned out better. My sense is that United couldn’t care less about the customer experience. I understand times are hard. What with fuel prices, lower ridership, cost cutting, etc., it’s not easy. Here’s the problem. If you fail to care about your customers, your customers will fail to care about you … With lots of options in the sky, that can only lead to one place.

Unbelievable … and sad. United used to be one of the world's great airlines.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Are you really tired? Common, really?

"How are you today?" "Oh man, I'm sooooo tired." "Really, how come?" "Oh, I don't know, I just have so much to do." ...

Sound familiar? I'm beginning to think, 'I'm tired' is the new 'fine.' As in,' how are you?' 'Fine.' Which essentially means nothing but, 'I heard you say how are you and I know we don't really have the time to talk so I'm going to utter something reasonably meaningless and then we'll both know that we were courteous and move on.

The problem is that, 'I'm tired' means more than that, to the asker and the askee and I'm wondering if we're not beginning to convince ourselves that we are, indeed, actually tired. Think about the conversation that starts this piece. "I'm" not 'tired' because of what I've done. I'm tired because of what's in front of me. I'm debilitated by future events, so much so that I'm physically reacting to what needs to be done. But would we be so 'tired' if we just went back to 'fine?'

At least 'fine' meant nothing - to you or to me. To you fine meant, 'ok, conversation over.' To me it meant, 'getting on to the next thing.' Remember how irritating it was when someone actually answered your question? 'How are you?' 'Wow, thanks so much for asking.' (You're immediately thinking, asking what?) 'I'm suffering from a little goiter and I have HUGE anxiety about going to the doctor because I just know they're going to take some blood.' (What? What am I supposed to do with that?) So we just all nodded and said, 'wow, great, ok, see you soon,' and moved on.'

Think about it yourself ... are you really tired? Really? Why? Is your tiredness a choice you're making? Staying up too late watching Seinfeld reruns? To be honest, unless you're tired because you worked 18 hours yesterday in a soup kitchen I don't really care that you're tired. You're talking to a guy who gets up most mornings around 5:15. Drives 40 miles to work around 10 hours before driving home 40 miles to ride a bike for 45 minutes to make dinner, walk the dog and go to bed. I'm not tired. I'm disgustingly exhilarated by each new day. You should be too!

Tired ... bah!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Talent Floors Me

I have the best friends in the world. I say this all the time, but in point of fact, it's true. Case in point. This last Sunday evening we got an invitation from Patrick McClenahan to see Keith Urban and Sugerland at Staples Center (where the Lakers Play) here in LA. To be honest, I wasn't all that excited about seeing Keith Urban. I guess I had convinced myself that since he's married to Nicole Kidman, he must not be all that great. (never mind that there is no logic in this conclusion!)

When Sugerland backed out and was replaced by Lady Antebellum I was mildly depressed. I like "L.A." but I love Sugerland. What I wasn't prepared for was the talent and creative vision so apparent in the show.

I played guitar as a kid and I've spent a lot of my non-working hours both on, and back stage. I have a deep appreciation for what it takes to produce a quality, live event. Lady Antebellum was pretty good considering they had stepped in that day, so no lighting package was created, etc. Keith Urban was another story.

He's just flat out a virtuoso guitar player. He makes thing that are incredibly hard look easy. He's got amazing vocal range. He's got an incredible band (four other guitar players and a drummer who can all sing - and he lets them all do long solos during their introductions) and the staging, etc., was creative without taking away from the performances.

I sat there and thought about all that goes into that; the time rehearsing, caring about the details, writing the tunes in some cases and learning them in others, all of that stuff and just thought wow ... talent simply floors me.

For me, the best part of the whole thing was watching these guys perform together. They had a great time and their great time was infectious. What a great night ...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What inspires creativity?

Went last night to Blueman Group here in Las Vegas. Here's a show with three pretty odd looking guys who simply stand and look and dance and drum there way through 90 minutes of high energy creativity. Not a word was spoken, though many are used in the multimedia experience surrounding the stage. But there isn't a moment that could in any respect be called boring ...

It left me wondering ... What inspires this level of creativity. I mean, who sat down and thought, Hey! I know, we'll take three guys, paint their heads blue and have them drum on paint filled drums so the colors spray up in the air?

It's so much fun to sit and breath is in. To understand that there are people who have creative vision and who develop their talents to a level we mere mortals can't possibly hope to attain. I see it in some of my new customers photography. I read it in great books. I see it in paintings and in dance.

There are people who walk by these things and see them an never notice. Even people who sometimes come and sit and watch, and even exposed directly, are simply blinded by indifference. That's sad. Whether good or bad, art touches our soul when we let it and reminds us of the vibrance of life.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Off to the ACMs in Vegas

Recently we were having dinner with our friends Patrick and Karren McClenahan and they invited us to join them at this weekend's Association of Country Music awards. We jumped at the chance, with a quick, YES! So we're leaving in the morning for a quick Vegas round trip that will include BlueMan Group, the awards show, and dinner at SW Steakhouse and Mesa Grill. It's going to be pretty fun.

I told a friend we were going and he said something that got me thinking ... "I didn't even know you liked country music."

In truth, I don't know when I started listening to Country. It's been in the last few years though. When I got to thinking about why I had made the jump from classic rock and R&B which I used to flip back and forth between, I came up with three reasons.

As a musician, I appreciate the melodies, straight ABA - bridge construction of most country songs, and the instrumental balance of the recordings. As a father I appreciate the wholesome nature of most country music, and the wry humor of some of the songs that teeter on the edge. As an adult American male I appreciate the values espoused in country music; love of country, respect for those in uniform, respect for church, seasons of life.

I also appreciate the metamorphosis of country music. I have to admit that I still can't really relate to the classic country sound. Country music went through a big change. Though many resisted, its rise in popularity is the clear outgrowth of that change. There's a life lesson there. Change is good.