Monday, June 29, 2009


Bagging It

An ideal camera bag is something all photographers search for; so far, mine is hiding. A recent on-line question brought some ideas forward, though. I've currently got six camera bags, only two of which get extensive use. Both are shoulder bags, one fairly small Lowepro worn as described below, and one medium-sized Tenba for times when more lenses are needed. The Tenba is a well-made bag, but the strap is not changeable and is too short for cross body use.

One that doesn't get much use is a sling bag, with a sling that's too short and another is a backpack, which I dislike intensely. The rest are shoulder bags, with a cheap Lowepro seeing the most use, as I like its features more than the rest, though it has its faults. The Lowepro meets many of the below specs quite nicely, including a shoulder strap long enough to be used as a cross-body strap.

Age As A Factor

As I get older, I find less desire to carry a lot of gear when I have to walk. In the past, when I was shooting in the field, I'd have two bodies and five lenses, plus a fairly large pile of film canisters, filter wrenches, filters, and similar accessories. Today, on a race course or similar venue, I prefer to leave any back-up body and lenses in a bag in my vehicle, and carry two or three lenses and one body. Lighter is better.

Less Bulk Today

Of course, film is no longer a bulky item, as a 16GB SDHC card gives me about 700 frames of shooting on my Pentax K20D's raw setting. That's equivalent to about 20 36 exposure rolls of film, and sufficient for most days. I carry one more 16GB card and three 8GB cards for weekend assignments, and just in case something interesting happens. The five cards, in their cases, take up about as much space as a single film box used to take, while letting me collect almost 2,500 images, about 70 rolls of film worth.

For a personal bag design, I'd completely lose the backpack idea. Shoulder bags allow more utility, or so I think. Add a cross-body strap instead of a standard shoulder strap, and you've solved the single worst shoulder bag problem: strap slippage. The primary differences are strap length and the shape of shoulder pad.

I started hating backpacks more than 50 years ago, at Parris Island. I've since come to believe that carrying expensive photo gear on one's back in certain areas of the world is a great way to enrage your insurance company. It's also hard to get to when you're shooting ever-changing action.

Materials & Color

Neutral colors are best, nothing bright so olive drab, dark gray, dark khaki, dark green are all good. Blaze orange isn't, nor is light blue, pink or similar light colors that show dirt and attract attention from the wrong types. Some photographers go so far as to use diaper bags for their gear, but I'm not interested in that kind of misdirection--I do not let my bag out of my sight; it's usually not far out of my reach.

Use good, heavyweight Cordura nylon for the exterior, with a lightweight water proof inner liner. Some bags have stowed plastic/nylon rain covers that work well.

Give the lid a quick access zipper for travel and a resin-based snap fitting for in-the-field use, so it's easy to open, but stays closed and keeps gear inside.

Sizing The Bag

A photographer who uses shorter lenses than I do will like the bag designed to take a medium sized DSLR, with a 24-875mm or similar lens mounted, and room for extra lenses, maybe two, plus a flash and some small accessories.

I normally carry an f/2.8 50-150mm lens. I'd also like room for three additional lenses, including a 70-200mm f/2.8, so I'd like a version sized for that use.

Add a couple of internal compartments and two external end pockets (flash, batteries, that sort of gear).

Reinforce the bottom with abrasion resistant outside, but soft surfaced so it won't scrape vehicle or other finished surfaces.

Internal mesh pockets for CF Cards / SD Cards, filters, cleaning cloths.

A comfortable shoulder pad, shaped correctly, is essential. It might help to make several pad shapes and thicknesses available.

Some photographers like loops to attach a medium sized tripod. That might be an option.

A cell phone pocket either permanently attached or snap-off, on the shoulder strap is handy.

I'm set to go with the above, if I ever find it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Shrinking mailing numbers

Earlier today, I stopped at a small local post office branch to mail a couple of magazines. The magazines contained an article I'd photographed and written; the magazines went to the current owner of the car photographed, and the guy who did the restoration. Cars & parts July issue, 1930 Ford four door phaeton.

I mentioned that the envelopes contained magazines. I was informed that I couldn't use media mail, then. That struck me as asinine, because, as I told the clerk, I'd been sending periodicals by media mail for 50 years or so with no problems whatsoever. She said, "You've been lucky, then, because it has always been this way."


According to the clerk, our beloved U.S.P.S. is now opening mail which they suspect contains magazines and, supposedly, returning the mail (any bets on the return?). No wonder postal rates keep rising. All of this takes time, which is why so many small and medium sized branches have only one person manning the desk when lines wrap nearly round the building, I'd guess. Making sure no one mails a magazine media mail is much more important than selling stamps, money orders and passports.

I'd recently run into another example of asininity when I mailed out about a dozen copies of my latest book to people who had let me photograph their woodworking shops for the book. I mailed all but three through a local post office branch. There were no problems. I stuck two up in my mailbox for pick-up. Both of those were returned to me because they weighed more than 13 ounces.

Any package that weighs more than 13 ounces must be presented in person, by the mailer, at a post office branch. Then you're asked if it contains anything fragile, explosive, or hazardous, all during which the clerk looks anywhere but at you.

That truly must contribute to our safety, giving a statement to a person totally untrained in explosives or reading personalities.

One book disappeared completely. That was sent through the Philadelphia P.O. to a friend who lives just outside Philly. I got a note back saying that the enclosed wrapper was all that they could find; I was to contact the Atlanta branch to see if anyone anywhere had located the book.

Yes. Sure. Really. There was no wrapper enclosed. The book sells for about 20 bucks. Postage was $2.58. I mailed Tom another book, Priority Mail, and it made it through. Yup. Total mailing cost for one book, $27.53.

But wait. I mailed those books against U.S.P.S. rules.

Out of curiosity, I checked the last four books I'd written, and discovered every single one of them carried at least one page of advertising for the publishers' other books.

To make sure this wasn't a new phenomenon for publishers, I checked a book I'd written in '77. The back cover of the book listed about 40-50 other titles from that publisher. Ohmigawd! An ad.

Back in March of 1959, when I arrived at Kaneohe Bay MCAS, I made it into Honolulu fairly quickly, where I grabbed a newspaper or two. After reading them, I stuck them in a manila envelope and mailed them to my mother in New York, using media mail, something I'd just discovered, at the ripe old age of 20. Actually, I was all set to pay Parcel Post or even First Class, but the clerk at the Honolulu Post Office informed me that media mail was for just such mailings, plus books and magazines and manuscripts. At the time, I was an avionics tech, so manuscript mailings weren't of interest.

Now, in 2009, a postal clerk informs me that such use has always been against the rules because newspapers carry ads.

She showed me a rule sheet from '99. Well, OK, but a decade doesn't seem anywhere near "always", to me, so one fine day I'll see what kind of history media mail has, and what its intent was. I seem to recall a founding statement for the P.O. itself that involved "dissemination of information." Another recollection, quite possibly inaccurate, involves media mail making it cheaper for Joe and Jane Average to ship books, newspapers and similar material around the country.

Thomas Paine would weep.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What Makes A Photographer?

My wife's statement that I had already shot photos of several scenes got me wondering how the photographer's mind may differ from the minds of most other people.

We were looking over a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the time, but my first thought was about the possibilities in smaller scenes. Photographers do see the world a bit differently, as do other creative types who train, or are trained, in different ways...artists, engineers and similar people. My mind brings larger sites into view as a solid whole, producing the scene I want to show. Obviously, this doesn't always work for any of a variety of reasons, but when it clicks, the results are often quite viewable.

Somewhere in my head, the many years of shooting film and digital mesh to produce the scene, with subconscious consideration of light intensity and direction, and color of that light when I look at a scene.

Only a photographer can look at a rusty hinge and see a composition of interest that appeals to a number of people. Storm gratings become geometric patterns of varying appearance as the light angle and intensity varies. Barn siding creates a visual tone poem with its different colors and textures.

Those are close-ups available in most places where I live, with echoes around the world.

It's possible to look at a barn, and see a thousand close-ups of interest, isolating a half dozen or fewer for capture. Looking at the entire scene, glancing around to note the position of the sun and the variety of cloud formations gives me an idea of what a building, or car, or motorcycle, or person--though I'm not a good people photographer--might look like in a half hour or two hours or the next day when light rain or heavy mist is predicted.

Other drivers on the road have to worry about distractions from cell phones, children in the vehicle, coffee in the lap, or a hamburger sliding out of a bun as they drive. I worry about the distractions I get from changing scenes, the realization that what I'm seeing will change forever before I can return and catch it in a photo to share the effect. This is not just a distraction while driving, though. It's a distraction on a walk, or just sitting in the front yard, hearing a hummingbird living up to its name, and wondering why I left my camera indoors, watching a leaf falling from a tree, see a power line fuse that I hadn't noticed in more than 20 years in the same house.

In essence, the photographer sees the same postcard effect, the overall scene, that others do, but with a mind that breaks that scene down into its elements, then rebuilds it quickly, so that much more is available.

Whether that photographic mind is good, bad or indifferent is up to the viewer. It does seem to be different.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Digital Photography: Good Or Bad?

Web sites for pro photographers brim with posts from worried business people who see their livelihoods threatened by the influx of digital cameras.

It’s possible any pros in a craft that becomes easier may be threatened if the general public realizes that Uncle Mike can actually catch the same images, or close to them, as the far more costly pro. It’s also not probable that Uncle Mike is going to do that consistently. Consistent excellence is what the pro gets paid for, creativity added to sweeten the mix.

The pro photographers problems extend across the craft, starting with wedding shooters, moving on portraitists, and from there to landscape artists and others who sell their prints to the general public. It has crept in photojournalism, too, though its presence there is nothing new: the guy with the 35mm point and shoot has long provided free or low cost photos for newspapers and TV. PJs aren’t able to be everywhere there’s a breaking story.

On a personal note, I’m a pro photographer in part—half my work is words, half is the photos that illustrate those words. The photography has certainly gotten easier, and in some ways less costly, since the onset of the digital era.

There is some impingement on my income that is not directly related to the current recession, though. Amateur photographers, some of whom are truly excellent, often supply shots and facts for articles in the magazines for which I write and shoot. That simply cannot be helped. It was always there. The bite coming out of my work, and the work of others in my field, is a bit larger, because currently editors are looking for lower cost material. I think—hope?—that bite will shrink, at least in proportion, as the recession ebbs.

The people hurting the most are the people who make their livings based on locally based photography, weddings, portraits, senior photos and what I call rites of passage shots, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and similar events.

For some of the work I do, the automatic features of even the best cameras can defeat the aims of the photographer. Shooting races, no matter what kind, is not easy, regardless of camera type, though it is definitely easier that it was in film days. Let’s face it: blasting away at 3 to 6 frames per second allows a lot of leeway, producing shots where it is more likely even the unskilled will catch a great piece of the action. That’s especially true if a camera allows 40 or 50 frames before the camera’s buffer fills and it slows down, or stops. Huge flash memory cards can hold an awful lot of images. My 14.6 megapixel sensor shooting in one type of file can store more than 2000 frames with a 16 gigabyte flash memory card. Even at the largest file size, it still holds onto more than 700 files.

Sure, it’s easier, and it is going to create some pain for all pro photographers. But this type of technological change is not new: medium format took over from large format view cameras, which themselves had taken over from glass plate negatives and so on back. Classic 35mm was a miniature format when first introduced, and wasn’t accepted as worthwhile in editorial terms until well into the ‘50s, with some magazines demanding medium format or larger negatives or transparencies right into the 1990s.

Photographers will adapt. Amateurs may pick up a few more dollars to allow them to buy another lens or better camera body, while professionals learn to change their marketing emphases, so that a larger group of customers can be reached, those who want the real, but sometimes elusive, difference that a real pro can make to a portrait or wedding series or senior shots.

All in all, digital photography seems to me a good thing, maybe even great. The appreciation of good photography of all types of photography can now reach a wider audience, at lower cost, than ever before.

***For other old people who learn slowly, do NOT attempt to write your blog in Word, for copy and paste to Blogger. I've spent over an hour trying to straighten this HTML out, with damnall for results.***

Friday, June 5, 2009

Where My Meandering Mind Is Going

This blog is going places. What those places are, or where they are, will differ almost daily, with the only concession to organization being my interests. I'm not a musician, so don't look for much commentary on that subject, nor do I consider myself an artist in a true aesthetic sense, so there is likely to be no commentary there.

Please note the escape words in those phrases, though.

As I read about the contemporary scene, my mind meanders through the 70+ years I've hung around on this globe. Sometimes the comparisons are odious, sometimes they are riotous.

You'll read the Meandering Mind thoughts on a variety of subjects, ranging from local politics and politicians and political commentators to national and international politicians and commentators. Somewhere in there, you'll also find comments on writing and reading and the value of both, now, in the future and in the past. My interests extend to digital photography, so you may see some photos, often of classic cars and motorcycles, none of which are mine.

Along the way, we may touch on surgery and geography, and surgeons and police, and actors and cartoonists, and action and light, and about anything else that impinges on my areas of interests, or shows signs of increasing those areas of interests. I may comment often on language, largely because I've been a professional writer for more than 40 years now, and am distressed by the deterioration of the English language around the world. My political bent is very close to centrist, though probably somewhat to the left. If that distresses you, pass on by, whether you are a hard cord right winger or nutcase left winger. I don't like what Eric Hoffer classed as "True Believers," nor am I impressed with people who follow a party line too closely, regardless of party.

This started with an email to a friend a few days ago. Rich has been after me to post such letters for a wider audience to read, so this is my response:

I read that Al Quaeda claims Obama is not welcome in Egypt.

The effrontery of these international thugs is incredible. Only a few are Egyptian, and they share a religion with no one, though claiming to be Muslim. Their statement came at about the same time another group of Muslims beheaded a British citizen, evidently for the crime of being non-Muslim.

In all of this, the putative Muslim world demands that Obama present to them all their desires, political and otherwise. Given that he's not an idiot like George W., he appears willing to make some major changes, but we'd best hope that he's also ready to politely tell them to stick it where the sun don't shine for a good part of their demands. Sure, there's a need for a Palestinian state. That might, given 500 years, quiet some of the hatred that flares every time a Palestinian views a Jew. At the same time, I can see absolutely no convincing evidence that Israel owes the Palestinians a state. Hell, every time Israel gives up a portion of its land, land won with blood, they get further defamed by Palestinians and all other Arabs. There is no sensible path for the Palestinians to a Christmas stocking filled with wonders, and there shouldn't be. This is a job that needs the entire Middle East's participation; Israel should not be the only supplier of concessions.

Certainly, Israel flares up easily when the Palestinian groups such as Hamas create problems, usually by firing rockets to kill Israeli citizens. The cure there is simple: stop sending the damned rockets! Instead, the world goes through the animated idiocy of Israel offering peace to Palestinians who can't control their own people enough to stop them from killing, or trying to kill, Israelis. Then the Arab world screams when Israel retaliates. Incredible.

So the beat goes on as Obama visits. He wants to mend fences, which is a great idea. The Muslims demand it all be done their way. They've dealt with "My Way Or The Highway" Bush and his entourage too long, possibly. Whatever the basis, the Arab/Muslim way or no go is not a great idea. We have to expect that Obama is not going to give away the store to make the sale. He'll get berated by the far right here as if he did no matter what happens. If the crises of the Middle East aren't cured before New Year's Day 2010, I expect Obama will be excoriated by those now running the Republican Party--Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney.

I'm very curious about how all this is going to turn out, how his speech will be reviewed here and accepted there, as well as here.

There are entire days, though, when I wish we lived in less interesting times.

This was written two days ago, so we now have the opportunity to see how many of my wishes Obama met.