Sunday, May 31, 2009

Always Bring Your Camera

Not long ago someone started a photography meetup group near me. I've gone to a couple of meetings ("My name is John and I'm a photoholic.") and yesterday went on my first group shoot at Medard Park in Hillsborough County.

The member who suggested the location warned of the "carnivorous" mosquitoes. Bug spray kept them at bay but did nothing to repel the flies, which plague parts of the park where people fish.

Those places are also where the birds hang out, looking to scavenge a free meal.

Strangely, the birds were camera shy. I'd get one in sight and as soon as I pointed my lens at it, it would fly off. I wonder what it looked like to them. A couple of alligators floated along in the lake. They reminded me of the several baby gators I saw sunning themselves Friday while playing golf, one of which I kneeled down only three feet away from. I didn't have a camera with me then. I'd brought it to the course with me but left it in the car because it was supposed to rain.

Which, of course, it did not.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Paid for Pictures

Only four hours after I bolted awake worried about all the things that could go wrong, I had my first photo shoot with a paying customer yesterday. It was a humbling experience but highly educational. And a whole lot of fun, especially when Brad pronounced himself a "satisfied customer."

"And not just because I'm easy," he promised.

Let me tell you: It's one thing for someone to say he likes your pictures. It's quite another when he hands you $200 to get copies of them.

And we got some good ones, as you can see in the slide show below. The only disclaimer I'll offer is that I compressed it to fit into the blog template so some of the images will show distortions. See the slide show at normal size here.

You can see that Brad's six-year-old daughter was the star of the show. I did take more shots of Brad and his wife than you'd guess by looking at the highlights I chose but I will have to be more cognizant about making sure I get enough shots of all the subjects.

While I'd like to think that a photogenic subject is not the sole reason I captured some good images, I was disappointed that too many of the 500 or so frames I shot were worthless. An energetic kindergartner is hard to keep up with -- and keep in focus! -- but a lot of shots had no good excuse for their soft focus or poor framing.

What a shame, too. Not only for Brad's sake -- or my portfolio's. The principal reason I started shooting photographs is because I like looking at photographs. I hate to miss a shot that I might have admired later.

That was the humbling part, as well as the educational part. I simply have to get faster and better with the camera if I'm going to expect people to pay me to use it. I also have to engage the subjects more and give them directions more than I have been.

Hanging back, staying out of the way and shooting with a long lens usually serves me well. There were a few times when I should have told them to smile or to stand in certain places. That would have yielded more good shots. I have to remember that this is not journalism. It's not cheating to tell the subjects what you want.

But my preparation paid off. I had scoured photography message boards and other photographers' sites looking for advice of all kinds, but especially about how to shoot children. "Give them something to do," was the consensus. I brought a Nerf-like ball as well as a pen and some paper and was prepared to buy some soap bubbles but Brad already had some.

The ball was a good idea but I didn't execute the shots. The bubbles gave us some good images, though this was another case when I should have offered more direction. The pen and paper saved the day. At last, our star sat still. For just long enough!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mail Order Latin Brides

That's all the ad says.

I open up my trusty MSN Hotmail account and in the right-hand column where I usually see ads for services to improve my credit score, land me a mortgage, cure my acne and find me a date (which, after accomplishing the first three, should be somewhat easier) I see a photo of an attractive Latina with its headline.

It goes to a site called I was afraid to click on the ad but I did anyway. God knows what kind of ads I'm going to start seeing now. Anyway. "Choose Your Bride from thousands of Beautiful Latin Girls," says its title.

And from where am I promised my choice of these Latin beauties? Mexico? Colombia? Costa Rica? At the bottom of the site's home page, it says to direct comments or questions to Mahe Internet Services Ltd., Stasinou 1, Mitsi building 1, Nicosia, Cyprus. And if you're not sure where in the Caribbean the island of Cyprus is, that's because it's not in the Caribbean but in the Mediterranean, near the coasts of Turkey and Syria.

I guess they figure that anyone who sends away for a bride by mail and receives a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman in return is not going to know the difference between the Spanish spoken by a Latina and the Greek or Turkish that a Cypriot woman speaks.

Ain't love grand? Actually, it's probably several grand but I didn't get past the home page to find out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Maybe This Is It

I came across this video on about someone described as an avante-garde cellist. Usually that's a euphemism for someone who became a fashionable musician despite the fact that her music is insufferable. But, in this case, I quite liked it.

But that's not my point. Someone shot and edited this video specifically for the website. Its audio and video quality is professional grade. It's not amateur work; someone was paid to produce it. It's also not so good that it's beyond the capabilities of either me or my equipment.

So I emailed them. "Who shot this?" I asked, adding that my interest was professional because the work was similar to pieces I have done, absent the narration I usually add. Much as I love the sound of my voice, I could happily learn to work without it if the format required it.

This Is Not It

I'm always looking for ways to put my video camera to profitable use. (I'd like to make money from my still camera too but that's another story.) Unfortunately, in the freelance game, you also have to look out for people who dangle the possibility of a payday with the real aim of removing money from your pocket.

Learn. Shoot. Earn.

That's the headline on the page of the Travel Channel Academy. It's affiliated with the Travel Channel, which is an actual channel you can find on cable and satellite. I can't because I don't have cable or satellite but you can. "Give us 4 days of your time," the pitch reads. "And we'll give you the digital filmmaking toolkit to become a travel journalist."

Just four days. Wow! The Travel Channel Academy got a plug from WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., where the course is offered. See it here. I originally had embedded the video here but couldn't get it to stop playing automatically.

Sounds like a sure-fire hit. How come not everybody is doing this? For one thing, it costs $2,000 for the four day course. Add $500 if you don't have your own camera and computer. And that puff piece interview glossed over the fact that relatively few of the "graduates" ever sell pieces to the Travel Channel — and that many of them bring as little as $50!

(Journalists are supposed to be skeptical. They're not supposed to be cheerleaders just repeating someone's news release. Don't get me started.)

Maybe if you're laid off or on furlough from your regular job, you have better options for that $2,500 you have lying around.

Besides, I'm already a travel journalist. Remember my video recollection of a trip over a Utah mountain in a Toyota Prius?

Or this classic from Key West:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hello Again

It's been a while, I know. Not a lot going on right now. My mother had to have stomach surgery Friday. I'll spare you the details — and not just because I don't entirely understand them. My father has an incredible knack for updating me on the workings — or lack thereof — of my mother's digestive system precisely when I'm about to engage my own.

Trust me, this is not the kind of stuff you want to hear about when you're eating.

She got out of bed yesterday for the first time since the operation. She's still on heavy painkillers, as I would be too if someone cut open my abdomen and rearranged its contents, so conversations with her jump even more randomly from one topic to the next than usual.

My mother may know how to use the word segue in a sentence but I doubt that she has ever used one between sentences — no matter how unrelated they are.

I did cover two high school state softball championship games last week. There are six classes, each crowns its own champion. I've got the video loaded into the computer and just need to write and edit that before shipping it off. Deadline is next Monday.

I got the weightlifting story for the same show finished and sent off last week. The producers asked if I wanted to cover some of the baseball finals in Port St. Lucie. Unfortunately, Port St. Lucie is a three-hour drive away from me. That's just too far.

My decision to send my regrets was reinforced while covering the softball games. The two games were supposed to happen on Thursday but the second one was rain delayed and continued the following morning. Had that happened covering baseball on the other side of the state, any money I would have made would have evaporated.

I have collected all the material needed to complete my second (and final) demo family story for my personal documentary business. I've got three hours of interviews to transcribe for that.

I scanned more than 100 family photos. I made the file name for each a label of its contents and approximate date, e.g. "1964-BobKathyWedding.jpg" to help me keep track of them. I did this with the scans of my own family's photos and it helped greatly. The method should come in even more handy for people not related to me, though now that I've heard their life stories, I can't say I don't know them.

I put an ad on craigslist for my photography site. My website stat counter tells me that the ad has drawn a handful of people to the site. I've gotten a couple of referrals from a woman with whom I did one of my practice shoots. We'll see if either of those pans out.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

More from the Mailbag

Last week I got an e-mail through the contact form of my website. Not my new photography site but the tried and trusty

A woman named Michelle asked if I had attended Brookfield Elementary School in Chantilly, Virginia. She wanted to know this because she had attended that school several eons ago with a boy named John McQuiston, whom she remembered for once having won a class contest by correctly naming all of the U.S. Presidents in order. Could I possibly be her former classmate?

Indeed I could, though she didn't remember my elementary school claim to fame quite accurately. Loathe as I am to correct anyone who may have overestimated my intelligence, it was actually the state capitals I correctly recited before an assembly of the whole 4th grade rather than every president.

There was a time, maybe in late high school or in college, when I could go through the list of commanders-in-chief in order. In eleventh grade, I think, we had to know all of them from the 20th century, which at the time was still well underway. Now I can probably make it from G. Washington up to about 1845. After that I'm spotty until William McKinley, what with Grover Cleveland coming and going and then coming back again just to confuse things.

Give the girl a break, though, it was more than 30 years ago. And the Michelle that I remembered as the red-haired girl with gold wire-rimmed glasses who carried her burgeoning novel around in a three-ring binder is not a girl any more. She's now a contact-wearing, blond-haired single mother of a 22-year-old college graduate!

How do these one-time contemporaries keep getting older and try to drag me into adulthood with them? I bet someone from my high school graduating class is a grandparent now.

I have had regular contact with only a few people from high school. If Facebook friend requests -- yes, plural -- from people whose names I have absolutely have no recognition of is any indication, there were many with whom I had no contact while still in high school.

Contacts with elementary school classmates have been entirely absent since I left Brookfield in 1978 until Michelle's note last week.

I told her that I have stopped in Chantilly twice this decade while visiting, or returning from visits with, my brother Jim in Alexandria. One of them I detailed on a page on a former version of my website that included a section called "John's Journal." That was before blogs. Anyway, here is the link to that entry in case you're curious.

The other time, Jim went with me as we discovered that the then-occupants of our one-time home at 13603 Pennsboro Drive did not speak English. The pool five houses down the street was still there. I explained to the kid at the check-in window that I had learned to swim there almost 30 years ago, choking on the words as I realized that it had been that long, and he let me inside to take photographs. The high dive from which my youngest brother once fell was gone, replaced by a giant slide -- much closer to the ground and, I'm sure, more liability friendly.

Thirty years ago accidents still happened occasionally. It was not always cause for a lawsuit. There wasn't always someone else to blame for one's misfortune.

I still remember the times of the four 25-yard butterfly races I swam my first year on the team, and precise details of a couple of them, which I'll spare you, as I did Michelle.

It is interesting how the mind and memory work. Some things I remember clear as crystal. Like those races when I was 9-years-old. And Mrs. Blevins reading the state names for me to answer with their capital cities. When she read Rhode Island, I spaced. Couldn't think of it. She said, "we'll come back to it." After Wyoming, she said Rhode Island again. "Providence," I shot back. And I had done it.

Don't worry; not many other people my age were impressed, either. But at least one of them remembered it. Sort of.

The Cat Just Drank from the Water Dish

That must mean it's time to clean the toilet from which she usually drinks.

Monday, May 04, 2009

New Blog

Not that I write on this blog often enough to justify creating another one, but I have done so anyway.

You can find it here. And I hope you do. I built it, including the nifty graphic at the top, as a companion to a new website, also built entirely by your humble blog author.

That one is also available for public inspection here. For now I'm piggy-backing that site on my domain. I'll pony up the 10 bucks if it proves popular enough to need its own.

I did not build the site merely as an exercise in frustration, though wrestling with my rusty knowledge of CSS and Flash certainly provided plenty of that. I promise that the simplicity of its design is not solely due to the limits of my skills. Or because I'm lazy.

The idea is that the plain background would help the photography stand out. We'll see. And I hope you will too. That's Or just click here.

And, why do I need a photography website, you ask? Maybe I don't but the last free shoot I did convinced me to take a shot, to coin a phrase. Really it was the couple who seemed shocked that I wasn't asking money for the quality of photos I was providing.

As I wrote on my new site, it's not often that a person is talked into charging for a service by someone who had previously received it for free.

At first, I'm going to limit the scope of the service I offer to the same kinds of shoots I've been doing already, only (I hope) a cash transaction preceding the photo transfer. As an added insurance to potential customers, I'm going to specify that they don't pay until after they've seen the photos. If they like them, they pay me and then I copy the images for them. If they don't, I apologize for disappointing them and we part company.

I'll have to keep this blog, of course, so that I have a place to write things that make people mad at me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

ZooToo Bad

(Note: That's "too bad" as in "unfortunate," not as in ZooToo being bad.)

Another job bites the dust. has ceased producing news videos and laid off most of its staff. The news does not shock me. If the recent stream of goodbye e-mails from departing employees wasn't enough notice the suddenly slow pay was another neon sign.

I talked with my editor, Robin, today. She is one of the few survivors, for now, and I wished her luck. The site will continue publishing print-style stories as well as the videos already commissioned. They have a story I produced back in February that couldn't be released because the subject was a shelter which was in the running for ZooToo's million-dollar makeover contest.

(The $1M is said to be coming directly out of ZooToo's founder's pocket.)

Now that the contest has ended, the story can go out. ZooToo already paid for that one and Robin assured me that payment for the alligator in love with the garbage truck story should go out soon.

Update (6/09): I have received the check.

It was a good gig while it lasted. I could pick stories that interested me and if Robin and her boss liked them, they'd pay me to put them to video. The stories made good portfolio fodder and it was good to get some recent work produced with my own equipment.

What's strange is that after the alligator story, I felt like the job had run its course. Maybe the early morning hours of the WTSP job had worn me down and I just needed a break.

I could also have felt pressure to live up to an apparently growing reputation. Shortly after the alligator story went out, Robin sent a highly laudatory e-mail about it to the entire staff that said, in effect, this is how good stories are done.

How do you top that? Looks like I'll never have to try.

Update (10/09): ZooToo has resumed limited production of new stories. Perhaps the door once closed is ajar again.