Monday, June 30, 2008

Tips for Travelling Light

Seeing grown men sobbing at the gas pumps isn't uncommon anymore. Think of what must be happening at the airlines! They are grasping at every possible straw to make ends meet in the face of skyrocketing fuel prices.

Enter the twin horsemen of "Extra Charge for Baggage" and "No Free Pop" on most airlines. The No Free Pop thing is easy to handle. But a zero tolerance policy on carry-on is a wee bit scary.

The airlines used to turn a blind eye to people like me who got on with a camera bag and a backpack. Those days are gone. As I get ready to depart for the Big Apple, I've had to think in terms of what things I MUST take with me:
1) My camera with two lenses and assorted photography stuff will not be given to some dexterity challenged baggage handler. The very thought makes my blood run cold. But I use an Olympus eVolt 500 and that's a big sucker. (My wife, by the way, has started travelling with a point and shoot compact and has been getting some wonderful shots. I am not there yet.)
2) My laptop (which keeps me in touch with my business, family and you guys) has to go. I use it for Photoshop work on the road, storing photographs and much more. But it's a 17 inch screen. **sigh** I have an older 15 inch that will work. Maybe...

3) My iPod is my only line of defence if there's a crying kid on the airplane or if I am seated with a travelling salesman who can't (or won't) take a hint when you don't ask a single question about what they are blathering on about. I've loaded my iPod with great music mixes, books on tape -- and even a movie. Fortunately an iPod is small.
4) The latest issue of Photoshop User, my Bible and a Robert B. Parker novel.
5) Extra glasses -- since not being able to see on a trip would really suck.
Aside from the usual stuff (lens wipes, rocket launchers, sunglasses etc.) that's it for carry-on.
What do I PACK? Answer: don't pack anything you would be heartbroken or really screwed if it gets lost. This means:
1) Two extra pairs of underwear. That's it. I know some people are cringing. But I am gone for a week. One pair of underwear can last two, maybe three days. Plus I understand they have additional underwear available for purchase in New York if I need it.
2) Two t-shirts and one long sleeve shirt. That's it.
3) One pair of cargo pants. If it's nasty I will put the legs on. But this way I also have a second pair of shorts if I need them. (Sure. Cargo pants are for geeks, right? Well I am a geek and I intend to be a warm geek if it gets cool.)
4) My Logitech portable speakers for the iPod. This way my wife and I can listen to music or books on tape in the hotel room. It's a tiny little speaker system that travels well.
5) My Backpack. Since we leave the hotel room early in the morning and don't return till late at night, my backpack is important. It carries my camera gear, clothes and iPod as well as all the assorted junk we pick up as the day goes on.
This all leads to the Stuff I Will be Wearing:
1) My Tilley Hat. This goes with me everywhere. It's easy to wear a hat and take it off. With this little marvel I don't care if it's raining, snowing or blowing. It even has a secret compartment in the crown for stashing extra money. Shhhhh...don't tell anyone.
2) My Palm Pilot has all the information I need for emergencies or simple schedule information. This will be in my pocket. It's an invaluable travel companion: When we get to the Park and Fly parking lot for example, I will go to the date I expect to return on and make a note of the stall we're parked in...because there's no way I will remember on my own. This way I can flip open my Palm Pilot with a suitably smug expression, and tell the driver where to take us. (It's a good idea, at this point, to avoid smug side glances at the guys who are red-faced ripping their pockets apart looking for the scrap of paper they got when they arrived.)

3) Travel Pouch: travels inside my shirt and contains money, passport and important documents. (Speaking of money -- it's a good idea when travelling to put your money and charge cards in several different places: a money pouch, a pocket, in your shoe -- whatever. This way if you get robbed or your pocket gets picked, you don't lose it all.)

4) Earphones, extra batteries for the iPod etc.

5) I'll be wearing my all-purpose waterproof windbreaker which has doubled as a pillow, a blanket and a towel (don't ask.) It crushes up small, can be easily packed and covers me for every reasonably anticipated weather condition NYC can offer in July.

That's it. I'd like to leave a little room for other stuff I find along the way to bring back. But overall I've found I usually take way more than I use. The notion of wearing clothes and just leaving them behind in favor of new stuff is something I am playing with...but I am also pretty we'll have to consider that.

I get really pumped before a trip. I believe the "before" part is almost as good as the actual trip. There's this air of mystery and anticipation that comes just before a trip. I don't know who I am going to meet or what pictures I will get. I don't know if the weather will be warm and wonderful or rainy and nasty...but it's all part of travel and being a travel addict.
Here are a couple of tips for getting through the airport traffic with a minimum of teeth gnashing and hair pulling:
1) Keep your laptop in an easy-to-access case. This way you can get it quickly.
2) Wear slip on shoes. Americans security is SO excitable. Slip-ons means you can get in and out of the shoes quickly.
3) ALWAYS get to the airport early. Those cool people who arrive just in time for the flight are actually stupid. Imagine getting a flat tire...or realizing you forgot your passport or...??? Better to sit quietly, wait for your flight and read a good book.
4) Avoid making jokes about bombs in the airport line-up. These people have no sense of humor and you vastly increase your chances of deep blushing and uncomfortable sitting if you do.
5) RELAX! My wife has the notion that I get all flustery at airport securtity. Pfffft. It's all part of travel. Besides I always sweat like that.
6) Take a minute before you leave home to look over ALL your stuff and ensure you have the stuff you need. While it is true that they usually have a lot of stuff at your destination, it's usually expensive stuff and it's never quite the same as your own stuff. Trust me. Take a minute. Stuff can be very important.
So here we go...on this GSoTT ("Great Summer of Three Trips) -- with the first about to launch NOW!

Start Spreading The News...

...we're leaving today on the Red Eye to one of our favorite destinations: New York City. It's a place we've been to a number of times before, my wife and I. There are a lot of known things about New York -- stuff I know will very likely happen. At some point:

1) I will go to Strawberry Fields and try to find a fresh way to photograph it. I find this little mosaic monument to slain Beatle John Lennon fascinating. The people who go there are fascinating. The things they leave behind are fascinating. The fact that he was gunned down just across the street is fascinating...and sort of creepy. But fascinating.

2) We will dine at our favorite restaurant in Little Italy called "Pompadoro's" where they serve food so good you wish you had at least another two stomachs. (We will also have a cheese pretzel even as we remind each other that it isn't good for us.)

3) We will take a LOT of pictures. You'll see some of them here and also on my NAPP portfolio

4) We are going to take an Amtrak to Philadelphia to have a look at an authentic pirate ship exhibit (a National Geographic production starring spoils and artifacts from the pirate ship Whydah) and will very likely run up the steps of the museum just like Rocky did...a sight sure to bring unbridled mirth to the locals.

5) We will be two of the thousands watching the fireworks on the 4th of July from an island. (Americans -- particularly New Yorkers) KNOW how to celebrate the holidays.

6) Sadly we won't be able to go to the New York Renaissance Faire (which was a Travel Hightlight of All Time last year) or see a Shakespeare in the Park play -- because neither will be active during our time there.

We leave on the red-eye tonight.

Want to come along?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stalking Paul Newman

I mentioned in another blog that I like to go to the Grand Prix races in Edmonton. It's not because I like cars. It's because there are SO MANY great pictures there. I want to share an article I wrote a couple of years ago about "Stalking Paul Newman." It doesn't have anything to do with Photoshop...but I hope you enjoy it.

I am going to get THE definitive picture of Paul Newman, I decide. I am filled with what writers call “steely determination.” (I am not entirely sure what “steely determination” is – but it seems to fit. Especially the “steely” part. I am definitely feeling “steely.”)

I am going to photograph a Hollywood legend. Star of The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – the original Cool Hand Luke. Close personal friend of Liz Taylor….yup…that Paul Newman.

THIS is the year. My year.

I am armed with a liter and a half of the World’s Most Expensive Grand Prix water (three bucks a bottle!), my trusty camera and a recently acquired Pit Walk Pass.

The Pit is aptly named, I decide. It smells like someone has been cooking old fish, but that may just be the interaction of burning rubber and motor oil. The Pit crackles with a well rehearsed but nonetheless frenzied activity. But I will not be distracted. I know that Newman Haas Racing is sponsored by the Golden Arches. So I am looking for McDonald’s.

I creep along the Pit Walk, every sense tingling – my entire being fixed on the Goal, finger quivering over my shutter button, camera poised. I am a hunter. My steely eyes narrow against the glare of the sun.

THIS is the year….

“Did you see him?” my wife asks. At first the voice sounds far away. I process the words.

“See who?” I ask back. There is a sinking sensation starting somewhere deep inside.

“Paul Newman,” she says, using the patient wife voice.

“What?” There’s a whiney quality in my voice that is most unfitting to a Great Hunter.

“Paul Newman. He just drove by on a red scooter.”

“What?” (‘What’ is one of those words that never fail you. So I say it again.) “What?”

My wife sighs and looks off into the distance. I suspect she is trying to decide if it is worth repeating to me without any visual aids or a suitably large collection of Crayons.

“Paul Newman just rode by on a red scooter.”

An image of Butch Cassidy doing charming tricks on a bike to a giggling-way-too-hot Katherine Ross comes to mind. A red scooter?

“Ah. He’s here then,” I respond as my mind jerks itself back to reality. It’s one of those sentences you start and midway through; you realize no matter what you do, you are going to sound really stupid, so you try to turn it into a joke. I rakishly raise my left eyebrow significantly.

My wife knows me too well, simply heaves a tired sigh, and looks off in another direction.

“A red scooter?” I ask. You kind of expect Paul Newman to arrive in a limo, preceded by at least seven rose petal tossing flower girls and a couple of heralds playing those long trumpet thingies.

My wife nods. She is growing disinterested. I can tell this by the way her eyes glaze over and take on that far off quality as she looks in every direction but mine.

“I know where he went,” says she.

“You do?” I ask. I absolutely firmly resolve that this will be my LAST lame question of the century.

“You want to know or not?”

I nod with a weakly affected boredom. Slyly, I wish to convey the impression that I know exactly where Paul Newman is…and am simply testing her to see if she is worthy to make the trek with me.

She sighs.


I pause and cleverly snap a quick shot of the only female racer, Katherine Legge, on pre-race trip to the porta-potty. I am, after all, the Great Hunter.

My wife has disappeared. I trail after her…or more precisely…where I think she may have gone.

I locate her. She points and says: “There he is.”

“Where?” I ask.

She points to the back of a white head in a red hat sitting high in a red booth.

“There?” I ask. I am already breaking that last-lame-question-of-the-century thing.

She nods.

I place my Lowepro bag at my feet, take off the water cooler and settle into my Hunter’s Blind. I wait.

Cars drive by.

I wait.

Cars come into the pit and gaily costumed men in helmets use mysterious but very loud machines for fifteen or twenty seconds. When the cars drive off, the people in the stands applaud.

Uh huh.

I wait.

I see Paul is drinking unflavored Dasani water. I watch him drain the bottle. Okay well actually…I see the bottle tilt upward, held in a really old hand…and get drained. You can almost see Newman’s lips. I shrewdly snap off a couple of quick shots. You can never tell when someone will want a picture of Newman’s lips.

Time passes.

“Is that him?” asks a woman as she waddles up. She sounds breathless and smells unpleasantly of hot dogs.

“Yup,” I say, noting she is trying to use her bulk to shove her way into my portion of green fence.

I look significantly at her and then down at the Lowepro bag in front of me…then back at her. “This place is mine,” my look says. “See? There’s my bag and water cooler and everything.”

She ignores me and toes my bag back a few inches. She shoves herself more firmly into my area and peers around. I think she may be nearsighted.

“I don’t see him,” she sniffs.

I am torn: Do I tell her the truth and win her respect…or simply let her think I am a misguided-but-well-meaning-fellow-groupie so maybe she’ll go away?

No contest.

“Guess not,” I say, using my most sheepish expression.

She sniffs again and waddles off.

A hand grasps the edge of the booth…a white shoed foot steps out….PAUL NEWMAN is coming out of the BOOTH!

I grab my camera and set it to my eye. I wait seven years for the little red square and the reassuring “ting” sound that tells me I am focused.

Where is he going? What is he doing?


This is it. My one chance. I watch as he takes careful old-guy steps down the stairs, preserving each step safely on my digital chip. He is moving toward……a cooler…….oh my God…he is getting WATER!

Paul Newman is getting his OWN WATER.

My camera is clicking clicking…the battery warning light comes on. I mutter under my breath, decide prayer is better, and keep shooting.

As Paul leans forward and takes out TWO fresh waters, the battery warning light turns red. But I am shooting….shot after shot…praying for focus…thinking “This is Cool Hand Luke!”

I consider calling out to him. No one else seems to notice. But if I call out to him, what do I say? I stay quiet and continue shooting. Paul gets his water and goes back to the booth.

Minutes after he returns to the booth a young woman settles herself in beside him and he obligingly slides over a few inches to make room. Just like a regular guy.

I need to rest for a second.

My wife comes over.

“Did you see that?” she asks.

“Uh huh,” I say. It’s about all I can manage.

“How come you were standing way over there?” she asks.

“What?” I respond. (You can’t ever get enough of the old standby.)

“He was right here,” she says, gesturing to the water cooler, a scant five feet away from her…I have cleverly used a telephoto lens. The sinking sensation gets deeper. My telephoto lens and I have had frequent disagreements about what the term “focus” really means.

I mutter something meant to reassure us both…mostly me…and take up my spot at the fence again, on the lookout for waddling breathless women.

Cars go round and round the track.

I take carefully rationed sips of water, telling myself it is just plain strange to try calculating how much each sip is costing me. My eyes are fixed on the back of a white haired head with a red ball cap. I am willing him to come out, mentally reminding him that he has had THREE bottles of water and he really should step out. I have already scouted the Pit Walk and know precisely where the nearest Porta Potty is.

I wait. I consider staking out his red scooter. After all, he HAS to go to the scooter sometime, right? Thus far, I have nobly resisted the urge to photograph Paul Newman’s red scooter because the idea is just too stalker-like.

(You just shush.)

So I wait…more cars snarl by.

People ooooh and ahhhh….and I wait some more.

I begin to realize that I have had a lot of water myself. A LOT of water. My body is pretty much done with it now…but I remind myself about the mission…I think of bright meadows without any streams in sight -- just a gaggle of galloping magazine and newspaper editors waving blank cheques at me.

Cars drive by.

I watch Paul Newman step out of the booth.

Did you get that?I watch him, dully thinking “Oh…that’s Paul Newman…getting out of a booth…about fifteen feet away from me.

“How nice.”

Some deep part of my subconscious drives an elbow into my ribs…the psychic equivalent of “HEY! THAT’S PAUL NEWMAN!”

“What?” I say to my subconscious.


Adrenaline surges through me. I am the hunter who had the Yeti in his sights and dozed off. I am the midnight photographer who watches Nessie rise out of a foggy loch and thought “Oh…how nice” to himself.

There will be time for self loathing later, I decide. Plenty of it.

I have reloaded my camera with batteries. Swallowing hard, I raise my camera to my eye and start shooting. Newman crosses to chat with one of his drivers…a guy who had some car trouble. They are talking…just a couple of guys. I am waiting for Newman to have an expression….anything….and as the camera goes click click I wonder what people call him. Paul? Mr. Newman? Luke? Butch?

I only need one picture, I think. Just one.

I stalk him as he walks across the tarmac…just a few feet away, pretending to ignore me. Click click….and I see him pause as he hears a voice familiar to my ears. He is just starting up his red scooter (which I now feel free to photograph, by the way, since it is no longer a plain red scooter but is, in fact a red scooter with Paul Freaking Newman on it)…the voice is very familiar.


Okay…I have been busily sneaking shots and there she is talking to him. Actually talking. My wife isn’t afraid of anything. I begin formulating a defense in case the Hollywood Royalty Police to come and take her away.

Surely directly talking to Paul Newman is against some law…

I watch as she takes off her hat and holds it out to him. She wants him to sign her hat. Newman is considering it. You can see the debate going on in his eyes. He pauses. My wife is looking at him.

He looks beyond her and sees a gaggle and a half of people hurrying his way. He half says/half mutters “I can’t…if I do….I’ll never get out of here…” Then he stops, kisses the tips of his fingers and blows the kiss at my wife. He's still a charmer, I decide.

He’s also polite and I think I really should get a photo of my wife talking to Paul Newman as he drives off on his little red scooter. Realizing I am to photojournalistic reflex what a sloth is to a champ car, I watch him drive off – and try not to meet my wife’s eyes.

I know after all – which the question is coming: “Did you get that? Did you get me talking to Paul Newman?”

I realize later that I have a picture of Paul Newman talking TO my wife. But my wife isn’t in the picture, though if you squinch up your eyes really tight you can sort of see her reflected in his sunglasses.

Helplessly, I watch Paul Newman putt putt off into the sunset, riding tall on a little red scooter. He wears sunglasses, but I know clear blue eyes are fixed in front of him.

I half wish he would turn in the saddle and wave goodbye…or change his mind and come back to sign my wife’s hat after all. But he doesn’t. And you know something? I don’t want him to.

If he did, he wouldn’t be Cool Hand Luke, which is exactly who I want him to be.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Adjustment Layers...and Why You Should Care

I think this is one of the top questions: "What's an adjustment layer?" There's a second unspoken question: "Why should I care???"

Adjustment Layer is third ONLY to "Curves", the whole notion of "Layers" and my most used command ("Undo") in the pantheon of "Cool Stuff in Photoshop."

What is it?

It's a layer that you can do all kinds of adjustments (from Brightness/Contrast to Curves to Hue and Saturation) to an instantly created COPY of your original. This means that if you screw it up, you aren't totally messed up because the work you did is on a copy. I think of the Adjustment Layer as an infinately adaptable magic layer on top of my graphic...but that's probably just me.

How is this different from the idea of copying a layer and working on the copy? you ask. Gee...that's a good question. Adjustment layers are wonderful because you can SELECT areas to apply your changes to without ever touching a selection tool.
You PAINT them onto the Adjustment mask.

Once you've added an Adjustment Layer you'll see a NEW box opening in Layers. This is a relatively terrifying thing the first time you look at it because it looks so darn strange.
I've outlined the actual Adjustment Layer in spiffy red so you can find it. You get a different Adjustment menu (this one is a Curves Adjustment) depending on which adjustment layer application you chose.
The way-seriously-cool-thing about Adjustment Layers is that you can now feel free to totally screw up your graphic. You can try wild application and strange combinations and it doesn't matter. If you don't like the way it looks you can delete the layer and start all over.
I know what you're thinking. "How do you make changes to the picture without making a selection." Yet another good question!
You will see that the Adjustment layer is represented as WHITE. Finish up your adjustments. (Let's say that you want to vastly lighten a portion of your picutre...but not all of it. With your Adjustment Layer you can lighten the WHOLE picture until it looks really hideous -- all except the areas that you wanted to lighten.)
Take your Paint Bucket Tool and choose a BLACK from the color picker. Pour the Paint Bucket over top of your Adjustment Layer. You will see all your recent changes disappear. Why? Because BLACK COVERS THE LAYER.

Take your brush and choose the White default color from the color picker. Now brush over ONLY the areas of your photo you want to change.
Leave some time so you can make the appropriate number of "ooooo" and "ahhhh" sounds as you watch ONLY the portions you wanted to change show up on your screen.

You can make very precise changes to your graphic. No muss. No fuss. No selections.
It is true that what I've told you about here is a serious over-simpification of how to use Adjustment Layers. But remember that people write books about this stuff. My advice? Play around with all the many Adjustment Layers available. You'll see your graphics doing the most interesting things.
And if you mess something up? Relax. It's Photoshop.