First World Problems

A little while ago I wrote a somewhat bitter piece I titled "Creative Myth Busting: If You Build It They Will Come". I'm here to tell you I was wrong ... somewhat.

It is hard putting your work out there year after year to resounding indifference but I'm here to tell you things recently changed for me. For several years now I have been working on the side for my company on various photo and video projects. These projects were largely on my own time and with my own equipment and I started doing them as a way to learn as I am one of those people who can only learn by doing. After several years of this I had learnt a lot but I was starting to feel a little used and like things were going nowhere hence the attitude conveyed in the post mentioned above.

But then something happened....

At a huge conference we run, I was taking stills as usual when I was asked by a couple of colleagues to shoot some short video testimonials. I was going to explain that shooting video required so much more time and equipment than the stills I was taking but, instead, I turned up first thing one morning with a back breaking load of extra gear and shot what they asked for. Back in the office I had just received Adobe Production Premium so I decided to use the editing task as an opportunity to learn Premiere Pro as I moved from Sony Movie Studio. I thought the resulting video was nothing special but the team I made it for loved it. They liked it so much they kept showing it higher and higher up the management food chain until I found myself the most junior (in rank at least) attendee at a meeting of higher-ups with my bosses', bosses', bosses', boss being asked to advise on video and multimedia production. Normally, in such company I might be quiet and hang back but they were talking about a subject I knew more about than anyone in the room. Before the meeting was through I was being asked to switch focus from my usual coding duties to video production.

A lot of established creatives offer advice to young wannabees to  pack-up whatever they're doing currently, move to LA or NY or where ever they believe the creative center of the universe is currently and to work for free if they have to. For a 20-something with no responsibilities that may be good advice but for middle-aged, head of household with dependents looking to you for health insurance, and getting the mortgage paid and all the other trappings of a modern, Western lifestyle it is hard advice to stomach. So we stick to our safe jobs that provide our families with the security we promised them and we wonder what it would be like to do the thing we loved, the thing we are actually passionate about for a living.

So I have this opportunity now to do what I love for a living without losing the security I've built up working at a massive technology company for so many years. It's not like when you're a kid and you dream of being spotted in the crowd for your mad skills and then thrown into the spotlight to become successful and famous but, in a grown-up world, it's more than I dared to dream of. I'm not making Hollywood movies or rubbing shoulders with world-famous filmmakers but I go into the office and I edit or shoot video without having to hide it off the books. I haven't been given a massive budget or a RED camera rig but that's not what I'm good at or what my experience is with anyway. I know about guerrilla filmmaking and how to do things for low or no-budget without the end product looking cheap. I think the corporate world is one of the last niches in video production to learn anything from this DIY, guerrilla mentality and I'm passionate about doing that.

So here I stand, given an unexpected opportunity that is mine to screw up. Who knows what the next year will bring. Maybe they'll work out that I don't know what I'm talking about, or they'll find someone else who does it better, or they'll get tired of making videos but for now I'm taking this opportunity and am running with it. If you're just starting out there are plenty of people who will give you good advice so you don't need this old fart chiming in. If you're no spring chicken, and you have responsibilities, but you're trying to add a more creative slant to your work life I can't promise that it will happen but it definitely won't happen if you give up, or stop looking for the opportunities that just occasionally come your way.

Keep doing it. Keep the faith. Keep your eyes open. I almost gave up and slipped into bitterness. If you hear me moaning again, do me a favor and slap me.

My Tech Top 10: 2012 Edition

One of the blogs I follow is Apartment Therapy and they have section called My Tech Top 10. Each year they ask contributors and influential people to describe ten items of technology that have been most useful to them that year. I'm just a reader of that blog and have little influence, but I still thought it would be fun to make my own list so here goes:

iPad 3

In first place has to be my iPad. I had the first generation of the iPad and it was fun, but I got the iPad 3 in the summer and it fulfilled the promise the original iPad hinted at. Of course, Apple made it old-tech two months later when they released the new iPad and we're already hearing word of yet another iteration early in 2013 which makes me a little angry but then again, when I'm using the iPad 3 (and I use it a lot) I don't feel like I'm using old-tech. 

The retina screen is just beautiful - it's the end of the era of being able to see pixels. It's powerful enough to work on and play on. I do like my iPhone but since the iPad 3 came into my life the iPhone is something I use to text and make calls and if I use it for anything else it feels like a compromise I have to make until I'm back with my beloved iPad. The iPhone is just a bit squinty to my old eyes whereas, the iPad may not be small enough to go in a jacket pocket but I see why Mr Jobs thought the iPad's screen was the perfect size. It's great for watching video, making music, it's effortless for Skype, great for Pinterest and Flipboard, it is my preferred interface for dealing with my email and calendar. Typing on the glass keyboard is a compromise but one you quickly adapt to but with a bluetooth keyboard that compromise disappears and so Google Docs, and Celtx become all the more useful.

I'm sure it's not perfect for everyone but for me I am now lost without my iPad. It has largely replaced my laptop: I either use the iPad or wait until I'm back at one of my desktops. I didn't get it when it first came out ("Why would I want a massive iPhone that can't make calls?") but now I get it.

Lightroom 4

Just like the iPad makes more heavy duty devices less relevant, Lightroom makes Photoshop seem slow and cumbersome. There are not that may pieces of software I love (I like a lot but how many do I 'love'? Not that many.) but I count Lightroom 4 among their number.

Once you get used to it, it is amazingly fast to do 95% of what I need to do with my images. Photoshop is amazingly powerful and fully featured but it contains so many functions that are irrelevant to most photographers. I'm sure I haven't tried half of what PS can do but I feel like I use all of Lighroom's features without missing much. It has made going through hundreds of pictures after an event much more manageable and without it most of my images would never get beyond being downloaded in RAW format to my server and then forgotten. The price for such a professional tool makes it so inclusive; as PS has become such a significant expense it is sometimes hard to justify purchasing, especially now LR does most of what I need. If Adobe adds layers and brushes I may abandon PS forever - I guess that's why they won't be adding those features.

Leatherman Charge

This is hardly an item of tech but it is a device that's been in my bag and used daily for about a decade now and its looks don't give away its age. Any geek worth their salt needs a multi-tool they can strip a PC down with, or cut pesky cable ties single handed, or any of a half-dozen tasks that used to send us to our tool box every day. For me that tool is made by Leatherman and the Charge is the model with all the tools I need.


How did we survive without DropBox? I used to have a flash-drive in my pocket at all times, but Dropbox is way more than a cloud version of a thumb drive and survives the washing machine much better to boot. It is my go-to service when I need to save items I need to access from anywhere but it has also become the service I use to share projects that are works in progress. That could be a video I want notes on from stakeholders before it goes live on YouTube, or the way I collaborate with partners even though we don't live in the same time zone, and the way I can effortlessly move items between devices and OS'es - PC to Mac, desktop to iPhone. Dropbox has quickly gone from a novelty to a daily essential.

Seagate Backup Plus Portable Drives

Much as I love Dropbox it's neither big enough, nor fast enough for the huge video projects I work on, need to backup and to transport between my office and home. I had been using old school external hard drives - the big ones that need a separate power supply and take up half your bag - when I made the discovery that these small, laptop drive based drives were no small enough, fast enough and cheap enough to replace my old drives. I love that they don't need a separate power supply and that you can get a terabyte for about $80. Until the cloud becomes faster and cheaper for the amount of storage I need, these drives make an elegant stop-gap.

Canon 5D MkII

I know 2012 was the year of the MKIII and, as I write this, the 4 year old MKII has just been officially retired, but I still use my MKII's daily both for stills and video and don't see the need to replace or retire them just yet. This camera made me a better photographer and it taught me about video production. 2012 was the year this kind of multi-media production officially became part of my work remit so I have the MKII to thank for getting me out of the coding trenches (at least until they realize I don't know what I'm talking about). It's not often that a high tech gadget has such a long shelf-life.

Adobe Production Premium CS6

Work had been promising my this software since 2011 but in 2012 they finally delivered. Before that I had been making do with the consumer software Photoshop Elements and Sony Movie Studio. Both taught me a lot but I kept hitting problems with both that getting the professional software has helped overcome. I no longer have to leave a day just to render a project in the fear that it won't complete or it will introduce glitches. Premiere had a pretty steep learning curve but now now going back to Movie Studio feels like going from a car to a push bike. I'm glad I didn't have to buy it myself as it is quiet spendy but oh, so worth it.


There are several apps I use daily on the iPad and Flipboard is the ideal way to consume all sorts of niche and mainstream news. Flipboard is the modern Newspaper.


If Flipboard is the modern newspaper then Downcast is the modern radio. Since TiVo came along I haven't watched live TV except in hotel rooms or at my parents house since. I still listen to NPR but not live anymore. I've been a follower of podcasts for years but Apple's idea of over the air syncing left a lot to be desired. Downcast was my stopgap until they sorted it out but now, even though Apple have their own podcast app, I'm sticking with Downcast.

Sennheiser HD 280 pro Headphones

I know it's the year of the new Apple ear-buds and super-expensive, rapper-endorsed headphones but my HD 280's are the last in a long line of Sennheiser headphones I've owned. They're not for going out but if you need to monitor audio in a loud environment their ear cups seal out most of the room noise. If you have to mix or edit on headphones they are naturally uncolored. They're boringly black but affordable and comfortable and another piece of tech I use daily and am glad for.

Filmmaking: How to Give and Take Notes Without Making Enemies

Filmmaking is a collaborative, artistic process involving people with egos and opinions. Just about everyone involved has ownership of some percentage of the final product and, especially if they are not getting paid or are getting paid very little, they are hugely invested in that final product being great or what’s the point for them being involved?

This can be a recipe for disaster in the pre- and post-production world. When you’re on set and in production the collaboration is face-to-face and the roles are defined and visible so it is easier to manage and to detect when something is heading in the wrong direction. In the pre- and post-production world where people communicate much more by email the potential for being misunderstood and for conflicts blowing out of proportion is so much greater. Often times the way we communicate is by asking for ‘notes’ or being given them whether we want them or not from people higher up the food chain.

There are two times we usually ask for and get notes: in script development and in the editing process. Getting notes, considering them and implementing them can make your film project better. It can also be frustrating, infuriating, it can make you very defensive and, if you blindly try to incorporate every note you’re given, it can make your film worse not better.

       Taking Notes

Be gracious when you are given notes especially if you asked for them. Again, this is especially true in the low/no budget filmmaking world. If you ask someone you respect to give you notes they are taking time out of their life to do this as a favor so don’t get dismissive or defensive with them if they say something you don’t agree with or like.

Don’t ask for notes for something you don’t actually want criticism on. If what you really want is a compliment, a pat on the back and an ‘at-ta-boy’ then send it to your mom. If you ask for criticism you will get it. Don’t waste your reviewer’s time asking for notes you have no intention of even considering because you think the piece is already finished.

Take care who you ask notes from. If you’re not the top of the food chain there are some people who you will have to take notes from. Beyond that only ask notes from people whose opinion you respect. When you ask for notes you are asking for criticism and you will usually get it. If you respect the person giving you notes you are much more likely to take their notes more seriously than the notes you’re getting from some faceless executive.

Consider the note givers position, experience and point of view. The notes you get from someone experienced in the process will be very different from the notes you get from someone who has never made a video in their life, however, both can add value. The more experienced filmmaker may see things you are not experienced enough to have noticed. The novice’s opinion may be much more in line with your target audience and so just as useful.

Be respectful of the opinion of those whom you have to ask notes from even if you’re doing it as a formality. Perhaps some backer wants a producer credit and wants to be involved in the process. Dismiss the money man at your peril. They are not just a source of cash; their ownership is just as valid as yours and you’re probably going to want them to back a bigger project in the future. Involve these people. Genuinely consider their notes. Thank them for being involved. Show them why their note might not work. Take the time to cut the section two ways if you have to and really show them why your way works. It behoves you to try to gently educate these people as you go especially if you may be working with them again.

Be specific about what you want notes about and the specific deadline you want them back by. Give people a reasonable but finite time to get back to you. Also, if there are areas you are specifically concerned with tell your note givers so that they can give you notes in that area.

You’re not entitled to notes from someone so ask politely and don’t make demands. This is especially true if you are asking for notes from someone who is not invested in the project but whose opinion you respect.
Try to be as objective as you can; try to leave your ego out of it. This is easier said than done when the project is your baby and you have so much time invested in it. Just remember that notes are not criticism. If some note makes your blood boil take a breath, an hour, a day or a week before crafting a response - never reply in anger.  Once your emotions have settled you may find something of value in these notes that you can still use.

Follow-up on every note. When you send out your next cut let people know what notes you have incorporated. If you haven’t incorporated a note into the cut explain to the note giver why. Always let a note giver know that they have been heard and that you’re not ignoring them. If they feel ignored they can damage your project.

Pick your battles - know when to fold and when to dig in. When someone higher up the food chain than you gives you comments you must address them. If you don’t agree with them know when to fight for what you want and when it is ok to give the reviewer their point. If you fight every note it will only serve to polarize your two positions over everything in the project.

        Giving Notes

If you offer a criticism be sure that it is specific and that you offer a solution to address the problem you see.
Here’s a note I received once “I’m not inspired but that might be because of the annoying music.” How do I address this? The music where? One person’s annoying makes another’s top ten list: of course I’ll be on the defensive if chose or even wrote the music. What do you want me to change it to? I don’t want to waste my time switching out the soundtrack over and over until I stumble on something this note giver likes. Instead give me some guide as how to fix the issue. Imagine the knee-jerk reaction I had to this note and how I had no idea how to address it. Now imagine how much more likely I would be to be able and willing to address your issue if it was phrased like this: “I don’t think the background music fits the chase scene. Can you find something a bit less Techno and a little more Jan Hammer?

Don’t use loaded or emotional language. For example, ‘annoying’, ‘hate’, ‘stupid’ will evoke strong reactions and put the filmmakers on the defensive rather than the collaborative.

Be concise and specific. Don’t use a full paragraph if a few words will do. It’s a waste of your time and the filmmaker’s.

Notes are so much more digestible if you can come up with a couple of positive things to say before you go on to list a whole load of things you see as issues. As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Even if you think what you just saw or read needs a lot of work it is rarely difficult to find something nice to say. If everything you say is negative your filmmaker will be on the defensive and will find it hard to consider anything you said or your opinion in the future. It’s also worth ending on a positive note too. Filmmaking is all about collaboration and the relationships you make will often continue long after this one project is finished.

Don’t make notes on things that cannot be addressed at this point. If you’re asked to make notes on the edit and this is the first time you’ve seen the project and you hate the script you can’t tell the filmmaker that he has to rewrite or recast the whole thing. He might not even be able to film any pickup shots at this point so try to work with what is there. Suggest edits to mitigate those elements you strongly dislike.

Be polite. Don’t be condescending. Give notes you would want to receive.

Be quick in getting notes back. If you can’t get notes back to the filmmaker inside the deadline or you don’t have time at all it takes less than a minute to send an email explaining why you won’t be able to deliver within the time frame or at all.

If you think the person or project is beyond help don’t burn bridges. Be polite, don’t waste your time and just bow out of the project. It’s a small world. You will meet this person again and you may have to work with them. If you tear this project to shreds that’s what they will remember about you.

Read through or watch the subject once before you make any notes at all. After that first pass write down your general first impressions of the whole work. Also describe and plot or character issues you have that are confusing you. When you go through after the first time you comments can be more granular. Make comments about individual scenes and then page by page or minute by minute.

        Other Links

Creative Myth Busting: If You Build It They Will Come

A lot of so called experts are out there proffering advice for creatives trying to 'make it'. Like everything on the interwebs, some of that advice is good and some of it is bad. Here's one piece of advice some creatives who have already made it often give to those who want to make it:

Just concentrate on the work and success will follow. If you make good work you will be found ... If you build it they will come.

Perhaps this advice was valid two decades ago but even then I doubt it. Today it is misinformed advice that could stunt your progress. If you build it you are just 1 of millions of others who have built something. The noise to signal ratio in the modern world is massive and no one has time to sift through the whole of the web to find you. If your profile isn't high you will not be found; you will not get the gig; you will not rise to the top of the pile.

Creating the work is only half the job. The other half, I am sad to say, is self-promotion. It goes against everything I stand for but if you're not out there tweeting to tens of thousands of followers; if every picture you put on Flickr, or video you put on YouTube, or song you put on Soundcloud doesn't get thousands of hits you might not be failing as an artist but you will not 'make it'.

Put this advice down to sour grapes on my part at your peril. There are thousands of good photographers out there and there are a relatively few great ones. A lot of great photographers out there you have never heard of. A lot of OK photographers are web stars getting all the attention.

An artist needs an audience. Without an audience the work is masturbatory.  How you get that audience without selling out? That I cannot tell you. I still naively believe that an artists should make work that they themselves like but if you want an audience you must keep your viewer (or listener, or reader) in mind somewhat. How much you court that audience while you're making the work is up to you and your conscience but I'd recommend that you start trying to build that audience just as soon as you have the fundamentals of your craft down. If you wait you will be too late. 

A Guy's Guide to Pinterest

In recent months Pinterest has blown up as the new social media space with some uninformed tech journalists going as far as calling it the new Facebook. That is an overstatement but it is an interesting new Social Media space. This article isn't an introduction to Pinterest per say, there are plenty of those around, but I will just say, if you haven't tried Pinterest out it is worth a visit. Pinterest is your categorize-able, mood-board. If you see something you like on the web; you pin it and an image, your description and a link to the source is added to your board. It's that simple.

But Pinterest does have a reputation as girly hangout. I don't think anyone really knows and that people are guessing but you read pundits saying that 87% of active users are women. At first blush this statistic could be believable. Certainly the most popular pins do feature a disproportionately large number of interior design, sappy wedding and child photography, hair and nail styles, outfit and shoe options, too-cute-pets, recipes, diet tips, Ryan Gosling portraits, platitudes in text, book storage havens, etc. If you're a guy, don't let this put you off. There is plenty at Pinterest for you too.

Since when has making lists for fun being a predominantly female activity? Men grow up making lists (ref "High Fidelity"). "What is your top five dream cars?" "I really like that album but it isn't in my top 10. Top 50, maybe." When I grew up the Top Trumps card games were a huge craze in the playground among boys. You had to remember huge lists of esoteric facts about super-cars or footballers to be able to be able to win. Can't you boil sports down to huge lists of stats? Isn't fantasy football just pitting one man's list against another's? Don't men out number women with Asperger Syndrome 4 to 1? It's men who catalog their record, CD, comic collections - women have better things to do (like hanging out on Pinterest).

Companies are springing up trying to be the Pinterest for men (Manteresting and Gentlemint). Do we really need our own man cave for creating mood-boards? Some forum with a "Smelly Girls Keep Out!" sign on the club house door? Wasn't this just about any forum on any subject a decade ago? I'm not sure I want to go back to the internet that smelt like a men's locker room so I'm no hurry to leave Pinterest for an all male preserve. Pinterest is the market leader with the best features and the most traffic so why go off into some male ghetto? 

If you have slightly OCD tendencies Pinterest may be your idea of heaven, be you male or female. If you are male and find Pinterest appealing what might you use it for? Any of the previously mentioned male lists would be at home on Pinterest: your favorite album covers, sports personalities, movie posters etc. Personally I find Pinterest a great way to collect things with out bringing more crap into the house. Last week, for example, I went on a nostalgia trip remembering my childhood in the late 70's early 80's (yes, I am old, thanks for asking.) I stumbled upon toys, candy, TV shows, music, etc from those days and I created a board to store it all of course. This board may be uninteresting to anyone but me or maybe other 40-something Brits but now, when I want to stroll down memory lane, all this stuff is in one place. In the past I might have gone on a spending binge trying to find a Six Million Dollar Man doll on eBay, candy from the time at some specialty store and horrible music I won't actually listen to again from iTunes. Pinterest let me indulge in nostalgia without the cost or clutter and it allowed me to share some strange stuff from my childhood with my wife. In the future, when someone kick-starts my failing memory with a "Do you remember ....?" I'll have a place to store that if I want to.

In a more obvious vein, I don't lust after clothes or storage solutions in the way many Pinterest users seem to but I have an obsession with cars and guitars. Pinterest allows me to collect rare guitars like a rock star and to stock my fantasy garage like a CEO. 

But the boards you create don't have to be about things you aspire to or want. Continuing with my petrol-head tendencies I created a board of the worst cars ever made. Not only does it counterpoint my fantasy garage nicely but where would I store this list otherwise? Here on my blog perhaps? Maybe, but Pinterest boards become a living document rather than a static list. You can leave them for a awhile and them come back and add to them when inspiration strikes. You can leave them for a awhile and them come back and add to them when inspiration strikes. Creating boards is so easy, if while I'm nerding out, creating my list of the Greatest Fictional Spacecraft, I come across the inspiration to start a list of Iconic Movie Props it is the work of a little extra tying and a click.

'Isn't Pinterest about community?' I hear you ask. Where do you go to find other dudes on Pinterest? There are the obvious places like the Cars and Motorcycles, Sports and Geek sections among others. There are various people who have curated lists of men to follow on Pinterest (Sean Percival, Joe, etc). Beyond that you just have to keep you eyes open for stuff that interests you. Try to search for boards, people or pins tagged with a subject you're interested in. When you find good boards, follow them. When you find pins you like, take a moment to comment. 

I was never any good at the whole 'popular' thing in High School so it should be no surprise that I am the wrong person to ask about playing this game on Social Media sites. There are plenty of articles telling you how to get more followers on Pinterest: this isn't one of them. I follow boards rather than people that I find interesting. The problem with following a person is whenever they create a new board you will automatically be following it weather it is of interest to you or not (often not). I only follow people I actually know because they will be pissed at me otherwise. I don't repin things very often but I tend to find my own content while I'm out and about on the web. 

Other technicalities about pinning that I've noticed: 
  • If you pin three new cars to your fantasy car garage at one only the first one is likely to be see in the Cars and Motorcycles section. When you don't many followers getting pins into those sections is the only way you will get more eyes on your pins. 
  • Portrait ratio photos get more physical space than landscape one. Bigger images have more impact. Tall, skinny images will get the most physical space (hence those really long, skinny graphics people are making and posting (spamming) specifically for Pinterest. When you are looking for an image to pin on a subject try to find a portrait ratio image though.
  • Pinterest isn't purely visual: you do get chance to write something about your pin. This is your chance to express yourself. I find pins without a personal comment dull: I want to know what the thing is and why a person pinned it.

Curation may be the next artistic activity that has been democratized. Previously you had to be a magazine editor or art gallery manager to have this kind of power. Of course, these professionals are still going to have more influence and have a greater effect that you but Pinterest does give you a taste of this kind of task. I definitely have pride of ownership of my boards. I do feel like they partly describe who I am. Curation is not the exclusive preserve of women so I am encouraging you, especially if you are a guy, to get out there and to start pinning.

Real Geeks Don't Read Dwell

Like a lot of geeks (but not all) I love good design. That I'm a sucker for well designed tech goes without saying; the iPad, the Fuji X100, La Clie Hard-drive Cases all float my boat. But outside of tech, Fender Stratocasters, Pininfarina cars and Eames furniture are also a turn on. I want to live a Jetson-esque house that Architectural Digest want to feature, to wit, I read a few interior design blogs for inspiration and also for the voyeuristic thrill of seeing how other people live.

Which is how I came to read this article: 10 Steps to a Home Office You'll Love. Let me give you the executive summary: hide all your tech and buy expensive, designer office furniture. In other words, if you're a geek, be ashamed, send your toys and action figures to Goodwill, and compromise what you need to work and create so that some architect wannabee in stupid glasses will approve of your work-space.

We take it as read that the iMac looks amazing in the Apple collateral when it is photographed in a staged office that is devoid of cables, peripherals, paper or anything personal. When we get it home, if you're anything more than the most casual of users, it doesn't look nearly as clinically clean once you get it connected to the network, and hooked up to a couple of backup drives, and connected to a second monitor, and your Wacom tablet. If you're a digital creative these things are not tech clutter you can just hide away; they are daily necessities you need to work.

When you dive deeper into digital multimedia creation there are other things you can't live without that are hard to sweep under the designer carpet. If you're into music creation (as I am) and you don't live in the elite world where you can afford to have a dedicated studio, there are mixers, microphones, keyboards, guitars and rack mounted effects. If you have to hide these things away in the closet after every session to maintain some zen ideal of what your work space should look like, the next time inspiration strikes, you face so much setup and breakdown time the barrier to starting creating is too high. If these things are setup and to-hand, when inspiration strikes it's a simple matter of flipping a few switches to get from the point of inspiration to getting that idea recorded.

Likewise, if you podcast or make videos and you don't have a dedicated studio, with all your equipment broken down in the garage how much more motivation do you need to create your next episode or masterpiece if there's all that setup to go through before you can even start to create?

Real geeks also need more than one computer. What are you going to do while your code is compiling or your video is rendering on your main work station if you don't have another machine to work on? Real geeks don't use laptops as their main workstations: laptops are great but we need the power and flexibility only a tower provides and when was the last time you saw a hulking tower workstation in any of the offices featured as role models on Apartment Therapy? For real geeks technology isn't static - we are constantly switching in and out hardware; cycling external hard drives; changing out network hardware; bringing a new laptop into the room for testing or review. Real geeks keep their cables tidy but accessible and that doesn't mean hog-tied to the back of a cabinet you can't get to without a flashlight, crawling on the floor and banging your head on furniture.

This is one geek who has had enough of trying to live up to some Hollywood interior designer's idea of what my work space should look like. To do so is to deny my geekness and inhibits the creative process. There are no action figures anywhere else in the house other than in my office. I still need some very uncool looking paper manuals to get some tasks done. I love my Nerf gun and I need a guitar close at hand to bang out some frustration on. I need the speed and reliability of a wired network and if the router and network switch are in  the basement how can I read the status lights when something periodically goes wrong?

I'm tired of apologizing for my man-cave. We keep the rest of the house pretty grown-up and tidy so I'm going to put a sign on my office door: "Interior Designers: Keep Out!"

In Paise of the Cheap, Black, Plastic G-Shock

I have a confession to make: I used to be something of a watch snob. That's not so unusual for a guy as we only really get to wear one piece of 'jewelry'. I love mechanical, military style watches which are pretty understated and the opposite of hip-hop bling but the good, collectible ones can be pricey nonetheless. I have one or two nice watches that I like to wear for special occasions but even these ostensibly utilitarian timepieces require some care and maintenance. The most obvious issue is if they're not worn and/or wound regularly they don't even run. If they are not run regularly they tend to be less accurate and when they need to be restarted setting the time and date is a pain. There's nothing defines 'pointless' better than putting a watch on when you get up and looking at your wrist to see when the train is coming to find the hands haven't even started to move yet or it's obviously at least two hours off.

Watches I own don't cost thousands but they do cost hundreds which means I'm a little precious about them when I go to the gym or work on my car and, no matter how careful I am, they do occasionally collect scratches to their case or glass that no one but I will notice but it drives me crazy anyway. So what is the point of a watch you're afraid to wear and isn't as accurate as your cell phone anyway?

I do like to wear a watch. It feels natural to me when I want to know the time to refer to my wrist. I come from a generation where learning to tell the time and getting your first watch were rights of passage. I still remember every detail of my first watch, a child sized mechanical Timex I still have in the back of a drawer somewhere. I want to wear a watch but I want to bow out of the escalating horological arms race with my richer, more successful friends (I am the Miata to their 911s). I want it to work unconditionally, be cheap, unremarkable and tough. So, of course, there is only one choice; the G-Shock DW-5600E.

I'm not talking about the collectable original version with the screw-down back and the Keanu-Speed association. I'm talking about the current version that costs less the $40 on Amazon. The watch that G-Shock aficionados deride and no one else even notices you're wearing. The watch that was one of four timepieces approved to go into space on the wrists of Shuttle astronauts. The watch you can bash into the wall and the wall will come off worse. A watch you put on and forget and abuse and it just keeps on going and looking exactly the same. I'm not talking about any of the limited edition versions in 'look at me me!' primary colors, or with reversed faces that look cool put are impossible to read, or advanced features to charge themselves from the sun or automatically set themselves.

I'm talking about the cheapest G-Shock out there. The poor imitation (in collector's minds) and successor to the original G-Shock. The ultimate cheap, black plastic watch.

It's a watch that draws no attention to itself but if you look at it closely has a rugged, utilitarian charm. It is chunky and substantial without being heavy or cumbersome.  Its recessed face is protected and intuitive to read. Its integrated strap is supremely comfortable. The recessed buttons are protected from accidental use but responsive enough to work with work-gloves on when you need to. Its one flashy feature is its back light which works just long enough for you to read the time without compromising the long battery life. When the time finally comes to replace the battery it is almost a shock to the system that this watch needs any attention at all but removing the back just needs a common jeweler's screwdriver not a specialized watch back opener and it is the work of a couple of minutes to do the job.

This watch is the antithesis of a fashion statement and so has a charm all of its own. There's a reason this watch is used and abused by astronauts, military personal, first responders, law enforcement etc. If you want to know what the toughest, most comfortable shoes are to wear all day are look at the feet of police people, nurses or chefs. They won't be the prettiest shoes but they will be practical to a fault.  That should be the DW-5600E motto as well: practical to a fault.

So why have I wasted so many words not reviewing a product that doesn't require another review anyway? Let's just say I am a fan. In a world that can be expensive and complicated it is what is is - I usually hate that conversation-killing statement but it seems totally apropos for the DW-5600E. There is nothing ironic, or political, or elitist, or hipster-cool, or over-sized machismo about this watch. It's more watch than 99% of us will ever need for much less money than we deserve to pay.

So it bears repeating:

... it is what it is.

Taking Photos at Conferences

You've been asked to take some pictures for the team's/company's blog/newsletter while you're at the conference. How do you come back with something actually usable?

How hard can it be?

If you were sent to the souks of Morocco with a half-decent camera, it wouldn't be hard to come back with a few fantastic shots. You'd have amazing light, fantastic colors, and exotic characters to work with. Conferences typically have none of these things -- the light is usually horribly unflattering and there is too little of it, and you're taking pictures of a lot of people in business suits milling around making presentations, and in meetings. It can be difficult to get enthused about the subject.

There's a reason I use stupidly heavy, expensive cameras and lenses for these photo shoots, but learning to use this equipment takes time. And who wants to lug around tens of pounds and thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, in addition to your laptop and other gear? So what is a road warrior to do, especially if you just want to use your iPhone or slim point-and-shoot?

There are a few things working in your favor:

Your shot will probably be displayed in a relatively small size -- perhaps just a thumbnail in a blog entry or a newsletter to try to make big blocks of text more visually interesting. Your shot is not going to be printed in a two-page magazine spread, so you don't need to sweat the small, technical stuff.

Secondly, today's cameras (even the one in your iPhone) are amazing pieces of technology. Compared to the cameras of 5 years ago, the way they handle low light and complicated lighting situations is almost miraculous.

Almost ...

1: Your Camera Doesn't Think. That's Your Job. 

My first tip: Do not mistake all those technological features in your camera as intelligence. Your camera is not smart, however much its manufacturer may claim otherwise. Your camera does math really well. It guesses at settings based on what its sensors are telling it and how it is programmed, and this looks like intelligence within normal shooting parameters, such as your family vacation. But when you're inside a badly lit hall, that programming starts to fall apart. Your job is to do the thinking while your camera does the math.

This basically means that you shouldn't just rely on your camera to get everything right. When the exposure or color balance is off or looks horrible, you have to know why and be able to make compensations. Unfortunately, in taxing photographic situations such as a conference or meeting, you can't always rely on the dummy "P" mode. You're probably going to have to access some of your camera's more advanced features. When you chimp and see something wrong with the shot you just took, think about what the camera is not getting right and adjust accordingly.

Don't let this scare you off - you don't need a degree in photography to be able to do this. You just need a few more tips ...

2: Turn off your flash

This is one reason you have to get out of "Program" mode: your camera will "see'" the low light in any presentation room as too dark. It will turn on the flash -- which is, at best, useless and obtrusive and, at worst, ruins your shot. How will it ruin your shots? The flash is too "fashy" (I hope I'm not getting too technical here). You know those pictures you took at a birthday party with the flash on, where your subject's skin is bleached white and the background is monstrously black and dark? That's what flash does. It over-lights your subject and makes everything else black. This is the very definition of a snapshot, and while you might be able to get away with these kinds of shots on Facebook, they will make your newsletter look amateurish.

When I say your flash is useless, I mean it probably won't reach your subject. Your flash might look bright, but it is tiny, harsh and directional -- and it probably won't even reach more than 6 feet. Your iPhone with its LED flash probably doesn't even reach that far. You know when you go to a concert and see all those flashes going off in the audience? They're all a useless waste of batteries. You will never see a professional concert photographer using flash. Why? A flash powerful enough to reach their subject would be too heavy to hold. If it did reach the subject, it would annoy the performer and the audience, and the resulting picture would look like it was lit by daylight not the stage lights. Stage photographers use "available light" -- and you should, too.

There is a price to pay for using available light indoors, and that is "noise." Noise is the ugly grainy effect you see when you shoot in low light with the flash off. It is the result of your sensor working hard, and electronics amplifying a weak signal. But grain is far preferable to not getting the shot or taking a "flashy" deer-in-the-headlights picture. There is something we can do about noise in editing; we can't make it totally go away, but we can reduce its effects. Noise, however, is usually only noticeable if you look at a picture large - when it is printed or cropped small, it is hard to see.

3: Watch the light

Photography is all about light. When photographers look at the light, we look at two things: quantity and quality. Quantity is the amount of light available. Our eyes are amazing; we can walk from bright sunshine to a dark theater and they adjust almost instantaneously. Our cameras are not quite so flexible. Even though we can see clearly in both situations, that doesn't mean there is the same amount of light. Inside, there may be only 5% (or less) of the light available outside in the daylight.

Quality refers to how directional (or defused) the light is and its color. We usually can't do anything about the directionality of the light in a conference room, however, watch for strong back-lighting. For example, if your subject is standing in front of a projection screen, they are back-lit (the light coming from behind them is much stronger than the light falling on the front of them). You are unlikely to get anything more than a silhouette. What can you do about this? Move your feet and your shooting position. If you move to the side so the screen is not in your frame anymore, you should get better lighting for your subject.

Light has a color. Again, our eyes and brains automatically adjust for this, and your camera tries but interiors throw it off. Daylight is slightly blue. The light first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening is much warmer (the golden hours, in photog parlance). Interior light is often very orange, but that depends on the light source. Fluorescent strip lights look green, and don't get me started on the horrible sodium lights they use on my conference demo halls. It will help if you know how to set your camera's color balance manually, but again, there is a limited amount of color correction that we can make later. It is more important that you try to see like the camera and become more aware of the light.

4: Burst mode is not just for sports photographers

Most cameras have a burst or continuous mode that is packaged for sports pictures, however, it is really useful for conference shots, too. One of the main reasons a photograph is not acceptable technically is that it has a lack of sharpness. This isn't usually a result of the camera not focusing on the subject, but more often is because of movement in either the subject (motion-blur) or the camera (camera-shake). In low-light situations, your shutter speed is typically longer -- which means that there is a much greater chance of introducing camera-shake. When you press the shutter, don't hit it like a keyboard but squeeze it like a trigger. This reduces the amount you move the camera itself when you take the shot.

In burst mode, you typically take 3+ shots every time you press the shutter. The advantage of this is two-fold: first, even if the camera is moving in the first shot as you press the shutter, it will probably be more still in the second and third, so they will be sharper. The second advantage has to do with people's expressions as they talk. When people speak, their mouths move into unusual positions for a fraction of a second. We often do not appreciate that until that moment is frozen by a camera. As people talk, their expressions can look momentarily unflattering. Some people blink a lot when they speak. If you take a lot of shots at once, you have a much greater chance of getting a flattering, sharp shot with the subject's eyes open.

The professional photographer's biggest secret is that he/she shoots a lot more than any amateur. We don't ever take one shot -- we shoot and shoot and shoot some more. When we get back home, we sift through hundreds of shots for the best one or two, and the rest never see the light of day. If you only take one shot, the chances of it being a keeper may be 20:1 (10:1 if we're being generous). If you take 20 shots of the same thing, therefore, you are much more likely to get the shot you need.

5: Zoom with your feet - turn digital zoom off

In the quest to impress consumers with massive zoom magnification figures, manufactures sometimes bring "digital zoom" into the equation. Optical zoom is achieved through the physics of moving pieces of glass around. Digital zoom does little more than crop your image in-camera and boost the resolution of the resulting file. If, when you zoom in, your images look jaggy (another technical term) on sharp edges, the digital zoom may have kicked in. Go to your manual and find out how to turn digital zoom off. It's better to just to crop the image yourself when you get home than to let the camera do it.

If you're using your iPhone, all of your zoom is digital -- so don't use zoom.

It's much better to "zoom with your feet," that is, keep the camera lens at a wide angle setting and walk to a better shooting angle rather than shooting from the back of the room and zooming in. The longer your zoom, the greater the chance that you will introduce camera-shake. Try this: take a camera with a wide zoom setting, and at its widest setting, try to hold it still while framing a shot. You should be able to hold it pretty steady. Now try again at the longest (most zoomed-in setting). You should see that your frame doesn't remain as steady zoomed in. Zoom exaggerates camera movements and shake. Extreme zoom should be avoided, especially in low-light situations.

6: Watch your frame

Our eyes and mind, in combination, are selective and see what we want to see -- not necessarily what is actually there. A camera is not selective like that. It just represents what is put in front of it, so you should try to see like a camera. Try to be aware of where your subject is in relation to the edges of the frame. Fill the frame with your subject, especially if the image is to be displayed at a relatively small size. Remember to check your background. Keep horizon lines as level as you can. If the stage appears to be tilting at some crazy angle, it will throw your viewer off. Even a small tilt makes the viewer think things are slipping downhill. Keep an eye out for distracting elements such as glowing exit signs behind a presenter. By moving your camera position even an inch or two over, you may be able to block that distracting element with the subject.

Also look for things blocking your subject. A microphone on the lectern may provide a sense of place, but if it covers the speaker's mouth or an eye, it will be distracting. A microphone, auto-queue or even a speaker's papers can also throw off your camera's focus, so try to make sure your camera is locked on the speaker's face. If your camera has "Face Chaser" technology, turn it on. After you think you have the shot, review some shots on your camera's display to make sure what you caught looks something like what you saw and what you wanted to show.

7: Don't run out of juice

Your camera needs power and space on a memory card to work. If you are nursing a battery or editing yourself before you even take a shot because you are running out of space on your card, you are likely to miss the best shot. Have a fresh battery plus a spare with you when you begin every day. Also, buy a second or third memory card and keep it in your pocket. Remember, the biggest difference between pros and amateurs is that pros shoot much more - with enough power and card space, you can easily shoot like a pro. Don't cripple yourself by skimping on these accessories. Be prepared.

8: Learn to be selective and edit

Even though professionals shoot a lot of frames, they show only the best and they hide the rest away. Sifting through your pictures on your computer is a skill and a chore, but must be endured. You don't want to give your team every shot you took of a particular presenter -- you want to show them one or two of the best. If you show more, you dilute the impact of what you have and your "consumers" become spoiled by choice.

Sifting through your images generally goes in two or more passes. On the first pass, eliminate any pictures with technical issues. If something is even slightly out of focus, throw it away. If a shot's exposure is so far off that it is beyond saving, delete it. In the second pass, pick the potential shots to process and deliver. There is a lot of software out there to help you with this chore, from the free (Picasa, iPhoto), to the moderately priced (Photoshop Elements) to the professional (Lightroom, Aperture). Pick one and learn how to use it. None of them are difficult to use after a brief learning curve.

I can't teach you to edit in the space of a paragraph, but no professional delivers images raw out of their camera. There is always a tweak or two worth doing. It can be a little intimidating when you begin learning to edit, but operations usually fall in a few general areas:

  • Global adjustments that affect all pixels in an image like levels, exposure, color balance, saturation, etc.
  • Specific adjustments that change limited groups of pixels like cropping, cloning, perspective correction, etc.
  • Artistic adjustments such as converting to black & white, filters, etc.

Don't worry if this means nothing to you yet, but if you learn nothing more than how to crop and adjust your levels in your free, image-editing program, you will greatly increase the impact of your photos. Be warned: Learning how to edit pictures can become an addictive time-suck.

9: Don't say "cheese"

The way we've been taught to take photos is to jump in front of one or more people, tell them to say "cheese," watch them stiffly pose, and take the shot. This might work at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but it won't get you anything too interesting at the conference. There is a place for a quick, formal head-shot, but that's a different subject than general conference photography. What you want to tell the story is some establishing shots (the venue exteriors, crowds milling around, the demo grounds floor, conference banners, etc.) and then the narrative itself (presenters presenting, attendees attending, demo staff demo'ing).

Get a good position in the front row to take pictures of the presenter at work. He or she will be far too busy working the crowd to notice or worry about you taking pictures. As I've already mentioned, taking flattering pictures of someone talking is a challenge, so take lots of shots. You don't want shots of the person looking stiff behind the lectern either, so look for moments when the presenter becomes especially animated and uses his hands or even props to illustrate a point.

Once you've taken your shots of the presenter, get up and work the room a bit. Take wider shots of the presenter and the screen, wide shots of the filled room with the presenter up front, and detail shots of the rapt audience. Without being too creepy, try to be inconspicuous and catch people doing what they do. If you're not too up-in-their-face, they won't pay any attention to you. The larger the room, the easier this all is. In a more intimate environment, it is much harder to be inconspicuous. In this situation, you should still take lots of shots, but write off the first few minutes of shots until your subjects become used to you being there and taking photos. Once the novelty wears off, they will stop paying attention to you, and then you can get the better shots. In small-room presentations, look for those moments when the presenter and audience are interacting. In those moments, when people are enthusiastic and involved, they will totally forget about you -- and you will be able to get the most animated shots.

10: Have fun

We don't get too many opportunities to play while at work, but photography can be playful and fun. If you are just doing the minimum required to get a shot, your photos will reflect your attitude. Look for what interests you visually, and it will interest others. A presentation room maybe the most mundane of venues, but play a game with yourself to find the most visually interesting element in the room and feature it. Try taking a panorama of the whole room with an app on your iPhone. In your image editor software, try to make your best shots even better before delivering them. Use what you've made to illustrate your own reports, blog posts or other documents - illustrating those paragraphs of text makes them much more digestible.

Happy shooting!