One Camera, One Lens

I’m shooting again. Relax, I’m talking about photography, not guns.

You can blame my comeback to street/candid photography on David, an incredibly talented Python developer I worked a while ago. He’s an avid fan of Pentax Lumix and Leica gear. We’d often get bored waiting for business guys to decide what they wanted to do and we would talk about life, cameras, and photography. Turns out, we both like street-style photography.

It didn’t take long for me to put a point-and-shoot in my bag, get on the Tube, and wait for something to happen. I was on my way to Russell Square when I spotted a woman who was so deeply immersed in whatever was going on her iPhone that she forgot about the whole world. I see dozens of people glued to their iPhones on the Tube every day, but this was different, this was an extra level of immersion. So I snapped a photo of her. And, as I was deleting images that were out of focus I realized I had something going on here. A beginning of something interesting. A photo project. But what was it about? Beauty. Suddenly the coffee tasted better, and I felt something I had not felt in a long time.

That quick snap done with a cheap point-and-shoot was (to me) the best picture I had taken a few years.

Yes, it was taken with a cheap point-and-shoot. I’m not one of those photographers arguing about camera specs or fighting for the perfect exposure. I am looking for beauty which is often found where there are a lot of imperfections and, unlike my former Nikon F4E-obsessed self, I am now very much into minimalistic setups, because I believe that having some reasonable limits helps create good art. Yes, good street-style photography can be good art, more on that later.

One Camera

My camera of choice for my first project in 20 years is a simple Nikon 1 J1. I would love to continue using my Canon A495, which takes good pictures when it can focus, but it missed far too many good shots. Yes, a cheap point-and-shoot can take great street-style pictures, if you are prepared for it to not be able to focus or select fast enough shutter release time. To be fair to my tiny Canon, it was given an impossible task considering its maximum sensitivity of ISO 1600 and a slow f/3.0 lens. I suspect the newer point-and-shoots with higher sensitivity (6400 or better) and faster lenses are more suited for capturing those fleeting moments I’m after, but the prices of Nikon 1 J1 kits have fallen below 200 GBP this year and it made more sense to me to go that route. Also, Canon insists on decorating their PowerShot cameras with shiny silver rings, which attract attention of the people you are trying to take pictures of. You can solve that with a little bit of isolation tape, but my Canon was still blue.

My Nikon 1 J1 has had a couple of misses when I was still learning how to use it, but it’s been 100% accurate after the first day. It is slightly bigger than my Canon A495, but it’s black and has a very accurate and fast auto-focus system. It also has a 1-inch sensor, which is a noticeable improvement on a 1/1.23-inch sensor inside A495. Curiously, both sensors deliver 10 megapixels per frame, but you can certainly see the difference in image quality. It really is noticeable and a greater success rate of the Nikon 1 J1 hybrid autofocus makes me a very happy photographer.

One Lens

It is tempting to want to capture everything you see and therefore a zoom lens seems like an obvious choice. It is not. Street-style/candid photography, at least as I like to see it, is about capturing emotions, fleeting moments, something that is here one second and gone another. There is no time to focus, crop, or otherwise fiddle with the lenses. You try to frame your shot as best as you can, press the shutter release, and hope the camera captures what you want. There is no time to frame your perfect shot with a zoom lens. The moment your subject notices you, you have disturbed the ecosystem, tainted it. I am not saying you should not try to frame your shots, if you have the time, but in this day and age of sensors with 36 millions of pixels, you can afford to crop.

For that reason,  a lot of street photographers choose 24mm-35mm lenses or their equivalents (for cameras with sensors smaller than full-frame). Prime wide-angle lenses, especially those more expensive models, are usually faster (f-stop 0.95-3.0) giving you a fighting chance of taking a picture in poorly-lit bars, clubs, and other dark places.

Yes, you will miss a number of shots you could have taken with a standard to telephoto lens, but if that’s want you want to do, you can always carry another camera in your bag.

Another reason for not using a zoom lens is the size of it, always attracting attention and giving hints that you may be taking a pictures. For that reason, prime pancake lenses are a godsend for a photographer who wants to get close to the subject without disturbing the scene.

The One Book the British Museum Shop Does Not Sell (But Should!)

BVXLM-FCUAA4sQtThe British Museum is always a good place to visit, learn, and pick up some nice gifts. I went there a couple of weeks before Christmas not to look at the mummies, but to get some proper Christmas postcards. Those have become increasingly rare to find as the places you would usually expect to sell postcards insist on selling badly drawn cartoons of a fornicating Zanta Klauz. Or a drunk Rudolf the Randy-eer. Very funny.

Even if you can find a decent design with a Christmas tree, it will be defaced with an idiotic “Season’s Greetings/Happy Winter Holidays” message. When you do find postcards with more traditional winter/Christmas designs, their designers will try to “help” you by printing ready made, “neutral” greetings right where you would otherwise want to write a few warm words.

How rude.

You might just as well “sign” them with a rubber stamp from a pre-school type lettering kit.

I spent about 20 minutes browsing through the postcard stands at the British Museum shop before I eventually found one (yes, one!) set of postcards with a reproduction of an old painting that actually had something to do with Christmas, did not insult me or the recipient with a crappy design or toilet “humour”, did not wish the recipient “Happy Time Off in The Second Half of December When The H&C Line Is A Bit Less Packed”, and, had no “safe” greetings printed on the inside.

Once I got my prize I started browsing through the books for sale and had to sadly conclude that the British Museum shop still does not sell David Lodge’s “The British Museum Is Falling Down“. What a pity. If you haven’t read it, you must do it as soon as possible. You will never think of or look at the British Museum the same way again, but you will smile more.

Writing Smarter Fabric Scripts: Telling the Difference Between Local and Remote

Have you ever written a Fabric script that work wonderfully well with remote hosts only to realise that it has a problem running locally? If that is the case, then is your friend.

#! /usr/bin/env python
# save this as
from fabric.api import local
from fabric.api import run
from fabric.api import env

def run_that_job():
    """get some info about your host"""
    cmd = "uname -a"

If you run this script with the -H option, it will execute cmd using run(), but if you omit -H, cmd will be executed using local(). To see the difference for yourself, run

$ fab -f -H some_remote_host run_that_job

and compare results with:

$ fab -f run_that_job

Apple Inc. Mission Statement for August 2013. Underpromise and Overdeliver.

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the latest Apple Inc.’s mission statement. It is supposed to be “lame” and not worthy of the company Apple Inc. is supposed to be.

I disagree.

It simply states what Apple Inc. does and does not make vague promises that you can later make them accountable for and that is a good thing. Coming up with hippie claims like “don’t be evil” is easy, but sticking to them is hard. Saying, “we make computers, phones, and tablets” is being honest, a rare trait in many big business’ mission statements.

Apple Inc. does not have anything to prove and they are wise to stick to stating the obvious. We all know they try to invent the future, they don’t need to state it. Imagine they had an ambitious mission statement, failed to live up to it, and later wanted to change it. The Wall Street banks, the blood-thirsty bloggers and journalists would rip them to pieces. Instead, they chose to underpromise and overdeliver. And that is a wise thing to do.

I wish more companies did this the way Apple Inc. does it.

A Prince Among Stones

When I was at primary school, our teachers tried to encourage us to read by quoting an old proverb:

There is no book so bad you cannot learn something from it.

I don’t think my teachers would have been proud with my choices of books, but I certainly learned a lot from them. Speaking of my choices of books, I am still able to raise eyebrows when I open my backpack. One day I will be reading a book on becoming a better writer, the other I will read a book nobody in the office would even think sitting next to. I just finished reading one of those obscure books.

I’m a fan of the Rolling Stones, but (surprise!) I am not a typical fan. I like their music, but I couldn’t keep up with their lifestyle or with the lifestyle of a devout Stones’ fan and I’m not obsessed with their total groupie count. OK, I like a little bit of gossip, but at my age I like the facts better. And those are hard to come by, because whatever the Stones’ marketing machine tells us is hardly ever the whole truth.

I started listening to the Rolling Stones as the rock music was being pushed aside by house, acid, dance, jungle, and rap. Brought up of a mixture of rock and heavy metal, I was not compatible with the music of the 90s. After U2’s Rattle and Hum I had nowhere to go.

The Rolling Stones’ music proved to be a nice refuge and I stayed there ever since. (I do listen to other bands, of course, but the Glimmer Twins have a special place in my heart.) As I got interested in the history of the band, I realized that I like them even more and not only because of their music or the flamboyant image, but because of their story of financial ruin and re-birth, which made them more human in my eyes.

The story of their fight for their own money and rights is possibly even more fascinating than the stories of their adventures, but it was never told. And it should be told, because the story of the Rolling Stones’ finances is one of the few stories where a banker is the good guy.

I always wanted to know more about their finances, how they ran the business side of the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world. These stories are very hard to come by, so I wasn’t actively looking for them.

Over the last twenty or so years I have read about half a dozen books on the history of the band, but I didn’t like them, because their authors were obsessed with drugs, sex, and urban legends. That can be fun, but it gets boring when people start rehashing the same old stories.

I was disappointed that all authors focused their attention on the endless procession of groupies, girlfriends, and wives and ignored one important character who was always there, silently working in the background, looking after the Stones’ affairs, getting them out of jail, and protecting against the Establishment. Yet, he was never spared more than a couple of sentences. That man was Prince Rupert Loewenstein who had looked after the Stones’ affairs for over 30 years. He was a banker who saved them, which in my world makes him a saint on Earth.

You wouldn’t expect a banker to tell you how he managed his clients’ affairs, but that is exactly what Prince Rupert Loewenstein does in his memoir, A Prince Among Stones.

The book is too short for me, does not go into enough detail, but it is a very enjoyable read for a fan of the Stones’ who wants to get the backstory. For me it is an essential appendix to the Keith Richards’ astonishingly good Life.

Apart form being a unique who-is-who of his social circle, Prince Loewenstein’s book offers some very good advice:

  • arrange your tax affairs in a way that helps you retain what you earn
  • buy property on freehold
  • it’s good to have a good banker on your side
  • good bankers have access to more people than you can imagine
  • good bankers know no borders and can communicate, travel, and operate as if political systems, divisions, or even wars did not exist; they are immune to such silly things

Unfortunately, people of Prince Loewenstein’s character are very hard to come by. Which is a shame. But at least we have his book. Recommended, not only for a Stones’ fan.

Tease #2013/00

A random paragraph from Chapter 1 of MF (before copy editing):

K. waved all messages away and got up from his seat. He had no desire to play tonight. What he had planned to do had to be done in private mode. He set his final status to On a business trip to Gibraltar and boarded the 18:46 fast train to Paddington. He was almost there.

My Personal Fiction Writing Master Class

I am writing a new book. This time it will be my first sci-fi book. I have experience writing non-fiction, but writing fiction is something I promised myself I would do but never did. A year ago I decided to go back to an old idea I had 20 years ago. Yes, some things can take a little bit of time to get to. But, if Louise in Steel Magnolias could have been in a very bad mood for 40 years, I guess I can be excused for sitting on a sci-fi book idea for 20 years.

On closer inspection the original idea (codename “Revenge”) turned out to be a good third book, but not a good first book, because I think some things need to be explained before I get to the third book in the series.

Actually, it is not important whether there will be a whole series of books or not, what matters is that when I abandoned the original idea and went on an expedition to explore a side-plot my creativity was suddenly on fire and I got out of a creative block I was stuck in for a few months. It was so effective that I got the outline and the first three chapters out of my head in three weeks.

I really like to feel the creative side of my brain buzzing with activity. Contrary to what you may be thinking, I don’t spend all of my time writing, but rewriting and learning more about the craft of writing fiction. Thanks to the internet I don’t have to take classes or join an esteemed society to learn how to write a book. These days I can simply go to YouTube, listen to the best authors and learn a lot about the process.

In case you want to learn how to write, I created a playlist of my favorite author talks. If you do not like the playlist interface, here are the direct links to the videos on that list. I also included links to the books by those authors. I chose those videos where the authors talk about the craft of writing, not those that are solely intended as promotional appearances.

PS. If you want to follow my journey towards getting my first novel published, sign up to my mailing list. It’s free and there will be no spam, just updates on the process and subscriber-exclusive content.