#4Cto5K: 400 pounds to a 5K- Let's do this!

A Southwest Airlines 737 departs MDW at dusk. Photo courtesy of Jim Wissemes via Creative Commons

A Southwest Airlines 737 departs MDW at dusk. Photo courtesy of Jim Wissemes via Creative Commons

Are you free on Sunday, September 13? Fancy yourself a fitness enthusiast, or maybe a Southwest Airlines fan? Need an excuse to fly to Chicago? Perhaps you dig great views like the one above? If you can answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, you should consider joining me for the 2015 Midway Fly Away 5K benefiting the Chicago Special Olympics.

But why? 
This will be my first 5K, it's a milestone for me, for sure. I was the chubby (fat) kid in Jr. High and High School who invested heavily in finding ways out of running the state-mandated mile. While I failed each year, I took no pleasure in completing the task. Now, over a decade after leaving secondary school here I am voluntarily signing up to run not one, but three (point one) miles. Crazy how times change!

Health's a real concern- I've struggled with my weight most of my life. In truth, I've spent most of my adult years somewhere in the 300s, fluctuating wildly from one extreme to another. In 2008 I topped the charts at a whopping 378 pounds. Shortly after I went on a strict self-imposed diet and exercise regimen and over the course of that year and part of 2009 lost an incredible 153 pounds. I share this as proof to you (and me) that I can set lofty goals and achieve them. 

In the years since I've slowly gained it all back, plus more. At the end of 2014 I topped the scales at soul crushing 401.4. Around that time I was invited to a local news station to discuss the TSA. The resulting video was a wake up call and I decided it was time to get serious about getting back on track. I began dieting and getting active immediately. Not long after, I learned of Midway's 5K and spent a number of months pondering the possibility before fully committing.

I've spent the last month and a half secretly training, hitting the trails more days than not pushing myself and slowly improving. I'd lost nearly 40 pounds over the first bit of the year, but that pace has drastically expedited given the recent intense walks and jogs. I consider this pre-work, in advance of starting a formal couch-to-5k training program which kicks off shortly.

Why Chicago? Why Midway?
As a frequent Southwest Airlines traveler, card carrying member of their elite traveler program (A-List) and SWA super fan, the Midway 5K makes sense to me. I fly to, and through MDW at least a dozen times a year. In fact, MDW is my second most frequented airport second only to Dallas Love Field (DAL.) Home airport excluded, of course. 

I have a bunch of friends who will be participating in the O'Hare 5K. While I'm sure the plane spotting would be better there, it would feel foreign running around an airport I rarely visit, surrounded by planes but with the [almost] zero chance of spotting a bird sporting the Southwest colors.

What's next?
Lots and lots of training, and recruiting others to join me. As it stands I'm flying solo. I'm okay with that, but it'd be fun to share the experience. Today is my public unveiling and with all good campaigns in the age of social media I've cooked up my own hashtag: #4Cto5K- That's 400, to 5K and also a fun derivative of the C25K program which I'll be relying on over the next two months to continue training. 

Join me, wont you? If not, consider making a donation to the cause on my page. I'll get nothing but your encouragement. The real winners here are the Chicago-area children and adults with intellectual disabilities who you will be supporting.

Make a tax deductible donation and offer some words of encouragement here.

A beginner's guide to photographing fireworks

July 4 is one of my favorite holidays and has been since I was a child. In recent years my love for the holiday has only intensified as through trail and error I've slowly learned how to photograph these incredible displays. While I would stop short of calling myself a pro, I most certainly know my way around a dSLR and have learned quite a bit through years of research, trial and error. So, if you're looking to get out and "shoot" some displays, here are my thoughts for excellent shots.


  1. You don't need a fancy camera, just one with a fair bit of manual control. 

  2. Lens: "Fast glass" isn't needed here nor are the crazy telephoto lenses. The standard 18-55 lens that ships with so many entry-level dSLRs is perfect. Just pick something with some wiggle room based on location and you should be good. Most of my shots tend to come in around 30 mm give or take. 

  3. Use a tripod! It doesn't have to be fancy but the key to the most dramatic shots is long exposure. Even those with the most stable hands would be hard pressed to not introduce even a bit of camera shake. Tripods are cheap, Walmart even stocks them.

  4. If possible, use a remote.  For years I've used the super cheap and very handy Nikon ML-L3. There are many other corded and infrared options. Choose the one that works best for you. Some of the newest cameras even have Bluetooth or WiFi options via an app on your phone.

  5. For the love of god, no flash. It never fails that at every show I see people trying to take photos of fireworks with flash. If this is you, no harm. The first step in overcoming a problem is admitting you have one. There's no way your flash will light up a bright fire it the sky hundreds of yards away from you.

Camera Settings:

All too often when I chat with those interested in photography people are scared of tampering with settings. To get the best shots you've got to branch out. Now is the perfect opportunity! On the other hand, those who have ventured into uncharted territory with camera settings might incorrectly assume fireworks at night would command high ISO settings and low F-stops. Not true! Remember that fireworks are bright and to get the most dramatic effects we want long shutter speeds. To achieve this we want to limit the light hitting the sensor.

Below are some basic guidelines. By no means is this list comprehensive and for the sake of my own sanity I'll be referring to things in the Nikon nomenclature. To make things extra tough Canon, Sony and the other guys all have different names for many of the same concepts. If you don't shoot Nikon, refer to your manual for help. 

Things to turn off:

  1. Automatic ISO: Most dSLRs have this turned off by default. Many point and shoot cameras have this ON by default. Your camera may vary.

  2. Long exposure noise reduction: This makes minimal difference in image quality given the relativity short intervals we'll be shooting at. But the real downside is NR drastically increases in-camera processing time which means fewer shots. 

  3. "Active-D lighting" (Canon calls this Auto Lighting Optimizer): This setting causes weird color ghosting around high contrast edges like those we're looking to capture in the fireworks. 

  4. Auto-focus: Set the focus at, or close to infinity. This varies widely by lens so you may want to tweak. Start with infinity and move backwards as needed. 

Basic guidelines:

Still with me? Good! The final step is configuring the details. This is where things will get messy and variable. There are many, many ways to obtain great shots of fireworks, these are the ones that work for me. You may have to introduce some variability based on your own equipment and shooting style. 

  1. ISO: We discussed earlier that we want auto-ISO off. So that leaves us with the question of what ISO setting is best? Truth is, it varies widely by camera. The key, however, is to keep it low. Remember contrary to standard photography we want long exposures for dramatic effect. Additionally, higher ISO introduces noise, and we certainly don't want that. My Nikon D90 had a default ISO of 200 which is what I used for the images above. My D7200's default is 100 which I think I'll stick with this year.  Some photographers suggest going as high as ISO 400. I would suggest starting low and moving up in the event you aren't getting the exposures intensity you desire. 

    Warning: This is where we move the camera setting to Manual. So swing that dial over to the big M. Don't worry, I've got your back. You can do it! 

  2. F-Stop: Another area for wide debate. The one thing everyone can seem to agree on is wide open F-Stop is not the way to go. If you've got a fancy f/1.4 or f/2.8 lens... Cool. That extra range is of zero help in this scenario. Pick a "medium" number and start there. I typically begin around f/8 and move up or slightly down from there based on the conditions.

  3. Shutter: If you are planning to use a remote, you'll want to go into "bulb" mode. That is, with one actuation of the remote you start exposing and with another you stop. I hate to use the world "manual" because that scares people, but that's exactly what this is! You get to be in control of what's captured. Isn't that liberating? In this case I click when I hear or see the mortars and finish the shot once the the firework has ignited and there's been a second or so for the streamers to fall. 

    If your camera doesn't have bulb mode, chose a preset shutter speed of anywhere between 2 and 5 seconds to start out and adjust accordingly. For me, 3 seconds seems to be the sweet spot. 

Final thoughts

Not every shot be usable, and that's to be expected. The variability in the number and type of fireworks per round, their brightness, as well as the smoke from the prior works will all gang up on you and make at least a third  of your photos destined for the delete button. But in today's digital age there's no real loss. Push delete and move on. If you notice a trend, adjust the f-stop, ISO or focus accordingly. 

Too bright?
Are you using a higher ISO? If so, drop it down. If not, choose a higher f-stop (bigger number). If you are using a manual actuation, consider trimming the number of seconds (this is a last resort).

Too dark? Flares are too thin? 
Choose a lower f-stop. Don't go lower than 4. I've had exactly zero luck below 4-- Just too much light. 

I hope this was helpful. Go out, have fun and enjoy this beautiful holiday which commemorates the birth of our fine country. 

Did I help you? Something to add to this story? Leave a comment!

The power of an Instagram post

I hate Instagram... I used to hate Instagram. But, as a content creator and photographer I have to go where the audience is. Has anyone been on Flickr lately? It's a dead zone. I picked up my IG habit reluctantly and it pains me to say that it has grown on me.

Use cases for various social media channels vary widely from person to person. No news there. For me I follow fellow aviation geeks, plane spotters and brands (airports, airlines, trade groups) that fit into a very tight niche.  One account I follow, Mitchell Airport doesn't quite have it down pat just yet. But the fact that they are there and are occasionally posting content is  commendable.

I follow the airport on all of the various SM channels but like anyone else, I don't see all of the content posted in each venue. ALSO SEE: Why cross-channel posting is key.

On a recent Friday night I was catching up on my Instagram timeline and discovered the following post from the airport advertising not only a new route, but one with OneJet, an airline I'd never heard of. I was intrigued. This single post was the catalyst for what turned out to be an incredible trip.

Armed with knowledge of a new airline and new route between two of my favorite airports I soon found myself booking travel and recruiting fellow travel blogger Dan Palen for the trip. The next week we were off to Milwaukee to catch the Inaugural flight to Pittsburgh aboard a Hawker 400 corporate aircraft. 

I wrote about the airline and the flight on AirlineReporter and Dan wrote about it for UPGRD

I spend enough time around PR flack to know that every now and then their leadership question the utility of social media, especially the newer channels.

Let this post be proof that Instagram is a valid marketing and PR tool. I had never heard of OneJet and given that no one else in my world was talking about them I'm certain that had the airport not pushed the post to Instagram Dan and I would have missed out.

Mission accomplished:
Mitchell airport had two extra deplanements to pad their FAA numbers, the city two overnight visitors (tourists) adding to the local economy and most importantly the stories resulting from our experiences reached thousands of readers through our respective publications benefiting the airport and the airline. 

Not every SM post will have an impact. But this one did, and it proves the point that maintaining a presence across a number of channels is important.  

iOS 8: A photographer's worst nightmare

I've always found it odd that some people can somehow manage to have have totally different experiences with the same OS on different devices… Until now.

When Apple announced iOS 8 I was excited to see all of the new features. I've been a loyal, iPhone-toting member of the fan club since the 3G. And, with each update I have been completely satisfied. When version 8 finally dropped and I installed it on my iPhone 5 in record time, excited to dive in and experience all of the new features. At this level of maturity in the environment I've long since gotten all of my "need to haves" and these days updates are all pleasant surprises. Features that, until I see them I didn't have a need for. Apple is great about that.

Completely satisfied with the user experience on my phone I recently stayed up until 2 am (on a work night, ugh) updating my iPad (4th gen.) Now is a good point to note that my use cases for the two devices are completely different. On iPhone I email, feed my social media addiction, browse the net, typical stuff that everyone does. But my iPad, is used almost exclusively for photo weeding and processing. With the handy dandy camera connection kit I'm able to quickly dump my NEF (Nikon's version of RAW) photos onto iPad, and on the best screen in the house weed my photos. I've done this for years and thanks to the convenience, my post-processing flow has slowly migrated to iPad almost exclusively. Only in rare instances these days do I feel compelled to sit at a desktop and fire up Photoshop or Lightroom. 

As it stands however, this can't proceed as is. This is the most disruptive change to the apple mobile OS ecosystem since… Ever. Without further ado, here are my top four photographer grievances with iOS 8. I'm literally at an impasse: 

1. No more catch all "camera roll" folder in albums. Yes, we can see everything in the "photos" view, but... Why? I don't see a reason to force the move. This is a terrible move from a UX perspective. Plus, as my pal Ben Granucci points out, in photos/moments view, there is a lot of unnecessary white-space. 

iOS 8 tease...

iOS 8 tease...

2. In iOS 8 iPhoto has been retired. Amazingly enough, the app is still there, you just can't get past a warning telling you to migrate to the normal photos app. I don't mind giving up iPhoto, but only in favor for something equal to or hopefully better than that which is taken away. Sadly, the enhancements to natively edit photos in iOS 8 aren't equal to the functionality lost w/ iPhoto.

3. Unable to save lower resolution edited copies. In iPhoto I could make edits, save a copy, then revert back to the original leaving an edited version in my camera roll when I dumped the raw files to PC. Additionally, iOS 8 photo edits (crop, exposure adjustment) are lost on import to PC.


4. iOS has done something to make my iPad suddenly ridiculously slow when handling Nikon NEF raw photos. This wasn't an issue with iOS 7.

So, I'm honestly not sure what to do now. With a single OS update I've rendered my primary use case for iPad totally useless. I can't quickly weed my photos (like I have for over a year) with these serious lags and I can't edit my photos because changes are lost on import. Not only that, but edited copies don't remain on the tablet which I've often used as a quick makeshift portfolio to demonstrate my work.

I recently saw a commercial for the Microsoft Surface tablet which runs a robust version of Photoshop. Maybe that's the answer? Just the thought gives me chills. Jobs must be rolling in his grave.


When a charity auction goes awry...

I'm not sure how, but at some point this week I became aware of a charity auction hosted by the folks over at Southwest Airline's MIT (managers in training) group. Up for auction were airline seats, Herb Kelleher signed whisky, plane models, pieces of old Dallas Love Field and even items from other airlines. Surprised at the lack of attention the auction was getting I mentioned it on twitter, and was scooped by NYC Aviation's lightning fast blogger, Jason Rabinowitz. In hindsight, perhaps the exposure NYCA provides was what did the auction in...

As a bit of an airline memorabilia auction hound I've fallen to the dark site, and know how to win. Yes, I'm a sniper  that is, someone who waits until the very last minute to place a maximum bid. It seems I'm not alone in this practice as activity on the site seemed to be pretty sparse in the past few days. Then this afternoon came along... The site indicated that all auctions would end at 3 PM central, but it turned out that some ended earlier, some later. Suddenly the site was running slow and then, at the worst possible moment, as auctions were closing, the traffic crippled their host (powweb).

Do not pass go, you're suspended!

Do not pass go, you're suspended!

The site came back off and on, and for a few minutes and was temporarily redirected to what appeared to be a random family photo blog over at www.juicebeka.com (wut?) 

My first reaction is to criticize the folks running the show because to be honest, I lost out on some really great items. And they ended up raising less money for the charity than they could have, if the site was up and folks were able to get in their last minute bids.

HOWEVER, we have to step back and consider this was a charity auction, and Southwest's heart was in the right place here. Also, I'd be remiss to ignore the fact that an auction for [mostly] Southwest schwag managed to outright cripple their web host  Love 'em or hate 'em, Southwest has a lot of loyal fans out there who are willing to blow an afternoon trying to win an auction for their doodads. 

Hey Southwest folks, next time maybe use eBay? Please?!