My brief flirtation with Monte Carlo.

My view from the Lowes Beachfront Hotel in Monte Carlo.

     "My head was pounding from the twelve very dry vodka martinis I'd drunk the night before at the Grand Casino.  Morning came blasting through the delicate white lace that coated the seaward windows like a fine spray of dust, lingering just so.  Through the fog in my head I started to remember some of the events of last night.  I should have stayed on the eight of diamonds but I had grown impetuous with drink and was determined to show Ernst Stavro Blofeld that the cards were a fickle and exacting mistress.  Damn my foolish pride.  Once again hubris had got the better of me.  I pushed the super model over a bit on the bed and stuck my hand under the pillow where I was comforted to find the cool and calming bulk of my Walther PPK pistol, cocked and ready to deliver lethal justice.

It was my second day on assignment in Monte Carlo.  I had already wrecked my Aston Martin DB-8 and been in two gunfights.  Oh the life of a foreign....."

Oops.  Sorry.  Too many James Bond books.  But,  let me veer away from photography for just a second and indulge a literary guilty pleasure.  If you've seen the James Bond movies but have never cracked one of the Ian Fleming novels that the movies are loosely based on I am very jealous of you.  You will get to savor each one for the very first time.  They are wonderful, elegant, funny, anachronistic, sexist, suspenseful and delicious.  I read them from time to time just to savor the descriptions of food that we'll never see the likes of again.  Especially if nutritionists and cardiologists have their way.....  Buy them all while you can get your hands on them and I warrant that you'll find it the smartest literary investment you've made in a while.  A cooler look into the 1950's and 1960's you'll not come across.  End of indulgence.

I was asked to go to a conference in Monte Carlo for a company called Tivoli, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of IBM.  I would arrive on a Saturday evening and the conference would start on Sunday evening with a cocktail hour reception and dinner.

The 50 meter swimming pool overlooking the bay and yacht docks.  My favorite memory of Monte Carlo.

The conference would last through until Thurs. afternoon.  Anyone who wanted could stay for the weekend and play golf.  There were helicopters to make the transfers between the airport in Nice and the hotel.  Everything was beautiful, the hotel had the patina of a place used to hosting dignitaries and heads of state.  And for true James Bond fans it was next door to the Grand Casino.  My job was to photograph all of the proceedings, the speakers, the speeches, the food, the carefully grouped shots of new acquaintances and the general ambiance of the event.  The dress was "business" and it was requested that I wear a dark suit and tie during all portions of the conference.  Packing was a pain as one doesn't wear the same suit or tie twice in a row.  This necessitated bringing along four suits as well as a few more casual sport coats for the times when I was "off the clock".  Strange how clothes are part of some assignments.

I've found that, when shooting pictures while wearing a suit, it never looks good to throw a camera bag over your shoulder so I would always find a corner behind the AV partition in which to hide my camera bag.  I'd carry a Nikon F5 and a medium zoom lens in my hand, complete with a flash in the hot shoe.  We shot ISO 400 Kodak print film at these events as it could be processed and printed just about anywhere, and quickly.  I carried three or four rolls in my suit coat pocket.   In the bag behind the curtain would be a back up camera body, a back up lens and an 80-200mm 2.8 zoom.  Extra batteries and film.

There were fun things to photograph including a very wonderful dinner in Prince Rainier's private car museum and speeches by Sir David Frost and Tom Peters.  But here's how it fell out for the client:  a number of anticipated guest didn't show.  The organizers decided to end each day's sessions at noon, serve lunch and then give the attendees the afternoons off to play golf or sightsee.  

Once my morning obligations were taken care of I headed on foot into the center of town to the Prince Rainier Swim Center, paid my two bucks and got a few miles of lap swimming in.  Rarely have I eaten so well, been so richly entertained and also been well paid for a job that included a recreational swim component.

At the end of the conference my client asked me to fly to Rome on another assignment.  Ah, the days of high tech's ascendency!  I spent the next five days in Rome before heading back home to Austin.  I still congratulate myself for taking along my favorite pair of swim goggles and a swim suit.  Nice pool.  Good view.  Some think these days will never come back but it's just not true.  All fun stuff cycles back into fashion with the utmost reliability.   In the meantime, have a few vodka martinis and relax.....

A love affair with Rome. And a flirtation with Monte Carlo.

Ferrari in Rome.  Your camera exposure should already be set, in weather like this the light isn't changing quickly.  You turn when you hear the roar of the engine, bring the camera to your eye, compose and then shoot.  No muss, no fuss.  If you look closely and are a car lover you'll note that all four cars visible in the shot are Ferraris.  Ahhhh.  Rome.  Nikon F100 with an 85mm 1.4.

I've been in and out of Rome a fair bit.  My first visit was with my parents in 1965.  Once with a girlfriend in 1978 and then over and over again either on business for various multinational companies or with my wife.   Usually I stay at the Hotel Victoria, about 400 meters from the Spanish Steps, just off the Via Veneto.  Working or not I always take a camera with a normal lens along for the ride.  A medium wide angle and a short telephoto also hitch along with me.

I've shot the city with an Argus camera from the 1950's, a Canonet QL17, a Canon TX, a brace of Leicas, a Nikon F100, a Mamiya 6 and a Canon EOS-1.  I've never shot a digital camera in the eternal city.   Just wasn't ready yet the last time I was there.

The thing that makes Rome so enticing to a good ole boy from Texas are the things that are different.  We don't have any buildings here in Austin that are much older than about 70 years old.  We have one or two like the state capitol that have been around longer but they've been modified over the years.  In the central part of Rome they don't really have any buildings that are under 100 years old and most are older still.

Again.  Turn and shoot.  If you've been shooting in the same light there's little reason to fiddle with exposure.   Rome.  Same camera and lens.

In Austin, with the exception of our giant outdoor pool, Barton Springs, and the seemingly endless outdoor concerts in the parks all of our social life in Austin seems to take place in cars and bars.  We're either going somewhere or coming back from somewhere.  And only the hippies and poor college students walk anywhere.  In Rome, at all hours of the night and day, people are walking, strolling, strutting and otherwise meandering down the ancient streets powered by nothing but their feet.  And when they do take to the cars the cars themselves are really worth looking at.

Do you think per capita income in the U.S. would go up if we stopped dressing like slobs who were about to go work on the yard and started dressing like serious adults?  Lawyers seen nodding "yes". Nikon film camera, 50mm lens.

We take food seriously here in Austin.  In Rome it's like life and death.  In Austin it's hot and everyone wears tee shirts.  In Rome it can get hot and people still wear their Armani and other fabulous stuff.  Which always looks better in photos than a big bellied redneck in a bright white Budweiser promotional shirt.

I just love the way the city resists change.  Here's my plan for 2011:  Shooting trip to Rome in March.  One camera.  One lens.  A million CF cards and a hundred batteries.  Who wants a very expensive guided tour of the world's coolest city?

Um.  Golly jeepers.  Do you notice how many people are out walking in the streets?

Addendum:  Zack Arias is wrong.  In his blog he states that people undercutting the market only hurt themselves.  I believe that all damage is cumulative and that photography as a business is dying by one hundred thousand small paper cuts per day.  Read his blog and decide for yourself.  Read it carefully.  It's right here:  http://www.zarias.com/cheap-photographers-only-kill-themselves-not-the-industry

I like Zack's work and his writing.  But I was a bit surprised to see that he confesses that he still can't afford to buy health insurance.....  I think he might want to reconsider his blog's point of view.  

Sometimes I cheat myself by believing things that just aren't relevant.

I really wanted to believe that the Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens for the Canon EF systems would be so incredibly superior to the Canon glass that I would see all kinds of brilliant optical wonders.  My images would be elevated to a new pantheon of photography reserved for the new blognoscenti and clients would flock to me, gushing, "How do you make the colors so rich and vibrant?" before shoving wads of currency in my photo vest.

But it didn't really happen that way.  I had the Canon 50mm 1.8 (type 2) and I bought into the big story. It goes something like this:  The Germans invented all this optical stuff.  They build the coolest mechanical things in the world.  Zeiss makes magic glass.  All the world's top pro's depend on magic lenses from either Leica or Zeiss.  So when my friend bought a Zeiss 50 and then decided it didn't help grow hair in bald spots or enliven his sex life I rushed in from the sidelines to buy it cheap.  "Like New In The Box."

I put it on the Canon 5Dmk2 and rushed around trying to shoot stuff.  The focus was off.  I did the whole micro adjust routine.  It was still hard to focus.  I got a new screen.  Now I could focus it.  And I shot and then waited for the magic to hit.  And I'm still waiting.

Don't get me wrong,  it's a very, very good lens.  The colors are wonderfully saturated, just the like the colors in the image above.  And it shows a high degree of sharpness, just like the sharp lines and detail in the photo above.  And the "micro-detail" is stunning.  Especially if you spend your life glued to your monitor at 100%.

But here's the problem:  The photo above was done with my $90 Canon EF 50mm 1.8 mk2.  And it's just as wonderful and breathtaking as the images from my Zeiss lens.  And did I mention that it cost one sixth the price?

Sometimes we want something to be true so much that we'll spend a lot more money on it and a lot more time convincing ourselves that we need this particular piece of gear.  We don't.  Not always.

I have two favorite 50mm lenses right now.  Neither of them are SEXY at all.  I have the 1.8 and I have the 50mm Macro 2.5.  I tested them recently against both the aforementioned Zeiss and the Canon 50mm 1.4 and guess what?  At f2 they all look equally bad.  At f4 they all look equally good.  At f7.1 I couldn't tell the difference with an electron scanning microscope.

I'm keeping the Zeiss around for the "bling factor", and to remind myself that the best gear isn't always the most expensive gear.