One Year Out

One Year out

"On Long-Term Travel, Career Changing, and Other Existential Crisis inspiring Activities" 

It's been one full year since I did my last day as a "DIT", a.k.a. on-set digital image management for film and television production. I worked extremely hard over the better part of a decade to build this career, spending much of 2007-2014 sitting behind a DIT cart. I loved my job in many ways and was lucky to spend those years with great people but I could never shake the incessant need for inspiration and to reconnect creatively. It became clear it was never going to happen spending 50-70 hours a week on a TV set.

Last September after wrapping season four of HBO's Girls, I obeyed the long gestating feeling in my gut and took a sledgehammer to everything I worked so hard to build. Surely this was lunacy but I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to immerse in the unknown. If I just stayed in New York, it would have no doubt been more of the same. It was time for a radical change of scenery.

A few weeks later I was in Hong Kong. On my first night there, I watched the sun set from Victoria Peak. I vividly remember the warm drizzle, the smell of ozone, and the city lying vast below. I took out my camera and framed up the first shot of the trip thinking, here we go. This is what I’m doing now.

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong. My first night back in Asia after 15 years.

It felt good to be so far from New York and more importantly, to be shooting again. I gave myself the next six months to explore a list of places scattered across Asia with only a vague trajectory traced between them. I had no real plan, only the thrill of being a stranger in a strange land and no purpose other than to simply explore and learn. Such open-ended travel came with its own set of unforeseen challenges but it was exactly what I needed to reignite my creativity.

September 2014 - March 2015. 10 countires but I Missed Nepal and Myanmar!

Those six months whizzed by in a blur. Fast forward to late February 2015 - Colombo to Chennai to Bangkok to Taipei to JFK and before I knew it I was back in Queens, looking out the window of my sixth floor apartment at the snow covered roofs below, thinking I could still be on the beach in Sri Lanka instead of this cold, miserable city, finally confronted with the inevitable question of, now what?

Six months later, I’m still asking it.  

For awhile I was assuming something palpable would come along like a concrete opportunity;  something that would open up a new, perhaps unforeseen professional path. That didn't happen. Instead my new life is really just my old life before I joined a labor union and had some job security—the freelance game of going paycheck to paycheck, chasing work, chasing invoices. Only now it's a little writing here, a little photo there, some video, some consulting. Whatever comes along that seems interesting or rewarding. The days of identifying as a singular profession are clearly over. It's not exactly what I was expecting but it never is and that's just fine.

Not everyone is able to do something like this. Not everyone who's able to would even choose to. What I've found though is that long-term travel and living abroad provide a unique lens through which to observe the staggering diversity of the human race. We're all people after all—but do we have more in common or in opposition? Only through immersion in cultures outside our own can we arrive at an informed conclusion. 

The rewards of these exchanges, though immaterial, are vast in their own way but can also present a new dilemma and that is what is one to do with this drastically altered worldview? This new perspective can disrupt everything, including our most closely held values.

It's not always pleasant but disruption is the antidote for stagnation. 

Meeting some nice kids in a remote village in Northern Laos.

New friends in Saigon show me how to fix an iced coffee, Vietnamese Style.

There's no better place to get to know India than riding the rails. Prepare for many long hours of conversation with strangers.

Close encounter with cobras in Rajasthan. Note the snakeman's sheer delight at my terror.

My fixer in Sri Lanka, Priyantha, at home with his kids. 

The biggest takeaway from my year of literal and figurative wandering is that what's most important is to just feel good about what you're doing, whatever it may be. It should be accompanied with the feeling of growth and progress and if not, perhaps it's time to try something different.

At this stage in my life, I'd rather have a head full of incredible memories and experiences, like the photos at the top of this blog, than a house filled with stuff I don't need. I drive a Honda Fit instead of a European car and live in a rent stabilized apartment in Queens instead of a condo in Brooklyn. It's a choice and I choose to live cheap so I can keep exploring all this planet has to offer. It's what brings me joy but it certainly isn't for everyone.

As of September 2015, I've visited 34 countries, 271 cities, and there's still so much more. Though it would be virtually impossible, the thought of there being no place left to see with fresh eyes is a sad one. Fortunately I've barely scratched the surface and cannot wait to get back out into the unknown.



Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of "Old" New York

Methadone patients on 8th Ave @ 35th St.

Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of the "Old" New York

On July 19th, 2015, the New York Times published an article profiling the infamous “Zombie McDonald’s” of 490 8th Ave at 35th Street in New York City’s historic Garment District neighborhood.

Its corporate designation, McDonald’s #3078, has 2.5 Yelp stars and has been described by its users, among other colorful analogies as, “a cross between Disneyland and a homeless shelter.” 

“A grimy McDonald’s with a rough clientele” is not a story on its own, but “people openly buying, selling, and consuming drugs and alcohol inside a McDonald’s” is. Chasing this lead, The New York Times reported that within a few blocks of the fast food franchise, there are two outpatient substance abuse programs, a methadone clinic, and a needle exchange. Meanwhile, right out the front door is a pickup/drop-off point for the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus. The restaurant’s bathrooms must remain unlocked and accessible to the steady influx of tourists. This along with McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” and a relatively comfortable place to escape the weather combine to create the “drug addict’s paradise,” described on Yelp.

As a New York City-based photographer concerned with social issues, I often reference The New York Times’ Metro section to identify places that might be of photographic interest. I noticed the seediness of this particular block years before the Times ran the story, but reading it piqued my curiosity enough to go deeper and do some documentation of my own. 

So, camera in hand, I've been hanging out at the so-called “junkie McDonald’s” nursing coffee like the regulars, watching, listening, and stealing shots. In this blog, I'm sharing only a few images and observations but this work is becoming a much larger project. The story of this particular New York neighborhood is in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones and points to much larger problems stemming from growing income inequality in the city.

I used a Leica M9 rangefinder camera, a perfect digital tool for this sort of “fly on the wall” photography. The preferred camera of legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Leitz II, and Robert Capa, Leica became synonymous with the golden age of reportage. Their cameras are built strong enough to literally survive a war and yet are substantially smaller than SLRs. They utilize a fast and accurate focus system that allows a skilled photographer to shoot “blind” when necessary, i.e. not having to look through the viewfinder. Leica brought this tried and true analog technology into the digital realm with their M8, M9, and M rangefinder cameras, combining speed and size with the instantaneous feedback of digital imaging.

I can attest to the Times‘ writer’s observations that the police and McDonald’s management’s efforts to erase the drug scene there appear futile. However what The New York Times article glosses over is that while this McDonald’s is somewhat an anomaly among fast food restaurants, it is consistent with that can be seen in the still gritty axis between Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Perhaps because of the high volume of transient traffic and concentration of homeless shelters, this area has proven somewhat resistant to the rampant gentrification of the West Side. Within this little pocket remains images of poverty that contrast sharply with the picture of today’s wealthy, elitist Manhattan where once notoriously blighted areas have been transformed into playgrounds for millionaires.

The gentleman above declined to be ID'd but he stands at this spot for most of the day just keeping an eye on things. He said the restaurant has gotten a lot worse in the past two or three years though offered he no insights on why that might be. An additional layer of security, an off duty NYC cop is employed here as well though only until the early afternoon. 

The activities on display in this McDonalds are a reminder that New York’s meteoric rise to prosperity has left many behind, harkening back to a time when the city was a far more raw and visceral place, a place where visibly desperate people weren’t concentrated in a few small areas, but a fixture across much of the city.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!

This s the original R as official images of the Mark 2 haven't been released yet.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!


This camera might be the most badass little chunk of digital imagemaking technology bestowed on us yet. But you already knew that if you’ve been keeping up with the blogs and early reviews. The response to the A7R Mark II has so far been overwhelmingly positive as there’s a lot to get excited about - more resolution, more sensitivity, improved autofocus, in-camera image stabilization and 4K video @ 100 Mbps. If you’ve already pre-ordered, then you’re counting down the days until early August, especially if you’re like me and unloaded your A7S and A7R a month early because you read the release date wrong. Oops.

On my last big photo trip, I carried both the R and the S and came to fully realize the advantages of mirrorless cameras. In my own use, I found the high resolution, 36.4 Megapixel A7R performs exceptionally well during the day whereas the S, with its enhanced low light capability and Silent Shutter, is best appreciated at night. The "Stealth" Shutter feature in particular became an indispensable asset that allowed me to get shots that would have been impossible without.

In six months of traveling and shooting, I kept thinking these two cameras really should be one. The resolution of the R combined with the sensitivity and stealthiness of the S would in this shooter's opinion, make for pretty much the perfect digital camera.

To my surprise after only one year, the wish has been granted and everything we love about both the R and S has been combined in a brand new body along with a wish list of improvements and slick new features. Thank you, Sony! 


The resolution of the S is skimpy at best. 4K is in my opinion, not enough for stills anymore. Perhaps I've been made greedy by the R’s 7.5K photos that can be radically reframed in post without penalty. The RII packs a whopping 42 Megapixels ("8k" 7952x5304) onto a newly designed back-lit Full Frame sensor that scales down to a mathematically perfect Super 35mm Crop for 4K video mode. No pixel binning so no aliasing or moire and the smart downsampling has the added bonus of minimizing the “jello effect” inherent to most DSLR video. All this in the robust XAVC codec, Slog2 @ 100 Mbps, selectable in NTSC or PAL, and recorded in the camera to SDXC card. Remarkable! 

I'm comfortable shooting the S at 25,600 ISO and the R at 3200 ISO. The R is a noisy camera and in practice, not great for night work. The S on the other hand sees beyond what we see with our own eyes and I was constantly baffled by what I was able to get with it. For example, shooting f/4 @ 1/320 with barely a foot-candle and somehow making pleasing pictures such as this -

This is a "no light" photo. Sony A7S, Leica Summarit 90mm @ f/4, 1/320", 25,600 ISO

Despite a maximum ISO of 102,400 on the RII, no one is expecting it to perform in low light as well as the S. If it comes close, all the better but I'd personally be satisfied to be able to shoot with no penalty at ISO 6400.

The Autofocus on both the R and S is comparatively poor and there have been many times I discovered heartbreaking focus problems in Lightroom long after it's too late. Unacceptably soft shots because the R just couldn’t tell that piece of junk Zeiss FE 35mm where to focus. Sony’s lenses for these bodies are definitely the weakest aspect of the product line so it’s good news that in addition to the new camera's vastly improved 399 AF detection points, using the Metabones adapter, Canon EOS lenses will apparently perform natively. This surprisingly open source attitude towards camera design is uncharacteristic of Sony but it's awesome that they're doing it. And though I detest zooms, it would be quite nice to shoot with an autofocusing Canon 24-70mm L on this small camera. Sony’s Zeiss FE 24-70mm is a laughable lens in comparison. Flat, totally lifeless, and with unpleasantly jagged bokeh. In my opinion, a lens only good for video shooting.

Perhaps this is a better solution.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

Another problem with the R and S known to cause imaging grief is the lack of In-Camera Image Stabilization. Some of the Sony lenses have it but if you’re not using them, hand shake is an issue, particularly on longer lens, and one that's boned me many times on my Leica Summarit 90mm. The RII features the same 5-Axis In-Body Stabilization found in the A7II which solves the problem and allows for slower shutter speeds when shooting handheld.

And for good measure, one more big blur-related problem has been solved - the new camera's redesigned shutter reduces the excessive release slap of the R that literally shakes the camera enough to potentially blur the shot. With my own A7R, I often found the issue with exposures slower than 1/125 which presented a serious limitation to how I could shoot. The newly lighter, more dampened shutter puts far less stress on itself so beyond not ruining your photos, it's also now good for as many as 500,000 actuations, more than double the expectation of most current cameras. And of course the best feature of all, the mechanical shutter can be bypassed altogether using the Silent Shutter Mode for those situations when the sound of it could get you in trouble or be a distraction. I personally think a silent, electronic shutter for shooting stills is the coolest thing ever but because these sensors aren't global, they roll and occasionally you'll discover some weirdness in your photos - anomalies where the phase of the capture at the sensor and the phase of the light sources didn't agree with one another. It looks something like this - 

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Every now and again, this fluke will yield some interesting, even aesthetically pleasing weirdness like in the image above. But usually not!

List price for the A7RII is 3200 USD. Expensive but well worth it if you've found this style of camera helps you do your best work. Don't cheap out on your tools.