DSLR Connections

This isn’t really about photography, per se, but it provides some background on what led to my getting a DSLR camera, so I have filed it under Photography.  In 1978, British science historian James Burke was the driving force behind a BBC television series called Connections, where he looked at the seemingly unrelated events that led from one scientific discovery to the next.  This is kind of like that.  

In October of 2002, just a couple of months after my second son was born, I was let go from my job.  This was something that really didn’t surprise me, as most of our clients had disappeared after the company made the questionable decision of dropping all support of our primary product.  Not that the primary product was anything state-of-the-art.  There were problems with the underlying technology and codebase driving it, and it was written in a language that very few people knew of at the time (Objective-C), but there had not really been any sort of a back-up strategy.  We were trying to simultaneously learn new technology and sell products written with it.  This approach really didn’t work too well, and soon the client pipeline dried up.

Because of that, I found myself out of work.  This was not long after the tech bubble collapsed, and I was out of work for most of the following year.  I really didn’t know how to deal with this.  It had been my first job out of college – one I had gotten answering an ad in a newspaper! – and I had no idea how to do a job search when jobs were scarce.  Yes, there were some temporary positions, and there was unemployment benefits, but after a year (and some questionable, high-interest loans), we were struggling.  And so I swallowed my pride and went to a company run by a fellow who had helped found the previous company I had been let go from a year prior.  Yes, this was getting a job through networking, but I wasn’t sure it was a job I wanted.

It turned out that the job was not really for me.  It was using the old technology and codebase – which I still felt had some fundamental flaws in its approach to creating applications – and the company itself was small.  Tiny.  I think the largest number of employees we had at any one time was fifteen.

Work conditions were not great.  There was no breakroom; I supplied the office microwave.  The company, despite many requests from the employees, would not get direct deposit – everything was paid by check.  Our primary client was in Washington, D.C., and we were located in King of Prussia (KoP), Pennsylvania.  There were multiple days when I went into work in the morning thinking that I would be in the KoP office that day, only to be sent to DC mid-morning.  Several of those turned into overnight trips.  The company would call on personal cell phones but would not reimburse for minute overages (this was before unlimited talk plans were standard).  There was a stretch where I was in DC for five weeks straight – take the train down Monday morning and return Friday evening.  Once I had to take the first Saturday train due to work unexpectedly running late on a Friday.  I had not made plans for staying Friday night and could not find a hotel, so I slept at the client’s office on the floor under the desk.  When project plans were made, they were made assuming that employees would be working 10 hour days.

Taking the Acela between Philadelphia and Washington, DC, was probably the best part of the job.

Needless to say, these working conditions were not ideal for a young father with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.  In particular, the refusal to get direct deposit meant that getting my paycheck to the bank was difficult, as I was in DC a third of the time.  This presented cash flow problems, not only in my personal bank account, but also in my credit cards, which I was using to buy tickets back and forth to DC (among other business expenses).  Yes, they were reimbursed, but getting those checks to the bank was as difficult as the paychecks.  Payments were late, my credit was taking a beating, and I was having no time with my family.  My then-wife was actually helping out by not taking a job – child care costs were higher than the income a job would provide, so we would be losing money on the deal.

Finally, after a year of working at that job, I managed to find another job at a small company just around the corner.  In this case, small meant 200 employees.  Interestingly, this company was in a building that was a literal stone’s throw from the building I had my first post-college job in.  I held that job for close to sixteen years, through three building changes and one acquisition.

Even though this new job provided stability, it did not immediately restore all the financial issues we were facing from the events of the previous two years.  When my son wanted to get involved in Cub Scouts, the immediate costs weren’t an issue, but a week at day camp was cost-prohibitive.  However, if you volunteered at the day camp, your children attended for free.  So I volunteered.  After the second year I volunteered there, the director approached me and asked me if I would consider being the director the next year; he was stepping down.

I agreed.  The first year was quite a learning year for me.  By this time, I was six years removed from the lack of a job and finances were beginning to straighten out.  Both kids were in school, and my then-wife had started a job at the local health food store.  Things weren’t perfect yet – it can take a long time for these things to resolve – but I wasn’t waking up in a panic at 4 am wondering how we were going to pay the mortgage anymore.

The second year I ran the camp, the theme was “Pirates.”  I built a pirate ship backdrop out of heavy duck cloth and PVC pipes.  It was rather large, and needed to be anchored to the ground to make sure that it didn’t blow over in the wind.  I went in search of anchors, and in doing so found myself ordering some ground stakes from an online kite-supply company.  (It turns out I could have gotten the same thing from the local home improvement store, but I didn’t know that at the time.)  When they arrived, along with them came the whole catalog of kites and kite supplies.

“Captain Nobeard” in front of his ship.

I liked kites.  I flew many kites as a kid, often getting them stuck in one particular tree.  I decided to get a medium sized kite and see what it would be like to fly a kite with some structure to it.

One kite led to another, and soon I had the idea to put a camera on the kite line and send it aloft.  I started with a lightweight “spy” video camera that was simply held to the kite line with a fishing bobber.  That worked, but extracting stills from the video was time consuming.  A point-and-shoot camera would be better, but how would I press the shutter button from the ground?

The Spy Camera Kite assembly
View from a Kite

After a little bit of research, I discovered that Canon cameras could have their firmware overridden with a bit of software called the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK).  This software allows you access additional settings and, more importantly for my purposes, to write scripts for your camera.  Better even was the fact that it ran entirely from the memory card; put in a different memory card, and the camera was back to running Canon’s default firmware.  I replaced my then-current point-and-shoot camera with a Canon one, got the firmware working, wrote a script to automatically take pictures every 15 seconds, and started shooting pictures from the air.

Area around Nottingham Park, Chester County, PA

All this research I put in to the camera reminded me just how much I enjoyed photography as a kid.  I started using the camera for more than just aerial shots.  One winter day I had been out shooting pictures of the snowstorm that had hit; as I sat in the warmth of my home, editing the pictures, one of them caught my eye.  It was a picture of headstones in the cemetery just up the street, but the composition looked to me like it was a picture that just worked.  I didn’t know then why it worked – or why it was that I had to lighten the picture, since all the snow was a dingy gray color – but as I was sitting there looking at the picture I decided I wanted to go and finally get a DSLR camera.  By this time it had been ten years since I had been out of work, and finances had finally smoothed out to the point where I could afford such a camera.

A soldier’s grave (with wreath and flags) in Morris Cemetery, Phoenixville, PA

It took me a couple of months to actually make the purchase.  I knew, from seeing my uncle’s camera as a kid, that SLR cameras had levers and buttons that did I-did’t-know-what, and before I went and got one I wanted to learn about them.  A few days later, a catalog came from The Teaching Company, a company that produces ongoing-learning lecture series.  They had recently released a new course, Fundamentals of Photography, and were advertising it on the cover of their magazine.  I got the course and over the next six weeks I worked through the lectures, using my point-and-shoot to try out the different things that were talked about in the course and earning exactly what the limits of that camera were.

(If you followed the link and thought that you might want to follow along on that course as well but suffered sticker shock, know that it was on sale at the time; in fact, every course the Teaching Company offers goes on sale for at least 70% off during the course of the year.  Or, you can use their streaming service instead.  No, I don’t get any kickbacks for recommending them.)

During the London Olympics, Canon was advertising their newest entry-level camera, the Rebel T4i, with a commercial that involved a street luger and a rolling, flaming tire (see it here).  Advertising works; I chose the Canon brand because I already had a Canon point-and-shoot as well as a Canon camcorder, but the commercial helped direct me to the specific model that I wanted.  When I walked into the camera store and said I wanted to by a DSLR, and the clerk immediately directed me to exactly the camera I had decided I wanted beforehand, I knew that it would be a good choice.  And that is how kites – and Cub Scout day camp – and losing my job – led me to getting a DSLR.