Thursday, October 29, 2009

The People You Meet!

Walking the Strip in Las Vegas at night is always an adventure. The people you meet will sometimes surprise you as they did me. Marilyn Monroe in her classic white dress from a very famous movie scene is ready to have her picture taken with you for a few bucks. Elvis, glittering in his rhinestone jumpsuit, keeps Marilyn company and will put his arm around you, baby, for a few bucks. "Thank you very much," he says in his southern drawl.

For someone who has never walked the Strip at night, it's eye opening. Two beautiful twenty something girls walk toward me just a little or maybe a lot drunk pointing to everyone they pass, including me, shouting, "F*** You!" Oh, I think their parents would be so proud (please read with sarcasm). I continue down the Strip toward the Bellagio Hotel and the Paris Hotel when I hear strange clicking sounds that remind me of how my bike sounded when I was a kid and I attached a playing card to the wheel. A group of men and women stand in the midst of a sea of dropped cards pushing yet more cards in front of me inviting me to a free nude girlie show. Sorry, not my cup of tea. If I really think about it, I feel sad about this part of Las Vegas, which to me is so unattractive.

Further down the Strip I meet the Blues Brothers and yet another Elvis. Then I reach the Paris Hotel. Now I've been to Paris and seen the beautiful architecture in that amazing city. I've also been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and stood enthralled looking at the city below on a gloriously clear day. The real thing is amazing, but the Paris Hotel in its own way brings back wonderful memories of my time in Europe. Coming out of the hotel, I see a cute young couple who have obviouly just been married. I stop to say congratulations only to find out that they came all the way from England just to be married in Las Vegas. They were delightful.

Across the street from the Paris Hotel sits the beautiful Bellagio Hotel. At night they put on the most amazing water show with lights and music. It is something to see. I head toward the escalator so I can take photos with my cell phone camera, the only and hence the best camera I have (check out my previous blog The Best Camera You Have). As I ride up the escalator, I hear music. Someone up on the overpass is playing an accordion quite well. It sounds like, "You Are My Sunshine." I feel myself getting choked up, because we used to sing that song to mom when she was so sick just before she died.

When I see him, I can't tell if he is homeless. It is just too dark on the overpass. I can see his cowboy hat and his case open for passersby to drop coins and bills. The music is sweet and a nice respite in the midst of a frantic night on the Strip. I busy myself with taking pictures of the dancing water show below me and every now and then take a peak at the man playing the beautiful melodies. Several young men with thick Irish accents and tipsy from a bit too much to drink join the man and begin singing "Danny Boy" at the top of their lungs. They twirl in time to the music and laugh deeply. They are enjoying themselves. I wonder if they'll remember their singing and dancing tomorrow.

And then it happenes. I hear the sweet strains of "Amazing Grace" and I stop what I am doing, close my eyes, and just drink it in. "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." I feel tears stinging my eyes. I love that old hymn and the words that speak to my life. I've been saved for many years and I love the Lord Jesus with all my heart, but hearing the hymn brings my human condition and my need for a Savior back to mind. How blessed I am to know my Savior and experience His grace from day to day. I know this man has a story and I know I must investigate what it is.

"That's one of my favorite hymns," I tell him as I walk over to have a closer look at him. He smiles and continues playing. I can see now that he isn't homeless. He's too clean and sober to be homeless. Perhaps he's just a guy down on his luck and needs a bit of extra cash to make it through the week. He finishes playing and I press a bill into his hand. "Thank you. That was beautiful," I tell him. And then he starts sharing with me a bit of his story and why he's out on the overpass nearly every night playing his accordion.

His wife lay slowly dying from complications she suffered as a diabetic and he was heartbroken. He knew he had to do something to bring a smile to her face, so he paid $250 at a pawnshop for an old Cantino accordion with mother of pearl and shiny gold accents. He hadn't played since he was a kid, but it came back to him quickly as he sat at her bedside for two months ten hours a day filling her room with old classics, country-and-western tunes, and old hymns like "Amazing Grace."

The staff would open the door to the room and the music wafted down through the ward. It brought hope, joy, and healing to those suffering incredible pain. Two months later his wife of forty-eight years died and he sank into a deep depression. He returned to the hospital and played his accordion for anyone that wanted to hear him in hopes of filling the massive void left in his heart when his wife died.

All of a sudden, he reaches down and pulls out a stapled three-sheet packet with his picture and story. "Here," he says, "I'd love to have you read this and then call me and tell me what you think." He scribbles his name and number on the back and hands it to me. His name is Dean. "Thank you, Dean. I'm Elizabeth and I will read it." I thank him again and ask if I can take his picture. "I know it's really dark out here, but if we wait for the big sign to light up at the Flamingo Hotel, it should be enough to get a picture of you." He gives me a cowboy smile under his bushy mustache and after a couple of attempts, I think I have a photo that will help me remember a very special time on the overpass near the Bellagio Hotel. I give him a hug and he gives me a little peck on the cheek and calls me "pretty little lady." We say good night and I promise to call him.

I'm waiting for my bus to come and it seems to be taking an eternity when I look up and see Dean walking toward me accordion case in hand. He tells me that this is his bus too. We sit together on the bus for a few more minutes and he tells me a bit more about his life. He plays in three churches on Sunday mornings and regularly plays in the hospital for patients who request it and those that are unresponsive to treatment. He tells me about a young man heavily bandaged and barely able to move. He'd been burned over 60 percent of his body after his motorcycle collided with a vehicle and exploded in flames. Day after day Dean played "The Old Rugged Cross," "I Saw the Light," and "How Great Thou Art." The young man began to respond. He has a long road of healing ahead of him, but with his new friend, Dean, he has hope and music to help him along.

Dean gives me a final hug as I get ready to jump off the bus and head to my bed. He tells me he's going for breakfast and then home to bed. "Breakfast at midnight?" I ask. "Yes," he responds with a smile. He says he'll share the x-rated version of his story with me one day. "By the grace of God," he says, "I'm not that man anymore." I smile, give him a final hug, and wave goodbye. "Good night pretty little lady," he says. I watch for a moment as he disappears into the night. I can't help but think that in the midst of so much glitter, glamour, heartache, and unhappiness that can fill the Las Vegas strip hope is there in the sweet music of a man once shattered and now living by God's amazing grace. I call Dean a few weeks later and have a nice chat. We plan to get together the next time I go to Las Vegas and he will tell me his story - all of it. I'm looking forward to it.

My orginal intent for my blog today was to talk about how I was able to take photos with my cell phone camera as a continuation of my last blog. Somehow, though, I ended up here and I'm really okay with that. Maybe it is more important to talk about hope and God's amazing grace than it is to explain how I was able to take a picture. Next time I will share my pictures from inside the Bellagio Hotel and the amazing seasonal decorations that thrill old and young alike.

Now go forth and remember that God's amazing grace is there for all who choose to partake of it, including you!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best Camera You Have

Have you ever heard the expression "The best camera is the one that's with you? I heard it for the first time at Photoshop World in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. One of the instructors told us about Chase Jarvis who has authored a book called The Best Camera is the One That's With You in which Jarvis discusses the iPhone and the potential for nice photos using the camera application. I smiled when I said it to myself later in the day. Such simplistic truth, but why hadn't I thought of it.

The more I thought about it the more it got me to thinking. What Jarvis says is very true. There's no point in wishing I had another camera with me, because that isn't going to get me the photo I want. I've been in that place quite a few times and never thought about using my cell phone camera in place of my expensive Canon.

When I went to Vegas, I decided to leave my Canon at home. I knew I'd be using the bus and walking a lot. My hotel was on the other side of town several miles from the Mandalay Bay Hotel where the conference was being held. Lugging a heavy camera around or leaving it in my hotel room and possibly finding it gone when I returned made my decision to leave the big expensive camera at home a lot easier.

So I found myself in a quandary. The last night I was in Vegas I decided to walk and look and take in all the sparkle and drama that is the Las Vegas Strip. It was then that I began rethinking my decision about bringing my camera. I had a thought. What if I were to challenge myself to get some photos of the Strip using only the camera I had with me. Hmmm. . . well, that might work. I don't have an iPhone, but I do have a little LG phone with a 3 magapixel camera. If worse came to worse, I'd get some practice, but hopefully with a bit of forethought I might be able to come up with some descent photos. No, they wouldn't necessarily be iPhone quality like Jarvis's photos, but they would certainly help me to remember the feeling and sense of energy that is pervasive all along the Strip.

So out came the LG phone and my mind started working. How was I going to get my shots? I figured a higher vantage point might work best, so I climbed up to the street overpasses. Using the overpass and the fencing, I steadied my hand to keep the phone as still as possible and started shooting. Some shots were horizontal and I went vertical on others. Mmmm. . . not bad, but I'd have to wait until I downloaded them into my computer to see how they really looked.

I became a little braver as I worked my way down the Strip and decided to try shooting without a brace to steady my camera. Well, some shots were better than others, especially if there was more available light. All in all I was quite pleased with the results. No, I wouldn't be able to put them in a book like Jarvis did, but then my goal was a bit different than his. I wanted something to remind me of the sparkle, excitement, and the craziness that comes out at night all along Las Vegas Boulevard. I think I was able to do that and I'm glad I challenged myself. You can see all my photos from my personal challenge on my website.

Next time I'll be writing about the Bellagio Hotel and the spectacular art and decor they have in their lobby and conservatory. It was such fun spending some time enjoying it all. I'll also be introducing you to Dean who's quite an amazing man I met on the overpass near the Bellagio Hotel while I was out shooting my last night in Vegas.

Now go forth and challenge yourself to do something that will stretch your limits!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Learning With Rock Stars!

As my plane lifted off the ground and we winged our way up the Southern California coastline, the words "jewel of the coast" came to mind. San Diego is so incredibly gorgeous and on this picture perfect day, I drank it all in until the plane headed inland. I was on my way to Vegas that day to attend the Photoshop World Conference at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. I was anticipating learning a lot, but I had no idea how much there would be for my brain to soak up!

It had been miserably hot in San Diego, so I was concerned that Vegas would be even hotter, but it turned out to be perfectly lovely as my mom would say. Vegas had changed hugely since I was last there and I could easily see why it is called a playground for adults. The hotels are huge! And they are decorated with themes like "Paris" and "New York, New York." At night the strip sparkles like the costumed dancers in the nightly shows. It's magical! And if you don't pay too much attention to those that have had a bit too much to drink who are acting like fools, it's not half bad.

But I was not there to play, I was there to learn along with 3,000 - 4,000 other photographers, designers, and printers. The lineup of instructors was like a who's who in the world of Photoshop and photography. They are rock stars in the photographer's eyes and it was incredibly exciting just to be in the same room with them.

Scott Kelby, who started the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) almost twenty years ago is a great teacher and I took full advantage of his workshops. He focused on retouching portraits so I was able to pick up some great tips. I also learned some fantastic shortcuts and new to me tips from John Caponigro who happens to be from San Diego.

Since my goal as a photographer is to give my clients the best possible portraits, I was very happy to sit in as these "rock stars" shared how to do my job better and easier. For awhile now I've been learning on-line at the Kelby training site where so many of the instructors teach. One of my favorites is Joe McNally who, like Scott Kelby, is very funny and very good at sharing concepts in a way that I can understand. So when McNally asked for a volunteer who was wearing white to come up on stage and 'model' for a lighting demonstration, I shot my hand up in the air. And since I was sitting pretty close to the stage, he picked ME! I am sooo glad I decided to wear my white blouse that day.

It was great fun having McNally 'shoot' me. He joked with me, told the crowd that I had beautiful eyes, and in the process of working with him for a few minutes I actually learned quite a bit. Photography is not an exact science, and when McNally's photos didn't come out the way he anticipated, I felt very encouraged. If the big guns still have to try a second and a third time to get the result they want, then I won't feel so discouraged when my photography doesn't go exactly the way I want it to the first time.

I still can't believe that Joe McNally took my picture, well, quite a few pictures. If you follow NASCAR, it's like Jimmy Johnson inviting you to have a driving lesson in his race car. It's huge! A woman stopped me in the bathroom after the class and said, "It's too bad you didn't get to see the photos Joe took of you." The way he had me standing I couldn't see the giant screens. I asked her if they were really terrible. "No!" she said, "They were really good." Boy, I wish I had been able to see them and even more I wish I could have had copies of them. Can you imagine the bragging rights I'd have? I'm still excited thinking about it today.

Next time more about Photoshop World and my little challenge to myself at night on the Vegas strip.

Now go forth and try try again without getting discouraged.