Why Samy’s Camera Is Referred To As “Scammy’s”

April 14, 2014

Scammy's in-store policy.Samy’s Camera is a group of large, professional camera stores in Southern California. They’ve been around since 1976, and if you’re a professional photographer in Los Angeles, you’ve bought and rented stuff there. Their stores are well-stocked with great stuff, and their website is easy to use, if not simply designed.


But there’s a big problem with going into the store versus shopping online. Their website has truly competitive prices, but when you walk into the store, not everything has a price tag on it. And here’s why: they typically mark up anything not tagged by 50% or more to increase profits. It pays to know what the real-world price is when you walk in, or at least by using your smartphone and checking online.


Today, I walked into the store to buy a couple of things. Two of them had price tags and were reasonably priced. But I went up to the counter and asked for a particular step-up ring. I’d priced it online at a couple of places, should’ve been around $7-8. The salesman grabbed one and when I asked the price, he said “it should be around $12. (scans it) Yep! $11.95″. I flinched. He has the nerve to ask me “Is that too steep for you?”. I rolled that off and said it sounded a little pricey for what it was. I paid for it, and on my way to my car I looked it up on Samy’s own website. Same brand, $7.95. That means I paid 50% MORE for it than they advertise.


I walked back in and confronted the salesman, who said something about online pricing vs. in-store. Another salesman walked over and started telling me about that policy, trying to repeat the parts about the expertise of the salespeople. I had just asked for what I wanted. A 16-year-old with no job experience could have grabbed that ring for me. I’m not paying a premium for people doing their job! The salesman actually started to argue the math on this, saying it was only 30%. Like it matters how MUCH you bilk your customers?!?


This wasn’t the first time, I’ve gone in to buy a professional card reader and they tried to charge me $300 when their own site (and B&H, AND Amazon) had it for $200. And many more instances between myself and several colleagues.


The ONLY reason I buy from Samy’s is if I need something right now and can’t get it at Bel Air or someplace else. Otherwise I much prefer B&H (I’ve been in their amazing superstore in NYC, and I don’t recall them trying to cheat their customers this way). If you do shop at Samy’s in person instead of online, remember to know what price you should be paying or look it up while there or be prepared to pay a massive premium for their shady policies.

Caveat Emptor

Why Making It Look Too Easy Is A Bad Idea

March 25, 2014

RotorDroneMag image

Recent shot for I knew how I wanted to illustrate this and where I wanted the elements. Kai (rider) and Chris (quadcopter operator) were spot on and we got this in just a couple of runs.


With 25+ years experience, I’ve come across almost every type of event on a shoot, from the serendipitous to the near-disastrous. I’ve learned to be prepared.


But I also have reached the level that creating what I envision is usually easy. So easy, in fact, that sometimes clients and others on the shoot think it really is easy. That anyone can do it. I capture the action in one or two images, not tens or hundreds. I know when the peak of the action will happen. 25+ years experience shooting, and over 30 actually participating in many of the sports I shoot lets me capture and convey the action.


Going into it, I know what angle I’ll shoot at, what lens I’ll use, even what the light will look like. I see the world as light, see how different light affects different people and objects and scenery. Driving down the freeway, I’m analyzing how the light and shadow affects the signs, the textures of plants, the people in cars. Direction, specularity, reflections from other sources, it all plays in to how we see things and has a huge influence on how we perceive them in photographs. I’ve spent my life studying this.


I have had clients get mad at how little time I seem to spend setting things up and shooting. I know instinctively where I want to place a light or a reflector, what details can and cannot be brought out in post, where a person will stand out from or blend into the background. I know how much depth-of-field I want in a given shot. And I do it different every time, based on the look that is needed for a given image. My work is not easily pigeonholed, I don’t have a shtick (oh, sorry, some people refer to that as a “style”).


All these years of experience make me work quickly and easily with my talent. We always have fun on shoots. Same with the clients who get it.


But some clients are put off by it. They either think what I do is so easy (modern cameras do make it easy to get an adequately exposed image) that they could do it and save money, or that they’re just simply paying me too much. They miss the years of experience, including THOUSANDS of hours spent testing/practicing so I can be this good when I need to be. At this point, I’m often telling one of my favorite parables:


I’ve even gone so far as to rent extra lighting and grip to make a bigger-looking production than I need to add a little more to the dog-and-pony show. Some people don’t appreciate the final image, they need the process to look bigger/harder/more complex. That’s fine, I’ll accommodate them. It’s the same thing with fees. The more you charge, the more people appreciate what you do. There’s solid psychology behind that, but that’s a topic for a future blog.


Friend Eddie Fiola told me the story of a series of shows he was doing with a guy who was the “Wheelie King”. He could ride a wheelie over ANYTHING. Including cars. Eddie watched him practice before the show, and he was flawless. Not a bobble. But when the crowds were there and he had to go over a car, he got up onto the car and fell off. The crowd gasped. Eddie was perplexed, he’d seen this guy do this hundreds of times.


He got up, dusted himself off, then went for it again. He made it further across the car, but fell again. Again, the crowd gasped, but cheered as he got up and tried again. The third time, he made it across, just. The crowd roared! Showmanship. Make it look as hard as it actually is and people appreciate it more.


I certainly need to follow this advice more.

Wedging My Head Between A Rock And A Hard Place

January 23, 2014

And that hard place was ANOTHER ROCK!

Wedging my head between a rock and a hard place by Tony Donaldso
Getting the shot you want isn’t always easy. I’m working on a few war stories to illustrate that, including this one. I wanted to create an unusual image for a client highlighting their product. I had one of their sponsored, professional riders at my disposal. But not just any rider, this guy is the world champion downhill mountain bike racer.


I was working with hero, friend, and former champion professional BMX racer “Pistol” Pete Loncarevich. Pistol is an intense guy, which is how he got to the top of BMX racing, then transferred that to becoming the number one downhill MTB racer. Skills and personality for days.


The image was for an ad and the cover of a catalog featuring the shoes. As we walked up one hill, Pete saw a little hit, not even a jump, that would work perfectly for what I had in mind. I had him hit it once to make sure where he’d be in the air, then I set up my shot. I laid down right under his trajectory, much less height than distance.


I wedged my head between two rocks and had a flash on my camera, one off to the far left in my hand, and one to the far right into a softbox held by my assistant. She was at a safe distance. Pete’s tires were less than six inches from my lens, the light was fading and I had him do this almost 2 dozen times. This was a few years back, before I’d switched to digital and I had to make sure I had the shot. No Polaroids, just prefocused and took a meter reading where his feet were going to be. The first pass is always the scariest.


After the first shot, though, I was focused on making adjustments to my timing and composition. I could have just set the camera on a bean bag and hoped, but I like to look through the lens, even when shooting with a fisheye. Sometimes ESPECIALLY when shooting with a fisheye. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this with just anyone on a bike, the secret is having a professional who can consistently hit the same line, same height every time unless asked to do something different. The safety, precision and style of a professional rider makes as much difference as the person behind the lens. Especially when my life was essentially on the line. If he slipped, my head would have been PART of those two rocks.
The result was exactly what I was looking for, and I’m grateful to have had Pistol’s help in making it!


Personal Project: BMX Legends

January 22, 2014

Photographing my heroes and friends with the gravitas they deserve


Eddie Fiola, the “King of the Skateparks” debuted his new EF Proformer bike here at OSBMXR – I’m now the proud owner of one of these limited edition frames!


Every year I go to the Old School BMX Reunion at Woodward West in Southern California. It’s an invitation-only event put together by one of the luminaries of the BMX freestyle world, Steve Swope. There’s a minimum age for attending, as well, and that age increases by a year every year to keep a handle on the people who can attend. Woodward West is one of the premier training facilities for skateboarding, BMX and more. It’s also the penultimate summer camp for kids who want to learn and improve their skills on ramps.


The inimitable Jose Yanez, inventor of the backflip on a bike, still does ‘em at age 55!


I’ve known many of the people who go to OSBMXR for over two decades, most going back to my days working as a photographer/editor for BMX Plus! magazine and elsewhere in the industry. But before that I was a freestyle BMX rider, some of these guys were my heroes, guys of legend that I read about in the magazines. They’ve long since become my friends. Since I came to the OSBMXR to ride and shoot some photos, I brought some extra lighting gear and grabbed a few of my heroes and photographed them in a natural setting. Sort of an environmental portrait, with movie poster-style lighting.

DMC, one of the nicest guys you'll meet, also has one of the greatest memories. And he still ROCKS!!

DMC, one of the nicest guys you’ll meet, also has one of the greatest memories. And he still ROCKS!!


It was a blast, and nowhere near done. I may have to wait till next year to be able to photograph some of the others, might end up grabbing a few of them around SoCal as I can. As a personal project I’ve just started, it’s a blast and something I’m very drawn to. These guys have pushed the limits of what is possible on a BMX bike and paved the way for countless millions of kids worldwide to push it further. Certainly inspiration for me for riding, and for photographing them. I’m loving this!

How To Make Your Own Camera Sound Blimp For Under $150

January 21, 2014

Shhhhhhhhhhh… Be vewy, vewy quiet!

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson
A sound blimp is the perfect thing for shooting in virtual silence on movie and TV sets, PGA games, anyplace where you need silence. You can rent or buy the professional ones, like Jacobsen, for just over a thousand dollars. They’re purpose-built and fantastic. But I’ve built my own for a few of my digital bodies, and they’re a lot less expensive.
When I first shot on movie sets, I’d rent a blimp. They cost well over $1000 for the blimp and a few lens tubes. They’d also cost that much to rent for a production if I shot the whole thing. I was billing it either way, and I rarely needed them, so renting made the most sense. One size doesn’t fit all, each camera body style has to have a different blimp set up for it. Putting a Nikon F3 inside a blimp made for an F4 wouldn’t work.


I worked on a low-budget sci-fi film a few years ago, and the project didn’t have enough to pay me what I wanted AND afford the rental equipment. A friend was one of the producers, and wanting the money more than just to help him out, I offered that if he’d pay for the supplies, I’d build my own blimp. He agreed, and I built one over the next two days. It turned out fantastic, the sound man asked if I’d built it myself. I held it up to show him and said “obviously!” with a smile. He held a mic directly over it, I fired a few frames, and he nodded his head in approval.



It worked really well on that production, and I’ve used it since. I posted something on a forum about it a couple of years ago, and I still get 1-2 emails a week asking for the plans. I decided to build a newer one, using what I’d learned from and since building the last one.


You start off with a Pelican 1200 case. That fits most cameras. You then mark off the foam inside, facing the back of the camera toward the lid of the case. Makes card changes, etc. much easier. I used toothpicks to mark around the foam, then plucked it to size. I then scanned both sides of my camera on my scanner to have a template to put on the front and back to line up the holes for lens, viewfinder and rear LCD.

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson

I cut the holes with a combination of a drill and a Dremel tool with various cutting and grinding wheels. I measured the cut-out area around the viewfinder and LCD and had a piece of glass cut to size at a local glass shop. I used 3/16″ glass. Thick enough but not too thick. And I made it just larger than the area, the larger the glass is the more weight it adds, and this rig can get heavy. I used silicone to seal the glass to the inside, making sure there were no air holes. Air movement is your enemy here, as it is a great transmitter of sound. Ever been in a bedroom with poor or no weatherstripping on the door? You can hear everything outside the room with amazing clarity, because the air lets the sound pass right through. Silicone also covers the hole for the electronic release cable as well as holding it in place.

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson

Note that I also put in some Dynamat to help deaden the case even more. It adds weight, and I could have covered the entire inside of the case with it, but the foam and the case itself do a pretty good job.
The front part is a hole cut in the case, surrounding the lens. There’s a 4″ closet flange, found in your hardware store where all the PVC pipe stuff is. That’s the receiver for all of the lens tubes. I then used a 3″ connector with a UV filter glued and siliconed in place to be the final lens hood and sound dampener. It’s not airtight enough to be waterproof, but it does a good job in stopping sound. This case will be a good splash guard for a camera in a pinch, but you might want to put a plastic bag around the electronic cable release.

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson

Here’s the front, with the closet flange and lens tube. I shaved the raised part of the case down flush underneath the flange and used screws to hold it on, with silicone to seal it. Not the prettiest thing but it works!

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson

Here’s the mounting of the cable release. I use velcro, so if I have to take it off I can, otherwise it’s easy to grasp and fire when I’m holding the sides of the blimp.


I set the camera on manual, usually, because the lighting is usually tungsten indoors and set for a specific thing. Every time they change the lights, I’ll change the exposure, but there’s usually plenty of time for that. Also I set the AF for single frame and to use the center AF sensor when I half- press the release, so I can prefocus, hold and recompose, then fire when ready.


You can hear the difference between having the blimp and not having it in the sound file below. If you build one of these, let me know how you like it!

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson

How To: DIY Sound Blimp For Under $150 by Tony Donaldson