join our mailing list

Cuba 2015

_DSF1497 copy

I just got back from our 2015 Cuba tour, and as usual, it was a remarkable experience. After being there 4 times, it was nice to revisit friends made throughout the years and even nicer to be walking down the street and see a musician friend open up his door and yell, “Tonito!” Our CD store friend, Tamara, upon seeing her walking in Trinidad shouted, “Tonito!” I got the same greeting at a local music club, a local restaurant bar and even by Elaine at the reception desk in Havana. It’s very far out, to say the least. Of course, as a jazz drummer, making new musician friends is always great. At the Cultural center in Trinidad, Philip taught me a conga pattern (I need to practice), then showed us around the various rooms, where Philip and I engaged in a spontaneous jam session w/ shekere’s, that was video’d by John! Thx JB! Great memory.

When teaching our location workshops, we always make it a point to tell students that when walking on rocks (e.g. Acadia, the Smokies) to watch where they are stepping as it’s very easy to step on an uneven rock, while looking elsewhere, and immediately fall. Well, guess what?? We have the exact type situation on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad. The streets are very uneven and are ripe for falling if one is not paying attention. As I was rushing back to take out a group, I stepped from the sidewalk onto the cobblestone street, not looking down, and felt my foot slip. Knowing what was happening, I dropped to one knee immediately in order to minimize whatever injury, if any, would occur. I was helped back up by a cuban who happened to be in the right place, and I briskly walked back to the hotel. But….I knew something wasn’t right. Long story, short….I sustained a small fracture. Luckily, we had a couple of nurses, concerned clients, and a pharmacist on our tour, so my initial help got me home. After an X-ray, I’m in a “wooden” shoe for 6-8 weeks.

We went out at dawn more than in previous years. The mixture of natural and artificial light was very cool. (Tip: In order to take advantageous of mixed lighting, I have the WB set to sunny, which allows the light to mix without any correction).

It’s a good practice to look at and analyze everything you see in every medium in order to expand your visual palette. One of my favorite movies is Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a very dark movie about real estate salesmen, and is actually used as a training movie for salesmen. But, the reason I filed it away in my visual memory bank was for the stark juxtaposition of bleakness and vivid color. This is precisely why I like going out at marginal times of day when street lights (usually tungsten) are on, coupled with stairwell lights (tungsten, fluorescent, gaslight), and the dawn/dusk sky (in this case, pale blue with wisps of pink clouds). Here’s an example:

_DSF2121-Edit-Edit copy

With the ever increasing tourist trade, photographing at dawn and dusk are the least populated and, to me, the most interesting in terms of light.

Here’s a few tips for anyone thinking of visiting Cuba (Havana and Trinidad):

1. Always have CUCs (coins) with you primarily for tipping.

2. Also, instead of tipping ($), consider bringing “gifts.” (e.g. skin creme for the ladies, baseball hats, baseball cards, crayons/paper, pencils, diapers, drum sticks, guitar picks, etal). Keep in mind that almost everything we dispose of is of use to the incredibly resourceful Cuban people.

3. Learn key Spanish phrases (not difficult) to illustrate your interest in them and their culture.

4. Before taking their picture, ask permission (Una photo, por favor?), or if even minimally conversational, engage in a short dialogue. If they decline, say “ok” and walk on.

5. When you have a shot set up and someone is walking into it, or opens a door, don’t hesitate. Press the shutter! These spontaneous images can be a photo highlight of the trip.

5. The streets are uneven, especially the cobble stone streets in old Havana, and even more especially, the cobble stone streets in Trinidad. Always watch where you are walking. (refer to 2nd paragraph)

6. There are no emission standards, and you will probably see the veil of pollution over Havana as you fly into and out of the country. It shouldn’t be much of a problem as long as you DO NOT have your windows open in your room when there, especially if you’re inclined to let in some fresh air when sleeping. There is no fresh air in Havana.

The Cuban people are immensely talented, intelligent, politically aware, and are very excited about our renewed relations. Americans are known to be the most generous, thoughtful, and kind of all tourists. Over the years, Americans were not held in the highest esteem. That has changed on this trip, although a couple of young Cubans wanted to know if Obama was controlled by the mafia or if the mafia was controlled by Obama. No joke. I said that neither was true, but what do I know?

Here’s a gallery from our 2015 Cuba Tour:

 All in all, a trip to Cuba is, I would say given proximity and the easing of  restrictions, a mandatory trip for photographers. One can only imagine the changes that may ensue when travel becomes easy from the US, but it will certainly be a bit more crowded, and perhaps some of the old cars may be bought up by collectors.

My advice? Go within the next 2 years if not sooner. It will take a little while for the infrastructure to catch up with the impending boost in tourism from the States.

The experience each time was like stepping back in time. Always incredible.

MILFORD, CT SEMINAR NOTICE: Our site was down for seminar registrations during a portion of our remake. For anyone who tried to register for the Milford, CT Creativity Seminar and could not, the site registration page is now OPEN For Business!

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online!



Receptivity and purposeless wandering


As one year moves seamlessly into the next, I find myself returning to life concepts adopted decades ago, but kept to myself to a great extent, so as to not add to a public discourse which tend to water down and lessen their impact.

As a jazz musician, where living and reacting in the moment are part of the job description, I found that consuming book after book on zen and taoism were in perfect alignment with my life as a performer of improvised music. Making one’s mind an empty vessel (receptivity), living and reacting in the moment, relaxed awareness, etc. were all concepts of which I was aware before becoming aware of eastern thought. However, my readings reinforced what I experienced on a daily basis as a working jazz artist. Teaching how not to think and to react in the moment was a major part of my teaching as a jazz educator. However, when ideas, even esoteric ideas, become popular, they tend to become part of pop culture, becoming diluted, facile, and losing the true meaning.

Fast forward to photography. My thought process remained unchanged when moving from a full time jazz artist/educator to my new life as a professional nature photographer/educator. It quickly became apparent that the only thing that changed were the tools. The spontaneity, creativity, and overall feel was the same. It was a much less crowded time in photography. Photography grew to become the most popular hobby in the country and quite possibly the world. Along with the advent of the internet and the availability of voluminous location and technical data, the number of outstanding photographers grew and images that were once considered great and iconic images almost became ordinary. Quoting zen masters and tossing around zen/taoist concepts became so commonplace and the impact became so diluted that I decided to keep out of that game and just focus on teaching the nuts and bolts of photography in our workshops, staying out of the zen “game” with all of the pop psychology terminology.

I posted “The Moment” in my last blog post, which I haven’t read in about 10 years. My early zen lessons and experiences came flooding back and I began re-reading old books with new eyes and a renewed goal of incorporating zen/taoist concepts into our workshop teaching. Now, don’t freak out as we will always focus on the technical and aesthetic in our workshops. However, there is a great deal to be said about the experience. After all, we are photographing an experience, a chance interaction, freezing a moment in time. This occurs with all subject matter: people, wildlife, family, nature. It’s a state of mind.

Ok, I know it’s getting a bit deep, but please bear with me.

I began using the concept of purposeless wandering in Cuba last January, going out with an open, clear mind, with no expectations, and with a relaxed mind, open (receptive) to chance encounters. It’s an easy mindset for me after approaching jazz in a similar manner for decades.

Here’s a few images from last year:


After a series of very warm days, dark clouds rolled in and it was very windy this morning. I thought that this could be a good day to wander down to the Malecon in the hope that waves would be breaking over the wall. I didn’t know what to expect, but knew that I had a 100% chance of not getting the shot if I/we didn’t go.

On a different day, I decided to photograph the old fisherman into the bright morning sunlight for a graphic silhouette, simpler, open, and more mysterious, rather than on the other side, where the boats were bathed in early morning light.


The following images were made while wandering the streets of Havana and Trinidad with no expectations and with a relaxed awareness. Although, I carry a tripod for night photography, my street shooting in good light is handheld w/ 24-70 lens (18-55 in mirror-less-land).


This small boy appears to be dancing in the window for only a few seconds.


Bracing myself against a door jamb, I was able to get a 1/8 sec exposure of the woman following the young boy walking down the street with her eyes.


Men riding horses are a common occurrence in Trinidad, our other prime location in Cuba.
I only had a 2-3 second window to see the image, turn, and get the horse framed within the blue door and between the buildings.


While most people were photographing from the top of the hotel at the great Havana cityscape, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a small boy seemingly flowing through an alley-way. Actually, he was kicking a soccer ball with friends. He is blocking the ball with his body, and the friends were temporarily out of the scene, leaving this momentary dance.

The final image here is of our friend, Pedro, whom we photograph every year. Obviously, a great subject. But, I’ve learned from a famous wedding photographer, Joe Bussick, that the peak action, in many cases, is not where the shot is, it’s the moment just before and/or just after the perceived peak moment. Here, Pedro is photographed right after posing for a swarm of photographers. As everyone was packing and leaving, I caught Pedro in a pensive moment.


Photographing Pedro for several years, this is my favorite image of him.

In our future workshops, we will be touching on these and more sublime concepts in order to deepen the photographic experience for our clients.

Anyway, I hope this wasn’t too deep. I look forward to any comments to further the dialogue.

Have a great new year and we’ll see ya online.




a photography fairy tale


Once upon a time, before digital cameras, and personal computers…before photoshop and plugins, before exposure by histogram….and even before social media, there was an aspiring nature photographer (me) whose only concern in life was discovering subjects in great light, and recording the experience he was feeling at the moment.

It was a simpler time, a less crowded time, a quieter time (externally, and internally).   I would go out with friends to make pictures several days a week just for the joy of it. It was a time when all of the work was done in-camera, i.e. applying filters for color correction and graduated neutral density filters to even out exposures. It was a time before the iPhone and before motor coaches delivering photo tourists to pristine locations. It was a time before working in the office took the majority of my time, rather than being out experiencing nature. It was a time when photographing and experiencing the wonder and glory of nature was my raison d’être.

I loved this experience so much, that I decided to make my living as a nature photographer. Very soon afterwards, however, the emphasis began to shift from the ethereal to the practical, from the spiritual to the mundane, from a hobby to a profession. With this paradigm shift came greater responsibilities and less time for play. It’s the nature of things.

Every so often, I will go back to my earliest work just to see if I get the same feeling viewing the image as I did when making it, but more importantly, to see if what I’m currently doing has emotionally evolved. Technique is important, but not as important as the emotion encountered when making the image. Isn’t this why we make an image to begin with? As a 20 year professional jazz artist (drummer), I could always tell if someone was in the moment or going through the motions. If you cannot “feel” what you are doing, no one else will get any feeling from it, either.

Upon getting back from photographing the lead image, close to our house, I wrote the following observation of what I was feeling:

“The Moment”

an area is approached,

a line is crossed. Suddenly…


the pulse quickens,

time expands,

compositions self-compose,

exposures self-calculate. The shutter trips…


and many more times.


The pulse slows,

time contracts,


This chronicles my experience. It was transcendental. It was the same “go to” mental place as when performing improvised music. I recognized it instantly and wrote down “The Moment” in about 15 minutes. I remember feeling like I was merely taking dictation from an unknown source.

In the midst of workshops, seminars, book and DVD projects, travel, and an aging parent, I began to wonder, do I still have the ability to get into “the moment,” that timeless window of creativity? And the answer is Yes, I still get the rush, but it is a bit less frequent, as my time is not as free as it once was.

With 2015 on the horizon, my resolution is to get out every day when home, to enjoy the quietude of nature, and to move the scale back to better balance office work with the real work, and to photograph…..or not. The experience comes first, then the photograph.

It’s critical to not forget why you started to do something, as it’s so easy to lose sight of your initial motivation and inspiration.

I look forward to 2015 and beyond with eyes wide open and a greater sense of renewal: personally, photographically, and spiritually.

Have a joyous holiday season and an inspiring new year.

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online.

oh yeah….almost forgot…….”and the photographer lived happily ever after.”




Image design concept

_DSC7202.tiff copy

I remember one of my first glimpses into how the other half thinks, no….not that other half, which shall remain one of the mysteries of life. I’m referring to publishers and anyone who uses professional photography for publication.

When I was making my way into the publishing market, I got a call back after my images were reviewed for contribution to a postcard book. I was particularly excited, but was immediately taken by the vernacular used by the art director. His part of the conversation began with, “I like your design #XXX, and your design #XXXX,” etc. My design? I thought these were images, photographs, slides, pictures….but, designs?

I’m always fascinated by how, in the midst of non-stop noise, 24/7, that a single phrase can cause a tectonic shift in one’s thinking. Designs, huh? So, publishers are looking at images in terms of graphic design. I’ve taken this to a level that I can understand, exemplified in this image. We often talk about image design, graphics, and over arching design concepts in our workshops, seminars, and presentations.

So, when I came across this fall image, I remembered what I was thinking when composing the image. Even though there is what appears to a be visual weight in the center of the frame, the image was composed in terms of peaks and valleys.

What does THAT mean?

Ok, look the image below:


There is a diagonal entry and exit through the frame. And a strong implied line leading the viewer dynamically through the frame.

Notice that the peak and valley points are both off center, to maintain the asymmetry.

This is how I conceive composition: in terms of  entry and exit points and over-arching design concepts.

In this image, the over arching design concept is a zig-zag line, keeping the peak and valley points out of the center of the frame.

This is also an example of cross-pollinization of careers, as this is exactly how I “see” sound shapes when playing jazz.

Anyway, just a thought for the day. I hope that this makes sense.

Have a great weekend and we’ll see ya online!


Image info: Multiple exposure image (10 exp using the Nikon D810) and 24-70mm lens. Processed using Topaz Glow (discount code tonysweet) and masking in photoshop.

Lonaconing Silk Mill, Dec 2014

spools 1

We had our semi annual group hang at the still stranding, Lonaconing silk mill. Again, I was figuring on socializing and not doing much shooting, figuring (mistakenly, as usual) that I had pretty much shot the place out, being my 7th weekend shooting there. That’s 14 days photographing inside of a 2 story building w/ a basement. However, the weather was dark and rainy, which lends a soft glow throughout the mill. I found myself taking advantage of the great light, photographing deeper into the location. I just bought the Fuji 56mm, f/1.2 to complement my Nikon 85mm, f/1.4 lens, and on the first day made most of the images with that lens. Of course, the mirrored rows of looms is a perennial fave image. Everything else, however, was “looking small.”
Here’s a gallery from Saturday, Day 1, at the mill, displayed in the order shot.

We normally meet up with everyone for cocktails early evening, but this day, a large water main broke open and there was no water in most of Lavale, so we all split off to find an open bar elsewhere.

Most of us stayed both days, and some people just chose to show up one day or the other. The weather, as predicted, was bright and cloudless. With the trees outside of the mill bare, the mill lit up on the inside, creating a entirely new photography venue in many ways.

Here’s the gallery from Sunday, Day 2. Aside from the first and last images (all presented in shooting order) I spent the entire 4 hour session in the basement (small stuff), taking advantage of the soft light and inherent dark mood of the area. 

As we were leaving, I heard John Dubois say to himself (barely audible) as he shot the employment card of baseball great, Lefty Grove, who was born in Lonaconing, MD, “It’s the small stuff.”

I agree.

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online.

Registrations are OPEN for our Creativity Seminar in Milford, CT on Feb 7!
Here’s the details.


p.s. New website update……..it’s getting there!  

But, in the mean time, please check out our 2015 Visual Artistry Workshop Schedule

p.p.s. Check out Bill Fortney’s new Fuji X system User Guide. I learned a bunch of new things from it.
Great tips and equipment shortcuts. Highly recommended!


1 2 3 40
If you'd like to get email notifications of new blog entries, please subscribe here: