Category Archives: improvisation

Gimme (Temporary) Shelter

Finish Line Photo Studio at the Finish line, WS100. June 29-30, 2013. Placer HS, Auburn CA. Interior and exterior views. The previous pop-up had died an ugly death several weeks earlier in a 30mph wind-gust. I went back to the 1" EMT canopy arrangement with a new roof, and side-panels. The side panels are essential when the sun makes its merciless appearance late on Sunday morning, and people inexorably crowd in for shade.

Finish Line Photo Studio at the Finish line, WS100. June 29-30, 2013. Placer HS, Auburn CA.
Interior and exterior views. The previous pop-up had died an ugly death several weeks earlier in a 30mph wind-gust. I went back to the 1″ EMT canopy arrangement with a new roof, and side-panels. The side panels are essential when the sun makes its merciless appearance late on Sunday morning, and people inexorably crowd in for shade.

I’ll probably never own a house. But I got tents and canopies, and this is about my Finish Line Photo Studio set-up.

When I first started shooting finish line portraits, I evolved my way into how to shelter self and gear—keeping things out of blazing sun by day, setting up a working space and so on.

At first (2004)  I used a swap-meet canopy kit, comprised of connecting hardware, tarp and ball-bungee cords. The linking units were 1″ EMT (Electrical Metal Tubing).  I transported these 8′ & 10′ sections in two long 4″ PVC pipes (capped at either end) and secured to the roof-rack of my previous vehicle. In those innocent times I referred to them as my “Johnny Taliban Rocket Launchers”.

This was OK when I was driving locally in the LA basin. When I got invited to Western States in 2007, the idea of driving 800+ miles with these on the roof was not attractive. I had nightmares of cross winds tearing them off on the I-5 going over the Grapevine. So I bought an EZ-Up, which worked for 6 years.

Every finish line is different. Experience at Western States showed immediately that I needed side-panels. This secured my work-space, and more importantly, kept shade-seeking finishers and their friends out of my area as the sun rose, and shade was at a premium. At Angeles Crest there was abundant tree-cover, well away from my set-up.

Then it then took a stranger’s photo to tell me I wasn’t presenting myself well. Whoops! I created an identity, with banners that announced who I am and what I do.

EZ-Up. WS100 finish line, June 25 2011. Auburn, CA.

EZ-Up. WS100 finish line, June 25 2011. Auburn, CA.

Pop-ups are good if the conditions are dead-calm. A breeze comes up and they want to go. In May 2013 the  pop-up died an ugly death in a 30mph wind-gust. Here it is, an hour before its demise at an event in Santa Barbara County.

The EZ-Up in its final incarnation. Camp Mr Trail Safety on Friday morning, with the Bibler Suites. Kitchen set-up with two old-school Coleman 425s, 2 burners each. Bialetti 'spro pots at the ready. Then the 30mph winds came up and blew the pop-up into a spavined death, where it had to be hacksawed to fit into the Karma Squirrel for the ride home. The camp was relocated under a low canyon oak. The tents: foreground, The 1989 Bibler El Dorado. Directly behind is the Bibler Awahnee, which I lived out of in Leadville, CO for 3 weeks in 1997.

The EZ-Up in its final incarnation.

Back To The Future

Repairs to the pop-up were uneconomical—it was a discontinued model, with blown connective joints and scissor-arms. Entry-models started at $130. More rugged models came in around $3oo. After thinking it over, I went back to the original 2001  canopy arrangement, updated with a new roof, and finished, grommeted side-panels. To make the canopy fully portable, changes had to be made.

  • All 1″pipes  previously 10′ in length were cut into 5′ sections
    with a 1-1/8″ capacity pipe cutter. Five turns on the cutter and voila! pipes cut.
  • The 2 previously 10′ 4″ PVC pipe storage units  were cut into two 5′, and one 4′ sections, and capped. One end was glued solid, then spray-painted black to differentiate it from the twist-off cap.

These storage units could now be transported tidily inside my Honda Element.


Here’s a view of the pre-event set up. No need to find out nasty surprises on-site.

leeves with pipe sections, exposed. Carton has corners, couplings, tarb, bungee-balls. Blue bag has grommeted mesh panels, 10x6'. Trial assembly of 10x10' canopy prior to WS100. All 10' lengths are now 5'. Three 4" PVC pipes are storage sleeves; one end is permanent, spray-painted black, while the other end has a slip-on.

Storage units with pipe sections, exposed. Carton has corners, couplings, tarp, bungee-balls. Blue bag has grommeted 10×6′ mesh panels.


Canopy assembled. Remaining coupling collars are in center-left of image. These will be used to make the upright legs their full 8′ high.

Canopy assembled. 10x10' tarp corner-attached with bungee-balls. In a live-setting shorter bungees will secure the other grommets.

Canopy assembled. 10×10′ tarp corner-attached with bungee-balls. In a live-setting shorter bungees will secure the other grommets.


  • Far sturdier than the average pop-up
  • generic 1″ steel electrical conduit members instead of manufactured folding units
  • can be staked with a vengeance. I bought the 18″ rebar stakes when I read a customer review stating “I used these at Burning Man”; which meant he pounded them into the playa and the 40mph wind-gusts didn’t blow it away.


  • noticeable weight penalty
  • more loose parts (roof, bungee cords, connecting hardware,
    pipe sections


  • Assembly and set-up can be done single-handedly, although 3 other people helping position it still helpful.

Looking into the open side of the shelter:

Finish Line Photo Studio at the Finish line, WS100. June 29-30, 2013. Placer HS, Auburn CA. Interiori view.

Interior view of the Finish Line Photo Studio at the Finish line, WS100.
June 29-30, 2013. Placer HS, Auburn CA.

More modifications: I just got a 10×10′ shade-cloth roof, especially for here in California and the Southwest where it does not rain in the summer. The tarp does turn into a frying pan under the full sun. Another thing I learned was to hang the side-panels so they touch the ground, and enable more ventilation out the top, and lowering the graphics panels to follow suit. This tidies up the exterior presentation, encloses the work space, and so on.

“Kid, it sucks now. You shoulda been here two years ago!”

The day after I graduated, the day before I left.

After graduating from college, I moved to Los Angeles in June 1977, after an eventful trip west on my mortally wounded ’75 Suzuki T-500.

The first place I lived on my own was a dumpster apartment complex in Van Nuys, Located on the corner of Victory and Fulton Blvd, it backed up to a dinky strip mall on Victory Blvd. California Donuts, a CPA, laundromat, maybe a dry-cleaners. It was right across the street from Jimmy Smith’s Supper Club, where Jimmy held forth on his Hammond B-3 Fridays thru Sunday nights.

Immediately across the street was an Alta-Dena Drive Thru Dairy, where you could buy milk, smokes, and the LA Times for a dime (but not all together). Down the street was Changing Times Hair Salon, owned by the irrepressible Juan Lizarraga; “Hair styled by Pierre of Pacoima, formerly Walter of Watts”. But that was in the future.

The traffic was constant, the air gritty with smog, and the neighborhood was relentlessly ugly. It seemed all the trees were several blocks away.

The apartment building itself was a faded 2-story courtyard complex with an alligator pond for a pool. I looked at the apartment the day after my grubstake arrived after being lost in the mail for three weeks. I’d been staying with a college friend whose young marriage was dissolving, the job she’d lined up for me had evaporated, and my wheels were a gigantic beast of a Dodge ’71 pickup truck to replace my dead motorcycle.

When I walked into the courtyard, the pool was half-empty, with several of the mullet-headed vato chicas with their KISS Army t-shirts and heavy eye makeup standing around looking at it. The rental agent was glad that the unit was occupied, and vanished seconds after I wrote the check.

Everything I owned in the world fit into the corner of the apartment, which was $200 a month. That night I went to a Lucky supermarket, wandered the aisles, wondering what I was going to feed myself. I remember buying fish, white rice, household stuff, and a mop. Then I went home and made dinner, and ate it in silence.

As the days passed, I slowly began to come to terms with my new home. The building manager was a rowdy Filipino with a large fish-tank. The Vietnamese extended family lived in one of the 2-bedroom units in the back; the patriarch, wife, daughters, grandchildren, and the Anglo son-in-law. There was a spectacularly ugly Chicana who lived upstairs, and had a face an iguana would’ve loved. She entertained callers at all hours.

The Filipino vanished after a late-night drunk-fight with one of his homies ended in a sickening crack of his fish-tank, followed by a dead-silence, then 50 gallons of aquarium and fish hitting the carpet. He was replaced by a married couple that used their 2 small boys as basketballs. Tom, the husband, was a comic-book palooka with a room-temperature IQ. The wife was a porcelain-faced, Cupid-bowed mouth, heavy-hipped foghorn whose profanities were loud and memorable. Nothing she said was ever less than 90db.

I looked for work. Navigating this very large, strange city was exhausting. My truck got 8mpg with a tail-wind, had one locking door, and a concrete-splattered bed, minus the tailgate. The FM radio had 3 options; KBCA for jazz, KROQ for low-wattage New Wave, and maybe KMET for what’s now classic rock. It was the Ultimate Chick Repellant, which might as well have said “Never Get Laid” on the sides. I’d park this beast next to Jags, Benzos, anything that looked better than me. Nobody jacked my portfolio.

Looking for work here was only somewhat better than looking in Cleveland two years earlier. Now I didn’t have a fallback. This was it.

“Aw kid, it sucks now. You shoulda been here two years ago!”

“Didja go to Art Center? You shoulda”

“Ohio what?”

“Art Center”

“Art Center”

“Art Center”

I kept at it because I’d crossed the Mississippi with the express intention to escape Ohio. I got a hand-typed rejection letter from ABC. After that, the mailbox was empty most of the time. My dad sent a large box with paperbacks he’d plowed through and tossed. There were days I didn’t leave the apartment.

One day I got a call from a tiny magazine I’d interviewed at. Was I still interested? Uh, yeah. I was down to my last $150. It’d taken me 3-1/2 weeks to find a job. Now I had  it.

Only later did I understand how lucky and fat that was.

Looking for Summer Work, 1975: A Fugue in 2 Parts

Dog Star In Red Dwarves

In 1975 I was a horny, depressed graphic design major. Maybe that’s a given, but I also had vague notions about finding some kind of work for Summer ’75. With a heavy heart I decided to look for ad agency work in Cleveland, Ohio, which at that time had the most agencies in Ohio.

My European summer of ’74 was a fond memory, and no offers were forthcoming. Ginger, the girl I’d hooked up with on that trip had family in Cleveland; but was either in school in Connecticut or at the family escape at Sanibel in Florida. She made herself very scarce.

Hard times had begun to stalk the Rust Belt. The ’73 Energy Crisis was still being played out daily. Coal was four times more expensive than it had been two winters before, and all the power plants burned coal. Legacy steel mills, auto, and other mid-century manufacturing had just been stabbed through the heart, and would never recover their previous glory. Ever. Welcome to the new economy, kid.

The first trip was in early January 1975. I stayed at the YMCA, went to ad agencies and showed my student book. The responses were polite, guarded, tepid. The city was bone-cold. I wore what passed for good clothing; non-jeans, street shoes. I froze my ass off.

At night I’d head back to the Y, and look out the window at the corner liquor store/carryout across the street. It was dead. The steam-heat was alternately comforting and stifling. I’d look at my dress-clothes as they came out of the pack, read whatever paperback I had, and wait for the morning. In the morning I’d go to a diner down the street and eat, hot coffee and something, and head out.

I plodded on for several days. No leads, but I got into more than a few agencies. My theoretical job began to look like an ever-lengthening line that curved over the horizon. Finally, I beat it back to the bus station for Athens, with brave promises that I’d do better over Spring Break.

School started up again, I buried myself in classes. Living at home was not fun, and I had a non-existent social life. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, with no clear escape.

Spring Break loomed, and I made plans to go back up to The Mistake On The Lake. The Sunday afternoon bus trip to Columbus was a reefer-madness comic episode. There were 3 or 4 exuberant young black guys in the back row who had a very large cassette-tape boom box, and a lot of dope. They lit up, and as the bus rolled on to Columbus, the bus slowly filled up with reefer smoke. Meanwhile the tape deck started playing slower, and slower. The mix tape was songs recorded off the radio, with the ends clipped as the DJ would back announce over the end of the song.


On the outskirts of Columbus, the bus passengers had essentially passed out. Finally somebody went to the bus-driver, who opened a wing-vent. A writhing snake of smoke collected itself, and like out of a movie, got sucked out of the bus. Everybody woke up by the time we pulled into the bus station.

The trip to Cleveland was muted. No joy here. I stayed at the Y one night. Then I opened my wallet and realized that I didn’t have enough to stay at the Y. Checking out, I found a SRO cheap-ass hotel—Hotel Bolivar, if memory serves, on 9th St. Walking up the single-width stairs to the buzzer-locked cashier’s window, I rented a room for the next two nights. He handed me a key, a dirty look, told me to read the rules, and buzzed me in.

Walking a maze of jumbled hallways that were painted in cast-off colors, I found my room. It was clean, dry, and barren, opening to an airless airwell. It made the Y look like the Ritz. Here I was. Time stretched on forever.

The first night was punctuated by footfalls in the hallway, faint snorings and phlegmy coughs by men who’d smoked their entire lives.I took a shower in a dim, blighted room that looked like it came from a prison-camp yard sale. Rarely have I showered so fast.

Note to the traveller: Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night” is not light and frolicsome reading. Save it for when you have lots of money, on a beach somewhere. Also that night I lost any remaining taste for Tom Waits, who was then a boho fave with his “Nighthawks at the Diner“. Here there was no romance; only old, tired, used-up, broken men.

The few days that followed were more futility. I rotated in and out of agencies. One agency studio had middle-aged men sitting at their drafting tables, reading paperbacks. Nobody made a sound, so the bean-counters wouldn’t hear their inactivity, and fire them. It was foreboding.

My slender finances permitted a day-old loaf of bread, bracketed by 2 cups of watery coffee I got somewhere. The Y, with the vending machine, and the corner carryout was a mirage. Ghetto life in its full ’70s glory was on full display. Street-life characters could only afford one aspect of the Look; the apple cap, the chunky shoes, the high-rise flared pants. The rest of their outfits lagged a decade behind.

I threw in the towel on Wednesday. Caught the bus outta there, back down in painful slowness to Columbus, then back to Athens. The closer I got, the slower it became. I lulled myself to sleep with notions that it wasn’t always going to be this cold and bleak, and somehow I’d have a job, and get laid more often than not.

Once I got to Athens, I started walking through the deserted town,  out to Rt 50, and hitched a ride out to Albany. I then walked the last 2 miles from Albany out to the farm. I think I walked up the road to the house that semi-gray, raw March day, and saw Laird schooling a horse in the ring. Arnold was holed up in his office. I changed back into my workwear.

That summer I was a poorly-paid camp counsellor to the children of rich Texans in New Mexico. I nominally taught art, and having never taught art, made shit up. It was terrifying. I’d gotten out of the mud for 6 weeks; got drunk, fell in love, became fast friends for the summer with people I never saw again.

The “Plan B” Photo Shoot Weekend

Saturday, June 28 2009, 1945hr

I was on location at the finish line of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. The winner was due in about an hour.

I was setting up my lights—A Norman 2000 power pack, 2 lamp heads, one with softbox, the other with translucent umbrella. I was taking preliminary flash readings when I heard a loud cracking sound from the powerpack, followed by a slow puff of smoke. I toggled the switches, hoping that I had been hallucinating. The test switch was inoperative. I had a dead power-pack.

I could’ve been totally screwed. However—I’d packed my Lighting Plan B: 2 Vivitar 283s, 2 285s, a radio slave, and some Wein Peanuts. Incidentally, the case was a dumpster salvage from Art Center, thanks to my friend Lars who is the Shop Supervisor at the Lida St campus.

case and strobes

Salvaged heaven—two date-expired camera cases, 283s, 285s, in a vintage Mole-Richardson carrying case. I’ve since reorganized all strobes, cables, chargers, battery-packs into a split-level Black & Decker wheelie tool-locker.

I quickly took new readings. The winner arrives. I make my shots, and await the next runners.

Over the next 12 hours I photograph another 40 runners. Not every finisher makes it to the studio—they’re wasted, distracted, otherwise not interested. No matter, its not a mandatory.


site shoot plan

site shoot plan

  1. 283 firing into silver umbrella at purple setting
  2. 285 set to 1/4 power, firing thru translucent umbrella
  3. 283 set to 1/4 power, stofen’d, set to 1/4 power
  4. Film: Kodak TriX ASA 320, 1989 vintage, shooting at 1/250 f 4
  5. Camera, with 4i Radio Slave

So far, so good. Until about 0945 on Sunday. The 80mm lens on the Hassy decided it’s had enough. The Plan B Camera is pulled from the green room—the Yashicamat 124.

Plan B camera and strobist flash units, inside vintage case.

I shot the remaining roll of Kodak 160 in it, then switch off to Kodak ASA 400 TCN. Keep shooting.

Now comes the fun part: had I learned anything in the last 6 months, and more importantly, did I remember when I needed it?

I’d heard about using small strobes for big jobs. To tell the truth, I didn’t quite believe it. Looking back I needed to have big lights dump light to overcome a tendency to underexpose.

Realizing I needed more information, I’d started to read the back in December ’08, as these guys are all about creative solutions with small strobes.

Over the years I’d collected a stable of Vivitar 283s and 285s. No, I couldn’t afford Nikon Speedlights, and yes, I’m a primitivist. These Vivitars are the AK-47s of flash—sturdy warhorses that dump an unholy amount of light. Even dialed down to 1/4 power, they make a lot of magic, and go all night.

When I got the film back, I saw that overall reduced light at night gave me rich shadow and modeling. As the sun came up behind the light-proofed backdrop, the same settings opened up deep shadows in the faces, and left enough modelling so there was dimensionality. By 11:00, the official end of the race, the sun was nearly overhead to give that special “hair-light” effect.

With less than 30min before the official close of the race, the sun is high in the sky, and strobes open up the shadow areas.

image taken around 1030am.

A major added benefit of smaller strobes: a lot less weight in travel, quicker setups and knockdowns, and the versatility of photo-guerilla shooting. I’m a way happier camper now.

Oh yeah: all the pix right here.