Day 4: Back to Boston

Today we said goodbye to our relatives in Plattsburgh and returned to the airport in Boston.

This was mostly a “pounding down the miles” kind of day, but there was a brief opportunity for photos while we took the ferry from Plattsburgh to Burlington.

Tomorrow my parents head back to Seattle. Ayla and I “cross the pond” and will land in London tomorrow evening. The European adventure begins!


What Did You Decide? · Lake Champlain Ferry, Plattsburgh, New York

What Did You Decide? · Lake Champlain Ferry, Plattsburgh, New York

(Plattsburgh, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts · 275 mi / 443 km)

(Plattsburgh, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts · 275 mi / 443 km)

Day 3: Goats and Alpacas and Ponies, Oh My!

(Day 2 was mostly family visiting, so I left it out of the blog.)

Today we visited my cousin's farm southwest of Plattsburgh. Mostly notable for the animals (which Ayla positively loved) and a dramatic sunset / cloudscape that I shot in infrared.

Walking in Light · Jay, New York

Walking in Light · Jay, New York

Ayla asked me to add this (very brief) comment on today for the blog: With the alpacas, long necks are long.

Day 1: Leaving Home

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my home and the wonderful island on which I live. I'm blessed to live in a beautiful place with such a great circle of friends.

View of Mount Rainier from my patio. (iPhone capture, just before leaving)

View of Mount Rainier from my patio. (iPhone capture, just before leaving)

So why leave this?

Simple. I am quintessentially restless and curious about the rest of the world. I've always returned from every trip eager to begin the next exploration. Some of my warmest and most vivid childhood memories stem from family roadtrips. My parents planted the travel bug in me and it took hold. Vigorously.

So this summer I'm aiming to visit as many new parts of Europe as I can manage.

I plan to share photos, anecdotes, and a map of where I've been each day (or at least as close to each day as I can muster).

(Seattle, WA, to Plattsburgh, NY – 3002 mi / 4832 km)

So, why … you may ask … am I kicking off my grand European tour in Plattsburgh, New York? Seems a little off course, no? Simple. We have very dear family who live here and we're taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some quality time with them. And, besides … it's on the way, right?

A red-eye flight and a 6-hour drive left us pretty weary and eager to arrive where we had a warm bed waiting for us, so not much photography today.


Upcoming Europe Trip

Tap … tap … this thing still on?

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

I'm reviving this long-dormant blog to share some upcoming adventures. This summer, I'll be taking advantage of one of my favorite of Adobe's employee benefits, the sabbatical. As many of you know, I love to travel and I have always enjoyed my time in Europe, so what better thing to do than more Europe?

I'll try to write daily (or almost daily) about places, experiences, and, of course, photos. (If an Eric visits a place and there isn't a photo, did he really visit that place?)

Here's what's booked so far …


The adventure begins June 24. Check back soon!


Seeing Red and Loving It: Mirrorless vs DSLR for Infrared

If you’ve been following my photoblog of late (see on 500px, Facebook, or my own site), you know that I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with infrared photography. I’ve finally settled on a camera that I really like and in this article, I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned along the way. 

Why Infrared?

Funny you should ask. Have a look at these images I’ve created over the past couple of years:

I enjoy IR because it lets me create contrasts in scenes that wouldn’t otherwise have them.

I enjoy IR because it makes high-noon — especially when it’s hot outside — a fabulous time to make images.

So, if you’re similarly interested … here are some of my thoughts about the process:

Suggestion: Rent Before You Buy

This is not bad advice even for visible-light cameras, but I think it’s especially relevant when you’re working with infrared. I rented three IR-modified cameras before I finally pulled the trigger and bought one. I’ve rented from both BorrowLenses and LensRentals and had top-notch experiences with both.

Observant readers might note that I said something on Twitter around Labor Day about a failed camera from LensRentals. Turns out the shutter had a massive failure either during shipping or immediately upon arrival. What I should have mentioned soon after, but didn't, is that they were extremely responsive and had a new camera to me in time for the trip I was taking. Very impressed.

As of this writing, it looks like BorrowLenses no longer carries IR-modded cameras; LensRentals has several.

DSLRs Can Be Challenging for Infrared

I’ll admit it: I’m a creature of habit. I’ve been shooting for more than 20 years now. I started with Canon SLRs (well before digital became commonplace) and I’ve stayed with Canon to this day. My main workhorse camera for visible-light photography is a 5D Mark II.

So you can understand why my first instinct was to try IR-modded Canon bodies. I have tried a Canon 5D (original) and a 5D Mark III on various recent trips, and while I came away with images that I like, I also wound up with a lot of images that were technically flawed — badly underexposed, badly focused, or sometimes both.

Why? I think it has to do with how DSLRs are constructed and the physics of infrared vs visible light. Remember that in a DSLR, the sensor is used only for recording the final-form image. In general (yes, there are exceptions), a separate mechanism is used when you ask the camera to help with focus and exposure. The light that is driving that decision is reflected — at an angle — by the mirror, away from the image sensor.

When you are shooting with an unmodified camera, you don’t typically think about that because the camera’s focus and exposure sensors are tuned to read visible light and respond appropriately. But when the sensor is modified for infrared, the exposure meter and focus mechanism are not modified, so they are still reading visible light.

This means auto-exposure is likely to underexpose significantly. One to two stops is typical in my experience, but that may vary wildly based on the scene. Since you are still seeing visible light through the viewfinder, it may be difficult for you to anticipate the extent of that underexposure.

Focus is even more likely to be in error. Remember how light splits into its various color components when it passes through a prism? (For example: sunlight + rain = rainbow.) This also happens as light is guided through your camera’s lens and mirror. Infrared light will focus at a different point than visible light, but a DSLR camera’s focusing mechanism isn’t necessarily tuned for the infrared focus point. (For more detail, see LifePixel’s tutorial on infrared photography, especially the section titled “How light waves focus at different points.”)

Most DSLRs, when modified for infrared, will be adjusted to focus correctly when used with a 50mm lens, but at other focal lengths are prone to focus errors. Speaking from experience shooting with zoom lenses on the Canon bodies I used, it’s very easy to forget to reset to the “correct” focal length and very difficult to guess at the correct focus compensation when you’re in that situation. A lot of my failed images were due to focus issues that I don’t experience often when shooting with my normal Canon body.

I had thought for some time that I would buy a second Canon body and have it modified for infrared, but after my two rentals, I lost confidence that I would be satisfied with that as a long-term plan.

Edit: A common thought among photographers is to take an older DSLR body that they wouldn’t otherwise be using and have it modified for infrared. Before doing that, please remember that infrared generally cuts 1-2 stops from your available light. Older sensors are typically not as good at handling low-light situations. If, like me, you prefer to shoot mostly handheld, that may mean your older DSLR is going to give you images with more grain or more motion blur than you’d like after the modification.

So Maybe Mirrorless?

Having heard friends speak highly of mirrorless cameras for visible light photography, I decided for my most recent trip that I should seek out an IR-modified mirrorless camera.

My theory was that, since mirrorless cameras use the same sensor for exposure and focus decisions as for the final image, the problems I described above would go away. So, to test that theory, I rented a Sony a7R modified for 720nm infrared from Lens Rentals.

Long story short: My theory was right. I took this camera with me on a two-week roadtrip through the southwestern desert US and it performed very, very well.

As a mirrorless skeptic, I have to say I’ve been impressed with the quality of the lens and sensor. 36 megapixels and the images are sharp, even at 1:1!

Here are some samples from this trip:

I liked the camera enough that I bought it from LensRentals. (As of this writing, they have a new one available for rental again.)

For the curious, I’ve since learned that the IR modification on my camera was done by Kolari Vision. I’ve also heard good things about the conversions done by LifePixel, but I don’t have any direct experience with them.

I’ve still got a nice backlog of images from this trip to work up and post, and I look forward to shooting and sharing more.

South America Trip Recap

Well, I’m back from my amazing trip to South America. Having had a few days to rest and catch up, I thought I’d share some reflections on how it went.

Where We Went

All told, I travelled about 20,000 miles in 16 flight segments over 28 days. Tara had less time available so she joined me for the subset of the trip from Rio to Buenos Aires.

Note: We live in Seattle, but I left off the SEA-ATL flight legs to give more room for detail in South America. Don’t worry – I’ll translate the airport codes to real names in just a bit. (Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper, copyright © Karl L. Swartz.)

Note: We live in Seattle, but I left off the SEA-ATL flight legs to give more room for detail in South America. Don’t worry – I’ll translate the airport codes to real names in just a bit.

(Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper, copyright © Karl L. Swartz.)

Knowing that I had some lay-low time after the trip (i.e. now!), I pushed for an agenda that was intentionally ambitious and nomadic. Neither Tara nor I had seen any part of South America prior to this trip and, being the curious people that we are, we wanted to see as much as we could in the time we had available.

Some thoughts about each of the places we visited along with the photoblog posts they inspired:

Rio de Janiero, Brazil (GIG):

I think of Rio as a study in contrasts. You can’t get around in the city without seeing the favelas, home to so many who have no obvious hope for escape. And then there are amazing little corners of beauty. I spent the first couple of nights in the Santa Tereza neighborhood (Hotel Santa Tereza, a last minute find, was expensive but gorgeous) and enjoyed the little coffee shop / restaurant around the corner so much I went back the second night I was there.

Salvador, Brazil (SSA):

The Salvador leg of the trip was a last-minute improvisation. Salvador is Brazil’s third largest city. I stayed in a 16th-century convent that has been lovingly restored into a boutique hotel and absolutely adored it. (Expect a photo essay on this hotel once I have time to process the photos.)

The hotel is on the edge of Salvador’s historic Pelourinho district, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because there was a lot of interesting subject matter to shoot within easy walking district. A curse because everyone warned me that I needed to be hyper-vigilant due to the high rate of street crime in that area. So I took relatively short walks in daylight in areas I came to know and feel safer in. Being a very fair-skinned person with an expensive camera around my neck definitely made me feel highly visible.

I took a day trip to Praia do Forte, about 45 miles east of Salvador. It was crazy hot and humid that day (about 98°F with humidity to match, I think). It’s definitely a touristy resort, but still offered some interesting sights and a welcome contrast to the urban center of Salvador. Some of my favorite infrared photos are from there (Fireworks at Noon and Someday My Ship Will Come In).

A side note about hotel safes: They may not be all they’re cracked up to be. My friend Anne Archambault wrote on her blog, “Why using a hotel safe may just be pointing thieves to your precious valuables.” Almost exactly the same thing happened to me here. In my case, the safe was battery-powered and the battery failed while the safe was locked. I got a similar demo of how easy it is to open a safe with a crowbar. (It took five minutes here, not two, but still … not exactly reassuring.) A couple of days later I noticed that an unlocked iPhone I had carried with me for use later in the trip was missing (and also got a notice that a Brazilian phone number had tried to connect to my iCloud account). The last place I know I had the phone was in the safe that had been opened. It’s certainly possible I fumbled it later in the trip (I am known for acts of forgetfulness!), but I have to wonder if the phone was swiped during that exercise or later during my stay.

Iguazú Falls, Brazil/Argentina (IGU/IGR):

Wow isn’t enough for this place. The name Iguazú is adapted from an indigenous name meaning “big water.” That still isn’t enough to describe it. The important thing to understand when looking at any of the photos I’m showing here is that they each represent a small portion of the falls.

Look closely at the first of these photos (Iguazu Falls) to see the full-size picture. See those little white specks in the lower right corner? Those are people standing on an observation deck far below where I was standing. Getting a sense of scale yet?

Yeah. It’s that big.

Montevideo, Uruguay (MVD):

On our second day in Montevideo, we decided to go for a drive in the countryside. I haven’t worked up any of the photos from that tour yet, but we were struck by the resemblance to the rolling hills of midwestern farm country. Aside from some differences of building style, we could easily have been in rural Minnesota or South Dakota.

Punta del Este, Uruguay (PDP):

Punta del Este is an upscale resort community about a two-hour drive from Montevideo. It’s obvious as you drive into town that this is where the money flows to in Uruguay. There are miles upon miles of gleaming towers of beach-view condo buildings, probably catering to wealthy foreign visitors or immigrants. Aside from the roads being a little rougher and (some of) the signs being in Spanish, you could easily fool yourself into thinking you were in an American resort community.

There’s an interesting halo effect, though, in that the coastal communities for 30 miles or so either side of PdE have a very nice relaxed but still upscale feel to it. Or at least it did when we were there – we intentionally missed the “high season” of January.

The lighthouse picture above was taken in the quiet fishing village of José Ignacio, about 25 miles northeast of PdE. I joked to Tara, “Welcome to Mendocino,” as we drove into town (a reference to Mendocino, California, one of our favorite hangouts when we can find a bit of extra time in the Golden State). I’ve since learned that José Ignacio leads a double life as a celebrity/socialite getaway in January, but there was almost no sign of that when we were there in early December.

Colonia, Uruguay:

And now for something completely different!

If Punta del Este is everything modern and hip in Uruguay, Colonia is everything historic and quaint. The center of the city has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and still maintains much of what I have to assume was its original feel. I really enjoyed the historic district. The photo above is just one of many I enjoyed from there. Stay tuned: I have more to share as I have time to sort through them.

We stayed at the Costa Colonia Riverside Hotel on the north edge of the historic district. For all the historic flavor of the city center, this hotel was obviously a recent construction: very trendy, but enjoyable. We had a nice view out over the Río de la Plata.

Buenos Aires, Argentina (AEP):

Not a lot to say about Buenos Aires since we had only a day here and it was Tara’s last day on the trip. We heard a lot about BA and I think we would have enjoyed more time there had it been feasible. Some other trip, I hope.

El Calafate, Argentina (FTE):

And now (again) for something completely different! The flight to El Calafate marked my respite from the heat and humidity of the first two weeks (and for this cold-blooded northwoods boy, that was a very welcome change indeed!). El Calafate is a clean, quiet town in far southern Patagonia with something like 22,000 people – and almost no development to speak of beyond the city limits. The highlight of the trip was a tour of El Perito Moreno glacier, pictured above.

Andes Crossing from San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina (BRC) to Puerto Varas, Chile (PMC):

If you’re ever in the mid-Patagonia region, I highly recommend finding a day or two for the Andes Crossing. The trip connects the two lake resort communities with a nice combination of bus and boats through relatively undeveloped mountain country. If I had it to do over again, I’d have taken the two-day option and spent the night in the quiet village of Puella, Chile. On the one-day trip, we stopped there for lunch (great hotel/restaurant). The boat picture above is from Puella.

I didn’t get much chance to explore Puerto Varas, Chile, where I spent the night, due to a heavy, heavy rainstorm, but I think I would have liked it a lot. I found people (taxi drivers, hotel staff, restaurant, etc.) very friendly and very helpful. The city was unusually clean and orderly as South American cities go.

Santiago, Chile (SCL):

I had a 6-hour layover in Santiago on the way from Puerto Varas to Ecuador, so there wasn’t a lot of time. I did hire a taxi driver to take me round-trip from the airport into the city and back. No blog-worthy photos from that brief tour though.

Cuenca, Ecuador (CUE):

After a brief overnight in Quito, I flew down to Cuenca for a couple of days.

Cuenca’s old city retains a lot of its historical flavor, both in its building and also in its people. I especially enjoyed the chollas, older women of the traditional communities surrounding Cuenca who come into the city to sell various handmade goods and produce. I regret that I didn’t quite capture a suitable picture of a cholla. (A few that I saw were reluctant to have photos taken.) The woman above was working in a market, but wasn't quite dressed in that traditional style.

Quito, Ecuador (UIO):

This stage of the trip was just a few days before Christmas. Cuenca, being a very, very Catholic community (96% according to my tour guide) was in the throes of celebrating the holiday. My first full day there was the last day of the school year and so I was treated to lots of parades in which students of all ages were marching from church services back to the end-of-year party at school. (Many schools there are church-run.) The parades were very elaborate, with heavily-decorated cars and trucks and marching bands. Parents and grandparents would stand on the sidewalk and watch the parade and police blocked traffic as each parade passed.

My second day in Quito (and the last full day on the trip) was the Saturday before Christmas. As you might imagine, the city was completely overrun with last-minute shoppers and I think having a car would be a curse on that day. It was difficult enough to navigate the city on foot. Unlike typical US cities, the “market” is largely conducted outside with street vendors in booths and impromptu tents along the sidewalks. I was warned against walking alone with expensive camera equipment especially on that day, so I settled for iPhone pictures and videos of the pedestrian chaos. (Maybe someday I’ll share some of those.)

Quito and Rio share honors for most badly run airports I experienced in South America. My flight from Santiago landed about an hour later than scheduled, which meant its arrival coincided with two large flights from the US. It took over an hour from walking into the terminal to getting my passport stamped and almost another hour to get my luggage cleared. Given that this all started at 11pm, I was a bit grumpy by the end of the process. (There was a similarly lengthy delay upon entry to Rio.)

Where Would I Go Next?

Lots of people had suggestions for other places I should have visited on this trip. In no particular order, these come to mind should we be decide to make a South America Trip #2:

  • Peru, especially including Machu Picchu

  • Galapagos Islands (of course)

  • Wine country of Mendoza, Argentina

  • Pantanal region of Brazil

  • Far southern Chile (lakes and fjords farther south than I visited)

  • Columbia (This may be the most surprising entry of this list, but I’ve heard from many sources that Columbia’s safety has improved dramatically in the past few years and it’s fast becoming a very appealing and even trendy place to visit.)

Some of these were just the painful sacrifices one must inevitably make when setting a time and dollar budget for a trip. Some I just didn’t know enough about beforehand.

Thank Yous

No trip of this scale would be possible without some important contributions from key people. A big think you to …

  • my parents, for watching our 4-year-old daughter while both Tara and I were away. Thanks also to Margaret, Donna, and Lyndsey for providing them some much-needed relief.
  • my wife, for running the show at home on her own for the extra time while I was away alone.
  • my daughter, for being very patient while one or both of us were away. She was a real trouper.
  • Rollie Haugen of Ladyslipper Travel in Walker, MN. This is the third trip she has planned for us. (The previous two were our trips to Costa Rica and New Zealand/Fiji in 2007.) Each of these trips have come together very smoothly for us. In each each case, she did a great job of blending our input with some great ideas of her own.
  • Adobe, for offering a very generous sabbatical program (6 weeks of continuous time off for old-timers like me plus the holiday shutdown that everybody takes) — and for paying me well enough that I could afford a big trip like this.
  • My co-workers, for actually leaving me alone while I was away. I needed the break more than I knew.
  • Flavia Cosmelli of Blumar Travel in Rio de Janeiro. I had planned to spend my first week traveling with a friend and fellow photographer who knows Brazil well. Due to some family circumstances, she had to cancel at the last minute and so I arrived in Brazil with nothing more than a hotel reservation I had made for the first two nights. Rollie was out of town and suggested I work directly with her partner agency in Rio to fill in the gaps. Flavia answered my “call” on their online chat application and stayed with me for most of an afternoon as we navigated the very limited supply of last-minute lodging and domestic flights and came up with some great ideas. She suggested the Salvador leg of my trip and I was happy to see this historic side of Brazil.
  • BorrowLenses for providing some great camera equipment to complement my own. I rented an infrared-modified Canon 5D body and a 100-400 mm lens for this trip. The rental process was very straightforward. The equipment arrived exactly on the scheduled day and in perfect condition. The only downside was that I had to send it all back after the trip! I have a feeling I’m going to have to acquire an IR modded camera.
  • you, for following along. I’ve enjoyed the comments you’ve posted here, on Facebook, and on 500px, etc., as the trip progressed. Now that I’ve finished this piece and the many tasks associated with returning to home, I’ll return to posting photos soon. I’ll be doing a mix of photos from South America and other locations as inspiration strikes me.

Slow Photography

“Take lots of great photos!”

That was the most common farewell comment before I embarked on this journey. While I appreciate the well-wishes from friends who appreciate my photography, I’m very consciously trying to shoot less.

Why, you ask, would I want to shoot less when I’m on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a faraway land?

It came from a bit of reflection before I left. I often feel as though I’m drowning in photos waiting to be processed and shared with the world. So much so that I often just do the editing part and don’t get around to the sharing part.

So I made a decision before I left to try to shoot less and (hopefully) shoot better.

I call this “slow photography” as a bit of an homage to the slow food movement.

Several years ago, I took a photography workshop from John Paul Caponigro (highly recommended, BTW). He said something that’s been rattling around in my brain ever since:

I’d rather have you make one great photograph while you’re here than a whole bunch of almost-great photos.
— John Paul Caponigro

It’s taken me years and a lot of seeing my own “almost-great” photos go in the never-to-be-shown folder or deleted outright, but I’m finally taking his advice.

This photoblog series that I’ve been doing since fall of 2011 (see it here, on 500px, and on Facebook) was the first step in this line of thinking: I’ve limited myself to at most one photo per day since I started it (with very rare exceptions). I think that limit helps me think more clearly about what I’m sharing. It forces me to discard or delay that which isn’t up to snuff. (That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes lay an egg. There are clearly some that haven’t been as well received as others, but that feedback is helpful too!)

Now I’m applying that same line of thinking to this trip. I’m avoiding shots I know I’ll discard later. I’m looking at what I’m shooting and making sure I’m happy with the results before I move on. And if I come home with fewer photographs, but they are of higher quality, that will make me happy.

How minimal am I being? At the end of the fifth day of my trip, I have:

  • 4 photos I’ve shared on the photoblog
  • about 6 more that I’ve shared with friends only on Facebook
  • 8 photos in the edit queue (i.e. likely to be shared, but I haven’t committed to them yet)
  • 32 photos in the not-to-be-shared queue

I’ve probably outright discarded another 50 or so photos (I don’t keep count) for lacking technical or artistic merit (i.e. badly out of focus or badly composed).

And that’s it.

So what benefits do I get from going slow?

The editing process is pretty relaxed this way. I shoot for a few hours, have a drink and edit for a while, and I’m not up all night getting it done. And, hey, I even have time left over to write blog articles. :-)

There’s enough Internet bandwidth from where I am (not a lot, but enough) that everything so far is fully backed up at home and elsewhere, so even if (shudder) I lose the laptop or camera, the pixels will survive.

And I feel really happy with what I’ve created so far.

Slow food may or may not appeal to you. Similarly, slow photography may or may not appeal to you. (And there are certainly cases — sports and fast-moving wildlife come to mind — where it makes sense to shoot fast and furious.)

But, for this trip, where my subjects aren’t moving fast, I’m liking it.

If you've enjoyed this, consider following me here or elsewhere for more photos and more talk about photography.

Lightroom Technique: How I Organize My Catalog and Why (2012 Edition)

Many of you have asked if my Lightroom organizational technique has evolved since my 2009 article (no longer available). It has. In this article, I describe some of my latest thinking on Lightroom organization. As with past versions of this article, I share my current practices here not because I want to preach that this is the One True Way to Organize Your Photos, but to provide a starting point for you in setting up your own Lightroom workflow. If this fits as a whole, great! If not, pick and choose what works for you and adapt the rest to meet your needs.

I’m writing this just as Lightroom 4 has been announced (congrats to my friends and former teammates!), but I’ve been using this technique for a while with Lightroom 3 and everything I write here should apply equally well to either version.

Several of you in comments on the 2009 article predicted that the multiple-catalog approach would turn out to be painful, and indeed it was. So now, having gone out and bashed on the idea of One Big Catalog, I’m now back to organizing my photography that way, and I’ve found a way to do it that satisfies the concerns I had raised back then.

Overview: What Goes Where and When

As I said I’m back to One Big Catalog, but it retains some of the key elements that I described in the 2009 article. Here’s a snapshot of my current Lightroom folders panel:

Folders panel.

Folders panel.

So what’s in these folders?

  • Edit Queue: These are the photos that are in flux and likely to change frequently in the near future. The folks at Dropbox may hate me for saying this because it consumes a lot of upload bandwidth, but this folder actually lives on Dropbox so that I can count on these files being backed up regardless of whether I’m at home or away.
    • Edit Stage 1 - Basic Metadata: This is where photos first get imported. They’re organized by date. The date folders are generated by Lightroom from the capture date. I keep photos here until I’ve attached basic metadata to them (who’s in the photo, where was it taken, etc.).
    • Edit Stage 2 - Triage: Once I’ve completed the basic metadata, I move photos here while I decide how or if I’ll process them further. The subfolders here are manually assigned. If I’m traveling, the folder will be named for the start date of the trip and its location (i.e. “2007-11-26+ New Zealand + Fiji”). If not, I’ll generally name it for a year and the major theme (i.e. “2012 Family”).

      I initially experimented with having more edit stages (and more may make sense for you, depending on your workflow habits), but these two stages seem to make sense for me.
  • Display: These are the (non-family) photos that I have decided to share in public. They get moved here when I’ve decided on a final rendering of the photo. The subfolders are the same names that you saw in Edit Stage 2 - Triage above. There’s a little bit more depth than that and I’ll explain that a bit later.
  • Display (Family and Friends): Same as Display, but for the personal photos.
  • Not for Display: These are the photos that didn’t make the cut for either of the Display folders. You could think of this as an external drive that I typically leave at home.
  • Other: Photos that I want to keep for handy reference, but that aren’t really “display” photos in the typical sense (for instance, historical family photos).
  • All Raw: This is left over from the 2009 system. I pull photos out of here as I re-edit them, but otherwise, it’s simpler for me to leave things as they were.

In my 2009 article, I listed some complaints with my previous system. Let’s circle back to those complaints and see how I’ve answered them in this new system:

  • I wanted to have my best photography with me in a way that I could get to easily. The new Display folder is small enough that it fits easily on my laptop hard drive. (It does help that I’m now using a laptop with a 500GB drive instead of the <200GB drive I had in 2009. 😀 It also helps that I’m still editing very, very conservatively and showing maybe 1% of what I shoot.)
  • I wanted to avoid showing my less-than-best photography. Again, the new Display folder serves as an automatic filter for the work I’ve chosen to spend the most time on.
  • I was spending too much time placing photos in folders based on location. I’m no longer segregating photos by each location on a trip as I was in 2008, but rather placing all photos from a trip together in one big folder. This has proven much more manageable for me over time.

Getting Started: Importing Photos

As I mentioned before, photos initially land in the Edit Stage 1 folder. Here’s how the import dialog looks when I use it:

My typical import settings.

My typical import settings.

Let’s walk through the dialog and we’ll see why I choose each setting:

  • Import Method (not shown  in this screen shot): I usually, but not always, copy as DNG immediately upon import. I prefer DNGs over RAW files because the metadata cannot be separated from the image data. (In other words, I don’t like the requirement that raw files have a separate XMP “sidecar” file sitting next to them.) If I don’t do this conversion immediately, it’s because I’m in a hurry at that time. I always convert to DNG at some point in the workflow; the only question is when do I take the time hit.
  • Initial Previews:Depending on how much time I have at the moment, I switch between Minimal and 1:1.
  • File Renaming: My file naming template is a fairly simple one: my initials, an import sequence number, and an image sequence number. This numbering sequence flows back to my film days (when it was roll# and frame#) and helps me ensure that the number never changes. If I were starting fresh, I might use something date-based, but this works well for me.
  • Apply During Import:
    • Develop Settings: I apply a template that sets Process Version 2012, auto tone, and auto lens profile.
    • Metadata: I apply my copyright information right off the bat using a template that contains my copyright and contact information.
    • Keywords: I never apply keywords in the import dialog because there are almost always multiple subjects in my photos.
    • Destination: This is the Edit Stage 1 folder inside my Dropbox folder as described above. I have Lightroom organize into folders by date as a starting point for organization.

Edit Stage 1: Basic Metadata

Typically photos live in this stage fairly briefly until I can add some very basic metadata to them. I don’t always perform these steps in the same order, but I always do each step for every photo:

  • Throw out the obvious crap. If a photo is badly technically flawed (seriously out of focus, badly exposed, etc.), I throw it out (i.e. delete it) as soon as possible. If it’s blurry today, it’s going to be blurry tomorrow and will still be blurry ten years from now. Don’t waste your time or storage on it.
  • Add location metadata. While I can still remember where it is, I mark every photo for location using the Location tagset in the Metadata panel. I fill in Location (if applicable), City, State, and Country. (Change from 2009: I no longer populate the country code as I find that some photo sites — notably Flickr — pick up the country code and make an unwanted keyword out of it.)
  • Geocode. As much as possible, I add GPS track log data to each photo. (In 2007, back when we were all using Lightroom 1.2, I wrote an article, “Geocoding Your Photos with Lightroom and HoudahGeo,” about my process at the time. I just started using Lightroom 4 and its map module a few weeks ago, so I’ll wait to write more about that until I get into a new pattern.)
  • Convert to DNG (if not done at import time).
  • Clear the card or phone, but not until I have a confirmed backup. Since I place my Edit Queue on Dropbox, the back up happens automatically whenever I’m online. I wait until I see that Dropbox is fully up to date before clearing photos off of the original source. Whether you use Dropbox or not, I can’t stress the importance of backups enough: Bad Things happen to computer hard drives (theft, media failure, etc.) and they invariably happen at Very Inconvenient Times. Though painful and maybe costly, you can always replace a lost, damaged, or failed computer or camera. The odds that you can recapture what you’ve photographed are a lot smaller.

At this stage, I’m not making much of an artistic judgement about the photos, I’m just trying to get some of the raw mechanics out of the way.

Moving to Edit Stage 2

When I have a bit more time (sometimes the same day, sometimes many days later), I’ll organize them into folders that help me find them later. Since a lot of my photography happens when I travel, I often use the trip as an organizing metaphor. For those that are taken around home, I organize a bit more by subject. I encourage you to think about how and when you shoot; there may be be more important dividing lines for you than the ones I’m citing. Whatever the dividing line, I think it helps if it satisfies the following criteria:

  • It isn’t likely to change over time. This is why I avoid sorting by keywords. A photo might fit into several categories. Consider the photo at right: Would you put it in a birds folder, a street scenes folder, a people folder, a Greece folder, a Mykonos folder, or … ? You get the point. There are many concepts being shown in the photo and they are at odds with each other. Where folders are concerned, you have to make a single choice.
  • You shouldn’t have to make a photo-by-photo decision. That’s too time-consuming. If I’m traveling, I can often select all photos from a single date folder and say these are all in the ___ trip. Taking the same photo again, I might decide to place it in a birds folder, but then the next photo could be about something completely different.

My naming criteria at this point is:

  • If I’m traveling, I name the folder for the first day of the trip followed by the major destination(s) on the trip. I use year-month-day formatting so the trips sort sequentially. If the trip spans multiple days, I’ll use a + sign after the date to remind me of that, as in “2008-04-12+ Holland” in this screen shot.
  • If I’m shooting a special subject locally, I’ll mark it year-month-date name of subject. In this screen shot, you can see “2012-02-02 Ferry Sunrise.”
  • If it’s a recurring theme (i.e. photos of my family), I’ll mark it for the year and the subject, but will avoid getting more detailed than that. For example, “2012 Family.” If there‘s no theme that makes sense, I'll just call it “Random” as in “2012 Random.”

I also fill in the IPTC job field at this same time with the same name I’ve given the folder. You’ll see why a bit later.

The end result of this process is the photos end up roughly sorted by major subject area and ready for me to think through them more carefully when I have time.

Edit Stage 2 – Triage

What does require careful thought is deciding what photos make it out into the public eye. I shoot a lot of duplicates and a lot of variations on a theme until I get to something that makes me happy. Typically I share 1-2% of what I shoot; as you can imagine, it takes some effort to make those cuts.

I use color labels to indicate a final decision about each photo’s fate. Once a photo has a color label, I’m stating that I’m done with the editing process for that photo and it’s ready to leave the edit queue. The color labels I use are as follows:

I start by looking for quick and obvious outtakes. These are the photos that passed the “obvious crap” filter from stage 1, but just don’t have the oomph to be something I’d like to share with the world. I use a filter called “Anything But ‘Do Not Show’ or ‘Candidate’.” (Download my filter presets here.)

The nice thing about this is that I can quickly zip through photos, culling them by pressing 6 (crap, but I don’t want to delete it) or 7 (meh). The moment I press a key, the photo disappears from the grid or loupe view and I'm on to the next one. There are many variations on this approach (many use pick flags or star ratings). I happen to like this approach, but the others are perfectly valid.

Eventually I’ll whittle the initial set of photos down to one or a handful of photos that I think have some potential. On those photos, then I’ll spend the time in the Develop module to polish them as I see fit, and then I’ll assign the green or blue label (“Display …”) to those photos.

Clearing Out the Edit Queue

The goal of the edit queue folder is to be a temporary working space until I’ve done my editing and developing work on my photographs. Once I’ve completed that work for a reasonably large batch of photos, it’s time to kick them out of the nest. Usually I do this for several days’ worth of photos at once, so I don’t have to spend as much time on it. I usually do this when I’m at home when my backup drive is readily available. If I’m away from home, I’ll let the photos live in the edit queue until I’m back home.

Here again, I use library filters (again, download my filter presets here) to make this job easier. This time, I’m looking for those photos that do have specific labels. So, to move the good photos into the Display folder, I’ll look for those with the green label and move those into corresponding folders in the Display tree. I add a small bit of extra hierarchy here just to keep it from getting too big, like this:

The details aren’t important — and, of course, will depend on what you shoot — but the important thing is to keep a reasonable number of folders at each level. And, of course, I repeat the same thing for the “Not for Display” photos.

This looks a lot like the Incubator to Selects step from my 2009 workflow, except that I’m no longer doing the import and export catalog work. It winds up giving me nearly the same effect with a lot less work, and it works well if I decide to re-process a photo (which I’ve been doing a lot of lately).

Smart Collections

For the most part, I’m able to find the photos I want just by browsing the Display or Edit Queue folder trees or by using other filters in the metadata browser. Occasionally, however, I do want a roll-up of photos that are located in different places. In those cases, I use a smart collection like this:

This smart collection shows me all of the photos from my recent trip to Nevada and Utah (this is why I populate the IPTC job field) that are either marked for display or not yet marked at all (i.e. still in edit queue).

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article was helpful to you. I know the comments in previous versions of the article were helpful and thought-provoking for me.

Thank you for reading!

Lightroom Technique: Staying Organized with Controlled Vocabulary

Do too many keywords in your Lightroom catalog have you spinning round and round?

Here are a couple of simple tricks I use to keep me organized with over 10,000 keywords in my catalog.

Organize Your Keywords with Category Headers

I’m a big fan of David Rieck’s Controlled Vocabulary Keyword Catalog. It’s a well-organized and (for me, at least) comprehensive keyword set. I believe my keywording is much richer for using the CVKC. But … it can also be intimidating. 11,000 keywords? How do you manage all that?

In designing the way I use keywords in my catalog, I was looking for answers to a few questions:

  • I have my keywords organized hierarchically (not just the ones I get from CVKC; there are others of my own). If I add a new keyword, how will I remember to make sure it has a home in the hierarchy?
  • How can I keep the CVKC keywords separate from other keywords I’ve derived on my own (like members of my family)?

The solution, for me, was to place all of my keywords under top-level category headers, as shown here:

Keywords panel.

Keywords panel.

The important things about these category headers are:

  • The names make them gravitate to the top or bottom of the keyword list. If I add a new keyword via the Keywording panel and forget to find a home for it in the hierarchy, that keyword will stand out.
  • These keywords are for organizing only, so I’ve asked Lightroom not to export them. (Right/control-click on the keyword, choose Edit Keyword Tag, turn off “Include on Export.”)

There’s nothing special about the «» characters, except that they cause the keyword to sink to the bottom of the list on Mac. They’re used as quotation marks in some European languages. As an English speaker, I’m unlikely to use them otherwise, so they stand out for me. You could just as easily use _, $, regular old angle brackets <>. What symbol you use doesn’t really matter, so long as it's the first letter in the keyword name.

Mac users: If you want to be cool like me ;-) and use the «» characters, type Option-backslash («) and Option-Shift-backslash (»). There’s no real reason to use the trailing », except that I think the names look funny without them.

Windows users: It looks like Windows wants to sort all special characters to the top of the list. (Why?) I've tried several but haven’t found one that sinks to the bottom. If you find one, please speak up in the comments. I’d probably just use an underscore _ in front of the category header keyword names. It’s easy to type and floats to the top.

Update (February 20): It was suggested in the comments that braces, tilde, or vertical bars would sort to the bottom. Unfortunately, they don’t. Here’s a screen shot of the Keyword List panel from Windows with those characters in place. Note that vertical bars are not allowed in keyword names.


Also, notice that I’ve indented the entire CVKC under another top-level category header (“«CVKC»” at the top of the list). David has recently posted a version of the CVKC that is similarly indented on the CVKC downloads page. (Paid subscription required — look for the version labeled SubLevel under Lightroom.) His top-level category is CVKC instead of «CVKC». Again, what name you use isn’t important, so long as it fits with the other top-level keyword names you use.

I have similar category headers for other major sections of my keywording. Some of these («man-made objects» and «nature») are left over from how I keyworded prior to using CVKC (I just haven’t migrated those keywords yet!) and some (like «home» and «people I know») just don’t have a natural home in the CVKC. The details of what’s inside those hierarchies isn’t important; just that they’re distinct from CVKC and form a natural organization of their own.

What if you've already been using the “classic” CVKC and you want to adopt this approach? My suggestion would be to manually create the «CVKC» heading and then drag each of the parent keywords underneath it, one by one. There aren’t that many of them, and there isn’t (unfortunately) a better solution that I know about.

Use Worklists to Remember What Keywording You’ve Done

I’ve found that if I simply look at one of my photos and try to enumerate all of the keywords that might fit, I’ll almost certainly miss many relevant keywords that are already in the CVKC. So rather than try that approach, I divide and conquer in fairly thin horizontal slices of the keyword collection. For instance:

Worklist Collections for CVKC.

Worklist Collections for CVKC.

What’s in these collections? The short version is:

  • Identify one of the major headings in the CVKC that you care about (i.e. “animals,” “architecture,” “dominant color,” etc.).
  • Create a collection which contains all of the photos you’ve reviewed for that section of the CVKC. (For example, “animals»reviewed”.)
  • Create a smart collection which shows you all of the photos that are not in the reviewed collection.

For a more in-depth discussion of this worklist technique, see my article from last August on using smart collections to create worklists.

Once you’ve done this basic set-up work, you can start to work through your list of photos to keyword. Here’s how I do it:

1. Right-click on the “reviewed” collection and choose Set as Target Collection.

You should see a + sign appear next to the collection name.

2. Click on the “to review” smart collection.

3. Open the Keyword List panel to the corresponding section. Close everything else on the right side of the screen.

I find that I can often fit most of the keywords under a top-level section onto one screen, which makes the following steps much faster.

4. Start keywording!

I usually just work through the photos in the order that they appear, but you can go through them in whatever order makes sense.

I intentionally focus only on the keywords under a particular section (in this case, “animals”), intentionally neglecting the rest of the keyword panel.

Once I’ve identified all of the animals in the photo, I hit the B key. That assigns the photo to the Target collection. Remember: Back at Step 1, we said that was the “reviewed” collection. As soon as you do that, the photo drops out of the “to review” smart collection and the next one appears.

I also hit the B key if I have a photo with no animals. That just means I’ve looked at the photo and confirmed that there are no animals.

If you have long sequences of similar subject matter, you can also go into Grid view in the Library module. Select as many photos as you can that share the same keywords. Mark those keywords and hit B. The whole batch of photos will disappear and you can move to the next individual photo or group of photos.


I hope this keywording approach is useful to you. I find that I’m able to manage the complexity of lots of keywords fairly well with the category headers, and that the divide-and-conquer approach lets me maintain my concentration on keywording much longer than if I tried to scroll through the list of keywords for every individual photo.

Lightroom Technique: Smart Collections and Worklists

Note: Last year, on the Lightroom Journal, I wrote about using worklist keywords to keep track of your keywording efforts. In this article, I look at some new and improved ways to accomplish the same thing with Lightroom 2.0.

I use worklists to keep track of work I want to do on my photography collection. It's well suited for tasks that I do incrementally — a bit at a time, rather than all at once. Examples include:

  • keywording,
  • editing (by this I mean deciding which photos remain in the collection and which get deleted or archived out),
  • publishing,
  • geocoding, and
  • registering copyright.

In last year’s article, I described how to do this by using specially-named keywords and some tricks in the Find panel. With Lightroom 2.0, smart collections make this process easier and more logical.

Creating the Worklist

I’ll use the same example I used before: I want to keep track of keywording status for a certain subset of my keywording tree: the people I know. In other words, I want to be able to ask these questions and get accurate answers:

  • Which photos have I already keyworded for people I know? (even just to note that there’s nobody I know in the photo)
  • And the inverse of that: Which photos have I not yet keyworded for people I know? (i.e. my to-do list)

I used to use keywords for this because they were easier to assign than collections, but with Lightroom 2, it makes more sense (to me, anyway) to use collections. Here’s why:

  • Collections appear in the left panel track and keywords are now in the right panel track, meaning that in this workflow, you don’t have to scroll to use both.
  • Collection membership doesn’t appear in exported metadata for your photos, but keywords do by default. Typically you wouldn’t want to share your worklist status with the general public.
  • You can make any collection act as the quick collection, meaning that the B key becomes a quick assign/unassign shortcut.

The screen shot on the right shows the Collections panel with my worklist keywords highlighted.

There’s a collection here that matches each of the questions I asked earlier:

The collection titled “people I know»reviewed” answers the question: “Which photos have I already keyworded.” I add each photo to this collection as I do the work of keywording for people I know. When I achieve my goal of having reviewed every photo in my library for people I know, every photo in my catalog will be a member of this collection.

The smart collection above it, titled “people I know: to review,” answers the inverse question: “Which photos have I not yet keyworded.” We'll get to how it’s built in a moment, but it’s basically constructed as the inverse of the first collection. When I achieve my goal of having reviewed every photo in my library for people I know, this collection will be empty.

Now that I’ve explained what I’m trying to accomplish, here’s how I do it:

Step 1: Create the collection set that will contain this worklist. Click on the plus-arrow at the top-right of the Collections panel and choose Create Collection Set…. Give the set a descriptive name. If you want to place this set inside another set (as I’ve done, placing it inside my “keywording status” collection set), you can do this here.

Step 2: Create the collection that will represent your completed work. First, click on the collection set to make sure that it's highlighted. Then click on the plus-arrow and choose Create Collection…. Choose a name for this collection. Make sure the Set popup still points to the desired collection set, and make sure the “Include selected photos” checkbox is turned off.

Important: The name of this collection must include a single word that does not appear in the name of any other collection you have. I recommend including some special character or symbol that’s not otherwise likely to appear instead of a space. You’ll see why in a moment when we build the smart collection. This is why my collection has the slightly unusual name “people I know»reviewed.” The word “know»reviewed” is what I'll be searching for. (Mac users: You can type the » character — on an English keyboard at least — by typing Option-Shift-backslash. Windows users: I recommend using something simpler like ~.)

Step 3: Create the smart collection that will represent your to-do list. Make sure the collection set is still highlighted. Then click the plus-arrow and choose Create Smart Collection…. Again, make sure the Set popup points to the desired parent collection set. Then configure the collection as shown below:

Hrm. That screenshot is a little scrunched. The popups read, in order: “Collection” “doesn’t contain” “know»reviewed”. The important part is that the text field contains the same single word you chose above in step 2 — and nothing more. If you enter multiple words separated by spaces, it will look for all of those words separately, which is not what you want.

That’s it! You should now have the same arrangement in your Collections panel that I highlighted in the first screen shot above. Your “reviewed” collection should have zero photos in it, and your “to review” smart collection should have the same number of photos as the “All Photographs” entry in the Catalog panel.

So ... we’ve got keywording to do! Let’s get to it!

Doing the Work and Keeping Track

When I’m ready to do some keywording, I lay just a little bit of groundwork first:

Step 1: Right-click on the “reviewed” collection and choose Set as Target Collection. You should see a + appear after the collection's name. This means that the B key will add or remove a photo from this collection.

Step 2: Click on the “to review” smart collection.

Simple, eh? The photos in your library grid are the photos that you haven’t reviewed yet.

You select individual photos or groups of related photos. Assign the relevant keywords to them. (Notice that the photos remain in view at this point. This is a good thing — you might have to assign several keywords. You wouldn’t want the photo to disappear after the first keyword, right?) When you’re sure you have the right keywords assigned to the selected photo(s), press the B key.

The selected photos disappear immediately from view. Handy, huh?

Even if no keyword in this list applies (i.e. there’s nobody you know in a particular photo), press the B key anyway. This just means that you’ve reviewed the photo and you’re sure that it’s correctly keyworded for people you know.

Turns out you can whittle through a worklist pretty quickly this way. The things I really like about this technique are:

  • It doesn’t matter in what order you work through the photos. If you don’t feel like keywording a particular group of photos, no problem. Skip around them and catch ‘em next time.
  • It doesn’t matter how many of the photos you sort through at any one time. If you don’t do any keywording for six months, the “reviewed” keyword will still keep track of the work you’ve already done. Your to-do list will remain exactly the same, except for any new photos you may have imported since then.

Variation: Sorting Photos Into Two Bins

I use a variation on this technique to sort photos into two distinct bins for my editing decision workflow.

Background: I don’t particularly care to sort through the dozens or even hundreds of variations on a particular theme that I might shoot on a particularly trigger-happy day. But I also don’t want to permanently delete them. So instead I create “archive” catalogs where I park the second-tier photos in case I need them someday. (In practice, that means I never really look at them again, but that's another story…)

So every one of the photos in my main catalog is sorted into two bins, plus a “not yet decided” pile:

  • keep: I’ve decided this is worth keeping in the main catalog. It’s the best rendition I have of a particular subject (or at least, it’s one of a small number of best shots).
  • archive: Worth saving “just in case,” but doesn’t rise to the very top of the pile.

The “keep” pile is a standard collection, just like I described earlier.

The “archive” pile is a keyword with a special name. I decided to use keywords here for a couple of reasons:

  • These photos are not likely to be exported, so I don’t care as much about stray metadata.
  • The B key is already used for the “keep” pile (target collection). But the Shift-K shortcut (right-click on  a keyword and select “Use This as Keyword Shortcut”) is still available.

The “to do” list is only slightly more complicated than in the first case I described earlier. I create two conditions. (Click on the + to the right of the first condition to add another row.) They are:

  • Collection / doesn’t contain / edit»keep (change this to suit your “keep” collection’s name)
  • Keyword / doesn’t contain / edit»move (again, change to match your keyword’s name)

Then I just move through the to-do list, typing B for those photos I want to keep and Shift-K for those I want to archive out.

When I’m done with my edits, I select all the photos with the “edit»move to archive” keyword, export them as an independent catalog (File > Export as Catalog…), and delete them from the main catalog.

Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and that it helps you be more efficient and productive in Lightroom.

Why I Wish the iPhone Was a Flip Phone

We’re on vacation in Fiji. Our flight gets delayed, so I called my parents (who were picking us up) to let them know the new plan. Hung up. Stuck the phone in my pocket. Went for a walk. Didn’t think about the phone for almost an hour. Pulled the phone out of my pocket. Discovered that it had redialed my father … 50 minutes ago. At $3.49 per minute. So we got this little gem in the “voice roaming” section of our bill:



I can’t really blame anyone but myself since I didn’t think to hit the lock button, but still … ouch.

I’d love it if Apple came out with an iPhone Flip.

Personal Driving Assistants?

Very cool things are happening in the world of in-car navigation systems.

Paul Stamatiou wrote last week about the upcoming Dash Express (now defunct). It’s an in-car GPS navigation system that is Internet-powered.

I already know that I want one.

Having recently been through a 1.0 product launch, I know that a lot of the effort in creating the first product is spent getting the basics down and functional and focusing on the few specific things that will set your product apart from what’s already on the market. Dash’s main distinguishing feature seems to be its ability to connect to the Internet and provide real-time traffic conditions shared by other Dash users in your proximity.

That, in itself, is pretty damn cool, but — of course — I want more.

I was in the car a lot this past weekend, visiting friends in northern Minnesota, and it occurred to me that what Dash is building is really a first-generation personal driving assistant. I’ll abbreviate this as PDrA to avoid confusion with personal digital assistants. Given this set of ingredients (a car-sized device with a good base map, Internet access, and a decent amount of compute power), you could provide many very useful services, above and beyond adaptive navigation.

Dream with me for a moment. Wouldn't it be cool if your personal driving assistant had …

  • Voice recognition? We can glance at a computer screen for a moment while driving, but we can’t place our fingers accurately on a screen. But we can talk, right? IMHO, an ideal PDrA interface would display information on screen, pose a question (optionally speak the question as well), and listen for a verbal response. PDrA: “There is severe congestion ahead. Do you want to take an alternate route?” Driver (speaks): “Yes.” PDrA: “Take Exit 43, two miles ahead.”
  • Location-aware search? (At a basic level, this may already be in the Dash 1.0 plan, but imagine a more advanced scenario.) Driver: “I'm tired. Can you find me a hotel ahead?” PDrA: “Searching.” (PDrA contacts Orbitz/Expedia/travel site of your choice and identifies nearby hotels along your route with rooms available.) “Here are three options: (1) Best Western, 10 miles ahead, (2) Hampton, 17 miles ahead, (3) Red Lion, 22 miles ahead.” Driver: “Call option 2.” PDrA hooks into the Bluetooth cell phone and connects you to the Hampton.
  • Road quality reports? Using an accelerometer similar to those used to protect laptop hard drives, you could share information about road quality, similar to traffic reports. Then the PDrA could show a message like “Bumpy road next 7 miles.”
The road’s around here … somewhere!

The road’s around here … somewhere!

  • A self-correcting map database? Roads change. Frequently. Even the most frequently updated basemaps will be out of date somehow … somewhere. If you’re driving at highway speed a hundred yards parallel to the highway (see photo above), chances are the basemap is somehow wrong. (Side note: This situation is disturbingly common on my two-year-old TomTom Go 700, especially in more remote areas of Alaska and northern Minnesota.) Wouldn’t it be cool if your PDrA would start recording coordinates when you go off-roading and submit them to the basemap? Consider this a community-edited basemap. A Wikipedia of highway data.
  • The ability to read road signs? A small camera mounted in the back of the GPS unit could read road signs. This could, for instance, give you a warning when you're speeding (OK … when you're speeding above your personal margin 😉). And, if it got really smart, it could update the database of street names, which seems, in the case of the Tom Tom, to frequently have outdated or flat-out wrong names for streets.
  • Current local weather reports? You’re on the road, listening to the radio, when you hear a tornado warning being issued for such-and-such county. But you don't live in this state; you’re just visiting. How do you know if you’re in a run-of-the-mill thunderstorm (i.e. in another county), or you are in serious danger? Your PDrA could receive all of the storm warnings for your area and show you an alert if you’re about to drive into a danger zone. Or, in a more common case, it could overlay weather radar on your street/region map to show you how long this rainstorm will last.
  • Ratings for restrooms, restaurants, and gas stations along the way? Nature calls, and you’d like to use a clean restroom, not something that’s “attended” to once a year, whether it needs it or not. You could ask your PDrA to guide you to the nearest suitable restroom (imagine thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons based on ratings from past visitors).
  • Knowledge of gas prices? Imagine MapQuest Gas Prices, but hooked into your GPS. You pull up to a stoplight and see a gas station there. Your PDrA pops up a message telling you that gas is five cents cheaper at the so-and-so station 2 miles ahead. Want directions? (True/sad story: I once pulled up to a gas station, started pumping, then noticed the station across the street was selling the same gas for 50¢ less than I was paying. Ouch.)
  • Ferry schedules and wait times? Okay, this might not be so useful in the midwest, but where I live, in western Washington, it would be great to have my PDrA talk to the ferry system, find out when the next ferry on my route is leaving and how full it is. If there’s a three-hour wait for a ferry across the Sound, it might make sense to find an alternate route.
  • Knowledge of airport terminals and flight times? I’m headed to the airport to catch Alaska Airlines flight such-and-such. I should be able to tell my PDrA that and have it direct me to the best parking, rental car return, or drop-off zone for that flight. And it should connect to the airline’s web site and tell me if the flight has been delayed so I have more time to get to the airport.

Disclaimer: I don’t work in the GPS software industry, so I’m just hoping somebody reads these ideas and makes them happen. If you do (hint, hint, Dash!), I’d be dump-out-my-wallet excited to go and buy one.