Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A crazy story about a fun family portrait shoot, 3 old VW buses, and a lost Gitzo tripod!

We have friends who really wanted a family portrait, and since they also have a cool collection of old VW buses, we saw that as a cool opportunity to shoot a unique photo for them. The last time they had taken a proper family portrait was 14 years ago, when the kids were tiny. Thanksgiving weekend proved to be a perfect time to meet up with them to shoot photos of them and their VW microbuses.

On Saturday afternoon, the family showed up to the house with a caravan of VWs, where we met up and planned the day. We had decided in advance, that the proper location for the shoot would be at the beach. We had 5 vehicles in total, as we headed out for the shoot. The funny part of the buses could go no faster than 58mph, so it was a slow trek. I am so used to driving fast, that it felt like we could get out of the car and walk at 5 the same speed.

My wife took this photo of me driving, while she laughed at my frustration.

Yes, we were really driving 55 MPH on Highway 280 while everyone flew past us.

And then, after an hour of driving, we arrived at a beach near Half Moon Bay. I was happy to see that we had really overcast skies, which meant no harsh light to deal with. But it also meant that we would have a white background and not see any of the ocean. 

I had them park the buses in a formation where I could shoot the family by the front of each vehicle. I used my Canon 1DX with the Canon 24-70 II lens and a Canon 600-EX-RT flash.

When planning this photo shoot, I knew that I would try converting these to either black & white or sepia to give them an aged look.  As it turned out, I ended up using one of the "Old Photo" filters in NIK Color Efex Pro to get this result.

My wife took this photo (with her iPhone) of me shooting the above photos.

We wanted to get a photo of the family with just one of the buses. And this particular model had a sunroof, which gave us a fun way to set up the family. This is one of their favorite photos from the day.

 Once again, using one of the "Old Photo" filters in NIK Color Efex Pro to get this result.

A different pose for them...

After getting the natural pose, I asked all of them to raise their hands and have some fun. I love this shot.

And guessed it...once again, using one of the "Old Photo" filters in NIK Color Efex Pro.

After taking the straight-on photos, I also wanted to take some family photos from different angles around the VW.

I like having a variety of images to show the family.

For this B&W version, I used NIK SilverEfex Pro to try a different look.

After shooting on the grass by Half Moon Bay for a while, we decided to drive South along the coast to see if we could find a better location. After driving for a while, the overcast skies were getting thicker, so we decided to pull over at a beach called Ponponio Beach. I had the VW's pull up parallel to each other and staggered a bit. I then had the family stand by each of the micro buses and shot this. Since I wanted to shoot at a smaller aperture (to get everyone in focus) I kept the camera on my favorite Gitzo tripod to make sure the camera did not move at all.

The "old photo" look again.

Again, I tried different angles. Look how different the photos are from one an another with me moving my shooting position.

As we drove from the first location to the second, I was looking at the microbus in front of us and liked all the stickers. For this shot, we all walked around to the back of the buses and shot more photos. Again, I kept the camera on my tripod since my shutter speed was down to 1/20 sec.

The kids were getting cold and they were just about done shooting photos. But we wanted to get some portraits of the couples before leaving. I took the camera off the tripod and changed to my Canon 70-200mm lens, since I knew that I could shoot these images at f2.8 or f4 and handhold everything at this point. I moved the tripod out of the way and I shot a bunch of portraits.

Just before leaving, I changed lenses one last time. This time I switched to the wide angle Canon 16-35mm lens to take a group shot inside one of the vehicles.

As I was just about to pack up my equipment, I saw Daryl sitting in the van and asked him to look at his mirror. One last shot, and a fun one at that!

Happy to have all the images completed, I quickly put all my camera gear in the back of one of the buses so that we could get home. I had a family commitment at 6pm and was not sure we would make it back in time. So, off we went...

Traffic was horrible and we arrived back at my house just before 6pm. I hopped out of the VW and opened the side door to grab my LowePro x200 rolling bag. And then I looked around for my favorite trusty Gitzo GT2530 tripod. It was at this very moment that I realized that I had never put it in the van and that it was still back at the beach parking lot, where I had put it aside during the shoot. I must have turned white because Daryl saw the panic on my face. I swear, I thought I was going to be sick. Remember, this is a very expensive tripod! For the rest of the night, I entertained guests at our house and all I could think was "damn - I am SO stupid for leaving that tripod back at the beach!"

The next morning, I woke up at 5:45am thinking the same thing and beating myself up over this. I called the rangers office and talked to the ranger who happened to be at the beach the day before. He said "Oh, are you the guy that was photographing the people with the old VW vans?" So...he remembered me, but unfortunately, he did not have the tripod. The ranger even called me back after searching for it again. I was really bummed.

I figured that I would make one last ditch effort at recovering my Gitzo. I went on to the Lost & Found section of and left the following message:

I honestly did not have much faith that anything would come from this, but it gave me a thread of hope. On Monday, I was at work and telling my admin how mad I was at myself, when my phone buzzed, and I saw this email:

Wow!!!!! I can not tell you how thrilled I was to read this message!!! I was happy at the thought of getting my tripod back, but even more thrilled to see another example of someone being honest and responsible. This guy could have easily kept this $1000 tripod.

I called Jesse immediately and thanked him from the bottom of my heart. As it turns out, he did try to find the owner at the beach. He took it home and his wife suggested that he check Craigslist's Lost & Found. He typed in "Gitzo" and my post came up immediately. Wow, this technology really works!

We made arrangements to meet that evening and I promised him that I would give him a reward. I gave him some money and also spoiled him with a bunch of Lexar goodies. And...he and his wife asked if I would do family portraits for them some time soon. Without any hesitation, I said "DONE!" I can't wait to do those photos for this amazing family. Another way that I can pay them back for being such good people.

Thanks again to Jesse and his lovely wife!!!!

(Oh one more thing - I am now putting labels with my name and phone number on all my equipment.)


Brian said...

What a great story with a happy ending and kudos to the guy that stepped up and returned your tripod. Also, big shout out to you for doing the right thing and hooking him up with some Lexar loot and the family photo session. Loved the VW/family photos too.

Dave W said...

Great photos and a heartwarming tale of a stranger's honesty.

I have to say it is no surprise you got it back as anyone who knew its worth would be interested in photography and I have yet to meet someone interested in photography who is not kind hearted...

Thanks for sharing

Dave from the UK

Jeff said...


This was a great story with interesting pics as well. I would like to think that most people would try to get this equipment back to its rightful owner. I think, on balance, most people would try to do the right thing. After all you do for others, I am glad this worked out for you!

Unknown said...

It's ALL good! Funny how one thing leads to another...the story of your life, it's about connecting with others one way or another, expected and unexpected, planned or unplanned. You capture every moment and live it fully.

Ray said...

I lost my Gitzo and Really Right Stuff ball head in Vermont while shooting a covered bridge this fall. I took the camera off to get some tight shots and left without it. Went back the next day with no luck. Thank you for the tip, will label my new one.

Anonymous said...

what a happy ending! wow

Anonymous said...

You were lucky this time and the tip to label is a good idea. If this happens to other people, wait a day and then look on ebay. hope the family like the photo's you do for them.