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About six weeks ago my wife told me she had a surprise for me. She had planned a special 8-day family vacation trip to Italy’s Tuscany region, and to celebrate my 5th year of being named the world’s #1 bestselling author of computer and technology books, she had set up a special photo shoot in Italy that was (her words) going to “blow my mind.” I so love this woman! :)

Anyway, last week was the week for our vacation, and as you might expect—it was absolutely incredible, and yes—the photo shoot she set up for me totally blew my mind. More on that in a moment. Accompanying me on this trip was my entire family, my Brother Jeff, and my brother-in-law and his family. But first, let’s look at how I left all my photo gear behind:

It Started With Missing Our Flight to Italy
We were scheduled to fly from Tampa to New York’s JFK airport, and then catch a connecting flight to Pisa, Italy that night. Unfortunately, our flight was so delayed (due to weather in New York) that we actually missed our connecting flight by about 20 minutes (no, they didn’t hold the plane), so we had to spend the night in New York and catch the next evening’s flight (this took our already short 8-day Tuscany trip down to just 7 days—including travel. Ugh!).

There are worse places to have a one-day layover than New York City, so we had a ball—we went shopping (though unfortunately B&H Photo was closed because it was Saturday), took the kids to the world’s largest Toys r’ Us (yes, we rode the Ferris Wheel inside), and my brother and I went to the famous Katz’s Deli for lunch, and I had the best Pastrami sandwich of my life.

Then we went back to our room for a quick nap (well, mostly for my daughter’s nap). I had brought a nice compliment of camera gear for the Italy trip (a little more than usual, because my wife had this special shoot set up, though she still hadn’t told me what the surprise shoot was going to be). I took my Nikon D-300, a 12-24mm lens, my trusty 18-200mm VR lens, a 50mm f/1.4 lens, my Epson P-7000, a tabletop tripod, and my Gitzo Traveler tripod, and lots of accessories and it all fit perfectly in my smallest camera bag—-my LowePro Stealth Reporter (which even has the NAPP logo and the word “Instructor” stitched on the front—a gift we gave to all the Photoshop World instructors one year).

Anyway, when I’m out of my hotel room, I usually tuck my camera bag and laptop out of sight, so they don’t get stolen while housekeeping is making up the room (a typical scam is for a thief to walk by a room being cleaned by housekeeping—they see a laptop or camera, knock on the door and act like it’s their room that’s being cleaned as they tell the housekeeper that they forget their laptop, and they walk off with your laptop, camera gear or both. So, I always hide mine).

You Snooze, You Lose
Anyway, after I got up from my nap, I saw my luggage, my laptop bag, and my NAPP instructor camera bag all lined up by the door, and I thought to myself, “Great, my wife thought to get my bag out of hiding.” I took it down to the airport shuttle; watched as the bellman carefully loaded it into the van, and off we went to JFK to catch our overnight flight to Italy, albeit a day late.

When we got to the airport, I had just gathered my camera bag, laptop bag, and luggage when my brother says, “My camera bag is missing!” We start searching around, then he opens my camera bag, and says, “This one’s mine!” As luck would have it, he had the exact same camera bag (with NAPP instructor stitched on it) that I did. As it turns out, while I was taking my nap, he checked out of his room and brought his luggage down to our room. The camera bag I saw lined up at the door in my room was actually his camera bag. At that moment I realized that my camera bag had been left behind, still hidden back in my hotel room.

It Gets Worse
I walked away from the group, and as I frantically dialed the hotel, I started to string together long phrases of words that could not be spoken on TV (even today). I got a hold of the front desk, and told them my story. They sent the head of security and the head of housekeeping immediately to my room to retrieve the camera bag. I gave them the exact location of the bag (they wouldn’t be able to miss it), and they would call back as soon as they found it, then we would arrange to have it rushed to the JFK Departures terminal where I would meet them, and still have time just enough time to make my flight.

They called back. They said the room had already been cleaned and there was no camera bag.

Adding Up The Loss
Needless to say, I was pretty much freaking out at the thought of losing my gear, and of not having any gear on my trip to Tuscany. I started to mentally calculate how much I had lost between the camera, lenses, P-7000, memory cards, filters, battery grip, and on-and-on, and it was easily over $5,000 worth of gear.

Once I got through airport security, I called the Police (unfortunately they said I would have to physically come in to a station to file a report). Then I called the hotel manager, and I politely explained my entire situation, while taking my concerns about my gear being stolen in her hotel up a notch. She said she would call the head of security again, and said she would see what she could do, but she didn’t sound hopeful. She’d call me if they heard anything. (Sigh).

It’s too late. I’m on the plane.
I’m sitting on the tarmac, and they’re just about the close the cabin doors, and the head of hotel security calls to tell me that somehow, they found they bag (without much further details). I was thrilled (relieved, overjoyed, etc.), and I told him my assistant would contact him and first thing on Monday we’d have it over-nighted to my address in Italy. I thanked him profusely. Apparently, the call to the manager worked.

In Tuscany, with No Camera
So I got to Tuscany on Sunday with no camera, but at least my brother-in-law had brought his Nikon D-60 and two lenses: the 18-55mm that came with his kit, and the wonderful Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5 – f/5.6 VR that I talked about two weeks ago. Luckily, he was more interested in shooting video on his Canon video camera the first few days, so he let me shoot with his D-60 a couple of times on Sunday late afternoon and Monday (I just shot to his SD card, then we downloaded the images onto a jump drive for me). By the way; the shot you see above was taken with his D-60, handheld with the 70-300mm VR, set to JPEG mode (click on it for a larger view).

When It Rains….
On Monday, my assistant Kathy calls me to tell me that the earliest I’d have my camera was Thursday evening, so I’d miss my special wife-arranged photo shoot Thursday afternoon, and basically I’d miss shooting the whole week, and would only have my camera one single day—Friday—the last day of the trip before heading home. Ugh!

I did what I had to do
Once I learned his, I bit the bullet and headed into the biggest camera store I could find in Florence and bought a Nikon D-5000 kit (it came with a 18-55mm VR lens), and the same 70-300mm VR lens my brother-in-law had (I couldn’t just borrow his, because we both had rental cars and we usually went our separate ways during the day), and a Manfrotto lightweight tripod and ballhead (loved the legs, but the ballhead was really too small).

This set me back around (wait for it….wait for it…) $1,950 (arrrgghhh!!), but I figured when I got back I could sell the gear on eBay, and I’d only be out $600 or so (I’d rather be out $600 than spend a week in Tuscany with no camera). Hey, at least they threw in a nice Tenba camera backpack with the Nikon logo stitched on it (It actually worked out really well)!

This I hadn’t planned on
If there was one thing I hadn’t planned on it was this; I fell in love with the D-5000. In fact, I’m keeping it. I was absolutely shocked at its high ISO performance. I took shots, hand held at 1250 ISO in a square in the town of Siena, and when my brother and I looked at them that night—full screen on my computer, you could barely see any noise at all. It was like ISO 400 on my D300. I was just amazed!!!! So, I pushed that thing up to 1600 ISO any ol’ time, and I was shooting at night handheld without a second thought.

Also, it has so many of the features of my D300 that I felt surprisingly at home. In fact, I could only find one thing that I really wished it did that I couldn’t figure out how to get it to do; I wanted to assign the center OK button to zoom in to a 100% view (like I do on my D-300), but I don’t think it offers that feature.

I was also surprised to learn that the image quality was fantastic (very D-300-like, but if you shoot in JPEG mode I would set the Picture Control setting to Vivid to make the color more punchy. While there, I would increase the amount of sharpening as well, but outside of that, I love that camera for travel work because it’s so light, compact, and takes such great images (even in low light). By the way; I never used the video! (I only had one 4GB SD memory card. It’s a long story, but that’s all I had. I should have bought more, but that’s another story).

The Fate of My D-300
So, what’s going to happen to my beloved D300? I’m selling it. It was my back-up camera, and the one I used for travel photography, but now I have a new low-noise, lightweight, replacement that even shoots video, so it’s time to wave bye to my D300 (and its sale will help offset the cost of my original problem).

What Was Your Wife’s “Big Surprise” shoot?
Are you ready for this? On Thursday morning, up pulls a red convertible Ferrari F-430, which my wife had rented for the day for me to drive through the hills of Tuscany and find a place for a sunset shoot of the car. Does it get any better than that?!!!

I’ve always been a Ferrari freak (which is why my wife chose to rent a Ferrari in the first place), but however great I thought driving a Ferrari would be—honestly, it was 10 times better than I imagined. Totally a surreal experience. I drove it from Montaione to Pisa, and everywhere in between. It really felt like you’d imagine a Ferrari would feel. It was more than just great looking and really fast. It was a race car on the street. Oh yeah, I got some cool shots, too! (You’ll see some tomorrow. I had my brother take it through some curves as I shot—-he really hated that—wink, wink) and then we took turns driving and shooting, and just having a ball. It’s a day I’ll never forget. Do I have a rockin’ wife or what!!!!!

OK, Let’s See Some Photos
Tomorrow I’m running a series of photos from the trip, so I hope you’ll stop by and check them out. I’m back home now, (and probably back in the office by the time you read this, taking lots of ribbing for leaving my camera gear behind). But hey, I lived a dream—-I went to Italy and fell in love (does it still count if the thing you fell in love with was a camera?).

Shooting Time vs. Family Time
Although I limited my shooting time (after all, this was a family vacation first), I did get to shoot for five hours by myself on Friday, which was great fun (although four hours of it was driving time to and from my shooting location in “The Crete” area of Tuscany). Tuscany is just a magical place, and it’s a very target rich environment for photography (and for food, and architecture, and landscapes, and history, and…..)

I really tried my best to make sure my photography didn’t get in the way of our family time, so I just took my camera along wherever we went, and I shot along the way (kind of like a photo walk). Of course, my wife went out of her way to make sure I’d get interesting things to shoot during the week, and anytime I needed a few extra minutes to “get the shot” she was totally cool with it. I took far fewer shots than any previous trip (less than 950 photos for the entire week-long trip), but I had such a relaxing time; got some great time with the wife and kids, got my internal batteries totally recharged, and still got at least a few decent shots, which I’ll share here tomorrow.