How hanging from a ceiling by your toenails can get an award-winning photo

Some background.

One of the companies for which I do freelance work is the Premier Basketball League.  This minor league hoops circuit has teams spread throughout the eastern United States and Canada, and it just finished its second year of operation.

Essentially my weekends while the PBL was in session required my driving to some of the teams’ home games and get action photographs that could be used by the league to promote itself.  For me, that meant jumping into my 1991 Pontiac 6000 and driving to Buffalo’s Koessler Athletic Center on the Canisius campus to photograph the Buffalo Stampede.  It meant driving to Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester Community War Memorial to get action shots of the Rochester Razorsharks.  It meant traveling to Southern New Hampshire University for games with the Manchester Millrats.  It meant driving through the winding Vermont highways to capture Vermont Frost Heaves games at either the Barre Municipal Auditorium or the Burlington Memorial Auditorium (the team had two different venues).  It meant grabbing my passport and covering games at Centre Pierre-Charbonneau for games involving the Montreal Sasquat’ch, and then traipsing up to Quebec City to see Quebec Kebs games at Pavillion de la Jeunesse.

So last March, during a playoff game at Blue Cross Arena between the Rochester Razorsharks and the Manchester Millrats, I had an idea.  Blue Cross Arena is one of those multipurpose facilities that have ceiling catwalks and scaffolding.  After clearing my request with Blue Cross Arena security, I received special one-time permission to shoot some of the playoff action from that game from the catwalk.  I aimed straight down at the basket with my Nikon D70, using an f/2.8 lens at a shutter speed of 1/500.  Among the ceiling shots I acquired was this little doozy.

Action Under the Basket - Rochester Razorsharks versus Manchester Millrats, March 2009. Photo by Chuck Miller.
Action Under the Basket - Rochester Razorsharks versus Manchester Millrats, March 2009. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Needless to say, the photo was an immediate success with the PBL.

So a few weeks ago, when I discovered that the Great New York State Fair had a photography contest exhibition as part of their lineup of contests (silly me, I thought the only contests for Fairs were prize goats and best apple pies), I decided to enter this picture.

The Fair required that the photo be blown up to 16×20 size and mounted on foamboard, so I couldn’t just send them the photo in a rolled tube.  Since the Fair offered a one-day physical “drop-off” period for entries, I drove the 2 1/2 hour drive to Syracuse, with this photograph mounted and sized to contest specifications, to drop the photo off for judging.

As I pulled into the Art Center parking lot on the State Fair campus, I saw other people pulling mounted, foam-boarded entries out of their cars for the same drop-off purpose.  The receivers inside the Art Center made sure that every entry had an accompanying postcard that could alert the entrants if their photo was accepted or rejected.  One of the receivers took each entrant’s photo entry, and simply said, “That’s a nice photo.”  “That’s a good photo.”  “What a nice photo.”

I handed the receiver my two entries – one photo was an etherial shot of Washington Park at midnight.  “That’s a nice photo,” she said, almost robotically.

I then handed her the photo you see in this blog post.

“That’s a nice – Oh my God, how did you get that shot???

When I heard that comment, at that moment … I knew this photo had a chance.

Flash forward a week later.  It’s a hot Saturday morning and I’m out trying to get the veldt that I call my lawn down to a manageable level.  The postman drops off our family mail.  Among the usual assortment of bills and junkmail and Valspak coupon booklets were the two postcards from the New York State Fair.

I sat down on my front porch steps and looked at the postcards.

My first entry, “Washington Park After Dark” – which, by the way, looks like this –

Washington Park After Dark.  Photo by Chuck Miller
Washington Park After Dark. Photo by Chuck Miller

received this postcard:

That box in the lower right is checkmarked “not accepted.”  That either means they have too many entries that look like my entry, my entry wasn’t among the top votegetters, or that I should sell my equipment and take up horticulture.  Who knows?

Meanwhile, my basketball photograph received this postcard –

Instead of “not accepted,” the card was checked “Accepted” – and also checked “WINNER!”

Winner – you mean my hanging from my toenails from the Blue Cross Arena ceiling last spring actually paid off?!?

I will spare you the grisly details of me dancing around the house like Cousin Balki in Perfect Strangers.

Unfortunately, being told you are a “winner” doesn’t mean you are told what you won.  The photography contest awards prize money and ribbons in the following breakdown – one prize for first place, two prizes for second place, two prizes for third place, and ten “Honorable Mention” awards.  So fifteen photos will receive ribbons of merit; but the top five will also receive money.

The only way I’m going to find out what I won is to essentially drive out to Syracuse, take in a day at the Fair, and see for myself.

Which is what I’m going to do this Saturday morning.  Load up the car – take my wife Vicki on a road trip – and enjoy a day at the Great New York State Fair.

Wish me luck.  I’ve never won a competitive photography award before.  So this will be my first.

My 10 favorite TV shows of 2008-09

Summer’s almost over, and I’m thinking back to the TV shows I started to watch with great anticipation, only to give up on them halfway through their broadcast runs. And other shows that I still continue to watch, whether they be intellectually stimulating or just electronic comfort food from the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison would say.
The following is a list of my ten favorite TV shows from the 2008-09 season. These were shows that I would make a concerted effort every week to watch, or DVR, or call my wife when I’m not home and ask her to set the DVR for me. I am listing them alphabetically, and if I’m missing your favorite shows on this list – well, that’s what the comments page is for.

  1. The Big Bang Theory (CBS) – Probably the only television show about geek culture that doesn’t make geek culture seem less than appealable. The adventures of Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Wolowitz, along with their hot-but-clueless neighbor Penny, is just great television candy.
  2. Deadliest Catch (Discovery Channel) – I don’t eat crab legs that often, but I enjoy watching the camaraderie and danger of those who work on the fishing vessels Northwestern, Cornelia Marie, Wizard and Time Bandit. It’s one of my favorite “candid” reality shows.
  3. Dollhouse (FOX) – I never got into all that Josh Whedon fanboy worship (you know, the ones that are still petitioning for Firefly to return to network television), but I really got into this series about programmable people who solve problems and then get their minds erased – sort of like “Rent-A-Solution.” The storylines keep you interested throughout the run. Plus, Eliza Dushku is Death Valley hot.
  4. Flashpoint (CBS / CTV) – Yes, it’s another procedural drama from CBS, where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a CSI or an NCIS or one of their spinoffs or clones. But Flashpoint is different, in that the show itself doesn’t always have the cut-and-dry happy ending. Characters die. Characters get hurt. And for the men and women of the Strategic Response Unit, each case has after-effects that continue throughout the series run. Plus, it’s fun to play “Spot the Canadian” – even though the show downplays its Toronto location, every so often (at least once per episode) there will be a reference to a Toronto street, neighborhood, or nearby Ontario location or local doughnut/coffee shop.
  5. Friday Night Lights (NBC / Direct TV) – How much do I love this family drama about a Texas town where high school football is all the rage? Let me count the ways. It’s a great drama series, the acting and storylines are top-notch, and I deliberately avoided any spoiler alerts (as the series was first broadcast on Direct TV, which I don’t have, so I had to wait patiently for the NBC broadcasts to air). Thankfully, the series will return for at least two more seasons.  A side note – how painful is it when three of my Top 10 were on at the same date and time (Dollhouse, Flashpoint and Friday Night Lights all aired Friday nights at 9pm).  This meant I had to watch one show live (usually Flashpoint), one DVR’d (Dollhouse) and then wait for Time Warner’s On Demand to show the rebroadcast of Friday Night Lights.  Wow wee.
  6. Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC) – I have to watch this series through imported Canadian DVD’s and YouTube postings, but it’s both hilarious and sweet. Imagine a culture-clash sitcom featuring a Muslim neighborhood in a Canadian prairie town. It sounds offensive, but when you watch the first couple of episodes you realize it’s about as offensive as an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. And at times, just as funny!
  7. Pushing Daisies (ABC) – One day in my life, I’ll make a list of all the shows I used to love that were cut down too early in their prime – shows like Max Headroom and Dark Angel and the like. Pushing Daisies would be on that list. Whether it’s the Tim Burton-influenced visual style or the delicate but definite wordplay, this show was fantastic. Smite the knuckleheads at ABC for not giving it a decent sendoff, although I will add a caveat in that the show did at least get a wrap-up finale of some sort.
  8. United States of Tara (Showtime) – The last time I ever saw Toni Colette in anything, she was playing the frumpy teen Muriel (or was it Mariel?) in the film Muriel’s Wedding. You know, the one that was full of ABBA songs before anyone ever heard of a Mamma Mia musical. In this show, Colette runs the gamut as a person with multiple personalities, playing every personality as if they had a life of their own – and convincingly so. A really funny show with lots of nuances.
  9. The Venture Brothers (Cartoon Network / adult swim) – My favorite late-night cartoon skewers every action cartoon cliche, throws in about 50 pop culture references per episode, and is just a complete and unharnessed riot to watch.  This show has more sensibility than most current prime-time network fare.  If you haven’t caught The Venture Brothers on Cartoon Network’s late-night adult swim block, you need to do so and fast.
  10. VH1 Dating “Of Love” Shows (VH1) – You know it’s the same dang show over and over again, whether it’s Flavor Flav or Bret Michaels or one of Flavor Flav’s rejects or one of Bret Michaels’ castoffs, or whether the castoffs are competing in “I Love Money” or “Charm School” or “Tool Academy,” these human trainwreck dating shows are completely addictive and fun to watch. It’s like going to see the freak tent at the circus – see the guys with multiple tattoos and piercings! See the girls with Goodyear-inspired floatation devices! Watch as people have emotional meltdowns one day, and then are as chipper as a squirrel with a cachet of acorns the next!

There were a lot of shows I could have included on this list, but I have to catch up on DVR episodes of Lost and Fringe, and Heroes just fell off my radar (are there people on that show that DON’T have some sort of superpower?). Plus, I could have added The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (HBO), Escape to Chimp Eden (Animal Planet) and So You Think You Can Dance (FOX), but then it would have been a Top 13 and this ain’t college football, where you can have eleven teams in the Big 10.

Reminiscing about Sunoco NFL ’72

Chuck Miller reminisces about collecting football stickers that were part of a gas station premium promotion in the 1970’s.

A long time ago, back in ancient times, when gas cost less than 50c/gallon and service stations had employees that came out to your car, pumped your gasoline, wiped your windshield, checked your fluids and handed you a roadmap – yeah, I know, imagine something like that today.  But I digress…

I’m currently taking you back to 1972.  At that time, I was nine years old, and I loved watching football on TV.  At that time, Sunoco service stations offered a special promotion – fill your gas tank with Sunoco fuel, and in exchange Sunoco would give you an envelope filled with football trading stickers.  You could also purchase a sticker album, which came with various historical notes on every one of the 24 franchises in the National Football League.  It also had a swank watercolor cover that just screamed 1970’s sports art.

NFL Action 72
NFL Action '72

Of course we all collected the stickers.  And of course, we all pasted them into the above stampbook without question.  We discovered over the course of the season that there were actually more stamps than there were pages in the book; we also discovered that the stickers made great door decorations (at least until your mother caught you slapping an Archie Manning football sticker on your bedroom door and you caught trouble for it).

By comparison to today’s trading cards, complete with full-bleed photos, holographic stickers, and swatches of game-used jersey fabric, these football stickers are spartan at best.

It’s sorta hard to even see the players’ faces in these stickers, what with the full face masks of the time.

And since this was printed prior to the 1972-73 season, the biographies of each team were written before such words as “Immaculate Reception” or “Undefeated Season” or “Chad Ochocinco” became part of the football venacular.

On a personal note – This wasn’t my original copy of NFL ACTION ’72 that you see here.  I had a completed edition of this booklet, but I actually gave my first copy away as a gift to a second grade classmate whose family was going to move out of state.  Thinking I had done something noble and considerate, I told my parents when I got home of my charitable gift.

My stepfather, who had specifically filled up at Sunoco for the past four months just to help assemble that sticker book for me, was surprisingly NOT enamored with my act of giving.

It wasn’t until maybe 2007 when I bought this copy of NFL ACTION ’72 in an eBay auction.  Every so often I pull it off the shelf, look through the pages, reminisce about growing up – then I put it back on the shelf.

My Nikon camera: Weapons of Choice

An overview of how Chuck Miller went from a simple point-and-shoot camera to a powerhouse camera with a gallery of lenses.

I didn’t set out to initially learn photography.  My original camera was a Nikon CoolPix 800, which I used primarily to photograph record albums and 45’s for use in one of my record collector’s guides.  It was a down and dirty camera, and i used it as much as I could – not realizing that all I had was a glorified digital point-and-shoot camera.  The photo of the Hamilton College chapel, taken at my 15th college reunion, was shot with my Nikon CoolPix 800.

Hamilton College Chapel, Clinton, N.Y.
Hamilton College Chapel, Clinton, N.Y. Photo by Chuck Miller.

In 2005, when the Albany Patroons returned to the CBA, I started taking pictures for the team.  But my CoolPix couldn’t match up with the action shots that the newspaper photographers were achieving, so I decided to step up my game and purchase a Nikon D70 digital SLR camera.  It came with what was called the “kit” lens, and I thought I had moved into the big leagues – especially when I could get photographs of Albany’s super-slammer (and future NBA star) Jamario Moon nearly every night.

Jamario Moon dunks in a January 2006 Albany Patroons game.  Photo copyright Chuck Miller.
Jamario Moon dunks in a January 2006 Albany Patroons game. Photo copyright Chuck Miller.

It was at that point that I learned that the “kit” lens just won’t cut it in professional photography.  Shooting at F/3.5 aperture in the cavernous Washington Avenue Armory was like trying to light a cave with a firefly.

Eventually, I discovered that one could amass a decent camera lens arsenal by visiting everything from eBay to craigslist.  From eBay I acquired my first f/2.8 telephoto lens, which was sold at a discount because the previous owner had removed the rubber grip around the lens barrel and, for his own preference, wrapped the barrel in tennis racquet grip.  Yes, I have the only Nikon lens that says “Prince” on the side.

Albany Patroons Emeralds dance team, 2006.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
Albany Patroons "Emeralds" dance team, 2006. Photo by Chuck Miller.

After that came my first f/1.8 85mm lens, which helped capture the action like never before.  I even added a Loreo 3-D lens, which allowed me to shoot pictures similar to the old stereopticon photographs of a century ago.  I used it for a while, and it had some fun benefits to it, but it only had two settings (F/11 and F/22), so except for shots like the one you see of the Patroons dance team, the Emeralds – I often left my Loreo in the camera bag.

In 2007, I acquired my first f/1.8 50mm “pancake” lens – it was also my first manual-focus lens, which opened for me a new avenue of photography.  See, one of the great things about using Nikon SLR cameras is that, for the most part, almost every lens ever manufactured with a Nikon “F-Mount” will be compatible with today’s camera equipment.  This meant that a lens I bought at a garage sale in Philadelphia for $20 (it was still attached to the Nikon E series film camera) was a fantastic acquisition.

Vintage McDonalds sign, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mich.  Photo by Chuck MIller.
Vintage McDonald's sign, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mich. Photo by Chuck MIller.

The other major lenses in my arsenal are Russian Kiev-Arsenal lenses.  Kiev once manufactured Hasselblad medium-format camera clones (they were so close to the real thing some people derisively called the Kiev cameras “Hasselbladskis”), but when they got into the 35mm SLR business, they made lenses that could work on Nikon equipment.  I have three Kiev lenses in my arsenal – a wideangle MIR 24-H, a 50mm f/2 Helios 81-H, and a fisheye MIR 21-H; the latter  took this photo of the vintage McDonald’s sign at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. last June.  It’s probably the best cooperation of Russian equipment and Japanese equipment since the Sino-Soviet Wars.

But after four years and everything I could possibly do with this camera, it was time to upgrade again.  Luckily for me, all my lenses would be compatible with my dream camera, a Nikon D700.  I saved and scrimped for this new camera.  I took writing assignments and photography assignments.  I sold off one of my lenses (it was an f/1.4 that just didn’t work for me), and after all that… Last July, I was able to acquire a reconditioned D700 camera from B&H Photo in New York City.

I tested my D700 almost everywhere over the summer.  I took night shots in Washington Park.  I photographed the RCA Dog at sunset.  I spent the entire day at the Altamont Fair (and got roasted like a potato chip for my efforts).  I tested different settings and exposures; I tested different lenses (some of the lenses that gave me fits with the D70 worked like hand-in-glove on the D700).

Has it worked?  You tell me.  These photos were taken with my Nikon D700 and a variety of lenses.

The Orbiter, Altamont Fair, Altamont, N.Y. Photo by Chuck Miller.
The Orbiter, Altamont Fair, Altamont, N.Y. Photo by Chuck Miller.
Poestenkill Gorge Waterfalls, Troy, N.Y.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
Poestenkill Gorge Waterfalls, Troy, N.Y. Photo by Chuck Miller.
RCA His Masters Voice dog at sunset.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
RCA "His Master's Voice" dog at sunset. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Of course, I’m not done with this camera.  Not a chance in the world.  There’s so much I need to learn with it, and so much I want to accomplish with it.  Whether it’s for professional assignments, or one of my photographic “lost weekends,” where I just disappear and return a day later with photographs, like a lawn gnome, we’ll see what the future brings.

Never settle for just good enough

“Never settle for just good enough” was the mantra my high school English teacher, Roberta “Bonnie” Diefendorf, drilled into me.  And without those words, I wouldn’t be here today.

My name is Chuck Miller.  Nice to meet you.  For the past twenty years, I have achieved a reasonable amount of success as a writer and photographer.  But without Bonnie Diefendorf getting behind me and challenging me to take that extra step in my writing – to apply myself and motivate myself into accomplishing what I thought might never be within my grasp – without her help, today I might be sweeping floors or pumping gas.

That inspiration of “Never settle for just good enough” has helped me throughout my writing career.  It motivated me to take up new skills, such as photography.  And today, it has motivated me to join the Times Union family of bloggers, pundits, observers, reviewers, thinkers, dreamers and achievers.

You’ve probably seen some of my articles in the “Story of Albany” series that the Times Union is currently running.  Besides my article on the history of the Street Academy of Albany, I’ve sent the Times Union several published articles from my archive, including:

Feel free to have a good read.

I hope to share other stories, both from the past and from my current writing projects, with you in this blog.  Feel free to leave comments.  Feel free to tell your friends.

And never settle for just good enough.

“The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Baseball Fairy Tale” by Chuck Miller


In 1985, I submitted my college thesis in creative writing to my professor at Hamilton College.  He enjoyed it.  I then put the manuscript away and completely forgot about it.

In 2009, I found the manuscript, and felt that it needed some cleaning and updating.  I also decided to serialize it – along with the updates of the book – in my blog, publishing three chapters per week throughout the summer of 2010.

In December 2010, I decided to add four more short stories to the Town of Iverhill.  Four more stories were added in December 2011. Those short stories are part of the “Christmas in Iverhill” series.

You may go to any link in this blog page to read either “The Robins of Iverhill” or “Christmas in Iverhill.”  I hope that you enjoy them.




Time Travel: Thursday morning, January 1, 1970

Holy crap, it worked!!

Okay, this is where things get interesting.

If you’ve come across this blog post, take a look at the timestamp.

Yep.  January 1, 1970.  One minute after midnight.  60 seconds into the new year.

Well, while I’m here on the first day of the new year, I may as well look around.

It’s cold today.  The Capital District was blasted with a snowstorm last night.  And there were plenty of accidents on the highways from a mixture of boisterous spirits and alcoholic spirits.  The weather was so poor, Governor Nelson Rockefeller canceled the annual public reception at the Governor’s Mansion.

The Vietnam War is a major part of the day’s events; Vice-President Spiro Agnew is in Vietnam to visit with President Nguyen Van Thieu; Agnew will also visit some U.S. soldiers on his trip.

I’m going to go shopping.  Carl’s has a sale on bedsheets; $3.99 for a twin set. $4.49 for a double set.  And Grand Union will be open at 9:00 a.m., and I can purchase a whole chicken for 29¢/pound, or 33¢/pound if I want the chicken cut up, split or quartered.

Let’s see what’s playing in the cinemas.  Hey, the Scotia Art Theater is in their second week of showing The Sterile Cuckoo.  What a great film.  Liza Minelli was in that picture, and as far as I’m concerned, it was her best role up to that point – heck, I’m in 1970, Cabaret and Arthur haven’t been filmed yet.   And The Sterile Cuckoo was written by a fellow Hamilton College grad (John Nichols ’62), and the movie was filmed at my old alma mater as well.

Let’s see what’s on TV this morning.  Hey, it’s Commander Ralph and the Good Ship News, followed by an episode of Captain Kangaroo!  Cool beans! Oh wait, I forgot, it’s 1970, it’s far out, man!  And on TV tonight is a new episode of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, starring Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare as a woman involved in a platonic relationship with a 200-year-old spectre of a sea captain.

And if I hurry, I can find a station that will show the Sugar Bowl.  I wonder if Archie Manning will take Ole Miss to a victory over Arkansas.

A scene from The Sterile Cuckoo The opening from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 1970 Sugar Bowl

I brought along my transistor radio, let’s see what I can pick up.  Wow, here’s Harry Downie on WGY, while there’s rock and roll on WSNY 1240 am, as Paul Revere plays your requests.  Oh good, here’s Boom Boom Brannigan on WPTR, while WRPI is playing hard rock music and WCDB – wait, I got that wrong, it’s listed here as WSUA – well, I can hear what they’re playing, but the station has a terrible buzzing noise.  I hope they get that fixed.  And what in the world is FLY 92 playing – wait a minute, this can’t be correct – classical “Hallmark” music?!?  Eww…

In fact, take a listen, I’ve got Mike Mitchell’s radio show on WTRY right now, click on this link! And if that’s not good enough, how about a radio clip from Ferdinand B on 1540 WPTR, by clicking on this link! And there’s a “Radio Race” over at Schenectady’s 1240 AM station, by clicking on this link!

Man, I need a car. No Saturns available in 1970, and the Pontiac 6000 won’t be built for at least another decade. Let’s see what the local dealerships are offering.  Maybe there’s a sale at Bumstead Chevrolet or Ted Pepper Chrysler-Plymouth.

I could get a swank Dodge Charger Or this awesome AMC Javelin This Pontiac GTO Humbler looks cool

Jeez, I should go find myself.  I’d be six years old.  I probably wouldn’t believe myself if future-Chuck met past-Chuck.  Isn’t that some sort of time-space continuum violation?  Probably is.

But really… did the Times Union really have a blog portal in 1970?

Or, more importantly – has Chuck Miller actually perfected project Quantum Leap?  Has he gotten the WABAC machine from Mr. Peabody?  Is he flying through time and space in a modified British police telephone booth?

Well, to be honest… Yes, yes I have.

See, this blog post is an experiment.  An experiment in TU blog portal time traveling.  A weblog Easter egg, if you will, for those with keen detective skills.

But wait a minute – if I’m trapped in 1970, shouldn’t I be able to alter the timestream to change the current timeline?  You know, step on a butterfly in 1970 and we’re looking at President Jerry Jennings and Mayor  Glenn Slingerland?

Now let’s be serious for a sec.

How many of you loyal readers actually know I’m doing this?  Sure, I can write a blog post and date it for 1970, but because the TU software only shows the most recent blog post – i.e., the one that’s written to appear “today” – you may never see this 1970 post, unless you click on the “archive year” on the side of my blog.

So as far as I’m concerned, we’re in a very special part of the Internet – a hidden blog section accessible to only you and me.  Oh, I’m sure others will try to exploit this little digital loophole, but I was the first one to find it.  Nyah nyah nyah.

So why does the Internet blogging time machine start on January 1, 1970?

I checked with my Street Academy trivia teammate Jeremy McNamara for this question, and he explained that January 1, 1970 is actually day one of Unix time.  In fact, on January 19, 2038, there will actually be a 32-bit overflow and the Unix time stamp will cease to work.  Hopefully they’ll get it fixed before then, or blogging is gonna be a nightmare.

And if you check my blog archive link on the right side of my blog page, you can see that I’ve traveled back to 1981 and 1982 as well.  Swank.

So what am I going to do in January 1, 1970?

I don’t rightly know.  But I do know one thing…

Time traveling in my blog is going to be a lot of fun.

NOTE: 1970 radio airchecks courtesy of