Keeping our focus

ZacTax Roundup for December 2020

A couple of weeks ago, the NFL blew Twitter up when Fox debuted a new camera in its broadcast. Although media content teams in the NFL and college sports have been using similar technology for years to make high quality productions for social media, this was the first time that it had been used for a live broadcast. And for good reason. 

Unlike traditional broadcast cameras, Fox used a handheld mirrorless camera that required a special backpack with equipment capable of streaming the feed to the broadcast.

But it wasn’t just the camera that got people’s attention. It was the way the video looked that got people talking. Unlike traditional broadcasts, where the cameras are set to keep the entire screen in focus, the new on-field cameras used a low aperture setting to highlight the players during touchdown celebrations while blurring out everything in the background. 

It’s the same effect the Portrait Mode setting on your iPhone attempts to emulate, and it is indeed stunning in a live 4K sports broadcast.

Most people seemed to think this “new camera angle” was the result of some amazing new technology, but the tools necessary to produce that picture are quite pedestrian. In fact, you can grab a DSLR camera from Best Buy for a couple hundred dollars and make your own NFL-worthy videos. While everyone thought it was a monumental leap in broadcast technology, it was really just a change in focus.

If you’ve followed our podcast, you’ve heard Patrick mention my t-shirts. In a constant quest to find the next most clever shirt, I came across this gem:

As we wrap up what, for most of us, was a truly rough year, it’s worth a bit of reflection and perhaps even a bit of a reset. With a vaccine now in the first phase of distribution and the light at the end of the tunnel beginning to make itself visible, it will be tempting to swing the pendulum all the way back and do what we can to make up for the lost time of 2020. 

But as is our tendency, we suggest an approach rooted in moderation. Instead of coming back with guns blazing, let’s use this opportunity to validate our focus. 

We recently spoke at a UMANT one-day conference themed around “building resilient cities.” At the last minute, we threw a photography metaphor into the end of our talk that seems germane to this topic. 

Photography is the kind of hobby that anyone can pick up, and the great thing about it is how it marries technical knowledge with creativity. There’s so much to learn about and experiment with when it comes to framing and post-producing your photos, but none of those things matter if your picture isn’t exposed well. 

There is a thing called the Exposure Triangle. It’s a simple* math formula that defines how the light available to you will be converted to an image, and it’s made up of (not surprisingly since it’s a triangle) three components: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. 

Shutter speed determines how long the shutter is open and exposing the sensor to light. Shorter speeds can capture motion with less blur, but with less light hitting the sensor. Longer speeds will result in the blurring of motion, but more light hitting the sensor.

Aperture defines the size of the hole in which light enters. You can compensate for shorter shutter speed by increasing the size of the hole, but that limits your ability to keep the whole shot in focus. A higher F-value means a smaller hole (yes, it’s backwards) and broader focus; a lower F-value results in a bigger distinction between what’s clear and what’s blurred.

The final piece, ISO, determines the sensitivity of the sensor to light. You can compensate for shutter speed and aperture (the artistic sides of the Triangle) by adjusting the sensitivity of the sensor. But higher ISO values tend to add noise to your photos, making them less sharp.

Of course, this is an extremely shallow overview of the topic. There’s so much more you can learn about how to properly expose your photos, but the key takeaway is that these three pieces all work together (and to some degree, against each other). To keep a photo correctly exposed, you have to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO together. It’s a dance. A series of trade-offs, kind of like life.

Sometimes we have to deal with a 2020. It’s just the hand we’re dealt. To accommodate it, we have to make trade offs. And much like trying to take pictures of your kids in very low light, you have to decide whether you want to prioritize capturing their motion, highlighting the subject or keeping everything in focus, or sacrificing image quality in service of your artistic expression. It’s ultimately all about priorities.

*It’s not really all that simple…

We hope that 2021 will bring much better times for all of you, both personally and professionally. If you’ve lost friends or loved ones this year; if your city has struggled through outbreaks, closures, financial woes, and difficult decisions; or even if you managed to get through 2020 relatively unscathed, we truly hope the best for you next year.

For the last two Roundups of 2020, we wanted to keep a positive tone. Last month, we talked about gratitude and grace. This month, about focus.

The turn of a new year is always a time for reevaluation. The New Year’s Resolution-Industrial Complex is always present this time of year, urging you to make a major change to your life over the next 12 months. But if you’re anything like me, you probably struggle to uphold your resolutions for more than a few weeks (if you’re lucky). 

For me, and perhaps for you as well, part of the problem is simply trying too much. Being too ambitious. 

Steve Jobs famously argued that focus is about saying “no.” It wasn’t about willpower. It wasn’t about some superhuman strength to keep your attention dialed in all the time. It was about learning how to say No to the hundreds of potentially great ideas that present themselves to you so that you have the time and energy to stay focused on the handful that are the most important.

When he returned to Apple after more than a decade in exile, the company was months away from insolvency. It had lost its focus over the years, with too many irons in the fire to do anything particularly well. One of his first actions as interim CEO was simplify the product line: one desktop computer for consumers, one for pro users, and the same for laptops. Once they had nailed those core products, then they could consider expanding to new areas. 

And if you are at all familiar with the tech world over the past two decades, you probably know that it worked. Apple became the most valuable company in the world despite never having a large market share for its main business. But the hyper-focus on just a few things led to a resurgence that ultimately changed the world several times (the music industry, smartphones, and tablets) before he passed away in 2011.

Do you ever find your city to be unfocused? Do you have so many things going on that it’s hard to do any of them well? Part of that’s the name of the game, right? Cities are tasked with doing a lot, from street maintenance to public safety, water and sewer to providing leisure activities.

Sometimes we need to take a step back to evaluate what all we’ve got going on. To examine and adjust our focus. To drop that aperture, highlight the subject of our pictures, and blur everything else out. As awful as 2020 has been, it can also be an opportunity to do just that.

As we begin to pick up the pieces and return to normal, don’t be too quick to say Yes to all of those things we had to set aside the past 12 months. Everything you say Yes to becomes an obligation on your time, attention, and financial resources. 

Guard your focus with a laser-like intensity. Don’t be afraid to say No every now and then. It doesn’t have to be “never”, it may just be “not right now.”  That way you can focus on the things you’ve already decided are important. It may also mean saying Yes to something new and letting something old go away to make room.

Either way, it’s worth using 2020 as an opportunity to reevaluate the priorities of your community and make sure that you’re focused on the things that really matter to you.

Across the web

NYC considers paying parking snitches

A proposal to pay a finder fee to people who snitch on parking violations was introduced in New York City last month.

Sherwin-Williams fires student employee for bringing brand awareness to TikTok users

A former Sherwin-Williams employee was fired for creating a viral TikTok account wherein he posted videos of paint mixing. He took requests and purchased the paint himself, using downtime in the store to build brand awareness. When his supervisors found out, they suggested he show the corporate marketing team how large his following had grown in hopes that they could utilize the new marketing avenue. Instead, he was fired, raising the question of how willing we might be to build an audience with our younger generations through perhaps unconventional methods.

Will cities survive 2020?

The Upzoned podcast (featuring Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns) discusses a recent article of the same name and talks about the long-term impacts that 2020 may have on cities.

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