Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Campfires I Have Known - Part2

Here is Part two of a story taken from the archives of stories I've written over the years.  I suppose it fits well into the category of "Beyond the Campfire".  

I'll never forget the soggy fire my long time friend Rocky and I attempted to nurse into life back in our college days.  We thought we knew all there was to know about the outdoors...we didn't. We were home for the summer and apparently had nothing else better to do, so we put together a spur-of-the-moment trout fishing trip over to the Illinois River below Tenkiller Dam not far from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where we were attending college.  What we lacked in actual experience we made up in enthusiasm.  We piled close to three tons of camping gear...2.9 tons of which we didn't need...into the back of his old VW he had converted into a dune buggy.  Dune buggies were pretty cool back then.  Of the 0.1 tons of gear we did need, almost none of it was food...we were going to be real pioneers and live off the land by catching trout and cooking them over a campfire.  We actually did catch some fish, but mother nature did not cooperate with us and a steady rain fell the entire trip.  We soon discovered that the old Coleman stove we brought along no longer worked...or more than likely we didn't know how to make it work.  So...we set about building a campfire...with now very soggy wood.

About all we could accomplish to that effect was a smoldering mass of wet smoke which did little to warm our cold hands much less provide enough heat to cook a fish.  Our filleting skills were also somewhat lacking and the soggy mixture of cornmeal and assorted fish parts fell well short of winning any gourmet cooking awards.  Even so, at least it kept us from starving...but just barely.  Had some other campers not taken pitty on us and loaned us a working Coleman stove, we certainly would have had a most memorable outing.  As it turned out...we still get a big chuckle about that experience even today.  Oddly was the campfire...or maybe the lack there of...that helped to create that memory.

Our skills at building campfires improved over the years...but we still had our share of shriveled tennis shoes, holes burned into tent fabric, and choking lungs filled with smoke.  One of the first float trips we made on the Buffalo River in northwestern Arkansas could be classified as the "no sleep float trip from hell."  One of our troop...who had been invited by one of our regulars...had without a doubt the worst case of snoring I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.  Now I've heard some pretty good snoring over the years...even contribute my own style to this serenade...but, I've never heard such vile noises come out of a sleeping person ever...I never knew such noises could come out of a sleeping person.  Now, it's not all that unusual for someone to snore a bit when you get four to six guys together on a camping's somewhat expected and no one seems to be bothered by it...too much.  But, on this single occasion the snoring exploits of our guest not only kept all of us awake...but we had campers thirty yards away complain the next morning about the hideous and foul noises.  Cotton in the ears...nothing could muffle the thunderous rumble. Only two people got any sleep that 3-day weekend...the culprit...and Ralph who was able to disconnect his hearing aid and slept in silent bliss each night.  The rest of us suffered unmercifully.

I'll never forget the puffy eyed look of our crew as we all stood around the campfire each morning.  Never had coffee smelled so good nor offered more relief than on those mornings..that was the most memorable campfire we've ever had if not the most miserable.  Oddly enough, our guest turned out to be one fine camp when meal time came...all was temporarily forgiven.

The Buffalo River has been the focal point of many such campfires creating an array of unique evenings and images of smoke drifting across the campsites on cold mornings.  The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon sizzling on an open fire becomes an historical point of reference for each of those adventures.  Who could forget the sound and fragrance of freshly caught fish frying over a hot bed of coals as evening approaches...or the sound of the whip-o-will as smoke from the fire drifts low over the camp.  One of my favorite things to do after a campfire meal is to sit back and look up at the stars which are unfiltered by city lights and hear the crackle and feel the heat radiating from the hot coals.  These are memories that can only be experienced around a campfire.  When the stars come out...lost in another world...there is something magical about the fire.  They bring comfort...a sense of home yet a feeling of distance...and generates an enduring legacy that
remains vivid well after the amber coals have cooled.

Countless stories of embellished adventures we have told over the years while sitting around the campfire...hunting and fishing adventures...and more often than not...mis-adventures are recounted again and again.  It's one of the best uses of a campfire...they just seem to go together.

In more recent times I constructed a campfire area on the backside of our yard.  We live in the country and our yard is a long and skinny yard so the fire pit is situated a good hundred yards from the house.  We're surrounded by cornfields and wooded areas.  On occasion we venture out there and sit in the swing that I built and watch the fire run through its life cycle.  I enjoy adding logs to the fire and watch it flare up.  On those cool fall or spring's quite relaxing to sit out there and just talk about this and that and listen to the coyotes yipping and yelpping at dusk. My wife Kris and I certainly enjoy sharing those moments.

Wilderness may disappear in time...I pray that never happens...but the priceless images of those campfires will never be lost. I am certainly fortunate to have visited such moments...I plan on visiting many more.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Campfires I have Known - Part One - The back yard.

Here's part one of another story taken from the archives of stories I've written over the years.  I suppose it fits well into the category of "Beyond the Campfire".  It's a bit too long to make into one story so I will break it up into two parts.

The ethics of backcountry travel in today's wilderness often dictates an absence of a real campfire, but, there are still places where the warmth of that enduring symbol can still be felt on those cold starlit evenings.  A campfire adds that unique touch and helps to create a bonding with the outdoor experience...especially within the domain of the night.  They are like snow crystals in that no two of them are ever alike.  I guess that is what is so endearing about them.  Each one develop their own personality and become the personification of that particular outdoor adventure.  The aroma of the burning wood...the heat generated by the amber coals...the soft glow and dancing shadows created by the flames can transform even the most cold of nights into a memory that will last long after the coals are extinguished.

I have known many campfires over the years and have watched them grow from a tiny infant flame into a roaring fire casting an hypnotic glow across the camping site.  Not all the fires were equal...some were downright inferior..but each of them contributed to the pleasure of their respective moment in time.

My first experience with campfires and camping out in general occurred in my grandparents backyard in the small town of Wister, Oklahoma.  The stately old house in which they lived for almost 70 years was situated at the top of a knoll not far from what was downtown.  The yard was over an acre or so in size and was covered with old stately oak and elm trees.  (The elms have probably fallen victim to that nasty Dutch Elm disease by now I'm sure).  In that backyard stood an old well with a crudely built covering.  On those hot and muggy summer days so prevalent in that part of the country, my grandmother would draw three or four loads of the crystal clear ice cold water and place a watermelon or two in it to cool them down.

One summer when I was about 9 years old, my dad purchased an old army surplus canvas pup tent for us kids to use and with that simple piece of outdoor gear I lived dozens of adventures within the shadow of that old well.  My grandmother would allow me to build a small campfire in the long as I was careful.  There was no shortage of wood as the old oak and elm trees constantly shed dry branches at the slightest breeze.  She would give me a blanket or two and along with an old army cot that barely fit inside the tent, I would sleep out under the stars...not more than twenty feet from her back door.  She'd take a peak out the window as night came just to make sure I was alright.

The highlight came the next morning when I would rekindle the campfire...grab a couple of eggs and some bacon from the frig and cook breakfast.  My grandmother would always offer to make breakfast...but I insisted on doing it myself cooking on the open fire.  It was great fun...and a wonderful learning experience for an 8 or 9 year old boy.

Those campfires were my pride and joy.  I actually felt like I was living an adventure as grand and exciting as Lewis and Clark.  That old tent eventually rotted away and was discarded but the memories of sleeping out on those hot summer nights...and those first campfires set in motion a lifetime of outdoor discoveries.  They added a sense of realism to a small boy's imagination.  I'll never forget those days, and all the campfires since then had their roots planted during those summer nights.

Monday, December 20, 2010

When Nature Wins

It is said that a photograph is worth a thousand words...maybe so...but there are some moments that even a photograph is unable to capture. I wrote this story about thirteen years ago and it still is one of my favorites and it continually generates memories that could never be reproduced photographically.  It's about a spectacular event that occurred almost twenty years event that changed my perspective on a lot of things...I have no photos of that day...just a verbal description from the heart of what I experienced...I hope once you read this you will understand the impact of the moment.  

Never again would a sunrise simply be a sunrise.  It would be a unique moment of time and place forever bound and tested against that morning...forever etched as a defining principle of what an outdoor experience should be.

When I stepped out of the warm cab of my truck and into the chill of that pre-dawn morning air, little did I suspect that this day would be unique.  The air was light and crisp and well below the point of being cold and I shivered as I looked toward the still dark sky across which spread the silvery haze of the Milky Way.  I was to meet an old friend here on the northwest side of Canton Lake, in northwestern Oklahoma, for some late season goose hunting.  Forewarned of his late arrival, I set about performing the well rehearsed motions of suiting up getting ready for the day's hunt.  During previous outings we had noticed that a few hundred Canada Geese followed a predictable pattern each morning and afternoon.  If they continued using that pattern we hoped to ambush one or two as they flew low over a spit of land that extended a couple hundred yards into the lake.  The cover was good there with a cluster of knurled willow trees on the point and copious amounts of tall grass around the perimeter.  The lake was low that season so the walk in was easy.

A thin layer of ice along the shallows crunched under foot as I trudged along the edge of the peninsula.  I carried no decoys, for we planned on remaining mobile and adapting to the movements of the geese when the opportunity presented itself.  I settled in amongst the willow trees and leaned back into a comfortable position long before the first vestiges of daylight became apparent.  There was a calming silence that pervaded over the sound...only the soft rush of condensed breath set aglow by the starlit sky.

Time slowed under the canopy of that cold and dark morning.  I felt small and insignificant sitting there alone.  A slight sense of melancholy drifted over me born from a fatigue that hovered like a fog around my eyes. After several minutes passed, just above the horizon across the far side of the lake a faint glow became evident...a glow so pale as to be almost imperceptible...yet distinct and recognizable as the first sign of the approaching dawn.

Somewhere across the lake a group of mallards stirred and their chatter echoed across the silent waters.  Overhead a flight of buffleheads whistled by winging from my left to right and then circled behind me disappearing into the void.  More flights followed.  A group of teal then pintail and more mallards whipped by...their beating wings whistling as they ripped through the crisp morning air.  Unseen high overhead the haunting chattel of sandhill cranes added to the symphony that was now being orchestrated across the lake.

With each passing moment a new sound and activity of waterfowl was brought into the realm of that once still morning. in unison with the stirrings of the wildlife on and around the lake, the glow over the horizon changed texture and intensity.

A layer of thin clouds that drifted low on the horizon began to glow with a deliberate shimmer celebrated with layers of pastel blues and pinks intermixed with streaks of orange and red.  The sunrise scene that was unfolding was perfectly imprinted on the mirrored surface of the lake.

A flight of hooded mergansers swooped in and sat down less than twenty yards in front of me.  Their distinctive profiles a silhouette against the ever growing intensity of the breaking dawn.  I was spell bound.  I leaned my shotgun against the willow tree...and simply watched.

The once star-studded sky began to lighten and one by one each of those bright points of light began to dim...blink one final time...and disappear.  By this time multitudes of waterfowl were stirring...darting in front of, behind, and all around me.  I couldn't believe what was unfolding.  It was like an image taken from an artists canvas...yet no imagination could capture the majesty of this morning.  The combined effects of the sunrise...its reflection on the calm waters of the lake...the chaotic movements of countless waterfowl could not have been choreographed more splendidly than the spontaneous explosion of time and place presenting themselves across this...the best of nature's theaters.

Across the lake on the horizon, what had began as a faint whimper of light had now progressed to a bold, new amber glow.  Jets of red and orange ripped through and danced across the low clouds.  The lake and sky were ablaze.  Thousands of ducks and many geese flew here and there in confused contrast against the unfolding serenity of that magnificent morning. when a conductor raises his baton...a momentary hush fell over the morning and all was mostly very still.  A moment later the sky filled with brilliant light as the sun thrust its burning globe above the horizon...the silence was then ripped apart when thousands more waterfowl exploded into flight...their squawks and chattering filled the silence...their motion across the blazing sky, their reflections moving across the lake added depth and perspective to the morning.

At that moment I realized something unique was unfolding not only around me...but within me as well.  Never before had it become so evident.  From all the years of hunting and fishing...from all the priceless moments spent outdoors...a moment like this was the moment I was seeking.  To witness that incomprehensible complexity of nature played out amongst the indescribable simplicity of a magnificent truly understand for the first time that I was a part of God's creation given the privilege to witness and enjoy the splendid array of what life in him has to offer.  This was what it was all about. Far too many times the most important things in life had been lost in the vacuum of time and place. Never again would that happen.  Never again would a sunrise simply be a sunrise.  It would be a unique moment of time and place forever bound and tested against that morning...forever etched as a defining principle of what a relationship with God is all about. Few images can stir the soul like witnessing God's creative hand as it unfolds across his natural palette.  Every morning...every new a unique creation there for the taking...there for all to share.  It;s just a matter being still long enough to not just view it...but to experience it.

My partner eventually arrived and was able to witnessed the last moments of what I had been privileged to observe from its beginning. By the time the sun had fully risen the explosion of activity subsided.  In spite of observing, and maybe because of, all the activity, and not without trying...we failed to bring home any game on that day...even so, it was a fitting end to a perfect, unforgettable day afield.  Somehow it seemed appropriate that elegantly perfectly displayed as was the intent of its creator...would win on this day.


Epilog:  This story brings back many wonderful memories from times past.  My friend Ralph who met me up there that day has passed on now...his memory as well as countless memories spent afield with him and others have not been lost.  This one single morning may indeed have been the most spectacular.  That is why I chose to write it down because of the special nature of the event.

With the Christmas season upon us...I hope we all take time to remember not only friends and family...but more importantly the true meaning of the season.  That day afield changed my perspective on a lot of things not the least of which was my personal relationship Christ.  I began to understand more fully the significance of his life and how insignificant my life is without that relationship.  I am forever grateful for that one single moment afield when he spoke to me in such a spectacular way.  Maybe that is why I spend so much time now trying to photograph his creation...maybe someday he will offer again another one of those unforgettable mornings when time and place converge into a single moment of visual splendor.

Thank you allowing me to share this special moment in time.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sandhills in the Snow

Sandhill Cranes are an ancient migratory bird with fossil records going way back.  I first encountered them during a late season waterfowl hunt on Oklahoma's Canton Lake in the northwestern part of the state.  All morning long I kept hearing some gosh awful chattering noise and couldn't figure out what it was.  The hunting was slow so my partner and I started investigating what that noise was.

The lake was very low that season with large mudflats being exposed.  Across the lake about a quarter mile away we spied a great spiral of large birds circling and settling onto the mudflats.  There were thousands of them.  We had no idea what they were.  Using my canoe, we paddled across the lake and pulled ashore a few hundred yards down from where the birds were settling.  Using the high grass as cover I worked my way as close as I could and eventually moved to point only yards away from the outer edge of where the birds were settling. The noise was tremendous and I was forever fascinated by these magnificent birds as I sat there and watched them circle high about and settle onto the mudflats in front of me.

When we moved to Kentucky a few years ago, I discovered that a large flight of Greater Sandhills migrate through the state and often winter over not far from my home.  The last three seasons I've made an effort to photograph these birds and last year we had a larger than normal snow.  What great fun it was tracking these birds in the snow and then being able to photograph them.  Turned out to be more difficult than I thought, but I eventually managed to discover an area that a large number were using and there was good cover around the parameter offering an effective vantage point from which to photograph.

All in all, these ancient birds offer one of the best opportunities for nature / wildlife photography.  Check out the my Facebook video about these fascinating birds:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thru the Lens - A Life Lesson

Christmas used to be my favorite time of year...oh it still is in many regards...but it's different now.  My perspective has changed a lot over the years.  I do miss the days when my boys were little and the excitement in their eyes on Christmas Eve was always fun to watch.  They could hardly stand it and would barely sleep that night.  We missed a lot sleep as a result too with them getting up way too early on Christmas Day.  Some of the most memorable photos we have were taken on Christmas morning...most of them with a simple disposable camera.  Oddly enough, those little cameras were a great learning tool.

About the only thing you can control on one of those things is the composition.  For many years that was the only kind of camera I could afford to shoot.  As a result I learned a great deal about how to compose a picture.  My zoom lens were my perspectives included just about everything I could see...the results were far better than such an inexpensive devise should create.  By waiting for the right moment it was amazing how through the simple lens of those little box camera's memories were made and captured.

I suppose there is a lesson somewhere in there...probably many of them...but the one lesson that comes to mind revolves around Christmas and the simplicity of those little cameras.  Now days, we too often rely on and believe in the big expensive cameras and tech gear...when more often than not...we can learn more from the simple application of the basics.  That  is what Christmas is all about...the simple basics...when Jesus came as a baby in simple surroundings and lived a simple life...but, through that simple life, the world was changed.  Today, I can't imagine Christmas being anything more than that.  How often do we get caught up in the glitter and tinsel of the season and forget about what its all about. We always tried to incorporate into Christmas the simple true story and meaning of the season when our boys were little...and oddly enough, I think those memories may be the most vivid of all those seasons.

Maybe we should go back to the basics more often..we might be surprised what we could learn...and the results would far outweigh anything we could conjure up on our own.  Christ's life in us is a lot like using those simple cameras.  It's all a matter of looking for the light, then letting his simple message create something wonderful in us. As simple as those cameras were, they captured unforgettable moments.  As simple as the Christmas story's meaning and impact should always provide an unforgettable measure of life to all of us.

That is this weeks Thru the Lens life lesson.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

That One Defining Moment

I've missed more great photographs than I've ever come close to making.  Maybe one percent of what I take could be considered pretty good...the other 99 percent was practice.  Even so, I am always on the look out for that one defining shot...the single moment in time where everything falls into place...when location, light, preparation, and opportunity all come together and I succeed in capturing that one defining moment.  It hasn't happened yet...but I keep trying...keep looking.

Many years ago I witnessed such a moment...all the elements were there...except I wasn't prepared.  On this occasion I was driving south along Oklahoma's I-75 and was a few miles south of Henryetta.  A big spring storm was brewing...dark clouds...distant thunder.  It was late in the afternoon not far from sundown.  The dark cloud spread out above me and was threatening the entire region, but off to the west there was a break in the clouds low on the horizon.

There was plenty of lightning, but not the normal cloud to ground type...the lighting was spreading out across the sky from cloud to cloud in a web-like manner like electric fingers extending in all directions.  There was very little flashing...just a slow expansion of electric tentacles that moved across the sky.  As I topped a hill the view changed to where I could see a valley off to the west and at the same time the sun popped below that break in the clouds.  Everything lit up in an expanding warm light...yet the lightning continued to flash across the clouds.  For a few moments...that may have been one of the most remarkable sights I've ever witnessed....and I had not a camera of any type with me.  That may have been the first time I've ever wished I had a quality camera and knew how to use it...but it wasn't to be. I've never seen anything that remotely came close to that moment.

Another time probably around summer, 1975, I found myself visiting Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.  An absolutely remarkable place.  I spent pretty much the entire day there making a couple loops around the rim drive, photographing ever nook and corner of the view I could find.  I've never seen such blue water or blue sky.  As I was leaving it was right at sundown and the entire region was enveloped in a red glow.  The surrounding mountains were layered in purple and the sky was on fire and spread out from horizon to horizon.  I was at the right place, at the right time, under the right circumstances...but I had no film left in my camera.  All I could do was stop..get out of my vehicle...and watch one of the most spectacular endings to a day I've ever seen...and was unable to take a single photograph of the moment.  All that remains of both of these moments are the memories stored in my mind.

That one defining moment is an elusive dream that maybe someday I'll be able to capture.  My eye is always on that search...and as I mentioned before I still continue to miss great photo ops simply because of a lack of readiness.  One of my favorite locations to photograph is Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie.  If there is any location that will offer such a defining moment that is unique to photography, it must be this place.  I can visualize what it must look like...that one moment...but time and circumstance has yet to provide it.

That one defining moment may never happen...but I'll continue to search for it and even though I'd rather be good than lucky...maybe a little luck will come my way and I'll stumble onto a magical moment of light and actually have my camera in hand.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Gift of Small Pleasures

With the Christmas Season upon us, I like to share a story I wrote back in 2004.  It explains a lot of why I enjoy getting outdoors and why I love to photograph those moments.  It's about how small pleasures of fishing from a canoe often become wonderful gifts.


It's when the cool air of morning hovers over the quiet hours is when I feel most at home, most in tune with where I am. Before the rays of daylight evaporate the darkness, while the last remnants of pre-dawn cling to life and the fatigue continues to invade my eyes is when I realize just how important are moments like this spent casting a line.  It is the last calm before the day, the last silence of morning that awakens me.  More often than they should, moments like these slip away unnoticed, and it is not until I look back and reflect on the experience is my heart warmed by the experience.  My thoughts often drift affectionately to what was there, to the emotion of the moment, as I was suspended on the glide of my canoe toward a rendezvous of time and place.  It is good for the soul to do such things, reflect on days afield, for it is during those time the small pleasures of life become a gift.

Maybe it is the sweet tone of the paddle keeping time with the swirls and eddies created as the wooden blade presses against the water I enjoy the most...and muscles not recently used are again called into service.  That silent motion of the paddle as it is carefully raised at the end of each stroke and caressed into place for the next...the obedient turn of the bow as a gentle brace is applied to position that first cast are such things from which I seldom tire.  That first cast of the morning, during the stillness, when your heartbeat is heard as well as felt...when the only sound is the muffled twirl of the line rolling from your reel create the most enduring images.  That is when the anticipation is highest.  Each cast becomes a special memory harboring its own significance...its own connection to the gift.

Solitude and calmness of spirit is what I seek while fishing and few things offer a better blend of events to fulfill those ideals.  Long ago I learned an old axiom: There is more to fishing than catching a fish.  Over the years I've grown to appreciate that idea more.  The slow and simple method of wading a creek or fishing some secluded cove or drifting down a back country stream embraces the essence of those words.

Often, the trials of making a living create a delinquency from the pursuit of those desires, but in retrospect, those gaps generate even more small pleasures on the few occasions I do get out.

It matters little what season reflection on fishing occurs...for each season brings its own character into the realm of simple pleasures.  But, late in spring when the contrasts of weather are blending into the early days of summer, time for creating a reflection is prime.  When the hot days of summer are extinguished by the arrival of fall, and when the chill of winter invades the hemisphere, thoughts of fishing succumb to the inevitable.  Even so, during the depths of the coldest months...I often reflect on those moments spent casting a line under the spell of the mornings of summer.  There is comfort in revisiting those days, even if only in thought...for when the frost on the canoe glisten's in the half light of a winter's morning, I know life granted me another season, and once again soon, I shall suspend myself above the trials of living, and seek the gift of small pleasures.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Take a Closer Look

Not to long ago I was able to touch a part of the finer things in life one fall morning by participating in three of my five favorite things to do; float with my canoe down a backwoods stream; do a little fishing; and photograph nature.  It was a beautiful fall morning and in time I stowed the fishing rod and began to wade through the cool stream waters with tripod and camera in hand.

As light filtered through the canopy of trees my eye drifted away from the stream and into the woods.  It was there I discovered a dwelling of nature where time, place, and light converged.  On any other morning this area is just a group of trees, but on this morning, it became a woods enchanted with life and mystery.

There was an old tree trunk that long ago fell from its heights into the creek.  Now, years later, it was covered with lichen and moss, it became a wonderful backdrop for a nature photographer. A spider web was caught by a beam of sunlight and remnants of the morning haze was set aglow as the beams of light drifted through the trees.

Nature has a subtle way of demonstrating its unique qualities.  That old trunk now in its final stages of life exhibited a gracefulness and dignity only nature can command.  Maybe we could learn something from such things...that in all stages of life, there is beauty and wonder, grace and dignity, if only we could step away from our narrow world views and look at things from a different perspective.

Being a photographer is all about looking for light...but its more than's also about looking for and finding unique opportunities from ordinary situations....about discovering wonder and simplicity in the midst of chaos.  It is during those transitional times when the light changes that the most magic light occurs.  Timing is the key...willingness to observe is the mechanism...being there to capture the moment is the reward.

The diversity of nature may surprise us if we stop and observe closely enough.  Photography presents us with opportunities to witness more closely subtle events that we more often than not simply overlook.  Things we take for granted take on a new life when viewed from the perspective of a photographers eye.  A thistle is just another field plant until the light catches it just right and one takes a closer look.  Often, all it takes is a simple perspective shift to reveal hidden beauty...even in a weed.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Too Close Encounter

About five or six years ago I started seriously photographing Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie preserve.  It's an amazing landscape full of not just scenic bounty, but a rich, diverse history as well.  It's 38,000 acres is the largest protected area of original tallgrass prairie that remains.

The best way to photograph this area is to observe it up explore the hidden arroyo's and fields of wildflowers away from the gravel access road.  By hiking into the interior, a whole new world is opened.  It's during those times the song of the prairie becomes vivid and real.  I've taken thousands of photo's there...sat for hours under the shade of an isolated red cedar tree...simply listened to the wind and the sounds of the open range.  It's an amazing experience.

On one such excursion, I experienced something that was not only amazing...but a bit unnerving.  I had hiked a mile or so into an area where an arroyo  cuts through the rolling hills.  I spent most of the morning in there photographing this and that, but mostly just enjoying being out.  By late morning it started to warm up so I worked my way out of there.  I had to climb up the long face of a shallow hill and as I moved around to the south side I discovered that a herd of about 100 or so bison had wandered between me and my Jeep effectively blocking my way out.

It was not a good idea to attempt passing through the herd so I backtracked a ways and stepped down into a dry creek bed.  Using the creek bed I figured I would just circle around and come out a bit further north then cut over to the road.  After walking several hundred yards I stepped out of the creek bed.  My view was limited while down in there so I didn't see that the northern flank of the bison herd was still blocking my were two rather large bison bulls.  They were about 50 maybe 60 yards away.

Well..I sort of spooked them...if there is such a thing as spooking twin 2000 pound bison bulls...and they took offense to me being there.  I may have spooked them, but I certainly didn't intimidate them as they began to snort and act all agitated.  Normally they are rather docile...but these two guys wanted to express their displeasure about my presence personally.

I tried to slowly back away and reenter the creek bed, but before I could do so the two bulls busted and they started running...accompanied by the rest of the assorted 100 or so others in their company...right at me.  All I had to hide behind was a rather flimsy camera tripod...which wasn't much comfort.  For a few seconds I simply stood there...well...actually there wasn't much else I could have done short of running...and I wsn't going to outrun those guys...but fortunately, the entire herd veered away after 25 or 30 yards and ran off in the opposite direction.

I moved on down the creek bed another hundred yards or so then worked my way back to the road and eventually to my Jeep.  Those two bulls never took their eyes off me...nor I them.  I must admit was an exhilarating experience to be so close to such wild, powerful, and magnificent creatures.  I took not a single photograph of the entire event...I was a bit preoccupied trying to avoid becoming a permanent addition to the Tallgrass Prairie landscape.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shoot the Transitions

If you have followed this blog at all, you will have learned by now how I emphasize that photography is all about light...not the quantity of light, but the quality of light.  Quality light comes from many sources and is influenced by time, place, season, subject, angles, color, and intensity.  More importantly, quality light depends on you the photographer to seek it out and recognize it.

Recognizing quality light takes a bit of practice, but there are a few things you can count on to almost always find it.  One of the easiest is to 'shoot the transitions'.  Transitions are those times during the course of any given day when the light begins to change from one form to another...high to low, low to high, cool to warm, warm to cool, direct to filtered...and so on.  let me give you some examples.

The most obvious transition occurs at sundown when the bright and flat light of the day begins to drift toward a warmer, sometimes bolder, sometime more subtle, colors when the angle of the sun has to filter through a thicker part of the atmosphere.  Sunsets are also somewhat of a cliche...everyone photographs them and there isn't a sunset that has ever happened that hasn't been photographed somewhere...sometime.  I still find myself drawn to them, but I often instead photograph the effects of the sunset light as opposed to the direct sunset itself.  The soft warm nature of the sunset light casts a warm glow on everything it touches.  Sunrise on the other hand can offer an even more variety of transitional lighting conditions.  The predawn sky can vary from soft pastels to bold reds and yellows.  The trick is to use these color transitions within the context of time and place.

Although sunsets and sunrises offer the most common form of transitional light, other circumstances provide wonderful transitional opportunities.  Just before or just after a thunderstorm when the overcast is breaking apart or just gathering are two of my favorite transitional situations.  Some the most dramatic light is found where there are contrast of dark and light.  Dark and ominous skies offer great contrast of grays, blacks, and whites as they mix in the atmosphere.

Another often underutilized transition light is where bright beams of light contrast with darker example being inside a barn with light filtering through the cracks in the boards or under a canopy of trees when light penetrates to the floor.  Although difficult to generate correct exposure...they are not impossible problems.

Fog is probably my favorite transitional light.  I am always keeping tabs on the weather.  Here in Kentucky we have a lot of fog...and many times the first day or so after a rain the fog will develop in the low areas and across the fields early of a morning and sometimes right at dusk.

Transitional light does not have to solely be associated with the outdoors.  Reflected light bouncing off or through something is a type of transitional light as it is changed from direct light into indirect light.  Some of the best moody light is that mysterious reflected light illuminating a person's face against a dark background...or filtered light coming through and opaque object like glass or thin material.

Shooting the transitions will provide potentially wonderful quality light.  It's just a matter of anticipating ahead of time the conditions that might develop...and then being there.  Use transitional light to your advantage and you will begin to see a transition of your images from extraordinary.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Mystery of Exposure - Part 3

One of the biggest mistakes novice photographers make is to believe that the camera will always give you a correct exposure for every lighting circumstance.

In part 1 we looked at the elements that make up the exposure triangle and followed up with a discussion in part 2 on how those elements work together.  In part 3 we're going to look at how the camera sees light and how the metering system applies the exposure values.

Have you ever returned from a vacation with a stack of photos to share only to have your friends quickly thumb through them..."Those are very nice..." they say.  Sort of you say " had to be there...the pictures just don't do it justice."  There's a reason for that.

What we see visually can often be spectacular because of how our eye and brain work together to create an image in our mind.  We visually are able to distinguish between a wide range of contrasts, colors, and depths and are able to filter out all the clutter.  Contrary to popular belief, the camera does not see light the same way we visually perceive light.  A camera can only evaluate the intensity of the light that enters through the lens...then based on that evaluation make a programmed guess as to what the exposure should be.  That programmed guess is based on what is call the 18% neutral gray value.

The Thru the Lens or TTL metering systems built into cameras today are sophisticated computerized processes and will for the most part do a pretty good job of determining a workable exposure solution.  There are variations in the way they work, but all metering systems fundamentally do the same thing...They simply  take an average of the metered light and sets exposure values that are shifted toward the middle.  Remember the black to white light scale where the middle is a neutral gray.

There are three basic metering modes that TTL systems use:  Matrix or Evaluative, Center Weighted, and Spot.  Matrix/Evaluative meters the light across the entire spectrum of the view.  Center Weighted does the same thing except it places a higher value on an area concentrated around the center of the view.  Spot metering allows the photographer to meter off a specific area...or a face, or band of a distant hill...without  having the rest of the view skew the reading.  All three have their advantages and disadvantages.

Ninety percent of understanding the mystery of exposure is based on understanding how the metering systems work.  Using the strengths and weaknesses of each will give you an advantage when it comes to capturing those great shots.

Let me give you an example.  Take for instance photographing snow.  Snow is very bright and white.  Visually, even on cloudy days snow still looks white to us because our brain is able to recognize it as such.
But, the camera responds to bright white circumstances differently that what we see visually.

Allowing the camera to select the exposure will tend to make snow look a dingy gray (top image) as a result...think about it for a moment.  Why is that?  Well the camera doesn't know the difference between a snow field and coal field. The TTL meter wants to move everything toward the middle...or neutral gray.  Visualize the scale again...the white value of snow falls toward the outer white edge of the scale.  The camera wants to set an exposure that moves toward the middle...which is gray...thus white snow will often look gray as a result.

How do we get around that?  By using the Exposure Compensation (EV or AV +/-). This tool is something you need to understand and use.  On the back or top of most cameras you will see a button marked with +/-.  This button is used to trick the camera into shifting the exposure it wants to make, either more toward the lighter (+) or more toward the darker (-).  Going back to the snow scene...the camera wants to shift it toward the want it to look would you do?

The plus (+) sign adds light to the exposure and the minus (-) removes light from the exposure.  To make the snow appear more would have to add light to the exposure by using the + compensation.  Just how much depends on the circumstances...snow may require as little as +0.3 of a stop to more than one full stop higher (+1.0).  (bottom image)  Too much can create an over exposed be careful.

This concept applies to almost any bright (or dark) object including beach sand, buildings, birds, animals, even the sky..and to any color...not just black or white.  A dark red barn will have it's color shifted to a more neutral lighter red grass is already a neutral color and will often remain unaffected...Are you beginning to get the idea? Just for grins...what would happen if you took a photo of a pile of coal ...very black.  You figure out what would happen and how you would compensate.  Understanding how the camera sees light and how to use the exposure compensation gives you a huge advantage.

This three part series was designed to get you to thinking about what the camera is doing and to use its capabilities to your advantage..not as a full blown workshop on exposure.  Even so, if this information helps you move forward, then the series accomplished its goal.  Todays cameras take a lot of the guess work out of the exposure process...but leave enough gaps open so you can begin to use the artistic flair that resides inside every photographer.  Knowing how to blend that artistic value with technical understanding is what separates the ordinary snapshot from artistically expressive images.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Mystery of Exposure - Part 2 - B

In part one we defined the four parts of the exposure triangle...Aperture - Shutter - ISO - and White Balance. So now lets expand on that basic knowledge and see how everything works together.

Years ago before the advent of the light meter, photographers used a technique called 'The Sunny Sixteen Rule' to help them with their exposure settings.  The sunny sixteen rule works like this.  On as bright sunny day, the basic exposure is set based on ISO (ASA way back then).  If the ISO is 100, then the aperture is set to f/16 and the shutter is set to the nearest equivalent of the ISO most cases it would be 125th of a second.  ISO = 100 - Aperture = F/16 - Shutter 125th of a second.  This setting will produce an image basically the way the scene is observed and would be considered the photographers starting exposure from which they could make adjustments up or down depending on the results they wanted and the lighting conditions.

An important concept to understand is the concept of exposure equivalent.  Exposure equivalent works like this: Remember how the aperture scale you go up the scale or use larger f/stop numbers, the smaller the aperture actually becomes...down the scale and the aperture grows larger. The basic aperture settings or f/stops are based on what are called full stop increments.  An f/stop of f/16 allows in half the light of the next lower down f/stop of f/11. F/11 is down the scale from f/16 so it is a larger aperture opening.  F/22 on the other hand is up the scale from f/16, so it allows in less light...exactly half the light of f/16.  Try to visualize this as you work up or down the f/stop scale.  From f/11 down the scale is f/8.  How much light does f/8 allow when compared to f/11....think about it now...well...f/8 allows in twice as much light as f/11.  As you work up or down the scale the same increments apply. Go up the scale, the light is halved with each full stop increment...down the scale, the light is doubled with each full stop increment. (most cameras today allow for less than full stop increments usually in 1/3rd stop, but the basic scale is set for one full stop increments between the f/stop settings.  Here's the basic scale:  f/1.4- f/2.0 - f/2.8 - f/4.0 - f/5.6 - f /8.0 - f/11 - f/16 - f/22 - f/32
(Do you see the pattern? Do you see how the factor of 2 applies?)

The shutter speed undergoes a similar progression.  1/15th of a second is twice as long as 1/30th of a second and using the same aperture the combination of shutter / aperture will allow in half as much other words f/8 at 1/30th of a second allows in half the light as f/8 at 1/15th of a second.  Heres the basic shutter speed scale starting with 1/15th of a second:  1/15 - 1/30 - 1/60 - 1/125 - 1/250 - 1/500 - 1/1000. Again, most cameras allow for increments of less than one full stop between the basic scale settings...for instance between 1/500 and 1/1000 will fall 1/750th of a second or a half stop differrence. what does that mean.  Remember the sunny sixteen rule.  Under equal lighting conditions if you change the f/stop from f/16 to say f/11...what happens to the volume of light?  What happens then to the shutter speed?  To keep the same exposure equivalent, the shutter speed must increase or speed up.  Why is that?  Well, think about it. F/11 allows in twice as much light as f/16, so the shutter speed would have to increase to avoid overexposing the image.  From 125th of a second, the shutter speed would need to increase to 1/250th of a second.  What would happen if you went to f/8...where would the shutter speed have to go?...think about it...F/8 allows in twice as much light as f/11, so under the same lighting conditions, the shutter speed would have to increase again to the next full stop setting.

Sound a bit confusing?  It's really pretty simple once you begin to visualize what is happening.  Open the aperture to a larger setting, more light is allowed in.  When more light is allowed in, the shutter speed must compensate by speeding up accordingly to keep the same exposure.  Keep in mind that most cameras can increment the aperture and shutter in fractions of a full stop...something like 1/3rd intervals.

Maybe this will help.  F/5.6 @ 1/125th of a second will generate the exact same exposure as f/8.0 @ 1/60th of a second.  Why is that?   Exposure equivalents.  They both allow in the exact same amount of light..they are just using two different setting to accomplish it.  One uses a faster shutter speed with a larger aperture while the other uses a slower shutter speed with a smaller aperture...the end results are basically the same.  

The concepts just described were based on an ISO of 100.  If you change the ISO to say 200, what would happen?  Well, conceptually everything is the same, its just that your basic setting must adjust for the more sensitive ISO setting.  The sunny sixteen rule would shift only in that the starting shutter speed would change to the nearest equivalent to 200, or probably around 1/250th of a second instead of 1/125th.

One more quick concept before we move on.  Let's talk about Depth of Field.  Depth of field is a subject better left for a discussion on composition, but because aperture is a key component of determining the DOF I want to at least define it here.  DOF is basically that portion of an image that remains in focus from foreground to background.  Several factors affect DOF...focal length of the lens, distance from your subject, distance of the subject from the background, and aperture.  Simply stated the larger the aperture (f/4.0...f/3.5...f/2.8) the narrower the depth of field.  A small aperture like f/16 or f/22 will provide a very wide DOF.  A narrow DOF is an effective way to isolate your subject (top image) while a wide DOF is preferred when photographing landscapes because you want the foreground all the way to the background to be in focus (bottom image).

Okay...again space doesn't allow for an in depth discussion...but I hope part 2 at least gets you thinking more about what is happening when you start turning dials and pressing buttons on your camera.  The auto exposure process built into your camera basically follows the same rules just described and helps to take away a lot of the guess work.  The problem is, the auto exposure system doesn't always select the best exposure.  Theres a reason for that.  In part 3, we'll discuss how the camera sees light and how that affects the image results.  You just might be surprised to learn that the camera doesn't see light the same way we visualize light...understanding this is a key concept to improving your photos.

Keith Bridgman

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Mystery of Exposure - Part 1

Ah...exposure.  That dreaded word that novice and experienced photographers alike hate.  Well, contrary to popular belief, the principles of exposure are really not all that complicated.  It just takes a basic understanding of what is involved.  Exposure is a process of three separate but related functions.

            1. The mechanics / functions of the camera
            2.  How the camera functions relate to each other
            3.  How to use that knowledge when taking a photograph

Blog space does not allow for an in depth description of these elements, but what I'd like to do is break it into three parts and briefly discuss each.  With any luck at all, I hope to clear up some of the mystery and maybe get you to thinking differently about what you're doing when it comes to taking a picture.

Let's begin with the mechanics.  Exposure is made up of four things...or the Exposure Triangle:
                 White Balance
             Aperture  /  Shutter
Some people think that white balance is separate, but for arguments sake, I'm going to include it in the discussion because it does affect the visual outcome of the image.

Aperture:  The aperture is what regulates how much light enters the camera. It is a function of the lens. Think of it like using a faucet to fill a glass with water.  Turn the faucet to where a trickle of water comes out and it takes a long time to fill up a glass. Turn it wide open and the glass fills up quickly.  The same thing applies to the lens aperture and exposure.  Allow in just a trickle of light and the exposure process takes longer.  Allow in a lot of light, and the exposure takes less time.  It's really that simple.  But you may be wondering about all those numbers on the lens or the ones that keep flashing on the camera's display.  An aperture is designated in what are call  f/stops...F followed by a number like 16 or f/16.  F stops are actually calculated using a mathematical progression based on a factor of 2...but you don't need to worry about that. All you really need to know is that the larger the f/stop number, the smaller the actual lens opening.  The smaller the f/stop number, the larger the actual lens opening.

Take a number like f/16 or f/22.  These are large f/stop numbers but they represent a rather small aperture setting and allow in a small amount of light.  A number like f/2.8 or f/3.5 are small f/stop numbers, but they represent a large aperture and allow in a large amount of light.

Aperture is also a factor in what is called Depth of Field or DOF.  I'll talk more about that in part 2, but basically DOF is what portion of the image remains in focus from foreground to background.

Shutter:  The shutter is an electro-mechanical devise that regulates the length of time the light is allowed to enter the camera.  It is usually represented in some fraction of a second such as 1/10th of a second or 1/125th of a second.  The shutter and aperture work together to generate the mechanical exposure process.  Pretty straight forward.

ISO:  Understanding ISO is actually quite simple, it's understanding how it affects the combination of aperture/shutter sequence that is confusing (more on this later).  ISO is simply the sensitivity to light setting that your digital camera's sensor is set to...or how sensitive the film is to light if you are using film.  ISO usually begins at 100, but can go lower...and then it progresses upward doubling in sensitivity as you go up the scale.  So, ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as 100.  ISO 400 is four times a sensitive as 100...and so on.

White Balance:  Different kinds of light have different properties and light temperature is defined using a temperature scale called the Kelvin scale.  On the Kelvin scale, very cool light, like cloudy skies, or twilight skies has a very high Kelvin temperature, as high as 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Very warm light has a low Kelvin temperature...down around 1800 or so...kind of opposite of what you might think.  The source of the light also affects the Kelvin temperature.  Candle light is very warm and reddish in nature as is indoor light from a tungsten light bulb. Light from those kinds of sources have very low Kelvin 1800  to 2000 or lower. Middle of the day, blue sky light has a temperature of around 5500 Kelvin.  Outdoor light is different than indoor light and the digital camera must be able to distinguish between the two or your images will not look normal...they could be too blue or too red.

Okay...we've briefly defined all the elements of the exposure triangle.  Next time, we'll talk about how the elements of the exposure triangle interact with each other.  You don't want to miss that part as that is when I get into the nitty gritty of how the camera does what it does.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Prairie Storm

It always amazes me how photography is so sensitive to time…a matter of a few minutes and in some cases a few seconds can make the difference between getting the shot or missing it. That’s what happened to me one morning. I left Tulsa at 4:45 am so I could be on location at the Tallgrass Prairie by sunup. The sky was broken and as I got closer to the preserve it started to look like it was going to be a spectacular morning. It was…unfortunately I was about 15 minutes too late to capture the best of it…at least at the location I wanted to capture it. I did manage to snap a couple quick shots before I lost the moment…but I had to rush and shoot by hand…not sure what the images will look like.

When I finally arrived at my favorite morning location, the best of the morning show was beginning to wind down…I did get a few shots…but bit my lip all morning knowing that if I had only left a few minutes earlier I would have caught one of those perfect lavender mornings on the prairie.

Within minutes after I arrived…it clouded over. Within an hour it began to rain…a few minutes later a classic prairie storm blew in…thunder, lightning, and torential rains…it was fun to experience. The once bright morning sky grew almost black within seconds…just before the main rain event erupted…Man what a treat!

Prairie storms in Oklahoma are an amazing event to experience...especially when you are caught out in it. On a previous trip up there I managed to arrive just as one storm was finishing. During the drive up there the pre-dawn light was lit up by dozens of lightning bolts exploding all around me. Right at first light most of the storm had passed on to the east so I hiked a few hundred yards to the top of rise so I could feel the wind and experience the remnants of it in person. It was was also rather foolish. As I stood on top of that as I was...I realized I was the tallest object inside of 500 yards in either direction. Lightning was still flashing off in the distance, so I wasn't too concerned...until one bolt ripped the sky apart just a few hundred yards away. I jumped about six feet when the boom hit me. A short time later I retreated to the safety of my vehicle.

On another trip, I followed a particularly severe storm up there and arrived well before daylight.  By the time I arrived the rain had moved on to the east, but the wind was gusting upwards to about 40 mph.  Again, lightning was exploding all around.  I sat my camera on a tripod and positioned it on the lee side of my Jeep to block some of the wind.  Attached a wide angle lens and set the shutter release to Bulb which when used with a cable release, allows the shutter to remain open until you let go of the release button...then pointed it toward the most lightning activity.  Took several tries but managed to get one good shot of a flash across the prairie landscape.

Storms on the prairie are one of natures most exciting events to experience and can provide some of the most unique photo opportunities...but they can be dangerous and caution is the better part of valor in most cases.

Got any storm stories...loved to hear about them.

Keith Bridgman

Monday, November 15, 2010

In Need of an Adventure

I'm in desperate need of some kind of adventure.  Been way too long since I was able to get out and face some kind of outdoor challenge.  Other than an occasional day outing or maybe hiking across Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie on a photo safari, the last real adventure of any length I had was a multi day float / camp / fishing trip down Arkansas's Buffalo River about three years ago.  I love that place.  It's one of the few places in that area where you can experience a near wilderness least for a few days anyway.

Arkansas's Buffalo River is one of the few rivers that remains intact from its source, the Boston Mountains in the Ozarks, to its end, the White River toward the north central part of the state.  Over one hundred and fifty miles of scenic splendor like 500 foot bluffs, clear water, magnificent night skies, wildlife, and heavily wooded Ozark country side   On the upper end you'll encounter faster moving currents and some pretty good rapids along the way especially if the river is running at optimal levels.  Over the course of its length, the river's personality changes and the current further down is characterized by slower moving currents and longer pools.

The fishing is usually pretty good with lots of smallmouth bass, Kentucky bass, and assorted other creek related swimming critters.  The closer you get to the White River, you might even tie into a rainbow trout as the White is one of the best trout fisheries in the country and they tend to migrate a few miles up the Buffalo.

Over the years, some of my hunting and fishing buddies and I have made numerous trips down the Buffalo.  We pack all our gear into our a vehicle at the takeout...and shove off.  Most of our trips run about three days or so, but we've made trips up to five days on the river.  It's a great adventure.

Sometimes the weather doesn't co-operate and we've been caught several times on the river during an Ozark thunderstorm and downpour.  Sure makes for an interesting adventure when that happens.  I've rarely been able to capture the Buffalo photographically at least in the way I know is possible.  Mostly because of time and weather not always coordinating with each other.  But, I never fail to at least make the attempt for there is no shortage of's just a matter of combining the opportunity with the right kind of light.

One of my favorite places on the river is the area called Skull Bluff.  Actually its an area that extends several miles upriver from Woolum, to Skull Bluff, to the Nar's.  The Nar's is a unique geological formation where two separate river systems, Richland Creek and the Buffalo, have eroded both sides of a ridge to where a narrow slit or wall of rock maybe 150 feet high separates the two sides.  If you're brave enough, you can climb up the ridge from down stream and work your way over to the narrow wall and walk out on to it.  I've done it a time or two, but will probably never do it again as I'm not as brave as I was in my younger years...or maybe I've gotten a bit either case...I've had thrill enough of standing on that four foot wide ledge and seeing nothing but air straight to the bottom broken by a few tree limbs.  I did catch the largest smallmouth I've ever caught at the base of the Nar's.  A nice, deep, pool swirls around where the rock wall climbs skyward from the water, and grandaddy smallmouth bass tend to prowl around in its depths.

Of the friends I've floated the Buffalo with, two of them are gone now.  Although they are no longer able to make those floats, the memories of the times we had still pleasantly linger.  Those stories are told over and over again when the rest of us do manage to regroup, and share a few days of adventure...I think I'll give them a call soon and see what kind of adventure we can conjure I said...It's been way to long.

(Would love hear about your adventures...)

Keith Bridgman

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hunting with a Camera

Over the years I've spent a great many hours in the field hunting...deer, quail, ducks & geese, squirrel among others.  As I have grown older, I still do some of the traditional type of hunting, but more often than not I hunt with a camera.  The challenge to photograph wildlife is basically the same as the techniques required to do the other kind of hunting. I discovered early on that doing so can be very difficult as the lighting conditions are usually not in your favor for such endeavors, and the wildlife rarely cooperates.  Regardless, I've found it to be quite rewarding and fun.

On one arm of Barren River Lake not far from home, I discovered a few years ago that Kentucky has a good population of Greater Sandhill Cranes that migrate through and even winter over.  They are an ancient bird standing almost four feet tall with a wingspan of almost 6 feet.  They migrate from southern Canada and the northern United States by the thousands through Kentucky. Their cousins the Lesser Sandhill Cranes, migrate across the central plains states from areas a bit further north along the Artic circle.

The Greater Sandhill species were almost hunted into extinction by the early part of the 20th century and were down to only about 25 or 30 mating pairs at one time.  With protection and migratory bird treaties their numbers have rebounded to around 40,000.  The Lesser Sandhills number into the hundreds of thousands.

They are a difficult bird to photograph as they are extremely wary and have excellent eyesight.  The middle of December will find me donning full camo and heading out to find the birds as they work the cornfields in and around the lake area.  They tend to like using the same locations and will fly in and out during the course of the day.  If you can catch them  early or late when a large group of them are flying in, then your odds of getting some good photographs improve.

What I normally do is find a field I know they like to use, and then station myself along a fence row or tree line, hide amongst the cover, and wait for them to start coming in.  Sometimes I wait in vain, but usually I will be rewarded for my efforts.  I use a 50-500 mm zoom lens as you need a lot of reach.  It's great fun to observe them by the thousands circle and settle into a field.  Their chattel like honking is very distinctive and sounds nothing like anything else in the wild.

Hunting with a camera can provide much of the same kind of rewards that traditional hunting offers.  Both activities require stealth, perseverance, a knowledge of the natural history and tendencies of your target, and a lot of luck.

Keith Bridgman

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Simplicity of Purpose

A few years ago I drove to a location a few miles from home hoping to catch one of those fabulous Kentucky sunsets.  At that time I was still shooting film...which by the way is a great learning tool when it comes to I was in the mode of thinking through every shot for fear of wasting valuable field time and expensive processing costs.  One thing I noticed back then was that many of my photographs all looked the same...there just wasn't enough variation in them to generate much interest.  Over time I began to more seriously evaluate what I was doing and why I just wasn't capturing the photo's I knew were possible.

I studied other photographers work and compared them to mine.  What I noticed was simply quite revealing, in fact, simplicity was one of the major elements that separated the 'professional' images from my snapshots.  Simplicity of Purpose as it pertains to photography means that everything seen in the photograph should be there for a reason.  Nothing should be in the image that detracts from the story you are trying to show or tell. It doesn't mean that the image lacks for complex details, just that all the details that are there contribute to the image story. When I began to evaluate my images, I realized I was ignoring the context of simplicity in my compositions.

An artists begins with a blank canvas and adds the elements that eventually becomes a work of art.  A photographer on the other hand, begins with a full canvas, and must through effective use of composition and light, remove all the elements that don't belong.  It may require a different lens, or different position or perspective.  It may require that you change the angle or orientation of the camera.  It certainly requires that you have a command of how the camera see's light and how the exposure process works...even with the auto exposure capabilities built into cameras now a days.

On that day I was reaching the end of my last roll of slide film and only had one exposure left.  I didn't feel all that confident that I had captured anything of quality, but as the sun lowered to just above the shallow hill to my west, I noticed there was this one single Queen Ann's Lace standing just inside the fence line.  The sun was a great ball of orange, so I thought I'd try to place that wildflower between me and the sun and see what would happen.  It was a difficult shot for several of which was because I couldn't get into the position I needed and had to bend low under the barbed wire and lean way out.  With it being my last shot on that roll, I also had to think about what the brightness of the sun would do to the exposure...and compensated a full stop higher than what the meter reading wanted to use.

When I had the slides developed, as I was afraid, most of the roll just didn't work...but that one shot of the Queen Ann's Lace stood out...primarily because of its simplicity.  It is still one of my favorite images today.

Keith Bridgman

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Look Beyond the Obvious

I spent a few hours this afternoon hiking over on Long Creek, a scenic little creek characterized  by clear water, gravel bottom, long pools, lively ripples, and an abundance of natural beauty.  As always, I took my camera and camera pack.  Most of the fall leaves had already fallen, but a few were still lingering that provided at least some photo opportunity.  As I wandered along, I snapped a few shots of this and that, but nothing really seemed to work.  All the shots were rather cliche'ish.

The obvious photo's included shots of the trees along side the creek, some looking across, some looking up or down its length.  Although they weren't bad shots, I've become a lot more critical of what I produce.  As I shuffled through the images on the camera's viewer, I knew I just wasn't getting the shots I spite of all the natural beauty that surrounded me. When that happens, I'll often challenge myself to quit looking for the obvious and start looking for the subtle things that might not ordinarily be readily visible.

Floating in a shallow portion of the creek were some recently dropped leaves.  Photo's like that create a different kind of challenge for the photographer, for now the image becomes all about shape and form and color.  It's not as easy as it sounds, because it takes an artistic eye to find the right combination of shape and form, balanced by color.  It's a matter of building the composition to create a visually appealing image.

Keith Bridgman

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Look for Order Amongst the Chaos

One morning just before sunrise I packed the camera and tripod and headed out looking for something to photograph.  Didn't really have an agenda, but it was quite foggy so I figured something would appear out of the mist eventually.  Ended up driving over to the Octagon Hall not far from Franklin, Ky, about a half hour drive from my home.  The Octagon Hall is a three story, eight sided, brick building with a lot character and history associated with it.  Various Civil War activities both Confederate and Union, took place in and around the building.  Legend has it that the building is haunted with some funny and odd things happening to visitors.  Today it is museum.

As I walked around the compound that morning I began photographing this and that but nothing was really working like I wanted it.  As the sun rose higher, the fog began to glow with a yellowish hue and things got a bit more interesting.  The hard part was trying to capture the moment with a simplistic image, but I just couldn't quite find the shot.  Too much clutter.  When that happens to me, one thing that always helps is to remember one simple rule: As a photographer, your mission is to create order out of chaos.  So I began to look for that one defining shot that told the story of what I was seeing.  Most of my shots were rather obvious and included the building and scenes around the perimeter.  They were also rather ordinary.

One technique I use to help me find order, is to simply place a long lens on the camera, zoom it out, and slowly pan around until something catches my eye.  The zoom helps to isolate things.  I had taken several images of an old buckboard wagon sitting in the yard.  It was really kind of cool looking but the images were missing that something.  That's when I began to ask myself...just what is it that is really capturing my attention about what I'm seeing here...and that is when I found it...the order amongst the chaos I was looking for.

The general layout shots were not what captured my the shape and form of the wagon wheels with the fog glowing in and around them.  Zooming in closer, I isolated the wheels...and came away with the one shot I was really looking for.

Keith Bridgman

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anticipate the Potential

I spend a lot of time just driving around the back roads of Kentucky mostly around the area where I live near Alvaton.  It's a good way to find those lost scenic corners that offer great photo opportunities.  I've discovered the trick to finding these great locations is being able to visualize the potential of an area. Many times I'll find a location and the lighting conditions at the time are too bland or flat and the photo op just isn't working.  But, by looking beyond the current conditions and visualizing the potential of the location, I'll realize that if I come back another day at a different time or maybe during a different season, then the light just might be where I can capture an amazing photograph.

While performing these preliminary scouting trips over the years, I've began to understand how the varying nature of light changes the dynamics of a location.  One place I found a few years ago is a good example of how this works.  I found myself driving down a winding and progressively narrower country road that eventually came to an end atop a rise where a gate blocked the way.  From that vantage point, to the south and east the landscape dropped into a valley toward the Barren River that snaked along a bluff on the backside of the valley about a quarter mile away.  There was a barn, a cornfield and pastures, with a few cattle meandering around.  The hills that rose high above the river provided a wonderful backdrop.

It was the middle of the afternoon on a late summer day and the light was rather boring and bland and the photo op just wasn't working.  I snapped a few quick shots for reference, but more importantly, I recognized the potential of this location simply because the lay of the land offered a great view of the valley.  Morning fog was sure to gather here when the weather began to cool off.  So, I bookmarked the location and left myself a mental note to return someday.

A month or so later, when the first hint of fall colors were starting to show, I returned and was able to capture some of the best images I've ever taken.  I was greeted with some amazing fog the hovered in the valley, and the first light of morning illuminated the scene with soft warm light that mingled with the cool flavor of early fall.  Anticipating the fog paid off in a huge way...understanding the dynamics of the lighting conditions helped me to visualize the potential of this location before the conditions even existed.  I've returned to this spot a number of times since then and I'm always amazed at how the diversity of light during the seasons dramatically enhances the dynamics of the moment.

Taking great photographs is often a matter of anticipating the potential of a location and doing a bit of footwork.  Look beyond the obvious, and be willing to place yourself where and when the greatest potential exists.

Keith Bridgman