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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shoot the Sky

A few years ago I discovered a place that afforded a wonderful view of a large stately tree silhouetted against the sky.  I passed by it numerous times each time thinking that I needed to return someday and give it try.  The day came one cold February evening when I finally did give it a try.  As luck would have it, a crescent moon hovered above the tree and some light wispy clouds drifted across the sky and were gently illuminated by the glow from the moon.  I stood in the cold air for close to an hour making several shots as the conditions changed.  Once I finally downloaded the images it became evident that it was the sky that made this moment special.

Kentucky often gives birth to some of the most wonderful sky and cloud formations I've ever seen.  I am continually amazed at the quality and diversity of what is presented through the elements found here.  Oddly enough, I have never fully taken advantage of the opportunity.

It is easy to overlook the sky as a photographic opportunity.  Most photographers I venture to guess tend to migrate toward shooting those blazing sunsets or glorious morning sky shots.  It is natural to do so...I certainly do my share of it...but the sky can often make or break a landscape photograph.  Photographing the sky can be a challenge, but doing so opens up a whole new avenue of potential.  I'm far from being an expert on the subject, but there are a few things I have learned about how to accomplish this...Let's take a look.

What to Avoid:  As in almost everything there are very few examples of things to always avoid.  That holds true in photography as well.  But, if there was a consistent error that I see many photographers make, one of the most common is photographing against a white sky.  White skies are generated on those days when a thin layer of clouds obscures the color, but not the brightness in the sky...there's no's well, White.  A camera will capture this as a bland, flat, and uninteresting sky.  The thing to avoid is including too much of the sky in your image.  It doesn't mean to not include any of it because a clever composition can effectively use a white sky.  White skies are not always so bad because even though the sky itself may be bland, the soft white light it generates creates a wonderful lighting condition without all the harsh contrasts and shadows...that makes it a good time to photograph people and in areas where a bright sun would generate too much contrasts between light and dark areas.

Bad usually means good:  When it comes to photographing the sky, bad weather opens up all kinds of great photo possibilities.  The sky can be full of texture and drama...and that is what we want.  Rolling dark clouds are wonderful for landscapes as they generate that sense of place, moment, and mystery.  The dramatic effect of dark skies can produce wonderful results.  So...when the weather turns bad...don't always hide indoors...head out and take advantage of the great cloud textures...but do be careful and use a bit of common sense and discretion.

Place something in the Sky:  Even a bright blue sky can look rather bland if there is nothing there to break up the view.  A sky with something in it makes for a much more interesting composition.  Clouds are the most obvious...but, its how you use the clouds that are most important to the composition.  The clouds must be a meaningful element within the composition.  What you place in the sky...or maybe I should say place against the really up to you.  A building or tree or another structure taken from an angle that creates a sense of height can be very effective.  The idea is to use the sky to highlight the boldness of your subject.

Use the Sky as your main subject:   Often times it is the bigness or uniqueness of the sky that captures your attention.  Using the sky as your main subject can be very effective.  Again, it's all a matter of composition.  the angle of the light is important...time of day...and of course the textures and colors.  When using the sky as your main subject it begins to blend your composition into the realm of graphic design.  Think of it as less a photograph of the sky and more as a photograph of the shape, forms, and color you see there.  Use a wide angle lens and include less of the ground to impart that sense of openness.

Use a filter to darken the sky:  Two of the most useful tools to use are a polarizer and a neutral density graduated filter.  Both contribute their own unique characteristics to the sky.  For instance, both will darken the sky and bring out textures that might otherwise be lost in the exposure.  The sky is generally brighter than the landscape under it and so will often skew the exposure one way or the other.  If you expose for the sky, the landscape portion may be too dark...expose for the landscape and the sky will be washed out.  A neutral density  (ND does not affect the overall color) graduated filter is designed to eliminate or reduce this problem.  The top half of the filter is darker and gradually becomes lighter toward the center portion until the bottom half is clear.  This allows you position the filter to cover the sky with the darker part and allow the landscape portion to remain unaffected.  

I use this kind of filter more than any can add a great deal of drama to your sky especially during stormy weather. 

 A polarizer on the other hand is great for those bright blue sky days...or really on just about any kind of day as they remove the glare and will darken the sky and bring out a lot of detail in cloud formations.  Polarizers also reduce your effective exposure by about 2 full stops so be aware of how your exposure settings are falling when using one.  Another useful filter is what is called a tobacco filter...or more specifically a graduated tobacco filter.  Where the ND filter does not affect the overall color, the tobacco filter will impart a reddish or orange hue to the scene.  This can often be used to enhance those sunset shots, but use one with discretion as it adds a powerful and dramatic look to your shots.  Also, take note that any graduated filter can be used right side up, upside down, sideways, or stacked with other filters to give you the effect you want. 

Shoot the Moon:  Try something really fun and challenging...include the moon in your sky shots.  There are three things to consider when including the moon in your composition: Time of Day, Position of the Moon, and Capturing the Detail.  Timing is essential.  Too early and the moon looks pale and indistinct.  Too late and you lose detail in everything else and the moon becomes a bright blob.  The best time I've discovered to shoot the moon is right at twilight...both morning and evening...when the moon is hovering above the horizon and there is still some lightness in the sky.  If you must tilt your head to see the moon, it's too high in the sky...if the sky if totally black or if the sky is filled with's too late.  Exposure can be tricky and may require some experimenting.  One technique that I've used is to make two for the landscape and one for the moon...then use a bit of Photoshop magic to blend the properly exposed moon onto the properly exposed landscape shot where the moon sits.  It's not easy...but it's a lot of fun to do and you can get some amazing results..

Don't forget Black and White:  Many times when I am out photographing the sky, I often try to visualize what it will look like in black and white.  Black and White even in today's digital world is still a powerful and amazing form of photography...What is so cool is that with can easily convert any color image into black and white.  Use a polarizer and the ND filter to darken the sky...a dark sky in black and white can be very dramatic. 

Shooting the sky can add a whole new level of complexity to your photographic endeavors.  It's challenging...but the opportunity is just to tempting to pass up.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Capturing Movement

Nature photography by its very nature involves capturing not only places and moments, it involves capturing movement.  Movement can be represented in various ways. We've all seen those great sports images where the running back is frozen as he turns a corner or the basketball player is locked in mid-air just as he releases the shot.  Who can forget those great nature shots where the eagle is caught snatching a fish from the water, or the humming bird hovers outside a flower.  But movement doesn't always have to be frozen.  Often, allowing the subject to be blurred can generate a wonderful effect and sense of movement.

So how do we do capture movement?  Well, three things come into play; shutter speed, depth of field, and timing.

Your shutter speed is what determines when a moving object is either frozen or blurred.  To freeze an object, a fast shutter speed is required...something in the range of a minimum 1/250th of a second upwards to over 1/1000th of a second depending on the circumstances.  For everyday situations...walking people, playing children, things that are moving but not so rapidly that you have a hard time following them, a shutter speed somewhere around 1/250th of a second will freeze most activity.  But, for those objects that are traveling faster such as athletes in motion, or vehicles, and animals, a shutter speed more like 1/500th of a second is required to freeze the action.

You may be asking, what does depth of field have to do with capturing movement?  Depth of field as you might recall is that portion of the image from the foreground to the background that remains in focus and is primarily controlled by the aperture.  A small aperture like f/16 generates a wide depth of field where most of the image will be in focus from front to back. A large aperture like f/2.8 generates a very tight depth of field where the subject is primarily in focus and the foreground and background is blurred.  The type of lens you use also comes into play. A 50mm lens will react differently than a 500mm lens.  Depth of field comes into play primarily for those close up images when you want to isolate your subject from all the background clutter.  Also, if you use a small aperture, f/16 or so, you might find it difficult to obtain a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action simply because the smaller the aperture the less the volume of light is allowed in.  A larger aperture will allow in much more light thus allowing you use a faster shutter speed.  ISO setting is also important in that you may need to boost the ISO up to 400 or even 800 in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to lock in on movement.

Timing makes all the difference. When capturing nature, especially flying birds, timing is critical as you want to not only capture their movement, but you want to capture them doing what they do naturally within their environment. Taking a photo of hawk sitting on a telephone pole isn't very inspiring to a viewer, but capturing a hawk as it flairs just before it alights, or just after it takes off makes for a more interesting image.

As I mentioned previously, capturing movement doesn't always mean freezing the action.  Often, allowing the object to have a blurred effect can be quite striking.  The best way to accomplish this is to use a tripod and set your camera with a small aperture and low ISO, which will usually generate a slow shutter speed.  The slow shutter is what is critical.  Depending on what is moving, a shutter set from 1/30th of a second down to as low as a full second will generate some wonderful blurring effects.  The best time to capture blur is on a cloudy windy day when the light is generally lower.  You can also attach a polarizer filter which will effectively reduce the light gathering ability of your lens by one to two full stops which will also slow your shutter down.

So, capturing movement can be quite fun to try as it can add a whole new level of complexity to your photography.  Here's a list of some potential movement capture opportunities:

Tall field grasses blowing in the wind
Birds at the feeder
Bumble bees and flowers
Moving water or waterfalls
Sporting events
Night photography of vehicle lights
Amusement park rides...especially at night

Give it a try..I think you'll enjoy it.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Creating an Illusion of Depth

One of the most effective compositional tricks in photography is to create the illusion of depth in your images.  There are about as many ways to accomplish this as there are photographers who do it.  No one way is better than another as they all have their own merits.  What's important is being able to recognize those subtle ways to add another dimension to your images and to transform the ordinary into images with power and impact.

Lets look a some examples.

Create that Layered look:  Often the way the landscape rolls toward the distance can be used to generate that Layered look.  By its nature, the further away a hill looks, the lighter it becomes.  When you have multiple hills that dip and roll in front of each other, then a natural layered look is created by the effects of the atmosphere.  An effective way to take advantage of this layering is use Spot Metering.  By switching to this metering mode, you can select the degree of the layering by placing the metering spot on the layer that appears to be a middle tone in value...then locking in the metered value...recompose the shot and let the rest of the scene fall where it may within the set exposure.

Reflections:  Reflection on a calm body of water can provide some of the most dramatic illusion of depth for photographers.  Capturing this kind of photograph begins well before the opportunity presents itself.  To really take advantage of it, you should identify potential locations where a great reflection could materialize under the right conditions...then watch the weather reports and plan your outing on one of those calm mornings.  One thing to remember is that reflections are usually one to two stops darker than the object being reflected whether it is the sky or an be sure to carry and use a one or two stop graduated neutral density filter to help even out the exposure for both the sky and water reflection.

Include Something in the Foreground:  Too many times I will see a great landscape and shoot the scene from eye level...then when I really take a close look at the image I realize too late that it lacks depth.  To remedy this, I try to remember to get down low..close to the ground...and include something of importance in the foreground.  Using a small aperture (f/22) will increase the depth of field where the foreground and background remain relatively in focus at the same time.  Adding something to the foreground not only helps to create that illusion of depth, it add interest and dynamics to the image.

Raise or Lower the Horizon:  Take advantage of the situation and recognize that generally speaking most landscapes do not look good if the image is split down the middle evenly between sky and ground.  For an open expanse like a prairie region use a wide angle lens and add more landscape in your composition with just a sliver of sky to create that sense of distance.  For big sky shots, use a thin base of landscape to open up the sky with wide angle.

Use a Zoom Lens:  A zoom lens will create an effective illusion often used by artists to generate a three dimensional effect on a two dimensional plane;  Foreshortening.   A zoom lens is very effective at bringing distant objects closer and condensing the depth of field.  This condensing action is what adds a sense isolation and depth.

Use Light and Dark to Create Depth:  As in every image, light is the key ingredient.  Dark can be used to make Light look brighter...and Bright light can make darks look darker.  The contrasts between the two is what creates mystery and is an effective way to add depth and mood.

Use Leading Lines:  Leading Lines are great depth indicators and can be used to guide the viewer into the image.  Leading lines can come from just about anything including roads, fences, tree lines, crop rows, even the suns rays and shadows.  One thing to remember, leading lines should lead INTO to the image...and not out of it.

These are only a few of the more common ways to create an illusion of depth in you images.  Thinking within the context of depth and mystery and mood, is when you as a photographer start looking beyond the obvious, and start being able to see photographically.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Equipped for the Field

Photographing in the field can range anywhere from shooting from your front porch, to driving around in your car, to hiking over hill and dale.  The trick is have with you all the necessary equipment without being loaded down so much it becomes awkward to function.

Too many times I've missed the shot because I wasn't prepared.  What usually happens is when I need a long lens I usually have a wide angle attached...or the other way around...or I forget to reset the high ISO on my camera back to 100 from the last time I used it, but the most frustrating is when I stumble onto a great photo op and my camera is sitting safely at home and I miss the opportunity.

Although I don't get out nearly as much as I used to, I still find time to explore new opportunities from time to time, and when I do, I like to be ready for any opportunity.  So here's a list of equipment I take into the field.

Camera Equipment:
Camera Body
18 - 80 zoom lens
50 - 500 zoom lens
1.5 teleconverter
Cokin graduated neutral density filter
Polarizer for the 18-80 zoom
3 foot remote shutter release
Extra Camera battery
Flash unit with extra batteries

Lens cleaning tissue
Soft cloth/cotton scarf
Plastic grocery bags (2)
A couple of Bandaids
Rubber bands
Soft lens brush/bulb

Hiking Gear:
Tamrac Cyber Pack camera pack
Hiking boots
Floppy hat
Rain gear

Water Bottles
Cell phone
Extra pair of dry boot socks
Dry Sneakers
Pocket knife

(Depends on the season)
When its cold:
    Flannel shirt over one or two layers of cotton t-shirts
    Camo hunting pants over warmer flannel pants
    Hoody Jacket
When its warm:
    Light cotton T or sleeveless-shirt usually a dark color or sometimes a light long sleeve shirt
    Nylon fishing pants - these are great for warm weather hiking as they protect you legs but are cool and dry quickly

And that's about it...I don't always include everything mentioned here unless I plan on hiking into someplace where I will be some distance from my vehicle... and I may take more if I am canoeing into someplace.  

Equipping for the field is really a matter of personal preference.  Over time you develop what works for you through trial and error.  The most important thing is to never be caught unprepared, but at the same time to remain flexible and unencumbered.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rawah Wilderness Adventure

The Trail Head
Backpacking is one of those activities I wish I would have done more of when I was young enough and capable enough to do more of such things like that.  Often I have dreamed of hiking across the Rocky Mountains or the length of the Appalachian Mountains, or hiking and canoeing along the Lewis and Clark trail...much the same as I have dreamed of flying to the moon...a great dream, but not very practical.  Even so, I have managed to make a number of backpacking trips over the years.  There is one trip I made back in the summer of 1996 that stands apart from the others; a hike into the Rawah Wilderness region of Northern Colorado.

First view of the lower lake - Elevation 10,200
For eleven months in 1995 and 1996 I worked a contract job in Denver, Colorado, performing various mainframe program job evaluations for an insurance company.  It was a great job, except I was away from home for extended periods of time when my boys were pretty young and I was only able to make it back to Edmond, OK one or two weekends a month.  I hated being away like that, but it was an obligation I needed to fulfill and in the long run it worked out very well.  On my off days I spent a lot of time just checking out the wonders of the Colorado Rockies...taking day hikes along the Colorado Trail and in the Rocky Mountain National Park or making fishing trips to the Colorado River and other locations, or just making ordinary Sunday drives to see what I could find.

One of my favorite places to hike into, and indeed I managed one backpacking trip into, was a place called Homestead Meadows, not far from Estes Park...the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It's a great 4 mile or so day hike in where a number of old homestead ruins are located.  The trail head starts around 6,000 feet or so and climbs up to around 8,000 feet...but that's another story that I may write about someday.

My trip into the Rawah Wilderness area began with some research at the local outdoors shop.  I was looking for an isolated place that offered a degree of challenge but still very doable.  There were so many options I found it difficult to focus in on one location.  I ended up attending a program at one of the local branch libraries that was presented by one of the hiking clubs in the area.  It just happened to be a program featuring the Rawah Wilderness area...and it was exactly what I needed.  Rawah it would be.

My destination were some mountain lakes situated between 10,000 and 11,000 feet elevation and around 10 miles from the trail head.  They were stocked with trout so I was looking forward to not only the hike, but a chance to do some real mountain lake fishing.

Hiking in the mountains is a lot different than hiking in Oklahoma...a lot different...not only is the altitude an issue, but the weather and time of year play a significant role I was to discover.  My first attempt into the area ended in defeat as I made the attempt too early in the year.  It was mid-May and the day started off great, but after I had hiked a few miles in, I ran into snow pack.  The trail was completely obliterated and I had to turn back.  A month later...mid-June...I tried a second time.  This time I made it maybe 3/4 of the way in before the snow pack once again defeated me.  Frustrated...I decided to continue the hike cross country.

Campsite - See the Tent
Using a topographical map, I made a best guess as to where I was and where I needed to go...which was to follow uphill what I thought was the outlet stream from the lakes area.  A mile or so of following the stream, I began to realize my evaluation of the situation was flawed.  I stood on the crest of ledge with a 20 foot drop contemplating weather to backtrack back to the trail or continue on.  While standing on the ledge, underfoot was a hidden snag that suddenly gave way and I lost my balance and ended up sliding, bouncing and tumbling to the bottom of drop...landing with a rather undignified thud.  Fortunately various boulders, roots, and saplings broke my decent, but I did manage to slightly twist my ankle upon the hard landing.  After a few choice words, I took stock of my situation and determined the only thing seriously injured was my rear end.

I attempted to climb back to the top of the ledge but it was too steep and slippery with all the now I was stuck.  I was in no real immediate danger as I had shelter and plenty of food...So...I sat down..broke out something to eat...and contemplated what to do while my ankle swelled.  It became apparent that I would have hike cross country downhill until I crossed the trail again.  Eventually I headed off and finally did find the trail...headed out and vowed to try again.

A month later...mid-July...I made a third attempt, but this time I took a different much steeper route that zigged zagged across the southern facing slopes that lead up to the lakes.  I figured the snow pack would melt off these southern slopes more readily than on the other route.  There was one section of the hike that was really steep.  For a good two miles or so, I trudged up a 35 to 40 percent grade...huffing and puffing all the way with every foot gained in elevation.  My pack weighed in at around 30 pounds when I started the hike, and by the time I made it to the lakes it must have weighed around 100 pounds.

What a view though it was and a sense of satisfaction to finally arrive at the first lake...elevation 10,200 feet.
Once I setup camp I spent the rest of the afternoon just hiking around the lake trying my hand at some fishing and managed to catch a few small trout along with one really nice one...I released all of them.

One of the first things I noticed about the weather up there was just how rapidly it changed.  One moment the sun would be out and its heat would sear the skin, then a cloud would roll in and it would get cold...sun...cold...sun...cold...all afternoon.  By late in the day, clouds began to build and I experience my first mountain thunderstorm.
Storm brewing

Thunder in the mountains is different than on the plains.  Being from Oklahoma I was no stranger to thunderstorms...Oklahoma can have some real good ones...but at 10,000 feet, fully exposed to the elements..that first clap of thunder caught me off guard.  Where thunder on the plains tends to boom and rumble on for a while...thunder up there fired off like the crack of a high powered rifle. was over that quick...and I jumped about four feet when it hit.  Not long thereafter I retired to the relative safety of my little one person packer tent...and then the rain started.

There's nothing quite like lying inside a cramped one person tent during a mountain thunderstorm trying to read a book by Patrick McManus by candle light when lightning is flashing and sheets of rain threaten to drench everything.  It's quite an experience and adds a uniquely mountain flavor to the adventure...and by the way the title of the book fit well with the situation...'A Fine and Pleasant Misery'.

Sometime during the night, the storm abated and I fell into a deep fatigue induced sleep.  By sun up I rolled out of the sleeping bag and was greeted with 40 degree July temps, crisp mountain air, a bright blue sky, a stiff back, and a moose.  Yeah...that' right a moose.  I didn't even know Colorado had any moose...but there he stood all nine feet of him feeding in the hedge around the lake about 150 yards away.  I grabbed my little disposable camera and tried to take a picture but he was standing in the shadows and the sun was in my face.  When I tried to close the distance between us, he looked up, snorted with big cloud of condensed breath and said..."That's close enough.."  I didn't argue.  It was great fun to watch him meander around as I cooked breakfast and stretched my stiff back and legs.

I spent a little time fishing but to no real consequence.  Eventually, it was time to pack up and hike out.  I'm always sad when I must do that...but time was getting away and I wanted to make it back to my vehicle before it got to late.  My stay there was pretty much a solitary experience. Two other groups of hikers came heading on up to a higher lake, and the other camping a few hundred yards from my location...I barely knew they were there.

By the time I made it down the mountain and back to the trail head late that afternoon, my feet were really hurting, my back felt like it had a 2x4 jammed in against the spine, and my legs ached something fierce...but if I could have turned around and hiked back in for another day, I would have done so.

I always hoped I could return, but as it turned out my contract job ended a month or two before it was suppose to and I returned to the flat lands of Oklahoma, home, and family.  Several times I have threatened to make that hike again...I've never lived up to those threats...I suppose time and age take a toll and I doubt I could make that hike today without doing some serious fitness training.  Back in 1996, I weighed in something under 165 pounds and was fresh off a training season of swimming, biking, and running.  Today, I weigh in something over 190 pounds and I'm fresh off the couch.  Even so, maybe someday I'll be able to experience once again the crack of a mountain thunderstorm...sit by the waters edge of a mountain lake and watch a moose graze his way around the water.  Until then, I still have the memory of a Rawah Wilderness Adventure...and it was truly a grand experience.

Anyone out there have a backpacking adventure they'ed like to share..I'd love to hear about it.

( All photos were taken using one those Kodak 35mm disposable cameras )


Saturday, March 12, 2011

My First Quality 35mm Camera

Way back in the mid-1970's my initiation into 35mm photography took a quantum leap forward when I purchased my first quality 35mm camera,,,a venerable Fujica ST701.

The ST701 was one of the first SLR cameras that Fujica ventured into.  It was relatively compact and felt like a brick and all the functions were mechanical.  It came with a high quality 55mm f/1.8 M42 mount ( threaded screw mount) lens and I purchased an additional 135mm Vivitar lens and a basic Vivitar bounce flash.  It was the first camera using a silicon photo-cell receptor coupled to FET ( Field Effect Transitor) circuit for light metering.  Compared to other cameras of the day, the silicon photo-cell provided a higher sensitivity, instantaneous response and precise measurement of all types of light.  Basically, the metering system was visually transfered to the user via the view finder by the use of a needle inside the +/- exposure window that indicated when the exposure setting was set within acceptable ranges.

Taken with the ST701
When I purchased the camera, it was a substantial cost outlay from my meager finances at the time, but the value that camera added when it came to learning the basics skills of 35mm photography far outweighed the impact of that financial sacrifice.

With that little camera I took hundreds of photos...a good percentage of them being Kodachrome Slide (ASA 25) and for the first time I began to understand what all the exposure settings were all about...aperture, shutter, ASA (today ISO), type of film (indoor or outdoor...which today equates into white balance).

It was a great camera for its day, and if I were to teach a beginning high school or college course in photography, I would make sure all the students had the opportunity to use this camera simply because of its teaching potential.  This camera can still be found on the internet from $10.00 on up to maybe $50.00.  I purchased one for $10.00 a few years ago and it still works just fine. Its a great teaching camera because of how the mechanics of the camera visually demonstrate how everything works together.

Crater Lake - Taken with ST701 and Polarizer - Circa 1975
Although it did function with one of the first generation of built in light meters, you still had to set everything manually then visually verify the setting by checking the needle in the +/- window in the view finder.  By doing so, you became one with the had to think through the exposure process and visualize what the camera was doing and how it would react to various light meter settings.

One of the first things I learned about light and film was that print film was much more forgiving of exposure errors ( as much as one to two full stops ) than slide or transparency film.  I didn't fully understand why this was until years later.  With print film...your final exposure is actually made by the lab tech doing the processing who could compensate somewhat for errors made in the field where as with slide film, the developing requires a much more tightly controlled process and you pretty much get what you took...errors and all.  With print film, you could fudge a bit and still get a reasonably well exposed image, but with slide film, you really had to understand more clearly the exposure process and make adjustments within a tighter range.

Some years later after I purchased that old camera, I sold it thinking I would replace it within a short turned out that wasn't to happened for many years.  A few years ago I graduated into the digital world and was captivated how the marvels of modern technology has transformed the world of photography.  Where the mystery's of photography was once where professionals roamed, the new technology has brought easy to use high quality equipment into our everyday realm.  Even so, that technology has spawned a generation of...may I politely say...lazy photographers who want the camera to do it all for them and they have not a clue as to how it all works.  The basic concepts that once were so important have been lost in the electronic circuitry built into the artificial intelligence of the camera.

I would not trade my days of using that old ST701 for anything as it not only was a good camera for its day...but it was the perfect teaching tool as well.  Today's technology is wonderful for the new school environment, but as for me...the old school ways just might have been a better teacher.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Test of Character

The four years I spent in the U.S. Coast Guard almost 40 years ago now, were the most defining years of my young adult life.  It was an adventure beyond all measure...a time of challenge...a time of times, a time of having to face life and death situations under extreme conditions. Our small crew of about 20 young men faced an unrelenting sea that showed no mercy to those who were caught unaware of the intensity and power of the Pacific where it collided with the continent. We averaged over 400 Search and Rescues a year during my time there...most were routine...some challenged us beyond what we ever thought we could endure.

The following is a true story I wrote a few years ago for the Coast Guard Channel as part of their Authors / Stories section. 

 I realize it is a bit long...but I believe you may find it a revealing account of one of the most important adventures of my life during those years. I also believe it will provide a closer insight into the perils and courage of the crews of this often overlooked and most distinguished of America's military services.

Photo by Keith Bridgman - Circa 1975

On August 17, 1975, as a member of USCG Station Umpqua RiverWinchester Bay, Oregon, I was subjected to a test of character I had never faced before, one in which I was forced to reach deep inside myself and confront the demons of fear and pain that threatened to undermine who I was as a person and my obligation as part of a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue team. It was a test by which I purged myself from a mundane existence, and explored for the first ime those heroic dreams born from youthful ignorance, and ultimately it was a test that defined the essence of why I joined the United States Coast Guard.

BM2 Michael Dobbins, FN Michael Cullimore, and myself were on a routine bar patrol on the Umpqua River Bar aboard the of the stations venerable 44 foot motor lifeboats. It was an extremely busy day with hundreds of pleasure boats, charter boats, and commercial fishing rigs crossing the bar to take advantage of the moderated ocean and weather conditions. 

We received a radio call from the station to the effect that one of the crew members on the fishing vessel Poky had suffered a heart attack and they were about a half-mile west and south of the bar. We immediately swung into action, but there were so many boats in and around the bar area we had a difficult time spotting the Poky. The fishing vessel’s only means of communication was by CB radio. They contacted the Winchester Bay Harbor Office that would, in turn, contact our station by telephone, and then they would relay the information to us on the radio. We requested that the harbor office have the Poky raise one pole and lower one as a distress signal so we could more easily find them.

A short time later we spotted them about a third of a mile west of our location. Within in a few moments, Dobbins pulled the 303 alongside where we discovered three adults, two women, a young man, and one small child huddled inside the coxswains flat, and one older gentleman lying on the deck near the stern--the obvious heart attack victim.

The Poky was a small double ender, rusting, old and slow with a dangerously exposed engine exhaust pipe that extended about three feet straight up from the top of the engine cowling in the center of the boat. I boarded the Poky and rolled the older man over to check his condition. It was the first time where my first aid and lifeguard training from previous college years would be put to use in a situation like this. My heart was pounding and I was afraid I would not remember what to do, but I suppose the Good Lord and the Coast Guard had prepared me for this day and somehow I found myself reacting instinctively.

Internet Photo
The older man was not breathing. He had no pulse and had turned an indistinct gray. Where he was lying was so cramped, I could not effectively begin CPR as there was no room in which to work. Standing in the coxswains flat was the young man, maybe a few years older than I was. I yelled at him to give me a hand so we could move the older man who, I assumed, was either his father or grandfather.

Together we lifted him and placed him in a still somewhat cramped but more open area on the port side. As I stood to reposition myself to begin CPR, my feet were caught between the body of the older man and the engine cowling. At the same time, the boat rolled to port on a swell causing me to lose my balance. Not being familiar with the vessel, I instinctively reached for the nearest thing I could grab to keep from falling over the side. Unfortunately, it was the exposed, red-hot exhaust pipe. Before I realized what I had done, my right hand was seared raw as tender skin cooked on the hot surface. Instantly, I jerked it away grabbing it with my other hand staring in disbelief, but it was too late. The palm and all the fingers were severely burned causing my hand to curl inward as it reacted to the shock. It hurt like nothing I had ever experienced before.

My hand screamed at me as the pain shot up my arm and my gut churned from the intensity of the injury and odor of burned skin, but mostly from the fear and anger that boiled to the surface for having done such a foolish thing. In seconds, my hand and arm began to shake from the pain and shock, and my sailor vocabulary violently surfaced as I split the air with the piercing sounds of four letter words. That’s when I looked into the eyes of the two women and child huddled in the coxswains flat and I could see the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty etched across their expressions and I knew they could see it in mine as well. The child’s face was half-buried in the lap of one of the ladies. She was sobbing, not comprehending completely what was happening.

No one else knew what to do, as they were in a kind of shock themselves. My right hand was all but crippled by the excruciating burn, but a voice inside said I had to keep going, so I began CPR as best as I could. With each stroke and breath, my hand rebelled in protest. It quickly became apparent the effectiveness of my effort would not be enough, as I could not easily breathe for nor massage the heart of the older man from where I was. So while I continued to perform CPR as best as I could, I gave instructions to the young man on how to breathe for our victim and in a few minutes he took over that role. He did a pretty good job with just a couple of corrections in his technique as we progressed.

For several minutes, I didn’t realize that we were simply drifting on the swells and going nowhere until I tried to find the 303. Maybe it was the pain from the burn or the anxiety of the moment, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very polite when I yelled at the younger woman to call the harbor office and tell them we were returning to the Coast Guard fueling dock and to have an ambulance waiting for us, and for her to turn for home instead of just drifting around out there. The young man and I continued CPR for what seemed like forever as the Poky with its sputtering and coughing engine sluggishly made its way in. After we rolled across the bar and entered the channel, the Poky began to struggle up river fighting against the current. I realized then why the Poky deserved its namesake; it was terribly slow, much too slow for the seriousness of the situation.

Dobbins had placed the 303 about seventy-five yards ahead of us with the emergency light flashing and the siren blaring to clear the way as there were dozens of boats running in the channel. From my position, I couldn’t get Dobbins’ attention without stopping CPR. We needed to transfer the older man to the 303. Although somewhat slow in its own right, it was a much faster boat than the Poky. So I requested the younger lady call the harbor office again on the CB. A moment later Dobbins pulled alongside and Cullimore jumped across with the stretcher. We timed our CPR efforts and transferred the victim to the 303 in three quick movements where Cullimore, who did an excellent job, and I continued CPR. Dobbins throttled to full power and the 303 bit deeply into the channel leaving the Poky far behind. Once I heard and felt the staccato rumble from those powerful Cummins diesels kick in, I felt that we actually had a chance to pull this thing off. The next few minutes became a blur. I barely remember hearing the siren blaring, but from what I was told later, it was an impressive sight as dozens of boats moved aside like the parting of the Red Sea as we powered up the channel and arched into the harbor entrance.

Internet Photo
The speed limit inside the harbor was designated as a “No Wake” zone. Ignoring this, Dobbins powered the 303 down the narrow entrance channel at full throttle throwing out a huge wake that drenched several onlookers standing near the waters edge. Then, just before whipping the bow around the boathouse and into the fueling dock, he slammed the engines into full reverse and the 303’s transmission shuttered in protest as we lunged forward, turned to port, and slipped into the mooring--not exactly a  recommended docking procedure, but probably a world’s record for such a maneuver in a 44. And only Michael Dobbins had the grit to attempt, much less pull off, a stunt like that.

Waiting for us on the dock was the ambulance driver and one EMT, along with a good part of our crew, a large crowd of onlookers, and Chief Don McMichaels, the Commanding Officer of Station Umpqua River. The ambulance crew took over from there. As they were loading our heart attack victim into the ambulance, the lone EMT requested someone to assist him, and because my hand was burned and needed medical attention anyway, I went with the ambulance crew and helped administer CPR until we arrived at the emergency room in Reedsport, about ten miles away.

The older man, now under the intensive care of a physician, eventually began breathing on his own and appeared to have survived. And once all the excitement at the emergency room died down, the doctor treated my burned hand applying some antibiotic salve and wrapping it before releasing me. I was lucky. No third degree damage, just a huge second-degree burn that created a blister about the size of a baseball, covering the entire palm and across all of the fingers and thumb. I couldn’t open or close that hand for a couple of weeks. The doctor eventually had to cut the blister off to relieve the pressure and reduce the swelling and associated pain. I managed to get outof a lot of duty as a result, and spent time running the office and the communications room, and learning how to write and type with my one good hand.

A couple of days after the incident, the young man from the Poky who initially helped me perform CPR stopped by and personally thanked me and the crew for all our efforts, and asked how my burn was coming along. It was a nice gesture. It took some time, but eventually my burned hand did completely heal. Cullimore and I were credited with sustaining the gentleman’s life until medical attention could be administered, but I was to discover that this episode had not been his first heart attack, but one in a series of attacks through the years and this one proved too much for him. He succumbed to the stress of it all a few days later.

Photo by Keith Bridgman - Circa 2007
Eventually, Cullimore, Dobbins, and I were to receive commendations for our efforts, but in retrospect what I received from this ordeal was not something that can be displayed in an awards case. It was a hard-earned, well-served lesson about life, qualified through trial and fire, which proved a valuable test of character, one where the demons of fear and pain were engaged, then defeated, and once heroic boyhood dreams evolved into a reality befitting of a young man’s life. What happened on that day and the long-term effects it produced, became a far greater reward than what a medal worn on the chest could ever provide.

I’ve learned over the years how there are moments in time and places along the way that become turning points in our lives, turning points full of emotions that we too often tuck safely inside “out of reach” just for ourselves. Until that August in 1975, I never knew how I might react if I ever truly faced that kind of life and death situation. Although I did not fully realize it at the time, the test that resulted in the defeat of those demons on that day and in that place became the defining moment of my Coast Guard career, and ultimately, my young adult life. I knew I had passed a difficult trial.

Although I have on occasion spoken candidly of the incident in general terms, the emotional saga of that event is a personal insight of which I rarely speak.

Keith R. Bridgman
USCG 1973 - 1977
Umpqua River - 1973 thru 1975

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Coyotes

Coyotes and prairies just seem to go together. Most coyotes I’ve seen over the years are half starved scraggly looking critters. Very few ever look reasonably healthy, but, a few years ago I encountered a family of these interesting canines while visiting Oklahoma’s Tallgrass preserve. They were the most beautiful coyotes I’ve ever encountered.
     It was late spring, but quite warm as the summer season was approaching. That area doesn’t receive all that much rain even during a wet season, but that year it was particularly dry with considerably less spring rain than normal. I had spent the better part of the day hiking around taking a few pictures and simply enjoying just being out and amongst this marvelous landscape. As the last half hour of the day began to settle toward its final farewell, I hiked about four hundred yards to the top of high grassy knoll. My intent was to watch and hopefully capture one of those legendary prairie sunsets as it played out across the rolling panoramic that spread out in front of me. This was my pre-digital days and I was still shooting film and by this time in the day my film stock was beginning to run low. I had maybe eight or ten images left that I could take.
     About a quarter mile to the south ran a dry creek bed than cut across and through a lower section of the landscape. It was characterized by steep banks and rocky soil…and because it had been so dry that year…very little water. As I sat on that grassy knoll, I happened to notice some movement along that creek bed. With my lens zoomed all the way out I could just make out three coyotes as they worked their way along the edge of the creek. Too far off to effectively take any pictures, I tried to keep an eye on them with the camera and lens but within a few minutes lost sight of them.
     The sunset progressed over the next ten or fifteen minutes to the point where the sky was beginning to turn golden. I isolated a few cone flowers against the sky and snapped a few shots. I was down to maybe two or three images remaining when I again noticed some movement south of me only this time it was closer…a lot closer. About fifty yards away on the edge where that grassy knoll dropped off more steeply to the south stood one of those coyotes standing broadside staring at me through the tall grass. Thirty or so yards away from that one stood another one facing me his head held high to see over the edge of the knoll. As far as I knew, neither one of us had seen the other until that moment. The light was really low by this time, but I grabbed my camera hoping to get to use the last couple of images to capture these guys. I snapped off a couple quick shots just as they both scampered off. In their haste, I spotted the third one trailing not far behind.
     I’ve never before seen coyotes that were as impressive as these. Their tawney coats were magnificent and full with dark brown and black blotchy areas across their shoulders and neck accenting the lighter buff and reddish color of their undercoat. Their heads were big and eyes were keen. Their bodies appeared larger than most ordinary coyotes.  For a moment I thought they might have been a family of Red Wolves, but the Red Wolf is extinct in Oklahoma now and has been for over 50 years; their habitat destroyed, and numbers decimated by the misguided theory that predators were bad and should be shot on sight or poisoned. By 1930 their numbers dwindled to but a scattered handful in two locations…the Ozark/Ouachita Mountain area of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, and along the wooded areas of southern Texas and Louisiana…and in many cases they actually inner bred with coyotes producing a larger hybrid. Fortunately, a few of the remaining Red Wolves were captured and they have undergone a captive breeding program since the late 1980’s and have been reintroduced into suitable habitat in North Carolina. Maybe someday, they will return to Oklahoma.
     Because of their size and color, the coyotes I encountered certainly appeared to have some of that Red Wolf genetics in their makeup. In my heart I wanted them to be Red Wolves, but realistically, I understood the probability of that was very low. I continued watching them for several minutes as they trotted off toward the setting sun in search of their evening meal…a couple of times along their route they stopped and looked back at me before moving on.
     Unfortunately, the quick pictures I took were not very good…blurred as the light was very low…so I don’t have any images to share. Even so, the mental images I have of these magnificent creatures are still vivid and alive.
     Coyotes are one of nature’s most successful and adaptive critters…much more difficult to get close to than one would think. As I continually return to the Tallgrass Prairie I always hope to encounter a few more of these guys. On my last visit I managed to catch sight of and hear the howls and yelps of a family of four or five.  Not sure if they were from the same group, but it was in the same area. 

In my mind’s eye I still hear the coyotes howl at dusk, and visualize the ghosts of the Red Wolves as they drift across the prairie.  Anyone out there with their own coyote encounters?...I'd love to hear your stories and see any photographs you may have.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Creating an Emotional Visual-Dialog

I stood on a high grassy knoll overlooking Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie one late spring day.  The visuals were stunning in depth and impact...yet the photographs I took at the moment fell well short of what I felt emotionally. Something was missing and I was disappointed that my work from atop that hill just wouldn't make the cut.  But...all was not lost for I learned an important lesson as a result.  I began to evaluate what I was doing more closely and took a hard look at why those images did not portray what I was feeling.  After comparing that set of images with others that I know generated more emotion, I began to see a pattern.  What happened was that one set of images failed to generate a Visual-Dialog.  Even though what I was observing first hand was stunning, I failed to capture the emotion of the moment.

Visual Dialog in a photograph means that when someone views the image, they are moved emotionally by all the elements present.  Those elements are what transforms a visual moment into a place and time where the viewer can interject themselves into your vision.  Numerous things contribute to that effect, even so, what I've discovered in most of my favorite images and in other similar images are six elements that are common to each.  These six elements are used in various combinations to build Visual Dialog.

Let's take a look.

All effective images contain an element of Drama.  What Drama refers to here is that element that defines the impact of the image.  It adds depth, meaning, and purpose.  It provides what is called an Interest of Conflict...not to be confused with Conflict of Interest.  All good drama's contain is what dictates interest.  A photograph is a visual story and drama within it can appear in many forms.  Things like Light vs Dark...Hot vs Cold...Sad vs Happy...and even more subtle forms like desire...searching...mystery.

Drama is partially determined by the theme of the image and is defined by the quality of the light.  Drama can often be quite subtle or it can boldly jump off the page.  If the image is structured just so, the viewer will generate their own idea of what the drama is...simply by interpreting the variables contained in photograph.

Symphonic Melody
Symphonic Melody (SM) is the engine that drives the impact of the image.  It determines the character and flavor of the image...and even the drama.  Color and contrast are often two of the most important elements that define SM and they can often be associated with mood.  Ask yourself...What is it I want to capture here?...then search for ways to isolate that mood...or generate that SM.  Look for color, look for angles, look for expressions of atmosphere...then use the tools on your camera to capture its essence.  SM is a way of blending the physical elements into an emotionally expressive image.

Boldness adds another level of depth to an image by combining unique textures, forms, lines, colors and contrasts with the various angles and qualities of light.  Composition is a critical element in defining boldness and contributes to the overall strength of the image.  Boldness is what takes an ordinary situation and turns it into an extraordinary moment.  Look for strong reference points, but remember that boldness doesn't necessarily always mean big and also includes defining something in softer and more subtle ways.

Simplicity of Purpose
A common theme throughout this blog...whenever you are photographing, always think in terms of simplicity.  Simplicity of purpose is what melds all the elements in to a single homogenous composition.  Nothing in the image is wasted and everything is there for a reason.  Simplicity doesn't mean a lack of complex simply means everything in the image works toward telling the single story.

Too many story lines in an image will confuse the viewer.  Ask yourself..what is this image all about..then focus on those elements.  Story is the Visual Dialog the viewer sees.  Combine light as your canvas...composition as your theme...and subject as your story.  Story ties in with all the other elements we've discussed.  Story can be straight it can be more subtle...something like...what happened here...or a poignant reference to an event or look in someones eyes...or the mystery of what's around the bend.

Impression is your personal interpretation of a moment of light.  Impression requires a strong understanding of how to use light to enhance the story and subject.  Light is what applies the impressionistic interpretation of the vision you is through impression that you determine how you want the image to look...not necessarily how it actually looks while you are viewing it.  Impression implies that the image you create captures the essence...not necessarily the exact duplication...of what is there.  A good example is photographing can't...but you photograph the effects of the wind.

Creating emotional visual dialog in a photograph might sound like an overtaxing dilemma, but once you begin to think and apply those concepts, it actually becomes more instinctive and requires less thought than simply reacting to the situation...almost like how an athlete reacts without thinking about what he's doing.  The idea here is to simply get you to thinking more critically about what you doing.