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, August 28, 2011

Photograph What You Feel

I was the only person on the lake...somewhat of a surprise being it was Saturday.  The sun was a good thirty minutes from rising so the soft first light of morning outlined the treeline that undulated across the top of the ridge.  There was an ever so slight breeze...just enough to move the wispy fog that clung to the surface of the lake into ever changing forms and ghost like apparitions.  For August, the cool morning air seemed out of place...I didn't complain.  The only sound was the gentle report of the paddle as it propelled my Old Town canoe across the surface.  Two...three strokes on one side...then the other...and back again...someday I will actually learn how to do the J-stroke...but on this morning I simple zigged and zagged a crooked line toward the upper end of the lake.

A couple hundred yards from the put in, I slowed to a stop and turned to my right just a bit.  As I drifted and looked up at the last of the stars still shining I noticed hovering above the eastern ridge was a crescent moon glowing bright white against the blue of the morning light.  This was certainly one of those photo moments worth taking.  I knew it would require a long exposure in the low I moved toward the west bank and found a slippery, but level spot to get out and setup the tripod attaching the camera in the darkness as I ducked below an overhanging limb.  Several long exposures and I shoved off time to over evaluate the images...I needed to close the gap between me and the upper end of the lake before the sun climbed too high.

My fishing rod lay stretched across the starboard (right) side of the canoe.  Around me I could see bait fish jumping as predators hunted for a meal.  No time to cast a line...the morning was growing brighter.  Previous excursions taught me that the best perspective for morning shots on this little lake would be found on the upper end looking back to the east.  To my right I noticed the 'Big Rock' glowing in the dim light and reflecting off the perfectly calm surface...I had to give it a try...No time or place for a tripod...just have to bump the ISO and hold it steady...two quick shots (which turned out to be a bit too soft)...and I continued toward my morning rendezvous.

A few minutes later I rounded the point that stretched toward the earthen dam...connected a deep diving lure to my fishing line and made a few tentative casts as I kept one eye on the eastern ridge.  First light of the morning changes so rapidly that sometimes by the time you get the camera out of the bag (or waterproof box in this case) what was there a moment before is gone.   I put the fishing rod down and simply drifted and watched the performance reflect off the mirrored surface of the lake.

The wispy fog grew thicker as the air cooled and the gentle currents of air launched them into a splendid choreographed swirling dance set to the symphony of the sounds of dawn.  The horizon grew brighter and the glow began to build...pastels...reds...grays...blues...oranges...yellow subtle this time...not as bold as on previous trips.  It was a feast for eyes hungry for reflective moments afield.  True to its nature, what played out on this morning served to calm a tired spirit.

Over the next thirty minutes, I snapped about a 150 images...all the while keeping in mind what I wanted to capture was what I was feeling...less so what I actually saw...which was amazing in its own right.  To accomplish this I worked the exposure compensation button almost as much as I did the shutter release...applied the use of a graduated neutral density filter to bring the sky and reflections closer to the same exposure value and, most importantly I waited for that defining moment...a moment that can sometimes be elusive and chameleon like...constantly changing...ever moving...always calling and stirring the emotions.  The morning did not disappoint.

By the time the sun climbed above the ridge...the shoot was all but over save for a few random shots here and there.  The next couple of hours was spent mostly fishing and simply enjoying what I enjoy doing most...managed to catch a couple of bass in the process.  Not only did I manage to capture another amazing Shanty Hollow morning...I managed to rekindle that sense of adventure...ever so brief as it was...and when I find time to review the images from that morning...I'll always remember the emotion of the moment...because, after all...that was my mission all along.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Golden Hour - Plan Ahead

Chasing the light can wear out a photographer, and it can get a bit expensive with near $4.00 / gal gasoline prices.  It's better to do less chasing and more planning.  A few years ago I watched a video by legendary National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones where he advocated one very important piece of advise that has stuck with me ever since.  What he spoke about was not just for photographers...but for everyday living really, and it makes a lot sense.  What he said willing to place yourself at that point of greatest potential.

Think about that for a minute and break it down...Point of greatest yourself.  When it comes to photography a simple philosophy such as this can make the difference between capturing ordinary photographs...or capturing ordinary things in an extraordinary way.  Visualize if you will some of the greatest images you've ever seen.  What was it about those images that captured your imagination?  The location...perhaps...the subject...maybe.  Odds are if you really thought about it, what really captured your imagination was how the photographer placed himself in the very best position to capture that particular moment in time.  In essence he was willing to do what was necessary to be in a position to capture the absolutely best light of the day.  Doing so requires planning ahead...doing your homework...anticipating the potential of a location and recognizing what kind of lighting conditions will best fulfill capturing the vision you have for your photography.

One of the very best times is what is known as The Golden Hour.  This can be defined several ways...but the way I define it is a combination of the first fifteen minutes before and after sunrise and the last fifteen minutes before and after sundown.  Together that gives you a full hour of the best light of the day.  I'm not necessarily talking about sunrises and sunsets...although most of us are naturally attracted to them for obvious reasons.  Try not to get mesmerized by the boldness of those moments, instead, look around and see what kind of effect that light has on the things around you.  That soft light...golden light...pastel light will often give a location or an object a uniquely different look and appeal.

Take for instance this photograph taken a couple winters ago in Kentucky.  It was very cold and the night before a winter storm had covered the landscape with a beautiful pristine layer of snow.  The clouds had cleared, the sky was brilliant, and a full moon was hovering over the western horizon not long from setting.  I was up before dawn and drove to a location I had tried to photograph several times before with little success.  Even so, I knew that location had was just a matter of being ready when the opportunity presented itself.  The sun was a good fifteen maybe twenty minutes from rising, but the pre-dawn sky carried a lavender glow which was reflected in the snow.  This was the moment I had hoped for...and it was rapidly moving toward its finality. Using a tripod, I made several exposures over the course of several minutes before the amazing light evaporated and the sky became too bright.  It wasn't until after I had downloaded the images that I realized just how amazing this photographic moment was.

Being at that place of greatest potential, being prepared, and using the first light of the golden hour all combined to created a wonderfully simply, yet powerful winter scene.  It was the glow in the sky that created the amazing light...the snow simply enhanced the moment.  Planning ahead...being prepared...understanding the impact the light of the golden hour has and then being willing to place yourself at that point of greatest potential will more often than not result in great opportunities.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Starting a Long Term Project

We pulled up to the boat ramp a little after 5:00 pm on a Tuesday evening.  From what I could tell it looked as though we were going to be the only boat on the lake.  Most of July and into August and indeed most of the summer had been uncomfortably warm and humid as is typical for this part of Kentucky during this time of year.  The previous few days brought a shift in the weather with unseasonable and refreshing cooler temperatures and lower humidity levels that stirred my need to re-aquaint myself with the joys of canoe fishing.   Only a slight breeze pushed a soft ripple across the surface…just about right for canoeing and fishing.  For the next three hours we drifted and paddled around the perimeter casting a line here and there.  The fishing was slow, but the experience was just fine.  I needed this about as much as I needed anything…seems it had been way too long since I was last here.

The past year or so I began to realize that I seem to have drifted away from my identity.  In years past outdoor activities became an important part of my life…one in which I have slowly allowed circumstance and situations deter me from participating at a level I once enjoyed.  I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that…work load…health…college expenses…the price of gas…getting older…need I say more.  As a result there seems to be a void created inside, a void that seems to grow larger day by day.  I’ve simply missed getting out.  In recent years photography has filled in some of that gap, but even that can fall short in restoring that need I have to experience God’s world like I once was able to do.  The trick I believe is to combine those two passions together so as to blend that sense of accomplishment with the desire for meaningful outdoor experiences.

Four or five years ago I started a long term project photographing Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie.  That project has been an amazing journey so far, at least as far as I’ve been able to follow through, unfortunately my time available to visit that location is limited to a week or so once a year…and this past year I was unable to even make that limited annual visit.  Distance being the primary culprit, over 700 miles, a distance that prevents me from fulfilling my dream of capturing this unique and amazing landscape in its full glory.  As a result I began to look closer to home for another opportunity for a long term photographic project, one that provides that blend of outdoors with photographic potential.  Oddly enough, virtually next door to me is a location I have visited and photographed a number of times, but never really thought of as a long term project potential. 

Shanty Hollow Lake sits tucked in amongst the hills that roll across the landscape just north of Bowling Green.  From my home it’s about a 40 minute drive…from my office it’s about a 20 minute drive. It’s a small lake originally constructed back in the 1940’s as a private hunting and fishing lodge, and was eventually taken over by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1953.  Stocked with bass and catfish, and other various fishes, its 110 acres of surface area is one of the most scenic of lakes just about anywhere and is perfect for canoe fishing.  Hidden on the back end of the lake splitting a wide horseshoe shaped ridge is a waterfall that when the water is running after a hard rain can provide an amazing photographic moment.

A couple hours in, as I cast my fishing line toward the bank, the sun momentarily broke through the thin layer of clouds that hovered above the western ridge.  A beam of light highlighted a stand of sycamore trees along the bank.  Their lighter colored leaves and whitish bark stood in contrast against the darker green background and seemed to glow in the light as their reflection shimmered on the almost perfectly calm surface of the lake.  I had no camera to capture the moment…but, capture I did, an idea that will surely help me restore that lost sense of identity.   This is the place I need to photograph year round.  It is here I can capture the best of nature and find an outlet for that sense of adventure and desire for a meaningful outdoor experience…and so I committed myself to begin a long term project simply called Shanty Hollow

My intent is to photograph this area using not only the traditional still photographs, but to blend it with HD video as well.  Traditional photographs can only capture static moments of time…video on the other hand can capture the feel of the moment through movement and sound.  Blending the two should tell a unique story of this small but amazing location.  By next summer I hope to create a 15 to 20 minute video presentation using the footage I’ve captured the past year along with some of the footage I’ve already captured.  This will be a serious attempt to create a professional quality presentation suitable for showing to various groups and organizations.  It will be the most ambitious and important project I’ve ever attempted.  With any luck at all, this endeavor will help to fill the gap of meaningful outdoor experiences that I’ve recently missed in my life.  For the first time in a long time, I’m excited again about something I’m about to begin…I may even throw in a little fishing along the way.

Here's a link to some Shanty Hollow Shots...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kentucky Sky - Kentucky Morning Series

I've lived in a lot of different places and one thing that I have discovered is they all have their own unique photographic potential.  Of all the places I have lived, Kentucky offers some of the most diverse photographic opportunities that I have seen.  Of all of those, the Kentucky Sky and Kentucky Morning's are the most amazing...and the two often compliment each other.  As a result I've started a new series that I would like to introduce to you.  Simply enough it is called Kentucky Sky - Kentucky Morning and they are a series of some of the most spectacular sky and morning shots I've been able to capture from this amazing land called Kentucky.  I am offering them as individual prints ($99.00 plus shipping) mounted on foam core.

Check them out...I think you will like them.

p.s.  I'm also working on a series of Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie images...but they will come later.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Photography Bucket List

Sometimes I'll thumb through various photography magazines and see all sorts of interesting things I wish I could either purchase or places I wish I could visit.  Unfortunately, being able to do those things will probably not happen...not in the next four years anyway with college tuition to pay for.

Even so, I tend to file away those thoughts and wishes in my photography 'to do' bucket for another day hoping that when the time is right, I will be able to remove a few of them and actually turn them into a reality.  What I'm afraid will happen is that the bucket will actually get so full, I'll get tired of carrying it around and end up dumping the entire contents in the rubbish bin never to be retrieved or thought of again.  Before that happens, here is a short list of the most wanted from that list that I still hope to turn into a reality someday.

1.  To photograph all four seasons on Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie.  My desire here is not to just photograph it, but to document it in such a way as to create a video presentation that tells the saga of the Tallgrass Prairie in such a way as to stir the imaginations of those who see it.  I want to backpack from one end to the other during all kinds of weather conditions and experience it at those most important moments of light...and there are some amazing moments of light on the prairie.  This also includes flying over the prairie in a light airplane at dawn and/or dusk to capture that first and last prairie-light of the day from the unique elevated perspective.

2.  To purchase a high quality HD video camera.  I'm not talking about one of those palm size cameras found at department stores...I'm talking about the next level or two above that...something like a Sony HVR-A1 or V1 series of video cameras.  My intent here is to take my photography to another level and step into the realm of cinematography and capture places like the Tallgrass Prairie using the combination of still images and video.

3.  To upgrade to a new to all possibilities on this one...but with my Sony background I'm looking at one of the A900 series of cameras...24 megapixels...full frame sensor.  My venerable A100 has served me well...way beyond what a camera like that should have been able to accomplish...but it is rapidly reaching its limits of capabilities with what I am wanting to accomplish.

4.  I could sure use a high quality wide angle lens...something in the 14mm range...again open to all possibilities on this.  The one I have is barely adequate...yet does a pretty good job...It is just time to upgrade to a better level.

5.  Number five is a long shot...but I keep dreaming about doing this someday.  To pack my camera gear, canoeing and camping gear (along with some hiking and fishing gear) and spend  summer into early fall exploring and photographing the American West.  Nuff pretty well explains itself.

So there you have it, my short bucket list of things I'd like to do before I get too old to do them...I've still got a few years left before that happens...but, time is an easily lost commodity.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Photographing Changing Light

Here in Kentucky, the back roads tend to loop around in a seemingly chaotic chorus of twists and turns.  On numerous occasions, I've found my self well maybe not lost...just turned around and confused as to where I really was at the moment.  Drive around long enough and those looping roads will probably reconnect to a more familiar main road someplace.

On one such recent adventure that happened again...only this time it turned out to be a good thing.  The last few weeks a lot of foggy mornings had tempted me to an early rise and to head out to find a great photographic moment.  What I wanted was a high vantage point...but someplace I had not tried before...or at least recently.

Last Saturday morning I headed over toward Shanty Hollow Lake...a favorite canoeing place of mine...hoping to take advantage of the higher vantage points along the old highway 185.  Well, to get there I must navigate a series of lesser roads...roads I've traveled several times and know pretty well.  But, on this morning the fog was a bit thicker than usual and when I came upon a fork in the road where I normally take the left fork...I completely missed it and went right instead.

I drove about a half mile before I realized my then I just decided to keep on going and see what I could find.  A few miles later I drove past a nice looking large pond that appeared rather ghostly out of the fog.  I turned around and parked on the back side of it down another side road and gathered my camera gear.

The sun was a good 30 minutes yet from rising, but with the subdued light and misty conditions the photographic value of the moment was very high.  I spent the next 45 minutes shooting as the light seemed to change every couple or so.  It went from gray to blue to lavender to golden and back to gray.  The only filter used was a graduated neutral density filter to blend the sky with the water reflections.

Before I pulled out that morning shoot turned out to be one of the best of the summer and a prime example of how light can rapidly change...and all because of a wrong turn.

Here's a link to see more of the mornings shoot: