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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting the Shot

I’ve said a time or two that I’d rather be good than lucky.  Although luck certainly plays a role in capturing some amazing photo’s, combining the technical with a willingness to do what it takes to capture great moments will produce far more opportunities for great shots than simply relying on luck.

Getting the shot requires one to use a combination of four things: 

Technical Understanding of the Photographic Process
Look Beyond the Obvious
Anticipate the Potential
Being There When the Light is Right.

Getting all four to coincide with each other…well, sometimes that requires a bit of luck at the very least, perseverance most certainly…and not necessarily in the same order every time. 

Let’s talk about those four things as they pertain to a couple of selected images.  Take for instance this shot of the dragonfly…a Carolina Saddleback to be specific…First of all the technical understanding involved required several things to make it happen including knowing how the camera was going to react to the light.  Notice the background…it is rather dark in nature and even though our subject is well lit, that dark background will throw off the camera’s metering.  I shoot most often using Matrix or Wide Area metering where the camera looks at the full spectrum of light in the view in deciding what exposure it wants to use.  The camera will want to average the light it meters and set an exposure based on that average, so the dark background would cause the subject to be overexposed and blown out.  Knowing this, I used the cameras +/- exposure compensation feature to tell the camera to react the way I wanted it to…not the way it wanted to…and set the exposure to -.7.  I also set the aperture to as large of an opening as the zoom lens would allow for the focal length that I was using, f/6.3…this allowed me to control the depth of field and keep it relatively tight, and the background soft.

In order to get this shot I also had to look beyond the obvious…it would be a common technique to simply point the camera at the dragonfly and snap away without taking into context the background until a shot happened to capture my subject, provided I could catch it standing still long enough to do so.  The point here is to think in terms of how best to isolate the subject, and that required thinking through the problem.  First of all, I simply sat down on the edge of the pond and waited to see what would happen.  Chasing dragonflies is all but impossible to do, as they flitter so fast, you really can’t hope to catch them…but they do tend to fly in patterns I noticed.  As I watched all the activity flying around me, this one guy kept returning over and over to the same spot…a broken branch sticking out of the water.  He would light for a second or two then take off again…then repeat the process over and over every few minutes…and that brings us to anticipating the potential.  After a few minutes, I realized that was the best way to catch this guy, so I sat up my camera on a tripod…zoomed in as tightly as I could, pre-focusing on the end of the branch.  Using a cable release, I was able to fire off several quick shots each time he landed, eventually getting this one best shot.

But…that is not all.  How did I know where to place the tripod?  First of all, I wanted to isolate the subject so I selected a location that offered a dark background at some distance from the subject to allow for blurring…and also offered a good source of backlighting to bring out the translucent nature of the wings.  That required having the right kind of light…or at least using the light that was available to its best opportunity.

For the photograph of the canoe at first light I used a similar thought process, but approached it using different techniques.  First of all, let’s talk about what it took to set up this shot…or anticipate the potential. Shanty Hollow Lake has become one of my favorite photo places as it provides a range of opportunities that differ from day to day and season to season.  Having made numerous just-for-fun excursions there, I quickly recognized the photographic potential with the calm waters and foggy conditions being a common occurrence especially before sunrise during the late summer and early fall seasons.  Sunrise was around 6:00 A.M. at the time, and I wanted to be in position well before that time.  It required that I rise around 4:00 A.M. and make the 40 minute drive, then off load my canoe and gear, and make the paddle to the upper end, about a 20 minute trip by water.  That put me on location a good half hour or more before sunrise…but even at that early time, there is significant light on the horizon…which is what I was wanting.  The fog on the water began to lift and as the sun progressed closer to breaking free of the ridge to the east, that fog began to glow and was perfectly reflected on the mirrored surface of the water.  My anticipation paid off, as I was there at the optimum time, being there when the light was right…lost a bit of sleep as a result…but, well worth the price.

But, to take the shot required understanding the technical nature of the situation.  I had to make the shot by hand as shooting from the tripod would not be practical from the inside of a canoe.  Using a wide angle lens, I set the aperture at f/5.6…which allowed just enough depth of field ( I focused on the front of the canoe) to keep everything pretty much in focus for the wide angle lens focal length, but also allowed for a fast enough shutter speed 1/125 at ISO 100 in the available light to keep from blurring the image with handshake.  I used 0 +/- compensation as I wanted to capture enough light to show detail in the canoe and still grab the boldness of the light on the water without blowing it out. 

Zero compensation pushed the exposure toward the middle range allowing for the detail to be captured in both the bright area and the darker canoe interior.  Here is where the looking beyond the obvious came into play.  I had to be careful not to allow the sunrise cliche to influence my shot so much that it dominated the composition, but I also wanted to show the boldness of the moment, plus it was important to include enough of the canoe to make it appear to be gliding toward the morning.  That is why I tilted the camera angle down and placed the horizon very high in the composition.  Centering the canoe was a matter of simply looking for reference points in the view finder and lining them up.  The canoe in essence became the main subject of the composition, and the reflection of the glowing fog became the symbolic reference to greeting the new dawn.

So you see…taking a great photo is more than simply pointing and shooting…or even being lucky…it takes a degree of technical understanding, looking beyond the obvious, anticipating the potential, and being there when the light is right…combined with a bit of perseverance…you might be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A View Through the Lens - A Life Lesson

It's been a while since I have written a View thru the Lens article...with the Christmas season upon us, I'd like to share a few thoughts.


Nature provides us with a connection to a lost time of innocence...a place to rediscover youthful simply ponder...and when the best of what creation offers presents itself to us, it is not so much the person today who is is that child who never stopped believing in the dreams he dared to dream.

Over the years too many things tended to prevent the adventures dreamed from my youthful imagination an avenue into reality. Over time, other priorities took root and eventually choked off the life giving source of adventurous-desire that ultimately could only sustain them for so long.  The more deeply rooted life priorities became, the more those youthful dreams faded into vague memories of times past.

I suppose that is why I stubbornly cling to memories of adventures that actually did become a reality, for they in some small way, helped to satisfy the depth of the dreams of my youth.  Even then in those early days, I somehow knew most would never come true, but dreamed anyway.  It is not unlike the tired old axiom:  It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  If it is indeed better to have dreamed and lost those dreams than to never have dreamed at all...then I am truly a blessed individual.

Over time we all are presented with windows of opportunity.  Unfortunately, by the time we are mature enough to recognize the significance of those opened windows, they have long since closed.  It most certainly seems true that...Youth is wasted on the young.

We live in a marvelous technological age, but I can not help but wonder at what cost.  Too many kids spend too many hours sitting in front of a screen playing some kind of virtual game or staring at a hand held electronic contraption, and never take time to explore that big beautiful world out there that is full of reality. I find myself too often doing similar things.

Maybe it is because I have grown older that I have started to reflect more on the lost opportunities I allowed to fade away...never to be explored...whose windows of opportunity closed long ago, and I have realized that there was probably a reason for the way things turned out, and that is encouraging.

I have discovered just how easy it is to become complacent or maybe even aggravated at the world situation where too many people are caught up in pushing ideology and not enough are seeking out truth.  It would be nice if just for once every nation could work together for the betterment of those around them instead of seeking out only what they can get out of a situation.

Wishful thinking? the present world situation anyway, but I prefer to think more Optimistically...instead of what might have been...I think about what could be. Whether you believe in the True Meaning of Christmas or not, the truth of the baby Jesus and the Christmas story and what it meant to the world is the only thing that offers a real solution to that question...not so much about what could be...but what will be someday.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I Took a Hike One Day...

Another story-like end of the day drifted toward its conclusion as I watched from the top of Coneflower more episode counted among the countless end-of-the-day episodes one can discover on the prairie.  Why I was there finds its roots going back a good number of years, but simply stated, I was there because I took a hike one day.

Cone Flower Hill is not an official's simply what I call this rounded knoll with a rocky outcropping on top that sits a quarter mile or more off the gravel road that meanders through the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma.  I found it a few years ago almost by accident while looking for a location to observe and photograph those amazing prairie sundowns.  It's not much of a hill really, but rises maybe something less than a hundred feet higher than the surrounding landscape.  Long flanks covered with thick prairie grass, cut by drainage and scarred by bison travel, characterize the climb to the top...a climb more difficult than it might seem at first.

Just north of the summit lies a large pond tucked into the recess of the rolling terrain.  Around it's perimeter grow acres of wildflowers including the Pale Purple Cone Flower...where the hill gets its name.  On the summit of the hill a rocky outcrop exposed to who knows how many years of weathering, provides a break on the smooth lines of the rolling hills.  It's a good place to just sit and feel the prairie wind in your face.

 It is one of the quietest places one can find, quiet in the sense there are few if any man-made noises that influence the atmosphere...just the dancing of the tall grasses and choreographed ballet of the cone flowers as they move in time with the whimsical undulations of the prairie wind. It is a natural musical of natures best assortment of players.

To the west the landscape changes as it breaks its rhythm from the slow rolls to rise abruptly toward mesa like outcroppings.  In all directions one is afforded an unobstructed view of this marvelous landscape broken only by distant indications of man's presence.

Why am I here...why do I return time and again?  I took a hike one day, and discovered a place for the heart that was mine alone...a place where ones inner strength is restored by the reflections of what once was...reflections of times past that remain unchanged.  I took a hike one day and rediscovered who I was.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What and Where verses Why - The Art of Writing and Photography

Although the craft of writing and the art of photography are different forms of communication, they both share a common objective; to move the reader or viewer toward a single purpose…to generate an emotional response.

Where writing uses words to construct images in the mind, photography uses light to build a story. Where brevity is desired in writing, photography also requires a simplification of the composition. Writers understand that by blending a unique style with their view of the world, they can often move their readers...An effective photograph stirs the emotions of the one viewing it to the point where they identify with the moment.

I would venture a guess that most writers write so they can share a part of themselves with others.  The same holds true with photographers…we like to share our vision of the world.  Doing so is natural…writers and photographers, like most creative people, tend to have a deep emotional bond to what they create.

One of the first ‘rules’ of writing is to simply write about what you know, so the things I write about tend to focus around the adventures I’ve experienced over the years often related to photography. Most of my stories are short essays that chronicle some significant event.  Whether remembering growing up hunting and fishing in Oklahoma, or the numerous adventures of my military days, or writing about a day spent photographing some of nature's most amazing moments...writing about those events often generate a therapeutic effect. 

As I begin to write…I simply write what first comes to mind. I don't worry so much about grammar and punctuation...that initial effort is used to build a basic composition that can then be molded into a finished story.  Often the finished product has little resemblance to the original text.  This is where writing techniques and photography techniques often merge. 

You see, as a photographer, I am rarely satisfied with a single image.  Often, to capture the image I am looking for requires continually looking at the problem from a different perspective.  Instead of always shooting from eye level…I often drop low…or move sideways…or search for more appealing light.  What I photograph matters little…it is how I build the composition that matters…how I use light to enhance the subjects shape, form, and textures. 

Writing is like that. It matters most how I build the story...not so much what I write about.  My first attempt is rarely a finished product.  Many times by taking a different approach…looking at the problem from a different angle, I begin to develop my original vision into a new idea that moves the story far greater in one direction or another than the original concept.

To me, writing and photography are natural extensions of themselves and I see each of them as an avenue that allows for an expression of ideas that go beyond simple words, or images. Writing is as much art as it is a craft.  Too many writers today I believe have lost that sense of art in their craft.  Pickup almost any outdoor magazine…family magazine…nature magazine…and what do you find? 

You’ll see titles like ‘Top Ten Places to Fish’…or ‘Best Vacation Getaways’…or ‘Great Recipes For The Summer Grilling Season’.  In my opinion, editors today emphasize way too much the ‘What and Where and even How’ at the expense of ‘Why’.  Visit the library sometime…they still do exist by the way…or use the modern equivalent and Google search on the internet to look up some of the old time outdoor writers like Ted Trueblood or Gordon Macquerrie and read some of their stories.  The emphasis 40, 50…60 years ago was on the ‘why’ and less on the ‘what and where’.  The craft of story telling was the heart of their technique…what they wrote about was how and why a particular adventure affected their lives…not so much on where to go and what to do when you get there.  It was their story telling that motivated readers like myself to create personal adventures of where and how.  Their words created visions of grand adventures that I could see...and then over time, photograph.

If I could challenge new writers today, I would challenge them to begin by writing about ‘why’ something was important…how it affected them emotionally…and shy away from too much of the what and where.  Use your intellect to find the words…but use your heart to build the story.  Don’t just tell about events…show why those events were important. As a photographer...every photograph I take is based on that concept of showing why that moment was important.  The light becomes the visual words used to accomplish the telling of the photographic story.

Everyone should develop their own style of writing and never attempt to copy another writer’s style.  The perspective captured by a former generation of writers is far different than our own and we can all discover how eloquent many of them time, you just might discover another way to express what is truly important in your life in such a way, that it affects the lives of those around you.