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

Monday, December 24, 2012

For the Fun of It

Here's another repost of an old blog from a while back...

I take my photography way too seriously at times...concentrating so much on what I'm doing, that I don't always simply enjoy being there.  It's a bad habit to fall into.  Looking back over the tens of thousands of images I've captured over the years, the ones that hold the most importance are the ones I took when I was simply having fun doing what I was doing.

I've had a number of occasions over the years to talk about photography to not only groups of people but individuals.  One question that comes up quite often is...'How many good ones do you normally get on a photo shoot?'  At one time I tried to come up with some kind of profound words of wisdom on the subject and most of the time tended to say all the wrong things..."10 out of a hundred maybe...2 or 3 normally...depends on how many shots I take..." when in reality the way I should answer is like this..."It really doesn't matter as long as I get the shot or shots I wanted and had fun doing it."

Photography should be exactly that...a way to have fun and express that creative instinct we all have.  I've often had the desire to actually make a living at photography. Many people have indicated that might be a good idea and that I should pursue it.  But, when I think about it, trying to make a living at it just might be the wrong way to go about it, for then it becomes a job filled with all the job-like responsibilities and problems.  I'd think that would remove all the fun out of it.  I'd rather keep on doing what I'm doing...earning a little here and there...but having fun at it and taking joy and excitement in seeing for the first time that new amazing moment of light come to life as captured through the lens.

I suppose if I were to provide a bit of insight for new photographers on how to improve their photography...the best advise I could offer is to simply encourage them to approach their photography from the concept of simply having fun with it.  Not to get all caught up in the whistles and bells and technical jargon that goes along with it.  All that stuff will come in time if one continues to read and learn about the craft...but, it is far more important to begin at the beginning...and simply have fun learning about a fascinating hobby.  You might be amazed at just how amazing your pictures will turnout.  Always remember...there is no such thing as a bad photograph as long as you like enjoy!


Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Thru the Lens Look at Life....

I'll be taking a break until after the first of the new year. Until then I'll share a few re-posts from the past...Here's one from a couple years ago...Merry Christmas!


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

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

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

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

That is this weeks Thru the Lens life lesson.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

If it Don't Belong...Get Rid of It

Photography and writing are so similar sometimes it is difficult to separate the two conceptually. Just like brevity in writing, simplicity in a photograph is preferable. I struggle with both at times....I tend to use way more words than is necessary to get the point across, and just as often, I fail to remove all the clutter from my photographs. Both will reduce the effectiveness of each.

Let me give you an example how clutter can ruin an image, and how removing that clutter can improve the composition.

This first image is not a bad image...some might even suggest it's a decent image. When I took this shot, I asked myself...what else is here...what is it that is really catching my attention? When I looked more closely, I realized that what was actually capturing my eye was how the tree limb was angling across the slanted edge of the barn's roof. Everything else was just clutter and really didn't add anything to the photograph.

 When I allowed myself to let the rest of the image go and focused in on what was really important, the composition and the image became much simpler and stronger. Sometimes we want to hold on to something because its there...that's what we see across our field of view when in reality, we need to learn how to eliminate what is not important, and look for those patterns and compositions that truly capture what we're feeling.

Here's another example of the same thing...just a different look at the same problem.

Composition in photography is such a subjective concept it is difficult to compare one person's capture against another persons capture even of the same subject. What one person sees, another may see it in an entirely different way. That problem is more than likely based on personal experience and how each of us view the world. What we must do is to develop a willingness to let go of stuff simply because it is there and look for those combinations of things that truly define what we're trying to accomplish.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Faceless Portraits

One area of photography that I have been trying to explore in more depth is portrait photography. Not so much the studio style, but more the location kind. Our local club will from time to time sponsor a location portrait shoot which allows the members to get some experience and offer prospective models a chance to build upon their portfolio. They can be quite fun to do as the young ladies are very delightful to work with and to learn from someone with a lot of experience can be quite rewarding. But, there are other kinds of portraits that can be just as rewarding and possibly more revealing...I call them Faceless Portraits.

Over the past three or four years my wife Kris and I along with some other friends have worked with homeless individuals in our community primarily through her Blankets for the Homeless ministry. It has been quite a journey opening our eyes to another world most of us never realize even exists the way it does. As part of this ministry, opportunities to photograph these people have presented itself, but that can be a sensitive subject. Many of them, probably even most of them, do not want their photo taken for various reasons, and we've learned to honor that . . . always asking permission to do so. In some cases they don't want their faces photographed but are open to have their hands or feet . . . or maybe a tattoo photographed.

This kind of portrait can be extremely powerful if done correctly and with some sensitive thought. One of the more interesting homeless people we befriended was a woman named Melonnie. Always friendly, always willing to talk with us, but never allowed us to photograph her face. One of the most powerful images I've ever taken of homelessness is her hand portrait.

What makes it so powerful is the story behind the photo. You see, all of her fingers had been broken by her father when she was younger, and over the years of abuse and living off the streets, her hands had suffered greatly. The day I took this photo was a cold and wet winter day, and she was huddled under a bridge with tarps draped around to create an enclosure of sort to keep the wind out. Inside that confined enclosure was a small fire she kept burning for warmth. Her hands, and face were covered in soot, and her clothes were dirty and grungy. Even so, she invited us into her . . . home, offered to share what little food she had, even started to pour us a cup of coffee from the coffee pot we had given to her a few months before.

It was dark inside that enclosure with very little light except a small amount of ambient light from the flames of the fire and a little filtering in through a small opening near the top of the enclosing tarp. As she sat stirring the fire, I noticed her weathered and worn hands and asked if I could take a photo of them. She seemed somewhat amazed why I would want to do such a thing, they were after all rather dirty and her nails were broken and cracked. I said that would do just fine, so she sat the fire stir stick down and crossed them into an area where just a small amount of light reflected off the back.

The low light required a long exposure value and I had no tripod . . . there was no room for one anyway. So I bumped the ISO as high as I could realizing that there would be a lot of grain to the image, but that is what I wanted.  I held the camera as firmly as I could and fired off several shots. This one was the best.

Faceless Portraits can tell a deeper story than an ordinary portrait. They are faceless only in the sense that they do not capture the features of a person's expression, but, in this case, the face of homelessness could not have been more dramatically exposed.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Well-Dreamt...A Thru the Lens look at life...

Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
I read something the other day that really made me think hard about a lot of things. It was written by a woman a few years ago when she was in her 60's about her dad who died of a stroke having never fully realized all the things he dreamed of doing. She summed up his life with these words: Well-dreamt...but actively unfulfilled. It was a moment that spurred her even at 60 years old to begin to realize some of the dreams she had always wanted to do, but seemed to never find the time to let them happen.

Well-dreamt...actively unfulfilled...the power of those words carry way beyond the simplicity of their individual meanings. In many ways those words could sum up a large part of my life. Certainly, I do understand that the events of life are more complicated than simply dreaming about doing something hoping they might come true...circumstances often interfere with or circumvent those dreams.

One of my earliest desires as a young lad was to become a smoke jumper (sometimes spelled smokejumper) know...those U.S. Forest Service guys who parachute into the backcountry to fight forest fires. It all stemmed from watching a great classic 1950's movie called 'Red Skies of Montana' starring Richard Widmark and Jeffery Hunter among others. It was a great movie...still of my top 5 favorites of all time. For many years while I was growing up, I dreamed of adventures fighting forest fires with a Hotshot crew and becoming one of the elite as a smoke jumper.

As college grew closer those dreams still influenced my initial attempts at jump starting a college career...In the fall of 1970, I enrolled at Eastern Oklahoma State College with a major in Forestry with the intent to finish the four year degree at Oklahoma State University...and just possibly some time in the future after some experience on one of the Hotshot crews out west, being able to get into the smoke jumper program.

Scene from Red Skies of Montana
Our class consisted of a few more than a dozen kids...mostly guys but there were a couple of young ladies in the program. On the first day of class our adviser and Intro to Forestry instructor said this to us.

"There are about dozen or so of you starting this major. Only about half of you will finish the first two years...and probably only 2 of the 6 or so remaining in the program will finish the 4 year degree...of those will actually get a job in the forestry field."

Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
The demeanor of the class changed dramatically after the next class several had already dropped out. I stuck it out for the first semester then, realizing the odds of successfully fulfilling that desire to become a smoke jumper were rather slim, I changed my major to else can I say it...less exciting for sure...but safer in the long life long dream having been dashed by discouraging words and circumstances of the times. I never made another attempt at following that path...never spent one day on a Hotshot firefighter crew...

Our adviser must have thought he was doing all of us a favor, apparently there just were not enough jobs with the Forest Service back then to go around . When I think back on it...what really happened was to see my first well-dreamt idea dissolve into my first actively unfulfilled reality. Back then I just didn't have enough information, insight, nor understanding about what all the possible options were (the internet did not exist back then)...nor did I really know what questions to ask to find out. If I ever carry one regret through my life it is that I allowed that circumstantial situation to change the direction of my life.

Over time the disappointment that stemmed from that introduction soften and life events changed and presented other opportunities...some of them proved rather adventurous...most of them rather mundane and pedestrian...none of them fulfilling the desires of my youthful exuberance. Although the events of the last 40 odd years have included a lot of ups and downs...over all I would have to say things worked out pretty well...just rather ordinary in most respects...but even today...when I make time to watch that old movie again those dreams from so long ago tend to resurface and I can only wonder...what if?

Internet photo - Mike McMillan
Spotfire Images
Well-dreamt...actively unfulfilled...I guess those words caused me to think more about all the old dreams that surfaced over the years but never did find an outlet...there are a lot of them actually...In most cases, the fault for them never being fulfilled lies only with myself. Those windows of opportunity stay open for only so long before time, age, finances, in short, life...causes them to close. Even so, it doesn't mean we have to accept opportunities open up all the time...its only when we dwell too long in the past and never look forward do we allow time and circumstance to catch up with us...and too often pass us by. The idea then, is to keep dreaming...and keep looking for open windows.

If we stop looking for new opportunities and we're not careful, before long, we might discover that we've dreamed away too many years...but never did anything to make them come true...and that is  truly sad. Even so, I still would have rather dreamed of grand adventures than never to have dreamed of them at all. Never taking time to do such things...well...just how actively unfulfilled could a life without those dreams really be?

Still dreaming...


Great Smokejumper website by Mike McMillan:

Smokejumper Tribute video

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting Away From it All..

Mid November in south central Kentucky can be one of the best times of year for exploring the outdoors. Although most of the fall colors have come and gone, there is usually some color that lingers well into the month. Because the trees have lost most of their leaves by this time, it opens up the woods making it much easier to see and the low angle of the sun casts long shadows across the landscape.  The temperatures can also be quite pleasant often hovering in mid 60’s and even into the low 70’s at times.

I recently purchased a new pair of hiking boots that required some breaking in so one lovely Sunday afternoon I made the short drive up to Shanty Hollow and made the hike up to the falls area. It is a great place to break in a pair of new boots as the trail provides a wide range of obstacles and terrain types that force the new boots to bend and flex. On such a wonderful day as it was, I expected to see others on the trail and that proved true as I crossed paths with probably the most number of people I’ve ever seen on this trail at one time.

You can always tell those comfortable with the outdoors from those who are not. The way they dress, the way they walk… tentative or overly aggressive…, are they carrying electronic gadgets or not, how loud or quiet they are. I found it interesting just how many different kinds of people I met that day on the trail. 

A group of  about a dozen or so college kids I heard coming long before I ever saw them.  Seems they don’t know how to enjoy the quiet…they must always be surrounded with noise and distraction…overly loud laughing…not nearly enough just enjoying the solitude. 

One of the group was wearing a pair of loose fitting basketball shorts and a tank top and untied sneakers with no socks…hardly proper attire for hiking...I figured he would quickly regret that combination after the sun dropped below the ridge and it began to cool off. Two of them were walking and texting at the same time…one was actually talking on her phone…and one was listening to some kind of music thru a set of earbuds plugged into his Ipod effectively cutting him off from the outside world…the others were laughing and hollering at every insignificant instance breaking the silence along the trial. The earbuds were at least an improvement over the boom box days when it was not uncommon for someone to think they had to serenade and impress everyone around with his or her taste in music.  

A bit further down the trail I ran across a family of four who were out enjoying the day. That was nice to see…except the nine or ten year old boy spent most of his time imitating an owl with a constantly loud hoot hoot hoot punctuated with an even louder whoooooooooooot at the end. Another group was being lectured by what appeared to be a rather loud self appointed tour guide who tried to impress everyone with his knowledge of the woods…after a brief discussion with him, I discovered he had never even been into that area before.

In past years I remember helping out with the Boy Scout troop camp outs that more often than not turned into a fire drill routine emptying a trailer full of noise making gear, chaos, more noise…complaints…a few yells…a few cries for help.  An hour or so later with camp finally setup a dozen or more young boys are let loose to inflict more noise upon the environment while the scout master and helpers sit back in a comfy chair and eat something. Well…I suppose boys are meant to be loud and scout masters are inclined to eat something…I wonder if the Boy Scouts ever thought about offering a merit badge on how to be quiet?

Seems to me some people just don’t get it.  First of all I’ll never begrudge someone who actually spends time outdoors for whatever reason…at least they are there and not locked up in some dark room playing video games somewhere. Yet, it seems too many people just don’t know how to leave all the noise behind. Instead, they want to bring along the chaos. Nature is so full of wonderful experiences why spoil it with Ipod music, why not enjoy the natural sounds and symphony of the outdoors, or why not look around and enjoying the scenery, instead of plastering your gaze onto your phone sending and receiving text messages.

I suppose I’ve never fully understood the noise thing…it could be an age thing or a maturity…or lack of it…thing…or it could be simply a lack of understanding and experience. I guess we all tend to fall back onto what is most comfortable for us when confronted with something outside our normal everyday existence.  Maybe that is why I tend to venture into the backwoods by myself…away from all the chaos…to find some time alone with my thoughts and the song of nature. 

When I encounter those with other agenda’s for their outing…well, I nod politely and move on to another location away from their self inflicted noise pollution. I can’t remember when I last camped in a public campground. You can probably understand why. We’ve probably all have experienced the late night arrivals who drive around and around several times shining headlights into every camping location looking for a place to setup…then when they finally do park go through an hour long series of slamming doors and loud vocal articulations about where and how to set up the tent…and the Coleman Lantern cranked up to full luminosity that floods seven other campsites with harsh light…or where is the beer…or any number and volumes of banging and clanging…then inevitably the boom box gets released …turned up…and blared outward for all to hear.

No…that’s not for me…not anymore...never was really. Give me the sweet sound of a little motion induced stream…the wind…the birds…the howl of the coyote, and the crackling of a campfire away from it all. I find great pleasure listening to the sounds of the woods…or prairie, to feel the sun and breathe the air unencumbered by the chaos of society. I must spend way too much time as it is absorbed by its influences…I certainly do not want to bring it along with me when I do find time to get away from it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mammoth Cave Backcountry - A Beyond the Campfire Moment

The pack felt heavier than I remember…a good kind of heavy…a heavy that signaled the start of a two day adventure that was a long time in waiting for renewal. It had been several years since my last backpacking trip, but today, I was on my own once again. The fall air wrapped itself around my lungs filling them with a recharged vigor and my steps soon found their rhythm. I began with a too fast pace that soon slowed to a more scenic tempo. Kentucky is not known for a lot of wind, but today a stiff breeze served as a cooling agent on a unseasonably warm November day, and cut across the tops of the trees shaking loose showers of falling leaves that floated like golden raindrops. A cobalt blue sky cheered me onward and the Mammoth Cave backcountry awaited my arrival.

Backpacking is one of those adventure activities that I’ve done enough of to consider myself experienced, but not nearly enough of to have satisfied that inner desire for adventure.  Over the years I’ve done countless more multi-day canoeing adventures than hiking adventures, but even those outings have slowed in recent years.  Call it age…call it complacency, call it whatever you may…this simple fact remains; I’ve just not taken the time to get out as much. There are times I have felt like I’ve lost my identity. It’s sad in a way as I’ve always craved adventure…that’s why I joined the U.S. Coast Guard back ’73…and man was that ever an adventure.  It was during that time I discovered the joys hiking along the ancient and rugged beaches of the Oregon coast and was first introduced to the concept of backpacking…although it took several years before I followed through with pursuing it.

1980's Edition
 In 1974 I purchased one of the first editions of ‘Backpacking – One Step at a Time’…although a bit dated now it is considered a classic on the sport…I still have that book…with its tattered, dog-eared pages…I’ve read it cover to cover several times.  Although the equipment has improved in quality and variety over the years, the basic concepts contained within that classic introduction still hold true nearly forty years later. Each time I remove it from the bookshelf and thumb through the pages, memories from past adventures come to life….

The mountain lakes of Rawah Wilderness in northern Colorado proved a difficult if not rewarding hike back in ‘95.  It took me three attempts to make it into the area having been stymied twice by snow pack. On one of those attempts I almost became a permanent part of the wilderness as I hiked off the trail a ways in the snow, then managed to clumsily  fall (slide) off a twenty foot drop to the bottom of a snow packed ravine…twisting my ankle in the process.  All attempts to climb out and retrace my steps back to the trail proved impossible.  My only recourse was to walk cross country downhill until I crossed the trail again…you probably guessed by now that I eventually did find the trail some distance later and managed to hobble back to the trial head…worn and tattered, but not deterred. A month later, on my third attempt, I finally made it all the way to the lakes and spent an afternoon, night, and morning at 10,000 feet. I can still feel the power of that mountain storm when it exploded across the peaks…

My destination on this day inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave backcountry was only a pedestrian somewhat less than a four mile hike to an area called ‘The Bluffs’. Those four miles seemed much longer… a softer than preferred mid-section along with not used often enough legs and calves bore the brunt of the up and down hiking that followed. Even so, using my terrain dictated unhurried walking pace it took maybe two hours or so to find my way to what turned out to be an excitingly nice destination. The side trail leading to the campsite dropped into a ravine with steeply sloping sides on opposite flanks.  Some distance into the drop, a series of bluffs began to line the walls of the north side flanks and near the base of those bluffs was the campsite. Two other hikers were there when I arrived…having hiked in the day before...they were starting to pack up and head out leaving me to myself and the backcountry.

Most of the afternoon, I simply explored around the area checking out the bluffs and looking for photo opportunities. I managed to capture about 200 photographs. With the approach of evening the fire pit was reignited and I spent the last hour or so at the end of the day until after sundown fixing supper and enjoying the alone time. It was a feeling I’ve not felt in a long time…a kind of warmth surrounded by the cold of night. A feeling of fullness and satisfaction embraced with a sense of well being. A chill set in as the temperature dropped when the light of the setting sun faded behind the western ridge.  A few more logs on the fire helped…but the day’s exertion began to catch up with my tired legs and mind.  I called it an early evening.

I awoke at first light the next morning after a somewhat restful sleep …peaked out the front of my packer tent and discovered a pink sky greeting the new backcountry dawn.  I knew moments of light such as this would not last long, so I reluctantly climbed out of the warm sleeping bag, grabbed my camera and tripod and captured the first light of the morning as it hovered over the ravine.  I threw a few logs on the still warm fire and with a few dried leaves for kindling it was soon ablaze and filled the camp area with a golden red light that combined with the light from the pink sky. I spent the first hour or so of the morning sitting on a nearby rock and watched the backcountry sky change colors.

By late mid-morning I was packed up and climbing out. My legs were still tired from the previous day so I took my time on the way up stopping several times to simply enjoy being there. It was during one of those stops I noticed that my old hiking boots were coming apart…the soles separating from the uppers…time for a retirement ceremony.

Sometimes adventures like this, as simple as they are, are most enjoyable after all is done and you take time to reflect on the moment. I rediscovered something about myself on this trip…a lost younger identity resurfaced and reacquainted its rusty memories with my older self. It was a most enjoyable experience…an experience where underused muscles were once again called into service, where old emotions were once again stirred, and where new emotions found an outlet. It was a time of reflection where that desire for adventure became important once again…it was a time well spent in the backcountry…sitting around the campfire…and just maybe…beyond the campfire as well.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The TGP - Part IV - Legendary Prairie Skies

I’ve heard it said about writing…when fact confronts legend…print the legend.  The history of the tallgrass prairie is filled with legendary stories...stories such as; Origin of the Prairie Rose - a Lakota legend, The White Buffalo, How the Buffalo Hunt Began…all of which are now simply long lost legends whose basis of reality disappeared with the loss of the the Native American culture and the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  But there is one legend that still remains as vibrant and real today as it has since men first set foot upon this landscape…The Legendary Prairie Sky. 

There are two things that are bigger than life on the prairie…the landscape and the big skies. One is not present without the other as they serve to complement each other.  Where the landscape provides that sense of place, the sky provides that sense bigness and where the two intersect there is a blending of ancient with the present. The skies are so varied here that each day becomes a new revelation and no two are ever exactly the same. Much of that uniqueness depends on your location whether watching the sun rise over a rocky arroyo or sitting on a grassy knoll watching the sun end the day behind a distant hill, a brand new encounter can be guaranteed each time.

I have tried to find the words to describe the legend of the prairie sky…for some reason I just cannot adequately do so. Sometimes it’s best to allow those moments to speak for themselves…so enjoy these few moments of legendary prairie skies and allow them to speak their own words to you…or even better…maybe they will inspire you to discover your own legendary prairie sky moments.