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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Look Back...The Class of 1970 - Okmulgee, Ok

With graduation ceremonies having ended around the country...I've included in this post something I wrote several years ago...with a few reflect back on my own graduating class and who we were.  Although the building has changed some since those days, it still stands today with future generations walking the halls hoping someday to find their place in this world...I wish all the graduates God Speed...and good luck.


I often reflect on those early days of 1965 when I first entered 8th grade in the Okmulgee, Oklahoma school system and climbed those wide steps, through the arched doors of that massive, red, brick building, a newcomer.  Life changed forever at that moment as the friends and experiences that were to follow still influence my today.  When I left those halls for the final time some five years later, I was no longer a newcomer, but someone with a history and a connection to a wonderful and sometimes tumultuous experience that was lived through a unique rendezvous of place and time.

I return to the yearbooks occasionally and thumb through the pages looking at all those youthful faces from 1965 through my senior year of 1970 and beyond, well, you can’t help but wonder where they are, the juniors, seniors, sophomores we came to know.  It never ceases to amaze me how people come into our lives for what at the time seemed like a long term event, but in reality touched us for only moments…then, the moment is gone.  Even so, who they were and how their lives connected with our own, remains with us for decades.  Thank goodness for Facebook as it has allowed for reconnections I thought long ago lost.

I wondered as this skinny, insecure 8th grader…oh so long ago…at how mature and grown up the juniors and seniors looked, and the young ladies in the high school section …I had almost forgotten…they all looked like...well…young ladies…beautiful, sophisticated, energetic.  They still do…those images…even today.  I’ll run across a name or a face and a flash of memory echoes across the decades-old forgotten valleys of hidden memories…the football hero…the big fight in the bleachers at the basketball game… a moment in the hallway or the teacher who spoke encouraging words toward greater things…the cute girl with the magnetic smile and intoxicating eyes I wanted desperately to ask out, but was too shy to do so…all the “What if or How come” regrets or the “Oh Yeah, that was fun” highs…things I haven’t thought about in years suddenly rise to the forefront.   It is the emotions of those days that stay with us…the emotions that created the memories, and those memories became, for better or…for better or worse they were the best times and the worst times…for all the same reasons.

That’s who we were…then, 1970.  We were the Bulldogs…state champions in football and basketball…and not too shabby in Baseball and Track either.  We were the generation of “One” the loneliest number, “Hey Jude” and “Temptation Eyes”, “Butch Cassidy and Sundance”.  We were the generation who in the course of our lives witnessed a President lose his life and a civil rights leader die for his cause.  We were the ones that bridged the gap of segregation, who blended cultures into common goals.  We saw men stand on the moon and heroes of another sort stand their ground in the ghettos of the south, and we watched brave young men go off to war…many to never return.  We saw a young politician refuse to ask “Why” and instead asked “Why not”…only to fall victim to fanatical ignorance.  We were a generation that questioned many things and sought solutions to that matter of ‘why not’.  We laughed…we cried…we cheered…we prayed.  We were all these things.  We nurtured friendships from once segregated classes...respect of ideas and cultures.  We were patriotic and defiant, reverent and vain, humble and arrogant, and liberal and conservative.  We were the sons of the fathers of the Second World War and the daughters of the loves they left behind.  

We were a unique generation defined by complex days with an ambiguous future, yet when our turn at bat came, we stepped up to the plate of life, and swung away to eventually take our place on the pedestal of America’s finest…to become the most productive and innovative generation in history. 

Sometimes we choose to forget about the trials and tribulations of our youth.  Even so, it’s good to ponder on such things, not to shrink into some distant past and ignore the future, but simply to remember those days and reflect on the events that helped to mold us into who we are today.

Having one amazing son now working through college and one exceptional son who is now facing consequences of ill-advised choices…I see many similarities of this current generation to the one from which we came.  They are energetic and searching, much like we were. They live in a world full of uncertainty clouded with conflicting ideals and world views, seeking difficult answers to difficult questions, yet…somehow I believe they will find their way…like we did.  They will step through their open Windows of Opportunity and take their place amongst America’s finest, because...well, they had a pretty good group of mentors to teach them about such things and when all is said and done, we have, so far, compiled a pretty good lifetime batting average.

We are the Class of 1970.

Keith R. Bridgman

1970 – Graduate of Okmulgee High

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day

Here's to all our veterans...fallen and living...for their valued service to our country...on this Memorial Day...

Thank You....

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Creating Images with Impact

It’s one of my favorite images…one that captures the essence of a Kentucky Morning.  It’s an image that projects boldness, story, drama, and power…yet its structure is subtle and possesses a simplicity about it that defines its true nature.  It was taken at an ordinary location during the early part of a transitional season, yet from this ordinary situation evolved an image that is unique with a flavor of Kentucky that permeates its composition.  It is an image with Impact.

The story of this image has roots going back over five years.  How I happened to capture this shot culminates from a series of events that ultimately lead to that moment.  What it is not is a random chance event, where I just happened to be there at the right time by accident.  It involved research, preparation, timing, and technical understanding.  It was in fact one of those events where circumstances blended perfectly with preparation.

That is the key to capturing images with impact.  I found this location one summer afternoon as I was driving around looking for potential locations to photograph.  I happened down a progressively narrowing back road that eventually came to a T.  Here is where random chance did play a part.  Do I turn left or right?  I turned right, and the road eventually wound its way into a valley, then, climbed to the top of a rise to end at a gate.  From that vantage point I could see across and into this river bottom farm country.  At that particular time of year and that time of day, the scene possessed a rather ordinary character about it…rather flat in light, with little or no drama.  But, as I stood there and surveyed the valley, I began to realize the photographic potential of what was there.

The Barren River cut along the ridge that curved around the backside of the valley.  This alone was a good indicator of the potential for fog on a cool morning.  Fall was still a few months away…by then the sunrise would migrate further south and after making some simple visual calculations, I realized that by late September, the sun would rise from behind the ridge to the east and would potentially fill this valley with early morning light.  Late September also would bring cooler morning air and light winds…the water in the river would still be warm…a perfect generator of fog.  I set my internal calendar to return late September and see what would happen.

A couple months later I found myself leaving early one Saturday anticipating what might present itself along that river valley.  As I stood outside in the cool air before leaving, there was a light fog that drifted across the pasture across the road…good omen I figured.  When I arrived at the top of that rise and looked across the valley below, just enough ambient light provided enough illumination that I could see a light fog drifting low across the corn stubble and pasture.  After a short time the sun began to glow on the horizon and eventually progressed to where it was just shy of breaking above the ridge.  The valley below was still mostly in dark, but when the sun broke above the ridge a single beam of morning sunlight caught the top of a spit of trees that extended into the pasture.  The early fall colors began to glow and the fog that hovered around the base of the trees softened in the light.  I waited…at just the right moment the trees exploded into color…and I fired off the shot.  It became one of the most iconic Kentucky Morning images I’ve ever taken.

The capture was a result of exploration, visualization, planning, and being prepared technically.  When I arrived that morning I did not have to waste time trying to figure out how to set the camera.  I did fire off a few test shots prior to the actual image photograph being taken to verify my settings.  The trick here was to not allow the relative darkness over influence the exposure and so the metering setup I used was Spot metering and I metered off the glow in the trees which at the time was a middle tone value…and allowed the rest of the image exposure fall where it may.  

Once I had the metering locked in, I repositioned the composition by placing the main subject slightly offset where it intersected a rule of thirds transition point.  This not only created a more pleasing composition, it also allowed a layer of banding near a fence row to angle across the lower part of the image helping to balance the image compositionally and across the color spectrum.  A tweak or two of post processing to bring out more of the contrast and the image reflected more of what I felt and experience.  This image is all about mood and contrasting energy.  There is the boldness in the sunlit trees contrasting with the subtle nature of the light layer of fog all set against the still dark background with just enough detail showing to give the image a sense of depth.

Creating an image with impact involves blending composition with light…and using light to generate mood…using mood to influence purpose…using purpose to dictate timing…using timing to generate drama…and using drama to tell the story.  Although I could not predict exactly what conditions were going to exist…by using a bit of intuition and common sense, I was able to place myself into a situation where if the conditions were right, I’d be there and ready to take advantage of it.  It’s less about technical skill, and more about knowing what to look for…applying visualization techniques to see beyond the ordinary and recognize the potential of a given location.  It’s understanding that photography is all about quality light and how light influences the photographic decisions you must make to take advantage of it. 

Capturing images with impact requires situations that generate an emotional response.  It's not always about sunsets or sunrises...more often than not its more about how the light from those two situations affects the surrounding landscape.  Although I do photograph sunsets and sunrises...more often than not during those times I'm looking over my shoulder away from the main source of light to see how it is affecting the things around me.  That soft subtle light can often be more powerful that the bold rich light of the setting or rising sun.

Images with impact...look for those bold yet subtle contrasts of light...warm vs cool...soft vs hard...bright vs dark...Look for transitions where the light is changing...and the soft after-light that drifts across a landscape and casts a glow that generates mood and energy where shape and form blends with drama and story.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Shoot the Stars...

Composite of three horizontal images
stacked vertically
A few months ago I ran across some amazing photographs of the Milky Way…For those of you who live in the city it is that hazy span of cloudy light that stretches across the center of the sky on a clear, moonless, dark night.  Technically it is the edge on view we see looking toward the center of the galaxy from our earthly vantage point located way out on the edge of this massive spiral of stars and interstellar gases known as our home...the Milky Way galaxy.

It is one aspect of photography until recently I had not tried so I read up as much as I could about how to do it and contrary to popular belief it’s not all that difficult to do.  Here’s what you need:

A clear moonless night as far away from the ambient city lights as possible.
A Digital SLR with a wide angle lens…18mm or wider.
A Tripod.
A cable release. 
A willingness to get up very early or stay up very late.  
A little practice.

Checking my calendar and the moon phases I discovered that two days leading up to the weekend following my discovery of this technique was going to be a moonless event and the best time to view the Milky Way was around 4:00 am in our time zone.  So, I scheduled a couple of vacation days and prepared for an early rise.  I’ve been on Shanty Hollow Lake before daylight a number of times and figured that would be as isolated of a location as I could find close by.  The hills surrounding the lake would block much of the ambient light from the city that might filter over that way and the sky above the lake would be quite dark.

Milky Way
The alarm was set for 2:15am…hard to get up, but the canoe was already loaded and all I had to do was head out.  I arrived around 3:15…off loaded and worked my way to the upper end of the lake.  By the time I had pulled out and was setup on top of the dam, it was nearing 4:00am…right on cue.  There was a faint glow from the east that barely outlined the ridge line and the sky was as dark as it could possibly be under the circumstances with thousands of stars spread across the sky. Right on cue…the Milky Way haze hovered almost directly overhead in the darkest part of the sky.

Constellation Scorpius...near the bottom, just above the tree line.
My first attempts were experiments.  Set the camera on the tripod, set the exposure to Manual / Bulb, ISO to 1600…opened the aperture to the maximum…f/3.5 in this case…and zoomed back to 18mm manually focusing on infinity.  I reached into the camera bag looking for my cable release and realized I had left it in the Jeep.  Rats! time to retrieve it so I had to carefully use the on camera shutter release and make sure the camera was locked down as tightly as it could be.

I tilted the camera toward the darkest part of the sky and opened the shutter release…and counted…28, 29…30.  First results were encouraging but not quite what I wanted.  Continued with more experiments…eventually settling in on a 50 second count that seemed to generate an acceptable image.  At that point it was a matter of pointing and shooting.

Constellation Ursa Major...(Big Dipper)

One image was the result of three separate images.  First shot was down low with the horizon near the top of the frame…second shot overlapped the first one vertically by about 20%...third overlapping shot included part of the Milky Way that was nearly overhead.  When the three shots were stitched together, they made one nice composite of the morning sky.

Problems I ran into included post processing issues with the ISO noise.  My camera is not as well suited for this kind of shooting as other higher end cameras are…even so, with a bit of cleaning up using some noise software the results were at least acceptable…better actually than I expected.

Another aspect of stellar photography involves photographing the moon.  Contrary to popular belief, the best time to photograph the moon is not during a full moon. A full moon simply washes all textures out of the craters and mountains.  The best time I believe is during one of the first quarter, half, or last quarter of the moon phases.  It’s during those times that shadows run deep across the moon’s surface and provides for great details.

To photograph the moon, you will need a Tripod, Digital SLR with a large lens…something in the 400 to 500 mm range, but in a pinch a 300mm lens will work…a cable release.  What I’ve done is zoom out a far as the lens will allow…500mm in this case…set the camera’s exposure metering to ISO 200 at f/8.0 and select “Spot Metering” as the metering method then meter off the brightest part of the moon…and lock in the exposure…reposition the moon in the frame to suit your desired composition and fire away.  The moon is quite bright and will generate a fast shutter speed…in this particular case it was 1/250 of second…but can vary depending on the ISO setting you use and aperture selected.  I used f/8.0 because that particular lens tends to be a bit sharper across those middle range aperture settings.  Desired results may require exposure tinkering to bring out the best of the given situation.

The image may also require a bit of cropping…about bring the image to a size where it looks a bit more impressive…great fun to do…and actually quite easy.

So there you have it…shooting the stars and moon is fascinating way to explore photography…much more so than I expected…and the results can be quite stunning…give it a try.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Three Legs are Better than Two

Not too long ago I found myself attempting to photograph an area in low light without a tripod…The results were predictable and indeed the shots turned out rather mediocre at best.  Most of them were blurred to a degree even with the anti shake turned on…it was a combination of too little light, too long of a focal length, too slow of a shutter speed, and too shaky of a hand hold…a lethal combination for clear pictures.
Most of my serious photography is always shot from a tripod using a cable shutter release even in good light.  There are times I shoot by hand, but usually only when using a tripod may not be practical and only when there is adequate light.  I’ve muffed a lot of great photo opportunities because of hand held shaking. 

Most lenses today come with anti shake stabilization technology and in the Sony Alpha series of cameras internal anti shake within the camera is used.  This technology does improve on the hand shake blurring problem.  Even so, that technology can only help so much and that is why investing in a solid tripod is so important.

Because we as photographers chase around searching for that quality light situation, we often find ourselves photographing in low light which offers the best mood generating opportunities.  The very nature of low light requires relatively slow shutter speeds and there in is the problem.  A tripod allows for solid placement of the camera and a steady platform. 

Although I’m not trying to promote any particular brand or style, the one thing to look for in a tripod is sturdiness.  Avoid those light weight point and shoot models.  Although they tend to work okay for light weight video equipment, they will not perform very well with a full size camera and lens combo and are just not strong enough or sturdy enough.  Ask yourself…Will it hold up well in wind and with a heavy lens attached?  A person can easily drop several hundred dollars on a tripod and even more with a high tech ballhead camera mount. Although carbon fiber may be the latest and greatest in strength and light weight functionality, my budget doesn’t allow for such high dollar luxuries.  Instead I’ve opted for something a bit more affordable and purchased a surprisingly sturdy tripod for around $90.00.  It does not have one of those fancy ball mounts on top.  Instead it has a simple tilt mount…a bit more cumbersome, but functional.  When I shoot with my 50 to 500 lens, the tilt mount doesn’t even come into play as the lens allows for rotation while locked down on the mount. 

With few exceptions this tripod has done everything I’ve asked of it.  It’s light enough so I can tote it with camera attached over my shoulder and indeed I have done so on hikes across the Prairie or over hill and dale on various other hikes and canoe trips.  It has quick release collapsible legs that allows for easy and quick setup on any level of terrain, and I can quickly and easily rotate or tilt the camera in any direction I need.  I’ve also used it as a third leg when crossing streams or slippery terrain.  It will extend out to over six feet in height or collapse down to about two feet.  I’d prefer it would collapse down lower, but I’ve been able to get most of the low angle shots I’ve needed with it.

I’d recommend using a cable shutter release or remote release if your camera allows for one.  Even sturdy tripods can be affected by the action of pressing the shutter release button.  In a pinch you can use the camera’s self timer…but this can be a bit slow and cumbersome to do all the time especially when timing is important.  Also, in most cases you will want to turn off the camera or lens stabilization mechanism when using a tripod as it can often become confused thinking that if it’s turned on, its suppose to actually do something and end up having the opposite effect.  Although I’ve shot with the stabilization in both the on and off mode when using a tripod, I’ve personally not seen much difference in the results.  The only time I will purposely turn it on when using a tripod is on windy day.  That long lens and sunshade tend to catch the wind and can produce wind generated vibrations…enough anyway to warrant using the stabilization function.

Over the years I’ve grown more accustomed to using a tripod and have experienced firsthand the positive benefits they provide.  It’s as much a part of my equipment list as the camera and lenses…and the third leg that it provides certainly makes for a steadier platform from which to shoot or to cross a stream.


Monday, May 7, 2012

The Making of: Shanty Hollow...Across Boundaries of Light

I arrived well before daylight and slowly paddled my canoe across the widest part of the lake in almost total darkness.  The air was warm...the sky clear.  The only light available was from the glow of stars spread across the ebony sky and from a faint glow that hovered over the crest of the hills that formed the eastern boundary of the lake.  One loses all sense of motion paddling in the dark and eventually I drifted to a stop near the upper end.  As I sat quietly on the perfectly calm lake, the glow from the sky began to resonate.

Light fog drifted on currents of air mixing with other pockets of mist...growing thicker at times...almost opaque in places...collecting into a pillow shaped cloud that lifted from the surface to hover a few yards above the water.  Over the next few minutes this cloud shifted in color from light gray to pale brown to golden red and orange...finally reaching a crescendo that lit up the surface with its glow.  For the first time I began to hear the silent melody that is Shanty Hollow Lake...for the first time I understood that this often forgotten southern Kentucky lake  has a story to tell.  I knew I wanted to capture it not just visually...but as a saga shared through images combined with a musical dialog.  It was then the theme of Across Boundaries of Light was born.

Over the next nine months or so, I paddled among the coves and hiked the rugged bluffs searching for those elusive images that defined the concept of Boundaries of Light that told the visual story of this remarkable landscape.  Hills and boulders, calm waters and reflections, waterfalls and flowing creeks...all became subjects of the camera and lens...yet only the best light would do...and there in was the to capture this unique landscape and stay within the Across Boundaries of Light theme.  Doing so challenged my senses, photographic eye, and patience.  Over time the collection of images grew, reaching and surpassing 1000...then 2000...and more.

As I began to build the video program one thing dictated the process...the music had to match the images.  Finding that music proved to an elusive endeavor.  It took three attempts sorting through three different soundtracks...countless hours of experimenting to find the right combination.  Putting it all together took more time than the field work.  What I did not want to do was to build what I call a simple elevator music slideshow.  This story deserved more...I wanted it to stand apart as a program that not only captured the visual beauty of this location, but one that told its story in such a way as to inspire those who see it to pursue nature photography with a passion of their own.

It was necessary to develop visual presentation techniques that took advantage of the photographic qualities.  Movement...panning left or right...zooming in or out...slowing it down when appropriate...speeding up when required...using the right blend of transitions timed with the music.  No convention was overlooked...many common rules of presentations were ignored to fit the story with the dialog of music.

Also embedded were 7 video clips to give the presentation a realistic sense of time and place.  Capturing those video clips proved a challenge in their own right.  Dozens of 30, 45, 60+ second clips were filmed...of the 7 used, all were clipped to fit the program accordingly.  The overall goal was to create a visual / musical story that defined the essence of Shanty Hollow Lake as defined by light.

It became one of the most challenging projects I've ever attempted.  It evolved into one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.  In the end I realized that this project will never really have an end.  It will be on going for many years...and I will eventually improve on and add to this program as it continues to evolve.  As I prepare to show this program for the first time, I can only realize one thing...I learned a great deal by doing this...most importantly, I learned once again, just how much work...and just how much fun photography can be.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Return to the Prairie

It stormed most of the night...typical Oklahoma storm in late April with boomers and rain...then more rain and more boomers.  By the time I arrived at the Tallgrass Prairie the next morning most of the stormy weather had moved on, but enough of it lingered in the area to provide an occasional flash of lightning and some light rain.  The overcast skies hung low and I knew the sunrise was going to be a non-event this of those that just slowly transitioned from very dark to dark gray without any real noticeable event indicating when the sun actually rose above the horizon.

I stopped at the wide spot where I on previous trips I had hiked a ways into the prairie...debated for a while whether to risk it.  To the north the storm clouds were still quite dark and the occasional bolt of lightning still ripped the air...seemed to take a full minutes for the rumble of thunder to reach where I was.  The rain was sporadic by this I grabbed my gear and made the short hike to the rocky outcropping that overlooked the shallow canyon that cut into a deeper part of the landscape.  Not much drama in the sky nor across the land because of the nature of the light...but I set up camera and tripod and made at least a token attempt to capture the moment.

As I rushed around lining up one shot after dawned on me that I was doing exactly the opposite of what I really wanted to do...just sit for while and enjoy the prairie morning.  So I turned off the camera and found a soft rock to sit on and did just that.  For the next few minutes I let the sounds of the prairie come to me...the fresh rain flavored breeze rushed across the terrain and swirled around me...the morning air was filled with the songs of prairie birds...and a light mist fell from the sky.  The storm clouds that swept across this landscape through the night were by now beginning to soften and smooth and the morning became a little brighter.  Even so, the calmness of that moment lasted but a short time as another flash of lightning cut the air and the corresponding boom it generated rumbled and reverberated across the rolling sea of grass signalling that it was time for a hasty retreat back to the Jeep.

My return to the prairie after two years was short lived.  That last bolt of lightning ushered in another round of rain and even darker clouds making photography difficult at best.  By mid-morning I found myself heading back knowing that more than likely, it would be another two maybe three years before I would be able to once again sit on that rocky outcropping and watch for another prairie morning come to life.  Even so, those few moments of once again feeling the life of the prairie greet a new morning seemed to lift my spirits as I was feeling rather low having experienced the loss of loved one earlier that week.

Even the darkness of an Oklahoma storm cannot dampen the refreshing nature of experiencing first light on the many ways, it actually adds to the unique flavor of the experience.  As many times as I have sat on that rocky point and watched the prairie come to life...all of them have been unique and I remember each of them as separate moments of discovery on this amazing landscape.