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, July 30, 2012

Use the Vertical to Accent the Horizontal...

The ever constant Oklahoma wind flowed across the prairie like invisible waves...waves made apparent by the undulations of the tall grasses as they rolled in time with the tune of the wind.  I love first light on the's a magical time that takes much longer than it might seem to materialize...and at the same time lasts but a fleeting moment and is gone before you realize its gone.  Photographing the prairie I've discovered, is far more difficult to accomplish than one might think.  How do you capture it's grandeur...the big sky and openness in a single shot?

The prairie by its nature is relatively flat and rolls across the landscape in undulating patterns that create, under the right conditions, shadows and textures...but those shadows and textures are for the most part isolated low to the ground and tend to blend with each other.  What one experiences visually while standing on a high knoll during first light is far from what is easily captured in a photograph.  Visually we can detect the subtle variations in the landscape and can feel the bigness of the sky as it arches above us.  A photograph can only capture a pseudo likeness of what is there.

One technique that I use to capture the essence of the prairie is to use the vertical to accent the horizontal.  What I mean by this is that by isolating something against the sky vertically, you enhance what is trapped below the horizontal line.  There are numerous ways to do of the most common is to use clouds...especially those white fluffy summer clouds.

Clouds add depth to a flat sky...they also cast shadows across the landscape and add interest to what might otherwise be a bland composition.  Combine this with breaking the horizontal line with something vertical in the foreground composition and not only do you bring depth, but you bring life to the image.

The idea of using the vertical to accent the horizontal works in all kinds of situations...not just big sky open prairies.  Whenever you have a wide field of view by adding something on the horizon to break it up, you are taking advantage of the accent flavor.  

Turning you camera to a vertical orientation is another way to use this technique.  Knowing when to use a vertical orientation vs horizontal is a matter of personal taste really, but some subjects tend to work more effectively as a photograph in the vertical.  The idea in most cases is to isolate the subject against the sky or some other background.

One note...the horizon doesn't always have to be...the horizon.  Take the prairie for instance...being characterized by a rolling landscape you can use those rolls to you advantage by isolating your subject against a background with careful selection of angle and composition...much like the image at the top of the page.  Your horizon in essence becomes one of the rolls.

Using the vertical to accent the horizontal may seem like an ordinary approach to photography...even so, by making a conscious effort to visualize how the vertical can enhance a horizontal will add another level of learning to your ability to see photographically.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Isolate What is Important

Several years ago as my youngest son was playing little league baseball, I watched him struggle game after game to hit the ball.  I could take him to batting cages and he would knock the cover off the ball...but in a game, he'd strike out time after time or he would barely make contact with the ball and get thrown out at first.  I just couldn't quite figure out why he had the ability to hit in the batting cages...even when the balls were being thrown all over the strike zone...but he could not seem to do so in a game.  It wasn't until sometime later that I began to realize what he was doing.  When he was in the batting cage, he would focus in on what was important...the ball...but in a game, he had a tendency to focus in on the field and not the ball...and so he would never watch the ball into the bat and swing wildly hoping to make contact.

Oddly enough, I see beginning photographers do the same kind of thing...they tend to see the field, but fail to focus on what is truly important...consequently, way to often they strike out in their photographs.  Successful photography includes many aspects, finding what is important and concentrating on it is one of the most important.  I've said it, and heard it said by others many times...your job as a photographer is to find order in the midst of the other words...isolate what is important and simplify your composition.

Occasionally I'll run across a photograph that really catches my attention.  What usually does the trick is how the photographer was able to do just that, focus in the most important part of the composition.  Often, I'll find myself looking at the wrong part of the scene and attempting to capture something that just isn't there...just isn't working for some reason.  When that happens, if I change my focus...look more tightly at my surroundings, I will just as often discover the elements that were catching my attention to begin with, and an entirely new composition materializes.

So don't be afraid to tighten your focus...narrow the field of view and see the individual elements that make up the composition...concentrate on those and you just might begin to see the world from entirely new perspective...and when that happens, your photography will grow another step in the right direction.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Photographing what I see vs Creating what I visualize

One of the most challenging things that beginning photographers must overcome is to understand the camera’s reaction to light...Too often they see something they want to photograph…point their camera at the scene and fire away letting the camera make all the decisions…as a result, the results don’t always match what they experienced emotionally.  The impact of the moment just isn’t there in their images.  It becomes one of those…’Well, you had to be there..’ moments.

There are a number of reasons this happens, the most important one being that most average photographers believe the camera simply captures what they see the way they see it.  In reality, the camera doesn’t do that.  What they don’t understand is that the exposure controls built into the camera can’t distinguish between a blank white sheet and a blazing sunset.  It doesn’t’ know what it is looking at…it simply reads the intensity of the light that is filtering into its exposure sensors.

What the camera does is this:  Based on the light values it reads, it wants to take an average of those values and set an exposure that falls in the middle between the upper and lower end of the exposure values that would work for a given lighting situation.

So how does knowing this help me as a photographer?  This is where the visualization part comes into play.  I want to avoid getting too technical here for fear of frustrating and confusing those who may not grasp all the photographic nomenclature…so, let me describe a circumstance to illustrate what I am talking about.

Take for instance a beautiful Kentucky morning with pastel colors arching across the horizon and layers of fog hovering down in the valley…something like this shot.

 What you have here is a situation where the sky is very bright, yet the landscape and fog tends to remain somewhat dark.  Understanding how the camera will react to this kind of lighting situation is important to understanding how to capture it.  The idea here is not so much to capture what you see visually, but to capture what you are experiencing emotionally.    Most DSLR digital cameras can utilize at least three types of exposure metering:  Wide-Area Evaluative, Center Weighted, and Spot metering.  Let me briefly explain each of these.

Wide-Area Evaluative is designed to evaluate the lighting situation across the whole spectrum of available light in the scene…in other words it looks at pretty much the entire scene to evaluate the light intensity.  It is very effective in most situations.

Center Weighted does almost the same thing as WA Evaluative, except it places a higher value to the light it registers in the center area of the scene.

Spot Metering looks specifically at the light it registers in that center circle or square in the middle of your view finder…and ignores the rest of the scene. 

Remembering that the camera wants to move the exposure value to the center of the scale…what happens when you use Spot Metering and meter off the lower part of the sky?  Think about this for a moment.  If what you are seeing visually is lighter than a middle tone value, then the cameras metering will cause the exposure to slightly darken the image…in essence bringing that portion of the scene it is metering toward the middle of the scale…something like this:…  

Notice that the sky is a shade darker than the previous image because the previous image more closely resembles the actual visual brightness in the sky which was shifted toward the lighter end of the scale. 

If the sky at that point is darker than a middle tone value…then the camera brings the exposure value toward the middle…lightening the sky.  Something like this where the first image shows a dark sky and the second image shows the sky more toward the middle value.

If it was already near the middle value it would remain at the same value.

Put another way, if the sky is light…the camera wants to darken it…if the sky is dark…it will want to lighten it.  Both visual values are pushed toward the middle. Same thing applies to Center Weighted…the only difference is that the camera is looking at a wider spectrum of the scene to gather its light values.

When using Wide-Area Evaluative…any large dark area or light area will often skew the exposure setting and you might end up with skewed results.

This example is a simplified illustration of how the camera sees light.  So, how can you use this to your advantage?  It requires the ability to visualize the scene from the camera’s perspective…not so much what you are seeing visually.  Understanding how the camera will react to the light, you can then begin to think about how you want the image to look, and use the natural inclination of the camera to capture the light in a more moody and emotional way.

Let’s expand on this just a bit.  All DSLR digital cameras will have a function called Exposure Compensation…usually designated with EV or AV initials next to a button with a +/- inscribed on it…like the one you see below on the upper right toward the middle. 

If you look at the viewer on the back you will also see a scale on it with a 0 in the middle and expanding out with …+1…+2 to the right and -2…-1… on the left…like this;


When you press the +/- AV button, this scale is highlighted and using the finger wheel or control wheel on the back you move the cursor left or right to line up with the corresponding values on the scale.

This is one of the most useful and important functions on the camera.  The only button I use more often than this one is the shutter release button.  What it does is allows you to tell the camera to compensate up or down the exposure scale a certain amount above or below what it wants to automatically do.

Let’s take the same illustration we used previously.  Pretend the sky was a rather dark and moody reddish orange color and really captured your imagination.  Just looking at the sky, you realize that its color value on the scale falls below the neutral middle value.  If you allow the camera to do what it wants to do…what will happen?

Remember…it wants to move the exposure toward the middle…so that dark and moody sky will more than likely become a lighter shade than what you want it to be…often effectively changing the dynamics of the visual impression.  To get around that, you can tell the camera via the +/- compensation to keep the sky darker by dialing in a minus value…how much depends on just how far you want it to go…something between a -1/3 of a stop to a full -1 stop…by shooting a series of shots using different values you can bracket the images and then chose the best one later.

This is a very powerful function…and can be used to assign a color value to a particular portion of a scene by creatively using the various metering methods and experimenting.  After a while, it will become second nature to you and you will find yourself compensating before you fire the first shot…because now, you are beginning to visualize how the camera sees light…and using its capabilities to capture the scene, the way you want it to appear…not what the camera gives you…nor necessarily how it appears visually.

Okay...the point is to get you to thinking in terms of visualizing your image before you take it by understanding how the camera is going to react to the light and using that reaction to your advantage.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is Your Photographic Attitude?

I went out one day recently to photograph whatever I could find…my heart just was not in it…as a result my images reflected that attitude…they had no purpose…no energy…no life.  Over the last few years, as I write about photography in whatever form it takes as a storyline, one thing I’ve come to realize is that photography…inspired photography…relies as much on attitude as it does all the other aspects of the art form.

That opens up a thought…do great photographic moments generate a great photographic attitude…or does a great photographic attitude allow you find those great photographic moments?  When I reflect back on those times when it just wasn’t working for me and evaluate the situation…well, most of those times were generated because my heart just wasn’t in the moment…for whatever reason.

Dewitt Jones, a National Geographic photographer and motivational speaker, once said something to this effect:  Too often we take the wrong approach to finding great moments…we tend to take the ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ approach…when in reality we should be taking the ‘I see it, because I already believe it’, approach to photography.

What he meant by this is that when we believe that great things will greet us on any given photographic journey, then we will begin to see them…we will find those moments that nature offers up to us no matter how subtle…we can look beyond the obvious and find inspiring beauty in all things.  We simply must believe that they will be there…then...we will find them.  If we approach the art form from a hopeful attitude that something might be worth photographing...we prevent ourselves from opening our minds and our eyes to the subtle things that nature presents to us.

That concept is as important as understanding all the technical and compositional elements of photography.  If we are unable to see, or more importantly fail to look for, the opportunities that are there…then it really doesn’t matter how well versed we are in our technical prowess…we’ll never capture those moments because we are blind to them…our attitudes effectively place shutters over our creative vision and we simply overlook what is there.

So…what is your photographic attitude?  Think about it…believe amazing moments will be there…you’ll be surprised by what you might discover.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Visual Sounds of Summer

There are country sounds, feelings, and aromas that only summer can generate…farmers working their fields, hay being cut, and that warm breeze that makes the trees shake with life...and experiencing its warm embrace while sitting under a shade…I love sitting on the front porch listening to and feeling the spray from a summer rain shower…oh those summer rain showers that fill the air with their moisture laden aroma.  It’s a great time of year for photographers as well.

In Kentucky, the evening sky can be amazingly bold with subtle differentiations between layers where the lowering sun slowly filters through each and redefines their structure with pastel lights.  Mornings carry their unique flavor as well…often clear and fresh, yet with enough character to fill the landscape with golden light…throw in some fog and you have a great mix of mood and drama.

Capturing these images is as much a process of capturing what you feel as it is a technical application.  Understanding how the camera sees light…how it reacts to light…is key to generating those technically great character and mood images, but expressing the mood of the moment involves understanding yourself and how you react to light as well as understanding what generates an emotional response in someone else.  It’s more than pointing the camera at a scene and letting it make all the’s understanding why the camera made the exposure decision it wanted to make, and visualizing how you actually want the image to look…then compensating to achieve that goal.

A mistake many beginning photographers make is, believing they have to capture a scene exactly the way it appears to them visually.  Sometimes that may be exactly what you need or want to do…but, the trick is understanding that you do not have to accept what the camera automatically gives you…which in many cases is not the way we saw the scene visually.  The camera, properly used, is capable of imparting drama and emotion even when photographing an area with subpar light…it is capable of making subtle-light bold…bold-light subtle…and great light amazing.

The visual scene is only part of the image generation process…what separates those great emotionally responsive images from ordinary snap shots is having the ability to look beyond the obvious and photograph from the heart…not the eye.

Summer can be a wonderful time to practice this as the light variations are so wide during the day that opportunities abound for those willing to get up early enough to capture them and willing enough to find those potential locations where the light will flood the senses with its magic….then looking beyond that…not simply accepting the average exposure values the camera gives you…but branching out and seeing the scene not from the eye, but from an emotional point of view…then ask yourself one varied but important question; why do I want to capture this scene…what is here that captures my imagination and why is it important to me at this moment…then photograph the elements that play on those emotions.  How to accomplish the technical aspects of it comes with practice…shooting the visual sounds of summer, or any season, with emotion...comes from the heart.