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, August 23, 2012

" know what i'm say'n"

There are times when people cross our paths and affect us way more than a simple chance meeting would otherwise dictate.  Oddly enough, some of the most profound impacts are caused by the least likely of individuals. A little over a year ago one such person came into our lives that dramatically changed our perspective on homelessness and addiction. His story evolved through a special friendship that warmed our hearts and challenged our emotions far greater than what either I or my wife Kris fully understood at the beginning.  His was a life of hardship that found hope yet a life that was tormented by the demons of addiction.

One Saturday morning on the downtown square in Bowling Green, KY, I met Greg, a large middle aged African American man about 6’4” and pushing 250+ lbs with massive hands and rough exterior to match his rough demeanor.  I was there to monitor a photography class field trip.  Having arrived early, few people were there except for a couple of individuals sitting on the park benches.

While I waited for the student photographers to arrive I spent some time taking some test photo’s of the park area when after a few minutes I heard someone yell…”hey you…you with the camera…come here!”

I looked up and saw that Greg, who I had never met until that moment, was calling to me…”come here…I need to talk to you…”
Greg was a large intimidating man, and I was a bit uncertain about approaching him, but something inside of me said…” it’s okay…go talk to him”.

As uncertain as I was, I approached Greg with a smile and a handshake, his massive hands all but crushing my office softened hands, asking him how I could help him.  His first question was very direct and caught me off guard, “You ever take pictures of homeless people?”

“Well…as a matter of fact I have,” I responded with a rather uncertain flavor as to why he would ask such a thing.

“You ought to take my picture…I’m homeless…you know what I’m say’n…there’s a lot of us homeless folks down here and nobody even pays us no mind…you know what I’m say’n…somebody ought to tell our story…we need some help…you know what I’m say’n.”

 That was the beginning of our friendship that developed over the next several months.  My wife oddly enough was searching for just such an opportunity, but did not want to do it for the wrong reasons.  She spent months praying about it asking God for guidance in her desire to interact with the homeless population in our community.  Unknown by me, she had asked God for a sign…something definite…something concrete that affirmed not only her desire, but her obedience to do what she felt she was being called to do.  When I told her about meeting Greg, it was like one of those God moments where all the uncertainty vanished, and her calling was affirmed with power and strength.  When she told me about her prayer…wow…what can I say, it was truly an amazing revelation.

Over the next few weeks she and Greg, who was sleeping in a storage shed at the time, sat on the park bench downtown while I or another person watched from afar,  and talked about his life…he even brought other homeless people to the park so she could speak to them. Occasionally I’d run into Greg myself and have a talk with him.  Through each interview a picture began to develop…a pattern of abuse, addiction, abandonment, and bad choices, all leading to the plight they were in.  Each story was different but followed a similar pattern…Greg described it best…”Chaos…utter chaos”.

Greg spoke of all the hurt in his life…about losing his daughter to drugs a few years previous, about his addictions and the consequences it produced.  Most of all he wanted to help others by telling his story.  You could see the searching in his eyes, the pain, the sense of despair and longing to reconnect with the world.  His past held him down, yet he wanted to use those experiences not only so others might benefit, but that others, like ourselves, would understand the other side of life we so often neglect and shy away from.  Our preconceived ideas about homelessness were shattered by his story.  Our hearts broke when he spoke about his own brokenness.

After a number of interviews with him, Kris began to share with Greg about the love of Christ, about a love that transcends any that we as mere men can comprehend.  She spoke about forgiveness and told Greg that none of us are worthy of such love, yet in God’s eyes, it matters not about our past, only our understanding of what our future can be when he enters into our lives.  She spoke of how Christ, came into this world to accept our penalty…to die for us so that we could live, and how he defeated Satan’s desires by doing so and rising again.  She spoke of letting go of the old life, and asking Christ to enter into our hearts to transform who we are…it’s a matter of faith…and that it is a free gift offered to all people.

On that day, Greg sat silent for a long time on that park bench, head bowed.  Kris said nothing and allowed the Holy Spirit to work on his heart. After several minutes, he raised his head, tears streaming down his broad face and said he wanted that…he wanted to know that it was real. He wanted that peace but didn’t know how.  Kris said, “I know how…” and prayed with him the sinner’s prayer that he repeated in his deep staccato voice.

A peace fell over this rough man’s face…this man who had lived in chaos all of his life, who had fought cancer and addictions, and who had suffered tragedy and pain countless times. Giant tears streamed down his face, a strong giant of a man who in the presence of my meek and tender wife, broke down all conventions and let his life change.  The Holy Spirit worked a miracle that day…there are still amazing miracles in this world. 

A few days later he asked us about getting baptized, and so Kris spoke with our pastor about doing so and he was delighted.  August 28, 2011 was the day and he was as nervous as a mouse…he said, “whatever possessed you two to think I’d want to stand up front of 600 or 700 people and do this…” We laughed and reassured him it would be fine.

When he stepped into the baptismal he towered over our pastor, who is no small person himself standing over six feet tall and played college level football.  You could see the power in Greg’s face as he began to comprehend what was about to happen.  After a brief few words from Pastor Jason, Greg knelt and was placed under the water…then his feet came up and he lost his balance almost pulling Pastor Jason in with him…but, he managed to right himself with Jason’s help…and when he stood up, something happened that I’ve never seen happen before.  Almost the entire congregation stood and cheered.  The noise was the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in a church building much less during a baptism.  It was truly an amazing moment and Greg seemed all but overwhelmed by the power of that moment.

In time with the help of others, we were able to get him out of that storage building and into a small apartment.  For several months he continued to go to church, began volunteering at Hope House, a job he loved, and spent time at the park where we’d run into him and have some great visits. And…in time…Satan began his attacks. 

Forty something years of abuse still held deep in his life, and he struggled with the addictions that held him captive. These were struggles that most of us simply cannot comprehend for he was pierced deeply with their sharp hooks and the effort required to remove them often proved more painful than the affects of the addiction itself.  Several times he lamented about how he hated what he had become, that we didn’t understand the grip that it had.  He was right…we didn't understand...even though we intellectually understood what he was talking about we had no idea the power of those addictions and the pull it had on his life.  In spite of his conversion, in spite of his changed life, slowly, those things that had held him captive for so long began to reattach their sharp hooks to his life.

Several times he begged us to help him…we tried, but society simply has little tolerance for someone with Greg’s background, and opportunities that should have existed for him to receive the counseling that he needed simply did not materialize.  Kris and I are not trained to deal with those things, but we tried to help him…we tried…but just didn’t know enough about how to get him that help.  Over the next several months his life began to spiral downward again, and there were times he would call us in tears because of what was happening.  He stopped going to church…stopped volunteering at Hope House.  We tried to maintain contact with him, tried to encourage him...but he cut us off from his life and we were forced to back away.  Several times we tried to reconnect, I spent one evening watching an NBA playoff game with him…others tried to help too…but he remained distant.

Most of the summer passed without much of a word from Greg, then he made contact again...that lead to us inviting him back to church and he accepted...he seemed genuinely relieved at having done so.  That Sunday morning we called to re-affirm our pickup answer.  We drove over there anyway and found Greg recovering from a multi-day binge.  He was in no shape to walk down the stairs much less go anywhere.  We were disappointed...he seemed ashamed...asked us to pray for him again...and we did, then left him.

That afternoon, Kris received a call from Greg…he was sounding different…not at all like the Greg we had come to know. He made no sense in his ramblings…he asked us to pray for him again…we did…he called several times…and seemed disconnected with reality.  We decided to give him some space realizing that his old demon alcohol was again attacking him and in that state of mind most anything we would do or say would fall on deaf ears and even worse, a broken heart.

Two days passed when Kris received a troubling phone call from one of our other homeless friends…she said Greg had died.  We scrambled to confirm what we had heard and after contacting a friend of mine who had connections with the local hospital…we discovered the rumors were true.

I can’t tell you just how we both felt…maybe you can imagine, maybe not, but our insides wrenched with every kind of emotion…It seemed all too unreal, it couldn't possibly be true...yet it was very real.  Our friend, our special friend was gone...August 20, 2012...three days before his first spiritual birthday, God called him home.  

Kris felt drawn to return to his apartment…she discovered the door was open and she stepped in.  On his small lamp table was our picture, several devotional books we and others had given to him, the picture of his daughter, and his first communion cup.  On the floor was a binder with an Alcoholics Anonymous label across the front.  She opened it and read through some of the pages.  Inside page after page of testaments, from others who he had encountered along his struggles, that carried voices from the past.  They had come to know Greg the way we had.  They saw in him the same goodness we knew was there…a goodness that had been straggled because of addiction.  Kris left everything where it was and returned home.  Both of us seemed to stare into the void not wanting to believe what had happened...questioning what we did or could have done to have prevented this.

Greg had received medical help as EMT's administered to him early on that Monday morning...he was taken to the ER...then sent to a local addiction help service...who from the best I can gather basically sent him home later that morning...I don't know all the facts...where he died...alone.

…..I tell this story only because I can see more clearly now how God brought Greg into our lives.  In spite of his condition, we saw a change in him…we experienced the joy in his heart when he first turned his life over to Christ.  We saw him struggle, bounce back…struggle again.  He opened our eyes to another world that we only knew superficially…a world that is ugly, a world that traps people in a bondage that most of us can never really comprehend.  Through him we saw how life choices can have far reaching affects on others…how the absence of a strong father figure in someone’s life can lead to confusion of what it means to be a man of honor and courage…how abuse from an early age can alter a child’s vision of who they are…what their vision of truth is…a truth that is too often distorted and drowned in a bottle or fogged over by drugs.

Even though Greg found hope in Christ and that hope can conquer all things...the addiction he had was so strong, that without help he struggled to turn away from the things that ultimately destroyed his life.  Kris and I have great confidence that Greg's conversion was genuine...we saw the tears flowing down his face...experienced the joy in his eyes...that sense of peace that he showed even for those few short months...we cling to the understanding that God's timing is perfect and in spite of Greg's troubled past, God saw something in him that he knew would benefit others.  We feel honored to have been a part of that plan and know that he no longer is tormented by that addiction...that only peace and unrelenting joy is his where he resides now.

Homelessness is not pretty…simply handing out a meal or two once or twice a year, although a nice and warm gesture, often serves more to make the person doing it feel good than it actually helps those in need.  Getting involved in this kind of ministry is not about feeling good…Stepping in to help requires a commitment that often leads to pain and sorrow…sorrow that can stab straight to your core. 

I could care less about politics and even less about politicians whose praise of such things are used to buy votes or gain an artificial advantage in the polls.  If our politicians really cared, they would walk a mile or two or ten in the worn out shoes of a homeless person, feel the cold of a biting winter night…or feel the fear and anguish of someone addicted to alcohol and no where to turn…to give their hearts to a cause where the return is no real reward at all. To follow this kind of call is to follow what Christ spoke of….a life unfettered by personal gain or economics or any of the valueless things we are bombarded with daily from our society.  Most of all, it means to give of yourself from your heart at the risk of having that heart broken.

Homeless people are real people with lives of feeling...with histories of value...with fears and pain and trials that most of us cannot comprehend.  They often give up on themselves because society gives up on them.

Greg was my friend who died largely because our society shunned such people as himself. I’m not ashamed to say so…
” you know what I’m say’n?


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Strategic vs Tactical - A Photographic Process

The lack of a strategic and/or tactical plan in your photography can often lead to disappointing results.  Some years ago I made my first serious attempt at photographing Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie.  How difficult could that be…it’s a beautiful location…lot’s of photo ops…great place to spend a day.  Thusly equipped, I arrived an hour or so after sunup and began photographing this wonderful landscape.  That evening after I downloaded all the day’s images I began to realize that I had made a serious mistake…all of my images basically looked the same…few of them actually captured the essence of this amazing location…they were…well, snapshots, and not very good ones at that.

As I pondered on what happened I began to realize my mistake.  My strategic approach to photographing this location was flawed…I had no strategy…and my tactical battle plan, or lack thereof, failed as a result.  What I failed to do was to understand what my opponent was in this adventure.  My lack of planning all but wasted a great opportunity.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I have learned over the years that great photographs don’t always just happen regardless of the location.  It takes planning and preparation.  When I made that adventure on the prairie, I just assumed the location by itself would provide those great photographic moments.  Granted, indeed there were some spectacular opportunities…it’s just that my timing was wrong…the light was wrong…I didn’t think thru the photographic process…and I didn’t visualize what I wanted to accomplish. I simply had relied too much on random chance and that randomness just did not work on that day.

Consistently great scenic or nature photography does require an element of strategy and effective tactical application.  On subsequent attempts to photograph Oklahoma’s prairie, I used this approach and the results improved significantly.  I studied the life history of the prairie…when do the spring flowers bloom, where do the buffalo herds spend most of their time, where are the best vantage points…some of the answers required spending time in the field…hiking across the rolling landscape…arriving way early and staying way late.

Before long, I was able to develop a more effective strategic approach to photographing this amazing landscape.  But, it required more than that…it required being able to identify specific photographic techniques to capture the essence of what is there.  Simply standing on the side of the gravel road and firing off a few snapshots won’t work.  I would use binoculars or even my large telephoto lens to locate specific locations at a distance, then hike over to them and physically check them out.  That’s how I found ‘Coneflower Hill’…a wonderfull knoll with a rocky outcropping on top whose western flanks were covered in acres of coneflowers and various other prairie blooms.

I found a location deep inside the preserve that few if any people ever visit that is characterized by a rocky canyon arroyo covered in spring blooms.  I’ve spent an entire afternoon in that arroyo on several trips.  It’s also a great location to greet the first light of day.  The idea here is to find locations that have a measured potential, then plan your approach to take advantage of that potential.  It may require getting up at 4:00am to be on location an hour or so before daylight to capture the subtle nature of the predawn light.  It may require waiting for a stormy day to take advantage of cloud formations and dramatic lighting.  As always, great scenic photographs depend on great dramatic light…what’s hard is timing your arrival to correspond with that great light.  On a place like the Tallgrass Prairie, it’s important to have specific locations identified to take advantage of those great moments of light.  That’s where the strategic application of tactical photographic skills comes into play.

Strategic vs Tactical…both are critical to successfully photographing great scenic locations.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Solving Visual Problems - Don't be Afraid to Let Go...

I learned some years ago, that one of the most important concepts about what makes a great a photograph is applying the idea of simplicity to your compositions.  Simplicity simply means that all the structural elements in the photograph are there for a reason, and there is nothing there that distracts from your story.  It does not necessarily mean that the image lacks for complex just means that when someone looks at the image, they know exactly what the photographer was trying to do.

One of the hardest things a photographer has to learn when refining their craft is to not be afraid to let go. What I mean by this is that often we find ourselves so captivated by the whole of a particular scene or object, that we fail to recognize its most important elements.  When that happens, we also can fail to capture the essence of the moment.  Letting go means to look at your composition with a critical eye and to visually render the scene down to its most important elements...then concentrate on those.

Letting go in photography sometimes means we must toss aside preconceived notions, and look at the problem from a fresh perspective...after all...that is what we as photographers do...we solve visual problems.  This applies to every kind of photography whether it be nature and landscape, to architecture and portrait photography.  The problem we face is how do we capture what is really important.  Solving that problem often becomes a challenge because we tend to handicap ourselves by wanting to hold on to the parts of the moment that really don't add anything to the effectiveness of the photograph.

If we begin to look at the problem creatively, we will begin to recognize that something entirely different is what caught our attention...focusing on those defining elements is what helps us solve the problem of capturing the moments identity.

So don't be afraid to let go of part of the visual elements in your photographic attempts...most of the time those simplified compositions are the most effective and eye catching.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hitting the Wall…A Thru the Lens look at Life

Homeless woman's hands

Back in the early 1990’s, while still in my relatively young 40’s, for some crazy reason I thought I needed to get involved in competing in Triathlons.  Seemed like a good idea at the time and indeed there was a measure of fun and accomplishment associated with it…it was also a lot of hard work.  Compete is hardly the correct word to use in my case…simply to finish was accomplishment enough for me and to do that required a lot of training in three athletic disciplines…swimming, bicycling, and running.  The running part I knew better than the other two as up until then, I had been involved in running activities off and on since junior high school …bicycling I took up somewhat later in life…well after college and well into my 30’s, mostly for recreation, but found it enjoyable and valuable as a fitness tool.  Swimming on the other hand I knew would be the most difficult activity to deal with.  Oh…I could swim pretty well having been a lifeguard back in my college days, but I was never a competitive swimmer and had to learn how to train for that event the hard way through trial and error…plus…half way into an open water one kilometer swim you can’t simply stop and pull off the road…so I had to place a major emphasis on that training aspect to avoid voiding my warranty by drowning.  Turns out, I really enjoyed swimming as a fitness sport more than the other two and continue doing so even today.

There was one particular race…actually it was a team event, where we had a swimmer, biker, and runner…I did the bike…where I learned what it meant to ‘hit the wall’.  The bike portion of the race was 60+ miles on a hilly course…5 laps around a 12 mile loop, plus an out and back connecting portion from the staging area to the course loop that added 2 or 3 extra miles.  

Seems I came down with a bad case of bronchitis a few days before the event that really took the wind out of my sails.  I managed to make the race and did ok for the first 50 miles or so averaging around 20mph…then…wham!  I hit the wall hard…nothing left in the tank physically, even less desire to continue…and I still had about 15 more miles to go.  That was the longest and hardest 15 miles I’ve ever endured on a bike in my life.  My average speed dropped from around 20 to below 15 and it was all I could do to finish.  Each hill climb became a test of wills…me against gravity…and gravity won most of the time. The main reason for the wall slamming me in the face the way it did was caused by a number of factors…over-training and lack of rest, which broke me down physically and so I got sick…and lack of proper hydration and fuel replacement during the race.  Although I finished my portion of the race…it was not pretty…but, I did finish…I didn’t quit even though I felt like it.  The one thing that kept me going was the encouraging words of others who lined the course..and when I climbed that last hill, to hear the cheers of the fans and friends helped to push me over the top.

Oh well…the point I want to make has nothing to do really with triathlons, but about hitting the wall and how it relates to life.  Sooner or later we all face circumstances that push us to the limit of our endurance…emotional, and in many cases even physical.  Many times, self inflicted wounds push us to that limit, but other times circumstances beyond our control just catch up with us.  Those are often the more difficult ones to deal with…you just feel disconnected and frustrated because of that lack of control.  The people I’ve admired the most over the years are the ones I’ve known who have endured through very trying and difficult circumstances.  None of us know for sure how we will react to adversity until we actually face that circumstance. Bravado spoken from the confines of a cushioned life carries little weight…yet humble perseverance when times are tough, speak loudly to those who witness it.  It’s been said, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that mattersit how many times you get back up that counts.  Facing hardship is a part of life…how you face it depends on your character.

My wife Kris and I have spent a lot of time talking to homeless people in our community…often providing donated blankets during the colder months to those who need them.  We’ve seen where self-inflicted or even worse, family inflicted wounds have all but destroyed some of them…they for the most part have given up and turn to alcohol and/or drugs. You can see it in their eyes.  Many are victims of circumstances.  Even so, we have also seen a great deal of resilience in many of them.  Even under difficult circumstances, they have retained their sense of humor and dignity.  Many of them keep hitting the wall over and over… continually getting knocked down…but more importantly, they get up again and again and carry on.  I’ve learned a lot about character and facing difficulties by simply listening to these people.  They amaze me with their stories.  Not so oddly, the one thing they crave most is to be touched…to shake someone’s hand…to receive and give back a hug…have someone acknowledge that their life has meaning and they are still relevant and important...not just in God’s eyes, but in our eyes.

Most of us have never really known what it’s like to hit the wall in real life…to run out of options…to have nothing left in the tank.  Taking the time to listen to someone who truly has…well, it can’t help but make me wonder how I would react if I truly found myself in that circumstance.  My meaningless ordeal of hitting the wall during that race was nothing more than a bad case of planning and fatigue...I knew all I had to do was stop, and it would all end.  Not so, for many of these homeless people...they can't just stop and expect it all to go away.

The winter season is not all that far away and I challenge you who read this to step away from your comfort zone for a to someone who may be down and out...homeless or otherwise.  Reach out your hand...offer a hug...give them a blanket or a meal...but most of all, give them part of yourself, because that is what they need as much as anything else...It is amazing how a simple act of kindness will lift the spirits of someone whose spirit may have hit the wall...doing so will not only help to carry them a little further, you just may discover that your own spirit is lifted as well.