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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Fossil Rock

Growing up in Corona - circa 1960
There’s something positive that comes from growing up in small towns.small town values from the 50’s and 60’s were still focused on God, family, friends, and community…pretty much in that order. I suppose that is why the old black and white television shows from that era were so enduring as they focused on those kinds of values instead of the self indulging hop into bed with anyone values so prevalent on the airways today.

One of the most influential times I experienced was the two years my family spent in Corona, New Mexico back in 1960 and 1961. If you draw an X from the four corners of the state of New Mexico, where they intersect in the middle is just about where Corona lies. On the edge of town during that time was a sign that said…Welcome to Corona...Elevation 6,666 feet.  A little know fact about that location is that the now infamous Roswell UFO incident of the 1940's actually took place closer to Corona instead of Roswell. Roswell it turns out was the closest large town that anyone would recognize, so it was dubbed as the location of that event. No one, it seems had ever heard of Corona which is not surprising as the graduating class of 1960 stood at around twelve.

As small and isolated as it was, it was a great place for a kid. We lived in a pretty much unfettered environment, free to roam as we chose, explore where we may, and experience life around us on the outside. Winter was the greatest time of all as the amount of snow we received was far greater than anything I had ever experienced before. All the kids would gather on top of the hill where the dirt road curved and angled down to the main highway. The snow was so deep it would become packed and hard creating perfect conditions for sledding. We’d spend hours gliding down that snow packed road and the cold never seemed to bother us…we were having too much fun. It was almost like the scenes from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’…we’d even go around caroling to all the homes in town…and take hayrides and sing Christmas carols along the way.

It was during that time I first became aware of the importance of presidential elections as Nixon and Kennedy went at each other. It was a new world for me…politics…and even though I was unable to comprehend the magnitude of the issues of the day…I instinctively understood that something big was at stake. To a nine year old youngster, John Kennedy seemed bigger than life…Nixon seemed to be some great sage with a rather dull personality. Little did we know what would transpire in each of their lives, and ultimately our own lives, just a few years further down the road.

Behind our house rose a shallow hill…not so much a hill as it was just a higher part of the terrain. Along its upper edge could be found large exposed rocks. I would often hike up there and look for fossils or arrowheads…never found any arrowheads that I can recall, but I did discover countless fossils. One rock in particular was one I called ‘the fossil rock’ as it was chalked full of intricately detail fossils. It was maybe eight feet across and roughly the same in length and skirted the edge along the top of the rise.

I would sit on this rock for hours and run my hands across the swirls and dips and crystalline structures scattered across its face. I dreamed of dinosaurs and ancient times and wondered what all those fossils were and how they came to be on that single large rock. It was one of the first times I ever dreamed such thoughts and those adventures of the imagination still reside and influence my memories even today.

Corona High School Science Class - circa 1960
Often on a warm day, I would lie back on that rock and watch the clouds drift by and listen to the constant wind as it swirled among the scrubby trees scattered across the landscape. From history lessons at school I dreamed about the ancient peoples who lived in that area so long ago and the explorers who traveled for the first time across that sparse land in search of treasures and riches and grand adventures. For a nine year old, those adventures of the mind were as real as if I had done them myself. 

The entire school system from first grade through twelfth grade was pretty much housed in one or two connected buildings. As a result, even those of us in third grade or fourth grade knew all the high school kids. The place was so small you could not help but know everyone. Athletics was a big deal and even though that school was really small, they were able to wield a football, basketball, and track team…mostly made up of all the same kids. They were actually pretty good too…at least they won more games than they lost. Some of the high school kids became legendary to us grade school kids and we looked up to them with the admiration offered to NFL super stars. Woody Dame, Clint and J.T. Roper were three of the more athletic. I’ll never forget playing a sandlot football game in the front yard, three of us kids against Woody Dame…he played on his knees…we got to run using our legs…he still beat us…but man, was that something to experience…Woody Dame, football hero from high school, actually took the time to play a game of football with us kids.  We were in kid heaven and about as excited as we could get.

Yeah…those were the days, days of exploring our world and our place in it. It was a time that still held a sense of innocence about it, but looming on the horizon were challenges waiting for us that we could never have dreamed of at that age. I do believe it was that time of free spirit thinking that helped us through those challenges.

Somehow through the years we too often allow ourselves to lose touch with the days of our youth. It’s inevitable I suppose as we grow older as responsibility and time take their toll on our lives. Yet even today, even though I rarely see a fossil implanted in its natural state anymore, when I do, my thoughts return to those days. A hammock has replaced the fossil rock as a place to lie back and a place where the nine year old in me resurfaces. As I swing in the breeze, above me across the sky, clouds still drift as they did then, and beneath the rocks and earth of the surround hills, fossils are still there waiting for discovery. Imprinted in my mind are the memories of those carefree days when a young boy not only explored the world around him, he opened his mind and heart for the first time to the magnificent flavor of God’s creation. It’s good for the soul to do such things, not only those, but to remember why we dreamed about those adventures the way we did. It reminds us of who we are.

Our stay in that little community was short lived…but the impact of those two years influenced the rest of my life…it was an amazing influence that still resonates over fifty years later.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Symphonic Melody...What is it and how do you use it?

I suppose the first time I really began to like orchestra music was many years ago when I was still in junior high school. I remember listening to a collection of music on the radio played by a station that took a specific piece of work or a collection of works from a single composer and played them back to back to back. The music I listened to was from the soundtrack 'Lawrence of Arabia' composed by Maurice Jarre. What captured my imagination was how all of the works from the soundtrack, although different, followed the same pattern...the same overall musical theme throughout the entire score. Never before had I grasp the significance of that technique in a musical score. Little did I realize then that one day that same concept would play a significant role in my photography. You may wonder how could musical theory from a soundtrack score have any effect on photography...glad you asked.

For lack of a better term, some years ago I coined the phrase Symphonic Melody as it relates to how all the elements in a photograph work together.  This includes the use of color...or more specifically, the effective use of a color theme in your composition. Think about the best images you've ever seen...what stood out about them? I would bet it was these two everything in the image looked like it was suppose to be there, and that the image carried with it an overall color theme across the entire composition. Everything contained within the composition worked toward telling the story...but one thing that most people tend to overlook is how the color(s) in the image also work to define the story. This color theme is what defines the essence of Symphonic Melody.

It doesn't mean everything carries the same color value all the way through...although, that actually can be an effective technique...what it does mean is that all the colors work to enhance the elements within the composition. There can be a wide variety of color values...but what prevails is that the composition is defined not just by the things that are in it...but how color was used to generate that eye appeal...or that comfortable feel of completeness in the image.

Sometimes, the overall image does carry one basic color standard throughout the composition. Then what breaks it up...what stirs the senses is that one element that stands apart....that causes your focus to is what adds interest and maybe even a little shock value to the theme. It is this shock that captures the imagination. All effective photographs use this to some degree.  There has to be something there that is different from the rest of the theme, familiar yet demonstrated in such a way that what is there is not what you would normally see visually...It must also be related to the overall story, so that the interest level is raised high enough that the viewer wants to use their mind to piece together that one imperfection to make the image...well perfect.

Think about this concept the next time you are in nature and attempting to capture something unique.  By building your composition based it's Symphonic might be surprised at just how powerful that technique can be.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shadow of a Mountain

Jim Anderson Photo my youthful imagination, his life and the life of the mountain became as one...whose influence holds me captive still today...His life is a part of my heritage...a part of my two son's heritage...and is a part of the mountain's heritage. He, after all, was not just a frail old man, but a man with a story and a history connected by a mountain...
In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, I was fortunate to grow up in the Mayberry-like community of Wister, Oklahoma just a few miles down the road from Poteau. The memories of those years spent in that southeastern Oklahoma community instilled within me a sense of personal values that still resonates with me today.

That part of the state carries with it a unique flavor of terrain where broad wooded valleys are accented with prairie fields and pine covered hills. The most dominant of those hills is Cavanal…a 2000 foot escarpment that spreads its broad shoulders across the western edge of the county. According to local legend, it is known as the world’s highest hill being listed as 1999 feet high…one foot short of being actually classified as a true mountain.  Whether it actually is the highest hill in the world is open for conjecture, but the legend of that mountain carries with it a sense of identity and home.

It is within the shadow of that mountain, where my family planted roots…four generations on both sides were born, lived, and many are now buried within sight of its peak. It is where I first began to dream visions of grand adventures sparked by stories of fox dens and bear dens across its flanks my grandfather told me about.  Stories about his youth chronicled with faded photographs from the turn of an old Victorian century toward the promise of new 20th century.  There were stories of French and Spanish explorers along with Native Indian cultures that owned that land long before it was settled...and stories of strange and wonderful things that happened on the mountain. The word 'Cavanal' is derived from the french word for 'Cave' and indeed legend has it that Indians in the area would report rumbling noises from inside some of the caves found on its flanks.

Robert Star Bridgman - my great-grandfather
Circa 1910
Robert Lee Bridgman was his name…everyone called him ’Bob’. His father Robert Star Bridgman, my great-grandfather, established one of the first proprietorships in Poteau having moved his family there around 1895 using a borrowed wagon. As a youth Robert Star stood witness to the Civil War…just young enough to have stayed out of it, and over the years established and ran several businesses including a cotton gin, hardware store, and a newspaper…eventually evolving into a furniture and home d├ęcor business that still operates to this day…well over 100 years later…still owned and operated by family members. My grandfather followed his footsteps and continued in the family business tradition for many years.

A dapper and youthful Bob on the right
circa 1915
I remember my grandfather mostly as a frail and gentle older man…during WWI he ended up in France and was injured by poison gas that wrecked his lungs causing him great distress for the rest of life. Pictures of his youth before those war years show a strong and vibrant young man…rather dapper in appearance.
Robert (Bob) on left with friends
Circa 1915

I can only once remember him ever raising his voice in anger…seems I knocked a picture off the wall because I did not listen to him when he told me to settle down…my grandmother was more mad at him for raising his voice than at me.

He often would place us grandkids inside a large cardboard box…close it up…then spin us around, shaking the box every which way…to our great delight…and I was fascinated when he removed his teeth and placed them in a glass of water…he could almost make his chin touch his nose after doing so. I still remember watching him sit in his back room listening to a small Philco radio that seemed to take 5 or 10 minutes to warm up enough so it would work.  If not the radio, then he would open the news paper and read through it finishing the crossword puzzle before putting it down.  He would often walk the half mile or so to town instead of drive, until that became too difficult. He was not highly educated, but had a great intellect and even served as a local representative for the Democratic party during Roosevelt's run for office. His politics were what was right for the country, for the people, and for your family...and apply christian values to all three.

Goldie...on the left, was severely burned and
died shortly after this picture was taken
 Circa 1905
But…what I remember most about him was his integrity…an integrity that was strengthened by his Christian values.  Quiet and gentle by nature, he possessed a strong sense of self…slow to anger…always thoughtful…always ready to help. Yet he carried with him a longing to remember and forget a tragic day when he was just a small boy..a day when his little sister Goldie died in a fire. I never really knew much about what happened back then, but you could still see the event lingering in his eyes if you looked closely enough.  Although he was right handed, his hand writing carried a strong slant backward...from what I understand this often indicates that something profound must have happened in his past...Maybe it was Goldie...

There were times when a family would come into his place of business…the kids needing shoes and something to wear to school. Often, they would have little resources to pay for such things, but my grandfather and grandmother would make sure those kids had what they needed…the dad had a new pair of overalls and work boots, and mom a new calico dress.

They would place the bill in the books as an IOU…and tell them to not worry about it for now. More often than not, a week or two later on a Sunday afternoon after church, my grandmother would hear some knocking at the backdoor…that same family would be standing there holding a sack of tomatoes or some corn on the cob, maybe a basket of eggs…and hand them to her as payment for the clothes.  The next day…paid in full…would be written in the ledger.

That life style of generosity was returned to them in the same measure some years later. After a devastating flood, that all but wiped out Wister, their place of business was all but ruined.  With no insurance to deal with it, recovery would be long and difficult. A few days later as we were helping to clean up, some mail actually arrived…in the stack was a bill from one of their long time suppliers in Fort Smith. The look on my grandmother’s face told the whole story. Realizing they had no funds to pay for that bill and the newly purchased stock was mud caked and ruined, she opened the bill…across the face was written…paid in full. Their supplier recognized the situation and in a level of generosity not often seen today, wrote off their bill as a gesture of good will.

Robert (Bob)
Enter backdoor of his home
circa 1940
It was stories such as these…some I witnessed…many more I heard about… that formed in my mind who I was as part of this family. My grandfather’s stories about his boyhood playing on the heights of Cavanal Mountain still linger in my memories. In my youthful imagination, his life and the life of the mountain became as one, and although I long ago moved away from that environment…its influence holds me captive still today. I am often haunted by melancholy desires to return to the days of my youth…to the heights of that mountain…and revisit again the simplicity that was life in those days. I often wish I could travel back in time and visit my grandfather during his see for myself the formative years that so influenced his life...that with direct connections through time influenced mine as well.

As my grandfather grew older…his damaged lungs took a terrible toll on his health and his once sharp and insightful mind faded into confusion.  Often he would suffer through difficult nights unable to breathe, gasping for air. I remember my grandmother late one evening as she knelt beside her bed for her nightly prayers…asking God to not allow my grandfather to die suffering from the lack of breath.  She was afraid she would not be able to cope with watching that happen to him, and she did not want to see him suffer that way. In his final days…her prayer was answered…his kidneys failed…and the doctor said he would not feel a thing and would quietly go off to sleep.  He breathed his last breath in the early winter of 1973…with the comfort of family surrounding him.

When I think of my grandfather, I think of home...when I think of home...the memory of his life fills those thoughts...and as those memories play out in my mind,  I think of that mountain…it was a mountain made of earth and stone with a history and a life as large as its broad shoulders. It's almost like the strength of that mountain carried my grandfather through the years...yet, as frail as he was…I've grown to understand that it was the man…made of integrity and honor…who was the larger of the two.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

First Light...Last Light...make big first and lasting impressions

My favorite times to photograph happens just before sunup and right at sundown...that last few moments between twilight and daylight...daytime and evening.  The first light of day generates some of the best moments because there can often be so many kinds of conditions that exist at that time...morning haze, fog, clear skies, clean air, subtle and bold textures in the sky.  The window of opportunity normally only lasts for a few minutes and in that few minutes so many things can happen.  Blink, and you can miss the best moment.

One time a few years back I had arrived before sunrise at one of my favorite locations on the Tallgrass Prairie in Oklahoma.  There was a thick layer of low lying clouds that obscured the horizon and the sunrise appeared like it was going to be a non-event.  I made the trek into the prairie through the tall grasses to a rocky outcropping.  By the time I arrived my pant legs and boots were soaked thru by the heavy dew.  The sky was all but grayed out and I really didn't think the morning shoot would materialize.  

Just at sunup time, I began to notice some indistinct glowing in the obscuring cloudy cover where the sun should be appearing.  Instinctively I lowered my tripod  and framed some coneflowers to line up with where the sun might appear.  Within  a minute or so, the sun burned thru the cover and set the hazy fog aglow and the disc of the sun popped thru...I fired off a couple quick shots...made a quick adjustment and fired off one more, then just as quickly, the sun faded and the moment was gone.  My morning shoot was pretty well over in that few seconds of opportunity.  If I had not been there, I would have missed capturing one of my favorite prairie moments.

First light doesn't always mean the actual first light of day.  In this particular case, first light was that moment when the light first appeared in high enough quality that I could use it photographically.  It is that transitional light that often becomes the first usable light.  First usable light provides a unique blend of spontaneity and power that flows thru time...and your capture if it is that single best moment of that timeline.

The same applies to the last light of the day.  Many of the same situations exist during that time.  Many years ago when I was stationed in Oregon, I made a trip over to Crater Lake National Park.  I spent the whole day there...the only camera I had at the time was one of those 110 pocket cameras...and yes, the pictures I took were predictably not very good.  Late that evening as I was driving out, I encountered one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen.  The sky was lit up with every color imaginable, and the sharp ridges of the surrounding mountains and valleys were filled with blue light accented by reds and oranges...but alas, I had used up my allotment of film and simply watched in awe not being able to capture a truly magical moment.  (Shortly after that day I purchased my first SLR 35mm camera) .  But during that sunset, there came one moment in its timeline when the brilliance of what was there exploded...yet like an explosion, it lasted but a few brief seconds and was gone.

Last light of the day often is not associated directly with a sunset...but how the light of the sunset affects the things behind and around you.  As amazing as they are...sunsets are often very cliche-ish as just about every combination of them that can be imaged has already been photographed thousands of times.  Many times, I will turn around and look the other way to see what the light of the sunset is doing around me.  That warm glow will often fill the landscape with vibrant amazing light that adds character and subtle beauty to ordinary things.  It's just a matter of planning and anticipation.

To make big first and lasting impressions with your photography, use all the magic that is at your disposal during those magical times of the day called first and last light.