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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's Around the Bend

A photograph is a visual story. It has a theme, a plot, dialog, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes the story is obvious, some times not so obvious, and sometimes the photo is constructed in such a way as to allow the viewer the ability to make their own story. Photo's that use that technique are often some of the most engaging because they pull not only the viewers visual gaze into it, but their emotional desire to find the story. One way to build that kind of photograph is to use the theme...'What's Around the Bend'.

What's around the bend ideas in an image most often use some kind of visual trail that leads the eye into the center of the image and that trail will usually disappear somewhere in the distance. Roads, creeks, trails, tree lines, fence rows are some of the more common elements used as that visual trail. It's important that the trail lead into the image and not out of it...although sometimes leading out of the image can work, it usually works better the other way. Other ways include using such things as the neat rows of a plowed field, or clouds, or even shadows and rolling or receding hills.

I find myself looking for those kinds story lines in photographs quite often and when I discover an opportunity that looks right, I then try to flesh out the story by adding other nuances. Sometimes that requires waiting for the light to change or the conditions or even the season's to change. It's the nuances that add flavor, character, and substance to the story. Without those, well very few around the bend story lines could stand on their own merits.

Here's some examples.  I love windmills...I guess growing up in Oklahoma is what developed that sense of story so whenever I see a windmill, I always take a second and third look to see if there is a story there. This image is a location just a few miles down the road from where I live and I drive by it almost everyday, and almost everyday I take time to see what flavor the story is taking on.

On the morning this photo was taken, there was a light fog that drifted across the farms and fields in the area. I walked a short distance down the old road and lined up this shot being careful to include enough of the road and fence row to lead the eye into the story. You can see the windmill on the right side...kind of hard to see it in such a small version of the image.

One winter's day I came across this next location while out looking for Sandhill Cranes.  The road was slick and there was a good layer of snow covering the landscape. The road curved around and dropped out of sight over the hill and to me at the time it looked like one of those Currier and Ives scenes. I loved the way the road seemed to beacon the viewers eye to follow it around the bend to see what was on the other side and how the fence row carried the view to the turn in the bend just on the edge of the image..

The next image is a favorite of mine as it sings a back road melody like few images do.  It carries in its design that sense of country, that feeling of home is just around the bend, that emotional bond to a familiar place. It says to me, 'welcome home...I've been waiting for you'. It may be one of the best examples of the what's around bend theme I've ever taken.

What's around the's a great theme for a photographic story line. Take time to look for those opportunities...but not just simply curved roads or fence rows...think about how to flesh out that story...what would your location look like in a different season...on a rainy day...foggy day...early or late light...with shadows. That's how you take the basic theme and turn it into a great story.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Different Perspective

I love fall...with its cooler temps...blustery winds...and all the colors. In Kentucky it seems like the fall colors are slow to start and slower to develop, then all of a sudden they explode across the landscape overnight. It's also one of my favorite times of the year to photograph.  Oddly enough, even though the fall is full of color, those colors can often take on a completely different look when observed from a different perspective...Black and White.

The bright reds and yellow will take on a brilliant silvery hue when converted to black and white.  Add a little tone to the image to shift it toward a more brown or slightly yellowed appearance and the image will often take on a magical look.

Many times I will take a photograph simply because I believe it will look great in black and white.  Black and white offers a more pure blend of contrasts...removing all the distractions caused by colors. This blend of contrasts floods the viewer with a sense of shape, form, texture, purpose, strength, and power.

Here's an example of what I'm writing about.  The image below was taken just a few days ago as the fall colors along Trammel Creek reached their peak. It was late afternoon on an overcast day and the surrounding bluffs and recessed nature of the creek protected the surface from any wind that would cause ripples that might distort the reflections. It's a nice, typical fall image.

The next image is the same image converted to black and white. What I like about this one is the graphic nature of the tones and contrasts...yet it retains a splendid natural feel to it...almost mystical as though it materialized from a fanciful story line.

I've heard it said that if an image works in black and will also work in color. Where color photography is an attempt to capture things from a normal 'as things are' and white requires a stronger sense of graphic design...a sense of portraying something natural in an unnatural way, yet retain that sense of its purposeful design. It takes a different perspective...a unique way of looking at a scene to be able to capture it in black and white.  Learning to see in black and white will improve your overall photographic seeing.

Try seeing in black in white sometime when out photographing.  Look for those opportunities when shape and form become the main emphasis of your composition...things that enhance the graphic designs found in nature.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

It Ain't About What You See...It's About What You't settle for Average

The main difference between Ansel Adams...and most of that he looked at photography from an artistic perspective...he experimented...tried different techniques...he never settled for ordinary...and he understood the capabilities of his camera equipment.

Camera's really are not all that smart. In spite of the sophisticated electronics and the built in auto exposure capabilities, they still only read the light in such a way as to make a best guess calculation and move the exposure to the middle of the scale. If all you are wanting to accomplish is to take snapshots and capture simple pictures with very little artistic merit, then the auto exposure works pretty well.  It's been a great marketing ploy for the camera manufacturers...making it easy to take decent photo's without thinking to hard.

But, when it comes to capturing images with artistic that requires a bit more...let's say... understanding of what the camera is actually doing. I don't have room here to go into a long explanation of all the functions of digital camera's. But, what I'm going to do is give you an example of the difference between what happens when you simply allow the camera to do what it wants to do...and you telling the camera to do what you want it to do.

Most of my photography involves nature and/or landscape photography. As a result, I tend to shoot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority...that is where you select the aperture or f/stop and the camera selects a corresponding shutter speed. Aperture priority allows me to control the depth-of-field which is important in landscape photography. I also use a lot of exposure know...that little +/- button usually on the back or maybe the top of your camera...anyway...I rarely shoot in full manual mode.

Another aspect of digital cameras is how white balance affects the image, or how well the camera captures color depending on the temperature of the light. (Indoor lighting has a different temperature range than daytime outdoor light). Most digital camera's allow you to change the white balance, but I would guess most people simply use the auto white balance (AWB) setting and just let the camera make that choice for them. White balance can also be adjusted by using the group or symbol shade, or cloudy, or portrait...these actually help quite a bit and are easy to use.

AWB works pretty well within a set range of light temperatures.  If the light on your subject falls outside that range, then AWB will often shift the color either toward the blueish or reddish side depending on the light temperature situation. Knowing and using this to your advantage can have a huge impact on how your images turn out.

Here's an example.  This first image above was taken simply allowing the camera to do what it wanted to do. It's not a terrible picture...but right away you may notice that it seems to have a rather bluish tint to it.  That's because the light temperature at the time fell well outside the normal range of the AWB capabilities. What I was experiencing visually and emotionally was a deeper, richer lighting situation...So, how then did I manage to capture the next image taken just a few minutes later?

Both images come straight out of the Photoshop tweaking was done to either of them. The bottom image is a much more powerful image...richer...deeper...more dramatic in its texture and overall effect.  Well, basically there is only one camera setting difference between the two images. Instead of using AWB, or either of the Shade or Cloudy setting on the camera...I switched over to manual White Balance and shifted the setting from it's normal middle of the road 5500 degrees kelvin to 9900 degrees kelvin. That simple shift told the camera to push the color setting from a middle temperature range to a range that more closely matched the color temperature of the sky at the time.  Doing so caused the camera to capture the scene in a much bolder rendition.

The reason I am explaining all this is to re-enforce the idea that photography is not always about capturing exactly what you see.  It's about capturing what you feel. Understanding how the camera reacts to light is one of the first advanced concepts that novice photographers should understand. Doing so gives you a tremendous advantage when it comes telling the camera to do what you want it to do...instead of simply accepting what the camera wants to give you.

Here's another example.  This next image is one where I basically allowed the camera to do what it wanted to do...I did use a graduated filter to darken the sky some and tweaked the brightness a bit in Photoshop, otherwise it is pretty much the way it looked coming out of the camera and represents the scene very closely to what it actually looked like.'s not a bad image with some interesting cloud features. But, looking at it tells me one thing.  I've seen this kind of image a thousand times...I've taken this kind of image a thousand times.  Other than the unique cloud formations there really isn't anything extraordinary about this image. But, is not about what you's about what you feel. So...knowing this I wanted to capture the scene in a different way... a way that would generate more drama...more power...more depth and impact. So...I shifted my location to gain a more dramatic composition and...once again...I shifted the WB to manual...and pushed the setting from 5500 to is the result.

Same lighting...same basic scene...Big difference.  Which one portrays more drama...which one looks ordinary? Did the scene actually look like this?...not really...but that is the way I wanted it to appear...that is what I was feeling...what I visualized the moment should be and could be.

Understanding that what the camera sees is not necessarily what you see is one of the most difficult concepts for novice photographers to grasp. Understanding this...combined with a solid working knowledge of the mechanics of your camera...can result in creating amazingly bold and powerful images even under rather ordinary circumstances.  It's also important to remember that you don't have to settle for what the camera wants to give most cases what it offers is simply an average...and we as photographers should never settle for average.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Sense of Scale

There was good flow of water ripping over the edge of the falls at Shanty Hollow that day, yet the images I made just didn't seem to capture the effect of what it felt like to be there. What was missing was that sense of scale that one gets while standing at a location in person. As I worked my way around the edge of the pool at the base of the falls, I tried to visualize just how best could I capture this moment.  Then it became apparent. To capture the grand scale of the location...I needed to get lower...way lower...and shoot upward. I knelt as low as I could without getting the seat of my pants was a bit chilly that day...and framed the shot using a 18 mm wide angle lens oriented to the vertical. I used a small aperture...f/22...and focused about half way between what was directly in front of the camera and the rock wall where the water dropped. I was careful to include a good portion of the flowing water as it rolled over the rocks at the apex of the outlet stream. The result was a photograph that for the most part captured a greater sense of the scale of the location.

Scale is one of those things we rarely think about when photographing a location. In reality it's one of the most important things to be aware of especially in certain circumstances. The idea is to use scale to provide a sense of largeness or smallness to the moment. Doing it effectively can be a challenge, but there are techniques one can use to enhance the prospects of capturing a greater sense of scale.

One technique is to include something in the foreground...middle ground...and background in the same frame. This technique adds depth and distance to your composition. Usually a wide angle lens works best for this kind of shot...but can be done even with a 50 mm normal lens. In order to keep it all in focus, a small aperture is required...something like f/ extend the depth of field range. This often results in a slow shutter speed which also dictates the use of a tripod.

Another technique is to shoot with a wide angle lens from a low perspective looking what was described in the first paragraph. These low perspective angles will automatically increase the sense of scale simply by the distortion effect of having part of the scene so close to the camera lens.

Image was created using five or six vertical shots stitched
into a single shot. The result added a lot more depth and
distance to the scene
Another way I've used to improve that sense of scale is use several images stitched together. This takes a bit of practice and some savvy using Photoshop...but it is a very effective method. What I normally do is to use a wide angle lens...18 mm or smaller...and take a series of images...usually five to six that overlap by about 30%. These images tend to work best when taken in the vertical or portrait orientation. Then using the panoramic stitching feature in Photoshop...stitch them into a great image than what would be possible using a single image.

Capturing scale often requires some forethought and a willingness to think through the problem. Recognizing when the moment requires a sense of scale may very well be the most difficult part of the process. It certainly requires the photographer to purposely set out to accomplish capturing that sense of scale as compared to capturing a routine image.

Scale is a great way to draw the viewer into your images. Capturing it requires some purposeful practice.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Importance of Background

Way too much background clutter - Too many
things competing against my main subject - Not
a good example of an effective background
She was a talented young lady performing at Bowling Green's International Festival and I found myself taking a number of photographs during her performance that year. The light was bad...but I wasn't too concerned. These were just fun shots after all, so I did not take into account many of the things I would ordinarily look for. Later, after I had downloaded the images, I came across that series and right away realized I had made some really bad photographic mistakes...the worst being not paying attention to the background. Although the photographs were not terrible, it was obvious to me that the clutter scattered across the background had all but ruined the images. Oddly enough, I've used some of those images in workshops as examples of what not to do.

Much stronger background Isolates
subject and works with the story
Not staying alert to the background is one of the prime ways to ruin your photographs. This is most readily evident with people shots, but it also applies to all kinds of photography, such as wildlife, nature, and studies of shape and form. Background is important because almost every effective image requires an effective background and every image that is successful often owes that success to the effective use of background. It is rare that the two are not connected.

An effective background works by helping to isolate your main subject...yet at the same time it provides a sense of depth and connection to the story of the image. Backgrounds do not have to be something that is recognizable. Actually, they probably work best when it is not, but they do need to blend well with the subject. What you do not want is a background that competes with your subject.

Light background enhances the darker subject
Backgrounds can relate to the subject, or they can provide a contrast. Often it is how the color is distributed across it that influences the eventual outcome of the image.  Not all backgrounds need to be blurred blobs of out of focus color, they can be crisp and solid...but they must in both cases...complement your main subject.

Receding backgrounds with angles of light often
generate a wonderful sense of place and depth
What I look for in an effective background is something that will help to isolate yet provide a sense of place for my subject. Many times simply moving to the right or left a step or so will position my subject in such a way as to take better advantage of how the light plays across the field of view. A simple change of perspective will also make better use of framing. I also like to play against contrasts...something like dark against a light background...or light against a dark background. Color use is also important, and contrasts of color will often generate a vibration that is very catchy and powerful.

Sometimes, location dictates the background. Even so, by first thinking about how to use that location to give your image a sense of place, you may find yourself moving, bending, twisting, kneeling, or even climbing higher to position your subject against a background that works to bring out the characteristics you are looking for.

As I have said many times, there is more to photography that taking pictures. So when photographing your subjects...don't just concentrate solely on the main subject...think about placing your subject within the context of the environment and use the background to enhance and bring interest and strength to your composition.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Poetry of Morning Light

A fine experience it is to have risen early to catch the first rays light.  Even on rather ordinary mornings, that first light of the day is always fresh and inviting. For a photographer, morning light best defines what they do and why they are there…it generates not only that initial glow of the day, but it speaks to those who experience it with the soft words of a poetic verse.

When I desire great light for my photography, what first comes to mind is the morning light. I suppose of the favorite images I’ve managed to capture, the majority were influenced most by the first caress that glows low across the sky. The colors change so rapidly during those fleeting moments, as a photographer I find myself rushing here and there to line up the shot before it changes again. Often, a few seconds can make the difference…a moment of hesitation…and it’ gone. I can visit the same location over and over, and each of those mornings generates a unique light show that showcases the qualities of what is there in different ways. It’s like a brand new performance each time. Anticipating the moment is what is required…having the ability see beyond what is current and recognize what is to come…then stand ready to capture what is displayed before you...can mean the difference between making the catch or missing it.

Countless mornings have greeted me over the years…most were routine…a few stood apart because the circumstances surrounding the moment were so captivating. 

Since moving to Kentucky, I've discovered just how poetic morning light can be. The atmosphere in this part of the country can often generate amazing secondary conditions that enhances the already high quality natural morning light. What adds to the flavor of those mornings is the song that is always present...a song that is filled with natures sounds and emotions. Many times when I review images I've taken on a morning shoot, I can remember clearly the sounds and emotions of the moment.  After all, photography is all about capturing emotions...capturing the light is but one aspect of why any given opportunity becomes important enough to photograph.

As amazing as the morning light is in Kentucky, one of the most magnificent mornings I've ever experienced took place in northwest Oklahoma on a goose hunt many years ago. It was a morning when I had no camera in hand. It was a morning when the constant Oklahoma wind for a change fell calm and the normally churning surface of Canton Lake spread silent under a canopy of stars. 

As the first vestiges of light began to glow on the horizon, every shade, every value was reflected on the surface and as daylight crawled toward its climax, thousands of waterfowl of all types exploded across the sky…circling…singing…calling out to their new day. My only desire at that moment was to lean against a willow tree and watch as the water’s surface was set afire by the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows that used the sky as a giant pallet. Across this splendid example of what is best about the outdoors, nature presented herself in all of the magnificent glory intended by its creator. 

No camera could have captured nature’s poetry that was spoken that morning...but, the images, sounds, and power of those visual verses that were performed then have stood the test of time…for all other mornings have been tested against that single poetic example.