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, January 29, 2013

Personal Vision

One important but often overlooked concept of photography I've grown to understand more and more over the years is the idea of having a personal vision for what you want to accomplish. Understandably, most people are not inclined to think of their photographic endeavors as much more than simple attempts at taking decent pictures of the family and friends. There are a lot of merits to that approach. It certainly is less stressful and easier to accomplish.

Serious photographers possess a different attitude about what they want to accomplish. Often they carry within them an artistic value that desires an outlet and photography offers to them an obtainable avenue to accomplish those desires. When we begin to rely too much on others to support that outlet is when we find ourselves being disappointed.

Having a personal vision is fundamental for all great artists. I would venture a guess that those who succeeded in their personal adventures to reach the pinnacle of their artistic talents have discovered how to effectively blend vision with action. Yet, no amount of blending will ever occur until there is first a vision and then proper action applied at the right time. Most of us never fully realize this. It's a shame really, because the world would certainly be a more beautiful place if we did.

What hold us back? I would guess there are about as many reasons as there are people seeking answers to that question. In reality, a vision comes from within and is nurtured into maturity by circumstance and desire. It is first recognizing that it exists, then making the effort to refine it, mold it, strengthen it, and focus it. By doing so, we can often discover new revelations about ourselves. Photography is a great way to open the doors to those discoveries.

I once heard it said that within all photographs reside two people; the person who sees it, and the person who took it. In photographs that capture the imagination anyone who sees it is able to place themselves into that moment of capture, and each captured moment expresses a part of who we are as photographers. Don't under estimate a personal vision for your photography, and more importantly, never allow others to deflate your vision simply because they are unable to see it.


Monday, January 21, 2013

The magic of old photo's

The other day I was thumbing through a Facebook page of an old friend of mine I have not seen in many, many years. Posted on his page were photo after photo of his family through the years. It was such a nice collection and anyone could readily see the joy and pride that glowed from within those images. I almost felt like I had experienced 40 years of his family life in just a few minutes. None of the photo's were very artistic, but they certainly captured the moments and memories.

Most of what I write about relates to artistic flavors of photography and I even at times tend to shun those more informal, yet meaningful and personal photo's.  I must admit, that approach has been a mistake I have made  for far too long, and as a consequence have failed to take anywhere near enough of those kinds of photographs.

Even so, on our bookshelves sit 8 or 10 old albums of exactly those kinds of images. Most were taken with simple disposable cameras and are not of very good quality, yet they retain a sense of spontaneity that more polished images tend to neglect. More importantly, they possess more personal value than all of the so called higher quality images I've ever taken.

I believe one day in the far, far, future, the images that will carry the most value historically will be those old family type photo's. All of the high quality images of scenic wonders will over time lose their impact except as a connection to a transitional era of ecological order. 

Yet, those simple, more personal images will resonate about who we were as a people and society, and future generations long removed from today will gaze in wonder about why that child was making that kind of face, or why did they dress up that dog, or what were all those candles doing on that cake. 

Who knows, but I believe every single person who has ever taken a snapshot photograph of someone in his family has contributed to the visual history of our era. Those histories will in time become some of the most valuable pieces of information we can pass on to the future.   

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stretch Your Imagination...Photographically

Just imagine some of the most incredible photographs you've ever seen. They may reside inside a National Geographic or some other nature magazine. They may reside inside a coffee table book about exotic locations. They may hang on a wall or adorn an office space, or maybe float around on a website. Now...imagine this. You took those photo's.

You're probably thinking ...yeah right...but, I'm serious...why not you? There are no reasons why you can't take those same kind of awe inspiring images. It's just a matter of believing you can do it and taking the steps to learn how. Certainly fundamentals come into play. Taking great photos does require a solid understanding of the basics, but that's the least important takes more than that. It takes a sense of awareness of what makes a great photograph, and all great photographs begin with Light.

Photography is 90% seeing and 10% photographing. Unfortunately most people never move past the 10% part. They seem to flounder on high center trying to figure out how to take a mechanical picture and never move beyond that aspect and miss out on learning about the other 90% of the essentials of photography.

One thing I've learned over the years about photography is that imagination is more valuable than technical skill. Oh, understanding the technical stuff is important, but it's not everything. What really is important is being able to recognize that photographic see beyond the ordinary to observe the extraordinary. Applying technical elements to a potential photographic moment matters little if you're not looking at the right moment. Stretching your imagination will carry your photography much further than spending a lot of effort trying to figure out the magic camera settings formula. Contrary to popular belief, there are no magic formulas for camera settings, just an understanding of how the camera sees and reacts to light, then using that understanding in imaginative ways.

I know a lot of photographers...some of them are really good...many are moving on up...some are stuck in the dark ages photographically. They just can't seem to jump start their imaginations vividly enough to move forward. That is unfortunate, because all of them are quite capable of taking amazing photographs, but allow preconceived misconceptions to hold them back.

Coming up in another few weeks, we're still working out the details, I'll be teaching another photography workshop that will spend a lot of time exploring this idea of jump starting your imagination photographically. We'll talk about the basics of course, but those basics are simply the foundation from which the best part of photography springs from. The intent is to get the participants to start thinking beyond the obvious and to look at the world from a different perspective, to give up the notion of always photographing the same ole things the same ole ways. We'll encourage them to step outside of their comfort zones and to look at photography from the aspect of combining a measure of technical skill with Stretching their Imaginations. It should be fun.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Sunsets and Sunrises - do's and don'ts

Because of their bold displays of light most photographers are drawn to sunsets and sunrises, and rightly so for the most part. What most of them do not realize is that sunsets and sunrises are pretty much considered cliche material in the photography world. They have been photographed so much and so often by just about everyone who owns a camera, that to truly take a unique version of one requires an exceptional array of circumstances and skill.

Even so, there are some do's and don'ts you can apply to your attempts at photographing these amazing moments of light. Let's take a look a few of them.

First of all, one of the biggest mistakes novice photographers make when photographing sunsets or sunrises is to center the sun in the middle of the image and to divide the scene half and half between the sky and ground. Here's a coupe of examples.


In this first picture the sun has risen several points above the horizon. the exposure is not so bad here but the composition of the scene leaves a lot to be desired. With the sun centered the way it is, the interest level drops way's just too symmetrical with not enough variation in the scene nor any central point of interest or reference. To correct an image like this, the sun should be offset to one side and more of terrain included. Something like this:


In this image, the composition is much stronger as there is a central point of interest and variation in the scene.

Here's another example of what not to do.


In this image, once again the sun is centered and the composition is spaced half and half between the sky and the ground. Although the fence and barn add a bit of interest, this is not exactly a very good arrangement photographically speaking.  To correct an image like this apply the same kind of principle to offset the sun to one side and include more of the sky with just a sliver of landscape at the bottom to provide a sense of scale. The sky is the main ingredient make it your main subject.


Sunsets can also be taken in the vertical. The vertical or portrait view allows for more sky to be included and works well when there are a lot of textures in the composition. Framing the sunset in the bow of tree is a nice effect and serves to bring attention to the main subject.

Although I still find myself pointing my camera at both sunsets and sunrises I prefer sunrises as they tend to occur when the atmospheric conditions offer a greater variety of conditions. Early morning light offers a great amount of contrasts both subtle and bold...throw in a little fog and you have a great combination.  The trick is to not so much focus on the rising sun...but to focus on the effects the light has on the scene. Here's an example of what I'm talking about. In this photo the sun is nowhere to be seen, but you do see the effects of that wonderful morning glow.

Sometimes I will turn around and look the other direction during a sunrise. Some of the best light of the day can be found in opposition to where the sun is actually coming up. This photo was taken at sunrise...actually just before the sun broke the horizon. It is looking west toward the setting moon away from the source of the light, and a soft glow was filtering across the farm country. Not long after this image taken, the sun actually did rise and the conditions changed to a more harsh kind of lighting...and my shooting for the morning was over.

Here is another example of looking the other direction, except this time during a sunset. The best light I discovered was behind me...the actual sunset was rather ordinary.

So, as you can see, capturing sunsets and sunrises don't always have to include the typical cliche images. Look at the effects of the light instead of the source and you just might discover some amazing opportunities to capture a unique collection of sunrise and sunset moments.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

BackHome Magazine - Creative Photography

In the November/December 2012 issue of BackHome Magazine, one of my photography articles along with a few photo's were published. I'd like to share it with you.


Magazine Cover Image

Digital camera technology has transformed the world of photography.  This advancement in technology has provided low cost, high quality photography equipment to the masses and more and more people are beginning to explore that world.
We’re going to look at ways you can improve your photographic technique that applies to all types of digital cameras by   exploring concepts of what makes a great photograph and how to take advantage of your high tech digital cameras. 

I start all of my photography workshops with this statement: “Photography is all about Light”.  Most people tend to focus on the wrong things when it comes to taking photographs…they place the emphasis on the object or subject believing that the object itself is what makes a great image.  Obviously, we do photograph things, and locations like The Grand Canyon offer some wonderful photo opportunities, but great photographs are less about the things we photograph, and more about how we photograph them.  When we approach our photography from the concept of light rather than the subject, even ordinary everyday objects can become great subjects.

It’s not the quantity of light that is important it is the quality of light that matters most.  Jack Dykinga a world class nature photographer once said,

“Cameras and lenses are simply tools we use to capture our unique vision on film.  Concentrate on equipment and you will take technically good photographs, but concentrate on seeing the lights magic colors and your images will stir the soul.”

Too often novice photographers get caught up in the equipment game believing that a certain camera or a special lens is required to produce that great photograph. The equipment simply imparts various technical qualities to an image.  It is you, the photographer, who captures the image.  How you use light and how you compose the image based on the quality of light is what generates that great photograph.  The camera and lens are only the tools you use to accomplish this. Virtually all consumer level cameras available today are quite capable of taking very high quality images.  It’s just a matter of following some basic principles.  So, let’s look at a few concepts that can help us understand what makes a great photograph.

Effective Use of Light:  Generally speaking, for outdoor photography, there is a time called ‘The Golden Hour’.  This usually refers to the first thirty minutes before and after sunrise, and the last thirty minutes before and after sunset.  It is during this golden hour that the best outdoor photographic light exists where shadows are long, and the light is rendered in warmer tones.  I’m not necessarily speaking about sunrises and sunsets, but it is this soft warm light that is cast across the landscape that will often transform what would commonly be considered ordinary into something extraordinary. 

This transitional light will often create a tremendous amount of mood and energy.  Use the warm cast or reflected light to soften and add a dynamic to your images that harsh midday light will not.
Overcast days can often provide the very best light for certain kinds of photographs because of its soft diffused nature. This is critical when attempting to photograph places like inside of a wooded area. When the light is bright, it will create harsh high contrast conditions in wooded areas where the range between the lights and shadows are so far apart, that most cameras will struggle to capture the scene effectively. Either the shadows will be too dark or the light areas will be blown out.  The soft diffused light of an overcast day will provide great, even lighting allowing for a more complete exposure.

Waterfalls are also better photographed on overcast days than bright sunny days.  The lower intensity of the diffused light allows for longer shutter speeds which generates those great flowing water photos.  With the lower light intensity, shooting from a tripod is a good idea as it will allow for a steady shot.

Foggy mornings are some of my favorite times to photograph because the fog will diffuse and disperse the light and impart a sense of mystery and suspense to the scene.  As the sun begins to rise and burn off the fog, new opportunities present themselves that allow for those great beams of light casting through the trees. 

One mistake I see from novice photographers is always having their subject fully lit from the front.  A great technique to try instead is backlighting, or having your subject illuminated from behind, or from the side.  With a little practice, using this kind of lighting can transform your images especially with people as it will generate highlights and emphasize shape and form as well as create character and drama.

As important as effective use of light is in photography, almost equally as important is composition.  I define composition as an effective positioning of the elements within a scene in such a way that all the elements work together to create a single story.  The concepts of composition ordinarily would require an article all unto itself, but we’re going to look at some basic fundamentals of what makes an effective composition.

Composition - Rule of Thirds:  Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid on your image with crossing lines that create three distinct blocks at three different levels both vertically and horizontally.  Near the center there are four offset points where these lines converge.  The rule of thirds and how it applies to effective composition is based on this visual configuration.
In most cases, effective composition is created when the image can be spaced into these three areas with the main point of interest falling on or near one of the converging points that are slightly offset from center. 

Inexperienced photographers tend to place their center of interest in the center of the image.  Sometimes this actually does work, but in most situations you should offset your main center of interest to where it falls on or near one of those converging points on the grid, and space out the scene to where it is broken into thirds.  Offsetting your main subject will allow you to impart a higher interest level in your photograph.

Composition - Keep it Simple:  There are three words that resonate in my mind every time I take a picture….simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.  Your purpose as a photographer is to find order amongst the chaos. Simplicity does not mean that an image lacks for complex details.  What it does mean is that everything in the image is there for a reason and there is nothing there that detracts from the story.

Too many elements in the image confuse the viewer.  By keeping your compositions simple helps to generate images that carry tremendous story telling strength.

Composition – Symphonic Melody: The first time I used this term in a workshop I received a lot of puzzled looks, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you understand what it means. Symphonic Melody (SM) is the engine that drives the impact of the photograph.  It determines the character, flavor, and even drama of the image.  Use of color and contrast are two elements that help define SM and are often associated with mood and energy.  Ask yourself…what mood do I want to convey? Then, search for ways to isolate that mood.  Look for contrasts of color, look for angles and expression of atmosphere.  Symphonic Melody is a way of blending physical elements into an emotionally expressive image. 

Composition – Get Lower:  Photographing kids can be challenging. Many times I see photos of kids that were taken from a standing position looking down on the subject often distorting the perspective, or the subject(s) are lined up with their hands to their sides with a forced grin plastered on their faces.

It’s important when photographing kids to kneel down to their eye level.  Use a telephoto lens to allow you to back off far enough to avoid encroaching into their space.  Also, by using a telephoto lens, something in the neighborhood extending out to 200mm, and a relatively large aperture setting (f/4.0…f/5.6…etc) you tighten up the depth of field and create that professional looking isolation effect against a blurred background.  Fill the frame and catch their expressions up close. To avoid harsh shadows and squinty eyes photograph in a shaded area or on an overcast day.   

Children are best photographed when they are actively doing something as opposed to posing.  Give them something to do, or to hold, keep talking and encouraging and shower them with praises.  Your images will be more powerful and personal and they will capture more closely the personalities of the kids.  One more thing…be mindful of the background, you don’t want a distant light pole sticking out of someone’s head. 

Composition – Look Beyond the Ordinary:    One of the best ways to generate effective compositions is to think in terms of looking beyond the ordinary.   By this I mean to avoid the cliché photos and think about what is most important about what you’re observing.  Focus your efforts into looking beyond what you might ordinarily photograph.

 Instead of photographing the barn, the tractor, the flower patch, the sky, and the fields behind all of that in one single image…focus in on one thing…simplify your composition…look at the textures on the barn door.  Look at the lines and angles in the design of the tractor…focus on one single flower and position your camera so the light you capture shines thru the flower instead of on it. In short, look beyond the obvious and seek out those things that define the greater scene from a smaller perspective.

Taking effective photographs in the digital age requires understanding simple basic principles of how to use light and composition.  By applying some basic concepts of composition with an understanding of how light affects the mood of an image, your photography will take on a newer, more polished look.  Always remember photography is about having fun and enjoying the process, and most importantly…it’s all about light.