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

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Think Discover the Bigger Picture

There are times I struggle to 'see' the photograph. For some reason I just can't seem to find the right mix of time and place and light that captures my imagination. What usually happens during one of those spells is that I either go home in frustration, take a series of test shots that might stir something for another time, or...I begin to look for the small stuff that defines the bigger picture.

What I wish to avoid is taking a lot of mediocre photographs. I've already got too many of those...they are easy enough to create. What my heart desires is to capture a unique moment where that combination of place, time, and light stirs the imagination. What happens is I tend to get caught in the common trap of trying to take in everything in one view and when I do that, my ability to see photographically becomes blurred and distorted, sort of like not being able to see the forest for the trees thing. It is a way of thinking that can often leads us down a slippery incline where we fall into a pit of complacency with our photography.

One trick I've learned is when I find myself unable to lock in on one of those 'bigger picture' moments, I begin to look for smaller details that more simply defines what I am looking for. Here is one example. I was in a wooded area that is quite scenic, but it can also be quite chaotic looking. There is just too much of everything to be able to capture it effectively in one wide area image. The light was quite harsh that day with bright sun filtering through the trees creating contrasts that made it difficult for any photograph short of an HDR type of image to work well.

As I scanned the area, I noticed a small clump of lacy material growing out of a notch in the side of a moss covered stump that was recessed rather deeply in a wooded area. A beam of light filtered through the canopy of trees caught the lacy growth in an almost spotlight effect. Behind the stump was a shaded area. Using a long telephoto lens I zoomed in on the location from about fifteen yards away and isolated the stump. As I framed the image I realized I had discovered what I was actually looking for. This small growth on the stump represented the essence of the larger picture I was unable to see.

Thinking small is a good way to work out of a difficult lighting situation. Even though your subject may not encompass the full spectrum of the visible situation, by simplifying the composition, the bigger picture can often be discovered in those smaller moments.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Maximize the Ordinary

One of the themes I write about consistently is the idea of photographing ordinary things in extraordinary ways, or put another way maximize the ordinary. Sounds simple enough, but putting it into practice takes a bit more of a practiced eye. I’ve never actually been asked how do you do that, but indirectly I have been asked that exact question. The question comes visually from the photographs taken by inexperienced photographers.  So let me take a minute and not only explain what I mean by Maximizing the Ordinary, but some ways to go about doing it.

Maximizing the Ordinary is a term I used to qualify the idea that even ordinary things can become extraordinary if captured in certain ways. It is based on using light in such a way as to enhance the basic uniqueness of an ordinary object. There are several factors that come into play:
1.       Color
2.       Background
3.       Type of Lens
4.       Focal point
5.       Composition
Let’s take a look at each one.

Color blending is critical when trying to photographically maximize the effect of an ordinary object. It’s a matter of using color in such a way that the entire image is affected by the blending of those colors. I tend to look for single color schemes, not necessarily a single color, but a color scheme that carries the same variation of color across the entire spectrum of the image. In many cases, your main subject contrasts with that color scheme. (This is not unlike and is related to Symphonic Melody). What I look for is something in the background that will generate a blanket color effect with enough variation to add interest, but not distract from the purpose of the image.

The use of background is directly related to depth of field. Generally speaking, a narrow depth of field, which is generated by using a long focal length lens and a large aperture, will serve to isolate your main subject against a blurred background. The blurred background is what will contain the color blend in most cases. Background must be selected that enhances your image, not distract from it. There should be nothing there that competes with what you want to show visually, and everything that is there needs to be a part of the visual story, even though it may be blurred. This may require that you change your position, drop lower, climb higher, move left  or right, or face the other way.

Type of Lens:
Although any lens can be used, it depends on the circumstances as to what lens will provide a better perspective. For isolating a subject, a long telephoto lens will do a better job as it serves to bring your subject closer and distort the background. A wider angle lens is best used when a large area is being photographed. Oddly enough, you can isolate your subject even with a wide angle lens, it’s just a matter of perspective and looking for ways to remove all those unnecessary elements that can destroy the effectiveness of a photograph. I tend to rely more on a telephoto lens than wide angle, but remain aware of the intrinsic nature that wide angle lens impart on the scene.

Focal Point:
Focal point is identifying on what to focus. It is critical for the viewer to understand what you want them to see. In many cases again, you may need to change your position to gain an angle that allows you to focus on that aspect of your subject that is most important. The idea here is to observe and locate the one single perspective that best identifies your subject. It becomes the framework around which you construct your image.

Just as focal point serves to build the framework of a photograph, composition serves to build the overall structure of the image. Find your focal point using the correct lens for the job, position your subject against a complementary background, and look for a blend of color that serves to enhance your main subject. Always take into account the position and angle of the light, the quality of the light, and use proper exposure compensation to capture you ordinary subject in an extraordinary way.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Finding the Shot

I’ve known many photographers over the years. Some of them very good…some…well. . . maybe they are still works-in-progress. Actually, I'm still a work-in-progress as I am continually learning new techniques and obtaining new insights from other photographers. That WIP phase never really ends as I desire to improve my ability to find the shot because ninety percent of photography consists of exactly that.

Photographs created from a technical aspect may be mechanically correct, but art is not created mechanically, it comes from the heart. Knowing all the tech stuff by itself will not, except in rare instances, create a photograph with impact. 

So how do you find the shot? If I could truly answer that question and bottle it, let’s just say I could afford to purchase any camera make or model I wanted as a result. The problem with defining that answer is that everyone is different. Our world views are developed through our personal experiences and how we perceive what defines art comes from how we look at the world. What stirs one person may not affect another.

Most of us can appreciate great art. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, but creating it is much more difficult. Fortunately, nature has already done most of the work and provides a wonderful pallet where as photographers all we have to do is capture what she already provides. We don’t have to create anything, we just need to be able to see it and then apply enough technical skill to the process to capture it.

How to see photographically is the theme of a workshop I teach from time to time. I must admit that even though the concepts are sound, many who attend the workshop struggle to understand how to apply those concepts to their photographic endeavors. As stated previously, photography is ninety percent seeing and ten percent photographing. Unfortunately, most people get hung up on the ten percent and never truly expand outside that confined aspect. For some reason, they are continuously searching for that magic formula that is mysteriously hidden inside their high dollar camera. What they expect is for the camera to create that great image, and ignore the importance of exploring the other creative ninety percent that dwells within themselves.

Space does not allow for an in depth analysis of how to find the shot, but I would like to share with you the top three aspects I use.

1.       What do I look for?
I look for situations that generate mood and mood is generated by the quality of the light. One of the most powerful concepts I try to convey when working with novice photographers is the idea that photography is all about light and has less to do with what you photograph. Obviously we do photograph things, but the objects we photograph, by themselves do not always make great photographs. It is how we use light to capture the emotion of the moment that matters most. Simply taking a picture of a field of wildflowers in the middle of the day more than likely will lack emotional content. But isolate one plant against a sunrise or sunset to give it context changes the dynamics of the photographic equation. Look for mood generating light and define your subject within its realm.

2.       Create Order from Chaos.
Nature is full of wonderful photographic opportunities. It is also filled with a chaotic complexity that can confuse the seeing ability of even the most advanced photographer. Finding order means to eliminate what doesn’t need to be there. Isolate what is important and let the rest go. Simplify your composition where all the elements that appear are there for a reason and nothing is left that interferes with your visual story.

3.       Use Symphonic Melody (SM).
Symphonic Melody? You won’t find this terminology in any text book or photography instructional book. But, it is a concept I apply consistently when I am in the field. Simply defined, Symphonic Melody is the visual music that defines your image. Think of it like this. Most movie soundtracks carry a basic overall theme through the entire movie. There may be variations of that theme presented, but the basic musical melody is applied across the full spectrum of the musical score (remember Dances With Wolves – great musical score! ). SM as applied to a photograph creates a consistent visual effect using color, contrast, and composition where the overall color theme is carried across the image with enough variation to give it character and definition. More often than not, your main subject sits in contrast to that scheme and stands apart. SM may not apply to every situation, but it does provide a visual impact that will capture the eye of anyone who views your work.

Okay, I could provide a number of other ways I use to find the shot, but these three are instrumental in their impact to any given photo opportunity.