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, July 28, 2013

Kentucky's Tallgrass Prairie

I would suspect that most people rarely associate Kentucky with Tallgrass Prairie. I'm originally from the
prairie lands and must admit when I discovered that where I live now was once part of an isolated, yet significant segment of the tallgrass prairie region I was surprised. This area today is mostly farm country and from what  I can tell it is prime farm country. But that farming history has its roots embedded in the once ancient and diverse tallgrass prairies that covered this part of Kentucky.

Today only remnants of Kentucky's prairie remains scattered here and there along old fencerows, railroads, fallow fields, and stretching beside the banks of small streams. The story is much the same across what was at one time perhaps the largest ecosystem in North America.  Once covering over 400,000 square miles from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, the Tallgrass Prairie (not to be confused with the more westerly short grass prairies) stretched virtually unimpeded through the heartland of a nation. It was characterized by multiple species of grasses that could stand as tall as a man and supported a myriad of

wildlife including millions of the magnificent American Bison, or buffalo as most people call them. Today almost 99 percent of it has vanished having been turned into the breadbasket of the world. The only locations where horizon to horizon vistas of original tallgrass prairie can be found is in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Kentucky's tallgrass region was an isolated area that stretched like a long sideways comma from the western tip of the state across the south central portion. It covered thousands of acres, prime country that the first settlers turned into wheat and corn, soy and tobacco. It still clings to life along the already mentioned isolated remnant locations, yet what can be found still retains that nostalgic connection to a time when the land was wild.

Efforts have been made to restore portions of Kentucky's prairie. Halls Prairie near Auburn is a small patch of about 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie. There is also a small patch near Barren River lake. Kentucky's prairie never existed on the large scale that could be found across the plains. It was mostly open fields and patches scattered between wooded areas and along stream banks. Yet collectively it amounted to a significant area that retained it own unique diversity.

Near my home is a fallow field that displays an element of tallgrass mystery.

It is about twenty acres or so, yet within that twenty acres can be found the color and variety of wild prairie. Left alone, it will grow to as high as my shoulders in places. There are prairie flowers in abundance in this small patch. Far from providing that sense of openness that one might expect, it is typical of what Kentucky's prairie lands were like. Please enjoy these few moments exploring Kentucky's Tallgrass Prairie.


Friday, July 19, 2013


Many times I have photographed subjects only to have them turn out rather flat and ordinary. It
is frustrating for sure because that is not what I expect from my efforts. I am not a perfectionist by any stretch, but I know what I want from my photographs and when I am unable to achieve that level I am disappointed.

It is a struggle for most photographers to continually attain that high level of achievement. Maybe we expect too much of ourselves and need to simply chill out and get back to enjoying what we do and not worry so much about all of that. Then again, maybe it is because we do desire to achieve a high standard that we keep trying. When I view amazing images taken by amazingly talented photographers, I catch a glimpse of what is possible and that encourages me to continue striving for higher standards. Even so, I realize that I must find that avenue of expression that is unique to my heart’s desires. To do so is to make a personal connection that extends from a single element of discovery, through your vision, across time to all who may view that captured moment of light.

A successful photograph transcends simple mechanics where technical elements by themselves will not produce a great photograph. What produces one is your ability to interpret from the heart. Passion is what stirs it. Emotion is what drives it. Skill is what captures it. Being able to connect  all three is the desired result. Effectively interpreting a scene visually where the end result generates an emotional connection between you, the moment, and the viewer requires more than basic technical skills. Technique is important for sure, but this kind of approach requires a personal revelation. It requires that you give up something of yourself from inside to gain a deeper perspective of the impact you desire to capture. This does not always materialize simply from what you see visually. It requires you to see beyond the obvious and look more deeply into what is being revealed emotionally…the revelations that are truly unique moments of discovery.

Moments of discovery like this do not always appear on cue. They are rare happenings when circumstance, place, light, and personal insight come together. The personal insight part is the most difficult to interpret and then apply for it depends on your emotional state and how you react to the other three elements. 

Photography is about making connections through emotional interpretations of moments of light.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Looking for the Unseen

Occasionally I will have someone comment about an image I’ve taken and say something like this,

“How did you see that?”

Most of the time I struggle with an explanation and stammer through with a lot of… ‘uhs’ and ‘wells’ and ‘you see it’s sort of…blah blah blah.’ But that got me to thinking about that question. Just how do you see the unseen when it comes to photography? The more I think about it, it is more about how to look for the unseen than actually seeing it.

Looking for the unseen, as it pertains to photography, is first understanding the nature of light and how it affects your subject, and then understanding how your camera will react to that light.  Many times it is not a matter of actually seeing anything, it is a matter of knowing how the camera and lens combination will capture that moment and then taking advantage of those characteristics.

John Shaw who is an accomplished professional landscape and nature photographer and author made a comment one time about an image he took. The image involved one of those layered distant rolling hills scenes with fog separating the various hill layers. What he did was to meter off one of the distant hills to allow his camera’s metering to assign a middle tone value to that layer. Then, he simply let the rest of the image exposure fall where it would. His comment went like this. 

“Was that the way the scene actually looked? Probably not…but it was the way I wanted to capture it.”

What he captured was not what he saw visually. That concept is difficult for novice photographers to grab hold of. For some reason they have been indoctrinated into believing that they must capture what they see exactly the way they see it when in reality, photography involves as much artistic expression as it does technical prowess. Artistic expression is where most novice photographers drop the ball. They tend to spend too much time just trying to understand the whistles and bells on their camera and not nearly enough time…learning how to see. Artistic expression is all about looking for the unseen. In other words, looking beyond what is routinely visual and recognizing how light becomes the paint you as the artist will use to complete your work of art.

This concept is difficult to teach, but one of the best ways to learn about ‘looking for the unseen’ is to study art. Take an art class, draw a scene on paper no matter how crude, learn about color and texture….texture is what manipulates light…it bounces it around…softens it, hardens it, applies ridges and rolls, warm and subtle or cold and strong. These are 'light' events that are not so much seen, but are experienced visually. 

Photography is creating a visual experience for your viewer. When you are able to capture what they would not ordinarily see and bring it to life…then you will have finally arrived at understanding how to see photographically. There is an instinctive nature to accomplishing this, but it requires a subtle yet significant shift in the way you look at the world. When you watch the world from an ordinary viewpoint, your images will reflect the ordinary. When you watch the world expecting to discover extraordinary moments of light,'ll better understand what I mean when it happens.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine is not Enough

I once heard Barry Switzer, the former University of Oklahoma head football coach, in an interview tell how he answered this question from one of his players....

"How come we have to do this over and over a thousand times coach?"

His answer was classic..."Because 999 is not enough."

Photography is a lot like that. It is a simple fact that you get better with practice...the more the better. But, practice must be of a high quality production before it contributes to getting better. Practicing the wrong things over and over will make you very good at doing the...well, wrong things.

Always doing the same old thing the same old way more often than not makes you very stale as a photographer and limits your ability to grow. That is why I challenge those who attend workshops that I have taught to break away from the ordinary. Only concentrating on one type of photography may make you reasonably proficient in that endeavor, but not unlike physical fitness where cross training  provides a better overall fitness level, cross training in photography will also make you a better photographer.

I tend to concentrate mostly on landscape and scenic photography, but I also do location portraits, nature/wildlife, occasionally some action/sports, night photography, astrophotography, events, floral, classic cars, video productions, Black and White, and a lot of just plain old fun snapshots. I actually enjoy all of them and as a result, I believe that kind of diversity has improved my ability to see photographically. I've learned a great deal from each of them.

From location portraits I've learned the importance of expression, light, and timing. Landscapes and scenics have taught me about how to identify what is really important. From nature and wildlife I've learned to be more patient and exacting. Night photography has helped me read drama and story into a composition. From astrophotography I've learned to anticipate the extraordinary and to look for what is not always seen. From working events I've learned how to operate at a fast pace and make quick instinctive adjustments. Black and white has shown me the importance of shape, form, and texture. Floral's have helped me discover subtle details and how to apply light to enhance those details. Video has taught me about angles, steadiness of hand, and continuity.

There is a great deal to gain by trying a diverse approach to your photography. To become accomplished at all of those types of photographic requirements, requires a lot of practice. If for no other reason, variety helps keep your interest level higher. You know, coach Switzer was right...999 is not enough...I'm not so sure 1000 is either...when it comes to photography.