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, January 31, 2016

Dad's and Sons and BB Guns

My boys were a lot more fun when they were younger than they are now. Both are pretty well grown up with one about to finish college looking to make his mark on the world and the other has been scribbling his mark for several years now in his own way. When I think back on it there are times I wish I could have hit the PAUSE button to slow down the progression of time and enjoy those younger moments more thoroughly. That was back in the day before digital cameras were available and before I began to pursue photography in eanest. Thank God for those cheap disposable film cameras, for without the priceless visual memories created with their help, those memories would only be...memories.

I'll never forget that Christmas I bought the boys a BB-Gun...A Daisy Red Rider, one of the classics. I still use it today all these years later mostly to plink a pop can or two or pop the rear ends of troublesome dogs to scare them off. It still shoots almost straight and level, enough anyway to hit a pop can with it.

That year Christmas it was bitter cold back in Oklahoma with snow actually still on the ground, which is rare that time of year even for that part of the country. We bundled up and stepped into our tiny backyard and setup a pop can or two for them to shoot at. After some instructions and safety no-no's. I knelt behind them to help steady their aim and let them have it. The excitement in their eyes when they heard than can go Clank! when a BB struck home was worth the cold fingers and runny noses.  I still love to hear the clank of a pop can when I shoot it.

There is just something about Dad's, BB-Guns, and boys. A right of passage offered to us as one of the most perfect of bonding times. Grand adventures play out in their minds, I know this to be true because I did the same thing when I was a kid. That BB-Gun I owned was probably one of the greatest imagination expanding tools ever invented. Not only did it open up great adventures it taught me reponsibility. BB-Guns are not toys and need to be treated as such. Even young boys can learn about such things.

Through every season, numerous times I monitored their activity with the BB-Gun until they were old enough to shoot on their own. That tiny backyard transformed into big game hunting, Olympic style target shooting, and just plain-ole fun of shooting a can. Hot or cold we found time to shoot in the backyard...not often enough I now realize, but at least we have those moments.

In time we graduated to going squirrel hunting. Tim the oldest got to carry a single shot 22 rifle, and Christopher, not quite big enough to handle such a gun got to carry the BB-gun. We hiked across a grassy field almost as tall as Christopher and he wasn't too happy about it, but all of that changed once we got to the squirrel spot. There was a small creek barely wide enough to call it a creek that meandered through a tnagle (that is tnagle not tangel) of woods. We saw a squirrel or two but never got to shoot one, but man-o-man did they have fun. Great times they were, and alas, not often enough did we do such things. Where is that PAUSE button when a DAD really needs one.

Too often life interferes Work, responsibility, bills, know the drill. All important elements of being a dad that cannot be ignored. Too often though they tend to take up a disproportionant amount of time, resources, and energy to be able to truly pursue those memory making moments.

I am thankful for that BB-Gun and the perfect times it created back then. In my older age now I realize a missing PAUSE button was not the problem...I was...for not making more time, but at least we do have those old grainy disposable camera film pictures.

Friday, January 22, 2016

So...Why do My Snow Pictures Look Gray?

It's snowing in Kentucky at the moment. Not just any ordinary snow, but one of the heaviest snow falls in this part of the country in quite some time. It's still coming down and we're showing between 11 and 12 inches with another inch or two expected before the storm finally sweeps on east. Over the next day or so, locations east of us will receive upwards to 2 feet of snow breaking long standing records.  Last year we had a late but big snow as well...not this big, but beautiful.

From 2015

I managed to get out for while this morning. Conditons were not very good for taking picutres, tomorrow will be better after it clears off some, but it was fun to drive around in a real blizzard. Driving a 4-wheel drive Jeep makes blizzard driving a whole lot easier and safer. Also managed to take a few pictures along the way. Snapshots mostly, not worrying too much about exposure, just trying to capture the blizzard while it was happening. A short time later I downloaded the images and as I expected, most of that beautiful white snow looked dingy gray. I suspect this happens a lot out there. So here is a short primer on why your camera tends to turn white snow gray.

Digital cameras with all their high tech standards built in have no clue what it is looking at. It could care less if you are shooting a sunset, a brick wall, a beach, or a snow scene. When you are shooting in one of the AUTO modes, and that includes Aperture or Shutter Priority, it wants to move the exposure to a middle value.

Examine the gray scale chart below.  Notice how the scale goes from pure white on the left to solid black on the right with the middle bar being a neutral value gray with varying degrees of shade between. What your AUTO exposure wants to do is move your exposure to the middle where that neutral gray value resides. It reads the light, then sets the exposure for a middle tone value, an average in reality. This average exposure tends to work just fine when you are photographing a scene with varying degrees of tonal variations, but when you are photographing a field of snow that is mostly white, well, that average exposure is really gray. There are other factors involved including time of day, whether it is overcast or sunny, but for the most part this is why your snow pictures look gray.

So, how do we get around that situation? Look at these two images. What is different about them? The first one is an AUTO exposure out of camera shot, while the second one used what is called Exposure Compensation. The first one is quite gray looking while the other retains a more realiztic looking white about it. The light was the same and they were taken just seconds apart. So why is one gray and the other more white in appearance?

Camera AUTO Exposure

Camera +1 Exposure Compensation

Ever notice that little +/- button usually located on the top or back of your camera? That little button is purhaps the most useful function on your camera. The only button I use more is the shutter release button.

This +/- button is used to tell the camera to compensate up or down from the exposure value it wants to set. If you want your snow to look more white, then dial in a + value...something in the neighborhood of a +1 give or take. This will tell your camera to go ahead and select the exposure value it wants to use, then compensate that value a full STOP brighter. What happens is your gray snow images will shift more toward looking white, like the second image above. Actually there are a lot of factors involved and it takes some trial and error to get it to work right for any given lighting situation, but that is the simple explanation of why your snow pictures will often look nice and bright to your eye, but turn out gray on your pictures.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Old Guard

On January 29th a new action adventure movie will be released. It is based on a true story, the best kind of movie stories. It is an adventure about courage and dedication and one that strikes a personal note. The movie is The Finest Hours staring Christopher Pine. The event happened way back in 1952 on the East coast during a terrible storm where a Coast Guard small boat crew executes what is considered the most daring small boat rescue in Coast Guard History.

From September 1973 until August 1977 I spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Those few years became the defining moment of my young adult life, moments that still affect who I am today. Of all the events of my life, nothing retains the level of influence gained from those experiences. They were difficult, challenging, and at times dangerous, yet I would not trade those days for anything.

Most of my tenure in the Coast Guard was spent at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station located at Winchester Bay, Oregon. Winchester Bay was a small coastal community about one third of the way up the Oregon coast from the California border. With a vibrant commercial fishing fleet, it was also known as a popular vacation spot with miles of ancient sand dunes and unspoiled rustic beaches. At the time, hundreds of personal small craft owners would migrate to this location between Memorial Day and Labor Day. As a result, we were understandably very busy during this period. Back then, with a crew of about 24 or 25, we averaged around 400 SAR's, or Search and Rescues, per year, most of them occuring between those dates. Most of them were routine, but some were in fact life and death challenges.

One of our 44 footers
The Umpqua River Bar crossing has the dubious reputation of being one of the most dangerous crossings on the west coast. At times, when conditions are good, you can water ski across it. But when things turn bad as they often did, the bar turned into a hellish boiling mass of twenty, sometimes as high as thirty foot breakers collasping in multiple rows across the entrance channel. To combat these conditions we operated two 44 foot motorlife boats (MLB); the CG44303 and the CG44331. We also had one of the last wooden hulled 36 foot MLB still in commission, the CG36498. This is the same kind of rescue boat depicted in the movie. It's designation was CG36500, from the same construction lineage as our 36498.

(The following video depicts the CG44303 in action on the Umpqua River Bar as filmed for the Lassie series episode 'Tempest' back in the mid-1960's. This sequence heavily influenced my decision to join the Coast Guard and by chance I happened to end up at the same location.)

The 44's were remarkable craft and could perform a 360 degree roll in heavy surf and still complete the mission. They were designed to bulldog their way through the surf, maneuver on a dime, and execute dangerous rescues in adverse conditions. They were powerful, nimble, ruggedly capable rescue boats, but they were slow with a top speed of around 15 knots (about 20mph).

There was a phrase passed around back then about someone who had been in the Coast Guard for a long time, long enough to have witnessed a great deal of change. They were from 'The Old Guard'. Today's Coast Guard is a more high tech, highly motivated service. They still operate out of Winchester Bay, only today they run around in the newer 47 foot Motor Lifeboats. These vessels are very fast, highly capable rescue boats in their own right, but they are of the New Guard generation. From what I understand, the number of SAR's at Winchester Bay today averages around 40 or so per year, more a result of the economic times, and better trained private boat operators than anything else.

One of the New 47 Footers
There are times I remember back to those days and realize that our crew was the vanguard of a newer class of Old Guard personnel. We didn't feel it at the time, but as the years have passed, one begins to realize just how Old Guard we really were. We relied more on 'seat of the pants skill' than high tech equipment. Of the hundreds of small craft owners we towed back to the harbor, few probably realize just how fortunate they were for us to have been there. Stranded as they may have been, things could have turned dangerous very quickly without our intervention. There were times we had boats catch on fire, several capsizings with people in the water, boats lost in thick fog not knowing what to do. We also had one serious situation where one of the smaller commercial trawlers, the Holmes, got caught in heavy surf trying to cross the bar and was eventually battered against the ominous black rocks of the South Jetty. A crew on the 44303 pulled them off just seconds before the Holmes was shattered into kindling wood; a daring and dangerous rescue it was in deed.

Harmony under Tow
We also had the severed thumb or broken finger calls, and one I was directly involved in, a heart attack
victim who had collapsed onboard the fshing vessel Poky. Our crew received commendation for that one. And then the time the large trawler Harmony broke down during stormy weather and we had to head out and tow them back to safety. It was a nasty long and wet ride.

Yeah, the Old Guard helped to build a lot of character for a lot of searching young men back then, To see a movie come out that focuses on the achievements of a previous generation of Old Guard crewmates, well, it does one good. I hope many of you will find the time to watch this new movie and hopefully it will give you a greater respect for a branch of the military few think much about. They are unsung hereos often going into harms way in obscurity. It's good to see them receive some recognition.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ancient Native American Effigy - Or - Just a Rock

Effigy or a Rock

Even from an early age I was fascinated with ancient history. I remember when I was, oh...maybe eight or nine years old back where I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, I found a thin oval shaped rock sitting in the bottom of my grandfather's filing cabinet behind the cash register in his store. It was about eight or ten inches long and maybe six or eight inches wide and maybe slightly more than an inch thick. I began to examine its smooth surface, at first it simply looked like a typical flat river rock, but as I examined it more closely, I noticed some weathered etchings on one side. My fingers rolled over the indentations and I turned it one way and another trying to make out what was there. I asked my grandmother, "What is this?"

 "Just an old river rock your grandfather found on Caston Creek a long time ago with maybe some kind of Indian markings on it," she said.

Indian markings? What could they mean? As my adventurous boyhood mind played with that idea, I began to see what I believed to be a man on a horse holding a spear. Probably fancyful wishful-thinking mind images, but that is what I remember. Even at that age I knew a little about history and understood that in the late 1500's and early 1600's, Spanish and French explorers had indeed traveled through that part of Oklahoma.

 "Looks like someone riding a horse carrying a spear. I wonder if someone with Coronado or La Salle stopped by here and one of them made these marks on this rock," I asked.

My grandmother, stopped what she was doing and took the rock from me to carefully examined it.

"Maybe", she said, "Just looks like an old river rock to me."

I never knew what happened to that old rock. Too many more important things came about in the years following that discovery and somewhere during all the changes it was lost or tossed out, or seems like I remember my grandmother saying she thought she gave it to the curator of the county museum. No telling where it is now. But, that single moment of mindful intrigue triggered a lifelong fascination with people and events from the past.

A few days ago I left my camera at home and drove over to a fishing creek just to walk around and get out of the house. The water flowed with a rapid pace, clear and cold, like the air that day. As I walked methodically along the gravel bank I glanced here and there hoping to find an arrowhead. After a while with no luck, I was just about to leave when I decided to walk along a much smaller feeder stream that angled along the bottom of a bluff to merge with the main creek. I was getting a bit tired by then and worked my way along the narrow channel more quickly than I should have. When I came to where the two joined together, I decided to give up, turned and took a few steps when I noticed lying face up what appeared to be a large spear point. Its color and shape blended with the background gravel so well I almost missed seeing it. I picked it up and checked for the tell-tell signs that someone had hand worked the flint of which there were good indicators of flint napping and edge working. It looked like it was a rather crude point, roughly made and not pristine with the tip broken and almost had the appearance of being discarded before it was finished, but definitely hand worked.

For a few moments I pondered on who that person was, what was he doing there, and how long ago it might have been. Amazing really if you think about it. Possibly thousands of years ago someone sat near this creek and made this stone artifact and somehow it ended up lying embedded amongst the gravel of this small feeder stream for me to eventually discover. What was life like for him? Was he alone? Did he have a family? Did he live in a village or was this just a hunting campsite? Was this flint spear point ever used to kill an animal, and if so, what kind?

I was encouraged by the find and continued my exploration working my way a bit further down the gravel bank along the main creek. Nothing new presented itself so once again I headed back to my Jeep. About ten yards from where I found the spear point I noticed partially buried in a muddier part of the bank an unusual looking rock. It just looked out of place there. Its color, a rusty reddish brown, and its shape were not typical of the river rocks found in that area. I picked it up and my first thought was...hum...what is this? Certainly it is not a naturally weathered rock. It looked to be made out of a type of sandstone, but felt like it was of a harder substance and indicated signs of having been hand worked. 

Front View - See the arched area across the front right bottom and the notch on the bottom left.
Right Side View
Top View ( See the drilled half holes, one on the left run straight down thru the figure and the one on the right side was drilled at an angle in the opposite direction. The overall appearance looks to be squared off with various right angle polished surfaces.
Hand Held angled view - A stylized bear purhaps

There were what appeared to be two unique half circle holes about 3/4 of an inch in diameter drilled at opposite angles to each other, two flat polished surfaces at right angles to each other that formed a triangular blocked surface on the left side with one of the half circle holes drilled through it.. Another curved area that appeared to have been honed down arched across the bottom and connected with one of the drilled half holes. A smaller notch on the bottom left created what looks like a leg, and a flange on what appeared to be the top looked like an ear protruding. The outer edges appeared to be squared off for the most part and the back and bottom look like they were still in a natural state. When holding it from what appears to be the front, one can see that just possibly it could be some kind of Native American effigy. 

A boy's imagination running away...again?  Maybe, but I've seen and held a lot of rocks in my day and I have never seen a naturally weathered rock to have all of these features on the same rock. Those polished squared off sections are pretty rare I would believe in the natural world, and for it to also have what looks like 3/4 inch wide drilled holes, to me, it looks like it was purposefully carved. The photo's do not do it justice for it is a very striking figure and when held at a certain angle, I can see a stylized bear.

I do know that many prehistoric Native cultures created stylized art work, some more detailed than others. This particular piece, although probably buried for who knows how long, having been found along a creek bank was subjected to at least some wear and tear from sand and water flowing on and around it. It could quite possibly have had part of it broken off as a result. The area where this piece was discovered would have been an ideal location for an ancient tribe to have lived; plenty of clean water, protection from the elements, fish and wild game in the area.

Is this find really an ancient artifact? I've certainly never seen anything like it before. Only an expert could truly determine if it is, but, for now, I'll let the nine year old boy's imagination that still resides in me believe that it is.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Same Flower - Three Looks: The Difference Between Ordinary, Pretty Good, and Extraordinary

It became one of my favorite images, but almost did not happen. Back in the day when I was still shooting film, transparency film to be more specific, I happened across a situation where I had one image left on the roll with a potentially great shot developing. In front of me alongside a country road stretched a long row of Queenannes Lace blooms. In the distance a low rolling horizon rose up to meet the setting sun which hovered just above the ridge. Subdued by a thick hazy layer the sun turned into a orange ball. My thought was to zoom in tight on the bloom and center it against that orange ball. I could only visualize the final image, but knew what I wanted and set the exposure to what I believed would produce the expected results. Problem was, I could not easily line up the shot because of a barbed wire fence. I stooped low through the wire, stretched as far as I could but just could not get the alignment I wanted without falling. I leaned a few inches more and rotated the camera but could only partially align the bloom against the setting sun which was rapidly about to dip too low. I fired off the shot hoping for the best. The final results turned out far better than I imagined.

This image became a good example of what I mean when I explain to novice photographers 'never settle for the ordinary'. Often they become fixated on the object thinking that the object by itself is what creates the great image. Too often they neglect to think in terms of photographing light. There is a difference between ordinary, pretty good, and extraordinary, and as photographers we should always pursue the extraordinary.

Ordinary, when it comes to nature photography, tends to have that fundamental look about it. It may very well be a good technical image and capture the basic appearance of the object, but, more often than not it looks like something that would be used in a Text Book, a documentary image of sorts, where the light falls upon the image.

Pretty Good
Pretty Good is a step in the right direction where light has been used to enhance the basic beauty of the object. It certainly provides a more interesting viewpoint, but there is more available to capture. As a photographer, if I stopped at Pretty Good, I would have left myself short realizing that anyone, even a novice can capture Pretty Good. There is always another look, another example, another opportunity to use light in an artistic manner, and that is what we seek to discover.

To capture the Extraordinary, one must look well beyond the obvious and visualize the potential of what is there. Even simple objects in ordinary circumstances can become extraordinary images with a bit of creative vision. One must also understand how the camera captures light, knowing why that white field of snow looks gray in your image, or why that deep blue sky looks pale and washed out. This idea takes you deeper, it stretches your thought process broader into the realm of becoming an artist, someone who has a command of the tools they use, someone with a vision vs simply being a photographer of things. It takes practice and a willingness to try something new, something different. It may require you to learn more about how your camera actually does what it does and why it does so, instead of just accepting what the out of box configuration gives you.

Same flower, three perspectives. The difference between Ordinary, Pretty Good, and Extraordinary is often just a few inches away, a different angle of light, another perspective, or coming back a second or third time to discover the right combination of light, object, and circumstance. What you will find is that even though Extraordinary seems hard and difficult to master, the potential for doing so is endless.