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 25, 2016

Nbr 2 - What I Like About This Shot

I drive by this place almost everyday. As a result I have been able to photograph this scene in all seasons and in just about every kind of light you can imagine. Why is it then this single image stands apart from all the other attempts to capture it?

Before discussing the technical points of the image, those of us who grew up in small towns or perhaps entertained opportunities to spend time on a grandparents farm will understand the emotional impact this image contains. There is something about a country road that takes us back to those times, to rememberances of our youth. An effective image does that. It will rekindle dormant memories of fragrant fall leaves, the aroma of a summer shower, the feeling of a season changing breeze. It serves as a reminder of who we were and bridges the gap of changing times between then and now.

Oddly enough even though I have photographed this location numerous times, most of those images turned out rather ordinary in nature. This one, however, was different, and I knew it from the moment I arrived that somehow, all the right ingredients were there to create something special. It was late fall and most of the leaves had already turned and dropped, but a few were still hanging around. All the fields had been harvested and the cooler seasons were about to settle in for the long haul. I headed down the road just before sunup hoping to see one of those legendary Kentucky sunrises. It was not to be as I was greated with mostly overcast skies that were stirred and churned into a deep caldrun of shape and texture. In reality I had not intended to photograph this location on that day, but as I drove by, as the sun began to burn through the clouds right at sunup, rays of light swept across the landscape in random beams striking where they may. I pulled into the road, ran down the lane about a hundred yards and started shooting.

After a few shots a single beam of light caught the tops of the dry grass growing along the fence row and just lightly highlighting the corn stalk stubble in the field. The one tree that still had leaves on it caught another beam. Still another bounced off the storage silo and the clouds broke into several layers of dark, middle tone, and paler grays. When this image appeared in my view screen, I knew I had captured the one shot I had always knew was there. The range of darks, grays, and lights blended almost perfectly adding a measure of distance and space. The road winding toward the home and beyond connected the view, and the old home standing resolute...well, it just looked and felt right...even in its original color version. When converted to black and white, all the best traits represented here became even more profound.

Why do I like this image? The Depth of the image in all of its aspects is what sets this one apart. It brings me home again. It shouts with nostalgia, with country living, with what is right about America. It is one of those ageless photographs where one can once again remember good times from the past, where wholesome values still exist, values that still encourage with brighter hopes for the future.

What I like About This Shot....

Over the next few weeks, from time to time, I am going to share some ideas about certain pictures I've managed to take and why I like them. Every picture I have ever kept I kept for a reason. Usually there was something unique about it, or circumstances surrounding them were unique. I am all the time trying to explain a picture to someone who may or may not have much reason to care or want to know such details. Guess it is sort of like a car buff who just can't stop talking tech about his hot rod.

Here is a photo I took a few years ago of a farming friend of mine. Always thought he carried himself well,
distinguished, yet down to earth, humble, yet proud of his contributions to...well...the rest of us. We timed the shoot perfectly as the day was covered with low hanging, dark, clouds with lots of texture. I asked him to drive his tractor out to the field so we could use it as a prop. You know, a tractor, the kind I think of anyway is something you can park inside a typical garage. As it turned out he wheeled out this piece of machinery that was the size of my first house...and that was just his mid-sized tractor.

Even so, it added so much to the story, without it, the image would have just been of someone standing in a field. The dark clouds full of texture really added a great deal of drama. The image would not have been the same without those clouds. At the time I only had one speedlight, and it by itself was not going to do the job, so I brought the big gun studio lights with a small softbox attached. I used two lights both powered by a homemade power supply consisting of a lawnmower battery and a power converter. Worked like a charm.

My approach was to take one of those larger than life images. My friend is rather tall at about 6' 4" or so, so I wanted to take advantage of his height. I framed him with the tractor in background with its lights on, against that dark ominous sky. Farmers and weather tend to have this love hate relationship...the weather sometimes makes their life difficult, and sometimes it provides an ideal situation that produces bumper crops. When its good, they love it...when its bad...well, I can only imagine the difficulties they must endure. far as why I like this picture...simply stated, it captures the symbolic nature of farmer vs weather and how both of them must work together to grow the crops we as a nation depend on. He, standing firm and resolute, maybe even a bit defiant. The weather doing what it always does, friend or foe. The way the clouds appear to be racing across the sky...indeed they were...portrays the volatile nature of the farmer/weather relationship. The overall look of the image, being dark and moody, reflects the struggle farmers must endure every season. Images like these are not always easy to construct...sometimes they just happen, and sometimes you just lucky. For this particular image, well, I knew what I wanted, I just got lucky how the weather cooperated with those desires.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Morning of Fall Magic

I can believe in nothing more appealing than a morning of fall magic when the fading warmth of the sun arches lower across the sky to awaken a morning mist stirred by dormant breezes.

It is then one experiences a feeling of change in the air, a pleasant change whose stirrings unleash persuasive life connections.

I can find no other time comparable to the gentle emotions induced through the cleansing of the air and the crisp aroma of falling leaves. A morning of fall magic returns us to memories of better times, to remembrances of a youthful hope, and the sweet hypnotic embrace from the best of seasons.

Fall magic not only reminds me of these things, it reminds me of what is most important...the goodness of life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stretch Your Imagination - Visualize Your World in Unique Ways

I once heard it said that the main difference between your average shade tree mechanic and Big Daddy Don Garletts is that Big Daddy was not afraid to go against the established ways of doing things. He was constantly questioning why things were done a certain way. Then he would try something different just to see what the results would be. One of his most famous innovations was putting the race engine behind the driver when the trend was that engines were suppose to be in front. Oddly enough, his innovative techniques and constant trying of new things propelled him into drag racing legendary status.

Photographers can  learn a great deal from Big Daddy's approach. We tend to fall into the same ole traps doing the same ole things the same ole way. Often what we end up with is a collection of cliched works. They may be good photographs, but they look just like every other photographers photographs. To truly separate yourself from the trend, you must stretch your imagination by visualizing your world in unique ways.

A few years ago I was attempting to photograph a sundown in front of a friends former home. She and her family had recently moved away and wanted some photos to remember the view from her kitchen window. She had always loved watching the sun go down across the fields in front of their house. Several times I tried to capture that unique sunset, you know, one of those rosey fingered affairs with all the dramatic clouds and sun rays filling the sky. Well it just wasn't happening.

One day as I stood next to the wooden fence waiting for the sunset to materialize, it became apparent it just was not going to work...again. The potential was good with broken clouds but most of them were drifting behind me in the opposite direction of where I needed them. As the sun settled and my hopes of obtaining that legendary photo diminished, I had one of those incredible moment-altering ideas...I turned around...and looked the other direction. Sure enough those broken clouds were being illuminated by the setting sun, but their hue was rather ordinary...sort of soft and creamy instead of dramatic and bold. Then one of those what if Don Garlett ideas popped into my head...What if I pushed the white balance all the way out to 9000K instead of using the standard 5200k. So I tried it just to see what would happen. The results were, how can I say it...Wonderfully Alive.

Those ordinary looking clouds suddenly became vivid with bold color and cast a dramatic atmosphere across the landscape. What I saw in the camera was not what I was seeing visually, but it was what I was seeing emotionally. It was one of the best attempts to visualizing the world in a unique way...not just accepting what was there, but looking beyond the obvious and using the cameras ability to capture light in unique ways. Stretching your imagination is one of the best creative tools you can develop and use.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Make Your Subject Stand Out

The young lady sat on the edge of a low-water bridge, with her feet dangling over the edge, tossing a few stones into the creek. Catch lights were infiltrating through the long strands of her blond hair creating natural highlights photographers love to use. She wore a light pink thin sweater and a lacy skirt that covered off-white tights, all of which tended to blend with the pale surface of the bridge. Although the scene setup was perfect, the lighting was marginal and it required a bit of touchup to make it work. (click on each image to get a closer look)

Using a single speedlight to fill in the shadows on her face, the image was snapped and eventually loaded into Photoshop Elements. Out of the camera it wasn't bad, a bit dull requiring a tweak of brightness and exposure compensation to bring the lighting back to within more normal limits. Doing so helped, but it needed something else. My subject needed to be separated from the background to create a more pleasing composition and dramtic light arrangement.

Although there are numerous ways to accomplish this requirement, some in camera and some post processing, I'm going to describe a simple way to separate your subject just enough to make them stand out.

First thing to do is to go ahead and make all of your normal post processing exposure tweaks. Things like brightness, contrast, color correction, get the idea. Once all of those tweaks are done we begin the process to separate your subject. The primary tool we use is the Lasso tool. You will want to set the feathering setting to around 20 pixels, then gently and loosely draw an outline around your subject. You do not have to be real precise, but try to stay fairly close to the edges of your subject.

After completing the initial outline, you will need to click on the Select drop down and click on INVERSE. This will select everything outside the perimeter of the outline you just drew. Now click on Enhance, Lighting, then Levels and depending on the make up of your image you will need to slide the Middle Tone Slider to the right a few clicks. This will begin to darken the background. Do not overdo it, just darken it enough to allow your subject to stand out.

Once you have completed that step to your satisfaction, click on Select again and Inverse once more. This will return you to the original outline. You can if you need to, boost your subjects brightness just a few points, then move the Lasso cursor off the page and click to turn it off. Your image now takes on a deeper, richer, more dramatic look.  It's that easy.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Transition of Seasons

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time exploring and photographing natures best offerings through every season. Unfortunately, there are times I allow moments to drift away becoming potential moments of discovery that are allowed to go undiscovered, lost for inexcusable reasons.

There is a campfire-like flame constantly glowing within me seeking to discover what is new photographically and in life. Circumstances and events will at times cause that flame to grown dim almost like the dying embers of a campfire as they cool in the wee hours of the morning. Even so, it is a spark that has never grown completely cold and only requires the gentle puff of encouragment and a fresh feeding of kindling from life to fan itself into a burning flame again.

Some of my finest photographic moments have played out after a rekindling of that flame. Maybe that is why I love it so much when a change is in the air as it seems to regenerate a yearning to get out again. The most enduring opportunities seem to always materialize during those transitional moments when the old tapers away to blend into the new. Life is also full of transitional seasons, seasons where change engulfs us, molds us, and offers to lift and carry us a bit farther down an uncertain road. Uncertainty, the catalyst driving so many decisions, yet somehow we manage. Photography in so many ways parallels life in negative and positive ways. Photography is not like life where mechanics and well established settings and techniques render good results. Photography is like life where constant adjustments to fit the ever changing situations that face us are required and applied. Unfortunantly, life does not have an AUTO setting which is probably a good thing, but it does have PRIORITY settings. Once we learn how to apply Priorities, well things tend to fall into place most of the time, at least until the next crisis arrives. But, having gone through it before tends to moderate the negative effects.

Even so, there are times I need to walk into a field near sundown to simply stand and absorb the sky, the breeze, the warmth of the sun, and most of all, the feeling of belonging as natures grandest canvas is painted in slow motion around me. Doing so tends to create a rejuvenated measure of anticipation and excitement. As I walk away from those moments I am compelled to wonder how often it is when everyday the veil of a changing daily seasons unfold, and we simply let it happen without ever noticing. Too often I would imagine.

Maybe too, that is why I so often point my camera in the direction of those approaching and ending seasons, to capture how the impact of their arrival and exit affects my vision of natures beauty and lifes challenges. New seasons arrive full of bluster and bravado. It is a change where at first it feels great, yet somehow as the last days of the previous one struggle to transition into the next, we're ready to move on tempered with anticipation for something new. The Good Lord understood exactly why we need to experience a change of daily and yearly seasons and he provided ample merging opportunities to add variety and enchantment to our lives.

I am encouraged even by the decline and death of a previous season for I know what follows is the renewal and birth of a new one. Photographing those transitional times through the year is like capturing random moments of a life with all its hopes and dreams intact, still to be fullfilled, still to find a path toward another new yet to be discovered revelation.