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

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Steady Hold

The wind is always moving in Oklahoma but on rare occasions it settles into a drifting whisper. A whisper it was on that hot summer day more than 20 years ago when I drove the hour and half from Edmond to Catoosa near Tulsa to participate in a 4 position smallbore rifle shoot. It was my first time to try my shooting skills, limited as they were, against others in a friendly competition.

After signing in and moving over to my assigned booth, I felt a little embarrassed as I watched seasoned competitors remove their $1000 and even $2000 specialized target rifles from cases that cost more than my little sporting rifle. No one said anything to me, no one even cast a critical eye toward my feeble attempt to at least look like I belonged there, which I didn't. Most of the other dozen or so shooter suited up with their specialized shooting coats and gloves and rolled out their store bought shooting pads. Most of them setup their high dollar Nikon spotting scopes which allowed them to view where their shots fell on the 50 yard bullseye targets with ease. I used an old 8x pair of binoculars which were barely strong enough to do the job and only then if I set my eyes into a deep squint.

I cast envious glances at their beautifully stocked target rifles which were fitted with easily adjusted diopter target sights. A click right or left and up and down made easy work of zeroing in the sights. I had recently hired a gunsmith to replace the original v-sight on my rifle with a cheap peep sight that could only be adjusted if you used a screwdriver to first loosen the lock nuts then with another smaller screwdriver turn the adjustment screw. It took much longer to get the sight zeroed, but it worked, sort of.

I rolled out my shooting pad, a blanket, and attached the shooting sling, an old belt, to the front attachment, settled into the first position, prone, and after the range officer gave the signal, began to sight in my Montgomery Wards 22 caliber sporting rifle using CCI green label target loads. I knew in the back of my mind I stood little chance of really competing against these Olympic quality shooters and rifles, but I just wanted to see where I stood. I fired 3 shots at the sight-in target and with the binoculars noticed my pattern was tightly grouped but slightly low and to the left all inside the 8 ring. I made a quick adjustment and fired 3 more sighters. I wasn't sure where they hit as I could not discern with the binoculars any noticeable hits. The range officer called a cease fire, and we all walked out to our targets. My last three shots landed inside the 10 ring with 2 of them being 10x. I really thought I had arrived and these guys didn't stand a chance. My little old sport rifle was going to shoot rings around I thought.

We went through the first round from the prone position and my steadiness of hand and the inconsistent nature of my low end rifle caused my scores to fall off some. When we returned to the shooting station we were not allowed to score our own targets, so we exchanged with the shooter next to us. I managed to score a 47 on one of the targets, and a 46 out of 50 on the other. The shooter next to me who was decked out in all the pro-style shooting gear and using one of those $1000 target rifles scored no better than I had.

When we handed our targets back to each other, he said, "Nice Shooting. What kind of rifle are you using?" I smiled rather sheepishly and said, "Oh, just that 20 year old (at the time) sporting rifle."

His eyebrow raised and he lifted my simple rifle off the table. "You shot this target with this rifle?"
"That's right," I replied.

He shook his head in disbelief and said, "Well done. Most of the shooters here with Olympic quality target rifles can't shoot that well."

As the shoot wore on through the other positions, sitting, kneeling, and standing, my lack of shooting skill and inferior equipment began to take a toll and my scores although respectable fell well short of what the others were doing. But it was a fun experience and I learned a great deal about what it really takes to become a great shooter. I returned from time to time through the summer for additional shooting experience but never really did fit in with that group...I just could not afford to purchase all the equipment I needed to be able to effectively compete.

Over the years I have spent time with my two boys teaching the basics of shooting starting first with a BB-gun and eventually graduating to the 22 and shotguns. They learned well and seemed to always enjoy those moments sighting on those targets. My youngest son eventually joined the ROTC shooting team at his high school and competed with them making it as a team all the way to the Junior Olympics. They did not win anything, but the experience was amazing for them and for him.

Target shooting requires skill sets that carry over into other parts of your life. Patience, steadiness of nerve, accuracy, practice and more practice, learning to focus, to control ones emotions, becoming one with your environment and using your mind and your body to build confidence. Even today, I will pull out that same old sporting rifle, now over 40 years old, set up some of those same 50 yard smallbore rifle targets in the backyard and launch a few rounds with my boys to see if we can shoot a tight pattern around the bulls eye.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Shoot Into The Sun

Being able to see light as the camera sees it is essential for the photographer. Our eyes are amazing organs in
that they have a tremendous range of visual acuity. They are in effect adaptable to wide ranges of lighting conditions. We can easily distinguish between subtle differences of tonal values and details. Even in dark areas, out eyes can extract detail. The camera however is less adaptable and is very direct in its interpretation of light. That is why it is so important for the aspiring photographer to learn to see light based on how the camera reacts to it and let go of his visual sense when it comes to capturing amazingly lit photographs.

Most photographers who have been chasing light for any length of time at all understands that shooting in the middle of the day in bright sunlight is not nearly as effective as shooting during those golden hours of the day; before and just after sunrise, just before and just after sunset. We tend to shy away from shooting in the middle of the day and for good reason most of the time, but, shooting in the middle of the day is not so bad as long as you understand how to use the light at those times to your advantage.

Sometimes I will thumb through all the old family photographs taken with one of those Kodak Brownie cameras way back in the 1950's . In almost all of them we kids were captured with severely squinting eyes as we were positioned so the sun was in our faces. The pictures sufferd with harsh and deep shadows along with unnatural looking expressions. Our parents were victims of their photographic upbringing when ISO's (ASA back then) were low and you litteraly had to stand out in the sun to get an exposure that wasn't too dark. We, however have no such excuses as todays SLR digital cameras provide us with tremendous light gathering capabilites.

Consequently, we can shoot just about anywhere and anytime without worrying so much about how much light there is...somewhat anyway. The best light of course occurs during those golden hours, but you can effectively shoot in the middle of a bright sunny day by doing one simple thing...well, three really. 

First of all place your subject so the sun is behind them and their face is in shadow. This will by itself create those great hair highlights and also will create a rim light around your subject. Next, boost your exposure compensation, that +/- button, up to around +1 or even +2. You can also use something to reflect light like a commercial reflector, foam board, or even a newspaper, into your subjects face, but that is not always practical to do. Don't worry about the background want to expose for the face. Let the background fall where it may. This will often serve to isolate your subject and create that dreamy washed look. You can also look for somekind of dark background which will also serve to isolate your subject and to enhance the highlights from the backlight.

Another thing you can do is to throw some fill light into your subject by using either an external speedlight (flash), or simply use the popup flash on your camera. An external flash gives you more control of the light's strength and direction, but the popup will effectively illuminate the face. 

Don't be afraid to shoot into the sun. By using it as giant backlight, you can create some amazing images.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Grand Adventure

I remember that day in February, 1962. Who could ever forget when John Glenn made his orbital flight
aboard Friendship 7 becoming the first American to orbit the earth (after two previous sub-orbital flights by Shepard and Grissom). Not quite 10 years old at the time, I was like so many other kids of the day, captivated by the early days of the space race. The idea that someone could be hurled over 100 miles high and fast enough to fly around the earth in less than 90 minutes was straight out of Buck Rogers. But, it wasn't science fiction, it was science on the cutting edge and it paved the way for future success.

John Glenn, along with the other original 7 astronauts became household names. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordo Cooper, and Deke Slayton, I've never forgotten their names nor their exploits. Only 6 of the 7 actually flew those initial Project Mercury flights, Deke Slayton developed an irregular heart beat and was grounded, but later officially became Chief of the Astronauts. (He eventually did get to fly aboard the Apollo / Soyuz project).

When John Glenn passed away on December 9th this year, the last of the original 7 astronauts left us for his final flight home. Oddly enough, I was saddened when I heard about his passing. Seemed like a part of me died at the same time. So much of my youthful years was spent following the space program, it was almost like I lived it with them. In some ways I did, like the rest of us baby boomers who grew up during that era. I still have a strong interest in science even today and it was greatly influenced by watching those early flights play out live in front of us on those flickering old black and white television sets.

Remember those days, when every launch was carried live and every detail was explained so we could understand by the 'Science Editor' from all the news agencies. It was real news with high risk and possibility of a disaster unfolding in front of us. I was pulled alive into that small black and white screen and began to dream of adventures. We even had a television brought into a class room so we could watch the launches. What a great education. Instead of reading about it, we witnessed it happen. It was exciting history that changed our lives.

Today, I discovered and watched a three part documentary (Friendship 7: Full Mission) about John Glenn's flight. This documentary which runs almost 5 hours follows the entire flight from pre-launch to launch, thru all three orbits, re-entry and splashdown. Every radio transmission, file film footage, the entire flight replayed from beginning to end. As I watched the program I became that 9 year old captivated boy again. The legend that was John Glenn transported me back to those early days of exploring the unknown. I relived the moment when it appeared the heatshield on his Mercury capsule might have come loose prematurely. It was a real danger, yet he followed through with cool abandon. I watched as he had to take control of his craft when the automatic stablizing system malfunctioned. I cheered and shouted an 'atta-boy' when he walked across the deck of his recovery ship. I remember those days like they were yesterday. I long to experience such emotions again.

Sometimes I wish this country would once again initiate another grand adventure such as Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Even in the tumultous times of the 1960's, not unlike what we are experiencing today, the space program served to united us like nothing else could. As a nation we need another moment in time when we can once again be uplifted by the spirit of adventure. If I could ask the next president one question, I would ask him, "Is there a grand adventure left for this country to achieve, one where all Americans and indeed the world can benefit, and what must we do to achieve it?"

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Hike Through a Winter Woods

I have developed a bad case of the use-to-do's. I used to do a great deal of seeking out adventures...use to do a lot of canoeing and hiking...and fishing. Use to spend as much time outdoors as I could muster..use to have a great deal more energy than I do now. Seems I have allowed life circumstances to stifle all the activities I use to do to the point where sometimes I feel like I've lost my identity.

Today I managed to get out for a while and take a hike through the winter woods up to one of my favorite places; Shanty Hollow Lake. While stomping around the bluffs and listening to the solitude, it became very evident just how much I miss doing such things. Seems odd really, to write a blog post for an Outdoor Photography site when it seems I have such a difficult time getting out these days. Oh, the desire is still there deep down in the heart, just that too many of life's issues has interfered with following through with those desires.

I said to myself today...' know, you gotta just make time to do this more often and quit making it so difficult on yourself to do so.' I decided right then and there to...well, just do it. To help me get rebooted I plan on starting another semi long-term photo project. The idea is to revisit as many of my favorite places as I can during the winter months, to rephotograph them and take video footage along the way. Never did much videography, just some simple clips here and there. Hopefully, I can manage to capture some interesting footage. So here then is my first Winter Project article...A Hike Through a Winter Woods. 


The winter woods, how quiet and fresh, how serene and crisp. Even on a gray overcast day, the winter
woods offers within its realm a measure of solitude accented with an array of colors subdued by the very nature of winter. Finding color in an otherwise gray environment is actually rather easy for what color there is stands apart from the dullness of a slumbering woods. Green by far is the boldest color, of lichens and mosses, and a myriad of broad leafed plants that still sprout defiantly amongst the jumble of fallen leaves. No shortage of leaves of course with their brownly buff, rusty tan, and damped oranges. Add a splash or two of red and the variety and intensity of the colors of a winter woods comes to life.

Winter provides for fresh air like no other season. The coolness of it embrace invigorates the soul and cheers you on with each step. It speaks with a language all its own and intensifies with the slightest breeze. A wind will almost make it yell at you, awaken your senses as it slaps your face. Add to it a lively stream, one that rolls and chirps its song without end, each note the same as before, yet somehow blending into a sweet symphony as musically intoxicating as any born from man.

A winters woods, to feel it, to know it one must walk through it, to experience it one must linger within its halls and allow all of its charms to elevate you above what is normal. A winter woods is not ordinary, it is enchanting. Toss in a layer of fresh snow and it is transformed into a world alive with wonder. Oh to walk through the woods on blanket of snow one begins to live again, to find meaning again from a life so often held in check

A woods filled with winter reverberates with an energetic resonance not discovered any other time of year. A chirp, a subtle splash, a whisper of wind, a hawk circles overhead, and the flow of water as it dances along, around, and through a tangle of bolders and stones. These are the sounds of a winter woods. These are the elements by which one can be restored, to rediscover why one is drawn to such places.

I took a hike through a winter woods and witnessed once again the wisdom of why God created such moments.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Get It Right In Camera

Photoshop and all its derivatives have revolutionized photo processing so much so that very few photographers including myself could hardly survive as such without it. I'd venture to say that Ansel Adams himself would love Photoshop and rightly so because when used within its magical abilities, photoshop will transform marginally exposed images into works of art.

Photoshop with all of its power has also created a lot of lazy photographers. Indeed, digital photography in general has contributed to that laziness with its instant gratification. I feel fortunate to have studied the basics of photography during the days of manual film cameras. For having done so I do believe has helped me become a stronger photographer across the entire spectrum of the art form. Oh I still have a lot to grasp and must in time continue to develop my technique so as to improve my skills, but having studied during the time when you had to get it right in camera before you ever saw the image has proven an invaluable asset.

As a result, even today with the versatility and advantages digital cameras provide, I still strive to get my images right in the camera before downloading for processing. There are several reasons why.

First of all, its just a force of habit. I am always thinking in terms of f-stop, aperture, ISO, shutter speed, lens selections, and composition. Digital cameras today make it relatively easy to get the shot close but I want more than close. I want it as close to dead on as I can get. It is amazing how often I hear someone say, 'I have a good camera...I just put it program mode and it gets everything right'. Most of the time I simply smile and ask what kind of camera they have. Remarks like that reveal how little the person understands what the camera is actually doing. To truly take advantage of the power inside that camera, you still have to understand what it is doing.

Secondly, by getting the shot right in camera, any post processing that must be done is simplified. The majority of the digital images I take require minimal post processing. A slight tweak of contrast and brightness, and small amount of sharpening, and an occasional touch of color correction, and I am done. Most pictures I can do in less than a minute with the exception of portraits which generally take longer because of the requirements to get the skin tones and softening correct.

Thirdly, I want to stay engaged with the photographic process. It is part of the craft of photography to think through the problem and apply the correct solution. It is like the difference between using a stamp to mechanically create something over and over, verses building it from scratch with your hands. The satisfaction level is so much greater and the quality of the finished product becomes readily evident.

Lastly, getting in right in camera is not unlike painting a beautiful picture on a blank piece of canvas using all the artistic techniques and tools to capture a unique moment in time. It certainly is more difficult, but the rewards are so much greater for having done so. It also allows you to become much more creative. When you understand what is happening and why the camera does what it does, you begin to bridge the gap between being a simple picture taker of things capturing xerox images of what you see to becoming someone who can visualize the end result before you ever release the shutter. That is what artist do, they create works of art that stir the soul. Striving to get it right in camera elevates your photography to that next level of understanding what it means to become an artitist.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Capturing Character

Character is to photography like flavor is to food. It becomes what is savored the most. The image comes alive because of the visual appeal it presents and becomes the defining essence of whatever it is you are photographing. Whether a portrait or a landscape, every photographic opportunity is defined by its character. Capturing character therefore becomes one of the utmost important missions for every photographer. Recognizing character, then capturing it comes with experience.

Recognizing photographic character may in fact be one of the most difficult principles to master for photographers of all levels. Partly because there is such a wide range of possibilities, one can easily look right past it. One of the more obvious points of character is found with capturing people. Creating compelling portraits is all about capturing character. Without it, all you have is a Xerox image of someone. Character is what defines their personality and character definition is most often associated with how you use light and shadows to enhance the persons features. Soft light, harsh light, back light, sidelight, direct light, filtered light, defused light, daylight, low light, shadow light, big light, small light, all of these play a role in defining the character of the person you are photographing. Recognizing which one to use for each individual moment requires you understand the effects each of these can have on your subject. To develop this understanding requires that you shoot using all of these kinds of light. Without practise, no amount of instruction will improve your ability to apply what you want to do.

I once heard a former player for the legendary University of Oklahoma football coach, Barry Switzer ask his coach why they had to run these plays a thousand times in practise. Barry's answer was classic..."...because 999 is not enough". His point was to make the execution of the plays instinctive and that comes with repetition. The same applies to learning how to employ techniques that capture character. The more practise you get, the more instinctive it becomes, and eventually you begin to see or visualize the end result before you ever snap an image. Practise not only involves the mechanics, it involves the mental aspects as well. Learning to see photographically and thus learning how to capture character only comes with a great deal of perseverance.

Becoming instinctive is the key. If you have to think about what you are doing all the time, your results will often reflect the indecision you are encountering. Of course at first you do have to think about it, but go about it in a creative way by asking yourself, 'I wonder...or What if...or I want to see what this does.' Sometimes what you experiment with may work in one situation but not in another. Regardless if it works or not, you will have learned something in the process.

This applies to every form of photography. Think conceptually about finding character in the moment and move away from simply photographing things. Use this wonderful element called Light to your advantage and apply it in as many ways as you can imagine for imagination is what will elevate the character of your photography to a newer, higher plain of accomplishment.