Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to look at it more closely. 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 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.


Kentucky Backroads Wheat Stubble

Friday, June 23, 2017

Depth of Field - How I use It

Simply stated, Depth of Field (DOF) is that portion of a photograph that remains in focus both in front of and behind where your focal point is made. If I focus on a particular object, depending on the focal length of the lens, the aperture, and where I focus, a certain portion of the image may or may not remain in focus. The longer the focal length of the lens, something like 200mm or 400mm or larger, the relative depth of field becomes narrower for a given aperture. The larger the aperture, say f/2.8 or f/3.5...or even f/6.3 as opposed to a small aperture like f/16 or f/22, the narrower the Depth of Field becomes.

Here are two examples. The first image is general scenic shot that required a short focal length lens 18mm along with a small aperture f/22. By doing so, virtually the entire image remains in focus from almost directly in front of the lens to all the back to the sky. This is an effective technique to use for most scenic shots.

This next image is a subject specific shot where I used a long focal length lens, 500mm, along with a relatively middle to large size aperture, f/6.3. The idea on this one was to isolate the blue bird against a blurred background. The 500mm lens does by itself shorten the DOF which in turn creates a blurred background, but when combined with a larger aperture the effect can become quite dramatic.

What is important here is understanding how to use Depth of Field effectively in a photograph. So let's discuss how I use it and what I look for.

I use a tight DOF and a wide DOF for all kinds of shots including both scenic and subject specific shots. Subject specific shots are those shots where you want to isolate your subject and emphasis its characteristics without interference from visual background noise. Portrait closeups are good examples on when to use this technique, like the image shown here.

I most often use this approach when the background is generic in nature and can be used primarily as a simple natural backdrop. When blurred, the background now becomes something that enhances the image as opposed to competeing with it. However, there are times I want to include the background as part of the portrait. This is most often applied when the background provides a Measure of Place for the portrait, like this next image which was shot as f/10 at 50mm. As you can see, the entire image remains in focus with the pillars providing a dramatic flavor to the image.

Keeping with that idea, scenic shots can be quite effective when created using a tight DOF. Shots like these are approached much the same way as closeup portraits. Hre, I wanted to isolate this branch of fall leaves against the golden brown of the background. By doing so, the background blurred as it is contributes to the color flavor of the image without interfereing with the main subject.

The point is...always be aware of your surroundings, especially what is in the background and plan your shots according to the type of DOF that will create the most appealing effect. It is a realtively simple concept that more often than not is not always properly used. By understanding how your camera / lens combination works in regards to DOF, you can use this technique to generate some amazing photographs.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Day in The Field

Early June sometimes finds itself struggling to decide where it wants to go. It seems to know the dog days of summer are but a week or two away, yet somehow probably in defiance of the inevitable, the first week of June seems to always cling to the last remnants of spring. That is the way it was leading up to and then falling on a single June day afternoon recently. For six months we had tried to schedule a location shoot but available time and circumstance prevented us from connecting...that is until that day.

Leading up to our shoot the previous few days rain fell and the tempertures dropped lower than are typical for this time of year around these parts. Then the days turned almost perfect when highs in the mid 70's along with a light breeze. Clouds rolled in and created a covering blanket of soft white, which for a photographer is mostly perfect as the sky then becomes a giant softbox casting gently smooth light. Our day was set and the shoot was on...location was Romanza Johnson Park where Trammel Creek winds its way around the edges.

I showed up a little early to set up the changing tent and the speedlight stands...checked and rechecked the settings and the camera remote; Group A channel 1, Group B channel 1...yes, the power settings changed on queue for each. The softbox was attached to Group A light and Group B was powered down to about 1/32nd power...just enough to provide a subtle highlight. Group A is always my main light, and Group B is usually my main highlighter. Sometimes I'll use up to four lights adding a Group C and D all fired as Channel 1, but this day only two lights proved necessary and as it turned out, they worked exactly the way I planned.

My model was a delightful young lady, Sophie, who arrived shortly there after with her mom. After a quick intro as to what we were wanting to accomplish, we decided to setup along the split rail fence that stretched along the entrance road on the outer edge of the park. Because of the rain, the ground was too muddy elsewhere and the creek was running higher than normal preventing us from using the gravel bar.

The first few shots I made were simply establishing shots to verify exposure and light angles. Turns out a few of those were pretty good shots and became part of the image grouping. As always my desire was to have the model simply be herself, yet add a hint of sassy along with a dash perky. Some models are more difficult to work with, but some, like Sophie, took to it like a pro. I never overdo instructions, choosing to drop hints and suggestions and then let the model fill in the gaps with her own style and personality. Sometimes it is necessary to encourage a bit more animation from them and then offer a range of opportunity for them to give it a try.

I almost always use a long lens as this allows for a wider range of depth of field control plus it reduces any uncomfortable personal space intrutions that might occur using a shorter focal length lens. Some of the most effective shots are done when you simply allow the model to slowly move across a few yards without posing, without becoming too static. A flip of the hair, a subtle look down, a slight tilt of the head, gentle smile...allow the natural light to work the background, but allow the model to become herself without being overly concerned about her actions. Just allow the off camera flash to fill in the rest of the light.

The key...the eyes. They must be clear, bright, and sharp with strong color definition. Always focus on the eyes, not always an easy compositional task when your model is moving toward you. The trick is to take a lot of shots so you will almost always have a few come out the way you want them to.

Most of my shoots last about an hour and half...move out much past two hours and everyone starts getting tired with a noticable drop off in energy.

Every photographer develops their own style and I haved gained a great deal of insight from many of my photographer friends. Some tend to slant toward more of an edgy look, others are very creative and stylish, still others are plain and ordinary. Over time my style has grown into a simple homey look accented with a slight amount of sass and sweetness. Mostly I just let the model be themselves as much as possible and encourage them to loosen up enough to feel comfortable with what we are doing.

All in all this early June outing turned out to be a delightful day in the field...and the results...well, I think they turned out rather well.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

B-29 FIFI - A Portrait of a Legend

The B-29 bomber of World War II fame proved itself an iconic airplane both in design and function. It became the most expensive design project during the war exceeding even the development of the Atomic Bomb in cost. Almost 4,000 of them were built and two of them, the Enola Gay and Bocks Car dropped two atomic bombs on Japan ending the war.

When one of the few flying examples of the B-29, FIFI, came to Bowling Green, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to capture this beautiful airplane. What I wanted to do was photograph it at dusk using several speedlights along with some light painting, however, when I inquired about doing such a thing, the crew balked and it fell through. I was left with trying to capture the nostalgic nature of FIFI under less than ideal conditions. As a result, the images I took were made with the intent of creating black and white images. Black and white lends itself well to capturing dramatic skies when the lighting conditions are marginal. Converting to B&W allows one to take advantage of contrast which will offset the negative factors assiciated with middle of the day lighting. Another difficulty were the other people who had come to see the B-29. It was difficult to shoot around them and in some cases it became necessary to clone them out of the image in post processing, not always an easy task.

Fortunately, in spite of the tough conditions, the sky cooperated and I was presented with a blend of whispy clouds and blue skies, both of which contributed to exciting black and white conversions.

The idea behind the images was to recreate that 1940's look. The conversion process included using Nik software Silver Effects which allows for various black and white effects including simulating the use of different kinds of black and white papers. This advantage creates exciting possibilities. Most of the images that were converted used the Ilford Delta 100 Pro paper simulation. I also applied a sepia tone effect on a few of the images, along with high contrast and high structure giving the images a powerful, crisp look.

Capturing a portrait of a legend like the B-29 transported me if only for a few moments back in time to another era when because of the circumstances of the time, great planes were created which were destined to become some of the most beautifully functional machines ever created.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How The Picture Was Made - Blending Two Zones of Light

Photography requires as much post processing as it does time in the field. In fact, almost all digital images require some post processing to bring out the extra pop we all desire in our photos. Fortunately, there are a few easy to learn techniques that help us in creating a finished photograph. One of these is knowing how to blend two Zones of light.

First let's go back a step or two. Blending two zones of light starts in the camera and is accomplished by taking at least two separate images of the same subject, one using the ambient light and one using a speedlight(s), then blending them in photoshop as a single photograph. The reason we do this is because when using speedlights, it sometimes becomes necessary for the lightstand to be in the shot in order to get the best angle to light the subject. When that happens we need an easy way to remove the lightstand without having to perform a lot of cloning magic which can at times get cumbersome. It is also necessary because the ambient light is almost always darker than the light from the flash and we must allow for the 'Burning In' of that background light before the flash fires to illuminate our main subject.

Let's look at the portrait of a 1976 Corvette I recently made. The situation was like this. The background was the National Corvette Museum and I wanted to take the photo during that narrow window between dusk and dark. Doing so would allow for the capture of the dynamic lighting on the museum's Skydome and also allow for some of the dusky light in the sky to be captured. This however prevented me from capturing the Corvette with a correct exposure using just the available light. To accomplish that feat required the use of multiple speedlights positioned strategically around the Corvette to illuminate it.

The two zones of light then were; The background ambient light coming from the sky and the museum, and the speedlights used to expose the car. In order to have an effective light on the car required that two of the speedlights, one with a softbox attached, be in the shot. A first baseline photo was made without the lights in place and was done simply to get the ambient light exposure where I wanted it. The second shot then was setup with the lights in place to capture the car.

The first two images then shows the ambient light photo without the speedlights in the picture. It was opened as a RAW image and tweaked to obtain the desired results for the background light, then saved and opened inside the Photoshop Elements work window. The Tweak settings were noted for later use.

There were some powerlines showing in the sky in the upper left of the image so they were removed using the Healing tool. Then the second image taken using the lights was opened also as a RAW image.

Notice the softbox showing in the upper right of the image and also not as noticeable the speedlight sitting on the other side of the car firing into the window. The same RAW settings were applied so the second image would closely match the background settings of the previous image. Notice the Powerlines are also visable in the second image, but they were left alone.

Next I used the Select All option under the Select dropdown box then selected Copy under the EDIT dropdown. I then reopened the first image and used the PASTE option to overlay the second image exactly on top of the first one. This created a Layer Mask that could then be used to erase anything showing on the top layer to expose what was beneath it. In this case I simply seleted the Erase tool and expanded the brush to a medium size and erased the sky area, the softbox, and the speedlight shooting into the car.

With a little more applied tweaking of the brightness, contrast, color, and the removal of some stray artifacts to clean up the final image...the results!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

1976 Corvette - A Challenging Shoot for an Iconic Sports Car

The Corvette, America's iconic sports car has survived the test of time. From beginning's in 1953 it grew in favor and reputation until today where the newest cars are so filled with technology those of us who remember the good old days can hardly fathom the engineering used to create these marvelous machines. The first one I remember seeing and knowing it was a Corvette was a black 1963 Stingray. I was 11 years old and a neighbor down the street parked his new sportscar in his driveway. It took about three minutes before every person in the neighborhood hovered around this beauty. I've been fascinated with them ever since and even today as I am able to work parttime at the National Corvette Museum, I find their styling and mystique as endearing as ever.

A friend of mine, an ex-Navy guy and former co-worker Jim Rhea, some years ago discovered an early model icon sitting in disrepair with weeds growing out of the engine compartment and vines wrapping themselves around the body and inside the cab . The floor was rotted, windows busted, upholstery torn and frayed, and the wiring in disrepair. Even so, he saw not a ruined derelict, but a great project full of potential, one that would eventually take him over 18 months to restore. When he was finished, a 1976 Corvette was raised from the ash heap of forgotten dreams and restored to its former glory.

We met up again recently to spend a couple of hours photographing his re-creation using another symbol of this beautiful car as a backdrop; The National Corvette Museum (NCM) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This is the story of how we pulled off a challenging photographic session.

My goal on this shoot was to capture a single exciting photograph of this beautifully restored vehicle. One that captured not only the car's styling but the car's muscle and pedigree. Photographing a white car against a dark background is not an easy task when using speedlights. The risk is over exposing the white and underexposing the darker areas.

The first problem was to identify the basic process. I decided on using four speedlights, wished I had five, one with a softbox positioned so as to capture the lines and aesthetic values of the car. The idea was to position the car in front of the Sky Dome at the NCM and shoot around the dusk hour so we could capture not only the car but the dynamic flavor of the cone-shaped Sky Dome as the backdrop. I decided to once again use the flash sync process known as Rear Sync, where the flash does not fire until the end of the shutter cycle. This would allow for burning in the background and then filling in the car with light at the last moment.

We also needed to figure out how to best position the car in relation to the Sky Dome which took some trial and error. Once we had the basic configuartion figured out, it was a matter of positioning the lights to illuminate the car while we also captured the background in the same shot.

The basic exposure values were ISO 400 - f/8.0 @ 2.5 seconds with the lens set at 20mm and secured on a tripod. I used manual focus to make sure the car was the primary focal point Once the exposure was set, the camera was not touched and was fired using a remote cable.

The lights were setup in this manner: The main light with a softbox was positioned about 6 feet in front of and slightly to one side of the car somewhat above eye level with the softbox rotated to the horizontal position. It was also set to about 1/4 power initially. This was my key light. One speed light, set to 1/16th power and zoomed in tight, sat on the ground slightly pointing toward the front tire. This not only brought life to the tire, it created a seam along the front curve of the body fender. A third light, also set to 1/32nd power, was pointed toward the rear tire well which rounded out the side lighting on the body. The fourth light, set to 1/64th power was positioned so it would shoot into the cab area thus illuminating the inside of the car.

My camera was positioned at about 45 degrees from the front and was positoned above eye level. With this as a starting point, we made several exposures and checked the results, then tweaked the lights as needed moving them in and out or to one side to even out the light on the car. We eventually had Jim hold the key light and angle it down so as to illuminate the top of the car with more light.

Although not bad for a first attempt, there are a few things I would do differently next time. Even so, the shot came off pretty well. Thanks to Jim for allowing me to capture his iconic car in front of an iconic museum.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Night Train Portrait: Applying Rear Sync Flash as Part of the Photographic Equation

Shooting with off-camera lighting is possibly one of the most misunderstood elements of photography. Many photographers shy away from using them simply because they do not understand how. I know because I was for many years one of those photographers who relied on the excuse, "I prefer to use available light," which really meant I had no clue how to use speedlights. Yet, after studying the results of other photographers who did use speedlights, I became convinced of the value and creative power off camera flash can generate. The principles behind their use are actually quite simple, however, learning how to apply their power to my photographic desires has been an uplifting challenge I continue to develop.

One of the most creative ways to use speedlights is to apply what is known as Rear Sync Flash. Rear Sync is fundamentally quite simple. It is best used in low-light situations where it allows you to apply a slow shutter speed to pickup more of the ambient light, then freeze your subject with the flash which fires at the end of the shutter cycle. In other words, the shutter opens and remains open for an extended period of time before the flash fires just before the shutter closes. This also allows the camera to pickup some movement before freezing the subject. Used creatively, you can obtain some amazing results.

Trial and error, and applying visual compositional equations that work allowed me over time to build confidence in using off camera lighting. The Night Train Portrait shown here is one of my first portraits using speedlights where I stretched the imaginative realm beyond what I would ordinarily do. It was a moment when the use of artificial light became a larger part of the equation and was blended with a wonderful nostalgic setting along with appealing ambient light. It became a moment where the creative impact of off camera lighting was applied fully to create an exciting photographic moment.

Lets look at how this image was set up. The background, the Bowling Green Historic Railpark and Train Museum, was a key element in the design of this image. I wanted something classic and nostalgic as a background, yet interesting. Bold, yet simple. A place where design and simplicity of character were present. The bold incandescent lighting in front of the building provided a contrasting warm tone that worked well against the dark blue of the sky at dusk.

The model, the lovely Dallas, provided a delicate strength to blend with the contrasts of the background. By shooting from a low perspective, I was able to partially isolate her against the smooth texture of the sky. Although I knew pretty much how I wanted to setup the shot, applying the lighting took a bit of planning as well. On most location shoots I will use one light, sometimes two. For this image I wanted to take it to an entirely new level. To concentrate on creating one photograph, and one look. To experiment with Rear Sync creative lighting.

Two lights were required for this shot. One Key Light and one Kicker Backlight. The backlight was placed to create a halo around the model and the trailing train of material. All lights were fired remotely using a camera mounted transmitter. The train consisted of 3 yards of thin cotton material in a Burgundy color because burgundy will work with almost any color...white, blue, black, red....My model was wearing a delicately styled patterned dress which added a measure of elegance to the composition.

The Key light, set initially to about 1/8th power was on a stand set to be slightly higher than and about 4 feet in front of my model, just out of the line of sight of the camera lens.  The kicker light was placed on a stand behind the model. Its power setting was initially around 1/32 power, about 2 stops lower than the key light...just enough to provide a rim light effect. My camera, as always when using speedlights, was set to manual and the flash mode was set to Rear Sync. I used a wide angle lens and needed a bit of depth of field to keep the background somewhat in focus so I used an aperture of f/6.3. I also needed more light gathering ability so I bumped the ISO to 800 which allowed me to use a shutter speed of 1/6th of a second.

The beauty of using flash is that it freezes your subject so even with a slow shutter, my model was still sharp and clear, yet the ghost-like movement of the material was captured during the non-flash portion of the exposure. To keep the background sharp I set the camera on a tripod collapsed all the way down to its lowest level and made the shot from a low angle.

At that point it was simply a matter of choreographing an interesting look with the model which took some trial and error, but the results turned out better than I hoped for.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Creative Edge: Finding The Right Stuff

Many photographer friends of mine are excellent photographers. A good number of them are outstanding while most are solid practitioners of their craft. From all of them I see elements of inspired creativity and from all of them I have learned a great deal about applying technique in the field. A few of them clearly stand apart from the others in their ability to be creative and unique. Often I will gain inspiration from their work, but more importantly, I gain a greater perspective of what it takes to truly stand apart from all the rest. What I see in them is their ability know the difference between creating good, routine images, to understanding and applying a creative edge to their photographs. The Truth is...they possess The Right Stuff.

There are times I am able to observe other photographers in-the-field work flow. I watch what they do, listen to them explain what they are thinking, and I see the fruits of their work. From these observations and applying what I've learned to my own attempts, I've come to understand that taking the leap from being a good photographer to one who is truly creative is often a matter of continuing to think beyond the ordinary, to push the thought process to another level, to take each new image challenge a greater distance. Think of it like this; One does not become an expert at playing the piano except by pushing to play increasingly more difficult musical scores. Only by working through the new challenges does one become stronger. The same applies to photography.

Too often I discover too late that I failed to push the creative process far enough. In other words...I settled for what I had. The results, although sometimes promising, often fell short of my expectations as a photographer. But each time I examine mediocre results, I learn a little more, begin to recognize the limitations I placed on myself, and move closer toward finding the right stuff. I've discovered that failure in a photograph is never truly a failure if you learn from it. Oddly enough, I've failed so many times one would think I would be a lot farther along my creative learning curve, but the curve is long and undulating and in some places very steep.

Finding the right stuff as a photographer I do believe requires one to try many kinds of photography. Always doing the same thing over and over tends to reinforce old, bad habits. Trying something new forces you to rethink what you are doing both in technique and in creative thinking, and it builds upon what you already know. Then, when you do return to your comfort photographic area, your ability to look at what you do from a fresh perspective opens the door for more in depth creative thinking.

Finding a Creative Edge requires a degree of imagination. I often see (and take) technically good photographs, yet they often lackthat all important artistic element, one that is difficult to teach. In workshops I have taught I almost always emphasize the concept of looking and thinking beyond the ordinary. This alone, once mastered to the point it becomes instinctive, helps you the photographer to visualize your final product before you ever release the shutter. Sometimes we get lucky and things simply fall into place in spite of our efforts, but those with the right stuff have an uncanny ability to create with their imagination, then capture it with technical skill that lies beyond the scope of what most of us possess.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Combining Flash with Natural Light: The Mystery Unraveled

As a photographer I am always seeking ways to either learn new things, or to refine what I already know. For many years I shot mostly natural light subjects which included people. Natural light is of course a great source of light and when used to its fullest capabilities it can create some amazing images.

A few years ago, after observing other photographers create amazing images using off camera speedlights or flash, I took it upon myself to learn how to apply that kind of lighting to my photography. The results have been eye opening. For too many years I was afraid to use speedlights because I simply did not understand how to use them. Once the lightbulb came on inside my head, I suddenly realized the potential impact using an artificial source of light can have on my photography.

Naturally, and to some degree by default, I began to combine natural and artificial light. The experience has been phenominal, because by using an off camera flash, you can in essence control the natural ambient light as well.

Here are two similar images. One was taken using natural light only. The other using an off camera flash.

Natural Light Only

Using an off camera flash
They both have certain merits to them, however, you should notice how the background light in the natural light shot appears somewhat brighter than the other one where the background light is darker. Let me explain why.

In the first natural light image, the exposure was set for the model's face so it would be correctly exposed. Because she was in a shaded area, the resulting exposure caused the background light to be somewhat over-exposed causing it to appear brighter. When shooting in just natural light, your exposure is based on both the aperture and shutter speed settings along with the ISO and it will affect all levels of the lighting. If you expose for the background, then the model will be under exposed, expose for the model and the background will be over exposed. This is rather straight forward and simple to grasp.

In the second image where we used the off camera flash, what happened is when using a flash your exposure in essence becomes a two part choreographed process. You actually have the ability to affect two different levels of exposure in the sme image. The exposure for the flash is actually controlled by the aperture setting and the ambient background exposure is controled by the shutter speed. The reason this happens is because the flash from the speedlight fires for a very short period of time, something in the range of 1/2000th of a varies with the unit..and it is syncronized with the operation of the shutter. If your shutter speed is, lets say 1/200th of a second, it is 10 times slower than the flash duration, so the flash fires much more quickly than the shutter can open and close. Also understand that the Power of the flash is simply a measure of time and not the intensity of the light. In other words, if you set the flash to 1/4 power, the brightness of the flash is the same as it is when set at full power, it just stays on for a shorter period of time. But, it is still faster than the opening and closing of the shutter.

Shoot the image at 1/50th of a second or 1/200th of second lets say at f/5.6, the exposure created by the flash in essence will not be changed. Your subject will still be exposed correctly, however you can now set the ambient background exposure to cause it to be darker or even brighter.

Okay, now think about this. Why is this important? Because you can set a separate exposure value for the background, without really affecting the exposure coming from the flash on your subject, you now have almost unlimited control over your composition. By simply expanding your creative thinking, you can create some fantastic moody images where the background becomes a stronger supporting element in your portrait, indoors or outside.

Trust me, it's not all that complicated. Just remember you can control your background exposure with the shutter speed, and then control your subject exposure from the flash with the aperture. Think of it like this. Have you ever watched a professional photographer, especially in a studio, use a light meter? They will fire off the studio lights while holding the meter next to their subject. Afterwards they will make an adjustment on the camera, and maybe take another quick test. What they are doing is using the light meter to tell them what the aperture setting should be for a particular light. Most times they will use two or more lights and all of them will have a slightly different aperture value setting so they can control the look of the photograph with shadows and such. by using different light intensities from each light. They set their camera based on the light coming from the Key or main light.

Once I began to understand this basic principle about using speedlights, it changed my fear of using them into an adventure where I rarely use just natural light anymore when shooting location portraits. Knowledge changes everything about photography. It opens opportunities that were not available before and gives you the photographer creative control of how you want the finished product to look.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

I Wonder What That Was - A Chance Encounter One Starry, Summer Night

The night sky has for me been a fascination since I was old enough to look toward the heavens and wonder what was out there. As a young lad in the evening during the summer months I would often lay in the small field next to my grandparents house in southeastern Oklahoma and simply watch the sky.

Sometimes I was rewarded with a streak of light that zipped across the dark face of the night...a meteor burning up as it entered the atmosphere. Most times I simply watched and wondered. In time I learned the difference between what a high flying aircraft looked like at night vs an orbiting satellite illuminated by the sun. I was always fascinated to watch a satellite sail like a silver speck of light amongst the myriad of stars. The planet Jupiter seemed to always shine exceptionally bright, as did other individual stars most of which I never knew their names. The nights were full of adventure as I imagined becoming the first man to step foot on Mars, or ride in a spacecraft high above to view the blue and brown tones of home, and at the time I was facinated by the prospect of men finally landing on the moon in the near future. Those were the dreams of a young lad on summer nights spent gazing at the stars, however, one summer night, long, long, ago, I found myself lying in that same field watching the night sky unfold when an unexpected true adventure materialized.

I remember it being a moonless, particularly dark night, with the stars bright and clear and the Milky Way haze cast like a star studded, silver ribbon from one horizon to the next. Almost overhead, just to my visual right a single bright star sat motionless and broadcast its light like a distant beacon. It seemed unusually bright...I thought it was Jupiter, the giant gas planet. To my surprise, a few moments later I was to discover it was not.

After a short time I noticed another dimmer speck of light moving across the sky from slightly to my left and in front of where I was moving somewhat in a westerly direction. After watching it for a few minutes and based on its movement and speed I was pretty sure it was some kind of satellite arching across the night following its orbital pattern with the sun reflecting off its surface. I never took my eyes off the moving light...and followed it constantly for several minutes. After a few moments it became apparent it was moving toward that motionless, brighter star and I thought it might be interesting to watch it sail in front of it. To my surprise, just before it reached the brighter star, it stopped.

I wasn't sure what I was saw and looked around, blinked a time or two, and thought I had just lost sight of it...but no, it was still there, just to one side of the larger star which previously was by itself, but now had a small companion next to it. As strange as that event seemed, the evening was soon to become even stranger.

I kept asking myself, "What is that?" and after a few minutes I noticed the brighter star, which had been sitting motionless, suddenly start moving in the opposite direction from where the little one had come, and it was also moving about twice as fast, only this time away to the east. I'm sure my eyes were wide open in amazement as I watched it scoot rapidly across the sky, way faster than an aircraft could move, until I lost sight of it a few minutes later as it passed behind a distant tree line. I had no clue what it was, but one thing I know for sure, it was not an airplane.

Several minutes passed and I watched with anticipation for something else to happen, but nothing out of the ordinary appeared. I ran into my grandparents house all excited shouting, "You should have seen what I just was moving ...then it wasn't...then the other star started moving...and it flew away..."

My grandmother simply smiled and said, "That's nice...time for you to come in now."

No amount of my excited ramblings changed a single emotion from her about the subject. To her, I was just her grandson who was getting exciting about some hair brained thing like he always did. My fantastic story was just the imaginations of a young boy to her. But, I know better...I still wonder to this day what it was I saw during that brief, chance encounter beneath that brilliant, starry, summer night sky.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Background: Making or Breaking the Composition

The Background is one of the most important compositional elements for almost any picture and how you use it can make or break a photograph. Sometimes it needs to be discrete, other times bold or neutral, it should always provide context, and it should never overwhelm or compete against the picture but should always support the image theme. The background in essence becomes the foundation upon which well balanced photographs are constructed.

Novice photographers will often concentrate on their subject and forget about what is in the background. Many times what might have been an otherwise good photograph is ruined by allowing the background to interfere with what they are actually attempting to accomplish artistically. When constructing a picture, especially of a person, the background becomes the single most important element other than the subject itself. Using the background as part of your composition requires you to be aware of what is going on around your subject. Most great photos start with a great background.

Backgrounds can be rendered in many ways. Some are soft and diffused, other times it can be sharp and crisp depending on how you use Depth of Field. Your background can actually become your subject as long as you have something in the foreground that leads you to it.

Let's look at some examples.

This first image is a classic example of a Receding background. The main subjects are close to the camera, lit with a single speedlight just off camera to the left and as you can see, the pillars fall away like piano keys, yet they remain in virtual focus all the way back. The small dark patch in the upper left corner helps to balance the image with the dark suit of our male subject where the bride's white dress and sash helps to tie them to the background pillars. The shadows coming off the pillars along with the receding angle act like pointers leading the eye to the main subject. Everything associated with the pillars become background elements that enhance the image without overwhelming it. The background in this instance becomes an integral part of the photograph. How did I make this shot? Well, I used a small aperture f/10 and an average focal length lens 50mm focusing on my main subjects and allowing the physics of the lens aperture do the rest. The combination of the two allowed for a wide depth of field which kept the entire scene in focus.

Now here is one where the background is the subject.

The country lane and fence row leads the eye from the foreground into the image where the background becomes the subject. In this case, the country lane becomes as important as the main subject by leading the viewer into the image, but the main subject is what adds a nostalgic mood to the setting. Light is also important in this image with the highlights and streaks of dark/light randomly filling in the fields on either side. Again, the background and foreground remain in focus all the way through the composition. In this case, doing so was an important consideration to creating the shot. How did I make this shot. Similar to the first one with a focal length lens around 50mm and an aperture setting of around f/16. I focused about halfway down the lane and again let the lens do what it wanted to do not unlike the first image.

This one demonstrates a softer, but dramatic background. It is also busier, so by softening it the busy nature it has becomes less noticeable without sacrificing the dramatic flavor. 

The main subject here is crisp and sharp which helps to separate her from the background. Although the background is soft, it is still sharp enough to contribute to the mood of the image without detracting from the main focus of the shot. How did I make this shot? I used a longer focal length lens 120mm with a fstop of f/9.0. The combination of long lens and middle size aperture gave me just enough depth of field to create the softening effect of the background. A single speedlight setup just off camera to the left provided good fill light to bring out her face and eyes.

This next image places a great deal of importance on the background where it enhances and contributes to the impact of the photograph by giving the picture a high level of context.

Here, I wanted to tie the fireman to an historical element, in this case the old firetruck. To capture the full impact I used two studio lights with soft boxes that flooded the subject with a evenly distributed amount of light with emphasis from the left side, yet spill over enough to illuminate the old truck in the background. By turning on the truck lights I was able to warm up the atmosphere a small amount and bring a element of importance to the background. The fstop was f/14 which provided a wide depth of field thus keeping the truck in focus. The shutter speed was only 1/10th of a second with a 40mm lens. Shooting at such a slow shutter is sometimes questionable except when using flash units. The flash units fire so quickly, they will freeze the subject when under normal circumstances, they might be blurred. The background in this image becomes part of the overall subject and contributes to the story in a dramatic way. Color is also a consideration with the boldness and warmth of the red colorization.

The next image is where all of the emphasis is on the subject and the background serves only as a Neutral Medium to support them.

The photograph was back lit by the sun which helps to separate them from the neutral flavor of the background. A single speedlight was used to expose their faces. Neutral backgrounds such as this are very effective in portraits and create an overall pleasing effect. How did I do this one? Well, The background was a long ways off, so I used a middle of the row aperture setting of f/7.1 which gave me a good depth of field so I could keep both subjects in focus in spite of the difference in their spacing, and I used a long focal length lens 280mm. Combining a long focal length with even a middle aperture setting will always give you a nicely blurred background especially when the background is in the distance.

The last image is one where I used a mottled background, also known as Bokea, to create a sense of enchantment and place.

This was taken inside a shaded area where the mottling bokea effect was created by the sun filtering through the trees. Some of the sun that filtered through was used to provide a slight highlight on the young lady's hair helping to separate her from the background and to bring emphasis to her. A single speedlight and small soft box to soften its light was used to illuminate the two. It is important when using a dark background like this one to provide some kind separation light for your subjects. This can be done with a natural sunbeam, or with a small speedlight placed behind them, or even a reflector to bounce light back toward them from behind. The background in this case is quite blurred which places the entire focus on the subjects, yet the Bokea effect (mottled look) it carries creates a warm and comfortable background. How did I make this image? I used a somewhat large aperture of f/6.3 along with a long focal lens of 200mm. With the trees being a good distance away this combination helped to create a nicely blurred dark background that helped to place emphasis on our subjects yet provide its own pleasing effect.

When taking almost any kind of photograph, especially portraits, you the photographer must look beyond what you are viewing directly in front of you and consider how the background can contribute to the overall mood and impact of the image. Recognizing how the background contributes to the composition will often dictate not only how, but where you take the photograph. Your background can make or break your image. Use it with care and thought and your images will benefit tremendously by the effects a great background can provide.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sometimes...You Just Get it Right!

I'm not a perfectionist, on the contrary I tend to believe tiny imperfections found in any form of art is what makes that art...well, perfect. Even so,  I sometimes find myself fretting over a photograph I've taken saying to myself, "Aaahh...I should have done this or that" or "If only I had tried something else." A few months later I will return to that same photo and for some unexplainable reason, it seems to have improved a great deal from when I first took it.

Then there are those times when you simply guess right, and an image just falls into place almost by itself. The expression is right, the exposure is off just enough to make it interesting, the angle guides the view, and the light creates the perfect moment. A couple years ago, I had one such moment when one such photograph came out of an imperfect moment. I still believe it to be one of the best portraits I've ever taken.

She, along with her parents, were my subjects for an outdoor photo shoot that day. She was maybe five years old at the time, very bright, amazingly alert to what was going on, and quick to see through the corny jokes I used to entice her to laugh. She informed me that dog's do not go 'meow' and cats do not bark. After two or three such feeble attempts at my humor she looked at her dad and said, "Dad...make him stop." After I stopped laughing and regained my composure from being put in my place by a five year old, I quit with the jokes.

Her mom was a few weeks away from giving birth to her brother-to-be. Most of the shoot went pretty much the way most standard shoots go, pretty good for the most part, with some good keepers and a few culls. Even though I struggled at times to come up with a combination of moment and light, there was one instant of inspiration that created the shot of the day.

Mom was wearing a floppy, white button up shirt and the young girl was also wearing a simple, white top.  I positioned a single light and softbox to within a few feet of mom lowering it so it projected its light almost straight into her from the side. Then the moment of inspiration occurred. I asked the five year old to place her ear on mommies tummy. She gently cradled her head against the top of the tummy and her eyes gained a far away look as if she was listening for something. Not sure if she felt her soon-to-be born brother move, or maybe she heard the heart beating, but something caused her expression to shift from 'when are we going to be done?' to one of amazement. At that moment when her eyes lit up and a special smile filled her expression, I fired the shot.

Whether accidentally or on purpose, the image was slightly overexposed, but it created a wonderfully soft high-key look that absolutely was perfect for the moment. With a little help in post processing, it became one of my all time favorite portraits. Sometimes, you just get it right.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Time To Escape - A Moment of Extremes

Life has a way of creating Moments of Extremes. All of us face them, some more than others, but all of us must deal with challenges that catch up with where we are in life to hover over us like some kind of haunting apparition. The unique thing about such moments is they tend to create a need for an escape, a way to block out the difficult moments even for just a little while. Like the variety of extremes we all face from time to time, the way we escape from them comes in many forms. I use several, anywhere from wading a favorite fishing creek, to sitting atop a grassy knoll overlooking an ancient prairie, or taking a hike to a local farm pond, to standing alone on a warm, clear, summer night gazing up at the heavens. Whatever the form of escape, I will most often carry a camera along with me to capture the unique flavor of the moment. Doing so tends to reinforce the recuperative effects by allowing me to share the experience with others.

Living away from the city surrounded by corn and wheat fields and relatively dark skies, I am privileged to experience some of the best moments of escape by simply stepping outside. This summer, as I prepare to host a summer session of a night sky photography workshop, I find myself drawn once again to the almost supernatural healing effects of standing alone on a dark clear evening, pointing my camera toward the sky. By using its light gathering ability, hidden wonders that lie just out of sight, almost within reach, come to life. As I do so, the extreme moments filled with trials, fade away, replaced by a sense of wonder and amazement.

I ask myself, "I wonder what is hidden...there, next to that single star." Then I point the camera locked onto a tripod, and make an exposure. That single star, a blessing really, shining there just waiting for me to see it, is suddenly surrounded by countless others that lie hidden just out of sight where our eyes were unable to discern them because, well...we simply failed to look. They each have a name, the Bible says of the stars. In my newly found extreme moment of escape, I deeply wonder who they are.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Pleiades - Viewing the Seven Sisters Cluster

There they were, a bright little cluster of stars hovering high in the night sky; Alcyone, Asterope, Celeano, Electra, Maia, Merope, and Taygeta. Names from mythology of seven sisters, the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, floating and seemingly spinning across a cosmic ballroom with their lightly veiled gowns slowly whisping as they turn. We know them as The Pleiades Star Cluster, one of the brightest and easiest clusters to see in the night sky.

The cluster actually consists of hundreds of stars and is easily descerned with a pair of binoculars and just as easily photographed. They are one of the highlights of the late winter and early spring sky events. They float just out of reach, taunting and teasing Orion, The Hunter Constellation now brilliantly hovering in the southwestern sky. They are beautiful stars, bright with a crystal glow against an ebony sky their names forever etched into mythological stories and legends.

With my camera firmly attachd to the sky tracker, I made a few final tracker adjustments and test captures to verify the alignment, then I rotated the camera and pointed toward the Seven Sisters. With its characteristic buzzing, the little 1 RPM motor began its slow rotation to offset the relative movement of the stars caused by the spin of the earth. After a few seconds to allow the tracker to settle any vibrations, I pressed the remote shutter release and simply counted; 30 seconds, then 45, then finally 60 before releasing and closing the shutter. In an instant the image popped across the view screen and the Pleiades Seven Sisters Star Cluster offered a pleasant refresh of the day. My enchantment of their beauty continues.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

DIY Solar Filter for Your Camera Lens

August 21, 2017 is a red letter day for much of North America including Kentucky. On that date we will enjoy a total eclipse of the sun. In fact, one ofthe best locations to view the eclipse is in Hopkinsville, KY, less than an hours drive from Bowling Green. Bowling Green will be located right on the northern edge of the eclipse path and will be able to see the totality, but a few miles south and west will provide much better viewing.

Some of you out there are probably wondering about how to photograph this event without damaging your camera or your eyes. There are a number of commercially available filters you can buy that attach to your camera lens that will do a nice job, but they tend to be rather expensive. So, I'm going to show you how to build a Do It Yourself version of a solar filter that works quite well. It cancels out 99.999% of the light along with all the UV and other bad light and allows for direct viewing and photographing of the sun.

First of all, this version was made to fit my 50mm - 500mm Sigma Lens. The concepts shown here can be used to build a filter for any size of lens, its just a matter of scaling down the size of the main tube that is used to fit your lens. Also, use only solar filter material that is designed for solar viewing. Do Not compromise on this, your eyes will not appreciate the cheaper materials and they can be damaged.

Here is the parts list:  1 - 4 inch Cardboard shipping tube...about $6.00. (Use tube size that will fit your lens)
                                 1 - 8x8 inch Black Polymer Solar Filter Sheet - about $18.00 (one sheet will make
                                       several filters) Amazon Link is attached to bottom of this article
                                 Some double stick tape
                                 A small piece of thin cardboard

Step One: Cut a 5 inch section off the end of the shipping tube. Use a Hacksaw to make a smooth cut.

Step Two: Remove the plastic end piece and cut out the center of the cap leaving about 1/4 inch all the way around the edge along the bottom. In this case just follow the ridge that outlines the center of the plastic cap. This creates the hole through which the filter material will be applied.

Step Three: From the 8x8 inch sheet of black polymer filter material cut a square section large enough to cover the end piece. In this case about a 4x4 inch piece worked just fine. While cutting the filter leave the filter material inside its cardboard holder and cut across/thru the cardboard. Do not try to remove the filter material and cut it separately as it is too flimsy and awkward to cut that way.

Step Four:  Take small strips of double stick tape and cover the bottom inside flat 1/4 inch wide portion of the end piece. After covering the end piece with tape, trim the tape so none of it extends over the cutout section. Tape should only be applied to the flat piece along the bottom.

Attach Polymer to bottom of the cut out plastic cap sealing along the double sided tape.

Make sure the Silver side is facing forward. The end result should look like this.

Step Five: Carefully place the Black Polymer material onto the back of the plastic cap. Be sure the shiny silver side is facing forward or looking thru the hole toward where the sun will be. The black side should end up on the inside of the tube. Gently, but firmly press the material onto the sticky tape and make sure it is sealed all the way around. It's okay if the material has some crinkled edges. It will not affect the performance. Try not to scratch the material though. Just make sure the entire bottom surface of the plastic cap is covered so that no light can penetrate through.

Step Six:  Gently press the plastic cap back into the cardboard tube.

  Step Seven: Depending on if the cardboard tube is larger in diameter than your lens, you may need to shim
                    up the inside of the tube for a tighter fit. To do so, simply cut another section of the tube, about                     3 or 4 inches is enough, then cut a 3/4 inch slice out of it. Pinch the ends together and slide into
                    filter tube. Additional shimming can be applied once the filter is slipped over the end of the lens.
                    Just use a 3 or 4 inch piece of thin cardboard folded over so it can slip into the gap between the
                    lens and the filter holder.

Additional piece of tubing with a small slice cut out of it, pinched together and then inserted into the maintube. This provides a bit of shimming to create a tighter seal around the lens.

Here is the finished product:

Notice the folded thin piece of cardboard wedged between the filter tube and the lens. This keeps the Filter tube tight so it does not wobble around or fall off.

...and here is the results. Now its just a matter of having clear skies for the eclipse and/or some interesting sunspots to appear.  Exposure on this one: Manually set f/8.0  1/500th sec  ISO 100  500mm (cropped).

Amazon Link for filter material: