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

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.