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.

Prairie Sunrise

Prairie Sunrise
Prairie Sunrise

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Musical Waters

Rest alone is not always enough of what we need to recover from the challenges life throws at us. Sometimes we need more, something richer, something deeper, something that helps us rediscover who we are, a place to go for repairs to damages hidden inside. As life catches up with us, we look for a special moment to help us along, something subtlety powerful to carry us a bit further down the path toward recovery. Anxious moments, uncertainty, bruised emotions, sometimes a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with few escape options can weigh like a fearsome burden on a mind and body and cause us to withdraw dwindling emotional funds from our inner bank.

No one is immune from such things. As sleep resisted me and simple resting fell well short of what was required to remove the ghostly fatigue that hovered over me, my soul cried for something more, so...I went fishing.

The late September day proved unseasonably warm with mid-day Indian Summer temperatures hovering near 90 degrees. The first hints of fall tossed out their clues of what will come with a splash of color here and there.  A cobalt blue sky spread its wrap above the landscape and a few summer clouds suspended themselves like patches of white sewn onto the outside of a new blue dress. I slipped into the parking area just off the other vehicles, good, I was alone, with no camera, just my small collection of spinners, fishing rod, and the musical waters of Trammel Creek.

At first I just stood next to the waters edge taking in the clean air and listening to the song of the creek. The first step I made into the cold waters quickly filled my old tenny's and sent a chill through me but it was a refreshing reprisal from the warmth of the day. Flowing clear and clean around my legs the current spun and rolled its way down stream in its perpetual motion, twisting and swirling, seemingly happy with its purpose in life as it flowed around obstacles. I wished I could as easily flow around obstacles. As the first cast was signaled by the whirl of the fishing line and a gentle plop of the lure next to a stretch of deeper water, I sighed in relief asking myself where the summer had gone.

Moving here and then there, casting across and through the waters I lost myself amongst the luxury of fishing, not caring if, not even anticipating the strike of a trout. I was simply being there away from everything else, at least for a while. It was a fine and pleasant moment, almost dream like, listening to the lively song of the waters as they careened and cheered, before tumbling over the shallows with a sparkle of reflected light to fill the deeper pools in a choreographed chaos.

Time easily loses itself like a drifting fog around musical waters, and so it was on this day. With dozens of casts tossed into slow moving pools or across faster moving swirls, time indeed seemed insignificant and a full hour passed with barely a notice. During a long wade down stream to that 'other fishy spot', I saw them, the trout, swimming lazily in their blissful home pools, yet they seemed unaware of and certainly less interested in what I offered to them as bait. Didn't matter...just knowing they were there was reward enough.

Eventually, I returned upstream and found a small grassy clump where I could sit in the cool of a shade. Ten yards to either side of me flowed a crystal clear set of riffles keeping time with the sounds of the day. Overhead a majestic hawk surveyed the fields, banking and gliding with little or no effort. With barely a flap he caught a rising air current and soared up and over the ridge dominating the western edge of the creek, and was gone. Down stream there was a chatter, a blur of movement, then a splash. I turned to see ole Mr. Kingfisher launch himself back into the air, this time carrying a meal in his beak.

The fishing was slow, so as I sat in the shade, I lowered the rod and simply listened to the natural quiet. Sometimes we need quiet in our day as a counter balance to all the cluttering noise that infiltrates our lives. Sometimes quiet is uncomfortable, at first, because our usual daily thoughts and actions tend to become inflamed by all the rhetoric and nonsensical kinds of noise we allow to distract us, so much so to where quietness seems foreign. All that noise and clutter causes us to deplete the value of who we are and we often find outselves poor of spirit and even poor of hope as a result. Yet, quiet is what we need more often than we allow for ourselves. How easily we forget.

Quiet and stillness is a powerful healer of the sorrowful anxieties that draw us ever closer to the edge of depression. We resist such things, being drawn into emotional states that hold us down, even so, on this day, I gladly allowed my thoughts to find comfort from the song played by the musical waters of this little dancing brook. In the process I became a musical waters millionaire, refreshed, ready to rejoin the world again, at least for a while.

Like the old Jeep, I still need a few more repairs, yet, the more-than-rest I searched for spoke clearly to me on this day when the fishing was slow, because as I have previously discovered and what was once again made abundantly clear...musical waters offer so much more...than catching fish.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Portrait Studies: Creating a Character Portrait

The world is full of characters and we who live in Kentucky have our fair share of them. Some are a bit rough around the edges, some are the salt of the earth, while others...well, lets just say they are bit more or less rough in their character ways. As a photographer, they all make great portrait studies, for they do come in all shapes and sizes and demeanor's.

This past few years I've been shifting my photographic efforts in a different direction...I've been doing more location shoots with more Characters...actually a better definition would be Situational Characters. What I mean by this is to shoot different situations using someone like a cowboy and his horse, or a biker and his Harley, or a farmer and his tractor, a homeless man sitting on a bench, and even a fireman and his fire truck, or as I recently accomplished, a pilot and his airplane.

The idea I keep tossing around is to find as many situations as I can and setup an interesting location along with dramatic lighting. Finding a willing Character model is only part of the problem...possibly even the most difficult part of the equation. Capturing them photographically boils down to following your creative instincts and patience. To accomplish this you have to be not only a photographer, but a weatherman, a choreographer, a salesman, a geographer, an historian, a magician, and also an optimist who keeps his fingers crossed hoping it all falls together. In essence, you must become a multi-dimentional character yourself.

Creating a character portrait demands you effectively blend your character with the light and location. Location is just as important as light and sometimes can require a great deal of leg work to find. How you compose the image depends on the location because you want to include in the background the supporting elements that enhance the moment. Angles are critical for the shooting angle can make or break the portrait. Not every portrait should be shot from eye level. How you make the exposure depends on the ambient light where dark skies can create drama and mystery, or colorful backlighting can set the moment in its proper place. Creative use of the white balance setting can dramtically alter the look of the image. Adding that creative flair also requires you to master the use of off-camera speedlights. Having it all come together at the same time requires the use of sorcery.

The idea on creating a character portrait is to shoot for one single image. It may require many photographs and a lot of trial and error, but the idea is not to do a typical high school senior location shoot where you take and provide a bunch of photos. The idea is to visualize what you want to accomplish, create the setting, add the accent light, throw in some dramatic lighting, and hope your character stays in character during the shoot. The result can often be stunning.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Photographing the Athletic Body

I have for quite some time been a strong advocate for diversifying photography skills. What I mean by this is to be willing to try different types of photography, cross training as I call it. I cut my teeth on nature and landscape photography and I still consider this to be my primary roll. However, I have learned just how important it is to try new and exciting types of photography including portraits, both in the studio and on location, astrophotography, a little sports or action, still life, incorporating flash or speedlights in what I do, and even a little video from time to time. This diversity I do believe has made me a stronger, more rounded photographer mainly because I have avoided falling into a rut , or stated another way, always doing the same ole thing the same ole way.

Some types of photography can be further broken down into separate sub-types, like portraits. I have fallen in love with shooting portraits, especially location shoots. By doing so it has forced me to learn how to use artificial lights to a greater extent than I even realized was possible. Using speedlights on location has opened up an almost limitless array of possibilities by allowing complete control of the lighting. This alone has parlayed into trying other sub-applications. One such application is photographing the athletic body.

Due to budget restraints I recently constructed a pair of DIY strip lights. Strip lights are a tremendously useful lighting tool allowing you the photographer a wide range of lighting capabilities. They are long relatively narrow light boxes that provide a linear light angle making it possible to photograph the body with highlights along the length of the athletic body helping to define and separate the body from the background.

It also helps to have a son, Christopher, who is rather athletic and willing to pose as a model from time to time, so it was only natural to try these lights with him. So here is the setup.

First of all the shot was taken outdoors late in the afternoon and not in a studio. The late afternoon light was still realitively bright, but I wanted him framed against a black background. To make this work, I had to kill the ambient light with my exposure. On manual mode I set the shutter to 1/125, the ISO to 100, and the aperture to f/5.6, just to see what would happen. As it turned out, the ambient light all but disolved and the background became virtually black.

Next, I set the two strip lights slightly behind and to either side of Christopher. This effectively provided a rim light that created a nice outlining exposure along his arms and sides. It also provided a cross light that helped to define his muscle groups.

The thrid light came from a 32 inch octobox placed on a C-stand and elevated to where it was slightly in front and slightly to one side. The octobox provided a nice downward flow of light that created the muscle defining shadows so important for capturing the athletic body.

After the initial setup, it was just a matter of getting the power settings on the lights adjusted to provide the proper exposure values. Many photographers will use light meters and worry about lighting ratios between the key light and the accent lights. That is all fine and good, but I simply use the instinctive method of trial and error...when it looks right it is right regardless of what the ratios are.

You do not always have to use strip lighting to capture the athletic body. Sometimes a simple bare speedlight or two will do the job. In this next image, that is exactly what I did.

I used two speedlights, one set behind and to the left of the young lady athlete and one set in front and to one side. This shot was made during a special photography outing with several other photographers and models. On this particular shot there was a black backdrop, provided by another photographer, setup behind our model. All I did was move the lights around and snap the shutter allowing the motion freezing aspect of the speedlights to do their job.

The athletic body is certainly an interesting and exciting subject to photograph. Using speedlights, strip lights, or whatever suits your situation can transform you images into works of art. Also photographing the athletic body is a great way to learn about lighting angles. Like an artist who draws the human body to learn about its form, shape, how light flows across it, and positioning, photographing the athletic body helps the photographer better understand how to apply light to almost any given portrait situation. It also serves as a great learning tool or proving tool as to how to apply off camera lighting to your portraits.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Power of Light - Turning 4 Speedlights Into 8 or 10 or 12...

I am continually amazed at the versatility of what is possibly the most mis-understood component of photography; The Speedlight. The more I use them, the more amazed I become. Compared to studio lights, speedlights are relatively low in power, however they possess a huge advantage over their more powerful siblings. That would be portability, and although not as powerful, they provide enough lighting capability to handle most jobs. About the only real limiting factor they have is their cost. A name brand speedlight can often cost four, five, or six hundred dollars for one unit depending on the model. If you are like me, well, I can't afford those kinds of prices.

 In recent years some very good lower cost units have shown up on the market. Godox, Neewer, Youngno, just to name a few offer very good speedlights at reasonable prices and they work quite well. I was able to purchase four Godox flash units complete with remote transmitters and receivers for about the price of one high end name brand speedlight. Even so, four lights stretch my budget out about as far as I can take it.

Even with four flashes, I've run across situations where five, or six, or even eight flashes would have been desirable. I usually end up having to make due with what I have and the results sometimes fall a bit short. That got me to thinking about how I might be able to more effectively use the four units. After some thought and watching a few videos, it finally dawned on me that under certain situations, I could easily turn those four units into eight. It's all a matter of combining several images into one to obtain the desired results. Let's take a look at how this works.

Under normal shooting situations you would probably not have the time nor the need to follow this process and this is not HDR (Hi Def Res). To use this process you must be trying to accomplish a single task, or put another way, to come up with a single photograph and not try to capture a lot of different images. The idea then is to think out ahead of time what kind of image you are wanting capture, and then plan your shoot in such a way as to have a good idea of what you want the finished photo to look like. It takes a bit of planning and pre-knowledge of how speedlights work and some PhotoShop skills come into play as well, but they are relatively straight forward.

Let's look at how this photo was accomplished. It is a photo taken of a pilot and his airplanes at sundown. The nature of the natural light dictated that several speedlights would be required to get the desired results. What I wanted to do was to have his two airplanes sitting in the hanger with a Kentucky sunset in the background. I also wanted the pilot to be up front and's really a portrait of the pilot, with the airplanes in a supporting role. The background and general setting  was used to simply establish a point of reference and add interest.

There were several planes of light used in this shot, each with a different required exposure value. The first plane of light was the background sunset with the pilot in the foreground. The second plane was just the background and a third plane was the hanger with the airplanes inside. I did add a 4th plane, but it was a simple lighting of the fuel container standing next to the hanger.

So the basic process was this; I took several photo's of the sunset and pilot using two strip lights so as to provide light along the full length of the model. The exposure was set for the background, and the striplights were added to fill in the light on the pilot. This image then became the base line image, the one upon which the others would be built. Once I had the sunset composition established, the camera was then locked down and was not to be move again during the shoot. Focus and exposure values were set to manual and would not be changed during the rest of the shooting.

With the hanger composed against the background, the inside of the hanger became very dark. As a result the hanger and airplanes inside were not visible. What was required was to provide some illumination to the inside of the hanger, and to the airplanes themselves. To setup the second plane of light, I set three speedlights low inside the back of the hanger. On two of the lights were orange and yellow gels which were added to provide a bit of color to the back of the hanger and to also tie it in with the sunset. One light was left bare, mostly to provide some simple fill light. I took several shots with this configuration. Of course by this time the sky had become darker, but that was'll see why later.

As an added note I ran into trouble while performing this setup and exposure. The lights were a good distance away from the transmitter sitting on my camera which resulted in a weak signal on the receiver end causing the lights to not fire like they should have. Sometimes one woudl fire, but the other two would not. What I ended up doing was setting two of the lights to Slave Mode, and allowed the one light that was firing to trigger the other two with its flash. I also had to move them closer to the front of the hanger...those few yards seemed to help. This effectively solved my firing problem, however we lost a lot of time and experimenting opportunities because of the delay.

Once I had a satisfactory image of inside the hanger and airplanes, I captured a simple shot using one flash pointing at the fuel tank alongside the hanger.

Once I had all of these photo's taken, the next step was to blend them all into a single photo. This was done using PhotoShop Elements. First of all I had to create a base image by combining the two sunset images into one. This allowed me to erase the strip lights out of the image and to expose the background image behind them thus giving me a single image of the sky and the pilot without the lights showing.

I then opened the hanger picture and tweaked it slightly to bring out the details I wanted. This sky background photo was them copied and pasted onto this hanger photo. Using the eraser tool, I began to remove the the darkened out hanger exposing the lighted airplanes that resided on the layer underneath. Once I had accomplished this, I flattened the image to merge it into a new single image.

Then I opened the last plane of light and tweaked it much the same way as the previous one bringing the fuel tank into view. Finally after some overall tweaking I flattened the entire image and saved it.

Overall I was pleased with the results...I feel I can do a better job as this particular image still needs some work, and maybe someday if our pilot wants to give it a try, we'll do another session. The delay caused by the malfunctioning trigger cost me too much in being able to really do all the more subtle photographic techniques I wanted to reality I became frustrated and failed to focus on the things I should have. Regardless, we had a good time, I learned something new, and ended up with a pretty good photo.