FINDING (AND SHOWING) THE FOCAL POINT

At the judge’s panel for the SD Fair we talk a lot about how it is not the judge’s job to find the real photo somewhere inside of the photo that was submitted… it’s the job of the photographer.  But we do not often talk about how that is to be done… how does one determine, for themselves, the proper focal point, i.e. the real “subject” of their photo and then properly present it to the viewing audience (or, in our cases, to the judges) or to their instructors?

Here are some suggestions as to where to start and how to think about doing just that:

  1. Don’t just blaze away because the scene in front of you is pretty and then hope something works – THINK ABOUT IT.  Stop for a moment and really ask yourself, why does this scene resonate with me?  Is there something in it that I’m especially drawn to, that triggers some emotional response in me?  And if so, what is it I or you would like to convey to the viewers?  For example, if you come across a scene where a bright red barn is sitting at the edge of a beautiful field dressed in its brilliant deep spring green attire, what is it that REALLY attracted your eye?  Is it a huge green expanse of texture with a bit of red visual punctuation?  Or is it this fascinating red structure backed by a green complimentary area?  Those are two very different photos.  A photo that simply gives both elements equal attention may be post-card pretty, but is emotionally boring and confusing.

    The better you can relate to and at least internally articulate your response to the scene, the more precisely you can determine what is the primary, driving element in it, the better you can determine what is the real subject and what is simply background and environmental subtext for it.  But to make the photograph really stand out, something – some single element – needs to be allowed to be the major subject… the “focal point.”

    A normal sized photograph is not a large enough visual universe to handle multiple focal points in the way something such as a wall mural might.  Competing areas of interest do not add to an image, they detract from it and from each other and combine in a negative way to make the final collection too busy and too filled with distraction to deal with.  So the goal is clear: simplify.  Think of it this way, if you had to describe the scene and your response to it to a person who could not be there to see or experience that scene, what would you say to them?  THAT is what you need to illustrate with your photograph.  Work at pre-visualizing what the finished photograph should look like and then set about capturing and editing it so that vision for it will also be the result.

    What makes a photograph – or any art work for that matter – yours and not someone else’s is that it can be only you with your unique combination of history, associations, perspectives, filters, etc. that can give us YOUR take on the scene, not someone else’s.  Art is about interpretation, never about narration.  Under the very best of technology the only way to actually show the viewers the full reality of a scene is to take them there and even then they may react differently than you.  Your job is to help them understand your take on the scene and let them see it from a perspective they may never have thought about, to show them something about that scene they might never have seen on their own, basically your job is to expand their universe through the vehicle of your imagery.  You cannot do that by simply letting multiple elements compete and dilute each other’s power.  Pick the one that most resonates with you, and then work to make that selection clear using the techniques below.

  2. Once you have identified your real subject, remove or at least minimize all distractions. Apart from the subject itself, every other element in the image should either enhance or support the “hero” subject.  If it does not, then get rid of it.  If it competes for attention, get rid of it.  If it is in any way distracting or dilutes the power of the subject, get rid of it.   But since this is not a painting where you can simply leave things out or move them around easily, how does one get rid of those distracting elements.  It is harder, to be sure, for photographers, but it is not impossible.  There are several ways to go about it; here are a few of them to get you started.
    1. Point of View. Sometimes a simple change in angle of view will completely alter the emphasis of a shot and hide or remove the unwanted elements.  Try moving around, drop to the ground, climb up on something, if possible it may be OK to physically move something, but generally it will be up to you to find the best vantage point.  The only thing that is usually true is that to let the viewer see things from a new perspective, that vantage point is rarely from eye level and normal distances.
    2. Focus and Depth of Field. Photography gives us a tool that does not exist in the other arts.  The human eye is constantly refocusing as it scans an area, so we perceive a scene as if it were all in focus.  Our brain allows us to concentrate on certain areas and exclude others from our attention, but everywhere we look we try to bring it into focus.  Consequently, most realistic style paintings show everything in focus and use composition to remove or re-arrange things to tell the story.  But the optics we use, and the human limitation on resolving power combine to let us use the illusion of “Depth of Field.”  That lets us create an image where only the area we want is in focus.  And because of minute pain stimuli in the optic nerve when we try to focus on something that is out of focus (put on someone else’s prescription glasses to “feel” this discomfort) we will tend to concentrate on the parts of a photo that are sharp.  This is a powerful imaging tool for our story telling.  Learn your equipment so that you can use it purposefully and easily.
    3. Tones. In the black and white world tone was all we had to tell our story.  There we learned to use it to lead the eye, to emphasize or de-emphasize elements.  It was important critical learning and one reason I hope foundational training in that film-based media never goes away because almost without exception, those photographers who started their photo education in that analog monochromatic world are better in the end.  Colors have gray value and if they are all the same or close, then color alone will not stop the final image from seeming flat and lifeless.

      Our eyes are drawn to tonal contrasts.  A light area in a dark environment or the opposite, e.g. a dark area on a light environment, will draw our attention and help tell us what is important in the overall scene.  The variations in tone helps the illusion of depth, topography, and form and tells us much about the texture and make-up of a picture element.  Purposefully use those tones to tell your story.  A different and more primitive part of the brain analyses tonal patterns than the part of the brain that analyses color.  So treat it as a separate issue and make it work for you not against you.

    4. Color. If the color of a subject is important to its story as you interpret it, then include it; if not… don’t.  But if you do use it, learn the psychological/physiological/emotional impact of color and how it will effect your viewers.  Humans will respond very differently to areas of bright red than to areas of bright green or blue.  Learn those differences and how to use them to help convey your feelings about the subject. Otherwise you may get a response you didn’t intend.
    5. Framing and Cropping. Our photographs present the viewer with a new universe… ours.  Within its borders we are constructing that universe and have both the power and the duty as artists, to include what is needed and exclude what is not.  Pay attention to the subject and how it dominates the attention of the viewer.  Is that being well served by the aspect ratio?  Should it be a panoramic view or a square, for example.  And then, when you think you have it, now carefully go around the edges and borders of that universe looking for anything, no matter how small, that might attract attention or take the viewer’s eye out of the scene… and get rid of it.
  3. Use Composition as the syntax of the language of your visual story. All languages have a syntax to allow users to make sense of the separate elements or “words.”  The language of visuals is no different and for we visual image makers the syntax is found in the composition of the elements. It is way beyond the limitations of a blog entry to cover even this part of our topic in detail but as a photographer, you need to do so.  Here are a few of the high points…
    1. Balance and visual weight. Visual elements have varying amounts of “weight” in any painting or photograph.  Of course, large elements are heavier than small ones other things influence that sense of weight. Dark tones are “heavier” than light tones.  Some colors are heavier than others.  Many lighter areas can balance a larger area just like trying to balance on a kids teeter-totter.  If some overall image is completely balanced it can become static and dead, but if it is too imbalanced it quickly becomes chaotic and unintelligible.  The trick is that perfect state of dynamic tension that is not quite balanced but is not falling apart.  It will do your photography wonders to study the issues of visual balance and weight as it is taught to traditional artists.
    2. Arrangement of space and Elements. The Greeks taught us through long observation that elements arranged based on the “Golden Rectangle” and “Golden Spiral” seem to be more universally appealing than other arrangements.  We have used schemes from Fibonacci numbers to the Rule of Thirds to make it easier for the mathematically challenged among us (like me) to arrange things.  But for every so-called rule, its opposite is also a rule and tells us about achieving specific responses.  We are told for example that placing the subject in a bull’s eye target location create a static unmoving, undynamic results, that has also just told us what to do if that is precisely what we want to say about the subject.  Learn the “rules” but also learn how to then turn them on their head for a previsualized result.  There can be as much power in purposeful bending of the rules as in a slavish adherence to them.
    3. Perspective (Linear and tonal). The use of perspective is an illusion designed to create a simulation of dimension and depth in a flat or two dimensional rendering such as a painting or photograph.  That illusion  via overlap or tone or detail changes as objects are farther and farther from us make us “feel” the depth that was in the real scene.  But for emphasis we can move the appearance of things closer or farther apart once we learn the techniques to do so… hint, hint…
    4. Leading Lines. Leading lines are those implied lines in a photograph that are so powerful as to lead our eyes and attention in specific directions across or through the image.  Without other clues, our written language has taught us how to interpret those since those of us following the Greek and Latin foundations read and write in a left-to-right, top-to bottom fashion.  Think of a typical line chart, say of one’s financials.  We can eliminate the chart legend itself and if the line is higher on the right than on the left we will intuitively see it as going up, generally a positive thing (unless it is a chart of liabilities).  This is so powerful we can not only lead a viewer’s eye into the subject, we can give them a sense of whether they are looking up to it or down on it and with all of the connotative baggage those phrases contain.
  4. Select the right lens to tell your story about your subject. I know we spend a lot of time in classes trying to sell the idea that the tools do not matter, that a good artist can pick up almost any form of tool and make art with it.  And that is at least partially true.  But it is not completely true.  A painter does not try to do everything with one brush because the effect of laying down paint with a particular brush will be different than with another.  So too, if you approach the actual capture of your photographic image with a complete pre-visualization of how it will look in the final print, there may be only one combination of lens and point of view that can achieve that vision.  Your job is to learn how different lenses render objects spatially and how to select the right ones for the work you intend to do.  This will allow you to optically establish the subject’s emphasis and importance as YOU wish, not as you must try to accomplish with a lens and/or camera position that is fighting that goal.
  5. Timing is everything. A photograph captures, usually, a finite period of time and except for purposeful long exposures, generally captures a fraction of a second out of a lifetime of visual experience.  Selecting that fraction of a second out of all of the options is one of the most powerful ways you have to making the image tell your story and perspective as only you can.  Almost every aspect of your capture is susceptible to a change in timing.
    1. Light and Shadow. As the sun moves across the sky, as it hides then peeks out from the clouds, moment by moment the pattern and the color of the tones painted on the scene change.  And not just different times of day but different times of the year see our normal “main” or “key” light – the sun – create different patterns and colors on the environment.  Your job is to learn those patterns and select the time when they best tell your story about your subject.
    2. Action. Anytime real motion is encountered, telling its story through the precise capturing of action is critical. But, unfortunately, it often happens in a fraction of a second shorter than even the capture duration.  That moment in a boxing match when the glove impacts a face, the moment in football when the incoming ball touches the hand of the receiver, the moment the bat collides with the baseball, those are the moments of action that cement the issue of the image’s real subject.  But to capture those predictably cannot be done with a reliance on dumb luck and a fast shutter burst.  You need to so well know and understand the action at hand AND your own reaction times that you can anticipate that desired moment and push the shutter release in time to capture it… shot after shot.  Then you can call yourself a sports photographer and not just a camera operator.
    3. The “Decisive Moment.” Henri Cartier Bresson coined this term primarily applying it to his street photography.  But it applies equally to ALL photos even ones we don’t think of such as landscapes.  Except here in California we do not think much about the landscape itself as moving, but as noted above, the light source is constantly moving and revealing or hiding different elements; the wind may be moving those elements around; in short it is not only the subject’s action itself that impacts our shot timing.  We need to be ready for any of it and understand how it will effect that final image.

Holy Cow, that’s a lot, I know.  And that is, as noted, just hitting the high spots. But if it were easy, there would be a lot more stunningly successful image makers.  Being an artist in any medium is actually a lot of mental and emotional work.  We are, in an important way, visual philosophers — “Ontologists” to be specific; our field is an exploration of the very nature and being of our world.  Our job is to present our findings to our viewers in ways that they can grasp and understand.  We have a lot of tools in our toolbox, but the most important tools are our brain and heart.  As the photographer Skip Cohen wrote, “…we cannot tug at a viewer’s heartstrings if our own hearts are not in it.”  I tell students all the time, forget just trying to photograph what you see.  Technology is so good now the camera can do that without any help from you.

Your job is a lot tougher, it is to photograph what you FEEL, because only you can do that.

 

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Re Making Schools Safe(r)

I did not expect to post another entry so soon.  But I’ve begun to get some great responses to my book on dealing with Active School Shooters titled “Making Schools Safe(r)” and available in both Amazon and direct from the printer, Lulu Books, at this URL: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ndavidking. (And thank you for getting the book and entering this incredibly important dialog about the safety of our children at one place we all think they ought to be the safest – in school.)  While not directly photo realted it does pertain to schools, teaching, students, and most importantly, lives, so it seemed appropriate to address an issue that recently came up.

One question I recently got had to do with the now heavily advertised “Bullet-Proof” backpacks for kids and also bullet proof briefcases for adults.  The questions basically are asking if they work since some schools are even adopting a new version of the old “duck and cover” drills where students crouch down or get under desks and use the backpacks as a shield against incoming bullets.  The answer is a bit more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”  So let’s take a quick look at body armor issues in a vacuum then apply it to the backpack approach.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the governmental body charged with testing and rating body armor.  In order to stop a bullet from a typical handgun up to .357 caliber you need a rating of III; to stop a .44 magnum you need a IIIA but to stop a high velocity rifle round like a 5.56/.223 round from an AR15 you need a rating of IIIMax or higher.  Nothing will stop armor piercing rounds from .30 caliber rifles.  Fortunately, most school shooters use 9mm or .357 handguns since few can handle the recoil of a .44 magnum.  So that means that if you are playing the statistical odds with your kid’s life, an armor panel with a level III rating will suffice.  For those of you convinced the AR is the weapon of choice for active shooters you need to go up to the IIIMax ratings.

But now when applying that objective data to reality, the issues get murky.  Lets say that the little darlings have a backpack capable of stopping whatever bullet is fired at them.  What is the problem?  Well problem 1 comes when you realize that those ratings are developed based on an average-sized (150-175 lb) adult male wearing close fitting vests.  Why does that matter?  It has to do with kinetic energy.  The least powerful of the common weapons is the 9mm handgun.  But at close range, its bullet, moving at well over 1,000 feet per second, contains 300 to 500 foot-pounds of energy.  If it hits a soft target and completely penetrates it the energy is not all released into the target; some goes on beyond it.  But if it is stopped in its tracks, it delivers it ALL at that point.  Meantime, an AR round at close range contains 1,500 or more foot pounds of kinetic energy; all of which is expended in milliseconds at the point of contact with a level IIIMax panel.

Let that number sink in for a moment.  Now imagine a sub 100-pound kid (or even an adult) holding a bullet stopping panel in front of them when suddenly that panel is hit with the equivalent of a 500-pound sledge hammer (or more if a high velocity rifle is used).  The blunt force trauma will be extreme and if the head is impacted it will almost certainly be lethal.  The bullet never touched them – it didn’t have to.  But all of its energy did and that is enough to kill.  Vests on adults work, when they do, because the impact zone is spread out and the mass of the target (the person shot) can better absorb it.  Make no mistake, it may still render them unconscious and with a long lasting very tender and massive bruise; it may even break ribs depending on what they are shot with and where the impact occurs.  But a child’s body is vastly more vulnerable, their bones less strong, and not even an adult could hold that panel in front of them, depending on arm strength along, and not expect some major damage.  No human has the grip strength to not have the panel ripped out of your grip and now slam into your body with the impact point far smaller as the bullet deforms the fabric.  

If you drape a bullet proof panel over a watermelon and shoot at it with a 9mm pistol, the melon will be fractured and broken into pieces even though the bullet never hit it.  Childrens’ skulls are softer than that.  Only solid (ceramic or steel) armor can absorb enough of the impact energy dispersal to minimize soft tissue and blunt force trauma but that type of armor is hot and heavy, and even so, no one is trying to hold it out in front of them as a shield based on arm and grip strength.  Imagine your child (or you) getting hit in the face with a 500 lb or more wrecking ball…

The best action for your kids is to not be there when the bullets arrive.  Run, hide, tack those backpacks up on the wall of the safe room, or other solid obstacles, or, when all else fails, ferociously swarm the shooter.  But those backpacks, while the panels inside may stop the bullet itself, they will not stop the transfer of energy.  Making you and them “feel” safe is not the same thing as actually being safe.

As my book notes, it is a sad cultural and social note that we are even having such a discussion.  But we are and we, as teachers, parents, and students, must.  Looking for scapegoats or blaming tools will not have any effect on this horrid phenomenon.  My book suggests some actions and solutions to try to minimize the damage but ultimately if we want to actually stop it, we have to look in the most disturbing of places… ourselves.  At the risk of sounding like a gratuitous commercial I’d encourage you to get my book, read it, think about it, and then start a community discussion about it.  I’m not pretending my solution is the only one or even the ultimate best one, and I certainly don’t believe it is likely to be adopted on a social wide level.  But perhaps it can lead to the discussions that will, in fact, lead to successful approaches.  And if it can do that then I’ll be a very happy camper.

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Photo Trek Prepping, Part 1

Landscape photographers all have one thing in common… they spend a lot of time in nature.  Out in the woods, up in the mountains, down in the deserts, etc.  It’s true that while some are serious back-packers and haul camping and camera gear deep into the “tall and uncut” regions, many never feel the need to get far from the road to find their imagery.  But sometimes, the side of the road is on a road that is, itself, far from anything else and far from help or assistance.

And yet one thing rarely mentioned among all of the articles on prepping your camera gear, including my own posts and videos, is prepping the thing you are relying on to get you in – and get you out – of that beautiful back country (or sometimes even the urban jungle): your vehicle.

Anyone who has gone with me on shooting treks, long ones or even shorter day-trips, may be aware of the emergency/survival gear I usually have on board the vehicle. If we’re going somewhere I think there might be some risk of emergency I usually give the rider a “tour” so they know where things are incase they are needed.  Otherwise I might not have mentioned it to avoid scaring some.

For inveterate city dwellers that may seem like pure paranoia. After all, modern cars
are increasingly reliable, you assume you’ll not be far from a commonly travelled
road, and besides nothing like that happens to to “normal” people… does it?

Well, first of all we’re photographers and in case you haven’t noticed, the term “normal” is a description that may not apply that perfectly to us anyway.   Still…

Why on earth would I usually have some “recovery” equipment, serious first aid kit, extra change of clothes, emergency food and water for 2 to ­3 days, and survival gearthat I could use for creating shelter, fire, etc. carried on board?  Recently someone took my prepping another vehicle as a sign that I intended to go live off of the grid.  I do like sometimes travelling off the grid, and honestly, sometimes the grid makes me crazy, but my life style and needs make completely rejecting it impossible: after all who living off the grid would need or want my images or my services or my teaching?  But if that’s not the intention, what is, and why would I choose to start writing about it here?

Back in Colorado in addition to landscape photo workshops I also conducted some mountain survival workshops.  And during that time I noticed something really interesting:  being well prepared is like sympathetic magic in reverse. Thinking
about the things that can go wrong and preparing for them often focuses you so that
you avoid them and they never happen. In those cases the emergency gear that was never used actually did its job before the need arose and in a preventative way.  All real martial artists know that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  It’s the same for emergencies; preventing them is far better than dealing with them even successfully.

So here is my plan.  In this first post on “Photo Trek Prepping” I’ll show you what I typically try to have on board.  Then you can tell me: have I bored you to tears and need to get back on photo things directly, or would you be interested in the hows and whys of using that stuff when an emergency actually occurs?  I would like this blog to be of value to my photo friends and students so I’ll let you decide if this is a path of exploration to take… or not.

So here is the car-related stuff that normally just lives in my car vehicles.  Let me break it into categories because they is the way I stow it.  The most likely item needed should be the easiest to get to, then deeper in the pile is the stuff I think or hope I will less likely need.  But first here is a very, very strong suggestion: everytime you head out for a photo trek especially if you are going alone or with one vehicle, even if it is only a day trip but off the major beaten path, create a plan and let someone know where you plan to go and as importantly, when you plan to get back. And when you get back, let them know you are back so they do not call out the cavalry unnecessarily. Yes it may inhibit ad hoc spontaneous exploration.  But every year people die in the back country who could have survived and been rescued in time if only someone realized they were in trouble and then knew where to look for them.

The most likely kind of trouble you’ll run into unless you are really into serious expedition mode deep in the Amazon, is some form of car problem.  But if you are relying on your car to get you in and get back out, should something go wrong or break or a mistake suddenly leave you stuck in sand or snow or mud you can, in an instant, find yourself with more than an inconvenient problem, you can find yourself in a life-threatening situation you never dreamed about.  When your car is dead in the water and the blizzard starts or the desert temp climbs up over 100° the least of your worries will be taking more photos.

Tires.  Probably getting a flat tire is the most common of car problems.  Even for travelers sticking to the major 4-lane freeways, debris in the road can shred a tire if you hit it just right.  This is a potential problem no one is immune to unless you are running one of the new “run flat” tires and paying for it with the harshest ride of your life.  Assuming you have normal tires, then here are questions for you: Do you have a REAL spare (not one of those tiny pretend tires designed for a few miles at slow speeds on asphalt) that can get you back to the pavement should you have a flat 20 or more miles down a rutted, rock-strewn road such as the road to the “Race Track” in Death Valley or up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pines?  I ran over a pile of roofing nails in the Mojave Preserve once time.  Participants in my workshops to those places mentioned have had flats, so it can happen to anyone.  And it can happen anywhere.  Trust me, there is NO convenient place to change a tire…

And if you do, do you have a jack that can be used safely in soft or uneven ground?  Do you have a lug wrench with sufficient leverage to remove lug nuts put on with an impact wrench sent to a torque that would spin a battleship? Can you get to those items (spare tire, jack, wrench) easily and most importantly, do you know how to use them?  Here is a strong recommendation… practice at least once in your level driveway!  Do you have a can of “Fix-a-Flat” in your car?  Do you have a portable 12VDC air pump?

Fluids.  Do you check ALL engine fluids (coolant, oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, etc.) before you head out?  Do you have extra on board?  When you are out camping or on the road do you check it every morning as part of your pre-flight ritual before heading out?  Do you have extra coolant or even just water?  More than one car has overheated coming up the steep grades out of the desert or the steep climb up to Whitney Portal.  Having your engine overheat and seize up on the fringe of the desert is an expensive issue and, depending on where you are, could be life-threatening.

Mechanical. In the old days the analog engines and gauges would give you some warning a problem was surfacing.  The gauges were perfectly adopted for providing data to the driver, and as parts wore the engine ran worse, mileage dropped and you knew well in advance something needed attention.  Now, indicator (idiot lights) panels and computerized engines will happily tell you when something fails and the car is coasting over to the side.  The new computer-controlled engines run more or less perfectly… then they don’t run at all.

Do you check the engine belts in your “pre-flight” vehicle check (if they are worn or loose fix it now) and then do you carry extra belts for the engine in case one breaks?  Do you have the knowledge and tools to change out or put on a new engine belt should you need to do that?  There are places where AAA or any towing service is not just a call away (in fact, as unthinkable as this is to modern students, there are places where you cannot get ANY normal cell service) and you will be left to your own devices to get you, your car, and whoever might be with you, back to safety.  If you spend time out searching for photos, then go to your mechanic, tell him that, and ask him to show you how to deal with a broken belt or other likely car maintenance issues.

Electrical Power Failure.  Sooner or later it will happen, the battery in your car will die.  Do you have jumper cables and know how to properly use them?  Do you have any means to recharge the battery if only enough to get it to start the engine?  There are small solar panels that will do that in an hour or so.

Stuck and/or Stranded.  Until it has happened to you, you have no idea how easy it is or how fast it will happen to suddenly find yourself incapable of either forward or reverse movement.  Stuck in sand, in mud, having a tire slip off the shoulder, or as I was a year ago, stuck in a snow drift left over from a freak storm I was sure I could get through.  There you are moving along nicely and all at once you are not moving, your speedometer hits somewhere near Warp 6 but nothing is happening except perhaps you might actually be going DOWN.  There is no such thing as being a little stuck anymore than you can be a little pregnant; you either are or you’re not – you either can move away from the spot or you cannot.

If you cannot move, then you are STUCK.  The first priority is getting unstuck and back on solid footing.  Do you have the tools and equipment to make that happen?  Do you have traction mats or the equivalent or the gear to make them on the spot?  Do you have the tow cables or straps or winches to haul yourself out with another vehicle or by yourself?  Do you have a shovel and bladed tool (axe, hatchet, good working fixed blade knife) to make the climb out easier and the hole filled with stuff your tires can get a purchase on?

If you tell me you are interested, in a subsequent blog we can talk about what to do if you cannot extricate yourself and must settle in waiting for rescue but for now if you simply cannot get your vehicle free, the decision has to be whether to stay with the vehicle or try to go for help and you may need to make it quickly depending on time and weather.  Did you tell anyone your plans as I recommended?  If so then your best bet is ALWAYS to stay with the vehicle since you know that at least by the next day help will be looking for you.  If you did not, the decision gets trickier and depends on what ELSE you have squirreled away for emergencies in your vehicle.

So I’ll leave this here for now.  Even though this post is not about photography, per se, it IS about preparing properly for location based photo treks and getting there and back safely.  Perhaps it can start you thinking about these indirect or tangential issues you’ll end up better prepared and with that preparation never have a true survival need.  So if you wish more details, let me know.

 

 

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Shakedown Cruise for Rocinante II to the Bristlecone Pines

This past long weekend has been both the maiden voyage for the little VW Westfalia I leased from my friend and sometimes shooting partner (especially for food photography), Cynthia Sinclair (one of the very best sailing photographers on the coast and a terrific portrait photographer as well), and the 2018 Bristlecone Pines Workshop.

Why the little camper?  My bigger Coachman, Rocinante (the one in the banner above), is wonderful, I love it when parked for a few days in a place with full hook-ups.  But honestly it is a bit much getting around sometimes, such as in parking lots or pull-overs to take photographs.   Consequently I find I do not take it out as much as I’d like. So I’ve leased this little camper and have been upgrading it to better serve as a photographer’s and teacher’s home and classroom on the road.  In another entry I’ll get into specifics if anyone is interested but this entry is intended to be more about the trek itself. ,

I left San Diego at 0730 Thursday and first then headed over to pick up a participant who needed a ride since her Miata would be beaten to death on the last road legs to Crooked Creek. I picked up Osia (who is not only a terrific award winning photographer but an amazing architect) in Pacific Beach, then set a course North on I15. 

At Victorville, I made a last-minute decision and braved the reported construction near Adelante — and found it to be overestimated and only  a minimal delay. We arrived at our first destination, Randsburg, only about 15 minutes behind normal. We ran into some of the participants already there who were shooting in this Living ghost town.  I’ve got a number of photos from there in previous posts.  Started by gold miners from South Africa, it, and its sister town, Johannesburg, were some major centers of activity in their day.  After some shooting there,  we went on to the first night’s stop, Ridgecrest, home of the famous China Lake Naval Weapons Station.  We did NOT shoot there.  It is a place that shoots back…

For dinner, I had bragged about my favorite steak and BBQ place but I am sad and embarrassed to report… it was awful. After dinner that evening we went to the Trona Pinnacles for some evening shooting. This is such a weird collection of tufa towers it is truly other worldly. The cloud cover prohibited deep sky shooting so we returned for an early evening. 

 Friday morning we went to Lone Pine and did a fast tour of Alabama Hills, Movie Road, and then up to Whitney Portal. There had been a fire raging near there and the whole area was shut down but it was reopened by the time we got there.  The little van with its Subaru engine had done wonderfully up to that point.  I’m not sure the original little 1800 cc VW engine would have even made it up the long and very steep portal road grade. The Subaru had no difficulty; but by the time we made it to the parking lot at the top it was approaching overheating.  When I stopped I made the mistake of just shutting the engine off rather than letting it circulate a few minutes with no load on it in the cool air.  Take this as a lesson: what happens is now the non-moving coolant just sits in place in the hot engine and expands… a lot.

The Subaru engine is a “Boxster” design just like the VW so it fits perfectly in the rear engine well but unlike the old T2 series vanagon, the T3 (this is a 1982 version) does not have an external access but rather requires you to get to all the engine stuff from the rear cargo area (which means unloading it).  This was a blessing in disguise because by the time I got the back cleared out and the engine cover off it had cooled down some and I lost only a little more coolant when I (carefully and with gloves on) opened the reservoir.  I added coolant, ran the engine to pull it back in, then added a little more to the fill line, checked the oil (it was up at the full line) then started re-loading the back.  I got finished at about the time participants were returning to head back down and on to the Bristlecones.

(As an aside, I confess that spooked me a little so on the climb up out of Big Pine, where we stopped to top off the fuel, up toward Eastgard Pass and then on to the research station at 10,100 feet, my eyes was glued to the temperature gauge.  But it never even approached an overheating stage and made the climb like it was nothing.   I had checked and filled everything before leaving San Diego so have no idea why it had a problem at Whitney Portal but suspect that since the air temperature in the Owens valley was already near 100 F and we drove straight from there up the Portal Road, that must have contributed to it. Judging from the antifreeze stains in the Whitney Portal parking lot, I was not the only one…)  

However, while there I got a call from the WMRS (White Mountain Research Station) liaison warning me that the highway out of Big Pine to the road into the Bristlecones was flooded and closed. Good grief, this was like the tick infestation nightmare of a couple of years ago, all over again.  First the construction scare, then the fire scare, and now this…???  But it was an error, the road WAS closed but on the other side of the pass and we had no real  problem driving there.  

After dinner I gave a presentation on deep sky photography and painting with light.  Some of the participants wanted to go out and start shooting but I’ve learned, from sad experience, to not let them do that so soon after arriving at 10,000 feet.  Keeping that in mind, I forced them to endure a presentation the first night.  I often bring a guest instructor but this time it was just me. 

Saturday morming we were at Patriarch Grove (well over 11,000 ft.) when all hell broke loose from the sky. A lightning strike on the mountain next to us started the action followed by a downpour, heavy hail, heavy wind, serious thunder and lightning sent us s rambling For the cars. It rained 6 inches in ten minutes and hailed/sleeted nearly two feet in the same time.

student at Pat grove-blog

Participant lining up a shot at the Patriarch’s Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forrest.  All of my shots, unless noted otherwise, have been taken with a little Canon “S120” point and shoot camera.

 

wizard tree for blog

This is one of my favorite trees left in this grove.  My subject of “Bones of The Patriarchs” has finally disintegrated and gone back into the earth.

 

bcone detail

The trees are ice blasted into fantastic shapes and patterns.  I took this shot to illustrate the complexity but in fact I see 3-5 separate images hidden in here that need their own creative expression.

 

b-cone cones close for blog

Here is where it begins — a tiny bristly seedling.  These small cones carry the DNA of some of the oldest living organisms on the planet.

As I often tell students, some of the best photos are made in the worst weather. However I confess I’ve never been in such a downpour of rain and hail. In the time it took me to run around the vehicle I went from bone dry to drenched to the skin.  But wet or dry I was having a great time!  When the storm cell passed the sky was left with dramatic clouds, and wet surfaces that were color saturated. I’d get wet to see that beauty anytime. 

 

tree in ridge 02 for blog

While some of the participants ran for cover, others — and I — drove back along the ridgeline overlooking the Owens Valley above Big Pine and Bishop where there are always incredible views in the forest and rock outcrops along the edge.

van at overlook 01 for blog

The little van at an overlook to the Owens Valley and Sierras.  The flat item on the roof facing the camera is a 100 watt solar panel.

Osia at outcrop for blog

Osia shooting at one of the fascinating rock outcrops.

Sunday was our last day in the Bristlecone Pines forest.  But I was not even close to ready to come back.  So we went back to Lone Pine and Alabama Hills for some incredible evening shooting.  Monday, on the way back, we stopped at Fossil Falls and at the giant red cinder cone.  Then, alas, there was no more delaying possible so it was time to really head the little camper south and towards home.  My take on the VW has been all positive.  I need to do a more thoughtful packing job if I’m not alone and there are a few other improvements in the works.  This was NOT a camping trip (that will be next)  but more of a shakedown trip to see what it is like driving a distance.  The ONLY issue was heat (not the engine issue but just air temp in a vehicle with no internal air-conditioning).  So, since it is scheduled to go in for another spate of work next week, I just put in a request to see if there is a way to install a roof top A/C like the one that l have on ‘Big’ Rocinante. 

Oh, about the van’s name?  Well Cynthia called it “The Beast” but, to me, that simply doesn’t seem to fit its personality.  I’ve not decided on its name yet, but one of the workshop participants who has ALSO gone with me on treks in ‘big’ Rocinante, called it, ‘Rocinante, Jr’.  Hmmmm… Not sure that exactly resonates with me.   I’ll have to think about it.  It may wait until a good paint job calls forth its real sprit   .

van at cinder cone for blog

Here’s the van at the large cinder cone near fossil falls

This all has helped me make a decision.  At school, following a scheduling blunder by me, the admin wizards decided, apparently on data retrieved from a Tarot Card reading, that the Landscape Class no longer has enough interest to students, and so, for the past year and a half, it has not been allowed to be offered.  It serves no purpose to show how silly that is so it has helped me face reality and simply offer the location fieldtrips from that class as workshops and “host” them at school, just like our presentations with Adobe, etc. help prop up our photo foundation, give some skim to the district (if they also decide a photo workshop is somehow related to the program’s mission… which would be… uh… photography education, and in that way, rather than give the money to the school to disappear in the state’s financial black hole, take it home… 

This is sounding better all the time.  Let’s see… that way the students get educational events they want, the program gets repair money it desperately needs,  it frees up classroom time and schedules for those other advanced courses we are not allowed to run, lets me teach and interface with students without having to grade them, and allows me to shoot in some great spaces with my expense covered, something that does not happen when I do them as class field trips. 

Yep, this is sounding better by the moment.

 

 

 

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SUMMER SEMESTER IS UNDERWAY

 

Sorry for the long delay since the previous post.  I’ve been a bit buried getting the Spring semester closed out with compiling grades for the three classes.  Plus the San Diego Fair work judging the International Photo Exhibit and prepping for several in-person events.  And, (in my spare time) doing a small video promo for Regional Rep of an International Company whose headquarters are in the Netherlands.

The grading part is easy since the computer collates scores and all I have to do is add any extra points, consider effort and participation then enter the results in the District Data Base.  Easy… but time consuming and since it is a short break, there is always a shortened deadline for submitting grades since a pre-requisite course, like Photo 143 has to have its grades in the system before students can sign up for subsequent courses.  But, for one of the few times I not only was in under the deadline but actually submitted them a few days early. I was on a mission to clear the decks for summer planning.

I have an online Beginning Digital Class for this summer semester which, coincidentally, started this week.  It is already at capacity: 40 students.  Whoa.  Normal classroom-based courses are capped considerably lower and online actually takes more instructor time per student, especially for “lecture/lab” classes trying to simulate in the virtual world the hands-on interaction with students of the normal classes.  But our admin, unburdened by actual in-class experience, thinks they are easy and so raised the caps.

Adding to that, the problem with summer classes is that semester is 8 weeks not 16 but we have to cover the same material if students are to be properly prepared for the intermediate and advanced courses.  So it took some juggling of topics and materials to try to fit that in.  But there is no way around it, this will be a LOT of work for the students and for me.

Summer is, however, also a chance for me to try out a “proof of concept” regarding teaching online.  I am headed for retirement but would like to leave open the possibility for what this district calls “pro-rata” assignments for retired full timers like me.  But I want to be able to conduct those courses online and from ANYwhere I can access the internet.  I’ve been upgrading the Westfalia camper I have leased from a friend with an eye toward just that ability.  I would happily buy it but she does not want to sell it outright… but she was willing to do a long term lease.  That way if, for some reason I head off into that great darkroom in the sky, it will simply revert back to her with no muss or fuss.  But I have added roof-top storage, a solar panel, and a WiFi signal booster to help in that plan.  That added so much weight to the pop-up roof that I’m also installing powered lift mechanics to it. 

My big motor home, Rocinante (the one on the banner above), is sometimes just, well, too big.  It is great when parked in a full hookup campground where it becomes basically an apartment on wheels.  But since I do not have a “Toad” (what the RV community calls a separate vehicle that is towed (get it?) by the main RV, I use the RV itself for daily treks so I don’t expect to be parked anywhere for long and it has proven to be too big to easily go on photo scouting forays where you might just want to pull off the side of the road.  The VW Westfalia lacks the wonderful room of the big one but it makes up for it with location flexibility… or at least that is what I think will happen.  Certainly some of the posts of this blog will reveal how that plan has worked out… or not.  I do need a name for it but it will tell me its name as it is used more. I’ve not sold the big one, waiting to see if the little van will do as I am hoping.

The SD Fair started and there have been judges’ events and presentations to do.  We have done both a judges “roundtable” where we talk about what, as judges, we look for in submitted photograph, and also  the judges “critiques” where attendees can bring in a file or print and we’ll collectively critique it.  That is also a good way to improve assuming you have a pretty thick skin.  On the 17th I gave a workshop on Time Lapse Photography.  And on the 27th at 7pm I’ll be part of a panel discussing the future of photography.  My book on that very topic has managed to gain some interest so I’m very interested in hearing whether or not others share or disagree with my conclusion so it should be a lively discussion.

My old friend and incredible artist, Bill Duncan used to refer to this sort of time between creative activity as the time he could do his “monkey work,” the necessary work to close out the previous work (making frames, mounting, etc.) and prepping for the next onslaught of work (stretching canvas, replenishing supplies, etc.  He called it that because he felt that a trained monkey could do it but his philosophy about art “production” was that to call yourself an artist and claim a finished piece as your own, then you had to do it all because, in the end, that additional work had an influence on the actual art piece, either positive or negative.  Therefore if you wanted full credit for that thing hanging on the wall, it all had to be a result of your own effort.  Otherwise you needed to credit the resources that helped you with the presentation.  That was a tough approach to maintain; but he did.  And to be honest with you, I agree with him.  The images at the Fair have borne that out.  Some that looked good on the computer for Tier 1 judging came as prints that we rejected for bad printing and a few actually looked better than it had as an electronic file.  The credit or blame for the state of that final print really has to be shared with whomever actually produced that print.

We will be doing the orientation for the Bristlecone Pines workshop (click the link on the banner to see details about it) this week and then be heading out to get it started in a couple of weeks.  It is nearly full so should be a fun time.  I always look forward to it. 

I also want to thank the individuals who have made my book, “The Future of Professional Photography & Photo Education” a success far beyond what I dreamed would happen.  Though it was initiated to fulfill a sabbatical leave requirement it has been, to my surprise, quite successful.  And also to my surprise my book on school shootings, “Making Schools Safe(r)” has begun to gather some steam.  I appreciate that very much.  If the results are that a conversation can be started then it too will have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.  If you might be interested in getting a copy, my “spotlight” page on Lulu.com (the printer) is: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ndavidking .  They are also available on Amazon but you can get the copy faster by ordering directly through Lulu.  I’m hoping that for the next post I’ll have some images to share..

 

 

 

 

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Reinforced…Unfortunately

I was so hoping I would not have to return top this topic — but in my “heart of hearts” I knew better.  And sure enough, last week we saw yet another instance of a young killer opening fire in a school and killing his own school mates, pretty much as I predicted would happen in my book, “Making Schools Safe(r).”

The shooter did confuse the standard, knee-jerk self-proclaimed experts and their preferred narrative by not using an AR15 or any of its variants.  He went “old school” with a shotgun and revolver which he took from his father’s collection.  And once again the cry goes forth upon the land, ” Oh what shall we do.”  But there is an implied extra clause to that question and it actually should be read as “Oh what shall we do that does not inconvenience the life style and social constructs we have created and enjoy.”  So long as we just gore that other guy’s ox and leave ours alone we happily contribute our  wit and wisdom even if it is bereft of any a glancing blow off the truth.

In my book, “Making Schools Safe(r)”  (that you can order direct from Lulu using the following URL: http://www.lulu.com/shop/n-david-king/making-schools-safer/paperback/product-23595686.html ) I predicted there would be more and more of these until we, as a culture stopped manufacturing these youthful killers.  I highly recommend that if you want to get a handle on this, you get the book and think how, just in your own life, you can help start to turn this sad but predictable around phenomenon around.  Spoiler alert: the books demonstrates quite clearly that these school shooters are not somehow in thrall to their tools.

The real answer does not and will not ever be found addressing the tool, especially with arguments that openly portray an incredible lack of knowledge on the subject but parroting the talking points of others who, it has to be assumed, are as innocent of any real knowledge of the subject despite their clever posts and copied memes on social media.

The answer will only be found addressing us —  all of us —  as a society providing the environment and even motivation for these kids to think the answer to the (in their minds) overwhelming anger and use of violence as a solution.  And that solution is found in the most uncomfortable and inconvenient of places… within ourselves.  If this is an important topic for you I suggest you might read my book and factor my arguments into the equation for you to settle on a resolution in your own world.

Next week is Finals Week at City so I’ve been a bit under the gun trying to get final exams ready and starting the final project grading then grade totals.  This time we are on a short leash to get grades turned in so people can register for follow-on classes if the needed our grade as a prerequisite.

I’m anxious to get this done so I can return to my project of getting the little VW Westfalia (Camper) ready for action.  The poor old gal had not been treated all that well and seems to be enjoying the attention.  She’s now running strong and smoothly thanks to some engine work and then it will be to finish out the upgrades I have planned to let me head into the field and work totally self contained in addition to having internet access to handle my online classes if I’m not at home.

I’m thinking of a trek through Canyon Country and then to visit a friend in Santa Fe and being able to create some still imagery and some video for topic intros and tutorials for my classes all shot on location “out there” somewhere.  It will likely be toward the end of July that all of the planned work is done, but in the meantime a few short “shakedown” cruises in this general region will help me verify that all functions are working or to know which ones are not.

OH, I almost forgot.  A reader of this blog sent me an email asking where a specific post was.  He had someone tell him about it but could find it.  It concerned a loving old traveling couple I observed on a trek to Alabama Hills.  Well, Sir, here is where you can link directly to it: https://ndktravels.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/the-old-couple-a-love-story/

 

 

 

 

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Lighting Class Demo: Food

Wednesday I did a demo for the lighting class on shooting food.  A preliminary lecture on Monday let me talk about the differences in shooting “studio” and “plated” food and the aesthetic differences often seen between “editorial” and “advertising” shots.  I provided several handouts I’d created on food photography and then it was time to do something real and showed some examples of top notch food photographs.

So Wednesday I brought in a Fish and Chips mean from the restaurant where I had lunch and a student brought in a dessert pastry so we had two items to shoot.  In setting up the entrée I discussed the role of a food stylist (HIGHLY recommended) for example in carefully arranging the fries in the basket and then the pieces of fish.  (A quick disclaimer here, I am NOT a stylist so my arrangements will not match those of a good food stylist but there were none available for the demo.)

Once the food was arranged and a composition determined, it was time to set the lighting.  For this shot I used two lights and two reflectors.  The shots are taken with my Canon 5DSr and a Canon 90mm Tilt/Shift lens tilted forward to angle the depth of field plane to cover the whole dish.  Final shot is at f9.

The main light was a large softbox positioned directly overhead and slightly to the rear.  This created a soft, saturated light with just enough directionality to show up the texture and cast a slight shadow forward.  This replicates how food would look to you seated at a table where you were blocking off the light coming from the front of the plate.

I then used a gridded light from screen right to skim across the food and add some dimension and separation of the items in the meal.

However that made the front of the product a little two dark so two reflectors: a large silver one just in front and slightly to the left and then a small white card close and to the right.

Here is the light plot…

 

blog on food lighting-diagram-for fish and chip

Do note that in the actual shoot, the large softbox is placed overhead and aiming straight down on the product.

And here is the initial shot cropped and with preliminary settings in ACR.

 blog on food demo fish 01

And here is the final processed shot.

blog on food demo fish 02

For the dessert shot, brought in by a student, Christopher, we arranged the individual pieces on a silver serving dish then since they were spicy, added the peppers for color and some of the seeds around the platter.  Once the arrangement was tweaked and ready and a composition chosen he added the dollops of frosting and we set the lights in place.

As before, the main light was an overhead large softbox placed slightly to the rear.  This time we used two accent lights, one from each side to provide element separation and show off the texture of the product.

Here is the light plot for this shot.

lighting-diagram-for napoleon dessert 

I was still shooting with a 90mm Tilt Shift Lens so wanted to show the class how to also use its functions to create very shallow depth of field.  The first shot below is with the lens tilted forward to increase depth of field as might be done in an advertising shot and the second is with it tilted to the rear to decrease depth of field for selective focus typical of editorial shots.  Here are the final shots.

 

blog on food dessert focus

For this shot the tilt of the lens was adjusted so at the shooting aperture, f8 (a sweet spot of this lens) the leading edge of the product is sharp and the trailing edge is just slightly going soft.  This shows the whole assembly but lets the viewer concentrate on the texture of the product.

 

 

blog on food dessert soft

In this version, the lens is tilted slightly backwards so that the plane of depth of field is tilted backwards and runs through the product in a narrow slice.  Focus is on the front edge of the nearest piece of product.  Aperture is f8 just like the shot above.

 

Well, so that was our demo.  I hope this was helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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