Quick Trip to Cayucos Through the Fire

My friend and colleague Lee Peterson and I had chatted for a few weeks about a trip up along the coast to his place in Cayucos since he had to get some produce from his ranch near Merced to bring down to San Diego.  But with the fires raging in the mountains near Ventura and along the coast we were waiting for what seemed like an opportune and fairly safe time to travel.  Besides although I am supposedly on sabbatical and easy to schedule, it seemed like every time we thought we had an opening I had a meeting of one kind or another I needed to attend or if I was free Lee had something come up he had to attend to.

Early Monday Lee called saying it looked clear, he was free, and could I go.  Well, yes, sort of… We got off to a late start because I had an early Doctor’s  appointment but we still were on the road a little before noon. The first portion up through L.A. was typical wall-to-wall cars but once on 101 north of L.A. we bailed off of the freeway and cut south through Malibu Canyon to the coast.  

Lee is working on a book series about the piers of the California Coast.  This trip was also designed to let him pick up some more photos for the books.  He already had many of them shot but was missing a few here and there plus wanted to add some detail shots. We stopped first at Paradise Cove near Malibu.

This is a private cove which has been through some interesting legal wrangles regarding beach access.  California law says that the beach “…seaward from the ambulatory high tide line was public.  But getting to it was another matter and in this case, the owner charged for parking ($30.00) although if you ate in his café, “The Paradise Cove Café” parking was only $6.00.  So we had lunch there.  We both had the clam chowder which was quite good was almost $20.00 per bowl.   Lee shot the pier and I thought it might be cool to take shots of him taking HIS shots… but then I realized I had brought the big digital cinema camera but  I did not bring a still camera and at this spot there was nothing I wanted to film.  I completely “spaced” the fact that I had my cell phone with me until we were leaving!

 I confess despite having just written a book about the future of photography in which cell phone technology is playing a major role I still do not naturally think of it as a real camera.  This trip would give me a chance to play with it and test the theory for myself.

We finished at the cove and then headed north along the coast.  It wasn’t long before we could see the smoke in the air and start to smell the fire and ash.  By the time we got to Ventura the smoke made it look like a heavy marine layer of fog except it had that ugly brown cast not much different than smog.  We drove north through the incredible fire devastation around Ventura. It truly was astonishing. In a number of places the fire had burned right to the highway then jumped over and burned on down to the ocean.  Rows upon rows of dead trees including many beautiful tall palm trees were burned out stumps   It burned right up to buildings but we did not see any burned homes.

But, it is still burning!  We could easily see numerous fire lines in the hills above the little towns and along the highway.  Major flames shooting up toward the sky were easily visible even in the late afternoon daylight.  The people whose homes are in the path have got to be sweating bullets as the army of fire fighters working in awful conditions has, in places, slowed the fire’s march but has not yet stopped it.

It was nearly sundown when we stopped at Gaviota beach where the smoke in the air created a very surreal pallet. I remembered my cell phone and got a shot of Lee doing HIS shot of the pier. The dense smoke turned the sun a rich vermillion color and made the whole scene somewhat surreal.  Here is a shot of him at that pier.


Lee at Gaviota Beach

Lee Peterson photographing the Gaviotta pier through the smoke filtered sunset.  Shot with my iPhone 6.  Maybe I need to be rethinking my disrespect of cell phone cameras… (c) N. David King

 On Tuesday the sky was clear, the wind was almost at a dead calm and it was beautiful out.  We had breakfast at a wonderful country kitchen in Morro Bay then headed  up north to San Simeon where Lee shot overviews and details of the pier.




Lee doing an overview of the San Simeon pier.  Shot with iPhone 6. (c) N. David King


Here is a cell phone shot of him playing with the shadow patterns from the pilings. The stories of these piers is fascinating, something I never gave much thought to but now will see them in a whole new light.


Lee with San Simeon Shadow Patterns

Lee down below the pier looking for shadow patterns and other details shot of the pier. Shot with iPhone 6 (c) N. David King

While we were there I unlimbered the Ursa to play and get some footage of the Hearst Castle from close by the pier.  It was so clear, with no haze (or smoke) that it should prove a rare opportunity to shoot from this angle.   When it was built there was no highway for everything was brought by ship.  Lee took a quick shot of me lining up the shot of the castle.


David and the bear

Here’s David and the Bear…  The Ursa has a 5″ swing-out monitor on the left side which is what I’m looking at to line up the shot.  I’m using a Canon 70-200mm f4 with a 2x teleconverter to really move in on the castle.    Photograph (c) Lee Peterson) 

On Tuesday the wind had died down which helped and it was extremely pleasant out.  We headed back down south to check in on the Elephant seals which would normally, by this time, be filling the beaches.  I thought that should make for some good stock footage.  But the beaches were almost deserted.  There were some confused males wondering where the ladies went but apparently they were having to feed further out to get ready for the long pupping time when they will not eat for a long time and might lose a couple hundred pounds.  

That evening the clear local air but the smoke layer blown out toward the horizon conspired to create an amazing sunset.  We hoped for a “green flash” but instead were rewarded with a very long delay to the sun as it fell through the smoke layer out to sea.


Lees view of sunset for blog

Sunset from Lee’s deck.  The sun s-l-o-w-l-y dropped through the smoke layer on the orizon and again painted the scene in hues out of a Turner watercolor.  (c) N. David King, shot with iPhone 6.


Wednesday morning the winds had returned.  I kept thinking how terrifying that had to be for the residents in the fire’s path.  A day’s short respite and then they were back into the fight of their lives for their homes and property.

I do not know why, since I love the place and Lee’s house is an incredibly wonderful space to relax and “chill,” but from the moment I woke up, something deep inside was screaming at me that it was time to head south.  This would be a perfect place to “hole up” to write, work on a project, or simply to recharge one’s batteries. To me it is a perfect analog to a cabin in the mountains though not as secluded.  I’d love to come up for a few weeks with nothing to do but make images, write, and get my mind and spirit back together.  But something deep inside had rippled and troubled the water of my spirit.

I KNEW it was time to head back. (Yet now, a day later, I still do not know what motivated that feeling.)

The winds, however, had returned with a vengeance, blowing down-slope from the coastal mountains out to the sea. Great plumes of back-spray crowned the breaking waves and painted them with ephemeral rainbows. But that also meant it could be regenerating the vast fires raging from  Ventura north towards… us.  Already smoke haze was eating up the view to the south. Yesterday Morro Rock was so clear it was as if you could reach out and touch it, but now it was indistinguishable and washed with the brownish varnish of smoke even though the fires were an hour away. So instead of going back the way we came through the fire zone, we turned inland and cut across country well north of the burn.

 This is normally a beautiful drive across the coastal range filled with color and even wildlife.  But not this time.  Even as we crossed the Carrizo valley everything was a dead brown. The grass that normally is long and silky was like dried straw. The oaks that ought to be blazing a yellow greeting to what passes for winter here, were also simply a dried-out desaturated brown. Everything was brown. It was not, however, the vibrant and rich earth tones of late fall, but the dead grey-brown of water starved trees, grass, and scrub. If the fires reached this far they would race through here like a Hellish tsunami of flame. Other than an occasional comment about the drab pallet or the increasing smoke filled haze looking south, we passed through the area quickly and quietly.

The remaining trip back was uneventful though there was, as usual, a glut of cars on the L.A. freeways since we were unlucky enough to have hit the early rush hour coming down I-5.  There was no help for it… just sit back, listen to the satellite channel filled with Buffet, Fogelberg, Taylor, even some Cat Stevens.  But it was hard not to think that while we were headed home to safety, a lot of people in the areas we have just been through, had no homes, no safety, and even some still with property unscorched were facing the night not knowing if tomorrow’s dawn would see it still in existence or just a smoking and charred ruin.

It is really hard not to feel awfully blessed and incredibly lucky by comparison. 

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My New Book on the Future of Professional Photography

Well I have just received the approval copies of my new book, “The Future of Professional Photography and Photo Education” and sent back my approval to the printer for distribution.  I’m generally pleased with the results of what I expect will be a most controversial bit of writing.  What was intended as a 50-60 page research paper to satisfy the requirements for my sabbatical for Fall semester 2017 grew into a 216 page book as I grew more and more fascinated by the research into the material and the incredibly complex world in which it lived.

The world of professional photography was already in the ongoing midst of a paradigm shift flowing from digital technology that was changing the whole photo environment.  Photographers who failed to realize that the thing in their hands that looked like a camera was actually a computer with a lens hung on it, had no clue as to the speed of increasing computational power effecting their primary tool much less the all-encompassing power of the World Wide Web and internet to effect distribution and exposure both for them and for their clients.  Some are STILL pretending it is just a fad.

After all, the previous 100 years had seen minimal changes even in materials beyond some new chemical compounding and brands while the core process flow remained essentially unchanged.  Even though a very few visionaries such as Ansel Adams foresaw the digital world, most did not and it blindsided them when it hit.

But now, we are seeing the starting upswing of the ‘toe’ of the soon-to-be very steep curve representing an additional paradigm shift on top of the first one.  It is admittedly a lot to grasp; moreover it has been far easier for most to simply ignore or deny such a revision in process is really changing their world. But closing our eyes does not slow down the onrushing storm.

Let me insert quickly that this material may have little influence on the “fine art” side of photography and only a minimal impact on those who like to call themselves “professionals” because they have, now and then over the years, sold a print or two and perhaps shot something for a friend of a friend or managed to get a shot or two published somewhere but do not, and have not truly made a living solely by providing their creative photographic services to clients in various industries.  The good news for them is that they may, in fact, be in the enviable position of being able to sit back, watch the convulsions roiling in the real commercial world, and be thankful for dodging that bullet.

Maybe… Maybe not…

This project started for me with the “gut” feeling that our professional world was changing out from under us so I requested the sabbatical leave to allow me time to research and write about it in the hopes that the results might reveal some preparation and improvements in our photo program to keep it relevant.  And perhaps I was wrong.  Perhaps my “gut” was over-reacting to the new technologies I kept reading about.  Perhaps my firm belief in “Complexity Theory” and the effect on large complex systems was inappropriate to this discipline and we were all doing just fine with no reason to worry, much less contemplate drastic changes.  Perhaps all of those “dots” I saw either did not exist or even if they did, did not actually connect in a way to influence our world. This research would let me either put the worry to bed or, if it had some foundation, start the discussion to look for solutions and plans.

I initiated the project with this diagram (below) representing the major influences I saw impacting the world of Professional Photography and my growing – and finally overwhelming — confidence that we in that profession were facing a “perfect storm” of disruptive influences – especially from technology, the internet, and the educational system itself — that would combine and coalesce to change our world in dramatic, game-changing ways in the very near future.


Map of influences for web use

Chart of Influences on Professional Photography and Photo Education (c) N. David King


Worse, I was becoming convinced that we who were actively trying to prepare our students to enter that world were not even close to being ready for it and, worse yet, that academia in general was largely in denial about the issues rushing headlong toward us.

The research was fascinating and did take me in some unexpected directions.  A few issues and emerging technologies I had previously thought of as about to have a major impact  turned out to be far less influential and, at the same time, some that had been completely off of my radar turned out to be the source of what I now feel will be major disruptions to our photo-related world.

The “controversial” part implied above comes not from the core data per se, but from the bureaucratic bog that modern education has become.  Changes to our program of the type I suggest, while I think of them as essential to maintaining the relevance of our professional photo programs going into the future, are akin to trying to turn an aircraft carrier in a bathtub; even if the will is there, the available space is not.  As important to them as any little issues from our program, has been that despite the political rhetoric of economic well being our state is still technically bankrupt, the problem for a college or district is that the economics do not add up. Politicians and academic sycophants talk a good line but the proof is in the money available for educational use… and that has been very limited, at least in terms of what actually reaches down into the classroom.

Consequently, with classes cancelled early, faculties crushed by budgetary restrictions feeding their paranoia to maintain and improve falling enrollments to try to save their own positions, various related programs have moved more and more into their little fiefdoms and adopted ever-stronger siege mentalities, claiming, in displays of ignorance gone to seed, that they may own some specific process, technology, or data stream.  Programs that ought to be cooperative and providing their cross fertilization of information and insight have become, like the sad political world in which most of them operate, increasingly divided and polarized.

Many of those  wandering our hallowed halls have developed vested interests in the status quo and so will be displeased by any suggestions that indicate that happy stable world is about to disintegrate and needs replacing rapidly and substantively.  What I see as an incredible opportunity to explore exciting new artistic options and competitive advantages, some will see as threatening to a safe and secure, if narrow, world in which they work or teach.

But progress and the future is going to continue its march, as it always has, utterly indifferent to our wishes and individual needs.  I believe our options are to prepare for it or be crushed by it.  As Will Rogers wrote: “Even if you are on the right track, if you just sit there you will be run over.”  If we lack the money and the will from above, then we folks down in the trenches have but two options: accept the impending irrelevancy or get creative in finding viable solutions.   We claim to be creative types.  It is time to put that claim to the test of reality.

I believe the conclusions in the book, barring unforeseen events or technologies coming out of the blue to change everything, have a very good chance of being accurate and that the recommendations are positive and doable, if deeply difficult.   So, while I expect some major skeptical, if not out-and-out derisive pushback to the conclusions and recommendations, my core goal is not to win a debate but to start a dialogue, a discussion designed to review the potential that ANY of the myriad influences I cited in the book, may be in play because each of them, never mind all of them operating in concert (along with some I most likely missed entirely), will force some level of change in our discipline and in our teaching of it.

The book is available online and direct from the printer, Lulu printing, at this URL:


To get this discussion underway as quickly as possible if you have any interest in the world of professional photography and/or photo education, I encourage you to get a copy (they are cheap – $16.98), use it to help focus and guide your own research and inquiry, and then lets get this discussion underway while there is still time.

Once my approval goes through LuLu’s system and a global publication database (their site says up to 6 wks), then it will also be available on Amazon and other outlets, but ordering it directly from the printer is faster and can be done now.

I’ve already seen a couple of small typos I missed but do not want to delay the distribution further.  If successful with this printing, perhaps a second edition can fix those and also bring newer developments into the discussion.

What should be clear after reading it is that, whether or not you agree about the directions we are headed that I posit in the book,  what is inescapable is that we ARE MOVING into some new and uncharted water, first in the work to be required of us as working professional/commercial photographers, and, consequently in the education programs charged with preparing students to enter that new world.

What will be at stake is nothing less than our value as educators for those coming to us to help them prepare for their careers.


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Veterans Day 2017

Happy Veterans Day to all of the veterans out there and thank you, sincerely, for your willingness to risk everything to serve your country.

This time last year I was privileged to provide the photo part of a wonderful tribute to veterans assembled by our Graphic Arts department under Candace Lopez and displayed in our photo program’s gallery.  I was honored to be a part of it.  The show is down but you can still order (or even just look at) the book of photos and the other sensational art work from that show by following this URL:


Speaking of books, I just turned in the materials to Lulu Press for a book that was never intended to be a book – my research on the future of professional photography and the impact that will and is having on vocational photo education such as we offer at San Diego City College.  But the research was fascinating and it kept growing… and growing… and growing.  You can check it out and, if you have any interest in such things, order a copy at this URL:


That project was what I had agreed to do in return for my sabbatical leave for Fall of 2017.  I think of myself as an image maker and not a writer.  And normally faculty in creative fields would put together a show of their work and I did think about that.  I even had a few ideas that would have been fun to do. But in this case I thought plenty of people had and were seeing my work, but the program was facing a triad of storms coming at it and I really wanted to address them so that somewhere at least, that warning bell had actually been rung whether or not anyone would ever pay attention to it.

That also gave me some time to do both some still shooting and some video work as you’ve seen in previous posts.  But in doing so and searching for some fun projects to do since my boredom threshold is so incredibly low, I did run into a situation I would never have anticipated.

Back in the day when I was producing industrial and corporate video I lost a project because the potential client saw an example in which the first client had picked a red color for the background of the graphics and text.  This potential client hated it and seemed to think that was the only color I could or would use and I was unable to convince them we could use any color we liked if, it turned out, we needed such stuff in his project.  I wrote it off thinking that if such was the mentality of the client I had actually just dodged a bullet.  But I assumed such thinking was limited to non-industry people who simply did not know any better.

I was wrong.

I just had an offer to help with a program project turned down because of the thinking that what I had done for some other purposes must be the limit of my capability and they, in their words, thought it impossible for me to change the “aesthetic” for their project even though the projects had totally different purposes and central topics.

Perhaps things have changed in the years I’ve been here teaching or, again, perhaps it IS California, after all, and I keep forgetting that.  But in my working day, it was the client and their specific, unique needs that ruled over how a final “deliverable” would look, i.e. the “aesthetic” of that project.  I was unaware that had changed.

In my day, both the stills world and video world, brochures or video for one client did not look like the brochure or video for another.  Engineering in Oklahoma did not get work that looked like that produced for a Call Center provider in Denver or an electrical services provider in Wyoming or a financial services company, again, in Denver.

While it is true that in the world of fine-art-style creation, whether traditional medium or photography is in use, at any given point in time an artist may have a discernable style or approach, at least until they have exhausted that set of artistic options and grown from it and moved on. Some never grow beyond a style and hit some sort of artistic/intellectual plateau… but that’s another topic entirely.

It is also true that if you are at the very top of the pile in the commercial world, you may develop a style that clients are drawn to and want you to do for them exactly as you did for someone else.  But for the 99% of real world commercial photo practitioners that is not the case. (And it certainly is not the case when you are starting out trying to get any and all work you can.)

You see, clients have this quaint idea that they know their target demographic and understand their product and so are in a position to have some major input into the “aesthetic” of how it is you will present their product to their potential customers.

At least the good ones do.  A client truly knowledgeable about their product and customers and what they want and need is a delight to work with.

Your job it to unleash your best ideas and skills to help them sell THEIR product to THEIR customers.  And that means you have to have the flexibility of skills AND aesthetics to make it work for their purposes not ones you think they ought to have.  You are there solely to provide value to them by increasing their sales sufficiently to pay them back more than you cost them.

I do not know a single successful working pro that does not understand that.  Consequently, I assumed that anyone who had even brushed up against the real commercial world would know that, much less people charged with teaching students about it.

Once again, I was wrong.

Selling your video services does have a major presentation problem.  In the stills world you not only have your “book” of examples, it is not at all hard to rough out some concept sketches to get the creative juices flowing and help the client start narrowing down their likes and needs and illustrate that a piece for one client does not have to look like a piece for another.   But in the video world that is enormously impractical and in reality, all you might have to show are actual examples — which may or may not be on target with the current potential client’s needs.  And those might actually, when speaking with someone that does not understand the process, work against you.

The solution will be pre-pre meetings/consultations to get a handle on the clients’ real needs and wants and then rough out either a loose script or even storyboard presented NOT as a final but as a starting point from which you and they will collaborate to hone in on the final approach.  You will, sometimes, need to do some education of the client to help get them on board.

But when their mind is already made up because they saw something of yours they did not like, and they are clueless that a commercial product they saw, still or motion, was created to please someone else not them, then my advice is to just let it go.  Working with a client that does not really trust in you to do what they need is a nightmare of micro-management and interference that very likely will doom anyone’s ability to produce a good piece.  Worse, you will not believe how insidious they will be in making their self-fulfilling prophesy (of your failure) come true and subtly (or not so subtly) sabotage the work at every opportunity.  

It will very likely become what we used to refer to as a “snakebit” project; one in which there is no way to win and all you can do is try to finish it will the least amount of damage to yourself and reputation.   Worse, the stress and irritation will show up in the finished product.  In the end they will never be really happy with it.  And, of course, it will be you that takes the blame for it and your reputation, especially when starting out, does not need that.  Nor does your blood pressure.

Trust me on this one…  They are not worth it.

So thank them for their time, smile, and walk away.  Don’t be disappointed, but breathe a sigh of relief and then go after the next project having learned an important lesson: there are “gigs” that you need to turn down no matter how desperate you are for a job.  This is a field where you are only as good as your last job so take the projects you can do with only the normal production pressures and not additional ones from a distrusting client that you somehow managed to talk into it.

That may be good salesmanship… but it almost never results in good work products. It is also important to realize that such behavior is almost never really about you or your work.  There is some other hidden agenda at play that you could never overcome because it would never be revealed.

One of the most important lessons to learn is when it is OK — and even preferable — to let it go, say “No” and walk away.



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Faded Glory, Part Two: Jacumba Trains to Bankhead Trees

Well, I ended the last post saying I’d have to go back…  I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.  But Friday morning, Lee Peterson and I were on the road back to Jacumba Springs to photograph the old trains there.  The day was heavily overcast in San Diego so from a light angle standpoint it didn’t matter what time we might get there.  But on the way east, the overcast became a full blown squall with dark clouds and intermittent rain.  Hmmmm… maybe this was going to turn bad but we were over halfway so might as well go on.

Once again, I had some specific video tests I had wanted to do.  I wanted, for example, to shoot both the Ursa and the Canon 5D Mk III DSLR and see what was involved, or even possible in terms of cutting the footage from the two very different cameras together.  I specifically was concerned about the color biases of the very different sensors and the difference in dynamic range.  But when we arrived the cloud cover was so thick it was almost monochromatic and very flat.  So that test plan evaporated on the spot. It had not been my intention for the day, but here I was thrust back into the world of stills and even further back into the world of monochrome images.

In addition to the thick overcast, the wind was cold and blowing quite hard.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but weather-wise it was really quite crappy out.  But an interesting thing happened.  Sometimes the most interesting shots can be found in the most inhospitable weather.   And here, it was as if the foul weather and the lack of tourists out prowling around and tossing their trash around there, told the spirits of the old cars it was safe to come out and play.

You could feel them, and it was obvious that what was called for was some old-time looking images.  So I put the Zenit 85mm brass barreled Petzval on the 5D Sr camera and the Lens-Baby 56mm “Velvet” old style ‘soft focus’ lens in my pocket and set off.  In my mind’s eye were a mix of old style albumen prints from the late 1800s crossed with the portrait styles flowing from early Petzval and Imagon lenses of the same period.  To use portrait terms, I wanted mostly close face shots and especially the “eyes” of the subject to reveal personalities and not full figure shots.

The incredibly flat light so condensed the contrast range it allowed me to capture every available tone without any effort so that in post I could literally “paint” the final images into existence to reveal my emotional response to them.  And the lack of light forced wide apertures (or in the case of the brass Petzval, wide aperture disks) so the shallow depth of field I was after was almost mandated.  Both of those lenses also have the characteristic astigmatism of the time where the distortion further from the center increases rapidly.  So the “fall off” of sharpness not only happens with the normal depth of field issue, but also happens center to edge, both controllable with aperture.

I was not interested in trying to document anything but rather to interpret it; to find elements that, in their own way, spoke for the whole.  However, let me begin by first showing you the “whole.”  Here is one of the old passenger cars we were photographing. This was actually one of my last shots and was taken during a point where the sun broke through the clouds.  It was taken with a Canon 24mm Tilt Shift lens. I’ll start with it however so you can see the type of material that yielded the remainder of the shots.

Railcar sepia 06 for blog

One of the old passenger cars sitting abandoned near the Jacumba Hot Springs railroad depot.  Shot with Canon 5DSr, 24mm T/S. (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

OK, now back to the individual shots… The lighting and feel of the subjects and area suggested to me imagery that was more of a visual tone-poem so that was the goal.

Railcar paint 01 for blog

Detail of side paneling on old railroad car near Jacumba Hot Springs. (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Railcar paint 02 for blog

Details of paint on side of old railcar near Jacumba.  Even though it is near the desert, this area sees a wide range of conditions from blazing hot to cold and some years a lot of moisture.  Not great conditions for wood preservation. (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Broken Window for blog

Detail of broken window on old railcar near Jacumba. (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Best seat in the car for blog

The best seat in the car.  Interior of old railcar near Jacumba.  Someone had put  white wicker chairs in a couple of the cars (notice the one in the video in the previous post) and when a brief dagger of sunlight streaked across this one it really stood out.  (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Then the sun started to break through the passing storm.  It was like a signal to the spirits of that place that it was time to retreat back into the safety of the old cars and the entire “feel” of the place changed fairly rapidly.  For me, it destroyed the mood and the grip of that emotional response so though I tried to do a few final shots (including the first overview shot above), the moment was over.

OF course another reason to come to Jacumba Hot Springs was to enjoy the BBQ at Jay’s that Steve (Burns) had raved about.  So we finished shooting and headed over to the little restaurant.  It already had lots of customers which was a good sign.  I picked my selection and then discovered that until 12 noon, only breakfast is served.  It was just barely past 11….  So Lee ordered an Omelet and I ordered Bisquits and gravy.  Both of us decreed it to be the absolute best we had ever had!  Well now I really DO have to go again to try the BBQ.

Jacumba Hot Springs is on old Highway 80, so we decided to head back along the old route instead of going back up to the Freeway.  We were between the “towns” of Bankhead Springs and Boulevard when we went sailing through this tableau of brilliant red oaks.  Going too fast to just drop anchor, I turned around and went back.

California is not noted for its great Fall colors, that is a title New England has wrapped up pretty solidly.  True, it has some very nice golden Aspen up north in the Sierras but nothing like the great Aspen tunnels I’ve seen in Colorado.  But I’ve never seen anything quite like this…

Red Oak on Old 80 - 09 for blog

Pathway through grove near Bankhead Springs. (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Red Oak on Old 80 - 03 for blog

Leaf details of red oak grove. Here, up close, is what is creating all of the images in this set of photographs.  (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Red Oak on Old 80 - 05 for blog

This grove of trees wearing their fall colors was amazing.  Would this make a great jigsaw puzzle or what? (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Red Oak on Old 80 -01 for blog

The red was so intense it would have easily over-saturated in bright light.  The flat light was perfect for it.  A slight underexposure brought the colors all back to life.  (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Red Oak on Old 80 - 06 for blog

The textures were as interesting as the colors with the accents of yellow and even gray.                    (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Red Oak on Old 80 -07 for blog

I wonder if these leaves are jealous? (c) N. David King, All Rights Reserved.

Wow… what an interesting day visually.  From grim blustery weather along the old railroad tracks to the fairy forest of the brilliant red leaves.  And all on a day most of the would-be photographers would decide to stay home…




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Faded Glory on the Edge of the Desert

This weekend Steve Burns and I went to Jacumba Hot Springs, on the edge of the Anza-Borrego desert to see some old train cars on a private siding of the old Corrizo Gorge Railroad line.  I wanted to know for sure where they were so I could then come back and do an intro video for my Spring online course (once I had it written…). 

I also had a couple of other goals:  test and play a little with some accessories for my bear of a digital cinema camera, the Black Magic ‘Ursa’, and start collecting images with my simple little point-and-shot Canon S120. for a workshop for next year’s Del Mar fair I’ve been asked to do (I’m working my way down to doing some shots with my cell phone but it is harder than I thought to force myself to do that.)

Jacumba Hot Springs was, at one time, a major tourist destination for the elite because of the hot springs there.  It still has the hot springs, and a resort, but it has lost some of its former luster from the days when ritzy folks boarded the train on the coast for a few days “taking the waters” and seeking to rid themselves of a long list of ailments as well as to hobnob with the proper people.

I thought an hour or so there would be more than enough so we left early afternoon for the 2-hour drive.  Admittedly the afternoon light is probably the best, but an hour or so is not anywhere near enough.  I’m most definitely going back.

Since we thought we had all sorts of time our first stop was to tour the current Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Resort.  A group from the coast doing their annual trek to the hot springs was there and they were definitely a lively group.  We also ran into part of their group while shooting at the old original bathhouse that had burned down years ago.    The walls of the bathhouse were still there since it is fairly hard to burn adobe.  It has now become a tagger’s pallet.  Remember Minor White’s dictum: See things not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are…

The resort itself was basically an adobe motel built around a hot springs pool with attached restaurant and bar.  Not fancy but it might be fun to come out for an over-nighter there.

The old railroad cars (along with some other rolling stock) is clearly private property.  Somewhere along this line is a parked passenger TRAIN.  Now THAT I’d like to find.  But these old cars were interesting.  It has been a long time since the ritzy folks in velvets and lace road in them to come out here to the edge of the desert.  I wonder if at night, when it is still and all the photographers leave (there were a number of others while we were there) they tell each other tales of their time on the line?  When they see someone approach them do the straighten up a little hoping it is someone ready to climb on board and rife off into yesterday with them.  Though others have obviously done so, I did not violate the “No Trespassing” signs but I wanted to, to touch the walls and see if any of that old pride and energy remained.

Anyway, our time was somewhat short but productive.  Here is a short (about a minute) collection of clips and shots.

For the techies in the audience, here is the data:

  • Video at Bathhouse:  Camera:  Black Magic Ursa, V II, 4.6K.  Lenses used were Sigma Cine 35mm and Canon EF lenses: 17-40mm wide angle zoom and an 8-15mm “fisheye” zoom.  Capture settings were ISO 400, Resolution was set to FHD (1080p), Format was ProRes 422/10-bit,  Frame Rate: 30 fps, Shutter Angle: 180 degrees,  Editing and grading done in Premiere Pro
  • Stills at Railroad Cars:  Canon S120 P&S set to JPG and processed in Photoshop. NOTE: ALL of the shots of the old passenger cars were stills from the Canon S120.  Video movement on them was created in Premiere Pro
  • Music: “Abandoned” Licensed through FreePlay.com.

One thing I learned was that trying to hand-hold the 16 lb. Ursa without a shoulder mount is very difficult, at least for an ancient guy like me.  Those shots are much easier with my shoulder mount Sony MC2500.  However the ProRes 10-bit footage has much more dynamic range and color depth to color grade. 

We did have one major disappointment.  There is a great (so we hear) BBQ place in town called Jay’s.  When we got there after shooting Jay was closing up… early.  It seemed it had been a GREAT day for him and he had completely sold out of food.  Good news for him but lousy news for us. 

Well, one more reason to go back!

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Portrait Session with the New College President

San Diego City College has a new college President, Dr. Ricky Shabazz.  It turns out, happily, that he really likes photography and the photo facilities.  So when the request came to do a portrait I was most anxious to oblige. 

The problem is that he already has a very nice “official style” color portrait/headshot taken by a district photographer (if I knew who did it I would credit them since it really is quite nice).  It really is perfect for most directory use, PR use in newsletters, that sort of thing.  The truth is I saw little chance of actually improving on that type of shot (especially since it is not something I normally do) so was initially at a loss and in a mild panic as to what to do to live up to the hype he apparently heard when he told people he was coming here to have me do his portrait.  Needing his support for our program, it seemed to me there was a lot potentially riding on this shoot and I had no clue what was needed or what he expected since I did not know what, if anything, he had seen of my work.

So I went online and did my homework to try to come up with some ideas.  Dr. Shabazz has an impressive background in academia, one would expect that of someone hired as a College President.   But two items caught my eye that went far deeper into his personality.  He had done work dealing with Native Americans — now there was something we could connect on.  Plus he was an AVID fisherman.  And not just any, run-of-the-mill kind of fisherman, mind you, he was into bass fishing — which any serious fisherman will tell you is a whole new game.  Seriously fishing for bass is a different mind set; bass are sneaky and masters of tangling you in the weeds and being able to let you think you’ve gotten them and at the last moment, doing a spectacular leap in the air and casually spitting out the hook.

Well, the obvious thing to do is go with him out to one of the local lakes with some fishing gear and do the shots there.  He would be completely at ease there and his spirit would be more open; fishing tends to do that to folks and bass fishing can be, at once, relaxing and focussing.  Unfortunately (and I’m telling you this for the educational value in it), I was so wrapped up in the other projects over this sabbatical semester, that I had put off the research for the portrait session until it was the day of the shoot… too late to change the plans.  So lesson number one, Grasshopper, is do your research as soon as you can to leave you some planning time. 

Did I do that…do what I preach to my students?  Nooooooo… of course not.  The shoot was scheduled for 4:30 and I was reading his bio data after lunch the same day.  NOT A GOOD PLAN and an even worse example for my students!!!  But now it was too late and he was coming to the studios. And due to his schedule we did not have much of a shoot window.

What to do, what to do??? 

I decided, literally on the drive in, that if I could not really produce a better PR headshot than the one he had, nor do a nice location-based portrait, I would go in a different direction and channel my inner adulation of all things Karsh (that would be Josuf Karsh.  If you don’t know his work look him up.  He was my starting hero and virtual mentor when I got into serious editorial portraiture). Karsh’s career went into warp drive with an iconic shot of Winston Churchill shot in a coat closet with 5 minutes available.  Now THERE is a score to shoot for.  I at least had about 15 minutes and a real studio, one of the great studios in our photo area at City.  

Karsh’s style of work was far more dramatic and atmospheric than the modern typical headshot.  It is also generally more revealing of the subject’s personality and it was 98% done with B&W large format (often 8×10) cameras for incredible detail.  I asked for the same studio I had shot the veterans’ portraits for that show last year to help me set the mental picture.  With the help of the lab tech, Adriana, I roughed in some dramatic lighting around a chair and got my Canon 5DSr ready with a Canon 70-200L f4.  I like that lens in the studio because the sweet spot is closer to the typical strobe required setting of around f8 to f11.  The f2.8 version would already be moving a couple of stops beyond its own best aperture and is much heavier.

Here is the lighting diagram I settled on once he had sat down.  While I tweaked the lights and made a couple of exposure test shots, we chatted a bit, and I begin to get a feel for his personality.

lighting-diagram-shabazz portrait

Dr, Shabazz is really a very open person and we seemed to hit it off right away – at least that is how it seemed to me.  After using the exposure tests to also test some angles and “looks” I knew what I wanted and simply went for it.  An open and engaged shot where you can see the seriousness of his position but the fun and openness in his eyes.  I initially had a top/hair light in place but it made it look too much like a “news anchor” shot so I turned it off.

I took a total of 11 frames counting test shots.  This one is number 11 and I knew it was the shot when I took it.  So since we were running out of time anyway there was no reason to do more.  First, let me show you the full RAW frame right out of the camera and then we’ll talk about editing it.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 RAW for blog

For this frame the lens was set at about 85-90mm and gave me a nice working distance that let me shoot under the Key Softbox to help avoid flare from the “kicker.”. The 50 megapixel sensor and the lens’s famous sharpness allowed me to stop worrying about crop knowing I had room to play with the large files of over 100 megabytes each.  The 35mm-style full frame would need to be cropped anyway for 16×20 or 20×24 prints so I concentrated on the lower part of the shot to leave a little room for some optional crops knowing the top would go away anyway.

Once I pulled the files into Camera RAW in preparation for final editing with Photoshop, I did the following:  I tweaked color balance on his white shirt collar (it felt a little cold to me since I had left the camera on daylight setting and the strobes are somewhat cooler).  I then assigned my camera’s color profile in  ACR.  dropped the highlights, brought up the shadows, cropped the picture to fit into a 16×20 aspect ratio and sent it to Photoshop.

I had shot it fairly flat/low contrast so that I could capture all of the tones knowing I can adjust all of that in post.  I always had in mind going to a black and white final (remember my “Karsh-like” concept) but the best way to do that is create a good color image first.  There was not all that much to do: boost the contrast a little, take the background down (I had really over lit it in the studio but there was no time to play with that once he got there; all my attention was on his expression and that lighting).  I was aware that in the camera monitor the background was too light but really gave it no other thought but to fix it in post.   After that, all that was left was to do some very subtle tweaks to remove lint on his jacket.  Our studios virtually rain lint but it could have been worse, he might have shown up in a dark jacket… By the way, despite the commonly expressed fear of the 5DSr showing moiré patterns due to the removal of the antialiasing filter to enhance detail, mine shows no more than any other digital camera.  His jacket was a real world test of that…

So that resulted in this initial color version.

SDCC President Shabazz-20170929-010 color edited for blog

THe color was OK, the blue contrasted nicely with the warm tones and his tie… but it did not resonate with my now firm concept and vision for the final.  Now it was time to really channel Karsh.  I converted it to black and white, then, using the “curves” function, boosted the contrast a little more. I then decided to bring the background tone down even more since the gray value was too close to the rest of the image.  

It was beginning to look good to me and as I had conceived it, but something subtle was off… it lacked some warmth and depth.  So I applied a subtle warm duotone, tweaked it with some light digital burning and dodging, and also very slightly (3-4 degrees) canted the head angle so it wasn’t so “stiff” … and that gave me this final.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 for blog

He emailed me that he really liked the shot.  Me too.  I think it really fits with and shows off his openness and friendliness but retains the professional status of a College President.  This is a serious guy with a fun side and I think that is hinted at in this shot.  I love the expression that can work for either, “Hi there, glad to see you…”  or “You can’t possibly believe what you just told me…”

But I am really anxiously waiting for the lake shot.  We talked about it and he wants to do it.  We’ll probably be able to go for it in December.  That will make a fun comparison.




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City College Photo Event with Jay Dickman

On Thursday evening, Sept 21, 2017, NelsonPhoto and Olympus sponsored an evening presentation by photographer and author Jay Dickman at City College.  Jay is an “Olympus Visionary” which is the Olympus version Canon’s “Master of Light” and similar exhalted titles bestowed by various camera and equipment manufacturers on examplarary photographers that use their equipment.   Held in the auditorium in our VTC building we had an audience of about 100 show up.  I’m officially on sabbatical leave this semester but was asked to be the faculty contact person for the event so there I was, trying to help set up and get the place ready for the event.

Jay Dickman at City

We had to call in the cavalry in the person of Sean, City’s  AV guru but he got things up and running fine… until… Jay showed up with a new MacBook Pro laptop.  I was a learning experience for me and not a positive one.  It seems although small and light weight (a LOT more convenient than my Alienware tank of a laptop) it ONLY had USB-C plugs in the body.  None of our connector/adapters worked.

Fortunately, Larry and Nancy were on their way from the store and were intercepted in time to stop and pick up a connector.  We thought we were saved.  Ah…. Not so fast Grasshopper…

We had thoroughly tested the projector system before he got there; it had been up and running fine, well as fine as an old VGA projector system could run.  But it handled sample stuff I brought top it and online stuff just fine using its own computer system at the “smart” podium.

But when Jay launched into his presentation and started showing his really delightful work from a life of journalism and travel (including some serious “conflict” assignments). A bizarre glitch occurred: in the middle of a slide about 15 minutes into the presentation, the red channel faded leaving a washed out blueish image.   That effect came and went for a while then simply settled in and stayed mostly blue washing out the rich warm colors in many of his images.  It was really a shame.  We were not sure what had caused it.  That had never happened before to any of the other slide shows and video using that projector on both its internal computer system and on a variety of laptops.

I am inclined to think the connector and dongle nonsense required by the MacBook was the problem but do not really know.

Fortunately the material, in many cases was well illustrated as much by the composition of the shot as by the real color so his points were not lost by the technical issues.  There was a lot of good material for students who attended and just regular photographers generally.  He stressed really knowing your camera and equipment so that you do not have to think about them. (Aside to my students… does that sound at all familiar????)

He also extolled the virtues of Olympus’s light weight and small form factor equipment to allow him to pack small and light for his continual travels all over the world.

He also made a compelling case for the power of the still image to hold the audience and remain in their emotional memory longer and more accurately than moving images.  I’m not sure I completely agree but the point was valid and well made.  In the professional/commercial world however, it is irrelevant as more and more commercial clients are demanding video because they are, perhaps, more in tuned with the younger generation’s and it ADD drenched need to stimulation making video sales pitches statistically far more successful than even the most beautifully wrought still images.

Even though I am a proponent and lover of video production, I find that to be sad and hope the still image never disappears entirely.  I agree with him about its power and, especially in a fine art sense, its place as a far more viable display piece.

But for working pros, we may be at the end of an era, especially in arenas such as sports, events, and photo-J assignments.  Professional video cameras are reaching the point where 4K and better capture can produce stunning still frames up to 11×14 with very little effort and have a much higher probability, at 30 frames per second, of capturing “the moment” if the photographer is well enough versed in the subject to start shooting a little early and well enough skilled with his equipment to set shutter angle and speed to capture the movement.

So, I managed to get our program’s entry into this field, “Photo 163: Motion Capture for Still Photographers” launched into the system so we will see how it goes this time.  Stay tuned for further developments…



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