Not Quite a Maiden Voyage…

OK, I was really bummed.  My friend Steve Burns invited me to tag along on his Yosemite workshop a weekend about a month ago and I just could not make that work for me.  I’ve been way behind on all of the grading and critiquing for my overly full classes and knew that if I took off for a 4-day trek, much as I really wanted to, I’d end up being a basket case the entire time thinking about all of the work I was not doing.  I was already behind in dealing with specific questions, with the critiques (because my great Blue™ microphone died) and, to be honest, trying to avoid draining the treasury more than necessary after a couple of months of no income on my 10-month-basis contract at school and some other unexpected wasted expenditures with nothing to show for them.  So, sadly, I told him I couldn’t make it.  Waaaaaa…  Sadly, I’m not good at holding my breath till I turn blue.

So I really worked hard during the week at trying to catch up just to get that weight off my shoulders.  It was nose-to-the-grading grindstone; I even gave a test instead of a shooting assignment to provide a little breathing room.  So on Friday, two weeks ago, I was feeling pretty good about where I was with work… and the Roadtrek was just sitting there with its sad eyes, like a dog wanting a table scrap – you now, with that look that only a dog can give you that says they are starving and haven’t eaten in years and their very life is in your hands… or on your fork – THAT look..

Maybe a quick overnighter to boondock in the mountains or desert might not be so awful or irresponsible of me.. I could get some Milky Way shots, maybe do a painting with light shot of the van to get back in practice since next semester I’ll be doing the lighting class again.  Yeah, hey, it was actually school work… sort-a kind-a…  And I haven’t done any real image-making since the Bristlecone Pines workshop early in the summer so was getting a little twitchy around the edges. My spirit had been run through a virtual Cuisinart™ and I was looking but could not “SEE” anything to shoot; my creative fuel tank had been drained by a bullet through its heart.  Maybe a forced infusion of the right surroundings could kick start that image engine into at least some sputtering semblance of life and get me back on track.

Then just when I thought I was caught up and could afford the time for at least an overnight trek on the cheap, my left knee decided it had been too quiet for too long and so decided to act up.  As you might recall my right knee was replaced two summers ago (and now is giving me no problems…YAY!) but it was so awful during the recovery period – a period I could not have handled by myself were it not for my friend, Don, coming out from New England to help – I swore I did not want to even think about going back for the other one.  But that was then… this is now… and the pain that just dropped out of the sky to swallow me in waves of searing “discomfort” (as the doctors like to call it) made me rethink that oath because the new pain was not tolerable.  It was like my knee was being attacked by a dull chainsaw.

When it was obvious this annoyance was not just going to pass as a temporary flare-up, I went to the Daktari, who X-Rayed it and pronounced, as if it was going to be a surprise, that it was much worse than the last time it was X-Rayed before the surgery.  Ya think?!?!?

When I mentioned my resistance toward the surgery solution we decided to see if in-joint injections of some cortico-steroids would alleviate the situation.  Even if it was temporary at least it allowed my mind some rest, my body some sleep, and maybe be my brain able to make a more reasoned decision as to what to REALLY do about it.  The good news is that it seems to have worked and at least at the moment, the debilitating pain has subsided to a more or less tolerable level.

Soooo… let me recall… what was I saying about a little trek to road test the RoadTrek?  I’m still hobbling around with a walking stick but hey, I was not planning on a hike up Mt. Whitney.  Nevertheless, although a real camping trip was simply being masochistic (though I recall a coach once giving the brilliant advice to “embrace the pain”), I SOOOO needed to see some non-urban scenery, and after the election nonsense, get the urban engendered political offal out of my nostrils and did still think a small day trip could let me test how the Roadtrek would handle the dirt and washboards.  For example, before I headed into the great postcard scenery,  determining what may need to be secured better, etc., what kind of mileage I could expect and trip-budget for, etc., indeed would the coach handle that sort of pounding when I was still close to rescue?  So I hauled my heavily complaining knee up into the cab  and headed east.  That still is weird for me to say since all of my life in Colorado I headed west out of town into the mountains; but here if you head west you better be a really good swimmer.

A good exemplar back road is the Boulder Creek Road between Julian and Descanso.  Heavy washboarded sections due to heavy traffic moving too fast and inducing wheel-hop on the dirt, plus it also has some nice scenery and overlooks.  It has some great California poppy fields in Spring but this was not Spring.  And Fall had fallen a bit too long ago to expect any real color but that was OK since getting out and hauling a tripod into position seemed more like an exercise in self-abuse than anything likely to result in an image of real value.

RT along Boulder Creek Rd 01

There was an incredibly heavy fog and haze layer looking back toward the west and the ocean.  Along the horizon just over the mountains you can see the fog bank sitting there.  Even here, along the Boulder Creek Road between Julian and Descanso, it seemed clear up close but there was a heavy ultraviolet haze in the air that required some filtering to remove.  And here, in the dirt for the first time, is the “new” camper.  It performed splendidly.   (Shot with Canon S120 Point and Shoot   (c) N. David King)

So how did it do?  I’m pleased to report that the Roadtrek acquitted itself quite well.  A less than secure arrangement of trays I had placed covering the stove revealed themselves fairly quickly, a few loose items in the cabinets will need to be padded or restrained to keep them from banging around, but otherwise that part of the test was a success.  The new brakes were wonderful as was the ride from the all new heavy duty shocks, and most of all, the big block 454 handled even steep pitches as if they weren’t really there.  For all of its size, weight, and extended wheelbase, I was surprised how (relatively) nimble it was and the “draw in” of the rear wheel track was not as pronounced as I anticipated – a good thing.  The only thing I need to get a better handle on is the exact placement of the rounded rear edges and spare tire that I cannot see.  Maybe a back-up camera would be a good investment…???

RT along Boulder Creek Rd 02

This shot is looking east, away from the ocean.  It is clearer but you can still see the haze turning things blue despite a good UV filter.  This is taken on a curve along the road and the red reflection in the side is from a reddish-brown arroyo wall from which this part of the road is cut.  Shot with a Canon S120 Point and Shoot. (c) N. David King

Oh man I really wanted to haul over at several very cool spots and just set up to spend the night — anything to avoid going back to town.  But everytime I got out to take a shot of the van, even with my little  point and shoot, my knee reminded me that all of my pain meds were back at the house and overnighting without them would be a decision I would very likely seriously come to regret.  So, regretfully, I laid the reins over its neck and pointed the Roadtrek’s nose toward town.  And back I came.

So, a couple more tie-downs, some bungees… some time-windows without having to get back to complete already overdue school work… perhaps a better feeling knee… and I am ready beyond the telling to load in some camera gear and head out.  Where? Who cares?




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Questions re RoadTrek

Fascinating, after blogging now for a number of years spread out over two blogs (this one and what I call my “rant” blog), two topics have gotten the most emails sent directly to me:  the post(s) on Jim Bowie and his knives, and the recent one on my new (to me) Roadtrek camper/van. I’m not sure what to make of that, so for the moment I’ll just address the questions.

Roadtrek day one pass side 01 for web
I was asked if this is just a typical van conversion or actually a purpose-built motor home. The answer is that it is, technically a conversion but from a factory dedicated to making high end Class B motorhomes.  I think the name “camper van” is really a more accurate and understandable label but not nearly as imposing as “Class B Motor Home.”

Anyway, the questions were focused on what the interior was like since so many home-brew van conversions are, shall we say politely, somewhat unprofessional in execution. Well, this is not that kind of conversion.  The craftsmanship throughout is significant; the Canadian builders took pride in their work.

Yes, it started life as a 1995 Chevrolet G30 (1-ton) extended van with the optional 454 cid (7.4 L) engine installed. It was shipped to Canada where Roadtrek replaced the roof with their heightened aerodynamic version and went to work on the interior fitting everything to the existing rounded interior dimensions. The result of over a dozen patents on design and technology applied to the Chevy resulted, in 1996, with the completed van being brought back and sold in the U.S. where I am now the third owner.

To show it is not a home-brew chop job let me take you on a quick photo tour.  First, here is a shot from the cab toward the back along the driver’s side. A wardrobe closet is behind the driver seat then a propane stove, sink over a set of drawers and cabinets, then under the counter top and hanging microwave oven is the 3-way refrigerator and on back to a sliding-front cabinet that originally housed a TV and VCR but now is my “office” space (the roll-top desk metaphor seemed appropriate) for stowing my computer, printer, external drives, books, manuals, etc.  I know it may be old fashioned, but then I’m an old fashioned guy and I love all of the wood… real wood.

Roadtrek interior-driver side 01

Here is a better look at the galley area.  The 2-burner stove is under the thin cutting board.  Over it is a vent fan.  This shot doesn’t show it but there is storage over the microwave across the entire galley area.

Roadtrek galley

The central floor is sunken fiberglass with a drain to the graywater tank (that I’ve got covered at the moment) for the shower.  Then it raises as it goes back to the sitting/sleeping area where it can be configured as a dinette, two twin beds or one king-sized bed.  Right now it is configured as opposing “couches” with the table low like a coffee table. Over the beds are more storage cabinets.

The other (passenger side is also nicely done.

Roadtrek interior-pasenger side 01
On the Passenger side, there is a lounge (with seatbelt) that makes into a single bed. Behind that is the bathroom and toilet (behind the mirrored door), then a hanging cupboard and then the beds, etc. Under the lounge chair and the bed on this side are more storage compartments. (Under the bed on the driver’s side is the generator, aux batteries, and furnace). Overhead between the storage bins is the coach 110V air conditioner.

Roadtrek sleeping area
This was a premium rig and looking at the cab you can see all of the wood trim that is stained in a golden oak, a fitting look for a rig that was intended as a work van.

Roadtrek looking forward

The captain’s chairs swivel to the rear and there is a swing out table mounted on the outside of the wardrobe closet behind the driver’s chair.  Over the cab are two more flat overhead storage areas accessed by pulling the drawer to the rear then down.  A place for portfolios perhaps…???

Roadtrek overhead storage 01

What is not apparent are the outside storage bins. Or the hatch to access the propane tank and dump connections for gray and blackwater tanks.

So that is my little tour for the moment. I’m still sorting out proper locations for items that will simply live on board as well as for things brought on for a specific trek. I’m sure reality will see some of those initial ideas needing to be revisited but that is part of the fun.

Unfortunately I am now so far behind in school stuff it seems like it will be a long time till I actually get to go play with this. Waaaaa!!!

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“The PHOTO REPORT” – The First Report

Well I promised news of a new project but it took a week or so longer than I anticipated to get it to a place I was comfortable announcing it.  But here goes.  Thanks to an astonishing and generous cooperation and joint sponsorship by the remaining rivals for the photo retail world in San Diego – Nelson Photo and George’s Camera – I’m now actively engaged in the early preproduction phase of the creation of a “magazine” format video show called “The Photo Report.”


A “Magazine” format show is one that is in the broad category of “infotainment,” i.e. one that presents information in an entertaining fashion.  Generally, like the hard copy version of the same name, a TV “magazine” has various recurring segment areas that make up the overall issue – or, in our case, episode.

The first phase of the project is a trial “proof of concept” period to produce five episodes by the end of January 2019.  While those trial episodes may only appear initially on the sponsors’ websites, my blog here, and perhaps YouTube, if successful (meaning the sponsors are happy with the results and wish to continue funding it), the current plan is to parlay those “trial” examples into a weekly series for local TV access.  Each episode will be created to fit into a standard ½ hour / 30-minute time slot (about 23 minutes of program with the remainder for advertising.  Thus far I’ve identified seven types of segments (e.g. photographer’s profiles, equipment introductions and demonstrations, tips & tutorials, photo resources and events, etc.) where two or three segments would be used in each of the larger “themed” episode.  The targeted audience is anyone interested in photography from beginner and student levels up to the working professional, and in all genres of the art and industry. 

It should be interesting juggling topics and equipment demos and introductions to keep two hard-fought rivals both happy.  I was really surprised when Larry and Nancy at Nelson Photo suggested, and David at George’s Camera readily agreed to work together to sponsor this concept.  The good news is, that must mean both see some real value in the concept; but It also means I’ll have to work all the harder to produce something worthy of that openness and cooperation.  For a producer, those are fun challenges to have. 

I’m truly excited by this opportunity and looking forward to getting it seriously underway.  Unfortunately for someone such as myself, for whom patience is not a major strong suit, there is a huge amount of preliminary work to do before even a second of video is captured.  I learned from my days doing corporate, industrial, and training video programming, that success is totally dependent on planning and creating the proper foundations for a given program.  So, anxious as I am to go out and start shooting, I am gritting my teeth and practicing what I preach and only working now on those early pre-production steps.  It is hard to keep my mind focused since I keep seeing footage to do for each episode playing in my mind.

Once the sponsors agree on the topics for the trial episodes, then I’ll identify the onscreen experts and “guests” that will need to be captured and settle on the questions to elicit responses directed toward the specific episode’s theme.  Those preliminary “interviews” will help inform the scripts to make sure there is consistency between the basic host’s (me) narration and the material being presented by the experts.  Then, with that hard data available, we can also identify the equipment, props, and even shooting locations that will be needed for the actual episodes.  Also needed will be the graphics and any animation needed for the intro/roll-ups, outro/end credits, plus the visual-aids needed for the specific episodes and segment topics.

Did I mention that I’m excited by this?  I think this is a cool project and obviously so do the sponsors, but this is a tough market for photographers of all levels.  It is a great place to come and study; it’s a great place to shoot… but it is a miserable venue for revenue purposes as it is, at this point at least, home to rates lower than they were in the Rockies when I left Colorado to come here and teach in January of 2000. 

But win, lose, or draw, this should really be a fun project and I am anxious to get underway.  

I know, I know… patience, David, patience…

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A New Rocinante Jr.

In a sequence of events that still leaves me highly irregular to think about, the little white Westfalia shown in the blog on the Bristlecone Pines trek is no longer part of my future’s plans.  To use a sailing metaphor, that part of the plan was run aground in a fog.  But hey, y’know, sometimes things happen for a reason and this seems to have turned out to be one of them. Some lessons are extraordinarily costly – as was this one – but the flip side is that those expensive lessons (and not always just those economic in cost) often turn out to be the most important and far reaching of life’s lessons providing insight well beyond the obvious items.

When looked back on from a positive perspective, I did also learn a few important things from using the Westy that, as you might have surmised from the blog on my Bristlecone Pines workshop, I really saw initially as an ideal combination travel/production vehicle.  The original “Rocinante,” my 26- foot Coachman, is simply too big to easily get around in and it’s patently insane to try to park at the stores in smaller towns… or sometimes even in larger towns or to conveniently just pull over in the National Parks and scenic byways to grab a shot so there was frequently no option but to drive on by, whining with every foot past a great view.

The little Westy, however, opened my eyes to new possibilities because it went anywhere, parked anywhere, and even as a common daily driver was nearly perfect.  But there was a down side as well.  It was a little small and though it served well as either a travel rig or a production rig, it was not all that ideal as both at the same time.  I put in a solar panel, auxiliary batteries, Thule roof pod, and boosted cell reception, but it didn’t have AC (that was planned as a later install), no power steering (though my shoulders were getting stronger), no bathroom, and because any additional space was based on the pop-up roof, required moving gear up and down to reveal or use the lower bed.  But still, it was very cool, I loved it, and I expected it to be able to make it work just fine until down the road at some point it would go back to the actual owner much improved from when it came into my possession.

But… in the back of my mind, I had once had a friend who had a Roadtrek 190 “Popular” (the model name) Class B rig that they graciously loaned to me to use for a workshop and it was about as perfect as it was possible to be.  Not a family rig by any means, but for one or two people plus gear, it was great and I never forgot how handy it was.  If only the Westy was just a little bit bigger…

So, when the Westy went away into a black hole of abject weirdness, I turned my attention to finding something more like that Roadtrek 190.  The problem is, Roadtreks are one of the “gold standards” of their class and I assumed I could not really afford one, so looked initially at quite a few similar rigs by other manufacturers.  To be honest, none impressed me all that much.  So when a stunningly good deal on a real Roadtrek appeared in Craig’s List I went to see it.  For the price I honestly expected it to be trashed. The photos were great, but I do know what is possible in modern photo editing.  And then I saw it… I was bowled over; it looked like it just rolled off the showroom floor.  So, I put down a deposit on the spot and a week later all of the paperwork was completed and today, it is now mine.

Roadtrek Day One Driver Side 01 for web

The new (to me) Roadtrek 190 “Popular.”  This one is on a 1996 Chevy extended C30 (1-ton) chassis.  It is nearly pristine inside and out and loaded with options and power-everything! The body is 19 feet, bumper-to-bumper for all of the 190 models, but those on the Chevrolet chassis had a longer wheelbase than ones on the Dodge chassis which puts the rear axle further back for less overhang

There are some things I’d like to do to it as I had done to the Westy such as the solar panel installation and the cell reception booster.  But since the economic reality in my post-VW moment has persuaded me as to the wisdom of delaying my retirement plans at school, at least for another semester, there is plenty of time to do all of those things to the Road Trek. And since it starts already with more functionality, mercifully there will be less to do to it.

Roadtrek day one pass side 01 for web

The Roadtrek from the passenger side showing the factory optional awning.  The deal was incredible and impossible to resist…..  I can hardly wait to get it on the road!

So let me proudly introduce you to Rocinante, Jr., or just “Junior.” That’s its “working” name for the moment.  I have not driven it except to bring it home from up north (it’s too tall for our school parking structures) and to the bay to photograph it, so have not yet discovered what its real name should be.  But I do not want to have to redo the blog, so will delay that for down the road.  For now, with “The Photo Report” project getting underway (I’ll explain that in the next post), a vehicle with room to store lots of gear and still have an open bed, bathroom, etc. the future that was plunged into a very dark place is once again looking better by the moment.

Plus, I’ve just been contacted by a publishing company regarding the creation of interactive student learning aides which sounds fascinating.  So perhaps this new chapter for me will be off to a good start.  I certainly have everything crossable, crossed.  And if I can rebuild the treasury I can revisit turning in the paperwork for my retirement from teaching full time.  I love teaching too much to turn my back on it entirely but maybe its time for some part time work and/or concentrating more on doing seminars and workshops.  A recent department meeting convinced me the State system is the sworn enemy of vocational programs and the use of Community Colleges for anything other than creating fodder for the 4-year schools.  Treasury or not, retirement is sounding better by the day and this new camper is not helping things in that regard.

roadtrek Day One Rear PAss 01 for web

Sorry, the little Canon 120 P&S camera I shot these with got nudged into one of its “artsy modes” unintentionally and that is what is creating the obnoxious haloing in this shot.  But it does show the rear of the van with the double doors that I love and the expensive optional “Continental Kit” spare tire carrier.  In fact this one is filled with options including a microwave, TV connections, even optional sliding overhead storage drawers over the cab.  Yep, I think it will do very nicely!

I’m soooooo deeply drawn to the idea of hitting the road at least for a day or two to recharge my own internal “batteries” and clean some of the dark, ugly funk out of my spirit with the clean air of the mountains or desert.  Unfortunately, this coming weekend will be filled with grading and school stuff plus I’ll be judging at a local photo club event which breaks up the weekend, so there’s no time to try a test trip.  But the following weekend, however, if I can keep a schedule open, then maybe that will be a good opportunity for the shakedown cruise.   We’ll see…

OK, next time after a meeting in a few days I’ll be in a position to tell you about “The Photo Report” project.


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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: (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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