Think like a camera

One way to improve your photographic skills is to think like your camera, or more precisely, know how your camera thinks. Today’s digital cameras are technological wonders. Not only are they imaging devices but mini computers as well. The contain algorithms for auto exposure, auto focus and many other complex functions.

However, with all its sophisticated electronics and software, a modern camera is still just a dumb machine. The camera can’t tell if you’re if you’re taking a good picture or a bad one. It treats one with the same kind of proficiency and efficiency as the other.

While camera can quantify the amount of light there is in a scene, it can’t tell you what the quality of that light is or even what direction it’s coming from. It doesn’t know if the light is as soft as a summer’s breeze or hard and contrasty. A camera can’t tell if it’s the low, warm light of the golden hour or if it’s the harsh overhead sun of midday.

A camera doesn’t know a thing about composition. It’s ignorant about the rule of thirds, leading lines or symmetry. A camera can’t tell if you’re close enough to your subject. It can’t tell if the background is too cluttered or if there’s a streetlight sticking out of your subject’s head.

Cameras also don’t know when to take a picture. They know nothing about when to press the shutter button to capture the decisive moment or just when to shoot to get a great action photo.

A camera (and lens) is just a hunk of metal, plastic and glass and like it or not, you’re the one that’s going to have to do the thinking.

In many ways taking a picture with one of today’s cameras is like driving a modern car. The majority of new cars have automatic transmissions so you don’t have to worry about shifting any pesky gears. Radio and climate controls are easy to use. There are even safety features that you don’t even have to think about. You just have to turn the key, put it drive and go. But if you want to go to somewhere fun or interesting, that’s something that the car can’t decide for you. It’s a choice that you’ll have to make for yourself.

Perhaps one day in the distant future cameras will come with a little voice that says things like: “You’re too far away, take a step closer” or even “this light is boring, come back in 3 or 4 hours,” but until that day comes, you’ll have to do the thinking and make the decision on what pictures to take and when to take them.

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A midsummer’s outtakes: June

We’re in the middle of summer and we’ve had our 100+ degree temperatures already. Although things may have seemed to have cooled off somewhat, there’s plenty of summer left for things to heat back up again.
Here are my top 10 favorites previously un posted photos from June.















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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Summertime

“In the summertime when the weather is hot,
You can reach right up and touch the sky…”
“In the Summertime” by Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry

Summer is the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment. It’s the time of leisure and vacations. Summertime conjures images of swinging lazily in a hammock while sipping a cool glass of lemonade or barbecuing burgers and hotdogs in the backyard.

Sun and heat are also signatures of summer. Think boating swimming and other water-related activities. Kids playing with the sprinklers or in the pool are also make natural subjects for summer photos.


Evening comes later during the summer. This means sunset and blue hour photos come well after commute and dinner times making it in some ways more convenient to get photos of the times with the best light. Summertime’s warm days also mean warm evenings which makes nights shots easier without having to deal with chilly temperatures.

Think of what symbolizes the season. Blue skies and bright colors, beaches and ice cream, carnivals and music festivals are all a part of summer. Whether symbolic or actual pictures, it’s your job to show that summer time is the most wonderful time of the year.


How to enter:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Summer” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between July 7 and July 21.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “John Doe, Stockton. Pool Station Road and Highway 49, San Andreas. Canon Rebel T3 w/ 55-300mm lens”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos (Jimmy Doe, 5, plays in the water at the Oak Park Pool in Stockton).

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday, July 21. The top examples will be published on Thursday, July 28 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.


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Readers Photo Challenge: There’s no place like home

“When I think of home
I think of a place where there’s love overflowing,
I wish I was home” – by Charlie Smalls (from The Wiz)

The latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment was on finding the beauty in hometowns. One has to become a tourist in and see familiar sights with a fresh eye. A pitfall is allowing sentimentality take precedence over sound photographic principal. One may have fond memories of a building street or landmark but you still have to consider lighting and composition to make a good photo.

Response to the challenge was low (that could be partially my fault – many people may have been out of town on vacation during the time frame) Only 5 readers sent in 27 photos. Here are the best of the entries that show that home is where the (photographic) heart is.


Rick Wilmot of Lodi has lived in several cities with family or for work throughout his lifetime until he decided to retire in
retire in Lodi in 2000. The 64-year-old has lived there longer than any other town and considers it his hometown. Wilmot
used a Canon EOS 5D MK III to photograph a lovely sunset from the driveway of his home. It’s a testament the simplicity
and beauty of small town life.


Although Teresa Mahnken was born in Oceanside, California she claims Lodi and the Morada area of Stockton as her home now. With her Nikon D3200 DSLR camera at her side, she took a recent drive along Harney Lane in the rural outskirts of Lodi to find a sunflower growing outside of a dilapidated greenhouse. The yellow and green of the plant contrasts nicely against the near monotone of the rest of the scene.

Mahnken also sent in photos from Morada in the rural part of northeastern Stockton. Surrounded by farmland it still has a rural feel. Mahnken found an old mailbox on the bucolic, tree lined Alpine Roads. She converted the picture to black and white, which enhances its rustic quality.

Stay tuned for next week for a new challenge assignment.

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Experience your experiences

On May 22 I photographed former President Bill Clinton’s campaign stop for his wife Hillary at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Stockton. About 700 people were jammed into the center’s exhibition hall. I shot the event from with the rest of the media from a press riser at the back of the room and another set off to the right of the main stage.

The event proceeded like pretty much most other political rallies. A series of local dignitaries get up to the podium to speak each saying things in of support for their candidate and against their opponent. Finally the keynote speaker is introduced, in this case President Clinton.

Clinton spoke for about a half hour or so before leaving the stage. He then shook hands and posed for pictures with people as he worked the crowd behind a rope barrier at the front of the stage.

There were too many people in the way to get a shot of Clinton from either of the risers, so I decided to get closer. It was too densely packed where Clinton immediately was. I saw that he was slowly working his way towards stage left where there were fewer people so that’s where I went to plant myself to wait for the former president to make his way there.

There were fewer people on that side but it was still very crowded. I managed to get about 3 or 4 people back from the front.As Clinton approached one young man in front of me and slightly to the left turned his back to the former president. At first I thought it may have been some sort of protest. But he smiled and raised his cellphone when Clinton passed behind him, shaking hands with other spectators, to take a selfie. He was close enough to reach out and shake his hand and could have easily done so but decided to take a picture instead.

A recent study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that that people taking pictures of an event may actually enhance their enjoyment of the event. Researchers conducted a series of experiments involving 2,000 subjects in taking photos of different activities. They found that the subjects tended to be more engaged in the activity if they took pictures of it.

There was one caveat though. The subjects’ enjoyment was not enhanced if they were actively participating in the experience. For example in one experiment participants were asked to either do an arts and crafts project or to merely observe it. While the observers did experience increased enjoyment when taking pictures, those who participated in the activity did not when they took pictures of the same event.

At the Clinton event, most of the spectators were not able to get close enough to say a few words with him or shake his hands so taking pictures was probably the best they could do. But the young man who took the selfie would have most likely been better off had he just reached out to make a brief connection with the former president.

As a photographer I’m all for taking pictures but there’s an appropriate time and place for everything. Don’t miss out on participating in life rather than just photographing them.


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What’s inside

When I was a young community college photo student I disassembled a 200mm lens. Several weeks earlier a fellow student did it to one of his lenses after he fell and dunked it into the water during a week-long field trip to Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove. Sand and salt water are the two worst things for any piece of photographic equipment. They will corrode and eat away at the inner workings of a lens. It’s best to get it cleaned out as soon as possible. When I stopped by the fellow student’s hotel room a little while later I saw that he had completely taken apart the lens. The parts were laid out on a towel on a table and he was carefully cleaning them piece by piece.

A while later, I had noticed some dust floating around inside the lens and it kind of bugged me, so I decided to get in there to clean it out (I didn’t know then that a little bit of dust inside the lens doesn’t really affect image quality).

I thought, how hard could it be? It looked fairly straightforward (little did I know at the time that the other student was literally a card-carrying member of the high IQ society MENSA). There were just a few very small screws on the lens mount at the base of the lens. I took apart the lens with relative ease and used a can of compressed air to blow out the dust.

It turns out taking a lens apart wasn’t the hard part. Putting it back together again was the problem. Everything seemed to fit the way it was supposed to and there weren’t any left over parts but I couldn’t get the lens to work the way it was supposed to. While I could still focus the lens, the aperture mechanism wouldn’t work. I took it apart and put it together again a couple of times before giving up.

I had to spend good money to have the lens fix at a camera repair shot. The worst part was the embarrassment of having to explain to them what happened. I guessed that they got a lot of people who did what I did because, to their credit, they didn’t say anything.

That was back in the days of the old manual focus lenses. Today’s lenses are even more complicated. I addition to having the same kinds of elements of the older lenses, there’s the addition of autofocus gears and motors as well as he electronic connections for the lens to “communicate” with the camera. Some lenses even have CPUs built in.

I was reminded of all this after watching a short video recently released by Canon about their 200-400mm f/4L telephoto zoom lens ( It’s a stop-action production that features the $11,000 lens (yes, $11,000) slowly coming apart seemingly on its own. It’s fascinating to watch for anyone who’s even a minor gearhead. It shows the complexity of today’s modern lenses and how many different parts goes into making one. I’m just glad I’m not the one who had to put it back together again.

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Day of the flag

The U.S. Flag’s official title is the “Flag of the United States of America” but we know it by many other nicknames: the American Flag, the Stars and Stripes, Red, White and Blue, the Star Spangled Banner and Old Glory.

It is the symbol of our nation and we fly on many occasions. The most obvious times are for the patriotic holidays: Independence Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day and, of course, Flag Day.

We also display them for funerals for soldiers, law enforcement officers and firefighters.

We raise them during protests either for or against a cause. We proudly display them at sporting events and political rallies. They fly in front of every school and government building in the country.

We all know from our history books that Betsy Ross created the first version of the stars and stripes at the request of George Washington in 1776, and it has had many iterations since, but our current flag was designed by a 17-year-old student 58 years ago.

According to, Robert G. Heft was attending high school in Lancaster, Ohio in 1958 when talk of Alaska and Hawaii becoming states led him to create the 50-star flag as a school project. He originally got a B- on it but his teacher agreed to raise the grade to an A if Heft could get Congress to adopt the design. With the help of his congressman he eventually got his flag accepted as he banner of our nation.

Our flag is a beacon of freedom and prosperity not only for us, but for many around the world. Long may it wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave,

Here’s a gallery of photos that I’ve shot over the years that feature the flag in one way or another.


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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Be ever so humble…

“…No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be…”
- Small Town by John Mellencamp

Most people have fond memories of where they grew up, whether it was a big city or a small town. I was raised in the tiny farming town nestled along the Sacramento River called Walnut Grove. About a ½-hour drive northwest of Stockton it’s population when I was there hovered around 500 residents. Although I’ve lived away from there for many years now, I still consider it my hometown.

The subject of the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment is your hometown.

Every village, town or city has its own character. Try to capture it in your photos. It could be in the buildings or landmarks or it can be it the faces of its residents or in the surrounding landscape. It can be a touristy feature or some hidden gem far from the maddening crowds.

Walnut Grove is a Delta town. In addition to the river there are many sloughs and channels in the area and the bridges that cross them add to the town’s personality. There are several places including, Alma’s Café, and Tony’s and Guisti’s restaurants, that are not only eateries that out-of-towners flock to, but are hangouts for the locals as well.

Creativity counts in this assignment. Go beyond just making your photo merely a travelogue or snapshot. Remember that the time of day matters. The warm tones of early morning or late afternoon make for the best light. Be aware of interesting angles as well as being aware of foregrounds and backgrounds. Just because you’ve seen a place all your life doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it in new and creative ways.

Don’t forget about the residents of a place. They can be as important to the personality of a hometown as the buildings or landscape. Every town or neighborhood has its interesting characters and unofficial “mayors.”

While many consider the place where they grew up as their hometown, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the place where you were born. It can be somewhere that you’ve moved to and adopted as your home. Make sure that your photos say something about the town and not just a pretty picture that could be from anywhere. The common denominator is that you show us what makes your hometown picturesque or special and that there’s no place like home.


How to enter:
1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “hometown” in the subject line.

2. Photos must be shot between June 9 and June 23. They can be of where you were born or raised or of your adopted hometown.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “John Doe, Stockton. Pool Station Road and Highway 49, San Andreas. Canon Rebel T3”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos.

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday, June 23. The top examples will be published on Thursday, June 30 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day

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Mother Nature Monday #18: Big leaf, little leaf

11/9/2012: A fallen sycamore leaf lays in some ivy near Knoles Hall on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

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Outtakes: The merry, merry month of May

May brought a pig on a leash, kids in some mud, a former president and a baseball championship. Here are 10 of my favorite previously unposted photos from the 5th month of the year.

















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    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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