Ordinary street sights

Recently I came across a couple of street scenes where the quality of light made the difference between ho-hum and exceptional.

I was walking around downtown Stockton last week looking for an enterprise feature photo when I stopped to cross the street at Sutter Street and Weber Avenue. At my feet was a grate covering a storm drain. You can’t get much more mundane than that, but the low angle of the late afternoon sun cast diagonal shadows from the grill’s bars onto it’s thicker slats. The tilted shadows contrasted with the rigid right angles of the grate and made for an interesting repetitive pattern.


Yesterday evening, I driving on my way to an assignment when I saw a peculiar shadow on an outside wall of St. Mar’s Church in downtown Stockton. I quickly stopped my car and got out to take a look. It was just a patch of light but with a rectangular shadow in the center. Light from the setting sun was reflecting off of a window of the Human Services Building across San Joaquin Street and shining onto the red bricks of the church. However there was a street sign blocking some of the light and casting a ghostly shadow.

Ordinary things are all around us often going unnoticed but it just takes a little effort in seeing them in a different light to elevate them to the extraordinary.


You have until the end of the day until the deadline for the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment: “Ordinary.” so here are the rules:

1. Entries can be emailed to coto@recordnet.com. Type in “Ordinary” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between May 7 and May 21. The can be of any subject but they must be of an everyday object or scene.

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 EOS Rebel Ti with 18-55mm 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.

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

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

Posted in Enterprise, Readers Photo Challenge | Tagged | Leave a comment

Flash in the hand

One of the last disciplines that photographers learn to master is how to use a flash properly. Many don’t like how the effects of a flash looks in their photos and quickly give it up for natural lighting.

Much of it has to do with how a flash is mounted on the camera. Accessory flashes, often called “speedlights” or “speedlites” depending on manufacturer, are mounted to DSLRs via the hot shoe attachment at the top of the camera (hence another moniker “hot shoe” flash). This position can provide plenty of even light but it’s also flat, boring and unflattering light. It also contributes to the dreaded “red-eye” effect.

Red–eye occurs in low-light situations because the eye’s iris is dilated to let more light in. Since the flash is near the camera’s lens, light from the flash reflects off of the blood vessels at the back of the eye and then almost straight back into the lens. This is the same in DSLRs, point-and-shoots, and smartphone cameras. Some cameras try to alleviate this by firing off a series of pre-flashes before the main exposure. The is temporarily makes the iris smaller and lessening or eliminating red-eye, but often by the time that happens sometimes your subject has moved on to other things.

Another way to avoid red eye, and solve other flash problems as well, is to use and off-camera flash. Off-camera flash is just what is sounds like, the flash is held or mounted off of the camera. Studio photographers do this all the time. They do it mostly to avoid the harsh flat light of an on-camera flash. They’ll mount big studio strobe on stands and modify the light with large reflective umbrellas or softboxes. But all this can be thousands of dollars-worth of an investment.

You too can do this with your own speedlight. Radio or infrared transmitters can be purchased to fire your flashes. Some high-end flashes even have them built in. This can still be pretty pricey, costing you several hundreds of dollars. Is there something even more basic (lest costly).

There is something called an off-camera cord that you can use and only costs around $70 to $80 for a reliable one (less for an off-brand one). It’s one of the most essential pieces of equipment in my camera bag. One end of the cord attaches to the hot-shoe at the top of the camera while the other end attaches to the flash. This will allow you to hold the flash at arms length or a little farther if you have an assistant able to hold it for you. This will allow you to avoid red-eye and give you a little more sculpted and flattering light making it look like it comes from another direction other than just straight on. The biggest down side is that you have to make sure that you’re aiming the flash in the right direction. There have been plenty of times where I thought I was pointing the flash where I wanted to but I was actually illuminating some obscure portion of the sky.

Perhaps even an off-camera cord is beyond your means, what do you do? Most speedlights have a head that will tilt and swivel. You can tilt the head upwards to bounce the light off of the ceiling. This will not only eliminate red-eye but also spread out and soften the light as well. You can also swivel the head to bounce it off a nearby wall of a similar effect. The limitation being that if the ceiling or walls are too far away the flash won’t likely be powerful enough to illuminate your subject.

What if you don’t have a speedlight, just a built-in pop-up flash at the top of your camera? Your options are more limited but there are still a few things you can do. There are attachments that you can get that fit over the flash to either soften the light or bounce it upwards, most at a reasonable cost (there are even DIY videos online showing you how to make your own).

The point is that you don’t have to stick with the harsh and unimaginative light and the red-eye effects of an on-camera flash when an off-camera solution is just an arm’s length away.

Posted in Column, lighting | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.” – Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus.

So you’ve become proficient at a certain technique and you can make consistently good pictures using it, what do you do next? Experiment. We can all become inured to doing the same thing in the same way (even if that method is a good one) but if you change things up a bit, it can broaden your horizons and expand your photographic capabilities.

It could be that using a certain method or a piece of equipment will consistently yield great photos for you. Go ahead and still take those ace-in-the-hole photos but then try something new. It could be seeing things from a new angle or a different lens.

In track and field, for example, conventional wisdom in shooting the long jump is to use a long telephoto lens (as it is with most sports). The athlete is usually captured as they fly in mid air from the far end of the sand pit. This is effective in rendering dramatic peak action pictures.

But a change of lens and position one can get photo that’s equally dramatic in its own way. A wide-angle lens used at a low angle and perpendicular to the plane of action can make the athletes look like they’re soaring through the sky, in superhero-like fashion.

Keeping in the track and field vein, in the pole vault the usual shot to get is the athlete going over the bar. But getting a photo before they get to that point, when the pole bends in an arc and the competitors strain to pull themselves up, can be just as striking.

While these examples are specific to track and field, the concept of trying new and different things can be applied to all sports and photography in general.

Sometimes trying something new doesn’t work and you can chalk it up to experience. But when you find something new that works it can expand your photographic repertoire.

Posted in Column, Sports, Techniques | Tagged | Leave a comment

Stage lighting on the cheap

Big name singers and many mid level performers can spend a lot of time, effort and money on lighting for their shows. Good light can add drama, beauty and even entertainment to a performance. At best, musical artists of lesser financial means often have to do with perfunctory lighting or none at all.

While looking for an enterprise shot last night, I stopped by the Kress Legal Center in downtown Stockton. It was participating in the opening day of the 4th annual Summer Art Splash. The event showcases local visual and performing artists in various locations in downtown Stockton every second Friday of each month from May to October. As I walked into the lobby of the Kress, solo performer, singer/songwriter/musician Mondo Mariscal was playing. His set up was minimal: a microphone, a couple of speakers and a guitar, but no stage lighting.

But as he sang in the large lobby, a warm early evening light poured into the room through the building’s huge front windows and lit him up like a concert spotlight. It was all-natural with Mother Nature providing the light design, free of charge.

Posted in Enterprise, Light, Lightning | Tagged | Leave a comment

Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Out of the ordinary

“Miracles happen everyday, change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you.” – Jon Bon Jovi

May is National Photo Month and in observance of it this month’s Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “ordinary objects.” The ability to see the beauty in the mundane is the basis in many types of photography. Being able to find interesting detail in things that may otherwise go overlooked is useful in macro and small product photography. Food photographers need to know how to make something like an ordinary plate of ham and eggs look like a work of art. It underpins street photography and photojournalism where one has to make everyday events and scenes look visually interesting.

In the very beginning of photography people were more enamored with the technology than with what it could do artistically. But with time photographers became artists too. While some photography still deals with a just-the-facts-ma’am reality, other kinds strive to delve deeper into the art. They don’t just look for a beautiful object as a subject, but rather they look for the beauty in any object or scene. It’s the difference on what your subject is and how you approach it.

In photographing an ordinary thing one needs to find the beauty and nobility of the object. The trick is not just to take a representative picture of an everyday thing, but rather to shoot it in a way to elevated it to the level of art.

Looking for details within an object is one way to see the ordinary with an artistic eye. We can become so inured to an object or scene that we often pass by or ignore a detail or two that might be visually interesting on their own, sometimes more so than the whole itself. Detail can also add texture to the image.

Lighting can also add drama and feeling to an everyday object. My wife will occasionally find me “playing” with interesting the light. I’ll hold up an object like a cup or whatever is at hand (Sometimes even just my hand) to see how the light plays on it. If it’s a shiny thing then perhaps having some light reflect off of it can be effective. In the same manner, look to see how the shadows interact with the object and play within the photo.

Think about how the object is used within the composition, how it relates to other objects (if any) in the picture and its placement within the frame. Color and tone can contribute to the composition as well. A colorful background can make an boring subject come alive.

Finally, take some time to think about your shot. Try different techniques and approaches. Your subjects can be as varied as an egg, a fork or the telephone pole down the street but your task for National Photo month is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.


Here are the rules:

1. Entries can be emailed to coto@recordnet.com. Type in “Ordinary” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between May 7 and May 21. The can be of any subject but they must be of an everyday object or scene.

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 EOS Rebel Ti with 18-55mm 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.

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

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

Posted in Column, Readers Photo Challenge | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Random photo #48: Topsy-turvy

Warm temperatures and sunny skies inspired Gerardo Gutierrez, 19, of Lodi, to do handstands at Beckman Park on Ham Lane and Century Boulevard in Lodi.

Posted in Enterprise, Random Photo | Tagged , | Leave a comment

April outtakes

“The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.” - Mark Twain

April was a mixed bag, photographically speaking. There was a little of something for everyone. Here are 10 of my favorite previously unposted photos from last month.


















Posted in Month in review, Outtakes | Tagged | Leave a comment

Random photo #47: Like mother, like son

3-year-old Mahki McNeal washes his toy electric car while his mother Breanna Johnson washes her full-sized real car in the driveway of their home on Benjamin Holt Drive in Stockton.

Posted in Enterprise, Feature, Random Photo | Leave a comment

Readers Photo Challenge: De-Color my world

“The world is black, the world is white
It turns by day and then by night” – David I. Arkin and Earl Robinson.

This month’s Readers Photo Challenge was “black and white” and I was pleasantly surprised at the response to the assignment. I thought the interest in black and white photography was on the wane much like the decline of the use of film, but boy was I wrong.  Twenty-three people sent in a whopping 181 photos, which makes it one of the most popular challenges.

The subjects varied from grandchildren and pets to landscapes and architecture. The best ones show the artistry and the drama that black and white can convey.

Here are the top picks sent in.


The legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his black and white work for good reason. His photographs show the power and beauty of the medium.

On a road trip with her mother and sisters through Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, Teresa Mahnken of Morada made a stop at Zion National Park, Utah. With a Nikon D3200 DSLR camera with a rented Nikkor 14-24mm wide-angle lens, Mahnken photographed Lady Mountain with Virgin River flowing in the foreground. She then converted the image to black and white through Picassa on her computer. She captured the power and majesty of the landscape in an image that would have probably impressed Adams himself.


Jackson resident Carolyn Silva’s photo shows the ability of black and white to convey geometric patterns in an image. While in the backyard of a home in Sutter Creek during the 43rd Annual Home Tour sponsored by the Amador Branch of the American Assoc. of University Women, Silva used an Olympus SZ-20 digital point-and-shoot camera to photograph the shadows left by slats of an overhead patio cover. She then converted the image to black and white through FastStone Image Viewer on her computer. The patterns of lines and angles compliment the lines on the wooden patio furniture that wouldn’t have been as powerful if it were in color. But in black and white, the lines almost jump right out of the picture at the viewer.


A silhouette is one of black and white’s strongest fortés. A stark black image against a nearly white sky or background can make for a strong graphic image.

Sam Doan of Stockton created a self-portrait at Four Mile Beach along Highway 1 near Santa Cruz with a Canon 5D Mark II and a 16-35mm wide-angle lens set on a tripod. His own figure is darkly silhouetted against the lighter sunset sky and provides the focal point of the image. Water caught in the beach’s tide pools reflect the lighter sky and creates foreground interest to the scene. While most people would think that sunsets are best shot in color, Doan’s dramatic use of light and dark makes his photo work very well in black and white.


“When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white you photograph their souls.” – Ted Grant

Janet Baniewich of Stockton used a Nikon D3300 DSLR camera to photograph 8-month-old Jack Ball in Billings, Montana. She used Windows Photo Viewer Microsoft Office to convert the photo to black and white. Without the distraction of color, Baniewich’s photo emphasizes the child’s wide eyes, which are almost as big as the eyes on his owl-faced wool cap.


Another strength of black and white is to show texture. Allison O’Neill of Stockton used a Fujifilm XS-1 DSLR camera in B/W mode to photograph a bench in Gold Beach, Oregon. In black and white the grain of the wooden slats of the bench is almost tactile in its detail as is the vegetation and even the dirt on the ground, which may have been otherwise ignored if viewed in color.


Colors are perceived differently in black and white. Green, for example, is much darker in tone than one usually thinks of in color. Rick Wilmot of Lodi used a Canon 5D Mk III DSLR camera to photograph raindrops on the leaves of a rose bush after a recent storm at his home. He converted it to black and white with Windows Live Photo Gallery. The green leaves of the bush reproduced as a very dark grey making the glistening gem-like water drops pop out even more.


Architecture is also another subject that works well in black and white. Two readers searched out the gothic-esque buildings on the Stockton campus of the University of the Pacific to find their photos.

Tom LaBounty of Stockton used a HTC One cellphone to photograph the Faye Spanos Concert Hall on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He converted it to black and white using the Snapseed application on the phone. The approached his shot in almost a landscape fashion including the sky, trees and parking lot. The image exhibits a wonderful range of tones that only a black and white photo can do.


Dave Skinner of Stockton used a Nikon D90 DSLR camera to photograph Burns Tower on the University of the Pacific campus in Stockton. Skinner used Photoshop Elements to convert the photo to black and white. The extreme low angle that he shot tower from makes it look like its shooting up into the. Its white walls starkly contrasts against the darkness of an early morning sky.


Ken Class of Stockton used an iPhone 5s in black and white mode to photograph a flora exhibit at the Bouquet of Arts show at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. Class took advantage of the nice natural lighting to capture the texture of the flowers.


Lindsey Shepherd Wanner of Milford, Illinois used a Nikon D5100 DSLR camera to photograph her cat Equinox at her home. She used the retouch menu in her camera to convert each picture to black and white. Black and white can emphasize the most aspect of a portrait: the eyes. In cropping the photo to only include half her cat’s face, Wanner stresses even more attention on its remaining eye.


All of the images can be seen in a photo gallery at Recordnet.com. Stay tuned for the next Readers Photo Challenge assignment on Thursday.

Posted in Readers Photo Challenge | Tagged | Leave a comment

Random Photo #46: Hulk fly kite!

Rick Cooper of Stockton tried to take advantage of the nice weather by trying to launch a small kite at Victory Park in Stockton. The day’s winds were unpredictable, changing directions often, and the kite didn’t get more than several feet off the ground.

Posted in Enterprise, Random Photo, Weather | Leave a comment
  • Blog Authors

    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
  • Categories

  • Archives