Make ‘em laugh

There’s an old adage in show biz that goes “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Photography can be similar. It’s easy to show some emotions in pictures. You can tell when someone is happy, sad or angry without much effort. Showing humor is another story. I think part of the problems that humor is very subjective. Everyone has a little different take on what’s funny.

The San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association (SFBAPPA) used to have a monthly photo contest for its members and one of the categories was “humor.” Sometimes I would see the humor in some of the winners, other times not so much. Don’t get me wrong. They were excellent photos, they just weren’t that funny to me.

Several years ago I entered the SFBAPPA contest of a girl feeding animals at a petting zoo at the San Joaquin County Fair. She was feeding a llama with one hand while trying to keep a goat from eating an ice-cream cone filled with feed in the other hand. I thought it was cute and mildly amusing, but not out-and-out funny and I didn’t expect to win. It got a first place.

There’s a difference of people being funny and others “doing” funny. For comedians, clowns and the like, It’s their job. Photos of the them can be naturally humorous. But if you can capture people doing something ordinary in an unusual way or something unusual as if it were an everyday occurrence, that can be even funnier.

Way back in 1995 I was out covering a heavy rainstorm. I spotted three pre-teen boys in the Lincoln Village neighborhood of Stockton. They were asking home from school when they stopped near an intersection that was flooded with several inches of rain water. The boys were prompting passing cars to speed up to cause large splashes of water to spray on them. They were soaked to the bone but having a great time. I have often wondered what their mothers said to them when they got home.

Sometimes all you need is just a little twist on a normal take to make things funny. In 2011, I shot a Stockton Thunder Hockey game at the Stockton Arena. The Thunder’s Garet Hunt got into a fight with Bakersfield Condors’ Pascal Morency. Hockey players fight all the time. Nothing inherently unusual or necessarily humorous about that. But a woman just on the other side of glass partition that surrounds the rink was laughing and having a grand ol’ time watching the two men pummel each other. The fight wasn’t funny but how the woman reacted to it was.

Another saying goes “brevity is the source of wit. To communicate it’s intent, a photo, like a joke, should be concise and to the point. Any extraneous information or rambling explanations can kill a joke. In the same vein, a photo that’s cluttered or takes to long to show the viewer what’s going on in the picture, will fail to communicate its humor. If a picture that has any chance to be funny, it first has to be what’s known in the business as a “quick read.” Mastering that is as key to photographing humor as is learning how to do a punchline, pratfall or pie in the face is to comedy.

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AgFest costume contest

TOP: Nine-year-old Gracie Irola with the Escalon 4H dressed as Cleopatra while her steer Harold was made up as King Tut in the annual costume contest where animals are dressed up by the kids who raised them at the AgFest at the San Joaquin County fairgrounds in Stockton.  BOTTOM LEFT: Fourteen-year-old Erin Grogan, left, and 15-year-old Emma Bracco, with the Escalon FFA dressed up themselves as well as their respective goats Tank and Mepe as Dr. Seuss characters Thing 2 and Thing 1. BOTTOM RIGHT: Eleven-year-old Belle Begllinger with the French Camp 4H puts a Hawaiian lei on her turkey Gloria Gobbles to make her a “luau girl” in the annual farm animal costume contest. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

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Sounds of Swenson

TOP: Austin James performs with his band at the first Sounds of Swenson concert at Swenson Park in Stockton. The concert in the park series is presented every second Thursday of the month from June to September in association with Save Swenson. BOTTOM LEFT: About 200 to 300 people listen to Austin James perform with his band at the first Sounds of Swenson concert at Swenson Park in Stockton. BOTTOM RIGHT: Guitarist Bill Stevens with the James Austin Bands, plays a riff on his guitar at the first Sounds of Swenson concert. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

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Fair’s first day: For the young and young at heart

TOP: Duane Falls, left, and Kassie Smith from Cullman, Alabama ride the Super Sizzler ride on opening day of the San Joaquin County Fair at the fairgrounds in Stockton. BOTTOM LEFT: Seven-year-old Armand Adames of Stockton, right, is watch by his 9-year-old cousin Andrea Kashaka of Stockton as he tosses ping pong balls into floating dishes to an attempt to win a prize in the Buoy Pitch game on the San Joaquin County Fair’s Midway. BOTTOM RIGHT: Four-year-old Bethany Hensley of Ripon waves to her family as she rides the Lollipop Swing ride on the Midway on opening day of the San Joaquin County Fair. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

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Bullets, balloons and paintball

When people think of the word “photojournalist” they often think of a photographer covering some war-torn corner of the globe, however, I have never desired to be one of those photographers.

For a couple of reasons, I have always preferred to take local photos of the people and places much closer to home.

First, there are some people in Stockton who have never seen parts of the city other than their own neighborhood. I believe that it’s just as important to show people the world around them and bring it to their doorsteps as it it is to show war-torn Syria or Afghanistan.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I don’t have the skills to be a combat photographer.

Several years ago, I covered the opening of a new paintball facility at the now-defunct Oakwood Lake Resort in Manteca. I was geared up for the game with a mask and helmet but within a few minutes of the start of a session, I was shot right between the eyes even though the paintballers were given the instruction “don’t shoot the photographer.” I think it was then it was cemented in my mind that conflict photography was not meant for me.

More recently, I covered the Balloons Over Bullets event in south Stockton. The idea was to give kids an fun activity, in this case a large water balloon fight, to help keep them away from violence. When the battle began mass chaos ensued with screaming, giggling kids running every which way. I was nailed three times, twice with water balloons thrown by unseen assailants and a third by a little girl who snuck up behind me and poured a bottle of water on me.

I believe that bringing images of war and conflict from far-flung places to us here at home is of great importance. If we’re to send in military aid or troops to a foreign land, then we should know why we’re doing it. In the tradition going all the way back to the legendary Robert Capa during WWII, the men and women who do this valuable and dangerous work bring back incredible images that show the world all while under fire. I’m just glad that they’ve chosen that line of photography because it means that I don’t have to.

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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Windows of opportunity

“If a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade.” – Tom Peters

This month’s Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “windows.”

Windows allow us to see the outside world from the comfort of our homes. They allow light in and while keeping the cold or heat out. The can be ornate or merely functional.

They can also be very useful photographically. Framing is a compositional tool that is often used in photography. You can use something in the foreground, such as a tree branch, to help frame your subject. Windows are also an obvious choice for framing your pictures. Photographing through a window, leaving the sill and frame within the picture, can help to emphasize what you’re taking photos of.

You can create abstract photos by shooting through a window covered in raindrops. Focus on the glass and droplets and let the rest go out of focus and you have an impressionist painting-like image.

Don’t forget about the reflective properties of the glass in windows. You can use it to capture images of other buildings, the surrounding landscape or people. You can even get sunlight bouncing off of a window as a part of your composition.

You don’t have to limit yourself to the windows on buildings. The windows on vehicles, planes, trains and automobiles, will do nicely as well.

Your subject may be shot through a window, reflected off of a window or just of a window (or windows) itself, just as long that it’s clear that a window is involved (no shooting through a window without showing at least its edge or frame).

Windows are numerous and can be found everywhere, so much so that one may not even think of them or ignore their presence. So you need to keep your eyes open, think outside of the box and look for your window of opportunity.


Enter the Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Shadows

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

2. Photos have to be shot between June 5 and June 19.

3. Entries will be limited to no more than 12 photos.

4. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (e.g.: “John Doe of Stockton. Location: Oak Park, Stockton. Canon Rebel T3 w/ 55-300mm lens”).

5. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos (e.g.: Jimmy Doe, 15, of Stockton, walks in front of the windows of the Stockton Arena in downtown Stockton).

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

7. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, June 19. The top examples will be published in the Record on June 26 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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Readers Photo Challenge: Beyond a shadow of a doubt

The current Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “shadows.” While a few had some trouble with the concept, the pictures were to showcase shadows and not just contain them, others stepped out of the shadows and let their work shine beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Fifteen readers sent in seventy seven photos. Here are some of the top picks.


With a Canon EOS Rebel DSLR camera, Oran Schwinn of Stockton captured the light coming through the blinds on an east-facing window and created shadows on the blinds of a south-facing window at his home. The horizontal lines of the south blinds are complimented by the diagonal bars of light and dark from the east window which creates and interesting pattern of lines and shades in his photo.


The patterns of shadow in Stocktonian Steve Rapaport’s photo creates interesting patterns for the viewer’s eye to explore. With a Canon EOS 5D Mk IV DSLR camera, Rapaport captured a woman and man having lunch along the Seine River in Paris, France. The pattern of shadows from a nearby tree that emanate from the bottom of the frame and lead to the couple. Sitting income of the darkest parts of the shadow they are almost silhouetted and become a part of the shadow.


While on a trip through the Mother Lode Gold County, Dave Skinner of Stockton came across a bike parked in front of a store in Jackson. Painted a hideous faded beige/yellow Skinner saw past the unattractive color and saw the artistic possibilities in the bike’s shadow. Using a Nikon D7000 DSLR camera, he captured the bikes elegant shadow/silhouette on the pavement then later converted it to black and white.


Susan Scott of Stockton to a picture of a Lilly while on a walk along March Lane in Stockton. With her Canon EOS Rebel DSLR camera she photographed the bright yellow flower in a delicate dance with its own crisp shadow in the pavement.


Shooting a shadow self-portrait was a popular subject with many of the people who entered the challenge, but Ken Class of Lodi put a little different twist on his. While flying back to Sacramento International Airport from a trip to Manzanita Beach on the north Oregon coast, Class used his Apple iPhone 7 Plus to photograph the plane’s shadow on the on the ground as it made its final approach to the airport.


Aisha Ahmed of Stockton was walking with her 2-year-old son Aayan Khan near San Joaquin Street and Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton. With her Apple iPhone 6 she photographed their shadows as they held hands to make a touching mother and child portrait.


Lillian McDonell of Stockton submitted a double portrait for her shadow picture. She used an Apple iPhone 6 to photograph her 7-year-old grandson Leo Emigh capturing his and her own shadow while visiting him at his school in Roseville.


Donn Sperry of Stockton attempted to recreate a photo that he took years earlier of some balloons next to his kitchen for one of his kids’ birthday parties. For his newer version, he used a Sony Alpha NEX-7 mirrorless digital camera to photograph balloons as the light that came through the window blinds created subtle patterns of light and shadow on them.


Carrie Walker of Stockton used an Apple iPad to photograph her cat Panda as the late afternoon setting sun made the pet’s long shadow look like Batman.


Teresa Mahnken of Morada sent in a great example of a minimalistic photo. She used a Nikon D7200 DSLR camera to photograph a dandelion growing from an intersection of 2 lines in some concrete near her home. The flower’s long, free-form shadow created by an early morning sun stands stark contrast to the strain, rigid lines as does the flower’s color against the colors concrete.


All of the photos sent in can be seen in an online photo gallery at Stay tuned for a new challenge assignment on June 12.

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Travel Practice

May is coming to an end soon graduations will take place and then after that summer vacation and all the photos you’ll take while you’re on the road. Vacation photos are essentially the same as travel photography. Like all things, the more you practice at travel pictures the better you’ll get at it. But short of traveling all the time, how do you practice those travel photos? Do it close to home. It may sound counterintuitive but what you need to do is to treat your home town or city like a travel destination. The key is making time to go out and do some shooting. Plan a “photo walk” for yourself. That means you need to do some sightseeing as if you were on vacation. I know it may be hard since you may see these sights on a daily basis and might take them for granted, but try to see them with fresh eyes as if you haven’t seen them before. Look at things from different angles that you’re used to seeing them at. If you always pass by a certain building from one side then try looking at it from the other side. Look for interesting architecture. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty off the overall urban landscape of a city but don’t forget the details as well. The details of parts of a building can be just as interesting. Also look to see how shiny surfaces – windows, polished walls, etc. – can reflect other buildings too. Speaking of light, I know I go on and on about it but lighting can make or break a photo. The best light of the day is either during early morning or late afternoon. By going out locally at those times you can see how dramatically light affects the scenery. When you go on your trip you can plan some of your picture taking around those hours of the day. See how light affects and reflects off of those surfaces. One building may look very different in the morning than in the middle of the day. Night shots can yield great shots during your vacation but, with setting up the camera and finding the right setting, possibly under the limited time constraints of your itinerary, it can be stressful if you haven’t done it before. Getting some practice at home before you go can be very helpful. Photographing people is also something to look for on your travels but it’s one of the hardest photographic disciplines to master. One technique is to take your pictures clandestinely, on the fly, so to speak. You have to be quick on the draw and be able to react swiftly to rapidly changing situations. Another is to just ask people to take their picture. Both are valid but are harder to do than it may seem. Practicing in your own town can help a lot before you go on your vacation. So make some time before you go on your vacation to work on your travel photography techniques and, as the old joke goes, practice, practice practice.  

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Portfoilo investment

In January, I was asked to be a judge a portion of the 2017 Texas Associated Press Managing Editors (TAPME) photo contest. The contest encompasses stories as well as pictures. I judged a news photo category as well as what the TAPME calls their Star Photojournalist awards.

The single photo category is pretty straightforward: pick the best individual image The Star Photojournalist category was a little more difficult. Entrants had to send in a portfolio of twelve of their best photos from the year.

The Galveston Daily News’ Stuart Villanueva’s portfolio was head and shoulders above the rest. Everyone else was just competing for second and third.

When evaluating a portfolio, whether for a contest or looking for a prospective job applicant, one has a few things to consider.

The first, of course, is how good are the pictures. Are they technically sound? Do they connect on not only an aesthetic level with the viewer but an emotional one as well?

Most of the entrants to the contest easily reached this bar. Villanueva’s work also exhibited a certain photographic cleverness. Many of the pictures not only showed a technical excellence but there was a certain visual delightfulness to them as well.

Secondly, how well to the pictures all work together as a group. This goes to the ephemeral quality of “style.” Style is when an editor or reader can look at a picture, like it and say themselves “so-in-so must have taken it.” If ever find myself reading a paper in Galveston, I now can probably pick out Villanueva’s photos. His work had his signature all over it and it felt all of a single piece. Others did too but to a lesser extent.

Lastly, there’s a saying in photography that a portfolio is only as good as its weakest picture. For me, what brought down many of the other portfolios was that they felt like they were just trying to round out the limit of twelve. In other words, they might have had a strong eight or ten photos but added a mediocre one or two to make the twelve. If would’ve left those extraneous picture out then they would have had a strong portfolio. The weak ones brought them down. Villanueva’s work was consistently good through and through.

To produce a good portfolio one must have to be a strong editor of their own work. You have to look at your photos with a dispassionate and brutal eye. Never hold on to a picture because of sentimentality. I know it’s easy to be swayed by factors like what it took to get the shot or if there’s someone who’s famous in it, but with every picture you have to ask “is this good?” And “why?” Villanueva’s portfolio was very tightly edited. I wonder what great work was left on his cutting room floor.

I have seen a number of portfolios in my time and the best ones were like Villanueva’s, excellent and consistent. You may wonder why putting together a portfolio may be for you. If you’re an amateur looking to become a more serious one you may want to organize one for a Web site or even for job hunting. A good, well-edited portfolio can showcase your work and show what you can do.

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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Shadows

The newest Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “shadows.”

Photographing shadows can pretty easy. No special equipment is required. You can shoot it with a DSLR, a point-and-shoot or a smartphone.

What is needed is a strong, unfiltered light source. For that reason a bright sunny day tends to work best. Diffused light, such as an overcast day, will create indistinct shadows. You can even photograph shadows at night for a very dramatic effect, but again, only if you have a strong light source. Back or side lighting tends to be the most effective to produce a shadow picture.

Like most any other picture the early morning, late afternoon light is the best. The low angle can create long shadows and create warmth in the surroundings.Any flat surface can be the “canvas” for your shot as long as a clean uncluttered one. A surface with too many lines or patterns can obscure event the strongest of shadows. Most often that will mean the ground beneath your feet but you also use a wall, curtains or another flat, vertical surface.

The shadows can be the main subject of your photo or it can be part of the composition or background that emphasizes or leads the viewers’ eye to the subject.

All shadows are silhouettes, but not all silhouettes are shadows. Like a silhouette, shadows are outlines made from an object or person. But a silhouette has actual physical form while a shadow is a mere shade of what makes it. That doesn’t mean that a shadow isn’t worth of being the subject in and of itself. You take a picture of just the shadow or both it and what makes it.

So get out there in the springtime sunshine and show that you don’t have to be afraid of your own (or anyone else’s) shadow.

(Note: This column will be transitioning to Tuesdays, so you’ll have a little more time to complete this assignment. The deadline will be on May 22.)

How to enter:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between May 1 and May 22.

3. Entries will be limited to no more than 12 photos.

4. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (e.g.: “John Doe of Stockton. Location: Oak Park, Stockton. Canon Rebel T3 w/ 55-300mm lens”).

5. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and what they are doing in the photos (e.g.: Jimmy Doe, 8, of Stockton casts a show on the sidewalk at the Weber Point Events Center in downtown Stockton).

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

7. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, May 22. The top examples will be published on May 29 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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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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