Readers Photo Challenge: Open to all

My photo instructor Dick Fleming once hypothetically posited that given two photo students, one with unlimited resources (film, access to any piece of equipment, time, etc.), the other with limited means (1 camera & lens, only a few frames of film), the student with only a few choices would do a better job on the same assignment. Why? Creativity, he said, doesn’t come from an abundance of choices but rather working within the restrictions that you have. It forces one to think and plan first before shooting.

The latest subject for this month’s challenge was open to any one of the 22 previous assignment issued since the beginning of the challenge in April of 2013. While 14 people sending in a total of 48 photos aren’t disappointing numbers, I was bracing myself for even more. I think that perhaps there were so many choices that some people couldn’t make up their minds on which one to pick. Still, most of the ones that were sent in were outstanding.


Darrin Dension of Stockton missed the very first assignment, which was “flowers” issued in April of 2013, but he made up for it by entering it in this month’s “open” challenge. Now winter isn’t normally the time one would find flowers but that wasn’t a problem for Denison. Thinking out of the box he went out and got some store-bought flowers. He sprinkled a little water on the flower for an added accent and used his iPhone to photograph the bold and bright colors of the blossom.


Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton was one of the few people to retry a people-based assignment. She chose to revisit the “smiles challenge (May 2014) and photographed her friend Mary Massod on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton with her Nikon D90 DSLR camera. Spurgeon used the open shade of a building for some nice soft light and an unusual overhead angle for a flattering photo of her friend.


Floria Libres of Stockton used a Canon Rebel T5 DSLR camera to take on the “reflections” assignment (March 2014). She captures the nearly perfect mirror image of the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel as it’s reflected in the still waters of McLeod Lake in downtown Stockton, creating a bold eye-catching photo.


Tom LaBounty of Stockton chose a hard assignment for his entry. When it was originally issued in October of 2014, only 6 people entered the “sports” challenge (and LaBounty wasn’t one of them). Using a Canon 7D Mk II DSLR LaBounty photographed Lincoln’s Cameron Kiser as he shot a jumper during a junior varsity game against West High at Lincoln in Stockton. A fast shutter speed help to freeze Kiser in mid-air and the grimace of exertion on his face showed the effort of his play and made for an excellent photo by LaBounty.


Susan Scott of Stockton revisited the “motion” assignment (Oct. 2013). She used a Canon Rebel DSLR camera to photograph a small bird as it flitted between the branches of a tree at Buckley Cove Park in Stockton. The long thin crop helps to give a graceful horizontal sweep to the photo and its minimalistic quality gives it a Japanese watercolor painting feel to it.


Dave Skinner of Stockton used a Nikon D7000 DSLR camera with a 55mm macro lens to revisit the “close-up” assignment (Sept. 2013). He photographed a fallen oak leaf as it lay on an old telephone pole and created a nice juxtaposition between the natural and the man-made.


Although she missed the original “silhouette” assignment issued in Feb. of 2014, Carolyn Silva of Jackson made up for it in the open challenge. Silva used a Nikon D5000 DSLR camera to capture the beauty of the leafless trees in her backyard rising out a morning fog.


Nicole Hazel of Stockton entry was from the “pets” assignment (June 2014). She used a Nikon Coolpix L820 digital point-and-shoot camera to photograph the face and eyes of her cat Patches.


All of the pictures entered can be seen in a photo gallery at Stay tuned to next Thursday for a new challenge assignment.

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Always watch your backgrounds

You can never talk too much about how important backgrounds are to a photo. A good one can enhance a picture’s readability. A bad one can obscure your subject and distract from the image’s overall appeal.

Here are two examples of how a slight and simple change in the background can make a big difference.

The first photo is of KWIN DJ Amanda King speaking at the Junior Giants rally at the Stribley Park Community Center in Stockton. Some nice soft light poured in from some high but wide windows behind Kind at the north end of the gymnasium where the event was held. I shot her from the side so at least some of her was illuminated, but her face was mostly in shadow. In the background a support pillar created a shadow against the far wall. Whenever she stood between that shadow and the camera, the darkness of the shadow and the shadows on her face blended together, making it more difficult to distinguish between the two.

In the second photo, King had stepped back a few feet. The shadow on the wall was now out of the picture, and the background was of a light, nearly featureless wall, thrown out of focus due to the shallow depth of field that I was shooting at. Her face was still in shadow but her profile was easier to make out because of the cleaner background.

From backgrounds to lighting to exposure to composition and more, there is a lot to consider even before you press the shutter button. It’s easy in the heat of the moment to forget about one thing or another, but with practice and patience, one can put it all together for a good photo.

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When is photographing wild birds like shooting a football game? The two different genres of photography, wildlife and sports, may seem very dissimilar but the skills to shoot each are actually related.

While there are always exceptions to the rule,  most sports photography requires a telephoto lens to bring athletes who can be far away on the field of play in close. Likewise in photographing wild animals that may be skittish to a human presence a long lens is also needed to prevent spooking them. In sports a fast shutter speed is often used to freeze players action. In the same vein, wildlife photographers use fast shutter speeds to eliminate the dreaded camera shake and also to stop the motion of a bird in flight or animal on the run.


Knowledge of the game also helps in getting a good sports photo. It can help you to know where to stand to get the best shot or how to figure out where a player is going to be. Similar knowledge is needed for a wildlife picture. Knowing the habits of the animals you are photographing can help in finding them to get your shot.

We all have our own interests and preferences on what we like to shoot. Some people like portraits, while others prefer landscapes or sports. Sometimes when someone is proficient in or prefers one type of photography they may not consider another style. But you can learn from, and be inspired by, different genres of photography that you may not be interested in. By going out of your comfort zone you can expand your abilities and experiences by trying out new varieties of photography.

For instance wedding and landscape photography can be very different but I have seen some wedding photographs incorporate their bride and groom as a part of the landscape, especially if it’s a destination wedding, to great effect.

Portraiture photography is all about the lighting. You can’t have a great portrait without great light. In much the same way food photography benefits from how the light is presented in a photo. Done well, it makes the food look appealing and appetizing. One may not initially equate a nice family photo with a plate of ham and eggs but the skill to do a good job with either is the same.

We all can ensconce ourselves in our own interests and we may think that our own particular kind of photography is the cat’s meow. We may even look our noses down at other categories of photography but instead of poo-pooing them perhaps you should stepping into their shoes and try other genres. It may improve what you already like to do.

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Random photo #40: Golden cast

Angler Richard Thomas of Stockton casts his line against a colorful sunset while fishing at the Weber Point Event Center in downtown Stockton.

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Dancing with my mother

One of the powers of a photograph is to make memories tangibly visceral. This is especially so when the photo is an actual physical print. A picture in one’s hand can bring to life emotions and recollections that photos on a computer monitor or cellphone screen may have a harder time realizing.

When I was a teenager, my parents used to love to go ballroom dancing. I was old enough to take care of myself for an evening and so they went to weekly dances at a local VFW hall. My mom and dad would also have a grand old time tripping the light fantastic along with my aunts and uncles at family weddings and such. I remember my mom trying to teach me dance steps such as the waltz, cha-cha, fox trot and the swing. Some of it stuck and some didn’t. Other than those impromptu lessons and at my wedding, my mother and I never really danced with each other. After my dad died in 1997 she never danced with anyone else again.

A little over 4 years ago my mom was diagnosed with dementia. My family managed to get her into an assisted-care facility where she was safe, comfortable and happy. In the last year her mental and physical abilities declined sharply. She could no longer walk without the assistance of a walker and then only unsteadily. She lost most of her ability to speak, only occasionally being able to say a few words at a time. She was still able to remember and recognize me but she had forgotten many people from her past and a very difficult time remembering new people.

The assisted care home would have social events where the residents and their families could gather. My daughter Claire and I attended one of those events last June. A small three-piece combo played jazz standards as light snacks were served on the lawn in the facility’s courtyard. Most of the music was from the Big Band era in which my mom grew up with and she tapped her hand on the table and swayed back and forth to the tunes. A small dance floor was also set up on the lawn. Recalling how much she and my dad liked to dance, I asked her if she wanted to do a little dancing with me. She nodded yes and I helped her totter to the dance floor. My mom was able to stand without her walker by leaning on me for support. It was a jaunty tune and I remembered the steps to the one-two, back-step pattern of the dance. She was able to do little more than sway to her left and right, but I could tell that she was enjoying the music and the dancing. I looked up and saw my daughter taking photos of us with her cellphone.

My mother finally succumbed to her disease’s merciless ravages and peacefully passed away at the end of October of last year at the age of 86.

This last Christmas Claire and my son Christopher gave me an unexpected present. Wrapped in colorful holiday paper it was about the size of a small paperback book. When I opened it I was speechless. It was an elegantly framed 5×7 picture of the picture that my daughter took of my mother and me dancing. Holding it in my hands it seemed to have a precious weight to it, like an ingot of gold. I stared at the photo. In it I’m smiling and my mother has an impish grin as we danced as we danced together. Fighting back tears and the large lump growing in my throat, I managed a feeble thank you to my children for the best Christmas present that I ever got.

I remember my daughter showing me the picture soon after she shot it and I thought it was nice. It could have stayed there stored in her phone forever and I would have been fine with the memory of that. But now the picture sits on my desk at work where it’s a constant and tangible reminder of the happy time when I danced with my mother.

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December outtakes: One last look

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Suess.

It’s the start of a brand new year but here’s one last look at last year’s last month.













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Readers Challenge assignment: Fielders’s choice

After about 22 months of readers Challenge assignments this month’s challenge will be a little different. Instead of a exploring a single subject, this assignment will be open to any of the 22 previous topics (presented here in chronological order: Flowers, Outdoor portraits, County Fair, Water, Indoor available light, Close up, Motion, Architecture, Cellphones, Still Life, Silhouettes, Night, Reflections, Wildflowers, Smiles, Pets, Golden Hour, Blue Hour, Vacation, Sports, fall leaves, Christmas lights – click on each one for tips on how to shoot them). This challenge will allow you to revisit an old assignment that you liked or try one you may have previously missed.

As a newspaper photographer I can encounter many different situations. I can go from a press conference to a portrait to a landscape to a sporting event. Only rarely would I shoot one type of assignment in a day. In a similar vein you can choose anything ranging from flowers to Christmas lights (there still may be a few lights up despite the end of the holidays).

You can approach the assignment in a couple of ways. First, you can keep an open mind and eye out for what’s in the world around you until you see something that may pique your interest. It’s what I do when I’m looking for a photo. It requires two things: an open mind because you’ll need to see the photo possibilities in the world around you. You’ll also need to carry your camera with you at all times.  It’s not so much of a burden for cellphone photographers but you will never know when a picture will present itself and if you take time to go home to get your camera then you may just miss the shot.

The second approach is to pick one of the assignments and then keep an eye out for or create a photo that fits that category. This may give you more focus but on the flipside if you’re looking for something specific and the opportunity doesn’t present itself then you’re out of luck.

A few of the assignments (such as the county fair and vacations) no longer apply and it’s the wrong time of year for some others (flowers/wildflowers), but there are plenty of others, ranging from found situations to created ones, to choose from.

As always you should practice sound photographic principals of getting close, non-distracting backgrounds and good light in whatever assignment you choose. You can even combine assignments if you want (ie: a sports shot at night or an architecture photo during the golden hour).

Although the assignment is basically open to whatever subject you like, they’ll still have to be shot within the window of the next two weeks.


 Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Jan. 8 and Jan. 22.

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. Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 18-55mm lens”)

Also please include the name of the assignment that you’ve chosen (ie: Water or Architecture)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown). If possible, try to identify the type of wildflower in the photo.

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

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

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52 Pick up: 2014 edition

Here are 52 of my favorite photos from 2014 in slide show form.

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12 from 14

There is a natural tendency for us to take a look back at the old year before boldly stepping into the new one and I guess I’m no different in that. This the time of year for top 10 lists of this, that or the other thing of events that happened in 2014. It’s not an easy job. I had to sort through the 1,000 assignments I shot during the year to whittle them down to just a few. As it has become my tradition, I’ve compiled my own list of my top 12 photos of the year, one from each month. Here they are in chronological order



Murders were up in 2014 and I was in court many times last year to cover arraignments of homicide suspects. On one of the first ones on Jan. 24, as I waited in line to get into the courthouse, I looked up and saw a scene on the glass enclosed breezeway that connects the administrative side of the building to the courtrooms. A woman was silhouetted against the light coming in from the opposite side of the building. Several white orbs that were lamps are to light up the breezeway looked like they hung around her (they actually hang on either side of the breezeway) which made for an interesting composition and an unexpected cool photo from a perhaps otherwise not-so pleasant assignment.



On Feb. 2, I was driving around looking for an enterprise photo. It was getting late and the sun was starting to fade below the horizon. I was starting to lose hope in finding anything. I was out in the rural area west of Lodi when I turned down Guard Road just south of Highway 12. It was a road I had never been on before and I took it out of desperation. I drove down about ½ mile or so when I saw a small flock of sandhill cranes foraging in an empty field on the west side of the road. I got some shots of the cranes on the ground and started to get back into my car when they took flight just as the sunset was turning the clouds a golden hue. I missed the first ones while getting my camera ready but managed to get a shot of a group of six or seven cranes. Two more took off they headed west and soon after the last one launched itself it the air, gave me a full profile before turning and joining it’s brethren in the sunset.



In a scene from the 1989 film the Dead Poets Society, the late Robin Williams character John Keating urges his class of prep school students to stand on their desks to see their surroundings from a different viewpoint. In photography sometimes getting something different is what a photo is all about.

On March 28 I was looking for a feature shot when I saw students from the Stockton International Collegiate School participating in P.E. at the park at the Weber Point Event Center in downtown Stockton. Most of the children were running laps around the park, which I thought I could make a nice-weather photo out of. As I was watching the kids run I turned around and saw three girls who had finished their mile run and sat down on a nearby bench to rest. Except two of the girls sat on the bench upside down. I got a shot of them as they viewed the world from a different angle.



On April 30 the temperature had spiked up from the normal spring levels up into the 90s and I was looking for a hot weather picture. I was driving through the Conway homes area near Van Buskirk Park when I spotted a couple of kids playing with a hose. They were spraying each other with it to cool off. I should say they were getting wet up to a point. One of the kids, already soaked to the bone, huddle beneath an umbrella as the other pointed the stream of water at him. I guess even on a hot day one can get cooled off enough.



On May 25 I covered the annual Not Forgotten Memorial Day observance at Woodward Park in Manteca. One of the event’s features are large panels engraved with the names of area military troops who were killed in action.

Wheelchair-bound Korean War veteran Gilbert Rosas Sr. was helped by his family under the tent where the panels were located, set up in a circular arrangement. As Rosas looked for the names of his fallen comrades I captured his reflection in the glass that encased the panels.



In June the traveling Discover the Dinosaurs event came to the Stockton Arena for several days. There were many dino-themed displays as well as several animatronic dinosaurs. One of the most popular was a replica of a tyrannosaurus rex’s head. People lined up to take their picture sitting in it’s gaping jaws. It was ok, the fierce-looking teeth were made of foam rubber and only looked deadly. Most people would smile or giggle while they were posing for their pictures but when I was there on June 27, 5-year-old Ayden Louie of Manteca gave a look for a picture by his mom Ashley Louie as if he was actually being swallowed whole by the “terrible lizard.”



In July an armed robbery at the Bank of the West on Thornton Road in Stockton went bad. Three robbers took three female hostages and led police on a high speed chase across the county while shooting at their pursuers.

During the chase two of the hostages either leapt or were pushed from the moving vehicle. The chased ended in north Stockton in a literal hail of gunfire. In the end two suspects and the remaining hostage, Misty Holt-Singh were dead.

People identified with Holt-Singh, 41, a devoted wife and mother of two. She had just popped into the bank for a quick transaction when things went bad. The tragedy touched many across the community.

On July 17 several hundred people attended a candlelight vigil/memorial held for Holt-Singh in the courtyard of the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel in downtown Stockton. City officials and clergy got up to speak at the event. The candles were lit and raised and in a moment everyone was united in support, solidarity and solace for Misty Holt-Singh and her family.



Sports photography is usually is associated with spectacularly timed action shots of the athletes. While they may have a certain aesthetic quality of their own, sports photos aren’t generally known for their beauty.

On Aug. 29 I shot my first prep football game between Stagg and Lincoln at Lincoln’s Spanos Stadium in Stockton.
As the teams warmed up, the sun dipped below the western horizon. The clouds turned a fiery scarlet just as the Lincoln squad knelt for a team prayer. By the time the game started the color as almost gone but I got an image of beauty as perfectly timed as any sports shot.



“A circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end – and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral.” – Maynard James Keenan

Looking for an enterprise feature on Sept. 9 I drove by the construction site of the Crosstown Freeway extension through Boggs Tract. There a crew was assembling a rebar structure for a support column for the elevated overpass sections of the freeway. Lain on its side the construct created a tube of sorts. 2 workers tied the structure together from the outside while another, Fernando Mendoza with Concord-based Conco, worked from within. The receeding repetition of the rings that made up the “tunnel” gave the photo a very graphic look to its composition.



On Oct. 17, I was sent to take a portrait of 77-year-old Gail Bedell. Bedell, a cancer patient, has a 50-year old son Jay Jay Ford who was born with cerebral palsy and has developed other medical conditions that she drives to doctors appointments from the care home in which he lives in Stockton. Friends, who describe Bedell as a selfless person caring only for her son, raised money to buy new tires for her 1993 Plymouth minivan. On Oct. 13 someone stole the van with her wheelchair inside. A couple days later the van was recovered but it was stripped, new tires and all. Bedell was at first hesitant but then reluctantly agreed to the story because she thought that there were more important stories that we could tell.



Sports photos are not only about action but expression as well. It’s when the two come together do great images are made.

On Nov. 9, I covered San Joaquin Delta College’s Jocelyn Mancebo women’s basketball tournament final at Delta’s Blanchard Gym in Stockton between Delta and Chabot College. During the game Delta’s Priscilla Mora fought for a rebound with Chabot College’s Michelle Townsend. The ball was flung from their struggles and their effort was shwn in the grimaces on their faces.



As a kid I watched the 1960 TV show “The Time Tunnel” starring Robert Colbert and James Darren. The only thing I really remember of it was the cool time machine. It consisted of these groovy giant concentric rings through which the intrepid heroes would walk into the past.

On Dec. a crew from the Stockton’s facilities maintenance department erected the city’s annual Christmas tree at the Weber Point Event Center in downtown Stockton. Looking up through the frame of the artificial tree as workers climbed on it reminded me of the old television show.


Any list can be imperfect. In my top 12 there were 2 or 3 photos in some months that were better than those in other months but were eliminated due to the “best-from-each-month” criteria. I’ve also picked 52 of my favorites from 2014. I decided on that number because 52 is the number of weeks in a year (although the photos don’t represent each week because I didn’t work all 52 weeks due to vacations and sick days). Those photos can be seen in a gallery at and a slide show here.

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Readers challenge: Holiday lights

Nothing visually epitomizes the holiday season than Christmas lights, which is the subject of the current Readers Photo Challenge assignment. Some people put up simple yet elegant white lights while others put up those of every color in the rainbow. Either way, from neighborhoods to shopping centers, they lend a festive air to the season.

15 people sent in 49 photos. All of the images can be seen in a gallery at Here are some of the best examples.


The blue hour is the time after sunset and before the full blackness of night sets. Equipped with a Canon 70D DSLR camera Christine Blue of Stockton used the blue hour to great effect for her photo of Morris Chapel on the University of the Pacific’s campus in Stockton. The Christmas lights at the chapel are simple white lights gracefully adorning the rose bushes and trees in front of the building. The warm glow of the lights are complimented by the deep azure of the blue hour sky which not only provides added color to the scene but also definition to the church’s roofline which would have been lost to the darkness of a later hour. The result is not only a festive scene but a beautiful one as well.


Part of photography is seeing things in a different way. Carolyn Silva of Jackson used a Nikon D5000 DSLR camera to photograph a lighted Christmas display in the backyard of a home in Jackson. The house backs up to Jackson Creek along Highway 88 so the owners put up their decorations in the backyard so that drivers on the road could see them. Instead of simply shooting the display Silva used their reflections in the creek to create interest in the foreground and added even more color to the scene by nearly doubling the lights.


Most of the entries featured Christmas lights as the main subject of the photos but Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton took a little different tact with her photo. Bokeh is a photographic term referring to pleasing out of focus highlights caused by large lens apertures. Using her Nikon D90 DSLR camera Spurgeon photographed a snowman decoration her home and used the bokeh created by the blurred lights on her Christmas tree to add a festive background to her holiday photo.


The challenge will return in two weeks with a new assignment on January 8, in the mean time enjoy a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New 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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