Blast from the past: Retrograde progress

In 2007 I wrote a blog post about remembering a photo that I took in the late 1980s. It was of an adult couple having a pizza lunch by themselves on the playground equipment at Beckman Park in Lodi. It was one of those structures that had a spiral slide, a tube slide, a pole to slide down and a set of swings. The photo, one of my favorites, reminded me that there’s a kid in all of us.

What got me thinking of it back in 2007 was that I had driven by and saw that Lodi Park and Rec (I’m assuming) had taken out most of the structure leaving only the swings.

 I drove by again just recently and saw that now even the swing set is gone. There’s just a large plot of open dirt surrounded by a concrete border with a smattering of tan bark left to remind what was once there and what has been lost.

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Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Out on the town

“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.
- Herb Caen

This month’s Readers Photo Challenge assignment is “cityscapes.” The challenge is similar to the architecture assignment issued in October of 2013 and there can be some overlap in subject matter, however a cityscape concerns itself more with an overall scene rather than concentrating on an individual building or detail. It’s more like seeing the whole forest rather than a single tree.

A cityscape can be just as compelling as a rural landscape. A city’s skyline can be likened to the crags of a mountain range and its streetlights, signs and utility poles can be like a forest of trees at times. Landscapes can often have animals. People and pets can the denizens of an urban landscape.

Like a normal landscape, the cityscapes benefit greatly from the time of day when one shoots. Try to avoid midday. The flat overhead sun creates flat, uninteresting light and unflattering shadows. The so-called “golden hours” of early morning or late afternoon are much more preferable. The light is much warmer and comes in at a pleasing angle.

The “blue hours” of predawn and post sunset are also great for urban landscapes. The deep blue sky can contrast nicely against the warmer glow of city streetlights.

Nighttime is another great time to shoot. Some cities come alive at night. The streetlights are no longer the simple yet beautiful accents of the blue hour and become the main light source of the city.

At this time of year the weather shouldn’t be much of a factor, but inclement weather can actually be an advantage in photographing cities. Rain slickened streets can reflect streetlights, doubling their effectiveness. You can catch the reflection of buildings and street scenes in larger puddles. Fog can add a level of moodiness to one’s photos. Clouds can help to add interest to a featureless sky.

It’s an unfortunate reality of life that there is more crime in the city than more rural areas. Be aware of your surroundings and situation to make sure you’re safe. Try going with a “photo buddy” especially after hours. There’s always safety in numbers.

For some people, shooting a “normal” landscape is their only goal, but those same skills can be transferred to an urban setting. For those who prefer the city life, a cityscape can be a way to experience a landscape on their own terms.

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Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between June 4 and June 18. 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 (eg: “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, June 18. The top examples will be published on Thursday, June 25 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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Readers Photo Challenge: Celebrating the ordinary

The current Readers Photo Challenge assignment is to find the extraordinary in ordinary objects or scenes.

It takes more than just taking an everyday object and photographing it. One needs to look with a discerning eye to find the beauty and nobility of it through lighting, composition, and/or detail. That’s what the best photographers did with then pictures they sent in exhibit. They celebrate the dignity and the grace of the mundane. Thirteen readers entered a total of 60 photos. Here are the top of the entries.

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Dave Skinner of Stockton used a Nikon D7000 DSLR camera with a 60mm macro lens to photograph his glasses sitting on the steel cutting table of a Polar 78mm paper cutter at his job in the bindery department at KP Corporation in Stockton. The light from the machine bathed its metal deck and Skinner’s glasses in a warm light and elevated them both from the ordinary to the exceptional.

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There are very few things that are more common than the ubiquitous cellphone. Nearly everyone has one. Sam Doan of Stockton, used his iPhone as a clever part of the composition of his photo. Doan used his phone to photograph underside of the Foresthill Bridge, which spans the North Forth of the American River between the towns of Auburn and Foresthill. Then, with the picture displayed on the phone, inserted it into a larger scene of the bridge and shot it with a Canon 5D Mk II DSLR camera for a picture-within-a-picture composition.

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Rick Wilmot of Lodi looked at what most of us might consider as pests in a different way. Using a Canon 40D DSLR camera he photographed aphids on rosebud in his garden. Wilmot silhouetted the bud and bugs against a dark blue sky making them look less like an infestation of pests and more like a parade on a march of wonder.

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One of the ways to elevate an ordinary object to the level of art is to look closely at its details. Carolyn Silva of Jackson found an old football in her yard. Using a Nikon D5000 DSLR camera to photograph it, she moved in relatively close to capture its interesting surface details. The ball’s stippled surface was dulled and cracked by the erosive effects weathering and made for a more visually interesting photo.

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There are times where you can find ordinary objects in naturally photogenic situations and other times where you can create your own composition. Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton took a set of wooden clothespins and arranged them on a table at her home. She stood them on end and then photographed them with her Nikon D90 DSLR camera but their reflections as well.

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Subtlety is often hard to capture in a photo. We’re usually attracted to bight colors and bold contrasts. But when it’s done well, a subtle picture can be as sublime as a bold one.

Susan Scott of Stockton used her Canon Rebel DSLR camera to photograph a box of tissues at her home. Instead of concentrating on the entirety of the box, she focused on the single tissue sticking out of the top of it. She managed to capture the subtle tones and gradations of the thin paper and its gentle folds. The off-white shades complimented nicely with the slightly out of focus beige wall in the background. The whole thing reminded me in some ways of a Georgian O’Keefe desert painting.

All of the pictures are displayed in a photo gallery at Recordnet.com. Stay tune for a new challenge assignment next week.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Experimentation

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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4/11/15:

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4/16/15:

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4/17/15:

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4/19/15:

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4/22/15:

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4/26/15:

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4/28/15:

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4/29/15:

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4/30/15:

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