Human of New York

“New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.” – Djuna Barnes

About a year and a half ago, my daughter showed me the “Humans of New York” Facebook page. She, a budding young photographer, and I, a nearly 30-year veteran shooter, quickly became fans. On a college scouting trip to NYC last spring, we secretly hoped that we would run into the page’s creator Brandon Stanton, but no such luck (New York is a city of more than 8 million, after all).

In a recent interview for ABC News, Stanton said that there were 2 things that led him to become a now-famous street photographer. First, he bought a camera; then, in 2010 he lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago.

He moved to New York with the idea of photographing 10,000 of its residents. He created a blog titled “Humans of New York” also known as HONY to its fans (, which over the span of a few years has gained millions of followers and eventually led to a book of the same name. It has even spawned copycat projects across the country as well (notably “Portraits of Boston”).

“Humans of New York” is an appropriate title. Stanton’s photos more than just celebrates the diversity and eccentricities of New Yorkers, they capture their humanity as well. He wanders the streets of the Big Apple spending his days photographing people whose faces strike his fancy. Some are extraordinarily dressed, while others can look like you or me. But in capturing the uniqueness of each person, his photos reflect upon the individuality of all of us and therein lies the popularity of his work. We all have a story or two to tell that someone else can relate to.

Stanton started out posting just the photos to the blog. But later he also began adding short quotes to most of the pictures. His subjects talk about the triumphs and tragedies, likes and dislikes, their loves and losses. The words add another dimension of humanity to the already touching photos.

Along with the quotes one of the things that really made Humans of New York’s popularity take off was social media. Stanton posted the pictures from his blog to Facebook and has about 3.8 million followers.

Stanton doesn’t use any elaborate techniques or equipment. His photos reflect that fact. They’re simple and elegant. But it’s through that simplicity that his subjects’ personalities shine through.

Most street photographers prefer a surreptitious or even clandestine approach to produce candid photos. For the most part Stanton eschews that method. Most of his subjects know full well that they’re having their picture taken. Stanton simply goes up to them, explains who he is and what’s he’s doing, then asks them if he can take their picture. Some say no but most say yes.

Stanton photographs them more or less where he finds them. They stand there posed for the photo, but rather than looking stiff and uncomfortable, they are relaxed and candid. And such is the skill of Stanton. He’s able to put his subjects at ease, and is shows in his pictures. You get a sense of who they are. There is an immediate and solid connection between subject and photographer, a connection that extends itself to the reader as well.

The humans of Stockton will get a chance to see and meet the creator of the Humans of New York. Stanton will be speaking at the University of the Pacific’s Long Theater on April 2 as a part of the Powell Scholars Program. It’s open to the public and free but there is a 350-seating limit at the theater. There will be a reception and book signing at UOP’s Vereschagin Alumni House at 4:30 p.m. followed by his lecture and a Q&A session in the theater at 6 p.m.

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It’s no secret that the newspaper industry has had its troubles for the last several years. The loss of advertising and classified revenue and the decline in circulation have been big blows to nearly every news organization in the world. Smarter people than me have tried and pretty much failed to come up with a working business model.

Recently let the University of the Pacific student paper, The Pacifican, tried something a little different. Before the men’s basketball game against Gonzaga where a big crowd was expected, the Pacifican staff placed a copy of the latest edition of the paper on every seat of the more than 6,000 capacity Spanos Center on the UOP campus in Stockton.

It was a crowed house that night, as expected. I don’t know if the tactic resulted in more readers to the paper but at least they tried something new.

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Reflections of you

“The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” – William Makepeace Thackeray

“Reflections” is the subject of the next readers Photo Challenge assignment. A reflection can add visual twist to an otherwise ordinary scene. You can use a reflection as a compositional element in your photos. You can use it to create symmetry or you can also make it asymmetrical the choice is yours.

A mirror is the obvious choice for a reflection photo. You can use one to not only capture the plane than the mirror is on but the scene that is reflected within it as well. In September I shot an assignment about high-end homes in the Lodi area. I toured a house for sale with a relator Ryan Sherman and homeowner Phil Crane. Situated in a corner of the master bedroom was a full-length mirror. I was able to capture some of the furniture and ambiance of that corner as well as the realtor and owner in the mirror to make a more complete picture than either scene alone.

It doesn’t have to be an actual mirror to make your reflections, almost any shiny surface will do. From a car window or hood. It tends to work best if whatever surface you use is a dark color. If it’s a window on the building it’s also best if the inside is darker than the outside then the reflections will show up better. Last August I photographed a car show at the Lincoln Center shopping center in Stockton. I spotted a sweet 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air. Its deep black paint was polished to a mirror-like sheen and reflected a motorcycle parked beside it. I just waited for a car enthusiast to come along and take a look at the car and –voila!- a reflection photo!

Standing water also can make for great reflection photos. From a still lake or river to a rain puddle the reflective surface of nearly any kind of body of water can act like a mirror. You have to be sure to shoot on a nearly windless day or find a spot that’s protected from the wind. Even a slight breeze can disturb the water and cause the reflected image to break up.

I recently shot a sailboat on the deepwater channel near Buckley Cove in Stockton. The wind was nearly non-existent, so much so that the boat was moving at slower than a walking pace. While it wasn’t great for sailing, it was an advantage for taking pictures, though. The reflection in the water was almost perfect with only slight ripples caused by the slow movement of the boat.

Any reflection will transmit less light than the original so it will be darker than what is reflecting. Also it won’t be as sharp as the original scene. Even using a mirror there is a slight loss of sharpness. With shiny surfaces there are bound to be some imperfections. Whether its some bumps or pits or a curved surface there will be some distortions but don’t fret that’s ok.

Water, glass, polished stone or a mirror, whatever surface you choose isn’t as important as using the reflection to enhance the composition of your photo.


Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Mar. 17 and Mar. 30.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton.”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown).

5. The subject can be a found situation or a created one.

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

7. The deadline for submission is Sunday, March 30. The top examples will be published on Monday, April 7 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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Knocking the stuffing out of the ball

Recently I photographed Kimball High senior tennis player Logan Staggs during a match in the Seniors Challenge Cup at the Oak Park Tennis Complex in Stockton. I shot it as I normally shoot a tennis match: Using a long lens (a 200-400mm zoom) and a fast shutter speed (1/1000th – 1/2000th of a second).

After downloading the photos to my computer when I got back to the office I noticed something peculiar about some of photos when viewing the thumbnail images. There seemed to be a smear on portions of those pictures. I wondered if there was a smudge on my lens that hadn’t noticed before. I checked the lens, but it was clean. Besides, if it had been dirty, then all the photos would have been affected. Then I thought that there might be something wrong with the sensor, which could be bad (re: expensive) news. But I went back to my computer and enlarged the images to get a better view and saw that it wasn’t a defect at all. Stagg’s swings were hitting the dust and fibers off of the ball itself. I hadn’t seen it during the match because the faint puffs lasted only a fraction of a second and then quickly dissipated.

In all my years of shooting tennis I have never seen this in my photos. Maybe I never timed it just right or the light was never right (the photos that exhibit the dust and fibers are all backlit) or maybe I just never paid attention to it.
The players two courts away from Stagg and his opponent were grunters, issuing rather loud bellows every time they made contact with the ball. The 17-year-old Stagg, who won the boys 18 singles division of the USTA Winter National Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz., in early January, was a model of silence in comparison, letting his fuzz-battering hits do the talking for him.

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I love the nightlife

In the 11 previous Readers Photo Challenge assignments the Challenge received an average of about 60 photos from about 20 entrants, give or take (The very first one, “Flowers,” 123 photos were sent in from 40 readers). But the latest assignment, “Night,” may have proved a bit too daunting for some. Only 7 readers sent in a total of 24 photos. Weather was a mitigating factor as we had several evenings of much need rain. Also most people don’t think about taking photos at night. They can be intimidated by the darkness or unsure on what exposure to set their camera at. However once you’ve mastered night photography it can be fun taking photos during a time when very few others think about pictures. For the current challenge assignment what was lacking in numbers was made up for in the quality of the entries. Here are some of the best images that show that nighttime can be the right time for taking photos.


Using a Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera Ron Wetherell of Stockton shot a photo of the waterfront area near De Carli Waterfront Square, Janet Leigh Plaza, the Hotel Stockton and the City Centre Cinemas in downtown Stockton. A small lens aperture (f/22) transformed the specular highlights of the street lamps into starbursts all set against the inky black sky. Combined with the compositional element of the railing in the foreground leading the viewer’s eye into the picture, it made the downtown scene look like a magical kingdom.


Darrin Denison of Stockton took a different tact of the same area as Wetherell. He shot during the “blue hour,” the time after sunset and before the sky turns black. He used one of a pair of long fountains to lead the eye into the composition as well as reflecting the colored lights in its water. It may look like it was shot with a fancy DSLR but Wetherell used just an iPhone 4s for his photo.


While the rain may have kept some people from shooting their night photos, Teresa Mahnken of Morada took full advantage of the inclement weather. Bokeh is a Japanese term that’s now all the rage in photography. It refers the to the out of focus highlights when shot with a wide aperture that become large round circles of light and/or color. Mahnken was stopped a traffic light and with her Nikon D3200 DSLR and 18-55mm lens she photographed the rain drops on the windshield of her car. The out of focus lights in the background created several pleasing colorful bokeh effects. The photo makes me think of words to that old Eddie Rabbitt song: “I love a rainy night. I love a rainy night. I love to hear the thunder, watch the lightning when it lights up the sky. You know it makes me feel good.”


Rick WIlmot of Lodi took this photo of a half-moon from his backyard with Canon PowerShot SX40 HS. You might think that it would be hard to get a close up of the moon with a dinky point-and-shoot camera but the SX40 comes with a impressive 35x zoom which, at its fullest extension, is the equivalent of a 840mm lens in a 35mm camera due to the Canon’s smaller sensor size. Since the light falling on the moon is essentially the same as daylight hitting the Earth, the exposure was similar to shooting during the day here.


Mary Paulson of Valley Springs used a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 point-and-shoot digital camera to photograph the El Dorado Hotel in Reno. A deep azure sky of the “blue hour” combined with the green exterior lights and bold angularity of the building’s design, it looks more like an alien spaceship than a luxury hotel.


Burns Tower is not only an icon of the University of the Pacific but of Stockton as well. It’s well lit at night and Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton took advantage of that. Shot from near the base of the tower Spurgeon with the night sky as a background. With the surrounding distractions like trees and other buildings rendered virtually invisible by the darkness, she set the building off to one side of the frame. It’s stark white walls illuminated by floodlights on the ground stand out against the stygian black sky.


The next Readers Photo Challenge assignment will be announced next week on Monday March 17.

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February’s outtakes

“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.” – William C. Bryant

Although the month started out with sunshine, we finally got some much-needed rain and the clouds that come with it in February. Along with that, basketball on all levels pervaded the month. Here are 10 of my favorite previously unposted photos from 2014’s second month.















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

Making time

We all live busy lives, and even if photography is your passion, it’s often hard to find time to pursue it. We need to make dinner/breakfast/lunch for the family. We to go to work then drop off/pick up the kids from school, soccer, gymnastics, etc. Then there’s grocery/clothes/back-to-school shopping to be done along with numerous of other errands. I have to admit that even I, whose job it is to take pictures, can have a hard time finding time to take the pictures that I want.

On the Light Stalking website, professional photographer Rachael Towne wrote an article on how to find time for your photography.

Towne first suggests that we look at how we spend our time. I know that I spend too much time watching TV or surfing the Internet, so there is some time I can find there.

But most people are very busy, and many of those obligations that we all have are tough to get out of.

She does make a useful suggestion for those of us who have children. Take them along with you on your photo outing. They can even be the subject of your photos. Of course, if they’re really young, it’s more difficult, but as they get older and more self-sufficient, the easier it’ll become.

Towne’s next suggestion is perhaps most important: Always keep your camera with you. You can’t take a picture without one.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and told me about a beautiful sunset or an adorable moment with their kid only to be followed by the sentence: “… but I didn’t have a camera with me.” The first rule of photography is “always have a camera.” It doesn’t have to be a big bulky DSLR or even a small point-and-shoot camera.

If I’m taking a quick jaunt down to the supermarket, I probably won’t take my work camera, but I will have my cellphone. Occasionally, I’ll take a photo with it that’s good enough to stand on its own. Other times, I’ll take photos of little things that might not make a great picture but may have a kernel of something interesting, sort of like photographic notes or ideas to use at another time.

Towne goes on to suggest making a photo schedule for yourself. Set aside some time just to go out and take some pictures; maybe put those chores on hold just for a little while.

When St. Mary’s High School sophomore Sydney Spurgeon took up photography, her parents not only encouraged in her interests but took another step. They sat down with her and came up with “assignments” for her to shoot. Together they think of events or themes for her to photograph and go with her on her photo safaris. The result is a budding young photographic talent with a bright future.

When I was taking photo classes, one of my assignments was called “Out your back door.” Due to familiarity, we often ignore the things and places that are close to us. We tend to think that we need to go off to far away and exotic lands to make great photos. With the “back door” assignment, the idea was to explore someplace that is close to you and find something interesting. Once you have that mastered then you can go anywhere, far or near, and make compelling photos.

Finally, Towne says to quit making excuses. We’ve all done it. “I don’t have the right lens,” or “the light’s bad” or any number of other excuses. Recently I traveled up to Highway 4 to Angels Camp for an assignment. Just outside of Copperopolis is this gnarled old tree on a hillside. It sits atop of a low-rolling hill. An old stone fence connected to a slightly newer barbed wire one makes a “Z”-like composition in combination with a smaller, rounded hill in the foreground. I’ve always wanted to stop and take a picture of it, but in my more than 29 years at The Record, I never had. I never had the time, or the light wasn’t right, or the clouds were all wrong. I never even made time to go on a day off either.

On this trip there were some decent clouds, but the light was just so-so, I thought. The grass on the hill was all dried and brown. It would be better if I came back in the spring when the grass would be green and vibrant. Once again I made excuses, and I started to pass it by. Then I thought to myself, “When am I going to have another chance? What if something happened to the tree, like a wildfire or bolt of lightning and it’s gone forever?” Even though the clock was ticking, I turned the car around and went back. I stopped the car and got out. It may not have been perfect, but I still took the picture.

Sometimes you just have to get off of your duff and start taking pictures. We all need to take inspiration from athletic shoemaker Nike’s tag line and “just do it.”

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In the wet of the night

The response to the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment has been a bit slow. Only a handful of people have sent in entries so far with a deadline of Sunday looming. It can be a bit daunting to make the time to head out in the darkness to take pictures. And the forecast of rain for the next few days may make it more difficult for some people. But for the souls willing to brave the wet weather the rewards can be great. The rain can add an added visual element to night photography. Lights gleam a little more and reflect off of the wet surfaces. So put on your raincoat, grab an umbrella and buckle up your galoshes then head out and take your night shots.


Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Feb. 17 and Mar. 2.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton.”

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown).

5. The subject is up to you but it must be shot outdoors at night, any time after sunset to before sunrise. It can be a found situation or a created one.

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

7. The deadline for submission is Sunday, March 2. The top examples will be published on Monday, March 10 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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“I gotta have more cowbell”

The Pacific Pep Band, part musical group, part cheerleading squad,  perform at men’s & women’s basketball games, playing tunes such as “Eye of the Tiger” and “Hey Baby” and doing chants and cheers to rattle opposing teams. For as long as I can remember, there has always been at least one person playing the cowbell. Some have been very demonstrative in their performances while others are more subdued. Sometimes you can really hear its hollow knock-knock-knocking over the band, other times it just blends with the rest of the music.

This year’s cowbell player is student Sam Berris of Oakland and he is a show unto himself. He struts, jumps and prances as if he were Mick Jagger in his prime. Hitting the cowbell with a drumstick with such force that at times it seems that he’s louder than the entire the band. At times he hits the bell so hard that little pieces of the wooden drumstick go flying off. Just watching him, one can’t help but to have their spirits lifted by his zeal. I don’t know if the rest of the band is taking cues from his enthusiasm this year, but they have their own set of choreographed moves and perform them with nearly the verve and vigor of Berris’ impromptu steps.

Strangely enough, the pep band isn’t a part of the music program at UOP but is actually run under the auspices of the Pacific athletic department. While many members are music students, the band is open to all Pacific students.

The cowbell player is usually one the percussionists in the band. They tend to switch off between the drum set, tambourine and the aforementioned cowbell. Berris breaks that mold by not being a percussionist at all, but rather he plays an orchestral instrument that’s not really suited for the pep band. What does he normally play? The bassoon.

Saturday Night Live aired a skit on April 8, 2000 gave a fictionalized account of the recording of “Don’t fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. Will Ferrell played the made-up character of Gene Frenkle who vigorously played the cowbell. A fight ensues when Ferrell and other band members – played by other cast members of SNL – argue over Ferrell’s playing of the cowbell.

Guest host Christopher Walken, playing fictional music producer “The Bruce Dickinson” comes out of the sound booth and says: “I got a fever; and the only prescription is more cowbell!”
Berris’ verve and energy at playing the cowbell puts even Ferrell’s relentless performance to shame. So if you’re feeling the need of some energetic entertainment and just “gotta have more cowbell,” then Berris has the cure for what ails you.


Still pictures can only capture so much. To get the full effect of Berris’ enthusiasm and energy I shot some video of him playing during a recent game. Enjoy his performance here.

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Moon night

Getting a photo of the moon is a little different than getting your usual night shot. Typical night photography normally entails either using long exposures, or high ISOs (or both).

A moon shot (apologies to NASA) involves daylight exposures. Why you may ask? Our only natural satellite is at an average distance of about 238,000 miles from us. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just a stone’s throw away, astronomically speaking. Thus the light falling on the moon is essentially the same as the light during a sunny day here on Earth.

Now, if you want to get a photo of, say a landscape or a city scene at night with the moon in the background, then you’ll have to use more of a common nighttime exposure, but then the moon itself will be extremely overexposed and appear like a glowing orb in the sky.

The exception to that is to shoot in the early evening when the moon first rises when, for a short time, when the ambient light matches the exposure of the moon.


We are still accepting entries to the latest Reader’s Photo Challenge: Night.

Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Feb. 17 and Mar. 2.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (ie: “Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton.”

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown).

5. The subject is up to you but it must be shot outdoors at night, any time after sunset to before sunrise. It can be a found situation or a created one.

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

7. The deadline for submission is Sunday, March 2. The top examples will be published on Monday, March 10 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

Posted in Night, Readers Photo Challenge | 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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