Back up plan

A part of being a professional photographer is the ability to solve problems. If an amateur photographer misses a shot or an entire event due to some technical issue, then all that is lost is a picture. If that happens to pros then they risk losing a job or even a client.

I was assigned to shoot the cover photo for The Record’s prep football season preview tab. The plan for the picture was to photograph a group portrait of players from several different area teams.

Record sports reporter Thomas Lawrence and I had picked the University of the Pacific as the best neutral ground for the photo during the late afternoon. Pacific no longer has a football stadium, so we shot it on the college’s soccer pitch.

I wanted the photo backlit by the sun then fill in the shadows with a flash for a more dramatic photo. I equipped myself with a pair of Alien Bees monolights. Many studio flashes have power packs that separate from the flash heads. Monolights have both combined into one unit. This provides a little more portability, though with some sacrifice in power. Both types need an A/C power source but there weren’t outlets nearby. However, we have a couple of Vagabond battery packs, which are basically similar to small car batteries.

We arrived at the field about 20 minutes early and I began to set up. It was a hot afternoon so in a situation like this you don’t want for your subjects to stand around unnecessarily so you need to have your equipment set up and ready to go when they get there.

As I mounted the Alien Bees on two light stands about 8-10 feet apart the athletes began to arrive, a couple at a time. I connected 2 Pocket Wizard radio receivers to the flashes and a transmitter to the camera to trigger the flashes when I shot. Normally I’d uses some sort of modifier on the strobes like a soft box or reflective umbrella to soften the light, but I wanted to use the hard light of the bare flash tubes to emphasize the toughness of the players.

To see how the lights were set up, I asked Lawrence to stand in as model as I took a couple test exposures. After each shot I noticed that one of the strobes was powering up more and more slowly. I kind of expected that. The Vagabond batteries were old and had been sitting on their chargers for several months without being used. I suspected that they were losing their charge but I thought they had enough power for this one job.

The test shots were a bit over exposed so I moved the light stands a bit further back and took a few more. The new exposures were right where I wanted them to be, so I was ready to go. By this time all the athletes had arrived. As they put on their jerseys I took a few more test shots just to be safe. It was then I noticed that the flash that was slow to power up had gotten even slower. But what was worse was the other strobe, the one that seemed to be working fine, had stopped charging at all. Normally the batteries are good for several hundred of flashes but only lasted a handful. They were now just a couple of very large and heavy paperweights.

What was I to do? I had two hotshoe flashes in my camera bag but I didn’t have any way to mount them to the light stands (the monolights have mounting brackets built into them). Thinking quickly, I scrounged around in the case that contained the Alien Bees and found two twist ties used to tie up the power cords. Using them, I tied the hotshoe flashes to the stands and plugged the radio receivers into them.

I got it all done by the time the athletes were ready. I grouped them in a heroic/athletic pose and they provided the tough-as-nails game faces without any prompting. The shooting part of the session took only about 10 to 15 minutes due to planning and a little quick thinking on the fly.

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Years ago, when carpooling my son Christopher and his friend Jeffery to a soccer game, Jeffery (according to Christopher) came up with a new in-car travel game. Whenever one of them would spot double numbers or letters on a license plate (22, BB, etc) they would shout “doubles” then punch the other in the shoulder. Jeffery has long since forgotten the game but it still stays with our family to this day. We’ve modified it to include triples (3 in a row), double-doubles (2 doubles on the same license), a full-house (a double and a triple together), and also we’ve changed the punch to just a gentle tap.

Doubles seem to be pretty common, I’d give an unscientific estimate around 25% to 30% of the cars on the road have them. I’ll see an average of at least one at nearly every traffic light. Depending on how much I’m on the road I could see a couple of dozen or more in a day. Double-doubles occur with less frequency but I still can spot several in a day. I see triples about once a day and full houses are even rarer yet, showing up perhaps a few times a week. Quadruples are very hard to find. Since we began the game I’ve only seen a handful.

Quintuples are the rarest yet. Partly it’s due to how license plates are organized (in California, at least). On ordinary passenger cars the plate starts out with a number followed by 3 letters and then 3 numbers (eg: 1ABC234). That limits things to at most a triple-triple (which I’ve seen just a few more times than a quad). Pickup trucks, however, are a little different. Their plates start with a number, then a letter followed by 5 more numbers (eg: 1A23456). Some newer truck licenses have that order reversed with 5 numbers, a letter and another number at the end (eg: 12345A6). The quintuple has been the Holy Grail of our numbers game, a near-mythological quarry that one just dreams of catching, until now.

Recently, I was driving around Stockton looking for an enterprise feature shot. I drove down to Louis Park, finding nothing, I made my way back into town on Monte Diablo Avenue when I saw it. Stopped at a 4-way intersection I glanced down at the license plate on the vehicle in front of me. On a Nissan Frontier pickup was a plate that had 5 sevens! To top it off, the first number was also a 7! I had seen an elusive quint. I felt like a birder who has spotted some rare bird thought long extinct. One thing dampened my enthusiasm. I was the only one in the car and I had no one to punch – er – tap on the shoulder.

California government vehicles have license plates with 7 digits, all of them numbers. So there’s one last ultimate plate to spot: the septuple.

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To serve and protect

When you buy a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera it’s often suggested or recommended that you get either a skylight or UV filter for the front of lens that comes with the camera as well as one for each additional lens you get. They’re relatively cheap, ranging from $5.00 to $50.00 depending on the size and brand. Although some may have a magenta tint to them, the filters at most have a negligible affect on the quality of your images. So why get one then? It’s for the protection of your lens. The filters, which screw into the threaded front of your lenses, guard them from everyday dings and scratches that can occur. It’s better to crack the filter than the front glass element. It also helps to preserve the anti-reflective coatings that most front glass elements from prematurely wearing off. You’d rather be wiping dirt and dust off the filter than the lens itself.

The protection provided is only for relatively minor damage. They’re like steel-toed boots which protect feet from a dropped hammer or brick but not a 2,000-lb steel beam. A skylight filter will only protect the lens from bumps into doors or tables. If you drop your lens from about standing height to a concrete floor a skylight filter won’t provide much protection. Still, it’s better to have some protection than none at all.

Although they’re pretty much something that photographers put on their lenses then forget about them, one problem with UV/skylight filters is that they can actually cause unwanted reflections. In low-light conditions where there are highlights such as streetlights or car headlights, those bright lights can reflect off of the front glass of the lens and onto the inside of the filter. The effect can look like ethereal floating apparitions in your pictures.

Recently I covered a night harvest of a vineyard in Lodi. Large harvesters straddle the rows of vines and at a walking pace creep over the vines mechanically picking the grapes as they move slowly along. Twilight descended over the scene and machines’ headlights illuminated their way. I shot as the harvesters headed toward me, At first I didn’t noticed them but then I saw the telltale sign of the floating lights through my camera’s viewfinder.

Eliminating the reflective flares is easy. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a step one way or another to change the angle of light relative to the lens. If that doesn’t work, all you have to do is just take the filter off. That’s what I did in this case. People often think that once they put the filter on the lens that it should stay on as a permanent fixture but it can be taken off as easily as it goes on. I unscrewed the filter from the front of the lens and put it into my shirt pocket. The only thing I needed to do was to remember to put it back on when I was done.

Novice shooters may not know what causes the filter reflections or how to fix it. Sometimes it’s even missed by some more experienced photographers because they’re paying too much attention to the main subject and don’t notice the reflections. You can catch it but you have to pay close attention to everything that’s happening in the frame. It’s a simple problem with a simple fix but not something that everyone always thinks of.

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Hood ornament

Sometimes it’s not easy being the youngest child.

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My hit parade

For more than 30 years I’ve been covering all kinds of baseball from Little Leagues to the Major Leagues, and I have never been hit by an errant ball. Even back in the old days, when I had to stand on the field because of using a relatively shorter lens. I’ve had a few close calls where I had to duck out of the way: Close but no cigar. That streak ended on Wednesday night during a California League game between the Stockton Ports and the San Jose Giants at the Stockton Ballpark.

I was shooting from the steps that lead into the Ports’ dugout. Near first base, it’s a fairly well protected spot with a netted fence facing the field and handrails along the sides providing decent protection from foul balls. I had forgotten my monopod so I had to hand-hold the big 200-400mm lens I was shooting with, and that turned out to be a good thing.

The Giants were at bat, with a runner on first. I was concentrating on second base for a potential double play. I stood on the second to the bottom step. The big lens is pretty heavy, so I braced myself against the right rail. I put my left leg up on the 4th or 5th step, which made my thigh more or less parallel to the ground.

The batter hit a low line drive that rocketed to the Ports shortstop. I had thought the ball had hit the ground, but the infielder had caught it in midair. The runner had left first, and I was waiting for a play second but he had turned around after he saw the shortstop’s catch and was hustling his way back toward first.

Because I was concentrating on second, I didn’t see the shortstop’s throw to first in his attempt to throw the runner out. He overthrew the first baseman and the ball careened into the dugout. I felt something hit the outside of my thigh just above the knee. Fortunately, the ball didn’t do much more than graze my leg, but I still gave out a small yelp (more out of surprise than pain).

I said that it was a good thing that I had forgotten my monopod. If I had remembered it, I more than likely would have been standing with both feet on the same step. Moreover, I would have also been standing a little more to my left, and the path of the ball would have been directly in line with a very sensitive part of my anatomy. So my “no-hit” streak has been broken. I’m just glad it’s the only thing that was.

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Random photo # 55: Smoky sun

The sun is turned and orange-red by smoke from the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties as it peeks through the beams of the Miller Ferry Bridge over the Mokelumne River in the Delta town of Walnut Grove.

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Random photo #54: Tiny dancer

4-year-old Raziya Ward dances to the beat of a DJ while waiting for a 9/11 ceremony to start at the Sierra Vista Community Center in south Stockton.

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Are you ready for some football?

The 2015 high school football season is well under way with week 2 starting on Friday. Football is not only a popular sport to play and watch but to photograph as well. Many newspaper and sports photographers have cut their photographic eyeteeth on football. Here are some tips on shooting America’s most popular game.

When I first started 31 years ago, access to school football fields were pretty much unrestricted. Almost anyone could walk up and get pictures from the sidelines. Today most fields are surrounded by fences that keep people back from the action. If you want to shoot from the sidelines try to get permission from a coach or school official. If you do get access to the field always be aware that there are hazards, namely players barreling out of bounds and into you. Don’t be distracted by other people next to you and always be aware of the action on the field and be prepared to backpedal out of the way.

To avoid motion blur (the fuzziness created by a person/object moving too fast) you need to use a fast shutter speed, 1/500th of a second or faster. If you’re shooting a JV game you’re in luck. They’re played first so there’s plenty of daylight to shoot under. However, most varsity games are play at night as or after the sun goes down. You have to either get a fast lens (one that has better light gathering capabilities) or increase the camera’s ISO setting (increasing the camera’s light sensitivity) or both. Fast telephoto lenses are great but the biggest problem is that they’re expensive. The difference between an f/4 lens and an f/2.8 lens, (a 1-stop difference) can be a doubling (or more) in cost. Increasing the ISO also has its drawbacks. ”Noise,” that speckling that can happen in some pictures and a reduction in some sharpness, can occur the higher you go on the ISO scale.

A camera with a high frame rate (one that shoots at 5 to 10 frames per second) helps to capture the fast action of football. It’s possible to work with a camera with a slower rate but it takes more precise timing and more patience to get a shot of peak action. Football is played on a large field so photographers general use long telephoto lenses (generally in the 300mm to 400mm range) to shoot it. It allows them bring in the action from across the field. The game can be shot with shorter lenses, but you either have to wait for the action to get closer to you or you have to get closer to where the plays start.

Last week when shooting a game at Bear Creek High School I saw a teenage also photographing the game, I assumed for the yearbook. As play came near then passed him he tried to run along with the action and get a shot as the play ended. There’s no way he could be as fast as the players, so he missed the shot. A better option is to pick a spot (I usually stand 20 to 30 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage) then let the action come to you. I move up field in between plays. Again, when using shorter lenses, you need to stand closer to where the action starts.

In football there are a lot of people on the field, 22 players and another 5 or 6 officials. There can be a lot of traffic and your view of the action can be blocked with all the bodies running about. You have to be patient and wait for players to clear out to get an open shot. Running plays are the easiest to master. You can track the ball carriers after they receive a handoff. Passing plays are a bit harder. Several receivers are usually sent out and the challenge is to figure out which one the ball will be thrown to. I try to concentrate on the quarterback and when I see his body and eyes turn in the direction that he’s going to throw, I whip the camera around and try to find the receiver. It’s something that takes a lot of practice and even then you can still miss a lot.

Football games are colorful events and if you can’t get access to the fields there are other things you can shoot other than the action. There are cheerleaders, the band and mascots that are away from the field and are easier to photograph. And then of course there are fans. They wear the school colors, paint their faces, wave flags and scream and yell for their team, all the while making for great pictures.

Shooting football and playing the game have something in common. The more you practice at them, the better you’ll get at doing them. So practice, practice, practice and you’ll be ready for some football.

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Tips for posing

Posing people for portraits can be harder than one thinks. It’s more than just standing a subject in front of the camera and clicking the button. One has to learn how to tactfully maneuver a person to make them look their best. Aside from professional models who practice at it, most subjects don’t know how to do pose naturally. That’s because most poses that make people look good aren’t natural. They feel a bit awkward and at times may be clumsy to execute. To do it right takes patience from both subject and photographer.

Lexia Frank, a Portland, Oregon-based wedding/commercial photographer recently posted a series of short videos on how to pose your subjects. They are insightful and informative and the techniques are clever in their simplicity. You can view them below.

Eliminating double chins by Lexie Frank


Hiding the upper body by Lexie Frank


Slimming the waist by Lexie Frank


Placing the feet by Lexie Frank


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All in a day’s work

“Working for a living, living and working,

I’m taking what they’re giving ’cause I’m working for a living.” – Huey Lewis and the News

Today is Labor Day. It celebrates the contributions that working men and women have given to make our country a strong and prosperous one.

According the U.S. Department of Labor’s web site, the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882. The day became statewide holidays in 5 states, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado and Oregon five years later. In 1894, Congress passed an act declaring the first Monday in September a legal holiday throughout the country.

We work in the cool of the early morning, in the heat under a scorching sun and well into the dark of the night. The work we do can be back-breaking or high stress. We work to provide for our families as well as to buy the nicer things in life.  Our jobs can define us and give ourselves a sense of purpose and self-worth.

Here’s a gallery of photos that I’ve shot through the years of people who, like the rest of us, work for living.


Posted in Commentary, Enterprise | 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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