Random photo # 36: Smoke gets in your skies

The setting sun tries to shine through smoke stained skies from the King Fire in Eldorado County over a stand of trees in Tracy.

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Random photo #35: Float like a butterfly

A butterfly rests on a wild sunflower growing along Highway 4 near Roberts Road in Stockton.

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Readers Challenge assignment: On holiday

Nearly everyone takes pictures while on vacation. Some record the places that they’ve been to; others show themselves in those locations. To me the best travel photos go beyond the simple snapshot. They capture the flavor and the beauty of lands and sights of their adventures and the people that live and/or visit there.

This month’s Readers Photo Challenge assignment was to send in you summer vacation photos. Some traveled as far away as France while others were as close as our backyard of the Delta (interestingly enough, the Delta photo was sent in by someone who lives in Newport Beach in Southern California and a Stocktonian entered a photo he shot in Newport Beach). The best photos went beyond the typical vacation snapshot and gave a sense of place worthy of any travel magazine.

29 people sent in a total of 114 pictures. Here are some of the top examples.


Most of us travel to our vacations spots by car, plane, train or boat, but there are some places of beauty that you can only get to on foot.

An experienced backpacker with 20-years of hiking under her belt, Stocktonian Pam Johns’ vacation was an 8-day solo backpacking trip through rugged mountainous terrain of the John Muir Wilderness in the Sierras east of Fresno. Space and weight was at a premium in her 40-plus pound pack, so her imaging device was just a small Nikon Coolpix 9700 point & shoot digital camera.

Johns, 66, says she loves the spiritual solitude and dramatic beauty of the remote backcountry. It helps her to “put every aspect of life in the proper perspective and she leaves those areas with a clearer understanding of what is really important and with a renewed sense of purpose.”

She traveled about 40 to 50 miles on her trip, much of it off trail. On her sixth day a substantial storm moved in with hail and lightning. She had set up her tent about a ¼-mile from Moon Lake when the storm hit, but she quickly sought shelter under some low bushes for safety from the lightning. When the storm passed she went to the lakeside and started taking photos.

Sometimes I describe the moment when everything comes together perfectly in a photo as when “the clouds part and the angels sing.” For Johns when the storm cleared, the clouds literally parted for her nearly perfect picture. As for the singing of angels, you can almost hear them in the sublime beauty of her photo.


A typical family vacation photo is to have one’s kids or oneself in front of a landmark or activity. Glenn Pillsbury of Stockton eschewed that method when he took a shot of his sons, Glenn Gordon, 6, and Rowan, 2, at the Sacramento Southern Railroad in Old Sacramento on August 3.

Using just an iPhone 4s, Pillsbury photographed his kids as they rode on an excursion train. Rather than having them look directly at the camera, he caught them in a candid moment as they looked out the window of the railcar. Another locomotive can be seen outside as beautiful light pours in through the window. The image of his youngest is reflected in the glass as he captured the curiosity and wonder of both his children.


Nearly every vacation spot has at least one iconic image that every tourist takes a photo of. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State Building, San Francisco the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. But a great travel photographer goes beyond the obvious and finds something magical in something others may have passed by.

Morro Bay is located on the coast in San Luis Obispo county. Its most prominent feature is Morro Rock, a 581-ft. tall volcanic plug located just offshore at the entrance to the town’s harbor. It’s a natural photo subject of many a vacationer and thousands (if not millions) of tourists have taken pictures of it (including yours truly). Tom LaBounty of Stockton took a little different route. With a Fuji X-T1 DSLR he photographed the small town’s (population of about 10,000) Bay Theater. With the light from the blue hour falling over the scene, combined with the color from the cinema’s neon marquee, the photo takes on a moody purple hue. It not only shows the quaintness of the berg (population of about 10,000) but also captures the quiet beauty of small town life.


Light is everything in a photo. Bad light can make an interesting scene boring, good light can raise the mundane to the sublime.

On a trip to Tain l’Hermitage, France, Dan Flores of Stockton visited the Musée Pierre Palué. It’s a museum dedicated to the works of artist Pierre Palué in a 16th century house run by his daughter Marie. Instead of concentrating on the works of art on the walls Flores turned his Canon PowerShot SX 30 point-and-shoot digital camera to the building itself. Nice soft light pours in through the windows of a stairwell of the old stone structure. Combined with some incandescent interior lights the scene is illuminated with a warm, inviting glow and brings out the texture of the walls and steps.



When shooting a landmark there is the natural tendency to try to get the entire structure in the photo. This is fine, but getting a detail or portion of the landmark can make just as compelling a photo.

On a trip to New York City Jeanne Marie Tokunaga of Elk Grove took a photo of the world famous Empire State Building in Manhattan. But in instead of taking a picture of it in its entirety from the ground, she photographed it from the building’s own 102nd floor observation deck. Pointing her Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR upward, she got a night shot of the art deco spire at the top of the building. Lit from the exterior and from within, the spire boldly stands out against the inky black night sky.



Often when taking a scenic photo there can be unwanted obstacles in the way. Joan Erreca of Stockton used an obstruction to actually enhance her picture. From a vista point on Highway 120 in Yosemite Valley she used the branches of a tree to frame the scene of Vernal Falls in the distance, adding a nice frame to the composition of her photo.


All of the photos entered can be seen in a gallery atRecordnet.com. Stay tuned for a new challenge which will be issued next Thursday.

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Get a job

Recently the PexaPixel Website posted a story on which cities were the best to be a working photographer. Their criteria were cost of living, annual salary, photographer job openings and the number of working photographers in the city.

Jersey City, New Jersey, tops the list. Never having been to Jersey, I can’t say if it’s true, so I’ll just have to take their word for it. St. Paul. Minn. is No. 2, followed by Houston. I would have figured that New York City would have been higher than No. 4, but it isn’t. Sprawling Los Angeles is next and No. 6 was St. Paul’s sister city, Minneapolis (why one rates higher than the other, since the two next-door cities are almost one and the same, I don’t know). Cincinnati, Ohio, comes in at No. 7 and San Francisco is rated No. 8. Washington, D.C., is No. 9, which makes sense (given the amount of politics going on there, it must be a news photographers heaven). Rounding out the top 10 is Dallas.

There were several other California cities that came in ahead of us. Sacramento was No. 58. Fresno was No. 82, and Bakersfield was No. 88 (Yeah, but the downside is that you’d have to actually live in Fresno or Bakersfield). Oakland was rated at No. 59, which I don’t get because several photojournalists have been mugged while on assignment and all of their equipment stolen (some more than once).

Stockton just made the list at No. 100. That Stockton makes the cut is not news to me, because I’ve always found Stockton to be a very photogenic place with warm and inviting people. It has been a great place for me to make a career out of taking pictures.

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Random photo #34: Full circle

Construction worker Fernando Mendoza with the Concord-based Conco is caught up un the concentric rings of a 58-ft-long rebar support structure for a freeway column as he works to assemble it for the west extension of the Crosstown Freeway in the Boggs Tract area of Stockton

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Richard Kiel: RIP

Actor Richard Kiel, best known for portraying the steel-toothed villain “Jaws” in two of the Roger Moore-era Bond films, died on September 10 at the age of 74.

I photographed him in 2012 during his appearance at MiniCon at UOP’s Spanos Center. At 7-ft, 2-inches tall he was an imposing figure but genuinely seemed like a genial kind of guy. When posing for pictures with a fan he had a standard “schtick.” He would envelope the fan’s head in his two massive hands as if to crush it like a grape. Of course, he wouldn’t, but that Jaws “clutch” was a kick to fans and onlookers alike.

I covered the 2014 edition of StocktonCon last month and Kiel was there, as he was at the 2012 MiniCon and the 2013 StocktonCon. I thought about getting a shot of him but he had been signing a lot of autographs and posing for pictures at that point. Had I known that this would have been one of his last appearances I might have tried to get a picture of him but he looked a bit tired so I left him alone.

Kiel was becoming a staple of StocktonCon and his passing has left a void for the fans that won’t be easily filled.

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The mug shot seen ’round the world

A lot has been said about 30-year-old Jeremy Meeks, a convicted felon who was arrested June 18 during an Operation Peacekeeper sweep. But the talk wasn’t about his alleged crime, the possession of an unregistered, loaded handgun (according to police), which is a parole violation, but rather the mug shot that the police took of him.

Meeks’ photo, which was posted on the Stockton Police Department’s Facebook page on June 18, went viral. It garnered more than 100,000 “likes” and over 26,000 comments. Some were from detractors but many of talked about how good Meeks looked.

“I could never get sick of this mug shot.” “Look at this hottie”, “He is stunning!!! So hot.” “Just perfect looks.” These were just a few of the comments. He even reportedly has attracted attention from a Hollywood agent and has been offered a modeling contract.

What most people may not realize is that Meeks’ good looks comes in large part from how the photo was shot, more specifically its lighting. Using an old photographers trick to deconstruct lighting in a photo, one can see two distinct lights reflected near the center of each of his eyes. That means that there were two lights used, one above and the other below the lens. The effect is similar to what comes from a ring flash, which has macro photography applications but is often used in fashion and glamor photography.

A ring flash is just like it sounds, a flash that’s circular in shape, like a donut. The camera and lens are pointed through the center of the circle. The resulting light gives an even illumination and eliminates harsh shadows giving a hip freshness to the subject. It’s frequently used in celebrity portraits.

Supervising evidence technician Darren Antonovich showed me the camera/light setup used by the Stockton Police department. There are actually 3 cameras at the Stockton PD, one at intake where many of the arrestees are brought to the department another at the evidence/identification unit and a third in the investigations department. All of them employee a Canon EOS Rebel Ti DSLR camera hooked directly up to a computer. Antonovich says that it’s a system that they’ve had for about 10 years. In and of themselves the cameras are unremarkable. They’re just ordinary consumer grade devices. What’s interesting it the lighting.

Two of the units use two banks of fluorescent lights that are placed one well above the lens and the other below (the third unit has the same kind of lights place to the left and right of the camera). The lights aren’t flashes but they provide broad, even illumination much like the light that a ring flash provides.
Of course some of the photos that the Stockton PD has released don’t look as good as Meeks. Not everyone has his bone structure to take advantage of the flattering 2-light setup, but in his case the light accentuated his sculpted cheekbones, straight nose, strong chin line and soulfully pale blue eyes.

It’s part of the power of photography. Like it or not, how we perceive a person’s looks says something about how we think about them. If they’re good looking they must have some good characteristics as well. Conversely if, they don’t conform to society’s norms of attractiveness then they can have a harder time proving their worth to others.

I’ve seen subsequent photos of Meeks from court appearances that the Record has covered. There’s not doubt that he’s a handsome guy no matter what kind of lighting is used, but without the dual light set up of the Stockton Police Department’s mug shot cameras, Meeks looked more like just another guy in an orange jumpsuit.

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Would like to fly in my beautiful balloon?

Last Sunday I covered the Color the Skies hot air balloon festival at the Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon. It brought back memories of when I was a young photo student in college and some friends and I went to the Great Reno Balloon Race in Nevada. We drove through the wee hours of the morning to photograph the predawn launch of the balloons. Although we were excited to shoot the balloons, we were also a bit bleary-eyed when we got there. In retrospect, maybe we should have stayed in a motel the night before but we were young with more eagerness than sense.

Hot air balloon races are always fun and colorful events to photograph or just watch. Some, like the one in Ripon with a little more than a dozen balloons participating, are small events. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico (Oct. 4-12) boasts about 700 balloons. Whether the balloons are in the air or on the ground, photo opportunities abound. It’s no wonder that everyone from seasoned photographers to casual picture-takers from all over flock to see them.

The way the balloons work is that they are basically made of a parachute-like material that are filled by hot air (as the name suggests) from a flame from a large propane burner all attached to a rattan basket. It’s the heated air that gives the balloons their lift.

Hot air balloon races/festivals always occur very early in the day, often starting before sunup. This is to take advantage of the cool morning air, which makes the balloons’ hot air more effective and buoyant. It’s also an advantage for photographers. Some events have what is known as a “dawn patrol.” Some of the balloons actually take off before the sun comes up. When the burners are lit off in the darkness, the light from the flames brilliantly illuminate the thin fabric of the balloons making them look like giant colorful glowing light bulbs. As the sun starts to rise and more balloons are inflated, photographers can also take advantage of the blue and golden hours of the waning morning.

The balloons are first unpacked from trailers or large trucks that they are rolled up in for transportation. They are spread out onto a tarp on the ground and then are attached to the baskets. Then crews use large fans (the kind that firefighters use to evacuate smoke from a building) to force air into the bottom openings of the balloons for an initial partial inflation.

It’s at this point one can make some. Most crews will let people get close enough to take photos of the inside of the balloon as it inflates.

Once the balloons reach a certain size the burners are fired in large rocket-like blasts, which fill them up with hot air. As they start to rise the balloons are tilted upright along with their baskets. The fire from the burners can add even more color and action to an already colorful scene for you photos.

Exotic equipment isn’t necessary to capture hot air balloons. Most events let you get pretty close the balloons so a wide-angle lens should suffice. By the time most of the balloons are in the air the sun is usually up and there should be plenty of light so event so even a slow (re: inexpensive) telephoto lens should be good enough to capture them floating serenely across the sky.

A couple of other considerations: Dress in layers. The early morning hours of these events can be a bit chilly but the days can warm up as the sun rises. While you can get in pretty close to the balloons, once they are inflated and ready to take off, they can be difficult and unpredictable for the ground crew to handle especially if it’s windy. Be aware of this and listen to the crews’ requests to get out of the way. Lastly the vehicles that transport the balloons to the events are also chase vehicles. Watch out as they leave to follow the balloons as they fly.

As I mentioned before the Ripon hot air balloon event is over but the Great Reno Balloon Race, featuring about 100 balloons, is coming this weekend (Sept. 5-7). So if you want to do a little traveling or wait another year there are balloon photo opportunities to be had, you just have to be willing to get up early for them.

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August outtakes

“August brings into sharp focus and a furious boil everything I’ve been listening to in the late spring and summer.” – Henry Rollins

Summer is on its way out and fall is around the corner. Here are 10 favorite outtakes from August 2014.









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I need a vacation

Summer has pretty much come to an end and a school has started up again and. Our vacations are now just memories and all we have left are the photos we took on our travels. The subject of the next Readers Photo Challenge assignment is vacation/travel. This will be sort of the photographic version of those “what I did on my summer vacation” essays that you did when you were in school.

Vacation pictures are essentially travel photos. And good travel images capture not only the sights of your destination but its character as well.

Just because these are “only” vacation photos it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take any less care in shooting them. Always keep in mind the lessons of a clean and simple background, strong composition, good lighting and getting in close to your subject. Look for interesting angles from down low or up high. I know that travel itineraries can be tight and you can never get all that you want to see into a single trip, but try to build in time to shoot when the time and light is best for photos.

We’re looking for photos that go beyond just your typical vacation pictures. The best travel images do more than just show a place’s landmarks. They impart a sense of place and capture what’s special about it. One way is to get photos of the people who live there. Whether they’re in traditional dress or doing things that are typical of where they live, the faces and customs of a people can tell a lot about a place.

If you take photos of your family don’t just get stand them in front of a building or monument, instead get them doing something. From taking a stroll on a beach in Hawaii to riding the teacups at Disneyland getting your loved ones in “action” will make for better, more interesting pictures.

Don’t forget photos of traveling to your destination. Sometimes places like rest stops, side trips and other sights along the way can be just as interesting as is where you’re going.

Due to the nature of this challenge the time period for the assignment is broader than in the past. Rather than the normal 2 week interval, it extends retroactively back to Memorial Day (May 31) to the upcoming deadline of Friday, September 12. So look back through your pictures (or if you’re going to travel with the next two weeks, shoot some new ones) and find the best photos that show what you did (and where you went) on your summer vacation.


Here are the rules:
1. Entries can be emailed to coto@recordnet.com. Type in “Vacation” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between May 26 and Sept. 12. The subject is up to you but they must be shot during your vacation.

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. Bourbon Street, in New Orleans. 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 where they are and what they are doing. (eg: “Jane Smith, 25, Tracy, walks down Broadway in New York City”)

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

6. The deadline for submission is Friday, September 12*. The top examples will be published in the record and my blog on Recordnet.com on Thursday, September 18 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

(*Please note that the publication day for my column has changed to Thursdays and the deadline days have been moved up to the preceding Friday.)

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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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