As good as gold

For a few weeks every February photographers from all over gather to view Horsetail Fall off to the side of El Capitan at sunset. The falling waters catch rays of light of the so-called golden hour turning them into a cascade of what can look like liquid fire spilling over the fall.

Ask any number of professional photographers what the single most important thing is in a great picture, the vast majority of the will say: light. Lighting can make or break a photo. Many people who have had problems with their pictures being too dark may think that it’s just about the amount of light, but it’s about the quality of light as well. The best natural light comes from what’s known as the “golden hour,” which is also the subject of the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment. The golden hour (also know as the magic hour) refers to the time just after sunrise and just before sunset when light is infused with a golden hue giving color and warmth to everything it touches.

14 people sent in 72 photos of the golden hour. Here are some of the best examples.


I think most people tend to think of the golden hour as an evening thing. Like me, they probably like to sleep in and wait until evening for the sunset. Not Dave Skinner of Stockton. Skinner rose early and headed out to the Cosumnes River Preserve off of I-5 and Twin Cities Road near the small town of Thornton to capture the sunrise. Armed with a Nikon D5100 DSLR camera he photographed the breaking sun which provided a warm glow as it cascaded though some valley oak trees. The light spread across some dried wild grasses on the valley floor and made the scene warm and inviting. I may not be an early riser but Skinner’s photo makes me glad that he is.


Like Skinner, Darrin Denison of Stockton is also a morning person, at least for this photo. Unlike Skinner, he didn’t travel too far from home. Denison used his iPhone 4s to photograph a yard sculpture of a sleeping cherub in his from yard. The warm morning light gives the picture a dreamy yet fresh quality.


Teresa Mahnken of Morada approached the golden hour from the evening side. While on a trip to Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island in Washington state she used a Nikon D3200 DSLR to photograph a sunset sinking towards the horizon on the Pacific Ocean beyond a light house and some cypress trees as orange hues graced light wispy clouds in the sky.


Using a Canon Rebel DSLR Susan Scott of Stockton photographed a sunset near Buckley Cove in Stockton. Set against a stand of trees in the foreground and a heron gracefully soaring in the sky on the left the palette of gold, yellows and oranges of a prototypical sunset picture.


Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton didn’t shoot the sunset it self but rather she turned things around and used the light from the sunset to illuminate her subject. In a field in Yolo County she photographed a large sunflower bathed in the light of the golden hour. Not only does the color of the light give the flower that aura of warmth but the low angle and side lighting helps to give it some depth and substance to its form.


Although the warm tones of sunrise/sunset gives the golden hour its name, there can be many other colors involved as well. The later a sunset goes on the more the colors morph into other tones. Stocktonian Jim Johnson’s photo of the sunset over the deep water channel Stockton shows just that. He used a Canon EOS-M digital camera to capture the subtle colors of pinks and purples along side of the oranges as the sky was painted with the last vestiges of the sunset.


The same goes for Kelly Helsing of Reno, Nevada (Helsing’s mom, Mary Paulson of Valley Springs submitted her daughter’s photo for her). Helsing used a iPhone 4s to photograph a sunset through some trees in her front yard just before the sun sank below the horizon. Not only did she capture the fiery reds and oranges of the sun but more subtle blues and purples in the sky and clouds as well.


As always there is a gallery of all the entries at Stay tuned for a new challenge assignment on next Monday.

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Random photo #32: Clouds from above; rain from below

Partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures didn’t deter 6-year-old Emiliano Guerrero from playing in the interactive water feature at Micke Grove Park in Lodi.

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June’s swoon

“It is the month of June,
The month of leaves and roses,
When pleasant sights salute the eyes,
And pleasant scents the noses.” – Nathaniel Parker Willis

Sorry, but I’m a little late in posting last month’s outtakes. So without any further ado, here’s a belated look back at 10 favorite previously unposted photos from June 2014.









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The devil is in the details

When I was a young photo student my instructors told me that there were always pictures within pictures. They would show a student’s photo of an overall scene as an example and then, using their hands, crop into a tighter portion to show how the student missed the show by not getting close enough.

Many times when I’m covering an event, to tell the story visually I’m looking for an overall shot, a medium shot and finally a close-up shot. Frequently that last tight detail photo can be just the right accent to the story.

People always think to take a picture an overall of a scene but forget about the details that can be within a scene. I suppose it’s only natural to see the entire “forest” of a photograph and forget about the individual “trees,” but you can find some visual gems that can be hidden, sometimes in plain sight, in the details of that scene.

Photographing details requires the thinking on a smaller scale. One has to filter out the broader view and narrow their focus on what may be just a miniscule, yet still interesting, part of the scene. Using a macro or close-up lens helps. It allows you to see the details and texture of a world that’s often missed. The bark of a tree, peeling paint on an old building or the veins of a leaf are all good subjects for capturing detail. You might be photographically attracted to a bright field of wildflowers but also think about getting a single blossom or even a few petals of that flower as well. Trees changing to their fall colors are also a favorite subject but a single bright yellow or red leaf or two can be just as interesting as a whole forest of hues.

Just getting close isn’t always enough. You still have to think about composition as well. Simple, non-distracting backgrounds and foregrounds help to make your subjects pop out. Lighting is also important. A flat noonday sun tends to unappealing. Wait for light that occurs earlier or later in the day for the low angle of light to help bring out the texture in your close-up details. Finally take extra care in focusing. Because you’re probably dealing with minimum focusing distances of your lens you’re likely to have minimal depth of field. You can use that to your advantage, though. Having your subject tack sharp with everything else out of focus will help to emphasize it all the more. You just have to make sure what you want in focus is sharply focused or it all becomes a fuzzy mush.

A detail can be a supplement to other photos or it can be something that can stand on it’s own. Either way all it takes is a shifting of some mental gears and thinking of things on a smaller scale.

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E-ticket ride

In March, I went on a media tour of the then newly opened DTE biomass power plant at the Port of Stockton. The facility burns wood waste collected from around the region to heat water, which in turn makes steam to turn a generator to produce electricity. One of the more interesting things at the plant is how the fuel is delivered

Big rig trucks, like any you’d see anonymously rumbling down the freeway, backup onto a ramp connected to a garage-like structure at the back end. Once the truck is parked, with its backside ensconced in the building, it looks like that perhaps a crew or machines must burrow into the back to offload the material, but no. The entire ramp assembly slowly tilts upward until the truck is pointing nearly straight up. The contents spill out onto a conveyor belt system as the truck is tilted higher and higher. The material is then moved to a storage area, which is then moved again via conveyor to the plant when needed.

It was quite a sight to see the large trucks, each about the size of whale, pointed skyward. From my vantage point I couldn’t see if the drivers got out of their vehicles or stayed in them during the procedure. If they did stay seated it would be one heck of a Disneyland-like ride.

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Random photo #31: Teed off

Miguel Dominguez of Stockton practices his golf swing against a colorful sunset at the driving range at the Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton.

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All-American city

Small town events may seem hokey or at best quaint to some, but I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I grew up in the tiny Delta town of Walnut Grove. When I was a youngster its population was around 500 give or take a stray dog or two. Every Fourth of July the volunteer fire department would hold it’s annual Independence Day parade. The department’s two fire trucks would drive through the streets of the town, sirens blaring, to beckon children to hop on their bikes to join in the parade. We kids would attach playing cards to the spokes of our wheels to get a Harley-esque rumble as we rode. At the end of the short procession we would all get popsicles for our participation.

This past Fourth of July Stockton also celebrated Independence Day with a parade. Even though Stockton is a mid-sized California city, and the parade was considerably bigger than the ones of my youth, it still had a small town charm to it.

The parade route was short and sweet, wending its way through just 7 blocks of downtown Stockton (from Sutter at Washington Streets to Weber Avenue, over to San Joaquin Street and back down to Washington). People enthusiastically lined the streets to wave and applaud the entries.

It had your typical things that one would expect in a Fourth of July parade. The Karl Ross American Legion Post had its Silent Sentinels rolling display of flags of deceased veterans escorted by other vets along each side of it. There were the obligatory bright red fire engines along with Miss San Joaquin and her court. There were candidates running for every seat from city council to assembly using every form of transportation from automobiles to pedaled-rickshaws to on foot.

But while the day was about celebrating out “Americaness,” also on display was the strength of Stockton’s rich heritage of diversity.

The Mexican-American drum and bugle band Banda Oficial Inglesia Santa Maria trumpeted their way through the streets of downtown to a marching beat that with a Latino flair.

Native American Dancers from the Stockton Intertribal Cultural Committee demonstrating traditional and fancy dancing marched proudly in the parade.

A group from the Stockton Gudwara or Sikh Temple wearing traditional turbans and Sikh military uniforms demonstrated the Sikh martial arts known as gatka. They skillfully lunged and twirled all manner of exotic weaponry.

Watching it all was a young man wearing a stars and stripes tank top and a similar plush top hat. German exchange student Manuel Hamann, fresh from watching Germany’s World Cup win over France, waved two small U.S. flags as he enjoyed the “Americaness,” the “Stocktoness” and the small town roots of the day.

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Random photo #30: Double rainbow

12-year-old Giovanni Hernandez, left, and his 7-year-old brother Michael Hernandez emerge from the Weber Point Even Center water feature through a rainbow while cooling off in downtown Stockton.

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Random photo #29: Bicycle built for…

BMX rider Ricky Mosely performs a stunt during a BMX show at the San Joaquin County Family Fair at the fairgrounds in Stockton.

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Golden years

“Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever.” – Horace Mann

Back in the 1980s when I was a photo student at Sacramento City College (SCC) I became good friends with fellow student Randy Allen. He went on to become a photographer, then photo editor at the Sacramento Bee and now has come full circle as a photography instructor at SCC. I remember during a slide class he showed a couple of photos. The first was of a beautiful sunset from a vacation in Hawaii. The sun was an orange ball just before it sank below the horizon just above a dark blue Pacific Ocean. The second picture was of his wife Carol on a beach of fine sand and bathed in the last bits of the warm glow of a setting sun, palm trees swaying against a deep blue sky. Allen surprised the class, who thought the two pictures were taken at two different places or times, when he said that second photo was taken at about the 180 degrees in the opposite direction taken only a few seconds apart. It was a perfect example of the “golden hour,” which is the subject of the newest Readers Photo Challenge assignment.

The golden hour is the period of time just after sunrise or just before sunset, lasting, as the name suggests, for about an hour or so. As the sun sinks low towards the horizon its light travels through more atmosphere picking up color from particulates and pollution in the air and creates a warm pleasing glow. The light also scatters through the air a bit more making it a bit less harsh. For portraits the low angle of the light helps makes it more pleasing than the harsh overhead light of midday, which creates some harsh shadows.

But it’s not just for portraits. Golden hour light enhances just about every kind of photography from sports to landscapes. While the golden hour is known for its quality light, what can be lacking is its quantity. The light is warm and pleasing to the eye but be aware there’s less of it. This usually means two things: First, you may need to use wider apertures, which decreases depth of field and makes getting sharp pictures more difficult. Second, you may need to use slower shutter speeds, which may make camera shake a problem. You may want to use a tripod to combat any blurriness brought on by camera movement. You can bump up the camera’s ISO (it’s light sensitivity), but that may lead to more noise in your photos.

Like in Horace Mann’s quote above, golden hours happen twice a day. They often go unnoticed and are lost to the sands of time. The golden hour isn’t exactly 60 minutes. Weather conditions can extend or shorten the time. This time of year the evening hour starts around 8:00 p.m. and ends about 9:30 p.m. while the morning session goes from about 6:00 a.m. to around 7:30 a.m. Time is a bit limited so you’ll have to work relatively fast once it starts happening, but whether you’re an early riser or like to stay up late there’s a golden hour for you and there’s no reason for you not to take advantage of its advantages.


Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between July 7 and July 20. The subject is up to you but they must be shot during the “golden hour.”

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. Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton. 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 watches the sunset at Lodi Lake in Lodi)

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

6. The deadline for submission is Sunday, July 20. The top examples will be published on Monday, July 28 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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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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