All in the family

Now is the time of year that many people start to think about taking family portraits. They want photos to send as Christmas cards or with seasonal newsletters to their family and friends during the holidays. Some might have their picture taken by a professional photographer while others may them with their own cameras. If you’re planning to go the do-it-yourself route, there are a few tips to make the picture taking process go smoother and the photos look better.

Use a tripod. You could set your camera on a table, chair or counter but you’ll be restricted the height of what you set it on and you can’t always move the furniture to where you need it to be. A tripod allows place your camera anywhere you want it to be.

Set up your camera and determine your exposure and settings well ahead of time. The last thing you want is to be fiddling with your camera while your family fidgets as you get your act together. Most people don’t like to wait, especially if there are small children involved.

Since you’re going to be in the photo with the rest of your family, more than likely you’ll use your camera on self-timer. You can get a cable release or an infrared or radio remote trigger to trip the shutter but those are an added expense for something you’d only use once or twice a year. The self-timer is your best, most cost-effective bet. Plan a space for yourself. Once you press the shutter button you’ll have about 10 seconds to get into place. If you’re scrambling to place yourself in the picture, the camera may fire before you’re ready.

There is a natural tendency for people to line up their subjects in a line shoulder to shoulder in front of a wall. Unfortunately it makes them look like they’re lined up for an execution. Have them take several steps away from any wall to avoid that facing-a-firing-squad look.

Posing a group photo is a delicate balance. You want to avoid having all of their heads at the same level that a lined-up pose would give at the same time you’d don’t want your subjects too far apart either. Try placing some of the subjects in front and others behind as well as having some sit. If there is one person who’s particularly taller than the rest have him/her be the one that’s sitting. Compositionally you want the viewer’s eye to move easily from face to face in the photo.

If you can, avoid using on-camera flash. It can give that deer-in-the-headlights look to your subjects. Using the flash off camera is preferable but unless you’re experienced at using studio-style lighting I recommend that you leave that for the experts. Natural window light provides nice soft illumination. If there isn’t enough light inside, try taking the photo outdoors. Avoid bright sunlight, it can create harsh shadows and cause your subjects to squint. Find some open shade under a tree or in the shadow of a building to provide some even lighting.

Watch out for busy distracting backgrounds. The last thing you want is a tree or telephone pole growing out of someone’s head.

Dress similarly but not exactly alike so that you’ll have a cohesive, family look without losing each subject’s individuality. Try to wear a classic style that won’t be passé in a few years time. It may seem like a cute idea at the times but in a few years having everyone wear the same Christmas sweater may look clichéd or even ridiculous.

Don’t be afraid to take a lot of pictures. It’s difficult at times to get everyone smiling and not blinking at the same time. The more shots you take the better chances you’ll have just the right shots.

We’ve all seen photo galleries on the Internet of bad family photos. Most are badly conceived, planned and executed with bad clothes, bad lighting and/or bad composition. With a little thought and patience you could have a picture that your family will cherish forever.

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Random photo #38: Royal ride

Dressed as a princess 2-year-old Mia Leon rides the carousel at the Pixie Woods Halloween party in Stockton. Children under 12 wearing a costume received free admission to the event.

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Color my (fall) world

Fall color is the subject of the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment.

New England is famed for the fall color of its forests, and rightly so. But if the East Coast isn’t included in your travel plans there are places much closer to home to photograph the changing of the seasons. The June Lake Loop of off Highway 395 south of the town of Lee Vining in the Sierra Nevada is known for its fall color as well as Highway 89 near Monitor Pass. Still, those places are both several hours of driving from the Central Valley and there places much closer yet. Lodi Lake, Oak Grove Regional Park and the Delta may not always provide large swaths of color but you still can find small stands of trees or individual ones that produce great color. The agricultural lands surrounding Stockton such as orchards and vineyards can be subjects that provide fall color. You can even shoot the trees in you own backyard as they change colors.

Fall leaves start to change colors due to the shortening of the days of the season. The green of spring and summer comes from daylight and the process of photosynthesis in the leaves. With the coming of shorter days the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down and the green disappears. What remains are the yellows and oranges that were there all the time. Other chemical processes occur to produce additional colors such as reds and purples in some trees.

Most leaves are thin and translucent especially when the green fades away from them. The best way to photograph them is backlit (light coming from the rear of the leaf). This shows off their colors with much more vibrancy and color saturation. Front lit photos of leaves tend to be flat and the colors washed out. But with the light coming from behind the leaves can almost glow like Christmas tree lights.

No special equipment is needed. You can use anything from DSLRs to point-and-shoot cameras to even cellphones. Any kind of lens is acceptable from a wide angle to get an overall of a single tree or stand of trees, to a telephoto to get just a portion of one. If you want to get close, a macro lens will get you as close as an individual leaf or smaller portions thereof.

The leaves don’t even have to be on the trees. Fallen leaves, whether singly, in piles or carpeting the ground can also make compelling photos. They don’t even have to be the main subject of your picture. Fall leaves and trees, in or out of focus, can be a colorful backdrop for a portrait.

There are countless ways for you to capture the spirit of fall. So go out and hues of the season color your photographic world.

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Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Oct. 23 and Nov. 6. Trees and leaves can be the main subject or just in the background but fall color mush be a part of the photo. If possible try to include the species of tree (eg: oak, elm, sycamore, etc).

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. Syacmores at Grupe Park in Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 75-300mm 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, of Tracy, stands under a liquidambar tree at Oak Grove Regional Park in Stockton”)

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

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday Nov. 6. The top examples will be published in The Record and my blog at Recordnet.com on Thursday, Nov. 13 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

 

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Random photo #37: Upon reflection

An egret is reflected as it rests on a partially submerged log in the waters of Smith Canal in Stockton.

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Readers Photo Challenge: Good sports

Sports photography is hard. The first thing one has to do is to master timing. Knowing when to press the shutter button is no minor thing and, like the sports themselves, takes practice, practice, practice to learn. All that is hard enough, but on top of that one also has to consider other sound photographic practices of exposure, composition and expression. Every sports photographer knows the disappointment of missing the moment and the satisfaction of getting a great shot.

The latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment is sports and the response reflects how difficult the task was. Only 6 people entered 25 photos, but those few rose to the challenge. Here are some of the best examples.

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Water polo is a tough sport to shoot. It’s fast paced and, if you don’t know how it’s played, it’s unpredictable. The refs’ whistles are blown quite often, sometimes for no seemingly apparent reason. The ball changes hands often so it’s difficult to keep track of the action.

Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton photographed a St. Mary’s boy’s varsity water polo game against Davis with a Nikon D90 DSLR with a 18-70mm lens. She shot St. Mary’s Jack Kirby as he prepared to shoot on goal. Spurgeon captured the intensity of Kirby’s face as he cocked his arm back ready to fire. Two Davis defenders with arms raised in the foreground made for a nice triangular composition with Kirby at the apex.

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When is a sport not a sport yet still a sport when it comes to photography? There are some activities that aren’t sports per se but require sports-shooting skills nonetheless.

Stan Sogsti of Lodi photographed a fencing “match” at the Northern California Renaissance Faire at Casa De Fruta, near Hollister, Ca. Fencing is an ancient sport requiring skill and stamina, but in this context its more stage play than competition. The actors often train as hard as any athlete and even though the outcomes may be predetermined, photographing them needs the same level of timing, accuracy and commitment as shooting any sporting event.

Using a Canon Rebel T1i DSLR with a Tamron 18mm-270mm lens Sogsti captured a peak moment of action in the fencing match as well as the expressions of the actors involved in the scene.

One of the things to look for in a sports photo is the expression on the faces of the athletes. It often shows on their faces with a scowl or grimace as competitors exert themselves to the utmost of their abilities.

Dave Skinner of Stockton used a Nikon D7000 DSLR with a Nikkor 55-300mm lens to photograph a University of the Pacific women’s volleyball match against St. Mary’s at UOP’s Spanos Center. He caught Pacific’s Gillian Howard as she leapt to block a spike by an opposing player. Her mouth agape and eye squinting in concentration, Howard’s intensity is apparent even though the ball isn’t in the picture.

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Stay tuned for next Thursday for a new challenge assignment.

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Levels

In sports there are varying levels of skill that more or less increase by age. Our children start out in recreation youth leagues in sports such as soccer, football or baseball. As they get older and more adept they move to “select” or “comp” leagues where they can play on club teams where the competition is stiffer. High school is where most people get their true competitive sports experiences. Those who excel there might move on to college teams, and the elite university players might be lucky enough to go pro.

With every rung of the ladder, photographers wanting to shoot sports need to step up their skills, as well. While one may be great at shooting their kid’s rec soccer game, it’s an entirely different story photographing a high school one. The level of speed and skill goes up exponentially.

I’ve been shooting a number of high school volleyball matches this season. I usually stand at the back of the gym with a telephoto lens, at floor level, facing the net and wait for the players to either hit or block the ball. It’s a prime spot to get those “at-the-net” shots.

On Sept. 9, I shot my first University of the Pacific women’s volleyball match of the season. I stood in a place that was the equivalent to the back-of-the-gym spot that I use at the high school games. A curious thing happened. When the players would jump for a spike or block, their faces would be hidden behind the wide tape at the top of the net. It was then I realized (and had forgotten from earlier seasons) that the young women of the Pacific team were jumping significantly higher than the girls of the high school teams.

Fortunately there was a solution. At the far ends of the court at UOP’s Spanos Center there are seats high above the floor. From there I was able to get shots over the net of the players as they smashed the ball. It was a reminder that when you go up the sports “food chain,” your photographic skills have to increase as well.

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There still are a few more days left in the sports challenge so send in your favorite sports shot from the last few weeks.

Here are the rules:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Sept. 25 and Oct 11. It can be of an organized event or just a casual game, but must be sports related.

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. Grupe Park in Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 75-300mm 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, of Tracy, hits a forehand while playing tennis at the Oak Park Tennis Complex in Stockton”)

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

6. The deadline for submission is Saturday Oct. 11. The top examples will be published in The Record and my blog at Recordnet.com on Thursday, Oct.16 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

Posted in Readers Photo Challenge, Sports | Tagged | Leave a comment

Hold it!

I always advocate to new camera purchasers to read the owners’ manual. It has all kinds of useful information especially for first time users. But here are some things that aren’t covered in a manual or even some classes. It could be something that the writers of the manuals didn’t think about or perhaps thought too trivial to cover.

In the case of DSLR cameras, one of those things is how to hold the camera. It may sound like just a little thing, but can be very important to the quality of your pictures. Holding your camera correctly can help to reduce camera shake and thus help you to produce sharper photos.

First of all you should use two hands. Some cameras will allow for one-handed operation, but to hold the camera steadily, both hands are essential.

Most cameras have a grip on the right side of the camera where the shutter button is located. The grips tend to be ergonomically designed and there’s pretty much only one way for the right hand to hold it. The variations tend to come on the left side.

Quite often I see people using their left hands to grip the lens like a pirate peering through a looking glass. The bottom of the camera should cradled in the upturned palm of the left hand for stability with the forefinger and thumb extended forward so that they can turn the zoom and/or focusing rings on the barrel of the lens.

Another thing I see people do when holding the camera is sticking their elbows out. I call this “chicken wings.” It increases the size of your physical real estate making you more likely to be bumped into and thus jarring to you and the camera. With the elbows out, your own movement and shaking are also more likely to be transmitted the camera, thus increasing its shakiness.

The elbows should be tucked against the body. This gives you more leverage and provides support and stability to the camera making it easier to hold steadily. If you do nothing else this is the most effective thing to holding your camera steady.

Many modern cameras have a “live view” feature where you can see the scene that you’re photographing on the camera’s monitor in a real-time video form. Some people like to see what they’re taking pictures on the bigger screen rather than the smaller viewfinder. However, looking through the viewfinder can actually help you to steady the camera. When you hold the camera up to your eye, part of it will make contact with your forehead and nose, which forms another point of stability. Combine it with your elbows tucked in it forms a triangle of support for your camera.

These methods of holding a camera can also translate to point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones as well. With these devices you don’t always have a viewfinder to look through, so no third point of contact, but tucking your arms in can help to steady the camera.

There a couple of exceptions to the rule. First, if you’re using a tripod then obviously your camera is on a stable platform, so you can flap away if you like. Secondly, when shooting a vertical one has to turn the camera 90-degrees and thus one arm, usually the right, has to go up so that you can maintain contact with the shutter button. You should still keep the other arm tucked in. While it won’t be as stable as both arms it’s better than nothing. Some cameras come with a second shutter button on the side of the camera so when you turn it sideways you can keep your same elbows-in position. With some cameras you can purchase an optional handgrip with the side button built in.

So remember, Colonel Sanders may like chicken wings but it’s best to keep you elbows tucked in when trying to hold your camera still.

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Blood moon rising II: The sequel

Early Wednesday morning watchers of the night sky will be able to witness the second “blood moon” of the year (the last one was on April 15). A “blood moon” happens during a total lunar eclipse. Light from the sun, which mostly is blocked by the earth, bends through our planet’s atmosphere. Particles, such as dust and smoke, give the light an eerie red glow as it passes through the air, which illuminates the moon with the same hue. The level of color saturation depends upon the amount of the pollution in the atmosphere.

There will be two other total eclipses next year (April 4 and Sept. 28) over most of North America except for the west coast. The next one we’ll be able to see in California will be on Jan. 31, 2018.

As I said, all this will happen early in the morning, very early. According to National Geographic.com, the partial eclipse starts at 2:15 a.m., but doesn’t reach its totality until almost 3:30 a.m. The moon should be ending the full eclipse at nearly 4:30 and it should all over and done with by around 5:30 in the morning. So if you’re an early riser or want to pull an all-nighter this celestial event is for you.

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September outtakes: 2014

From volleyball, to water polo to, of course, football (and more) the Fall sports season was in full swing in September. Here are 10 of my favorite previously unposted photos from 2014’s 9th month.
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9/6/2014:

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9/10/2014:

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9/12/2014:

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9/16/2014:

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9/17/2014:

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9/19/2014:

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9/24/2014:

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9/25/2014:

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Correction

A sharp-eyed reader pointed out a mistake in the deadline for the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment “Sports.” The correct date is Saturday, Oct. 11. Sorry for the confusion. Here are the rules (corrected) once again:

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

2. Photos have to be shot between Sept. 25 and Oct 11. It can be of an organized event or just a casual game, but must be sports related.

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. Grupe Park in Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 75-300mm 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, of Tracy, hits a forehand while playing tennis at the Oak Park Tennis Complex in Stockton”)

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

6. The deadline for submission is Saturday Oct. 11. The top examples will be published in The Record and my blog at Recordnet.com on Thursday, Oct.16 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

Posted in Readers Photo Challenge, Sports | 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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