Ask and ye shall receive

I had an assignment to shoot the Restore the Core exercise class at the Lockeford Springs Golf Club’s pro shop. The class is for new moms who want to tone up a flabby stomach left after child birth.

When I got there, instructor Leigh Hobson was just starting the class of about five women, and I shot them doing their gentle ab workouts. After several minutes I thought to myself that what would best illustrate the story was if one of the participants brought along her baby. But, alas, none had. Just as the thought exited my mind, a woman walked through the door with a baby car seat/carrier in her hand.

Anita Vodden sat on the floor, unrolled her exercise mat and unbuckled her 6-month-old daughter Eva. She then held her daughter on her abdomen for a part of her workout then allowed her to play with some of the exercise balls.

Several more minutes passed and a couple more women joined the group, but they didn’t bring their children, either. Call it serendipty or providence, but just by thinking about it, I got what I needed.

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La cage aux tamarins

Sometimes It can be a challenge to get a clear shot through things such as screens, netting or cages, but there are some things that can be done to help mitigate the obstruction.

The narrow angle of view and inherent lack of depth of field of a telephoto lens can lessen the effects of an obstruction. Shooting at a wide-open aperture (or close to wide open as possible) to give a minimal depth of field also helps.

The lens should be as close to the obstruction as possible (right up against it is best) and the subject should be as far from it as possible.

Recently I had an assignment at Micke Grove Zoo to shoot the cotton-top tamarins. The small primates’ enclosure featured a cage with 1-inch square openings. Easy to see through but not to shoot through. I adjusted my camera’s setting to get the widest possible aperture out the telephoto lens mounted on it.

When the tamarins climbed the mesh closest to me, it was impossible to eliminate the cage visually. It was when they moved away by 3- to 4- feet I could get a clearer shot. A fence kept me from getting right up against the cage, but by leaning close I was able to get about a foot away. Even though I wasn’t in the cage with the tamarins, just by using some simple photographic principles I was able to get a clear shot as if I were.

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One is the loneliest number

When I shot Danyel LeDon, 23, and her 6-year-old brother, Michael Tabangcura, having a water balloon fight at Victory Park, only one of the balloons actually exploded. All the others either missed their mark or, if they did find their target, they just bounced off and popped harmlessly on the ground. But I did get a shot of the one that did explode on contact, and sometimes one is all you need.

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Dishing the dirt

Fearing that I might get dirty, I wore jeans to the Copper Trails horseback rides in Copperopolis. Those fears were unfounded, I only got a little dust on my shoes. After that assignment was done and I got back to the office, Record photo editor Craig Sanders gave me another assignment for a hearing at the county courthouse in downtown Stockton. Not wanting to appear in court wearing jeans, I changed into a pair of extra slacks I had at work.

After the court assignment I cruised around looking for an enterprise feature and found Danyel LeDon, 23, and her 6-year-old brother, Michael Tabangcura, having a water balloon fight at Victory Park in Stockton. During their playful battle the park’s lawn sprinklers came on unexpectedly and Tabangcura made a mad dash through the cooling spray. While the spray mostly missed me, it splattered at the loose dirt at my feet and mud splashed the lower legs of my pants.

Though I didn’t expect to stay clean out in the country, I actually got dirtier when I got back to the city.

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Horsing around

One of my favorite books as a small child was Cowboy Andy by Edna Walker Chandler. Published in 1959, it told the story of young Andy, a city boy who, like me as a child, liked to watch westerns on TV (my favorite was Bonzana).  Andy gets a taste of life on a real working ranch and learns to rope and ride. Although I grew up in small farming community, like Andy, I didn’t know anything about cowboys or riding horses, and all I knew about being a cowboy came from Adam, Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright.

The first time I was ever on a horse was vacationing with my family at Lake Tahoe when I was around 5 or 6 years old. The only other time was on one of those dime store mechanical pony rides. If I remember correctly, the ride on the real horse was at the Ponderosa Ranch of Bonanza TV fame. My brothers and I, as well as other first-timers, followed a guide on a dusty trail through the forested ranch, though the horses were so trained and docile that they could have walked the trail on their own.

Though I didn’t have a cowboy hat or six-shooter at my side, I imagined being one of the Cartwright boys riding the range. That was up until the point where I couldn’t make my horse turn. The guide had to trot back to where I was and gently nudge my steed to get back with the program. It was then that my dreams of being one of the Cartwrights — or even Cowboy Andy —  faded away.

A few weeks ago, reporter Reed Fujii and I had an assignment on the Copper Valley Trails Company in Copperopolis. The business offers guided trail rides though the scenic foothill ranches surrounding Copperopolis. In the Town Square, we were met by owner Mike Toberer, who took us to a nearby corral to mount our awaiting steeds. Toberer’s 5-year-old daughter, Gracie, tagged along on her own horse.

I got on my horse a bit gingerly but tried to look like an old hand. Reed was set up with a mule. You’d think that with the  mule’s reputation for stubbornness, Reed was in for trouble, but Toberer said that a good saddle mule not only cost less than a horse but was easier to train and ride.  He gave us a few pointers on how to sit and steer our mounts, and then we were off. Like the horses when I was little, our rides were very tame, and they pretty much new the trails by heart. Remembering my last experience, I tried to nonchalantly hide any nervousness I might have had.

Toberer complimented Reed on how well he rode. Me? Well, not so much. He put it off on the amount of equipment I was carrying. It was an easy ride, but my only problem, other than trying not to be shown up by a 5-year-old, was that every time I held up my camera to take a picture, I would slacken the reins and my horse would stop to feed on some dried grass along the trail. Perhaps he sensed my trepidation and took advantage of a greenhorn in the saddle to grab a snack or two on our trip.

After about an hour, we ended up back at the corral, none the worse for wear. I was just a bit saddle sore, but the successful ride rekindled my dreams of living a cowboy’s life — if only for a little while.

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The Bowler lives!

The 1999 movie “Mystery Men” tells of the story of a group of loser amateur superheroes who overcome their ineptitude to win the day. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) uses a shovel and small hand trowels as weapons. Speaking in an effete British accent, the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) throws spoons and forks with unerring accuracy. Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) uses his anger to motivate him, sort of like the Hulk but without the super strength. The power of the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) is, as his name suggests, to turn invisible, but only if no one is looking at him. The Spleen’s (Paul Rubens) power is that of extra-potent, unconsciousness-inducing flatulence.

My favorite character is the scene-stealing Bowler (Janeane Garafolo). She carries with her a clear bowling ball with her dead father’s skull and spirit encased within. With tremendous force the ball flies through the air bludgeoning all in its path and then flies back to her after hitting its target. It’s a kick watching her have a dysfunctional, one-sided “discussion” with her dad.

In the end the Bowler throws the ball into villain Casanova Frankenstein’s (Geoffrey Rush) deadly machine, which is set to destroy the fictional Champion City. The ball does its job but is seemingly destroyed in the process.

But was it? I was recently in the Bowling Outfitters pro shop at the Pacific Avenue Bowl in Stockton, and there among the used bowling balls for sale was a clear ball with a skull at its heart. Hmmmm.

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Wait for it…

Patience is a virtue in photography. To get the best picture out of situation, sometimes you need to wait for the optimal weather conditions or the perfect light. In newspaper work one doesn’t always have the luxury of time, but when you can, waiting can yield the best photo possibilities.

When I went camping with my son’s Boy Scout patrol at Gerle Creek in the Eldorado National Forest, I woke up before most of the boys, so I did a little exploring around the campgrounds. Dappled light filtered through the tall pine trees when I found a tiny sapling struggling to grow out of a crack in a boulder. It was a symbol of the tenacity of Mother Nature to survive even in the harshest conditions. I had a great subject, a clean background, and a strong diagonal composition of the crack going from corner to corner of the frame.

The problem was that the light was all wrong. It was in the shadows, and the light was flat and featureless. What’s worse, I had missed some good light. A ray of sunshine had already passed that spot by a few minutes. It may seem like conditions in nature are pretty static, changing only with the seasons, but there are things that are always moving.

Although I had missed one opportunity for some good light, like a bus, another one was coming. As the sun slowly tracked across the sky, the spots of light on the ground moved accordingly, as well. I could see one shaft of light inching its way toward the small treelet. I sat there and waited for the light to come. Several minutes later it looked like a narrow spotlight was trained on the scene. There was even a great shadow created by the light that added to the composition. It was as if I had planned it that way. In a way, just by waiting patiently, I had.

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Getting back to nature

The Boy Scout overnight camping trip to Gerle Creek campgrounds just east of Pollack Pines in El Dorado County that my son Christopher and I went on was just an overnighter. It was considered “car” camping and was at an organized campground with no hiking involved. Though we were in small tents, our vehicles were parked nearby. The trip only involved only two patrols, eight scouts, from the whole troop. Still, it was nice to take in the splendors of Mother Nature and to get away from the daily grind of work.

We left early on a Saturday morning for about a 2-1/2 hour drive to the campgrounds and got there around 11:00 a.m. or so. The surrounding forest were filled with douglas firs, incense cedars and others the air was perfumed with their piney scent. Birds, chipmunks and squirrels flitted through the campground only slightly wary of us, looking for a tasty morsel to eat. A short drive to nearby Loon Lake provided some fishing for the scouts (through unfortunately, not much catching).

It was 10 to15 degrees cooler than the valley, still it was warm enough for one brave scout to sleep under the stars in only a hammock.

The philosophy of the troop is to have it boy led, in other words, with some adult supervision, the boys get to plan events, including camping trips, do the cooking and cleaning, etc. All the adults have to do is to provide transportation and a little oversight. Prior to this trip, the boys planned the meals and bought the food. Once we were at the campsite, they divvied up the cooking and cleaning duties, all without complaint and without being prompted by an adult. The four adults (three dads and one assistant scout master) just had to sit back and enjoy the ride.

After breakfast on Sunday morning we packed up our tents and the boys did a final “sweep” of the camp for any trash left on the ground. We then loaded up our vehicles and left the cool mountain air for the heat of the Valley. It was a short trip, but a refreshing one nonetheless.

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Starry, starry night

“Starry, starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day,

With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winter chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.” – Vincent by Don McLean

What a difference a night makes. As in urban areas, shooting at night can transform natural landscapes. But instead of the glow of bright city lights, Mother Nature is the one providing the light show. But to take full advantage of it, one has to head towards the hills to avoid the smoggy haze and light pollution of the valley.

My 12-year-old son Christopher and I went on an overnight camping trip to Gerle Creek with his Boy Scout patrol. It’s east of Pollack Pines in the Eldorado National Forest. During the day the scenery at the campground was wonderful to be sure, with tall pines and rocky peaks, but I wanted to get some night shots to find a different kind of beauty. At the end of the day after everyone turned in for the night, that was the time for me to go to work. Christopher tagged along and braved the darkness with me. We headed down to the reservoir to get away from the lights of the dwindling campfires.

Unfortunately a bright half-moon was rising and threatened to wash out the subtle shadings of the sky and stars. But it was still low on the horizon, just peeking over the tree tops, so I had to work fast, before the moon reached its peak in the sky.

At an elevation of about 5,300 feet, the view of the stars were crystal clear. It looked like we were standing at the edge space itself. It seemed as if you could reach out and touch them. Looking up, Christopher showed me where Orion’s belt was and I pointed out the Big Dipper to him. The air was still and the water of the creek reflected the sky like a mirror. Armed with my camera, a tripod and a cable release, I set my gear up at the water’s edge. Using 30-second time-exposures I fired off several frames and then let Christopher press the shutter button. We moved around the lake’s rim and shot from several different locations.

The rising moon provided some fill light and illuminated the trees, but as it climbed higher in the sky it started to wash out the smaller stars and I knew the best time for pictures was growing short. After about an hour or so Christopher’s yawns told me it was time to call it a night. We made our way back through the darkness, past the campfires and to our tents where we nestled in our sleeping bags content in our terrestrial trip through space.

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Blast from the past: Playing chicken

Photoshop manipulation of news photos is strictly forbidden. But with photo illustrations, which are considered to be akin to drawings or paintings, more artistic license is allowed. They’re typically used in the features sections of papers (such as The LENS section in The Record). Such pictures should be always labeled “photo illustrations.”

In January 2008 I shot a photo illustration to go along with a story on how to carve a chicken. The story followed Yosemite Meat Market owner George Lucas on the proper way to cut up a whole chicken. I got step-by-step photos of Lucas in action, but I was wondering how to do a different, more playful photo to help bring readers into the story.

I came up with an idea of chain sawing a giant roasted chicken. It was a simple matter of shooting a supermarket rotisserie chicken in the Record’s studio, and having another shot of someone pose with a chainsaw and then putting the two shots together. Record Photo Editor Craig Sanders brought his own chainsaw for the shoot and thus became my model. We had a hard hat and some rubber boots lying around the office to complete his ensemble. It became just a matter of copying and pasting the two photos together in Photoshop.

I noticed something in the Relish Magazine insert in the Aug. 4 edition of the paper. On the back was an advertisement for Pam non-stick spray that took up the entire rear cover. It was of a woman standing on a barbecue grill (whether she was supposed to be miniature or the grill was supposed to be giant I’m not sure), using a chainsaw in an attempt to saw off cooked chicken that was seared onto the grill. It immediately reminded me of my shot. I’m pretty sure that the similarities are just coincidental, but maybe I should be calling them about royalties.

Posted in Blast from the past, Illustration, Studio | 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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