Just the right moment

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just not satisfied with what is, but even when I come across what’s seemingly perfect, I wait for something better to come along. Often it doesn’t, but when it does, it can be well worth it.

It had been foggy most of the day when it burned off late one afternoon last week. I was looking unsuccessfully for a feature photo. The sun had settled just below the western horizon when I pulled up to the Port of Stockton’s turning basin. A ship was docked at the far end of the port as wisps of fog were just starting to re-form and waning rays of sunlight turned the light misty clouds a beautiful magenta/pink. Those hues as well as lights on the ship reflected serenely off the waters. I took several shots of the scene that would have good enough. I knew it wouldn’t last long: soon the colors would fade and night would overtake the port. But I waited for something more. The a small flock of geese flew in from the right. I waited until they were where I wanted them in the frame and then fired off a few frames. It was just a little something but added more visual interest to the picture. And for me, that made it worth the wait.

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A class act

There are horror stories about some sports stars. They’re arrogant, aloof, conceited and they give all athletes a bad name. True, they may be talented in the their chosen field of play, but they feel that they deserve the praise that they often get.  Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez, the boxing legend from Stockton, is NOT one of those people. Lopez, whose boxing career spanned the 1970s and ’80s, is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet; a class act.

On Friday, Lopez held a kickoff event for his new boxing gym Yaqui Lopez Fat City Boxing Club in Stockton. Friends and family filled up the facility to give their support. Soft-spoken and humble, Lopez is always quick to smile or playfully jibe with his friends. He greeted each and every one graciously with a sincere handshake and/or a heartfelt hug. Though I’ve photographed him a few times over the years, it’s been a long time since I last saw him. Yet he welcomed me warmly as if he had seen me just the day before.

Most boxing gyms that I’ve seen have been kind of dark and gritty. Not so Lopez’s gym. It was clean, orderly and very well lit. Very welcoming and classy, like the man himself. Ever mindful of his past, he pays tribute to the influential people in his life, family and trainers with a memorial in photos on a wall of the gym.

Lopez has been described as boxing’s greatest uncrowned champion. He had five light-heavyweight title fights, losing all. But he fought with such heart and courage and won the respect of his opponents and boxing fans alike.

Lopez plans to help at-risk youths learn the sweet science and get them off the streets at his new gym. The crowd that showed up to Lopez’s event, (which also included, Superior court judge Anthony Lucaccini, county supervisor Carlos Villapudua and Fat City author Leonard Gardner as well as friends and family) came not just to support the boxer that he was but more the class act that he is.

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Hoops and hollar

I’ve been working the night shift lately, and that means shooting a lot of sporting events. Mostly Stockton Thunder hockey and basketball – a lot of basketball. I’ve shot several UOP (men’s and women’s) and Delta College (men’s and women’s) hoops along with countless prep games (boys and girls). Some were close games, others were blowouts. It can get a little creatively wearying at times shooting so much of the same thing.  Tuesday night I covered yet more basketball, but it was like no other game I’ve shot before.

The clown princes of basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters, came to joke, entertain and shoot a few hoops at the Stockton Arena.

As a kid, I’ve seen them play many times on TV, but this was the first time I’ve seen them in person. In my day, “Meadowlark” Lemon and “Curly” Neal were the stars, with Lemon as the clowning ringleader and Neal as the supreme ball-handling speedster. At the arena there were two dribbling virtuosos. At one point “Ant” Atkinson lay on the floor and spun around like a clock while dribbling the ball. “Flight Time” Lang dribbled while on his knees, vexing the Washington Generals defenders who were chasing him.

The star and main instigator of the comic mayhem was “Special K” Daley, who joked and cajoled with nearly everyone on the court (and some who weren’t). The only ‘Trotter who was mic-ed (Washington General coach and appointed bad guy Reggie Harrison had one, too), Daley mocked one the General’s looks as he pointed at him and said “I hope you get that plastic surgery.” And to a shorter opponent he said: “Look at the little baby. A baby with a grown man’s head.”

Some things never change, and sometimes that can be a good thing. The Globetrotters’ show was filled with jokes and skits that the team has done probably thousands of times over the 84 years of its existence. They probably could do the act in their sleep, but they didn’t. They put on a good show. It was all done with enthusiasm and looked like they here having as much fun as the audience.

You’d think that children, having limited experience with the Globetrotters, would be the ones who had the most fun (which they did) but laughter was had by both young and old. Even when I knew what was coming, I, too, ended up chuckling.

Many of the shenanigans that the ‘Trotters pulled were tried and true skits that I remember watching as a kid. The stuffing of the basketball under an opponent’s shirt, the rubberband basketball, and, of course, the always-classic water/confetti bucket scenario.

It was like watching legendary comedians the late Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. They would rely on much of the same old material over the years, but it became part of their appeal, and audiences loved them for it. People would be disappointed if they went home without hearing Youngman’s “Take my wife, please” or Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” lines.

The players were all professional-level athletes with incredible shooting and ball-handling skills and in between the antics some fairly decent basketball was played, not that anyone noticed. They were too busy laughing and having fun. The Globetrotters may have been doing their show for decades, but last Tuesday night they showed why there were a perfect example of doing the same thing over and over again yet keeping it fresh every time.

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“God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December.” – J. M. Barrie

“All the leaves are brown
and the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk
on a winter’s day…”

California Dreamin’John and Michelle Phillips

Even in sunny California when you’re caught in the cold, gray grip of Ol’ Man Winter the hope of sunshine can sometimes seem like a far off dream. True, it’s not as bad as say Bemidji, Minn., but when we can go days, sometimes weeks without seeing the sun that we’re so famous for, it can drive you stir crazy.

Winter is the time of dormancy. Most plants and flowers shut down. They wither and lose color as they wait for the spring so they can bloom and grow anew. Winter’s cold, gray, drizzly weather tends to deter most of us from picture taking. People usually stay in when it’s like this, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t photos to be made.

In springtime the rose garden at Victory Park in Stockton is awash in color. Roses of every imaginable shade bloom, and the garden is full of life and visual energy. In winter the tone is more somber and the hues are more subdued, but it can be beautiful nonetheless. Overcast skies help to contribute to that mood. The dull, flat lighting may preclude overall scenics, but getting in close and shooting details can reward you with some great shots. And, although most of the blossoms may be gone, the leaves of the plants themselves can be a source of beauty.

Waiting for the warmth of the sun to take pictures may be fruitful and hold some physical and psychological benefits, but with a little diligence one can find that looking for pictures on a chilly, damp day can hold its own photographic rewards. Winter’s misty fog can leave water drops that cling to the leaves and bead up like tiny jewels. A lens with macro (close-up) capabilities will help, but many cameras and lenses can get you in pretty close.

The decreased light forces photographers to use a wider lens openings which translates to less depth of field. That means you’ll have to be more precise with your focusing, but with a little perseverance, it will make your subjects on stand out from the background even more.

Move around so that you can get the best angle to get the drops to catch the light and pop out. Pictures may not leap out at you as on a bright, sunny day, but with a little patience — and keeping an open eye — you can find something worthwhile.

So while the vibrancy of spring may be a distant memory or a only longed-for hope this time of year, beauty still can be found in the cold and wet days of winter.

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Quality vs quantity

I know go on and on about not having enough light at sporting events. I moan and groan about inadequate lighting at area stadiums and gymnasiums ad nauseam.  True, it’s nice to have a lot of light to shoot with for higher shutter speeds to stop the action, or smaller apertures for more depth of field or lower ISOs for pictures with less noise. Why, then, would I want to shoot a game with less light? Sometimes it’s not a question of how much light, but the quality of that light.

Last November, I shot the Sac-Joaquin Section boys soccer playoff game between Edison High at St. Mary’s in Stockton. It was about 4 in the afternoon, and the sky was heavily clouded, nearly to the point of being overcast. My exposures were less than they would have been on a sunny day, but there was still enough light to shoot without raising the camera’s light sensitivity to a great extent.

The quality of the light was quite nice. The harsh shadows of a bright direct sun were gone. The range between light and dark was very narrow. The lighting was very even. It was almost like I was using a gigantic sky-sized softbox over an equally large studio flash to illuminate the field.

So when it comes to light, sometimes it’s less about how much of it you have than it is about how good it is.

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Face value

Like most kids, my children participate in various sports, soccer mostly. And, like most parents, I dutifully take pictures of my kids playing in those games. They, however, think I make them look “funny” when I capture their images as they screw up their faces when they exert themselves as they play.

Part of photographing peak action in sports photography is not just getting that spectacular grab or hit or leap at the precise moment, but also capturing the facial expression of the athlete. The pain of a hard hit in football, the joy of hitting a cross-court shot in tennis or the agony of missing the winning soccer goal can be all shown on an athlete’s face. A grimace or scowl can convey the power and the emotional content of their effort.  Their concentration as they get into “the zone” and put everything except for the task at hand out of their minds can be reflected in their faces (as Yogi Berra said of baseball: “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental”).

Football is a little harder to photograph as far as facial expressions go. The helmets often block the view of most of the athletes’ faces. But sometimes just a glimpse of the players’ eyes through the facemask is all you need to convey the intensity of the action. But for most other sports – soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc.- people give their supreme effort while playing them, and their emotions and commitment to their sports etched are on their faces.

While most athletes wear their ferocity on their faces, a few others seem to be unflappable. They seem to approach the toughest of situations in their respective sports with the calmness of taking a leisurely stroll but to me those photos are uninteresting. Much more interesting are shots like Michael Jordan with his tongue hanging out or Muhammad Ali snarling over a downed Sonny Liston. Action and expression go together to make a complete sports photo.

Facial intensity extends through all levels of sport from professionals to kids’ leagues. From men and women to boys and girls, as long as there are people giving their all in the games they play, it will always show on their faces.

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Come out swinging

Fighting is a part of hockey and that’s a reason that many people go the games. At Wednesday night’s Thunder game against the Bakersfield Condors at the Stockton Arena, those fans got what they wanted right from the outset. Two seconds into the game a fight broke out between the Thunder’s Garet Hunt and the Condors’ Pascal Morency

Not expecting anything to happen at the very beginning of the game – it usually takes a few minutes for the action to get going at the start of the game – I was casually walking toward my shooting position on the concourse level of the arena when I heard the roar of the crowd. The fight happened so quickly I almost wasn’t ready for it. Fortunately Hunt and Morency danced around each other looking for an opening to throw their first punches. I quickly changed lenses and adjusted my camera’s settings, then began shooting from where I stood. After about a minute or so of the two slugging it out, the players collapsed to the ice and the refs stepped in and stopped the fight. Perhaps a fight so early in the game was due to some words the players must have exchanged before the game started. I’m guessing those words weren’t along the lines of “good luck and have a good game tonight.”

If Hunt and Morency had a “pep talk” with each other before the game, then they weren’t the only ones. I only took a few steps as I continued to my shooting spot when the fans cheered again. Two seconds after the game had restarted there was another fight, this time between Stockton’s Jesse Gimblett and Bakersfield’s Erick Lizon.  As in the previous fight, a furious flurry of punches were thrown and then some grappling, a fall to the ice and then refs ended it

Two fights within the first four seconds of the game might be a record in some parts, but not here. No, that honor goes to quickdraw artist Hunt who went toe-to-toe with Alaska Aces’ Chris Morehouse only ONE second after the start of a game at the Arena on Nov. 6, 2009 (on a “Thunder Goes Pink” night no less!).

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Little inspirations

The first unofficial rule of photography (coined by my college photography instructors Dick Fleming and the late Andy Delucia) is: “Always have a camera”. You never know when or where inspiration will strike you. Even when I’m on assignment, I’ll be attracted to something that isn’t part of why I’m there. It’s fortunate that it’s my job to have a camera with me so that I’m nearly always prepared.

A few months ago I had an assignment to shoot the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Costco warehouse to be built in Lodi. Now, things like groundbreakings and check passings tend to be anathemas to most photographers – “grip and grins” we call them – and usually don’t produce much in a way of a creative outlet. The Costco event was rather low-key for an event like this, an open, dirt lot, a couple of pieces of heavy equipment, and a handful of local dignitaries.

A small pop-up tent was set up for shade in the late afternoon. Tied to one of its legs was a pair of balloons. The low angle of the sunlight cast their shadows against a nearby corrugated steel storage shed.  It was a study in contrasts. The round shapes of the balloons against the rigid pattern of vertical lines of the shed’s walls as well as the bright purple and yellow of the balloons countering the wall’s uniformed grayness. It was just a little thing, something one could just pass by without even noticing, but for me it was worth taking a picture.

Photography is a job like any other, if you do it a lot, it can be hard to find something new and inventive. But keeping an open mind and an eye out for the unusual, no matter how small, can help to keep things fresh.

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The white trees

Sometimes the correct exposure isn’t the necessarily right one. I had an assignment to shoot a portrait of former NFL football player Eric Williams at the class of 1980 St. Mary’s High School reunion in the banquet room of the Woodbridge Golf and Country Club on a recent evening. When I arrived, Williams wasn’t there yet, so I had some extra time on my hands. Though it was chilly night, I took a short stroll outside. A half moon hovered in the dark night sky. A little way from the clubhouse was the first green of the middle course. Two bright white floodlights mounted on the roof of the building shone out and were focused on a pair of trees on the far edge of the green. Their illumination caused them to stand out from the surrounding darkness.

We take it for granted, but the human eye has the ability to see a tremendous range of tones from dark to light. I could see the trees as well-lit but of a normal tone and color and at the same time the darker trees farther back still held a little detail to my eyes. Also, I could also discern the night sky as well as detail in the bright half-moon.

Digital camera sensors (and to a somewhat lesser extent film) don’t have that kind of range. In extreme lighting conditions, one has to pick and choose what to expose for. Shoot for the highlights and then the shadows will fall into detail-less darkness. Expose for the shadows and the highlights will be blasted out. There’s some post-production tweaking you can do to the photo to help bring these values a little closer together, but those are pretty much your choices (there’s now High Dynamic Range – or HDR – photography, but that requires taking several different exposures of the same scene and melding them together using special software).

The scene intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. I exposed for the tree, and sure enough I had two well-exposed trees swimming in a sea of inky black. Then I decided to shoot for the surrounding darkness. That required using a long exposure, longer than I could hand-hold steadily. I braced atop a nearby 5-foot-tall wooden pole and used a shutter speed of 1/2-second. I viewed the photo on the camera’s monitor, and liked what I saw. Shooting the moon normally takes just a regular daylight exposure, so any night shot that includes detail in land and sky causes our nearest celestial neighbor to become grossly over exposed. And that over exposure caused the half moon become a large brilliantly glowing orb, devoid of any detail.

The dark tree line farther back lost all detail and was silhouetted against the sky, which had a few wispy clouds and some twinkling stars in its vast grayness. The bright white spot lights bleached all color from the two closer trees. They weren’t quite as overexposed as the moon, but there was very little detail and no color at all in them.

In trying to capture the entire scene, the moon and the trees may have been way overexposed, but they gave the picture an eerily haunting quality that would have been lost had they been “correctly” exposed.

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Same, same

I shot an accident a few days ago that had a bit of a different twist. On California Street near Sixth street in south Stockton, an Infiniti M45 luxury sedan (Infiniti’s top of the line) hit head-on with …an Infiniti M45.

It’s the first time I’ve shot a two-car crash where both the vehicles were the same. They were even almost the same color. The south-facing car was navy blue, while the one pointed in a northwesterly direction was more of a royal blue. The royal M45 was pretty much stock, while the navy car had aftermarket wheels and a rear wing, but other than those minor differences, the cars were identical.

The details of the accident were sketchy because, along with their cars, the drivers had something else in common — they both fled the scene on foot.

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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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