A cold wind that blows

This time of year brings the Sac-Joaquin Section track championships, and with it warmer weather to the Central Valley. In years past I have sweated along with the athletes as I photographed them competing in the meet under temperatures in the 80s or 90s. Last week the track meet came to Hughes Stadium in Sacramento as it usually does, but the weather was anything but normal.

Thursday’s preliminaries were under near normal temperatures, which felt to be in the 70s or so. The sun was out on a nearly cloudless day and proved to be very comfortable.  Cloudier, windier and colder, Friday’s finals proved to be a different story.

It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but it jumped in and out of the passing clouds, which grew darker and more ominous as the day wore on. The field athletes had it better with their events running earlier in the afternoon. Just the girls long jump, boys pole vault and boys shot put ran long.

In the past with sweat trickling down my back and off my brow, I would eagerly await the the track events, which occurred in the cooler evening hours for some relief. Friday evening, the wind picked up and dark storm clouds blew in from the west. I could see rain falling from the clouds as they approached. I ran back to my car to get a light jacket hoping that I wouldn’t need it to fight off the rain. Though a few drops were felt, fortunately the clouds parted and skirted around the horseshoe-shaped stadium to both the north and south.

As soon as the sun got low enough to cast the stadium wall’s shadows onto the field, the temperature dropped even further. Spectators and athletes bundled up the best they could, though most were prepared only for a typical Valley spring day. The cooler weather was probably a boon for the long-distance runners, keeping them from overheating, but it looked tough for the others. They wore sweats to keep warm right up until the last second before their events.

The last event I had to shoot was the girls 100 meters. The thin fabric of my jacket was no longer doing its job, transferring the outside cold to my body. The race ended just about the time the sun sank below the horizon, and I high-tailed it out of there.

This week I’m scheduled to shoot the Sac-Joaquin Masters track meet, again at Hughes Stadium. Both Thursday and Friday are forecasted for more rain.

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Full tilt

Sometimes it can be a pain to get a tripod set up just right. With variances in the ground, getting it level can take some time. Tripod heads are designed to move on a couple different axes to compensate for whatever variances the ground contains. Most have at least two levers for adjustment for tilting fore-to-aft and left-to-right. Some even have bubble levels built in to help keep the camera on an even keel. A cheap head costs from $50 to $150. A good one can go for about $250-$500. A super fancy one can cost from $1,000 to $2,000. But they all have one thing in common: You have to make the adjustments yourself.

Acadalus is a company that has developed a motorized tripod head that automatically levels the camera. Just plug it into a wall socket, press a button and, voila! Your camera is level. Now before you go running out to buy one, there’s just one thing that may stop you: it costs $5,000. And if you want use it in the field, you’ll need to buy a special battery that costs another $500.

It’s an amazing technological feat, and it must be pretty cool to watch the head go through its motions, but for $5K, I think I can spend the time to adjust the tripod myself.

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Towel Day

Tuesday is Towel Day, an international celebration of the works of author Douglas Adams. First held in 2001 after Adams’ death, it refers to a passage in his popular science fiction novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it, if it still seems to be clean enough.”

May 25th may be Towel Day for Adam’s fans, but for me, everyday is Towel Day.

Occasionally I’m asked what’s the most useful piece of equipment that I carry with me on the job. Is it a particular lens or flash or some other photographic gizmo? Nope. It’s a towel. It’s the one most essential and versatile things in my camera bag. I carry a couple of small, white terry cloth towels in my bag at all times. As Douglas Adams says, a towel is truly a “massively useful thing.” They take up very little room in my bag. I fold them up and place them at the bottom to help cushion my camera against any jostling that I may put the bag through.

I’ve used them as little pads while kneeling, cleaned the windshield of my car and wiped off my muddy shoes with them. I’ve used them to wipe off dust or raindrops on my camera or lenses (though not after doing my shoes or windshield). They can be used in a pinch as a bounce card to help fill in the shadows while shooting a portrait. I’ve even used one to shade my head on a sunny day when I’ve forgotten a hat or to wipe sweat from my brow.

Towels may not be the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (which of course, is 42), but they’re among the a handiest things in my camera bag.

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Triple play

With the variances between different equipment and the timing of individual photographers, it’s rare that two photographers covering a sporting event will capture the same play at or near the exact same moment. Capturing a decisive moment at the same time is even rarer.

Last week I covered a varsity baseball game between Lodi High and Lincoln at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi. Dan Evans, chief photographer with the Lodi News Sentinel, was there as well. We were both situated near the Lodi dugout on the first-base side.

In first inning, Lincoln pitcher Josh Rodriguez threw a wild pitch. Lodi’s Ken Ruffin Jr., who was on third base, dashed toward home plate as the catcher ran back to the backstop to retrieve the ball. Rodriguez also ran to the plate to cover the base and collided with Ruffin in a cloud of dust created by Ruffin’s slide.

I held down the shutter button for little more than a 1/2-second burst and captured five frames of the play. I knew I had a good one, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one. Evans’ shot, which ran in the News Sentinel the next day, was just a fraction of a second different than mine (as my Nikon D300 shoots at 8-frames-a-second, it was 1/8th of a second to be more precise). In fact I had another shot (above) in the sequence that was almost identical but opted for one where I could see Rodriguez’ face a little more clearly.

Two days later I shot another game between Lincoln and Lodi, only this time in Stockton. Ruffin’s father, Ken Ruffin Sr., introduced himself to me and he remarked about the similarities between the two shots. Then he said that he had also been photographing that game and got a shot that was nearly identical to both Evans’ and mine. So it turns out that a rare photographic double play turned out to be an even rarer triple.

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The moon in your eyes

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, That’s amore”

- That’s Amore by Harry Warren and Jack Brooks

The Stockton-based band Latin Magic played at the South San Joaquin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Cinco De Mayo celebration in Manteca. As they performed their Latin-tinged rock and soul, band leader Pete Castanon played the conga drums near the front of the stage.

Under a shade tent, he and the band kept cool in the tent’s shadow, but his drums were in the direct sunlight. As Castanon continued to play, he turned his head just so, and from my position about 15 feet away, it looked like there were two crescent moons reflected in his dark sunglasses. I fired off a quick two frames, then he turned his head again and the reflection was gone.

When I got back to the office and enlarged the photo I saw that the moons were actually the drum heads reflected in his shades with his hand making the crescent shape.

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Spin cycle

“Dizzy, I’m so dizzy my head is spinning
Like a whirlpool it never ends
And it’s you girl makin’ it spin
You’re making me dizzy” – Dizzy by Tommy Roe and Freddy Weller

When I was about 10 or 11, I spent a summer at my Aunt Setsuko and Uncle’s Sumio’s home in Irvine in Southern California.  Not far from Anaheim, we, of course, had to go to Disneyland.

I remember my cousin, Robin, taking me on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party ride. The attraction features several giant teacups that spin on a large turntable. Each teacup also spins on its own as those in the ride turn a wheel at the center of each cup. Turn the wheel faster, and the cup spins more quickly.

Despite Robin’s warnings, I insisted on turing the wheel as fast as it would go. The dizzy feeling was intoxicating. I was giddy with laughter. All too soon for me, our turn was over, but, at my urging, we got back in line and on the ride as soon as we could. Again, I spun the wheel as hard as I could, only this time the outcome was different. Today, Robin says that she looked across the teacup that day and swears my face was a shade of pale green. We got off and I almost immediately lost my lunch. I remember being sick for the rest of the day. I don’t remember Robin telling me “I told you so” back then, but she doesn’t hesitate to tell me now.

Last week, I covered the South San Joaquin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Cinco De Mayo celebration at Promenade Shops in Manteca. Among the crafts and vendor booths were some small carnival rides. Among them was a small version of the Disney tea cups. I saw 12-year-old Alex Ortiz of Manteca hand the ride operator a ticket and climb into one of the teacups. He was a bit too big for the ride, which was designed for smaller kids, but he had a plan. When it started up, he furiously turned the wheel as hard as he could. Faster and faster he spun until he was just a whirling blur. The ride ended, and I could see his eyes spinning in his head. He soon recovered and was handing the operator another ticket to ride again.

Once more Ortiz turned the wheel at an incredible pace and once more he became his own mini tornado. The ride ended again, and I expected the worst, but after a few minutes Ortiz shook his head and was ready for more. I saw him do this about 4 times before I had to leave, all with the same result. I don’t know how Ortiz was able withstand the ride’s forces, but I was little woozy from just watching him and from the flood of memories of that day in Disneyland.

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Barbed wire on a fence post at the Cook Land and Cattle Company in Farmington (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 55mm. Exposure: 1/250th sec. @ f/11. ISO: 200).

Sometimes texture can add to a compostition of a picture, and sometimes it can be the whole reason to take it. The key to shooting texture is to think about details. Most of us are attuned to think and see the overall picture. To see a picture of texture is to narrow your focus and pay attention to small elements of the whole. Sometimes there can be an aesthetically pleasing pattern to what you see, other times contrasting or conflicting textures may be the essence of the photo.

A horse’s mane at the Cook Land and Cattle Company in Farmington (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 150mm. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/11. ISO: 200).

Mud covers a horse’s hooves at the Cook Land and Cattle Company in Farmington (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 200mm. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/8. ISO: 200).

Getting in close is essential. Go ahead and take an overall or medium shot if you like, but then move in as close as your lens will allow. Look closely. Is the surface pebbled, flaky, grainy? Examine the patterns and see how the light plays on them. Move around to see how the composition changes as the angle of light does.

Dried mud on the ground at the Cook Land and Cattle Company in Farmington (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 55mm. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/11. ISO: 200).

To me the best photos of texture make visceral connections to the viewer. They make me want to reach out and feel what it’s like. To shoot them, you have to do a little change in thinking and concentrate on the details.

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Available lighting

Sometimes a studio food shot takes a lot of skill and equipment to set up. Some can take hours to position the lights just right to make the food look succulent and delicious. Some location shots can take just as long if not longer. Other times you just need to use the available light to its best advantage.

(Camera: iPhone. Lens: 3.8mm. Exposure: 1/15th sec. @ f.2.8. ISO: 122)

My wife, daughter and I recently went out to dinner at a little restaurant called Palermo Ristorante Italiano in Elk Grove. The food was very tasty, service and atmosphere were decent and it was all reasonably priced. There was even live Jazz when we were there on a Friday night. I wanted to take a photo to post on FaceBook to recommend the place to my friends, but I had left my camera bag at home (I know, I know, what’s the first rule of photography? Always have a camera). But I was able to borrow the camera of my wife’s iPhone.

In addition to some rapidly dwindling window light, each table was illuminated by a single small halogen light over head, which created a vague circle of warm light at the center. When my dinner came, Prawns Olivia (prawns sauteed in olive oil, wine, butter and garlic), I moved the plate to the edge of the circle of light closest to me, nearly outside of the spot entirely. The angle of light gave it an almost backlit appearance.  There was light falloff at the upper part of the circle which got the look of a background spot light to make the picture complete.

The dish looked warm, inviting and delectable. Had I left the plate at the center of the light, it would have appeared flat and a bit unappetizing. But moving it just about a foot or so used the light that was there to its best advantage.

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Getting wind of

The thing about wind is that you can’t actually photograph it, because it’s invisible. You can see its effects: flying dust, a scattering of leaves or someone’s hair being blown about.

(Camera: Nikon D300.Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 17mm. Exposure: 1/250th sec. @ f/11. ISO: 100)

It was really windy last week, and I was out looking for a wind shot at the Stockton Sailing Club at Buckley Cove in Stockton. Near the club’s river entrance, hundreds of California poppies were blowing wildly in the wind. Using a  slow shutter speed I was able to capture their frantic movements. I wanted something a little more.

(Camera: Nikon D300.Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 150mm. Exposure: 1/250th sec. @ f/8. ISO: 100)

I had noticed a little earlier that a bass boat with a couple of anglers was slowly trolling for some fish around the club’s dock area. So I waited for them to come out. It was a little easier said than done. The Delta winds not only buffeted the flowers, but me as well. All the flying dust and pollen kicked my allergies into high gear.

(Camera: Nikon D300.Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 17mm. Exposure: 1/250th sec. @ f/11. ISO: 100)

You may not be able to see the wind, but you can sure hear it. It whistled through the rigging of the moored sailboats. The ropes of the rigging trembled, vibrated and slapped against the boats’ metal masts. From a distance  the sound that was produced was almost musical. Close up it was a clattering, clanging cacophony of sound.

(Camera: Nikon D300.Lens: Nikkor 17-55mm @ 17mm. Exposure: 1/30th sec. @ f/22. ISO: 100)

It was about 10 to 15 minutes before the bass fishers made their way to my position, all the while being assaulted by the strong gusts. I may not have been able to perceive the wind visually, but it was more than enough for my other senses.

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In your own backyard

When I was in college, one of my advanced photo class assignments was to take a picture of or in my backyard. The lesson was to teach us to look beyond the ordinary. One can become inured to the things we see every day and take for granted the beauty in that which lies around us. Anyone can go to some exotic place and come back with a great shot. It takes more thought, effort and creativity to get an interesting photo that’s in a place where you experience your day-to-day life. The commonplace is worth celebrating as much as something that’s new and different.

About this time last year Popular Photography magazine published an article on what they deemed as the 30 most photo-friendly cities in the country. Denver, Colo., was picked No. 1 with San Francisco coming in second. It’s easy to take great pictures of such places. They all have beautiful scenery filled with great architecture and iconic landmarks. I’m not saying don’t travel, but if you don’t have the inclination or budget to do so, some great pictures can be made closer to home. Here are a few examples:

Architecture: True, Stockton doesn’t have a New York-like skyline (or even a San Franciscan one) but some interesting things can be found in its architecture. In the downtown area, modern buildings are right next to others that were built a century before and can make for an appealing contrast in forms.

People: The greatest photo asset that Stockton/San Joaquin County has is its people. I have found them overwhelmingly friendly and open. Rarely have I been turned down for a photo, and the majority of those rejections have been done so politely. Our region is ethnically diverse and rich in cultures and heritage. When they call America a melting pot, Stockton is the example they should cite.

Scenery: We’re in the heart of the Delta with its 1,000 miles of waterways where you can find scenery that stacks up against any in the world. The middle of the greatest agricultural land of the country, the Central Valley gets all kinds of weather – rain, wind and, of course, plenty of sunshine – that can make for great pictures.

Events/entertainment: From boat parades to the county fair to the mother of all events (the Asparagus Festival), Stockton has a plethora of activities to get some great photos.

Sports: We have professional sports (Thunder hockey, Ports baseball and Cougars soccer) played in some great facilities (the Stockton Arena and Banner Island Ballpark). If those aren’t enough, there’s the University of the Pacific and Delta College both with top notch sports programs. Then there are the many high school and youth sports programs too numerous to mention which can be just as fun to shoot as the higher level sports. All at a price that you can’t get in a big city.

So go ahead and travel. It broadens the mind and enriches the soul. But if you’re looking for some interesting pictures, you don’t have to look any farther than your own backyard.

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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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