Thursday, December 26, 2013

Could You Repeat that Please?

I have to admit it; I’ve been very close to being taken in by the latest fad in photography.  I'm calling it a fad, but I just think it’s more of a contagion…a contagion of fancy talk.  Politicians can be known to do this when describing something quite ordinary but making it sound quite extraordinary.  This same practice has crept into our photography and utilizes subleties designed to differentiate the elitists from the more pedestrian (or “amateur”) photographers.  When someone asks if you shoot “raw”  or if your gear is "full frame”, they may really want to know, or they may be trying to send a message.  But if they ask whether you create photographs or simply shoot pictures, their question is dripping with superiority.

It is this esoteric distinction between "shooting pictures" and "creating photographs" that I’ve been noticing has crept into our vernacular.  I recently watched a video where a photographer was speaking in hushed and reverent tones as he referred to his craft of creating photographs…and he went on to say it was much more than simply taking pictures.  Really?  To me it sounded a bit self-aggrandizing?

In the simplest terms, you press the shutter to record the light entering the camera through the lens.  You’re recording that light either on film or on a digital sensor.  You then transfer that information by some method to another media that allows people to see what it is that you captured.  So what’s all the hub bub about this “making” versus “taking”, the “creating” versus the “capturing”?  Is it just the artistry of language or is it the “politics” of photography?

I have to admit I was nearly taken in by it all.  Shoot and shot, capture and take, I’d begun to accept that they’re simply too barbaric to describe the artistry that I bring to my photography.  I too should talk that way.  And maybe a fancy accent would add some mystique! But in reality, outside of photographers who use this language with each other, we must sound a little goofy when talking to “normal” people!

When we tell our friends we spent the afternoon making photographs, they probably conclude that we were either in a darkroom (if they know what that is), or that we were simply at Costco picking up prints!  If you say you were shooting pictures, capturing images, etc., they know we were out with the camera doing our thing.  And isn’t this what communications is all about—we say stuff so other people understand what we mean?  Of course photography is a craft, people get that.  It’s an artistic expression, and it’s our passion—people get that too.  Do we really need to load up the language with euphemistic phrases that try to elevate the importance of what we do, when all it really does is make our communication more ambiguous and less understandable? Photography is rich with possibilities and offers a beautiful way to “speak” about life and describe, persuade, and inspire…like a song with visual notes.

So in the interest of clarity, from now on, when I say I’m taking pictures, shooting pictures, and capturing images you should expect to find me with my camera in my hands.  And when I say I’m editing or processing images, you can expect to find me in front of my computer.  And if by some chance you catch me saying that I’m creating photographs, then please stop me and say "excuse me?".

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Manual Focus--With an Emphasis on "Manual"

I once heard that for someone considering buying a new camera, and unsure what brand to buy, the best advice given is to buy what your friends have.  There are a variety of reasons for that, but the two biggest are built in tech support and potential for equipment sharing and advice (a variation of tech support).

Enough can’t be said for having a circle of photography friends that you can rely on for help and for partnering when going out to shoot pictures.  It’s when these friends also have the same brand camera as you (or maybe even the same model) that you find how much knowledge and experience can be drawn from each other. 
A friend of mine just recently bought into a new brand, the same brand that I have, and he purchased the same model camera as well.  He wanted to get together right away so he could set his camera up with the same settings that I had settled on for my camera.  As anxious as I was to share what I knew get him up and running with his new camera, I strongly encouraged him to read the manual first, determine what settings he thought he should use, and THEN let’s get together and compare notes.
This approach has two obvious benefits… First, he learns about his own camera and doesn’t just blindly copy the same settings I’ve chosen.  But second, and this is a selfish reason, is that I recognize that I’m not the expert on everything (might not actually be an expert on anything), and by him reading the manual, he’d be in a position to point out things that I might not know.  Another saying I’ve heard that I really like is, “there is more I don’t know than I do know”….profound in its humility.
The payoff for this strategy was huge when this last weekend my friend made a casual observation about his camera.  He was using a very old lens that would still fit on the camera, but not take advantage of automatic focusing when he remarked that an indicator light came on when the subject was in focus.  At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and then coolest “aha moment” occurred.  The tip was this… when shooting with a lens in manual focus mode, one way (the most common way) that people determine if something is in focus is simply by looking at the scene and making a visual judgement.  My friend pointed out that if you hold the shutter half-way down when doing this, a small indicator light shows up to signal when the subject has come into focus…wow, that’s huge!  No more guessing based on visual observation!
Yes, I’ve gone back and looked and the manual, and this “tip” couldn’t be more obvious…it’s in the second paragraph on the page that discussing manual focus.  I’ve read my manual, but missed this—probably because I had modern lenses and expected that I’d be using auto focus most of the time.  I know though that there are probably many other things in my manual that I’ve missed.  Reading, and periodically re-reading operating manuals, especially for complicated instruments such as cameras can be an invaluable way to help ensure you know how to use your equipment and maximize its capabilities and features.
And surrounding yourself with photography friends who like to learn and like to share is a wonderful habit to be in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Indoor Concert Photography--Game On!

One of the more flattering requests I’ve received was one recently from my own son whose band was preparing for a show at a local joint.  The request wasn’t just to attend, which was certainly the invitation, but it was with the additional request to bring my camera and take pictures.  In fact, my son said his band members had requested that I bring my camera…flattering, for sure.

No, they don’t follow my blog, nor my photostream, nor my website gallery—they don’t really know what my photography looks like, but they do know I take pictures because I’ve taken pictures of them before when they’ve been practicing around the house They were confident they’d get better pictures than what their friends had been shooting on the cell phone cameras at other their other performances—and that confidence hooked me.

You’d think I’d been given the assignment to shoot the Beatles, or maybe someone a bit more contemporary, but still famous, as I was nervous and excited about the challenge of meeting the expectations the band now placed into my hands.  I’d never been to the venue before, so I had my son describe how it was set up, and in particular, what my range of motion would be and what proximities I’d have to the band, the audience, the mixer, etc…   Folks, I’m sorry to say this was the limit and extent of my venue planning.  Sure, on a “real” assignment, I’d go down there, test angles, test lighting, etc…but hey, this was for fun, so cutting corners seemed reasonable!

I made several decisions ahead of time regarding gear.  First of all, I was not going to take a flash.  I like existing light photography, and I didn’t want to be drawing attention to myself with a flash going off every 2 seconds.  Second, I was going to take a single lens, my 18-200mm.  Lazy choice, maybe, but I knew that it would give me the full range of coverage that I anticipated I would want, plus I didn’t want to be fooling around with carrying extra gear and changing lenses—I was going into an unknown situation and wanted to minimize the variables.  The only drawback to this decision was that the 18-200 is not particularly fast, having a range of 3.5-5.6.  My plan to make up for this lack of speed of course was to crank up the ISO, the third leg of the exposure triangle.  I was willing to accept the grain that comes along with a high ISO in exchange for reasonably sharp images that a faster shutter speed would allow me to capture.  As they say, I’d rather have a grainy image than a blurry one. 

So my plan was set.  And you know what?  My plan worked as far as I was concerned, and based on the feedback I received from the band members (my ultimate “client” for the shoot), I’d say a resounding success.  I also learned a great deal about how I’d approach my next indoor concert assignment.  And this learning is what I would say is basic about any photo shoot you might plan if going to somewhere new.  Number one, find out as much as you can about the physical nature of where you’re going, whether that’s inside or outside.  Obviously if it’s a travel destination, you won’t be able to go there ahead of time, but you can research what others have done, and prepare yourself that way.  In terms of more local venues, if it’s important to get the images right, then go there ahead of time and scout things out.

Second, if you have the luxury of bringing more gear than you might need, either because you can carry it on you with a strap or bag, or if you can store it in a room or vehicles nearby, then do so.  Circumstance can change, and having the right gear with you gives you the change to adjust on the fly.  Gear back at home does you no good if you can’t get at it.

And lastly, if you’re doing the shoot for a “client” (as I was sort of), talk to them in detail, in advance to get a sense of what they envision as an end product.  They may not know angles, composition, or other technical aspects of what you do, but they will be able to convey the feelings, or end-use of the imagery that you’ll be creating.  This information will be invaluable to you while you’re in the middle of the creative process during your shoot.

My final take-away from this experience was feeling the exhilaration that comes from the challenge of putting oneself in a situation that’s not your norm.  It offered, or forced, a different kind of thinking, planning, and visualizing that invigorated my photography.

The full collection of images from this concert can be viewed on my website gallery at

And if you have comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you at

Friday, November 29, 2013

Get the Establishing Shot...It Might be Your Only One!!

It’s a lesson I learned early…and paranoia can be more helpful than optimism…

I was putting the trash out this morning and heard a bird calling from high up in our eucalyptus tree.  I had to walk around and up closer to the tree before I could see the bird making the sounds…finally, there it was, a hawk.

Naturally, I scurried into the house, grabbed the camera, switched to my Sigma 150-500, and while headed to the door switched to a single focus point so I didn’t have leaves or branches competing for “focus on ME!”…  I had my camera in shutter priority (my favorite mode), but hadn’t got to the point yet of checking what speed I was on.  My priority was, get outside, get the first shot, then adjust.

Slowly and quietly opened the front door.  Crept out under the eaves until I got out into the open (the eaves provided cover from the drizzle).  Got into the clear, saw the hawk in the frame, zoomed to 500, popped off a couple of exposures.  That’s when I noticed the shutter speed was down at 1/125.  I knew I’d need to get that up faster if I wanted to minimize the effects of camera shake, especially at such a long focal length.  Started to make the adjustment, and you guessed it, the hawk flew away.  I have the subsequent shot to show where the hawk went…too far to go after.

When shooting wildlife, and approaching a scene with promise, start getting some shots off early, even if the composition isn’t right, even if you’re not as close as you want…it might be your only chance for a shot.

Comments and feedback always welcome--

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Two Is Better Than One--Again!

It’s a familiar theme with me, and each time I experience the benefits, it more firmly imprints on my mind as a stronger preference—two is better than one when out on a photo shoot.

I recently had the pleasure of being contacted by a photographer from out of town who was planning to visit the area, and who had made my “acquaintance” via an online photo site and another photographer friend of mine that we share in common.  I had suggested that we meet a Crystal Cove for a late lunch and then an afternoon of photography.  You really can’t go wrong with this destination, and since my out of town guest had never been there, I knew it would be a hit.

For me though, I had anticipated it would much the same as the many times I’d been there before, beautiful, yes, but familiar.  I really should know better given the number of times I’ve gone out into my own back yard (literally) and found new things to make photographs of.  Of course I brought my camera, but my expectations weren’t high that there would be a lot of new things to see.  Of course I should have known better.

But this is where that “two is better than one” adage comes in.  Sure, on my own I could have immersed myself in the moment and no doubt found many new things to inspire image creations, but with another photographer friend, and one whom I’m never met or shot pictures with, this day would be special.  Not only did my new friend have a fresh set of eyes on what is now a very familiar place to me, but he also had a different point of view.  And more importantly than that, he verbalized what he was seeing and noticing, and being inspired by.  I was able to not only learn by watching him, but by listening to him.  It’s not a question about who is more experienced with visualizing and composition, or who has more command over the technical aspects of photography or camera gear; it’s simply a recognition that everyone is different, and each person has strengths not universally shared by others.

When I download my images and started going through them, it was a surprising feeling to see images that didn’t fit with my usual “style”.  There was almost a sense of disbelief that they were actually taken by me, not because they were necessarily award-winners, but they conveyed ideas and subject matter in a different way than I typically would.  On this day I learned a lot from my new friend, and in doing so, reaffirmed that two is in fact, better than one.
So take a friend out with you on your next photoshoot—you might be surprised what you’ll “see”!  (my email address is shown below…hint)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Would I Steer You Wrong?

This is not a story about a Texas Longhorn Steer… It could be, but it’s not.  If it was though, the story would be fairly short… Upon arriving in Texas for my week-long stay, I passed a field on my way from the airport to my destination.  In that field was a longhorn steer, right up against the fence.  The temptation was to pull over and take a picture, but I had just arrived and knew there would be hundreds more opportunities just like this.  After all, hey, this is Texas, right?  Well, you know the plot already… I spent the next week on my journeys looking for that steer to include as an image in my collection.  The more I wanted it, the more they made themselves scarce!  So on the last day…that’s how things seem to go…there, finally a steer-- a couple actually.  And so my collection was complete.

But that’s not what I want to share with you right now.  What I want to do is renew my advocation for a technique in photography referred to as HDR.  I’m just not seeing enough of my photo friends using this technique, and I think they should.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and describes the characteristic of a scene that include a wide range of lighting conditions from the darkest shadows, to the brightest whites.  We humans can appreciate challenging scenes like this because of our incredible ability to filter and adjust our concentration along with our eye’s ability to work with the brain to process what we’re looking at.  The camera on the other hand is not so adept at this.  The sensors in our cameras have a certain limited range of sensitivity and can only see a scene all at the same time, and all at once.  It has a difficult time deciding how to allow enough light for the details in the shadows and at the same time not allow too much light that the details of the highlights are blown out.  So the camera compromises by trying to average things out.  Sure there are tweaks you can make to favor the darks at the expense of the lights, or favor the lights at the expense of the darks, but you can’t have both at the same time.

Hence, HDR.  This is a camera technique where multiple photos are taken, each exposed differently in order to capture the details in the darkest areas (accomplished by over-exposing) as well as the details in the brightest areas (accomplished by under-exposing).  So once you have these multiple images (each by themselves are poor images), how do you work the magic to combine them and use the best parts of each?

That’s where one of my favorite HDR-dedicated programs comes in, Photomatix.  Yes, there are other software programs that do this too, either as a dedicated function like Photomatix, or as just  another feature along with other capabilities and features.  The key though is to have in your toolbox at least ONE of these programs to help you create the final HDR image.
Oh, but there’s controversy with HDR.  Yep…voice-raising, heart-pumping, dispute-clashing controversy.  Which program to use?  Nope, that’s not it…people have their favorites, but that discussion seldom turns hot.  The controversy centers on the final look of the HDR image.  Like any art form, the creation process of an HDR image contains a vast array of alternatives and variations that one must choose and decide upon.  You can create an image that looks so “normal” that the viewer can’t tell it’s an HDR image.  You can also create an image that looks so wild that the entire world can tell it’s an HDR image.  Is one good and one bad?  Ahhh, that’s where the controversy comes into play.  There are “purists” who think photography should still be on film and not digital.  There are those that may have adopted digital but think images should look “normal”, straight out of the camera, and not be over-processed (often times referred to derisively as “photoshopped”).   Photography at the end of the day is an artform, much like other visual and aureal creative mediums are considered artforms.  So there isn’t really a right or wrong… There is however either a success or unsuccessful effort by the artist to convey the meaning and emotion of their works.  If you like watercolors but not oils or chalk, that’s ok.  If you like wild HDR, that’s ok too.  Beauty as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
So if you haven’t tried HDR, try it…experiment…create and be expressive…see what you like, see what you learn.  Try HDR…I think you’ll find it an incredibly important part of your photographic experience (and portfolio)-- I wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Need more help or advice?  If so, I'd like to hear from you...

Is "Photoshopping" Cheating?

I've had a number of photographers ask whether or not they really needed to get  a computer program to edit and manipulate their digital images.  These aren’t necessarily beginning photographers, they also include very experienced photographers, but may be new to the digital world.   When I say “yes” without hesitation, and point out that it’s critical to bringing out the best qualities in every photography, I’ll occasional be asked, "yes, but, isn't that cheating?" .  In a word, no, but let me elaborate.

Some of us old-timers have had an opportunity to actually work in the darkroom with negatives, enlargers, chemicals and papers know how difficult it was to get really good quality prints.  Beginners in the darkroom would simply expose their paper, develop it, dry it, call it a day.  The more advanced technicians would perform a great deal of dodging and burning to improve contrast, tonal range, etc... 

A recent article I read ( shows the extent to which those professionals analyzed and planned their darkroom work. You may have heard that Ansel Adams would frequently use a musical analogy to describe the negative as the score and the print as the performance.  If you had any doubts what he meant by that, this article should help clear that up.   There’s nothing wrong with snapping a picture, downloading it, and sending it off to your friends or the local printer…but to get the best result, you need to do more.

In our digital world where the darkroom has long been forgotten by most, a new working environment has replaced it…some call it the lightroom, others call it the digital darkroom.  There are a lot of computer programs on the market that you can use.   I certainly have my favorites and my recommendations, but the main point here is that you should be considering your RAW or JPG as that score, and your computer software work to bring out the very best in the image as your performance.   No chemicals or odors, no standing for hours in the dark.  Today you have a well-lit room, a comfortable chair, a fast computer, and maybe even an adult beverage at your side.

It is never cheating to use the very best tools along with your imagination and creativity in pursuit of creating your artistic expressions.
Do you have an opinion you'd like to share?  If so, I'd like to hear from you

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Luck Equation

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.  It’s an old catch phrase that most people have heard, and one that I’ve used before when talking about photography.  I like to call it the Luck Equation.  Having been asked more than once about one of my more successful shots from a recent trip to Texas, I can’t help but invoke that catch phrase once more.  You see, with much of the travel-style photography I do, I put myself in places and explore the surroundings and simply wait to be affected by what I see..affected in ways that make me curious, excited, inspired, or some other emotion that compels me to create a photograph. 

Such was the case as I drove across the Roy B. Inks Bridge in Llano, Texas.  I’ve always thought bridges were beautiful and captivating, but as a Civil Engineer that appreciation is even more compelling.  I knew that I wanted to pull over and explore this old bridge’s beauty.  It was on a plaque posted at one end that I learned that it was named for a former mayor of Llano and built in 1936. It replaced an earlier 1892 truss bridge that was swept away by a 42-foot flood crest in 1935. The Inks Bridge was designed in late 1935 and is composed of four 200-ft Parker Truss spans and was opened to traffic in 1936. The bridge features the original west side pedestrian walkway with lattice railings and all-riveted construction typical of the 1930s. In 2006, a new, wider pedestrian walkway was added to the east side in conjunction with a bridge rehabilitation project.

Well, it was that pedestrian walkway that was to lead me from my initial views of the incredible falls on the Llano River to an even closer view of that cascading spectacle from its center.  The music of the crashing water complemented the visual drama making for one of those truly inspiration moments.  Taking it all in, it was from the center of the bridge that I first spotted the Great Blue Heron.  I’ve seen plenty of them in the Southern California’s coastal marshlands near my home, but was surprised to see one in the middle of Texas Hill Country.  I’ve observed these birds before and have a sense of their behavior.  You have to be patient if you want to see them move because when they’re not hunting, they‘re likely to stand in one place for an hour.

This of course is my opportunity…one half of the Luck Equation.  As I’m enjoying the falls and taking additional pictures, I being thinking about and making Preparation, the second half of the Luck Equation.  Preparation for the inevitable repositioning flight of the heron caused me to ensure I had a fast shutter speed (I had been using a slow shutter speed to give the falls that creamy dreamy look you often see in photographs).  I also needed to ensure that I had my focus mode and focus settings right so that if, or when, the heron took off, I’d be all set.  So as luck would have it, the equation was complete.

I saw the heron begin to move, spread its wings and begin to take off.  I was ready for this and began taking multiple photos of its flight.  Of course I have no control over where it flies, but I do have control over my ability to capture that flight’s drama with appropriate exposure and sharpness.  It was only when I reviewed back my images, and really, when I saw them on my computer’s large monitor that I realized more fully what I had captured.  Among the nearly dozen shots I had taken, one of them showed the heron flying directly in front of a particularly interesting section of the falls.  Not only did I have nice large boulders and rock in the frame, but the heron itself with its dark grayish blue colors was set off by the brilliant white of the rushing water. 

The Luck Equation’s reward had been calculated in my favor…. 

If you practice and are active with something, in any endeavor, you improve your chances for luck happening to you.  Please check out some of the other Texas Hill Country photos on my website gallery ( and see if you can spot any more evidence of luck.  If you do, I’d love to hear from you--

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Blanco, Texas--an area rich in Texan history

According to Jean Cox Stanley in her stories of the rich History of Blanco County, by the end of the Mexican period of Texas history in 1836, the first known American land surveyors had entered the area that is now Blanco County surveying land grants lying along the Blanco River.  It can be said that the history of Blanco County had its real beginning when James H. Callahan, a Texas Ranger and surveyor, camped in the Blanco valley. As he entered the Hill Country, the air was cleaner and direr. The countryside was carpeted with wildflowers; such as the bluebonnets, Indian head and paint brush, and other flowering plants. The hills were full of game. In 1854 it was the undisputed domain of the Indian, the bear, the panther and the deer, as well as much small game. Wild turkeys strutted in grandeur along the ridges. Honey bees thrived and honey was in the trees for the taking. "It is paradise", wrote one of the early pioneers.

It is hard for the later generations to understand the hardships and inconveniences that the early pioneer had to contend with. The settlers first work was to build cabins for their families in order to keep themselves, food and gunpowder dry. After that, the pioneers prepared to defend themselves and their cattle from the Indians.  A number of Texas Rangers were stationed in Blanco County. Indians were much in evidence, especially the Comanche and several groups of Apaches. Many of the Lipan had died of smallpox brought in by the Europeans. The rough terrain of Blanco County provided an excellent point of rendezvous for raids and defense.  In spite of all the hardships, the settlers continued to come. Not long after Captain Callahan and E. C. Hines moved to the Blanco valley and built cabins on opposite sides of the river, others followed. There were so many that real estate entrepreneur, John Pitts laid out a town in about 1855. The name of the town was Pittsburg. In 1858, Blanco County was created and the county seat was located across the river from Pittsburg.

The court met for several years under a tree and later in a log schoolhouse. Later the name of the town was changed from Pittsburg to Blanco. The name Blanco means ‘white’. The town got its name from the river cliffs. The river was named by the Spanish Aguayo expedition which explored Texas in 1720. This expedition gave names to many natural objects. A few of the names survived.  It was not until 1855 that the town of Blanco was incorporated. Comal County included the land that is now Blanco City until Blanco County was organized in 1858. Soon after the establishment of Blanco, the Civil War broke out. This brought on very hard times for many people. Mail was brought in once a week and everyone met the mail wagon. This was a moment of much rejoicing or much sorrow. If there was mail from a loved one, it was a happy time. Bad news, or no news, were sad times indeed.

The early farmers living in the Blanco area took their grain to the New Braunfels mills. There they bought tobacco, sugar, gunpowder and other supplies needed but not grown or produced on the farm. During the Civil War, many cattle browsed the range with little or no care. When the soldiers returned, there were many unbranded cattle. The men who were the most expert with the rope and branding iron got more than their share of the cattle.  History books are full of talk of cattle drives as well as many other interesting life struggles. Animals other than cattle had to get to market. Less has been written about these drives. Turkeys were driven to market as were hogs. One hog drive that was of special …"In the 1880’s, there was a heavy acorn crop and hogs fattened early. Five or six hundred were gathered from the woods and driven from Llano to Blanco City, Fischer Store, and over the Devil’s Backbone to San Marcos. The hogs were led by a wagon loaded with corn. An old man sat in the back of the wagon, called to the hogs and scattered corn to keep them moving."  By 1870 cotton was being grown in Blanco County. Eli C. Hines was one of the very early settlers to raise sheep and cotton in Blanco County. The Cox brothers, my great-grandfather and his brother grew cotton by this time. The cotton had to be hauled in seed form to New Braunfels. There it was ginned. Some years later a number of cotton gins were built in and around the Blanco area. About 1900 a cotton gin was established on the site that would later become our home place. A book found in the Blanco library states that a gin valued at $1,200 was on Cox property.

Progress continued in Blanco County. The courthouse was erected in Blanco City in 1885. It was designed by noted architect, F. M. Ruffini, who crowned its relatively unadorned square limestone body with an elaborate mansard roof. The courthouse was Blanco’s pride and joy. It served its intended function for only five years. Three elections were held in the county and it was voted that a new county seat would be at Johnson City, a town fourteen miles north of Blanco. This move caused many hard feelings between the two towns, including a killing.  A great uncle, Aaron Cox, known as "Judge", was sheriff of Blanco County at this time. Blanco citizens schemed for years after the Johnson City move to reestablish Blanco as the county seat, but all efforts failed.  The old courthouse has served many a purpose. It has served as a bank, newspaper office, hospital, opera house, school, union hall, museum, restaurant, etc. Few T towns can claim a vacant courthouse which became so useful for so long. There is a continual effort by the Blanco Preservation Society to save it.

The first school in Blanco County was a log house in Pittsburg, near the present town of  Blanco. Shortly after this, a number of other schools were opened in the county. One student described her early schooling in this way; "I sat on a split log with my feet on a dirt floor. The windows were constructed so that when the tops were opened they could be used as desks. When the windows were closed, logs the length of the building held the shutters in place as a protection against the Indians."  One of the earliest news sources was a Blanco County weekly, The Stinging Bee. It was hand printed between the years 1860 and 1870 by a man named Harrison. In it he told "…the truth and nothing but the truth." He read this paper to a crowd who gathered on the square on Saturday mornings. After the reading, some men were afraid to go home because their excesses were exposed.

The first automobile came to Blanco around 1912. Flat tires were a common thing. Car owners had to carry a cold patch kit along in order to fix the tires. The cars had to be cranked to start them. This meant getting in front of the car, putting the crank into the crankshaft end and turning the crank until the motor started.  Another thing remembered is that cars had no direction indicators. To let another driver know what you were going to do, it was necessary to hold your hand and arm out the window. Then you put your arm up, down or straight to give your signal. This was a common practice up through the early or middle 1950’s.  The horse and wagon or buggy were still being used in our area as a means of transportation until about 1935. As children, we used a wagon team or walked to the places which we might go. We did have a car but were not old enough to drive. Our mother never learned to drive.

Electricity did not come to the rural Hill Country until 1939, and later than that in remote areas of Blanco and Comal Counties. It is hard to describe what a difference it made in the average person’s life. Now people had electric pumps for water wells and power for washing machines and radios. On the radio you could get hooked on Maw Perkins, an early day soap opera. They advertised soap—hence the name "soap opera".  Many men and boys lined up to apply for the jobs of extending electric lines, about one third of them were hired.  Many of the jobs were given to men who had wanted electricity but had been unable to raise the $5 deposit for connection. They paid this out of their wages. I do not know if this deposit was taken out of my brother’s wages or not. At any rate, he applied for a job, even though he was only seventeen and the minimum age for employment was eighteen. The employer said, "Let me feel your muscles." After doing so said, "You’ll do.’

Brown and Root, the well-known contractors in Texas were given the contract to construct the electric lines. They had to hire men who were known to be hard workers. The poles that carried the lines had to be sunk in rock. Brown and Root’s mechanical hole digger failed in the hard Hill Country rock. Men had to do it with manual labor. For this work, they were paid forty cents per hour, which was a good wage at that time. Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal" public projects helped to pull the nation out of the great economic depression.  Electricity brought easier times to the people of Blanco County. The depression years were coming to a close and electricity eased the work load a great deal, at least for the women. But just as the Hill Country people thought they were in for easier times, a catastrophic event took place—World War II started for the United States with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

At the present time, Blanco County is increasing in population, as is all of Texas. This is not necessarily for the better. People do not know their neighbors, nor have the concern for them that they once did. To quote Sam Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s father, "The Hill Country was a place where people knew when you were sick and cared when you died." This previous concern could have resulted from necessity. The early families had to depend on each other in times of illness or childbirth, as well as for a social life.

(You can check out my entire Texas Hill Country photo collections at:   Comments and feedback definitely welcome!)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Not in My Backyard...

This is a phrase that is most often used to convey a sentiment generally opposing change near one's home. But in this case, "not in my backyard" describes the wonderful things I found in someone else's "backyard"!   I was recently commissioned for a photographic assignment for a top real estate broker in Seal Beach, California.  The idea behind this project was to capture images of the neighborhoods, and in particularly the uniquely different and distinct qualities of their neighborhoods so that people shopping for homes and viewing the realtor's website would not only get to see the individual houses being offered (which many realtors show), but also provide clients with images of the surroundings to give them a better feel for what to expect when choosing where to live.

What I learned about their "backyard" is that within a short walk from almost anywhere (or a jog, or a bike ride), one will find amenities characteristic of most beach cities, and in the case of Seal Beach, amenities which reflect it's storied history as a recreation destination of choice, complete with a beach-side amusement park (no longer there) long before Disneyland was created in Anaheim.  The town was a beehive of activity--many people walking dogs, strolling through shops, jogging along parks, playing basketball, surfing, swimming, lounging, bike riding....everything you'd expect, and a lot of it!  

Not having been to Seal Beach much (although it's only a 20 minute drive from my house), I found through my extensive visits to these neighborhoods that their "back yards" have an exciting variety of quaint shopping areas, charming restaurants, and one of the more beautiful beaches and skylines around.  And like a jewel in the middle of all that is the City's pier--the second longest wooden pier in California , built in 1906 (extensively reconstructed after storms in 1935 and 1983).   It's a long walk down the length of that pier, but a scenic walk...diving pelicans, boats, transport vessels shuttling working out to the oil platforms, fisherman, and just the casual tourist.

I could go on and list the many other points of interest in an about the City, but that might spoil the fun of your own exploration.  Suffice it to say, Seal Beach would well be worth your time spending a day or an afternoon there, and who knows, you might fall in love and want to move there--in which case, I know a good realtor there!

Don't have time right now to pay Seal Beach a visit?  Then take a look at my collection of images and see what you're missing...

To contact me sent email to:

Monday, September 23, 2013

It’s Way Better than TV (but then you knew that…)

Within the first few minutes of arriving, I was glad I gave myself the much-needed push to get up off the couch and go on a photo shoot.  A very deep breath confirmed the satisfaction of being in a place where the sun was pouring down on me, the smells of the native grasses filled my belly and swirling movement of active birds teased me for my attention.  I was once again at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS).

This remarkable habitat is in the middle of Irvine and about a 10-minute drive away.  Formerly known as the San Joaquin Marsh, this area used to be frequented by duck hunting clubs dating back to the late 1800s, this according to Catherine Waters in an article she authored for the American Birding Association in 2001.  Of course with the urbanization of Orange County, the duck hunting subsided, but the public’s enjoyment of this area has continued.

On this glorious afternoon, the SJWS was my playground.  The temptations had been strong to just sit there and watch TV or “work” on the computer, but I was successful in guilting myself to get out and exercise my camera…sure glad I did.  From a photography standpoint, I picked an aweful time to go…mid-day, bright sun, very warm outside (birds seek shade and are harder to find).  From a human standpoint though, it was the perfect time to go.  The place was nearly deserted.  The trails around the ponds were empty and the paths connecting them through corridors of trees and shrubbery were also void of other visitors.  Walking around one of nature’s gems is way better than TV…but then you knew that.

I had no real expectations of capturing any National Geographic-esque moments, but I was certainly ready if such an opportunity presented itself.  I enjoyed the quite walking, the coolness of the occasional shady path, and the anticipation of the possibility of finding something interesting to photograph.  I wasn’t disappointed because if I’ve learned anything about photography, it’s that no matter where you are, there are ways to capture moments to convey the story of your experience.  And since I was feeling particularly good about my decision, I knew that “luck” would be on my side.

For me, the image of that bench across one of the ponds told the story of possibility…the possibility of a peaceful rest and the relaxing view of a nature.   Although nobody was enjoying it at the time, I couldn’t help but think about how nice it would be to just sit there and take it all it! 

And then was that small, cute heron…a young night heron or green heron (I’m not a birding expert, so forgive me if I don’t have it right).  I was treated to this great surprise as I came around one section of reeds and then looked back in the direction that I came from (a good habit for photographers to turn around and see other perspectives).  And there it was, stretched between two reeds, just above the water line, hanging on.  This was a real treat and is the sort of “luck” one finds when preparation meets opportunity. 

Further on my journey I came across another scene with a small black bird tucked in thicket of tall grass.  It was sitting on one strand which under its weight bowed down to make a nice perch.  The silhouette was wonderful.

On the short drive home I had a real sense of satisfaction having spent a gorgeous afternoon in such a refreshing and rejuvenating place.  Next time you’re invited to join me!

You can check out my entire collection of images on my website gallery at and as always, I welcome your comments and feedback at

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Seal Beach Shopping trip—or was it a Photo Shoot?

I’ve not been to Main Street Seal Beach before, despite being in Southern California for over 30 years.  What a hidden treasure though, or not so hidden if one has already discovered it!!  In an area no bigger than 3 or 4 blocks, this quaint combination of shops and restaurants has something for everyone.  As we were completing a purchase at the Olive Oil Company, we asked the ladies there what a good place would be to have lunch.  Several places were suggested, but when I asked if they were to leave for lunch this moment, where would they head…they said Hennessey’s.  So that’s where we went.  It’s like all the merchants work together here…fantastic!

There were so many great-looking places to eat that we will definitely have to come back.  Same goes for the shopping…the stores we went in were packed will all sorts of interesting and desirable items—how does one choose??  Guess we’ll have to be back to shop some more there too!  All in all, this small pocket within your city packed a big punch—kudos to the teamwork that must be present in order to bring that about!

So I’m guessing that I’m one of the last people around here to discover this special area of Seal Beach… my photography will likely bring me back to get more images…and Hennessey’s service and ice cold IPA’s will no doubt bring me back too!  Or is it the fine olive oils and vinegars at the Olive Oil Company… or wait, maybe the fresh seafood at… yes, we’ll be back!

Below are just a handful of my recent images.  Check out my website for my complete collection…   (Any of my images can be ordered as prints, enlargements, or imprints on merchandise)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Your Camera’s Automatic Modes…How does one choose?

Indulge me for a moment as we start at the beginning…  Most cameras have the following exposure modes:  aperture priority, shutter priority, fully automatic, and manual.  Your camera may refer to these as A, S (or Tv), P, and M.  In addition to automating the choice of aperture and shutter, many cameras also give you the option of automating ISO, the third “leg” of what’s often referred to as the “exposure triangle”.  Aperture relates to how big the opening is inside of your lens (which lets light in).  Shutter speed describes how long the internal sensor (used to be film) is exposed to that incoming light.  And ISO describes how light-sensitive the sensor will behave (or how light sensitive the emulsion on the film was). 

Optical Effects
No matter what mode you choose, the objective is the same…find a combination of these three parameters that will give you proper exposure and do so in a way that also achieves the optical results you desire for that image.  By optical results, I mean controlling your depth of field, motion blur or freezing, and noise and grain.  Because proper exposure can be achieved by a variety of combinations of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you will need to understand how each of the cameras settings affect the outcome.  The reason your camera has multiple modes to choose from is to help you zero in quickly on the right combination of settings for the particular image you’re working on capturing. 

Manual Mode
So, first let’s discuss manual mode.  Some professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts will claim they only shoot in manual mode as if it’s somehow a badge of honor (it’s not by the way).  Manual mode forces (allows) you to choose the three legs of the exposure triangle necessary to achieve a proper exposure.  You could say it gives you maximum control.  In contrast, automatic modes will help you by allowing you to choose one of two of the more important legs, and will then automatically choose the third leg necessary to complete the proper exposure.  There might be times or reasons why you would want to shoot in manual mode, but I think those times are so few and far between, I would suggest to you that manual mode be reserved for those rare occasions.

Semi Automatic Modes
Before you decide which automatic mode to use, you typically determine which parameter is most important for you to control yourself.  That is, are you primarily concerned about depths of field, i.e. how much of the subject matter is in focus, or how much subject motion you want to allow.  You generally want the ISO to be as low as possible for image quality, but sometimes this will be the parameter you will want to adjust higher knowing that you’re in low light situations and would want to be able to have higher shutter speeds and/or greater depth of field. 
As I mentioned, you can choose from aperture priority, shutter priority, and fully automatic.  You might be asking yourself, is there a “best” mode to use?  Well, let’s consider that question for a moment and see if you begin to formulate your own conclusion… (hint, the answer is no).

Pros and Cons of each Mode
Let’s start by looking at the downside, or “cons” to having an uncontrolled (automatic) parameter.  If you choose aperture priority (A), shutter speed will be automatically determined by the camera (and not you).  You have control over depth of field (aperture), but the downside then is that you could end up with too slow a shutter speed which would result in your main subject being blurred.  The number one reason most images will be discarded is because of lack of focus or a blurred subject.
If instead, you choose shutter priority (S or Tv), the aperture is automatically determined by the camera (and not you).  In this case you will have properly managed the motion blur, but the depth of field may be very shallow or may be deeper than you wanted.  Although this is a downside, too deep a depth of field can often be dealt with in post processing--too shallow a depth of field though is a greater downside if your subject does not fit within the depth of field (often the case in macro photography).
If the ISO is automatically determined (by the camera, not you), then your image could have a higher amount of noise or grain than you would want, but recognize that the only reason the camera is choosing a higher ISO is because you’re forcing it too when you choose a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture opening in low light situations.  The grain and noise can be a downside, but you just need to be aware of this when shooting in low light (and when you don’t have a tripod that would allow you to use slow shutter speeds).  Also note that software can be used to reduce noise in post processing.

Fully Automatic
The last automatic option, fully automatic (P or Auto) may be your go-to choice if all of this still sounds too complicated.  Although the manual of higher-end DLSR cameras refer to this mode as “point and shoot”, don’t be ashamed to use this mode.  Sometime you will be in situation that is so dynamic and changing that you will want to concentrate more on composition and image capture and less on the nuances of your cameras settings.  In these cases, let your camera do more of the "thinking".  This mode works best in well-lit situations.  Develop the good habit of always noticing your aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder—this will help you ensure that your camera is making choices that are suitable to your situation. 

Summary and Personal Preference
As you are planning your photography, you should consider how best to translate the impact of your observations and feeling to the camera’s sensor.  Knowing that the camera has the three parameters of the exposure triangle, and knowing how each of them affects or influences the final image’s characteristics, will allow you to make the “right” choice of  mode—for you, and for your situation.  Automatic modes are designed to help simplify your camera’s use…which mode you choose will help you get your exposure settings more quickly based on your priorities.
Personally, I like to start by having my ISO set on automatic.  It stays at 100 (or 200 for some cameras) and will only go higher when there is not enough light hitting the sensor based on my choice of aperture and shutter speed.  I can decide to control aperture (aperture priority) or the shutter speed (shutter priority)—and I’ll know when I do that, that two out of the three parameters will be automatically determined for me—giving me greater freedom to be creative and less focused on camera settings. 

Much of the decision making on mode choice is personal, and you may have different ideas on your approach…if that’s the case, I’d love to hear from you.  Email me at

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Street Photography

Paris is widely accepted as the birthplace of street photography.   From as early as the late 1800s, street photography was a way to simply capture and depict ordinary life and the cityscapes in which it took place.  Street photography is a genre of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places.  Although the subject can even be absent of any people, invariably, there inclusion produces a more interesting result.

Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment.   Street photography is definitely not for the faint at heart.  There are generally two types of street photographers—those that engage their subjects, talking to them, learning about their situation or activity, and those that hide behind trees or snap pictures by holding their cameras in obscure positions as if to conceal their intent.  Today I was the latter.

I was in Seal Beach on a shopping trip but knew that the scenery might offer up some great photographic opportunities.  I like to take my camera with me on trips like this because you just never know…  I was rewarded with a number of interesting scenes as well as these two character shots.  (The scenery shots can be viewed at

The key to street photography, beyond framing and timing, is to be aware of your surroundings, and to be prepared with your camera.  You don’t typically have a lot of time to make decisions about shutter speed, depth of field, lens choice, etc… so you need to make as many of these ahead of time as possible.  Then when the moment presents itself, you can frame, focus, and make the image capture.  Sometimes a street photographer will take up a position and wait for the action to develop, but today I was on the move and would have to go to where the action was.

People on the street are generally wary of someone walking around with a big camera, and such was the case with the gentleman in this shot.  He gave me a wary eye as I walked by, and had I had more time, I would have stopped to talk with him because I thought he looked like someone with an interesting story.  I quickly sized up a composition that might work, after walking a short distance further, turned quickly to get the shot I wanted.  The young lady playing the guitar was a simpler shot, but still required a quick reaction.  I didn’t know when I first came upon her that I wanted a shot…I wasn’t seeing a composition that struck me.  But as I was passing by to cross the street I saw it—and had to react quickly.

So whether your genre of choice is landscape, travel, macro, portraiture, etc… dabbling in street photography will keep your senses sharp and will challenge your equipment and technical skills.

If you have comments or feedback, email me at