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!)