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A Pretty Amazing Place …

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Yes, this is supposed to be a photography blog, but there are no photos associated with this story. The closest thing to a camera I had with me when it all occurred was my iPhone camera, and it would have been useless for this situation.

So would it be okay if this time I try to show you what I’m saying by painting pictures with words?

 

I live in Darnestown, MD. It’s kind of on the edge of suburban Gaithersburg and the still open rural “agricultural preserve” area of Montgomery County, one of the mega-suburbs of Washington, DC.

My house is an old farmhouse, on about 2 equally old acres of land. Much humbler than it sounds. There’s a small porch behind the house looking over the back yard. The back yard is maybe  an acre or a little less of open grass, surrounded by trees on three sides. But it’s not a solid ring of trees.

Sitting on the porch, from the right side there’s a stand of trees going back and then breaking at about “1 o’clock” for about twenty feet, a few larger trees but no underbrush so you can see through to more grass area and the deeper woods of Seneca State Park beyond.

Then there’s a patch of trees with pretty solid undergrowth – you can’t see through it. That’s from about 12:30 to 12:00 coming around counter-clockwise.

Then there’s another open area with an old redbud and a young(er) though steadily growing oak, but clear underneath, opening back onto another uncut wild grass area that goes back into the tree line of the park.

Then at about 11:30 and on to the left there’s a stand of big old boxwoods surrounding an old garden, and the line of trees along the property up around to the left.

Got the picture?

So, this evening near sunset I’m sitting on the porch, deeply in thought about sales and marketing questions, trying to come up with the perfect conversation introduction, when I hear a huffing and puffing and snorting sounding like it’s coming from in or behind that patch of thick trees and brush at right rear, between 12:30 and 1:00.

This ruckus went on for 4 or 5 minutes. Sounded “deer-like”, but unusual for this time of year.

Then it stopped.

One of the younger does had previously just walked halfway up the yard and looked at me, half cautious and half annoyed by my presence. She’s really rough looking – an odd too-light color coat, scruffy like she has mange, thin as a rail with the ribs sticking out. The “humane” result of the anti-hunters getting their way about controlled hunts in the park.

But she walked off and I didn’t see any of the others. They’re usually around in groups of three or four at a time at this time of evening.

Well anyway, about another five minutes after the noise stops, out comes one of the older does walking through the clearing at 12:00 to the left, followed right behind by a fawn, walking quite well, not fumbling around on its new legs. About a foot high, barely taller than the grass. No bigger than the red fox that strolls around having decided he owns the property. About the size of a big, happy,  lazy house cat. But much leaner and livelier.

And it occurs to me – all that huffing and snorting – was the doe, giving birth!

For the past month I’ve been watching two obviously pregnant does waddling around among the herd that makes their home in my yard, coming up and eating at the base of the bird feeder where the birds scatter all the seed in their mad rush to get to the good stuff, the sunflower seeds.

For this one, today was the day!

The little guy will disappear for the next four to six weeks, tucked away deep in the woods until mom decides it’s time to come on out of hiding and learn the ropes of deer life.

Yes they’re pests that I not too kindly refer to as “wood rats”, grey-tan, long nosed, long tailed, carrying disease and tearing up everything. They’re the bane of my garden, and the reason I have to fence every plant I want to have a prayer of surviving.

But for those three months or so, from mid-June to September, it is a blast seeing those little spotted guys bouncing around, acting like – well, like the little kids they are. Even though their parents are trying to devastate my garden while the kids cause a diversion.

But geeze, they’re fun to watch grow up.

Oh, and about 15 minutes later the other pregant doe was at the bird feeder, with three or four of her compadres. So there’s still more to come.

 

And so once again, right in the middle of the daily challenges of making a business happen, I am reminded – life is a pretty amazing place to live!

 

Photographers and Designers Gathering For Design4Kids 8

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Photographers and Graphic Designers will get together tomorrow, November 10th inAntigua Guatemala for the eights Design4Kids design & photo workshop.

In addition to most of our regulars we have a few new mentors this time, and an entirely new group of students. Seems the previous group we’ve worked with for the past four years have done so well they’ve all gone on to teaching at Fotokids, and to working professionally in the field.

This workshop will be a departure from the familiar in another way – rather than going out to Santiago Atitlan as we have in the past, D4K8 will take place inAntigua,Guatemala, the charming former capital city of the country, resurrected from the ruins of a number of earthquakes over the past centuries.

And speaking of earthquakes, for those of you who follow the news outside our own little bubble here in theUS, the quake on Wednesday did most of its damage in the west of the country. While it was felt in Antigua andGuatemala   City, the damage there was minor if any, with no significant injuries.

All of our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 48 people who lost their lives and the many who are injured and now homeless in the areas in and aroundSan Marcos.

As in the past I’ll do my best to post a few updates during the workshop in the upcoming week, technology and time allowing.

You can find out more about Fotokids and Design4Kids at www.fotokids.org  and www.design4kids.org . And if you’re a Facebook user, check Fotokids’ and Design4Kids’ pages there for more live updates on the workshop.

Candid Street Photography and an HDR Workshop at Design4Kids7

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Thursday the Design4Kids group took a break from workshop classes. Each workshop includes an excursion day, giving everyone an opportunity for a bit of sightseeing and the chance to take some photos in a new environment. Along the way we all learn a little more about the area and its people.

The morning saw everyone pile into one of the many water taxis that ply Lago Atitlan, and take the short trip around Vulcan San Pedro to the small town ofSan Juanla Laguna. This small pueblo is the home of many of the local artists and traditional textile cooperatives.

The first thing we see is the result of the torrential rains of a year ago, which caused the lake level to raise by nearly two meters. The water has remained at this new level, and the entire first block of town, previously filled with waterfront shops is now half submerged.

This is a scene repeated all around the lake, and most local businesses have relocated to higher ground and reopened.

There were great opportunities for candid street photography, and the majority of the people here seem quite open to being photographed. Of course there is always the occasional shy subject. The town itself provides a backdrop for creative photography of all kinds.

After returning to our workshop base at la Posada Santiago, Moe Murdock held a great drawing workshop, which was followed by an impromptu mini-class in HDR –HighDynamicRange– photography.

We discussed the entire process of planning your photograph for HDR processing, making the series of exposures and then combining yhem in HDR software.

There are nearly limitless variations of processing options, from very photo-like with expanded shadow and highlight range to the highly graphic look of exaggerated tone-mapping. Of course the kids latched on to the way-out there look right away!

Photos of the day’s activities are posted on the Design4Kids Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/Design4Kids

Tomorrow is the final day of the workshop. The graphic design projects are due, and the lesson plans for teaching the digital SLR camera will be presented. Preliminary work looks very good!

- Stu Estler

Design4Kids Honduras Photo Workshop Wrap Up

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Well, as usual, the internet speed and availability down in Honduras kept me from updating live as I’d hoped to. So here’s a review of the workshop.

We arrived in Las Mangas just an hour after power returned following three days of their having no electricity, no water, nada. It’s the rainy season in Caribbean Honduras, and the La Ceiba and Rio Congrejal area had just received the most rain since Hurricane Mitch inundated much of Central America in 1998. The river had swelled to extreme levels, closing the road up to Las Mangas for several days.

Carmiña and David and their crew, our hosts at El Encanto Doña Lydia made quick work of the cleanup and we were comfortably settled in by Saturday evening.

My colleague Eric Lolkema and I had come by bus from Antigua, Guatemala on Saturday, and the rest of our mentors arrived Sunday afternoon. The students and staff got together Sunday evening to meet, learn about each other, and get a quick overview of the workshop ahead.

Our initial theme was to work with a client, as is the typical Design4Kids workshop format, this time producing a photographic rather than a graphic design project. A last minute change of plans for the planned client caused us to have to reevaluate this strategy. By the end of the day Monday we realized that our plan of introducing the students to the use of dSLR’s and controlling the cameras manually would be more effective without the additional pressure of trying to shoot for a client project.

Eric Lolkema demonstrates a creative motion technique

Eric's final result

 

The Guaruma students participating in the workshop were all experienced and talented photographers, but had exclusively used the school’s point & shoot cameras for all of their photography up until this time. Our objective was to bring them to the next level, integrating their conceptual knowledge of creative photography with the greater ability to control your results that using an SLR in Manual mode provides. The week consisted of classroom presentations and practical assignments showing the students the proper use of the Aperture/Shutter relationship, learning to read and interpret the camera’s Light Meter, and the creative use of depth of Field and Motion effects. We finished up with an introduction to the use of fill-flash and reflectors to augment available light for greater image control.

By workshop’s end we instructors realized that a week was not sufficient to bring these students up to being fully confident with all aspects of using and controlling their new cameras. Our review of their final assignment work revealed that the ability to take a photograph creatively with a fully automatic camera does not immediately transform into the technical skills required to control the camera on your own.

The good news is that these kids are already accomplished creative photographers, and the seeds have been sown for their continued growth to Mastering Their SLRs. They’ve begun to realize the advanced level of creative control that exists when you are in complete control of the photographic process.

Dates for the next Design4kids workshop, back in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala have been set, for the week of June 26th through July 2nd, 2011. More information can be found on the www.design4kids.org website or by contacting me directly at stu@thephotomentor.com

It’s All Greek To Me

Monday, December 20th, 2010

There’s an ongoing debate amongst experienced photographers about which is more important to photography – light or composition. I side with the camp that says it all begins with light.

Light is the fundamental element in photography. The word itself is a combination of the Greek “photos” – light – and “graphos” – draw. Photography is drawing with light. Without light there is no photograph.

And how you use light in your photos makes all the difference in your results.

Light has four characteristics – quality, direction, color and quantity or intensity. All are part of the creative process in making your pictures, whether you use them intentionally or ignore them and hope for the best. Obviously, learning these characteristics and giving them some thought in crafting your images will yield the best results.

Front lighting is, as the name suggests, light that is coming from in front of the subject. It will usually illuminate all of the subject evenly, but this can cause a “flat” look, without a sense of depth.

Back lighting is light coming from behind the subject. It will light the areas around the subject but leave the subject itself dark – this is how you make a silhouette – or, if you expose for the subject, the surrounding areas will be overexposed.

Side lighting is essentially any light coming from a direction other than directly in front of or directly behind the subject. Side lighting gives the greatest sense of depth as it lights some part of the subject while leaving others in shadow. Shadows help our brains recognize dimension and give a three-dimensional sense to a two-dimensional object like a photo.

The quality of the light is determined by the type of source – whether it comes from a small point, creating a hard light with deep shadows, all the way to an even, overcast type of illumination where the light is coming from every direction, softening or eliminating shadows.

Color of light ranges from warm to cool, depending on the time of day and sky conditions for sunlight, and on the type of light with artificial lighting.  Your camera typically “white balances” to give as neutral a color cast as possible, but you can control your white balance to get the kind of effect and mood you want in your pictures.

While quantity is usually determined by getting the “correct” exposure, using over- or under-exposure creatively to emphasize a certain element in your subject can dramatically affect the mood of your photo.

Becoming a student of light causes you to see your world more vibrantly and helps gives your photos life. There’s obviously much more to the subject of light than the brief introduction here – on fact, learning about light is a big part of our introductory classes and continues to be a significant element in all of the Photo Mentor classes and workshops, as well as the information you discover on our Premier Photo Tours.

Design4Kids 5.6 Honduras Photo Workshop Update

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

We’re just a month away from the start of the Design4Kids 5.6 workshop being held from January 16th through January 22nd, 2011 in Las Mangas, Honduras. The client has been selected, final course content is being completed, travel plans have been made.

The “5.6” number of our fifth Design4Kids Workshop honors the key difference of this event. Unlike the four previous workshops held in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, where photography has been included as a part of the curriculum that was concentrated on graphic design and a graphics project, this week will shift its focus (pun entirely intended) to photography as the primary project.

The kids at Guaruma in Las Mangas, an affiliate school overseen and funded by Fotokids, have been studying photography at various levels, but have little in the way of a graphic design background, and even less in the way of graphics software and graphic design-capable computers. Thus, we felt that our first workshop here in Honduras would be more effectively spent in expanding and refining their photo skills.

The client will be one of the local travel lodges here along the Rio Congrejal, an area emphasizing eco-tourism and honoring its rich and diverse environment. The kids, ages 13 to 19, will learn how to move from simply walking around with a camera to planning , coordinating and effectively executing a photography project for a specific purpose, providing photographs to specific guidelines.

Along the way we’ll introduce them to the advanced capabilities of SLR cameras – their experience up to now as been almost entirely with point & shoot digitals. Take a look at their photos at www.guaruma.org and the Honduras project on www.fotokids.org and you quickly realize that photography is not about the tools but the skills and creative vision of the photographer. They’ve produced an amazing body of work.

As always, I fully expect to come away from this week having gained far more that I give, and working with all these kids is always an incredibly enriching, rewarding experience.

THERE’S STILL TIME!

Although we’re just four and a half weeks away from our kick-off, there’s still time to get involved. We have just one opening still available for a motivated individual to participate as a mentor in the workshop. While having photographic skills is valuable, even more essential is the willingness to give of yourself and a desire to enrich the lives of others. No matter what professional or technical skills you possess, the life skills and knowledge that you impart on the kids here are invaluable to their ultimate success in life. To learn more and become a part of our dedicated crew, email me personally at stu@thephotomentor.com . You can also learn more about Design4Kids at www.Design4Kids.org .

Are Point & Shoot Cameras Really Going The Way Of Film Cameras?

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Saw an article yesterday on Yahoo news that predicted the end of the point & shoot camera as we know it today. The claim is that more casual photo-takers are turning to their cell-phone cameras and leaving their point & shoots at home.

As a serious photographer I’ve long said that my ideal compact camera – device, really – would be a truly full-featured camera built into a smart phone. The current iPhone4 and its competitors have a decent basic camera, and can do quite a lot when combined with the many apps available for post-processing.

But they still lack the zoom range, ISO options and exposure control features that most mid-level and up point & shoot cameras have. For someone used to shooting with a full-frame dSLR, often on Manual to have complete control of the results, those are necessities for me, not options.

But for the mass-camera market, those people who want a snapshot of people and places and events happening right now in their lives, without too much concern for high-level image quality and no thought of commercial use or even longevity for their pictures, the convenience of having the cell phone and camera all in one and with them all the time trumps the improved quality of their point & shoot.

I’ve found myself less concerned with not having a separate camera with me everywhere all the time, now that I have the current generation smart phone camera always available. It doesn’t take the place of a serious camera for “real” photography, but it certainly gives new meaning to the old adage of “f8 and be there”.

I’m curious to learn how you feel about this – are you becoming more prone to relying on our phone camera, or is a separate, full-function camera still a must for all occasions for you? Give us your perspective in the comments section. And if you’d like to read the full article on Yahoo, you can find it here: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/In-Smartphone-Era-nytimes-1102949571.html?x=0

Composing For The Greatest Impact

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

As we come into the holiday season this is the time all the cameras come out to record those hapy family get-togethers. And with a little thought, those photos of family and friends can be much more interesting than the too often seen straight-on, quick grab snapshot.

A common tendency I see among beginning photographers is to point the camera at what they want to take a photo of, center the subject in the frame and take the picture. The thing is, a dead-centered composition is often not the best choice. While it may get the job done of recording the subject, there’s likely to be little else there to capture and hold the viewer’s imagination

With all visual art, which includes photography, the movement of the viewer’s eye through the image has a lot to do with creating energy and emotional involvement. And THAT’s what makes your pictures unforgettable.

One of the oldest compositional concepts in art is the ‘Rule of Thirds”. Very simply, it says that you “draw” two vertical lines on your image to divide it into equal thirds vertically, and also two horizontal lines to divide it into equal thirds horizontally. Some cameras even have a setting which will project this grid on your LCD and/or viewfinder.

The ideal place to locate your subject(s) is where these lines intersect. This creates a more effective balance in your image and helps cause the viewer’s eye to move thorough the picture instead of staying in one spot, saying “OK, I’ve seen what there is to see” and moving on to something else.

One important thing – remember to think of the Rule of Thirds more as a “suggestion” than a “rule”. The use of lines, shapes, color, tone and of course the subject itself all affect how the eye navigates your picture and causes the viewer to become involved as well. We’ll look at all of these individually in upcoming installments.

Photo Classes In Honduras

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

After a delayed flight leg from Houston, Eric and I arrived in Guatemala City at about 10:00pm Monday.  Checked into our hotel (the Barcelo – quite nice) at about 11:00pm, checked out at 4:00am to get to the bus station – making our stay about $20 an hour!

Tuesday was an all-day bus ride from Guatemala City to La Ceiba, Honduras. Fourteen hours, with a bus change and layover of 2 hours in San Pedro, Honduras. Met our cab driver in La Ceiba and took the 45-minute ride up the dirt road to Las Mangas.

After disembarking in San Pedro my iphone was “disappeared” – slipped out of my pocket in the seat, and I was off the bus before I realized it. A “search” by the bus service personnel turned up nothing. Mysteriously I was not allowed back on to look for myself.

So much for keeping in touch by email – all of my contacts were on the phone, not yet in this new computer. Hopefully I’ll be able to restore everything from the backup when I return and get a replacement.

The next two days were spent teaching photo classes to the students at Guaruma, the school project here. Originally started as a photography school for the children in Las Mangas, the project now has expanded to include environmental awareness studies and English, and has a second location about 5 kilometers farther up the mountain in El Pital.

The project we created for the kids was a simulated magazine cover, to teach the students awareness of shooting pictures for a specific format and subject, and then laying out the cover with their photos in Photoshop.

Wednesday we met up with Guaruma’s assistant director, Chris Poliquin and the school’s English teacher, Erin Coutts. That day we worked with the students in Las Mangas, and the theme of their assignment was “form and color in nature”. We took a walk along the nature trails that Guaruma maintains up the road and across the river just outside town. CB

The kids here are very much into macro photography, and their sensitivity and awareness of their environment is great to see. A few leaves on the jungle floor become a carefully composed still life, often displaying the subtle interplay of muted greens and browns, other times exploding in the vibrant colors of jungle flowers.

And insects – Oui! They have a critical eye for the smallest creature resting on a leaf or poised on the end of a branch, and work their subjects like a fashion photographer working with their model. Incredible shots of what others might think of as mundane and perhaps something to be dismissed and avoided.

After shooting their photos, we returned to the school where they loaded them onto the computers and learned how to combine the images in Photoshop into a template Eric created as the cover layout.

Then they played with changing type colors and fonts, moving type around the page, and learned how working with layers simplifies so many things. The students were excited to discover what they could do in the program and quickly realized how these techniques could be used with other projects.

Thursday we went up the road to El Pital and worked with the students up there. Neither of these “towns” are even wide spots in the road, but El Pital is a bit more “rustic”. There’s no nature trail there and the focus of their shoot was portraiture of the townspeople.

After some pointers on the do’s – and don’ts – of taking people pictures along with an explanation of how to shoot for a specific format, we unleashed this gaggle of paparazzi on the town.

While a few held back and preferred the comfort of using each other as subjects, most were quick to engage people they met (of course in this town, everyone knows each other) and ask to take their picture. Most were willing subjects and enjoyed working with the kids.

After corralling everyone and herding them back to the classroom, the kids went through the same process of putting their photos into the “cover” template. This group was a bit less computer-savvy than the Las Mangas kids, but nonetheless picked up the concepts and techniques pretty quickly.

This project gives the students an opportunity to learn practice skills that they’ll be able to apply to all of their photography as they move forward in developing their skills.

Lessons On People Photos From The Class

Monday, April 5th, 2010

We’ve just completed the first six-week session of e-mail classes. The students enjoy the flexibility of doing the work on their own schedule, and the results have been quite dramatic.

We had two classes going during the winter session. “Master Your SLR” is a beginner class for people who are just starting to learn about photography beyond pointing, pressing the button and letting the camera do the rest. We cover the basics of taking control of your pictures and getting the kind of results you want, consistently and predictably.

“Develop Your Creativity” moves beyond the basics, and takes a more in-depth look at the fundamentals of light, composition and design. The concepts we cover in this class are applicable to shooting with any type of camera, as long as you understand how to use it. Most of the students at this level tend to have moved up to an SLR to take maximum advantage of being in complete control of their photos.

One of the early lessons looked at how the direction of light falling on your subject – front lighting, side lighting or back lighting – affects your image.

While shot as an example of front lighting, one photo stood out because of its apparent simplicity revealing quite a few layers of complexity in our response to it. The photo was taken by Kathy Ma, and she’s allowed me to use it here to share with you.

There’s great use of negative space and color contrast. By framing so that there’s more room behind him than in front, the feel is that he’s moving out of the image rather than into it. With his face turned away from the camera, there is a sense of aloofness, of disassociation from the photographer or viewer. It actually creates quite a few possible responses, layered on each other and each revealed as you look at it more.

Probably more than any other subject, when we photograph people the subject itself becomes the dominant element in the image. With most other subject – landscapes, architecture, “things” – the viewer is more aware, either consciously or subconsciously, of how light and design elements affect the image.

When we – people – see photos of other people, we tend to focus on the person, because this is a subject we instinctively feel we understand and want to know more about. All of the other aspects of the photograph – light, design – are just as meaningful and important in creating and directing the viewer’s response, but they tend to become secondary to the subject, at least at a conscious level.

Yet when given appropriate attention, the design and light elements create that “a-ah” response that sets a people image above the rest. The really great portrait/people shooters like Annie Leibowitz and Arnold Newman know this and use it.

A classic is Newman’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky at his piano. The shape of the piano dominates the area of the image, augmented by the contrast of the white background, yet Stravinsky, just in the corner of the image, is clearly what the photo is all about. If you’re not familiar with Arnold Newman’s work you definitely owe it to yourself to look some up.