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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

Reviewing Digital SLR Camera Basics

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

We’ve completed the first phase of Design4Kids7, reviewing and refreshing the basics of using the digital SLR cameras with the classes.

Since these students have come up through Fotokids for ten and more years, they began with film SLR cameras. Most already have a pretty good understanding of concepts such as depth of field and capturing motion effects, and the exercises they’ve completed are useful to reinforce what they know.

A few need a little more study and practice. The beginning digital camera work at the school uses point and shoot cameras, much like many people like you. While the basics of photography apply to all types of cameras, the step up to the SLR allows a much greater degree of control in applying these concepts.

The concept of the assignment here was to think of ten or more ways to create blur in a photo.

The most obvious, moving the camera and not focusing properly were of course represented, but everyone went well beyond those, usually considered mistakes, to illustrating concepts such as selective depth of field, using a slow shutter to blur subject movement and panning the moving subject.

To see what they’ve been up to chekc out Design4Kid’s Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/Design4Kids?ref=ts

Now it’s time for the classes to put what they know into lesson plans that will allow them to effectively teach what they know to their students, realizing that the young people they work with learn differently than adults.

We’re anxious to see what they come up with!

Design4Kids 7 Photography & Design Workshop – Teaching the Teachers

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Just one week until we’re in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala for the Design4Kids 7 Workshop! No one could have imagined four years ago that this would grow from a vague idea that we could do something positive here to become an institution that we as instructors look forward to as much as the students.

This will be a very special workshop. All of our Fotokids students who will attend are no longer “the kids”. This group is made up of graduates of the Fotokids program, all now in college and all currently teaching the new generation of Foto“kids”.

Veterans Jeff Speigner, Eric Lolkema and myself will be joined once again by Moe Murdock, who is destined to become another of our regulars. Our objective in this workshop is twofold.

On the Graphic Design side, Jeff and Moe will be working with the group to further develop and refine the Jakaramba design studio identity, the fully operational (and profitable) business that was born of the Design4Kids project.

Moe, the incredibly talented illustrator who stole the show last June at Design4Kids 6 has promised to conduct at least one session on how he performs his illustration magic on paper and in computer. I’m personally looking forward to learning all I can from that lesson, right alongside our Fotokids bunch.

On the Photography side, Eric and I will be working with the Fotokids students/now teachers to develop and improve their lesson plans for teaching topics such as using the digital SLR, using fill flash and more advanced exercises in Depth of Field, Motion Effects and working with the color of light.

A little better technology and hopefully improved internet reliability at La Posada Santiago where we stay and work from will perhaps allow regular updates from the workshop, so stay tuned!

- Stu Estler

Learning to Truly See Through The Lens

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

A student in an upcoming photo walk recently asked a great question – and it caused me to start thinking of introducing this idea early in the learning process, rather than save it for advanced classes.

She has a DX format SLR (1.5 crop factor from 35mm full frame), and she asked “should I just bring my 35mm f1.8 or do you think I should bring the 18-55mm kit lens too?”

Here is what I replied:

“Back in ‘the day’ when I started out learning photography (when you projected the image through the lens onto a rock and then chiseled it out on the stone) everyone began with a 35mm camera and a 50mm “standard” lens. The first thing we wanted was more lenses, and at that time (early 80’s) zooms were still “amateur” quality, and serious photographers used primes.

Zooms have improved now to the point where they’re the “standard” lens, and few people rely on a single prime lens for their shooting.

As a student, having the single focal length to use caused us to become more aware of the relationship of lens-to-subject, of composition; we learned to use the “two-step zoom” (you use your feet move closer to or farther from the subject). In my advance classes I give an assignment where the student must use just one focal length for all of their shots. It’s OK to use a zoom lens if that’s all they have, but they must choose a focal length and stay with it for the entire assignment.

It causes you to become much more attuned to your subject, more aware of composition and light, to think more creatively and explore the possibilities of framing and composition more fully. I believe some of that is lost with the availability of zoom lenses and the ease of changing focal length rather than working with the image and the subject.

So, if you’re up for it, I’d say use the 35mm, and if it’s convenient maybe bring the kit lens along just in case you’re really not happy with what’s going on with using the prime. “

So what lens do you shoot? Do you rely on the technology and availability of quality zoom lenses to just rack the focal length in and out to suit your preferences for the shot, or are you intimately aware of the relationship each focal length has in the perspective and point of view it produces with your subject

70mm Lens

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the best-known and well respected photographers of the 20th century is famous for using his M-Leica and 35mm lens for the majority of his photographs.  It’s not about the camera. It’s about the eye and the creative mind behind it.

Think about using just a single focal length lens – whether a prime, or just restricting yourself to a single focal length setting on your zoom. Become thoroughly familiar with all the possibilities and restrictions of that lens. Concentrate on making the best images possible with that focal length. Then, once you’ve become intimately accustomed to that view, choose another focal length, and do the same with it.

16mm Lens

It doesn’t have to be the “normal” 50mm or equivalent field of view. Some people are more comfortable seeing the world from a wide angle viewpoint, while others look for the close detail of a longer lens.

There’s no right and wrong answer here, and no single “ideal” focal length lens. But learning to truly understand the feel and possibilities of each will certainly improve your creative bag of tricks.

The Magic Hour

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

We kicked-off the Premier Photo Tours Photo Walk series Saturday morning with a sunrise walk in Annapolis, MD. Our intrepid walkers braved the below-freezing early morning temperatures to experience the magic that only happens before sunrise in the early morning hours.

The sky was mostly cloudy, with just a thin sliver of clear air on the eastern horizon – a near perfect for some amazing colors.

We gathered about 45 minutes before sunrise, and the sky was just beginning to show a bit of color along the horizon. The light changes constantly and quickly at this time of day, and as we talked and set up our tripods to frame that perfect shot we were all aware of the growing color breaking through the thin cloud laver.

While the timing differs depending on your location, here in the Mid-Atlantic we’re on the 38 to 39 degree north latitude, and about 20 minutes before sunrise is when the real light show begins. The reverse is true in the evening, as the last colors fade around 25 minutes after sunset.

The first shot here was at around 6:30am – about 15 minutes before sunrise, as the first wash of sunlight turns the edge of the cloud layer a neon red. Just a few minutes before sunrise the rays of the sun fan out along the cloud. Then, as the sun tops the edge of the horizon, her reflection dances across the waters of the Severn River.

It’s a bit odd that an event that happens every day, as predictable as, well, as the sunrise still causes such an intense sense of awe and majesty. Yet every day the show is a bit different and every minute of the morning the view changes.

We almost felt a bit sorry for all those snuggled securely in bed at that hour, blissfully unaware of the glorious show nature was providing us.

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

Shaping Up Your Composition

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

We’ve looked at lines and how they create movement or tranquility in your photos. Remember, lines can be literal – the visual edge of something in your picture – or implied, such as the line of sight of a person in your photo.

As we’re approaching the start of the Design4Kids 5.6 workshop in Honduras, everyone is busy putting together our lesson plans for the students. One of the great things about teaching photography is that you regularly revisit and review ideas and concepts that have become second nature, and causes you to see them in a fresh perspective.

With that in mind. I thoug I’d continue on the review of the basic elements of design in photography.

The next design elements to consider are shapes. Just like lines, shapes can be literal objects – formed by closed lined into circles, triangles, rectangles or an abstract – or created by an area of tone or color, or by a pattern of similar objects.

Our minds use shape to help us indentify and understand our world. We recognize familiar shapes and respond to stored emotional responses we’ve associated with those shapes. Creating shapes with pattern, color and tone can cause our imaginations to make similar associations even when the literal subject has nothing to do with the shape. Ever laid on your back in the grass on a warm summer day and looked for familiar shapes in cloud formations?

You can even us shape to cause an emotional response that is very different from what would normally be associated with the object itself. This technique is especially useful to create abstract images from otherwise familiar subjects, and create a dynamic photo from what may appear at face value to be an uninteresting subject.

Keep in mind – the spaces in between shapes are shapes in themselves. Being aware of and using the figure and ground interplay, of the positive and negative space, will give your photos another level of emotional energy.

Remember – each of the tips we talk about here are all part of a complete picture. As you become familiar with them and use them in your photos you see the shift in visual energy.

A great way to practice these different elements to cause them to become second nature in your photography is to take each one and shoot self-assignments with them. This is the technique we use in the Photo Mentor classes and our Premier Photo Tours workshops. The more you practice these elements that combine to create an emotional image the more they become a subconscious part of each photo you see. Your photos automatically improve as you absorb each lesson.

Premier Photo Tours on Groupon!

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

OK, I try to avoid crass commercialism here (as opposed to honest capitalism!) but I’m going to put this out there this time.

Those of you who’ve followed this site for some time have no doubt noticed the changes of late. I’m ramping up activity on my travel workshops and local photo walks, and have created Premier Photo Tours as an entity to coordinate it all.

It’s actually a logical outgrowth of the Photo Mentor classes and workshops, with the increased benefit of being able to learn and experimant hands-on in an environment that stimulates your creativity. Having the interaction of fellow phographers also adds to the “brainstorming” and sharing of ideas and techniques.

Well, today and now tomorrow – December 21 and 22 – I’m running an offer as a daily deal on Groupon, the social media buying site. You get the opportunity to try new services and products at significant savings, and we get the opportunity to give you an amazing experience that keeps you coming back for more.

If you’re not familiar with Groupon, or if you’re in a market outside of the metropolitan Washington, DC area, you can see the offer here: http://www.groupon.com/r/uu7103555

It’s a great opportunity to get together, learn and share a bit of photography lore, and meet each other. Even if you’re outside the DC area, think about taking advantage of it for when you’re visiting the area. Plus, I’ve made the voucher good for all Photo Mentor classes as well, and for upcoming travel workshops where we’ll just about all be coming from somewhere else!