On Miniature Versions of Yourself

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Although I have written a fair amount about Kemper and his travels with me, I have not given Nora her due credit.  The munchkin was a trooper on the trails, much better in fact than the minion was at his age.  For anyone who knows me, you can see from Nora’s face and general baby-bulbousness, the apple did not fall far from the tree.  There is, as I am wont to say, no denying that this one belongs to me.

She is a mellow little thing, until something lights her red hair on fire, and then she can throw a tantrum with the best of them.  Yes, she gets this from me, too.  She adores Kemper, and if she had her druthers, she would just follow around him the whole day keeping him company and playing with whatever toys he didn’t requisition from her (with force) because they were too small, and she might choke on them.

Because her mind is curious and wanders, she is great for candids (as this shot attests), and I look forward to using her as a subject as she grows up around me with speed that I didn’t think was possible, even though I have seen it firsthand with Kemper.

 

On the Perfect Composition

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I have taken many photographs that I am proud of, but there are some that I finish developing, set aside for a day or so, and then come back to with a sense of wonder that I actually took the shot.  This is one such picture.

Compositionally it is exactly what I was going for.  I am a disciple of the “rule of thirds,” which you can see in many of my photographs.  It is why you rarely, if ever, see my subject in the middle of the frame.  I think it distinguishes amateur photography from more advanced photography, and it was one of the first rules I ever followed.  It’s a simple trick to make the photos look more professional, and it works beautifully in this photograph.

Like the post yesterday, this one employs a long exposure to soften the movement of the water around the rocks.  It was a bit more overcast on this day, and so I was able to take an eight second exposure, which completely blurred out the individual waves.  Because I was able to manipulate the light with the neutral density filter, the sky and sunlight appear much more golden and clearer than the actual atmosphere of the day would have permitted.

Most of the other shots that I took without using a long exposure from that day were gloomy, almost gothic captures of the rocky coastline.  This one is anything but gloomy, and that in and of itself is an accomplishment.  Because I had to take my time framing the shot, focusing, putting the filter on, manually adjusting the exposure settings, and only then firing the shutter, the photograph is not accidentally great like many of mine turn out to be.  It was one of the rare shots where I saw the composition in my mind and then captured it exactly how I wanted it.  Overall, it is one of my favorite photographs from the trip.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @stamandphotos and on Instagram @stamandphotography.

On Capturing Time

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The post’s title might lead one to think that this is going to be a philosophical post, which I regret to inform you, it is not.  This is a post on process, and the ability through some doing, to capture just a bit more than an instant in time with a camera.  Ansel Adams once noted that “You don’t take a photograph; you make it.”  This spoke to his process of spending hours in the darkroom on a single photograph.  Although he captured it through his camera, the photograph was as much about what he made of it as what he took.  This is why post-processing is such an important part of photography, whether in the physical dark room, or in digital software, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, which I use.

This trip, I set out to make photographs.  On the days that Kemp did not burst into our bedroom with the drive to go hiking with daddy, I took it upon myself to go to Garrapata and try out something that I had been wanting to do for a while: long exposure photography.

The premise of long exposure photography is pretty simple.  The shutter of the camera stays open for a longer period of time, letting more light in, and capturing a much longer “exposure.”  An “average” exposure in good lighting might be 1/250th of a second, whereas my long exposures this trip ranged from 1 seconds to 30 seconds.  If I were to have taken them by simply setting the shutter speed longer, too much light would have hit the sensor, and the shot would have been overexposed and completely white.  To counteract this, I gave my lens sunglasses…basically.

A neutral density (ND) filter blocks out a substantial portion of light so that the shutter can stay open for a long time, while allowing just enough light in to correctly expose the shot.  I used a 10-stop ND filter, which is on the darker, denser end of the filters.  This allowed me to capture 1 to 30 seconds of exposure in bright morning light.  This photograph is an awesome example of what resulted.  This one is only about 2 seconds, but it captures the movement of the waves, rather than freezing them in time like some of my other photographs.  You can’t see the individual droplets of water, but you can see the curves and currents, which are absent in the others.

One long exposure shot takes about 5-10 minutes to set up, because you have to frame the shot, focus the camera, put the filter on, adjust the settings manually to account for the filter, shoot the photo, and then go back to make sure everything was exposed correctly.  As such, it was a perfect exercise to undertake whilst Kemper wasn’t around.  The chorus of “I want a cimminum roll,” or “Are you finished yet,” would have made the morning a bit less enjoyable than it was simply taking my time and capturing 10-20 photos, rather than the hundred or so every other morning.  Still, I missed the little guy’s company.  Luckily, he did not stay away for too long.

Photographs are generally about capturing an infinitely small moment forever.  Sometimes, however, you can capture a bit more, like the curves of a wave or the flow of the current over the rocks.  I have always loved long exposure shooting, and I was so excited to be able to try it out this trip.

Also, follow me on Twitter @stamandphotos.

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On the Path Less Traveled By

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As an English major and a writer, I find metaphors in just about everything I do.  Just as I referenced the metaphor of Kemper on the path in yesterday’s post, this photograph of divergent paths struck me when I came upon it during a solo hike in Garrapata.  Kemper had decided that three days of strenuous hiking in a row was enough daddy-son time, and he sat that morning out—with the express condition that I bring a cinnamon (pronounced “cimminum”) roll for him on my way back through the village.

I love this photograph, not for the intrinsic compositional value of it, but because it is the literal embodiment of Frost’s poem (sans the yellow wood).  I took the one less traveled by, and indeed it did make all the difference.  It has, quite probably, scarred me for life.  Not exactly the effect that it had on Frost, but this is reality and Frost’s poem was a metaphor.

You can see in the bottom right corner, if you zoom in on the photograph, the incipient bunch of tripartite leaves of what, it turns out, is poison oak.  It was so prevalent along the paths, that certainly no one in their right mind would have traipsed through virulent shrubbery, and so I paid it no further thought until a few days post-hike.  Further, I am used to poison ivy, which grows on a vine rather than a bush of regret and sadness.  Sadly, some of the evils of the West Coast are disguised as hedgerows.

The path was, at the time, a fun little adventure.  It meandered closer to the edge of the cliffs’ edges, while keeping a respectful distance from the precipice in most spots.  There was a dodgy stretch, but some travelers, as disinclined to stride along a hare’s-breath of path juxtaposed against a sixty-foot plummet, had cut a secondary looping jaunt (through the damnable undergrowth) that avoided the cliff’s edge and certain death.  This was acceptable to me, and quite lovely, on account of the omnipresent, verdant, and then-innocuous shrub of despair.

When Anna, Nora, Kemper and I came to Garrapata later that day, I took Kemper on a small section of the secondary trail.  He was reticent to follow, but, ultimately, he did.  I told him only “big kids” could come on the path, and this was enough to carry the day.  Luckily it was chilly, and he was wearing jeans and a jacket – fully armored against the chaparral of anguish.

By Kemper’s age (6.5 years) I had already broken both of my wrists, sliced my thumb to the bone with a utility knife, and cracked a few toes; but he has, heretofore, not suffered any major bodily injuries.  He is cautious of the unbeaten paths, for which I am grateful.  In Frost’s poem, the narrator does not rush headlong down the path less traveled by.  Instead, “long I stood / and looked down one as far as I could / to where it bent in the undergrowth.”  As impulsive as he can be, this is Kemper’s general approach to life choices.  It will serve him well.

On the Journey Ahead

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I am sure that in a few years (e.g., when he hits puberty) the allure of Kemper walking away from me on a wooded path will have gone the way of Old Yeller, but for now, I cannot stop taking pictures of him doing just that.  If I ever work up the gumption to have a gallery show at my in-laws’ art gallery, I will have material for a whole wall of “Minion Marching” photos.

I love photographs of paths, and I love photographing Kemper.  Although he has the memory of an eidetic elephant, I hope that he will be able to remember the trips we took when he was younger through the pictures that I have taken.  He is walking through the path of life (sorry, I’m not sorry…I was an English major), and these photographs are as much about his journey as anything.

For now, I will walk behind making sure that he does not stray too far.  In the not so distant future, these photos of him walking in front of me will take on new, different significance.

 

On Yogi, Moe, and Poison Oak

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It is not unusual for Kemper to wake us at 6:30, or if he is feeling particularly spunky, at 5:45—rip-roaring and ready to go.  Although we thought that he would be jet lagged and might, perhaps, sleep in, this was a false hope.  What he did when he came bounding into our room fully dressed, however, took us by surprise.  Instead of asking to go watch TV, he asked me if I wanted to go “exploring” (hiking) with him and take pictures.  I couldn’t say no, nor did I want to deny him this adventure, so laconically I drifted into shorts and a fleece jacket, grabbed the rental car’s keys, and we headed to Garrapata State Reserve, about 15 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Kemp and I had never been to Garrapata, so we parked where we already saw cars at 6:45 in the morning, which proved to be brilliant on our part.  We found the trailhead and there was a fork in the path, so we took it, a-la Yogi Berra.  We went on the right-hand path the first day, which began in a heavily wooded cedar grove, thereby blocking out any inkling of the view that was to come when we emerged on the other side.  When we did make our way through the tunnel of conifers, we arrived at a coastline that was simply magnificent.

The photograph at the beginning of this post, and the one in my first post-vacation post on Monday, were some of the first I took.  Kemp and I had a few more early morning adventures which continued from Sunday through Wednesday, when the entire reserve had been weighed, measured, and found to be at least pedestrian, and at most menacingly dangerous to a six-year-old whose motor coordination, though developing age-appropriately, closely approximates the pratfalls of the Three Stooges.

Having left Moe (Kemper) at home on Thursday and Friday, I tried my hand at long-exposure photography, which I will post in the coming days.  I was quite pleasantly surprised at how even my first attempts turned out.  (God bless YouTube tutorials.)

Kemper joined me on Saturday for one last hurrah.  We went on the original right-hand trail, as he had deemed the left one to be too dangerous for prudent adventurers like we were.  He advised me of this precondition to the hike while we drove to the park, lest I form any inchoate thoughts of taking him to the cliff’s edge for a photo opportunity.  I agreed to his preconditions, and we had a lovely (albeit moderately abbreviated by a six-and-a-half-year-old walnut-sized bladder) hike through the underbrush and verdant leaves of a plant with which I was theretofore unfamiliar.  Upon some post hoc analysis, I came to determine that the entirety of Garrapata’s chaparral had been carefully seeded with poison oak to keep the riff-raff (read tourists) in their place and on the well-marked trails.

Well played, Garrapata.  Well played.

Garrapata Coastline

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What a trip.

Anna, the kids, and I spent the last week in California.  Although this was not the first time by any stretch that we had visited Carmel-by-the-Sea and its surrounding coves and hamlets, it was the first time that we visited just the four of us.  In point of fact, it was the first vacation that we’ve taken as a single small family unit without parents or siblings.

I cannot speak for the whole side of the country, but from the scenes I have encountered from Seattle to San Francisco (and a few points in between), the beauty of the West Coast dwarfs the Atlantic coast, just as the waves dwarf those small undulations of good humor that pass for waves in the eastern seas.

Traveling with the kids was not as thoroughly oppressive as I anticipated, which was one of the small victories of the trip.  Kemper (six-and-a-half) is at an age now that he has formed strong, concrete memories, and will continue to form them.  For him, California is no longer abstract as it was when we first brought him to Carmel when he was only a few months old.  Nora (nearly two) will have to make her memories through the photographs I took of her, which is how I remember climbing on the rocks in Bar Harbor bay when I was three or four and could fit in the narrow crevasses with little foresight or consequence.

To his credit, Kemper, who likes walking about as much as I did as a kid, woke me up each morning to go explore the coastline.  We would leave the house around 6:30 and get home before 9:00, checking out the fare of the Carmel Bakery on our way home.  He earned every cinnamon roll he received, and by the end, he was eating more than just the icing and that choice middle piece that Anna is wont to steal if I look away for a moment.

Our favorite hike was in Garrapata State Preserve, about 20 minutes south of Carmel via scenic Highway 1.  The views are comparable to those in Point Lobos State Reserve, which is closer to Carmel, but Garrapata had two distinct advantages: (1) it is free to hike, and (2) there are no gates, and so we could hike at any godforsaken hour of the morning that the minion chose to wake me.

This photograph was taken on one of the foggier days we had in California.  The sun refused to creep through the marine layer, and it gave the scene a rather Gothic aesthetic.  Just below where I set up the tripod for this photograph, there was a quaint little double waterfall that ran from the mountains to the sea.  The crashing of the waves and the low rush of the waterfall drowned out most thoughts of the job I had left behind, in the midst of trial preparation (much to the horror of my boss).  (In my defense, the federal judge took it upon herself to accelerate the trial by a month after we had bought the plane tickets.)

I took 1,800 photographs from Sunday to Friday, and I have just begun to cull through them to select the ones that might make the first cut.  I imagine that I will end up with 50-100 fully edited photographs, maybe more, and so keep your eyes peeled on the blog and (gasp) on Instagram (@stamandphotography) for more frequent updates.

Reunion

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We leave for Carmel on Saturday morning.  Although I am usually one who goes with the proverbial flow, I created an itinerary for the whole week.  I loathed the idea of sitting around for forty-five minutes pondering what we were going to do that day, and so I sat down in my office at 2:13 AM (as I am increasingly wont to do) and plotted out a schedule for what may prove to be our last trip out west for a while.

I sent the itinerary to Anna on Friday, and she glanced over it with approbation.  We are going to visit Rocky Point, Big Sur, Big Basin Redwoods state park, and the Monterey Aquarium to name but a few.  The trip was planned, the minivan rented, and the camera batteries charging when I got a text from an old college friend of ours.  She had happened across a movie that the three of us watched together for the first time years ago, and she realized we had not talked in a while.  She lives in DC, and, though Anna has seen her more recently, I have not seen her since law school in Richmond.

She was scheduled to fly out to San Francisco on Saturday, but she managed to change her plans and will be joining us Thursday and Friday in Carmel.  We could not be more excited.  EmGood has a joie-de-vivre that is insurmountable, and she has been down rocky paths (like the one that heads this post) only to come out even better on the other side.  She needs a vacation, and we need a shot of EmGood in our life.  We just didn’t know it at the time.

Needless to say, the itinerary is shot to hell, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  For someone who hates change and loathes planning (and understands the inherent contradiction), I am wonderfully at peace with this.  So now I will retire from this post to rearrange the days so that EmGood can see all of the highlights of Carmel while she is there, and we can enjoy them together.

Revisiting

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We head out to California in less than a week.  I have prepared for this trip (photographically, at least) more than any other I have taken in the past.  As the house my in-laws own is to be put on the market after our visit, it may be the last time in a long while that we can make it out to Carmel, and I wanted to make the most of my time in the most picturesque part of the continental United States that I have ever visited.

I bought a new camera (a D7500) and a new lens (a Nikon 17-55 f/2.8) for the trip, and I have been compulsively watching Youtube videos on various photography techniques and also tutorials on editing in Lightroom and Photoshop.  This is one of my older photos of Point Lobos, and though my technique in taking the photograph was not optimal, the original turned out fine by my standards.  With new post-processing tools, though, the photograph is far more evocative than its previous iteration.

I am thrilled to be going out to California one last time, and my kit is fully stocked.  I have new tools and new techniques, but above all, I have a much deeper appreciation of this last rare chance to capture the once-foreign coastline that has become so familiar to me in the last five years.  I have a feeling that the photographs are going to be more technically sound, but more than that, they will carry a greater weight about them.

I’ll be in touch…

 

Moments

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There is something so genuine about a little boy being outside, skinning his knees, sloshing in mud puddles, and engaging with nature.  I used to be that little boy.  Now I have one.

The week before Father’s Day, I woke Kemper up at midnight and we hopped in the car for a surprise trip up to Brevard, North Carolina, where my parents and sister were on vacation.  It was a spur of the minute surprise for Father’s Day for my dad, and when we walked into the cabin while he was eating his breakfast, it was clear that it had the intended effect.

I had worked a couple of long months (hence the dearth of posts), and I had mentally burned the candle at both ends until it was nearly extinguished.  I needed to check out for a couple of days, and so with Anna’s blessing, and This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby on audiobook (I’m on a Fitzgerald kick, what can I say), Kemp and I made the 7.5 hour trek to North Carolina in the dead of night.

Initially, my only thought was that it would be a great surprise for my dad.  Bringing along Kemper was secondary, and my own enjoyment of the trip was a distant tertiary consideration.  My dad was thrilled.  Kemper enjoyed himself.  But the effect the four days I spent with them in North Carolina had on me was more powerful than I could have ever anticipated.

I am, by most metrics, a very good son.  I call my mother often; I have lunch with my dad at least once a month; and we visit (though not as often as we, perhaps, should).  I thought the trip would be a nice surprise, and little more.  My dad had texted me when they arrived the week prior that he really wished that I would have been able to come up.  My mom echoed this sentiment to me on a phone call later that day.  This planted the seed, but I was too busy to even think about pulling myself away from my desk.

I cannot say precisely what it was that made me realize that surprising my dad was more important than two days of billables.  I do not remember the tipping point.  It may have been at 1:00 AM, sitting at my desk at work, having not been able to fall asleep that night because I was thinking about all that needed to be done.  Perhaps.  At some point I had an epiphanic realization that my life over the last two months had been, quite literally, all work and no play.

Fitzgerald always inspires me to imagine that there is more to the world that what I have done so far—whether this is writing the next Gatsby, or simply stepping outside my comfort zone to see what comes of it.  Shipping up to North Carolina on a whim was completely out of character for me, who needs to plan his major life choices with spreadsheets and agony.  I have not made a better personal decision in a very long time.

We are going to California, Anna, the kids, and I, in July before my in-laws sell their house in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I am selling all of my earthly possessions including my trusty Nikon D7100 to buy a new camera so that I can take the best photos of what might be my last trip out there for quite a while.  (The D7100’s still for sale, if you’re interested!)  I have planned out an itinerary to maximize my photographic opportunities.  I am resolute about capturing every sunset while we are there.

The trip to North Carolina helped to readjust my perspective on life.  It is short.  Work is an important part of my life at this point, but providing for my family means more than just a paycheck and a bonus.  I saw that in Kemper as we took the hike along the Davidson River, where he stopped and sat for a minute on a fallen elm tree just looking over the river flowing before him.  For a moment, he understood what it took me 30+ years to understand.  (In fairness, it will have escaped him as quickly as the twigs that he threw in the quickly flowing current…)

Life is about moments, and moments are about what you make of them.

I’m going to try my very best not to forget that.  Maybe I will keep Fitzgerald on repeat to remind me.