Sampling Deity

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This photograph was taken during a morning hike in Garrapata State Park, Carmel, California.  I bought a 10-stop neutral density filter for just this purpose, and I was so pleased with the result.  For those less photographically inclined, a neutral density (ND) filter is basically like a pair of sunglasses for the camera.  You screw it on to the lens and it blocks out a certain portion of light.  A 10-stop ND filter blocks out, you may have guessed, ten times the light that would ordinarily hit the sensor.  By doing this, you can reduce the shutter speed and anything that moves—such as waves and water—becomes blurred.  Many photographers use ND filters to achieve this “softness” in waterfalls, waves, etc.

This was one of my first attempts at using a ND filter, and I was thoroughly impressed by the effect.  The waves were crashing on these two rocks off the coast of Garrapata, but in this photograph, they look calm and soft.  The smoothness of the water belies the strong, fierce waves.  The ND filter also allows much more saturated colors, which can be artificially boosted in post processing, but here occurred straight out of camera.

I love the sharp contrast between the jagged rocks and the smoothness of the waves.  It is completely unnatural in light of what was actually happening while this exposure was being captured, but it appears completely organic.  I am not usually one to manipulate nature in my photographs.  Generally, I take what is given to me, capturing a moment of nature and editing the photograph only to enhance the natural effect, perhaps to capture the melancholy of how I felt when I pressed the shutter button.

Here, however, I sampled a bit of deity and fiddled with the elements.  The effect is completely different than what I saw; the photograph, in this way, is far closer to a piece of art than simply my effort to capture the art of nature which was presented to me.  There is something to be said for the artistic quality, though I must admit that I am a bit uncomfortable determining how the elements should be portrayed.  It is a departure from my more documentary nature photography, but this is, perhaps, not a bad thing…

On Cave Dwelling…

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Some days, I feel like a cave dweller, and others I feel like a contributing member of society.  This is true at work and in my life in general.

At work, I can get so focused on a project that I look up from lunch and its eight o’clock in the evening.  The light in my office turns off after 20 minutes or so, and it cannot see my fingers furiously typing, just my head staring at the screen—immobile and resolute.  As a consequence, I often find myself working in the dark, too.

If you were to talk to Anna, she would tell you that the cave-dweller lighting is a personal favorite of mine, and I am not going to deny that I like a dark room as much as the next hermit.

I have had a particularly social week, with lunches every day with various people, and to my utter surprise, I am not burned out by it.  As a consummate introvert, too much contact with other people used to drain me, and if they were the wrong people, I suppose it still would.  Some switch has been flipped in me, and suddenly I can find myself enjoying being out with people…in moderate doses.  Perhaps a switch flip is a bit too optimistic; it’s more like my extroversion dimmer has been turned up a few shades.

The irony is that I took this photograph on one of the mornings that Kemper did not want to come hike with me, and so I was alone.  I had a very interesting internal monologue, in which I admitted that I missed the minion being with me, but I also found that I absolutely enjoyed being able to go at my own speed, without the lamentations of a six-year-old.  I like my alone time, but I am like Goldilocks when it comes to being alone.  I like it, but on my own unreasonable terms.

When Kemper, Nora, and Anna were down in Disney, I enjoyed the first couple hours, and then I became restless.  I was, in fact, longing for human interaction.  It was so unlike me.  I ate at a barbeque restaurant in Ponte Vedra and chatted up the cook as I sat at the bar; I went to Trader Joe’s and Publix, and when I got home, I turned a baseball game on, just so the sound of voices resonated through the house in a paltry attempt at connection with people.

As I have become more comfortable with myself over the last four years, I have also become more comfortable with others.  I still like my caves every once in a while, but more often now, I am willing to come into the light.

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On Surviving…

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We survived the first day.

No call.  No tears.  No arson.

All in all, a good start to the first grade.

Now you may think that I am being a bit melodramatic—after all, Kemp is a good kid—but I am also being realistic after the ups and downs of last year.

No child is perfect, and this is a lesson that we learned the hard way when Kemper came back from Christmas break last year.  He has matured exponentially over the summer, and I knew that he would be in a different place, with a different teacher, who has more experience and, perhaps, more patience with little boys who just want to make you laugh.

The kid has a heart of gold, as I did at his age.  He only wants to please, and I lose sight of this in the moments where he is being obstinate or so literal that it makes you want to pull the three hairs you have left on your head out (personally speaking).  I lost some of that innocence and pureness of spirit in college and law school, but I feel like I am slowly gaining it back—which just goes to show that it does not have to be lost.

I know that I need to foster this uncharacteristic empathy and softness inside of him, and make him understand that despite the sometimes-toxic masculinity that the world presents as the paradigm, it is ok to be sensitive and caring, and it is ok to embrace the empathy that is innate within him.  I hope that he is able to hold onto these characteristics for as long as he can, at least through his formative years, because it is a lot easier to go back to a learned behavior than to start from scratch.

So now we wait for the call.  Maybe it will not come this year.  Maybe he’s bled all of the angst from his system, but I don’t think so.  I see the anxiety in his great big brown eyes, and the concern for things much larger than himself, and in those concerns, I revisit my own childhood and force myself to think of how I can make it easier for him, how I can facilitate finding himself in the morass that is growing up.

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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 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.

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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.

On Discovering an Artist’s Mind

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Salt lingers on my tongue, the shore in my nostrils, even five years later, and miles removed from the rough-hewn valley, where I tried in vain to compose the essence of the waves, the spirit of the ocean in a single exposure.  My camera pulled at me as we walked gracelessly across the rocks.  That’s where Kemper and I found her, sure-footed above the whitecaps, a small silhouette against a dense layer of mist that settled over the shoreline, whitewashing the coal-black granite.

What does it say that I, myself, framed her body against the foothills, lingering on the shadow-play of her form, as if the roil of the ocean were quotidian; yet her profile swelled in the portrait like a distant odalisque?  What draws me back to her silhouette on that promontory, at that moment–that moment that will never be forgotten, though she may not have know that we were even there.