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…

Wright

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This picture makes me feel like a phony.

Compositionally, the photograph is nearly perfect.  The sight lines of the rocks and the mountain in the back converge on Kemper.  There is strong texture and contrast between the foreground and background.  Kemp forms the apex of a natural triangle, and the rule of thirds has been followed with strict adherence.  He’s looking away from the camera, natural and insouciant.  Hell, the wildflowers are even in bloom.

Yes.  This is technically ideal, and, had I planned it, I could not have executed it much better.  But that is just the thing.  I didn’t plan it.  I snapped the picture of Kemper on a rock in Garrapata State Park because he had come with me on a cold and windy morning, and he found a rock that he wanted to climb, and far be it for me to stop him from doing what brought me such joy when I was his age.

Perhaps there was something in my subconscious that told me to stand exactly where I stood to take this picture, rather than a couple feet to the left or right.  Perhaps it wasn’t happenstance.  I still remember one of my elementary school art teachers looking at a lump of unformed clay with me and saying that we had to take what the clay gave us.  What she meant, I think, was that an artist is not always the creator (if ever), but instead is—to use an archaic, but fitting term—the wright, who makes the best of what is given to them.

Ultimately, I didn’t have to take the photograph.  I didn’t have to make the decisions I did in post-processing, to bring out the contrast between the foreground and the misty background, or to crop it as I did.  But there we are.

This photo is not going to win any prizes or be displayed in a gallery, but it will make the rotation on the slideshow in my office.  When I look up and glance at it for the moment it remains, I will appreciate the happenstance of art a bit more, understanding that as a photographer I am not so much a creator as a wright…and that is OK.

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 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 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.