Catch Up Blog

By Roger (23 October 2016)

Sorry for the lag in blogs. I have many valid excuses, but let's just dispense with those and get caught up. I've had a very busy five weeks. I've been to several states, for various reasons and always had, at least, one camera with me. There were lots of different photography subjects covered.

It started, at home, with a young man, Michael, and his girlfriend, Ally. I have been photographing Michael's family since long before he was born. I have photos of him throughout his life. Mike and Ally stopped by the house, on their way to visit another college friend. Let's just skip the fact that he shouldn't have aged this quickly.

We went out to the Manassas Battlefield to make some quick photos. It's an ideal photo venue because it has clusters of locations with great backgrounds. We shot in several areas, but this was one of their favorites.

Mike and Ally make a cute couple

Then, it was up to Maryland, to take the grandkids to the Renaissance Fest. It's always a target rich environment. It was full of colorful characters open to posing. There were several performing groups, on stages around the venue. We all enjoyed this great little trio, Piper Jones. We must have listened to them for 30 minutes – that's a long time when you're hanging out with three young grandkids. They were just that good. We bought one of their CDs and wandered around some more.

Piper Jones

The next weekend, we went down to Elizabeth City, NC. We travel down there several times a year, so I've found several favorite locations there. It's a great place for sunrise photos because the sun reflects across the still water. There are always boats and cypress trees around to help create a moody vibe.

Sunrise Sailboat

Then, I needed to make a trip to Florida (it's a long story). I snagged a window seat on the plane, and, as we were descending into Orlando, I glanced out the window. I've never really had much luck with aircraft window shots, but the clouds were really interesting, and the sun was just creating really interesting light. You've heard that the best camera is the one you have on you? Well, that was my Iphone. This is probably only the second time I've seen a photo that made me try to shoot through an airplane window. It has received very little critical acclaim from the family, but there's something about it that looks cool to me.

I was just a few days ahead of Hurricane Matthew, so there were lots of clouds and heavier-than-normal waves. The beach was full of surfers, even early in the morning. Cocoa Beach was hopping. I set up the tripod for an interesting sunrise. Several of the surfers came by and asked me to take some photos of them near the pier. This young lady made several runs for me. She kept getting closer and closer to the pier. If I'd known the surfers were going to be so accommodating, I'd have brought a longer lens. We finally got one she liked.

Surfing Cocoa Beach

Believe it or not, when I got back to work, my company wanted me to take a quick trip up to New York City. I was there and back in 24 hours, so I knew I wasn't going to have lots of time to go exploring. I decided to take my little Lumix LX100. It's a great little camera that I can carry with no fuss or muss, but it still shoots in RAW. I walked past Pershing Square, on my way to the meeting. After the meeting, I had some time, while I was waiting for transportation back to the airport. I took a photo from the meeting location, focusing on the geometric shapes of the buildings.

Geometry and Repeating Patterns

On October 1st, Mark and I led our seventh Kelby Worldwide Photowalk, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We had 25 people signed up, but only 13 were present at the start time. There was rain in the forecast, but it only rained for 15 minutes during the walk. At that time, we were at the halfway point, inside a great store, with lots of old reproduction items. We didn't get a drop of water on us.

Our Shepherdstown, WV, Photowalk Group

It always surprises me when so many people back out of an event because there is inclimate weather. If you look at lots of photographs, you'll notice that the supply of bad weather photos is much, much smaller than nice weather photos. I think bad weather gives you the opportunity to make a photograph that is different from the usual fare. That's a good thing, in my mind.

My favorite photo was taken before the walk. The wet pavement, at our meeting place, the Bavarian Inn (link), created some nice reflections from the outside lights. The staff made us feel welcome when we all got together at the end of the photowalk. The food was great; they even had a Dunkels Bier, one of my favorite German brews.

Bavarian Inn

Next up was a model shoot. I was working, as an assistant, for my friend, Tony Gibson. We've worked with each other for years; sometimes, he's my assistant and, sometimes, I'm his assistant. Sometimes, we're just shooting together. In any event, we always have a good time.

I had plans to second shoot, but it was a very windy day and the retreating light meant we had to move quickly. I did carry my Lumix for some behind-the-scene photos, so I got a few photos but spent most of my time moving gear and holding the reflectors against the wind. We had another photographer with us, Anna. She provided an extra set of trained eyes and a woman's point of view. We had a great time and clicked well as a team. I would love to do some more work with the team.

You can check out both Tony's site (link) and Anna's site (link) to see their great work. You'll notice they photograph many equestrian events. That's where we met Anna.

All three of us were working, yesterday, at the International Gold Cup event. Just before I left for last week's trip, I received my credentials for the Gold Cup. Those photos will have to wait for another blog because they're still being processed. I got my first real credentials in 1981, but I still get a thrill every time I have them. The access they provide to different photography locations and angles can make for more unique photos (and, to me, it's just fun).

Between the model shoot and the International Gold Cup, Mark and I left for a week in the Smoky Mountains National Park. We mentioned, earlier in the year, that we had a special trip planned. We made photos every day and visited numerous sites within the park. Besides having fun, I learned so much – about my camera; about slow shutter speeds; and more. We'll talk about some of these lessons learned in future blogs.

So, you can see I've been busy while I've been away. The next blog won't be so slow in arriving – promise.

Bealeton Balloon Fest, Part 2

By Roger (28 August 2016)

As you read in our last blog, Mark and I stopped by the Bealeton Flying Circus, for their balloon festival. I've always loved these events. I have photographed several balloon fests, in the past, so I had high hopes, based on my previous experiences.

My first balloon fest was in Augsburg, Germany, back in 1981. The balloons there were the old style balloons, with helium, instead of hot air. The balloons were encompassed in nets which were staked down as the balloon was filled with gas. You can see the nets weighed down in the first photo. Just prior to liftoff, the pilot attached the net to toggles in the cockpit; sandbags and tether lines were released; and the balloon took off. These photos are both shot with a 50mm lens, on my trusty Canon F-1. As you can see in the second photo, we could get right next to the balloons.

Balloon Fest, in Augsburg, Germany

Balloon Fest, in Augsburg, Germany

The pilot securing net toggles

The pilot securing net toggles

I shot several of these events over my two assignments to Germany. In more recent years, I've continued to get in close to the crews during their preparations. The draw now is the flames from the burners. They put out some really cool flames. Again, I have used normal or shorter telephoto lenses.

Get in close to catch the burner flame (Wisconsin Rapids)

Get in close to catch the burner flame (Wisconsin Rapids)

I mention the lenses because, as Mark said in his blog, I made some assumptions for the Flying Circus event and wasn't as prepared as I could have been. In short, I didn't bring a long telephoto lens. It turned out this balloon fest was different than the others I've attended. Since the airfield was active, with several bi-planes landing and taking off, we were not able to get close to the balloons while they were being prepped. My longest lens was a 70-200mm; not long enough to get close in photos. I was disappointed, but I was there, so I had to photograph something before I went home.

At first, I made the same photographs as Mark. We both shot the two plane formation. with the moon in the background. And both saw the planes flying behind the yellow balloon and knew the compression, from the telephoto, would make it appear as if they were flying in close formation.

Flying with the moon

Flying with the moon

Almost the same shot Mark took

Almost the same shot Mark took

I was a little disappointed and ready to leave when I realized it was time to adapt to the situation and change my plan of action. Since the pilots were offering rides, for a small fee, I decided to get a different perspective on the balloons. The slow speed and open cockpits of the bi-planes make them a great platform for aerial photography. I talked to the pilot, and he agreed to help me out by flying around the balloons. It made my day a success.

After climbing over the wing and into the front cockpit, I settled down for the ride. The pilot asked me to keep my hands off the controls; that was a pretty easy request to honor since it's pretty sparse in the Stearman cockpit.

Stearman cockpit RD42815

The ride was spectacular. I've been up in many types of aircraft, including an interesting trip in a doors-open military helicopter flying at high speed and nap of the earth, but this ride was pure enjoyment.

The pilot went right to work for me. Many of the balloons were beginning to land, and he knew where they would probably touch down. He flew over a vineyard, with a balloon down by the pond, and put the plane into a shallow bank to give me a shot without the wings in the viewfinder. I had switched to my 24-120mm zoom, and that was the perfect lens for the job, and I didn't have to worry about vibration from the wind buffeting the longer (and heavier) 70-200mm.

Convenient - landing the balloon next to a vineyard

Convenient - landing the balloon next to a vineyard

He took me by balloons flying over trees, in hay fields, and by farms. We saw six different balloons and were on our way back when we saw one last balloon. It was still flying and just getting ready to cross over a pond. I was getting ready to point it out when he told me to make this one good because it was time to return to the airfield. I made my favorite photo of the day from the two circles he made.

I wish there was a reflection, but it is still my favorite.

I wish there was a reflection, but it is still my favorite.

On the way back, we passed over the airfield, so I could get a shot of the small hanger, at the end of the grass airstrip. The trip was worth every penny it cost (hint: it was less than $100). I had not intended to spend the money for the ride, but I was really glad I did. It made the day for me and provided a completely different perspective from the other balloon fest photos I have.

Airstrip RD42960

Don't forget the Worldwide Photowalk is coming on 1 October. Although there is no cost, you must register to participate in all the fun. You can find our walk, in Shepherdstown, WV, here. If you'd like to check other locations, you can find them here. Come join us for a fun time.

Wildlife Photography For Beginners

By Roger (7 August 2016)

If you're looking for something challenging to photograph, and you like animals, you should give wildlife photography a try. Typically, wildlife photographers make photos of undomesticated animals, in their natural habitat. Many adhere to photo-journalistic standards. They won't edit anything in the photo or manufacture the scene (through bait lures, etc.). You can find countless stories on the web about photographers being stripped of awards because they violated these rules.

You may have heard it requires very expensive gear and an unlimited travel budget, not to mention the physical fitness of an Olympic athlete. Those requirements may be a bit over-stated, but wildlife photography can be a difficult genre to break into, especially if you intend to make a living at it. The successful wildlife photographer has studied the animals and their habitats. They spend long periods in the field to gather those beautiful shots you see. However, there are many simpler, less-expensive approaches available to you, if you just like animal photography.

One of the easiest place to begin learning is your local zoo. It may not be as exotic as a trip to Antarctica, but today's zoos are making great strides to make their enclosures more closely match the animals' natural environments and eliminate unnecessary barriers between the viewer and the animals. With the safe conditions of a zoo and closer distances involved, you don't need any of the really expensive, long focal length lenses to get a good photo. Usually a lens with a focal length that tops out at 200mm will be sufficient. Most zoos will permit a monopod, which you can use for extra camera stability when the enclosures are a little dim.

Gibbon, Omaha Zoo

You still need to do a little bit of work; don't get lazy just because the zoo is easy. Find out the best time to catch the animals being active – it's usually early in the day. The animals will move as they want, so be patient. Don't whistle or make noises at them. You'll annoy the other guests, and the animals have heard it before and will ignore you. Look for the best backgrounds for your photos. Spend some time watching how the animal is behaving. Move around to find the best composition. The crowd always stops at the closest position to the animal, but moving further may give you a better angle on the animal and help you keep the crowds out of the frame. That's how I did got this coati photo.

Coati, Omaha Zoo

Beyond the basic zoo, you may be able to find animals in some other kind of captive condition. Animal parks hold animals in large parks and allow them to roam. We have one in Virginia that has 180 acres of land that you can drive through in your vehicle. (Virginia Safari Park) The animals are not predators, obviously, but you can make photos of them without worrying about bars. Since you can feed the animals, they are unafraid and may approach your car, allowing you even closer photos. Again, look at your backgrounds, and try to get a photo that makes the animals look as if they are in a natural environment.

Zebras in the park

I wrote about another captive event, back in 2014, (link), when I was talking about group shoots. The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (link) brings raptors to some events. They'll let contributors photograph the birds during the events. With the raptors sitting on a branch, they appear to be in the wild. As I said, these types of wildlife photography aren't what the “real” wildlife photographers do, but it can give you a chance to make nice photos of animals. And, as a bonus, you are contributing to a worthy charity.


When you're willing to take your chances on the whims of nature, you can head into a wildlife refuge. In a refuge, the animals (finally) are in their natural environment. You have no guarantee of seeing any of them; you are going to have to go into the refuge to try to find them. This is where your planning, knowledge of the animals, and patience will be tested. So why would I include them in a blog about easy ways to get into wildlife photography? Because there are still some easier ways to experience the wildlife refuge. Most of the preserves around the world have guide services, operating inside, for those willing to spend some money.

My favorite refuge is the Denali National Park and Preserve, in Alaska (link). We've visited it half a dozen times. Founded in 1917, it has more than six million acres of wilderness. The animals are never fed or assisted in any manner; everything is real. However, there is one road into this wilderness. Current prices for a bus trip into Denali start at about $80.

You may scoff at taking a bus, but you would be surprised what you can see from that vantage point. The animals completely ignore the buses because they aren't a threat to them. The drivers are connected by radio to tip each other off when an animal is spotted near the road. If you get the right group of passengers – meaning they are very quiet – you can get very close to animals in the area.

Denali Wolf

For example, on one trip, our driver was tipped off about a wolf near the road. The bus stopped, and everyone was told to be very quiet. The wolf came out of the brush; walked alongside the bus; and disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road. The close up was shot with a 200mm lens and is not cropped The wolf was so close to us that I couldn't get all of her into the camera frame. The bears, below, were one of 10 sets of grizzlies we saw the year prior. Once again, we were just riding the bus.

Denali Wolf close-up

Denali Grizzlies

Denali Grizzlies

I will never be a “real” wildlife photographer. My primary interests lie in other genres, but I'm always ready to make interesting photos when they present themselves. If you are looking for ways to build your collection of animal photos, there are several inexpensive ways to begin. Use the resources available to learn your techniques; study the animals and their environments; and look for opportunities to make it happen.

Have fun, and, remember, all of your wildlife photos don't have to be big and scary.

2016 Gold Cup

By Roger (15 May 2016)

Last weekend, I got the chance to go out on the course for the Gold Cup Races, in The Plains, Virginia (link). The races have been going on since 1922, so it's a long-standing tradition, here in Northern Virginia. I've been to the many events at Great Meadow and blogged about the joys of putting on one of the course photographer's vests, back in November, 2014 (link). It's always a long, enjoyable day when you get the chance to take the cameras some place challenging.

Time for racing

And the lighting conditions were challenging. Since the races begin at mid-day, you always have lots of contrasty light. This year, however, we also had moving clouds and were constantly changing our exposure settings. We've had a long run of rainy days, lately, so the course was also little soggy, and race day dawned with lots of clouds in the sky. Luckily, it held off. The day got sunny for some of the races – there are nine – but, by the end of the day, it was clouding up, again.

The key non-photographic requirement for all photographers out on the course is paying attention to what is happening on the field. Each race follows a different course, and you definitely do not want to interfere with any of the proceedings. A couple of jockeys were de-horsed, so you also have to be alert when unsupervised race horses are running loose. They could cause serious damage to you and your gear. Fortunately, neither jockeys nor photographers were harmed.

We started off with the terrier races. You wouldn't believe the intensity of some of the owners in this “fun” race. The dogs just want to run after the raccoon tail and jump the miniature fences. Take a look at their faces when they come out of the starting kennel. This is always a crowd favorite.

And, they're off!

As we prepared for the real races, we split across the course and around the grounds. Some of the photographers were there on assignments to photograph the crowd and ancillary events more than the actual races. There were about 50,000 spectators and vendors dining, drinking, and partying. There are hat contests, tailgate contests, fancy car displays, and para-mutual betting going on, so it is a target-rich environment for photographers. I did shoot some photographs of the crowd, like the one below, but my primary interest was the races.

One of the hat contestants

I tried to stay away from the main gaggle of photographers to get some photos that varied from the main pool. For example, I didn't shoot any photos of the finish line because I went out along the back of the course. (Most of the photographers weren't going to walk that far out.) The course is almost two miles around the outer fences, and, as you can see below, the back of the course is free of spectators. You can get a cleaner photo back there.

Far end of the race course

Due to obvious safety concerns, you stay out of the path of the horses and not too low to the ground. I found a few places that allowed me to get low, behind some barriers, to safely grab a few photos low and close. I was trying to get a different look from the standard photos. It's pretty exciting to be on the ground when the horses come galloping by, within 10 feet.

My down low shots

Of course, you can only differ so much from the standard race shots. There are certain photos that we all made at one point or another. Because these are steeplechase races, you want some of the fence and hedge jumping. One of the races included a path through the shallow pond. There was no way I was going to miss that shot.

Through the brush fence

Through the pond

The last couple races of the day are on a flat course, so I left the course and concentrated my efforts on other subjects – the officials up the tower and jockeys returning to their tent, after the race.

A view halloo?

Mud-covered, but happy with the results of his ride

All in all, it was a great day, with lots of photos and new friends made. I hope to shoot the fall race, in November, if they ask me back. I don't get to photograph these kinds of events very often, so I try to take advantage of them every time I can. According to my phone, it was also a great step-count day. ;-)

Resting between races. Photo by Tony Gibson