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October 12, 2006

Camera Happy

Story and photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY


"I can't believe I don't have my camera!" How many times have we uttered this lament? Jogging at the Arcata marsh with flocks of godwits at sunrise, hanging out at Houda Point watching epic waves and surfers at sunset Somewhat resignedly we then do our stifled best to enjoy an ephemeral moment that would have been priceless, shared more tangibly with family and friends. The potential to prolong an incredible moment in time has been enough to keep me glued to my camera.

I remember a shot in National Geographic of a small plane about to crash into a truck. The photo's author reminded the viewer that everyone has a chance to get such an image if they always have a camera at the ready. Today it is much harder to find an excuse not to have a camera handy, with digital cameras that weigh mere ounces. I have even seen classic pictures on one-megapixel cell phones.

Another great part about being the photographer and chronicler of epic events means that often you get to stand safely to the side of the fray. Let the others do the inane and idiotic. You will also be surprised at the boost in confidence your subjects will get when they discover a camera is present too. Just gently remind friends that dying for the photo -- this applies to subject and shooter -- is less than ideal. Engage the telephoto and let the superior optics record the unlikely.

Waiting in the queue to cross over Hwy 299 during all the rock slides that closed the highway this spring, a friend captured an unbelievable image that he shared with me. A car-full of grungy skateboarders were in the lineup in front of him. Overly bored, one jumped out with board and dog and they proceeded to climb to the roof. The skater then rolled down off the back window and launched off the trunk. The picture was snapped at the penultimate moment, before the skateboarder lay prone beneath my friend's car for several unsettling moments -- wholly unbelievable if it were not for the cold hard proof of a glossy image.

So what if you are a photographic dinosaur? There are a few of us that still choose to shoot slide film rather than burn electrons. If you are after low-light, long exposures, like the images afforded deep in our local old growth forests, than a tripod and film may actually be your best friend. Even with higher-end digital I hear tell that they get a lot of noise (pixelation) with long exposures. And professional labs? Personally, I often use Swanlund's in Eureka, the last frontier for local developing. They do fine work.

As you start testing toes in the local waters with surfing or kayaking, or hit the local trails riding, running or hiking through the forests and along rugged coastlines, carry that camera! The learning curve with digital is insanely quick, but only if you aren't afraid to read the manual, trip buttons and spin dials. Learn what white balance, exposure compensation, center-weighted or matrix metering can do for you. How to back off fill flash for a more natural effect, how to work slow shutter speeds Those with film cameras will be well served to do the same (except for the white balance part, and it won't be quite so speedy).

A little bit of knowledge goes a long way, so burn a few pixels and/or silver-halide crystals and take a few notes in preparation for documenting those next epic moments that will inevitably come your way. It doesn't take much (a spin of a dial) to make a washed-out hint of a magic moment become a piece of art that is exposed just how you saw it or wanted it. Take a few different exposures (bracket) of the same shot to really learn how your camera sees.

For our honeymoon to Thailand this summer I splurged and bought an underwater camera. The best $15 I ever spent. It is re-usable and good to 10 feet underwater. For snorkeling and kayaking it was perfect. It even made it into the kayak for a turbulent tour of Trinidad Head last month. The best part is that if I lose it I won't be heartbroken or broke. Even with a ratio of one decent picture in 15, I still document when normally I wouldn't. One of these pictures was even good enough to be published.

Another aspect I have come to enjoy about my photography is that when I am heading out with friends it often happens that I look pitifully weighted down with my camera gear. This necessitates a reshuffling of the group gear, which frees me up to shoot. It is a great way to get out of mundane tasks, too, like setting-up camp or cooking or coiling the ropes. You are now the designated photographer so, of course you must play the role well. There is nothing as effective as the potential of possibly becoming the next Patagonia poster girl to make someone gladly take on the lion's share of the work.

Last but not least is strength in numbers. If you are not shooting a lot, then you won't get a lot of good shots. By shooting manically, you will not only increase your chances of getting keepers but you will also ensure that the learning curve is a speedy ascent rather than an agonizingly slow slog. Shooting will soon become second nature. And for me, the relaxed and natural shots, after my subjects have become conditioned to the camera, are often the strongest and most memorable images.

Life is short, and active outside life is even shorter for some of us, so don't be afraid to document. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all memorable, and often worthy of sharing in the right context. Happy shooting.

dingbat dingbat dingbat

Send your outdoorsy comments to bennettbarthelem@hotmail.com,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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