Back in the saddle with a grin and some flare

A few months ago this 10th-grader broke her elbow on a soft motocross course. On Monday she was back on her Kawasaki KX250F dirt bike again. Sure, maybe she didn’t get as much air as before the accident and she didn’t hit the bermed corners quite as confidently as she could have, but this was her first day back in the saddle.

Monday started as a photo shoot for the school magazine, where she and a friend planned just to pose on the local motocross track. And maybe do a few slow laps. But as we shot, so her excitement at being back on her bike grew (along with her smile).

Have you ever watched a kid just having fun? It’s infectious. A teenager’s life is not easy I’m told – trying to understand one’s alien parents; trying to keep up appearances for one’s peers; trying to control emotions that are as easy to bring in line as a herd of cats. But out there on the course she didn’t care what anyone thought – she was just having fun playing.

“Can we try this next,” she would ask, before taking off to get enough speed to make her jump, or whatever.

And when she fell, she would grin and giggle, get up and try again.

“Maybe we should do one where it looks like I’m flying over another rider,” she suggested hopefully.

And hey, whatever she was willing to try, I was willing to shoot, even if it meant lying in the dirt to get the right angle. One of my cameras wasn’t as willing and jammed as I shot her flying by. Maybe it was all the dust. Maybe it was just clapped out. So, I shrugged, transferred lenses and shot with the other camera body.

As I’ve said a few times this week, it’s been my pleasure shooting people with smiles on their faces and a sparkle in their eyes; shooting people who revel in being shot as much as I enjoy doing the shooting…



An idiot’s guide to family photography

Occasionally I take photos of families. And very occasionally I make up a “shot list.” Like for weddings, where I am terrified of missing an important photo like “bride and groom with grandpa” or “bride high-fiving the family pooch”.

But last week I didn’t bother with a list for the small family I was shooting, because, well, they were a small family, and how could one possibly miss an important combination? But while we were in the middle of it all, the grandma said she didn’t need one with the grandkids because she had a recent one, and then, it turns out, we missed her with her son, daughter-in-law and kids altogether.

I had one of her on her own, and I had a group shot, but none of her alone with that part of the family.

I felt so bad about it that I decided to employ some (bad) Photoshop magic for them. Oh, and on our way out to the venue where we did the shoot, we saw a bear which (aforementioned) grandma mistook for a cow. Or was it a herd of cows that she thought was a sleuth of bears?

Whatever the case, I included the bear we saw in the field in her photoshopped images. I hope you enjoy them as much as I am sure she will.

Weird, there seem to be too many legs in this photo.
She’s a sneaky one, this long-armed, photo-bombing grandma.
There’s no missing grandma in this shot!
All most calm!

Paper – at the core of a city

The lifeblood of Quesnel, the little town in the middle of the Cariboo, in the middle of British Columbia, in the west of Canuckistan has to be the lumber industry. Originally founded on the back of the 19th century gold rush, the town was known as Quesnellemouth, which was shortened to Quesnelle and finally Quesnel by the early 1900s.

Although Quesnel has always been tied to the timber industry, it was only in the 1940s that it really took off. This is how the local museum describes it: “In 1948 there were 33 registered sawmills within a 30 mile radius of Quesnel. By 1952 there were 180, plus 5 planer mills. As the decade progressed the number of mills declined as operations were consolidated into larger companies … Today, Forestry is the leading industry with two pulp mills, five sawmills, a plywood and MDF plant. The City’s main industrial area is the most concentrated wood-products-manufacturing area in North America.”

Once upon a time wood chips from the saw mills were simply dumped outside of town in ginormous landfills. Now they are all transported to one of the pulp mills around town and turned into pulp.

Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company

I visited one of those mills, Cariboo Pulp and Paper Company, recently. Pulp is produced either through a chemical or mechanical process. Cariboo Pulp uses the chemical method to produce 170,000 Metric Tonnes per year of what is called Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft pulp (NBSK). The pulp is made by mixing wood fibres with a solution of chemicals, and cooking them inside a digester. The solution is then washed, bleached, rolled into a huge sheet, dried and finally cut into smaller squares for transporting. Paper products, including printing and writing paper, as well as a range of tissue products are typically produced.

Apart from its core business, the mill is also responsible for the treatment of the city’s sewage.

Probably the most amazing thing to me, though, was the handful of employees I met who had worked for the company for over 40 years – especially considering the hot, humid, noisy environment.

Here then a little peek into the bowels of a pulp mill.

Cobbling together rodeo photos with the “wrong” lenses

Before leaving home on my current odyssey, I knew that I would be going without my favourite lens, the 70-200 f/2.8 VRII. As one user described it, “This Nikon lens … is an excellent combination for capturing everything from the action at a sporting event to beautiful images of a family against the sunset or a young couple in love.” Another gushed, “… colour, contrast, and bokeh are all outstanding, with good sharpness at 2.8 … The lens is a joy to use, quick and responsive … I’ve made great shots handheld at 1/15 seconds, which I never thought would be possible.”

For the last few years it’s been my go-to lens. Fortunately I’m happy to improvise – learnt over several years working in experiential education. Within my first week in Canuckistan I already had to figure out how to shoot the fast-moving action of a rodeo from the bleachers – too far for my wide-angle and 50mm lenses. I tried getting closer to the action by climbing onto the broadcast company’s scaffolding right next to the arena, but was chased off in no time. I name-dropped to get myself a good vantage point at ground level, but I still needed more zoom than my 105mm macro could give me for some of the shots. And so, for much of the action, I used the 1.7x teleconverter with my macro, to give me an effective 178.5mm lens – not a typical combination for this type of photography.

Three years ago, shooting at the same rodeo (with my 70-200) I revelled in all the opportunities to practice “panning” – following the subject on its plane of motion with the camera, shooting at very slow shutter speeds, giving me a relatively sharp subject with a blurred background. This gives the shot a feeling of movement, grace and speed.

Unfortunately, with the fixed focal length, I couldn’t zoom at all if the action came towards me. Secondly, I had to quickly change settings in order to “freeze” the motion in those types of shots. All in all, I was pleased with the results though!

Without further ado then, here are a few of my favourite photos.

The perfect place not to do a portrait fashion shoot

When I think of ocean-travel, I see vacationers, and a gently-rolling sea; images of romance, holidays and insouciant lifestyles … I imagine gin and tonics, and ladies in evening gowns, their carefully-coiffed hair gently fluttering in the breeze. And a photographer creating timeless images; images worthy to appear in the world’s most prestigious, luxury lifestyle magazines.

Oh, and then, of course, the “flying” scene from the movie Titanic also comes to mind – with its pastel colours and the two characters’ perfectly-toned, milky faces, eyes all aflutter, as they soar along with the soulful soundtrack …

And so, when I took the ferry across to Vancouver Island last weekend I had similar dreams of creating a few breath-taking portraits. And I must say, it did provide some awfully moody shots.

Nanaimo before dawn
Nanaimo before dawn
Vancouver in the distance
Vancouver in the distance
On the deck of the "Queen of Oak Bay"
On the deck of the “Queen of Oak Bay”
"Moody" light
“Moody” light
Yachts in Horseshoe Bay through a window on the ferry
Yachts in Horseshoe Bay through a window on the ferry
A gull just playing with the wind
A gull just playing with the wind


Again, I had the girl in burnt-orange (formerly known as “the girl in red”) to model for me, but before we even started shooting we knew we were in trouble. The arctic, sleety winds, combined with the ferry ploughing through the choppy waters, chilled us to the bone – not exactly the ideal conditions for a fashion magazine-style shoot. After losing all feeling in my fingers and nose, and observing my model’s overly-rosy complexion and watery eyes after only minutes outside, I also have to question the authenticity of afore-mentioned scene from Titanic.

Not to be accused of being quitters, however, the teenager and I attempted the shoot nonetheless. The result: anything but the dreamy, eternal images I’d originally imagined.

My lesson for all aspiring professional photographers: the deck of the “Queen of Oak Bay” in winter is most undeniably the perfect place not to do a portrait fashion shoot.

(Click on thumbnails for the “fuller” images.)


The happy-snapper guide to capturing fireworks

Fireworks over the Quesnel River
Fireworks over the Quesnel River

So, I was reading an article recently about photographing fireworks. The author touched on all the normal points like “turn off your flash” (which is obvious because one can’t exactly light up fireworks now can one?) and “set the lens to manual focus” (it’s too dark for the camera to auto focus). But then – unlike other know-it-all photography aficionados – he went off on a comic tangent I loved, which went something like this*:

Point 3: Use a tripod. And a shutter release remote control system. Without these, the fireworks’ streamers will be squiggly rather than smooth. But if you don’t have a tripod don’t worry about it, you may just create cool and weird special effects.

Point 4: Set the camera to “Bulb” setting, or on to a long exposure where you can choose how long to keep the shutter open. This is to allow the fireworks to “draw” light across your camera’s sensor. If you don’t have these settings, don’t worry about it, just keep your shutter open for as long as possible, and remember to turn off your flash.

Point 5: Set your ISO as low as possible. If you don’t know what ISO is, don’t worry about it.

Point 6: Try an aperture of f/5.6 at 100 ISO and f/8 at ISO 200. If you don’t know what aperture is or your camera can’t set aperture, forget about it.

Point 7: Open your shutter, keep it open for one burst of fireworks, or for several bursts, and then close it. If it’s too dark, choose a larger aperture for the next shot. If it’s too bright, choose a smaller one.

Point 8: If you have a newer digital camera it may have a “fireworks” auto setting. Shoot on auto and concentrate on composing your shot – creating an image that speaks to you and whoever else gets to look at it.

Point 9: Not working at all? Put your camera down and enjoy the show …

I remember him going on at length about the importance of “image structure” or “underlying compositional order” that grabs the eye – about creating simple, yet engaging, photos. Learning the technical side of the camera and photography is important, but even more so is the ability to create context, to tell stories with one’s images and for them to speak to our subconscious. And, most importantly, to have fun while doing it …


A few nights ago I drove down to the “beach” – at the confluence of the Fraser and Quesnel rivers – to meet up with friends to watch the annual Billy Barker Days fireworks display together. Elissa (whom some of you know) was armed with a Canon DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex), wide-angle lens, tripod and shutter release cable. She captured the following photo of some of our friends:

Matt's hat and the fireworks
Matt’s hat and the fireworks

It really is a wonderful shot – getting everything just right, in my opinion. (Please do click on it to see the bigger version.)

I, however, had neither a tripod nor a remote control. I did, however, have a monopod (yes, that’s something with just one leg – much less stable than the three-legged instrument) and a fold-up camping chair. I wandered away from my friends just before the show started and installed myself on the edge of the Quesnel River – in order to get the rail bridge and water in some of my shots. I set my ISO way too high (for a grainy feel) and had fun – shooting with both eyes wide open.

Not one of my photos was particularly sharp, and will never win any awards. But as I look at them I do feel the screech, whump and boom of the fireworks exploding above my head. And I hear the whoops and expletives of amazement from the inebriated, ever-so-slightly-high-themselves youngsters sitting on the river bank in front of me.

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* I am not quoting the original author verbatim but trying to portray the vibe of what he had to say.