All I Want for Christmas

Santa’s Cookies | Beebower Productions

At this time of the year everyone’s making lists for Santa including Dad and me.  If Dad would stop eating all of the cookies I make we’d even leave the jolly old fellow a smorgasbord of goodies just to grease the skids, so to speak, because we have a few things that would make our holidays bright. 

Dad and I always wanted a picture of the elusive elegant trogon.  Just one elegant trogon.  Please Santa?  That’s all we want.

We had come close, but something always got in the way.  But this time was different.  Our intel was solid:  The trogon came every day to the choke cherry bush 15 paces from the intersection of the Carrie Nation and Vault Mine trails in Arizona’s Madera Canyon. 

Confident in our sources, Dad, Mom and I hiked up the steep trail at 5 a.m. one cold morning, found the choke cherry bush and hunkered down to wait for the bird.  Excitement was building.  We could actually hear not one but two trogons calling to each other as they made their way down the canyon.

Camera.  Check.  Camouflage.  Check.  Silence.  Check.

Wildflower | Beebower Productions

And then we heard the hikers.  A loud conversation took place between the man and the woman, while the man lauded the beauty and uniqueness of every flower they found on the trail.  As the voices drew closer, the birds faded out.  In fact, we heard them calling back and forth, heading back up the canyon as fast as they could, probably snickering about hapless photographers.

Meanwhile the clueless hikers stumbled upon two frustrated photographers and their companion crouched in the shrubs along the trail.  It might have looked like a scene from “Criminal Minds”.  Maybe.  The report of missing hikers was greatly exaggerated.

Trade You a Trogon for a Bear

On another adventure to locate the elusive elegant trogon, we found ourselves in Huachuca Canyon patiently waiting in the shrubs while Mom quietly sat at a picnic table not too far away.  Nothing.  Not a single bird could be heard.

About 20 minutes later I noticed what I thought was a javelina ambling down the dirt road toward us.  As it got closer, I realized it was a little bigger than a javelina.  Actually it kinda looked like a bear.  Yes, a bear. 

Dad and I made eye contact with each other and then froze.  I began a frantic mental review of bear encounter tips.  Don’t run. No problem.  I was glued to the spot.

Make lots of noise to let the bear know you’re there.  Nope.  That bear was too close.  That didn’t seem like a good idea, especially as it wandered about 50 feet from Mom who was sitting in plain view.  But the bear acted as if she weren’t there and moved on to the berry bush behind us. 

After watching the said bush shake vigorously for a few minutes, our trio quietly crept back to the van and jetted out of the canyon.  In the shock of the moment neither Dad nor I took a picture of the bear, and we certainly didn’t shoot a picture of an elegant trogon.  The shoot was a bust.

So Santa, if you could send a trogon our way this Christmas we’d be mighty happy.  If the trogon’s too much trouble could you at least give us a really nice, safe lightning photograph?

Killer Lightning, Please

Last summer Dad and I trekked through Utah, Colorado and New Mexico on our “Great Southwest Photo Adventure”.  We photographed multiple amazing locations. Dad also hoped for a killer lightning shot (no pun intended) during the afternoon monsoon storms.

We’d wrapped up two weeks of travel and still no lightning.  But we decided to stop at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico for some landscape shots on our way back to Texas.  As we pulled into the parking lot we noticed storm clouds building far, far away.  It looked like we’d have time for a short hike.

We set out on the Cave Trail, a 1.2 mile hike, that wanders close to the white cliffs and fantastical cone shaped spires.  About 1 mile down the trail, a brisk wind kicked up, cooling us off from the sweltering August temperatures. 

Both of us have been out in the desert during monsoon season.  We realized that wind might feel nice, but it could spell trouble.  Dad kept one eye on the skies while I picked up the pace so we could at least get a panoramic shot before a storm hit.

Off in the distance, I heard a faint rumble of thunder.  It galvanized me into action.  I shot pictures like a paparazzi on a bender.  Horizon line straight?  Who cares?  We can fix it in Photoshop.  Just shoot, shoot, shoot!

Sudden Storm | Beebower Productions

Then like the spaceship scene in “Independence Day” a very dark, very ominous cloud crested the ridge of the mountains and blotted out the sun.  Our heads swiveled up and our mouths dropped open simultaneously.  The cloud hovered over the far end of the mountains while throwing out lightning bolts left and right. 

This wasn’t just a little rain shower.  This was a storm.   With little grace or coordination Dad and I raced back down the trail to the parking lot praying all the while that we wouldn’t end up on the evening news as fried photographers.

To our utter amazement and horror a grandmother with two children headed up the trail and toward the storm.   As we ran past them my exact thoughts were,” What?!  That. Is. Crazy!!!!” We almost mentioned the storm to them, but by then it was pretty obvious something big was about to happen.  So we kept running as lightning started to get uncomfortably close to us.

Just as the first big, fat raindrops hit us, we skidded to a stop at the van.  We threw our gear in the back and slammed the doors as the sky just opened up and all heck broke lose. 

Boy that was one doozy of a storm.  Lightning, flood conditions and hail. We dodged it on the way to the van, on the way out of the park and waiting on the side of the road when the rain came down so hard we couldn’t see.  Dad got his lightning.  But when you’re in the middle of the storm, lightning photos are pretty hard to get because you’re too busy trying not to get killed.

So Santa, this year we’d really like some lightning photos that we don’t require dodging bolts of said lightning.

If you can deliver an elegant trogon and lightning photos, I’ll leave you a whole batch of my best gingerbread cookies.  Well, unless Dad beats you to it.  But they say it’s the thought that counts, right?

Tracking True Grit Part 2

Fall Meets Winter | Beebower Productions

As soon as we turned off the highway, our jaws hit the floor.  Last Dollar Road outside of Ridgway, Colorado brought the Old West to life with a dramatic flourish.  The San Juan Mountains loomed over top of ranches that dotted the valley. Elk, badgers, black-billed magpies, deer and coyotes moseyed through the meadow as we meandered down the winding dirt road.  Groves of aspens framed the entire scene. 

Our mission: track down some of the most famous locations from the original 1969 John Wayne movie “True Grit”.  Our first stop on this pre-sunrise trip was Mattie Ross’ family ranch. 

The ranch sat on private land, but it was easily accessible without trespassing.  We wanted warm morning light hitting the decaying buildings, thus we left our hotel in the wee hours of the morning to reach the ranch in time.

Why go to so much trouble to photograph an old crumbling building?  We love Westerns and the Old West.  Henry Hathaway, the director of “True Grit”, not only opened the movie with the ranch; he also closed the movie with the ranch.  That sealed the deal for us, as did the building’s weathered, abandoned look.

We reached the ranch in time for the sunrise, but the mountains behind us blocked the light for about 15 minutes.  We didn’t mind.  We just feasted our eyes upon the marvelous landscape.

True Grit Ranch | Beebower Productions

“I thought it was fantastic,” Dad said.  “When we went up Last Dollar Road and then continued on up and explored the rest of the area, I thought, ‘Geez this is a really super place!’  The movie was well done.  They put together something that was very believable.  They took a little artistic license but you could definitely recognize the area from the movie.”

Dad loved the scene so much that he returned in October of last year to photograph the aspens changing colors.  He got a bit of surprise, though.  The aspens, indeed, burst forth with orange and yellow hues, but a storm dropped snow on the mountains.  So Dad shot “Fall Meets Winter”, the image at the top of this blog.

Apparently, the film crew from “True Grit” also got a wintery surprise during filming. 

According to the Ridgway Chamber of Commerce’s website, “The film crew was concerned about the lack of snow for the final scene, and had made arrangements for a snowmaking machine, but an early snowfall the night before the scene was scheduled to be shot solved the problem.”

So those high mountain meadows swing from one season to another at the drop of a hat.  Last Dollar Road sits at about 9,000 to 10,000 feet (depending on the spot you pick), and it turns out that worked well for Dad and the producers of “True Grit”.

“They tell me you’re a man with true grit”

After we wrapped our shoot at the ranch, we headed back to town for a little more movie history.   Surprisingly in the summer of 1968 Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  Director Henry Hathaway loved this little patch of Colorado.  He preferred Ridgway to other locations the team found in Arkansas.

In 2000 Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” corresponded with Ft. Smith National Historic Site park rangers about the choice of towns. 

He said, “Hal Wallis, the producer, had considered making the movie in Arkansas, and sent an advance man here. I drove this man around northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. He did like the town of Van Buren, saying it would do nicely for 1870s Fort Smith. Later, Hal Wallis called to tell me that there were logistical problems with shooting the picture in Arkansas. I have the idea that Hathaway (the director) persuaded Wallis to make it in Colorado.”

While Portis may not have loved the idea, the town of Ridgway immediately got to work remaking itself.  Set construction crews remodeled or moved buildings and created false fronts as needed.  Boardwalks popped up around town and then gallows sprung up at Hartwell Park.

The studio employed over 300 locals as movie extras and for jobs like shoveling manure off the streets.  In September of 1968 thousands flocked to the open set to watch John Wayne work his magic.

Today Ridgway remains proud of its Western movie heritage.  The Chamber of Commerce offers walking tours of the town.  Some of the modified buildings like the firehouse, originally a town hall and school before Hollywood came to town, can still be seen today.  The movie’s livery stable became today’s post office.   And the jail wagon used by Rooster Cogburn at the beginning of the movie waits for miscreants at Heritage Park.  Even the dirt roads around town lend an authentic feel to Ridgway.

True Grit Cafe | Beebower Productions

One building in town pays tribute to the whole experience, though.  The True Grit café, built in 1985, contains loads of movie memorabilia.  Movie aficionados will definitely recognize the original “Chambers Groceries” painted on the wall by the bar.  It appeared behind John Wayne as he unloaded the prison wagon at the beginning of the movie.

The builders carefully included the wall in the restaurant.  While the café was built 16 years after the movie, John Wayne fans will definitely enjoy the atmosphere while chowing down on some good grub.

Glowing Aspens | Beebower Productions

If You Go

The aspens along the road put on a magnificent display in October.  To reach Last Dollar Road, leave Ridgway going west on Highway 62 for 11 miles.  Drive over the Dallas Divide.  Then take a left on Last Dollar Road.  Travel 2.5 miles and look for the ranch on the right hand side of the road.

  • Take pictures but respect private property.
  • Passenger cars are fine on Last Dollar until you encounter rain or snow.  Locals recommend a high clearance vehicle.
  • To catch a walking tour of Ridgway, contact the Chamber of Commerce at 970-626-5181.  Tours leave the Visitors Center on Fridays at 11 a.m May through October.  They cost $10 for adults.  Children under 12 are free.
  • To learn more about Ridgway’s movie history Click Here.

Tracking True Grit Part 1

True Grit Meadow | Beebower Productions

Like U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, we raced up the mountain with anticipation and determination burning in our gut.  But our prize wasn’t a low-down dirty outlaw, rather the most famous scenery from the beloved 1969 Western “True Grit”.

When I discovered that most of the legendary John Wayne movie had been filmed around Ridgway, Colorado, I knew tracking down the movie locations was a no-brainer.  Dad grew up watching a steady diet of Westerns.  From TV shows like Gunsmoke and Rawhide to movies like “High Plains Drifter” and “The Magnificent Seven”, he eagerly soaked up stories of the vast, untamed American frontier and the folks who lived there.

An art festival brought us to Ridgway, but I quickly informed Dad of our post-festival activities.  The Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce printed a brochure called “Ridgway’s Western Movie Heritage” that revealed all we needed to know.  Hollywood loved filming in and around the tiny town.  The marquee included “True Grit”, “Tribute to a Bad Man”, “How the West was Won”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid” and most recently “The Hateful Eight”. 

While Hollywood directors loved the scenery around Ridgway, not everyone lauded the decision to film there.   Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” (upon which the movie was based) said he thought Colorado looked more like a “big sky” Western than Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the real setting of the book.

“True Grit” movie director Henry Hathaway later said, “Yes, I know, but it didn’t matter because all Western movies were fairy tales, more or less, and a specular landscape was expected.”

Dad agreed. 

“If I go to a movie, and I’m thinking “Holy mackerel!  I’ve gotta go see this place!’ then the director’s done his job well.  I’m always curious what the real place looks like,” Dad said.  “Obviously directors go to a lot of time and trouble to find the best places to film their movie.  If you pay attention to scenery in movies and can find out where it was shot, you save yourself some trouble.  It’s basically location scouting done for you.  Plus it’s just cool to see the place for yourself.”

Visual story telling drove Hathaway.  According to movie historian Fredrik Gustafson’s blog, “He (Hathaway) was very particular about what he wanted.  He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from producers.”

In fact, Hathaway commented, “I’d say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness:  I know what I want and I go after it.”

Hmmm…sounded like another guy I knew.  That led me to conclude if the San Juan Mountains possessed jaw-dropping scenery good enough for Hathaway’s “True Grit”, they’d be perfect for Dad.

“Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”

We tackled the movie trail backwards, finding the end-of-the-movie scenes first.  Locating the stunning meadow where the final show-stopping firefight takes place between Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn and Ned Pepper’s gang of misfits topped our list.  Locals called it Katie’s Meadow. 

We headed out north on Highway 550 from Ridgway and turned off at County Road 10 going towards Owl Creek Pass.  Cattle once plodded along this dirt road on the way to market.  We followed the long, winding path 14.7 miles up through the Cimmaron Mountains, enjoying the picturesque ranches, dramatic bluffs, the sparkling creek and hundreds of towering trees as we crept toward the meadow. 

We completed switchback after switchback.  Then, just as the directions stated, the meadow unfurled to our left.  And what a glorious meadow it was!  The sun backlit hundreds of golden corn lilies in the meadow as a lazy, crystal-clear stream meandered toward the road. Chimney Peak and Courthouse Mountain soared high above the field adding drama and the “wow” factor to the scene.

We spent the morning exploring the meadow.  We easily found the creek where Rooster, Mattie and Laboeuf camped as well as the rock on the far side of the meadow where Pepper shot Cogburn’s horse right out from under him. 

True Grit Aspens | Beebower Productions

Groves of aspens testify to the visitors at Katie’s Meadow over the years.

Apparently plenty of people visited the meadow over the years, leaving their own mark on the aspens that follow the creek.  I found tree after tree carved with dates, initials and art.  If you watch the movie, those aspens had just started to turn beautiful shades of yellow, something Henry Hathaway purposely waited on before filming the grand fight scene.

Next to the creek, Dad and I discovered a wooden fence line that lent an air of the Old West to the meadow.  By then, we’d noticed storm clouds building around the peaks and the light shifting to a favorable position.  Like Hathaway, Dad knew what he wanted and he went after it.

He wasted no time venturing through the corn lilies to capture his piece of Colorado beauty and movie history.  I hung back to capture Dad working his magic in the grand landscape.   

At the end of the day, we’d joined hundreds of other Wayne aficionados in taking a piece of movie history home with us in the form of pictures.   We couldn’t wait for the next day’s “True Grit” adventures.

Join us next Wednesday when Dad and I track down the Mattie’s ranch and learn how Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

True Grit Fence | Beebower Productions

If You Go

Head north from Ridgway on Highway 550.  Turn right about 1.7 miles out of town on County Road 10.   Follow the signs on this unpaved road toward Owl Creek Pass.  County Road 10 will eventually become County Road 8.  Travel 14.7 miles from your turn off.  Just after a series of switchbacks you’ll see Katie’s Meadow on the left.  There are no signs marking the meadow, but there is a place to pull off and explore.

  • Continue up the switchbacks a little less than a mile until you come to Owl Creek Pass.  The rock that Mattie slept on is on the right near the creek. 
  • The road leads to Silver Jack Reservoir and eventually comes out at Cimmaron.
  • Take a high clearance vehicle.  It’s not required but a good idea.
  • Take food, water and gas.   There are no services along the way and cell service is spotty.

A Blue Ribbon Day

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Festival Fun

The morning started off with a bang.  Square, an on-the-go payment system we use at art festivals, wasn’t working.  The folks had just an hour before customers would show up at the 43rd Annual Ruidoso Art Festival in Ruidoso, New Mexico.  Stress.  Major stress.

After rushing out to buy a new Square part at a local store, the folks were in for a nice surprise when they returned to their booth.  Dad had won first place in the photography category with his picture “The Great Horse Chase”.

We’re new to the art festival scene.  In fact the Ruidoso festival was just our third show.  So the blue ribbon was a wonderful affirmation of Dad’s photography in this new venue. 

 

First Place in Photography | Beebower Productions

Quite A Surprise

“It was quite a surprise,” he said.  “You know you’ve got good stuff, but will the jury recognize it?  There were eight other really great photographers at the festival.  You never know what a jury will think.  It was very nice to be recognized.”

Prior to the festivals, Dad and his brother Gordon ran a corporate advertising photography studio for 35 years in Dallas, Texas.  It was during the later years of the corporate business that Dad first began taking Western photos.  

The timing was perfect.  Western pictures were in high demand.  As Dad’s unique photos got more exposure, he began to get clients looking for a bit of the Old West.  The work was pouring in as fast as Dad could shoot.  

Dad built up a sizable collection of Western and wildlife photos because he loved what he was doing.   In 2012 Dad and Uncle Gordon closed the corporate side of the business.  We reorganized Beebower Productions, Inc. to showcase Dad’s Western and wildlife photography through our website and at juried art festivals around the country.  

“Retirement” has been anything but sedate for Dad.  In addition to traveling to shows, Dad continues to shoot new Western and wildlife photos around the country.

So what is a juried art festival and how did Dad get interested in them?  As the name suggests, a juried art festival requires each applicant to submit a portfolio, images of his booth, a resume of his work and a fee to a jury of art critics or peers connected to that fair.  The jury evaluates the artist for originality, creativity, technical expertise and also the appearance of the booth.   Then selected individuals are offered a spot at the festival for a set booth fee.  Going the jury route ensures that the highest quality of artistic items are offered at a festival.  To be selected as an exhibitor is an honor in itself.

In addition to the entry judging, each show usually awards ribbons for the best artists in categories such as photography, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, etc.  Again, the artist must submit 2-3 three pieces of his best work for the jury to review.  The prize may be a ribbon or sometimes a cash award.  Dad submitted The Great Horse Chase and Horse Stampede at the Ruidoso festival.

Many festivals also award “Best in Show”.  The top artists in each category advance to the “Best in Show” competition.  This person must not only have outstanding pieces of art, they also must have a snappy booth to showcase their work.   

Dad first considered the art festival route after visiting me in southeastern Arizona.  I took him to Sierra Vista’s Art in the Park festival.  We saw several photographers selling their prints successfully and I knew Dad’s work would sell too.

After taking some time to reorganize the company, Dad jumped into the art festival circuit and hasn’t looked back.  His first festival, of course, was the infamous Art in the Park.   

Dad’s really enjoyed meeting folks and talking photography during the multi-day events.  It’s been a steep learning curve, though.  Dad knew the advertising industry inside out, but trying to figure out what will sell at art festivals has been a challenge. 

“The trick is discovering what people like and how much they’re willing to pay for it,” he said.  “Obviously advertising folks deal in big bucks, so you have to adjust your expectations.  That and figure out how to get all the stuff you need (like booth walls and photo inventory) from point A to point B smoothly.  You don’t know what’s going to work, so each time you just try to get better and better.”

In that spirit, Mom and Dad will be heading out to their next festival in Oklahoma City over Labor Day weekend, armed with a new lighting system for the booth and a new product line—notecards of Dad’s most popular images.  Oh, and the confidence drummed up by winning the blue ribbon at the last festival.  

Working for a Living…On Vacation

Delicate Arch Runner | Beebower Productions

I found myself in the most miserable place on earth and it was my Dad’s fault.  Gnats swarmed so fiercely I took refuge under a canopy of towels.  That made a very hot summer day in a desolate stretch of Utah even hotter. And the dust.  Dust crept under the towels, into my sleeping bag and clung to every inch of my clothing.  And it was all my Dad’s fault.

When I was a child we spent almost every summer camping out West while Dad scouted photo locations.  He called it a vacation.  But my “What I did on my Summer Vacation” paper at school never sounded remotely like my friends who went to the beach or the Big Apple on their summer vacations.  My paper recounted camping with mountain lions, dealing with gnats and hiking trails in 100 degree heat.

I sort of blamed my Mom for some of this.  After all, she went along with the “working vacation” idea.  I did, however, realize she was my one hope of vacationing in a city with air conditioning.  So I laid most of the blame at Dad’s feet.

 

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens

Why, Dad?

A couple of days ago I asked Dad why he pursued the working vacation idea all those years ago. He said, “I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but we had limited resources so I thought it might pan out.  Look at it this way.  We kept going on these things.  I don’t know if that was good or bad.  Maybe both.”

Over the years we’ve wandered around Big Bend National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Canyon de Chelley, the Hubble Trading Post, Mesa Verde, El Morro, Newspaper Rock, Chaco Canyon, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, White Sands, Arches and Canyonlands National Park to name a few.  I think Dad would have gotten along famously with Lewis and Clark.  All three have a penchant for discovering the unexpected out West. 

Back to the Gnats

That brings me back to the gnats.  Our campground at Arches National Park seemed to be infested with the gnats.  Our first clue should have been the campground’s name—Devils Garden.  We should have run in the opposite direction as fast as possible because those little gnats were devils in disguise.

Naturally none of the gnats were attracted to Dad, just Mom and me.  Even with bug spray the darn things wouldn’t leave us alone.  Apparently this is a well-known seasonal affliction at the park.  Lest you doubt me, the park even has a webpage describing the little buggers’ life cycle.   Of course back in the mid-80’s there wasn’t an Internet, so we walked into our camping spot none the wiser.

To escape the gnats and to help Dad find great photos, we spent a great deal of time hiking around the park.  We’d start off super early in the morning to avoid the heat.  Early morning.  Not a great time for a kid.  There may or may not have been some serious grumbling at the alarm clock (a.k.a. Dad).  Anyway we’d hunt for the perfect arch, landscape shot or whatever else Dad dreamed up.  

 

Mom and Dad | Beebower Productions

Even Troupers Have Limits

One morning we headed out on the appropriately named Devils Garden trail hoping to see all 8 arches.  Everything was hunky dory until we reached ankle deep sand, the heat skyrocketed and the breeze jerked to a halt.  So did Mom.  She’d been a trouper, but she calmly declared she was done and looked for a big rock with shade she could sit under it for a while.  I can’t really blame her.  It was a 7-mile, hot trail.  Dad and I forged ahead making it to the spots he wanted to see.  We picked Mom up on our return trip.

While Dad didn’t take too many pictures on this trip, he actively looked for locations.  He would return two years later to take his photos of Delicate Arch.  So despite the traumas, the trip to Arches was a success.

Naturally that success fueled more trips.  Mom always seemed to be game for the expeditions.  She enjoyed traveling and seeing new things.  She did, however, have her limits.  

“I hate trudging through sand and it seems like there’s a lot of it in the West.  I enjoy the outdoors and the scenery to a certain point but I wanted to see something else eventually.  My favorite places were historical spots, like the Native American sites,” she said.

Dad tried to accommodate her by visiting places like Chaco Canyon or the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad.  But Mom always came prepared to entertain herself while Dad was out exploring.

“Sometimes I went and other times I stayed at the campsite.  I always had music, a book to read and some sort of needlework.  If you went to a site to photograph, you could be with him for hours.  It just became boring,” she said.

In my young mind, I agreed with Mom.  These trips could be boring when waiting for Dad to finish a photo.  So I resorted to building rock houses for my doll, making up wildly imaginative stories about stuff that happened in the park we were visiting and reading a lot of books.

 

Dad at White Sands | Beebower Productions

Looking Back

Eventually the family vacations came to a close.  I headed off to college and Dad’s commercial photography business reached a point that he traveled extensively to exotic locations on fully funded business trips.  

Looking back, I can see the value of all of the “working vacations” that I so bemoaned as a child.  I love our great country from the bustling cities to the vast wilderness out West.  It’s hard to imagine the pristine ribbons of sand running through White Sands National Monument without seeing it in person.  I doubt I would appreciate the numerous Native American cultures in America had I not spent summers visiting Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelley and Mesa Verde.  I certainly wouldn’t have learned to enjoy the stillness and serenity of the sun rising over a herd of bugling elk at the foot of the Grand Teton Mountains.

So thanks, Dad.  Thanks for dragging me all over the West and making me get up super early to see sunrises.  Thanks for driving thousands of miles with a companion who constantly asked, “Are we there yet?”  Thanks for all of the great family stories we created.  And thanks for instilling in me a love for capturing the moment with my camera.  Those working vacations weren’t too bad after all.

P.S.  Thanks Mom for indulging me with that much coveted summer trip to the city.  The air conditioning was heavenly! 

8 Steps to Better Photos

Mountain Lion and Dogs | Beebower Productions

Growing up I was surrounded by photography.  From Frito Lay chip shoots to old West horse stampedes, my Dad and Uncle Gordon lived, slept and ate photography.  I loved looking at their work.   I’d study Dad’s pictures like Mountain Lion & Dogs and wonder how he got a mountain lion and dogs to cooperate for a photo.  (I later learned it was a stuffed mountain lion, but those dogs sure thought it was alive.)

As much as the subjects of his images fascinated me I quickly realized photography, from my child-sized eyes, looked really complicated: lighting and f-stops and technical junk everywhere.  I didn’t really like technical junk.  It gave me headaches.  No, I decided, journalism might be more my style.

It wasn’t until my high school years that I suddenly got shoved into photography.  I was working as a freelance writer at a local weekly newspaper.  The staff photographer wasn’t available to take pictures for my story.  Dad suggested I learn to shoot my own photos and write the story.  That would give me two marketable skills.  (Wise man since we’re now in business together.)

Who knows why, but I jumped in with both feet despite my old feelings toward the profession.  Suddenly I was in a race to learn how to take really good photos before I headed off to college to study, gasp, photojournalism.

Naturally I turned to my two favorite photographers, Dad and Uncle Gordon.  Here’s what I learned from them over the next four years:

1) Study great photos: 

It should come as no surprise if you want to be good at something you study the masters.  Back in the dark ages before the Internet, I actually looked at magazines well known for their top-notch photography.   I spent hours pouring over each issue of National Geographic and it’s companion Traveler.  I soaked up the library’s photo book collection.  Dad and I visited art museums to study paintings and photographs.

Today it’s so easy to study great photos it’s not funny.  The Internet is rife with photo galleries, photographers offering online classes and e-books.  You can follow photographers on Facebook, exchange tweets and build a gallery of top-notch images to study on Pinterest.  Often you interact directly with the photographer because many have their own websites and respond directly to your comments and questions.  So hunt for great photos and learn all you can from studying them.

2) “CSI” photos: 

Don’t just look at great photos, pull them apart or “CSI” them.  How did the photographer use light in the photo?  Was it available light or a flash?  What direction did the light come from and why is that important to the photo?  Is there more than one light source such as available light and flash?  When you take the time to study a photo there are clues like shadows and catch lights in people’s eyes that can help you determine light sources.

Did the photographer use the Rule of Thirds or leading lines in his composition of the photo?  What part of the composition works or doesn’t work?  Why?

Look at the whole photo.  Does it make a point or tell a story?  How did the photographer accomplish that?

If the information’s available, study the choices the photographer made with the ISO, f-stop, shutter speed and lens focal length.  How do those things contribute to stopping the action, the grain in the photo, sharpness or blurriness, overall message or feeling of the photo?

Studying these elements of a photo will give you a better understanding of what makes a good picture. To progress even faster, give yourself assignments to improve on specific techniques (see number six!).

Dad’s Mastered His Camera | Beebower Productions

3) Master your gear: 

Nothing screams amateur more than a photographer who doesn’t know how to change the f-stop or attach his camera to the tripod.  When you go out in the field using your camera, lens, flashes and tripods should be second nature.  You shouldn’t even have to think about it.  Practice until you master all aspects of your gear.  

By doing that, you’ll be able to concentrate on composing and lighting your photo rather than finding that little button that allows you to cut your flash output in half.

4) Find a mentor: 

Very few of us are born with top-notch talent oozing out our pores.  Most of us had to study, practice and work very hard to become good at what we do.  Many of us also had mentors that spurred us on and challenged us beyond what we thought possible.  I had two-my Dad and my Uncle Gordon.

Your mentor could be a teacher, a fellow photographer or family member.  Just find someone who takes amazing photos and wants to pass that passion and knowledge on to you.  Then take your time together seriously.

5) Take a class: 

Some of us learn best in a classroom setting and other prefer hands-on learning in the field.  I assure you there’s a class or workshop out there that fits you.  Thanks to the Internet there are so many opportunities to learn about photography it should be pretty easy to find a class at a university, a community college, an online class or with a professional photographer leading a workshop.  

Why bother?  A well-done photography class pushes you to learn faster than you might on your own, gives you new ideas and connects you with other photographers in your area.  You can get those burning photography questions answered and bounce ideas off of your new compadres.

My Own Photo Assignment | Beebower Productions

6) Give yourself a photo assignment: 

So you studied great photos, ripped them apart, found a mentor and took a great class.  Now it’s time to practice all you’ve learned.  Focus on mastering one aspect of photography at a time.  For example, learn how to really shine at lighting your subjects.  

Depending on your type of photography (fine art, photojournalism, portraits, etc.) that lighting assignment might look a bit different.  For example, I studied on-camera or hand-held flash techniques as opposed to studio lighting because most of my newspaper assignments required shooting on the fly.

I date myself here, but one of my early assignments was learning how to manually focus on moving objects.  (Gasp, no auto focus!)   My Dad drove his van around town looking for folks riding bikes and running.  I hung out the passenger window with my camera attempting to focus while the van and the subject moved.  We did that one over and over and over.  Sigh.  But eventually I got.  Our drive-by shootings did the trick.

So pick an aspect of photography basics and begin practicing until you learn it so well you could do it in your sleep.

7) Open yourself up to constructive critiques: 

Nobody likes to hear how they did something wrong.  But in an ever-changing field like photography, your career stalls if you’re unwilling to listen to critiques and advance your techniques.   

There’s always something new to learn, so build a thick skin, put your work up on the bulletin board and ask your fellow photographers to give you the good, bad and ugly.

During my time at Mizzou (University of Missouri) we did just that every week.  A group of about 15 folks ripped your photo apart for about 10 minutes and then moved on to the next victim.  It was painful at first, but as I began to see the value of what folks were saying rather than thinking they were attacking me, I really learned a lot.  My photography improved faster than it would have with an adoring crowd.  (Make no mistake that Dad and Uncle Gordon were quick to point out the good, the bad and the ugly too, but it’s different when it’s family critiquing!)  

Choose your forum carefully.  You want to make sure the critiques come from folks who really know what they’re talking about.  Again, the Internet really helps open up the critique choices.  

I’d highly recommend a website developed by my friend Gary Fong.  He used to be the Director of Editorial Graphics Technology at the San Francisco Chronicle and now runs the Genesis Photography Agency.  Gary also helped develop the We Are Photographers website.  Wouldn’t you know, Gary and his cohorts offer a “Photo Gauntlet” where folks submit their pictures for review.  Check it out at www.wearephotographers.com/gauntlet.

8) Stay up on the latest developments: 

As I mentioned before, photography changes in the blink of an eye.  I remember film and slides from the early years of Dad’s studio.  Heck I shot them myself.  You also had to process film in a darkroom, not the desktop.  

It seems like so long ago, but in reality digital didn’t become “affordable” for the most photographers until the late 1990s.  It was a big deal when I was given a digital camera for my job in 2000.  A stern-faced boss told me under no circumstances was that camera ever to be scratched.  Otherwise I owed the company $20,000.  Today you can buy a far nicer digital camera body for about $7,000.  The times are a changing.

Staying up on the latest in photography isn’t just about the cameras and lenses, although that’s certainly enough.  It covers flashes, tripods and gear, techniques, software, computers and printers.  It’s enough to make your head spin, but if you want to have that competitive edge you have to put in the research and practice time.  

So there you have it.  Eight ways to improve your photography at warp speed.  By doing these things I not only learned enough to earn a degree in photojournalism, I actually built a solid portfolio and got a job when I graduated.  

What things have helped you become a better photographer?

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