Monday, December 20, 2010

National Elk Refuge - Jackson Hole, Wyoming

We decided to take a day off from skiing today and do a little shopping and goofing off. We checked out some real estate in the north end of Teton Valley and then we had a little lunch at Milk Creek Grill in Driggs. Afterward we headed over Teton Pass to Jackson, Wyoming, where we took a sleigh ride in the National Elk Refuge.

The National Elk Refuge is located just north of the Town of Jackson and consists of almost 25,000 acres of valley floor where migrating elk spend the winter. As Jackson Hole was settled in the late nineteenth century, the traditional migration path of the elk from their summer range on the Yellowstone Plateau to lower valleys below Jackson Hole was cut off. The Refuge was established in 1912 to protect the Jackson herd and to provide a place where the herd could be fed through the toughest winter months.

The number of elk on the Refuge varies from year to year from around 4,000 to around 8,000 depending on weather and range conditions. Our sleigh ride started about 2:30pm with Steve at the reigns and Burt and Ernie in the harness. There were at least two other sleighs loaded with tourists on the Refuge at the same time. Here's a shot of one of the other groups.

Our timing must have been good because a lot of the bulls were up and moving around. It was amazing to be so close to these majestic beasts. In some cases our sleigh passed within 20 feet of the wild animals without spooking them or distressing them in any way. Steve told us that many of these elk had been on the Refuge every winter for their entire lives and that they were very accustomed to the horses and the sleigh. He also assured us that if anyone were to get out of the sleigh then the elk would immediately leave the area. That would be something different (and spooky) for them.

Photographing these elk was a treat for me. First, as many of you know, I love to hunt. I have never hunted elk before and this experience only served to reinforce my desire to do so. Second, I love to photograph any kind of North American game animal. The elk is such a majestic creature and these bulls are the epitome of the species. And third, shooting in the snow is a special kind of challenge. The light meter built into the camera sees a lot of white that it wants to make into gray. It tries to close itself down and in the process it turns these beautiful snowscapes into the dreariest of scenes. Every shot had to be overexposed by at least one and a third stops. If it was a wide shot with mostly snow then it was overexposed by two full stops to make it work.

If you are ever in Jackson Hole in the winter, I highly recommend the National Elk Refuge. I hope you enjoy my photos.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Aledo Bearcats Win State Championship

The Aledo Bearcats won the Texas 4A Division II State Championship with a 69-34 victory over the LaMarque Cougars at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington. Johnathan Gray rushed for 326 yards and eight touchdowns behind an outstanding offensive line while the defense held LaMarque to only one score in the second half. The win capped an undefeated 16-game season.

I was on the sidelines as usual but the big difference for this game was the number of people down there with me. At times it was frustrating to not be able to even get a view of the action. I did end up with a few good photos and I'll post some here for your enjoyment. Click on any of the photos and it will take you to the complete gallery.

Congratulations Bearcats!

J. Gray breaks one for a touchdown.

Hunter Powell trips up a Cougar

The Cheerleaders and the Band loved being in Cowboy Stadium.

Matt Bishop drops back.

The end of a PERFECT SEASON!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I LOVE Basketball!

Now that football season is winding down, basketball is my new favorite sport to shoot. I'll be shooting the Aledo Bearcats and Ladycats again this year and I think I may finally be getting the hang of it.

Let me just give you some "how-to" here and then I'll share a few of my recent shots.

Lighting is the biggest technical issue in shooting high school basketball because most gymnasiums are horrible. There is either too little light or the light cycles in a way that makes consistent white balance impossible...or both! I've been in a lot of gyms and you just never really know what to expect.

If you want to stop the action you need a fast shutterspeed. A speed of 1/400th of a second is about the slowest speed I would accept for reasonably sharp action shots. (If you plan to print photos very large you'll want even faster speeds.) For fast shutterspeeds you will need to open up your lens (f/2.8 if possible) and raise your ISO. Of course, large apertures mean shallow depth-of-field and high ISO means digital noise. (If these concepts don't make a lot of sense to you, consider reading my series of postings about TRADEOFFS from early 2008.)

But what do you do if there isn't enough light even when you crank up the ISO and open up your lens? Try some flash!

I use a couple of AlienBee 800's triggered with a hot-shoe-mounted remote transmitter. These are studio flash units capable of lighting an entire gymnasium. I mount them on light stands and plug them in on the top row above the home spectators. I can then set my ISO to 1600 (reasonable digital noise), my f-stop to 5.6 (reasonable depth-of-field), and my shutterspeed to 1/250th of a second (which doesn't really matter because the flash duration is about 1/5000th of a second.) And, by the way, the color from the AB's is very consistent. White balance becomes a lot easier.

So much for the technical stuff. How about technique?

I like to shoot from down low to make the players look taller. I prefer to position myself on the floor along the baseline about halfway between the basket and the corner of the court. This gives me a good view of players coming down the court and of the action under the goal. Watch a college basketball game and look where the photographers are along the baseline. It's a great place to be and occasionally you get taken out by a flying player! Be careful. It's also a great place to witness the "other side" of the game. The refs have a lot more fun out there than you think.

I have two lenses that I like to use: the 70-200mm f/2.8L and the 24-70mm f/2.8L. The 70-200 gives me the ability to zoom in on the players coming up the court as they dribble and pass. I usually shoot part of the game with that lens and then switch to the 24-70 to capture more of the action under the basket. The wider lens allows me to capture the full height of the action from the floor to the basket.

Check out these examples. I LOVE BASKETBALL!

One more thought: If you don't have strobes or high ISO capability or fast lenses, you can still get cool basketball shots. Look for opportunities when the action slows down. Here are some examples.

Let me know if you have any questions. You can reach me at

- James

Monday, December 13, 2010

Football Milestones

The Aledo High School Bearcat Football team has advanced to the Texas 4A Division II championship game for the second year in a row. They won it last year against Brenham down in Austin at the University of Texas' Darrell K. Royal Stadium. This year the Bearcats will take on LaMarque High School at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. It should be a great game. Good luck Bearcats!

Here are some shots from the last few weeks.


Matt fakes a hand-off to Johnathan in a big playoff victory over rival Stephenville.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brazos Valley Foxhunt

A little over a week ago I got to shoot a foxhunt with the Brazos Valley Hunt. These folks are very nice and they love their horses and hounds. Here are a few of my favorites from that day.

Virginia Fall Color on a Historical Farm

I did a little traveling this week to Virginia to hunt whitetail deer with an old friend. We didn't have much luck in the forest but I did get to shoot a few photos of the Virginia fall color. The first photo is of my friend's house and the beautiful trees that surround it. The home was rebuilt in 1968 using the 18th century bricks that were left after a fire destroyed the original house. The colonial influence is obvious in this part of Virginia where Thomas Jefferson and several other founders lived.

This second shot is of the original community Post Office located on my friend's place. The building is about the size of a single bedroom.

And this last shot was just a little artsy fun. I just focused on the weather vane stuck in the flowerbed and used the house as a background. I rather like it and I hope you do too.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Fall Color.... and a bit of ORANGE!

Sara and I continued our college tour to Georgia Tech and Clemson last weekend. While we were in South Carolina I got to visit one of the places I loved when I was in graduate school: Whitewater Falls. It's just over the border in North Carolina and I hit it about right for some fall color. Click the photo and it will take you to my SaltForkImages gallery with more shots of the falls.

Whitewater Falls, North Carolina - 411 feet top to bottom!

Saturday afternoon we got a little more Clemson color. ORANGE! We joined about 80,000 like-minded individuals in Death Valley to watch the Tigers beat up on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Our vantage point from high in the nose-bleed section gave us a great view of "the most exciting 25 seconds in College Football." Here's a shot of the team running down the hill after rubbing Howard's Rock.

Go Tigers!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Portrait Season

It's mid-October and the fall portrait season for high school seniors is winding down and the Christmas card portrait season is about to start. E-mail me at if you would like to do some Christmas portraits. I can set you up with flat cards, folded cards, and photos suitable for grandma's mantle!

I took some photos of my daughter, Sara, a few nights ago. Her mom likes the one below the best. I blew the highlights out in Photoshop for a little different look.

Here's another one more to my liking. She got her braces off a few weeks ago and she's a lot more willing to smile now!

Sara and I are headed out over the next few weeks for some college visits. Louisiana Tech, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Baylor and Texas A&M are all on her radar. It should be a fun search! Wish us luck!

I had another fun portrait shoot last week with a young man named Sam. You can see from the two photos below that this was not an ordinary portrait session. View the rest of his gallery here.

Christmas will be here before you know it! Give me a shout.....

Monday, October 4, 2010

Southern Hospitality - an Aledo High School Theatre Production

Those talented kids at Aledo High School were at it again last week!

Their production of Southern Hospitality was outstanding. Once again I was asked to shoot the cast and crew prior to the performance and as always I hung out in the back with the monopod and the big lens.

You can see the entire gallery at this link. The shot below is one of many that made me laugh!

Those kids are SOOOO talented!

Fall Color in Wyoming

If you've visited my galleries before then you know that Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, must be my absolute favorite place in the world to photograph. Last week I was there with a friend chasing the fall colors and we had a great time. The park was pretty quiet except for all THE PHOTOGRAPHERS. It seems that everyone who owns a tripod knows that the last week of September and the first week of October are the best time to catch the aspens as they turn fiery yellow.

We arrived at Schwabacher's Landing about fifteen minutes before sunrise and found 24 cars in the parking lot and at least 30 photographers scattered along this picturesque backwater of the Snake River. Here's a shot of "THE SPOT" right after the sun hit the top of the mountains.

Of course I wanted the same shot they wanted and the sweet pink light on the mountains was not going to last much longer so I got right behind them and raised my tripod as high as it would go. I set my camera to "live-view" and framed the shot and then locked the ballhead of the tripod down tight. I hit the focus button on the back of my camera and cranked off three rapid-fire, bracketed shots. One of the guys on the front line heard my 1DM3 fire off overhead and turned around with a rather stunned look on his face. I just smiled and said, "Sometimes you've just got to improvise."

Here's the result:

We got what we wanted at Schwabacher's and then headed to Oxbow Bend. This is another popular spot with the photogs as there were at least another 20 or so set up here. You can certainly see why:

It was a great trip and the trees did not disappoint. Next year I'm hoping for clouds. And maybe I'll get up a little earlier so that I can be on the frontline. (Nah!)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Context in Photography

Everyone loves a beautiful scenic photograph. Catch the light just right and it can be magical. Sometimes, however, our goal as photographers is to tell a more complete story with our photos. Not every photo we take is destined for a custom frame in the lobby of the local bank. Sometimes we just want to document our lives. We do this by providing our photos with "context."

There are probably as many ways to show context in a photo as there are photographers. Portrait photographers do it by shooting on-location. Wedding photographers don't shoot a portrait of the bride wearing half her makeup; they shoot into the mirror while she's applying the makeup. Context helps to make a photo make sense.

During the summer of 2010 I took a scenic airplane flight around Teton Valley, Idaho. We took off from the Driggs airport and headed southwest toward Pine Creek Pass. As we climbed through 10,000 feet with the Big Hole Mountains on our right, our pilot gradually turned to the east. We continued to climb above the Snake River Range and then made the big sweeping turn back to the north. This took us directly over the western foothills of the Tetons just barely inside the western edge of Wyoming. Grand Teton tops out at 13,770 feet but our flight never got over about 12,500. That means that we were staring at The Grand (and Middle, South, Owen, and Teewinot) straight out the window.

As we approached the big peaks my pilot announced over the intercom that he would be glad to tilt the little plane whichever way I wanted so that I could get some good shots of the mountains. I thanked him and when the time came he pulled the right wing up a little so I could get the unobstructed view he thought I wanted. I snapped a few shots and was generally pleased with them but as he leveled the plane and I backed out on the zoom lens, I noticed how much more I liked the shots that showed the airplane wing and the wingstrut. The photo below is an example of the kind of context that tells a story.

There is no question, when you look at this photo, that I was riding in a small airplane. Immediately upon knowing that fact, the viewer of this photo becomes engaged in a whole new way:

"What kind of plane was it?" (Cessna 172)

"Was it bumpy?" (Not that day.)

"Did you get sick?" (No)

"Had you ever been up in a small plane before?" (Yes, a long time ago.)

"Did you get to open the window to take the photos?" (Yes)

When I look back at the photo above, I think, "Wow, I love those mountains!," and "This airplane thing is cool..... I've got to GET ME ONE!"

Monday, September 20, 2010

Football Season in Full Swing

The 2010 campaign has begun!

Aledo High School won the 4A Division II State Championship in 2009 and is off to a great start in 2010. The opening game was another fantastic battle between Aledo and rival Stephenville. Aledo triumphed 20-3. Game two saw Aledo avenge its only loss of 2009 with a 48-13 romp over the Kangaroos of Weatherford.

And then came Game Three: Aledo traveled to Austin to challenge the 2009 4A Division I State Champ, Lake Travis. Bragging rights were on the line and the home team was heavily favored. Lake Travis opened the scoring and led at the half by a count of 10-7. The second half was an epic defensive struggle. Both teams pounded the ball inside but in the end it was the strong running of Aledo's Jonathan Gray behind the talented Bearcat offensive line that won the day. Aledo made believers of the central Texas crowd with a final score of 14-10.

Here's a shot I took of J-Gray taking the ball on one of those up-the-middle rampages. Shutter speed was 1/1000, ISO was 1600 and the f/stop was 2.8. Enjoy!

Monday, February 8, 2010


Please, Sir, I want some more!

Check out my galleries from the Aledo High School Theatre presentation of OLIVER!

It was a lot of fun shooting the show and one of the rehearsals. Congratulations, AHS Theatre! Great Job!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grandma's Middle Name

I remember when I was young my Momma told me that my Grandma's middle name was "Go." It seems that Grandma loved going places. She always had that old grandma-looking purse hanging from her arm and she always had a list of things she needed from town. If someone was headed out, Grandma was a willing partner.

I think I'm a lot like Grandma. I love to go. Last October I went to Idaho and Wyoming with a friend. At Christmas, I took the family to South Carolina to visit Clemson University, where Jill and I graduated back in 1988. Last month I took my daughter to Ruston, Louisiana, to visit Louisiana Tech where I got my undergrad degree.

One of the things I love about traveling is being able to pack a camera along. Travel photography can be almost anything you want it to be. You can shoot all the old places you've seen before. You can go to all the scenic vistas. You can sit on a bench in a town that is not your own and take photos of people you don't know. (For this I recommend a LONG lens!)

In about a week my son and I are taking another roadtrip. We'll head northwest from Fort Worth on the first day with our sights set on Laramie, Wyoming. It's only a 15 hour drive if you limit your fluid intake! Day two will take us across Wyoming to Jackson Hole where we will mount the Tetons at Teton Pass. Our trek will end just past the stateline in Teton Valley, Idaho, where we plan to spend a week. There will be skiing, possibly some snowmobiling, and of course, a lot of photography.

I've made the trip from Texas to Idaho several times over the last few years and I have to admit that in some ways it's a little frustrating. I'll be driving past 1300 miles of beautiful landscape and I'll be completely focused on getting to the final destination. As a photographer, I hate missing great photo opportunities. Perhaps I should make this a three-day trip and spend a little time along the way capturing the magic. If I did, I might have to change my middle name from "Go," to something like "Slow Down," or "Relax a Little." I hope Grandma won't mind.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Bright is Dallas Cowboy Stadium?

On November 20, 2009, the Aledo Bearcats took on the Stephenville Yellowjackets for the second time last season. The first time was at Bearcat Stadium where the boys from Aledo pulled out a 20 to 16 win to open the season. The second time was at Dallas Cowboy Stadium in Arlington and it was "loser go home." It was the second round of the 4A state playoffs and Aledo won it in overtime, 26-20. Wow! What a night!

For me it was a treat to get to shoot a football game on the sidelines at Jerry Jones' mega-playland. The new Dallas Cowboy Stadium is every bit as impressive as it looks on television. The GodzillaTron overhead is a technical marvel and getting to see yourself on it is some kind of amazing. I did notice that it was important not to look up at the screen while walking. It's a good way to run into someone else who shouldn't have been walking and looking up.

In this first photo, I tried to give a sense of scale. A wide angle lens and a low shooting angle with cheerleaders in the foreground make it work.

So, just how bright is Dallas Cowboy Stadium?

In the next photo, my aperture was f/5.6, my shutterspeed was 1/640, and my ISO was 3200.

Back at Bearcat Stadium everything would have been the same except the aperture would have been f/2.8. For those of you keeping score, that means that Cowboy stadium is four times brighter than Bearcat stadium. WOW! What does this mean? Well, for me it meant that I could get greater depth of field without sacrificing the ability to stop the action with a fast shutterspeed. For someone with less ISO capability or with a slower lens it means the difference between getting photos of a great Aledo win or getting complete garbage.

By the way, that photo above is Matthew Bishop scoring the winning touchdown in overtime. Right after that shot - bedlam!

Basketball Season

The season is in full swing now and I've already shot a few games for the Ladycats and the Bearcats. My favorite shot so far is of my son (surprise), Aaron. He plays on the Freshman B-team as a guard and is one of the team's leading scorers.

I shoot basketball with my Canon 1D Mark III and a 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. Occasionally I substitute a 24-70mm f/2.8L for wide shots below the goal or a 300mm f/2.8L for a different look from up in the rafters. I use a pair of Alien Bees (800s) located on the top row of the gymnasium that I trigger with a radio control from the hotshoe on my camera. It's a great setup. I use apertures of f/6.3 and f/7.1 with the shutterspeed set to 1/250 and the ISO around 1000. The strength of the flash units and the short duration of the flash event help me ensure the sharpness I want.

One thing about shooting with a flash is that you have to understand and anticipate the action. It's not like football where you can just hold the button down in machine gun mode. You get one chance for a shot and then the flash has to recharge. My Alien Bees are fast but they can't handle the 10 frames per second that the 1DM3 can dish out. Not long ago I got a great shot of a player on the baseline right before he went up for a slamdunk. I hadn't seen this kid play before and I wasn't expecting him to explode to the goal that way. Now, whenever I see him with the ball, I try to hold out for the explosion. Of course, I've already got him on the baseline. I don't need another one of those.

I generally sit along the baseline under the home team goal about halfway in from the corner. This allows me to get good views of the ball as it is advanced across midcourt. The shots I like the most are the wide shots looking up at the players as they approach the opposite side of the goal from my position. I always shoot from as low as possible in order to make the players look taller. Many times I've stood up during a timeout only to discover that my butt was completely asleep, but that's okay. The view from down low is the best one.

I think basketball is my favorite sport to shoot. The action is close and it is fast. Unlike football, you get to see the players eyes and the eyes add a lot of emotion to the photographs.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Few Thoughts to Begin 2010

I guess if you are reading this and you have ever read any of my posts before then you know that I am not very good at this. Good bloggers post their thoughts every day or at least every week. I don't really think that much. That's the problem. And when I do think, it's not really that interesting outside of my own head - plane geometry, constant acceleration equations, differential calculus - stuff like that.

Last year was a very good year. Jill and I are enjoying life and the kids are doing great. We spent four weeks in Idaho as a family last summer and then I spent three more weeks out west - one in the summer with Jill to Yellowstone, another week in Utah with a friend, and a week in the fall in Idaho with another good friend. We stayed home at Christmas but that's what you do when your kids' high school soccer and basketball take over your life.

I've done a lot of photography in the last year. The travel photography out west was my favorite but I did a lot of other shooting too. I followed the successful run of the Aledo Bearcats all the way to the 4A State Championship in football. Along the way I shot on the sidelines at the new Dallas Cowboy Stadium and at Darrell K. Royal Stadium at the University of Texas. I did a lot of portraits in the spring and and I shot volleyball, soccer, baseball, basketball and church in between.

I'll try to be better about posting in 2010. Think of it as a New Year's Resolution guaranteed to be good for at least a couple of posts anyway. I'll be keeping my posts pretty short this year focusing on a few favorite photos and the stories behind them.

Here's the first one:

This is one of my favorite spots in Grand Teton National Park, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It's the Snake River Overlook and Ansel Adams made it famous back in the 40's in black and white. My version is from June 2009 and was done with multiple exposures. This is an example of High Dyamic Range processing where a range of exposures are combined into one photograph. It's a way of pulling detail out of the shadows without blowing out the highlights. It seems to be more dramatic to me.

The week we spent in Wyoming and Idaho was great but the clouds never quite gave up their hold on the mountaintops. This shot was one of my best from the week. I like the way the clouds pull back to reveal part of the treasure of Grand Teton without completely revealing the tips of the peaks.