Saturday, March 26, 2016

Seeing Beauty

Tunnel View after sunset, Yosemite National Park, California
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm
Have you ever had difficulty seeing the beauty in something that didn't quite look or seem terribly good at first impression?  I have  --  more often than I'd like to admit.

Earlier this month when I was in Yosemite National Park I had some unusually good photo opportunities but they came at the expense of capturing some of the "usual" ones.  Sunset at Tunnel View was not to be for me that evening.  

Instead of leaving I stood around and looked for what I may not have seen at first glance.  The warmth of sunset vanished and was replaced by cool, flat light.  I gave the scene a few more looks and decided that I would try to capture it in black and white.  I think it was a good choice not to abandon it without giving it another change.

Isn't it that way with other things in our lives?  

Recently I had a woman in front of me in court who returned to the apartment from which she had been evicted to retrieve the personal property that the movers left behind.  A deputy sheriff who oversaw the eviction told her not to come back and testified that the movers put everything of obvious value in storage.  A neighbor saw the woman go back into the apartment and called the police.

Sounds like a clear case of trespassing, right?  

There's more to the story.  The defendant was homeless and a chronically mentally ill single mother with two children who isn't getting any child support from their father.  The things left behind in the apartment were of value to her and she went back inside to get them,  And despite the strikes against her she has her illness under reasonable control and works at a low-wage job to support her children.

Clearly she was trespassing and I found her guilty which was to her undoubtedly yet another "failure" in her life.  Before imposing sentence I asked her to tell me about herself and anything else she thought I should know.  She threw in the towel and had nothing much to say.  So I asked her to tell me something good about herself because I was sure she was pretty used to hearing about all the not so good things.  Slowly we talked about her work, her challenges and her children.  

I could have viewed this woman as a lawbreaker caught once again.  But I wanted to take another look.  Was the glass half full or half empty?  Yes, she was wrong but if you put yourself in her shoes, what would you have done?  Obviously she was doing about all she can to keep it together and support her children, a tough task for most people with limited income but even rougher when you're chronically mentally ill.  

I fined her $100 -- less than the prosecutor wanted but actually pretty stiff when you consider that it's about half of her weekly take home pay. 

Sometimes taking another look at something turns out that you see it differently than you did at first.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Horsetail Falls

Horsetail Falls, Yosemite National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm
Fishermen often talk about "the one that got away" and for me Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park was like that for many years.  I was in Yosemite ostensibly at "the right time" but Mother Nature didn't get the memo.

Until last week.

Horsetail Falls is really misting water falling downward that during parts of February can become passionately illuminated just before and at sunset.  It doesn't always happen but when it does it's a special occasion -- one, I might add, that's shared by hundreds of people who often have waited for hours for "the right shot."

Despite being a "captive audience" it's not a glum one.  Families picnic, sometimes inviting their temporary "neighbors" to share food and drink.  Photographers offer up their stories and tips for getting a good shot.  Park rangers who once were persnickety about where people parked finally came up with a better idea: temporarily close one of the two lanes on the one-way westbound road so that people could park there.  It's kind of like a football game where people are tailgating together, happy with a victory and sad for a loss but happy for the company along the way.

There are, of course, parallels to life here.  If you want something, showing up is half the battle and sticking with it the rest.  You might not always succeed on the first try -- or maybe the second or third.  But eventually patience and perseverance is likely to win out.  If you get discouraged and give up you'll never succeed.  And even if you didn't get "the shot" you've had the fellowship of kindred spirits.   Life is good.

Horsetail Falls at sunset, Yosemite National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

Note:  It doesn't take a lot of equipment to shoot this but the right gear on hand is critical.  A lens with a 200-300mm effective range, a circular polarizer, a remote shutter release and your camera mounted on a tripod will help you zoom in and maintain sharpness.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Want good photographs? Get up early, be there for the best, stay with it, be on watch for unexpected magic and don't give up when others have gone home.

Zion National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

There is a privilege to seeing God's glory as a nature photographer.  The mystical light before and just after sunrise and an hour before up to and sometimes after sunset.  The privilege to the non-photographer may seem somehow glamorous and exclusive but it really isn't.  It's a matter of being there for the best light and, in the rest of the day, being on watch.

Many times I arrive at an airport around midnight and drive to a photo location, arriving in the cold darkness and waiting for the chance to see if there will be color in the sky as the sun is getting ready for its day.  Yes, it would be nice to sleep in but often when I do I miss the best of the best.

The photo above at Zion National Park shows pre-sunrise light illuminating the peaks.  Seeing it is pure excitement because it's a good harbinger of what's likely to come if you're there -- and patient.

A few minutes later you can see the color beginning to pop yet still make out detail in the shadows.
 Zion National Park, Utah
Fujifilm XE-2, 18-55mm

The light will dance around for a couple of minutes more, enticing you with a bit more color before the shadows become darker and the reddish glow turns into bright sunlight and harsh shadows.  Some people will see that blue sky and call it a "picture perfect day" but it really isn't.  The sun is basically good for two things.  Sunrise:
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm XE-1, 55-200mm

And sunset:

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm
In a short time the glorious light of early day is gone.  The rest of the day is pretty bland, photographically speaking and often there isn't much to do in between.  But sometimes God has a way of interrupting PNT (photographer nap time) because an overcast, stormy day can also produce scenes you ordinarily won't find during that "picture perfect day."

Upper North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

In the middle of the afternoon rain and fog began rolling in.  The waterfall wasn't even visible but after a 20-minute standoff the fog blew off ever so softly.  Most of the time the waterfall wouldn't be photogenic at that time of day -- harsh light and bright white "hotspots."  And when the sun goes down it doesn't automatically mean packing it in.  There was still a little magic left in this shot at Bryce Canyon:

Paria View, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200 mm

Photography doesn't just record life -- it often mirrors it.  I've heard it said that half of the battle in life is just showing up.  (Photographers used to call that "f/8 and be there.")  If you're not there you may miss the best light -- and the best in life.  And instead of running off when the good light burns off it's always a good idea to be on watch just in case something unexpected pops up.  Even at the end of the day when the sun has relaxed its ultraviolet grip on us there can still be magic if you're patient and, more important, there.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour."  Matthew 25:13.  The temptation to give up is often there.  Maybe the day is going to suck anyway, so why bother?  What if it isn't?  What if you're not there?  Well, when the good light is gone, it's gone.  If I am not there the opportunity is lost.  There is no rewind button.  No pause button, either.  And the next day might be a total bust.  As for mid-day magic, it's not likely to happen but it does on occasion and when that happens you want to be on watch, ready for the moment.  Stick with it.  Be ready.  

Oh yes, for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Matthew 5:45.  But the best experiences will likely fall on those who show up early, remain on watch, stay in the game and don't give up when others want to go home.  And getting outside of your comfort zone counts, too, whether it's in photography or in life.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Can we -- no, we must -- TALK!

Pronghorn antelope, Yellowstone National Park North Entrance, Gardiner, MT
Canon EOS 7D, 500mm f/4L 1.4x

Another murder.  Another mass shooting.  Another wacko killing innocent people.  And the same old, same old response which is more like a non-response.  One "side" will gasp and say we must do something about gun control while another "side" recoils at even the suggestion.  Of course, nothing gets done and the same story will play out again -- and again.

As sad and disturbing as this example is it clearly illustrates what's wrong with our political and social environment today:  our minds are like concrete -- all mixed up and permanently set -- and we  simply don't and won't talk.  Worse, many of us will simply (or rudely) dismiss anyone who doesn't agree with us, devaluing them as well as their ideas.  Truly we may well have met the enemy and he is us.

With respect to gun violence another problem is that both "sides" are ostensibly "right."  Connecticut has strict gun laws but that didn't protect those innocent children at Sandy Hook.  Conversely all those gun totin' Arizonans did squat to help Gabby Giffords.  There may be some truth somewhere in between those extremes but I sure don't know where it is and I doubt anyone else does, either.

But that doesn't mean we should give up searching for that truth even if we may never find it.  And we should not give up respect for each other in the process.  

Folks who favor more firearms restrictions must realize that "When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns" isn't entire a simplistic dismissal.  Making, selling and possessing heroin is illegal but it hasn't stopped the epidemic of heroin deaths.  As the Dixie Chicks ("Goodbye Earl") reminded us passing a law is no guarantee that it will be obeyed ("He walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care").  

On the flip side that doesn't mean we should abandon all hope.  The nation's highways are dramatically safer after tougher drunken driving laws and a shift in public attitude toward impaired driving.  While many people are still killed and maimed by drunken drivers the number is less than it once was thanks to tighter laws passed with public support.  So, no, we can't stop all tragic episodes with firearms but maybe we can agree that some additional restrictions could at least prevent a few of them.  Maybe we could agree that it makes little sense that we have background checks and waiting periods when you buy a gun from a licensed dealer but none of that applies when buying from a private party.  Maybe we could agree that you should do a little more than take a class and send in $50 and some box tops to get a concealed carry permit.  Maybe we could agree that we need to look a little more carefully at prospective gun buyers to determine if we have an undiscovered "nut job" waiting to explode -- and maybe we need to make sure better records are kept so that they have less of a chance of falling through the cracks.

Maybe, just maybe, we can talk this out, realizing that no law is an insurance policy against tragedy but having no laws is also just as impotent.  And maybe we can can the hostile, simplistic rhetoric long enough to engage in this dialogue.  Together, we are stronger.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Who has the will to take it?

Lewis Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis: What would Jesus do?

Mount Moran at Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Fuji X-E1, 55-200mm, circular polarizer
America has "Pope fever."

Pope Francis -- the "people's pope -- is doing his level best to set his church, other churches and politicians across the world on fire with simple messages designed to hit home, not some etheral place where the messages will be neatly filed and ignored.

But what the pope is doing isn't really rocket science.  It's about bringing is back to where we should have been before religion got in the way of faith.

Pope Francis is definitely pro-life but he has called for outreach to and forgiveness of women who have had abortions.  He supports traditional marriage but refuses to judge gays.  He wants churches to be hospitals for sinners, bloody from being in the streets working with the poor and underprivileged.  Francis shuns excess and blasts those who embrace it while calling us to be good stewards of the earth and its resources.

None of this is really particularly radical theology.  It's pastoral.  It's real. It reaches the gut level.  It's the epitome of "what would Jesus do?"

Perhaps that's why Pope Francis is so popular.  He's walking the walk.  And he wants us to join him.  He's telling pastors to stop sending letters to the Corinthians and instead tell it like it is to the people at home.  And while some Catholics comfortable with orthodoxy are reluctant to embrace him Pope Francis is a rock-star for many non-Catholics and even non-Christians.


Maybe it's because he is filling a need we are so hungry for -- spiritual guidance plus encouragement that we who are not perfect people are nonetheless loved and capable of good.  Maybe it's because of the shallow emptiness of our political, business and social leaders.  Maybe, just maybe, it's because he's doing what Jesus would do if he was here today -- consort with, encourage and forgive sinners and the marginalized.  For non-Catholics -- for whom Francis calls their leaders "brother bishops" -- it's a sign of what they wish their churches would be.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy demonstrates that's he's a hero in more than one way

Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, Oregon
Canon EOS 7D, 24-105mm, ISO 200, 1/50 sec/ @ f/8

Guest commentary published today in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

When I heard the news of the mass shooting in a historic African-American church in Charleston, I was overcome with grief and flooded with memories.

Three years ago, I was the police officer who arrived on the scene of a mass shooting in a Sikh gurdwara [temple] in Oak Creek. The gunman Wade Michael Page had just murdered six people, wounding many more, when I engaged him. Page shot me 15 times before turning the gun on himself.

Ever since that moment, I have thought about what makes people like Page and Dylann Roof carry out deadly acts. Both are white supremacists. Both committed heinous acts in houses of worship at a time when people had gathered in community and prayer. Both killed people based on the color of their skin.

It would be easy to shrug off any responsibility in what they did. But I believe that people who were near both of them must have witnessed their spiral into hate and violence. Someone must have seen and known, deep inside, that there was trouble ahead. Why didn't they stop them? As someone who has looked hate in the eye — and survived — I believe that we each have a role in changing the culture that produced Roof and Page.

It begins with calling out racism in our own homes and communities. We tend to overlook things that bother us, the racist slur or sign of bigotry. We try not to get involved with situations outside our comfort zone. We want to be treated fairly and justly and, yet, we deny that treatment to people we see as different. But the costs are too great to stay silent. In this moment, we must have the courage to reach out to our neighbors, because we desperately need to understand each other.

We can start by learning from the families who survive these mass shootings. The families' response to the horrific violence in Charleston is profoundly similar to the Sikh community's response in Oak Creek. Both did something that speaks volumes about who they are: They forgave. They forgave those who trespassed against us, men who killed in the most coldblooded way. They looked these killers in the face and prayed for them. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget. Forgiveness frees us from hate, so that we can change our hearts and lives.

Now is the time for each of us to forgive. We must forgive our own ignorance and the way we harbor stereotypes and prejudice. We must forgive ourselves so that we can become braver and better. Only then can we change how we treat the people in our lives.

Some suggest that the massacres in Oak Creek and Charleston reveal that no matter how we try, we cannot reach everyone. For me, acts of hate make the job of reaching people that much more urgent and necessary. People at their foundation are good. There is no one completely out of reach; we just have to try harder. By Roof's admission, he almost didn't carry out his evil plan because the people were so nice to him.

We can start with how we treat the person next to us. The simplest act of kindness and compassion can change a person's life. Start now, this very second. Be the person you always dreamed of being. Be a beacon of hope to our children. Let them know we are better than the actions of a few people who have denied themselves the ability to see one another as brothers and sisters. Let us emulate the behavior that God has asked of us. Let us welcome, respect, and love one another.

This is the best way to honor the lives lost in Charleston and Oak Creek. If we don't change the culture of this country, starting with our own hearts, we are doomed to repeat the past.

Lt. Brian Murphy was wounded in the line of duty when arriving on the scene of the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek on Aug. 5, 2012.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Learned From Flying

Snake River at Oxbow Bend
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Canon EOS 7D, ISO 200, f/16 @ 20 sec.

My photography and faith buddy, Bill Fortney (, blogs incessantly about the connection between his faith and photographic pursuits.  One of those pursuits was his outstanding book America From 500 Feet which is a collection of images Bill took while flying an ultralight aircraft.  

Not sure I have what it takes to fly an ultralight but I have taken the stick of a Cessna 172 and a Dehavilland Beaver and an now beyond a Delta "Million Miler" frequent flyer.  But I've learned many life lessons from flying. 

I don't have time for the crap that holds me down.   My first flight in a Cessna 172 was from the Rice Lake Municipal Airport.  My instructor, Jim Maslowski, briefed me on all the things I needed to do but as soon as the propeller began spinning my head began spinning.  As the plane proceeded down the runway I was filled with dozens of crippling anxieties -- one of those "whole life flashing in front of you moments" -- of all the possible things that could go wrong superimposed on my own perceived inadequacies.  

The the truth hit me: this turkey has to get up in the sky or else we're going down in the lake.  Simple as that.  There isn't time to worry about all that crap.  Suddenly that which anchored me down instantly disappeared and the Cessna began its journey to Eau Claire.  

Cheapest and most effective therapy in the world.  Unless you want to wind up in the bottom of the lake, there isn't time to worry about all the crap that will keep you from soaring.

Delta isn't going to hold the plane for me if I get to the airport late.  It's been said that half of the key to success in life is just showing up.  I think you also have to be there on time or you just might miss out.

There are times in life when caution is appropriate if not indeed life-saving.  There are charlatans in our midst who would seek to pressure us to make hasty decisions that benefit them, not us.  And there is no guarantee against making a bad decision.  Obviously, to paraphrase the old Merrill Lynch saying, it's a good idea to investigate before you invest.

But indecision can also become a decision.  If you wait until the last minute to get to the airport and arrive late you're probably going to miss the plane.  The airline isn't going to hold it for you and doesn't care why you weren't there to board on time. You blew it and there's probably nobody else to blame.  Life doesn't always operate on my schedule.

Now we can get angry at the airline, the traffic, the airport and life in general but no matter what Delta isn't holding the plane.  We have no right to expect that they will.  Remember the parable of the three servants?  Did it ever seem odd that the one who was outcast was the one who didn't use the resources the master gave him?

Honesty is still the best policy.  There are many times when things don't work as I had planned. Maybe traffic was bad and I didn't get to the airport on time.  Sometimes there have been emergencies at home and I need to get back.  Sometimes I got busy and lost track of time.  

The best answer to "what to do" in those situations is simply to tell the truth.  No, Delta isn't going to hold the flight for me but there are times when it came to my rescue after I told the truth, even whey they weren't obligated to do so.  In fact, I never asked for emergency waivers if there wasn't one and I never had a "doable' request turned down.

Bad things still happen to good people.  As much as Delta has helped me in times of crisis they've also dumped on me, too.  Funny that as a customer Delta tells me all the wonderful things they're doing to "enhance" my experience bur as a stockholder the same executives talk with glee about how they're able to screw customers to maximize profits.  And the number of times I and other customers have been "enhanced" continues to grow.

There is no guarantee life will be fair, even if you are.  See the preceding paragraph.

When something doesn't go your way it may not be the worst thing.  I had an out-of-town meeting to make and was less than pleased that my flight to Chicago was cancelled due to fog and poor weather conditions.  I wound up driving to Madison. The airplane that was supposed to have been the connecting flight collided with another aircraft and ten people on the plane I would have been on were killed.  Sometimes be thankful for blessings in disguise.  See below as well.

When one door closes, another may open.  So many times I have been angry and hurt that something didn't happen as I wanted -- whether it be a job, a relationship, an investment or even a photo opportunity.  The first problem is that it was what I wanted.  Maybe God had a different idea and often the replacement plan was a better deal (although it rarely seems like it at the time).

I had a crappy fall shoot at Yellowstone and the Tetons.  The elk rut was disappointing (although the trumpeter swans were out), I got fewer shots in the Tetons than I had hoped for, the moose and pronghorn antelope were hiding from me and I was heading back with little to show for my time there.  Needless to say I was pretty disappointed (to say the least).

But as the sun had set and I was heading north out of the Tetons I turned to the left and saw the silhouette of a man fishing against the colorful sky.  I slammed on the brakes, jumped out, grabbed a camera and tripod and yelled at the man asking if he would please stay still for a few seconds.  He complied with my request and the result you can see below.

Snake River at Sunset
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Canon EOS 7D, ISO 250, f/8 @ 2 sec.