Archive for Behind the Photo

Trying to Find a Camera’s Melting Point

When I think back about it, the thing that stands out the most in my mind is feeling like someone had stabbed me in the lower back.

Not too long ago, I had the “what is your favorite image you’ve ever produced” discussion with an acquaintance. I’ve always had a problem answering this for a couple of reasons. First, since I’ve shot a number of different genres (corporate, scenic, music, sports, etc.), different types of images stand out. Also, I’m incredibly tough on myself when I edit my images. But what makes this particular image special is what I had to go through just to capture it.

My first job out of school was working as a staff photojournalist for The Paris News, a 12,000 circulation daily in northeast Texas. During that time, the photographers carried mobile police scanners that alerted us to breaking news situations, also referred to as “spot news.”

During the late ’90s when I worked there, the summers were incredibly hot with highs regularly over 100 degrees. On one particularly brutal Friday afternoon, I had an assignment to shoot an environment portrait of the assistant city manager with blueprints of an upcoming project. It was a quick, run-of-the-mill assignment, so I left my scanner in the car. Fifteen minutes later, we walked out the building to see a massive plume of smoke rising from the residential neighborhood approximately two blocks away. As we both stopped in our tracks, the assistant city manager looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we both know where your next assignment is.”

I jumped in my car and sped around the block as the scanner was going crazy with activity, calling for all fire units to respond. I parked down the street and began running down the block to see an older, two-story Victorian-style home engulfed in flames, what fire crews call “fully involved.”

At the time, I carried a large camera bag to hold all of my equipment. As I sprinted down the street, the bag started to slide off my right shoulder and I turned my upper body to catch it. As soon as I jerked my body to the right I felt a “pop” as I pulled a muscle in my lower back and a sharp, shooting pain surged through my body. I staggered forward and managed to catch myself.

Slowly, I managed to walk slowly towards the scene as stiffness and immense pain hammered the lower right portion of my back. Thankfully, the adrenaline of the situation helped dull the pain enough so I could concentrate on shooting.

As I finally got close enough, I started working the scene by shooting the fire from different angles. The heat from the massive fire combined with the record triple-digit temperatures we were experiencing that summer made the entire area feel like an oven.

FIRE_3RD_SW_blogDuring all of this, Steve Bergin, the city’s fire chief, had arrived on the scene, running a couple of blocks over from his office. Apparently he had been attending some function that day and was still in a dress shirt and tie. Bergin jumped into action, helping to man a hose spraying down the front of the house. I was able to get close enough with a wide-angle lens to frame up Begin, the other firefighters and the inferno. After shooting a few frames, I lay down on the street, to get a slightly lower angle and also to provide relief for by back. At one point, Bergin turned his head to yell a command and I hit the shutter release. I shot from a variety of other angles including by a fence next to the house, where the heat from the fire was incredible (At one point, I began seriously wondering at what temperature a camera would start to physically melt). In the end, the frame of Bergin was the keeper that ended up making page one on Sunday and is still on of my key pj images in my portfolio. I suffered through a high school football game that night and spent the rest of the weekend on my couch taking way too much ibuprofen.

An effect from that day is that I stopped carrying camera bags during assignments. I was in my early twenties and was starting to have lower back issues. A little research determined that camera bags compress your spine and put unneeded pressure on your lower back. It also doesn’t help if you’re like me and carry everything including the kitchen sink on assignment. Although I still use camera bags for transporting my equipment, I started wearing waist packs to carry equipment on assignments and long term shoots. This puts the weight on my legs (where it should have been all along).

I still wonder, though, at what temperature a camera starts melting. At my age, I think I’ll let someone else figure that out.

Red Hot Temperatures and Bluebonnets

If you’re just here for the bribe (giveaway, drawing, whatever), feel free to skip the brilliant prose and head to the bottom for details.

Someone once said, “There are two seasons in Texas: Summer and not summer.”

In 2011, that was proved true, as the seasons went somewhere along the lines of:

Not Summer (Winter): “Ahhhh, yes. This is why I love Texas.”

Not Summer (Spring): “Eh, a little warm for this time of year, but it’s still oka…RUN!!!! A TORNADO!!!!!

Summer: “Man, I miss the summer of 1980. Oh look! Another small woodland creature just spontaneously combusted.”

Not Summer (Fall): “Can I come out of my house now?”

For about 10 minutes that summer, the traditional Texas bluebonnets appeared before realizing that natures’ broiler had been left on 350 degrees. Within that small window of opportunity, I managed to find a small group of flowers along Interstate 30 in Fort Worth that hadn’t yet been reduced to ashes and decided to photograph them.

Many people assume that professional photographers hit the shutter release and through the grace of God and Canon or Nikon, beautiful photos appear. We wished it happened that way too.

One of the results of the adventurous photo shoot.
(Click photo to enlarge)

For the bluebonnet photo, I parked on the side of I-30 and hopped out of my car as other vehicles whizzed past me just below light speed. After hiking up a small slope, I set my bag down, grabbed my camera body, made the lens selection and hit the ground to get the bluebonnet photo to end all bluebonnet photos. Then the ants found me.

Some men attract good luck, some beautiful women, others large sums of cash. I attract insects. With stingers. And bad attitudes.

The ants proceeded to let me know that I was not welcome in their ‘hood and drivers along a major D/FW highway were treated to a man who appeared to miss his medication that day, flailing on his back and repeatedly slapping his right leg. Something tells me Ansel Adams never had to deal with this. If he did, his biographer was kind enough to leave it out.

Once the ants were satisfied with their conquest, I finally got down to the business of making photographs. I found a group of bluebonnets that looked healthy and had great color. Balancing my flash on my camera bag to produce nice, directional lighting, I composed a shot and started clicking away. There were clouds out that day, so I had to battle the changing exposure between sunlight and cloudiness. I was in “The Zone.”

Then Fort Worth’s Finest decided to stop by.

For the record, I truly have the utmost respect for police. As a photojournalist I had a front-row seat for many of the things they deal with and I will testify, it’s a tough, thankless job. But that day, I really didn’t want to get arrested for taking photos of flowers.

The officer pulled up to the stoplight on the access road above me and curiously looked down in my direction. I looked up, smiled weakly and nodded, hoping my body language communicated that I was far too fragile to go to jail and be some large man’s girlfriend.

While he had every right to haul me off to the pokey for committing a crime against photography (felony cliché picture taking of flowers), he simply shook his head and drove off once the light turned green. I tried a few more angles and figured that between sweating my way to dehydration and the vicious ant attack, I was done.

Getting home and editing the shots, I surprised myself by choosing a photo that didn’t have the traditional blue sky, but the shot you see above that had darker clouds which helped the flowers to really stand out. In hindsight, it was well worth the adversities.

Just don’t tell the ants that. They’re already a bit full of themselves as it is.