Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Journey Continues - Confirmation

Pastor Taylor with Confirmands Andrew, Erika and Aidan, 2016
I must confess that being raised in the Presbyterian church, I missed out on some of the more liturgical aspects of worship, one of them being Confirmation. Oh, sure, when I was a teen and I went to a Youth Orientation Class, being run by our youth pastor, I learned about the basics of the Presbyterian denomination, played some trust games with my fellow teens, and in about 4 weeks, I could join the church as a member, rather than just a kid on my parent's church membership.

But today was Confirmation Sunday in our church, which we choose to observe on Reformation Sunday, making it a celebratory day. And even though both of my kids have gone through Confirmation themselves (Colin was Confirmed in 2014, Audrey in 2015), it wasn't until today that the significance of Confirmation made itself evident to me.

I look back at my own faith at this time, and place it in a shadowbox that was encased by my mother's faith, and held in it as well the faith that my two older brothers had. Church was never forced on us, but we were still expected to attend. Then, when my brother Jim went to college and began to stretch his wings, mom felt he was backsliding. I look at my oldest brother, Donald, who has embraced a life of science to the point where he seems to fight the faith he was raised in. So as I watched these three teenagers today, who stood in the pulpit and made their statements of faith, I realized how important this seemingly innocuous Rite is. And it is called a Rite - the Rite of Confirmation.

You see, my brothers and I never had the chance to stand in front of a group of folk and state what we believed. Oh, sure, we may have had through various youth events to give testimonies, but never in such a public forum. And even though I listened to Colin and Audrey's statements of faith, I never saw it any other way than the perspective of being a proud dad. 

But today I heard something different: I heard three young people publicly state and profess the reason for their faith. These were carefully crafted messages, and even though none of them were over 3 minutes long, they spoke volumnes of the journey these young people have taken, and more importantly, the foundation that has been built to carry them through their continuing journey of faith. But more importantly, I realized that what they were saying was that their faith was now their own. The claimed it from their parents. They are now stewards of that faith. And to me, that is so exciting!

And I thought of my own kids, whom I told that I WANT them to have their own faith, not mine or anyone else's. It's theirs, and theirs alone. I have told all three of the kids that I want them to continue to go to church and then when they're 18, they can do as they please. Because I want them to get that core truth: that solid foundational belief, so as they travel in their own spiritual journeys, they will have that firm set of beliefs to hold them as they face challenges and other belief systems. And, so today, I think of my kids, and the statements they made, and the hope that they choose to take a journey that will lead them to a place where their faith is strong and truth-filled.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, October 21, 2016

Life without regret

Many years ago I took on the life philosophy of having no regrets. Up to that point I had been someone who played it too safe (I still play it safe), but I never took risks or opportunities if they presented themselves to me. This was a major step for me, and led me to both personal and professional growth. But never was it more exemplified than one late afternoon in October, 1994.

It was the last big photo trip that I was to take with my dad. Sure, we did other trips after that, but just short ones that only went to parts of California. This trip took us to Colorado, and then into Utah. We spent a full day in Moab, taking in both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. That afternoon, I decided I wanted to get some sunset photos of the famous Delicate Arch. Dad opted to stay in the room, so I did the drive to the trailhead parking lot, pulled out my big camera bag and hefty tripod, and set out on the trail. 

The trail was a mile-and-a-half long, and for a good half-mile climbed up a gentle slope of slickrock. Now, I had all my camera gear, and even though it was in a backpack, it weighed nearly 30 pounds. The tripod was heavy-duty, and added 10 pounds to the load easily. About half-way up this trail, realizing I didn't know how much further I had to go, I began to think about turning back. The sun was setting quickly (as it does in the fall), and I just felt that I would probably miss the sunset shot and be disappointed. I started to turn back.

But then I thought to myself "Hey! You have never been out here, and you really don't know if you'll ever be here again. Just go for it!". I listened to that voice, repositioned my gear on my back and placed the heavy tripod on my other shoulder, and continued on.

For those of you who have never been to the Delicate Arch, but have only seen photos of it, you should go there. The photos do not give you the correct idea of how large the Arch is. You think "oh, maybe it's 10 feet tall." But it is massive, and the natural bowl or amphitheater that you see in front of it is massive as well. 

So, here I was, coming around a corner, seeing this tall arch, and this bowl, not lit brilliantly by the setting sun, but bathed in a soft, pink glow from the clouds to the west. The light on the Arch and the other formations was surreal, and one of the most perfect serendipitous photographic situations I've ever encountered. I set up my camera, and shot a few photos of this wonderful sight, until the light was so dim that my film would not have been able to capture it anymore. 

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, c1994 2016, John Prothero Photographer

As I hiked back to my car in the still darkness, (I did bring along a small flashlight), I realized how important my life philosophy of "no regrets" was to me. Had I listened to that whiny voice, and turned back, I would have regretted it, and have missed one of the most important images in my small library of work. 

And as I go through life, I can say I have NO regrets - well, maybe a few. But they are small regrets, not ones that were life choices regrets. And now, as I return to my passions, I will make choices without regretting anything.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Art of Composition

Having grown up in an artistic family, the basics of composition in a painting, drawing or photography were second-nature. Even the way my dad would landscape the yards we had in Glendale and San Clemente had a basis in design and composition. In photography, the rules of composition apply just as much as they do in other visual art forms. As I return to an art form that I loved so much, I find that those basics of composition are still with me - just as much a part of me as my memories of places, or my mom's singing, or the Sunday dinners at home. 

In photography, using the basics of composition can make the difference between a "meh" picture that you see on Instagram, to one that makes you say "WOW!" and you click the little heart icon to "like" it, or even go so far as to comment on it. And as I have been viewing other photographer's work on Instagram (which is a great platform for serious amateur and professional photographers), I'm seeing many images that COULD be "WOW!", but are just "meh", because the person did not use those rules of composition.

Now, in fairness, many folk who use their smartphones to capture images have never studied art, or the rules of composition, and out of fairness we can't dismiss what they tried to do: capture something that stirred them emotionally. And some of those folk that I see on Instagram may have a natural ability to understand what makes a good image, and they take it without even thinking of it, and select a filter that gives them that emotional feeling they had in that fleeting moment. And, to be fair, even those who MAY know about composition are not going to be successful in every attempt they make to capture the emotional response to what they are seeing.

So, what are the basics of good composition, and since my art is photography, what is good photographic composition?


The first thing that most photographers comment on is the rule of thirds. When I see a perfectly symmetrical image, with the horizon line smack in the middle, or a vertical object that divides the scene perfectly in two, I respond in two ways: either the photographer was intentional in this; or they had no clue about the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that you divide your frame into three horizontal sections, and then three vertical sections, like this:

The four points where those verticals intersect are call the points of interest. So, the goal, especially if you have a subject in your image, like this shell, is to have it at one of the points of interest. Here, it's in the lower right point of interest. But notice too that the horizon is dividing the middle and the upper third of the frame. This is a very strong compositional element, and creates a dynamic image.


Leading lines are important, because they bring the viewer into the image. Having strong leading lines create a sense of depth, which psychologically bring the viewer deeper into the image.  Here's a good example of leading lines taking you in, all the way to the back of the image. Also notice that the vanishing point (where the road disappears in the distance) is near the upper left point of interest. This images invites you to "enter" into it, and experience it, due to the leading lines. 

Taylor Creek Road, 1997, copyright John Prothero 2016


There are basically two types of curves you can use in photographic composition: an S-curve, and a C-curve. Either one are strong compositional elements. I particularly like S-curve, as in this image below taken on a winding road in the central California coastal hills. As with leading lines, S-curve that start at the bottom, or the corner of an image, lead the viewer into the photograph, enticing them to be part of what they see. 

Another strong form of composition is using diagonal lines, which can also be used as leading lines. If you use them to create strong angles at the four points of interest, it creates a powerful image. Triangles as well can be used to create strong interest, particularly around the subject of your image. Here are examples of an S-curve, diagonals and triangles. 


As you can see, using diagonal lines can inherently lead to triangles, so you've used two different compositional techniques to strengthen your image. 


No, we're not talking about something out of a Dan Brown novel. The famed Fibonacci Sequence from "DaVinci Code" was a real sequence of numbers, which is manifested in a strong compositional element as seen here:

Notice how the image has a cluster of something at a starting point, and then the rest of it spirals out. For me, I use this technique quite a bit, yet it's more instinctive. And you can apply it in any orientation in the frame, and within a portrait or landscape orientation.


Well, let's look at what I'd say is a poorly composed image.

When you look at this image you see that the seawall is just about in the center of the frame. Thankfully, it's closer to the line that divides the middle third of the image and the bottom third. But what really stands out is that this while tower is smack in the middle of the frame, and is a white tower brightly lit. When viewing this image there is little sense of depth, little sense of movement, and so you don't feel compelled to enter into the image - it doesn't engage you. Bright objects in an image stand out and come out at you. So, by this white tower being in the middle, there is nothing that leads you into the photograph. In fact, the white tower grabs all your viewing attention. It just sits there, sterile. Some ways the photographer could have made this interesting was moving the white tower to one of the vertical lines in the frame. I would have gone closer to the seawall and have used that as a leading line into the tower. Also, this is strongly backlit, which can be problematic. Having a strongly side lit subject is more interesting.


Well, not only did I learn from observing my parents and taking art courses, when I used to do large format photography, you have to rely upon composition in order to make sure the image is going to be worth printing, or for that matter, exposing. Large format film and processing is an expensive venture. But it did force me to look at images from a pure compositional standpoint and even from a lighting standpoint. Let's look at one of my black & white images taken of a sand dune in Death Valley National Park. On the left is the image I printed. On the right is the same image as it appears in the back of a large format camera: upside down and backwards. 

Sand dune, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, 1994, copyright 2016 John Prothero
When I was viewing the scene on the ground glass of the 4x5" camera, I had to look at what drew me into the scene very carefully. I emphasised the foreground, which uses shapes and curves to enhance it's composition, and then I put the sky at the top of the frame because I wanted the viewer to be pulled into the image - I wanted them to be compelled to walk on the dune. Then I did additional work in the darkroom to create the deep shadows. Photography uses the psychology of dark and light - dark recedes, light comes forward. By having a very dark dune at the top, the image now has a sense of depth and distance. 

By using various elements of composition, whether your taking an image with your iPhone, or with a DSLR, or large format, you can create stunning images that have the ability to elicit strong emotions from the viewer, and take your images from "meh" to "WOW!"