Picture this: The American Dream

•August 13, 2011 • 3 Comments

Picture this: The American Dream


Have you taken any time to consider the American Dream?  In my experience, the American Dream is not a static concept so much as dynamically driven by geography and culture. Having lived in several parts of the United States, I can safely say that my sense of the American Dream has shifted from place to place, but always included the ability to enjoy wide-open spaces.  To that end, you might say that I envision the American Dream as those unalienable rights as outlined in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Therefore, if I were to comment on “my” American Dream, I might sum it up briefly by saying that it is the Liberty to enjoy my Life without encumbrance by governmental agencies, while I Pursue Happiness. 


But what is “is”?  Do I “live” and therefore have “life” just because I breathe?  Not quite: Life for me is a journey and liberty is the freedom to take the turns on that journey that are pleasing and desirable to me.  Happiness: Well that is simply being satisfied that I made my own choices along the way.  There are no guaranteed results in this “American Dream”, just an equal opportunity to turn our life into whatever we want it to be.  There is no joy that matches a wide-open space with my camera.  At the end of the day I might be tired, hot, dirty and 100 miles from home, but satisfied that I have pursued my American Dream.  But wait: That is my American Dream in Kansas, and does not necessarily have anything to do with my time in Connecticut, Kentucky, New York, or Pennsylvania etc.  I might seek out a mountain trail or beach in Connecticut and in Pennsylvania, it might be a waterfall, covered bridge, or a country farm scene.  There are many themes that I might be engaged in with different geographical areas, but the pursuit is close to the same in all places.  As a young backpacker, just seeing the sights along the way was good enough for me, but that was when I lived in a city and worked in a bigger city and spent my rush hours sitting in some serious traffic.  Today the camera is a very important part of that scenery because I want to share those sights with others. 


You might have guessed by now that my American Dream today involves having a camera handy and getting away from it all.  Kansas for instance, has many Scenic Drives that you could take over the course of a weekend and experience some of the more interesting sights and culture of our great state, and in my opinion; it is a good idea to have a camera with you.  Sure, these kinds of little excursions are very enjoyable without stopping to shoot, but the pleasure of viewing those photos repeatedly has a healing effect on the soul.  Trips like these are easy to afford in rough economic times like those we live in today, but the photographic fruits can last a long time.  Not only that, getting out of the car to really experience these locations is an important part of these trips.  Walking around at Monument Rocks or Castle Rock can be a once-in-lifetime experience, besides being the stuff that builds a rich childhood for your kids.  I do not know about you, but in my family, we spent a lot of time driving for vacations and getting out to explore everywhere we went.  That was some good stuff to remember as a kid, and it has had a permanent effect on my life.  It is also very cool to be able to share these places with your friends and family and introduce them to more of the world they live in.


After everything is said and done, it is all about getting out with your camera and enjoying the many liberties that we are blessed with as Americans. Sitting on the couch and watching your favorite shows on television may seem like a great idea for you, but once those shows are gone, they are gone. The photos that you accumulate from simple little scenic drives can provide a lifetime of fun and invigorating memories. If you enjoy activities at the lake, you will probably also enjoy the photos of those activities during the harsh winters of Kansas. I once read a book about developing memory; the author suggested that one of the best ways to preserve memories was to keep photos of those memorable moments handy, where they will be viewed often. Some of my favorite photos are hanging in my studio, and provide wallpaper for my various computer screens.


If you need some inspiration to get started on excursions (such as I have discussed here) catch up with me on Facebook or Flickr and have a look at the various galleries available. You may discover places that you never dreamed existed in and around Kansas. By the way, we do not have to show a passport at the borders between states here in the United States, so it is okay if you cross the border into one of our neighboring states and find some cool stuff to shoot there too.



You know it’s hot when…

•July 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I finally decided today that it has been too hot for too long here in Kansas.  My buddy Patrick is out of town for the weekend so I go over to water his herb garden when he’s gone.  Today I got into my truck, looked up at the temperature and said to myself “Wow, it’s only 102°”!!!  Something about that thought felt really wrong. 

Since I brought up the subject of heat; I might as well mention that your camera batteries are in peril when you are out in high temperature shooting situations, just like when you are in the extreme cold.  Make sure you have backups and do your best to keep them cool (not cold) so you can swap out the batteries when they get too hot to function properly.  If you happen to have a cooler with you and it has one of those sandwich trays in the lid, that could be a good place to hold your backup batteries.

© 2011 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com

My son’s wedding in Pennsylvania

•July 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

It was an early morning trip to the airport on Friday to travel to Pennsylvania for my son’s wedding (thanks for the ride Lisa).  My travels would take me from Wichita, KS to White Plains, NY by way of a connection in Chicago.  Checking in and going through security in Wichita as very easy and quick, so I headed for my departure gate.  Upon arrival at the gate I came across my friend Darrin Hackney and we struck up a conversation.  As it turns out, he is flying on the same two flights as mine, heading to Connecticut to shoot a wedding.  While we were waiting for the plane, in walks another photographer friend Toshio Kawawa, on his way to a meeting in Cedar Rapids.  This was the first time I’ve ever traveled out of Wichita and ran into friends who were traveling on the same flight.  Timing was all great on the trip to White Plains and as I exited the Westchester County Airport my sister Sue and her husband Joe were arriving to pick me up.  Darrin was picked up by his ride just moments ahead of Sue & Joe’s arrival.

From White Plains we traveled to Creekside, PA with a little stop for lunch along the way.  All was good on the drive across Pennsylvania except for some heavy rains we hit, but they passed without incident. We struggled a little to find Luckenbach Penna where the wedding was being held, but resolved that in just a few minutes.  We found Jon and Angie after a little bit of walking around the facilities and after some greetings got down to the business of talking about the wedding.  That was followed by a dinner up the hill at High Point where we had a lot more opportunity to visit with everybody and get a lot of introductions.

Friday night was spent with Jon, Ryan, Shawn, Jimmy and Bob, building a killer fire and drinking beer into the wee hours of the morning, and in general having a good time.  But I must say that getting to bed at 3:30 made 9:00 roll around awfully early.  That’s when we got up and got to the business of getting ready for the wedding.  Jon and the boys took off to pick up some supplies for the reception while I got my gear and myself ready for the day’s work.  Somewhere around 11 I got a lift up to High Point so I could do some shooting with the girls before the services and then we went back down to Luckenbach somewhere around 1:00.  At that point the guys took over setting up the tables for the reception and I also got some shots that we needed, including some of the formals.  I must say that the folks at Luckenbach did a great job of providing a good facility for these kids.

The wedding got started pretty much on time around 3:00 and it was a nice short service (just the kind that everyone likes).  After that we took off to do some more formals at the American Legion in Indiana (that’s where Jon and Angie met).  We all had a lot of fun taking those shots and toasting (or ‘cheersing’ as some call it) to the newly married couple.  After that little trip we headed back to Luckenbach for the Reception.  There were many more photos to take when we got back and we had a very nice dinner too.  It was all-in-all an outstanding event and we all had a great time there.

Saturday night Sue, Joe and I stayed at one of the hotels in Indiana, PA before departing for White Plains on Sunday morning.  We had breakfast at the hotel and hit the road around 8:30 (giving us plenty of time for our trip).  Instead of going through Punxsutawney as we did on our arrival we opted to go through Altoona, so I could see the wind farms going in down there.  Our trip to White Plains went off without a hitch and the weather was fantastic.  We arrived early in White Plains so we went over to Harrison, NY for dinner at a restaurant we found a year ago.  Sadly Trevi was not open until 5:00, so we walked down the square until we found a nice little pizza joint.  We all had a slice of pizza and a little ice cream and enjoyed a little more time together before they dropped me off at the airport.

Let me tell you a little something about the Westchester County Airport: It is so much easier to get in and out of than any of the other New York City area airports, but the air conditioning sucks!  Ok, to be completely honest; the boarding area and the security area kinda suck too, but I’m just sayin’.  I was there plenty early and after some time found my buddy Darrin again (we were booked for the same flights again).  He and I had a lot of chat time in the boarding area since our departure was delayed for over 45 minutes. 

We got on the plane and the flight crew wasn’t real happy about the delay either since they had been waiting all that time for an arrival gate.  Although they did what they could to hasten our arrival in Chicago, we missed our connecting flight to Wichita.  And of course; it was also the last connection to Wichita.  American Airlines booked us on the first available flight in the morning and got us a good rate at the Hyatt Regency hotel.  Darrin and I shared a room so we could save a few dollars and hopefully I didn’t snore too loud all night.  We got up bright and early to get to O’Hare for our flight and spent a long time in line for security (it’s just not a good place to be on Monday morning).  Arriving at our ‘assigned’ gate early I opted to change my seat to a window seat (which was available and no hassle) and found out that we had been moved to another gate.  Darrin met me there after he stopped for a coffee and then he got his seat changed too.  The new seats were pretty handy since we were the 2nd and 3rd seats in the aircraft and were able to get out of the plane quickly in Wichita.

But the saga never ends!  We pulled back from the gate very close to being on time and just then a huge thunderstorm descended on O’Hare.  That gave us another 45 minutes on the ramp before we could get off the ground, making our trip back to Wichita all that much longer.  It was a good flight after that and we arrived without further issue at Wichita’s Mid Continent Airport at around 10:40.  Then we went to the baggage claim to retrieve Darrin’s camera bag and we had to go to the American Airlines desk to claim our luggage that arrived last night with the flight we were supposed to be on.  Finally we left the terminal and many thanks to Darrin for giving me a ride home after that amazing travel ordeal.

Wet memory cards are NOT the end of the road…

•June 14, 2011 • 2 Comments

This is old advice and many who read this will remember it once they read it here.   So whether this is a reminder or a first time learning experience for you, I hope you find it helpful.

It’s summer (at least it is here in the Northern Hemisphere) and that means many people are out taking lots of photos and carrying memory cards around with them on a regular basis.  It also means that many people will be taking part in various water-related activities, and I probably don’t need to tell you that memory cards and water don’t mix very well.  Recently I left a compact flash card in my pants pocket when those pants went through the laundry.  I found that card in the bottom of the washer as I was taking those clothes over to the dryer.  Rather than panic about the images that might be lost on that card, I simply got a small plastic bag from the kitchen and added a couple of tablespoons of rice to that bag.  I then sealed the compact flash card into the bag of rice and left it sitting on a table for the next 4 or 5 days.  The rice will draw the moisture out of the electronic device and in many cases restore it to normal operating condition.  In my case I simply plugged that compact flash into my card reader and all my images were still there.

This little trick works well with cell phones and cameras too.  In fact; it’s a great idea if you carry your camera in and out of air-conditioned places (like hotel rooms) to keep your camera in a bag of rice or shredded newspaper while it goes through that temperature change.  When you head back out of the air-conditioning into the hot and humid weather keep the camera bagged until it warms up to the outdoor temperature.  If you don’t do that the humidity outside will condense on the components inside your camera and could cause damage.  If your camera or phone gets wet from falling in the water or by getting stuck in a storm; take the battery/batteries out immediately then bag the device up and give it plenty of time to dry before you try to power it back up.  It’s also a good idea to remove the memory card and allow it to dry outside of the camera or phone.  This is really helpful for taking motorcycle trips where your camera is going to be exposed to the elements all day long with you and then chilled overnight in an air-conditioned hotel room.  Besides that; it’s not uncommon to get caught in a little rain here and there while you’re on a motorcycle trip.

©2011 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com

Severe Weather Photography.

•April 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

When most people think about severe weather photography, they usually envision scenes from the movie Twister and all sorts of high adventure.  Well I am here to try to settle you down a little before you ever consider doing anything outside in severe weather.  The truth is; Hollywood blows everything out of proportion and shooting severe weather does not need to be nearly as dangerous as what you have seen in the movies, or on the documentaries about tornado chasers. 

It is essential that you take advantage of every source of information available to learn about weather before you endeavor to capture cool storm photos.  Safety First may sound like quite the cliché, but it really is super important that you understand a lot about storm safety before you head out.  As far as your equipment goes, you must prepare for it to get wet and be ready to deal with that eventuality.  One of the methods for drying your gear is to remove the battery (or batteries) and stow the camera in a sealed plastic bag full of shredded newspaper or rice.  Either of these fillers will pull the moisture back out of your camera gear and help to preserve it after being out in wet weather.  It is best to not get the gear wet in the first place, and you should do everything possible to prevent that from happening.

Some of the gear you should have before you get into this type of photography is: 

  • Cable Release – wired or wireless will work fine.
  • Tripod – make sure it is very sturdy and plenty capable of holding your camera steady in the wind.  Also make sure you tie your camera strap down to the tripod while you’re making long exposures like lightning shots.
  • Lens hood – this helps to avoid lens flares and also helps to minimize the rain that gets on the front element of the lens.
  • Fully charged batteries – this type of shooting with suck the life out of your batteries quickly (because of the typically long exposures).
  • Plenty of memory cards/film – you are likely to take many shots to get just a few good ones.
  • Rain gear: for you and your camera.  Yes, there are weather coverings you can buy to protect your camera and you should get one.
  • NOAA Weather Radio – yes, you really should be paying attention to what the storm is doing.  If you have radar and web access on your phone, that will work too, but you must pay attention to it.
  • Water and food – you might be out there for a while and if the storm turns really bad it might be hard to make it home.
  • First Aid Kit – yes, you might hurt yourself while you’re out there in the storm or dark.
  • Flash light – something small that can fit in your pocket.  You’ll need it for working with your camera settings.
  • Fully charged cell phone – in case you need to call for help.
  • A GPS is a great idea so you will know exactly where you are, especially if you need to call for help.


Storms come in many different varieties and the camera settings you use can vary widely, so I am not going to go deeply into that in this column.  What you need to think about is the effects you can create by using a slow shutter speed, rather than increasing your ISO or opening your aperture.  In the photo that I have included there are a number of points that I am trying to make about shooting severe weather:


  • A great storm shot does not have to be about the damage, high winds or lightning, it can instead be about the storms passing or approaching and presenting itself with interesting cloud formations.
  • Studying the storm before you head out to shoot it can guide you to the best place to be shooting.  In this photo I was in a parking garage in Old Town (Wichita) and was waiting for the sunset because I had clues that the storm would pass before the sun had fully set.
  • Although the color was lacking in the sunset, the clouds offered a great scene with the rays of sun fanning out above them.  My choice to have the Wichita skyline in the background was not a mistake either.  One rule for me and sunset shots is that you must have something in the foreground to provide interest other than just a pretty colored sky.
  • Notice the cropping of the image to maintain the horizon and the skyline while adhering to the Rule of Thirds.  The sky being the intended main subject takes up about two-thirds of the shot while the bottom third maintains some interest with the parking lot lights and skyline help enhance the depth created by the rays of sun in the clouds.
  • This shot was a two-second long exposure at f/22 with an ISO set to 50.  That would translate to two-seconds @ f/16 if your lowest available ISO was 100.  You can tell it was a long exposure by the softness of the clouds.  I use this to make severe weather scenes more appealing to the average viewer.
  • Although this shot does not have any obvious waving trees in the scene, slow shutter speeds can demonstrate the severity of a storm by recording the movement of tree branches as big blurs across the photo.  (Just be sure you have a sturdy tripod and the camera is not moving too.)


You will usually find that having your white balance set to “Cloudy” or “Shade” will work best for storm shooting during the day.  Oh yeah, I am almost never in the rain when I shoot storms.  Instead I’m usually miles away from the actual storm and generally practicing the 30/30 rule of lightning safety (look it up on the National Weather Service website). 


Leading Lines and Framing

•March 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

On occasion, your subject may be hard to define within a scene and you might have to help your viewer clearly identify that main subject.  That does not mean you could eliminate the rest of the scene to highlight the main subject, because then you might lose all context necessary for fully defining the subject.  Such is the case with the photo I have included in this column.  In this photo I wanted you to see the graffiti and peeling paint of the walls on the equipment room at the top of this elevator shaft. 

If we analyze the composition of this photo it may help you understand how to use leading lines and framing in your photos to help your viewers appreciate the main subject.  In this case I composed the image to use the rails of the ladder to create leading lines and framing for the elevator shaft.  The arches over the top of the equipment room provide frames for the subject while at the same time being leading lines that lock your view on the main subject.  The larger arch in the foreground followed by the second smaller arch draws your attention across the photo to the right side where the main subject is placed.  At the same time the angles at the base of the arches pull you across from the right side of the photo to be lead by the arches towards the main subject. 

Spend time thinking about this composition and you are likely to wonder how I managed to get such a shooting angle and why I was after that angle.  First, I got the angle by shooting from the top of a hydraulic lift. Yes, I realize this is not a likely shooting location for most of my readers, but it is where I wanted to be for the shot.  Second, I wanted this angle so I could use the top of the ladder as a composition element that would “take” my viewers up to the roof where this scene exist.  How often will you be at such a location?  Maybe never, and that is why it is so important for me to make the shot as interesting as possible for the average viewer.  This particular shot is part of a collection I am working on for a Final Friday show in April, and on display throughout the month of May.  The show is a historical documentary look at the Coleman Factory A complex at 2nd Street and St Francis in Wichita, KS before, during and after demolition.

What else is going on in this photo that I wanted to “frame” and highlight for the viewer?  The first arch highlights snow accumulation on the deteriorating roof of this vintage building along with a big chunk of gray sky that gives us a “cold” feel in the overall scene.  The relevance in this case is to communicate the cold feeling inside the building after it has sat unused and unheated for so many years.  The second arch not only highlights the equipment room, but also illustrates its poor state of repair with the peeling paint and the missing windowpane above the graffiti.  Otherwise, the image does not show or include much of anything else to create interest in the surroundings.  Sure there is the city spreading out in the background, but there is nothing in the immediate area with any clear definition and the only well-defined subject in the background is the parking garage at the Eaton.  This element ties back to the fact that the building in this photo will soon become part of a parking area in downtown Wichita.  All of this being my attempt to accurately communicate the present condition of this building and hint at its future.

The bottom line is that you sometimes need to use various elements within a scene to help highlight the most important subjects.  Whether you use leading lines to point the viewer to the main subject, or use framing to highlight that subject, it should be your objective to ensure your viewer “sees” your main subject clearly.  If there are other elements in the scene that can contribute to telling the story about your subject, use them to your advantage by allowing the viewer to see them and understand the contribution they make to the overall context of the photo.  If you show a waterfall with the pool at the bottom or the river feeding it, you have created a much more interesting shot than you would have by simply showing the waterfall.  If you photograph a power generation facility at a dam; show the power lines leading away from the dam to help the viewer understand what the water coming through that dam is doing.  

©2011 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com


The Business of Photography school rescheduled…

•March 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Starting on May 5, 2011 I will host the once-a-year Business of Photography School. 

Classes will be held on Thursday nights from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm and will run for 6 weeks for a total of 24 hours of classroom time.

Class size is limited to 20 students to register early.

Get all the details and register at http://photobusiness-blog.eventbrite.com

Photography Classes restructured!

•March 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Digital Photography WorkbookJust last night I created a new format for the Photography Classes that I’ve been teaching for almost 9 years.  The new format will include 3 days of 3-hour classroom sessions followed by a 6-hour day trip to practice what we’ve done in the classroom.  Click the photo in this listing to check out the details and get registration details.

Digital Photography Workbook published!

•February 3, 2011 • 3 Comments

I have just finished publishing my first book on Digital Photography.

Buy it now at: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/digital-photography-workbook/14735204

Coleman Factory Project

•January 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday was the “official” beginning of a project I’m participating in at the old Coleman “Factory A” in downtown Wichita: Check out the news story here.