About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Moment's Reflection

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.
                                -  Norbet Platt

Good eats!
I'm sitting at the counter in my new favorite diner here in my home town of Long Beach. Inside, the diner is little more than a hole in the wall, a basic '50s-ish low rent place with faded prints in cheap frames on pale white walls, and a white old-style Kenmore refrigerator sitting against the wall behind the counter. A big screen tv sits atop the fridge, and is tuned to a local news station. Off to one side of the fridge sits a stainless steel shelf with roughly ten jars filled with a variety of home made jams and jellies...for the truly home-made bread. As if I found myself transported back a half century to when food was real and service was personal. (This interpretation is recounted from a variety of tv show reruns and classic radio programs. Personally, I don't recall much before the mid-sixties.)

It's Sunday morning. Despite an active travel year already in 2013, things are set for a very busy October. It's difficult for me to realize how much of the year is gone - three quarters of it -- and how much has happened. It has flown by. 

Looking forward to driving the Sea to Sky Hwy
This next month sees a few business trips. This next week alone will find me in El Paso; Carlsbad, NM ( with a side trip to the Caverns, of course; and Las Vegas. (Kind of a wide range of environments, with the desert being the only real similarity). Later in the month it's back to Texas for a meeting in Austin, and then my wife and I head up to the Great White North for a visit to Whistler and Vancouver, two of our favorite cities in North America.

Multiple airports
And that's just October.

But as I sit here waiting for my sausage omelette to arrive, sipping at my oh-so-basic cup of coffee...no latte, no creme, no mocha. Just simple, basic coffee...I am exceptionally aware of making the most of life. Life is not simply getting by, day to day. It's very tempting to think of it that way, I admit. When things are flying past at the tempo they seem to be doing these days, it's often like a massive game of whac-a-mole. (For the uninitiated, this is a game that commonly appears in game rooms like Chuck E Cheese or Dave and Buster's in which the head of a mole or other small woodland creature pops its head up through a hole and you, the player, have to use a mallet to hit as many of the little critters as you can for the duration of the game. It's a marvelous tension reducer, but not so great when you build a lifestyle around it.)
Vegas, of course...

This is why, at this moment, I'm at the diner. A moment of quiet respite before hitting the road can remind you what it is to stop and relax for a while and just appreciate the basic things in life. Exploring is what fulfills us, and it's useful to connect with your hometown to "level set" as we say. 

Tomorrow it's time for the road.

A moment of reflection

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Image is Everything

“What i like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” 
 Karl Lagerfeld

My friend Harlan Ellison, the irascible and exceedingly talented fiction writer, holds forth that there are three things everything thinks they can do -- and more than that, do well: drive, have sex and write. 

To that list I would add: make photographs.

To some degree we all do these things. The basics themselves are not too difficult. We can all string sentences together in a way that makes a bit of sense. We can get behind the wheel of a car and navigate the streets with a minimum of carnage. Of course, there is no standard for procreation or other more recreational forms of those activities, but we all assume we're pretty damned good at whatever it is, right? 

And we can all point a camera and press the trigger. Nothing to it.

The key, of course, is doing these things well

Although we all imagine ourselves to be adept at all the above, the truth of the matter is that becoming skilled at any one of these four activities requires a bit of concentration and practice. It must become an innate part of yourself and, largely, focus outward rather than inward. 

I can write clean, easy to understand sentences. I can even tell a story. Harlan, on the other hand, strings together the very same words to create something astounding, and often gut-punching in a way I could only aspire to a thin echo. I can drive well, as is exampled by my relatively clean record. Yes, well, there was that incident in Arizona earlier this year. Which suggests that while I can drive fast, I am no Bobby Unser.

And the less we say about peoples' skills in the bedroom the better. Too many people fancy themselves highly skilled lovers, and as most of us know it's not necessarily universal. Putting it gently.

So we come to photography. The rise of the digital point and shoot camera has given rise to one of the major fallacies of the artistic world: everyone is a photographer. Yes, everyone can take pictures, but not everyone can make them. 

Photography is like any art form. In order to be good you do require a skill set above and beyond simply aiming the camera. It's a combination of timing, lighting, setting and your own understanding of these factors so as to create the proper composition of the final shot. There is certainly an element of luck. Of capturing a moment (and every photographer worth their salt will tell you the feeling when you know you've gotten such an image is a real rush, a very exciting moment of "a-ha!").

This does not mean, of course, that people everywhere cannot take great pictures. I have seen really terrific things from abject amateurs, and some surprisingly disappointing images from professionals. The key is that the skilled photographer ought to be producing the excellent images on a far more regular basis than does the amateur.

(I personally have declined to shoot weddings. This was reinforced a few years back when, as a favor to a friend, I relented and agreed to shoot their ceremony. While everything went quite well, for a while I was stalked by a woman who kept insisting that she was producing shots "just as good" as I was, using a little Canon point and shoot. This went on for nearly a half hour as I wandered the reception getting the "filler" gallery of shots for the happy couple. People at tables, dancing, etc. Finally, after perhaps the tenth time tap on my shoulder, I reminded the woman that I was pleased she was doing so well, encouraged her to keep it up, and to please stop following me around taking essentially the same shots I was.) (Appallingly, a professional photography told his assistant to do essentially the same thing at my niece's wedding. I was constantly finding the assistant watching over my shoulder and then reshooting precisely the same thing I had just done…another reason I won't shoot weddings.) (But I digress.)

Below are what I regard to be the basic guidelines of travel photography. When you're out, in the field, absorbing and deciding what to shoot, these are the fundamentals of what most photographers will look for and try to accomplish. These are not hard and fast, but more guidelines I have acquired over the years. Whether you're a top tier professional -- such as Ralph Lee Hopkins, Ralph Velasco or Jay Dickman, each of whom I quote below -- or simply an amateur trying to make better vacation photographs for the travel book you assemble after each journey, these are the ways to make your gallery more interesting, more functional and personal for the intended audience. Following these guidelines (never rules) I think you'll have a more fun time making your pictures as well as giving yourself a better than average chance of catching that magical moment, the "a-ha".

MBTP #1 - Quote from Ralph Velasco: "75% of successful photography is making an effort to put yourself in the right place at the right time."

So many elements go into creating that special image that this is basic. If you're not in position at the right time, you'll miss the shot. It's about being aware of your surroundings and anticipating what image may present itself. Being ready, and prepared for that moment. 

MBTP #2 - Quote from Ralph Lee Hopkins: "If you want to shoot a better picture, stand in front of better stuff."

Ralph is referring to your subject matter: "Gee, you say, "I was standing in front of the Colosseum in Rome. What better stuff is there? My shot is still boring." True enough. What else was in the image? Oftentimes it's the composition, not the single subject matter, which makes the image. Note Ralph refers to stuff. Plural. Keep your eye out for an entire composition, not just a snapshot of something.

MBTP #3 - Quote from Jay Dickman: "Create that sense of place, introduce your characters, introduce detail, bring in moments, and close the story."

What are you telling us in the image? Do we want to know what was going on, or is it a flat image? Is it vibrant, does it tell the story of an active marketplace or is it just people milling around. think about what you want to tell us when you're setting the image.

MBTP #4 - If something catches your eye, shoot it from several angles and distances. Try to catch the "essence" of what you saw. Don't rush.

This is a key element, and is one of the boons of digital photography. Take the time to capture your subject in several ways. Up close, far away, partially obscured. If it's a person, try shooting them from different angles, in different poses. Or, even more fun, unposed, unguarded and unaware. Oftentimes these make for the best family shots. 

MBTP #5 - Add the human element. Is someone doing/about to do something interesting? Watch for and capture it. Tell a story.

Static shots of landmarks is cool, but unless you're planning to sell the image to a tourist board it comes across as cold and unmeaningful. And those boring "posed" pictures of your family standing in front of the Disney World Castle. Go for the sense of wonder in that first moment when you child runs through the Disney gates. Or is talking to a Disney character. These are often the moments you will cherish when, six months from now, you're looking back. 

MBTP #6 - Try new angles. Low, high or diagonal. Try to get a different perspective.

Very rarely is the straight ahead shot going to be anything special. This is no different than hundreds of other "tourist" images taken by hundreds of other tourists this year alone. By getting lower, or higher, or seeking that perspective which is missed by the majority of travelers you're giving yourself a unique image and memory of a place or time.

MBTP #7 - Capture "life" as it happens. What's going on around you, what makes a place vibrant and unique?

This is vital. I often compare it to being a little Zen when you're shooting. Wander around, being aware of your surroundings and tapped into the feel of a place. Try to capture that in your lens, and tell us why the place is so special.

MBTP #8 - Food is often an excellent subject, and is its own reward after you've captured the shot!

This is self-explanatory. And drink. Don't forget to shoot the martinis.

MBTP #9 - Even a static pic, like a landscape, can tell a story. If you keep it simple. Composition is everything.

This is a recurring theme, yes? Composition is the key to any successful photograph.

MBTP #10 - Ask yourself if seeing this picture would make a viewer want to be there. If so, *what about it* do you need to capture/convey?

Another key. If you're taking the time to capture the image, what is it you're wanting to convey to a target audience. Is it simply for the memory of a place, then what is special to you? Is it to give others a sense of a location, then what would, to you, convey that sensation?

MBTP #11 - Pay attention to lighting. Too many shadows? Is the sun too high in the sky, or too low. Is there a better time of day to shoot?

Lighting can kill a terrific setting and composition. Pay attention, and if you have the luxury of time see if you can capture the setting at its best. If you do not have the luxury of time, then what about the place can you convey that takes advantage of the available lighting? 

(I was shooting in Cortona, Italy a few years ago under horrible lighting conditions. Thin alleyways with deep shadows but brightly lit sunny areas. In that case, I have a lot of close-up shots of food, shops and the like, with only a handful of full street scenes.)

MBTP #12 - Don't be afraid to crop. Once the image is done and in camera, be prepared to use an editing tool to hone down on exactly the composition you wanted. Chances are you saw something which will be brought out by cropping it down.

All too often, the a-ha moment is a disappointment when you get the image back into the computer and take a look. Play around with the composition and cropping. Chances are what you saw in your mind's eye is probably there, just not properly framed or accented.

MBTP #13 - Wait for the moment. Don't be impatient. Watch for an action about to occur. Be ready. Most of all: enjoy yourself.

Keep Calm and Wait for the Moment. With enough practice you will see patterns emerge that allow you to predict an upcoming image. (A bicyclist moving towards a building you want to capture. A shopper approaching a vendor at a farmer's market.)

And, most of all...have fun.

Ralph Velasco's work can be seen at

Jay Dickman's work can be seen at

Ralph Lee Hopkins' work can be seen at

Monday, September 9, 2013

ROAD TRIP: Laguna Beach

"My dream is to have a house on the beach, even just a little shack somewhere so I can wake up, have coffee, look at dolphins, be quiet and breathe the air."
                     Christina Applegate 

In my last blog post I mentioned that "life intervenes". Well, at other times "Life piles on", but in this case in a mostly good way. Mostly.

So I have two posts partially written but not, as they say, ready for Prime Time. But it's been far too long since I posted anything new, and that's not acceptable. I'd like to maintain a schedule of every one to two weeks, which isn't unreasonable. Time to get back to basics.

Over the next three months we have trips to Texas, Canada and the Eastern Seaboard, and due to some changes in my work assignment that schedule of travel will increase dramatically, at least in the Western United States. Exciting times.

So, in the meantime, I'm going to continue the relatively easy way out and take you on a short road trip.  A day trip, really. 

To Laguna Beach, a beautiful artistic and very chic city tucked down into a remote spot of Orange County. Well, it used to be remote. Before the 21st century began encroaching...but it's still a wonderful little town with a cosmopolitan feel. Laguna is in my favorites list for getaways, amongst such company as Calistoga, Sedona and Santa Fe. 





Fun in the Sun, Laguna Beach style