Getting dirty for better photos

Our next photo tip is to wear clothes that can survive a little time in the dirt, because if you are really dedicated to a good shot, you have no reason not to roll around on the ground every now again.

The low shot is in some ways better than the high shot. First and foremost, you can do the low shot with any camera and with absolutely no equipment. All you need to do is get down on your belly and shoot from there.

In spite of this simple option, newer cameras with live view can help you to avoid having to crawl around on your belly for certain photos. Because your camera allows you to see what it is pointing at, with live view you can simply hold your camera literally on the ground and angle it upward.

Note that this method of cheating is not as controllable as actually crawling on the ground with the camera to your eye, but it has its advantages:

  1. Cheating with live view makes it so your clothing doesn’t rub on concrete, asphalt and hard ground, hence you don’t wear out your knees as much. The same goes for stains.
  2. Cheating with live view allows you to take photos in a more movement ready position. If you are taking photos of something or someone that is moving around or changing, you can stand up and follow the action in an instant. Being on your stomach will slow you down.
  3. Cheating with live view can also prevent soreness for old joints.

Just like the high shot, there are several reasons why you might want to take a low shot. The first is simply that the low shot is just as out of sorts as the high shot, compared to eye level photos. So, as far as utility:

•Low shots can be used to enhance size of a subject. Taking a photo from floor level can make even a regular sized human being seem larger than life.

Admittedly, this chair is big in real life, but taking a photo from a point of view where you are looking up at it enhances its size and allows the viewer to feel it.

Admittedly, this chair is big in real life, but taking a photo from a point of view where you are looking up at it enhances its size and allows the viewer to feel it.

•Low shots can give you more foreground. If you have something small in the foreground of a shot, on the ground, you can take a photo from floor level up close to that item in order to get more foreground detail in a shot. Behind that item you can then find an interesting feature or person.



This photo gives you reflection, but also a spinning coin. If I took this at eye level, the penny would be lost.

This photo gives you reflection, but also a spinning coin. If I took this at eye level, the penny would be lost.

I didn't end up using this photo, but you can see that taking it down low (in addition to exposing my camera to water spray) could allow the viewer to get close to the action of the shot. If I had a waterproof housing I could have gotten low, and gotten the spray even closer.

I didn’t end up using this photo, but you can see that taking it down low (in addition to exposing my camera to water spray) could allow the viewer to get close to the action of the shot. If I had a waterproof housing I could have gotten low, and gotten the spray even closer.

•I feel like this fits in with item number 2. With reflections cast in shiny floors or puddles of water, taking a photo from ground level can stretch out that reflection and eliminate distortion. This effect has been used very effectively by some wedding photographers.

•Low shots make the photographer less conspicuous. I photograph prom and homecoming events regularly. I kneel the entire time, and though it hurts my knees, it makes me just a small shape in the dark of the gymnasium. Hopefully I am less distracting to the rest of the audience than if I were standing tall and holding my camera on a monopod. Furthermore, this low down position allows better full body shots that the girls likely appreciate. After all, they likely spent lots of time and money to find the perfect dress.

•If your subject is doing something that makes them look down, low shots are a good tool. You want faces in your photos, not the backs of people’s heads.

I didn't use this photo either, but notice that all the faces in the photo are visible. This is very valuable for a newspaper. You still also get the folding ceremony, which gives this photo its 1,000 words.

I didn’t use this photo either, but notice that all the faces in the photo are visible. This is very valuable for a newspaper. You still also get the folding ceremony, which gives this photo its 1,000 words.

Something worth noting about high shots versus low shots. High shots of people in a group tend to work to set someone apart from the group. As in last week’s photo lesson (actually not the best example) the DNR officer and the people in front of him are somehow granted more focus than the rest of the crowd. A ground shot will actually eliminate that distinction. A group photo taken from ground level has the tendency to eliminate a specific focus for that photo. This is good for group photos, but not so good for focusing on individuals.

Even though one person is in front, this is still a pure group shot. Everyone is so small that you can't really say any one person is the focus.

Even though one person is in front, this is still a pure group shot. Everyone is so small that you can’t really say any one person is the focus.

Some cautions, Low down photos are not the first shot you might think about for portraits, for a variety of reasons:

• Some low shots allow you to see up your subject’s nose. This might not be flattering, but in some cases you might need to run that risk to make sure your subject is big enough in your photo, but you can still get something above and behind them in focus as well. Your other option would be to back up until everything is significantly smaller.

Though this shot is not preferred for profile shots, here it worked. You can see up her nose a bit, but she isn't looking down on me so it isn't too unflattering. Furthermore, you can get her business' banner in the background, which was important for this situation.

Though this shot is not preferred for profile shots, here it worked. You can see up her nose a bit, but she isn’t looking down on me so it isn’t too unflattering. Furthermore, you can get her business’ banner in the background, which was important for this situation.

• If your subject looks down at you, it will cause the skin in their neck to fold and compress, making them look heavier than they necessarily want to. This will add to the fact that their lower body is closer to the lens and will also look bigger.

• Because their face will be so far from the lens, a ground up shot could make their face less of a focal point. They blend in with their surroundings more, especially with other people around.

It is also good to note that “low” is a relative term. It doesn’t always mean shooting from the ground up. Sometimes it is from belly height, or even just from tabletop height, if your subject is looking down at a product on a table. The point is, you are shooting from a position lower than standard eye level.

This table level shot is still below eye level, but the effect works great here. Everyone is looking down, but we got their faces.

This table level shot is still below eye level, but the effect works great here. Everyone is looking down, but we got their faces.

Getting high (up) for photos

Once you’ve learned about the insurance shot, then you should practice different angles.

I’m going to start with getting high up when photographing.

A professional photographer with awards behind his belt once told a newspaper panel that the most boring height for photographs is 4 feet 9 inches (actually I don’t recall the precise height, but that isn’t important). He was saying that everyone sees everything basically from eye level, so photographing with the camera at eye level produces photos which are mundane due to angle.

Adding height to a photo can be about utility. It can also be about pure style. The good thing is that today with cameras that allow you a live view using a screen, getting higher up shots is actually easy and does not need to add any cost to your photography.

I have done photo shoots at large events with a camera that was not equipped with live view. That made up high shots difficult, but not impossible. Because the camera would not take photos while live view was on, I had to master one of two tricks.

On, off, shoot: If your camera has the capability to turn live view on and off, but not the capability of taking photos in live view, this is the best option for you. You start by turning on your live view, usually a little button next to the viewfinder.

Once you have ensured you can see through live view and you have the right settings, you lift your camera above your head at arms length. Be sure to have one finger on the shutter, and another on the live view button.

Once you have the photo you want, turn off the live view with one finger and take your shots.

If your subject is moving, such as on a stage, you might have to practice following them around the stage without actually knowing if they are still in frame. This is similar to the next method.

Shooting blind: If your camera doesn’t have a live view, you are in for a very tricky proposition. You need to be good at predicting things.

First, turn your camera on server mode.

Find your subject in the viewfinder and put them in focus. Depress the shutter to lock on the focus.

Carefully and slowly, raise the camera above your head at arms length, imagine a straight line extending from the lens to your subject and tilt the camera as if that straight line is a real connection, keeping your subject in frame.

Shoot when you are at the right height. If you are lucky, you tilted and pivoted the camera properly, and everything is still in the shot and in focus. This is easier with a stationery subject, but it can be very difficult.

Live view shooting eliminates this difficulty, and even opens up your possibility for using more remote camera accessories and settings.

Arm extenders: That’s just a name I would give to a monopod, tripod or selfie stick. You use it to give your camera an even higher point of view. If 4 feet 9 inches is common and six feet is less so, 9 feet is going to really give your photos some oomph! These items allow you to get your camera higher than your arms would allow. Price for arm extenders varies. Personally, I favor a hiking monopod with a hanger bolt screwed down into the top. If you use an acorn nut, you can tighten the bolt down to the perfect height for a camera tripod mount. Hold any of these at the very bottom to get your highest perspective.

Cable release: A cable release with a long cable is a good tool to invest in if you are going to use an arm extender. This allows you to have precise control of the shutter button even when the camera is out of hand. You are, however, limited to the length of the cable, which is often shorter than your tripod. These accessories are cheap. You can spend a couple bucks on a generic one online and it will work just fine. Steer clear of the IR remotes, however, as they require you to be standing in front of the camera, not under it.

Self timer: Lacking a cable release, or just one with a long enough cable. You enable the self timer (I recommend setting it to take four shots in a row), frame the subject and depress the button. Quickly grab your arm extender by it’s lowest point and raise it above your head. In high wind, clutch the bottom against your chest to limit movement. Use live view to keep the subject in frame. If you do this quick enough, you will have at least one of four shots that will turn out as you expect. More likely, you will have four good shots.

High ground: Sometimes even nine feet isn’t high enough (especially for tall buildings). At those times, you might need something tall to stand on. If you planned ahead for your photo shoot appropriately, you might have a ladder in your vehicle, or you might have chosen a place where you can climb a fence or something taller. The roof of my pickup truck has shoe prints from me taking photos of tall buildings. Even mundane photos can be transformed with the right height.

Of course, these are the methods, but then there are questions about when and why you would want to take high up shots. Sometimes it is just stylistic. You get up high because it is a less common point of view. Sometimes, however, the higher perspective can have utilitarian uses.

Tall Buildings: When photographed from the ground, tall buildings keystone. Because you are angling upwards, the lens is at an angle, meaning the top of the building is farther from the lens than the bottom of the building. If the building is tall enough, it will look like the top is significantly smaller than the base. In this case, standing on a vehicle, climbing a tree or some unique methods of adding extra height can really improve the visual quality of your photographs. Your photos will look more like your eyes see the building, and that is good.

Big crowds: In a concert venue you are not guaranteed a front row spot for photography. In the case that you get put smack dab in the middle of a mob of heaving masses, taking photos from eye level will give you photos of the backs of people’s heads. Holding your camera at arms length above your head will result in actual photos of the band. Interestingly enough, these photos are more interesting than if you were standing eye level with the band too, because now your camera (in relation to the band) is low. We will talk more on that next week.

Here, you May notice that there is a head to the bottom left. This is when eye level photos are difficult.

Here, you May notice that there is a head to the bottom left. This is when eye level photos are difficult.

Photos like this are made possible by up high perspectives, where you get above the crowd.

Photos like this are made possible by up high perspectives, where you get above the crowd.

Furthermore, big crowds can make other events difficult. If you are crowded out of a space by people looking to interview, say an authority figure, then you might again get photos of people’s ears rather than the person you are after. Because the subject in question is at the same height as the crowd, and surrounded by them, your photos here could be even worse than the concert scenario. Raising the camera up high will not only show you their face, but if you get the crowd in the frame then you can lend to your viewer the feeling of claustrophobia that the subject might be feeling. This angle makes the photo feel very crowded. This is a powerful, though common shot, especially for people leaving a trial.

The media crowding made a photo from eye level virtually impossible, but up above, you got a really good idea of the exchange, and crowding.

The media crowding made a photo from eye level virtually impossible, but up above, you got a really good idea of the exchange, and crowding.

Flattering portraits: Portraits taken from eye height can make people very self conscious. While the newspaper is not n the business of flattering its photographic subjects, so long as you aren’t misrepresenting a person, it is good when they open up your paper and consider hanging their photo on the wall, rather than making disgusted faces.

A person with their chin down exaggerates the skin under their chin and their neck. Even if they don’t have what you would call a ‘double chin’, they might look like it in a photo if they are looking downward too much. Looking slightly upward is slimming for a person’s face.

Furthermore, if photos from eye level are boring, photos of people’s faces are even more difficult. If there is one thing you see from eye level all the time, it is human faces. Raising the perspective just a little bit can make a portrait really pop. In some cases, it is also useful in reducing red-eye.

Getting on their level: Sometimes you take photos of something that just won’t look good from the ground. Take for example an industrial lift doing construction. Photos of the lift, even with people on it, are lackluster from the ground. If you get up to the lift’s level, you can really give a unique perspective, especially to viewers who would never have been willing to get as high up as you might have to.

While climbing on a questionable support might not be the best idea...

While climbing on a questionable support might not be the best idea…

Your effort will certainly show through in your photos.

Your effort will certainly show through in your photos.

Artistic photos: These are less for the newspaper, and more for other purposes. If you were going to take photos of giant statues, a photo from the feet of the statue would make the viewer feel small and the statue big. Photographs from higher up would make the viewer feel either on level (if taken at the statue’s eye level) or even bigger (if taken from higher up than the statue’s height). This may go too far to be considered objective, since your perspective in this case is actually to affect the sensations felt by the viewer. However, for artistic purposes, this is an important consideration.

The great thing behind getting a higher up perspective is the affordability. It doesn’t take a lot of money. For $30 you can have a cable release and a homemade monopod. Then all it takes is creativity. A little bit of courage is also useful if you intend on climbing tall things.

Did I miss anything? I would be interested in hearing your perspective. Also, maybe tomorrow I will add some photos to this entry as examples, stay tuned next week for “Getting Low”, which is actually easier, so maybe it should have come out this week…

The insurance shot

It is long past due I get back to writing here more frequently. I have a list of photo tips that should serve to keep me writing at regularly scheduled intervals. Let’s start with the insurance shot.

In my job there have been plenty of situations where something has gone wrong.
• I arrived to an event expecting lighting enough to use one lens, but the lights are far dimmer.
• I excitedly have been shooting some spur of the moment occasion and haven’t taken time to check that the photos have been turning out.
• In the middle of an event I put my camera back into the bag, only to take it out again and I didn’t realize the settings got switched in the case.
• Someone is photobombing in all my photos with inappropriate hand gestures.
• You decided to allow your subject to send you a photo to print, but they never did.
• Your equipment fails after the first few seconds of shooting.
• There is simply nothing going on where the event is or your subject is just not photogenic.

Honestly, the possibilities are endless. Even if we plan carefully, anything could happen that makes it so our photos don’t turn out picture perfect like we had hoped. Often it is the fault of us overreaching with the subject, or our equipment. We expected to be able to do something creative but it was too ambitious and the photo doesn’t work out after all.

The great thing is that these events leave us more experienced. It is due to these experiences that we become better photographers, but for this week’s paper, what do we do if we need that shot that didn’t turn out?

I’ve taken to always getting an insurance shot. What is an insurance shot?

Well, an insurance shot is a fairly basic shot you take that guarantees even if the shots you are most excited about don’t turn out, you still have something to use. Insurance shots should:

  1. Be taken as early as possible during the event. If your battery or other equipment fails partway through the event, you will know that the photo you took early on is on your card. You are not empty handed.
  2. Be simple enough to guarantee. Complex shots have backlash, especially if you have never done them before. Taking an insurance shot using a tried-and-true method guarantees that everything should turn out.
  3. Be creative enough to not be totally boring. Sure, insurance shots are rarely award winners, but they don’t have to be boring. Use your past experience to make these photos at least worth your time. Do you know how to use flash outdoors in full sun to make your subject pop? Do you know how to flatter your subject in even a posed portrait shot? Can you use your angle and location to emphasize the reason you are photographing who/what you are photographing? Think of the times where you weren’t rushed and managed to get a photo because you were able to work with your situation. If you have been doing photos more than half a year at the newspaper, you know a few tricks to make a photo pop, even just a little. Use those.
  4. Not be too rushed. Insurance photos are usually most important in situations where you are about to be rushed and don’t have the convenience of making sure everything is perfect for every subsequent shot. Say you are at a homecoming coronation. If you know it might be hard to get a good shot during the coronation due to low light or some other difficulty, show up early and get a photo of the court before the coronation even starts, or even organize a photo a day or more in advance. Planning is as important for an insurance shot as it is for any other situation. Don’t procrastinate.
  5. Fudge the rules a bit. It’s true that in many situations a photographer would prefer a candid shot over a posed one, but sometimes that isn’t realistic. Be willing in most tricky cases to do at least one generic posed shot, then try to do better after that. If you get phenomenal candid shots, nobody will blame you for having one posed shot on your camera that never gets used. However, if you are on assignment and the assignment is “get photo of….” then you better have something, even if it is posed.
  6. Use flash if needed. In many events, flash is frowned upon. Sometimes you will get no forgiveness for explaining that their lighting made good photos impossible. A posed photo outside of the main event allows you the latitude to use flash if necessary. You aren’t interfering with anyone else’s enjoyment.
  7. Set a goal. All subsequent shots after the insurance shots are aiming to be better than the insurance shot. Your posed shot should not be the best photo of the day unless you run into one of the problems listed earlier on. If your insurance shot runs in the paper, either one of those disasters is to blame, or you didn’t beat the insurance shot. Try to challenge yourself to get something better at every event.


Am I missing anything? I feel like I am. Feel free to add to this in the comment section and tune in for the next installment in photo advice on getting high (not like that!).

“It’s my old photography injury acting up”

As a writer for a small town newspaper, I don’t always have weekends to myself.

It isn’t uncommon to have virtually the whole weekend scheduled with interviews or photographs. On those weekends, I don’t always get my weekend chores done, but sometimes work and chores have a nice balance. Take this weekend for instance.
Saturday I got the rare blessing of being able to sleep in an hour or so. When I did wake up, I made a small breakfast and recharged for the morning. I had a lot of yard work.

I started by digging some very stubborn blackberry bushes. I bought two years ago, and planted them on the outskirts of my garden. To my frustration, they decided to slowly invade my asparagus patch. To halt the invasion, I was down on my belly, using my fingers to push through the dirt, following the delicate roots, knowing that if I broke the roots and didn’t manage to find all the pieces, they might grow stems and then my problem would continue. I did a fair job of uprooting the blackberries. After excavating the outer boarder of my garden to remove the roots, I relocated them to the border of my property in a nice line along the adjoining pasture. The hope is they will form a hedge to deter deer and other animals from coming into the yard, as well as to convince my dog going outside of the yard is too much trouble.

I then decided to double down. I had planted five blueberry plants on the complete opposite border of the garden, amidst rhubarb and strawberries, but I had been thinking of mulching them with pine needles. However, doing so might negatively impact their neighbors. Having moved the blackberries, I had some nice, soft soil for the blueberries, so I transplanted them into the former blackberry patch. I also moved two large carpets of thyme on either side, which I had once hoped to encourage to spread throughout the border, so as to form a barrier to the grasses that constantly try to spread into the garden. I had since changed my mind, so I relocated them into the inside of the garden, near the back wall of the house where I grow my other perennial herbs.

I planted eight new asparagus crowns, fertilized them and all the transplants from the day, and watered the whole bunch of them.

I then moved four piles of leaves. Two of which I used to mulch my row of 18 asparagus plants. They can be a pain to weed in the summer. The rest went in a pile where they can either decompose or be later harvested for other mulching.

A few chores later, and it was time to change for work. At 6 I went to the Pine River-Backus School for prom photos. I took over 150 photos. Due to poor lighting, I was constantly moving. I attempted to get photos of prom goers in two locations of the gym, so that if one photo didn’t turn out, the other would. That meant running to one place, kneeling, taking the photo. I would then run to the second spot, kneel and take another photo, and then wait for the next couple. You wouldn’t think this is that much of an activity, but kneeling seems to be something my body will never get used to.


Pine River Backus Prom Photo Gallery

I watered my straw bales when I got home, on the verge of being ready to plant, their interiors are pretty warm. I then did various other jobs around the house until bed.
Sunday I went to church, kneeling on legs that were already sore. After church I commenced with a little more yard work. I straightened out the legs on a metal windmill just added to the garden and pulled 4×4 posts out of the ground so the bluebird houses on them won’t be in the way of mowing. I’m not sure where they will go yet. I visited a friend, returned home, had dinner and just as I was thinking what other jobs I had to do, I got a call reminding me of a controlled burn for the fire department.
I helped pull hoses around the outside of an agricultural field for the first hour or more. Then I strapped a bladder with 60 pounds of water to my back and patrolled the border of the burn to put out any flames that tried to escape into the woods. Carrying the bladder wasn’t so bad, but putting it back on after refilling it two times was going to kill me. At one point we were heading off some flames, downwind of those flames in heavy heat and smoke so thick you couldn’t see the fire. I felt like I had just smoked a Camel’s factory by the time we were done.

Controlled burn video
I returned home, showered, and deposited my sweat soaked smoky clothes in the laundry room before becoming a couch potato for an our or so before bed.
I woke up this morning amazed. In spite of the yard work and the controlled burn and what-have-you, I’m not a bit sore…except for my legs. In spite of the fact that my job is not a strenuous one by any stretch of the imagination, my legs have been sore since Sunday morning all because of Prom.
I’ll never understand how that works. I can work myself into a sweat doing half a dozen different jobs including heavy lifting, but at the end of the day, kneeling for photographs is what really kills me. Who would have thought?

Remembering Sam Sater

By now, my April 23 column will have been published by the PineandLakes Echo Journal. I wanted to share it again, here, where I can also share photos. I hope nobody minds that I borrowed from their Facebook feeds, but I thought it might be fitting.

In addition, visit the following links to see some things from Sam’s perspective.

Sam 1






Remember to support your veterans

There have been some rough days in the past few years. I know that during the roughest of those, good memories have helped me. For some people, the memories aren’t so good, so this might not be an option.
I often think back when my family lived next to the Legion in Backus. Our house was nearly a recreation parlor, with friends coming and going constantly. Among them was Sam Sater, who lived within a short biking distance.
I didn’t always see eye to eye with Sam back then. He was very smart, I believe he was even skipped ahead in school, and he always seemed to have A’s, even when he spent most time slacking with us. That intelligence translated to quick witt, and I didn’t like even mild teasing. Even so, he was one of Brent’s best friends, so he was a regular presence at the house.
There were plenty of hours spent either in the driveway shooting hoops, in the basement playing video games or sitting at our chain link fence chatting with the neighbors. Sam was almost guaranteed to be there for most of them.
I remember that Sam was a very outgoing person. I remember once he did a free rap battle against someone in my grade, much to the entertainment of a large crowd of kids gathered in the gym where it took place. From a distance, it looked like a fight, but they threw nothing but words.
When we moved out of the house by the legion, Sam and Brent seemed even closer. Brent was Sam’s ride to school almost every day, and we were late almost every day because of it. We, of course, didn’t mind delaying the inevitable school days.
It was Sam that gave Brent his first flat tire in his Pontiac 6000. Sam didn’t have his license yet, but Brent let him drive down a dirt road out past Oshawa. He didn’t hear Brent warn him about a sharp curve in the road, so Sam took it going 30…and launched the car into a nicely plowed and planted field. They bounced off a huge rock and heard a loud hiss. They jumped out of the car, apparently expecting something catastrophic. They looked back and watched the car slump from the blown tire.
We were mischievous, and Sam was always there to make those times more fun. He was enthusiastic and funny. Though he occasionally got in trouble (what teenager doesn’t?) Sam had a true heart of gold.
After graduating, Sam said he would join the Army reserve. Even when a friend who joined with him got out, Sam stuck in the service. He always did what he said he would do, even when that meant going to the middle-east.
He deployed to active duty twice. I remember a story he told about going through some sort of security dressed in his full combat uniform. The security there had to wand him to check him for weapons he might be concealing. Sam said it was one of the stupidest things he had ever been through, because at the time he had a loaded M16 hanging over his shoulder, just like all the other soldiers going through the same check. The irony was not wasted on Sam.
Sam came back from the service slightly subdued. For the most part, he was still the funny, smart individual he always was, but over time, his service must have eaten at him. He, like many others, came back with post traumatic stress syndrome (another vet once pointed out there is nothing unnatural about reacting to the horrors of war in this way, so syndrome is more fitting than disorder). Within the last year, the affects of the syndrome were more evident in his Facebook posts. He still fought hard, but in a way, his memories were poisoned and likely not much use in his battle.
Sam’s younger sister, who he always cared so much for, announced over the weekend that Sam had died on April 17, a casualty of a war he fought so many years ago. There is some comfort knowing the battle is over for him and he can rest.
My opinion of him changed over time, and by the time he joined the military, I not only got along with Sam, I respected him immensely because not everyone can do what he did, and he was going risk so much.
I know today isn’t Veteran’s Day or any other holiday honoring our veterans, but I think of how often we feel thankful to anyone, soldiers especially, but we don’t put those thoughts into words, and we should. It almost certainly would not have cured him, but I’m sure it would not have hurt if more people (myself included) had told Sam how grateful they were, and offered him what little assistance they could have.
There are still plenty of veterans out there suffering, including from Pine River and the surrounding area. They could sure use some words of support.
On my behalf, I’d like to say thank you to our vets. I’ll be praying for all of them, but especially my friends who fought, Sam and his family.

A new venture from an old habit

While attending college at Bemidji State University, I adopted a sort of adage that I shared with other writers. I would say, “Always carry two books. One from which you read ideas, and one into which you write ideas.” Basically, I would carry a pocket size novel in one suit pocket, and a Moleskine journal in the other.

This practice fell by the wayside some time during my teaching experience in China. I don’t know why, but I simply stopped writing in my journal. It’s been more than two years now, and I have picked that journal back up, but not exclusively for journaling. I have had this sort of goal in mind for a couple years. Looking at the Farmer’s Almanac, I thought it might be interesting to have a personal almanac. Basically it would be a journal tracking the various things that contribute to success in activities like fishing, gardening, or hunting of various wild things. In a way, this would be a minor form of phenology.

There were a few things that I needed to be able to track to meet this goal.
1. Temperature
2. Barometric pressure
3. Humidity
4. Hours of daylight
5. precipitation

Of course, you could purchase a thermometer, a barometer, a humidity meter, and an individual monitor for each of these things, but they make affordable tools that accomplish most of these goals all at once. I ended up buying this one, but you should really choose one to your own needs.

Weather station.

This weather station tracks temp, pressure, and humidity. It also shows times for sunrise and set and has a frost warning (which is a bonus so I can cover my plants). It has other functions, including an alarm clock, but it is too shrill for me to use it. It does lack a tool for measuring inches of precipitation, but that is easy. I’ll just get a rain gauge.

Now, one might wonder why all of this would be useful. That’s easy

People have long been aware that barometric pressure impacts fishing success. In the same way, hours of sunlight determine proper planting times for some plants. Nighttime temperatures determine morel mushroom hunting success and maple sap harvest. If I track these pieces of data regularly, it could be possible that I could find other relationships in my successful harvest of other plants such as blueberries for instance. Finding these patterns is why I have started keeping a journal again.

If I have years of journal entries that demonstrate what weather brings a healthy wild strawberry harvest, I could stop missing the delicious little treats using data from previous years.

With our sudden temperature change in the local area, I was able to predict a poor maple sap harvest far ahead of the WCCO news crew. I looked at the warm nighttime temperatures and said, “The night temperature is rising too fast. The sap isn’t going to flow very well.”

My next step is to find a decent soil thermometer. This site, , has some good information on nighttime and soil temperatures for planning morel hunting.

This is only the start! I have also started occasionally including my own personal weight, and may pick up an old habit of tracking my caloric intake and other health related data. All of that would then go into that journal.

Really, the possibilities for tracking this kind of information are endless. Maybe I will start sharing some of this information on my blog or on twitter. Let me know your thoughts.

Small town journalists are a part of the community (and a DIY sauerkraut video)

You may be aware that journalism is all about some degree of separation. This is what we call objectivity. We try to keep distanced from our subjects. In spite of this, we small town newspapers inevitably became part of the community alongside our readers.

I have always enjoyed talking courses in community education classes and attending special events. I sometimes do double duty at these, attending as an attendee, and as a reporter with camera. Sometimes I get lucky and get to be just an attendee.

I am a member of the Backus Fire Department, and I occasionally lead wild food classes during warmer months. I got to be even more a part of the scenery this past weekend, when I attended this year’s Back to Basics event.

Back to Basics is what I would consider a convention. It is held at my old high school and features a large quantity of expertise in one area, most of it dedicated to self reliance and some really cool life skills.

Last year was my first year. I enjoyed all the classes I attended, and I must admit I was tempted to attend presenter and vendor Abby Schramm’s homemade soap presentation all over again this year. What a blast it is to have a hands on experience like that!

This year, however, was different. I was actually a presenter at the event. I lead a class on the subject of wild teas. My students got to sample a large variety of teas I have harvested and processed. They also got to learn to identify some on their own, and went home with recipes for making and mixing teas. The whole thing was a blast.

Some may say that this makes me a biased reporter, considering I took photos and did an interview at this location. Maybe that’s true, but you must remember that this is not a story that bias actually factors into. This is event coverage. It is really more about showing what happened, without much additional commentary. I can manage being the reporter and attendee, so don’t worry about the accuracy of my story.

This year’s event had a lot of food. I am a food lover, so it was virtually made for me.

I attended two classes by the same presenter, who gave instructions on lacto-fermentation and sauerkraut fermentation. I attended a keynote speaker from Duluth Bar and Grill, who presented on his restaurant, which uses locally produced food. I also attended a very cool session by a local fishing guide on sustainable angling, which ended with fish tacos freshly fried. This year was a fantastic event, but don’t you worry. I thought this might be a wonderful time to introduce how-to videos to my blog.

Without further ado, I give you instructions on making your very own sauerkraut.

MNA, or: Don’t show me those dateline specials on hotels, you’re bringing me down man!

Thursday and Friday of last week, (Jan 28 and 29) newspaper employees from all over the state converged on the Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest and Convention. I will take just a brief moment to brag about the awards we won, then we can talk about the important stuff. Yet again we won an award for Use of Photography as a Whole, though this year we won third place in our division.

Marcy is an important part of our layout process. Without her we’d probably put the wrong photos with the wrong stories!

Our News Editor Nancy Vogt won first place in the News Photo category for this fantastic photo.   Publisher Pete Mohs (Also MNA president this past year) got second place for this Sports Photo.

Since Pete couldn’t hand the award to himself, Nancy took it from him and then gave it back.

We (especially our very own Becca Clemens) were awarded third place in Best Use of Video for our news of the north coverage of 2014’s Ice fishing Extravaganza

Our News of the North Shout Out won first place in the Best Use of Social Media. We also won third place in General Reporting. This is in addition to a literal mound (seriously, we don’t have enough wall space so they are piled up somewhere) of awards in the Pine River Journal, Lake Country Echo, and now Pineandlakes Echo Journal newspapers. For a small town newspaper we do well. I love being a part of this award winning news team.

Now, on to the important part. I had the coolest hotel room on earth, mars, or the astral body formerly known as the planet Pluto. The bright side of working with a ton of women and few men is that when we go to conventions, I often end up in my own room. This year I had the added benefit of having a whole Sheraton to myself (the Doubletree should have added a third tree as it was booked after we booked two rooms for my female coworkers). First, let me state that after waking up too late for a proper shower, riding three hours to the convention center, and hanging out at the convention all day I felt like a foot by the time I was able to actually go to my hotel room. Hence, my first attraction was the shower.

That Showerhead is as wide as a volleyball.

And don’t get me started with the amenities.

Since when are those scrubbie things included?

I noticed the closet after my shower, and if I could have ordered a mountain of ice cream I might have recreated a scene from Home Alone II, but that would have been a bad idea.

“Keep the change you dirty animal!”

Of course they had a tv big enough for a flintstones drive in theater.

And a bed (probably deceptively) white enough to keep dateline investigative reporters away.

I guess this is just that much more incentive for us to keep winning awards. The good news is that I learned a thing or two at the convention, and I intend to be back again next year (though maybe we might be giving Dan a chance at his own hotel room, which he will deserve by that time, haha).

P.S. I forgot to add, there was a phone by the toilet! Who would ever use the two at the same time? Wait! Don’t answer that (the question or the phone, some experiences you should not share).

Don’t answer! It’s a trap! No, I said TRAP!

cabin fever symptoms

(Note: I haven’t written here in a while, so I thought I should write something, even if it is just a rant.)

I can’t tell you how often it is that when I can’t comfortably sit outside for long periods of time, I want to be outside the most.

Winter, if nothing else, is the time of year when I am most likely to make camp gear lists. (When I want things that I can’t necessarily afford, I make lists of things I can’t necessarily afford. It’s kind of not at all like having those things.) My camping gear lists inevitably include things that match at least one of a few criteria:
1. Military surplus. (My favorite is the canteen cup stove kit)
2. Ultralight things (titanium spork anyone?)
3. Things that have multiple uses. ( I hear this is junk, but I want one.)

Inevitably, I pounce (electronically) on anything that matches #3, especially if it matches #3 and one or both of the others. I usually stumble upon these items when they have either been discovered to be complete crap, or when they are still in development. Oh I wish I wish I were one of those bloggers who get sent expensive camping gear to try out in exchange for online reviews. Those companies would get very positive reviews simply because I am incredibly easy to please, haha.

Anyhow, lately I have been on a kick of checking out shelter related items. That is partially that until recently I had only a teeny tiny tent that doesn’t pack away all that compact. Naturally, I found the following two awesome concepts.

The JakPak was the first item I found. It seemed cool, though reviews online varied. At the same time I found a conceptual design for one called Vessel, which may appear even more promising. Note that the JakPak is now commercially available and I still want one, but can’t afford one. The question of whether the Vessel will ever be commercially available or not is more confusing now than it was in the past as far as I can tell. They have added other products, but apparently they are all conceptual. Admittedly, these shelters are not big either, but they aren’t nearly as bulky as the tiny tent I now own.

More recently I stumbled on alternatives to the Vessel and JakPak. Some alternatives, including this modified camo military poncho (ignore the goofy stuff at the bottom, haha) actually appear affordabe enough to start with. The traditional military pup tent from various global armed forces has also been sometimes used as a poncho in times of war, though it has many limitations. On the military front, however, what I really want is not a shelter (Okay, maybe just this one), but the incredibly well received Extreme Cold Weather four part sleep system used by US military. That, too, is expensive, though I think I need one for my backpack, and one for my emergency car kit.

I had never thought about the potential of multipurpose, compact camping gear for the homeless. Luckily, someone did. In Australia they have this great Backpack Bed which was designed for the homeless, but has seriously cool potential (and a high pricetag for casual users). This would also go great in my vehicle emergency kit. Better yet is the brilliant coat that turns into a sleeping bag! The site is currently only really organized to purchase these coats for those in need, but I guess it is getting interest from casual wearers that might boost it into commercial sales (which look like they would be affordable). Better yet, it employs those in need to make them! (This woman should join forces with the Backpack Bed folks to make a modular sleep system). That jacket should be in the trunks of every person living in the cold northern states.

Needless to say, much of this is just a case of wanting things that I don’t have and often can’t afford. On the other hand. When my vehicle decided to die on me this year, I was given the chance to purchase a new one for a nice price. In checking out the vehicle, I opened the back tailgate (since it has a tonneau cover) and discovered a tent inside. Upon closer inspection, the bag it was supposed to be in was corroded, with a bad zipper (I switched bags immediately). All the poles were present though. I put it up, cleaned it out, checked it for problems, and found that the only problem is a missing rainfly (which I can replace with a piece of tarp easily).

Now, I can’t say that owning a much larger tent will keep me from making camping gear lists during this long winter, but I can at least shrug and say “Meh, I have a good enough tent for now.” On the bright side, my tiny one-person tent now has a permanent home behind the seat of my truck, right alongside much of the other emergency gear.

It’s good to be spoiled. Now I just need to get out camping when everything warms up.

I thought it would never end!

I’ve had a lot of jobs with no such thing as paid time off or vacation. I can’t say I want to go back to those times.

That being said, last week I decided it was time to take a few more hours of my vacation time, so I took off on my birthday, Nov. 12 not to return until Monday the following week. I thought that vacation would never end!

Part of the reason I took off last week was the intention that I had to go out and shoot some deer early in the morning one of those days. Last year, I took off the full week and I woke up early every morning to freeze my butt off in the cold. Let’s see how this year worked out.

Wednesday: I woke up at 5 a.m. to my alarm. The air in my room was slightly chilly. It’s my birthday! What am I doing up at 5 a.m.? So I shut off my alarm, rolled up to sleep in… and woke up at 7 a.m. out of habit.
I bummed around the house, watching shows on the DVR and cooking breakfast. I had a long list of things to accomplish, but I didn’t really put a real effort into even showering until after lunch. After that, I realized that there was a reason I had planned on hunting in the morning, rather than the afternoon. I had work at my second job at 6 p.m. Being realistic, I realized that I would likely accomplish a whole lot less on my birthday than I had intended. I jumped in my car, intent on getting my license renewed, and drove half way to Pine River before my car started blowing cold air and spraying green water all over the place. It turns out the $210 I just spent on a water pump didn’t fix whatever was wrong with my car after all. A sheriff pulled over and made sure my car wasn’t on fire. We chatted while I checked the coolant, which had boiled out of the reservoir. I limped back home and did nothing for the rest of the day save for online tutoring in the afternoon.

Thursday: I woke up at 5 a.m. to my alarm. Thought about driving to the woods in a borrowed vehicle with the possibility of putting a bloody deer in the back around noon. Cursed my car, turned off my alarm, and tried to sleep angry. Kind of slept until, again, feeling fully awake at 7 a.m.
Having exhausted all the new shows on the DVR, I watched reruns on tv, made breakfast, and walked Katie (my dog) outside a bit. Dug out a box of deer ribs someone donated to me (most people just throw the rib meat away due to the tallow and amount of work to process). I used a corded jig saw to cut the ribs short, cut them into serving sizes and packed them into a pressure cooker. Learned later that they were too tightly packed. Some of the tallow had remixed with the meat.
Separated the tallow for use as bird suet.
Fired up my uncle Dean’s smoker and loaded the ribs up for 1.5 hours smoke using alder, chokecherry, hazelnut, and poplar smoke at a low temp. Added a smoke condenser to the smokestack.
While waiting, got doused in coolant while replacing my thermostat again (just in case that helped). Called a couple shops and found out my head gasket might be blown.
Pulled the venison from the smoker, collected the fluid from my smoke condenser and went inside to package it all up. Success in the form of a few packets of venison ribs, two packets of smoked venison sandwich meat, three bricks of bird suet and a bottle of homemade liquid smoke boiled and filtered into a tabasco bottle.
Worked two hours at online tutoring, but not very well.

Friday: Woke up to go hunting with Dad, Uncle Paul, and some people that might be distantly related. Ate a dilly bar for breakfast. Froze my butt off in a livestock trailer listening to deer walk through a pine plantation across the road.
Met up with the rest of the hunting party again and tried doing a drive. Dad said, “Go to the edge of this slash and wait.” I followed his instructions until I got a phone call. “Where are you?” he asked. I realized that there was a second slash on the other side of a small forest, and I was supposed to drive the deer through that forest. My dad gives terrible instructions.
Dropped two hunters off at a stand, drove to the other side of a pond and tried driving deer around the pond. Dad said, “Keep the sun on your left shoulder.” Doing so would have meant walking straight back to the truck. Dad is really bad at giving directions. Walked directly toward sun, attempting to drive deer around the pond. Didn’t see anything. Had to climb over logs lying across the uphill logging road on the way back to the vehicle.
Had lunch of three fun size Snickers bars, actually, two and a half. Froze my butt off until leaving the woods at 5:15. Returned home in time to heat up leftovers and go to work. Watched Grimm on the DVR.

Saturday: Woke up at 5 a.m. Didn’t even act like I was going to get up, just turned off alarm and tried not to think about how expensive it was going to be to fix my car. Slept past 7, but was woke up by dog at 7:45.
Had a breakfast of junk food before jumping in my car and driving it to a shop in Hackensack to be tested for a blown gasket with my mother following behind. Only had to stop and let the car cool off once. Noticed the water in the reservoir was ice cold, but still boiling out. Thoroughly confused.
Helped set up the Backus American Legion for a benefit for a local firefighter out of work due to surgery. Visited adoptive grandmother, returned to legion to help serve food at the benefit. Had to choose between having gas money the next week or a meal at the benefit. Chose gas.
Returned home at 6 p.m. for online tutoring. Finished tutoring, returned to Legion to clean up.
Turned off deer hunting alarm before going to bed.

Sunday: Woke up for church. Returned home with no money to go anywhere. Laid around house all day doing nothing. Realized I accomplished virtually nothing I had intended to for the week. Worked two hours of online tutoring. Watched The Walking Dead. Went to bed.

Monday: Woke up at 6:30. Got to the office early. Managed to get a lot done. Spoke to a city clerk who referred to vacations as a time to “Recharge”, explained my week to her and laughed. Couldn’t help but think, “I thought that vacation would never end.”

Is it strange that this is the first job I’ve ever had that offers vacation pay, but having time off last week was only slightly better than staying to work? I must be losing it.