Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

South Coast Photography

Nestled in between two large shopping centers, the El Toro library of Lake Forest, California is a hidden gem. Tonight is the night that the Internet world meets the real world for the meetup.com group called, South Coast Photography. At 6:50pm, a few hours after the sun has set and the endless gridlock of the California highways has dissipated, members start to file in through the small doorway of the classroom adjoining the library to congregate with others who share their love for photography. The room is neatly arranged into orderly rows of plastic chairs in front of a projection screen. Tonight’s meeting is the first meeting of 2010 and Paul McElligott, the group organizer, calls it the 2010 kick off.

Several different groups of people are milling around the room trying to start conversations. At first glance, it seems as though these people know each other for quite some time. As the list of printed nametags goes around, a handful of members have to handwrite their names onto blank tags. “ Tonight’s my first meeting” is the favorite phrase of the night for the new members. The group consisted of a various shades of hair color, dark hair to graying hair. Do not let this mature group fool you! Along with many years of life experience and a handful of life stories, the older group is well educated about the in’s and the out’s of the Adobe Photoshop software. A few conversation starters began with, “Have you used Photoshop to do this…” The noise level inside the room grew a few decibels before the clock struck 7:00pm.

The chatter of the group was quickly silenced, as Paul stands patiently in front of the group fairly similar to a teacher attempting to grab attention of rowdy students. With a slight hush throughout the crowd of 40 members with ages ranging from the late 20s to early 80s, they became transfixed on the PowerPoint presentation shown on the back wall of the classroom. Paul takes his time to introduce himself to the crowd and other event organizers such as Andy St. Larent. According to Paul’s online description of the meeting, he states, “This meeting will be casual but very important. We (the organizers) have lots of ideas for the coming year, but we want your input, as well.”

The beginning of the meeting starts off with Paul’s presentation. The PowerPoint presentation is a run-of-a-mill basic guide for the immediate photographer, but for members who do not know anything about their cameras, this PowerPoint is golden. As Paul clicks away and explains each slide, it becomes apparent there is much more to photography than pressing down on a button to focus on the subject and capturing an image. For example, Paul explains that the rule of thirds is when an image should be imagined as division of nine equal parts by equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Paul points out that it is key to put the subject at the intersections of the lines. By using this technique, any beginning photographer can improve their photography before post photo processing. The rule of thirds is used to gravitate the eyes to something interesting instead of the standard centering of subjects.

Numerous examples of photography techniques pop up onto the screen. One slide after another, the members start to add their own input on their personal methods. A few professionals from the back of the dimmed lit room chime in the rambling photography dialogue. Ron, a professional photographer with an expertise in automotive photography, seems to be the quickest one to respond. Towards the end of the meeting, the group is starts discussing the future Long Beach aquarium trip when someone from the crowd asks, “How do we take picture of the marine life through the glass without getting a reflection?”

Ron moves slightly forward from the middle of the sitting arrangement and all eyes gravitated towards him, waiting for a response. With a smile and assuring demeanor Ron modestly issues some helpful advice.

“Basically to get rid of the reflection of your camera is to get really close to the glass or have someone hold a black sheet of paper to deflect the light off the glass.” The crowd nods in agreement.

“I have professional grade vinyl that I use for my photo shoots in my garage. I am willing to cut you some if anyone needs any.”

Another wave of nods and cheerful comments takes over the crowd.

The meeting comes to an end with a show and tell of photographs taken by the members. Of the 40 members present, only three members come forward with a thumb drive. The pictures shown to the group shows reasonable amount creativity. The proud amateur photographers each remark how they were able to manipulate their photographs by going into Photoshop and adding some creative license to it. Even to the trained eyes of the photographers, the added elements to the photographs blended seamlessly into the original picture.

In awe and amazement, the meeting comes to an end and the chatter builds up as people leave their seats and hover around different groups of people. The room slowly empties out when members start carrying their conversations outside towards their parked cars. The neatly lined chairs begin to stack up towards the back end of the room. The nearly barren room reverts itself back to being the adjoining room of the library from the room that linked the cyberspace world with the real world.

South Coast Photography is not a group that simply teaches photography to aspiring photographers in the classroom, but the group was created to take the ordinary photographer outside of their own backyard. Paul McElligott and Andy St. Larent along with many other organizers, created this group based on the idea of having more hands-on events for photographers. They also encourage every member to create an event and post it on the website. Each and every member can assess the calendar with a few strokes of the keyboard and find at least one event for the week. The fun part of these events is that members can pick and choose an event based on their own personal interests.

“The calendar has brought in a lot of members to our group. Sometimes we lose them for a while but they end up coming out to another meeting several months down the line. It’s understandable when everyone’s life gets so busy.” says Andy.

Living in Southern California and especially in Orange County, many of the events are on the beautiful coastlines of California. Months into the New Year and a few events under my belt, I embarked on emerging myself with the group on a chilly day in the month of March. The clouds above the Pacific Ocean seem to only promise a downcast on the event, “Lighting Techniques for the Outdoors.” Driving up to Aliso Creek located in the south region of the stretch of Laguna Beach, I became nervous. The wind howled and the waves crashed onto the rocks not too far from the shoreline. This day just did not seem the most ideal for playing with cameras and photography techniques.

Members started to emerge from their cars and made their way towards the lifeguard tower where we huddled around and talked. Gary, a resident from Rancho Cucamonga, drove two hours for the event. He belongs to three different photography groups and was a former wedding photographer in the sinful city of Las Vegas, Nevada. He was relatively new to the group with attending only four events under his belt, but he insisted that he really liked this group. He explained that the group is practical and very helpful to photographers. He likes the idea of having a calendar of events so he can figure out whenever he is able to make the two-hour trek across county lines to participate.

The final number of attendees for the event was 26 with several latecomers strolling along the sandy beach towards the rest of us. Andy led to the group to a secluded area of the beach away from the strong coastal winds. Clothe in warm jackets, the group formed a makeshift Socratic circle around Paul and Andy. In the middle of the circle, Andy started the lesson by giving a helpful guide on purchasing equipment for the camera. He pulled out a folded piece of vinyl, which is able to turn into a diffuser over an external flash. The diffuser is used to spread an equally distributed amount of light when the flash goes off. Andy goes through his lesson and eventually the group separates into smaller groups for more one to one instructional time.

Basel Assaf, a college student at a local college, is one of the youngest members in the group. Paul pointed him out as a wonderful photographer when it comes to portraits. I levitated towards him because we have the same camera, Nikon D40. Our camera is on the relatively cheaper end of the Digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR), which has a mirror inside to help captures the light and captures the data into pixels. Despite having the less expensive cameras, Basel’s photography is equally as great as the members who have cameras costing well over a thousand dollars alone.

Basel took me aside from the group and gave me a tutorial of how to use strobe lighting. He started his lesson by explaining the settings of the camera and eventually the lesson turned onto hands on practice. With a few of his light equipment attached to my own camera, Basel posed in front me. The camera snapped and the two flashes went off. I looked on the camera’s LCD screen and was amazed by the product. The very same camera I have neglected for several months started to gain value in my heart as it did so many years before. The lesson was only twenty minutes but it was able to improve my own personal techniques in great leaps.

Lessons similar to Basel’s took place throughout the beach as amateur photographers partnered up with more advance photographers. In essences, lessons such as these are what organizers want to have at every event. Even, I myself felt that I have learn so much more at every event.

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