the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

HANDS OFF. SORT OF.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SHOULD BE CURATED SHOWS AT MUSEUMS ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST FOR SNAPSHOTS. It’s already a known fact that images taken in an impulsive instant are among the most emotionally immediate in history. What these billions of “shooting from the hip” pictures share is the uncompromised commitment of hitting that button, and letting what happens, happen. Of course, back in the day, many of us had no choice in the matter, especially with our earliest cameras. Sadly, sometimes the box was too dumb, too seized up in tech cramps to guess what we wanted. Today, however, we can’t blame the camera anymore if we fail to live in the moment. They are world-class enablers. If we didn’t get the shot, we need to be smarter.

Sometimes you gotta shoot ’em quick and hope. Available light and less of it every second: 1/200, f/8, ISO 100, 20mm.

And, to be fair, we are smarter, even in those just-shoot-it-moments. The amazing complexity of today’s captures on automatic modes has saved us the trouble, more than at any time in history, of having to put on the twin hats of physicist and chemist. That should mean scads of instances when we can truly trust our instincts and hand the dirty work off to the camera with a reasonable hope of getting what we were after.

Now, in the modern world, comes the tricky part.

We may now know too much, compared to the cavemen we were in the earliest days of photography. And, once we begin to comprehend the totality of tweaking, calculation, and post-processing that are available to “rescue” more of our shots, it’s amazingly hard to avoid availing ourselves of all of it. We can remove the tiniest mote of dust, conveniently wipe out the crummy telephone wires, erase the ex-girl friend at the wedding. Trickier still, if we shoot on manual mode, we can practically think the process to death, essentially bleeding the adventure and spontaneity out of at least some images that we should just shoot.

There will always be shots that are so complete in themselves that continuing to fiddle with them before shooting will just have a diminishing return, little gifts of the moment that are so nearly perfect already that you could render them lifeless by trying to “perfect” them. Important: this is not an argument for super-gluing your mode dial to the auto position, since that can also create a string of acceptable exposures that fall short of being compelling pictures.

The balance, the aggravation, and eventually, the joy, lies somewhere in the middle.

Once the sun starts to set in Arizona, you’re racing the light to the horizon, so he who hesitates is lost. Shot on the fly at 1/160 sec., f/11, ISO 100, 18mm.

This is the kind of sunset that only becomes possible near the end of the rainy season (a relative term!) in the Sonoran desert. You get more days with at least some clouds overhead, breaking the mega-blue monotony of the southwestern sky. And you get wonderful gradations of color as the last light of day vanishes over the horizon. In this image, that light was changing, and leaving, rapidly. Not a lot of time to weigh options, but a perfect place to flail away and maybe get something. This was not shot on auto mode, but I made a very quick, simple calculation in manual, and kept the prep as brief as possible. Later on, I was tempted again to go on tinkering, considering a lot of little “fixes” to “improve” my result. To my eventual satisfaction, I sat on my hands, and so what you see is what I got…no frills, no fuss, no interfering with my self.

It would probably be a great exercise to compile your own personal museum exhibit of the best pictures that you successfully left alone, the captures that most validate your instincts, your impulse, your artistic courage. And, certainly I would love to see them linked back to this blog, as conversation between all of us is what I value most about the project.

Go for it.

2 responses

  1. I often dwell on this subject, for what IS the defining line between a snap shot and a fine art photograph? I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a matter of degrees, and have defended this argument to many of my Instructors, who don’t understand why I concern myself with this subject at all. I defend many a shot during critiques, on the basis of spontaneity, arguing that if I took but one moment to switch to manual, I would have missed the integrity of the shot entirely, and had no record of the tiny slice of magic I had the good fortune to stumble upon. I will link a few photos back to your site, as this is a subject gear to my heart, if you would still enjoy opening a dialog on this subject………

    November 21, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    • Sure, I’d love to see the photos you refer to….it’s the ultimate riddle for shooters!

      November 26, 2012 at 9:35 AM

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