ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OF A CERTAIN AGE, that is, those who began in film and switched to digital, there was something unambiguously known as “a mistake”, by which we meant something that showed up in your final image that you either blew in execution or didn’t plan for. Smears on the lens, accidental double-exposures, lens cap left on….you get the idea. In the pre-ironic days of film, goofs were just that…goofs. They weren’t made to suggest a retro feel or simulate the look of….anything. They were merely flaws.
In the digital era, we still commit errors that wind up in our images, often for the same reason we committed them in the analog age. What’s different is that we often make these “mistakes” on purpose now, to create a mood that we associate with a romanticized view of film. One such accident that we generate intentionally purpose is lens flare.
To grossly over-simplify things (and to thus infuriate the high priests of tech), flare occurs when light enters a lens at such an angle that it is refracted or bounced within the mechanism of the lens on the way to the sensor and creates a wild, often prismatic shape that remains a permanent part of the photograph. The intensity of these bright spots is often determined by how complex the given lens is, since the more parts there are within the optic, the more places there are for the light to scatter and split. Sometimes a flare’s contours, which can tend to be roughly hexagonal, mimic the shape of the aperture opening within the shutter. Many people guard against flares simply by using a lens hood or by being careful not to shoot directly into light, and photographers are all over the road as to whether the effect is annoying or artistic. Flares are as old as cameras themselves, and they happen for much the same reasons on digital gear as on analog equipment.
The ironic part, which has grown out of several generations of digital post-production, is that what was once regarded as a “mistake” is now one of the most common tools in nearly every editing suite on the market. Like vignetting at the corners, graininess (for that gritty, low-fi look!) and other things that used to be regarded as imperfections, flaring is just as likely to be added into a photo after it’s shot, for an “artifact” that has been called everything from “authentic” to “dramatic” by many a game designer or A-list movie director. J.J. Abrams loves the effect so much that he has used it in his Star Trek reboots, as well as the film Super 8, to both cheers and jeers. Michael Bay also adds flare, mostly to his CGI processes. The search for the look has even led several filmmakers to swap out recently designed lenses, which lessen the look, to old optical glass, that has more of it.
The image you see here, just so there’s no debate, featured flares which were (a) created in the moment and are (b) a total accident. I actually shot about a half dozen frames of this particularly enchanted truck, and chose this one for the keeper when I saw how it (quite by chance) enhanced the mood of what I was after. I assure you that I am far too un-hip to have conceived of this effect in advance of my shoot. So, in other words, I got this digitally on-demand look the analog way…that is, because I didn’t know quite what I was doing. However, if it ever wins any awards, I can alway say that I meant to do it that way, hee hee. In photography we deal in truth, lies, and a lot of stuff that lives between the two poles. This one comes from that mystery middle.
Or maybe it’s gremlins, I dunno.