By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE SPOKEN A FEW TIMES HERE about the snapshot mentality, that hard-wired sense of urgency that seems to accompany nearly all picture-making….the flashing red light that screams Hurry. Get the shot. It’s a nagging feeling that we’re missing something great, that we’d better stop wasting time and start clicking. This hair-on-fire sensation may have come originally from cameras that were too slow or clumsy to operate, resulting in many lost opportunities. Then, as both cameras and film became more responsive, the idea that we could crank off a frame almost as quickly as the action of a special event spurred us on even further. Many generations and millions of personally precious occasions later, we almost always shoot on instinct. It takes practice and deliberation to slow down and actually plan a shot.
But the world is not composed solely of kids blowing out birthday candles or Bob being surprised by his retirement party, and there will always be times when, as far as photography is concerned, there is literally no big rush. Thing is, we have to retrain ourselves to sense what those moments are, and enjoy the luxury of being able to linger, even to leave, come back, reconsider, and re-shoot in an attempt to get the additional dimension that only comes from taking one’s time. This is an increasingly difficult habit to form, since we have so long married the instantaneous or fleeting quality of many situations to the way we take pictures. People who think too much about this kind of stuff have sold scads of books with the words contemplative or mindfulness in the title, but it really is just about slowing down long enough to let ideas percolate, for better pictures to emerge.
It is certainly true that technology has allowed us to make acceptable pictures of nearly anything, our cameras taking many decisions (including careless ones) out of our hands, trying, in essence, to anticipate what we probably “want” and attempt to give it to us. The aggravation of what results when we turn over the keys completely to these brilliant but non-intuitive machines, the gap between what it serves us up and what we truly seek, is the reason behind the blog you’re reading right now. The Normal Eye is dedicated to those times we wean ourselves off auto-settings, electing to both ask and answer our own questions, relegating the camera to its proper status….that of a servant. Part of the taking back of that control is placing yourself in situations where it’s okay, even optimum, for you to just simply cool your jets and think.
The frame you see here is #18 out of twenty shots taken toward a busy suburban road as seen from a roadside pond. The surface of this small lagoon is usually filled with concentric ripples from a centrally located fountain which is nearly always turned on, so in many cases, I could not dream of the reflections seen here. That idea alone was enough to make me pull off the road and park. Several of my first tries were framing disasters; a couple of others were taken from an opposite angle and contained too much clutter: and then there was this one, which was preceded by several in which the road was just crammed with late afternoon traffic. Frustration was mounting. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Indeed I wasn’t sure I even knew what I was going for.
But then the lightbulb moment. This scene was going to remain stable for a while. Nothing could be lost by quitting the scene for a few minutes and approaching the whole thing with refreshed concentration.
I took a walk.
Five minutes had, indeed, made a difference in the intensity of the local traffic, which, in turn, gave me an idea for something that the picture could be about, as I saw a lone bus approaching from the leftward edge of my peripheral vision. Suddenly I had just enough context to at least imply a story. Whereas dozens of vehicles were just visual litter, a single bus could anchor the picture, add scale to the scenery, or at least tell the eye where first to focus. Ironically, I had a “snapshot’s” worth of decision time in which to snap the shutter before the bus passed out of frame, so, even though I had taken extra minutes to get the shot I wanted, I only had seconds to recognize that it had arrived. In the final analysis, I would have had, at least in my own mind, much less of a picture if I had settled for the first, perfectly adequate rendering of the scene. I had benefited by not having to make up my mind in an instant. Contemplative? Mindful? Who knows? To me, it’s just enjoying the luxury of those instances in which I can afford To. Just. Wait.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VAN LINES USED TO GIVE OUT SMALL GRIDDED PAPER SQUARES that prospective customers could use as room diagrams for the planning of their next homes. The fancier versions even came with pre-cut geometric shapes that you could place on the squares, to see if the couch would look good next to the settee, or whether the piano should go along the north wall. It was like paper dolls for easy chairs and coffee tables.
I recall those squares whenever I’m trying to photographically visualize the optimum composition of large spaces, especially if I’m lucky enough to do so from an elevated spot. Immense rooms start to look like rectangles within rectangles, squares butted up against other squares. Dividing lines between action and dead space begin to appear. Cropping parameters suggest one scheme, then argue for another. With enough time, a kind of strategy emerges for what should go where, much like those intricate battle maps used to illustrate the engagements in Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
The balance of “live” and “dead” space in public gathering places (like the museum seen here) has to carefully organized, since both kinds of space have their own special narrative power, and can intrude on each other if not orchestrated. In the above image, it’s almost as if the active roles by the tourists on the right ought to be contained, in order to avoid disturbing the abstract patterns on the left. A different method might also see the entire outer frame as a series of smaller squares and rectangles, just as a chessboard is a square composed of an infinite number of lesser squares. Depends on your eye.
Composition, if done at leisure rather than haste, is a negotiation, a bargaining session in which every inch of photographic real estate must earn its place in the final picture. It’d be glib to merely say “there’s no right answer”, but, if you look at images resulting from certain choices, it becomes apparent that such a statement cannot be true. Right will feel right. Wrong will always feel like you put the piano in front of the picture window. Not horrible… but not correct, either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I photograph late in the day, the time Rembrandt favored for painting, so that the subtlest tones surface. ———Marie Cosindas
ONE OF THE GREATEST SIDE EFFECTS OF MY HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST over the past eighteen years has been its impact on how I harness light in my photography. The word harness conjures the act of getting a bit and bridle on a wild stallion, and so is extremely apt in reference to how you have to manage and predict illumination here in the land of So Much Damn Sun. It’s not enough here to decide what or how to shoot. You must factor in the When as well.
To see this idea in stark terms, study the work of photogs who have shot all day long from a stationary position along the rim of the Grand Canyon. The hourly, and sometimes minute-to-minute shift of shadows and tones illustrates what variety you can achieve in the outcome of a picture, if you consciously factor in the time of day. After a while, you can glance at a subject or site and predict pretty accurately how light will paint it at different times, meaning that many a session can produce a wild variance in results.
The late photographer Marie Cosindas, whose miraculous early-1960’s work with the then-new Polacolor film helped change the world’s attitude toward color imaging, didn’t just load her film into a standard Polaroid instant camera. She shot it in her large format Linhof, experimenting with exposure times, filters and development techniques, and, above all, with the careful selection of natural light. She didn’t just wait for her subject; she waited on the exact light that would make it, and all its colors, sing. As a result, the art world began to rethink its opinion about color just being for advertising, or as somehow less “real” than black & white.
In my own work, I take the time, whenever feasible, to “case” locations a while before I shoot them, taking note over days, even weeks, to see what light does to them at specific times of day. As I mentioned, the West suffers from an overabundance of light, mostly the harsh, tone-bleaching kind that is the enemy of warm tone. In the above image, I scouted the location in the early morning, when the eastern sun was drenching the front end of the court, but waited about eight hours to return and get the precise projection of shadow grids that only occurred once the sun was in its western descent, about two hours before dusk. My test shots from the morning told me that the picture I wanted would simply not exist until ’round about suppertime. And that’s when I stole my moment.
There are three legs to the basic photographic tripod: What, How, and When. Over the years, paying greatest attention to that third leg has often given me one to stand on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WASN’T LONG AFTER THE INTRODUCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY that one of the biggest and most durable myths about the new art was launched to generally unquestioning acceptance. The line “the camera doesn’t lie” attached itself to the popular imagination with what seemed the purest of industrial-age logic. Photographs were, to the 19th-century mind, a flawless record of reality, a scientifically reliable registration of light and shadow. And yet the only thing that moved as quickly as photography itself was the race to use the camera to deliberately create illusion, and, eventually, to serve the twin fibbing mills of propaganda and advertising. The camera, it turned out, not only could lie, but did do so, frequently and indetectably.
Later, as photojournalism came into its own, the “doesn’t lie” myth seemed to drape news coverage in some holy mantle of trustworthiness, as if every cameraman were somehow magically neutral in the way he shot an event. This, in spite of the obvious fact that, merely by changing composition, exposure, or processing, the photographer could alter his image’s impact…..its ability to, in effect, transmit “truth”. Certainly, outright fakery got better and better, but, even without deliberately trying to falsify facts, the news photographer still had his own personal eye, an eye which could easily add bias to a seemingly straightforward picture. Did this proclivity make his pictures “lies”?
As a point of discussion, consider the above photo, which is, fundamentally, a document of part of an actual event. But what can really be learned from what’s in the frame? Are there thousands at this rally, or do the attendees shown here constitute the entire turnout? Are all those on hand peaceful and calm, or have I merely turned my lens away from others, immediately adjacent, who may be screaming or gesturing in anger? And how about my use of selective focus with the girl in pink? Am I simply calling attention to her face, the colors in her outfit, her sign, her physical posture… or am I trying to make her argument for her by using blur to make everyone else seem less important? Am I an artist, a reporter, a liar, or all three?
Here’s the thing: since I don’t make my living as a journalist, I can choose any or all of those three job titles without fear of conflict. I work only for myself, so I make no claim for the neutrality of my coverage of anything, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits. I likewise make no guarantees of objectivity in what I regard as an art. Only the observer can decide whether the camera, or I, have “lied”. We repeat this mantra frequently, but it bears clear emphasis: photographs are not (mere) reality. Never were, never can be.
Good thing or bad? You literally take that determination into your own hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ETERNAL TUG OF WAR IN PHOTOGRAPHY SEEMS TO BE the pull between extremes of revelation and concealment. Toggling between the strategies of showing almost everything and showing nearly nothing, most shooters arrive at some negotiated mid-point which describes their own voice as a visual narrator. Shuttling between the two extremes, shooters have to decide how much information is appropriate not only for their overall style, but in each specific shooting situation.
Managing light in the moment, rather than trying to re-balance values after the picture is made, affords the most crucial control you will ever exercise over your subject. We tend, as beginners, to shoot things where there is “enough light”, growing ever more discriminating about the kind of light we prefer as we mature in our approach.
One of the most fruitful exercises for me has been those rare occasions in which I have had the luxury to remain in one area over a span of several hours, discovering the nuanced variations that prevail from minute to minute in a single setting. Many times, I have begun this process with an initial concept of the “ideal” lighting for a shot, then, through comparison, rejected that in favor of a completely different strategy. It’s strangely thrilling to come home completely satisfied with an image, even though it’s the dead opposite of the way you originally conceived it.
Waiting for the right light may be more time-consuming, but it is the cheapest, easiest, and surest way to control composition. If one particular lighting situation reveals too much in the shot, diluting the impact of your visual message, waiting for shadows to deepen and for bright spots to shift can make your photograph urge the eye more effectively toward the center of your “argument”. In the image seen above, I could not have sold the idea of a gradual walk from high left to lower right without the light actually working as a kind of directional arrow. A fully lit forest might have been lovely, and was, in fact, available to me just an hour earlier. But by the late afternoon, however, the partial dark helped me edit excess information out of the shot, and, in comparing the two approaches, I like the “less” version better.
Part of getting the shot you want is often learning to see, and edit out, the parts you don’t want, a process which is better when you wait for the “best”, rather than the “correct” light for right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR MANY OF US, CAN OFTEN INVOLVE NOTHING MORE than finding a thing we want to capture and getting it all in the frame. Click and done. It’s only later that we sometimes realize that we should have, shall we say, shopped around for the best way, from angle to exposure, to get our quarry in frame. Or even look for a better frame.
One of the first tricks I learned in travel photography was from the old scenic shooters who created the travel titles for View-Master Reels, who always thought in terms of framing to maximize the image’s 3-d effect. For a start, since they were working in square format, they automatically had less real estate in which to compose. Secondly, they had to shoot in “layers”, since the idea was to have subject matter in multiple planes, for example, overhanging shade tree right at the front, a tourist midway into the shot, and Mount Rushmore at the back. They also learned to position things just inside the frame’s edge, what was called the “stereo window” to accentuate the sensation of looking into the photograph.
Thing is, all of these compositional techniques work exactly the same in a flat image, and can draw the viewer’s eye deeper into a picture, if used creatively. Certainly you can’t go wrong with a great exposure of a beautiful view. But experiment as well with things that force your audience to peer intently into that view. The image at the top is standard post-card, and works well enough. However, in the shot at left, in taking ten seconds to slip inside a gift shop that also looks out on the same view, I’ve tried to show how you can get an atmospheric framing that both accentuates depth and provides a bit more of a sense of destination. It all depends on what you’re looking to do, of course….but it makes sense to develop the habit of asking yourself how many different ways are available to tell the same story.
Editing a solid portfolio of shots can only begin with lots of choices. Hey, you’re there, anyway, so develop the habit of envisioning multiple versions of each picture, and weed out what doesn’t work. Remember again that the only picture that absolutely fails is the one you didn’t try to make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FISHEYE LENS, that ultra-wide hunk of glass whose images seem inscribed within a circle rather than a rectangle, have earned a bit of a bad rap among serious photographers over the years, perhaps because of either mis-use or over-use.
Let’s face it: of all the optical effects available to the average shooter, the fisheye shot is one of the most dramatic in its distortion of reality. It’s almost guaranteed to make your image about the look, which is where content starts to matter less than mere novelty.
Fisheye fever saw its peak in the swinging ’60’s, when such shots were intended to suggest a kind of sensory dislocation, the visual equivalent of a psychedelic state. The cover of Jim Hendrix’ Are You Experienced was perhaps the most popular example of such “weird-for-weird’s-sake” photography, with main subjects sitting at dead center, surrounded by severe barrel distortion that radiated out toward the edge of the circle, making even close objects seem distant as they softened into a haze of chromatic aberration at the extremes. Far out, man.
These kaleidoscopic pictures tend to render such arbitrary boundaries as walls and horizon lines moot, and telegraph the photographer’s message that it’s all about getting your freak on. However, I think that fisheyes, when used like other wide-angles, can add graduated elements of distortion and distance exaggeration that need not be the only visual message in an image. Making a left or right edge the “center” of the shot, for example, can reduce the intense bending-in, while raising the camera up or down can render a horizon line almost normal, with a little tweaking for dramatic effect.
Ultra-wide images need not be all about the patented fisheye “look”, which can be, frankly, fatiguing, just as shooting in hazy focus or HDR might, were you to do nothing else. It’s the point at which an effect ceases to be a tool and starts to actually put barriers between your subject and your viewer, which is seldom good. What is good is that a “dedicated” fisheye (one which cannot deliver a standard image), still one of the most expensive pieces of glass available, is no longer a mandatory investment, since even lo-fi film cameras, entry-level art lenses and even phone apps can create the look cheaply and quickly, allowing one to dabble without adding on a second mortgage (beware the poor quality in the truly cheap ones, however). Optical tricks are, well, just that. Optical techniques can amplify, rather than disguise, your visual messages.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN USING WIDE-ANGLE LENSES, we believe that we are revealing more “reality”. That is, we began to think that a narrower aspect ratio is somehow “hiding” or clipping off visual information, whereas a wide allows us to “see everything”. But once you’ve shot with a wide-angle for a while, you realize that it’s, at best, a trade-off. The lens giveth and the lens taketh away.
Wide-angles do, certainly, increase the view from left to right, but, in so doing, they add their own little quirks, such as softer resolution along the edges, chromatic aberration, barrel distortion (that feeling that straight lines are bending outward at the sides of the frame), and an exaggeration of the distance between the front and back of the shot.
Bearing all this in mind, I feel that, since a pretty wide lens, the 18-55mm, is now included with nearly every DSLR camera kit, it’s important to see wides as both an aid to showing reality and an effective tool for interpreting or altering it. Think of your wides as art glass, as effects lenses, and you open up your mind to how it can not only record, but comment on your subject matter.
And, let’s take it a step further, as in when wides become ultra-wides, as in the 8 to 12mm range, where the lens becomes a true fisheye. Now we’re consciously aware that we’re using an effects lens, something that is designed specifically for a freakish or distorted look. And now we have to challenge ourselves in a different way.
The standard fisheye shot is a self-contained orb, a separate universe, within which everything radiates distortion outward from the center concentrically, like a kaleidoscope or a paper snowflake. But a fisheye frame can also be composed to combine all the left-right, back-front information of a standard wide-angle (more narrative space) while also playing to the surreal look of something designed to challenge our visual biases of what’s “real”. The effect can also, as in the above image, forcefully direct the viewer’s eye to see along very precise channels. In this picture, the action of the shot begins at the right front, and tracks diagonally backwards to the left year, with the focus softening as you look from “important” to less “important”. The drama in the woman’s face is also abetted by the unnatural dimensions of the image, like one part of a nightmare serving to stage another part.
Wide-angle lenses can conceal and interpret, not just reveal. They allow us to see more from left to right, but there is a lot of wiggle room in how we show it. You have to accept the idea that all optics are distortions of reality to some degree, and make the bias of your particular glass serve your narrative goals.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY is that you always, always, have a backup plan. What you don’t frame correctly in the actual shooting of an image can be corrected in post-editing cropping, the use of “framing” within the composition itself, or even how you finally matte the picture before hanging it on the wall. This is as it should be since many pictures are not so much born as re-imagined.
Once you frame a photo, you’re giving the viewer the first visual cue as to what to regard as important. If I included it, you should notice it. If I excluded it, it’s either to set loose your imagination on why I defined this world within these parameters, or because I, as the narrator, am telling you it just don’t matter. You can even further enhance the effectiveness of the frame by its shape. A rectangle might enforce the reading of information left-to-right, for example, while a square might force the eye toward dead center. The original framing is your own best call to action in a photograph.
And even after you’ve defined the frame, you can still add a second directive within it to hyper-focus attention in a very specific space. The use of arches, building overhangs, edges of windows, cliffs, shadows or other secondary “frames” provides even greater cues to the eye, and also adds an illusion of dimension and depth.
In the above shot, the old stone basilica is obviously the main feature of the image, and so was cropped from a wider original to eliminate distracting foreground shrubbery on the right. However, the arch through which the building is viewed was retained, to act as a “secondary frame” and as a way to illustrate scale. The first frame says what information is important, while the second frame makes sure we get to the heart of the image more efficiently.
Using all framing devices available in an image is like using caps, lower case and italicised letters in the same sentence. Composition is about yelling to get people over to your picture, then whispering, as you gently guide them toward its heart.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULTRA-WIDE LENSES HAVE ALMOST BECOME AN UNAVOIDABLE CLICHE for people shooting in the streets of large cities, both for the great things they allow and the uber-excesses that they enable. There is, of course, a real practical benefit in being able to create an amped-up sensation of front-to-back space or side-to-side expanse while you yourself are limited in where you can stand or move. For example, if your back is crimped against a building, so that you can’t dolly backward, having the lens provide the extra width you need is great. If you’re pointing up for emphasis, the lens’ distortion of straight lines can be dramatically abstract, depending on the look you’re going for. All to the good.
Of course, depending on your selection of angle, you can get things so bendy and bizarre that you can induce motion sickness in your viewing audience, with towers and spires inclining sideways as if they about to topple to the street. Again, you have to decide what look you want: it’s not just about tilting the frame until you can “get everything in”. That’s shoveling, not shooting.
The thing to remember about ultra-wides in the city is how little re-framing it takes to get both the drama you want and at least a semblance of normal proportions and angles. As with almost every other situation, the salvation is in shooting a lot of coverage of a subject. Attack it from all angles and sides. You can’t know in the moment exactly what will work best…you’re working too quickly in a crowded, active environment. So walk around, attack it from all sides, and sort out the keepers later.
In the shot at the top of the page, I was interested in shooting Paul Manship’s magnificent “Atlas” sculpture, located along the Fifth Avenue edge of Rockefeller Center, from the rear, to accentuate the amazing musculature of the figure and get him in the same frame as the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Now, there’s already plenty of drama in the statue’s pose as is, but in the first photo, I angled the lens further upward to get an even bigger arc of action. In the lower image, I simply changed the up-down angle of the same 24mm lens I was using to get angles that were a bit more normal. Two different effects, just inches away from each other in approach and angle, but markedly different in result. Which one’s the keeper? Not my argument and not my problem. However, if I don’t shoot both images, I don’t get to make the choice.
Once more, the advantage of digital is pronounced. You can now shoot everything you think you might need. We’re not counting “roll” exposures in our heads any more. We can’t “run out of film”, so click away. Shoot it all while you’ve got it in front of you and throw everything you know how to try at the problem at hand. The bad pictures will speed the arrival of the good ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS INSTINCTIVELY SEEK OUT VARIATION. We spend so much time looking at so much of the world that a lot of it starts to sort itself into file folders of things, patterns, or places, pre-sorting our pictures into this or that category. Sunsets: see Nature. Famous Buildings: a sub-set of Travel. And so on, until we are fairly starved for some visual novelty to shock us out of our slumber and spur us on to new ways of seeing.
One of the things that settles most readily into sameness is the human dwelling. Most of us live in some kind of basic four-walls, bedroom-kitchen-bath sequence, making our living spaces fairly predictable as subject matter. By way of awe and admiration, the real geniuses of, magazine illustration, to me, have always been the “house beautiful” photographers, since they must spend year after year making Mr.& Mrs. J.D. Gotmore’s McMansions seem unique and bold. That said, there is something about nearly everyone’s castle that might be distinctive, even revelatory, about the people who live within. It’s all in your approach.
I love to explore the places where people are forced to improvise living spaces either near or as part of their work, places that usually exist in stark isolation as compared to the crush of crowded urban centers. In the above image, I was allowed to climb to a small viewing angle of the beacon room atop a coastal lighthouse in San Diego, and, perhaps because I was limited to a shooting stance below the surface of the room’s floor, the resulting photo further exaggerated the confined, angular working space, which sits above living areas further down the house’s twisty central staircase.
These areas pose more questions than they answer. What is it like to have this building be your entire world for long stretches of time? What kind of person can do this work? What is the center of this unusual story? The blurring of boundaries between working and living areas is among the most novel material a photographer can tackle, since it contains one of the things he craves most….mystery.