By MICHAEL PERKINS
A WHOLE SUB-UNIVERSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, as we near the two-century mark for the art, is devoted to emulation, or the artificial creation of the look of some part of photography’s past. This can include the aspect of a bygone lens, the framing offered by certain old cameras, and, in recent years, the digital simulation of the look of certain film emulsions. Seems that no sooner had we left the analog world than we began to devise ways to bring it back….or at least summon its ghost. Suddenly, through apps and other editing platforms, people who never shot a frame of film in their lives can render the color bias, grain, and even the speed (light sensitivity) of old stock. Part of this mini-craze is, of course, pure nostalgia, a longing for a certain simpler…. something. Part of it is also irony, as we use old recording media to impart a specific mood to a contemporary shot that it might not otherwise possess.
The revived visual impact of film in the digital era is reminiscent of those old-time photo booths that popped up at tourist attractions decades ago, providing customers with quaint costumes in which they might pose for sepia-toned “tintypes”, casting their families as pioneers and cowpokes. Today, faux-film is a tremendous profit machine within the world of phone apps, and is even creeping back in the recent resurgence of instant photography, which was resurrected in part because, hey, that weirdly imbalanced Polaroid film looked so cool. I have my own personal weakness in all of this, as a lifelong fan of Kodachrome slide film, which winked out of existence after nearly three quarters of a century just a few years ago. Kodachrome struck many as a very naturalistic kind of color medium, and it certainly introduced millions of amateurs to color in the 1930’s, just about the time shooters also embraced 35mm roll film. Everyone had to shoot a ton of the stuff, however, to get a high yield of usable images, mostly because it was verrrrry slow (50 ASA/ISO, although it eventually crawled to 100) and thus seriously prone to underexposure if you didn’t calculate your shots just so. Today, cameras do so much of all that figgerin’ that even those who still shoot film (you know who you are) don’t have half the head-scratching math their forebears needed just to take a snap. Still, I (and we) hunger for the look produced in the day when it was all too easy to make an expensive error. The horse, in uncertain times, even during a barn fire, always heads for the barn.
Of course, if you truly emulate a film, you also emulate everything that it did, good or bad, and one of Kodachrome’s artifacts, when slightly underexposed, was to enrich and deepen colors. Being basically lazy by nature, when I want that kind of muted, voluptuous look, I simply underexpose my shots by a few aperture stops….not enough to lose all detail in the dark areas, but enough to boost intensity and warmth and isolate the brighter elements from the darker ones with more pronounced contrast. The other way to get the same result, as seen in the above image, is to take an already dark scene (like this late sunset) and either speed up the shutter, to make it a mite darker, or use a fast shutter and an ISO that’s only raised to about half of what a “correct” exposure might require.
Like any other “look”, my Kinda-Kodachrome is not a consistent signature of my work, but an occasional fun asterisk on it. At some point, some able app-smith may eventually craft a faithful approximation of it, but, until then, I have fun blending old and new elements into a kind of composite-tribute of my own. Photography itself has always been like twin-headed Janus, looking into the past and future at the same time. Such is the dual goal of all art. Every time you record the now, you’re using the wisdom of the was.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE ENTIRE BOOKSTORES CRAMMED WITH TUTORIALS FROM PHOTOGRAPHERS who have developed what, for marketing purposes, is called a “style”. This is a catch-all word for the accumulated experiences, biases, tricks, shortcuts, philosophies or habits that inform one’s work, all of it showing up frequently enough to constitute some kind of artistic signature. It’s a list of “I usuallys” and “I almost alwayses” and ” I nevers”, and those of us who study the output of others can get into a bit of a trap over it.
We’d all love to be able to answer that tantalizing interviewer’s question, “what’s your personal approach?”, as if we could reduce what we do to a set formula. I certainly can’t do that with my own stuff, and I’m a little distrustful of those who figure that they’ve got themselves sussed out to the degree that they can define their style. Of course, just because I don’t think a single trait or phrase can sum up a photographer’s identity, it’s tempting to try to produce such a profile, like trying on a suit that you probably won’t buy just to see how it looks on you. That means that, occasionally, I wonder if (a) I have a discernible style at all, and (b) what its features might be.
I really can’t say that there’s an (a) at all for me, or at least one that I can discern. As for the (b) stuff, there are in fact things that I lean on or come back to from time to time, although they may not always serve what I’m trying to achieve. One very basic thing that I find myself returning to repeatedly is exposure, more specifically, under-exposure. If my work has anything like a consistent look to it, it’s probably in a predisposition to work with as little light as possible. Over the past thirty years, much of this may be attributable to having lived in the American southwest, a place so bleached in sunlight that I was forced long ago to drastically revise my idea of how much light I’d need for a given shot. These lessons were not only palpable but, initially, expensive, since my first disastrous outings out here as a tourist were shot on slide film, which was heinously unforgiving whenever I’d miscalculate an f-stop. We’re talking supernova white on entire rolls of film.
This is not to say that merely getting burned on a few runs of slides, all by itself, turned me toward minimalist exposures, but it sure as hell got my attention. Since I learned photography in the make-or-break era of film, I was already operating under a pretty mindful model of pre-planning strategy (fore-thought?) when it came to photo shoots, so that, once I transitioned into digital, while I was freed from the dollar smackdown associated with blown pictures, I still retained the habit of sweating shots before shooting them. I totally delighted in the fact that errors could be countered and corrected faster with the immediate feedback loop that was a given in digital, but I also still tended to purposely think of what the camera could and could not do, even without being bitten by mistakes. I began gradually to expose for the highlights, rather than worry about the loss of detail in darker patches. Get the parts that can ‘blow out’ right, I tended to believe, and most of the shadows will yield at least something in post-processing. I also experimented extensively with blending bracketed shots (a series of exposures of the same scene, ranging from bright to dark) in HDR or other processes, and that sometimes rescued a lot of dark information. Behind all of this was the belief that the only data you really can’t get back from a shot is the stuff you blew out from over-exposure. Shoot with less light and you’d be safer, generally.
In general I tend to control exposure by an adjustment of shutter speed rather than aperture, and to do everything manually, avoiding semi-automatic exposure modes like Aperture Priority, since, at least for me, they tend to over-expose. I see camera after camera whose auto settings deliver images that are much too bright and non-contrasty for my taste. This is uniformly true in the new generation of film-based instant cameras, many of which do not even allow the user to turn off the flash. Is my choice of exposure range a style, or just a mode of working? Certainly, I don’t perversely under-expose every shot I take, regardless of the conditions, so, to that extent, it’s not really a “signature” thing. Maybe it’s just like any other work habit, like always standing with your legs in a perfect “A” or constantly keeping a light meter at the ready….a starting point, a basis of procedure. I do know that there’s so much going on inside the head of the individual photographer that none of us can universally prescribe for each other. If it works for you, everyone else’s lip music is irrelevant. Bring even 50% of your original concept to your final picture and you’re a hero. Tools and techniques are only as valid as your work makes them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO CONSIDER A PHOTOGRAPH “FINISHED“, I have to be at peace with the choices made in creating it. I can take either an active or passive role in making an image, each role with its own set of choices. At the most active end of the scale, I might be shooting completely on manual, micromanaging every step of the process, making what I call shaping choices. At my most passive, I might be snapping in full automode, which means, after the camera makes its own arbitrary decisions, my choices are merely editorial, with me choosing my favorites from among a group of photos essentially taken by “someone else”.
“Live” performances can be a challenge for me whether I’m shooting actively or passively. The stakes are as follows:
Shooting on manual (actively) means making lots of adjustments in the moment, with action progressing so quickly that, even at my fastest, I may miscalculate or simply miss a key opportunity. In short, I could work really hard and still go home with nothing. Or I could follow my instinct and bag a beauty.
Now let’s say I shoot passively, using a mode designed for such situations. Some cameras call this mode “continuous”, while others refer to it as “sports” or “burst”, but it simply refers to the camera’s ability to crank off several frames per second, making all necessary adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, autofocus and ISO on the fly with just one touch from the shooter. Since the camera can make these shifts much faster than any human, you’ll have scads of shots to choose from, nearly all of which will be technically acceptable. You lose control over everything except choice of subject and composition, but you do get the final say over what constitutes a “keeper”, such as the image of a flamenco dancer you see here, which was caught on burst automode. Your choices are less creative and more editorial, and, if you disagree with all of the “other photographer’s” choices, you’re just as out of luck as if you had shot everything manually but hated it all. Wotta world, am I right?
As photographers, we choose subject matter, and then choose the best way to approach capturing it, based on whether you rate assistance from your camera as a bane or a blessing or something in between. Methods are a personal matter, but making a choice of some kind is key to comprehending what is happening in the picture-making process, and what role you want to play in it.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I NEVER EXPECTED MY APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE to actually become less rigid as I veered into my, er, golden years. For years, I’ve feared that either technical challenges or life bias or just my own stubborn cussedness might make me tend to cling to established rules in a way that would stunt my late-stage growth. After all, we all like to feel that an underpinning of of our accumulated experiences and habits will ensure consistent, if not spectacular picture making, as if it’s our reward for a lifetime of playing by the rules. And yet, somehow, I seem to be experiencing, at present, a kind of Year Of Going For Broke, a feeling of being comfortable being uncomfortable. I like flying without a net. Instead of worrying about whether an image will technically “work out”, I’m find myself more concerned with whether it emotionally works.
It’s not that I care so much less about what I used to think of as “precision”: it’s more that the term now means something different from mere technical recording of what is in front of me. We start off as photographers by trusting the camera to do the heavy lifting: we end, if we’re fortunate, by placing that burden on ourselves.
Looking at the pictures that I’m content with over the past few years, I see a curve toward much more instinctual shooting. Some of this is because technical advancements have made preparing to take picture ever easier and faster. That means that the gear is responsive enough to “save” more shots that would have been lost in earlier years. The evolution of increasingly better sensors, for example, has emboldened me to at least try shots that, in the film era, I would have avoided as impossible. Nabbing the shot you see here with a handheld camera would have been a fantasy for me prior to about 2000. Today, while not technically perfect, such a shot is (a) achieveable and (b) close enough to what I envisioned that I’m encouraged to keep trying for these kinds of pictures.
But I don’t want to be unclear: I’m not shooting looser just because equipment can compensate for my lack of skill or bad judgement. It’s more like my learning to let go of ultra-rigid ways of seeing is partnering with technology that encourages me to peace the hell out. That’s due in part to the example of a new kind of photographer, one borne of the cellphone era. I want to pay tribute to that person in some detail, and I will, in the very next post.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING FROM A PROPRIETARY VIEWPOINT is the photographer’s equivalent of being invited to a wedding with an open bar. You try everything. Turns out you don’t really like Singapore Slings? Leave it on a tray and go back for the Jack and Coke.
It really is that simple. If you find yourself with a one-of-a-kind view, assume you’ll never be invited back and hit the subject with everything you’ve got. Change lenses. Up-end your normal method of working. Do something screwy. But do try it all. Hey, you’re on top of Mt. Fuji, right? So it’s not like you’re passing this way again next month. Go for broke.
The Manhattan rooftop from which these samples were shot was a gift, and I knew it. I popped off dozens of frames in every direction with every combination of gear and settingscI could think of, simply because the vantage point would likely never be available to me in the future. Not anytime soon, anyway. One thing that’s always in the back of my mind when shooting in New York is the wonderful look of classic images shot in Kodachrome, the greatest but most temperamental film in history, now gone to that Big Darkroom In The Sky. Kodachrome had amazingly warm color saturation, but, all science-y talk aside, its “look” was probably due in large part to the fact that it was slooooww, just the equivalent of 100 ISO at its speediest. That means that, simply, many of us were underexposing it. By a lot. Anyway, I’m always out to craft my own Kodachromesque Manhattan, and I saw a chance to do so in this particular situation.
The two shots seen here were taken mere seconds apart from each other, both shot with a 24mm prime sporting a circular polarizing filter. The lighter one is f/8 at 1/60 sec., while the darker, more “day is done” image is deliberately underexposed at f/16, 1/160 sec. The combination of the smaller aperture and the filter doubles the intensity of all colors, but sacrifices someinformation in the shadier areas. I leave it to you as to what’s been gained and what’s been lost. The point is that I shot about eight other versions of this scene, erring on the side of too many choices in everything I aimed at that afternoon. Photography is not only apprehending where you are, but understanding just how briefly you’ll be there.
But, hey, it’s possible I’ll get a repeat invitation to this particular roof. Then again, I spilled my Jack and Coke all over the hostess on my way out, so you never can tell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS ARRIVE AT WHAT I CALL a minimalist reset, evolving in their technique to the point at which they can do more varied work with fewer tools. This process leads many to designate a personal “go-to” lens, the chunk of glass that solves nearly every problem on a given shooting day by itself. I’ve tried to take this a step further, going from ” what one lens do I most need today?” to “what one lens can I probably use for everything, nearly every day?”, a lens so flexible that I’d actually have to have a very good reason not to use it on any given day. To express it another way, instead of thinking of a “go-to” lens, I’ve tended to work toward finding a “leave-on” lens.
My “Levon” is the venerable Nikon 24mm f/2.8, in production continuously from 1967 (about when mine was made) to the present as a metal-barreled, fully manual lens. There is a cheaper, plastic autofocus version also available, but optics are generally the same. That is to say, damned sharp and damned fast. Both lenses are extremely compact and thus easy to lug about.
24mm is correctly called an “ultra-wide angle”, but I originally switched to it from something even wider, the ubiquitous 18-55mm “kit lens” most Nikons ship with these days. Doing a lot of shooting in big cities with crowded streets, I originally thrilled to just how much the 18 could cram into a frame. Eventually, however, I came to hate the severely in-bent slant on tall structures, and the fact that the 18, wide open, is pretty slow, at a max aperture of f/3.5. With the 24, I still get plenty of more natural-looking width and another fat half-stop of light in the bargain.
Handheld night scenes make up about a third of my urban shooting, and, here again, the 24 is Mikey’s Best Friend. Its manual focusing means my camera never spazzes in search of a focus lock in the dark, allowing me to actually shoot faster. And city scenes can be sharp even wide open at f/2.8, giving me crisp results from 12 feet all the way to just under 50, and from 17 feet pretty much to infinity. Combine that with a fairly low ISO like 800, and I can even keep the grain down.
Being a prime lens, the 24mm can’t zoom, but outside of occasional nature work, I seldom need a telephoto, so you don’t miss what you don’t use: another reason to leave the 18-55 home. Besides, primes, being optically simpler, are usually sharper, meaning it looks better than the kit lens dialed to 24mm. Finally, Levon is not a macro, but focuses at just one foot out, so some modest close-up work is feasible.
Standard disclaimer: this analysis is offered not to claim that any one lens is perfect for any one person. It’s just an exercise to show how, for the way I shoot, I have been able to do over 75% of my typical work without swapping out glass. I gain speed, ease, and flexibility in the process, and, if you conduct your own experiments, chances are you too can progressively spend less time fiddling and more time shooting.
“….and it shall be Leave-On…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS (AND HUMANS IN GENERAL) ARE CONTRARY. Tell them they’re forever stuck with a bones-basic camera and they’ll spend every night and weekend either trying to devise a more sophisticated device or work three jobs so they can buy one. And the obverse is also true: present shooters with an infinite number of hi-tech choices designed to deliver unprecedented precision, and they’ll perversely start to pine for the “lost innocence” or “authenticity of the bare-bones rig.
What else can account for the recent surge in lensless photography, and the creation of images with cameras that are more technically handicapped than even one’s first point-and-shoot? Of course, the very first image capturing was done without a lens, with the ancient Greeks creating pictures on the inside back panel of a camera obscura box, using nothing but a small pinhole to generate a dim, soft-focused image of the chosen subject. The early nineteenth century replaced the hole with custom-designed glass optics, and photography moved quickly from a scientific experiment to a global rage.
But, of course, for photographers, no part of their art’s history is really “past”, and so we now see a small explosion of new pinhole devices for both film-based and digital cameras, from specially manufactured pinhole body caps (used in place of a lens) to cardboard kits available as DIY projects to recently dedicated pinhole plug-in optics for the Lensbaby series of lenses. The idea remains the same: small apertures, virtually infinite depth of field, soft focus, and looong exposures.
The other variable in this craze is the popularity of zoneplates, which, unlike the refracted light in a pinhole, works with more scattered diffracted light, creating a halo glow in the high contrast areas of subjects, as if the soft-focus is also being viewed through a gauzy haze. A zoneplate is really like a bulls-eye target, a plate where both opaque and transparent “rings” combine to disperse light widely, delivering a dreamier look than that seen in a pinhole image. The other big difference is that a zoneplate has a much larger light gathering area and a wider aperture, so while a pinhole opening might equate to a stop as small as f/177, the zoneplate could be as wide as, say, f/19, making handheld exposures (and visualizing through a viewfinder) at least feasible, if tricky.
Of course, both kinds of lensless imaging are extremely soft, rendering a precise depiction of your subjects impossible. However, if light patterns, shapes, and mood outweigh the importance of sharpness for a certain kind of picture, then pinholes and zoneplates are cheap, fairly easy to master (you don’t have much control, anyway), and a little bit like stepping back in time.
It’s contrary….but ain’t we all.
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 MEANING OF THE WORD NOISE HAS, IN RECENT YEARS, been expanded beyond its familiar role as an audio term, extending its usage into our visual vocabulary as well. A key shift in photo terminology, as film converted to digital, has been the re-purposing of the word to denote a degradation in quality, with noise replacing grain as the way to describe a less-than-pristine image. Same idea, different wording.
And now, in recent years, I have heard the word used even more widely to denote weaknesses in a composition, describing a picture with too much information or distraction as “noisy”. In a recent post on the blog PhotographyMad.com, you find the following citation:
Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By cropping tight around the subject you eliminate the background “noise”, ensuring the subject gets the viewer’s undivided attention.
I personally would extend this metaphor to include not only the subject matter within a frame but its color range as well. That means, simply, that too many colors in an image might dilute the effect of a shot as much as the density of its elements, and extends the idea of noise to encompass anything that lessens the communicative power it has for the viewer.
In the above shot, the idea of the composition was to convey the bits of orange peel as some kind of spent or withered flower. I didn’t decide, in advance, to eat an orange in a yellow bowl, but I believe that the same peels in a red bowl might have hardened the look of the shot by calling attention to contrast instead of content. Keeping the entire composition to a two-tone color range (along with a decidedly shallow depth-of-field to reduce the texture detail) rendered it nice and soft. Of course there are a million ways to conceive this image; I just chose this way.
Noise is not merely a technical registration of visual or audio distortion. I think the word has real value if you’re looking to streamline your images. Just think noise=clutter.
Then turn down the volume.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY CHANGE YOU MAKE IN THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE also changes every other element of the picture.
You can’t alter a single element in a photo in isolation. Each decision you make is a separate gear, with its own distinctive teeth, and the way those teeth mesh with all the other gears in the photographic equation determines success in the final picture.
As an example, let’s look at sharpness, perhaps the big “desirable” in an image. The term sounds simple, but is, in fact determined by an entire raft of factors, among them:
A) Choice Of Lens. How uniform is the sharpness of your glass? Is it softer at the edges? Completely sharp at smaller apertures? Does it deliver amazing pictures at one setting while causing distortions or inaccuracies at another?
B) Aperture. The most basic predictor of sharpness, whether you scrimped or splurged on Item “A”.
C) Choice Of Autofocus Setting. Are you telling your camera to selectively sharpen a key object in an isolated part of your image, or asking it to provide uniform sharpness across the entire frame?
D) Anti-vibration. On some longer exposures (for example, on a tripod) this feature may actually be costing you sharpness. Protecting your shot against the hand-held shakes is good. Confusing a camera with active Anti-vibe on a stabilized shot may not work out as well.
E) Contrast. Some people believe that the sharpness of lines and textures is actually the viewable distance between light and darkness, that contrast is “sharpness”. Based on what you prefer, other big choices can be affected, such as the decision to shoot in color or black and white.
F) Stability. Deals with everything from how steady you grip a camera to what else besides yourself, from shutter triggering to SLR mirror shifting, can cause measurable vibration, and thus less sharpness.
G) Editing/Processing. This is where miracles occur. Sometimes. Other times, it’s where we try to slap lipstick on a pig.
We could go on, and so could you. And then consider that this quick checklist only deals with sharpness, just a single element, which, in turn, affects every other aspect of your pictures. Photography is a constant juggling act between technique, experience, experiment, and instinct. What you want to show in your images will dictate how much (or how well) you keep all those balls aloft.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE LAST TWO CENTURIES HAVE CAPITALIZED ON ONE OF THEIR MEDIUM’S BEST TRICKS, the ability to freeze time, the sensation of carving out micro-seconds of reality and preserving them, like ancient scarabs trapped in amber. The thing known as “now”, with the aid of the camera, became something called “forever”, as things which were, by nature, fleeting were granted a kind of immortality. Events became exhibits, things to be studied or re-lived at our whim.
And yet, even as we extract these frozen moments, we mess around the edge of the illusion a bit, making still pictures also convey a sense of motion. Focus is a prime example of this retro-fitting of technique. No sooner had photography evolved the technical means to render sharp images than shooters began to put a little soft imprecision back into their pictures, by a variety of means: slow shutter speeds, time exposures, manual shaking, delayed flashes, and selective focus. Of all these techniques, at least for me, selective focus has proven to be the hardest to master.
Changing the messaging of a photographic story by using focus to isolate some elements and downplay others has always called for real practical knowledge of the workings of lenses and how they create focus as an effect. Recently, digital manipulation has allowed shooters to re-order the focal priorities of a shot after it’s taken, and in just the past few years, commercially available specialty lenses have allowed photographers to pre-select where and when focus will occur in an image, using it as interpretively as color or exposure.
I like to use the Lensbaby family of variable-focus lenses for what I call “flexible freeze” situations, times when focus can be massaged to create the illusion of speed. In the above shot, taken in a high-volume cafe, the small center of tight focus fans out to a near streaky quality at the outer edges of the picture. No one person is rendered sharp enough for features to register, or matter. What’s important here is the sensation of a busy lunch rush, which actually would be diminished if everything was in uniform focus.
Sharpness is certainly desirable in most cases for a strict re-creation of literal reality, but photography has never merely been a recording process. Focus can produce useful abstractions or atmospheres in a shot, so long as the effect serves the story. If it doesn’t help the image speak better, even a flexible freeze can quickly become a tiresome gimmick. Matching tools to goals is what good photography does best.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NIGHT CREATES SUCH A DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FLAVOR in anyone’s photography that some shooters, romantically attracted to its unique look, have made night-time their exclusive domain. Night is also the toughest time of day to render properly, and a zone wherein one’s interpretation of “reality” varies wildly. From the earliest days of the photographic medium, the hours after sunset were, first and foremost, a technical minefield, filled with pitfalls and perils.
Today, fast lenses and the higher ISO that can be dialed up pretty much at will mean fewer tripod shots, more hand-held shots, and thus a much bigger yield of often stunning night-time images. Even modest cameras are evolving so quickly that it’s getting hard to remember a time when we couldn’t shoot pretty much whatever we desired.
In many night settings, the contrast between bright and dark objects is dramatically multiplied. That means that getting proper exposure still has to be calculated based on widely varying elements within the frame. The night I took this image at New York’s Lincoln Center, I shot the various performance buildings on the “campus” in every compositional combination and setting possible, using a Nikon f/2.8 24mm prime lens. I framed the theatres at right angles to each other, by themselves, juxtaposed with neighboring skyscrapers, with and without the center’s fountain plaza, from medium distances to the lobby, tight distances to the lobby, and so on. In one “almost” calculation, I shot at f/8 and about 1/80 sec. at 1500 ISO, didn’t like how grungy it looked, then cranked the lens wide open to f/2.8, used as slow an exposure as I could execute hand-held (about 1/20 sec.), and backed off the ISO to about 400. That’s the combo you see above.
Normally, an aperture like f/2.8 produces a very shallow depth of field, which is generally bad for distant subjects. However, if you are focused to infinity, and your subject is, say, forty feet away, the image starts to get a little sharper at about twenty feet out, and is pretty sharp by forty. One sharpness caveat: if you use a slow exposure, as I chose to, and you’re also boosting your ISO, the electrical lights in your image will begin to go soft and globby fairly quickly…to “burn in” to some degree. You can see this in my image in the lobby chandelier, which registers as a velvety glow instead of a sharp grouping of individual bulbs. As an alternative, if you have time to experiment, you can amp up the up the ISO a little more, speed up your shutter, and perhaps render the lights a little sharper. This depends greatly on how many wives you have standing nearby, asking, “can we please just walk to the subway now?” It’s also not the only solution possible. Fiddle with it and see what works for you.
Also, if you are lucky enough to be shooting on a tripod, then you can shoot at minimal ISO, an aperture of f/11 or narrower, and as long an exposure as you desire. But the above guidelines are offered for someone shooting hand-held, and in a moderate hurry. I use very fast prime lenses to give me the sharpest focus and the most light latitude possible in the greatest number of situations, assuming that I won’t be allowed to mount a pod, even if I wanted to take one to the theatre (I don’t). So, as always, you have to decide a little ahead of time what you might be shooting, what the reality on the ground will be, and what you’ll need in the way of toys to bring home a goodie. Night is a very different animal, but trying to tame it is surprising and fun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE ONLY CONSTANTS OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY has been the flood tide of tutorial materials covering every aspect of exposure, composition, and light. The development of the early science of capturing images in the 19th century was accompanied, from the first, by a staggering load of “how to” literature, as the practice moved quickly from the tinkering of rich hobbyists to one of the most democratic of all the art forms. In little more than a generation, photography went from a wizard’s trick to a series of simple steps that nearly anyone could be taught.
In calling these pages the “photoshooter’s journey from taking to making”, we have made, with The Normal Eye, a deliberate choice not to add to the mountainous load of technical instruction that continues to be available in a variety of classroom settings, but to emphasize why we make photographs. This is not to say that we don’t refer to the so-called “rules” that govern the basics of creating an image, but that we believe the motives, the visions behind our attempts are even more important than just checking items off a list of techniques in the name of doing something “right”. There are many technically adept pictures which fail to engage on an emotional or aesthetic level, so the mission of The Normal Eye, then, is to start discussions on the “other stuff”, those indefinable things that make a picture “work” for our hearts and minds.
The idea of what a “good picture” is, has, over time, drifted far and wide, from photographs that mimic reality, to those that distort and fracture it, to images that are both a comment and a comment on a comment. It’s like any other long-term relationship: complicated. Like everyone else, I occasionally produce what I call a “fence-sitter” photo like the one above, which I can both excuse and condemn at the same time.
In raw technical terms, I have obviously violated a key rule with the abject softness of the image…..unless……unless it can be said to work within the context of the other things I was seeking in this subject. I was trying to stretch the envelope on how soft I could make the mix of dark foliage and hazy water in the scene, and, while I may have gone a bit too far, I still like some of what that near-blur contributes to the saturated color and lower exposure, the overall quiet tone I was trying for. Still, as of this moment, I’m still not sure whether this one is a hit or a miss. It might be on the way to something, but I just can’t say.
But that’s what the journey is about. It can’t be confined to mere technical criteria. You have to make the picture speak in your own language.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATIVE USE OF SHARPNESS is one of the key techniques in photography. From the beginning of the medium, it’s been more or less conceded that not everything in an image needs to register at the same level of focus, that it can be manipulated to direct attention to the essence of a photograph. It’s always about telling the viewer to look here, ignore this, regard this as important.
This selective use of focus applies to the human face no less than to any other element in a composition. It’s strange that photography drew so strongly on painting in its early years without following the painter’s approach to portraits…..that is, that individual parts of a face can register in different degrees of sharpness, just like anything else in the frame. From the earliest days of photo-portraiture, there seems to have been an effort to show the entire face in very tight focus, de-emphasizing backgrounds by hazing them into a soft blur. It took a while before photography saw itself as a separate art, and thus this “always” rule only became a “sometimes” rule over a protracted period of time.
The Pictorialism fetish of the early 20th century, which avidly imitated the look of paintings, went completely the other direction, generating portraits that were almost uniformly soft, as if shot through gauze, or, you guessed it, painted on canvas. In recent years, shooters have begun a new turn toward a kind of middle stance, with the selective use of sharpness in specific parts of a face, say an eye or a mouth. It’s more subtle than the uniform crispness of olden days, and affords shooters a wider range of expression in portraits.
Some of this has been driven by technology, as in the case of the Lensbaby lenses, which often have a tack-sharp “sweet spot” at their center, with everything else in the frame fanning outward to a feathery blur. Additionally, certain Lensbabies, like the Composer Pro, are mounted on a kind of ball turret, allowing the user to rotate the center of the lens to place the sweet spot wherever in the image he/she wants. This makes it possible, as in the above shot, for parts of objects that are all in the same focal plane to be captured at varying degrees of sharpness. Note that, while all of the woman’s face is the same distance from the camera, only her eyes and the right side of her face are truly sharp. This dreamlike quality has become popular with a new breed of portraitists, and, indeed, there are already wedding photographers who advertise that they do entire events exclusively with these kinds of lenses.
The face is a composition element, and, as such, benefits from a flexible approach to focus. One man’s blur is another man’s beautification.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NORMALEYE PHOTOGRAPHIC PARADOX No.346: You have to think hard about your equipment when you’re not shooting so that you don’t have to give much thought when you are.
Reacting “in the moment” to a photographic situation is often lauded as the highest state of human existence, and, indeed, the ability to see, and do, on the spot, can yield amazing results. But, in that marvelous inspirational instant, the smallest item on your checklist should be dithering about your gear. What it will do. What it can’t do. What you don’t know how to make it do. These are ruminations you run through when there’s no picture making going on.
Simply, the more you know about what you’ve taken to a shoot, the less creative energy will be drained off worrying about how to use it once you get there. You will get to the point where, for a given day’s subject matter, you take the wide lens, of course, or the macro lens, of course, or the portrait lens, of course. You’ll anticipate the majority of situations you’ll be in, and, unless you like driving yourself crazy, you’ll likely select one lens that will just about do it all. But whatever lens you select, you will want to know how much farther you can push it, as well. You know what you generally need it to do, but can it, in a tight spot, do a decent job outside its specialty? The answer is, probably yes.
One of my favorite lenses for landscape work is my ancient Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Nice and wide for most outdoors subjects, pretty fast for the close and dark stuff, and sharp as cheddar cheese in my most used apertures, especially the middle range, like around f/5.6. Can it do macro work, when I swing my attention from distant mountains to detail on a nearby cactus? Well, yes, within reason.
The minimum near-focus distance for this lens is about ten inches, more than close enough to fill a frame with the trunk of the saguaro with a little spare space to the right and left. I shoot in big files, so even with a post-op crop I preserve lots of resolution, and bang, the wide-angle does a respectable job as a faux macro.
I grew up around amateur race arenas which invited people to haul any old hunk of automotive junk to the track, to be run in so-called “run what ya brung” events. I personally hate to haul my entire optical array out on a project, swapping out glass for every new situation. I’d much rather save my neck and shoulder by calculating ahead of time which lens will do most of what I want, but be able to stand-in for some other lens in special situations. There are usually work-arounds and hidden tricks in even the most limited lenses. You just have to seek them out.
Run what ya brung.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? —Shakespeare
OKAY. AS IT TURNS OUT, IN THE ABOVE LINE, ROMEO WAS ACTUALLY RHAPSODIZING about his main squeeze, rather than ideal photographic conditions. Still, I often think of the quote when a sudden shaft of gold explodes from behind a cloud or a sunset lengthens shadows, just so. I have lots of But, soft! moments as a photographer, since light is the first shaper of the image, the one element that defines the terms of engagement.
After light, for me, comes focus. Where it hits, where it peaks, where it falls off, and how all these aspects shape a composition. Soft or selective focus especially seems more intimate to me, a gentle welcome to share something special between picture and viewer. In recent years, focus has become almost as fine-tune-able as light itself, with the introduction of new, affordable alternatives to expensive “tilt-shift” lenses, which allow the selective blurring of elements within the frame. For example, the revolutionary Lensbaby products are now helping shooters make their own choices on where the focal “sweet spot” should occur in a picture, and at a fraction of the cost of a true tilt-shift. It’s a fiscal shortcut that makes it possible for almost anyone to learn how to create this effect.
Some Lensbabies can run to several hundred dollars and have precise systems for dialing in the part of a photograph that will, through sharp focus, attract optimum attention to a subject, gently blurring the image on all sides around that point. However, for those with steady fingers and shallow pockets, the company’s gateway drug, coming in at around $90, is the Lensbaby Spark, a springy bellows lens that snaps onto your DSLR in place of a regular lens and can be compressed around the edges to place the focal sweet spot wherever you want it.
The Spark takes more muscle control and practice than the more mechanical Lensbaby models, but it’s a thrifty way to see if this kind of imaging is for you. Just squeeze the fixed f/5.6, 50mm lens until the image is sharp at the place you want it, and snap. Some DSLRs allow the Spark to be used on aperture priority, but for most of us, it’s manual all the way, with a lot of trial-and-error until you develop a feel for the process. The company also sells several insert cups so that you can choose different apertures. Pop one f-stop out, pop another one in.
For those of you who like to custom-sculpt focus and light, the gauzy, intimate effect of the Lensbaby will in fact be a gentle welcome. Finally, it’s one more component that could be either toy or tool. Your shots, your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TRY MY BEST TO ANTICIPATE EXACTLY WHAT KINDS OF SHOTS I will be taking in a given photo situation. This helps minimize the delay and hassle of changing gear in the field by heading out with a single lens that will do most of what I want. It saves me lugging along every hunk of glass I own on a project (trying vainly to be ready for anything), and makes me far more familiar with the real limits of whatever lens I decide will be my primary go-to for the day. Not a perfect plan…still, a loose plan is better than totally trusting to instinct or luck.
You can, of course, plan too generally and accidentally limit yourself. For example, on a day in which you’re to shoot a ton of landscapes, it’s easy to assume you’ll want an ultra-wide lens to capture those vast vistas. However, if something amazing appears on a far horizon and you can’t zoom any closer than, say, 55mm, you’ve suddenly got the wrong lens. Moreover, if your day takes you inside a dark cave, and your ultra-wide can’t shoot any faster than f/3.5, you’re likewise hamstrung to some degree.
In the above image, I decided, as I often do, to spend the entire day with a 35mm prime, a lens which affords me more latitude in more situations than any other glass I own. Of course, I can’t zoom with that lens, so I have to be reasonably sure that anything I want to shoot with it can be framed by simply walking closer or farther away. The 35 can open up to f/1.8, so it’s great in the shade, or where I want a shallow depth of field, and that can make it a viable, if modest, close-up lens…not true macro, but a good tool for selective subjects just a short distance away (in this case, about five feet). Also, shooting with the biggest image file setting available allowed me to crop away up to 75% of my original, as I did here, and still maintain good resolution. However, is the 35 of any value if I suddenly spy a bald eagle on the wing 300 yards away? Not so much.
But it’s not about finding a universal, one-lens-fits-all solution. It is about anticipating. The most valuable habit you can develop before every sustained shoot is to mentally rehearse (a) what kind of situations you’re likely to encounter and (b) what you want to be able to do about it. That sounds absurdly simple, but it really is about taking as many obstacles out of your own path before they even appear as obstacles. In other words, practice getting out of your own way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY VALUABLE SERVICES OUR CAMERAS WILL RENDER without our consent or participation. Without even considering how many people shoot on full automatic 100% of the time, there are a hundred small calculations that these marvelous devices make to prevent the kind of errors in judgment that used to routinely trip us up, from autofocus and white balance, face detection and contrast control. However, there is a variable percentage of decisions on which we should really take personal action, despite the camera’s best efforts to, in effect, save us from ourselves.
In iffy light situations, for example, several key “semi-auto” modes are truly handy in helping us compensate for grey days or dark corners. One of these is called aperture control, in which you dial in the f-stop you want, based on your preferred depth of field, leaving the camera to set the shutter speed needed to properly expose at that aperture. At first blush, this seems to be a great short cut, and is in fact a neat option for people who are “running and gunning”..shooting lots of frames in a very quick time span. However, what looks like cutting your work in half can also mean cutting the legs off your creativity.
In the above situation, I had a severely overcast day in a lushly green Japanese garden. Without shadows for contrast, I would need colors to be as deep as possible to bring off the mood I was going for, so a slightly underexposed look seemed to be in order. Dialing in f/5.6 as a desired D.O.F. in aperture priority was giving me very slow shutter speeds as the camera tried to give me an ideal exposure. This made a handheld shot a little tougher and gave me way too much high color to suggest anything quiet or moody.
Going to full manual, I dialed in a shutter speed that would render the greens nice and deep, around 1/80, and bumped up the ISO a tad as insurance. It was true that I was shooting a lot at the same f-stop, but not so fast that I would have to surrender fine control by shooting in aperture priority for mere convenience’s sake.
I love some of the protections against my own folly offered by today’s devices, but I just can’t go completely driver-less and feel that I am taking enough responsibility for my results. Hey, if I blow it completely, I can still explain a lousy shot in two simple words.