By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO FLIP THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF ON-LINE DEBATES between those who favor automatic exposure over manual, you’d think that the two camps (both vociferous and intractable) had existed since the beginning of photography. In fact, however, this argument only goes back about as far as the 1970’s, when the first cameras with automatic modes of any kind began to re-define the market. Think about that: we now are asked to choose up sides on what was, for 75% of photography’s history, a non-issue.
Automodes began as partial assists to an overall manual process of making pictures. Then the manufacturers came to a startling realization; that many more beginners and amateurs would enter the camera hobby if the cameras were engineered to do more of the heavy lifting involved in snapping a shot. Quite simply, the less worry and uncertainty that could be evolved out of the process, the less frustrated people would be and the more they would shoot…spelling increased sales for both film and gear. It also created the “move-up” market, because, if photographers could stay at it long enough, they would either outgrow their equipment or surrender to the urge to replace it regularly, since a better and more expensive camera makes better pictures, right?….or so went the logic.
And so the hobby evolved from a craft that required total personal control of every aspect of exposure to occasional assists to where we are today, which is a world of cameras engineered to anticipate every need for every situation and to provide an automated guarantee that most of the resulting shots are above average, or “good”. There are millions who still shoot 100% manually, of course, but they are numerically in the majority, simply because many people will trade a high-average, convenient experience for a greater risk of failure. We are thus in an age of “good enough” photography.
But one thing gets lost in this ongoing debate, and that’s the answer to the question, “who’s taking the picture here?” Again, let’s just look at exposure. Many considerations go into what happens to a shot at various levels of light, with variations in color, texture, contrast, and so on. As seen in the top image, a fully automatic exposure is far from “bad”…in fact, it’s a tribute to the engineer’s art that it is a perfectly fine, average depiction of what I saw through the viewfinder. However, for anything interpretive, it’s only a starting point. The second exposure, shot at exactly the same time and under the same general conditions, could not be any more different from the auto-mode version. Color plays a decidedly different role. Texture and contrast call attention to the building’s weathered exterior. And as for the time of day, the image, taken under harsh Arizona midday light, could easily be mistaken for early sunrise or late afternoon.
Manual shooting isn’t a holy calling, like the priesthood, and being good at it isn’t magic, just a matter of doing it enough to work past all the mistakes. In other words, a normal learning process. Cameras that make decisions for you will often make them in keeping with your own preferences, but when they don’t (or can’t), taking back control is a sure way to make the pictures yours, and only yours. As the man says, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN ONGOING, BUT SELDOM HOSTILE, debate among photographers over whether manual or automatic focus is superior, or in which cases one or the other performs better. This forum is not an attempt to settle that issue, any more than I’d squeeze myself in between two auto aficionados to weigh in on either manual or automatic transmissions. Suffice it to say that nearly every shooter I know has a preference, if not an outright belief, on the subject. So be it. Peace, love, dove. Make pictures, not war. Anything in the following that sounds like a recommendation is merely a description of what works, or doesn’t work, for moi.
Autofocus systems are, in fact, an attempt by technology to make it easier to check off at least one box from your “before I can take the picture” list, making cameras a smidge more intuitive so that it’s easier to concentrate more on the why of making the image and less on the how. Of course, your mileage may vary on whether you regard this as a kindly assist or an untoward interference. Photographers of a certain age predate the autofocus era, and so had no choice but to master manual until the AF option was introduced. For those who started making pictures in the last thirty years or so, however, AF pretty much came with any toy you bought, and there may be little occasion to even read up on how to approach things manually. And then there are those, like myself, who lean in one direction (manual) while toggling the other way in special cases. I cal this the “me as default” system.
There are certainly times when the sheer speed of autofocus is bloody convenient, such as so-called “run and gun” situations where conditions on an event or person are in a constant state of flux (think little league baseball, bird watching), at which times I will gratefully lean on AF to avoid missing shots. However, I am often reminded how many things, from low light to the wrong combination of elements in a composition to time exposures, will absolute leave the autofocus searching, grabbing and blunder-blind. These will vary depending on the age of your camera, manufacturer, even the design bias of a particular lens. I have spent a long time trying to nail manual focus with less and less reaction time, and, to that end, I shoot for long stretches without changing lenses so as to become more instinctual about what a given chunk of glass will do. There’s also the idea of personal agency. In manual mode, I am not delegating to the AF the decision on what should be in focus: it’s my call completely. This, again, is a very personal decision, and there is no right or wrong choice. For me, being responsible for every major decision in making an exposure is the only way for me to feel as if it’s my picture. That said, I no longer mess around with a light meter or figure out flash settings with a slide rule and a sextant, so I can easily be called out for my hypocrisy. Still.
And then there’s the occasional oddball situation, like the above image, in which you can get a little playful with what either AF or manual can or can’t do. But as I said at the start, we are not here to settle this issue as we might decide the winner in a boxing match. If your pictures come out the way you want, then it matters little if you even had a lens on the camera. Both manual and AF shooting situations have their travails. I guess what I’m finally getting to is that both approaches will serve you in certain times. Find out what those occasions are, and master them, and yourself, in the process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU’VE EVER GLANCED AT THE NORMAL EYE’S HOME PAGE MISSION STATEMENT, you might come away with the impression that I am unilaterally opposed to automodes, those dandy little pre-sets that do their best to predict your needs when making a photo. The truth is that I am against doing anything “all the time”, and thus caution against the universal use of automodes as a way of idiot-proofing your shoots. They can be amazing time-savers, sometimes. They are reliable shortcuts, sometimes. Just like I sometimes like bacon on a burger. There are no universal fixes.
I meet many people who, like myself, prefer to shoot on manual most of the time, eschewing the Auto, Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes completely. Oddly, many of these same people almost never take their white balance off its default auto setting, which strikes me as a little odd, since the key to color photography is getting the colors to register as naturally as possible. Auto WB is remarkably good at guessing what whites (and in turn, other hues) ought to look like in a pretty wide variety of situations, but it does make some bad guesses, many of them hard to predict.
A gross-oversimplification of white balance is that it reads the temperature of light from cold to warm. Colder temp light runs bluer. Warmer temp light reads more orange. Auto WB tries to render things as naturally as it can, but your camera also has other customizable WB settings for specific situations, and it’s worth clicking through them to see how easy it is to produce subtle variations.
In the picture in the upper left corner, I’m taking a picture indoors, in deep shade, of a reproduction 1930’s Bluebird Sparton radio, a wondrous Art Deco beauty featuring a blue-tinted mirror trimmed in bands of chrome. To emphasize: blue is the dominant color of this item, especially in shade. Shade, being “colder” light, should, in Auto White Balance mode, have registered all that blue just fine, but, in this case, the chrome trim is completely (and unnaturally) painted in the same orange glow. As for the blue values, they’re well, kind of popsicle-y . That’s because, when it’s all said and done, Auto White Balance is your camera’s educated guess, and it sometimes guesses wrong. If you always use it, you will occasionally have to eat a bad picture, unless you take action.
For the above image, I want the dial to be nice and orange, but just the dial. To try to get the blues back to normal on the rest of the radio, I switch to the Tungsten white balance setting (symbolized by a light bulb, since they burn, yes, tungsten filaments), something I normally wouldn’t do in either daylight or shade, but hey, this is an experiment anyway, right? To make it even weirder, Tungsten might read neutrally in some kinds of indoor night settings…but it also doesn’t behave the same way in all cases. In this case, I caught a break: the orange in the radio dial registers pretty true and all the metals are back to shades of silver or blue.
Notice how both white balance settings, in this strange case, both performed counter to the way they are supposed to. One misbehaviour created my problem and another misbehaviour solved it. Hey, that’s show business.
Hence the strange but appropriate title of this post. Don’t ever “always” do…anything. If you want the shot you want (huh?) then pull an intervention and make the camera give it to you. Automode in white balance is just as fraught with risk as any other automatic setting. It works great until it doesn’t. Then you have to step in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I KNOW THAT I APPROACH THE IDEA OF SHOOTING ON MANUAL with what must strike some as evangelistic zeal. We’re talking full-on-John-The-Baptist-mad-prophet mode. I do so because I believe that, the further you can go toward overseeing every single facet of your picture taking, that is, the less you delegate to a machine that can’t think, the better. Generally. Most of the time. Almost always.
Aperture Priority, the mode that I most agree with after pure manual, can be very valuable in specific conditions, for very specific reasons. In AP (Av for Canon folks), you dial in the aperture you want for everything you’re about to shoot, depending on what depth-of-field you want as a constant. Then it’s the camera’s job to work around you, adjusting the shutter speed to more or less guarantee a proper exposure. Let me interject here that there are millions of great photographers who nearly live on the AP setting, and, like any other strategy, you have to decide whether it will deliver the goods as you define them.
If you are “running and gunning”, that is, shooting a lot of frames quickly, where your light conditions, shot-to-shot, will be changing a great deal, Aperture Priority might keep you from tearing out your hair by eliminating the extra time you’d spend custom-calculating shutter speed in full manual mode. Fashion, news and sports situations are obviously instances where you need to be fully mindful of your composition, cases in which those extra fragments of “figgerin'” time in between clicks might make you miss an opportunity. And no one will have to tell you when you’re in such a situation.
Conversely, if you are shooting more or less at leisure, with time to strategize in-between shots, or with uniform light conditions from one frame to the next, then full manual may work for you. I have shot in manual for so many years that, in all but the most hectic conditions (cattle stampede or worse), I’m fast enough to get what I want even with calculation time factored in. But it doesn’t matter what works for me, does it, since I won’t be taking your pictures (pause here to thank your lucky stars). If you need one less task to hassle with, and AP gives you that one extra smidge of comfort, mazel tov.
One other thing to note about Aperture Priority: it’s not foolproof. Change your central focal spot to different objects within the same composition (say from a tree to the rock next to the tree) snap several frames, and the exposure could be vastly different on each image. Could that happen when you’re on manual? Certainly. You can, of course, fiddle with exposure compensation on AP, essentially overruling the camera, but, to take the time for all that, you’re really not saving much more time than shooting manual anyway. See what you can live with and go.
This blog is a forum, not the Ten Commandments, so I never want to profess that my way is the only way, whether it’s taking photographs or deciding what toppings should go on pizzas. Although, let’s face it, people who put pineapple on them….that’s just warped, am I right?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN THINK THAT HAPPINESS RESIDES IN ALWAYS BEING TOLD “YES”. Of course anyone who has ever (a) been a child or (b) had to deal with one knows that this is actually the worst of strategies. Even without being Tiger Moms, we can all pretty much agree that there are many times when telling a kid “NO” will improve, perhaps even save, his life. Negative responses carry important information. They can be guidelines. Most importantly, they convey that there are limits, consequences.
“NO” also helps you be a better photographer.
In the ’60’s, one of the most basic cameras ever sold, the teen-marketed Polaroid Swinger, had a shutter that you pinched to check if you had enough light to make a picture. If the word “YES” appeared in the viewfinder, you were solid. “NO”, given the simplicity of the gadget, meant, sorry, point this thing somewhere toward, you know, actual light. Easy. Unmistakable. Take the picture with a “NO”, and it’s on you.
DSLR’s still flash a similar warning. With Nikon it’s “subject is too dark”. But the camera isn’t a mean parent that won’t let you choose ice cream over asparagus. It’s being a good parent that’s trying to give you a happy outcome. By contrast, smartphone cameras are bad parents. They never tell you “no”. If anything, their attitude is, point anywhere you like, anytime you like, darling. Mommy will still make a picture for you. That’s because the emphasis of design and use for smartphones is: make it simple, give the customer some kind of result, no matter what. You push the button, sweetheart, and we’ll worry about all that icky science stuff and give you a picture (image at left).
The default function of smartphone cameras is wondrous. You get a picture, every damn time. Never a blank screen, never a “no”. But in low-light situations, to accomplish this, the camera has to jack up the ISO to such a ridiculous degree that noise goes nuclear and detail goes buh-bye. The device has been engineered to make you happy over everything else, and its marketers have determined that you’d rather have a technically flawed picture than no picture, so that’s the mission. And that guarantees that your photography will linger in Average-land pretty much forever.
With iPhones, you have no override. You have no thumbs-up-thumbs-down decision. You have, actually, no input at all except your choice of subject and composing style. Now, you may think that this “frees” you, with the camera “getting out of your way”, and all, but it really means that, even if you have a better idea for making an image than your camera does, you cannot act upon it. Cameras that say “NO” are also saying, “but if you try something else, you will get to “YES” (image at top). Cameras that only say “YES” are really saying, “I know best. Leave it to me.”
Which of course, is something you heard all the time, years ago.
When you were a child.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICANS LOVE TO CELEBRATE A WINNER, and they also like to clearly identify who most definitely did not win. We score-keep on everything from fantasy football to number of days on the job without accidental amputations, and we love, love, love to declare someone the champ…in anything. This either/or, winner/loser habit of the western mind, when applied to photography, leads people to argue over which is better…traditional cameras or those imbedded in mobiles, as if such a judgement is possible. Or as if it matters. So, as you rifle through these humble pages, I hope I make it abundantly clear that, from my standpoint, it’s all about the pictures.
The principle difference between, say, DSLRs and phone cameras, to me, is one of method, or how they approach the job of making an image. In full-function cameras, the emphasis can be on how to use the device’s controls and settings to set the terms of your picture before the click. In cellphone cameras, it’s all about how you can massage what the camera was able to give you after the fact, be it with in-phone apps or computer software. You simply can’t impose your will on an iPhone camera until after the picture is taken, and that’s an important distinction. Notice that I did not say better/worse, great/horrible. You just have to decide what’s important to you in a given situation.
Take a very simple choice that is available in even basic point-and-shoot “camera-cameras”, like white balance. Your camera has the option of deciding, for you, how colors should register based on the temperature of the light, or you can over-ride that function and customize it to your heart’s delight, something that, at this point in time, cannot be done on a cellphone camera. Even easier, menus reduce all your white balance options to visual icons (sunburst, house in shade, electric light bulb, etc) depending on how warm you want your pictures. You can even tweak for the precise kind of artificial light you’re working with, from incandescent to flourescent.
As an example, in the above shot, the morning light in the hotel lobby was, on automatic white balance, coming off blue, especially in the shadows. The entire effect of the golden period just after sunrise was being subverted by the camera. Easy fix: just dial it up for a shade setting, bump up the exposure a tad (slower shutter, higher ISO), and the warmth came back, but not so deep that everything went bad-suntan-bronze. And, yes, I could have got this shot with an iPhone, but the adjustment would have had to have been made after I got the shot wrong, then searched around for a fix. Again, there’s no good or bad.
You just have take your own temperature and decide what treatment you need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.
Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.
From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.
Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone. But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.
Tools are not technique.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).
Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.
But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.
With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.
When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CAMERAS CAN EITHER TAKE CHOICE AWAY OR CHALLENGE YOU TO MASTER IT. If you’re a regular reader of this comic strip, you know all too well that I advocate making images with all manual settings rather than relying on automodes that can only come in a distant second to the human process of decision-making. People take better pictures with a camera than a camera can take alone. Can I get an Amen?
There is, of course, one choice you don’t get to make for any picture you create. You can’t mark a box called “the choice I made guarantees that everything in the image will work out.” Worse, there is always more than one choice being made in the creation of a photograph, and, even if you’re well-practiced and fast, you can’t make all of them perfectly. Choose one option and you are “un-choosing” another. The sum of the effect of all your choices together is what determines the final picture. That’s real work, and it certainly accounts for many people’s preference for automodes, since they obviate all those tough calls.
Nothing will force you to choose lots of options in short order like taking pictures of children at play. The image posted here, taken at a kindergarten playdate, shows a number of fast decisions that may or may not add up to an appealing picture, as lots of things are going on all at once. In the room where this was shot, space was tight, action was swift, white balances were wildly different in various zones within the room, and posing the kids in any way was absolutely impossible, due to their tender age and the fact that I wanted to be as invisible as possible, the better to catch their natural flow. To get pictures under this particular set of conditions, I had to decide how best to frame children who were grouping and ungrouping rapidly, where to get a fairly accurate register of color, customize my shutter speed and ISO with nearly every shot, and, as you see here, make my peace with whether the action implied in the shot outweighed the need for super sharpness.
You simply get into situations with some shots where you are not going to get everything you’d like to have, and you make decisions in the moment based on what each individual image seems to be “about”. Here I went for the joy, the bonding, the surging energy of the girls and let everything else take a back seat. Faced with the same situation seconds later, I might have remixed the elements to create a completely different result, but that is both the thrill and the bane of manual shooting. Automodes guarantee that you will get some kind of image, a very safe, if average, picture that allows you to worry less and possibly enjoy being in the moment to a greater degree….but you are the only factor than can take the photo to another level, to, in fact, take full responsibility for the result. It’s like the difference between taking a picture of Niagara Falls from your hotel room and taking it from a tightrope stretched across the raging waters.
And, ah, that difference is everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE “ENHANCEMENTS” OFFERED BY TODAY’S MAJOR PHOTO GEAR MANUFACTURERS ARE, IN FACT, OBSTACLES to learning how to take responsibility for making pictures. The automatic bells and whistles that are being engineered into today’s cameras seems to send the message: you don’t have to think too hard. Push the button and we will provide (and predict) the results.
It may be fabulous for convenience, but it’s lousy news for the experimentation and personal risk which are required for great photography to occur.
We live in a time of short cuts, of single-button solutions for every creative problem. We have modes for that. Low light, too much light, a day at the beach, a day in the snow, a closeup, a landscape? Guaranteed results at the dial-up of an automode. Hey, you’re an artist. No need to obsess about all that techno-whatsis. Your camera will determine the results. Just dial up what you want: it’s all automatic. You need hardly be there.
Does anyone really believe that anything of artistic value can evolve from machines being in charge? When’s the last time a computer created a novel of staggering impact? Who is taking the picture here…..you or your camera?
Fully automatic, aperture priority and shutter priority are all good basic tools, and wonderful work is done in all three modes as well as full manual. But there is a huge leap between these settings and the gaudy, gimmicky “effects” modes that are increasingly larding up cameras with novelty and diversion.
Let’s take a look at some of the prime offenders. Are these toys necessary?
NIGHT VISION: If you want a picture to look like you took it while on combat recon in a forward area of Afghanistan, go for this option. Boosts your ISO up to 25,600 so you can get some image on the sensor, even in utter blackness, loaded with grain and visual muck. And why? Useless.
COLOR SKETCH: Concerts your original image into an “arty” rendering, minus the shadows, attenuating tones, or subtlety. Looks just like a classy artist knocked out a masterpiece with his box of charcoals! Fools no one except perhaps extremely learning-challenged chimps. If you want to be a painter, fine, then do it, but let’s stop calling this an enhancement.
MINIATURE EFFECT. Okay, so you can’t afford a real tilt-shift lens to create the illusion that your aerial shot of Paris is really a toy-sized tabletop model, so let’s take your photo and throw selective parts of it out of focus. That should be good enough. We’ll now allow a five-minute pause here for the exactly two times you’ll ever care about making a picture like this.
SELECTIVE COLOR. De-saturate portions of your original for dramatic effect. This is the opposite of the images of a century ago, when people, before color film, added selective hues to monochrome images…for dramatic effect. Only thing is, drama should already be in the picture before you apply this gimmick, hmm? Like many effects modes, this one tempts you to use it to fix a photo that didn’t tell its story properly in the first place. And yes, I have sinned in this area, sadly.
SILHOUETTE. The camera makes sure your foreground subjects are dark and have no detail. In other words, it takes pictures exactly the way your Aunt Sadie did with her Instamatic in 1963. Oh, but it’s so artistic! Yes, cameras always make great art. All by themselves.
HIGH KEY or LOW KEY. This used to mean lightening or darkening of selected items done by meticulous lighting. Now, in Camera Toyland, it means deliberately under-or-overexposing everything in the frame. See earlier reference to your Aunt Sadie.
As far as what should be built into cameras, I’m sure that you could compose your own wish list of helpful tools that could be available as quick-dial aids. My own list would, for example, include the moving of white balance choices from the screen menus to the mode dial. Point is, for every ready-made effect that you delegate to the camera, you are further delaying the education that can only come from doing things yourself. If you want a happy picture, make one, rather than taking a middling one and then dialing up the insertion of a magical birthday cake in the middle of the shot after the fact.
As point-and-shoots are eventually replaced by smartphones and DSLRs position themselves to remain competitive as least on the high-end portion of the market, there seems to be a real opportunity for a revolution in camera design….away from toys and in favor of tools.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT THE WRITER WHO TAGGED A NOTE TO A FRIEND BY SAYING, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written you a shorter letter”. That line speaks volumes about how we increase the power of communication by leaving things out. Just as great books are not so much written as re-written, so photographs often gain in eloquence when everything but the essence of the message is pared away.
It means being your own best editor, and, to do that, you have to be able to hate on your own work a little bit. Tough love and all that. Spare the picture and spoil the image. No sacred cows, just because they are your cows. There is no avoiding the fact that no real art comes about unless you take direct, often brutal action, to overcome the imperfections of a raw first effort. You have to intervene, again and again, in the shaping of your conception.
You can probably infer from all this that I am no fan of automodes, or of any other abdication of responsibility that lets a device, for Pete’s sake, dictate the outcome of image-making.
A few basic truths to keep before you:
Your camera is a machine with an eye attached.
You are an eye with a brain attached.
One of you is supposed to be in charge.
Guess which one.
When we merely snap a scene, freezing an arrangement of whatever we see in frame, we are only making a record. Creativity comes with abstraction, of exploring what is beyond the obvious cause-and-effect. The standard approach to showing things should actually be called the “average” approach. Look, here’s a tree, and, below, here is its shadow. Behold, here’s a scenic object next to the water, and, in the water, a reflection of that object. This simple reproduction of “reality” involves craft, to be sure, but something that falls short of art. Abstracting, adding or taking away something, and actively partnering with the viewer’s imagination take the photograph beyond a mere recording.
And that, boys and girls, is where the “art” part comes in.
Take away even a single obvious element and you change the discussion, for better or worse. Does the tree always have to be accompanied by its shadow? Does the mountain and its reflection always need to be presented as a complete “set”? It’s interesting to take even the “perfect” or “balanced” shots we cherish most and again take the scissors to part of them. Can the picture speak louder if we trim away the obvious? Can the image turn out to be something if it just stops trying to be everything?
The easiest abstractions come from changing small things, and editing can often, oddly, be an act of completion. Pictures taken in the moment are convenient, but too many images are trusted to the ease of leaning on automodes, and almost no photo is fully realized “straight out of the camera.” Believe this if you believe nothing else: nothing truly excellent ever results from putting your imagination in neutral. You have to decide whether you or the machine is the principal picture-taker.
That decision decides everything else.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.
The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.
On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”…..at least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.
Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light, and not the subject, be the entire story. That, and shooting on manual.
Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.
Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.
Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.
The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.
Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.
I like the odds.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
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By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL SAY IT: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS.
We all say it. None of us believes it. It’s just not, well, American to throw aside our national myths, and the folk tale of the lucky, quick genius who zooms to the head of the line to fame, bounding in front of all the sloggers and suckers, is intoxicating. One blinding inspiration, we tell ourselves, just one great notion, and we can bypass all that “practicing and patience” stuff, the same virtues we feel honor bound to extol in others. In anyone else but me.
Me, I’m taking the shortcut.
So now is about the time when the photography angle of this rant should kick in, right?
Okay, here goes.
As the automode functions of cameras have grown ever more complex, they have made taking a perfectly acceptable picture effortless. Great for immediate gratification. Not so great for the art of photography. Think about it. It has become so fabulously easy to point and get something that isn’t too bad, that we are bypassing the slower, uglier, but eventually more satisfying process that comes with trial, error, recalculation, and risk. We produce more error-free pictures than ever before, but, to do that, we have to hang our own creativity…..the raw, sloppy process of imagineering our own vision…on the wall. We get fat and lazy. And so do our pictures.
Now that I have successfully defended my title as the great Grinch Buzzkill, trying to rid Whoville of good, clean camera fun, let me just ask one more question. Do we want a large mountain of “okay” pictures, taken, to an ever greater degree, by our cameras, or a smaller, more amazing pile of remarkable pictures borne of our own sweat and struggle? Tricky part: there is no right or wrong answer, just a choice to be made based on your own expectations. Turning off the “green zone” of guaranteed effect modes and really educating ourselves as to what is going into the making of our pictures means turning off a snapshot mentality and opting for the unpredictable.
Hey, I’m not suggesting you go all Matthew Brady and lug around forty pounds of wet plates and a covered wagon full of caustic chemicals just to take a birthday picture of Grandma blowing out her candles. But we can probably aspire to more than just the golden age of okay.
We already know how easy it is to take a picture. Now we need to rediscover how hard it can be, and what miracles can spring from our minds when we get our hands dirty and go down the rockier path.