By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, SENSING THAT, AS A CHILD, I WAS ANXIOUS about turning out the lights at bedtime, explained calmly to me that there wasn’t anything in my darkened room that wasn’t there in the daytime as well.
It was a reasonable enough argument that I stopped thinking of my bed as a backstage repository for monsters. Still not sure about the inside of the closet, though.
Later, however, I was to realize that, in a sense, Dad was dead wrong in photographic terms, since all we really have to paint scenes with is light, a commodity which is drastically different before and after sundown.
One of the reasons I still take out the old tripod to bother with long night-time exposures is that the color relationships, and thus how we interpret the arrangement of light, are so very different than those seen in the day. We’re not just talking about the difference between lots of light and not much light. The way the colors fit with each other is vastly different when comparing night versus day. Imagine lighting your very favorite food until it takes on a hue so unnatural that you can no longer eat it. Consider pink peas, green steak, brown water….you get the idea. Now compare the daytime value of a color under natural light to its night-time equivalent, lit by either dying daylight or artificial illumination or some strange combination of both. I think the value of making comparative photos of objects over a variety of hours will stun you if you make the time for the exercise. It will also give you an amazing number of alternative choices for how you wish to render color, and under what circumstances.
We’ve all see those essays in which a photographer stays in one position along the rim of the Grand Canyon for many consecutive hours, interpreting the color and light shifts in the gorge over the course of a single day. But you don’t have schedule a vacation in Arizona to make your own demonstration of this idea. Anything that you think you know about, or know the “best” way to photograph, will make a good test subject. As a matter of fact, the more ordinary the scene, the better, since your evaluation of the results will force you to concentrate on just the light values alone, without excess distraction. For an example, the image seen here is of a desert botanical garden in the American southwest an hour after sunset. The sky as seen here is not brilliantly blue, but neither is it absolutely black. The concrete wall in front, beige during the day, is feeding off the sodium lights from the gift shoppe at right and registers as orange. The greens in the agaves and succulents are not the same tepid hue that they’d “read” in the afternoon, becoming something a bit more emerald-ish, while the shrubs are a more pronounced gold than they’d register at noon. More interestingly, all of the colors, transformed from the familiar, are now in a different dialogue with each other. Their relationships seem off, lending a slight surreality to the scene. I only wish I had thought ahead to take several more images spaced over an entire day to better demonstrate my point, although I know, from having done so in the past, that the contrasts can be quite dramatic.
Of course, the picture is not, in and of itself, anything to boast about, but it gives me a test pattern for similar shots in the future, shots for which I will really want to achieve a particular look. This also fits into my overall view of photography, which is that every shot is, in a sense, a rehearsal for another shot. So it sometimes seems that we take a lot of pictures that believe “don’t matter” to get the ones that do, only, paradoxically, if one photograph is a sketch for a later one, then indeed they all matter anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOGA TEACHERS, AT THE START OF CLASS, often invite their students to “set their intention” for the session, making at least part of what is largely a physical effort a partially mental one as well. Said intention need not be the achievement of world peace or the eradication of disease, of course. Often, just deciding that you’re going to exit the hour with a clearer brain than you entered it is plenty. The idea is chiefly to form the habit of pre-planning the experience, of asking yourself “what do I expect from this?” It’s also the best kind of mental conditioning for the making (rather than the taking) of photographs.
Even in the most casual snapshot, there is at least an instant in which “intention” is set and a plan is executed. There is, truly, no such thing as a pure photographic accident. Certainly, you may not have sufficient time or technique to make a shot work out, but just because you weren’t able to get what you set out to get, your intention was established. Some instantaneous judgement call that “this might make a good picture” is in operation, always.
The trick over time for improving one’s success rate is thus twofold: first, to close the gap between what you envision and what you can deliver, and, second, developing the means to, through processing and editing, rescue or even re-set your intention for a given picture. In normal-people circles, this process is called “changing your mind”. Seriously, what is post-processing in most cases but a renegotiation of your original intention? What photographer willingly accepts the ideal of “straight out of the camera” if it means that his/her vision actually goes straight into the sewer? When Ansel Adams called the photographic negative “the score” and the print “the performance”, he was, in fact, asserting that exactly half of a photograph’s destiny is decided after the click of the shutter, something that, thankfully, is a more universally embraced belief in the digital era, which, not incidentally, has placed more control within the reach and budget of billions of users, a control that means choices. Let’s be clear, however: this is not about “saving” bad pictures. It’s about polishing the gems.
One of the simplest ways I myself re-juggle the intention of a shot is in the light relationships. The image you see in the thumbnail here is an original from a series of shots I took on a gorgeous Saturday morning in spring of 2015, conditions which perfectly served the picture of the church as I first envisioned it. The sunlit version emphasizes detail and a very light color scheme. By comparison, the reprocessed version (above) is practically what movie folks used to call “day for night”…that is, shooting during the day in such a way that resembles night, but preserves discernible information in a way that true night shooting obscures. The color scheme is very deep, and nearly all detail is sacrificed except that of the front of the building, which is made to appear as if it were illuminated by the warm light of a setting sun. The shift of the intention exchanges the effect of all that fine detail for the impact of understatement. More to the point, I don’t need to show the grit of every stone or the grain of every slab of wood to make the picture work, and so what is paramount in a day-lit shot becomes expendable, even excessive, in the nighttime version.
Again, even in the most reactive of snaps, all photographers know what they are going for. If they get some of it ahead of the click, with the rest of it recoverable through processing, why are those tweaks any less of a “setting” than the shooter’s original choices of aperture or shutter speed? Can the precious purity of SOOC (straight out of the camera) actually make us abandon pictures that might, with a little encouragement, make the finals? And why should that be?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEWER DEVICES HAVE SHORTENED THE DISTANCE between an artist’s thought and his deed like the camera. Unlike musical instruments, paint brushes, or other tools of the creator’s trade, the camera takes you from conception to completed act in a matter of seconds. Of course, that’s when everything else is going right….
There are times when even the seemingly immediate response of the shutter still lags behind the mind in conceiving a visual message, when super-fast still feels horribly slow. Some concepts sprout and die with the rapidity of heat lightning, with the photographer racing to traverse the distance from inspiration to execution, and, occasionally, failing. In such instances, such as the moment that the cab arrives or the light changes or someone is just urging you let’s go, you have to go for broke and gamble on your idea. Fortunately, even those instances in which your efforts seem to crash and burn are instructive. In aviation, the saying goes that any landing you walk away is a good one. I’d adapt that sentiment to read: any picture that shows any of what you were trying to portray is a step closer to the right shot.
But first you have to attempt it.
We’ve spoken at length in this forum about how the only picture you truly regret is the one you didn’t take, and, as cliched as that statement is, it bears repeating. Because among the shots that miss by a mile are the ones that only miss by inches, and those are the ones that keep us doing this. In the above image, I am scrambling. A lot. I am standing near the front entrance of what’s soon to become my former hotel, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for my wife to contact/hire a ride share service. I decide to burn away those unused moments by trying to catch the uniformed staff at their endless task of welcomes/goodbyes for guests connecting to curbside transportation. I’m pushing a carry-on, wearing a DSLR by a shoulder strap and trying to guess an exposure that I’ll have to try to hit one-handed. I’m seconds away from being ready when I’m told our ride is three minutes away. We have plenty of time to get to the airport, but just the same, I’m now on deadline. A short fuse. Make or break. I don’t want to dawdle needlessly, since, over a long weekend, I have already paused to frame enough shots that I have exhausted my allotted ration of marital goodwill. You know the moment. It’s somewhere between an exasperated sigh and the sentence, “are you still taking pictures?” I also hate to fight too ardently for this one, since I’m only half sure of not only the exposure but the concept in general. I should probably just grab by bag and git.
Even at this point, I still can’t decide if I got everything I wanted here. I liked reducing the greeters and their gear to silhouettes, but in doing so I also eliminated a lot of the glowing gold of a late San Francisco afternoon. I said a quick prayer, squeezed off four shots with small adjustments in between, and decided I had to make a dignified exit. But what I said earlier about near misses still applies here. It’s not a complete boff, but it’s not a contest winner either. Can I use the experience to deliver a better result from a similar situation sometime in the future? Ah, well, that’s why we call this thing we do an “art” and not a “science”. I will live to fight,….er, shoot, another day. And that’s all any photographer wants anyhow. The next shot.
For therein lies redemption…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.
Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.
Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE ADAM AND EVE BIT THAT DAMNED APPLE, humans have demonstrated that the thing they really want is the thing they are told they can’t have.
Stay with me here: this actually has a lot to do with photography.
Deny somebody something and they will long for it, lust after it, obsess about it. Consider the case of the Portugeuse, who, for a while, tried to run things in Mozambique, in order to harvest that African nation’s rubber, and who told the locals that their traditional ceremonial instrument, an early kind of xylophone called the mbila, would henceforth be forbidden as a cultural expression. As a result, an entire underground of information on how to play it was maintained by exiled miners, prisoners, and assorted other rebels. The result? Eventually the Portugeuse left: the mbila stayed. Today, the instrument is even featured on the local currency.
We can’t have it? Wanna bet?
Humans. Go figure.
But back to photography, where, similarly, the thing we are “told” we “can’t have”, at least in an image, is whatever is left out of the frame. Missing detail. People rendered in shadow. An activity that’s implied by the manner in which part of it is cropped. We love what the photographer shows but we hunger for what he leaves out.
Out-the-window shots are a great source of this phenomenon, since shooters are usually forced to expose for either what is in front of said window or beyond it….but seldom both. The rise of HDR and tone mapping in recent years has tried to address this, rendering everything in the same degree of illumination, often with bracketed exposures, from light to dark, that are blended afterwords in software. But there’s a problem. Many HDR’s are simply over-processed, defying the mind’s knowledge of the proper relationships between light and dark. Everything’s visible but can easily be garish, unnatural. And so many of us go back to simply deciding what selected parts to illuminate in an image, and which to leave undefined. That means some darkness, which in turn means some things don’t get shown. And, if we’re lucky, those things that we don’t reveal can be more tantalizing than those that we do.
I was walking around the back of the old Terminal building in San Francisco, which is the place that all the city’s ferries used to dock and disembark before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, making many daily boat trips across the bay unnecessary. The building now houses eateries, produce stands, and an insane amount of tourist traffic, much of it crowded into restaurants such as the one seen here. The view out the back includes the Bay Bridge and the local ship traffic, as well as the occasional sailboat, such as the one seen here. I exposed for the scenery, leaving the restaurant’s patrons and workers in shadow. The scalloped, rather “peek-a-boo” view that resulted keeps the image from being a standard postcard shot, but while that “purity” is lost, what’s gained is a smidge of mystery about the shadowy folks in front. What are their conversations about? Why are they here?
I am just suggesting here that, instead of always regarding an image like this as a “blocked” or “obstructed” view of a scenic vista, you can choose to tantalize your viewer by providing a partial reveal of both foreground and background, since their inclination is already, like that of Adam and Eve, to obtain what they’re denied (in this case, by the exposure and the limits of the frame). Sometimes, in a photograph, a nothing can be a very important something. It all depends on who’s looking and what they themselves bring to the experience. In that way, they and the photographer are having a conversation. Which is kind of the idea.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING, or January of 2019, your humble author is anticipating a little side trip back into film technology, as I await delivery of a roll of the re-introduced Kodak Ektachrome 35mm reversal film. The stock will be fairly slowly rated at 100 speed, so, along with the generally unforgiving nature of slide film, there will be more than enough potential for the final product to come in on the underexposed side. Which is fine with me.
Years ago, I fell in love with the hyper-saturation I got when I accidentally under-exposed original Ektachrome and its even slower cousin, the lost and lamented Kodachrome. So once I load the E-roll into my old Minolta SRT-200, I might even try to deliberately push the bottom end of the stuff to see just how minimal I can make the shots……which got me thinking about recent instances in which I tried to get that Dutch-lit effect digitally. Turns out that there were more than a few of them in the year just gone by, and so I preceded to gather up a short stack for a new page called When Lights Are Low, joining the other tabs at the top of this page as of this posting.
There are no coordinating themes in this grouping, just the common experiment of undercranking the exposure to see just how much you can do with how little. A few of the images were the subject of earlier essays in these pages: most haven’t been seen before. Of course, shooting film again is, for me, returning to the high risk and low reward of the medium, which can be, let’s face it, a chance to avenge old sins. Maybe this time I’ll get it right.
When it comes right down to it, film is very aspirational: you have to invest a lot of hope in it at the front end, and be happier with a much slimmer harvest of usable goodies than in the digital world. But it’s occasionally fun to take a filmic effect that you’ve learned to emulate in digital and try to achieve it, you know, on film. Whatever that proves is to be decided by those of you out there in the darkness who are sporting degrees in psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the whole thing makes my head hurt, so I’m going to go lie down. Cheers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BLESSINGS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY (and the best argument for laying aside film) is the nearly endless and affordable numbers of “do-overs” it affords the learning shooter. Cranking out the sheer volume of practice frames needed to hone one’s skills and train one’s eyes used to be costly in both currency and years. As a consequence, many photographers had far fewer successful experiences than others. Money and time separated those who mastered their methodologies and those who were forced to click and trust to luck.
Digital cameras, through their pure scientific advancement, guaranteed that many more of our most hurried snaps were at least technically passable. But they gave us a far more important gift….the ability to speed up our learning curve through a speedy, risk-free process of constant feedback….an endless stream of yes/no, pass/fail messages that shape our work over the course of months instead of years, allowing us to understand what is going wrong, and fix it in the moment, while the family is still gathered in this room, while that amazing sunset is still grabbable. We learn everything faster, especially the use of new equipment.
Part of this “break-in” process for gear, at least for me, is to select something, anything to shoot with it……to not wait for a perfect occasion or an ideal subject, but to seek examples of the conditions under which I want to use the new gear. Any place can become a sort of kingdom of non-keepers, a lab for images where I don’t expect to do much more than make mistakes.
This kind of experimentation is perfect for days with iffy weather or drab, overworked locales, since part of learning a lens is figuring out how to make the ordinary extraordinary in any and all conditions. To my earlier point, shooting in this way seemed (to me) wasteful and risky with film: you always felt that you had to get a good return-on-investment for whatever the roll and processing were costing you. That could unconsciously lead you to shoot more conservatively, to play things safe, lest your crop of keepers be diminished by doing something reckless. But that’s the rub, innit? “Reckless” is where the good stuff comes from.
The shot seen here is from such a “let’s see what happens” shoot, a quick walk through a shopping mall I’ve visited a jillion times. The site has long since ceased to show me anything fresh to look at, but it sports a wide range of light conditions and textures throughout a typical day, so it is an appropriate kingdom for non-keepers, and a good place to crank off about fifty shots with a manual lens that’s still kicking my behind on precise focus. As it turns out, this particular piece of glass (a Soviet-era Helios 44) is soft even at its sharpest, but since that’s something I actually desire at times, practice is a must.
I’m a big believer, then, of shooting lots of pictures that “don’t matter”…..because they make you ready for the day when they really do. And because, once you can think less about how to take a picture, you can spend more time thinking about why you take it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A SELECTIVE READING OF SOME of the posts featured in The Normal Eye over the years might give the impression that I am “anti-flash” in my approach to photography. A closer look, however, would reveal that I am more properly non-flash….that, while I stipulate that judicious use of artificial light can be amazing, (a) it can often do more harm than good, and (b) there are fewer situations in which it’s needed than at any other point in time. So, anti……no. But non…..absolutely.
Choosing not to use flash in low light situations used to mean that a tripod was essential for sharpness in even reasonably quick exposures, but even that truth is falling by the wayside, as sensors allow for lower noise at ever-higher ISO levels. The handheld shot is now more convenient and reliable than ever, with only modest investments in gear and/or practice to yield suitable results. This means that, outside of very formalized studio settings, you may now be able to leave both flash and pod in the closet in more and more cases.
So let’s pursue the ideal: a low-light image, shot handheld, with the lowest possible ISO, achieved without flash or tripod. First, your glass needs to be fast, something that can’t be said for the basic kit lenses that are packaged with most DSLRs. A lens like a kit 18-55mm that only opens in the f/3.5 range can’t compete with prime lenses such as a 35 or 50mm of f/1.8 or faster. The extra several stops can render many more handheld shots feasible, and so investing in an affordable prime (single focal length) is money well spent.
The other, and far more decisive factors in this handheld quest, since you’ll be dealing in slower exposure times, are the purely physical moves involved in bracing your camera. Whether it’s a firm stance, a solid grip, a handy resting place like a shelf, or a combination of all three, you have to practice….a lot…in minimizing camera shake. Everyone’s technique for this will vary, and the web is rich in written or video tutorials from which to choose. The point is, it’s possible to learn how to do it.
The two shots shown here are both shot wide open, at F/1.8, at a rock-bottom ISO value of 100 and available light only (the room was actually further darkened for purposes of this test). And while you can certainly see a clear contrast in sharpness between the first and second shot, they are handheld at 1/5th of a second and 1 full second respectively and are both usable shots (seen here straight out of the camera). Moreover, even shooting at, say, 1/10th of a second or faster, the picture could still be done with very low ISO and no flash, no tripod. And that buys you ease, mobility and speed. Travel light, shoot more, and in more places.
Again, I am most definitely not anti-flash. I just think that the fluidity of today’s gear, along with a few hours of practice, can simplify your shooting, giving you more concentration on the why of a picture rather than the how of getting it done.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL DONE IT: we’re sent to the grocery store for bread and milk, and come back with a six-pack of beef jerky, a gallon tub of guacamole, and a family-sized box of Trix. Sometimes, lost in the sublime and seductive specials inside the store, we even come home without the bread and milk. But, hey, beef jerky.
That’s what happens on some photographic shoots.
The sequence is familiar. You pick the target. You pack the appropriate gear. You may also have to book passage or pay for admission to something. You research the forecast. You even visualize the expected layout or sequence of shots. And then comes the day itself, a day upon which, for whatever reason, the pictures won’t come. A day upon which you can’t buy a usable image for love or money. To further torture my original metaphor, the grocery store is fresh out of bread and milk.
But, fear not: as a photographer, you are nothing if not resilient. Like a lost dad determined to find something of use somewhere in the supermarket, you go looking for deals. The pictorial orphans. The what-the-hell or go-for broke shots. Wild clicks as you’re slinking back to the parking lot. Cripes, at this point, you’re reduced to looking for cute dogs. But will these desperate moves yield pictorial gold?
No guarantees. Fate doesn’t dole out consolation prizes. However, the primal panic that results from seeing your Plan “A” go down in flames can make you more open to experimentation, less fastidious about getting the perfect frame. That, in turn, may lead to embracing the accidental over the intentional……of moving your emphasis from the conceptual (your original plan) to the perceptual (flashes of ideas that occur once your mind is open).
The shot seen here, if I’m honest, is neither good nor bad. It was merely workable at the end of a day on which absolutely nothing else was. I liked what the light was ( and wasn’t) doing in the moment, and the girl gave me a small anchor for the viewer’s eye, albeit a small one. Other than that, I had no overarching concept for the picture. An empty grocery cart made me reach for the beef jerky.
Photographs begin with intention, certainly. But we often kid ourselves about what a huge part randomness plays in what happens between Think and Click. We’d love to assume we’re in charge of our process. But let’s also learn to love the disrupters, the detours, and the dreams gone amiss.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT IRONIC CLICHE OF CITIES is how they smash millions of people together while also keeping them completely isolated from each other, forcing the seeming intersections of lives that, below the surface, are still tragically alienated. Photography, coming of age as it did at roughly the same time as the global rise of cities, became accustomed, early on, with showing both the mad crush and the killing melancholy of these strange streets. We take group shots within which, hidden in plain sight, linger poignant solo portraits. The thrill of learning to speak both messages with a camera in one instant is why we do this thing.
Gray days, especially the fat batch of them I recently harvested in Manhattan, do half of my street photographer’s job for me, deepening colors and shadows in what can quickly become an experiment in underexposure, a lab which, in turn, profoundly alters mood. Things that were somber to begin with become absolutely leaden, with feelings running to extremes on the merest of subjects and forcing every impression through a muted filter. It’s what makes it out the back end of that filter that determines what kind of picture I’ll get.
The two diners in this scene are an arbitrary interpretation…..a judgement call that, on a bright day, I might have made completely differently. They are in parallel arrangement, so they both are looking off to the right, never across at each other. Does this make them lonely, or merely alone? The fact that there is one man and one woman in the composition doesn’t necessarily denote desperate or disconnected lives, but isn’t there at least a slight temptation for the viewer to read the image that way? And then there is our habit of seeing this kind of color palette as moody, sad, contemplative. The limited amount of light in the frame, as much as any other element, “tells” us what to feel about the entire scene. Or does it?
Now, of course, if you were to pack a roomful of other photogs into the same room alongside me to shoot the same image under the exact same conditions, you would very likely get a wider variety of readings. One such reading might suggest that both of these people were thoroughly enjoying a pleasant, quiet lunch, part of a lifelong pattern of contented fulfillment. Or not.
Cities are composed of millions of eyes backed by many more millions of inherited viewpoints on what defines big words like lonely, isolated, sad, thoughtful, and so on. But all of us, regardless of approach, are taking the strange city yin/yang of get closer/go away and trying to extract our own meaning from it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO ONE EVER INTENTIONALLY DESIGNS SOMETHING TO BE UGLY. There has never been an artist’s or architect’s rendering that shows a project, from a city park to a shopping mall, as anything but ideal. Drawings created to excite investors and planners are consistently festooned with bright, broad sidewalks, strolling families (with their dogs), and bowers of flowers. When you see a sign saying, “coming soon on this site”, it’s always a sunny day.
Of course, once the dedication ribbon is cut, reality intervenes. Neighborhoods rise and fall. Things wear out. The cool things that were to be built during “phase two” get un-funded. The dream of the possible becomes the dreariness of the actual. And photographers are there to measure the distance between those extremes.
Sadly, merely making images of what has gone wrong in modern life is almost a default for many shooters, and their predictably bleak work reflects that. Creating pictures of decay or failure is certainly easy, almost a cynical cop-out, as if seeing the ugliness in things is somehow more honest, more “authentic”. I can understand taking that bait. I have taken that bait. But I think photographers need to struggle to confer grace on things as well, to try to show how things might have worked out. Yes, there’s a lot of drama to be had in documenting what went wrong. But, at one point in the process, before the beginnings of things, people invested faith in what they were creating, a faith that said that things would be generally better Once This Thing Is Completed. Pictorially, trying to portray potential, especially wasted potential, is far tricker.
As to the image shown here, I’d like to say it was the result of some marvelous act of planning, but the fact is, the entire scene, bathed in the deep golds of dusk, was seen and seized in an instant. I remember being struck by the feeling that this kind of light was so miraculous that it could confer nobility on even a car wash in a shopworn neighborhood, and that a momentary break in the clouds had given the reds and yellows the hyper-saturated look of an old, slow film stock like Kodachrome. Again, all these impressions registered inside a few seconds, and I went for it. The result reminded me that, once, someone thought this car wash would at least be neat, or efficient, or attractive. Sometimes that dream is totally submerged in the crust of What Happened Later. But I feel compelled to search for it anyway, to confer grace on what the dreamers saw. After all, under the skin, we’re all in the same game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A HUGE FAN OF THE EARLIEST VERSION of the classic Technicolor film process, the so-called “two-strip” technique from the 1920’s, which simultaneously exposed two separate frames of black and white film of a single subject, one strip through a green filter, the other through a red one. Combined in the lab, the composite image simulated most of the colors of nature that contained either red or green, but absent the third layer of blue/cyan which would be added in the more advanced three-strip Technicolor process, the one which became the industry standard by the early ’30’s. Two-strip features like Mystery Of The Wax Museum or The King Of Jazz are a kind of object lesson for photographers in learning to work with narrow color palettes. The message: do the most with what you’ve got.
Every shooter encounters situations, most of them dictated by changes in available light, which severely limit the full spectrum of reproducible color. We might eagerly embrace the warmth of the two daily “golden hours” that bathe most bright hues in gold. We might bemoan cloudy days, which can drain everything of saturation or contrast. We might have to make adjustments when shade makes our cameras read light at the wrong color temperature, giving our images “the blues”. Whatever the challenge, photographers make myriad choices about color in a single minute, and, unlike the early technicians at Technicolor, they don’t necessarily see a faithful rendering of “reality” as Job One. How “natural” do we want to present color, and how do we define that word, anyway? Is color a determinant of comfort, tension, revelation, drama? Do we intentionally choose hues that either conceal or reveal?
Deep sunset, as seen in the above image, is one situation in which nature itself narrows the color palette. All yellows and reds tend to morph into orange. All blacks, browns and grays migrate to blues. Middle tones head for the hills. Contrast jumps off the meter. Subtlety takes a vacation. Suddenly, as in the case of the old two-strip Technicolor, you’re forcing very few colors to do the work of many….to deliver a version of the world rather than a faithful reproduction of it.
Color processes since the beginning of photography have embraced the idea that you could either reflect reality or, in the pursuit of a great picture, bend it a little.
Or more than a little.
Or a hell of a lot more.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINGLE–SOURCE LIGHT IS ALMOST ALWAYS USED, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, with the aim of calling attention to something other than itself. Typically the light’s origination point is hidden or removed from the final composition, entering from outside the frame via a side window or a top-down studio lamp, modeling or dimensionalizing an object, creating the illusion that all the light in the room just happened organically.
And that’s pretty much as it should be. You usually don’t use the tools of a craft to say, in effect, look at the way these cool tools helped me play a trick on you. As photographers we don’t like to be caught in the act of fooling, and so there are many images where the single source light is seen just in its effect, not as a cause.
Many, but not all. Sometimes the light actually needs to be part of the story, as shown here.
Most places of business naturally react to the daily dying of exterior light by turning on their interior lamps. Sun goes down, lights go up. But occasionally, as in this wondrous and quirky little bakery cafe in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, the comfort food was accompanied by what could easily be termed comfort light. The lights inside the pastry case, at least during this particular evening, were allowed to serve as the only illumination for the entire inside of the store, lending the customers around the counter the warm intimacy of a shared fireplace.
The moment filled me with longing for a world whose labors and leisure were once defined solely by the parameters of day or night, mitigated only by the occasional torch or oil lamp. And so, in this special case (and in many more you can no doubt name from your own experiences), the source of the image’s light really is part of the narrative, and thus deserves its place at center stage.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“LOST IN THE WOODS”. “DEEP IN THE FOREST”…conjure your own phrase for the sensation of entering, and being swallowed by, dark, mysterious places. Realms of shadow, primordial laboratories in which both dreams and nightmares are brewed. In other words, sites where photographers can wax poetic. Or crash and burn.
Forested areas are both challenge and opportunity for shooters, since they are seldom subject to the same laws of composition or exposure as subjects shot out in the open. Mastering light in woodsy settings can be a crusade in its own right: details can melt into dark murk or be completely blown out in sudden shafts of sunlight. I have produced more mushy, indecipherable messes with more cameras in more forests than I care to count, in pictures which inadvertently produce more mystery than they reveal, as in “what’s this supposed to be?”
I can come a lot closer to coherence when I work with partial clearings rather than dense woods, working with simpler compositions that suggest the feel of the forest from its near edge rather than its center. Exposure becomes a more streamlined process as well.
Also, since the emphasis in such a shot is on mood rather than detail, even the basics of focus can become, well, negotiable, as seen here. But then, almost anything in the making of a photograph is. Or should be. My point being that, when the taking of a picture fails, it can be because the photographer is trying to execute too many things at once. Eliminating some of those things until the image becomes manageable can be, like walking out of a dark forest, a profound relief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A PERFECT WORLD, all our photographs would have their permanent address at the intersection of Flawless Technique Street and Great Message Boulevard. And while some do, magically, make it to this mystical crossroads, many others lose the paper the directions were scribbled on and wind up down some back alley.
Powerful narratives can arrive in perfect packages, sure. But not often and not with any predictability. Often we settle for one half of the ideal or the other. That “going halfies” choice determines what we regard as most important in our favorite images.
I would love to be able to achieve technical perfection every time I’m up to bat, but I’m not religious about raw precision….at least not the way I am about emotional resonance. Every one of you has a pile of pictures which are optically flawless and another pile of pictures that speak to your best intentions. Given an either/or judgement on which of these are your “keepers”, why wouldn’t you always, always choose the images that, regardless of various “flaws”, conveyed your mind and heart?
Light, focus, aperture, even composition are tools, not ends unto themselves, and even the best photographers drop one or another of these techno-balls in some of their best work. But should we seriously disqualify an image merely on technical points? If the answer is yes, then half of the works that we collectively value as great must be stricken from the public record, and photography is merely a recording process, like the operation of a seismograph or any other instrument where precision trumps every other consideration. But if the answer is no, then a picture that fails one or more technical tests can stil be considered valid, so long as it is emotionally true.
I struggle with these choices whenever I produce a shot that has things “wrong” with it, but which is also an authentic register of where my mind was at the time it was snapped. Photos like the one seen here would fail many a judge’s test, depending on who’s doing the judging. It’s too dark. The shutter speed is way too slow, inviting blur. Some of the shadows swallow detail that might just be important. And yet I love this building, these people, this moment. In my defense, I had to decide in an instant whether to even attempt the picture, taken, as it was, from the back seat of an Uber lurching unevenly through the streets of Manhattan. Shooting on full manual, I had to anticipate fast changes in available light, the length of traffic signals, the process of shooting through glass with a filtered lens, and the occasional offensive/defensive maneuvers of the driver. In raw scoring, I just didn’t manage to master all of these variables in a technically perfect manner. And yet..
There has been a lot of talk lately about not letting the Perfect be the enemy of the Good, a phrase which says more about photography in ten words than I’ve said in this entire page. Rule one for shooters: don’t let the flawless be master over the real.
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.
SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.
Or a tool.
Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.
But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.
With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.
I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIR TO SAY that photographers are occasionally the worst possible judges of what will save or spoil a picture. Try as we may to judiciously assemble the perfect composition, there are random forces afoot in the cosmos that make our vaunted “concepts” look like nothing more than lucky guesses. And that’s just the images that actually worked out.
All great public places have within them common spaces in which the shooter can safely trust to such luck, areas where the general cross-traffic of humanity guarantees at least a fatter crop of opportunity for happy marriages between passersby and props. At Boston’s elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the surrounding walls of the central court are the main public collecting point, with hundreds of visitors framed daily by the arched windows and the architectural splendor of a re-imagined 15th-century Venetian palace. The couple seen here are but one of many pairings observable in a typical day.
The pair just happens to come ready-made, with enough decent luck assembled in one frame for almost anyone to come away with a half-decent picture. The size contrast between the man and the woman, their face-to-face gaze, their balanced location in the middle arch of the window, and their harmony with the overall verticality of the frame seem to say “mission accomplished”. I don’t need to know their agenda: they could be reciting lines of Gibrhan to each other or discussing mortgage rates: visually, it doesn’t matter. At the last instant, however, the seated woman, in shadow just right of them, presents some mystery. Is she extraneous, i.e., a spoiler, or does she provide a subplot? In short, story-wise, do I need her?
I decide that I do. Just as it’s uncertain what the couple is discussing, it’s impossible to know if she’s overhearing something intimate and juicy, or just sitting taking a rest. And I like leaving all those questions open, so, in the picture she stays. Thus, what you see here is exactly one out of one frame(s) taken for the hell of it. Nothing was changed in post-production except a conversion to monochrome. Turns out that even the possibility of budding romance can’t survive the distraction of Mrs. Gardner’s amazing legacy seen in full color, and the mystery woman is even more tantalizing in B&W. Easy call.
As we said at the beginning, working with my own formal rules of composition, I could easily have concluded that my picture would be “ruined” by my shadowy extra. And, I believe now, I would have been wrong. As photographers, we try to look out for our own good, but may actually know next to nothing about what that truly is.
And then the fun begins….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS GLIB OR SIMPLE doesn’t mean it’s not true. We tire of people’s pet platitudes because saying things like “get a good night’s sleep” or “honesty is the best policy” seems too easy, as if the wisdom contained in these time-worn axioms must have dried up years ago. So when I tell you something extremely “well, duh!” about photography, it won’t sound wise or profound. It will sound like something any simpleton knows. Obvious. Goes without saying. And yet..
So, here’s my one immutable truth about making pictures:
Get enough light, and you will have solved 99% of any problems that bedevil your photos.
There’ll be a brief pause here for the crowd to collectively roll its eyes.
And before we proceed further, I’m speaking primarily of natural, organic, comes-through-the-window-like-God’s-gift-to-the-world light. Most of what you do with artificial light has to do with compensating and correcting for the fundamental wrongness of the stuff. Yes, I know you have an incredible flash set-up. I don’t care.
Light is the only factor in photography that determines the efficacy of every other factor. Every major advancement in the design of lenses, recording media, and camera mechanics has been made for the sole purpose of gathering and utilizing more of it. Light alone can control how a subject is modeled, highlighted, presented. Get enough of it, and you shoot faster and simpler. Learn to shape it and you also learn how to create drama, to compose, to characterize things in precisely the way your mind has visualized them.
Light controls texture. It makes a shot either muted or loud. It can create the sensation of any moment of the day or night. It directs the eye. It makes bad lenses better and good lenses great. And, speaking of lenses, the best money you can spend on any lens, anywhere, is on how fast, how light-hungry it is. All other functions of high-tech optics aren’t worth a bucket of spit if the things can’t deliver lots of light in a hurry. Forget about chromatic aberration, vignetting and all the other headaches associated with glass: get enough light and you’re halfway home.
Most importantly, light is the only element in photography that is literally its own subject. A wonderful image can be of light, about light, because of light. So before you get good at anything else in the making of pictures, learn to gather light efficiently, mold it to your will, and serve it. Every other boat in your optical harbor will be lifted in the process.