the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Bounce light

OF TATTOOS AND STENCILS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN CITIES, ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF THE DAY’S NATURAL LIGHT actually makes it all the way to the street unbroken. You can almost think about it like rain, in that it drips, slithers, drains, and channels its way downward through a dense  maze of structures and barriers. Along the way, that light is bisected, sliced, stenciled and tattooed by the surfaces it interacts with, stretching shadow patterns, glinting, ricocheting, stretching.

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Glass, especially, constantly reshapes light, filtering it into delicate lattice-works and spectral spiderwebs, sifting it through windows, transoms, doors, windshields, storefronts. It reveals and conceals, crawling across buildings like an ever-changing sundial of shapes and schemes. Photographing the same hunk of glass on the hour can be like visiting a dozen different worlds, spread out like fanned playing cards over the course of a single day.

Light illuminates, making it a force that acts upon other objects, but it is almost more marvelous when it, itself, is acted upon, creating an endless choreography and echo of its colors and contours. It’s part of the great interactive ballet of cities, this push and pull between light and darkness. Sometimes you get a nearly kaleidoscopic effect from something very simple, like the etched glass in the revolving door seen above, which stamped a different snowflake of shapes onto the pavement at every turn and swivel.

If you’re given to experiment (or daydreaming), your own tabletop can become a tremendously valuable laboratory on the effect of light. Just grab the simplest object handy, be it an apple or a book, and arc a source of light from one side of it to the other. Imagine yourself a self-propelled sun and watch how easily you can create change in your private solar system. The actual design of such an exercise isn’t crucial, but making yourself mentally slow down, becoming aware of the tiny effects perpetually swimming about you, is invaluable. Photographs rise at the hands of some pretty small phenomena. Magnifying your gaze puts more images within your reach.


FRAGMENTS AND SHARDS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

GLASS SURFACES REPRESENT A SERIES OF CHOICES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, an endless variety of effects based on the fact that they are both windows and mirrors, bouncing, amplifying or channeling light no less than any other subject in your frame. No two shooters approach the use (or avoidance) of glass as a compositional component in quite the same way. To some, it’s a barrier that they have to get past to present a clear view of their subject. To others, its fragments and shards of angle and light are part of the picture, adding their own commentary or irony.

That's The Way The Light Benz, 2015.

That’s The Way The Light Benz, 2015. 1/50 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

I usually judge glass’ value in a photograph by two basic qualifiers: context and structure. First, context: suppose you are focused on something that lies just beyond a storefront window. What visual information is outside the scope of the viewer, say something over your shoulder or across the street, that might provide additional impact or context if reflected in the glass that is in direct view? It goes without saying that all reflections are not equal, so automatically factoring them into your photo may add dimension, or merely clutter things up.

The other qualifier is the structure of the glass itself. How does the glass break up, distort, or re-color light within an enclosure? In the above image, for example, I was fascinated by the complex patterns of glass in an auto showroom, especially in the way it reassigned hues once the sun began to set. I had a lot of golden light fighting for dominance with the darker colors of the lit surfaces within the building, making for a kind of cubist effect. No color was trustworthy or natural , and yet everything could be rendered “as is” and regarded by the eye as “real”.  The glass was part of the composition, in this instance, and at this precise moment. Midday or morning light would render a completely different effect, perhaps an unwelcome one.

Great artists from Eugene Atget to Robert Frank have created compelling images using glass as a kind character actor in their shots. It’s an easy way to deepen the impact of your shots. Let the shards and fragments act like tiles to assemble your own mosaics.


LOW-TECH LOW LIGHT

Passion Flower, 2015.

Passion Flower, 2015. Budget macro with magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens. 1/50 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIGHT IS THE PRINCIPAL FUEL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it needs refinement, just as crude oil needs to be industrially altered before it’s ready for consumer use. It isn’t just enough to record light in its natural form; it has to be corralled, directed, harnessed so that it enhances a photograph in such a way that, ironically, makes it look like you did nothing at all but press the shutter. So, right at the start, making images is a bit of a con job. Good thing is, it’s only dishonorable when you get caught.

Doing macro on the cheap with the use of screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of your regular lens is one of the situations that can create special lighting challenges. There is an incredibly shallow depth of field in these lenses, but if you compensate for it in the camera, by, say, f/8 or higher, you lose light like crazy. Slow down your shutter to compensate, and you’re on a tripod, since the slightest tremor in a hand-held shot looks like  7.8 on the Richter scale. Keep the shorter shutter speed, though, and you’re jacking ISO up, inviting excessive noise. Flood the shot with constant light, and you might alter the color relationships in a naturally lit object, effecting, well, everything that might appeal in a macro shot.

Best thing is, since you’re shooting such a small object, you don’t need all that much of a fix. In the above shot, for example, the garlic bulb was on a counter about two feet from a window which is pretty softened to start with. That gave me the illumination I needed on the top and back of the bulb, but the side facing me was in nearly complete shadow. I just needed the smallest bit of slight light to retrieve some detail and make the light seem to “wrap” around the bulb.

Cheap fix; half a sheet of blank typing paper from my printer’s feed tray, which was right next door.  Camera in right hand, paper in left hand, catching just enough window light to bounce back onto the front of the garlic. A few tries to get the light where I wanted it without any flares. The paper’s flat finish gave me even more softening of the already quiet window light, so the result looked reasonably natural.

Again, in photography, we’re shoving light around all the time, acting as if we just walked into perfect conditions by dumb luck. Yeah, it’s fakery, but, as I say, just don’t get caught.