By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MONTH’S 50th ANNIVERSARY OBSERVANCE (in July of 2019) of the first lunar landing in 1969 is, first and foremost, a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, recalling an era in which mankind’s potential was limited only by the scope of its imagination. In addition, for photographers, it is also a story of technical ingenuity and king-hell problem-solving skills. We have lived for a half-century with the crisp, iconic images that were brought back from the surface of the moon, but the larger story of what it took to capture them remains largely untold.
And a great story it is.
NASA’s eventual selection of which camera would go to the moon was influenced in the early days of the space race by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, himself an amateur photographer. Given that the earliest cameras aboard space flights had proved a technical disappointment, Schirra suggested that a version of his f/2.8, 80mm Hasselblad 500C be modified to document future missions. The legendary Swiss optics company was brought in by NASA to consult on the complete re-engineering of its consumer camera, which, over time, involved stripping off its cosmetic leatherette trim as well as removing the unit’s viewfinder, auxiliary shutter and reflex mirror. While most modifications were made to reduce the weight of the units or to improve their performance under extreme temperatures, others were made purely to ensure the simplest possible operation under once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunities. The first NASA-modified Hasselblads were used by Schirra himself during his Mercury 8 orbital mission, and in the capture of Ed White’s historic space walk aboard Gemini IV, with more sophisticated changes effectively turning one of the most sophisticated cameras on the planet into little more than a high-end point-and-shoot by the time the Apollo missions got underway in the late 1960’s.
Shutter speed for the lunar Hasselblads was fixed, but a selrction of apertures could be chosen by the astronauts to ensure sharp depth-of-field in a variety of situations. Surface images were taken by what came to be called a Hasselblad Data Camera (a re-jiggered 500C), while a separate HEC, or Hasselblad Electric Camera, would be pointed at the surface from inside the lunar landing module. Like Hasselblad, Kodak was engaged by NASA to re-engineer its domestic product, chiefly its premium films for the missions, both by widening frame size from 35 to 70mm and reducing the thickness of the celluloid sheeting to allow 70 shots per camera roll instead of the earthbound 12. The problem of cranking the camera from frame to frame was obviated by specially mounted exterior cartridges that automatically advanced the film after each click. Kodak also formulated several different speeds of film in both monochrome and color. Finally, to make the whole process even more fool-proof, Hasselblad generated special visual operator manuals for the astronauts (shown at left), while the entire camera assembly was permanently attached to the center of an astronaut’s lunar suit (in the case of Apollo 11, “first man” Neil Armstrong) freeing up the spaceman’s hands for NASA’s immense grocery list of surface experiments.
Success in space travel is measured in inches, and also in ounces. And, being keenly aware of how much the mission’s newly collected specimens (such as space rocks) would add to Apollo’s total weight upon its return flight, the crews knew that a calculated swap-out was necessary, and so a total of twelve Hasselblad bodies were left on the moon, after their film packs were detached and loaded on the lunar module. The prospect of free (if pragmatically unattainable) cameras has never been so tantalizing. But as we say down here on earth, the picture, and not the gear, is what’s important, something you can see for yourself in any of the 8,400 Apollo-era images that have recently been uploaded to Flickr. Merry Christmas.
So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, then…..well, you do the math, with a calculator that, today, easily exceeds the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft. Technology is the end product of curiosity, and the nerdish odyssey of the Hassies of the moon serve as a good reminder that all the best photography is about exploration, of the vast space either inside or outside the shooter’s imagination.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMBINE THE ANTICIPATION OF CHRISTMAS with a severe lesson in humility and you’ve described the process involved in exposing a roll of film in an old camera that may or may not operate properly. The “Christmas” part, that deliciously torturous anticipation that came, in analog days, from sending one’s film away to a lab, for up to a week before reviewing your results, is something that everyone of a certain, ahem, age can relate to. The humility (humiliation?) part comes when the package of finished prints arrives in the mail and your dreams crash up against the Great Wall Of Reality…delineating that ugly gap between what you saw and what you managed to capture.
I always collect older cameras that are at least technically “operational”. They click and clack the way they’re supposed to. Frequently, they spend their time as lovely museum pieces, but, on occasion, I will invest a little money to see if they are truly functional and if I can make them make pictures of any degree of quality. It’s a fairly costly operation, since older film sizes can be expensive (if they can be found at all) , and the list of qualified practitioners of the filmic lab arts is shorter with every passing year. As to how I evaluate the results, that can depend on the camera. If it’s an old Brownie and the images aren’t too good, I can’t really fault myself, since there wasn’t a lot of control I could bring to the process of a one-button box. In the most recent case, however, I was testing a Kodak Bantam Special, a fairly deluxe device that cost nearly $90 dollars in 1936 and featured a rangefinder, widely variable shutter speeds and a fairly fast f/2 lens. So in shoving a roll of extremely scarce 828 film (a bygone size with a negative slightly larger than 35mm) through the works, there were two things to determine: whether I could master the camera with a test base of only eight exposures and whether the camera was still able to perform.
One of the dozens of designs created by Walter Dorwin Teague during his time with Eastman Kodak, the Bantam Special has been called by many the most beautiful camera ever made. Now, while that may be aesthetically true, it’s an ergonomic nightmare, with controls jammed very, very close together, making it easy for ham-fisted users like me to fumble, lose their grip, even adjust one control when they think they’re working on another. In the case of this particular Bantam, most of the test roll revealed that the collapsible bellows on the camera leaks light like a sieve, producing wispy streaks across most of the frames. In other good news, the color rendition was very low contrast, with most hues having a decidedly bluish cast. Underexposure was also extremely easy, even with 400 speed film and wider apertures. And while that’s probably a mixture of old mechanics and my own poor calculation, the only way I could make the frame at left (one of the “keepers”) passable was to artificially tweak the contrast and convert it to monochrome after the fact. And that, again, is the “humility” part of our program, innit?
Moral of the story: If you ever find yourself getting cocky with the utterly cheap comfort of the digital age, take a time trip to the era when even the best laid-plans of mice and men often resulted in “what the hell?” pictures. Maybe the most enjoyable thing about shooting film, at this stage of the game, is knowing you can stop shooting film any time you want to.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IDEA OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the once-revolutionary notion that anyone could own a camera and produce good results with it, came about at the exact point in history as the birth of mass-market advertising. Inventors made it possible for the average man to operate the magic machine; marketing made him want to own one, and, by owning, adopt a lifetime habit of documenting more and more moments of his life with it. Some companies in the early days of photography excelled in the technical innovations that ushered in the amateur era. Some others specialized in engineering desire for the amazing new toy. But no company on earth combined both these arts as effectively as the Eastman Kodak Company.
Every December since 2014, The Normal Eye has resurrected advertisements from Kodak’s legendary seasonal campaigns, promotional efforts that portrayed their cameras and films as essential to a happy Christmas. From the beginning of the 20th century, the company’s print ads used key words like “capture”, “keep”, “treasure”, “preserve”, and, most importantly, “remember”, teaching generations that memories were somehow insufficient for recalling good times, less “real” without photographs to document them. The ads didn’t just depict ideal seasonal tableaux: they made sure the scene included someone recording it all with a Kodak. Technically, as is the case with today’s cel phones, the company’s aim was to make it progressively easier to take pictures; unlike today, the long-term goal was to make the lifelong purchasing of film irresistible.
Kodak’s greatest pitch for traveling the world (and clicking off tons of film while doing so) came from 1950 to 1990, with the creation of its massive Colorama transparencies, the biggest and most technically advanced enlargements of their time. Imagine a backlit 18 foot high, 60 foot wide color slide mounted along the east balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Talk about “exposure”(sorry).
Coloramas, sporting the earliest and often best color work by Ansel Adams and other world-class pros, were hardly “candids”: they were, in fact, masterfully staged idealizations of the lives of the new, post-war American middle class. The giant images showed groups of friends, young couples and family members trekking through (and photographing) dream destinations from the American West to snow-sculpted ski resorts in Vermont, creating perfectly exposed panoramas of boat rides, county fairs, beach parties, and, without fail, Christmas traditions that were so rich in wholesome warmth that they made Hallmark seem jaded and cynical. It was a kind of emotional propaganda, a suggestion that, if you only took more pictures, you’d have memories like these, too.
Half a century on, consumers no longer need to be nudged to make them crank out endless snaps of every life event. But when photography was a novelty, they did indeed need to be taught the habit, and advertisers where happy to create one dreamy demonstration after another on how we were to capture, preserve, and remember. The company that put a Brownie in everyone’s hand has largely passed from the world stage, but the concept of that elusive, perfect photo, once coined “the Kodak Moment”, yet persists.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip…..be grateful for a pleasant “trip“…..
Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, “Pick Yourself Up”
THE UNDERSTANDABLE EXCITEMENT THAT ACCOMPANIES the acquisition of a new camera is like that experienced by the first-time driver of a finely-tuned sports car,…..i.e., let’s open this baby up and see what’ll she’ll do.
All well and good. However, for the best translation of your vision, from eye to finger to shutter, I contend that it’s more important to know what your camera won’t do. Or more precisely, to learn what you don’t know to tell it to do.
Just as we are eager to credit ourselves, and not the camera, for those shots that really work out well, we need also to shoulder our share of the blame when things fail. The camera that delivers your message perfectly is the same camera that produced the shots that deserve to line birdcages. The difference is you. Your gear is composed of servo-mechanisms. They are neither intuitive nor interpretative. Anything that smacks of aesthetic judgement or nuance is on you. Am I saying there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” camera? No, but those two labels should be a measure of design, function and technical parameters. Your skill can both empower a limited camera and hobble an advanced one, so talk of “good” or “bad” falls apart once a disposable creates a masterpiece or a Leica delivers garbage.
This means that, at bottom, your choice of camera matters very little, whereas the choices your eye asks the camera to execute is, simply, everything. Try as it might, the camera cannot compensate for what you didn’t know how to articulate. Finding out what your camera won’t do means learning how to respect its technical limits while trying to eradicate those selfsame limits in yourself. That means, as Paul Simon wrote, “learning how fall”. It’s a pretty good strategy, since every one of us had to learn that in order to learn how to walk.
UPractice. Be eager to fail, and to learn yourself past future failure. And eventually get to the point where you never, ever write a check your camera can’t cash. Then, and only then will you really see what that baby will do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY, or at least the analog experience of rapidly developing film photography (in the digital era, all pictures are ‘instant’) has always been more about emotional excitement than technical satisfaction. In terms of lens and camera design, the idea of “instant” has consistently been more powerful than the reality.
The recent “second wave” of instant camera and films, now spread across three main companies (Polaroid Originals, Lomography.com, and Fujifilm) reproduces the thrill aspect that typically accompanies nostalgia, but also seems, at least in the case of Fujifilm, to actually move the technology from its take-it-or-leave-it roots, attempting to design gear that is substantially more attuned to photographers’ needs than a plain vanilla shutter button. Moreover, Fujifilm has also created a film which beats the competition in both color rendition and price point.
The Fuji Instax Mini system, which produces pictures of 62mm x 46mm versus the historical 79mm x 79mm dimensions of the Polaroid, includes more than a half-dozen models that, while hardly full-function by any realistic yardstick, do afford shooters a variety of fixed-aperture shooting modes, including macro, landscape, “party”, and “child” options as well as a “bulb” mode for time exposures (of up to ten seconds), a self-timer, and even a double exposure setting. Like Pinocchio, the Instaxes are not yet real boys, but they can sorta kinda walk and talk like one.
As for the competition, Polaroid Originals (the zombie resurrection of the old Polaroid carcass) still hasn’t perfected its watery-looking color film (or its horrendous $2-per shot cost) but has begun making new cameras again. Spoiler alert: they’re a crude reboot of the old One Step system, which is to cameras what Frankenstein was to smooth motor skills. As for the instant camera line from Lomography, they continue that company’s well-established tradition of charging you a stiff excise tax on hipness which is totally unwarranted by the product’s actual performance.
The images you see here, examples of double and time exposures, are both from a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 NeoClassic, the top of the company’s line and the closest thing that currently exists in the instant universe that can reasonably be called a camera instead of a toy. Hey, it’s a start. The first golden age of instant photography undoubtedly produced a lot of smiles. The technology’s second act could finally produce cameras worthy of all that global good will. Or it could all vanish again. In an instant.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STREET-HARDENED CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER ARTHUR FELLIG (1899-1968), who adopted the pseudonym “Weegee” was often asked the secret of his success as the journalist who best captured the stark essence of mobster arrests, gruesome murders, and various other manifestations of mayhem and tragedy. He had answered the “how do you do it” question so many times that he developed a uniform shorthand response which passed into photographic lore and stamped itself onto the brains of all future street shooters. The secret: “f/8 and be there.”
The “f/8” part spoke to the fact that Weegee, who seldom shot at any other aperture, was more interested in bringing back a usable picture than in creating great art. In the days before autofocus, shots taken on the fly at medium distance would almost always be reasonably sharp at that depth of field, no matter how sloppy the shooter’s finer focusing technique. Besides, since he was capturing sensation, not romance, why bother with subtle nuance? Weegee’s pictures were harsh, brutal, and grimy, just like the nether worlds they depicted. They were known for their high contrast and for the atomic blast of hard flashgun light he blew into the faces of society mavens and thugs alike. We’re talking blunt force trauma.
The second half of Weegee’s golden rule was far more telling for any photographer purporting to be an effective narrator. When Fellig spoke of “being there” he was not only referring to arriving on a crime scene ahead of any competition (which he guaranteed by grabbing early bulletins from the police-band radio in his car and having a mobile darkroom in his trunk), but in being mentally present enough to know when and what to shoot, with very little advance prep. The bulkiness of the old Graphlex and Speed Graphic press cameras (the size of small typewriters) meant that shooting twenty frames in as many seconds, as is now a given with reporters, was technically impossible. Time was precious, deadlines loomed, and knowing when the narrative peak of a story was approaching was an invaluable instinct, one which distinguished Weegee from his contemporaries. Opportunities were measured in seconds, and photogs learned to nail a shot with very little notice that history was about to be on the wing.
There will always be arguments about the finer points of focus and exposure, with most debates centering on the first half of Weegee’s prime directive. However, for my money, the urgency of being ably to identify immediacy and grab it in a box far outweighs the niceties of art. Many a Pulitzer Prize-winning image is under-exposed or blurs, while many a technically perfect picture actually manages to drain a scene of any human emotion. Make it f/8, f/4, hell, take the damned thing with a pinhole if need be. But be there.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE CERTAINLY MANY MORE PICTURES BEING TAKEN than there are great pictures taken. That’s as it should be. Anything at which you wish to be excellent only comes about once you’ve learned what not to do, and that means lots of errors, lots of images that you feel compelled to destroy almost as quickly as you’ve created them. You must, must, must, take all the bad pictures right alongside the good ones. At first, the garbage will outnumber the groceries.
And then, some day, it doesn’t.
I am an A.B.S. (Always Be Shooting) shooter. I mean, I make myself at least try to make a picture every….single…day. No excuses, no regrets, no exceptions. Reason? I simply don’t know (and neither do you) where the good pictures are going to come from. For me to give myself permission not to try on a given day means I am risking that one of those potentially golden pictures will never be born. Period period period.
In a way, I often think photo technique guides from years gone by had things backwards. That is, they often made suggestions of great opportunities to take great pictures. You know the list: at a party: on a vacation: to capture special moments with loved ones, etc., etc. However, none of these traditional “how-to” books included a category called “just for the hell of it”, “why not?”, or, in the digital era, “whattya got to lose? You’re shooting for free!” These days, there are virtually no barriers to making as many pictures as you want, quickly, and with more options for control and creativity, both before and after the shutter click. So that old “ideas” list needs to be re-thought.
To my thinking, here’s the one (yes, I said ONE) suggestion for making pictures, the only one that matters:
TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY.
And to purify your thinking, here’s my larger list, that of the most commonly used excuses not to shoot. You know ’em. You’ve used ’em. And by doing so, you’ve likely blown the chance at a great picture. Or not. You won’t know, because you didn’t TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY. Here are the excuses, in all their shameful glory:
I haven’t got the right lens/camera/gear. There’s not enough light. I don’t do these kinds of pictures well. I don’t have my “real” camera. There’s nothing to take a picture “of”. Everyone takes a picture of this. I’ll do it later. It probably won’t be any good. There are too many people in the picture. There isn’t enough time.
Train yourself to repeat take the shot anyway, like a mantra, whenever any of these alibis spring into your head. Speed up your learning curve. Court the uncertain. Roll the dice. Harvest order from chaos. Stop waiting for your shot, your perfect day, your ideal opportunity.
Take the shot. Anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY CONSUMER, Apple, Inc. seems to stand alone in its ability to define a market for a product, fill that market before anyone else can, and engineer the very need for that product in its customers. Apple has not only wrought great things, it has convinced us that, even though we couldn’t have imagined them ourselves, we can no longer imagine life without them. That bond between provider and user seems unique in the history of the world.
But it’s been done before.
In the 1880’s, when George Eastman perfected the world’s first practical photographic roll film, the idea of owning one’s own camera was quaint at best. Early photo images were created by talented, rich tinkerers and the first few professionals, making photographers a small, select brotherhood. Even so, Eastman’s boldest idea was not his film but the affordable means to make a film user out of the average man. The new Eastman Kodak company, like Apple, conceived of a market, filled it almost exclusively with their own products, and closed the deal by proceeding to teach people not only how to use their Kodaks but how to link photography with a full and happy life.
Over the last few Decembers, I have dedicated pages of The Normal Eye to the decades-long love affair between Kodak and the world that it trained to treasure photographs. Its marketing reached its creative zenith with the “Open Me First” Christmas campaigns of the 1950’s and ’60’s, which posited the idea that nothing wonderful could happen in the life of your family, especially on The Big Day, if you failed to record even a moment of it on Kodak film.
However, Kodak’s mastery of emotional messaging was in full flower generations before the “Open Me First” pitches for Instamatic cameras and Carousel projectors. Long before television and radio, the company’s persuasive use of print carried much the same appeal: if it’s important, it’s worth preserving, and we have the tools and talent you need to do it. Kodak cameras quickly became positioned as The Ideal Christmas Present, as the company targeted newlyweds and young parents with their upscale models and cultivated the youth market with their $1 line of children’s cameras. In an early example of inspired branding, the kids’ models were marketed with the names and images of illustrator Palmer Cox’ runaway juvenile book characters, the Brownies, playful elves who were featured on Kodak packaging and ads for more than a decade, helping launch the world’s most successful lines of cameras, in continuous production from 1900 to 1980.
Not even Apple in all its marketing glory has managed to align itself so solidly with the emotional core of its customers in the same way that Kodak, for nearly a century, forged a bond between its users and the most emotionally charged time of the year. In so doing, they almost singlehandedly invented the amateur photographer, fueling a hunger for images in the average Joe that continues unabated.
” OH SURE, I USE MY PHONE SOMETIMES“, you still hear hide-bound photographers grudgingly admit, “but when it’s important, I use my real camera.” This snotty, down-the-nose belief that only the cameras of one’s early experience can be regarded with any degree of respect or deference persists, runs against the grain of all reason. It’s a ridiculous statement, born of equal parts arrogance and ignorance, an insane notion that only some kinds of cameras can produce important images. Yeah, yeah, and only a Cadillac can drive you to the drugstore.
As the global dominance of the once-mighty DSLR recedes further into the twilight, it’s not even necessary to take sides on which piece of equipment is better, more relevant, more “real”. That’s falling into the same mental pothole of those who refuse to accept the mobile camera as a true instrument. Once and for all: shoot what you want with what you want. But please don’t pretend that the revolution isn’t happening. The very definition of what a camera “is” has been raging for nearly twenty years at this writing, and the weight of the evidence falls predominantly on the side of change, not tradition.
Big-time disclaimer department: I usually don’t cite current consumer stats in any of these posts, since blog archives are forever and ever-twisting trends quickly make liars out of all prophets. But in this case, I’ll just front-load the figures that follow with a few hefty qualifiers. The rankings below, listing the top camera brands and models for a very specific market, are extracted from user numbers for contributing photographers on Flickr, one of the biggest photo sharing sites on the planet as of the first week of November, 2016, which is when I compiled these abstracts. The list presented here lists the top ten most camera makes and models from that time. In order of popularity, then, the ten most used cameras by Flickr members this week are/were:
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy S6
Canon EOS fD Mark II*
Sony Xperia Z3
Motorola Moto X
The asterisks denote the DSLR cameras on the list. The other remaining models are cellular-phone based. All ten of these manufacturers have multiple models that were ranked among Flickr members’ most-used cameras, but what you see here are the top-ranked models within each brand. There were several venerable DSLR manufacturers that made the top 20, such as Pentax (#11), Leica (#16) and Ricoh (#17). As another point of comparison, the highest ranked mobile, Apple’s iPhone 6 accounted for over 518 million items on Flickr with over 19,000 daily users, with the highest ranked DSLR, Canon’s EOS FD Mark II accounting for 138 million+ items and over 3,200 daily users.
The number one selling camera, as I like to say, is the IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) Model 1. Brand loyalty for its own sake is beyond over with. So is format loyalty or lens loyalty. There is only what works. You can drive that Cadillac to the drugstore, but the Prius gets better mileage and may even boast superior crash specs. With cars as with cameras, drive what turns you on.
Just get where you’re going.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE DAY I WROTE THIS, the new Hasselblad XI-D-50c medium-format mirrorless camera was announced for pre-order. For the sake of history, it must be recorded here that the introductory price was $9,000.
For the body alone. Lenses (and batteries) not included.
I’m going to let that factoid sink in for a moment, so that you can (a) catch your breath/throw up/faint, or (b) find another blog whose author is impressed by this nonsense.
Now, for those who are still with us….
Let me state once more, for the record, that good photography is not defined by either academic training or dazzling hardware. There is no “camera”, in fact, outside yourself. To believe otherwise is to believe that a screwdriver can build a house. Tools are not talent. Moreover, schooling is not a pre-requisite for the creation of art. No one can sell you a camera better than your own brain, and no camera made today (or tomorrow) can save your photography if, like the Scarecrow, you don’t possess one.
I recently read a lament by someone who got his college degree in photography “back when that still meant something”, before the present age, in which, “apparently, everyone’s a photographer”. The sentiment expressed here is that making pictures is the exclusive domain of a few chosen High Priests Of Art, and that all who do not follow the path of the Jedi are, somehow, impure. Pretenders. Usurpers. Monkeys with hand grenades.
This viewpoint, with all its wonderfully elitist flair, was actually rendered obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, since that’s the first time Everyman could pick up and wield a camera without express permission from the Ivy League. Want to see how little it matters how little we know before we hit the shutter? Do your own Google search for the number of world-changing photographers who were self-taught…who, like most of us, simply got better by making lots of bad pictures first. Start with Ansel Adams and work outward.
What does this have to do with Hasselblad’s shiny new Batmobile? Plenty. Because the idea that great images are created by great cameras goes hand-in-snotty-hand with the idea that only the enlightened few can make pictures at all. Never mind the fact that these concepts have been scorned to laughter by the actual history of the medium, as well as its dazzling present. The notion that art is for We, and appreciation is for Thee stubbornly persists, and probably always will. That’s why museum curators get paid more than the artists whose works they hang. Go figure.
But it’s tommyrot.
There is no camera except your own experienced and wise eye. Choose performance over pedigree. You don’t need four years in study hall or a $9.000 Hassie to make a statement. More importantly, if you have nothing to say, merely ponying up for toys and testimonials won’t get you into the club.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY VALUABLE SERVICES OUR CAMERAS WILL RENDER without our consent or participation. Without even considering how many people shoot on full automatic 100% of the time, there are a hundred small calculations that these marvelous devices make to prevent the kind of errors in judgment that used to routinely trip us up, from autofocus and white balance, face detection and contrast control. However, there is a variable percentage of decisions on which we should really take personal action, despite the camera’s best efforts to, in effect, save us from ourselves.
In iffy light situations, for example, several key “semi-auto” modes are truly handy in helping us compensate for grey days or dark corners. One of these is called aperture control, in which you dial in the f-stop you want, based on your preferred depth of field, leaving the camera to set the shutter speed needed to properly expose at that aperture. At first blush, this seems to be a great short cut, and is in fact a neat option for people who are “running and gunning”..shooting lots of frames in a very quick time span. However, what looks like cutting your work in half can also mean cutting the legs off your creativity.
In the above situation, I had a severely overcast day in a lushly green Japanese garden. Without shadows for contrast, I would need colors to be as deep as possible to bring off the mood I was going for, so a slightly underexposed look seemed to be in order. Dialing in f/5.6 as a desired D.O.F. in aperture priority was giving me very slow shutter speeds as the camera tried to give me an ideal exposure. This made a handheld shot a little tougher and gave me way too much high color to suggest anything quiet or moody.
Going to full manual, I dialed in a shutter speed that would render the greens nice and deep, around 1/80, and bumped up the ISO a tad as insurance. It was true that I was shooting a lot at the same f-stop, but not so fast that I would have to surrender fine control by shooting in aperture priority for mere convenience’s sake.
I love some of the protections against my own folly offered by today’s devices, but I just can’t go completely driver-less and feel that I am taking enough responsibility for my results. Hey, if I blow it completely, I can still explain a lousy shot in two simple words.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GLOBAL RACE, ACCELERATING RAPIDLY SINCE THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE, toward better, faster image sensors in cameras great and small, as we wage the eternal photographic battle against the limits of light. It’s one more reason why this is the best time in the medium’s history to be making pictures.
It’s hard to express what a huge game-changer this is. Film-based photography advanced the science of gathering light in slow fits and starts for more than a century, with even some of the most popular consumer films rated at very slow speeds (Kodachrome) or, if faster, extraordinarily high grain (Tri-X). Suddenly, the world’s shadowy interiors, from stadiums to basements, give up their secrets to even bargain-priced cameras as ISO ratings for sensors climb and noise/grain abatement gets better and better.
The above image, taken inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, would have, in film terms, required either a full-open aperture (making a consistent depth of field from front to back tricky), a slow exposure (hard to go handheld when you’re on a tour) or a film rated at 400 or above. Plus luck.
By contrast, in digital, it’s a casual snap. The f/5.6 aperture keeps things sharp from front to back, and the ISO rating of 250 results in noise that’s so low that it’s visually negligible. The statue of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth is dark bronze, and so a little re-contrasting of the image was needed in post-editing to lighten up the deeper details, but again, the noise is so low that it’s really only visible in color. As it happens, I actually like the contrast between the dark statue and the bright room better in monochrome anyway, so everyone wins.
The message here is: push your camera. Given today’s technology, it will give you some amazing things, and the better you understand it the more magic it will produce. We are just on the cusp of a time when we can effectively stow the flash in the closet except in very narrow situations and capture stuff we only used to dream about. Get out there and start swinging for the fences.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
QUICK, DO YOU KNOW WHO MADE THE HAMMER IN YOUR KITCHEN DRAWER? Let’s assume that it’s not a Sears Craftsman, but something you bought on the spot when you just needed, like, a hammer. Yeah, I’ll wait.
Follow-up question: does your off-brand Thor-wacker drive nails any less efficiently than a Sears? Or is it really all in the wrist?
In photography, sometimes tools is just tools. Cellphone apps comprise one of the the most glutted product markets ever, and, while some products do rise to the top and/or international prominence, there are gobs of different players out there to help us solve the same old problems, i.e., composition, exposure, color range, special effects. Those are the basics, and you need not be loyal to any predominant type-A app when, by the time I type the rest of this sentence, forty more guys will have served up their own solution for the exact same need. Go with what works. Add, subtract, adopt, dump, delete, and adore as needed.
Most cel camera apps, toolwise, are closer to a Swiss Army knife than a scalpel, blunt instruments that either apply an effect all-on or all-off. Single click, caveman-level stuff. Still, even the casual cel photog will pack a few of them along to do fundamental fixes on the go, and I recently noticed that I had acquired a decent, basic utility belt of bat-remedies, including, in no particular order:
Negative Me. Just what it says. Converts positive images to negative. Not something you’ll use a lot, but..
Simple DOF. A quick calculator that measures near, far and infinite sharpness based on distance, aperture and lens.
Fused. Instant double exposures, with about ten different blending formulas.
Soft Focus. Sliders for sharpness, brightness, color saturation. Instant glamor for portraits.
Timer Cam. Get in the photo.
Instants. Genuine fake Polaroid borders around your landscape or square images. Because we can’t give up our hipster groove.
AltPhoto. Best simulations of older classic film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X, as well as red filter, toy camera and antique effects.
Tilt-Shift Focus. Narrow the sharp areas in your images from a pinpoint to a basketball.
Flickr. Direct link to the mother ship
Pic Stitch. Framing templates for collages of two or more images. Drag and drop simplicity.
Use of these gimcracks ranges from the (yawn) occasional to the (yes!) essential, and your mileage may vary. Thing is, it’s truly a buyer’s (and user’s) market out there. Gather your own gold and click away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EMERGING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS is the newly accepted way not to look like a photographer, a kind of invisibility based on strange public perceptions. This has only become possible with the arrival of the smartphone, and, although insane logically, it affords a new freedom to street photographers.
It’s simple, if crazy: carry an actual camera inside a phone, just as many millions of others do, and you’re somehow “safe” or trustworthy, not one of predatory, intrusive “professionals” with obvious cameras who are out to trick you, track you, capture your soul in their satanic box. Now, how we explain away the fact that the phone camera is far more stealthy, far more insidious and far more omnipresent than, say, a Canon or Nikon is anybody’s guess. But, dopey or not, this new code is now hard-wired into people’s brains as it regards street work. So little camera=harmless. Big camera=end of the world as we (or over-zealous mall cops)know it. You figure it out.
So, when it comes to grabbing quick snaps in stolen moments, it’s becoming harder not to embrace the crazy and just use a smartphone as your default street tool. I’m not completely there yet, but when I’m surrounded by things that I will either never see again, or have never seen before, it’s tempting to play spy shooter with the little clicker.
Some of the greatest sources of still life material, for example, are the dense shelves of flea markets, antique shops and thrift stores. You don’t want to buy this stuff, since (a) you can’t afford it and (b) the Mrs. will send both it and you to Goodwill, but the occasional odd item might just make a decent abstract bit of design. Camera gear from yesteryear is always an easy sell, and I was ecstatic to do a virtual shoplift on the ancient flash attachment you see above as a fun way of re-purposing an object through selective framing and processing.
It’s frustrating to find more and more places where it’s easier to negotiate a nuclear treaty than get an okay for regular photography, so it’s no shock that more and more inroads are being made for mobile cameras and the access that no one feels like denying them. And they say I’m nuts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO BICKER ENDLESSLY ABOUT WHICH IS THE BEST ROAD TO TRAVEL en route to the making of a picture. I mean they flat-out love it. Here we are entering the third century of a global art that has amply demonstrated that vision, not hardware, is the determinant of excellence, and we are still splitting into warring factions on which camera does this, or which lens or process does that. It’s discouraging because it is wasteful. Put in another context, it’s like arguing whether your marinara won first prize because you stirred it with a spoon instead of a fork.
This ongoing us/them battle over which is the “purer” approach to photography is presently centered on traditional cameras versus mobile devices. Each side calls its star witnesses to testify on a variety of qualifying or disqualifying factors, as if anything matters but the pictures. Can I play that game? Sure, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that I had never hurled a bomb or two toward both sides in the skirmish. But when I do that, I’m only serving my own ego….not photography.
I make a distinction between cel phone and conventional cameras based simply on what I want to do in the moment, but such distinctions are never recommended as a universal yardstick. Very generally speaking, if I want the widest number of creative choices before the picture is made, I prefer a DSLR. If I can safely trust my instinct for the greatest part of the picture, adding creative tweaks after the shutter clicks, I am comfortable with a cel. Simple as that. I have made very satisfying images with both kinds of cameras, but my results are purely my own. And that’s really as much as any of us can swear to.
The manufacturers of both kinds of cameras know that different people approach picture-making with priorities, and that’s why they make cameras that have different approaches. Why should this be surprising? Is a Cadillac a better car than a Fiat? Who says so and why? Don’t both accomplish the same baseline task of propelling you from point A to point B? Then they’re, um, cars.
Many pro photographers worship gear the way high priests dig incense and robes, so it’s no wonder that newbies catch the same fever. Looking at their worst pictures, they hate on their gear instead of questioning how they see. You’ve heard the if-only mantras. Maybe you’re mumbled them yourself. If only I had the Big Mama 3000 lens. If only I had a Lightning Bolt BX3 body with a Zeiss diamond cutter attachment! Boy, howdy, then you’d see some pictures. Yeah, well, bull hockey. Develop your eye and your pictures will come out better, whatever kind of camera they come out of. Choose to put yourself on an eternally accelerating learning curve. You’re the real camera, anyway.
Anything else is just a spoon or fork. Stir the pot with what’s at hand and start cooking.
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.