the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Composition

A QUESTION OF INTENTION

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOUR CAMERA IS FAIRLY CRAMMED with features and functions that may or may not help you make better pictures. Certainly, all are intended as conveniences or shortcuts, but, since no one will ever utilize 100% of their gear’s potential gimmicks, you alone must decide which menus and goodies will actually help you exercise the most control over your results, and which are merely distractions. Your own path as a photographer will decide the real value of your camera’s various add-ons.

One automatic setting that I personally toyed with for a time but now almost exclusively avoid is the so-called “burst” setting, which allows you to automatically snap a ton of images very quickly by merely depressing and holding the shutter button. Its appeal is chiefly in helping to track fast-moving activities, like sports, children, or any other rapidly changing situation that presents challenge in setting or formulating shots on the fly. The camera is basically taking pictures faster than you suppose that you could plan them yourself, the idea being that, upon review, something in that batch must be usable, with the also-rans just being deleted later.

Celia Woodsmith of the bluegrass band Della Mae, April 10, 2019.

But I really find this mode a detriment, not a bonus, simply because the entire picture-taking process has been handed over to the camera. The shooter is completely passive, a bystander to a machine that is now making all the decisions. It’s like spraying a fusillade of bullets over a wide arc in the hope that you’ll hit something…anything, and it’s about as far from purposeful picture-making as you can get. I realize that the fear of missing something great can be tempting, but taking a whole bunch of pictures real fast, none of which could be anything other than a technically acceptable accident, is not a creative decision. How can it be?

Listen, I get it. Things happen fast, and it takes a great deal of practice in shooting in changing conditions. But the idea that there’s no time to frame or conceive an image just because it’s in motion is a false one. Will some opportunities be missed if you have to compose and click in the moment? Sure. Will some choices be unproductive? Yes. But the results will be your results. The image you see above was taken in a concert environment, which is just as volatile as any kid’s baseball game or birthday party. Faces, physical blocking, postures and light change mightily from moment to moment. But there is still time to plan a shot. Yes, your reaction time is measured in seconds, but there is time. More importantly, you can change your mind about whether to try something. You have direct influence over what’s planned and attempted. The camera is carrying out your commands. That’s the important part: they are your commands.

The shot you see here is the product of about fifty shots that were either deleted on the fly or winnowed out in the editing process. But I know what they are because I shot them. That’s not my vanity talking: it’s just the difference between learning to trust yourself and handing that trust over to the machine. For me, the choice is simple.

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LINING UP THE STARS

Henri Cartier-Bresson the way the world most often saw him, from behind his 35mm Leica.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.

HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.

In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:

For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.

Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.

We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.

Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.


THE CAB IS HERE

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.

At Your Service, 2019

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.

And yet.

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…….


THEN AGAIN, WHAT DO I KNOW, ANYWAY?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOT ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU’LL ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF STANDARD of acceptability for your images….the inevitable “keeper” and “failure” piles by which we measure our successes (or lack thereof).

Now, we could fill pages with reflections on just how rational we all are (or aren’t) when it comes to editing ourselves. It’s a learned skill, one that’s practically a religion to some and a virtually unknown process to others. Be that as it may. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that we are all honest, conscientious and humble when it comes to dividing our pictures into wins and losses. Even granting us all that wisdom, we are often less expert about whether a photograph is “worthy” than we think we are. You’d think that no one would know whether we took a bad image that we ourselves. But you’d be wrong, and often, wrong by a country mile.

Just as we are never so purely objective that we can be certain that we’ve generated a masterpiece, we can be just as unreliable in declaring our duds. I was reminded of that recently.

I have a lot of reasons to regard a given picture as “failed”. Some have to do with their effectiveness as narratives. Some I disdain because they’re nothing more than the faithful execution of a flawed idea. But the pictures of mine that the waste can catches the most of are simple technical botches….pure errors in doing. I’m old enough to hold certain rules of composition, exposure or focus as sacred, and I’m quick to dump any image that contravenes those laws.

Here Comes Trouble, 2019

That’s why the picture you see here was originally something I had intended to hide from the mother of the manic young man in the foreground. I had attempted, one afternoon, to use a manual focus lens to track four very energetic boys, and in one shot their ringleader had made a sudden lunge at the camera that threw him into blur. Seemed like a simple call. I had blown the shot, and I was naturally eager to show his folks only my best work.

But the impact of the picture on the boy’s family was much more positive. Blurry or not, the picture captured something very true about the boy. Call it zest, enthusiasm, even a little craziness, but this frame was, to them, more “like him” than many of the more conventional shots I had originally chosen to show them. The real-ness of his face had, for his family, redeemed the purely operational imperfection that so offended me. To put it another way, my “wait, I can do it better” was their “this is fine just as it is.” Sadly, it was my wife who brought me to my senses and convinced me to move it to the “keeper” pile.

Which circles back to my first point. None of us absolutely know what our best pictures are. We do absolutely know the ones that connect to various audiences, but that may be a completely different pile of images from the ones we label as “right”. Passing or failing a photo largely on technical grounds would, over history, disqualify many of the most important pictures ever made. We have all emotionally loved things that our logical minds might regard as having fallen short. But, in photography as in all other arts, we’re often fortunate that logic is not the sole yardstick.


WHEN NOTHING TURNS OUT TO BE EVERYTHING

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.

Subdued Baywatch, 2019

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.


THE LUXURY OF LEAVING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE’VE SPOKEN A FEW TIMES HERE about the snapshot mentality, that hard-wired sense of urgency that seems to accompany nearly all picture-making….the flashing red light that screams Hurry. Get the shot. It’s a nagging feeling that we’re missing something great, that we’d better stop wasting time and start clicking. This hair-on-fire sensation may have come originally from cameras that were too slow or clumsy to operate, resulting in many lost opportunities. Then, as both cameras and film became more responsive, the idea that we could crank off a frame almost as quickly as the action of a special event spurred us on even further. Many generations and millions of personally precious occasions later, we almost always shoot on instinct. It takes practice and deliberation to slow down and actually plan a shot.

But the world is not composed solely of kids blowing out birthday candles or Bob being surprised by his retirement party, and there will always be times when, as far as photography is concerned, there is literally no big rush. Thing is, we have to retrain ourselves to sense what those moments are, and enjoy the luxury of being able to linger, even to leave, come back, reconsider, and re-shoot in an attempt to get the additional dimension that only comes from taking one’s time. This is an increasingly difficult habit to form, since we have so long married the instantaneous or fleeting quality of many situations to the way we take pictures. People who think too much about this kind of stuff have sold scads of books with the words contemplative or mindfulness in the title, but it really is just about slowing down long enough to let ideas percolate, for better pictures to emerge.

The Lakeshore Line, 2019

It is certainly true that technology has allowed us to make acceptable pictures of nearly anything, our cameras taking many decisions (including careless ones) out of our hands, trying, in essence, to anticipate what we probably “want” and attempt to give it to us. The aggravation of what results when we turn over the keys completely to these brilliant but non-intuitive machines, the gap between what it serves us up and what we truly seek, is the reason behind the blog you’re reading right now. The Normal Eye is dedicated to those times we wean ourselves off auto-settings, electing to both ask and answer our own questions, relegating the camera to its proper status….that of a servant. Part of the taking back of that control is placing yourself in situations where it’s okay, even optimum, for you to just simply cool your jets and think.

The frame you see here is #18 out of twenty shots taken toward a busy suburban road as seen from a roadside pond. The surface of this small lagoon is usually filled with concentric ripples from a centrally located fountain which is nearly always turned on, so in many cases, I could not dream of the reflections seen here. That idea alone was enough to make me pull off the road and park. Several of my first tries were framing disasters; a couple of others were taken from an opposite angle and contained too much clutter:  and then there was this one, which was preceded by several in which the road was just crammed with late afternoon traffic. Frustration was mounting. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Indeed I wasn’t sure I even knew what I was going for.

But then the lightbulb moment. This scene was going to remain stable for a while. Nothing could be lost by quitting the scene for a few minutes and approaching the whole thing with refreshed concentration.

I took a walk.

Five minutes had, indeed, made a difference in the intensity of the local traffic, which, in turn, gave me an idea for something that the picture could be about, as I saw a lone bus approaching from the leftward edge of my peripheral vision. Suddenly I had just enough context to at least imply a story. Whereas dozens of vehicles were just visual litter, a single bus could anchor the picture, add scale to the scenery, or at least tell the eye where first to focus. Ironically, I had a “snapshot’s” worth of decision time  in which to snap the shutter before the bus passed out of frame, so, even though I had taken extra minutes to get the shot I wanted, I only had seconds to recognize that it had arrived. In the final analysis, I would have had, at least in my own mind, much less of a picture if I had settled for the first, perfectly adequate rendering of the scene. I had benefited by not having to make up my mind in an instant. Contemplative? Mindful? Who knows? To me, it’s just enjoying the luxury of those instances in which I can afford To. Just. Wait.


CHOOSING YOUR CHOICES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TO CONSIDER A PHOTOGRAPHFINISHED“, I have to be at peace with the choices made in creating it. I can take either an active or passive role in making an image, each role with its own set of choices. At the most active end of the scale, I might be shooting completely on manual, micromanaging every step of the process, making what I call shaping choices. At my most passive, I might be snapping in full automode, which means, after the camera makes its own arbitrary decisions, my choices are merely editorial, with me choosing my favorites from among a group of photos essentially taken by “someone else”.

“Live” performances can be a challenge for me whether I’m shooting actively or passively. The stakes are as follows:

Shooting on manual (actively) means making lots of adjustments in the moment, with action progressing so quickly that, even at my fastest, I may miscalculate or simply miss a key opportunity. In short, I could work really hard and still go home with nothing. Or I could follow my instinct and bag a beauty.

Now let’s say I shoot passively, using a mode designed for such situations. Some cameras call this mode “continuous”, while others refer to it as “sports” or “burst”, but it simply refers to the camera’s ability to crank off several frames per second, making all necessary adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, autofocus and ISO on the fly with just one touch from the shooter. Since the camera can make these shifts much faster than any human, you’ll have scads of shots to choose from, nearly all of which will be technically acceptable. You lose control over everything except choice of subject and composition, but you do get the final say over what constitutes a “keeper”, such as the image of a flamenco dancer you see here, which was caught on burst automode. Your choices are less creative and more editorial, and, if you disagree with all of the “other photographer’s” choices, you’re just as out of luck as if you had shot everything manually but hated it all. Wotta world, am I right?

As photographers, we choose subject matter, and then choose the best way to approach capturing it, based on whether you rate assistance from your camera as a bane or a blessing or something in between. Methods are a personal matter, but making a choice of some kind is key to comprehending what is happening in the picture-making process, and what role you want to play in it.

 

 

 


THE HOP-ON POINT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY AT ITS MOST EFFECTIVE, is a pure and wordless kind of storytelling, virtually limitless and astoundingly efficient. Using a visual shorthand, that is, the static image stolen in an instant, we can suggest any narrative, past, present or future. Our tales not only feed off the storyteller’s intent but also off of what the viewer interprets. We can make anything mean anything. If stories are a constantly moving parade, we determine where the “hop on” and “hop off” points in it will be.

We do this by controlling the frame.

We make very intentional choices in a photographic frame. What is included is vital, but so is what is deliberately excluded, since both choices spark the imagination. We are, in effect, having a conversation, a debate over those choices with our audiences. Why did we show this and not that? Is this thing important because it naturally occurred in the picture, or am I making it important because I placed it there? And what do I think about what the photographer decided to leave out?

As the aforementioned parade of existence passes, the photographer’s hop-on point for the eye can supply context, showing connection between one thing and another…..or it can editorially destroy context, forcing us to see a thing in isolation, on its own terms. Consider, for a moment, the….. thing in the above image. Where did I get it? What was its purpose versus other things in its “world”? Can you, the viewer, assign it a new association that, for you, works just as well as the original?

All this discussion, all this interpretation, all these individual conceptions of what a thing “is”…all abetted by assembling the frame and than adding and subtracting within it. We talk a lot in these pages about the various sciences of photographic measurement…..exposure, light, apertures…. but I think composition outranks them all. Sure, know how to harness the tools that will help you record your message. But first, figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And where you want your passengers to hop on.

 

 


A WORLD BOTH WIDE AND DEEP

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUES CAN BE THOUGHT OF as both active and passive. Some of the tools used to tell a visual story silently move narratives along without loudness or fuss, while others deliberately call attention as much to themselves as to the tales they tell. You can make pictures that betray very little of “how’d they do that?” or you can trumpet your tricks very loudly.

Or, of course, you can do both.

As a case study, consider one of 2018’s Oscar contenders, The Favourite, which tells a surreal tale of eighteenth-century castle intrigue with camera work that fairly screams to be noticed, mixing standard widescreen shots with ultra-wide and even fisheye compositions, shuffled together in jarring transitions, as if the director needs to remind us how twisted and nightmarish the story it by keeping us visually off-kilter for the entire length of the movie. Contrast this with most films that try to render their photographic tricks invisibly, in keeping with established Hollywood tradition. Is it a case of The Favorite’s director merely showing off his technical cleverness?

Creative lenses such as fisheyes dictate a photograph’s terms of engagement.

Well, yes and no. Various lenses convey vastly different concepts of space, of the width and depth of rooms, of the relationships between man and nature. Using an extreme tool like, say, a fisheye, changes the rules of engagement for the viewer, even when applied to a conventional subject. The photographer is, in effect, saying “composition is what I say it is, not what you’ve been led to expect.” Of course, when you drastically distort how a scene or object is presented, you risk your picture being “about” the visual effect, eclipsing your message instead of amplifying it.

The characters in The Favourite are in a constant state of moral disequilibrium, with everyone jostling for position or advantage, so an unsettling shift between various lenses reflects their uncertainty, the unreality of their situation, actually enhancing the nightmare quality for the audience. Does your picture call for a technique that, in turn, calls attention to itself? Flamboyant or not, the answer must, occasionally be yes.

Just because you’re showing off doesn’t mean you’re wrong.


TERRAIN WITHOUT MAPS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANY PHOTOGRAPHER WORTH THE NAME is supposed to embrace landscapes, right? I mean, scenes of sea coasts and mountain ranges were among the first “official” subject categories photography inherited from the world of painting. The earliest pictures created with a “machine” pretended to legitimacy by capturing the same tableaux as those captured with a brush. I get that. But, as I have confessed many times in these pages, I often feel cast adrift in approaching “scenery” shots. I have more difficulty in shaping their narrative, whereas walking around a city, I feel like stories are literally laying all over the ground. I may have a general sense of what a landscape should look like, whereas I don’t always know what they are about. I have plenty of terrain, but no maps.

Think in terms of whatever kind of photograph you yourself feel most challenged. Do you shy away from your shorter suit because the task is too technically daunting, or because you feel unsure of what to say? It seems that landscapes often come to me without any clearly stated rules of engagement. What is a good composition? How crowded, how “busy” with visual elements can it be? Is the answer simply to render more detail than the next guy, that is, set for f/64 and show everything in tack sharpness, as if recording a scene “faithfully” were all? Or, as in the shot shown here (which I actually like), can a picture be dreamily soft and tremendously crowded with stuff, and still “work”?

The really maddening thing is that I just don’t have these inner dialogues when I’m shooting street scenes, abstracts, portraits. I don’t worry about whether a thing should be done, I just do it. Moreover, I trust myself to do it without a lot of dithering. But landscapes make me stop and worry. Maybe that pausing will lead to more deliberate thinking, and, in turn, to better pictures. The jury’s still out.


MY WHITE WHALE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.

These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.

The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.

Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.


A TRIP TO THE SUPERMARKET

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.

 


THE LUXURY TO LINGER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.

Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.

As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.

Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable  (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.

As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.


LEARNING HOW TO FALL

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

Don’t lose your confidence if you slip…..be grateful for a pleasanttrip“…..

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.

The path to a good image runs through yourself, not your camera.

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.


CALM AT THE CENTER

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

ALL OF WHAT WE CALLEFFECTSLENSES can additionally be used as “art” lenses, but they can also, for a photographer, merely be a way of saying, “hey, look at the cool trick I learned!” In what and how we shoot, we draw the line between “showing something” and just showing off.

Since no single lens can produce every desired optical look, we swap out speciality glass to get the effect we want in a given image. But is the final picture complemented or defined by that effect? Is the photograph “about” how close you zoomed in, or what you zoomed in to see? Did you shoot with a stereoscopic lens just to demonstrate 3D, or is there some deeper understanding of your subject achieved with the added sensation of dimensionality? You see where this is going: the yin and yang between calling on technique and calling attention to that technique for its own sake.

In trying to be mindful of this either/or way of using effects gear, from macro filters to pinhole lenses to ultra wides, I try to use some of them counter-intuitively, forcing them to tell stories in ways that go beyond the obvious. One such lens, and one which comes with its own set of pre-conceptions and biases, is the fisheye, which, for many, never left the bendy realm of psychedelic album covers and black-light posters, time-locked somewhere between Warhol and Peter Max. However, even in the most exaggerated fisheye shots there is the opportunity to create what I call “calm at the center”….an area roughly one third of the total frame where distortion is either muted or completely absent.

When a compelling and more normally proportioned middle is built into your shot, such as the stair steps leading toward the bench in this greenhouse shot, the bending that increases toward the outer edge of the shot can act as a framing device that leads the eye to your chief focus. The emphasis can then be placed on what is not distorted rather than what is. The fisheye lens is thus used to call attention to what it’s serving in the picture, rather than calling attention to itself.

Does this shot deliver what I was seeking? That’s for others to judge: the only thing I can be sure of is my intention, after all. Effects lenses are not automatically art lenses, any more than every camera owner is automatically a photographer. Results, finally, are the best testimony.


SHOW US WHAT YOU SEE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE ACT OF PUBLISHING A PHOTOGRAPH is roughly equivalent to a lawyer’s closing argument, in that it is an attempt to persuade, to sell an idea. To make his own “case”, a photographer must be fearlessly certain of what he is trying to say, a process that begins with the conviction that what he has frozen in an exposure is the truth, because his eye is a reliable narrator. Lying eye, lying result.

The best images narrow the gap between hand and eye.

The development of the photographer’s eye is one of two parallel tracks on the road to truthful images, the other being technical mastery. The challenge, then, for the photographer, is in narrowing the gap between what the camera captures and what the eye contends is the essence of the picture. Bear in mind that, between photographer and camera, only one of those things has an imagination. You have to tell the camera what to see in such a way that, as a mere technical measuring device, it has no choice but to obey.

John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a great shooter in his own right, expressed perfectly the problem that occurs when the eye and the hand are not on the same wavelength:

No mechanism has ever been devised that recorded visual fact so clearly as photography. The consistent flaw in the system has been that it recorded the wrong “facts”: not what we “knewwas there, but what had appeared to be there.

Long story short (and isn’t about time I tried one?) : don’t blame the camera when your vision isn’t realized in the final frame. Either you need a better vision, or a better way of setting up the shot so that the camera can’t help but deliver it. If you don’t turn on the water, the best hose in the world can’t put out a fire.

Stand in front of the court and make your case.

Show us what you see.


LEADING THE WITNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS GUILTY OF MANY AN UNTRUTH, simply by the very nature of how it mimics reality. And chief among these falsehoods is its assertion that it’s reproducing depth as well as length and breadth, that you’re not only looking at a photograph but into it as well. Compositional tricks employed to sell this illusion are as old as the medium itself, many employing the technique familiarly known as leading lines.

The phrase is practically an explanation in itself: two or more lines of some kind seem to originate near the foreword edge of the picture and trail inward, receding toward the “back” of the frame, usually toward a horizon line of infinity, at a point at which the lines seem to converge, like train tracks that grow closer as they fade into the distance. Leading lines can take the form of a spiral staircase, a winding stream, or some similar invitation for your eye to “buy into” the idea that the flat image is actually “deep”.

As surefire as leading lines can be, it’s also fun to experiment with other ways to convey the illusion of depth. The image seen here uses no obvious leading lines, and yet it achieves a reasonable effect of dimensionality. Several things can help “sell” the trick.

First and easiest is the choice of a 24mm lens. This optic qualifies as an “ultra-wide” and will always exaggerate the distance from front to back. Then there’s the detailed texture of rock and sand, whose particles shrink in size as the tide pool recedes toward the sea, and just as our mind knows it would in nature. As to focus, setting at infinity helps the eye look deeper into the shot, whereas just shooting only the family in sharpness might stop the audience at a shallower viewing point. Finally, the placing of the family at center and at the mid-point of the front-to-back distance means you have to “look into” the shot fairly deeply just to engage them, at which point your brain has already been dragged halfway to the rear of the shot.

And this is only one very elementary example of how you can effect the depth of a leading line image without….the leading lines. In some ways, photographic compositions are much like musical ones: both require orchestration and a willful conductor.


PLAN “D”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE THAT IS NOT BORN AN OCTOPUS figures out early that photography is often about living with the consequences of unforseen choices. Perhaps creatures born with eight arms might actually be able to produce the best images, since they’d be equipped with the means to carry every piece of equipment they possessed into the field for a shoot. As for the rest of us, results rise or fall on the strength of our planning…..and resiliency.

To be clear, the word planning is meant to denote all of your process, not merely the first preference you imagined when anticipating a shoot. That “version” we label “Plan “A”, which might also be entitled “do everything the way you first envisioned it with precisely the gear you originally selected”, an outcome roughly equivalent to Marrying The Prom Queen And Retiring To Tahiti. Let’s face it: shoot enough pictures and you’ll be struck by how seldom you were able to simply step up, click, and go hang a golden trophy on your mantel. In most cases, Plan “A” is usually just a point of departure, a preliminary sketch.

So let’s assume your photo shoot has proceeded to Plan “B”, which might be named “rejecting your original conception”. At this stage, you’ve begun to question everything from composition to gear to even the strength of your initial subject. Based on how many alternate equipment choices may be available, several tough decisions can be made at this juncture, including my favorite, Doing The Best You Can (the path of least resistance), otherwise known as Shoot It Anyway. Assuming this doesn’t work out, you move briskly on to:

Plan “C”, in which you have new strategies forced on you by either the technical limits of your gear, or the boundaries of your skill level with it. This assumes that, not only did you bring the wrong lens for the job, but also that the right lens is four acres away in the parking lot. Let’s also stipulate, for purposes of this exercise, that everyone around you is getting (a) impatient, (b) tired, or (c) hungry, just to add to the pressure. Hey, pal, no rush, but take the picture already, willya?  But have no fear… there’s always:

Plan “D”, in which a change in your entire approach to the image is unavoidable, but suddenly and strangely…..alluring. Being stuck with gear that won’t absolutely deliver your original vision no matter what you do, you begin to embrace the idea of experimenting, otherwise known as the What The Hell or Weary Resignation option. Hey, you grabbed a fisheye lens for the inside of the conservatory building…..but maybe you can also make it work as a standard ultra-wide (see above result). Cue up Kiss’ Nothing To Lose

All of which is to say, in a very roundabout fashion, that it pays to be as flexible as, say, an octopus.

With one-fourth the arms.


OF CLEARINGS AND COVER

 

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.

 


THE TEMPORARY COLLECTION

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, MUSEUMS SHOULD NEVER BE A ONEWAY STREET. The popular conception of the role of our various Hallowed Halls of Important Stuff is that the artifacts do all the sensory sending and we, the visiting public, do all the receiving. The idea prevails that paintings and sculptures and installations impart their wisdom and we passively soak it up, like ambulatory blotters. Thus, this logic must follow, a photographic record of the museum experience should only pointed in one direction.

But of course this is nonsense.

Anywhere you have hundreds of humans assembling in a common area, you have created an active anthropological laboratory, and thus a rich harvesting ground for the camera. A myriad of motives and paths, from “something to do” to a personal thirst for experience to a place to duck in out of the rain, converge as a “temporary collection” mixing with the museum’s’ more permanent ones. All these arrivals, each with their own energy, curiosity, hostility, apathy, fatigue, and joy to deal with, create a kaleidoscopic pattern of intrapersonal intersections and collisions. The eager attendee and the unwilling hostage exist side by side. That creates the unpredictable, and that unpredictability, for the photographer, creates opportunity.

In the image shown here, the “official” delights of the museum in question have failed to amaze, at least for the group occupying the bench. As for the woman peering out the window, she has simply found something with bigger “wow” value than anything hanging on the walls. The sheer dimensions of the space threaten to dwarf the group, to make it seem small or insignificant, and yet their faces and bodies contain a strange mix between tension and ennui that is so wonderfully human that it invites the investigative eye of the shooter.

This shot came to me virtually ready-made, although a later conversion to monochrome eliminated the minor color distractions of various articles of clothing. When a picture is this simple, everything that tends to complicate it becomes expendable. The phrase keep it simple, stupid, may not have originated with photographers, but we ought really to have it tattooed on our foreheads.

I spent nearly two hours in the museum in question (name withheld) and, I assure you, this was one of the most interesting tableaux I observed in the entire joint. It’s not that I find no interest in the arts: quite the opposite. It’s just that, visually, people reacting to the world is more vital to me than just pictures of the world alone. The whole gig is a museum, really, and frequently,  the permanent collection of life is thus upstaged by the temporary one. Go figure.