the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Depth Of Field

RETURN OF THE POD PEOPLE

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015.

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015. At f/3.5 and an ISO of 1000, this is an acceptably sharp hand-held exposure. Want the lights to be sharper? Might have to go tripod.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.

One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20  or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.

However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?

Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.

However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?

 

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BE THE CAMERA. NOW BE BETTER THAN THAT.

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A man, a plan, a woody: Ansel Adams in his element. Yosemite’s Half-Dome is at the right.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MERELY INVOKING THE NAME OF ANSEL ADAMS is enough to summon forth various hosannas and hallelujahs from anyone from amateur shutterbug to world-renowned photog. He is the saint of saints, the yardstick of yardsticks. He is the photographer was all want to be when (and if) we grow up. His technical prowess is held as the standard for diligence, patience, vision. And yet, even at the moment we revere Adams for his painstaking development of the zone system and his mind-blowing detail, we are still short-changing his greatest achievement.

And it is an achievement that many of us can actually aspire to.

What Ansel Adams did, over a lifetime, was work his equipment way beyond its limits, milking about 2000% out of every lens, camera and film roll, showing us that, to make photographs, we have to constantly reach beyond what we think is possible. Given the slow speed of much of the film stocks and lenses of his era, he, out of the wellspring of his own ingenuity, had to make up the deficit. He had to be smarter, better than his gear. No one piece of equipment could give him everything, so he learned over a lifetime how to anticipate every need. Look at one of many lists he made of things that he might need on a major shoot:

Cameras: One 8 x 10 view camera with 20 film holders and four lenses; 1 Cooke Convertible, 1 ten-inch Wide Field Ektar, 1 nine-inch Dagor, one six and three-quarters-inch Wollensak wide angle. One 7 x 17 special panorama camera with a Protar 13-1/2-inch lens and five holders. One 4 x 5 view camera with six lenses; a twelve-inch Collinear, including an eight-and-a-half Apo Lentar, a nine-and-a-quarter Apo Tessar, 4-inch Wide Field Ektar, Dallmeyer telephoto. One Hasselblad camera outfit with 38, 60, 80, 135, & 200 millimeter lenses. A Koniflex 35 millimeter camera. Two  Polaroid cameras. 3 exposure meters (one SEI, two Westons).

Extras: filters for each camera: K1, K2, minus blue, G, X1, A, C5 &B, F, 85B, 85C, light balancing, series 81 and 82. Two tripods: one light, one heavy. Lens brush, stopwatch, level, thermometer, focusing magnifier, focusing cloth, hyperlight strobe portrait outfit, 200 feet of cable, special storage box for film.

Transport: One ancient, eight-passenger Cadillac station wagon with 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top.

However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ work is not in how much equipment he packed. It’s that he knew precisely what tool he needed for every single eventuality. He likewise knew how to tweak gear to its limits and beyond. Most importantly, his exacting command of the elemental science behind photography, which most of us now use with little or no thought, meant that he took complete responsibility for everything he created, from pre-visualization to final print.

And that is what we can actually emulate from the great man, that total approach, that complete immersion. If we use all of ourselves in every picture that we make, we can always be better than our cameras. And, for the sake of our art, we need to be.

 


FINDING AN OPENING

Walking briskly down a city street, you might not want to stop to fully calculate exposure between every shot. In such cases, Aperture Priority may be a real help.

Walking briskly down a city street with wildly varying light conditions, you might not want to stop to fully calculate manual exposure before every shot. In such cases, Aperture Priority may be good fit. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I KNOW THAT I APPROACH THE IDEA OF SHOOTING ON MANUAL with what must strike some as evangelistic zeal. We’re talking full-on-John-The-Baptist-mad-prophet mode. I do so because I believe that, the further you can go toward overseeing every single facet of your picture taking, that is, the less you delegate to a machine that can’t think, the better. Generally. Most of the time. Almost always.

Except sometimes.

Aperture Priority, the mode that I most agree with after pure manual, can be very valuable in specific conditions, for very specific reasons. In AP (Av for Canon folks), you dial in the aperture you want for everything you’re about to shoot, depending on what depth-of-field you want as a constant. Then it’s the camera’s job to work around you, adjusting the shutter speed to more or less guarantee a proper exposure. Let me interject here that there are millions of great photographers who nearly live on the AP setting, and, like any other strategy, you have to decide whether it will deliver the goods as you define them.

If you are “running and gunning”, that is, shooting a lot of frames quickly, where your light conditions, shot-to-shot, will be changing a great deal, Aperture Priority might keep you from tearing out your hair by eliminating the extra time you’d spend custom-calculating shutter speed in full manual mode. Fashion, news and sports situations are obviously instances where you need to be fully mindful of your composition, cases in which those extra fragments of “figgerin'” time in between clicks might make you miss an opportunity. And no one will have to tell you when you’re in such a situation.

Conversely, if you are shooting more or less at leisure, with time to strategize in-between shots, or with uniform light conditions from one frame to the next, then full manual may work for you. I have shot in manual for so many years that, in all but the most hectic conditions (cattle stampede or worse), I’m fast enough to get what I want even with calculation time factored in. But it doesn’t matter what works for me, does it, since I won’t be taking your pictures (pause here to thank your lucky stars). If you need one less task to hassle with, and AP gives you that one extra smidge of comfort, mazel tov.

One other thing to note about Aperture Priority: it’s not foolproof. Change your central focal spot to different objects within the same composition (say from a tree to the rock next to the tree) snap several frames, and the exposure could be vastly different on each image. Could that happen when you’re on manual? Certainly. You can, of course, fiddle with exposure compensation on AP, essentially overruling the camera, but, to take the time for all that, you’re really not saving much more time than shooting manual anyway. See what you can live with and go.

This blog is a forum, not the Ten Commandments, so I never want to profess that my way is the only way, whether it’s taking photographs or deciding what toppings should go on pizzas. Although, let’s face it, people who put pineapple on them….that’s just warped, am I right?


NAIL YOUR FOOT TO THE FLOOR

I shot this on a day when I was forcing myself to master a manual f/2.8 lens wide open. That made depth-of-field tricky.

I shot this on a day when I was forcing myself to master a manual f/2.8 lens wide open, and thus shoot all day in only that aperture. That made depth-of-field tricky.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY PLACES YOU IN PLENTY OF SITUATIONS WHERE YOU ARE, TO SOME DEGREE, OUT OF CONTROL. From light conditions to the technical limits of your gear to erratic weather, we have all experienced that sinking feeling that accompanies the realization that, to a great extent, we are not in the driver’s seat. Gotta wait til the sun’s up. Gotta wait for the flash to recycle. Gotta cool my heels til these people get out of the frame. Gotta getta bigger bottle of Tums.

So why, given the frequent cases in which we naturally run off the rails, would I recommend that you deliberately hobble yourself, in effect putting barriers in your own way when shooting images? Because, quite simply, failure is a better teacher than success, and you never forget the lessons gained by having to work around a disadvantage. Not only am I encouraging you to flirt with failure, I’m suggesting that there are even perfect days on which to do it…that is, the many days when there is “nothing to shoot”.

It’s really practical, when you think of it. Go out shooting on a day when the subject matter is boring, a day on which you could hardly be expected to bring back a great picture. Then nail your foot to the floor in some way, and bring back a great picture anyway. Pick an aperture and shoot everything with it, without fail (as in the picture at left). Select a shutter speed and make it work for you in every kind of light. Act as if you only have one lens and make every shot for a day with that one hunk of glass. Confine your snaps to the use of a feature or effect you don’t use or understand. Compose every shot from the same distance. The exercise matters less than the discipline. Don’t give yourself a break. Don’t cheat.

In short, shoot stuff you hate and make pictures that don’t matter, except in one respect: you utilized all of your ingenuity in making them. This redeems days that would otherwise be lost, since your shoot-or-die practice sessions make you readier when the shots really do count.

It’s not a lot different from when you were a newbie a primitive camera on which all the settings were fixed and you had zero input beyond framing and clicking. With “doesn’t matter” shooting, you’re just providing the strictures yourself, and maneuvering around all the shortcomings you’ve created. You are, in fact, involving yourself deeper in the creative process. And that’s great. Because someday there will be something to shoot, and when there is, a greater number of your blown photos are already behind you.


LOOK DEEP INTO MY EYES

Literature For Lunch, 2016

Literature For Lunch, 2016

By MICHAEL PERKINS

3-D PHOTOGRAPHY SEEMS DOOMED TO FOREVER RESIDE ON THE PERIPHERY OF THE MEDIUM AT LARGE, a part of the art that is regarded with mild derision, a card trick, a circus illusion. My own experience in it, from simple stereoscopic point-and-shoots to high-end pro-sumer devices like the Realist or View-Master cameras, has met with a lot of frustration at the unavoidable technical barriers that keep it from being a truly sharable kind of photography. It’s rife with specialized viewers, odd goggles, and cumbrous projection systems. It calls attention to effect to the detriment of content. It is the performing seal of photography.

That said, the learning curve needed to compose for stereo effect is equally valuable for overall “flat” composition, since you must always be mindful of building layers of information from front to back, the better to draw your viewer’s eye deep into your subject. Some will meet this challenge with a simple selective depth of field, as if to say: only pay attention to the stuff that is sharp. The front/back/sides don’t matter…I’ll tell you where to look. Others decide to arrange the front-to-back space all in the same focus, forcing the eye to travel in a straight line. Depends on what you need to say.

DSLRs allow you to elect for the former strategy, while iPhone photography, at least at this point in history, pretty much forces you to adopt the latter. You just don’t have the fine control needed for selective focus in a smartphone, any more than you have a choice shutter speed or how wide you shoot. With few exceptions, the iPhone and its cousins are marvelously adroit point-and-shoots, so your composition options lie chiefly in how you frame things up. Quickly.

This “think fast” mentality works to your benefit in the stealthier parts of street photography. The quicker you click, the harder it is to be detected, which means fewer “hey, what are you doing” issues with reluctant subjects. Even so, you have to be composing consciously if you want to establish a strong line to maximize the illusion of depth. It means deciding where the main drama in a shot resides and composing in reference to it. In the above shot, the woman lost in her John Updike novel is the main interest, but the steep diagonal of the wall leads you to her, then, as a second stage, to the lighter pair of friends in back. Framed in this manner, depth can be accentuated.

There are happy accidents and there are random luck-outs in photography, to be sure, but to create a particular sensation in your pictures, you must craft them. In advance. On purpose.


UNDER-PERFORMING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF SLIDE FILM, I KNEW PLENTY OF PHOTOGRAPHERS who feared the unforgiving quality of the medium. The way that, with the educated guessing involved in many exposures, it was all or nothing. Prints. coming from a negative, could be created and re-created almost endlessly, but reversal film was, with few exceptions, a lot harder to massage. The processed slide was, for most shooters, the end of the argument. You either nailed it or….

Slide shooters became a kind of breed apart, since we had to work harder to coax good results out of our chosen medium. Slide film was, for the most part, a lot slower than daylight print film, so that, on some days, merely framing a shot in shade meant you could reduce your subject to a Dutch painting, mood-wise. A few of us played to that bias as well, deliberately under-lighting shots to boost color or isolate key subjects in the frame….making them “pop.” Others created strange effects by cross-processing, giving the lab instructions that ran counter to the recommended developing for a given film. And a lot of us became self-taught illumination geeks in a desperate attempt to get enough light to the film, causing our families to recoil at the approach of our monstrous flashguns. Their retinas died for our sins.

Yield, 2014. 1/30 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 35m.

Yield, 2014. 1/30 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 35mm.

Now we’re at a place where the camera is really the film, and that film can be made immediately, accurately responsive to nearly any lighting situation. Digital sensors have all but eliminated the need for spot flashes at all, and, as for rendering mood, if you can visualize it, you can pretty much shoot it. At a recent visit to an apple orchard gift shop (hey, it’s autumn!) I came upon an immense table of green and red apple varieties arranged in ready-to-buy bags. The light in the place was pretty meager to start with, but there was still enough of it to over-crowd the shot with background clutter….jars of jams, counters of candies, jugs of cider, peeps, etc. I wanted the warm colors of the apples to carry the entire image, so I started to think like a slide photographer and deliberately under-exposed the shot. That didn’t mean shutting down the aperture beyond f/4, since the place was fairly dark already, but merely leaving my ISO at its lowest setting, thereby telling the sensor not to suck in any additional light. I didn’t have much depth of field, but the somewhat gauzy quality at the rear and sides actually added to the warm nostalgia of the shot, so I kept it.

Again, digital makes it possible to try a lot of approaches to a task within the space of a few minutes, while the moment is there to be seized. You don’t have to physically consume film, shooting twenty frames with different settings and bearing the cost of processing them all in the hope that “the one” is in there somewhere. Cause and effect are compressed into a shorter, workable space, and success increases. To an old slide man, this is salvation of the first order. Now we manipulate the medium instead of the other way around. Man.


WORK AT A DISADVANTAGE

1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 800, 35mm.

Focus. Scale. Context. Everything’s on the table when you’re trolling for ideas. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 800, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“IS THERE NO ONE ON THIS PLANET TO EVEN CHALLENGE ME??“, shouts a frustrated General Zod in Superman II as he realizes that not one person on Earth (okay, maybe one guy) can give him a fair run for his money. Zod is facing a crisis in personal growth. He is master of his domain (http://www.Ismashedtheworld.com), and it’s a dead bore. No new worlds to conquer. No flexing beyond his comfort zone. Except, you know, for that Kryptonian upstart.

Zod would have related to the average photographer, who also asks if there is “anyone on the planet to challenge him”. Hey, we all walk through the Valley Of The Shadow Of ‘My Mojo’s Gone’. Thing is, you can’t cure a dead patch by waiting for a guy in blue tights to come along and tweak your nose. You have to provide your own tweak, forcing yourself back into the golden mindset you enjoyed back when you were a dumb amateur. You remember, that golden age when your uncertainly actually keened up your awareness, and made you embrace risk. When you did what you could since you didn’t know what you could do.

You gotta put yourself at a disadvantage. Tie one hand behind your back. Wear a blindfold. Or, better yet, make up a “no ideas” list of things that will kick you out of the hammock and make you feel, again, like a beginner. Some ways to go:

1.Shoot with a camera or lens you hate and would rather avoid2.Do a complete shoot forcing yourself to make all the images with a single lens, convenient or not. 3.Use someone else’s camera. 4.Choose a subject that you’ve already covered extensively and dare yourself to show something different in it. 5.Produce a beautiful or compelling image of a subject you loathe. 6.Change the visual context of an overly familiar object (famous building, landmark, etc.) and force your viewer to see it completely differently. 7.Shoot everything in manual. 8.Make something great from a sloppy exposure or an imprecise focus. 9.Go for an entire week straight out of the camera. 10.Shoot naked.

Put yourself behind the.... oh, you get the idea.

Put yourself behind the…. oh, you get the idea.

Okay, that last one was to make sure you’re still awake. Of course, if nudity gets your creative motor running, then by all means, check local ordinances and let your freak flag fly. The point is, Zod didn’t have to wait for Superman. A little self-directed tough love would have got him out of his rut. Comfort is the dread foe of creativity. I’m not saying you have to go all Van Gogh and hack off your ear. But you’d better bleed just a little, or else get used to imitating instead of innovating, repeating instead of re-imagining.


GOING (GENTLY) OFF-ROAD

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN YOU’RE BEHIND THE WHEEL, SOME PHOTOGRAPHS NAG THEIR WAY INTO YOUR CAMERA. They will not be denied, and they will not be silenced, fairly glowing at you from the sides of roads, inches away from intersections, in unexplored corners near stop signs, inches from your car. Take two seconds and grab me, they insist, or, if you’re inside my head, it sounds more like, whatya need, an engraved invitation? Indeed, these images-in-waiting can create a violent itch, a rage to be resolved. Park the car already and take it.

Relief is just a shutter away, so to speak.

Wait too long and the light will break: 1/800 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

Wait too long and the light will break: 1/800 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

The vanishing upward arc and sinuous mid-morning shadows of this bit of rural fencing has been needling me for weeks, but its one  optimal daily balance of light and shadow was so brief that, after first seeing the effect in its perfection, I drove past the scene another half dozen times when everything was too  bright, too soft, too dim, too harsh, etc., etc. There was always a rational reason to drive on.

Until this morning.

It’s nothing but pure form; that is, there is nothing special about this fence in this place except how light carves a design around it, so I wanted to eliminate all extraneous context and scenery. I shot wide and moved in close to ensure that nothing else made it into the frame. At 18mm, the backward “fade” of the fence is further dramatized, artificially distorting the sense of front-to-back distance. I shot with a polarizing filter to boost the sky and make the white in the wood pop a little, then also shot it in monochrome, still with the filter, but this time to render the sky with a little more mood. In either case, the filter helped deliver the hard, clear shadows, whose wavy quality contrasts sharply with the hard, straight angles of the fence boards.

I had finally scratched the itch.

For the moment….


THE OLD, DARK HOUSE

Child's bedroom, Rosson House Museum, Phoenix, AZ. 1/80 sec., f/3.8, ISO 640, 22mm.

Child’s bedroom, Rosson House Museum, Phoenix, AZ. 1/80 sec., f/3.8, ISO 640, 22mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE ULTIMATE ADAGE ABOUT OLD HOUSES, I.E.,”THEY SURE DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THIS ANYMORE“, is a sentiment which will haunt the casual photographer at every turn inside an historic home. No, they don’t make them anything like this anymore, especially when it comes to the size of rooms, angles of design, decorative materials, or light flow, and so shooting an antique residence requires a little re-fitting of the brain to insure that you come home with something that you can, you know, bear to look at.

Another cliché that comes to mind, this one about size: “the kitchen was so small, you had to go outside to chew.” Again, it can’t become a cliché unless it’s partially true, and it does apply to many of the rooms in pre-1950’s houses. People were shorter. The concept of personal space, especially in an urban setting, seems claustrophobic to us today. That makes for photos that will also look cramped and tight, so shoot with as wide a  lens as you can. This is the place for that 18-55mm kit lens you got with your camera, since it will slightly exaggerate the side-to-side and front-to-back distances within the smaller rooms. It will also allow you to get more in the frame when composing at shorter distances, which, on velvet rope tours, can be reduced to inches.

Multiple source of light can make things tricky. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

Multiple sources of light can make things tricky. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

One crucial thing to be mindful of is that 90% of the light you get on old house tours will be window light. Highlights will almost certainly be blown out on things like sheer drapes, but you need all the light you can get, since it’s a cinch that flash will be prohibited and the interior wood trims, floors and furnishings will likely be very dark in themselves, acting as light blotters. Learn to live with the extreme contrasts and resulting shadowy areas. Expose for the most important elements in a room. You cannot show everything to perfect advantage. In some interior rooms in older homes, you don’t have a shot at all, unless you ditch the rest of the tour group and have about twenty minutes to yourself to set things up. Unlikely.

A wide-angle lens helps to open up shallow spaces. 1/50 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

A wide-angle lens helps to open up shallow spaces with an enhanced sensation of depth. 1/50 sec., f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm.

If you are shooting with a wide-angle, you may not be able to go any further open on aperture than about f/3.5. This means either working rock-solid handheld or cranking up the old ISO. If you do the latter, don’t go back later with an editor and try to rescue the darker areas: you will just show the smudgy noise that you allowed with the higher ISO, so, unless you like the warm look of black mayonnaise, resist.

Again, if shooting wide, remember that you can also zoom in tight enough to isolate clusters of items in charming still life arrangements with basically no effort on your part. Hey, an expert has already been paid to professionally build your composition for you with period bric-a-brac, so it’s easy pickings, right?

Admittedly, shooting in an old house can be like trying to conduct a prize fight inside a shoe box.

Or it can be like coming home.


DEPTH OF FEELING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OFTEN, THERE ARE ONLY SCANT MOMENTS TO DETERMINE HOW TO “USE” PEOPLE IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS. The decision as to how prominently a person figures in the overall scheme of a given image is frequently made on the fly, and your result will reflect whether that person is an element of the picture or a select feature.

Of course, you can wind up with wonderful photos either way, which is one of the most attractive aspects of picture making. This is all multiple choice, and there is no wrong answer. Also, if the answer was right for you, chances are that it will be so judged by others. Your conviction carries the picture to its desired audience, if you will.

This October, I fell into a virtual pot of gold on a trip to visit friends in rural New Mexico, since the entire countryside was awash in a gilded flood of yellow with the turn of the leaves. You could literally point the camera at a trash can, and, if it was next to a cottonwood tree, the thing became a palace. As a  midwestern kid who has spent nearly fifteen years in the Arizona desert, I was long overdue for the richness of the autumnal palette, and I got a little drunk on it all. I wanted to immortalize every tree, shooting generally at small apertures to get as much sharp detail as possible.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

That’s what I was doing in the side yard of a roadside gallery when my wife Marian wandered outside for a brief walk, so the first few frames I shot showed her and the background in about the same focus. Just for variety, I re-focused on mostly her at f/5.6, slightly softening the foliage beyond so it wouldn’t fight with her for the viewer’s attention. In that one frame, she morphed from element to feature, and all that color was put at her service, so to speak. As an afterthought, I made a dupe of the image, lightened it by about a third, then blended the two in Photomatix, since HDR processing also accentuates detail, giving me an even sharper contrast between her sharpness and the softer background. It wasn’t a big bump, processing-wise, just the bow on the box.

Experimental “light field” cameras, once perfected, may make such planning moot, since images taken with this very different technology allows the photographer to redo the depth of field on an image after it has been taken. For now, however, it’s a decision of the moment.

Again, part of the fun.


EAVESDROPPING ON REALITY

Stepping onto Blenkner Street and into history. Columbus, Ohio's wonderful German Village district, December 2013. 1/60 sec., f/1.8, ISO 800, 35mm.

Stepping onto Blenkner Street and into history. Columbus, Ohio’s wonderful German Village district, December 2013. 1/60 sec., f/1.8, ISO 800, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.

Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting  quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.

In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.

Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.

The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.

1/60 sec., f/1.8, ISO 800, 35mm.

1/60 sec., f/1.8, ISO 800, 35mm.

The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.

Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.

The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.


TATTERED BEAUTY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST MIRACULOUS FEATS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, TO ITS ORIGINAL 19TH-CENTURY AFFICIONADOS, was to freeze time, to arrest or isolate the continuum of progress. Indeed, if you think about it, the act of snatching a fragment of life, of holding it immobile for endless examination, is truly amazing, even at this late date in the art’s development. We spend a huge part of the time that is trying to grab a souvenir of what’s about to become was.

Photography’s great gift, being able to document time’s passing….its ravages, its wear and tear on the things of this life is often focused on the living world; people, trees, the temporary aftermath of a rainstorm, the quick passing of a sunset. But it can be an intriguing way to measure the impact of time on inanimate thing as well. Slicing, dicing, magnifying, and parsing time as we do with cameras, we can concoct an infinite number of ways to pore over the details of things that, in previous ages, only the poets fixated upon. The world has become our microscope lab, a petri dish for experiments in seeing and analyzing.

1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

“A rose is a rose”. Unless it’s a ragged, fake rose. 1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

What started this whole train of thought was the recent discovery, under a bed, of an old fabric rose. Sadly, I have long since passed the point where I can actually throw anything away without having some kind of debate inside my skull about whether it’s worth looking at, one more time, before a lens.  In this case, I was intrigued by how frayed and threadbare the thing had become over time, its petals and leaves bereft of any ability to create even the illusion of beauty. Its magic, and thus its reason to exist, had vanished.

I always keep a stack of three magnifying diopters handy to attach to the front of my prime 35 lens, giving me a poor-man’s macro at about 10x magnification, and I was soon within tight enough range to see the ragged edges and unraveled texture of the faux rose. It looked just a bit flat illuminated by soft window light, though, so I tilted the blossom away from the window a tad to deepen the shadows in some petals and give it a little added depth. Too me five minutes to find out the answer to the everlasting photo question, “is this anything?”

Even if such little exercises don’t result in great pictures, they do result in a speedup of the learning curve, and as practice, as seeing everything in as many ways as possible.

Not a big lesson. Just a lot of little ones bunched together.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


NOT A LEG TO STAND ON

No tripod, no problem. Minimal noise even at 3200 ISO. Handheld in NYC's theatre district at 1/50 sec., f/3.5, 18mm.

No tripod, no problem. Minimal noise even at 3200 ISO. Handheld in NYC’s theatre district at 1/50 sec., f/3.5, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WHETHER IN THE SCIENCES OF LENSES, FILMS, SENSORS OR TECHNIQUE, ALL HAVE, AS THEIR AIM, THE SAME RESULT: to make it easier to take more pictures…more often, and with fewer barriers between what you see and what you can catch in the box. Taking more pictures means increasing the yield of wonderful pictures, even if 95% of what you shoot is doody, and getting to the decisive moment of the “click” beats any other imperative. Any gimmicks or toys that don’t increase your readiness to shoot are wasteful detours.

This means that we are constantly weeding out dead growth, trimming away systems or ideas that have outgrown their usefulness. Rusty ways of doing things that cost us time, require extra steps, and eventually rob us of shots.

And that’s why it’s the age of the tripod is nearly over.

Getting past our artistic bias toward the ‘pod as a vital tool in the successful creation of images is tough; we still associate it with the “serious” photographer, even though today’s cameras solve nearly all of the problems tripods were once reliable in offsetting. What we’re left with, regarding the tripod’s real value, then, is old brain wiring and, let’s face it, sentiment.

More importantly, to my first point, the tripod is not about, “Okay, I’m ready!”. It’s about, “Hold on, I’ll be ready in a minute.” Worse yet, to the petty dictators who act as the camera police in churches, monuments, retail establishments and museums, they scream, “you can’t be here”.  Call me crazy, but I still think of lack of access (spelled “getting kicked out”) as, well, sort of a hindrance to photography.

Just sayin’.

Tripods were, once upon a time, wonderful protection again several key problems, among them: slow film/sensor speed, vibration risk, and sharpness at wider apertures, all of which have long since been solved. Moreover, tripods may tempt people to shoot at smaller apertures, which could lead to softer overall images.

Had I stopped to get a tripod ready for this, my light, and my chance, would have morphed away. 1/15 sec. handheld with a fast 35mm prime,, wide-open at f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

Had I stopped to set up a tripod here, my light, and my chance, would have melted away. 1/15 sec,. handheld, with a 35mm prime, wide-open, at f/1.8, ISO 640.

I readily concede that tripods are absolutely vital for extended night exposures, light painting, miniature work, and some other very selective professional settings. But for more than a century, ‘pods have mostly been used to compensate where our cameras were either flawed or limited. So, if those limits and flaws have faded sufficiently to allow you to take a nighttime snap, handheld at f/1.8, with a 1/15 shutter speed and the virtual guarantee of a well-lit shot, with negligible noise, why would you carry around twice the gear, pretty much ensuring that you would lose time, flexibility, and opportunities as a result?

The tripod has served us well, as was once true of flash powder, glass plates, even the torturous neck braces used to hold people’s heads in position during long exposures. But it no longer has a leg to stand on.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


THE BOOK OF KODAK

How To Make Good Pictures, 28th Edition (1943-47). From the collection of the author.

The Long-Distance Runner: The Most Successful Photography Instruction Series In History, Eastman Kodak’s How To Make Good Pictures (28th Edition,1943-47). From the collection of the author.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

KODAK’S SAD AND WOBBLY RE-EMERGENCE FROM BANKRUPTCY, announced this week, finalizes the process of “saving” a famous name, while annihilating the legacy of innovation that made that name great for over a century. Having already said goodbye to Kodachrome, most of its other trademark films, and camera production itself, Kodak will now concentrate on “imaging products”, which, for, most of us, means “printers”. Most of the news coverage of this corporate resurrection will “focus” (sorry) on what the new company stock will be worth, who goes, who stays, and a few scant mentions of the company’s original role as camera producer to the world.

That will leave a significant part of the story untold.

Certainly, George Eastman’s genius for marketing helped develop the first flexible roll films, then ingeniously created a market for them by putting a basic, usable camera in the hands of the Everyman. Nearly everyone has heard the slogan Kodak created to demonstrate how truly effortless its products had made photography: you press the button and we do the rest. But none of that would have guaranteed the company’s growth if Kodak has not also decided to become photography’s first great mass teacher, creating pro-active education programs to guarantee that, not only could Uncle Clem snap a photo easily, he could snap a good photo easily. What had once been a dark art for a select cabal of techno-wizards became, under Kodak’s outreach, something that could anybody could do.

And Kodak was going to show you how to do it.

There was a time when this Kodak (    ) was truly intimidating. How To Make Good Pictures made it your friend.

There was a time when this Kodak Vest-Pocket Hawkeye was truly intimidating. How To Make Good Pictures made it your friend.

Beginning before the end of the Victorian era, the company began to publish the first of an endless stream of practical guides on technique and simple theory aimed at the average shutterbug. Starting in 1898 with Picture Taking And Picture Making (115 pages of tips in a cardboard cover for fifty cents!), Eastman Kodak moved to 1905’s The Modern Way In Picture Making, and, finally, to the most successful photo instruction series in history, How To Make Good Pictures, introduced in 1912 and revised continually until finishing up with its 37th edition, in 1995. Over the years the “make” in the title had been changed to “take”, and its 1890’s essays on bromide paper, collodion matte, and ground-glass focusing had evolved, over the decades, to instructions on the use of flash, color, drop-in film cartridges, and “how to tell a picture story” with your Kodacolor slides. Hundreds of printings and millions of sales later, How To Make Good Pictures forged an ironclad link between consumer and company in a way no corporation before or since has done.

To everything there is a season. Kodak’s (now historically) tragic failure to see digital photography as a viable consumer revolution, until it was too late, is a matter of raw record. The company that taught the world to see had a blind spot, a fatal one, and the irony that nearly all of the rest of the industry developed digital technology by applying processes originated (and patented) by Kodak makes the story even sadder.

But, once upon a time, the Eastman Kodak Company not only knew what the future of photography was going to look like, it wrote a handy dandy little book that told everyone how to master that future.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye


THREE STRIKES AND YOU’RE…IN?

Wreck Of The Old '87. Wreck is right. 1/80 sec., variable depth of field created with a Lensbaby attachment, ISO jacked to 640, 35mm.

“Wreck Of The Old ’87”. Wreck is right. 1/80 sec., variable depth of field created with a Lensbaby attachment, ISO jacked to 640, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN SORTING MY IMAGES INTO KEEPERS AND CLUNKERS, I ALWAYS SUFFER THE SAME BIAS. Whereas some people might be too eager to find reasons why a picture should be inducted into the former group, I nearly always search for reasons to toss them into the latter one. I always know right away what I’ve failed to achieve in a given frame, and its flaws glow like safety orange in my brain to the point where I not only can’t credit myself for the photo’s stronger elements, I can no longer even see them. I therefore consign many pictures to the rubbish heap, a few of them prematurely.

Usually, however my first call is the right one. I very seldom revisit a picture I initially disliked and find something to redeem it. So it was kind of headline news when I recently “saved” a photo I had originally (and wisely) savaged. Hell, I’m still ambivalent, at best, about it, but I can’t truly classify it as an outright Lost Child anymore.

It came from a random day of practice I had undertaken with a Lensbaby, one of those effects lenses designed to give you the ability to manually throw parts of your image out of sharp focus, in fact to rotate around and create various “sweet spots” of sharpness wherever you want to. I don’t use the thing a lot, since it seems, on some level, damned silly to put defects into your pictures on purpose just to convince yourself you are, ahem, an artiste. But, all work and no play, etc. etc., so I was clicking away inside a dimly lit building at a railway museum in which a huge layout of miniature train dioramas is a regular attraction. I seemed to be going out of my way to create a picture that would normally be “three strikes and you’re out”…..that is:

poorly lit, and loving it

poorly focused, otherwise known as, sure, I meant to do that,  and

a half-baked attempt to make something fake appear real.

Only one of the shots sparked my interest at all, purely because it seemed to contain a sort of… mystery. So many dark corners. So many unexplained details. A very disorienting, dreamlike quality that had to have jumped into the camera without any help from me. It looked both hyper-real and utterly false, simultaneously fearsome and fascinating. Again, this all happened in spite of, not because of, any action on my part. I added no post-processing to the shot, except to desaturate it and slather on a layer of sepia. Other than that, I left it in its original sloppy, random state.

And then I decided it was still junk and forgot about it for a few months.

Just why I have, in recent days, tried to rehabilitate my thinking about it is anyone’s guess. Like I sad at the top, I look for reasons to reject my work, not excuse it. This has little to do with modesty. It’s just an admission that control is so much a part of my make-up that I recoil from images where I seem to have absolutely relinquished that control. They scare me a little.

But they thrill me a little too. And, as Vonnegut says, so it goes.

Perhaps the best thing is to maintain the Keepers and Clunkers piles, but add a third, labeled “Not Really Sure”.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


A BRIEF AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN

What, are you still here? 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

What, are YOU still here? 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF PICTURE YOU WILL EVER TAKE OF A CAT, and that is the one she allows you to take. Try stealing an image from these spiritual creatures against their will, and you will reign over a bitter kingdom of blur, smear, and near misses.

It’s trickier to take photos of the ectoplasmic projections of departed relatives. But not by much.

I recently encountered this particular lady in a Brooklyn brownstone, a gorgeous building, but not one that is exactly flooded with light, even on a bright day. There are a million romantically wonderful places for darkness to hide inside such wonderful old residences, and any self-respecting feline will know how to take the concept of “stealth” down a whole other road. The cat in the above photo is, believe me, better at instant vaporization and re-manifestation than Batman at midnight in Gotham. She also has been the proud unofficial patrol animal for the place since Gawd knows when, so you can’t pull any cute little “chase-the-yarn-get-your-head-stuck-in-a-blanket” twaddle that litters far too much of YouTube.

You’re dealing with a pro here.

Her, not me.

Plus she’s from Brooklyn, so you should factor some extra ‘tude into the equation.

The only lens that gives me any luck inside this house is a f/1.8 35mm prime, since it’s ridiculously thirsty for light when wide open and lets you avoid the noticeable pixel noise that you’d get jacking up the ISO in a dark space. Thing is, at that aperture, the prime also has a razor-thin depth of field, so, as you follow the cat, you have to do a lot of trial framings of the autofocus on her face, since getting sharp detail on her entire body will be tricky to the point of nutso. And of course, if you move too far into shadow, the autofocus may not take a reading at all, and then there’s another separate complication to deal with.

The best (spelled “o-n-l-y”) solution on this particular day was to squat just inside the front foyer of the house, which receives more ambient light than any other single place in the house. For a second, I thought that her curiosity as to what I was doing would bring her into range and I could get what I needed. Yeah, well guess again. She did, in fact, approach, but got quickly bored with my activity and turned to walk away. It was only a desperate cluck of my tongue that tricked her into turning her head back around as she prepared to split. Take your stupid picture, she seemed to say, and then stop bothering me. 

Hey, I ain’t proud.

My brief audience with the queen had been concluded.

I’ll just show myself out……

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


YOU ARE THE CAMERA

Dark Days for the printed page. 1/80 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Dark Days for the printed page. 1/80 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MOST ANNOYING COMMERCIAL ON TELEVISION AT PRESENT is the one from Apple reminding you that more people take pictures with the iPhone5 than with any other camera in the world. Now, I understand that The Men Who Would Be Steve at Apple need to assert their dominance in a rapidly accelerating race between smartphone camera brands. It’s just good business, and all that. Granting that, let’s agree that their statement is essentially meaningless for photography.

Apple can claim that their photo gadget is in more hands than anyone else’s? Ho-hum. The Kodak Brownie was able to make the same claim over 100 years ago, and successfully defend it for almost another fifty. We’re number one, sis-boom-bah, and what does that have to do with the kind of pictures that are being taken? The iPhone5 is a technical marvel on many levels, and it contains, among many other toys, a reasonably reliable, limited point-and-shoot-camera. You will always be able to get some kind of image on it under nearly any circumstances.

However, the Apple TV ad, while factually accurate, is artistically false, since it leads one to the spurious conclusion that more iPhone5 pictures means more excellent pictures. And there isn’t a camera, cheap or cherry, that can make that statement. I get just as agitated when trendo camera mags try to imply that if your gear costs thousands, your pictures will look like a million.

We’ve had almost two hundred years to shake off this childish notion. Equipment does not equal excellence. Convenience, speed, affordability, flexibility…cameras can make all these claims. But they do not confer the title of photographer on anyone.

Only you can do that.

There used to be more of these than any other camera in the world, and so what?

There used to be more of these than any other camera in the world, and so what?

And you can do it with a cheap piece of garbage, or a technical wonder, or any equipment stage in between. The idea is all. Everything else is just tinkering.

Here’s another piece of lunatic logic coming from another direction:

The idiotic recent decision of the Chicago Sun-Times to lay off all of its staff photographers, replacing them with freelancers (whom they will train on iPhones!), is not a lousy idea because there aren’t enough low-cost cameras out there to afford them some kind of coverage on their stories. It’s a lousy idea because it’s based on a flawed concept: the belief that photography is a universal skill, and that bystanders with smartphones are the equal of seasoned visual journalists, imbedded in their communities and schooled in its sources. They are not, and can never be.

Sadly,you can bet that editors across the nation are watching to see if the Sun-Times gets away with it. And they just might. Of course the quality of image reporting will take a hit, but since people are leaving the traditional newspaper as if it has leprosy anyway, will the customers know the difference? Look for this horrible move to be duplicated at a newspaper near you, since it’s (a) cheap, (b) easy to explain failure some other way, and (c) oh, yeah did I mention it’s cheap? Ironic sidebar: this is, officially the first time a newspaper has opted for less technology to become more competitive.

Expensive cameras and decent salaries are certainly no guarantee of good news coverage, but a staff loaded with veterans of wars, uprisings, elections, disasters and human interest is. The fact that several of them are Pulitzer Prize winners isn’t exactly a disqualifier, either.

You are the camera. You make the picture, regardless of the technology at hand. Forget that, and you might as well be holding a canned ham.

 

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.com


IT’S NOT EASY BEIN’ GREEN

In the desert? A Phoenix area public park at midday. There is a way around the intense glare. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm, straight out of the camera.

This is the desert? A Phoenix area public park at midday. There is a way around the intense glare. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm, straight out of the camera.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR YEARS I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING SUBJECTS IN THE URBAN AREAS OF PHOENIX, ARIZONA, trying to convey the twin truths that, yes, there are greenspaces here, and yes, it is possible for a full range of color to be captured, despite the paint-peeling, hard white light that overfills most of our days. Geez, wish I had been shooting here in the days of Kodachrome 25. Slow as that film was, the desert would have provided more than enough illumination to blow it out, given the wrong settings. Now if you folks is new around here, lemme tell you about the brilliant hues of the Valley of the Sun. Yessir, if’n you like beige, dun, brown, sepia or bone, we’ve got it in spades. Green is a little harder to come by, since the light registers it in a kind of sickly, sagebrush flavor….kind of like Crayola’s “green-yellow” (or is it “yellow-green”?) rather than a deep, verdant, top-o-the-mornin’ Galway green.

But you can do workar0unds.

In nearby Scottsdale, hardly renowned for its dazzling urban parks (as opposed to the resort properties, which are jewels), Indian School Park at Hayden and Indian School Roads is a very inviting oasis, built around a curvy, quiet little pond, dozens of mature shade trees that lean out over the water in a lazy fashion, and, on occasion, some decorator white herons. Thing is, it’s also as bright as a steel skillet by about 9am, and surrounded by two of the busiest traffic arteries in town. That means lots of cars in your line of sight for any standard framing. You can defeat that by turning 180 degrees and aiming your shots out over the middle of the pond, but then there is nothing really to look at, so you’re better off shooting along the water’s edge. Luckily, the park is below street level a bit, so if you frame slightly under the horizon line you can crop out the cars, but, with them, the upper third of the trees. Give and take.

There is still a ton of light coming down between the shade trees, however, so if you want any detail in the water or trees at all, you must shoot into shade where you can, and go for a much faster shutter speed….1/500 up to 1/1000 or faster. It’s either that or shoot the whole thing at a small f-stop like f/11 or more. In desert settings you’ve got so much light that you can truly dance near the edge of what would normally be underexposure, and all it will do is boost and deepen the colors that are there. There will still be a few hot spots on projecting roots and such where the light hits, but the beauty of digital is that you can click away and adjust as you go.

It’s not quite like creating greenspace out of nothing, but there are ways to make things plausibly seem to be a representation of real life, and, since this is an interpretive medium, there’s no right or wrong. And the darker-than-normal shadows in this kind of approach add a little warmth and mystery, so there’s that.

It was “yellow-green”, wasn’t it?

Hope that’s not on the final.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)


JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR “COVERS”

A pensive moment with Timothy Egan, Pulitzer prize winning author of "The Worst Hard Time".

A pensive moment with Timothy Egan, “Opinionator”columnist for the New York Times and Pulitzer prize-winning author of “The Worst Hard Time”. 1/80 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, 300mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE TUCSON FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK, not yet five years old, has quickly evolved into one of the premier annual events in the publishing world. Hosted over an entire weekend in March during spring break on the University of Arizona campus, it showcases hundreds of authors and thousands of titles that range in content over the entire spectrum of the printed word. It is also one of the most hassle-free environments for candid photography of many world-famous authors, with an atmosphere which is intimate, informal, and bristling with energy.

In the simple discussion forums and panels of the TFOB, authors occupy the immediate space of their readers in a way that fires their features with zeal, a quality that lends itself powerfully to seeing the very faces of books. It’s a shooter’s smorgasbord, and the meeting spaces are compact enough (usually University classrooms) that a good medium zoom boosted to about 1600 ISO will give you captures fairly free of noise and a real feeling of being there. In these smaller settings, a relaxed feeling pervades, with authors evolving into stage performers rather than lecturers. The result is no bloodless reading, but a kind of theatrical sales pitch on behalf of the author’s ideas, one part poet and one part Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man. 

I started shooting at TFOB four years ago and have learned more each year about circumventing the less-than-ideal lighting scheme (there really isn’t any) and clicking off hundreds of “drat!” images that fell short of what I was seeing. Shooting inside by flourescent light always means taking sample images with various white balances and making changes on the fly, as well as compensating for the light fall-off and additional vibration risk that occurs when you’re fully zoomed in.

Best thing is, though, there are almost no visual distractions to lead the eye away from the authors, since

Culture hero Chuck Klosterman, author of "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs"

Culture hero Chuck Klosterman, author of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”. 1/100 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, 116mm.

for the most part they stand before blackboards or blank walls. The shots don’t have to be simplified….they are already pretty stark. In addition, you can just frame head shots for the middle third of the subject’s faces, since you aren’t really there to capture their haircut or the water bottles and mics nearby.

Do yourself a favor and investigate a trip to the southwest each March for this amazing event.

If you love books, it’s essential. If you study faces, it’s the icing on the cake.

(NOTE: follow Michael Perkins on Twitter for the “Normal Eye Clicks Of The Day” and “Today in Photo History” at http://www.twitter.com/mpnormaleye. Share your own images with me, especially Instagram and phone snaps. You are always a vital part of this conversation.)


FROM TOY TO TOOL

Selective focus can help direct your viewer's eye. Taken with a Lensbaby Spark lens at 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 320, 50mm.

Selective focus can help direct your viewer’s eye. Taken with a Lensbaby Spark lens at 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 320, 50mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A LONG STANDING BIT ON THE DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW, rather than claiming to be entertaining, actually poses the question of what entertainment actually is. Entitled “Is This Anything?”, the feature consists of about thirty seconds of acts or feats that might be amazing (like juggling), might be banal (like, um, juggling) or might qualify as merely strange. After the curtain is drawn, Dave and Paul briefly discuss the merits of what ever strangeness just transpired, and ask each other if “that was anything”. Sometimes there is no clear-cut decision. The show has disclaimed responsibility, and entertainment remains in the eye of the beholder.

That’s how you can feel the first time you use a Lensbaby.

Released several years ago to inventor Craig Strong’s great monetary benefit, the Lensbaby comes in a variety of

DIY-style bokeh, courtesy of Lensbaby.

levels but is essentially an affordable tilt-shift attachment, a way to soften focus over selective areas of the frame while rotating the “sweet spot” of sharper focus wherever the shooter feels it should go. Now, essentially, selective focus is really part of every photo ever taken, since a choice of depth-of-field is made every time the shutter snaps. Lensbaby, however, offers the chance to pre-design the precise level of left-right, high-low focus, in the camera, and before the shot is taken. No post-processing is needed, and each use of the effect is completely under the shooter’s control, and at a fraction of what dedicated DSLR lenses cost.The Lensbaby effect is understandably an attractive gimcrack for the instinctive subculture of lo-fi photography, they of the hipster nonchalance and light-leaking, fixed-focus plastic cameras. Hey, it looks freaky, random, edgy. But, like everything else in your kit bag, it’s either toy or tool. The verdict as to which it is comes out one picture at a time.

So far I am whelmed….not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed. For one thing, Lensbabies are a lot of extra work. The entry-level model, the Spark, is actually a lens within a springy plastic bellows. You have to hold your camera body, delegate fingers from both hands to rotate the axis of the front of the lens, squeeze the bellows to bring part of the frame into focus (the Spark’s “sweet spot”  is fixed at f/5.6), allocate another finger for the shutter, and click. At least you can’t carp about not having enough creative control. There’s more than enough of that, especially at first, to O.D. on. Your chosen area of focus can be held in place more easily with upgrade models (which also include additional optics and add-ons), but the Lensbaby is truly best for shoots where you have a lot of time to think, plan, and create….the very opposite of the “shoot from the hip” attitude embraced by the lomography crowd. You will take a lot of pictures that miss by inches, or fractions of inches.

Lensbaby Spark gives you the control of a custom lens for under $80.

Lensbaby Spark gives you some of the control of a custom lens for under $80.

What will move me from whelmed to overwhelmed will be finding those images where the Lensbaby effect actually aids my storytelling, yet does not define it, as in the lucky shot at the top of this post. The camera gadgets I eventually consign to the “toy” pile go there because they call too much attention to what they can do, not to what I can do using them. The”tools” pile contains the gear that is essential to my saying something in a distinctly different voice. Finally, the two piles are divvied up only after taking lots of pictures and asking a ton of questions (a few gimmicks, like fisheye, have spent time in both piles; hey, I’m not above just playing around).

I sympathize with Letterman’s dilemma when he ironically asks, “Is this anything?”  Selective focus is a way to install big neon pointers into your pictures, a more emphatic command to look over here. It’s also a way to amplify the drama of certain data or simplify cluttered compositions. I get it.

But it needs to be about much more than that. Or, more correctly, I have to help it.