By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, over the centuries, have been made as specific remedies to the limits of either cameras or recording media. Lenses and films were made faster, sharper, or more accurate because photographers were thwarted by the cramped parameters of the media. Such a cycle of malady-and-cure creates temporary and manic convulsions, fads if you like, along with solid, permanent improvements. Sometimes, as in the case of the now declining technique known as High Dynamic Range, or HDR, it’s easy to confuse a quick fix for a permanent one.
To review, HDR was an attempt to compensate for the limited range of light recorded by first-generation digital sensors, which effectively “read” extreme highlights or shadows, but were spotty in the mid-ranges, delivering only a portion of what the eye could detect. The solution was to take a bracket of anywhere from three to seven frames over a wide exposure range (grab your tripod, kids), then blend them, via software, to more consistently even out all values for a “balanced” or “natural” view. The other side-benefit of the process was a drastic amplification in detail.
HDR was immediately praised as having helped the photographer hurdle the last remaining barrier between the camera and real life. It quickly muscled its way into everything from amateur landscapes to commercial real estate, conferring prophet (profit?) status on authors like Trey Radcliffe, who soared to best-selling fame with books brimming with hyperbolic color and iridescent textures, every hobnail and brick in his goth HDR cathedrals registering the same, loud detail.
And that sameness, eventually, became the problem. Every part of every picture was now shouting. In the hands of many, HDR did not make images evenly modest: it made them uniformly garish. Too many HDR pictures were overripe, overcooked, as if the world were awash in day-glo gravy. Worse, the technique couldn’t work with live subjects or hand-held shots. Worse yet, in-camera HDR simulators in DSLRs and phone apps were virtually useless. Finally, if you actually liked photographing, you know, actual people, HDR made human flesh look like wet liver inside a tanning booth.
In the end, the problem HDR was created to address actually resolved itself, with second-gen camera sensors finally performing better along a wider range of light, delivering more even exposures right out of the camera. More importantly, photographers fell back in love with shadow, understatement, and mystery, satisfied that you don’t have to show everything to see everything. So, rest in peace, HDR. There now are better ways to keep it real.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO BICKER ENDLESSLY ABOUT WHICH IS THE BEST ROAD TO TRAVEL en route to the making of a picture. I mean they flat-out love it. Here we are entering the third century of a global art that has amply demonstrated that vision, not hardware, is the determinant of excellence, and we are still splitting into warring factions on which camera does this, or which lens or process does that. It’s discouraging because it is wasteful. Put in another context, it’s like arguing whether your marinara won first prize because you stirred it with a spoon instead of a fork.
This ongoing us/them battle over which is the “purer” approach to photography is presently centered on traditional cameras versus mobile devices. Each side calls its star witnesses to testify on a variety of qualifying or disqualifying factors, as if anything matters but the pictures. Can I play that game? Sure, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that I had never hurled a bomb or two toward both sides in the skirmish. But when I do that, I’m only serving my own ego….not photography.
I make a distinction between cel phone and conventional cameras based simply on what I want to do in the moment, but such distinctions are never recommended as a universal yardstick. Very generally speaking, if I want the widest number of creative choices before the picture is made, I prefer a DSLR. If I can safely trust my instinct for the greatest part of the picture, adding creative tweaks after the shutter clicks, I am comfortable with a cel. Simple as that. I have made very satisfying images with both kinds of cameras, but my results are purely my own. And that’s really as much as any of us can swear to.
The manufacturers of both kinds of cameras know that different people approach picture-making with priorities, and that’s why they make cameras that have different approaches. Why should this be surprising? Is a Cadillac a better car than a Fiat? Who says so and why? Don’t both accomplish the same baseline task of propelling you from point A to point B? Then they’re, um, cars.
Many pro photographers worship gear the way high priests dig incense and robes, so it’s no wonder that newbies catch the same fever. Looking at their worst pictures, they hate on their gear instead of questioning how they see. You’ve heard the if-only mantras. Maybe you’re mumbled them yourself. If only I had the Big Mama 3000 lens. If only I had a Lightning Bolt BX3 body with a Zeiss diamond cutter attachment! Boy, howdy, then you’d see some pictures. Yeah, well, bull hockey. Develop your eye and your pictures will come out better, whatever kind of camera they come out of. Choose to put yourself on an eternally accelerating learning curve. You’re the real camera, anyway.
Anything else is just a spoon or fork. Stir the pot with what’s at hand and start cooking.