By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE LIMIT to what the human mind will devise In the way of diversion during times of forced solitude, such as our current Great Hibernation, but thankfully I haven’t yet bumped my nose up against that particular ceiling. And while photogs are taught to make pictures out of damn near anything, you begin, under quarantine, to rethink even that minimalistic criterion. The term “make-work” springs to mind. That, along with “desperate.”
But as long as I’m making pictures of something/anything, I can feel less guilty about not being able to, for example, master sourdough bread baking. Subject-wise, I’ve been trying, lately, to crank out something that is vaguely environmental in aspect, since our failure to serve or even consider nature seems to be at the root of so many of our current woes. Sooo….time for that “make-work” ethic to kick in.
The project began as a simple capture of a recent Supermoon, which is fairly easy with my “bird camera”, a Nikon Coolpix 900, a hybrid superzoom bought to help stalk all things winged but also handy for handhelds of heavenly bodies.
My lunar capture took mere seconds, but it was long enough to conjure a memory of the classic 1903 George Melies film A Trip To The Moon, one of the very first special effects movies. The prehistoric flicker contains the iconic image of the dismayed face of the “man in the moon”, seconds after an Earth spaceship lands squarely in his eye, and, moonsnap in hand, I commenced working on my own version.
I wondered what a concerned, even sad version of that face would look like, as if the moon were desperately entreating us all to get our act together. I finally decided to re-use a closeup of one of my wife’s antique dolls, which had the right balance of sentiment and creepiness, and blended the two pieces on a phone app appropriately named Fused.
And so, an act of improvised lunacy, along with another slow night, goes into the record books. Turns out that even quarantine can yield to the images inside your skull. You no doubt have similar visions swimming around inside your brain pan at this point, and now is the perfect moment to summon them forth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART”, goes the old joke about a lowbrow walking through a gallery, “but I know what I like.” Turns out that, in terms of how a photographer can remain true to his or her own heart, that’s a pretty wise statement. The message: don’t carry around loaded words that no one can define. Stick with your instincts, since they are beyond labels. Labels like “art”.
We place little verbal baggage tags on lots of things, mostly as convenient mental shortcuts, and so, in discussions about picture-making, the word art gets dropped more than an MC’s mic. And while it’s only mildly annoying that people bandy around a word that none of us even know the meaning of, it’s usually used to talk about something we aspire to do, i.e., “make art”. In today’s marketing environment, however, the whole thing has moved from silly to sinister, as the word art is now attached to certain kinds of equipment, so-called “art lenses” (as they are often called in advertisements), meaning, I guess, that you can buy the ability to make art. Just send for our free booklet…
The idea that art can be achieved with the purchase of a particular piece of gear is like saying that if you buy a really expensive hammer, you’re an architect. Or, let’s come at it from the reverse angle. Are we saying that, since I don’t own a certain kind of camera, I can’t make art? A quick Google of the phrase “what is an art lens” will actually dredge up three or more solid pages of links to a single lens manufacturer (whose products are on the high end of the precision scale) who cleverly put the word art in the actual name of an entire line of their optics. On the other end of the spectrum, in the land of instinctual, hipster-bound low-fidelity photography, a second manufacturer also refers to its product as creating “art” effects. Okay, so let’s parse this thinking out a little.
What can an “art lens” actually do? Is it specialized glass (think fisheyes, macros, selective focus) that performs one effect well? Does that confer “art” on your work? Is it anything that radically improves sharpness, or, vice versa, radically diminishes it in a desirable fashion? Is it a particular focal length, resolution rate, distortion spec? Does it cook your lunch and get your dog’s teeth 30% cleaner in ten days? Is the image seen up top “artistic?” And does my choice of equipment have any role in that? Was I doing something with an expensive optic to get this look, or was I shooting with something so basic that it always produces this result? And who is to say?
Art is hard enough to identify without slapping the word “art” on a particular hunk of gear. Art is nearly impossible to define, but, like the guy in the gallery, you know what you like. And the completely individual definition of that sensation is what makes for art…not a purchase, not a baggage tag, not an advertising claim. Equipment is less of a determinant in excellence than any other factor in photography. And those who quack the loudest about what “art” is may be, in the final analysis, as clueless to name it as the rest of us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE A GOOD SCRAP. We spar about gear: we argue about technique: we defend both film and digital with equal fervor: we crab about the purity of our own artistic vision (as opposed to the pedestrian pap of other shooters).
We even squabble about what blur is. Or isn’t.
If you have an afternoon to burn sometime (and if you care) Google the phrase “bokeh versus blur” and get ready to rumble. Notwithstanding the fact that few outside photography’s elite inner circle had even heard of the word “bokeh” (in the original Japanese, literally “blur” or “haze”) until about a decade ago, many of us are now choosing up sides about what it, and blur, are…or are not. Does it finally matter? Depends on who you ask, and whether they’ve had a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast. But let’s put on our waders and tenderly tiptoe into the slipstream. Watch out for alligators.
I would think of blur as any unfocused or under-defined area within a photograph, a place where textures become soft enough for their details to be indistinguishable. It is, essentially, a visual condition. Think of the trees behind your portrait subject that turn to soft mush when you set for a shallow depth of field. Because you want to showcase a face and not a tree, right? Simple.
By comparison, bokeh is the distinct pattern or texture of the blur, something which may or may not be considered “desirable” by photographers, as if it were another design element to be shaped to complement the foreground. This could be anything from replications of the shape of your aperture (little floating pentagrams) to egg-shaped dots in a swirl, or a million other things, depending on the performance and design of your particular lens. It is, as compared to mere blur, a visual quality.
Now, I realize that merely trying to assign simple definitions to these two things will automatically alienate me from a planet-sized portion of the internet, so go to it. But here’s the point I really want to make.
Blur or bokeh, their usefulness, their positive or negative effect, even their potential aesthetic appeal….these are all judgement calls and are totally in the eye of the beholder. Some of us will actually choose a lens based solely on what kind of bokeh it will produce. Conversely, others will never assign any artistic value or priority to the effect whatsoever…and that’s completely fine. I myself have definitely lived on both sides of the streets in this issue, and so, by turns, the whole thing both is and isn’t important, based on what the job at hand is. The main reason I study the debate is because it shapes the intentions of photographers, and so is part of an overall understanding of why we shoot, which is the main idea of this little small-town newspaper.
Bokeh has come to the fore in recent years because photographers seem to want to shape it no less than any other visual element within the frame. And, like anything else about our art that gets discussed to death, it can create clannish, even clownish posturing about what’s more “authentic”, a discussion which takes us nowhere fast. Finally, blur elements are just like trees, furniture, or buildings. Want ’em in your picture? Put ’em there, and God Bless. However, the only thing we don’t want to do, ever, is to try to develop a list of commandments, of things that are always good or always bad for the making of pictures. That shuts down discussion, and eventually clamps down on creativity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING FROM A PROPRIETARY VIEWPOINT is the photographer’s equivalent of being invited to a wedding with an open bar. You try everything. Turns out you don’t really like Singapore Slings? Leave it on a tray and go back for the Jack and Coke.
It really is that simple. If you find yourself with a one-of-a-kind view, assume you’ll never be invited back and hit the subject with everything you’ve got. Change lenses. Up-end your normal method of working. Do something screwy. But do try it all. Hey, you’re on top of Mt. Fuji, right? So it’s not like you’re passing this way again next month. Go for broke.
The Manhattan rooftop from which these samples were shot was a gift, and I knew it. I popped off dozens of frames in every direction with every combination of gear and settingscI could think of, simply because the vantage point would likely never be available to me in the future. Not anytime soon, anyway. One thing that’s always in the back of my mind when shooting in New York is the wonderful look of classic images shot in Kodachrome, the greatest but most temperamental film in history, now gone to that Big Darkroom In The Sky. Kodachrome had amazingly warm color saturation, but, all science-y talk aside, its “look” was probably due in large part to the fact that it was slooooww, just the equivalent of 100 ISO at its speediest. That means that, simply, many of us were underexposing it. By a lot. Anyway, I’m always out to craft my own Kodachromesque Manhattan, and I saw a chance to do so in this particular situation.
The two shots seen here were taken mere seconds apart from each other, both shot with a 24mm prime sporting a circular polarizing filter. The lighter one is f/8 at 1/60 sec., while the darker, more “day is done” image is deliberately underexposed at f/16, 1/160 sec. The combination of the smaller aperture and the filter doubles the intensity of all colors, but sacrifices someinformation in the shadier areas. I leave it to you as to what’s been gained and what’s been lost. The point is that I shot about eight other versions of this scene, erring on the side of too many choices in everything I aimed at that afternoon. Photography is not only apprehending where you are, but understanding just how briefly you’ll be there.
But, hey, it’s possible I’ll get a repeat invitation to this particular roof. Then again, I spilled my Jack and Coke all over the hostess on my way out, so you never can tell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY, or at least the analog experience of rapidly developing film photography (in the digital era, all pictures are ‘instant’) has always been more about emotional excitement than technical satisfaction. In terms of lens and camera design, the idea of “instant” has consistently been more powerful than the reality.
The recent “second wave” of instant camera and films, now spread across three main companies (Polaroid Originals, Lomography.com, and Fujifilm) reproduces the thrill aspect that typically accompanies nostalgia, but also seems, at least in the case of Fujifilm, to actually move the technology from its take-it-or-leave-it roots, attempting to design gear that is substantially more attuned to photographers’ needs than a plain vanilla shutter button. Moreover, Fujifilm has also created a film which beats the competition in both color rendition and price point.
The Fuji Instax Mini system, which produces pictures of 62mm x 46mm versus the historical 79mm x 79mm dimensions of the Polaroid, includes more than a half-dozen models that, while hardly full-function by any realistic yardstick, do afford shooters a variety of fixed-aperture shooting modes, including macro, landscape, “party”, and “child” options as well as a “bulb” mode for time exposures (of up to ten seconds), a self-timer, and even a double exposure setting. Like Pinocchio, the Instaxes are not yet real boys, but they can sorta kinda walk and talk like one.
As for the competition, Polaroid Originals (the zombie resurrection of the old Polaroid carcass) still hasn’t perfected its watery-looking color film (or its horrendous $2-per shot cost) but has begun making new cameras again. Spoiler alert: they’re a crude reboot of the old One Step system, which is to cameras what Frankenstein was to smooth motor skills. As for the instant camera line from Lomography, they continue that company’s well-established tradition of charging you a stiff excise tax on hipness which is totally unwarranted by the product’s actual performance.
The images you see here, examples of double and time exposures, are both from a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 NeoClassic, the top of the company’s line and the closest thing that currently exists in the instant universe that can reasonably be called a camera instead of a toy. Hey, it’s a start. The first golden age of instant photography undoubtedly produced a lot of smiles. The technology’s second act could finally produce cameras worthy of all that global good will. Or it could all vanish again. In an instant.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SOONER HAD THE INFANT ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY asked the world of the 1800’s to trust it as the ultimate in visual verity (the camera doesn’t lie!) than it also began to turn itself into the most unreliable of narrators. Truth-telling and bald-face lying grew up side-by-side in the picture-making world, and they have been conjoined twins ever since. If P.T. Barnum was right that “there’s a sucker born every minute”, then certainly every one of those chumps has had his very own faked photograph.
Some of the fraud has been benign, as when Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her friends to portray the great authors and heroes of history, or when landscape artists combined seashores from one negative with clouds from another for a pleasing montage. Other fakes were more sinister, with nations manufacturing claims of war crimes against their foes or tabloids “proving” conspiracy theories with massaged “evidence”. And somewhere in the middle has always been the “that’s not real, is it?” photo, something which we can’t allow ourselves to either believe or resist, the charming charlatan, the obvious put-on.
Barnum and his bunch were fairly coy about their fakery, filling the first era of mass-produced press photography with doctored images that were literally too good to be true and challenging all comers to verify their veracity. Today, fakes are more ironic than compelling, since the tools to concoct them are so universally available as to make them commonplace. The object isn’t so much to actually fool anyone, but to comment on how easy it is to make the camera lie.
Years after Barnum’s death, the circus that later bore his name actually made a half-hearted attempt to concoct its own “unicorn” for its shows, something even the great humbug himself never did. Using a phone app, indifferent lighting and focus, and the freakishly arranged shape of an old bagpipe on display at Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, I worked up a reasonable fake tintype of a unicorn’s mummified head, the like of which might have graced the master showman’s old dime museum. It took me about five minutes.
The main difference between the fakery of the Victorian age and the variety we practice today is that, in the 21st century, the fakers, myself included, confess right away. We want to get the points for being oh, so clever. And since you know we have the means to show you anything, we already know you believe almost nothing, so it’s no longer about convincing you a unicorn exists. It’s about the ride.
Photography didn’t just arrive at the place where truth is negotiable, anymore than fiction just recently became about “making stuff up”. We pitcher folk have always been, to a degree, untrustworthy. But as Barnum said, “the bigger the humbug, the better people will like it”. Hurry, hurry, hurry…… step right up….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONE–UPMANSHIP which used to divide photographers into warring camps over lenses (it must be primes!) or cameras (I myself have always been a Leica man!) has met its match in yet another pompous arena of dubious distinction.
I’m speaking of the trendy and tawdry world of blur snobs.
You remember blur, right? All that stuff in your pictures that isn’t, you know, sharp? You wanted some of it in there to set your focused subject apart or pop it forward, so you set your depth of field appropriately. So we’re done now, right?
Wrong. Because you might not have the cool kind of blur in your pictures. Cool blur is called “bokeh”, because we said so, and its various swirls, refractions and currents means you must now master blur the way you once sought to master focus. The thing you once regarded as mere negative space is now incredibly artistic negative space. Or you’d better spend money until it is.
The world’s bokeh bullies eventually started to aggressively market glass guaranteed to deliver lots of it, for lots of dollars. The cool-blur movement revived interest in the 19th-century Petzval lenses, great, fast optics for portraits which, as a by-product of their slightly flawed design, delivered big-time swirly blur. Thing is, engineering new lenses to do that one “wrong” thing on purpose meant coughing up an astounding amount of scratch for a lens that is, essentially, a one trick pony. Repeat after me, children: hipness is never cheap.
Turns out that, instead of popping for anywhere from two to six hundred peppers for “cool insurance”, you can get the same effect from a lens that’s so globally plentiful that it can be had for under $35.00. Enter the humble Helios.
Helios lenses were among the most highly produced lenses in Soviet history, marching out of USSR factories pretty much non-stop from 1958 to 1992. They were based on several different Carl Zeiss Biotar designs, and, while mostly used on Russian SLRs, were also built for select Pentax models. One of the most popular, the 44M, seen here, was the kit lens for generations of cameras, shooting fully manual as a 58mm prime.
Shooting the Helio wide open at f/2, and with a decent separation between foreground and textured backgrounds, you’ll get a bokeh that looks like a gazillion little circles that spray into a swirl as they move toward the edge of the frame. As the rose image attests, it does look very nice, just not $600 worth of nice. You also need the patience of a brain surgeon to get used to nailing the focus. That and consistent access to large depositories of Crown Royal. But I digress.
Helios lenses are perfectly serviceable glass for general purposes, although they are a little soft at the open end. The Russian Federation, which, if you haven’t heard, is a little cash-strapped these days, is sitting on millions of these puppies, so prices are low, lenses can be easily adapted to most camera brands (mine came battle-ready for Nikon), and shipping is often free. For between 35 and 50 bucks, they’re an occasional guilty pleasure. On the other hand, hocking your houseboat or delaying heart surgery for the new toys marketed by the blur snobs to do the same thing is both needless and nuts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN’T BEGIN TO WRITE THE STORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY without acknowledging the role of the fortunate accident in the output of, well, everyone. Anyone who says he’s never been handed a rose from Lady Luck from time to time is either delusional or a dead-on liar. If we admit that chance occasionally turns our best plans to piddle, why not admit that we also randomly wind up in the winner’s circle on a free pass?
Here’s my freebie for probably the rest of this year, as I can’t see the triple crown of incidentals, accidentals and dumb luck converging as they did here anytime soon. Let’s look at the recipe in detail:
1: Accidentals. While walking along the edge of a footbridge alongside Tempe Town Lake in Arizona, I spooked a small flock of birds resting out of sight just beneath my feet. I heard them flee before I saw them head into open water.
2. Incidentals. For reasons I still can’t fathom, the birds did not take to the air, as you might expect, but escaped across the water, creating gorgeously trailing coils of ripples as they went. That slowed everything down enough that my startled synapses rebooted and started to shout, get your camera up to your eye. That led me to the one element that made the crucial difference, known to us all as:
3. Dumb Luck. After a lens change, I had walked almost a mile from my car when I realized that I had forgotten to slap on a polarizing filter, making shots across water in the sun of an Arizona midday almost guaranteed to saturated with glare. I had already improvised a crude hack my taking off my clip-on sunglasses and holding them in front of my lens. This had only intermittently worked, since I either left part of the field of view uncovered, or failed to hold the specs at the right angle, incurring wild variances in polarizing. As soon as my animal brain realized that I had one shot before my bird water ballet was out of reach, I had to frame, focus (I was already at f/8, so there was some help there), and get the sunglasses in position without deforming all that blue. Even at that, there’s quite a difference between the rendering of color in various parts of the frame.
What you see here, then, is the photo goddesses throwing me a bone. A big bone. We’re talking the rear haunch of a triceratops.
But, yeah, I’ll take it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CONSIDER: MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC EFFECTS MOST DEARLY PRIZED by today’s edgier shooters actually have their roots in the shortcomings inherent in the techniques of the medium’s first years. That is, the artifacts produced in early photos (the blotches, streaks and smears that visually betrayed the limits of a particular era’s technology, from bad film emulsions to flawed lenses) are being sought out and deliberately inserted back into contemporary images, almost as if they confer some kind of authenticity on the final results. We came this far only to pretend that we haven’t moved at all.
There’s nothing to be gained by trying to figure out why we struggle to remove certain glitches from pictures in one age only to revere them in another. Fact is that many of us occasionally crave that “old timey” look, and so the very thing that once annoyed us as a defect becomes, later on, desired as an effect.
Halation, or the soft, glowing aura around bright areas in an image (imagine the diffused appearance of street lamps in a thick fog) was originally an unwanted look that happened when light would go through sensitized film, then reflect off a surface behind it (say the inside back of the camera body) and bounce back through the film a second time. This so-called “light scatter” would appear as an ethereal haze around the brighter objects in the picture, almost like a halo around the head of a saint. Halo—Halation. Annoying defect if you don’t want it. Subtly dreamy effect if you do.
The “accidental” part of halation was addressed ages ago by adding inhibiting agents to film and matte surfaces to camera bodies. The “intentional”part has been added back in artificially, either with the use of layers in Photoshop, or with Lensbabys or other “art” lenses intentionally designed to render the effect (as seen in the above image). This kind of reverse-engineering, the process of “putting the scratches back into the record”, of restoring the very things we once rejected, is increasingly common in the post-digital era, as we still long for analog experiences, even, it seems, the imperfect ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, YOU ARE A DEDICATED RULE–BREAKER, you may view every new piece of equipment as a double opportunity….a chance to explore gear both in the way the manufacturer intended (see the user manual) and in whatever intuitive (spelled “wrong”) way you see fit (we don’t need no stinkin’ manual).
This is not as perverse as it first sounds. Shooters have been flipping telephotos backwards to create makeshift macros and partially uncoupling glass from camera bodies to “free lens” their way to selective blurring and distortion for eons. And you yourself can no doubt recount instances in which your gear has been persuaded to go off the rails to achieve some experimental end or other. Good photographers vascillate wildly between I hope I’m doing this right and I wonder what would happen if I….
One of my favorite departures from normal practice involves circular polarizing filters, typically used to either deepen the blue of skies or remove reflective glare from surfaces like water or glass. In the image at the top of this page, it’s used in exactly that way, allowing me to view a huge fishy fossil in Los Angeles’ Museum Of Natural History. In the lower image, both the vantage point and the effect of the filter are reversed: I’m looking outwards, with the CPF producing imaginary streaky artifacts on the glass, adding dramatic framing accents to the fossil and breaking up the monotony of a large patch of sky. Is this the recommended use for the filter? Nope. Does this approach work for just any picture? Nah. Am I glad to be able to produce this look at will? Yes, please.
Around the house, driving a nail with the butt end of a screwdriver can seem, well, desperate. But in photography, stretching equipment beyond its intended use can be an adventure. It’s actually freeing, as if you’re playing hooky and getting away with it.
So, when the spirit moves you, choose the right tool. Then use it wrong. But only in the right way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY DEMONSTRATED, EARLY IN ITS HISTORY, that, despite the assumption that it was merely a recording device, it regarded “reality” as….overrated. Since those dawning daguerreotype days, it has made every attempt possible to distort, lie about, or improve upon the actual world. There is no “real” in a photograph, only an arrangement between shooter and viewer, who, together, decide what the truth is.
So-called street photography is rife with what I call “reassigned value” when it comes to the depiction of people. Obviously, the heart of “street” is the raw observation of human stories as the photographer sees them, tight little tales of endeavor, adventure…even tragedy. However, the nature of the artist is not to merely document but also to interpret: he may use the camera to freeze the basic facts of a scene, but he will inevitably re-assign values to every part of it, from the players to the props. He becomes, in effect, a stage manager in the production of a small play.
In the above image you can see an example of this process. The man sitting at his assigned post at a museum gallery began as a simple visual record, but I obviously didn’t let the matter end there. Everything from the selective desaturation of color to the partial softening of focus is used to suggest more than what would be given in just a literal snap.
So what is the true nature of the man at the podium? Is he wistfully gazing out the distant window, or merely daydreaming? Is he regretful, or does he just suffer from sore feet? Is he chronically bored, or has his head in fact turned just because a patron asked him the direction of the restroom? And, most importantly, how can you creatively alter the perception of this (or any) scene merely by dealing the cards of technique in a slightly different shuffle?
Photographers traffic in the technical measure of the real, certainly. But they’re not chained to it. The bonds are only as steadfast as the limit of our imagination, or the terms of the dialogue we want with the world at large.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREATEST BONUSES OF THE APPS ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY is how fast certain effects and processes in picture-making have moved from proprietary functions to discretionary ones. Certain “looks” which were the sole domain of well-funded professionals in the film era have been democratized to an insane degree, allowing many more of us to make images that required expensive gear or exhaustive training (or both) just a heartbeat ago.
Selective focus is but one such area. Manipulating sharpness within sections of an image used to be the stuff of cunning calculation and infinite patience…in both shooting and post-processing. Now it’s yours for the flick of a button. The app installs, you click the picture, and you massage the results. Minutes from start to finish. And manufacturers of conventional cameras have had to react to the immediacy of effects available in the mobile market, re-introducing art lenses and specialized optics (think Lomo and Lensbaby) that allow shooters to add “artifacts” or “classic film looks” to their work as they are shooting. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before these proprietary (think expensive) art lenses become more discretionary (easier to use and cheaper).
When focus or any other main element in picture-making becomes more flexible, people experiment more and more. That, in turn, increases the number of average shooters who produce more sophisticated work. It’s part convenience, part economics: once the ability to do something on an occasional whim is granted to more people through innovation or pricing, the exotic becomes the normal, and the entire art advances. Photography began as a tinkerer’s hobby, costly and clunky in its execution. However, once it solved those problems, it went viral (or whatever one went in the 1800’s). And now digital apps are leading the entire market toward another level of ease and affordability.
The two pictures you see here were both, in fact, taken with camera-based lenses….but, those lenses are both infinitely more affordable to me today than they might have been a generation ago…something driven in part by the digital apps revolution. That means I had the option of trying two vastly different focal approaches on the same subject with little more effort than it took to swap one lens out for another. I used standard optics for this exercise because, frankly, the acuity and control in most mobiles is still less than I’d prefer. But that will change, and quickly. In just a few evolutionary clicks from now, I will be able to do this exact same study within my phone….cheaper, faster, and with less baggage to lug around. Will I abandon my traditional lenses at that point? I honestly can’t say. But if I don’t, I hope I have a better reason than “that’s not the way we used to do it.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS (AND HUMANS IN GENERAL) ARE CONTRARY. Tell them they’re forever stuck with a bones-basic camera and they’ll spend every night and weekend either trying to devise a more sophisticated device or work three jobs so they can buy one. And the obverse is also true: present shooters with an infinite number of hi-tech choices designed to deliver unprecedented precision, and they’ll perversely start to pine for the “lost innocence” or “authenticity of the bare-bones rig.
What else can account for the recent surge in lensless photography, and the creation of images with cameras that are more technically handicapped than even one’s first point-and-shoot? Of course, the very first image capturing was done without a lens, with the ancient Greeks creating pictures on the inside back panel of a camera obscura box, using nothing but a small pinhole to generate a dim, soft-focused image of the chosen subject. The early nineteenth century replaced the hole with custom-designed glass optics, and photography moved quickly from a scientific experiment to a global rage.
But, of course, for photographers, no part of their art’s history is really “past”, and so we now see a small explosion of new pinhole devices for both film-based and digital cameras, from specially manufactured pinhole body caps (used in place of a lens) to cardboard kits available as DIY projects to recently dedicated pinhole plug-in optics for the Lensbaby series of lenses. The idea remains the same: small apertures, virtually infinite depth of field, soft focus, and looong exposures.
The other variable in this craze is the popularity of zoneplates, which, unlike the refracted light in a pinhole, works with more scattered diffracted light, creating a halo glow in the high contrast areas of subjects, as if the soft-focus is also being viewed through a gauzy haze. A zoneplate is really like a bulls-eye target, a plate where both opaque and transparent “rings” combine to disperse light widely, delivering a dreamier look than that seen in a pinhole image. The other big difference is that a zoneplate has a much larger light gathering area and a wider aperture, so while a pinhole opening might equate to a stop as small as f/177, the zoneplate could be as wide as, say, f/19, making handheld exposures (and visualizing through a viewfinder) at least feasible, if tricky.
Of course, both kinds of lensless imaging are extremely soft, rendering a precise depiction of your subjects impossible. However, if light patterns, shapes, and mood outweigh the importance of sharpness for a certain kind of picture, then pinholes and zoneplates are cheap, fairly easy to master (you don’t have much control, anyway), and a little bit like stepping back in time.
It’s contrary….but ain’t we all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NAME OF THIS BLOG, THE NORMAL EYE, IS A REFERENCE to the old nickname for fixed-focus “prime” lenses, non-zoomable glass like 35 and 50mm, that were once dubbed “normal” since they delivered the sense of space and proportion most closely resembling that of human vision. I’ll leave other combatants to decide whether this renders prime lenses “truer” in any way (those of you who think you know what “truth” is, advance to the fine arts class), but one things seems clear (that is, not cloudy): wide angle lenses, say 24mm or wider, tell a somewhat different truth, and thus create a distinct photographic effect.
Ultra-wides can generate the sensation that both proportion and distances (mostly front-to-back) have been stretched or distorted. They are thus great for shots where you want to “get everything in”, be it vast landscapes or city streets crowded with tall buildings packed into close quarters. They don’t really photograph things as they are, but do serve as great lenses for the deliberate effect of drama. I don’t use super-wides for too many situations, but, when I do, I make up for lost time by going overboard…again, largely as an interpretative effect.
Nothing shoots wider than the fabulous fisheye lens, introduced in the 1920’s as a meteorological research tool, and shooting as wide as 8mm with a viewing arc of anywhere from 100 to 180 degrees. Starting in the 1960’s, the fisheye’s unique optics crept into wider commercial use as a kind of funhouse look, the circular image in which all extremes of the rounded frame bend inward, creating the feel of a separate world isolated inside a soap bubble. Some of our most iconic cultural images used this look to suggest a sense of disorientation or dreamlike unreality, with classic album covers like the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? using fishes to simulate the psychedelic experience. Far out, man.
However, used sparingly as simply a more extreme wideangle, the fisheye can create a drama that conforms more to a rectangular composition, especially when the inner core of the image is cropped into a kind of “mailbox” aspect, resulting in an image that is normal-ish but still clearly not “real”. Tilting the lens, along with careful framing, can keep the more extreme artifacts to a minimum, adding just enough exaggeration to generate impact without the overkill of the soap bubble. As with any other effects lens, it’s all a matter of control, of attenuation. A little of the effect goes a long way. I call it lying with a straighter face.
Fisheyes are a specialized tool, and, for most of photography, the optical quality in all but the most expensive ones have kept most of us from tinkering with the look to any significant degree. However, cheaper and optically acceptable substitutes have entered the market in the digital era, along with fisheye-“look” phone apps, allowing the common shooter to at least dip a toe into the pool. Whether that toe will look more like a digit or a fleshy fish hook is, as it always was, a matter of choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASKED IN 1974 BY AN INTERVIEWER ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE ACTOR JAMES CAGNEY, director Orson Welles replied that while Jimmy “broke every rule”, “there’s not a fake moment” in any of his movies. He further explained that the star of Public Enemy, White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy worked counter to all the conventions of what was supposed to be “realism”, and yet created roles which were absolutely authentic. Cagney, in effect, bypassed the real and told the truth.
As do many photographers, it turns out.
We all have inherited a series of technical skills which were evolved in an attempt to capture the real world faithfully inside a box, and we still fail, at times, to realize that what makes in image genuine to the viewer must often be achieved by ignoring what is “real”. Like Cagney, we break the rules, and, if we are lucky, we make the argument that what we’ve presented ought to be considered the truth, even though the viewer must ignore what he knows in order to believe that. Even when we are not trying to create a so-called special effect, that is, a deliberate trick designed to conspicuously wow the audience, we are pulling off little cheats to make it seem that we played absolutely fair.
The first time we experiment with lighting, we dabble in this trickery, since the idea of lighting an object is to make a good-looking picture, rather than to mimic what happens in natural light. If we are crafty about it, the lie we have put forth seems like it ought to be the truth, and we are praised for how “realistic” a shot appears. The eye likes the look we created, whether it bears any resemblance to the real world or not, just as we applaud a young actor made up to look like an old man, even though we “know” he isn’t typically bald, wrinkled, and bent over a cane.
In the image above, you see a simple example of this. The antique Kodak really does have its back to a sunlit window, and the shadows etched along its body really do come from the slatted shutters upon that window. However, the decorative front of the camera, which would be fun to see, is facing away from the light source. That means that, in reality, it would not glow gold as seen in the final image. And, since reality alone will not give us that radiance, a second light source has to be added from the front.
In this case, it’s the most primitive source available: my left hand, which is ever so slightly visible at the lower left edge of the shot. It’s acting as a crude reflector of the sunlight at right, but is also adding some warmer color as the flesh tones of my skin tint the light with a little gold on its way back to the front of the camera. Result: an unrealistic, yet realistic-seeming shot.
There’s a number of names for this kind of technique: fakery, jiggery-pokery, flimflam, manipulation, etc., etc.
And some simply call it photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I HAVE TO MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS ON AN OVERCAST DAY, I actually pray that the weather will deteriorate even further, since a dramatically lousy sky can create better results than an indifferent overcast. Murky weather mutes colors to the texture of bland dishwater, whereas rapidly shifting, strongly contrasty conditions can actually boost colors or create a dimensional effect in which foreground objects “pop” a bit. Keep your rainy days. Give me stormy ones.
Some days an uneven, rolling overcast contains dread darkness on one side and unbroken sun on the other, simulating the effect of a studio in which the subject is floodlit from front but staged against a somber background. This strange combination of natural lighting conditions confers an additional power on even the most mundane objects, and the photographer need do nothing except monitor the changing weather from minute to minute and pick his moment.
I love the architectural features of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, such as the section of one of the exhibit hall rooves, seen above. However, in fair or even grey weather, it has less impact than when it’s front-lit against a threatening cloud bank, so, on a rotten day, it’s worth checking and re-checking to see if it’s been amped up by “jumping away” from the background clouds. Likewise these palm trees:
Simply capitalizing on changes in lighting conditions can create more opportunities than all the lenses and gear in the world. Cheap point-and-shoot or luxuriant Leica, it’s all about the light….plentiful, free, and ever-changing. The ability to sculpt strong images from this most basic commodity is the closest thing to a level playing field for every kind of photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECALL, MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN THE JUICIEST COMPLIMENT I COULD IMAGINE SNAGGING for a photograph was that “it looks just like a postcard”. That is to say, “the picture you’ve made looks like another picture someone else made while trying to make something look like…. a picture”.
Or something like that.
Seems that an incredible amount of photography’s time on earth has been spent trying to make images not so much be something as to be like something else. The number of effects we go for when making an image, in the twenty-first century, is a list of the inherited techniques and processes that have waxed and waned, and waxed again, over the entire timeline of the art’s history. We are now so marinated in all the things that photographs have been that we find ourselves folding the old tricks into new pictures, without self-consciousness or irony. Consider this partial roster of the things we have tried, over time, to make images look like:
Paintings Etchings Drawings Daguerreotypes Tintypes Cyanotypes Expired film Cross-Processed Film Kodachrome Sepiatone Toy Cameras Macro Lenses Badly-focused, Damaged and Flawed Lenses Obsolete Film Stock Daytime Night-Time Negatives Postcards Antique Printing Processes Dreams, Hallucinations, and Fantasies “Reality”
We not only manipulate photographs to make them more reflective of reality but to mock or distort it as well. We make pictures that pretend that we still have primitive equipment, or that we have much better equipment than we can afford. We utilize tools that make pictures look tampered with, that accentuate how much they’ve been tweaked. We make good pictures look bad and bad pictures look passable.
This post is turning out to be the evil twin of a recent article in which I emphasized how little we know about making “realistic” images. The more I turn it over in my mind, however, the more I realize that, in many cases, we are trying to make new photographs look like photographs that someone else took, in a different time, with different limits, with different motives. We steal not only from others but also from what they themselves were stealing.
All of a sudden my head hurts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ABOUT FOCUS MIGHT JUST BE AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS that a photographer will face. Clarity, sharpness, precision, call it what you might, focal crispness is a crucial determinant in the creation of an image, no less than light and subject matter. And it’s one of the easiest factors to manage, available to any one from the humblest point-and-shooter to master technicians on the Hubbell telescope.
There is a tendency for us to mentally default to an idea of “sharpness” when we hear the word focus, as if the only way to faithfully reproduce reality is strict adherence to that standard. But photography has never really been about reality, any more than painting or prose. We can’t help but add some small interpretive something to the process of making a picture, even if we believe a machine is largely in charge of the process. Amazingly, with very little effort, we can change the perception of an image by tiny adjustments in what is clear and what remains hazy or soft, straying selectively from the arbitrary sharpness standard.
Some subjects are rendered too coldly, too clinically, when subjected to razor focus, so that what you may gain in documentary detail you lose in intimacy, or in that undefinable feeling of being close. Applying this line of reasoning to my personal affection for architecture, there are buildings where the hard look of precision is perfectly suited to the subject; jutting skyscrapers, massive bridges, towering monuments, and the like. But put me in a small town, where the entire space feels sealed off from time itself, and the look, at least for me, becomes softer. Details take a back seat to feelings, and the harsh light of midday gives way to a soft, dreamy haze at late afternoon. The secrets of side lots, alleys and back yards become scavenger hunts. In both the big and small cities, focus is the key element in the creation of the image. And, also, in both cases, an advance visualization of the final result dictates exactly the degree of focus required.
Lenses and cameras possess wonderful technical properties that can deliver a slew of exotic effects. Still, with virtually no expense or fuss, a smarter mastery of focus is a decisive, even dramatic factor in helping a photograph develop its most effective language.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WORKING WITH TIME EXPOSURES IS A LITTLE LIKE THE EXPERIENCE PILOT TRAINEES GET the first time they are aboard a weightlessness simulator. You know that you’re outside the general rules of “reality”, and yet some kind of natural law is still in force. That is, as much fun as it is floating like a feather around the cabin, it still hurts if you slam your head into the ceiling. It’s just that, under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t be close enough to the ceiling to have to think about smacking into it.
Yeah, time exposures are like that.
Most of what we intuitively “know” about photo-making is based on a concept of exposure time that is pretty close to “instantaneous”, so we tend not to plan for what can occur when the shutter is stuck open for extended periods. Even a few seconds can introduce a very different relationship between light and dark, as well as the various non-stationary factors like wind, people, traffic, etc., that can create artifacts as they walk through our work area.
A kind of weird calculus, borne of trial and error, comes into play. For example, we know that cars rolling through a time exposure may be moving too quickly to be seen in the final picture, while their headlights will leave a glowing trail. We know that people walking into the shot at the correct speed can vanish to complete invisibility or register as smeary ghosts. It all has to be measured against how long you need for your camera to be sponging up light, and how standard, onwardly moving reality interacts with that process.
Recently I tried a layered still-life in the darkest room since, well, since darkness, and I knew that I would have to open for a long time. In trying to take a frame that included both a crowded, mirrored mantel in front of me, and the bureau and pictures from behind me that were reflected in the mirror, I balanced my camera on said bureau (you can see it to the left of the vase) and started experimenting with exposure times. Half a dozen or so tries later, I thought I’d nailed the magic number, but, in counting out the time in my head, I got distracted and walked partway into the shot, lingering just long enough to be recorded as the lighter sheen on the right front of the mantle and the facial smear in the right side of the mirror.
Again, we’re back in the weightlessness simulator. Different rules apply here in Oz, Dorothy. So, this picture is forever in the category of How To Get Out Of Your Own Way…..one of those flawed photographic children, that, while not quite flawed enough to merit being sent to military school, will also never be the favored kid, either. Joys of parenthood and all that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY PHOTOGRAPHS GLASS SURFACES realizes that the process is a kind of shot-to-shot negotiation, depending on how you want the material to react and shape your subject. There is really no absolute “look” for glass, as it has the ability to both aid and block the view of anything it’s around, in front of, or near. Viewed in different conditions and angles, it can speed the impact of an image, or foil it outright.
I love shooting in urban environments, where the use of glass has shifted dramatically in recent decades. Buildings that were 90% brick or masonry just fifty years ago might be predominantly wrapped in glass today, demonstrably tilting the ratios of available light and also changing what I call the “see-through” factor…the amount of atmosphere outside a building can be observed from inside it. This presents opportunities galore of not only what can be shown but also how abstracted glass’ treatment of reflection can serve a composition.
Against the advice of many an online pundit, I keep circular polarizing filters permanently attached to the front of all my lenses so that I can modify reflections and enhance color richness at my whim. These same pundits claim that leaving the filter attached when it’s not “needed” will cost you up to two stops of light and degrade the overall image quality. I reject both these arguments based on my own experience. The filters only produce a true polarizing effect if they are either at the right viewing angle vis-a-vis the overhead sun, or if they are rotated to maximize the filtering effect. If they don’t meet either of these conditions, the filters produce no change whatever.
Even assuming that the filter might be costing you some light, if you’ve been shooting completely on manual for any amount of time, you can quickly compute any adjustments you’ll need without seriously cramping your style. Get yourself a nice fast lens capable of opening to f/1.8 or wider and you can even avoid jacking up your ISO and taking on more image noise. Buy prime lenses (only one focal length), like a 35mm, and you’ll also get better sharpness than a variable focal length lens like an 18-55mm, which are optically more complex and thus generally less crisp.
In the above image, which is a view through a glass vestibule in lower Manhattan, I wanted to incorporate the reflections of buildings behind me, see from side-to-side in the lobby to highlight selected internal features, and see details of the structures across the street from the front of the box, with all color values registering at just about the same degree of strength. A polarizer does this like nothing else. You just rotate the filter until the blend of tones works.
Some pictures are “about” the subject matter, while others are “about” what light does to that subject, according to the photographer’s vision. Polarizers are cheap and effective ways to tell your camera how much light to allow on a particular surface, giving you final say over what version of “reality” you prefer. And that’s where the fun begins.