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
MY FRIEND PAUL IS GONE, but I am holding a small part of him in my hand.
He passed late last year, adroitly avoiding the current Great Hibernation and all its horrors. By that time, he had survived a hardscrabble farmer’s childhood, the armed forces, half a dozen skin cancer scares (the farm years’ legacy), several strokes, a fused spine, and nearly eighty years of other scrapes which he largely dismissed with a wide smile and a cackle of a laugh. Before the turn of this year, however, he finally met an enemy that was too big to side-step, and now he is gone.
I hold a part of him in my hand because his wife and friends recalled, in the grief-driven process of finding homes for his various possessions, that I liked to make pictures. And so Paul’s camera gear….including lenses, brackets, cases, bigger cases to hold the smaller cases, cleaners, filters and flash units…became mine. I wasn’t chosen for the higher purpose of carrying on his legacy, or even understanding what he did with all this stuff. But it’s mine now. Much of it, I can’t practically use, but absent even one photograph of us together after a seven-year friendship, these gizmos are, now, rather sacred to me.
Annie Liebovitz and other shooters have made entire sub-careers photographing the personal belongings of people, from Emerson to Eleanor Roosevelt, that are themselves beyond the reach of portraits in the classic sense,. The gloves Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre. Annie Oakley’s performance costume. Paul’s cameras are like that to me. They can’t resurrect him the way a picture would, but they are talismans that summon a part of his spirit nonetheless.
Paul was an exhaustive student of rock ‘n’ roll, taking his youthful love for that music to a scholarly extreme. He didn’t just worship Buddy Holly:he traveled to Texas and became personal friends with Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena, a relationship that moved her to give him several ultra-rare studio recordings that you’ll never find in any textbook or collection anywhere. He could rattle off the personal histories of every one-hit-wonder in Top 40 history, and, coming from my own background in pop radio, I knew he was dead-bang perfect on every detail. He was also a natural gift for any kind of technical analysis, having worked as a TV repairman in the 1950’s and for IBM back in the punch-card era, and so I can easily imagine him applying that same degree of precision to the making of pictures. The quality and condition of the gear also argues for his orderly mind, as in the case of this pristine Canon A-1, the company’s first-ever SLR with fully automatic exposure, a camera from the 1970’s that is still influencing every element of camera design in the twenty-first century. I may never be able to make pictures with it. But it makes memories for me, even as a 35mm shrine sitting on a shelf.
I often read the user’s manual, and wonder if Paul needed to. After all, he seemed to live his life as if he had already figured out the instructions all by himself. In the end, his brain did all the best kind of work that people usually credit a camera with. That means that even if I never snap a frame with Paul’s camera, he’s already taught me, through his friendship, a vision that transcends gear.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE END OF A DECADE is often used as an arbitrarily mile marker to measure the effects of a particular parcel of time. The requisite lists of “bests” “biggests” and “top” accomplishments or events, trotted out in an attempt to define an era, are as irresistible as they are meaningless. The appeal is understandable: people, including photographers, love trying to make sense of something, especially their own work. But ranking one thing as better than another is not nearly as important as noting contrasts in one’s output over time. Simply put, we produce different work at different periods because we are actually different people.
Looking at my own stuff between 2009 and 2019, I can see several shifts in emphasis that have shaped the way I make pictures today. For example, over that period, I re-embraced prime, or single focal-length lenses, which had been a fundamental part of my film years but which temporarily got supplanted by the first kit lenses and moderate zooms of the digital era. I also came to greatly reduce my use of ultra-wide angle glass, settling on 24mm as about as wide a frame as I would ever shoot. Also, after flirting with auto and semi-auto shooting modes with my first DSLRs, I resumed another old school habit, that of shooting on full manual. Along with millions of others, I saw my work with cel phone cameras evolve from “just in case” or “emergency” shots to images that I would purposefully plan, preferring some of the results over those from my “real” cameras. And, overall, I tried to stop just short of a full-on minimalist approach to gear, trying to do more and more with less and less. That meant eschewing flash almost completely, and choosing in-camera technique over post-processing whenever possible. For me, the real magic still happens inside the box, one momentary impulse at a time.
The biggest change for me over the last ten years, however, was far more fundamental, as I seem to have completely reprioritized what I look for in an “acceptable” picture. As the decade began, aware as I was of the contrast limits of the first digital sensors, I sought a way to rescue every single iota of detail from the darker portions of my pictures, even as I accented sharpness and focus with near-religious zeal. That led me to work heavily with the HDR platform Photomatix, taking multiple exposures of single subjects which were then blended to amp up every grain of sand and woodgrain. The pictures looked dramatic in their “equalizing” of all tones, from dark to light, but which could often result in an over-cooked, glowing surreality. A slightly more restrained 2011 example of my HDR “period” is shown above.
By contrast, around the middle of the decade, I began to value subjects for a different kind of narrative impact, things that were allowed to be softer or even selectively underexposed. In a sense, I started to regard sharpness and focus as negotiable for certain pictures, not merely allowing backgrounds to fuzz out in contrast to foregrounds, but using Lensbaby and other “art” lenses to select things within a single foreground plane that could be softened in reference to others in that same plane…assigning additional focus priorities within the overall focus strategy. An example of this approach is seen here, in a crowded San Francisco street scene from earlier this year.
Over the last ten years, my images, especially the urban scenes, have gradually taken on a looser look, a more dreamy, if less “realistic” aspect. These new pictures are not just “captures” of things that pass in front of me, nor are sharpness and perfect exposure the only objective in photographing them. Instead, I like to hope that their non-specific quality will invite a more interpretive look from the viewer. Since everything isn’t spelled out or recorded in such photographs, there’s breathing room in them for anyone to supply his or her own detail (or not). I don’t always produce pictures like this now, but I am far more open to the idea of relinquishing control than I was ten years ago. Progress? Who knows? End-of-decade lists don’t really make a statement about “better” or “worse”. They are only reflections that, as the mind is always in flux, so, too, must any products of that mind be.
Happy New Year.
Happy New Pictures.
Happy New Adventures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES, by virtue of being special or rare, pack more anxiety than others. A weekend of casual snaps, regardless of one’s advance preparation (or lack thereof), may not raise many hives on the average shooter. There is no great risk of losing or missing “something good” in such cases, and thus the experience is more relaxed, and may even yield great results, given the laid-back setting. Schedule the very same photographer, however, for an appointment with a unique attraction or a key personal gathering, and the stress levels can zoom. In this case, anything you can do to keep your anticipation from rocketing into panic should be tried. In short, something that has the potential to be The Greatest Place I Ever Visited or The Most Important Day Of My Life is no place to get to know your new camera.
I recently spoke with a woman whose upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon had her in a near state of hysteria, since she had never taken the time to really get to know her “real” camera, and yet felt she needed it to bring back “good” results. I asked if her camera was a gift or whether she had chosen it herself. The answer was somewhere in the middle, in that it had been “highly recommended” to her, which translates, to me, that someone beside herself had decided what kind of camera she needed. She was not just intimidated by the device itself: the idea of even opening the user’s manual was giving her blood pressure. This was a person in crisis, or at least in danger of ruining her vacation experience worrying about what she “should” be shooting with. Guess what her pictures might look like under such circumstances?
I suggested to her that she was not really “on speaking terms” with her camera, and that an important personal occasion was no time to spark up an initial conversation. She might not be able to “speak” to it about what she wanted, or what it could be expected to deliver, and, of course, the camera cannot speak or reason at all. I encouraged her to guarantee that she would return with usable and generally solid pictures by snapping everything on her phone, with which she did have a high degree of comfort. Obsessing about what your gear is doing in the moment kills the idea of your living in that moment, and that, in turn, kills pictures, as all spontaneity or experimental joy simply vanishes from the process. I assured her that her phone was perfectly capable of delivering fine images, and that, moreover, the way to attack a learning curve on an unfamiliar camera is to first shoot a lot of non-crucial things, pictures that “don’t matter”, in preparation for the important things you’ll snap after you and the camera are working as one. Her nervousness was also symptomatic of something you have no doubt seen yourself….the case of someone purchasing a “really good” camera that, however well designed, is a mismatch for how they shoot or (more to the point) how they wish to shoot. In such cases, people often buy a device that is too much camera for what they really want, then stick it in a closet and shoot with the camera they actually like. This can stem from the antique belief, long debunked but still mythically powerful, that sophisticated gear automatically produces great results. It’s crazy: we see millions of amazing pictures taken every day on very basic equipment, and still we associate great pics with complex cameras.
The lady in question went away from our chat happy (or so I believe), because she now had permission to do what she wanted to do anyway. She may, at some time, decide to immerse herself in the “training” of her other camera, but she may not, and that’s fine. In photography, you have to pick your battles, and one in which you should never engage is some kind of death struggle with your own equipment.
We have to remember who works for who.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS OF, umm, A CERTAIN AGE, our first cameras came out of the box pretty much ready to go, with lens and body working as two halves of a predetermined factory assembly. The lens half frequently was pre-set at a single focal length, and, in the really rudimentary models, a single shutter speed. Varying the results of such tools meant doing something as simple as shooting in shade instead of direct sun, or accidentally standing too close to your subject for an express ticket to Blursville. We learned the limits of our earliest cameras by operating them badly.
But this was not a worthless exercise, since all those crummy misfires, while teaching us what didn’t work, also taught us to eagerly explore what might work. As we graduated to better, more responsive/instinctual gear, we carried that approach to learning with us, and can still call upon it when we care to. Because, even as we have become accustomed to more and greater options via ever more sophisticated lenses and gear, we can still learn a great deal about our own creativity by deliberately limiting our choices from time to time, which is why I became fascinated, years ago, with the idea of keeping a chosen lens on a camera for an extended period, forcing myself to shoot any and everything with it regardless of subject or conditions. In a sense, you’re re-introducing the uncertainty and occasional failure of your earlier shooting techniques back into your work. But you’re also learning to problem-solve and improvise, infusing a new kind of energy into your photography.
The Normal Eye, you may recall, originally sprang from a year that I spent shooting exclusively with an f/1.8 50mm lens. Since that time, I have occasionally attached other lenses, all with differing strengths and weaknesses, to various cameras for extended periods to see what I could do when I couldn’t do what I preferred to do. It has always yielded me surprises and a lot of fun. Lately I am going steady with an old Soviet-era Helios 44M, a f/2 58mm prime dating from the late 70’s. Having been built for some of Europe’s most mass-produced cameras, the Helios is a solid, well-built beauty that is also plentiful in Ebay Land. It’s also cheaper than devalued Russian currency and produces both flatteringly soft portraits and distinctive bokeh, so a win all around. Many contemporary “art lenses” produce some of the same effects as the Helios but at a premium price, so seeing if you like the looks it creates while risking less than $40 is hard to resist.
Wide open at f/2, the Helios, a fully manual lens, has an aggravatingly shallow depth of field. We’re talking taking fifty pictures to get five in which you truly nail the focus. However, the gentle drop-off you’ll see between cleanly defined objects and their immediate surroundings affords a buttery, smooth quality that, with a little intentional over-exposure, can produce a decidedly dreamlike, pastel-flavored effect, as seen in the example above. For $40, I will gladly use this thing chiefly for this look. Now, certainly, this lens, like every other hunk ‘o’ glass, has idiosyncratic deficiencies and is not great for everything. But at these prices, it is worth spending, let’s say, at least a week learning how to consistently produce the results you want with it, as much for your own education as for the number of keeper images you’ll harvest. Consider also that this lens was originally sold as the “kit” lens for Zenits and a range of other Euro-cameras. It came in the box attached to the body. It was supposed to do most of what you’d want to do without swapping out to other glass, so that, by shooting with it exclusively for extended periods in today’s world, you’re experiencing essentially the same learning curve that was engineered into the lens back in the glory days of the U.S.S.R. It’s not exactly like riding a bucking bronco without a saddle or rope, but still, the horse does buck.
Learning what to do when your gear hits its design limits can either be frustrating or liberating. The choice of which of those feelings you, yourself, will experience, like all other choices, is yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE POST JUST PREVIOUS TO THIS ONE, I tried to explain the value, at least to me, of learning how to shoot the most with the least….that is, to streamline my photographic equipment options to the bare minimum, teaching myself how to make any kind of picture over an extended period of time with just a single lens. Having read the accounts, over the years, of many others who have undergone the same experiment, I see several words emerge again and again…words like “freeing”, “mindfulness”, even “revelatory”. Far from being a mere stunt, taking one’s entire tool bag and winnowing it down to one universal tool is an exercise in seeing, in self-reliance, and, to a great degree, in establishing just who is making the picture….us, or our equipment.
The reason this has again occupied my mind in recent weeks is the insistence by my doctor that, following recent surgery, I could only be approved for my next vacation if I were willing to keep any kind of lifting as close to a zero load as possible. Now, it’s no great trick to bribe my wife into hoisting my suitcase onto the luggage belt, but trimming out my camera bag for light travel has proven more problematic. Now, I don’t quite tote the toy tonnage of a NatGeo photog when I fly, but my shoulders and neck can attest to the fact that I tend to pack quite a few “just in case” items, items which, upon my return from various locales, spent the entire trip sleeping in the bottom of the satchel. For this flight, then, it was both medically and mentally smart to see how stripped-out I could manage to be.
Of course, no single lens can do everything, but I find that, if I’ve been even halfway accurate in assessing where I’ll be going, I can closely predict what kind of likely shooting situations I’ll face…certain “knowns” that I can factor into my decision. For example, during the trip at hand, I am likely to spend a lot of time walking in city streets, and, since I can’t predict how tall the buildings or how cramped the composing space will be, I will need something fairly wide, meaning that 85mm or greater will probably not work. I will also probably, percentage-wise, be about 80/20 urban-to-rural for my subject matter, so I will not need anything like a telephoto for, say, landscape work. I can also safely bet that Marian and I will be out at night, so I need something fast, since I will be working handheld and want to keep ISO below about 1400 to hold down noise.
Finally, in thinking about some of the places I might visit, there is a smaaaalll chance that I may want my lens to be easily adaptable for macro work, as in, compact screw-on diopters that fit in a pocket. So, to summarize, I need a pretty wide, fast, macro-capable, non-zoom lens, something inside a compact, light body that will not add a lot of bulk or weight. Weighing all of these factors, I have chosen my 1970’s-vintage Nikon 24mm prime. Its biggest aperture is f/2.8, so there’s plenty of light to be had. It’s also wide without being so wide that buildings look bent over backwards and perspectives seem somewhat normal. Additionally, it’s sharp as a razor, fast to focus, small in size, and will take 52mm screw-on diopters to nail focus at less than 12 inches out. Additional benefit: if I attach it to a crop-sensor body, the 24mm actually works more like 36mm, making the lens flattering for portraits as well.
So will I fly with just one lens? I might. I could. If I can convince myself that I’m not missing out on anything by not packing more choices (relaxing my control-freak death grip by a little), I probably will. Or maybe I’ll just throw all the equipment I own into my suitcase and make Marian heft it onto the belt. Hey, she’s been working out.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEVEN YEARS AGO, THE NORMAL EYE BEGAN ITS BLOGGY INFANCY based on a very simple idea, one which I hoped might help its content outlast the comings and goings of trends or fashions. That idea was (is) that this photography thing is a journey, not a destination, that we are always on the way to something, be it personal development or increased technical mastery or both. Indeed, our welcome page specifically refers to the “journey from taking to making”, a trek which is designed to reveal something new about ourselves at every turn in the road. This small-town newspaper, then is never so much about the “how to” side of photography as it is about the “why do we do it?” side.
On a personal level, the blog was also a by-product of a yearlong stretch during which I used a 50mm prime lens exclusively, forcing myself to shoot anything and everything with a single optic in an effort to increase my own mindfulness. I needed something that would slow me down so I could anticipate, plan, even pre-imagine shots, rather than effortlessly clicking them off in mega-batches. I also stuck an additional pebble in my shoe by shooting only on manual, again with the idea that streamlining my lens choices and functions would allow me to take greater conscious control of whatever I set out to capture.
This is not just the photographic equivalent of setting off into the wilderness with just a hunting knife and some beef jerky to win some bar bet about your ability to live off the land. It’s not a stunt or a dare. It’s about learning to emphasize your own vision rather than relying on equipment to hand-deliver you technically acceptable but emotionally empty images. Using a single lens for everything still gives you just as many creative choices as you’ll find lugging around half a dozen different optics and gizmos, so what we’re talking about here is speeding up your reaction time (no fumbling to change out gear, hence fewer shots missed), teaching you a personally consistent way of imagining/framing a shot, and getting to the point where your bond with your camera is so instinctual, you’ll devote a much higher percentage of your day to seeing instead of calculating. Prime lenses, which have only one focal length, are also called “normal” lenses, and that word intrigued me. What, in terms of how we first learned to use our senses, could be more “normal” than seeing with a full and profound sense, versus just having things pass by our eyes largely unnoticed? Thus, as I worked to get everything out of my “normal” 50mm, I was also trying to re-normalize my own vision, taking it off the auto-mode settings imposed by cameras that have conditioned us to choose convenience over honesty.
I restate this little epistle from time to time because it continues to inform everything I try to do as a photographer. And because there will come times when you have, due to bad luck or fate or stupidity, limited options for getting the picture. Equipment will fail: cameras will be sucked up by a swamp or tumble over a cliff: batteries will die. And when that happens, even though your technical choices have become more narrow, your ability to make the picture you want will not. Your “normalized” eye will empower you to produce results with any camera, any lens, in any situation. And that’s what the journey is all about. Call it Entropy For Smarties.
In the next installment, I hope to illustrate how I’m trying to call on this flexibility to help me deal with an approaching shooting situation that I know will be more restrictive, gear-wise, than I’d like. I have to keep reminding myself that making images is only partly about the gear. The trick is to make it as small a part as possible.
THE FIRST TIME I READ CHASE JARVIS‘ The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You was some six years after its 2010 publication date, a short time in years, but a century in the development of mobile camera technology. After dashing through what was one of the first books ever compiled solely of phone camera images, I was furious at myself for investing, albeit in a Half Price Books store, in what I first saw as a pile of technically inferior, self-indulgent mush. The images were soft, hyper-saturated, low-contrast shots of, well, anything that caught Jarvis’ fancy as he jetted around the planet doing what I thought of as his “real” work. Shot in those heady first days of iPhone novelty at a mere two megapixels per frame, TBCITOTWY seemed a work of complete impulse. The pictures had no plan, no premeditation.
It took several days for me to realize that Chase wasn’t shooting “like a pro”. He was shooting like an artist.
In the post just previous to this one I had explained that it was the new kind of photographer, borne of the cell phone era, that had influenced me in learning to let go of a few, if not all formalist rules in my own work. Chase Jarvis had no way of knowing, nine years ago, that mobile cameras would re-introduce a kind of instinctual shooting into the mainstream, a sudden, relaxed see-it-shoot-it attitude based on desire and not calculation. The first cel cameras were certainly limited, lo-fi toys, but they embodied the same what-the-hell spirit that had typified old Polaroid users and, in the digital realm, the back-to-film Lomography hipsters with their plastic light-leaking Soviet-era snap cams. Cels had reignited the desire to take a chance on a picture, to indulge a whim. If the result was great art, cool. If instead you got a weird mess, even cooler.
This was all made possible by being absolutely comfortable with a camera that was good enough to at least give you something every time. The designers put a little computer in everyone’s hand that almost never failed completely. This was faster than film, and your absolute clunkers could be vaporized and tried again immediately. This same freedom had already come to digital cameras in general, but the sheer gobsmacking convenience of making pretty good pictures with almost no forethought or planning was beyond revolutionary. As with every other technical advance in the history of photography, it was democratically empowering.
The cameras are better now. So very much better, in fact, that they have freed people up even more to shoot a lot, enjoy it a lot, and speed up their learning curves. So much better that I can knock off a shot like the one seen here in less time than it would have taken to spool film into my camera just a generation ago. “I feel more free with (this) little camera than I have with any other”, wrote Chase Jarvis in the introduction to The Best Camera. “I somehow recovered an innocence I’d lost. I was able to see the world again for what it is: a beautiful, funny, sad, honest, simple, bizarre, and honest place”. I am still not ready to completely toss my photographic rule book, but the revolution in the world’s way of seeing has swept a part of me up, and my work reflects that. I love my own journey, but I am happy to sneak a peek at everyone else’s, too. To be surprised, in any art, at any age, is a blessing.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I NEVER EXPECTED MY APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE to actually become less rigid as I veered into my, er, golden years. For years, I’ve feared that either technical challenges or life bias or just my own stubborn cussedness might make me tend to cling to established rules in a way that would stunt my late-stage growth. After all, we all like to feel that an underpinning of of our accumulated experiences and habits will ensure consistent, if not spectacular picture making, as if it’s our reward for a lifetime of playing by the rules. And yet, somehow, I seem to be experiencing, at present, a kind of Year Of Going For Broke, a feeling of being comfortable being uncomfortable. I like flying without a net. Instead of worrying about whether an image will technically “work out”, I’m find myself more concerned with whether it emotionally works.
It’s not that I care so much less about what I used to think of as “precision”: it’s more that the term now means something different from mere technical recording of what is in front of me. We start off as photographers by trusting the camera to do the heavy lifting: we end, if we’re fortunate, by placing that burden on ourselves.
Looking at the pictures that I’m content with over the past few years, I see a curve toward much more instinctual shooting. Some of this is because technical advancements have made preparing to take picture ever easier and faster. That means that the gear is responsive enough to “save” more shots that would have been lost in earlier years. The evolution of increasingly better sensors, for example, has emboldened me to at least try shots that, in the film era, I would have avoided as impossible. Nabbing the shot you see here with a handheld camera would have been a fantasy for me prior to about 2000. Today, while not technically perfect, such a shot is (a) achieveable and (b) close enough to what I envisioned that I’m encouraged to keep trying for these kinds of pictures.
But I don’t want to be unclear: I’m not shooting looser just because equipment can compensate for my lack of skill or bad judgement. It’s more like my learning to let go of ultra-rigid ways of seeing is partnering with technology that encourages me to peace the hell out. That’s due in part to the example of a new kind of photographer, one borne of the cellphone era. I want to pay tribute to that person in some detail, and I will, in the very next post.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE CERTAINLY MANY MORE PICTURES BEING TAKEN than there are great pictures taken. That’s as it should be. Anything at which you wish to be excellent only comes about once you’ve learned what not to do, and that means lots of errors, lots of images that you feel compelled to destroy almost as quickly as you’ve created them. You must, must, must, take all the bad pictures right alongside the good ones. At first, the garbage will outnumber the groceries.
And then, some day, it doesn’t.
I am an A.B.S. (Always Be Shooting) shooter. I mean, I make myself at least try to make a picture every….single…day. No excuses, no regrets, no exceptions. Reason? I simply don’t know (and neither do you) where the good pictures are going to come from. For me to give myself permission not to try on a given day means I am risking that one of those potentially golden pictures will never be born. Period period period.
In a way, I often think photo technique guides from years gone by had things backwards. That is, they often made suggestions of great opportunities to take great pictures. You know the list: at a party: on a vacation: to capture special moments with loved ones, etc., etc. However, none of these traditional “how-to” books included a category called “just for the hell of it”, “why not?”, or, in the digital era, “whattya got to lose? You’re shooting for free!” These days, there are virtually no barriers to making as many pictures as you want, quickly, and with more options for control and creativity, both before and after the shutter click. So that old “ideas” list needs to be re-thought.
To my thinking, here’s the one (yes, I said ONE) suggestion for making pictures, the only one that matters:
TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY.
And to purify your thinking, here’s my larger list, that of the most commonly used excuses not to shoot. You know ’em. You’ve used ’em. And by doing so, you’ve likely blown the chance at a great picture. Or not. You won’t know, because you didn’t TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY. Here are the excuses, in all their shameful glory:
I haven’t got the right lens/camera/gear. There’s not enough light. I don’t do these kinds of pictures well. I don’t have my “real” camera. There’s nothing to take a picture “of”. Everyone takes a picture of this. I’ll do it later. It probably won’t be any good. There are too many people in the picture. There isn’t enough time.
Train yourself to repeat take the shot anyway, like a mantra, whenever any of these alibis spring into your head. Speed up your learning curve. Court the uncertain. Roll the dice. Harvest order from chaos. Stop waiting for your shot, your perfect day, your ideal opportunity.
Take the shot. Anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE DAY I WROTE THIS, the new Hasselblad XI-D-50c medium-format mirrorless camera was announced for pre-order. For the sake of history, it must be recorded here that the introductory price was $9,000.
For the body alone. Lenses (and batteries) not included.
I’m going to let that factoid sink in for a moment, so that you can (a) catch your breath/throw up/faint, or (b) find another blog whose author is impressed by this nonsense.
Now, for those who are still with us….
Let me state once more, for the record, that good photography is not defined by either academic training or dazzling hardware. There is no “camera”, in fact, outside yourself. To believe otherwise is to believe that a screwdriver can build a house. Tools are not talent. Moreover, schooling is not a pre-requisite for the creation of art. No one can sell you a camera better than your own brain, and no camera made today (or tomorrow) can save your photography if, like the Scarecrow, you don’t possess one.
I recently read a lament by someone who got his college degree in photography “back when that still meant something”, before the present age, in which, “apparently, everyone’s a photographer”. The sentiment expressed here is that making pictures is the exclusive domain of a few chosen High Priests Of Art, and that all who do not follow the path of the Jedi are, somehow, impure. Pretenders. Usurpers. Monkeys with hand grenades.
This viewpoint, with all its wonderfully elitist flair, was actually rendered obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, since that’s the first time Everyman could pick up and wield a camera without express permission from the Ivy League. Want to see how little it matters how little we know before we hit the shutter? Do your own Google search for the number of world-changing photographers who were self-taught…who, like most of us, simply got better by making lots of bad pictures first. Start with Ansel Adams and work outward.
What does this have to do with Hasselblad’s shiny new Batmobile? Plenty. Because the idea that great images are created by great cameras goes hand-in-snotty-hand with the idea that only the enlightened few can make pictures at all. Never mind the fact that these concepts have been scorned to laughter by the actual history of the medium, as well as its dazzling present. The notion that art is for We, and appreciation is for Thee stubbornly persists, and probably always will. That’s why museum curators get paid more than the artists whose works they hang. Go figure.
But it’s tommyrot.
There is no camera except your own experienced and wise eye. Choose performance over pedigree. You don’t need four years in study hall or a $9.000 Hassie to make a statement. More importantly, if you have nothing to say, merely ponying up for toys and testimonials won’t get you into the club.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CELL PHONE CAMERA’S IMPACT ON PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN SO SUDDEN AND FAR-REACHING that its full impact has yet to be fully measured. Within a decade, the act of making a picture has been democratized to a greater degree than at any other time in the history of the medium. It’s as if, overnight, everyone was given the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Goodbye, Superman, hello, Everyman. The Kodak Brownie’s introduction prior to 1900 gave the average human his first camera. The cell phone is like the Brownie on steroids and four shots of Red Bull.
It’s more than just giving millions of people the ability to take a photo. That part had been done before, dozens of times. However, no other camera before the cell has also obliterated the number one obstacle to picture-making on this scale: cost. The cost of film. The cost of marketing and sharing one’s work quickly, and with uniform quality. The cost of artistry, with support apps allowing people to directly translate their vision into a finished product without investing in gear that, just a few years ago, priced most people out of the creative end of the market.
Most significantly, there is the cost saved in time. Time learning a technique. Time speeding past the birth pains of your creative energy. you know, those darn first 10,000 hours of bad pictures that used to take years of endurance and patience. The learning curve for photography, once a gradually arching line, is now a dramatic, vertical jump into the stratosphere.
These insane leaps in convenience and, for the most part, real technical improvement occur across all digital media, but, in the cel phone, their impact is spread across billions, not mere millions, of users. Simulate a particular film’s appearance? Done. Do high-quality macro or fisheye without a dedicated lens running into the hundreds? Yeah, we can do that. Double-exposures, selective focus, miniature effects, pinhole exposures, even remote auxiliary lighting? Go fish. It’s all there.
And when cells raise the ante, traditional cameras have to up their game just to survive. The shot at the top of this page comes from a pair of Lensbaby macro converters up front of the company’s Sweet 35 optic, a shot that would only have come, a few years ago, from a dedicated macro lens costing upwards of $500. Lensbaby’s version? $49.95. And now, with less than a decade in the effects lens biz for DSLRs, Lensbaby makes macro, fisheye and other effect lenses for cells. A rising tide raises all boats.
I could make a list of the areas where the optics and outputs of cell phones are still behind conventional camera optics, but if this post is ever read more than a year past its publication, the future will make a liar out of me. Besides, that would put me on the same side as the carpers who still claim that film is better, more human, or “warm”, as the vinyl LP hipsters like to say. Your horse is nice, but it can’t outrun my Model T.
Part of photography’s appeal since day one has been the knowledge that, whatever era you live in, it’s a sure bet that some geek is slaving away in a lab somewhere, trying to make your sleek, easy, “latest thing” seem slow, clunky and over with. We’re never done. Which means that we’re always just beginning.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TRY MY BEST TO ANTICIPATE EXACTLY WHAT KINDS OF SHOTS I will be taking in a given photo situation. This helps minimize the delay and hassle of changing gear in the field by heading out with a single lens that will do most of what I want. It saves me lugging along every hunk of glass I own on a project (trying vainly to be ready for anything), and makes me far more familiar with the real limits of whatever lens I decide will be my primary go-to for the day. Not a perfect plan…still, a loose plan is better than totally trusting to instinct or luck.
You can, of course, plan too generally and accidentally limit yourself. For example, on a day in which you’re to shoot a ton of landscapes, it’s easy to assume you’ll want an ultra-wide lens to capture those vast vistas. However, if something amazing appears on a far horizon and you can’t zoom any closer than, say, 55mm, you’ve suddenly got the wrong lens. Moreover, if your day takes you inside a dark cave, and your ultra-wide can’t shoot any faster than f/3.5, you’re likewise hamstrung to some degree.
In the above image, I decided, as I often do, to spend the entire day with a 35mm prime, a lens which affords me more latitude in more situations than any other glass I own. Of course, I can’t zoom with that lens, so I have to be reasonably sure that anything I want to shoot with it can be framed by simply walking closer or farther away. The 35 can open up to f/1.8, so it’s great in the shade, or where I want a shallow depth of field, and that can make it a viable, if modest, close-up lens…not true macro, but a good tool for selective subjects just a short distance away (in this case, about five feet). Also, shooting with the biggest image file setting available allowed me to crop away up to 75% of my original, as I did here, and still maintain good resolution. However, is the 35 of any value if I suddenly spy a bald eagle on the wing 300 yards away? Not so much.
But it’s not about finding a universal, one-lens-fits-all solution. It is about anticipating. The most valuable habit you can develop before every sustained shoot is to mentally rehearse (a) what kind of situations you’re likely to encounter and (b) what you want to be able to do about it. That sounds absurdly simple, but it really is about taking as many obstacles out of your own path before they even appear as obstacles. In other words, practice getting out of your own way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN DRENCHED IN A VIRTUAL TIDAL WAVE over the last few days, visiting one of those torrential storms of discontent that can only exist on the internet, churning furiously, forever, no resolution, no winner. I don’t know when it began; I only know that, six months, a year, or a decade from now, if I return for more, the storm will still be raging, the two forces inexhaustible in their contempt for each other.
In one corner will be the photographers who believe that equipment has no determination in whether you make great pictures. In the other corner will be those who believe that you absolutely need good gear to make good images. The invective hurled by each combatant at the other is more virulent than venom, more everlasting than a family feud, more primal than the struggle between good and evil.
If you dig bloodsport, enter the maelstrom at the shallow end by Googling phrases like “Leicas are not the greatest cameras” or “your camera doesn’t matter” and then jump behind a barricade. Do more provocative searches like “hipsters are ruining photography” or “don’t think, just shoot” at your peril.
As with many other truth quests in photography, this one shows strong evidence for both of the waves in the surge. Certainly a great piece of equipment cannot confer its greatness upon you, or your work. And, from the other side, sometimes a camera’s limitations places limits, or at least austere challenges, upon even superbly talented people. And, so, to my mind, there is a third, more consistently true wave: sometimes there is a magic that makes it to the final frame that is mysterious, in that you don’t know how much of the picture you took, how much the camera took, or just how ready the cosmos was to serve that picture up to you. See image above, which I can no longer take either credit or blame for.
Yeah, that’s a little Zen high priest in tone, but look over your own work, especially things you did five or more years ago, where it’s now difficult to recall the exact circumstances of the success of a given image. Pull out the pictures that could be correctly captioned “I don’t know how I got that shot”, “I guess I just went for broke”, or “don’t ask me why that worked out..” There will be more pictures that fall between the extremes, that are neither “thank God I had my cool camera” nor “thank God I was able to make that image despite my limited gear.” That middle ground is the place where miracles thrive, or die on the vine. That strange intersection of truth , far beyond the lands of my-side/your-side heat, is where lies the real light.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MARKETING BEING WHAT IT IS, CAMERA MANUFACTURERS HAVE LONG TOLD US THEY ARE DOING ONE THING FOR US when they are actually doing something very different. Since the first furry, day-long exposures of the 1800’s gave us a taste of what an entirely new medium could do in the way of chronicling the world, we have been promised that, over succeeding generations of technical development, taking a picture would get easier. In fact, this is a little inaccurate, as what the wizards have mostly done is to make taking a picture faster.
If this sounds like I’m splitting a sub-atomic-sized hair, hear me out. Many of the refinements in camera design over the last century and a half have, of course, improved the sharpness of lenses, the absorbance quotient of recording media, and enhanced design. However, the lion’s share of reboots have been to require fewer steps in framing and shooting, through increasing auto-delegating of many functions to smarter and smarter cameras. But, what we basically gain by this process is speed. It certainly takes much less time to shoot and get an acceptable result as the years roll by. “Well”, you may well ask, “doesn’t that mean the whole process is also easier?”
Tricky question, as it turns out.
In that you can take technically better images with less effort the further we roll along, then yes, it’s “easier”. But the same speed which is part of the “easy” process also means that we spend less time planning a picture, seeing it in our minds and creating it with deliberate action…cause, you know, the camera will do it. This means that it’s also easy to miss things, to fail to visualize the best way to take a shot versus the most expedient way. Slowing down by adding steps into the creation of a photograph means taking back control, so it is, if you will, “harder”, but, with practice of the total process of photographing, the ease, and even the speed all comes back anyway.
I wanted the name of this blog to contain a subtitle about journeying from taking to making images because that is the trek that most photographers eventually set out on. We begin to wonder what it would be like to be more completely in charge of what kind of pictures we wind up with, even if it’s only to take a series of baby steps. It does take more time to take the process into your own hands. But it’s not that hard. Auto-settings save you time, but they may not save your shot. Choosing the inconvenient isn’t ignoring technology. It’s making it work your will with your pictures.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is not unlike that seen in many other crafts that eventually lead to art. Built in layers at a measured pace over years, the photographer’s eye deepens, broadens, becomes both intellectual and instinctual. It is a process, one that some would argue is never complete, and is similar to the way a sculptor’s grip on the chisel goes from brute strength to brain wave, or the halting young painter, over time, converts brush strokes to master strokes.
However, this process is subverted by contemporary culture’s addiction to things…new things, shiny things, latest things. When photography meets consumerism, acquisition, not mastery, becomes the prime objective. How can you take today’s pictures with yesterday’s camera? This new toy, this fresh gadget, changes everything. Adapt, or die a thousand uncool deaths.
This is flawed thinking, but it sweeps many of us up in the frenzy to constantly replace all our gear, placing our faith in the mechanics, rather than the aesthetics, of making pictures. Advertising is about artificially engineering need. If you can be made to have disdain for your old stuff, the people who make new stuff will never run out of customers. It’s just that simple. Fact is, there are many people who presently own perfectly adequate cameras, and, based on where they are as photographers, they do not need to go to the next big thing, since they have not mastered what they presently use. Here is the truth: changing cameras because you have outgrown your current one is the only time such change makes any artistic sense.
Now, I’m not saying that you should “settle” if your camera is so limited that it’s holding you back. There are some gauzy-eyed fantasists out there that love to rhapsodize on how you can make glorious pictures with crappy cameras, and, while I applaud their enthusiasm, I question their sanity. Romantic notions aside, crap usually begets crap. Get a box adequate to your needs. But make sure that it is also proportionate to your ability and involvement. I have seen more newbies over-purchase monstrous mega-machines that they either under-utilize by 90% or which terrify them so much that they lie rotting in drawers (the cameras, not the customers) after a few months of frustration and failure.
Find the camera that defines what kind of photographer you are right now, and pull every ounce of creativity out of it until you know that you need something else in order to grow. Trying to shoot masterpieces with junk usually doesn’t work, but sinking your hopes into a $2,000 thoroughbred that you’re going to use like a point-and-shoot may actually be worse.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.