By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE A REALM OF CONJURED DREAMS, as technology first enabled man to snatch instants from the flowing continuum of time. This grabbing and freezing process, the notion of stopping history and imprisoning it on a plate, involved a great deal of experimentation, as the very rules of exposure were being drafted on the fly. At first, both optics and recording media were slow to drink in light, meaning that calculating the precise duration for which to uncap the lens was, in the period before mechanical shutters, largely a matter of guesswork. Thus was born the world’s first photographic “aritifacts”, the blurred smears of things or people that kept moving during prolonged exposures. The Reverend H.J.Morton, writing for the Philadelphia Photographer in 1865, summed up the surreal experience of finding ghosts lurking in an otherwise frozen scene:
A beautiful picture lies smiling before the lens, when a cow gets up slowly and walks away deliberately, giving us a fine landscape with a continuous cow of many heads, much body, and centipedian legs.
Today, with the lightning-fast response that is built into even the simplest cameras, that cow can only be summoned in a deliberate time exposure, typically with the camera mounted on a tripod. It’s fair to say that our motives for making these kind of images has changed over the years, again, mostly due to technological advances, including vibration suppression, wider ISO ranges, and enhanced noise reduction (which works hand-in-glove to clean up high-ISO pictures). Fact is, there are fewer instances than ever before in which long exposures are needed, unless we utilize them to generate the very artifacts that we used to wish we could eliminate. As one example, everyone eventually creates at least one “light trail” photo, letting cars zoom through a long exposure largely unseen while leaving the glowing paths of their headlamps hanging mystically in the air. And there are certain collapsed studies of long durations which can only be appreciated by prying the lens open for a few extra beats. In the case of the above image, I was photographing the final night before the closure of a local art cinema, which would soon be razed to make room for a bigger cineplex with more screens, more room, and far less charm. I felt as if a lot of Spirits Of Cinema Past were in attendance, and so mounted a tripod to turn the customers themselves into passing shadows, just like the many spectres that had flickered across the theatre’s screens over the decades. And that’s the strange time-travel feature of photography: one era’s annoyance is another era’s cherished effect.
I seldom use my tripods any more, but having recently inherited one from a departed friend, I find myself recalling the days when it was my near-constant companion, a reverie which, in turn, sent me searching back for the theatre images. Making pictures is about harnessing the light with whatever lasso we have handy. As we grow, we learn to do more with less, creating in seconds what used to require elaborate forethought. But all that really means is that, as we improve, we are freer to focus on the picture, rather than the mechanics of making one. That means choices….and yes, even the choice to do conjure ghosts if the fancy strikes us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A WHOLE SUB-UNIVERSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, as we near the two-century mark for the art, is devoted to emulation, or the artificial creation of the look of some part of photography’s past. This can include the aspect of a bygone lens, the framing offered by certain old cameras, and, in recent years, the digital simulation of the look of certain film emulsions. Seems that no sooner had we left the analog world than we began to devise ways to bring it back….or at least summon its ghost. Suddenly, through apps and other editing platforms, people who never shot a frame of film in their lives can render the color bias, grain, and even the speed (light sensitivity) of old stock. Part of this mini-craze is, of course, pure nostalgia, a longing for a certain simpler…. something. Part of it is also irony, as we use old recording media to impart a specific mood to a contemporary shot that it might not otherwise possess.
The revived visual impact of film in the digital era is reminiscent of those old-time photo booths that popped up at tourist attractions decades ago, providing customers with quaint costumes in which they might pose for sepia-toned “tintypes”, casting their families as pioneers and cowpokes. Today, faux-film is a tremendous profit machine within the world of phone apps, and is even creeping back in the recent resurgence of instant photography, which was resurrected in part because, hey, that weirdly imbalanced Polaroid film looked so cool. I have my own personal weakness in all of this, as a lifelong fan of Kodachrome slide film, which winked out of existence after nearly three quarters of a century just a few years ago. Kodachrome struck many as a very naturalistic kind of color medium, and it certainly introduced millions of amateurs to color in the 1930’s, just about the time shooters also embraced 35mm roll film. Everyone had to shoot a ton of the stuff, however, to get a high yield of usable images, mostly because it was verrrrry slow (50 ASA/ISO, although it eventually crawled to 100) and thus seriously prone to underexposure if you didn’t calculate your shots just so. Today, cameras do so much of all that figgerin’ that even those who still shoot film (you know who you are) don’t have half the head-scratching math their forebears needed just to take a snap. Still, I (and we) hunger for the look produced in the day when it was all too easy to make an expensive error. The horse, in uncertain times, even during a barn fire, always heads for the barn.
Of course, if you truly emulate a film, you also emulate everything that it did, good or bad, and one of Kodachrome’s artifacts, when slightly underexposed, was to enrich and deepen colors. Being basically lazy by nature, when I want that kind of muted, voluptuous look, I simply underexpose my shots by a few aperture stops….not enough to lose all detail in the dark areas, but enough to boost intensity and warmth and isolate the brighter elements from the darker ones with more pronounced contrast. The other way to get the same result, as seen in the above image, is to take an already dark scene (like this late sunset) and either speed up the shutter, to make it a mite darker, or use a fast shutter and an ISO that’s only raised to about half of what a “correct” exposure might require.
Like any other “look”, my Kinda-Kodachrome is not a consistent signature of my work, but an occasional fun asterisk on it. At some point, some able app-smith may eventually craft a faithful approximation of it, but, until then, I have fun blending old and new elements into a kind of composite-tribute of my own. Photography itself has always been like twin-headed Janus, looking into the past and future at the same time. Such is the dual goal of all art. Every time you record the now, you’re using the wisdom of the was.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY’S EXPLOSION IN THIS STILL-FRESH CENTURY has shown itself not to be about a single, big revolution but an ongoing cascade of small ones. As more and more shooters have shifted their emphasis away from film technology….itself, admittedly a fundamental earthquake of change, they have also had to constantly adapt to a continuous flow of refinements and reinventions in the digital realm. Nothing is static and nothing will ever again be in its final form. Things that were considered cumbersome and clumsy just a few seconds ago now are accomplished effortlessly. We move from custom to standard in the wink of an eye.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the rise and not-quite-complete fall of HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography, the practice of shooting several different exposures of the same subject and melding the best of all of them into one seamless composite through software. The need for such a solution arose from the inefficiency of early digital sensors, which caused light and dark extremes in an image to be either blown out or smothered in shadow. HDR was devised as a way to imitate how quickly the human eye can adjust to allow us to see everything in about the same degree of contrast. It doesn’t actually do that, but instead presents a ton of images of varying contrast to our brains so quickly that we imagine that we actually always see everything in balance. Early renditions of Photoshop did not address this problem, nor did the earliest cell phone cameras, and even traditional manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were years away from including HDR-like modes in their DSLRs, and so editing platforms like Photomatix, HDR Efx Pro, and Aurora HDR were created in the early 2000’s to specifically blend and tweak anywhere from two exposures on upward in a work flow that came to be known as “tone mapping”. The apps sold well and addressed a real niche within the photographic world. Transitions between light and dark seemed more elastic, and textures, from beach sand to wood grain, seemed to be rendered with greater emphasis.
HDR drew both praise and poison from the start, with some photographers subtly enhancing their work while others “over-cooked” the effect, delivering surreal palettes of day-glo color and gooey skin textures surrounded by strange halos and other unwanted artifacts. The result, as is occurring with greater and greater speed in the digital-web complex, was that, just as a revolution/solution for a real problem hit the market, others began almost immediately to concoct an antidote for the wonder drug…a fix for the fix. A few scant years later, manufacturers of both standard and phone-based cameras have their own HDR-like modes, which are both more limited in precision and hellishly convenient: digital camera sensors themselves are already in their second generation, with greater dynamic range already designed in: and uber-tools like Photoshop and Lightroom have become more supple in the quick adjustment of even single batches of images. Thus HDR has gone the regular developmental route seen that all tech has across history, from balky and bulky to sleek and instinctive. We learn to do more with less, and what was once custom equipment (like radios once were in automobiles) becomes standard (like seat belts in automobiles) but with even greater immediacy in the digital era. In my own work, after years of HDR love writ large, I now tend to solve 95% of the problems that used to dictate the use of HDR with simple in-camera moves, some of them as basic as exposing for the highlights and recovering the detail in the dark areas in post editing (as seen in the image above).
I was recently toying with an old Canon A1 SLR from the late ’70’s and marveling at the fact that its owners initially had to special-order (at considerable expense) a screw-on battery motor drive that had no other function except to assist forgetful users by winding the film on to the next frame. Obviously the winder unit was only in production for a few years until the same challenge was met with less hardware, fewer steps, and a lot less cash. And so it goes. All of which goes to say, as we frequently do in these funny papers, that gear is not the primary determinant in the creation of great photographs. If equipment does not currently exist to produce the results we want, we find a way to fake it until the lab boys make it. Technology follows inspiration. Art cannot happen if things go the other way.
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
FEWER DEVICES HAVE SHORTENED THE DISTANCE between an artist’s thought and his deed like the camera. Unlike musical instruments, paint brushes, or other tools of the creator’s trade, the camera takes you from conception to completed act in a matter of seconds. Of course, that’s when everything else is going right….
There are times when even the seemingly immediate response of the shutter still lags behind the mind in conceiving a visual message, when super-fast still feels horribly slow. Some concepts sprout and die with the rapidity of heat lightning, with the photographer racing to traverse the distance from inspiration to execution, and, occasionally, failing. In such instances, such as the moment that the cab arrives or the light changes or someone is just urging you let’s go, you have to go for broke and gamble on your idea. Fortunately, even those instances in which your efforts seem to crash and burn are instructive. In aviation, the saying goes that any landing you walk away is a good one. I’d adapt that sentiment to read: any picture that shows any of what you were trying to portray is a step closer to the right shot.
But first you have to attempt it.
We’ve spoken at length in this forum about how the only picture you truly regret is the one you didn’t take, and, as cliched as that statement is, it bears repeating. Because among the shots that miss by a mile are the ones that only miss by inches, and those are the ones that keep us doing this. In the above image, I am scrambling. A lot. I am standing near the front entrance of what’s soon to become my former hotel, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for my wife to contact/hire a ride share service. I decide to burn away those unused moments by trying to catch the uniformed staff at their endless task of welcomes/goodbyes for guests connecting to curbside transportation. I’m pushing a carry-on, wearing a DSLR by a shoulder strap and trying to guess an exposure that I’ll have to try to hit one-handed. I’m seconds away from being ready when I’m told our ride is three minutes away. We have plenty of time to get to the airport, but just the same, I’m now on deadline. A short fuse. Make or break. I don’t want to dawdle needlessly, since, over a long weekend, I have already paused to frame enough shots that I have exhausted my allotted ration of marital goodwill. You know the moment. It’s somewhere between an exasperated sigh and the sentence, “are you still taking pictures?” I also hate to fight too ardently for this one, since I’m only half sure of not only the exposure but the concept in general. I should probably just grab by bag and git.
Even at this point, I still can’t decide if I got everything I wanted here. I liked reducing the greeters and their gear to silhouettes, but in doing so I also eliminated a lot of the glowing gold of a late San Francisco afternoon. I said a quick prayer, squeezed off four shots with small adjustments in between, and decided I had to make a dignified exit. But what I said earlier about near misses still applies here. It’s not a complete boff, but it’s not a contest winner either. Can I use the experience to deliver a better result from a similar situation sometime in the future? Ah, well, that’s why we call this thing we do an “art” and not a “science”. I will live to fight,….er, shoot, another day. And that’s all any photographer wants anyhow. The next shot.
For therein lies redemption…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO CONSIDER A PHOTOGRAPH “FINISHED“, I have to be at peace with the choices made in creating it. I can take either an active or passive role in making an image, each role with its own set of choices. At the most active end of the scale, I might be shooting completely on manual, micromanaging every step of the process, making what I call shaping choices. At my most passive, I might be snapping in full automode, which means, after the camera makes its own arbitrary decisions, my choices are merely editorial, with me choosing my favorites from among a group of photos essentially taken by “someone else”.
“Live” performances can be a challenge for me whether I’m shooting actively or passively. The stakes are as follows:
Shooting on manual (actively) means making lots of adjustments in the moment, with action progressing so quickly that, even at my fastest, I may miscalculate or simply miss a key opportunity. In short, I could work really hard and still go home with nothing. Or I could follow my instinct and bag a beauty.
Now let’s say I shoot passively, using a mode designed for such situations. Some cameras call this mode “continuous”, while others refer to it as “sports” or “burst”, but it simply refers to the camera’s ability to crank off several frames per second, making all necessary adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, autofocus and ISO on the fly with just one touch from the shooter. Since the camera can make these shifts much faster than any human, you’ll have scads of shots to choose from, nearly all of which will be technically acceptable. You lose control over everything except choice of subject and composition, but you do get the final say over what constitutes a “keeper”, such as the image of a flamenco dancer you see here, which was caught on burst automode. Your choices are less creative and more editorial, and, if you disagree with all of the “other photographer’s” choices, you’re just as out of luck as if you had shot everything manually but hated it all. Wotta world, am I right?
As photographers, we choose subject matter, and then choose the best way to approach capturing it, based on whether you rate assistance from your camera as a bane or a blessing or something in between. Methods are a personal matter, but making a choice of some kind is key to comprehending what is happening in the picture-making process, and what role you want to play in it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYTIME I HEAR A PHOTOGRAPHER EXPLAIN HIS TECHNIQUE in sentences that start with “I always”, my hackles raise…just a little.
You’ve heard people point to stylistic routines that they never break, as if that rigidity were itself a guarantee of consistent excellence. I always shoot in natural light. I always shoot RAW. I always use a red filter…. you get the idea. Let’s agree that there is no gear or procedure which works wonderfully all the time. Every choice we make as photographers means, well, unchoosing other choices. Sometimes that’s a winning strategy. Sometimes it just bespeaks our insecurity or inflexibility.
One of the “always” boasts that’s prominent among users of very fast lenses is, “I always shoot wide open” (at the largest possible aperture), as if that’s some miracle prescription. In terms of exposure range, If you’re shooting at around f/2 (or wider, if you’ve laid out a small fortune), you’ve certainly elected to suck in as much light as your lens will allow, and often, that can give you a tremendous advantage over slower lenses. But it comes at a cost.
At widest apertures, your depth of field, the area of sharpest focus, will be extremely shallow. Now, if you are shooting a portrait at close range and are okay with your background registering as a blur, this can be great, but if the mountain in the background is as important as the girl in the foreground, f/2 will not get that done. Another thing to factor into a shallow DOF shot is manual focusing (in case your autofocus throws a hissy fit). That will require even more time and patience to nail the shot…..which is okay in a casual setting but impractical in fast-moving situations, like street work or sports.
But let’s talk upside. Like mountain ranges? Wide open at F/2, our theoretical lens will, at around 250 feet from the nearest part of a landscape subject, be effectively sharp to infinity. However the result will be measurably softer than, for example, a telephoto shooting at f/8 or slower. One last caveat: using f/2 for everything could also generate additional chromatic aberration or color fringing, in case either of those are deal breakers for you.
The point here is that no setting, no lens, no trick can cover every situation with equal results. If that were true, someone would have already devised a universal high-end point-and-shoot that we could all buy, and the golden age of Gear Wars would end. Till that day, all we have is judgement….creative decisions weighed against all available options.
It means making pictures on purpose, an intention that is the dead opposite of “I always…..”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING, or January of 2019, your humble author is anticipating a little side trip back into film technology, as I await delivery of a roll of the re-introduced Kodak Ektachrome 35mm reversal film. The stock will be fairly slowly rated at 100 speed, so, along with the generally unforgiving nature of slide film, there will be more than enough potential for the final product to come in on the underexposed side. Which is fine with me.
Years ago, I fell in love with the hyper-saturation I got when I accidentally under-exposed original Ektachrome and its even slower cousin, the lost and lamented Kodachrome. So once I load the E-roll into my old Minolta SRT-200, I might even try to deliberately push the bottom end of the stuff to see just how minimal I can make the shots……which got me thinking about recent instances in which I tried to get that Dutch-lit effect digitally. Turns out that there were more than a few of them in the year just gone by, and so I preceded to gather up a short stack for a new page called When Lights Are Low, joining the other tabs at the top of this page as of this posting.
There are no coordinating themes in this grouping, just the common experiment of undercranking the exposure to see just how much you can do with how little. A few of the images were the subject of earlier essays in these pages: most haven’t been seen before. Of course, shooting film again is, for me, returning to the high risk and low reward of the medium, which can be, let’s face it, a chance to avenge old sins. Maybe this time I’ll get it right.
When it comes right down to it, film is very aspirational: you have to invest a lot of hope in it at the front end, and be happier with a much slimmer harvest of usable goodies than in the digital world. But it’s occasionally fun to take a filmic effect that you’ve learned to emulate in digital and try to achieve it, you know, on film. Whatever that proves is to be decided by those of you out there in the darkness who are sporting degrees in psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the whole thing makes my head hurt, so I’m going to go lie down. Cheers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A SELECTIVE READING OF SOME of the posts featured in The Normal Eye over the years might give the impression that I am “anti-flash” in my approach to photography. A closer look, however, would reveal that I am more properly non-flash….that, while I stipulate that judicious use of artificial light can be amazing, (a) it can often do more harm than good, and (b) there are fewer situations in which it’s needed than at any other point in time. So, anti……no. But non…..absolutely.
Choosing not to use flash in low light situations used to mean that a tripod was essential for sharpness in even reasonably quick exposures, but even that truth is falling by the wayside, as sensors allow for lower noise at ever-higher ISO levels. The handheld shot is now more convenient and reliable than ever, with only modest investments in gear and/or practice to yield suitable results. This means that, outside of very formalized studio settings, you may now be able to leave both flash and pod in the closet in more and more cases.
So let’s pursue the ideal: a low-light image, shot handheld, with the lowest possible ISO, achieved without flash or tripod. First, your glass needs to be fast, something that can’t be said for the basic kit lenses that are packaged with most DSLRs. A lens like a kit 18-55mm that only opens in the f/3.5 range can’t compete with prime lenses such as a 35 or 50mm of f/1.8 or faster. The extra several stops can render many more handheld shots feasible, and so investing in an affordable prime (single focal length) is money well spent.
The other, and far more decisive factors in this handheld quest, since you’ll be dealing in slower exposure times, are the purely physical moves involved in bracing your camera. Whether it’s a firm stance, a solid grip, a handy resting place like a shelf, or a combination of all three, you have to practice….a lot…in minimizing camera shake. Everyone’s technique for this will vary, and the web is rich in written or video tutorials from which to choose. The point is, it’s possible to learn how to do it.
The two shots shown here are both shot wide open, at F/1.8, at a rock-bottom ISO value of 100 and available light only (the room was actually further darkened for purposes of this test). And while you can certainly see a clear contrast in sharpness between the first and second shot, they are handheld at 1/5th of a second and 1 full second respectively and are both usable shots (seen here straight out of the camera). Moreover, even shooting at, say, 1/10th of a second or faster, the picture could still be done with very low ISO and no flash, no tripod. And that buys you ease, mobility and speed. Travel light, shoot more, and in more places.
Again, I am most definitely not anti-flash. I just think that the fluidity of today’s gear, along with a few hours of practice, can simplify your shooting, giving you more concentration on the why of a picture rather than the how of getting it done.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GROWING DEBATE OVER THE RECENT EMERGENCE of a process called exposure fusion, which has been touted as an alternative , if not a replacement for, High Dynamic Range or HDR processing. Which camp you fall into depends greatly upon what look you want in your final image, and both processes can be generated within a popular program call Photomatix.
So, first, a bit of review: HDR blends multiple frames of the same subject, shot at differing degrees of exposure, basically deepening the lighter values and rescuing detail in the darker ones. This means that you can potentially create a composite photo which “sees” the entire range of values in the same intensity, somewhat like your own eye (the ultimate camera) sees them.
Photomatix’ other main flavor, exposure fusion, takes the same multiple exposures and weighs every pixel in each of them for its value, letting some pixels from all exposures ” show through” in the final composite. The range of tones from light to dark is far less dramatic than in HDR, producing an image that strikes some as more natural. It’s worth noting that exposure fusion processes faster and easier than HDR and produces none of its annoying “halo” around the periphery of objects.
One additional fun aspect of exposure fusion, for me, is in its ease of use in creating montage, or controlled double-exposures, as well as same-subject composites. In the above shot, you’ll see a particularly clean amount of transparency between the musicians at a museum and a shot of part of a sign advertising its theme statement. Moreover, exposure fusion operates with several supple contrast and compression slider switches that make very minute adjustments in a snap.
The current HDR / Exposure Fusion “face-off” can only be resolved by actual users’ results, the only thing that matters in photography. Hey, if you made a piece of cowhide light-sensitive with a mix of lemonade and Lestoil and found a way to make a print with it, then mazel tov and God bless.
It’s always, and only, about the pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STREET-HARDENED CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER ARTHUR FELLIG (1899-1968), who adopted the pseudonym “Weegee” was often asked the secret of his success as the journalist who best captured the stark essence of mobster arrests, gruesome murders, and various other manifestations of mayhem and tragedy. He had answered the “how do you do it” question so many times that he developed a uniform shorthand response which passed into photographic lore and stamped itself onto the brains of all future street shooters. The secret: “f/8 and be there.”
The “f/8” part spoke to the fact that Weegee, who seldom shot at any other aperture, was more interested in bringing back a usable picture than in creating great art. In the days before autofocus, shots taken on the fly at medium distance would almost always be reasonably sharp at that depth of field, no matter how sloppy the shooter’s finer focusing technique. Besides, since he was capturing sensation, not romance, why bother with subtle nuance? Weegee’s pictures were harsh, brutal, and grimy, just like the nether worlds they depicted. They were known for their high contrast and for the atomic blast of hard flashgun light he blew into the faces of society mavens and thugs alike. We’re talking blunt force trauma.
The second half of Weegee’s golden rule was far more telling for any photographer purporting to be an effective narrator. When Fellig spoke of “being there” he was not only referring to arriving on a crime scene ahead of any competition (which he guaranteed by grabbing early bulletins from the police-band radio in his car and having a mobile darkroom in his trunk), but in being mentally present enough to know when and what to shoot, with very little advance prep. The bulkiness of the old Graphlex and Speed Graphic press cameras (the size of small typewriters) meant that shooting twenty frames in as many seconds, as is now a given with reporters, was technically impossible. Time was precious, deadlines loomed, and knowing when the narrative peak of a story was approaching was an invaluable instinct, one which distinguished Weegee from his contemporaries. Opportunities were measured in seconds, and photogs learned to nail a shot with very little notice that history was about to be on the wing.
There will always be arguments about the finer points of focus and exposure, with most debates centering on the first half of Weegee’s prime directive. However, for my money, the urgency of being ably to identify immediacy and grab it in a box far outweighs the niceties of art. Many a Pulitzer Prize-winning image is under-exposed or blurs, while many a technically perfect picture actually manages to drain a scene of any human emotion. Make it f/8, f/4, hell, take the damned thing with a pinhole if need be. But be there.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN EARLIER OUTINGS, WE HAVE DISCUSSED THE VALUE of knowing how sunlight enters your house at all times of the day. Knowing where bright spots and slatted beams hit the interior of your home in different hours gives you a complete map of “sweet spots” where natural light will temporarily isolate and flatter certain objects, giving you at least several optimized minutes for prime shooting each day.
Keeping this little time-table in your head allows you to move your subjects to those places in the house where, say, the daily 10 a.m. sun shaft through the family room window will give you a predictably golden glow. For me, that location is my living room window, across which the southwestern sun tracks east/west, and the object is my white baby grand piano.
Pianos, to me, are divinely complex gadgets, creations of the first great industrial age, their impossibly intricate mechanics offering thousands of possibilities for macro shots, fisheye explosions, abstract compositions, shadow studies, and delicate ballets of reflections as the morning sun dances across harp, strings, and hammers in an endless kaleidoscope of radiance. I have long since tracked how the sun showcases different parts of the piano as the day progresses, and how that corresponds to the instrument’s various sections and subsections.
Hard-wiring that schedule into my skull over the years means I know when a shot will work and when it won’t, making the object more than just something to shoot. It becomes, in effect, an active kind of photo laboratory, a way of teaching and re-teaching myself about the limits of both light and my own abilities. Better still, the innate intricacy of the piano as an object guarantees that I can never really get “done” with the project, or that something that was a mystery in January will become a revelation by June.
What gives this process a special lure to me is my endless effort to exploit natural light to the full, believing, as I do, that nearly every other less organic form of illumination is measurably poorer and less satisfactory than that which comes plentifully, and for free. The house I live in has thus become, over the years, a kind of greenhouse for the management of light, an active farm for harvesting the sun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A WHOLE SEPARATE WING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ESTATE that values dark almost more than light. It’s a photography of near-night, work that suggests only the merest intrusion of illumination into a palette of black. An almost-nothing. A bleary, evanescent glimpse, a suggestion. Minimalism taken to the maximum.
Or, in other words, the dead opposite of the mindset of the majority of photographs made over time.
For most of us, the camera was expected to get better and better at registering accurate detail in less and less light, giving us a reasonably balanced record of color and depth, a kind of realism, or at least documentation. This is the photography of the consumer, who was taught to want pictures in which everything is spelled out, obvious, apparent. Sunny Days, Natural Flesh Tones, Life As We Know It. The advance of the science of recording things with cameras seemed to suggest that well-lit meant well-realized, that we would eliminate murk and shadow in the name of clarity. We decided that those things which dealt in the dark basement of tones were “bad” pictures, defective in some basic way.
The development of art photography has often taken the opposite approach, with some artists going so far as to revive “dead” technologies like daguerrotyping, serigraphing, deliberate under-exposure, even purposeful degrading of the image (dragging negatives over ground glass, dancing on them, soaking them in bodily fluids) to get the look they desire, actually eliminating information from their pictures. Even the recent fad of lomography, which worships faulty cameras and errant processing, is indicative of the “dark” school. It doesn’t have to be in focus. It doesn’t have to be a picture “of” anything. And who made up these rules for composition, anyway?
Photography, as always, will not be reduced to a set of standards. Consumer products still try to steer customers toward predictable images, with most “how tos” listing simple steps for uniform results, or pictures that “look like photographs”. The dark worshippers, by contrast, are asking us to train our eyes to see what is not presented, as well as what is. Alright, they concede, we didn’t show everything. But you can supply the rest.
Finally, the camera remains essentially a mere servant, subject to the whims of its user. We cannot truly mechanize and regulate what comes from the eye or the soul. True art can never remain static, and any kind of creativity that doesn’t frequently threaten to break down into chaos may not be worth the effort.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASK THE AVERAGE PERSON FOR A BRIEF COMPARISON BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, and you may hear the assertion that, ‘well, photographs are real..”, a statement that reveals the fundamental flaw in our thinking about photographs from their earliest beginnings. Simply because a camera measures and records light (perhaps also because it’s a machine), we’ve come to regard its end product as a literal representation of the world. But no serious examination of what artists have done with the photographic image will support that idea. Photographs are no more real than daubs of pigment, and no more reliable in their testimony.
Photographers twist and torture light and shadow to present their version of the world, not its literal translation. If they worked with top hats and wands instead of Leicas, their audiences would accept, with a wink. that a live rabbit was not actually produced out of the hat’s crown, but was, in fact, a feat of misdirection, of persuasion. The camera, on the other hand, gets far more credit for being faithful to the real world than it deserves. As the old saying goes, a photograph is a lie that tells the truth.
Making any kind of image, the photographer has any number of simple techniques available to him to make the inaccurate seem real, most of it achieved in-camera. Take, for example, the attempt, in the above photo, to create as great a sense of depth as is possible in a flat image. First, the use of a wide 24mm lens will optically exaggerate the distance between the front and back of the scene, nearly doubling the sense of space versus that of the actual room. On top of that, the image is composed with the most severe diagonal possible to pull the eye into its already over-accented dimensions.
As a final touch, the shot is taken at the smallest aperture practicable in the available light, insuring uniform sharpness as the eye looks “into” the scene. The result is a three-decker compound illusion……fairly removed from “reality” and yet suggesting itself to it, much as the rabbit seems to have emerged from the hat. Indeed, with the creative manipulation of the photographic process, you might not need, in terms of reality, either the hat or the rabbit to perform your “trick”. But you can certainly show them both in the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ARE ACTUALLY DETOURS, things unearthed by accident in search of something completely different. Marconi was not looking to create the entertainment medium known as radio, but merely a wireless way to send telegraphs. The tough resin known as Bakelite was originally supposed to be a substitute for shellac, since getting the real thing from insects was slow and pricey. Instead, it became the first superstar of the plastics era, used to making everything from light plugs to toy View-Masters.
And the man who, for all practical purposes, invented photography was merely seeking a shortcut for the tracing of drawings.
Nicéphore Niépce, born in France in 1765, plied his trade in the new techniques of lithography, but fell short in his basic abilities as an artist, and searched for a way to get around that shortcoming by technical means. He became proficient in the creation of images with a camera obscura, a light-tight box with a pinhole on one side which projected an inverted picture of whatever it was pointed at on the opposite inside wall of the container, the pinhole acting as a glassless, small-aperture lens. Larger versions of the gadget were used by artists to project a subject onto an area from which tracings of the image could be done, then finished into drawings. Niépce grew impatient with the long lag time involved in the tracing work and began to experiment with various compounds that might chemically react to light, causing the camera’s image to be permanently etched onto a surface, making for a quicker and more accurate reference study.
Niépce tried a combination of fixing chemicals like silver chloride and asphalt, burning faint images onto surfaces ranging from glass to paper to lithographic stone. Some of his earliest attempts registered as negatives, which faded to complete black when observed in sunlight. Others resulted in images which could be used as a master from which to print other images, effectively a primitive kind of photocopy. Finally, having upgraded the quality of his camera obscura and coating a slab of pewter with bitumin, Niépce, around 1827 successfully exposed a permanent, if cloudy image from the window of his country house in La Gras. His account recalled that the exposure took eight hours, but later scientific recreations of the experiment believe it could actually have taken several days. Even at that, Niépce might have recorded a good deal more detail in the image had he waited even longer. In an ironic lesson to all impatient future shooters, the world’s first photograph had, in fact, been under-exposed.
Rather than merely create a short-cut for sketch artists, Nicéphore Niépce’s discovery, which he called heliography (“sun writing”), resulted in a new, distinctly different art that would compete with traditional graphics, forever changing the way painters and non-painters viewed the world. Centuries later, harnessing light in a box is still the task at hand, and the eternally novel miracle of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT, TO DATE, MOST OF THE WRITINGS THAT COMPARE FILM PHOTOGRAPHY TO DIGITAL center on visual or aesthetic criteria. The grain of film, the value range of pixels, the differences in the two types of workflow, the comparative sizes of sensors, and so forth. However, in certain shooting situations, what strikes me as the main advantage of digital is crassly…..monetary.
It’s simply cheaper.
Now, that’s no small thing. Consider that, with film, a very real cost comes attached to every single frame, both masterpiece and miss. Now, try to compute how much film you must consume in order to travel from one end of a learning curve to the other in trying to master a new lens or technique. Simply, every shot on the way to “that’s it!” is a “damn, that’s not it”, and both cost money. Now recall those shoots where the conditions are so strange or variable that the only way to get the right shot is to take lots of wrong ones, and remember as well, that, after clicking off all those frames, you had to wait (with the meter running), until either the processor or your own darkroom skill even told you that you were on the wrong track.
Assume further that you screwed up several rolls of premium Kodachrome before stumbling on the right approach, and that all of those rolls are now firmly in the “loss” column. You re-invest, re-load, and hope you learned your lesson. Ca-ching.
The shot that you see above demonstrates why shooting in digital speeds up your practice time, at a fraction of the cost of film, while giving you feedback that allows you to adjust, shoot, and adjust again before the conditions in front of you are lost. What you see is a late dusk on a dark lagoon just inland of a stretch of ocean in Point Dana, California, strewn with waves of bathing birds and shifting pools of ripples. The pink of the clouds on the horizon will be gone in a matter of minutes. Also, I’m shooting through a narrow-gauge opening in a chain-link fence, causing dark vignettes on every other shot. Moreover, I’m using a plastic lens, making everything soft even softer, especially at the edges.
So add all these factor together and the emotional curve of the shoot is click-damn-click-whoops-click-click-damn. But, since it’s digital, the bad guesses come back fast, and so does the ability to adjust. Bottom line: I know I will likely walk away with something generally usable.
More importantly, photography no longer has the power to price so many of us out of the practice. That means that more images make it to completion, and, of course, that can also mean a global gallery flooded with mediocrity. Hey, I get that. But I also get a fighting chance at grabbing pictures that used to belong only to the guy who could afford to stand and burn twelve rolls of film.
And hope like hell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.
So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.
As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.
Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.
The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.
Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.
Windows to the soul?
More like main clue to the mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO BE ANGRY WITH ANY TREND THAT MAKES PHOTOGRAPHY MORE DEMOCRATIC, or puts cameras into more hands. Getting more voices in the global conversation of image-making is generally a great things. However, it comes with a price, one which may make many people actually give up or stagnate in their growth as photographers.
We may be killing ourselves, or at least our art, with convenience.
Cameras, especially in mobile devices, have exponentially grown in ease (and acuity) of use over the last fifty years, but they are actually teaching people less and less about what, technically, is happening in the making of an image. The nearly intuitive logic of smaller and easier cameras means that many people, while busily snapping away and producing billions of pictures, are being more and more estranged from any real knowledge of how it’s all being done.
This is a vicious circle, since it guarantees that a greater number of us will be more and more dependent upon our cameras to make the bulk of the creative decisions for us, more obliged to accept what the camera decides to give us. In some very real way, we are being shortchanged by never having had to work with a garbage camera. Let me explain that.
Being forced to do creative work with an unyielding or primitive tool puts the responsibility for (and control of) the art back on the artist. Those who began their shooting careers with limited box cameras understand this already. If you start making pictures with a device that is too limited or “dumb” to do your bidding, then you have to devise work-arounds to get results. That means you learn more about what light does. You learn what ideal or adverse conditions look like. You see what failure is, and begin to dissect what didn’t work for a stronger understanding of what may work next time. You learn to ride a bike without training wheels, and thus never need them.
The above image, taken on manual settings in a less-than-ideal setting, has about a dozen things wrong with it, but the mistakes are all my mistakes, so they retain their instructive power. If something was blown, I know how it can be corrected, since I’m the one who blew it. There is a clear linear learning process that benefits from making bad pictures. And if my camera had done everything itself and the picture still reeked, then I’d be stuck with both failure and ignorance.
Cameras that remove the risk of failure also remove the chance of accidental discovery. If you always get acceptable images, you’re less likely to ask what lies beyond….what, in effect, could be better. You accept mediocrity as a baseline of quality. And editing tools that consist mostly of corrective solutions, from straightening to sharpening, keep you from addressing those errors in the camera, and that, too, robs you of valuable experience.
Convenience, in any art medium, can either abet or prevent excellence. The amount of curiosity and hunger in the individual is the decisive factor in moving from taking to making pictures. For my money, if you’re going to grind out the process of becoming an artist, you can’t rely on equipment that is designed to protect you from yourself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION IS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITIZING OF EVERYTHING WITHIN A PICTURE’S FRAME, a ruthless process of demanding that everything inside that square justify its presence there. When we refer to the power of an image, we are really talking about the sumtotal of all the decisions that were made, beforehand, of what to include or lose in that image. Without that deliberate act of selection, the camera merely records everything it’s pointed at. It cannot distinguish between something essential and something extraneous. Only the human eye, synched to the human mind, can provide the camera with that context.
Many of our earliest photographs certainly contain the things we deem important to the picture, but they also tend to include much too much additional information that actually dilutes the impact of what we’re trying to show. In one of my own first photos, taken when I was about twelve, you can see my best friend standing on his porch…absolutely…..along with the entire right side of his house, the yard next door, and a smeary car driving by. Of course, my brain, viewing the result, knew to head right for his bright and smiling face, ignoring everything else that wasn’t important: however, I unfairly expected everyone else, looking at all the auxiliary junk in the frame, to guess at what I wanted them to zero in on.
Jump forward fifty years or so, to my present reality. I actively edit and re-edit shots before they’re snapped, trying to pare away as much as I can in pictures until only the basic storytelling components remain….that is, until there is nothing to distract the eye from the tale I’m attempting to tell. The above image represents the steps of this process. It began as a picture of a worn kitchen chair in a kitchen, then the upper half of the chair near part of a window in the kitchen, and then, as you see above, only part of the upper slats of the chair with almost no identifiable space around them. That’s because my priorities changed.
At first, I thought the entire kitchen could sell the idea of the worn, battered chair. Then I found myself looking at the sink, the floor, the window, and…oh, yeah, the chair. Less than riveting. So I re-framed for just the top half of the chair, but my eye was still wandering out the window, and there still wasn’t enough visible testimony to the 30,000 meals that the chair had presided over. So I came in tighter, tight enough to read the scratches and discolorations on just a part of the chair’s back rest. They were eloquent enough, all by themselves, to convey what I wanted, without the rest of the chair or anything else in the room to serve as competition. So, in this example, it took me about five trial frames to teach myself where the picture was.
And that’s the point, although I still muff the landing more often than I stick it (and probably always will). To get stronger compositions, you have to ask every element in the picture, “so what do you think you’re doing here?” And anyone who doesn’t have a good answer….off to the principal’s office.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO A PHOTOGRAPHER, THE ENTIRE WORLD IS PRETTY MUCH A “PUBLIC PLACE“, or, more properly, his own personal work space. However, that dreamy viewpoint is not shared by the world at large, and shooters who try to harvest their shots in museums, theatres, office lobbies and other popular gathering points are finding, more and more, that they are about as welcome as a case of shingles unless they are (a) quick (b) unobtrusive and (c) polite to the point of fawning.
It’s not hard to understand why.
First, some of the excess paraphernalia that photogs pack can strike curators and security personnel as hazardous, if not downright dangerous. This view is reflected in the growing number of attractions that have, of late, prohibited the use of selfie sticks. That one I kinda get. Photographers have also taken a hit in the number of places that will permit flash of any kind, and tripods and monopods are nearly always forbidden. The real determinant in why public spaces are less inclined to play ball with photographers, however, is that they simply don’t have to. More patrons than ever rely solely on cel phones, which, in turn, have become more sensitive to low-light situations, making for shorter exposures with fewer add-ons, a technical leap that ensures that everyone will come away with at least some kind of picture. If you need a longer exposure at lower ISO (hence less noise), you still need traditional, higher-end gear, but those numbers are shrinking so much that the gatekeepers can be a lot more restrictive overall.
In many dark spaces I simply can’t find a place to stabilize my camera long enough to take an extended exposure. And, with ‘pods off the table as an option, you’re down to benches, ledges, or other precarious surfaces, and, with them, the paranoid hovering of a mother eagle guarding her eggs to steer foot traffic away from her “nest”. A remote shutter release helps, but the whole project can raise the blood pressure a bit. At least with tripods, passersby can see a set space to steer themselves clear of. A crazy man waving his arms, not so much.
The above image was taken in one of the most light-deprived sectors of the New York Museum Of Natural History, with only soft illumination in the side showcases to redeem the pitch-black gloom. No flash would even begin to fill this enormous space, even if it were permitted, and the hall is always crowded, so resting my camera on a narrow rail, twenty-plus feet above the main floor, and going for a long exposure, is the only way for an acceptable degree of detail to emerge from the murk. My wife, who is known for nerves of steel, had to excuse herself and go elsewhere as I was setting up the shot. I couldn’t blame her.
Three or four anxious framings later, I got a workable exposure. As occurs with time exposures, people walking through the scene at a reasonable speed are rendered nearly invisible. The persons near the back of the elephant herd stood still long enough to take a flash snapshot, so their flash burst and some smudgy shadows of their bodies can be seen, as can the trailing LED light that someone else on the upper deck apparently was walking with in the upper right corner. But for this kind of shot, in these modern times, such artifacts are part of the new normal.