By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
ACROSS HISTORY, HALF OF THE WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY seems to be about the ongoing debate over which is more crucial, equipment or ingenuity. Some fervently believe that better gear inevitably leads to better pictures, while others point to the fact that million-dollar images often emerge from modest machinery, when backed by a trained eye. I have been shooting for too long to favor extreme, either/or arguments, as my experience makes a good case for both viewpoints. There have been times when a particular level of technical tool has saved my bacon, but there have also been many instances in which the camera, by itself, would have merely got in my way without my resorting to improvised workarounds designed to compensate for its shortcomings.
One of the things I do to boost color and maximize contrast is to deliberately under-expose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to dramatically change the game at a moment’s notice, a nostalgic nod to the days of Kodachrome and other early color films that would often be too slow for effective captures unless you were really spry with your field calculations. Thing is, what others regarded in some shots as “too dark” would, to me, be moody, romantic, even mysterious. What others called “balanced” light I often considered mediocre, and so, as I have travelled through time, I have retained my affection for the chiaroscuro look. It simplifies compositions and jacks the richness of hues. Thing is, I have to be mindful of what camera I’m using at the time, and how it can or can’t readily render the look I want.
Case in point: the Nikon Coolpix P900, which took the shot you see here. This is a so-called “superzoom” camera designed to extend one’s telephoto reach to a ridiculous extreme, and was purchased primarily for birdwatching. Its zoom amounts to something like 83x magnification, and, while it can deliver surprisingly sharp detail at insane distances, it hampers the camera’s performance in other ways. Since so much light is lost when they are extended fully, the manufacturers of superzooms “cap” their minimum aperture at around f/8. Want to shoot at f/11 or higher? Use a different camera.
The fun thing about exposure is that there are several ways to get there, and so, if you can’t stop your iris down far enough to suit yourself, you can always ramp up your shutter speed, which is what I’ve done here. In a typical shot, the poinsettia would have been backed by more leaves, the edge of a pot, foil wrapping and other clutter, but at the P900’s smallest aperture, f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/500 in early morning light, the red leaves become the exclusive star. Early direct light in Phoenix, Arizona would also have generated a complete blowout of any texture or detail in the structure of the leaves, and, while much of them remain hot in this shot, some vein detail is suggested here, especially when the edge of a leaf falls off into blackness. The result is a genuine fake of 64 ASA Kodachrome, achieved largely by accident in my youth, now purposely chosen in my….dotage.
Whatever equipment you use, you may find it necessary to try to occasionally outwit the thing, to, if you like, enter through the side door, if only to keep the thing from giving you the picture it assumes you want. Don’t buy into the manufacturers’ hype. Between a photographer and a camera, only one of them can think. Hint: it isn’t the camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO FLIP THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF ON-LINE DEBATES between those who favor automatic exposure over manual, you’d think that the two camps (both vociferous and intractable) had existed since the beginning of photography. In fact, however, this argument only goes back about as far as the 1970’s, when the first cameras with automatic modes of any kind began to re-define the market. Think about that: we now are asked to choose up sides on what was, for 75% of photography’s history, a non-issue.
Automodes began as partial assists to an overall manual process of making pictures. Then the manufacturers came to a startling realization; that many more beginners and amateurs would enter the camera hobby if the cameras were engineered to do more of the heavy lifting involved in snapping a shot. Quite simply, the less worry and uncertainty that could be evolved out of the process, the less frustrated people would be and the more they would shoot…spelling increased sales for both film and gear. It also created the “move-up” market, because, if photographers could stay at it long enough, they would either outgrow their equipment or surrender to the urge to replace it regularly, since a better and more expensive camera makes better pictures, right?….or so went the logic.
And so the hobby evolved from a craft that required total personal control of every aspect of exposure to occasional assists to where we are today, which is a world of cameras engineered to anticipate every need for every situation and to provide an automated guarantee that most of the resulting shots are above average, or “good”. There are millions who still shoot 100% manually, of course, but they are numerically in the majority, simply because many people will trade a high-average, convenient experience for a greater risk of failure. We are thus in an age of “good enough” photography.
But one thing gets lost in this ongoing debate, and that’s the answer to the question, “who’s taking the picture here?” Again, let’s just look at exposure. Many considerations go into what happens to a shot at various levels of light, with variations in color, texture, contrast, and so on. As seen in the top image, a fully automatic exposure is far from “bad”…in fact, it’s a tribute to the engineer’s art that it is a perfectly fine, average depiction of what I saw through the viewfinder. However, for anything interpretive, it’s only a starting point. The second exposure, shot at exactly the same time and under the same general conditions, could not be any more different from the auto-mode version. Color plays a decidedly different role. Texture and contrast call attention to the building’s weathered exterior. And as for the time of day, the image, taken under harsh Arizona midday light, could easily be mistaken for early sunrise or late afternoon.
Manual shooting isn’t a holy calling, like the priesthood, and being good at it isn’t magic, just a matter of doing it enough to work past all the mistakes. In other words, a normal learning process. Cameras that make decisions for you will often make them in keeping with your own preferences, but when they don’t (or can’t), taking back control is a sure way to make the pictures yours, and only yours. As the man says, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.
The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.
A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.
But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.
And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.
(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)
UNDER-EXPOSURE, AS A MEANS OF DEEPENING OR SATURATING COLOR, has its supporters in every era of photography. At the same time, the deliberate act of starving an image of light will always strike some as “wrong”, as if there were only a single “right” way to make a picture. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.
For the purposes of this little coffee talk, when I say “under-exposure”, I am not referring to accidental shots that result from shooting in a low-light situation. Those I call “mistakes” or “bad luck”. I’m speaking here of shots, often done in average or even ideal light, that are planned…for example, setting the camera a few f/stops slower than what would normally be considered “correct”(hate that word). Now, this may seem to be a fairly non-controversial choice, unless, of course, you open the whole thing up to debate, which is always trouble.
Turns out there are two distinct camps regarding under-exposure: those who prefer to expose the shot as normal, custom-crafting the darker shot in post, and those who would rather do everything in-camera. Some of the fix-it later crowd claim that digital, by itself, doesn’t produce good under-exposures the way that the old slide films did without some outside assistance. By contrast, the in-cammers, my home team, believe that not shooting in the moment results in too many opportunities lost. The subject is here, now. The lighting, which you can do almost anything with, is here, now. Your brain, and any active experimentation for not only the exposure strategy, but the strategy for every part of the capture process is here, in real time, now. I can’t imagine surrendering even a smidge of that control to hope you can, in effect, second-guess yourself later in the editing suite.
The two shots here were taken mere seconds apart in super-bright mid-morning Arizona sun. They are both manual exposures and are but two of about six frames done at different exposures, so that I would have plenty of choices were I to later sweeten any of them in the “lab”. The two shots posted here show how much control can be exercised. The lighter shot was taken at the acceptably front-to-back sharp aperture of f/5.6, at 1/400 sec., while the darker frame is closed down to f/16 (even sharper) at 1/500 sec. Both shots can be either darkened or lightened later, if need be, without any blow-outs in the brights or discernible noise in the lows, and you can see the pronounced difference in how the color values register. Again, I have no horse in this race: use what you want to get to the finish line, be it rain boots or cross-trainers. I just happen to like having the most control ahead of the click, and, in the digital age, I can shoot at any “film speed” with fewer errors and more immediate feedback than by glorifying either The Golden Age of Darkrooms or the Second Coming of Photoshop. Your mileage may vary….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PEOPLE WHO OPERATE ON INSTINCT SO MUCH OF THE TIME, photographers certainly can make things unnecessarily complicated. We buy gear we don’t need, thinking that machinery alone will unstick our stuck imaginations. We overthink set-ups. We overthink post-processing. We put a lot of junk in our own path, thinking that more of everything will make better pictures. Maybe it’s a native human need to exercise control. But sometimes, as now, we are all reminded that control can be elusive, or worse yet, a mirage.
Making photographs isn’t about having all the conditions we’d prefer. It’s more about managing the conditions we’ve got. That’s always been the case, although our present Great Hibernation has made it a lot more obvious. Take the idea of a “studio”. The term can conjure visions of vast banks of backdrops, lights, high-end gear…a professional space, if you will. But at bottom, it’s really just a place to work, and, ideally, to exercise choice over technique and intentions. There are really no official tools, no approved physical location for a studio. Like many others, I’ve been recently reminded that we only need a few things to create one: a knowledge, inside our homes, of where light goes and what it does during the day: the ability to tell time: and a fair bit of awareness of what our camera can and cannot do. If you have these things, you’ve got a studio.
Think through the process: if you have windows, and if you know which way the sun tracks across the sky hour by hour, you already have multiple sites to get different kinds of light depending on your need. One window for harsh midday high-contrast illumination, a dirty one for diffused, etc. As to tools, absent formal studio gear, everything in your house is a potential prop. And then there’s the advantage afforded by all the extra time we find ourselves awash in: that is, the leisure to plan a shot, whether over hours or days. In essence, you’ve got time to tweak like you’ve never tweaked before.
Working within a finite interior space over an extended period, you can really learn its every feature and behavior. For example, I discovered, earlier this week, that a small stained glass window in my guest bathroom casts an intense kaleidoscopic pattern on a reflective counter-top for only fifteen minutes every afternoon. Stumbling on this, I threw a random object into the warm orange glow just to see what kind of permanent image I might eventually want to make with it. I didn’t get back to the room for another three days, by which time I had a rough concept for what I wanted to model the light on. Using the original shot’s shooting data, replicating the exact time of day and exposure settings (and then varying from them) posed no problem, and so I had, in very rudimentary terms, the control normally associated with a “studio”, whatever that word means.
All workspaces are equal once they are maximized and personalized. You don’t need a special locale to make pictures…..or, more to the point, you can make any locale special once you’ve bent it to your will. Right now, we’re trying to bar entry to all invaders from outside, but light will always get a pass. Harness that, and the rest will fall into line.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOSE OF US WHO HAVE BEEN UNDER QUARANTINE FOR A VERY BRIEF TIME have learned how quickly our concept of “reality” becomes almost abstract. The immediate and local evidence of our senses, our measure of the smaller environments we currently inhabit, become the measure of all actuality, with everything else in the outside world growing less and less concrete. We imagine what the battlefields of the disease look like: we speculate about how much of the greater world has been warped or scarred beyond recognition. But our view of what lies beyond our own four walls can quickly become like a dream. Or a nightmare.
That’s why, even with a fairly regular resurfacing for errants or exercise, the photographer in me can look at things that were formerly almost invisible with new eyes. The formerly commonplace becomes the extraordinary. And because nothing is quite as it was, we are drawn to drastically update our approach to the everyday. In the case of this week’s trip to a local park, I was immediately struck by how normal everything, and everybody, looked. I almost expect the landscape beyond the house to resemble the bombed-out streets of London, during the blitz, and when it looks like, for example, just a park full of people walking, biking, or playing, it’s even more jarring than if the whole thing looked destroyed. I wanted to try to photographically render that feeling of unreality, of being in a dream state.
I decided to try to shoot these, for lack of a better word, “real” scenes in an unreal fashion, using a Lensbaby Single Glass Optic shot wide open at f/2. Now, with any lens, this huge aperture means a very shallow depth of field, but this particular piece of glass adds its own artifacts. It’s a bit of a time machine, a throwback to the way lenses used to operate for everyone. It’s uncoated, for one thing, meaning that the usual factory treatment that now helps lenses avoid color fringes and flaring are deliberately left off, allowing these “mistakes” to be captured rather than prevented. The lens’ incredible softness is actually a fairly focused image beneath a thick overlay of glow, or what we used to call the “Vaseline” effect. This gauzy look is most pronounced at the edges but adds a very warm look to the entire frame. The pictures made with such a lens are also very high in contrast, with everything registering as either a high or deep, deep color. Details are sacrificed in favor of a hallucinatory, painterly result. And then there’s exposure. Here in sun-abundant Arizona, I had to shoot very fast, almost 1/4000 sec.
Finally, there was a distinctly personal reason for making these pictures in this way, as there always is for any photographer. We try to craft the re-creation of a world we “see”, whether that world is a hopeful or horrible one. And so these pictures represent an article of faith. In the face of the millions of images we are currently seeing of loss, horror, and fear from all around the world, we must remind each other that sacrifice, honor, and, yes, an occasional moment of fun are also “part of the world.” Call it Reality 2.0.
The beta version.
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.