By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE ENTIRE BOOKSTORES CRAMMED WITH TUTORIALS FROM PHOTOGRAPHERS who have developed what, for marketing purposes, is called a “style”. This is a catch-all word for the accumulated experiences, biases, tricks, shortcuts, philosophies or habits that inform one’s work, all of it showing up frequently enough to constitute some kind of artistic signature. It’s a list of “I usuallys” and “I almost alwayses” and ” I nevers”, and those of us who study the output of others can get into a bit of a trap over it.
We’d all love to be able to answer that tantalizing interviewer’s question, “what’s your personal approach?”, as if we could reduce what we do to a set formula. I certainly can’t do that with my own stuff, and I’m a little distrustful of those who figure that they’ve got themselves sussed out to the degree that they can define their style. Of course, just because I don’t think a single trait or phrase can sum up a photographer’s identity, it’s tempting to try to produce such a profile, like trying on a suit that you probably won’t buy just to see how it looks on you. That means that, occasionally, I wonder if (a) I have a discernible style at all, and (b) what its features might be.
I really can’t say that there’s an (a) at all for me, or at least one that I can discern. As for the (b) stuff, there are in fact things that I lean on or come back to from time to time, although they may not always serve what I’m trying to achieve. One very basic thing that I find myself returning to repeatedly is exposure, more specifically, under-exposure. If my work has anything like a consistent look to it, it’s probably in a predisposition to work with as little light as possible. Over the past thirty years, much of this may be attributable to having lived in the American southwest, a place so bleached in sunlight that I was forced long ago to drastically revise my idea of how much light I’d need for a given shot. These lessons were not only palpable but, initially, expensive, since my first disastrous outings out here as a tourist were shot on slide film, which was heinously unforgiving whenever I’d miscalculate an f-stop. We’re talking supernova white on entire rolls of film.
This is not to say that merely getting burned on a few runs of slides, all by itself, turned me toward minimalist exposures, but it sure as hell got my attention. Since I learned photography in the make-or-break era of film, I was already operating under a pretty mindful model of pre-planning strategy (fore-thought?) when it came to photo shoots, so that, once I transitioned into digital, while I was freed from the dollar smackdown associated with blown pictures, I still retained the habit of sweating shots before shooting them. I totally delighted in the fact that errors could be countered and corrected faster with the immediate feedback loop that was a given in digital, but I also still tended to purposely think of what the camera could and could not do, even without being bitten by mistakes. I began gradually to expose for the highlights, rather than worry about the loss of detail in darker patches. Get the parts that can ‘blow out’ right, I tended to believe, and most of the shadows will yield at least something in post-processing. I also experimented extensively with blending bracketed shots (a series of exposures of the same scene, ranging from bright to dark) in HDR or other processes, and that sometimes rescued a lot of dark information. Behind all of this was the belief that the only data you really can’t get back from a shot is the stuff you blew out from over-exposure. Shoot with less light and you’d be safer, generally.
In general I tend to control exposure by an adjustment of shutter speed rather than aperture, and to do everything manually, avoiding semi-automatic exposure modes like Aperture Priority, since, at least for me, they tend to over-expose. I see camera after camera whose auto settings deliver images that are much too bright and non-contrasty for my taste. This is uniformly true in the new generation of film-based instant cameras, many of which do not even allow the user to turn off the flash. Is my choice of exposure range a style, or just a mode of working? Certainly, I don’t perversely under-expose every shot I take, regardless of the conditions, so, to that extent, it’s not really a “signature” thing. Maybe it’s just like any other work habit, like always standing with your legs in a perfect “A” or constantly keeping a light meter at the ready….a starting point, a basis of procedure. I do know that there’s so much going on inside the head of the individual photographer that none of us can universally prescribe for each other. If it works for you, everyone else’s lip music is irrelevant. Bring even 50% of your original concept to your final picture and you’re a hero. Tools and techniques are only as valid as your work makes them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMBINE THE ANTICIPATION OF CHRISTMAS with a severe lesson in humility and you’ve described the process involved in exposing a roll of film in an old camera that may or may not operate properly. The “Christmas” part, that deliciously torturous anticipation that came, in analog days, from sending one’s film away to a lab, for up to a week before reviewing your results, is something that everyone of a certain, ahem, age can relate to. The humility (humiliation?) part comes when the package of finished prints arrives in the mail and your dreams crash up against the Great Wall Of Reality…delineating that ugly gap between what you saw and what you managed to capture.
I always collect older cameras that are at least technically “operational”. They click and clack the way they’re supposed to. Frequently, they spend their time as lovely museum pieces, but, on occasion, I will invest a little money to see if they are truly functional and if I can make them make pictures of any degree of quality. It’s a fairly costly operation, since older film sizes can be expensive (if they can be found at all) , and the list of qualified practitioners of the filmic lab arts is shorter with every passing year. As to how I evaluate the results, that can depend on the camera. If it’s an old Brownie and the images aren’t too good, I can’t really fault myself, since there wasn’t a lot of control I could bring to the process of a one-button box. In the most recent case, however, I was testing a Kodak Bantam Special, a fairly deluxe device that cost nearly $90 dollars in 1936 and featured a rangefinder, widely variable shutter speeds and a fairly fast f/2 lens. So in shoving a roll of extremely scarce 828 film (a bygone size with a negative slightly larger than 35mm) through the works, there were two things to determine: whether I could master the camera with a test base of only eight exposures and whether the camera was still able to perform.
One of the dozens of designs created by Walter Dorwin Teague during his time with Eastman Kodak, the Bantam Special has been called by many the most beautiful camera ever made. Now, while that may be aesthetically true, it’s an ergonomic nightmare, with controls jammed very, very close together, making it easy for ham-fisted users like me to fumble, lose their grip, even adjust one control when they think they’re working on another. In the case of this particular Bantam, most of the test roll revealed that the collapsible bellows on the camera leaks light like a sieve, producing wispy streaks across most of the frames. In other good news, the color rendition was very low contrast, with most hues having a decidedly bluish cast. Underexposure was also extremely easy, even with 400 speed film and wider apertures. And while that’s probably a mixture of old mechanics and my own poor calculation, the only way I could make the frame at left (one of the “keepers”) passable was to artificially tweak the contrast and convert it to monochrome after the fact. And that, again, is the “humility” part of our program, innit?
Moral of the story: If you ever find yourself getting cocky with the utterly cheap comfort of the digital age, take a time trip to the era when even the best laid-plans of mice and men often resulted in “what the hell?” pictures. Maybe the most enjoyable thing about shooting film, at this stage of the game, is knowing you can stop shooting film any time you want to.
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
ONE OF THE BLESSINGS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY (and the best argument for laying aside film) is the nearly endless and affordable numbers of “do-overs” it affords the learning shooter. Cranking out the sheer volume of practice frames needed to hone one’s skills and train one’s eyes used to be costly in both currency and years. As a consequence, many photographers had far fewer successful experiences than others. Money and time separated those who mastered their methodologies and those who were forced to click and trust to luck.
Digital cameras, through their pure scientific advancement, guaranteed that many more of our most hurried snaps were at least technically passable. But they gave us a far more important gift….the ability to speed up our learning curve through a speedy, risk-free process of constant feedback….an endless stream of yes/no, pass/fail messages that shape our work over the course of months instead of years, allowing us to understand what is going wrong, and fix it in the moment, while the family is still gathered in this room, while that amazing sunset is still grabbable. We learn everything faster, especially the use of new equipment.
Part of this “break-in” process for gear, at least for me, is to select something, anything to shoot with it……to not wait for a perfect occasion or an ideal subject, but to seek examples of the conditions under which I want to use the new gear. Any place can become a sort of kingdom of non-keepers, a lab for images where I don’t expect to do much more than make mistakes.
This kind of experimentation is perfect for days with iffy weather or drab, overworked locales, since part of learning a lens is figuring out how to make the ordinary extraordinary in any and all conditions. To my earlier point, shooting in this way seemed (to me) wasteful and risky with film: you always felt that you had to get a good return-on-investment for whatever the roll and processing were costing you. That could unconsciously lead you to shoot more conservatively, to play things safe, lest your crop of keepers be diminished by doing something reckless. But that’s the rub, innit? “Reckless” is where the good stuff comes from.
The shot seen here is from such a “let’s see what happens” shoot, a quick walk through a shopping mall I’ve visited a jillion times. The site has long since ceased to show me anything fresh to look at, but it sports a wide range of light conditions and textures throughout a typical day, so it is an appropriate kingdom for non-keepers, and a good place to crank off about fifty shots with a manual lens that’s still kicking my behind on precise focus. As it turns out, this particular piece of glass (a Soviet-era Helios 44) is soft even at its sharpest, but since that’s something I actually desire at times, practice is a must.
I’m a big believer, then, of shooting lots of pictures that “don’t matter”…..because they make you ready for the day when they really do. And because, once you can think less about how to take a picture, you can spend more time thinking about why you take it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM TRULY THANKFUL FOR MY PHOTOGRAPHIC FAILURES. And it’s right that I have a benevolent attitude toward the pictures I’ve muffed, since there are so many of them. As a photographer, you pray for the kind of analytical ruthlessness that you need to separate wheat from chaff and label your duds as duds….no excuses, no explanations, no magical thinking that, left in a drawer long enough, these rotten seeds will someday bloom into roses. Once you can call your own stuff worthless, you’re truly on the road toward making something….well, less so.
I have just spent a week giving the (overdue) pink slip to my last and largest remaining archive of really, really bad pictures from the twilight of the film era, about 400 35mm slides that I have been hauling around the globe since the late ’90’s, and none of which, surprisingly, have blossomed into masterpieces since the last three times I pulled them out, shrieked, and sealed them back behind brick walls. Funny how that happens.
This errant tonnage represents my first attempts with 3D photography, which involves a huge learning curve, not to mention a pound and a half of heavy-duty study. At the time I began this journey, very few stereoscopic cameras were available for sale, and the ones that produced the effect the best were also the most technically limited. The Argus/Loreo 3D, my toy of choice, was, in fact, a point-and-shoot 35mm with only two apertures, since the additional depth of field at f/11 and f/18 produced the best stereo illusion. The Argus was produced to create 4 x 6 prints (which you actually had to pay to have printed, remember), each featuring two side-by-side images viewed through a prism holder. It was not intended for high-end art use, since the lenses were frozen at 1/100, there were no additional optics available, and a usable result could only be achieved outdoors, in full daylight.
Worse, I stubbornly decided to shoot slide film in the thing, thus creating a whole separate set of problems for myself. First, were processors supposed to produce both images in the same slide? Well, sure, yeah, they could do that, but how was I going to view them? No worries! Turns out that other fools like me had also shot so-called “half-frame” stereo slides over the decades, and some of the viewers made to serve them were still on Ebay. Of course, I was shooting daylight slide film at 100 ASA in all conditions, and I didn’t yet know enough (or have enough money) to instruct processors on how to “push” the slide film an extra stop or two just to make them a trice lighter, so most of my shots were murky mysteries even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t decipher.
Worse, anyone shooting stereo must learn to compose for the depth effect, something you can only master by taking lots of lousy pictures (I did) or agreeing to take pictures of boring garbage just to attain said effect (did that, too). Add to this that you only had half of a 35mm frame in which to compose and you start to see what a raging success the whole enterprise was destined to be. At one point, I even went so far as to slice the twin images apart, re-jigger them in super-wide slide mounts, find an antediluvian projector that projected those kinds of slides ($$$), then search the globe again for viewing glasses that would allow me to see the projected slides in 3-d. Getting tired yet?
So, farewell to scads of badly composed, boring and unviewable slides, a grim reminder of how expensive and unwieldy large projects were in the film era. Post-script: I eventually thrived by learning to make my own View-Master reels (still expensive and work-intensive, but there’s a reason the format has been around nearly seventy years). At least the entire fiasco finally made a real editor out of me, teaching me a most valuable mantra: bad is bad is bad is bad. Some seeds will never become roses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR, IN THE DAYS OF FILM, WHEN THE EASTMAN KODAK COMPANY used to see a predictable surge in their annual sales, all tied to our ties to our loved ones. Each holiday season, the world’s biggest manufacturer of film reminded us that cameras were not only a great gift idea, they were the most important thing to be found under our respective Christmas trees. Their tremendously successful “Open Me First” ad campaign said it all: we couldn’t begin to truly experience all that family-centric holiday joy without a Kodak camera on hand to capture every giggle of surprise. The message was: shoot a lot of film. And if that doesn’t perfectly capture the perfect season, shoot more.
Ironically, it was the near death of film that finally freed us up from the single biggest constraint on our photographic freedom, that being the constraint of cost. Digital media, and the ease and ubiquity of cameras of all price points finally have freed the non-pros and the non-rich, making the admonition Always Be Shooting much more irresistibly urgent. We can afford miscalculations. We can afford do-overs. We can fix our worst mistakes without converting a hall bathroom into Dad’s Wide, Weird World Of Chemicals. We can gradually develop a concept over many “takes”, and we can salvage more of those visions. We can win more often.
The great photographer Ernest Haas once exhorted his students to “look for the ‘a-ha’ moment”, which meant not to be content with the first, or even the fifth framing of an idea in your viewfinder (okay, display screen). Asked in a lecture what the best wide-angle lens was, he quipped “two steps backward”, meaning that your best solution to a so-called technical problem is actually within yourself. Change your view, and change the outcome. The shot at the top of this post, as one example, only came at the end of ten other attempts at the same scene, all shot within a few minutes’ time. In the days of film, I would have had to settle for a much earlier version. I simply wouldn’t have kept clicking long enough to realize what I wanted from the subject.
Always Be Shooting doesn’t mean just clicking away madly, hoping that a jewel will magically emerge from a random batch of frames. It means keeping yourself in seeking mode long enough for ideas to emerge, then shooting beyond that to get those ideas right. Film made it possible to all of us to dream of capturing great memories. But it is the end of film that makes it possible for us to refine more of those memories before all those fleeting smiles have a chance to fade out of our reach.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY CAME ACROSS AN ARTICLE IN WHICH A PHOTOGRAPHER BEMOANED the insane volume of images being shot in the digital era. His point was that, while we used to be tightly disciplined in the “budgeting” of shots back in the days of film (in which we had a fixed limit on our shots of 24 or 36 frames), we crank away an infinite number of shots today in short order, many of them near duplicates of each other, flooding the universe with a torrent of (mostly) bad pictures. Apparently, he posits, it is because we can shoot and re-shoot without fear of failure that we make so many mediocre images.
He takes it further, proposing that, as a means of being more mindful in the making of our photos, that we buy a separate memory card and shoot a total of, say, two “rolls” of pics, or 72 total images, forcing ourselves to keep every image, without deletions or retakes, and live with the results for good or ill. I have all kinds of problems with this romantic but basically ill-conceived stunt.
Our illustrious writer and I live on different sides of the street. He seems to believe that the ability to shoot tons of images leads to less mindful technique. I believe the exact opposite.
When you are free, via digital photography, to experiment, to correct your errors on the fly, you suddenly have the ability to save more shots, simply because you can close in on the best method for those shots much faster, and at a fraction of the cost, of film. You collapse a learning curve that used to take decades into the space of a few years. One of the things that used to separate great photographers from average ones was the great shooters’ freedom, usually from a financial standpoint, to take more bad (or evolving) images than the average guys could afford to. Of course, really bad photographers can go for years merely continuing to take more and more lousy shots, but the fact is, in most cases, taking more photos means learning more, and, often, eventually making better pictures.
Apparently, our illustrious writer believes that you can only be photographically self-aware if you are constantly reminded how few total frames you’re going to be able to shoot. I truly appreciate the goal of self-reliant, experience-based photography he wants to promote. But I contend that it’s not that we make too many pictures, but that we keep too many. It’s the skill of editing, that unemotional, ice-cold logic in deciding how few of our pictures are “keepers”, that is needed, not some nostalgic longing for the strictures of film.
Hey, of course we over-share too many near-identical frames of our latest ham sandwich. Of course Instagram is as clogged as a sink trap fulla hair with millions of pictures that should never see the light of day. But that’s not because we can shoot pictures too easily. It’s because we don’t grade our output on a stern enough curve. As it gets easier to shoot, it should get tougher to meet muster.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IGNORANCE, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, CERTAINLY IS NOT BLISS. However, exposure to that selfsame know-nothing-ness can lead to a kind of bliss, since it can eventually lead you to excellence, or at least improvement. Here and now, I am going to tell you that all the photographic tutorials and classes in history cannot teach you one millionth as much as your own rotten pictures. Period.
Trick is, you have to keep your misbegotten photographic children, and keep them close. Love them. Treasure the hidden reservoir of warnings and no-nos they contain and mine that treasure for all it’s worth. Of course, doing this takes real courage, since your first human instinct, understandingly, will be to do a Norman Bates on them: stab them to death in the shower and bury their car in the swamp out back.
I have purposely kept the results of the first five rolls of film I ever shot for over forty years now. They are almost all miserable failures, and I mean that with no aw-shucks false modesty whatever. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that these images are the Fort Knox of ignorance, an ignorance taller than most minor mountain ranges, an ignorance that, if it was used like some garbage to create energy, could light Europe for a year. We’re talking lousy.
But mine was a divine kind of ignorance. At the age of fourteen, I not only knew nothing, I could not even guess at how much nothing I knew. It’s obvious, as you troll through these Kodak-yellow boxes of Ektachrome slides, that I knew nothing of the limits of film, or exposure, or my own cave-dweller-level camera. Indeed, I remember being completely mystified when I got my first look at my slides as they returned from the processor (an agonizing wait of about three days back then), only to find, time after time, that nothing of what I had seen in my mind had made it into the final image. It wasn’t that dark! It wasn’t that color! It wasn’t…..working. And it wasn’t a question of, “what was I thinking?”, since I always had a clear vision of what I thought the picture should be. It was more like, “why didn’t that work?“, which, at that stage of my development, was as easy to answer as, say, “why don’t I have a Batmobile?” or “why can’t I make food out of peat moss?”
But holding onto the slides over the years paid off. I gradually learned enough to match up Lousy Slide “A” with Solution”B”, as I learned what to ask of myself and a camera, how to make the box do my bidding, how to build on the foundation of all that failure. And the best thing about keeping all of the fizzles in those old cartons was that I also kept the few slides that actually worked, in spite of a fixed-focus, plastic lens, light-leaky box camera and my own glorious stupidity. Because, since I didn’t know what I could do, I tried everything, and, on a few miraculous occasions, I either guessed right, or God was celebrating Throw A Mortal A Bone Day.
Thing is, I was reaching beyond what I knew, what I could hope to accomplish. Out of that sheer zeal, you can eventually learn to make photographs. But you have to keep growing beyond your cameras. It’s easy when it’s a plastic hunk of garbage, not so easy later on. But you have to keep calling on that nervy, ignorant fourteen-year-old, and giving him the steering wheel. It’s the only way things get better.
You can’t learn from your mistakes until you room with them for a semester or two. And then they can teach you better than anyone or anything you will ever encounter, anywhere.