By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUES CAN BE THOUGHT OF as both active and passive. Some of the tools used to tell a visual story silently move narratives along without loudness or fuss, while others deliberately call attention as much to themselves as to the tales they tell. You can make pictures that betray very little of “how’d they do that?” or you can trumpet your tricks very loudly.
Or, of course, you can do both.
As a case study, consider one of 2018’s Oscar contenders, The Favourite, which tells a surreal tale of eighteenth-century castle intrigue with camera work that fairly screams to be noticed, mixing standard widescreen shots with ultra-wide and even fisheye compositions, shuffled together in jarring transitions, as if the director needs to remind us how twisted and nightmarish the story it by keeping us visually off-kilter for the entire length of the movie. Contrast this with most films that try to render their photographic tricks invisibly, in keeping with established Hollywood tradition. Is it a case of The Favorite’s director merely showing off his technical cleverness?
Well, yes and no. Various lenses convey vastly different concepts of space, of the width and depth of rooms, of the relationships between man and nature. Using an extreme tool like, say, a fisheye, changes the rules of engagement for the viewer, even when applied to a conventional subject. The photographer is, in effect, saying “composition is what I say it is, not what you’ve been led to expect.” Of course, when you drastically distort how a scene or object is presented, you risk your picture being “about” the visual effect, eclipsing your message instead of amplifying it.
The characters in The Favourite are in a constant state of moral disequilibrium, with everyone jostling for position or advantage, so an unsettling shift between various lenses reflects their uncertainty, the unreality of their situation, actually enhancing the nightmare quality for the audience. Does your picture call for a technique that, in turn, calls attention to itself? Flamboyant or not, the answer must, occasionally be yes.
Just because you’re showing off doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL OF WHAT WE CALL “EFFECTS” LENSES can additionally be used as “art” lenses, but they can also, for a photographer, merely be a way of saying, “hey, look at the cool trick I learned!” In what and how we shoot, we draw the line between “showing something” and just showing off.
Since no single lens can produce every desired optical look, we swap out speciality glass to get the effect we want in a given image. But is the final picture complemented or defined by that effect? Is the photograph “about” how close you zoomed in, or what you zoomed in to see? Did you shoot with a stereoscopic lens just to demonstrate 3D, or is there some deeper understanding of your subject achieved with the added sensation of dimensionality? You see where this is going: the yin and yang between calling on technique and calling attention to that technique for its own sake.
In trying to be mindful of this either/or way of using effects gear, from macro filters to pinhole lenses to ultra wides, I try to use some of them counter-intuitively, forcing them to tell stories in ways that go beyond the obvious. One such lens, and one which comes with its own set of pre-conceptions and biases, is the fisheye, which, for many, never left the bendy realm of psychedelic album covers and black-light posters, time-locked somewhere between Warhol and Peter Max. However, even in the most exaggerated fisheye shots there is the opportunity to create what I call “calm at the center”….an area roughly one third of the total frame where distortion is either muted or completely absent.
When a compelling and more normally proportioned middle is built into your shot, such as the stair steps leading toward the bench in this greenhouse shot, the bending that increases toward the outer edge of the shot can act as a framing device that leads the eye to your chief focus. The emphasis can then be placed on what is not distorted rather than what is. The fisheye lens is thus used to call attention to what it’s serving in the picture, rather than calling attention to itself.
Does this shot deliver what I was seeking? That’s for others to judge: the only thing I can be sure of is my intention, after all. Effects lenses are not automatically art lenses, any more than every camera owner is automatically a photographer. Results, finally, are the best testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NAME OF THIS BLOG, THE NORMAL EYE, IS A REFERENCE to the old nickname for fixed-focus “prime” lenses, non-zoomable glass like 35 and 50mm, that were once dubbed “normal” since they delivered the sense of space and proportion most closely resembling that of human vision. I’ll leave other combatants to decide whether this renders prime lenses “truer” in any way (those of you who think you know what “truth” is, advance to the fine arts class), but one things seems clear (that is, not cloudy): wide angle lenses, say 24mm or wider, tell a somewhat different truth, and thus create a distinct photographic effect.
Ultra-wides can generate the sensation that both proportion and distances (mostly front-to-back) have been stretched or distorted. They are thus great for shots where you want to “get everything in”, be it vast landscapes or city streets crowded with tall buildings packed into close quarters. They don’t really photograph things as they are, but do serve as great lenses for the deliberate effect of drama. I don’t use super-wides for too many situations, but, when I do, I make up for lost time by going overboard…again, largely as an interpretative effect.
Nothing shoots wider than the fabulous fisheye lens, introduced in the 1920’s as a meteorological research tool, and shooting as wide as 8mm with a viewing arc of anywhere from 100 to 180 degrees. Starting in the 1960’s, the fisheye’s unique optics crept into wider commercial use as a kind of funhouse look, the circular image in which all extremes of the rounded frame bend inward, creating the feel of a separate world isolated inside a soap bubble. Some of our most iconic cultural images used this look to suggest a sense of disorientation or dreamlike unreality, with classic album covers like the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? using fishes to simulate the psychedelic experience. Far out, man.
However, used sparingly as simply a more extreme wideangle, the fisheye can create a drama that conforms more to a rectangular composition, especially when the inner core of the image is cropped into a kind of “mailbox” aspect, resulting in an image that is normal-ish but still clearly not “real”. Tilting the lens, along with careful framing, can keep the more extreme artifacts to a minimum, adding just enough exaggeration to generate impact without the overkill of the soap bubble. As with any other effects lens, it’s all a matter of control, of attenuation. A little of the effect goes a long way. I call it lying with a straighter face.
Fisheyes are a specialized tool, and, for most of photography, the optical quality in all but the most expensive ones have kept most of us from tinkering with the look to any significant degree. However, cheaper and optically acceptable substitutes have entered the market in the digital era, along with fisheye-“look” phone apps, allowing the common shooter to at least dip a toe into the pool. Whether that toe will look more like a digit or a fleshy fish hook is, as it always was, a matter of choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISIT ENOUGH TOURIST SITES and you will eventually encounter the challenge of capturing very large objects, trying to squeeze the whole of a cathedral or a canyon into a single frame. Using a wide-angle lens is the first instinct, of course, but since even a 35mm is considered a wide-angle of sorts, there are any number of choices that all have their own pluses and minuses.
The lower the millimeter number, of course, the wider the lens. Simple enough on the surface, but you still have to decide what kind of wide you prefer. Each lens has slightly different coverage and properties, with the “super-wides” adding their own distinctive traits to the space you’re trying to capture. The two main properties you’ll notice most are barrel distortion and dimensional exaggeration, both of which will affect your lens choice for a given shooting situation.
Let’s look at barrel distortion. Lenses wider than about 24mm can make straight walls appear to bend outwards like the sides of a barrel, creating an unreal, and, for some, somewhat claustrophobic appearance most associated with the ultimate width of a fisheye (something around 8mm). The effect is that of a world cramped into the inside of a snow globe, and, depending on what look you’re going for, it can either be marvelous or miserable. It’s marvelous, for example, if you want to suggest tremendous depth in a shot.
And that’s dimensional exaggeration, the other key trait of a super-wide, in which the perception of distance from front to back is greatly hyped, making a deep space look even deeper. Shooting a cavernous area like the inside of the rotunda at the Los Angeles Central Library, as seen in the frame at top, you may want to suggest vastness, and a fisheye, such as was used here, does that superbly. All I’ve done to defeat the accompanying barrel distortion is to crop away the original frame edges. Of course, using a more conventional focal length like a 24mm, as seen directly above, shows all dimensions in a much more natural way, but they sacrifice coverage area, revealing less of the ceiling and sides and creating the sensation that the shot is not inclusive of enough information. In the case of both lenses, how you frame and where you stand will produce significant variations on how you render the space.
Photography is about what to fill the frame with, of course, but it also involves some planning as to how technology does that best, based on the tools at hand and what they’re equipped to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FISHEYE LENS, that ultra-wide hunk of glass whose images seem inscribed within a circle rather than a rectangle, have earned a bit of a bad rap among serious photographers over the years, perhaps because of either mis-use or over-use.
Let’s face it: of all the optical effects available to the average shooter, the fisheye shot is one of the most dramatic in its distortion of reality. It’s almost guaranteed to make your image about the look, which is where content starts to matter less than mere novelty.
Fisheye fever saw its peak in the swinging ’60’s, when such shots were intended to suggest a kind of sensory dislocation, the visual equivalent of a psychedelic state. The cover of Jim Hendrix’ Are You Experienced was perhaps the most popular example of such “weird-for-weird’s-sake” photography, with main subjects sitting at dead center, surrounded by severe barrel distortion that radiated out toward the edge of the circle, making even close objects seem distant as they softened into a haze of chromatic aberration at the extremes. Far out, man.
These kaleidoscopic pictures tend to render such arbitrary boundaries as walls and horizon lines moot, and telegraph the photographer’s message that it’s all about getting your freak on. However, I think that fisheyes, when used like other wide-angles, can add graduated elements of distortion and distance exaggeration that need not be the only visual message in an image. Making a left or right edge the “center” of the shot, for example, can reduce the intense bending-in, while raising the camera up or down can render a horizon line almost normal, with a little tweaking for dramatic effect.
Ultra-wide images need not be all about the patented fisheye “look”, which can be, frankly, fatiguing, just as shooting in hazy focus or HDR might, were you to do nothing else. It’s the point at which an effect ceases to be a tool and starts to actually put barriers between your subject and your viewer, which is seldom good. What is good is that a “dedicated” fisheye (one which cannot deliver a standard image), still one of the most expensive pieces of glass available, is no longer a mandatory investment, since even lo-fi film cameras, entry-level art lenses and even phone apps can create the look cheaply and quickly, allowing one to dabble without adding on a second mortgage (beware the poor quality in the truly cheap ones, however). Optical tricks are, well, just that. Optical techniques can amplify, rather than disguise, your visual messages.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN USING WIDE-ANGLE LENSES, we believe that we are revealing more “reality”. That is, we began to think that a narrower aspect ratio is somehow “hiding” or clipping off visual information, whereas a wide allows us to “see everything”. But once you’ve shot with a wide-angle for a while, you realize that it’s, at best, a trade-off. The lens giveth and the lens taketh away.
Wide-angles do, certainly, increase the view from left to right, but, in so doing, they add their own little quirks, such as softer resolution along the edges, chromatic aberration, barrel distortion (that feeling that straight lines are bending outward at the sides of the frame), and an exaggeration of the distance between the front and back of the shot.
Bearing all this in mind, I feel that, since a pretty wide lens, the 18-55mm, is now included with nearly every DSLR camera kit, it’s important to see wides as both an aid to showing reality and an effective tool for interpreting or altering it. Think of your wides as art glass, as effects lenses, and you open up your mind to how it can not only record, but comment on your subject matter.
And, let’s take it a step further, as in when wides become ultra-wides, as in the 8 to 12mm range, where the lens becomes a true fisheye. Now we’re consciously aware that we’re using an effects lens, something that is designed specifically for a freakish or distorted look. And now we have to challenge ourselves in a different way.
The standard fisheye shot is a self-contained orb, a separate universe, within which everything radiates distortion outward from the center concentrically, like a kaleidoscope or a paper snowflake. But a fisheye frame can also be composed to combine all the left-right, back-front information of a standard wide-angle (more narrative space) while also playing to the surreal look of something designed to challenge our visual biases of what’s “real”. The effect can also, as in the above image, forcefully direct the viewer’s eye to see along very precise channels. In this picture, the action of the shot begins at the right front, and tracks diagonally backwards to the left year, with the focus softening as you look from “important” to less “important”. The drama in the woman’s face is also abetted by the unnatural dimensions of the image, like one part of a nightmare serving to stage another part.
Wide-angle lenses can conceal and interpret, not just reveal. They allow us to see more from left to right, but there is a lot of wiggle room in how we show it. You have to accept the idea that all optics are distortions of reality to some degree, and make the bias of your particular glass serve your narrative goals.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS CHOOSE LENSES BASED ON LOTS OF CRITERIA, depending on what kind of “reality” they seek to visualize. In recent years, there has been a solid return to so-called “normal” or prime lenses, glass with focal lengths of 35-85mm which produce a perspective most like human vision, fairly free of the spatial distortion seen in ulta-wide lenses. At the same time, the use of ultra-wides in television and film, even for scenes in which a dramatic viewing angle is not particularly appropriate, is on the rise as well, and the widest consumer-level wides, including various types of fisheye lenses, are becoming sharper and cheaper than ever before.
I mention cinema here because it’s only after the emergence of 1950’s-era wide-screen processes like Panavision and Cinemascope that such lenses began to sell in larger numbers to amateur photographers, becoming an active part of the hobby. By the ’60’s, ultra-wides created stunning mutations of space in films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Orson Welles’ The Trial, but, in such cases, the idea was still to deliberately distort reality for dramatic effect. Today, the most common “kit lens” accompanying a new DSLR is the 18-55mm, which at its widest, can make vertical lines bend inward in a way that is dramatic, but not a true measure of natural distance relationships. And, yes, they allow you to stand closer to your subject and “get it all in frame”, but, at that point, you’re also making a decision about whether your image is to be interpretive of reality, or reflective of it.
Extreme wides, including fisheyes, can widen to 8 or 9mm, making the bending of lines so severe that the image elements seem to form a circle, with all lines arching sharply toward the center. And depending on what your image’s particular “reality” is to be, the distances of objects from front to back within the frame are also intensely exaggerated. Things which, in a “prime” lens image, appear just ten feet apart, can, in a fisheye shot, seem half a football field from each other. TV and film shooters exploit this big-time. If you’re shooting within a cramped interior and need to balloon its scope to suggest a larger scale, an ultra-wide really opens the place up. Medium-sized studios used in political debates now appear cavernous: ordinary city buildings shot wide for a crime drama take on intimidating height and depth, appearing to occupy entire blocks.
In the above image, if I want to make the viewer a little dizzy and daunted at the top of this rather modest escalator, I must use an ultra-wide to cheat, to trick the eye into concluding that it’s actually standing at the top of a sky-high ski jump. The tricky thing about ultra-wides, however, is that they mutate everything in the frame. And if part of that “everything” includes humans, your subjects can be taffy-twisted into some very alarming dimensions. Anything wider than about 24mm is downright uglifying for portraiture, unless a stylized effect is part of your interpretation. Lenses are not mere recording equipment. Their limits, biases, and faults can be exploited based on whatever kind of world you’re trying to conjure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ONCE HEARD AN OLD PHOTOGRAPHER SPEAK OF CREATIVE CHOICES AS “picking the right wagon to haul your goods to market”. By that, he meant that format, film, frame size, lens type or aperture were all just means to an end. If one wouldn’t take your wagon all the way to a finished picture, use another. He had no special sentiment or ironclad loyalty to any one tool, since there was, and is, only one real goal in any of photography: get the image you came to get.
It’s often hard to remember that simple rule, since we tend to associate the success of certain pictures with our pet camera, our sweet spot aperture, our favorite hunk of glass. But there’s also a knack to knowing when a particular tool that is wrong, wrong, wrong for almost anything might, for the project at hand, be just perfect.
I have one such tool, and, on rare occasions, the very properties that make me generally curse it as a cheap chunk of junk can make me praise it as just what the doctor ordered. It’s an Opteka 0.35, a screw-on lens adapter that simulates (to put it kindly) at least the dimensions of a true fisheye, without the enormous layout of dough, or, sadly, the optical precision of a true dedicated lens. It’s fuzzy at the edges, regardless of your aperture. It sprays chromatic shmears all over those edges, and so you can’t even dream of sharpness beyond the third of the image that’s in the dead center of the lens. It was, let’s be honest, a cheap toy bought by a cheap photographer (me) as a shortcut. For 99% of any ulta-wide imaging, it’s akin to taking a picture through a jellyfish bladder.
Since the very essence of fisheye photography is as a distortion of reality, the Opteka can be a helping hand toward a fantasy look. Overall sharpness in a fisheye shot can certainly be a desired effect, but, given your subject matter, it need not be a deal breaker.
In the case of some recent monochrome studies of trees I’ve been undertaking, for example, the slightly supernatural effect I’m after isn’t dependent on a “real” look, and running the Opteka in black and white with a little detail boost on the back end gives me the unreal appearance that is right for what I want to convey about the elusive, even magical elements of trees. The attachment is all kinds of wrong for most other kinds of images, but, again, the idea is to get the feel you’re looking for…in that composition, on that day, under those circumstances.
I’ve love to get to the day when one lens will do everything in all instances, but I won’t live that long, and, chances are, neither will you. Meanwhile, I gotta get my goods to market, and for the slightly daft look of magickal trees, the Opteka is my Leica.