the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Focus

THEN AGAIN, WHAT DO I KNOW, ANYWAY?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOT ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU’LL ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF STANDARD of acceptability for your images….the inevitable “keeper” and “failure” piles by which we measure our successes (or lack thereof).

Now, we could fill pages with reflections on just how rational we all are (or aren’t) when it comes to editing ourselves. It’s a learned skill, one that’s practically a religion to some and a virtually unknown process to others. Be that as it may. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that we are all honest, conscientious and humble when it comes to dividing our pictures into wins and losses. Even granting us all that wisdom, we are often less expert about whether a photograph is “worthy” than we think we are. You’d think that no one would know whether we took a bad image that we ourselves. But you’d be wrong, and often, wrong by a country mile.

Just as we are never so purely objective that we can be certain that we’ve generated a masterpiece, we can be just as unreliable in declaring our duds. I was reminded of that recently.

I have a lot of reasons to regard a given picture as “failed”. Some have to do with their effectiveness as narratives. Some I disdain because they’re nothing more than the faithful execution of a flawed idea. But the pictures of mine that the waste can catches the most of are simple technical botches….pure errors in doing. I’m old enough to hold certain rules of composition, exposure or focus as sacred, and I’m quick to dump any image that contravenes those laws.

Here Comes Trouble, 2019

That’s why the picture you see here was originally something I had intended to hide from the mother of the manic young man in the foreground. I had attempted, one afternoon, to use a manual focus lens to track four very energetic boys, and in one shot their ringleader had made a sudden lunge at the camera that threw him into blur. Seemed like a simple call. I had blown the shot, and I was naturally eager to show his folks only my best work.

But the impact of the picture on the boy’s family was much more positive. Blurry or not, the picture captured something very true about the boy. Call it zest, enthusiasm, even a little craziness, but this frame was, to them, more “like him” than many of the more conventional shots I had originally chosen to show them. The real-ness of his face had, for his family, redeemed the purely operational imperfection that so offended me. To put it another way, my “wait, I can do it better” was their “this is fine just as it is.” Sadly, it was my wife who brought me to my senses and convinced me to move it to the “keeper” pile.

Which circles back to my first point. None of us absolutely know what our best pictures are. We do absolutely know the ones that connect to various audiences, but that may be a completely different pile of images from the ones we label as “right”. Passing or failing a photo largely on technical grounds would, over history, disqualify many of the most important pictures ever made. We have all emotionally loved things that our logical minds might regard as having fallen short. But, in photography as in all other arts, we’re often fortunate that logic is not the sole yardstick.

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SOFT AND SHALLOW

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN A MOMENTOUS SURGE in the number of photographic optics that market themselves as “art lenses”, as if all other lenses were, what….non-artistic? This murky term essentially denotes lenses that deliver customized or selective focal effects, such as the Lensbaby “sweet spot”, a partial area of sharpness, surrounded by soft blur, that can be placed, at will, at various parts of the frame. Other so-called “art lenses” produce unique patterns of bokeh, or blur artifacts, while yet others produce vignetting, or darkening around the outside corners of the image. Some of these lenses are great overall performers, while a number of them are either one-trick ponies or muy espensivo or both.

Thing is, if you possess a fast “normal” lens, such as a 35 or 50mm “prime”, you can already achieve some of the same effects of many over-hyped proprietary lenses in the “art” arsenal. Primes have but a single focal length and thus have no telephoto function. The photographer frames by physically moving closer to, or farther away from, his subject, by, in effect, “zooming with the feet”. Since their focal range is fixed, primes are extremely simple in their construction, and therefore extremely sharp. In addition, they often will open to at least f/2.8, with many rated at f/1.8 or even faster. And that’s where the arty focus fun starts.

Wide open to f/1.8, the 50mm prime used for this image creates an extremely shallow depth of field. And that can be good news for flattering pics of faces. Primes of this focal length are already prized as portrait lenses, since they produce faces with normal proportions, as opposed to the Silly Putty stretching you get with wide-angles. Add to that a fast prime’s ability to deliver a very buttery transition between sharpness and blur, and you have the potential for a very finely-tuned look. Notice that there is no real hard sharpness in the cat’s face beyond one eye and about one third of his face. The rest rolls off very softly. My point is that nearly any good prime can deliver this effect: it isn’t essential to invest in a custom piece of “art” glass to get it.

One caveat: shooting this far open, at this distance, your auto-focus may endlessly gyrate back and forth trying to find a place to lock in. My advice: go manual. At this DOF,  you’ll have to practice with how to nail the focus, and I personally am driven bonkers trying to find the sharpness at f/1.4 or faster: the range is so very razor-thin. Even so, before you pony up for a lens that’s designed to deliver arty focus, play with the primes you already have. You may be delighted. The focus may be shallow, but the satisfaction can run deep.

 


LEADING THE WITNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS GUILTY OF MANY AN UNTRUTH, simply by the very nature of how it mimics reality. And chief among these falsehoods is its assertion that it’s reproducing depth as well as length and breadth, that you’re not only looking at a photograph but into it as well. Compositional tricks employed to sell this illusion are as old as the medium itself, many employing the technique familiarly known as leading lines.

The phrase is practically an explanation in itself: two or more lines of some kind seem to originate near the foreword edge of the picture and trail inward, receding toward the “back” of the frame, usually toward a horizon line of infinity, at a point at which the lines seem to converge, like train tracks that grow closer as they fade into the distance. Leading lines can take the form of a spiral staircase, a winding stream, or some similar invitation for your eye to “buy into” the idea that the flat image is actually “deep”.

As surefire as leading lines can be, it’s also fun to experiment with other ways to convey the illusion of depth. The image seen here uses no obvious leading lines, and yet it achieves a reasonable effect of dimensionality. Several things can help “sell” the trick.

First and easiest is the choice of a 24mm lens. This optic qualifies as an “ultra-wide” and will always exaggerate the distance from front to back. Then there’s the detailed texture of rock and sand, whose particles shrink in size as the tide pool recedes toward the sea, and just as our mind knows it would in nature. As to focus, setting at infinity helps the eye look deeper into the shot, whereas just shooting only the family in sharpness might stop the audience at a shallower viewing point. Finally, the placing of the family at center and at the mid-point of the front-to-back distance means you have to “look into” the shot fairly deeply just to engage them, at which point your brain has already been dragged halfway to the rear of the shot.

And this is only one very elementary example of how you can effect the depth of a leading line image without….the leading lines. In some ways, photographic compositions are much like musical ones: both require orchestration and a willful conductor.


BOKEH ON A BUDGET

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A Sovietera Helios 44M.

THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONEUPMANSHIP which used to divide photographers into warring camps over lenses (it must be primes!) or cameras (I myself have always been a Leica man!) has met its match in yet another pompous arena of dubious distinction.

I’m speaking of the trendy and tawdry world of blur snobs.

You remember blur, right? All that stuff in your pictures that isn’t, you know, sharp? You wanted some of it in there to set your focused subject apart or pop it forward, so you set your depth of field appropriately. So we’re done now, right?

Wrong. Because you might not have the cool kind of blur in your pictures. Cool blur is called “bokeh”, because we said so, and its various swirls, refractions and currents means you must now master blur the way you once sought to master focus. The thing you once regarded as mere negative space is now incredibly artistic negative space. Or you’d better spend money until it is.

The world’s bokeh bullies eventually started to aggressively market glass guaranteed to deliver lots of it, for lots of dollars. The cool-blur movement revived interest in the 19th-century Petzval lenses, great, fast optics for portraits which, as a by-product of their slightly flawed design, delivered big-time swirly blur. Thing is, engineering new lenses to do that one “wrong”  thing on purpose meant coughing up an astounding amount of scratch for a lens that is, essentially, a one trick pony. Repeat after me, children: hipness is never cheap.

Turns out that, instead of popping for anywhere from two to six hundred peppers for “cool insurance”, you can get the same effect from a lens that’s so globally plentiful that it can be had for under $35.00. Enter the humble Helios.

The Helios‘ “swirlybokeh.

Helios lenses were among the most highly produced lenses in Soviet history, marching out of USSR factories pretty much non-stop from 1958 to 1992. They were based on several different Carl Zeiss Biotar designs, and, while mostly used on Russian SLRs, were also built for select Pentax models. One of the most popular, the 44M, seen here, was the kit lens for generations of cameras, shooting fully manual as a 58mm prime.

Shooting the Helio wide open at f/2, and with a decent separation between foreground and textured backgrounds, you’ll get a bokeh that looks like a gazillion little circles that spray into a swirl as they move toward the edge of the frame. As the rose image attests, it does look very nice, just not $600 worth of nice. You also need the patience of a brain surgeon to get used to nailing the focus. That and consistent access to large depositories of Crown Royal. But I digress.

Helios lenses are perfectly serviceable glass for general purposes, although they are a little soft at the open end. The Russian Federation, which, if you haven’t heard, is a little cash-strapped these days, is sitting on millions of these puppies, so prices are low, lenses can be easily adapted to most camera brands (mine came battle-ready for Nikon), and shipping is often free. For between 35 and 50 bucks, they’re an occasional guilty pleasure. On the other hand, hocking your houseboat or delaying heart surgery for the new toys marketed by the blur snobs to do the same thing is both needless and nuts.

 


RIDING THE SLIDER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MUSTHAVES during the golden age of component stereo was the graphic equalizer, a panel on the front of many hi-fi receivers that divvied up the audible spectrum into five zones, allowing the discriminating audiophile to create a custom low-midrange-hi mix of frequencies by adjusting each zone’s vertical slider switch. It gave a clear representation of the desired fidelity curve. It was visual. It was visceral. Most importantly, it was cool, man.

The “slider” is also, for me, a frame of reference for my photography, since it gives me a mental picture of where I’m at along the track from work that’s left-brained (precision-driven, analytical) and right-brained (instinctual, reactive, emotional). The slider almost never travels to either extreme in the making of pictures, but veers closer to one or the other in a custom e.q.’d mix between rational control and total abandon. This is becoming more common with photographers in general than at any time in the past. When it came to crafting an image, we almost always asked about the how of things. Now many more of us also ask about the why.

The above image is illustrative of this balancing act. In walking behind the two women emerging from a forest at the end of their dog walk, I was never going to have a lot of time to formally set up any one shot…..not unless I was willing to interrupt the ladies’ together time, which seemed counter-intuitive at best. Optically, I was shooting with a selective-focus lens, designed to be sharp at the center, then progressively softer at the edges. Additionally, I decided to under-expose both women, eliminating all detail and reducing them to silhouettes. This meant that I had to wait until they were fairly centered in the clearing at the edge of the woods, one of the only reference points I would have for sharp focus, the backlighting of their forms, and any suggestion of depth.

And so you have a shot which is neither all-rational nor all-instinctual but a mixture of the two, the slider’s mid-point between preparation and improvisation. Total adherence to the left brain can produce shots which are technically precise but emotionally sterile. Working too much on the right side can yield pictures that are chaotic or random. Learning to jockey the slider is at least as important a skill as either composition or conception.


PERFECT VS RIGHT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.

One of my favorite selfies, even though I can’t justify it by any technical standard.

Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?

If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.

Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.

Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.


ART ON THE CHEAP(ER)

Conventional focus with a standard optical zoom lens.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE GREATEST BONUSES OF THE APPS ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY is how fast certain effects and processes in picture-making have moved from proprietary functions to discretionary ones. Certain “looks” which were the sole domain of well-funded professionals in the film era have been democratized to an insane degree, allowing many more of us to make images that required expensive gear or exhaustive training (or both) just a heartbeat ago.

Selective focus is but one such area. Manipulating sharpness within sections of an image used to be the stuff of cunning calculation and infinite patience…in both shooting and post-processing. Now it’s yours for the flick of a button. The app installs, you click the picture, and you massage the results. Minutes from start to finish. And manufacturers of conventional cameras have had to react to the immediacy of effects available in the mobile market, re-introducing art lenses and specialized optics (think Lomo and Lensbaby) that allow shooters to add “artifacts” or “classic film looks” to their work as they are shooting. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before these proprietary (think expensive) art lenses become more discretionary (easier to use and cheaper).

Same subject, five minutes later, with a selective-focus “art lens”.

When focus or any other main element in picture-making becomes more flexible, people experiment more and more. That, in turn, increases the number of average shooters who produce   more sophisticated work. It’s part convenience, part economics: once the ability to do something on an occasional whim is granted to more people through innovation or pricing, the exotic becomes the normal, and the entire art advances. Photography began as a tinkerer’s hobby, costly  and clunky in its execution. However, once it solved those problems, it went viral (or whatever one went in the 1800’s). And now digital apps are leading the entire market toward another level of ease and affordability.

 

The two pictures you see here were both, in fact, taken with camera-based lenses….but, those lenses are both infinitely more affordable to me today than they might have been a generation ago…something driven in part by the digital apps revolution. That means I had the option of trying two vastly different focal approaches on the same subject with little more effort than it took to swap one lens out for another. I used standard optics for this exercise because, frankly, the acuity and control in most mobiles is still less than I’d prefer. But that will change, and quickly. In just a few evolutionary clicks from now, I will be able to do this exact same study within my phone….cheaper, faster, and with less baggage to lug around. Will I abandon my traditional lenses at that point? I honestly can’t say. But if I don’t, I hope I have a better reason than “that’s not the way we used to do it.”


VISUAL SHORTHAND

On The Barrelhead (2017). Given your mind’s files on  what, visually,  a “dollar” is, not much literal detail is needed to convey said object in a photo.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONLY A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF OUR MIND’S INNER LIBRARY OF ACCUMULATED DATA is at the top of our consciousness. Staying aware of everything we’ve learned in our lives, every minute of the day, would obviously lead to a mental train wreck, as the vital and the trivial created an endless series of collisions between what we need to know and what we need to know right now. The brain, acting as a wonderful prioritizing network, moves information to the foreground or tucks it toward the back, as needed.

The visual patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime are also at work in how we create and interpret photographs. We know in an instant when we’ve seen something before, and so we process known objects in a kind of short-hand rather than as something we’re viewing for the  first time. This allows us to make camera images that are abbreviated versions of things we first encountered long ago, images that merely suggest things, rather than delineate them in full detail. Call it abstraction, call it minimalism, heck, call it a ham sandwich if that helps. It merely means that we can use our brain vaults to show parts of things, and count on our memories to recognize those things solely from the parts.

Focus is but one such way of supplying visual information to the brain, and its selective use allows the photographer to convey the idea of an object without “spelling it out”, or showing it in absolutely documentarian terms. In the image above, our collective memory of the contours and details of a dollar bill are so deeply ingrained that we don’t actually need to see all of its numbers, letters, and images in full definition. Focus thus becomes an accent, a way of highlighting some features of a subject while downplaying others.

It may be that, in photographing selective aspects of objects rather than showing their every detail, we are teaching the camera to act like the flashing fragments of memory that our mind uses to transmit information….that is, teaching a machine to see in the code that we instinctively recognize. Is all interpretation just an attempt to ape the brain’s native visual language? Who knows? All that we really have to judge an image by is the final result, and its impact upon other viewers like ourselves.


BLUR IS THE NEW SHADOW

Modern art lenses allow different parts of objects that are all in one focal plane to be selectively blurred.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’M INCREASINGLY FASCINATED BY PHOTOGRAPHS THAT SUPPRESS INFORMATION, choosing to selectively conceal details rather than merely delineate everything in the frame in the same exhaustively sharp detail. At the same time, I hate it when this technique is referred to as being “painterly”, as if, after all this time, photos are still striving for the same pedigree that daubers automatically inherit merely by picking up a brush. Photographs are not, and should not try to be, paintings, just as a shoe should not try to pass as a glove. Love the function of the art you have, and leave the mimicry to the mockingbirds.

The “painterly” tag used to be tied mainly to anyone shrouding their images in shadow, as if we were all bucking to be the next Rembrandt or Reubens. And certainly the use of darkness in photography creates a kind of mysterious minimalism, telling more by showing less. We linger over what’s left out of a photo, and the deliberate subtraction of detail simplifies a composition to its barest terms. When there is less to see, you eye goes like a laser to what remains. It’s a big, bright “this way, dummy” arrow pointing toward the heart of the picture.

In the same way, the current wave of photographers are using blur to punch up the impact of images. Any Google search of the phrase “blur my photos” unearths a wellspring of apps that allow any part of any frame to be selectively de-focused, in most cases (as happens with apps) after the picture is taken. Long regarded as the stuff of artifact or accident, blur is now being arranged, managed, and chosen as a tool to remove distracting detail from compositions, or to render them softer and more intimate. In the above image, separate elements of the structure, all of which lie generally in the same focal plane, can be selectively softened so that one can become dominant, while the other is abstracted. This particular shot is done with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens, which allows the “sweet spot” of focus to be rotated to any location the shooter desires, although there are many paths to similar results.

Both apps and lenses, which include newly reworked versions of old optics, offer a return to the randomness from which early photographers longed to escape. Lomography, the revival of flawed and cheap cameras from the film era, actually touts blur as a strength, an arty accent much to be desired. To be totally counter-intuitive about it, blur is edgy. Of course, some blur is just another kind of visual noise, and if it’s applied too carelessly or too much, it actually pulls the eye away from the main message of a picture. However, it’s thrilling just to see the sheer breadth of approaches that are suddenly available everywhere, most of them cheap, fast and easy. Blur can “sharpen” a picture just like darkness can “illuminate” one. It’s the new shadow.

 

 


2016: THE YEAR OF SEEING DIFFERENTLY

Our idea of what a photograph "is" must be constantly in play.

Isoceles’ Greatest Hits (2016). Our idea of what a photograph “is” must be constantly in play.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU SPEND ENOUGH YEARS MAKING PICTURES, you will see, looking back over your shoulder, several visible mile markers indicating when something fundamental changed in how you went about the pursuit of the capture. It can be a simple time line from one camera or lens to the next, or a sequence of shifts in style or emphasis.

For some, it’s the leap from film to digital. For others, the moment when it seemed important to commit anew to monochrome, or the day when one’s work flow took on decidedly new features. For me, it’s always been those events or people who have allowed me to dramatically re-evaluate the process of seeing.

Poring over various things I attempted to do in 2016, I seem to be standing in a niche between how I have traditionally visualized subjects and how I’m aspiring to, marking a more dramatic evolution than I’ve experienced for a while. This change can be simply expressed as a different view of what’s “real” in a picture, brought on by my work with lenses that allowed focus to be more selectively manipulated within an image.

Some of this can be seen in images seen in the new page 20 for 16, clickable at the top of this one. Like other year-end summaries, it tries to cite examples of every type of photograph I attempted over the space of a year, from portraits to still lifes and everything in between. However, unlike most other years, the images have what I might call an evolving view of the role of sharpness; how it features in a composition, how much of it is essential, whether it is even needed at all, given the right conditions.

Some of these explorations in variable sharpness involved embracing a new crop of specialized lenses which either evoke the softer look of vintage glass or allow the shooter to place focus anywhere in the frame, and to any degree desired.  However, at least one picture is the product of post-production apps applied to smart phone images, showing, if nothing else, that it’s probably the destination that matters more than the journey. Or not.

As an essential component in all photography, focus is a major determinant in that we think of as a “photograph”, and, in turn, what makes that photograph “real”. However, photography is not merely the recording of the actual but a visualization of the possible. It bridges the gap between tangible and potential. Merely unchaining sharpness, by itself, guarantees nothing in the way of order, and might merely produce chaos. Still, the moment when a particular choice can either enhance or enchant…. that’s we live for; that’s what we reach for.

Thank you again for your kind attention, your advice, and your enthusiasm….and Happy New Year.


FIXES ON THE FLY

Original DSLR shot with too much color, too much information, and no effective way to isolate the seated man within the frame.

Original DSLR shot with too much color, too much information, and no effective way to isolate the seated man within the frame.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE UNDENIABLE ADVANTAGE MOBILE OR PHONE CAMERAS HAVE OVER THEIR DSLR FOREBEARS is the ability to combine easy shooting and easy editing in the same small package. This adds convenience on top of convenience, allowing mobile pictures to be captured and refined in the field, with DSLR’s more generally tethered to PCs for their post-production editing.

Even more frustrating is that many basic phone cameras have a wider variety of processing options, even without the use of after-market apps, than come in a DSLR’s “retouch” menu, creating a greater disconnect between the “deliberate” editing of the late-film/early digital camera and the “instinctual” editing of phono-photography.

Recently, DSLRs have made it easier to wirelessly send their images to phones’ email inboxes, but, across several manufacturers, the process is far from sleek. But when you can send images taken with the superior lenses and larger file sizes of a DSLR to your phone, you can easily send those emailed items on to your favorite in-phone app for tweaks that can be done on the fly, with more tricks than your “real” camera allows. It also permits you to do radical re-mixes of yesteryear’s shots with today’s tech. Old photos can get a facelift with a lot less bother than if they go through a Photoshop-type workflow.

To illustrate: the top shot, a DSLR original, was way too busy. Jutting walls, extra people, over-bright colors…plenty to remove if the seated man at the front was to draw any central interest. Cropping and de-saturating in my Mac’s editing program was easy enough, but I wanted to further isolate him from the monotonous textured wall behind him.

The same DSLR image with selective focus added via a phone-based app.

The same DSLR image with selective focus added via a phone-based app.

The lens I used in the original wasn’t equipped to render different levels of sharpness within the same focal plane, but my phone had a handy app that did precisely that, and that’s where we went next.

Emailing the image to my phone was fast, as was forwarding the picture in the email to be saved as a camera roll image. From there, I sent the picture to an app called Analog Cam, which included a partial diffuser tool, allowing me to gradually blur everything in the focal plane except the man, as you see in the lower frame. Finally came a transfer from the app to a posting on Flickr. Thus with a few extra steps, I gained the flexibility I didn’t have when I shot the original, allowing me to save, salvage and send from one location.

The emphasis for mobile cameras is much more on post-shutter fixing than is the case with a standard camera. That said, there’s no reason why you can’t shoot on one and use the convenience of the other to get the result you want.

 

 

 


A GENTLER EDGE

Storefront (2016). Details are used sparingly in the central building, less crucial in the rest of the frame.

Storefront (2016). Details are used sparingly in the central building, even less crucial in the rest of the frame.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CHOICES ABOUT FOCUS MIGHT JUST BE AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS that a photographer will face. Clarity, sharpness, precision, call it what you might, focal crispness is a crucial determinant in the creation of an image, no less than light and subject matter. And it’s one of the easiest factors to manage, available to any one from the humblest point-and-shooter to master technicians on the Hubbell telescope.

This building study seems to call for a sharp look overall.

This urban shot seems to call for a sharp look overall.

There is a tendency for us to mentally default to an idea of “sharpness” when we hear the word focus, as if the only way to faithfully reproduce reality is strict adherence to that standard. But photography has never really been about reality, any more than painting or prose. We can’t help but add some small interpretive something to the process of making a picture, even if we believe a machine is largely in charge of the process. Amazingly, with very little effort, we can change the perception of an image by tiny adjustments in what is clear and what remains hazy or soft, straying selectively from the arbitrary sharpness standard.

Some subjects are rendered too coldly, too clinically, when subjected to razor focus, so that what you may gain in documentary detail you lose in intimacy, or in that undefinable feeling of being close. Applying this line of reasoning to my personal affection for architecture, there are buildings where the hard look of precision is perfectly suited to the subject; jutting skyscrapers, massive bridges, towering monuments, and the like. But put me in a small town, where the entire space feels sealed off from time itself, and the look, at least for me, becomes softer. Details take a back seat to feelings, and the harsh light of midday gives way to a soft, dreamy haze at late afternoon.  The secrets of side lots, alleys and back yards become scavenger hunts. In both the big and small cities, focus is the key element in the creation of the image. And, also, in both cases, an advance visualization of the final result dictates exactly the degree of focus required.

Lenses and cameras possess wonderful technical properties that can deliver a slew of exotic effects. Still, with virtually no expense or fuss, a smarter mastery of focus is a decisive, even dramatic factor in helping a photograph develop its most effective language.

 


COST ANALYSIS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT, TO DATE, MOST OF THE WRITINGS THAT COMPARE FILM PHOTOGRAPHY TO DIGITAL center on visual or aesthetic criteria. The grain of film, the value range of pixels, the differences in the two types of workflow, the comparative sizes of sensors, and so forth. However, in certain shooting situations, what strikes me as the main advantage of digital is crassly…..monetary.

It’s simply cheaper.

Now, that’s no small thing. Consider that, with film, a very real cost comes attached to every single frame, both masterpiece and miss. Now, try to compute how much film you must consume in order to travel from one end of a learning curve to the other in trying to master a new lens or technique. Simply, every shot on the way to “that’s it!” is a “damn, that’s not it”, and both cost money. Now recall those shoots where the conditions are so strange or variable that the only way to get the right shot is to take lots of wrong ones, and remember as well, that, after clicking off all those frames, you had to wait (with the meter running), until either the processor or your own darkroom skill even told you that you were on the wrong track.

Assume further that you screwed up several rolls of premium Kodachrome before stumbling on the right approach, and that all of those rolls are now firmly in the “loss” column. You re-invest, re-load, and hope you learned your lesson. Ca-ching.

Doheny State Park Beach, 2016 A Plastic 35mm lens at f/8,

Doheny State Park Beach (2016).  Shot at 1/125 sec., f/8, ISO 100, through a plastic 35mm lens.

The shot that you see above demonstrates why shooting in digital speeds up your practice time, at a fraction of the cost of film, while giving you feedback that allows you to adjust, shoot, and adjust again before the conditions in front of you are lost. What you see is a late dusk on a dark lagoon just inland of a stretch of ocean in Point Dana, California, strewn with waves of bathing birds and shifting pools of ripples. The pink of the clouds on the horizon will be gone in a matter of minutes. Also, I’m shooting through a narrow-gauge opening in a chain-link fence, causing dark vignettes on every other shot. Moreover, I’m using a plastic lens, making everything soft even softer, especially at the edges.

So add all these factor together and the emotional curve of the shoot is click-damn-click-whoops-click-click-damn. But, since it’s digital, the bad guesses come back fast, and so does the ability to adjust. Bottom line: I know I will likely walk away with something generally usable.

More importantly, photography no longer has the power to price so many of us out of the practice. That means that more images make it to completion, and, of course, that can also mean a global gallery flooded with mediocrity. Hey, I get that. But I also get a fighting chance at grabbing pictures that used to belong only to the guy who could afford to stand and burn twelve rolls of film.

And hope like hell.


EQUATIONS

"Sharpness" can mean so many things to so many different photographers.

“Sharpness” can mean so many things to so many different photographers.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVERY CHANGE YOU MAKE IN THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE also changes every other element of the picture.

You can’t alter a single element in a photo in isolation. Each decision you make is a separate gear, with its own distinctive teeth, and the way those teeth mesh with all the other gears in the photographic equation determines success in the final picture.

As an example, let’s look at sharpness, perhaps the big “desirable” in an image. The term sounds simple, but is, in fact determined by an entire raft of factors, among them:

A) Choice Of Lens. How uniform is the sharpness of your glass? Is it softer at the edges? Completely sharp at smaller apertures? Does it deliver amazing pictures at one setting while causing distortions or inaccuracies at another?

B) Aperture. The most basic predictor of sharpness, whether you scrimped or splurged on Item “A”.

C) Choice Of Autofocus Setting. Are you telling your camera to selectively sharpen a key object in an isolated part of your image, or asking it to provide uniform sharpness across the entire frame?

D) Anti-vibration. On some longer exposures (for example, on a tripod) this feature may actually be costing you sharpness. Protecting your shot against the hand-held shakes is good. Confusing a camera with active Anti-vibe on a stabilized shot may not work out as well.

E) Contrast. Some people believe that the sharpness of lines and textures is actually the viewable distance between light and darkness, that contrast is “sharpness”. Based on what you prefer, other big choices can be affected, such as the decision to shoot in color or black and white.

F) Stability. Deals with everything from how steady you grip a camera to what else besides yourself, from shutter triggering to SLR mirror shifting, can cause measurable vibration, and thus less sharpness.

G) Editing/Processing. This is where miracles occur. Sometimes. Other times, it’s where we try to slap lipstick on a pig.

We could go on, and so could you. And then consider that this quick checklist only deals with sharpness, just a single element, which, in turn, affects every other aspect of your pictures. Photography is a constant juggling act between technique, experience, experiment, and instinct. What you want to show in your images will dictate how much (or how well) you keep all those balls aloft.


THE FLEXIBLE FREEZE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE LAST TWO CENTURIES HAVE CAPITALIZED ON ONE OF THEIR MEDIUM’S BEST TRICKS, the ability to freeze time, the sensation of carving out micro-seconds of reality and preserving them, like ancient scarabs trapped in amber. The thing known as “now”, with the aid of the camera, became something called “forever”, as things which were, by nature, fleeting were granted a kind of immortality. Events became exhibits, things to be studied or re-lived at our whim.

And yet, even as we extract these frozen moments, we mess around the edge of the illusion a bit, making still pictures also convey a sense of motion. Focus is a prime example of this retro-fitting of technique. No sooner had photography evolved the technical means to render sharp images than shooters began to put a little soft imprecision back into their pictures, by a variety of means: slow shutter speeds, time exposures, manual shaking,  delayed flashes, and selective focus. Of all these techniques, at least for me, selective focus has proven to be the hardest to master.

....and two more lattes, 2016

….and two more lattes, 2016, shots on a Lensbaby Composer Pro, which allows a sweet spot of sharp focus to be moved anywhere in the frame the shooter desires.

Changing the messaging of a photographic story by using focus to isolate some elements and downplay others has always called for real practical knowledge of the workings of lenses and how they create focus as an effect. Recently, digital manipulation has allowed shooters to re-order the focal priorities of a shot after it’s taken, and in just the past few years, commercially available specialty lenses have allowed photographers to pre-select where and when focus will occur in an image, using it as interpretively as color or exposure.

I like to use the Lensbaby family of variable-focus lenses for what I call “flexible freeze” situations, times when focus can be massaged to create the illusion of speed. In the above shot, taken in a high-volume cafe, the small center of tight focus fans out to a near streaky quality at the outer edges of the picture. No one person is rendered sharp enough for features to register, or matter. What’s important here is the sensation of a busy lunch rush, which actually would be diminished if everything was in uniform focus.

Sharpness is certainly desirable in most cases for a strict re-creation of literal reality, but photography has never merely been a recording process. Focus can produce useful abstractions or atmospheres in a shot, so long as the effect serves the story. If it doesn’t help the image speak better, even a flexible freeze can quickly become a tiresome gimmick. Matching tools to goals is what good photography does best.


INSTANT VELVET

A portrait straight from my camera, with no advance filtration.

A portrait straight from my camera, with no prior filtration.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE WERE, IN THE DAYS OF FILM, two main ways to create the velvety glow of uniformly soft focus so prized by portrait subjects. The more expensive route lay in purchasing a dedicated portrait lens that achieved more or less of the effect, depending mainly on aperture. The other, cheaper way was to screw-on a softening filter, making any lens adaptable to the look. Now, in the digital era, those two options have been joined by softening apps for phone cameras and in-camera “filters”, which add the effect after the photograph has been snapped.

That’s the beauty of where we are in the history of photography, where every problem has a half-dozen different solutions, offered at different levels of complexity, ease, and affordability. In the golden days of Hollywood, cinematographers achieved the soft look with some Vaseline smeared over the lens, or by attaching different gauges of gauze to the glass. Both tricks made yesterday’s matinee idols look like today’s ingenues, and now, anyone with a reasonably sophisticated camera can achieve the same success with half the bother.

The same image after the application of Nikon's in-camera "soft" filter.

The same image after the application of Nikon’s in-camera “soft” filter.

I myself prefer to shoot soft focus “live”, that is, in the moment, with either a dedicated lens or a filter, but you aren’t always in the same frame of mind when you shoot something as when you review it later. In-camera processing, while offering less fine control (tweaking pictures that have already been shot), can at least give you another comparative “version” of your image at literally no trouble or cost. With Nikon, you simply select the “Retouch” menu, dial down to “Filters”, select “Soft” and scroll to the image you want to modify. For Canon cameras, go to the “Playback” menu, select “Creative Filters”, scroll to “Soft” and pick your pic. The image at left shows the result of Nikon’s retouch filter, applied to the above picture.

One personal note: I have tried several phone app softeners as post-click fixes, and find that they generally degrade the quality of the original image, almost as if you were viewing the shot through a soup strainer. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, the app versions of soft focus are not ready for prime time yet. Best news is, the soft-focus effect is so popular that eventually all solutions will be generally equal, regardless of platform, since the marketplace always works in favor of the greatest number of people making pictures. Always has, always will.

All things considered, we got it pretty soft.


RAZOR’S EDGE

Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot, not "cranked in" in post-editing.

Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot by use of contrast and color, not “dialed up” in post-editing. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 22mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE AVAILABILITY OF PHOTO PROCESSING TOOLS, TO ARTIST AND BEGINNER ALIKE, in the digital era, has created a kind of unfortunate slingshot effect, as all suddenly achieved freedoms tend to. Once it became possible for Everyman to tweak images in a way that was once exclusively the province of the professional, there followed a trend toward twisting every dial in the tool box to, let’s be honest, rescue a lot of marginal shots. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to glam up a dud. Now raise your hand if you inadvertently made a bad picture worse by slathering on the tech goo.

Welcome to the phenomenon known as over-correction.

It’s human nature, really. Look at Hollywood. Suddenly freed from the confines of the old motion picture production code in the 1960’s, directors, understandably, took a few years to make up for decades of artistic construction by pumping out a nude scene and/or a gore fest  in everything from romantic comedies to Pink Panther cartoons. Several seasons of adolescent X-rated frolics later, movies settled down to a new normal. The over-correction gave way to a more mature, even restrained style of film making.

Am I joining the ranks of anti-Photoshop trolls? Not exactly, but I am noting that, as we grow as photographers, we will put more energy into planning the best picture (all energy centered before the snap of the shutter), and less energy into “fixing it in post”. If you shoot long enough and work hard enough, that shift will just happen. More correctly designed in-camera images equals fewer pix that need to be dredged from Dudland.

Look at the simple idea of sharpening. That slithery slider is available to everyone, and we all race after it like a kid chasing the Good Humor truck. And yet, it is a wider range of color and contrast, which we can totally control in the picture-taking process, which will result in more natural sharpness than the Slider Of Joy can even dream of. As a matter of fact, test my argument with your own shots. Increase your control of contrast or color and see if it doesn’t help wean you off the sharpen tool. Or expose your shots more carefully in-camera rather than removing shadows and rolling off highlights later. Or any other experiment. Your goals, your homework.

The point being that more mindful picture-making will eliminate the need for many crutch-like editing tweaks after the fact. And if that also makes you a better shooter overall, isn’t that pretty much the quest?


BE THE CAMERA. NOW BE BETTER THAN THAT.

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A man, a plan, a woody: Ansel Adams in his element. Yosemite’s Half-Dome is at the right.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MERELY INVOKING THE NAME OF ANSEL ADAMS is enough to summon forth various hosannas and hallelujahs from anyone from amateur shutterbug to world-renowned photog. He is the saint of saints, the yardstick of yardsticks. He is the photographer was all want to be when (and if) we grow up. His technical prowess is held as the standard for diligence, patience, vision. And yet, even at the moment we revere Adams for his painstaking development of the zone system and his mind-blowing detail, we are still short-changing his greatest achievement.

And it is an achievement that many of us can actually aspire to.

What Ansel Adams did, over a lifetime, was work his equipment way beyond its limits, milking about 2000% out of every lens, camera and film roll, showing us that, to make photographs, we have to constantly reach beyond what we think is possible. Given the slow speed of much of the film stocks and lenses of his era, he, out of the wellspring of his own ingenuity, had to make up the deficit. He had to be smarter, better than his gear. No one piece of equipment could give him everything, so he learned over a lifetime how to anticipate every need. Look at one of many lists he made of things that he might need on a major shoot:

Cameras: One 8 x 10 view camera with 20 film holders and four lenses; 1 Cooke Convertible, 1 ten-inch Wide Field Ektar, 1 nine-inch Dagor, one six and three-quarters-inch Wollensak wide angle. One 7 x 17 special panorama camera with a Protar 13-1/2-inch lens and five holders. One 4 x 5 view camera with six lenses; a twelve-inch Collinear, including an eight-and-a-half Apo Lentar, a nine-and-a-quarter Apo Tessar, 4-inch Wide Field Ektar, Dallmeyer telephoto. One Hasselblad camera outfit with 38, 60, 80, 135, & 200 millimeter lenses. A Koniflex 35 millimeter camera. Two  Polaroid cameras. 3 exposure meters (one SEI, two Westons).

Extras: filters for each camera: K1, K2, minus blue, G, X1, A, C5 &B, F, 85B, 85C, light balancing, series 81 and 82. Two tripods: one light, one heavy. Lens brush, stopwatch, level, thermometer, focusing magnifier, focusing cloth, hyperlight strobe portrait outfit, 200 feet of cable, special storage box for film.

Transport: One ancient, eight-passenger Cadillac station wagon with 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top.

However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ work is not in how much equipment he packed. It’s that he knew precisely what tool he needed for every single eventuality. He likewise knew how to tweak gear to its limits and beyond. Most importantly, his exacting command of the elemental science behind photography, which most of us now use with little or no thought, meant that he took complete responsibility for everything he created, from pre-visualization to final print.

And that is what we can actually emulate from the great man, that total approach, that complete immersion. If we use all of ourselves in every picture that we make, we can always be better than our cameras. And, for the sake of our art, we need to be.

 


PRECISION C, FEELING A

Mona Lisa Smoke Shop, Washington D.C., 2013.

Mona Lisa Smoke Shop, Washington D.C., 2013.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU TRAVEL ENOUGH, YOU’LL DISCOVER THAT, OF ALL THE TIMES YOU WANT to take a photograph, there are only a few times in which acceptable picture-making conditions are actually present. For all too many subjects that you experience on the fly, only a small percentage of them allow you the time, light, information or opportunity to do your best. And yet…you do what you must, and trust to instinct and chance for the rest.

Immediately upon arrival in a new town, my mind goes to one task, and one task only: sticking anyone else with the driving, so I can take potshots out the car window as I see fit. I have no need to head the posse or lead the expedition. You be in  charge, big man. Get me to the hotel and leave me to make as many attempts as possible to put something worthwhile inside my camera.

Of course, this means that I have to pay at least some attention to how insanely you drive…shortcuts, rapid swerves, jolts and all. And, hey, couldn’t you have lingered a millisecond longer after the light went green, since I was just about to create an immortal piece of street art, instead of the muscular spasm I now have frozen forever on my memory card?

When shooting from a car, there are lots of things that go out the window (sorry), among them composition, exposure, stability, and, most generally, focus. En route to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. a few years ago, I fell in love with the funky little tobacco shop you see here. The colors, the woodwork, the look of yesteryear, it all spoke to me, and I had to have it. So I shot it at 1/250 sec, more than fast enough to freeze nearly anything in focus, unless by “nearly anything” you mean something that you’re not careening past at the pace of the average Tijuana taxicab. Result? Well, I didn’t wind up with unspeakable blur, but it’s certainly softer than I wanted. Of course, I could have offered an acceptable alibi for the shot, something based on some variant like, “of course, I meant to do that”, that is, until I outed myself in this post, just now.

But we try. Sometimes it’s the fleeting nature of things seen from car windows that make the attempt even more appealing than the potential result. In that instant, it seems like nothing’s more important than trying to take a picture. That picture. I won’t get ’em all. But as long as I live, I hope I never lose that mad, what-the-hell urge to just go for it.

So okay, seeing as this is a photo of a tobacco shop, this is where one of you cashes in the “close, but no cigar” gag line.

Go ahead, I’ll give you that one.


DETAILS, DETAILS

Moody, but still a bit too tidy. Back and white by itself wasn't enough to create the atmosphere I wanted.

Moody, but still a bit too tidy. Black and white by itself wasn’t enough to create the atmosphere I wanted.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVEN THOUGH MOST GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS PROCLAIM that any “rules” in their medium exist only to be broken, it’s often tough to chuck out regulations that have served you well over a lifetime of work. Once you get used to producing decent images through the repetition of habit, it takes extra nerve to take yourself outside your comfort zone, even if it means adding impact to your shots. You tend not to think of rules as arbitrary or confining, but as structural pillars that keep the roof from falling in.

That’s why it’s a good exercise to force yourself to do something that you feel is a bad fit for your style, lest your approach to everything go from being solid to, well, fossilized. If you hate black and white, make yourself shoot only monochrome for a week. If you feel cramped by square framing, make yourself work exclusively in that compositional format, as if your camera were incapable of landscape or portrait orientations. In my own case, I have to pry my brain away from an instinctual reliance on pinsharp focus, something which part of me fears will lead to chaos in my images. However, as I occasionally force myself to admit, sharp ain’t everything, and there may even be some times when it will kill, or at least dull, a picture.

Sharpness where it's needed, and nowhere else.

Sharpness just where it’s needed, and nowhere else.

With post-processing such an instantaneous, cheap, and largely effortless option these days, there really isn’t any reason to not at least try various modes of partial focus just to see where it will lead. Take what you believe will work in terms of the original shot, and experiment with alternate ways of interpreting what you started with.

In the shot at the top of this post, I tried to create mood in a uniquely shaped fish house with monochrome and a dour exposure on a nearly colorless day. Thing is, the image carried too much detail to be effectively atmospheric. The place still looked like a fairly new, fairly spiffy eatery located in an open-air shopping district. I wanted it to look like a worn, weathered joint, a marginal hangout that haunted the wharf that its seafood theme and design suggested. I needed to add more mood and mystery to it, and merely shooting in black & white wasn’t going to get me there, so I ran the shot through an app that created a tilt-shift focus effect, localizing the sharpness to the rooftop sign only and letting the rest of the structure melt into murk.

It shouldn’t be hard to skate around a rule in search of an image that comes closer to what you see in your mind, and yet it can require a leap of faith. Hard to say why trying new things spikes the blood pressure. We’re not heart surgeons, after all, and no one dies if we make a mistake.Anyway, you are never more than one click away from your next best picture.