By MICHAEL PERKINS
A SELECTIVE READING OF SOME of the posts featured in The Normal Eye over the years might give the impression that I am “anti-flash” in my approach to photography. A closer look, however, would reveal that I am more properly non-flash….that, while I stipulate that judicious use of artificial light can be amazing, (a) it can often do more harm than good, and (b) there are fewer situations in which it’s needed than at any other point in time. So, anti……no. But non…..absolutely.
Choosing not to use flash in low light situations used to mean that a tripod was essential for sharpness in even reasonably quick exposures, but even that truth is falling by the wayside, as sensors allow for lower noise at ever-higher ISO levels. The handheld shot is now more convenient and reliable than ever, with only modest investments in gear and/or practice to yield suitable results. This means that, outside of very formalized studio settings, you may now be able to leave both flash and pod in the closet in more and more cases.
So let’s pursue the ideal: a low-light image, shot handheld, with the lowest possible ISO, achieved without flash or tripod. First, your glass needs to be fast, something that can’t be said for the basic kit lenses that are packaged with most DSLRs. A lens like a kit 18-55mm that only opens in the f/3.5 range can’t compete with prime lenses such as a 35 or 50mm of f/1.8 or faster. The extra several stops can render many more handheld shots feasible, and so investing in an affordable prime (single focal length) is money well spent.
The other, and far more decisive factors in this handheld quest, since you’ll be dealing in slower exposure times, are the purely physical moves involved in bracing your camera. Whether it’s a firm stance, a solid grip, a handy resting place like a shelf, or a combination of all three, you have to practice….a lot…in minimizing camera shake. Everyone’s technique for this will vary, and the web is rich in written or video tutorials from which to choose. The point is, it’s possible to learn how to do it.
The two shots shown here are both shot wide open, at F/1.8, at a rock-bottom ISO value of 100 and available light only (the room was actually further darkened for purposes of this test). And while you can certainly see a clear contrast in sharpness between the first and second shot, they are handheld at 1/5th of a second and 1 full second respectively and are both usable shots (seen here straight out of the camera). Moreover, even shooting at, say, 1/10th of a second or faster, the picture could still be done with very low ISO and no flash, no tripod. And that buys you ease, mobility and speed. Travel light, shoot more, and in more places.
Again, I am most definitely not anti-flash. I just think that the fluidity of today’s gear, along with a few hours of practice, can simplify your shooting, giving you more concentration on the why of a picture rather than the how of getting it done.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINGLE–SOURCE LIGHT IS ALMOST ALWAYS USED, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, with the aim of calling attention to something other than itself. Typically the light’s origination point is hidden or removed from the final composition, entering from outside the frame via a side window or a top-down studio lamp, modeling or dimensionalizing an object, creating the illusion that all the light in the room just happened organically.
And that’s pretty much as it should be. You usually don’t use the tools of a craft to say, in effect, look at the way these cool tools helped me play a trick on you. As photographers we don’t like to be caught in the act of fooling, and so there are many images where the single source light is seen just in its effect, not as a cause.
Many, but not all. Sometimes the light actually needs to be part of the story, as shown here.
Most places of business naturally react to the daily dying of exterior light by turning on their interior lamps. Sun goes down, lights go up. But occasionally, as in this wondrous and quirky little bakery cafe in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, the comfort food was accompanied by what could easily be termed comfort light. The lights inside the pastry case, at least during this particular evening, were allowed to serve as the only illumination for the entire inside of the store, lending the customers around the counter the warm intimacy of a shared fireplace.
The moment filled me with longing for a world whose labors and leisure were once defined solely by the parameters of day or night, mitigated only by the occasional torch or oil lamp. And so, in this special case (and in many more you can no doubt name from your own experiences), the source of the image’s light really is part of the narrative, and thus deserves its place at center stage.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I MAY BE OVER-COMPENSATING A BIT OF LATE, making the kind of correction a newly-minted driver makes when he steers too far in one direction, then steers just as radically in the other. Five years ago, my photography was caught up in the feverish rescue of detail from dark places. I embraced HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging as a way to illuminate every part of a frame, fearing that important information was being lost in the shadows. I was consumed with delivering what the camera was inefficient at seeing, and spent a lot of time making exposures “balanced”, making sure everything in them was viewable.
These days, by contrast, I seem to be all about the dark, or least its creative use as an element in more and more pictures. Darkness is a lot more subtle than that which is visible, as it merely hints, rather than states, information. I see darkness now the way that graphic artists might have several centuries ago, when the recording medium might be a treated paper that was all colored, or all dark, and the lighter values of a composition might be drawn onto that medium with white paint or chalk.
With such methods, early drawings by Michelangelo and others saw darkness as the start point, with so-called “positive” values sort of extracted from it. In photographic terms, I seem to be taking the same approach to a lot of pictures recently, beginning with a sea of undefined murk and pulling just enough information out of it to create a composition. Whereas, just a few years ago, I was summoning forth every hobnail of detail possible out of a frame, now I am mining the very minimum. I want the unanswered questions posed by darkness to remain largely unanswered. Too much detail means too much distraction.
The practitioners of chiaroscuro (artists like Rembrandt and Reubens) also started with a dark canvas but used light, usually from a single source such as a window, to model their subjects, to give them a three-dimensional quality. I sometimes do that too, but mostly, I am asking the viewer to enter into a partnership with me. The terms: I’ll show you part of the story, and you supply the rest.
Where will I be in the next five years? I’m totally in the dark.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIFTY-PLUS YEARS INTO MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, I now regard my earliest concept of a “good picture” as I regard other ideas of my youth….that is, seeing how I viewed the world given the limited scope of my own experience. When I first started making my own pictures, my models were drawn from the pages of the then-dominant photo magazines, like Life, Look, and National Geographic. Thus, for me, “good” photographs served either the reportorial functions of a news assignment or the color-saturated visions of landscape lovers. And that, for me, back then, was more than enough.
Both these kinds of images favored a fairly literal translation from the actual into the photographed: interpretation and abstraction was not anything I gave serious thought to, since I wanted my simple box-camera creations to look like “real photographs”. Art photography certainly existed, but very much at the edges of the culture. Most museums, by the early 1960’s, had still not mounted their own photographic exhibitions. Most popular photography, shaped by a large middle-class consumer culture (think Kodak Instamatic), was candid and personal in nature. Most people wanted Grandma to look like Grandma, unfiltered through any Warholian irony, commentary or experimentation. It was still a compliment for someone to say of your pictures that they “looked like a photograph”.
Strangely, one of the things that revised my thinking on what was “good” was an increased awareness of the works of some of the first photographers, pioneers who sweated mightily to wrangle the infant media into something like reliable performance. In their work with ever-changing combinations of plates, media, lenses and emulsions, the first photogs’ breakthrough photographs often failed from a purely technical viewpoint, producing irregular patches of light appearing randomly like islands in a sea of shadows.
But what these wizards’ first attempts often achieved, almost by accident, was the first real abstraction in photography: pieces of reality, rather than its totality: hints of the truth which invited speculation, examination. New questions were posed: what was missing, and did it matter if it wasn’t there? Could a photographer, in fact, deliberately extract parts of the “whole” picture, letting the minimum speak for everything that was left out? I gradually began to wander in search of answers to these questions.
There are times when a picture speaks louder the less it says. My original orientation to “good” images, seeing them as the most faithful translation of the literal onto film, expanded gradually to include whatever visual language communicates best in a given picture. Sometimes, in some very key instances, it helps to think like the first practitioners, who discovered, however haphazardly, that mere reality sometimes comes up short.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY PHOTOGRAPHS GLASS SURFACES realizes that the process is a kind of shot-to-shot negotiation, depending on how you want the material to react and shape your subject. There is really no absolute “look” for glass, as it has the ability to both aid and block the view of anything it’s around, in front of, or near. Viewed in different conditions and angles, it can speed the impact of an image, or foil it outright.
I love shooting in urban environments, where the use of glass has shifted dramatically in recent decades. Buildings that were 90% brick or masonry just fifty years ago might be predominantly wrapped in glass today, demonstrably tilting the ratios of available light and also changing what I call the “see-through” factor…the amount of atmosphere outside a building can be observed from inside it. This presents opportunities galore of not only what can be shown but also how abstracted glass’ treatment of reflection can serve a composition.
Against the advice of many an online pundit, I keep circular polarizing filters permanently attached to the front of all my lenses so that I can modify reflections and enhance color richness at my whim. These same pundits claim that leaving the filter attached when it’s not “needed” will cost you up to two stops of light and degrade the overall image quality. I reject both these arguments based on my own experience. The filters only produce a true polarizing effect if they are either at the right viewing angle vis-a-vis the overhead sun, or if they are rotated to maximize the filtering effect. If they don’t meet either of these conditions, the filters produce no change whatever.
Even assuming that the filter might be costing you some light, if you’ve been shooting completely on manual for any amount of time, you can quickly compute any adjustments you’ll need without seriously cramping your style. Get yourself a nice fast lens capable of opening to f/1.8 or wider and you can even avoid jacking up your ISO and taking on more image noise. Buy prime lenses (only one focal length), like a 35mm, and you’ll also get better sharpness than a variable focal length lens like an 18-55mm, which are optically more complex and thus generally less crisp.
In the above image, which is a view through a glass vestibule in lower Manhattan, I wanted to incorporate the reflections of buildings behind me, see from side-to-side in the lobby to highlight selected internal features, and see details of the structures across the street from the front of the box, with all color values registering at just about the same degree of strength. A polarizer does this like nothing else. You just rotate the filter until the blend of tones works.
Some pictures are “about” the subject matter, while others are “about” what light does to that subject, according to the photographer’s vision. Polarizers are cheap and effective ways to tell your camera how much light to allow on a particular surface, giving you final say over what version of “reality” you prefer. And that’s where the fun begins.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO A PHOTOGRAPHER, THE ENTIRE WORLD IS PRETTY MUCH A “PUBLIC PLACE“, or, more properly, his own personal work space. However, that dreamy viewpoint is not shared by the world at large, and shooters who try to harvest their shots in museums, theatres, office lobbies and other popular gathering points are finding, more and more, that they are about as welcome as a case of shingles unless they are (a) quick (b) unobtrusive and (c) polite to the point of fawning.
It’s not hard to understand why.
First, some of the excess paraphernalia that photogs pack can strike curators and security personnel as hazardous, if not downright dangerous. This view is reflected in the growing number of attractions that have, of late, prohibited the use of selfie sticks. That one I kinda get. Photographers have also taken a hit in the number of places that will permit flash of any kind, and tripods and monopods are nearly always forbidden. The real determinant in why public spaces are less inclined to play ball with photographers, however, is that they simply don’t have to. More patrons than ever rely solely on cel phones, which, in turn, have become more sensitive to low-light situations, making for shorter exposures with fewer add-ons, a technical leap that ensures that everyone will come away with at least some kind of picture. If you need a longer exposure at lower ISO (hence less noise), you still need traditional, higher-end gear, but those numbers are shrinking so much that the gatekeepers can be a lot more restrictive overall.
In many dark spaces I simply can’t find a place to stabilize my camera long enough to take an extended exposure. And, with ‘pods off the table as an option, you’re down to benches, ledges, or other precarious surfaces, and, with them, the paranoid hovering of a mother eagle guarding her eggs to steer foot traffic away from her “nest”. A remote shutter release helps, but the whole project can raise the blood pressure a bit. At least with tripods, passersby can see a set space to steer themselves clear of. A crazy man waving his arms, not so much.
The above image was taken in one of the most light-deprived sectors of the New York Museum Of Natural History, with only soft illumination in the side showcases to redeem the pitch-black gloom. No flash would even begin to fill this enormous space, even if it were permitted, and the hall is always crowded, so resting my camera on a narrow rail, twenty-plus feet above the main floor, and going for a long exposure, is the only way for an acceptable degree of detail to emerge from the murk. My wife, who is known for nerves of steel, had to excuse herself and go elsewhere as I was setting up the shot. I couldn’t blame her.
Three or four anxious framings later, I got a workable exposure. As occurs with time exposures, people walking through the scene at a reasonable speed are rendered nearly invisible. The persons near the back of the elephant herd stood still long enough to take a flash snapshot, so their flash burst and some smudgy shadows of their bodies can be seen, as can the trailing LED light that someone else on the upper deck apparently was walking with in the upper right corner. But for this kind of shot, in these modern times, such artifacts are part of the new normal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU HAVE SEEN THEM A MILLION TIMES. Those brave souls who, despite multiple trips to Failed Fotoland, optimistically point their cel cameras at distant and dark objects, hoping their puny on-board flashes will illuminate cavernous concert halls, banish shadows from vast cathedrals, or, God bless them, turn the night sky into a luminous planetarium. They have faith, these people. But they don’t often take home the prize.
Immense, dark masses of subject matter, from mountain sides to moody urban streets, simply cannot be uniformly exposed with a sudden lucky burst of on-camera flash. The only way to gather enough light to get a usable exposure of such things is to leave your shutter open long enough to let more light soak in. Think dribble instead of flood. Time exposures are remarkably effective in “burning in” an image slowly, but they have their own science and technique, and they must be patiently practiced. They are the dead opposite of a quick fix, but they are worth the trouble.
With today’s editing software, it’s easier than ever to customize even your best time exposures, combining several shots taken over a given time sequence to arrive at a satisfying balance of elements. In the above picture, I wanted to show the colorful “Field Of Light” installation created by artist Bruce Munro for Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, which blankets a desert hillside with over 30,000 globes of color-shifting light. I set up my tripod about a half-hour before local sunset and took exposures five minutes apart until about forty minutes into the onset of evening.
From that broad sequence, I selected two frames; one taken before dark, in which the underlying detail of the hill (desert plants, rocks, etc.) could still be seen, and one taken just after the sky had gone dark to the naked eye, but blue to the camera. I then composited the shots in Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” mode, which is a bit like stacking two backlit slides and gradually changing how much of each can bleed into the other. My object was to get both a blue, but not black, twilight sky and at least some detail from the natural terrain. Neither individual shot could achieve all of this alone, however, given the ease of doing an exposure fusion in nearly any kind of photo software these days, it was a snap to grab the best elements of both frames.
Epilogue: during the fairly long stretch of time I was standing behind my tripod, I counted over two dozen separate visitors who boldly stepped up, aimed their cellphones, cranked off a quick flash, and loped away, muttering something like, “well, that didn’t work.” Some shots are like low-lying fruit, and some have to be coaxed out of the camera. Knowing which is which, ahead of time, makes for happier results.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE FACE OF CHANGE, HUMANS WILL DOGGEDLY DEFEND ALMOST ANYTHING, as long as they’ve grown accustomed to it. At their introduction, we inveighed against the intrusion of the telephone (the end of privacy!) and the automobile (they scare the horses and they’re filthy!), but soon learned to love chatting, well, from our freaking cars, so…
One of the things solid citizens of the late 1800’s most objected to was the slicing of the night by the first network of urban street lamps, which were excoriated in editorials from New York to Paris. An invasion! An insult! Unnatural.
Boy, if they could see us now.
In the name of energy savings and sustainability (both good things, right?), street lights across the country are in the midst of a rapid conversion from several types of fluorescent lamps to LEDs. They last longer, they burn cheaper, they cost less. All to the good, except that the light these new torches deliver is blue, pale, cold, and, in the minds of many, harsh. Even those who champion ecologically righteous causes are squinting at LEDs which strike them as grim, sickly, colorless and (wait for it) unnatural.
Writing in the New York Times in the essay “Ruining That Moody Urban Glow“,
novelist Lionel Shriver calls LED light “conducive to dismembering a corpse” and cites studies that claim the fixtures contribute to sleep loss, mood disorders, and, who knows, ingrown toenails. For photography (you knew I’d get here eventually), the new light presents a completely fresh challenge to your camera’s ability to achieve white balance, or an accurate reading of white values according to a given light’s temperature, expressed in degrees Kelvin.
Conventional lights are lower on the Kelvin scale, thus warmer, with more yellow in the mix. LEDs are higher in Kelvin value and register blue-white, muting or mutating colors. At present, both Canon and Nikon have many in-camera settings to balance for a number of sodium-vapor or fluorescents, but have yet to offer options for adjusting for LEDs, even though entire cities have made the switch to what many feel is an ugly, stark source of illumination.
In her Times article, Shriver notes that there are, in fact, subtler types of LEDs, which sacrifice only a bit of energy efficiency and yet emit warmer light, and advocates that citizens go proactive to keep their neighborhoods from looking like the parking lots on interstate truck stops. So take that for what it’s worth. But be aware that more and more of your night shots may, in the near future, have to be adjusted in post-production to resemble a century in which you feel at home.