the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

iPhone

WITH THE GREATEST OF EASE

You, too, can convert your cell phone to a, well, I don’t really know what this is…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A NATURAL INCLINATION IN THE MINDS OF MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS to fall in love with systems…widgets, intricate calculations, work-arounds, gimmicks, diagrams, gadgets, toys. We like to tinker, to play Workshop Edison. Let’s see what happens if I do this, connect these, try it without that. We love convenience and simplicity, but a Dark Gearhead lurks within us all as well, trying to reduce photography to a series of technical solutions, intricate puzzles. And so we see-saw. We selectively want our cameras to seamlessly carry out our wishes without a lot of bother and to make things as complicated, as hands-on, as feasible. It’s a strange balancing act.

Almost immediately after the mad global crush we all experienced at the virtually effortless ease of cell phone cameras, there was a countervailing energy to add on to the things, to make them do more, be better. First was the tidal wave of apps for the post-processing of all those quick snaps. Then followed the tsunami of toys and add-ons that were designed to compensate for the device’s technical limits. This ever-expanding array of screw-ons, extenders, mini-tripods and effects lenses make the simple iBricks in our pockets look like pocket weapons given to Bond by a nervous Q. Do try to bring the ordinance back in one piece this time, 007. 

The rig seen at left is by no means the most complex set-up I’ve found in recent years for enhancing cell camera proficiency. In fact, on the fussiness scale, I’d say it scores roughly in the middle, although I think it’s off the charts for excessive intricacy (too many parts), annoyance in operation (wait a second till I get this out of its cool carrying case and assemble it!) and plain damned silliness (no example required). I’d also stipulate that I haven’t seen a lot of such contrivance actually being used in the field, that is, nowhere near the “market penetration” of the dreaded (and soon, Dear God, to be become obsolete) selfie-stick. Still, this kind of iPhone-based arms race for additional macros, fisheyes, and other optional optics begs a few questions. For starters, is the convenience/portability feature that made millions love and use these cameras now on the wane(doubtful)? And as a follow-up, if you require this level of accuity in your picture-taking experience, why not simply buy a conventional (notice I did not say “real”) camera and be done with it?

The twin impulses of make-it-easy and make-it-complicated will continue their ages-long tug-of-war for the photographer’s soul, and perhaps that’s part of the fun. Both paths can lead to both excellent and execrable images, so, as we frequently conclude, the results, and not the toys, are what truly matter.

Advertisements

APP(T) PUPIL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT WAS PRETTY COMMON, just a few years ago, to find a county fair or amusement park that boasted its own “old-timey” photo booth, a space where families could don historic costumes and pose for a simulated sepia daguerreotype. It was the start of a trend that continues to the digital age, in which the bulky, balky technology of Photography Eras Past becomes romanticized as an effect to be applied to contemporary images. Or, to put it in practical terms, everything old is new again….in an app.

Faking the past via digital doctoring can provide a unique aspect to a newly-taken snap, or it can just produce what I call the “that’s cool” effect, which masks the general purpose of the original and drowns it in gimmicky goop. But the temptation to tweak is strong: apps are cheap (or free) and it takes mere minutes to determine if a given one will add anything to your work beyond mere novelty. One such example is the wide selection of faux tintype emulators available at a click.

The tintype (which was actually exposed on iron plates coated with dried collodion) was never as sharp as its predecessor, the glass-plate daguerreotype, but it was so simple to take and process by comparison that it effectively liberated the camera from the studio, sending field photographers in tented wagons out across the country to shoot every aspect of American life, including, notably, the battles of the Civil War. Eventually paper positives and celluloid film spelled the technology’s doom, but it’s uneven textures and tones continue to evoke a vanished world.

Allowing a tintype app to use your mobile’s camera increases your creative control.

I very seldom use tintype apps after I’ve taken a shot. It seems as if I’m admitting that the image somehow wasn’t enough, that it needed “help” of some kind. I prefer to take pictures from within the app itself, allowing it to use my phone’s camera. The idea is to conceive of the picture beforehand as benefitting from the tintype effect, to pair its “look” with its intention. The tonal range and uneven detail of the tintype can be thought of as another kind of abstraction, and your choice of narrative need not be limited to picturing Uncle Fred as Buffalo Bill. As with so many apps, actual practice can make the difference between a tool and a toy.


TLI

Is a self-portrait just a face crammed into an iPhone screen, or should it be more?

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE MAY BE NO PART OF PRESENTDAY PHOTOGRAPHY that is more practiced and less understood than the humble self-portrait. This has not always been the case. Turning the lens on oneself was a much less common act until the arrival of mobile phones, at which time the somewhat awkward old technique of setting a timer and jumping into the picture was supplanted by an act that was at once instantaneous and effortless. Ironically, at that point, the sheer numerical proliferation of the selfie overwhelmed the artistic fact that many of us weren’t doing them very well.

The modern selfie has been degraded largely because any variance from the same banal fill-the-entire-frame-with-your-face approach is so rare. We get plenty of features and not much context, a condition that could be called TLI, or Too Little Information. Worse, selfies in the iPhone era are limited mostly to what framing is permitted by the length of the shooter’s arm, causing any surrounding people, places or events to be eclipsed from the shot, rendering an image of “me at the canyon” maddeningly identical to one of “me in front of the cathedral.” Add the distortion of near objects inherent in the wide-angle lenses of many mobiles, and too many selfies conceal or mutate more than they reveal. And don’t get me started on the effects of on-board flash. In short, who are these bloated ghosts?

A portrait is more than a mere record of one’s features. The self is also defined by its surroundings, with the accompanying props of one’s life anchoring that person in an era and providing scale, the staging needed for a complete narrative. Can the face alone sufficiently “sell” one’s story? In the hands of the right shooter, absolutely.But riff through a few hundred online selfies and see how often you behold such gems.

In all too many self-portraits, we mostly settle for mere volume, for blurred and puffy smears of ourselves instead of insights. And, as is often the case when taking pictures is so incredibly easy, we fail to plan. This isn’t vanity, but self-sabotage. The self-portrait needs to slow down, to once more become something of a special occasion.

More information, please..


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.”


ANTHROPOGRAPHY

Tuning up: A fiddler runs a few practice riffs before a barn dance in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Tuning up: a fiddler runs a few practice riffs before a barn dance in Flagstaff, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WRITING CLICHE NUMBER 5,218 STATES THAT YOU SHOULD WRITE about what you know. Mine your own experience. Use your memories and dreams as a kickoff point for the Great American Novel, or, at least, the Okay American E-book. But while the “know-it-do-it” school of technique offers writers a pretty sound foundation for scribblers, photographers need to learn how to leave their native nests and fly into unknown country. The best pictures sometimes are where you, comfortably, aren’t.

Caperin' up a storm, by golly.

Caperin’ up a storm, by golly.

Shooting an event or lifestyle that is completely outside yourself confers an instantaneous objectivity of sorts to your pictures, since you don’t have any direct experience with the things you’re trying to capture. You’re forced to pretty much go instinctive, since you can’t draw on your memory banks. This is certainly true of combat photographers or people dropped down into the middle of fresh disasters, but it also works with anything that’s new to you.

Take square-dancing. No, I mean it. You take square-dancing, as in, I’d rather be covered in honey and hornets than try to master something that defines “socially awkward” for yours truly. I can’t deny that, on the few occasions that I’ve observed this ritual up close, it obviously holds infinite enjoyment for anyone who isn’t, well, me. But being me is the essential problem. I not only possess the requisite two left feet, I am lucky, on some occasions to even be ambulatory if the agenda calls for anything but a rote sequence of left-right-left. Again, I concede that square-dancers seem almost superhumanly happy whenever doing their do-si-doing, and all props to them. Personally, however, I can cause a lot less damage and humiliation for all concerned if I bring a camera to the dance instead of a partner.

Shooting something you don’t particularly fancy yourself is actually something of an advantage for a photographer. It allows you to just dissect the activity’s elements, using the storytelling techniques you do know to show how the whole thing works. You’re using the camera to blow apart an engine and see its working parts independently from each other.

In either writing or shooting, clinging to what you know will keep your approach and your outcomes fairly predictable. But when photography meets anthropology, you can inch toward a little personal growth. You may even say “yes” when someone asks you if you care to dance.

Or you could just continue to maintain your death grip on your camera.

Yeah, let’s go with that.


SEISMOGRAPHY

Symphonie Kinetique, 2015. Handheld in-camera manipulation, in real time, of the iPhone's on-board pano app.

Symphonie Kinetique, 2015. Handheld in-camera manipulation, in real time, of the iPhone’s on-board pano app.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I THINK THAT, FOR YOUNG AND EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS, there’s a greater natural comfort in coloring outside the lines, bending or breaking rules of the medium just to see what happens, regardless of the warnings of user’s manuals or procedurals. This is completely normal, and is, in fact, healthy for the art overall, as every age’s young turks shake the process up and keep us more hidebound shooters from imprisoning photography in a crust of habit.

Phone-based apps play directly to this “what the hell, let’s try it” tendency in the newbie. By their very nature, apps allow people to achieve in a second what used to take years of formal training and painstaking darkroom effort to achieve. This creates the feeling that anything is possible, and that, with the instantaneous feedback loop of digital, there is nothing to be risked or lost by trying.

Whenever I get a new app, I try to figure out what it can produce when used completely counter-intuitively, that is, by going in the direct opposite of its “correct” use. Call it a procedural hack if you will, taking one of the most available effects, the iPhone’s on-board panorama app, as a prime example. Now we all know how the app is supposed to work. You pan evenly and slowly from left to right across a scene and a lot of separate vertical “planks”, all of which are individual exposures, are stitched together by the software to give the appearance of a continuous image. You are instructed by the app when to slow down, and given a guide arrow as you pan that keeps you pretty much on an even horizon. And that’s all you’re supposed to be able to do.

The Fall Of Europe, 2015. Same technique applied to a wall-mounted photo mural.

The Fall Of Europe, 2015. Same technique applied to a wall-mounted photo mural.

Of course things can go wrong, and watching how they go wrong is what started me on an experiment. If, for example, someone walks through your shot while you are panning, he may appear in only a few of the “planks”, as a warped, disembodied sliver of his leg or arm, or be stretched like taffy across part of the frame. Thing is, this gives you a neat interpretational option for panos that you want to appear surreal. The idea is to deliberately throw those individual planks out of alignment.

Here’s how it works: as you pan, shift your up-down axis either side of that arrow’s horizon guideline. Go gently if you want things to undulate in a smooth wave. Jerk it around a bit of you want to create a seismographic effect, with sharp high-low spikes in your subject. I should note here that this requires a lot of experimentation to get the overall look that you want.

In the top image, I wanted to suggest the kinetic energy of musical dynamics in a static image, so I warped the piano keys out of alignment with each other, as if Salvador Dali had painted the keyboard. In the second image, I used the camera to scan a mounted mall mural, allowing me to work with a still image that I could tweak to suggest a collapsing building or an earthquake. Either of these images are easy to do with nothing more than your iPhone’s pano tool, and the effects can be dramatic. So love your apps, but love them enough to imagine what fun it can be to make them misbehave.


REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

The bell of an engraved sousaphone, converted into a negative and color-boosted to resemble a faux vortex.

The bell of an engraved sousaphone, converted into a negative and color-boosted to resemble a faux vortex.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR THOSE OF US WHO SWEATED IN LITERAL DARKROOMS (as opposed to digital ones), there has always been a fascination with the print photographer’s equivalent for “RAW” files, the celluloid negative. Manipulated properly, one neg could yield an almost endless variety of print results, as the sciences of burning, dodging and pure imagination were applied to coax subtle tonal changes and modulations out of either color or monochrome images. Ansel Adams’ frequently quoted remark that the negative was the score and the print was the performance was born out in his own visual “symphonies” along with those of millions of others.

But the negative need not merely be the understudy for the “final” version of a picture, but the final itself. And as we’re freed to experiment via new digital apps, we are more frequently re-imagining shots with reversed tones, often creating dramatically more effective results than the “positive” originals. Again, apps are speeding the time of practice and development in a way that chemically-based, film-based manipulation never could. Tap and you’re done. Tap, tap, and the result is either sent to the keeper pile or re-done in an instant. It’s pretty irresistible.

There have always been amazing examples of artists who made their negatives the “official” version of their pictures, although the neg is traditionally thought of as a step in a process, not an art form it itself. I remember being thrilled when, as a teen, I first saw F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu, which includes a thrilling, eerie scene with a ghostly, horse-drawn carriage on its way to Count Orlok’s castle, deliberately printed in negative to boost the creepy drama of the sequence. And with new phone-based apps, it’s easy and fast to get a basic version of this effect, albeit with some limits.

The app I use, called Negative Me, is a very basic (and free) tap-on layer. Choose a file photo, apply the effect, and you’re done. It’s also possible to shoot new pictures directly through the app. Yes, it’s frustrating that you can’t attenuate the tone or the intensity in any way, but, you can always take the extra step of feeding the first negative image into additional apps or editing suites where more precise processing can be added. It’s still easier than any process that was available in the film era, and, while it merely adds strangeness to many photographs, it allows some to be reborn as abstractions that are unearthly and dramatic.

Producing a negative variation on certain shots is just another way to re-interpret a shot, no less useful than any other color filter or post-processing tool. Like anything else, it’s the impact of the result, not the effect itself, that makes the shot.


WHOOPS. YAY.

Strike The Set, 2015. A world that never was, and can never be again.

Strike The Set, 2015. A world that never was, and can never be again.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE A THEORY THAT “SERENDIPITY” is just “dumb luck” for pretentious people. Somehow it makes our random discoveries and unplanned miracles sound cooler if we attribute them to some grand lining-up of the planets, as if we apes really meant to discover fire. So, fine. Consider this an incident of serendipity, although it’s mainly a case of “I stepped in sugar instead of….” well, you get the idea.

Setting the scene: a suburban mall near me recently closed its enormous bookstore, applying a dark sheet of tint on the building’s huge windows so gawkers couldn’t spy on the joint’s sad makeover as a furniture store. Of course, if you want to make people curious about something, blacking out the windows is a pretty effective tactic, and there are always plenty of people smashing their faces up against the impermeable tint every day to see what a bookstore looks like when it has, you know, no books in it. I am usually first in line for this ritual.

For some reason this week, a small peephole has  been opened in the sheeting, allowing one to see the place’s vast, empty floor, its draped escalator, and an iron tangle of scaffolding, as well as a huge infusion of light from an open-work area at the opposite side of the store. It isn’t quite the “ruin porn” that photographers of dead malls love to record just ahead of the wrecking ball, but eerie enough to make me want to shove my phone camera up against the peephole to try to capture it.

Given the very wide-angle of such devices, however, I discovered, after the click, that the lens had also picked up a portion of the window next to the peephole, a portion still covered by tint and capable of reflecting the scene behind me….various buildings and landscaping of the rest of the mall. Even stranger, the “other” reality behind me melded, through the blurred outline of the peephole and variances of light, with the scene inside the store, as if they were all part of one dreamy landscape, a Hollywood set in transition. Giddy at what I had grabbed by accident, I shot a second frame to compose things a bit better, then converted it to monochrome with a filter that simulates a platinum print effect, an effort to eliminate mismatches in color and tone between the two worlds.

Sinatra once said that “the professional is the guy who can do it more than once”, so this image ranks me solidly among the amateurs. But so what. Whoops. Yay.


LOOK DEEP INTO MY EYES

Literature For Lunch, 2016

Literature For Lunch, 2016

By MICHAEL PERKINS

3-D PHOTOGRAPHY SEEMS DOOMED TO FOREVER RESIDE ON THE PERIPHERY OF THE MEDIUM AT LARGE, a part of the art that is regarded with mild derision, a card trick, a circus illusion. My own experience in it, from simple stereoscopic point-and-shoots to high-end pro-sumer devices like the Realist or View-Master cameras, has met with a lot of frustration at the unavoidable technical barriers that keep it from being a truly sharable kind of photography. It’s rife with specialized viewers, odd goggles, and cumbrous projection systems. It calls attention to effect to the detriment of content. It is the performing seal of photography.

That said, the learning curve needed to compose for stereo effect is equally valuable for overall “flat” composition, since you must always be mindful of building layers of information from front to back, the better to draw your viewer’s eye deep into your subject. Some will meet this challenge with a simple selective depth of field, as if to say: only pay attention to the stuff that is sharp. The front/back/sides don’t matter…I’ll tell you where to look. Others decide to arrange the front-to-back space all in the same focus, forcing the eye to travel in a straight line. Depends on what you need to say.

DSLRs allow you to elect for the former strategy, while iPhone photography, at least at this point in history, pretty much forces you to adopt the latter. You just don’t have the fine control needed for selective focus in a smartphone, any more than you have a choice shutter speed or how wide you shoot. With few exceptions, the iPhone and its cousins are marvelously adroit point-and-shoots, so your composition options lie chiefly in how you frame things up. Quickly.

This “think fast” mentality works to your benefit in the stealthier parts of street photography. The quicker you click, the harder it is to be detected, which means fewer “hey, what are you doing” issues with reluctant subjects. Even so, you have to be composing consciously if you want to establish a strong line to maximize the illusion of depth. It means deciding where the main drama in a shot resides and composing in reference to it. In the above shot, the woman lost in her John Updike novel is the main interest, but the steep diagonal of the wall leads you to her, then, as a second stage, to the lighter pair of friends in back. Framed in this manner, depth can be accentuated.

There are happy accidents and there are random luck-outs in photography, to be sure, but to create a particular sensation in your pictures, you must craft them. In advance. On purpose.


UNBOUND BY REALITY

It's A Mall World, After All: iphone panoramics make good design tools, but they ain't about realism.

It’s A Mall World, After All: iPhone panoramics make good design tools, but they ain’t about realism.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.

So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).

Old school: a panoramic plate camera from the 1800's.

Old school: a panoramic plate camera from the 1800’s.

Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.

So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.


PENCIL VS. INK

This iPhone capture is more of a preliminary sketch than a final rendering, since the camera adds too much noise in low-light. I'll return with a Nikon to get this "right".

This iPhone capture is more of a preliminary sketch than a final rendering, since the camera adds too much noise in low light. I’ll return with a Nikon to get this “right”.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up  and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.

This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music  served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.

The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.

You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.

 


THE LAST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

By “available light”, I mean any $%#@ light that’s available. —-Joe McNally, world-renowned master photographer, author of The Moment It Clicks

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS ABOUT ANALYZING THOSE OF OUR SHOTS THAT FAIL is that there is usually a single, crucial element that was missing in the final effort….one tiny little hobnail, without which the entire image simply couldn’t hold together. In a portrait, it could be a wayward turn of face or hint of a smile; in a landscape it could be one element too many, moving the picture from “charming” to “busy”. The secret to greater success, then, must lie in pre-visualizing a photograph to as great a degree as possible, in knowing in advance how many puzzle pieces must click into place to make the result work.

I recently attended an outdoor dance recital, during which I knew photography would be prohibited. I had just resigned myself to spend the night as a mere spectator, and was settling onto my lawn seat when some pre-show stretching exercises by the dancing company presented me with an opportunity. The available natural light in the sky had been wonderfully golden just minutes before, but, by the time the troupe took the stage and started into their poses and positions, it had grown pretty anemic. And then a stage hand gave me back that missing “puzzle piece”.

Positions, Please, 2014. One light source, courtesy of a light tech rehearsing with the rehearsers.

Positions, Please, 2014. One light source at dusk, courtesy of a light tech rehearsing with the rehearsers.

Climbing the gridwork at the right side of the stage, the techie was turning various lights on and off, trying them with gels, arcing them this way or that, devising various ways to illuminate the dancers as their director ran them through their paces. I decided to get off my blanket and hike down to the back edge of the stage, then wait for “my light” to come around in the rotation. Eventually, the stage hand turned on a combination that nearly replicated the golden light that I no longer was getting from the sky. It was single-point light, wrapping around the bodies of some dancers, making a few of them glow brilliantly, and leaving some other swaddled in shadow, reducing them to near-silhouettes.

For a moment, I had everything I needed, more than would be available for the entire rest of the evening. Now the physical elegance of the ballet cast was matched by the temporary drama of the faux-sunset coming from stage left. I moved in as closely as I could and started clicking away. I was shooting at something of an upward slant, so a little sky cropping was needed in the final shots, but, for about thirty seconds, someone else had given me the perfect key light, the missing puzzle piece. If I could find that stage hand, I’d buy her a few rounds. The win really couldn’t have happened without her.


WHAT SIZE STORY?

Sometimes the story is "the crowd..."

iPhone 6 debut at Apple Store in Scottsdale, Arizona, September 19, 2014. Sometimes the story is “the crowd…”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.

The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough  to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.

...but within that crowd, there are "little" stories.

…but, within that crowd, there are “little” stories.

For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.

The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.

Simply pick the story you like.

Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.

 

 


PENCIL LINE, INK LINE

True Stereophonic Reproduction, 2014. Shot on the fly with an iPhone at my favorite junk store.

True Stereophonic Reproduction, 2014. Shot on the fly with an iPhone at my favorite junk store.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MY FATHER, AS A GRAPHIC ARTIST, USED TO WARN ME ABOUT COMMITTING MYSELF TOO EARLY. Not in terms of personal relationships, but as it applied to the act of drawing. “Always lay down all your potential pencil lines first”, he advised, “and then decide which ones you want to ink.” The message was that flexibility was as valuable a drafting tool as your 2H pencil or your Rapidograph pen, that delaying your final vision often helped you eliminate the earlier drafts and their respective weaknesses. I still value that advice, as it has a current corollary in the making of my photographs, largely as a consequence of the smartphone revolution.

Once phones began packing cameras that could actually deliver an image better than a Crayola shmear on a wet cocktail napkin, photographers who still chiefly relied on their traditional cameras suddenly had the luxury of a kind of optical “sketch pad”; that is, an easy way to pre-visualize a composition with a basic machine that you could use for a study, a dress rehearsal for a more precise re-imagining with a more advanced device. For many of us, the larger display area of a phone can often “make the sale” for a shot in a more compelling way than the smaller monitor on our grown-up camera, and, at the very least, we can judge how a photo will “play” less conspicuously than by lugging about more visually obvious hardware. It’s a fast way to gather a lot of preliminary ideas, especially in locales where you’re free to come back later for the serious shoot.

I especially like trolling through vintage stores, trying to find antique items that, in themselves, make for impromptu still-life subjects. Sometimes, to be honest, I go home with a pocket full of puckey. Sometimes, I decide to go back and do a more thorough shoot of the same subject. And sometimes, as in the above image, I decide that I can live with an original “sketch” with just a little post-tweaking. The exercise does one important thing, in that it reminds you to always be shooting, or at least always thinking about shooting.

I know people who have completely stopped even carrying DSLRs and other, more substantial gear in their everyday shooting, and, while I can’t quite get there yet, I get the idea on many levels. Hey, use a fine stylus, a sharp crayon, or a charred stick, dealer’s choice. Just get the sketch.

 


I’M INTO METAL, MAN

A cel image processed through an app designed to simulate Pantatonic-X black-and-white film.

A cel image processed through an app designed to simulate Pantatonic-X black & white film.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN I SAY THAT CURRENT DAY SHOOTERS ARE NOT HALF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THE OLD MASTERS WERE, that is not intended as an insult, but a simple bit of math. Given the fact that pioneers in the imaging game had to be equal parts artist and chemist, we only apply 50% of the effort these valiant visionaries did in negotiating the interactions of salts, albumens, bromides and other lab ingredients in an effort to even bring an image forth, much less do so with control. The technology that we employ today, and the speed and convenience with which we sling it around, should give us pause. The artistic mission of photography remains the same. It’s just that we don’t have to suffer as much for said art.

One of the marvelous processes from those years that still dazzles even the contemporary eye is the platinum print, so called because a platinum coating actually sits as a layer atop the developing papers, creating a print that contains a greater tonal range than any other monochrome process, including hints of gold, brown and red.Even better, what Kodachrome turned out to be for the archival permanence of color photography, platinum is for monochromatic images. It looks like a million bucks and will never degrade within the average person’s lifetime, or their great-grand kids’, neither. If you are over fifty and ever sat for a “serious” studio portrait, chances are you were immortalized in platinum. Literally speaking, you’re into metal, man.

Never for the timid (or the impecunious), platinum printing has largely faded (sorry) from the photographic scene along with the filmic science that birthed it, but, as with so many other “looks” in the digital era, things that were once merely processing are now content as well.

Same image processed through AltPhoto's faux-platinum filter.

Same image as above, but processed through AltPhoto’s faux-platinum filter.

From where we stand, we can rifle through 200 years of processes and selectively decide to evoke an era or a mood a single picture at a time, just because we want to evoke a different time or place in our common cultural consciousness. We do this at our whim, unlike the people who actually devised the processes, who were stuck with them until they had (a) better knowledge of how to do things, (b) more money (c) both.

The digital apps that simulate the platinum print are gaining some popularity, as people apply instant alternate “mixes” of their cel phone shots, including up to a dozen different ways to envision a shot in monochrome. Those who appreciate the fine science in the original lab smarts required to create these looks in the film era claim that too little control resides in the user for a true one-to-one, film-t0-digital equivalency in any of these apps, but I have found that platinum creates a distinct, extra tool for monochrome fans, even if I experience guilt at not accruing the years of schooling it would have taken to do the process the “real way”. Anyway, above you will find a comparison between a basic mono rendering of an iPhone shot and a simulated platinum look, both cooked up in an app called AltPhoto. You may have a pref and you may not. That’s what makes horse races.

 

 

 


THE NON-EVENT EVENT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE MOST FORMALIZED MEANS OF MAKING PICTURES, a pure mission where there is usually only one “official” story being told. A happy wedding. A formal ceremony. A tearful farewell. We expect cameras to be more or less pictorial recorders at certain august moments in our lives, and anyone charged with performing that recording task is usually not expected to also serve up interesting or odd sidebars on human behavior along with the certified images we sent them to get. Event photography is not news, and may not even be persuasive human interest. It is a document, and a rather staged and stiff one at that.

But that’s what’s rewarding about being the non-official photographer at an event. It’s someone else’s job to make sure the crucial toast, the first dance, or the lowering of the casket is captured for posterity. Everyone else with a camera is free to do what photography is really about most of the time. There’s little opportunity for interpretation in the “important” keepsake shots that everyone wants, but there’s all kind of creative wiggle room in the stuff that’s considered unimportant.

Working The Wedding, 2014

Working The Wedding, 2014

I recently attended a wedding at which every key feature of the proceedings was exhaustively catalogued, and, about two hours in, I wanted to seek out something unguarded, loose, human, if you will. The image seen here of a bored hired man doing standby duty on the photo booth was just what I was seeking. I don’t know if it’s the quaint arrangement of legs and feet inside the booth or his utter look of indifference on his face as he stoically mans his post, but something about the whole thing struck me as far funnier than the groomsmen’s toasts or the sight of yet one more bride getting a faceful of cake.

I was only armed with a smartphone, but the reception hall was flooded with light at midday so the shot was far from a technical stretch. The image you see is pretty much as I took it, except for a faux-Kodachrome filter added to give it a bit of a nostalgic color wash, as well as counteracting the bluish cast of the artificial lighting. I also did some judicious guest-cropping to cut down on distraction.

Taking pictures at someone else’s event is a great gig. No expectations, no “must have” shots, and you don’t even have to care if you got the bride’s good side. Irresponsibility can be relaxing. Especially with an open bar.


NOT WHAT I CAME FOR, BUT…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.

This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.

Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.

An average day at the museum, at the end of which this dropped into my lap.

An average day at the museum, at the end of which this dropped into my lap.

The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.

Or at least they will by the third can.


RELATIONSHIPS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY DOESN’T TRULY MAKE ARTISTIC CHOICES “POSSIBLE”. Those decisions were always available in the medium, albeit at some cost of materials, time and work. You could always get nearly any effect from film, providing you were willing to invest the sweat in wringing it out of the tools at hand. Instead, digital processes make choices easier to act upon, and, for people who have made the transition from a lifetime of film-based analog shooting to digital, the leap to light speed on the trip from desire to result is especially mind-ripping.

This speed of implementation makes real-time differences when considering whether a shot will have its best impact in color or b&w. Even standard DSLRs and compacts have in-camera modes that allow you to immediately shoot and compare alternate versions of a subject, and, with the expanding universe of apps available to the smartphone shooter, you can instantly crank out half a dozen or more readings of the kind of color or the type of monochrome you’re looking for. This is especially important in black & white, where the range of tones and contrast values can make or break a picture.

Black and white was the right choice here, but a decision about the kind of black and white was also crucial.

Black and white was the right choice here, but a decision about the kind of black and white was also crucial.

By basically simulating the subtle changes that a film processor could have made in the gradations between the various intensities of either black or white, apps allow you to make incremental judgments of how the values in the image work or don’t work to produce the “statement” you’re looking for. Best thing about this is the best overall thing about digital: how quickly you can act on your impulse, then check, adjust, and act again. The above image lacked impact in the color original. The old workbench simply came off too warm and charming. I was looking for something that matched the grit and wear of the weathered wood, and I was able to shop for about three different grades of monochrome before settling on what you see here. Most days, this is a game of inches.

The sheer number of images that you will be able to salvage while the scene is still in front of you, and the light is still how you want it…. that’s an amazing freedom, and no generation of photographers before ours has enjoyed anything like it before.

The take-home of all this is that you should not only shoot a lot but shoot a lot of variations on what you choose to shoot. And remember, every shot that you “blow” is one shot closer to the higher average of excellent work that will only come after thousands of failures. Best to speed up the clock and get past them while you’re still young.


TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.

Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).

Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.

But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.

With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.

When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.


COMFY VS. CONFRONTATIONAL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.

It seems size does matter.

Let me explain.

The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.

NYPL Giftshop, 2012. Street photography or invasion? 1/125 sec., f/3.2, ISO 100, 35mm.

NYPL Giftshop, 2012. Street photography or invasion? 1/125 sec., f/3.2, ISO 100, 35mm.

Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?

This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.

Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.

I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.