By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE A GOOD SCRAP. We spar about gear: we argue about technique: we defend both film and digital with equal fervor: we crab about the purity of our own artistic vision (as opposed to the pedestrian pap of other shooters).
We even squabble about what blur is. Or isn’t.
If you have an afternoon to burn sometime (and if you care) Google the phrase “bokeh versus blur” and get ready to rumble. Notwithstanding the fact that few outside photography’s elite inner circle had even heard of the word “bokeh” (in the original Japanese, literally “blur” or “haze”) until about a decade ago, many of us are now choosing up sides about what it, and blur, are…or are not. Does it finally matter? Depends on who you ask, and whether they’ve had a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast. But let’s put on our waders and tenderly tiptoe into the slipstream. Watch out for alligators.
I would think of blur as any unfocused or under-defined area within a photograph, a place where textures become soft enough for their details to be indistinguishable. It is, essentially, a visual condition. Think of the trees behind your portrait subject that turn to soft mush when you set for a shallow depth of field. Because you want to showcase a face and not a tree, right? Simple.
By comparison, bokeh is the distinct pattern or texture of the blur, something which may or may not be considered “desirable” by photographers, as if it were another design element to be shaped to complement the foreground. This could be anything from replications of the shape of your aperture (little floating pentagrams) to egg-shaped dots in a swirl, or a million other things, depending on the performance and design of your particular lens. It is, as compared to mere blur, a visual quality.
Now, I realize that merely trying to assign simple definitions to these two things will automatically alienate me from a planet-sized portion of the internet, so go to it. But here’s the point I really want to make.
Blur or bokeh, their usefulness, their positive or negative effect, even their potential aesthetic appeal….these are all judgement calls and are totally in the eye of the beholder. Some of us will actually choose a lens based solely on what kind of bokeh it will produce. Conversely, others will never assign any artistic value or priority to the effect whatsoever…and that’s completely fine. I myself have definitely lived on both sides of the streets in this issue, and so, by turns, the whole thing both is and isn’t important, based on what the job at hand is. The main reason I study the debate is because it shapes the intentions of photographers, and so is part of an overall understanding of why we shoot, which is the main idea of this little small-town newspaper.
Bokeh has come to the fore in recent years because photographers seem to want to shape it no less than any other visual element within the frame. And, like anything else about our art that gets discussed to death, it can create clannish, even clownish posturing about what’s more “authentic”, a discussion which takes us nowhere fast. Finally, blur elements are just like trees, furniture, or buildings. Want ’em in your picture? Put ’em there, and God Bless. However, the only thing we don’t want to do, ever, is to try to develop a list of commandments, of things that are always good or always bad for the making of pictures. That shuts down discussion, and eventually clamps down on creativity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD AVEDON’S MOST PERSONAL (and most controversial) projects involved the documentation of the deterioration and death of his beloved father. In a similar vein, Annie Leibovitz chronicled her partner Susan Sontag’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both series are riveting and heartbreaking, truly valiant attempts by artists to face the most terrifying aspect of life, namely its end. I admire both works, as I do many others that traffic in the same aims.
But I just can’t bring myself to photograph my own father (who turns ninety at this writing) in that way. It’s not that I lack the courage. Or the curiosity. I might even possess the clinical detachment it would require. But if photography has meant anything to me, it’s been about focusing on what’s most important. And the impending end of Dad’s life is of no importance, especially if compared to the quality of the life he has lived. I just can’t make despairing pictures of him. Not on purpose, anyway.
Technically, I could easily record tender, textured studies of how fragile his marvelously gifted artist’s hands have become. I could dwell endlessly on the inexorable appetite of time in robbing him of his balance, his eyesight, even, occasionally, his memory. But while any of those factors might produce pictures that were poignant, even eloquent, they would not be true to the spirit of the things that have animated and excited him over a lifetime. Ideas. Passions. Projects. A love of every manifestation of the artistic impulse, from the avalanche of books that littered every corner of our house to the lazy summer Sundays when he and I would lay on a sheet on the living room floor near the box fan, put My Fair Lady on the hi-fi, and be transported to 1910 London. Life is certainly, to a degree, about setbacks. But it’s also about being indomitable. Yes, that’s it. I’ve slung a lifetime of compliments in Dad’s direction, but indomitable is the word that finally sums him up. Hemingway once said that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. God knows I’ve been around to see the world take a whack at accomplishing the former process. Gladly, I have never witnessed the latter. The trips down to the canvas don’t count. The journeys back up from the canvas do.
The image seen here began as an experiment with a particular art lens of mine. It’s based on selective focus, which means that you create pictures that actually conceal and much as they reveal. That means a less-than-reliable rendering of aged skin, a gauzy interpretation of the harder textures of aging. As for the sunglasses, while jaunty, they are not an attempt by the Chief to be cool but rather a very needful protection against over-loading his eyes with harsh light. And still, the overall affect, at least to me, is relaxed, comfortable. In this picture, I see no Sick Old Man. I see (or choose to see, maybe) an update on the dashing blockade runner I grew up with. The borderline shy smile, the posture of someone recalling a really good story. It’s the central nugget of his personality, which survives intact to this day, even if the machine that carries it around throws more cogs than it used to.
Photographs of such a man have to be resilient, even defiant. I grew up with too many instances of his quoting Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” to snap pictures of him as weak or downhearted. And, of course, the man who loved that poem still bubbles up, even in conversations that are mostly about trouble or turmoil. Earlier this week, to change the subject from Time’s latest assaults on him and Mother, I mentioned that I had sent my sister “something you can use on your birthday.”
A pause, then:
“That’d be the motorcycle, right?”
“Yes”, I said, laughing with gratitude and relief, ” but I didn’t pop for the sidecar. I thought it would be too showy.”
Joe Cool was still on the job. And as for that Time Machine thing, you can take it and stick it.
Happy Birthday Daddy/Dad/Pop/Poppa/Daddy
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL OF WHAT WE CALL “EFFECTS” LENSES can additionally be used as “art” lenses, but they can also, for a photographer, merely be a way of saying, “hey, look at the cool trick I learned!” In what and how we shoot, we draw the line between “showing something” and just showing off.
Since no single lens can produce every desired optical look, we swap out speciality glass to get the effect we want in a given image. But is the final picture complemented or defined by that effect? Is the photograph “about” how close you zoomed in, or what you zoomed in to see? Did you shoot with a stereoscopic lens just to demonstrate 3D, or is there some deeper understanding of your subject achieved with the added sensation of dimensionality? You see where this is going: the yin and yang between calling on technique and calling attention to that technique for its own sake.
In trying to be mindful of this either/or way of using effects gear, from macro filters to pinhole lenses to ultra wides, I try to use some of them counter-intuitively, forcing them to tell stories in ways that go beyond the obvious. One such lens, and one which comes with its own set of pre-conceptions and biases, is the fisheye, which, for many, never left the bendy realm of psychedelic album covers and black-light posters, time-locked somewhere between Warhol and Peter Max. However, even in the most exaggerated fisheye shots there is the opportunity to create what I call “calm at the center”….an area roughly one third of the total frame where distortion is either muted or completely absent.
When a compelling and more normally proportioned middle is built into your shot, such as the stair steps leading toward the bench in this greenhouse shot, the bending that increases toward the outer edge of the shot can act as a framing device that leads the eye to your chief focus. The emphasis can then be placed on what is not distorted rather than what is. The fisheye lens is thus used to call attention to what it’s serving in the picture, rather than calling attention to itself.
Does this shot deliver what I was seeking? That’s for others to judge: the only thing I can be sure of is my intention, after all. Effects lenses are not automatically art lenses, any more than every camera owner is automatically a photographer. Results, finally, are the best testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT LOW–FI MOVEMENT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, immediately following the rise of digital imaging, was something of a reflexive spasm, a retro-reaction against the feared extinction of film (still not arrived as of this writing). Its chief weapon was the plastic toy camera, its principal quest a stubborn return to unpredictability, a celebration of the flaws, defects and deficiencies of film photography, made novel, even holy, once the bad old pixels threatened to end them for all time. Such is human nature: if you want people to brush after every meal, threaten to outlaw toothbrushes.
But not every primitive is a genius, and not every hipster wielding a $35 Diana with light-leaks, color streaking, vignetting and fixed-focus was serving up masterworks under the low-fi credo “don’t think, shoot”. Turns out that a lot of lousy cameras produced…..a lot of lousy pictures. Funny thing: shooting with bad gear is no more a guarantee of “authenticity” than a Leica is of artistry. But that doesn’t mean low-fi is a complete write-off.
What kept me from pledging myself to the plastic was the guaranteed cost of financing film, whether the pictures were great or horrid. Whether you produced dynamite or duds, you paid for each image twice, once for the consumption of the stock itself and once more for the extra time needed to plan and process shots. It was, for me, a constant reminder of all the compromises forced upon photographers by that medium. I occasionally loved the look but despised the labor.
Enter the hybrid solution, introduced a few years back: a lens typically made for a Holga toy camera but minus the Holga body, adaptable to both Nikon and Canon DSLRs…..a cheapo lens (typically under $25), loaded with divinely low-fi features, including vignetting, fixed aperture (f/8) frozen focal length (60mm), stiff-as-a-board “zone” focusing (turn to the “mountain” symbol to shoot a landscape!) and a rear lens cap you can easily pry off with a Philips screwdriver and a modicum of swearing. We’re talking precision here.
The results? Every bit as great as you’d expect for 25 bills, mitigated slightly by your DSLR’s ability, running 100% on manual, to turn at least some straw into gold, as witness the above picture. Even at that, you’ll generate a lot of shots that you’ll try to convince yourself are “edgy”. You just won’t be laying out cash for the true nightmares. Turns out you can put a price on hipness. Or at least keep it from bankrupting you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT NEVER FAILS. You go to the grocery store for a carton of milk and come back with salsa, canned pineapple and half a pound of bologna. You may not have even known you “needed” the additional items, but, son of a gun, that extra large salsa is on sale. And, just like that, a quick stop becomes a shopping trip.
Photography is sort of like that.
You head out with specific objectives in mind, not thinking that fate has other plans, and will gently incline you in their direction. “Gentle”…like a freight train. In the case of a recent bird walk, my photographic plan “A” may seem odd to the average observer, in that it was to walk around with birders and not take any bird photos.
In my defense, I was already halfway through an extended birding weekend, accompanied by my wife and other serious spotters in a variety of southern Arizona locales. Moreover, even though I possess zero talent and little inclination in the study of all things airborne, I had nonetheless nailed a few easy exposures of very tame birds in the habit of eating very slowly on feeders near very large throngs of people…..basically zoo shooting with better singing. But the morning in question was different. Spotting birds in the wild is for grown-ups, and my infantile attention span is often drawn off center by the woods or canyon or, in this case, woodsy canyon that houses the various winged wonders. The spotters can spend hours arguing over the nomenclature of whatever they’ve flushed out of the foliage. For me, the foliage is why I came.
Thus, on this morning, I was sporting a 24mm wide angle to highlight the contours and curves of Ramsey Canyon, although I also had shoved my 300mm zoom inside a fanny pack as an act of pure superstition. Thus, the appropriate division of labor for the outing was established: Bird People watch birds. Tree Hugger tags along and shoots trees. Then we came upon a small footbridge surrounded by a small pack of mule deer, feeding at a level of relaxation that can only occur when you become accustomed to bipeds in goofy hats routinely traipsing through your backyard. One of the Bird People, knowing a camera nut was in their midst, gave me a heads-up. A desperate minute of crouching, zipping, fumbling and mild cursing later, I had managed to attach the 300, worrying all the time that something or someone would spook the group.
After that fear was allayed by the deer’s total state of chill, however, I was overcome by a new emotion, something I can only characterize as gratitude. I have had many encounters with deer in the wild over the years, but in each case I had only had scant seconds to try to capture anything. Here, suddenly, I was presented with a group so docile that I could walk to within twenty feet of them and have the most precious gift, the gift of time, with which to plan shots. The female seen here was intent on staying in clear sunlight next to a tree, while her male companions were gamboling inand out of the dappled shade at too great a speed for accurate metering, so, yeah, I went the easier route.
The point is that the situation allowed me to shoot twenty or more frames and have time in between to make an assessment as to what might succeed. It was an astounding luxury, a rarity among rarities, and my photos became my prayer of thanks.
Come for the forest, stay for the deer.
Or: come for the milk, stay for the salsa, pineapple, and bologna.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW PHOTOGRAPHERS TYPICALLY EXPERIENCE A MAJOR DISCONNECT between what they visualize and what their camera can realize. The gap between what you want and what your gear can deliver is initially very wide, mainly because you haven’t yet learned how to tell your camera what you want.
This gap is usually narrowed as you simply spend enough time with your equipment. But a true pairing, a real Harry-Potter-sorting-hat bond between yourself and a camera calls for a much deeper knowledge….of your needs, certainly, but more importantly, of what your camera is capable of doing for you. Sure, the more you shoot, the better you generally get at asking it to perform specific tasks, but to cross over into excellence you also will know more precisely what that device’s strengths and limits are.
Hundreds of factors determine what makes a camera right for you. Is the camera too basic to deliver, or too advanced for you to handle? Is its lens unsharp at the corners? Does your shutter lag? Do you want the camera to technically underperform to achieve an artistic effect? Can it reliably be counted on to shoot 95% of what you need, especially if it’s the only camera you can pack? How is its color rendition, its speed, it flash output, etc., etc.?
The image seen here is not really an example of anything except that, on the day I took the subway into Manhattan to attempt it, I knew I would not want to walk the city sidewalks laden with equipment. Certainly I did not achieve everything I was after with this shot, taken inside the lobby of the Chrysler building. However, I now know that I brought the one lens that gave me half a shot at getting something. What I’m saying is that, if I hadn’t known my equipment, I would not have been able to to even try to make that choice.
You will eventually have spent enough time with your cameras that you will know within an instant which one to grab for any given job. You’ll prepare better, waste less time, and ask “what happened?” far less often. And from that toolbox, one camera, one nearly perfect link to your skills and vision, will eventually emerge over all the others as the predominant “go-to” in your arsenal. And once that pairing is complete, you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, under any conditions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONE–UPMANSHIP 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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS GLIB OR SIMPLE doesn’t mean it’s not true. We tire of people’s pet platitudes because saying things like “get a good night’s sleep” or “honesty is the best policy” seems too easy, as if the wisdom contained in these time-worn axioms must have dried up years ago. So when I tell you something extremely “well, duh!” about photography, it won’t sound wise or profound. It will sound like something any simpleton knows. Obvious. Goes without saying. And yet..
So, here’s my one immutable truth about making pictures:
Get enough light, and you will have solved 99% of any problems that bedevil your photos.
There’ll be a brief pause here for the crowd to collectively roll its eyes.
And before we proceed further, I’m speaking primarily of natural, organic, comes-through-the-window-like-God’s-gift-to-the-world light. Most of what you do with artificial light has to do with compensating and correcting for the fundamental wrongness of the stuff. Yes, I know you have an incredible flash set-up. I don’t care.
Light is the only factor in photography that determines the efficacy of every other factor. Every major advancement in the design of lenses, recording media, and camera mechanics has been made for the sole purpose of gathering and utilizing more of it. Light alone can control how a subject is modeled, highlighted, presented. Get enough of it, and you shoot faster and simpler. Learn to shape it and you also learn how to create drama, to compose, to characterize things in precisely the way your mind has visualized them.
Light controls texture. It makes a shot either muted or loud. It can create the sensation of any moment of the day or night. It directs the eye. It makes bad lenses better and good lenses great. And, speaking of lenses, the best money you can spend on any lens, anywhere, is on how fast, how light-hungry it is. All other functions of high-tech optics aren’t worth a bucket of spit if the things can’t deliver lots of light in a hurry. Forget about chromatic aberration, vignetting and all the other headaches associated with glass: get enough light and you’re halfway home.
Most importantly, light is the only element in photography that is literally its own subject. A wonderful image can be of light, about light, because of light. So before you get good at anything else in the making of pictures, learn to gather light efficiently, mold it to your will, and serve it. Every other boat in your optical harbor will be lifted in the process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CONSIDER: MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC EFFECTS MOST DEARLY PRIZED by today’s edgier shooters actually have their roots in the shortcomings inherent in the techniques of the medium’s first years. That is, the artifacts produced in early photos (the blotches, streaks and smears that visually betrayed the limits of a particular era’s technology, from bad film emulsions to flawed lenses) are being sought out and deliberately inserted back into contemporary images, almost as if they confer some kind of authenticity on the final results. We came this far only to pretend that we haven’t moved at all.
There’s nothing to be gained by trying to figure out why we struggle to remove certain glitches from pictures in one age only to revere them in another. Fact is that many of us occasionally crave that “old timey” look, and so the very thing that once annoyed us as a defect becomes, later on, desired as an effect.
Halation, or the soft, glowing aura around bright areas in an image (imagine the diffused appearance of street lamps in a thick fog) was originally an unwanted look that happened when light would go through sensitized film, then reflect off a surface behind it (say the inside back of the camera body) and bounce back through the film a second time. This so-called “light scatter” would appear as an ethereal haze around the brighter objects in the picture, almost like a halo around the head of a saint. Halo—Halation. Annoying defect if you don’t want it. Subtly dreamy effect if you do.
The “accidental” part of halation was addressed ages ago by adding inhibiting agents to film and matte surfaces to camera bodies. The “intentional”part has been added back in artificially, either with the use of layers in Photoshop, or with Lensbabys or other “art” lenses intentionally designed to render the effect (as seen in the above image). This kind of reverse-engineering, the process of “putting the scratches back into the record”, of restoring the very things we once rejected, is increasingly common in the post-digital era, as we still long for analog experiences, even, it seems, the imperfect ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YARD SALES AROUND THE WORLD abound with unwanted gadgets that, just a few year prior, seemed utterly indispensable, be they electric olive pit extractors or deluxe coffee foam skimmers. You know the kind of toys I mean– those glorious, gleaming, largely single-function devices that dazzle us on all-night infomercials and seem like depraved decadence after we’ve hooked them up a few times and found that, hey, you can still access a new batch of carrots with a 79-cent manual can opener and use the regained counter-space for something more essential. Like food.
And, of course, these one-trick ponies of gimmickdom are not only found in the world’s greatest kitchens, but also on dusty shelves in the closets of disaffected photographers, who, like any humans, are subject to the lure of the new. Hey, I get it. It’s fun to have a special, fresh, whirly-twirly glowing godalmighty gizmo, that little add-on that creates amazing effects, amusing simulations, crazy textures. Lens manufacturers are particularly great at getting the fishhook into the mouths of photogs when it comes to toy time, since no one responds better to the latest optical trick. But, as in the case of the pit extractor, you have to ask yourself how much permanent, sustaining, everyday use you will get out of a given piece of gear.
One great way lens manufacturers have devised to separate you from your cash is to introduce a new version of a classic or “art” lens that re-creates an effect that is associated with the halcyon days of early photography. One such lens is the Petzval, named after Josef Petzval, who developed it around the 1840’s. The optics of the Petzval are particularly seductive for portraitists, as they separate your subject from the ambient scenery by rendering it sharp at the center while making all background information look like a swirling blur. Very artsy, very specialized, and very, very expensive.
Neo-Petzvals are all-manual (niche market #1), metal bodied (niche market #2) and gorgeously nostalgic (niche market #3), looking like something Ahab would use to track Moby Dick around the seven seas. These beauties, which, again, can only make one kind of image at one focal length, can cost upwards of $700 through Lomography.com. Companies like Lensbaby can create the same effect for around $149 and more than a few phone apps can deliver the same thrill for $2.99 or under. But the cost is almost irrelevant. What counts is how much you will actually use the thing.
You have to decide what your approach to equipment is, making a personal calculation based on what you most need to do for you. My own version of this riddle is based on how much I can do with how little, making me prefer lenses and appliances that can multi-task. However, there’ll always be days when life’s hella hectic and you just haven’t got time to scrape your own coffee foam. As usual, the answer lies in the kind of photography that snaps your personal shutter. Your pictures, your playthings.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MUST–HAVES 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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPHIC LENS EVER MADE CREATES ARTIFACTS, distinct biases in the ways it renders the world it sees. When you shoot with a particular piece of glass, you’re also inviting in whatever flaws or limits are baked into that optic’s design and science. If you are the kind of shooter that constantly switches out lenses, this present less of a problem, since you’re used to snapping on the exact glass you need for every kind of shooting situation.
If, however, you try, like myself, to go nearly a day at a space with a minimum of gear, then you start to look for lenses that do most of what you want in most settings. Occasionally, this means compromising on, or even missing, a shot; but, by and large, it makes you more mindful of the image-making process from minute to minute. You plan better and react faster.
In the case of one of photography’s most popular categories, that of landscape work, there seem to be two main types of lenses that do most of the heavy lifting: the ultra-wide angle, which convey “openness” and scope, and zooms, which help isolate specific parts of vast vistas. There are certainly situations in which both are ideal, but, on average, were I to be traveling very light for the day, I would probably take most of the day’s images with the ultra-wide, even if there was a particular area inside a larger scene that was more “important” than its surroundings, a situation in which most of us might utilize the zoom.
This goes to my belief that the composing process almost never stops with the click of the shutter. Rather, the click is just phase one, and a master shot that allows for many post-shot “re-thinks” is the best one to have. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the center of an immense mountain range is where the light or the subject story is strongest in a given image. If my master shot is a taken with a zoom, I’ve lost the ability to later discover additional approaches that remain possible if I have a wider shot’s worth of information from which to select. Starting with the larger shot, I can shift the cropping to any aspect ratio I want, change the balance of the composition, re-orient the linearity (to create a faux panorama, as in the top shot here) or even realize that there was an even stronger story to be told outside of the frame I originally envisioned with the zoomed master shot. Here’s the core point: it’s easier to have more picture than you need and pare some stuff away than to narrow your options beforehand and trust that you’ve nailed it, meanwhile ruling out any potential re-takes or second thoughts.
I do, of course use zooms at times, but, like my external flashes and tripods, I find fewer uses for them with each passing year. It’s odd how you can come to feel greater freedom with fewer tools. But sometimes it’s like the time Itzhak Perlman busted a string just before a concert, then performed the program on just three strings, to the utter amazement of the critical world. Photography proves time and again that there are times when the image’s “melody” magically comes forward. In spite of.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NAME OF THIS BLOG, THE NORMAL EYE, IS A REFERENCE to the old nickname for fixed-focus “prime” lenses, non-zoomable glass like 35 and 50mm, that were once dubbed “normal” since they delivered the sense of space and proportion most closely resembling that of human vision. I’ll leave other combatants to decide whether this renders prime lenses “truer” in any way (those of you who think you know what “truth” is, advance to the fine arts class), but one things seems clear (that is, not cloudy): wide angle lenses, say 24mm or wider, tell a somewhat different truth, and thus create a distinct photographic effect.
Ultra-wides can generate the sensation that both proportion and distances (mostly front-to-back) have been stretched or distorted. They are thus great for shots where you want to “get everything in”, be it vast landscapes or city streets crowded with tall buildings packed into close quarters. They don’t really photograph things as they are, but do serve as great lenses for the deliberate effect of drama. I don’t use super-wides for too many situations, but, when I do, I make up for lost time by going overboard…again, largely as an interpretative effect.
Nothing shoots wider than the fabulous fisheye lens, introduced in the 1920’s as a meteorological research tool, and shooting as wide as 8mm with a viewing arc of anywhere from 100 to 180 degrees. Starting in the 1960’s, the fisheye’s unique optics crept into wider commercial use as a kind of funhouse look, the circular image in which all extremes of the rounded frame bend inward, creating the feel of a separate world isolated inside a soap bubble. Some of our most iconic cultural images used this look to suggest a sense of disorientation or dreamlike unreality, with classic album covers like the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? using fishes to simulate the psychedelic experience. Far out, man.
However, used sparingly as simply a more extreme wideangle, the fisheye can create a drama that conforms more to a rectangular composition, especially when the inner core of the image is cropped into a kind of “mailbox” aspect, resulting in an image that is normal-ish but still clearly not “real”. Tilting the lens, along with careful framing, can keep the more extreme artifacts to a minimum, adding just enough exaggeration to generate impact without the overkill of the soap bubble. As with any other effects lens, it’s all a matter of control, of attenuation. A little of the effect goes a long way. I call it lying with a straighter face.
Fisheyes are a specialized tool, and, for most of photography, the optical quality in all but the most expensive ones have kept most of us from tinkering with the look to any significant degree. However, cheaper and optically acceptable substitutes have entered the market in the digital era, along with fisheye-“look” phone apps, allowing the common shooter to at least dip a toe into the pool. Whether that toe will look more like a digit or a fleshy fish hook is, as it always was, a matter of choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISIT ENOUGH TOURIST SITES and you will eventually encounter the challenge of capturing very large objects, trying to squeeze the whole of a cathedral or a canyon into a single frame. Using a wide-angle lens is the first instinct, of course, but since even a 35mm is considered a wide-angle of sorts, there are any number of choices that all have their own pluses and minuses.
The lower the millimeter number, of course, the wider the lens. Simple enough on the surface, but you still have to decide what kind of wide you prefer. Each lens has slightly different coverage and properties, with the “super-wides” adding their own distinctive traits to the space you’re trying to capture. The two main properties you’ll notice most are barrel distortion and dimensional exaggeration, both of which will affect your lens choice for a given shooting situation.
Let’s look at barrel distortion. Lenses wider than about 24mm can make straight walls appear to bend outwards like the sides of a barrel, creating an unreal, and, for some, somewhat claustrophobic appearance most associated with the ultimate width of a fisheye (something around 8mm). The effect is that of a world cramped into the inside of a snow globe, and, depending on what look you’re going for, it can either be marvelous or miserable. It’s marvelous, for example, if you want to suggest tremendous depth in a shot.
And that’s dimensional exaggeration, the other key trait of a super-wide, in which the perception of distance from front to back is greatly hyped, making a deep space look even deeper. Shooting a cavernous area like the inside of the rotunda at the Los Angeles Central Library, as seen in the frame at top, you may want to suggest vastness, and a fisheye, such as was used here, does that superbly. All I’ve done to defeat the accompanying barrel distortion is to crop away the original frame edges. Of course, using a more conventional focal length like a 24mm, as seen directly above, shows all dimensions in a much more natural way, but they sacrifice coverage area, revealing less of the ceiling and sides and creating the sensation that the shot is not inclusive of enough information. In the case of both lenses, how you frame and where you stand will produce significant variations on how you render the space.
Photography is about what to fill the frame with, of course, but it also involves some planning as to how technology does that best, based on the tools at hand and what they’re equipped to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY DAY-LONG SESSION OF TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY dictates its own distinct rules of engagement. You can predict, to some degree, the general trend of the weather of the place where you’ll be staying/playing. You can pre-study the local attractions and map out at least a start-up list of things you might like to shoot. And you can choose, based on all your other prep, the equipment that will work best in the majority of situations, which keeps you from carting around every scrap of gear you own, saving reaction time, and, possibly, your marriage.
All well and good. However, even assuming that you make tremendously efficient choices about what lens you’ll most likely need on walkabout, there will be the occasional shot that is outside the comfort zone of said lens, something that it won’t do readily or easily. In such cases, the lens that would be perfect for that shot is likely forty miles away, back at your hotel. And here’s the place where you can pretty much predict what I advise.
Take the shot anyway.
I tend to work with a 24mm prime f/2.8 lens when walking through urban areas. It just captures a wider field within crowded streets, allowing me to grab most vistas without standing in the path of onrushing traffic (a plus) or spending a ton of time re-framing before each shot (a pain). This particular 24 was made in the ’70’s and is both lightning fast and spectacularly sharp, which, being a manual lens, also saves time and prevents mishaps.
24mm, to me, produces a more natural image than the wide end of the more popular 18-55 kit lenses being sold today, since there is less perspective distortion (straight lines remain straight lines). However, since it is a wide-angle, front-to-back distances will appear greater than they are in reality, so that things that are already in the distance seem even more so. And, since it is also a prime, there is no zooming. In the case at left, I wanted the girl’s bonnet, dress and presence on those rocks, but, if I was going to get any picture at all, plenty of other junk that I didn’t need would have to come along for the ride.
You deal with the terms in front of you at the time. Without a zoom, I either had to take the shot, with the idea of later cropping away the excess, or lose it altogether. There are times when you just have to visualize the final composition in your mind and extract it when it’s more convenient. Simply capture what you truly need within a bigger frame of stuff you don’t need, and fix it later. It’s a cornball cliché, but the only shot you are guaranteed not to get is the one you don’t go for. And this is also a good time to remember that it’s always smart to shoot at the biggest file size you can, allowing for plenty of pixel density even in the aftermath of a severe crop.
You can’t pre-plan all the potential pitfalls out of a photo vacation. Can’t be done. Come as close as you can, and trust your eye to help you rescue the outliers down the road.
But take the shot.
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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESURRECTION, ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, of several low-end, cold-war-era plastic cameras as refurbished instruments of a kind of instinctual “art” photography has influenced even the digital and high-end photo markets, with light-leaking, optically sloppy toys like the Holga, the Diana and other “lomographic” devices shaking up the way many photographers see the world. Thus have these technically challenged little cameras, designed as children’s playthings, changed the conversation about what kind of formerly dreaded optical flaws we now elect to put back in to our work. Lomo shooters’ devotion to their craft has also meant a reprieve of sorts for film, since theirs in an analog realm.
But even digital shooters who don’t think of themselves as part of the “lomography” trip can dip a toe into the pool if they like, with filters on phone apps labelled “toy camera” which simulate light leaks, film-era “cross-processing” and the color variations caused by cheap plastic lenses. There are also companies like Lensbaby that manufacture all-new plastic optics designed to lend an element of creative control to what, in lomo cameras is largely random. The good news: you can, in effect, put defects into your pictures….on purpose.
Plastic lenses are generally much softer than glass lenses, giving a kind of gauzy appearance to your shots, so if you’re a fan of razor sharpness, they may not be your dish. More importantly, they produce a much higher amount of what is called “chromatic aberration”, which is more understandable under its nickname “color fringing”, since that more accurately describes how it looks. If you want a reasonably clear science-guy breakdown of CA, here’s a link to keep you busy this semester. The main take-home for most of us, though, is that the effect takes what would largely be a smoothly blended rendering of colors and makes them appear fractured, with the “fringe” look most noticeable along the peripheral edge of objects, where the colors seem to be separating like the ragged edge of an old scarf.
Why should you care? Well, mostly, you don’t have to. All lenses have a degree of CA, but in the better-built ones it is nearly undetectable to the naked eye, and can be easily processed away in Lightroom or a host of other editing suites. But people who are choosing to use plastic lenses will see it quite clearly, since such optics cause different wavelengths of light to “land” in the focal plane at slightly different speeds, meaning that, in essence, they fail to smoothly blend, hence the “fringing” effect.
Of course, chromatic aberration may be exactly the look you’re going for, if you want to create a kind of lo-fi, primitive look to your shots. In the cactus photo seen here, for example, taken with an all new plastic “art” lens, I found that the effect resembled old color printing processes associated with early postcards, and, for that particular image, I can live with it. Other times I would avoid it like the plague.
Plastic lenses, like any other add-ons or toys, come with their own pluses and minuses. Hey, if you’re a ketchup person, then soak your plate with the stuff. But if you believe that it just louses up a good steak, then push the bottle away. Just that simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT MAKES A LENS GREAT, AT LEAST FOR ME, is the degree to which I can forget about it.
The best images come from being able to shoot decisively and in the moment. That means knowing instinctively what your lens is good at, and using that information to salvage more pictures. Such knowledge only comes from repetition, trial and error, patience, and all those other tedious old-school virtues that drive people crazy but drive their work to perfection. And, eventually, it means you and the lens must think and react as one, without a lot of conscious thought.
I only know one way to get to that point with a given piece of glass, and that’s to be “monogamous” with it, using a given lens for nearly 100% of my work for long periods of time. Shuffling constantly from lens to lens in an effort to get “just the right gear” for a particular frame actually leads me to be hyper-conscious of the limits or strengths of what I’m shooting with, to be less focused on making pictures and more focused on calculating the taking of pictures. I believe that the best photos start coming the closer you can get to a purely reflexive process. See-feel-shoot.
If you’ve never chosen your own version of a “go-to” lens, one that can stay on your camera almost always, and give you nearly every kind of shot, I would suggest biting off a fat space of practice time and trying it. Snap on a 35mm and make it do everything that comes to hand for a day. Then a week. Then a month. Then start thinking of what would actually necessitate taking that lens off and going with something else. And for what specific benefit?
You may find that it’s better getting 100% comfortable with one or two lenses than to have a passing acquaintance with six or seven. The above image could have been taken with about five different lenses with comparable results. But whatever lens I used, it would have been easier and faster if I had selected it because it would also work for the majority of the other shots I was to attempt that day. Less time rummaging around in your kit bag equals more time to take pictures.
Every time there is a survey on what the most popular focal length in photography is, writers tend to forget that the number one source of imagery today is a cell phone camera. That means that, already, most of the world is shooting everything in the 30-35mm range and making it work. And before we long for the “good old days” of infinite choices, recall that most photographers born before 1960 had one camera, equipped with one lens. We like to think we are swimming in choices but we need to make sure we’re not actually drowning in them.
Find the workhorse gear that has the most flexibility and reliability for what you most want to do. Chances are the lens that will give you the best results isn’t the shiny new novelty in the catalogue, but just inches away, right in your hand.
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.