LIGHT ‘EM UP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.
Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.
Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.
YOU AND YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SELF–EDUCATION PROCESS INHERENT in photography is perpetual: that is, the lesson-learning doesn’t “clock out” merely because a given task is completed, but flows equally during the in-between moments, the spaces outside of,or adjacent to, the big ideas and big projects. Down time need not be wasted time.
Often it’s because the pressure of delivering on a deadline is absent that we relax into a more open frame of mind as regards experimentation. You find something because you’re not looking for it.
One such area for me is lighting. I seldom use flash or formal studio lights, so I obsess over cheap, mobile, and flexible means of either maximizing natural light or adding artificial illumination in some simple fashion. This isn’t just about making an object seem plausibly lit, or, if you like, “real: it’s also about choosing or sculpting lighting schemes, making something look like I want it to.
Small, powerful LEDs have really given me the chance to fill spare moments cranking out a wide array of experimental shots in a limited space with little or no prep, producing shaping light from every conceivable angle. I just lock the camera down on a tripod, make some simple arrangement on a table top, and shoot dozens of frames with different directional sweeps of the light, usually over the space of a time exposure of around a half a minute. I can move the light in any pattern, either by holding it static or tracking high/low, left/right, etc.
Frequently this activity does not result in a so-called “keeper” image. Such spare-time experiments are about process, not product. The real pay-off comes somewhere further down the road, when you have need of a skill that you developed over several days when you had.. nothing to do.
WHEN AND HOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I photograph late in the day, the time Rembrandt favored for painting, so that the subtlest tones surface. ———Marie Cosindas
ONE OF THE GREATEST SIDE EFFECTS OF MY HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST over the past eighteen years has been its impact on how I harness light in my photography. The word harness conjures the act of getting a bit and bridle on a wild stallion, and so is extremely apt in reference to how you have to manage and predict illumination here in the land of So Much Damn Sun. It’s not enough here to decide what or how to shoot. You must factor in the When as well.
To see this idea in stark terms, study the work of photogs who have shot all day long from a stationary position along the rim of the Grand Canyon. The hourly, and sometimes minute-to-minute shift of shadows and tones illustrates what variety you can achieve in the outcome of a picture, if you consciously factor in the time of day. After a while, you can glance at a subject or site and predict pretty accurately how light will paint it at different times, meaning that many a session can produce a wild variance in results.
The late photographer Marie Cosindas, whose miraculous early-1960’s work with the then-new Polacolor film helped change the world’s attitude toward color imaging, didn’t just load her film into a standard Polaroid instant camera. She shot it in her large format Linhof, experimenting with exposure times, filters and development techniques, and, above all, with the careful selection of natural light. She didn’t just wait for her subject; she waited on the exact light that would make it, and all its colors, sing. As a result, the art world began to rethink its opinion about color just being for advertising, or as somehow less “real” than black & white.
In my own work, I take the time, whenever feasible, to “case” locations a while before I shoot them, taking note over days, even weeks, to see what light does to them at specific times of day. As I mentioned, the West suffers from an overabundance of light, mostly the harsh, tone-bleaching kind that is the enemy of warm tone. In the above image, I scouted the location in the early morning, when the eastern sun was drenching the front end of the court, but waited about eight hours to return and get the precise projection of shadow grids that only occurred once the sun was in its western descent, about two hours before dusk. My test shots from the morning told me that the picture I wanted would simply not exist until ’round about suppertime. And that’s when I stole my moment.
There are three legs to the basic photographic tripod: What, How, and When. Over the years, paying greatest attention to that third leg has often given me one to stand on.
FROM A DARK PLACE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STANDARD RECIPE FOR A PHOTOGRAPHIC “PRODUCT SHOT” is rooted in the formal studio lighting set-up. Regardless of whether you’re trying to create an idealized picture of a bottle of soda or a grand piano, the traditional approach is to set up a careful balance of artificial lights, then measure and meter until the object is lit wonderfully from every angle. It’s a system honored by time and tradition, with millions of magazine ads and commercials to attest to its appeal.
Which is fine, except I just happen to find it boring.
Instead of starting with a fully lit room and tweaking towards the ideal, I prefer, with the technique known as light writing, to start at the opposite end of the equation…with a totally dark room, the object in question, and a small, handheld LED, using each shot to light various contours of the object and comparing the results over several dozen frames. Instead of instantaneous exposures, I hold my lens open for as long as it takes for me to move my little torch into place, click on for several seconds at a time, then click off, re-position, and apply lighting to another surface on the object, repeating until I use a remote to close the shutter for good. Results vary wildly from frame to frame, and there is a lot of experimentation to get the look I want, simply because, well, I have no idea what that is when I start.
I may begin by imagining the object as being lit from the side, then try a few takes where the light source comes from above, or even behind. Unlike a traditional studio lighting scheme, light painting allows me to break the rules of nature completely, creating light patterns that could never be achieved in nature. I can spend several seconds arching the LED from one side to another, like a rapidly crossing sun, with the final image bearing every trace of where I’ve tracked over a long exposure.
If I change my mind about what to illuminate in the first ten seconds, for example, I can just adjust it in the next ten. I just re-position the lamp and either augment or erase what’s been stored in the camera in the moments prior. Most importantly, it gives me an infinite number of choices for showcasing the object, settling for a fairly realistic depiction or an utter fantasy or something in between. Comparing the two examples shown here of a series on a whiskey bottle shows how even minute variations in the application of the light give the object a distinctly different identity. And with light painting, the shooter exercises much finer control than is possible with even the best studio set-up….and at a fraction of the cost.
Whether you’re molding an image from a room full of lights or building illumination beam by beam in a darkened room, the whole idea is control. Light painting generates a lot of randomness, and requires a patient eye, but the sheer variety of interpretations it gives you can teach you a lot about the infinitesimal things that can mold a picture, bring more of them under your command.
TRUTH VS. REALITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASKED IN 1974 BY AN INTERVIEWER ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE ACTOR JAMES CAGNEY, director Orson Welles replied that while Jimmy “broke every rule”, “there’s not a fake moment” in any of his movies. He further explained that the star of Public Enemy, White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy worked counter to all the conventions of what was supposed to be “realism”, and yet created roles which were absolutely authentic. Cagney, in effect, bypassed the real and told the truth.
As do many photographers, it turns out.
We all have inherited a series of technical skills which were evolved in an attempt to capture the real world faithfully inside a box, and we still fail, at times, to realize that what makes in image genuine to the viewer must often be achieved by ignoring what is “real”. Like Cagney, we break the rules, and, if we are lucky, we make the argument that what we’ve presented ought to be considered the truth, even though the viewer must ignore what he knows in order to believe that. Even when we are not trying to create a so-called special effect, that is, a deliberate trick designed to conspicuously wow the audience, we are pulling off little cheats to make it seem that we played absolutely fair.
The first time we experiment with lighting, we dabble in this trickery, since the idea of lighting an object is to make a good-looking picture, rather than to mimic what happens in natural light. If we are crafty about it, the lie we have put forth seems like it ought to be the truth, and we are praised for how “realistic” a shot appears. The eye likes the look we created, whether it bears any resemblance to the real world or not, just as we applaud a young actor made up to look like an old man, even though we “know” he isn’t typically bald, wrinkled, and bent over a cane.
In the image above, you see a simple example of this. The antique Kodak really does have its back to a sunlit window, and the shadows etched along its body really do come from the slatted shutters upon that window. However, the decorative front of the camera, which would be fun to see, is facing away from the light source. That means that, in reality, it would not glow gold as seen in the final image. And, since reality alone will not give us that radiance, a second light source has to be added from the front.
In this case, it’s the most primitive source available: my left hand, which is ever so slightly visible at the lower left edge of the shot. It’s acting as a crude reflector of the sunlight at right, but is also adding some warmer color as the flesh tones of my skin tint the light with a little gold on its way back to the front of the camera. Result: an unrealistic, yet realistic-seeming shot.
There’s a number of names for this kind of technique: fakery, jiggery-pokery, flimflam, manipulation, etc., etc.
And some simply call it photography.
TWO SKIES, ONE GOAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I HAVE TO MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS ON AN OVERCAST DAY, I actually pray that the weather will deteriorate even further, since a dramatically lousy sky can create better results than an indifferent overcast. Murky weather mutes colors to the texture of bland dishwater, whereas rapidly shifting, strongly contrasty conditions can actually boost colors or create a dimensional effect in which foreground objects “pop” a bit. Keep your rainy days. Give me stormy ones.
Some days an uneven, rolling overcast contains dread darkness on one side and unbroken sun on the other, simulating the effect of a studio in which the subject is floodlit from front but staged against a somber background. This strange combination of natural lighting conditions confers an additional power on even the most mundane objects, and the photographer need do nothing except monitor the changing weather from minute to minute and pick his moment.
I love the architectural features of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, such as the section of one of the exhibit hall rooves, seen above. However, in fair or even grey weather, it has less impact than when it’s front-lit against a threatening cloud bank, so, on a rotten day, it’s worth checking and re-checking to see if it’s been amped up by “jumping away” from the background clouds. Likewise these palm trees:
Simply capitalizing on changes in lighting conditions can create more opportunities than all the lenses and gear in the world. Cheap point-and-shoot or luxuriant Leica, it’s all about the light….plentiful, free, and ever-changing. The ability to sculpt strong images from this most basic commodity is the closest thing to a level playing field for every kind of photographer.
A WHITER SHADE OF PALE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE FACE OF CHANGE, HUMANS WILL DOGGEDLY DEFEND ALMOST ANYTHING, as long as they’ve grown accustomed to it. At their introduction, we inveighed against the intrusion of the telephone (the end of privacy!) and the automobile (they scare the horses and they’re filthy!), but soon learned to love chatting, well, from our freaking cars, so…
One of the things solid citizens of the late 1800’s most objected to was the slicing of the night by the first network of urban street lamps, which were excoriated in editorials from New York to Paris. An invasion! An insult! Unnatural.
Boy, if they could see us now.
In the name of energy savings and sustainability (both good things, right?), street lights across the country are in the midst of a rapid conversion from several types of fluorescent lamps to LEDs. They last longer, they burn cheaper, they cost less. All to the good, except that the light these new torches deliver is blue, pale, cold, and, in the minds of many, harsh. Even those who champion ecologically righteous causes are squinting at LEDs which strike them as grim, sickly, colorless and (wait for it) unnatural.
Writing in the New York Times in the essay “Ruining That Moody Urban Glow“,
novelist Lionel Shriver calls LED light “conducive to dismembering a corpse” and cites studies that claim the fixtures contribute to sleep loss, mood disorders, and, who knows, ingrown toenails. For photography (you knew I’d get here eventually), the new light presents a completely fresh challenge to your camera’s ability to achieve white balance, or an accurate reading of white values according to a given light’s temperature, expressed in degrees Kelvin.
Conventional lights are lower on the Kelvin scale, thus warmer, with more yellow in the mix. LEDs are higher in Kelvin value and register blue-white, muting or mutating colors. At present, both Canon and Nikon have many in-camera settings to balance for a number of sodium-vapor or fluorescents, but have yet to offer options for adjusting for LEDs, even though entire cities have made the switch to what many feel is an ugly, stark source of illumination.
In her Times article, Shriver notes that there are, in fact, subtler types of LEDs, which sacrifice only a bit of energy efficiency and yet emit warmer light, and advocates that citizens go proactive to keep their neighborhoods from looking like the parking lots on interstate truck stops. So take that for what it’s worth. But be aware that more and more of your night shots may, in the near future, have to be adjusted in post-production to resemble a century in which you feel at home.