the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

manual mode

ETHEREAL ON THE CHEAP

On the Town, 2019. Shot on a Soviet-era Helios 44M manual lens, wide open at f/2, ISO 100, and deliberately over-exposed at 1/250 sec to accentuate the dreamy quality. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS OF, umm, A CERTAIN AGE, our first cameras came out of the box pretty much ready to go, with lens and body working as two halves of a predetermined factory assembly. The lens half frequently was pre-set at a single focal length, and, in the really rudimentary models, a single shutter speed. Varying the results of such tools meant doing something as simple as shooting in shade instead of direct sun, or accidentally standing too close to your subject for an express ticket to Blursville. We learned the limits of our earliest cameras by operating them badly.

But this was not a worthless exercise, since all those crummy misfires, while teaching us what didn’t work, also taught us to eagerly explore what might work. As we graduated to better, more responsive/instinctual gear, we carried that approach to learning with us, and can still call upon it when we care to. Because, even as we have become accustomed to more and greater options via ever more sophisticated lenses and gear, we can still learn a great deal about our own creativity by deliberately limiting our choices from time to time, which is why I became fascinated, years ago, with the idea of keeping a chosen lens on a camera for an extended period, forcing myself to shoot any and everything with it regardless of subject or conditions. In a sense, you’re re-introducing the uncertainty and occasional failure of your earlier shooting techniques back into your work. But you’re also learning to problem-solve and improvise, infusing a new kind of energy into your photography.

The Normal Eye, you may recall, originally sprang from a year that I spent shooting exclusively with an f/1.8 50mm lens. Since that time, I have occasionally attached other lenses, all with differing strengths and weaknesses, to various cameras for extended periods to see what I could do when I couldn’t do what I preferred to do. It has always yielded me surprises and a lot of fun. Lately I am going steady with an old Soviet-era Helios 44M, a f/2 58mm prime dating from the late 70’s. Having been built for some of Europe’s most mass-produced cameras, the Helios is a solid, well-built beauty that is also plentiful in Ebay Land. It’s also cheaper than devalued Russian currency and produces both flatteringly soft portraits and distinctive bokeh, so a win all around. Many contemporary “art lenses” produce some of the same effects as the Helios but at a premium price, so seeing if you like the looks it creates while risking less than $40 is hard to resist.

Wide open at f/2, the Helios, a fully manual lens, has an aggravatingly shallow depth of field. We’re talking taking fifty pictures to get five in which you truly nail the focus. However, the gentle drop-off you’ll see between cleanly defined objects and their immediate surroundings affords a buttery, smooth quality that, with a little intentional over-exposure, can produce a decidedly dreamlike, pastel-flavored effect, as seen in the example above. For $40, I will gladly use this thing chiefly for this look. Now, certainly, this lens, like every other hunk ‘o’ glass, has idiosyncratic deficiencies and is not great for everything. But at these prices, it is worth spending, let’s say, at least a week learning how to consistently produce the results you want with it, as much for your own education as for the number of keeper images you’ll harvest. Consider also that this lens was originally sold as the “kit” lens for Zenits and a range of other Euro-cameras. It came in the box attached to the body. It was supposed to do most of what you’d want to do without swapping out to other glass, so that, by shooting with it exclusively for extended periods in today’s world, you’re experiencing essentially the same learning curve that was engineered into the lens back in the glory days of the U.S.S.R. It’s not exactly like riding a bucking bronco without a saddle or rope, but still, the horse does buck.

Learning what to do when your gear hits its design limits can either be frustrating or liberating. The choice of which of those feelings you, yourself, will experience, like all other choices, is yours alone.

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THE HYBRID APPROACH

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE RECENT LOWFI 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.


THROUGH A FUZZY CRYSTAL

Naysayers about the future of smartphone cameras are due for a major news flash.

Naysayers about the future of smartphone cameras are due for a major news flash.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I GENERALLY STAY OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS, and with good reason. Anyone who sets himself up in the prophecy business had better keep his day job, a truth which has been demonstrated time and again by any number of junior league wizards who believe they know how to read the tea leaves in Tomorrowland. That’s why I have always kept the pages of The Normal Eye pretty free of excess doses of prognostication on what’s next or what’s inevitable regarding photography.

However, even though it’s foolish to cite specific equipment or inventions as “proof” that a new day has arrived, it’s often obvious when something of a tipping point is coming that will transform the entire process of making pictures. And I feel confident that we are now at one of those points as the latest smartphone cameras begin the blurring, if not the erasure, of difference between photography in mobile devices and photography from traditional gear, especially, for the first time, DSLRs.

The main gist of this tipping point is the ability of mobiles, finally, to allow for manual override of many camera functions that were, in earlier years, completely automated. Phone cameras in their original iteration were an all-or-nothing proposition, in that you clicked and hoped that the device’s auto settings would serve up an acceptable image. As for any kind of artistic control, you had to try to intervene after the shutter snap, via apps. It was the opposite of the personal control that was baked into DLSRs, and many photographers rightly balked at abandoning their Nikons and Canons for what was essentially a compact point-and-shoot.

But we are suddenly in very different territory now. The newest models by a variety of smartphone manufacturers will not only offer shooting apertures as wide as f/1.8, drastically increasing the flow of light to the camera’s sensors, but will also give shooters the option to either tap-customize a variety of shooting settings on-screen, or merely leave the device on full auto. The ability to override factory defaults is what separates the camera men from the camera boys, so this, in the words of Joe Biden, is a big &%$#ing deal. It means that many photographers who never even considered doing their “serious” shooting on a smartphone might at least mull over the option of leaving their full-function DSLRs at home, at least occasionally.

It would be foolish to predict the wholesale desertion of capital “C” Cameras by the shooting public, since such changes never come about for everyone at one time. Plenty of people continued to ride horses after the first flivvers rattled out of the factory. But there is certainly a major debate on the horizon about how much, and what kind of camera allows you to get the shot, easier and more of the time.

And getting the shot, as we know, is all that has ever mattered. All the rest is cheek music.

 

 


THE CHOICE

Does your camera protect you, or contain you?

Does the structure of your photography protect you, or contain you?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.

Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.

From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.

Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone.  But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.

Tools are not technique.

 


ROLL PLAYING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I RECENTLY CAME ACROSS AN ARTICLE IN WHICH A PHOTOGRAPHER BEMOANED the insane volume of images being shot in the digital era. His point was that, while we used to be tightly disciplined in the “budgeting”  of shots back in the days of film (in which we had a fixed limit on our shots of 24 or 36 frames), we crank away an infinite number of shots today in short order, many of them near duplicates of each other, flooding the universe with a torrent of (mostly) bad pictures. Apparently, he posits, it is because we can shoot and re-shoot without fear of failure that we make so many mediocre images.

He takes it further, proposing that, as a means of being more mindful in the making of our photos, that we buy a separate memory card and shoot a total of, say, two “rolls” of pics, or 72 total images, forcing ourselves to keep every image, without deletions or retakes, and live with the results for good or ill. I have all kinds of problems with this romantic but basically ill-conceived stunt.

Our illustrious writer and I live on different sides of the street. He seems to believe that the ability to shoot tons of images leads to less mindful technique. I believe the exact opposite.

Not the hardest shot in the world, but in the film era, I might never have guessed how best to nail it.

Not the hardest shot in the world, but in the film era, I might never have guessed how best to nail it. In digital, I was free to approach the right solution over a series of practice shots. 

When you are free, via digital photography, to experiment, to correct your errors on the fly, you suddenly have the ability to save more shots, simply because you can close in on the best method for those shots much faster, and at a fraction of the cost, of film. You collapse a learning curve that used to take decades into the space of a few years. One of the things that used to separate great photographers from average ones was the great shooters’ freedom, usually from a financial standpoint, to take more bad (or evolving) images than the average guys could afford to. Of course, really bad photographers can go for years merely continuing to take more and more lousy shots, but the fact is, in most cases, taking more photos means learning more, and, often, eventually making better pictures.

Apparently, our illustrious writer believes that you can only be photographically self-aware if you are constantly reminded how few total frames you’re going to be able to shoot. I truly appreciate the goal of self-reliant, experience-based photography he wants to promote. But I contend that it’s not that we make too many pictures, but that we keep too many. It’s the skill of editing, that unemotional, ice-cold logic in deciding how few of our pictures are “keepers”, that is needed, not some nostalgic longing for the strictures of film.

Hey, of course we over-share too many near-identical frames of our latest ham sandwich. Of course Instagram is as clogged as a sink trap fulla hair with millions of pictures that should never see the light of day. But that’s not because we can shoot pictures too easily. It’s because we don’t grade our output on a stern enough curve. As it gets easier to shoot, it should get tougher to meet muster.


SET AND SHOOT

Shooting manually means learning to trust that you can capture what you see. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

Shooting manually means learning to trust that you can capture what you see. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AUTOMODES ON CAMERAS ARE SUPPOSED TO AFFORD THE PHOTOGRAPHER AN ENHANCED SENSE OF COMFORT AND SAFETY, since, you know, you’re protected from your very human errors by the camera’s loving, if soulless, oversight. Guess wrong on a shutter speed?  The auto has your back. Blow the aperture? Auto is on the case. And you always get acceptable pictures.

That is, if you can put your brain on automode as well.

Okay, that statement makes the top ten list for most arrogant openings in all of Blogdom, 2014. But I stand by it. I don’t think you should get comfortable with your equipment calling the shots. However, getting comfortable with your equipment’s limits and strengths, and gradually  relying on your own experience for consistent results through exploitation of that knowledge….now that’s another thing entirely. It’s the difference between driving cross-country on cruise control and knowing, from years of driving, where in the journey your car can shine, if you drive it intelligently.

Photographers call some hunks of glass their “go-to” lenses, since they know they can always get something solid from them in nearly any situation. And while we all tend to wander around aimlessly for years inside Camera Toyland, picking up this lens, that filter, those extenders, we all, if we shoot enough for a long time, settle back into a basic gear setup that is reliable in fair weather or foul.

This is better than using automodes, because we have chosen the setups and systems that most frequently give us good product, and we have picked up enough wisdom and speed from making thousands of pictures with our favorite gear that we can “set and shoot”, that is, calculate and decide just as quickly as most people do with automodes…..and yet we keep the vital link of human input in the creative chain.

Like most, I have my own “go-to” lens and my own “safe bet” settings. But, just as you save time by not trying to invent the wheel every time you step up, you likewise shouldn’t be averse to greasing an old wheel to make it spin more smoothly.

How about that, I also made the top ten list for unwieldy metaphors.

A good day.

 


FEWER TOYS, MORE TOOLS

This is Nikon's "High-Key" effects mode. You paid for it, even though it is not High Key and you can easily make this shot yourself. 1/30 sec., f/2.8, ISO 1250, 35mm.

This is Nikon’s “High-Key” effects mode. It’s a cheap gimmick, and you paid for it, even though (a) it is not High Key and (b) you can easily make this shot yourself. 1/30 sec., f/2.8, ISO 1250, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MANY OF THE “ENHANCEMENTS” OFFERED BY TODAY’S MAJOR PHOTO GEAR MANUFACTURERS ARE, IN FACT, OBSTACLES to learning how to take responsibility for making pictures. The automatic bells and whistles that are being engineered into today’s cameras seems to send the message: you don’t have to think too hard. Push the button and we will provide (and predict) the results.

It may be fabulous for convenience, but it’s lousy news for the experimentation and personal risk which are required for great photography to occur.

We live in a time of short cuts, of single-button solutions for every creative problem. We have modes for that. Low light, too much light, a day at the beach, a day in the snow, a closeup, a landscape? Guaranteed results at the dial-up of an automode. Hey, you’re an artist. No need to obsess about all that techno-whatsis. Your camera will determine the results. Just dial up what you want: it’s all automatic. You need hardly be there.

Does anyone really believe that anything of artistic value  can evolve from machines being in charge? When’s the last time a computer created a novel of staggering impact? Who is taking the picture here…..you or your camera?

Fully automatic, aperture priority and shutter priority are all good basic tools, and wonderful work is done in all three modes as well as full manual. But there is a huge leap between these settings and the gaudy, gimmicky “effects” modes that are increasingly larding up cameras with novelty and diversion.

Let’s take a look at some of the prime offenders. Are these toys necessary?

NIGHT VISION: If you want a picture to look like you took it while on combat recon in a forward area of Afghanistan, go for this option. Boosts your ISO up to 25,600 so you can get some image on the sensor, even in utter blackness, loaded with grain and visual muck. And why? Useless.

COLOR SKETCH: Concerts your original image into an “arty” rendering, minus the shadows, attenuating tones, or subtlety. Looks just like a classy artist knocked out a masterpiece with his box of charcoals! Fools no one except perhaps extremely learning-challenged chimps. If you want to be a painter, fine, then do it, but let’s stop calling this an enhancement.

MINIATURE EFFECT. Okay, so you can’t afford a real tilt-shift lens to create the illusion that your aerial shot of Paris is really a toy-sized tabletop model, so let’s take your photo and throw selective parts of it out of focus. That should be good enough. We’ll now allow a five-minute pause here for the exactly two times you’ll ever care about making a picture like this.

SELECTIVE COLOR. De-saturate portions of your original for dramatic effect. This is the opposite of the images of a century ago, when people, before color film, added selective hues to monochrome images…for dramatic effect. Only thing is, drama should already be in the picture before you apply this gimmick, hmm? Like many effects modes, this one tempts you to use it to fix a photo that didn’t tell its story properly in the first place. And yes, I have sinned in this area, sadly.

SILHOUETTE. The camera makes sure your foreground subjects are dark and have no detail. In other words, it takes pictures exactly the way your Aunt Sadie did with her Instamatic in 1963. Oh, but it’s so artistic! Yes, cameras always make great art. All by themselves.

HIGH KEY or LOW KEY. This used to mean lightening or darkening of selected items done by meticulous lighting. Now, in Camera Toyland, it means deliberately under-or-overexposing everything in the frame. See earlier reference to your Aunt Sadie.

As far as what should be built into cameras, I’m sure that you could compose your own wish list of helpful tools that could be available as quick-dial aids. My own list would, for example, include the moving of white balance choices from the screen menus to the mode dial. Point is, for every ready-made effect that you delegate to the camera, you are further delaying the education that can only come from doing things yourself. If you want a happy picture, make one, rather than taking a middling one and then dialing up the insertion of a magical birthday cake in the middle of the shot after the fact.

As point-and-shoots are eventually replaced by smartphones and DSLRs position themselves to remain competitive as least on the high-end portion of the market, there seems to be a real opportunity for a revolution in camera design….away from toys and in favor of tools.

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


LET THE LIGHT BE THE STORY

Ordinary, familiar subject matter, yes, but for a few moments its display of light was all the "subject" I needed. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Ordinary, familiar objects, yes, but, for a few moments. their display of light was all the “subject” I needed. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of  gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.

The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.

On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”…..at least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.

Early morning shadows shift suddenly, presenting many different ways to see the same subject. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Early morning shadows shift suddenly, presenting many different ways to see the same subject. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light,  and not the subject, be the entire story.  That, and shooting on manual.

Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.

Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.

Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.

The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.

Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.

I like the odds.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)


THE GOLDEN AGE OF JUST OKAY

Is this a success or a failure? Does it matter? All that's important is that you, not the camera, is making the picture. Manual mode, 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

Plenty of mistakes made on this one. Is it a success or a failure? Does it matter? All that’s important is that you, not the camera, is making the picture. Manual mode, 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE ALL SAY IT: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS. 

We all say it. None of us believes it. It’s just not, well, American to throw aside our national myths, and the folk tale of the lucky, quick genius who zooms to the head of the line to fame, bounding in front of all the sloggers and suckers, is intoxicating. One blinding inspiration, we tell ourselves, just one great notion, and we can bypass all that “practicing and patience” stuff, the same virtues we feel honor bound to extol in others. In anyone else but me.

Me, I’m taking the shortcut.

So now is about the time when the photography angle of this rant should kick in, right?

Okay, here goes.

As the automode functions of cameras have grown ever more complex, they have made taking a perfectly acceptable picture effortless. Great for immediate gratification. Not so great for the art of photography. Think about it. It has become so fabulously easy to point and get something that isn’t too bad, that we are bypassing the slower, uglier, but eventually more satisfying process that comes with trial, error, recalculation, and risk. We produce more error-free pictures than ever before, but, to do that, we have to hang our own creativity…..the raw, sloppy process of imagineering our own vision…on the wall. We get fat and lazy. And so do our pictures.

Now that I have successfully defended my title as the great Grinch Buzzkill, trying to rid Whoville of good, clean camera fun, let me just ask one more question. Do we want a large mountain of “okay” pictures, taken, to an ever greater degree, by our cameras, or a smaller, more amazing pile of remarkable pictures borne of our own sweat and struggle? Tricky part: there is no right or wrong answer, just a choice to be made based on your own expectations.  Turning off the “green zone” of guaranteed effect modes and really educating ourselves as to what is going into the making of our pictures means turning off a snapshot mentality and opting for the unpredictable.

Hey, I’m not suggesting you go all Matthew Brady and lug around forty pounds of wet plates and a covered wagon full of caustic chemicals just to take a birthday picture of Grandma blowing out her candles. But we can probably aspire to more than just the golden age of okay.

We already know how easy it is to take a picture. Now we need to rediscover how hard it can be, and what miracles can spring from our minds when we get our hands dirty and go down the rockier path.


LOOK THROUGH ANY WINDOW, PART ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE COMMON THREAD ACROSS ALL THE PHOTO HOW-TO BOOKS EVER WRITTEN IS A WARNING: don’t let all the rules we are discussing here keep you from making a picture. Standardized techniques for exposure, composition, angle, and processing are road maps, not the Ten Commandments. It will become obvious pretty quickly to anyone who makes even a limited study of photography that some of the greatest pictures ever taken color outside the classical lines of “good picture making.” The war photo that captures the moment of death in a blur. The candid that cuts off half the subject’s face. The sunset with blown-out skies or lens flares. Many images outside the realm of “perfection” deliver something immediate and legitimate that goes beyond mere precision. Call it a fist to the gut.

The dawn creeps slowly in on the downtown streets of Monterey, California. A go-for-broke window shot taken under decidedly compromised conditions. 1/15 sec., f/3.5, ISO 640, 18mm.

Conversely, many technically pristine images are absolutely devoid of emotional impact, perfect executions that arrive at the finish line minus a soul. Finally, being happy with our results, despite how far they are from flawless is the animating spirit of art, and feeling. This all starts out with a boost of science, but it ain’t really science at all, is it? If it were, we could just send the camera out by itself, a heart-dead recording instrument like the Mars lander, and remove ourself from the equation entirely.

Thus the common entreaty in every instruction book: shoot it anyway. The only picture that is sure not to “come out” is the one you don’t shoot.

The image at left, of a business building in downtown Monterey, California was almost not taken. If I had been governed only by general how-to rules, I would have simply decided that it was impossible. Lots of reasons “not to”; shooting from a high hotel window at an angle that was nearly guaranteed to pick up a reflection, even taken in a dark room at pre-dawn; the need to be too close to the window to mount a tripod, therefore nixing the chance at a time exposure; and  the likelihood that, for a hand-held shot, I would have to jack the camera’s ISO so high that some of the darker parts of the building would be the smudgy consistency of wet ashes.

Still, I couldn’t walk away from it. Mood, energy, atmosphere, something told me to just shoot it anyway.

I didn’t get “perfection”. That particular ideal had been yanked out of my reach, like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown’s football. But I am glad I tried.  (Click on the image to see a more detailed version of the result)

In the next post, a look at another window that threatened to hold a shot hostage, and a solution that rescued it.


WHEN THE NOISE DIES

In the day, this place is a madness of color and noise. At night, you have its wonders all to yourself. Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California. 25 second exposure at f/10, ISO 100, 24mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AMERICA IS A LOUD PLACE. IF WE DON’T HEAR NOISE WHEREVER WE GO, WE CREATE OUR OWN. It is a country whose every street rings with a cascade of counterpointed voices, transactions, signals, warnings, all of it borne on the madly flapping wings of sound. There are the obvious things, like car horns, screeching tires, soaring planes, thundering rails, somebody else’s music. And then there are the almost invisible hives of interconnecting lives that tamp vibration and confusion into our ears like a trash compactor.

We no longer even notice the noise of life.

In fact, we are vaguely thrown off-balance when it subsides. We need practice in remembering how to get more out of less.

That’s why I love long night exposures. It allows you to survey a scene after the madding crowd has left. Leaving for their dates, their destinies, their homes, they desert the fuller arenas of day and leave it to breathe, and vibrate, at a more intimate rhythm. Colors are muted. Shadows are lengthened. The sky itself becomes a deep velvet envelope instead of a sun-flooded backdrop.

The noise dies, and the quiet momentarily holds the field.

The above image is of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the key tourist destinations in California, a state with an embarrassment of visual riches. During the day, it is a mash of voices, birdcalls, the deep croak of harbor seals, and the boardwalk come-ons of pitchmen hawking samples of chowder along the wharf’s clustered row of seafood joints. It is a colorful cacophony, but the serenity that descends just after dark on cold or inclement nights is worth seeking out as well.

Setting up a tripod and trying to capture the light patterns on the marina, I was stacking up a bunch of near misses. I had to turn my autofocus off, since dark subjects send it weaving all over the road, desperately searching for something to lock onto. I am also convinced that the vibration reduction should be off during night shots as well, since….and this is counter-intuitive….it creates the look of camera shake when it can’t naturally find it. Ow, my brain hurts.

The biggest problem I had was that, for exposures nearing thirty seconds in length, the gentle roll of the water, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, was consistently blurring many of the boats in the frame, since I was actually capturing half a minute of their movement at a time. I couldn’t get an evenly sharp frame, and the cold was starting to make me wish I’d packed in a jacket.  Then, out of desperation, I rotated the tripod about 180 degrees, and reframed to include the main cluster of shops along the raised dock near the marina. Suddenly, I had a composition, its lines drawing the eye from the front to the back of the shot.

More importantly, I got a record of the wharf’s nerve center in a rare moment of calm. People had taken their noise home, and what was left was allowed to be charming.

And I was there, for both my ear and my eye to “hear” it.

Thoughts?


HANDS OFF. SORT OF.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SHOULD BE CURATED SHOWS AT MUSEUMS ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST FOR SNAPSHOTS. It’s already a known fact that images taken in an impulsive instant are among the most emotionally immediate in history. What these billions of “shooting from the hip” pictures share is the uncompromised commitment of hitting that button, and letting what happens, happen. Of course, back in the day, many of us had no choice in the matter, especially with our earliest cameras. Sadly, sometimes the box was too dumb, too seized up in tech cramps to guess what we wanted. Today, however, we can’t blame the camera anymore if we fail to live in the moment. They are world-class enablers. If we didn’t get the shot, we need to be smarter.

Sometimes you gotta shoot ’em quick and hope. Available light and less of it every second: 1/200, f/8, ISO 100, 20mm.

And, to be fair, we are smarter, even in those just-shoot-it-moments. The amazing complexity of today’s captures on automatic modes has saved us the trouble, more than at any time in history, of having to put on the twin hats of physicist and chemist. That should mean scads of instances when we can truly trust our instincts and hand the dirty work off to the camera with a reasonable hope of getting what we were after.

Now, in the modern world, comes the tricky part.

We may now know too much, compared to the cavemen we were in the earliest days of photography. And, once we begin to comprehend the totality of tweaking, calculation, and post-processing that are available to “rescue” more of our shots, it’s amazingly hard to avoid availing ourselves of all of it. We can remove the tiniest mote of dust, conveniently wipe out the crummy telephone wires, erase the ex-girl friend at the wedding. Trickier still, if we shoot on manual mode, we can practically think the process to death, essentially bleeding the adventure and spontaneity out of at least some images that we should just shoot.

There will always be shots that are so complete in themselves that continuing to fiddle with them before shooting will just have a diminishing return, little gifts of the moment that are so nearly perfect already that you could render them lifeless by trying to “perfect” them. Important: this is not an argument for super-gluing your mode dial to the auto position, since that can also create a string of acceptable exposures that fall short of being compelling pictures.

The balance, the aggravation, and eventually, the joy, lies somewhere in the middle.

Once the sun starts to set in Arizona, you’re racing the light to the horizon, so he who hesitates is lost. Shot on the fly at 1/160 sec., f/11, ISO 100, 18mm.

This is the kind of sunset that only becomes possible near the end of the rainy season (a relative term!) in the Sonoran desert. You get more days with at least some clouds overhead, breaking the mega-blue monotony of the southwestern sky. And you get wonderful gradations of color as the last light of day vanishes over the horizon. In this image, that light was changing, and leaving, rapidly. Not a lot of time to weigh options, but a perfect place to flail away and maybe get something. This was not shot on auto mode, but I made a very quick, simple calculation in manual, and kept the prep as brief as possible. Later on, I was tempted again to go on tinkering, considering a lot of little “fixes” to “improve” my result. To my eventual satisfaction, I sat on my hands, and so what you see is what I got…no frills, no fuss, no interfering with my self.

It would probably be a great exercise to compile your own personal museum exhibit of the best pictures that you successfully left alone, the captures that most validate your instincts, your impulse, your artistic courage. And, certainly I would love to see them linked back to this blog, as conversation between all of us is what I value most about the project.

Go for it.