the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Night Photography

CAUSE VS. EFFECT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHETHER THE STONE HITS THE PITCHER OR THE PITCHER HITS THE STONE“, Sancho Panza explains in Man Of La Mancha, “it’s going to be bad for the pitcher”. I love that sentiment, since it explains how blurred, in life, the line really is between cause and effect. Start with the stone or start with the pitcher; the result seems the same, right? In photography, we make a lot of choices about, well, where to stand and point the camera. We also make decisions about whether to focus on cause or effect, and how  that changes the kinds of pictures we wish to make.

There are times when amazing stories can be told on both sides of that equation. I often wish that baseball games could be shown in perpetual split-screen mode, since I love both the triumphant look of the batter who’s just connected and the outfielder who knows, in a second, that a rocket is coming his way. In terms of our visual legacy, both cause and effect have produced some of the world’s favorite images, so it’s inevitable that any shooter, pro or amateur, will eventually investigate both ways of recording experience.

By The Light Of The Supermoon (2016): 2:46 exposure time, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm.

By The Light Of The Supermoon (2016): 2:46 exposure time, f/8, ISO 100, 24mm.

This year’s highly-touted “Supermoon” phenomenon seemed like a good opportunity for me to make just such a choice. The global hype machine went into overdrive on the appearance of this brighter/bigger-than-normal orb in the November skies, with the result being a flood tide of photos of, uh, the moon. More precisely, millions of the same exact picture of the moon, with a few outliers framing it behind a palm tree, silhouetting a city skyline, or some other such filigree.

For me, then, the cause of all this hubbub seemed anticlimactic at best, and yet I still felt compelled to do something to mark the occasion. Then I realized that the effect, not the cause, held the possibility of making a picture that interested me. I recalled that I had never had the chance to make a photograph with only moonlight for illumination. My backyard was readable in every fine detail with my naked eye as the moon, which was over my shoulder, lit up the pool, the shrubbery, and our brick patio and walls. I also knew that what looked glowingly bright to me would be rendered as absolute darkness for a handheld camera shot, so out came the tripod.

With time exposures, you can shoot at low ISO, reducing noise to an absolute minimum. You can also shoot at a small aperture for maximum depth-of-field; you just lengthen the exposure time to compensate. That meant that, during the moon’s brightest hour, I would, at f/8, need an exposure of just under three minutes, enough to rescue a lot of detail and even catch some of the remaining deep blue in the sky, which your eye wants to see as simple black.

Fifteen or so tries later, I got what you see here. Not a sign of the moon itself (cause) but plenty of evidence of its presence (effect). The subject matter wasn’t mesmerizing, but the mood registered pretty much the way my eye saw it, which, when you’re working with a limited servo-mechanism like a camera, is pretty much a win.

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A MATTER OF DEGREE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NIGHT CREATES SUCH A DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FLAVOR in anyone’s photography that some shooters, romantically attracted to its unique look, have made night-time their exclusive domain. Night is also the toughest time of day to render properly, and a zone wherein one’s interpretation of “reality” varies wildly. From the earliest days of the photographic medium, the hours after sunset were, first and foremost, a technical minefield, filled with pitfalls and perils.

Today, fast lenses and the higher ISO that can be dialed up pretty much at will mean fewer tripod shots, more hand-held shots, and thus a much bigger yield of often stunning night-time images. Even modest cameras are evolving so quickly that it’s getting hard to remember a time when we couldn’t shoot pretty much whatever we desired.

Lincoln Center, 2016

Lincoln Center, 2016

In many night settings, the contrast between bright and dark objects is dramatically multiplied. That means that getting proper exposure still has to be calculated based on widely varying elements within the frame. The night I took this image at New York’s Lincoln Center, I shot the various performance buildings on the “campus” in every compositional combination and setting possible, using a Nikon f/2.8 24mm prime lens. I framed the theatres at right angles to each other, by themselves, juxtaposed with neighboring skyscrapers, with and without the center’s fountain plaza, from medium distances to the lobby, tight distances to the lobby, and so on. In one “almost” calculation, I shot at f/8 and about 1/80 sec. at 1500 ISO, didn’t like how grungy it looked, then cranked the lens wide open to f/2.8, used as slow an exposure as I could execute hand-held (about 1/20 sec.), and backed off the ISO to about 400. That’s the combo you see above.

Normally, an aperture like f/2.8 produces a very shallow depth of field, which is generally bad for distant subjects. However, if you are focused to infinity, and your subject is, say, forty feet away, the image starts to get a little sharper at about twenty feet out, and is pretty sharp by forty. One sharpness caveat: if you use a slow exposure, as I chose to, and you’re also boosting your ISO, the electrical lights in your image will begin to go soft and globby fairly quickly…to “burn in” to some degree. You can see this in my image in the lobby chandelier, which registers as a velvety glow instead of a sharp grouping of individual bulbs. As an alternative, if you have time to experiment, you can amp up the up the ISO a little more, speed up your shutter, and perhaps render the lights a little sharper. This depends greatly on how many wives you have standing nearby, asking, “can we please just walk to the subway now?” It’s also not the only solution possible. Fiddle with it and see what works for you.

Also, if you are lucky enough to be shooting on a tripod, then you can shoot at minimal ISO, an aperture of f/11 or narrower, and as long an exposure as you desire. But the above guidelines are offered for someone shooting hand-held, and in a moderate hurry. I use very fast prime lenses to give me the sharpest focus and the most light latitude possible in the greatest number of situations, assuming that I won’t be allowed to mount a pod, even if I wanted to take one to the theatre (I don’t). So, as always, you have to decide a little ahead of time what you might be shooting, what the reality on the ground will be, and what you’ll need in the way of toys to bring home a goodie. Night is a very different animal, but trying to tame it is surprising and fun.

 


LATE-BURNING CANDLES

Night Bloom, 2016.

Night Bloom, 2016. 8 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DAYTIME PHOTOGRAPHS OF BUILDING EXTERIORS present the interior contents of apartments, stores and offices in a very muted fashion. Glare, sunlight, and plain old dirty glass, along with the limited scope of some camera sensors, render inside space in a somewhat flattened manner. Fortunately, night shots of the same spaces reveal something completely different, hints of the lives of the people who have locked up and headed home for the evening.

Like a picture framed in a black matte or displayed on a bed of velvet, night images of building interiors, taken from outside those buildings, benefit from that contrasty “punching up” between dark and light. More to the point is how people decide to stage their work space when they clock out. Do they leave a single lamp on to illuminate their desk? Is the room largely dark, but partially painted with ambient light from the cleaning person down the hall? Are certain displays, logos, personal effects altered by the overall reduction in illumination? And, for the photographer, does something different emerge in the feel of the room that seems invisible by day?

I recently walked around a large museum campus, taking medium-distance time exposures of several buildings whose exterior lighting scheme seemed altered at night, when I saw the office window you see above. The overall scheme of light in the room was warm. The gorgeous amaryllis plant arching over someone’s desk not only worked that slightly orange room light, but was made especially seductive with the deepening of its own colors. Here was a workspace where someone drew rest, beauty, and solace from the inclusion of just one extra humanizing item. And, after dark, it glowed like a coal to passersby. I had to have it, at least inside my camera.

I’m not saying that all peeks through all windows yield treasures to the photographer’s eye. But the sheer volume of visual information on a city street during the day is cut by half after sundown, and occasionally,  you find a late-burning candle that has spent the daylight hours hiding in plain sight.

 


PICTURES WITH A LEG (OR LEGS) TO STAND ON

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU HAVE SEEN THEM A MILLION TIMES. Those brave souls who, despite multiple trips to Failed Fotoland, optimistically point their cel cameras at distant and dark objects, hoping their puny on-board flashes will illuminate cavernous concert halls, banish shadows from vast cathedrals, or, God bless them, turn the night sky into a luminous planetarium. They have faith, these people. But they don’t often take home the prize.

Immense, dark masses of subject matter, from mountain sides to moody urban streets, simply cannot be uniformly exposed with a sudden lucky burst of on-camera flash. The only way to gather enough light to get a usable exposure of such things is to leave your shutter open long enough to let more light soak in. Think dribble instead of flood. Time exposures are remarkably effective in “burning in” an image slowly, but they have their own science and technique, and they must be patiently practiced. They are the dead opposite of a quick fix, but they are worth the trouble.

Ember Mountain, 2016. Two separate time exposures nearly a half-hour apart, blended in Photomatix' "Exposure Fusion" mode.

Ember Mountain, 2016. Two separate time exposures nearly a half-hour apart, blended in Photomatix’ “Exposure Fusion” mode.

With today’s editing software, it’s easier than ever to customize even your best time exposures, combining several shots taken over a given time sequence to arrive at a satisfying balance of elements. In the above picture, I wanted to show the colorful “Field Of Light” installation created by artist Bruce Munro for Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, which blankets a desert hillside with over 30,000 globes of color-shifting light. I set up my tripod about a half-hour before local sunset and took exposures five minutes apart until about forty minutes into the onset of evening.

From that broad sequence, I selected two frames; one taken before dark, in which the underlying detail of the hill (desert plants, rocks, etc.) could still be seen, and one taken just after the sky had gone dark to the naked eye, but blue to the camera. I then composited the shots in Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” mode, which is a bit like stacking two backlit slides and gradually changing how much of each can bleed into the other. My object was to get both a blue, but not black, twilight sky and at least some detail from the natural terrain. Neither individual shot could achieve all of this alone, however, given the ease of doing an exposure fusion in nearly any kind of photo software these days, it was a snap to grab the best elements of both frames.

Epilogue: during the fairly long stretch of time I was standing behind my tripod, I counted over two dozen separate visitors who boldly stepped up, aimed their cellphones, cranked off a quick flash, and loped away, muttering something like, “well, that didn’t work.” Some shots are like low-lying fruit, and some have to be coaxed out of the camera. Knowing which is which, ahead of time, makes for happier results.


A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

Will energy-efficient streetlighting make your neighborhood look like this....

Will energy-efficient street lighting make your neighborhood look like this….

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,

...or this?

…or this?

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.


WITHOUT A LEG TO STAND ON

A tripod shot that could have been a contender, had I truly been prepared.

A tripod night exposure that could have been a contender, had I truly been prepared.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS OFTEN RECOMMENDED as the way to afford yourself the most stability in a long exposure. After all, few of us are robotic enough to hold a camera stock-still for anything below a third of a second, so it’s a no-brainer to park your camera on something that’s too inhuman to flinch. You can also take amazing stuff hand-held on shorter night exposures, so long as you (a) have a lens that will shoot around f/1.8 or wider and (b) you can live with the noise a higher ISO will engender.

So, yeah, tripods have their place, but they are not the only determinants in the success of a night-time shoot. And those other x-factors can severely compromise your results. There is the stability of the tripod itself, which isn’t a big sweat if you shelled out $900 for a carbon-fiber Gitzo Pan/Tilt GK, but might generate heartburn if you got something closer to a set of metallic popsicle sticks for $29 at Office Max. The shot above was taken using my own modest (cheap) rig atop Mount Washington across from downtown Pittsburgh, and a few of the healthier gusts threatened to take it and me on a quick lap around the riverfront. Some people buy sandbags. Some believe in the power of prayer. Your choice.

Another x-factor for ‘pod shots is the actual weather you’re shooting in, which will, let’s say, shape your enthusiasm for staying out long enough to get the perfect shot. The smaller your aperture, the longer the exposure. The more long exposures you take, the longer you, yourself, are “exposed”…to snow, sleet, and all that other stuff that mailmen laugh at. Again, referencing the above image, I was contending with freezing drizzle and a windbreaker that was way too thin  for heroics. Did I cut my session short? i confess that I did.

I could also mention the nagging catcalls of the other people in my party, who wanted me to, in their profound words, “just take the damned picture” so they could partake of (a)a warm bar, (b) a cold beer, (c) a hot waitress. Result: a less than perfect capture of a fairly good skyline. A little over-exposed, washing out the color. A little mushy, since the selfsame over-exposure allowed the building lights to burn in, rendering them glow-y instead of pin sharp. I was able to fix some of the color deficiencies later, but this is not a “greatest hits” image by any stretch.

Tripods can be lifesavers, but you must learn to maximize their effectiveness just like any other piece of camera equipment. If you’re going to go to a buncha trouble to get a shot, the final result should reflect all that effort, quality-wise.


RETURN OF THE POD PEOPLE

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015.

Wiltern On Wilshire, 2015. At f/3.5 and an ISO of 1000, this is an acceptably sharp hand-held exposure. Want the lights to be sharper? Might have to go tripod.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.

One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20  or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.

However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?

Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.

However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?

 


EMPTY TABLES

"Each place I go....only the lonely go...."

“Each place I go….only the lonely go….”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.

He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.

I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.

It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?

It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.

 


THE LAST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

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

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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

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

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

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

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

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


SHOW, DON’T TALK

Got a feeling inside (can’t explain)
It’s a certain kind (can’t explain)
I feel hot and cold (can’t explain)
Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (can’t explain)—–Pete Townshend

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY NEEDS MORE ARTISTS AND FEWER ART CRITICS. Period, full stop.

When it comes to imaging, those who can, do, and those who can’t, curate shows. Or pontificate on things they had no hand in creating. It’s just human nature. Some of us build skyscrapers and some of us are “sidewalk superintendents”, peering through the security fencing to cluck our tongues in scorn, because, you know, those guys aren’t doing it right.

Even wonderful pioneers in “appreciation” like the late John Szarkowski, one of the first curators of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art , and a tireless fighter for the elevation of photography to a fine art, often tossed up bilious bowlfuls of word salad when remarking on the work of a given shooter. As essays his remarks were entertaining. As explanations of the art, they were redundant.

What is this photograph saying? Well, that's for you to decide, isn't it?

What is this photograph “saying”? Well, that’s for you to decide, isn’t it?

This human need to explain things is vital if you’re trying to untie the knotted language of a peace treaty or complete a chemical equation, but it just adds lead boots to the appreciation of photography, which is to be seen, not read about (sassy talk for a blogger, no? Oh, well). No amount of captioning (even by the artist) can redeem a badly conceived photograph or make it speak more clearly. It all begins to sound like so many alibis, so many “here’s what I was going for” footnotes. Photography is visual and visceral. If you reached somebody, the title of the image could be “Study #245” and it still works. If not, you can append the biggest explanatory screed since the Warren Report and it’s still a lousy photo.

I’m not saying that all context is wrong in regard to a photo. Certainly, in these pages, we talk about motivation and intention all the time. However, such tracts can never be used to do the actual job of communicating that the picture is supposed to be doing. Asked once about the mechanics of his humor, Lenny Bruce spoke volumes by replying,” I just do it, that’s all.” I often worry that we use captioning to push a viewer one way or another, to suggest that he/she react a certain way, or interpret what we’ve done along a preferred track. That is the picture’s task, and if we fail at that, then the rest is noise.


TERRA INCOGNITA

By MICHAEL PERKINS RANDOMNESS HAS STUBBORNLY ASSERTED ITSELF AS ONE OF THE MOST DECISIVE FORCES IN ALL OF PHOTOGRAPHY.One of the eternal struggles in our craft has been between our intense attempts to reduce the recording of light to a predictable science, and nature’s insistent pushback, allowing things that just happen to shape our results. I think most of our work as individuals is a constant wrestling between these two forces. One moment we fancy ourselves mastering all the variables that create images, and in the next we celebrate the wilding potential of just letting go, and actually celebrating the random effect. I find myself careening between the comfort of all the techniques I have accumulated over a lifetime, the so-called “guarantees” that I’ll capture what I’m looking for, and the giddy discovery that accidentals, or artifacts, somehow found themselves in my pictures despite my best efforts. The problem, for me, is learning to celebrate something wonderful that happened without my consciously causing it.

Brooklyn Bodega, 2014.

Brooklyn Bodega, 2014.

Phone cameras are forcing me to accept a little less control, since, even at their best, they can’t be managed in the way that standard DSLRs can. That leaves a certain number of results to chance, or, more exactly, to a display of the camera’s limits. One one hand, I’m grateful for the shots that I can “save” by using a mobile, since there will always be times that other types camera will be blocked, forbidden, or inconvenient. On the other hand, the results always make me wonder what else might have been possible if I had been completely at the helm in the making of the images. Some of the things I get “on the fly” with a phone camera are actually a bit magical, so that I actually love the things that are “wrong” with the picture. I’m sure this is part of the enjoyment that the lomography crowd derive from working with plastic toy cameras which create totally unpredictable results purely as a result of the camera’s shortcomings. In the above image, the garish register of nearly every color by my iPhone works well with the bizarre collision of dusk, neon, urban textures, even the overblown mystery of what’s going on inside the crazed little bodega shown here. The extreme wide-angle bias of the iPhone also has stretched things into exotic exaggerations of perspective, and the camera’s auto-boosted ISO produces a high level of noise. Does it all work? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t surrender control easily, but I’ve seen enough of the fortunate accidents of photographers from all over the world not to welcome nature’s interventions. I mean, after all, the idea that we’re actually in control is, at best, a pleasant illusion. We don’t really understand lightning, and yet, somehow, we’ve been given the ability to capture it in a box. Strange.


THE (LATENT) BLUES

A dawn exposure takes on the look of early evening.

A dawn exposure takes on the look of early evening.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE HAVE CONTROL OVER NEARLY EVERY PART OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS BUT… ACCESS. We can learn to master aperture, exposure, composition, and many other basics of picture making, but we can’t help the fact that we are typically at our shooting location for one time of day only.

Whatever “right now” may be….morning, afternoon, evening….it usually includes one distinct period in the day: the pier at sunset, the garden at break of dawn. Unless we have arranged to spend an extended stretch of time on a shoot, say, chasing the sun and shadows across a daylong period from one location at the Grand Canyon or some such, we don’t tend to spend all day in one place. That means we get but one aspect of a place…however it’s lit, whoever is standing about, whatever temporal events are native to that time of day.

The original morning exposure.

The original morning exposure.

Many locations that are easily shot by day are either unavailable or technically more complex after sundown. That’s why  the so-called “day for night” effect appeals to me. As I had written sometime back, the name comes from the practice Hollywood has used for over a hundred years to save time and ensure even exposure by shooting in daylight and either processing or compensating in the camera to make the scene approximate early night.

In the case of the image you see up top, I have created an illusion of night through the re-contrasting and color re-assignment of a shot that I originally made as a simple daylight exposure. In such cases, the mood of the image is completely changed, since the light cues which tell us whether something is bright or mysterious are deliberately subverted. Light is the single largest determinant of mood, and, when you twist it around, it reconfigures the way you read an image. I call these faux-night remakes “latent blues”, as they generally look the way the sky photographs just after sunset.

This effect is certainly not designed to help me avoid doing true night-time exposures, but it can amplify the effect of images that were essentially solid but in need of a little atmospheric boost. Just because you can’t hang around ’til midnight, you shouldn’t have to do without a little midnight mood.

 


FALL-OFF AS LEAD-IN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

USING “LEADING LINES” TO PULL A VIEWER INTO AN IMAGE IS PRETTY MUCH COMPOSITION 101. It’s one of the best and simplest ways to overcome the flat plane of a photograph, to simulate a feeling of depth by framing the picture so the eye is drawn inward from a point along the edge, usually by use of a bold diagonal taking the eye to an imagined horizon or “vanishing point”. Railroad tracks, staircases, the edge of a long wall, the pews in a church. We all take advantage of this basic trick of engagement.

Bright light into subdued light: a natural way to pull your viewer deeper into the picture. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 650, 35mm.

Bright light into subdued light: a natural way to pull your viewer deeper into the picture. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 650, 35mm.

One thing that can aid this lead-in effect even more is shooting at night. Artificial lighting schemes on many buildings “tell” the eye what the most important and least important features should be…where the designer wants your eye to go. This means that there is at least one angle on many city scenes where the light goes from intense to muted, a transition you can use to seize and direct attention.

This all gives me another chance to preach my gospel about the value of prime lenses in night shots. Primes like the f/1.8 35mm used for this image are so fast, and recent improvements in noiseless ISO boosts so advanced, that you can shoot handheld in many more situations. That means time to shoot more, check more, edit more, get closer to the shot you imagined. This shot is one of a dozen squeezed off in about a minute. The reduction of implementation time here is almost as valuable as the speed of the lens, and, in some cases, the fall-off of light at night can act as a more dramatic lead-in for your shots.


DON’T SETTLE FOR REALITY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE FIRST LEARN HOW TO CONTROL LIGHT WHEN THERE IS A PRETTY GOOD SUPPLY OF IT. Our baby-step pictures are usually taken in the middle of the day, where it’s easier to over-expose than under-expose the shot. The sun is out and it’s a constant resource. We may step in and out of a shadow or need to fill a few gaps with flash, but mostly the issue of light is about managing something you have a big bunch of.

Once we venture into night shots, light becomes a precious commodity, like water in the desert. The equation is flipped. Now we’re struggling to get enough illumination to shape a shot, or sometimes just save it. We can shoot in the reduced light that’s on hand, but  it takes a little more orchestration. Move into time exposures and the terms of engagement change again, with the ability to play God with the physics of things.

Shot in complete darkness and selectively lit with a handheld LED. Exposed for 73 seconds at f/4.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

Shot in complete darkness and selectively light-painted with a handheld LED. Exposed for 73 seconds at f/4.5, ISO 100, 18mm. The light streaks are “wrong turns” with my flashlight. Oops. 

And then there’s light painting, selective hand illumination during long exposures, where the aim is suddenly beyond the merely real. In fact, light painting is about deliberately manipulating mood and atmosphere, of bringing a magical quality where none exists. It also is the kind of low-light photography with the least predictable results, and the highest possible failure rate. You are constantly in uncharted waters, since no two exposures come out even remotely alike. You’re flying blind with your eyes open.

I have recently begun to head outdoors to re-imagine trees in these artificial, fantasy-flavored “light compositions”, in an effort to lend heft to subjects that, in daylight, would register pretty low on the wow meter. Over the years, I have honed my technique with tabletop light painting in controlled interiors, but if I get one exterior shot in thirty that I can live with, that’s an amazing day, er, night.

I don’t have any wisdom to impart on these shots, since their value is so crazy subjective. You do it until you like it, that’s all. But do yourself a favor sometime and do wade in. You might catch the fever, or you may experience the urge to hurl your tripod over the neighbor’s wall like a javelin of rage.When you don’t have enough light, you’re kind of in free fall.

But even if you don’t stick the landing, it ain’t fatal.


NIGHT GALLERY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I RECENTLY READ AN INTRIGUING STATEMENT ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PAINTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY to the effect that painters start with nothing, and add information until the image is created, whereas photographers start with total information and work to selectively remove things until their pictures are made. Of course, there are times when both artists borrow the approach of the other, and the practice of “light painting” is one place where photogs can actually wield a kind of brush, beginning in pure darkness and then adding illumination, literally by hand, until a picture, layer by layer, emerges.

Bascially, you’re going down two potential paths with light painting. One is the depiction of fantasy, a custom light creation that is the central subject of the image, rather than an augmentation of something else. Visit the tutorial link below to view some of these visions, as they are truly fascinating (not to mention work-intensive): the flaming fireball dancing across the lake, the geometric noodlings hanging in mid-air, the angel wings growing out of your girlfriend’s back, and so on. The other approach is to amplify the impact of a subject which has either no illumination at night or a lighting scheme that is counter to the mood you’re going for. In this case, your flashlight, LED or light coil is creating the visual reality that you wish existed. It’s “reality-plus”, rather than a complete fantasy. This is the avenue I have tended to favor.

No lighting in the back yard, unless you "paint" it on: 30 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 18mm.

No lighting in the back yard, unless you “paint” it on: 30 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 18mm.

After a year away from light painting, I have started to slink back into it, moving from tabletop arrangements, where control is less of an issue, to exterior locales, which are, frankly, the very definition of trial-and-error.With the camera locked onto its tripod and with a pre-determined exposure and aperture, the responsibility for whether the magic happens is literally in your hands, hands that need real-world training in this technique.

As for lighting: these days, even dollar-store LEDs provide a pretty intense white light in darkness but they don’t throw it very far, and they are also pretty narrowly focused, so, if you want to paint the side of, say, a barn, it’s really hard to do so evenly. Best thing is to avoid the bargain lights: get yourself a powerful torch with a variable focus, something that can shoot both soft and wide. It’ll save you lots of time trying to guess about coverage on larger surfaces. Also, within a single exposure, you can still change off to the pencil-thin lights for special detailing, since, in complete darkness, your shutter will be open long enough for you to switch lights on and off, change position, and touch things up.

The above image was done in a yard with no landscape lighting on hand, other than the light I am applying during a thirty-second exposure. Not a perfect execution, but a quick example of how you can impart night mood to objects that are duller than dishwater in daylight. Lighting is all about setting the terms of view, and hand-painting the light allows you to control that mood, almost as completely as you would with oil, brush or canvas.

More to look at:

http://www.lightpaintingphotography.com


DARKNESS AS SCULPTOR

A dead end? Not once the sun goes down. 1/10 sec., f/3.5, ISO 500, 18mm

A dead end? Not once the sun goes down. 1/10 sec., f/3.5, ISO 500, 18mm

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN DAYLIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY, THE DEFAULT ACTION TENDS TO BE TO SHOW EVERYTHING. Shadows in day scenes are a kind of negative reference to the illuminated objects in the frame, but it is those objects, and not the darkness, that defines space. In this way shady areas are a kind of decor, an aid to recognition of scale and depth.

At night, however, the darkness truly plays a defining role, reversing its daylight relationship to light. Dark becomes the stuff that night photos are sculpted from, creating areas that can remain undefined or concealed, giving images a sense of understatement, even mystery. Not only does this create compelling compositions of things that are less than fascinating in the daytime, it allows you to play “light director” to selectively decide how much information is provided to the viewer. In some ways, it is a more pro-active way of making a picture.

This bike shop took on drastically different qualities as the sun set. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

This bike shop took on drastically different qualities as the sun set. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

I strongly recommend walkabout shoots that span the complete transition from dusk to post-sunset to absolute night. Not only will the quickly changing quality of light force you to make decisions very much in-the-moment, it allows for a vast variance in the visual power of your subjects that is starkly easy to measure. It’s a great practice lab for shooting completely on manual, and, depending on the speed of your chosen lens (and greater ISO flexibility in recent cameras), makes relatively noise -free, stable handheld shots possible that were unthinkable just a few years ago. One British writer I follow recently remarked, concerning ISO, that “1600 is the new 400”, and he’s very nearly right.

So wander around in the dark. The variable results force you to shoot a lot, rethink a lot, and experiment a lot. Even one evening can accelerate your learning curve by weeks. And when darkness is the primary sculptor of a shot, lovely things (wait for the bad pun) can come to light (sorry).


STOP AT “YES”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SEEMS TO BE A PROPENSITY, WITHIN THE DNA OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, to “show it all”, to flood the frame with as much visual information as humanly possible in an attempt to faithfully render a story. Some of this may track back to the first days of the art, when the world was a vast, unexplored panorama, a wilderness to be mapped and recorded. Early shutterbugs risked their fortunes and their lives to document immense vistas, mountain ranges, raging cataracts, daunting cliffs. There was a continent to conquer, an immense openness to capture. The objectives were big, and the resultant pictures were epic in scale.

Seemingly, intimacy, the ability to select things, to zero in on small stories, came later. And for some of us, it never comes. Accordingly, the world is flooded with pictures that talk too loudly and too much, including, strangely, subjects shot at fairly close range. The urge is strong to gather, rather than edit, to include rather than to pare away. But there are times when you’re just trying to get the picture to “yes”, the point at which nothing else is required to get the image right, which is also the point at which, if something extra is added, the impact of the image is actually diminished. I, especially, have had to labor long and hard to just get to “yes”….and stop.

"Don't overthink this", say the Photo Phates. 1/25 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

“Don’t overthink this”, say the Photo Phates. 1/25 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

In the above image, there are only two elements that matter: the border of brightly lit paper lanterns at the edge of a Chinese New Year festival and the small pond that reflects back that light. If I were to exhaust myself trying to also extract more detail from the surrounding grounds or the fence, I would accomplish nothing further in the making of the picture. As a matter of fact, adding even one more piece of information can only lessen the force of the composition. I mention this because I can definitely recall occasions when I would whack away at the problem, perhaps with a longer exposure, to show everything in more or less equal illumination. And I would have been wrong.

Even with this picture, I had to make myself accept that a picture I like this much required so little sweat. Less can actually be more, but we have to learn to get out of our own way….to stop at “yes”.


NEAR MISS/NEAR SAVES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE PICTORIAL POTENTIAL OF SOME EVENTS, PHOTOGRAPHICALLY, TURNS OUT SOMEWHAT LESS MIRACULOUS THAN ADVERTISED. That is to say, a few of the things that you assume will certainly yield stunning image opportunities come off, in reality, with the majesty of, well, a flea circus. Sometimes, you think you’ll come home with the Seven Wonders Of The World inside your camera. Other times, you have to fight a strong urge to give up all this “pitcher-takin'” nonsense and take up honest work, like bank robbing, where you can at least set your own hours.

We’ve all been there.

Fairs, festivals, commemorations, parades…..these are all happenings which are ripe with potential, for which we have all camped out on the perimeter of what we hope and pray will be the Next Big Thing, only to come home with crumbs. Leavings. And the best thing to do when an event becomes a near-miss is to seek out what I call the “near saves”. That is, when the story at a given event is disappointingly small, go smaller….toward the intimate detail, the human component, the pertinent bit of texture or atmosphere. The overall panorama may fail, but a single face, a structural element, a series of shadows may deliver where the overall scene fails.

"Went To See The Gypsy..." 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

“Went To See The Gypsy…” 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

The above image happened almost by accident. Around early sunset, I rushed into an over-hyped cultural festival which failed to achieve full wonderfullness (trust me), and, hours after sunset, I was leaving in defeat, when, near the exit, I spotted a genuine, weirdo-beardo-freak-yourself-out gypsy fortune-telling machine, right out of Tom Hanks’ Big, wonderfully lit by ambient neon on the midway and the device’s own built-in “spook light”. The deepening dark of night was suddenly my best friend, boosting the mystery with oodles of deep shadow. With a 35mm prime lens, I could open clear up to f/1.8, keeping my ISO low at 100 and allowing me to get plenty of light at 1/40 of a second. I was amazed that I had walked right past this treasure when I entered the festival, but I was grateful for a second chance. Snap and done.

Thus,my best shots from the night were of anything but the main “attractions” of the event. Going small meant going beyond the obvious, the difference between a near miss and a near save.

The difference.


I MAY HAVE TO WORK LATE

Say Hi To The Cleaning Crew: 1/50 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

Say Hi To The Cleaning Crew: 1/50 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME OF THE BEST HUMAN INTEREST STORIES, EVEN WITH A CAMERA, CAN ONLY BE VIEWED INDIRECTLY. There are many cases in which even the best of us have to merely hint or suggest something about people that we clearly cannot show (or cannot show clearly). Maybe that intractable bit of visual mystery actually bonds us to our audiences, united as we are in speculation about what is beyond that wall or behind that door. The visual tease such photos provide are part of the art of making pictures, in that we are challenged to do more with less, and “show” something beyond the visible.

One of the simplest such stories to capture is very urban in nature: the last remaining nighttime lights in largely dormant buildings. Many of us have been the “last man standing” at the end of an extended work day. Others flee to engagements, family, dinner, but there we sit, chained to our desks until the report/project/research/budget is ready to be put to bed. There’s a readily identifiable feeling of loneliness, plus a little bit of martyr complex, that we can share in the plight of these unknown soldiers of the night.

Whenever I am driving through a city at night, I deliberately seek out those bluish, tube-lit warrens within the cubes and grids of otherwise featureless glass boxes. Who is there? What private eureka or oh, no moments are they experiencing? Which of a million potential dramas are being acted out, and with whom? The uncertainty, even from a photograph with little detail, sparks the imagination, and suddenly our viewers are completing the picture we were forced to deliver unfinished.

It’s the ongoing paradox of photography: what you don’t show is as vital as what you do show