TELL YOU WHAT’S BETTER….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESSING has shifted drastically in the post-digital age, and not necessarily in a good direction. Those of us old enough to remember mastadons, horse-drawn carriages and analog film were certainly aware that images could be edited or enhanced after the fact, conjuring up, say, memories of airbrush artists smoothing away chicken-pox scars from the shoulders of Miss January. We knew some of the magic happened in the lab.
Likewise, we knew that even the top masters did lots of tweaking in the darkroom prior to publication. The emphasis, however, was largely on perfecting an essentially strong picture, to make a good thing better/great. However, that emphasis is now placed, far too often, on trying to “save” images that were executed poorly in the first place, bringing marginal work up to some kind of baseline par of acceptability. That’s like the difference between polishing a Steinway and repainting a toy piano.
So, here’s my plea to those laboring to rescue their misbegotten babies in editing programs: Don’t repair. Re-shoot.
A good deal of the quick-fix buttons on editing programs should be marked with glowing red asterisks, with the following disclaimer at the bottom of the screen: WARNING: By using this change, you will fix your first proplem and create a different one somewhere else within your photograph. Let’s face it, no corrective action in editing happens in isolation. It must create a ripple effect, major or minor, in the final look of the image.
Use the “straighten” button for your misaligned shots, and they will lose sharpness. Suck out the darker shadows and your picture could lose dynamic range. Oversharpen your pictures and they will look harsh, with an unnatural transition between light and dark values. Reduce the noise in the image and it may appear flat, like pastel paint slathered on blotting paper.
Or here’s a radical notion: do all your thinking and planning before the shutter snaps. Yes, I know, I sound like some old schoolmarm scold, but please, can we at least consider the idea that there are no true shortcuts, that there can be no magical substitute for knowing your gear, developing an eye, and putting in the practice time required to make a photograph?
We once believed that patience was a virtue, that skill and mastery were more important than instant gratification. Know what? All of the greatest photographers still believe those things. And their work shows it.
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.
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.
DARKNESS AS SCULPTOR
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.
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).
EAVESDROPPING ON REALITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.
Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.
In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.
Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.
The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.
The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.
Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.
The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.
DARK NIGHT, BRIGHT NIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OFTEN, THE SHOT YOU GET HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO THE SHOT YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED. We all like to think we are operating under some kind of “master plan”, proceeding along a Spock-o-logical path of reason, toward a guaranteed ( and stunning) result, but, hey, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all that.
Night shots are nearly always a series of surprises/rude shocks for me, since sculpting or harvesting light after dark is a completely different skill from what’s used in the daytime. Even small tweaks in my approach to a given subject result in wild variances in the finished product, and so I often sacrifice “the shot” that I had my heart set on for the one which blossomed out of the moment.
This is all French for “lucky accident”. I’d love to attribute it to my own adventurous intellect and godlike talent, but, again, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all about that, too.
So, as to the image up top: in recent years, I have pulled away from the lifelong habit of making time exposures on a tripod, given the progressively better light-gathering range of newer digital sensors, not to mention the convenience of not having to haul around extra hardware. Spotting this building just after dusk outside my hotel the other night, however, I decided I had the time and vantage point to take a long enough exposure to illuminate the building fully and capture some light trails from the passing traffic.
Minutes before setting up my ‘pod, I had taken an earlier snap with nothing but available light, a relatively slow shutter speed and an ISO of 500 , but hadn’t seriously looked at it: traditional thinking told me I could do better with the time exposure. However, when comparing the two shots later, the longer, brighter exposure drained the building of its edgier, natural shadow-casting features, versus the edgier, somber, burnt-orange look of it in the snapshot. The handheld image also rendered the post-dusk sky as a rich blue, while the longer shot lost the entire sky in black. I wanted the building to project a slight air of mystery, which the longer shot completely bleached away. I knew that the snapshot was a bit noisy, but the better overall “feel” of the shot made the trade-off easier to live with. I could also survive without the light trails.
Time exposures render an idealized effect when rendering night-time objects, not an accurate recording of “what I saw”. Continual experimentation can sometimes modulate that effect, but in this case, the snatch-and-grab image won the day. Next time, everything will be different, from subject to result. After all, this is photography.
NOT A LEG TO STAND ON
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WHETHER IN THE SCIENCES OF LENSES, FILMS, SENSORS OR TECHNIQUE, ALL HAVE, AS THEIR AIM, THE SAME RESULT: to make it easier to take more pictures…more often, and with fewer barriers between what you see and what you can catch in the box. Taking more pictures means increasing the yield of wonderful pictures, even if 95% of what you shoot is doody, and getting to the decisive moment of the “click” beats any other imperative. Any gimmicks or toys that don’t increase your readiness to shoot are wasteful detours.
This means that we are constantly weeding out dead growth, trimming away systems or ideas that have outgrown their usefulness. Rusty ways of doing things that cost us time, require extra steps, and eventually rob us of shots.
And that’s why it’s the age of the tripod is nearly over.
Getting past our artistic bias toward the ‘pod as a vital tool in the successful creation of images is tough; we still associate it with the “serious” photographer, even though today’s cameras solve nearly all of the problems tripods were once reliable in offsetting. What we’re left with, regarding the tripod’s real value, then, is old brain wiring and, let’s face it, sentiment.
More importantly, to my first point, the tripod is not about, “Okay, I’m ready!”. It’s about, “Hold on, I’ll be ready in a minute.” Worse yet, to the petty dictators who act as the camera police in churches, monuments, retail establishments and museums, they scream, “you can’t be here”. Call me crazy, but I still think of lack of access (spelled “getting kicked out”) as, well, sort of a hindrance to photography.
Tripods were, once upon a time, wonderful protection again several key problems, among them: slow film/sensor speed, vibration risk, and sharpness at wider apertures, all of which have long since been solved. Moreover, tripods may tempt people to shoot at smaller apertures, which could lead to softer overall images.
I readily concede that tripods are absolutely vital for extended night exposures, light painting, miniature work, and some other very selective professional settings. But for more than a century, ‘pods have mostly been used to compensate where our cameras were either flawed or limited. So, if those limits and flaws have faded sufficiently to allow you to take a nighttime snap, handheld at f/1.8, with a 1/15 shutter speed and the virtual guarantee of a well-lit shot, with negligible noise, why would you carry around twice the gear, pretty much ensuring that you would lose time, flexibility, and opportunities as a result?
The tripod has served us well, as was once true of flash powder, glass plates, even the torturous neck braces used to hold people’s heads in position during long exposures. But it no longer has a leg to stand on.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.