By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TECHNICAL ADVANCEMENT IN THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY has been a double-edge sword, creating either novel gimmickry or a wider array of serious technique, depending on who’s playing the game. The most popular tools available to the widest number of users, from fisheye lenses to phone app filters, illustrate this point again and again. Some people pick up these new features, play with them for a bit, then abandon them forever, while others use them as a way to expand their approach to visualizing an image.
I have written here before about iPhone’s in-camera panoramic tool, which I expect was originally included as a family-friendly option, perfect for making sure that everyone on the Little League team or the family reunion could be captured in one frame, the app instantly stitching a series of narrower photos taken in real time during a left-to-right pan. And, while it can certainly serve in that snapshot-y task, it creates its own set of technical problems. Nonetheless, I have become convinced, over the last few years, that it can lend additional ooomph to serious image making if (a) one is extremely selective in what is shot with it, and (b) the built-in shortcomings of the app can be worked around in the moment.
As with any other technical toy/tool, the results depend on how well you understand the strengths and weaknesses of iPhone’s pano app and plan your shots. Since you pan by pivoting your body (as if it’s the hub of a wheel), you can’t maintain the same distance from your entire subject as you move the camera left to right. That means that the center of that pivot, or what’s dead ahead of you, will tend to distort outward, like the center of a fisheye shot. Depending on what’s at the middle of your shot and how far you are from it, this can give you some unwanted funhouse results.
Also, in what is odd for a tool that’s designed to take pictures of lots of people, using the iPhone pano app to shoot a live, moving crowd is truly hit-or-miss. If a person moves through your picture as you are panning in the same space they occupy, they may be recorded as a slice or a piece of themselves, being caught partly in some of the picture’s vertical “tiles” but absent from the ones directly adjacent to it, causing them to register as a disembodied leg or a slivered torso floating in the air (see left).
In the shot at the top of this page, I was lucky that the street magician at left was standing still during the time I panned across him (once I’ve recorded his part of the frame, he can do what he likes, since the lens no longer “sees” that part of the picture). Likewise the crowd, enthralled by his performance, was remaining pretty static as I completed the pan across their part of the frame. The result has all the story-telling power of an ultra-wide shot, and, because of the composition, actually uses the fisheye-ish bulge to make the segmented pavement appear to be radiating outward from the performer.
And of course there is the subject itself, which has to benefit from all that left-right arrangement of information if you want to avoid just taking the picture for the sake of the effect alone. And there we have the balance between toy and tool that every photographer hopes to strike. Toys get cast aside once boredom sets in. Tools stay around and add to your work in very real ways.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I THINK THAT, FOR YOUNG AND EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS, there’s a greater natural comfort in coloring outside the lines, bending or breaking rules of the medium just to see what happens, regardless of the warnings of user’s manuals or procedurals. This is completely normal, and is, in fact, healthy for the art overall, as every age’s young turks shake the process up and keep us more hidebound shooters from imprisoning photography in a crust of habit.
Phone-based apps play directly to this “what the hell, let’s try it” tendency in the newbie. By their very nature, apps allow people to achieve in a second what used to take years of formal training and painstaking darkroom effort to achieve. This creates the feeling that anything is possible, and that, with the instantaneous feedback loop of digital, there is nothing to be risked or lost by trying.
Whenever I get a new app, I try to figure out what it can produce when used completely counter-intuitively, that is, by going in the direct opposite of its “correct” use. Call it a procedural hack if you will, taking one of the most available effects, the iPhone’s on-board panorama app, as a prime example. Now we all know how the app is supposed to work. You pan evenly and slowly from left to right across a scene and a lot of separate vertical “planks”, all of which are individual exposures, are stitched together by the software to give the appearance of a continuous image. You are instructed by the app when to slow down, and given a guide arrow as you pan that keeps you pretty much on an even horizon. And that’s all you’re supposed to be able to do.
Of course things can go wrong, and watching how they go wrong is what started me on an experiment. If, for example, someone walks through your shot while you are panning, he may appear in only a few of the “planks”, as a warped, disembodied sliver of his leg or arm, or be stretched like taffy across part of the frame. Thing is, this gives you a neat interpretational option for panos that you want to appear surreal. The idea is to deliberately throw those individual planks out of alignment.
Here’s how it works: as you pan, shift your up-down axis either side of that arrow’s horizon guideline. Go gently if you want things to undulate in a smooth wave. Jerk it around a bit of you want to create a seismographic effect, with sharp high-low spikes in your subject. I should note here that this requires a lot of experimentation to get the overall look that you want.
In the top image, I wanted to suggest the kinetic energy of musical dynamics in a static image, so I warped the piano keys out of alignment with each other, as if Salvador Dali had painted the keyboard. In the second image, I used the camera to scan a mounted mall mural, allowing me to work with a still image that I could tweak to suggest a collapsing building or an earthquake. Either of these images are easy to do with nothing more than your iPhone’s pano tool, and the effects can be dramatic. So love your apps, but love them enough to imagine what fun it can be to make them misbehave.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS CONVENIENT AND SIMPLE AS MANY PANORAMIC APPS AND TECHNIQUES HAVE BECOME OF LATE, there are many ways to accent a wide linear line of photo information within a standard camera frame. With images shot in very large file sizes these days, (even without shooting in RAW), plenty can be cropped from a photograph to produce the illusion of a wide composition with no loss in quality. It’s the pano look without the pano gear, and it’s a pretty interesting way to do exposition on crowds.
I first started noodling with this in an effort to save images that were crammed with too much non-essential information, most of them random streets shots that were a little busy or just lacking a central “point”. One such image was an across-the-street view of the area around the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Lots of building detail, lots of wandering tourists, and too much for a coherent story. Lopping off the top two-thirds of the frame gave me just the passing crowd, an ultra-wide illusion which forced the viewer to review the shot the way you’d “read” a panel in a comic strip, from left to right.
Lately, I’ve been looking for a purer version of that crowd, with more space between each person, allowing for a more distinct comparison between individuals. That is, short guy followed by tall woman followed by little kid followed by….you get the idea. Then, last week, I happened upon the ideal situation while shooting randomly through a window that looked out on the 51st street side of New York’s Radio City Music Hall: a long line of folks waiting to pre-purchase event tickets. The space between them and the street rhythm shown by a few out-of-focus passersby was all the composition I needed, so in the editing process I once again aced the top two-thirds of the picture, which had been taken without zoom. A bit of light was lost in shooting through the window, so I added a little color boost and texturizing in Photomatix (not HDR but Tone Compression settings) and there was my pseudo-pano.
It’s a small bit of cropping choreography, but worth trying with your own street shots. As as is the case with many images, you might gain actually strength for your pictures the more ruthlessly you wield the scissors. Some crowd shots benefit by extra context, while others do fine without it. You’ll know what balance you’ll need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPHY IS REGARDED BY MANY AS A BIT OF A GIMMICK, an effect confined to the same realm as 3-d, fisheye lenses and faked pictures of cats driving sports cars. As a result, it’s rare that a pano is used for anything serious beyond landscape views, and, although apps have allowed even modest phone cameras to produce a modified panoramic effect, the majority of shots are still of ultra-wide, scenic vistas….the view from the beach to the resort hotel two blocks inland, and so forth.
But panos can be used to convey both scope and scale on subjects that have nothing to do with mountains or shorelines, and it’s encouraging to see more new photographers using the recently evolved technology to take advantage of that storytelling option. To use one example, the whole concept of sprawl–congested cities, vast arrays of clutter, the aftermath of the industrial age—seems custom-made for the panoramic’s less limited space requirements. It can actually open up editorial angles on a whole new range of subject matter.
Panos are great for showing overabundance, the sensory overload of contemporary life. In the above photo, it’s used to show the bulging, burgeoning, out-of-control volume of stuff in a congested antiquarian bookstore. The composition is dictated by the ultra-wide format to a degree, but when it’s married to the right subject matter, the shots can have a singular impact.
As with any other effect, there has to be a bottom-line benefit to the tale you’re trying to tell. It’s not enough to elicit a reaction of “wow, that looks weird”. That just relegates what you’ve shot to mere novelty. The upfront question should be: why are you deciding to distort visual reality or amp up the drama on this particular occasion? The effect has to seem inevitable in the result, with your audience admitting that, certainly, that was the best way to approach the shot and get the story across.
Sometimes photographs are about both process and subject. Panoramics have their place in serious photography, but only in serious hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.
So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).
Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.
So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMIC APPS FOR MOBILE CAMERAS CONSTITUTE A HUGE STEP FORWARD in convenience and simplicity in taking the kind of sweeping images that used to require keen skills either in film processing or in digital darkroom stitching. The newest versions of these apps are far from flawless, and, like any effect-laden add-on, they can become cheesy gimmicks, or, used to excess, merely boring. That said, there is a time and place for everything.
99% of the impact in a pano comes from the selection of your subject. Supposing a panoramic view to be a specialized way to tell a story, is the story you’re attempting to tell interesting in its own right? Does it benefit from the wider frame? Let’s recall that, as well as including a ton of extra left-and-right information, handheld pano apps create a distorted version of reality. In the earliest days of panoramas, multiple photos of a scene were taken side-by-side, all with the same distance from camera to subject. This was usually accomplished by shooting on a tripod, which was moved and measured with each new portion of what would eventually be a wide composite. At each exposure, the distance of the tripod to, say, the mountain range was essentially constant across the various exposures, rendering the wide picture all in the same plane….an optically accurate representation of the scene.
With handheld panos done in-camera, the shooter and his camera must usually pivot in a large half-circle, just as you might execute a video pan,so that some objects are closer to the lens than others, usually near the center. This guarantees a huge amount of dramatic distortion in at least one part of the image, and frequently more than one. The effect is that you are not just recording a straight left-to-right scene, but creating artificial stretches and warps of everything in your shot. You are not recording a scene that unfolds across a straight left-right horizon, but capturing things that actually encircle you and trying to “flatten them out” so they appear to occur in one unbroken line. By showing objects that may be beside or behind you, you’re kinda making a distortion of an illusion. Huh?
Again, if this is the look you want, that is, if your subject is truly served by this fantasy effect, than click away. You’ll know in a minute if it all made sense, anyhow, and that alone is a remarkable luxury. These days, we can not only get to “yes” faster, we can, more importantly, get rid of all the “no’s” in an instant as well.