the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Phone Cameras

A DIFFERENT BRAND OF DARK

Kind of a dicey neighborhood, but its natural color is way too Disney.

A texturally rich subject, but its natural color is too Disney.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE PHOTOGRAPHER’S LAB ACCIDENT IS, OCCASIONALLY, ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHER’S EUREKA MOMENT. Take the case of a visual effect that, in the film era, may have originated with an error in darkroom technique, and which is now being sought after by movie directors and amateurs alike as a look that they actively desire. Recent use of this effect ranges from the gritty, muted color and high-contrast of films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, to lab-less shortcuts in Photoshop and even shorter shortcuts in ready-to-eat iPhone apps. The look is called Bleach Bypass and it’s worth a look for certain moods and subjects.

The term derives its name from one of the steps used in film processing color film in which bleach is used to rinse away silver nitrate. By skipping this step, the silver is retained in the emulsion along with the color dyes. The result is a black-and-white image over a color image…kind of a photo sandwich. The resulting composite is lighter in hue but packs more extreme contrast and graininess in the monochrome values…an intense, “dirty” look.

The same shot with a simulated bleach bypass effect, done in Photomatix.

The same shot with a simulated bleach bypass effect, done in Photomatix.

Now, for those of you that don’t have a traditional darkroom handy, creating a bleach bypass “look” is easy in nearly any basic editing software suite. Check out the basic steps for Photoshop here. In most cases, you duplicate your original shot, desaturate it slightly, and convert the dupe shot to complete monochrome. The mono copy must also be manipulated for ultimate contrast, and the two shots must be layered in software to give you the desired blend. I tend to use Photomatix more often than Photoshop, since I work a lot with various kinds of tone-mapping for HDR, so I processed the “after” shot you see here in that program’s “exposure fusion” tab. However, as I say, lots of programs can do this with virtually no sweat.

An iPhone image with the AltPhoto app's Bleach Bypass filter applied.

Another path: an iPhone image with the AltPhoto app’s Bleach Bypass filter applied.

The third image in this article (at left) was produced with a click and some swipes with the Bleach Bypass simulator in the AltPhoto app, which also mimics the look of antique film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X. As with many phone apps, it doesn’t offer much in the way of fine control, but if you do all your shooting and/or retouching in your mobile, it’s a pretty good quickie fix.

Once again, in the digital era, what was once (a) messy and troublesome becomes (b) no fuss, no muss, and therefore, (c) something that will be adopted and used by many, many more shooters. Democracy in technology does not, of course, guarantee equality of results. You just have more tools to serve you when the ideas come.

 

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A GAME OF INCHES

Carry-Out At Canters, 2015. One generous hunk of window light can be all you need, even on a cel phone.

Carry-Out At Canter’s, 2015. One generous hunk of window light can be all you need, even on a cel phone.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WINDOW LIGHT IS A BOY PHOTOGRAPHER’S BEST FRIEND. The glass usually acts like a diffuser, softening and warming the rays as they enter, making for intimate portrait and street shots. Window light tends to wrap around the objects in its path, adding a look of depth and solidity to furniture and people. It’s also uncomplicated, universally available, and free. And that’s great for cell phone cameras.

At this writing, Apple’s next iPhone will soon up the ante on both resolution and light sensitivity, meaning that more and more shots will be saved that just a few years ago would have been lost, as the mobile wars give us more features, more control, and more decision-making options that recently belonged only to DSLRs and other upper-end product. That will mean that the cameras will perform better with less light than ever before, over-coming a key weakness of early mobiles.

That weakness centered on how the camera would deal with low-light situations, which was to open to its widest aperture and jack up the ISO, often resulting is grungy, smudgy images. Turn too many inches away from prime light (say a generous window in daytime) and, yes, you would get a picture, but, boy, was it ever dirty, the noise destroying the subtle gradation of tones from light to dark and often compromising sharpness. Those days are about to end, and when they do, people will have to seriously ask if they even need to lug traditional imaging gear with them, when Little Big Boy in their back pocket is bringing the “A” game with greater consistency.

As this new age dawns, experiment with single-point window light to see how clean an image it will deliver on a cel phone. Pivot away from the light by a few inches or feet, and compare the quality of the images as you veer deeper into shadow. You will soon know just how far you can push your particular device before the noise starts creeping in, and having that limit in your head will help you assess a scenario and shoot faster, with better results. Camera phones, at least at their present state of development, will only do so much, but you may be surprised at just how high their top end actually is. You need not miss a great shot just because you left your Leica in your other pants. As usual, the answer is, Always Be Shooting.


UNDER A DARKENING SKY

Dark skies, old-school way: a red 25 filter in front of a DSLR.

Dark skies, old-school way: a red 25 filter in front of a DSLR.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOMEONE HANDIER WITH A SLIDE RULE THAN ME RECENTLY OBSERVED that the raw numerical totals, on photo sharing sites, had shifted in favor of mobile images over those taken with more conventional cameras. In other words, the war was over, and the phones had won, at least in the sheer tonnage of uploaded images. Not sure that I yet regard that assertion as divine revelation, but the fact is that, as mobiles become a bigger component of overall photography, a second shift in technique will also continue, that between conceptualizing and compensation.

Dark skies on a cel phone with the addition of a "red sensitivity" app effect.

Dark skies on a cel phone with the addition of a “red sensitivity” app effect.

By conceptualizing, I mean the system, for traditional photographers of planning their shots before the shutter clicks, choosing settings, pre-editing the composition in the frame, any kind of advance prep. By compensation, I mean the emphasis, with mobiles, on adding filters and fixes after the click, technically learning how to make the most of what you were able to get.

One rather fun element I like to play with at present is the two approaches to high contrast black & white, especially the “black sky” effect which can force foreground objects to pop with greater drama. Shooting out in the Arizona desert for years, I have more frequent use for this effect than I might in more, well normal areas of the country. Traditional approach to this with a DSLR, of course, is the attachment of a red filter. You have to grope around for the right exposure, since you might lose the equivalent of two stops of light, depending on the situation, but it’s a great look. So that’s for us “conceptualizing” folks. See an example up top of the page.

The “compensation” peeps, who might have done their original shot on a phone, in color, is often referred to in apps as “red sensitivity” which adds the dark-sky look as it converts the shot to black and white. Usually you can only tweak the intensity of the effect (sometimes brightness as well), but it delivers a fairly good facsimile of the DSLR’s red filter, albeit with a little black lint kind of texture to the skies that you can usually get rid of with a noise reduction slider in your computer. The results, as you can see off to the left, are fairly acceptable.

If you’re shopping for filters beyond those in your own camera native app, consider adding one that includes red sensitivity. It’s one more “compensation” tool that’s nice to carry in your back pocket.

 


VIRTUAL SHOPLIFTING

Mobile phone close-up of an antique camera flash pan, negatized in post-editing.

Thrift shop still-life: a mobile phone close-up of an antique camera flash pan, negatized in post-editing.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE EMERGING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS is the newly accepted way not to look like a photographer, a kind of invisibility based on strange public perceptions. This has only become possible with the arrival of the smartphone, and, although insane logically, it affords a new freedom to street photographers.

It’s simple, if crazy: carry an actual camera inside a phone, just as many millions of others do, and you’re somehow “safe” or trustworthy, not one of predatory, intrusive “professionals” with obvious cameras who are out to trick you, track you, capture your soul in their satanic box. Now, how we explain away the fact that the phone camera is far more stealthy, far more insidious and far more omnipresent than, say, a Canon or Nikon is anybody’s guess. But, dopey or not, this new code is now hard-wired into people’s brains as it regards street work. So little camera=harmless. Big camera=end of the world as we (or over-zealous mall cops)know it. You figure it out.

So, when it comes to grabbing quick snaps in stolen moments, it’s becoming harder not to embrace the crazy and just use a smartphone as your default street tool. I’m not completely there yet, but when I’m surrounded by things that I will either never see again, or have never seen before, it’s tempting to play spy shooter with the little clicker.

Some of the greatest sources of still life material, for example, are the dense shelves of flea markets, antique shops and thrift stores. You don’t want to buy this stuff, since (a) you can’t afford it and (b) the Mrs. will send both it and you to Goodwill, but the occasional odd item might just make a decent abstract bit of design. Camera gear from yesteryear is always an easy sell, and I was ecstatic to do a virtual shoplift on the ancient flash attachment you see above as a fun way of re-purposing an object through selective framing and processing.

It’s frustrating to find more and more places where it’s easier to negotiate a nuclear treaty than get an okay for regular photography, so it’s no shock that more and more inroads are being made for mobile cameras and the access that no one feels like denying them. And they say I’m nuts.


WHOOPS. YAY.

Strike The Set, 2015. A world that never was, and can never be again.

Strike The Set, 2015. A world that never was, and can never be again.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE A THEORY THAT “SERENDIPITY” is just “dumb luck” for pretentious people. Somehow it makes our random discoveries and unplanned miracles sound cooler if we attribute them to some grand lining-up of the planets, as if we apes really meant to discover fire. So, fine. Consider this an incident of serendipity, although it’s mainly a case of “I stepped in sugar instead of….” well, you get the idea.

Setting the scene: a suburban mall near me recently closed its enormous bookstore, applying a dark sheet of tint on the building’s huge windows so gawkers couldn’t spy on the joint’s sad makeover as a furniture store. Of course, if you want to make people curious about something, blacking out the windows is a pretty effective tactic, and there are always plenty of people smashing their faces up against the impermeable tint every day to see what a bookstore looks like when it has, you know, no books in it. I am usually first in line for this ritual.

For some reason this week, a small peephole has  been opened in the sheeting, allowing one to see the place’s vast, empty floor, its draped escalator, and an iron tangle of scaffolding, as well as a huge infusion of light from an open-work area at the opposite side of the store. It isn’t quite the “ruin porn” that photographers of dead malls love to record just ahead of the wrecking ball, but eerie enough to make me want to shove my phone camera up against the peephole to try to capture it.

Given the very wide-angle of such devices, however, I discovered, after the click, that the lens had also picked up a portion of the window next to the peephole, a portion still covered by tint and capable of reflecting the scene behind me….various buildings and landscaping of the rest of the mall. Even stranger, the “other” reality behind me melded, through the blurred outline of the peephole and variances of light, with the scene inside the store, as if they were all part of one dreamy landscape, a Hollywood set in transition. Giddy at what I had grabbed by accident, I shot a second frame to compose things a bit better, then converted it to monochrome with a filter that simulates a platinum print effect, an effort to eliminate mismatches in color and tone between the two worlds.

Sinatra once said that “the professional is the guy who can do it more than once”, so this image ranks me solidly among the amateurs. But so what. Whoops. Yay.


NOT WHAT I CAME FOR, BUT…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.

This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.

Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.

An average day at the museum, at the end of which this dropped into my lap.

An average day at the museum, at the end of which this dropped into my lap.

The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.

Or at least they will by the third can.


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.


TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.

Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).

Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.

But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.

With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.

When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.