By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OF A CERTAIN AGE, that is, those who began in film and switched to digital, there was something unambiguously known as “a mistake”, by which we meant something that showed up in your final image that you either blew in execution or didn’t plan for. Smears on the lens, accidental double-exposures, lens cap left on….you get the idea. In the pre-ironic days of film, goofs were just that…goofs. They weren’t made to suggest a retro feel or simulate the look of….anything. They were merely flaws.
In the digital era, we still commit errors that wind up in our images, often for the same reason we committed them in the analog age. What’s different is that we often make these “mistakes” on purpose now, to create a mood that we associate with a romanticized view of film. One such accident that we generate intentionally purpose is lens flare.
To grossly over-simplify things (and to thus infuriate the high priests of tech), flare occurs when light enters a lens at such an angle that it is refracted or bounced within the mechanism of the lens on the way to the sensor and creates a wild, often prismatic shape that remains a permanent part of the photograph. The intensity of these bright spots is often determined by how complex the given lens is, since the more parts there are within the optic, the more places there are for the light to scatter and split. Sometimes a flare’s contours, which can tend to be roughly hexagonal, mimic the shape of the aperture opening within the shutter. Many people guard against flares simply by using a lens hood or by being careful not to shoot directly into light, and photographers are all over the road as to whether the effect is annoying or artistic. Flares are as old as cameras themselves, and they happen for much the same reasons on digital gear as on analog equipment.
The ironic part, which has grown out of several generations of digital post-production, is that what was once regarded as a “mistake” is now one of the most common tools in nearly every editing suite on the market. Like vignetting at the corners, graininess (for that gritty, low-fi look!) and other things that used to be regarded as imperfections, flaring is just as likely to be added into a photo after it’s shot, for an “artifact” that has been called everything from “authentic” to “dramatic” by many a game designer or A-list movie director. J.J. Abrams loves the effect so much that he has used it in his Star Trek reboots, as well as the film Super 8, to both cheers and jeers. Michael Bay also adds flare, mostly to his CGI processes. The search for the look has even led several filmmakers to swap out recently designed lenses, which lessen the look, to old optical glass, that has more of it.
The image you see here, just so there’s no debate, featured flares which were (a) created in the moment and are (b) a total accident. I actually shot about a half dozen frames of this particularly enchanted truck, and chose this one for the keeper when I saw how it (quite by chance) enhanced the mood of what I was after. I assure you that I am far too un-hip to have conceived of this effect in advance of my shoot. So, in other words, I got this digitally on-demand look the analog way…that is, because I didn’t know quite what I was doing. However, if it ever wins any awards, I can alway say that I meant to do it that way, hee hee. In photography we deal in truth, lies, and a lot of stuff that lives between the two poles. This one comes from that mystery middle.
Or maybe it’s gremlins, I dunno.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BIGGEST BENEFITS I’ve derived by overseeing this forum over the past nine years has been the great gift of being able to distance myself from my earlier work, to get far enough away from techniques I once embraced to regard them with a mixture of bemusement and horror. The shorthand for this sensation is a variant on the phrase “what was I thinking?”
The important thing is not to either completely repudiate or uniformly defend earlier versions of one’s photographic output, but, in evaluating each piece separately, to find that some work shows a shift in perspective, an evolution in the way of doing things. Absolute consistency over years is not only unlikely but unhealthy. Art can’t breathe in a vacuum.
Lately, in reviewing some images shot within the last decade, I have run head-on into a huge clutch of pictures that, although they may have been pretty balanced in the master shots, were absolutely overwrought in post-processing. It wasn’t a case of putting lipstick on a pig, but of slathering it onto a fairly attractive woman, or maybe like the cartoonist who had the habit of ending the sentences in every one of his dialog balloons with TWO exclamation points, regardless of the content. In many of these shots I seemed on some kind of quest for the ultimate rendering of detail, coupled with a love of the most extreme contrasting and color saturation. HDR was where I committed my gravest sins but I was gooping up pictures in other processes as well. For some reason, I was proceeding as if there were no image that could not be “improved” simply by tinkering a little longer with it. The results were, shall we say, uneven.
Look at the way I processed a simple coastal vista from a trip I made to Monterey, California in 2012 (see top image). Man, you can count every damn grain of sand on that beach, cantcha? And how about all that stone texture, eh? And then there are the clouds, which, in my heavy-handed treatment, were transformed from fluffy accents to signs of impending doom. Whole thing appears a bit grim, as if the apocalypse is definitely coming any second, and, golly ned, kids, you’d better run for it. The second, dialed-back version from this year allows for a slight tweak in color balances and luminescence, but then it’s hands off the steering wheel. Which place would you rather head to for a relaxing holiday? One scene actually appears somewhat inviting, while the other is like El Greco after an evening of far too much wine.
Sometimes I think that photography, rather than being labeled a “profession” or a “hobby”, should be referred to as a “practice”, since the constant addition and subtraction of skills and experience is similar to what a doctor tries to do. Fortunately, no one died as a result of my artistic malpractice, although I feel a little sick myself facing up to my shortcomings. But on we go. I may not, in fact, be able to tell you, years later, what I was thinking during earlier versions of myself. I only hope I was thinking at all, and that the needle has moved just a little, from there to here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DECADES INTO THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY, we are still coming to terms with just how much the shift away from film-based technology has profoundly changed the way we make pictures. Much has been written, for example, about the “instant feedback loop” that allows us to correct our errors on the fly, which is huge. Even more has been said about the increased intuitive nature of our devices in digital, and that, too is a massive factor. In fact, it was in stopping to catalog all the treats and toys that are at one’s fingertips in even the most basic cameras these days that I lit on what I think is the most profound change: our relationship to color.
One of the most universal tweaks engineered into cameras, for years now, is the incredible power to control saturation, with the option becoming the most common feature in all cameras from disposables to Leicas. Of course, even in analog days, we were able to play somewhat to the color properties of a particular emulsion, or to shape it with adjustments in lighting or white balance. But now the ability to attenuate color both before and after the shutter click, even without post-processing software, is instantaneous and universal. Depending on your perspective, this is either good or…oh, who am I kidding? No one thinks this is bad. The fact that control of one of the most crucial determinants of picture quality is forevermore in the hands of the user rather than the lab technician is an obvious net gain.
However, simply because we have the ability to tweak color to our liking doesn’t mean we need to do it uniformly, even though, admittedly, saturation is rewarded mightily in the marketplace of public opinion. Show someone an image dripping in color and ask them what they like about it. Chances are good that they’ll say it looks “realistic” or “natural”, neither of which, of course, is accurate. Ansel Adams, skeptically slow to come over to the color camp, criticized editors for boosting hues just because it met with popular applause, saying “if all else fails, make it red”. The irony for photographers, who at one time or another fancy themselves as recorders of the authentic, is that most of them love, love, love them some bright tones, and find it hard to resist goosing up the numbers beyond what the eye actually sees. But since a photograph exists in the mind before it ever exists in the camera, we can only assume that we, personally, regard many “real” things as, well,…. drab. Thus we creatively lie, in the harmless way that a fisherman increases the size of his catch every time he repeats the story of how he pulled it onto the boat. We give reality a little help. Well, sometimes more than a little. So much for the mythical construct of “straight out of the camera” which is as elusive, and as attainable, as a blind date with Sasquatch.
Am I without sin myself? Not on your grandma’s Kodachrome, as demonstrated in the above frame. However, photography (and this little hometown newspaper of ours) is about questioning intentions just as much as snapping the shutter. Maybe more so. Because if you never wonder if you’re on the wrong path, chances are good that you are. The best artists in any field ask just one more question.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SO MUCH OF THE GREATER WORLD SEEMS SO PERISHABLE under our present Great Hibernation that one’s mind goes naturally to things of more lasting value. The more that contemporary concepts of “permanence” vanish like smoke, the more the photographer in me values the artifacts of a life that still remain close at hand. Access to the fuller world is often denied me these days, but, here, inside the compound, there is a renewed opportunity to visually reassess the things I have carried with me over a lifetime.
This has led me to try to create what you might call formal photographic “portraits” of various ephemera around the house, from weathered old coats to favorite records to…books. For me, a person who has entertained a collector’s fetish with so many kinds of playthings and pastimes over the years, everything always seems to come back to books. The printed word, and the physical packages in which it came, harnessed my passion before music, before photography, before even romantic love. And, if we’re talking about a consistent source of comfort, books have acted as one of the most permanent and reliable anchors to earlier versions of myself. I leap between covers, and I vanish, emerging re-centered, fuller and finer than I was before the plunge.
In trying to photograph the oldest surviving book in my collection, I found a lot of techniques left something visually unsaid, delivering images that were too cosmetically clean, too charming. The book you see here has been with me in high times and low since 1963. It was probably the first hardback book that was truly mine, not one just plucked out of my parents’ library. For my picture, it needed to look traveled, well explored. It needed the historical gravitas of a few creases and stains, to look like a book that was important enough to be revisited and revered over a lifetime. After several attempts that looked, well, flat to me, I decided to go into my old trick bag and shoot it as an HDR. I had not used the technique for a while, since the acuity of current camera sensors has improved to the point where shooting and blending several bracketed exposures just to reproduce the full dynamic range of tones from dark to light was now as easy as squeezing off a snapshot. But in the case of my library’s longevity leader, I needed the over-accentuated detail that sometimes turned me (and others) against HDR: a look which would record and underscore every defect and scar, freeing them to speak a little louder. Another thing that argued for the technique: years prior, I had made a picture of my wife’s old 45 rpm record storage case, an item similarly, vigorously loved. HDR would deliver the warts-and-all portrayal I was seeking.
In the end I eschewed the full-tilt effect in favor of a milder blend called tone compression, boosting the detail but stopping short of making things too surreal. Finally, I had a picture that made the book look as if it had actually been used, rather than flawlessly archived. I had loved that book into longevity, and now, like the proud lines of survival etched on the face of a human subject, the tome was capable of fully flaunting its flaws.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY’S EXPLOSION IN THIS STILL-FRESH CENTURY has shown itself not to be about a single, big revolution but an ongoing cascade of small ones. As more and more shooters have shifted their emphasis away from film technology….itself, admittedly a fundamental earthquake of change, they have also had to constantly adapt to a continuous flow of refinements and reinventions in the digital realm. Nothing is static and nothing will ever again be in its final form. Things that were considered cumbersome and clumsy just a few seconds ago now are accomplished effortlessly. We move from custom to standard in the wink of an eye.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the rise and not-quite-complete fall of HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography, the practice of shooting several different exposures of the same subject and melding the best of all of them into one seamless composite through software. The need for such a solution arose from the inefficiency of early digital sensors, which caused light and dark extremes in an image to be either blown out or smothered in shadow. HDR was devised as a way to imitate how quickly the human eye can adjust to allow us to see everything in about the same degree of contrast. It doesn’t actually do that, but instead presents a ton of images of varying contrast to our brains so quickly that we imagine that we actually always see everything in balance. Early renditions of Photoshop did not address this problem, nor did the earliest cell phone cameras, and even traditional manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were years away from including HDR-like modes in their DSLRs, and so editing platforms like Photomatix, HDR Efx Pro, and Aurora HDR were created in the early 2000’s to specifically blend and tweak anywhere from two exposures on upward in a work flow that came to be known as “tone mapping”. The apps sold well and addressed a real niche within the photographic world. Transitions between light and dark seemed more elastic, and textures, from beach sand to wood grain, seemed to be rendered with greater emphasis.
HDR drew both praise and poison from the start, with some photographers subtly enhancing their work while others “over-cooked” the effect, delivering surreal palettes of day-glo color and gooey skin textures surrounded by strange halos and other unwanted artifacts. The result, as is occurring with greater and greater speed in the digital-web complex, was that, just as a revolution/solution for a real problem hit the market, others began almost immediately to concoct an antidote for the wonder drug…a fix for the fix. A few scant years later, manufacturers of both standard and phone-based cameras have their own HDR-like modes, which are both more limited in precision and hellishly convenient: digital camera sensors themselves are already in their second generation, with greater dynamic range already designed in: and uber-tools like Photoshop and Lightroom have become more supple in the quick adjustment of even single batches of images. Thus HDR has gone the regular developmental route seen that all tech has across history, from balky and bulky to sleek and instinctive. We learn to do more with less, and what was once custom equipment (like radios once were in automobiles) becomes standard (like seat belts in automobiles) but with even greater immediacy in the digital era. In my own work, after years of HDR love writ large, I now tend to solve 95% of the problems that used to dictate the use of HDR with simple in-camera moves, some of them as basic as exposing for the highlights and recovering the detail in the dark areas in post editing (as seen in the image above).
I was recently toying with an old Canon A1 SLR from the late ’70’s and marveling at the fact that its owners initially had to special-order (at considerable expense) a screw-on battery motor drive that had no other function except to assist forgetful users by winding the film on to the next frame. Obviously the winder unit was only in production for a few years until the same challenge was met with less hardware, fewer steps, and a lot less cash. And so it goes. All of which goes to say, as we frequently do in these funny papers, that gear is not the primary determinant in the creation of great photographs. If equipment does not currently exist to produce the results we want, we find a way to fake it until the lab boys make it. Technology follows inspiration. Art cannot happen if things go the other way.
I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FIGURE OUT WHY MANY HIGH-END CAMERAS lack a feature which is native to many of the most basic cel and film cameras….that is, the option to compose and shoot a square frame. The simple 1-1 format, which was, for decades, the default mode for cameras in every price range, is, for many contemporary photogs, a nostalgic novelty. Why?
And, yes, I know how astoundingly easy it is to reframe an image as a square in a gazillion common post-processing platforms. That’s not the point. There are times when the ability to concretely see (rather than imagine) a composition within a square can lead to a superior image. If I modify a rectangular picture to capitalize on the “inner square” of strong impact within the frame, I’m really retrofitting a picture that worked out less than well when I shot it. To compose and shoot in a square, I have to be constantly mindful of how space is placed and balanced…that is, I have to be doing nearly everything on purpose, based on what’s in front of me at the moment. That is not the same thing as salvaging a usable square from within a composition that I originally planned in a completely different way. The image you see at left was shot in a particularly narrow side street in San Francisco and was originally rectangular. In editing, I immediately saw that its main power was in a square extracted from its center, but had I been doing the master shot as a square, my intent for it would have been measurably different. Different by mere Inches, maybe, but different.
Or picture it this way: Let’s say I go out purposefully looking to bag a creel full of sea bass, versus fishing lazily off the pier and accidentally reeling in a rubber boot that has a sea bass inside it. Either way, I get sea bass. Makes no difference to you? Well, it does to me.
For those good with their hands, the WeberNet is filled with tons of workarounds to pre-mask or otherwise rig a square frame in cameras that were not created to offer it as an option, but I don’t really relish whipping up a craft project just to take a picture. That, to me, says the camera was designed without the features I wanted, so I have to be a kind of sub-contracted re-designer to make the thing work the way I need it to. Again, this clearly does not bother certain people, but it rankles me that what I want in my high-end camera is already included in a $50 low-fi plastic box camera like the Diana or, well, um, every cel-phone camera ever made. So-called “real” cameras have been weighted in favor of rectangular framing since the first days of 35mm film, but I think that such an exclusive bias has robbed photographers of a potentially powerful tool. And while, even as I write this, I can hear an everlasting chorus chanting, “but you can fix it later”, I’d rather sing my own tune, in my own key. Equipment is about abetting intent, and without intent, all our best photographs are just happy accidents.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY STRUGGLED with processes and tools that seemed to stack the deck against the chances that anyone would ever, ever create even a single photograph. Those first exposures, made with slow media and balky, uncertain lenses were not only works of art, but they were truly just plain, flat out work. I recently viewed a video demonstrating the bygone method known as photogravure, the means by which any “serious” photographic artist would render his work for critical approval in the late 19th-century. I was so utterly crushed by the sheer unforgiving precision needed to complete the process that I dropped to my needs and thanked the photo gods for giving me the luxury to merely….shoot. I felt at once lazy and liberated.
One thing these old exposure and processing systems did, however, is fix their visual aspects in time, so that, in our mental sorting process, we easily differentiate between the look of an 1850 wet-plate image and a 1950 Polaroid Land camera snapshot. Various periods in the methodological development of the art have their own distinct signatures. The strange thing is how, in the present era, we use apps and editing suites to summon those old ghost looks back into the present, mixing periods together like a cook throwing all his available ingredients into a garbage salad. We no longer give any thought to making something look old, or retro-old, or ironically old-ish. All times periods can exist in the same image, and whether they have any natural relation to each other is a moot point, if a point at all. We just do it because we can just do it.
In the above picture, for example, I’m merely playing, without any real object in mind. The master photograph on which this remix is based was taken two months ago (Summer 2019) at the main greenhouse building at Minneapolis’ Como Park. The structure’s classic design, complete with rounded cupolas and gently curving rooflines, reminded me of the immense halls that were erected in the 1800’s to house international expositions, industrial shows and world’s fairs, and so I took a fairly straightforward shot from a cell phone and cranked it through an app to evoke an echo of that time, a visual masquerade that mimics the tintype process, right down to its selective pinpoint focus and plate grain. Admittedly, the illusion is spoiled a bit, since the people in the picture are wearing shorts and t-shirts rather than bustles and straw boaters, but that’s not the point. I wasn’t trying, like some master art forger, to make you think this was a newly discovered artifact of the Victorian age. And while I might have been trying to comment on “how we used to think of the purpose of grand public spaces”, or how that contrasts with the public spaces we value now…..I wasn’t. I was just goofing off, using quick and amazing tools the way a child might take Mr. Potato Head’s nose and put it where his ear should be.
What is singular, however, is knowing that any part of photography can be harnessed or combined with every other part of photography at any time. That’s not a hot bulletin, but it is worth pointing out from time to time that, after centuries of innovation, our art is now, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, truly unstuck in time. Backwards, forwards, or right in the middle, what we shoot and where we stand are completely under our control.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AFTER YEARS OF STALLING AND DREAD, I just this week consigned my old desktop to the dustbin, and, at this writing, am taking a few days to reflect before its bright, shiny successor takes its place in my cluttered workspace. Normally, I wouldn’t even register the time blip between one computer and another, because, really, they’re just things, right?
But this seems different, only because this particular gizmo became the extension of almost everything I endeavored to do as a photographer over the last ten years. When I first inboxed the old girl, I was still teetering between film-dominant and digital-dominant work. Photoshop was a series of way-expensive DVDs that you bought at “the computer store”, a term which, then, still meant Gateway and Radio Shack. Cel phones were equipped with cameras that produced images that looked like bad xeroxes viewed through a mosquito net. “Mirrorless” meant a bathroom with no place to check your hair and makeup. “Raw” was how your guru liked his vegetables.
When my now-euthanized kerputer was new, the average shooter was only passingly familiar with online post-processing, the “digital darkroom” that was quickly revolutionizing how images were shot, tweaked, transmitted, and published. The art of photo editing, in some quarters, became more about fixing a photo than taking it, with many editorial decisions about the picture on Page One being made by young Turks who had never held a camera in their hands. In my case, my computer took me into new areas of control and refinement, even as I strove to create most of my magic in-camera. I traveled through new lands with names like HDR, Lomography, and There’s An App For That. Most importantly, the blog you’re now reading was born on that now-obsolete device, as well as the means for illustrating and editing my personal journey from taking pictures to making them.
And so, yeah, I’m just moving from one tool to a newer version of that tool, just as I once moved on from my childhood piano to the one I play now. But, even though you may own many bikes during your lifetime, you hold a special place in your heart for the one you learned to ride on.
But it is, finally, about the ride, not the vehicle, just as photography is about normalizing the eye, not mastering a particular camera.
So let’s get pedaling, and see where this road goes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“FULL–FUNCTION” CAMERAS (I try not to call them “real”) have made several concessions to the invasion of the mobiles over the last decade, adding features that tweak or sweeten images after they are taken, in the manner of cel-camera apps. The most commonly used functions, like cropping or straightening, have been joined over the years by monochrome converters, fisheye-like distorters, and selective color effects, which allow the user to desaturate discrete parts of a picture for a part-color, part B&W composite. Occasional use of these DSLR tweaks, as with those in App World, can yield interesting results. Their over-use, however, can erase the thin wall between tool and gimmick.
Effects oftimes go beyond merely enhancing a shot to loudly calling attention to themselves, and thus upstaging said shot completely. Of course, if you want to establish a personal style that always expresses itself in sepia tone or double exposures, by all means rock and roll and Godspeed. Generally speaking, though, special effects have the greatest impact when they are the spice, and not the meat in the recipe.
One that I keep playing with, trying to decide if it’s truly useful, is the aforementioned selective color. Desaturating only parts of an image is tricky, because the monochrome elements must work in at least some way with the remaining chroma, lest the color/no color ratio be jarring. Remember, you merely want your viewer to get the impression that something has been subtly improved in the picture, not drastically rehauled.
In the restaurant scene shown here, night had already rendered most of the darkened areas as nearly grey already, so converting that to b/w wasn’t a stretch. I took out the reds from various neon signs and the ambers and yellows caused by my camera’s misreading of the light temperature, and elected to keep the blues, in an attempt to use them as an extension of the blacks and grays. Whether I think I succeeded depends on which day I view the result, but my intention was to add just a flavor of mood to a photograph that was essentially mono.
I think the best way to avoid going wrong with the use of a post-processed effect is to begin with a picture that’s already 99% of what you were going for……using the tools to give a “pretty good” image a nudge, rather than a shove. As in photography in general, it’s a game of inches.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN REVIEWING YOUR PAST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK, you are bound to find shots that you have, for lack of a better term, outgrown. Unpack that word, and what you’re really seeing is the passage of time since you originally visualized a picture, along with the immense distance your eye and mind have traveled en route to the present day. Thus you are both benefitting and suffering from the luxury you enjoyed in being allowed to freeze time. You have not only immobilized a moment, but you have also preserved a record of what your “best practices” were at the time.
This painful but necessary re-assessment applies not only to the techniques used to create the initial image, but, in the incredibly speedy evolution of post-processing, all editing systems as well. Quite simply, if a picture is worth taking, it is worth fighting for…first by being as mindful and deliberate as possible in the taking, and then in a constant re-evaluation of how best to enhance its impact through editing. Therefore, if the first commandment of photography is Always Be Shooting, the second should probably be Never Stop Processing.
The above image is an example of this continuing dialogue. it was originally taken in 2012 and I have revisited it at least annually since then. At the time I first shot it, it was part of a three-shot bracket of exposures that were originally blended in an HDR program to try to get about the same degree of detail in both highlights and shadows….a look which can look great if done with a maximum of understatement, but which often winds up looking like an old Yes album cover under black light. From HDR, I moved on to a series of detail-enhancing programs which were more natural-looking, but still failed to deliver the punch I got from viewing the scene on-site. In one iteration, I added enhancement to a single shot alone, rather than a combination of all three bracketed images. And in 2016, I went back to the trio, mixed this time in an Exposure Fusion blender. And there’s no end in sight.
Ansel Adams, of course, famously re-visited his master negatives with up to a dozen re-mixed versions of the same scenes over decades, re-thinking his own revolutionary “zone system” for measuring exposure for every single particle of a subject, then mastering its application in the lab via burning, dodging and other means of print manipulation. I don’t work with those particular (and essentially film-based) techniques for several reasons, most of them economic. However, that still leaves me plenty of editing choices, with more gimcracks coming online every day.
Point is, pictures that are truly worth working for are also worth re-thinking, and a growing array of tools can give photographers endless ways to re-mix the hits. Of course, you will eventually come to a point where enough is enough. Historically, it’s a good thing that the Pope gave Michelangelo a deadline, or else he’d still be up on that ceiling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A BIAS IN WHAT WE CALL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY that leans toward monochrome images, as if black and white were somehow more emotionally honest, maybe even more reportorially accurate as regards social commentary. I suppose this preference borrows a bit from the fact that journalism and photographic critique sort of grew up alongside each other, with black-and-white news coverage pre-dating the popular use of color by several decades. However, since color has become the primary, rather than the secondary choice for most photographers over the past forty or so years, there may be no leader or “winner” between bright and subdued hues, no real rule of thumb over what’s more “real.” Street, and the tones used to convey it, are in the eyes of the beholder.
There must be dozens of images that I myself take in color each year, that, upon later reflection, I re-imagine in mono. Of course, with digital imaging, it’s not only possible but probably smart to make one’s “master shots” in color, since modern editing programs can render more in the way of black and white than mere desaturation. Just sucking the color out of a shot is no guarantee that it will be more direct in its impact, and may actually drain it of a certain energy. Other times, taking out color can streamline the “reading” of a photograph, removing the distraction that can occur with a full range of tones. The only set answer is that there is no set answer.
In the film era, if you loaded black & white, you shot black & white. There was no in-camera re-think of the process, and few monochrome shots were artificially tinted after the fact. Conversely, if you loaded color, you shot color, and conversion to mono was only possible if you, yourself were expert in lab processing or knew someone who was. By contrast, in the digital age, there are a dozen different ways to reconfigure from one tone choice to another in seconds, offering the chance for anyone to produce almost limitless variations on an image while the subject is there is front of them, ripe for re-takes or re-thinks.
None of these new processes solve the ultimate problem of what tonal system works best for a given picture, or when you exercise that choice. However, the present age does place more decision-making power than ever before in the hands of the average photographer. And that makes street photography a dynamic, ever-changing state of mind, not merely an automatic bow to black-and-white tradition.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SHEER NUMBER OF PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE WORLD pretty much insures that not too many of us are artistically, um, unique. If there was ever a time in the history of the medium when it was nearly impossible to develop a style free of influence (good or bad), it’s now.
That doesn’t make originality impossible. But it does mean that, when one of us evolves a new way of doing things, the speed of adoption means there’s about a half a global second before innovation becomes cliche. And the worldwide online community likewise switches its evaluation of an idea from “brilliant!!” to “hackneyed” within an ever shorter cycle.
One of the tricks that only really came to the fore in the early days of digital editing is the look of selective de-saturation of color. The technique was originally met with great enthusiasm, but to hear the wags that whine and howl around the web, you should now sooner be caught dead rather than use it.
Only, it’s not a given technique, per se, that becomes a drag, only its over-use or abuse. Think of canvas art for a moment. No one ever complains that “everybody uses oils to paint!” because it ain’t the pigment that separates the greats from the grunts. It’s what you do once you pick up that brush.
I steer away from partially desaturated shots because, while they can be real attention -getters, I myself don’t encounter many instances where I feel that they will actually help one of my pictures work better. The choice between monochrome and full color is, itself, fraught with a lot of mental measurement, meaning that you have a 50/50 chance in the making of an image to choose the wrong way to make it. Then there are color to b&w conversions, some of which really destroy the power of a photo. All this is before we get into the rather exotic decision of whether to make a picture “part” color.
Let’s say that there’s something to be gained by killing off all but the signature Manhattan cab yellow, as seen in the top image of NYC’s Union Square. Okay. It’s certainly technically easy to bring that off, but first you have to get beyond the initial “hey, that’s cool” sensation and ask, very critically, “what else am I giving away to nearly eliminate all the color in this image? Is the color of the dusky sky worth anything? How about the red glow of neon, the amber of lit windows, the darkening skin and fabric tones of passersby?
Lots of techniques fall or rise on whether they add or subtract from the image’s overall selling power. You have to learn when and where to do what…and to know why.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
URBAN PHOTOGRAPHERS ACT IN MUCH THE SAME WAY AS ARCHAEOLOGISTS in that they must try to supply context for objects, backstories that have been either altered or erased. Cities are collections of things created by humans for specific motives, be it profit, shelter, play, or worship. Often, the visual headstones of these dreams, that is, the buildings, survive beyond the people that called them into being. Photographers have to imply the part of the story that’s crumbled to dust. Like the archaeologist, we try to look at shards and imagine vases, or see an entire temple in a chunk of wall.
During the dreaded “urban renewal” period in the mid-twentieth century, my home town of Columbus, Ohio duplicated the destruction seen in cities across the country in the wanton devastation of neighborhoods, landmarks and linkages in the name of Progress. Today’s urban planners thumb sadly through vast volumes of ill-considered “improvements” wrought upon history from that period, with New York’s Penn Station, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and Columbus’ Union Station surviving today only as misty symbols of fashion gone amok.
In the case of Columbus’ grand old railroad station, there is at least a fragment of the original structure, its beaux-arts entry arch, left standing, serving as either stately souvenir or cautionary tale, depending on your viewpoint. The arch has been moved several times since the demolition of its matching complex, and presently graces the city’s humming new hockey and entertainment district, itself a wondrous blend of new and repurposed architecture. Better late than never.
Thus, the Union arch has, by default, become one of the most photographed objects in town, giving new generations of artists permission to widely interpret it, freed, as it is, of its original context. Amateur archaeologists all, they show it as not only what it is, but also what it was and might have been. It has become abstracted to the point where anyone can project anything onto it, adding their own spin to something whose original purpose has been obliterated by time.
I have taken a few runs at the subject myself over the years, and find that partial views work better than views of the entire arch, which is crowded in with plenty of apartment buildings, parklands and foot traffic, making a straight-on photo of the structure busy and mundane. For the above image, I imagined that I had recovered just an old image of the arch….on a piece of ancient parchment, a map, perhaps an original artist’s rendering. I shot straight up on a cloudy day, rendering the sky empty and white. Then I provided a faux texture to it by taking separate a sepia-toned photo of a crumpled piece of copier paper and fusing the two exposures (the HDR software Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” feature does this easily). Letting the detail of the arch image bleed randomly through the crumpled paper picture created a reasonable illusion of a lost document, and I could easily tweak the blend back and forth until I liked the overall effect.
Cities are treasure hunts for photographers, but not everything we find has to be photographed at, let’s say, face value. Reality, like fantasy, sometimes benefits from a little push.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CONDUCT TOURS FOR KINDERGARTEN STUDENTS AT PHOENIX’ MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM, the world’s largest collection of its kind on the planet. Frequently, I ask my young guests, who are viewing various animal-inspired music exhibits in the Asia gallery, why the sculpted lions seen on South Korean chimes are blue. Now, in fact, there are no lions in Korea, so in summoning the big cat’s strength and courage as a protective symbol for their music, the locals probably had to try to imagine one, including its features and hues. But pose this question to a five-year-old and the answers are far more instinctual:
“They wanted to”.
“Cause it looks cool that way”.
“It’s their lion…they can do what they want.”
Never do these children suggest that the lion is blue because the Koreans don’t know the “correct” color, nor do they think that there’s anything about its color that renders it “inaccurate”. And when I ask if they’ve ever used a “different” crayon to color something just the way they want it, every hand shoots up. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?
It’s my coloring book. I can do what I want.
Early color photography was about reproducing nature faithfully, accurately recording and reproducing reality. That makes sense, since you must have a standard before you can wander away from that standard. And at a time when color imaging was a novelty, science understandably put the emphasis on “getting it right”, which for publication and printing purposes, was a big enough mountain to climb, at first.
However, we have long since entered a phase in which the colors which nature or our eyes have assigned to an object is only one way, not “the” way to creatively depict it. We can use color counter-intuitively, emotionally. We can cast an image in every aspect of the rainbow, not merely within the narrow channel of “reality”. Color interpretation is surely as important as exposure or any other aspect of making a picture. In the above photo, my mind needed this old row house to be drenched in the burned gold of sunset. Since I was shooting at one in the afternoon, that wasn’t going to happen, so….
And if we forget to think with a child’s suppleness as we age into old habits, the next generation is always there to prod us back into the same state of wonder that makes a five-year-old perfectly okay with creatively colored animals. Recent retro movements among shooters, for example, include the simulation of improperly processed film, which is an optional filter on many of today’s phone apps. It’s a deliberate choice to take the quirky color caused by a lab error and turn it into an interpretive tool.
The over-arching rule here is: try it and see what happens. You don’t need to defend your choice to a committee or write a lengthy treatise (like this one) on why it’s justified.
You just have to wonder what a blue lion might look like.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CAN STILL HEAR MY LITTLE LEAGUE COACH’S VOICE, cured into a coarse hum by too many years of Lucky Strikes, hitting me in the back of my skull as I stood shakily in the batter’s box. If he had told me once, he had told me a thousand times: don’t try to hit every ball that comes across the plate. You swing like a rusty gate, he would tease me, or don’t eat their garbage. The main message, and one that I only intermittently received: wait for your pitch.
On those rare occasions when I didn’t fish wildly in the air for every single thing that sailed in from the mound, I took great encouragement from his voice saying, good eye. Strangely, I had earned praise for essentially doing nothing, but, hey, I’d take it.
Coach sometimes comes to mind when I view the results of some of my hastier photographic decisions.
There is, for photogs, a very real translation of “wait for your pitch”, and it’s more important in the digital era because it’s such an easy rule to adhere to. Simply, you must keep shooting long enough to get the frame you saw in your mind. There can be no, “I’ve already taken a lot of frames”, or “they’re waiting for me to finish up” or “maybe today’s not my day for this shot.” First of all, it’s your picture. If you want it, take it. Secondly, there is no such thing as “a lot of frames”. There is only enough frames. If clicking one more, hell, ten more, will get you your shot, then do it. There is no phantom film counter warning you that you only have four more Kodachrome exposures left.
I am preaching this particular commandment all too loudly today because I am kicking myself for not living up to it recently. In the top frame, I got every element of a quaint old Amtrak ticket window that appealed to me, including the patterned skylight, the bored agent, the square arrangement of the Deco-ish counter space, and the left and right details of an old archway and a marble wall. Everything except the intrusive passersby on the left. They are sadly out-of-sync with the time-feel of the rest of the shot, and, had I not felt that I had nailed the general exposure and feel of the image, I might have waited for them to move out of frame, and gotten everything I wanted.
But I didn’t. I settled for “close enough”, and moved on to the next subject. Later, in post-production, I could certainly crop my squatters out, but at the cost of the overall composition. I now had to make do with what was left. I managed to reframe for another square shot that included nearly all the same elements. But it was “nearly”, not “all”. And “all” is what I could have had if I hadn’t tried to swing at the wrong ball. You can’t make a good shot out of a bad shot, and when an opportunity is gone, there isn’t a piece of software in the world that can make a miracle out of what’s not in your camera.
Wait for your pitch.
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.
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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOW QUITE EASY TO HAVE YOUR CAMERA OR EDITING SOFTWARE correct for things you should have done before the image was made. Most of the times, these fixes cure more than curse, some of them genuinely helping a shooter extend his skills or fine-tune his control. However, in the case of one of the most common post-pic fixes, the “straighten” slider, you’re potentially messing with picture quality, to fix a problem that, quite honestly, shouldn’t have existed in the first place.
Consult every, and I mean every basic camera tutorial going back a hundred years or more. Many timely tips in such books have vanished or evolved over time, but the simple admonition to keep your shot level has remained unchanged since the dawn of photo time. So why do cameras and software even offer straightening as an option?
If you take the cynical view, the existence of this fix suggests that camera manufacturers assume that enough people will routinely take crooked pictures that, of course, they need something to tilt their images back to normal. Because, if that’s not true, then why does the fix even exist?
Here’s the critical point about straightening: it does not maintain sharpness like simply cropping a photo to a smaller size does. To restore your image to a rectangular shape after you’ve rotated it left or right to level it, your camera (or software; both do it the same way) must trim part of the picture and resize it, producing a lower total number of pixels in the “corrected” photo but within the same space as the original one. And there’s just no way to do that without degrading the sharpness.
Some straightenings, if conservative, may not fuzz up your photo as much as some more extreme adjustments. The above image was shot literally on the run during a tour, but it needed just slight adjustment, and so retained most of its sharpness after I ran it though a second editing program. However, you really have to love a shot to go to those extremes to save it.
Thing is, you can bypass this entire problem simply by shooting a level picture. Now, I won’t bore you with a list of just how many really easy ways there are to ensure this. But since sharpness makes at least the top five list of things that most people want from a picture, why not take a pass on all the post-mortem fixes by doing one of the simplest possible things in photography more often?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST FREEING THINGS about digital photography, especially in the celphone era, has been the artificial synthesis, through aftermarket apps, of processes that used to require lengthy and intricate manipulation. Much has been written about various apps’ ability to render the look of a bygone film stock, an antique lens, or a retro effect with just a click or swipe. The resulting savings in time (and technical trial and error) is obvious in its benefit, as more people shoot more kinds of images in which the shooter’s vision can be realized faster, perhaps even more precisely, than in the days of analog darkrooms.
Okay, now that the sound of traditionalists’ heads exploding subsides, on to the next heresy:
The creation of the so-called Orton technique by Michael Orton in the 1980’s was a great refinement in effects photography. The idea was simple: take two images of a subject that are identical in every spec except focus, then blend them in processing to create a composite that retains rich detail (from the sharp image) and a gauzy, fairy-tale glow (from the softer one). The result, nicknamed the “slide sandwich”, was easy to achieve, even for darkroom under-achievers. The most exacting part was using a tripod to guarantee the stability of the source images. Looked nice, felt nice.
Early on in digital, editing suites like Photomatix, designed to create HDR chiefly, also featured an option called Exposure Fusion, which allowed you to upload the source images, then tweak sliders for the best blend of sharp/no sharp. And finally, here come the soft-focus phone apps like Adobe Photoshop Express, Cool Face Beauty, Camera Keys, and yes, Soft Focus, allowing you to take just one normally focused shot and add degrees of softness to it.
Caveat emptor footnote: not all these apps (and there are many more not cited here) allow you to begin at a “zero effect” start point, that is, from no softening to some softening. They start soft and get softer. Also, most allow basic tweaks like brightening and saturation, but that’s about it. If you want to add contrast or something sexier, you may have to head back to the PC.
The important thing about softening apps are: (1) they save time and trouble in the taking of the source image, of which you only need one (which can be handheld now), and (2) they don’t so much as soften the master image as layer a gauzy glow over top of it.You either like this or you don’t, so, as Smokey says, you better shop around. Gee-whiz factor aside, the old rule for gimmicks still applies: tools are only tools if you like and use them
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE INTRODUCTION OF THE FIRST PANORAMIC CAMERAS in the 1840’s can be seen as a freeing-up of the camera frame, a way to more accurately depict the entire field of view open to the human eye. And, of course that’s true. However, the first panos were also an early attempt by photographers to deliberately direct and orchestrate not only what you see, but how they want you to see it. Let’s concede that the western mind tends to absorb information in linear fashion. We read from left to right, we scan the horizon, and so forth. So making a photograph that instructs you to interpret horizontally is fairly natural.
So the first panos seem like a fairly modest extension of our visual bias. But think about the fundamental change that represented. Suddenly, photographers were saying, there are no rules except the rules I dictate. I decide what a frame is. I arrange not only the information inside the frame, but the frame itself. By re-shaping the box, I re-shape what you are to think about what’s in the box. That’s revolutionary, and today’s shooters would be wise to be mindful of that wonderful power.
I am fond of making what I will generously call “carved” panoramics, shots that began as standard framings but which I have cropped to force a feel of left-to-right linearity. Unlike standard panoramics, the shots were conceived and made with a very different compositional strategy, not necessarily trying to tell a horizontal story. However, on review, some stories-within-stories contain enough strong information to allow them to stand as new, tighter compositions in which the new instruction to the viewer’s eye is quite different from that in the original.
The full shot seen at the top of this page may or may not succeed as a typical “urban jungle” snap, in part because it contains both horizontal and vertical indices that can pull the eye all over the place. Since I wasn’t amazed by the shot itself, I decided to select a horizontal framing from its middle real estate that purposely directed the eye to laterally compare the facades of several different buildings stacked tightly down the street. Full disclosure: I also re-contrasted the shot to make the varying colors pop away from each other.
The result still may not be a world-beater, but the very act of cutting has re-directed the sight lines of the picture. For better or worse, I’ve changed the rules of engagement for the photograph. When such surgeries work, you at least fix the problem of extraneous clutter in your pictures, making them easier to read. Then it’s down to whether it was a good read or a beach read.
Hey, the box can’t fix everything.