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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS SAID THAT THE GODDESS ATHENA WAS BORN, FULLY GROWN AND ARMORED, out of the forehead of Zeus. Other than being the only case where a man experienced anything that approached labor pain, the story always reminds me that ideas rarely arrive in their final form, especially in photography. If Athena had a Leica, she probably could have taken perfect shots without needing to compose or plan. We mere mortals are forced to either (a) report to hate-crazed photo editors, or (b) learn how to crop.
Many shots are created in stages, and there’s no shame in the game, since our original conception undergoes many phases from the first spark to something we’d actually hang on a wall. Creation itself is a process, which is why photographers should actually embrace the stages their work will pass through. The more thought that is applied to making an image, the better chance that the best way of doing something will reveal itself. Of course, it can also reveal the fact that there is nothing really to work with, in which case, hey, the bar should be open now, let’s go lick our wounds.
The original shot shown above is not yet a good photograph, but a good beginning for a photograph. The lady bathed in light seems certainly to have been pre-selected to be the focal point of the picture, but there are way too many competing elements around her, robbing her of the prominence she deserves in the final frame. So let’s get after it.
First, none of the information on the left side of the frame makes it any clearer that she’s alone or that she’s on the second floor of the building. We can make that plain with half the acreage, so snip. Similarly, the guys in shadow to her right aren’t part of the story we are crafting for her. If she’s isolated, let’s make her isolated and be unmistakable about it. She’s “apart” already from the sea of people below her. She’s geographically and physically separated from them, but the extra guys make the argument weaker, so, snip, away they go.
Finally, the entire upper-floor/lower-floor line of sight will be accentuated if we crop for a portrait orientation and move the frame so she is on the upper-right-hand corner of it. It forces the eye to discover the story of the picture vertically, so snip and we’re done.
So, at the end, we did not make any changes via processing, only the old scissors. Taking things away, not adding them on, actually made the picture work better. Fate gave me the girl and the wonderful light she was bathed in, but there was work to do. She didn’t arrive, ready to party, like Athena, but she’s a little closer to goddess status after some adjustment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT THE COUNTRY PARSON WHO WAS IN THE HABIT of writing, in the margins of his sermon script, “Argument weak here. Scream like hell.” If he were a man of the camera instead of a man of the cloth, this instruction might have read, “photograph ineffective here. Over-cook everything.”
Choose your favorite post-editing workflow and chances are that you, or someone like you, have tried to rescue an indifferent image by pouring a few gallons of digital gravy over it, hoping to turn flank steak into filet. And you probably have your own personal folder of shame for the results of such attempts. Mine would fill up a small bookshelf. In the Library of Congress.
One of the hallmarks of the early digital age seems to be an affection for over-saturated color, as if we had had quite enough of natural tones, thank you, and were desperate to return to the earliest days of photographic color, when everything was played on the loud pedal. It’s kind of perverse, but it seems like, as soon as photographers outdistance an old technical barrier, they seem to get nostalgic for it and try to revive it. Why resuscitate daguerreotypes, pinhole cameras, high grain slow films, etc. Irony? Curiosity? Novelty? Who knows?
Whatever the motivation, the result has been a cornucopia of mobile apps that aim for an unnatural distortion of color values (spend ten minutes on Instagram for as many samples as you want) and the lo-fi or lomography movement toward cheap plastic toy cameras that can’t help but deliver hyped up hues (again, Instagram). There are also a number of HDR programs which tend to tempt people beyond their endurance when it comes to electrifying color even in an image’s shadows, making everyday like a day-glo version of your uncle’s golf togs and resulting in some pretty hideous excess (and yet, alas, such was I. See left).
What’s the new normal? Again, can’t tell you. It’s pretty certain, though, that we love cranking the color up to 11, whether it serves the photo or not. Backing off and backing away on the hue-mongous overkill takes real discipline. The amped-up image is fascinating in some kind of moth-to-the-flame way, but eventually it becomes like any other excess, in that it stifles, rather than frees, your art. No effect is so miraculous as to work in every situation. Eventually, it’s about what you’re seeing and saying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CANNOT BECOME A GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER WITHOUT BEING YOUR OWN BEST EDITOR, no matter how brilliant or instinctual your shooter’s eye may be. Art is both addition and subtraction, and the image frame is about both inclusion and exclusion. You get your viewers’ attention by knowing what to show. You hold that attention, and burn your images into their minds, by learning what to pare away.
I’ve written several variations on this theme, so the best way to restate it is in the voice of the truly visionary godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ironically, this master of in-camera composition (he is reputed never to have cropped a single shot after it was taken) was nonetheless remarkably aware of what most of us must do to improve an image through post-editing:
This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements. We must avoid snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.
Insert whatever is French for “Amen” here.
I often find that up to 50% of some of my original shots can later be excised without doing any harm to the core of the photograph, and that, in many cases, actually improving them. Does that mean that my original concept was wrong? Not so much, although there are times when that’s absolutely true. The daunting thing is that the 50% floats around. Sometimes you need to cut the fat in the edges: other times the dead center of the shot is flabby. Sometimes the 50 is aggregate, with 25% trimmed from two different areas of the overall composition.
On occasion, as with the above picture (see the original off to the left), the entire bottom half of the shot drags down the top. In the cropped shot, the long lateral line between indoors and outdoors is much more unbroken, making for a more “readable” shot from left to right. The disappearance of the dark furniture at the bottom of the master shot creates no problems, and actually solves a few. Do a disciplined search of the nobler near-misses in your own work and see how many floating 50’s you discover. Freeing your shots of the things that “clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole” is humbling, but it’s also a revelation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALL IT “EYE-HERDING”, if you will, the art of channeling the viewer’s attention to specific parts of the photographic frame. It’s the first thing we learn about composition, and we address it with a variety of techniques, from depth-of-field to color manipulation to one of my favorites, the prioritizing of light. Light values in any image do have a hierarchy, from loud to soft, prominent to subordinate. Very few photos with uniform tone across the frame achieve maximum impact. You need to orchestrate and capitalize on contrast, telling your viewers, in effect, don’t watch this space. Watch this other space instead.
In many cases, the best natural ebb and flow of light will be there already, in which case you simply go click, thank the photo gods, and head home for a cold one. In fact, it may be that “ready to eat” quality that lured you to stop and shoot the thing in the first place. In many other cases, you must take the light values you have and make the case for your picture by tweaking them about a bit.
I have written before of the Hollywood fakery known as “day for night”, in which cinematographers played around with either exposure or processing on shots made in daylight to simulate night…a budgetary shortcut which is still used today. It can be done fairly easily with still images as well with a variety of approaches, and sometimes it can help you accentuate a light value that adds better balance to your shots.
The image at the top of this page was made in late afternoon, with pretty full sun hitting nearly everything in the frame. There was some slightly darker tone to the walls in the street, but nothing as deep as you see here. Thing is, I wanted a sunset “feel” without actually waiting around for sunset, so I deepened the overall color and simulated a lower exposure. As a result, the sky, cliffs and dogwood trees at the far end of the shot got an extra richness, and the shop walls receded into deeper values, thus calling extra attention to the “opening” at the horizon line. The shot also benefits from a strong front-to-back diagonal leading line. I liked the original shot, but with just a small change, I was asking the viewer to look here a little more effectively.
Light is a compositional element no less important than what it illuminates. Change light and you change where people’s eyes enter the picture, as well as where they eventually land.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY HEARD AN INTERESTING CRITIQUE OF A DRAMATIC CONTENDER for Best Film in the 2015 Oscar race. The critic in question complained that the film in question (Boyhood) was too realistic, too inclusive of banal, everyday events, and thus devoid of the dynamics that storytellers use to create entertainment. His bottom line: give us reality, sure, but, as the Brits say, with the boring bits left out.
If you’re a photographer, this argument rings resoundingly true. Shooters regularly choose between the factual documentation of a scene and a deliberate abstraction of it for dramatic effect. We all know that, beyond the technical achievement of exposure, some things that are real are also crashingly dull. Either they are subjects that have been photographed into meaninglessness (your Eiffel Towers, your Niagara Fallses) or they possess no storytelling magic when reproduced faithfully. That’s what processing is for, and, in the hands of a reliable narrator, photographs that remix reality can become so compelling that the results transcend reality, giving it additional emotive power.
This is why colors are garish in The Wizard Of Oz, why blurred shots can convey action better than “frozen” shots, and why cropping often delivers a bigger punch and more visual focus than can be seen in busier compositions. Drama is subject matter plus the invented contexts of color, contrast, and texture. It is the reassignment of values. Most importantly, it is a booster shot for subjects whose natural values under-deliver. It is not “cheating”, it is “realizing”, and digital technology offers a photographer more choices, more avenues for interpretation than at any other time in photo history.
The photo at left was taken in a vast hotel atrium which has a lot going for it in terms of scope and sweep, but which loses some punch in its natural colors. There is also a bit too much visible detail in the shot for a really dramatic effect. Processing the color with some additional grain and grit, losing some detail in shadow, and amping the overall contrast help to boost the potential in the architecture to produce the shot you see at the top of this post. Mere documentation of some subjects can produce pretty but flaccid photos. Selectively re-prioritizing some tones and textures can create drama, and additional opportunity for engagement, in your images.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOUGH MOST GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS PROCLAIM that any “rules” in their medium exist only to be broken, it’s often tough to chuck out regulations that have served you well over a lifetime of work. Once you get used to producing decent images through the repetition of habit, it takes extra nerve to take yourself outside your comfort zone, even if it means adding impact to your shots. You tend not to think of rules as arbitrary or confining, but as structural pillars that keep the roof from falling in.
That’s why it’s a good exercise to force yourself to do something that you feel is a bad fit for your style, lest your approach to everything go from being solid to, well, fossilized. If you hate black and white, make yourself shoot only monochrome for a week. If you feel cramped by square framing, make yourself work exclusively in that compositional format, as if your camera were incapable of landscape or portrait orientations. In my own case, I have to pry my brain away from an instinctual reliance on pinsharp focus, something which part of me fears will lead to chaos in my images. However, as I occasionally force myself to admit, sharp ain’t everything, and there may even be some times when it will kill, or at least dull, a picture.
With post-processing such an instantaneous, cheap, and largely effortless option these days, there really isn’t any reason to not at least try various modes of partial focus just to see where it will lead. Take what you believe will work in terms of the original shot, and experiment with alternate ways of interpreting what you started with.
In the shot at the top of this post, I tried to create mood in a uniquely shaped fish house with monochrome and a dour exposure on a nearly colorless day. Thing is, the image carried too much detail to be effectively atmospheric. The place still looked like a fairly new, fairly spiffy eatery located in an open-air shopping district. I wanted it to look like a worn, weathered joint, a marginal hangout that haunted the wharf that its seafood theme and design suggested. I needed to add more mood and mystery to it, and merely shooting in black & white wasn’t going to get me there, so I ran the shot through an app that created a tilt-shift focus effect, localizing the sharpness to the rooftop sign only and letting the rest of the structure melt into murk.
It shouldn’t be hard to skate around a rule in search of an image that comes closer to what you see in your mind, and yet it can require a leap of faith. Hard to say why trying new things spikes the blood pressure. We’re not heart surgeons, after all, and no one dies if we make a mistake.Anyway, you are never more than one click away from your next best picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HERE’S A SENTENCE YOU’RE NOT GOING TO HEAR ANYWHERE ELSE THIS WEEK: Being a club DJ can actually give you a fresh viewpoint on your photography.
I’ll let that sink in.
I know what you you’re thinkin’: did he drink six shots or only five? But I’m kind of sober, and rather serious. In a club setting, the mix is often more important than the song, or, more correctly, it allows the song to have an infinite number of alternative lives, depending on what you do with the turntables. Record companies recognized this in the heyday of disco, remixing hit tracks for more thump and bump, longer edits, brass overdubs, etc. As time went on, DJs interspersed their own random elements in the moment to create their own signature blends.
So what does this have to do with photography? Pretty much everything. In the digital era, post-production software is nearly half of some shooters’ workflow. So much emphasis is placed on what you can fix after the shutter is clicked that, for many, actually planning and taking the picture is the least important part of the process. Let’s lay aside the fact that I personally believe that this can get out of hand…..the point is, by allowing yourself the flexibility to revisit and remix a photo many times over its lifetime means you are not limiting yourself to one interpretation of what you originally created.
However, don’t keep merely to a reprocessing of the exposure or tone elements in the picture, that is, boosting color, adding filters, converting to monochrome. Think of compositional space as a remix element as well. Did you need all the real estate taken up in the original picture? Would that landscape shot work more effectively in portrait or square format? Did you originally include information in the frame that just adds clutter, sending your viewer’s eye wandering around aimlessly? In short, does your first reading of the “idea” of the picture still seem valid?
See the “after” picture at the top of the page and its “before” equivalent to the left. Did the picture gain or lose from the changes?
Another musical musing: George Gershwin personally played Rhapsody In Blue like a snappy jazz piece, not the stately symphonic standard that’s re-created by most modern performers. Does one rendition sound better or worse? Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that the process reveals different traits within the core music with every new mix. Your photographs will benefit in the same way. Just trust yourself to tinker.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.