ENTROPY FOR SMARTIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEVEN YEARS AGO, THE NORMAL EYE BEGAN ITS BLOGGY INFANCY based on a very simple idea, one which I hoped might help its content outlast the comings and goings of trends or fashions. That idea was (is) that this photography thing is a journey, not a destination, that we are always on the way to something, be it personal development or increased technical mastery or both. Indeed, our welcome page specifically refers to the “journey from taking to making”, a trek which is designed to reveal something new about ourselves at every turn in the road. This small-town newspaper, then is never so much about the “how to” side of photography as it is about the “why do we do it?” side.
On a personal level, the blog was also a by-product of a yearlong stretch during which I used a 50mm prime lens exclusively, forcing myself to shoot anything and everything with a single optic in an effort to increase my own mindfulness. I needed something that would slow me down so I could anticipate, plan, even pre-imagine shots, rather than effortlessly clicking them off in mega-batches. I also stuck an additional pebble in my shoe by shooting only on manual, again with the idea that streamlining my lens choices and functions would allow me to take greater conscious control of whatever I set out to capture.
This is not just the photographic equivalent of setting off into the wilderness with just a hunting knife and some beef jerky to win some bar bet about your ability to live off the land. It’s not a stunt or a dare. It’s about learning to emphasize your own vision rather than relying on equipment to hand-deliver you technically acceptable but emotionally empty images. Using a single lens for everything still gives you just as many creative choices as you’ll find lugging around half a dozen different optics and gizmos, so what we’re talking about here is speeding up your reaction time (no fumbling to change out gear, hence fewer shots missed), teaching you a personally consistent way of imagining/framing a shot, and getting to the point where your bond with your camera is so instinctual, you’ll devote a much higher percentage of your day to seeing instead of calculating. Prime lenses, which have only one focal length, are also called “normal” lenses, and that word intrigued me. What, in terms of how we first learned to use our senses, could be more “normal” than seeing with a full and profound sense, versus just having things pass by our eyes largely unnoticed? Thus, as I worked to get everything out of my “normal” 50mm, I was also trying to re-normalize my own vision, taking it off the auto-mode settings imposed by cameras that have conditioned us to choose convenience over honesty.
I restate this little epistle from time to time because it continues to inform everything I try to do as a photographer. And because there will come times when you have, due to bad luck or fate or stupidity, limited options for getting the picture. Equipment will fail: cameras will be sucked up by a swamp or tumble over a cliff: batteries will die. And when that happens, even though your technical choices have become more narrow, your ability to make the picture you want will not. Your “normalized” eye will empower you to produce results with any camera, any lens, in any situation. And that’s what the journey is all about. Call it Entropy For Smarties.
In the next installment, I hope to illustrate how I’m trying to call on this flexibility to help me deal with an approaching shooting situation that I know will be more restrictive, gear-wise, than I’d like. I have to keep reminding myself that making images is only partly about the gear. The trick is to make it as small a part as possible.
SOFT AND SHALLOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN A MOMENTOUS SURGE in the number of photographic optics that market themselves as “art lenses”, as if all other lenses were, what….non-artistic? This murky term essentially denotes lenses that deliver customized or selective focal effects, such as the Lensbaby “sweet spot”, a partial area of sharpness, surrounded by soft blur, that can be placed, at will, at various parts of the frame. Other so-called “art lenses” produce unique patterns of bokeh, or blur artifacts, while yet others produce vignetting, or darkening around the outside corners of the image. Some of these lenses are great overall performers, while a number of them are either one-trick ponies or muy espensivo or both.
Thing is, if you possess a fast “normal” lens, such as a 35 or 50mm “prime”, you can already achieve some of the same effects of many over-hyped proprietary lenses in the “art” arsenal. Primes have but a single focal length and thus have no telephoto function. The photographer frames by physically moving closer to, or farther away from, his subject, by, in effect, “zooming with the feet”. Since their focal range is fixed, primes are extremely simple in their construction, and therefore extremely sharp. In addition, they often will open to at least f/2.8, with many rated at f/1.8 or even faster. And that’s where the arty focus fun starts.
Wide open to f/1.8, the 50mm prime used for this image creates an extremely shallow depth of field. And that can be good news for flattering pics of faces. Primes of this focal length are already prized as portrait lenses, since they produce faces with normal proportions, as opposed to the Silly Putty stretching you get with wide-angles. Add to that a fast prime’s ability to deliver a very buttery transition between sharpness and blur, and you have the potential for a very finely-tuned look. Notice that there is no real hard sharpness in the cat’s face beyond one eye and about one third of his face. The rest rolls off very softly. My point is that nearly any good prime can deliver this effect: it isn’t essential to invest in a custom piece of “art” glass to get it.
One caveat: shooting this far open, at this distance, your auto-focus may endlessly gyrate back and forth trying to find a place to lock in. My advice: go manual. At this DOF, you’ll have to practice with how to nail the focus, and I personally am driven bonkers trying to find the sharpness at f/1.4 or faster: the range is so very razor-thin. Even so, before you pony up for a lens that’s designed to deliver arty focus, play with the primes you already have. You may be delighted. The focus may be shallow, but the satisfaction can run deep.
RUN WHAT YA BRUNG
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NORMALEYE PHOTOGRAPHIC PARADOX No.346: You have to think hard about your equipment when you’re not shooting so that you don’t have to give much thought when you are.
Reacting “in the moment” to a photographic situation is often lauded as the highest state of human existence, and, indeed, the ability to see, and do, on the spot, can yield amazing results. But, in that marvelous inspirational instant, the smallest item on your checklist should be dithering about your gear. What it will do. What it can’t do. What you don’t know how to make it do. These are ruminations you run through when there’s no picture making going on.
Simply, the more you know about what you’ve taken to a shoot, the less creative energy will be drained off worrying about how to use it once you get there. You will get to the point where, for a given day’s subject matter, you take the wide lens, of course, or the macro lens, of course, or the portrait lens, of course. You’ll anticipate the majority of situations you’ll be in, and, unless you like driving yourself crazy, you’ll likely select one lens that will just about do it all. But whatever lens you select, you will want to know how much farther you can push it, as well. You know what you generally need it to do, but can it, in a tight spot, do a decent job outside its specialty? The answer is, probably yes.
One of my favorite lenses for landscape work is my ancient Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Nice and wide for most outdoors subjects, pretty fast for the close and dark stuff, and sharp as cheddar cheese in my most used apertures, especially the middle range, like around f/5.6. Can it do macro work, when I swing my attention from distant mountains to detail on a nearby cactus? Well, yes, within reason.
The minimum near-focus distance for this lens is about ten inches, more than close enough to fill a frame with the trunk of the saguaro with a little spare space to the right and left. I shoot in big files, so even with a post-op crop I preserve lots of resolution, and bang, the wide-angle does a respectable job as a faux macro.
I grew up around amateur race arenas which invited people to haul any old hunk of automotive junk to the track, to be run in so-called “run what ya brung” events. I personally hate to haul my entire optical array out on a project, swapping out glass for every new situation. I’d much rather save my neck and shoulder by calculating ahead of time which lens will do most of what I want, but be able to stand-in for some other lens in special situations. There are usually work-arounds and hidden tricks in even the most limited lenses. You just have to seek them out.
Run what ya brung.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE RITES OF PASSAGE FOR SCHOOL KIDS IN COLUMBUS, OHIO IN THE 1960’s was a field trip to the Center of Science and Industry, or COSI, one of the nation’s first interactive tech museums, mounted before either the terms “interactive” or “hands-on” were common parlance. In those JFK-flavored days of early space exploration and Jetson-gee-whiz futurism, flying cars and picture phones seemed our inevitable legacy, and the Center’s exhibits often veered closer to the World’s Fair than the science fair, its dazzling displays often trumping pure enlightenment. A generation later, the sizzle lingers in the mind a little better than the steak. Something to work on.
Science was presented as something of a magic trick then, a sure and certain answer to all human needs and desires. But to my tween-sized mind, it also retained an air of mystery, something wondrously alien to my daily experience. Few of COSI’s exhibits from the time created more of a sense of wonder in me than an illuminated timeline of fetal gestation, with each crucial stage between embryo and newborn illustrated by a separately preserved specimen of a transitional human that never made it to the delivery room. As fascinating as the display was, it was also a little creepy, somewhat like, if you will, viewing pre-mummies from a colony of visitors from the future.
In a recent visit to the new COSI, now re-located to a larger, brighter HQ across from Columbus’ downtown riverfront, I was both amused and amazed to see that the timeline had been retained in nearly the same way I remembered it from 1964. Having survived to the era of iPhones and DNA mapping, its dim, the strange, amber-glow profiles still had a hypnotic effect on me, housed as they were in a dark, shadowy sector of the museum, sealed within a showcase that distorted the faces of passersby, even as it shrouded their bodies in mystery. For the shot you see here, I liked the strange juxtaposition of the exhibit’s clinical coldness with the form of a young visitor, casually viewing the timeline as if it were no more notable than a collection of butterflies. I shut the exposure down so that the case provided the only light, opened the lens as far as I dared for the right depth of field, and jacked the ISO slightly to compensate for the murky room ambience.
The COSI of the New Frontier years was always a place that could cast science in a distinctly optimistic light. In 2015, I hoped to re-imagine that magic through the insight of an additional fifty years of living. Mood in photography is created as much by what you conceal as by what you reveal, and trying to get that balance right is 90% of the game.
MAKING LIGHT OF THE SITUATION
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PORTRAITS, PHOTOGRAPHERS SOMETIMES HAVE TO SUBSTITUTE INTIMACY FOR TECHNICAL PERFECTION. We understandably want to come as near as possible to meticulously modulated light in telling the story of a face, and so we try to ride the line between natural, if inadequate light, and light which is shaped so much that we dull the naturalness of the moment.
It’s a maddening tug of war. If we don’t intervene, we might make an image which is less than flattering, or, worse, unfit for publication. If we nib in too much, we get a result whose beauty can border on the sterile. I find that, more often than not, I lean toward the technically limited side, choosing to err in favor of a studied snapshot rather than a polished studio look. If the face I’m shooting is giving me something real, I worry more about throwing a rock into that perfect pond with extra tinkering.
If my subject is personally close to me, I find it harder, not easier, to direct them, lest the quality I’m seeing in their natural state be replaced by a distancing self-consciousness. It puts me in the strange position of having to wait until the situation all but gifts me with the picture, as adding even one more technical element can endanger the feel of the thing. It’s times like this that I’m jammed nose-up against the limits of my own technical ability, and I feel that a less challenged shooter would preserve the delicacy of the situation and still bring home a better photograph.
In the above frame, the window light is strong enough to saturate the central part of my wife’s face, dumping over three-fourths of her into deep shadow. But it’s a portrait. How much more do I need? Would a second source of light, and the additional detail it would deliver on the left side of her head be more “telling” or merely be brighter? I’m lucky enough in this instance for the angle of the window light to create a little twinkle in her eye, anchoring attention in the right place, but, even at a very wide aperture, I still have to crank ISO so far that the shot is grainy, with noise reduction just making the tones flatter. It’s the old trade-off. I’m getting the feel that I’m after, but I have to take the hit on the technical side.
Then there was the problem that Marian hates to have her picture taken. If she hadn’t been on the phone, she would already have been too aware of me, and then there goes the unguarded quality that I want. I can ask a model to “just give me one more” or earn her hourly rate by waiting while I experiment. With the Mrs., not so much.
Here’s what it comes down to: sometimes, you just have to shoot the damned thing.
NEW WINE FROM OLD BOTTLES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF US WHO BEGAN THEIR LOVE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE DAYS OF FILM have never really made a total switch to digital. It just never was necessary to make that drastic a “clean break” with the past. Far from it: through the tools and techniques that we utilized in the analog world, we still carry forth viewpoints and habits that act as foundations for the work we produce in pixels. Photography was not “re-invented” by digital in the way that transportation was when we moved from horse to car. It was refined, adding a new chapter, not an entire book.
Digital is merely the latest in a historical line of ever-evolving recording media, from daguerreotypes to salted paper to glass plates to roll film. The principles of what makes a good picture, plus or minus some philosophical fashion from time to time, have not changed. That means that tons of toys from the analog world still have years of life left in them, especially lenses.
Call it a “reverse hack” mentality, call it sentiment, but some shooters are reluctant to send all their various hunks of aged camera glass to the ashcan simply because they were originally paired with analog bodies. Photography is expensive enough without having to start from scratch with all-new components every time a hot new product hits the market, and many of us look for workarounds that involve giving a second life to old lenses. New wine from old bottles.
Some product lines actually engineer backwards-compatibility into their lenses. Nikon was the first and best company to spearhead this particular brain flash, making lenses for over forty years that can be pressed into service with the latest Nikon body off the production line. In my own case, I have finally landed a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 prime, not from current catalogues, but from the happy land of Refurbia. It’s a 1970’s-era gem that is sharp, simple, and mine-all-mine, for a fifth of the cost of the latest version of the same optic.
My new/old 24 gives me a wide-angle that’s a full stop more light-thirsty than the most current kit lenses in that focal length, and is also small, light, and quick, even as a manual focus lens. And it can be argued that the build quality is better as well. Photography is about results, not hardware, so how you get to the finish line is your business. And yet, sometimes, I must admit that shooting new pictures with legendary lenses feels like photography, as an art, is building on, and not erasing, history.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL EXPERIENCED THE SHOCK OF SEEING OURSELVES IN A CERTAIN KIND OF PHOTOGRAPH, a strange combination of framing, light or even history that makes us actually ask, “who is that?? before realizing the truth. Of course we always know, intellectually, that a photo is not an actual visual record of events but an abstraction, and still we find ourselves emotionally shocked when it’s capable of rendering very familiar things as mysteries. That odd gulf between what we know, and what we can get an image to show, is always exciting, and, occasionally, confounding.
Every once in a while, what comes out in a picture is so jarringly distant from what I envisioned that I want to doubt that I was even involved in capturing it. Such photographs are magical orphans, in that they are neither successes nor failures, neither correct or wrong, just…..some other thing. My first reaction to many of these kinds of shots is to toss them into the “reject” pile, as every photo editor before 1960 might have, but there are times when they will not be silenced, and I find myself giving them several additional looks, sometimes unable to make any final decision about them at all.
The above shot was taken on a day when I was really shooting for effect, as I was using both a polarizing filter to cut glare and a red 25 filter to render severe contrast in black and white. The scene was a reedy brook that I had shot plenty of times at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, but the shot was not planned in any way. As a matter of fact, I made the image in about a moment and a half, trying to snap just the shoreline before a boisterous little girl could get away from her parents and run into the frame. That’s all the forethought that went into it.
With all the extreme filtration up front of the lens, I was shooting slow, at about 1/30 of a second, and, eager to get to the pond, the child was just too fast for me. Not fast enough to be a total blur, but fast enough for my lens to render her softly, strangely. And since every element in a picture talks to every other element, the rendering of the reeds, which was rather murky, added even more strangeness to the little girl, her face forever turned away, her intent or presence destined to remain a secret.
I might like this picture, but I worry that wanting to like it is making me see something in it that isn’t there. Am I trying to wish some special quality into a simple botched shot, acting as a sort of self-indulgent curator in search of “art”?
Can’t tell. Too soon.
Check with me in another five years or so.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation. Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.
However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.
One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.
The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear. Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.
Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a Denver omelet for you?
GO TO YOUR GO-TO
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE END OF THE FILM ERA AND THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there was a profound change in what camera manufacturers defined as a “starter” lens for new owners. Many shooters, including your humble scribbler, have wondered just why an 18-55 “kit lens” zoom became the glass that was included with the purchase of a digital SLR, when the baseline lens for film shooters had most typically been a 35mm prime. This is especially puzzling since the kit lenses sold by many makers are optically inferior to a prime in several key respects.
Primes, or “normal” lenses, have one focal length only, and so cannot zoom at all, but they out-perform many of today’s zooms on sharpness, clarity, speed, aesthetic blur (or “bokeh”), and portability. Their proportions are more similar to those seen by the human eye (thus the “normal” tag) and so do not create distortion at, say 24mm, a range at which some banding creeps into a zoom at the same focal length. They also will not exaggerate front-to-back distances as seen in a super wide-angle, meaning that an 8×10 room does not resemble a bowling alley.
So what does a wide-angle zoom bring to the party? Not much, beyond the convenience afforded by zooming out with the twist of a barrel, filling your frame in seconds but, ironically, making you less mindful of the composition of your shot. The few extra seconds needed to compose on a lens that can’t zoom means that you act more purposefully, more consciously in the making of an image. You, and not the lens, are responsible for what’s included or cut.
But let’s assume that you want the kit lens for its wide-angle. This is also no problem for a prime lens. Yes, it’s as wide as it will ever be at a single focal length, but you can change what it sees by just stepping backwards. A 35mm prime is plenty wide depending on where you stand. It’s not like you can’t capture a large field of view from left to right. Just place yourself in the right place and shoot.
Yes, there are times when physical restrictions dictate “jumping the fence” by using your zoom to take you where your legs won’t go, but you can count those occasions on half the toes of a frostbitten foot. Look at the above shot. What else do you need in the shot that would require a wide-angle zoom to capture? And if the zoom can only open to f/3.5 at its widest aperture, why not use the prime and gain the ability to go all the way to f/1.8 if needed?
Here’s the deal: if you can walk to your shot and use a better, less expensive piece of glass once you get there, why use a zoom? If you can avail yourself of remarkable sharpness and fill your frame with everything you need, free of distortion, and gain extra speed, why use the wideangle? Huh? Huh? Riddle me that, Batman.
THE BOY IN THE BALL CAP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE SHOTS, MORE CHOICES: Photography really is as simple as that. The point has been hammered home by expert and amateur alike since before we could say “Kodak moment”: over-shooting, snapping more coverage from more vantage points, results in a wider ranger of results, which, editorially, can lead to finding that one bit of micro-mood, that miraculous mixture of factors that really does nail the assignment. Editors traditionally know this, and send staffers out to shoot 120 exposures to get four that are worthy of publication. It really, ofttimes, is a numbers game.
For those of us down here in the foot soldier ranks, it’s rare to see instances of creative over-shoot. We step up to the mountain or monument, and wham, bam, there’s your picture. We tend to shoot visual souvenirs: see, I was there, too. Fortunately, one of the times we do shoot dozens upon dozens of frames is in the chronicling of our families, especially the day-to-day development of our children. And that’s vital, since, unlike the unchanging national monument we record on holiday, a child’s face, especially in its earlier years, is a very dynamic subject, revealing vastly different features literally from frame to frame. As a result, we are left with a greater selection of editing choices after those faces dissolve into other faces, after which they are gone in a thrilling and heartbreaking way.
One humbling thing about shooting kids is that, after they have been around a while, you realize that you might have caught something essential, months or years ago, during an event at which you just felt like you were reacting, racing to catch your quarry, get him/her in focus, etc. A feeling of always trying to catch up. It’s one of the only times in our own lives that we shoot like paparazzi. This might be something, better get it. I’ll sort it out later. The process is so frenetic that some images may only reveal their gold several miles down the road.
Not the sharpest image I ever shot, but look at that face. Slow shutter to compensate for the dim light. 1/40 sec., f/3.2, ISO 200, 35mm.
My grandson is now entering kindergarten. He’s reading. He’s a compact miniature of his eventual, total self. And, in recently riffing through images of him from early five years ago (and yes, I was sniffling), I found an image where he literally previews the person I now know him to be. This image was always one of my favorite pictures of him, but it is more so now. In it, I see his studious, serious nature, and his intense focus, along with his divine vulnerability and innocence. Technically, the shot is far from perfect, as I was both racing around to catch him during one of his impulse-driven adventures and trying to master a very new lens. As a result, his face is a little soft here, but I don’t know if that’s so bad, now that I view it with new eyes. The light in the room was itself pretty anemic, leaking through a window from a dim day, and running wide open on a 50mm f/1.8 lens at a slow 1/40 was the only way I was going to get anything without flash, so I risked misreading the shallow depth of field, which I kinda did. However, I’ll take this face over the other shots I took that day. Whatever I was lacking as a photographer, Henry more than compensated for as a subject.
Final box score: the boy in the ball cap hit it out of the park.
SAME SHIFT, DIFFERENT DAY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS OF PERFORMANCES ARE PERHAPS MY FAVORITE STUDIES OF THE HUMAN FACE. None of the self-conscious artifice or hesitant reticence of the standard portrait shoot are present when a player, be it a violinist or pianist, is fully inside the trance of creation. Call it rapture, call it focus, but something almost holy illuminates the features when people sing or play. All the awareness of their face as a mask melts away, as all mental energy surges to the task at hand. Their faces become some other thing, and I can’t resist trying to preserve that.
I recently had a chance to shoot two performances at the same part of the same museum about
ten weeks apart. The first set of images were like walking barefoot through roses; everything worked. The second occasion, just a few days ago, was, by comparison, work, and frustrating work at that. The time of day for both sessions was the same, with mid-morning light entering the hall through cream-color curtains and softening everything to an appealing haze. My distance from the stage was also nearly the same on both days. What created the difference in my results, then, was my choice of lens, pure and simple. All of my “luck” came because the first lens was perfect for the task. All of my muttered oaths at the second occasion were due to how wrong my choice had been.
In the first case, exemplified by the mariachi band in the image at right, I used a 35mm prime, which
is simple, sharp and fast enough, at f/1.8 on the wide-open end, to give me enough light in nearly any situation. In the more recent shoot, I used a 300mm zoom, about the most opposite approach you could try. The lens cannot get any wider open than f/4.5, and shuts down all the way to f/5.6 when fully zoomed in, so, right off the bat, you’re starving yourself for light, especially in a room where most of it is behind the performers. I decided to try the 300 out of pure perverse curiosity, and from a sense of “what can I lose?”, which is a blessing, since, when the results don’t matter, you can try something, just to see what happens.
Well, I saw.
The light reduction with the 300 was more severe than I’d anticipated. Oh, sure, I could get really tight framings on the performers, but I was going to have to either slow my shutter speed to under 1/60 or jack the ISO up to undesirably high noise level, or, as it turns out, both. The contrast between light and dark was the first thing to take the hit, as tone registered in a muddy middle range with the zoom versus the sharply defined values I had gotten with the 35.
Then there was the overall softness of the 300, due largely to the small amount of camera shake on my part, which, in a zoom, is magnified several times over. In both cases, I got usable images, but whereas with the 35mm prime I had a kind of embarrassment of riches, the object with the zoom shoot was to salvage something and slave away like mad to do so.
I could easily have taken wider framed shots with the 35 (since it can’t zoom), then cropped them for tightness later, as I had on the first day. Instead, I got a lot of really tight shots of musicians that needed serious intervention to make them acceptable. But I want to emphasize that this is what experimentation is for. You put your hand on the hot stove, yell “OWWW!” and refrain from touching the hot stove in future. At the end of the second shoot, I had lost no money, no business, and very little time. That’s education on the cheap.
I don’t mind wearing the dunce cap every once in a while, if I know that, eventually, I’m going to end up in a fedora.
ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR NIKON
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN DEFINED CLASSICALLY AS “WRITING WITH LIGHT“, but I often wonder if a better definition might be “capitalizing on light opportunities”, since it’s not really what subject matter we shoot but light’s role in shaping it that makes for strong images. We have all seen humble objects transformed, even rendered iconic, based on how a shooter perceives the value of light, then shapes it to his ends. That’s why even simple patterns that consist of little more than light itself can sometimes be enough for a solid photograph.
If you track the history of our art from, say, from the American Civil War through today’s digital domain, you really see a progression from recording to interpreting. If the first generally distributed photographs seen by a mass audience involve, say, the aftermath of Antietam or Gettysburg, and recent images are often composed of simple shapes, then the progression is very easy to track. The essence is this: we began with photography as technology, the answer to a scientific conundrum. How do we stop and fix time in a physical storage device? Once that very basic aim was achieved, photographers went from trying to just get some image (hey, it worked!) to having a greater say in what kind of image they wanted. It was at this point that photography took on the same creative freedom as painting. Brushes, cameras, it doesn’t matter. They are just mediums through which the imagination is channeled.
In interpreting patterns of elementary shapes which appeal on their own merit, photographers are released from the stricture of having to endlessly search for “something to shoot”. Some days there is no magnificent sunrise or eloquent tree readily at hand, but there is always light and its power to refract, scatter, and recombine for effect. It’s often said that photography forced painting into abstraction because it didn’t want to compete with the technically perfect way that the camera could record the world. However, photography also evolved beyond the point where just rendering reality was enough. We moved from being reporters to commentators, if you like. Making that journey in your own work (and at your own pace) is one of the most important step an art, or an artist, can take.
THE MAIN POINT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAKING PICTURES, FOR ME, IS LIKE MAKING TAFFY. The only good results I get are from stretching and twisting between two extremes. Push and pull. Yank and compress. Stray and stay. Say everything or speak one single word.
This is all about composition, the editing function of what to put in or leave out. In my head, it’s a constant and perpetually churning debate over what finally resides within the frame. No, that needs something more. No, that’s way too much. Cut it. Add it. I love it, it’s complete chaos. I love it, it’s stark and lonely.
Can’t settle the matter, and maybe that’s the point. How can your eye always do the same kind of seeing? How can your heart or mind ever be satisfied with one type of poem or story? Just can’t, that’s all.
But I do have a kind of mental default setting I return to, to keep my tiny little squirrel brain from exploding.
When I need to clean out the pipes, I tend to gravitate to the simplest compositions imaginable, a back-to-basics approach that forces me to see things with the fewest possible elements, then to begin layering little extras back in, hoping I’ll know when to stop. In the case of the above image, I was shooting inside a darkened room with only an old 1939 World’s Fair paperweight for a subject, and holding an ordinary cheap flashlight overhead with one hand as I framed and focused, handheld, with the other hand. I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a fishing expedition, plain and simple. What I soon decided, however, was that, instead of one element, I was actually working with two.
Basic flashlights have no diffusers, and so they project harsh concentric circles as a pattern. Shifting the position of the flashlight seemed to make the paperweight appear to be ringed by eddying waves, orbit trails if you will. Suddenly the mission had changed. I now had something I could use as the center of a little solar system, so, now,for a third element, I needed “satellites” for that realm. Back to the junk drawer for a few cat’s eye marbles. What, you don’t have a bag of marbles in the same drawer with your shaving razor and toothpaste? What kinda weirdo are you?
Shifting the position of the marbles to suggest eccentric orbits, and tilting the light to create the most dramatic shadow ellipses possible gave me what I was looking for….a strange, dreamlike little tabletop galaxy. Snap and done.
Sometimes going back to a place where there are no destinations and no rules help me refocus my eye. Or provides me with the delusion that I’m in charge of some kind of process.
FALL-OFF AS LEAD-IN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
USING “LEADING LINES” TO PULL A VIEWER INTO AN IMAGE IS PRETTY MUCH COMPOSITION 101. It’s one of the best and simplest ways to overcome the flat plane of a photograph, to simulate a feeling of depth by framing the picture so the eye is drawn inward from a point along the edge, usually by use of a bold diagonal taking the eye to an imagined horizon or “vanishing point”. Railroad tracks, staircases, the edge of a long wall, the pews in a church. We all take advantage of this basic trick of engagement.
One thing that can aid this lead-in effect even more is shooting at night. Artificial lighting schemes on many buildings “tell” the eye what the most important and least important features should be…where the designer wants your eye to go. This means that there is at least one angle on many city scenes where the light goes from intense to muted, a transition you can use to seize and direct attention.
This all gives me another chance to preach my gospel about the value of prime lenses in night shots. Primes like the f/1.8 35mm used for this image are so fast, and recent improvements in noiseless ISO boosts so advanced, that you can shoot handheld in many more situations. That means time to shoot more, check more, edit more, get closer to the shot you imagined. This shot is one of a dozen squeezed off in about a minute. The reduction of implementation time here is almost as valuable as the speed of the lens, and, in some cases, the fall-off of light at night can act as a more dramatic lead-in for your shots.
STOP AT “YES”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A PROPENSITY, WITHIN THE DNA OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, to “show it all”, to flood the frame with as much visual information as humanly possible in an attempt to faithfully render a story. Some of this may track back to the first days of the art, when the world was a vast, unexplored panorama, a wilderness to be mapped and recorded. Early shutterbugs risked their fortunes and their lives to document immense vistas, mountain ranges, raging cataracts, daunting cliffs. There was a continent to conquer, an immense openness to capture. The objectives were big, and the resultant pictures were epic in scale.
Seemingly, intimacy, the ability to select things, to zero in on small stories, came later. And for some of us, it never comes. Accordingly, the world is flooded with pictures that talk too loudly and too much, including, strangely, subjects shot at fairly close range. The urge is strong to gather, rather than edit, to include rather than to pare away. But there are times when you’re just trying to get the picture to “yes”, the point at which nothing else is required to get the image right, which is also the point at which, if something extra is added, the impact of the image is actually diminished. I, especially, have had to labor long and hard to just get to “yes”….and stop.
In the above image, there are only two elements that matter: the border of brightly lit paper lanterns at the edge of a Chinese New Year festival and the small pond that reflects back that light. If I were to exhaust myself trying to also extract more detail from the surrounding grounds or the fence, I would accomplish nothing further in the making of the picture. As a matter of fact, adding even one more piece of information can only lessen the force of the composition. I mention this because I can definitely recall occasions when I would whack away at the problem, perhaps with a longer exposure, to show everything in more or less equal illumination. And I would have been wrong.
Even with this picture, I had to make myself accept that a picture I like this much required so little sweat. Less can actually be more, but we have to learn to get out of our own way….to stop at “yes”.
EAVESDROPPING ON REALITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.
Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.
In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.
Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.
The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.
The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.
Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.
The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.
THE LIVING LAB
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST GIFT A SMALL CHILD HAS TO GIVE THE WORLD IS THE VAST, UNMINED ORE OF POSSIBILITY residing inside him. Wow, that really sounded pretentious. But think about it. He or she, as yet, has no wealth to offer, no fully developed talent, no seasoned insight, no marketable skills. It is what he or she has the potential to be that tantalizes us, and our cameras. It is what is just about to be available from these fresh, just-out-of-the-oven souls that amazes us, the degree to which they are not yet….us.
As a photographer, I find there is no better education than to be plunged into the living laboratory of cascading emotion that is a cluster of kids, and the more chaotic and unrehearsed the setting, the richer the results. It’s like shooting the wildest of competitive sports, where everything unfolds in an instant, for an instant. You ride a series of waves, all breaking into their final contours with completely different arcs and surges. There is no map, few guarantees, and just one rule: remain an outsider. The closer to invisibility you can get, the truer the final product.
I volunteer with an educational facility which designs many entry-level discovery workshops and playdates involving young families, requiring a lot of documentary photographs. What would be a chore or an extra duty for overworked administrative staff becomes an excuse, for me, to attend living labs of human experience, and I jump at the chance to walk silently around the edges of whatever adventure these kids are embarked on, whether a simple sing-a-long or a class in amateur dance.
Everything feeds me. It’s a learn-on-the-fly crash course in exposure, composition, often jarring variations in light, and the instantaneous nature of children. To be as non-disruptive as possible, I avoid flash and use a fast 35mm prime, which is a good solid portrait lens. It can’t zoom, however, so there is the extra challenge of getting close enough to the action without becoming a part of it, and in rooms where the lighting is iffy I may have to jack up ISO sensitivity pretty close to the edge of noise. Ideally, I don’t want the kids to be attending to me at all. They are there to react honestly to their friends, parents, and teachers, so there can be no posing, no “look over here, sweetie”, no “cheese”. What you lose in the total control of a formal studio you gain in rare glimpses into real, working minds.
The yields are low: while just anything I shoot can serve as a “document” for the facility’s purposes, for my own needs I am lucky to get one frame in a hundred that gives me something that works technically and emotionally. But for faces like these, I will gladly take those odds.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
CHOOSE NOT TO CHOOSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE ACT OF MAKING A PICTURE HAS TRADITIONALLY MEANT CHOOSING ONE THING OVER ANOTHER; exposing some things within a frame nearly perfectly, while, by default, settling for under-or-over-exposure of other objects within that same picture. We find ourself making priorities within the image, sorting things into piles marked “important” and “not important”. Get the color right on the surf and let the sky go white. Tamp down the snowy mountain and leave the surrounding forest black. Get this part right: leave this part wrong.
At least that’s what our earlier habits led us to accept. You can’t have it all, we tell ourselves. Decide what you really need to show and leave the rest. However, there’s a big difference between deciding to de-emphasize something in an image and feeling powerless to do anything else. Happily, ongoing developments in camera technology work to progressively minimize the number of scenarios in which you have to make these unholy choices, and one of the things that can save many such pictures is (a) readily at hand, (b) cheap, and (c) easy to work with; your on-board flash.
Now before I go further, know that I hate, hate, hate on-board flash 99.9999999% of the time. It’s only slightly less harsh than a blowtorch, lousy beyond a short distance, and generally hard to focus and direct. That said, I am occasionally an oh, hell yeah believer in fill flash, for which these rude little beacons can be useful.
In the above image, shooting the traditional way, you can choose a balanced exposure for either the front yard beyond this rustic homes’ porch or the detail on the porch itself, but not both. However, if you pop up the flash, expose for the yard, and then back off just beyond the flash’s outer range, a gentle bit of light illuminates the porch’s wood grain and reduces the shadow nooks without bleaching them out (Note that, with the flash up, you can’t shoot any faster than 1/200, so you may have to control the exposure of the yard by going for a smaller f-stop. I used 5.6 here). The result is an illusion, since you’ve tricked the camera into recording an even range of light that your eye and brain seem to see naturally, but the trick looks as if it ought to be “real”.
Of course, if the yard is so magnificent in its own right, you may choose to show the porch in silhouette just to call attention to all that floral glory, but the thing is, you’re not locked in to that choice alone. The horrible, harsh on-board flash can give you more options, and thus (barely) justify its existence.
And did I mention it’s cheap and easy?
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
CHASING THE SENSATION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING LARGE SUBJECTS IS OFTEN MORE CHALLENGING THAN CAPTURING STORIES NEAR AT HAND. If you’re doing a tight frame around a bowl of fruit, there may be more than only one story for the shot, but, compared to trying to find the essential visual core of a vast area, it’s not really the stuff of MENSA club meetings. When you’re shooting tight, the message, the central spine of the idea reveals itself fairly quickly. Panning over an immense scene, the story is “out there”, but your editor’s eye will certainly get a more rigorous workout in paring away the unneeded extras.
Important note before we continue: I am not a storm chaser. I lack the mixture of admirable fortitude and creepy bravado that allows people to take truck and gear in hand in an insane game of dodge-ball with a meteorological Godzilla. So, if I am in the position to grab a moment during one of Mother Nature’s more picturesque tantrums, it’s purely a case of being in the right place at the right time. I am not intrepid. To my thinking, the only thing cool about being Indiana Jones is, you get to wear a seriously rockin’ hat.
Thus, the above frame is largely luck, the very casual luck associated with pulling off the road for a rest stop precisely as something is becoming interesting. The cloud you see belongs to a horrible wildfire that tore through more than 20,000 acres in California’s San Jacinto Mountains last Thursday, August 8, 2013. From our westward trek toward Los Angeles on the I-10, most of what we saw of the fire, for nearly 100 miles, was a dense, diffuse haze which more closely resembled Pollution’s Greatest Hits of 1968 than a fire. However, during our leg-stretcher at the wonderful Hadley Fruit & Nut superstore in Cabazon, California, it was finally possible to see a salmon-colored, tightly defined cloud of fire smoke, snaking its way southward across the freeway, billowing to the size of a football stadium over the mountainous terrain near our car.
The cloud was a free, here-you-are gift, the central part of the story, but the shot wasn’t ready. I needed some earthly point of reference to convey its size, and all I had were distant palm trees and fairly featureless terrain. Fortunately, there was a short masonry wall that marked Hadley’s lot from those of its neighbors, and, crouching down a bit, I could bring it into frame as some way to contextualize the cloud monster. The other problem was haze, which was rendering all colors too faintly, given the high position of the sun reading off the smoke. A simple screw-on polarized filter cut the haze and delivered the hues. Click and done.
Back in the car, far away from the Devil Cloud, and on to L.A.
With a lucky frame in the back seat.
And walnuts and raisins in the front.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye, and view his Flickr photostream at: