the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Sharpness

A SOFTER TOUCH

At its widest apertures, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens adds an overlay of glowing softness to focused images.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CREATORS OF THE OPTICAL REVOLUTION known as Lensbaby lenses are more than mere inventors; many are also refugees from the conventional rules of professional photography, or, more precisely, the predictability that adherence to mere technical “perfection” can produce. From their first product over fifteen years ago through their constantly expanding line of lenses and accessories, LB is about embracing the same random artifacts (blur, flares, bokeh, chromatic aberration, etc.) that engineers have forever labored to design out of camera gear and allow them to be put back into the making of pictures, but at the shooter’s whim rather than as mere accidents.

Over the years, The Normal Eye has devoted nearly twenty posts to the unique freedom this concept confers on photography, allowing users to, in the company’s words, “see in a new way.”  In my own work, which was shaped over fifty years ago by the influence of print journalists, the idea of control once consisted of adherence to a rigid rulebook governing acceptable precision and uniform sharpness. As I have grown older, however, I have learned that there is more than one way to define control, and that gear that helps me work more instinctively might have to step outside the bounds of mere technical “rightness”. 

The Lensbaby Velvet 56.

Nowhere is that newfound freedom more manifest than in the Lensbaby “Velvet” prime lenses, available in a variety of mounts for DSLRs and mirrorless bodies in 28, 56 and 85mm focal lengths. Like all LB optics, these lenses are completely manual, and thus will not share complete shooting data with your camera. For those who seldom shoot on “M” and thus have more limited experience making all the decisions that govern the creation of a shot, this will present a bit of breaking-in, but with that forced preparation comes the habit of deliberately, intentionally creating a photograph. The risks are all yours, but so are all the benefits. As in the days of film, shooting with a Lensbaby entails slowing down and making a plan. These lenses are not for snapshots. 

At its wider apertures (f/1.6 to 5.6), the Velvets create an overlay of glow over your images, almost as if they were lit from within or behind, even as the details within them remain focused (see above image). To picture the effect, think of the shortcut Hollywood studios used to produce soft, almost airbrushed portraits of the stars with either gauze or vaseline placed ahead of their lenses. Now, imagine what it can do for your own dreamy portraits. This is not the “low-fi” randomness of cheap, plastic, light-leaking toys, but the “alternate-fi” of real choice. 

For any kind of standard street or landscape work, narrower apertures in the Velvets produce conventional sharpness that matches any general-purpose lenses. The V’s are also extremely effective as macros, with a 1:2 ratio (reproducing objects at half-size). Thus, armed with three strong talents in a single lens, the Velvet can easily be left on your camera for extended stretches as an all-purpose go-to. Better still,  the softer Velvet effect, as well as the effects of any LB optic, is achieved totally in-camera, without the need of additional post-processing.  

In my own work, the harsh detail and sharper edges inherent in architectural or urban scenes can, with my Velvet, take on a warm, even nostalgic feel, selectively smoothing surface textures and lending the whole scene a sort of idealized, fantasy appearance. For sample images from Flickr members around the world, click on the link to their Velvet 56 page. There’s also my own Lensbabyland  gallery tab at the top of this page, as well as a shortcut to the first day of Lensbaby’s Shoot Extraordinary workshop for 2020, a great source of inspiration for newcomers.

Lensbabys are not intended as the solution to every photographic challenge. They are augmentations to your existing technique, not a replacement for it. And, yes, I know the term art lens can sound a bit snotty, but, when you generate effects that once were the province of chance or accident and purposely harness them as tools in the making of your images, that certainly bespeaks an “artistic” attitude, and many agree that the LB line of products help you deliberately and uniquely shape your vision. There is more than one kind of photographer, and thus there must be more than one kind of control.

 


MERCY BOKEH

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NEGOTIATIONS between primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of information, and how they will be arranged in a frame. You either feature or mute that information in order to direct attention to the primary story you’re trying to tell. The simplest example of this process is the selective focus engineered into many shots, with important details being rendered in sharpness while the rest of the competing data goes soft to help isolate the main message of the picture. In its simplest application this means a clearly focused foreground and a blurred background.

The blur used to be the eye’s clue that the information in that part of the picture was not a priority. Thinking in terms of portraits, for example, your subject is clearly defined, with the space  behind it dulled or diminished. You make that choice by selecting your depth of field and shoot accordingly. However, recent trends in the making of a photograph have elevated the status of the blurs themselves to something that needs to be chosen, or shaped for artistic purposes. In other words, the part of an image that is inherently unimportant, by virtue of being out of focus, is now a source of attention as to what kind of blur is being created. This formerly fussy concept of bokeh is popping up in more and more advertising copy for the sale of lenses. A given piece of glass is now touted as having great bokeh, which somehow makes it more desirable than some other piece of glass.

I love the way this zoom focuses on foreground objects; its background textures, not so much.

Bokeh is really nothing more than the quality of the shapes that occur when a particular lens breaks up light in its non-focused areas. Some people use the terms “buttery” or “geometric” or “dreamy” to describe the work of a given optic, and some lenses are actually marketed based on how this texture is rendered. I can only speak to this fascination from my own viewpoint, and so you have to plug in your own approach to photography, and whether the non-essential part of a picture is now, strangely, important to you.…important enough to influence your purchase of one hunk of gear over another. I admit that some bokeh acts as a beautiful backdrop to a foreground subject, but I also contend that, as seen in the above image, some lenses can actually render it in a way that is distracting, even irritating. However, whether I admire the swirls and ellipses of some forms of bokeh, I don’t see it as anywhere near as important as what I’m trying to feature in front of it. If all things in a frame are of equal importance, why not just shoot everything at f/11 and make sure it’s all recorded at the same sharpness?

I think that, in photography, as in many other art forms, we can become fascinated with effects rather than substance, and that, if you don’t know what you’re trying to get a picture to say, you can become more interested in how cool something looks instead of what a picture’s narrative is supposed to be. Bokeh can be lovely, but giving it too much prominence is a little like sitting in a theatre and intensely watching what the third Roman to the left is doing with his toga while Marc Antony is at center stage delivering his big speech. Things in a good picture must be arranged in a hierarchy, some priority of intentions, in order to communicate effectively. And if I have my choice between a bird and a blur, I will unapologetically choose the bird every time.


WHEN SHARP IS DULL

Heavy on the soft sauce, and yet, in the moment, I felt turning away from uber-sharpness was the right choice.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CONCEPT OF SHARPNESS IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS OLD as photography itself, and remains one of the most sought-after qualities in lens performance. For many, it is the measure of the quality of a recorded image.But just because an idea is old doesn’t make it true. And so sharpness, at least to me, is just like any other element in a well-made picture. That is, it’s negotiable, not absolute.

At photography’s birth, sharpness made a strong argument for the mechanical accuracy of cameras. It was the main reason to trust a machine over the human eye, to choose recording reality with a mysterious box instead of rendering it with a paint brush. Many early lenses were, in fact, fairly soft, and so the “goal” of eventually perfecting sharpness became the impetus to develop better optics and to create a perpetual market for new advances among consumers. Built-in obsolescence.

But lenses are not merely recording devices, like seismographs or thermometers. They are tools, which, in the hands of vastly different users, can and should render vastly different results. Certainly it was always easy for manufacturers to sell users on the idea that sharpness, all by itself, was the thing that made a lens “good”, and to train those same users to want to upgrade constantly in some pursuit of precision. But at some point sharpness became optimized even in the cheapest lenses, with most cameras making images extremely crisp even at huge sizes and certainly as sharp or sharper than the acuity of even the healthiest human eye. Thing is, as this race for precision was afoot for over a century or more, some photographers also wanted to use that same precise gear to create things whose lack of ultra-sharpness was their appeal, their most effective means of communication. Movements in every culture began to emerge in which razor-keen focus was not the most desirable element, nor even, in some cases, a consideration at all. For these shooters, then and now, sharp was dull.

Only you can decide whether your pictures gain or lose by a traditional adherence to sharpness, just as all musicians do not play the same sheet music at the same uniform volume. Like anything else in your bag of tricks, focal faithfulness is a guideline, not a commandment. I know many who would reject the image seen at left as far too ill-defined, while others would embrace its deliberate softness as far more warm and intimate than a tack-sharp shot. Thing is, they are both correct under the appropriate circumstances. There are technical limits and better/poorer regions in even the best lens, and trying to completely eradicate softness from end to end of the frame is like looking for the perfect man/woman to spend your life with. Every piece of your equipment has things it does marvelously well and things it can never do. Know that information, and work it to get what you want. But don’t for a moment think the perfect lens is “out there somewhere”, just waiting for you to buy it and fix all the problems with your photography. We love shooting with these little boxes, but only when we think outside them do we really start making pictures that matter.

 


THEN AGAIN, WHAT DO I KNOW, ANYWAY?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOT ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU’LL ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF STANDARD of acceptability for your images….the inevitable “keeper” and “failure” piles by which we measure our successes (or lack thereof).

Now, we could fill pages with reflections on just how rational we all are (or aren’t) when it comes to editing ourselves. It’s a learned skill, one that’s practically a religion to some and a virtually unknown process to others. Be that as it may. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that we are all honest, conscientious and humble when it comes to dividing our pictures into wins and losses. Even granting us all that wisdom, we are often less expert about whether a photograph is “worthy” than we think we are. You’d think that no one would know whether we took a bad image that we ourselves. But you’d be wrong, and often, wrong by a country mile.

Just as we are never so purely objective that we can be certain that we’ve generated a masterpiece, we can be just as unreliable in declaring our duds. I was reminded of that recently.

I have a lot of reasons to regard a given picture as “failed”. Some have to do with their effectiveness as narratives. Some I disdain because they’re nothing more than the faithful execution of a flawed idea. But the pictures of mine that the waste can catches the most of are simple technical botches….pure errors in doing. I’m old enough to hold certain rules of composition, exposure or focus as sacred, and I’m quick to dump any image that contravenes those laws.

Here Comes Trouble, 2019

That’s why the picture you see here was originally something I had intended to hide from the mother of the manic young man in the foreground. I had attempted, one afternoon, to use a manual focus lens to track four very energetic boys, and in one shot their ringleader had made a sudden lunge at the camera that threw him into blur. Seemed like a simple call. I had blown the shot, and I was naturally eager to show his folks only my best work.

But the impact of the picture on the boy’s family was much more positive. Blurry or not, the picture captured something very true about the boy. Call it zest, enthusiasm, even a little craziness, but this frame was, to them, more “like him” than many of the more conventional shots I had originally chosen to show them. The real-ness of his face had, for his family, redeemed the purely operational imperfection that so offended me. To put it another way, my “wait, I can do it better” was their “this is fine just as it is.” Sadly, it was my wife who brought me to my senses and convinced me to move it to the “keeper” pile.

Which circles back to my first point. None of us absolutely know what our best pictures are. We do absolutely know the ones that connect to various audiences, but that may be a completely different pile of images from the ones we label as “right”. Passing or failing a photo largely on technical grounds would, over history, disqualify many of the most important pictures ever made. We have all emotionally loved things that our logical minds might regard as having fallen short. But, in photography as in all other arts, we’re often fortunate that logic is not the sole yardstick.


WHO, ME? (ME, WHO?)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I WOULD ARGUE that most of the photographs commonly referred to as “self-portraits” are anything but. The tidal wave of daily images in which the photographer is also the subject are, in the main, merely our own cheery faces stamped onto whatever locale we choose as background. They are certainly recordings of us, but seldom much more. Portraiture, as painters came to use the word, is intended to penetrate, to comment, to reveal. Selfies testify that we were here: self-portraits attempt to explain why it matters.

Taking one’s image is not merely about putting up an endless string of publicity releases to reaffirm to the world that we’re still happy, healthy and young. It shouldn’t merely be the latest opportunity to display our most practiced social masks. That’s not revelation: that’s camouflage.

I’m no less vain than the next person. I would love every photograph taken of me, by myself or others, to be flattering. But the photographer in me insists upon more: I need also to make images that show me as uncertain, bloated, fearful, tentative, even alienated from my own internal idea of how I appear outwardly. Moreover, I need to monitor the distance between that surface and what I feel, or, in the words of the old Steve Winwood song, when I am but a stranger to myself. No brave face, no “smile for the camera” can do that.

I’m not comfortable with image you see here. I chose selective focus and monochrome for it because I feel that way at present, just as my expression is one of someone in a transition, and a rather awkward one at that. I don’t mind grinning for a snapshot, certainly. But a portrait should intend something different. And it’s okay if, on any given day, I don’t feel like pretending that life has is one big endless party. We are all the world’s foremost authorities on who we genuinely are. Our photography should endeavor to give testimony to that truth.


GLASS DISTINCTIONS

It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.

Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy

My antedeluvian Minolta SRT-500 camera body, crowned by its original f/1.7 50mm prime kit lens. Guess which one is worth its weight in gold?

My antedeluvian Minolta SRT-500 camera body, crowned by its original f/1.7 50mm prime kit lens. Guess which part is worth its weight in gold?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.

Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.

First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer? 

Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well.  But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.

Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.

Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.

 

 

 

 


RAZOR’S EDGE

Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot, not "cranked in" in post-editing.

Sharpness should be achieved in your intial shot by use of contrast and color, not “dialed up” in post-editing. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 22mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE AVAILABILITY OF PHOTO PROCESSING TOOLS, TO ARTIST AND BEGINNER ALIKE, in the digital era, has created a kind of unfortunate slingshot effect, as all suddenly achieved freedoms tend to. Once it became possible for Everyman to tweak images in a way that was once exclusively the province of the professional, there followed a trend toward twisting every dial in the tool box to, let’s be honest, rescue a lot of marginal shots. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to glam up a dud. Now raise your hand if you inadvertently made a bad picture worse by slathering on the tech goo.

Welcome to the phenomenon known as over-correction.

It’s human nature, really. Look at Hollywood. Suddenly freed from the confines of the old motion picture production code in the 1960’s, directors, understandably, took a few years to make up for decades of artistic construction by pumping out a nude scene and/or a gore fest  in everything from romantic comedies to Pink Panther cartoons. Several seasons of adolescent X-rated frolics later, movies settled down to a new normal. The over-correction gave way to a more mature, even restrained style of film making.

Am I joining the ranks of anti-Photoshop trolls? Not exactly, but I am noting that, as we grow as photographers, we will put more energy into planning the best picture (all energy centered before the snap of the shutter), and less energy into “fixing it in post”. If you shoot long enough and work hard enough, that shift will just happen. More correctly designed in-camera images equals fewer pix that need to be dredged from Dudland.

Look at the simple idea of sharpening. That slithery slider is available to everyone, and we all race after it like a kid chasing the Good Humor truck. And yet, it is a wider range of color and contrast, which we can totally control in the picture-taking process, which will result in more natural sharpness than the Slider Of Joy can even dream of. As a matter of fact, test my argument with your own shots. Increase your control of contrast or color and see if it doesn’t help wean you off the sharpen tool. Or expose your shots more carefully in-camera rather than removing shadows and rolling off highlights later. Or any other experiment. Your goals, your homework.

The point being that more mindful picture-making will eliminate the need for many crutch-like editing tweaks after the fact. And if that also makes you a better shooter overall, isn’t that pretty much the quest?