By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
ACROSS HISTORY, HALF OF THE WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY seems to be about the ongoing debate over which is more crucial, equipment or ingenuity. Some fervently believe that better gear inevitably leads to better pictures, while others point to the fact that million-dollar images often emerge from modest machinery, when backed by a trained eye. I have been shooting for too long to favor extreme, either/or arguments, as my experience makes a good case for both viewpoints. There have been times when a particular level of technical tool has saved my bacon, but there have also been many instances in which the camera, by itself, would have merely got in my way without my resorting to improvised workarounds designed to compensate for its shortcomings.
One of the things I do to boost color and maximize contrast is to deliberately under-expose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to dramatically change the game at a moment’s notice, a nostalgic nod to the days of Kodachrome and other early color films that would often be too slow for effective captures unless you were really spry with your field calculations. Thing is, what others regarded in some shots as “too dark” would, to me, be moody, romantic, even mysterious. What others called “balanced” light I often considered mediocre, and so, as I have travelled through time, I have retained my affection for the chiaroscuro look. It simplifies compositions and jacks the richness of hues. Thing is, I have to be mindful of what camera I’m using at the time, and how it can or can’t readily render the look I want.
Case in point: the Nikon Coolpix P900, which took the shot you see here. This is a so-called “superzoom” camera designed to extend one’s telephoto reach to a ridiculous extreme, and was purchased primarily for birdwatching. Its zoom amounts to something like 83x magnification, and, while it can deliver surprisingly sharp detail at insane distances, it hampers the camera’s performance in other ways. Since so much light is lost when they are extended fully, the manufacturers of superzooms “cap” their minimum aperture at around f/8. Want to shoot at f/11 or higher? Use a different camera.
The fun thing about exposure is that there are several ways to get there, and so, if you can’t stop your iris down far enough to suit yourself, you can always ramp up your shutter speed, which is what I’ve done here. In a typical shot, the poinsettia would have been backed by more leaves, the edge of a pot, foil wrapping and other clutter, but at the P900’s smallest aperture, f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/500 in early morning light, the red leaves become the exclusive star. Early direct light in Phoenix, Arizona would also have generated a complete blowout of any texture or detail in the structure of the leaves, and, while much of them remain hot in this shot, some vein detail is suggested here, especially when the edge of a leaf falls off into blackness. The result is a genuine fake of 64 ASA Kodachrome, achieved largely by accident in my youth, now purposely chosen in my….dotage.
Whatever equipment you use, you may find it necessary to try to occasionally outwit the thing, to, if you like, enter through the side door, if only to keep the thing from giving you the picture it assumes you want. Don’t buy into the manufacturers’ hype. Between a photographer and a camera, only one of them can think. Hint: it isn’t the camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE WHO HAVE SIGNED ONTO THIS SHIP OVER THE LONG HAUL may recall that the germ idea for The Normal Eye was a year that I once spent shooting with nothing but a manual 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, forcing myself to explore all the benefits and limits of a single piece of glass in every conceivable shooting situation. I didn’t intend the year as any kind of stunt, but as a test of my own ability to re-sensitize or “normalize” my vision (primes are often called “normal” lenses for their similar field of view to the human eye) and a disciplinary experiment in which I alone was responsible for any and all results….kind of a mind-over-matter challenge. The year showed me that nearly any lens has properties which might not be readily apparent until you spend some extended play time with them.
Wait, did he just say play? But we’re photographers. This is serious business.
Well, as to that, all I can offer is Fred Rogers’ old line about children and how their play is their “work”, not a break from it. And I’ll pretty much stand by Mr. Rogers’ results. Thing is, learning absolutely every intimate detail about a lens’ performance is time-consuming, which makes it a perfect exercise for these thumb-twiddling times. Hey, during this time-out, we’ve done all the sensitive photo essays on our feelings of isolation, community, dread, etc., etc. Well and good. But this protracted behind-walls penance is also a great opportunity to bring out the equipment that we’ve either under-loved or flat-out given up on over the years. The non-favorites that we shot a little with, weren’t really thrilled with, or consigned to some dusty regret bin. Yeah, those lenses. We bought them to achieve this, but all we got was that. Yeah, those.
Forcing a brief romance with a forgotten lens is easier when there is so much time to futz away that we can afford the luxury of mistakes. After all, you’ve already taken 300 pictures of your study and your back room with the gear that you’re most comfortable with. So call those your “keepers”. Now, you can grant yourself the freedom to shoot the “losers”, the pictures that don’t matter, except for what they can teach you. Snap on a forgotten optic and enjoy the latitude of just being… bad. Hey, delete all the defects, if it bugs you that much. But shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and get past whatever barriers exist between you and those lenses, because they can be overcome, and you may be surprised to find that they really had more potential than you ever imagined.
The images seen here are the result of a solid week spent with a real oddball of a lens, my Helios-44 58mm f/2. These Soviet-era lenses were originally attached to Zenit cameras, some of the best knock-offs of legit European cameras that rubles could buy. The camera bodies were actually inferior to the lenses, but there were millions of each produced during the Cold War, so they are cheaper than Nancy Sinatra lip gloss. I bought mine for under $40 just to get the swirly bokeh it produces on floral work, but I discovered that, in shooting landscapes at the same f/2, I got defined focus layered with a film of dreamy glow, the kind of effect modern-day art lenses are charging hundreds to deliver. Thus most of this work week was spent trying to nail manual focus on the thing at great distances, which is a little easier to suss out with the help of one of the zillions of free depth-of-focus phone apps available. So now, in one optic, I have a bokeh beast, a decent portrait lens (at smaller apertures) and a special-effect landscape lens. The Helios won’t fetch me beer or grill me a burger, but as the Brits say, it’s Early Days. Gimme another week and it might actually feel, you know, normal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR PERSONAL APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHY MAY BE MORE ABOUT how to creatively break rules rather than faithfully follow them.
Your work may have become so instinctual or well-practiced that it might well feel as if there are no “rules”, since you so seldom get burned on the same things that others do. Or maybe you are so genuinely innovative that rules are more or less irrelevant to your style. Again, fair enough.
Bearing this in mind, we here at The Normal Eye seldom traffic in “ye musts” or “ye dare nots” because someone, somewhere will always make a sucker out of us by ignoring said commandments and suffering no heartache whatever.
That said, I have taken notice lately of an old recommendation that, whether you factor it into your photography or not, is worth a bit of discussion.
It’s the so-called Reciprocal Rule, although it’s at best a…recommendation. It largely applies to people who are using powerful zooms who are also looking to reduce image blur, and, boy howdy is it elementary. Basically the RR states that your shutter speed should always be at inverse proportion to your focal length. Shooting at 50mm? Use an exposure at least as quick as 1/50. Zooming all the way out to 300mm? Same system: start with a shutter speed of 1/300 as the slowest exposure benchmark. That’s it. Easy, peasy Aunt Loweezy.
Only nothing is ever that simple in real life, is it, kids?
The only reason the Reciprocal bears mentioning at all is because of the convergence of two main factors: the increasingly affordable crop of new, more powerful zooms, placing them in more and more hands: and the commensurate de-emphasis of tripods as a greater percentage of all images are shot handheld. In short, more of us are shooting at longer focal lengths than ever before, and fewer us are using pods as stabilizers. Thus, if you follow my decidedly fragile logic, there is a good chance that more of our telephoto images will contain some element of camera shake. Brighter minds than mine have done the math to illustrate just how much even minor movement is magnified as focal lengths increase. The Reciprocal Rule is supposed to address this, and it often does, although the shot at left is an example where it was utilized to the letter and still shows a little softness in the back half of the image. But even leaving my own iffy execution off to the side, there are other mitigating factors than can affect the relevance or effectiveness of the RR.
For one, you can adjust ISO so that your sensor gathers more light at quicker shutter speeds, in which case, even handheld, you could shoot fast enough to virtually eliminate shake. Then there’s the whole pick-your-position game involved in developing your own stance and grip. From sound geometric weight distribution to holding your breath, there’s a lot you can do to facilitate slower shutter speeds if you feel you need them. The option is far more trial-and-error, but if you’re the patient type, have at it. Finally, there is the luxury (still fairly recent) of owning lenses with built-in image stabilization, with which you can move the Reciprocal to the same musty corner of your mind occupied by the dates of your kids’ birthdays.
All of which goes to say that technology and technique can sometimes trump the need to adhere to photographic practices that were once sacrosanct, to turn yesterday’s “rules” into tomorrow’s “friendly suggestions”. Which, in turn, means making more pictures instead of making more mistakes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOW SOMEWHAT LIKE THE OLD GOD JANUS, whose two faces looked into the past and the future at the same time. No longer just an emerging art, the practice of making images with light now packs enough historical baggage that, even as we anticipate and adapt to the newest technology, we turn backward toward the comfort of technologies past. We love what’s coming but we can’t quite let go of what’s been.
That’s how you get somewhat ironic observances like this month’s Worldwide Pinhole Day, a celebration of the experience of making a photograph with the most minimal technology available…..that is, an actual bored hole in the front of a light-tight box, the aim being to take a picture without a lens. WPD is marked globally by field trips, competitions, workshops, and a bit of a cottage industry for the special pinhole gear, all of it aimed at delivering the same experience that the first snappers had when photography was the exclusive domain of tinkerers. Certainly the principle works: the pinholes are so incredibly small (often requiring very long exposures) that they actually register distant objects in fairly sharp focus, although sharpness isn’t really the goal. The idea, in the main, seems to be to conduct a successful science experiment that results in a picture, although high-end pictorial quality isn’t really the goal, either. If you’re only casually interested, various ready-made pinhole attachments are sold so you can adapt digital-era cameras to this nineteenth-century method. However, even greater authenticity and enjoyment is said to be had by shooting on 35mm roll film or 5×7 sheet film, or even making the camera itself from scratch, using cardboard boxes, coffee cans, or, as I recently saw, the inside of a plastic Star Wars tie fighter toy.
The entire thought process behind such time-travel faddism is fascinating. Unlike the first photographers, who constantly worked to expand and improve the leading tech of their time, we have reached a stage where making a picture is so mechanically simple that we find it fun to needlessly complicate, or even degrade the process again. In my own view, the more advanced cameras have become over the years, the less I’ve had to futz with the problem of how to take the photo, shifting the emphasis onto the why of it all, which is where I want it. Every scientific advance has been designed to make cameras more intuitive, imaging media more responsive, and everything generally more fool-proof. Now, however, we are far enough away from those balky first iterations of photography to develop a nostalgic fondness for them. Such is human nature.
I’m sure that, somewhere, there are festivals where the idea is to shoe your own horse, learn to darn your own socks, or field-dress the deer you just personally brought down with bow and arrow. Thing is, though, for most of us, modern life no longer requires so much effort from us merely to stay alive, which allows us to focus on the finer points of the experience. But, from our more advanced standpoint, we strangely think it’s quaint to add more accident, more randomness, more error and more uncertainty into the making of what turn out to be essentially inferior photographs, even though it has never been easier to make good ones. This is where we start to leave the realm of Art and enter the world of The Science Fair.
At one point in my son’s youth, I wrapped copper wire around an oatmeal box and scratched a hunk of germanium crystal to show him how to produce a primitive radio signal. It worked well enough to snag him a merit badge, but on the way home, he was right back to listening to his Sony Walkman. Because it sounded a helluva lot better than a wired-up Quaker Oats cannister. And while I acknowledge that artistically elegant images can be made with very rudimentary tools (of course, any image of my wife will automatically be a better picture, as seen above), pinhole images are hard to compose, expose or control in any proactive way, and thus predisposed to a high failure rate. If you’re personally wired to accept whatever the universe hands you, then the pictures that accidentally come out of your coffee can will no doubt be something of a scientific marvel, ablaze with the spark of discovery. As for me, I find that my own lack of vision or talent already interferes with my pictures far more than it should. I don’t need to further compromise my work with disobedient gear. It may be amazing, but it ain’t satisfying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S SLOGGED THROUGH MORE A FEW OF THESE DISPATCHES knows all too well that I am a passionate preacher for shooting images completely on manual, not because it’s a more “pure” form of photography (and thus deserving of nobility and praise), but because I prefer to exercise as much personal control as possible. This, again, is not a quality judgement, since amazing pictures are made every day with the use of either complete or partial automodes. I just feel that I, personally, learn more by trying more, and manual settings place so much direct pressure on me to innovate and experiment that even my gross failures serve as education.
Sometimes. And other times they’re well, just gross.
The mode known in Nikon as Aperture Priority (“Av” on Canons) is the only semi-auto mode I use with any regularity, and always because I make an educated guess, before going on a shoot, about what conditions will likely prevail. AP allows you to manually dial in your aperture on those occasions when you want a uniform depth of field in everything you’re shooting, with your camera metering light on the fly and providing the shutter speed you need for a correct exposure. AP tend to be a rare bird for me because, in many cases, I am not shooting so fast that I can’t pause at least a few seconds between frames to dial in every exposure factor. However, there are cases when the technology gives you a decided edge.
Landscapes, especially in rapidly variable weather, call upon the shooter to react to conditions that could last, at best, for only seconds at a time. When skies are crystal clear and you have ample time to set up a shot, then, by all means, rely on your own experience shooting on full manual. If, however, you are moving and shooting quickly from dark to medium to extreme light and back again, then you might consider AP as a way to cut your reaction time in half. At this point, full manual may be costing you shots rather than making them better.
On the day the above image was taken, the town of Sedona, a miraculous array of red-tinged mountains in northern Arizona, was colored variously by a swiftly shifting broken cloud cover. One moment, the crest of a butte might take on a crimson glow, then be swallowed in shadow just moments later, with the gulch next door temporary hyper-lit in the same fashion. The clouds over Sedona were also backed by a decent headwind, shortening the stretches between scene changes even more. Moreover, the sunlight added a ton of contrast to the clouds themselves, making the sky a more attractive compositional component, with typically indistinct shapes rendered more sharply (because contrast is sharpness, right?).
As a result, the combination of light you see in this shot lasted exactly fifteen seconds, so, if I had paused to shoot a couple of trial frames on manual, just to try to nail the lighting, I likely would have missed this moment completely. Again, at this point, assist modes ain’t a compromise; they’re strategy.
The best practice is to anticipate, as much as possible, where you’ll be shooting and what the “game on the ground” is likely to be. Fashion shooters, journalists and other pros swear by Aperture Priority as insurance against lost shots. You may almost certainly find that to be true for some situations yourself . But the name of the game is Get The Picture, so, at the end of the day, the mode that makes you smile is the “right” mode. And don’t let nobody tell you no differnt.