the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Snap Shot

TATTERED BEAUTY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST MIRACULOUS FEATS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, TO ITS ORIGINAL 19TH-CENTURY AFFICIONADOS, was to freeze time, to arrest or isolate the continuum of progress. Indeed, if you think about it, the act of snatching a fragment of life, of holding it immobile for endless examination, is truly amazing, even at this late date in the art’s development. We spend a huge part of the time that is trying to grab a souvenir of what’s about to become was.

Photography’s great gift, being able to document time’s passing….its ravages, its wear and tear on the things of this life is often focused on the living world; people, trees, the temporary aftermath of a rainstorm, the quick passing of a sunset. But it can be an intriguing way to measure the impact of time on inanimate thing as well. Slicing, dicing, magnifying, and parsing time as we do with cameras, we can concoct an infinite number of ways to pore over the details of things that, in previous ages, only the poets fixated upon. The world has become our microscope lab, a petri dish for experiments in seeing and analyzing.

1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

“A rose is a rose”. Unless it’s a ragged, fake rose. 1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

What started this whole train of thought was the recent discovery, under a bed, of an old fabric rose. Sadly, I have long since passed the point where I can actually throw anything away without having some kind of debate inside my skull about whether it’s worth looking at, one more time, before a lens.  In this case, I was intrigued by how frayed and threadbare the thing had become over time, its petals and leaves bereft of any ability to create even the illusion of beauty. Its magic, and thus its reason to exist, had vanished.

I always keep a stack of three magnifying diopters handy to attach to the front of my prime 35 lens, giving me a poor-man’s macro at about 10x magnification, and I was soon within tight enough range to see the ragged edges and unraveled texture of the faux rose. It looked just a bit flat illuminated by soft window light, though, so I tilted the blossom away from the window a tad to deepen the shadows in some petals and give it a little added depth. Too me five minutes to find out the answer to the everlasting photo question, “is this anything?”

Even if such little exercises don’t result in great pictures, they do result in a speedup of the learning curve, and as practice, as seeing everything in as many ways as possible.

Not a big lesson. Just a lot of little ones bunched together.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


BLUE ON THIRD AVENUE

Nikon's in-camera monochrome cyanotype setting makes this conversion from color easy.

The cyanotype option in Nikon’s monochrome posting menu makes this in-camera conversion from color easy. 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 160, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

COLOR IS LIKE ANY OTHER COMPONENT IN LIGHT COLLECTION AND ARRANGEMENT, which is, really, what we are doing. Seen as a tool instead of an absolute, it’s easy to see that it’s only appropriate for some photographs. Since the explosion of color imaging for the masses seen in the coming of Kodachrome and other early consumer films in the 1930’s, the average snapper has hardly looked back. Family shots, landscapes, still life arrangements….full color or go home, right?

Well….

Oddly, professional shooters of the early 20th century were reluctant to commit to the new multi-hued media, fearing that, for some novelty-oriented photographers, the message would be the color, instead of the color aiding in the conveying of the message. Even old Ansel Adams once said of magazine editors, that, when in doubt, they “just make it red”, indicating that he thought color could become a gimmick, the same way we often regard 3-d.

In the digital age, by comparison, the color/no color decision is almost always an afterthought. There are no special chemicals, films or paper to invest in before the shutter clicks, and plenty of ways to render a color shot colorless after the fact. And now, even the post-processing steps involved in creating a monochrome image need not include an investment in Photoshop or other software. For the average shooter, monochrome post-processing is in-camera, at the touch of a button. Straight B/W and sepia and even what I call the “third avenue”, the blue duotone or cyanotype, as I’ve used above.Do such quickie options worsen the risk of gimmick-for-gimmick’s sake more than ever? As Governor Palin would say, “you betcha”. Google “over-indulgence”, or just about half of every Instagram ever taken, as evidence.

Hundreds of technical breakthroughs later, it still comes down to the original image itself. If it was conceived properly, color won’t lessen it. If it was a bad idea to start with, monochrome won’t deliver the mood or the tone changes needed to redeem it. Imagine the right image, then select the best way to deliver the message. Having quick fixes in-camera aren’t, initially, a guarantee of anything but the convenient ability to view alternatives. In the photo above, my subject was just too warm, too pretty in natural color. I thought the building itself evoked a certain starkness, a cold, sterile kind of architecture, that cyanotype could deliver far better. The shadows are also a bit more mysteriously rendered.

At bottom, the shot is just a study, since I will be using it to take far more crucial pictures of far more intriguing subjects. But the in-camera fix allows you to analyze on the fly. And, since I got into this racket to shoot pictures, and not to be a chemist, I occasionally like a fast thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict on something I’ve decided to try in the moment.

Giving yourself the blues can be a good thing.

 

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @ mpnormaleye)


GET LOST

Straight through the windsheild, using a technique I like to call "dumb luck".

Straight through the windshield, using a technique I like to call “dumb luck”. Original shot specs:  1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS 10% PLANNING, 90% SERENDIPITY. Yes, I know. we would all rather believe that most of our images spring from brilliant conceptions, master plans, and, ahem, stunning visions. But a lot of what we do amounts to making the most of what fate provides.

There is no shame in this game. In fact, the ability to pivot, to improvise, to make the random look like the intentional…all of these things reveal the best in us. It exercises the eye. It flexes the soul. And, in terms of images, it delivers the goods.

Getting lost (geographically, not emotionally) is less an emergency than in ages past. Armed with smartphones, GPS, and other hedges against our own ignorance, we can get rescued almost as soon as we wander off the ranch. It is easier than ever to follow the electronic trail of crumbs back to where we belong, so drifting from the path of righteousness is no longer cause for panic. Indeed, for shooters, it’s pure opportunity.

Okay, so you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Fine. Re-group and start shooting. There is something in all these “unfamiliar” things that is worth your gaze.

Last week , my wife and I decided to trust her car’s onboard guidance system. The results were wrong but interesting. No danger, just the necessary admission that we’d strayed really far afield of our destination. We’re talking about twenty minutes of back-tracking to set things right.

But first….

One of the rural roads we drifted down, before realizing our error, led us to a stunning view of the back end of Tucson’s Catalina mountains, framed by small town activity, remnants of rainfall, and a portentous sky. I squeezed off a few shots straight out of the windshield and got what I call the “essence” exposure I needed. That single image was relatively well-balanced, but it wouldn’t show the full range of textures from the stormy sky and the mountains. Later, in post, I duplicated the one keeper frame that I got, modifying it in Photomatix, my HDR processing program. Adding underexposure, deeper contrast, and a slight rolloff of highlights on the dupe, I processed it with the original shot to get a composite that accentuated the texture of the clouds, the stone,, even the local foliage. A sheer “wild” shot had given me something that I would have totally missed if the car’s GPS had actually taken us to our “correct” destination.

What was ironic was that, once we got where we were going, most of the “intentional” images that I sweat bullets working on were lackluster, compared to the one I shot by the seat of my pants. Hey, we’ve all been there.

Maybe I should get lost more often.

Actually, people have been suggesting that to me for years.

Especially when I whip out a camera.


FLATTERY WILL GET YOU NOWHERE

My beautiful mother, well past 21 but curator of a remarkable face. Window light softens, but does not erase the textures of her features. 1/60 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200. 18mm.

My beautiful mother, well past 21 but curator of a remarkable face. Window light softens, but does not erase, the textures of her features. 1/60 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200. 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DEPICTION OF THE FACES OF THOSE WE LOVE IS AMONG THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY. Since the beginning of the medium, thoughts on how to capture them “best” clearly fall into two opposing camps. In one corner, the feeling that we must idealize, glamorize, venerate the features of those most special in our lives. In the other corner, the belief that we should capture faces as effects of time and space, that is, record them, without seeking to impose standards of grace or beauty on what is in front of the lens. This leads us to see faces as objects among other objects.

The first, more cosmetic view of faces, which calls for ideal lighting, a flattering composition, a little “sweetening” in the taking, will always be the more popular view, and its resultant images will always be cherished for emotionally legitimate reasons. The second view is, let’s “face” it, a hard sell. You have to be ready for a set series of responses from your subjects, usually including:

Don’t take me. I just got up.

God, I look so old. Delete that.

I hate having my picture taken.

That doesn’t even look like me.

Of course, since no one is truly aware of what they “look like”, there is always an element of terror in having a “no frills” portrait taken. God help me, maybe I really do look like that. And most of us don’t want to push to get through people’s defenses. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And, in this photo-saturated world, it’s a major trick to get people to drop their instinctive masks, even if they want to.

Still.

As I visually measure the advance of age on my living parents (both 80+ ) and have enough etchings on my own features to mirror theirs, I am keener than ever to avoid limiting my images of us all to mere prettiness. I am particularly inspired by photographers who actually entered into a kind of understanding with their closest life partners to make a sort of document out of time’s effects. Two extreme examples: Richard Avedon’s father and Annie Leibovitz’ partner Susan Sontag were both documented in their losing battles with age and disease as willing participants in a very special relationship with very special photographers….arrangements which certainly are out of the question for many of us. And yet, there is so much to be gained by making a testament of sorts out of even simple snaps. This was an important face in my life, the image can say, and here is how it looked, having survived more than 3/4 of a century. Such portraits are not to be considered “right” or “wrong” against more conventional pictures, but they should be at least a part of the way we mark human lives.

Don't forget to document the effects of time on your own face. f/1.8, 35mm.

Don’t forget to document the effects of time on your own face.  1/160 sec.,  f/1.8, ISO 200, 35mm.

Everyone has to decide their own comfort zone, and how far it can be extended. But I think we have to stretch a bit. Pictures of essentially beautiful people who, at the moment the shutter snaps, haven’t done up their hair, put on their makeup, or conveniently lost forty pounds. People in less than perfect light, but with features which have eloquent statements and truths writ large in their every line and crevice. We should also practice on ourselves, since our faces are important to other people, and ours, like theirs, are going to go away someday.

In trying to record these statements and truths, mere flattery will get us nowhere. The camera has an eye to see; let’s take off the rose-colored filter, at least for a few frames.


GRABBING THE GIFT

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.  ——-George Eastman 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN I WAS ASSEMBLING THE FIRST COMPILATION OF MY OWN IMAGES, Juxtapositions, I felt a little awkward about captioning the photos in any way, since they were clearly the work of an unaccomplished amateur. In my native Catholic thinking, my default question was, who the hell did I think I was to pontificate on anything, hmm?  Notice that, since you are presently reading the musings of the selfsame unaccomplished amateur, I obviously got over past that obstacle, but anyway

Needing the book to have some kind of general structure or theme, I decided that, although my own wisdom may not be in demand, there were plenty of thoughts from the greats in the photographic field that were worth re-quoting, and which, correctly placed, might even illustrate or amplify what I was trying to say in my own photos. It was a way of channeling great minds and acknowledging that, pro or amateur, we all started off on the same journey with much the same aims.

Looking at the finished book, I noticed that the two most consistent subjects among the finest minds in photography were (1) light; how to harness it, how to serve it, shape it, seek its ability to frame or exalt a subject and (2) the importance of staying flexible, open, and able to embrace the moment.

Both objectives came into clear focus for me last week. A combination of early sunlight, dense foliage and thick morning fog came together in breathtaking patterns in the high canyon rim streets of Santa Barbara, California. Light was busting out wherever it could, coming through branches and boughs in soft shafts that lent an almost supernatural quality to objects even a few feet away, which, when suffused with this satiny mist, were themselves softened, even abstracted. If there was ever a delicate, temporary gift of light, this was it, and I was suddenly in a hurry, lest it run away from me. Any picture I failed to take in the moment was lost within minutes. Overthinking meant going home empty.

There was no time to carefully read the tyrannical histogram, since I knew it would disapprove of the flood of white that would throw some of my shots off the graph. Likewise I couldn’t “cover” myself by bracketing exposures, since there was so much territory to cover, so many images to attempt  before the light could mutate into something else. I needed to be shooting, not fiddling.

Better to burn out than to rust out, as Neil Young famously said. One particular arch of overhanging branches called me. It looked like this:

1/250 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100, 50mm

I was, after all these years, back to complete instinct. Snap shot? Certainly. Snap judgement? Hope not.

I didn’t go home empty. And when I got home, a re-check of one of Ansel Adams’ quotes encouraged me:

Sometimes, I do get to places where God’s ready for somebody to click the shutter. 

Look for the moment. Listen for God (sometimes he whispers).

And don’t forget to click.


HANDS OFF. SORT OF.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SHOULD BE CURATED SHOWS AT MUSEUMS ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST FOR SNAPSHOTS. It’s already a known fact that images taken in an impulsive instant are among the most emotionally immediate in history. What these billions of “shooting from the hip” pictures share is the uncompromised commitment of hitting that button, and letting what happens, happen. Of course, back in the day, many of us had no choice in the matter, especially with our earliest cameras. Sadly, sometimes the box was too dumb, too seized up in tech cramps to guess what we wanted. Today, however, we can’t blame the camera anymore if we fail to live in the moment. They are world-class enablers. If we didn’t get the shot, we need to be smarter.

Sometimes you gotta shoot ’em quick and hope. Available light and less of it every second: 1/200, f/8, ISO 100, 20mm.

And, to be fair, we are smarter, even in those just-shoot-it-moments. The amazing complexity of today’s captures on automatic modes has saved us the trouble, more than at any time in history, of having to put on the twin hats of physicist and chemist. That should mean scads of instances when we can truly trust our instincts and hand the dirty work off to the camera with a reasonable hope of getting what we were after.

Now, in the modern world, comes the tricky part.

We may now know too much, compared to the cavemen we were in the earliest days of photography. And, once we begin to comprehend the totality of tweaking, calculation, and post-processing that are available to “rescue” more of our shots, it’s amazingly hard to avoid availing ourselves of all of it. We can remove the tiniest mote of dust, conveniently wipe out the crummy telephone wires, erase the ex-girl friend at the wedding. Trickier still, if we shoot on manual mode, we can practically think the process to death, essentially bleeding the adventure and spontaneity out of at least some images that we should just shoot.

There will always be shots that are so complete in themselves that continuing to fiddle with them before shooting will just have a diminishing return, little gifts of the moment that are so nearly perfect already that you could render them lifeless by trying to “perfect” them. Important: this is not an argument for super-gluing your mode dial to the auto position, since that can also create a string of acceptable exposures that fall short of being compelling pictures.

The balance, the aggravation, and eventually, the joy, lies somewhere in the middle.

Once the sun starts to set in Arizona, you’re racing the light to the horizon, so he who hesitates is lost. Shot on the fly at 1/160 sec., f/11, ISO 100, 18mm.

This is the kind of sunset that only becomes possible near the end of the rainy season (a relative term!) in the Sonoran desert. You get more days with at least some clouds overhead, breaking the mega-blue monotony of the southwestern sky. And you get wonderful gradations of color as the last light of day vanishes over the horizon. In this image, that light was changing, and leaving, rapidly. Not a lot of time to weigh options, but a perfect place to flail away and maybe get something. This was not shot on auto mode, but I made a very quick, simple calculation in manual, and kept the prep as brief as possible. Later on, I was tempted again to go on tinkering, considering a lot of little “fixes” to “improve” my result. To my eventual satisfaction, I sat on my hands, and so what you see is what I got…no frills, no fuss, no interfering with my self.

It would probably be a great exercise to compile your own personal museum exhibit of the best pictures that you successfully left alone, the captures that most validate your instincts, your impulse, your artistic courage. And, certainly I would love to see them linked back to this blog, as conversation between all of us is what I value most about the project.

Go for it.