By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD AVEDON’S MOST PERSONAL (and most controversial) projects involved the documentation of the deterioration and death of his beloved father. In a similar vein, Annie Leibovitz chronicled her partner Susan Sontag’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both series are riveting and heartbreaking, truly valiant attempts by artists to face the most terrifying aspect of life, namely its end. I admire both works, as I do many others that traffic in the same aims.
But I just can’t bring myself to photograph my own father (who turns ninety at this writing) in that way. It’s not that I lack the courage. Or the curiosity. I might even possess the clinical detachment it would require. But if photography has meant anything to me, it’s been about focusing on what’s most important. And the impending end of Dad’s life is of no importance, especially if compared to the quality of the life he has lived. I just can’t make despairing pictures of him. Not on purpose, anyway.
Technically, I could easily record tender, textured studies of how fragile his marvelously gifted artist’s hands have become. I could dwell endlessly on the inexorable appetite of time in robbing him of his balance, his eyesight, even, occasionally, his memory. But while any of those factors might produce pictures that were poignant, even eloquent, they would not be true to the spirit of the things that have animated and excited him over a lifetime. Ideas. Passions. Projects. A love of every manifestation of the artistic impulse, from the avalanche of books that littered every corner of our house to the lazy summer Sundays when he and I would lay on a sheet on the living room floor near the box fan, put My Fair Lady on the hi-fi, and be transported to 1910 London. Life is certainly, to a degree, about setbacks. But it’s also about being indomitable. Yes, that’s it. I’ve slung a lifetime of compliments in Dad’s direction, but indomitable is the word that finally sums him up. Hemingway once said that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. God knows I’ve been around to see the world take a whack at accomplishing the former process. Gladly, I have never witnessed the latter. The trips down to the canvas don’t count. The journeys back up from the canvas do.
The image seen here began as an experiment with a particular art lens of mine. It’s based on selective focus, which means that you create pictures that actually conceal and much as they reveal. That means a less-than-reliable rendering of aged skin, a gauzy interpretation of the harder textures of aging. As for the sunglasses, while jaunty, they are not an attempt by the Chief to be cool but rather a very needful protection against over-loading his eyes with harsh light. And still, the overall affect, at least to me, is relaxed, comfortable. In this picture, I see no Sick Old Man. I see (or choose to see, maybe) an update on the dashing blockade runner I grew up with. The borderline shy smile, the posture of someone recalling a really good story. It’s the central nugget of his personality, which survives intact to this day, even if the machine that carries it around throws more cogs than it used to.
Photographs of such a man have to be resilient, even defiant. I grew up with too many instances of his quoting Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” to snap pictures of him as weak or downhearted. And, of course, the man who loved that poem still bubbles up, even in conversations that are mostly about trouble or turmoil. Earlier this week, to change the subject from Time’s latest assaults on him and Mother, I mentioned that I had sent my sister “something you can use on your birthday.”
A pause, then:
“That’d be the motorcycle, right?”
“Yes”, I said, laughing with gratitude and relief, ” but I didn’t pop for the sidecar. I thought it would be too showy.”
Joe Cool was still on the job. And as for that Time Machine thing, you can take it and stick it.
Happy Birthday Daddy/Dad/Pop/Poppa/Daddy
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORD “APPROPRIATION” HAS BECOME A PERMANENT PART OF THE ACTIVE VOCABULARY OF VISUAL ARTS, and I am never consistently sure how I feel about it.
Like the term “found object”, things labeled as “appropriated” from other works seem to cast a shadow over photography, or over its potential for originality. Can the artist ever really produce a thing that is completely new? And if so, does it make him dishonest to re-use something that’s been any part of someone else’s work? Can you generate an image that shows, for example, a frame from a motion picture that someone else directed? How about a random glimpse of a frozen moment from a television show? Are those who admire a painting in a gallery and snap an image of it plagiarists? Additionally, the entire web-era issue of intellectual property complicates the question even further. Even if a photographer’s motives in “appropriating” are artistically pure, is he/she creating a tribute….or perpetrating a theft?
I have seldom dipped my toe into this particular swamp, mostly since I want to create work that is as personally unique as possible. I certainly love the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, but I don’t like to think that it’s because I’m too weak to walk under my own power. So let’s analyze an instance in which I try to straddle both sides of the tribute/theft debate.
What you see here is a most particular exercise with a very specially selected image. The original picture, as seen within the page frame, is an illustration from The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Andy Carr, a book designed to train the reader’s eye to see in less conventional ways, to examine the gulf between conception and perception. The authors, Andy Carr and Michael Wood, have deliberately set forth a series of exercises created to force photographers to develop alternatives method of seeing. What I glean from this is that they don’t want to hold any single photographic approach as sacred….perhaps even those they themselves put forward as artists.
The composite image seen here is an attempt to take Michael Wood’s beautiful picture, a minimalist shot which shows a single orange leaf balanced on a ledge, and imagine what kind of picture might be a visual sequel to it. I used a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic to keep the original photo’s sharp focus on his leaf, which, as it trails down the stream of added orange potpourri pieces, transitions to softness….as if, in a dream, the leaves might be seeming to erupt out of the page. So, if you’re keeping score, the starting photograph is shown in the context of the book in which it originally appeared, with added objects that I have arranged for a new overall photo-creation of my own. Please note that in every single posting of this picture, I have given specific credit to the original artists/authors, and represented it as an appropriation, the use of elements not my own for a re-imaging that is my own. I would never seek credit for the original Wood image: it did serve, of course, as a springboard for something else. And, if at some time, I am asked by said creator to remove any and all traces of my composite from public platforms, I would acquiesce immediately.
Ever since Warhol began making silkscreens of photographs shot by other artists, which he then showed as Warhol “works”, this argument has mostly led to…..more arguments. And, as stated, I seldom find myself in this particular playpen. It’s simply too tough to be sure of all my motivations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT NO–FUNDAY, the painful exercise of poring over photographs that I once considered “keepers” and now must reluctantly re-classify as “obviously, I’m an idiot.” For any photographer, self-editing one’s output is just the kind of humiliation one needs to keep on shooting, if only to put greater distance between one’s self and one’s yester-duds.
To make the shame of disowning my photographic spawn even worse, I find that, more often than not, technical failure is usually not the reason I’m lunging for the delete button: it’s the weakness of the conception, a basic lifelessness or lack of impact that far outweighs any errors in exposure, lighting, even composition. In other words, my worst pictures are, by and large, bad because they are well-executed renditions of measly ideas.
In my mental filing cabinet, I refer to these images under the acronym SLIGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. The image above is a perfect example. This shot, taken inside the underbelly of a WWII bomber, presented a ton of lighting challenges, but I spent so much time tweaking this aspect of it that I neglected to notice that there just isn’t a picture here. It tells no story. It explains nothing. It’s just an incomprehensible jumble of old equipment which lets the eye wander all over the frame, only to land on…..well, what exactly? But, boy howdy, it is well-lit.
SLIGIATT photos are, of course, necessary. You have to take all the wrong pictures to teach yourself how to create the good ones. And mere technical prowess can, for a time, resemble quality of a sort. But technique is merely craft, and can be had rather easily. The art part comes in when you’re lucky enough to also build a soul into a machine. As Frankenstein figured out, that’s the difference between being God and playing God.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIFTY-PLUS YEARS INTO MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, I now regard my earliest concept of a “good picture” as I regard other ideas of my youth….that is, seeing how I viewed the world given the limited scope of my own experience. When I first started making my own pictures, my models were drawn from the pages of the then-dominant photo magazines, like Life, Look, and National Geographic. Thus, for me, “good” photographs served either the reportorial functions of a news assignment or the color-saturated visions of landscape lovers. And that, for me, back then, was more than enough.
Both these kinds of images favored a fairly literal translation from the actual into the photographed: interpretation and abstraction was not anything I gave serious thought to, since I wanted my simple box-camera creations to look like “real photographs”. Art photography certainly existed, but very much at the edges of the culture. Most museums, by the early 1960’s, had still not mounted their own photographic exhibitions. Most popular photography, shaped by a large middle-class consumer culture (think Kodak Instamatic), was candid and personal in nature. Most people wanted Grandma to look like Grandma, unfiltered through any Warholian irony, commentary or experimentation. It was still a compliment for someone to say of your pictures that they “looked like a photograph”.
Strangely, one of the things that revised my thinking on what was “good” was an increased awareness of the works of some of the first photographers, pioneers who sweated mightily to wrangle the infant media into something like reliable performance. In their work with ever-changing combinations of plates, media, lenses and emulsions, the first photogs’ breakthrough photographs often failed from a purely technical viewpoint, producing irregular patches of light appearing randomly like islands in a sea of shadows.
But what these wizards’ first attempts often achieved, almost by accident, was the first real abstraction in photography: pieces of reality, rather than its totality: hints of the truth which invited speculation, examination. New questions were posed: what was missing, and did it matter if it wasn’t there? Could a photographer, in fact, deliberately extract parts of the “whole” picture, letting the minimum speak for everything that was left out? I gradually began to wander in search of answers to these questions.
There are times when a picture speaks louder the less it says. My original orientation to “good” images, seeing them as the most faithful translation of the literal onto film, expanded gradually to include whatever visual language communicates best in a given picture. Sometimes, in some very key instances, it helps to think like the first practitioners, who discovered, however haphazardly, that mere reality sometimes comes up short.
How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself. –William Henry Fox Talbot
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IMAGINE THAT, IN ADDITION TO MAKING THE AUTOMOBILE PRACTICAL AND AFFORDABLE, Henry Ford had also been the world’s foremost racing driver. Or that Rembrandt had also invented canvas. The history of invention occasionally puts forth outliers who not only envision an improvement for the world, but become renowned as the best, first models for how to use it. The early days of photography saw several such giants, tinkerers who nudged the infant technique forward even as they became its first artists.
Unlike the telephone or the incandescent bulb, there was, for the camera, no single parent, but rather a series of talented midwives who massaged the young art from exotic hobby to mass movement, the most democratic of all art forms. Thus, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was not the first person to use light and chemistry to permanently fix and preserve images. But, without his contributions, printed photograph might never have evolved, nor would the negative, the easiest method for printing endless numbers of copies from a single master.
Talbot’s work began as a way to improve upon the daguerreotype, which dominated the photographic world in the early 1800’s and which was, as a positive image printed directly on glass, literally one of a kind, barring duplication or distribution. If photography were to be widely practiced, Talbot reasoned, a practical method had to be created to allow photos to be made from photos.
Talbot’s first attempts consisted of ordinary typing paper coated in a solution of salt and silver nitrate. The resulting silver-chloride mixture was highly sensitive to light, darkening as it was exposed, and registering the light and dark values of a subject backwards, as a negative. However, over the long exposures needed at the time, the darkening process often accelerated to make the image completely black, so Talbot had to experiment with other chemicals to render the process stable, to develop just so much and then stop. The next step was creating what would become the first chemical developers, allowing for shorter exposure times and more vivid images printed from his paper negatives.
Various refinements in the “calotype” process followed, along with a hash of bitter patent battles between Talbot and other inventors evolving similar systems. Interestingly, along the way, the need to demonstrate the superior results of his products had the accidental side effect of making Talbot himself one of the period’s most practiced early photographers, giving him equal influence over inventors and artists alike.
In time, Talbot’s calotype system would be further improved by coating glass with collodion, making for a sharper and more detailed negative from which to create prints. The final step toward universal adoption of photography would be George Eastman’s idea for a flexible celluloid-based film negative, the process that ushered in the age of the snapshot and put a camera in Everyman’s hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST GRAPHIC DEMONSTRATIONS OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOUR EYE AND A CAMERA’S occurs by accident for most photographers, with variations in the reading of white balance that make the colors in an image look “wrong”. While our own vision looks at everything in the world from light blues to medium greys and instantly converts them all to “white”, the camera makes looks at all those variants and makes what can be called its best guess.
All light has a temperature, not a measure of heat but an index of which colors combine to deliver hues of a certain intensity and range, and white balance helps photographers manage color more effectively. Film shooters, especially those using sophisticated flash technology, eventually develop an instinct as to which kind of light will deliver the hues they seek, but, as the digital era tracks onward, many more of us simply rely on our camera’s auto settings to deliver a white that strikes us as “correct”. And when auto white balance fails to deliver the goods, we can override it and select other settings that compensate for incandescent light, shade, cloudy skies, and so forth. We can also create a completely custom white balance with little fuss. Think Dad looks better with a green face, like the true extra-terrestrial that he is? It’s at your fingertips.
The fun starts when you use white balance to depart from what is “real” in the name of interpretation. WB settings are a fast and easy way to create dramatic or surreal effects, and, when you have enough time in a shoot to experiment, you may find that reality can be improved upon, depending on what look you want. In the top image, taken during a long, lingering sunset at sea, I had plenty of time to see what my camera’s custom WB settings might create, so I bypassed standard auto WB, then amped up the reds in the sky by clicking over to a shade setting, resulting in a deep and warm look.
For the second shot of the same scene, I wanted to simulate the look of a sky just after sunset, when the blues of early evening might take over for the vanished sunlight, even providing a little radiance from a pale moon. One click to the setting and you see the result. Now, of course, I’ve just switched from one simulation of reality to another, but playing with WB in a variety of lighting situations can help you tweak your way to fantasy land with no muss or fuss.
Tweaking white balance is basically lying to your camera, telling it that it is not seeing what it think’s it’s seeing but what you want it to think it sees. You’re the grown-up, you’re in charge. “White” is what you say it is. Or isn’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESURRECTION, ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, of several low-end, cold-war-era plastic cameras as refurbished instruments of a kind of instinctual “art” photography has influenced even the digital and high-end photo markets, with light-leaking, optically sloppy toys like the Holga, the Diana and other “lomographic” devices shaking up the way many photographers see the world. Thus have these technically challenged little cameras, designed as children’s playthings, changed the conversation about what kind of formerly dreaded optical flaws we now elect to put back in to our work. Lomo shooters’ devotion to their craft has also meant a reprieve of sorts for film, since theirs in an analog realm.
But even digital shooters who don’t think of themselves as part of the “lomography” trip can dip a toe into the pool if they like, with filters on phone apps labelled “toy camera” which simulate light leaks, film-era “cross-processing” and the color variations caused by cheap plastic lenses. There are also companies like Lensbaby that manufacture all-new plastic optics designed to lend an element of creative control to what, in lomo cameras is largely random. The good news: you can, in effect, put defects into your pictures….on purpose.
Plastic lenses are generally much softer than glass lenses, giving a kind of gauzy appearance to your shots, so if you’re a fan of razor sharpness, they may not be your dish. More importantly, they produce a much higher amount of what is called “chromatic aberration”, which is more understandable under its nickname “color fringing”, since that more accurately describes how it looks. If you want a reasonably clear science-guy breakdown of CA, here’s a link to keep you busy this semester. The main take-home for most of us, though, is that the effect takes what would largely be a smoothly blended rendering of colors and makes them appear fractured, with the “fringe” look most noticeable along the peripheral edge of objects, where the colors seem to be separating like the ragged edge of an old scarf.
Why should you care? Well, mostly, you don’t have to. All lenses have a degree of CA, but in the better-built ones it is nearly undetectable to the naked eye, and can be easily processed away in Lightroom or a host of other editing suites. But people who are choosing to use plastic lenses will see it quite clearly, since such optics cause different wavelengths of light to “land” in the focal plane at slightly different speeds, meaning that, in essence, they fail to smoothly blend, hence the “fringing” effect.
Of course, chromatic aberration may be exactly the look you’re going for, if you want to create a kind of lo-fi, primitive look to your shots. In the cactus photo seen here, for example, taken with an all new plastic “art” lens, I found that the effect resembled old color printing processes associated with early postcards, and, for that particular image, I can live with it. Other times I would avoid it like the plague.
Plastic lenses, like any other add-ons or toys, come with their own pluses and minuses. Hey, if you’re a ketchup person, then soak your plate with the stuff. But if you believe that it just louses up a good steak, then push the bottle away. Just that simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I OFTEN FANTASIZE ABOUT STANDING UP AND OFFERING A TOAST at a banquet hall crammed with photographers, just because it’s fun to play with what it might sound like….to see if I could strike some verbal chord that would resonate equally with everyone in the room, from the noobies to pro’s. I constantly change the exact wording, but the sentiment in my head is always something like:
May the best picture you took today be your worst picture ever, ten years from now.
What did he say? Does he hope the masterpiece I captured today will someday be regarded by me as garbage?
Well, yes, of course I do. At least I hope that for my stuff. If I still love today’s work ten years from now, it will mean that I stopped growing and learning, like, well, today. Consider: I can’t ever know everything about my craft, and can’t hope to “top out” or reach perfection within my lifetime. And why would I want to? If today is the best I’ll ever do, why not save time and money, smash my cameras, and consider myself done?
The entire point of artistic expression is that it is an evolutionary process. If I still took pictures the way I did at twelve, that would be like having been on a Ford assembly line for half a century, with one indistinguishable cog after another coming down the belt, and me adding the same screw to it, every day, for eternity. Photography appeals to us because, like any other measure of our mind, it will be in flux forever. It’s divinely uncertain.
And I want that uncertainty. I want the good shots that come on lousy days. I need the images that I made when I had no idea what I was doing. I crave the betrayals that camera bodies, lenses, changing weather conditions or cranky kids will hurl at me. Edward Steichen often referred to the act of refreshing one’s work as “kicking the tripod”, and, like that seismic shock, your own morphing ideas of how to do all this will benefit from an occasional earthquake.
Do great pictures always come from adversity? Of course not, or else my morbidly depressed friends would be the greatest photographers on earth. However, the sheer careening instability of life pretty much guarantees that the things that thrill you about today’s shots will make you shake your head ten years down the line, and devise different ways of solving all the eternal problems.
And so, a toast…to the great pictures you made today, and to the day that you can barely stand to look at them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT MAKES A LENS GREAT, AT LEAST FOR ME, is the degree to which I can forget about it.
The best images come from being able to shoot decisively and in the moment. That means knowing instinctively what your lens is good at, and using that information to salvage more pictures. Such knowledge only comes from repetition, trial and error, patience, and all those other tedious old-school virtues that drive people crazy but drive their work to perfection. And, eventually, it means you and the lens must think and react as one, without a lot of conscious thought.
I only know one way to get to that point with a given piece of glass, and that’s to be “monogamous” with it, using a given lens for nearly 100% of my work for long periods of time. Shuffling constantly from lens to lens in an effort to get “just the right gear” for a particular frame actually leads me to be hyper-conscious of the limits or strengths of what I’m shooting with, to be less focused on making pictures and more focused on calculating the taking of pictures. I believe that the best photos start coming the closer you can get to a purely reflexive process. See-feel-shoot.
If you’ve never chosen your own version of a “go-to” lens, one that can stay on your camera almost always, and give you nearly every kind of shot, I would suggest biting off a fat space of practice time and trying it. Snap on a 35mm and make it do everything that comes to hand for a day. Then a week. Then a month. Then start thinking of what would actually necessitate taking that lens off and going with something else. And for what specific benefit?
You may find that it’s better getting 100% comfortable with one or two lenses than to have a passing acquaintance with six or seven. The above image could have been taken with about five different lenses with comparable results. But whatever lens I used, it would have been easier and faster if I had selected it because it would also work for the majority of the other shots I was to attempt that day. Less time rummaging around in your kit bag equals more time to take pictures.
Every time there is a survey on what the most popular focal length in photography is, writers tend to forget that the number one source of imagery today is a cell phone camera. That means that, already, most of the world is shooting everything in the 30-35mm range and making it work. And before we long for the “good old days” of infinite choices, recall that most photographers born before 1960 had one camera, equipped with one lens. We like to think we are swimming in choices but we need to make sure we’re not actually drowning in them.
Find the workhorse gear that has the most flexibility and reliability for what you most want to do. Chances are the lens that will give you the best results isn’t the shiny new novelty in the catalogue, but just inches away, right in your hand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GLOBAL RACE, ACCELERATING RAPIDLY SINCE THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE, toward better, faster image sensors in cameras great and small, as we wage the eternal photographic battle against the limits of light. It’s one more reason why this is the best time in the medium’s history to be making pictures.
It’s hard to express what a huge game-changer this is. Film-based photography advanced the science of gathering light in slow fits and starts for more than a century, with even some of the most popular consumer films rated at very slow speeds (Kodachrome) or, if faster, extraordinarily high grain (Tri-X). Suddenly, the world’s shadowy interiors, from stadiums to basements, give up their secrets to even bargain-priced cameras as ISO ratings for sensors climb and noise/grain abatement gets better and better.
The above image, taken inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, would have, in film terms, required either a full-open aperture (making a consistent depth of field from front to back tricky), a slow exposure (hard to go handheld when you’re on a tour) or a film rated at 400 or above. Plus luck.
By contrast, in digital, it’s a casual snap. The f/5.6 aperture keeps things sharp from front to back, and the ISO rating of 250 results in noise that’s so low that it’s visually negligible. The statue of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth is dark bronze, and so a little re-contrasting of the image was needed in post-editing to lighten up the deeper details, but again, the noise is so low that it’s really only visible in color. As it happens, I actually like the contrast between the dark statue and the bright room better in monochrome anyway, so everyone wins.
The message here is: push your camera. Given today’s technology, it will give you some amazing things, and the better you understand it the more magic it will produce. We are just on the cusp of a time when we can effectively stow the flash in the closet except in very narrow situations and capture stuff we only used to dream about. Get out there and start swinging for the fences.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Okay, Wang, I think that’s enough pictures of the parking lot. —Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack
IF YOU WERE TO EXPRESS TODAY’S PHOTOGRAPHIC FREEDOM IN TERMS OF FIREPOWER, it would be fair to say that many of us have come to shoot in a somewhat scatter-shot fashion, like someone sweeping a machine gun. Indeed, digital allows us to overshoot everything to such a degree that doing so becomes our default action, because why would you take one picture of your child digging into birthday cake when fifty will do just as well?
Some over-shooting is really what pro photogs used to call “coverage” and is actually beneficial for particularly hard subjects. Awe-inspiring sunsets. A stag at bay. The fiery burst from a Hawaiian volcano. Such subjects actually warrant a just-one-more approach to make sure you’ve thought through every possible take on something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, or which may be vanishing presently. But that’s a lot different from cranking off four dozen clicks of the visitor’s center at Wally World.
Shooting better isn’t always assured by merely shooting more. Instead of the machine gun technique, we might actually improve our eye, as well as our ability to strategize a shot, by limiting how many total tries we make at capturing an image. My point is that there are different “budgets” for different subject matter, and that blowing out tons of takes is not a guarantee that Ze Beeg Keeper is lurking there somewhere in the herd.
So put aside the photographic spray-down technique from time to time and opt for the single bullet theory. For you film veterans, this actually should be easy, since you remember what it was like to have to budget a finite number of frames, depending on how many rolls you packed in. Try giving yourself five frames max to capture something you care about, then three, then one. Then go an entire day taking a single crack at things and evaluate the results.
If you’ve ever spent the entire day with a single focal length lens, or fought severe time constraints, or shot only on manual, you’re already accustomed to taking a beat, getting your thinking right, and then shooting. That’s all single-take photography is; an exercise in deliberation, or in mindfulness, if you dig guru-speak. Try it on your own stuff, and, better yet, use the web to view the work of others doing the same thing. Seek out subjects that offer limited access. Shoot before your walk light goes on at an intersection. Frame out a window. Pretend an impatient car-full of relatives is waiting for you with murder in their hearts. Part of the evolution of our photography is learning how to do more with less.
That’s not only convenient, in terms of editing. It’s the very soul of artistry.
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
EVERY YEAR AT THIS TIME, AS I HIT THE RESET BUTTON ON MY LIFE VIA SOME KIND OF BIRTHDAY RITUAL, I pause to wonder, again, whether I’ve really learned anything at all in over fifty years of photography. Surely, by this late date, the habit of shooting constantly should have assured me that I had “arrived” at some place in terms of viewpoint or style, right? And yet, I still feel as if I am just barely inches off the starting line in terms of what there is left to learn, and how much more I need to know about seeing. It’s a great feeling in that it keeps things perpetually fresh, but I often wonder if I’ll ever make it to that mirage I see ever ahead of me.
The aging process, and how that continually remaps your perception, is one of the least pondered areas of criticism as it pertains to photography. And that’s very strange. We track the evolution of technical acuity over a lifetime. We date ourselves in reference to a piece of equipment we acquired, an influential person who crossed our path, or a body of work, but we don’t thoroughly examine how much our photography is being changed completely because the person making the picture is in constant flux. How can we ignore what seems to be the biggest shaper of our vision over time? We don’t even want the same things in an image from one year to the next, so how can we take photos in our maturity anything like those we shot in our youth?
Looking back to my first images, it’s clear that I thought the mere opportunity for a picture plus the act of clicking a shutter would result in a good picture, a kind of “cool view+camera=art” equation. This is to say that, instead of thinking, “I could make a good picture from this”, I was actually thinking, “this would be a good picture.” I know that sounds like hair-splitting of the first order, but the two statements are, in fact, different. The first implies that the camera plus the subject will automatically result in something solid; it’s a snapshot philosophy. The second statement is made by someone who has been frustrated by so many snapshots that he knows he has to step into the process as an active player. That realization can only come with age.
As always, my father’s admonition that art is a process rather than a product emerges as my prime directive. When I look at the pictures made by a twelve-year old me, I can at least see what the little punk was going for, and I can measure whether I’ve gotten any closer to that ideal than he did. The trick is for old me to want it as badly as young me did, and when that happens, I forget how many candles are on the cake, and am just grateful that their light still burns brightly.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FUTURE DOESN’T ARRIVE ALL AT ONCE, just as the past doesn’t immediately vanish completely. In terms of technology, that means that eras kinds of smear across each other in a gradual “dissolve”. Consider the dial telephone, which persisted in various outposts for many years after the introduction of touch-tone pads, or, more specifically, Superman’s closet, the phone booth, which stubbornly overstayed its welcome long past the arrival of the cel. The “present” is always a mishmosh of things that have just arrived and things that are going away. They sort of pass each other, like workers at change of shift.
Photographically, this means that there are always relics of earlier eras that persist past their sell-by date. They provide context to life as part of a kind of ever-flowing visual history. It also means that you need to seize on these relics lest they, and their symbolic power, are lost to you forever. Everything that enjoys a brief moment as an “everyday object” will eventually recede in use to such a degree that younger generations couldn’t even visually identify it or place it in its proper time order (a toaster from 1900 today resembles a Victorian space heater more than it does a kitchen appliance).
Ironically, this is a double win for photographers. You can either shoot an object to conjure up a bygone era, or you can approach it completely without context, as a pure design element. You can produce substantial work either way.
Some of the best still life photography either denies an object its original associations or isolates it so that it is just a compositional component. The thing is to visually re-purpose things whose original purpose is no longer. Photography isn’t really about what things look like. It’s more about what you can make them look like.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FAR BE IT FROM ME TO DO A HATER NUMBER on photographic post-processing. We often pretend that the act of photo manipulation began at the dawn of the pixel age, when, of course, people have been futzing with their images since the first shutter snapped. We love the idea of “straight out of the camera” as an ideal, but it’s just that…an ideal. Eventually, it’s the way processing is executed in a specific instance which either justifies or condemns its use.
With that in mind, I do find that too many of us use faux b&w, or the desaturation of color images, long after they’re snapped, as a kind of last-ditch attempt to save pictures that didn’t have enough force or impact in the first place. Have I resorted to this myself? Oh, well, yeah, maybe. Which means, freaking certainly. Have I managed to “save” many images in this way? Not so much. Usually, I feel like I’m serving leftovers and trying to pawn them off as a fresh meal.
The further along I lope through life, however,the more I tend to believe that the best way to make a black and white image is to set out to intentionally do just that. An act of planning, pre-visualization, deliberation. It means looking at your subject in terms of how a color object will register over the entire tonal range of greys and whites. Also, texture, as it is accentuated by light, is particularly powerful in monochrome, so that part needs to be planned as well. Exposure, as it’s effected by polarizers or colored filters also must be planned, as values in sky, stone or foliage must be anticipated. And, always, there is the use of contrast as drama, something black and white does to great effect.
You might be able to convert a color shot into an even more appealing b&w shot in your kerputer, but the most direct route, that is, making monochrome in the moment, is still the best, since it gives you so many more options while you’re managing every other aspect of the shot in real time. It all comes down to a major philosophical point about photography, which is that the more control you can wield ahead of the click, especially with today’s shoot-it-check-it-shoot-it-again technology, the better your results will be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINTER IS A TIME OF MUTED COLORS, DIMINISHED SUNLIGHT and inner struggle. I’ve heard people refer to the leaner, darker months as the feeling of being shut up inside a box, almost like having yourself placed in storage. I would lop one side off of that polygon and say that, to me, it feels more like being locked in a triangle.
As a photographer, I feel as if, in winter, I sustain three distinct emotional “hits” about my work, forming the three sides of the triangle, all three pressing up against, and balancing, each other. These sides can be described as:
Not enough new or compelling ideas coming into my brain. A case of the “drys”.
Too much re-evaluation of all of my images that failed, along with a big fat dose of recrimination.
A near-crippling sadness over the photographic opportunities, many tied to people now departed, that I simply didn’t act upon, and which are now lost to me forever.
The first side of the triangle really isn’t unique to winter-time. I experience fallow periods throughout the year. They just ache more when amplified by slate-gray skies and dead trees. The second is to be expected, since spending more time indoors means rifling through old boxes of prints and slides, asking myself what the hell I was thinking when I chose this exposure or that subject, and ending the entire process by pitching some of those boxes into the incinerator. A needed exercise, but hardly anyone’s idea of a fun time.
No, it’s the third side of the triangle which is the real killer, since the photos that haunt you the worst are always the ones you didn’t take. Friendships pour additional salt into this particular wound, since, somehow, you never recorded quite enough of the faces which once were the common features of your world, and which time has, one by one, erased.
Your own personal list of pals-not-present grows steadily over the years, and the thought that you could have shot one less sunset to capture just one more portrait of some of them hurts. It’s not as if your emotional souvenirs of them aren’t burned into your mind’s eye. It’s not even that you might have done something magical or singular with their faces beyond another birthday candid. It’s simply that once you could, and now you can’t.
The triangle isn’t all torture. Breaking out of it means taking arms against ghosts, and (as Shakespeare said), by opposing, ending them. You not only have to keep shooting, but keep shooting mindfully. Because when all of this that we call reality finally drains through our fingers, the scraps of it that we leave behind really can matter. Even with triangles, there’s always one more side to the story.