the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Tonal range

OFF-WHITES AND NEAR COLORS

Warmer than reality: A sunset processed through Nikon's in-camera "shade" white balance setting.

Warmer than reality: A sunset processed through Nikon’s in-camera “shade” white balance setting.

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.

Same scene using Nikon's fluourescent white balance setting.

Same scene using Nikon’s fluourescent white balance setting.

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.


TONAL RECALL

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Desert still-life, take one. High contrast, simple color scheme.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU WANT TO GET ALL MYSTICAL AND OOKY-SPOOKY ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, you can almost talk yourself into the idea that  pictures kind of force their way past you on the way to their eventual best form. And, yes, I can hear your eyes rolling back in your head at the notion that an image is somehow destined to be created, that it emerges from your process almost despite you, like a rock that is pushed up through the earth by shifting tectonic plates. However, I have taken a handful of such pictures over a lifetime, as, no doubt, have you yourself, pictures that seemed to keep coming forth even beyond your first false steps until they reached their fullest expression.

Gee, is that incense I smell? Ommmmmm….

What I’m fumbling for here is a shared experience, and I do think that every photographer has had a semi-magical instance in which a photo almost taunts you to figure out how to make it work. Even in the best shots, there are moments of aching regret, maybe years down the path, that, had one or more things gone differently in the picture, it might have been eloquent or consequential. I truly believe that this very “so near, yet so far” quality is what keeps us in the hunt. After all, for the hunter, it’s the tiger he hasn’t been able to bag that calls louder than the ones already mounted over the mantel. So with photos. We are always singing the blues about the one that got away.

A monochrome re-mix from months after the original was snapped.

A monochrome re-mix from months after the original was snapped.

That’s why I’m a big believer in thinking of images as never really finished. They are, at best, preliminary studies for something else, picture that we still need to grow in order to complete. We lay them down, dissect them, re-shoot, re-imagine, and re-edit them. If you bend your thinking around, you can become comfortable with the fact that everything is a dress rehearsal for something that hasn’t arrived yet.

One of the starkest demonstrations of this fact is shots that were originally conceived as color images but which were later re-thought in monochrome. Nothing accentuates or streamlines your choices like shaving your tonal palette to the bare minimum. And, in the same vein, nothing makes you surer (or more unsure) about an image than reducing it to its simplest terms.

I think that, even as we are constantly expanding our arsenal of visual techniques, seeing them as growing, living things, so too we must think of our images as points on an evolutionary line, rather than final product.


UNTRUE-TO-LIFE

Go Green: A FLagstaff pine with all the brown values tuned out.

Go Green: A Flagstaff pine with all the brown values tuned out.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I VOLUNTEER AT A MUSEUM WHICH SERVES, IN LARGE PART, SCHOOL TOURS. And, in trying to explain the color choices made by varying cultures on the depiction of everything, from flowers to animals, I frequently ask my groups if anyone has ever colored something with a “different” crayon. Not “the wrong color”, just a different crayon, a choice resulting in a purple squirrel or a brown rose. I usually get at least a few “yeses” on the question, and, when I probe further as to what went into their decision, I almost always get one child who says, simply, “I just like it that way.”

At this point, I realize that at least one person in every mob will always be thinking of color as a choice, rather than as a right/wrong answer. In my early school days, teacher often handed out the same mimeographed picture to all thirty of us, expecting all thirty to produce precisely the same results: green grass, blue skies, yellow honeybees. Strangely, we kind of expected the same of ourselves. It was comforting to hand in a “correct” piece of art, something guaranteed to please, a safe shortcut to a gold star.

In photography, we start as witnesses to color, but should never remain slaves to it. The present generation of shooters, born and bred in iPhone Land, know that changing your mind and your thinking on color is just an app away, and why not? The same force that has finally democratized photography worldwide is also legitimizing any and every kind of artistic choice. With billions of uploads each day, uniformity of style is worse than a lifelong gig as a worker ant, and as uninteresting.

Color is as big a determinant in interpretation as any other choice that a photographer makes, and can result in subtle shaping of the mood of your work. The above tree was originally captured in natural color, but I thought the overall design of the tree was served by one tone fewer, so I reworked everything into three values….blue, green, and black. I believe that the central trunk hits with more impact as light and dark shades of emerald, and the conversion of the pine needles to a more severe shade gives me  some of the directness of monochrome. Of course, you might reach a completely different conclusion, but we’re beyond right or wrong here, aren’t we?

The mimeograph is dead, and with it, solid notions of color assignment. Fewer rules means fewer obvious signposts, but that’s why there’s more than one crayon in the box, innit?


THE JOURNEY OF BECOMING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONCE MAN LEARNED TO SLICE A PATH THROUGH THE DARK WITH ANY KIND OF LIGHT, a romance with mystery began that photographers carry ever forward. Darkness and light can never be absolute, but duel with each other in a million interim stages at night, one never quite yielding to each other. A flickering lamp, a blazing torch, ten thousand LEDs, a lonely match, all shape the darkness and add the power of interpretation to the shaded side of the day. Photographers can only rejoice at the possibilities.

The Late Errand, 2014. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

The Late Errand, 2014. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 640, 35mm.

Spending a recent week in a vacation hotel, I fell into my typical habit of taking shots out the window under every kind of light, since, you know, you only think you understand what a view has to offer until you twist and turn it through variation. You’ve never beheld this scene before, so it’s just too easy to take an impression of it at random, leaving behind all other possibilities. The scene from this particular room, a mix of industrial and residential streets in central Pittsfield, Massachusetts, permits the viewer to see the town in the context of the Berkshire mountains, in which it nestles. Daylight, particularly early morning, renders the town as a charming, warm slice of Americana, not inappropriate in a village that is just a few miles away from the studio of painter Norman Rockwell. However, for me, the area whispered something else entirely after nightfall.

I can only judge the above frame by the combination of light and dark that I saw as I snapped it. Is it significant that the house is largely aglow while the municipal building in front of it is submerged in shadow? Is there anything in the way of mood or story that is conveyed by the lit stairs in the foreground, or the headlamps of the moving or parked cars? If the passing driver is subtracted from the frame, does the feel of the image change completely? Does the subtle outline of the mountains at the horizon lend a particular context?

That’s the point: the picture, any picture of these particular elements can only raise, not answer, questions. Only the viewer can supply the back end of the mystery raised by how it was framed or shot. Some things in the frame are on a journey of becoming, but art is not about supplying solutions, just keeping the conversation going. We’re all on our way somewhere. The camera can only ask, “what happens when we turn down this road?.”

That’s enough.


RESTORING THE INVISIBLE

The Wyandotte Building (1897), Columbus, Ohio's first true skyscaper, seen here in a three-exposure HDR composite.

as[e The Wyandotte Building (1897), Columbus, Ohio’s first true skyscaper, seen here in a three-exposure HDR composite.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE BEST RESPONSES TO THE DIZZYING SPEED OF CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE. It is, in fact, because of a photograph’s ability to isolate time, to force our sustained view of fleeting things, that image-making is valuable as a seeing device that counteracts the mad rush of our “real time” lives. Looking into a picture lets us deal with very specific slices of time, to slowly take the measure of things that, although part of our overall sensory experience, are rendered invisible in the blur of our living.

I find that, once a compelling picture has been made of something that is familiar but unnoticed, the ability to see the design and detail of life is restored in the viewing of that thing. Frequently, in making an image of something that we are too busy to notice, the thing takes on a startlingly new aspect. That’s why I so doggedly pursue architectural subjects, in the effort to make us regard how much of our motives and ideals are captured in buildings. They stand as x-rays into our minds, revealing not only what we wanted in creating them, but what we actually created as they were realized.

In writing a book, several years ago, about a prominent midwestern skyscraper*, I was struck by how very personal these objects were…to the magnates who commissioned them, to the architects who brought them forth, and to the people in their native cities who took a kind of ownership of them. In short, the best of them were anything but mere objects of stone and steel. They imparted a personality to their surroundings.

The building pictured here, Columbus, Ohio’s 1897 Wyandotte Building, was designed by Daniel Burnham, the genius architect who spearheaded the birth of the modern steel skeleton skyscraper, heading up Chicago’s “new school” of architecture and overseeing the creation of the famous “White City” exposition of 1893. It is a magnificent montage of his ideals and vision for a burgeoning new kind of American city. As something thousand walk past every day, it is rendered strangely “invisible”, but a photograph can compensate for our haste, allowing us the luxury of contemplation.

As photographers, we can bring a particularly keen kind of witnessing to the buildings that make up our environment, no less than if we were to document the carvings and decorative design on an Egyptian sarcophagus. Architectural photography can help us extract the magic, the aims of a society, and experimenting with various methods for rendering their texture and impact can lead to some of the most powerful imagery created within a camera.

 

*Leveque: The First Complete Story Of Columbus’ Greatest Skyscraper, Michael A. Perkins, 2004. Available in standard print and Kindle editions through Amazon and other online bookstores. 


ATTRACTION / DISTRACTION

No performers, but the colors say circus time. 1/800 sec., f/2.2, ISO 32, 18mm.

No performers, but the colors say circus time. 1/800 sec., f/2.2, ISO 32, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ADDICTED TO “INVISIBLE” STORYTELLING, to hinting at a context beyond what is actually shown in a given image. Sometimes our eyes arrive at a scene just seconds after something important has happened. Sometimes it’s just moments before. Sometimes we have to use emptiness to suggest how full something just was. And, most importantly, we need to determine if color will be a warm accompaniment to something magical, or an unwanted intruder in a scene where less is more.

Wonderfully, this choice has never been easier. Digital photography affords us the luxury of changing our strategy on the color of a shot from frame to frame in a way that film never could. It also allows us to delay the final choice of what works and what doesn’t, to live with an image for a while, and decide, further down the road, whether something needs to be re-ordered or altered, rendered either neutral or vivid. It is a great time to be a photographer. For those picking up a camera today, it must seem absurd that it was ever any other way. For those of us with a few more rings around the trunk, it can seem like a long promised miracle.

Color can be either addition or distraction to a shot, and usually you know, in an instant, whether to welcome or banish it for best effect. Two recent walk-bys afforded me the chance to see two extreme examples of this process. In the first, seen above, I am minutes too early to take in a small street circus, giving me nothing but the garish tones of the tents and staging areas to suggest the marvels that are to come. I need something beyond the props of people to say “circus” in a big way. Color must carry the message, maybe shouting at the top of its lungs. See what I mean? Easy call.

The isolation of the woman in the frame argues against garish color. 1/700 sec., f/2.2, ISO 32, 18mm.

The isolation of the woman in the frame argues against the use of garish color. 1/700 sec., f/2.2, ISO 32, 18mm.

In the second image, which features a lone woman reading against a backdrop of largely featureless, uniform apartment cubes, I am off on an opposite errand. Here, I seem to be wondering why she is alone, who is waiting (or not waiting) for her, what her being in the picture means. The starkness of her isolation will never be served with anything “pretty” in the scene. The original frame, done in color, actually had the drama drained out of it by hues that were too warm. On a whim, I converted it to the look of an old red-sensitive black and white film. It gave me a sharp detailed edge on materials, enhanced contrast on shadows, and a coldness that I thought matched the feel of the image. In audio terms, I might compare it to preferring a punchy mono mix on a rock record to the open, more “airy” quality of stereo.

Dealer’s choice, but I think our photography gains a lot by weighing the color/no color choice a lot more frequently than we did in our film days. The choices are there.The technology could not be easier. Relative to earlier eras, we really do have wings now.

We just need to get used to flapping them more often.


THEY HAD FACES THEN

Happy Shining Houses: Two copies of the same image, balanced in Photomatix' Tone Compression algorhtyhm.1/1000 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

Happy Shining Houses: Two copies of the same image, balanced in Photomatix’ Tone Compression algorithm.1/1000 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF SUBURBAN SPRAWL, beyond the obscene commercial eye pollution, the devastation of open space, and the friendless isolation, is the absolute soulless-ness of the places we inhabit. The nowheres that we live in are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are. Move three miles and the cycle has repeated. Same Shell stations, same Wal-Marts, same banal patterns.

The title of a classic book on the passing of the star era of Hollywood could also be the story of the end of the great American house: They Had Faces Then.

I believe that the best old houses possess no less a living spirit than the people who live inside them. As a photographer, I seek out mish-mosh neighborhoods, residential blocks that organically grew over decades without a “master plan” or overseeing developer. Phoenix, Arizona is singular because, within its limits, there are, God knows, endless acres of some of the most self-effacing herdblocks created by the errant hand of man, but also some of the best pre-WWII neighborhoods, divine zones where houses were allowed to sprout, erupt, and just happen regardless of architectural period, style, or standard. It is the wild west realized in stucco.

When I find these clutches of houses, I don’t just shoot them, I idealize them, bathing the skies above them in azure Kodachrome warmth, amping up the earth tones of their exteriors, emphasizing their charming symmetries. Out here in the Easy-Bake oven of the desert, that usually means a little post-production tweaking with contrasts and colors, but I work to keep the homes looking as little like fantasies and as much like objects of desire as I can.

One great tool I have found for this is Photmatix, the HDR software program. However, instead of taking multiple exposures and blending them into an HDR, I take one fairly balanced exposure, dupe it, darken one frame, lighten the other, and process the final in the Tone Compression program. It gives you an image that is somewhat better than reality, but without the Game of Thrones fantasy overkill of HDR.

Photography is partly about finding something to shoot, and partly about finding the best way to render what you saw (or what you visualized). And sometimes it’s all about revealing faces.


CHASING THE SENSATION

Wildfire, Cabazon, California, August 8, 2013. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Wildfire, Cabazon, California, August 8, 2013. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOTING LARGE SUBJECTS IS OFTEN MORE CHALLENGING THAN CAPTURING STORIES NEAR AT HAND. If you’re doing a tight frame around a bowl of fruit, there may be more than only one story for the shot, but, compared to trying to find the essential visual core of a vast area, it’s not really the stuff of MENSA club meetings. When you’re shooting tight, the message, the central spine of the idea reveals itself fairly quickly. Panning over an immense scene, the story is “out there”, but your editor’s eye will certainly get a more rigorous workout in paring away the unneeded extras.

Important note before we continue: I am not a storm chaser. I lack the mixture of admirable fortitude and creepy bravado that allows people to take truck and gear in hand in an insane game of dodge-ball with a meteorological Godzilla. So, if I am in the position to grab a moment during one of Mother Nature’s more picturesque tantrums, it’s purely a case of being in the right place at the right time. I am not intrepid. To my thinking, the only thing cool about being Indiana Jones is, you get to wear a seriously rockin’ hat.

Thus, the above frame is largely luck, the very casual luck associated with pulling off the road for a rest stop precisely as something is becoming interesting. The cloud you see belongs to a horrible wildfire that tore through more than 20,000 acres in California’s San Jacinto Mountains last Thursday, August 8, 2013. From our westward trek toward Los Angeles on the I-10, most of what we saw of the fire, for nearly 100 miles, was a dense, diffuse haze which more closely resembled Pollution’s Greatest Hits of 1968 than a fire. However, during our leg-stretcher at the wonderful Hadley Fruit & Nut superstore in Cabazon, California, it was finally possible to see a salmon-colored, tightly defined cloud of fire smoke, snaking its way southward across the freeway, billowing to the size of a football stadium over the mountainous terrain near our car.

The cloud was a free, here-you-are gift, the central part of the story, but the shot wasn’t ready. I needed some earthly point of reference to convey its size, and all I had were distant palm trees and fairly featureless terrain. Fortunately, there was a short masonry wall that marked Hadley’s lot from those of its neighbors, and, crouching down a bit, I could bring it into frame as some way to contextualize the cloud monster. The other problem was haze, which was rendering all colors too faintly, given the high position of the sun reading off the smoke. A simple screw-on polarized filter cut the haze and delivered the hues. Click and done.

Back in the car, far away from the Devil Cloud, and on to L.A.

With a lucky frame in the back seat.

And walnuts and raisins in the front.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye, and view his Flickr photostream at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpnormaleye/


NO CLEAR “BLACK AND WHITE” ANSWER

He's Just Not That Into You: In-camera monochrome on a Nikon d5100: 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

Hey, He’s just not that into you: In-camera monochrome, on a Nikon d5100: 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm. Street photography sometimes benefits from a limited tonal range. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOTING IN BLACK AND WHITE, BEFORE THE DIGITAL ERA, WAS AN ACTIVE, RATHER THAN A PASSIVE  CHOICE. You had to decide, before loading your camera, what an entire roll of film would be able to capture in terms of color/no color. There was no way to change your mind until that roll was completed and replaced. As you pre-chose film speed, light sensitivity, or special processing considerations, you also committed, before Frame One, to a single tonal option.

If you are really getting long in the tooth, you can remember when monochrome was the default choice for most of your film shoots. Economy was one factor, and, for certain shooters, including many of the pros, there was a lack of confidence that color films could render nature reliably. Giants like Adams, Edward Weston and others eschewed color throughout most of their careers, since they feared that either garish emulsions or the limits of extant printing processes would betray them in a way that black and white would not. And of course, in a world in which post-processing meant the skillful manipulation of a negative and the mastery of print-making, monochrome was simply an easier beast to tame.

Wow, are we ever in a different place.

Today, we can change our “film speed”, light sensitivity, and every kind of color emphasis frame-by-frame, and for many of us, color is our first choice, with many monochrome images post-processed from shots that were originally multi-hued. Photoshop and countless other programs allow us to have it all, with endless nuanced permutations from a single capture. Black and white is now often an “effect”, an after-thought derived later rather than sooner in our thought process. Oh, look what happens when I push this button. Cool.

Shot in color, de-saturated in post. A boring shot in color becomes super-bland when rendered in monochrome. Blame the shooter, not the mode.

Shot in color, de-saturated in post. A boring shot in color becomes super-bland when rendered in monochrome. Blame the shooter, not the mode.

Most users’ manuals for today’s cameras, especially DSLRs, actually advise converting color images to b&w in “post” rather than enabling the camera’s picture controls to shoot monochrome in the first place. The prevailing opinion seems to be that results will be better this way, since processing offers finer-tuned controls and choices, but I take issue with that, since I believe that color/no color as a choice is best made ahead of the shutter click, no less than choices about aperture or DOF. You need to be thinking about what black & white can bring to your shot (if anything) as part of your pre-shoot visualization. The tonal story in a picture is simply too important for you not to be planning it beforehand.

The quality of in-camera monochrome modes for both Nikon and Canon are both perfectly adequate to give you a workable image versus converting the shot later with software, and that’s good, because getting the shot right in the moment is better for the result than infinite knob-twiddling after the fact. Monochrome is a tool for telling a story or setting a mood. It makes sense that its use be tied to what you are trying to achieve as you are planning it….not slathering it on later as an oh-this’ll-be-keen novelty. That’s Instagram technique, not photographic  technique.

One great habit to retain from the days of film: anticipate your need, and shoot according to that need. Plan ahead. “Fix it in the lab” only works for shots with slight imperfections, frames in which the concept was sound enough  to warrant painting away a few flaws. Going to black and white to save an iffy shot is a Hail Mary pass at best.

As as we all know, you don’t always get what you pray for.

That’s the truth. In black and white.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.