By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.
The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.
A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.
But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.
And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.
(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LONGER YOU’RE INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater chance there is that, at some point, you’ll at least wonder if a telephoto lens should be in your arsenal of gear. As with any other lens, I believe that, over time, the need for a zoom will become fairly obvious….either obviously needed or obviously superfluous. That is, your shooting will drive your technical needs and dictate what you deem as essential equipment.
That means not buying any lens, especially a zoom, before you find yourself in repeated situations where it might have made the difference in your work. The reason I deliberately state what should be a “duh”-type truth is that there are still some photographers who gear up with everything under the sun before they demonstrate their strengths or desires by the kind of images they pursue. This means that you don’t buy lenses and then try to find a use for them. Working that way all but guarantees that the things you never evolved a genuine need for wind up consigned to the top of the hall closet or on a yard sale table.
So let’s go back to the example of telephotos. It’s completely possible that your particular work will never indicate that you need one. I can cite many amazing photographers that seldom, if ever, use them. I myself have only one modest 55-300mm zoom, which I can safely is in use once, maybe twice a year. And that’s a net increase in its use, due to the fact that I now spend increasingly more time accompanying my wife on her birdwatching expeditions. Even at that, I seldom use the things for actually photographing birds. My eye is far too untrained to locate them in most cases, and I am just as content to use the 300mm for landscapes, macros and other wildlife. Were I bitten as hard by birding bug (bug?) as Marian, I may already have ponied up the dough for a more powerful version of what I use. But bitten I am not, and so I am stuck with my original biases against zooms…..that is, that they are generally too slow, too dark, too poor at color rendition, and supremely aggravating to focus on the fly. Am I grossly over-generalizing? Of course. But you judge these things on your own results (indifferent) and your own limits (considerable).
In the view you see here, I am almost at the extreme limit of my 300’s usefulness, with my bullfrog quarry about thirty yards away, making him a medium-large speck in the viewfinder even when I’m fully zoomed out. This means that locking auto-focus on him will be strictly hit-or-miss, necessitating a shoot-check-shoot-check cycle in an effort to catch the toad before he can get bored and blow the scene. And that’s assuming that I can get auto-focus to lock at all. In many cases, going manual will keep me from issuing a verbal blast of mostly blasphemous bile in getting the shot, but even that is no guarantee when working hand-held. Are we having fun yet? My point is that, at least for me (notice the italics), zooms trade access for precision and speed. Sometimes, as in the marginally lucky result you see here, the trade-off is worthwhile. Other times….
So, to my earlier point. I could trade up to a more powerful zoom, if I were to demonstrate a need for one by the typical work I produce….. and if I decide to give up food and shelter to finance the thing. Again, the idea is….let what and how you shoot dictate what you’ll buy to shoot with. From where I stand, one frog a year still doesn’t scream ‘buy more glass”. As always, what makes some of us grin makes others of us grimace. And vice versa.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE A STATISTICAL TABLE SOMEWHERE that breaks down the percentage of photographers who use telephoto lenses consistently versus those who only strap one on for special occasions, but I have never seen one. Of course, I’ve never seen a three-toed sloth either, and I’m sure they exist. Fact is, there are always enough telephoto newbies (or “occasional-bies”) out there to guarantee that many of us make some pretty elemental mistakes with them, and come home with fewer jewels than we hoped for. I should know, since I have produced many such “C-minus” frames, like the image seen above. For a better understanding of everything I did wrong here, read on.
If telephotos just had to deliver magnification, and otherwise worked the same as standard lenses, they wouldn’t produce so many problems. In fact, though, they need to be used in several very different ways. For one thing, zooming in exponentially increases not only the chance of camera shake but the visible results of camera shake. A little bit of tremble at 35mm may go undetected, with little discernible effect on sharpness, while the very same amount of shake at 300mm or above creates a mathematically greater amount of instability, rendering everything soft and mushy.
This means that handheld shots at the longer focal lengths are fundamentally harder to do. Solutions can include faster shutter speeds, but that cuts light at apertures of f/3.5 and smaller, where light is already diminished. You might get around that with a higher ISO, which may not produce acceptable noise on a brightly lit day, but you must experiment to see. If you simply must have longer exposures, you’re pretty much onto a tripod, and, if workable, a cable release or wireless remote to guarantee that even your finger on the shutter doesn’t create a tremor. Remember, you’re talking about very minor amounts of movement, but they’re all magnified many times by the lens.
Some people even believe that a DSLR’s process of swinging its internal mirror out of the way before the shutter fires can create enough vibration to ruin a shot at 400mm or further out. In such case, many cameras allow you to move the mirror a little earlier, so that it’s stopped twitching by the time the shutter opens. Lots of trial and error and home-bred calculus here.
One of the factors fouling many of my own telephoto shots comes from shooting at midday near major cities, adding both glare and pollution to the garbage your lens is trying to see through. Colors get washed out, lines get warped, sharpness goes bye-bye. For this, you might try shooting earlier, taking off your haze filters (’cause they cut light) and seeing if things come out clearer and prettier.
Telephotos are a fabulous tool, but like anything else you park in front of your camera, they introduce their own technical limits and challenges into the mix. Seldom can you get results by just swinging your subject into view and hitting the shutter. Get comfortable with that fact and you will find yourself taking home more keepers per batch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE 1990’s, THE MOST COMMON BASIC HUNK OF PHOTOGRAPHIC GLASS for new DSLRs has been the 18-55mm wide-angle, dubbed the “kit lens”. It allows beginners to move from landscape-friendly wides to moderate zooms without switching lenses. Depending on how much a given shooter experiments, the kit can allow for a lot of nuanced compositional options between the lens’ range.
If you find yourself shooting at the widest angle most of the time, then you are really using an effects lens, since, at 18mm, the lens is more than wide enough to distort angles and distances in ways that, while dramatic, don’t reflect the way your eyes actually see. This makes for expansive vistas in crowded urban streets and a little extra elbow room for mountain views, but is substantially more exaggerated than focal ranges from 35-50mm, which produce proportions more like human eyesight. However, the focal length you eventually choose has to be dictated by what you care to create; there can’t be any yardstick than that, all people’s opinions off to the side.
I have found a personal sweet spot by going a tad narrower, back to 24mm, and I also work with a dedicated prime lens that will only work at that exact focal length. By trimming back from 18mm, I find the distances from front to back in an image are a little more natural to my eye, and that I still have a yard of room from side to side without ushering in that Batman-type bending of perspective.
For comparison, I have re-shot subjects that I’d photographed at 18mm and found, at 24, no loss in impact. In the images in this post you can see the difference in how the two settings frame up. The composition in the 24 is a little tighter, but, if that’s not wide enough for you, you can simply step back a bit and there’s the same composition you saw in the 18, albeit with a little more normal proportion.
The most important thing with a variable focal length lens is to give yourself the flexibility of being able to get good results all through the focal range, simply to avoid getting too comfortable, i.e., sliding into a rut from always doing everything in the same way. Putting yourself into unfamiliar territory is always a good route to growth, and playing with your gear long enough to know everything it has to give you is the best way to periodically refresh your enjoyment.
When Grandma serves broccoli, you don’t gotta eat and pound-and-a-half of it, but heck, try it. You might like it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER YOUR LIFETIME AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT DOESN’T TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT TO ACCUMULATE A SMALL WAREHOUSE OF SPECIALIZED GLASS. Lens acquisition just may be the crack cocaine of photography, since we all know that the best picture of your life will be taken with the lens you don’t yet own.
We slobber with envy over magazine spreads which lovingly detail the bursting kit bags of the pros, which far too many of them pose for in magazines, at least once. I think it is a kind of passive-agressive attempt to scare most of us other shrimps into abandoning the craft altogether and finding honest work, like breaking into ATMs. I swear, there must be proof that a significant percentage of the second mortgages in the world are traceable to “daddy needs a new fisheye”.
One of the most expensive hunks of glass for many of us will be a dedicated macro lens. Assuming that you don’t buy a third-party bauble made from a child’s kaleidoscope in an emerging nation, the investment can be daunting, especially if macro shots are a small subset of your total output. Forced to choose between a dedicated macro and a decent quality zoom, however, I have sided with the zoom every time, since, in a pinch, it can serve as a decent sub for a macro. Detail is your big factor. You have to decide if you want to count the feathers on a robin’s back, or if you want to be able to see the mites that live in the feathers. If you’re a mite man, then apply for that second mortgage now.
Standing just a few feet from your macro subject and zooming out to, say, 300mm allows you enough magnification to fill your frame. Of course, you should be absent any bloodstream caffeine, since camera shake will become a large part of your life. You could default to a tripod, but since you’re improvising a macro shot, you are probably too close to the object to want to impede foot traffic (or simply waste opportunities) getting set up, so it’s better to experiment with various ways of bracing the camera against your body. And again, cut the caffeine.
Your depth of field will be shallow, which will actually help out, since the bokeh will eliminate distractions around or behind your subject. You will also be far enough from what you’re shooting to keep you from casting a shadow over it with your body. If you want a sharper image, you can go to a smaller aperture, but as you’re completely zoomed out already, you are already down to f/5.6 and its attendant light loss. A smaller aperture means you’ll have to slow your exposure, and that could give your handheld shot the dreaded shakes again. Everything’s a trade-off.
Bottom line: it’s cost-effective to make the lenses you have do everything of which they are each capable than to build a mountain of specialized glass in your closet.
Remember when golf was the expensive hobby? Ah, them wuz the days.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.
Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.
For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.
Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.
The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy, as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.
I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.
The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.