By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULTRA-WIDE LENSES HAVE ALMOST BECOME AN UNAVOIDABLE CLICHE for people shooting in the streets of large cities, both for the great things they allow and the uber-excesses that they enable. There is, of course, a real practical benefit in being able to create an amped-up sensation of front-to-back space or side-to-side expanse while you yourself are limited in where you can stand or move. For example, if your back is crimped against a building, so that you can’t dolly backward, having the lens provide the extra width you need is great. If you’re pointing up for emphasis, the lens’ distortion of straight lines can be dramatically abstract, depending on the look you’re going for. All to the good.
Of course, depending on your selection of angle, you can get things so bendy and bizarre that you can induce motion sickness in your viewing audience, with towers and spires inclining sideways as if they about to topple to the street. Again, you have to decide what look you want: it’s not just about tilting the frame until you can “get everything in”. That’s shoveling, not shooting.
The thing to remember about ultra-wides in the city is how little re-framing it takes to get both the drama you want and at least a semblance of normal proportions and angles. As with almost every other situation, the salvation is in shooting a lot of coverage of a subject. Attack it from all angles and sides. You can’t know in the moment exactly what will work best…you’re working too quickly in a crowded, active environment. So walk around, attack it from all sides, and sort out the keepers later.
In the shot at the top of the page, I was interested in shooting Paul Manship’s magnificent “Atlas” sculpture, located along the Fifth Avenue edge of Rockefeller Center, from the rear, to accentuate the amazing musculature of the figure and get him in the same frame as the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Now, there’s already plenty of drama in the statue’s pose as is, but in the first photo, I angled the lens further upward to get an even bigger arc of action. In the lower image, I simply changed the up-down angle of the same 24mm lens I was using to get angles that were a bit more normal. Two different effects, just inches away from each other in approach and angle, but markedly different in result. Which one’s the keeper? Not my argument and not my problem. However, if I don’t shoot both images, I don’t get to make the choice.
Once more, the advantage of digital is pronounced. You can now shoot everything you think you might need. We’re not counting “roll” exposures in our heads any more. We can’t “run out of film”, so click away. Shoot it all while you’ve got it in front of you and throw everything you know how to try at the problem at hand. The bad pictures will speed the arrival of the good ones.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN A GAME OF INCHES, a struggle in which outcomes vary wildly based on small, rather than large issues. Early photographers learned this the hard way, since their limited gear forced them to innovate composition and exposure with tiny tweaks that slowly but gradually added more refined skill to their work and better performance from their equipment. Ernest Haas’ great quote that a wide-angle lens is just as close as taking three steps backward still holds true. What has changed is that we have a greater tendency to think that we need more tech to make better pictures. That concept, simply, is poppycock.
For years, the option of a zoom lens was out of the question for the average photographer. The consumer-level zooms that existed were often optically inferior to standard or wide-angle glass (as testified to by Annie Leibowitz and other heavyweights), and so composition was acquired by physically closing or widening the actual distance between yourself and your subject. This is not to say that zooms didn’t eventually prove amazing tools, because they have. However, they demonstrate and instance in which tech has automated, and thus eliminated, an extra step of mindful concentration that used to reside solely in the photographer’s brain. This can lead, over time to an over-reliance on the gear to bring everything home, something it cannot ever do.
Learning to simply maximize the effect of whatever you have up front of the shutter is the easiest, and yet most overlooked aspect of many people’s work. We’d spend a lot less time lugging and swapping lenses if we knew how far we could push whatever we’ve got attached at the moment, and, indeed, masters like Scott Kelby, author of the best-selling Digital Photography Book series, has several “why change lenses? hunks of glass like the 18-200mm that can get him through an entire day without a swap. This works because he works a little harder at exploiting everything his gear can do.
Consider the above image. It’s taken at 18mm, but, because I arched the shot upwards, instead of maintaining a level horizon line, I forced the lens to do a little more of what it was originally designed to do….exaggerate dimensions and distances. The development of wide-angle lenses was, after all, pursued by shooters who wanted an enhancement, an interpretation, and not a recording, of reality. As such, the wide-angle in this shot over-accentuates the most prominent feature of this room within the old U.S. Customs building in Manhattan…its amazing murals. It also creates an illusion of vastness, front-to-back, in a room that is already pretty huge. And this is all done by pivoting my head upward about 30 degrees.
The game of inches is the great equalizer in photography between pro and amateur, because it gives the advantage to those who plan the best, see the most, and think the widest. And you don’t need a closet full of geegaws to do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO HAS EITHER STUDIED OR DABBLED IN CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY has heard Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s term “the decisive moment”, which refers to that heat-lightning instant when the best possible photograph of a situation or sensation can be made. Of course, you don’t have to really believe that there is a single such moment, and many do not. There may be any one of thirty possible frames to be extracted from even the simplest human subjects, but we seem to always be looking for that salient, isolated image that defines it for all time.
Cartier-Bresson’s pursuit of the decisive moment is usually thought of with regard to photographing human activity, but there is also a mindset about photographing places that there can be a “superior” or “best” angle to view them from. That is why landmarks and monuments yield so many pictures that are so much the same. We all shoot the Eiffel Tower the way that everyone else before us has shot it…..because? Well, there’s a great question.
Do we think of earlier images of the tower as a standard of some kind that we only certify by imitation? Is our mind eager to catalogue things in their “proper” orientation? Are we only interesting in what things are “supposed” to look like? Ideally, we should be making pictures to authenticate our own visions, not to rubber-stamp those generated before us. And yet, with famous places, it’s often a case of human see, human ape.
We have to teach ourselves to photograph places as if we were the first to ever point a camera at them. It’s not that hard a habit to cultivate, really. Crank yourself around 180 degrees and take the reverse angle. Move six inches to the left and frame the most obvious part of the cathedral, ruins, or palace out of your composition. It might yield nothing, and then again, it might add enough freshness to the image to overcome what I refer to as “tourist fatigue”.
The above image from the sculpture plaza at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a near reverse of the more conventional view in the smaller color shot at left, which I first featured in the post Put Yourself Out There a while back. In one shot, the Diana statue is center stage. In the other, she is relegated to the edge of the frame, acting as a pointer toward the rest of the photograph’s information. Extra cost in terms of time to get this very different composition? Ten seconds.
It’s not that re-imagining a subject is that hard. It’s that we so seldom question our first imagining of things, often settling for the first, technically successful image we get. And that first image, as we often learn, might only be a dress rehearsal for the real show.