By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE WHO HAVE SIGNED ONTO THIS SHIP OVER THE LONG HAUL may recall that the germ idea for The Normal Eye was a year that I once spent shooting with nothing but a manual 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, forcing myself to explore all the benefits and limits of a single piece of glass in every conceivable shooting situation. I didn’t intend the year as any kind of stunt, but as a test of my own ability to re-sensitize or “normalize” my vision (primes are often called “normal” lenses for their similar field of view to the human eye) and a disciplinary experiment in which I alone was responsible for any and all results….kind of a mind-over-matter challenge. The year showed me that nearly any lens has properties which might not be readily apparent until you spend some extended play time with them.
Wait, did he just say play? But we’re photographers. This is serious business.
Well, as to that, all I can offer is Fred Rogers’ old line about children and how their play is their “work”, not a break from it. And I’ll pretty much stand by Mr. Rogers’ results. Thing is, learning absolutely every intimate detail about a lens’ performance is time-consuming, which makes it a perfect exercise for these thumb-twiddling times. Hey, during this time-out, we’ve done all the sensitive photo essays on our feelings of isolation, community, dread, etc., etc. Well and good. But this protracted behind-walls penance is also a great opportunity to bring out the equipment that we’ve either under-loved or flat-out given up on over the years. The non-favorites that we shot a little with, weren’t really thrilled with, or consigned to some dusty regret bin. Yeah, those lenses. We bought them to achieve this, but all we got was that. Yeah, those.
Forcing a brief romance with a forgotten lens is easier when there is so much time to futz away that we can afford the luxury of mistakes. After all, you’ve already taken 300 pictures of your study and your back room with the gear that you’re most comfortable with. So call those your “keepers”. Now, you can grant yourself the freedom to shoot the “losers”, the pictures that don’t matter, except for what they can teach you. Snap on a forgotten optic and enjoy the latitude of just being… bad. Hey, delete all the defects, if it bugs you that much. But shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and get past whatever barriers exist between you and those lenses, because they can be overcome, and you may be surprised to find that they really had more potential than you ever imagined.
The images seen here are the result of a solid week spent with a real oddball of a lens, my Helios-44 58mm f/2. These Soviet-era lenses were originally attached to Zenit cameras, some of the best knock-offs of legit European cameras that rubles could buy. The camera bodies were actually inferior to the lenses, but there were millions of each produced during the Cold War, so they are cheaper than Nancy Sinatra lip gloss. I bought mine for under $40 just to get the swirly bokeh it produces on floral work, but I discovered that, in shooting landscapes at the same f/2, I got defined focus layered with a film of dreamy glow, the kind of effect modern-day art lenses are charging hundreds to deliver. Thus most of this work week was spent trying to nail manual focus on the thing at great distances, which is a little easier to suss out with the help of one of the zillions of free depth-of-focus phone apps available. So now, in one optic, I have a bokeh beast, a decent portrait lens (at smaller apertures) and a special-effect landscape lens. The Helios won’t fetch me beer or grill me a burger, but as the Brits say, it’s Early Days. Gimme another week and it might actually feel, you know, normal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PEOPLE WHO OPERATE ON INSTINCT SO MUCH OF THE TIME, photographers certainly can make things unnecessarily complicated. We buy gear we don’t need, thinking that machinery alone will unstick our stuck imaginations. We overthink set-ups. We overthink post-processing. We put a lot of junk in our own path, thinking that more of everything will make better pictures. Maybe it’s a native human need to exercise control. But sometimes, as now, we are all reminded that control can be elusive, or worse yet, a mirage.
Making photographs isn’t about having all the conditions we’d prefer. It’s more about managing the conditions we’ve got. That’s always been the case, although our present Great Hibernation has made it a lot more obvious. Take the idea of a “studio”. The term can conjure visions of vast banks of backdrops, lights, high-end gear…a professional space, if you will. But at bottom, it’s really just a place to work, and, ideally, to exercise choice over technique and intentions. There are really no official tools, no approved physical location for a studio. Like many others, I’ve been recently reminded that we only need a few things to create one: a knowledge, inside our homes, of where light goes and what it does during the day: the ability to tell time: and a fair bit of awareness of what our camera can and cannot do. If you have these things, you’ve got a studio.
Think through the process: if you have windows, and if you know which way the sun tracks across the sky hour by hour, you already have multiple sites to get different kinds of light depending on your need. One window for harsh midday high-contrast illumination, a dirty one for diffused, etc. As to tools, absent formal studio gear, everything in your house is a potential prop. And then there’s the advantage afforded by all the extra time we find ourselves awash in: that is, the leisure to plan a shot, whether over hours or days. In essence, you’ve got time to tweak like you’ve never tweaked before.
Working within a finite interior space over an extended period, you can really learn its every feature and behavior. For example, I discovered, earlier this week, that a small stained glass window in my guest bathroom casts an intense kaleidoscopic pattern on a reflective counter-top for only fifteen minutes every afternoon. Stumbling on this, I threw a random object into the warm orange glow just to see what kind of permanent image I might eventually want to make with it. I didn’t get back to the room for another three days, by which time I had a rough concept for what I wanted to model the light on. Using the original shot’s shooting data, replicating the exact time of day and exposure settings (and then varying from them) posed no problem, and so I had, in very rudimentary terms, the control normally associated with a “studio”, whatever that word means.
All workspaces are equal once they are maximized and personalized. You don’t need a special locale to make pictures…..or, more to the point, you can make any locale special once you’ve bent it to your will. Right now, we’re trying to bar entry to all invaders from outside, but light will always get a pass. Harness that, and the rest will fall into line.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE SOCIAL-MEDIA EQUIVALENT OF SMACKING SOMEONE ON THE BACK and saying “Attaboy” is affixing the remark “Great capture!” to your “like” of another person’s images. This is meant to be a compliment, but I think it is misapplied. Of course, on one level, I admit that carping about one little word constitutes world-class nitpicking on my part. On the other hand, I think we need to think critically about what happens in the making of an effective picture. It’s an active, rather than passive, process.
In one sense, a camera does, in fact, “capture” a scene, snatching a millionth of a minute from its place in the steady flow of time. But seldom does a golden moment or lovely subject present its best self to us, ready to be harvested, requiring only that we lower our butterfly net. Photography is a much more deliberate art than that. In fact, we often happen upon images of things that are not yet “ready for their close-up”, in that the first way we see them may not be the best way for us to show them to others. Long before the snap of the shutter, we select our angle, our composition, our light, and even reject all of those choices and make them all over again. We are carefully crafting the best way to reveal something….not merely happening by and passively recording it.
In this spirit, the word “capture” simply isn’t strong enough, as it implies little more than luck in the production of a great photograph. In fact it is really describing a snapshot, in which something very great may have been gathered, but without much in the way of effort. It’s like complimenting someone on catching a baseball no one was expected to catch, a celebration of good fortune rather than skill. Photographs aren’t made merely by grabbing whatever the camera is pointed at: they’re made by a selective process of saying “yes” to some elements by including them in the frame and then reaffirming those elements even further by saying “no” to many other elements that might otherwise clutter or complicate the communication between image and viewer.
Ken Rockwell, a pro photographer whose www.kenrockwell,com site also functions as an online clearing house of technical information on the specs of various camera manufacturers, occasionally steps away from his role as Lord High Adjudicator of gear and reminds his readers of the true essentials of their art. In these random pep talks he will often insist that, in the end, nothing….no lens, no camera, no shiny new toy.. can supplant the human equation in the making of pictures. One of his best such sermons illustrates (far better than your humble author can), just what an “on purpose” process is afoot in the best pictures, as in this paragraph, where he discusses the difference between composition and the mere act of framing:
“Composition is the organization of elements within a frame that leads to the strongest, clearest, cleanest, simplest, most well-balanced and therefore best picture. The best composition is the strongest way of seeing a subject. Framing is what you do by zooming in and out, by moving the camera up and down and left and right, and by rotating it to any angle, including vertical and horizontal. Framing has almost nothing to do with composition, but sadly, few photographers realize this. Framing can’t do much of anything to change the relationships between objects. Framing is easy. One usually can frame a picture after it’s shot by cropping. Composition is very difficult. Composition is what makes or doesn’t make a picture. Composition is the organization of elements in the picture in relation to the other elements…..”
Nothing, of course, will ever eradicate all the “great capture” salutes from the interweb, and maybe we should just stipulate that a compliment is a compliment. But I love to emphasize, since it is so important, that what you all do in the creation of wonderful images is purposeful, not random, that great pictures seldom just jump into your camera. When a composition is eloquent, it is usually a photographer, and not a camera, who has given it voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CAMERA IS FAIRLY CRAMMED with features and functions that may or may not help you make better pictures. Certainly, all are intended as conveniences or shortcuts, but, since no one will ever utilize 100% of their gear’s potential gimmicks, you alone must decide which menus and goodies will actually help you exercise the most control over your results, and which are merely distractions. Your own path as a photographer will decide the real value of your camera’s various add-ons.
One automatic setting that I personally toyed with for a time but now almost exclusively avoid is the so-called “burst” setting, which allows you to automatically snap a ton of images very quickly by merely depressing and holding the shutter button. Its appeal is chiefly in helping to track fast-moving activities, like sports, children, or any other rapidly changing situation that presents challenge in setting or formulating shots on the fly. The camera is basically taking pictures faster than you suppose that you could plan them yourself, the idea being that, upon review, something in that batch must be usable, with the also-rans just being deleted later.
But I really find this mode a detriment, not a bonus, simply because the entire picture-taking process has been handed over to the camera. The shooter is completely passive, a bystander to a machine that is now making all the decisions. It’s like spraying a fusillade of bullets over a wide arc in the hope that you’ll hit something…anything, and it’s about as far from purposeful picture-making as you can get. I realize that the fear of missing something great can be tempting, but taking a whole bunch of pictures real fast, none of which could be anything other than a technically acceptable accident, is not a creative decision. How can it be?
Listen, I get it. Things happen fast, and it takes a great deal of practice in shooting in changing conditions. But the idea that there’s no time to frame or conceive an image just because it’s in motion is a false one. Will some opportunities be missed if you have to compose and click in the moment? Sure. Will some choices be unproductive? Yes. But the results will be your results. The image you see above was taken in a concert environment, which is just as volatile as any kid’s baseball game or birthday party. Faces, physical blocking, postures and light change mightily from moment to moment. But there is still time to plan a shot. Yes, your reaction time is measured in seconds, but there is time. More importantly, you can change your mind about whether to try something. You have direct influence over what’s planned and attempted. The camera is carrying out your commands. That’s the important part: they are your commands.
The shot you see here is the product of about fifty shots that were either deleted on the fly or winnowed out in the editing process. But I know what they are because I shot them. That’s not my vanity talking: it’s just the difference between learning to trust yourself and handing that trust over to the machine. For me, the choice is simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY CHANGE YOU MAKE IN THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE also changes every other element of the picture.
You can’t alter a single element in a photo in isolation. Each decision you make is a separate gear, with its own distinctive teeth, and the way those teeth mesh with all the other gears in the photographic equation determines success in the final picture.
As an example, let’s look at sharpness, perhaps the big “desirable” in an image. The term sounds simple, but is, in fact determined by an entire raft of factors, among them:
A) Choice Of Lens. How uniform is the sharpness of your glass? Is it softer at the edges? Completely sharp at smaller apertures? Does it deliver amazing pictures at one setting while causing distortions or inaccuracies at another?
B) Aperture. The most basic predictor of sharpness, whether you scrimped or splurged on Item “A”.
C) Choice Of Autofocus Setting. Are you telling your camera to selectively sharpen a key object in an isolated part of your image, or asking it to provide uniform sharpness across the entire frame?
D) Anti-vibration. On some longer exposures (for example, on a tripod) this feature may actually be costing you sharpness. Protecting your shot against the hand-held shakes is good. Confusing a camera with active Anti-vibe on a stabilized shot may not work out as well.
E) Contrast. Some people believe that the sharpness of lines and textures is actually the viewable distance between light and darkness, that contrast is “sharpness”. Based on what you prefer, other big choices can be affected, such as the decision to shoot in color or black and white.
F) Stability. Deals with everything from how steady you grip a camera to what else besides yourself, from shutter triggering to SLR mirror shifting, can cause measurable vibration, and thus less sharpness.
G) Editing/Processing. This is where miracles occur. Sometimes. Other times, it’s where we try to slap lipstick on a pig.
We could go on, and so could you. And then consider that this quick checklist only deals with sharpness, just a single element, which, in turn, affects every other aspect of your pictures. Photography is a constant juggling act between technique, experience, experiment, and instinct. What you want to show in your images will dictate how much (or how well) you keep all those balls aloft.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN IF YOU ARE IN THE HABIT OF PACKING A CAMERA ALONG WHEREVER YOU GO, you can only predict some of the conditions you might encounter in a given shooting situation. If you’ve guessed well, you can be ready (depending on how much gear you have with you) for about 75% of the shots you may want to take. What’s left, make no mistake, is a mixture of guesswork and luck, the kinds of shots where you adapt on the fly.
Night shots employ a completely different set of skills from daylight shots. What looks mysterious and romantic to your eye may be a mushy muddle to your camera, and that forces a lot of sudden sorting-out of your choices. On the night of the above shot, taken along the shoreline in Ventura, California, I had not planned on shooting anything at all after nightfall. I loved the deeper blues of the sky as they played just before sundown, and I was especially enjoying watching local kids playing against the darkening surf. Following a few dozen clicks up and down the beach, I walked back inland a block or so to join my wife and some friends at a nearby restaurant, considering myself done for the day.
That all changed after dessert, when we walked back onto the street that led down to the shore. I had a 24mm prime lens with me, which had been perfect for the wide-angle coastline stuff, but could also shoot wide open to f/2.8….fairly fast. As the night colors were already deepening, however, I realized that 2.8 was still going to mean shooting as slow a shutter speed as I could hand-hold and jacking the ISO up to a level that I normally tend to avoid. Those were the basic facts on the ground: now it was time to weigh the trade-offs.
Local traffic was swift enough for me to know that, even though I could hand-hold a shutter as slow as 1/15, there would be more than enough soft detail in a shot taken at f/2.8 without risking even more blurring from cars and walkers, so I settled at 1/40 and allowed the ISO to go to 1600 rather than lose the shot entirely.
Obviously, a tripod-mounted time exposure would have delivered a much crisper, more detailed shot, especially at f/11 or above, but I had what I had. And if you’re stuck with the somewhat mushier texture of a wide aperture, you have to determine where you envision the real impact of the image you’re planning. Is it in the fine-tuned detail or the overall atmosphere? There will be times when just salvaging the feel outweighs sharpness as a consideration, and, for me, this was one of those times.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NIGHT CREATES SUCH A DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FLAVOR in anyone’s photography that some shooters, romantically attracted to its unique look, have made night-time their exclusive domain. Night is also the toughest time of day to render properly, and a zone wherein one’s interpretation of “reality” varies wildly. From the earliest days of the photographic medium, the hours after sunset were, first and foremost, a technical minefield, filled with pitfalls and perils.
Today, fast lenses and the higher ISO that can be dialed up pretty much at will mean fewer tripod shots, more hand-held shots, and thus a much bigger yield of often stunning night-time images. Even modest cameras are evolving so quickly that it’s getting hard to remember a time when we couldn’t shoot pretty much whatever we desired.
In many night settings, the contrast between bright and dark objects is dramatically multiplied. That means that getting proper exposure still has to be calculated based on widely varying elements within the frame. The night I took this image at New York’s Lincoln Center, I shot the various performance buildings on the “campus” in every compositional combination and setting possible, using a Nikon f/2.8 24mm prime lens. I framed the theatres at right angles to each other, by themselves, juxtaposed with neighboring skyscrapers, with and without the center’s fountain plaza, from medium distances to the lobby, tight distances to the lobby, and so on. In one “almost” calculation, I shot at f/8 and about 1/80 sec. at 1500 ISO, didn’t like how grungy it looked, then cranked the lens wide open to f/2.8, used as slow an exposure as I could execute hand-held (about 1/20 sec.), and backed off the ISO to about 400. That’s the combo you see above.
Normally, an aperture like f/2.8 produces a very shallow depth of field, which is generally bad for distant subjects. However, if you are focused to infinity, and your subject is, say, forty feet away, the image starts to get a little sharper at about twenty feet out, and is pretty sharp by forty. One sharpness caveat: if you use a slow exposure, as I chose to, and you’re also boosting your ISO, the electrical lights in your image will begin to go soft and globby fairly quickly…to “burn in” to some degree. You can see this in my image in the lobby chandelier, which registers as a velvety glow instead of a sharp grouping of individual bulbs. As an alternative, if you have time to experiment, you can amp up the up the ISO a little more, speed up your shutter, and perhaps render the lights a little sharper. This depends greatly on how many wives you have standing nearby, asking, “can we please just walk to the subway now?” It’s also not the only solution possible. Fiddle with it and see what works for you.
Also, if you are lucky enough to be shooting on a tripod, then you can shoot at minimal ISO, an aperture of f/11 or narrower, and as long an exposure as you desire. But the above guidelines are offered for someone shooting hand-held, and in a moderate hurry. I use very fast prime lenses to give me the sharpest focus and the most light latitude possible in the greatest number of situations, assuming that I won’t be allowed to mount a pod, even if I wanted to take one to the theatre (I don’t). So, as always, you have to decide a little ahead of time what you might be shooting, what the reality on the ground will be, and what you’ll need in the way of toys to bring home a goodie. Night is a very different animal, but trying to tame it is surprising and fun.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW LIGHT IS A BOY PHOTOGRAPHER’S BEST FRIEND. The glass usually acts like a diffuser, softening and warming the rays as they enter, making for intimate portrait and street shots. Window light tends to wrap around the objects in its path, adding a look of depth and solidity to furniture and people. It’s also uncomplicated, universally available, and free. And that’s great for cell phone cameras.
At this writing, Apple’s next iPhone will soon up the ante on both resolution and light sensitivity, meaning that more and more shots will be saved that just a few years ago would have been lost, as the mobile wars give us more features, more control, and more decision-making options that recently belonged only to DSLRs and other upper-end product. That will mean that the cameras will perform better with less light than ever before, over-coming a key weakness of early mobiles.
That weakness centered on how the camera would deal with low-light situations, which was to open to its widest aperture and jack up the ISO, often resulting is grungy, smudgy images. Turn too many inches away from prime light (say a generous window in daytime) and, yes, you would get a picture, but, boy, was it ever dirty, the noise destroying the subtle gradation of tones from light to dark and often compromising sharpness. Those days are about to end, and when they do, people will have to seriously ask if they even need to lug traditional imaging gear with them, when Little Big Boy in their back pocket is bringing the “A” game with greater consistency.
As this new age dawns, experiment with single-point window light to see how clean an image it will deliver on a cel phone. Pivot away from the light by a few inches or feet, and compare the quality of the images as you veer deeper into shadow. You will soon know just how far you can push your particular device before the noise starts creeping in, and having that limit in your head will help you assess a scenario and shoot faster, with better results. Camera phones, at least at their present state of development, will only do so much, but you may be surprised at just how high their top end actually is. You need not miss a great shot just because you left your Leica in your other pants. As usual, the answer is, Always Be Shooting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS OFTEN RECOMMENDED as the way to afford yourself the most stability in a long exposure. After all, few of us are robotic enough to hold a camera stock-still for anything below a third of a second, so it’s a no-brainer to park your camera on something that’s too inhuman to flinch. You can also take amazing stuff hand-held on shorter night exposures, so long as you (a) have a lens that will shoot around f/1.8 or wider and (b) you can live with the noise a higher ISO will engender.
So, yeah, tripods have their place, but they are not the only determinants in the success of a night-time shoot. And those other x-factors can severely compromise your results. There is the stability of the tripod itself, which isn’t a big sweat if you shelled out $900 for a carbon-fiber Gitzo Pan/Tilt GK, but might generate heartburn if you got something closer to a set of metallic popsicle sticks for $29 at Office Max. The shot above was taken using my own modest (cheap) rig atop Mount Washington across from downtown Pittsburgh, and a few of the healthier gusts threatened to take it and me on a quick lap around the riverfront. Some people buy sandbags. Some believe in the power of prayer. Your choice.
Another x-factor for ‘pod shots is the actual weather you’re shooting in, which will, let’s say, shape your enthusiasm for staying out long enough to get the perfect shot. The smaller your aperture, the longer the exposure. The more long exposures you take, the longer you, yourself, are “exposed”…to snow, sleet, and all that other stuff that mailmen laugh at. Again, referencing the above image, I was contending with freezing drizzle and a windbreaker that was way too thin for heroics. Did I cut my session short? i confess that I did.
I could also mention the nagging catcalls of the other people in my party, who wanted me to, in their profound words, “just take the damned picture” so they could partake of (a)a warm bar, (b) a cold beer, (c) a hot waitress. Result: a less than perfect capture of a fairly good skyline. A little over-exposed, washing out the color. A little mushy, since the selfsame over-exposure allowed the building lights to burn in, rendering them glow-y instead of pin sharp. I was able to fix some of the color deficiencies later, but this is not a “greatest hits” image by any stretch.
Tripods can be lifesavers, but you must learn to maximize their effectiveness just like any other piece of camera equipment. If you’re going to go to a buncha trouble to get a shot, the final result should reflect all that effort, quality-wise.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE SUPREME BEING IS CORRECTLY QUOTED, as having proclaimed, at the dawn of time, “Let There Be Light!”, then photographers, since the beginning of their own Creation, have more specifically pleaded, “let there be more light.” Indeed, incredible leaps in imaging technology over the last two centuries have taken us from ten-minute daguerreotype exposures to sharp, bright images snapped in thousandths of a second, and, still, the fight for more light and faster lenses continues unabated.
Between here and there, a few photographers have made their mark by pushing this envelope a little farther than the rest of us. One of them, however, tore that envelope to shreds, and his achievement in this area has never been surpassed, or even matched, by any of his peers.
That man’s name is Stanley Kubrick.
Before he began his directing career in the early 1950’s, Kubrick had years of experience under his belt as the youngest staff photographer for Look magazine, second only to Life as the premier photo-dominant national news weekly. Years before he wielded a Leica IIIf on that job, he had spent his early childhood learning the ins-and-outs of his own Graflex, one of the monster machines that battle-hardened newspaper photogs lugged to crime scenes and fires in dozens of “B” movies (stop the press). By his early ’30’s, Kubrick had amassed a personal collection of lenses and cameras that he would continue to modify and alter for use in his feature films, and by the ’70’s, he was ready to take a giant step attaining a kind of nirvana in the use of available light.
As he prepared to adapt William Thackeray’s novel of 19th karmic komeuppance, Barry Lyndon, to the screen in 1974, Kubrick pondered filming the interior scenes of the story’s powdered-wig salons with no lighting whatever beyond that of candle power. Now, we’re not using the term “candle power” to refer to the measurement of light. No, I’m referring here to actual candles, and nothing else. To do so, he would have to have gear that simply did not exist in the gear closets of any major studio, or, in fact, the entire movie industry. To become the fastest man alive, lens-wise, he would have to go shopping at the same place NASA shopped.
Most commercial lenses available at the time opened no wider than around f/1.4, enough to give you and me more than enough light-gathering power for dark times around the house but far too slow to operate on a movie set without a huge battery of kliegs and floods to boost the illumination. However, Kubrick had heard that NASA had developed a lens specifically designed to allow scientists to get sharp images on the dark side of the moon, a Zeiss 50mm with a focal length of …gasp…f/0.7. Zeiss made just ten of these mutants. Six went to Houston. The company kept another one for a rainy day. And the remaining three were gobbled up by Stanley Kubrick.
Taking the aforementioned benchmark of f/1.4 as the 1970’s yardstick for “man, that’s fast”, the ability to open up to f/0.7 represented a quantum leap of at least two-and-a-half stops of extra light (check my math), allowing Kubrick’s film to be, absolutely, the only cinema feature to date to be lit exclusively by ambient light. Of course, it wasn’t all sugar cookies and Kool-Aid, since that also meant working in a range of focus so shallow that only selective parts of actors’ faces were in sharp registration at any given time, giving the players the extra problem of remembering how little their heads could move without screwing up the shot. It was the only thing that could force even more re-takes than Kubrick’s renowned mania for perfection. We’re not talking a fun shoot here.
The resulting, soft, soft, soffffft look of Barry Lyndon is intimate, delicate, and absolutely gorgeous (click the image for a slightly larger version). Practical? Not so much, but for the specific mood of that material, spot on. Critics of the final film either hailed the technique as a new benchmark or sniggered at what they regarded as a showy gimmick. Of course, audiences avoided the film like Jim Carrey fleeing vaccines, so the entire thing remains, for many, a kind of grandiose Guiness-book stunt. Still, while ever-faster lenses and films eventually allowed directors much greater freedom, Uncle Stanley’s claim as fastest gun still merits its place in the hall of frame.
As a strange post-script to the story, several companies have recently boasted that you, too, might rent the same kind of hack-hybrid that Kubrick had fashioned to support the light-sponging Zeiss glass, their ads suggesting that you might secure the needed funding with the sale of several of your more expendable internal organs. Cheap at the price. The Lord got all the light he wanted pretty much on demand. The rest of us have to curse the darkness and, well, light another candle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.
One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20 or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.
However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?
Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.
However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I KNOW THAT I APPROACH THE IDEA OF SHOOTING ON MANUAL with what must strike some as evangelistic zeal. We’re talking full-on-John-The-Baptist-mad-prophet mode. I do so because I believe that, the further you can go toward overseeing every single facet of your picture taking, that is, the less you delegate to a machine that can’t think, the better. Generally. Most of the time. Almost always.
Aperture Priority, the mode that I most agree with after pure manual, can be very valuable in specific conditions, for very specific reasons. In AP (Av for Canon folks), you dial in the aperture you want for everything you’re about to shoot, depending on what depth-of-field you want as a constant. Then it’s the camera’s job to work around you, adjusting the shutter speed to more or less guarantee a proper exposure. Let me interject here that there are millions of great photographers who nearly live on the AP setting, and, like any other strategy, you have to decide whether it will deliver the goods as you define them.
If you are “running and gunning”, that is, shooting a lot of frames quickly, where your light conditions, shot-to-shot, will be changing a great deal, Aperture Priority might keep you from tearing out your hair by eliminating the extra time you’d spend custom-calculating shutter speed in full manual mode. Fashion, news and sports situations are obviously instances where you need to be fully mindful of your composition, cases in which those extra fragments of “figgerin'” time in between clicks might make you miss an opportunity. And no one will have to tell you when you’re in such a situation.
Conversely, if you are shooting more or less at leisure, with time to strategize in-between shots, or with uniform light conditions from one frame to the next, then full manual may work for you. I have shot in manual for so many years that, in all but the most hectic conditions (cattle stampede or worse), I’m fast enough to get what I want even with calculation time factored in. But it doesn’t matter what works for me, does it, since I won’t be taking your pictures (pause here to thank your lucky stars). If you need one less task to hassle with, and AP gives you that one extra smidge of comfort, mazel tov.
One other thing to note about Aperture Priority: it’s not foolproof. Change your central focal spot to different objects within the same composition (say from a tree to the rock next to the tree) snap several frames, and the exposure could be vastly different on each image. Could that happen when you’re on manual? Certainly. You can, of course, fiddle with exposure compensation on AP, essentially overruling the camera, but, to take the time for all that, you’re really not saving much more time than shooting manual anyway. See what you can live with and go.
This blog is a forum, not the Ten Commandments, so I never want to profess that my way is the only way, whether it’s taking photographs or deciding what toppings should go on pizzas. Although, let’s face it, people who put pineapple on them….that’s just warped, am I right?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY PLACES YOU IN PLENTY OF SITUATIONS WHERE YOU ARE, TO SOME DEGREE, OUT OF CONTROL. From light conditions to the technical limits of your gear to erratic weather, we have all experienced that sinking feeling that accompanies the realization that, to a great extent, we are not in the driver’s seat. Gotta wait til the sun’s up. Gotta wait for the flash to recycle. Gotta cool my heels til these people get out of the frame. Gotta getta bigger bottle of Tums.
So why, given the frequent cases in which we naturally run off the rails, would I recommend that you deliberately hobble yourself, in effect putting barriers in your own way when shooting images? Because, quite simply, failure is a better teacher than success, and you never forget the lessons gained by having to work around a disadvantage. Not only am I encouraging you to flirt with failure, I’m suggesting that there are even perfect days on which to do it…that is, the many days when there is “nothing to shoot”.
It’s really practical, when you think of it. Go out shooting on a day when the subject matter is boring, a day on which you could hardly be expected to bring back a great picture. Then nail your foot to the floor in some way, and bring back a great picture anyway. Pick an aperture and shoot everything with it, without fail (as in the picture at left). Select a shutter speed and make it work for you in every kind of light. Act as if you only have one lens and make every shot for a day with that one hunk of glass. Confine your snaps to the use of a feature or effect you don’t use or understand. Compose every shot from the same distance. The exercise matters less than the discipline. Don’t give yourself a break. Don’t cheat.
In short, shoot stuff you hate and make pictures that don’t matter, except in one respect: you utilized all of your ingenuity in making them. This redeems days that would otherwise be lost, since your shoot-or-die practice sessions make you readier when the shots really do count.
It’s not a lot different from when you were a newbie a primitive camera on which all the settings were fixed and you had zero input beyond framing and clicking. With “doesn’t matter” shooting, you’re just providing the strictures yourself, and maneuvering around all the shortcomings you’ve created. You are, in fact, involving yourself deeper in the creative process. And that’s great. Because someday there will be something to shoot, and when there is, a greater number of your blown photos are already behind you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A LONG STANDING BIT ON THE DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW, rather than claiming to be entertaining, actually poses the question of what entertainment actually is. Entitled “Is This Anything?”, the feature consists of about thirty seconds of acts or feats that might be amazing (like juggling), might be banal (like, um, juggling) or might qualify as merely strange. After the curtain is drawn, Dave and Paul briefly discuss the merits of what ever strangeness just transpired, and ask each other if “that was anything”. Sometimes there is no clear-cut decision. The show has disclaimed responsibility, and entertainment remains in the eye of the beholder.
That’s how you can feel the first time you use a Lensbaby.
Released several years ago to inventor Craig Strong’s great monetary benefit, the Lensbaby comes in a variety of
levels but is essentially an affordable tilt-shift attachment, a way to soften focus over selective areas of the frame while rotating the “sweet spot” of sharper focus wherever the shooter feels it should go. Now, essentially, selective focus is really part of every photo ever taken, since a choice of depth-of-field is made every time the shutter snaps. Lensbaby, however, offers the chance to pre-design the precise level of left-right, high-low focus, in the camera, and before the shot is taken. No post-processing is needed, and each use of the effect is completely under the shooter’s control, and at a fraction of what dedicated DSLR lenses cost.The Lensbaby effect is understandably an attractive gimcrack for the instinctive subculture of lo-fi photography, they of the hipster nonchalance and light-leaking, fixed-focus plastic cameras. Hey, it looks freaky, random, edgy. But, like everything else in your kit bag, it’s either toy or tool. The verdict as to which it is comes out one picture at a time.
So far I am whelmed….not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed. For one thing, Lensbabies are a lot of extra work. The entry-level model, the Spark, is actually a lens within a springy plastic bellows. You have to hold your camera body, delegate fingers from both hands to rotate the axis of the front of the lens, squeeze the bellows to bring part of the frame into focus (the Spark’s “sweet spot” is fixed at f/5.6), allocate another finger for the shutter, and click. At least you can’t carp about not having enough creative control. There’s more than enough of that, especially at first, to O.D. on. Your chosen area of focus can be held in place more easily with upgrade models (which also include additional optics and add-ons), but the Lensbaby is truly best for shoots where you have a lot of time to think, plan, and create….the very opposite of the “shoot from the hip” attitude embraced by the lomography crowd. You will take a lot of pictures that miss by inches, or fractions of inches.
What will move me from whelmed to overwhelmed will be finding those images where the Lensbaby effect actually aids my storytelling, yet does not define it, as in the lucky shot at the top of this post. The camera gadgets I eventually consign to the “toy” pile go there because they call too much attention to what they can do, not to what I can do using them. The”tools” pile contains the gear that is essential to my saying something in a distinctly different voice. Finally, the two piles are divvied up only after taking lots of pictures and asking a ton of questions (a few gimmicks, like fisheye, have spent time in both piles; hey, I’m not above just playing around).
I sympathize with Letterman’s dilemma when he ironically asks, “Is this anything?” Selective focus is a way to install big neon pointers into your pictures, a more emphatic command to look over here. It’s also a way to amplify the drama of certain data or simplify cluttered compositions. I get it.
But it needs to be about much more than that. Or, more correctly, I have to help it.
- My Lensbaby SCOUT, baby! (greyiscolour.wordpress.com)