EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE A GOOD SCRAP. We spar about gear: we argue about technique: we defend both film and digital with equal fervor: we crab about the purity of our own artistic vision (as opposed to the pedestrian pap of other shooters).
We even squabble about what blur is. Or isn’t.
If you have an afternoon to burn sometime (and if you care) Google the phrase “bokeh versus blur” and get ready to rumble. Notwithstanding the fact that few outside photography’s elite inner circle had even heard of the word “bokeh” (in the original Japanese, literally “blur” or “haze”) until about a decade ago, many of us are now choosing up sides about what it, and blur, are…or are not. Does it finally matter? Depends on who you ask, and whether they’ve had a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast. But let’s put on our waders and tenderly tiptoe into the slipstream. Watch out for alligators.
I would think of blur as any unfocused or under-defined area within a photograph, a place where textures become soft enough for their details to be indistinguishable. It is, essentially, a visual condition. Think of the trees behind your portrait subject that turn to soft mush when you set for a shallow depth of field. Because you want to showcase a face and not a tree, right? Simple.
By comparison, bokeh is the distinct pattern or texture of the blur, something which may or may not be considered “desirable” by photographers, as if it were another design element to be shaped to complement the foreground. This could be anything from replications of the shape of your aperture (little floating pentagrams) to egg-shaped dots in a swirl, or a million other things, depending on the performance and design of your particular lens. It is, as compared to mere blur, a visual quality.
Now, I realize that merely trying to assign simple definitions to these two things will automatically alienate me from a planet-sized portion of the internet, so go to it. But here’s the point I really want to make.
Blur or bokeh, their usefulness, their positive or negative effect, even their potential aesthetic appeal….these are all judgement calls and are totally in the eye of the beholder. Some of us will actually choose a lens based solely on what kind of bokeh it will produce. Conversely, others will never assign any artistic value or priority to the effect whatsoever…and that’s completely fine. I myself have definitely lived on both sides of the streets in this issue, and so, by turns, the whole thing both is and isn’t important, based on what the job at hand is. The main reason I study the debate is because it shapes the intentions of photographers, and so is part of an overall understanding of why we shoot, which is the main idea of this little small-town newspaper.
Bokeh has come to the fore in recent years because photographers seem to want to shape it no less than any other visual element within the frame. And, like anything else about our art that gets discussed to death, it can create clannish, even clownish posturing about what’s more “authentic”, a discussion which takes us nowhere fast. Finally, blur elements are just like trees, furniture, or buildings. Want ’em in your picture? Put ’em there, and God Bless. However, the only thing we don’t want to do, ever, is to try to develop a list of commandments, of things that are always good or always bad for the making of pictures. That shuts down discussion, and eventually clamps down on creativity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A PERFECT WORLD, all our photographs would have their permanent address at the intersection of Flawless Technique Street and Great Message Boulevard. And while some do, magically, make it to this mystical crossroads, many others lose the paper the directions were scribbled on and wind up down some back alley.
Powerful narratives can arrive in perfect packages, sure. But not often and not with any predictability. Often we settle for one half of the ideal or the other. That “going halfies” choice determines what we regard as most important in our favorite images.
I would love to be able to achieve technical perfection every time I’m up to bat, but I’m not religious about raw precision….at least not the way I am about emotional resonance. Every one of you has a pile of pictures which are optically flawless and another pile of pictures that speak to your best intentions. Given an either/or judgement on which of these are your “keepers”, why wouldn’t you always, always choose the images that, regardless of various “flaws”, conveyed your mind and heart?
Light, focus, aperture, even composition are tools, not ends unto themselves, and even the best photographers drop one or another of these techno-balls in some of their best work. But should we seriously disqualify an image merely on technical points? If the answer is yes, then half of the works that we collectively value as great must be stricken from the public record, and photography is merely a recording process, like the operation of a seismograph or any other instrument where precision trumps every other consideration. But if the answer is no, then a picture that fails one or more technical tests can stil be considered valid, so long as it is emotionally true.
I struggle with these choices whenever I produce a shot that has things “wrong” with it, but which is also an authentic register of where my mind was at the time it was snapped. Photos like the one seen here would fail many a judge’s test, depending on who’s doing the judging. It’s too dark. The shutter speed is way too slow, inviting blur. Some of the shadows swallow detail that might just be important. And yet I love this building, these people, this moment. In my defense, I had to decide in an instant whether to even attempt the picture, taken, as it was, from the back seat of an Uber lurching unevenly through the streets of Manhattan. Shooting on full manual, I had to anticipate fast changes in available light, the length of traffic signals, the process of shooting through glass with a filtered lens, and the occasional offensive/defensive maneuvers of the driver. In raw scoring, I just didn’t manage to master all of these variables in a technically perfect manner. And yet..
There has been a lot of talk lately about not letting the Perfect be the enemy of the Good, a phrase which says more about photography in ten words than I’ve said in this entire page. Rule one for shooters: don’t let the flawless be master over the real.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONLY A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF OUR MIND’S INNER LIBRARY OF ACCUMULATED DATA is at the top of our consciousness. Staying aware of everything we’ve learned in our lives, every minute of the day, would obviously lead to a mental train wreck, as the vital and the trivial created an endless series of collisions between what we need to know and what we need to know right now. The brain, acting as a wonderful prioritizing network, moves information to the foreground or tucks it toward the back, as needed.
The visual patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime are also at work in how we create and interpret photographs. We know in an instant when we’ve seen something before, and so we process known objects in a kind of short-hand rather than as something we’re viewing for the first time. This allows us to make camera images that are abbreviated versions of things we first encountered long ago, images that merely suggest things, rather than delineate them in full detail. Call it abstraction, call it minimalism, heck, call it a ham sandwich if that helps. It merely means that we can use our brain vaults to show parts of things, and count on our memories to recognize those things solely from the parts.
Focus is but one such way of supplying visual information to the brain, and its selective use allows the photographer to convey the idea of an object without “spelling it out”, or showing it in absolutely documentarian terms. In the image above, our collective memory of the contours and details of a dollar bill are so deeply ingrained that we don’t actually need to see all of its numbers, letters, and images in full definition. Focus thus becomes an accent, a way of highlighting some features of a subject while downplaying others.
It may be that, in photographing selective aspects of objects rather than showing their every detail, we are teaching the camera to act like the flashing fragments of memory that our mind uses to transmit information….that is, teaching a machine to see in the code that we instinctively recognize. Is all interpretation just an attempt to ape the brain’s native visual language? Who knows? All that we really have to judge an image by is the final result, and its impact upon other viewers like ourselves.
A GENTLER EDGE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ABOUT FOCUS MIGHT JUST BE AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS that a photographer will face. Clarity, sharpness, precision, call it what you might, focal crispness is a crucial determinant in the creation of an image, no less than light and subject matter. And it’s one of the easiest factors to manage, available to any one from the humblest point-and-shooter to master technicians on the Hubbell telescope.
There is a tendency for us to mentally default to an idea of “sharpness” when we hear the word focus, as if the only way to faithfully reproduce reality is strict adherence to that standard. But photography has never really been about reality, any more than painting or prose. We can’t help but add some small interpretive something to the process of making a picture, even if we believe a machine is largely in charge of the process. Amazingly, with very little effort, we can change the perception of an image by tiny adjustments in what is clear and what remains hazy or soft, straying selectively from the arbitrary sharpness standard.
Some subjects are rendered too coldly, too clinically, when subjected to razor focus, so that what you may gain in documentary detail you lose in intimacy, or in that undefinable feeling of being close. Applying this line of reasoning to my personal affection for architecture, there are buildings where the hard look of precision is perfectly suited to the subject; jutting skyscrapers, massive bridges, towering monuments, and the like. But put me in a small town, where the entire space feels sealed off from time itself, and the look, at least for me, becomes softer. Details take a back seat to feelings, and the harsh light of midday gives way to a soft, dreamy haze at late afternoon. The secrets of side lots, alleys and back yards become scavenger hunts. In both the big and small cities, focus is the key element in the creation of the image. And, also, in both cases, an advance visualization of the final result dictates exactly the degree of focus required.
Lenses and cameras possess wonderful technical properties that can deliver a slew of exotic effects. Still, with virtually no expense or fuss, a smarter mastery of focus is a decisive, even dramatic factor in helping a photograph develop its most effective language.
IT’S ALL WRONG BUT IT’S ALL RIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE ONLY CONSTANTS OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY has been the flood tide of tutorial materials covering every aspect of exposure, composition, and light. The development of the early science of capturing images in the 19th century was accompanied, from the first, by a staggering load of “how to” literature, as the practice moved quickly from the tinkering of rich hobbyists to one of the most democratic of all the art forms. In little more than a generation, photography went from a wizard’s trick to a series of simple steps that nearly anyone could be taught.
In calling these pages the “photoshooter’s journey from taking to making”, we have made, with The Normal Eye, a deliberate choice not to add to the mountainous load of technical instruction that continues to be available in a variety of classroom settings, but to emphasize why we make photographs. This is not to say that we don’t refer to the so-called “rules” that govern the basics of creating an image, but that we believe the motives, the visions behind our attempts are even more important than just checking items off a list of techniques in the name of doing something “right”. There are many technically adept pictures which fail to engage on an emotional or aesthetic level, so the mission of The Normal Eye, then, is to start discussions on the “other stuff”, those indefinable things that make a picture “work” for our hearts and minds.
The idea of what a “good picture” is, has, over time, drifted far and wide, from photographs that mimic reality, to those that distort and fracture it, to images that are both a comment and a comment on a comment. It’s like any other long-term relationship: complicated. Like everyone else, I occasionally produce what I call a “fence-sitter” photo like the one above, which I can both excuse and condemn at the same time.
In raw technical terms, I have obviously violated a key rule with the abject softness of the image…..unless……unless it can be said to work within the context of the other things I was seeking in this subject. I was trying to stretch the envelope on how soft I could make the mix of dark foliage and hazy water in the scene, and, while I may have gone a bit too far, I still like some of what that near-blur contributes to the saturated color and lower exposure, the overall quiet tone I was trying for. Still, as of this moment, I’m still not sure whether this one is a hit or a miss. It might be on the way to something, but I just can’t say.
But that’s what the journey is about. It can’t be confined to mere technical criteria. You have to make the picture speak in your own language.
THE GENTLE WELCOME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? —Shakespeare
OKAY. AS IT TURNS OUT, IN THE ABOVE LINE, ROMEO WAS ACTUALLY RHAPSODIZING about his main squeeze, rather than ideal photographic conditions. Still, I often think of the quote when a sudden shaft of gold explodes from behind a cloud or a sunset lengthens shadows, just so. I have lots of But, soft! moments as a photographer, since light is the first shaper of the image, the one element that defines the terms of engagement.
After light, for me, comes focus. Where it hits, where it peaks, where it falls off, and how all these aspects shape a composition. Soft or selective focus especially seems more intimate to me, a gentle welcome to share something special between picture and viewer. In recent years, focus has become almost as fine-tune-able as light itself, with the introduction of new, affordable alternatives to expensive “tilt-shift” lenses, which allow the selective blurring of elements within the frame. For example, the revolutionary Lensbaby products are now helping shooters make their own choices on where the focal “sweet spot” should occur in a picture, and at a fraction of the cost of a true tilt-shift. It’s a fiscal shortcut that makes it possible for almost anyone to learn how to create this effect.
Some Lensbabies can run to several hundred dollars and have precise systems for dialing in the part of a photograph that will, through sharp focus, attract optimum attention to a subject, gently blurring the image on all sides around that point. However, for those with steady fingers and shallow pockets, the company’s gateway drug, coming in at around $90, is the Lensbaby Spark, a springy bellows lens that snaps onto your DSLR in place of a regular lens and can be compressed around the edges to place the focal sweet spot wherever you want it.
The Spark takes more muscle control and practice than the more mechanical Lensbaby models, but it’s a thrifty way to see if this kind of imaging is for you. Just squeeze the fixed f/5.6, 50mm lens until the image is sharp at the place you want it, and snap. Some DSLRs allow the Spark to be used on aperture priority, but for most of us, it’s manual all the way, with a lot of trial-and-error until you develop a feel for the process. The company also sells several insert cups so that you can choose different apertures. Pop one f-stop out, pop another one in.
For those of you who like to custom-sculpt focus and light, the gauzy, intimate effect of the Lensbaby will in fact be a gentle welcome. Finally, it’s one more component that could be either toy or tool. Your shots, your choice.
PRECISION C, FEELING A
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU TRAVEL ENOUGH, YOU’LL DISCOVER THAT, OF ALL THE TIMES YOU WANT to take a photograph, there are only a few times in which acceptable picture-making conditions are actually present. For all too many subjects that you experience on the fly, only a small percentage of them allow you the time, light, information or opportunity to do your best. And yet…you do what you must, and trust to instinct and chance for the rest.
Immediately upon arrival in a new town, my mind goes to one task, and one task only: sticking anyone else with the driving, so I can take potshots out the car window as I see fit. I have no need to head the posse or lead the expedition. You be in charge, big man. Get me to the hotel and leave me to make as many attempts as possible to put something worthwhile inside my camera.
Of course, this means that I have to pay at least some attention to how insanely you drive…shortcuts, rapid swerves, jolts and all. And, hey, couldn’t you have lingered a millisecond longer after the light went green, since I was just about to create an immortal piece of street art, instead of the muscular spasm I now have frozen forever on my memory card?
When shooting from a car, there are lots of things that go out the window (sorry), among them composition, exposure, stability, and, most generally, focus. En route to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. a few years ago, I fell in love with the funky little tobacco shop you see here. The colors, the woodwork, the look of yesteryear, it all spoke to me, and I had to have it. So I shot it at 1/250 sec, more than fast enough to freeze nearly anything in focus, unless by “nearly anything” you mean something that you’re not careening past at the pace of the average Tijuana taxicab. Result? Well, I didn’t wind up with unspeakable blur, but it’s certainly softer than I wanted. Of course, I could have offered an acceptable alibi for the shot, something based on some variant like, “of course, I meant to do that”, that is, until I outed myself in this post, just now.
But we try. Sometimes it’s the fleeting nature of things seen from car windows that make the attempt even more appealing than the potential result. In that instant, it seems like nothing’s more important than trying to take a picture. That picture. I won’t get ’em all. But as long as I live, I hope I never lose that mad, what-the-hell urge to just go for it.
So okay, seeing as this is a photo of a tobacco shop, this is where one of you cashes in the “close, but no cigar” gag line.
Go ahead, I’ll give you that one.