the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Christmas

A WONDROUS MESS

Too busy? Well, when it comes to seasonal shots, it's a lot harder to say.

Too busy? Well, when it comes to seasonal shots, it’s a lot harder to say.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.         

                                                                                                                                                                                                 Edward Weston

PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO COMPILE LISTS OF LAWS that must be obeyed to ensure the capture of great images. Bookshelves are jammed to fracturing with the collected works of wizards large and small who contend that all of this art stuff is really about craft, or adherence to techniques that are the equivalent of Einstein’s law. And, of course, with every fresh generation, a new slew of shooters come sneering along to deride this starched and stuffy discipline. All that matters, these young turks snigger, is my grand vision.

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Worlds within worlds: many vast holiday scenes can be “subdivided with cropping.

Let me again re-state the obvious, which is that both viewpoints are correct and/or totally wrong. And since Mr. Weston has introduced the subject of composition, let us consider the special task of seasonal photos, specifically, arrangements of yuletide objects. The classic rule on still-life shots is that less is more, that it’s better to perfectly light and expose three pieces of fruit than whole baskets of the stuff. Meanwhile the festive, instinctual artist concedes that many holiday scenes are mad with detail and crammed with more, more, more…..and that’s okay.

The unique thing about Christmas decor is that in many cases, you not creating the compositions, but merely reacting to someone else’s creations…in nativity scenes, churches, and especially in retail environments. Obviously your local department store doesn’t adhere to the admonition “keep it simple”; quite the opposite. Seasonal trim in most stores is served up not by the spoonful but by the truckload. Anything less than overkill seems skimpy to many yuletide decorators, and so, if you favor basic subject matter, you’re either going to have to mount your own arrangements or selectively zoom and crop the more congested scenes. If, however, you already subscribe to the idea that more is better, then life gets easy fast.

Holidays come layered in much that is intensely personal, and that makes clean compositional judgements about “how much” or “how little” tricky at best. Just get the feelings right and let your regular rules relax into guidelines.


THE OOOOH FACTOR

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” DSC_0573from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.

Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.

The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.

And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.

And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..


THE PARTY’S OVER

The Leavings: Christmas Tree Lot, Phoenix, AZ, 12/26/13. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

The Leavings: Christmas Tree Lot, Phoenix, AZ, 12/26/13. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE SCIENCE OF SECONDS. The seconds when the light plays past you. The seconds when the joy explodes. The seconds when maybe the building explodes, or the plane crashes. The micro moments of emotion’s arrivals and departures. Here it comes. There it goes. Click.

We are very good with the comings….the beginnings of babies, the opening of a rose, the blooming of a surprised smile. However, as chroniclers of effect, we often forget to also document the goings of life. The ends of things. The moment when the party’s over.

Christmas is a time of supreme comings and goings, and we have more than a month of ramp-up time each year during which we snap away at what is on the way. The gatherings and the gifts. The approaching joy. But a holiday this big leaves echoes and vacuums when it goes away, and those goings are photo opportunities as well.

This year, on 12/26, the predictably melancholy “morning after” found me driving around completely without pattern or design, looking for something of the magic day that had departed. I spun past the abandoned ruin of one of those temporary Christmas tree lots that sprout in the crevices of every city like gypsy camps for about three weeks out of the year, and something about all its emptiness said picture to me, so I got out and started bargaining with a makeshift cyclone fence for a view of the poles, lights and unloved fir branches left behind.

Pack up and get out of town.

Pack up and get out of town.

The earliness of the hour meant that the light was a little warmer and kinder than would be the case later on in the bleached-out white of an Arizona midday, so the scene was about as nice as it was going to get. But what I was really after was the energy that goes out of things the day the circus drives out of town. The holidays are ripe with that feeling of loss, and, to me, it’s at least as interesting as recording the joy. Without a little tragedy you don’t appreciate triumph, and all that. Christmas trees are just such an obvious measure of that flow: one day you’re selling magic by the foot, the next day you’re packing up trash and trailer and making your exit.

Photographs come when they come, and, unlike us, they aren’t particular about what their message is. They just present chances to see.

Precious chances, as it turns out.


THE ANGEL’S IN THE DETAILS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DSC_0047_2I IMAGINE THAT, IF SOMEONE UN-INVENTED CHRISTMAS, the entire history of personal photography might be compressed into about twenty minutes. I mean, be honest, was there ever a single event or phase of human experience for which more images were clicked than the holiday season? Just given the sheer number of cameras that were found under the tree and given their first test drive right then and there, you’d have one of the greatest troves of personal, and therefore irreplaceable, images in modern history.

Holidays are driven by very specific cues, emotional and historical.

We always get this kind of tree and we always put it in this corner of the room. I always look for the ornament that is special to me, and I always hang it right here. Oh, this is my favorite song. What do you mean, we’re not having hot chocolate? We can’t open presents until tomorrow morning. We just don’t, that’s all.

It’s tradition.

If, during the rest of our year, “the devil’s in the details”, that is, that any little thing can make DSC_0593life go wrong, then, during the holidays, the angel’s in the details, since nearly everything conspires to make existence not only bearable, but something to be longed for, mulled over, treasured in age. Photographs seem like the most natural of angelic details, since they lend a gauzy permanence to memory, freezing the surprised gasp, the tearful reunion, the shared giggle.

As the years roll on, little is recalled about who got what sweater or who stood longest in line at GreedMart trying to get the last Teddy Ruxpin in North America. Instead, there are those images…in boxes, in albums, on hard drives, on phones. Oh, look. He was so young. She looks so happy. That was the year Billy came home as a surprise. That was the last year we had Grandma with us. Look, look, look.

So remember, always….the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive aren’t under the tree.

Merry Click-mas.


KEEPING SPIRITS BRIGHT

1/16 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

1/16 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT IS A SEASON OF LIGHT AND COLOR, perhaps one of the key times of the year for all things illuminated, burning, blazing and glowing. It is a time when opportunities for vivid and brilliant images explode from every corner.

And one way to unleash all that light is to manage darkness.

One example: your family Christmas tree involves more delicate detail, tradition and miniature charm than any other part of your home’s holiday decor, but it often loses impact in many snapshots, either blown out in on-camera flash or underlit with a few colored twinkles surrounded by a blob of piny silhouette.

How about a third approach: go ahead and turn off all the lights in the room except those on the tree, but set up a tripod and take a short time exposure.

It’s amazing how easy this simple trick will enhance the overall atmosphere. With the slightly slow exposure, the powerful tree LEDs have more than enough oomph to add a soft glow to the entire room, while acting as a multitude of tiny fill lights for the shaded crannies within the texture of the tree. Ornaments will be softly and partially lit, highlighting their design details and giving them a slightly dimensional pop.

In fact, the LED’s emit such strong light that you only want to make the exposure slow enough to register them. The above image was taken at 1/16 of a second, no longer, so the lights don’t have time to “burn in” and smear. And yes, some of you highly developed humanoids  can hand-hold a shot steadily at that exposure, so see what works for you. You could also, of course, shoot wide open to f/1.8 if you have a prime lens, making things even easier, but you might run into focus problems at close range. You could also just jack up your ISO and shoot at a more manageable shutter speed, but in a darkened room you’re trading off for a lot of noise in the areas beyond the tree. Dealer’s choice.

Lights are a big part of the holidays, and mastery of light is the magic that delivers the mystery. Have fun.


I’M DREAMING OF A ‘CHROME CHRISTMAS

All The Trimmings, 2013. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

All The Trimmings, 2013. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.

It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.

Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.

Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.

Oh, wait, everybody does do it.

Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.

No way is best but your way.


HEAVENLY PEACE

1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

Peace is where you find it. You no doubt have images of your own that remind you of what “might be”, in a quieter world. Cherish them. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

“But you were always a good man of business”, faltered Scrooge.

“Business!”, cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business! Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of  MY BUSINESS!!”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN FORWARD COMBAT AREAS,  CHRISTMAS IS NOT SO MUCH A CELEBRATION as a cessation of hostilities. We have all seen those poignant scenes from war movies in which, at the tolling of the midnight bell on the 25th, combatants from both sides, some within mere feet of each other, lay down their arms, share a smoke, a snort of whiskey, even a song, before resuming the slaughter. Such cinematic schmaltz is both touching….and infuriating.

Touching…..because it’s a comfort to think that our essential humanity cannot be totally submerged in madness. Infuriating……because we never learn how to extend, export, and explore such episodes of humanity. We make our way through the world as if we had no choice but to heed whatever animal urges see fit to boil up in us in the moment.

We act as if we are helpless to choose anything but our own destruction.

That self-imposed fake destiny was never in greater evidence than in the recently completed year. Use any yardstick you want. Animosity, brutality, stupidity, selfishness, heedlessness…we bounced and ricocheted off each one like the proverbial bull in a shop. But instead of merely smashing china, we smashed lives…or, more importantly, cut them short, as if this were just the way of the world and we were merely unanchored flotsam on a churning sea of fate.

The pure punishment of the events of 2012  has recently sent me looking through my images for this year in search of peace. Maybe not peace in its perfection, but something to look upon which betokens calm, silence, a cessation of hostilities. I am not frequently at my family home for Christmas, and those visits that I do make during the winter months may or may not have the classic visual trappings one looks for during the season. The above picture was actually taken in February, with a scant amount of snow on the ground, the bare trees from my father’s back lot providing a stark landscape, and his next nearest neighbor’s house beckoning as the next best hope of refuge. Or so it looks to me, looking back. It’s a lonely little scene, but over the past few weeks, the quiet of it has meant everything to me. And not because I’m the one who shot it.

Maybe making it to that next warm, safe house is all any of us longs for. Maybe it represents how far off the mark we have wandered during the year. Maybe it’s like Robert Frost’s definition of “home” as the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. In any event, I hope you all can find a picture somewhere that, for you, marks a place to reflect, catch your breath, and, just for a moment, stop shooting at that other guy just a few feet away.

I also intend to pray for something a little more lasting.

And while it would take an old-fashioned Christmas Miracle to get to that place……well, what else are prayers for?

Pax.

 


TURNING UP THE MAGIC

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CHRISTMAS IS SO BIG THAT IT CAN AFFORD TO GO SMALL. Photographers can, of course, tackle the huge themes….cavernous rooms bursting with gifts, sprawling trees crowning massive plazas, the lengthy curve and contour of snowy lanes and rustic rinks…..there are plenty of vistas of, well, plenty. However, to get to human scale on this most superhuman of experiences, you have to shrink the frame, tighten the focus to intimate details, go to the tiny core of emotion and memory. Those things are measured in inches, in the minute wonder of things that bear the names little, miniature, precious.

And, as in every other aspect of holiday photography, light, and its successful manipulation, seals the deal.

A proud regiment of nutcrackers, made a little more enchanting by turning off the room light and relying on tiny twinklers. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm

A proud regiment of nutcrackers, made a little more enchanting by turning off the room light and relying on tiny twinklers. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm

In recent years I have turned away from big rooms and large tableaux for the small stories that emanate from close examination of corners and crannies. The special ornament. The tiny keepsake. The magic that reveals itself only after we slow down, quiet down, and zoom in. In effect, you have to get close enough to read the “Rosebud” on the sled.

Through one life path and another, I have not been “home” (that is, my parents’ home) for Christmas for many years now. This year, I broke the pattern to visit early in December, where the airfare was affordable, the overall scene was less hectic and the look of the season was visually quiet, if no less personal. It became, for me, a way to ease back into the holidays as an experience that I’d laid aside for a long time.

A measured re-entry.

I wanted to eschew big rooms and super-sized layouts to concentrate on things within things, parts of the scene. That also went for the light, which needed to be simpler, smaller, just enough. Two things in my parents’ house drew me in: several select branches of the family tree, and one small part of my mother’s amazing collection of nutcrackers. In both cases, I had tried to shoot in both daylight and general night-time room light. In both cases, I needed some elusive tool for enhancement of detail, some way to highlight texture on a very muted scale.

Call it turning up the magic.

Use of low-power, local light instead of general room ambience enhances detail in tiny objects, revealing their textures. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

Use of low-power, local light instead of general room ambience enhances detail in tiny objects, revealing their textures. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

As it turned out, both subjects were flanked by white mini-lights, the tree lit exclusively by white, the nutcrackers assembled on a bed of green with the lights woven into the greenery. The short-throw range of these lights was going to be all I would need, or want. All that was required was to set up on a tripod so that exposures of anywhere from one to three seconds would coax color bounces and delicate shadows out of the darkness, as well as keeping ISO to an absolute minimum. In the case of the nutcrackers, the varnished finish of many of the figures, in this process, would shine like porcelain. For many of the tree ornaments, the looks of wood, foil, glitter, and fabric were magnified by the close-at-hand, mild light. Controlled exposures also kept the lights from “burning in” and washing out as well, so there was really no down side to using them exclusively.

Best thing? Whole project, from start to finish, took mere minutes, with dozens of shots and editing choices yielded before anyone else in the room could miss me.

And, since I’d been away for a while, that, along with starting a new tradition of seeing, was a good thing.

Ho.