the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Composition

THE NOTHING-TO-LOSE CLUB

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TAKE ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF acting more deliberately, and thus less reflexively. Your snapshot mind, the scatter-shot, try-anything part of your brain that acts purely on impulse, is never completely eradicated, but is suppressed, tamed if you like, by a more careful and selective way of seeing things, a habit of taking additional time to size up a situation before you shoot. This evolution in style is to be expected, as you learn, over the years, that a few extra moments of mental prep can yield consistently better results than merely shooting from the hip.

And yet.

It’s not really healthy to let the prudent half of our brains win every argument. Likewise, we should never completely renounce our membership in the “Nothing To Lose” club, that proud aggregation of people who will always, always go for the shot, despite the realizations that I Brought The Wrong Lens, The Light’s Not Exactly Right, or It Probably Won’t Come Out. Don’t get me wrong: I love, love, love to think that my extra seconds of calculation and forethought will consistently give me better results. And, often, I am proven right. But shooting on instinct, in fact being comfortable with both randomness and uncertainty, can sometimes bring home the bacon as well. The only uniformly wise option is: always shoot something, or, as they say in politics, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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The Vibe On Vine, Los Angeles, September 2022

This windshield shot, taken on the fly during a recent ride down Vine Street in Hollywood, represents such a case. The car was not going to stop: it was not in our plans to get out, set up a formal composition of these iconic buildings, or take a walking tour through the neighborhood. And so I found myself, once again, a member in good standing of the Nothing-To-Lose club, and I got, well, what I got. And of course there are technical flaws galore in the shot, not the least of which is severe color imbalance caused by shooting through glare and factory window tinting, resulting in the loss of nearly a stop of light.

But I can live with the bruises on the peach because, generally speaking, I got to eat the peach. I may or may not be able to return to the scene in future to try for a four-star job, but, in the meantime, I can chalk this one up to what you might call a workable preliminary sketch, and stop stressing about it. Because, in the final analysis, by failing to at least try, I did have something to lose.

The fun of making a picture.


POP GOES THE CONTRAST

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NIGHT CITYSCAPES PRESENT TREMENDOUS OPPORTUNITIES to me these days, especially with the technical advances of recent years. Many shots that required tripods or lengthy exposures just a short while ago are now possible as handheld snaps. Great improvements in the balanced exposure performance and color rendering of digital sensors, along with smoother resolution, even at higher ISO settings, have tamed the “black ‘n’ blurry” curse of night images that haunted much of my earlier work. Even so, I still employ a few old-school tricks to further improve my odds, as I try to impart a greater sense of depth, or “space” in pictures jammed with competing information.

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Glasscade, 2019

Conveying a dimensional look in the dense mashup of buildings of a big city can be tricky. I could certainly decide to avoid the problem completely, deliberately going for a flatter effect with the use of a zoom lens (a look I don’t really like). If, however, I do want parts of the photograph to “pop” in reference to others, there are a few things to try. Shooting foregrounds and backgrounds with boldly divergent color schemes and textures, as I was able to do in this image, can help the various layers of the image to stand out in clear relief from each other. Experimenting with depth of field can also diminish the focus of one plane and make the other call more loudly for the eye’s attention. Additionally, foreground objects (like the immense billboard at left) can be partially cropped out (as seen here) so that they only narrowly enter the edges of the shot, operating as a kind of partial frame around the main subject.

Shooting on the fly in night cityscapes can still be tricky for me. Take bright downtowns areas, like, say the bright-as-eff, blitzkrieg of light in Time Square, which falls off to nearly nothing within the space of a single city block because distant structures are used less at night, creating a contrast nightmare. Newer cameras are better at capturing detail in the shadows, or at least enough of it to be retrieved in post-production, but the real challenge is taking the time to plan a shot when (a) technology frequently rewards us for even an imperfectly executed image and (b) the overall stimulus level of the city tends to make us shoot more and shoot faster, rather than slowly and purposefully. As always, your best shots are balanced on a knife’s-edge between impulse and deliberation.


SHOOTING BLIND(S)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER MANY YEARS, I’VE FASHIONED A SERIES OF STILL-LIFE COMPOSITIONS on a white formica counter that is just inside an eastern-facing window in my writing room. The light from dawn to at least mid-morning is intense and warm, strong enough to provide ambient illumination for nearly anything staged near it. Fine-tuning can be accomplished with either a twist or a roll of the slatted window blinds. It’s a simple set-up, and one which is great for short-notice projects.

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Slats the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it…..

The usual rule to be observed, at least in conventional picture-making, is to place the staged tableaux out of the direct path of the shadow patterns created by whatever position the blinds are in. However, over time, I’ve become used to doing exactly the opposite, to giving the shadows a starring role in the images, letting their grids and line fall wherever they may. I don’t always let them pIay directly over the subject, but I notice that, when I do, they add an extra sensation of depth, which is handy since I am sometimes shooting directly overhead, baking a certain amount of flatness into the images. Also, the light-then-dark-then-light gridding boosts colors and textures in some areas while muting them in others, and so, with a few quick adjustments I can get a lot of different looks across a brief series of exposures.

Am I adhering to a “style” or attempting a “signature” with these shots? Probably nothing so intentional. I just love seeing what happens when I shake up the usual formulas (formulae?). In any event, you’re invited to judge the results for yourself by clicking on the topside tab for my newest mini-gallery of shots entitled “Color Inside The Lines” or merely by clicking here.

Hey, the deliberate assembly of a tabletop still-life is already an artificial construct, a fantasy. One more element either way just tweaks the fun a bit more.


THE WAY IT USED TO COULDA MIGHTA OUGHTA

By MICHAEL PERKINS

COMBINE A NEW SERIES OF MOVES TO GENERATE AN EFFECT, and you are likely making art. Reduce the making of that same effect to a predictable rote series of steps with a uniform outcome, and you are likely making craft. Photography is a series of calculations: a certain adherence to rules will give you a solid framework in which to create. Slavish service to those same rules will make that framework a cage and imprison your vision within the confines of mere habit.

The comedian Lenny Bruce was famous for saying, “If I do something more than once, it’s a bit”, meaning a routine, to merely be recreated or played back, on demand….the opposite of creativity. I make mention of this because I fear that my own satisfaction with routines…how reliably they work, how comfortingly familiar they are…..can creep into my photography and replace all the vital blood in its veins with concrete. It’s an insidious trap. Repetition can act as a kind of sedative. Feels great in the moment, but soon you’re sleepwalking through the process. Photos become mere product. You can actually feel when all of your picture-making habits start morphing from a protective roof to a crushing winepress.

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Fan Dancer, 2022

One remedy I try, to shake things up in these moments of torpor, is changing out gear to something, anything that I don’t think will work at all, or which may at least force me, through partial misuse of it, to think less habitually. Think of it as the difference between lighting a fire with a match or witching one up out of damp sticks. In the picture seen here, one of dozens I’ve made over time of the steeplejack daredevils who climb up and trim super-high palm trees in the southwest, I was actually forced to use a 300mm manual focus telephoto that was attached to the only camera I could reach in time for a shot. The nearest “appropriate” alternative was half a house away, and, meanwhile, this guy was hauling away the debris from his job at a good, er, clip. That meant making an attempt with something that was zoomed in way too far in relation to the distance between him and me. It meant focusing on the fly with a 1970’s lens barrel that is not exactly greased lighting. Oh, and to make things interesting, I could go no further open than f/4.5, so there would also be shutter speed fiddling to factor in. None of it should have worked.

Oddly, the minimal information forced on me by the close-at-hand framing, which now had eliminated all other context of size or place, actually made the worker’s crooked arm counter-balance the frond fan in an almost Asian fashion. A shy little Geisha gardener?  I liked it. Could I do it again, on purpose? Not the point, really. What made me alert enough to maximize my opportunity in this case was the sheer uncertainty of the whole attempt. Now, all I have to do in future is resist saying, in the future, “whenever I shoot this kind of image, I always, always….”

Or else, in Lenny’s words, I’m just doing a bit….


WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE? DEPENDS..

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE OLD ADAGE ABOUT LIFE BEING WHAT HAPPENS WHILE YOU’RE BUSY MAKING PLANS also seems like a perfect fit for the act of photography. Certainly we love to take bows for our best work, and to let the myth persist that what’s hanging on the wall is exactly what we were going after in the first place. Well, I use the word “myth”. I actually mean “convenient lie”.

The scientist in us loves to keep alive the belief that we are in charge of our lives, that all our great results are the inevitable outcome of brilliant foresight and faultless planning. But the photographer side of us, the more instinctual half of our nature, knows how much luck and randomness figure into the mix. Yes, we came back with a great shot of C, but only after our “perfect” concepts of A and B fell flat.

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Several weeks ago, I went birding with a small group into a marshy area near Show Low, Arizona. The water was all part of a reclamation project that created the illusion of a large pond/small river in what is typically semi-desert, and the entire local landscape was transformed, because of the extra moisture, with reedy banks, plentiful supplies of yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, and, well, bugs. A bleeding swarm of infinitesimal insects which are a huge Happy meal for the flycatchers in the area, but which also fill the hair, eyes and mouths of any, well, non-birds in the area.

Which is where my plan A fell apart.

Yes, O logical side, we will, as expected, be taking pictures of shorebirds and the shores that host them. Easy call. But, oof, here comes the photographer side, the instinctual guy, who now wants to make a bug picture. But how? Everything is awash in early morning sun, which renders the swarm all but invisible. They are so thick that they may make even carefully focused pictures look soft, as if I had a diffusion filter attached to my lens. The only way, then, to at least suggest the look of the plague was to aim at the darkest thing I could find, which turned out to be a small copse of free-standing trees further inland from the water and standing in their own shade. At least I had enough of a picture to suggest my new, revised main message, to wit: man, there’s a  &%$ton of bugs here. 

And so it goes. Planner Me begins with a startup scheme. No-Plan Me eventually straggles with another viewpoint. And the eternal question of “who’s in charge here” for a given picture changes on a whim, or around whatever might be, sorry, bugging me at the moment.


ABOUT FACE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MANY PHOTOGRAPHS BEGIN AS ONE THING AND FINISH AS QUITE ANOTHER, there being many micro-phases, each mere parts of seconds in length, between conception and execution. We can be absolutely certain what we think we want at the start of the process, and just as certain, by the end of it, that we were wise to abandon our original plan.

The best test of whether we finally “got it right”, to my mind, is that the final image seems to be what I can only call inevitable; that is, once it’s been taken, it’s hard to imagine it having been done any other way. It’s similar to the reaction we sometimes get when we hear the original working title of a novel, or are told who else had been up for a key role in a now-classic movie…the “of course” moment.

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Lots of visual information here. Too much, as it turns out…

The picture seen here was originally a story of scale, with the woman at left merely employed as a prop to help contextualize the sprawling space in a very wide shot, about 24mm. To be honest, I had originally taken almost no notice of her facial features (including the fact that she is quite strikingly beautiful), her body english, or any mood that she might be projecting. In fact, she is so much at the far end of the frame as to be Silly-Putty-stretched a bit by the lens. But at the time I was actually more interested in the play of light patterns playing through the ceiling and onto the tiles than the feelings she displayed.

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With a radical crop, the woman’s more prominent placement makes the picture a better story. 

Then I chimped the shot on my monitor and saw that face. A face suggesting a whole smorgasbord of feelings, from boredom to impatience to longing, to, well, you name it. Meaning that anything you could name is already suggested by that face: it’s what you bring to it, as well as what you can take from it that creates a bond between shooter and audience. Suddenly, the importance of everything else in the frame just fell away. The picture, from that point on, had to be about her. A severe crop gave me just enough context to her right to anchor her in time and space, but now she was the story, the reason for the frame. The final picture had become, in essence, inevitable.

Photography is a constant flow of critical choices, and none of the decisions I made for this picture in any way confers masterpiece status on it. But even in a medium-effective photo, there are ways to push the image toward a truer version of itself. It’s a game of inches.


THE MONTH I GOT MONO

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MY FIRST DAYS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER occurred just after color film had almost completely supplanted black and white for daily use. Certainly, many snapshots and news images were still shot on b/w, but, as my father was a slide shooter all the way, I cut my teeth on Kodachrome and Ektrachrome and what NBC used to call “living color”. I was also heavily influenced by View-Master travel reels and scenic mags like Arizona Highways, and so, again, not a lot for the mono side of my infant brain to feed upon.

Later on, as I educated myself on the Old Masters, I grew to appreciate grayscale at its finest, but still tended to shoot primarily in color, with the exception of the odd side project. With that in mind, it occurred to me recently that, while I had done several lengthy shooting walkabouts over the years in order to speed up my learning curve with various bits of gear, I had seldom, if ever, done a long stretch purely in black and white. A newly acquired camera seemed the perfect time to give myself mono for a month.

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One thing which interested me in expanding my visualization in b&w was that the latest cameras can do so much more than just shoot “without color”. Grayscale can be so much more nuanced than merely the absence of hue, and today’s in-camera settings can allow more attenuation in contrast, sharpness and tone than was ever possible in the past. Another selling point was the ability of most recent full-function cameras to place a complete custom configuration of settings at your fingertips by, essentially “storing” them on a dial-able slot in the mode wheel (U1, U2, U3 modes for Nikon, C1, C2, C3 for Canon, and so forth) This allowed me to quickly shoot with both sides of my brain when needed, dialing between, say, manual mode (in full color), and a U1 mode pre-programmed with every little flavor ingredient I want in a mono shot.

The take-home is just this: the mere increase in ease of operation made me shoot more, and with greater enthusiasm, in black & white than I would typically ever do. With just a little prep, my eye got used to consistently composing for what mono does best, getting me used to thinking primarily in that particular tone palette. And, although I know that many prefer merely to take a master shot in color and convert it to mono later on at their whim, I believe that deliberately conceiving a grayscale shot in-camera is a distinctly different experience, one which is helped greatly with the use of electronic view-finders, which let you see precisely what the sensor sees.

Going forward, I will probably budget more mono shots into my overall output than I ever have before, all through the expedient of using the camera to, well, get out my own way. And, as I frequently assert, reducing the steps and hassle between conception and execution is the true superhighway to better pictures.


READING THE ROAD

Downward Slant EF

By MICHAEL PERKINS

COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS NEVER MERELY A MATTER of rearranging the deck chairs on the good ship Take-A-Snap. Yes, at first, there is the frame to be dealt with, and with that, the crucial decisions on what stays in and what gets left out. And then there is the front-to-back and side-to-side staging of the image, the visual coding you build into the picture to tell your viewer where to look and how to prioritize what he sees, a process influenced as well by contrast, depth of field, and other shooting settings.

But there is another crucial way to instruct the viewer’s eye on how all this information ranks within itself, and that is the decision to shoot in either color or monochrome. It’s true that, merely by landing on one or the other, you haven’t added or subtracted any visual elements that weren’t already in the frame. That is, you didn’t stick in four more trees or yank out the ocean shore. However, pictures in these two opposing modes convey information in distinctly different ways, and so both will confer certain qualities on the objects in the frame based on how the eye takes in that information. This can either make your picture pop with dimension or sink into murk.

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Color assigns a rank to things and relegates objects to either shadow or light, foreground or background. Monochrome does this as well, but in a far subtler manner, meaning that some color shots which are clear in their message might appear muddled or muted when rendered in black and white. Conversely, something which is direct and contrasty in mono might appear either weakened or magnified in color.

In the case of the two renderings seen here, the tangly busy-ness of the color shot (top) seems, in monochrome (above), to make a very dense photo much harder to read. There is so much texture in the color version that just becomes mushy in grayscale, so that the mono version does nothing to simplify the shot….quite the opposite. The Color/No Color decision can either make or break even a well-balanced composition by making the “look here” rules for the viewer too ambiguous or unclear. Reading the room can help pictures communicate cleanly.


COSTUMED REVEALS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE SEE-SAW ACT THAT PHOTOGRAPHY PERFORMS between camouflage and revelation is one of the more tantalizing dynamics of the art. That we can both expose and conceal within a single image is what, in my opinion, actually makes a photograph an artistic expression. Originally conceived merely as a device for recording information, mirroring reality if you will, the camera is actually as coy as a strip-tease artist. You must read pictures for both positive and negative information.

Portraits are ways of expressing how we individually see a person, as well as an invitation to others to either identify or distance themselves from that very individual impression. It is not, by its very nature, an historic document. I was reminded of this recently when doing some background research on my favorite painting, Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of an American ex-patriot who had burst upon the social scene in nineteenth-century Paris. Not only are his preliminary studies of the woman remarkably distinct from each other, but further study shows that portraits of the same woman done by other artists of the period may as well be of five different people. All are accurate. All are true.

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And so with photos. Gone is the pressure of making one official image of a person to mark their time on the planet, a feature of many early portraits where subjects might be photographed but a single time during their entire life. Now we have several hundred cracks at our favorite people over decades, none of them truly definitive or even typical. In my own case, I have photographed the woman shown here, a master teacher on my weekly birdwatching walks, literally dozens of times over the past decade, and each of the images revealing something vastly different about her character, making her now gentle, now stern, now aged, and now utterly ageless. I keep coming back to her because her eighty-plus years serve her like a kaleidoscope, serving up infinite refractions of her upon each new sitting. What I reveal in one frame I will conceal in the next. In one shot I am celebrating her longevity, while in yet another I am lamenting her fragility.

Even without much trying, you are going to take lots of pictures of the people you love over time. Make those multiple “takes” work for you, talk to you, keep you curious. You will learn that the camera costumes even as it reveals, and that those subtle variations, like variations in autumnal shades, will all be alien from each other, and will all, to one degree or another, ring true.


ANYTHING PAST ZERO IS A WIN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HERE, AT BREAKNECK SPEED AND WITHOUT SHAME, COMES A SUPREME PHOTOGRAPHY CLICHE.

Brace yourselves.

“You always miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.” (Scattered, half-sincere applause. Several moans.)

Okay, maybe they were talking about basketball. Or people taking pictures of basketball. Beyond the tired corniness of the sentence, however, lingers an unassailable fact: if you don’t try to get the picture, you won’t get the picture. Every time you pre-censor yourself by saying, “ah, the light’s not right” or “I didn’t bring the right lens” or “I don’t push shutter buttons when the moon is in Virgo”, you’ve definitely shielded yourself from failure. But you’ve also guaranteed that you’ll come home empty-handed. In effect, in the interest of getting something wrong, you’ve ensured that you may nail something marvelous, regardless of your misgivings.

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All of which seems antithetical to making any photograph, let along a good one. True, your chances of success in less-than-ideal conditions are diminished, but you’ve probably already had the experience of harvesting a miracle in spite of…..in spite of the garbage light, in spite of the hurried conditions, in spite of the fact that you needed to hurry-erase several frames off your memory card to even try the shot…in spite of….

I was reminded of all this yesterday when I almost didn’t try for this fat little bullfrog. He was about twenty-five feet away, and I had come out with a 56mm prime lens with no zoom. There was also the risk of spooking him and getting a great image, of, well, pond water. But I was on a full-frame sensor body, shooting at the highest resolution and the biggest file possible, so I thought, why not? I can crop the thing later and there will probably still be enough resolution to save the day. The entire decision took about fifteen seconds, and, as you can see, even though the pic is not going to get me on National Geographic’s Christmas card list, it was worth the trip. The entire point here is to get you out of the habit of talking yourself out of trying a shot before the fact. After all, there’s plenty of time to hate on a picture after you’ve taken it (which is more fun for others, as well) and, in terms of a winning percentage, anything past zero is a win.


TRACE OR NO TRACE?

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How do you like your pizza photo? With a guy…?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHING PEOPLE IN THEIR NATIVE SETTINGS, that is, making pictures of what they do in order to explain what they do, is the essence of street work. We are fascinated by people being “caught in the act of being themselves” (as the intro to the old show Candid Camera used to state), and we get a ton of context on all the stuff we’re seeing in a frame when we see where human activity fits into it all. I get it.

And yet, I still find myself evaluating the impact of an image with a sort of “trace or no trace” choice. Do the people in the picture explain it, actually anchor it, or am I (we) merely in the habit of sticking them there, like punctuation in a sentence? Can we comprehend what the photograph is about, and what part humans had in its meaning, without the actual presence of said people?

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..or without?

The pair of shots you see here, taken seconds apart in a funky urban pizzeria, are the latest pair to present me with this conundrum. Certainly the cook in the top image conveys scale to the surrounding oven and fixtures. For example, with him in the frame, it’s easy to convey the size of the interior space, i.e., it’s pretty compact. He also “looks the part” in that he looks like he fits in a pizzeria, that is, he’s well cast in his part.

But look at the second image, which was taken after he ducked briefly into the kitchen. You get many of the same cues and clues. You get atmosphere from the distressed brick in both the walls and the oven. Indeed, without the chef to distract you, you might actually linger longer over the details in the oven itself, which unmistakably screams pizza. I suppose the reason I dither with this dilemma is the fact that I’ve often been forced to suggest the presence of people in various still lifes and architectural compositions, either because they’re not part of, say, a museum exhibit, or because they are dead or absent for more mortal reasons, leaving me with only their leavings from which to tell a story.

Even if we (or you) can’t come up with a consistent rule, the point is that not all people make a photographic story richer. Sometimes they are mere pieces of furniture, props if you will, added for balance. You alone must decide whether they’re a necessity or mere window dressing.


PLAYING IN THE RIGHT KEYS

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Listening For The Lark, 2022. A monochrome conversion from a color master shot. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME OF OUR PHOTOGRAPHS CERTIFY THEMSELVES TO US AS “RIGHT” OR “WRONG” over time, not registering instantly as either keepers or pitchers, but slowly making the case for their final disposition. These are the truly tricky shots, the ones whose success or failure is not readily apparent upon first, or second, or even fifth glance. Such images go in and out of the workflow bin again and again, sometimes over years, while we decide whether we recognize them as our own offspring.

Sometimes it means we partially embrace a shot, loving it in spite of a slight technical miscalculation or a composition that’s slightly off. Other times, we trust/mistrust our original intention, which is French for “what was I thinking?”. In recent years, as I’ve returned to the tonal range of my first days as a shooter, I often stick pictures in the “still under consideration” pile over the choice of whether to re-render them in monochrome. I often think of color and b/w as two different arrangements of the same theme, or maybe a song played in one of two very distinct keys.

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The color original.

Since mono was the default of my earliest days, I naturally learned to shoot in it first. Once color became the go-to for most photography, I deferred to that. I don’t intentionally shoot my master shots in mono because it means pre-empting a choice that I might want to exercise later. You can easily go from color to no color, but,…. well you know the argument, and so that seems to mark me as a conversion person. Black and white is a choice, but not if you had no other choice in the first place, right? Mono has its own tonal vocabulary and creates a separate mood or priority of light than color. And for that reason, as well as the need to weigh and re-weigh my options pretty much forever, many of the pictures I can’t decide to love or hate hinge on the strengths and weaknesses or the two tonal “keys”.

Is color more bold, or can a more dramatic statement be made in its absence? Does monochrome tantalize, tease the appetite for more information, stimulate the imagination, and does it do so more effectively than a garish explosion of hue? Which of the two modes is, for me, in this particular instance, more “authentic”? And is that what I even want in the first place?

There are lots of images which cry out to be completed, to have their case file marked “closed” with a final determination of their value. But if art is about forcing flexibility where some would favor rigidity, then it’s probably a desirable thing for us not to rush to judgement on some of our pictures. Maybe they came into the world fully formed, and maybe not. But maybe, after all, it’s us who need to become more complete, in a variety of ways.


PRELUDES AND POSTLUDES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PROFESSIONAL PHOTOJOURNALISTS KNOW THAT ARRIVAL TIME IS CRUCIAL. Show up before the story gets underway and you shoot empty podiums and uncut ribbons. Show up after the event, and you’re watching the janitor sweep away its debris. Making a picture of a set thing in its best moment is largely luck, however, and just because you are either too early or too late for the action doesn’t mean that you’re robbed of a story.

Anticipation, at least the right kind, can be as dramatic as the promised happening. In some cases, even more so, since many “big moments” can fail to live up to the hype. Just ask the International Olympic Committee. Likewise the aftermath of a key event can produce its own letdown or cool-off energy that may also be grist for the camera. What I’m suggesting is that before’s and after’s are not necessarily the “wrong” times to comment on something. Both the prelude and the postlude have their own visual grammar, if you develop an eye for reading what they have to say.

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Party Of Three, 2022

On the morning that I caught this scene, I had to leave the park I was in well ahead of the guest of honor’s arrival. Thus the only picture I could make of his birthday party was the way it might look when he first clapped eyes on it. Everything about this scene appealed to me, although I had to look back at the picture to appreciate just what I was appreciating (stay with me for a moment). For starters, I just loved the simple, low-tech homemadeness of the thing. The way the various tree-anchored balloons bounced and bobbled in the light breeze. The way the midday sun caught and amplified all the colors and helped them pop. The thrill of imagining a three-year-old boy taking in the scene of all those flying and floating dinosaurs, as well as the raptors on the tablecloth. It looked like a blueprint for success. I had to wait on the wind to balance the composition by flying the balloons into the best position, but other than that, it was a point-and-shoot without a lot of over-thinking.

The only thing missing for me, later, lie in wishing that I could have sneaked back for a look at the  crumbled cake, the popped balloons, the discarded gift wrap. A kind of bookend to the day. But even though I hadn’t witnessed either the actual party or its denouement, I didn’t really need to: I had already witnessed pure joy.


WHEN MORE IS, WELL, MORE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I AM CERTAINLY GUILTY, in these pages, of frequently harping on the need for economy in the composition of a photograph, of working purposely to say the most with the least. I’ve rhapsodized about how clutter and crowding can ruin a picture’s ability to communicate cleanly, and how best to streamline one’s vision with repeated layers of editing and cropping, in an attempt to pare away any extraneous junk that gets between a photo and its audience’s eye.

And in many cases, I still feel I am right.

Except when I am completely wrong.

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Clutter & Buck, 2022

Occasionally, we’re faced with trying to capture a subject whose very complexity or density is not in the way of the point, but is the point. Intricate gears in a machine. A teeming crowd filling the frame with conflicting destinations and motivations. Or here, a rustic chicken coop that is all about noise, crowding, clutter, randomness. Certainly it would be possible to frame a picture of this subject with minimal elements, limited textures, going “clean” in a ruthless way. But that would result in a completely different image than what I wanted from this photo.

And so this is a kind of mess, this picture, and yet I am so sure that it’s the only true thing I could have made under the circumstances. In musical terms, composition is a deliberate arrangement of elements, and can be either richly layered or spare. The composer, wielding either a pen or a camera, must decide how best to get the music out.  Photography proceeds from a given set of rules, but in breaking those rules, we decide whether they should have been written in the first place. I still love spare subject matter for many of my pictures, but sometimes, just sometimes, a song is best played fortissimo, with all the instruments blaring at once.


M&Ms

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE FILLED PAGES OF THIS LITTLE HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER with confessional accounts of my weaknesses in many areas of photography, with special emphasis on my underdeveloped skill with landscapes. To say that I need improvement in this area is, on the Captain Obvious scale, somewhat akin to breaking the hot bulletin that Batman has anger issues. And yet we soldier on.

It’s hard to look out upon a vast mountain vista or a yawning canyon and think in terms of simplicity. At least in my own case. I initially came to the visual arts as an illustrator, influenced by artists that I can only call “completists” in that they drew intricate compilations of every leaf, stone and speck within a scene, a technique that my infant brain referred to as “realistic”. It follows, then, that as I segued into photography, my instinct was to go for that illustrative look, with tons of detail, and a broad panoramic sweep. It drew me to grand subjects and wide, wide lenses.

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Occasionally, this has served me well, but more often it gave me a severe case of Too Much Picture, frames that were so drowned in detail and visual information that I was challenged to tell succinct, clear stories in landscape form. There was always plenty to look at, but I wasn’t developing a real instinct for what a viewer should look at first, or should regard as the central narrative focus of a picture. My sense of composition still fell too often into the “get everything in there” side of the fence. I produced well-focused pictures of scenes that were always okay, but seldom compelling.

These days, I fight to make the simplest framings that I can. I struggle to present one main idea and make everything else in the image subservient to that idea, or at least to get out of its way. The frame seen here is done quite differently than I might have made it as a younger man. The forked cactus at the center has been designated as the main messenger of the picture, with everything else reduced in definition or importance. In the past, I might have tried to expose the picture uniformly, with every spine, frond and branch in the same brightness or color intensity. Now I am far more likely, in this case, to expose just for the central open space and leave the surrounding halo frame in shadow….the idea being to let some things have louder voices in a picture than other things. I have done the same thing with selective focus, using blur or softer resolution to force attention onto the primary feature in the picture. 

I still have a lot of work to do, but at least I have moved from my original habit of giving all elements in a landscape equal status to trying to, if you like, direct eye traffic to greater effect. It’s a struggle for balance between the picture’s M&Ms, or the major and minor messengers for that particular photograph. It’s not an exact science. Hell, it’s not even an exact art. But it’s the only way I can shoot landscapes if I want to escape the dreaded gravitational pull of Planet Postcard. 

 


THE KINDEST CUTS

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This master shot begins as a merely okay bird picture with a whole lot of empty real estate in it. Not bad, but…..

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LEGENDARY DIRECTOR FRANK CAPRA LIKED TO TELL THE STORY of how he pulled one of his classic films back from the brink of catastrophe, by heading back to his office after a disastrous preview and literally throwing the first two reels into the studio incinerator. The shortened movie, Lost Horizon, went on to become one of his greatest triumphs. 

I recall that story every time I attempt to crop away the visual fat from a flawed image, inside of which I suspect there might be a usable picture. Sometimes all I get for my trouble is a worse flop, but occasionally, I will find that a frame is one third, or one fourth, or fifty percent redeemable if I just wield the scissors with complete abandon. The first shot you see here illustrates my point. 

Having shot dozens of pictures of egrets in every conceivable setting, I found that this particular bird was not really earning his sizable part of the real estate. Was it the pose? The exposure? A comparison to better captures on other days? Whatever the reason, I found myself more interested in the near-shore waters he was walking in than in anything he himself was doing. The water wasn’t filled with dramatic splashes or tidal ebbs, but was instead a slow, undulating kind of roll that created playful, elliptical games with the light. At that point, the whole mission of the image changed.

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Literally cutting the egret off at the knees makes this a completely different picture. 

After a series of partial “bird-ectomies”, in which I attempted to keep various portions of the egret’s body in the frame, I just reduced him to a pair of legs, and let the water take over as the star of the show. Again, it was a case of a usable inner picture, eclipsed by being just one of many components in a larger scene, becoming liberated by slicing away all other distractions. The result is hardly a masterpiece, but I prefer the repurposed version over the mediocre original. Turns out that most photographs don’t veer all the way to the two extremes of Really Amazing or Really Appalling, existing somewhere between the two poles. Like Capra, you have to be willing to burn the first two reels to get right to the action. 


FALLING IN AND OUT OF LIKE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THEY’RE LINE CALLS, COIN TOSSES between success and failure, those thousands of photographs we generate over a lifetime that never quite stray into complete wretchedness or float all the way up to Beloved status. They float languidly in the vast midrange between the delightful and the awful that makes up most of our pictorial output, earning faint praise like “pretty good”, “not bad” or my favorite, “yeah, that’s OK.” They are the pictures that we fall “in like” with.

Sometimes I find it easier to cope with my absolute garbage than with the massive mound of mediocrity that occupies the middle floors of my personal output. At least the photos I took while swinging wildly for the fences show commitment, however misguided. After all in even my worst failures, there is also a trace of my grandest dreams, whereas the thousands of “good enough” shots show neither the wild abandon of going for broke or the grand miracle of high art. They’re just….there. Somebody cue  the poet with the line about faint heart n’er winning fair lady, or something high-toned like that.

There are those who might even regard the mushy mediocre middle of their total photographic portfolio as just as worthless as their Total Misses, but I maintain that the stuff in the gooey center of our work files is exactly half-good, as well as half-bad. In fact, that’s the maddening thing about “OK” pictures. They never get where they’re headed.

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The image seen here is a prime example of a picture that’s suspended between the goal posts. It’s almost well-composed, as well as almost fluid in dynamic range, almost texturally rich, almost, well a lot of things. It isn’t quite a stinker, but it also certainly isn’t a stunner. And as meh as you see it here, the original, wider shot was even more indecisive, with hot blowouts of the shoreline that were later cropped away and just too much information for a coherent narrative. And yet, I have spent the better part of three weeks trying to remain “in like” with the shot, trying to convince myself that it’s more successful than it is.

Of course, just as is the case with an abject failure, this shot is worth keeping. Because every failure is instructive to some degree, and the fact that I’m able to diagnose what kept the image from being good means I’ve already mined it for any clues on where improvement is needed. It just doesn’t need to be paraded around, that’s all.  Plus, if nothing else, middling shots hone our editorial skills, since we have no business posting or boasting every single time we click the shutter.

Speaking of clicks, I recently determined that there have been over 130,000 of them on the camera that took this shot. Where does the time go? I “shutter” to think how many of those snaps added shame fodder to my lifetime hit/miss average. But, oh well. I think of the farmers in the Great Plains in the days of the Dust Bowl, living harvest-to-harvest in an insane state of constant gamble, who, in describing how they summoned the hope to go on, nicknamed themselves the “Next Year People”. When will I deliver on the unrealized promise of all my most mediocre shots? Next year, people.


TAKING ONE FROM THE TEAM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A CERTAIN DIVINE IMMUNITY attached to photographers who are lucky enough to remain amateurs, or, for those who do turn pro, the ability to remember how to shoot with an amateur brain. There used to be a cleanly defined line between people who had to make pictures for a living (under deadline, enslaved to editors, for the marketplace) and those who could never dream of doing so, but who might work every bit as hard just pleasing themselves. However, social media, with its ability to suddenly confer ( or cruelly withhold )sudden celebrity, has recently blurred this line between the careerists and the tinkerers. Now, even when we are making pictures for “no one”, we seem to be making pictures for everyone, anyway.

It’s getting harder to create a photograph in a feedback vacuum, to shoot without even a thought of how well a picture will be received. The tyranny of the new “like” and “fave”  marketplace can riddle a photographer with doubt, gently bending his/her work to what might meet with the most approving eyes. In many ways, this new world is even more unforgiving, for amateurs, than the dreaded editing desk was for the professionals.

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It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, these days, to allow oneself to make a picture like this one. The subject isn’t startling, or even especially unique, except to me. The composition is deliberately formalized, and so can’t qualify as avant-garde. The final shot, the product of a double exposure and some minimal color and contrast tweaking, is neither purely realistic nor challengingly abstract. In short, this picture is nothing in particular, except that it’s mine, made my way, for my own approval. I don’t have to worry that, as Frank Zappa would say, it suffers from N.C.P. (No Commercial Potential).

Any artist that is forced to produce for the popular market has two struggles: to achieve his vision and to package it for consumption by others. It’s THE tightrope act of a lifetime for photographers, with the amateurs envious of the pros’ access and the pros jealous of the casual snapper’s freedom. I have made my daily bread by a number of means over a lifetime, mostly under the gun of deadlines and editors in the print or electronic media, and so, while I have seldom earned a paycheck specifically with a camera, I have empathy for those who do.

There are things about working as a paid shooter that I will never have to endure, or suffer, and I know that. However, in the 21st century, even being an amateur is beginning to take on the haggard hassle that only used to accrue to the Guy Doing It For A Living. That is why the bigger fight in becoming a photographer is the mastery over one’s self rather than the perfection of mere technique. Sports and every other fun pursuit in our world has shown what happens when everything gets too serious and the meaningful meaninglessness goes out of something. In our art, we are being forced, more and more, to do everything for social reasons, to “take one for the team”. However, it is the pictures that you take from the team that truly remain your own, and that you will treasure the most over a lifetime.


THE LOVED ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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I STOLE THIS BOOK.

That is…..I think I might have.

Actually, the truth is a good deal more nuanced than that. Rather than deliberately planning to loot my local library for it, I just…sorta accidentally…failed to return it. Ever. Call it passive-aggressive larceny.

Or just sloth (likeliest option).

To be truthful, the book is merely part of a wider pathology, a lifetime habit of returning, well, anything back to its rightful owner well past its due date. Back in the VHS era, the local Blockbuster probably should have mounted a “wanted” poster of my kisser near the cash register…..but, as it turned out, I probably paid for the manager’s kid’s first year of college with overdue fees that rivaled the operating budget of a small nation-state. The fact:  I’m a bad borrower, and it doesn’t really matter what the borrowed thing is. Late library books were more a symptom than a cause, and so I most likely made no particularly mindful attempt to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament for myself.

However, in re-discovering this relic during a recent house-cleaning and general junk inventory, I can certainly see how I might have dreamed of pinching it, given what its ideas…about artistic integrity, vision, courage and reason… have meant to me for over a third of my life. And, like many old objects I’ve stumbled over anew in recent years, it seemed reasonable to want to photograph it, to try to both see it for what it was and for what it merely is, now.

What it is, among other things, is an old library book, and so it made sense to show its most library-like feature….the now-bygone checkout pocket and circulation ticket mounted inside the back cover. Such systems, in an age of barcodes, are now, themselves, history, as much as the book itself, and so that is the “face” I wanted to display. The wearing and tearing of the binding and pages is also evidence of a sort, of the heavy love-use the book had received over time, and so that also needed to be part of the visual story. Finally, I had located, within the same closet that held the book, an old replacement lamp for a film projector, which I never, as it turned out, actually used. This lightbulb which never had its “lightbulb moment”, could now act as a kind of symbol of the inspiration that had poured forth from the book’s pages for me with every single reading. Pretty on the nose, but still satisfying.

And click.

The objects we keep are never completely captured on camera. Even when we think we are objectively recording a thing, we are interpreting it, and that ambiguous approach somehow fits the muddled memory of the book’s journey from Theirs to Mine. I might have stolen it, after all. But maybe I just couldn’t make myself tell it goodbye. But now, in my picture, regardless of official ownership, I had made it indisputably mine at last, anyhow.


THE GREAT GIFT OF NOT UN-SEEING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE THANKED MY WIFE SEVERAL TIMES IN RECENT YEARS for the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am consistently, consciously aware of birdsong. This is no small thing, developing an acuity for something which has been all around me, largely undetected, for my entire existence, and which, at this late point, is suddenly, miraculously obvious to me all the time. Of course we didn’t just move our house to where the most birds are, nor did Marian suddenly give them a power that the Creator somehow overlooked. Instead, she has facilitated a change in me, something I am not even consistently to do for myself. And that’s huge.

And, as all things will, this stands as yet another metaphor for photography.

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Training the eye to see the world beyond the fundamentals is the most important element in making an image, far outranking any merely technical consideration. Once you learn to see critically, curiously, your pictures, and the process of making them, operate on a completely different level, with even your “imperfect” shots taking on a distinct character. Often, when someone witnesses something horrible, they remark that they “can’t un-see” the  event in question. However, vision in photography makes that condition a blessing. Shooting thousands of images over years broadens the scope of how you evaluate what you see, as well as how you plan based on that knowledge. You become a better and better shooter the more you can’t “un-see” the world.

Shooting happens faster and easier once you’ve cultivated the habit of seeing better, because, even in rushed or difficult conditions, you already have a basic pre-conception of what you want your pictures to be. You develop a mental sketchpad of sorts, placing you steps ahead in bending the performance of the camera to your will. That’s not a guarantee that you’ll always get what you went for, but it is a guarantee that you’ll know more clearly what you’re after, and that moves you closer to getting it. The image seen above is an example of my eye having evolved to a certain level at a certain point in time, and thus being able to convert some of my perception into a picture. I could not have made the same picture the same way ten years before, and, ten years hence, I will not make the same choices I made here.

Birdsong existed before I learned how to listen for it. Likewise, the things revealed in your best pictures is not composed of things you invented, just things you learned how to see. More precisely, it’s a smorgasbord of things you no longer can un-see. And the better your own vision, the better the chance that you’ll convey something amazing to your camera.