THE DEVIL’S IN…
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
TOO MUCH OF NOTHING, AND VICE VERSA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WOULD BE FAIR TO ASSUME THAT MOST DEFINITIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION refer to the total arrangement of space between objects, as well as the selection of what goes into, or stays out of, the frame. This can include objects like furniture or people, even intangibles like weather, but, for the most part, what we mean when we say a shot is well composed means that the final assignment of things within the frame is either balanced or busy, correctly directing the eye to things that are compelling and steering it away from items that are extraneous. The word “composition”, then, tends to be, primarily, a thing-based term.
I would argue, however, that the consideration of value and tone is every bit as vital a consideration as where the scenery is placed. Certainly the photographer must make solid calls on where a tree or a mountain or a left-right parameter figures in a shot, but key decisions in the use of color, contrast or overall exposure are also a kind of composing. In sound terms, for example, the sheer inventory of items in a photographic frame is roughly akin to the notes on a piece of sheet music the composer decides what the total number of notes will be on the page, and whether that arrangement is sparse or dense. However, the art of “composing” requires a second dimension; the values assigned to said notes, from near-silence to fortissimo; the rests; the attacks; even what orchestrators call “color”. The same thing holds true in a photograph.
Once I have agreed what the dispersal of, let’s say, the props within a shot is to be, I still have to direct the eye in terms of how it will weigh the importance of those items in relation to each other. In the case of the above image, the choice of monochrome and a relatively high-key exposure attempts to do that. This in turn leads to other decision: for example, is the texture of every single brick important here? The grain of the stucco buildings in the background? Do I need to adjust shadows so that more information is revealed within them? In other words, the picture’s composition is affected by every choice made in its making, not merely what makes it into the frame from top to bottom or left to right. Even without cropping, I can “de-select” certain visual data, or give clues as to its relative importance. That all just goes to whatever singular formula it takes to make a picture “work.” Bob Dylan wrote of the maddening power of a life defined by “too much of nothing”, but, without either changing “something” in a picture to “nothing”, or vice versa, we are, in effect, saying that all things in the frame are equal, and, artistically speaking, we know that just isn’t true.
HOW LITTLE IS TOO MUCH?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ROGER PRICE, THE CO-CREATOR OF MAD LIBS, the most popular party game on earth, was, ahead of all those famously incomplete one-page narratives, the best-selling cartoonist behind a slim volume entitled Droodles, a series of simple scribbles whose economy of line was the “set-up” of a joke, the punch line being supplied by the accompanying comic captions. The fun was in trying to decide what the picture was “about” before Price supplied the answer. One of his best is seen above, named Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. You get the idea.
Price inadvertently (or was it advertently?) demonstrated a skill essential for truly communicative photography, a talent I call Knowing What To Throw Out. It’s been my experience that, absent a few geniuses, most of us shoot too much. Not in the number of exposures we click off, but in the overload of visual information that we allow to remain in the final product. Recomposing and amplifying such shots with the most fundamental of tools, mere cropping, is an exercise in learning the answer to a nagging and constant question; in a picture, how little is too much?
In my case, one of the most revelatory exercises in reviewing old photo files is discovering that many frames I had initially written off as “failed” actually contained smaller sections within the overall image that would be perfectly strong if a major portion of the original were to hit the cutting room floor. Sometimes, of course, this method only reveals that, sharp, ruthless knife or no, there’s really no strong story in the picture at all, no matter how you slice it or pare it down. So it goes.
In the master shot of this multi-textured house, several strong structural elements have potential. The stucco, tile, wrought iron, masonry, fabric, wood, and glass all collide in a building that, overall, has a certain visual appeal. But, in cropping, we find that the closest intersection of all of these elements is where the compositional set point actually occurs. All the shot’s other visual information serves as nothing more than a distraction, since we really don’t need the entire structure to convey the idea of “house”. The various textures work best when they actively compete for attention, and a tight crop shows every flavor of a charming edifice with no fat and no fillers. As in Price’s cartoon, we don’t need to show the entire ocean around the rescue ship, or convey all of the back two-thirds of the vessel. Nor do we need to show the entire drowning witch; the hat is enough.
“Doing more with less” is such a hackneyed phrase that you can get shame arthritis in your fingers just typing it on the page. But pore over some of your own “almost” images sometime and see what happens. You may find that, imbedded within some of your most maddening misses, there lies a hit or two.
INVENTORY OF EFFECTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF IT’S JANUARY (as it is at this writing, the head end of 2023), then it’s time for rifling through endless old image files for two diametrically opposed searches: one for the pictures that I hastily conferred “keeper” status on, and the other for photographs that took a bit of time to win me over. In the case of the former, many a shot that initially seemed to be a hit reveals itself as a mishap of magical thinking, or of me wanting to believe that the pictures were better than they were. This comes from mistaking good intentions for actual achievement. In the latter case, I have done just the opposite, skirting over something that didn’t hit me in the gut at first glance but now strikes me as slightly more than passable. The first search is good for humility. The second is an exercise in joy.
In reviewing the pictures that were once faves but now seem “meh” to me, I find myself searching for answers to the question, “what was I thinking?”, each answer invaluable if I have the guts to face reality. In looking at the re-discovered gems, I struggle to define the common thread that courses through all of anyone’s pictures that really, really connect with me. A few key findings emerge:
First, only a handful of them were taken with amazing, or even decent cameras. Bad tools can make picture-making trickier, but even if you’re holding a non-responsive brick in your hands, love will find a way. Secondly, even when taken on decent equipment, a surprising number of the neo-keepers are quite technically imperfect. In fact, more than a few violate even basic rules of composition, exposure, and so on. Still other newly-adored pix were shots were the product of very fast decisions: that is, if they were planned at all, they are short on reaction time and long on raw instinct. In the case of the image shown above, for example,all three of the things that I have listed as compromising factors are in evidence. The picture was taken during an aggravating day on which one of my oldest DSLRs was actively dying on me, its exhausted shutter freezing on every other frame: it is not particularly sharp, and in fact contains a few radical blowouts (some of whom have been mercifully cropped): and, finally, I had about three seconds from “maybe this would work” to “a passing car has now obliterated half the scene”. I did not literally shoot this from my hip, but I might as well have.
Strangely, the final image appeals to me more than a few others taken before and after it, pictures where the camera was, you know, actually working. I shuffled past it with a grunt upon first viewing, and yet, over a year later, I see something in it that I wish I could do more purposefully at some other time. Maybe our self-grading on the curve is like the charitable comments many a teacher has scrawled on a kid’s mediocre report card: “shows potential”. Some days, viewing one’s work in a certain way, that assessment is even better than getting straight “A”‘s.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEAR THREE OF THE GREAT HIBERNATION. Another four seasons of ducking, dodging, hoping, praying, holding one’s breath and occasionally expelling a few primal screams. Life as it is lived now.
Along the way, I have followed the commentary of many photographers on how this seismic shift in priorities and objectives has permanently changed the way they see, and, in turn, the way they make pictures. How could it not? We’re all now a strange admixture of commentator, war correspondent, spurned lover and satirist, filtering every image through a very different eye. Even the act of doing an end-of-year inventory of shots that both hit and missed, we can track a pattern in the evolving needs of our seeing.
One thing that’s incredibly ironic in my own case is that the confinement of The After Time has forced me to at least try to make some minor breakthrough in my landscape work, demonstrably my weakest suit over a lifetime. Whereas the Ansels of the world would look out upon nature and see endless variations on the themes of Majesty and Harmony, I would just see….trees. Certainly wonderful trees, cool trees, but trees that, somehow, didn’t shout messages at me in the clear, insistent tones of the things that arise from city streets, regardless of where I am. But a funny thing happened on the way to Please Don’t Let Me Catch This Crud. Forced to remove myself from a lot of public places, I found myself with two simple choices: take pictures of what was currently in front of me (increasingly rural, outdoor areas), or just stop shooting altogether.
Now, I’d love to stand here and say that I have achieved some kind of epiphany as a result, that my landscape work now possesses the eloquence of angels and poets, but what has happened is that, by virtue of a major challenge to what was going to be in front of me, I have begun to react a bit more creatively to subject matter that I had always regarded as, well, just “nice” or “pretty”. The power of silence and solitude is upon me a bit more, now…..not enough to transform me into Thoreau, but sufficiently effective in helping me “get” what’s in front of me.
What do you call it? Growing up? Learning how to “simplfy”? Getting out of my own way? Learning to hear the quiet?
Damn. When I try to put it into words, I sound like the liner notes from a Rod McKuen album (look it up, X-ers). But when I rediscovered the shot you see here, from a particularly rich summer-of-22 weekend spent at close quarters with lakes and forests near Show Low, Arizona, I can remember that some extra something kicked in. And, with luck, will stay in.
The formula for WIDWID (Why I Do What I Do) has been altered. I see differently now.
Hopefully the pictures will follow.
INSIDE VIEW, OUTSIDE VISION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON PROVIDES THE PHOTOGRAPHER WITH A READY-MADE BAG OF NEW APPROACHES, playfully disorienting and flooding the senses, upending what we usually think we know about color and light. Decorations are never mere add-ons, but true transformations, creating elegance in plain spaces, underscoring and amplifying our emotions. At the personal level, the sheer accumulated tonnage of memory is the unseen effect behind all the glitter and glow, and it’s that ethereal quality that I try to inject into an already fattened goose of holiday sensations. I take the merely surreal and push it all the way into the dream realm.
That’s not to say that there isn’t such a thing as going too far when it comes to overripe seasonal images. I just suspect that there isn’t, nor have I experienced that feeling myself. In other words, far too much is just far enough when it comes to Christmas. It’s a time for revelry, not reserve, and so the pictures are allowed to scream as well as whisper. Scenes that usually rely on precision, tight focus, perfect lighting, even balanced composition are somehow, for a time, given extra space to flex into the realm of fantasy. Realism takes a holiday during the holidays.
The great thing about a season loaded with subjective impressions is that there truly are no limits on what can be depicted, or in what manner. It’s a time when even the most rigid amongst us relaxes a bit and dials the discipline back to about 4. It’s freeing, and it shows in our pictures. In some cases, it allows us to rediscover the instinctual defaults of childhood, the ability to shoot a photo just to see what happens. In all cases, it makes the days all about visual adventure, the kind of inner joy that’s allowed to come out and play, in front of witnesses.
EYES WIDE OPEN
A quaint old workshop, but it’s inside a room that is too small for everything in it to be shown with a standard focal length.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DUNNO. IT MAY BE BECAUSE WE ASSOCIATE WIDE-ANGLES LENSES WITH LANDSCAPES. You know the kind of images I mean: vast canvasses of sprawling geography that seem to draw our eye enormous distances between left and right sides of the frame, enforcing an idea that we have to “get everything in” when composing our image. Perfect solution: Wiiiiiiide-angle! No cropping of a cool mountain or a winding river needed! Hey, all you trees, crowd in together, willya?
In reality, I almost never use a wide-angle lens for exposition of big subjects. The lens can magnify distances, especially front-to-back distances, that I don’t particularly need to magnify, and so I use a normal focal length and just stand farther away from the scene. I believe that wide-angles are not designed to “get everything in” your picture. They are best used when they put you, yourself, farther inside a scene. Most wide shots fail because they are taken from too far away, when the feeling of “being there”, of having yourself immersed in a scene, is only accomplished the closer you are to the action. Or if you think of it in sonic terms, consider how more immersive stereo feels if you create the illusion that you are amongst the musicians instead of across from them.
Same room, now shown completely by moving in closer and using a 24mm wide-angle.
With this in mind, I think that wide-angles are absolutely essential when you find yourself in a cramped space, whereas using a normal 50mm width in such a situation, as seen at the top of this page, heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. More than half the detail in the medium-sized workshop in the image is simply lost, including the space’s entire left side and ceiling, both of which are loaded with interesting information. Snap on a 24mm wide-angle, however, as I did in the second view, and the room opens up, even though I am leaning physically farther into the room’s doorway than I did when using the 50. Instead of using a wide-angle to back up and “get everything in” (what? the door frame? the outside of the tool shack?) I placed myself further into the scene and let it, if you like, wrap around me.
Composition is part instinct, part inspiration and part calculation. Focal lengths can operate counter-intuitively in some situations, but ahead of the right tool comes the right idea. When both arrive at the scene together, the good stuff happens.
THE GENTLE GIANT NEXT DOOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DID NOT INHERIT MY FATHER’S PASSIONATE TALENT FOR GARDENING and landscaping, although I have always envied the way it miraculously devours him, each season bestowing on him distinct and endless variants of joy. He has owned and maintained the creekside half-acre back of his house for a third of a century now, and, as the aches and pains and limits of his ninety-three years often forbid his going out to play in his own private Walden, I cheer on days when I know it is clear enough, or warm enough, or safe enough for him to be out there. He and the yard get lonely for each other.
What was transmitted to me was his very special love of trees. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t awed by their beauty, their power, their endurance. That’s why my favorite part of my own “estate” is my view of the towering, sprawling titan just over the rear fence in my neighbor’s back yard. It’s unusual for an old, solid, massive thing like this to have survived the yank-everything-out-start-over ethos of the Southwest suburbs. Perhaps removing it was simply too expensive, too troublesome, leaving it to stand when many lesser trees might have been cleared out to make way for (??) progress? In any event, like anything that is purely or simply beautiful, it makes photographing it fairly complicated.
Over the past twenty years I have captured it in low light and full, dusk and dawn, rain or shine, and still I always come away feeling like I have failed to deliver its full story. Then again, what can its “story” even be? It’s a tree. But therein lies the paradox of making images of anything living, from human passersby to majestic landscapes. Their life is both static and in motion, both in and out of time. The camera both records accurately and lies absolutely when I point it at such a thing.
And so I keep going. What you see here is but the latest attempt from a few days ago. If you have the time, I can put on the kettle and guide you through the hundreds of other attempts I’ve made over the years at finding the soul of my gentle giant. Being that I don’t have to journey to the forest primeval to find something to admire this much, I admit to thinking that I have, you know, plenty of time to get it right. But, while the tree isn’t going anywhere, I certainly am headed, and before too long, for the stage exit. And so I keep going.
The tree has already gotten it right.
Maybe, by running a little harder, I can, in time, catch up with it…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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?
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
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.
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.