By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO LOOK MOST KINDLY ON THOSE LENSES that will perform the widest variety of tasks. Over time, photography can easily experience what the military call mission creep, with equipment escalating in both cost and complexity as the hobby sinks its roots into the bedrock of our little shooter’s souls. This can contribute to an ever-escalating array of specialized tools, or what I call more and more of things that do less and less. Over the decades, my aching back and wounded wallet have conspired to make me seek out optics that can handle macro, landscape, street and portrait work all by themselves, shrinking the number of instances in which I have to switch to hyper-dedicated gizmos, thus increasing how much I lug about with me. That said (don’t you hate sentences that begin this way?), there are times when you need a scalpel instead of a Swiss army knife.
A fisheye is the textbook example of an over-specialized lens, a hunk of glass that delivers a very distinctive, very controversial view of the world. To some, they are the gateway to innovation, to viewpoints beyond the power of the human eye. To others, they’re a gimmicky abomination. They’re really just ultra wide-angles that take in such a vast view (anywhere from 120 to 180 degrees or even wider) that they literally bend the field of vision, encompassing shots within an actual circle in full-frame cameras or what’s called a diagonal fisheye in cropped sensors. In both cases, the shot features dark vignettes at the corners in images where proportions are nearly normal at the center, then increasingly bowed-out closer to the edge of the shot. They are still in the minority as far as general lens use is concerned for a variety of reasons, including the rarity of cases in which they can be truly appropriate or effective, the heinous cost of the good ones, and the heinous artifacts in the cheap ones.
I happened to have lucked out with a fisheye that is fairly crisp and free of chroma flaring at f/16 or smaller, although the accompanying need for increased ISO bears watching. I shoot on a crop, so I don’t worry about maintaining the “encircled” look since I can’t get it anyway, allowing me to crop to wherever the frame is strongest. In the “before” shot of a strange but huge art installation at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden (see above), you see what a standard 18mm wide-angle will do. Given that I had very limited space either behind or above me, there was no way to back up in order to include the entire scene, and so, out came the fisheye, shooting at about 12mm and taking in a 160mm field of view (see below).
Now, standing in exactly the same place, I could see where the “yellow wave” of straw-like fibers originated at the far end of the shot, while the distortion factor in the lens gave the flow of straws a kind of “S” curve as it made its way to the foreground. Other considerations: super-wides exaggerate the distance between front and back, making the whole installation seem more vast than it was in reality; and also, by keeping most of the crucial action in the center, I kept the image’s most radical distortion (like on the footbridge at upper left) confined to the outer edge of the composition.
Would I, for this shot, have resorted to the fisheye except out of desperation? Unlikely. It is not a “go to” tool in any real way, since like all gimmick glass tends to pull attention away from the subject and toward itself. However, even though I love to head out with “one lens to rule them all”, I find, like any good sawbones, that I will, occasionally, need that scalpel.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NAME OF THIS BLOG, THE NORMAL EYE, IS A REFERENCE to the old nickname for fixed-focus “prime” lenses, non-zoomable glass like 35 and 50mm, that were once dubbed “normal” since they delivered the sense of space and proportion most closely resembling that of human vision. I’ll leave other combatants to decide whether this renders prime lenses “truer” in any way (those of you who think you know what “truth” is, advance to the fine arts class), but one things seems clear (that is, not cloudy): wide angle lenses, say 24mm or wider, tell a somewhat different truth, and thus create a distinct photographic effect.
Ultra-wides can generate the sensation that both proportion and distances (mostly front-to-back) have been stretched or distorted. They are thus great for shots where you want to “get everything in”, be it vast landscapes or city streets crowded with tall buildings packed into close quarters. They don’t really photograph things as they are, but do serve as great lenses for the deliberate effect of drama. I don’t use super-wides for too many situations, but, when I do, I make up for lost time by going overboard…again, largely as an interpretative effect.
Nothing shoots wider than the fabulous fisheye lens, introduced in the 1920’s as a meteorological research tool, and shooting as wide as 8mm with a viewing arc of anywhere from 100 to 180 degrees. Starting in the 1960’s, the fisheye’s unique optics crept into wider commercial use as a kind of funhouse look, the circular image in which all extremes of the rounded frame bend inward, creating the feel of a separate world isolated inside a soap bubble. Some of our most iconic cultural images used this look to suggest a sense of disorientation or dreamlike unreality, with classic album covers like the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, the Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? using fishes to simulate the psychedelic experience. Far out, man.
However, used sparingly as simply a more extreme wideangle, the fisheye can create a drama that conforms more to a rectangular composition, especially when the inner core of the image is cropped into a kind of “mailbox” aspect, resulting in an image that is normal-ish but still clearly not “real”. Tilting the lens, along with careful framing, can keep the more extreme artifacts to a minimum, adding just enough exaggeration to generate impact without the overkill of the soap bubble. As with any other effects lens, it’s all a matter of control, of attenuation. A little of the effect goes a long way. I call it lying with a straighter face.
Fisheyes are a specialized tool, and, for most of photography, the optical quality in all but the most expensive ones have kept most of us from tinkering with the look to any significant degree. However, cheaper and optically acceptable substitutes have entered the market in the digital era, along with fisheye-“look” phone apps, allowing the common shooter to at least dip a toe into the pool. Whether that toe will look more like a digit or a fleshy fish hook is, as it always was, a matter of choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS CHOOSE LENSES BASED ON LOTS OF CRITERIA, depending on what kind of “reality” they seek to visualize. In recent years, there has been a solid return to so-called “normal” or prime lenses, glass with focal lengths of 35-85mm which produce a perspective most like human vision, fairly free of the spatial distortion seen in ulta-wide lenses. At the same time, the use of ultra-wides in television and film, even for scenes in which a dramatic viewing angle is not particularly appropriate, is on the rise as well, and the widest consumer-level wides, including various types of fisheye lenses, are becoming sharper and cheaper than ever before.
I mention cinema here because it’s only after the emergence of 1950’s-era wide-screen processes like Panavision and Cinemascope that such lenses began to sell in larger numbers to amateur photographers, becoming an active part of the hobby. By the ’60’s, ultra-wides created stunning mutations of space in films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Orson Welles’ The Trial, but, in such cases, the idea was still to deliberately distort reality for dramatic effect. Today, the most common “kit lens” accompanying a new DSLR is the 18-55mm, which at its widest, can make vertical lines bend inward in a way that is dramatic, but not a true measure of natural distance relationships. And, yes, they allow you to stand closer to your subject and “get it all in frame”, but, at that point, you’re also making a decision about whether your image is to be interpretive of reality, or reflective of it.
Extreme wides, including fisheyes, can widen to 8 or 9mm, making the bending of lines so severe that the image elements seem to form a circle, with all lines arching sharply toward the center. And depending on what your image’s particular “reality” is to be, the distances of objects from front to back within the frame are also intensely exaggerated. Things which, in a “prime” lens image, appear just ten feet apart, can, in a fisheye shot, seem half a football field from each other. TV and film shooters exploit this big-time. If you’re shooting within a cramped interior and need to balloon its scope to suggest a larger scale, an ultra-wide really opens the place up. Medium-sized studios used in political debates now appear cavernous: ordinary city buildings shot wide for a crime drama take on intimidating height and depth, appearing to occupy entire blocks.
In the above image, if I want to make the viewer a little dizzy and daunted at the top of this rather modest escalator, I must use an ultra-wide to cheat, to trick the eye into concluding that it’s actually standing at the top of a sky-high ski jump. The tricky thing about ultra-wides, however, is that they mutate everything in the frame. And if part of that “everything” includes humans, your subjects can be taffy-twisted into some very alarming dimensions. Anything wider than about 24mm is downright uglifying for portraiture, unless a stylized effect is part of your interpretation. Lenses are not mere recording equipment. Their limits, biases, and faults can be exploited based on whatever kind of world you’re trying to conjure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS’ FIRST USES OF FILTERS WERE AS THE TWIST-ON TOOLS designed to magnify, nullify or modify color or light at the front end of a lens. In the digital era, filtration is more frequently added after the shutter clicks, via apps or other post-production toys. You make your own choice of whether to add these optical layers as a forethought or a post-script. However, one of the simplest and oldest of filtering options costs no money and little time, and yet continues to shape many a great image: a window.
No panes are optically identical, just as the lighting conditions that affect them are likewise completely unique, so the way that they shape pictures are constantly in flux, as are the results. It’s no surprise that the shoot-from-the-hip urban photographers who favor spontaneity over all pay little attention to whether shooting through a window “ruins” or “spoils” an image. Taking an ad-lib approach to all photographic technique, the hip shooters see the reflections and reflections of glass as just another random shaper of the work, and thus as welcome as uneven exposure, cameras that leak light, or cross-processed film: another welcome accidental that might produce something great.
Windows can soften, darken or recolor a scene, rendering something that might have been too strait-laced a little more informal. This quality alone isn’t enough to salvage a truly bad shot, but might add a little needed edge to it. The images seen here were both “what the hell” reactions to being imprisoned on tour buses, the kinds that don’t stop, don’t download their passengers for photo or bathroom breaks, or which are booked because I am tired of walking in the rain.
In the case of the tour driver’s cab, his inside command center and personal view are really part of the story, and may outrank what he’s really viewing. In the side-window shot of an early morning in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the tinted glass acted much in the way of a polarizing filter, making the resulting photo much moodier than raw reality would have been.
Which is the point of the exercise. When you feel yourself blocked from taking the picture you thought you wanted, try taking it the way you don’t think you want to. Or just think less.
Wait, what did he just say?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE 1990’s, THE MOST COMMON BASIC HUNK OF PHOTOGRAPHIC GLASS for new DSLRs has been the 18-55mm wide-angle, dubbed the “kit lens”. It allows beginners to move from landscape-friendly wides to moderate zooms without switching lenses. Depending on how much a given shooter experiments, the kit can allow for a lot of nuanced compositional options between the lens’ range.
If you find yourself shooting at the widest angle most of the time, then you are really using an effects lens, since, at 18mm, the lens is more than wide enough to distort angles and distances in ways that, while dramatic, don’t reflect the way your eyes actually see. This makes for expansive vistas in crowded urban streets and a little extra elbow room for mountain views, but is substantially more exaggerated than focal ranges from 35-50mm, which produce proportions more like human eyesight. However, the focal length you eventually choose has to be dictated by what you care to create; there can’t be any yardstick than that, all people’s opinions off to the side.
I have found a personal sweet spot by going a tad narrower, back to 24mm, and I also work with a dedicated prime lens that will only work at that exact focal length. By trimming back from 18mm, I find the distances from front to back in an image are a little more natural to my eye, and that I still have a yard of room from side to side without ushering in that Batman-type bending of perspective.
For comparison, I have re-shot subjects that I’d photographed at 18mm and found, at 24, no loss in impact. In the images in this post you can see the difference in how the two settings frame up. The composition in the 24 is a little tighter, but, if that’s not wide enough for you, you can simply step back a bit and there’s the same composition you saw in the 18, albeit with a little more normal proportion.
The most important thing with a variable focal length lens is to give yourself the flexibility of being able to get good results all through the focal range, simply to avoid getting too comfortable, i.e., sliding into a rut from always doing everything in the same way. Putting yourself into unfamiliar territory is always a good route to growth, and playing with your gear long enough to know everything it has to give you is the best way to periodically refresh your enjoyment.
When Grandma serves broccoli, you don’t gotta eat and pound-and-a-half of it, but heck, try it. You might like it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.
So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).
Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.
So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.