BY MICHAEL PERKINS
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip…..be grateful for a pleasant “trip“…..
Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, “Pick Yourself Up”
THE UNDERSTANDABLE EXCITEMENT THAT ACCOMPANIES the acquisition of a new camera is like that experienced by the first-time driver of a finely-tuned sports car,…..i.e., let’s open this baby up and see what’ll she’ll do.
All well and good. However, for the best translation of your vision, from eye to finger to shutter, I contend that it’s more important to know what your camera won’t do. Or more precisely, to learn what you don’t know to tell it to do.
Just as we are eager to credit ourselves, and not the camera, for those shots that really work out well, we need also to shoulder our share of the blame when things fail. The camera that delivers your message perfectly is the same camera that produced the shots that deserve to line birdcages. The difference is you. Your gear is composed of servo-mechanisms. They are neither intuitive nor interpretative. Anything that smacks of aesthetic judgement or nuance is on you. Am I saying there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” camera? No, but those two labels should be a measure of design, function and technical parameters. Your skill can both empower a limited camera and hobble an advanced one, so talk of “good” or “bad” falls apart once a disposable creates a masterpiece or a Leica delivers garbage.
This means that, at bottom, your choice of camera matters very little, whereas the choices your eye asks the camera to execute is, simply, everything. Try as it might, the camera cannot compensate for what you didn’t know how to articulate. Finding out what your camera won’t do means learning how to respect its technical limits while trying to eradicate those selfsame limits in yourself. That means, as Paul Simon wrote, “learning how fall”. It’s a pretty good strategy, since every one of us had to learn that in order to learn how to walk.
UPractice. Be eager to fail, and to learn yourself past future failure. And eventually get to the point where you never, ever write a check your camera can’t cash. Then, and only then will you really see what that baby will do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE THAT IS NOT BORN AN OCTOPUS figures out early that photography is often about living with the consequences of unforseen choices. Perhaps creatures born with eight arms might actually be able to produce the best images, since they’d be equipped with the means to carry every piece of equipment they possessed into the field for a shoot. As for the rest of us, results rise or fall on the strength of our planning…..and resiliency.
To be clear, the word planning is meant to denote all of your process, not merely the first preference you imagined when anticipating a shoot. That “version” we label “Plan “A”, which might also be entitled “do everything the way you first envisioned it with precisely the gear you originally selected”, an outcome roughly equivalent to Marrying The Prom Queen And Retiring To Tahiti. Let’s face it: shoot enough pictures and you’ll be struck by how seldom you were able to simply step up, click, and go hang a golden trophy on your mantel. In most cases, Plan “A” is usually just a point of departure, a preliminary sketch.
So let’s assume your photo shoot has proceeded to Plan “B”, which might be named “rejecting your original conception”. At this stage, you’ve begun to question everything from composition to gear to even the strength of your initial subject. Based on how many alternate equipment choices may be available, several tough decisions can be made at this juncture, including my favorite, Doing The Best You Can (the path of least resistance), otherwise known as Shoot It Anyway. Assuming this doesn’t work out, you move briskly on to:
Plan “C”, in which you have new strategies forced on you by either the technical limits of your gear, or the boundaries of your skill level with it. This assumes that, not only did you bring the wrong lens for the job, but also that the right lens is four acres away in the parking lot. Let’s also stipulate, for purposes of this exercise, that everyone around you is getting (a) impatient, (b) tired, or (c) hungry, just to add to the pressure. Hey, pal, no rush, but take the picture already, willya? But have no fear… there’s always:
Plan “D”, in which a change in your entire approach to the image is unavoidable, but suddenly and strangely…..alluring. Being stuck with gear that won’t absolutely deliver your original vision no matter what you do, you begin to embrace the idea of experimenting, otherwise known as the What The Hell or Weary Resignation option. Hey, you grabbed a fisheye lens for the inside of the conservatory building…..but maybe you can also make it work as a standard ultra-wide (see above result). Cue up Kiss’ Nothing To Lose…
All of which is to say, in a very roundabout fashion, that it pays to be as flexible as, say, an octopus.
With one-fourth the arms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW PHOTOGRAPHERS TYPICALLY EXPERIENCE A MAJOR DISCONNECT between what they visualize and what their camera can realize. The gap between what you want and what your gear can deliver is initially very wide, mainly because you haven’t yet learned how to tell your camera what you want.
This gap is usually narrowed as you simply spend enough time with your equipment. But a true pairing, a real Harry-Potter-sorting-hat bond between yourself and a camera calls for a much deeper knowledge….of your needs, certainly, but more importantly, of what your camera is capable of doing for you. Sure, the more you shoot, the better you generally get at asking it to perform specific tasks, but to cross over into excellence you also will know more precisely what that device’s strengths and limits are.
Hundreds of factors determine what makes a camera right for you. Is the camera too basic to deliver, or too advanced for you to handle? Is its lens unsharp at the corners? Does your shutter lag? Do you want the camera to technically underperform to achieve an artistic effect? Can it reliably be counted on to shoot 95% of what you need, especially if it’s the only camera you can pack? How is its color rendition, its speed, it flash output, etc., etc.?
The image seen here is not really an example of anything except that, on the day I took the subway into Manhattan to attempt it, I knew I would not want to walk the city sidewalks laden with equipment. Certainly I did not achieve everything I was after with this shot, taken inside the lobby of the Chrysler building. However, I now know that I brought the one lens that gave me half a shot at getting something. What I’m saying is that, if I hadn’t known my equipment, I would not have been able to to even try to make that choice.
You will eventually have spent enough time with your cameras that you will know within an instant which one to grab for any given job. You’ll prepare better, waste less time, and ask “what happened?” far less often. And from that toolbox, one camera, one nearly perfect link to your skills and vision, will eventually emerge over all the others as the predominant “go-to” in your arsenal. And once that pairing is complete, you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, under any conditions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT MAKES A LENS GREAT, AT LEAST FOR ME, is the degree to which I can forget about it.
The best images come from being able to shoot decisively and in the moment. That means knowing instinctively what your lens is good at, and using that information to salvage more pictures. Such knowledge only comes from repetition, trial and error, patience, and all those other tedious old-school virtues that drive people crazy but drive their work to perfection. And, eventually, it means you and the lens must think and react as one, without a lot of conscious thought.
I only know one way to get to that point with a given piece of glass, and that’s to be “monogamous” with it, using a given lens for nearly 100% of my work for long periods of time. Shuffling constantly from lens to lens in an effort to get “just the right gear” for a particular frame actually leads me to be hyper-conscious of the limits or strengths of what I’m shooting with, to be less focused on making pictures and more focused on calculating the taking of pictures. I believe that the best photos start coming the closer you can get to a purely reflexive process. See-feel-shoot.
If you’ve never chosen your own version of a “go-to” lens, one that can stay on your camera almost always, and give you nearly every kind of shot, I would suggest biting off a fat space of practice time and trying it. Snap on a 35mm and make it do everything that comes to hand for a day. Then a week. Then a month. Then start thinking of what would actually necessitate taking that lens off and going with something else. And for what specific benefit?
You may find that it’s better getting 100% comfortable with one or two lenses than to have a passing acquaintance with six or seven. The above image could have been taken with about five different lenses with comparable results. But whatever lens I used, it would have been easier and faster if I had selected it because it would also work for the majority of the other shots I was to attempt that day. Less time rummaging around in your kit bag equals more time to take pictures.
Every time there is a survey on what the most popular focal length in photography is, writers tend to forget that the number one source of imagery today is a cell phone camera. That means that, already, most of the world is shooting everything in the 30-35mm range and making it work. And before we long for the “good old days” of infinite choices, recall that most photographers born before 1960 had one camera, equipped with one lens. We like to think we are swimming in choices but we need to make sure we’re not actually drowning in them.
Find the workhorse gear that has the most flexibility and reliability for what you most want to do. Chances are the lens that will give you the best results isn’t the shiny new novelty in the catalogue, but just inches away, right in your hand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN DRENCHED IN A VIRTUAL TIDAL WAVE over the last few days, visiting one of those torrential storms of discontent that can only exist on the internet, churning furiously, forever, no resolution, no winner. I don’t know when it began; I only know that, six months, a year, or a decade from now, if I return for more, the storm will still be raging, the two forces inexhaustible in their contempt for each other.
In one corner will be the photographers who believe that equipment has no determination in whether you make great pictures. In the other corner will be those who believe that you absolutely need good gear to make good images. The invective hurled by each combatant at the other is more virulent than venom, more everlasting than a family feud, more primal than the struggle between good and evil.
If you dig bloodsport, enter the maelstrom at the shallow end by Googling phrases like “Leicas are not the greatest cameras” or “your camera doesn’t matter” and then jump behind a barricade. Do more provocative searches like “hipsters are ruining photography” or “don’t think, just shoot” at your peril.
As with many other truth quests in photography, this one shows strong evidence for both of the waves in the surge. Certainly a great piece of equipment cannot confer its greatness upon you, or your work. And, from the other side, sometimes a camera’s limitations places limits, or at least austere challenges, upon even superbly talented people. And, so, to my mind, there is a third, more consistently true wave: sometimes there is a magic that makes it to the final frame that is mysterious, in that you don’t know how much of the picture you took, how much the camera took, or just how ready the cosmos was to serve that picture up to you. See image above, which I can no longer take either credit or blame for.
Yeah, that’s a little Zen high priest in tone, but look over your own work, especially things you did five or more years ago, where it’s now difficult to recall the exact circumstances of the success of a given image. Pull out the pictures that could be correctly captioned “I don’t know how I got that shot”, “I guess I just went for broke”, or “don’t ask me why that worked out..” There will be more pictures that fall between the extremes, that are neither “thank God I had my cool camera” nor “thank God I was able to make that image despite my limited gear.” That middle ground is the place where miracles thrive, or die on the vine. That strange intersection of truth , far beyond the lands of my-side/your-side heat, is where lies the real light.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, I NEED TO RENEW MY SENSES OF GRATITUDE AND HUMILITY, and I refresh both by leafing through a hefty tome called View Camera Technique, a 300-plus page collection of graphs, diagrams and tables on what still stands as the most technically immersive photographic instrument of all time. I use the word immersive because all of the view’s operations must be mastered through personal, direct calculation of a horde of formulae. Nothing is automatic. Results can only be wrung out of the device by the most exacting calculations. The guaranteed given of the view camera: there will be math on the final.
The aforementioned gratitude and humility come from the fact that I am free of the Pythagorean calculus that it took for earlier shooters to master their medium, and the knowledge that I will never apprehend even half of the raw science needed to summon images forth from these simply built, but technically unforgiving cameras. However, along with a hugh whew of relief comes just a slight pang of regret, since the camera has gone the way of many other tools that used to be in a direct, cause-and-effect relationship with the human hand.
As a kind of strangely timed stream-of-consciousness, my most recent review of View Camera Technique was followed, just a day later, by a visit to a local art foundry, a unique marriage of state-of-the-art kilns and caveman-simple hand tools, many of which were arranged on work benches near the visitors’ center, looking very much as if the past 500 years had not occurred. The marvel of hand tools is that, visually, they put us right back into an age when the world only yielded a working life to the direct, simple transmission of human force and will to a physical object. The use of a hammer is an unambiguous and impeccably clear transaction. You either drove the nail or you don’t. As Yoda said, there is no try.
Cameras no longer require us to wrestle directly with them to extract a photograph by real exertion, and that should give us, as shooters, an appreciation for those remaining implements which still do convey simple, A-B energy from hand to tool. Such objects remain powerful symbols for action, for creation, and for our urge to personally shape our world. And there must still be a great many pictures that we can summon forth to celebrate that relationship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HE’S YOUR DAD, YOUR UNCLE, YOUR WACKY SITCOM NEIGHBOR: the guy who has every ratchet,widget and wrench in the Sears Craftsman catalogue, yet who is, strangely, incompetent at any task more complex than the replacement of a light bulb. If he could just get that table saw, that router, he could finally tackle that pet project with real zest. But heck, he explains, I don’t have the right extender, the extra power supply, the magical whatsit that just came out this year. In reality, this guy is not a handyman, he’s an actor playing the part of a handyman. He’s Batman with a utility belt big enough to spill over a city block. He’s a gadget addict.
Now, transfer all that imagery from fix-it toys to optical toys, and you can understand the disease that photographers call G.A.S—-Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
There is no vaccine or twelve-step program for some types of shooters for whom the next lens, the up-and-coming accessory will make all the difference, and catapult their photography from mundane to miraculous. And none of us, even the most rigidly discipline, is completely immune to the siren song of the bright and shiny plaything. Sadly, G.A.S. often sidetracks us for months or even years, taking us off the path of practice and hard work with the tools we have as we wait for the toys we want. It doesn’t seem to impress us that people are making extraordinary pictures with cameras that are, basically, crap. Similarly, It doesn’t seem to faze us to know that people lugging around fifty pounds of lens changes and thousands of dollars in Leica-like bodies are often coming home with a portfolio of poop to show for their efforts. G.A.S., once its fever envelops our tiny minds, creates the hallucination that photography is about equipment. Sure, and Mark Twain wrote better after he graduated from notepads to a typewriter.
It’s almost too simple a truth that practice makes perfect, practice with limited lenses and sad little cameras, practice with nothing to focus on but how well we can teach ourselves to see. G.A.S. fogs up our thinking, making photography a destination (oh, once I get that German glass!) instead of a journey (wonder what I can make happen with what I have). It’s magical thinking. The camera becomes a talisman, a magic monkey’s paw, Harry Potter’s wand. Real, serious development is delayed while we wait for machines to appear and deliver us.
Oddly, looking backwards can often help us move forwards. Now, follow me here a moment. Ever go through the ghostly Shoebox of Shoots Past to find that you actually nailed a biggie on the day that you had bad weather, a lousy subject and a disposable $10 camera? Of course you have. But, wait….how could you take a good picture with all the wrong gear? Because something in you knew how to make that picture, with or without the ease and convenience conferred by better equipment. And the more you developed your eye, the more often you could make a picture that good, on purpose, time after time. As an example, the image at left is eight years and three cameras ago for me. I could certainly shoot it better today, but, even with more primitive machinery, I got most of what I wanted with what I had on hand that day. You have pictures just like this. Yes, you do.
I’m not saying that tools aren’t great, but if your shelves are overfilled (and your wallet is over-depleted) due to Gear Acquisition Syndrome, it’s best to ask how much in the way of toys you really need. None of it can take a great picture unless your mind and your eye are on the steering committee. Ansel Adams’ claim that the most important part of a camera was “the twelve inches behind it” is gospel. Get religion and become a believer, o my brothers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONLY PARTLY ABOUT TAKING AND VIEWING IMAGES. Truly, one of the most instructive (and humbling) elements of becoming a photographer is listening to the recitation of other photographers’ sins, something for which the internet era is particularly well suited. The web will deliver as many confessions, sermons, warnings and Monday-morning quarterbacks as you can gobble at a sitting, and, for some reason, these tales of creative woe resonate more strongly with me than tales of success. I like to read a good “how I did it” tutorial on a great picture, but I love, love, love to read a lurid “how I totally blew it” post-mortem. Gives me hope that I’m not the only lame-o lumbering around in the darkness.
One of the richest gold fields of confession for shooters are entries about how they got seduced into buying mounds of photographic toys in the hope that the next bit of gear would be the decisive moment that insured greatness. We have all (sing it with me, brothers and sisters!) succumbed to the lure of the lens, the attachment, the bracket, the golden Willy Wonka ticket that would transform us overnight from hack to hero. It might have been the shiny logo on the Nikon. It might have been the seductive curve on the flash unit. Whatever the particular Apple to our private Eden was, we believed it belonged in our kit bags, no less than plasma in a medic’s satchel. And, all too often, it turned out to be about as valuable as water wings on a whale. He who dies with the most toys probably has perished from exhaustion from having to haul them all around from shot to shot, feeding the aftermarket’s bottom line instead of nourishing his art.
My favorite photographers have always been those who have delivered the most from the least: street poet Henri Cartier-Bresson with his simple Leica, news hound Weegee with his Speed Graphic perpetually locked to f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/200. Of course, shooters who use only essential equipment are going to appeal to my working-class bias, since peeling off the green for a treasure house of toys was never in the cards for me, anyway. If I had been the youthful ward of Bruce Wayne, perhaps I would have viewed the whole thing differently, but we are who we are.
I truly believe that the more equipment you have to master, the less possible true mastery of any one part of that mound of gizmos becomes. And as I grow gray, I seem to be trying to do even more and more with less and less. I’m not quite to the point of out-and-out minimalism, but I do proceed under the principle that the feel of the shot outranks every other technical consideration, and some dark patches or soft edges can be sacrificed if my eye’s heart was in the right place.
Of course, I haven’t checked the mail today. The new B&H catalogue might be in there, in which case, cancel my appointments for the rest of the week.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ONE PIECE OF “EQUIPMENT” THAT HAS SEEN ME THROUGH THE TRANSITION FROM FILM TO DIGITAL is not a hunk of techno gear. In fact, it has not directly figured in the taking of even a single picture. I was reminded of its amazing longevity a few months ago, as I was going through a 2002 shoot done in Ireland. Among my own shots was a pretty good candid of me, taken by my wife, as I crouched to line up a shot next to a road heading to the Ring of Kerry. And there “it” was with me.
In fact, it was keeping me warm and dry.
Context: I never took the plunge of the eager amateur and purchased one of those puffy, sleeveless photog vests, honeycombed with a zillion pockets, pouches and secret compartments, much as I never painted the words CAMERA NERD on my face in day-glo orange. Chalk it up to self-consciousness. I figured it was hard enough to blend in and keep people relaxed in a shooting situation without looking like a cross between a spinster butterfly hunter and a middle-school lab assistant. Call me vain.
And you’d be right.
So, a plain brown leather jacket. Gimme three good pockets and call it day. And thus it was that, for the next thirteen years or so, I have had “skin in the game”, skin that has survived exploded pens, leaked batteries, rotten weather on two sides of the Atlantic, and more scrapes, tears, and rips than I care to recall. It has also helped keep countless camera straps from inscribing a permanent groove in my left shoulder, and, here in the Land Of Incipient Arthritis, I appreciate that more than I can say.
Such service calls for a little respect, and so, in the name of the weirdest still lifes ever, I figured it was time for Old Faithful to pose for a portrait of its own. Originally I thought to lay it out straight, the way they show off famous duds at the Smithsonian. But what really caught my eye was that, texture-wise, it is almost six different jackets, from the glossy sheen of an old horse saddle to the frayed look of something that’s been making out with a cheese grater.
At the last, I simply experimented with a few crumpled waves of grain, as if the jacket had been hastily tossed aside, which, trust me, it has been, on countless occasions.
Best thing is, when I’m ready, it’s still there.
I’m not a big fan of good luck charms, but maybe some things protect against bad luck, and that’s no easy feat, either. Either way, me and what Kipling would have called my “Lazarushian leather” and I will keep signing up new missions.
At least until one of our arms fall off.