By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE SOCIAL-MEDIA EQUIVALENT OF SMACKING SOMEONE ON THE BACK and saying “Attaboy” is affixing the remark “Great capture!” to your “like” of another person’s images. This is meant to be a compliment, but I think it is misapplied. Of course, on one level, I admit that carping about one little word constitutes world-class nitpicking on my part. On the other hand, I think we need to think critically about what happens in the making of an effective picture. It’s an active, rather than passive, process.
In one sense, a camera does, in fact, “capture” a scene, snatching a millionth of a minute from its place in the steady flow of time. But seldom does a golden moment or lovely subject present its best self to us, ready to be harvested, requiring only that we lower our butterfly net. Photography is a much more deliberate art than that. In fact, we often happen upon images of things that are not yet “ready for their close-up”, in that the first way we see them may not be the best way for us to show them to others. Long before the snap of the shutter, we select our angle, our composition, our light, and even reject all of those choices and make them all over again. We are carefully crafting the best way to reveal something….not merely happening by and passively recording it.
In this spirit, the word “capture” simply isn’t strong enough, as it implies little more than luck in the production of a great photograph. In fact it is really describing a snapshot, in which something very great may have been gathered, but without much in the way of effort. It’s like complimenting someone on catching a baseball no one was expected to catch, a celebration of good fortune rather than skill. Photographs aren’t made merely by grabbing whatever the camera is pointed at: they’re made by a selective process of saying “yes” to some elements by including them in the frame and then reaffirming those elements even further by saying “no” to many other elements that might otherwise clutter or complicate the communication between image and viewer.
Ken Rockwell, a pro photographer whose www.kenrockwell,com site also functions as an online clearing house of technical information on the specs of various camera manufacturers, occasionally steps away from his role as Lord High Adjudicator of gear and reminds his readers of the true essentials of their art. In these random pep talks he will often insist that, in the end, nothing….no lens, no camera, no shiny new toy.. can supplant the human equation in the making of pictures. One of his best such sermons illustrates (far better than your humble author can), just what an “on purpose” process is afoot in the best pictures, as in this paragraph, where he discusses the difference between composition and the mere act of framing:
“Composition is the organization of elements within a frame that leads to the strongest, clearest, cleanest, simplest, most well-balanced and therefore best picture. The best composition is the strongest way of seeing a subject. Framing is what you do by zooming in and out, by moving the camera up and down and left and right, and by rotating it to any angle, including vertical and horizontal. Framing has almost nothing to do with composition, but sadly, few photographers realize this. Framing can’t do much of anything to change the relationships between objects. Framing is easy. One usually can frame a picture after it’s shot by cropping. Composition is very difficult. Composition is what makes or doesn’t make a picture. Composition is the organization of elements in the picture in relation to the other elements…..”
Nothing, of course, will ever eradicate all the “great capture” salutes from the interweb, and maybe we should just stipulate that a compliment is a compliment. But I love to emphasize, since it is so important, that what you all do in the creation of wonderful images is purposeful, not random, that great pictures seldom just jump into your camera. When a composition is eloquent, it is usually a photographer, and not a camera, who has given it voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE ADAM AND EVE BIT THAT DAMNED APPLE, humans have demonstrated that the thing they really want is the thing they are told they can’t have.
Stay with me here: this actually has a lot to do with photography.
Deny somebody something and they will long for it, lust after it, obsess about it. Consider the case of the Portugeuse, who, for a while, tried to run things in Mozambique, in order to harvest that African nation’s rubber, and who told the locals that their traditional ceremonial instrument, an early kind of xylophone called the mbila, would henceforth be forbidden as a cultural expression. As a result, an entire underground of information on how to play it was maintained by exiled miners, prisoners, and assorted other rebels. The result? Eventually the Portugeuse left: the mbila stayed. Today, the instrument is even featured on the local currency.
We can’t have it? Wanna bet?
Humans. Go figure.
But back to photography, where, similarly, the thing we are “told” we “can’t have”, at least in an image, is whatever is left out of the frame. Missing detail. People rendered in shadow. An activity that’s implied by the manner in which part of it is cropped. We love what the photographer shows but we hunger for what he leaves out.
Out-the-window shots are a great source of this phenomenon, since shooters are usually forced to expose for either what is in front of said window or beyond it….but seldom both. The rise of HDR and tone mapping in recent years has tried to address this, rendering everything in the same degree of illumination, often with bracketed exposures, from light to dark, that are blended afterwords in software. But there’s a problem. Many HDR’s are simply over-processed, defying the mind’s knowledge of the proper relationships between light and dark. Everything’s visible but can easily be garish, unnatural. And so many of us go back to simply deciding what selected parts to illuminate in an image, and which to leave undefined. That means some darkness, which in turn means some things don’t get shown. And, if we’re lucky, those things that we don’t reveal can be more tantalizing than those that we do.
I was walking around the back of the old Terminal building in San Francisco, which is the place that all the city’s ferries used to dock and disembark before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, making many daily boat trips across the bay unnecessary. The building now houses eateries, produce stands, and an insane amount of tourist traffic, much of it crowded into restaurants such as the one seen here. The view out the back includes the Bay Bridge and the local ship traffic, as well as the occasional sailboat, such as the one seen here. I exposed for the scenery, leaving the restaurant’s patrons and workers in shadow. The scalloped, rather “peek-a-boo” view that resulted keeps the image from being a standard postcard shot, but while that “purity” is lost, what’s gained is a smidge of mystery about the shadowy folks in front. What are their conversations about? Why are they here?
I am just suggesting here that, instead of always regarding an image like this as a “blocked” or “obstructed” view of a scenic vista, you can choose to tantalize your viewer by providing a partial reveal of both foreground and background, since their inclination is already, like that of Adam and Eve, to obtain what they’re denied (in this case, by the exposure and the limits of the frame). Sometimes, in a photograph, a nothing can be a very important something. It all depends on who’s looking and what they themselves bring to the experience. In that way, they and the photographer are having a conversation. Which is kind of the idea.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, IN THE VERY INSTANT THAT I COMPOSE AND SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH, it occurs to me that, in the past, there might have been circumstances under which I talked myself out of taking that very same shot. That is, there is something in the scene before me that, at some time, might have convinced me not to attempt the picture at all. I don’t know whether to interpret this feeling as proof of growth of any type, or whether it just demonstrates my utter lack of confidence. I just know that, on different days, I can be a very different kind of photographer.
As habitual users of The Normal Eye already know, this small-town newspaper is less about the mechanics of taking a picture and more about the motivations. If we don’t understand what compels us to click/not click in particular situations, it’s pretty hard for us to figure what the whole thing’s about. Photographs are chosen, not “taken”. So, let’s peel apart my inner conversation in the making of the image seen below.
In looking at this scene from two years ago, in which some shadowy residential streets of Reno, Nevada are back-stopped by the Sierras, I could, through my own experience, easily rattle off a short grocery list of reasons not to attempt the picture. Among them:
There is too wide a contrast between the foreground and background (but is that a problem, really?).
I’m shooting through a window and therefore can’t absolutely suppress glare and reflection (but is that a deal breaker?).
There is, at first glimpse, no human story in evidence (or is there merely an absence of people in the frame? Aren’t the houses indicative of a “human story”?).
Okay, I’ll take the picture, but I’ll totally fix it later in “post”( fix it, or over-cook it and make it “ideal” rather than natural?).
……..and so on, with the additional inclusion of the most compelling “why not to” reason of them all:
the last time I tried something like this, it was a disaster.
You can see where this can lead. The very experience that should be helping you make more, better informed choices can actually scare you into seeing certain shooting situations as fraught with risk, as something to be avoided. Since we know what didn’t work in the past, we tend to think we also know what won’t work in the future. In reality, though, every time we’re up to bat, some little thing is different from our last time. Huge stuff like a different camera or lens, small stuff like being tired or distracted and every other variant in between. We may think we’ve “been here before”, but that’s only generally true. The only real way to make a picture a success or failure is to try to shoot it. Guesswork, even guesswork based on real-life experience, can paralyze. Sift through what you know and what you’ve lived through. Re-live all your so-called “failed” pictures, and then get back on the horse. As Rudyard Kipling said, “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
I don’t preach many absolutes here, but remember this one:
Always. Shoot. The. Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LONGER YOU’RE INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater chance there is that, at some point, you’ll at least wonder if a telephoto lens should be in your arsenal of gear. As with any other lens, I believe that, over time, the need for a zoom will become fairly obvious….either obviously needed or obviously superfluous. That is, your shooting will drive your technical needs and dictate what you deem as essential equipment.
That means not buying any lens, especially a zoom, before you find yourself in repeated situations where it might have made the difference in your work. The reason I deliberately state what should be a “duh”-type truth is that there are still some photographers who gear up with everything under the sun before they demonstrate their strengths or desires by the kind of images they pursue. This means that you don’t buy lenses and then try to find a use for them. Working that way all but guarantees that the things you never evolved a genuine need for wind up consigned to the top of the hall closet or on a yard sale table.
So let’s go back to the example of telephotos. It’s completely possible that your particular work will never indicate that you need one. I can cite many amazing photographers that seldom, if ever, use them. I myself have only one modest 55-300mm zoom, which I can safely is in use once, maybe twice a year. And that’s a net increase in its use, due to the fact that I now spend increasingly more time accompanying my wife on her birdwatching expeditions. Even at that, I seldom use the things for actually photographing birds. My eye is far too untrained to locate them in most cases, and I am just as content to use the 300mm for landscapes, macros and other wildlife. Were I bitten as hard by birding bug (bug?) as Marian, I may already have ponied up the dough for a more powerful version of what I use. But bitten I am not, and so I am stuck with my original biases against zooms…..that is, that they are generally too slow, too dark, too poor at color rendition, and supremely aggravating to focus on the fly. Am I grossly over-generalizing? Of course. But you judge these things on your own results (indifferent) and your own limits (considerable).
In the view you see here, I am almost at the extreme limit of my 300’s usefulness, with my bullfrog quarry about thirty yards away, making him a medium-large speck in the viewfinder even when I’m fully zoomed out. This means that locking auto-focus on him will be strictly hit-or-miss, necessitating a shoot-check-shoot-check cycle in an effort to catch the toad before he can get bored and blow the scene. And that’s assuming that I can get auto-focus to lock at all. In many cases, going manual will keep me from issuing a verbal blast of mostly blasphemous bile in getting the shot, but even that is no guarantee when working hand-held. Are we having fun yet? My point is that, at least for me (notice the italics), zooms trade access for precision and speed. Sometimes, as in the marginally lucky result you see here, the trade-off is worthwhile. Other times….
So, to my earlier point. I could trade up to a more powerful zoom, if I were to demonstrate a need for one by the typical work I produce….. and if I decide to give up food and shelter to finance the thing. Again, the idea is….let what and how you shoot dictate what you’ll buy to shoot with. From where I stand, one frog a year still doesn’t scream ‘buy more glass”. As always, what makes some of us grin makes others of us grimace. And vice versa.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“LOST IN THE WOODS”. “DEEP IN THE FOREST”…conjure your own phrase for the sensation of entering, and being swallowed by, dark, mysterious places. Realms of shadow, primordial laboratories in which both dreams and nightmares are brewed. In other words, sites where photographers can wax poetic. Or crash and burn.
Forested areas are both challenge and opportunity for shooters, since they are seldom subject to the same laws of composition or exposure as subjects shot out in the open. Mastering light in woodsy settings can be a crusade in its own right: details can melt into dark murk or be completely blown out in sudden shafts of sunlight. I have produced more mushy, indecipherable messes with more cameras in more forests than I care to count, in pictures which inadvertently produce more mystery than they reveal, as in “what’s this supposed to be?”
I can come a lot closer to coherence when I work with partial clearings rather than dense woods, working with simpler compositions that suggest the feel of the forest from its near edge rather than its center. Exposure becomes a more streamlined process as well.
Also, since the emphasis in such a shot is on mood rather than detail, even the basics of focus can become, well, negotiable, as seen here. But then, almost anything in the making of a photograph is. Or should be. My point being that, when the taking of a picture fails, it can be because the photographer is trying to execute too many things at once. Eliminating some of those things until the image becomes manageable can be, like walking out of a dark forest, a profound relief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME VISUAL SUBJECTS ARE SO RICH IN POTENTIAL that they evolve from a few essential shots to what, for lack of a better term, passes for a photo “essay”. Such extended coverage of buildings, countries and people used to be common in the heyday of the picture magazine, with up to a dozen pages of images strung together with narrative links in the pages of Life, Look and their many imitators. It’s a great format to work in once you discover a worthy candidate. But, in practical terms, it can be a little like working a checklist.
I document a lot of Art Deco architecture, since it embodies history, abstraction, illustration, design, and fantasy, all in one big fat buffet. That means I spend a lot of time dodging passersby on sidewalks and lingering in lobbies long enough to make the security personnel twitchy. Deco is all about the splendor of detail, some of which can only be revealed by patiently moving from door to grille, elevator to stairway, entrance to entrance, and looking for light that will bring that detail into bold relief.
I used the word checklist a while back because you are often working one in your mind, ticking off the various items as you wander around the site. Gotta do the mezzanine. Need a shot of the ceiling. Did I catch those wall sconces? Thing is, we tend to think of those little check marks as meaning, I’m done here. Moving on….when, in terms of what changing light does to these buildings within a short span of time, we should be actually be thinking, okay, I’ve done the preliminary work. Should go back and check this again in a while. Deco, especially, is rife with reliefs and murals made from a wide variety of materials, many of which will register color and shadows very differently at different times of day. You have to think in terms of “Take One, Take Two”, rather than in the snapshot mentality of “nailed it.”
The images you see here, of the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent Marine Building (read all about it here) were shot just twenty minutes apart. The top shot shows light landing on the door and its surrounding niche fairly flatly, almost sideways. However, within minutes, as seen in the second shot, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to blast away at the center of the space, throwing the overhang of the arch into deep shadow. This change intensifies the contrast between raised and flat surfaces and makes the exterior terra-cotta (a material in which the colors are baked right in) more vivid. It also is projecting shadows like crazy. Which version is better? Not the point. It’s about editing choices and being reluctant to think that there is one “official” way to shoot something.
I could show similar changes to the lobby, with light softly entering the stained glass over the door, then crashing through it like a golden ray just minutes later. The point is, exposure is time plus light, and, when tackling a large essay-type project, it’s important to do more than one visualization on key elements. It’s the difference between grabbing a souvenir and creating a keepsake.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS AND MAGICIANS SHARE A COMMON POWER, in that both of them selectively practice the art of concealment. Now you see it, now you don’t. Both the shooter and the shaman, in their own ways, know the importance of the slow reveal, the smooth manipulation of the viewer’s concept of reality. Best of all, they know how to choreograph and stage visual information. Here, they insist. Look here.
In a lifetime of studying portrait photographers, I have been fascinated by the nearly endless variety of approaches used to convey the human personality/soul in a static image. There are the formal studio sittings. There are the street ambushes of the paparazzo. And there are the shadowy, soft, gently suggestive pictures in which the classic representation of a “face” may not occur at all. This is the blending of revelation and mystery, and it is where portraits, at least for me, genuinely aspire to art.
Some of my favorite images in this area were Edward Steichen’s studies with the sculpture Auguste Rodin, dark, smeary pieces of pure mood in which the great man was reduced to a near silhouette, as if he and his sculptures were forged out of the same raw material. I learn next to nothing of Rodin’s face from these pictures, and yet I learn worlds about his spirit. Steichen reveals as he conceals.
Which gives me an idea.
As I skim through the daily global tsunami of selfies, many of them simple grinning headshots, I see an incredible opportunity to start a completely new dialogue on what constitutes a portrait….or even a face. That opportunity will be squandered if 99% of selfies only look like slightly happier passport photos, rather than a real growth medium for investigating the self, for using the face as a compositional accent, an arranged object within a larger design.
Why selfies? Because the subject is always available. Because the technology of both mobile phones and conventional cameras allows for faster and more far-reaching experimentation. And because re-framing a subject you think you know intimately, merely by shifting where the veil lifts or falls, can be the difference between conceal and reveal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU HAVE SEEN THEM A MILLION TIMES. Those brave souls who, despite multiple trips to Failed Fotoland, optimistically point their cel cameras at distant and dark objects, hoping their puny on-board flashes will illuminate cavernous concert halls, banish shadows from vast cathedrals, or, God bless them, turn the night sky into a luminous planetarium. They have faith, these people. But they don’t often take home the prize.
Immense, dark masses of subject matter, from mountain sides to moody urban streets, simply cannot be uniformly exposed with a sudden lucky burst of on-camera flash. The only way to gather enough light to get a usable exposure of such things is to leave your shutter open long enough to let more light soak in. Think dribble instead of flood. Time exposures are remarkably effective in “burning in” an image slowly, but they have their own science and technique, and they must be patiently practiced. They are the dead opposite of a quick fix, but they are worth the trouble.
With today’s editing software, it’s easier than ever to customize even your best time exposures, combining several shots taken over a given time sequence to arrive at a satisfying balance of elements. In the above picture, I wanted to show the colorful “Field Of Light” installation created by artist Bruce Munro for Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, which blankets a desert hillside with over 30,000 globes of color-shifting light. I set up my tripod about a half-hour before local sunset and took exposures five minutes apart until about forty minutes into the onset of evening.
From that broad sequence, I selected two frames; one taken before dark, in which the underlying detail of the hill (desert plants, rocks, etc.) could still be seen, and one taken just after the sky had gone dark to the naked eye, but blue to the camera. I then composited the shots in Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” mode, which is a bit like stacking two backlit slides and gradually changing how much of each can bleed into the other. My object was to get both a blue, but not black, twilight sky and at least some detail from the natural terrain. Neither individual shot could achieve all of this alone, however, given the ease of doing an exposure fusion in nearly any kind of photo software these days, it was a snap to grab the best elements of both frames.
Epilogue: during the fairly long stretch of time I was standing behind my tripod, I counted over two dozen separate visitors who boldly stepped up, aimed their cellphones, cranked off a quick flash, and loped away, muttering something like, “well, that didn’t work.” Some shots are like low-lying fruit, and some have to be coaxed out of the camera. Knowing which is which, ahead of time, makes for happier results.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE ONLY CONSTANTS OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY has been the flood tide of tutorial materials covering every aspect of exposure, composition, and light. The development of the early science of capturing images in the 19th century was accompanied, from the first, by a staggering load of “how to” literature, as the practice moved quickly from the tinkering of rich hobbyists to one of the most democratic of all the art forms. In little more than a generation, photography went from a wizard’s trick to a series of simple steps that nearly anyone could be taught.
In calling these pages the “photoshooter’s journey from taking to making”, we have made, with The Normal Eye, a deliberate choice not to add to the mountainous load of technical instruction that continues to be available in a variety of classroom settings, but to emphasize why we make photographs. This is not to say that we don’t refer to the so-called “rules” that govern the basics of creating an image, but that we believe the motives, the visions behind our attempts are even more important than just checking items off a list of techniques in the name of doing something “right”. There are many technically adept pictures which fail to engage on an emotional or aesthetic level, so the mission of The Normal Eye, then, is to start discussions on the “other stuff”, those indefinable things that make a picture “work” for our hearts and minds.
The idea of what a “good picture” is, has, over time, drifted far and wide, from photographs that mimic reality, to those that distort and fracture it, to images that are both a comment and a comment on a comment. It’s like any other long-term relationship: complicated. Like everyone else, I occasionally produce what I call a “fence-sitter” photo like the one above, which I can both excuse and condemn at the same time.
In raw technical terms, I have obviously violated a key rule with the abject softness of the image…..unless……unless it can be said to work within the context of the other things I was seeking in this subject. I was trying to stretch the envelope on how soft I could make the mix of dark foliage and hazy water in the scene, and, while I may have gone a bit too far, I still like some of what that near-blur contributes to the saturated color and lower exposure, the overall quiet tone I was trying for. Still, as of this moment, I’m still not sure whether this one is a hit or a miss. It might be on the way to something, but I just can’t say.
But that’s what the journey is about. It can’t be confined to mere technical criteria. You have to make the picture speak in your own language.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU’VE EVER GLANCED AT THE NORMAL EYE’S HOME PAGE MISSION STATEMENT, you might come away with the impression that I am unilaterally opposed to automodes, those dandy little pre-sets that do their best to predict your needs when making a photo. The truth is that I am against doing anything “all the time”, and thus caution against the universal use of automodes as a way of idiot-proofing your shoots. They can be amazing time-savers, sometimes. They are reliable shortcuts, sometimes. Just like I sometimes like bacon on a burger. There are no universal fixes.
I meet many people who, like myself, prefer to shoot on manual most of the time, eschewing the Auto, Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes completely. Oddly, many of these same people almost never take their white balance off its default auto setting, which strikes me as a little odd, since the key to color photography is getting the colors to register as naturally as possible. Auto WB is remarkably good at guessing what whites (and in turn, other hues) ought to look like in a pretty wide variety of situations, but it does make some bad guesses, many of them hard to predict.
A gross-oversimplification of white balance is that it reads the temperature of light from cold to warm. Colder temp light runs bluer. Warmer temp light reads more orange. Auto WB tries to render things as naturally as it can, but your camera also has other customizable WB settings for specific situations, and it’s worth clicking through them to see how easy it is to produce subtle variations.
In the picture in the upper left corner, I’m taking a picture indoors, in deep shade, of a reproduction 1930’s Bluebird Sparton radio, a wondrous Art Deco beauty featuring a blue-tinted mirror trimmed in bands of chrome. To emphasize: blue is the dominant color of this item, especially in shade. Shade, being “colder” light, should, in Auto White Balance mode, have registered all that blue just fine, but, in this case, the chrome trim is completely (and unnaturally) painted in the same orange glow. As for the blue values, they’re well, kind of popsicle-y . That’s because, when it’s all said and done, Auto White Balance is your camera’s educated guess, and it sometimes guesses wrong. If you always use it, you will occasionally have to eat a bad picture, unless you take action.
For the above image, I want the dial to be nice and orange, but just the dial. To try to get the blues back to normal on the rest of the radio, I switch to the Tungsten white balance setting (symbolized by a light bulb, since they burn, yes, tungsten filaments), something I normally wouldn’t do in either daylight or shade, but hey, this is an experiment anyway, right? To make it even weirder, Tungsten might read neutrally in some kinds of indoor night settings…but it also doesn’t behave the same way in all cases. In this case, I caught a break: the orange in the radio dial registers pretty true and all the metals are back to shades of silver or blue.
Notice how both white balance settings, in this strange case, both performed counter to the way they are supposed to. One misbehaviour created my problem and another misbehaviour solved it. Hey, that’s show business.
Hence the strange but appropriate title of this post. Don’t ever “always” do…anything. If you want the shot you want (huh?) then pull an intervention and make the camera give it to you. Automode in white balance is just as fraught with risk as any other automatic setting. It works great until it doesn’t. Then you have to step in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AN ELOQUENTLY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPH, which I read in a recent edition of the New York Times, convinced me anew that, apart from a few compositional basics, no one really knows what makes an image “work”. Beginners love to sing the praises of the Rule Of Thirds as a guideline for composition, and, likewise, critics rhapsodize about Golden Ratios as a way to dissect how powerful elements occupy space in great photos. But the dirty little secret about composition is that there is no dirty little secret, no Laws of Gravity or Relativity that, if consistently obeyed, will yield consistent excellence.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t emotionally identify which pictures have power, as well as those that merely lie there. It merely means that there may never be adequate verbal artillery to reduce those feelings to a law, a handbook, or a credo. We arrive with our cameras at places where there may, or may not be, a picture. Our eye tells us that something important can be extracted, isolated, amplified, re-contextualized. Beyond that, it’s a matter of fate and luck.
Of course, the more we experience what works, the better we are at seeing it in the raw and extracting better and better examples of it. However, every ride of the bucking bronco is distinctly different from all the others. Photography has certain mechanical techniques that can be mastered, certainly, but we can’t learn emotional impact in a class. We can only pour something out into the camera from what is already inside us.
Try to imagine walking up to a chalkboard and reducing your favorite photograph to a series of shorthand symbols reminiscent of a mathematician’s equation. Could anything be more bloodless, more clinical? Critics and analysts sometimes come from the ranks of doers, but many of the very best doers resist the temptation to dissect their art as if it were a lab frog. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acknowledged Moses of street photography, once recalled that it was seeing another shooter’s best work that made him say, “Damn It!”, grab his camera, and head outside, obsessed with making something of his own that could incite such a reaction.
Photographers seize instinct and emotion in the raw and forge them into a kind of sense-fired steel. Frame a picture with that steel and it will speak a thousand times louder than any mere dissertation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY VALUABLE SERVICES OUR CAMERAS WILL RENDER without our consent or participation. Without even considering how many people shoot on full automatic 100% of the time, there are a hundred small calculations that these marvelous devices make to prevent the kind of errors in judgment that used to routinely trip us up, from autofocus and white balance, face detection and contrast control. However, there is a variable percentage of decisions on which we should really take personal action, despite the camera’s best efforts to, in effect, save us from ourselves.
In iffy light situations, for example, several key “semi-auto” modes are truly handy in helping us compensate for grey days or dark corners. One of these is called aperture control, in which you dial in the f-stop you want, based on your preferred depth of field, leaving the camera to set the shutter speed needed to properly expose at that aperture. At first blush, this seems to be a great short cut, and is in fact a neat option for people who are “running and gunning”..shooting lots of frames in a very quick time span. However, what looks like cutting your work in half can also mean cutting the legs off your creativity.
In the above situation, I had a severely overcast day in a lushly green Japanese garden. Without shadows for contrast, I would need colors to be as deep as possible to bring off the mood I was going for, so a slightly underexposed look seemed to be in order. Dialing in f/5.6 as a desired D.O.F. in aperture priority was giving me very slow shutter speeds as the camera tried to give me an ideal exposure. This made a handheld shot a little tougher and gave me way too much high color to suggest anything quiet or moody.
Going to full manual, I dialed in a shutter speed that would render the greens nice and deep, around 1/80, and bumped up the ISO a tad as insurance. It was true that I was shooting a lot at the same f-stop, but not so fast that I would have to surrender fine control by shooting in aperture priority for mere convenience’s sake.
I love some of the protections against my own folly offered by today’s devices, but I just can’t go completely driver-less and feel that I am taking enough responsibility for my results. Hey, if I blow it completely, I can still explain a lousy shot in two simple words.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS OFTEN RECOMMENDED as the way to afford yourself the most stability in a long exposure. After all, few of us are robotic enough to hold a camera stock-still for anything below a third of a second, so it’s a no-brainer to park your camera on something that’s too inhuman to flinch. You can also take amazing stuff hand-held on shorter night exposures, so long as you (a) have a lens that will shoot around f/1.8 or wider and (b) you can live with the noise a higher ISO will engender.
So, yeah, tripods have their place, but they are not the only determinants in the success of a night-time shoot. And those other x-factors can severely compromise your results. There is the stability of the tripod itself, which isn’t a big sweat if you shelled out $900 for a carbon-fiber Gitzo Pan/Tilt GK, but might generate heartburn if you got something closer to a set of metallic popsicle sticks for $29 at Office Max. The shot above was taken using my own modest (cheap) rig atop Mount Washington across from downtown Pittsburgh, and a few of the healthier gusts threatened to take it and me on a quick lap around the riverfront. Some people buy sandbags. Some believe in the power of prayer. Your choice.
Another x-factor for ‘pod shots is the actual weather you’re shooting in, which will, let’s say, shape your enthusiasm for staying out long enough to get the perfect shot. The smaller your aperture, the longer the exposure. The more long exposures you take, the longer you, yourself, are “exposed”…to snow, sleet, and all that other stuff that mailmen laugh at. Again, referencing the above image, I was contending with freezing drizzle and a windbreaker that was way too thin for heroics. Did I cut my session short? i confess that I did.
I could also mention the nagging catcalls of the other people in my party, who wanted me to, in their profound words, “just take the damned picture” so they could partake of (a)a warm bar, (b) a cold beer, (c) a hot waitress. Result: a less than perfect capture of a fairly good skyline. A little over-exposed, washing out the color. A little mushy, since the selfsame over-exposure allowed the building lights to burn in, rendering them glow-y instead of pin sharp. I was able to fix some of the color deficiencies later, but this is not a “greatest hits” image by any stretch.
Tripods can be lifesavers, but you must learn to maximize their effectiveness just like any other piece of camera equipment. If you’re going to go to a buncha trouble to get a shot, the final result should reflect all that effort, quality-wise.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POPULARLY-HELD VIEW OF THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY makes the claim that, just as video killed the radio star, camera killed the canvas. This creaky old story generally floats the idea that painters, unable to compete with the impeccable recording machinery of the shutter, collectively abandoned realistic treatment of subjects and plunged the world into abstraction. It’s a great fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
There just is no way that artists can be regimented into uniformly making the same sharp left turn at the same tick of the clock, and the idea of every dauber on the planet getting the same memo that read, alright guys, time to cede all realism to those camera jerks, after which they all started painting women with both eyes on the same side of their nose. As Theo Kojak used to say, “nevva happennnned…”
History is a little more, er, complex. Photography did indeed diddle about for decades trying to get its literal basics right, from better lenses to faster film to various schemes for lighting and effects. But it wasn’t really that long before shooters realized that their medium could both record and interpret reality, that there was, in fact, no such simple thing as “real” in the first place. Once we got hip to the fact that the camera was both truth teller and fantasy machine, photographers entered just as many quirky doors as did our painterly brothers, from dadaism to abstraction, surrealism to minimalism. And we evolved from amateurs gathering the family on the front lawn to dreamers without limit.
I love literal storytelling when a situation dictates that approach, but I also love pure, absolute arrangements of shape and light that have no story whatever to tell. As wonderful as a literal capture of subjects can be, I never shy away from making an image just because I can’t readily verbalize what it’s “about”. All of us have photos that say something to us, and, sometimes, that has to be enough. We aren’t always one thing or the other. Art can show absolutes, but it can’t be one.
There is always one more question to ask, one more stone to turn.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.
One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20 or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.
However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?
Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.
However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY, versus shooting in rural settings, is the constant variability of light. On its way to the streets of a dense city, light is refracted, reflected, broken, interrupted, bounced and just plain blocked in ways that sunshine on a meadow can never be. As a result, shooting in cities deals with direct light only intermittently: it’s always light plus, light in spite of, light over here, but not over there. And it’s a challenge for all but the most patient photographers. Almost every frame must be planned somewhat differently from its neighbors, for there can be no “standard” exposure strategy.
I often think of city streets as big window sills sitting below a massive set of venetian blinds, with every slat tilted a little differently. And I personally greet this condition as an opportunity rather than a deficit, since the unique patterns of abstraction mean that even mundane scenes can be draped in drama at any given moment. That’s why, as I age, I’ve come to highly value selective lighting, for mood, since I’m convinced that perfectly even lighting on an object can severely limit that selfsame drama.
I’m also reminded of the old Dutch masters painters, who realized that a partially dark face contains a kind of mystery. Conversely, a street scene that contains no dropouts of detail or light makes everything register just about the same with the eye, and can keep your images from having a prominent point of interest. Darkness, by contrast, asks your imagination to supply what’s missing. Even light is a kind of full disclosure, and it can rob your pictures of their main argument, or the “look over here” cue that’s needed to make a photograph really connect.
Back to street photography. Given that glass and metal surfaces, the main ingredients in urban structures, can run a little to silver and blue, I may actually take an unevenly lit scene and either modify it toward those colors with a filter, or simply under-expose by a half-stop to see how much extra mood I can wring out of the situation, as in the above image of an atrium in midtown Manhattan. Think of it as “working” those big venetian blinds. Cities both reveal and conceal, and your images, based on your approach, can serve both those ends.