By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO FLIP THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF ON-LINE DEBATES between those who favor automatic exposure over manual, you’d think that the two camps (both vociferous and intractable) had existed since the beginning of photography. In fact, however, this argument only goes back about as far as the 1970’s, when the first cameras with automatic modes of any kind began to re-define the market. Think about that: we now are asked to choose up sides on what was, for 75% of photography’s history, a non-issue.
Automodes began as partial assists to an overall manual process of making pictures. Then the manufacturers came to a startling realization; that many more beginners and amateurs would enter the camera hobby if the cameras were engineered to do more of the heavy lifting involved in snapping a shot. Quite simply, the less worry and uncertainty that could be evolved out of the process, the less frustrated people would be and the more they would shoot…spelling increased sales for both film and gear. It also created the “move-up” market, because, if photographers could stay at it long enough, they would either outgrow their equipment or surrender to the urge to replace it regularly, since a better and more expensive camera makes better pictures, right?….or so went the logic.
And so the hobby evolved from a craft that required total personal control of every aspect of exposure to occasional assists to where we are today, which is a world of cameras engineered to anticipate every need for every situation and to provide an automated guarantee that most of the resulting shots are above average, or “good”. There are millions who still shoot 100% manually, of course, but they are numerically in the majority, simply because many people will trade a high-average, convenient experience for a greater risk of failure. We are thus in an age of “good enough” photography.
But one thing gets lost in this ongoing debate, and that’s the answer to the question, “who’s taking the picture here?” Again, let’s just look at exposure. Many considerations go into what happens to a shot at various levels of light, with variations in color, texture, contrast, and so on. As seen in the top image, a fully automatic exposure is far from “bad”…in fact, it’s a tribute to the engineer’s art that it is a perfectly fine, average depiction of what I saw through the viewfinder. However, for anything interpretive, it’s only a starting point. The second exposure, shot at exactly the same time and under the same general conditions, could not be any more different from the auto-mode version. Color plays a decidedly different role. Texture and contrast call attention to the building’s weathered exterior. And as for the time of day, the image, taken under harsh Arizona midday light, could easily be mistaken for early sunrise or late afternoon.
Manual shooting isn’t a holy calling, like the priesthood, and being good at it isn’t magic, just a matter of doing it enough to work past all the mistakes. In other words, a normal learning process. Cameras that make decisions for you will often make them in keeping with your own preferences, but when they don’t (or can’t), taking back control is a sure way to make the pictures yours, and only yours. As the man says, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN A MOMENTOUS SURGE in the number of photographic optics that market themselves as “art lenses”, as if all other lenses were, what….non-artistic? This murky term essentially denotes lenses that deliver customized or selective focal effects, such as the Lensbaby “sweet spot”, a partial area of sharpness, surrounded by soft blur, that can be placed, at will, at various parts of the frame. Other so-called “art lenses” produce unique patterns of bokeh, or blur artifacts, while yet others produce vignetting, or darkening around the outside corners of the image. Some of these lenses are great overall performers, while a number of them are either one-trick ponies or muy espensivo or both.
Thing is, if you possess a fast “normal” lens, such as a 35 or 50mm “prime”, you can already achieve some of the same effects of many over-hyped proprietary lenses in the “art” arsenal. Primes have but a single focal length and thus have no telephoto function. The photographer frames by physically moving closer to, or farther away from, his subject, by, in effect, “zooming with the feet”. Since their focal range is fixed, primes are extremely simple in their construction, and therefore extremely sharp. In addition, they often will open to at least f/2.8, with many rated at f/1.8 or even faster. And that’s where the arty focus fun starts.
Wide open to f/1.8, the 50mm prime used for this image creates an extremely shallow depth of field. And that can be good news for flattering pics of faces. Primes of this focal length are already prized as portrait lenses, since they produce faces with normal proportions, as opposed to the Silly Putty stretching you get with wide-angles. Add to that a fast prime’s ability to deliver a very buttery transition between sharpness and blur, and you have the potential for a very finely-tuned look. Notice that there is no real hard sharpness in the cat’s face beyond one eye and about one third of his face. The rest rolls off very softly. My point is that nearly any good prime can deliver this effect: it isn’t essential to invest in a custom piece of “art” glass to get it.
One caveat: shooting this far open, at this distance, your auto-focus may endlessly gyrate back and forth trying to find a place to lock in. My advice: go manual. At this DOF, you’ll have to practice with how to nail the focus, and I personally am driven bonkers trying to find the sharpness at f/1.4 or faster: the range is so very razor-thin. Even so, before you pony up for a lens that’s designed to deliver arty focus, play with the primes you already have. You may be delighted. The focus may be shallow, but the satisfaction can run deep.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S REVOLUTION IN URBAN ARCHITECTURE produced a radical re-imagining of the physical science of erecting buildings, along with a remarkable shift in what those buildings should look like. An extreme shift in outward design can be tracked from the ornate Greco-Roman and Gothic textures of the Woolworth Building at century’s start to the stark, spare rectilinear boxes of the ’40’s and 50’s, as we jetted from doric columns, oak clusters and gargoyles to the completely un-ornamented glass boxes that we associate with, say, the Pan Am or United Nations buildings at the other end. That changed the way we live, and likewise transformed the way we photo-document our cities.
And, whatever your opinion of what came to be called the “International Style”, the boxes today co-exist with their more decorous ancestors, a contrasting mix which creates amazing opportunities for abstraction. The collision of the two periods creates an endless shuffling of visual cues, with all that glass and terra cotta dueling for dominance in our compositions. And therein lies a tip: one tool which you may find of enduring value in shooting in these situations is a circular polarizing filter, which can help you create a wide variety of effects…quickly, and on the cheap.
People in sun-soaked sectors of the world mostly use the CPL to deepen the blue in overly-bright skies, but the filter’s ability to cut glare on reflective surfaces like water and glass can also be dramatic, and that’s how I use it in urban settings. I’ve come to love the idea of a sheer wall of glass in one building being stamped with all the details of the building directly across the street (over my shoulder). Twisting the upper ring of the CPL dials in the degree of glare you want in your image, allowing you to see none, some, or all of your neighboring structure in the glass in front of you. One caution: the filter also deepens color and can rob you of up to a stop of light, so you want to plan your exposures more carefully, something that’s done easier shooting on full manual.
The dominant idea of design in the International Style was to eschew detail and ornament to as great a degree as possible. That resulted in a lot of very boring exteriors as a vast crop of largely faceless boxes shot off the assembly line. However, using their sheer screens of glass as a vibrant kind of video display for the neighborhoods around them actually breathes a little life into them, and the circular polarizing filter gives you a remarkable amount of control over that process.