By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WERE, IN THE DAYS OF FILM, two main ways to create the velvety glow of uniformly soft focus so prized by portrait subjects. The more expensive route lay in purchasing a dedicated portrait lens that achieved more or less of the effect, depending mainly on aperture. The other, cheaper way was to screw-on a softening filter, making any lens adaptable to the look. Now, in the digital era, those two options have been joined by softening apps for phone cameras and in-camera “filters”, which add the effect after the photograph has been snapped.
That’s the beauty of where we are in the history of photography, where every problem has a half-dozen different solutions, offered at different levels of complexity, ease, and affordability. In the golden days of Hollywood, cinematographers achieved the soft look with some Vaseline smeared over the lens, or by attaching different gauges of gauze to the glass. Both tricks made yesterday’s matinee idols look like today’s ingenues, and now, anyone with a reasonably sophisticated camera can achieve the same success with half the bother.
I myself prefer to shoot soft focus “live”, that is, in the moment, with either a dedicated lens or a filter, but you aren’t always in the same frame of mind when you shoot something as when you review it later. In-camera processing, while offering less fine control (tweaking pictures that have already been shot), can at least give you another comparative “version” of your image at literally no trouble or cost. With Nikon, you simply select the “Retouch” menu, dial down to “Filters”, select “Soft” and scroll to the image you want to modify. For Canon cameras, go to the “Playback” menu, select “Creative Filters”, scroll to “Soft” and pick your pic. The image at left shows the result of Nikon’s retouch filter, applied to the above picture.
One personal note: I have tried several phone app softeners as post-click fixes, and find that they generally degrade the quality of the original image, almost as if you were viewing the shot through a soup strainer. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, the app versions of soft focus are not ready for prime time yet. Best news is, the soft-focus effect is so popular that eventually all solutions will be generally equal, regardless of platform, since the marketplace always works in favor of the greatest number of people making pictures. Always has, always will.
All things considered, we got it pretty soft.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS’ FIRST USES OF FILTERS WERE AS THE TWIST-ON TOOLS designed to magnify, nullify or modify color or light at the front end of a lens. In the digital era, filtration is more frequently added after the shutter clicks, via apps or other post-production toys. You make your own choice of whether to add these optical layers as a forethought or a post-script. However, one of the simplest and oldest of filtering options costs no money and little time, and yet continues to shape many a great image: a window.
No panes are optically identical, just as the lighting conditions that affect them are likewise completely unique, so the way that they shape pictures are constantly in flux, as are the results. It’s no surprise that the shoot-from-the-hip urban photographers who favor spontaneity over all pay little attention to whether shooting through a window “ruins” or “spoils” an image. Taking an ad-lib approach to all photographic technique, the hip shooters see the reflections and reflections of glass as just another random shaper of the work, and thus as welcome as uneven exposure, cameras that leak light, or cross-processed film: another welcome accidental that might produce something great.
Windows can soften, darken or recolor a scene, rendering something that might have been too strait-laced a little more informal. This quality alone isn’t enough to salvage a truly bad shot, but might add a little needed edge to it. The images seen here were both “what the hell” reactions to being imprisoned on tour buses, the kinds that don’t stop, don’t download their passengers for photo or bathroom breaks, or which are booked because I am tired of walking in the rain.
In the case of the tour driver’s cab, his inside command center and personal view are really part of the story, and may outrank what he’s really viewing. In the side-window shot of an early morning in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the tinted glass acted much in the way of a polarizing filter, making the resulting photo much moodier than raw reality would have been.
Which is the point of the exercise. When you feel yourself blocked from taking the picture you thought you wanted, try taking it the way you don’t think you want to. Or just think less.
Wait, what did he just say?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMEONE HANDIER WITH A SLIDE RULE THAN ME RECENTLY OBSERVED that the raw numerical totals, on photo sharing sites, had shifted in favor of mobile images over those taken with more conventional cameras. In other words, the war was over, and the phones had won, at least in the sheer tonnage of uploaded images. Not sure that I yet regard that assertion as divine revelation, but the fact is that, as mobiles become a bigger component of overall photography, a second shift in technique will also continue, that between conceptualizing and compensation.
By conceptualizing, I mean the system, for traditional photographers of planning their shots before the shutter clicks, choosing settings, pre-editing the composition in the frame, any kind of advance prep. By compensation, I mean the emphasis, with mobiles, on adding filters and fixes after the click, technically learning how to make the most of what you were able to get.
One rather fun element I like to play with at present is the two approaches to high contrast black & white, especially the “black sky” effect which can force foreground objects to pop with greater drama. Shooting out in the Arizona desert for years, I have more frequent use for this effect than I might in more, well normal areas of the country. Traditional approach to this with a DSLR, of course, is the attachment of a red filter. You have to grope around for the right exposure, since you might lose the equivalent of two stops of light, depending on the situation, but it’s a great look. So that’s for us “conceptualizing” folks. See an example up top of the page.
The “compensation” peeps, who might have done their original shot on a phone, in color, is often referred to in apps as “red sensitivity” which adds the dark-sky look as it converts the shot to black and white. Usually you can only tweak the intensity of the effect (sometimes brightness as well), but it delivers a fairly good facsimile of the DSLR’s red filter, albeit with a little black lint kind of texture to the skies that you can usually get rid of with a noise reduction slider in your computer. The results, as you can see off to the left, are fairly acceptable.
If you’re shopping for filters beyond those in your own camera native app, consider adding one that includes red sensitivity. It’s one more “compensation” tool that’s nice to carry in your back pocket.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
QUICK, DO YOU KNOW WHO MADE THE HAMMER IN YOUR KITCHEN DRAWER? Let’s assume that it’s not a Sears Craftsman, but something you bought on the spot when you just needed, like, a hammer. Yeah, I’ll wait.
Follow-up question: does your off-brand Thor-wacker drive nails any less efficiently than a Sears? Or is it really all in the wrist?
In photography, sometimes tools is just tools. Cellphone apps comprise one of the the most glutted product markets ever, and, while some products do rise to the top and/or international prominence, there are gobs of different players out there to help us solve the same old problems, i.e., composition, exposure, color range, special effects. Those are the basics, and you need not be loyal to any predominant type-A app when, by the time I type the rest of this sentence, forty more guys will have served up their own solution for the exact same need. Go with what works. Add, subtract, adopt, dump, delete, and adore as needed.
Most cel camera apps, toolwise, are closer to a Swiss Army knife than a scalpel, blunt instruments that either apply an effect all-on or all-off. Single click, caveman-level stuff. Still, even the casual cel photog will pack a few of them along to do fundamental fixes on the go, and I recently noticed that I had acquired a decent, basic utility belt of bat-remedies, including, in no particular order:
Negative Me. Just what it says. Converts positive images to negative. Not something you’ll use a lot, but..
Simple DOF. A quick calculator that measures near, far and infinite sharpness based on distance, aperture and lens.
Fused. Instant double exposures, with about ten different blending formulas.
Soft Focus. Sliders for sharpness, brightness, color saturation. Instant glamor for portraits.
Timer Cam. Get in the photo.
Instants. Genuine fake Polaroid borders around your landscape or square images. Because we can’t give up our hipster groove.
AltPhoto. Best simulations of older classic film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X, as well as red filter, toy camera and antique effects.
Tilt-Shift Focus. Narrow the sharp areas in your images from a pinpoint to a basketball.
Flickr. Direct link to the mother ship
Pic Stitch. Framing templates for collages of two or more images. Drag and drop simplicity.
Use of these gimcracks ranges from the (yawn) occasional to the (yes!) essential, and your mileage may vary. Thing is, it’s truly a buyer’s (and user’s) market out there. Gather your own gold and click away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EMERGING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS is the newly accepted way not to look like a photographer, a kind of invisibility based on strange public perceptions. This has only become possible with the arrival of the smartphone, and, although insane logically, it affords a new freedom to street photographers.
It’s simple, if crazy: carry an actual camera inside a phone, just as many millions of others do, and you’re somehow “safe” or trustworthy, not one of predatory, intrusive “professionals” with obvious cameras who are out to trick you, track you, capture your soul in their satanic box. Now, how we explain away the fact that the phone camera is far more stealthy, far more insidious and far more omnipresent than, say, a Canon or Nikon is anybody’s guess. But, dopey or not, this new code is now hard-wired into people’s brains as it regards street work. So little camera=harmless. Big camera=end of the world as we (or over-zealous mall cops)know it. You figure it out.
So, when it comes to grabbing quick snaps in stolen moments, it’s becoming harder not to embrace the crazy and just use a smartphone as your default street tool. I’m not completely there yet, but when I’m surrounded by things that I will either never see again, or have never seen before, it’s tempting to play spy shooter with the little clicker.
Some of the greatest sources of still life material, for example, are the dense shelves of flea markets, antique shops and thrift stores. You don’t want to buy this stuff, since (a) you can’t afford it and (b) the Mrs. will send both it and you to Goodwill, but the occasional odd item might just make a decent abstract bit of design. Camera gear from yesteryear is always an easy sell, and I was ecstatic to do a virtual shoplift on the ancient flash attachment you see above as a fun way of re-purposing an object through selective framing and processing.
It’s frustrating to find more and more places where it’s easier to negotiate a nuclear treaty than get an okay for regular photography, so it’s no shock that more and more inroads are being made for mobile cameras and the access that no one feels like denying them. And they say I’m nuts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FAR BE IT FROM ME TO DO A HATER NUMBER on photographic post-processing. We often pretend that the act of photo manipulation began at the dawn of the pixel age, when, of course, people have been futzing with their images since the first shutter snapped. We love the idea of “straight out of the camera” as an ideal, but it’s just that…an ideal. Eventually, it’s the way processing is executed in a specific instance which either justifies or condemns its use.
With that in mind, I do find that too many of us use faux b&w, or the desaturation of color images, long after they’re snapped, as a kind of last-ditch attempt to save pictures that didn’t have enough force or impact in the first place. Have I resorted to this myself? Oh, well, yeah, maybe. Which means, freaking certainly. Have I managed to “save” many images in this way? Not so much. Usually, I feel like I’m serving leftovers and trying to pawn them off as a fresh meal.
The further along I lope through life, however,the more I tend to believe that the best way to make a black and white image is to set out to intentionally do just that. An act of planning, pre-visualization, deliberation. It means looking at your subject in terms of how a color object will register over the entire tonal range of greys and whites. Also, texture, as it is accentuated by light, is particularly powerful in monochrome, so that part needs to be planned as well. Exposure, as it’s effected by polarizers or colored filters also must be planned, as values in sky, stone or foliage must be anticipated. And, always, there is the use of contrast as drama, something black and white does to great effect.
You might be able to convert a color shot into an even more appealing b&w shot in your kerputer, but the most direct route, that is, making monochrome in the moment, is still the best, since it gives you so many more options while you’re managing every other aspect of the shot in real time. It all comes down to a major philosophical point about photography, which is that the more control you can wield ahead of the click, especially with today’s shoot-it-check-it-shoot-it-again technology, the better your results will be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY AKIN TO MY GRANDMOTHER’S COOKING METHOD, which produced culinary miracles without a trace of written recipes or cookbooks. Her approach was completely additive; she merely kept throwing things into the pot until it looked “about right”. I was aware of the difference, in her hands, between portions that were labeled “smidges”, “tastes”, “pinches” and even “tads” (as in, “this is a tad too bitter. Give me the salt.) I never questioned her results: I merely scarfed them down and eagerly asked for seconds.
Picture making can also be a matter of adding enough pinches and tads to create just the right mix of factors for the image you need. It’s frequently as instinctual a process as Gram’s, but sometimes you have to analyze what worked by thinking the shot backwards after the fact. In the case of the above image, what you see, although it was shot very quickly, is actually the convergence of several different ingredients, the combination of which would be all wrong for some photos, but which actually served this subject fairly well.
The five-decker sandwich of factors in the shot begins with the building, which is quite intense in color all by itself, yet not quite contrasty enough to suit me in this specific instance. So let’s see all the hoops the camera had to jump through to get this particular image:
First, it was taken during the so-called “golden hour”, just before sunset, in late fall in Arizona. That guarantees at least one boost of the building’s native intensity. The next factor is the camera’s own color settings, which are set to “vibrant.” Level three comes from a polarizing filter, which is juicing the sky from its hazy southwestern “normal” to a deep blue. For the fourth element, I am also adding a second filtering component by shooting through a heavily tinted car window (there’s no other kind in Arizona), which presents here as the gradation of sky from blue at the top of the frame to a near aqua near the bottom. And finally, I am way under-exposing the shot at 1/320, deepening the colors yet one more time.
The fun of this is that it all happens ahead of the click, and keeps your fingers off the Photoshop trigger. Grandma may not have spent any more time laboring over a photo than a quick snap of a box Brownie, but she knew how to take stew meat and morph it into filet. And, as with the making of a picture, you just keep adding stuff until the mixture in the pot looks “about right.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ISN’T ANYTHING EMPTIER THAN THE PERFECT EXECUTION OF A FLAWED IDEA. And in the present effects-drenched photographic arena, where nearly any texture, color, or conception can be at least technically realized, we need, always, to be making one crucial distinction: separating what we can do from what we should do.
The basic “fixes” which come natively loaded in even the most basic cameras (filters, effects, nostalgic slathers of antique colors) suggest a broad palette of choices for the photographer looking to extend his reach through what is basically an instantaneous short cut. Fine and dandy, so far. Who, after all, wants to labor for hours to augment a shot with a particular look if that effect can be achieved at the touch of a button? Certainly no one gets into photography anymore with the understanding that they will also have to act as a chemist, and creativity need not be the exclusive playground of the scientifically elite. We all agree that the aim of photography always has and always should be the placing of all tools in as many hands as possible, etc., etc.
But waita seccint. Did I say the world tool? ……(will the recorder read that last part back….?……”placing of all tools in as many…”)… yep, tool. Ya see, that word has meaning. It does not mean an end unto itself. A fake fisheye doth not a picture make. Nor doth a quickie panorama app, a cheesy sepia filter, nor (let’s face it) the snotty habit of saying “doth”. These things are supposed to supplement the creative moment, not be a substitute for it. They are aids, not “fixes”.
This comes back to the earlier point. Of course we can simulate,imitate, or re-create certain visual conditions. But what are we actually saying in the picture? Did we use the effect to put a firm period at the end of a strong sentence, or did we use it as a smoke bomb to allow us to exit the stage before the audience gets wise to the fakery?
One of the original objections to photography, as stated by painters, was that we were handing off the actual act of visual artistry to a (gasp!) machine. A little hysterical, to be sure, but a concern is still worth addressing.
There is a soul in that machine, to be sure.
But only if we supply it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREAT BENEFITS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, other than its ease and affordability, is the speed at which it allows you to make comparative value judgements on images in the field. Even as digital darkrooms make it ever easier to change or modify your vision after the fact, today’s cameras also allow you to choose between several versions of a photograph while its subject is right at hand. This is an amazing mental and artistic economy, and it’s another reason why this is the absolute best time in history to be making pictures.
Many of us who made the transition from film have a lifelong habit of “bracketing”, taking multiples of the same image over a range of exposure rates to ensure that we are “covered” with at least one keeper in the batch. Others have already adopted the equivalent habit of taking several different frames with a sampling of varying white balances. I also find it helpful to use today’s in-camera filters to instantly convert color shots to three other monochrome “takes”….straight black and white, sepia and cyanotype. It’s a way to see if certain low-color subject matter will actually benefit from being reworked as duotone, and knowing that fact extra fast.
Color or its selective elimination is one of the easiest tools to wield in photography. In the case of the series shown in this post, I decided that the winter scene was a little too warm and cheery in full color, a little flat in straight B&W, but properly evocative of winter’s severity in cyan. The choice was quick, and I still had the color master shot that I could choose to massage later on.
Shooting fast, that is, at the speed of your mood or whim, is a remarkable luxury, and exploiting it to the max is easy with even the most elementary camera. And anything that converts more “maybe” shots to “yes” is my idea of a good time.
I’ll have a Blue Christmas, thank you.
- 5 Good Photography Habits to Start Today (digital-photography-school.com)