By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN USING WIDE-ANGLE LENSES, we believe that we are revealing more “reality”. That is, we began to think that a narrower aspect ratio is somehow “hiding” or clipping off visual information, whereas a wide allows us to “see everything”. But once you’ve shot with a wide-angle for a while, you realize that it’s, at best, a trade-off. The lens giveth and the lens taketh away.
Wide-angles do, certainly, increase the view from left to right, but, in so doing, they add their own little quirks, such as softer resolution along the edges, chromatic aberration, barrel distortion (that feeling that straight lines are bending outward at the sides of the frame), and an exaggeration of the distance between the front and back of the shot.
Bearing all this in mind, I feel that, since a pretty wide lens, the 18-55mm, is now included with nearly every DSLR camera kit, it’s important to see wides as both an aid to showing reality and an effective tool for interpreting or altering it. Think of your wides as art glass, as effects lenses, and you open up your mind to how it can not only record, but comment on your subject matter.
And, let’s take it a step further, as in when wides become ultra-wides, as in the 8 to 12mm range, where the lens becomes a true fisheye. Now we’re consciously aware that we’re using an effects lens, something that is designed specifically for a freakish or distorted look. And now we have to challenge ourselves in a different way.
The standard fisheye shot is a self-contained orb, a separate universe, within which everything radiates distortion outward from the center concentrically, like a kaleidoscope or a paper snowflake. But a fisheye frame can also be composed to combine all the left-right, back-front information of a standard wide-angle (more narrative space) while also playing to the surreal look of something designed to challenge our visual biases of what’s “real”. The effect can also, as in the above image, forcefully direct the viewer’s eye to see along very precise channels. In this picture, the action of the shot begins at the right front, and tracks diagonally backwards to the left year, with the focus softening as you look from “important” to less “important”. The drama in the woman’s face is also abetted by the unnatural dimensions of the image, like one part of a nightmare serving to stage another part.
Wide-angle lenses can conceal and interpret, not just reveal. They allow us to see more from left to right, but there is a lot of wiggle room in how we show it. You have to accept the idea that all optics are distortions of reality to some degree, and make the bias of your particular glass serve your narrative goals.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CELL PHONE CAMERA’S IMPACT ON PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN SO SUDDEN AND FAR-REACHING that its full impact has yet to be fully measured. Within a decade, the act of making a picture has been democratized to a greater degree than at any other time in the history of the medium. It’s as if, overnight, everyone was given the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Goodbye, Superman, hello, Everyman. The Kodak Brownie’s introduction prior to 1900 gave the average human his first camera. The cell phone is like the Brownie on steroids and four shots of Red Bull.
It’s more than just giving millions of people the ability to take a photo. That part had been done before, dozens of times. However, no other camera before the cell has also obliterated the number one obstacle to picture-making on this scale: cost. The cost of film. The cost of marketing and sharing one’s work quickly, and with uniform quality. The cost of artistry, with support apps allowing people to directly translate their vision into a finished product without investing in gear that, just a few years ago, priced most people out of the creative end of the market.
Most significantly, there is the cost saved in time. Time learning a technique. Time speeding past the birth pains of your creative energy. you know, those darn first 10,000 hours of bad pictures that used to take years of endurance and patience. The learning curve for photography, once a gradually arching line, is now a dramatic, vertical jump into the stratosphere.
These insane leaps in convenience and, for the most part, real technical improvement occur across all digital media, but, in the cel phone, their impact is spread across billions, not mere millions, of users. Simulate a particular film’s appearance? Done. Do high-quality macro or fisheye without a dedicated lens running into the hundreds? Yeah, we can do that. Double-exposures, selective focus, miniature effects, pinhole exposures, even remote auxiliary lighting? Go fish. It’s all there.
And when cells raise the ante, traditional cameras have to up their game just to survive. The shot at the top of this page comes from a pair of Lensbaby macro converters up front of the company’s Sweet 35 optic, a shot that would only have come, a few years ago, from a dedicated macro lens costing upwards of $500. Lensbaby’s version? $49.95. And now, with less than a decade in the effects lens biz for DSLRs, Lensbaby makes macro, fisheye and other effect lenses for cells. A rising tide raises all boats.
I could make a list of the areas where the optics and outputs of cell phones are still behind conventional camera optics, but if this post is ever read more than a year past its publication, the future will make a liar out of me. Besides, that would put me on the same side as the carpers who still claim that film is better, more human, or “warm”, as the vinyl LP hipsters like to say. Your horse is nice, but it can’t outrun my Model T.
Part of photography’s appeal since day one has been the knowledge that, whatever era you live in, it’s a sure bet that some geek is slaving away in a lab somewhere, trying to make your sleek, easy, “latest thing” seem slow, clunky and over with. We’re never done. Which means that we’re always just beginning.
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
I ONCE HEARD AN OLD PHOTOGRAPHER SPEAK OF CREATIVE CHOICES AS “picking the right wagon to haul your goods to market”. By that, he meant that format, film, frame size, lens type or aperture were all just means to an end. If one wouldn’t take your wagon all the way to a finished picture, use another. He had no special sentiment or ironclad loyalty to any one tool, since there was, and is, only one real goal in any of photography: get the image you came to get.
It’s often hard to remember that simple rule, since we tend to associate the success of certain pictures with our pet camera, our sweet spot aperture, our favorite hunk of glass. But there’s also a knack to knowing when a particular tool that is wrong, wrong, wrong for almost anything might, for the project at hand, be just perfect.
I have one such tool, and, on rare occasions, the very properties that make me generally curse it as a cheap chunk of junk can make me praise it as just what the doctor ordered. It’s an Opteka 0.35, a screw-on lens adapter that simulates (to put it kindly) at least the dimensions of a true fisheye, without the enormous layout of dough, or, sadly, the optical precision of a true dedicated lens. It’s fuzzy at the edges, regardless of your aperture. It sprays chromatic shmears all over those edges, and so you can’t even dream of sharpness beyond the third of the image that’s in the dead center of the lens. It was, let’s be honest, a cheap toy bought by a cheap photographer (me) as a shortcut. For 99% of any ulta-wide imaging, it’s akin to taking a picture through a jellyfish bladder.
Since the very essence of fisheye photography is as a distortion of reality, the Opteka can be a helping hand toward a fantasy look. Overall sharpness in a fisheye shot can certainly be a desired effect, but, given your subject matter, it need not be a deal breaker.
In the case of some recent monochrome studies of trees I’ve been undertaking, for example, the slightly supernatural effect I’m after isn’t dependent on a “real” look, and running the Opteka in black and white with a little detail boost on the back end gives me the unreal appearance that is right for what I want to convey about the elusive, even magical elements of trees. The attachment is all kinds of wrong for most other kinds of images, but, again, the idea is to get the feel you’re looking for…in that composition, on that day, under those circumstances.
I’ve love to get to the day when one lens will do everything in all instances, but I won’t live that long, and, chances are, neither will you. Meanwhile, I gotta get my goods to market, and for the slightly daft look of magickal trees, the Opteka is my Leica.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BORN INTO A PAINTER’S WORLD, PHOTOGRAPHY NATURALLY INHERITED THAT DISCIPLINE’S BIAS TOWARD SHOWING THE WORLD “AS IT IS“, and, in fact, the first fifty years of photographic images seem to be in a neck-and-neck race with painting for the best rendering of the world at large. Then the 20th century kind of dope-slapped humanity’s collective sense of “reality”, as a world war, the onrush of science, and the rise of secular thought combined to question what the hell we needed with reality, anyway. The arts were shaken to their foundations, and photography and painting spiraled off onto wild new side roads. All bets for what defined a “picture” were off.
That’s not to say that photography has remained visually unbound through the decades. It almost acts like the flow and ebb of the surf. Photos surge toward pure documentation, then pull back into pure effect. They roll forward into an absolute deconstruction of the real world, then clamber back into the safety of literal pictorialism. One day we’re trying to recreate a wilderness landscape with perfect fidelity; the next day we’re reducing all “subjects” moot, reducing everything to shape and light.
I have had to spend many years getting comfortable with abstractions in my photography. It’s not like I don’t have ideas that wander far from the visual mainstream. If anything, I’ve had to learn to trust those visions, to stop worrying about whether they have “value” versus some rigid, if invisible,standard. While some shooters started with an absolutely open attitude toward the camera, pointing, framing and living completely by whim or instinct (the Instagram and Lomo kids of my Stone Age), I was absolutely, unwaveringly serious about arranging or capturing things as I literally saw them. It was a very clenched approach, even if it did teach me the physics of the medium. I had to learn to hold things very tightly before learning to let anything go.
And it took a very long time.
The great gift of the digital era is that many “accounting” issues (how much film do I have left? where can I go to get these processed? do they sell my kind of film in this end of town?) are just plain gone, and, with them, a little of the constipated approach that they imposed on me. At my age, it no longer matters a damn how long I shoot, how many times I “fail”, or who does or does not choose to anoint the results. There are no teachers or parents left to show off for, no competition with anyone except myself. I am free to use surfaces as straight lines or use distortion as a design element.
The truth speaks with forked tongue: in some ways I am glad that I am no longer young, since I have finally lived long enough to “age” into my photographic niche. And it also makes me sad that I am no longer young, because I really want to run with this ball, and I realize that Time might knock my legs out from underneath me before I make it all the way down the field. Still, we are here, and here is where we have to concentrate our energy. It’s the only control we have. Or, in the words of Edna St.Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light.