A SANDWICH WITH THE MAHATMA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE STATUE, situated at the side of a newly opened bookstore, I thought it looked a bit…lonely, rather like the first chair you move into an otherwise empty apartment. The sheer amount of sidewalk and parking lot surrounding the bronze figure of Mahatma Gandhi made it look like someone had delivered it to the wrong place, and was perhaps returning at some future time to see it on to its rightful owner. And while I certainly have reverence for the eminent leader as, well, an eminent leader, I would have thought a more predictable bust of Poe or effigy of Twain might have made a better outside advertisement for the tomes within.
Then, a year later, I got a second chance to see the possibilities.
In the intervening period, and as they are wont to do, a very lush desert bird of paradise bush had sprung up, flowering fully by the end of this summer, nearly obscuring the Mahatma and placing him in a very different kind of visual space. Suddenly I visualized a design, or at least a design idea, for an image. In traditional Indian art, the same flame-tip orange found in the shrub’s flowers are a very dominant color, symbolizing sun, flames, birds, and the raiment of various gods. The sea of blossoms now fronting the statue seemed less to me like plants and more to me like banks of fire, or oceanic waves, or those brilliantly colored clouds of dye dust billowing up during celebrations and rituals all across India. I began to imagine Gandhi as a mystical figure emerging from those clouds, as if released from the bonds of time, or maybe even as Shiva himself summoned him forth. The problem with this whole conception now became how to render something fanciful with a machine (the camera) whose default is merely to document.
But, of course, that was the fun of it…
I had one very fortunate ally in the fading, pre-sunset light, which amped up the orange in the blossoms and also bounced that same color off the shiner portions of the statue’s bronze. I also figured that the flowers on the bird of paradise might be more suggestive of movement if they weren’t rendered in absolutely sharp focus, so I opened my lens all the way to f/2, shrinking my depth of field to almost nothing. I then concentrated any sharpness to be had on the statue’s head alone, isolating it in a kind of focal sandwich with the softened foreground and background as the “bread”, if you will. The slight glowing affect achieved when shooting wide open on this particular lens (A Soviet-era Helios 44M) also helped the dreamlike quality suggested by what I saw in my mind. The result is not a technically perfect realization of all this, but it at least records the rudiments of my idea, much like a sketchbook “rough”, a field test of the idea that I may refine later.
The only really important thing here was in reminding myself that the addition of a single new element in our view of the familiar can substantially expand one’s options in photography. The newly added straw may not break the camel’s back, but someone may be inspired to remark, “oh, you stuck a straw on his back. That’s just what was needed….”
GIVE AND TAKE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR PERSONAL APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHY MAY BE MORE ABOUT how to creatively break rules rather than faithfully follow them.
Your work may have become so instinctual or well-practiced that it might well feel as if there are no “rules”, since you so seldom get burned on the same things that others do. Or maybe you are so genuinely innovative that rules are more or less irrelevant to your style. Again, fair enough.
Bearing this in mind, we here at The Normal Eye seldom traffic in “ye musts” or “ye dare nots” because someone, somewhere will always make a sucker out of us by ignoring said commandments and suffering no heartache whatever.
That said, I have taken notice lately of an old recommendation that, whether you factor it into your photography or not, is worth a bit of discussion.
It’s the so-called Reciprocal Rule, although it’s at best a…recommendation. It largely applies to people who are using powerful zooms who are also looking to reduce image blur, and, boy howdy is it elementary. Basically the RR states that your shutter speed should always be at inverse proportion to your focal length. Shooting at 50mm? Use an exposure at least as quick as 1/50. Zooming all the way out to 300mm? Same system: start with a shutter speed of 1/300 as the slowest exposure benchmark. That’s it. Easy, peasy Aunt Loweezy.
Only nothing is ever that simple in real life, is it, kids?
The only reason the Reciprocal bears mentioning at all is because of the convergence of two main factors: the increasingly affordable crop of new, more powerful zooms, placing them in more and more hands: and the commensurate de-emphasis of tripods as a greater percentage of all images are shot handheld. In short, more of us are shooting at longer focal lengths than ever before, and fewer us are using pods as stabilizers. Thus, if you follow my decidedly fragile logic, there is a good chance that more of our telephoto images will contain some element of camera shake. Brighter minds than mine have done the math to illustrate just how much even minor movement is magnified as focal lengths increase. The Reciprocal Rule is supposed to address this, and it often does, although the shot at left is an example where it was utilized to the letter and still shows a little softness in the back half of the image. But even leaving my own iffy execution off to the side, there are other mitigating factors than can affect the relevance or effectiveness of the RR.
For one, you can adjust ISO so that your sensor gathers more light at quicker shutter speeds, in which case, even handheld, you could shoot fast enough to virtually eliminate shake. Then there’s the whole pick-your-position game involved in developing your own stance and grip. From sound geometric weight distribution to holding your breath, there’s a lot you can do to facilitate slower shutter speeds if you feel you need them. The option is far more trial-and-error, but if you’re the patient type, have at it. Finally, there is the luxury (still fairly recent) of owning lenses with built-in image stabilization, with which you can move the Reciprocal to the same musty corner of your mind occupied by the dates of your kids’ birthdays.
All of which goes to say that technology and technique can sometimes trump the need to adhere to photographic practices that were once sacrosanct, to turn yesterday’s “rules” into tomorrow’s “friendly suggestions”. Which, in turn, means making more pictures instead of making more mistakes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT MAKES A LENS GREAT, AT LEAST FOR ME, is the degree to which I can forget about it.
The best images come from being able to shoot decisively and in the moment. That means knowing instinctively what your lens is good at, and using that information to salvage more pictures. Such knowledge only comes from repetition, trial and error, patience, and all those other tedious old-school virtues that drive people crazy but drive their work to perfection. And, eventually, it means you and the lens must think and react as one, without a lot of conscious thought.
I only know one way to get to that point with a given piece of glass, and that’s to be “monogamous” with it, using a given lens for nearly 100% of my work for long periods of time. Shuffling constantly from lens to lens in an effort to get “just the right gear” for a particular frame actually leads me to be hyper-conscious of the limits or strengths of what I’m shooting with, to be less focused on making pictures and more focused on calculating the taking of pictures. I believe that the best photos start coming the closer you can get to a purely reflexive process. See-feel-shoot.
If you’ve never chosen your own version of a “go-to” lens, one that can stay on your camera almost always, and give you nearly every kind of shot, I would suggest biting off a fat space of practice time and trying it. Snap on a 35mm and make it do everything that comes to hand for a day. Then a week. Then a month. Then start thinking of what would actually necessitate taking that lens off and going with something else. And for what specific benefit?
You may find that it’s better getting 100% comfortable with one or two lenses than to have a passing acquaintance with six or seven. The above image could have been taken with about five different lenses with comparable results. But whatever lens I used, it would have been easier and faster if I had selected it because it would also work for the majority of the other shots I was to attempt that day. Less time rummaging around in your kit bag equals more time to take pictures.
Every time there is a survey on what the most popular focal length in photography is, writers tend to forget that the number one source of imagery today is a cell phone camera. That means that, already, most of the world is shooting everything in the 30-35mm range and making it work. And before we long for the “good old days” of infinite choices, recall that most photographers born before 1960 had one camera, equipped with one lens. We like to think we are swimming in choices but we need to make sure we’re not actually drowning in them.
Find the workhorse gear that has the most flexibility and reliability for what you most want to do. Chances are the lens that will give you the best results isn’t the shiny new novelty in the catalogue, but just inches away, right in your hand.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATIVE USE OF SHARPNESS is one of the key techniques in photography. From the beginning of the medium, it’s been more or less conceded that not everything in an image needs to register at the same level of focus, that it can be manipulated to direct attention to the essence of a photograph. It’s always about telling the viewer to look here, ignore this, regard this as important.
This selective use of focus applies to the human face no less than to any other element in a composition. It’s strange that photography drew so strongly on painting in its early years without following the painter’s approach to portraits…..that is, that individual parts of a face can register in different degrees of sharpness, just like anything else in the frame. From the earliest days of photo-portraiture, there seems to have been an effort to show the entire face in very tight focus, de-emphasizing backgrounds by hazing them into a soft blur. It took a while before photography saw itself as a separate art, and thus this “always” rule only became a “sometimes” rule over a protracted period of time.
The Pictorialism fetish of the early 20th century, which avidly imitated the look of paintings, went completely the other direction, generating portraits that were almost uniformly soft, as if shot through gauze, or, you guessed it, painted on canvas. In recent years, shooters have begun a new turn toward a kind of middle stance, with the selective use of sharpness in specific parts of a face, say an eye or a mouth. It’s more subtle than the uniform crispness of olden days, and affords shooters a wider range of expression in portraits.
Some of this has been driven by technology, as in the case of the Lensbaby lenses, which often have a tack-sharp “sweet spot” at their center, with everything else in the frame fanning outward to a feathery blur. Additionally, certain Lensbabies, like the Composer Pro, are mounted on a kind of ball turret, allowing the user to rotate the center of the lens to place the sweet spot wherever in the image he/she wants. This makes it possible, as in the above shot, for parts of objects that are all in the same focal plane to be captured at varying degrees of sharpness. Note that, while all of the woman’s face is the same distance from the camera, only her eyes and the right side of her face are truly sharp. This dreamlike quality has become popular with a new breed of portraitists, and, indeed, there are already wedding photographers who advertise that they do entire events exclusively with these kinds of lenses.
The face is a composition element, and, as such, benefits from a flexible approach to focus. One man’s blur is another man’s beautification.
UP CLOSE AND POISONAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE A STATISTICAL TABLE SOMEWHERE that breaks down the percentage of photographers who use telephoto lenses consistently versus those who only strap one on for special occasions, but I have never seen one. Of course, I’ve never seen a three-toed sloth either, and I’m sure they exist. Fact is, there are always enough telephoto newbies (or “occasional-bies”) out there to guarantee that many of us make some pretty elemental mistakes with them, and come home with fewer jewels than we hoped for. I should know, since I have produced many such “C-minus” frames, like the image seen above. For a better understanding of everything I did wrong here, read on.
If telephotos just had to deliver magnification, and otherwise worked the same as standard lenses, they wouldn’t produce so many problems. In fact, though, they need to be used in several very different ways. For one thing, zooming in exponentially increases not only the chance of camera shake but the visible results of camera shake. A little bit of tremble at 35mm may go undetected, with little discernible effect on sharpness, while the very same amount of shake at 300mm or above creates a mathematically greater amount of instability, rendering everything soft and mushy.
This means that handheld shots at the longer focal lengths are fundamentally harder to do. Solutions can include faster shutter speeds, but that cuts light at apertures of f/3.5 and smaller, where light is already diminished. You might get around that with a higher ISO, which may not produce acceptable noise on a brightly lit day, but you must experiment to see. If you simply must have longer exposures, you’re pretty much onto a tripod, and, if workable, a cable release or wireless remote to guarantee that even your finger on the shutter doesn’t create a tremor. Remember, you’re talking about very minor amounts of movement, but they’re all magnified many times by the lens.
Some people even believe that a DSLR’s process of swinging its internal mirror out of the way before the shutter fires can create enough vibration to ruin a shot at 400mm or further out. In such case, many cameras allow you to move the mirror a little earlier, so that it’s stopped twitching by the time the shutter opens. Lots of trial and error and home-bred calculus here.
One of the factors fouling many of my own telephoto shots comes from shooting at midday near major cities, adding both glare and pollution to the garbage your lens is trying to see through. Colors get washed out, lines get warped, sharpness goes bye-bye. For this, you might try shooting earlier, taking off your haze filters (’cause they cut light) and seeing if things come out clearer and prettier.
Telephotos are a fabulous tool, but like anything else you park in front of your camera, they introduce their own technical limits and challenges into the mix. Seldom can you get results by just swinging your subject into view and hitting the shutter. Get comfortable with that fact and you will find yourself taking home more keepers per batch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS AGE, THERE IS A STRONG TEMPTATION to do more and more with less and less. For many, this manifests itself as a kind of divestiture, a relinquishing of toys. Maybe it’s just muscle fatigue, but, at some point in a shooter’s life, he or she makes a conscious decision to carry fewer hunks of gear into battle. Your approach to the work gets more complex, and, paradoxically, the mechanical doing of it gets more streamlined.
This is where the idea of a “go to” lens comes from, with photogs deciding that, yes, they can do nearly everything with the same hunk of glass. It becomes a bragging point: I shoot everything with a 24mm prime. I always use a 35. I don’t carry a big bag of stuff around anymore. But here’s the great thing: even a single lens is actually several lenses at once, since its optical properties change dramatically depending on aperture. That’s why, if you’re trying to take more kinds of pictures with fewer lenses, it’s important to do some homework on all the different ways they see.
One of the things it’s best to know about your lens is where its “sweet spot”, or optimum sharpness occurs across the aperture range. Turn on your trusty Google machine and you will find more opinions on how to determine this than there are recipes for apple pie, and that’s the tricky part. Optics are a science, to be sure, but they are also somewhat subjective. Translation: if it looks good to you, it’s good. So publishing a table that proves your argument on what “sharp” is to your satisfaction just picks a scab for someone else. You have to get away from the charts and do the field work. Shoot. Look. Compare.
The chart people believe, for example, that the sweet spot for a lens is always two f-stops less light than your maximum wide-open aperture, meaning that, say an f/1.8 prime would hit its sweet spot somewhere around f/3.5. However, on my own 35mm f/1.8, I get the most uniform sharpness, from center to corners, another stop beyond that, so my “go to” aperture on my “go to” lens is more like f/5.6. I know this is true, because I have set up a tripod and shot the same subject from the same distance through the entire range of apertures and visually compared them. You know, the real-world, old-fashioned way….observation.
The better you know every property of your lens, the closer you will get to one that does most of what you want, most of the time. More pictures with fewer toys, with time and labor saved as well.
LET THERE BE (MORE) LIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE RECENTLY BEEN EXPERIENCING ONE OF THOSE TIME MACHINE MOMENTS in which I am, again, right back at the beginning of my life as a photographer, aglow with enthusiasm, ripe with innocence, suffused by a feeling that anything can be done with my little black box. This is an intoxication that I call: new lens.
Without fail, every fresh hunk of glass I have ever purchased has produced the same giddy wonder, the same feeling of artistic invincibility. This time out, the toy in question is a Nikon f/1.8 35mm prime lens, and, boy howdy, does this baby perform. For cropped sensor cameras, it “sees” about like the 50mms of old, so its view is almost exactly as the human eye sees, without exaggerated perspective or angular distortion. Like the 50, it is simple, fast, and sharp. Unlike the 50, it doesn’t force me to do as much backing up to get a comfortable framing on people or near objects. The 35 feels a little “roomier”, as if there are a few extra inches of breathing space around my portrait subjects. Also, the focal field of view, even wide open, is fairly wide, so I can get most of your face tack sharp, instead of just an eye and a half. Matter of preference.
All this has made me marvel anew at how fast many of us are generally approaching the age of flashless photography. It’s been a long journey, but soon, outside the realm of formal studio work, where light needs to be deliberately boosted or manipulated, increasingly thirsty lenses and sensors will make available light our willing slave to a greater degree than ever before. For me, a person who believes that flash can create as many problems as it solves, and that it nearly always amounts to a compromise of what I see in my mind, that is good news indeed.
It also makes me think of the first technical efforts to illuminate the dark, such as the camera you see off to the left. The Ermanox, introduced by the German manufacturer Ernemann in 1924, was one of the first big steps in the quest to free humankind of the bulk, unreliability and outright danger of early flash. Its cigarette-pack-sized body was dwarfed by its enormous lens, which, with a focal length of f/2, was speedy enough (1/1000 max shutter) to allow sharp, fast photography in nearly any light. It lost a few points for still being based on the use of (small) glass plates instead of roll film, but it almost single-handedly turned the average man into a stealth shooter, in that you didn’t have to pop in hefting a lotta luggage, as if to scream “HEY, THE PHOTOGRAPHER IS HERE!!” In fact, in the ’20’s and ’30’s, the brilliant amateur shooter Erich Solomon made something of a specialty out of sneaking himself and his tiny Ermanox into high-level government summits and snapping the inner circle at its unguarded best (or worst). Long exposures and blinding flash powders were no longer part of the equation. Candid photography had crawled out of its high chair… and onto the street.
Today or yesterday, this is about more than just technical advancement. The unspoken classism of photography has always been: people with money get great cameras; people without money can make do. Sure, early breakthroughs like the Ermanox made it possible for anyone to take great low-light shots, but at $190.65 in 1920’s dollars, it wasn’t going to be used at most folks’ family picnics. Now, however, that is changing. The walls between “high end” and “entry level” are dissolving. More technical democracy is creeping into the marketplace everyday, and being able to harness available light affordably is a big part of leveling the playing field.
So, lots more of us can feel like a kid with a new toy, er, lens.
- Prime Lenses (nikonusa.com)
- Understanding Focal Length (nikonusa.com)
A BOX FULL OF ALMOSTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY SPENT AN ANGUISHED AFTERNOON sifting through a box of prints that I shot from about 1998 through 2002, a small part of my amateur work overall, but a particularly frustrating batch of images to revisit. Even given the high number of shots of any kind that one has to take to get a small yield of cherished images, the number of “keepers” from this period is remarkably low. It is a large box of almosts, a warehouse of near misses. Still, I felt that I needed to spend some “quality time” (strange phrase) mentally cataloguing everything that went wrong. I could have used a stiff drink.
One reason that the failure rate on these pictures was so high was because the pictures, all of them stereoscopic, were taken with one of the only cameras available for taking such shots at the time. The Argus 3D was an extremely limited film-based point-and-shoot which had been introduced for the sole purpose of producing cheap prints that could be developed by any vendor with conventional processing. The resulting 4×6 prints from the Argus were not the red-green anaglyph shots requiring the infamous cardboard glasses to decipher their overlaid images. but single prints made up of two side-by-side half-frame images in full color, which could later be inserted into an accompanying split-glass viewer that came with the camera.
The 3D effect was, in fact, quite striking, but the modest camera exacted a price for producing this little miracle. Since stereo works more dramatically at longer focal lengths, only shots made at f/11 or f/16 were offered on the Argus, which also had a fixed shutter speed and could not accommodate films rated higher than ASA 100. As for better 3D cameras, most available in the late ’90’s were dusty old relics from the late ’40’s and ’50’s, meaning that any hobbyist interested in stereo photography had to pretty much accept the built-in limitations of the rigs that were available. As a result, I had only basic control over exposure; light flares would invariably create huge streaks on one of the two angled lenses, creating a headache-y “flicker” in the viewing of the final print; and, worst of all, you had to compose every shot in vertical orientation, regardless of subject, in half the width in which you normally worked.
Worse for the artistic aspect of the project, I seem to have been sucked into the vortex that traps most shooters when learning a new technique; that is, I began to shoot for the effect. It seems to have been irrelevant whether I was shooting a bouquet of roses or a pile of debris, so long as I achieved the “eye-poke” gimmick popping out of the edge of the frame. Object (and objectives) became completely sidelined in my attempts to either “wow” the viewer or overcome the strictures of the camera itself. The whole carton of prints from this period seems to be a chronicle of a man who has lost his way and is too stubborn to ask directions. And of the few technically acceptable images in this cluster of shots, fewer still can boast that the stereoscopic element added anything to the overall impact of the subject matter. Can I have that drink now?
A few years later, I would eventually acquire a 1950’s-vintage Sawyer camera (designed to make amateur View-Master slides), which would allow me to control shutter speed, film type, and depth of field. And a few years after that, my stereo shots started to be pictures first, thrill rides second. Grateful as I was for the improved flexibility, however, the Argus’ cramped frame had, indeed, taught me to be pro-active and deliberate in planning my compositions. Learning to shoot inside that cramped visual phone booth meant that, once better cameras gave me back the full frame, I had developed something of an eye for where to put things. Even in 2D, I had become more aware of how to draw the eye into a flat shot.
Today, as I have consigned 3D to an occasional project or two, the lessons learned at the hands of the cruel and fickle Argus serve me in regular photography, since I remain reluctant to trust even more advanced cameras to make artistic decisions for me. Thus, even in the current smorgasbord of optical options, I feel that, in every shot, I am still the dominant voice in the discussion.
That makes all those “almosts” worth while.
Bartender? Another round.