By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS FORUM IS NOT, AS FREQUENT VISITORS HAVE LIKELY SURMISED, a platform for discussion about the technical merits of one kind of equipment versus those of others. It is neither a critique of, nor recommendation for, any particular piece of gear. At least that’s not the intent. The reason The Normal Eye “focuses” on aims and intentions, rather than devices is very simple. Devices are not the key determinant of what makes a good picture.
Since photographs are a transmission of the inner eye through the hand and into the camera, aims and intentions are the deciding factor in a photograph’s eventual worth. And the raw fact of present-day technology is that virtually any instrument bearing the name “camera” can produce an image that at least approximates what a thinking, feeling person has imagined. However, no degree of expense, toys, or trickery can compensate for the absence of that thinking and feeling. None.
The marketing of equipment is based on the simple aim of making people spend progressively more for kit, and, at regular intervals, looking upon what they presently own with a mixture of disgust and anxiety. It’s the same way that cars, furniture and personal fashion are sold. Moreover, a significant part of the camera market is based on envy (he takes such better pictures than me: it must be his camera!), which is one of the most reliable ways to get people to part with their money. The fact is, over time, we probably need fewer and far simpler cameras than we spend time lusting after. You won’t be more qualified to make pictures because you “earned” it by buying the moment’s hot happening machine. You are already qualified by your desire and your vision. Now.
Years after you’ve learned to love some of your best shots, are you seriously giving the main credit for those images’ communicative power to the devices on which you produced them? Was the image seen here, a night-time shot at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, shot on a Leica, or a snapshot camera? Was its creator a trained journalist, or a talented amateur? Who cares? It is a masterful picture. And, today, even the most modest mobile cam can make it. All that need be supplied to close the deal is vision and desire.
We’ve often joked about G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) leading us merrily down the path to bankruptcy, promoting the idea that it’s always our next camera that will finally make us a photographer, but that humorous concept is based on a very unfunny reality: that we too often think that there’s some kind of magic in that box. Well….in fact, there is.
But only if we put it there ourselves.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BOTH IN THESE PAGES AND IN MANY OTHERS, FROM PEOPLE far wiser than I, a very basic recommendation for photographers has been to choose the simplest camera that you can for what you want to shoot, rather than purchase a high-tech toy loaded with extras that you don’t currently use. Makes sense; get as many features as you actually need to get the job done, but don’t fall for the old con that your next best picture will only come once you buy your next, better, costlier camera. This advice is not based on some rugged manliness on my part, but on the simple truth that you need personal development far more than you need state-of-the-art (or break-of-the wallet) gear.
And now consider this corollary; equipment manufacturers cannot survive if you only buy simple, efficient cameras. They can only profit by selling you everything that comes with; the cases, the filters, the extra lenses, the solar-powered cookie oven that ties into your USB port. The reality for the legendary Eastman Kodak Company was that, even if it made almost nothing on the sales of its cameras, all those cameras needed film pretty much forever. As for the camera companies that didn’t also own their own film factories, there was allure in selling their customers that one extra cool trick that their camera could not do all by itself. And thus came the brackets, the bolt-ons, the custom attachments, the gauges, and the meters. This “just one thing more” approach was a vital part of the analog camera market, and it has carried forward into the digital era. The camera, apparently the very same one for which you just shelled out major buckos, is, sadly, just not enough.
The image seen here is from the user’s manual for one of the first automatic SLRs of the late 1970’s. All of this stuff was available for sale for one model of one camera from one manufacturer. You will notice that this exhaustive listing of geegaws does not even include auxiliary lenses, which would probably be more crucial than, day, #48, the battery-driven power film winder, made for those too lazy or absent-minded to wind the film on themselves (think ’70’s!). And while there may be few customers indeed who coughed up for the entire toy catalog seen here, the very fact that it exists tells us that there is a better than average chance that, if you make an “Extender FD-2XA”, someone will convince themselves that they need one.
Here’s the take-home; the rules of composition, optics and exposure have not substantially changed in the last 100 years. What changes is the elegant little tasks and tricks designed into the camera and its attendant add-ons beyond those basics. Some you need, but most you don’t. If the camera you buy does not do 75% of what you need to do all by itself, and in a few simple steps, take it back. No one ever became a better photographer by merely buying more equipment, and many have actually made their process so complicated with extra doodads that their pictures are worse. Start basic and stay there until you develop a genuine need to take an additional step, and then take it. If you only buy what you need, photography is an art, like painting. If not, it’s just a hobby, like collecting baseball cards.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.
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
THE ONE PIECE OF “EQUIPMENT” THAT HAS SEEN ME THROUGH THE TRANSITION FROM FILM TO DIGITAL is not a hunk of techno gear. In fact, it has not directly figured in the taking of even a single picture. I was reminded of its amazing longevity a few months ago, as I was going through a 2002 shoot done in Ireland. Among my own shots was a pretty good candid of me, taken by my wife, as I crouched to line up a shot next to a road heading to the Ring of Kerry. And there “it” was with me.
In fact, it was keeping me warm and dry.
Context: I never took the plunge of the eager amateur and purchased one of those puffy, sleeveless photog vests, honeycombed with a zillion pockets, pouches and secret compartments, much as I never painted the words CAMERA NERD on my face in day-glo orange. Chalk it up to self-consciousness. I figured it was hard enough to blend in and keep people relaxed in a shooting situation without looking like a cross between a spinster butterfly hunter and a middle-school lab assistant. Call me vain.
And you’d be right.
So, a plain brown leather jacket. Gimme three good pockets and call it day. And thus it was that, for the next thirteen years or so, I have had “skin in the game”, skin that has survived exploded pens, leaked batteries, rotten weather on two sides of the Atlantic, and more scrapes, tears, and rips than I care to recall. It has also helped keep countless camera straps from inscribing a permanent groove in my left shoulder, and, here in the Land Of Incipient Arthritis, I appreciate that more than I can say.
Such service calls for a little respect, and so, in the name of the weirdest still lifes ever, I figured it was time for Old Faithful to pose for a portrait of its own. Originally I thought to lay it out straight, the way they show off famous duds at the Smithsonian. But what really caught my eye was that, texture-wise, it is almost six different jackets, from the glossy sheen of an old horse saddle to the frayed look of something that’s been making out with a cheese grater.
At the last, I simply experimented with a few crumpled waves of grain, as if the jacket had been hastily tossed aside, which, trust me, it has been, on countless occasions.
Best thing is, when I’m ready, it’s still there.
I’m not a big fan of good luck charms, but maybe some things protect against bad luck, and that’s no easy feat, either. Either way, me and what Kipling would have called my “Lazarushian leather” and I will keep signing up new missions.
At least until one of our arms fall off.