By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES FACING OUR OWN PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK is less like dredging up memory and more like staring into the face of a complete stranger. Even seconds after the shutter snaps, a real distance widens between what we did in the moment and what we hold in our hands. Who did this? What were we thinking? Why did this work (or, in many cases, not work)?
Shooting quickly on the street worsens this feeling of alienation. We might not have even been so mindful of all the factors at work in a picture while it was being made, which makes learning from both the duds and the keepers that much more difficult. Learning to completely deconstruct a shot is, therefore, one of the most valuable skills for any photographer. It’s not always an easy thing.
In the above shot, there are a number of contributing factors at work, not all of them in play for any other single shot taken on the afternoon I made it. For starters, I was lucky enough to be about 200 feet above average terrain, so the golden light of early dusk is hitting the face of the church pretty hard, as well as adding to the deepening blue of the sky. Secondly, I am shooting with my camera set on “vivid”, building even more saturation into the shot. At the same time, I am shooting through a polarizing filter, which, while not working fully at this late hour of the day, is also deepening the sky. Finally, the church, which is already glowing from the sunset light, is also being floodlit with sodium lamps, amping up the orange tones and contrasting even harder against the sky.
The effect is a kind of “light sandwich” four layers deep, a combo that only works for this particular shot. One or two shots later in the same sequence, these same conditions rendered the colors over-rich and pretty unreal in appearance. Sadly, I can’t even take credit for having deliberately planned the shot in this way, since, if I had, I probably would have chosen a slightly faster shutter speed and avoided the softness in the passing cars. Still, as I dissect it after the fact, it’s good practice to be able to do a post-Sherlock to see exactly what happened, in case I ever do want to manipulate a photo in this general way.
Ot I could just say, “cool” and move on.
And, sure, I’ve done that too.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S BEYOND POINTLESS TO PREACH OF “PURITY” when it comes to photographic technique, although the argument springs up whenever the idea of manipulation comes up. It’s not even a new squabble. No sooner had science given the world a way to record reality with a machine than artists began tweaking, twisting, and torturing effects out of the camera that could only be done by deliberate intervention. So much for reality. In fact, photography’s first half-century boasts a rainbow of spectacular effects, undertaken precisely to undermine or improve upon the real world.
No, it’s about a century and a half too late to worry about whether people will alter their photographs and high time we explored what kind of manipulations are best for the overall impact of an image. I personally prefer to “photoshop the moment”, or to calculate what I need in a picture during the taking of it. I truly feel that, in most post-shutter tweaking, you lose an intangible something that might have made real magic if factored into the same-time making of the picture. The best thing about planning is, it gets easier to get better effects from simpler things, things that seem to work better for the picture if you design them into the shot rather than adding them later.
Take the ridiculously obvious tweak done in the above picture. 90% of the final photo here is in the composition of the shot, framing the entrance of this wonderful old house in the arch of its outer gate. The sunlight is perfect for the back two-thirds of the picture, but, given the position of the sun in late afternoon on that particular street, my first shot tended to render the arched topiary very dark, nearly a silhouette. Thing is, I really wanted the entire image to have a kind of fairy tale quality. I needed an intervention.
Easy fix. I walked back a few steps to make sure that my flash was just powerful enough to pop a hot green into the arch, yet too faint to illuminate anything else. As a result, the color you see here is not goosed up after the fact. I exposed for the house in the background and the fill flash made the foreground hues as bright as the stuff in back. Again, as planning goes, thus wasn’t the D-Day invasion. I just needed to make one simple change to solve my problem, and the fact that I did it during the original making of the picture made me feel like I was in charge of the project to a greater degree.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE THE ARRIVAL OF THE DIGITAL DARKROOM and its attendant legion of post-production fixes, the world of photography has been pretty evenly divided into “befores” and “afters”, those who prefer to do most of their picture making in-camera and those who prefer to “fix” things after the shutter clicks. Most amateur photography, in the film era, was heavily weighted in favor of the “befores”, since a lot of traditional touch-up technology was economically beyond the reach of many. In the Photoshop era, however, the economic barrier to post-production was shattered, resulting in a more even balance between the two philosophies.
I really see this quarrel as very sharply defined when it comes to black and white photography, with many shooters making most, if not all of their monochromes from shots that were originally color, then desaturated or otherwise manipulated as an afterthought. I prefer to shoot b&ws in-camera, however, for the very simple reason that it gets you thinking in black and white terms, from lighting to composition. It also allows you to benefit from digital’s immediate feedback/playback strengths to shape your shot in the moment. If you’ve worked in mono for a while, and especially if you’ve ever shot on b&w film stock, you are used to seeing the 50 shades of gray that subtly shape the power of an image. More importantly, you realize that black and white is much more than color with the hues sucked out. It’s not a novelty or a gimmick, but a distinct way of seeing.
When you conceive a shot in color, you are shooting according to what serves color well. That means that not all color shots will translate well into grayscale. Fans of the old Superman tv show will recall that, during the series’ early b&w days, George Reeves’ uniform had to be made in various shades of brown so it would “read” correctly in monochrome to viewers who “knew” the suit was red and blue. Cameramen had to plan what would happen when one set of values was used to suggest another. Tones that give a certain punch to an image may look absolutely dead flat if you simply desaturate for mock-mono from a color shot. And, anyway, there are plenty of ways to pre-program many cameras to adjust the contrast and intensity of a b&w master image, as well as the use of filters (polarizers for instance) that do 90% of the tasks you’d typically try to achieve in Photoshop anyway.
The mid-point compromise would seem to be to take both color and black and white shots of your subjects in-camera, allowing you the option of custom processing at least one image afterward. However, knowing what tonal impact you want before you click the shutter is just easier, and usually more productive. Do your shooting with purpose, on purpose. Making a b&w “version” of a color shot after the fact will likely bake up as half a loaf.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIND IT AMUSING THAT THERE IS SO MUCH PRISSY FRETTING, in the present photographic age, about the manipulation of images, as if there is, or has ever been, a “pure” photography that comes full-born from the camera like Athena sprang from Zeus’ forehead. This is, of course, nonsense.
There never was a time when photographers simply pressed the button and settled for whatever dropped into their laps by chance. The history of the medium is a clearly traceable timeline of the very interpretive technique and, yes, manipulation that tracks, like this blog, the journey from taking a picture to making one.
It’s not what you apply to an image, it’s whether the application is the entire point of the picture. Does your conception have solid, original value, over which you then impose a supplementary effect or a boost in emphasis? Or are you merely popping apps and pushing buttons in order to disguise the lack of essence in picture, to whitewash a rotten fence if you will?
The reason I raise all this again is that an in-camera effect usually called “selective color”, now available on many DSLRs, has reminded me of the first days of color photography, which of course was no color at all, except that which was applied through tinting and painting after a monochrome image had been made. Depending on the individual artisan, the hues in these pictures tended to be either a soft wash of faint pastel or a raging rouge of rosy reds, but, most frequently, only selected parts of the image were colored at all, perhaps an attempt to dramatize particular elements of the composition. It was anything but natural, but, in advance of the development of actual color film, it produced some interesting results.
Jump to today’s cameras and the selective color option. You shoot your original image, select it, then zoom in on parts of it to both locate and choose up to three colors that will be featured in a copy of the image. All other tones will be desaturated, leaving you with a part monochrome, part color version of your original, which remains unchanged in a separate file. The effect, as in the past, can dramatize and isolate key parts of your picture, even giving a strange dimensional feel to the photo, but it can take some practice to get the result that you want.
For example, selecting the red of a single car on a crowded street will also catch the same red in other cars’ tail lights, the corner traffic signal, and a neon sign in a building at the end of the block, so be sure you can live with all of that. Also, in some seemingly “white” buildings, shadows or reflected light (as well as aging impurities in some materials) will show some faint shades of color in this process, so that the blue that you said okay to for the corner mailbox will also pick up slight bluish casts in the marble of the bank next door. In the above image, I also made a second, darker copy of the altered image, then blended the two copies in a tone compressing program, to further accentuate the building textures and contrasts.
Bottom line: there is black and white, there is full color, and there is the uber-cool playland in what you could call the middlehues. It’s not cheating to enhance a good picture. It’s only cheating when you use effects to mask the fact that you didn’t take the picture right in the first place.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY DOESN’T TRULY MAKE ARTISTIC CHOICES “POSSIBLE”. Those decisions were always available in the medium, albeit at some cost of materials, time and work. You could always get nearly any effect from film, providing you were willing to invest the sweat in wringing it out of the tools at hand. Instead, digital processes make choices easier to act upon, and, for people who have made the transition from a lifetime of film-based analog shooting to digital, the leap to light speed on the trip from desire to result is especially mind-ripping.
This speed of implementation makes real-time differences when considering whether a shot will have its best impact in color or b&w. Even standard DSLRs and compacts have in-camera modes that allow you to immediately shoot and compare alternate versions of a subject, and, with the expanding universe of apps available to the smartphone shooter, you can instantly crank out half a dozen or more readings of the kind of color or the type of monochrome you’re looking for. This is especially important in black & white, where the range of tones and contrast values can make or break a picture.
By basically simulating the subtle changes that a film processor could have made in the gradations between the various intensities of either black or white, apps allow you to make incremental judgments of how the values in the image work or don’t work to produce the “statement” you’re looking for. Best thing about this is the best overall thing about digital: how quickly you can act on your impulse, then check, adjust, and act again. The above image lacked impact in the color original. The old workbench simply came off too warm and charming. I was looking for something that matched the grit and wear of the weathered wood, and I was able to shop for about three different grades of monochrome before settling on what you see here. Most days, this is a game of inches.
The sheer number of images that you will be able to salvage while the scene is still in front of you, and the light is still how you want it…. that’s an amazing freedom, and no generation of photographers before ours has enjoyed anything like it before.
The take-home of all this is that you should not only shoot a lot but shoot a lot of variations on what you choose to shoot. And remember, every shot that you “blow” is one shot closer to the higher average of excellent work that will only come after thousands of failures. Best to speed up the clock and get past them while you’re still young.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMIC APPS FOR MOBILE CAMERAS CONSTITUTE A HUGE STEP FORWARD in convenience and simplicity in taking the kind of sweeping images that used to require keen skills either in film processing or in digital darkroom stitching. The newest versions of these apps are far from flawless, and, like any effect-laden add-on, they can become cheesy gimmicks, or, used to excess, merely boring. That said, there is a time and place for everything.
99% of the impact in a pano comes from the selection of your subject. Supposing a panoramic view to be a specialized way to tell a story, is the story you’re attempting to tell interesting in its own right? Does it benefit from the wider frame? Let’s recall that, as well as including a ton of extra left-and-right information, handheld pano apps create a distorted version of reality. In the earliest days of panoramas, multiple photos of a scene were taken side-by-side, all with the same distance from camera to subject. This was usually accomplished by shooting on a tripod, which was moved and measured with each new portion of what would eventually be a wide composite. At each exposure, the distance of the tripod to, say, the mountain range was essentially constant across the various exposures, rendering the wide picture all in the same plane….an optically accurate representation of the scene.
With handheld panos done in-camera, the shooter and his camera must usually pivot in a large half-circle, just as you might execute a video pan,so that some objects are closer to the lens than others, usually near the center. This guarantees a huge amount of dramatic distortion in at least one part of the image, and frequently more than one. The effect is that you are not just recording a straight left-to-right scene, but creating artificial stretches and warps of everything in your shot. You are not recording a scene that unfolds across a straight left-right horizon, but capturing things that actually encircle you and trying to “flatten them out” so they appear to occur in one unbroken line. By showing objects that may be beside or behind you, you’re kinda making a distortion of an illusion. Huh?
Again, if this is the look you want, that is, if your subject is truly served by this fantasy effect, than click away. You’ll know in a minute if it all made sense, anyhow, and that alone is a remarkable luxury. These days, we can not only get to “yes” faster, we can, more importantly, get rid of all the “no’s” in an instant as well.
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)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE “ENHANCEMENTS” OFFERED BY TODAY’S MAJOR PHOTO GEAR MANUFACTURERS ARE, IN FACT, OBSTACLES to learning how to take responsibility for making pictures. The automatic bells and whistles that are being engineered into today’s cameras seems to send the message: you don’t have to think too hard. Push the button and we will provide (and predict) the results.
It may be fabulous for convenience, but it’s lousy news for the experimentation and personal risk which are required for great photography to occur.
We live in a time of short cuts, of single-button solutions for every creative problem. We have modes for that. Low light, too much light, a day at the beach, a day in the snow, a closeup, a landscape? Guaranteed results at the dial-up of an automode. Hey, you’re an artist. No need to obsess about all that techno-whatsis. Your camera will determine the results. Just dial up what you want: it’s all automatic. You need hardly be there.
Does anyone really believe that anything of artistic value can evolve from machines being in charge? When’s the last time a computer created a novel of staggering impact? Who is taking the picture here…..you or your camera?
Fully automatic, aperture priority and shutter priority are all good basic tools, and wonderful work is done in all three modes as well as full manual. But there is a huge leap between these settings and the gaudy, gimmicky “effects” modes that are increasingly larding up cameras with novelty and diversion.
Let’s take a look at some of the prime offenders. Are these toys necessary?
NIGHT VISION: If you want a picture to look like you took it while on combat recon in a forward area of Afghanistan, go for this option. Boosts your ISO up to 25,600 so you can get some image on the sensor, even in utter blackness, loaded with grain and visual muck. And why? Useless.
COLOR SKETCH: Concerts your original image into an “arty” rendering, minus the shadows, attenuating tones, or subtlety. Looks just like a classy artist knocked out a masterpiece with his box of charcoals! Fools no one except perhaps extremely learning-challenged chimps. If you want to be a painter, fine, then do it, but let’s stop calling this an enhancement.
MINIATURE EFFECT. Okay, so you can’t afford a real tilt-shift lens to create the illusion that your aerial shot of Paris is really a toy-sized tabletop model, so let’s take your photo and throw selective parts of it out of focus. That should be good enough. We’ll now allow a five-minute pause here for the exactly two times you’ll ever care about making a picture like this.
SELECTIVE COLOR. De-saturate portions of your original for dramatic effect. This is the opposite of the images of a century ago, when people, before color film, added selective hues to monochrome images…for dramatic effect. Only thing is, drama should already be in the picture before you apply this gimmick, hmm? Like many effects modes, this one tempts you to use it to fix a photo that didn’t tell its story properly in the first place. And yes, I have sinned in this area, sadly.
SILHOUETTE. The camera makes sure your foreground subjects are dark and have no detail. In other words, it takes pictures exactly the way your Aunt Sadie did with her Instamatic in 1963. Oh, but it’s so artistic! Yes, cameras always make great art. All by themselves.
HIGH KEY or LOW KEY. This used to mean lightening or darkening of selected items done by meticulous lighting. Now, in Camera Toyland, it means deliberately under-or-overexposing everything in the frame. See earlier reference to your Aunt Sadie.
As far as what should be built into cameras, I’m sure that you could compose your own wish list of helpful tools that could be available as quick-dial aids. My own list would, for example, include the moving of white balance choices from the screen menus to the mode dial. Point is, for every ready-made effect that you delegate to the camera, you are further delaying the education that can only come from doing things yourself. If you want a happy picture, make one, rather than taking a middling one and then dialing up the insertion of a magical birthday cake in the middle of the shot after the fact.
As point-and-shoots are eventually replaced by smartphones and DSLRs position themselves to remain competitive as least on the high-end portion of the market, there seems to be a real opportunity for a revolution in camera design….away from toys and in favor of tools.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING IN BLACK AND WHITE, BEFORE THE DIGITAL ERA, WAS AN ACTIVE, RATHER THAN A PASSIVE CHOICE. You had to decide, before loading your camera, what an entire roll of film would be able to capture in terms of color/no color. There was no way to change your mind until that roll was completed and replaced. As you pre-chose film speed, light sensitivity, or special processing considerations, you also committed, before Frame One, to a single tonal option.
If you are really getting long in the tooth, you can remember when monochrome was the default choice for most of your film shoots. Economy was one factor, and, for certain shooters, including many of the pros, there was a lack of confidence that color films could render nature reliably. Giants like Adams, Edward Weston and others eschewed color throughout most of their careers, since they feared that either garish emulsions or the limits of extant printing processes would betray them in a way that black and white would not. And of course, in a world in which post-processing meant the skillful manipulation of a negative and the mastery of print-making, monochrome was simply an easier beast to tame.
Wow, are we ever in a different place.
Today, we can change our “film speed”, light sensitivity, and every kind of color emphasis frame-by-frame, and for many of us, color is our first choice, with many monochrome images post-processed from shots that were originally multi-hued. Photoshop and countless other programs allow us to have it all, with endless nuanced permutations from a single capture. Black and white is now often an “effect”, an after-thought derived later rather than sooner in our thought process. Oh, look what happens when I push this button. Cool.
Most users’ manuals for today’s cameras, especially DSLRs, actually advise converting color images to b&w in “post” rather than enabling the camera’s picture controls to shoot monochrome in the first place. The prevailing opinion seems to be that results will be better this way, since processing offers finer-tuned controls and choices, but I take issue with that, since I believe that color/no color as a choice is best made ahead of the shutter click, no less than choices about aperture or DOF. You need to be thinking about what black & white can bring to your shot (if anything) as part of your pre-shoot visualization. The tonal story in a picture is simply too important for you not to be planning it beforehand.
The quality of in-camera monochrome modes for both Nikon and Canon are both perfectly adequate to give you a workable image versus converting the shot later with software, and that’s good, because getting the shot right in the moment is better for the result than infinite knob-twiddling after the fact. Monochrome is a tool for telling a story or setting a mood. It makes sense that its use be tied to what you are trying to achieve as you are planning it….not slathering it on later as an oh-this’ll-be-keen novelty. That’s Instagram technique, not photographic technique.
One great habit to retain from the days of film: anticipate your need, and shoot according to that need. Plan ahead. “Fix it in the lab” only works for shots with slight imperfections, frames in which the concept was sound enough to warrant painting away a few flaws. Going to black and white to save an iffy shot is a Hail Mary pass at best.
As as we all know, you don’t always get what you pray for.
That’s the truth. In black and white.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.