By MICHAEL PERKINS
A SELECTIVE READING OF SOME of the posts featured in The Normal Eye over the years might give the impression that I am “anti-flash” in my approach to photography. A closer look, however, would reveal that I am more properly non-flash….that, while I stipulate that judicious use of artificial light can be amazing, (a) it can often do more harm than good, and (b) there are fewer situations in which it’s needed than at any other point in time. So, anti……no. But non…..absolutely.
Choosing not to use flash in low light situations used to mean that a tripod was essential for sharpness in even reasonably quick exposures, but even that truth is falling by the wayside, as sensors allow for lower noise at ever-higher ISO levels. The handheld shot is now more convenient and reliable than ever, with only modest investments in gear and/or practice to yield suitable results. This means that, outside of very formalized studio settings, you may now be able to leave both flash and pod in the closet in more and more cases.
So let’s pursue the ideal: a low-light image, shot handheld, with the lowest possible ISO, achieved without flash or tripod. First, your glass needs to be fast, something that can’t be said for the basic kit lenses that are packaged with most DSLRs. A lens like a kit 18-55mm that only opens in the f/3.5 range can’t compete with prime lenses such as a 35 or 50mm of f/1.8 or faster. The extra several stops can render many more handheld shots feasible, and so investing in an affordable prime (single focal length) is money well spent.
The other, and far more decisive factors in this handheld quest, since you’ll be dealing in slower exposure times, are the purely physical moves involved in bracing your camera. Whether it’s a firm stance, a solid grip, a handy resting place like a shelf, or a combination of all three, you have to practice….a lot…in minimizing camera shake. Everyone’s technique for this will vary, and the web is rich in written or video tutorials from which to choose. The point is, it’s possible to learn how to do it.
The two shots shown here are both shot wide open, at F/1.8, at a rock-bottom ISO value of 100 and available light only (the room was actually further darkened for purposes of this test). And while you can certainly see a clear contrast in sharpness between the first and second shot, they are handheld at 1/5th of a second and 1 full second respectively and are both usable shots (seen here straight out of the camera). Moreover, even shooting at, say, 1/10th of a second or faster, the picture could still be done with very low ISO and no flash, no tripod. And that buys you ease, mobility and speed. Travel light, shoot more, and in more places.
Again, I am most definitely not anti-flash. I just think that the fluidity of today’s gear, along with a few hours of practice, can simplify your shooting, giving you more concentration on the why of a picture rather than the how of getting it done.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY DEALS IN FEELINGS, those inexact sensations of the heart that we try to capture or evoke in our visual messaging. Some subjects, such as war or celebration, convey emotions with such immediacy that we are really only acting as recorders, with the associative power of our minds providing much of the detail. Pictures of loss or celebration, such as the aftermath of a disaster or the birth of a new life, can be fairly simple to convey. What you see is what the thing is. For subtler regions of the brain, however, photos must use, if you will, a different vocabulary.
Newbie photographers are trained, to a a great degree, to seek the sharp image, to master focus as a technical “must”, but, as we vary the kinds of messages we want to convey, we change our attitudes about not only sharpness but most of the other “musts” on the beginner’s list. We learn that we should always do a certain thing….except when we shouldn’t. It’s worth remembering that some of the most compelling photos ever published were, according to someone’s standard, “flawed” in some way.
News shooters have long since learned that the emotional immediacy of a picture, along with its raw “news value”, outweighs mere technical precision by a country mile. The rules get bent or broken because, in their most perfect application, they may actually dull the impact of a given image. Thus, many a journalist has a Pulitzer on his wall for a picture that a beginner might regard as “wrong”. And the same goes for any picture we may want to make where an emotion simply must be conjured. Mere visual accuracy can and will be sacrificed to make the picture ring true.
Asa personal example, I find that images that plumb the mysteries of memory often must stray from the arbitrary standards of so-called “realism”. When you work in the realms of recall, nostalgia, regret, or simply fond remembrance, a certain fluid attitude toward the niceties of sharpness and exposure may actually sell the idea better. Memory is day-dreaming, after all, and, in a dream, as Alice found in Wonderland, things look a bit…off. Dimension, delineation, depth…all these properties, and more, morph with the needs of the desired image. “Real” sells some things superbly. Emotion, however, as earlier stated, demands a language of its own.
The baby shoes shown in the image above are shot in uneven sharpness to suggest the gauzy nature of the memories they may evoke. Likewise the color is a bit washed-out, almost pastel, since a full, vibrant range of hues may seem less dreamy, more rooted in reportorial reality…which we don’t want for a picture like this. Rule-breaking ensues simply because nothing, no rule, no standard, is as important as making the picture work. If it doesn’t speak to the viewer, then the fact that it’s technically superb means nothing.
As Mr. Ellington sez, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE SUPREME BEING IS CORRECTLY QUOTED, as having proclaimed, at the dawn of time, “Let There Be Light!”, then photographers, since the beginning of their own Creation, have more specifically pleaded, “let there be more light.” Indeed, incredible leaps in imaging technology over the last two centuries have taken us from ten-minute daguerreotype exposures to sharp, bright images snapped in thousandths of a second, and, still, the fight for more light and faster lenses continues unabated.
Between here and there, a few photographers have made their mark by pushing this envelope a little farther than the rest of us. One of them, however, tore that envelope to shreds, and his achievement in this area has never been surpassed, or even matched, by any of his peers.
That man’s name is Stanley Kubrick.
Before he began his directing career in the early 1950’s, Kubrick had years of experience under his belt as the youngest staff photographer for Look magazine, second only to Life as the premier photo-dominant national news weekly. Years before he wielded a Leica IIIf on that job, he had spent his early childhood learning the ins-and-outs of his own Graflex, one of the monster machines that battle-hardened newspaper photogs lugged to crime scenes and fires in dozens of “B” movies (stop the press). By his early ’30’s, Kubrick had amassed a personal collection of lenses and cameras that he would continue to modify and alter for use in his feature films, and by the ’70’s, he was ready to take a giant step attaining a kind of nirvana in the use of available light.
As he prepared to adapt William Thackeray’s novel of 19th karmic komeuppance, Barry Lyndon, to the screen in 1974, Kubrick pondered filming the interior scenes of the story’s powdered-wig salons with no lighting whatever beyond that of candle power. Now, we’re not using the term “candle power” to refer to the measurement of light. No, I’m referring here to actual candles, and nothing else. To do so, he would have to have gear that simply did not exist in the gear closets of any major studio, or, in fact, the entire movie industry. To become the fastest man alive, lens-wise, he would have to go shopping at the same place NASA shopped.
Most commercial lenses available at the time opened no wider than around f/1.4, enough to give you and me more than enough light-gathering power for dark times around the house but far too slow to operate on a movie set without a huge battery of kliegs and floods to boost the illumination. However, Kubrick had heard that NASA had developed a lens specifically designed to allow scientists to get sharp images on the dark side of the moon, a Zeiss 50mm with a focal length of …gasp…f/0.7. Zeiss made just ten of these mutants. Six went to Houston. The company kept another one for a rainy day. And the remaining three were gobbled up by Stanley Kubrick.
Taking the aforementioned benchmark of f/1.4 as the 1970’s yardstick for “man, that’s fast”, the ability to open up to f/0.7 represented a quantum leap of at least two-and-a-half stops of extra light (check my math), allowing Kubrick’s film to be, absolutely, the only cinema feature to date to be lit exclusively by ambient light. Of course, it wasn’t all sugar cookies and Kool-Aid, since that also meant working in a range of focus so shallow that only selective parts of actors’ faces were in sharp registration at any given time, giving the players the extra problem of remembering how little their heads could move without screwing up the shot. It was the only thing that could force even more re-takes than Kubrick’s renowned mania for perfection. We’re not talking a fun shoot here.
The resulting, soft, soft, soffffft look of Barry Lyndon is intimate, delicate, and absolutely gorgeous (click the image for a slightly larger version). Practical? Not so much, but for the specific mood of that material, spot on. Critics of the final film either hailed the technique as a new benchmark or sniggered at what they regarded as a showy gimmick. Of course, audiences avoided the film like Jim Carrey fleeing vaccines, so the entire thing remains, for many, a kind of grandiose Guiness-book stunt. Still, while ever-faster lenses and films eventually allowed directors much greater freedom, Uncle Stanley’s claim as fastest gun still merits its place in the hall of frame.
As a strange post-script to the story, several companies have recently boasted that you, too, might rent the same kind of hack-hybrid that Kubrick had fashioned to support the light-sponging Zeiss glass, their ads suggesting that you might secure the needed funding with the sale of several of your more expendable internal organs. Cheap at the price. The Lord got all the light he wanted pretty much on demand. The rest of us have to curse the darkness and, well, light another candle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.
This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.
The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.
You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMONG THE GROUPS INVITING FLICKR USERS TO POST PHOTOGRAPHS OF A CERTAIN THEME OR TYPE, there is a group called, “This Should Be A Postcard”, apparently composed of images that are so iconically average that they resemble mass-produced tourist views of scenic locales. The name of this group puzzles me. I mean, if you called it, “Perfectly Ordinary, Non-Offensive and Safe Pictures of Over-Visited Places”, people would write you off as a troll, but I’d at least give you points for accuracy. It’s hard to understand why any art would aspire to look like something that is almost deliberately artless.
And still, it is perceived as a compliment to one’s work to be told that it “looks just like a postcard”, and, I swear, when I hear that remark about one of my own images, my first reaction is to wipe said image from the face of the earth, since that phrase means that it is (a)average, (b) unambitious), (c) unimaginative, or (d) a mere act of “recording”. Look, here’s the famous place. It looks just like you expect it to, taken from the angle that you’re accustomed to, lit, composed and executed according to a pre-existing conception of what it’s “supposed” to be. How nice.
And how unlike anything photography is supposed to be about.
This conditioning we all have to render the “official” view of well-known subjects can only lead to mediocrity and risk aversion. After all, a postcard is tasteful, perfect, symmetrical, orderly. And eventually, dull. Thankfully, the infusion of millions of new photographers into the mainstream in recent years holds the potential cure for this bent. The young will simply not hold the same things (or ways to view them) in any particular awe, and so they won’t even want to create a postcard, or anyone else’s version of one. They will shudder at the very thought of being “on the nose”.
I rail against the postcard because, over a lifetime, I have so shamelessly aspired to it, and have only been able to let go of the fantasy after becoming disappointed with myself, then unwilling to keep recycling the same approach to subject matter even one more time. For me, it was a way of gradually growing past the really formalized methods I had as a child. And it’s not magic.Even a slight variation in approach to “big” subjects, as in the above image, can stamp at least a part of yourself onto the results, and so, it’s a good thing to get the official shot out of the way early on in a shoot, then try every other approach you can think of. Chances are, your keeper will be in one of the non-traditional approaches.
Postcards say of a location, wish you were here. Photographs, made by you personally, point to your mind and say, “consider being here.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS RANDOMNESS HAS STUBBORNLY ASSERTED ITSELF AS ONE OF THE MOST DECISIVE FORCES IN ALL OF PHOTOGRAPHY.One of the eternal struggles in our craft has been between our intense attempts to reduce the recording of light to a predictable science, and nature’s insistent pushback, allowing things that just happen to shape our results. I think most of our work as individuals is a constant wrestling between these two forces. One moment we fancy ourselves mastering all the variables that create images, and in the next we celebrate the wilding potential of just letting go, and actually celebrating the random effect. I find myself careening between the comfort of all the techniques I have accumulated over a lifetime, the so-called “guarantees” that I’ll capture what I’m looking for, and the giddy discovery that accidentals, or artifacts, somehow found themselves in my pictures despite my best efforts. The problem, for me, is learning to celebrate something wonderful that happened without my consciously causing it.
Phone cameras are forcing me to accept a little less control, since, even at their best, they can’t be managed in the way that standard DSLRs can. That leaves a certain number of results to chance, or, more exactly, to a display of the camera’s limits. One one hand, I’m grateful for the shots that I can “save” by using a mobile, since there will always be times that other types camera will be blocked, forbidden, or inconvenient. On the other hand, the results always make me wonder what else might have been possible if I had been completely at the helm in the making of the images. Some of the things I get “on the fly” with a phone camera are actually a bit magical, so that I actually love the things that are “wrong” with the picture. I’m sure this is part of the enjoyment that the lomography crowd derive from working with plastic toy cameras which create totally unpredictable results purely as a result of the camera’s shortcomings. In the above image, the garish register of nearly every color by my iPhone works well with the bizarre collision of dusk, neon, urban textures, even the overblown mystery of what’s going on inside the crazed little bodega shown here. The extreme wide-angle bias of the iPhone also has stretched things into exotic exaggerations of perspective, and the camera’s auto-boosted ISO produces a high level of noise. Does it all work? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t surrender control easily, but I’ve seen enough of the fortunate accidents of photographers from all over the world not to welcome nature’s interventions. I mean, after all, the idea that we’re actually in control is, at best, a pleasant illusion. We don’t really understand lightning, and yet, somehow, we’ve been given the ability to capture it in a box. Strange.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M VERY ACCUSTOMED TO BEING STOPPED IN MY TRACKS AT A PHOTOGRAPH THAT EVOKES A BYGONE ERA: we’ve all rifled through archives and been astounded by a vintage image that, all by itself, recovers a lost time.
It’s a little more unsettling when you experience that sense of time travel in a photo that you just snapped. That’s what I felt several weeks ago inside the main book trove at the Morgan Library in New York. The library itself is a tumble through the time barrier, recalling a period when robber barons spent millions praising themselves for having made millions. A time of extravagant, even vulgar displays of success, the visual chest-thumping of the Self-Made Man.
The private castles of Morgan, Carnegie, Hearst and other larger-than-life industrialists and bankers now stand as frozen evidence of their energy, ingenuity, and avarice. Most of them have passed into public hands. Many are intact mementos of their creators, available for view by anyone, anywhere. So being able to photograph them is not, in itself, remarkable.
No, it’s my appreciation of the fact that, today,unlike any previous era in photography, it’s possible to take an incredibly detailed, low-light subject like this and accurately render it in a hand-held, non-flash image. This, to a person whose life has spanned several generations of failed attempts at these kinds of subjects, many of them due to technical limits of either cameras, film, or me, is simply amazing. A shot that previously would have required a tripod, long exposures, and a ton of technical tinkering in the darkroom is just there, now, ready for nearly anyone to step up and capture it. Believe me, I don’t dispense a lot of “wows” at my age, over anything. But this kind of freedom, this kind of access, qualifies for one.
This was taken with my basic 18-55mm kit lens, as wide as possible to at least allow me to shoot at f/3.5. I can actually hand-hold fairly steady at even 1/15 sec., but decided to play it safe at 1/40 and boost the ISO to 1000. The skylight and vertical stained-glass panels near the rear are WINOS (“windows in name only”), but that actually might have helped me avoid a blowout and a tougher overall exposure. So, really, thanks for nothing.
On of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the one about Burgess Meredith inheriting all the books in the world after a nuclear war, with sufficient leisure to read his life away, was entitled “Time Enough At Last”. For the amazing blessings of the digital age in photography, I would amend that title by one word:
Light Enough…At Last.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY READ AN INTRIGUING STATEMENT ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PAINTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY to the effect that painters start with nothing, and add information until the image is created, whereas photographers start with total information and work to selectively remove things until their pictures are made. Of course, there are times when both artists borrow the approach of the other, and the practice of “light painting” is one place where photogs can actually wield a kind of brush, beginning in pure darkness and then adding illumination, literally by hand, until a picture, layer by layer, emerges.
Bascially, you’re going down two potential paths with light painting. One is the depiction of fantasy, a custom light creation that is the central subject of the image, rather than an augmentation of something else. Visit the tutorial link below to view some of these visions, as they are truly fascinating (not to mention work-intensive): the flaming fireball dancing across the lake, the geometric noodlings hanging in mid-air, the angel wings growing out of your girlfriend’s back, and so on. The other approach is to amplify the impact of a subject which has either no illumination at night or a lighting scheme that is counter to the mood you’re going for. In this case, your flashlight, LED or light coil is creating the visual reality that you wish existed. It’s “reality-plus”, rather than a complete fantasy. This is the avenue I have tended to favor.
After a year away from light painting, I have started to slink back into it, moving from tabletop arrangements, where control is less of an issue, to exterior locales, which are, frankly, the very definition of trial-and-error.With the camera locked onto its tripod and with a pre-determined exposure and aperture, the responsibility for whether the magic happens is literally in your hands, hands that need real-world training in this technique.
As for lighting: these days, even dollar-store LEDs provide a pretty intense white light in darkness but they don’t throw it very far, and they are also pretty narrowly focused, so, if you want to paint the side of, say, a barn, it’s really hard to do so evenly. Best thing is to avoid the bargain lights: get yourself a powerful torch with a variable focus, something that can shoot both soft and wide. It’ll save you lots of time trying to guess about coverage on larger surfaces. Also, within a single exposure, you can still change off to the pencil-thin lights for special detailing, since, in complete darkness, your shutter will be open long enough for you to switch lights on and off, change position, and touch things up.
The above image was done in a yard with no landscape lighting on hand, other than the light I am applying during a thirty-second exposure. Not a perfect execution, but a quick example of how you can impart night mood to objects that are duller than dishwater in daylight. Lighting is all about setting the terms of view, and hand-painting the light allows you to control that mood, almost as completely as you would with oil, brush or canvas.
More to look at:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DAYLIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY, THE DEFAULT ACTION TENDS TO BE TO SHOW EVERYTHING. Shadows in day scenes are a kind of negative reference to the illuminated objects in the frame, but it is those objects, and not the darkness, that defines space. In this way shady areas are a kind of decor, an aid to recognition of scale and depth.
At night, however, the darkness truly plays a defining role, reversing its daylight relationship to light. Dark becomes the stuff that night photos are sculpted from, creating areas that can remain undefined or concealed, giving images a sense of understatement, even mystery. Not only does this create compelling compositions of things that are less than fascinating in the daytime, it allows you to play “light director” to selectively decide how much information is provided to the viewer. In some ways, it is a more pro-active way of making a picture.
I strongly recommend walkabout shoots that span the complete transition from dusk to post-sunset to absolute night. Not only will the quickly changing quality of light force you to make decisions very much in-the-moment, it allows for a vast variance in the visual power of your subjects that is starkly easy to measure. It’s a great practice lab for shooting completely on manual, and, depending on the speed of your chosen lens (and greater ISO flexibility in recent cameras), makes relatively noise -free, stable handheld shots possible that were unthinkable just a few years ago. One British writer I follow recently remarked, concerning ISO, that “1600 is the new 400”, and he’s very nearly right.
So wander around in the dark. The variable results force you to shoot a lot, rethink a lot, and experiment a lot. Even one evening can accelerate your learning curve by weeks. And when darkness is the primary sculptor of a shot, lovely things (wait for the bad pun) can come to light (sorry).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE BEST HUMAN INTEREST STORIES, EVEN WITH A CAMERA, CAN ONLY BE VIEWED INDIRECTLY. There are many cases in which even the best of us have to merely hint or suggest something about people that we clearly cannot show (or cannot show clearly). Maybe that intractable bit of visual mystery actually bonds us to our audiences, united as we are in speculation about what is beyond that wall or behind that door. The visual tease such photos provide are part of the art of making pictures, in that we are challenged to do more with less, and “show” something beyond the visible.
One of the simplest such stories to capture is very urban in nature: the last remaining nighttime lights in largely dormant buildings. Many of us have been the “last man standing” at the end of an extended work day. Others flee to engagements, family, dinner, but there we sit, chained to our desks until the report/project/research/budget is ready to be put to bed. There’s a readily identifiable feeling of loneliness, plus a little bit of martyr complex, that we can share in the plight of these unknown soldiers of the night.
Whenever I am driving through a city at night, I deliberately seek out those bluish, tube-lit warrens within the cubes and grids of otherwise featureless glass boxes. Who is there? What private eureka or oh, no moments are they experiencing? Which of a million potential dramas are being acted out, and with whom? The uncertainty, even from a photograph with little detail, sparks the imagination, and suddenly our viewers are completing the picture we were forced to deliver unfinished.
It’s the ongoing paradox of photography: what you don’t show is as vital as what you do show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO PUT A SMILE ON MY FACE WHEN I VISIT YOUR CITY, there is no sweeter sentence you can say to me than:
There is, for photographers, one way to maximize your time touring through other people’s towns, and that’s the time-honored tradition of “riding shotgun”. Drive me anywhere, but give me a window seat. I wasn’t trying to go for some kind of personal best in the area of urban side shots in 2013, but by good fortune I did snag a few surprises as I was ferried through various towns, along with a “reject” pile about a mile high. Like any other kind of shooting, the yield in window shooting is very low in terms of “killers per click”, but when you hit the target, you crack through a kind of “I’m new in town” barrier and take home a bit of the street for your own.
This guy just killed me (excuse the expression). He seemed like he was literally waiting for business to drop in (or drop dead), and meanwhile was taking in the view. Probably he didn’t even work for the casket company, in which case, what a bummer of neighbor to pick. Maybe he’s rent controlled.
This one took a little tweaking. The building was actually blue, as you see here, lit with subdued mood for the holidays. However, in lightening this very dark shot, the sky registered as a muddy brown, so I made a dupe, desaturated everything except the conservatory, then added tint back in to make the surrounding park area match the building. All rescued from an “all or nothing” shot.
I’m also ashamed to admit that I bagged a few through-the-window shots while actually driving the car, all done at red lights and so not recommended. Don’t do as I do, do as I……oh, you know.
Here’s to long shots, at horse tracks or in viewfinders, and the few that finish in the money.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICTURES HAPPEN WHEN YOU’RE OUT TRYING TO TAKE “OTHER” PICTURES. Pictures happen when you didn’t feel like taking any pictures at all. And, occasionally, the planets align perfectly and you hold something in your hand, that, if you are honest, you know you had nothing to with.
Those are the pictures that delight and haunt. They happen on off-days, against the grain of whatever you’d planned. They crop up when it’s not convenient to take them, demanding your attention like a small insistent child tugging at your pants leg with an urgent or annoying issue. And when they call, however obtrusively, however bothersome, you’d better listen.
Don’t over-think the gift. Just say thank you….and stay open.
This is an overly mystical way of saying that pictures are sometimes taken because it’s their time to be taken. You are not the person who made them ready. You were the person who wandered by, with a camera if you’re lucky.
I got lucky this week, but not with any shot I had set out on a walkabout to capture. By the time I spotted the scene you see at the top of this post, I was beyond empty, having harvested exactly zip out of a series of locations I thought would give up some gold. I couldn’t get the exposures right: the framing was off: the subjects, which I hoped would reveal great human drama, were as exciting as a bus schedule.
I had just switched from color to monochrome when I saw him: a young nighthawk nursing some eleventh-hour coffee while poring over an intense project. Homework? A heartfelt journal? A grocery list? Who could tell? All I could see, in a moment, was that the selective opening and closing of shades all around him had given me a perfect frame, with every other element in the room diffused to soft focus. It was as if the picture was hanging in the air with a big neon rectangle around it, flashing shoot here, dummy.
My subject’s face was hidden. His true emotion or state of mind would never be known. The picture would always hide as much as it revealed.
Works for me. Click.
Just like the flicker of a firefly, the picture immediately went away. My target shifted in his chair, people began to walk across the room, the universe changed. I had a lucky souvenir of something that truly was no longer.
I said thank you to someone, packed up my gear, and drove home.
I hadn’t gotten what I originally came for.
- Crop and turn a bad picture into a good one (weliveinaflat.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST GIFT A SMALL CHILD HAS TO GIVE THE WORLD IS THE VAST, UNMINED ORE OF POSSIBILITY residing inside him. Wow, that really sounded pretentious. But think about it. He or she, as yet, has no wealth to offer, no fully developed talent, no seasoned insight, no marketable skills. It is what he or she has the potential to be that tantalizes us, and our cameras. It is what is just about to be available from these fresh, just-out-of-the-oven souls that amazes us, the degree to which they are not yet….us.
As a photographer, I find there is no better education than to be plunged into the living laboratory of cascading emotion that is a cluster of kids, and the more chaotic and unrehearsed the setting, the richer the results. It’s like shooting the wildest of competitive sports, where everything unfolds in an instant, for an instant. You ride a series of waves, all breaking into their final contours with completely different arcs and surges. There is no map, few guarantees, and just one rule: remain an outsider. The closer to invisibility you can get, the truer the final product.
I volunteer with an educational facility which designs many entry-level discovery workshops and playdates involving young families, requiring a lot of documentary photographs. What would be a chore or an extra duty for overworked administrative staff becomes an excuse, for me, to attend living labs of human experience, and I jump at the chance to walk silently around the edges of whatever adventure these kids are embarked on, whether a simple sing-a-long or a class in amateur dance.
Everything feeds me. It’s a learn-on-the-fly crash course in exposure, composition, often jarring variations in light, and the instantaneous nature of children. To be as non-disruptive as possible, I avoid flash and use a fast 35mm prime, which is a good solid portrait lens. It can’t zoom, however, so there is the extra challenge of getting close enough to the action without becoming a part of it, and in rooms where the lighting is iffy I may have to jack up ISO sensitivity pretty close to the edge of noise. Ideally, I don’t want the kids to be attending to me at all. They are there to react honestly to their friends, parents, and teachers, so there can be no posing, no “look over here, sweetie”, no “cheese”. What you lose in the total control of a formal studio you gain in rare glimpses into real, working minds.
The yields are low: while just anything I shoot can serve as a “document” for the facility’s purposes, for my own needs I am lucky to get one frame in a hundred that gives me something that works technically and emotionally. But for faces like these, I will gladly take those odds.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOKING OVER MY LIFETIME “FAIL” PHOTOGRAPHS, FROM EARLIEST TO LATEST, it’s pretty easy to make a short list of the three main problems with nearly all of them, to wit:
Too Much Stuff Going On.
I Don’t Know Where I’m Supposed To Be Looking.
Okay, you got me. It’s the same problem re-worded three ways. And that’s the point, not only with my snafus but with nearly other picture that fails to connect with anybody, anywhere. As salesmen do, photographers are always “asking for the order”, or, in this case, the attention of the viewer. Often we can’t be there when our most earnest work is seen by others. If the images don’t effectively say, this is the point of the picture, then we haven’t closed the deal.
It’s not simple, but, yeah, it is that simple.
If we don’t properly direct people to the main focus of our story, then we leave our audiences wandering in the woods, looking for a way out. Is it this path? Or this one?
In our present era, where it’s possible to properly expose nearly everything in the frame, we sometimes lose a connection to the darkness, as a way to cloak the unimportant, to minimize distraction, to force the view into a succinct part of the image. Nothing says don’t look here like a big patch of black, and if we spend too much time trying to show everything in full illumination, we could be throwing away our simplest and best prop.
In the above picture of my beautiful Marian, I had one simple mission, really. Show that soft sleeping face. A little texture from the nearby pillows works all right, but I’m just going to waste time and spontaneity rigging up a tripod to expose long enough to show extra detail in the chair she’s on, her sweatshirt, or any other surrounding stuff, and for what? Main point to consider: she’s sleeping, and (trust me) sleeping lightly, so one extra click might be just enough to end her catnap (hint: reject this option). Other point: taking extra trial-and-error shots just to show other elements in the room will give nothing to the picture. Make it a snapshot, jack up the ISO enough to get her face, and live with the extra digital noise. Click and done.
For better or worse.
Composition-wise, that’s often the choice. If you can’t make it better, for #%$&!’s sake don’t make it worse.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN A CAMERA’S CHIEF FUNCTION IS TO BEAR WITNESS, TO ASSERT THAT SOMETHING FANTASTIC REALLY DID EXIST IN THE WORLD. Of course, most photography is a recording function, but, awash in a sea of infinite options, it is what we choose to see and celebrate that makes an image either mundane or majestic.
And then sometimes, you just have the great good luck to wander past something wonderful. With a camera in your hand.
The New York Public Library’s main mid-town Manhattan branch is beyond magnificent, as even a casual visit will attest. However, its beauty always seems to me like just “the front of the store”, a controlled-access barrier between its visually stunning common areas and “the good stuff” lurking in untold chambers, locked vaults and invisible enclaves in the other 2/3 of the building. I expect these two worlds to be forever separate and distinct, much as I don’t expect to ever see the control room for electrical power at Disneyland. But the unseen fascinates, and recently, I was given a marvelous glimpse into the other side at the NYPL.
A recent exhibit of Mary Surratt art prints, wall-mounted along the library’s second-floor hall, was somehow failing to mesmerize me when, through a glass office window, I peeked into a space that bore no resemblance whatever to a contemporary office. The whole interior of the room seemed to hang suspended in time. It consisted of a solitary woman, her back turned to the outside world, seated at a dark, simple desk, intently poring over a volume, surrounded by dark, loamy, ceiling-to-floor glass-paneled book shelves along the side and back walls of the room. The whole scene was lit by harsh white light from a single window, illuminating only selective details of another desk nearer the window, upon which sat a bust of the head of Michelangelo’s David, an ancient framed portrait, a brass lamp . I felt like I had been thrown backwards into a dutch-lit painting from the 1800’s, a scene rich in shadows, bathed in gold and brown, a souvenir of a bygone world.
I felt a little guilty stealing a few frames, since I am usually quite respectful of people’s privacy. In fact, had the woman been aware of me, I would not have shot anything, as my mere perceived presence, however admiring, would have felt like an invasion, a disturbance. However, since she was oblivious to not only me, but, it seemed, to all of Planet Earth 2013, I almost felt like I was photographing an image that had already been frozen for me by an another photographer or painter. I increased my Nikon’s sensitivity just enough to get an image, letting the light in the room fall where it may, allowing it to either bless or neglect whatever it chose to. In short, the image didn’t need to be a faithful rendering of objects, but a dutiful recording of feeling.
How came this room, this computer-less, electricity-less relic of another age preserved in amber, so tantalizingly near to the bustle of the current day, so intact, if out of joint with time? What are those books along the walls, and how did they come to be there? Why was this woman chosen to sit at her sacred, private desk, given lone audience with these treasures? The best pictures pose more questions than they answer, and only sparingly tell us what they are “about”. This one, simply, is “about” seeing a woman in a time machine. Alice through the looking-glass.
A peek inside the rest of the store.
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By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF PICTURE YOU WILL EVER TAKE OF A CAT, and that is the one she allows you to take. Try stealing an image from these spiritual creatures against their will, and you will reign over a bitter kingdom of blur, smear, and near misses.
It’s trickier to take photos of the ectoplasmic projections of departed relatives. But not by much.
I recently encountered this particular lady in a Brooklyn brownstone, a gorgeous building, but not one that is exactly flooded with light, even on a bright day. There are a million romantically wonderful places for darkness to hide inside such wonderful old residences, and any self-respecting feline will know how to take the concept of “stealth” down a whole other road. The cat in the above photo is, believe me, better at instant vaporization and re-manifestation than Batman at midnight in Gotham. She also has been the proud unofficial patrol animal for the place since Gawd knows when, so you can’t pull any cute little “chase-the-yarn-get-your-head-stuck-in-a-blanket” twaddle that litters far too much of YouTube.
You’re dealing with a pro here.
Her, not me.
Plus she’s from Brooklyn, so you should factor some extra ‘tude into the equation.
The only lens that gives me any luck inside this house is a f/1.8 35mm prime, since it’s ridiculously thirsty for light when wide open and lets you avoid the noticeable pixel noise that you’d get jacking up the ISO in a dark space. Thing is, at that aperture, the prime also has a razor-thin depth of field, so, as you follow the cat, you have to do a lot of trial framings of the autofocus on her face, since getting sharp detail on her entire body will be tricky to the point of nutso. And of course, if you move too far into shadow, the autofocus may not take a reading at all, and then there’s another separate complication to deal with.
The best (spelled “o-n-l-y”) solution on this particular day was to squat just inside the front foyer of the house, which receives more ambient light than any other single place in the house. For a second, I thought that her curiosity as to what I was doing would bring her into range and I could get what I needed. Yeah, well guess again. She did, in fact, approach, but got quickly bored with my activity and turned to walk away. It was only a desperate cluck of my tongue that tricked her into turning her head back around as she prepared to split. Take your stupid picture, she seemed to say, and then stop bothering me.
Hey, I ain’t proud.
My brief audience with the queen had been concluded.
I’ll just show myself out……
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMAGES SIT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BRAIN, LIKE STONE PILLARS IN THE FOUNDATION OF AN IMMENSE TOWER.The structures erected on top of them, those images we ourselves have fashioned in memory of these foundations, dictate the height and breadth of our own creative edifices. Between these elemental pictures and what we build on top of them, we derive a visual style of our own.
In my own case,many of the pillars that hold up my own house of photography come from a single man.
Edward Steichen is arguably the greatest photographer in history. If that seems like hyperbole, I would humbly suggest that you take a reasonable period of time, say, oh, twenty years or so, just to lightly skim the breadth of his amazing career….from revealing portraits to iconic product shots to nature photography to street journalism and half a dozen other key areas that comprise our collective craft of light writing. His work spans the distance from wet glass plates to color film, from the Edwardian era to the 1960’s, from photography as an insecure imitation of painting to its arrival as a distinct and unique art form in its own right.
At the start of the 20th century, Steichen co-sponsored many of the world’s first formal photographic galleries, and was a major contributor to Camera Work, the first serious magazine dedicated wholly to photography. He ended his career as the creator of the legendary Family Of Man, created in the early 1950’s and still the most celebrated collection of global images ever mounted anywhere on earth. He is, simply, the Moses of photography, towering above many lesser giants whose best work amounts to only a fraction of his own prodigious output.
Which is why I sometimes see fragments of what he saw when I view a subject. I can’t see with his clarity, but through the milky lens of my own vision I sometime detect a flashing speck of what he knew on a much larger scale, decades before. The image at left recently rocketed to my mind’s eye several weeks ago, as I was framing shots inside a large government building in Ohio.In 1921, Steichen journeyed to Greece to use the world’s oldest civilization basically as a prop for portraits of Isadora Duncan, then in the forefront of American avant-garde dance. Framing her at the bottom of an immense arch in the ruins of the Parthenon, he made her appear majestic and minute at the same time, both minimized and deified by the huge proportions in the frame. It is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever seen, and I urge you to click the Flickr link at the end of this post for a slightly larger view of it. (Also note the link to a great overview of Steichen’s life on Wikipedia.)
In framing a similarly tall arch leading into the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, I didn’t have a human figure to work with, but I wanted to show the building as a series of major and minor access cavities, in, around, under and through one of its arched entrance to the central lobby. I kept having to back up and step down to get at least a partial view of the rotunda and the arch at the opposite end of the open space included in the frame, which created a kind of left and right bracket for the shot, now flanked by a pair of staircases. Given the overcast sky meekly leaking grey light into the rotunda’s glass cupola, most of the building was shrouded in shadow, so a handheld shot with sufficient depth of field was going to call for jacked-up ISO, and the attendant grungy texture that remains in the darker parts of the shot. But at least I walked away with something.
What kind of something? There is no”object” to the image, no story being told, and sadly, no dancing muse to immortalize. Just an arrangement of color and shape that hit me in some kind of emotional way. That and Steichen, that foundational pillar, calling up to me from the basement:
“Just take the shot.”
- The Photograph as a Social Statement (halsmith.wordpress.com)
- Picture Imperfect (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WILL DO ANYTHING TO PHOTOGRAPH BOOKSTORES. Not the generic Costco and Wal-Mart bargain slabs laden with discounted bestsellers. Not the starched and sterile faux-library air of Barnes & Noble. I’m talking musty, dusty, crammed, chaotic collections of mismatched, timeless tomes…. “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” as Poe labeled them. I’m looking for places run by dotty old men with their glasses high on their forehead, cultural salvage yards layered in multiple stories of seemingly unrelated offerings in random stacks and precarious piles. Something doomed by progress, and beautiful in its fragility.
I almost missed this one.
In my last post, I commented that, even when your photography is rules-based….i.e., always do this, never do that, there are times when you have to shoot on impulse alone and get what you can get. It sometimes begins when you’re presented with something you’re not, but should be, looking for. A few weeks ago, I was spending the afternoon at one of Monterey, California‘s most time-honored weekly rituals..the marvelous, multi-block farmers’ market along Alvarado Street. The sheer number of vendors dictates that some of the booths spill over onto the side streets, and that’s where I found The Book Haven. The interior of the store afforded an all-in-one view of its entire sprawling inventory, but the crush of tourists bustling in and out of its teeny front door meant that any image was going to look like the casting call for The Ten Commandments.
I had to come back, when both the store and I were alone.
With the limited amount of time I had in town, that meant that I would have to stroll by just hours ahead of my plane for home. Heading out at 8:30 in the morning, I had obviously solved the problem of “too many people in the picture”, but I had traded that hassle for a new one: the store would not be open for another three hours.
For the second time in a week (see “Look Through Any Window, Part One”) I was forced to shoot through a window, but at least there was enough light inside to illuminate nearly all of the store’s interior. To avoid a reflection, I would have to cram my lens right up against the glass. Once my autofocus stopped fidgeting, I could only obtain the framing I wanted by shooting through a narrow open place on the center of the front door, standing on tiptoe to hold the composition. I also had to keep the ISO dialed low enough to not create extra noise, but high enough so I could take a fairly fast handheld exposure and get as much detail from the dark corners as possible. Balancing act.
Let’s see what happens.
In viewing the image later, I saw that there wasn’t enough detail to suit me, either in the individual books or the darker spaces around the store, so I pulled a small cheat. Making a copy of the shot, I pulled down the contrast, boosted the exposure, and sucked out some shadow, then loaded both shots into Photomatix, fooling the HDR program into thinking they were two separate exposures. Photomatix is also a detail enhancer program, so I could add sharper textures to the books and a richer range of tones than were seen in the original through-the-window shot.
Hey, you can’t have it all, but, by at least trying, you get more than nothing.
And sometimes that’s everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.