By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER has little to do with the power or technical precision of this image or that, but rather in any success I may experience in trying, over time, to do more with less. Fewer procedural steps per shot. Fewer cameras per piece of baggage. And, mounted on said cameras, fewer lenses to do nearly everything, or as close to that holy state that I can get.
It’s not just a case of lessening the strain on my aching back/neck, although that is a helluva motivator. No, it’s more about the time lost switching between cameras, camera bodies, lenses, attachments, etc., which must inevitably lead to lost shots. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If only I hadn’t been fiddling for that other optic, I tearfully whine, I’d already have produced a masterpiece today, or some other such delusion. There is also the cold, hard fact of my own innate sloth. I’d like to have my hands freer for more of the time, especially if someone might be inclined to proffer a ham sandwich or, Lord bless me, an I.P.A.
That said, I now choose lenses based on the breadth of their traits, glass that I can just stick on a single camera with a reasonable expectation of being able to get 90% of what I want simply because the lens is not a one-trick pony. For example, that might mean, say, looking for a prime lens that has a wide aperture range, allowing me to do portraits, landscapes, and even a few handheld night shots all with one set-up. In my younger days, I thought nothing of doing this by taking three separate lenses along, all of them delivering just one specialized effect. Homey don’t play that no more.
This “faux macro” was actually shot with a zoom lens from about twenty feet away.
As an example: I am often on birdwatching walks with my friends for which someone forgot to memo the birds to, you know, actually show up. That used to mean being stuck all day with just “the bird camera”, a fairly adequate bridge model with decent zoom, but a small sensor that makes it lousy on scenic work. In recent years, I have repurposed the thing as a faux macro lens, merely by zooming in, not on distant mountains or eagles on trees, but flowers, insects, and other mini-subjects, mostly from a distance of about twenty feet. It takes a little getting used to, framing up a shot of something that tiny from that far away, but, on mornings that the birds have decided to sleep in, I can at least find something to do to avoid moaning and pouting, two behaviours that birders specifically frown upon.
The other thing I do to isolate things even further is to zoom in at the shortest focal length that the lens will allow and under-expose by about a stop and a half. If I can’t de-emphasize the background with bokeh, then I’ll just surround my subject with inky black. Either way, instead of spending the day grousing that I don’t have the correct tool, I’ve become more comfortable with asking what I do have to work a little counter-intuitively. Because, after all, excusing oneself for not getting the picture “because I brought the wrong gear” is, well, for the birds.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN READING ALICE IN WONDERLAND as a child, I tried to imagine myself in the heroine’s place as she was buffeted about between strange creatures and bizarre environments. I wasn’t sure how I would react to a talking White Rabbit or an infant who turned into a pig at a moment’s notice, but I felt that, if I had to improvise while being alternatively enlarged and shrunk, as poor Alice was, that I would be ingenious enough to master my situation. All those “eat mes” and “drink mes” would have been tough to manage, for sure, but my natural explorer’s spirit would, I was confident, prevail in the end.
The current international cabin fever has made me think a lot of Alice lately, both Tiny Alice, being swept away in a torrent of her own tears, and Overgrown Alice, straining at the cramped limits of a house she has outgrown. You can see where I’m going with this. As photographers, we often are outwardly biased. The next great picture is somewhere “out there”. We are just one mile and a quick left turn from something stunning, and, in most cases, it’s beyond our own back yard (apologies here to Dorothy Gale as well). Add a forced quarantine into the formula, however, and we feel, at some point, like Overgrown Alice, thrusting a hand out the window of a micro-house. We fear there’s “nothing to shoot”. Our typically cheery disposish becomes dark and churlish. We start to watch daytime TV and bake.
Overgrown Alice’s constantly morphing dimensions made her constantly re-evaluate her world by the latest shifting data, with the very special challenge of being crushed by its shrinking confines. Photographers who are locked inside are likewise forced to re-think their relationships to objects in their environment…to re-contextualize everything. A flower under the macro lens becomes an entire botanical garden. Objects too familiar to be noticed under normal conditions become fascinating examples of design and pattern when seen from a different angle or distance. Anything and everything can become completely new because we have been forced, through either genius or boredom, to change our perceptions. A web search of the phrase cabin fever photography has become a major trender in recent months, and with good reason. We can’t go out to shoot as we’d prefer: we have to turn the camera further in. In so doing, we find ways to get more and more out of less and less. We discover, as we must regularly do as photograpers, that our relationship with the world must be as flexible as Alice in all her sizes, to guarantee perpetual refreshment of how we see. We gotta get curiouser and curiouser.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.
Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.
In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.
Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.
In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”
Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A DECADE-AND-A-HALF INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, we are still struggling to visually comprehend the marvels of the twentieth. As consumers, we race from innovation to innovation so amazingly fast that we scarcely apprehend the general use of the things we create, much less the underlying aesthetic of their physical forms. We are awash in the ingenuity of vanishing things, but usually don’t think about them beyond what we expect them to supply to our lives. We “see” what things do rather than seeing their essential design.
As photographers, we need not only engage the world as recorders of “reality” but as deliberate re-visualizers of the familiar. By selecting, magnifying, lighting and composing the ordinary with a fresh eye, we literally re-discover it. Second sight gives second life, especially to objects that have outlasted their original purpose. No longer needed on an everyday basis, they can be enjoyed as pure design.
And that’s exciting for anyone creating an image.
The above shot is ridiculously simple in concept. Who can’t recognize the subject, even though it has fallen out of daily use? But change the context, and it’s a discovery. Its inner snarl of silvery filaments, designed to scatter and diffuse light during a photoflash, can also refract light, break it up into component colors, imparting blue, gold, or red glows to the surrounding bulb structure. Doubling its size through use of “the poor man’s macro”, simple screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens, allows its delicate inner detail to be seen in a way that its “everyday” use never did. Shooting near a window, backed by a non-reflective texture, allows simple sculpting of the indirect light: move a quarter of an inch this way or that, and you’ve dramatically altered the impact.
The object itself, due to the race of time, is now “useless”, but, for this little tabletop scene, it’s a thing made beautiful, apart from its original purpose. It has become something you can make an image from.
Talk about a “lightbulb moment”….
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- “A Sight Into My Photographic Mind” (Perspective) (mrphotosmash.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE I FIRST READ STORIES ABOUT THE ARCH-VILLAIN BRAINIAC shrinking and stealing cities from the across the galaxy (studying them like miniature trophies) in Superman comics, I knew that I would someday embrace macro photography.
Well, given the insane costs of dedicated macro lenses, maybe embrace isn’t the right word. Maybe one arm around its shoulder. Or a friendly handshake. Or a gentle chat in which I say I really like you, macro, but I think we should see other people.
Let’s face it. You shouldn’t have to mortgage your..mortgage to determine how often you’re going to want to use your camera to, say, count the crumbs on an Oreo. Yes, once you can crank in close enough to see the flea on the back of the buffalo on the nickel, you may become hopelessly infatuated with the world of tiny. But to make that decision, you needn’t assume the financial humility of a monk. Dedicated macro lenses are a monster investment (a minimum of $300, all the way to over $1,000), to be weighed against how many other shooting situations you’re likely to find yourself in, and the economics of whatever special hunks of glass you’ll need to accomplish all those other tasks. If macro is truly “all” for you, then that sort of justifies the complex construction and sharp autofocusing of a separate lens. Brutal honesty disclaimer: there is no substitute for the performance of a high-end piece of precision optics.
BUT, not all of us make a lifelong study of the number of dimples on a bee’s knees, and that can make a huge investment in macro an iffy indulgence. I’m a big one for not buying major toys until they justify their use in my work. Thus, the only photographic commandment I unflinchingly live by is: don’t buy even one more extra feature than you will actually use.
Two main alternative options have emerged to serve the needs of “occasional” macro shooters. One of these are extension tubes, the hollow cylinders that attach between your lens and your camera body, creating an artificially enhanced range of maximum magnification. Being the same size as actual lenses (albeit with no glass inside), they do add additional bulk and weight to your setup, and may result in a loss of light, as well as a shallower depth of field. Investment-wise, you are still in for over $100 for a decent pair of these, as the cheap ones aren’t worth winding toilet paper around. Given the tubes’ limitations, you may be looking at sticking the camera on a tripod to lengthen your exposures, or jacking up the ISO. Different strokes.
The other, far cheaper option, and one which gives you a taste of macro without surgically removing your wallet, involves magnifying diopters. They screw on like filters, come in sets of three for well under forty bucks, and can get you in on the ground floor of macro (or the little tiny things crawling on said floor).
Diopters come in magnifying strengths of +1, +3 , +4, and above, so you can use a single diopter, attach several in series, or assemble a bunch into a custom mix and affix that to the front of your lens. Even with a cluster of them attached, you’re adding little more than an inch of extra depth to your lens body, and they’re easy to detach and stash in a spare pocket, something that cannot be done as easily with extension tubes. If you’re an on-the-go, travel-light kind of guy/gal, this is worth a mention.
Now, let’s not delude ourselves. You can’t use your lens’ autofocus with diopters, which means you’re on manual. This is a serious consideration if you prefer to shoot hand-held, since you will louse up more frames, what with your every quiver being magnified and playing hell with sharpness. As with extension tubes, you may want to whip out the tripod.
If you are a techie as well as an artiste, do a Sherlock Holmes on the interwebs for the exact science of which option will give you the most control and best results. I am far from the best source for this kind of exact wisdom, since, as stated above, I acquired a good deal of my scientific knowledge from Superman comics. That said, if you need a peer review on the properties of Kryptonite, I’m your boy.
My point here is that I can only vouch for what has worked for me……and that’s the entry-level diopters option. Why jump immediately to the big-boy toys when you can master the baby steps with a smaller outlay of green, then move up as your needs dictate? Seems logical that training wheels should precede entry in the Tour de France.
Doesn’t take a Brainiac.
(reach Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)