By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S SLOGGED THROUGH MORE A FEW OF THESE DISPATCHES knows all too well that I am a passionate preacher for shooting images completely on manual, not because it’s a more “pure” form of photography (and thus deserving of nobility and praise), but because I prefer to exercise as much personal control as possible. This, again, is not a quality judgement, since amazing pictures are made every day with the use of either complete or partial automodes. I just feel that I, personally, learn more by trying more, and manual settings place so much direct pressure on me to innovate and experiment that even my gross failures serve as education.
Sometimes. And other times they’re well, just gross.
The mode known in Nikon as Aperture Priority (“Av” on Canons) is the only semi-auto mode I use with any regularity, and always because I make an educated guess, before going on a shoot, about what conditions will likely prevail. AP allows you to manually dial in your aperture on those occasions when you want a uniform depth of field in everything you’re shooting, with your camera metering light on the fly and providing the shutter speed you need for a correct exposure. AP tend to be a rare bird for me because, in many cases, I am not shooting so fast that I can’t pause at least a few seconds between frames to dial in every exposure factor. However, there are cases when the technology gives you a decided edge.
Landscapes, especially in rapidly variable weather, call upon the shooter to react to conditions that could last, at best, for only seconds at a time. When skies are crystal clear and you have ample time to set up a shot, then, by all means, rely on your own experience shooting on full manual. If, however, you are moving and shooting quickly from dark to medium to extreme light and back again, then you might consider AP as a way to cut your reaction time in half. At this point, full manual may be costing you shots rather than making them better.
On the day the above image was taken, the town of Sedona, a miraculous array of red-tinged mountains in northern Arizona, was colored variously by a swiftly shifting broken cloud cover. One moment, the crest of a butte might take on a crimson glow, then be swallowed in shadow just moments later, with the gulch next door temporary hyper-lit in the same fashion. The clouds over Sedona were also backed by a decent headwind, shortening the stretches between scene changes even more. Moreover, the sunlight added a ton of contrast to the clouds themselves, making the sky a more attractive compositional component, with typically indistinct shapes rendered more sharply (because contrast is sharpness, right?).
As a result, the combination of light you see in this shot lasted exactly fifteen seconds, so, if I had paused to shoot a couple of trial frames on manual, just to try to nail the lighting, I likely would have missed this moment completely. Again, at this point, assist modes ain’t a compromise; they’re strategy.
The best practice is to anticipate, as much as possible, where you’ll be shooting and what the “game on the ground” is likely to be. Fashion shooters, journalists and other pros swear by Aperture Priority as insurance against lost shots. You may almost certainly find that to be true for some situations yourself . But the name of the game is Get The Picture, so, at the end of the day, the mode that makes you smile is the “right” mode. And don’t let nobody tell you no differnt.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.
Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.
From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.
Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone. But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.
Tools are not technique.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.
The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.
On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”…..at least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.
Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light, and not the subject, be the entire story. That, and shooting on manual.
Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.
Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.
Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.
The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.
Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.
I like the odds.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
- Street Photography Tips, Techniques and Inspirations (itscitrarizqinow.wordpress.com)
- How to break through the bottleneck of photography skills (ghjg85.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SHOULD BE CURATED SHOWS AT MUSEUMS ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST FOR SNAPSHOTS. It’s already a known fact that images taken in an impulsive instant are among the most emotionally immediate in history. What these billions of “shooting from the hip” pictures share is the uncompromised commitment of hitting that button, and letting what happens, happen. Of course, back in the day, many of us had no choice in the matter, especially with our earliest cameras. Sadly, sometimes the box was too dumb, too seized up in tech cramps to guess what we wanted. Today, however, we can’t blame the camera anymore if we fail to live in the moment. They are world-class enablers. If we didn’t get the shot, we need to be smarter.
And, to be fair, we are smarter, even in those just-shoot-it-moments. The amazing complexity of today’s captures on automatic modes has saved us the trouble, more than at any time in history, of having to put on the twin hats of physicist and chemist. That should mean scads of instances when we can truly trust our instincts and hand the dirty work off to the camera with a reasonable hope of getting what we were after.
Now, in the modern world, comes the tricky part.
We may now know too much, compared to the cavemen we were in the earliest days of photography. And, once we begin to comprehend the totality of tweaking, calculation, and post-processing that are available to “rescue” more of our shots, it’s amazingly hard to avoid availing ourselves of all of it. We can remove the tiniest mote of dust, conveniently wipe out the crummy telephone wires, erase the ex-girl friend at the wedding. Trickier still, if we shoot on manual mode, we can practically think the process to death, essentially bleeding the adventure and spontaneity out of at least some images that we should just shoot.
There will always be shots that are so complete in themselves that continuing to fiddle with them before shooting will just have a diminishing return, little gifts of the moment that are so nearly perfect already that you could render them lifeless by trying to “perfect” them. Important: this is not an argument for super-gluing your mode dial to the auto position, since that can also create a string of acceptable exposures that fall short of being compelling pictures.
The balance, the aggravation, and eventually, the joy, lies somewhere in the middle.
This is the kind of sunset that only becomes possible near the end of the rainy season (a relative term!) in the Sonoran desert. You get more days with at least some clouds overhead, breaking the mega-blue monotony of the southwestern sky. And you get wonderful gradations of color as the last light of day vanishes over the horizon. In this image, that light was changing, and leaving, rapidly. Not a lot of time to weigh options, but a perfect place to flail away and maybe get something. This was not shot on auto mode, but I made a very quick, simple calculation in manual, and kept the prep as brief as possible. Later on, I was tempted again to go on tinkering, considering a lot of little “fixes” to “improve” my result. To my eventual satisfaction, I sat on my hands, and so what you see is what I got…no frills, no fuss, no interfering with my self.
It would probably be a great exercise to compile your own personal museum exhibit of the best pictures that you successfully left alone, the captures that most validate your instincts, your impulse, your artistic courage. And, certainly I would love to see them linked back to this blog, as conversation between all of us is what I value most about the project.
Go for it.
- Getting Started: How to Hold Your Camera (nikonusa.com)