By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE MANY YEARS THAT I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING PRIMARILY ON FULL MANUAL, there have been plenty of chances for me to embarrass myself utterly by mis-reading various settings on the fly. I stay with manual mostly out of the comfort that many decades of doing it afford me, and partly because even semi-or-fully-automatic shooting modes can occasionally stab me in the back anyway. That said, every once in a while, I totally mis-read the road and wind up with an exposure like this:
Lemme ‘splain, Lucy: I was in a hurry to get the man in the lower left corner before he could cross further right. I wanted him to appear small against the immense white wall that was both a literal and symbolic barrier cutting him off from parts of the street and cutting us off from the rest of the available view. Unfortunately, just a few seconds prior, I had shot something much darker and left the settings the same, meaning that a white wall became a By-God-We’re-Not-Playing-Around-Here-Freaking-WHIIIIIITE-WALLLLLLLL. This is what photographers and race car drivers alike call A Blowout.
Then, since I had already obliterated a lot of detail and contrast with the master shot, I wondered if I should just go whole hog and remove more of both, including desaturating everything except the man’s skin tones and part of a traffic sign. In other words, start with a flawed picture and then exaggerate the flaws until it looks, you know, intentional. Did I succeed? Depends on when you ask me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about saving face when I blow a picture, and I’m certainly not above applying a few tweaks to make my flub look like a win. But here I think I’m just telling myself what I want to hear. This isn’t an avant-garde or edgy commentary on our times. It’s just a blown picture. But at least I can tell myself (and you, dear reader) that I can still tell the difference.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Okay, Wang, I think that’s enough pictures of the parking lot. —Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack
IF YOU WERE TO EXPRESS TODAY’S PHOTOGRAPHIC FREEDOM IN TERMS OF FIREPOWER, it would be fair to say that many of us have come to shoot in a somewhat scatter-shot fashion, like someone sweeping a machine gun. Indeed, digital allows us to overshoot everything to such a degree that doing so becomes our default action, because why would you take one picture of your child digging into birthday cake when fifty will do just as well?
Some over-shooting is really what pro photogs used to call “coverage” and is actually beneficial for particularly hard subjects. Awe-inspiring sunsets. A stag at bay. The fiery burst from a Hawaiian volcano. Such subjects actually warrant a just-one-more approach to make sure you’ve thought through every possible take on something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, or which may be vanishing presently. But that’s a lot different from cranking off four dozen clicks of the visitor’s center at Wally World.
Shooting better isn’t always assured by merely shooting more. Instead of the machine gun technique, we might actually improve our eye, as well as our ability to strategize a shot, by limiting how many total tries we make at capturing an image. My point is that there are different “budgets” for different subject matter, and that blowing out tons of takes is not a guarantee that Ze Beeg Keeper is lurking there somewhere in the herd.
So put aside the photographic spray-down technique from time to time and opt for the single bullet theory. For you film veterans, this actually should be easy, since you remember what it was like to have to budget a finite number of frames, depending on how many rolls you packed in. Try giving yourself five frames max to capture something you care about, then three, then one. Then go an entire day taking a single crack at things and evaluate the results.
If you’ve ever spent the entire day with a single focal length lens, or fought severe time constraints, or shot only on manual, you’re already accustomed to taking a beat, getting your thinking right, and then shooting. That’s all single-take photography is; an exercise in deliberation, or in mindfulness, if you dig guru-speak. Try it on your own stuff, and, better yet, use the web to view the work of others doing the same thing. Seek out subjects that offer limited access. Shoot before your walk light goes on at an intersection. Frame out a window. Pretend an impatient car-full of relatives is waiting for you with murder in their hearts. Part of the evolution of our photography is learning how to do more with less.
That’s not only convenient, in terms of editing. It’s the very soul of artistry.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S FIRST MOVIE STUDIO WAS A TARPAPER SHACK ON A TURNTABLE. Dubbed by Thomas Edison’s techies as “The Black Maria” (as ambulances were grimly named back at the time), the structure rotated to take advantage of wherever sunlight was available in the California sky, thus allowing the film crew to extend its daily shooting schedule by more than half in the era of extremely slow film stocks. Eventually artificial light of sufficient strength was developed for the movies, and actors no longer had to brave motion sickness just to rescue fair damsels. So it goes.
More than a century hence, some photographers actually have to be reminded to use natural light, specifically window light, as a better alternative to studio lights or flash units. Certainly anyone who has shot portraits for a while has already learned that window light is softer and more diffuse than anything you can plug in, thus making it far more flattering to faces (as well as forgiving of , er, flaws). It’s also good to remember that it can lend a warming effect to an entire room, on those occasions where the room itself is a kind of still life subject.
Your window light source can be harsher if the sun is arching over the roof of your building toward the window (east to west), so a window that receives light at a right angle from the crossing sun is better, since it’s already been buffered a bit. This also allows you to expose so that the details outside the window (trees, scenery, etc.) aren’t blown out, assuming that you want them to be prominent in the picture. For inside the window, set your initial exposure for the brightest objects inside the room. If they aren’t white-hot, there is less severe contrast between light and dark objects, and the shot looks more balanced.
I like a look that suggests that just enough light has crept into the room to gently illuminate everything in it from front to back. You’ll have to arrive at your own preferred look, deciding how much, if any, of the light you want to “drop off” to drape selective parts of the frame in shadow. Your vision, your choice. Point is, natural light is so wonderfully workable for a variety of looks that, once you start to develop your use of it, you might reach for artificial light less and less.
Turns out, that Edison guy was pretty clever.