By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORD “PHOTOGRAPHY” OFTEN SUGGESTS THE IDEA OF MERELY RECORDING SOMETHING, of using a machine to arrest time in its flight and imprison it forever. That, to me suggests a very passive act, that of merely opening the shutter and harvesting whatever comes along, much in the way one might cast a fishing net. You might haul in a marlin, but you will also snag the occasional boot.
So, for me, the term photography is often misinterpreted, as if the shooter has little choice in the process, a concept I absolutely reject. The word itself basically translates as “writing with light”, and, in that interpretation, the act of making a picture is an active one, with light not merely being a component but the prime determinant, Shaper #1 in that process. George Eastman himself said it first, and best:
Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.
So now, we have an art form, because, in this mindset, one can begin with accidents and end up with mastery, merely by using light purposefully and with a kind of earnest literacy.
The first thing the study of light teaches is how fleeting its effects are. Many people who have shot the Grand Canyon have experienced the incredible minute-to-minute changes in the gorge as shadows shift, dance and crawl across the terrain. Many others, working in the transient light of shifting weather patterns, or the sudden remapping of illumination at sunrise or sunset, know the importance of getting the shot the very moment it presents itself, all delays changing your results measurably, even drastically.
These two images of Vancouver’s glorious Marine building, one of the most amazing examples of Art Deco in North America, were taken just twenty-nine minutes apart from each other. The earlier shot, taken at about 10:45 in the morning, presents the elaborate entrance with a kind of even, flat value, while the second shot is a crazy quilt of a million tiny bounces and reflections, as well as a dramatic increase in contrast. I was merely lucky in being able to get two very different impressions of the same building, even though a clearer knowledge of the local light conditions in the area might have allowed me to create two greatly more nuanced pictures. As it is, I got an object lesson on how to do things better the next time, and clear illustration that Eastman was right. Know the light, Shaper #1 in a picture, for all you are worth, and you have the biggest riddle solved.
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FREQUENTLY ASKED to define a “bad” picture, or, more specifically, the worst picture they themselves ever shot. The question is a bit of a logic trap, though, since it typically tricks us into naming something that failed because the subject was moribund, or because we mis-read the light, the aperture, the composition. The trap further reasons that, if you have checked off all those boxes, you should end up with a great picture.
But all of that is bug wash. What makes a picture bad is when you were not ready to take it….. but you took it anyway.
Sometimes the problem is ignorance: you simply aren’t old or wise enough to know what to do with the subject. Other times, you have substantial barriers between you and an effective story, but you try to drill past what you can’t fix. And, you can no doubt add your own list of things that, ahead of the shutter click, should scream, “not now”. Try to make the picture before either the conditions or you (usually you) are right, and you lose. Just as I lost, in great big neon letters, with the mess you at above left.
In 2016, I visited the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, a venerable colonial-era home which sits right next to the small footbridge that served as the site of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. What excited me most, however, was that it had served as a temporary home for the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he had written Nature, the first of his great works, while living there. And to really put the cherry on the sundae, the house still contains the small writing desk he used to do it.
The house is lit only with indirect window light during the day, but with a fast prime lens and a decent eye, there’s more than enough soft illumination to work with to produce decent results (see left). In fact, just before my tour was to head into the room containing the desk, I had already harvested quite a few usable shots…so many, in fact, that I was getting teased by the others in the group…the usual “oh, another picture?” stuff. Uncharacteristically, I began to worry about whether I was holding everyone else up, and thus started to hurry myself, to shoot not as I intended, but in deference to what I thought others would like. By the time I got to Emerson’s chair, the light, my lens, even my own experience were all useless to me….because I wasn’t ready to shoot….but did anyway.
And so you behold the unholy mess that resulted: lousy contrast, uneven exposure, muddy texture (is the chair made out of wood or Play-Doh?), tons of noise, indifferent angle, and, oh yeah, garbage focus. Worse yet, the psyche I’d put upon myself was so severe that I didn’t slow down for a more considered re-do. No, I rejoined the group like a polite little camper, and left without what I had come for.
And that is all on me, and thus an important entry in The Normal Eye, an ongoing chronicle which is designed to emphasize personal choice and responsibility in photography, versus just hoping well-designed machines will compensate for our lack of concept or intention. This is not easy. This is ha It’s no fun realizing that what went wrong with an image was us.
But it’s a valuable thing to own. And to act upon.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I photograph late in the day, the time Rembrandt favored for painting, so that the subtlest tones surface. ———Marie Cosindas
ONE OF THE GREATEST SIDE EFFECTS OF MY HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST over the past eighteen years has been its impact on how I harness light in my photography. The word harness conjures the act of getting a bit and bridle on a wild stallion, and so is extremely apt in reference to how you have to manage and predict illumination here in the land of So Much Damn Sun. It’s not enough here to decide what or how to shoot. You must factor in the When as well.
To see this idea in stark terms, study the work of photogs who have shot all day long from a stationary position along the rim of the Grand Canyon. The hourly, and sometimes minute-to-minute shift of shadows and tones illustrates what variety you can achieve in the outcome of a picture, if you consciously factor in the time of day. After a while, you can glance at a subject or site and predict pretty accurately how light will paint it at different times, meaning that many a session can produce a wild variance in results.
The late photographer Marie Cosindas, whose miraculous early-1960’s work with the then-new Polacolor film helped change the world’s attitude toward color imaging, didn’t just load her film into a standard Polaroid instant camera. She shot it in her large format Linhof, experimenting with exposure times, filters and development techniques, and, above all, with the careful selection of natural light. She didn’t just wait for her subject; she waited on the exact light that would make it, and all its colors, sing. As a result, the art world began to rethink its opinion about color just being for advertising, or as somehow less “real” than black & white.
In my own work, I take the time, whenever feasible, to “case” locations a while before I shoot them, taking note over days, even weeks, to see what light does to them at specific times of day. As I mentioned, the West suffers from an overabundance of light, mostly the harsh, tone-bleaching kind that is the enemy of warm tone. In the above image, I scouted the location in the early morning, when the eastern sun was drenching the front end of the court, but waited about eight hours to return and get the precise projection of shadow grids that only occurred once the sun was in its western descent, about two hours before dusk. My test shots from the morning told me that the picture I wanted would simply not exist until ’round about suppertime. And that’s when I stole my moment.
There are three legs to the basic photographic tripod: What, How, and When. Over the years, paying greatest attention to that third leg has often given me one to stand on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN EARLIER OUTINGS, WE HAVE DISCUSSED THE VALUE of knowing how sunlight enters your house at all times of the day. Knowing where bright spots and slatted beams hit the interior of your home in different hours gives you a complete map of “sweet spots” where natural light will temporarily isolate and flatter certain objects, giving you at least several optimized minutes for prime shooting each day.
Keeping this little time-table in your head allows you to move your subjects to those places in the house where, say, the daily 10 a.m. sun shaft through the family room window will give you a predictably golden glow. For me, that location is my living room window, across which the southwestern sun tracks east/west, and the object is my white baby grand piano.
Pianos, to me, are divinely complex gadgets, creations of the first great industrial age, their impossibly intricate mechanics offering thousands of possibilities for macro shots, fisheye explosions, abstract compositions, shadow studies, and delicate ballets of reflections as the morning sun dances across harp, strings, and hammers in an endless kaleidoscope of radiance. I have long since tracked how the sun showcases different parts of the piano as the day progresses, and how that corresponds to the instrument’s various sections and subsections.
Hard-wiring that schedule into my skull over the years means I know when a shot will work and when it won’t, making the object more than just something to shoot. It becomes, in effect, an active kind of photo laboratory, a way of teaching and re-teaching myself about the limits of both light and my own abilities. Better still, the innate intricacy of the piano as an object guarantees that I can never really get “done” with the project, or that something that was a mystery in January will become a revelation by June.
What gives this process a special lure to me is my endless effort to exploit natural light to the full, believing, as I do, that nearly every other less organic form of illumination is measurably poorer and less satisfactory than that which comes plentifully, and for free. The house I live in has thus become, over the years, a kind of greenhouse for the management of light, an active farm for harvesting the sun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“WHETHER THE STONE HITS THE PITCHER OR THE PITCHER HITS THE STONE“, Sancho Panza explains in Man Of La Mancha, “it’s going to be bad for the pitcher”. I love that sentiment, since it explains how blurred, in life, the line really is between cause and effect. Start with the stone or start with the pitcher; the result seems the same, right? In photography, we make a lot of choices about, well, where to stand and point the camera. We also make decisions about whether to focus on cause or effect, and how that changes the kinds of pictures we wish to make.
There are times when amazing stories can be told on both sides of that equation. I often wish that baseball games could be shown in perpetual split-screen mode, since I love both the triumphant look of the batter who’s just connected and the outfielder who knows, in a second, that a rocket is coming his way. In terms of our visual legacy, both cause and effect have produced some of the world’s favorite images, so it’s inevitable that any shooter, pro or amateur, will eventually investigate both ways of recording experience.
This year’s highly-touted “Supermoon” phenomenon seemed like a good opportunity for me to make just such a choice. The global hype machine went into overdrive on the appearance of this brighter/bigger-than-normal orb in the November skies, with the result being a flood tide of photos of, uh, the moon. More precisely, millions of the same exact picture of the moon, with a few outliers framing it behind a palm tree, silhouetting a city skyline, or some other such filigree.
For me, then, the cause of all this hubbub seemed anticlimactic at best, and yet I still felt compelled to do something to mark the occasion. Then I realized that the effect, not the cause, held the possibility of making a picture that interested me. I recalled that I had never had the chance to make a photograph with only moonlight for illumination. My backyard was readable in every fine detail with my naked eye as the moon, which was over my shoulder, lit up the pool, the shrubbery, and our brick patio and walls. I also knew that what looked glowingly bright to me would be rendered as absolute darkness for a handheld camera shot, so out came the tripod.
With time exposures, you can shoot at low ISO, reducing noise to an absolute minimum. You can also shoot at a small aperture for maximum depth-of-field; you just lengthen the exposure time to compensate. That meant that, during the moon’s brightest hour, I would, at f/8, need an exposure of just under three minutes, enough to rescue a lot of detail and even catch some of the remaining deep blue in the sky, which your eye wants to see as simple black.
Fifteen or so tries later, I got what you see here. Not a sign of the moon itself (cause) but plenty of evidence of its presence (effect). The subject matter wasn’t mesmerizing, but the mood registered pretty much the way my eye saw it, which, when you’re working with a limited servo-mechanism like a camera, is pretty much a win.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ETERNAL TUG OF WAR IN PHOTOGRAPHY SEEMS TO BE the pull between extremes of revelation and concealment. Toggling between the strategies of showing almost everything and showing nearly nothing, most shooters arrive at some negotiated mid-point which describes their own voice as a visual narrator. Shuttling between the two extremes, shooters have to decide how much information is appropriate not only for their overall style, but in each specific shooting situation.
Managing light in the moment, rather than trying to re-balance values after the picture is made, affords the most crucial control you will ever exercise over your subject. We tend, as beginners, to shoot things where there is “enough light”, growing ever more discriminating about the kind of light we prefer as we mature in our approach.
One of the most fruitful exercises for me has been those rare occasions in which I have had the luxury to remain in one area over a span of several hours, discovering the nuanced variations that prevail from minute to minute in a single setting. Many times, I have begun this process with an initial concept of the “ideal” lighting for a shot, then, through comparison, rejected that in favor of a completely different strategy. It’s strangely thrilling to come home completely satisfied with an image, even though it’s the dead opposite of the way you originally conceived it.
Waiting for the right light may be more time-consuming, but it is the cheapest, easiest, and surest way to control composition. If one particular lighting situation reveals too much in the shot, diluting the impact of your visual message, waiting for shadows to deepen and for bright spots to shift can make your photograph urge the eye more effectively toward the center of your “argument”. In the image seen above, I could not have sold the idea of a gradual walk from high left to lower right without the light actually working as a kind of directional arrow. A fully lit forest might have been lovely, and was, in fact, available to me just an hour earlier. But by the late afternoon, however, the partial dark helped me edit excess information out of the shot, and, in comparing the two approaches, I like the “less” version better.
Part of getting the shot you want is often learning to see, and edit out, the parts you don’t want, a process which is better when you wait for the “best”, rather than the “correct” light for right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLIB REMARK THAT YOU HAVE TO LEARN ALL THE RULES IN LIFE BEFORE YOU CAN BREAK THEM is maddeningly true, at least for me. Early on in my foto-fiddling, I was eager to commit all the world’s accumulated photographic do’s and don’ts to memory, like a biblical scholar nailing scripture passages, and shooting as if to enshrine those stone-written truths in art. I used words like always and never to describe how to make pictures in a given situation. I kept the faith.
And then, when I suddenly didn’t, my stuff stopped being pictures and started being photographs. Absolutes of technique are good starting places but they usually aren’t the best places to stick and stay for life. And at this point in my personal trek (seventh-inning stretch), I feel the shadow of all those do’s and don’ts swirling about like little guardian angels, but I worry first and foremost about what makes a given image work.
You no doubt have many pictures you’ve made which you simply like, despite the fact that they flaut, or even fracture, the rules. The above image, shot earlier this week at a multi-floor urban marketplace/eatery, struck me for two reasons. First, because of how many basic rules of “proper” composition it clearly violates; and secondly, just how much I don’t care, because I like what it does. To illustrate my point, I’ve provided citations from an article titled Principles Of Composition to cite specific ways that the photo is, well, wrong.
Have A Strong point of interest. Well, there isn’t any particular one, is there? Lots of conflicting stuff going on, but that’s the natural rhythm of this place. It’s a beehive. One man’s clutter is another man’s full “pulse of life”, and all that.
Don’t place the horizon line, or any strong vertical or horizontal lines, right in the middle of a picture. And make sure the lines aren’t tilted. Okay, well, since there is a distinct difference between the “level-ness” of the crossbeams over the lower floor and the slanted lines of the skylight above, there really isn’t a way to make the entire picture adhere to the same horizontal plane. However, the off-kilter sagginess of the old building actually lends it a little charm , unless I’m just drunk.
Keep compositions simple, avoiding busy backgrounds that distract from your subject. Granted, there are about five different sub-pictures I could have made into separate framings within this larger one, but that would defeat the object of overall bustle and sprawl that I experienced looking out over the entire scene. Sure, some compositions get so busy that they look like a page out of Where’s Waldo?, but certain chaotic scenes, from Grand Central Terminal to Picadilly, actually reward longer, deeper viewing.
Place a subject slightly off-center rather than in the middle of a photo. Yeah, well, that’s where that “strong point of interest” rule might have helped. Sorry.
Do these deviations mean the image was wrong, or wrong for certain circumstances? Every viewer has to call that one as he sees it. Me, I am glad I decided to shoot this scene largely as I found it. It needed to work with natural light, it needed to be shot wide and deep, and it needed to show a lot of dispirate activity. Done done and done. I heard all the rules in my head and chose the road not taken.
Or taken. I forget which.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY HAS NEVER SUCCESSFULLY ADDRESSED ITS BIGGEST, AND MOST LONG-STANDING WEAKNESS, that of providing natural illumination in all shooting situations. Worse, it has generated tons of tweaks and workarounds to compensate for this weakness, instead of solving the central problem. As a result, we have limped our way through nearly two centuries of devices and processes designed to create momentary fake lighting…the lame legacy of flash.
Instead of finding recording media that absorbs and spreads light adequately, from salt paper prints to roll film to pixels, we have invented one torchy crutch after another, each adding expense, bulk and even greater uncertainty to our results. The ignition of aluminum powder may have given way to pop-ups with red-eye protection, but the essential error in our thinking persists. We don’t need better flash: we need cameras good enough for there to be no flash.
Flash is like a bratty kid in a restaurant. He won’t sit up straight, spits his chewed broccoli back into his napkin, splashes water on everyone, talks with his mouth full, and eats his dessert first. And his mother dresses him funny. And yet we can’t rub this punk out, no matter how we try.
Testify: a recent B&H Photo catalogue boasts eight pages of flash equipment, most of it aftermarket gear designed to muffle, bounce,, amplify, soften or re-direct flashes that are too harsh, too faint, too in-line with the “optical axis”, or otherwise inefficient. Many manufacturers of DSLRs practically admit that their on-camera units are too limited for custom lighting, selling you their costly, brand-related off-camera units, cables, transmitters and widgets. Ca-ching. Photographically speaking, this is like telling you that the house on which you just took a 30-year mortgage is really a dump, but the place down the street is divine.
It was decades before film was fast enough to be used in more than a few specific situations, so flash. It’s still too expensive for most people to get lenses that are speedy enough to keep from blasting bleachingly hard light in people’s faces, so flash. And, sadly, many of us still believe that popping that little beast up in a 50,000-seat concert hall will magically help us counter the 300,000 square feet of darkness between us and the stage, so…flash.
Digital image sensors might eventually evolve sufficiently for different parts of them to register light individually, eliminating the need for extra bursts of artificial light, and our own best practices in the use of natural light can all but eliminate the need to pop up the pop-up. But we are farther away than we should be from a flashless world. It’s not that we don’t all know that the way we currently use it is idiotic. But for now, we have to keep promising that bratty kid that if he takes just one more bite of spinach, we’ll get him ice cream. Jeez.
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.