By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, SENSING THAT, AS A CHILD, I WAS ANXIOUS about turning out the lights at bedtime, explained calmly to me that there wasn’t anything in my darkened room that wasn’t there in the daytime as well.
It was a reasonable enough argument that I stopped thinking of my bed as a backstage repository for monsters. Still not sure about the inside of the closet, though.
Later, however, I was to realize that, in a sense, Dad was dead wrong in photographic terms, since all we really have to paint scenes with is light, a commodity which is drastically different before and after sundown.
One of the reasons I still take out the old tripod to bother with long night-time exposures is that the color relationships, and thus how we interpret the arrangement of light, are so very different than those seen in the day. We’re not just talking about the difference between lots of light and not much light. The way the colors fit with each other is vastly different when comparing night versus day. Imagine lighting your very favorite food until it takes on a hue so unnatural that you can no longer eat it. Consider pink peas, green steak, brown water….you get the idea. Now compare the daytime value of a color under natural light to its night-time equivalent, lit by either dying daylight or artificial illumination or some strange combination of both. I think the value of making comparative photos of objects over a variety of hours will stun you if you make the time for the exercise. It will also give you an amazing number of alternative choices for how you wish to render color, and under what circumstances.
We’ve all see those essays in which a photographer stays in one position along the rim of the Grand Canyon for many consecutive hours, interpreting the color and light shifts in the gorge over the course of a single day. But you don’t have schedule a vacation in Arizona to make your own demonstration of this idea. Anything that you think you know about, or know the “best” way to photograph, will make a good test subject. As a matter of fact, the more ordinary the scene, the better, since your evaluation of the results will force you to concentrate on just the light values alone, without excess distraction. For an example, the image seen here is of a desert botanical garden in the American southwest an hour after sunset. The sky as seen here is not brilliantly blue, but neither is it absolutely black. The concrete wall in front, beige during the day, is feeding off the sodium lights from the gift shoppe at right and registers as orange. The greens in the agaves and succulents are not the same tepid hue that they’d “read” in the afternoon, becoming something a bit more emerald-ish, while the shrubs are a more pronounced gold than they’d register at noon. More interestingly, all of the colors, transformed from the familiar, are now in a different dialogue with each other. Their relationships seem off, lending a slight surreality to the scene. I only wish I had thought ahead to take several more images spaced over an entire day to better demonstrate my point, although I know, from having done so in the past, that the contrasts can be quite dramatic.
Of course, the picture is not, in and of itself, anything to boast about, but it gives me a test pattern for similar shots in the future, shots for which I will really want to achieve a particular look. This also fits into my overall view of photography, which is that every shot is, in a sense, a rehearsal for another shot. So it sometimes seems that we take a lot of pictures that believe “don’t matter” to get the ones that do, only, paradoxically, if one photograph is a sketch for a later one, then indeed they all matter anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GOING BACK OVER HUGE FOLDERS OF IMAGES LONG AFTER THE FACT OF THEIR CREATION, a kind of aesthetic amnesia comes over me as to what the original intent of some of the pictures were. Who is this person? And why can’t I remember being him when this thing was shot?
A bit of background:
As much time as I have spent in New York’s Time Square, I should know better than to even raise my camera to my face, given that this particular locale has produced, for me, more hot messes and failed missions than any other subject I’ve ever aimed at. The place is a mirage, a trap for shooters: a visual overload, obscenely loud and demanding of attention, but spectacularly devoid of content. There is no “message” afoot in this vast glowing urban canyon except step right up we got what you need right here great seats at half price a whole dinner for just ten bucks hey watch who yer shovin’.
Hey, if you’re looking for meaning, stay home and read your Bible.
And yet, every time I’m there, I still try to take “THE shot”, vainly sticking to the idea that there is even one in there, and that all I have to do is find it. If I only had a helicopter, if I shot it at this end of the street, if I just find the great unifying theme, the truth will come forth….
Anyway, in reviewing the above image, one I originally consigned to the dustbin, I’m once again that aesthetic amnesiac. I don’t recognize the person who took it. It doesn’t look like anything I’d try, since it’s just an arrangement of angles, colors, and dark spaces. In other words, an attempt to see a design in part of the scene, rather than an overall tapestry of the entire phenom. Sort of splintering the square. It’s the casting of the city as a personality, I guess, that appeals to me, like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner or the neon neo-Asia of Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City.
What adds to the mystery is the fact that, I’m not usually this loose. I’m a little too formalized in my approach, a mite too Catholic. I tend to have a plan, an intention. Let’s stick with the outline, kids, and proceed in order. Shooting from the hip and living in the moment is not instinctual to me. I’m always fighting with my inner anal bureaucrat.
I seriously don’t remember what I was going for here, and maybe, with a subject like this, that’s the only way to go. Stop calculating, stop plotting, just react, and treat Times Square as the amusement park ride it is. Going for “THE shot” has always given me dozens of , eh, sorta okay pix, but this approach appeals to me a little bit. I am not totally unpleased with it, or as a more eloquent writer might put it, it doesn’t suck.
And given my track record in Times Square, that’s slightly better than a break-even.
Now if I could only remember who took the damned thing…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA IS A LOUD PLACE. IF WE DON’T HEAR NOISE WHEREVER WE GO, WE CREATE OUR OWN. It is a country whose every street rings with a cascade of counterpointed voices, transactions, signals, warnings, all of it borne on the madly flapping wings of sound. There are the obvious things, like car horns, screeching tires, soaring planes, thundering rails, somebody else’s music. And then there are the almost invisible hives of interconnecting lives that tamp vibration and confusion into our ears like a trash compactor.
We no longer even notice the noise of life.
In fact, we are vaguely thrown off-balance when it subsides. We need practice in remembering how to get more out of less.
That’s why I love long night exposures. It allows you to survey a scene after the madding crowd has left. Leaving for their dates, their destinies, their homes, they desert the fuller arenas of day and leave it to breathe, and vibrate, at a more intimate rhythm. Colors are muted. Shadows are lengthened. The sky itself becomes a deep velvet envelope instead of a sun-flooded backdrop.
The noise dies, and the quiet momentarily holds the field.
The above image is of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the key tourist destinations in California, a state with an embarrassment of visual riches. During the day, it is a mash of voices, birdcalls, the deep croak of harbor seals, and the boardwalk come-ons of pitchmen hawking samples of chowder along the wharf’s clustered row of seafood joints. It is a colorful cacophony, but the serenity that descends just after dark on cold or inclement nights is worth seeking out as well.
Setting up a tripod and trying to capture the light patterns on the marina, I was stacking up a bunch of near misses. I had to turn my autofocus off, since dark subjects send it weaving all over the road, desperately searching for something to lock onto. I am also convinced that the vibration reduction should be off during night shots as well, since….and this is counter-intuitive….it creates the look of camera shake when it can’t naturally find it. Ow, my brain hurts.
The biggest problem I had was that, for exposures nearing thirty seconds in length, the gentle roll of the water, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, was consistently blurring many of the boats in the frame, since I was actually capturing half a minute of their movement at a time. I couldn’t get an evenly sharp frame, and the cold was starting to make me wish I’d packed in a jacket. Then, out of desperation, I rotated the tripod about 180 degrees, and reframed to include the main cluster of shops along the raised dock near the marina. Suddenly, I had a composition, its lines drawing the eye from the front to the back of the shot.
More importantly, I got a record of the wharf’s nerve center in a rare moment of calm. People had taken their noise home, and what was left was allowed to be charming.
And I was there, for both my ear and my eye to “hear” it.
- Vibration Reduction (nikonusa.com)