By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD, homes were less frequently garnished on their outsides, with most of the houses in my neighborhood sporting little more in the yard than a few slim strings of lights or the occasional lawn Santa. Our current emphasis on LED-coated exteriors and rolling light shows lay far in the future in the Eisenhower era, leaving the family tree to perform most of the heavy lifting as the visual emblem for the holidays. Our own system was simple: string the lights and lay on the ornaments in a fully lit room, with the tree positioned before the house’s biggest window: then, after everyone had scampered out onto the front yard, deputize Dad to douse the house lights and plug in the tree, launching its social debut to street view. That collective moment of “aww” was, for me, worth the entire holiday.
In photographing Christmas as a much older child, while I do admire all the pyrotechnics required to give every house the full Clark Griswold treatment, I tend to make pictures of trees as seen through front windows, framed by shadows, devoid of drama, as quiet as a silent movie, the one centerpiece delivering its visual message in a muted, almost personal tone. It’s the time of year when sentiment and habit are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable from each other, and thus there are so many things that we always do because we’ve always done them. One thing I seek in a picture is permanence, the impression that what’s right in that one image is in some way right for all time. That means that, at Christmas, I look for sights that could have sprung from any or all Christmases over the decades. It’s remarkably comforting in a world that has become so comfortable with tumult and noise to deliberately try to show stillness.
This particular window, in central Los Angeles, required a bit of patience. Between trying to nail the correct blend of twilight and dark in the surrounding sky and tracking the occupant’s nightly decision to either draw or open the drapes, I walked by the place for several consecutive nights before I saw what I was after. Upon clicking the shutter, I may or may not have completely reverted to boyhood and uttered an “Awww” aloud, but I certainly said it in my heart, as I tried to in this picture.
Be safe. Be well. Be here next year.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NIGHT SHOTS IN CITIES SEEM TO BE A SIMPLE CHOICE BETWEEN HAND-HELD OR TRIPOD, but those are only the most basic decisions to be made, depending on the texture and mood you’re trying to build into your images. Of those two main choices, many more are opting for hand-held because of convenience and speed, bypassing interference from security people, passers-by, weird weather,etc. And, let’s face it: it’s easier than ever to deliver a readable night photo without the long exposures that used to absolutely necessitate a tripod, especially if you are not worried by the need to either use a wide aperture (thus shallow depth of field) or increased ISO (inviting more digital noise and a decidedly “smudgy” look in the deeper shadows. If you are in the hand-held camp, you’ve got plenty of company.
Tripod people are dedicated, patient, and doomed to travel less lightly, composing longer exposures in darkened conditions and sweating the unwanted artifacts, from wild pixels to smears of people and lights, that will be baked into shots lasting a few seconds or longer. But to rescue a ton of texture and detail from darkened buildings with a minimum of noise, there is no look like a well-modulated time exposure.
Beyond these two big choices, however, lie the deeper, more subtle reasons we like to shoot cities at night. Some towns flood nearly every important building with light, much of it of the sodium-vapor variety, which is long on orange. And that can mean that a mysterious, brooding quality might be totally unattainable, either three-legged or hand-held, with no way to underexpose or suggest something not absolutely spelled out in neon, in even short exposures.
I personally love to to look for the more neglected sectors of cities, those “London after midnight” kinds of streets where dark means dark. I love to underexpose them a bit as well, ensuring that all the details of the structure are not revealed, all the better to let your mind wander. If my subject has prominently lit windows, I have to tweak and tease to render them in a kind of incandescent amber, but I decide in the moment whether the exterior should be pure black, blue-black, or even amber-black, as if the window light has spilled onto the surrounding textures. And, yes, I might decide that the more ashen, grainy look of high ISO is just what I’m looking for in that moment.
Tripods used to be a do-or-die proposition for night images, but the freedom of hand-held shots carries with it a whole distinct set of decisions, since there is no typical camera, no typical subject, and no typical result. The only thing that truly matters is what you want to see coming out of the camera, be it long shot or short snap.
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
EVEN IF YOU ARE IN THE HABIT OF PACKING A CAMERA ALONG WHEREVER YOU GO, you can only predict some of the conditions you might encounter in a given shooting situation. If you’ve guessed well, you can be ready (depending on how much gear you have with you) for about 75% of the shots you may want to take. What’s left, make no mistake, is a mixture of guesswork and luck, the kinds of shots where you adapt on the fly.
Night shots employ a completely different set of skills from daylight shots. What looks mysterious and romantic to your eye may be a mushy muddle to your camera, and that forces a lot of sudden sorting-out of your choices. On the night of the above shot, taken along the shoreline in Ventura, California, I had not planned on shooting anything at all after nightfall. I loved the deeper blues of the sky as they played just before sundown, and I was especially enjoying watching local kids playing against the darkening surf. Following a few dozen clicks up and down the beach, I walked back inland a block or so to join my wife and some friends at a nearby restaurant, considering myself done for the day.
That all changed after dessert, when we walked back onto the street that led down to the shore. I had a 24mm prime lens with me, which had been perfect for the wide-angle coastline stuff, but could also shoot wide open to f/2.8….fairly fast. As the night colors were already deepening, however, I realized that 2.8 was still going to mean shooting as slow a shutter speed as I could hand-hold and jacking the ISO up to a level that I normally tend to avoid. Those were the basic facts on the ground: now it was time to weigh the trade-offs.
Local traffic was swift enough for me to know that, even though I could hand-hold a shutter as slow as 1/15, there would be more than enough soft detail in a shot taken at f/2.8 without risking even more blurring from cars and walkers, so I settled at 1/40 and allowed the ISO to go to 1600 rather than lose the shot entirely.
Obviously, a tripod-mounted time exposure would have delivered a much crisper, more detailed shot, especially at f/11 or above, but I had what I had. And if you’re stuck with the somewhat mushier texture of a wide aperture, you have to determine where you envision the real impact of the image you’re planning. Is it in the fine-tuned detail or the overall atmosphere? There will be times when just salvaging the feel outweighs sharpness as a consideration, and, for me, this was one of those times.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NIGHT CREATES SUCH A DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FLAVOR in anyone’s photography that some shooters, romantically attracted to its unique look, have made night-time their exclusive domain. Night is also the toughest time of day to render properly, and a zone wherein one’s interpretation of “reality” varies wildly. From the earliest days of the photographic medium, the hours after sunset were, first and foremost, a technical minefield, filled with pitfalls and perils.
Today, fast lenses and the higher ISO that can be dialed up pretty much at will mean fewer tripod shots, more hand-held shots, and thus a much bigger yield of often stunning night-time images. Even modest cameras are evolving so quickly that it’s getting hard to remember a time when we couldn’t shoot pretty much whatever we desired.
In many night settings, the contrast between bright and dark objects is dramatically multiplied. That means that getting proper exposure still has to be calculated based on widely varying elements within the frame. The night I took this image at New York’s Lincoln Center, I shot the various performance buildings on the “campus” in every compositional combination and setting possible, using a Nikon f/2.8 24mm prime lens. I framed the theatres at right angles to each other, by themselves, juxtaposed with neighboring skyscrapers, with and without the center’s fountain plaza, from medium distances to the lobby, tight distances to the lobby, and so on. In one “almost” calculation, I shot at f/8 and about 1/80 sec. at 1500 ISO, didn’t like how grungy it looked, then cranked the lens wide open to f/2.8, used as slow an exposure as I could execute hand-held (about 1/20 sec.), and backed off the ISO to about 400. That’s the combo you see above.
Normally, an aperture like f/2.8 produces a very shallow depth of field, which is generally bad for distant subjects. However, if you are focused to infinity, and your subject is, say, forty feet away, the image starts to get a little sharper at about twenty feet out, and is pretty sharp by forty. One sharpness caveat: if you use a slow exposure, as I chose to, and you’re also boosting your ISO, the electrical lights in your image will begin to go soft and globby fairly quickly…to “burn in” to some degree. You can see this in my image in the lobby chandelier, which registers as a velvety glow instead of a sharp grouping of individual bulbs. As an alternative, if you have time to experiment, you can amp up the up the ISO a little more, speed up your shutter, and perhaps render the lights a little sharper. This depends greatly on how many wives you have standing nearby, asking, “can we please just walk to the subway now?” It’s also not the only solution possible. Fiddle with it and see what works for you.
Also, if you are lucky enough to be shooting on a tripod, then you can shoot at minimal ISO, an aperture of f/11 or narrower, and as long an exposure as you desire. But the above guidelines are offered for someone shooting hand-held, and in a moderate hurry. I use very fast prime lenses to give me the sharpest focus and the most light latitude possible in the greatest number of situations, assuming that I won’t be allowed to mount a pod, even if I wanted to take one to the theatre (I don’t). So, as always, you have to decide a little ahead of time what you might be shooting, what the reality on the ground will be, and what you’ll need in the way of toys to bring home a goodie. Night is a very different animal, but trying to tame it is surprising and fun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DAYTIME PHOTOGRAPHS OF BUILDING EXTERIORS present the interior contents of apartments, stores and offices in a very muted fashion. Glare, sunlight, and plain old dirty glass, along with the limited scope of some camera sensors, render inside space in a somewhat flattened manner. Fortunately, night shots of the same spaces reveal something completely different, hints of the lives of the people who have locked up and headed home for the evening.
Like a picture framed in a black matte or displayed on a bed of velvet, night images of building interiors, taken from outside those buildings, benefit from that contrasty “punching up” between dark and light. More to the point is how people decide to stage their work space when they clock out. Do they leave a single lamp on to illuminate their desk? Is the room largely dark, but partially painted with ambient light from the cleaning person down the hall? Are certain displays, logos, personal effects altered by the overall reduction in illumination? And, for the photographer, does something different emerge in the feel of the room that seems invisible by day?
I recently walked around a large museum campus, taking medium-distance time exposures of several buildings whose exterior lighting scheme seemed altered at night, when I saw the office window you see above. The overall scheme of light in the room was warm. The gorgeous amaryllis plant arching over someone’s desk not only worked that slightly orange room light, but was made especially seductive with the deepening of its own colors. Here was a workspace where someone drew rest, beauty, and solace from the inclusion of just one extra humanizing item. And, after dark, it glowed like a coal to passersby. I had to have it, at least inside my camera.
I’m not saying that all peeks through all windows yield treasures to the photographer’s eye. But the sheer volume of visual information on a city street during the day is cut by half after sundown, and occasionally, you find a late-burning candle that has spent the daylight hours hiding in plain sight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE SPOCK SIDE OF OUR BRAINS, OF COURSE WE KNOW that there is nothing particularly magical about buildings per se. Stone and steel cannot, after all, generate memory or experience; they merely house the people who do. Still and all, the loss of certain edifices engenders a purely emotional response in us, perhaps because special things can no longer happen there, and the physical proof that any of it happened at all is being rendered, at least physically, into dust. That puts us in the realm of dreams, and that’s where great photographs are born.
When a place that is special to us is about to wink out of existence, everyone who used that place stamps it with their own stories. We went to school here. This is where I proposed to your mother. The bandstand was here, along this wall. So personal a process is this that our farewell photographs of these places can take on as many different flavors as the number of people who walked their halls. And, as a result, it’s often interesting to compare the final snaps of important places as filtered through the disparate experiences of all who come to reflect, and click, in the shadow of the wrecking ball.
I have attended many an opening at theatres, but I always make a point to attend their closings. Not the end of a certain film or engagement, but the final curtain on the theatres themselves. How best to see their final acts? As a quiet, gentle sunsetting, as with the above image of Scottsdale, Arizona’s Camelview theatre, shuttering in deference to a bigger, newer version of itself at the end of 2015? Or, in the colorful confusion of the venue’s final night, with crowds of well-wishers, local dignitaries and well-wishers crowding into the final screening?
Each view projects my own feelings onto the resulting images, whether it be a golden dusk or a frenetic, neon-drenched, tomorrow-we-die send-off, complete with champagne and cheers. The introspective daytime shot has no teeming crowds or fanfare. The night, with its ghostly guest blurs (a result of the longer exposure) features people who are as fleeting as the theatre’s own finite run. Both are real, and neither is real. But they are both mine.
Buildings vanish. Styles change. Neighborhoods evolve. And photographic goodbyes to all these processes are never as simple as a one-size-fits-all souvenir snap. People, and memories, are too customized for that. As with movies themselves, there is always more than one way to get to the final fadeout.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE FACE OF CHANGE, HUMANS WILL DOGGEDLY DEFEND ALMOST ANYTHING, as long as they’ve grown accustomed to it. At their introduction, we inveighed against the intrusion of the telephone (the end of privacy!) and the automobile (they scare the horses and they’re filthy!), but soon learned to love chatting, well, from our freaking cars, so…
One of the things solid citizens of the late 1800’s most objected to was the slicing of the night by the first network of urban street lamps, which were excoriated in editorials from New York to Paris. An invasion! An insult! Unnatural.
Boy, if they could see us now.
In the name of energy savings and sustainability (both good things, right?), street lights across the country are in the midst of a rapid conversion from several types of fluorescent lamps to LEDs. They last longer, they burn cheaper, they cost less. All to the good, except that the light these new torches deliver is blue, pale, cold, and, in the minds of many, harsh. Even those who champion ecologically righteous causes are squinting at LEDs which strike them as grim, sickly, colorless and (wait for it) unnatural.
Writing in the New York Times in the essay “Ruining That Moody Urban Glow“,
novelist Lionel Shriver calls LED light “conducive to dismembering a corpse” and cites studies that claim the fixtures contribute to sleep loss, mood disorders, and, who knows, ingrown toenails. For photography (you knew I’d get here eventually), the new light presents a completely fresh challenge to your camera’s ability to achieve white balance, or an accurate reading of white values according to a given light’s temperature, expressed in degrees Kelvin.
Conventional lights are lower on the Kelvin scale, thus warmer, with more yellow in the mix. LEDs are higher in Kelvin value and register blue-white, muting or mutating colors. At present, both Canon and Nikon have many in-camera settings to balance for a number of sodium-vapor or fluorescents, but have yet to offer options for adjusting for LEDs, even though entire cities have made the switch to what many feel is an ugly, stark source of illumination.
In her Times article, Shriver notes that there are, in fact, subtler types of LEDs, which sacrifice only a bit of energy efficiency and yet emit warmer light, and advocates that citizens go proactive to keep their neighborhoods from looking like the parking lots on interstate truck stops. So take that for what it’s worth. But be aware that more and more of your night shots may, in the near future, have to be adjusted in post-production to resemble a century in which you feel at home.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS OFTEN RECOMMENDED as the way to afford yourself the most stability in a long exposure. After all, few of us are robotic enough to hold a camera stock-still for anything below a third of a second, so it’s a no-brainer to park your camera on something that’s too inhuman to flinch. You can also take amazing stuff hand-held on shorter night exposures, so long as you (a) have a lens that will shoot around f/1.8 or wider and (b) you can live with the noise a higher ISO will engender.
So, yeah, tripods have their place, but they are not the only determinants in the success of a night-time shoot. And those other x-factors can severely compromise your results. There is the stability of the tripod itself, which isn’t a big sweat if you shelled out $900 for a carbon-fiber Gitzo Pan/Tilt GK, but might generate heartburn if you got something closer to a set of metallic popsicle sticks for $29 at Office Max. The shot above was taken using my own modest (cheap) rig atop Mount Washington across from downtown Pittsburgh, and a few of the healthier gusts threatened to take it and me on a quick lap around the riverfront. Some people buy sandbags. Some believe in the power of prayer. Your choice.
Another x-factor for ‘pod shots is the actual weather you’re shooting in, which will, let’s say, shape your enthusiasm for staying out long enough to get the perfect shot. The smaller your aperture, the longer the exposure. The more long exposures you take, the longer you, yourself, are “exposed”…to snow, sleet, and all that other stuff that mailmen laugh at. Again, referencing the above image, I was contending with freezing drizzle and a windbreaker that was way too thin for heroics. Did I cut my session short? i confess that I did.
I could also mention the nagging catcalls of the other people in my party, who wanted me to, in their profound words, “just take the damned picture” so they could partake of (a)a warm bar, (b) a cold beer, (c) a hot waitress. Result: a less than perfect capture of a fairly good skyline. A little over-exposed, washing out the color. A little mushy, since the selfsame over-exposure allowed the building lights to burn in, rendering them glow-y instead of pin sharp. I was able to fix some of the color deficiencies later, but this is not a “greatest hits” image by any stretch.
Tripods can be lifesavers, but you must learn to maximize their effectiveness just like any other piece of camera equipment. If you’re going to go to a buncha trouble to get a shot, the final result should reflect all that effort, quality-wise.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHICHEVER SHIFT YOU WORK, YOU ARE FOREVER A STRANGER TO THOSE who work the other side of the workday. And while the majority of us generally fit into the standard 9 to 5 job template, millions of us have our body clocks regularly flipped upside down, our days cloaked in darkness, our brains awake while the city at large sleeps. That means that at any moment, half of us have little comprehension of how the other half lives. There’s a story in that.
And stories need pictures.
Pictorially speaking there has always been a bit of a black market mindset about the night-time, a nether world for some, a regular hangout for others. And with good reason: photography, in its infancy, had to ply its trade largely in sunlight, avoiding scenes which required either too much time, too much prep, or too much patience with slow recording media. But now we live in a very different world, armed with digital computers that look suspiciously(!) like cameras, but which react to light with an efficiency unseen in the entire history of photography.
Capturing the night is no longer a rare technical achievement, and we are really only at the front end of a steadily rising curve of technical enhancement in the area of light sensitivity, with no end in sight. Finally, darkness is something that uniquely colors and reveals reality instead of cloaking it in mystery. There is no longer an end to the shooting day. The image above is by no means an exceptional one, shot with a prime lens open to f/1.8 and a sensor that can deliver manageably low noise even at ISO 1250. More importantly, it is a handheld snap, shot at 1/30 sec…..all but unthinkable just a dozen years ago.
The new golden age of night photography is already apprehended by the youngest generation of shooters, since many of them can’t recall a time when it was a barrier to their expression. And, for those of us longer of tooth and grayer of beard, there is the sensation of being free to wander into areas which used to be sealed off to us. Sun up, sun down, it’s always time to take a picture.
Suddenly your eye is like a great downtown deli.
We’re open all night folks. We never close.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE OCCASIONALLY SOUNDED WHAT, I ADMIT, IS A PREMATURE FUNERAL DIRGE for the lowly tripod, that balky, bulky, creaky throwback to the 19th century that continues to linger as an occasional, if fading, tool of the 21st. Part of this stems from the pure aggravation involved in trucking the things around, getting them locked and level, and praying that nothing from a stiff wind to an enraged gopher to a power-tripping mall cop will intervene to undo the entire rickety works. Hey, I’m not a hater, just a very reluctant fan.
One of the reasons I’ve mostly weaned myself from the pod is the ever-evolving speed of lenses and sensors in the digital era. This means scenes with less and less light can be captured with greater sharpness in short, hand-held exposures, albeit with a little more visual noise or grain. You can now shoot on a dark street at night, if your lens opens wide enough to keep your ISO as low as possible and if you can maintain a rock-steady grip on your camera at shutter speeds around 1/20 or so. And, for many cases, the results from this setup will be quite satisfactory.
However, we ain’t just about being satisfied, are we, mmmm?
Problem with a wide exposure and bright highlights (like the theatre marquee in the above shot) is that those elements will burn in and become diffuse, even in fast exposures, especially since your ISO setting is instructing your sensor to suck light like a maniac. As a result, instead of being sharp pinpoints of light, they will often turn soft and globby. If you can live with that, then go in peace and sin no more, my son.
However, if you really need to get those lights as sharp as you see them with your own eye, you might try doing a longer exposure at a smaller aperture, and that can mean dragging the pod down from the attic and doing it old-school. Good news is that you can now crank your ISO back down to minimum, so, yay, no noise atall, atall. You also might pick up some more contrast and detail within bright objects, like the horizontal lines on the above marquee. Bad news is, duh, you’re using a tripod. Hey, is that a mall cop I see running over here?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S CLASSIC REAR WINDOW IS THE ULTIMATE GUILTY PLEASURE, and not just because the Master of Suspense is at the peak of his edge-of-your-seat powers in the telling of its thrilling murder story. No, the massive, full-sized set of James Stewart’s Manhattan neighborhood, with all its apartment-dwellers’ secrets open to the most casual snoop, is the creepy, giddy candy at the center of this cinematic confection. In making it temporarily okay to be, in effect, peeping toms, Hitchcock is making us complicit in his hero’s unsavory curiosity. All these dramas. All these secrets that we have no right in knowing. And, of course, we can’t look away.
Photographing the intersection of living spaces in city settings is far often more subtle than Hitch’s feat of shaving the back wall off an entire community, and that makes for a lot more mystery, most of us beyond solution. Look too little, and a slab of brick is more like a beehive than a collection of stories. Look too deeply, and the truths you unearth can feel stolen, like an invasion done purely for prurient entertainment. What’s most interesting is to imply much but reveal little, and hitting that balance is tough.
I recently killed off the last fifteen minutes of a generally unproductive night of street shooting by gazing out the window of my nondescript hotel at an equally nondescript apartment building across the way. The last vestiges of dusk offered scant details on the outside wall, and the warm yellow hum of electrical light had already begun to flicker on in the various cubicles. I thought of Rear Window and how you could look at the fully visible doings of people, yet still know virtually nothing of their lives. Here the lighting was random, undefined, with little real information on the life throbbing within the individual spaces….the dead opposite of Hitchcock’s deliberate staging.
I couldn’t see a face, a hand, an activity. All I had was the mere suggestion of human presence. What were they reading, watching, wishing, enduring, enjoying, hating? I couldn’t know and I couldn’t show it, but I could show the mystery itself. I could share, if you will, the sensation of not being able to know. And so I made a photograph of that lack of information.
Some photographs are about things, obvious things that you’re able to freeze in time. Other images are about the idea of something, a kind of unsatisfied anticipation. Both kinds of pictures have their own narrative code, and learning how to manage these special languages is great practice for the idea, and the mind back of it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
USING “LEADING LINES” TO PULL A VIEWER INTO AN IMAGE IS PRETTY MUCH COMPOSITION 101. It’s one of the best and simplest ways to overcome the flat plane of a photograph, to simulate a feeling of depth by framing the picture so the eye is drawn inward from a point along the edge, usually by use of a bold diagonal taking the eye to an imagined horizon or “vanishing point”. Railroad tracks, staircases, the edge of a long wall, the pews in a church. We all take advantage of this basic trick of engagement.
One thing that can aid this lead-in effect even more is shooting at night. Artificial lighting schemes on many buildings “tell” the eye what the most important and least important features should be…where the designer wants your eye to go. This means that there is at least one angle on many city scenes where the light goes from intense to muted, a transition you can use to seize and direct attention.
This all gives me another chance to preach my gospel about the value of prime lenses in night shots. Primes like the f/1.8 35mm used for this image are so fast, and recent improvements in noiseless ISO boosts so advanced, that you can shoot handheld in many more situations. That means time to shoot more, check more, edit more, get closer to the shot you imagined. This shot is one of a dozen squeezed off in about a minute. The reduction of implementation time here is almost as valuable as the speed of the lens, and, in some cases, the fall-off of light at night can act as a more dramatic lead-in for your shots.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE FIRST LEARN HOW TO CONTROL LIGHT WHEN THERE IS A PRETTY GOOD SUPPLY OF IT. Our baby-step pictures are usually taken in the middle of the day, where it’s easier to over-expose than under-expose the shot. The sun is out and it’s a constant resource. We may step in and out of a shadow or need to fill a few gaps with flash, but mostly the issue of light is about managing something you have a big bunch of.
Once we venture into night shots, light becomes a precious commodity, like water in the desert. The equation is flipped. Now we’re struggling to get enough illumination to shape a shot, or sometimes just save it. We can shoot in the reduced light that’s on hand, but it takes a little more orchestration. Move into time exposures and the terms of engagement change again, with the ability to play God with the physics of things.
And then there’s light painting, selective hand illumination during long exposures, where the aim is suddenly beyond the merely real. In fact, light painting is about deliberately manipulating mood and atmosphere, of bringing a magical quality where none exists. It also is the kind of low-light photography with the least predictable results, and the highest possible failure rate. You are constantly in uncharted waters, since no two exposures come out even remotely alike. You’re flying blind with your eyes open.
I have recently begun to head outdoors to re-imagine trees in these artificial, fantasy-flavored “light compositions”, in an effort to lend heft to subjects that, in daylight, would register pretty low on the wow meter. Over the years, I have honed my technique with tabletop light painting in controlled interiors, but if I get one exterior shot in thirty that I can live with, that’s an amazing day, er, night.
I don’t have any wisdom to impart on these shots, since their value is so crazy subjective. You do it until you like it, that’s all. But do yourself a favor sometime and do wade in. You might catch the fever, or you may experience the urge to hurl your tripod over the neighbor’s wall like a javelin of rage.When you don’t have enough light, you’re kind of in free fall.
But even if you don’t stick the landing, it ain’t fatal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A PROPENSITY, WITHIN THE DNA OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, to “show it all”, to flood the frame with as much visual information as humanly possible in an attempt to faithfully render a story. Some of this may track back to the first days of the art, when the world was a vast, unexplored panorama, a wilderness to be mapped and recorded. Early shutterbugs risked their fortunes and their lives to document immense vistas, mountain ranges, raging cataracts, daunting cliffs. There was a continent to conquer, an immense openness to capture. The objectives were big, and the resultant pictures were epic in scale.
Seemingly, intimacy, the ability to select things, to zero in on small stories, came later. And for some of us, it never comes. Accordingly, the world is flooded with pictures that talk too loudly and too much, including, strangely, subjects shot at fairly close range. The urge is strong to gather, rather than edit, to include rather than to pare away. But there are times when you’re just trying to get the picture to “yes”, the point at which nothing else is required to get the image right, which is also the point at which, if something extra is added, the impact of the image is actually diminished. I, especially, have had to labor long and hard to just get to “yes”….and stop.
In the above image, there are only two elements that matter: the border of brightly lit paper lanterns at the edge of a Chinese New Year festival and the small pond that reflects back that light. If I were to exhaust myself trying to also extract more detail from the surrounding grounds or the fence, I would accomplish nothing further in the making of the picture. As a matter of fact, adding even one more piece of information can only lessen the force of the composition. I mention this because I can definitely recall occasions when I would whack away at the problem, perhaps with a longer exposure, to show everything in more or less equal illumination. And I would have been wrong.
Even with this picture, I had to make myself accept that a picture I like this much required so little sweat. Less can actually be more, but we have to learn to get out of our own way….to stop at “yes”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PICTORIAL POTENTIAL OF SOME EVENTS, PHOTOGRAPHICALLY, TURNS OUT SOMEWHAT LESS MIRACULOUS THAN ADVERTISED. That is to say, a few of the things that you assume will certainly yield stunning image opportunities come off, in reality, with the majesty of, well, a flea circus. Sometimes, you think you’ll come home with the Seven Wonders Of The World inside your camera. Other times, you have to fight a strong urge to give up all this “pitcher-takin'” nonsense and take up honest work, like bank robbing, where you can at least set your own hours.
We’ve all been there.
Fairs, festivals, commemorations, parades…..these are all happenings which are ripe with potential, for which we have all camped out on the perimeter of what we hope and pray will be the Next Big Thing, only to come home with crumbs. Leavings. And the best thing to do when an event becomes a near-miss is to seek out what I call the “near saves”. That is, when the story at a given event is disappointingly small, go smaller….toward the intimate detail, the human component, the pertinent bit of texture or atmosphere. The overall panorama may fail, but a single face, a structural element, a series of shadows may deliver where the overall scene fails.
The above image happened almost by accident. Around early sunset, I rushed into an over-hyped cultural festival which failed to achieve full wonderfullness (trust me), and, hours after sunset, I was leaving in defeat, when, near the exit, I spotted a genuine, weirdo-beardo-freak-yourself-out gypsy fortune-telling machine, right out of Tom Hanks’ Big, wonderfully lit by ambient neon on the midway and the device’s own built-in “spook light”. The deepening dark of night was suddenly my best friend, boosting the mystery with oodles of deep shadow. With a 35mm prime lens, I could open clear up to f/1.8, keeping my ISO low at 100 and allowing me to get plenty of light at 1/40 of a second. I was amazed that I had walked right past this treasure when I entered the festival, but I was grateful for a second chance. Snap and done.
Thus,my best shots from the night were of anything but the main “attractions” of the event. Going small meant going beyond the obvious, the difference between a near miss and a near save.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME LIMITS US IN EVERY PHOTOGRAPHIC SITUATION: LIGHT HEMS US IN EVEN FURTHER. Of course, the history of photography is rife with people who refuse to just accept what time and nature feel like giving them. In fact, that refusal to settle is source of all the artistry. Too bright? Too bland? Wrong time of day? Hey, there’s an app for that. Or, more precisely, a work-around. Recently, I re-acquainted myself with one of the easiest, oldest, and more satisfying of these “cheats”, a solid, simple way to enhance the mood of any exterior image.
And to bend time… a little.
It’s based on one of Hollywood’s long-standing budget-savers, a technique called day-for-night. For nearly a century, cinematographers have simulated nightfall while shooting in the daytime, simply by manipulating exposure or processing. Many of the movie sequences you see represented as “night” are, in fact, better lit than any “normal” night, unless you’re under a bright, full moon. Day-for-night allows objects to be more discernible than in “real” night because their illumination is actually coming from sunlight, albeit sunlight that’s been processed differently. Shadows are starker and it’s easier to highlight what you want to call attention to. It’s also a romantically warm blue instead of, well, black. It’s not a replication of reality. Like most cinematic effects, it’s a little bit better than real.
If you’re forced to approach your subject hours before sunset, or if you simply want to go for a different “feel” on a shot, this is a great shortcut. Even better, in the digital era, it’s embarrassingly easy to achieve: simple dial up a white balance that you’d normally use indoors to balance incandescent light. Use the popular “light bulb” icon or a tungsten setting. Indoors this actually helps compensate for cold, bluish tones, but, outside, it amps up the blue to a beautiful, warm degree, especially for the sky. Colors like reds and yellows remain, but under an azure hue.
The only other thing to play with is exposure. Shutter-speed wise, head for the high country
at anywhere from f/18 to 22, and shorten your exposure time to at least 1/250th of a second or shorter. Here again, digital is your friend, because you can do a lot of trial and error until you get the right mix of shadow and illumination. Hey, you’re Mickey Mouse with the wizard hat on here. Get the look you want. And don’t worry about it being “real”. You checked that coat at the door already, remember?
Added treats: you stay anchored at 100 ISO, so no noise. And, once you get your shot, the magic is almost completely in-camera. Little or no post-tweaking to do. What’s not to like?
I’m not saying that you’ll get a Pulitzer-winning, faux-night shot of the Eiffel Tower, but, if your tour bus is only giving you a quick hop-off to snap said tower at 2 in the afternoon, it might give you a fantasy look that makes up in mood what it lacks in truth.
It ain’t the entire quiver, just one more arrow.
Follow Michael Perkins at Twitter @MPnormaleye.