By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY FIRST CAMERAS IN SPACE were not cutting-edge, ground-up tech crafted by NASA engineers, but the personal gear of the earliest astronauts, like John Glenn’s $40 Ansco Autoset in 1962 and Wally Schirra’s more sophisticated Hasselblad 500C a few years later. Taking documentary pictures in flight was originally little more than an afterthought, with the Canaveral gearheads gradually introducing more and more after-market modifications to make the pilots’ cameras perform more reliably in space. Hasselblad, in particular, was the closest thing to an official NASA camera from Mercury and Gemini missions clear up to the first Apollo moon landing in 1969, producing the iconic images we most associate with the space program.
With the first space shuttle flights in 1981, however, a shift to the 35mm format occurred, as Nikon became the dominant brand for the second phase of NASA’s first golden age. Dozens of mods were developed, transforming the company’s best prosumer film cameras into truly space-ready gear. More than half a dozen different models were reworked by the Nikon/Kennedy Center brain trust to answer challenges that were unique to zero-g, the bulkiness of astronaut gloves and helmets, or the punishing thermal extremes unique to life in orbit.
As an example, the Nikon F3, seen in the above magazine ad, saw, among its tweaks, a greatly enlarged viewfinder (since helmets prevented an astronaut from putting his eye right up against the camera) a detachable, heavy duty battery pack to automatically advance and rewind film (still an “add-on” feature for most cameras at the time), pre-loaded film magazines (capable of snapping up to 250 frames per roll) and early versions of both aperture priority and auto-focus (since early pictures taken by the astronauts were either underexposed or blurry). Other, less obvious fixes, like the removal of leatherette trim (the gases in the glue could leach out into the cabin air in weightless conditions) and the invention of a kind of pot-holder “space pouch” to encase the cameras so that they wouldn’t freeze during extra-vehicular activity, were also hatched. Several of NASA/Nikon’s key innovations were adapted later for general consumer cameras, while other workarounds, like the arbitrary redesigning of switches or the removal of reflective enamel, were of no value to John Q. Snapshooter.
Today, the shuttle-era Nikons are the subject of a great degree of study by engineers who value them for their ingenuity, as well as important links in the chain of photography’s onward advancement over time. They also fetch astronomical prices (sorry) at auction. Best of all, we have them. Unlike the Hasselblads that documented the Apollo missions (which had to be left on the lunar surface to counter the weight added to the cargo bays by the accumulation of moon rocks), the shuttle Nikons booked a round-trip ticket home.
Curiouser and curiouser: welcome to the camera format wars, final rendition.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO SIMULATE THE EXPERIENCE OF LEAPING OUT OF A PLANE WITHOUT A CHUTE, then get into the business of predicting trends in photography. The boneyard of critical writing is crammed with the carcasses of wizard wannabes who boldly pronounced what the Next Big Thing in camera tech was going to be. Still, even given that caveat, there are some big tectonic shifts in Camera Land that even a dullard like me can see coming.
Smart people call these shifts “inflection points”. These are the folks who get great grades on term papers. Me, I just say, “hey, is this anything?” Whatever your wording, we seem to be at such a place as of this writing , which is early 2022.
Little more than a decade after the introduction of the first mirrorless cameras, prognosticators great and small now seem uniformly confident in predicting that this is the year that DSLRs go on life support and the family calls in the priest. Recently, no less a cadre than the venerable PetaPixel predicted that both Canon and Nikon would end their commitment to DSLR development and model introduction in 2022. And, suddenly, they are far from alone. The argument goes that, just as SLRs were a forward leap in convenience and performance over rangefinder cameras, so mirrorless does what DSLRs do more accurately and far easier. Normally such forecasts would be largely a matter of opinion, but something new has been added.
That “something” is the fact that more manufacturers than ever are closing the DSLR product line on both ends, both discontinuing older models with no comparable successor and in bringing fewer new models, especially entry-level-priced models, to the market for the first time. And then there is the raw science, which says that, minus the bulky box-and-mirror part of DSLR’s viewing apparatus, lenses in mirrorless cameras can be placed extremely close to the focal plane, affecting sharpness, low-light performance, chromatic aberrations, and, yes, the total curb weight of the unit. This also means that your older DSLR lenses, with adaptation, might well work better on a mirrorless body. Other factors in this sea change include people like myself who are going to mirrorless in order to upgrade to full-frame for the first time, and figure they might as well go with a format that manufacturers are now throwing their full weight behind.
You and I both know several “I’ll never” people who will stick with their chosen format until the last dog is hung, and mazel tov to them. Shoot what you want, love what you shoot, etc. However, when the makers of a particular tech are cutting back on new models of it, even going so far as to reduce choices and support with the existing models in that format, including their best sellers, it might be time, as they say in Hollywood, to strike the set.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREAT TAKEAWAYS OF THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY is how it has greatly expanded our freedom to make mistakes, or, more precisely, how it gave us permission to make more of them.
I say, with absolutely no attempt at snark or cynicism, that the ability to take a lot of bad pictures is tremendously liberating. Mind you, the desired end product of our photography remains a body of work that we’ll point to with a modicum of pride. What’s changed is how much faster we can now evolve through all the layers of errors and bad choices that, in the days of film, used to take us years and big dollars to navigate. Now, we can simply afford to make more mistakes, faster and cheaper, than at any other time in history. More importantly, this gives us essential feedback in real time, information that is delivered to us while our subjects remain at hand and our memories remain fresh. That is a real game-changer.
Still, it’s important that we take real advantage of this great freedom, going so far as to embrace, even welcome, errors that we used to try to avoid at all costs. Instead of the mental pressure of making every shot count, we need to first be comfortable with what I call “shooting slop”, of going out for days or even weeks on end trying to anticipate everything that can go wrong with a picture, actually do many things recklessly or without purpose, and be ready to write off every image in an outing as part of the learning curve. I especially recommend this anytime you switch cameras, reacquaint yourself with an old piece of gear, or attempt to master a new lens.
When you’re adding something new to your technique or kit, you’re going to screw up a certain number of shots anyway, so why not invest some time trying everything, shooting with no set purpose or objective in mind, and be okay with burning off all those loser frames in preparation for the day when the shooting will really count? This sounds simple, but, in practice, it takes as much discipline to shoot a whole day of slop as it does to pursue a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The frame you see here is from part of a two week break-in period that I’ve undertaken with an old Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, known colloquially as “the pancake” because of its low profile and compact size. It’s one of many, many excellent Nikon 50mm primes made over half a century, many of which I’ve already shot extensively with. But just as all of your kids has a distinct personally, the pancake, which was never marketed extensively outside of Japan, has its own “take” on things like, well, focus.
Don’t get me wrong: when you use this sucker correctly, it’s as sharp as a razor. It’s just that, after some forty years of use, some play has naturally have worked into my lens’ focus ring, so that, as you see here, merely setting a distant subject for infinity can actually take you a little bit back into blur, so that I have to, in effect, dial the ring back a smidge to get something sharp, which this shot certainly is not. But hey, it’s “shooting slop day”, where I’m in an environment that I’ve already visited a thousand times, and from which I’ve already gleaned some really good pictures. The stuff I’m shooting today just doesn’t matter.
Except it does.
And that’s my whole sermon. Fall in love with the making of pictures that you won’t fall in love with. It’s the surest route to getting to the ones you will swoon over in a lot less time. Or, to my original metaphor, you can’t become a gourmet chef until you’ve rustled up a big helping of slop.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
ACROSS HISTORY, HALF OF THE WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY seems to be about the ongoing debate over which is more crucial, equipment or ingenuity. Some fervently believe that better gear inevitably leads to better pictures, while others point to the fact that million-dollar images often emerge from modest machinery, when backed by a trained eye. I have been shooting for too long to favor extreme, either/or arguments, as my experience makes a good case for both viewpoints. There have been times when a particular level of technical tool has saved my bacon, but there have also been many instances in which the camera, by itself, would have merely got in my way without my resorting to improvised workarounds designed to compensate for its shortcomings.
One of the things I do to boost color and maximize contrast is to deliberately under-expose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to dramatically change the game at a moment’s notice, a nostalgic nod to the days of Kodachrome and other early color films that would often be too slow for effective captures unless you were really spry with your field calculations. Thing is, what others regarded in some shots as “too dark” would, to me, be moody, romantic, even mysterious. What others called “balanced” light I often considered mediocre, and so, as I have travelled through time, I have retained my affection for the chiaroscuro look. It simplifies compositions and jacks the richness of hues. Thing is, I have to be mindful of what camera I’m using at the time, and how it can or can’t readily render the look I want.
Case in point: the Nikon Coolpix P900, which took the shot you see here. This is a so-called “superzoom” camera designed to extend one’s telephoto reach to a ridiculous extreme, and was purchased primarily for birdwatching. Its zoom amounts to something like 83x magnification, and, while it can deliver surprisingly sharp detail at insane distances, it hampers the camera’s performance in other ways. Since so much light is lost when they are extended fully, the manufacturers of superzooms “cap” their minimum aperture at around f/8. Want to shoot at f/11 or higher? Use a different camera.
The fun thing about exposure is that there are several ways to get there, and so, if you can’t stop your iris down far enough to suit yourself, you can always ramp up your shutter speed, which is what I’ve done here. In a typical shot, the poinsettia would have been backed by more leaves, the edge of a pot, foil wrapping and other clutter, but at the P900’s smallest aperture, f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/500 in early morning light, the red leaves become the exclusive star. Early direct light in Phoenix, Arizona would also have generated a complete blowout of any texture or detail in the structure of the leaves, and, while much of them remain hot in this shot, some vein detail is suggested here, especially when the edge of a leaf falls off into blackness. The result is a genuine fake of 64 ASA Kodachrome, achieved largely by accident in my youth, now purposely chosen in my….dotage.
Whatever equipment you use, you may find it necessary to try to occasionally outwit the thing, to, if you like, enter through the side door, if only to keep the thing from giving you the picture it assumes you want. Don’t buy into the manufacturers’ hype. Between a photographer and a camera, only one of them can think. Hint: it isn’t the camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIND IT AMUSING THAT THERE IS SO MUCH PRISSY FRETTING, in the present photographic age, about the manipulation of images, as if there is, or has ever been, a “pure” photography that comes full-born from the camera like Athena sprang from Zeus’ forehead. This is, of course, nonsense.
There never was a time when photographers simply pressed the button and settled for whatever dropped into their laps by chance. The history of the medium is a clearly traceable timeline of the very interpretive technique and, yes, manipulation that tracks, like this blog, the journey from taking a picture to making one.
It’s not what you apply to an image, it’s whether the application is the entire point of the picture. Does your conception have solid, original value, over which you then impose a supplementary effect or a boost in emphasis? Or are you merely popping apps and pushing buttons in order to disguise the lack of essence in picture, to whitewash a rotten fence if you will?
The reason I raise all this again is that an in-camera effect usually called “selective color”, now available on many DSLRs, has reminded me of the first days of color photography, which of course was no color at all, except that which was applied through tinting and painting after a monochrome image had been made. Depending on the individual artisan, the hues in these pictures tended to be either a soft wash of faint pastel or a raging rouge of rosy reds, but, most frequently, only selected parts of the image were colored at all, perhaps an attempt to dramatize particular elements of the composition. It was anything but natural, but, in advance of the development of actual color film, it produced some interesting results.
Jump to today’s cameras and the selective color option. You shoot your original image, select it, then zoom in on parts of it to both locate and choose up to three colors that will be featured in a copy of the image. All other tones will be desaturated, leaving you with a part monochrome, part color version of your original, which remains unchanged in a separate file. The effect, as in the past, can dramatize and isolate key parts of your picture, even giving a strange dimensional feel to the photo, but it can take some practice to get the result that you want.
For example, selecting the red of a single car on a crowded street will also catch the same red in other cars’ tail lights, the corner traffic signal, and a neon sign in a building at the end of the block, so be sure you can live with all of that. Also, in some seemingly “white” buildings, shadows or reflected light (as well as aging impurities in some materials) will show some faint shades of color in this process, so that the blue that you said okay to for the corner mailbox will also pick up slight bluish casts in the marble of the bank next door. In the above image, I also made a second, darker copy of the altered image, then blended the two copies in a tone compressing program, to further accentuate the building textures and contrasts.
Bottom line: there is black and white, there is full color, and there is the uber-cool playland in what you could call the middlehues. It’s not cheating to enhance a good picture. It’s only cheating when you use effects to mask the fact that you didn’t take the picture right in the first place.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE RECENTLY BEEN EXPERIENCING ONE OF THOSE TIME MACHINE MOMENTS in which I am, again, right back at the beginning of my life as a photographer, aglow with enthusiasm, ripe with innocence, suffused by a feeling that anything can be done with my little black box. This is an intoxication that I call: new lens.
Without fail, every fresh hunk of glass I have ever purchased has produced the same giddy wonder, the same feeling of artistic invincibility. This time out, the toy in question is a Nikon f/1.8 35mm prime lens, and, boy howdy, does this baby perform. For cropped sensor cameras, it “sees” about like the 50mms of old, so its view is almost exactly as the human eye sees, without exaggerated perspective or angular distortion. Like the 50, it is simple, fast, and sharp. Unlike the 50, it doesn’t force me to do as much backing up to get a comfortable framing on people or near objects. The 35 feels a little “roomier”, as if there are a few extra inches of breathing space around my portrait subjects. Also, the focal field of view, even wide open, is fairly wide, so I can get most of your face tack sharp, instead of just an eye and a half. Matter of preference.
All this has made me marvel anew at how fast many of us are generally approaching the age of flashless photography. It’s been a long journey, but soon, outside the realm of formal studio work, where light needs to be deliberately boosted or manipulated, increasingly thirsty lenses and sensors will make available light our willing slave to a greater degree than ever before. For me, a person who believes that flash can create as many problems as it solves, and that it nearly always amounts to a compromise of what I see in my mind, that is good news indeed.
It also makes me think of the first technical efforts to illuminate the dark, such as the camera you see off to the left. The Ermanox, introduced by the German manufacturer Ernemann in 1924, was one of the first big steps in the quest to free humankind of the bulk, unreliability and outright danger of early flash. Its cigarette-pack-sized body was dwarfed by its enormous lens, which, with a focal length of f/2, was speedy enough (1/1000 max shutter) to allow sharp, fast photography in nearly any light. It lost a few points for still being based on the use of (small) glass plates instead of roll film, but it almost single-handedly turned the average man into a stealth shooter, in that you didn’t have to pop in hefting a lotta luggage, as if to scream “HEY, THE PHOTOGRAPHER IS HERE!!” In fact, in the ’20’s and ’30’s, the brilliant amateur shooter Erich Solomon made something of a specialty out of sneaking himself and his tiny Ermanox into high-level government summits and snapping the inner circle at its unguarded best (or worst). Long exposures and blinding flash powders were no longer part of the equation. Candid photography had crawled out of its high chair… and onto the street.
Today or yesterday, this is about more than just technical advancement. The unspoken classism of photography has always been: people with money get great cameras; people without money can make do. Sure, early breakthroughs like the Ermanox made it possible for anyone to take great low-light shots, but at $190.65 in 1920’s dollars, it wasn’t going to be used at most folks’ family picnics. Now, however, that is changing. The walls between “high end” and “entry level” are dissolving. More technical democracy is creeping into the marketplace everyday, and being able to harness available light affordably is a big part of leveling the playing field.
So, lots more of us can feel like a kid with a new toy, er, lens.