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.