By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU HAVE SEEN THEM A MILLION TIMES. Those brave souls who, despite multiple trips to Failed Fotoland, optimistically point their cel cameras at distant and dark objects, hoping their puny on-board flashes will illuminate cavernous concert halls, banish shadows from vast cathedrals, or, God bless them, turn the night sky into a luminous planetarium. They have faith, these people. But they don’t often take home the prize.
Immense, dark masses of subject matter, from mountain sides to moody urban streets, simply cannot be uniformly exposed with a sudden lucky burst of on-camera flash. The only way to gather enough light to get a usable exposure of such things is to leave your shutter open long enough to let more light soak in. Think dribble instead of flood. Time exposures are remarkably effective in “burning in” an image slowly, but they have their own science and technique, and they must be patiently practiced. They are the dead opposite of a quick fix, but they are worth the trouble.
With today’s editing software, it’s easier than ever to customize even your best time exposures, combining several shots taken over a given time sequence to arrive at a satisfying balance of elements. In the above picture, I wanted to show the colorful “Field Of Light” installation created by artist Bruce Munro for Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, which blankets a desert hillside with over 30,000 globes of color-shifting light. I set up my tripod about a half-hour before local sunset and took exposures five minutes apart until about forty minutes into the onset of evening.
From that broad sequence, I selected two frames; one taken before dark, in which the underlying detail of the hill (desert plants, rocks, etc.) could still be seen, and one taken just after the sky had gone dark to the naked eye, but blue to the camera. I then composited the shots in Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” mode, which is a bit like stacking two backlit slides and gradually changing how much of each can bleed into the other. My object was to get both a blue, but not black, twilight sky and at least some detail from the natural terrain. Neither individual shot could achieve all of this alone, however, given the ease of doing an exposure fusion in nearly any kind of photo software these days, it was a snap to grab the best elements of both frames.
Epilogue: during the fairly long stretch of time I was standing behind my tripod, I counted over two dozen separate visitors who boldly stepped up, aimed their cellphones, cranked off a quick flash, and loped away, muttering something like, “well, that didn’t work.” Some shots are like low-lying fruit, and some have to be coaxed out of the camera. Knowing which is which, ahead of time, makes for happier results.
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
IT’S BEYOND POINTLESS TO PREACH OF “PURITY” when it comes to photographic technique, although the argument springs up whenever the idea of manipulation comes up. It’s not even a new squabble. No sooner had science given the world a way to record reality with a machine than artists began tweaking, twisting, and torturing effects out of the camera that could only be done by deliberate intervention. So much for reality. In fact, photography’s first half-century boasts a rainbow of spectacular effects, undertaken precisely to undermine or improve upon the real world.
No, it’s about a century and a half too late to worry about whether people will alter their photographs and high time we explored what kind of manipulations are best for the overall impact of an image. I personally prefer to “photoshop the moment”, or to calculate what I need in a picture during the taking of it. I truly feel that, in most post-shutter tweaking, you lose an intangible something that might have made real magic if factored into the same-time making of the picture. The best thing about planning is, it gets easier to get better effects from simpler things, things that seem to work better for the picture if you design them into the shot rather than adding them later.
Take the ridiculously obvious tweak done in the above picture. 90% of the final photo here is in the composition of the shot, framing the entrance of this wonderful old house in the arch of its outer gate. The sunlight is perfect for the back two-thirds of the picture, but, given the position of the sun in late afternoon on that particular street, my first shot tended to render the arched topiary very dark, nearly a silhouette. Thing is, I really wanted the entire image to have a kind of fairy tale quality. I needed an intervention.
Easy fix. I walked back a few steps to make sure that my flash was just powerful enough to pop a hot green into the arch, yet too faint to illuminate anything else. As a result, the color you see here is not goosed up after the fact. I exposed for the house in the background and the fill flash made the foreground hues as bright as the stuff in back. Again, as planning goes, thus wasn’t the D-Day invasion. I just needed to make one simple change to solve my problem, and the fact that I did it during the original making of the picture made me feel like I was in charge of the project to a greater degree.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE MOST PART, THE USE OF ON-CAMERA FLASH SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY. Scott Kelby, the world’s best-selling author of digital photography tutorials, famously remarked that “if you have a grudge against someone, shoot them with your pop-up flash, and it will even the score.” But, to be fair, let’s look at the pros and cons of using on-board illumination:
PROS : Cheap, handy
CONS: Harsh, Weak, Unflattering, Progenitor of Red-eye. Also, Satan kills a puppy every time you use it. Just sayin’.
There are, however, those very occasional situations where supplying a little bit of extra light might give you just the fill you need on a shot that is getting 90% of its light naturally. Even so, you have to employ trickery to harness this cruel blast of ouch-white, and simple bounces are the best way to get at least some of what you want.
In the above situation, I was shooting in a hall fairly flooded with bright mid-morning light, which was extremely hot on the objects it hit squarely but contrasty as an abandoned cave on anything out of its direct path. The fish sculpture in my proposed shot was getting its nose torched pretty good, but in black and white, the remainder of its body fell off sharply, almost to invisibility. I wanted the fish’s entire body in the shot, the better to give a sense of depth to the finished picture, but I obviously couldn’t flash directly into the shelf that overhung it without drenching the rest of the scene in superfluous blow-out. I needed a tiny, attenuated, and cheap fix.
Bending a simple white stationery envelope into a “L”, I popped up my camera’s flash and covered the unit with the corner of the envelope where the two planes intersected. The flash was scooped up by the envelope, then channeled over my shoulder, blowing onto the wall at my back, then bouncing back toward the fish in softened condition near the underside of the shelf, allowing just enough light to allow the figure’s bright nose to taper back gradually into shadow, revealing additional texture, but not over-illuminating the area. It took about five tries to get the thing to look as if the light could have broken that way naturally. Fast, cheap, effective.
The same principle can be done, with some twisting about, to give you a side or ceiling bounce, although, if high reflectivity is not crucial, I frankly recommend using your hand instead of the envelope, since you can twist it around with greater control and achieve a variety of effects.
Of course, the goal with rerouting light is to look as if you did nothing at all, so if you do save a picture with any of these moves, keep it to yourself. Oh, yes, you say modestly, that’s just the look I was going for.
Even as you’re thinking, whew, fooled ’em again.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE ACT OF MAKING A PICTURE HAS TRADITIONALLY MEANT CHOOSING ONE THING OVER ANOTHER; exposing some things within a frame nearly perfectly, while, by default, settling for under-or-over-exposure of other objects within that same picture. We find ourself making priorities within the image, sorting things into piles marked “important” and “not important”. Get the color right on the surf and let the sky go white. Tamp down the snowy mountain and leave the surrounding forest black. Get this part right: leave this part wrong.
At least that’s what our earlier habits led us to accept. You can’t have it all, we tell ourselves. Decide what you really need to show and leave the rest. However, there’s a big difference between deciding to de-emphasize something in an image and feeling powerless to do anything else. Happily, ongoing developments in camera technology work to progressively minimize the number of scenarios in which you have to make these unholy choices, and one of the things that can save many such pictures is (a) readily at hand, (b) cheap, and (c) easy to work with; your on-board flash.
Now before I go further, know that I hate, hate, hate on-board flash 99.9999999% of the time. It’s only slightly less harsh than a blowtorch, lousy beyond a short distance, and generally hard to focus and direct. That said, I am occasionally an oh, hell yeah believer in fill flash, for which these rude little beacons can be useful.
In the above image, shooting the traditional way, you can choose a balanced exposure for either the front yard beyond this rustic homes’ porch or the detail on the porch itself, but not both. However, if you pop up the flash, expose for the yard, and then back off just beyond the flash’s outer range, a gentle bit of light illuminates the porch’s wood grain and reduces the shadow nooks without bleaching them out (Note that, with the flash up, you can’t shoot any faster than 1/200, so you may have to control the exposure of the yard by going for a smaller f-stop. I used 5.6 here). The result is an illusion, since you’ve tricked the camera into recording an even range of light that your eye and brain seem to see naturally, but the trick looks as if it ought to be “real”.
Of course, if the yard is so magnificent in its own right, you may choose to show the porch in silhouette just to call attention to all that floral glory, but the thing is, you’re not locked in to that choice alone. The horrible, harsh on-board flash can give you more options, and thus (barely) justify its existence.
And did I mention it’s cheap and easy?
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.