HUMILITY ON THE WING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REALLY THINK YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, take a moment to consider what you typically shoot. After all, there comes a point, with practice and experience, at which you will get pretty good at making pictures of the things you’re used to making pictures of. Shoot enough skyscrapers and you can eventually become The Skyscraper Guy. But then, in the pursuit of humility, start making 100% of your shots of something about which you know next to nothing. Better still, shoot things that seldom, if ever, pique your interest….and then see how you do.
I am on record in these pages as admitting that I am always playing defense when it comes to nature work. It’s not my first interest, and it’s far from my comfort zone. However, I do derive enjoyment from the thought that I might ,at some point, have a chance of getting better at it. That’s not the same as actually getting better at it, but…..
Over the last five years, I’ve begun to dip my toe into work with birds, mostly because it allows me and my birder mate to do more things together. However, on many expeditions in search of the Rump-Roasted Titbill or the Green-Throated Flipwing I am as likely to shoot the surrounding wildlife as I am the official quarry, simply because I know, at some level, that my success with birds is random and unpredictable. In short, I may actually have the wrong personality to be good at capturing the little darlings.
First of all, I only possess the cardinal (sorry) virtue of patience in limited supply. That’s not helpful, since, as I hinted at the start, shooting outside your comfort zone will instantaneously reverse-morph you back to the clueless twelve-year-old you were when you first picked up a camera. And yes, bird photography is that different, in that it has many exclusive techniques that no other kind of photography will completely prepare you for. And then there is the expense. Basic cameras will occasionally (underscore that word) bring you good results, but the precision required for the best bird work, the “ahh”-inducing shots, can only be had for money. A good deal of it. It’s just a fact that we’ll never know how many of us would have become excellent bird photographers simply because many cannot afford the gear necessary to produce the best results. That’s not sour grapes, no more than it is whiny to say that I can’t explore the surface of the moon with a $100 pair of binoculars.
So what’s to do? Well, decent pictures can be made with modest equipment, but the work will be harder, and the accumulation of skill will be exponentially slower. The bird shots that I truly like come from approaching birds as I might a human subject, that is, by observing behavior long enough to get a sense of the bird as a “person” the way I might with a portrait subject. The more time I spend with an individual bird, the more I convince myself that I am locked into his thoughts or reactions. Of course, I could just be crazed with the heat (always wear a hat), but that mindset just barely gives me the courage to try something I will likely not do very well for some time to come. Humility, on the wing. Cool.
Now, can I go take a picture of a skyscraper?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS ARRIVE AT WHAT I CALL a minimalist reset, evolving in their technique to the point at which they can do more varied work with fewer tools. This process leads many to designate a personal “go-to” lens, the chunk of glass that solves nearly every problem on a given shooting day by itself. I’ve tried to take this a step further, going from ” what one lens do I most need today?” to “what one lens can I probably use for everything, nearly every day?”, a lens so flexible that I’d actually have to have a very good reason not to use it on any given day. To express it another way, instead of thinking of a “go-to” lens, I’ve tended to work toward finding a “leave-on” lens.
My “Levon” is the venerable Nikon 24mm f/2.8, in production continuously from 1967 (about when mine was made) to the present as a metal-barreled, fully manual lens. There is a cheaper, plastic autofocus version also available, but optics are generally the same. That is to say, damned sharp and damned fast. Both lenses are extremely compact and thus easy to lug about.
24mm is correctly called an “ultra-wide angle”, but I originally switched to it from something even wider, the ubiquitous 18-55mm “kit lens” most Nikons ship with these days. Doing a lot of shooting in big cities with crowded streets, I originally thrilled to just how much the 18 could cram into a frame. Eventually, however, I came to hate the severely in-bent slant on tall structures, and the fact that the 18, wide open, is pretty slow, at a max aperture of f/3.5. With the 24, I still get plenty of more natural-looking width and another fat half-stop of light in the bargain.
Handheld night scenes make up about a third of my urban shooting, and, here again, the 24 is Mikey’s Best Friend. Its manual focusing means my camera never spazzes in search of a focus lock in the dark, allowing me to actually shoot faster. And city scenes can be sharp even wide open at f/2.8, giving me crisp results from 12 feet all the way to just under 50, and from 17 feet pretty much to infinity. Combine that with a fairly low ISO like 800, and I can even keep the grain down.
Being a prime lens, the 24mm can’t zoom, but outside of occasional nature work, I seldom need a telephoto, so you don’t miss what you don’t use: another reason to leave the 18-55 home. Besides, primes, being optically simpler, are usually sharper, meaning it looks better than the kit lens dialed to 24mm. Finally, Levon is not a macro, but focuses at just one foot out, so some modest close-up work is feasible.
Standard disclaimer: this analysis is offered not to claim that any one lens is perfect for any one person. It’s just an exercise to show how, for the way I shoot, I have been able to do over 75% of my typical work without swapping out glass. I gain speed, ease, and flexibility in the process, and, if you conduct your own experiments, chances are you too can progressively spend less time fiddling and more time shooting.
“….and it shall be Leave-On…”
DATING YOUR EX
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS AGE, THERE IS A STRONG TEMPTATION to do more and more with less and less. For many, this manifests itself as a kind of divestiture, a relinquishing of toys. Maybe it’s just muscle fatigue, but, at some point in a shooter’s life, he or she makes a conscious decision to carry fewer hunks of gear into battle. Your approach to the work gets more complex, and, paradoxically, the mechanical doing of it gets more streamlined.
This is where the idea of a “go to” lens comes from, with photogs deciding that, yes, they can do nearly everything with the same hunk of glass. It becomes a bragging point: I shoot everything with a 24mm prime. I always use a 35. I don’t carry a big bag of stuff around anymore. But here’s the great thing: even a single lens is actually several lenses at once, since its optical properties change dramatically depending on aperture. That’s why, if you’re trying to take more kinds of pictures with fewer lenses, it’s important to do some homework on all the different ways they see.
One of the things it’s best to know about your lens is where its “sweet spot”, or optimum sharpness occurs across the aperture range. Turn on your trusty Google machine and you will find more opinions on how to determine this than there are recipes for apple pie, and that’s the tricky part. Optics are a science, to be sure, but they are also somewhat subjective. Translation: if it looks good to you, it’s good. So publishing a table that proves your argument on what “sharp” is to your satisfaction just picks a scab for someone else. You have to get away from the charts and do the field work. Shoot. Look. Compare.
The chart people believe, for example, that the sweet spot for a lens is always two f-stops less light than your maximum wide-open aperture, meaning that, say an f/1.8 prime would hit its sweet spot somewhere around f/3.5. However, on my own 35mm f/1.8, I get the most uniform sharpness, from center to corners, another stop beyond that, so my “go to” aperture on my “go to” lens is more like f/5.6. I know this is true, because I have set up a tripod and shot the same subject from the same distance through the entire range of apertures and visually compared them. You know, the real-world, old-fashioned way….observation.
The better you know every property of your lens, the closer you will get to one that does most of what you want, most of the time. More pictures with fewer toys, with time and labor saved as well.