THE FASTEST MAN ALIVE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE SUPREME BEING IS CORRECTLY QUOTED, as having proclaimed, at the dawn of time, “Let There Be Light!”, then photographers, since the beginning of their own Creation, have more specifically pleaded, “let there be more light.” Indeed, incredible leaps in imaging technology over the last two centuries have taken us from ten-minute daguerreotype exposures to sharp, bright images snapped in thousandths of a second, and, still, the fight for more light and faster lenses continues unabated.
Between here and there, a few photographers have made their mark by pushing this envelope a little farther than the rest of us. One of them, however, tore that envelope to shreds, and his achievement in this area has never been surpassed, or even matched, by any of his peers.
That man’s name is Stanley Kubrick.
Before he began his directing career in the early 1950’s, Kubrick had years of experience under his belt as the youngest staff photographer for Look magazine, second only to Life as the premier photo-dominant national news weekly. Years before he wielded a Leica IIIf on that job, he had spent his early childhood learning the ins-and-outs of his own Graflex, one of the monster machines that battle-hardened newspaper photogs lugged to crime scenes and fires in dozens of “B” movies (stop the press). By his early ’30’s, Kubrick had amassed a personal collection of lenses and cameras that he would continue to modify and alter for use in his feature films, and by the ’70’s, he was ready to take a giant step attaining a kind of nirvana in the use of available light.
As he prepared to adapt William Thackeray’s novel of 19th karmic komeuppance, Barry Lyndon, to the screen in 1974, Kubrick pondered filming the interior scenes of the story’s powdered-wig salons with no lighting whatever beyond that of candle power. Now, we’re not using the term “candle power” to refer to the measurement of light. No, I’m referring here to actual candles, and nothing else. To do so, he would have to have gear that simply did not exist in the gear closets of any major studio, or, in fact, the entire movie industry. To become the fastest man alive, lens-wise, he would have to go shopping at the same place NASA shopped.
Most commercial lenses available at the time opened no wider than around f/1.4, enough to give you and me more than enough light-gathering power for dark times around the house but far too slow to operate on a movie set without a huge battery of kliegs and floods to boost the illumination. However, Kubrick had heard that NASA had developed a lens specifically designed to allow scientists to get sharp images on the dark side of the moon, a Zeiss 50mm with a focal length of …gasp…f/0.7. Zeiss made just ten of these mutants. Six went to Houston. The company kept another one for a rainy day. And the remaining three were gobbled up by Stanley Kubrick.
Taking the aforementioned benchmark of f/1.4 as the 1970’s yardstick for “man, that’s fast”, the ability to open up to f/0.7 represented a quantum leap of at least two-and-a-half stops of extra light (check my math), allowing Kubrick’s film to be, absolutely, the only cinema feature to date to be lit exclusively by ambient light. Of course, it wasn’t all sugar cookies and Kool-Aid, since that also meant working in a range of focus so shallow that only selective parts of actors’ faces were in sharp registration at any given time, giving the players the extra problem of remembering how little their heads could move without screwing up the shot. It was the only thing that could force even more re-takes than Kubrick’s renowned mania for perfection. We’re not talking a fun shoot here.
The resulting, soft, soft, soffffft look of Barry Lyndon is intimate, delicate, and absolutely gorgeous (click the image for a slightly larger version). Practical? Not so much, but for the specific mood of that material, spot on. Critics of the final film either hailed the technique as a new benchmark or sniggered at what they regarded as a showy gimmick. Of course, audiences avoided the film like Jim Carrey fleeing vaccines, so the entire thing remains, for many, a kind of grandiose Guiness-book stunt. Still, while ever-faster lenses and films eventually allowed directors much greater freedom, Uncle Stanley’s claim as fastest gun still merits its place in the hall of frame.
As a strange post-script to the story, several companies have recently boasted that you, too, might rent the same kind of hack-hybrid that Kubrick had fashioned to support the light-sponging Zeiss glass, their ads suggesting that you might secure the needed funding with the sale of several of your more expendable internal organs. Cheap at the price. The Lord got all the light he wanted pretty much on demand. The rest of us have to curse the darkness and, well, light another candle.
MAKING LIGHT OF THE SITUATION
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PORTRAITS, PHOTOGRAPHERS SOMETIMES HAVE TO SUBSTITUTE INTIMACY FOR TECHNICAL PERFECTION. We understandably want to come as near as possible to meticulously modulated light in telling the story of a face, and so we try to ride the line between natural, if inadequate light, and light which is shaped so much that we dull the naturalness of the moment.
It’s a maddening tug of war. If we don’t intervene, we might make an image which is less than flattering, or, worse, unfit for publication. If we nib in too much, we get a result whose beauty can border on the sterile. I find that, more often than not, I lean toward the technically limited side, choosing to err in favor of a studied snapshot rather than a polished studio look. If the face I’m shooting is giving me something real, I worry more about throwing a rock into that perfect pond with extra tinkering.
If my subject is personally close to me, I find it harder, not easier, to direct them, lest the quality I’m seeing in their natural state be replaced by a distancing self-consciousness. It puts me in the strange position of having to wait until the situation all but gifts me with the picture, as adding even one more technical element can endanger the feel of the thing. It’s times like this that I’m jammed nose-up against the limits of my own technical ability, and I feel that a less challenged shooter would preserve the delicacy of the situation and still bring home a better photograph.
In the above frame, the window light is strong enough to saturate the central part of my wife’s face, dumping over three-fourths of her into deep shadow. But it’s a portrait. How much more do I need? Would a second source of light, and the additional detail it would deliver on the left side of her head be more “telling” or merely be brighter? I’m lucky enough in this instance for the angle of the window light to create a little twinkle in her eye, anchoring attention in the right place, but, even at a very wide aperture, I still have to crank ISO so far that the shot is grainy, with noise reduction just making the tones flatter. It’s the old trade-off. I’m getting the feel that I’m after, but I have to take the hit on the technical side.
Then there was the problem that Marian hates to have her picture taken. If she hadn’t been on the phone, she would already have been too aware of me, and then there goes the unguarded quality that I want. I can ask a model to “just give me one more” or earn her hourly rate by waiting while I experiment. With the Mrs., not so much.
Here’s what it comes down to: sometimes, you just have to shoot the damned thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE END OF THE FILM ERA AND THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there was a profound change in what camera manufacturers defined as a “starter” lens for new owners. Many shooters, including your humble scribbler, have wondered just why an 18-55 “kit lens” zoom became the glass that was included with the purchase of a digital SLR, when the baseline lens for film shooters had most typically been a 35mm prime. This is especially puzzling since the kit lenses sold by many makers are optically inferior to a prime in several key respects.
Primes, or “normal” lenses, have one focal length only, and so cannot zoom at all, but they out-perform many of today’s zooms on sharpness, clarity, speed, aesthetic blur (or “bokeh”), and portability. Their proportions are more similar to those seen by the human eye (thus the “normal” tag) and so do not create distortion at, say 24mm, a range at which some banding creeps into a zoom at the same focal length. They also will not exaggerate front-to-back distances as seen in a super wide-angle, meaning that an 8×10 room does not resemble a bowling alley.
So what does a wide-angle zoom bring to the party? Not much, beyond the convenience afforded by zooming out with the twist of a barrel, filling your frame in seconds but, ironically, making you less mindful of the composition of your shot. The few extra seconds needed to compose on a lens that can’t zoom means that you act more purposefully, more consciously in the making of an image. You, and not the lens, are responsible for what’s included or cut.
But let’s assume that you want the kit lens for its wide-angle. This is also no problem for a prime lens. Yes, it’s as wide as it will ever be at a single focal length, but you can change what it sees by just stepping backwards. A 35mm prime is plenty wide depending on where you stand. It’s not like you can’t capture a large field of view from left to right. Just place yourself in the right place and shoot.
Yes, there are times when physical restrictions dictate “jumping the fence” by using your zoom to take you where your legs won’t go, but you can count those occasions on half the toes of a frostbitten foot. Look at the above shot. What else do you need in the shot that would require a wide-angle zoom to capture? And if the zoom can only open to f/3.5 at its widest aperture, why not use the prime and gain the ability to go all the way to f/1.8 if needed?
Here’s the deal: if you can walk to your shot and use a better, less expensive piece of glass once you get there, why use a zoom? If you can avail yourself of remarkable sharpness and fill your frame with everything you need, free of distortion, and gain extra speed, why use the wideangle? Huh? Huh? Riddle me that, Batman.
SAME SHIFT, DIFFERENT DAY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS OF PERFORMANCES ARE PERHAPS MY FAVORITE STUDIES OF THE HUMAN FACE. None of the self-conscious artifice or hesitant reticence of the standard portrait shoot are present when a player, be it a violinist or pianist, is fully inside the trance of creation. Call it rapture, call it focus, but something almost holy illuminates the features when people sing or play. All the awareness of their face as a mask melts away, as all mental energy surges to the task at hand. Their faces become some other thing, and I can’t resist trying to preserve that.
I recently had a chance to shoot two performances at the same part of the same museum about
ten weeks apart. The first set of images were like walking barefoot through roses; everything worked. The second occasion, just a few days ago, was, by comparison, work, and frustrating work at that. The time of day for both sessions was the same, with mid-morning light entering the hall through cream-color curtains and softening everything to an appealing haze. My distance from the stage was also nearly the same on both days. What created the difference in my results, then, was my choice of lens, pure and simple. All of my “luck” came because the first lens was perfect for the task. All of my muttered oaths at the second occasion were due to how wrong my choice had been.
In the first case, exemplified by the mariachi band in the image at right, I used a 35mm prime, which
is simple, sharp and fast enough, at f/1.8 on the wide-open end, to give me enough light in nearly any situation. In the more recent shoot, I used a 300mm zoom, about the most opposite approach you could try. The lens cannot get any wider open than f/4.5, and shuts down all the way to f/5.6 when fully zoomed in, so, right off the bat, you’re starving yourself for light, especially in a room where most of it is behind the performers. I decided to try the 300 out of pure perverse curiosity, and from a sense of “what can I lose?”, which is a blessing, since, when the results don’t matter, you can try something, just to see what happens.
Well, I saw.
The light reduction with the 300 was more severe than I’d anticipated. Oh, sure, I could get really tight framings on the performers, but I was going to have to either slow my shutter speed to under 1/60 or jack the ISO up to undesirably high noise level, or, as it turns out, both. The contrast between light and dark was the first thing to take the hit, as tone registered in a muddy middle range with the zoom versus the sharply defined values I had gotten with the 35.
Then there was the overall softness of the 300, due largely to the small amount of camera shake on my part, which, in a zoom, is magnified several times over. In both cases, I got usable images, but whereas with the 35mm prime I had a kind of embarrassment of riches, the object with the zoom shoot was to salvage something and slave away like mad to do so.
I could easily have taken wider framed shots with the 35 (since it can’t zoom), then cropped them for tightness later, as I had on the first day. Instead, I got a lot of really tight shots of musicians that needed serious intervention to make them acceptable. But I want to emphasize that this is what experimentation is for. You put your hand on the hot stove, yell “OWWW!” and refrain from touching the hot stove in future. At the end of the second shoot, I had lost no money, no business, and very little time. That’s education on the cheap.
I don’t mind wearing the dunce cap every once in a while, if I know that, eventually, I’m going to end up in a fedora.
THE LIVING LAB
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST GIFT A SMALL CHILD HAS TO GIVE THE WORLD IS THE VAST, UNMINED ORE OF POSSIBILITY residing inside him. Wow, that really sounded pretentious. But think about it. He or she, as yet, has no wealth to offer, no fully developed talent, no seasoned insight, no marketable skills. It is what he or she has the potential to be that tantalizes us, and our cameras. It is what is just about to be available from these fresh, just-out-of-the-oven souls that amazes us, the degree to which they are not yet….us.
As a photographer, I find there is no better education than to be plunged into the living laboratory of cascading emotion that is a cluster of kids, and the more chaotic and unrehearsed the setting, the richer the results. It’s like shooting the wildest of competitive sports, where everything unfolds in an instant, for an instant. You ride a series of waves, all breaking into their final contours with completely different arcs and surges. There is no map, few guarantees, and just one rule: remain an outsider. The closer to invisibility you can get, the truer the final product.
I volunteer with an educational facility which designs many entry-level discovery workshops and playdates involving young families, requiring a lot of documentary photographs. What would be a chore or an extra duty for overworked administrative staff becomes an excuse, for me, to attend living labs of human experience, and I jump at the chance to walk silently around the edges of whatever adventure these kids are embarked on, whether a simple sing-a-long or a class in amateur dance.
Everything feeds me. It’s a learn-on-the-fly crash course in exposure, composition, often jarring variations in light, and the instantaneous nature of children. To be as non-disruptive as possible, I avoid flash and use a fast 35mm prime, which is a good solid portrait lens. It can’t zoom, however, so there is the extra challenge of getting close enough to the action without becoming a part of it, and in rooms where the lighting is iffy I may have to jack up ISO sensitivity pretty close to the edge of noise. Ideally, I don’t want the kids to be attending to me at all. They are there to react honestly to their friends, parents, and teachers, so there can be no posing, no “look over here, sweetie”, no “cheese”. What you lose in the total control of a formal studio you gain in rare glimpses into real, working minds.
The yields are low: while just anything I shoot can serve as a “document” for the facility’s purposes, for my own needs I am lucky to get one frame in a hundred that gives me something that works technically and emotionally. But for faces like these, I will gladly take those odds.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
LET THERE BE (MORE) LIGHT
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.
- Prime Lenses (nikonusa.com)
- Understanding Focal Length (nikonusa.com)