By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER THE PERCEIVED DOWNSIDES of the switch from analog to digital photography, perhaps the only real net negative has been how speedy the process of picture-making has become. Yes, I said negative.
Admittedly most of that vaunted speed connotes as a positive to many, a miraculous convenience. And, indeed, progressively more responsive, even “intuitive” cameras produce usable images only slightly slower than their creators can hatch a whim. Want it, take it, got it. Fast.
But “usable” doesn’t necessarily mean “great”. And it can be argued that the sheer velocity at which we crank out photographs promotes, even guarantees a stunning yield of photographic mediocrity. Because art takes forethought, a pre-imagining discipline. And there is no way to achieve that if every picture, every time, is taken in an instant.
Eventually, photographers have to proactively take back control over their final product, by the simple expedient of slowing everything down. And there are any number of simple ways to practice this. Shoot on manual. Set aside the zooms and shoot with primes. Engineer more natural light shots in lieu of flash snaps. Keep one particular lens on your camera for a month and force yourself to shoot everything with it. In short, make the process harder, not easier. Make yourself uncomfortable.
One of my favorite mindfulness exercises come from shooting macro. It’s harder in every way from any other kind of work. Focus, composition, lighting and exposure are all exponentially more difficult at short distances, and that means a higher harvest of bad pictures(the photo shown here was the lone survivor among twenty frames). And that’s good, because that, in turn, makes it impossible to settle for your first frame. Or your twenty-first. And that means you have to try, adjust, compare, re-try. It takes time, all of it educational. But first you need to escape the realm of Snapshot Mind, a fun and carefree play land that digital makes especially seductive, but which can become a trap.
Of course, there is the phenomenon called “first thought, best thought”, in which amazing, fully realized images come right out of the chute, and very quickly. And there is no guarantee that, by simply taking your time, you will always use it wisely. But creating situations in which you must be more present, more deliberate, will, more often than not, show you how to shape and then re-shape your vision.
Turns out Rome really wasn’t built (or photographed) in a day.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST ELUSIVE EFFECTS IN ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY would seem to be the one most easily achieved: the look of a straight line, the foundation upon which an orderly image is built. However, the human eye is often more unreliable than assumed when it comes to reading and identifying that which is supposed to be “straight.”
We’ve all been confounded by optical illusions that present lines that are not, objectively, straight at all, even though our brains, based on our interpretation of the visual data, say they must be. However, we tend to dismiss this sensation as trickery, something we don’t have to sweat about in making a “real” picture. And that is probably a mistake.
Based on what kind of architectural design you’re shooting, what lens you choose, even where you stand, a straight line, either horizontal or vertical, can seem to bend or lean, making our “factual” images less than trustworthy.
Even setting up a shot on a carefully calibrated tripod and a bubble level can produce a result that looks as if it was manipulated. Of course, based on what look you desire, you may regard geometric reality as irrelevant, and deliberately engineer ” unreality” into a photograph. That’s why we make a distinction between taking a picture and making one.
As an example, the picture seen above was taken super-wide, at 18mm, to intentionally exaggerate the size of the room, making some verticals bow in while others register normally, and playing stretchy with the ceiling arches and floor horizon. The idea here was to distort the already extreme Art Deco accents and give them an extra funhouse quality. Shooting with a more conventional focal length like 35 or 50 mm would have made for straighter lines, but would also have sacrificed every other effect achieved at 18mm.
Bottom (straight or crooked) line: dimensions and angles are suggestions, not commandments. But it’s a lot easier to break rules creatively once you understand how they work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU HAD ONE OF THOSE DADS WHO PURCHASED A SET OF “DO IT YOURSELF” ENCYCLOPEDIAS in the 1950’s, hoping to become some kind of amalgam of Edison and St. Joseph The Carpenter, you no doubt encountered some sort of Page One admonition to always get “the right tool for the job”. In other words, don’t use a screwdriver to pound nails. I successfully resisted the seductive gospel of Being Handy Around The House, but then found, in photography, that the same rule applies, at least as regards lenses. Right glass, right results, right?
Of course, unless you habitually lug the accumulated wisdom of 200 years of shutterbugging and its attendant gear along with you on a daily basis, you’re likely to get into situations where the lens you have readily at hand won’t allow you to do the thing you just decided to try. It’s back at the hotel, back in the parking lot, back at Alpha Centauri, wherever. Thing is, the thing you want is here, right in front of you, leaving one simple chance. Shoot or don’t.
I recently wandered, on a weeklong practice run for a new Lensbaby Velvet 56, a manual prime lens that equates, on a full sized DSLR sensor, to about 85mm or so. Perfect for portraits, but very, very cramped for general street work. The Velvet, as its name implies, imparts a soft, gauzy layer over top of a sharp image at apertures wider than about f/5,6. From there to the upper stops, it behaves like a regular prime without the softer effect. The temptation is strong to limit its use to flattering portraits. But that vanishes, however, when you see what marvelous cushiness it confers on the hard textures you find in buildings. It creates a romantic, dreamy look for concrete, plaster, and stone, and so, since I had no other lens at the ready on this particular walkout, I decided to try a few street shots with it.
First problem: this thing can make a tight composition look absolutely claustrophobic. One cure is to walk way back to open up the shot; another is to try a diagonal or oblique angle to widen things out. Of course, since 85mm is treading close upon telephoto territory, the front-to-back information will be somewhat compressed; the distances which seem natural to your eye from 35 to 50 mm seem smashed in at 85. However, since we are shooting for the velvety effect with this lens, compromise is already the name of the game, so angle of composition becomes a partial fix. The feel from ten feet away, seen in the head-on top shot, seems pretty confined, whereas in the second shot, taken about twelve feet at a slight diagonal, the shot is snug but not uncomfortable.
The Velvet 56 is actually remarkably versatile, since, in addition to serving as a great portait lens and a nice landscape glass, it also macro-focuses to about 5 inches, allowing you to work more and switch out less. As always, it’s not so much what a given lens was primarily designed for but what you choose, perhaps out of desperation, to do with it.
Turns out some screwdrivers make pretty fair hammers, after all….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHICHEVER SHIFT YOU WORK, YOU ARE FOREVER A STRANGER TO THOSE who work the other side of the workday. And while the majority of us generally fit into the standard 9 to 5 job template, millions of us have our body clocks regularly flipped upside down, our days cloaked in darkness, our brains awake while the city at large sleeps. That means that at any moment, half of us have little comprehension of how the other half lives. There’s a story in that.
And stories need pictures.
Pictorially speaking there has always been a bit of a black market mindset about the night-time, a nether world for some, a regular hangout for others. And with good reason: photography, in its infancy, had to ply its trade largely in sunlight, avoiding scenes which required either too much time, too much prep, or too much patience with slow recording media. But now we live in a very different world, armed with digital computers that look suspiciously(!) like cameras, but which react to light with an efficiency unseen in the entire history of photography.
Capturing the night is no longer a rare technical achievement, and we are really only at the front end of a steadily rising curve of technical enhancement in the area of light sensitivity, with no end in sight. Finally, darkness is something that uniquely colors and reveals reality instead of cloaking it in mystery. There is no longer an end to the shooting day. The image above is by no means an exceptional one, shot with a prime lens open to f/1.8 and a sensor that can deliver manageably low noise even at ISO 1250. More importantly, it is a handheld snap, shot at 1/30 sec…..all but unthinkable just a dozen years ago.
The new golden age of night photography is already apprehended by the youngest generation of shooters, since many of them can’t recall a time when it was a barrier to their expression. And, for those of us longer of tooth and grayer of beard, there is the sensation of being free to wander into areas which used to be sealed off to us. Sun up, sun down, it’s always time to take a picture.
Suddenly your eye is like a great downtown deli.
We’re open all night folks. We never close.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE 1990’s, THE MOST COMMON BASIC HUNK OF PHOTOGRAPHIC GLASS for new DSLRs has been the 18-55mm wide-angle, dubbed the “kit lens”. It allows beginners to move from landscape-friendly wides to moderate zooms without switching lenses. Depending on how much a given shooter experiments, the kit can allow for a lot of nuanced compositional options between the lens’ range.
If you find yourself shooting at the widest angle most of the time, then you are really using an effects lens, since, at 18mm, the lens is more than wide enough to distort angles and distances in ways that, while dramatic, don’t reflect the way your eyes actually see. This makes for expansive vistas in crowded urban streets and a little extra elbow room for mountain views, but is substantially more exaggerated than focal ranges from 35-50mm, which produce proportions more like human eyesight. However, the focal length you eventually choose has to be dictated by what you care to create; there can’t be any yardstick than that, all people’s opinions off to the side.
I have found a personal sweet spot by going a tad narrower, back to 24mm, and I also work with a dedicated prime lens that will only work at that exact focal length. By trimming back from 18mm, I find the distances from front to back in an image are a little more natural to my eye, and that I still have a yard of room from side to side without ushering in that Batman-type bending of perspective.
For comparison, I have re-shot subjects that I’d photographed at 18mm and found, at 24, no loss in impact. In the images in this post you can see the difference in how the two settings frame up. The composition in the 24 is a little tighter, but, if that’s not wide enough for you, you can simply step back a bit and there’s the same composition you saw in the 18, albeit with a little more normal proportion.
The most important thing with a variable focal length lens is to give yourself the flexibility of being able to get good results all through the focal range, simply to avoid getting too comfortable, i.e., sliding into a rut from always doing everything in the same way. Putting yourself into unfamiliar territory is always a good route to growth, and playing with your gear long enough to know everything it has to give you is the best way to periodically refresh your enjoyment.
When Grandma serves broccoli, you don’t gotta eat and pound-and-a-half of it, but heck, try it. You might like it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF US WHO BEGAN THEIR LOVE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE DAYS OF FILM have never really made a total switch to digital. It just never was necessary to make that drastic a “clean break” with the past. Far from it: through the tools and techniques that we utilized in the analog world, we still carry forth viewpoints and habits that act as foundations for the work we produce in pixels. Photography was not “re-invented” by digital in the way that transportation was when we moved from horse to car. It was refined, adding a new chapter, not an entire book.
Digital is merely the latest in a historical line of ever-evolving recording media, from daguerreotypes to salted paper to glass plates to roll film. The principles of what makes a good picture, plus or minus some philosophical fashion from time to time, have not changed. That means that tons of toys from the analog world still have years of life left in them, especially lenses.
Call it a “reverse hack” mentality, call it sentiment, but some shooters are reluctant to send all their various hunks of aged camera glass to the ashcan simply because they were originally paired with analog bodies. Photography is expensive enough without having to start from scratch with all-new components every time a hot new product hits the market, and many of us look for workarounds that involve giving a second life to old lenses. New wine from old bottles.
Some product lines actually engineer backwards-compatibility into their lenses. Nikon was the first and best company to spearhead this particular brain flash, making lenses for over forty years that can be pressed into service with the latest Nikon body off the production line. In my own case, I have finally landed a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 prime, not from current catalogues, but from the happy land of Refurbia. It’s a 1970’s-era gem that is sharp, simple, and mine-all-mine, for a fifth of the cost of the latest version of the same optic.
My new/old 24 gives me a wide-angle that’s a full stop more light-thirsty than the most current kit lenses in that focal length, and is also small, light, and quick, even as a manual focus lens. And it can be argued that the build quality is better as well. Photography is about results, not hardware, so how you get to the finish line is your business. And yet, sometimes, I must admit that shooting new pictures with legendary lenses feels like photography, as an art, is building on, and not erasing, history.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN DEFINED CLASSICALLY AS “WRITING WITH LIGHT“, but I often wonder if a better definition might be “capitalizing on light opportunities”, since it’s not really what subject matter we shoot but light’s role in shaping it that makes for strong images. We have all seen humble objects transformed, even rendered iconic, based on how a shooter perceives the value of light, then shapes it to his ends. That’s why even simple patterns that consist of little more than light itself can sometimes be enough for a solid photograph.
If you track the history of our art from, say, from the American Civil War through today’s digital domain, you really see a progression from recording to interpreting. If the first generally distributed photographs seen by a mass audience involve, say, the aftermath of Antietam or Gettysburg, and recent images are often composed of simple shapes, then the progression is very easy to track. The essence is this: we began with photography as technology, the answer to a scientific conundrum. How do we stop and fix time in a physical storage device? Once that very basic aim was achieved, photographers went from trying to just get some image (hey, it worked!) to having a greater say in what kind of image they wanted. It was at this point that photography took on the same creative freedom as painting. Brushes, cameras, it doesn’t matter. They are just mediums through which the imagination is channeled.
In interpreting patterns of elementary shapes which appeal on their own merit, photographers are released from the stricture of having to endlessly search for “something to shoot”. Some days there is no magnificent sunrise or eloquent tree readily at hand, but there is always light and its power to refract, scatter, and recombine for effect. It’s often said that photography forced painting into abstraction because it didn’t want to compete with the technically perfect way that the camera could record the world. However, photography also evolved beyond the point where just rendering reality was enough. We moved from being reporters to commentators, if you like. Making that journey in your own work (and at your own pace) is one of the most important step an art, or an artist, can take.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
USING “LEADING LINES” TO PULL A VIEWER INTO AN IMAGE IS PRETTY MUCH COMPOSITION 101. It’s one of the best and simplest ways to overcome the flat plane of a photograph, to simulate a feeling of depth by framing the picture so the eye is drawn inward from a point along the edge, usually by use of a bold diagonal taking the eye to an imagined horizon or “vanishing point”. Railroad tracks, staircases, the edge of a long wall, the pews in a church. We all take advantage of this basic trick of engagement.
One thing that can aid this lead-in effect even more is shooting at night. Artificial lighting schemes on many buildings “tell” the eye what the most important and least important features should be…where the designer wants your eye to go. This means that there is at least one angle on many city scenes where the light goes from intense to muted, a transition you can use to seize and direct attention.
This all gives me another chance to preach my gospel about the value of prime lenses in night shots. Primes like the f/1.8 35mm used for this image are so fast, and recent improvements in noiseless ISO boosts so advanced, that you can shoot handheld in many more situations. That means time to shoot more, check more, edit more, get closer to the shot you imagined. This shot is one of a dozen squeezed off in about a minute. The reduction of implementation time here is almost as valuable as the speed of the lens, and, in some cases, the fall-off of light at night can act as a more dramatic lead-in for your shots.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A PROPENSITY, WITHIN THE DNA OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, to “show it all”, to flood the frame with as much visual information as humanly possible in an attempt to faithfully render a story. Some of this may track back to the first days of the art, when the world was a vast, unexplored panorama, a wilderness to be mapped and recorded. Early shutterbugs risked their fortunes and their lives to document immense vistas, mountain ranges, raging cataracts, daunting cliffs. There was a continent to conquer, an immense openness to capture. The objectives were big, and the resultant pictures were epic in scale.
Seemingly, intimacy, the ability to select things, to zero in on small stories, came later. And for some of us, it never comes. Accordingly, the world is flooded with pictures that talk too loudly and too much, including, strangely, subjects shot at fairly close range. The urge is strong to gather, rather than edit, to include rather than to pare away. But there are times when you’re just trying to get the picture to “yes”, the point at which nothing else is required to get the image right, which is also the point at which, if something extra is added, the impact of the image is actually diminished. I, especially, have had to labor long and hard to just get to “yes”….and stop.
In the above image, there are only two elements that matter: the border of brightly lit paper lanterns at the edge of a Chinese New Year festival and the small pond that reflects back that light. If I were to exhaust myself trying to also extract more detail from the surrounding grounds or the fence, I would accomplish nothing further in the making of the picture. As a matter of fact, adding even one more piece of information can only lessen the force of the composition. I mention this because I can definitely recall occasions when I would whack away at the problem, perhaps with a longer exposure, to show everything in more or less equal illumination. And I would have been wrong.
Even with this picture, I had to make myself accept that a picture I like this much required so little sweat. Less can actually be more, but we have to learn to get out of our own way….to stop at “yes”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.
Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.
In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.
Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.
The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.
The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.
Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.
The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF PICTURE YOU WILL EVER TAKE OF A CAT, and that is the one she allows you to take. Try stealing an image from these spiritual creatures against their will, and you will reign over a bitter kingdom of blur, smear, and near misses.
It’s trickier to take photos of the ectoplasmic projections of departed relatives. But not by much.
I recently encountered this particular lady in a Brooklyn brownstone, a gorgeous building, but not one that is exactly flooded with light, even on a bright day. There are a million romantically wonderful places for darkness to hide inside such wonderful old residences, and any self-respecting feline will know how to take the concept of “stealth” down a whole other road. The cat in the above photo is, believe me, better at instant vaporization and re-manifestation than Batman at midnight in Gotham. She also has been the proud unofficial patrol animal for the place since Gawd knows when, so you can’t pull any cute little “chase-the-yarn-get-your-head-stuck-in-a-blanket” twaddle that litters far too much of YouTube.
You’re dealing with a pro here.
Her, not me.
Plus she’s from Brooklyn, so you should factor some extra ‘tude into the equation.
The only lens that gives me any luck inside this house is a f/1.8 35mm prime, since it’s ridiculously thirsty for light when wide open and lets you avoid the noticeable pixel noise that you’d get jacking up the ISO in a dark space. Thing is, at that aperture, the prime also has a razor-thin depth of field, so, as you follow the cat, you have to do a lot of trial framings of the autofocus on her face, since getting sharp detail on her entire body will be tricky to the point of nutso. And of course, if you move too far into shadow, the autofocus may not take a reading at all, and then there’s another separate complication to deal with.
The best (spelled “o-n-l-y”) solution on this particular day was to squat just inside the front foyer of the house, which receives more ambient light than any other single place in the house. For a second, I thought that her curiosity as to what I was doing would bring her into range and I could get what I needed. Yeah, well guess again. She did, in fact, approach, but got quickly bored with my activity and turned to walk away. It was only a desperate cluck of my tongue that tricked her into turning her head back around as she prepared to split. Take your stupid picture, she seemed to say, and then stop bothering me.
Hey, I ain’t proud.
My brief audience with the queen had been concluded.
I’ll just show myself out……
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS INTERACT WITH THE LIVING TO SUCH A LARGE DEGREE, that, to me, they retain a certain store of energy
even when standing alone. Things that act in the “co-creation” of events or art somehow radiate the echo of the persons who touched them.
Musical instruments, for my mind’s eye, fairly glow with this force, and, as such, are irresistable as still life subjects, since, literally, there is still life emanating from them.
A while back I learned that my wife had, for years, held onto a violin once used for the instruction of one of her children. I was eager to examine and photograph it, not because it represented any kind of technical challenge, but because there were so many choices of things to look at in its contours and details. There are many “sites” along various parts of a violin where creation surges forth, and I was eager to see what my choices would look like. Also, given the golden color of the wood, I knew that one of our house’s “super windows”, which admit midday light that is soft and diffused, would lend a warmth to the violin that flash or constant lighting could never do.
Everything in the shoot was done with an f/1.8 35mm prime lens, which is fast enough to illuminate details in mixed light and allows for selectively shallow depth of field where I felt it was useful. Therefore I could shoot in full window light, or, as in the image on the left, pull the violin partly into shadow to force attention on select details.
Although in the topmost image I indulged the regular urge to “tell a story” with a few arbitrary
props, I was eventually more satisfied with close-ups around the body of the violin itself, and, in one case, on the bow. Sometimes you get more by going for less.
One thing is certain: some objects can be captured in a single frame, while others kind of tumble over in your mind, inviting you to revisit, re-imagine, or more widely apprehend everything they have to give the camera. In the case of musical instruments, I find myself returning to the scene of the crime again and again.
They are singing their songs to me, and perhaps over time, I quiet my mind enough to hear them.
And perhaps learn them.