By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE PHOTOGRAPHER’S LAB ACCIDENT IS, OCCASIONALLY, ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHER’S EUREKA MOMENT. Take the case of a visual effect that, in the film era, may have originated with an error in darkroom technique, and which is now being sought after by movie directors and amateurs alike as a look that they actively desire. Recent use of this effect ranges from the gritty, muted color and high-contrast of films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, to lab-less shortcuts in Photoshop and even shorter shortcuts in ready-to-eat iPhone apps. The look is called Bleach Bypass and it’s worth a look for certain moods and subjects.
The term derives its name from one of the steps used in film processing color film in which bleach is used to rinse away silver nitrate. By skipping this step, the silver is retained in the emulsion along with the color dyes. The result is a black-and-white image over a color image…kind of a photo sandwich. The resulting composite is lighter in hue but packs more extreme contrast and graininess in the monochrome values…an intense, “dirty” look.
Now, for those of you that don’t have a traditional darkroom handy, creating a bleach bypass “look” is easy in nearly any basic editing software suite. Check out the basic steps for Photoshop here. In most cases, you duplicate your original shot, desaturate it slightly, and convert the dupe shot to complete monochrome. The mono copy must also be manipulated for ultimate contrast, and the two shots must be layered in software to give you the desired blend. I tend to use Photomatix more often than Photoshop, since I work a lot with various kinds of tone-mapping for HDR, so I processed the “after” shot you see here in that program’s “exposure fusion” tab. However, as I say, lots of programs can do this with virtually no sweat.
The third image in this article (at left) was produced with a click and some swipes with the Bleach Bypass simulator in the AltPhoto app, which also mimics the look of antique film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X. As with many phone apps, it doesn’t offer much in the way of fine control, but if you do all your shooting and/or retouching in your mobile, it’s a pretty good quickie fix.
Once again, in the digital era, what was once (a) messy and troublesome becomes (b) no fuss, no muss, and therefore, (c) something that will be adopted and used by many, many more shooters. Democracy in technology does not, of course, guarantee equality of results. You just have more tools to serve you when the ideas come.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I VOLUNTEER AT A MUSEUM WHICH SERVES, IN LARGE PART, SCHOOL TOURS. And, in trying to explain the color choices made by varying cultures on the depiction of everything, from flowers to animals, I frequently ask my groups if anyone has ever colored something with a “different” crayon. Not “the wrong color”, just a different crayon, a choice resulting in a purple squirrel or a brown rose. I usually get at least a few “yeses” on the question, and, when I probe further as to what went into their decision, I almost always get one child who says, simply, “I just like it that way.”
At this point, I realize that at least one person in every mob will always be thinking of color as a choice, rather than as a right/wrong answer. In my early school days, teacher often handed out the same mimeographed picture to all thirty of us, expecting all thirty to produce precisely the same results: green grass, blue skies, yellow honeybees. Strangely, we kind of expected the same of ourselves. It was comforting to hand in a “correct” piece of art, something guaranteed to please, a safe shortcut to a gold star.
In photography, we start as witnesses to color, but should never remain slaves to it. The present generation of shooters, born and bred in iPhone Land, know that changing your mind and your thinking on color is just an app away, and why not? The same force that has finally democratized photography worldwide is also legitimizing any and every kind of artistic choice. With billions of uploads each day, uniformity of style is worse than a lifelong gig as a worker ant, and as uninteresting.
Color is as big a determinant in interpretation as any other choice that a photographer makes, and can result in subtle shaping of the mood of your work. The above tree was originally captured in natural color, but I thought the overall design of the tree was served by one tone fewer, so I reworked everything into three values….blue, green, and black. I believe that the central trunk hits with more impact as light and dark shades of emerald, and the conversion of the pine needles to a more severe shade gives me some of the directness of monochrome. Of course, you might reach a completely different conclusion, but we’re beyond right or wrong here, aren’t we?
The mimeograph is dead, and with it, solid notions of color assignment. Fewer rules means fewer obvious signposts, but that’s why there’s more than one crayon in the box, innit?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
QUICK, DO YOU KNOW WHO MADE THE HAMMER IN YOUR KITCHEN DRAWER? Let’s assume that it’s not a Sears Craftsman, but something you bought on the spot when you just needed, like, a hammer. Yeah, I’ll wait.
Follow-up question: does your off-brand Thor-wacker drive nails any less efficiently than a Sears? Or is it really all in the wrist?
In photography, sometimes tools is just tools. Cellphone apps comprise one of the the most glutted product markets ever, and, while some products do rise to the top and/or international prominence, there are gobs of different players out there to help us solve the same old problems, i.e., composition, exposure, color range, special effects. Those are the basics, and you need not be loyal to any predominant type-A app when, by the time I type the rest of this sentence, forty more guys will have served up their own solution for the exact same need. Go with what works. Add, subtract, adopt, dump, delete, and adore as needed.
Most cel camera apps, toolwise, are closer to a Swiss Army knife than a scalpel, blunt instruments that either apply an effect all-on or all-off. Single click, caveman-level stuff. Still, even the casual cel photog will pack a few of them along to do fundamental fixes on the go, and I recently noticed that I had acquired a decent, basic utility belt of bat-remedies, including, in no particular order:
Negative Me. Just what it says. Converts positive images to negative. Not something you’ll use a lot, but..
Simple DOF. A quick calculator that measures near, far and infinite sharpness based on distance, aperture and lens.
Fused. Instant double exposures, with about ten different blending formulas.
Soft Focus. Sliders for sharpness, brightness, color saturation. Instant glamor for portraits.
Timer Cam. Get in the photo.
Instants. Genuine fake Polaroid borders around your landscape or square images. Because we can’t give up our hipster groove.
AltPhoto. Best simulations of older classic film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X, as well as red filter, toy camera and antique effects.
Tilt-Shift Focus. Narrow the sharp areas in your images from a pinpoint to a basketball.
Flickr. Direct link to the mother ship
Pic Stitch. Framing templates for collages of two or more images. Drag and drop simplicity.
Use of these gimcracks ranges from the (yawn) occasional to the (yes!) essential, and your mileage may vary. Thing is, it’s truly a buyer’s (and user’s) market out there. Gather your own gold and click away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE AVAILABILITY OF PHOTO PROCESSING TOOLS, TO ARTIST AND BEGINNER ALIKE, in the digital era, has created a kind of unfortunate slingshot effect, as all suddenly achieved freedoms tend to. Once it became possible for Everyman to tweak images in a way that was once exclusively the province of the professional, there followed a trend toward twisting every dial in the tool box to, let’s be honest, rescue a lot of marginal shots. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to glam up a dud. Now raise your hand if you inadvertently made a bad picture worse by slathering on the tech goo.
Welcome to the phenomenon known as over-correction.
It’s human nature, really. Look at Hollywood. Suddenly freed from the confines of the old motion picture production code in the 1960’s, directors, understandably, took a few years to make up for decades of artistic construction by pumping out a nude scene and/or a gore fest in everything from romantic comedies to Pink Panther cartoons. Several seasons of adolescent X-rated frolics later, movies settled down to a new normal. The over-correction gave way to a more mature, even restrained style of film making.
Am I joining the ranks of anti-Photoshop trolls? Not exactly, but I am noting that, as we grow as photographers, we will put more energy into planning the best picture (all energy centered before the snap of the shutter), and less energy into “fixing it in post”. If you shoot long enough and work hard enough, that shift will just happen. More correctly designed in-camera images equals fewer pix that need to be dredged from Dudland.
Look at the simple idea of sharpening. That slithery slider is available to everyone, and we all race after it like a kid chasing the Good Humor truck. And yet, it is a wider range of color and contrast, which we can totally control in the picture-taking process, which will result in more natural sharpness than the Slider Of Joy can even dream of. As a matter of fact, test my argument with your own shots. Increase your control of contrast or color and see if it doesn’t help wean you off the sharpen tool. Or expose your shots more carefully in-camera rather than removing shadows and rolling off highlights later. Or any other experiment. Your goals, your homework.
The point being that more mindful picture-making will eliminate the need for many crutch-like editing tweaks after the fact. And if that also makes you a better shooter overall, isn’t that pretty much the quest?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT THE COUNTRY PARSON WHO WAS IN THE HABIT of writing, in the margins of his sermon script, “Argument weak here. Scream like hell.” If he were a man of the camera instead of a man of the cloth, this instruction might have read, “photograph ineffective here. Over-cook everything.”
Choose your favorite post-editing workflow and chances are that you, or someone like you, have tried to rescue an indifferent image by pouring a few gallons of digital gravy over it, hoping to turn flank steak into filet. And you probably have your own personal folder of shame for the results of such attempts. Mine would fill up a small bookshelf. In the Library of Congress.
One of the hallmarks of the early digital age seems to be an affection for over-saturated color, as if we had had quite enough of natural tones, thank you, and were desperate to return to the earliest days of photographic color, when everything was played on the loud pedal. It’s kind of perverse, but it seems like, as soon as photographers outdistance an old technical barrier, they seem to get nostalgic for it and try to revive it. Why resuscitate daguerreotypes, pinhole cameras, high grain slow films, etc. Irony? Curiosity? Novelty? Who knows?
Whatever the motivation, the result has been a cornucopia of mobile apps that aim for an unnatural distortion of color values (spend ten minutes on Instagram for as many samples as you want) and the lo-fi or lomography movement toward cheap plastic toy cameras that can’t help but deliver hyped up hues (again, Instagram). There are also a number of HDR programs which tend to tempt people beyond their endurance when it comes to electrifying color even in an image’s shadows, making everyday like a day-glo version of your uncle’s golf togs and resulting in some pretty hideous excess (and yet, alas, such was I. See left).
What’s the new normal? Again, can’t tell you. It’s pretty certain, though, that we love cranking the color up to 11, whether it serves the photo or not. Backing off and backing away on the hue-mongous overkill takes real discipline. The amped-up image is fascinating in some kind of moth-to-the-flame way, but eventually it becomes like any other excess, in that it stifles, rather than frees, your art. No effect is so miraculous as to work in every situation. Eventually, it’s about what you’re seeing and saying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALL IT “EYE-HERDING”, if you will, the art of channeling the viewer’s attention to specific parts of the photographic frame. It’s the first thing we learn about composition, and we address it with a variety of techniques, from depth-of-field to color manipulation to one of my favorites, the prioritizing of light. Light values in any image do have a hierarchy, from loud to soft, prominent to subordinate. Very few photos with uniform tone across the frame achieve maximum impact. You need to orchestrate and capitalize on contrast, telling your viewers, in effect, don’t watch this space. Watch this other space instead.
In many cases, the best natural ebb and flow of light will be there already, in which case you simply go click, thank the photo gods, and head home for a cold one. In fact, it may be that “ready to eat” quality that lured you to stop and shoot the thing in the first place. In many other cases, you must take the light values you have and make the case for your picture by tweaking them about a bit.
I have written before of the Hollywood fakery known as “day for night”, in which cinematographers played around with either exposure or processing on shots made in daylight to simulate night…a budgetary shortcut which is still used today. It can be done fairly easily with still images as well with a variety of approaches, and sometimes it can help you accentuate a light value that adds better balance to your shots.
The image at the top of this page was made in late afternoon, with pretty full sun hitting nearly everything in the frame. There was some slightly darker tone to the walls in the street, but nothing as deep as you see here. Thing is, I wanted a sunset “feel” without actually waiting around for sunset, so I deepened the overall color and simulated a lower exposure. As a result, the sky, cliffs and dogwood trees at the far end of the shot got an extra richness, and the shop walls receded into deeper values, thus calling extra attention to the “opening” at the horizon line. The shot also benefits from a strong front-to-back diagonal leading line. I liked the original shot, but with just a small change, I was asking the viewer to look here a little more effectively.
Light is a compositional element no less important than what it illuminates. Change light and you change where people’s eyes enter the picture, as well as where they eventually land.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY HEARD AN INTERESTING CRITIQUE OF A DRAMATIC CONTENDER for Best Film in the 2015 Oscar race. The critic in question complained that the film in question (Boyhood) was too realistic, too inclusive of banal, everyday events, and thus devoid of the dynamics that storytellers use to create entertainment. His bottom line: give us reality, sure, but, as the Brits say, with the boring bits left out.
If you’re a photographer, this argument rings resoundingly true. Shooters regularly choose between the factual documentation of a scene and a deliberate abstraction of it for dramatic effect. We all know that, beyond the technical achievement of exposure, some things that are real are also crashingly dull. Either they are subjects that have been photographed into meaninglessness (your Eiffel Towers, your Niagara Fallses) or they possess no storytelling magic when reproduced faithfully. That’s what processing is for, and, in the hands of a reliable narrator, photographs that remix reality can become so compelling that the results transcend reality, giving it additional emotive power.
This is why colors are garish in The Wizard Of Oz, why blurred shots can convey action better than “frozen” shots, and why cropping often delivers a bigger punch and more visual focus than can be seen in busier compositions. Drama is subject matter plus the invented contexts of color, contrast, and texture. It is the reassignment of values. Most importantly, it is a booster shot for subjects whose natural values under-deliver. It is not “cheating”, it is “realizing”, and digital technology offers a photographer more choices, more avenues for interpretation than at any other time in photo history.
The photo at left was taken in a vast hotel atrium which has a lot going for it in terms of scope and sweep, but which loses some punch in its natural colors. There is also a bit too much visible detail in the shot for a really dramatic effect. Processing the color with some additional grain and grit, losing some detail in shadow, and amping the overall contrast help to boost the potential in the architecture to produce the shot you see at the top of this post. Mere documentation of some subjects can produce pretty but flaccid photos. Selectively re-prioritizing some tones and textures can create drama, and additional opportunity for engagement, in your images.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOUGH MOST GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS PROCLAIM that any “rules” in their medium exist only to be broken, it’s often tough to chuck out regulations that have served you well over a lifetime of work. Once you get used to producing decent images through the repetition of habit, it takes extra nerve to take yourself outside your comfort zone, even if it means adding impact to your shots. You tend not to think of rules as arbitrary or confining, but as structural pillars that keep the roof from falling in.
That’s why it’s a good exercise to force yourself to do something that you feel is a bad fit for your style, lest your approach to everything go from being solid to, well, fossilized. If you hate black and white, make yourself shoot only monochrome for a week. If you feel cramped by square framing, make yourself work exclusively in that compositional format, as if your camera were incapable of landscape or portrait orientations. In my own case, I have to pry my brain away from an instinctual reliance on pinsharp focus, something which part of me fears will lead to chaos in my images. However, as I occasionally force myself to admit, sharp ain’t everything, and there may even be some times when it will kill, or at least dull, a picture.
With post-processing such an instantaneous, cheap, and largely effortless option these days, there really isn’t any reason to not at least try various modes of partial focus just to see where it will lead. Take what you believe will work in terms of the original shot, and experiment with alternate ways of interpreting what you started with.
In the shot at the top of this post, I tried to create mood in a uniquely shaped fish house with monochrome and a dour exposure on a nearly colorless day. Thing is, the image carried too much detail to be effectively atmospheric. The place still looked like a fairly new, fairly spiffy eatery located in an open-air shopping district. I wanted it to look like a worn, weathered joint, a marginal hangout that haunted the wharf that its seafood theme and design suggested. I needed to add more mood and mystery to it, and merely shooting in black & white wasn’t going to get me there, so I ran the shot through an app that created a tilt-shift focus effect, localizing the sharpness to the rooftop sign only and letting the rest of the structure melt into murk.
It shouldn’t be hard to skate around a rule in search of an image that comes closer to what you see in your mind, and yet it can require a leap of faith. Hard to say why trying new things spikes the blood pressure. We’re not heart surgeons, after all, and no one dies if we make a mistake.Anyway, you are never more than one click away from your next best picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HERE’S A SENTENCE YOU’RE NOT GOING TO HEAR ANYWHERE ELSE THIS WEEK: Being a club DJ can actually give you a fresh viewpoint on your photography.
I’ll let that sink in.
I know what you you’re thinkin’: did he drink six shots or only five? But I’m kind of sober, and rather serious. In a club setting, the mix is often more important than the song, or, more correctly, it allows the song to have an infinite number of alternative lives, depending on what you do with the turntables. Record companies recognized this in the heyday of disco, remixing hit tracks for more thump and bump, longer edits, brass overdubs, etc. As time went on, DJs interspersed their own random elements in the moment to create their own signature blends.
So what does this have to do with photography? Pretty much everything. In the digital era, post-production software is nearly half of some shooters’ workflow. So much emphasis is placed on what you can fix after the shutter is clicked that, for many, actually planning and taking the picture is the least important part of the process. Let’s lay aside the fact that I personally believe that this can get out of hand…..the point is, by allowing yourself the flexibility to revisit and remix a photo many times over its lifetime means you are not limiting yourself to one interpretation of what you originally created.
However, don’t keep merely to a reprocessing of the exposure or tone elements in the picture, that is, boosting color, adding filters, converting to monochrome. Think of compositional space as a remix element as well. Did you need all the real estate taken up in the original picture? Would that landscape shot work more effectively in portrait or square format? Did you originally include information in the frame that just adds clutter, sending your viewer’s eye wandering around aimlessly? In short, does your first reading of the “idea” of the picture still seem valid?
See the “after” picture at the top of the page and its “before” equivalent to the left. Did the picture gain or lose from the changes?
Another musical musing: George Gershwin personally played Rhapsody In Blue like a snappy jazz piece, not the stately symphonic standard that’s re-created by most modern performers. Does one rendition sound better or worse? Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that the process reveals different traits within the core music with every new mix. Your photographs will benefit in the same way. Just trust yourself to tinker.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I BELIEVE THAT THE SINGLE BIGGEST REASON FOR THE FAILURE OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION may all boil down to the same problem. I call it “over-sampling”, or, more simply, the presence of too much visual information in a frame. It can be as simple as including too many trees in a landscape or framing to include crowded sky clutter in an urban scene, but it’s not always how many objects are crowded into an image. It can be something as basic as asking the eye to figure out where to look. And sometimes, the very fact that a picture is in color can diminish its ability to clearly say, here: look here.
Great photographs have their own gravitational pull and center. They draw people in and direct their gaze to specific places. This tends to be a single focus, because, the more there is to see in an image, the greater the tendency is in the viewer to wander around in it, to blunt the impact of the picture as the eye looks for a central nexus of interest. In my own experience, I find that the use of color in a photograph is justified by whether it helps keep things simple, creates readable signposts that lead the eye to the principal message of the image. Color, just like the objects in a frame, can explode with a ton of separate messages that defeat the main message, sending the viewer all over the place, trying to decode all that vivid information. Color itself can become clutter.
Sometimes the focus of an image is not an object, i.e., a building or a face, but an overall feel that is more emotionally immediate within a narrow range of blacks and greys. The kind of black and white makes a huge difference as well, and anyone who has spent a lot of time processing monochrome images knows that there is no one true black, no pure, simple white. As to actual shooting procedure, I will be so certain that only B&W will work for a given subject that I make the master shot itself in mono, but, more frequently, I shoot in color first and make a dupe file for comparison. This is another amazing advantage of digital imaging; you simply have more choices.
One of the by-products of color photography‘s adoption into mass culture through magazines and faster films in the mid-20th century was, for many people, a near-total abandonment of monochrome as somehow “limited” compared to those glorious, saturated Kodachromian hues. Thing is, both color and black and white have to be vetted before being used in a photograph. There can’t be a general rule about one being more “lifelike” or “natural”, as if that has anything to do with photography. Tools either justify their use or they don’t. You don’t drive a screw with a hammer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M BIG ON CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS REMOVED THE LAST FEW BARRIERS to photography being truly democratic. Just as the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900 moved picture-making out of the salons of the privileged few and into the hands of John Q. Everyman, digital has been another quantum leap toward a level playing field, putting cameras almost literally into everyone’s hand. This, as with all mass movements, has both its pluses and minuses.
Digital photography has actually improved one democracy (everyone can afford to shoot) and created a second one (everyone can afford to fix what they shoot). For nearly the entire film era, processing after the shutter click was, for many of us, a luxury item. For initial developing, we defaulted to the guy at the regional Kodak plant or the corner Rexall. True hobbyists and professionals wielded most of the tools available for drastic makeovers of images, with most of us merely accepting what we got. Our near misses simply went into the loss column, while others‘ near misses could sometimes be revamped into acceptable, even exceptional photos. The titans of the photographic world (Ansel Adams and others) were renowned for their ability to creatively manipulate negatives into prints of rare art. Most of the rest of us clutched our Instamatics tightly and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, digital has over-corrected a bit in giving Everyman the chance to salvage more shots. Instead of developing habits that are, say, 75% good shooting and 25% good processing, we have instead veered toward the opposite, with more time than ever spent “fixing” shots that were ill-conceived in the first place. Moreover, many of these fixes, mounted on apps, are general, one-click options that deny us the finely tuned control that a good film era darkroom rat would have acquired. We have gained access to the information highway, but we still drive like teenagers. We are all over the road.
I see more professionals advocating a return,not to the format of film, but the shooting discipline of film. How differently would we shoot, for example, if it were still true that we wouldn’t have a lot of options for fixing our shots later? What strategies would develop if we had to make or break our shots in the camera, without any opportunity for tweaking them thereafter? Most importantly, which of our images could stand alone as straight out of the camera executions, as products of real, hard-earned skill rather than the comfort in knowing we could probably crop, resize, re-color or repair almost anything?
Now, I am not suggesting we all go back to making our furniture out of pine logs. I am not the last guy in town to trade in my horse for a Model A. I merely think that we need to re-introduce self-reliance into the picture-making process, to shoot as if it’s all on us, as if no Tech Avenger will ride to the rescue if we blow the shot in-camera. In fact, I am arguing for what I always argue for….personal responsibility for getting the shot right in the moment. Frame it, conceive it, expose it right the first time. It teaches us better habits, it increases our actual knowledge of what we’re doing, and it speeds our advancement as nothing else can.
Digital is a fabulous box of paints. Now we need to re-learn how to hold the brush.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I SAY THAT CURRENT DAY SHOOTERS ARE NOT HALF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THE OLD MASTERS WERE, that is not intended as an insult, but a simple bit of math. Given the fact that pioneers in the imaging game had to be equal parts artist and chemist, we only apply 50% of the effort these valiant visionaries did in negotiating the interactions of salts, albumens, bromides and other lab ingredients in an effort to even bring an image forth, much less do so with control. The technology that we employ today, and the speed and convenience with which we sling it around, should give us pause. The artistic mission of photography remains the same. It’s just that we don’t have to suffer as much for said art.
One of the marvelous processes from those years that still dazzles even the contemporary eye is the platinum print, so called because a platinum coating actually sits as a layer atop the developing papers, creating a print that contains a greater tonal range than any other monochrome process, including hints of gold, brown and red.Even better, what Kodachrome turned out to be for the archival permanence of color photography, platinum is for monochromatic images. It looks like a million bucks and will never degrade within the average person’s lifetime, or their great-grand kids’, neither. If you are over fifty and ever sat for a “serious” studio portrait, chances are you were immortalized in platinum. Literally speaking, you’re into metal, man.
Never for the timid (or the impecunious), platinum printing has largely faded (sorry) from the photographic scene along with the filmic science that birthed it, but, as with so many other “looks” in the digital era, things that were once merely processing are now content as well.
From where we stand, we can rifle through 200 years of processes and selectively decide to evoke an era or a mood a single picture at a time, just because we want to evoke a different time or place in our common cultural consciousness. We do this at our whim, unlike the people who actually devised the processes, who were stuck with them until they had (a) better knowledge of how to do things, (b) more money (c) both.
The digital apps that simulate the platinum print are gaining some popularity, as people apply instant alternate “mixes” of their cel phone shots, including up to a dozen different ways to envision a shot in monochrome. Those who appreciate the fine science in the original lab smarts required to create these looks in the film era claim that too little control resides in the user for a true one-to-one, film-t0-digital equivalency in any of these apps, but I have found that platinum creates a distinct, extra tool for monochrome fans, even if I experience guilt at not accruing the years of schooling it would have taken to do the process the “real way”. Anyway, above you will find a comparison between a basic mono rendering of an iPhone shot and a simulated platinum look, both cooked up in an app called AltPhoto. You may have a pref and you may not. That’s what makes horse races.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TAKE ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU WILL DEVELOP YOUR OWN SENSE OF “SIMPLICITY”. That is, you will arrive at your own judgement about how basic or complex a composition you need in a given situation. Some photographers are remarkable in their ability to create images that contain a mad amount of visual information. Some busy city scenes or intricate landscapes benefit wonderfully from an explosion of detail. Other shooters render their best stories by reducing elements to a bare minimum. And of course, most of us make pictures somewhere in the vast valley between those approaches.
I’m pretty accustomed to thinking of overly-busy pictures as consisting of a specific kind of “clutter”, usually defined as cramming too many objects or people into a composition. But I occasionally find that color can be a cluttering element, and that some very visually dense photos can be rendered less so by simply turning down hues, rather than rooting them out completely. Recently I’ve been taking some of the pictures that seem a little too “overpopulated” with info and taking them through what a two-step process I call a color compromise (patent not applied for).
First step involves desaturating the picture completely, while also turning the contrast way down, amping up the exposure and damn near banishing any shadows. This almost results in a bleached-out pencil drawing effect and emphasizes detail like crazy. Step two involves the slow re-introduction of color until only selected parts of the image render any hues at all, and making sure that the color that is visible barely, barely registers.
The final image can actually be a clearer “read” for your eyes than either the garish colored original or a complete b&w. Objects will stand out from each other a little more distinctly, and there will be an enhanced sensation of depth. It also suggests a time-travel feel, as if age has baked out the color. A little of this washed-out jeans look goes a long way, however, and this whole exercise is just to see if you can make the picture communicate a little better by allowing it to speak more quietly.
Compare the processed photo at the top, taken in the heart of the visually noisy Broadway district, with its fairly busy color original and see if any of this works for you. I completely stipulate that I may just be bending over backwards to try to salvage a negligible photo. But I do think that color should be a part of the discussion when we fault an image for being cluttered.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY DOESN’T TRULY MAKE ARTISTIC CHOICES “POSSIBLE”. Those decisions were always available in the medium, albeit at some cost of materials, time and work. You could always get nearly any effect from film, providing you were willing to invest the sweat in wringing it out of the tools at hand. Instead, digital processes make choices easier to act upon, and, for people who have made the transition from a lifetime of film-based analog shooting to digital, the leap to light speed on the trip from desire to result is especially mind-ripping.
This speed of implementation makes real-time differences when considering whether a shot will have its best impact in color or b&w. Even standard DSLRs and compacts have in-camera modes that allow you to immediately shoot and compare alternate versions of a subject, and, with the expanding universe of apps available to the smartphone shooter, you can instantly crank out half a dozen or more readings of the kind of color or the type of monochrome you’re looking for. This is especially important in black & white, where the range of tones and contrast values can make or break a picture.
By basically simulating the subtle changes that a film processor could have made in the gradations between the various intensities of either black or white, apps allow you to make incremental judgments of how the values in the image work or don’t work to produce the “statement” you’re looking for. Best thing about this is the best overall thing about digital: how quickly you can act on your impulse, then check, adjust, and act again. The above image lacked impact in the color original. The old workbench simply came off too warm and charming. I was looking for something that matched the grit and wear of the weathered wood, and I was able to shop for about three different grades of monochrome before settling on what you see here. Most days, this is a game of inches.
The sheer number of images that you will be able to salvage while the scene is still in front of you, and the light is still how you want it…. that’s an amazing freedom, and no generation of photographers before ours has enjoyed anything like it before.
The take-home of all this is that you should not only shoot a lot but shoot a lot of variations on what you choose to shoot. And remember, every shot that you “blow” is one shot closer to the higher average of excellent work that will only come after thousands of failures. Best to speed up the clock and get past them while you’re still young.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE CONTROL OVER NEARLY EVERY PART OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS BUT… ACCESS. We can learn to master aperture, exposure, composition, and many other basics of picture making, but we can’t help the fact that we are typically at our shooting location for one time of day only.
Whatever “right now” may be….morning, afternoon, evening….it usually includes one distinct period in the day: the pier at sunset, the garden at break of dawn. Unless we have arranged to spend an extended stretch of time on a shoot, say, chasing the sun and shadows across a daylong period from one location at the Grand Canyon or some such, we don’t tend to spend all day in one place. That means we get but one aspect of a place…however it’s lit, whoever is standing about, whatever temporal events are native to that time of day.
Many locations that are easily shot by day are either unavailable or technically more complex after sundown. That’s why the so-called “day for night” effect appeals to me. As I had written sometime back, the name comes from the practice Hollywood has used for over a hundred years to save time and ensure even exposure by shooting in daylight and either processing or compensating in the camera to make the scene approximate early night.
In the case of the image you see up top, I have created an illusion of night through the re-contrasting and color re-assignment of a shot that I originally made as a simple daylight exposure. In such cases, the mood of the image is completely changed, since the light cues which tell us whether something is bright or mysterious are deliberately subverted. Light is the single largest determinant of mood, and, when you twist it around, it reconfigures the way you read an image. I call these faux-night remakes “latent blues”, as they generally look the way the sky photographs just after sunset.
This effect is certainly not designed to help me avoid doing true night-time exposures, but it can amplify the effect of images that were essentially solid but in need of a little atmospheric boost. Just because you can’t hang around ’til midnight, you shouldn’t have to do without a little midnight mood.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE NO RULES LEFT TO BREAK IN PHOTOGRAPHY, in that everybody is comfortable doing absolutely anything….compositionally, conceptually, technologically…to get the picture they want. Maybe that’s always the way it’s been, seeing as the art of image-making, like the science of breeding apple trees, has always grown faster and stronger through cloning and grafting. Hacks. Improvisations. “Gee-What-If”s.
Shots in the dark.
Recently I walked out into the gigantic atrium that connects all of the original buildings of the Morgan Library complex in NYC to get a good look at the surrounding neighborhood of big-shouldered buildings. I was fascinated by the way my wide-angle lens seemed to line up the horizontal grid lines of the atrium with the receding lines of the towers and boxes down the block. Only one thing bothered me about the result: the color, or rather, the measly quality of it.
A rainy day in Manhattan is perhaps the final word on rainy days. Some colors, like the patented screaming yellow of a New York cab, or the loud neon reds of bodegas, are intensified into a romantic wash when the drops start. This view, however, was just a bland mash of near-color. If the neighborhood was going to look dour anyway, I wanted it to be dour-plus-one. Thing is, I made this, ahem, “artistic” decision after I had already traveled 3,000 miles back home. In the words of Rick Perry, whoops.
Time to hack my way to freedom. I remembered liking the look of old Agfa AP-X film in a filter on my iPhone, so I filled the screen of my Mac with the bland-o image, shot the screen with the phone, applied the filter, uploaded the result back into the Mac again, and twisted the knobs on the new cheese-grater texture I had gained along the way. At least now it looked like an ugly day….but ugly on my terms. Now I had the kind of rain-soaked grayscale newspaper tones I wanted, and the overall effect helped to better meld the geometry of the atrium and the skyline.
No rules? Sure, there’s still at least one.
Get the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ADDICTED TO “INVISIBLE” STORYTELLING, to hinting at a context beyond what is actually shown in a given image. Sometimes our eyes arrive at a scene just seconds after something important has happened. Sometimes it’s just moments before. Sometimes we have to use emptiness to suggest how full something just was. And, most importantly, we need to determine if color will be a warm accompaniment to something magical, or an unwanted intruder in a scene where less is more.
Wonderfully, this choice has never been easier. Digital photography affords us the luxury of changing our strategy on the color of a shot from frame to frame in a way that film never could. It also allows us to delay the final choice of what works and what doesn’t, to live with an image for a while, and decide, further down the road, whether something needs to be re-ordered or altered, rendered either neutral or vivid. It is a great time to be a photographer. For those picking up a camera today, it must seem absurd that it was ever any other way. For those of us with a few more rings around the trunk, it can seem like a long promised miracle.
Color can be either addition or distraction to a shot, and usually you know, in an instant, whether to welcome or banish it for best effect. Two recent walk-bys afforded me the chance to see two extreme examples of this process. In the first, seen above, I am minutes too early to take in a small street circus, giving me nothing but the garish tones of the tents and staging areas to suggest the marvels that are to come. I need something beyond the props of people to say “circus” in a big way. Color must carry the message, maybe shouting at the top of its lungs. See what I mean? Easy call.
In the second image, which features a lone woman reading against a backdrop of largely featureless, uniform apartment cubes, I am off on an opposite errand. Here, I seem to be wondering why she is alone, who is waiting (or not waiting) for her, what her being in the picture means. The starkness of her isolation will never be served with anything “pretty” in the scene. The original frame, done in color, actually had the drama drained out of it by hues that were too warm. On a whim, I converted it to the look of an old red-sensitive black and white film. It gave me a sharp detailed edge on materials, enhanced contrast on shadows, and a coldness that I thought matched the feel of the image. In audio terms, I might compare it to preferring a punchy mono mix on a rock record to the open, more “airy” quality of stereo.
Dealer’s choice, but I think our photography gains a lot by weighing the color/no color choice a lot more frequently than we did in our film days. The choices are there.The technology could not be easier. Relative to earlier eras, we really do have wings now.
We just need to get used to flapping them more often.