By MICHAEL PERKINS
DECADES INTO THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY, we are still coming to terms with just how much the shift away from film-based technology has profoundly changed the way we make pictures. Much has been written, for example, about the “instant feedback loop” that allows us to correct our errors on the fly, which is huge. Even more has been said about the increased intuitive nature of our devices in digital, and that, too is a massive factor. In fact, it was in stopping to catalog all the treats and toys that are at one’s fingertips in even the most basic cameras these days that I lit on what I think is the most profound change: our relationship to color.
One of the most universal tweaks engineered into cameras, for years now, is the incredible power to control saturation, with the option becoming the most common feature in all cameras from disposables to Leicas. Of course, even in analog days, we were able to play somewhat to the color properties of a particular emulsion, or to shape it with adjustments in lighting or white balance. But now the ability to attenuate color both before and after the shutter click, even without post-processing software, is instantaneous and universal. Depending on your perspective, this is either good or…oh, who am I kidding? No one thinks this is bad. The fact that control of one of the most crucial determinants of picture quality is forevermore in the hands of the user rather than the lab technician is an obvious net gain.
However, simply because we have the ability to tweak color to our liking doesn’t mean we need to do it uniformly, even though, admittedly, saturation is rewarded mightily in the marketplace of public opinion. Show someone an image dripping in color and ask them what they like about it. Chances are good that they’ll say it looks “realistic” or “natural”, neither of which, of course, is accurate. Ansel Adams, skeptically slow to come over to the color camp, criticized editors for boosting hues just because it met with popular applause, saying “if all else fails, make it red”. The irony for photographers, who at one time or another fancy themselves as recorders of the authentic, is that most of them love, love, love them some bright tones, and find it hard to resist goosing up the numbers beyond what the eye actually sees. But since a photograph exists in the mind before it ever exists in the camera, we can only assume that we, personally, regard many “real” things as, well,…. drab. Thus we creatively lie, in the harmless way that a fisherman increases the size of his catch every time he repeats the story of how he pulled it onto the boat. We give reality a little help. Well, sometimes more than a little. So much for the mythical construct of “straight out of the camera” which is as elusive, and as attainable, as a blind date with Sasquatch.
Am I without sin myself? Not on your grandma’s Kodachrome, as demonstrated in the above frame. However, photography (and this little hometown newspaper of ours) is about questioning intentions just as much as snapping the shutter. Maybe more so. Because if you never wonder if you’re on the wrong path, chances are good that you are. The best artists in any field ask just one more question.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A HUGE FAN OF THE EARLIEST VERSION of the classic Technicolor film process, the so-called “two-strip” technique from the 1920’s, which simultaneously exposed two separate frames of black and white film of a single subject, one strip through a green filter, the other through a red one. Combined in the lab, the composite image simulated most of the colors of nature that contained either red or green, but absent the third layer of blue/cyan which would be added in the more advanced three-strip Technicolor process, the one which became the industry standard by the early ’30’s. Two-strip features like Mystery Of The Wax Museum or The King Of Jazz are a kind of object lesson for photographers in learning to work with narrow color palettes. The message: do the most with what you’ve got.
Every shooter encounters situations, most of them dictated by changes in available light, which severely limit the full spectrum of reproducible color. We might eagerly embrace the warmth of the two daily “golden hours” that bathe most bright hues in gold. We might bemoan cloudy days, which can drain everything of saturation or contrast. We might have to make adjustments when shade makes our cameras read light at the wrong color temperature, giving our images “the blues”. Whatever the challenge, photographers make myriad choices about color in a single minute, and, unlike the early technicians at Technicolor, they don’t necessarily see a faithful rendering of “reality” as Job One. How “natural” do we want to present color, and how do we define that word, anyway? Is color a determinant of comfort, tension, revelation, drama? Do we intentionally choose hues that either conceal or reveal?
Deep sunset, as seen in the above image, is one situation in which nature itself narrows the color palette. All yellows and reds tend to morph into orange. All blacks, browns and grays migrate to blues. Middle tones head for the hills. Contrast jumps off the meter. Subtlety takes a vacation. Suddenly, as in the case of the old two-strip Technicolor, you’re forcing very few colors to do the work of many….to deliver a version of the world rather than a faithful reproduction of it.
Color processes since the beginning of photography have embraced the idea that you could either reflect reality or, in the pursuit of a great picture, bend it a little.
Or more than a little.
Or a hell of a lot more.
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
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.