By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINGLE–SOURCE LIGHT IS ALMOST ALWAYS USED, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, with the aim of calling attention to something other than itself. Typically the light’s origination point is hidden or removed from the final composition, entering from outside the frame via a side window or a top-down studio lamp, modeling or dimensionalizing an object, creating the illusion that all the light in the room just happened organically.
And that’s pretty much as it should be. You usually don’t use the tools of a craft to say, in effect, look at the way these cool tools helped me play a trick on you. As photographers we don’t like to be caught in the act of fooling, and so there are many images where the single source light is seen just in its effect, not as a cause.
Many, but not all. Sometimes the light actually needs to be part of the story, as shown here.
Most places of business naturally react to the daily dying of exterior light by turning on their interior lamps. Sun goes down, lights go up. But occasionally, as in this wondrous and quirky little bakery cafe in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, the comfort food was accompanied by what could easily be termed comfort light. The lights inside the pastry case, at least during this particular evening, were allowed to serve as the only illumination for the entire inside of the store, lending the customers around the counter the warm intimacy of a shared fireplace.
The moment filled me with longing for a world whose labors and leisure were once defined solely by the parameters of day or night, mitigated only by the occasional torch or oil lamp. And so, in this special case (and in many more you can no doubt name from your own experiences), the source of the image’s light really is part of the narrative, and thus deserves its place at center stage.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOTS OF OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, EXCUSE THE EXPRESSION, snap judgements. Sometimes a composition simply seems to come fully formed, ready to jump intact into the camera, with no reasonable way to improve on a shot that is 99% pure impulse. Some of these gift moments are so seductive that we may not think to keep shooting beyond what we’ve perceived as the ideal moment. But more shooting may be just what we need.
Images that involve very fast-moving events may only have one key instant where the real storytelling power of the shot comes to a climax, with everything after seen as progressively less dramatic. The second after a baseball is hit: the relaxed smile after the birthday candles are blown out. Think, if you will, of a straight news or journalism image. Every second after the Hindenburg explodes is less and less intense.
But many images can be re-imagined second-by-second, with additional takes offering the photographer vastly different outcomes and choices. In the series shown here, I originally fell in love with the look of sunset on a wooded trail. My first instinct was that the receding path was everything I needed, and I shot the first frame not thinking there would even be a second. My wife, however, decided to walk into the space unexpectedly, and I decided to click additional frames every few seconds as she walked toward the shot’s horizon. She starts off in the lower right corner and walks gently left as she climbs the slight rise in the path, causing her hair to catch a sun flare in the second shot, and placing her in central importance in the composition. By the last shot, however, she is a complete silhouette at the top of the frame, taking her far enough “up” to restore the path to its original prominence with her as a mere accent.
Which shot to take? Anyone’s call, but the point here is that, by continuing to shoot, I had four images to choose from, all with very individualized dynamics, none of which would have been available to me if I’d just decided that my first shot was my best and settled. There will be times when the fullest storytelling power of a photograph is all present right there in your first instinctive snap. When you have time, however, learning to compose on the run can force you to keep re-visualizing your way to lots of other possibilities.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN CITIES, ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF THE DAY’S NATURAL LIGHT actually makes it all the way to the street unbroken. You can almost think about it like rain, in that it drips, slithers, drains, and channels its way downward through a dense maze of structures and barriers. Along the way, that light is bisected, sliced, stenciled and tattooed by the surfaces it interacts with, stretching shadow patterns, glinting, ricocheting, stretching.
Glass, especially, constantly reshapes light, filtering it into delicate lattice-works and spectral spiderwebs, sifting it through windows, transoms, doors, windshields, storefronts. It reveals and conceals, crawling across buildings like an ever-changing sundial of shapes and schemes. Photographing the same hunk of glass on the hour can be like visiting a dozen different worlds, spread out like fanned playing cards over the course of a single day.
Light illuminates, making it a force that acts upon other objects, but it is almost more marvelous when it, itself, is acted upon, creating an endless choreography and echo of its colors and contours. It’s part of the great interactive ballet of cities, this push and pull between light and darkness. Sometimes you get a nearly kaleidoscopic effect from something very simple, like the etched glass in the revolving door seen above, which stamped a different snowflake of shapes onto the pavement at every turn and swivel.
If you’re given to experiment (or daydreaming), your own tabletop can become a tremendously valuable laboratory on the effect of light. Just grab the simplest object handy, be it an apple or a book, and arc a source of light from one side of it to the other. Imagine yourself a self-propelled sun and watch how easily you can create change in your private solar system. The actual design of such an exercise isn’t crucial, but making yourself mentally slow down, becoming aware of the tiny effects perpetually swimming about you, is invaluable. Photographs rise at the hands of some pretty small phenomena. Magnifying your gaze puts more images within your reach.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE OFTEN WRITE IN THESE PAGES ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY’S UNIQUE ABILITY to either reveal or conceal, and how we toggle between these two approaches, given the task at hand. Photographic images were originally recorded by using science to harness light, to increase its ability to illuminate life’s enveloping darkness, just as Edison did with the incandescent bulb. And in their attempt to master a completely new artistic medium, early photographers were constantly pushing that dark/light barrier, devising faster films and flash technology to show detail in the darkest, dimmest corners of life.
And when that battle was won, an amazing thing happened.
Photographers realized that completely escaping the dark also meant running away from mystery, from the subtlety of suggestion, from the unanswered questions residing within their pictures’ shadows. And from the earliest days of the 20th century, they began to selectively take away visual information, just as painters always had, teasing the imagination with what could not be seen.
City scenes which feature individual faces in crowds opt for the drama (or boredom) written in the face of the everyday man. Their scowls at the noonday rush. Their worry at the train station. Their motives. But for an urban photographer, sometimes using shadow to swallow up facial details means being free to arrange people as objects, revealing no more about their inner dreams and drives than any other prop in an overall composition. This can be fun to play with, as some of the most unknowable people can reside in images taken in bright, public spaces. We see them, but we can’t know them.
Experimenting with the show it/hide it balance between people and their surroundings takes our photography beyond mere documentation, which is the first part of the journey from taking pictures to making them. Once we move from simple recording into interpretation, all the chains are off, and our images can really begin to breathe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO TRACK THE SUN AS IT TRAVELS EAST TO WEST over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon have made amazing images of the way light changes contours, shadows, even the sensation of depth and scale over the course of a single day. Such hour-by-hour portfolios present pictures which are less about the subject matter and more about how light shapes that subject. And the same tracking exercise is possible in canyons of another sort, the vertical jungles we call cities.
Buildings in urban settings reveal more in pictures than their own particular physical shapes and designs: they also have visual artifacts tattooed onto them from their neighbors, which block, warp and reflect light patterns in their direction. Thus the most architecturally drab tower can become hypnotic when bathed in patterns of shadows shaped by the tower next door. And that means that those seeking abstract images may find that ordinary parts of the city can be rendered extraordinary by light’s odd bounces. Additionally, the fact that many of these light effects are fleeting, visible, in some cases, only for minutes each day, presents both a challenge and an adventure for the photographer.
In the shot above, a gorgeous Art Deco building in downtown Phoenix, Arizona benefits from a light effect that has only been possible for the last forty years of its existence. Erected in the late 1930’s, the northern face of 15 East Monroe Street would not, at its opening, have been dappled with the shadow patterns seen here. No, it took a soul-less glass box from the ’70’s, located across the street, to bounce patterns of reflected light onto the building as you see it here, and only for about two hours a day between late morning and noon.
During that window, 15 East Monroe displays a wonderfully checkered mix of reflected illumination on its golden terra-cotta exterior. I first observed the patterns ten years ago, and have been going back for occasional looks ever since. The trick, in this image, was to keep the texture of the building from looking too sharp, since the effect itself is somewhat dreamy, and works better if the overall photo of the building is also a little soft. I used a selective focus lens (sharp at the middle, softer toward the edges) to give the overall building a gauzy look, and let the picture really be about the light effect, rather than any specific part of the building. Even at this point, I am imagining about a half-dozen other ways to accomplish this, but this image can at least serve as an initial study, a guideline for what may, eventually, be my final word on the subject.
Photography, clinically defined, is the art of writing with light. Sometimes, regardless of the object in our viewfinder, what light does to things is, by itself, enough for an interesting picture. It takes some restraint to let the light be the subject, and to let the picture, in its most basic form, breathe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY, versus shooting in rural settings, is the constant variability of light. On its way to the streets of a dense city, light is refracted, reflected, broken, interrupted, bounced and just plain blocked in ways that sunshine on a meadow can never be. As a result, shooting in cities deals with direct light only intermittently: it’s always light plus, light in spite of, light over here, but not over there. And it’s a challenge for all but the most patient photographers. Almost every frame must be planned somewhat differently from its neighbors, for there can be no “standard” exposure strategy.
I often think of city streets as big window sills sitting below a massive set of venetian blinds, with every slat tilted a little differently. And I personally greet this condition as an opportunity rather than a deficit, since the unique patterns of abstraction mean that even mundane scenes can be draped in drama at any given moment. That’s why, as I age, I’ve come to highly value selective lighting, for mood, since I’m convinced that perfectly even lighting on an object can severely limit that selfsame drama.
I’m also reminded of the old Dutch masters painters, who realized that a partially dark face contains a kind of mystery. Conversely, a street scene that contains no dropouts of detail or light makes everything register just about the same with the eye, and can keep your images from having a prominent point of interest. Darkness, by contrast, asks your imagination to supply what’s missing. Even light is a kind of full disclosure, and it can rob your pictures of their main argument, or the “look over here” cue that’s needed to make a photograph really connect.
Back to street photography. Given that glass and metal surfaces, the main ingredients in urban structures, can run a little to silver and blue, I may actually take an unevenly lit scene and either modify it toward those colors with a filter, or simply under-expose by a half-stop to see how much extra mood I can wring out of the situation, as in the above image of an atrium in midtown Manhattan. Think of it as “working” those big venetian blinds. Cities both reveal and conceal, and your images, based on your approach, can serve both those ends.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE A CERTAIN LOVE FOR LIVING AT THE EXTREMES, in seeing how far we can stretch the limits of light, or at least our ability to harness it. It’s strange: we have plenty of the stuff available to us during the meat of the day, but it’s where night and day perform a kind of “changing of the guard” where we really like to go stealing those renegade rays of near-dark and almost-bright. We love to go trapping along the seams of light, chronicling the nether territory where night and day get spliced together.
Lately I seem to have been lucky enough to do what I call “chasing” light, standing in deep shadow as the last rays of gold fade just ahead of me. There’s an expectant quality to it, a preciousness. Suddenly it’s undeniable that something unique is dying, that another measure of our mortality is about to be checked off the list, to be irretrievably gone. It’s only the promise of another day that makes this bearable…that, and our small attempts to, if you will, freeze the goodbye.
The contrast between light and shadow at this time of day is profound, and it’s easy to either blow out the highlights or lose a ton of narrative detail in the darkness, or both. There is also incredible minute-to-minute change in the balance between dark and light, making every frame you take a kind of all-or-nothing proposition. Seconds after you’ve tried a picture, you’re actually now after a completely different picture, and so the wonderful shoot-adjust-reshoot cycle made possible by digital is an even more amazing tool.
There are amazing opportunities for image-making in both pure day and pure night. But treat yourself to the nether world between the two, and freeze a goodbye or two, if you can.
It’s wondrous out here on the borderline.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SHOULD BE A MIRROR-IMAGE, “NEGATIVE” COOKBOOK FOR EVERY REGULAR ONE PUBLISHED, since there are recipes for inedible failures, just as surely as there are ones for gustatory delights. It might be genuinely instructive to read an article called How To Turn A Would-Be Apple Pie Into A Shapeless Heap Of Glop or You, Too Can Make Barbecue Ribs Look Like The Aftermath Of A Cremation. So too, in photography, I believe I could easily pen an essay called How To Take Pictures That Make It Seem That You Never Touched A Camera Before.
In recent days, I’ve been giving myself an extra welt or two with the flagellation belt in horrified reaction to a shoot that I just flat-out blew.It was a walk through a classic hotel lobby, a real “someday” destination for myself that I finally got to visit and wanted eagerly to photograph. Thing is, none of that desire made it into the frames. Nor did any sense of drama, art, composition, or the basics of even seeing. It’s rare that you crank off as many shots as I did on a subject and wind up with a big steaming pile of nothing to show for it, but in this case, I seem to have been all thumbs, including ten extra ones where my toes should be.
So, if I were to write a negative recipe for a shoot, it would certainly contain a few vital tips:
First, make sure you know nothing about the subject you’re shooting. I mean, why would you waste your valuable time learning about the layout or history of a place when you can just aimlessly wander around and whale away? Maybe you’ll get lucky. Yeah, that’s what makes great photographs, luck.
Enjoy the delightful surprise of discovering that there is less light inside your location than inside the fourth basement of a coal mine. Feel free to lean upon your camera to supply what you don’t have, i.e., a tripod or a brain. Crank up the ISO and make sure that you get something on the sensor, even if it’s goo and grit. And shoot near any windows you have, since blowouts look so artsy contrasted with pitch blackness.
Resist the urge to have any plan or blueprint for your shooting. Hey, you’re an artist. The brilliance will just flow as you sweep your camera around. Be spontaneous. Or clueless. Or maybe you can’t tell the difference.
Stir vigorously and for an insane length of time with a photo processing program, trying to manipulate your way to a useful image. You won’t get there, but life is a journey, right? Even when you’re hopelessly lost in a deep dark forest.
You could say that I’m being too Catholic about this, and I would counter that I’m not being Catholic enough.
Until I do penance.
Gotta go back someday and do it right.
And make something that really cooks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE MAN LEARNED TO SLICE A PATH THROUGH THE DARK WITH ANY KIND OF LIGHT, a romance with mystery began that photographers carry ever forward. Darkness and light can never be absolute, but duel with each other in a million interim stages at night, one never quite yielding to each other. A flickering lamp, a blazing torch, ten thousand LEDs, a lonely match, all shape the darkness and add the power of interpretation to the shaded side of the day. Photographers can only rejoice at the possibilities.
Spending a recent week in a vacation hotel, I fell into my typical habit of taking shots out the window under every kind of light, since, you know, you only think you understand what a view has to offer until you twist and turn it through variation. You’ve never beheld this scene before, so it’s just too easy to take an impression of it at random, leaving behind all other possibilities. The scene from this particular room, a mix of industrial and residential streets in central Pittsfield, Massachusetts, permits the viewer to see the town in the context of the Berkshire mountains, in which it nestles. Daylight, particularly early morning, renders the town as a charming, warm slice of Americana, not inappropriate in a village that is just a few miles away from the studio of painter Norman Rockwell. However, for me, the area whispered something else entirely after nightfall.
I can only judge the above frame by the combination of light and dark that I saw as I snapped it. Is it significant that the house is largely aglow while the municipal building in front of it is submerged in shadow? Is there anything in the way of mood or story that is conveyed by the lit stairs in the foreground, or the headlamps of the moving or parked cars? If the passing driver is subtracted from the frame, does the feel of the image change completely? Does the subtle outline of the mountains at the horizon lend a particular context?
That’s the point: the picture, any picture of these particular elements can only raise, not answer, questions. Only the viewer can supply the back end of the mystery raised by how it was framed or shot. Some things in the frame are on a journey of becoming, but art is not about supplying solutions, just keeping the conversation going. We’re all on our way somewhere. The camera can only ask, “what happens when we turn down this road?.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.
This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.
Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.
The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.
Or at least they will by the third can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE POSTED SEVERAL PIECES HERE ON “LIGHT-PAINTING”, or the practice of manually applying light to selective areas of objects during long exposures in the dark. The ability to “paint” additional colors, highlights and shadows “onto” even the most mundane materials can transform the whole light-to-dark ratio of the familiar and render it in new, if unpredictable ways. It’s kind of random and a lot of hands-on fun.
Some of the greatest transformations of ordinary objects ever seen in photography were obtained by Edward Steichen, arguably the greatest shooter in any style over the entire 20th century. Working for advertising agency J.Walter Thompson in the 1930’s, Steichen managed to romanticize everything from perfume bottles to kitchen matches to cutlery by arranging visually original ballets not only of these everyday items, but, through multiple source lighting, creating geometrically intricate patterns of shadows. His success in morphing the most common elements of our lives into fascinating abstractions remains the final word on this kind of lighting, and it’s fun to use light painting to pay tribute to it.
For my own tabletop arrangement of spoons, knives and forks, seen here, I am using clear plastic cutlery instead of silver (fashions change, alas), but that actually allows any light I paint into the scene to make the utensils fairly glow with clear definition. You can’t really paint onto or across the items, since they will pick up too much hot glare after even a few seconds, but you can light from the edge of the table underneath them, giving them plenty of shadow-casting power without whiting out. I took over 25 frames of this arrangement from various angles, since light painting is all about the randomness of effect achieved with just a few inches’ deviation in approach, and, as with all photography, the more editing choices at the end, the better.
The whole thing is really just an exercise in forced re-imagining, in making yourself consider the objects as visually new. Think of it as a puff of fresh air blowing the cobwebs out of your perception of what you “know”. Emulating even a small part of Steichen’s vast output is like me flapping my wings and trying to become a bald eagle, so let’s call it a tribute.
Or envy embodied in action.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DAYLIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY, THE DEFAULT ACTION TENDS TO BE TO SHOW EVERYTHING. Shadows in day scenes are a kind of negative reference to the illuminated objects in the frame, but it is those objects, and not the darkness, that defines space. In this way shady areas are a kind of decor, an aid to recognition of scale and depth.
At night, however, the darkness truly plays a defining role, reversing its daylight relationship to light. Dark becomes the stuff that night photos are sculpted from, creating areas that can remain undefined or concealed, giving images a sense of understatement, even mystery. Not only does this create compelling compositions of things that are less than fascinating in the daytime, it allows you to play “light director” to selectively decide how much information is provided to the viewer. In some ways, it is a more pro-active way of making a picture.
I strongly recommend walkabout shoots that span the complete transition from dusk to post-sunset to absolute night. Not only will the quickly changing quality of light force you to make decisions very much in-the-moment, it allows for a vast variance in the visual power of your subjects that is starkly easy to measure. It’s a great practice lab for shooting completely on manual, and, depending on the speed of your chosen lens (and greater ISO flexibility in recent cameras), makes relatively noise -free, stable handheld shots possible that were unthinkable just a few years ago. One British writer I follow recently remarked, concerning ISO, that “1600 is the new 400”, and he’s very nearly right.
So wander around in the dark. The variable results force you to shoot a lot, rethink a lot, and experiment a lot. Even one evening can accelerate your learning curve by weeks. And when darkness is the primary sculptor of a shot, lovely things (wait for the bad pun) can come to light (sorry).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN YOU’RE BEHIND THE WHEEL, SOME PHOTOGRAPHS NAG THEIR WAY INTO YOUR CAMERA. They will not be denied, and they will not be silenced, fairly glowing at you from the sides of roads, inches away from intersections, in unexplored corners near stop signs, inches from your car. Take two seconds and grab me, they insist, or, if you’re inside my head, it sounds more like, whatya need, an engraved invitation? Indeed, these images-in-waiting can create a violent itch, a rage to be resolved. Park the car already and take it.
Relief is just a shutter away, so to speak.
The vanishing upward arc and sinuous mid-morning shadows of this bit of rural fencing has been needling me for weeks, but its one optimal daily balance of light and shadow was so brief that, after first seeing the effect in its perfection, I drove past the scene another half dozen times when everything was too bright, too soft, too dim, too harsh, etc., etc. There was always a rational reason to drive on.
Until this morning.
It’s nothing but pure form; that is, there is nothing special about this fence in this place except how light carves a design around it, so I wanted to eliminate all extraneous context and scenery. I shot wide and moved in close to ensure that nothing else made it into the frame. At 18mm, the backward “fade” of the fence is further dramatized, artificially distorting the sense of front-to-back distance. I shot with a polarizing filter to boost the sky and make the white in the wood pop a little, then also shot it in monochrome, still with the filter, but this time to render the sky with a little more mood. In either case, the filter helped deliver the hard, clear shadows, whose wavy quality contrasts sharply with the hard, straight angles of the fence boards.
I had finally scratched the itch.
For the moment….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEND HALF THEIR LIVES TRYING TO PUT AS MUCH INFORMATION INTO THEIR IMAGES AS POSSIBLE, and the other half trying to remove as much as practicable. Both efforts are in service of the telling of stories, and both approaches are dictated by what a particular photograph is trying to convey.
Sometimes you need the cast of The Ten Commandments to say “humanity”. Other times, just a whisper, an essence of two people talking carries the entire message. That’s where I wound up the other day…with one woman and one very young boy.
Their shared mission was a simple one: hooking up an iPhone Facetime visit with an aunt half a country away. Nothing dramatic, and yet plenty of story to fill a frame with. Story enough, it turned out, for me to get away with weeding out nearly all visual information in the picture, and yet have enough to work with. Time, of course, was also a factor in my choice, since I would be losing a special moment if I stepped into a dark hall and spent precious moments trying to mine it for extra light.
In a second, I realized that silhouettes would carry the magic of the moment without any help from me. What would it matter if I could see the color of my subjects’ clothing, the detail in their hair, even the look on their faces? In short, what would I gain trying to massage an image that was already perfectly eloquent in shadow?
I exposed for the floor in the hall and let everything else go. There was plenty of story there already.
I just had to get out of its way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE PICTURES WE TAKE involve shaping and selecting details from subjects that are already bathed, to some degree, in light. “Darkness” is in such images, but it resides peripherally in the nooks and crannies where the light didn’t naturally flow or was prevented from going. Dark is thus the fat that marbles the meat, the characterizing texture in a generally bright palette of colors. It is seasoning, not substance.
By contrast, shooting that begins in total darkness means entering a realm of mystery, since you start with nothing, a blank and black slate, onto which you selectively import some light, not enough to banish the dark, but light that suggests, implies, hints at definition. For the viewer, it is the difference between the bright window light of a chat at a mid-afternoon cafe and the intimacy of a shared huddle around a midnight campfire. What I call “absolute night” shots are often more personal work than just managing to snap a well-lit public night spot like an urban street or an illuminated monument after dusk. It’s teaching yourself to show the minimum, to employ just enough light to the tell the story, and no more. It is about deciding to leave out things. It is an editorial, rather than a reportorial process.
The only constants about “absolute dark” shooting are these:
You need a tripod-mounted camera. Your shutter will be open as long as it takes to create what you want, and far longer than you can hope to hold the camera steady. If you have a timer and/or a remote shutter release, break those out of the bag, too. The less you touch that camera, the better. Besides, you’ll be busy with other things.
Set the minimum ISO. If you’re quickly snapping a dark subject, you can compromise quality with a higher and thus slightly noisier ISO setting. When you have all the time you need to slowly expose your subject, however, you can keep ISO at 100 and banish most of that grain. Some cameras will develop wild or “hot” pixels once the shutter’s open for more than a minute, but for many hand-illuminated dark shots, you can get what you need in far less than that amount of time.
Use some kind of small hand-held illumination. Something about the size of a keychain-sized LED, with an extremely narrow focus of very white light. Pick them up at the dollar store and get a model that works well in your hand. This is your magic wand, with which, after beginning the exposure in complete darkness, you will be painting light onto various parts of your subject, depending on what kind of effect you want. Get a light with a handy and responsive power switch, since you may turn the light on and off many times during a single exposure.
You can use autofocus, even in manual mode, but compose and lock the focus when all the room lights are on. Set it, forget it, douse the power and get to work.
Which brings us to an important caveat. Even though you are avoiding the absolute blast-out of white that would result if you were using a conventional flash, lingering over a particular contour of your subject for more than a second or so will really burn a hot spot into its surface, perhaps blowing out an entire portion of the shot. Best way to curb this is to click on, paint, click off, re-position, click back on and repeat the sequence as needed. Another method could involve making slow but steady passes over the subject….back and forth, imagining in your mind what you want to see lit and what you want to remain dark. It’s your project and your mood, so you’ll want to shoot lots of frames and pause between each exposure to adjust what you’re doing, again based on what kind of look you’re going for.
Beyond that, there are no rules, and, over the course of a long shoot, you will probably change your mind as to what your destination is anyhow. No one is getting a grade on this, and the results aren’t going in your permanent file, so have fun with it.
Some objects lend themselves to absolute night than others. For example, I am part of the last generation that often listened to radio in the dark. You just won’t get the same eerie thrill listening to The Shadow or Inner Sanctum in a gaily lit room, so, for the above image of my mid-1930’s I.T.I. radio, I wanted a somber mood. I decided to make the tuning dial’s “spook light” my primary source of interest, with a selective wash of hand-held light on the speaker grille, since the dial was too weak (even with a longer exposure) to throw a glow onto the rest of the radio’s face. Knobs are less cool so they are darker, and the overall chassis is far less cool, so it generally resides in shadow. Result: one ooky-spooky radio. Add murder mystery and stir well.
Flickr and other online photo-sharing sites can give you a lot of examples on what subjects really come alive in the dark. The most intoxicating part of point-and-paint lighting is the sheer control you have over the process, which, with practice, is virtually absolute. Control freaks of the world rejoice.
Head for the heart of darkness. You’ll be amazed what you can see, or, better yet, what you can enable others to see.
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