By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEWER DEVICES HAVE SHORTENED THE DISTANCE between an artist’s thought and his deed like the camera. Unlike musical instruments, paint brushes, or other tools of the creator’s trade, the camera takes you from conception to completed act in a matter of seconds. Of course, that’s when everything else is going right….
There are times when even the seemingly immediate response of the shutter still lags behind the mind in conceiving a visual message, when super-fast still feels horribly slow. Some concepts sprout and die with the rapidity of heat lightning, with the photographer racing to traverse the distance from inspiration to execution, and, occasionally, failing. In such instances, such as the moment that the cab arrives or the light changes or someone is just urging you let’s go, you have to go for broke and gamble on your idea. Fortunately, even those instances in which your efforts seem to crash and burn are instructive. In aviation, the saying goes that any landing you walk away is a good one. I’d adapt that sentiment to read: any picture that shows any of what you were trying to portray is a step closer to the right shot.
But first you have to attempt it.
We’ve spoken at length in this forum about how the only picture you truly regret is the one you didn’t take, and, as cliched as that statement is, it bears repeating. Because among the shots that miss by a mile are the ones that only miss by inches, and those are the ones that keep us doing this. In the above image, I am scrambling. A lot. I am standing near the front entrance of what’s soon to become my former hotel, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for my wife to contact/hire a ride share service. I decide to burn away those unused moments by trying to catch the uniformed staff at their endless task of welcomes/goodbyes for guests connecting to curbside transportation. I’m pushing a carry-on, wearing a DSLR by a shoulder strap and trying to guess an exposure that I’ll have to try to hit one-handed. I’m seconds away from being ready when I’m told our ride is three minutes away. We have plenty of time to get to the airport, but just the same, I’m now on deadline. A short fuse. Make or break. I don’t want to dawdle needlessly, since, over a long weekend, I have already paused to frame enough shots that I have exhausted my allotted ration of marital goodwill. You know the moment. It’s somewhere between an exasperated sigh and the sentence, “are you still taking pictures?” I also hate to fight too ardently for this one, since I’m only half sure of not only the exposure but the concept in general. I should probably just grab by bag and git.
Even at this point, I still can’t decide if I got everything I wanted here. I liked reducing the greeters and their gear to silhouettes, but in doing so I also eliminated a lot of the glowing gold of a late San Francisco afternoon. I said a quick prayer, squeezed off four shots with small adjustments in between, and decided I had to make a dignified exit. But what I said earlier about near misses still applies here. It’s not a complete boff, but it’s not a contest winner either. Can I use the experience to deliver a better result from a similar situation sometime in the future? Ah, well, that’s why we call this thing we do an “art” and not a “science”. I will live to fight,….er, shoot, another day. And that’s all any photographer wants anyhow. The next shot.
For therein lies redemption…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT SEEMS UNGRACIOUS FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER TO COMPLAIN ABOUT AN OVER-ABUNDANCE OF LIGHT, since that’s basically the currency we trade in. More typically we gripe about not being able to bring enough of the stuff into a shot. I mean, the entire history of the medium is one big let-there-be-more-light prayer. But that’s not to say that light can’t create annoyance when you’re in a place where there is glorious, radiant illumination of….acres of nothing.
I’m not talking about sunlight on endless expanses of starched plain. I refer here to subject matter that is so uninteresting that, even though a bumptious bounty of light is drenching everything in sight, there is nothing to make a photograph of. Nothing that compels, inspires, jars or even registers. I recently made my annual return to a festival that, due to my frequent farming of it over the years, has now bottomed out visually. There is nothing left to say about it, although all that “nothing” is stunningly lit at this time of year.
In fact, it’s only by shooting just abstracted shapes, shades and rays, rather than recognizable subjects, that I was able to create any composition even worth staying awake for, and then only by using extremely sharp contrast and eliminating color completely. To me, the only thing more pointless than lousy subject matter is beautiful looking lousy subject matter, saturated in golden hues, but signifying nothing. Kinda the George Hamilton of photos.
So the plan became, simply, to turn my back on the bright balloons, food booths, passing parade of people and spring scenery that, in earlier years, I would have been happy to capture, and instead render arrangements without any narrative meaning, just whatever impact could be seen using light as nearly the lone element. In the above picture, I did relent in keeping the silhouetted couple in the final picture, so that it’s not as “cold” as originally conceived, but otherwise it’s a pretty stark image. Photography without light is impossible, but we also have to refuse to take light “as is” from time to time, to do our best to orchestrate it, much as we would vary shadings with pencil or crayon. We know that the camera loves light, but it’s still our job to tell it where, and how, to look.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST FOR OVER FIFTEEN YEARS, I HAVE NEGOTIATED MY OWN TERMS WITH THE BLAZING OVERKILL OF MIDDAY SUNLIGHT, and its resulting impact on photography. If you move to Arizona or New Mexico from calmer climates, you will find yourself quickly constricting into a severe squint from late breakfast to early evening, with your camera likewise shrinking from the sheer overabundance of harsh, white light. If you’re determined to shoot in midday, you will adjust your approach to just about everything in your exposure regimen.
Good news, however: if you prefer to shoot in the so-called “golden hour” just ahead of sunset, you will be rewarded with some of the most picturesque tones you’ve ever had the good luck to work with. As has been exhaustively explained by better minds than mine, sunlight lingers longer in the atmosphere during the pre-sunset period, which, in the southwest, can really last closer to two hours or more. Hues are saturated, warm: shadows are powerful and sharp. And, if that dramatic contrast works to your advantage in color, it really packs a punch in monochrome.
This time of day is what I call “the envelope”, which is to say that objects look completely different in this special light from how they register in any other part of the day, if you can make up your mind as to what to do in a hurry. Changes from minute to minute are fast and stark in their variance. Miss your moment, and you must wait another 24 hours for a re-do.
The long shadow of an unseen sign visible in the above frame lasted about fifteen minutes on the day of the shoot. The sign itself is a metal cutout of a cowboy astride a bucking bronco, the symbol of Scottsdale, Arizona, “the most western town in the USA”. The shadow started as a short patch of black directly in front of the rusted bit of machine gear in the foreground, then elongated to an exaggerated duplicate of the sign, extending halfway down the block and becoming a sharper and more detailed silhouette.
A few minutes later, it grew softer and eventually dissolved as the sun crept closer to the western horizon. There would still be blazing illumination and harsh shadows for some objects, if you went about two stories high or higher, but, generally, sunset was well under way. Caught in time, the shadow became an active design element in the shot, an element strong enough to come through even in black and white.
If you are ever on holiday in the southwest, peek inside “the envelope”. There’s good stuff inside.
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
PAINTERS INSTINCTIVELY KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO REVEAL, AND WHEN IT’S BEST TO CONCEAL. Dark passages or hidden detail within a painting are accepted as part of the storytelling process. That is, what you don’t see can be as valuable a visual element as what you’ve chosen to show. By contrast, many photographers seem to come to this conclusion late , if ever. That is, we’re a little twitchy at not being able to illuminate every corner of our frame, to accurately report all the detail we see.
We try to show everything, and, in so doing, we defeat mystery, denying the viewer his own investigative journey. We insist on making everything obvious. Unlike painters, we don’t trust the darkness. We never “leave them wanting more”.
Fortunately, fate occasionally forces our hand.
The image at the top of this post started out as an attempt to capture the activity of an entire family that was walking their dog near a break in the dense trees that line the creek at Red Rocks Crossing in Sedona, Arizona. The contrast between the truly dark walking paths beneath the trees and the hyper-lit creek and surrounding hardpan is like night and day. The red rocks and anything near them, especially in the noonday sun, reflect back an intense amount of glare, so if your shots are going to include both shady foliage and sunlit areas, you’re going to have to expose for either one or the other. You might be able to get a wider range of tones by bracketing exposures to be combined later in post-processing, but for a handheld shot of moving people, your choices are limited.
I was trying to come to terms with this “either/or” decision when nearly everyone in the family moved away from the creek and into the dense foliage, leaving only one small boy idling at creekside. Feeling my chance of capturing anything draining away, I exposed for the creek, rendering the boy as a silhouette just as he made a break into the woods to rejoin his family. No chance to show detail in his face or figure: he would just be a dark shape against a backdrop of color. The decision to “make things more complicated” had already been taken away from me.
I had what I had.
Turns out that I could not have said “little boy” any better with twice the options. The picture says what it needs to say and does so quietly. No need to over-explain or over-decorate the thing. Darkness had asserted itself as part of the image, and did a better storytelling job all by itself.
I had much more time to calculate many other shots that day, but few of my “plans” panned out as well as the image where I relinquished control completely.
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- Red Rock Love (missfunshine.wordpress.com)