By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY’S EXPLOSION IN THIS STILL-FRESH CENTURY has shown itself not to be about a single, big revolution but an ongoing cascade of small ones. As more and more shooters have shifted their emphasis away from film technology….itself, admittedly a fundamental earthquake of change, they have also had to constantly adapt to a continuous flow of refinements and reinventions in the digital realm. Nothing is static and nothing will ever again be in its final form. Things that were considered cumbersome and clumsy just a few seconds ago now are accomplished effortlessly. We move from custom to standard in the wink of an eye.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the rise and not-quite-complete fall of HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography, the practice of shooting several different exposures of the same subject and melding the best of all of them into one seamless composite through software. The need for such a solution arose from the inefficiency of early digital sensors, which caused light and dark extremes in an image to be either blown out or smothered in shadow. HDR was devised as a way to imitate how quickly the human eye can adjust to allow us to see everything in about the same degree of contrast. It doesn’t actually do that, but instead presents a ton of images of varying contrast to our brains so quickly that we imagine that we actually always see everything in balance. Early renditions of Photoshop did not address this problem, nor did the earliest cell phone cameras, and even traditional manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were years away from including HDR-like modes in their DSLRs, and so editing platforms like Photomatix, HDR Efx Pro, and Aurora HDR were created in the early 2000’s to specifically blend and tweak anywhere from two exposures on upward in a work flow that came to be known as “tone mapping”. The apps sold well and addressed a real niche within the photographic world. Transitions between light and dark seemed more elastic, and textures, from beach sand to wood grain, seemed to be rendered with greater emphasis.
HDR drew both praise and poison from the start, with some photographers subtly enhancing their work while others “over-cooked” the effect, delivering surreal palettes of day-glo color and gooey skin textures surrounded by strange halos and other unwanted artifacts. The result, as is occurring with greater and greater speed in the digital-web complex, was that, just as a revolution/solution for a real problem hit the market, others began almost immediately to concoct an antidote for the wonder drug…a fix for the fix. A few scant years later, manufacturers of both standard and phone-based cameras have their own HDR-like modes, which are both more limited in precision and hellishly convenient: digital camera sensors themselves are already in their second generation, with greater dynamic range already designed in: and uber-tools like Photoshop and Lightroom have become more supple in the quick adjustment of even single batches of images. Thus HDR has gone the regular developmental route seen that all tech has across history, from balky and bulky to sleek and instinctive. We learn to do more with less, and what was once custom equipment (like radios once were in automobiles) becomes standard (like seat belts in automobiles) but with even greater immediacy in the digital era. In my own work, after years of HDR love writ large, I now tend to solve 95% of the problems that used to dictate the use of HDR with simple in-camera moves, some of them as basic as exposing for the highlights and recovering the detail in the dark areas in post editing (as seen in the image above).
I was recently toying with an old Canon A1 SLR from the late ’70’s and marveling at the fact that its owners initially had to special-order (at considerable expense) a screw-on battery motor drive that had no other function except to assist forgetful users by winding the film on to the next frame. Obviously the winder unit was only in production for a few years until the same challenge was met with less hardware, fewer steps, and a lot less cash. And so it goes. All of which goes to say, as we frequently do in these funny papers, that gear is not the primary determinant in the creation of great photographs. If equipment does not currently exist to produce the results we want, we find a way to fake it until the lab boys make it. Technology follows inspiration. Art cannot happen if things go the other way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PATTERNS ARE KIND OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ABSOLUTE, in that they require no context for comprehension in an image. We needn’t explain such arrangements of negative and positive space, such as the latticework of a single snowflake: their mere existence is story enough. We find endless fascination in the spirals within the heart of a flower, the alternating light and shadow inside a stairwell. Of course, we can certainly take the time to remark further about them, but the best photographs of patterns go way beyond our ability to justify them with mere words. In a visual medium, they are their own best testimony.
Other patterns resist interpretation for the reason that they are clearly of another time, so far removed from our own present-day experience as to be meaningless to us beyond their shape and contours. We can view mosaics from a vanished culture, but are prevented from deciphering their symbols: we find a flute from centuries past but can’t read the notated music that was intended to be played on it. In more recent terms, the technology that remade the planet during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has left behind a rusting legacy of devices which speak very little as to their original functions. Masses of gears, wheels and belts which once were the stuff of everyday existence now need captions to even be comprehended by our eyes. Thus, as visual subjects, their patterns are so obsolete as to be abstract, presenting merely a mixture of textures and tones to our contemporary cameras.
The world is moving so quickly that even the wildly speculative “future” gizmos seen at the World’s Fairs of the 1960’s already need auxiliary context to be fully appreciated. In one respect, as purely visual artists, we are actually freed by this phenomenon. When a thing becomes unanchored from its original purpose, the photographer can assign any purpose to it that he pleases. The object is nothing, and so, paradoxically, it can be everything. Consider the mass of machinery in the above shot. Were I not to tell you its original use, would you recognize it as part of the machinery to be found in a flour milling facility from the 1800’s? Does knowing or not knowing that fact detract from its impact as an image? Are you all right with patterns that are truly absolute, scenes that are merely themselves, and nothing more?
You are always in charge of what you want your pictures to say. You can record events and people at face value, or you can imbue them with additional meaning. Or no meaning whatsoever. The camera is thus just a servo-mechanism. It’s not in charge of saying what the world is. That power, that responsibility, has always been yours and yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ARE ACTUALLY DETOURS, things unearthed by accident in search of something completely different. Marconi was not looking to create the entertainment medium known as radio, but merely a wireless way to send telegraphs. The tough resin known as Bakelite was originally supposed to be a substitute for shellac, since getting the real thing from insects was slow and pricey. Instead, it became the first superstar of the plastics era, used to making everything from light plugs to toy View-Masters.
And the man who, for all practical purposes, invented photography was merely seeking a shortcut for the tracing of drawings.
Nicéphore Niépce, born in France in 1765, plied his trade in the new techniques of lithography, but fell short in his basic abilities as an artist, and searched for a way to get around that shortcoming by technical means. He became proficient in the creation of images with a camera obscura, a light-tight box with a pinhole on one side which projected an inverted picture of whatever it was pointed at on the opposite inside wall of the container, the pinhole acting as a glassless, small-aperture lens. Larger versions of the gadget were used by artists to project a subject onto an area from which tracings of the image could be done, then finished into drawings. Niépce grew impatient with the long lag time involved in the tracing work and began to experiment with various compounds that might chemically react to light, causing the camera’s image to be permanently etched onto a surface, making for a quicker and more accurate reference study.
Niépce tried a combination of fixing chemicals like silver chloride and asphalt, burning faint images onto surfaces ranging from glass to paper to lithographic stone. Some of his earliest attempts registered as negatives, which faded to complete black when observed in sunlight. Others resulted in images which could be used as a master from which to print other images, effectively a primitive kind of photocopy. Finally, having upgraded the quality of his camera obscura and coating a slab of pewter with bitumin, Niépce, around 1827 successfully exposed a permanent, if cloudy image from the window of his country house in La Gras. His account recalled that the exposure took eight hours, but later scientific recreations of the experiment believe it could actually have taken several days. Even at that, Niépce might have recorded a good deal more detail in the image had he waited even longer. In an ironic lesson to all impatient future shooters, the world’s first photograph had, in fact, been under-exposed.
Rather than merely create a short-cut for sketch artists, Nicéphore Niépce’s discovery, which he called heliography (“sun writing”), resulted in a new, distinctly different art that would compete with traditional graphics, forever changing the way painters and non-painters viewed the world. Centuries later, harnessing light in a box is still the task at hand, and the eternally novel miracle of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE DAY I WROTE THIS, the new Hasselblad XI-D-50c medium-format mirrorless camera was announced for pre-order. For the sake of history, it must be recorded here that the introductory price was $9,000.
For the body alone. Lenses (and batteries) not included.
I’m going to let that factoid sink in for a moment, so that you can (a) catch your breath/throw up/faint, or (b) find another blog whose author is impressed by this nonsense.
Now, for those who are still with us….
Let me state once more, for the record, that good photography is not defined by either academic training or dazzling hardware. There is no “camera”, in fact, outside yourself. To believe otherwise is to believe that a screwdriver can build a house. Tools are not talent. Moreover, schooling is not a pre-requisite for the creation of art. No one can sell you a camera better than your own brain, and no camera made today (or tomorrow) can save your photography if, like the Scarecrow, you don’t possess one.
I recently read a lament by someone who got his college degree in photography “back when that still meant something”, before the present age, in which, “apparently, everyone’s a photographer”. The sentiment expressed here is that making pictures is the exclusive domain of a few chosen High Priests Of Art, and that all who do not follow the path of the Jedi are, somehow, impure. Pretenders. Usurpers. Monkeys with hand grenades.
This viewpoint, with all its wonderfully elitist flair, was actually rendered obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, since that’s the first time Everyman could pick up and wield a camera without express permission from the Ivy League. Want to see how little it matters how little we know before we hit the shutter? Do your own Google search for the number of world-changing photographers who were self-taught…who, like most of us, simply got better by making lots of bad pictures first. Start with Ansel Adams and work outward.
What does this have to do with Hasselblad’s shiny new Batmobile? Plenty. Because the idea that great images are created by great cameras goes hand-in-snotty-hand with the idea that only the enlightened few can make pictures at all. Never mind the fact that these concepts have been scorned to laughter by the actual history of the medium, as well as its dazzling present. The notion that art is for We, and appreciation is for Thee stubbornly persists, and probably always will. That’s why museum curators get paid more than the artists whose works they hang. Go figure.
But it’s tommyrot.
There is no camera except your own experienced and wise eye. Choose performance over pedigree. You don’t need four years in study hall or a $9.000 Hassie to make a statement. More importantly, if you have nothing to say, merely ponying up for toys and testimonials won’t get you into the club.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GLOBAL RACE, ACCELERATING RAPIDLY SINCE THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE, toward better, faster image sensors in cameras great and small, as we wage the eternal photographic battle against the limits of light. It’s one more reason why this is the best time in the medium’s history to be making pictures.
It’s hard to express what a huge game-changer this is. Film-based photography advanced the science of gathering light in slow fits and starts for more than a century, with even some of the most popular consumer films rated at very slow speeds (Kodachrome) or, if faster, extraordinarily high grain (Tri-X). Suddenly, the world’s shadowy interiors, from stadiums to basements, give up their secrets to even bargain-priced cameras as ISO ratings for sensors climb and noise/grain abatement gets better and better.
The above image, taken inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, would have, in film terms, required either a full-open aperture (making a consistent depth of field from front to back tricky), a slow exposure (hard to go handheld when you’re on a tour) or a film rated at 400 or above. Plus luck.
By contrast, in digital, it’s a casual snap. The f/5.6 aperture keeps things sharp from front to back, and the ISO rating of 250 results in noise that’s so low that it’s visually negligible. The statue of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth is dark bronze, and so a little re-contrasting of the image was needed in post-editing to lighten up the deeper details, but again, the noise is so low that it’s really only visible in color. As it happens, I actually like the contrast between the dark statue and the bright room better in monochrome anyway, so everyone wins.
The message here is: push your camera. Given today’s technology, it will give you some amazing things, and the better you understand it the more magic it will produce. We are just on the cusp of a time when we can effectively stow the flash in the closet except in very narrow situations and capture stuff we only used to dream about. Get out there and start swinging for the fences.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I GENERALLY STAY OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS, and with good reason. Anyone who sets himself up in the prophecy business had better keep his day job, a truth which has been demonstrated time and again by any number of junior league wizards who believe they know how to read the tea leaves in Tomorrowland. That’s why I have always kept the pages of The Normal Eye pretty free of excess doses of prognostication on what’s next or what’s inevitable regarding photography.
However, even though it’s foolish to cite specific equipment or inventions as “proof” that a new day has arrived, it’s often obvious when something of a tipping point is coming that will transform the entire process of making pictures. And I feel confident that we are now at one of those points as the latest smartphone cameras begin the blurring, if not the erasure, of difference between photography in mobile devices and photography from traditional gear, especially, for the first time, DSLRs.
The main gist of this tipping point is the ability of mobiles, finally, to allow for manual override of many camera functions that were, in earlier years, completely automated. Phone cameras in their original iteration were an all-or-nothing proposition, in that you clicked and hoped that the device’s auto settings would serve up an acceptable image. As for any kind of artistic control, you had to try to intervene after the shutter snap, via apps. It was the opposite of the personal control that was baked into DLSRs, and many photographers rightly balked at abandoning their Nikons and Canons for what was essentially a compact point-and-shoot.
But we are suddenly in very different territory now. The newest models by a variety of smartphone manufacturers will not only offer shooting apertures as wide as f/1.8, drastically increasing the flow of light to the camera’s sensors, but will also give shooters the option to either tap-customize a variety of shooting settings on-screen, or merely leave the device on full auto. The ability to override factory defaults is what separates the camera men from the camera boys, so this, in the words of Joe Biden, is a big &%$#ing deal. It means that many photographers who never even considered doing their “serious” shooting on a smartphone might at least mull over the option of leaving their full-function DSLRs at home, at least occasionally.
It would be foolish to predict the wholesale desertion of capital “C” Cameras by the shooting public, since such changes never come about for everyone at one time. Plenty of people continued to ride horses after the first flivvers rattled out of the factory. But there is certainly a major debate on the horizon about how much, and what kind of camera allows you to get the shot, easier and more of the time.
And getting the shot, as we know, is all that has ever mattered. All the rest is cheek music.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO BICKER ENDLESSLY ABOUT WHICH IS THE BEST ROAD TO TRAVEL en route to the making of a picture. I mean they flat-out love it. Here we are entering the third century of a global art that has amply demonstrated that vision, not hardware, is the determinant of excellence, and we are still splitting into warring factions on which camera does this, or which lens or process does that. It’s discouraging because it is wasteful. Put in another context, it’s like arguing whether your marinara won first prize because you stirred it with a spoon instead of a fork.
This ongoing us/them battle over which is the “purer” approach to photography is presently centered on traditional cameras versus mobile devices. Each side calls its star witnesses to testify on a variety of qualifying or disqualifying factors, as if anything matters but the pictures. Can I play that game? Sure, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that I had never hurled a bomb or two toward both sides in the skirmish. But when I do that, I’m only serving my own ego….not photography.
I make a distinction between cel phone and conventional cameras based simply on what I want to do in the moment, but such distinctions are never recommended as a universal yardstick. Very generally speaking, if I want the widest number of creative choices before the picture is made, I prefer a DSLR. If I can safely trust my instinct for the greatest part of the picture, adding creative tweaks after the shutter clicks, I am comfortable with a cel. Simple as that. I have made very satisfying images with both kinds of cameras, but my results are purely my own. And that’s really as much as any of us can swear to.
The manufacturers of both kinds of cameras know that different people approach picture-making with priorities, and that’s why they make cameras that have different approaches. Why should this be surprising? Is a Cadillac a better car than a Fiat? Who says so and why? Don’t both accomplish the same baseline task of propelling you from point A to point B? Then they’re, um, cars.
Many pro photographers worship gear the way high priests dig incense and robes, so it’s no wonder that newbies catch the same fever. Looking at their worst pictures, they hate on their gear instead of questioning how they see. You’ve heard the if-only mantras. Maybe you’re mumbled them yourself. If only I had the Big Mama 3000 lens. If only I had a Lightning Bolt BX3 body with a Zeiss diamond cutter attachment! Boy, howdy, then you’d see some pictures. Yeah, well, bull hockey. Develop your eye and your pictures will come out better, whatever kind of camera they come out of. Choose to put yourself on an eternally accelerating learning curve. You’re the real camera, anyway.
Anything else is just a spoon or fork. Stir the pot with what’s at hand and start cooking.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MARKETING BEING WHAT IT IS, CAMERA MANUFACTURERS HAVE LONG TOLD US THEY ARE DOING ONE THING FOR US when they are actually doing something very different. Since the first furry, day-long exposures of the 1800’s gave us a taste of what an entirely new medium could do in the way of chronicling the world, we have been promised that, over succeeding generations of technical development, taking a picture would get easier. In fact, this is a little inaccurate, as what the wizards have mostly done is to make taking a picture faster.
If this sounds like I’m splitting a sub-atomic-sized hair, hear me out. Many of the refinements in camera design over the last century and a half have, of course, improved the sharpness of lenses, the absorbance quotient of recording media, and enhanced design. However, the lion’s share of reboots have been to require fewer steps in framing and shooting, through increasing auto-delegating of many functions to smarter and smarter cameras. But, what we basically gain by this process is speed. It certainly takes much less time to shoot and get an acceptable result as the years roll by. “Well”, you may well ask, “doesn’t that mean the whole process is also easier?”
Tricky question, as it turns out.
In that you can take technically better images with less effort the further we roll along, then yes, it’s “easier”. But the same speed which is part of the “easy” process also means that we spend less time planning a picture, seeing it in our minds and creating it with deliberate action…cause, you know, the camera will do it. This means that it’s also easy to miss things, to fail to visualize the best way to take a shot versus the most expedient way. Slowing down by adding steps into the creation of a photograph means taking back control, so it is, if you will, “harder”, but, with practice of the total process of photographing, the ease, and even the speed all comes back anyway.
I wanted the name of this blog to contain a subtitle about journeying from taking to making images because that is the trek that most photographers eventually set out on. We begin to wonder what it would be like to be more completely in charge of what kind of pictures we wind up with, even if it’s only to take a series of baby steps. It does take more time to take the process into your own hands. But it’s not that hard. Auto-settings save you time, but they may not save your shot. Choosing the inconvenient isn’t ignoring technology. It’s making it work your will with your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FUTURE DOESN’T ARRIVE ALL AT ONCE, just as the past doesn’t immediately vanish completely. In terms of technology, that means that eras kinds of smear across each other in a gradual “dissolve”. Consider the dial telephone, which persisted in various outposts for many years after the introduction of touch-tone pads, or, more specifically, Superman’s closet, the phone booth, which stubbornly overstayed its welcome long past the arrival of the cel. The “present” is always a mishmosh of things that have just arrived and things that are going away. They sort of pass each other, like workers at change of shift.
Photographically, this means that there are always relics of earlier eras that persist past their sell-by date. They provide context to life as part of a kind of ever-flowing visual history. It also means that you need to seize on these relics lest they, and their symbolic power, are lost to you forever. Everything that enjoys a brief moment as an “everyday object” will eventually recede in use to such a degree that younger generations couldn’t even visually identify it or place it in its proper time order (a toaster from 1900 today resembles a Victorian space heater more than it does a kitchen appliance).
Ironically, this is a double win for photographers. You can either shoot an object to conjure up a bygone era, or you can approach it completely without context, as a pure design element. You can produce substantial work either way.
Some of the best still life photography either denies an object its original associations or isolates it so that it is just a compositional component. The thing is to visually re-purpose things whose original purpose is no longer. Photography isn’t really about what things look like. It’s more about what you can make them look like.