By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER has little to do with the power or technical precision of this image or that, but rather in any success I may experience in trying, over time, to do more with less. Fewer procedural steps per shot. Fewer cameras per piece of baggage. And, mounted on said cameras, fewer lenses to do nearly everything, or as close to that holy state that I can get.
It’s not just a case of lessening the strain on my aching back/neck, although that is a helluva motivator. No, it’s more about the time lost switching between cameras, camera bodies, lenses, attachments, etc., which must inevitably lead to lost shots. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If only I hadn’t been fiddling for that other optic, I tearfully whine, I’d already have produced a masterpiece today, or some other such delusion. There is also the cold, hard fact of my own innate sloth. I’d like to have my hands freer for more of the time, especially if someone might be inclined to proffer a ham sandwich or, Lord bless me, an I.P.A.
That said, I now choose lenses based on the breadth of their traits, glass that I can just stick on a single camera with a reasonable expectation of being able to get 90% of what I want simply because the lens is not a one-trick pony. For example, that might mean, say, looking for a prime lens that has a wide aperture range, allowing me to do portraits, landscapes, and even a few handheld night shots all with one set-up. In my younger days, I thought nothing of doing this by taking three separate lenses along, all of them delivering just one specialized effect. Homey don’t play that no more.
This “faux macro” was actually shot with a zoom lens from about twenty feet away.
As an example: I am often on birdwatching walks with my friends for which someone forgot to memo the birds to, you know, actually show up. That used to mean being stuck all day with just “the bird camera”, a fairly adequate bridge model with decent zoom, but a small sensor that makes it lousy on scenic work. In recent years, I have repurposed the thing as a faux macro lens, merely by zooming in, not on distant mountains or eagles on trees, but flowers, insects, and other mini-subjects, mostly from a distance of about twenty feet. It takes a little getting used to, framing up a shot of something that tiny from that far away, but, on mornings that the birds have decided to sleep in, I can at least find something to do to avoid moaning and pouting, two behaviours that birders specifically frown upon.
The other thing I do to isolate things even further is to zoom in at the shortest focal length that the lens will allow and under-expose by about a stop and a half. If I can’t de-emphasize the background with bokeh, then I’ll just surround my subject with inky black. Either way, instead of spending the day grousing that I don’t have the correct tool, I’ve become more comfortable with asking what I do have to work a little counter-intuitively. Because, after all, excusing oneself for not getting the picture “because I brought the wrong gear” is, well, for the birds.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I MAKE NO SECRET OF THE FACT that I would thunderously applaud the total disappearance of tripods from everyday photography. Beyond the pure pain, to both back and neck, created by an abundance of camera luggage, I feel that (a) pods utterly short-circuit the concept of spontaneity in the making of pictures and (b) two centuries-and-change is more than enough time for mankind to have perfected the light sensitivity of recording media (film, sensors, etc.) or to have invented the ideal stabilization system for cameras themselves.
And while there have been amazing advancements in both A and B ), there will still, perhaps always, be at least a few cases when a handheld shot will forever be denied us. And I freely admit that there are those for whom, for one physical reason or another, the pod is an absolute necessity, and I certainly do not mean to seem unkind in wishing that that was not so. Trying to train oneself to remain rock steady when shooting handheld is a very personal matter, and results vary wildly. I have known people who are solid enough to qualify as human tripods themselves, stolid folks who could probably nail a sharp image in the middle of a tsunami, while there are others who labor mightily in all but the most ideal conditions. A blessing upon both houses.
I’ve tried many exercises to brace the camera against my body, along with experiments in breath control, changes in ISO for faster exposures….you name it, I’ve given it a go. I’ve managed to eliminate the tripod for many shots that used to absolutely require it, such as super-close macros, but, even there, I occasionally have to drag the three-legged beast out of the closet for one last curtain call. Where I’ve seen the most frustration is with so-called “super-zooms” cameras, with some models already actively working against the shooter, either by jacking up the ISO to compensate for the loss in light at super-zoom range, increasing digital noise, or just having inadequate stabilization when the telephoto range is beyond 400mm, which plays hell with resolution, as seen with the cactus wren above.
Such circumstances would seem to argue for the fixed position that a pod offers, but here again, we get back to the idea of spontaneity and flexibility, crucial considerations when your subject is a bird of other wildlife. Shooting something stationary at a distance actually benefits from the use of the pod, whereas tracking a living creature makes it virtually useless. The answer to the problem still seems to exist in the forward-thinking tech that is forever evolving: that is, make all lenses perform better under low-light conditions, and evolve stabilization to the point where even a drunk with the DTs can hold the shot steadily enough for nearly any situation. The tripod is a relic of the 1800’s. It belongs in a museum, not in a kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LONGER ONE IS INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater the temptation is to streamline one’s “quantitative” approach to equipment….specifically, how much of it we need with us at any one time. We’ve all seen ( have often been) the folks who decide to lug along multiple camera bodies, lots of lenses, and assorted support devices and toys, and, for many of these people, that is a workable approach to doing good work. Others decide, over time, that they want less gear that does more. I have lived in Camp One, and I prefer life in Camp Two. I try to decide, before heading out, which camera/lens combo will give me most of what I want in most situations. That means leaving some stuff back at the house and maximizing the flexibility of what you have at hand, or, as the modified stock car racers term it, “run what you brung”.
In recent years, the increased number of wildlife shoots in which I tag along has more or less dictated the use of a telephoto of some kind. However, when the birds and beasts decide to sleep in, I love to default to close work with flowers or other nature subjects. That means trying to make the zoom do the work of a macro lens, since I don’t have a true macro with me at the moment. And, happily, it turns out that I can do about 90% of what I want from a macro with a telephoto anyway.
The minimum focal distance of a zoom dictates that you stand fairly far away from your target (say a flower), or else your autofocus will just whirr and dither, and so the first thing you have to do is back away. It’s not uncommon to stand fifteen or more feet from your subject before zooming in. Of course, at maximum zoom, your choice of apertures may be more limited, meaning you can’t open up wider than about f/4. This, in turn, means that you may not be as able to isolate a sharp foreground object from its softer background clutter as neatly as a macro would allow you to at, say, f/2 or wider. What I do in a case like this is actually underexpose a bit by shooting at a fast shutter speed, trying to position the subject in direct light and letting everything behind it roll off into darkness. It’s crude but easy.
A caveat: true macros are extremely precise instruments, and, in making a zoom do macro-like work, you shouldn’t expect to nail the same superfine detail as a lens dedicated solely to the task. That means you’ll see the delicate patterns on a butterfly’s wings, but you won’t be able to count the dots in his eyes. Still, in comparing the two images here, one a true macro and the other a “zoomacro”, many might concede that they both generally bring home the bacon (spoiler alert: the top photo is the genuine macro). Bottom line: it is easy to force a telephoto to perform this kind of double duty, making your shooting less complicated and cumbrous and producing fairly consistent results.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.
Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.
For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.
Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.
The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy, as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.
I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.
The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.