By MICHAEL PERKINS
I NEARLY MISSED OUT. Early last evening, my wife spied an internet article on the imminent arrival of what could only be called an astronomical trifecta, a moon which, for the first time since 1866 would qualify as a wow in three distinct cosmological categories, as an oversized, or “super” moon, a lunar eclipse, and an orange-red “blood moon”, seen to fullest effect in America’s western states.
Hey, I live in one of those……
I’ll be out in the driveway, honey. For, oh, I dunno, a while….
The first, or supermoon phase of the trifecta I had experienced several times before: lunar light strong enough to read by, with time exposures of three minutes, or even less, retrieving a full range of natural color in everything from orange roof tiles to blue skies…..hours after sunset. That’s what you see up top. A manual 35mm lens (the shutter remote won’t work with autofocus, anyway), an aperture of f/5.6 for fair depth of field, and the flat top of a mailbox for a makeshift tripod and, bingo, it looks like early dusk instead of 10pm.
The second phase had to wait for the early hours of this morning, at which time various web accounts predicted the earth would interpose itself perfectly between the sun and the moon, causing a crescent-shaped shadow to crawl up the orb from the bottom, giving it a deep red-orange glow beginning at around 6:15am (which in an Arizona winter, is still pre-dawn).
As with dusk the night before, the sky, appearing black to the naked eye, would reveal a lot of blue in a time-exposure taken just before sun-up, so I elected to make the moon a small part of an overall composition instead of an isolated solo superstar. I have plenty of textured zoom shots of the moon: what interests me in such special cases is the light and hue of it in context. In this case, fifteen seconds wide open at f/2 was enough to get the major bits to register. Still too lazy to find my tripod, I subbed a folding stepladder. A matter of five minutes’ work.
I certainly plan to be around in 2037 when another “Super Blue Moon/ Bloodmoon/Lunar Eclipse appears, but in years past I also have planned to retain all my hair and teeth, and the jury’s still out on that particular quest. In the meantime, all of life is littered with wonder, so, as the old pop song sez, pick up your hat, lock up your flat, get out, get under the moon…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STANDARD RECIPE FOR A PHOTOGRAPHIC “PRODUCT SHOT” is rooted in the formal studio lighting set-up. Regardless of whether you’re trying to create an idealized picture of a bottle of soda or a grand piano, the traditional approach is to set up a careful balance of artificial lights, then measure and meter until the object is lit wonderfully from every angle. It’s a system honored by time and tradition, with millions of magazine ads and commercials to attest to its appeal.
Which is fine, except I just happen to find it boring.
Instead of starting with a fully lit room and tweaking towards the ideal, I prefer, with the technique known as light writing, to start at the opposite end of the equation…with a totally dark room, the object in question, and a small, handheld LED, using each shot to light various contours of the object and comparing the results over several dozen frames. Instead of instantaneous exposures, I hold my lens open for as long as it takes for me to move my little torch into place, click on for several seconds at a time, then click off, re-position, and apply lighting to another surface on the object, repeating until I use a remote to close the shutter for good. Results vary wildly from frame to frame, and there is a lot of experimentation to get the look I want, simply because, well, I have no idea what that is when I start.
I may begin by imagining the object as being lit from the side, then try a few takes where the light source comes from above, or even behind. Unlike a traditional studio lighting scheme, light painting allows me to break the rules of nature completely, creating light patterns that could never be achieved in nature. I can spend several seconds arching the LED from one side to another, like a rapidly crossing sun, with the final image bearing every trace of where I’ve tracked over a long exposure.
If I change my mind about what to illuminate in the first ten seconds, for example, I can just adjust it in the next ten. I just re-position the lamp and either augment or erase what’s been stored in the camera in the moments prior. Most importantly, it gives me an infinite number of choices for showcasing the object, settling for a fairly realistic depiction or an utter fantasy or something in between. Comparing the two examples shown here of a series on a whiskey bottle shows how even minute variations in the application of the light give the object a distinctly different identity. And with light painting, the shooter exercises much finer control than is possible with even the best studio set-up….and at a fraction of the cost.
Whether you’re molding an image from a room full of lights or building illumination beam by beam in a darkened room, the whole idea is control. Light painting generates a lot of randomness, and requires a patient eye, but the sheer variety of interpretations it gives you can teach you a lot about the infinitesimal things that can mold a picture, bring more of them under your command.
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 PHOTOGRAPHY, WE FIRST LEARN HOW TO CONTROL LIGHT WHEN THERE IS A PRETTY GOOD SUPPLY OF IT. Our baby-step pictures are usually taken in the middle of the day, where it’s easier to over-expose than under-expose the shot. The sun is out and it’s a constant resource. We may step in and out of a shadow or need to fill a few gaps with flash, but mostly the issue of light is about managing something you have a big bunch of.
Once we venture into night shots, light becomes a precious commodity, like water in the desert. The equation is flipped. Now we’re struggling to get enough illumination to shape a shot, or sometimes just save it. We can shoot in the reduced light that’s on hand, but it takes a little more orchestration. Move into time exposures and the terms of engagement change again, with the ability to play God with the physics of things.
And then there’s light painting, selective hand illumination during long exposures, where the aim is suddenly beyond the merely real. In fact, light painting is about deliberately manipulating mood and atmosphere, of bringing a magical quality where none exists. It also is the kind of low-light photography with the least predictable results, and the highest possible failure rate. You are constantly in uncharted waters, since no two exposures come out even remotely alike. You’re flying blind with your eyes open.
I have recently begun to head outdoors to re-imagine trees in these artificial, fantasy-flavored “light compositions”, in an effort to lend heft to subjects that, in daylight, would register pretty low on the wow meter. Over the years, I have honed my technique with tabletop light painting in controlled interiors, but if I get one exterior shot in thirty that I can live with, that’s an amazing day, er, night.
I don’t have any wisdom to impart on these shots, since their value is so crazy subjective. You do it until you like it, that’s all. But do yourself a favor sometime and do wade in. You might catch the fever, or you may experience the urge to hurl your tripod over the neighbor’s wall like a javelin of rage.When you don’t have enough light, you’re kind of in free fall.
But even if you don’t stick the landing, it ain’t fatal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL SAY IT: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS.
We all say it. None of us believes it. It’s just not, well, American to throw aside our national myths, and the folk tale of the lucky, quick genius who zooms to the head of the line to fame, bounding in front of all the sloggers and suckers, is intoxicating. One blinding inspiration, we tell ourselves, just one great notion, and we can bypass all that “practicing and patience” stuff, the same virtues we feel honor bound to extol in others. In anyone else but me.
Me, I’m taking the shortcut.
So now is about the time when the photography angle of this rant should kick in, right?
Okay, here goes.
As the automode functions of cameras have grown ever more complex, they have made taking a perfectly acceptable picture effortless. Great for immediate gratification. Not so great for the art of photography. Think about it. It has become so fabulously easy to point and get something that isn’t too bad, that we are bypassing the slower, uglier, but eventually more satisfying process that comes with trial, error, recalculation, and risk. We produce more error-free pictures than ever before, but, to do that, we have to hang our own creativity…..the raw, sloppy process of imagineering our own vision…on the wall. We get fat and lazy. And so do our pictures.
Now that I have successfully defended my title as the great Grinch Buzzkill, trying to rid Whoville of good, clean camera fun, let me just ask one more question. Do we want a large mountain of “okay” pictures, taken, to an ever greater degree, by our cameras, or a smaller, more amazing pile of remarkable pictures borne of our own sweat and struggle? Tricky part: there is no right or wrong answer, just a choice to be made based on your own expectations. Turning off the “green zone” of guaranteed effect modes and really educating ourselves as to what is going into the making of our pictures means turning off a snapshot mentality and opting for the unpredictable.
Hey, I’m not suggesting you go all Matthew Brady and lug around forty pounds of wet plates and a covered wagon full of caustic chemicals just to take a birthday picture of Grandma blowing out her candles. But we can probably aspire to more than just the golden age of okay.
We already know how easy it is to take a picture. Now we need to rediscover how hard it can be, and what miracles can spring from our minds when we get our hands dirty and go down the rockier path.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE’S A REASON BATMAN DOESN’T SWING THROUGH THE SKY AT HIGH NOON. Or that Shakespeare didn’t have his witches crowded around a cauldron during the mid-morning coffee break. And, of course, there are no love ballads bearing the title By The Light Of The Silvery…Sun. Mood is everything in photography and many subjects just don’t convey mystery or romance when brightly lit. This is no truer anywhere else than in the American southwest.
In Arizona, New Mexico, and California, there are plenty of places where the sun blazes away like a Hollywood klieg light during most of the day. The light is harsh, white, glaring. By mid-morning across the summer months most of the richer colors are blasted right out of the sky, and the only way to capture beauty is to wait for the hours warmed by low light.
Or no light.
I’ve always been a big believer in the transformation of familiar materials once night falls, and, going back to my old baby box camera days, I have always marveled at the simple miracle of holding a shutter open long enough to wring a few extra drops of light—just enough–from the deepening dark. I call it waiting for the reveal, and it never fails to serve up surprises.
One night last week, I was waiting on the sunset to fully finish behind a destination restaurant in Paradise Valley, Arizona (that’s really the name of the town…kind of like naming your city “Wonderfulville”). The front entrances and patios were gorgeous, of course, but after about a half hour I found myself getting restless with the utter postcardiness of it all. I was looking for something off the grid, forbidden even.
I found this door around the side of the resort, hidden by an overgrown, narrow walkway and illuminated by a single bleak bulb. As a location, especially in the daytime, this is no one’s idea of a choice spot. Except at this precise moment. It actually works better because of how much you can’t see, and I can’t justify shooting it at all, except that the reveal was working for me. And, while I liked the more conventional Chamber of Commerce shots I had taken earlier, there is something iffy and offbeat about this frame that I keep coming back to.
Sometimes the underdog is the best dog in the fight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WISH I HAD A LEICA for every time I came away from a shooting project with something completely opposite from the prize I was originally seeking. The odd candid moment, the last-minute change of light, the bizarre intervening event….there are so many random factors even in the shots that are the most meticulously planned that photography is kept perpetually fresh, since it is absolutely impossible to ensure its end results, especially for infants playing at my level. That point was dramatically brought home to me again a few weeks ago, and all I had to do was turn my head 180 degrees.
All during a week’s stay at a conference center near Yosemite National Park, I had been struck by how the first view a visitor got of the main lodge and its surrounding pond, from an approach road slightly above the building, was by far a better framing of the place than could be had anywhere else on the grounds. A few days of strolling by the lodge from several approaches had not provided any better staging of the quiet scene, but, with the harshness of the daylight at that altitude, I was convinced that a long exposure done just after nightfall would convey a more peaceful, intimate mood than I could ever hope to capture by day. And so, on the evening before I was to leave the lodge for home, I decided to take my tripod to the approach road and set up for a try.
The road is rather twisty and narrow, and so its last turn before heading for the lodge’s parking areas is lit with a street lamp, and a bloody bright one at that. It’s a sodium vapor light, which registers very orange to the eye. I’m used to these monsters, since, back home in Phoenix, they are the predominant city light sources, creating less long-distance “light pollution” for astronomers in Flagstaff trying to see the finer features in the night sky. At any rate, the road was so bright that I had to set up closer to the lodge than originally planned in order to avoid a lot of ambient light over my shoulder killing the subdued dark I wanted for my shot. Intervening event and last-minute change of light. Changing my stance, I was also having problems with movement on the pond surface. It was a tad too swift to allow for a mirroring of the lodge, and a long exposure was going to soften it up even more. I was going to get pretty colors, but they would be diffuse and gauzy rather than reflective. At the same time I was trying to avoid framing another lamp, this one to the right of the lodge. Illuminating a walking path, it would, over the length of the exposure, pretty much burn its way into the scene and distract from the impact. Typical problems, but I was already losing my love for the project, and after about a half-dozen flubbed attempts, I was trying to avoid mouthing several choice Anglo-Saxon epithets.
It was the need to take a break that had me looking around to see if anything else could be done under the conditions, and that’s when I turned my head to really see the light from the approach road that had been over my shoulder. Candid moment. Now I saw that orange light illuminating the road, the rustic fence, and the surrounding trees and shrubs in an eerie, Halloween-ish cast. The same scene in daylight or natural color would have registered just as “some nice trees”, but now it was Sleepy Hollow, the scary walk home after the goblins come out, the place where evil things breed. Better yet, if I stepped just about six inches to the right of where I was standing, the hated lamp-post would be totally obscured by the largest tree in the shot, casting its shadow another 20 or so feet longer and serving up a little added drama as a bonus. Suddenly, the lamp had been transformed from a fiend to a friend. I swiveled the tripod’s head around, set the shot, and got where I needed to be in two clicks.
Better yet, the break in the action allowed me to re-boot my head vis-a-vis the lodge image. I turned back around, and, oddly, with the exact same exposure settings, hit a balance I could live with. Neither shot was perfect, but the creation of one had actually enabled the capture of the other. On the walk back to my cabin, I was already dissecting the weaknesses in both, but they each, in turn, had taught me, again, the hardest lessons, for me, in photography. Slow down. Look. Think. Plan, but don’t be afraid of reactive instinct. Sometimes, a sacred plan can keep you from “getting the picture”, figuratively and literally.
All I have to do is remember to turn my head around.