By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, SENSING THAT, AS A CHILD, I WAS ANXIOUS about turning out the lights at bedtime, explained calmly to me that there wasn’t anything in my darkened room that wasn’t there in the daytime as well.
It was a reasonable enough argument that I stopped thinking of my bed as a backstage repository for monsters. Still not sure about the inside of the closet, though.
Later, however, I was to realize that, in a sense, Dad was dead wrong in photographic terms, since all we really have to paint scenes with is light, a commodity which is drastically different before and after sundown.
One of the reasons I still take out the old tripod to bother with long night-time exposures is that the color relationships, and thus how we interpret the arrangement of light, are so very different than those seen in the day. We’re not just talking about the difference between lots of light and not much light. The way the colors fit with each other is vastly different when comparing night versus day. Imagine lighting your very favorite food until it takes on a hue so unnatural that you can no longer eat it. Consider pink peas, green steak, brown water….you get the idea. Now compare the daytime value of a color under natural light to its night-time equivalent, lit by either dying daylight or artificial illumination or some strange combination of both. I think the value of making comparative photos of objects over a variety of hours will stun you if you make the time for the exercise. It will also give you an amazing number of alternative choices for how you wish to render color, and under what circumstances.
We’ve all see those essays in which a photographer stays in one position along the rim of the Grand Canyon for many consecutive hours, interpreting the color and light shifts in the gorge over the course of a single day. But you don’t have schedule a vacation in Arizona to make your own demonstration of this idea. Anything that you think you know about, or know the “best” way to photograph, will make a good test subject. As a matter of fact, the more ordinary the scene, the better, since your evaluation of the results will force you to concentrate on just the light values alone, without excess distraction. For an example, the image seen here is of a desert botanical garden in the American southwest an hour after sunset. The sky as seen here is not brilliantly blue, but neither is it absolutely black. The concrete wall in front, beige during the day, is feeding off the sodium lights from the gift shoppe at right and registers as orange. The greens in the agaves and succulents are not the same tepid hue that they’d “read” in the afternoon, becoming something a bit more emerald-ish, while the shrubs are a more pronounced gold than they’d register at noon. More interestingly, all of the colors, transformed from the familiar, are now in a different dialogue with each other. Their relationships seem off, lending a slight surreality to the scene. I only wish I had thought ahead to take several more images spaced over an entire day to better demonstrate my point, although I know, from having done so in the past, that the contrasts can be quite dramatic.
Of course, the picture is not, in and of itself, anything to boast about, but it gives me a test pattern for similar shots in the future, shots for which I will really want to achieve a particular look. This also fits into my overall view of photography, which is that every shot is, in a sense, a rehearsal for another shot. So it sometimes seems that we take a lot of pictures that believe “don’t matter” to get the ones that do, only, paradoxically, if one photograph is a sketch for a later one, then indeed they all matter anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“WHETHER THE STONE HITS THE PITCHER OR THE PITCHER HITS THE STONE“, Sancho Panza explains in Man Of La Mancha, “it’s going to be bad for the pitcher”. I love that sentiment, since it explains how blurred, in life, the line really is between cause and effect. Start with the stone or start with the pitcher; the result seems the same, right? In photography, we make a lot of choices about, well, where to stand and point the camera. We also make decisions about whether to focus on cause or effect, and how that changes the kinds of pictures we wish to make.
There are times when amazing stories can be told on both sides of that equation. I often wish that baseball games could be shown in perpetual split-screen mode, since I love both the triumphant look of the batter who’s just connected and the outfielder who knows, in a second, that a rocket is coming his way. In terms of our visual legacy, both cause and effect have produced some of the world’s favorite images, so it’s inevitable that any shooter, pro or amateur, will eventually investigate both ways of recording experience.
This year’s highly-touted “Supermoon” phenomenon seemed like a good opportunity for me to make just such a choice. The global hype machine went into overdrive on the appearance of this brighter/bigger-than-normal orb in the November skies, with the result being a flood tide of photos of, uh, the moon. More precisely, millions of the same exact picture of the moon, with a few outliers framing it behind a palm tree, silhouetting a city skyline, or some other such filigree.
For me, then, the cause of all this hubbub seemed anticlimactic at best, and yet I still felt compelled to do something to mark the occasion. Then I realized that the effect, not the cause, held the possibility of making a picture that interested me. I recalled that I had never had the chance to make a photograph with only moonlight for illumination. My backyard was readable in every fine detail with my naked eye as the moon, which was over my shoulder, lit up the pool, the shrubbery, and our brick patio and walls. I also knew that what looked glowingly bright to me would be rendered as absolute darkness for a handheld camera shot, so out came the tripod.
With time exposures, you can shoot at low ISO, reducing noise to an absolute minimum. You can also shoot at a small aperture for maximum depth-of-field; you just lengthen the exposure time to compensate. That meant that, during the moon’s brightest hour, I would, at f/8, need an exposure of just under three minutes, enough to rescue a lot of detail and even catch some of the remaining deep blue in the sky, which your eye wants to see as simple black.
Fifteen or so tries later, I got what you see here. Not a sign of the moon itself (cause) but plenty of evidence of its presence (effect). The subject matter wasn’t mesmerizing, but the mood registered pretty much the way my eye saw it, which, when you’re working with a limited servo-mechanism like a camera, is pretty much a win.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO A PHOTOGRAPHER, THE ENTIRE WORLD IS PRETTY MUCH A “PUBLIC PLACE“, or, more properly, his own personal work space. However, that dreamy viewpoint is not shared by the world at large, and shooters who try to harvest their shots in museums, theatres, office lobbies and other popular gathering points are finding, more and more, that they are about as welcome as a case of shingles unless they are (a) quick (b) unobtrusive and (c) polite to the point of fawning.
It’s not hard to understand why.
First, some of the excess paraphernalia that photogs pack can strike curators and security personnel as hazardous, if not downright dangerous. This view is reflected in the growing number of attractions that have, of late, prohibited the use of selfie sticks. That one I kinda get. Photographers have also taken a hit in the number of places that will permit flash of any kind, and tripods and monopods are nearly always forbidden. The real determinant in why public spaces are less inclined to play ball with photographers, however, is that they simply don’t have to. More patrons than ever rely solely on cel phones, which, in turn, have become more sensitive to low-light situations, making for shorter exposures with fewer add-ons, a technical leap that ensures that everyone will come away with at least some kind of picture. If you need a longer exposure at lower ISO (hence less noise), you still need traditional, higher-end gear, but those numbers are shrinking so much that the gatekeepers can be a lot more restrictive overall.
In many dark spaces I simply can’t find a place to stabilize my camera long enough to take an extended exposure. And, with ‘pods off the table as an option, you’re down to benches, ledges, or other precarious surfaces, and, with them, the paranoid hovering of a mother eagle guarding her eggs to steer foot traffic away from her “nest”. A remote shutter release helps, but the whole project can raise the blood pressure a bit. At least with tripods, passersby can see a set space to steer themselves clear of. A crazy man waving his arms, not so much.
The above image was taken in one of the most light-deprived sectors of the New York Museum Of Natural History, with only soft illumination in the side showcases to redeem the pitch-black gloom. No flash would even begin to fill this enormous space, even if it were permitted, and the hall is always crowded, so resting my camera on a narrow rail, twenty-plus feet above the main floor, and going for a long exposure, is the only way for an acceptable degree of detail to emerge from the murk. My wife, who is known for nerves of steel, had to excuse herself and go elsewhere as I was setting up the shot. I couldn’t blame her.
Three or four anxious framings later, I got a workable exposure. As occurs with time exposures, people walking through the scene at a reasonable speed are rendered nearly invisible. The persons near the back of the elephant herd stood still long enough to take a flash snapshot, so their flash burst and some smudgy shadows of their bodies can be seen, as can the trailing LED light that someone else on the upper deck apparently was walking with in the upper right corner. But for this kind of shot, in these modern times, such artifacts are part of the new normal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS OFTEN RECOMMENDED as the way to afford yourself the most stability in a long exposure. After all, few of us are robotic enough to hold a camera stock-still for anything below a third of a second, so it’s a no-brainer to park your camera on something that’s too inhuman to flinch. You can also take amazing stuff hand-held on shorter night exposures, so long as you (a) have a lens that will shoot around f/1.8 or wider and (b) you can live with the noise a higher ISO will engender.
So, yeah, tripods have their place, but they are not the only determinants in the success of a night-time shoot. And those other x-factors can severely compromise your results. There is the stability of the tripod itself, which isn’t a big sweat if you shelled out $900 for a carbon-fiber Gitzo Pan/Tilt GK, but might generate heartburn if you got something closer to a set of metallic popsicle sticks for $29 at Office Max. The shot above was taken using my own modest (cheap) rig atop Mount Washington across from downtown Pittsburgh, and a few of the healthier gusts threatened to take it and me on a quick lap around the riverfront. Some people buy sandbags. Some believe in the power of prayer. Your choice.
Another x-factor for ‘pod shots is the actual weather you’re shooting in, which will, let’s say, shape your enthusiasm for staying out long enough to get the perfect shot. The smaller your aperture, the longer the exposure. The more long exposures you take, the longer you, yourself, are “exposed”…to snow, sleet, and all that other stuff that mailmen laugh at. Again, referencing the above image, I was contending with freezing drizzle and a windbreaker that was way too thin for heroics. Did I cut my session short? i confess that I did.
I could also mention the nagging catcalls of the other people in my party, who wanted me to, in their profound words, “just take the damned picture” so they could partake of (a)a warm bar, (b) a cold beer, (c) a hot waitress. Result: a less than perfect capture of a fairly good skyline. A little over-exposed, washing out the color. A little mushy, since the selfsame over-exposure allowed the building lights to burn in, rendering them glow-y instead of pin sharp. I was able to fix some of the color deficiencies later, but this is not a “greatest hits” image by any stretch.
Tripods can be lifesavers, but you must learn to maximize their effectiveness just like any other piece of camera equipment. If you’re going to go to a buncha trouble to get a shot, the final result should reflect all that effort, quality-wise.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OFTEN, THE SHOT YOU GET HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO THE SHOT YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED. We all like to think we are operating under some kind of “master plan”, proceeding along a Spock-o-logical path of reason, toward a guaranteed ( and stunning) result, but, hey, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all that.
Night shots are nearly always a series of surprises/rude shocks for me, since sculpting or harvesting light after dark is a completely different skill from what’s used in the daytime. Even small tweaks in my approach to a given subject result in wild variances in the finished product, and so I often sacrifice “the shot” that I had my heart set on for the one which blossomed out of the moment.
This is all French for “lucky accident”. I’d love to attribute it to my own adventurous intellect and godlike talent, but, again, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all about that, too.
So, as to the image up top: in recent years, I have pulled away from the lifelong habit of making time exposures on a tripod, given the progressively better light-gathering range of newer digital sensors, not to mention the convenience of not having to haul around extra hardware. Spotting this building just after dusk outside my hotel the other night, however, I decided I had the time and vantage point to take a long enough exposure to illuminate the building fully and capture some light trails from the passing traffic.
Minutes before setting up my ‘pod, I had taken an earlier snap with nothing but available light, a relatively slow shutter speed and an ISO of 500 , but hadn’t seriously looked at it: traditional thinking told me I could do better with the time exposure. However, when comparing the two shots later, the longer, brighter exposure drained the building of its edgier, natural shadow-casting features, versus the edgier, somber, burnt-orange look of it in the snapshot. The handheld image also rendered the post-dusk sky as a rich blue, while the longer shot lost the entire sky in black. I wanted the building to project a slight air of mystery, which the longer shot completely bleached away. I knew that the snapshot was a bit noisy, but the better overall “feel” of the shot made the trade-off easier to live with. I could also survive without the light trails.
Time exposures render an idealized effect when rendering night-time objects, not an accurate recording of “what I saw”. Continual experimentation can sometimes modulate that effect, but in this case, the snatch-and-grab image won the day. Next time, everything will be different, from subject to result. After all, this is photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ADVANCES IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WHETHER IN THE SCIENCES OF LENSES, FILMS, SENSORS OR TECHNIQUE, ALL HAVE, AS THEIR AIM, THE SAME RESULT: to make it easier to take more pictures…more often, and with fewer barriers between what you see and what you can catch in the box. Taking more pictures means increasing the yield of wonderful pictures, even if 95% of what you shoot is doody, and getting to the decisive moment of the “click” beats any other imperative. Any gimmicks or toys that don’t increase your readiness to shoot are wasteful detours.
This means that we are constantly weeding out dead growth, trimming away systems or ideas that have outgrown their usefulness. Rusty ways of doing things that cost us time, require extra steps, and eventually rob us of shots.
And that’s why it’s the age of the tripod is nearly over.
Getting past our artistic bias toward the ‘pod as a vital tool in the successful creation of images is tough; we still associate it with the “serious” photographer, even though today’s cameras solve nearly all of the problems tripods were once reliable in offsetting. What we’re left with, regarding the tripod’s real value, then, is old brain wiring and, let’s face it, sentiment.
More importantly, to my first point, the tripod is not about, “Okay, I’m ready!”. It’s about, “Hold on, I’ll be ready in a minute.” Worse yet, to the petty dictators who act as the camera police in churches, monuments, retail establishments and museums, they scream, “you can’t be here”. Call me crazy, but I still think of lack of access (spelled “getting kicked out”) as, well, sort of a hindrance to photography.
Tripods were, once upon a time, wonderful protection again several key problems, among them: slow film/sensor speed, vibration risk, and sharpness at wider apertures, all of which have long since been solved. Moreover, tripods may tempt people to shoot at smaller apertures, which could lead to softer overall images.
I readily concede that tripods are absolutely vital for extended night exposures, light painting, miniature work, and some other very selective professional settings. But for more than a century, ‘pods have mostly been used to compensate where our cameras were either flawed or limited. So, if those limits and flaws have faded sufficiently to allow you to take a nighttime snap, handheld at f/1.8, with a 1/15 shutter speed and the virtual guarantee of a well-lit shot, with negligible noise, why would you carry around twice the gear, pretty much ensuring that you would lose time, flexibility, and opportunities as a result?
The tripod has served us well, as was once true of flash powder, glass plates, even the torturous neck braces used to hold people’s heads in position during long exposures. But it no longer has a leg to stand on.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.