By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST ELUSIVE EFFECTS IN ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY would seem to be the one most easily achieved: the look of a straight line, the foundation upon which an orderly image is built. However, the human eye is often more unreliable than assumed when it comes to reading and identifying that which is supposed to be “straight.”
We’ve all been confounded by optical illusions that present lines that are not, objectively, straight at all, even though our brains, based on our interpretation of the visual data, say they must be. However, we tend to dismiss this sensation as trickery, something we don’t have to sweat about in making a “real” picture. And that is probably a mistake.
Based on what kind of architectural design you’re shooting, what lens you choose, even where you stand, a straight line, either horizontal or vertical, can seem to bend or lean, making our “factual” images less than trustworthy.
Even setting up a shot on a carefully calibrated tripod and a bubble level can produce a result that looks as if it was manipulated. Of course, based on what look you desire, you may regard geometric reality as irrelevant, and deliberately engineer ” unreality” into a photograph. That’s why we make a distinction between taking a picture and making one.
As an example, the picture seen above was taken super-wide, at 18mm, to intentionally exaggerate the size of the room, making some verticals bow in while others register normally, and playing stretchy with the ceiling arches and floor horizon. The idea here was to distort the already extreme Art Deco accents and give them an extra funhouse quality. Shooting with a more conventional focal length like 35 or 50 mm would have made for straighter lines, but would also have sacrificed every other effect achieved at 18mm.
Bottom (straight or crooked) line: dimensions and angles are suggestions, not commandments. But it’s a lot easier to break rules creatively once you understand how they work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISIT ENOUGH TOURIST SITES and you will eventually encounter the challenge of capturing very large objects, trying to squeeze the whole of a cathedral or a canyon into a single frame. Using a wide-angle lens is the first instinct, of course, but since even a 35mm is considered a wide-angle of sorts, there are any number of choices that all have their own pluses and minuses.
The lower the millimeter number, of course, the wider the lens. Simple enough on the surface, but you still have to decide what kind of wide you prefer. Each lens has slightly different coverage and properties, with the “super-wides” adding their own distinctive traits to the space you’re trying to capture. The two main properties you’ll notice most are barrel distortion and dimensional exaggeration, both of which will affect your lens choice for a given shooting situation.
Let’s look at barrel distortion. Lenses wider than about 24mm can make straight walls appear to bend outwards like the sides of a barrel, creating an unreal, and, for some, somewhat claustrophobic appearance most associated with the ultimate width of a fisheye (something around 8mm). The effect is that of a world cramped into the inside of a snow globe, and, depending on what look you’re going for, it can either be marvelous or miserable. It’s marvelous, for example, if you want to suggest tremendous depth in a shot.
And that’s dimensional exaggeration, the other key trait of a super-wide, in which the perception of distance from front to back is greatly hyped, making a deep space look even deeper. Shooting a cavernous area like the inside of the rotunda at the Los Angeles Central Library, as seen in the frame at top, you may want to suggest vastness, and a fisheye, such as was used here, does that superbly. All I’ve done to defeat the accompanying barrel distortion is to crop away the original frame edges. Of course, using a more conventional focal length like a 24mm, as seen directly above, shows all dimensions in a much more natural way, but they sacrifice coverage area, revealing less of the ceiling and sides and creating the sensation that the shot is not inclusive of enough information. In the case of both lenses, how you frame and where you stand will produce significant variations on how you render the space.
Photography is about what to fill the frame with, of course, but it also involves some planning as to how technology does that best, based on the tools at hand and what they’re equipped to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN USING WIDE-ANGLE LENSES, we believe that we are revealing more “reality”. That is, we began to think that a narrower aspect ratio is somehow “hiding” or clipping off visual information, whereas a wide allows us to “see everything”. But once you’ve shot with a wide-angle for a while, you realize that it’s, at best, a trade-off. The lens giveth and the lens taketh away.
Wide-angles do, certainly, increase the view from left to right, but, in so doing, they add their own little quirks, such as softer resolution along the edges, chromatic aberration, barrel distortion (that feeling that straight lines are bending outward at the sides of the frame), and an exaggeration of the distance between the front and back of the shot.
Bearing all this in mind, I feel that, since a pretty wide lens, the 18-55mm, is now included with nearly every DSLR camera kit, it’s important to see wides as both an aid to showing reality and an effective tool for interpreting or altering it. Think of your wides as art glass, as effects lenses, and you open up your mind to how it can not only record, but comment on your subject matter.
And, let’s take it a step further, as in when wides become ultra-wides, as in the 8 to 12mm range, where the lens becomes a true fisheye. Now we’re consciously aware that we’re using an effects lens, something that is designed specifically for a freakish or distorted look. And now we have to challenge ourselves in a different way.
The standard fisheye shot is a self-contained orb, a separate universe, within which everything radiates distortion outward from the center concentrically, like a kaleidoscope or a paper snowflake. But a fisheye frame can also be composed to combine all the left-right, back-front information of a standard wide-angle (more narrative space) while also playing to the surreal look of something designed to challenge our visual biases of what’s “real”. The effect can also, as in the above image, forcefully direct the viewer’s eye to see along very precise channels. In this picture, the action of the shot begins at the right front, and tracks diagonally backwards to the left year, with the focus softening as you look from “important” to less “important”. The drama in the woman’s face is also abetted by the unnatural dimensions of the image, like one part of a nightmare serving to stage another part.
Wide-angle lenses can conceal and interpret, not just reveal. They allow us to see more from left to right, but there is a lot of wiggle room in how we show it. You have to accept the idea that all optics are distortions of reality to some degree, and make the bias of your particular glass serve your narrative goals.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ULTIMATE ADAGE ABOUT OLD HOUSES, I.E.,”THEY SURE DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THIS ANYMORE“, is a sentiment which will haunt the casual photographer at every turn inside an historic home. No, they don’t make them anything like this anymore, especially when it comes to the size of rooms, angles of design, decorative materials, or light flow, and so shooting an antique residence requires a little re-fitting of the brain to insure that you come home with something that you can, you know, bear to look at.
Another cliché that comes to mind, this one about size: “the kitchen was so small, you had to go outside to chew.” Again, it can’t become a cliché unless it’s partially true, and it does apply to many of the rooms in pre-1950’s houses. People were shorter. The concept of personal space, especially in an urban setting, seems claustrophobic to us today. That makes for photos that will also look cramped and tight, so shoot with as wide a lens as you can. This is the place for that 18-55mm kit lens you got with your camera, since it will slightly exaggerate the side-to-side and front-to-back distances within the smaller rooms. It will also allow you to get more in the frame when composing at shorter distances, which, on velvet rope tours, can be reduced to inches.
One crucial thing to be mindful of is that 90% of the light you get on old house tours will be window light. Highlights will almost certainly be blown out on things like sheer drapes, but you need all the light you can get, since it’s a cinch that flash will be prohibited and the interior wood trims, floors and furnishings will likely be very dark in themselves, acting as light blotters. Learn to live with the extreme contrasts and resulting shadowy areas. Expose for the most important elements in a room. You cannot show everything to perfect advantage. In some interior rooms in older homes, you don’t have a shot at all, unless you ditch the rest of the tour group and have about twenty minutes to yourself to set things up. Unlikely.
If you are shooting with a wide-angle, you may not be able to go any further open on aperture than about f/3.5. This means either working rock-solid handheld or cranking up the old ISO. If you do the latter, don’t go back later with an editor and try to rescue the darker areas: you will just show the smudgy noise that you allowed with the higher ISO, so, unless you like the warm look of black mayonnaise, resist.
Again, if shooting wide, remember that you can also zoom in tight enough to isolate clusters of items in charming still life arrangements with basically no effort on your part. Hey, an expert has already been paid to professionally build your composition for you with period bric-a-brac, so it’s easy pickings, right?
Admittedly, shooting in an old house can be like trying to conduct a prize fight inside a shoe box.
Or it can be like coming home.