Macro Part 2 - Two Schools of Thought: 50mm vs Tilt-Shift

I think that I can trace my fascination with Macro Photography to my second year of undergrad. In the Fall of 2005 I had finished work on a selection of recordings which I intended to compile into a AlbumArt (small)new album. At the time, I still had a wide selection of sunglasses which I paired daily with my outfits. It was a phase. My favorite pair was a silver-lensed Oakley replicas purchased in Santiago, Chile. With my sister's old 5 Megapixel digital camera I set up a little light stage with a paper backdrop on a chair in my dorm room and captured the cover image for the album I ultimately called Reflections. Within the practice of photography (and this applies to video production as well), I observe two different schools of thought. The two are by no means mutually exclusive but they do operate based on different core principles.

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The first school of thought is what I call the 50mm School which focuses on using composition and natural light to capture an honest, unfiltered moment in time. Photographers in this school often focus on using prime lenses (like the 50mm which best replicates the perspective of the human eye) and rely upon their wit, patience and instinct to capture images that demonstrate their value through their ability to tell a story. The photographs are visually flawed, rough and raw by design and this often creates the sense that the intensity of reality is bleeding through and cannot fully be captured without dulling the image.

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The second school of thought I call the Tilt-Shift School and it focuses more on using technology to show the viewer something that their eye cannot naturally see. This is the world of zooms, macro lenses and (as the name suggests) tilt-shift lenses. Within this stream the detail, clarity and depth of a photograph must exceed ability of the human eye and is designed to take full advantage of the available technology in the pursuit of another reality than the one in which we inhabit. The goal therefore is to exceed, enhance and expand images beyond the confines of realism.

I often think about the difference between painting and theater as an example of these two philosophies. Actors on stage in a live performance have one shot to combine their lines, the stage blocking and lighting and the music into a coherent performance for those in attendance. The value is therefore more immediate because it doesn't really matter if everyone got their lines right yesterday. There is a new audience today and you have one shot to get it right. Practitioners of the 50mm School must situate their photos within a specific context because the value of the image comes from the fact that the photographer had to be there, at a specific place and at a specific time to capture a shot 12131591624_22b2714c5f_cthat is real and authentic in a way that could never be replicated again. In the Tilt-Shift School, value is derived from the ability of an artist to start with the raw materials of subject, context, light and camera manipulate each of those to create a stunning visual experience for the viewer.  In the same way, the painter takes a bucket of paint tubes, brushes and canvas and combines those elements into a pleasing composition that is far greater than the sum of it's parts.

Although I have enormous respect for both schools of though, my work has often leaned in the direction of the Tilt-Shift School myself, centering around the goal of elevating the subject matter through artistry. The kinds of skills used in this type of photography go hand in hand with the skills needed to build an audio recording piece by piece from the ground up or to combine dozens or hundreds of small video clips into a single, coherent visual story. I do have a great deal of envy, however, for people who are die-hard proponents of no-frills, no-Photoshop, prime-lens-or-bust photography. They don't get hung up on sharp focus or crushed highlights and their not afraid of dust on the lens or using high ISO to get their shot. I can identify with them, however, when it comes to the relentless, self-critical standard to which we both hold ourselves when judging our own art.

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They go out on an assignment to somewhere with stunning visuals and a breathtaking story but none of the photos they bring back quite capture , in their own estimation, the reality that they took in with their eyes. On the other hand, I sit down at a macro light stage and spend hours shooting thousands of pictures of water drops falling and splashing in a reflective pool and even the ones that capture the crisp, clear beauty of an impossibly beautiful moment in time still bug me because the background is a bit grainy in the shadows.

I'm convinced, however, that it takes a slightly insane obsession with perfection to drive people like me out into the cold on a January night to capture a shot of the moon rising Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 1.08.19 PMfrom the top of a desolate hill in the middle of the desert. And really, the insanity is a big part of what I love about this work. When I'm out on a shoot watching a man cleanly slicing the throat of a goat using the same cuts his father and grandfather taught him, I stop and ask myself, "This is crazy, right?"

And then I smile.