Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Assignment 2: tutor feedback

I got my tutor’s report on Assignment 2: Elements of Design over a week ago but haven’t managed to find the time to write up this blog post until now.

I was hugely relieved to see that it started with the sentence “Overall this was an excellent 2nd assignment“! But of course the really useful feedback was the detailed constructive critique that made up the rest of the report.

Much of the feedback was with regard to some technical issues, which I’m hoping I will learn to correct as I go along on my photographic journey:

  • Shooting at too high ISO and introducing too much noise in one particular instance – should have gone for a longer exposure time and used a tripod
  • Similarly, using too slow a shutter speed for a shot containing a crowd of people meant that none of them came out sharp enough to be a focal point
  • My prints came out warmer in tone than the onscreen images; I put this down to it being a new printer that I don’t think I’ve optimised yet. I’ll need to sort this before the Assignment 3 on colour!
  • I used an 18-200mm zoom lens for most of the images in the assignment, even though I have a couple of reasonable primes, and this led to a couple of observations:
    • first, it’s not a fast or expensive lens and this meant that I sacrificed some image quality
    • second, it led to a wide variety of focal lengths being used and sacrificed what could have been a more consistent ‘feel’ to the images

The choice of the zoom lens is related to another observation that my tutor made, which wasn’t evident to me at the time but is very obvious now… he remarked that my photos of people were shot from high vantage points or from behind the subjects. As he politely phrased it I was “obviously trying to remain fairly inconspicuous”; what I think he means is: I’m too timid! This is very true. i’m not that comfortable (yet) with getting in close and taking pics of people. This is something I need to work on, especially for the People & Place module of the degree course.

The feedback on my blog was pretty good, although he did point out that I tend to go in for long posts that maybe go into more detail than needed. I should be mixing it up a bit with shorter posts. I have a few ideas for shorter pieces so I will take this feedback on board.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the tutor’s feedback and already working to take it on board as I move through part three.


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Assignment 2: Elements of Design: Railway Stations

Brief:

Incorporate the insights you have learned so far on the course into a set of photographs directed towards one type of subject, which between them will show the following effects:

  • single point dominating the composition
  • two points
  • several points in a deliberate shape
  • a combination of horizontal and vertical lines
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • distinct, even if irregular, shapes
  • at least two kinds of implied triangle
  • rhythm
  • pattern

Submissions:

Small versions below for online viewing. Larger versions and contact sheet in a downloadable zip file.

UPDATE: tutor report uploaded.

I chose as my subject railway stations.

First: a gallery view of all the images. Click a thumbnail to open larger images.

Then: a brief analysis of each image.

The images are grouped according to where they were taken, and in each case I have noted which of the aspects of the brief I believe the image meets.

Pickering, fence

Pickering, fence

The first set of shots are from Pickering station, a traditional old steam train station on the North York Moors Railways line. This image was chosen to demonstrate diagonals, as in addition to the fence itself being made of diagonal slats, there is a diminishing perspective effect that leads the eye along a lower-left to top-right diagonal.

Pickering, signs

Pickering, signs

Fulfilling the brief for an image with two points, this also has as a secondary point of interest a pattern in the brickwork background.

Pickering, tracks

Pickering, tracks

Given the location, this may be a fairly obvious choice of subject matter for a combination of horizontal and vertical lines. I did however work on making it interesting in terms of its texture, which can be interpreted as a pattern of sorts.

Pickering, timetables

Pickering, timetables

The final image from Pickering is to show the effect of implied triangles, predominantly with the timetables to the right, echoed by the longer triangle formed by the two black signs to the left. The triangle formed by the timetables is doubly unstable from a visual point of view, as it is not only an inverted triangle and therefore top-heavy, it is in effect an incomplete rectangle, so the sense of something missing is part of the visual story.

Malton, canopy and lampposts

Malton, canopy and lampposts

The sole image from Malton, a small local station on the line between York and Scarborough, is a silhouette of the ornate wrought-iron canopy that shelters the platform, giving a series of distinct shapes. The repetition of the lamppost heads gives a little secondary point of interest.

York, exterior

York station is a grand old Victorian building, architecturally impressive both inside and out. This exterior shot is an example of a lot of different distinct shapes dominated by the curve of the roofline, which give the eye various points of interest to rest on.

York, waiting passengers

York, waiting passengers

I spotted this family momentarily arrange themselves into an implied triangle before my eyes and took a quick shot. On reviewing it, I saw several secondary triangles dotted around the frame (from left to right): the man with crutches, the girl standing next to her suitcase, the woman sat down with her bags beside her, the woman leaning over her luggage, the man’s legs, the A-frame sign. Triangles everywhere…

King's Cross, great hall roof

King’s Cross, great hall roof

The station with most material for the assignment was King’s Cross, a real mix of architectural styles. This first image captures the curve of the roofline in the original main hall of the station. I also see a rhythm in the diminishing repetition of the lines down the line of perspective.

King's Cross, great hall roof

King’s Cross, great hall roof

To demonstrate how the same subject can produce very different types of lines, by changing the angle I got a picture of the same roof from directly underneath, showing the combination of horizontal and vertical lines that form the pattern of the roof.

King's Cross, lone passenger

King’s Cross, lone passenger

This cool-looking chap standing on his own waiting demonstrates the effect of a single point dominating the composition. As a secondary point of interest you can observe the combination of horizontal and vertical lines formed by the barriers he is leaning on.

King's Cross, passengers and shadows

King’s Cross, passengers and shadows

With this I was attempting to show the effect of several points in a deliberate shape. While it may be a bit of a stretch, in this image I see a circle of people subconsciously conforming to the edges of the circular shadow cast on the ground.

King's Cross, departures roof

King’s Cross, departures roof

The new departures concourse at King’s Cross is an astonishing piece of architecture, whose centrepiece is a mesh-like roof that extends downwards to meet the ground. The curves of the roof sculpture perfectly complement the pattern and rhythm of the diamond grid effect, giving an image that the eye naturally flows around.

Self-evaluation:

I found this assignment more satisfying than Assignment 1, and I am happier with the outcome. Maybe this is because I enjoyed working to a theme and particularly found working in black and white, and focusing on shapes/lines etc very interesting and stimulating. Following tutor advice on Assignment 1, I shot many more photos while working on this assignment (over 200, whittled down to the final 12). The advice was good; having a wider selection of images to choose from, and the opportunity to revisit and reshoot, meant that I could be more discerning on finding the most suitable version of the image to illustrate the effect I was trying to achieve.

Evaluating my submission against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • I believe that working in black and white has improved my visual awareness; it helped me to see the design elements more clearly, and after a while I started to understand what photographers mean when they say they ‘see’ in black and white
    • I made an effort to find strong lines and shapes in the viewfinder, and had some shots already in mind before I started; what I didn’t expect was to find secondary elements in several photos, e.g. seeing a pattern in an image originally intended for curves, or an implied triangle in the background, etc; I’m finding that I’m more alert to these design elements appearing in the viewfinder
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the resultant set of photographs; as well as meeting the brief and applying the learnings from this part of the course, I believe they work as a series of images and hang together well conceptually and visually
    • Whilst the overall theme was adhered to, I made a conscious decision to have a mixture of subjects, from broad architectural sweeps to smaller details and people; as a refine my personal style and preferences I may look back on this set and see it as more eclectic, but I still feel like I’m ‘trying on’ different types of photography
    • In terms of the communication of ideas, looking back on the final set I must confess that it is a bit of a mixed bag, possibly due to my decision to shoot at different stations and choose a variety of subjects; the Pickering ones evoke a feeling of nostalgia, while the King’s Cross ones give more of a sense of vast space, with scale and shape dominating – there is some coherence in sub-groups but as a whole the sensations evoked are a little dissonant
    • I concede that I need to work harder on understanding why I make certain photographic decisions, beyond the aesthetic attraction; I still shoot mostly subconsciously (or purely visually), without having a particular message I want to say through the medium
    • I am generally pleased with the technical quality of most of the images, although there are a couple that are not as sharp as I would have liked; one of the limitations of the choice of subject was that I couldn’t use a tripod, so every shot was handheld, and stations are often quite dark and shady spaces. I did endeavour to get everything sharp but in some instances encountered these limits
    • Two of the shots with people in are not as sharp as I would like (York, waiting passengers and King’s Cross, passengers and shadows), but in both cases the shape I was trying to capture was only fleetingly present and there was no opportunity to reshoot; I felt these images were strong enough visually to get over this slight softness
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • As mentioned above, I still feel like I am working out what styles of photography I enjoy (and am good at) and so feel as though I am still a way short of finding my ‘personal voice’
    • That said, I really found shooting in black and white very satisfying and helpful, and allowed me to more strongly emphasise the visual elements that I want the viewer to look at; I’ve been shooting in black and white a lot more in my day-to-day photography and am keen to continue
    • While some of the specific subjects may not show a massive degree of imagination (such as Pickering, tracks), I hope that some of the others are examples of showing some level of creativity in angle, framing and lighting (such as King’s Cross, passengers and shadows and Malton, canopy and lampposts)
  • Context:
    • I put more preparation into this assignment than the first one
    • I re-read the course notes from both parts 1 and 2 in order to make sure I was applying the cumulative learnings
    • I did two learning log posts as part of my preparation, discussing my original choice of theme and my ongoing shooting sessions over the 2-3 weeks that I was working on the assignment
    • Two books in particular helped me during the assignment: one quite practical, ‘Creative Black & White’ [1] and the other more conceptually inspirational: ‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ [2], as recommended by my tutor; this is where I had the realisation that great photos are usually the result of a number of attempts, and this is why I shot many more images for this assignment
    • As per the first assignment I took a look at, and swapped comments with, other OCA students who have completed the assignment or are working on it at the same time as me

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this assignment and am looking forward to the constructive feedback from my tutor.

1. Davis, H. 2010. Creative Black & White: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques. Indianapolis: Wiley

2. Lubben, K. 2011. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson 


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Assignment 2: Elements of Design – research

My research and preparation for Assignment 2 is taking shape now (if you’ll pardon the weak pun) and aside from the actual photography undertaken so far, it comprises the following elements:

  • Re-reading: I’m going over the notes and exercises from both part 1 and part 2 to make sure I’m continuing to apply all the concepts I’ve been exposed to thus far.
  • Black and white: as I’ve been shooting b/w for this whole section of the course, I’m planning to do the same for the exercise, but I want to get a better understanding of how to shoot and process b/w to best effect, particularly as I want the set of photos to hang together as a series. To help with this I got a book ‘Creative Black & White’ [1] to give me a primer on the subject.
  • Train stations: as I chose this as my theme, I thought it a good idea to check out images that others have done of the same subject matter, to see if they inspire me. As it turns out, I have found lots of images very similar to those that I’ve already taken, which is in one way encouraging (I’m finding interesting ideas) and another slightly disappointing (I was hoping for some outside-the-box inspiration).

I’ve already taken lots of shots at Kings Cross, York, Vauxhall, Richmond, Malton and Pickering stations. I think I’m finding good images for some of the specific items on the list:

  • single point dominating the composition
    • lone passenger waiting in empty space
    • pigeon wandering down the platform
    • discarded disposable coffee cup on platform
  • two points
    • two passengers waiting on a platform
  • several points in a deliberate shape
    • not completely sure about this one, but I might have a bunch of people waiting in an approximate circle

On the ‘points’ ones, I want to make sure it’s not just variations on the same theme i.e. people standing around waiting. Ideally for one of these I’ll find a new idea, maybe an inanimate object. The trouble with stations is that they are visually quite busy and lack the plain empty backdrop that makes a point or points stand out enough. I will persevere. I also need to consider the positioning of the points and what that does to the image in terms of division and movement.

  • a combination of horizontal and vertical lines
    • obvious choice: train tracks
    • slightly less obvious: stairs/escalators, fences
  • diagonals
    • lots of these, mostly from diminishing perspective of tracks etc
  • curves
    • curving tracks with diminishing perspective
    • some nice architectural features at Kings Cross, especially the new departures concourse

The ‘lines’ ones are possibly the most prevalent with this subject matter; they are everywhere. My challenge is to make them interesting! I need to pay close attention to the different ways in which the lines move the eye around the frame.

  • distinct, even if irregular, shapes
    • a few options here, mainly close-ups of Victorian metalwork at York and Malton
    • also some of the signage at the steam train station in Pickering
  • at least two kinds of implied triangle
    • I have one reasonable strong idea here: traveller with trolley case
    • other ideas I’ve seen so far are a bit too obvious e.g. three barrels in a triangle stack; I’m still looking for something a bit more implicit
  • rhythm
    • a few options on this, especially at the larger city stations; Kings Cross with its contemporary roof sculpture and York with its more traditional one
  • pattern
    • again, a few ideas here; I need to get clear in my own head which images are more suited to ‘pattern’ and which to ‘rhythm’

My next steps are:

  • Review the images taken so far and identify candidates for each aspect of the brief
  • If necessary, re-shoot them to achieve optimal sharpness, composition etc
  • Find images for the briefs I’ve been struggling with so far
  • Process the images to ensure a consistent look and feel (in the likely event that they weren’t all taken at the same time with the same lens in the same lighting conditions)
  • Start compiling into the Assignment submission format

1. Davis, H. 2010. Creative Black & White: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques. Indianapolis: Wiley


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Assignment 2: Elements of Design – preparation

I started properly thinking about Assignment 2 just over a week ago, while I was doing the last couple of exercises in part 2. I looked over the brief which I reproduce here for reference:

The idea behind this assignment is to incorporate the insights you have learned so far on the course into a set of photographs directed towards one type of subject. You should produce 10-15 photographs, all of a similar subject, which between them will show the following effects:

  • single point dominating the composition
  • two points
  • several points in a deliberate shape
  • a combination of horizontal and vertical lines
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • distinct, even if irregular, shapes
  • at least two kinds of implied triangle
  • rhythm
  • pattern

Choose from these groups of subjects:

  • flowers and plants
  • landscapes
  • street details
  • the raw materials of food
  • if you prefer, choose your own subject

I picked out the phrase “incorporate the insights you have learned so far on the course” – meaning from both part 1 and part 2; I need to display my cumulative knowledge gained, not just the design elements piece.

Inherent in this assignment is a theme, which will make the series of photos hang together better than the Assignment 1 set, which was pretty eclectic.

Acting on feedback from my tutor on Assignment 1, I will:

  • Shoot more and not assume that I have the best shot in the bag first time (and keep all my outtakes this time)
  • Ensure all the images are sharp enough
  • Pay attention to cropping and ideally maintain the same aspect ratio for the series, unless there is a compelling reason to not do so

And of course I will relate the results back to the assessment criteria for the assignments generally. I have decided that I do want to submit the course for formal assessment as I do want to work towards a recognised qualification.

Choice of subject

Of the list provided, I ruled out a few as not inspiring me enough for the variety of effects I need to achieve; flowers and plant, landscapes and food didn’t really appeal to me as subjects; I’d decided to continue the mono-only look of the exercises I did in this part of the course, to better emphasise the design elements with minimal distraction, and I felt that natural subjects such as the above wouldn’t suit the black-and-white aesthetic as well as ‘street details’. Black and white generally makes me think of street photography, and it’s a genre I’m more interested in than landscapes, plants etc.

So from that list, I’d narrowed it down to street details. However, this still seemed a little too broad, and I wanted to focus on a particular type of street detail – a location, an architectural style, something.

After a while I stopped thinking about it too deeply and let my mind wander as I moved through my normal weekly routine, waiting for inspiration to strike. And it did.

As I work away from home, I spend a reasonable amount of time at railway stations: from small local ones with a single platform (including an old steam train station in my home town) to huge city centre terminals. And I really love the architecture of train stations, from the grand old Victorian style to the more contemporary revamps such as London King’s Cross. They are theatres of line, shape and pattern. The final piece of the puzzle clicking into place was my long-held belief that train stations always look better in black and white.

So: train stations it is.

Not technically ‘street details’ as stations are an unusual mix of being indoors and outdoors at the same time; contained but open ended and sometimes open-topped. So this theme falls into the last category of ‘a subject of my own choosing’, albeit inspired by one of the list items.

Initial preparation

On the day the idea struck me I took a few shots with my phone’s camera, just to remind me of some of the possibilities. The quality is pretty bad but I decided this was quicker and more useful than writing down notes. I’ve subsequently gone back with my Leica and my DSLR and taken more considered versions of these, plus more besides.

In fact by the time I got round to writing this, I’d already got almost 200 shots in the bag… but they still need a lot of sorting through.

I think I have good candidates for:

  • a combination of horizontal and vertical lines
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • distinct, even if irregular, shapes
  • rhythm
  • pattern

I’m not wholly sure I have good enough ones yet for:

  • single point dominating the composition
  • two points
  • several points in a deliberate shape
  • at least two kinds of implied triangle

So that’s where I’m up to. Hopefully I’ll be able to complete the assignment by the end of August, the target date agreed with my tutor.