Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Assignment 1: tutor feedback

I should have done this a few weeks ago when I first got my feedback from my tutor, but I got caught up in cracking on with the Part 2 exercises and have left this until now. In fact, it was starting to think about Assignment 2 that reminded me that I never covered off the debrief from Assignment 1!

Anyway: better late than never.

The feedback was generally positive, much to my relief. I presume that all OCA students experience a little apprehension when sending off the first assignment on any course. Well I certainly did.

The opening statement was that this was a good start to the module, with a few small technical issues, “mainly related to explaining why you make certain decisions. It is the conceptual thinking behind these decisions that is at the heart of making the switch to degree level learning”.

The main points of feedback that I need to work on:

  • I don’t shoot enough
    • I settle on choosing an image from too small a selection of shots taken
    • The tutor recommended a book on Magnum Contact Sheets [1] that laid bare the contact sheets of several illustrious photographers over the last century, and I’ve found this absolutely fascinating, a real eye-opener… they really don’t get the right shot first time, and have a ‘hit rate’ much lower than I expected. And if the professionals work like that, I need to give myself many more options when I shoot so  that I can select the best image at the editing stage
    • I didn’t help myself on this by accidentally deleting a lot of my outtakes, so my contact sheets were minimal and it appeared as if I’d shot even less than I had
  • I need to be wary of different crops and aspect ratios
    • Consistent aspect ratio helps a series of images hang together better
    • There needs to be a good reason for a variety of crop ratios (not sure my reasons were justifiable enough)
  • One of my images (‘blunt’) didn’t really hit the brief well enough
    • I knew this… but I let it go; with hindsight I’d have found an alternative image or chosen another word pair

The other comment that I took on board was that I am still trying a variety of photographic genres, and have yet to settle on my own style. Given how early I am in my studies, I’m comfortable with this.

All in all, I was pleased with the feedback and grateful for the pointers for improvement.

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

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Reflections on Part 1: The Frame

I’ve just submitted Assignment 1: Contrasts and therefore finished Part 1 of The Art of Photography. Time for a little self-reflection…

What I’ve enjoyed:

  • Having the challenge of the exercises and the assignment to stretch my photographic understanding and experience
  • The combination of refreshing my mind on aspects of photography that I was aware of, but didn’t practice enough (like balance, positioning elements in the frame etc) and new knowledge that I’ve found has really made me see photography in a different way (e.g. the effect of focal length on an image)
  • Having my ‘photographic eyes and mind’ opened up – I’m much more alert to the world around me, and see photo opportunities where I would otherwise have walked by, even on the rare occasions that I don’t have a camera with me
  • Seeing what other OCA students are up to – always good for a bit of motivation, encouragement, inspiration, friendly rivalry…!

What’s been hard work:

  • The assignment I found quite daunting; I got through all of the preceding exercises in a month, then took exactly the same amount of time for the assignment alone… I think the size of it (17 specifically-themed images) made me apprehensive at first, and I only really got cracking on it by forcing myself to sit down and start drafting the final submission and breaking the task down into smaller parts
  • Reading: my most useful reading has been the practical visual stuff on composition etc, and I’ve tried but temporarily set aside the more art history and/or theory-based texts… I’ve got partway through key works by Clark, Cotton and Sontag but feel that I need to re-read them with fresh eyes
  • Other research: I haven’t managed to find many opportunities for (e.g.) study visits, photographic exhibitions, looking at particular photographers (although I have asked for Cartier-Bresson’s Scrapbook for my upcoming birthday!)… but I am hoping that this will change as I’m working in London for the rest of this year, and the opportunity to at least get out to some galleries is much greater
  • Just finding the time some weeks, although I guess everyone feels like that sometimes

That’s it for now. Just wanted to get some of these thoughts and realisations written down. On to Part 2!


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Assignment 1: Contrasts – inspiration from my old photos

As suggested in the brief for Assignment 1, I’ve had a look back through my existing photos with a view to assembling some contrasting pairs. This was harder than I expected! But I came up with some examples that could serve as inspiration for the real thing. As far as possible I tried to have a thematic link within each pair.

1. Dark & Light

The same view on a very dark winter’s night and an earlier evening / longer exposure version.

Dark

Dark

Light

Light

2. Many & Few

An overhead shot of lots of pansies and a simple crop of a few forget-me-nots.

Many

Many

Few

Few

3. Continuous & Intermittent

A long winding path versus a series of posts at the seaside.

Continuous

Continuous

Intermittent

Intermittent

4. Large & Small

A giant poppy and a normal-sized daisy.

Large

Large

Small

Small

5. Solid & Liquid

Solidity represented by a huge old steam train, liquid represented by a still lake.

Solid

Solid

Liquid

Liquid

6. Opaque & Transparent

A chinese lantern before and after drying out.

Opaque

Opaque

Transparent

Transparent

7. Still & Moving

Bikes before and during a mountain bike jump track day.

Still

Still

Moving

Moving

8. Straight & Curved

Two contrasting monuments in the same city.

Straight

Straight

Curved

Curved

9. Black & White

A dark train station clock at night, and a set of white vases on a white background.

Black

Black

White

White

10. Solid & Liquid – same shot

An unfortunate parking accident.

Liquid & Solid

Liquid & Solid


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Assignment 1: Contrasts – initial thoughts

Having completed the exercises in Part 1: The Frame, my attention now turns to the Part 1 Assignment: Contrasts. I’ve been thinking (but only thinking) about it on and off, and have scribbled down thoughts as they occurred to me. I’ve read over the assignment brief, looked at how a few other people have tackled the assignment and surfed the OCA forums looking for nuggets of advice.

The purpose of this post is to structure some of these initial thoughts in a way that helps me to plan the assignment in earnest. I’ll refer back to these notes as I progress through the assignment, to make sure I don’t lose sight of my initial thoughts on the brief (even if I completely change tack before the end!)

What I need to keep in mind:

  • The assessment criteria, obviously
  • The images need to have intrinsic visual interest, not just fulfil the brief of contrasting pairs – I need photos that you’d want to look at twice
  • How does my tutor interpret the assignment objective? Can he give me any pointers?
  • I need to get out of my comfort zone!
  • The images need to take on board everything I’ve covered in Part 1 (framing, composition, balance, format, cropping etc); in a sense I need to see this assignment as a framework to demonstrate the learning to date, not as an unrelated standalone exercise

Content thoughts:

  • I’m working on the contrasting pairs to be matching in terms of theme and look/feel (colouring, tone, lighting, format etc) – as I want them to work together visually when put side-by-side
  • I also want the images to very clearly depict the contrasting pair words – to the point that they would work without captions – as long as they are seen side-by-side
  • And yet… need to avoid cliché – don’t be too obvious – be creative but not overly obscure
  • I’m considering trying for all of the 17 pictures to have a (loose) theme that connects them, such as location, subject matter? if I can…
  • Further to this thought: I’ve been working in Vienna for the last several months, but only for a few more weeks… and idly wondering whether I could do a series of shots based on the architecture and public spaces in the city? Not sure yet, but it’s worth investigating

Random other thoughts:

  • I need to plan ahead! I can’t rely on wandering around and spotting the right subjects
  • I need to get better at making notes when I’m out scouting and shooting; so far I’ve relied on remembering what was going through my mind at the time of shooting and writing it all up after the event… not sure I can carry on like that
  • I should shoot more than I think I need, have some spares so I can select the best ones at the end

That’s it for now.

Next up: go through some old shots to identify some contrasting pairs in my existing portfolio…


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Exercise – Cropping

Brief:

Take three already-taken photographs of different subjects. Crop them to change the composition – to find the image inside the image. Explain the logic for the choice of crop in each case.

Results:

1: Cricket match

This shot of a game of cricket seemed to be too wide and distant to have enough interest; too much sky, too much grass, not enough cricket.

Cricket - before

Cricket – before

I decided to focus on fewer of the players and ensure that I had the bowler and the batsman both in shot. I cropped top and bottom to remove some of the expanses of blue and green.

Cricket - crop

Cricket – crop

The resultant shot is more about the players and the action while the original shot was more about the environment. It is in a wider ratio than the original, almost panoramic, but I think this works for the subject.

Cricket - after

Cricket – after

2. Street entertainer

I took this shot of an optical illusionist at Covent Garden in horizontal format on autopilot.

Street entertainer - before

Street entertainer – before

Looking at it again with a critical eye, it needed to have some of the distracting background cropped out so that it focuses the eye more on the man himself. Thus, a portrait crop was chosen.

Street entertainer - crop

Street entertainer – crop

I’m fine with the fact that one pedestrian is left in shot, as this gives the image some context, as does the reflection of other passersby in the shop window. But the emphasis is much more on the levitating gold man.

Street entertainer - after

Street entertainer – after

3. Tree

This wide landscape shot was one of a few that I took that day, not really thinking too much about composition or balance (before this course, obviously…).

Tree - before

Tree – before

It’s clear to me now that I should have peered over the hedge more to get this distraction out of the frame. I tried just a simple crop underneath the base of the tree at first, but the tree looked a little lost. I needed to crop out more sky and a little to the sides.

Tree - crop

Tree – crop

The final crop makes the tree fill the right amount of frame to be an appropriately eye-catching subject.

Tree - after

Tree – after

What I’ve learned:

Whilst I prefer to compose in-camera and get the right elements in the frame at the time of shooting, it’s evident that in some cases, the composition and balance of an image can be greatly improved be a judicious crop. In other cases a crop is necessary to remove a distracting element that wasn’t obvious at the time of the capture. I need to be careful, however, not to rely on cropping as a fallback, and to continue to strive to get it right in the viewfinder.


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Exercise – Vertical and horizontal frames

Brief:

Take 20 shots in vertical format. Review them to look for any similarities in the types of subject chosen. Then take shots of the same 20 subjects in horizontal format. Observe which pictures work better in each format.

Equipment:

Canon PowerShot S100.

Method:

I shot all these images in the space of about an hour as I wanted to maintain the shooting conditions (e.g. lighting) for comparison purposes. As instructed, I selected and shot the 20 vertical shots first, and only after reviewing what I’d shot in vertical format did I retrace my route and take the same 20 subjects in horizontal format.

Results:

Click on any image to go into slideshow view.

Looking back at the first set (the verticals) before I shot the horizontals, it became apparent that I had mostly sought out subjects that suited the format, such as buildings, trees, statues, various items of street furniture etc. In a few instances I chose subjects that I would have normally defaulted to horizontal but made a conscious decision to shoot vertical first.

  • Some of these (1, 7, 8, 10, 12, 15) suit the vertical format better in my opinion
  • Others (4, 5, 6, 9, 13, 14, 18) seemed to suit horizontal better
  • The remainder (2, 3, 11, 16, 17, 19, 20) looked equally balanced – albeit with a different ‘feel’ – in either format

What I’ve learned:

In this exercise it’s become apparent that some subjects can be much better served by shooting in a vertical format rather than the default horizontal. In my experience on this exercise, this is not simply that the objects themselves are tall/thin as opposed to short/wide, as in some cases a tall/thin subject works well in horizontal format if it is balanced with some other point(s) in the image that provide some context (e.g. 9, 13, 14, 17).

Similarly, some subjects that might initially seem more suited to horizontal, such as a landscape, can benefit from a vertical frame treatment if it helps to accentuate the perceived depth in the image (e.g. in image 10 with the view down the length of a river).

So this is another aspect of composition that I will take into account when framing images in future.


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Exercise – Positioning the horizon

Brief:

Find a view with a visible horizon line. Compose a series of shots placing the horizon in various positions from the top to the bottom of the frame. Note how well the horizon placement works in each instance.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.

Method:

Being in a capital city at the moment, clear horizons are quite hard to come by. After a bit of searching I found a relatively identifiable horizon line by shooting from a vantage point on a bridge over the river. I had to shoot handheld but tried to maintain broadly the same viewpoint as I changed the horizon position.

Results:

1. Horizon very high: this version seems unbalanced to me, as it squashes the detail of the landscape into too small a space at the top of the image. The vast expanse of water dominates the image yet doesn’t have any inherent interest to it.

Horizon 1

Horizon 1

2. Horizon about two-thirds of way up: an improvement on version 1, as now you can at least see a bit more sky above the buildings and they don’t appear as squashed or cut off. The bland expanse of water still takes up too much room without adding any interest.

Horizon 2

Horizon 2

3. Horizon in the middle: seeing more of the detail and texture in the sky makes this more interesting to look at. However, placing the horizon slap-bang in the middle vertically makes it look very static and uninvolving.

Horizon 3

Horizon 3

4. Horizon about a third of the way up: my personal opinion is that this is the most successful image. It looks balanced, and by placing the horizon relatively low it provides a ‘grounding’ effect that resembles the natural order of things as seen in real life. There is enough of the water to provide context and give a little reflection, but it doesn’t overwhelm the image like the earlier shots. There is enough sky above to prove scale, and the clouds add some textural interest.

Horizon 4

Horizon 4

5. Horizon close to bottom edge: this is less successful as the greater predominance of sky adds nothing while the detailed landscape layer is being squeezed as in the first couple of shots. There’s just enough water to provide the context but not enough to provide an adequate sense of balance.

Horizon 5

Horizon 5

6. Horizon very close to bottom edge: this is least successful image. It looks cropped too short, and all the interesting detail is compressed to a thin layer at the bottom. The lack of visible water robs the viewer of important context that this is a riverside scene.

Horizon 6

Horizon 6

What I’ve learned:

With this series of pictures, and with others that I’ve already taken (and other people’s photos) I am more naturally attracted to positioning the horizon higher or lower than the middle of the image. Central positioning is too static and undynamic, and extreme positioning top and bottom usually look too squashed and unbalanced. Whilst the ‘rule of thirds’ might be a principle rather than a rule per se, it does seem to have application in my experience of positioning the horizon. As per previous exercises in this section, it has emphasised to me how much you can change the look and feel of an image through exactly how you frame it in the viewfinder.