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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Reflections on Part 2: Elements of Design

I really enjoyed the Elements of Design part of the course. After the slight apprehension of starting the course, which lasted right up to getting my tutor feedback on Assignment 1, I got into it more in this section and enjoyed myself with it without worrying too much as to whether I’m good enough to stick with the whole degree course (I may or may not be, but I stopped worrying about it!). So I feel like I’m hitting my stride now.

Black and white

I took the advice given early on in the course notes to shoot in black and white for this part, in order to better see the graphic elements themselves. This was a step in a new direction for me, and I have to say that I’ve hugely enjoyed it. It’s changed the way I see photo opportunities, as I find myself not only looking for strong points, lines and shapes but also for the kind of contrasting edges that increasingly know will look better in mono. I’ve found myself using b/w much more in my everyday shooting, coupled with my new understanding of strong graphical elements. Below are a few examples of photos from my daily photo journal that weren’t shot for any of the exercises but with hindsight seem to display the same visual thinking of some of the challenges I took on in this part of the course.

Theme

An aspect of the assignment that appealed to me was the instruction to shoot a series of photographs on a specific theme; this made it feel much more cohesive, more of a photographic ‘project’, which I guess is wholly deliberate. Between the assignment theme and the b/w aesthetic choice, I feel like the body of work in this part of the course really hangs together as a whole.

Shooting more photos

I covered this in my assignment write-up but it bears repeating here, as it’s probably the biggest learning I’ve experienced in the last two months: shoot lots of photos of each subject, as you will rarely nail it on the first shot. I saw a quote on a photography blog (which I unfortunately now can’t find – must make better notes!) that said simply, “Killers keep shooting!”… which is another way of putting the advice my tutor gave me on Assignment 1. The book that illustrates this best is one that the tutor recommended, ‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ [1]. It’s expensive but incredibly interesting. Seeing the outtakes of legendary photographers is a great way to reset your understanding of how human they really are/were.

Research and reflection

I’ve expanded my photographic reading a little: I’ve taken out subscriptions to the British Journal of Photography and Hotshoe, and I’ve invested in a few more photobooks, including:

  • Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Scrapbook’ [2]
  • a retrospective of the found images by Vivian Maier [3], inspired by the documentary I watched a couple of months ago
  • a compilation of ‘classic’ photographs entitled ‘PhotoBox’ [4] with short biographies and examples from over 200 photographers
  • a practical book on black and white photography entitled ‘Creative Black & White’ [5]

In addition, I’ve recently found time to visit a couple of exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery in London – blog posts to follow.

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

2. Cartier-Bresson, H. 2006. Scrapbook. London: Thames & Hudson

3. Maloof, J (ed.). 2012. Vivian Maier. New York: Powerhouse

4. Kocj, R. 2009. PhotoBox: Bringing the Great Photographers into Focus. London: Thames & Hudson

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


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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.