Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Assignment 3: tutor feedback

I got my tutor’s report on Assignment 3: Colour earlier this week and so it’s time to write up and reflect upon some of the key comments.

The good

Generally it was quite positive (thankfully) and included in the overall comments the phrase I was looking for: “Overall this was a good assignment and you should have no problem when it comes to assessment”.

My previous assignment report had some constructive feedback about the sharpness of my images (combination of shutter speed / ISO decisions while shooting handheld, and frankly a sub-optimal lens, since replaced). This time round “you have obviously taken on board the previous advice as the sharpness issues have all but gone” – one image out of 16 was still a little too soft; the one I shot on the day I submitted the assignment…

I was also pleased to read that I have “notably managed to maintain [my] overall clean and geometric aesthetic” – I have a clean and geometric aesthetic! This sounds like a compliment :-)

Jumping to the end, the tutor did call out one image (below) for particular comment:

I was very interested in the Contrasting colours photo, number 15, of the interactions of the reflections. The photo showed a different way of working from what I have seen from you before and it was probably the strongest photo I have seen you produce yet. Your very graphical way of seeing works well here and moves your work beyond just documenting what you see and into something more lyrical. This might be an avenue for you to explore further in later assignments/modules.

OXO Tower Inside/Out

OXO Tower Inside/Out

It’s very gratifying to get such positive feedback and reinforcement, and helps get me some direction in where my photographic style might be heading.

The not-quite-so-good

Enough of the positive stuff… what’s really useful is the constructive feedback on ‘development areas’!

The main thrust of the critique was that in a couple of cases I “may have tried a little hard to show the viewer that they should be looking at these colour relationships, rather than it just being an inherent part of the photograph.”

One such example was the padlocks. The red lock stands out well but I’m not sure if you have done something in post-processing with the saturation or if the other locks really are that yellow, but the photo ends up looking somewhat unnatural. I would probably revisit this photo and adjust the saturation a little either globally or of specific colours.

Paris Love Locks

Paris Love Locks

He got me bang to rights on that one. I totally over-processed it in my desire to make it fit the brief. Hindsight being what it is, yes I could have been much more subtle. Less is more and all that.

The Rubik’s cube is also a tricky image. The colour seems a little off to me, but it’s not an easy photograph to rework. […] I feel it is a little too red in the shadows which is giving the whole photo a more orange than yellow feeling, that appears unnatural because the blacks are no longer black, but a dark orange brown hue.

Rubik's Cube

Rubik’s Cube

Now I will confess to being initially a bit deflated by this – I genuinely thought it was one of the strongest in the set, I really liked it! But I absolutely take on board the critique – and will go back to the RAW file and see if I can get the black to be properly black and see what that does to the overall colour tones.

So for both these two images, I will return to the digital darkroom (aka Adobe Lightroom 4) and reprocess them based on the advice. I will post the results of this in a new blog post shortly.

The other note of warning was that my prints came out a good deal darker and more saturated than the screen counterparts. This could be a colour profile or settings issue, and he’s offered to review my workflow in this regard before the next assignment. I think part of it is down to me using an iMac as my primary display, and reading online they have a reputation for being difficult to calibrate (strangely, given the reputation they have for graphic design etc). So as a precaution I have got hold of a ‘regular’ Dell PC monitor that I can use to sanity-check whether my iMac is seeing things very differently to the rest of the world.

Anyway – in all, a really useful set of comments that I will take on board and act upon!

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Reflections on Part 3: Colour

As briefly mentioned in my assignment 3 write-up, I found this section of the course to be a little more difficult to get through than the previous two. This wasn’t because there was a lot to do (although lots of reading/research, only four actual exercises) or because I struggled with the concepts (I think I got these pretty quickly) but more that I found it hard to find or create the images I needed to illustrate the specific colour combinations for the exercises and assignment. So it was a failing of imagination and inspiration more than anything else.

[I did have some external factors affecting the speed of my progress, like being knocked out by a heavy cold for a few weeks, and a lot of long days at work, but I think everyone has these from time to time so I’m not expecting any particular sympathy there…]

From b/w to colour

One of the things that I found a bit of a jarring juxtaposition at the start was that I’d spent two months shooting almost exclusively in black and white for the Elements of Design section, and actually found moving to colour slightly odd, like I was ‘cheating on’ the style that I’d learned to love. But after a week or so I got over that strange feeling and started to embrace a more colourful approach to photography.

Over time I found a similar thing happened as on the previous section: I started using strong colour combinations in my everyday (non-OCA) photography. Below are a few examples of photos from this period that were not part of the exercises or assignment (from my daily photo journal):

Also, as in the b/w experience on Elements of Design, after a while looking for colours and their inter-relationships started subconsciously affecting how I see the world; like a slight rewiring of my visual brain. In the same way as I came away from Elements of Design seeing lines, shapes and patterns in the world around me (whether I had a camera up to my eye or not), I finished the Colour assignment with a new-found (and increasingly instinctive) appreciation of the ways colours work with and against each other in everyday life. It’s not easy to describe but I do feel like it’s subtly altered the way I see the world.

Found vs arranged

One real eye-opener in the assignment itself was that I actually enjoyed the still life images, much to my surprise. Up until now I always steered clear of posed photographs, preferring to capture images of what was already there rather than staging things. However, when I spent some time on the toys and food sets in the assignment I realised it can be very satisfying to be able to finely manipulate the subject in a photograph to achieve exactly the effect you want – very different to working with the element of chance that always accompanies taking photos ‘out in the wild’. And this is related to the next learning…

Pre-visualisation

I’ve recognised in my shooting on the assignment in particular that I am taking more time to think in advance what I want the end result to look like, before I lift the camera to my eye. I had particular subjects in mind for colour combinations and sought out (or assembled) real-life examples that matched what was in my head. In some instances this worked well – the ducks, rubik’s cube, apples and carrots images in particular – and in others, mainly the outside shots where I couldn’t control all the elements of the image, more approximately.

In addition to this, I’m trying to get inside the head of the viewer and how they will read the image; in a sense I’m trying to not only second-guess how they will look at the image but increasingly trying to steer or even manipulate how they look at it. For example, with the carrots I wanted a strong focal point with the orange then move the viewer’s eyes clockwise around the plate with the curved green lines of the leaves. Obviously this kind of thing is easier with still life. In pure captured moments in the real world, there’s an element of pre-visualisation that needs to be accompanied by a little bit of luck, and plenty of shots in the bag to pick from.

Subject themes

I covered this point in my preparatory notes blog post, but it bears repeating here as it’s a key element of my self-analysis this time round. When trying to get started on the assignment I was wondering why I found it harder to get going on this one, and after a while I put my finger on it: I work best (or at least I’m more comfortable) with a subject theme that gives me some structure to the set of photographs. This is why I found assignment 2 so satisfying, and this one so much harder to get off the ground. I think this need for a theme reflects the fact that I’m generally an organised thinker rather than a true creative thinker (I work in project management, if that gives an indication of how ‘left-brained’ I am…).

This search for a theme works in two ways, one for me and one more for the viewer, I believe. For left-brained me, I simply find it easier to be inspired when there are some parameters to the brief (and if there aren’t, I will invent my own); for the viewer, I believe that a coherent set of images with a unifying theme is much more powerful in getting over a message than an unconnected set of random images.

An appreciation of colour interactions

This wasn’t covered in great depth in the course notes, but for me the most fascinating element of colour relationships was not simply how colours look together, but how they affect each other. I found it very interesting how colours can appear significantly different dependent on what other colours they are juxtaposed with. What really brought this home was an iPad app called ‘Interaction of Color’ based on the Josef Albers workbook of the same name. It allows you to see the effects of placing colours in certain combinations, producing what amounts to a series of optical illusions. It’s really quite addictive to play with.

Interaction of Color, Josef Albers

Research and reading

I confess that I haven’t spent a lot of time on this section of the course reading about the history of, or theories of, colour photography. I found the above iPad app on colour interactions hugely interesting as it was both informative and interactive, and I think my learning style needs some practical application like this. Dry textbook reading alone isn’t the most effective way for me to learn. I am however very much enjoying the journals that I now subscribe to (BJP and Hotshoe) and several photography blogs that I now follow, some suggested by my tutor and some that I discovered myself. Every single day I am absorbing something new from looking at the photographic works and thoughts of others, and I’m finding this kind of ‘research’ and learning very easy to fit into my daily life. I do however intend to return to the textbook that I have temporarily put to one side.

I have visited a couple photography exhibitions over this section of the course, one yet to write up and one detailed here. Ironically, given that I’ve been working on the colour section of the course, and Martin Parr is most famous for his colour work – the exhibition of his that I attended (and loved) was of his early black and white work!


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Assignment 3: Colour – progress!

After knuckling down and starting properly on the assignment last weekend, I’ve made some headway. I think the very act of writing my ‘preparation’ blog post hugely helped to get me in the zone.

I’ve managed to take lots of shots already and may have selected about half of the final series so far.

Toys

I think I have three good shots for this theme. It was four at one point but looking back at my attempt at photographing an orange balloon against blue for the Complementary Harmony brief, I realised that I haven’t been able to reduce the reflection enough, and it’s very distracting. But I do have a fallback idea for the same colour combination (a rubber duck!) so that will be done this weekend.

I’m quite pleased with the toy ones, as I arranged them against coloured card and I think they’ve come out really well. Especially in comparison to the food ones…

Food

I had ideas in mind – and by the end of the weekend, shots done – for the four food photos. However… I intended to shoot them all against a plain white background for consistency, and I’m really not happy with the results. Turns out there’s something of an art to getting a clean, pure white background. I do have a light tent, but the lamp I use with it isn’t terrifically strong and I’m getting very uneven light on my subjects. Also, despite custom-setting white balance with a greay card, I’m getting a bit of a pinkish tinge to the background. Hmm…

After a bit of googling I found some tips for clean white background, including exposing to the right, using a flash, setting a reasonably wide aperture, spot metering and some clever post-processing in Photoshop – I usually only use Lightroom. I think one of the four shots (carrots with their stalks on) is usable with just a touch of processing, but think I will reshoot the other three.

Outdoors

In contrast to the dedicated photo sessions I set up for the above ‘arranged’ images, I’ve been taking shots for the outdoor theme as I’ve been out and about for the last few weeks. As far as possible I’ve stuck with the same camera/lens combo (a 35mm f/1.4 prime) for consistency, but in one instance I spotted a really great red/blue sculpture while I was out with only my compact camera. I’m hoping it will still look OK as part of the final set. For other colour combinations, I’ve been trying to think fairly laterally, but I do need to sort through lots of candidate images and possibly reshoot some if I’m not happy with the image quality (after feedback on the technical flaws on assignment two). At present I have a mix of urban and more rural settings. If I have enough images I may split into two sets of four?

Flowers

I had the idea early on to do flowers for one set of four images. As for outdoors I’ve taken lots of images at different times, which may dilute the visual consistency somewhat. I’m also getting a bit concerned that flowers is a bit cliched (well so is food, so maybe I shouldn’t have both?).

Anyway – I’m getting through it now. More progress next weekend!


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Assignment 3: Colour – preparation

… or up until now, procrastination.

I confess I’ve been struggling with this assignment. Even though the Colour section of the course has the fewest exercises so far, I’ve found it’s taken me longest. This is a combination of a few things; work being very busy and my time being short (I presume everyone gets this at some point), nursing a heavy cold for about three weeks and – the only excuse that’s photographically relevant – I’ve struggled for inspiration.

I’m certain I fully understand the concepts in this part of the course, but I have found it difficult to source appropriate subject matter that demonstrates the concepts to my satisfaction. I found the exercise on specific colour combinations hard work from this point of view, and my heart sank a little when I realised that the assignment is essentially an expanded variation of that exercise.

For the first time I had to ask my tutor for an extension. He was fine with this, and offered some very simple advice for shifting the photographer’s block: just get out there and start shooting.

So last weekend I did just that. And I think it worked! I stopped over-thinking it for a while and just rattled of shots of colour combinations I saw, without worrying about whether they were part of the final series, but just to ‘unlock my eye’ a bit, if that makes any sense at all.

Finding a structure

Following the ‘just get out there and start shooting’ intervention I started to relax my mind on the assignment and worked out part of what was bothering me about it. What I realised was that I was worrying over the same things as I did in assignment one – namely the total number of shots and the diversity of ideas required. I found assignment two better in this respect as once I’d decided on a central theme (train stations), the ideas came thick and fast. This assignment, like the first, specifically requests a range of subjects. I’m realising that I find it more satisfying to work to a coherent theme.

With this in mind, and having got over the fundamental photographer’s block thing, I decided to brainstorm with myself how I could bring more cohesion to the brief, give myself a framework of sorts.

What I came up with is a the idea of a 4×4 set of images, where there are four examples of each colour combination (complementary harmony, similar harmony, contrasting, colour accent), one each from four thematic areas that I reckon I can find images within. I mapped this out in a grid to help me get a reasonable balance between the colours, like this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 22.08.52

It’s not to say that I will stick rigidly to this, more that I’ve realised that I need some kind of structure to my planning and this is helping me do that right now.

Inspiration

In terms of inspiration on subjects, as per previous assignments I’ve looked at assignments submitted by other students. Not to plagiarise, more to give my brain some jumping-off points that might trigger ideas of my own. For the first time I found myself being more critical of other people’s work; in some instances I didn’t feel that the student met the brief well at all, and in others I was awestruck by the beauty and imagination on show – a real variety of responses to the brief.

The real breakthrough I had in terms of inspiration was the discovery of the MultiColour Engine search tool – it’s amazingly useful and somewhat addictive. It allows you to select up to five colours from a palette, adjust the ratios and search for images that match your chosen criteria. It’s given me lots of subject ideas already.

MulticolorEngine

MulticolorEngine

Keep in mind

So armed with the insight of what I didn’t want my images to end up like as well as what level I aspired to, I put down some thoughts, or maybe self-imposed rules, for my series:

  • Bold colours, dominating the image – colours need to the first thing you notice, not incidental details
  • Primary, secondary and maybe tertiary colours only – no whites, blacks, greys, creams etc
  • Keep in mind all the compositional and design learnings from sections one and two
  • Visual consistency in the thematic sets of four – lighting, focal length, colour temperature, saturation and so on

Now to take more photos… wish me luck.


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Exercise – Colours into tones in black and white

Brief:

Take a photo with green, yellow, blue and red in, then convert to black and white, first at default settings, then emulating each of the coloured filters.

Equipment:

Fujifilm X-E1 with XF 27mm f/2.8 lens; Adobe Lightroom 4.

Results:

This old wooden abacus had all the right colours so made a good subject.

Original

Original

Using Lightroom I did a straight ‘neutral’ B&W conversion as seen below.

No Filter

No Filter

The Green Filter preset made the green lighter, but also made the yellow and red look lighter; only the blue came out looking darker.

Green Filter

Green Filter

The Yellow Filter preset made the yellow beads almost white, and the red slightly paler than the default version, but rendered the green and blue as quite dark.

Yellow Filter

Yellow Filter

The Blue Filter preset surprised me the most, as it made everything apart from the blue beads much darker than all the other versions. The effect was so extreme that I went back and checked a couple of times, and also looked at other students’ submissions of this exercise. It seems that this can happen with a blue filter.

Blue Filter

Blue Filter

The Red Filter preset had the expected effect of washing out the red beads, and also made the blue beads in particular look darker.

Red Filter

Red Filter

What I’ve learned:

This was an interesting exercise. I’ve used B&W presets before, not particularly based on colour filter presets but more by trial and error until I achieve the effect I’m looking for. This exercise has filled in some of the gaps on why a certain B&W conversion has the effect on colour tones that it does, and hopefully will inform my B&W shooting and processing choices in future.


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Exercise – Colour relationships

Brief:

This exercise is in two parts. The first is to produce one photograph for each combination of primary and secondary colours, adjusting the distance, focal length or framing when you shoot so that you compose the picture to the proportions given, as closely as possible.

For the second part, produce three or four images which feature colour combinations that appeal to you. They can be combinations of two colours or more.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens; Leica X1 24mm; Fujifilm X-E1 with XF 18-55mm f/2.8 lens

Results:

Part 1:

Red-green, 1:1

This pair of cottage doors in Whitby jumped out as being a great example of red-green balance, albeit with the black border round the red door. The colours are equally strong and I think it does demonstrate how well-balanced an equal mix of red and green can be.

Red-green

Red-green

Orange-blue, 1:2

I believe the ratio here is approximately 1 orange to 2 blue, slightly interrupted by the green of the tiles, but I think it gives enough orange and blue to demonstrate the point. To me, the brightness of the orange does indeed mean that you need less of it than the less bright blue of the sky.

Orange-blue

Orange-blue

Yellow-violet, 1:3

I found this combination the hardest to find naturally so resorted to making my wife accessorise a new violet jacket with an old yellow t-shirt. I think the ratio is about 1:3 but find it quite hard to judge by eye. In this particular composition the yellow cuts through the middle of the violet and widens, almost like a necktie until it flows into the bottom left corner. To be absolutely honest I’m not sure if I agree that this combination is harmonious – possibly as it is too bright a shade of violet?

Yellow-violet

Yellow-violet

Part 2:

Red-green-yellow/orange

This fiery red facade of an apartment building in the old town in Nice really caught my eye, with the accents of green and the yellow/orange trim lines. The abundance of deep red makes this eye-catching rather than balanced, but that’s what attracted me to the image.

Red-green-yellow

Red-green-yellow

Orange-violet-yellow

Above a restaurant in south west London is this row of three very brightly painted townhouses. As they are of approximately equal size (orange slightly wider) and the two outside ones are brighter than the middle one, the colours are not in what you would call perfect harmony, but as per the last photo, it’s this fact that makes the image stand out so much.

 Orange-violet-yellow

Orange-violet-yellow

Red-blue

While it may be considered cheating slightly to photograph a painting, the truth is that I saw and bought this painting between starting the exercise and finishing it; I was evidently in the ‘colour blocking zone’ and it really appealed to me. The strong red depicts a beach but in a hue not normally associated with a beach, and similarly the sea is shown as a deep green, giving this a more impressionistic, other-worldy air. Only the sky keeps a naturalistic colour. The overall effect is almost, but not quite, abstract. As in the mediterranean building above, it’s the strong, full-blooded red that catches my eye here.

Red-blue

Red-blue

Multi-coloured

I found this set of nested mixing bowls/spoons in our kitchen very interesting from a colour combination point of view, as it seems the designer put some thought into the arrangement of the colours, following an approximate path around the colour wheel. This rainbow effect is rendered slightly less jarring than it otherwise could have been by this effect of gradation rather than having wholly clashing adjacent colours. That said, it is still quite jarring visually. It draws the eye in to the centre.

Multi-coloured

Multi-coloured

What I’ve learned:

These colour exercises are taking me much longer than I expected; I’m finding it much harder to find examples of colours, and especially combinations of colours, in daily life than I found the equivalent exercise with design elements. That said, I’m satisfied with the outcome of this exercise and the learning points. I broadly agree with the expected findings in the combinations / ratios in part one of the exercise, maybe slightly less so in the yellow/violet combo. The ‘freestyle’ examples that I chose are more examples of deliberately not following the principles of colour balance, to make the pictures more visually interesting, if less truly harmonious.


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Exercise – Primary and secondary colours

Brief:

Find scenes or parts of scenes that are each dominated by a single one of the primary and secondary colours. Take shots at different exposures to get the closest match.

Equipment:

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

Results:

Green:

Green is an abundant colour in nature and so symbolises growth, freshness and fertility. It is seen by many to be calming colour.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel was -2/3 EV.

Yellow:

Yellow is the colour of sunshine and so is often associated with happiness, energy and warmth.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel was 0 EV.

Orange:

Orange is a hot colour, sometimes seen to represent emotions such as enthusiasm, fascination, creativity and stimulation.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel was -2/3 EV.

Red:

Red is the colour of blood, and is associated with passion, danger and intense emotion.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel was 0 EV.

Violet:

Violet, or purple, is associated with royalty and can symbolise power, luxury, wealth and extravagance.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel was -1/3 EV.

Blue:

Blue is the colour of the sky and the sea, often associated with depth, stability, calmness and coolness.

In this set of three, the one that I felt corresponded most closely to the colour wheel given was -2/3 EV.

Putting them all together:

What I’ve learned:

It took me a while to find good natural examples of these colours (as the brief warned it might) and it took me even longer to select the ones that I felt most closely matched the primary and secondary colours on a standard colour wheel. I found that what looked close on my camera display could look quite different on my laptop screen and different again on my desktop monitor. (I think I would benefit from proper monitor colour calibration, and I have a device on the way to do so. I may update or redo the exercise after recalibrating my displays).

Beyond these technical challenges: I found this exercise very interesting, especially after shooting in back and white a lot recently. Naturally occurring examples of ‘pure’ primary and secondary colours are actually quite rare, and can look different based on the light and surrounding colours. My eyes have been opened to colours I see around me when I shoot. This was helped by being on holiday in the south of France whilst I was working on this exercise, where the light is still good and strong, and the local buildings are famous for their rich mediterranean colours. Back in grey, rainy old England, the colours aren’t quite so vibrant or obvious!