Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Assignment 5: tutor feedback

Got my feedback report on my last AOP assignment today and it’s mostly good!

Following is the ‘Overall comments’ paragraph:

“I am glad you enjoyed this assignment and you are quite right to be proud of your finished picture story. The previous assignments lay the foundation of knowledge for you to be able to produce work such as you have presented here. As it stands the assignment is perfectly fine but I pointed out below a few areas where you might consider either slight edits to individual images or changes in the edit. You are 90% of the way there already, I have just recommended some final tweaks to give the story a finished and professional feel.”

The comments can be summarised as follows – and the reworked images and updated layout can be found here:

  • Use of same image for cover (cropped) and inside spread (full) – added nothing
    • Now changed for another image (giant coffee cup head)
  • Image 2 had a spot of sunlight leaking in from the top, bit distracting
    • Rather than crop this out – as that would break up the semi-circular arch that acts as an internal frame, which to me is an important element in the image – I tried instead to tweak the image with a selective brush of highlight / exposure value reduction, to blend in with the surrounding blue sky
  • Tighter crop needed on photo 6 (Acrobat) to make this a more effective portrait – too much space around in original
    • Cropped in updated version
  • General suggestion to try different layouts – mix of portrait and landscape format, number of images per page / per double-page spread
    • I confess I’m not minded to try many more different layouts, as I put quite a lot of work, and rework, into the submitted layout – and to some degree it’s subjective and you have to settle on something!
    • The tutor did advise summarising my editing workflow and thought process in a blog post – I did this to a limited degree in an earlier preparation post so I’ve gone back and enhanced that rather than starting a new post on the same subject
  • I was horrified to see that my tutor found a few typos! I pride myself on good writing skills, so must have had an off day when I wrote up the assignment ;-)
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Assignment 5: selection, structure and sequencing

With this assignment it feels like the shooting is less than half the job! First there was more preparation involved than previously, and now there’s quite a bit more to do at this post-shoot stage than there was in the previous assignments.

Selection

I’ve edited the photos down in two passes so far, and it still needs a third pass to get down to 12:

  • First pass: I immediately deleted the several near-identical versions of the same shot I got on day 1 when I used Burst Mode a little too much, and also removed a smaller chunk that had really obvious technical issues (out of focus, over- or under-exposed, tree obscuring subject etc…)
    • This got the total usable shots down to just under 400
  • Second pass: I worked through the images one-by-one in Lightroom, using the Rating function to quickly identify the images that stood out
    • This gave me a longlist (4* and 5*) of 68
    • And a shortlist (5* only) of 17

To get to the final selection of 12 will need to take into account a few criteria:

  • The thinking on structure and sequencing that I summarise below
  • Cross-referencing back to the shooting plan that I prepared (without following it slavishly)
  • Juxtaposition, balance etc generated by the specific sizing, ratios (vertical/horizontal) when arranged into a photo layout style as per the brief – and to what extent they support the aims of the series

So rather than thinking of the final selection as being a task of how to get the shortlist down from 17 to 12 (i.e. simply discarding the five ‘weakest’ shots), I am treating the challenge as that of getting the series to work together as a narrative. This might entail revisiting some of the longlist (or even the first pass 400).

To help with the final selection I’ve put a bunch of post-it notes on the wall by the desk… to remind me what I’m looking for, how to judge the candidate images.

Reminders

Reminders

Structure & sequencing

I’m thinking here in terms of the different approaches one could have to weaving a narrative structure through a set of images covering this kind of event. There are a few variations (not mutually exclusive):

  • Purely chronological: not planning on doing this – in fact I’m actually blending photos from two consecutive days
  • Visual depth: start wide to set the scene, move to medium context shots, move further to portraits and close-ups on fine details
  • Give a sense of the actual occasion, in terms of how it builds up to a peak of excitement/scale/grandeur/awe and latterly how it ‘comes back down’ – in a way this is a blend of both of the above, moulded to the particular event

I’m erring towards the last option there: without looking at the pictures I sat down and tried to visualise how best to get across the ‘shape’ of the story… the top blue post-it note above best shows the effect I am seeking:

  • Start with individual details (e.g. a float arriving, the crowd waiting)
  • Add in more contextual details (e.g. individual performers)
  • Big (double-page spread) image showing the scale of the whole event, shot wide and high
  • Focus back on contextual details, this time on the interactions between performers and crowd
  • Finish with obvious indicators that the event is over (people leaving etc)

To further aid the sequencing and layout task, I made a non-pictorial 8-page mockup out of folded A4 paper and post-its:

This helped me enormously: it helped in terms of not only testing out the ‘story arc’ concept to the images, but in two additional ways:

  • Layout: relative sizes of images, combination of portrait and landscape ratios etc
  • Juxtaposition: how to position images together on facing pages; I’ve added notes to the spreads for my own benefit, as follows:
    • p1 (cover): the hook shot!
    • p2-3: build-up / anticipation
    • p4-5: awe / spectacle / scale
    • p6-7: people / reactions (joy, excitement) / interactions
    • p8: comedown

Once I’d laid out the photo-free mockup above, the final selection became easier, as I started seeing how each image could fit in.

Then in a few more iterations I played about with various layouts on screen. For the ones that I was getting increasingly happy with, I started printing them out on A4 and then folding to A5 size so I could see what it might look like as an actual magazine supplement. This helped me enormously.

v2:

v3:

v4:

If you can make it out, you’ll see that I changed a couple of the pictures during each iteration, as it was seeing them positioned together that made me realise which ones worked and which ones didn’t. I got second opinions from my wife throughout. After the last version above I did one further set of changes, including the cover crop, which formed the submitted assignment.

I must say that this approach was a real eye-opener for me. I’m not wholly sure that I’d go to this extent on many assignments, but the nature of this one – where layout and juxtaposition are important – led me to go down the physical mockup route. It really helped me visualise the end result.


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Assignment 5: shooting day 2 and more lessons

Review of yesterday

After looking through the 700+ images from yesterday (!) and hacking them down to a more manageable 190 I attempted to build a set of images that I could use for the assignment if the second shooting day went awry. Truth be told, while I could indeed have built a decent set of a dozen images from yesterday’s harvest, I was glad to have today to have another go. I was missing a few key shot types from my shooting plan: I didn’t have a decent establishing shot and I didn’t have enough portraits of the participants. And I had too many closing shots to choose from.

Fundamentally, the limitations of shooting from the roadside (mostly over people’s heads) and the lack of variety in subject matter (the floats generally adhered to a formula of extravagant floral display + pretty girl) meant that there was an underlying sameness that led to a lacklustre narrative. It didn’t scream “joy! excitement! awe!” like I wanted it to.

So I think I might rescue one or two of the best images from yesterday and weave them into the story I’m constructing out of today’s photos.

Lessons from today

Today the weather was bright and sunny again. Perhaps too sunny…! We paid extra for seating with an elevated view, which paid dividends in terms of getting a better viewpoint on the event, especially with the telephoto lens. I had an aisle-end seat so could move around a bit more than I expected, allowing variations on the viewpoint.

The main issue was that the terrace of seating was at the east side of the city square, and so the low afternoon sun was in the audience’s eyes for much of the event. Some good light was achievable by shooting off to the side, parallel to the seating rather than perpendicular. However, there was still an element of harsh shadow that one had to work around.

About three-quarters of the way through, I abandoned the seats and got down into the crowd, right in the thick of it. This gave me an opportunity to shoot in more favourable lighting conditions, and also to get more eye-level views on the subjects I wanted to capture.

The main lesson of today was: read the brief properly! For some reason I had in my head that the assignment required up to 15 shots. Turns out it’s a maximum of 12. So the editing task just got slightly tougher.

Summary

Short version is: I reckon I have more than enough good, relevant shots in the bag that will allow me to build a compelling narrative that will evoke the emotions that I am seeking in the viewer.

My biggest challenge now is editing them down from nearly 400 to a round dozen…


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Assignment 5: shooting day 1 and lessons learned

Today I packed up two cameras, four lenses, five batteries and three memory cards for a couple of hours working on Assignment 5.

It’s the first of two days of parades as part of our weekend at Nice Carnival, and specifically today was all about the Battle of the Flowers, a parade of floral-themed floats and other attractions down the Promenade des Anglais.

My plan up until now was to use today as a ‘dry run’ and do the assignment proper tomorrow, covering the main carnival parade. However, I might actually see if I can build up enough images for the assignment with today’s shots, for a couple of reasons:

  • The weather was due to be cloudier today, with tomorrow as the sunnier day; as it turned out, the weather held up pretty well this afternoon, bright and clear, with blue skies and only intermittent wispy cloud cover which didn’t adversely affect the light
  • I realised during the parade that this particular event has more of a built-in narrative, and is more interactive between the ‘performers’ and the crowd – a huge part of the parade is the performers on the floats throwing flowers into the crowd, and the objective is to catch as many as possible (by comparison the main carnival parade, whist offering more visual diversity, is more of a ‘spectacle’ and inherently more one-way in its interactions)

So that’s the good stuff. There are however some valuable lessons that I learned today. I still intend to go out tomorrow and capture the main parade (so ideally I have a choice of two events to cover in the assignment) and will address as many of these as possible:

  • Get there earlier! We thought we’d beat the crowds, but about 45 mins before the parade started there were already no spaces left directly at the roadside, so I had to shoot over people’s heads for most of it; however, the extent to which grabbing a roadside spot would have helped is limited by the fact that…
  • … to get enough variety in angles, shooting viewpoints, focal lengths etc, you need to move around anyway! So even if we’d bagged a good spot, or paid for the elevated seating, that would have led to a series of near-identically framed images and I’d have got itchy feet and been back to shooting over people’s heads. Maybe I should carry around a little box to stand on!?
  • Don’t shoot so darn much! I used Continuous Mode far too much, and my camera defaults to 6 frames per second… so 40 minutes in I’d filled my first SD card – over 500 photos!! Now it wasn’t a big deal in that I had two empty backup cards, but the problem is that I now need to sort through and edit that 500 photos… and in some cases I have 10-12 near-identical versions of the same image!
  • No need to take all my lenses out – I only really need my standard zoom (16-50mm) and my telephoto (50-230mm) to cover all eventualities; my prime lenses won’t get a look in, and the light is so good that I don’t really need particularly fast glass anyway

Right, I’d better get back to editing these hundreds of pictures… :-/

Edit: after sorting through the images from day 1, I’m adding a fifth lesson:-

  • Watch the backgrounds! As I shot from ground level, on the beach side of the promenade, I was shooting mostly against the backdrop of buildings, mainly 4-5 storey hotels. Not as much blue sky as I’d like, and some very busy backgrounds to contend with. In some cases they’re distracting from the subject.

Hmmm, I think I need to do better on day 2…


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Assignment 5: shooting plan

I’ve done some research [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] on good practice for photo essays. A few common themes emerged on ‘key shots’ that help to tell a story / support the narrative. Whilst I get that this won’t be definitive by any means, the reading really helped, as I find I quite often need a structure in order to get going (as noted in previous blog posts around assignment prep) rather than winging it as I go along when I’m out with my camera. So I always knew that my prep for this assignment would involve a shooting plan.

Before I get into the shooting list, here are a couple of nuggets that I came to understand better as I worked through some research on photo essays:

Dimensions of narrative:

Whilst the natural way I normally think of ‘narrative’ is that it is chronological, as in beginning–middle–end, I came to realise that it can be really effective looked at on another dimension: more visual… maybe best described as ‘depth’, if that makes sense. By this I mean using the angle of view, focal length etc to ‘move into’ the subject – start wide, move to medium shot, go in close for portrait, go in even closer for a close-up on (e.g.) hands… This was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, as it gives a way of adding a ‘storyline’ even if the subject isn’t ‘event/duration’ based. Although in the case of my chosen subject, I do think there’s a chronological element to it, but maybe I can blend both narrative concepts with the right sequencing.

Emotional objectives:

From a few different sources it’s become apparent that successful photo essays are effective at evoking one or more identifiable emotions. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to have a clear vision upfront what emotions you want to evoke!

As my chosen theme is a carnival, I’m intending to produce a set of images that evoke emotions such as:

  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Awe

Shooting list

The following shooting list – a consolidated version of the variants I saw on a few websites – is what I’m planning to work to. It’s a framework rather than a dogmatic structure, so I’ll still be alert to any opportunities that arise, and will select the best sequence of images at the editing stage.

Hook / lead shot:

This is the image that attracts your viewer. In the case of a magazine article, for example, it could be the cover image. A good hook image is creative, inviting the viewer to look further, but without giving away too much. It should create a certain amount of intrigue, not simply interest.

For my chosen subject of a carnival parade, I’m thinking along the lines of a close-up of one of the giant papier mâché heads.

Establishing shot:

A wide shot taking in the overall environment of the essay subject. This is usually the first shot in the sequence, or certainly early on, as this helps to establish the beginnings of the narrative from a visual journey point of view.

I’m working on being able to get a nice wide shot of the start of carnival, maybe taking in multiple floats and some element of the waiting crowd, as this should help set the start of the narrative both visually and chronologically. My plan is to include 1-2 such images.

Medium shot:

This is the first part of ‘moving in’ to get closer to more detailed examinations of specific subjects. The objective here is to place one or more subjects in the context of the surroundings already established. It’s about starting to home in on points of interest, either characters or objects that illustrate the theme – and start to convey the desired emotions.

At the carnival I expect to be spoilt for choice on this kind of subject. Shots of floats against the crowd, people on floats against their colourful backdrop etc. I should be able to come up with 2-3 of this type of image.

Detail shot:

This kind of image gets in close, to give a sense of place, a sense of being there ‘in the thick of it’. It should help to create a sense of intimacy, that serves to anchor the unfolding story.

A close-up of one of the carnival float heads is one idea. A crowd shot with some interesting people is another. One of these could also echo or in some way relate to the cover image – maybe a larger version of something cropped tight for the hook shot? I think 1-2 of these will be about right.

Portrait shot:

Usually a reasonably tight headshot, to give personal insight and a human angle to the unfolding events.

I envisage several opportunities for this. One specific idea that springs to mind is to get a clear shot of the face of one of the performers wearing a papier mâché head costume – the ‘head within the head’ concept. Also some of the crowd dress up in extravagant costumes so that might give me some options too. I should be able to do 2-3 of this type of image.

Action shot:

Where appropriate, an image capturing an activity with inherent movement can be powerful in evoking the emotions desired, especially positive emotions (joy, excitement).

One obvious idea is part of the flower parade – the people on the floats dismantle the floral displays and throw flowers to the crowd to catch. With the right shutter speed and good light you can get amazing shots of flowers soaring through the air. I’ll settle for one good action shot.

Gesture / interaction shot:

Kind of a more subtle version of the action shot, in my mind anyway. What this requires is some kind of interplay between two characters in the setting, to give a flavour of the kind of activity / interplay between characters that form part of the overall story.

I do have a particular type of shot in mind for this: I envisage capturing one of the carnival performers interacting with a member of the crowd. I hope the shot turns out something like how I see it in my head…

Closing shot:

Self-explanatory; indicates the end of the narrative. It should provide some kind of obvious resolution, visually or chronologically, and leave the viewer/reader in no doubt that the series of images has wrapped up here.

For the carnival I am thinking something like: the back of the last float going off into the distance; or the crowds thinning out; or the street cleaners moving in to tidy up.

Footnote

Nice Carnival 2014

Nice Carnival 2014

While I started this post before we set off from the UK, I wrote the middle bit on the plane, and finished it when we arrived in Nice. Now my biggest concern is most definitely the weather!

Today (my on-location prep day) it’s been unexpectedly stormy: torrential rain, thunder, lightning – the lot. Now, the forecast for tomorrow (the Battle of the Flowers parade) is better, but still cloudy, and for Sunday (the main Carnival parade) is more sun than cloud.

So my current plan is:

  • Treat Saturday as a ‘dress rehearsal’ and aim for a full set of shots needed to deliver the assignment – as a fallback in case the forecasters get it the wrong way round and Sunday is the worse day!
  • Go for the full set of shots on the Sunday, as (a) the main Carnival parade is more visually diverse, and (b) the supposed better weather.. but with the Saturday shots in the bag if it all goes horribly wrong

1. http://www.hebervega.com/2010/02/09/inside-photo-essay/ – accessed 28th February 2014
2. http://www.thedigitaltrekker.com/2010/05/the-photo-essay-give-it-your-best-shot/ – accessed 28th February 2014
3. http://photophilanthropy.org/award/photo-essay-tips/ – accessed 28th February 2014
4. http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/ – accessed 28th February 2014
5. http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/visual-voice/171050/5-types-of-photos-that-make-for-strong-photo-essays-audio-slideshows/ – accessed 28th February 2014
6. http://digital-photography-school.com/5-photo-essay-tips/ – accessed 28th February 2014


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Assignment 5: preparation

Wow, assignment 5 already… seemed to have got through the Narrative & Illustration section quickly. Fewer exercises than Light, thankfully!

So time to choose the subject of the final assignment. I have one in mind. The timing might just work perfectly…

My proposal is to do the magazine spread / photo essay on the subject of…

Nice Carnival!

There’s an annual carnival in Nice, France around February/March and it’s a very colourful event, a real feast for the eyes. There’s a traditional carnival parade of decorated floats, and a separate event called the Battle of the Flowers where florally-decorated floats throw flowers at the spectators. I’ve been several times over the years so have got an idea what to expect. So next Friday we fly out to Nice for the last weekend of this year’s carnival.

Sample images

Here are a few pictures from previous years, to give an idea of the subject matter.

Pros

There are a few good reasons why I think this makes a good subject:

  • Very colourful
  • Unusual subject matter
  • Should be good light (usually is down that way, year-round)
  • Lots of variety of shots

Cons

There are however some risks inherent in my plan!

  • Event-specific, in a different country, so no opportunity for test shots (except possibly staking out the shooting positions on the Friday, if we arrive early enough?)
  • Only two opportunities to get it right – the flower parade on the Saturday and the main parade on the Sunday – so no scope for mistakes
  • Specifically – I need the weather to be good! It usually is, but a couple of years it’s been a washout…
  • Need to make sure I take the assignment seriously and don’t fall back into (pre-TAOP) holiday snapshooting!
  • I’m not wholly sure whether I can build a ‘narrative’ (beginning-middle-end) out of it, over and above a collection of related images… need to work on this at the planning stage
  • Editing down to a max of 12 images will be tough!!

Preparation

I have a week or so to prepare in the UK so need to use this time well. My plan is:

  • Review more pics from previous years, for inspiration
  • Plan a shooting list of the types of images I want to capture
    • Various positions/angles
    • Various focal lengths
    • Colour combinations
    • People – candid shots?
    • Close-up / abstract / macro detail?
  • Review main points of previous sections/assignments to make sure I have these in mind – not as a strict tick-box exercise, more to remind and inspire me on what I should be taking into account when shooting and editing
  • Plan the narrative aspect of the event (in particular learning the lessons from the Car Boot Sale exercise, where I neglected to have an ending)
    • Beginning: setting up the public viewing areas, rows of empty seats, parade floats waiting to set off etc
    • Middle: parades themselves
    • End: packing up, crowds dispersing, cleaners clearing the streets etc
  • Plan a coherent ‘point of view’ persona – as a spectator I presume (again learning lessons from the Car Boot Sale series, where I mixed viewpoints: sellers, buyers, me)
  • Practical stuff!
    • I’ve got a new, fast 16GB memory card as I’m expecting to shoot a lot in burst mode, in RAW format
    • Got a second spare battery
    • Packing 2x primes (27mm, 35mm) and 2x zoom lenses (16-50mm, 50-230mm)
    • Taking a spare camera, just in case