Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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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: 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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Exercise – Rhythm and pattern

Brief:

Produce at least two images, demonstrating (1) rhythm and (2) pattern.

Equipment:

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

Results:

As the brief said at least two, I thought it would be fine to do two of each. This was partly as I saw lots of different examples, and to be honest partly as I felt in some cases I wasn’t sure how well the image met the brief! In one case, the distinction between rhythm and pattern wasn’t clear, and could come down to individual interpretation. In another, I just wasn’t sure if there were enough to call a pattern…

Rhythm 1: tiles

I thought two aspects lent this image a sense of rhythm and movement: first, the undulating shape of the tiles, each one overlapping the next, like little waves; secondly, they eye is drawn across and down towards the skylight that is on the periphery and serves to break the rhythm, and so emphasising its existence.

Rhythm: tiles

Rhythm: tiles

Rhythm 2: wicker

I originally shot this for ‘pattern’. but on reviewing it I decided that the diagonal angle I had chosen made the image carry the eye across and down, again providing a sense of movement and an ‘optical beat’. So I recategorised this as ‘rhythm’.

Rhythm: wicker

Rhythm: wicker

Pattern 1: grate

In this I saw a couple of patterns: the regular repeating of the alternating horizontal and vertical lines, and the more spaced-out but equally regular lifting holes. At a push you could say there’s a third pattern, more irregular this time, of the gravel trapped between the lines.

Pattern: grate

Pattern: grate

Pattern 2: daisies

I found various examples of man-made patterns, but was keen on finding a natural example too. The most interesting one that crossed my lens was this collection of giant daisies. However, I’m on the fence as to whether there are enough similar items to constitute a ‘pattern’ as such; I’m not sure it’s enough quantity to imply continuation beyond the visible frame. Hence I included it here as my alternative choice.

Pattern: daisies

Pattern: daisies

What I’ve learned:

I’ve come to appreciate the involving, almost hypnotic effect of an effective pattern image. I’ve also learned that there are instances when you can shoot a pattern in such a way that guides the eye and implies movement, especially when combined with real or implied diagonal lines. Such images have a kind of ‘musicality’ that is pleasing to the eye. I’ve also learned that the line between rhythm and pattern, though straightforward in definition, can in reality be a little blurry.


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Exercise – Real and implied triangles

Brief:

Produce two sets of three triangular compositions, one set using real triangles (actual triangle, triangle formed by perspective, inverted triangle formed by perspective) and one set using implied triangles (still life, still life inverted triangle, three people).

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens and EF 40mm f/2.8 lens.

Results:

Real triangles:

1. Bunting against a clear sky gave a strong ‘real’ triangle shape. The apex pointing down gives a feeling of instability and movement that fits the subject, as bunting moves about in the breeze. The light one against the trees and the darker ones against the sky helps the shapes to stand out.

Real triangle

Real triangle

2. Looking down onto a straight railway track until a train passed under the bridge, I got this shot of the train diminishing into the distance. The triangle doesn’t have a particularly sharp point but another bridge in the distance prevented the triangle narrowing to the horizon. However, I felt it was a strong enough triangular shape to include here. With the wide base, the shape manages to imply solidity whilst simultaneously illustrating the movement with the steep diagonal sides. The diminishing perspective adds a lot of depth to the image. I shot this at the widest angle possible with this lens, 18mm, to emphasise the triangular aspect.

Perspective

Perspective

3. It took me a while to work out how to achieve this effect, but on wandering under a footbridge that I’d been shooting from, it dawned on me that shooting upwards to a long structure like this would provide the inverted triangle that I needed. The feeling I get from looking at this is of something fairly precarious, quite different to the solidity implied by the previous photo. Again, a sense of depth is created from the perspective, and again this was at 18mm to make the most of the triangle formed.

Inverted perspective

Inverted perspective

 

Implied triangles:

4. I tried here to get a triangular shape implied without being too regimented, making it look as if the corks had been thrown haphazardly and somehow managed to fall in a composition that was pleasing to the eye.

Still life

Still life

5. Here I made a conscious decision to make the triangle quite regimented and symmetrical. This brings some order to the image that helps to offset the natural tendency for inverted triangles to look unstable. It draws the eye downwards to the front doll.

Inverted still life

Inverted still life

6. The three heads make a (fairly flat) triangle, and the overall image has a larger triangle formed by the arms. This gives a pleasing balance to the image.

Triple portrait

Triple portrait

 

What I’ve learned:

There are a lot of triangles about, once you start looking for them. In a similar manner to my findings on diagonal lines, I found that they may not be obviously or inherently triangular in form, but choice of angle, perspective, lighting and composition can ‘make’ things triangular. This type of compositional manipulation is fairly new to me, but I think I can see the uses of it. I appreciate the way that an implied triangle can suggest stability and balance, and enclose they key parts of the image in a fairly simple way. I will look for uses of this technique in my photography in future.


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Exercise – Implied lines

Brief:

1. Find and indicate the implied lines in two given photographs
2. Repeat the exercise with three existing photographs of your own
3. Take two new photographs demonstrating (a) an eye-line, and (b) a line that points, or the extension of a line

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens; Leica X1 24mm.

Results:

1. Given images:

corrida

corrida lines

Corrida

Here the dominant implied line is the movement of the bull, followed by the swish of the cape. The head-down stance of the concentrating matador produces an eye-line implied line too.

horses

horses lines

Horses

The diagonal leaning in of the two horses gives a very strong implied line here. The movement of the handler from right to left is perceptible but a little less strong.

2. Existing images:

2012-02-26

beach lines

Beach

The combination of the shade provided by the nearby cliff and the connecting line of the person and the dog produces an implied line from bottom-right to centre-left.

DSC03548

bike lines

Bike

The diagonal angle of the rider coupled with the white line give a strong sense of the direction of travel.

train

train lines

Train

The lines of the train converge on the figure in the background giving a feeling of direction and velocity.

3. New images:

alley

alley lines

Alley

Here the shaft of light coming in from the bottom-left points directly at the figure moving from the background to the foreground.

eyeline

eyeline lines

Eye-line

Even though the eyes are not visible, this over-the-shoulder shot invites the viewer to look at what she is photographing herself, which leads the viewer’s eye to the boats on the other side of the river.

What I’ve learned:

I found this exercise a little more challenging than the previous ones, as I find it easier to identify reasonably obvious lines than implied ones (not surprisingly). So this took a little bit of thinking about and a certain amount of trial and error. However, once I stepped through the first part of the exercise it made the second part easier as it made me look at my own photos in a slightly different way. This in turn gave me a better idea on how to seek out such implied lines for the new images in the third part. Implied lines is not something I naturally look for in images, so I need to add it to the ever-increasing list of things to consider before pressing the shutter! But I have found this exercise interesting and will keep this concept in mind in the future.


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Exercise – Curves

Brief:

Find four examples of curves that emphasise movement and direction. The curve should be prominent and ideally be the first thing the viewer would see. Make note of the different ways in which curves appear to the eye and the camera.

Equipment:

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

Results:

Sea wall

Sea wall

Sea wall: a classic example of shooting from above and relatively wide (24mm) to really emphasise the sweep of the curve in the road. It gives a good feeling of depth to the image.

Piano

Piano

Piano: a low and close take on the sweeping side of a grand piano, to emphasise its curves. To me this evokes the sense of listening to it being played, the ebb and flow of the notes (if that doesn’t sound too synesthetic!)

Drapes

Drapes

Drapes: I saw two complementary curves in this image: the drapes themselves, and the shaded arch created above it by the lighting.

Staircase

Staircase

Staircase: a little similar in style to the sea wall image, but this time working in the vertical dimension. For this I shot from low down and wide (18mm) to get as much of the bottom-to-top sweeping curve in the frame. I see a secondary set of curves in the metalwork of the railings, in a rhythm that is reminiscent of footsteps up and down the stairs. There is a further set of curves in the leaves of the plants to the lower right.

What I’ve learned:

I found this exercise similar to the diagonals in as much as I found myself seeing examples everywhere I wasn’t expecting too; the world is full of curves (or certainly the part of it I’m in). I tried to limit my shooting to those images where the curve added a sense of movement and/or depth, and helped to guide the viewers eye around the picture.

As with the diagonals, the images that I felt were more successful were the ones that encouraged the viewer to move around the picture in a particular way. Curves help to do this in a similar way to diagonals, if a little less directly.

As with the last two exercises, I am increasingly aware of how the photographer can influence the reaction on the part of the viewer through the choice of specific elements of graphic design. It’s becoming clearer to me when, and how, to use different kinds of lines to drive the eye around the image.


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Exercise – Diagonal lines

Brief:

Find four examples of diagonal lines. The line should be prominent and ideally be the first thing the viewer would see. Make note of the different ways in which diagonal lines appear to the eye and the camera.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens; Leica X1 24mm.

Results:

Handrail

Handrail

Handrail: with this I was going for a classic example of using an existing horizontal line and diminishing perspective to create a strong diagonal. Shot at a relatively wide 24mm. The perspective adds a great feeling of depth to the image.

 

Sundial

Sundial

Sundial: this gives the dual impression of  leading the eye from top right to bottom left (how I naturally read an image) and simultaneously leading the eye in the opposite direction as diagonal lines emanating from a central circle, here placed to the edge, mimic the rays of the sun. This adds a sense of movement to the image. This was taken at 50mm for a relatively ‘lifelike’ perspective, albeit shot from an angle low to the ground.

 

Shutters

Shutters

Shutters: another example of diagonal lines appearing as a result of the light and the angle rather than existing literally. Shadows at the right time of day will produce a diagonal. In this instance the diagonal of the shadows is matched by the angle of the open shutters themselves, and the small pegs dotted between the windows. There is also an implied diagonal from top left to bottom right as your eye follows the top shadow of the left window to the lower shadow of the right one. Shot at 200mm out of necessity (closest I could get) but I think at this focal length the resulting shadows are well pronounced.

 

Steps

Steps

Steps: here I saw a confluence of diagonal lines: the steps with the strong shadow underneath, the retaining wall, the picket fence running at a right angle to it. As with the handrail photo there has been a certain amount of composition to achieve the strong diagonals; only the retaining wall is a true diagonal and the other lines are in reality horizontal and vertical. A focal length of 24mm was used here. The lines, in particular in the steps, give a strong sense of movement in the image.

What I’ve learned:

I’ve gained an appreciation of how to see diagonals in the world around me – those that actually exist, and those that can be created by the eye and the camera. I’ve been aware of the theory of diagonals adding dynamism and movement to an image, but this exercise has really brought that home to me. Also, the sense of depth that one can add to an image by using diminishing perspective and emphasising a strong diagonal can be significant.

I noticed at the end of Part 1: The Frame that I’ve used diagonal lines a lot in my own work on the course so far. Sometimes I’ve done this deliberately but often it’s been quite subconscious. I seem to be drawn to them. I might yet do a ‘research and reflection’ post on this subject…