Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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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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Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks

I saw that the new Media Space has opened at the Science Museum in London and have already decided that I should give it a visit while I’m working down here. The inaugural exhibition is “Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr”. I hadn’t heard of Tony Ray-Jones before reading about the exhibition, so I was interested to see that there is an article on him in the September edition of the British Journal of Photography [1].

I’ll comment on Mr Ray-Jones’ photographic oeuvre when I get a chance to see it, but what I found fascinating was this BJP article that focused not on his photographic work, but on his notebooks, now part of the archive of the National Media Museum in Bradford (of which the new Media Space is a southern offshoot). He was an avid note-taker, and the BJP article reproduces pages from his ring-bound notebooks that he used to document his thoughts and his work.

I particularly liked his ‘Approach’ note.

Tony Ray-Jones 'Approach'

Tony Ray-Jones – ‘Approach’

It’s a handwritten manifesto, or more likely aide memoire, with his 13 rules/reminders for photography. I think I should have something like this, to make me remember what’s important. It might not have exactly the same points on – his genre was very much people photography – but I do like the simplicity of having a list of ‘commandments’ to stick to!

1. BJP (2013) Archive: Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks, British Journal of Photography, September 2013


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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.


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Assignment 1: Contrasts – inspiration from my old photos

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

1. Dark & Light

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

Dark

Dark

Light

Light

2. Many & Few

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

Many

Many

Few

Few

3. Continuous & Intermittent

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

Continuous

Continuous

Intermittent

Intermittent

4. Large & Small

A giant poppy and a normal-sized daisy.

Large

Large

Small

Small

5. Solid & Liquid

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

Solid

Solid

Liquid

Liquid

6. Opaque & Transparent

A chinese lantern before and after drying out.

Opaque

Opaque

Transparent

Transparent

7. Still & Moving

Bikes before and during a mountain bike jump track day.

Still

Still

Moving

Moving

8. Straight & Curved

Two contrasting monuments in the same city.

Straight

Straight

Curved

Curved

9. Black & White

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

Black

Black

White

White

10. Solid & Liquid – same shot

An unfortunate parking accident.

Liquid & Solid

Liquid & Solid


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Assignment 1: Contrasts – initial thoughts

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

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

What I need to keep in mind:

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

Content thoughts:

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

Random other thoughts:

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

That’s it for now.

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