Sunday, 5 June 2011

Exercise 17: The user’s point of view

Although I have yet to start the exercise it is clear from the text of Exercise 16 that one of the keys to effective photography of spaces and buildings is to understand their purpose, the way they are actually used and – the development in this exercise – the way they are perceived by a user.

It would be simple to fill this entry with shots taken at random in various buildings – arguing that as I was in the building, I was a user, therefore any shot I take is a user’s viewpoint, but on the basis of the thought above I think that clearly misses the point.

I have a book on Zen meditation – Learn Zen Meditation, by David Fontana – which contains an exercise about expressing the ‘catness’ of cat in a ‘Zen’ painting. The basic instructions are to sit and meditate on what it is that makes a cat a cat, load up the brush, and when the image is clear in your mind open your eyes and commit it to paper. There seems to be a measure of that in these exercises.

First up is this shot taken in a tea-room in York. Tea-rooms are a place to take shelter from the world outside, catch your breath, and give your feet a rest – so a shot which captures some tranquillity or cosiness would seem to be needed. In addition, they are normally experienced seated so a shot from reasonably close to a table top is called for. I went for a very wide angle to ensure as much in shot as possible to capture the idea of sitting inside while the world went by outside. I also chose a relatively large aperture (f/5.6) and focussed close in to ensure that even with a focal length of 7mm I still blurred the background enough to give a sense of separation.

Bailey's tea room, York

Of course, tea-rooms are also places where you drink tea, and the absence of tea from this shot could be seen as an omission.  However I think that the inevitable clutter of crockery, cutlery and cakes would distract from the overall feel of the shot.

Next up, and by way of a total contrast, is the Abito Building on Salford Quays. Essentially an apartment block with a huge internal space and apartments on three of the four sides the first look up as you enter the building is breathtaking. There was no pre-meditation in this shot. To be honest there is really only one option for shooting this – with the camera on the floor pointing upwards and an ultra-wideangle to capture as much as possible. Another shot at 7mm, but this time stopped down to f/11 to ensure focus all the way up.

Abito Building, Clipper's Quay, Salford Quays

It would be easy to be cynical shooting a users view of a building such as this. There are plenty of opportunities for shots of concrete landings, lift doors, anonymous stairwells and other clichés. It could be argued that lying on the floor is technically not the users viewpoint, but in truth the upwards view is pretty much like this, and this is certainly true to the effect on a first time user. I was impressed - and I hope it shows.

Going to finish with a trilogy of shots of something less impressive – the interior of a Saturday train from Carlisle to Newcastle. Trains are relatively cramped spaces, and when you are seated the view in most directions is blocked by seating. In dull conditions even the view outside is obscured by reflections, and of course, you are always conscious of movement. These are the impressions I have tried to capture in this set.

On the Newcastle train (iii)On the Newcastle train (ii)On the Newcastle train (i)


There are millions of ‘spaces’ in the world, and user experience and viewpoint will vary with the individuals using these spaces, influenced by both their physical stature and their state of mind. If it had been pouring with rain outside, the windows steamy and the streets filled with umbrellas, I would have taken a very different shot of the tearoom, after several months in the apartment building I might be less awestruck when I looked up and if I was trying to sell train journeys I might be looking for a sunny afternoon in a train full of happy smiley people.

The key point is that careful consideration of your reaction to the space means you can select techniques and angles/compositions that properly reflect your experience of it.

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