Tuesday, 30 August 2011

PnP Exercise 15: Public Space, Public Activity

Another one I struggled with – largely because of the overlap with other exercises. I also found this a bit more difficult because I gave myself a chance to get out of the habit of photographing people in the wild.

The location I chose was Westonbirt Arboretum. As a location it seemed to offer as many opportunities as a park, coupled with the advantage that people would be expecting to see cameras in action. As it happened, when we got there they were in the middle of ‘Treefest’ which meant there was more going on than usual, and that a craft village had been built in the middle of the site.

Initially I resorted to ‘comfort zone’ and started photographing the craftspeople at work but decided, rightly or wrongly, that that missed the purpose of the exercise – so I concentrated on the ‘punters’ instead.

The majority of the shots were at quite long focal lengths because I found this more comfortable, and because the scale of the event meant there was practical value in having more reach.

I have chosen to present the final selects as a collage because I feel it captures the variety of activity better than a series of individual photos. I think this works quite well but do think, with hindsight, that it would have been a better collage with a couple of craftspeople and perhaps even a couple of product shots.

Treefest, Westonbirt Arboretum


  • I need to keep doing people photography if I want to hang on to the comfort factor I’ve picked up from this course – perhaps the ‘100 Strangers’ project or something similar.
  • I need to have a clearer idea of what I’m trying to achieve so that I make sure I get the right mix of shots
  • The collage presentation is something that interests me a lot – I can see it’s use in the exploring functions sections coming up.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Public transport – more users viewpoints

The train shots in my first pass at this exercise got me thinking about public transport and the relatively similarity of the experience whatever mode of travel you are using. Switzerland is an excellent country to do public transport because there is so much of it – the next few shots were all taken in – or on our way to – Switzerland.

First shot is actually in the aircraft – I was stopped from taking photos by the stewardess after this shot ‘because of security’. Obviously a would-be terrorist would draw attention to themselves by visibly using a camera rather taking surreptitious shots with a phone, and would find the secret knowledge that aircraft have overhead storage lockers really valuable - ‘sigh’.

On board the plane

Next up bus and rail:

E7140665.jpgOn the train

I have a few more rail shots to add from various different rail lines. It is noticeable how much more open and airy Swiss trains are compared to their British equivalent.

A couple of more obscure examples – a cable car, which I’ve posted previously and the rapid transit system at the airport. Sadly I forgot to take a photo from the water taxis.


And, finally, a couple of more static shots from various places on route.

An escalator in Montreux – I took this one by resting the camera on the moving belt so it isn’t quite a user’s viewpoint

Escalator, Montreux

Arriving at the entrance to the railway station in Bern:

Bern, the railway station

The cable car station at Murren:

Cable Car Station

There are a couple more to come once I get access to my hard-drive, but for the moment this will do. One thing that strikes me about all these is the general similarities – industrial fabrics, stainless steel pipework and a general absence of decoration – which give an impression of people processing facilities rather than human transport infrastructure.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Joel Grimes – Portraits with a difference

As part of the Assignment 1 feedback my tutor suggested a couple of photographers to investigate – one being Joel Grimes. By happy coincidence Joel’s work had featured in Photo Professional magazine only a couple of weeks earlier so I was already a bit familiar with his signature style. In addition he has a very modern if rather complex and slow-to-load website and a well populated photostream on Flickr: Flickr: Joel Grimes Photography's Photostream

His current signature style is very striking – using a three light set up (one overhead, two side lights) to light his subjects who he then drops into an HDR treated background. The magazine interview suggests that this was a relatively recent change to his style, which was previously based on a one light slightly off-set set-up to produce a gradient wrap around the subject. There are examples of both on Flickr – the single light set-up is in the older material and produces a very classical look. (photos not reproduced here because of request on Flickr)

I have a preference for the more classical look of his older shots – the HDR look seems a bit overdone to me, but it is undoubtedly a success for him.

The website also features a couple of portfolios called ‘Everyday Life’ and ‘Desert life’ which are more conventional – Desert Life in particular is reminiscent of Ansel Adams in the tonality of the shots included.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Ancient Eye Placement Principles

In his feedback for my first assignment my tutor noted that it is conventional practise to place the right corner of the eye on the midpoint of the photo. While I agree that this produces a pleasing result I couldn’t help but wonder where this particular ‘rule’ comes from.

Scratching about on the internet produced the following research paper from Christopher Tyler – a visual psychophyicist – whatever that is.

Ancient Eye Placement Principles

The basic conclusion of the paper is that off centring the head so that the artist achieves central eye-placement is a feature classical portraiture over the last two millennia in spite of the fact that eye placement is almost never mentioned in compositional discussion or texts.

The suggestion is then made that there is a subconscious reason for this being the preferred placement, and that other placements are associated with negative qualities in the subject.

I note that Wikipedia refers to the eye-placement theory as controversial and I can certainly see that, from the evidence in the paper, the experimental method might be open to challenge, as might the association with classical Greek and Roman culture (does Japanese or other East Asian art follow the same idea for example?). However the basic idea that we are ‘programmed’ to find some eye placements more pleasing has interesting resonances with the idea of the Golden Mean – even if the maths does not quite align in the two ideas.

Assignment 2 – People and Activity


I struggled with this assignment and the more I ask myself ‘Why?’ the less certain I become. In part I think it is where my reasons for taking this course – to help me push my boundaries, particularly with regard to photographing people – met head on with those boundaries. I made several plans – my son’s band in concert, local blues festival, chilli festival, local agricultural show – and each time events conspired to bring me down.

In the end I have chosen to go with this set of photos which I captured in Switzerland. Even here I wrestled a bit with deciding if they met the various criteria before deciding that they do.

I was a little hung up on the idea of planning needing to be a long drawn out process. This, on the other hand,  was a spur of the moment shoot on the first night of our holiday. We heard the sound of music coming from the village square so I grabbed my camera (with a standard zoom 28-108 equiv) a spare battery and spare memory card (a useful habit I got from the early parts of Digital Photographic Practise) and hot-footed to the square.

The music was, fortunately, a bit of warm up so the concert had not started properly. I chose a spot on the corner of the crowd so that I had room to move a bit, and an opportunity for a shot of the crowd as well. So in this sense it was planned – just very quickly.

The other decision was choice of film speed etc. I did not have a tripod so I concluded rapidly that stopping the motion in the rapidly fading available light was not a realistic option – so for the dancing and flag-throwing I simply went for a more impressionistic approach. In the choral shots it was a case of trying to find a balance between film speed and shutter speed while retaining sufficient DoF.

So was it planned? In my view – yes – and as I had this assignment in the back of my mind as I was taking the shots it was also deliberate. It was certainly one of the more technically challenging assignments I’ve tried.

The shots

As the programme was repeated I also had a chance to pick out a couple of more effective angles for explaining the activity and hopefully a couple of telling moments.

No1: The audience (Explaining)

PnP Assignment 2-01.jpg

Exif: 1/30; f/5.6; ISO400: 51mm (102mm equiv)

I wanted a shot which made it clear this was a public event, and that focussed on the crowd as a ‘hook’ to encourage viewers to look further. I feel that a little more DoF might have been helpful, but as a ‘what’s going on here?’ introduction it works reasonably well. It leads nicely into:

No. 2: The Village Square (Explaining)

PnP Assignment 2-02.jpg

Exif: 1/15; f/5.6; ISO 400: 22mm (44 equiv)

This shot has just enough blur in the dancers to explain what is happening, while the buildings  and national dress etc immediately suggest Switzerland/Austria or perhaps northern Italy.

It’s a shame that the young lady at bottom left is not looking at the event – but otherwise I think this works very well and if I was restricted to exactly 10 shots (rather than approx 10 as the course notes require) I would probably use this as the introductory shot.

Shot 3: Dancing (Explaining/Telling Moment)

PnP Assignment 2-03.jpg

Exif: 0.6sec; f/9; ISO100; 35mm (70mm equiv)

I thought long and hard about including this shot as the shutter speed is so slow that there is clearly camera shake as well as blurred movement. The choice of shutter speed was deliberate to provide quite a bit of blur in the dancers, but the shot would have been improved if I had had some camera support available.

I included it because, as far as I could tell, this twirling motion was a key feature of the dance and I wanted to include this effect, and I also happen to like the way the gentleman in the dark suit appears in a gap between two of the dancers perhaps hinting – in the context of this series – at other things to come.

Shot 4: Dancers (Telling moment)

PnP Assignment 2-04.jpg

Exif: 1/13; f/5.6; ISO400; 54mm (108 equiv)

I included this shot because I wanted a close-up of some of the dancers and this particular shot seemed to achieve the right balance of sharpness and blur. To my mind it captures the concentration of the dancers – both have their eyes shut – at the same time as some sense of pleasure. I also like the slightly out-of-keeping modern wristwatch on the mans arm.

With a longer lens I might have pulled in closer on their faces, but then camera shake would have been even more of an issue.

Of course – it’s not possible to have a dance without music so the next shot captures the musicians.

Shot 5: The band (Explaining)

PnP Assignment 2-05.jpg

Exif: 1/6; f/4.5; ISO1600; 54mm (108 equiv)

Apart from the double bass player this is quite static compared to the dancing shots. In the context of the series this is not necessarily bad as it acts as a transition from the dancing to the choral section of the performance but in fairness I believe this shot could have used a little more motion blur. It is a useful learning point that I should believe the screen less and duplicate even those shots I think I have in the bag first time! I can always delete the duplicate later. It has been cropped fairly heavily to make up for the limited reach of my standard zoom.

Shots 6 and 7: The Choirs (Explaining)

PnP Assignment 2-06.jpg PnP Assignment 2-07.jpg

Shot 6 (LHS) Exif: 1/15; f4.5; ISO400; 54mm (108 equiv)

Shot 7 (RHS) Exif: 1/10; f/5.6; ISO800; 54mm (108 equiv)

I include these shots together  because they are very similar in composition but quite contrasting on closer inspection. The mixed yodelling group is considerably more casual than the ladies folk choir. I especially like the fact that they all have their hands in their pockets, and there are a range of exchanged glances between the yodellers, whereas the ladies choir is paying attention to the conductor in a much more disciplined way.

Shot 8: Alpenhorn Player (Telling moment)

PnP Assignment 2-08.jpg

Exif: 1/30: f/3.3; ISO400; 41mm (82 equiv)

I include this as a telling moment because it was a high-point of the performance and one the crowd clearly wanted to hear – judging by their expressions I’m not sure the same could be said of the ladies choir. This appears to be a relatively straightforward shot of a static subject, but in reality it is a heavy crop from a photo that included both the horn player and the flag-thrower. For this shot a longer lens would have been useful, although I think the quality has held up reasonably well. Had the opportunity presented itself I would also have liked to try a wider angle lens much closer to the mouth of the horn – but, equipment availability aside, there is a limit to how far I am prepared to impose myself on a public performance. With hindsight I also wish I had had the courage to approach the gentleman afterwards for some closer shots.

Shots 9, 10 and 11: Flag Throwing (Explaining and Telling Moment)

PnP Assignment 2-09.jpg

Exif: 1/25; f3.2; ISO400; 28mm (56mm equiv)

(Telling Moment) This was a matter of fairly precise timing as it was difficult to establish a shot where the Swiss flag was unfurled and moving slowly enough to register in detail. This is the first of the sequence to unequivocally establish the location as Switzerland – without this shot we are left to guess at the location.

I have cropped the photo fairly heavily to concentrate on the flag-thrower, and in the process I have created an internal frame for the alpenhorn player – who was accompanying the action. This might have been performed more effectively by use of a longer focal length. The next shot – taken from further to the left establishes their relationship even more effectively.

PnP Assignment 2-10.jpg

Exif: 1/6; f4.5; ISO800; 29mm (58 equiv)

(Explaining) The blur clearly shows that there is some flag waving going on. The flag-throwers arms almost form a nice triangular composition with the alpenhorn – I have missed this by a fraction of a second, although there is still an implied triangle out to the tip of the flag. I was somewhat braver and got in a little closer this time, which meant the crop was much less extreme.

The final shot of the series is definitely a Telling Moment. The thrower does as the name implies and throws the flag in the air – catching it as it comes down. I made use of the relatively still spot at the top of the throw to capture this last shot.

PnP Assignment 2-11.jpg

Exif: 1/10; f/4.5; ISO800; 19mm (38mm equiv)

Again there is quite a strong implied triangle, which in this case adds to the sense of movement and the spectator on the balcony is an added bonus.

Converging verticals

In the feedback on assignment 1 my tutor suggested that I needed to pay more attention to converging verticals. This assignment was quite challenging from that perspective as the camera angle was generally quite low and there were a number of tall buildings with strong construction lines in the background. To address this in a number of the shots (2,8,9,10,11) I have corrected the perspective using a piece of software called Shift-N, and the end results are definitely more satisfying. The alternative in this circumstance would have been to include more foreground, and crop accordingly – which I think would have been an unhelpful distraction. My shooting skills are not yet up to composing in half the frame, and although a software alteration always implies some loss in quality, I think the loss from cropping/enlarging would have been greater. That said - it’s an issue I need to work on.

Overall review

Technique – Some camera support would have improved shot 3 in particular, and I could perhaps have risked ISO1600 for the choir shots, which on close inspection show some subject movement. I could also have used a longer focal length in some instances to reduce the need for cropping. However overall I believe I have delivered a product that met the technical challenges of the assignment – to capture a series of images explaining an activity which includes some telling moments.

Creativity – I could be open to the charge that this is a rather predictable or clichéd subject. While accepting that it is effectively an activity laid on for the benefit of tourists (and so potentially a cliché) I have tried, by use of appropriate technique, to say something about the activity beyond the ‘Ooh look! People in national dress’ approach. I feel this was least successful in the shots of the choirs and most effective in the case of the dancers.

Insight – I feel there is an interesting back story to these shots that I have been unable to explore. What do these people do for a living? Does their lifestyle reflect their interest in traditional art forms? Do they practise in their performance clothes, or in modern dress – and do the activities leave the same impression in that case? As a tourist it is difficult to explore these issues, but I feel there is a potential idea here for a future course or a personal project, even if  not in Switzerland.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Book Review – Portrait:Theory Ed. Kelly Wise

Came across this book – which appears to be out of print - on Amazon while searching for books on Portrait Theory. Perhaps I was fooled by the word ‘theory’ in the title, and the promise of the 8 photographers featured talking about their work. The latter bit was correct but most of the essays cover technical aspects of the work rather than the theory or ideas behind them or what they were hoping to portray. On the plus side, the back story behind many of the images is quite interesting to read, and there are plenty of nuggets of photographic wisdom tucked away to think about.

Setting that aside this is an excellent collection of portraits by a group of photographers who, with the exception of Robert Mapplethorpe, I had not previously heard of.

Particular favourites included Evelyn Hofer – for the jet blacks she gets in her prints (examples here), and the way she captures light on peoples faces, and Robert Mapplethorpe for much the same reason.

On the flip side, I thought the low contrast murkiness of the platinum-palladium prints from Jan Groover spoiled otherwise excellent characterisations.

Irrespective of the techniques, I also found many of the photos of interest from a purely historical value – Lotte Jacobi’s wonderfully undersold ‘Albert Einstein, Physicist’ and ‘Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer’ for example. She clearly had access to the glitterati because her portfolio in the book also includes Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson.

So not quite what I expected, but a very enjoyable read and look, and one that I keep going back to