People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: A public space

Brief

For this final exercise, transfer your attention from an organised occasion to a semi-organised public space. Some of the most accessible and usable from a photographic point of view are public parks. A public beach is another possibility. Instead of a single event, there will be a variety of things happening, even if not all of it is particularly active or focused. Try to capture the sense of varied use — how people make their own personal or small-group activities within the same general area.

Results

There’s a short stretch of riverside space between Richmond Bridge and Twickenham Bridge on the Thames that has been landscaped as a terraced lawn leading down to a broad river path, then down to the river itself. It has branded itself as ‘Richmond Riverside’ and serves as a meeting place and general leisure spot for locals and visitors, especially in spring and summer. There’s a nice mix of well-spaced benches and open spaces. I chose to take a bunch of shots of people engaging in various activities in this area, starting at the top of the terrace and moving down to the river itself.

I think I successfully captured a wide variety of uses of the space.

What I’ve learned

I found this a little more challenging than the organised event, as in this instance I was the only person wandering around with a camera. So I was a bit more self-conscious, certainly – more sensitive to the risks of someone objecting to the photography. I used quite a wide lens (27 mm) as I thought a long lens would have made me look even more suspicious. I did however have to crop most of these significantly to get the subjects in the right kind of proportion in the frame.

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Exercise: An organised event

Brief

For this exercise you will need to research and prepare in advance. Look for an organised event at which there will be plenty of people and in which you can confidently expect to be able to photograph freely and with some variety. An event at which spectators are in seats will not do; one in which people move around will be more useful. There are many other possibilities, and an important part of the exercise is to find a suitable one for yourself.

Results

I decided to take pictures at the annual Pickering Game & Country Fair, more specifically the UK Tractor Show that is incorporated into the overall event. I figured that I could get some good shots of ‘characters’ in this kind of environment.

What I’ve learned

I’m not sure I learned a huge amount new in this one, but it was certainly good practice. It is similar thematically to the assignment so maybe I’ll consider it a dry run for that. I felt quite comfortable shooting in this kind of environment (although some of the ‘characters’ did look like they could do me a bit of damage if they objected to me taking their picture…) and I think this helped my general level of confidence with ‘people unaware’ photography generally.


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Exercise: Standard focal length

Brief

As in the previous two exercises, concentrate on shooting with one focal length. In this case, if you have a full-frame camera the focal length should be between 40 mm and 50 mm. If your camera uses the more common, smaller sensor size, it will be in the region of 27 mm to 32 mm.

Results

I took most of these at 27 mm on a 1.5x crop factor sensor, so the equivalent focal length is almost exactly 40 mm (the first image, of the benches, was at 35 mm crop sensor so 52.5 mm EFL).

 

After the last two exercises, at the extremes of long and wide focal lengths, I found this much more satisfying. The fact that the standard focal length approximates the human eye is what makes this kind of image work in my opinion – one of the defining characteristics of good ‘street photography’ is that it closely resembles real-life, without unnecessary distortion. It adds an extra layer of veracity that aids the feeling of ‘being there’. It feels more like photojournalism than creativity – taking more than making photographs.

From a personal point of view I found it much more comfortable: I neither felt like a stalker (as in the long lens shots) nor that I was unnecessarily intruding in people’s personal space (as in the wide-angle shots). As noted in an earlier exercise, one of the things that I think makes this kind of focal length ‘fairer’ is that the subject has a fighting chance of knowing that you’re there, and could object if they wanted to – it seems like a fair exchange, if that makes any sense.

What I’ve learned

Through these last three exercises I’ve come to better understand why most street photography tends to use the focal lengths that it does – namely the middle-ground, near-human-eye equivalents between 35 mm and 50 mm (full-frame equivalent). There are exceptions, of course, but these are stylistic choices that certain photographers make, and it gives their work a distinctive feel that in some cases distances their images somewhat from a true reality. If I’m going to do much more of this kind of photography in future, I believe I will do so with my 27 mm (40 mm EFL) and my 35 mm (52.5 mm EFL) lenses.


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Book: Train Your Gaze, Roswell Angier

Train Your Gaze

Train Your Gaze

The big question that this book made me (still makes me) think about is: What is a portrait? (spoiler: I’m still not sure).

I was originally going to write about this book when I was doing the People Aware action of the course, as it is a book about portraiture – indeed, its full title is ‘Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography’ [1]. However, on thinking about it after reading, and once I’d started on People Unaware, it became more apparent to me that a lot of the new insights I gained from this book weren’t just about (what I consider to be the core definition of) portraiture per se – namely the genre of photography concerned with images of people that are aware they are being photographed – but more generally to images of people. This in turn led me to check my own understanding on the meaning of the word ‘portrait’! And the true definition of the word merely means a depiction or likeness of a person, and does not specifically signify that the person is aware of, or posing for, the likeness to be recorded.

However, the book does muddy the waters somewhat by first of all referring to a portrait as “the result of a consensual process… [that] depends on the subject’s agreement to be photographed” (fitting my pre-existing understanding), then going on to include a chapter on voyeurism and a discussion of what most people would call ‘street photography’. So it’s not wholly clear on where ‘portraiture’ ends and ‘taking pictures of people’ begins.

Before getting into the content, I must say: it’s by far the best-looking book on photography I’ve seen, as a physical artefact: thick paper stock, nice matt finish, clear layout, beautiful graphic design and typography; I’m used to this from photobooks but it made me realise that most photography textbooks are aesthetically quite disappointing in comparison.

For the most part, it’s very well-written and easy to digest, even when dealing with quite esoteric themes underlying portraiture. The author has a knack of simply describing and illustrating the concepts under discussion. The one incongruous element of the book is the content of the exercises included in each chapter, which vary from slightly challenging to qualifying the author to be Mayor of Crazytown. It starts off with an hour-long portrait session in complete silence (strange but achievable) and soon tumbles into ‘take friends with you to recreate a street photograph’ and ‘be a voyeur’ with the helpful hint “You can hide in a closet”!). These seemed to be at the outer edges of what I’d expect most readers to be comfortable with.

Exercises aside, its core content is very enlightening. It starts with an assertion that the portrait isn’t just the result of the sitter being in front of the camera, it’s the outcome of the interaction with the photographer – “the presence of the photographer’s thoughtful regard” as a key ingredient. It talks straight away of “cultivating this presence, this way of looking”, hence the title.

Angier dives straight into challenging norms of portraiture in the second chapter, with its examination of the non-facial portrait. Shadows, reflections, other body parts, covered faces – all of these can form a portrait, albeit a non-traditional one. The following chapter is where the consensual element of portraiture starts to be questioned, as he discusses the street work of Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson, particularly from the point of view of compositional decisions. This expansion of the definition of portraiture continues in the chapter on ‘active portraits’; who would have considered Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Attack” image to be a portrait? By the chapter on voyeurism and surveillance the notion of a portrait of consensual has been discarded. Then in an ironic twist, or going full-circle maybe, the image used for the front cover of the book is explained: one of the ‘Stranger’ series by Shizuka Yokomizo, where the stranger is shot in their window with the photographer hidden from view outside. The twist is that while this uses the techniques of voyeurism, the stranger has agreed to stand in the window for precisely this purpose. So it’s definitely a ‘portrait’ by anyone’s definition.

The later chapters cover portraiture in the context of its relationship with identity – interesting, but veers into the overly contrived end of the genre that normally leaves me cold – and challenging the norms of more technical (or rather technique-driven) aspects of portraits, from blurriness to darkness to the use of flash. The chapter on people in the context of places is something that I will certainly return to as part of the ‘People interacting With Place’ part of this course.

This book widened the subject out and made me aware of the possibilities – the ways of looking, the different perspectives, the opportunities to pick apart, challenge or entirely subvert the generally-held norms of what a good portrait is. It made me think, a lot. I don’t wholly agree with every word, but I think that’s what makes it such a good book – one of the best I’ve read in all my photography studies so far.

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA


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Exercise: Close and involved

Brief

Switch lenses (or adjust focal length) to the widest angle that you have. A true wide-angle, judged from its visual effect, is around 28 mm or less. One of the uses of a wide- angle lens is to be able to cover a large subject area in one shot, but here concentrate instead on using it close to people, and try to achieve a sense of putting the viewer right inside the situation — as you will inevitably be! From the point of view of comfort and confidence, this is quite a challenging way to shoot, but try your best.

As with the previous exercise, note down both the problems and the advantages created by working with a wide-angle of view from very close to the people you are photographing.

Results

I used my 16-50 mm zoom at its widest, so an equivalent focal length of 24 mm due to the 1.5x crop factor of my camera. In a few instances I’d most likely have cropped a little in post-processing, but in the spirit of the exercise these are all straight out of the camera, keeping in exactly what was in the frames I shot.

To me, ‘Backlight’ is the most successful shot and that has more to do with the lighting and composition than anything else. I liked the expressions on ‘Young Couple’ and this is probably the only one where I caught a ‘moment’.

‘Three Friends’ and ‘Two Friends’ are OK composition-wise but not very exciting subject-wise. ‘Angled’ I kept in as an extreme example of how hard I found it to keep the camera level when shooting like this (I seem to have accidentally managed a 45º angle and this lends the image a certain something). ‘Photoshoot’, ‘Hat Lady’ and ‘Couple’ had extraneous elements in that I would crop out.

Advantages:

Not many to be honest! More immersive for the viewer in the more successful ones; feeling of being ‘close to the action’.

Brings an element of randomness to the results – mostly unusable but occasional surprises.

Disadvantages:

Distortion towards edges of frame (fixable in post-processing). This is most noticeable in the first two images, with buildings; it’s not so obvious with wide open spaces.

Shooting like this made me feel even more uncomfortable than the long-lens shots, for a very different reason. In these cases I felt like I was really intruding in their personal space.

Much harder to compose – mostly shooting ‘on the run’ whilst passing the subject so an element of randomness to the framing (sometimes works, mostly doesn’t).

What I’ve learned

I’ve previously used a wide lens for getting shots of people in the context of their surroundings, but this was the first time I tried to get up so close and fill the frame with the subject at such a short focal length. It felt like I was really invading their space and ‘snatching’ shots, and from a practical point of view accurate framing was near impossible due to the speed I was working. I didn’t find this style of shooting comfortable.

Right now I’m thinking that one of the objectives of the last two exercises is to demonstrate why the generally-held norm for street photography is a standard focal length – not too close, not too far away. Both of the extremes didn’t sit that well with me, each in their own way somehow taking advantage of the subject more than a standard, middle-ground focal length treatment would do.


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Exercise: Standing back

Brief

Depending on your choice of lenses, select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80 mm and 200 mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? Because of the extra distance between you and your subject, you may have found that passers-by and traffic sometimes block your view. And what special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Results

I’m away from home at the moment without my full set of lenses. The longest lens I have with me is a 16-50 mm zoom (crop factor 1.5x) so full-frame equivalent focal length of 75 mm, falling a little short of the suggested 80 mm starting point. I may therefore repeat this exercise when I have my longer zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) and go right in close on subjects’ faces. However, for the purposes of this version of the exercise I have used the standard zoom at its 50 mm (75 mm EFL) full extent, and have cropped the results a little to give an indication of what a longer lens might have captured.

‘Monk’ worked well in this vertical crop, maybe to do with the complementary colours. ‘Bougainvillea’ was a good example of the focal length compressing the field of view, which in this case led to a good visual effect. The remaining four, though unremarkable in themselves, are good examples of having time to be more precise with the composition.

Advantages:

I got some shots that I might not have otherwise been able to, either because being further away allowed me to go unnoticed, or practicalities like being able to shoot from over the other side of the street rather than being stood in the middle of road.

I could take longer to set up the shot, didn’t feel the need to rush so much.

Notably in the Bougainvillea bush shot, the longer lens gave more visual compression that made the subjects melt into the background. Shot from closer it would have shown more separation between background and subject, and wouldn’t have achieved as strong an effect.

Disadvantages:

The main practical disadvantage was that there were often obstacles in my eye-line that I had to work around or, in the case of moving obstacles (other people, cars) wait patiently for them to move on. Examples: ‘Monk’ and ‘Paddling’.

I was lucky to shoot with good light and so could work with fast shutter speeds, but I can see that the longer the lens, the more you need to keep the camera steady as the focal length exaggerates any unwanted motion and requires a combination of fast shutter, high ISO, wide aperture and maybe even a tripod (this last one seems out of place in street photography to me).

The biggest downside, and the reason I probably won’t do much of this type of photography under my own steam, is how it made me feel! Compared to the street shots I’ve taken before now, these made me feel very furtive, unethical even. I felt like a paparazzo, a spy, a stalker! I know it may seem contradictory or hypocritical but when you shoot with a normal/wide lens, you’re in the general field of space of the subject, and while you hope they won’t notice you, it feels like a fair exchange as they have a reasonable chance of reacting to you… in comparison the longer lens shots seemed to be much more intrusive – I felt like I was just stealing shots without justification. I imagine that this sensation is further exaggerated with a genuine telephoto lens.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that this kind of photography makes me feel slightly uncomfortable! More so than the closer, more street-level shots I’ve done before. On one level this seems slightly contradictory – before shooting I thought it would be ‘easier’ to shoot from a distance, and from a technical point of view it is, but the vague sense of unease I felt shooting from further away soured it for me a little. I felt less ethical, less engaged, less justified in taking the shots. So it’s both ‘easy’ and ‘uneasy’ …!


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Exercise: Capturing the moment

Brief

Find, as for the last exercise, a ‘comfortable’ situation, possibly even the same location. For this exercise concentrate on bursts of activity, from which you try to capture a ‘best’ moment.

When you’ve finished shooting, review your images and pick out those that, for you, best capture a particular moment. Make notes in your learning log explaining your choice.

Results

I took shots over a couple of days as I discovered that this exercise is not as easy as it looks! Finding exactly the right moments to capture – whether you know at the point of hitting the shutter or find it in the editing stage – is something that is difficult to do ‘on demand’.

The five pictures here are the result of a few hundred that I took in various situations and locations over the last three days. For each one I will briefly explain why I felt it was worthy of capturing that particular moment.

1. Skater

I shot from low down as I wanted to capture both the movement of the skater and the sharp shadow caused by the bright sunlight. This was the one where the body shadow shape came out clearest, and the legs straddled the red cone. The sense of motion is there, with the left leg raised, but the fast shutter speed has frozen the action well.

1. Skater

1. Skater

2. Tourists

I watched people taking photos of the view down onto the sea and after a while these two gents seemed to be mimicking each other’s movements, so I rattled off a few shots. This was the one where they seemed to mirror the pose the best. I still don’t know whether they were together or just resembled each other!

2. Tourists

2. Tourists

3. Photoshoot

This chap was taking pictures of his lady friend in front of a waterfall that I happened to be at the top of. I suppose in a sense I was doing the same as him – waiting for the right pose before I hit the shutter. I hope he got the shot too.

3. Photoshoot

3. Photoshoot

4. Macarons

I think this one stood out as I’ve managed to capture the exact moment she was picking up a macaron and I caught a smiley expression on her face.

4. Macarons

4. Macarons

5. Passing

I set myself up on a bench on the prom in Nice and took lots of pictures of who was passing, on bikes and on foot. My aim was to capture a moment of interaction or alignment between two people. In this one it initially looks as though they are together but on closer inspection it becomes more obvious that they are in fact walking past each other. I think this specific image captures the lines of their limbs well.

5. Passing

5. Passing

What I’ve learned

Whilst I enjoyed this, it did take a lot of outtakes to get to a set of usable images! If I wasn’t collecting images for an exercise I’m not convinced that I’d have considered these worthy of being shared, but they met the brief and proved the point.

In some instances (pictures 1, 2 and 5) I found it useful to pre-visualise what kind of image I wanted, and to position myself where I thought people would (if I waited long enough) wander into shot and do something interesting. For the others I was shooting a bit more speculatively, and really didn’t know whether I’d captured the right ‘moment’ until I reviewed the images after the event.

I haven’t shared them here, but in almost all cases there were ‘nearly-but-not-quite-right’ shots from a fraction of a second either side, that just missed the mark. It’s not always easy to describe exactly what makes each one work better than the close alternatives, but it was clear to my eye which ones ‘worked’.

As an exercise to demonstrate the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, it kind of worked – but as I said earlier, it’s really quite difficult to produce such moments on demand. But a very interesting and useful exercise, that has taught me to be both more demanding and more patient.