People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Developing your confidence

Brief

Choose an outdoor situation where there will be lots of people and activity, and in which you will feel confident using a camera.

Take as many photographs as you comfortably can in one session. When you review the photographs afterwards, recall the comfort level you felt at the time, and consider to what extent this helped you in capturing expression and gesture.

Results

I took my camera out to a busy food and flower market in France, where I was fairly sure there would be lots of photo opportunities and that I wouldn’t get challenged for taking pictures.

Technical note: I used a camera body with a tilting screen so that I could take my shots without lifting the camera to my eye, to draw less attention. On one level I wondered if this was considered ‘cheating’, but I settled on it being acceptable as this method of photography recalls the old twin-lens reflex cameras that some street photographers used in the mid-20th century.

Below is a selection of the shots from the session (probably about a third of what I shot in total), followed by notes on how I felt when I shot them, and how this helped (or otherwise) in the resultant images.

Individuals:

First, a selection of photos I took of individuals. What made me confident enough to shoot these was the fact that they looked like they were focusing enough on what they were doing and unlikely to spot me with my camera. Having the camera at chest height rather than eye level definitely helped my confidence, even if the difference from the subject’s point of view may have been minor.

Only one of these – ‘Smoking’ – do I consider to be a halfway decent shot. It has a nice clean background, while the others are somewhat messy.

Interactions:

For this second set I looked for interactions between people. In a similar way to the individual shots, I correctly assumed that they would be sufficiently wrapped up in what they were doing or talking about that the fact that there was a bloke nearby with a camera would go unnoticed. I think people interacting is inherently a more interesting basis for a photograph anyway – more chance to capture a unique moment, which is what I like about this type of photography.

The one I prefer is ‘Pointing’ – the alignment of the lines and the stripe patterns and the light/dark colours back-to-back in the middle give this image a number of different points of interest… but rather than being ‘messy’ I think it has enough alignment of graphical elements to achieve a certain balance.

What I’ve learned

Before I started this exercise I thought it would be fairly straightforward, as I like to think I’ve tried this kind of street photography before. However, once I started I realised that I still have a lot to learn!

Much of my previous so-called street photography of people has been from a distance, or with their backs turned to me. I realised that I have the (presumably quite common) concern of getting in too close, getting in people’s faces and generally annoying them. So this exercise broke me past that particular barrier, as I used a reasonably wide lens (27mm) so had to get fairly close.

What I learned in this exercise is that people that are sufficiently distracted, whether alone or interacting with someone else, can be photographed as long as you do so quickly and quietly.

This does however bring me on to the big challenge I have with this type of photography: in all cases here I had to crop and straighten the pictures to some degree. I realised after shooting that my composition isn’t at all precise when shooting quickly. I normally put quite a lot of thought into arranging the elements in the frame, but in the street photography environment I favoured speed over precision – taking longer than a second or two to line up and take a shot could risk the subject becoming aware and taking away the spontaneity (or worse, risking a confrontation).

The successful street photographers (especially the pre-digital ones who couldn’t see their work in progress) amazed me with their ability to spot, line up and take the shot in a split-second. The element that is missing from my photography right now is the rapid composition, so I have to rely on fixing that in post-processing. I need to work on this.

Another major learning: I need to avoid overly messy backgrounds. One piece of advice I’ve read many times, but have yet to put into practice is: find the background first, then wait for people to walk into it!

Finally, a practical point: using a chest-level camera with tilting screen was a major factor in how comfortable I felt taking photos in public. Composition is a little harder, but on balance I think it has more advantages than disadvantages – I simply took shots this way that I would not have taken if I had to lift the camera to my eye. So that must be a good thing.

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Assignment 1: tutor feedback

My tutor Sam reviewed Assignment 1 and sent back her report very quickly.

And a very thorough report it was too – she commented on all of my ‘People Aware’ work, exercises and research blog posts as well as the assignment itself, which was incredibly useful. I’ll focus here specifically on the assignment feedback.

Generally the feedback was positive and very encouraging – this was a relief as I’ve said a few times that portraiture isn’t my favourite style of photography and this assignment pushed me out of my comfort zone.

The ‘Overall Comments’ section is reproduced below, after which I will summarise the comments per picture and my response to them.

“You have approached the work logically and been prepared to practice a variety of techniques in your understanding of the brief requirements.

Your standard of presentation is good and the blog is easy to navigate. Excellent to see your sketches and your research into what you wanted the images to show, the personality of the model and ideas for composing the photographs.

Your research into a number of artists proved to be a very useful exploration and your work was influenced by some of the images you looked at. Continue to work in this way, look at artists bodies of work so you really get a feel about their message, style and approach.

You have demonstrated good technical and visual skills, your ability to work with people is very obvious here and a real strength.

The reflection you provided is honest and searching and you are developing your own personal style. Keep working on the refinement of your images, in particular the lighting and composition, as you have bought together so many other elements so well.”

Comments per image:

1. Face

  • “Image one is very engaging, you have demonstrated a good selective focus and the lighting is gentle.”
  • Good that the selective focus worked, as in my assignment write-up I felt that I might have gone too far with that, too wide an aperture and a softening of the focus too close to the centre of the face.
  • The lighting worked out pretty much how I wanted, so pleased that this gets a mention.

2. River

  • “Image two has a pleasing point of focus although the lighting is quite harsh on the side of the face and this would make this more difficult to print. This is an image that could lend itself to more space on the right side of the image.”
  • Yes, very true on the lighting. I tried to dampen the highlights on that portion of the image a little but the harsh strip of sunlight is probably too bright.
  • Interesting comment on more space to the right – I actually thought I’d composed that with enough ‘space to gaze into’ but maybe even more space would improve the image.

3. Laughing

  • “This image is very much capturing a moment and is fun and works well even though the focus looks a little soft on the eyes? The burnt out background is a good visual canvas for this image although it could prove a challenge to print as there is limited detail and the division between the curve of the shoulder and the background is lost.”
  • Agreed on the soft focus on the eyes. I was trying to keep the focus on the eyes as far as possible in this shooting session but the spontaneity of the pose and my exposure settings meant that it didn’t quite work in this one. I did realise this but decided to keep the image anyway!
  • The background was a deliberate choice although with hindsight, if I’d have tried to print this one out before completing the assignment I’d have seen exactly the challenge that Sam has pointed out here.

4. Hood

  • “This is a powerful image and so reminds me of the work by Steve McCurry of the Afghan girl. Having only one eye visible is interesting and the focus on this emphasised by the crop further points to this.”
  • I know exactly the picture she means, but any inspiration was entirely subconscious… in fact the shoot started off as an ‘homage’ to the classic Bailey/Jagger hood shot but took a different direction.
  • This is my own (and my wife’s) favourite of the set – it’s printed and framed at home already – and so I’m very pleased that others see it as a powerful image too.

5. Bath

  • “Some gentle lighting and the profile angle with closed eyes has a different feel. The curving bath edge and light and dark work well. I wonder if the rather obvious sign and candles in behind are almost too much. The image is strong and evocative without these further signals?”
  • Fair enough, maybe a little too much. Although the sign is in the bathroom anyway, I guess I didn’t need to have it in shot. Less is more!

6. Book

  • “Well seen here and this time the background is less useful visually? A closer crop of this would be more successful. The mix of a portrait along with text creates another story by itself. The author has been very controversial and the melding of the model in this text has another message. Look at the work by Joachim Schmid.”
  • The background comment is a fair point; I actually considered having more background showing, for context of where Ann was reading the book, but with hindsight Sam is right – seeing that it takes place in a particular space doesn’t add to the image (unless you know the subject well).
  • The mix of the author and the text with the image is, to be honest, something that never crossed my mind! I simply liked the visual trick of the book cover as mask. Whilst I’m familiar with Rushdie’s other works, I don’t even know what this book is actually about… so a lesson learned here: sometimes an image can carry unintentional messages! I need to keep that in mind.
  • Very good shout on Joachim Schmid; wasn’t familiar with his work before but the similarities came across immediately – the way he plays with identities by merging parts of old photos. Interesting.

7. Pale

  • “This is a gentle image and challenges the perception of a portrait very well. The limited colour palate and controlled point of focus works well here. This is a confident presentation and provokes questions”
  • I’m really very glad that this worked, as it was the most experimental shot of the set. Interestingly a couple of people I showed it to (including the subject) didn’t think it worked so well, but I disregarded the advice and stuck with my instincts on this one!

Overall, I’m very pleased with the feedback – both the reassurance on what did work, and the pointers on what worked less well and where I need to continue to develop.