People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Balancing figure and space

Brief

Draw on your photography so far in this course and on the techniques you have learned, to vary the balance in any one picture situation. Aim to produce two images, using the same general viewpoint and composition, varying the balance of attention between the person (or people) and the setting they are in.

Results

At the risk of being unimaginative, what immediately sprang to mind here was to find a space that a figure could walk into, in the general direction of the camera, and take shots at different distances as they fill more of the frame.

I used two shots that immediately followed the ‘side streets‘ shot from the exercise ‘single figure made small’ as they fit the criteria.

1. Person not emphasised

At its simplest interpretation, this is a scene of a side street in an old mediterranean town, that happens to have a man walking down it. The old-fashioned three-wheeler van is more of a focal point than the person. The man is sufficiently far away as to be relatively anonymous, and this allows the viewer a certain feeling of immersion, potentially imagining themselves in the location.

Balance 1

Balance 1

[Admittedly, this potential for self-identification could be even more prevalent when the figure is even further away, as in the original use of the precursor image. I considered using this first image as part of this exercise, but concluded that in that version the figure was so small that the image essentially shifted balance too far and became a picture of ‘a green van on a side street’ and the figure would be too small to be considered a significant part of the visual balance.]

2. Person emphasised more

In this version the figure takes up more of the frame and is more identifiable as an individual. The coincidence of green across the shirt, the van and the door balance out the prominence – but the person is much more of a focal point now. This alters the weight of the image, as it is now less likely that the viewer could self-identify and more likely that they might think about this specific individual and what he is doing in the context of the scene. It makes the viewing more of an external experience.

Balance 2

Balance 2

It may not seem like a massive difference but I do think the distance walked by the subject fundamentally changes the nature of the image:

  • The first image is of a street (with a green van, and a big green door), that also has a man walking down it
  • The second image is of a specific individual, who is walking down a street that has a green van and a door

What I’ve learned

This was one of those exercises that gives me another technique of directing the intended message or narrative of an image. The subtle difference between emphasis on the location (with figure as secondary character) and emphasis on the person (with location as backdrop) can be an important clue as to the intent of the image. If one of these variants were presented as part of a set, any surrounding images could help to provide the necessary context of whether this is a study of the person, the place or both.

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Exercise: Making figures anonymous

Brief

Take some photographs that include a person or people in a particular place, but deliberately make them unrecognisable and, as a result, less prominent. Consider the techniques listed above [small and many, facing away, in silhouette, partly obscured, motion blur], but also feel free to use any other method you can think of.

Make between two and four photographs which use different techniques to achieve this. To reiterate, a successful image will be one that is primarily about the place, but in which one or more figures play a subsidiary role to show scale and give life — to show that it is in use.

Results

I tried a few different techniques and these are the ones I felt worked best.

1. Shadow

In this you get the sense of the place, a narrow side street in the old town in Nice, with just a hint of a figure turning the corner into the shade. The leading line of the shaft of light, and to a lesser extent the blue arrow, help you to find the figure.

Shadow

Shadow

2. Angle

Shooting downwards from a high vantage point helps to anonymise the figure whilst still taking in enough of the surroundings to give a clue as to the type of place. This is probably the weakest in terms of showing the space – the balance is more in favour of the figure than the other three.

Angle

Angle

3. Scale

I almost used this for the ‘single figure small’ exercise but felt that it also suited this concept. The rhythm of the shutters is established, then broken with the white-haired figure in one of the windows. It’s the scale that makes the figure anonymous here.

Scale

Scale

4. Silhouette

Subtly different to the shadow one… in this instance there is strong, low light behind the camera and the figure is walking into the darkness, with edge lighting through the hair allowing the viewer to make out the figure, and providing a focal point. I think with this one the viewer can get an idea of the space, albeit a vague one. The inherent darkness of the backdrop makes this a more atmospheric and less literal depiction of the space.

Silhouette

Silhouette

5. Selective framing

By electing not to include the head in the frame, it becomes easier to focus on the context (the antiques stall) rather than the person.

Antique shopping

Antique shopping

What I’ve learned

I found this quite a puzzling challenge initially… it took me a few goes before I got into the idea, and many of my early attempts were equally applicable to ‘single figure small’ (as per 3 above) as I evidently fell back on size/scale as my default technique. Once I’d loosened up a bit, photographically speaking, I found other ways of expressing the same idea. It stretched my brain a little bit, but that’s undoubtedly a very good thing. I’m not completely sure I got the right balance between figure and environment in all of them, but I’ll work on that for the next exercise.

What’s fascinating looking back on these images, and the works of others with a similar visual intent, is that making the subject anonymous it makes it so much more likely that the viewer can imagine themselves in the space. By not identifying with a specific individual, it allows the viewing to be more of an ‘internalised’ experience. The more recognisable the subject, potentially the more ‘externalised’ the viewing experience becomes. This is something I hadn’t thought about at all before now.