People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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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.


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Assignment 1: Portraits of Ann

Brief:

Drawing together your experiences in completing the projects so far, take one person as a subject and create between five and seven different portraits. These should differ in type and style, and each be from a separate photographic session (there is no need to attempt this set all in one day, and indeed it will be more useful as an assignment if you take some time over it).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each portrait individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this
  • Consider where you need to strengthen your own skills and understanding and explain how you hope to achieve this

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENT: tutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in slideshow format below – click a thumbnail to start the slideshow.

I’ll briefly explain my overall approach, then I’ll comment on each image individually, including a self-critique.

Approach

My wife Ann kindly agreed to be my subject. As recommended, I took the pictures over a series of sessions, keeping in mind that they should be sufficiently different in style. I thought in advance about various facets of Ann’s character – not particularly for this to come through strongly to the viewer, but as a framework to inspire me on different treatments. I initially planned the whole series to be in black and white, but switched this after the first couple of shooting sessions as I felt the early shots worked better in colour, and I wanted to keep the same overall colour aesthetic across the set.

1. Face

To start: a simple headshot, straight on, eye contact with the camera. Window light to the (viewer’s) left and a reflector card to the right helped to give reasonably even lighting, although brighter to the left. A shallow depth of field (f/1.4) focused on the eyes kept the main features sharp while allowing the extremities to be de-emphasised. She has a friendly expression, a slight rather than a full smile.

Face

1. Face

Though I’m generally pleased with this one, with hindsight the aperture was too wide. If I shot this again I would have tried f/2.8 or f/4. Also, the light is a touch too bright on the left, so I would have moved Ann further away from the window.

2. River

As Ann loves to be outdoors, I planned to get at least one shot taken in the open. On a walk down the North Tyne I took a series of shots, of which I felt this was the best, with the glow of the golden hour sun falling on the hair and the side of the face. Colour-wise, the water and the skin-tone work well together, while the hair and the coat are closely matched and not detracting from the other colours in the image. I chose a shot where she wasn’t looking straight at the camera, and gave the image the space to the right for her gaze to fall into. I find this quite a calming image.

River

2. River

I almost didn’t include this as I thought it was – good lighting apart – a little… unremarkable? It’s better than a snapshot (I think) but it doesn’t show much creativity.

3. Laughing

The starting point here was the light falling through the window, that I thought would provide a ‘bleached-out’ backdrop if exposed in a certain way – I used spot metering for this session. I took several torso-length shots, just asking her to ‘throw shapes’ while I clicked away. I knew on shooting this one that it was a keeper – it shows her playful side. I was drawn to the motion implicit in her pose, like it’s just a frozen slice of an ongoing moment – not formally posed at all.

Laughing

3. Laughing

I like the final result, but I did have to crop it down from a larger original; I should have used a longer focal length lens and shot from further away to have framed it better in camera – as going in closer with the 35mm lens could have introduced noticeable distortion.

4. Hood

This was an example of an idea starting in one place and ending up in another. When I saw Ann had a parka-style coat with the fur-lined hood, my first idea was an ‘homage’ to the classic Bailey shot of Mick Jagger – b/w, plain white background. However, while shooting I managed to get a closely framed shot of a very calm facial expression with one eye staring at the lens and one obscured by the hood. It’s a cooler, more serious expression than I’d originally been looking for but we both agreed that it was the strongest image from that session.

Hood

4. Hood

I actually really like this one and find it hard to say what I’d have done differently, other than I wish I’d had the imagination to have pre-visualised it rather than it being a happy accident.

5. Bath

One of the ideas that I had from the start of planning was a profile shot of Ann relaxing in the bath. The irony is that she doesn’t find relaxing very easy and we have a sign in the bathroom to remind her to take it easy… The lighting here was a little remaining evening sunlight through windows behind and to the right, plus a little ‘mood lighting’ from candles.

Bath

5. Bath

While I was pleased with the lighting and overall aesthetic, I wasn’t happy with the composition. The shelves and the sign are too close to the head. Also, only one of the candles is visible and it would have looked more balanced with two. I actually tried to reshoot the whole thing on a different night, but while I could improve the composition, the lighting wasn’t as good. So I went back to version 1.

6. Book

Another one I pre-visualised in advance. I remember Ann reading this book a few years ago and how whenever she held it up to her face it resembled a half-mask. The proportions of the eye on the book are quite close to her own features, so the illusion works reasonably well. In terms of the background, while this might not mean anything to the casual viewer, I was interested in getting at least one shot in the summer house in our garden, as it’s the only place she ever really relaxes… so the background is part of the story, albeit in a way that is only relevant if you know the subject.

Book

6. Book

I did struggle a little bit on making the composition visually interesting, beyond the eye illusion. I fell back on the cliché of the ‘jaunty angle’ to make it a little less static. With hindsight maybe I should have pulled back more to include more of the background, to give the shot more location context.

7. Pale

I was inspired by the book ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1] in as much as I wanted to have at least one portrait that wasn’t overly ‘traditional’ in form, i.e. not necessarily showing the whole face, or the eyes, or being in focus. I was also drawn to the visual aesthetic of pale, almost ghostly skin against an equally pale background, so the viewer has to work just a tiny bit harder to recognize it as a face. I had in mind that the picture should have a primary focal point that was in sharp focus but wasn’t a part of the face, to further delay the viewer’s identification of the face… to achieve the effect of the face ‘emerging’ from the image as a secondary point of interest rather than being front and centre. I also wanted to have a portrait that included reference to the fact that Ann likes to dress up and has a few nice bits of jewelry for special occasions. It was her idea to focus on the earring.

Pale

7. Pale

Whilst I did decide to include it in my submission, it’s probably the one that I’m least sure of. It only partly achieves what I had pre-visualised – not quite ‘ghostly’ enough, not fading into the background enough. Also, while I used flash to get the highlights sparkling off the earring, if you pixel-peek you’ll see a few unsightly artifacts around the edges. I do however like the geometry of the image, and the depth of field, so maybe I’ll consider it either a qualified success or a noble failure.

Self-evaluation:

Not being a natural portrait photographer, I did have to put a certain amount of thought and preparation into this assignment to be happy with it. The exercises in the projects leading up to the assignment certainly helped, as did my reading and research. I am generally pleased with the outcome, although I do recognise the weaknesses I still have with regard to portraiture. It helped enormously to use a subject that was patient and understanding, as I still feel that if I had to do a portrait session with someone that I knew less well, I would struggle a little more to get the images as I wanted them.

In the exercises as well as the assignment I identified a few recurring improvement areas:

  • Settings: getting the basic exposure settings most suited to portraiture nailed before shooting starts
  • Rushing: I still have a tendency to rush through photo sessions as I must feel guilty about taking up the time of the sitter! Sometimes reviewing the images afterwards I wish I’d slowed down, reviewed progress occasionally
  • Compositional elements: particularly backgrounds – deciding whether they should be de-emphasised to focus on the sitter, or be part of the story of the image… I think I got better on this as time went on

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Overall, I am happy with the execution of the images and the techniques that I adopted
    • I paid attention to the relationship between the background and the foreground – the quote from ‘Train Your Gaze’ about the two elements as “two equal parties to a visual conversation” came to mind
    • After selecting the images I realised that only two of seven were in the classic ‘portrait’ (vertical) format, and my preference in the others was for the more horizontal ratio – but I stand by this choice as being right for the images in question
    • I put a lot of thought into pre-visualisation – and for the first time, sketching out shots on paper – but the final images only matched the pre-visualisation in a few cases (1, 5, 6, 7 to a degree)… in some instances the images just plain didn’t work (the yoga pose idea) and in others I found a better shot through experimentation
    • I’m glad I made the decision to stick with either all b/w or all colour – the subject and the colour style together help the set to hang together (see more below)
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the overall outcome in terms of individual images shot and selected, and in terms of how the presented set works together as a coherent whole, despite the variety in settings and styles
    • In both the planning and editing stages I worked on referring back to the exercises to ensure I was applying the knowledge learned so far (less so while I was actually shooting, when I am too ‘in the zone’ to think too consciously about these things – which is why I feel the need to plan so much in advance)
    • The communication of ideas/moods through the images was in my mind as I planned and shot each session, as I wanted to focus on different aspects of Ann’s personality – playful, serious, bookish, glamorous etc – but I recognise that this is something personal to me and don’t necessarily expect these messages to resonate with an uninformed viewer
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • I’m pleased with the variety of styles I managed to achieve with the same subject – having looked at other students’ work I felt a major determinant to a successful set was the balance of the variety of the style with the ‘grounding’ of the consistency of subject… this was the axis along which I intended to work
    • I’m not sure that the set demonstrates a very high degree of experimentation, with only images 6 and 7 really pushing away from traditional portraiture and in relatively small ways; I toyed with the idea of a non-face portrait but this ended up being watered down to the blurry no. 7
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, from my experience, preferences and feedback during Art of Photography I believe I’m moving towards a quite geometrically-led approach, in that I like to find the lines, shapes, patterns and rhythms in front of me and capture them – and I find this inherently more difficult with portraiture; it’s been good to get outside of my comfort zone, and very insightful, but I believe this assignment represents a deliberate step outside my developing style rather than a continuation of it
  • Context:
    • As previously noted, portraiture isn’t my natural photographic preference, so I’ve made myself get out of my comfort zone – including trying a ‘100 Strangers‘ photographic challenge, which I am finding interesting
    • The one exhibition I’ve managed to get to during this section of the course was Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery – interesting, fun but fairly one-sided in the context of photographic portraiture
    • Photographers whose work I’ve come to appreciate more over this section of the course: David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Mary-Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, August Sander
    • I got a huge amount of inspiration and insight from Roswell Angier’s ‘Train Your Gaze’, which manages to be very accessible in covering some potentially quite obscure facets of portraiture… it made me think of portraits in many different ways over my reading of the book
    • I revisited relevant chapters in a few of the books I’d read for Art of Photography – Graham Clarke’s ‘The Photograph’ [2] and John Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’ [3] in particular – and their insights made more sense in my new-found context of shooting portraits
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other students on this assignment to be invaluable in helping me feel more able to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me to do as well as, or in some cases better than, what has gone before me

To summarise: I believe I’ve acquitted myself to the best of my ability on an assignment that isn’t in a photographic genre that I’m naturally drawn towards. I did kind of enjoy it, but am really looking forward to getting cracking on the remaining sections of the course!

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA
  2. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics


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Assignment 1: shooting starts, plans change…

Over the last four days I’ve tried a few different portrait setups with Ann my wife/subject, and in the course of doing so I realised that a plan is sometimes just the thing for deviating from… 😉

B/w vs colour

First of all, my original idea to shoot them all in b/w may have fallen by the wayside already… most of the contender images from the weekend look better to me in colour. So now my plan is to make them all colour – I still think mixing colour and b/w is too distracting, so will stick with one or the other. Definitely leaning towards colour though. For now.

Pre-visualisation vs reality

Also, I discovered that some of my planned shots in the shooting list really didn’t match up to my pre-visualisations… possibly (probably) due to lack of expertise/patience on my part, but I couldn’t get the poses, backgrounds and lighting to converge on what I saw in my head. For example, the yoga pose shot I envisaged falls into this category. Another example, this one related to my first point on colour vs b/w, is that my proposed white background (Bailey/Avedon-esque, or fashion shoot style) full body portrait really only works in my mind if I did stick with b/w throughout… it just doesn’t seem to fit in colour.

Fresh ideas through experimenting

On a more positive note, I’ve come up with a few ideas (and actual shots) that weren’t on the planned shot list, but came about whilst I was experimenting around the original ideas. One of these, a range of shots I did outside whilst Ann was wearing a furry hooded coat, came out pretty well and gave me a couple of potential images that I hadn’t planned. Similarly, during a series of shots using window light I cranked up the exposure of the sunlight background and came up with a few images with lighting conditions that I hadn’t planned but came out quite interesting, I think. I still want to try a few more setups over the long weekend, as I don’t think I’ve yet got the full set of 5-7 that I want. I have however got a few good candidate images. Below are a few of the shortlist so far.


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Assignment 1: preparation starts

As I’m fortunate enough to be taking a break from work for a couple of months, I’ve managed to get through the exercises on the People Aware section of P&P reasonably quickly but without overly rushing them. So I’m already onto the assignment planning.

I decided early on that I’d use my wife Ann for the assignment, and for that reason I didn’t bother her too many times during the exercises…! On reading and digesting the assignment brief, and in particular the advice to take the portraits over several shooting sessions, it became apparent that I would have to spread the shooting over a couple of weekends. So my plan is to do a couple of shots this weekend and the rest over the long easter weekend, giving me the final weekend in April to add in any remaining shots and write up the whole thing.

Much of my preparation so far has been to think about the various criteria / characteristics of portraits that I want to include in the set of images, to make them sufficiently different to each other.

Consistency

I have made one key decision: all the portraits will be in black and white. I am generally steering more towards b/w for portraits as my personal preference, and after an email chat with my tutor on whether to mix up b/w with colour, I’ve finally landed on keeping the colour aesthetic consistent and bring in the variations by way of framing, lighting, props, location and so on. In this way, there are two constants (the subject and the b/w aesthetic) that help the set hang together as a coherent whole, but hopefully the other factors will still demonstrate variety in style.

EDIT: now I’ve started, I might just completely change that round and do them all in colour! I think I’ve got one, maybe two, keepers from today, and they’re both much better in colour. I still want to be consistent though. Let’s see what the next few look like. Decisions, decisions…!

Variations

I went back through the notes and exercises so far and brainstormed some of the factors that can be used to introduce variety:

  • Formal (posed) vs informal (more natural, candid)
    • related: sitting, standing, lying down, other pose
  • Traditional vs more experimental
    • e.g. non-face, shot through translucent material / through a hole in something, in a mirror etc
  • Locations:
    • indoor vs outdoor
    • plain / blurred-out background vs interesting background
  • Lighting:
    • natural vs artificial
    • time of day
    • flash / other photographic lighting accessories (e.g. reflectors)
  • Framing:
    • close crop to face, head and shoulders, profile, torso, full body
  • Props (based on her likes / personality / character):
    • gardening / flowers
    • books
    • our dog (NB potentially dilutes the subject too much?)
    • accessories (e.g. she loves posh handbags…)
  • Clothing:
    • consider colours: dark or light, solid colours – for better contrast in b/w

I need to take the above into consideration – and combinations of them together – when planning the actual shots I will take.

Preparation notes

Preparation notes

The following ideas have so far spring to mind. If I can get 5-6 of these to work well, then I will have the assignment done successfully.

  1. In garden, full body, low afternoon sun, holding bouquet of flowers
  2. Holding a book in front of half her face (am thinking of a specific book cover with an eye on it, to form a kind of half-mask), torso frame
  3. Side-on shot of bathtub, shot from low down, with head just visible in profile over lip of bath, eyes closed… on the wall next to our bath is a wall sign saying ‘relax’ in script style, so if I can get this in shot as well so much the better
  4. Classic Bailey/Avedon-style white background, high contrast portrait, torso or full body
  5. Close crop on face, straight on, very calm expression, lit by window light on one side and a reflector on the other
  6. Pseudo-voyeuristic, through keyhole into bedroom
  7. Yoga pose, full body – e.g. standing on one leg, arms together above head
  8. Profile headshot with soft edge lighting through hair

Research

I’ve been avidly poring over magazines (especially Ann’s fashion magazines) to check out the different portrait styles used by different photographers. My eyes are now open to subtleties in pose and style that had previously passed me by. However, I know that fashion photography isn’t representative of portraiture as a whole, so I’ve been supplementing this with re-reading various back issues of the British Journal of Photography and Hotshoe.

I’ve also been reading the very interesting ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1] by Roswell Angier which covers many facets of portraiture and has been inspirational in many ways – a short review of the book will be a separate blog post soon. In addition, I’ve re-read the portrait chapter of Clark’s ‘The Photograph’ [2] and perused the portrait section of ‘Photo Box’ [3].

The other kind of research I’ve found useful is to look back at the many pictures I’ve already taken of Ann over the years. Some of these I think are good enough to be inspirations for contemporary shots for this assignment. I wouldn’t try to directly recreate any of them, more a case of trying to recapture what I felt made it a good picture.

A few key observations on the old pictures selected:

  • A smile always adds something to a photograph, but it needs to be a natural one, not forced
  • Most shots I’ve ever taken of Ann have been similar in framing – head and shoulders… need to vary this more (not just for this assignment, I mean generally)
  • Lighting makes a big difference, especially sunlight
  • I really like the ones where she’s not making eye contact with the camera

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA
  2. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Koch, R (2009) Photo Box. London: Thames & Hudson