People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


Assignment 2: tutor feedback

I’ve had my report back from my tutor Sam for just over a week but it’s taken me this long to get around to writing this up

As for Assignment 1, it’s a very thorough report, commenting individually on each picture submitted. It’s also a very balanced report, with some really good constructive feedback on how I might improve some of my work.

The ‘Overall Comments’ section is reproduced below, with my general response. Then I summarise the edited comments per picture and my response to them.

“A committed response to the assignment and you demonstrated good preparation and logistical organization by planning your position and observing and revisiting the event.

Good work spending time on documenting so many people, that careful observation does inform the story. Clean and crisp photographs submitted.

Your assignment presentation is clear and relevant, keep working in this way. Taking the time to practice and read up about different approaches is informing your work.

You have created a body of work that documents a story. The images are bright, crisp and bold and connect the viewer to the event. I would suggest a development would be to take a variety of images, some with close up detail as well as some location work to almost set the scene, the sense of place? I also wonder if this is rather a clean observation? These train types like to get oily and dirty and this is great for atmospheric shots.”

I’m obviously pleased with the overall positive tone of the comments. I was particularly proud of this set of images and keen for my enthusiasm in the outcome to be shared somewhat by the viewer. Sam’s comment about the lack of variety in the type of images is totally valid; with hindsight I did take a rather strict interpretation of the overall brief (and section title) and focused very much on the people themselves. A more rounded narrative would have included some more contextual/environmental images and more close-ups of specific activities (e.g. the hands of a crew member uncoupling the engine). The one comment I’m not sure I agree with is the suggestion that I may have sought out ‘clean’ subjects! There was no attempt on my part to (literally) sanitise the subject matter, so maybe the reputation steam trains have for being particularly dirty and oily is somewhat undeserved?!

Comments per image:

1. Driver coming in

  • “This is a good observation and the drivers’ complete concentration is really interesting. Good point of focus here and the framing of the window adds to the composition. […] Deciding to cover this event in colour has worked well. I love his grubby hands in this shot!”
  • Very pleased that this came over pretty much how I intended it: the concentration, the framing, the colours
  • As noted in the assignment itself, this was the image that inspired me to ditch my original plan to work in b/w and I was relieved to see that this worked well

2. Driver

  • “This man has a great face and it is nice to see him in all his train uniform. […] I would really advise you not to use black and white as a default to cover any issues in the quality of an image. Black and white is such a beautiful medium and should be used to support and develop a narrative.”
  • The b/w comment is because I wrote in my submission that I felt that this might have worked better in b/w due to it being a little too noisy – meaning that I think b/w can ‘carry’ more noise than colour images as it’s accepted as ‘grittier’… but I am suitably chastened! I know what Sam means, I shouldn’t see a b/w conversion as a ‘fix’ to an image, however tempting that is sometimes

3. Decoupling the engine

  • “Love the retro hat and health and safety high-vis vest combination. A really bold combination of colours, with a bright point of interest, it could have been a wider shot to add further emphasis to the ‘mighty machine and small man’ intervention?”
  • Another one where I was glad I went with an overall colour aesthetic
  • Good point on a wider shot – unfortunately this is only very slightly cropped so I can’t go back an make this much wider than it appeared here

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

  • “How funny! Love this pic and the serious look on the guys face, and not often you even see this type of phone now. I do like the composition although I wonder if it could have been a little bolder on the person? Good colour and good control of the highlights.”
  • So glad this came across well – it was one of four last-minute replacement shots that made the cut on my last day of shooting and it completely validated my decision to go back for one last session
  • Interesting comment on composition; unlike image 3, I thought this actually suited going wider –this ‘corner composition’ approach, with the train itself providing the context, was a deliberate choice. Having said that, I will go back and try a different crop

5. Filling the water tank

  • “This has great potential as it is so very strange looking. I wonder if a horizontal crop across the top would be interesting or even a vertical crop of only the left of the image. The man at the bottom of the frame is distracting as he is looking in your direction but the arm waving man is very interesting. The exposure seems fine with good colours.
  • I tried a crop as suggested and I found you lose the scale and the context too much
  • However, I do see what Sam means about the man bottom right not adding anything (although I actually liked the implied triangle) – so instead of cropping this, I will go back to the many outtakes and find one where man bottom right is less prominent

6. Checking the engine

  • “This is a good study of a person and you have been quite controlled in your point of focus. I wonder if the composition supports this gaze? The man’s shiny head has lost some detail in the print. The colours seem fine and it is sharp.”
  • I tried different crops after the comment on the gaze, but found none as satisfactory as the one I submitted (maybe I’m being too stubborn!)
  • Fair point on the print – I’m still learning on that score

7. Train crew waiting

  • “I like the waiting image, the tension is very obvious, although I did want to see more of the man on the left, the composition could have had less sky, more foot room and more information on the left.”
  • This is an unfortunate instance of me completely agreeing with her comments, but being unable to address them! I shot the main man and only after the event realised that I’d cropped the man to the left too much… the only thing I could do is chop out a bit of sky

8. Waving the train back in

  • “This image is really fun. Great energy and colour, I also like the slightly bewildered look on the spectators face! I wonder if this image could have had a bit more room to give a bit more of the environment and that sense of performance!”
  • Again, an example of where I can’t go any wider than I shot, so to improve on this would mean going back for a reshoot – and I’d  need to be lucky to capture the moment as well as I think I did here

9. Recoupling the engine

  • “This is a very bright and colourful image. It does look like you have caught this chap up to some mischief, he is concentrating so hard.”
  • Not much to add – again I was drawn to the colours and the character, and both of these seem to have come across to the viewer

10. Train guards ready to go

  • “This is very much a waiting image, I am not sure it is telling the story you have suggested, I wonder if the image taken from further back to show the actual carriage would have been more informative. There is a loss of detail in the highlights of the print but the colours are suitable.
  • I do agree that this doesn’t add much to the series… yet again the feedback is that I should have gone wider to take in more of the surroundings

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

  • “This image has so much information in it and it is also quite active. I life the composition with the bridge arch. The exposure looks fine.”
  • Another last-day replacement shot as I wasn’t happy with the composition or lighting on the previous candidate, so I’m very pleased that it worked out

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

  • “This image is very strong. The good compositional elements really come together here and of course the great expression. The print interprets it well and you do get away with the slight softness. The print is slightly darker than on line and not quite as warm in tone but still pleasing”
  • This is another instance of me taking several variations with different guards over different days, and I knew straight away that this was going to be the one I used
  • It’s only just occurred to me in hindsight that I have in effect bookended the series with two similarly composed shots – framed by a train window; I’d love to claim this as deliberate but it’s subconscious at best, probably pure coincidence!

Other comments – and inspiration…

Sam made some other comments on the overall set that I found interesting and mused upon for a while:

“One element of your story I would really like to have seen explored is who all these people were. You have taken some nice images of a variety of people in a distanced manner, the next step could be to know their names and something about them. This along with a variety of close up shots as well as scene setting makes this a story that you could then approach the railway people or local magazine as a story?”

My initial response to this was that I’d stuck to the true spirit of the assignment (well, the section title) of ‘People Unaware’ and my intention to take all these as candid shots was the right approach. However, I then came to realise that I could have spoken to the subjects after the shot, to find out more about them. In some instances this would have been tricky, as many of the volunteers are kind of busy during this process! But others are very much waiting around, so I could have engaged them in conversation.

On the plus side: Sam’s idea that I could do something else with these images has really taken hold – I’ve already decided to contact the marketing team at NMYR and see if they’re interested in doing anything with the pictures. They occasionally have a volunteer recruitment drive, and these photos might be suitable for something like that?

Also, the station has a small visitors’ centre with exhibition space, and before now I’ve seen other photographers having small shows there. 12 photos isn’t really enough for something like that, so I might take a little time to go back through the contact sheets – and pictures I’ve taken at the station over the last six years of living in Pickering – to build a more rounded narrative that takes in the trains and the station itself as well as the staff.

Wish me luck!

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Assignment 2: Railway Volunteers


The object of this assignment is to plan and execute a set of images of people in some form of meaningful activity. This could be work, sport, a stage performance (music, drama), or at a social event. You should produce a set of approximately 10 final, selected images, and you can choose between depicting the same person (or small group) at different kinds of activity, or different people at the same single activity or event.

Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each piece individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this


UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor 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 chose as my theme the volunteers changing over the steam trains at Pickering railway station terminus. The staff on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway line are predominately part-time volunteers, so it was an interesting opportunity to observe people working at a job that is also their hobby.

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


I worked out the step-by-step process that the train and station crew followed each time a train came in. However, in selecting the final images, I didn’t slavishly follow the whole process and have a picture for each step – partly because this isn’t an instructional manual, and partly because I felt that the series should be about the people and not the trains or the station. So I selected the images that I felt best depicted the volunteer staff as individuals and teams, engaging in the key activities of their job/hobby.

The images are from a few different shooting sessions. As well as being of practical help (to get the variety of images needed), this gave me a wider set of faces to work with – as the railway has a large set of part-time volunteers and you rarely see the same team week to week. I decided that as this isn’t photo-journalism that a set of images collated over a period of time would be acceptable. The end result is that each image features different people. While there’s a wide variety of ages, it’s notable that the volunteers I saw were all male!

1. Driver coming in

I got several shots of the train arriving but most featured the train itself too prominently and didn’t catch the driver’s face. This is a slight cheat as this was taken just after the train had come to a stop, and I got a chance to zoom in on the driver’s face. I noticed that the driver’s face is often glowing red as they arrive, having been in front of a steamy furnace for over an hour!

1. Driver coming in

1. Driver coming in

It was this photo that inspired me to do the series in colour, after initially planning it all in black and white. Aside from the colours, what attracted me to this in the edit was the framing by the window, and the calm expression on the driver’s face, seemingly deep in concentration on some important gauge or other.

2. Driver

This chap isn’t doing anything particularly interesting apart from walking down the platform but I confess I included it simply because I liked his face – he exudes character. He reminds me of George Formby!

2. Driver

2. Driver

While I like the expression I caught here, the image isn’t technically very good if you look closely. The lighting behind made it difficult to get a very clear shot of his face (and I didn’t think fill-in flash was appropriate), and there’s a little too much noise in the face. This is one where a b/w conversion may have suited it better.

3. Decoupling the engine

The next key step is the decoupling of the engine from the first carriage, where a crew member squeezes between the two. It’s quite difficult to capture this successfully as the specific decoupling action is hidden behind the person doing it, so getting a viewpoint on the hands themselves proved too difficult. Once I’d accepted that focusing on the hands wasn’t an option, I instead looked for shots where I caught the face of the volunteer.

3. Decoupling the engine

3. Decoupling the engine

In this I believe I successfully caught the subject at the right moment for a good capture. I’m pleased with the geometry of this one, with the perspective and the strong diagonal emphasising the cramped space. Again I felt that the strong colour was a good reason to present the set in colour not b/w.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

Down by the tracks at each end of the platform are old-fashioned telephones that the crews use to communicate during the changeover. I managed to catch this very ‘Dad’s Army’-looking volunteer on the line to his colleagues.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

I think two aspects of this make this a good shot: the stance/expression of the subject, and the composition that places him in the context of the huge engine behind. On the downside, the highlights are a bit harsh, despite a little post-processing to tame them.

5. Filling the water tank

Once decoupled, the engine moves past the carriages, down to the other end of the platform. As the engines run on steam, they need to fill up with water from a giant pump.

5. Filling the water tank

5. Filling the water tank

Once again the strong colours appealed to me, in particular the contrast between the very traditional deep green of the engine and the vibrant orange of the more modern hi-visibility vests. I took lots of shots of this sequence but this one stood out from a graphical point of view as the man top left is framed rather nicely by the bend in the pump; also there’s an implied triangle between the men and the reflection. Where this shot could have been improved a little was in the lighting; it was taken down the end of the platform that isn’t covered by the station roof and the sunlight makes the sky look a little washed out.

6. Checking the engine

I often observed the train crew get out of the cab and take a look at the engine itself. In this instance the driver was joined by a member of the platform staff, as evidenced by suit jacket and shirt under the safety vest.

6. Checking the engine

6. Checking the engine

This was the one shot where I used shallow depth of field to focus on one person, made possible as I was shooting down the length of the platform. The lighting on the central character is reasonably good, it brings out his features. In terms of storytelling, the image somehow conjures up a sense of ‘us and them’ rivalry – I like to imagine that the driver is giving the station chap a withering look for commenting on the engine.

7. Train crew waiting

There’s a little more waiting before the engine gets re-coupled to the other end of the carriage set. Some of the engine crews looked very jolly, some very serious. This is one of the more serious-looking groups.

7. Train crew waiting

7. Train crew waiting

For me what makes this work is the positioning of the main main, framed by his engine, leaning confidently in what he evidently considers his domain – his stance is a mixture of proud and territorial. The man on the left looking over at him reinforces his ‘top dog’ status.

8. Waving the engine back in

Now it’s time to bring the engine back to the far end of the train, so it’s pointing in the right direction to go back out again.

8. Waving the engine back in

8. Waving the engine back in

On the plus side, I caught the exact moment of the guard guiding the engine to a halt. However, the background is a lot messier than I’d like. Unfortunately I’m rarely the only spectator on the platform.

9. Recoupling the engine

The engine is now moved to meet the other end of the carriages it had passed a few minutes ago, and the recoupling takes place. In a still photo this would look in effect identical to the de-coupling, so I had to take a different angle (metaphorically and literally). So I chose to use this young chap climbing back out from under the train.

9. Recoupling the engine

9. Recoupling the engine

What I think I captured well here is the look of concentration on the face of the crew member, who is clearly intent on doing the job properly – he was one of the younger volunteers I observed. From a graphical point of view the colours work well for me, again vindicating the choice of an overall colour aesthetic. There is a strong diagonal element to the image that helps give an impression of movement.

10. Train guards ready to go

We’re nearing the end of the process now and the passengers will have filed onto the train to take their seats. Here we see the ticket inspector about to board, just taking a look down the platform to see whether any stragglers are still boarding.

10. Train guards ready to go

10. Train guards ready to go

The lighting generally, and in particular the edge lighting around the hair of the main subject, is the reason that this image stood out for me. In comparison to the more vibrant colours of the engines, here are the warmer, more autumnal wood tones of the carriages themselves.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

This was one of the few shots that I had pre-visualised at the planning stage. It’s very much a key moment in the process and one that I thought lent itself to being captured. I took several shots at various times with different guards and from different viewpoints before I caught a shot I was happy with.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

Like some of the others, the lighting was slightly harsh, which provided a challenge with highlights. The other thing that would have improved this would have been a shallower depth of field, to throw the background out a bit softer and bring more emphasis on the subject. However, from a composition point of view I think this works best of all the options I had – framed between the bridge arch and the train, and with his hand exactly in line with the platform 1 sign.

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Another shot that I had pre-visualised before starting; the train guard always hangs his head out of the last carriage window as the train sets off. As it sets off rather slowly, I found it relatively easy to focus on the face in the window of the moving carriage and wait for a good expression. I got several variants of this shot with a number of different guards, but this chap was by far the jolliest. He also reminds me somewhat of my brother (although he won’t thank me for saying that…).

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Obviously the lighting to the left is too bright, despite me reducing the highlights. Also, the face is a little soft close-up, so evidently my focusing wasn’t spot-on. But I think the expression of the guard makes this the most successful of the options I had to choose from.


I enjoyed this more than the portrait assignment. I very much liked capturing people unposed, although in many ways it brought its own challenges.

The assignment surfaced a few recurring issues / improvement areas:

  • Freezing the moment: without the ability to direct your subjects, there is an element of luck in capturing the right expressions and gestures to help tell your story – although it became apparent to me that you can increase your ‘luck’ through preparation and patience
  • Lighting: this is specific to the nature of the station architecture – open to bright sunlight at either end but shaded by a roof structure for most of its length – which led to some interesting challenges with lighting and exposure that I had to try to alleviate in post-processing
  • Messy backgrounds: very often I got what I thought was a good photo of the main subject, but on closer inspection the background had some very distracting elements in; in some cases if the main subject was strong enough I kept these anyway, in others they were too distracting and weren’t used – but I need to be more aware of this at the time of shooting

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • I am generally happy with the technical execution with the exception of the general lighting challenges noted above
    • I used a variety of focal lengths for the full set of images shot, but noted that the final selection is predominantly in a ‘standard’ focal length of approx 35-50 mm EFL, giving a ‘normal’ view on the subjects, not overly wide or telephoto
    • As in the previous assignment I made the decision to switch from an initial proposal to shoot all in b/w to go instead for the consistency of a colour aesthetic
    • In doing so I paid attention to the colours in each image, in particular the reds, greens, blues and oranges that typify the environment and the uniforms
    • I put some thought into pre-visualisation for a few specific shots (3, 8, 11, 12) as noted in the planning post, but for the most part this was an exercise in shooting what I found interesting and curating it after the event
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the outcome, both in terms of individual images chosen, and the collated set as a cohesive whole
    • In believe that in terms of communicating the idea I wanted to get across – of an eclectic set of volunteers giving up their time for something they are passionate about – the series is reasonably successful (although wish I’d been able to capture more of them smiling)
    • In my opinion the set meets the brief, as it does feature images with telling moments (3, 4, 8, 11) and it does, when taken as a whole, visually explain the overall activity
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • Where possible I did endeavour to be creative with composition, viewpoint and colour combinations, but in general I confess that it is quite a ‘traditional’ set of images without a high degree of experimentation – in my defence I do believe that this suits the subject matter
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, this feels much more like an extension of what I’ve already liked to shoot than the portrait assignment did – I like shooting in public, I like looking for strong geometric compositions, and I have discovered I particularly like taking pictures of people who are doing something they are passionate about – so this assignment feels like a key learning experience as part of my evolving style
  • Context:
    • Although I haven’t yet written up my reviews/thoughts, I have in this section of the course immersed myself in the work of key names in candid people photography – in particular I’ve revisited and found new depths in books and exhibition notes from my Art of Photography studies: Martin Parr [1], Tony Ray-Jones, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier [2], Humphrey Spender, Robert Frank [3], Lisette Model [4] and Henri Cartier-Bresson [5]
    • In addition I’ve discovered some other photographers whose work I really love, some old hands that I should probably know by now – I’ve acquired books of W. Eugene Smith’s [6], Elliott Erwitt’s [7] and Lee Friedlander’s [8] works – and some newer names – I’m impressed with the work of a chap called Craig Semetko [9] in particular
    • There’s a great book called Street Photography Now [10] that serves as a reminder of the variety and richness of candid urban photography – before I got this I saw ‘street photography’ as predominantly b/w New York shots, but this book opened my eyes to a whole variety of styles
    • I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of Context and Narrative [11] by Maria Short – it’s full of interesting insights, although not all of direct application to this assignment
    • I read a couple of e-books on street photography specifically: James Maher’s ‘The Essentials of Street Photography’ [12] and Anne Darling’s ‘Street Photography: A Concise Guide’ [13] — the former was more useful, as it also featured interviews with photographers
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other OCA students to be useful in helping me to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me

To summarise: I’ve hugely enjoyed this section of the course, and this assignment in particular. I’ve found it very enriching to dedicate myself to a subject like this and in particular to focus on the people aspect of it; I much prefer candid to posed portraits. I’m very much looking forward to getting my tutor’s comments.

  1. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  2. Maier, V and Maloof, J. (2011) Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  3. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  4. Sussman, E. (2001) Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
  5. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  6. Stephenson, S. (2001) W. Eugene Smith. Paris: Phaidon
  7. Erwitt, E. (2003) Snaps. London: Phaidon
  8. Galassi, P. (2008) Friedlander. New York: MOMA
  9. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues
  10. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  11. Short, M. (2011) Context and narrative. Lausanne: AVA
  12. Maher, J. (2012) The essentials of street photography. Amazon
  13. Darling, A. (2014) Street photography: a concise guide. Amazon

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Assignment 2: planning stage

As per my last post, I’ve decided on a subject for the ‘People & Activity’ assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Although I’m not a trainspotter by any means, I do like living in a town that has a working steam railway station as it gives me lots of opportunities for striking and interesting photographs. I’ve previously used the station as one of the subjects of an earlier Art of Photography assignment, but that was focusing more on the architecture (it was for Elements of Design) and included other railway stations as well. This will be much more focused, first on Pickering station, secondly on people and thirdly and most specifically on the activities they undertake when a train comes in then leaves the station.

The process

A little explanation: Pickering station is a terminus, and the end of the line is a dead stop, not a turntable or anything fancy. So when a train comes in, it needs to follow a particular process to be able to go out again:

  1. Driver brings train in, stopping a couple of engine-lengths short of the end of the line
  2. Guards open doors, passengers disembark
  3. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and first carriage, decouples the two to free the engine
  4. Driver moves engine down to the very end of the line then manoeuvres it across to the other track
  5. Driver brings engine past all carriages to rejoin the main line just past the far end of the train
  6. (optional step) if needed, driver moves down to water pump at end of platform to fill up with water
  7. Driver moves engine back onto far end of train
  8. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and end carriage, connects the two together
  9. Guards let new passengers onto train
  10. Platform guard blows whistle
  11. Train guard usually hangs his head out of the window as the train departs
  12. Platform guard retires to his office to complete the paperwork

Shooting list

While on the last assignment (A portrait) I prepared a detailed shooting list, and sketched out what I had pre-visualised, for this assignment it seemed to me that this would be more challenging to be very prescriptive as I would be unable to pose or direct any of the proceedings. So in this instance I had a general framework in mind (based on the overall process observed above) and only a few specific shots that I was keen on capturing – related to the ‘moment’ and ‘explaining’ points in the brief:-

  • The driver’s mate between the engine and the carriage doing the coupling/decoupling itself
  • The platform guard, arm raised, blowing the whistle
  • The train guard’s head poking out of the end carriage window as the train sets off again
Train driver (2013)

Train driver (2013)

Beyond these shots I decided to just capture what I thought was interesting and weave the narrative out of it from the library of shots that I collected.

More important to me than specific shots is the desire to capture good shots of people! That’s the real point of this section and therefore this assignment.

One of the reasons I chose the subject is that the people who work on the railway are mostly volunteers, and do this because they’re passionate about it. There’s something in their faces, in their eyes when you see them working. It’s quite inspiring, even if you don’t share their exact passion, to see people doing something they love. This is what I want to capture!


As noted in the post on my choice of subject, one of the advantages of shooting the train changeover is the multiple opportunities to get images – there are a normally about half a dozen trains a day on early summer weekends. So I have made shooting expeditions down to the station I think 5 or 6 times over a period of a few weekends. It’s important to have this opportunity to re-run the session as getting all the shots needed, to the right kind of quality, would be very difficult if it was a genuine one-off, as the whole turnaround window is only 10-15 minutes.

In order to get in close enough to the action but remain on the safety of the platform, I had to overcome my unease with using telephoto lenses. In this circumstance though I felt fine shooting with a long lens as the participants are most likely used to people taking their photographs and so I felt less stalker-ish than I might otherwise have done.

For one of the trips, and for the first time on an assignment, I took two camera bodies with different lenses mounted. One was a long zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) to get in close on the details, and on the other I alternated between a shorter zoom (16-50 mm / 24-75 mm EFL) and a prime lens, 35 mm (52 mm EFL). While the logistics of switching between cameras was a bit of a learning curve, it did afford me the opportunity to get a good variety of shots in a short space of time.

Colour or black/white?

I had this dilemma with the last assignment too… should the end results be in colour or black and white?

My initial instinct was black/white. In fact, I shot in b/w in the viewfinder (as I set the JPG style to mono, but also shot Raw to give me the choice to revert to colour if needed). I default to b/w for the vast majority of pictures I take at the railway station, it just really seems to suit it; it’s a combination of the architectural lines suiting it, and the nostalgia vibe. I was also influenced a lot by the overwhelming prevalence of b/w in the whole genre of street photography – I appreciate this isn’t street photography per se, but I do like the implied authenticity that b/w brings to candid people shots and I see the similarities.

However… as with the first assignment, looking at the early shots I’m starting to think that colour might work better? Using colour would place the series more in the modern day, without the fake nostalgia of b/w, and this might help to get over my message that these are volunteers, who do this because they love it. Using b/w would make the images look like they could have been taken any time, and that’s not really my intention – I want to focus on the volunteering aspect.

So at the moment I’m erring towards colour. Although at this stage in my last assignment I was firmly in favour of b/w and switched, so anything could happen in the edit!

I think that’s a reasonable summary of my preparation so far, albeit written up after the event.

By the time I wrote this I’d already shot 400+ images over a few weekends. The challenge now is to edit them down to a shortlist and construct the overall narrative…

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Assignment 2: initial preparation

I started thinking about Assignment 2 before I’d finished the exercises. I read ahead to the end of the section to see what the assignment was about so that I could put some thought to it. When I discovered it was about ‘People and Activity’, it first of all made me think of its similarities with some exercises and assignments I’d already done:

  • The final assignment on Art of Photography was a photo-essay that (certainly in the way I interpreted it) covered people engaging in an activity
  • An exercise in the People Aware section of this course entitled ‘An active portrait‘ which was somewhere in between posed portrait and candid photography, in as much as the subject knew I was there but I was keeping out of his way


In revisiting these previous experiences in my head I made a mental list of how this assignment needs to be similar and how it needs to be different. Some of this is in the brief, some of it is implied, some of it is me imposing my own structure on the assignment to better help me deliver it.

  • The obvious, from the section title: the pictures must be of People, and they must be Unaware of being photographed!
    • This seems self-evident, but I have seen other students flex the definition of ‘unaware’ significantly in their assignments, and I don’t want to fall into that trap
  • They need to be engaged in some kind of activity
    • This rules out general ‘street photography’ without a clear thread of activity tying the images together in a cohesive way
  • (from the brief) Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible)
    • So I need to choose an activity that has such ‘telling moments’, and where it will be possible for me to see/shoot the kind of images that ‘explain’ what is going on
  • The brief suggests example activities such as: work, sport, a stage performance or a social event
    • I ruled out sport as (a) I’m not interested in it and would find it hard to get across any enthusiasm in the pictures, and (b) technical challenges of capturing the moments / explaining pics with potentially fast-moving subjects
    • I ruled out a stage performance due to lack of the right subjects happening in the timeframe I have for the assignment (although there is a Sixties Music Festival in my town in mid-June, it would be leaving it too late I think)
    • I ruled out a social event as I couldn’t think of an interesting enough one happening in the timeframe! Also most social events that might have been interesting would be most likely indoors/evenings, and that would lead to lighting challenges
    • So that left ‘work’… which did end up being the area I chose, kind of (explained below)
  • I specifically want the activity being depicted to be inherently interesting, out of the ordinary in some way
    • The pictures themselves should be interesting to look at, individually and as a set, and if the activity was very everyday (say, stall-holders at a market) then the challenge to find the interest is that much harder
  • Last but not least, based on my experience on the photo-essay assignment on AOP, I decided it would be very beneficial if I could shoot on more than once occasion
    • To allow me to review contact sheets, identify gaps, opportunities for reshoots, alternative angles etc
    • And it reduces the risk significantly – getting all the shots needed at a single one-off event is inherently trickier

Subject decision

With all of the above in mind, after a week or two of thinking about it I landed on what I believe is a good subject for the assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

My rationale:

  • It’s an interesting visual spectacle that not many people would be familiar with
  • The people who do it are mostly volunteers, passionate about what they do, and dressed in a distinctive way – all of which I think lends character and interest to the subject matter
  • We live in Pickering so I could shoot over a few consecutive weekends to build up a decent library of shots to choose from

So that’s how I got to the choice of subject matter.

The next prep post will be more about the more specific planning and shooting at the station to build up the library of images for the assignment.