People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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Exercise: Selective processing and prominence


Select one image that you have already taken for an earlier project, an image in which the issue is the visual prominence of a figure in a setting. For this exercise you will use the digital processing methods that you have available on your computer to make two new versions of this image.

In one, make the figure less prominent, so that it recedes into the setting. In the second, do the opposite, by making it stand out more.


I chose an unused shot from earlier in this section that seemed to fit the bill in terms of balance of figure and place in the original.

1. Place more prominent

This is closer to the original in terms of the balance of light and shade in the scene as shot. For this the tweaks required were centred on the figure, using Lightroom’s adjustment brush feature. The whole figure was lowered in brightness and sharpness, and I adjusted the highlight and shadows to ‘flatten’ out the contrast as much as possible; also the red shirt was desaturated. I slightly increased the brightness of the end of the wall behind the figure such that more of the detail of the whole left wall is visible. Lastly, I adjusted the highlights in the sky and the canopy to try to better balance the light in the whole scene.

Place prominent

Place prominent


2. Figure more prominent

For this version I lightened the ground such that the figure stands out against the background more. I also specifically increased exposure setting on the face and arms, and tweaked the saturation of the shirt up slightly.

Figure more prominent

Figure more prominent

What I’ve learned

I must confess that I think both of these look slightly unnatural to me, so maybe I’ve been a bit heavy-handed. Or maybe it’s because I’ve placed the extreme variants together and the differences are more obvious? So what I’ve learned is to test such adjustments on other viewers to see whether I’ve gone too far!

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Exercise: Balancing figure and space


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.


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


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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.

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Exercise: Busy traffic


In contrast to the usually-empty place from the last project, some locations are almost always busy, with a constant flow of traffic. Choose a busy location, interior or exterior, and find a viewpoint that will give you a satisfying composition as well as a good sense of the nature and function of the space.

Spend some time watching how the flow of people works — the patterns they make, any surges or lulls in movement and numbers — and how this can contribute to the composition of the shot. Aim to show the ‘busyness’ of the place, which might involve altering the composition, perhaps changing the focal length of lens, or experimenting with a slow exposure.


A few shots from the archive

As per the last exercise, I was helped in my preparation for this by looking into my own archives for shots I’d already taken that met the criteria.

New shots for this exercise

I selected three shots that I felt demonstrated the idea, using different techniques and shooting angles.

1. King’s Cross

I’m not normally a big fan of long exposures to denote movement but I concede that this scene does suit the treatment. The contrast of the moving figures and the stationary ones is what makes this work for me. You can discern the differing speeds of movement and this helps to get over the effect of ‘busyness’. Shooting wide and high suited this scene and helps to achieve the desired effect.

King's Cross

King’s Cross

2. Shopping

Rather than repeating the high / wide / long exposure technique, for this I tried to get right into the thick of the crowd, to give the effect to the viewer of being there. To me this one has the feel of a river of people flowing towards the viewer.



3. Promenade

What intrigued me about this is that it appears that there is a queue of people walking single file, following the woman in front. In reality they were all randomly walking in their own directions individually or in couples, but in this split second I have captured the effect that implies what I imagined.



What I’ve learned

This was harder than it looked. I didn’t want to resort to long exposures for all my examples and so had to think of other ways to visually imply not just the people but the movement – the ‘busyness’. Although I’m not a huge fan of the technique, I think it’s more successful in the slow shutter speed example than the other two.

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Exercise: A single figure small


This kind of image is not easy to plan, simply because the conditions are so specific — a place which at the time of shooting is for the most part free of people, yet with an occasional figure passing through it.

Consider how obvious, to a viewer’s eye, the figure will be in the image. Some delayed reaction adds to the interest of looking at this kind of photograph, and there is even an element of surprise if the scale of the place (perhaps a cathedral interior) is larger than expected. On the other hand, the point of this style of image is lost if the viewer fails to notice the figure and moves on.

Pay close attention to where in the frame you place the figure — the more off-centre, the more dynamic the composition is likely to be, but only up to a point. If the figure is walking, you may want to consider the conventional treatment of placing it off-centre so that it walks into the frame.


A few shots from the archive

Before really getting into this exercise, I found it useful to look back at images of my own from the past that meet the criteria, to inspire me and get me in the right visual mindset. I don’t always do this (in fact I very rarely do, I like to look forwards) but in this instance it helped.

New shots for this exercise

I took a few shots in different environments, with the figure-to-background ratio varying, to see what effect this had on the viewer’s experience.

1. Station platform

This is the one where the person is of the most significant size in proportion to the surroundings. The figure-to-ground contrast is strong, and the leading diagonals move the eye towards him. There is no danger of not noticing the figure. I liked the implied mystery in this: why’s he walking away from his luggage…?!

Station Platform

Station Platform

2. Castle

Here I went to the other extreme. The figure is very small in relation to the setting, and slightly blurred through movement. At first glance this is a simple mid-distance landscape-type shot, but after a few moments the secondary point of visual interest emerges. The size and lack of sharpness means that it takes a little visual processing to work out that it is a little girl running away, but once you see it, a potential narrative suggests itself.



3. Boats

Another one where the figure is very small in relation to the main point of interest, and one where I used the concept of setting up then breaking a rhythm. The eye starts on the most prominent boat in the foreground and steps backwards into the picture until it rests on the figure. This is, of all the submissions, the one with the greatest risk of the viewer not even seeing the figure. The contrast isn’t very strong, but hopefully the rhythm of the boats helps the eye.



4. Side street

The contrast of the figure is helped by the backlight that gives kind of a glow around his body. The shaft of light helps to lead the eye.

Side street

Side street

What I’ve learned

After an initial lack of confidence – or maybe patience – in being able to find the right situations and fortuitous passing of sole figures for this exercise, I found quite a few examples. I’m not sure they’re all wholly successful but they’re different enough that I included them all here.

Unrelated to the direct point of this exercise, I am finding that I am drawn to images that hold some kind of implied or potential narrative, an idea of a back-story that gives the image some interest over and above the purely aesthetic. This was the case in a couple of the images I chose. I’m finding myself doing this when editing my shots rather than at the time of shooting, but it’s something that I am increasingly conscious of in my own thought processes – what attracts me to certain shots. Interesting.

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Assignment 3: Ideas

As there are only a few exercises in the Buildings & Spaces section, I’ve been thinking about potential subjects for the assignment pretty much since I started it. At the beginning I was worryingly short of inspiration, and couldn’t initially see how I could find enough subjects for the exercises and the assignment.


So I started a list of ideas that I’ve been adding to and sorting for the last couple of weeks. I started the list in rough draft form even before I’d properly read and absorbed the details of each exercise and the assignment in detail – I think it’s better to at least start with a long list and then refine over time, than to restrict your thinking early on.

  • Summer house (in our garden – now used for the light exercise)
  • Airport departure lounge
  • Train station – but done too many times?!
  • King’s Cross departures concourse specifically?
  • Pickering station coach-building shed?
  • Pickering Castle (specific part – old courtroom?)
  • Newbridge Park (cycle park up in woods near where I live)
  • Castle Howard – courtyard
  • Farm (friend runs a chicken farm nearby)
  • Farm shop? a few nearby
  • Local museum: Beck Isle? Ryedale Folk Museum? Eden Camp?
  • Quaker garden – enclosed ‘tranquility’ garden attached to local Quaker meeting house
  • Converted steel foundry (shopping mall) next door to Zurich office
  • Shopping centre
  • A lighthouse – Whitby nearest?
  • Library
  • Hotel Negresco in Nice – the ‘grande salle’ / ballroom
  • The new ‘promenade de paillon’ square / fountains in Nice
  • Church – Nice cathedral?
  • Pickering Memorial Hall
  • Visitors Centre (Dalby Forest?)
  • Warehouse (friends run an e-commerce business from a huge warehouse)
  • Cafe / bar (White Swan lounge?)
  • London landmarks – Covent Garden?
  • Kew Gardens? I stay not far away during the week – NB can only get there on an evening?
  • Client’s office? (bit intrusive, may have to ask permission?)

I took lots of images at several of these locations as test shots and reviewed them to see how successfully they met the brief. The points in the brief that I particularly want to do justice are:

  • For each building, it is important that you conduct some research beforehand, either archival or personal (or both), so that you have:
    • a good understanding of how and why it was designed in the way it is
    • an opinion on its effectiveness as a usable space.
  • Try to encompass variety in your choice of buildings, including in size and purpose.
  • In addition, describe briefly how you initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically


With these points in mind, and some test shots in the bag, I whittled the shortlist down to:

  • King’s Cross departures concourse
  • Pickering station coach-building shed
  • Beadlam Grange farm shop
  • Quaker tranquility garden
  • Giessereihalle – converted steel foundry / shopping mall
  • Hotel Negresco ballroom
  • Promenade de Paillon fountain
  • Pickering Castle

In all cases I either already know a little of the place’s history or know where to look for research.

All of them have got some distinctive features related to their usage.

I think I have enough variety (size, purpose) in the shortlist. The first two are tenuously linked (trains) but one is vast and teeming with people while the other is small and is a workplace for 2-3 people. Most are public whereas one (the coach-building shed) is a private workspace, albeit accessible to visitors, so ‘semi-public’. Two of them (the garden, the fountain) are outside spaces rather than ‘buildings’ per se but they were ‘built’ for a purpose so I am accepting them into the list.

I’ll get this down to five or six when I’ve got enough shots and I’m at the editing stage.

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Exercise: How space changes with light


Take one or two locations where you can conveniently return a number of times in different lighting, and photograph on each occasion. To get full value from this exercise, consider making two variations of photograph. In one, set the camera up in exactly the same position each time. In the second, see how the different lighting conditions suggest different viewpoints and compositions. The way the shadows fall, for instance, will create different masses of dark and light.


I had a space in mind for this straight away: the summer house we had installed in our garden last year. We positioned it exactly where it sits, with the doors and windows where they are, specifically to catch the late afternoon sunlight. So it was interesting to methodically go through an exercise of photographing it at different times of day to see how it changed in different lighting conditions.

09:00 and 11:30

I actually took several shots at different times on different days and to be honest up until early evening they all looked very similar, as the light was fairly even and flat throughout the day at the position in the garden. Here I simply chose two representative shots of the summer house in fairly plain sunlight.


The location really starts to come alive early evening, when the sun starts lowering in the sky to the west. Strong slanted shadows appear in parts of the space.

19:00 and 19:30

The first one here, ’19:00 back wall’ was taken at the same time as the next one ’19:00 chair detail’, and I included both here to show how localised the light effect was that evening… a few metres apart and one looks as flat and even as the daytime shots and the other bathes in a shaft of sunlight throwing a strong shadow onto the wall. ’19:00 sunny’ was a different day and the sunlight is permeating a much broader spread of the room this time. ’19:30 armchair detail’ shows the light coming through the side window and illuminating one specific chair.


On this particular day the golden hour sun was particularly warm, making parts of the room glow. I included an outside shot too, to show the warmth of the sun on the outside wood.

What I’ve learned

In some ways this was similar to exercises I’ve done before, on the Art of Photography course. This time around I decided not to do it in such a structured way (shooting on the hour all day from exactly the same spot) but rather to use the differences in light to pick out the aspects of the space that support its use as the light changes. It’s a relaxing space anyway, but when the sunlight bathes it in the evening it takes on a  specific glow that makes the place feel warm and calm.

The combination of the location, its usage and the light is something that I hadn’t necessarily thought about consciously before, but the exercise has taught me to consider lighting as one of the factors in being able to effectively ‘tell the story’ of a particular space.

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Exercise: The user’s viewpoint


Choose two or three buildings or spaces designed for a particular activity that is undertaken from a specific, distinctive, position. For each location, take one or more photographs that attempt to capture the user’s point of view. Consider height, orientation and lens focal length (which controls the angle of view).


1. Terrace at Promenade de Paillon, Nice

Terrace, taken from outside

Terrace, taken from outside

Promenade de Paillon is a huge public space in the centre of the city of Nice. It’s main attraction is a vast open fountain with water jet displays throughout the day (which may be one of the subjects of my assignment) but here I am focusing on the covered terraces off to the sides of the space. To the right is a photo of one of the terraces from the outside, just to set the context for the photos that follow.

The interesting aspect of the design of the space is the seating: rather than have fixed benches or individual seats, they have taken a rather novel approach and fixed chairs by one leg to the ground and a swivel mechanism allows each chair to be rotated on tracks in a 360º circle. this allows people to create their own seating combinations, within reason: you can be alone and face whatever direction you want; you can face one another; you can have up to four people facing each other in a square.

So in effect, the user has a choice of viewpoint, as can be seen in the examples below.

2. Picnic area

I was trying to think of an activity that one performs low to the ground and after a while the idea of a picnic came to me. You could define the ‘space’ as either the picnic area broadly, or the picnic blanket specifically – either way, I think it meets the criteria of an activity performed from a distinctive position.

I took pictures from two slightly different viewpoints: sitting on the ground, looking down slightly; and flat to the ground, lying down (as that’s how I like to relax on a picnic, personally…).

3. Viewing platform

For the final user viewpoint I chose a viewing platform at the highest point on the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) in Nice. I was in two minds as to whether to use this, as it’s potentially just a cliché of a tourist shot. However, I did take it specifically from the platform designed for viewing the panorama (I even stood on the step of the coin-operated telescope put there for exactly that purpose) so I felt it did meet the brief. I deliberately left in the pointing hand of the tourist explaining the view to his son, as I reckon it helps to demonstrate the user-centric view a little more.

What I’ve learned

I found this exercise a little tough to get into. It took me a while to think of ‘distinctive viewpoints’ linked to specific activities. As ever when short of inspiration, I researched what other students had done. However, for once I found this largely unhelpful and frustrating as very few students seem to have correctly grasped the brief in my opinion, instead taking pictures from a particular viewpoint of their choosing but not one designed for a particular activity. I was determined to find locations that better fit the subtleties of the brief than (for example) looking out of a particular window in a generic room. On a short break in France my mind relaxed somewhat and a few ideas came to mind, thankfully.

Anyway – what did I learn in the exercise itself? This is probably the first time I’ve consciously put the camera in a distinctive position (height, distance, focal length) in order to capture a specific vantage point, although maybe I do that naturally in most situations when I lift the camera up to my eye. In doing this exercise I came to better understand how choosing a very specific viewpoint can enhance the viewer’s engagement with the image – seeing it though the eyes of another. It should help form a connection between viewer and image. Whether I’ve succeeded with my attempts here is another story.

One thing that I wish I had done more of is to consider the effect of the focal length on the viewpoint; I took all of these with an 18 mm lens (27 mm EFL) as I was trying to capture a wide sweep of a view in most cases. However, with hindsight I should have tried some of these subjects with my 35 mm (53 mm EFL) as this is more like a normal human field of vision – which could further help the approximation of the user viewpoint. However, I now don’t have the opportunity to reshoot for several weeks, so I’m going to leave them as they are!


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!


Exercise: Exploring function


This exercise will help teach, first, a way of approaching a space and thinking about it that focuses on how it was intended to be used and whether or not its design was successful, and second, translating this thought process into an image. Choose any interior space, either domestic or public, and consider it from the point of view of its function. Who uses it or will use it? What is it intended to be used for? And how many different aspects are there to that activity? You are analysing the purpose of the room/space, and the process of doing this is the same for a dining room as for a more complex large area such as a public library.

First note what you think the space ought to be doing — a short list. Then consider how well you think it succeeds. This is all before attempting photography, and it hinges on your own, personal point of view. Forming a point of view is important, because it will influence how you decide to photograph the space.

Having made your analysis, make a carefully considered photograph of the space in order to put across the way it works — or should work — for the people who use it.


The space:

After much head-scratching I landed on a subject for the exercise: an area of the open-plan office that I’m currently working in that is known as “The Library”. It’s not an actual library, rather a space that people can use if they need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just one type (albeit the most quirky one) of working space in a very modern office environment that has, in addition to the more traditional desks and meeting rooms, a variety of ‘breakout spaces’ of various sizes – single-person ‘phone boxes’ for conference calls, sofas for informal chats, and acoustically cushioned booths for more intimate conversations.

Overall purpose:

The stated purpose of “The Library” is to provide individuals (not groups) with a space to work quietly and without distraction, for example to read something, to concentrate on a particular task, or to think through a problem. It is available to anyone in the office, without prior booking; you just turn up and use it. It is laid out as a mock library, with fake bookshelves and other library paraphernalia to ‘dress’ the space in such a way that heavily emphasises its purpose.


Its layout is dominated by a central table with 6-8 chairs around it – note however that this is specifically NOT a meeting table; there are desk-mounted dividers about 6” tall to delineate the space of each table setting. The objective here is to emulate the experience of a real library, where individuals will sit in silence and focus on their own work, even if they are elbow-to-elbow with another person – it is specifically a shared space for multiple individual use… you are NOT supposed to use The Library for meetings!

There are also two armchairs in the corners, high-backed and with exaggerated ‘wings’ to help with soundproofing. These are where one would sit to peruse a document, for example, rather than work on a laptop.

Finally, the other distinguishing feature of The Library is that, although open to the rest of the office, it has a full-width floor-length curtain, heavy and lined, to allow occupants to really cut themselves off from the rest of the office and get some proper quiet time.

Requirements shortlist:

  • Quiet (acoustically)
  • Calming (ambience)
  • Detached from main office environment (physically, visually)
  • Soft lighting
  • Clear identification of personal space
  • Comfortable

Is it successful?

An interesting question; yes, it is functionally successful for those that use it for its intended purpose. It is quiet and calm, softly lit, identifiably different to the surrounding area and promotes individual concentration with its use of furniture. The mock library stylings are an excellent visual cue to signify its intended use, so bravo to the interior designer.

However, I don’t see it being used for its intended purpose very much. It’s probably the least-used non-desk space in the office. I see what the workspace designer intended, but I fear that they over-estimated the need for such quiet contemplation. It’s almost as if people are embarrassed about being seen to be sitting quietly thinking or reading rather than *doing stuff*. I think this is an example where the real culture of the workplace is slightly at odds with the assumptions by HR of how they should work.

So in summary it is unsuccessful in as much as it under-used (rather than misused or unfit for purpose). It’s a bit of a white elephant. It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point they ripped it out and stuck in another meeting room or a few normal desks instead…


I took pictures of the space in use by one person, and of it empty. I thought for a while about which was a ‘truer’ description of whether the space is successful at its intended purpose. In the end I landed on depicting it empty. It’s clear from this picture what it should be used for – the layout and décor do that – but the fact that it is unoccupied tells the true story.


If you really want to analyse it, there is evidence that someone has used it recently – the chair pulled out – so it’s clearly not wholly unused, just under-utilised. This is exactly the intention of my capture.

What I’ve learned

Wow, that’s the most time I’ve ever spent analysing a section of an office! Very useful though – it’s an insightful exercise to really think properly about what a space is supposed to do (or what people are supposed to do with it) as making a judgement on whether it ‘works’ or not makes a difference to how you then try to capture it in a photograph.

I found myself trying to work out how you compose a picture to make a point about the usage. I hadn’t really thought about this kind of thing before!