People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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: 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.


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…!


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


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


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Exercise: Varying the pose


Set up a portrait session, and plan for your subject to adopt in turn at least three different basic positions (sitting, standing, etc.). Within these, suggest, as you shoot, different limb positions. Later, review the results and assess how effective or attractive the variations were.


Subjects: I decided for the first time to use CHILDREN as subjects! These are Ethan and Emily, whose parents Mike and Amanda are good friends of ours. I (correctly) figured that kids would be less self-conscious on posing and ‘throwing shapes’. My original intention was to choose one of them but in the end I got such a good mix of shots that I basically did the exercise twice in parallel.


There’s quite a variation in these, and I think they’re all reasonably successful. The Ethan shots are more laid back as I don’t think he was quite as into the idea of being photographed as his sister was. ‘Emily Sitting 2’ is probably my weakest in this set: everything is centred and the tops of the fingers are accidentally cropped off. ‘Emily Sitting 3’ is the most innovative – model’s own pose, not photographer’s direction…


This was a little harder to find the variation in the poses. I seem to have fallen back on simply asking them to do different things with their hands! ‘Ethan Standing 1’ looks nice and casual/natural while the others look more contrived. ‘Emily Standing 2’ is a little more interesting and effective than the others.


This is where the more interesting poses came out! Freed from the limitations of sitting or standing, we could use our imaginations a bit more. ‘Emily Freestyle 3’ is probably my favourite shot of the series.

What I’ve learned

It’s interesting just how much variation you can get in the basic types of pose. I suppose I kind of took the easy option in using children as subjects as asking them to throw different shapes seemed easier to me than doing the same to an adult – I think we’d both feel a little self-conscious! But it has taught me that I could be a LOT more innovative in the poses I ask people to adopt when I take their photograph (as long as I’m brave enough to ask…)

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Exercise: Varying the pose – research

As suggested in the brief for the exercise ‘Varying the pose’, I’ve been looking at magazines to get a feel for the variations of pose that you can see in professional portraits. I quickly accumulated so many examples that I thought it was worth collating some here. This will help me with inspiration not just for this exercise but also for the forthcoming portrait assignment. It’s been something of an eye-opener: I hadn’t realised just how many variations there are on basic poses. I guess part of the skill of a portrait photographer (or a fashion photographer) is to breathe new life into what could be very simple client briefs.


The main variations here are around what to do with the hands. Most of these don’t use any props in hand so they have to go somewhere. Just letting them hang to the side looks very bland and static. Placing the hands in particular places can give real ‘body language’ signifiers: both hands on hips = defiant; hands in pockets = nonchalant; arms folded = defensive or impatient, etc. The other notable point of difference is the placement of the feet and related to this, the tilt of the hips. There’s a classic flattering pose of standing slightly side-on to the camera, hip first.


The real variations here aren’t so much where to place the hands, although this is still a consideration, but what to do with the legs. Together, apart, crossed, raised, extended, tucked under. Again body language becomes evident to a degree, particularly how much the subject is leaning forwards (attentive, needy) versus backwards (relaxed, confident). Crossed legs is an interesting one, especially for men: it seems to try to look relaxed while still being quite defensive (literally).


I actually found lots of examples of leaning – it seems to be a very fashionable pose at the moment. Leaning implies relaxed, and is easy to link with hands-in-pockets to solve the problem of what to do with hands. Walking is also reasonably common, effectively giving a slight variation on standing by incorporating the feeling of movement.

Lots of inspiration now!

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Exercise: Review a portrait sequence


Set up a portrait session with consistent setting and framing so that the only variable will be the expressions and gestures of the subject. Concentrate fully on the person’s expression (and gesture or pose if they vary), assessing it from frame to frame in order to select what you consider to be the best of the sequence. Immediately after the shooting, write down as well as you remember the frame by frame progress of your subject’s expression, noting which you felt at the time were the best. At what point did you decide that it was time to stop shooting, and why? Next, open the sequence of images and review a second time. Rate them as follows: a) not good, b) acceptable, c) good and d) the best single shot, according to your judgement. How, if at all, did this later review differ from the way you saw it at the time of shooting?


Subject: this is Laura, a friend from down the road.

I took over 30 shots but removed a few early test shots and obvious bloopers (totally out of focus etc). What remains is a good representation of the main body of the shoot. I shot in black and white as I felt that the white background and her dark clothing lent itself well to this style.

At the time / immediately after:

The sequence divided into three main sections: with bounce flash; with bounce flash plus reflector card at chest height; no flash (higher ISO). At the time of shooting I thought that the ones where I had managed to catch Laura smiling or laughing were going to be the best shots, and I knew that I hadn’t managed to do this with every shot. Part of the problem that I recognised at the time was the flash recycle time led to lapses in spontaneity. This is why towards the end I ditched the flash and ramped up the ISO instead. The middle portion, where she held the reflector card, had the least spontaneous/natural expressions, probably because the fact of holding the card makes it more of an artificial situation and so harder to relax. I stopped shooting when I was reasonably sure that we had about 5-6 good shots in the bag.

During shooting and in the immediate review from memory afterwards I thought the shortlist of best shots was going to be 3, 10, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30.

Proper analysis:

Once in Lightroom I took a closer look at the 30 images and saw things that I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, there is a distracting thin white stripe in the black top in many of the first half of the set. Secondly, in images 19-21 you can see the black underside of the reflector card sneaking into the bottom of the frame (could be cropped out if needed). Thirdly, a few of what I thought were going to be the good shots (26, 29, 30) turned out to have blurry or out-of-focus portions that ruled them out.

However, one of the images that I’d remembered at the time as being a possible keeper, number 23, is indeed the one that I consider to be the single best shot of the series.

23. BEST!

23. BEST!

What I’ve learned

Broadly speaking, I do think I correctly remembered the better shots based on expression, gesture and pose – but what let me down was more the technical side of things, e.g. a few of the ones where I think I caught a good expression, the focus was off slightly – or the framing, like leaving in the white stripe or the reflector card. I put this down to using the remote trigger release and not (often enough) checking the viewfinder. On balance I think remote release is an advantage, as it allows you to get out from behind the camera and engage with the subject, but I do think I need to remember to periodically check what’s in the frame.


Exercise: Focal length


Make exactly the same framing on a face with different focal lengths. With a zoom lens, use at least three: at either end of the zoom scale and in the middle. If you have more than one lens, use that, too. You will need to move the camera towards and away from your subject to keep the framing consistent.


Subject: this is long-suffering wife and reluctant model Ann.

I’ve converted the focal lengths into 35 mm equivalent, as my camera works to a 1.5x crop factor. If you’re peeking at the EXIF data, yes I have rounded up a couple of the numbers for neatness.

24 mm Equivalent Focal Length:

Way too wide for a normal portrait, this has the distorted ‘back of a spoon’ look to the nose in particular. Quite unflattering!

24 mm EFL

24 mm EFL

35 mm EFL:

Better, less obviously distorted, but still not wholly natural. Still a little bit ‘looming towards you’.

35 mm EFL

35 mm EFL

50 mm EFL:

This is the first one that looks reasonably natural to my eyes. The proportions of the facial features are quite normal.

50 mm EFL

50 mm EFL

75 mm EFL:

Of the focal lengths I tried, this is the one that is meant to be closest to the optimal one for portraits. It does look natural and flattering, so the theory is sound in my experience thus far.

75 mm EFL

75 mm EFL

100 mm EFL:

To my eyes this looks equally fine – no obvious distortion, nothing that looks too odd.

100 mm EFL

100 mm EFL

150 mm EFL:

This is where slight visual oddities started creeping in. The face shape is starting to look marginally too wide to be a true likeness. The features are starting to look flattened out.

150 mm EFL

150 mm EFL

200 mm EFL:

The flattening effect is getting more noticeable. The facial features are starting to converge on the centre of the face and the space around them is getting disproportionately broad.

200 mm EFL

200 mm EFL

345 mm EFL:

The features are flattened out to an almost comical degree here. Compared to the more optimal ‘middle’ focal lengths, this squeezes the features further into the centre of the face, and the whole face shape looks like it’s been stretched out on a rack. Very unflattering! (sorry Ann)

345 mm EFL

345 mm EFL

What I’ve learned

A great technical exercise! It’s unlikely that anyone would knowingly take portraits at the two extreme ends of the scale here as they each in their own way distort the subject’s features in a very unflattering way. It is very enlightening however, to see the extremes as they help to illustrate exactly why there are accepted standards on the ‘best’ focal lengths for portraits. Interestingly, viewing each one with the adjacent versions either side it’s hard to spot the differences – but when you look at one from each extreme, they are very different indeed.

One point of note is that I found quite a few online sources ‘correcting’ the commonly-quoted belief that it’s the focal length that causes the distortion – technically it’s the distance not the focal length…  but if you’re framing the image in the same way, that requires to you compensate with your distance from the subject, which is what causes the distortion. I recall an exercise on Art of Photography that showed that an equivalently-framed crop from a wide shot would match a telephoto shot taken from the same distance.