People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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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: 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!

Practicalities

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

Considerations

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.


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Exercise: Standing back (take 2)

Brief

Depending on your choice of lenses, select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80 mm and 200 mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? Because of the extra distance between you and your subject, you may have found that passers-by and traffic sometimes block your view. And what special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Results

Note: I did this exercise once already, but with a focal length shorter than the recommended 80 mm, and I cropped the images in an attempt to emulate the effect of a longer lens (I do understand that this is flawed…). I said at the time that I’d re-run the exercise with a genuine telephoto lens, which I now have done. This time I used a 50-230 mm on a 1.5x crop factor body, giving an equivalent focal length of 75-345 mm in full-frame terms. All the selected shots are from at or close to its maximum length.

What I’ve learned

The first time I did this exercise I felt quite uncomfortable taking photos of people from a distance; it didn’t sit well with me, it felt a bit too sneaky. I felt like a paparazzo, a stalker or a private detective… Well the slightly shocking thing I picked up from doing it again was that – it didn’t feel so bad this time! I must be getting more used to it (which I suppose, in itself made me feel slightly uneasy! i.e. I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was getting comfortable with this approach…).

Anyway – the end result is that I’m sufficiently OK with the long-lens approach that I’m using it in some of the images I’ve taken for the assignment.

I suppose what I’ve really learnt by doing this exercise twice is that sometimes things might seem a bit uncomfortable, but maybe you should try again to see if it gets any easier.

From a practical learning point of view: the advantages noted previously were evident here, notably the ability to more carefully compose each frame before shooting. Similarly, the disadvantages (compression of perspective, obstacles) were equally in evidence.

At the end of the day, it’s another shooting approach I can add to my arsenal. I can see myself using it selectively rather than making it my signature style…!


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Exercise: A public space

Brief

For this final exercise, transfer your attention from an organised occasion to a semi-organised public space. Some of the most accessible and usable from a photographic point of view are public parks. A public beach is another possibility. Instead of a single event, there will be a variety of things happening, even if not all of it is particularly active or focused. Try to capture the sense of varied use — how people make their own personal or small-group activities within the same general area.

Results

There’s a short stretch of riverside space between Richmond Bridge and Twickenham Bridge on the Thames that has been landscaped as a terraced lawn leading down to a broad river path, then down to the river itself. It has branded itself as ‘Richmond Riverside’ and serves as a meeting place and general leisure spot for locals and visitors, especially in spring and summer. There’s a nice mix of well-spaced benches and open spaces. I chose to take a bunch of shots of people engaging in various activities in this area, starting at the top of the terrace and moving down to the river itself.

I think I successfully captured a wide variety of uses of the space.

What I’ve learned

I found this a little more challenging than the organised event, as in this instance I was the only person wandering around with a camera. So I was a bit more self-conscious, certainly – more sensitive to the risks of someone objecting to the photography. I used quite a wide lens (27 mm) as I thought a long lens would have made me look even more suspicious. I did however have to crop most of these significantly to get the subjects in the right kind of proportion in the frame.


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Exercise: An organised event

Brief

For this exercise you will need to research and prepare in advance. Look for an organised event at which there will be plenty of people and in which you can confidently expect to be able to photograph freely and with some variety. An event at which spectators are in seats will not do; one in which people move around will be more useful. There are many other possibilities, and an important part of the exercise is to find a suitable one for yourself.

Results

I decided to take pictures at the annual Pickering Game & Country Fair, more specifically the UK Tractor Show that is incorporated into the overall event. I figured that I could get some good shots of ‘characters’ in this kind of environment.

What I’ve learned

I’m not sure I learned a huge amount new in this one, but it was certainly good practice. It is similar thematically to the assignment so maybe I’ll consider it a dry run for that. I felt quite comfortable shooting in this kind of environment (although some of the ‘characters’ did look like they could do me a bit of damage if they objected to me taking their picture…) and I think this helped my general level of confidence with ‘people unaware’ photography generally.


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Exercise: Standard focal length

Brief

As in the previous two exercises, concentrate on shooting with one focal length. In this case, if you have a full-frame camera the focal length should be between 40 mm and 50 mm. If your camera uses the more common, smaller sensor size, it will be in the region of 27 mm to 32 mm.

Results

I took most of these at 27 mm on a 1.5x crop factor sensor, so the equivalent focal length is almost exactly 40 mm (the first image, of the benches, was at 35 mm crop sensor so 52.5 mm EFL).

 

After the last two exercises, at the extremes of long and wide focal lengths, I found this much more satisfying. The fact that the standard focal length approximates the human eye is what makes this kind of image work in my opinion – one of the defining characteristics of good ‘street photography’ is that it closely resembles real-life, without unnecessary distortion. It adds an extra layer of veracity that aids the feeling of ‘being there’. It feels more like photojournalism than creativity – taking more than making photographs.

From a personal point of view I found it much more comfortable: I neither felt like a stalker (as in the long lens shots) nor that I was unnecessarily intruding in people’s personal space (as in the wide-angle shots). As noted in an earlier exercise, one of the things that I think makes this kind of focal length ‘fairer’ is that the subject has a fighting chance of knowing that you’re there, and could object if they wanted to – it seems like a fair exchange, if that makes any sense.

What I’ve learned

Through these last three exercises I’ve come to better understand why most street photography tends to use the focal lengths that it does – namely the middle-ground, near-human-eye equivalents between 35 mm and 50 mm (full-frame equivalent). There are exceptions, of course, but these are stylistic choices that certain photographers make, and it gives their work a distinctive feel that in some cases distances their images somewhat from a true reality. If I’m going to do much more of this kind of photography in future, I believe I will do so with my 27 mm (40 mm EFL) and my 35 mm (52.5 mm EFL) lenses.