People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Selective processing and prominence

Brief

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.

Results

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

Brief

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.

Results

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

Brief

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.

Results

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.

Shadow

Shadow

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.

Angle

Angle

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.

Scale

Scale

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.

Silhouette

Silhouette

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

Brief

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.

Results

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.

Shopping

Shopping

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.

Promenade

Promenade

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

Brief

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.

Results

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.

Castle

Castle

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.

Boats

Boats

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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Exercise: How space changes with light

Brief

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.

Results

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.

18:30

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.

20:00

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

Brief

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).

Results

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!