People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Exploring function

Brief

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.

Results

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.

Layout:

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…

Photograph:

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.

Library

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!

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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.


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Exercise: Close and involved

Brief

Switch lenses (or adjust focal length) to the widest angle that you have. A true wide-angle, judged from its visual effect, is around 28 mm or less. One of the uses of a wide- angle lens is to be able to cover a large subject area in one shot, but here concentrate instead on using it close to people, and try to achieve a sense of putting the viewer right inside the situation — as you will inevitably be! From the point of view of comfort and confidence, this is quite a challenging way to shoot, but try your best.

As with the previous exercise, note down both the problems and the advantages created by working with a wide-angle of view from very close to the people you are photographing.

Results

I used my 16-50 mm zoom at its widest, so an equivalent focal length of 24 mm due to the 1.5x crop factor of my camera. In a few instances I’d most likely have cropped a little in post-processing, but in the spirit of the exercise these are all straight out of the camera, keeping in exactly what was in the frames I shot.

To me, ‘Backlight’ is the most successful shot and that has more to do with the lighting and composition than anything else. I liked the expressions on ‘Young Couple’ and this is probably the only one where I caught a ‘moment’.

‘Three Friends’ and ‘Two Friends’ are OK composition-wise but not very exciting subject-wise. ‘Angled’ I kept in as an extreme example of how hard I found it to keep the camera level when shooting like this (I seem to have accidentally managed a 45º angle and this lends the image a certain something). ‘Photoshoot’, ‘Hat Lady’ and ‘Couple’ had extraneous elements in that I would crop out.

Advantages:

Not many to be honest! More immersive for the viewer in the more successful ones; feeling of being ‘close to the action’.

Brings an element of randomness to the results – mostly unusable but occasional surprises.

Disadvantages:

Distortion towards edges of frame (fixable in post-processing). This is most noticeable in the first two images, with buildings; it’s not so obvious with wide open spaces.

Shooting like this made me feel even more uncomfortable than the long-lens shots, for a very different reason. In these cases I felt like I was really intruding in their personal space.

Much harder to compose – mostly shooting ‘on the run’ whilst passing the subject so an element of randomness to the framing (sometimes works, mostly doesn’t).

What I’ve learned

I’ve previously used a wide lens for getting shots of people in the context of their surroundings, but this was the first time I tried to get up so close and fill the frame with the subject at such a short focal length. It felt like I was really invading their space and ‘snatching’ shots, and from a practical point of view accurate framing was near impossible due to the speed I was working. I didn’t find this style of shooting comfortable.

Right now I’m thinking that one of the objectives of the last two exercises is to demonstrate why the generally-held norm for street photography is a standard focal length – not too close, not too far away. Both of the extremes didn’t sit that well with me, each in their own way somehow taking advantage of the subject more than a standard, middle-ground focal length treatment would do.


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Exercise: Standing back

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

I’m away from home at the moment without my full set of lenses. The longest lens I have with me is a 16-50 mm zoom (crop factor 1.5x) so full-frame equivalent focal length of 75 mm, falling a little short of the suggested 80 mm starting point. I may therefore repeat this exercise when I have my longer zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) and go right in close on subjects’ faces. However, for the purposes of this version of the exercise I have used the standard zoom at its 50 mm (75 mm EFL) full extent, and have cropped the results a little to give an indication of what a longer lens might have captured.

‘Monk’ worked well in this vertical crop, maybe to do with the complementary colours. ‘Bougainvillea’ was a good example of the focal length compressing the field of view, which in this case led to a good visual effect. The remaining four, though unremarkable in themselves, are good examples of having time to be more precise with the composition.

Advantages:

I got some shots that I might not have otherwise been able to, either because being further away allowed me to go unnoticed, or practicalities like being able to shoot from over the other side of the street rather than being stood in the middle of road.

I could take longer to set up the shot, didn’t feel the need to rush so much.

Notably in the Bougainvillea bush shot, the longer lens gave more visual compression that made the subjects melt into the background. Shot from closer it would have shown more separation between background and subject, and wouldn’t have achieved as strong an effect.

Disadvantages:

The main practical disadvantage was that there were often obstacles in my eye-line that I had to work around or, in the case of moving obstacles (other people, cars) wait patiently for them to move on. Examples: ‘Monk’ and ‘Paddling’.

I was lucky to shoot with good light and so could work with fast shutter speeds, but I can see that the longer the lens, the more you need to keep the camera steady as the focal length exaggerates any unwanted motion and requires a combination of fast shutter, high ISO, wide aperture and maybe even a tripod (this last one seems out of place in street photography to me).

The biggest downside, and the reason I probably won’t do much of this type of photography under my own steam, is how it made me feel! Compared to the street shots I’ve taken before now, these made me feel very furtive, unethical even. I felt like a paparazzo, a spy, a stalker! I know it may seem contradictory or hypocritical but when you shoot with a normal/wide lens, you’re in the general field of space of the subject, and while you hope they won’t notice you, it feels like a fair exchange as they have a reasonable chance of reacting to you… in comparison the longer lens shots seemed to be much more intrusive – I felt like I was just stealing shots without justification. I imagine that this sensation is further exaggerated with a genuine telephoto lens.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that this kind of photography makes me feel slightly uncomfortable! More so than the closer, more street-level shots I’ve done before. On one level this seems slightly contradictory – before shooting I thought it would be ‘easier’ to shoot from a distance, and from a technical point of view it is, but the vague sense of unease I felt shooting from further away soured it for me a little. I felt less ethical, less engaged, less justified in taking the shots. So it’s both ‘easy’ and ‘uneasy’ …!