People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 3: Ideas

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

Longlist

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

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

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

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

Shortlist

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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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.

Consistency

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…!

Variations

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

Research

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