People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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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: Portrait scale and setting

Brief

Find a suitably attractive setting and take portraits to the following scales:

  • Face, cropped close
  • Head and shoulders
  • Torso
  • Full length

Select the most successful images from each of the four subject areas, and consider how a viewer will react to each portrait in terms of the weight of attention to different elements.

Quick disclaimer: I decided to get cracking on this first exercise before doing too much reading and research. This way I’ll have a benchmark on where I am at the start of this section. I hope to see an improvement over time that will make me look back on this exercise and maybe cringe a little – this will mean I have progressed! I may even re-do this exercise later when I’m feeling more educated… but for now, this is my standard, for better or worse!

Results

Setting: I thought this kitchen was suitably attractive and appropriate for an informal portrait – well, before I saw the end result I did anyway (see notes below on backgrounds).

Subject: this is Mike, my very good mate from down the road.

I shot over 50 images in total but many were similar. I got it down to a shortlist of 12 shots. Below I’ll whizz through the options and at the end I’ll select what I believe the best in each group.

Note that all these are straight out of camera, with the exception of the two final crops.

Face, cropped close:

  1. I used the available light, including ceiling mounted spotlights, which cast distracting light and shade onto the face; also, the crop isn’t really tight enough
  2. With spotlights off and diffused flash bounced off the ceiling and the light is more even; the crop is tighter on the face

Head and shoulders:

  1. Too far back, too much background; ceiling lights creating unwelcome light/shade patches
  2. Composition better and he’s smiling – but ceiling lights still casting patches of light and shadow onto skin
  3. With bounced flash but with ceiling spots still on – still not right
  4. Lights off, bounced flash only, and like the close face shot the skin tone is now much more even

Torso:

  1. Again I started with the available room lighting but in this instance switched to a vertical format – again, shiny patches where the spotlights catch the skin; on the plus side, good facial expression
  2. With diffused bounced flash – better skin tones, but more serious face; also, messy background elements
  3. As per 2 but framed slightly tighter from the bottom edge… I prefer the framing but the flash has made the skin a little paler and blown the highlight a bit on the mug

Full length:

Lighting is same on all three so differences are composition only:

  1. This has the most serious expression…
  2. This has a smile…
  3. And this is the least traditional pose, with the face partly obscured – but the eye contact is still there

Selection:

Face, cropped close:

Close

Close

Closer crop looks better to me, and light is more even. The focus is on the eyes as it should be, and a very shallow depth of field makes the rest of the features soften from fairly close to the radius of the eye area. The background is suitably blurred so as not to detract. The viewer will lock onto the eyes.

Head and shoulders:

Head & shoulders

Head & shoulders

A little like the first, the lighting and the shallow depth of field help the focal points to stand out. Again, the eyes should be the first thing the viewer rests on, then to a lesser degree the whole face shape. The background isn’t too distracting.

Torso:

Torso

Torso

This is the ‘least-bad’ of my options here: I prefer the vertical ratio (I should have taken more this way on) as it better fills the space and reduces the distraction of the background, so helping the view to focus on – I believe – the eyes, then the whole face, then the mug. Yes, the light across the face is a little distracting but if I had to work with this, I could improve it a little in post-processing. The background is still too busy and I should have either chosen another location or moved Mike further away to help the background melt into blur.

Torso - crop

Torso – crop

In terms of composition, with hindsight I should have repositioned the camera to keep the three cups (above the head) out of frame. Cropped version above gives an idea of this.

Full length:

Full

Full

Again, the best of the bunch but not a successful shot. In all of the options I placed him too far to the right of the frame, making this look like an advert for the oven… at least in this one the fact that he is drinking and looking over the top of the mug add a little more focal interest. I hope a viewer would see first the eyes, then the mug, then scan down the body (or they could of course just stare at the oven, which wasn’t my intention). As per the last one, moving Mike further away would have helped to separate the subject from the background significantly.

Full - cropped

Full – cropped

Again, framing wise I should have gone in closer to remove distractions in the top of the frame, as per crop above. Cropping tighter also makes the subject move a little towards the centre, and so less oven-centric.

What I’ve learned

A few things!

  • Light: identify, work with and where possible control the light sources – keep looking at how they are rendering the subject
  • Background: keep the subject off the background to achieve the right depth-of-field separation that makes the viewer focus on the person not the background (unless it is a contextual portrait)
  • Background: watch out for distracting elements, ideally before the shoot but look around the subject before pressing the shutter too
  • Framing: generally, better to fill the frame with the subject; vertical format is more natural for torso and full-length shots

What I think I did right is

  • Focus: on the eyes
  • Flash: use indirect and diffused flash to even out skin tones
  • Overexpose slightly: dialled in +⅓ EV to help brighten up the skin tones a little
  • Aperture: wide open for most shallow depth of field

Generally I learned that this portrait lark isn’t as easy as it looks! Lots to think about that isn’t second nature yet. Onwards and upwards!