After The Gold Rush

I had an hour spare this afternoon and so decided to spend it trying to tame the runaway garden. I unlocked the shed to get the mower out and was struck by the beautiful light hitting the decades of cobwebs and accumulated junk.

An hour later, I still hadn’t got the mower out, but I did get these photographs… Continue reading

Exercise – Multiple points

I’ve avoided this exercise until now. As usual, I’ve researched prior to taking the photographs and spent some time reading students’ learning (b)logs that have gone before me and it seems that most have not enjoyed the exercise and struggled with it.

The brief:

Set up your own still-life, with a background that is unfussy but not entirely plain. Use between six to 10 similar-sized objects, each compact in shape. You should fix the camera firmly in one position, aimed down at the background (ideally, use a tripod). The idea is to control the composition by rearrangement, not by changing the framing with the camera.

Begin by placing one object; make a record of this by taking a photograph. Then add the second, then the third, and so on; each time, take one photograph. The aim is to produce a final grouping, which is not so obvious as to be boring (avoid regular shapes), but which hangs together visually. The process will take some time, if you give it proper thought.

Consider each move and the effect that each new addition has on the overall grouping.

I have only tried a traditional still-life shot once before as a test shot with a new camera. I thought it might be a set-up that I could use again for this exercise, but with smaller subjects to provide points against a background.

x100 Still Life

x100 Still Life

I felt comfortable with the theories described in my research, but they tended to concentrate on arrangements of objects that could be used to fill more of the frame than the points we’re studying. Tutorials like this didn’t deal with small points but with the arrangement of still life subjects. I wanted to avoid the standard interpretation of using polished stones on velvet as it just isn’t the kind of set-up I’d ever make. I raided the fridge and found a pack of brightly coloured peppers and set-up on the kitchen table. I used the reverse of a (Sigur Rós) poster as a backdrop, a flash and softbox to the camera’s right, and a reflector on the left to soften the shadows. The camera was on a tripod to fix the framing.

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My first attempt took in a little of the background and is more interesting than the view only of the chopping board in the second set below. As discovered in the balance exercise, placing a smaller object closer to the edge of the frame balances the larger knife, so the first pepper was at the edge of the chopping board and at an angle to the knife – the most pleasing arrangement. When my wife was shopping, she probably didn’t consider the ‘pointiness’ of the peppers and the difficulty that might bring when arranging them in a composition exercise.

From then on, I added peppers in sequence. I tried to arrange them, considering that the space between them, the infill of the implied triangle, becomes an object in itself, and needs to be balanced by the knife. The larger the triangle, the closer to the knife they get. Other observations were that odd numbers worked best and that I preferred either obvious patterns (like the image above with 6 peppers) or completely random arrangements. When I tried to be creative, I didn’t like the image as much.

Looking at the pictures now, after packing away all of my equipment, I realise the importance of each pepper’s colour. As usual, as soon as there is a bright red object in a frame, the eye is drawn directly to it.

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I tried again with a similar set-up, but looking straight down onto the board, removing any context and giving me more room to play with on the surface of the board.

I’m happy to have the exercise behind me. I will return to it – indeed my plan for my second assignment will mean several shots taken using a similar set-up that will need the positioning of objects within the frame – but as expected, I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

I do however look forward to eating the peppers in a big, creamy risotto.

EDIT:

Having thought about this a little more, I realise that when a pair of similar coloured peppers are grouped together, they effectively become one point. This is obvious looking back, but didn’t occur to me at the time.

Reference.

Bray, S. (3 December 2011) 10 Tips to Get Started with Still Life Photography (Online) Tuts+.com Available from: http://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/10-tips-to-get-started-with-still-life-photography–photo-8278 [4 January 2014]

Reflection – The course so far

Over the last week or so, it feels like I’ve begun to make improved progress with the course. I’ve particularly enjoyed the study of lines in composition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having had time off in Poland, spending Christmas with my wife’s family, has mean that I’ve had the time, and importantly daylight to get out and take pictures. I also see more things to take pictures of when I’m away from the familiar surroundings of home. This is of course only my perception and something I’ll need to work on if I want to maintain this current rate of progress. There’s plenty of subject matter in Leicestershire, I just need to identify it in the same way that I would here.

The first section of the course that dealt with the frame, and at times did feel a little basic, not helping to encourage my engagement with it. Learning more about composition, particularly the analysis of the composition of ‘classic’ photographs has been fascinating. It is a huge subject and I look forward to a lifetime of learning about it. This study has already begun to influence and improve my pictures.

This enthusiasm for the subject matter obviously helps motivate me further and I hope to be able to continue this momentum when I’m back home, at work, and not seeing much daylight because of work and other commitments. In the last couple of days of my holiday, I’ll be taking the opportunity to begin thinking about my next assignment.

The course also helps us learn in other more subtle ways. I am experimenting more. I’m taking pictures of things that I wouldn’t usually and seeing subjects in a new way. A couple of examples from this week are below.

Tool

The scythe picture needed the identification of a suitable subject, the creation of an interesting composition and lighting in a way that enhanced both. Such still-life photography is new to me but I’m pleased with the result and will try more in the future, perhaps in the next section of the course when we study shape.

Most Grundwaldski

The picture of the bridge, also from the ‘curves’ exercise is more standard fare, but thinking to include the shadowy figure in the shot is another example of this newfound experimentalism. It’s hardly revolutionary, but for me it’s something new.
Another interesting learning point from this week away has been the change to my workflow. I usually use Aperture, Photoshop Elements, Silver Efex etc. Here, I’ve been limited to importing the pictures onto my mother-in-law’s creaky laptop, saving them to Dropbox before carrying out very limited editing in Snapseed on my iPad Mini. What I’ve learned is that despite this apparent restriction, the pictures are still good. It has shown me that the time I spend working on my pictures after they’re shot is less ‘value-adding’ than the time spent taking decent photographs in the first place. Better spending a couple of hours reading about composition and then practicing it than tweaking the mid-tone structure of an average image.

Personal Work
Aside from the coursework, I have begun a collaboration with a fellow Leicestershire photographer to explore the issues raised by Don McCullin in this article in The Independent. Through our photography, we’re hoping to investigate the experiences and motivations of, and prejudices against, migrant workers in Leicestershire. I hope that we can expose the social division that is often exacerbated by the ignorance and fear of the unknown that some British people can be known for.
It promises to be an interesting project – I’ll keep you informed.

References

Clark, N (2013) ‘Forget foreign conflicts, chronicle Britain’ says war photographer Don McCullin (Online). The Independent. Avaialable from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/forget-foreign-conflicts-chronicle-britain-says-war-photographer-don-mccullin-8947692.html?origin=internalSearch [27 December 2013]

Exercise – Vertical and horizontal frames

This is one of the exercises I missed as I worked through the first stage of the course and although you might not be able to tell from the images below, I really did get the point of this exercise. The idea was to take 20 consecutive pictures, vertically framed. Then to retrace our steps and shoot a horizontal version of each one, proving that it is habit that causes us to favour horizontal framing and that ‘with a little effort, you can make most scenes work vertically’.

The theory behind this, and the reason cameras are built the way they are, is because of the way our vision works. Our eyes, being next to each other tend to scan from side to side, rather than up and down. Our tendency is to use vertical framing only on upright subject – portraits and buildings for example. Even if we do use upright subjects in horizontal frames, we’ll find it more comfortable off-centre, allowing us to scan the space next to the subject.

Further to this, I believe that as images are more usually shot for display on a computer screen these days than publication in books or magazines, horizonal framing is more suited to this format.

I shot these pictures in a 10 minute walk across Wroclaw (before turning around and walking back to get the horizontal versions), but do have a confession to make. I received a battery grip for my camera for Christmas and today was the first opportunity to use it. It meant taking vertically framed pictures was just as ergonomically comfortable as shooting horizontally – in fact, the grip is even more comfortable than my usual hand position and so preferable. Also, I used a 50mm fixed lens, meaning I couldn’t zoom to suit the subject, other than walking closer.

Looking at the results, I probably didn’t vary the subject matter enough. I really dislike craning my neck and camera upwards to take pictures of buildings, preferring to shoot them from further away with sensible verticals. That combined with the speed I was travelling across the city meant that almost everything here is shot at eye level.

What the horizontal framing does is give a little context. It allows the viewer to see further along the street in a couple of cases. Conversely, the vertical shots tend to concentrate on the subject alone.

I’ll probably repeat this exercise at some point to better demonstrate the point…

Exercise – Curves

Next up in our exploration of lines in composition, and following on from horizontals, verticals and diagonals, is the curve. We’ve studied these elements in order of dynamism and the sense of movement they bring to a picture; from the stability of the horizontal to the potential for drama in a curve.
There are many classic examples of curves in composition. One of the best known is Cartier-Bresson’s image of a cyclist passing a staircase from 1932. There are several curves in the image and all seem to point in the direction of the rider’s travel. It is one of the most famous pictures and it’s success is all down to these curves (I know only too well that catching a cyclist riding by doesn’t always make a great picture).
Another example is Richard Avedon’s ‘Dovima with elephants‘. Again several curves contribute to the sublime composition, but this time they pull in opposite directions to keep the eye busy and engaged.

I went back through a few of my pictures and found the following four that feature real and implied curves.

While the curves are pretty obvious in the first three examples, the final picture of a tree in Bradgate Park, features an implied curve. The eye is drawn along the broken branch laying on the ground, up the trunk, out along the branch and into the sky.

And so to the photographs I shot for this exercise. Other than the first picture, they were taken on a wander around the Polish city of Wroclaw.

Curve

Curve

I remembered this tool from my mother-in-law’s garage and was keen to phtograph it for the curves exercise. I received a softbox for Christmas and this was the first use of it. I wanted to show the true shape of the blade using the shadow rather than the metal itself, but the softbox softened the shadows too much. I removed the baffle and used the flash directly. Depth of field was increased just enough to give some detail in the wood and the concrete floor.

Stone Curve

Stone Curve

A classic curve, but as my wife wasn’t keen on providing the real thing, I had to settle for this stone figure. Another sits next to her and together they support a statue outside the stunning University of Wroclaw. I reduced the depth of field to blur the background detail and I waited until the people were walking by to give some interest in the right side of the frame.

Post Curve

Post Curve

The posts create an implied curve in that they are individual points in an arc, rather than a solid line. The curb and road surface provide a true curve.

Most Grundwaldski

Most Grundwaldski

One of the many (many) bridges in Wroclaw, the Most Grundwaldski is among the most impressive (and busy). There are a couple of curves here formed by the steel structure that supports the span and the stone arches at either end – I’m not sure either do much for the composition in this image though. As you can guess, I was using the bridge as support for the camera. I had been taking 12-15 second exposures, but when I saw the guy walking towards me, I reduced it to 1/5s to make sure he registered.

Tram Curves

Tram Curves

An old favourite perhaps, but the tram tracks in the city provide endless curves. Here the sun was setting and reflecting nicely off the rails. I angled the camera downwards to remove the distraction of the buildings and to fill the frame with the curves. This works well and draws the eye into the distance – unfortunately there is nothing to see at the top of the frame and I realise now that I should have waited until someone crossed the road.

Bishop Curve

Bishop Curve

Again, looking back on this photograph I realise my error. This image would have worked much better if we read right to left. The letters and curve would then have worked together to draw the eye into the image. As it is, they fight against each other. On this occasion, I did wait for people to walk up the steps to provide a focal point for the composition.

Alley Curves

Alley Curves

This curve was too good to miss. In an alleyway close to the University, this section of railing didn’t seem to serve any purpose, other than providing a subject for photography students studying curves! The shape wasn’t quite right in that I couldn’t position it to align with the open gate. If it had, it would have led the eye nicely to the figures framed there. I exposed for the darkness of the alleyway with the intention of catching the light on the top of the rail and sillhouetting the figures in the gateway.

Light Curve

Light Curve

I couldn’t not include a car light trail picture in a set of curves. This was taken on the new motorway that runs between Wroclaw and Warsaw that had opened the previous day. As I sat taking pictures, people were coming just to see that road that has been so long in construction. The arc of the slip road appealed to me and contrasted nicely with the straight, vertical lines of the trees.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and feel that it has produced some reasonable pictures. I feel that they demonstrate the idea, that a curve in an image is dynamic and induces movement. The viewer’s eye will be drawn along the curve(s) and add to a sense of movement or draw attention to a subject places to compliment the curve.

References

Clark, D. [?] Dovima with elephants – Richard Avedon – Iconic photograph (Online). Amateur Photographer. Available from: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/how-to/icons-of-photography/535317/dovima-with-elephants-richard-avedon-iconic-photograph

Exercise – Diagonals

One of the most famous photographs in history features a strong diagonal line and shows the importance of diagonal lines as a compositional device. The flag being raised by American troops over Iwo Jima would not have worked if the flag had been horizontal or vertical. The diagonal line implies action, movement and dynamism. I’m not for a second comparing my pictures to this classic, but below are those I shot as part of this exercise to explore this important design element.


All of the lines contained in the pictures above are actually horizontal (indeed the decking was also included in that exercise) or vertical. What makes them diagonal in these images is the perspective from which they are taken. Looking along these lines makes them diagonal. The combination of distance and lens choice exaggerates or reduces this effect. It is a very useful tool to communicate this distance to the viewer.

True diagonals, like those in this second set are less common, but they are around. As with most things, nature tends to do them best.


The eye moves across images containing diagonals more easily than verticals and particularly horizontals. Diagonals are used in composition for exactly that reason – to draw the eye in and to suggest movement and/or depth.
Having said that, I find it very difficult to ‘record’ the way my eye moves across an image at the moment. If I think about it, I’m sure I begin to control and so change its behaviour. That’s another subtlety of the discipline that I need to learn…

References.

Freeman, M (2007) The photographer’s eye – Composition for Better Digital Photos. Lewes; The Ilex Press

Forbes, T. (2012) Episode 114: The use of line in composition (Online). YouTube. Available from  http://compositionstudy.com/#/line/ [24 December 2013]

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (Online). Wikipedia. Available from  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima [24 December 2013]