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.


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.


Clark, N (2013) ‘Forget foreign conflicts, chronicle Britain’ says war photographer Don McCullin (Online). The Independent. Avaialable from [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 – Cropping

Another exercise completed slightly out of sequence, but having read the brief, it didn’t seem critical to have completed the preceding exercises before tackling this, the final exercise in the first section of the course. The exercise involves selecting 3 previously created photographs and experimenting with various crops. As usual, you can click on any of the pictures below to see a large version.

Looking back through my recent pictures, it appears that I am a conservative cropper! There, I said it. While I will often crop pictures or shoot with a crop in mind, these crops tend to be traditional ratios of 3:2, 5:4 or square.

Cropping horizontally or vertically tends to follow the axis of the subject – for example, a standing figure is often positioned in an upright frame and for me at least, the frame tends to be tall and thin (3:2) to follow the proportions of the human body. Likewise, landscape shots will usually be shot, or cropped, to keep the horizon on the longer axis, as that is what our binocular, side-by-side eyes expect to see.

My previous dalliances with medium-format film cameras, such as Holgas, Bronicas and Lubitels, mean that I am comfortable with square crops. Reading Michael Freeman’s (strangely brief) description of square frames and his statements such as ‘it is the most difficult format to work with’ and ‘design strategies for a square frame are concerned with escaping the tyranny of its perfect equilibrium’ could be enough to put anyone off shooting in that format. But the explosion of Instagram particularly, means that the square frame is well and truly back and a high percentage of the images we see every day are now square. But it’s popularity doesn’t mean that it lends itself to every situation. It doesn’t suit dynamism. It is stable. Static. I like it.

Anyway, on to the exercise. My first picture was taken at the end of the runway of East Midlands Airport last Sunday night. My wife was arriving back from Poland on the 22.55 from Wrocław and I took the opportunity to take a few pictures while I waited. This is a 5’20” exposure and features the light trails of both her flight and the preceding one from Cork.

The first picture is the original, full-frame (3:2) aspect ratio. It was so dark that I struggled to compose properly and always intended to straighten and crop as required later. The square crop focuses attention on the subject. It keeps the frame ‘busy’ and removes much of the empty black space of the original. The lines of the aircraft lights and the cars passing in the foreground are complimented by the upright and angular light gantry, but contrast nicely with the radial ‘star-bursts’ caused by the tiny (f22) aperture. This crop also removes the ‘gap’ between the gantry and the hotel to the left which I didn’t like.

Unnatural CropThe final crop is a ratio that I wouldn’t normally consider, but I feel that it works for this image. The framing contains enough of the sky and surroundings to show us how dark the night was. Apart from the silhouettes of the bushes, there is nothing natural in the image – everything is man made. Dynamism has been added to the image by the light trails in the foreground following the edge of the frame.

Unfortunately, as I’d focussed on the gantry  in the centre of the frame, the hotel in the distant left is not sharp and lets the final picture down.


The second image was taken at the Nagar Kirtan in Leicester, also shot last Sunday. It’s a Sikh custom that involves a procession to sing hymns to the community. It started on East Park Road and took two and a half hours to make its way to Holy Bones at St Nicholas’ Circle. Along the way, Sewadars cleaned the streets with brooms ahead of the procession and at several points, the participants were fed samosas, bhajis and pizzas.
10,000 people were expected at what was a fantastically colourful event that was the most friendly gathering of it’s size that the city has seen for a while. This picture shows one of the ‘elders’ who walked barefoot alongside the parade. He, like many of the others was happy to have his picture taken.

The original image puts the subject into some context showing other people and one of the decorated floats carrying musicians. Due to the large aperture (f3.2) used however, the background becomes distracting rather than adding to the picture, particularly when in colour because of the hi-viz jackets (a blight on the streets of the nation). The portrait crop is better (and the conversion to black and white helps with the distractions) but isolates the individual too much. He was part of a huge crowd and so limiting the framing to just one man doesn’t make sense.

original Crop (2)And so my chosen crop for this picture was a 5:4. It retains the attention on the subject but shows something of his surroundings. While he is surrounded by people, he remains, focussed, serene and calm.

You can see my other pictures from the Nagar Kirtan on Flickr.

The third picture was taken at a Grade 2 Listed petrol station near us, although it isn’t of the bit that English Heritage would be interested in, but rather the hand car wash that has appeared on the site. The original image was always going to be cropped. It is included on the left here but contains too much black sky. The first crop on the right concentrates the view onto the foreground and removes much of the black sky – I likes the lines of the drains and the hose, but was annoyed that the end of the fence and the lamppost weren’t parallel.

edit CropThe final crop centres on the chairs – the element that I found interesting in the first place. I included a little more of the left hand fence to lessen the effect of its lean. The final crop was then edited to remove all colour, stars and other distractions from the sky to give the impression of being cloudy and overcast. The contrast in the concrete was increased and a vignette added, again to enhance the ‘damp’ feel, the feeling I experienced when taking the picture. I guess they’d had a busy day in the car wash and no time to use the chairs…

An interesting exercise. Three pictures with three different final crop ratios that have taught me that I do need to experiment more with cropping. In the past, if I’d expected the picture to be printed, I’d have kept to the ‘standard’ aspect ratios because of available print and frame sizes. Now that most images are viewed on-line, it is less important to stick to these traditional ratios and pictures can be trimmed to give the best resultant image instead.

Reference: Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos. Lewes: The Ilex Press Limited.




Exercise – Balance

You know that your studies are getting under your skin when, while waiting for the toast to pop-up from the toaster, you are rearranging the knives, margarine tub and jam on the chopping board to give a more pleasing balance.

This exercise has been hanging around for a while but I finally feel that I understand the concept and am in a position to explore it further. It is unlikely, apart from when shooting still life images perhaps, that the elements of the frame will be arranged to a balanced perfection. However, this is one of the key elements of design that helps explain why some pictures ‘work’ and others don’t.

For the exercise, we were to take 6 previously shot photographs and to decide how the balance works in each. It shouldn’t be as straight forward as the size of an object and its position in the frame. We also need to consider the areas of tone and colour, the arrangement of points and lines and the visual weight of objects in the frame.

Although it has taken an age to complete this exercise, I’m always happy to use previously shot photographs in these exercises as, so far at least, I’ve not taken pictures for exercises that I have been happy with – I am yet to learn how to satisfy my creativity while working inside the constraints of an exercise brief. As usual, you can click on any of the pictures below to see them larger.

Pub 28

Pub 28 bal

My first example is a fairly well balanced image although the rotation of the camera throws things a little and enlivens the image. The small object that is close to us is balanced by the larger object (sorry Gosia) in the background. To me, sharp focus adds visual weight.

Positioning the horizon Positioning the horizon balThe next example is similar. A smaller subject close to us and in focus balanced by a larger area of the frame. Although the firework is light, airy and translucent, the area of the frame that is occupies means that it balances the child.

gorm1 gorm1 bal

The next picture I chose develops this idea further (and shows that I have a tendency to compose images in similar ways). The solid, well-defined figure is balanced by the featureless expanse of the sea (that has been ‘averaged’ by the use of a ND filter).

Balance Balance balIn the next example, the main subject is balanced by his two colleagues. Incidentally, this picture is my first opportunity to use a film photograph in these studies. I shoot quite a lot of film and am hoping to complete one or more of the forthcoming assignments entirely on film. My original idea to use only pinhole cameras is a little optimistic!

Amy and Tom 39 Amy and Tom 39 balThe next picture is a little more complicated. The frame is divided by the edge of the door providing an obvious fulcrum when assessing balance. To further complicate it, because it’s a reflection, the bride balances herself. The groom appears in the left hand part part of the frame but is balanced by the guy in the shadows on the right. I do like this picture – it’s like a spot the difference!


Bradgate balFinally, another clearly divided frame and another reflection. The items in the right hand side of the image just about (in my opinion) balance me on the left.

There are no rules to balance. It’s a key element of design, but different people will interpret images in different ways. It is easy to apply a literal meaning to the concept and look for similar shapes and sizes, and once one understands the idea that areas of tone and colour can provide balance, this helps too. But I believe the feeling of whether an image is balanced or not is more intuitive than these concepts allow.

The pictures I’ve chosen above are the most literal examples of balance that I could find. I looked through an awful lot of images that weren’t balanced to find these. Balance doesn’t make a better picture, but it adds harmony, calm and satisfies the viewer. But if we did that with every picture, we’d have a very dull body of work…

Exercise – Positioning The Horizon

Last weekend my wife and I spent the weekend in the Lake District. Early on Sunday morning, I went to take photographs along the shores of Ullswater. Conditions were perfect with blue skies, white clouds and spectacular autumn colours. As I looked down the lake from Pooley Bridge, I remembered that one of my forthcoming exercises was to do with positioning the horizon. As I’ve done previously on the course (and subsequently regretted), I shot the pictures that my shaky memory told me were required to explore the subject. In this case, positioning the horizon high, low, centrally and a couple in between.

Since then, I’ve had the bright idea to save the course material onto an old Kindle (the original, all grey version) and to keep that in my camera bag so that I can refer to the notes BEFORE I take the pictures, and maybe get closer to the point of the exercises.

The pictures I took feature an horizon that isn’t flat or straight. They also have the boat and its pier to attract the eye and take our attention away from the rest of the frame, lessening the importance of the horizon’s position. Oh well…

Central Horizon

Central Horizon

The first picture, with the horizon dividing the frame in half makes for a pretty dull composition. The sky has a few wispy, white clouds to lure the eye, but the flat, calm water doesn’t delay us in the lower half of the frame.

2/3 Up

2/3 Up

By moving the horizon the a position 2/3rds of the the way up the frame, we open up the foreground, drawing attention to the lake and making the mountains feel more distant. It has become a picture of the water and not just the general view.

High Horizon

High Horizon

Taking this one stage further means placing the horizon at the top of the frame, leaving only the smallest amount of the sky visible. This positioning, like the guy walking out of the frame in a previous exercise, becomes eccentric and needs some justification. For example, this version would only really make sense if it accompanied a story about The Beast of Ullswater…

1/3 Up Horizon

1/3 Up Horizon

Relieving the claustrophobia caused by the previous view, placing the horizon 1/3 up from the bottom of the frame feels much more natural. Because I have a range of hills at the end of my lake, I almost have 2 horizon lines to consider (one being where sky meets land and the other where water meets land) and so applying Fibonacci’s division, geometrical division or even the rule of thirds becomes tricky. Apply it to the horizon and that dark band of the hills sits too low in the frame. Either way, this positioning gives a stability to the image. To me it feels like the version that most closely matches how I see the world and in this case at least, is the most satisfactory positioning of the sequence.

Positioning the horizon 5

Low Horizon

Finally, I positioned the horizon low in the frame. Because of the boat (and how unnatural it would feel to crop its reflection), the horizon isn’t as low as it probably should have been for the purposes of the exercise. As with the opposite version, with the horizon at its highest, it draws attention to to the area that takes up most of the screen. In the case of a distant view like this, it adds to the feeling of space, light and airiness.

At yesterday’s study visit to see the work of the ASCO Collective, and with this exercise in mind, I saw this set of portraits and found the position of the horizon really distracting. It variously decapitates the subject or enters one ear and leaves the other. The pictures show the importance of positioning the horizon, even when it is is an incidental feature in the background.

Lesson learned.

Positioning the horizon (1)

Ullswater Tree, November

As usual, here’s another picture that I took on the same walk that wasn’t part of the exercise – an exposure of over three minutes through both a polariser and a 10-stop ND filter.

Exercise – Focal Lengths for cameras with variable focal lengths

And so we’re on to focal lengths. I’ll come back to the Sequence of Composition exercise next weekend.

The purpose of this exercise was to understand the effect of changing a lens from one focal length to another, which on the face of it, may sound pretty straight forward. However, when combined with the next exercise, it shows the difference between changing perspective and angle of view.

The four pictures above are of Bradgate Park in Leicestershire from across Cropston Reservoir. The boathouse, which seems pointless apart from the vary rare occasions that the reservoir is full, is in the same position in each frame – I used the same AF focus point to line up the view. The camera was on a tripod and not moved during the exercise. What changes is the focal length. I started with my widest 17mm then zoomed to 40mm, swapped lenses and went from 70 to 200mm. Each view is effectively a crop of the previous. Nothing about the scene changes nor the relationship between the component parts, we just see less of the whole or more detail in selected element.

The lens works very differently to the eye. When we look at a scene without a camera, we have close to 180 degree peripheral vision. Wikipedia says:

The approximate field of view of an individual human eye is 95° away from the nose, 75° downward, 60° toward the nose, and 60° upward, allowing humans to have an almost 180-degree forward-facing horizontal field of view.

We are aware of objects alongside us, particularly if they are moving. But we only clearly see a very small area of the scene in front of us. Our eyes give us a wide view of the scene and we’ll choose what interests us or what we need to look at and pay attention to and we ‘zoom in’.

The 17mm only gives 93 degrees of horizontal view, but captures much my view of the park. The 200mm only shows 10 degrees and effectively captures an area I might be ‘looking at’.

The picture below is another shot at 200mm but cropped in a more interesting way with the War Memorial visible on the hill.

200mm Portait

Two more snaps taken a little later in the day as the sun began to set, show the effect again, this time using a 40mm and then 200mm lens.