Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Assignment 2: People and activity - some initial thinking

I am interested in building on the ‘street’ work that I have been doing over the last few weeks by photographing people in some form of ‘street-based’ activity.  I have already been observing/shooting people eating in a public place – on the run; on benches; perched on concrete walls; in groups; chatting; etc.  I have also discussed this with my tutor, as a potential subject for the assignment.  He has one or two reservations about the fit to the brief, but seems to be broadly supportive, providing I can develop sufficient interest, variety, intent, purpose ...
So, it needs some thought and planning, but I do feel I’d like to explore this route further.
·         What sort of photographs might I take?
·         What examples can I find from other people’s work that I can learn from and/or develop?
·         Do I go entirely down the ‘unaware’ route (the brief doesn’t say that I have to) or do I try speaking to people before photographing them?
·         What practical/technical/organisational issues and challenges might there be?
·         Why am I doing it?  What do I want to say?
I have already started to take a look at the second of these bullet points – Examples from other people’s work – and the outcomes are quite interesting.
Starting with ‘Street Photography Now’, I have been through the 300+ images in there, and there are only two pictures of someone eating in a public place.  One is  of people sitting in a bus shelter, from Maciej Dakowicz’ “Cardiff After Dark” series - http://www.maciejdakowicz.com/gallery2.php?dir=01cardiff/01a_cardiffnightlife - though I can’t find it on the website (but there are others of similar type).  The other is from Matt Stuart, of a woman eating in a shop doorway on Oxford Street - http://www.mattstuart.com/Photographs/Colour/30-OXFORD-STREET .  Neither of these looks a public eating with a terribly sympatheitc eye.Thinking of others, Martin Parr immediately springs to mind, with (similar) images of public eating in New Brighton, in the ‘Last Resort’ series - http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP=XSpecific_MAG.StaticPage_VPage&SP=photographers_list&l1=0&XXAPXX=SubPanel10 .  Of course, he has also taken plenty of photographs associated with eating - fast food restaurants, for example. Going back much further, John Bulmer took this picture in 1965, in Elland - http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2010/jan/29/john-bulmer-photographs-north#/?picture=358711394&index=6 - and you could say that it sets the scene for some of the others above.

But, the truth is, not that much evidence of leading photographers taking public eating as a major topic; and an apparent tendency to see it in a less than positive light – supported, perhaps by this type of article - http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/17/ariel-leve-eating-in-public . 
And, researching FlickR doesn’t prove much more fruitful. For example, taking some of the leading street photography groups on the network and searching on the work ‘eating’ gave 461 results from 130,000+ images in one group and 818 from 200,000+ images in another.  Many of those results are not in line with my public eating topic, of course.  Google Images produced 66million results in 0.43 seconds (!!) but the main topics were celebrities ‘caught’ eating in public (once again the negative overtones) and a campaign to ban eating on public transport (though I didn’t explore all 66 million!).
So, initial impressions are:

·         Relatively speaking, images of people eating in public are not amongst those most regularly featured in street photography.
·         Where these images are taken, they are rarely well posed/composed/framed ... and they mostly show eating in public in a negative light.
·         On the face of it, this isn’t a popular subject amongst the better-known photographers.
Taking the ‘natives don’t where shoes’ approach, I could give up now, but alternatively, I think there is an opportunity (challenge) to try and explore this further.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Project 13: A standard view

I’ve been through the question of ‘what is standard length’ before, both in TAoP and ItDP.  It’s probably somewhere in 30mms for my camera, but when it is interpreted as whatever makes the scene through the viewfinder and that with the naked eye look the same, it seems to get a bit vague.  Interpreting this project in the way that I think it is meant to be interpreted, I have been a little flexible, but looked primarily around the 24-44mm range, which is 36-66mm in full frame terms.  More to the point, these are images which, as the notes say, have the feeling of ‘normality’ about them – none of the flattening and unusual juxtaposition of planes associated with the telephoto lengths, and none of the visual distortion just noted in Project 12.
A standard focal length can be very effective as a simple ‘scene-setter’, as in these next two images.
Both are taken at around the 35mm point, and both give a ‘natural’ impression of the scene on view – particularly the first one, I feel.  The relationships between foreground and background look ‘normal’ and there is no distortion at the edges of the frame.
Introducing a more specific subject into the image, at standard focal lengths, also retains this naturalness.  The relationship between that subject and the rest of the items in the frame feels acceptable to the human eye, and any reaction is to what is being presented rather than, say to the sense of drama created, for example, by a close in/wide angle.
It is still possible to present something with a narrative quality to it, of course, but the viewer’s attention will be more likely to focus on that narrative alone, rather than visual issues created by the camera.  The following image is perhaps pushing things a little in the context of this project, being at around 36mm full frame equivalent, but it does not have major foreshortening or distortion.  What it does, hopefully, achieve is the creation of a relationship between elements of the image that did not exist in reality, but are in fact created by me pressing the shutter and framing them as I did.
Of course, the standard length can also be used to take natural-looking images of people, from a reasonable close distance.  The first is probably more towards the telephoto length, being 44mm on my camera, but doesn’t seem to distort to any great degree.
The second, below, is clearly not a shot of ‘people unaware’ but it has got to be worth a place here!  I met these two (or rather they introduced themselves to me) as I was returning to my car after last week’s Manchester shoot.  They asked me if I’d like to take their picture, so I agreed – here is the result!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Project 12: Close and involved

I suppose that I’ve kind of done this project back to front.  When I started out on ‘People Unaware’, I did a lot of wide angle, up-close-and-personal shots because it was those that concerned me most. Latterly, I think the quality of what I have done for the other projects has improved, and I feel a bit disappointed when I look back at some of the images for this project.  That said I don’t feel the need to go back and do more work at this stage.  I think I’ve learned enough to be able to make effective use of this approach, as necessary, in future projects/assignments.  I might drop other examples into this part of my learning log as and when they arise.
These two early examples showed how the wide angle, particularly when combined with a low angle, can create quite a dramatic effect and really pull the viewer into the scene.
The composition and exaggerated perspective of the first highlights the two key subjects and makes for an interesting, if technically deficient image.  The second has some movement and life about it, even if the subject matter isn’t up to much.
Three other, more recent shots offer some improvement in technical quality.
The first has been discussed at some length earlier in my blog, and all three still ‘suffer’ from the low angle distortion, but I think that it adds to the interest in all cases.  The character in the yellow shirt and shoes is making a strong statement in the way he is dressed, and this image builds on that (maybe satirises it) by making him ‘big’ in the street.  There is a similar superior look about the two characters in the third image, which I think is well served by the wide/low angle.
The next two use the wide angle in a way that also brings in the broader background scene (and are also taken at a more ‘natural’ camera level).  The first suffers from the technical deficiencies that I have already discussed, but the second has more of the New York street shot feel about it.  Unlike the detached sense that comes across in the images in Project 11, we are there, on the street, close to these two women as they pass, whilst also aware of the broader environment, the architecture, etc.
All of the above shots are taken with a compact camera.  The quality improves significantly again, when I switch to the DSLR and a 10-20mm wide angle lens.  I have used these two shots before, but they are good examples of the ‘Close and involved’  principle.
It is perfectly possible, with this wide an angle, to take pictures of people very close to them without them even being aware that you are including them in the frame – within reason, of course.  But one of the major disadvantages of this approach, as mentioned above, is the degree of distortion that can result.  It is certainly evident in the two individuals on the left edge of the second image.  Then again, sometimes that can be used to good effect, when a dramatic angle is part of the impact of the image.  Again, I can illustrate this with an image already discussed earlier in this log.
So, involving the viewer in the scene, creating dynamic impact, getting close to people without them knowing they’re in the shot, including foreground subject plus the whole of the background in the same image, all of these are potential advantages of working with a wide angle.  Upsetting a subject by being too close and being noticed, together with the distortion and issues around getting the right focus when taking a shot quickly, are all potential problems.  Once again, the work over the last few weeks has opened my eyes to the possibilities, but I think there is still more work to be done to really put this approach to its best possible use.

Project 11: Standing back

Use of a telephoto length lens has played at least some part in most of the ‘unaware’ sessions that I have had over the last few weeks, but yesterday I spent another three hours on a ‘street’ shoot in Central Manchester, with three aims – to principally concentrate on creating images at longer focal lengths for this project; to also take photographs at ‘standard’ length; and to further explore the idea of ‘eating in public’ as a possible ‘activity’ for Assignment Two.  (On the latter issue, I have also discussed it with my tutor and have definitely decided to go that way.  Planning the approach needs to be done soon.)  It was a successful session, and I think that I have now spent enough time trying out the three focal length variants and intend to bring that work together in here over the next few days.
Beginning with Project 11, I am going to present some results in the context of the question that appears at the end of the brief.  ‘... what creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?’
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that it enables you to record, almost at an intimate level in some cases, what you can only reasonably observe at a distance.  Comparing that to the results from a wide angle lens that will follow later, the latter really makes the viewer feel close and involved in the action, with a sense of movement and the wide angle distortion giving the image a life of its own, whilst the telephoto lens does give you a close view of the interactions between people, for example, but in a more detached, observational, non-intrusive, but somewhat calmer manner.  For example in these images:
In both cases, we are able to observe the interaction in a way that normally, without the camera, could only be achieved by standing close to these people.  Standing that close with the camera could be even more difficult in some cases.  So another advantage of working with the long lens is that it opens up the opportunity to create images that would probably be otherwise impossible.  These next two are good examples of that circumstance.

The second of these also introduces another significant creative benefit of the telephoto lens in ‘street’ situations.  As well as keeping the photographer away from potentially intimidating situations, it also, because of the flattening of three dimensional space, enables one to juxtapose subjects that are, in reality, some distance from each other and not in fact either related or interacting – in this case the character with the bottle of Lambrini and the newspaper hoarding.  These images illustrate the same principle.  In the first case, the image creates a relationship between the watchers in the crowd and the two figures looking out of the window.  In the second, which could be much better composed if time and circumstances had been more favourable, a relationship is created between the shop sign, the girl outside the shop and her blue check jacket, the man in the blue check sweater, the flower stall, and the woman in the foreground.

Working with a wide aperture and a telephoto length lens offers another creative variation on this theme.  As well as enabling image creation in indifferent light (this was shot with an 85mm lens at F1.8, on a late, dull winter afternoon), by use of the differential focus and the shallow depth of field, it is possible to particularly draw the viewers’ attention to a key subject that one is trying to present.  The young man in the background is almost obscured by the figure in the foreground, yet the eye is drawn specifically to him by the difference of focus (plus the colour, and the highlighting of his face).
This project is entitled ‘Standing back’, of course, and the following images, some of them using principles already discussed, demonstrate how the telephoto length will give the viewer the sense that they are ‘standing back’ from what is being presented.
I particularly like the way in which the flattening of the planes of the final image almost give the feeling of a tableau or stage set situation.
This has been a really useful exercise.  I have taken a lot more photographs than the ones illustrated here, and many have failed because someone has walked between me and the subject, or the moment has passed whilst I’m waiting for the scene to clear of people, etc, but I think that I have emerged with a much better appreciation of the possibilities with longer focal lengths.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Project 10: Moment and gesture

I have referred to moment and gesture a number of times already in my log of this second part of the course.  It is something I have been trying to work on, even in the early ‘experimentation’.  This post looks to bring those various bits and pieces together and explore what I’ve been able to do, and to learn, over these last few weeks.
This simple photograph was one of the first that I took ‘in the street’ and it illustrates the possibility of capturing a ‘moment’, even when taking a quick, reaction shot.  What is in the envelope?  What does her expression mean? And many other questions.
The next shot was also taken during the very first ‘shoot’.  This time it was a question of sensing an opportunity approaching, then waiting for just the right moment to press the shutter, ideally when she got as close to me as possible, but still remaining wholly in frame.  In one respect, it worked well, but it also illustrates one of the problems with quickly ‘grabbed’ shots.  There is movement and blur all over the image.  If the two women to the left, and also the expression on the face of the dog on the left, had been sharply captured, then it could have been a really interesting image.  As it is, the shot was a useful lesson in the dangers of trying to react too quickly.
The same could be said for the next on, too.  I sat for some time watching people emerging from Huddersfield Station, and waiting for interesting interactions with the statue of Harold Wilson.  This was as close as I got to someone ‘mirroring’ the stance depicted in the statue, and it might have worked if I had handled the auto-focus more carefully.  As it is, the woman is out of focus and the shot less effective.
So, one of the first lessons to learn is that capturing a fleeting moment requires patience and care, as well as the fundamental observation of the potential opportunity.  The two images that follow are the best from a sequence shot in Huddersfield, taking advantage of interesting light and shadows.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I waited for people to step into the light because they would be clearly differentiated from the background and from the other people around.  There are a few in the sequence with people ‘half-lit’, or where the shadow didn’t fall in an interesting way.
There is a stroke of luck in the first, of course, with the juxtaposition of the man’s leg and the shadow of the bollard, but the second image is what I was principally aiming for, with the man seeming to walk towards his own shadow as it is projected onto the stone ahead of him.
The next two illustrate once again the combination of observation & patience, with the need to react successfully when the right moment eventually arises.  I had seen this couple on the bench, interacting with each other in an interesting way, as the first image shows.  I waited around to see how the interaction developed, and was eventually ‘rewarded’ when they embraced each other, as seen in the second shot.  The passer-by, tactfully ignoring them and concentrating on his mobile call was an added benefit.  It’s a pity that the shot is from behind, and it is probably a bit too far away to make it a really interesting shot; but some reward for observation and patience.
The Chinese New Year celebrations presented plenty of opportunities for this type of image, of course, and the practice from these other ‘shoots’ helped me to work more effectively on getting the best images.
I have already used a picture of this group of organisers in my previous post, but it was clear they were being sent off about their business by the man on the extreme left.  As they were about to move away, one reached out and stopped his colleague by touching his arm, and my photograph has managed to capture that moment of glance and interaction between them – with the hose adding an oddly absurd touch as well.
I watched these two for some minutes, too, before getting this shot.  The guy on the left is trying to sell mobile phone services, and he has got at least a degree of interest from this ‘punter’.  They were in conversation for some time, but I noticed that the salesman would, from time to time, stare intently at the face of his potential customer, even though he was getting little or no eye contact in return.
The situation was not dissimilar with this couple.  I had spotted his first attempt to tease his girlfriend with the paper dragon, and it was only going to be a matter of time before he tried it again, so I waited, camera ready, and was rewarded with this shot.  I think one point worth noting about these last three is that previous practice had taught me not just patience and observation, but also the need to be very calm and steady when the opportunity comes.
Watching the dance performances at the New Year celebrations also offered the potential for ‘moment and gesture’ images.  This is one that I used in my previous post.  It was as close as I got to capturing the moment when this group was on stage.  Their dance involved occasional poses, but I was a few rows back in the standing audience, so getting a clear view from just the right angle as they moved around the stage was difficult.  I got the pose, but unfortunately it is partly obscured behind the heads of other onlookers.
So, in summary, capturing the moment needs planning (having the camera on the right settings to capture movement, for example), observation, patience, and then a steady hand (and head) when the moment comes.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Project 9: A comfortable situation

On Sunday, I was able to spend a few hours in Manchester during the celebrations for the Chinese New Year, a perfect opportunity to take photographs of people ‘unaware’, in a comfortable situation.  There were thousands of people, stalls, parades, performances, and hundreds of other people taking photographs!  Having already spent some time doing photography in less comfortable circumstances over the last few weeks, this felt fine.  Apart from simply using the opportunity to record as many people-related images as I could, I wanted to partly concentrate on taking images at telephoto lengths, with an eye on Project 11, and also look for ‘Moment & gesture’ opportunities, in line with Project 10.  So, although this post is on the topic of Project 9, other useful images emerged from the day.
In terms of process, I used the DSLR throughout, initially with an 18-200mm zoom lens, then with an 85mm prime lens, and briefly, with a 10-20mm wide angle zoom.  Reflecting first on any problems or issues – using the 85mm, to ‘step back’ took some thought and patience when the streets became very crowded.  You can see a potential image, but there will almost certainly be people in the way, so you have to either wait and wait, by which time the shot has gone, or look for different angles (or give up and move on, of course).  This is a good example.  I saw the chance for a composition incorporating the striking and colourful paper lantern.
I waited for a time whilst this group was at the stall, moving in closer for the second of these two, but having a clear view at a time when they were composed in an interesting way was proving too much of a challenge, as these two shots demonstrate.  I went round to the other side of the stall and waited for an opportunity from that direction, which resulted in this image.

It’s better than the previous two, but in low light I had the 85mm lens at F2.8 to get a reasonable shutter speed, so depth of field needed t be a choice of one or the other.  I chose the lantern as the main subject of focus, and it makes for a colourful composition, but the two figures at the stall are probably too much out of focus to make it a really interesting shot.
Using the wide angle in very crowded situations, and shooting, ‘up close and personal’ would be the alternative, and here are a couple of examples from another part of the session.

 Indifferent, and differential light was also an issue – dull overcast conditions; artificial lighting at the stalls; and stage lighting for the performances.  I’m reasonably pleased with these two, below, but adjusting the white balance afterwards to get the right colour for skin tones etc has proved a challenge, and probably still isn’t quite right.
I feel that I was able to get a good variety of images – looking away from the main show, for example and photographing those watching (and those watching the watched, in some cases).
There were the shows themselves, of course.

In some images, the people are, perhaps secondary to the overall ‘scene, but they need to be an integral part of it to make the scene work successfully, as in these.

Then there are the opportunities for ‘observational’ images, sometimes with a little ‘joke’ in them.

And, finally, here are one or two others from the day, adding to the variety.

I have interpreted the purpose of this project as getting out and taking some photographs in a comfortable situation – going for variety and observation to see what I could come up with.  It was a perfect environment to put this into practice, and I’m happy that I have learned a lot.  I have not used the compact camera or the ‘hip shot’ at all – but then that is the difference between a busy, comfortable situation where taking photographs is normal, and some of the more demanding situations that I have been working in the last few weeks.