Category Archives: Coursework

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Part three, Traces of time

Project 1, The frozen moment

Exercise 3.1: Freeze 

Start by doing some of your own research into the photographers discussed above. Then, using fast shutter speeds, try to isolate a frozen moment of time in a moving subject. Depending on the available light you may have to select a high ISO to avoid visible blur in the photograph. Add a selection of shots, together with relevant shooting data and a description of process (how you captured the images), to your learning log.

Idea/Concept: For this project I decided that I wanted to photograph someone throwing something into the air using a fast continuous shooting mode to freeze the movement. Against the background of a dark green hedge I shot multiple pictures of an open umbrella in flight. I have the idea that the the umbrella might easily be associated with surrealism, if placed in an unusual context. Umbrellas often escape their human to fly off of their own accord. One might even fancy that you could fly with one. I took stock of the work of many of the photographers recommended and others that I had discovered in my research (see my learning log). I came to favour the idea of setting up or staging the photographs though was undecided as to how much of the process I would reveal in the frame. In this I’d say that the work of Jeff Wall had an influence (for example Milk and A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)), along with the pioneering collages and photomontages of Hannah Hoch in particular and the Dadaists and Surrealists more generally.

I shot at 11fps using a Fujifilm X-T3 cropped sensor). The lens was an XF 23mm f1.4R (35mm full frame equivalent). Using shutter priority I set the speed at 1/8000. The aperture stayed open steadily at f1.4 throughout. ISO varied between 200 and 400. The exposure was tricky because of a bright sun climbing over the hedge and peeing through the gaps. All the shots came out slightly underexposed but I knew I could recover the shadows in the software and crop out any awkward highlights. I focussed on the umbrella in the human subject’s hands using autofocus, then changed to manual to avoid refocussing during the shoot. The camera reviews jpegs so I began with a monochrome setting, then changed to colour for some shots. My intention was to make a quick evaluation from this as to whether I should work in monochrome or colour for the final selection.

Exercise 3.1, Contact sheet 1. The exposure problems can be seen clearly from this contact sheet – blown out highlights and an underexposed dark hedge. I was able quite easily to correct the exposure and crop out the skyline.

Exercise 3.1, Contact sheet 2. This time round I came in closer and avoided the bright skyline of the colour photographs. Comparing the two I decided that monochrome would be by far the better choice for this project because it would ‘defamiliarise’ the umbrella and allow for more useful tonal options in foregrounding it, for example emphasising or de-emphasising the blue content in the umbrella’s fabric which would create a very bright or a very dark patterned subject against the dark and mid-tones of the hedge.

Cropping, then converting and processing the monochrome images resulted in the following images. These three show the human subject (or the hands) in the frame with a lightly toned umbrella:-

These are reasonably interesting, thought the inclusion of a person and obvious human agency makes it all very understandable and familiar. Number 2 is the best of the three because of the strenuous gesture of the person throwing the umbrella and some doubt as to whether she is throwing or stretching out to catch.

In the following two images I pulled black the blue content of the monochrome image, thereby darkening the umbrella which, along with just the human hand, offer a greater degree of abstraction. Somehow these pictures speak of an event frozen in time more than those above:-

Of the two above the second catches the light better and is beginning to make the umbrella something of a frozen alien presence in the picture, as if it doesn’t belong, which is what I wanted to convey because the whole idea of freezing time at 1/8000 of a second is itself quite an alien concept if we think about it.

In the following three images, perhaps more suited to a series, I chose to produce the lighter tones in the umbrella because darkening didn’t work so well (due to the light). Of these three the last one works best, for me, because the (almost) upside down subject immediately catches my eye compared to the others. It makes me wonder what it’s heading towards.

The following two images are the same original, each processed slightly differently, one with a light umbrella, the other with darker tones, carried out as I said by modifying the colour content of the umbrella’s fabric as well as lightning or darkening the greens (and to and extent yellows) of the hedge. I prefer the darker of the two because of the abstraction and the patterning of the umbrella which clashes quite harshly with the background. It looks like it could be a photomontage.

The final three show a sequence of the dark toned umbrella in flight. Again the umbrellas have the qualities of an alien presence. I deliberately chose to crop the middle one so that the upside-down umbrella was in the upper centre. Because it’s perfectly frozen (and logically shouldn’t be there) it would be my first choice, with the image just above this text a close second:-

Project 2, A durational space 

Exercise 3.2: Trace

…using slow shutter speeds, the multiple exposure function, or another technique…, try to record the trace of movement within the frame. You can be as experimental as you like. Add a selection of shots together with relevant shooting data and a description of process (how you captured the shots) to your learning log. 

My research for this exercise is detailed in my learning log. At the moment, because I want to gain experience, with late summer and autumn to follow in an interesting rural setting, I’m studying methods of slowing exposures down over time, whether in low light or by using filters in the daytime. For this exercise I wanted to have one element of the photograph in focus that would stand out against the blurring of the other elements, in this case caused by the strong gusts of wind that day. I chose an area of a garden that had some textural interest in the moving leaves of a Japanese cherry tree yet which had a strong static element within the movement, in this case a sheltered yet prominent branch. I only had to wait for the wind to agitate the vegetation sufficiently, then I shook two shots, using a tripod because of the long exposure. I shot with a Fujifilm X-T3 and a XF 35mm f1.4R (50 mm equivalent). Both shots were taken with an exposure of 8 seconds at f16 and an ISO of 3200. In processing the digital files I decided to create monochrome pictures for reasons of abstraction, textural interest and the play of light on the moving leaves. The effect made me wonder if some of the photographers whose work I like, because of the play of light on and from their subjects ( for example Rinko Kawauchi), might be using slightly longer exposures than would be expected in order to encourage what I would call the ‘light smearing’ that goes on in their pictures.

The first shot wasn’t very inspiring but it helped me to ascertain that the exposure was good and that I needed only to reframe and wait for the right wind again.

The second shot came out more or less exactly as I wished. I’m pleased with the movement, the abstraction, the blurring, the dense texture, the smeared light and the static branch, just below right of centre.

Project 3, ‘What matters is to look’ 

Exercise 3.3: What matters is to look 

Find a good viewpoint, perhaps fairly high up (an upstairs window might do) where you can see a wide view or panorama. Start by looking at the things closest to you in the foreground. Then pay attention to the details in the middle distance and then the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole view together, from the foreground to horizon (you can move your eyes). Include the sky in your observation and try to see the whole visual field together, all in movement. When you’ve got it, raise your camera and release the shutter. Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.

I can see the value of this exercise because it’s similar to an important technique in listening to music for example where we try to balance our perception to take in the parts and the whole of a given work. Whether this is possible I’m not sure but one theory is that we oscillate so rapidly between the two that it appears that we’re doing two things at once. Whatever the case this is a technique that I’ll adopt in future in the hope that the more I practice it the better I’ll be at sizeing up a picture. For this exercise I stepped back to take in the best view of a country graveyard. There was one gap where I could line up the stones and the trees successfully and take the shot. I didn’t process or crop the image so this is the jpeg straight from the camera which is how I’ve interpreted what this exercise requires. Fujifilm X-T3, XF 23mm f1.4R (35 mm equivalent) lens: 1/105, f11, ISO 320.

Part 2 Exercises: Primary sources

Freeman, Michael. The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photographs. Ilex, 2017. 

Shore Stephen. The Nature of Photographs: a Primer. Phaidon, 2007.

Wells, Liz. Photography: a Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2015.

Exercise 2.4: Woodpecker

Find a subject in front of a background with depth. Take a very close viewpoint and zoom in; you’ll need to be aware of the minimum focusing distance of your lens. Focus on the subject and take a single shot. Then, without changing the focal length or framing, set your focus to infinity and take a second shot.

This has been a useful exercise in many ways and I tried three or four locations before I found one that had an acceptable degree of interest from front to back. These images do a reasonable job of demonstrating the points of the exercise although the wall in image 2 might have been more interesting. I think that fast lenses are essential in order to afford the versatility needed to do these quick switches.

Again without moving the camera, select a very small aperture (perhaps one stop above the minimum to avoid diffraction) and find a point of focus that will give you acceptable sharpness throughout the entire field, from foreground to infinity. Take a third shot and add it to the first two to make a set.

I struggled with this last shot for a while mainly because I didn’t have the presence of mind to put some distance between the camera and the foreground pillar which meant that the camera was struggling to get both foreground and background acceptably sharp. Once I sorted out the sousing distance of the 90mm lens I took several successful shots. I now feel confident about approaching a shoot and being able to make fairly quick judgements based on the relative interest in foregrounds and backgrounds which I think is the point of this exercise for future projects.

Exercise 2.3: Focus

Find a location with good light for a portrait shot. Place your subject some distance in front of a simple background and select a wide aperture together with a moderately long focal length such as 100mm on a 35mm full-frame camera (about 65mm on a cropped-frame camera). Take a viewpoint about one and a half metres from your subject, allowing you to compose a headshot comfortably within the frame. Focus on the eyes and take the shot. 

This is a photograph of my daughter on a walk with the dog through one of the many patches of forest where we live. I’m pretty sure I focused on the eyes though it’s hard to tell as most of her face and top seem to be reasonably sharp. The background has come out nicely with quite a luscious out-of-focus green and black combination. I deliberately cropped out a small but of the top of the head following a talk at the local camera club from a professional wedding photographer. Apparently this is one of those handy tips and it does seem to work without you really noticing, though the secret to good portraiture I imagine would be to find your own approach once you’ve absorbed all these little tricks.

Exercise 2.2: Viewpoint

Select your longest focal length and compose a portrait shot fairly tightly within the frame in front of a background with depth. Take one photograph. Then walk towards your subject while zooming out to your shortest focal length. Take care to frame the subject in precisely the same way in the viewfinder and take a second shot. Compare the two images and make notes in your learning log.

Here I subjected my son to the ordeal of posing for his father so we chose an abandoned industrial site to avoid embarrassment. Smiling wasn’t an option. As expected new elements seem to jump into the frame which you can be seen clearly in the second image where the wide angle reveals a completely new environment around the subject. The 14mm lens produces strange elongations at the edges. I don’t mind this in general as it lays bare the device so to speak, emphasising the limitations of the medium. This interests me because in my research I’m following some threads on representation and notions of realism as the dominant mode. Nonetheless a little attention is needed with portrait shots as the head in particular is easily distorted.

Exercise 2.1: Zoom

Find a scene that has depth. From a fixed position, take a sequence of five or six shots at different focal lengths without changing your viewpoint. (You might like to use the specific focal lengths indicated on the lens barrel.) As you page through the shots on the preview screen it almost feels as though you’re moving through the scene. So the ability to change focal lengths has an obvious use: rather than physically move towards or away from your subject, the lens can do it for you. But zooming is also a move towards abstraction, which, as the word itself tells us, is the process of ‘drawing things away’ from their context. 

I don’t have a zoom lens so I used four different primes with focal lengths as follows: 14mm, 23mm, 35mm and 90mm (x1.5 for full frame equivalent).

I chose a woodland path scene that has depth in the line of travel towards a kink in the path, an archway and a ‘tunnel’ at the far end of the path. The weather was forecast to be fair but it rained and consequently darkened considerably as I took my fourth shot with the longest focal length lens which might explain the mid-to furthest away area being out of focus (image 4). You can see from image 3 how the changing light forced me into boosting the ISO. With the fourth image I should have opted for a smaller aperture and kept the ISO high. I’ve found this to be a problem generally, that is, getting a generous depth of field with the longer focal length and making the correct decisions, but this might be a problem with fickle light conditions where things shift from full sunshine to dark rainclouds in a matter of seconds (this is Scotland after all). This shouldn’t be an excuse but something I need to learn from in order to find ways of effectively judging conditions and compensating for the limitations of whatever lenses I’m using for the task.

Create a final image for your sequence. In EYV the important thing is to present your work in context, so make it clear in your notes what you’ve been looking at and reading. The focus here is on imagination and research skills rather than the technical aspects of zoom. 

For my final image I chose to shoot with a 90mm macro lens on a micro four thirds camera (180mm full frame equivalent) and captured a close-up of the bark of one of the birches along the path. This final image is completely abstracted from the woodland path to the extent that it’s only just recognisable as part of a tree and takes us into an investigation of texture, colour and shape. In my research, which takes in the photographers discussed in Part 2, for example Gianluca Cosci and others who use depth of field to make statements about representation, I’ve followed various threads in my reading on abstraction in the photographic image, how abstraction can be conveyed using different techniques and how our perception of a scene or location can be influenced by means of techniques that allow for various levels of abstraction, depth of field being but one. The research is of course important but my main learning point has been that only work in the field can improve one’s photography, or at least prepare one for the vagaries of changing light conditions and prevent easy assumptions around how easy or straightforward taking a series of pictures will be. This in turn makes the research more pertinent because it has forced me into looking much more closely at the work of established photographers whose pictures, on the face of it, can often seem very casual or straightforward when in fact weeks, months or even years have gone into research, development, experimentation and final production of their work.


Exercise 1.4 Frame

The final exercise of this project makes use of the viewfinder grid display of a digital camera.

Take a good number of shots, composing each shot within a single section of the viewfinder grid. Don’t bother about the rest of the frame! Use any combination of grid section, subject and viewpoint you choose. 

When you review the shots evaluate the whole frame not just the part you’ve composed. Looking at a frame calmly and without hurry may eventually reveal a visual coalescence, a ‘gestalt’. 

Select six or eight images that you feel work both individually and as a set and present them as a single composite image. Add to your learning log together with technical information such as camera settings and two or three lines containing your thoughts and observations. 

The Summer Fair, Doddington Farm, Northumberland.

Good friends of ours, a dairy farmer and his family who farm near Wooler in Northumberland, invited us to his summer fair. I walked around the house and garden looking for points of interest and different lighting features – inside, outside, reflections, silhouettes. I took care to ‘squeeze’ contrasting colours, objects or material into the edges or corners of the grid. I’ve left out photographs of people because everyone tends to pose in party mode at these events and we’ve all seen these images many times before. There’s something very unique about the midsummer English summer fair, a colourful light mood, a gentle sense of relaxation, permission to wind down for the weekend and indulge in the finer foods and drinks, good company and conversation. The images here were taken around the garden. When I saw them on the screen back home I was very surprised. I like them a lot because I’ve never shot this way, except by mistake and I’d never have chosen to shoot this way at such an event. This one exercise has taught me a valuable lesson in how to steer away from the direct frontal shot which I suppose is the first port of call for amateurs like me. I’d like to make a small photo-book for my hosts as a thank-you gift.