Category Archives: Coursework

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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.

Exercise 1.3 Line

Take a number of shots using lines to create a sense of depth. Shooting with a wide- angle lens (zooming out) strengthens a diagonal line by giving it more length within the frame. The effect is dramatically accentuated if you choose a viewpoint close to the line. Review your shots. How do the different lines relate to the frame? 

In the above shots (1-6) there are two sets of three, each set shot from more or less the same vantage point, and all taken with the same wide-angle lens. In image 1 the fence enters the image from top and bottom right, travelling to a point roughly at the two thirds intersection. I took some time to frame this. The top bar splits the horizon, which leads the eye along the top and back to the start as it were. On subsequent passes the eye can take more time to rove over the left third of the picture with the negative space of the grass and a peek into the distant stone wall. Image 2 is less successful with its gate half in the frame and a large block of sky. In image 3 the angle is too narrow for the viewer to appreciate the sweep of the main line. I should point out here that I’m not seeing enough of these things in the frame at the moment of shooting the picture. I think I am but I’m not quite there yet and when I get to the point of being able to quickly and effectively take in the complete structure of a photo before I shoot I’ll be very happy.

Images 4-6 are taken from more or less the same spot. In image 4, the perspective line travels from bottom left to meet the fence that divides the frame horizontally. I find this quite pleasing to the eye, nothing special but easy to look at. The tree on the right serves to balance the shot. Image 5 is slightly tighter and not so effective in my view. With image 6 I tried to create a dialogue of sorts between the line of trees and the fence on the left. It doesn’t really work but might look better in a different season without foliage. The learning point here is that a matter of inches can make all the difference between a successful shot and a very ordinary one.

Now take a number of shots using lines to flatten the pictorial space. To avoid the effects of perspective, the sensor/film plane should be parallel to the subject and you may like to try a high viewpoint (i.e. looking down).

I placed images 1 and 2 of the above six shots next to each other to show (myself above all) what happens when you take a wide angle lens and try to flatten pictorial space. Image 1 is the full image, in which you can see clearly that you’re looking down. The crop in image 2 still betrays the convergence and hence the fact of a downward viewpoint. I suppose I”m stating the obvious but it’s useful to remember when choosing lenses. With the narrower lens I took three shots of agricultural architectural features. In images 3 and 4 you couldn’t tell if you’re looking down or straight on, which makes the point of the exercise very well I think. I think image 3 has added interest with its horizontal line splitting the frame unevenly. Image 5 actually works well in colour, but I’ve left it as black and white for the sake of consistency. Again the abstraction leaves the viewer with a puzzle as to point of view. Image 6 has a slight convergence but I don’t think there are enough cues to give away the viewpoint.