Exercise: Exploring function

Aim: The aim of this exercise is to choose an interior space and consider it from the point of view of its function.  First make a shortlist of what you think the space ought to be doing.  Then consider how well it succeeds.  Having made your analysis, make a carefully considered photograph of the space in order to put across the way it works – or should work – for the people who use it.

Approach and results:  For this exercise I have chosen a café in Manchester that I particularly like for it’s unpretentiousness.  It’s a small café in the Northern Quarter of Manchester where you order and pay at the counter and then take a seat in one of the red vinyl clad booths.  The table has a tray with a big bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup and the usual salt, pepper, sugar etc.  There are murals on the walls and free ‘what’s on/art house’ type newspapers dotted round the place.

What ought this space to be doing?  It is a social place, a place to meet, a place to grab something to eat or just sit with a coffee, people watching.  It is used by a regular clientele and also by a range of ever changing builders.

Technically what do I want the shot to achieve?  I feel that capturing the people using the place creates a more interesting image than capturing the place alone; suggesting tighter crops rather than wide angles.  I find the example picture in the course manual to be rather uninteresting, only being lifted by the fact that it is of an unusual structure made from bamboo; this being an architectural trait.  The flip side of this argument is ‘can you appreciate the function of the space if you cannot see the space itself’.  This is my dilemma.  I don’t want to take a ‘security camera’ view.  The character of a place like this impacts on the clientele it attracts but the ultimate character is made up of the architectural character, the staff and the clientele altogether.  Do I need to capture the character of a space in order to put across the way it works?  Currently I think not.

The image I have chosen is below:



This image is of a couple having a ‘full English’.  When I go out in Manchester early I usually start here with a coffee and it is surprising the amount of people in the café having a full English breakfast.  I chose to sit in the middle of the café so I could get people sitting in the window flooded with sunlight as it was a rare bright day.  Using a fairly bright almost high key exposure helped in capturing the strength and angle of the sun.  I also wanted the window reflection as the shot captures the woman in the first instance and her partner/colleague in the reflection.  The shot captures the reasons for using the café; a sunny city centre spot, social interaction and a necessary big breakfast to start a busy day.  This could be a working breakfast or the start of a shopping trip.  The matching vinyl seats and table with the accompaniments tell you not only that it is a café but what type of café it is.  I like the fact that the first impression is of the woman on her own but then the reflection comes into play.  The person in the reflection could also be at a different table suggesting individuals just there for the purpose of eating and going.

Learning points:  I think pulling back and trying to capture all the functions of a busy space can make for an unfocussed, unengaged image.  I’m better off focussing on the most important things to me.  That said, too tight a crop or close-up can capture just an action that could be anywhere.  This issue of how much to capture will probably come up again and again and is unresolved for me.

I think that capturing the use of a space is more difficult without people.  People help focus the viewer and obviously provide a more literal or graphic narrative to an image.



Exercise: An organised event

Aim: The aim of this exercise is to consider how a series of images builds up into telling a story.  For this exercise you should choose an organised event where people move around (not seated) and research and prepare in advance.

I go to the Lemans 24hr race each year with a group of friends, eight of us in total.  It is a brilliant weekend with plenty of action and characters.  The population of Lemans swells from 150,000 to 450,000 the weekend of the race.  In terms of preparation I know the best viewpoints for the track, what other events are on and where to look for interesting shots that aren’t all of race cars!  This exercise is about capturing what I feel is the essence of the event for someone who has never seen it, more documentary that fine art.  There is no limit to the number of images but I have split them into sections to allow a bit of explanation.

These first 3 images capture the obvious racing.  There is always a vintage pre-race with the most amazing collection of priceless ex-Lemans racers being flung round the track.  The middle shot shows the eventual winning Audi E-tron.  I used this shot as the Audi is passing one of the many big screens that show other parts of the 8 mile circuit; in this instance showing a rather damaged Lotus Rebellion.  The final image shows the night driving just to remind you that 24hrs means 24hrs and many people do stay up all night.  The noise, however, is actually quite hypnotic to sleep to.

The next set of images are of the drivers’ parade.  This happens the day before the race and take place through the centre of Lemans.  Crowds line the streets and the drivers are chauffeured through, throwing freebies to the crowds.  The parade has brass bands, dancers, classic cars and the rather unfortunately named ‘Miss 24hrs’ which always makes me laugh.  The 4th shot in this series shows two people fighting over a tee shirt that they grabbed at the same time.  This went on so long that my friend Chris intervened and flipped a coin!

These next images shows how open and friendly the event is.  The pits are open the day before for the general public to just wander around.  The pit lane is packed with people just drinking in the atmosphere or watching the mechanics and there are always groups of characters on show…….such as the Chino boys (as we called them).

The final images show the public at various points.  Unofficial photographers gather wherever the fences are lowest.  The grass banks make a great place to catch some sun or catch up on you sleep to the sounds of Lemans radio.  There are food stalls, trailers and bars everywhere round the circuit continually on the go.

Learning points:

As a body of images these work well to give a flavour of the event.  The exercise does not give many criteria but on reflection if I were displaying these images I would think more about the selection in terms of their size and orientation.  I may select different shots to keep them all landscape for example.  There is one B&W shot which stands up on it’s own but is probably the odd man out in a body of work.  This should probably be in colour.

Narrowing the selection further would be difficult as you would start to loose aspects of the event.  There are already aspects of the weekend that I haven’t covered such as the camping round the circuit, the town of Lemans itself and the ‘socialising’.

The brief is to produce a set of images that build into a story.  If the brief were to produce a set of images from the event that you would hang on your wall then I would have produced a completely different set.  I think that this is right but there is definitely some middle ground.  To explain an event in pictures they have to have certain elements to provide context and allow the viewer to understand what is happening.  I have a level of knowledge of the event that I cannot take for granted so I err on the side of caution when presenting images.  They therefore don’t have the impact or emotion that other images have and emotion is all part of the event which leaves me in a bit of a dilemma!  I suppose it depends on your audience and also how literal you wish to be……….definitely something to work on.


Exercise: Standing back

Aim: The aim of this exercise is to explore the practical and creative opportunities and difficulties of using a long focal length lens (80mm and over).

Approach and results:

I’m a big fan of long focal length lenses for the ‘squashed’ perspective and narrow field of view that they provide.  They also allow you to capture people naturally without them being aware. Another advantage is the shallow depth of field which allows you to isolate your subject although focussing is paramount because of this.

I visited China recently and this gave me a lot of opportunity for people watching. The climate was good so a lot of things were happening outdoors. This first shot shows a group of cooks taking a break from a hot kitchen and playing cards. To get this shot with a standard lens would have make them conscious of my presence.


Calligraphy – This shot shows a child learning calligraphy in a local park. The bottle on the large brush holds water and feeds the brush. The child could write what they wanted, it would dry in the heat and they could start again. Again, as in all these shots, the subject is undisturbed.


This shot shows a woman who had found a quite corner of a temple garden to practice the erhu; a two stringed instrument played with a bow. The long telephoto was ideal for capturing her playing without disturbing her or making her conscious of being photographed. The second image shows another good use for the long lens, isolating the woman’s hand on the instrument. The shallow depth of field completely blurs the background making the hand, and the fingers on the strings in particular, the focus of attention.

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Motorcycle – This shot would not be possible with a standard lens without setting it up deliberately for the simple reason that you would get run over! To get the natural shot of the family on the bike I used the long lens to isolate them and to keep at a safe distance. The perspective created isolates the subject against the background but also captures the long straight road.


Another use for long focal length lenses is to bring subjects together that are far apart.  The following shot shows a man playing patonk.  A wide angle would need a large crop to create the same image or would need a different angle creating a large area of empty space in between.


This shot was taken at a vide grenier (French car boot, but much more interesting).  I wanted to capture the man with the objects in front of him as he had an amusing resemblance to the small figurine he was selling.  I sat at a cafe over the road and waited for the moment he was looking in the right direction with the right expression, with no one walking past.  Using black and white removed any colour differences and made them look even more similar.


Learning points:

As I said at the start, I like the change in perspective that the long focal length provides and I think this is because it provides an image that you can’t actually see with your own eyes. You have to visualise the effect a long lens will have on a scene. The downside of long focal lengths is that they can seem voyeuristic and perhaps uninvolved as the shot is obviously taken from a distance. They are useful for subjects you don’t want to get close to or subjects you can’t get close to. They are also very good for isolating detail at closer ranges if you want to fill the frame with your subject.
Technically I think there is a noticeable quality issue with long focal lengths. I have an 18-250 F:3.5-6.3 which, as good as it is for such a wide range, looses a degree of colour and contrast at 200-250. I also have a 70-200 F:2.8 which is a more dedicated lens and has fantastic sharpness, colour and contrast at 200.

Exercise: Capturing the moment

Aim:  The aim of this exercise is to capture the best moment in a burst of activity.

Approach and results:

On Sunday mornings in Beihai Park in Beijing when the weather is warm, people get together in groups to sing.  One of the larger groups is accompanied by the ‘Red Sun Chorus’, a small band.  Amongst the many other things going on I was taken by the very animated band leader and wanted to capture his enthusiasm.  I watched him for a while first and took a few test shots to settle on a focal length and shutter speed.  If you follow the tune you know when the animated bits are coming so I waited for one of these moments.  I wanted to capture the band leader with his arms up and at his most animated.

The first two shots are test shots.  I was shooting over a crowd using the fold out screen with a 70-200mm lens at 200.  Then the band leader turned round and I took a couple more shots but decided that there was too much motion blur and it was too hit and miss at that focal length holding the camera up in the air.  That said, I like image 3 even though it is not sharp as it captures the mood.  It is ultimately let down by having a soft background and blurred subject; I feel that something needed to be sharp!

Shot 5 would be better with a faster shutter speed and shallower depth of field as in the final image.  I finally got a sharp animated image with the background slightly out of focus.  The background could have been further out of focus but I wanted the band to remain recognisable so aired on the side of caution.  The band leader has his arms up, mouth wide open and is looking at the camera.

Not all moments need to be so split second.  I took these 3 shots on the Bund in Shanghai.  This is a popular spot for walking and people watching.  The two men kept changing their stance and I hoped at one point they would both put the same leg forward and no one would walk across.  In the end I had to crop a street cleaner from the right hand side but got a shot I was happy with, with the two men, legs forward in line with the barrier.  Ultimately I wanted to capture the second man smoking so image 4 shows a Photoshoped mix of 2 and 3.

This is not a split second capture but I still had to wait and plan for the moment.

Learning points:

You can anticipate what may happen if you watch a scene long enough before shooting.  It’s also good to have an idea of what you want in advance of the shot although you can’t set this in stone.  you need to take plenty of shots to get the one you want and it’s also worth taking a number of test shots whilst waiting for ‘the moment’.  Technically, set your camera up in advance; it is a good idea to use manual focus and prefocus on the scene so that you don’t loose the shot if the AF starts tracking something else.

Exercise: Developing your confidence

Aim:  The aim of this exercise is to find an outdoor situation where there will be lots of people and activity and in which you will feel confident in using your camera.  Take as many photographs as you comfortably can and, on reviewing them, recall the level of comfort you felt at the time.

Approach and results:

I was in Manchester the day of the pensions march.  This wasn’t the reason I was in Manchester so I only had my camera and a 16-50 lens.  I think this worked well as I couldn’t stand back with a long lens which would have been tempting!  Still, I took the opportunity with a view to getting a shot for the Big Issue as well as People and Place.  The march was huge; more people than I’d seen on any rally in Manchester so I wanted to capture the scale.  I also wanted to capture people on the march and some of the organisation around it.  The following gallery is a selection from the day:

Image 1: This image is of one of the marshals lined alone the route armed with a high vis jacket and megaphone.  I took this shot up close but, unlike some other shots, I had the camera at waist level using the fold out screen to frame the image.  I like shooting from this lower viewpoint as it gives a different perspective from the normal eye level view.  It feels more involved and less voyeuristic.  He knew I was taking the photo but I didn’t feel uncomfortable about taking the shot and nor did he, hence the relaxed, natural look.

There are two issues here:       1 – This was an official rally and he had an official job, making it less personal being photographed.  It’s not like photographing someone in the street for no obvious reason.

2 – Waist level shooting, even close up, removes that level of eye contact which can be significant.

Images 2 and 3:  These images are of the two police lines in front of the march hinting to its scale.  There were many police lining the route and rows of police motorcycles clearing a path in advance.  Personally I found I was more self-conscious photographing the police than anything else.  They clearly had no problem being photographed but I felt particularly conspicuous actually doing it.  I think this shows as these images were taken quickly with less of an attempt at capturing a specific expression or gesture.

Image 4 is the start of the march.  I took this shot by going out into the middle of the road between the police and the marchers.  Oddly, I was the only photographer doing this and was more conspicuous than ever, like I was holding up proceedings.  That said, I also felt more professional than amateur as they clearly wanted the publicity and it is this shot that went into the Big Issue.  I stopped short of yelling to them to hold their banners up but I was very close to it (and I’ve been kicking myself for not doing it)!

Images 5 and 6:  These are more close up, capturing the individuals on the march.  There were a mixture of standard union banners and more personal messages.  The message on the banner in image 5 attracted me and the family group in image six.  Both these images show the personal impact of the pensions action.  I took a number of these shots by continually overtaking the same group.  I clearly had no problem with taking these images and did not feel particularly uncomfortable.

Image 7 was taken from an upstairs cafe window and was taken to give some idea of the scale of the march.  The march actually continued round several corners but you’ll never capture that unless you have a helicopter!  There was never going to be any issue taking this shot as I was well out of the way of the march.

Image 8 was a shot from the end of the march.  There are no people in it so no issues with taking the shot but I liked the way education had been consigned to the bin.

Learning points:

I think organised events are much easier to photograph than just general open spaces.  People assume it is the event that is being photographed and this makes things less personal.

Major events attract lots of photographers so it’s easier to blend in.  There is also some degree of confidence in numbers.  I also found myself getting competitive with other photographers.

I think it is easy to assume (wrongly) that everyone will object to you taking their photo or being included in an image.  Different situations just require a different approach.

Exercise: Review a portrait sequence

Aim:  The aim of this exercise is to review a portrait sequence as it progresses using on-the-spot assessment and then review the results afterwards, marking the images as follows

  • a) not good
  • b) acceptable
  • c) good
  • d) best single image

Approach and results:

I had been booked to take a range of publicity pictures for a musical duo for some printed flyers and to add to booking websites.  Part of the shoot was at an outdoor location mimicking a wedding venue and part of it was a studio environment for more formal portraits; the sort of picture you see in a concert programme.  I am using a selection of the formal portraits for this exercise.

The set up was a single softbox set high and slightly off centre to the left with a hair light behind to the side.  After a few test shots to get the lighting right, I took a series of shots on the same lines.  I tripod mounted the camera for most of the shots but also took the odd shot off the tripod.  I also varied the focal length on occasions and took shots with and without Jacques violin.  My camera also has some interesting filters so I tried the soft high key filter and also processed some in B&W to compare.

When someone tries to hold a pose for too long it becomes strained so I took the approach of holding a conversation and taking shots when I expected a certain reaction to what was being said.  Along with reviewing the shots myself, I also reviewed them with Jacques so she could see how subtle changes made the difference between a good and bad shot.   As some of the shots were bad enough to be funny, this had the effect of making Jacques more relaxed and less wooden, pulling the odd funny face which I also captured.  It is incredible the amount of times you can capture a blink!  We both learned what worked and what didn’t as the session went on, developing the ‘look’ required.  An expression develops in a split second but then tends to wane if it is held deliberately.  We don’t naturally hold expressions.

I decided to stop a short time after I thought I’d got the best shot I could.  I carried on for a while to make sure, and to try a different angle.  There is only so many times you can fire a flash at someone before they get a bit tired of it and start to lose concentration.

Typical problems with the shots were:

  • eyes slightly closed – Unless the eyes are wide open you get a sleepy or ‘not with it’ sort of look, but too wide and you get the surprised look.  There is a particular point that ultimately defines a good shot.  The eyes are the most important feature.
  • Lips flat or slightly down turned – This can result in a miserable or grumpy look.
  • Head looking straight on – Not always a bad thing but for this shoot it didn’t work.  A slight angle with the eyes following the camera looks better.
  • A blank expression – not necessarily technically wrong but uninvolved and uninteresting.  There needs to be some kind of expression present.

The best single image got everything right capturing the expression that we both wanted.  I had a problem deciding between good and acceptable.  A shot should be good enough to use or it is unacceptable.  That said, a shot can be good but not acceptable for the purpose intended.

Learning points:

There needs to be some kind of expression in an image for it to come alive.  A blank look is no look at all.

Reviewing carefully as you go along (with the brief in mind) helps ensure that you get the desired result and don’t end up finding what you thought was your perfect shot isn’t quite right.

Direction and conversation played a big part in this shoot as it keeps people relaxed and natural and stops them holding poses for too long.  It also keeps people more interested so you can shoot for longer (time flies when you’re having fun).

How you design and manage the shoot depends on how the images are to be used and the outcome required.  There was no point in doing something particularly off the wall as this was not the brief and would not attract the business or appeal to the right market.

On reviewing the images, my view of the best single image did not change from the time of shooting.  Maybe this is because I think it is considerably better than the others and therefore an obvious choice?  I kept coming back to the same image.

Exercise: Varying the pose

Aim:  The aim of this exercise is to assess how effective or attractive varying limb positions are in portrait photographs.  Plan for your subject to adopt three different positions ( I have used sitting at a table, standing in the open and leaning on a wall) and within these positions shoot a variety of different limb positions.  The positions should be static and not active as this is about position and not capturing action.

Approach and results:

Looking at the camera always adds the dimension that the subject knows that they are being photographed, giving the notion to the viewer that this is more of a posed photo.

For the first shots taken in a cafe, I chose to engage my friend Ruud in conversation and take pictures as the conversation flowed.  This captures some unposed moments as well as posed.   Facial expression has an impact on the way we view the rest of the picture. In image no.8, the clenched teeth go with the clenched fist on the mug giving a more aggressive look.  But if you compare this to no.7 or 3, the fist is still clenched on the mug, but because of the expression we assume that the hand is not holding the mug as tight.  Comparing 5 and 6, image 5 has the hands open, cupping the face whereas in image 6 the hands are clenched.  This is a small difference that makes a big impact.   The open hands give a more relaxed impression.  This is also true of image 7.

Images 1 and 2 are more animated are were taken during conversation so are more spontaneous and less directed.  This is especially true of image 1.  The raised arms and open hands either side of the head become central to the image.  In image 2, the facial expression plays little part in the image.  The focus in on the hands and in particular the front one (which happens to be out of focus). The hand positions raise questions such as ‘what is he holding/demonstrating?’

The second set of images are of Ruud standing the other side of a canal; nos.9,10,11,12 (WordPress will not allow me to put these in a separate gallery which is becoming increasingly annoying!). There are only small differences in these images but they all have an impact. Looking at image 9, it is a typical pose of someone leaning on a railing but from a portrait point of view it is a very closed stance with folded arms and crossed legs. Image 10 is slightly more open and facing more into the frame with the leg on the railing. Image 11 is the best portrait shot but not necessarily the most natural. Ruud is upright and open with both hands on the railing, creating a shot that is more dynamic.  Image 12 is the only shot where Ruud is not looking at the camera. When your subject is looking at the camera it is obvious that they are aware of the photograph.  This therefore looks less posed as Ruud could be unaware of the photo being taken.  Other differences are more subtle; facing left with only one hand on the railing.  Arms folded away or down by ones side don’t usually look attractive, expressive or have any kind of dynamism.

The third set of images are of Ruud on a bridge waving to someone.  These are not active portraits as they were deliberate poses that were held while the shot was taken.  The hand positions are very different from the other shots here.  They are more expressive and dynamic but this is because they are in the right position.  For example the outstretched arm in images 13 and 14 is far more appealing than the bent arm in 15.  A gesture or look becomes defined at a certain point and the image needs to capture that point.  A wave is not a wave if the arm is bent in the same way that a smile can be a grimace right up until it becomes a smile.

Learning points:

Hands down at the side always looks less dynamic and uninteresting although it has been used deliberately in many deadpan images to create a sense of vulnerability.

In trying to present a selection of shots that look less posed I have a produced a collection of fairly similar images that have made writing this post quite challenging.  In static portraits there is a point where limb positions stop being expressive and become overly animated and false or posed but I think in hindsight I could have produced a more animated or varied set of images.  There were lots of others such as this next shot that were clearly more posed but looking back, that’s not such a bad thing.  It really does depend on what you want the image for.



I completed a presentation skills course some years ago that raised a particular point:  The presentation was not as believable/effective if the ‘song’ (what is being said) and the ‘dance’ (body language) are not saying the same thing.  This has a parallel in photography in that asking someone to take certain poses often only works if the facial expression is in sync.