Steve's OCA Blog

Photography Learning Log



Photographer Review – Andreas Gursky and Henri Cartier-Bresson

Both photographers were highlighted as good examples of candid portraits. They do, however have very different approaches. Andreas has a very macro style, often without people. His images are generally colour and feature macro patterns in buildings, people or nature. When people feature, they aren’t recognisable or aware of the image being taken, however the people do seem to be individuals as the choice of background or timing makes them clearly distinguishable. I assume that this may also be due to the use of a wide Depth of Field. A good example is the following image of a swimming pool, where the people seem to be spread evenly, right across the macro viewpoint. Clear, light backgrounds and wide depth of field ensure each individual stands out.

Andreas Gursky, Ratingen, 1987.

On a personal note, I really enjoyed the images of Andreas Gursky as through his macro approach he adds a sense of abstract to the images he creates.

Henri Cartier-Bresson has a different style, with clearly recognisable individuals, sometimes staged images, but often candid. Using Black and White and careful use and placement of backgrounds, the subjects of his images are very clearly the people. He uses the contrast in the black and white images well to draw out the people. Often they appear as silhouettes.

The following is a really good example of one of his candid images that highlights the features described above.

FRANCE. The Var department. Hyères. 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Exercise 2.1 – Part 1

The first part of this exercise was to emulate the work of Karl Blossfeldt by capturing images of plants with plain backgrounds. His work shows many macro images of plants and objects captured against plain backgrounds,  using natural light in a way that avoids shadows. His images really emphasize shape, textures and details of his subjects. Due to this approach the work looks very staged and almost like a series of images for museum specimen categorisation. All his images are black and white (he would be restricted by technology to black and white), but the real beauty in the images for me, is in the grey tones, the texture and details that these tones expose.

I took a number of images in strong overcast daylight using  100mm macro lens, using a white sheet of A4 paper as a background. Some images were converted to black and white where this was thought to enhance the image.

One image stood out for me, with shape and texture very evident.


The colour image was also striking, but the impact comes from the colours


Other images from this series, are as follows:

My learning from this exercise was that plain backgrounds really do change images. For black and white images, they tend to highlight shapes and textures, whereas for colour images ,which have strong colours, it is the colour that dominates as the subject. On a technical note, I used a wide aperture (f2.8) and gained a narrow depth of field and whilst it added to the aesthetics of some images, it distracted from most, as the texture and detail was lost due to the narrow depth of field.

Now for the next part of this exercise, to do this with people.

Combining Images in Lightroom

Although I’m still struggling to get to grips with Lightroom, I’ve discovered it has a feature that allows images to be combined, probably a bit like HDR, although it doesn’t seem as intense.

Following an earlier OCA course exercise that suggested using long exposures and exposure bracketing to achieve softness in the images (overexposed ones), I though I’d combine some images with different exposures, including some that I took as part of Assignment 1.

I quite liked most of the images the combination feature produces, allowing the best of all the images to be included. The image featured at the beginning of the post, for instance, has kept the colours and impact of the late evening sky. whilst exposing enough of the bridge for it be part of the subject matter of the image.

There are some drawbacks, some of the colours can appear very odd, and make some combinations unusable. However, with a little tweeking many seem to have value, especially with grey sky, something that is common where I live!

The following are some of my early results of using the combination feature:


Exercise 1.12 Smash!

Timing is everything!

This exercise is all about super fast shutter speeds and capturing freeze frame from rapid movement in order to see images in a way the naked eye can’t.

I thought I’d use the kitchen table as it is black glass and this would work with a black background and show some reflection of the subject. I setup my camera on a tripod (again! I’m almost familiar with it now) and had to do a couple of things to get enough light for the subject to be lit; increasing the ISO to 2000, and to find a studio light to put on the left hand side of the image. The studio light also gave strong sidelight which I thought would enhance the smash/splash. I then focused the 70-200mm lens using Manual focus on an area of the table and set a high image burst rate.

I grabbed the first thing that I thought would create a smash, an egg. But after a few attempts, all I got was something similar to the following:




No real splash that would show the fast shutter speed impact I was looking for. Timing was clearly really important with this subject and I became bored very quickly, especially as it was quite messy. So, I moved to dropping a strawberry into a glass. Something I’ve seen others do. Even with this subject timing was important and it took a few attempts to get close to the effect I was looking for, although along the way the shutter speed was capturing a freeze frame smash images.

It wasn’t as messy, so a quick mop up and kept going until finally, I got the timing right and had both a splash and a strawberry in the shot.


So what did I learn?

  • how to think about taking a superfast freeze frame image: background, light, use of the camera,
  • even 1/2000th of a second is slightly too slow,
  • the high ISO made very little difference to the quality of the final image,
  • expect lots of failure and that may trials are required to get the image you are looking for,
  • and finally, to be careful of reflections, as I hadn’t spotted the reflection of the room on the left of the final image. It’s a distraction from the main subject.

On reflection, as I was unsure of the ‘how to’ element of the exercise, having not undertaken this kind of image previously, I focused on the technical elements, and gave minimal thought to the artistic or narrative element of the image.


Review – Photographer Toshio Shibata

Toshio Shibata – Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, 2008

Following the course text and reviewing photographer Toshio Shibata, I was surprised by his unique view of flowing water and in particular the textures that he creates within water in his images. Clearly his understanding of water in various different forms and his ability to give it different form is something I’ve not previously seen across such breadth. The shutter speeds to achieve the textures must be perfect, for example creating texture in water from waves generated by the wind would need a very specific shutter speed to achieve.

I assumed that water flow images would be in natural water flows, however his are almost all from man made flows (dams, weirs, pools). The connection with the man made structures is very apparent in the images, with composition being used to enhance the relationship, either through angles/viewpoints or eliminating unnecessary context.

There are many striking images in the online galleries I viewed, however the image used in this blog stood out for me. The silkiness of the water is incredible, making the man made structure look like it is creating a smooth and effortless connection between two very still pools. The red lines add to defining the structure and the bland brown colours around the central structure also help to accentuate it. The depth of the image is very apparent, detail from front to back, although I’ve discovered that this is a consequence of using a 8 x10 inch format, I assume pinhole camera, which has a very small aperture. Thus, flow from long exposures, wide range of in-focus content and softness to the image.

I really enjoyed his photos, they are unusual, create juxtapositions and are thought provoking.



Exercise 1.10 – Shutter Speeds

The subject of motion is one I feel very comfortable with, using shutter speeds to create the appropriate effect, depending on the subject and the impact or story that is being created. I love motorsport and an understanding of shutter speed is essential for this subject matter.

With this exercise, I undertook something a little different and stood close to a railway line,taking passing trains at different shutter speeds. In this case, 1/500, 1/160th and 1/50th of a second. This showed the trains in very different ways, the fastest shutter speed slows a clear image of a train in a countryside setting, the second gives some degree of motion with a little blurring whilst the final image shifts the subject from a train to that of speed.


The middle image would normally be an image I would bin, as there is insufficient detail for it to be about the train, nor is there enough blur for it to really give the sense of speed. Due to the stationary background, these images were all exposed for the background.

Normally the images I take that outline speed or movement are those where the background blurs, so that the subject can remain clear. This involves panning (tracking the subject) whilst taking the image. This can be a tricky technique, but results can have real impact. The other trick I’ve learned are that these type of photos benefit from a little bit of angle in the shot as it can really add to the feeling of speed. A few examples of these type of images are shown below:


One area I continue to struggle with is exposure, this does take a lot of getting right, slower shutter speeds used on cars or bikes mean it is much easier to overexpose and create horrible blown out sections of images. I’ve never really worked out if auto exposure or manual exposure is better for these subjects.

Exercise 1.9 Soft light landscapes

So, the time has come for me to start working with landscapes. After hunting around for an hour or so, I found the tripod I bought years ago and have used only once. With the great soft and detailed images of Gabriele Basilico giving me some inspiration, I set off for Shap an area where I know there are many great landscape shots and is a place off the tourist trails.

I rarely use apertures as high as f20+ so lots of learning potential. Initially, I produced some comparison images of high and low horizons. Quite an interesting exercise, I would normally place horizons, either right at the top or in the middle. The following 4 images were my first images, 2 in colour and 2 in black and white.


For me, what’s interesting is that the subject matter changes depending on where the horizon sits. In the high horizon the tree and its context become the subject (clearly a tree sat in rough common grazing land), whereas the low horizon emphasised the lines of the stone walls and the outline of the tree on the horizon.

Next was to take some landscapes, at f22, but with different shutter speeds and therefore exposures. Moving to manual mode, I moved to a viewpoint a little further south and took 3 or 4 different views. The plan within the exercise being to adjust the levels later so the levels in the histogram was touching the black and white points.

For the first landscape shot I took a number of different shutter speeds, with the extremes being 1/10 (1st image) and 1/40 second (2nd image). Both images were adjusted and these are very different visually (and on the histograms). The first is clearly softer and gives greater detail, which was the object of the exercise. I think it is overall, much more appealing to the eye, although in the second image has some real strengths with the greater colour saturation and the stronger contrast in the sky gicing a real 3D feeling to it.


Whilst I left these images as colour and the softness from the narrow aperture and slow shutter speed is apparent, the stunning architecture images of Gabriele Basilico were in black and white, so and for the next set of landscapes I wanted to see what the impact was. Again f22 was used and different shutters speeds (1/13, 1/8 and 1/4 second) and the results adjusted in levels. Although the shutter speeds are fairly close together, visually these are very different images, with again the slowest shutter speed being the softest and giving the greater detail.


(1/13 sec)


(1/8 sec)


(1/4 sec)

The final image is the one I enjoyed the most, it came closest the the impact I was looking for, having read the course notes and seen the soft images highlighted in the course text.

One challenge in this exercise was the ability to reduce the shutter speed down to a number of seconds, whilst I used ISO 100, the daylight was just too strong. Based on the impact shown above, it would seem that a slower shutter speed (or is it the overexposure) gives the best softness and detail. The only way (I think) to achieve this is through an ND filter, I knew that landscape photographers use these, but I didn’t know why.



Confusing Image

Dave Wyatt, Thames Town V

One of the images in the OCA text was confusing and has meant I may need to reassess my assumptions that the image alone tells the story. The image of an English looking Town scene taken in China (featured image in this post)   wasn’t very clear and a juxtaposition between form and content, and made me stop and think, what’s going on. The scene looks like a town local to me and was clearly in the UK, but it was only when I read the narrative that I discovered it is in China and the nature of the juxtaposition, but just looking at the image doesn’t give me any clues that this is the case. What’s the big deal then? My assumptions about photography is that the image needs to tell a story, but without the narrative, this was just an image of an English town. Does this mean that photography doesn’t stand alone, that narrative is needed. Looking through some photography books, this does seem to be the case. Sometimes the title is enough narrative, but when more narrative is required to explain an image, does this mean it has lost its impact and somehow is a lesser form of artistic impression. It’s probably a bit early to draw any conclusions, but something to consider during the course.

Project 2 – Shadows

So this morning, I woke up and went to the local town (on hols) just before sunrise. The purpose being that (a) I could use the strong golden morning light to capture shadows and (b) there would be hardly anyone about so I could be undisturbed.

Initially the light only touched the tops of the houses, however soon the sun rose a little higher and made some interesting subjects. There was also a market setting up and I used this opportunity to get some images, without being too obvious.  It’s a while since I used the camera in full manual mode, and my usual technique is as described in the OCA material, use the spot metering to get the right exposure and then widen to take the image I wanted.

I found that from a technical perspective the spot metering approach worked some of the time, but I had to start to judge the contrast of the image and in some cases over expose, but in some cases up to 2 stops to ensure the contrast of black and white. At these increased exposures the white areas  lacked detail, but for many this wasn’t important.

With the people in and around the market, I had to be both patient and predict what might be the best exposure to get good shots, some of which I scrapped almost immediately. A couple of times I was able to be opportunistic as I already had appropriate settings for high contrast.

Creating stories was difficult, a few images were able to convey some meaning, but others were just interesting shapes and patterns. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about some images, but in many cases didn’t find the right moment or framing for a story. One example was the ‘no entry’ sign in front of the Police Station. I tried a few times to use the brightly lit sign, but because the station sign was in shade, it was difficult to outline them both and convey a degree of narrative. I’ve lightened the police sign in editing, but it’s not quite what I was after. (See below).

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There were a number of images that created only interesting shapes or patterns:

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Some I felt were more effective in black and white, particularly as this allowed contrast to be tweaked to remove many distracting features so the eye clearly settled on the content of the image:


However a few images had potential to start to convey stories and meaning through the image, examples would be the the group that clearly outline a market preparing for the day:

Or those that that convey readiness for a festival and give glimpses of the steamers awaiting, but in empty streets:

Finally, a group of images that have specific meaning through the main subject and context, one example being a couple leaving their hotel with a suitcase along an empty street.

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Without doubt an interesting exercise in trying to capture high contrast images from strong light, not only to find interesting subject matter, but also meaning.

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