Decisive moments at a regatta

Over the past weekend, I was Race Officer at a regatta for Shearwater catamarans at my local sailing club (Isle of Sheppey SC). Seeing the possibility of an unusual (although not exactly unconventional) theme for the ‘decisive’ moment assignment, I took my camera along and finished the weekend with about 1000 images. I used a combination of single-shots and short ‘machine-gun’ sequences (usually 3-5 in a burst)

Let’s be honest, most of them are rubbish for reasons discussed in this posting but I will be able to find the required 6-8 images if I decide to use this event for my assignment. I have posted a subset in a Facebook album.

The main issue is the viewpoint. I spent most of my time on the committee boat, anchored at a fixed point, the start/finish line, but could not capture starts or finishes because I was otherwise engaged. Likewise, because it takes an hour or so of preparation to set up the racecourse, flagstaff etc. I was not ashore to photograph the competitors setting up their boats and launching, which would have given plenty of off-water decisive moments to complement the on-water action.

For instance, in this sequence early in the day, raising a mast has echoes of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the US flag being raised on Iwo Jima. The decisive moment in the sequence is the third image, before the mast is secured; the man is still holding it up, the woman clearly has the forestay in two hands with good arm positions, and there is eye-contact between them. Unfortunately, the background is cluttered.

Practical issues on the water (see below) include the rolling motion of the boat, the fact that much of the action takes place up to a mile away, and that there are assorted ropes and other obstructions.

Action immediately after a start has all the competitors moving away, and stern views are usually not as dynamic as bow-on shots of a boat moving toward the camera. Sometimes (larger image) it can work well, in this case making a sort of study of concentration.

It is possible to get good views of competitors closer to the committee boat. For the purposes of this assignment I would eschew single-boat ‘portraits’ and action images where the boats overlap too much, causing confusion of shapes.

There is a length of course, of about 200m downwind of the committee boat where there is good dynamic action and plenty of opportunity for decisive moments. Burst-fire or ‘machine-gun’ mode shooting is useful because the relative positions of the boats changes quickly, as do sailors’ positions and eye-lines. Compositionally, it is better for both sailors to be looking forward, in the direction the boat is moving. In practice, a good sailor will also spend a lot of time looking at his sails and at the tactical situation with other boats, or checking the precise moment to tack for a mark. These five images were taken in a single burst.

My favourite is the large image (which I have cropped slightly to remove the third boat) because of the eye-line and apparent concentration of the crew of the leading boat and the position of the trailing boat relative to the leading helmsman’s head and the trapeze wires.

I believe this event shows promise, but there are other ideas and outings to explore before firming up on the assignment.

Exercise 3.3 – Landscape, foreground to background

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, finally, the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole landscape 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 (there is always some movement). When you’ve got it, raise your camera and take a picture. Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.

The exercise brief describes the process that a landscape photographer would go through instinctively. However, it can occasionally be useful to break down a process and think about it step-by-step.

The scene I have chosen is one of the iconic views of Kent, Aylesford village with its medieval bridge, as seen from the nearby road bridge. Normally, I would take this from mid-span, which shows more of the old bridge, and crop tighter into the bridge which excludes much of the foreground. For the purpose of this exercise, I have moved to the left and included the river bank as foreground. Unfortunately, this includes a lot of ’empty’ water but at least, today, a fresh breeze has thrown up an interesting ripple texture.

The visual interest is in the middle-ground (bridge and houses) and background (church and distant trees), and I build up the scene forward and backward from there. As noted above, I have used the undergrowth of the left-hand bank as foreground interest and a lead-in line to the bridge. The threatening sky (threat fulfilled five minutes later) gives us our backcloth. I have used the two trees at the left and right edges as ‘eye-stoppers’ to prevent the viewer’s eye wandering out of the sides of the image.

Finally, the image was made with a Canon G1X in aperture-priority mode, ISO100, 1/100s at f/8 and subjected to a bit of tweaking in Lightroom

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Lens work 3 – my images

Both of the examples below, from my own 2015 ‘Large Format 52’ project, show use of selective focus to isolate detail and focus attention.

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‘Reed’

In ‘Reed’ I had pre-visualised the idea of a reed head with a very out-of-focus background, and spent some time experimenting with aperture, eventually settling on f/8 with a 150mm lens on 5×4. I found the background tree first, set against the water of the lake, then found an isolated reed. I like the image because I believe it says something about the sort of wetland locations that reed grows in.

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‘Into the unknown’

In ‘Into the unknown’ I made use of camera movements to deal with perspective and to place the plane of focus horizontally on the third step (with the left shoe) so that the staircase blurred progressively above and below our imaginary walker. With hindsight, I should have focused on the second step in order to maintain reasonable sharpness in the step below, and to blur the upper part of the staircase further.

The same effect could be imitated in software, such as Nik Analog Efex but I prefer to do it in-camera and ‘old school’.

Exercise 1.4 – Frame

This is, essentially, an exercise in poor composition (or at least of semi-random framing). We are asked to compose an image in one-ninth of the viewfinder and ignore the other eight-ninths at taking stage. This was difficult for the first few shots as there is a tendency to automatically compose with the entire viewfinder, but I was able to do it with a little practice and without resorting to masking-off sections of viewfinder.

On reviewing the images, I have the following comments that apply to a significant subset (although not the same subset for each comment). These are illustrated with examples below.

All images were taken with a Canon G1-X, set to fully-auto mode so the only camera function under my direct control was the focal length. These images have been resized by a Lightroom export to 1000 pixels on the longest side but are otherwise unmodified. None have been cropped.

The photographs were taken in a single session. The subject matter is a derelict village hall, awaiting demolition prior to redevelopment of the site, and its immediate environs.

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Because I was composing normally, but only in one-ninth of the viewfinder, I was using a much shorter focal length than usual and wide-angle distortions are apparent, particularly when I was composing in one of the corner divisions (e.g. the daffodils and blue sign in the top left corner above)

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Where I was composing in the upper part of the viewfinder, the ‘extra parts’ of the image were of mainly featureless pavings which read as negative space and can be ignored. However, composing in the lower part of the viewfinder introduces more visual clutter.

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Unexpected ‘extra’ image elements, cut off by the frame edge, can introduce awkward shapes, such as the front of the car in the image above.

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The occasional happy accident can occur, such as the leading lines from bottom-centre and centre-right, which help us to discover and focus on the daffodils at the top-left of the image above.

I have selected six images that are reasonably well-composed (the small piece of car is unfortunate) and work as a set to describe the subject.

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The upper pair describe the building overall, two blocks, one of traditional brickwork and a prefabricated timber extension. The middle row shows building details, partly walls and partly windows of the two blocks and we see that the older brickwork has worn rather better than the newer block. The lower row deals with the surrounding pavings and I have tried to mirror the yellow tape around the guard rail with the colour of the daffodils.

In the top row, the eye is taken in a horizontal line along the kerb (the signpost and telegraph pole act as ‘stoppers’ to the left) to the basin wastes in the top-right image which leads it down into the centre row (reinforced by the two vertical white lines.

In the centre-right image, the vertical lines of the brick pier relate to the right edge of the overall frame and the perspective of the horizontal brick courses lead the eye to the left and the window. The left-hand image picks up the window motif and has a vertical emphasis to keep the eye within the set.

The bottom-left image picks up the timber cladding and both images have leading lines (angled manhole cover and the paving lines previously noted) pulling the eye back into the centre of the panel.

Framing v Cropping

I am asked to note down what I understand to be the difference between cropping and framing.

My own working definition, slightly glib and deliberately circular,  is ‘Framing is cropping done in the viewfinder. Cropping is framing done or refined in post-processing’. Both words describe the act of selecting a segment of the scene before the camera, making a decision about what to include or reject (Szarkowski, quoted in course papers, p26) and arranging the principal elements within the picture space. Szarkowski (ibid.) notes that the action forces a concentration on the picture edge and the shapes that are created by it.

Of the two dictionaries of photographic terms that I consulted, Lewinski (1987) defines neither term and Bailey (1987) fails to define framing. He defines cropping as ‘Editing of a print or image, and the rejection of unwanted areas to concentrate on the main subject of the picture.’

Michael Freeman appears to adopt the same working definition as me, and the first chapter of ‘The Photographer’s Eye‘ (2007) is an extended riff on the subject. On the page headed ‘Cropping’ (2007, 20) he tells us ‘Cropping is a way of reworking the image well after it has been shot; an option for deferring design decisions, and even of exploring new ways of organising an image.’

Freeman (2011, 156) also gives a useful description of framing, ‘Framing is how the boundaries are set; the shape of the camera frame is the given, and often the first decision is how this is going to be applied to the scene in front of the photographer … The viewpoint and the lens focal length are the two main variables, followed by decisions on what will be included and what left out.’

John Hedgecoe (1994, 154) regards both actions as cropping in his glossary and uses the term ‘framing’ (1994, 28) for the compositional technique of using foreground objects as a frame to focus attention on the main subject.

Liz Wells (2000, 283) reminds us that framing also refers to the act of placing a physical frame around a physical picture. It acts as the margin between the work and the wall and delineates the edge of the picture – which brings us neatly back to the Szarkowski quote in the course notes.

I am aware that there is a debate about whether cropping is acceptable or to be avoided, but that is a topic for another day. In my opinion, some cropping is inevitable (Film or sensor formats are often not proportional to the paper size. Optical viewfinders rarely correspond precisely to the frame captured on the film or sensor) but it is best to keep it to a minimum in order to maximise the amount of information (pixels or negative area) in the final image.

References:

Bailey, A. (1987) The Illustrated Dictionary of Photography. Leicester: Windward

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. Lewes: Ilex Press

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Vision. Lewes: Ilex Press

Hedgecoe, J. (1994) John Hedgecoe’s Complete Guide to Black and White Photography and Darkroom Techniques. London: Collins & Brown

Lewinsky, J. (1987) Jorge Lewinski’s Dictionary of Photography. London: Sphere Books

Wells, L. (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition. London: Routledge

Exercise 1.3 – supplementary

A couple of extra exercises exploring the difference between emphasising depth and suppressing it.

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These are two images of the same building, taken with similar focal length and from a similar distance. The difference is that the top image is taken square-on and the lower image is taken at a corner, creating vanishing points and perspective lines, the same technique used by Atget in many of his images of the petits métiers of Old Paris (see Jeffrey, 2008: 30)

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Of the two images above, the lower is cropped from the upper. This has the same effect as increasing the focal length and shooting from the same viewpoint.

Although the dominant (yellow) lines in both images are vertical and parallel to the frame edges, the upper image has some secondary perspective lines in the scaffold planks at the top of the image and some implied perspective lines joining the pads at the base of the poles. Cropping to exclude these perspective lines has removed most of the clues to the depth of the subject and flattened the pictorial frame.

Reference: Jeffrey, I (2008) How to Read a Photograph, London: Thames & Hudson

 

Exercise 1.3 – Line

Part 1. A selection of images using lines to create a sense of depth.

All images captured with a Canon G1-X, at the wide end of the zoom range.

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Classic use of a single vanishing point (top of the blue panel and the far-centre of the road) with diagonal lines leading to it from all of the horizontals in the scene. Both kerbs, the yellow lines, building bases and various string courses. There is also an implied line formed by the ground floor arches of the building at near-right.

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The same device but with a vertical context. The vanishing point is on the lowest floor, below the camera position and all the verticals converge there. The staircase handrails and strings also lead us downward.

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It is interesting that converging verticals are more acceptable when looking downward than upward. We get a sense of a high viewpoint and possibly a touch of vertigo. The vanishing point is well below the bottom of the image, so there is a risk of dragging the eye out of the image at the bottom. In this case, the handrail and the seated group act as eye-stoppers.

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This image combines all of the techniques of the earlier examples. There is a horizontal vanishing point near the top-centre and the converging verticals of the ground-floor columns give us a sense of height. The staircase balustrade leads us from the camera position to the centre of the image. Fortunately, the steps and handrail are near-horizontal at the bottom-right so avoid dragging the eye strongly out of the image.

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A similar effect, but using a curved line.

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This is an artificial example (a detail of the pedestal of Paul Day’s statue at St Pancras station), a low-relief bronze casting which uses line to give an illusion of depth.

Part 2. A set of images using line to flatten the pictorial space.

All images captured with a Canon G1-X, in the centre or long end of the zoom range.

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In this case, the subject is effectively flat and the flatness is emphasised by arranging all relevant lines parallel to the edges of the frame.

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The subject in this image is deeper, but presents as a series of parallel planes. By approaching it square-on and arranging the major lines parallel with the edges of the frame I have tried to eliminate the clues about separation of the planes, thus flattening the space. Unfortunately, the shelves inside the door to the left lead to a vanishing point and compromise the illusion slightly.

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A similar technique, suppressing clues about the separation of planes.

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Shooting vertically with a long-focus lens and arranging the tile pattern parallel with the edges of the frame we lose the impression of depth. The converging verticals of the balustrade are reasonably minor.