Nottingham; a city to call my own

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This is my city. There are many others like it but this one is mine. Or at least that is how I am starting to see Nottingham. For in seeing a city the way I see Nottingham now I feel like I am part of it and that it is mine to be a part of. My relationship with the city has been a relatively short one but like many love affairs it already feels like I couldn’t be without it.

I still know very little about the city in truth. Most of my my time has been spent on the south and east sides of  Nottingham but what I have found has already given me a more than I could have expected. For me a city is as much about it’s grand architecture as it is it’s beautiful mistakes. In a city colour and form come together in ways which inspire and enchant but are simply passed by and ignored by most.
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I have met many interesting people and found many interesting places in Nottingham but the jewel in the crown is Nottingham Contemporary. Just seeing the building brings a smile to my face and sometimes I feel I am drawn to it like a compass to magnetic north. Despite our short acquaintance this is now one my of favourite places to be in the world. I have found joy, sadness, humility, contemplation and plethora of other emotions within the white gallery walls and I come away feeling renewed. My photography has benefited greatly from having such a fantastic cultural resource so easily accessible.
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The gallery isn’t my only draw to the city. The near by lace market district is a gift to any street photographer. Its fantastic architecture and laid back atmosphere makes for a great place to shoot and relax. Each corner and side street holds a different cafe, record or book shop which are a welcome distraction. Photography comes to the slow and deliberate, the contemplative, those who live and feel in the now. The lace market helps me find that place in my mind.

So whilst there are many beautiful cities across the world I am happy to be able to call Nottingham my own even if it is only in some small way.
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How do you create a photograph which is of the moment?

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When reading about photography, being of the moment or capturing the moment is a recurring theme. By it’s very nature photography allows you to stop time and hold it in your hand but capturing the moment hints at more than just taking a picture. When we say “You captured the moment really well there!” we are normally implying that the image conveys an emotion or an idea which is evident in it’s viewing. So what makes an image of the moment and how can we capture it and hold it within two dimensions? I’m afraid like many things there is no magic formula but I have been investigating the practical things you can do which help to define and convey an idea in a photograph.

In a recent post I spoke about how I have started to understand what it means for an image to say something about me. Since writing that post I have been reading Dan Winters Road to Seeing. The subtitle of Dan’s book is Voices That Matter and in his book he writes about the importance of having a voice in the photographs you take. Dan explains that photography is a form of visual communication and if you are conscious of this fact you can use it as you would a spoken or written language.

With a spoken or written language, culture has a part to play in how it is understood and with a visual language there is no difference. Essentially visual culture is built on a set of conventions which hold meaning to those who are a part of that culture. These conventions are part of our everyday lives and are used by advertising companies, designers, artists and many other to convey a visual message. These ideas of visual culture are so prevalent that most of the time we don’t even notice they are there or that they are shaping the way we think or feel about something.
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So if we go back to the idea of capturing the moment being about conveying an emotion or idea we can start to see why thinking about a photograph as a medium of visual communication is a useful thing to do. When you also combine this with the idea of a visual culture we can try and understand how how these conventions play a part in that communication.

This is all easily said but like many things it is not necessarily straightforward to do. Most of us are well practiced in speaking or writing to communicate and we can see how someone is feeling by picking up on visual cues but communicating a complex idea in a photograph can be a daunting task. The world of portrait photography has a good example of this. Quite often you will hear people say that  a portrait captures the soul of the individual who is in the picture. Photographing a smile is easy but how on earth do you photograph somebodies soul!?

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What happens if we dissect the idea of capturing somebodies soul in a photograph? For the sake of my own sanity and yours, I’m going to define the soul as the facets which make a person who they are. This could include whether they are a serious person, a happy person, a friendly person, a creative person, a workaholic etc. If we go back to our idea of a photograph as a form of visual communication which is based on a visual culture we can use cultural conventions to communicate the facets of a person along with their smile.

You can of course take a picture of your creative, animal loving friend holding a paintbrush and hugging a cat but you might find that you have neither captured their soul or the moment. There is also a good chance that it won’t feel like it is your voice which is speaking through the photograph you have created. Sometimes cliches are useful in photography but one of the most beautiful and engaging aspects of the medium is that there are numerous techniques which help you to convey an idea in a subtle way. Many of these techniques rely very little on the subject itself. For example; the way in which you use expose can radically change the way the final image makes you feel. Again this relies on our visual culture to communicate the idea the same way a paintbrush conveys creativity.

I have found that in order to capture the moment I need stop looking at the dials on my camera and start looking around me. I try to make a connection with the place or person I am photographing and convey the way I feel in my composition. I have also found that trying too hard to make this connection can be just as bad as not trying at all. Personally I find the photographs which give me the most satisfaction are created when I have the time to walk around a place with my camera at my side or still in bag. This helps me to soak up the atmosphere and find my voice. I have now started to see images out of the corner of my eye, sometimes almost as I am about to walk away.

So now I can see my voice I am hoping to try and nurture it by the way I approach my photography and the way I edit and review my work. Like many of my posts it has helped me to write this down in black and white. I wonder how I would convey this in a photography!?
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Starting on the road to documentary photography

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Since I picked up my camera again I have worked on a number of small projects that have helped me to improve my photography and given me something to work towards. For a while though I have wanted something bigger to get my teeth into. I have had a few ideas about what this project might be about but having recently just moved away from the city that I lived in for most of my life I wanted to use the project to find out a little more about the town that I have come to live in. I could potentially do this with a street photography project but I wanted to learn more about the people themselves and so I had the idea of starting a documentary project.

Documentary photography is a form of photography which was extremely popular in the mid 20th century and has experienced a lull more recently however a number of talented photographers have started a resurgence in the field and are producing some hugely interesting and inspiring work. Whilst I don’t feel like I have honed my skills enough to produce anything close to the work of any of these photographers I hope to learn a lot from the project both on a technical and personal level.

So where do I start on the road to documentary photography? In one of my previous posts I shared a photography project framework which I intend to follow for this project. With this in mind I went out and purchased myself a new notepad and made a start noting down my ideas. Personally having a small notepad that I carry around with me most of the time really worked. Whenever I had some time at home or in my lunch break at work I read through my notes and expanded on my idea. I also spoke to some of my friends about the project and this helped to make the project feel more real and lead me to even more ideas.

New notepad

Creating the mind map

Eventually I had quite a few notes and I was starting to feel like I wanted to move onto the next stage. Before I did that however I want to write my notes up as a mind map. I was hoping that this would help to give the lists of ideas some structure and build a picture of how a plan for the project might come together. I had previously found an online tool for creating mind maps but another search uncovered a different tool which I felt was a little easier to use: http://drichard.org/mindmaps/. You can see the mind map that I produced below and if you are interested then you can get a copy of the original JSON file here.

Documentary Photography Mind Map V1

Just as I thought I had finished putting my ideas together I found out that Huck magazines current issue was a documentary special. With this in mind I thought that this would be a great opportunity to expand my ideas further. Once I have done this I will be sure to write another post and share the updated mind map. If you have any comments or suggestions then please add the comments to this blog post.

Ultimate people watching

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Everyone has a their own likes and dislikes and I would imagine that most photographers find certain photographic genres that they enjoy more than others. There are a few genres which stand out for me however since starting to take my photography more seriously again street photography has become one of my favourite past times. There are many reasons why street photography has captured my imagination and I hope to explore this a little further in this post and talk about the genre as a whole.

I love cities and could happily sit for hours drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I enjoy looking around at the people, architecture and general goings on of the city. Something that has fascinated me is the way in which our environment shapes our behaviour. I have carried out a small study on the subject deliberately omitting the people, more interested in the thoughts and feelings my images would evoke when they were out of context. I really enjoyed putting the project together and I intend to return to it at some point.

Typically however street photography is characterised by its focus on the people that live and work in our cities and towns, putting them in the context of the environment which they reside. Since the dawn of photography we have been drawn to photographing the human condition. Some photographic genres attempt  to place its human subjects in a staged environment however many images attributed to street photography are candid, capturing people going about their everyday lives. Even when the subjects are posing for the camera in street photography the images are trying to capture the street as much as the person in it. This can lead to interesting juxtapositions with the advertising and other imagery that is commonplace in modern towns and cities.

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With the variety of  people and viewpoints that one might encounter in any urban space the possibilities are endless and you never really know what you might find. The opportunities are also often fleeting with an image being made and lost in a moment. This can lead to street photography being exciting as well as frustrating. The good thing about street photography is that you can often take a break and then find some new inspiration around the very next corner. In fact when faced with some disappointing shots I have headed towards the nearest pub and struck up a conversation with a stranger over a pint only to get back out on the street with a new vigour (hopefully derived from the conversation rather than the alcohol).

Like most genres of photography we are standing on the shoulders of giants, many great photographers have made a name for themselves by creating stunning street photography. What is striking to me is the different approaches that have been taken. For example Henri Cartier Bresson would spend vast amounts of time in a location working a scene where the backdrop created a perfect geometric composition, waiting for a person to step in and complete the image. Others like Bruce Gilden took a different approach, striding through the crowds with camera and flash filling the frame with his subjects. Personally I find the images by both of these photographers absolutely mesmerizing and there are many other approaches to being a street photographer.

All of the different definitions and approaches to street photography can lead some to question whether or not it is a genre worth pursuing as it can appear diluted with some regarding it as a scatter gun approach to imagery. For me it is this flexibility which makes the genre so appealing. If I were to imagine the most eclectic place that I could, I would probably have a city street in my minds eye. Each street photographer conjures up their own view of the city making them sinister, sultry or a celebration of what it is to be human. Depending on your technique you can draw out the harsh colours, graphic and claustrophobic press of the metropolis or wash this away and draw on the loneliness, decay and  corruption which exists in the spaces surrounded by people. If photography is about showing your view of the world then showing your personal view of the city is a worthwhile endeavour in my opinion.

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One of the other reasons why I have been drawn to street photography is that when I picked up my camera again I promised myself that I would put myself out of my comfort zone. The act of photographing the stranger in a public space is at first nerve racking. If you are trying to shoot candidly then you always have a question about how somebody might react to your pointing a lens in their direction. This feeling took me a bit of getting used to and I still sometimes feel a little self concious today. What you don’t want to do is try to look like you are hiding. Be bold with your camera instead of making yourself look a bit creepy. If you catch somebody’s eye then smile and perhaps indicate that you would like to take their photo. Now that I am more confident I quite often ask people if I can take their picture although the act of asking can dramatically change someone’s reaction to the camera and I am always concious of how this might change my image.

There are plenty of resources on street photography in books and on the internet. Eric Kim’s website alone is a treasure trove of information. You will also find plenty of groups on Flickr to use for inspiration. So what are you waiting for!? Pick up your camera and head off into town.

What are the ingredients for motivating you to improve your photography?

Fragments of a city: Hold me

Like many things in life you will only become a better photographer if you practice, practice, practice. Whilst your ability to practice your photography is somewhat based on opportunity you also need to have some level of motivation. Some people are able to motivate themselves to improve by simply having their camera with them but personally I need something bigger to get my teeth into. In my experience having a project to work towards is a good way of driving motivation as it helps you to set goals and monitor your own progress.

When it comes to photography projects they can be as ambitious as you want them to be but my top piece of advice with any kind of project would be to set yourself realistic goals. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t push yourself but if you currently don’t set yourself any kind of project goals then start small and build up from there. Achieving an extremely ambitious goal can give you a massive boost in your confidence and motivation but consistently missing your goals will result in the complete opposite. Its all about setting a pace that you can consistently maintain.

In order to start a project you need to have several ingredients; an idea, a plan, a goal, a deadline and time to review. If you don’t want to define all of these things for yourself there are plenty of places where you can find some or all of these things. For example Black+White Photography magazine have a monthly photography project which they print in their magazine. Their projects  include some helpful ideas and tips on how to plan your project as well as some references and photographers for you to research. For something even simpler there are many places online where you can get involved with a group projects or competitions. Personally I have entered the monthly competitions of Birmingham Photography Meetup and I am currently contributing to the 2014 A-Z Project on Flickr.

I have enjoyed some of these simpler projects but I have recently found that I want to push myself a little further and wanted the creative direction of my photography to be more about my own ideas. For me this meant thinking about my photography projects in more detail and having a clearer plan. I already have some experience of running software projects from my professional career but some research in photography projects lead me to an interesting blog post by Ian Turpin which talks about his experience A level photography projects. Using the fantastic information in Ian’s blog and some of my own ideas  I have put together a project framework for photography projects:

The planning phase

The initial idea

Come up with some words & phrases which will form the initial idea. It is useful to keep the list with you and add to it when you are waiting for the bus of making a cup of tea. Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely places.

Resources:

  • Initial ideas list
  • Project topics list

Strategies:

  • Mind map

Tools

Build on the idea

Take the idea further by looking at existing images and building a theme. Try putting together images from different places and times to see if they tell you a different story. Perhaps look at images which are different to your usual subjects or style.

Resources:

  • Mood board

Strategies:

  • Other peoples images
  • Famous photographers images
  • Images from the internet
  • Images from magazines
  • Your own images that you have previously discounted

Photographer research

Choose two or more famous or professional photographers to research. The internet can be a good resource here but don’t underestimate your local library. Photographs will always feel different in print than they will on the screen.

Resources:

  • Short essay about the photographers

Strategies:

  • Review their work
  • Critique
  • Relate their work to your theme
  • Compare the different approaches to similar themes or subjects

Statement of intent

Lay the groundwork for your project. This will be the final part of your plan where you will document exactly what you are going to do.

Resource:

  • Written statement of intent

Strategies:

  • What you plan to do
  • How you plan to do it
  • What equipment will you use or not use?
  • What techniques will you employ?
  • Which photographers will you use for reference?
  • Plan your shoots
  • Schedule your time
  • What is the deadline?
  • Will you work alone?
  • What will the final output of the project look like?

The execution phase

In this phase you should work in a cycle: Shoot – Review – Research – Shoot

Shoot

Each shoot should be an improvement on the last. Explore the idea at the beginning but try to build on the theme as you go learning from previous shoots.

Strategies:

  • 1 test shoot to explore ideas
  • 2  or more actual shoots
  • Improve on shots from previous shoots
  • Change composition, subject, viewpoint etc.
  • Limit the number of pictures you take
  • Have a separate shoot for new techniques
  • If you have used film then you should print your own work
  • You can document a shoot / technique using your camera phone
  • Use a notepad / smartphone to record your thoughts and feelings

Review

Build a portfolio of presentation worthy images. Document failure as well as success.

Resources:

  • Contact sheet

Strategies:

  • Compare the best
  • Critique the worst
  • Compare shots with famous or professional photographers
  • Aim to have 2-3 shots for a small project or 8 plus for a large project
  • If you are unsure about whether or not something worked document it and why you made your decision
  • Be prepared to be brutal, if its not up to scratch then don’t include it
  • Create an initial contact sheet and come back to it after a few days. Does the images still work together?

Research

This is where you will create / validate the plan for your next shoot

Strategies:

  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • What will you do differently in your next shoot?
  • Which shots will you try to improve?
  • Review your statement of intent
  • Change your statement of intent if your ideas are changing but document what you changed and why
  • If you are struggling to think about new ideas then write about it

Project close phase

Review and conclude

Once you have your final images make sure that you close your project by reviewing them one last time and making some conclusions about your successes and failures.

Strategies:

  • Describe your final image selection
  • Explain your techniques
  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • Where would you do differently if you started the project again?
  • What ideas does this project give you for future projects?

Hopefully this project framework will be useful to others. I have just started to use it myself on a upcoming project details of which I will share in future posts. As always please share any of your own techniques and ideas in the comments.

Thank you to Ian Turpin for his original blog post. Sorry to those who received a sneak preview of this blog post, its all too easy to hit publish when you meant to hit preview 🙂

Taking photographs on your own is easy

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In my last post I mentioned how I recently joined a photography community on the online community platform Meetup. After entering one of Birmingham Photography Meetup’s monthly competitions I thought it would be worth going along to one of  group’s photoshoots. Luckily the next meeting was a street photography shoot in Birmingham, which (excuse the pun) was right up my street.

I knew that going along to the Meetup was going to have an effect on the way I thought about my photography but I didn’t realise just how much. In the back of my mind I thought I would meet some interesting people who would be able to give me some technical pointers about how to get the right exposure in this situation or with that type of lens as opposed to another. The friendly bunch of photographers that came along to the meetup where more than happy to share their techniques and I learnt some great stuff but these pearls of wisdom aren’t the main thing that I have taken away from the experience. Somehow going out and shooting with a group of other people has made me focus on myself.

Up until now photography has been pretty much a solitary exercise. I’m often shooting  when out with my family but it’s normally only me that has a camera in their hand. I find myself walking around from point to point thinking about what it is that I am trying to capture and moving methodically through the motions. I am usually capturing images with something in mind and I tend to have a single set of ideas. Walking through Birmingham  with the folks from the Meetup had some profound effects on me and hopefully will help me to grow as a photographer.

The first thing that took hold of me was impatience. I had an itchy shutter finger and the only way I was going to satisfy it was to push that shutter release as quickly as I could. Its not that I took a great deal more pictures than I probably would have done on my own its just that I took less time to take a single image. The presence of others with a lens in their hand immediately made me feel like I had to be the first. Street photography generally lends itself to this type of fast paced shooting as you attempt to capture the “decisive moment”1 but it doesn’t mean that you should do this at the expense of a well composed image. Unfortunately at the beginning of the shoot my lust to be the first overtook my photographer’s eye in some cases. Sometimes my speed payed off but in others my lack of attention is obvious in the images that I captured at the beginning of the afternoon.

The next thing I noticed was that every time I went to take a shot someone else was already there. The guy beatboxing, the bored looking burger flipper texting on his phone, the trumpet player, the atmospheric side alley. Snap, snap, snap, snap! This made me feel like I had to go faster but it made no difference, the photographer in front of me just became the first behind me. My competitive nature started to grow in my panic. Luckily for me I have an emergency kill switch. I came to a halt on New Street and assessed my situation.

I’m sure many of you have read photography books that give tips on how to improve your photography and one tip that tends to come up again and again is don’t just turn up and take the picture that’s right in front of you.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what I had been doing and to some extent that’s what I was observing from my fellow photographers. There nothing wrong with this approach and it doesn’t mean that from a technical point of view that you are going to get “bad” images it’s just that on my journey into photography I was hoping to find something else. I was hoping to be able to find something about myself in the images that I create, an ability to communicate my perception of the world. I might be a long way from having my own style in my images but if I don’t think about why I am creating a certain compositions then I’m never going to find it.

So instead of walking down the center of the street and being drawn to “the obvious image” I started to stalk around the edges of the street. I began by searching for stickers, the little pieces of graphic design which adorn our urban environments. I expect that many people view these vinyl wonders as vandalism but to me they tell a story about the creativity of the people that live in a city. The type of people that live their lives through the bold colours and alternative images that the self adhesive artwork  represents.  One of my favourites images from the shoot was found stuck on the side of a phone booth in the corner of large a square in Birmingham:

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This might not be the most technically perfect image but it feels much more like it belongs to me. I have found recently that its the small incidental items which intrigue me.  For example on a recent trip to the pub with friends, a shot of my best friends Doc Martin resting on a beaten up coffee table was one of my favorite images. For me that image captures a little piece of the day. Perhaps the same can be said for the image of the sticker.

In conclusion, one trip out with a group of fellow photographers has made me look at the way approach my subjects as well as help me to think about what an image means to me. They also helped me with some new ideas, one person in particular mentioned using a square crop and I decided to use this as a way of bringing together my final collection. These are some pretty deep subjects and not was I was expecting to get out of the Meetup. Taking photographs on your own is easy, meet some people and get out of your comfort zone.

1 http://www.openculture.com/2011/11/henri_cartier-bresson.html