What can our families teach us about photography?

The park I
One way of viewing time is as an enemy, an adversary with whom you must do battle. Sometimes this is how I feel. Between work and the daily grind of life you can get stuck in a rut, feeling like there is no way of getting out. Creativity and doing the things you love can be an antidote to all of this. A panacea for the sole.

I was recently reading a blog post from the archive of the wonderful Eric Kim; 10 Things Magnum Photographer David Hurn Can Teach You About Street Photography. Not only has Eric’s post made me want to read David Hurn & Bill Jay’s book it has also made me think about how I approach my photography. In point 7 Eric talks about shooting with a project in mind. I have tried this in the past but with varied success, reading the blog post gave me a eureka moment. I have been doing it all wrong! I have been trying to make my life fit around a photography project when I should be making the photography project fit around my life.
The park II
I am great at coming up with ambitious projects which end up being a struggle to commit to. An idea which seems great in my head but ends up with me fighting against time and the vision instead of working with it. Many great photographers make their work fit to their lifestyle and constraints. I need to take a leaf out of their book and make time work for me.

So what better subject than my family!? I love them dearly and they certainly fall into the category of “shoot what you know”. Over time I have amassed a great number of images of my family but maybe I need to take a fresh look. Everyone has a family but nobody else has my family and nobody sees them the way I do. Other than genetics what is it that connects them to me? What do I see when I look in their eyes?

This doesn’t mean that I have to reduce my ambitions of course. If anything it means that I need to work harder and strive for more from my photography. I want to learn how to build a narrative, tell a my story. Sometimes you have to look without the camera in order to realise your vision when you are behind it.
The park III

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Starting on the road to documentary photography

UrbanWildlife-1582.jpg

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

Loughborough Market III

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.

Smoking Companion.jpg

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.

Paris books

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 🙂