Month: February 2017

Assignment 4 – self assessment

Looking at the end result of my fourth assignment submission, I summarise in the following table some personal notes in relation with the course’s assessment criteria:

Assessment criteria Personal views
Demonstration of technical and visual skills In general I believe the final selection of photographs continue to demonstrate reasonable levels of competency in terms of framing and composition. This assignment led me to deepen my exploration of techniques and ways of visual presentation that I did not have a great deal of experience with, such as off camera flash illumination, and the modification of artificial light, both in shape and colour. While I am satisfied with the end results in terms of technique at the time of submission, I was left intrigued by some of the results I got (particularly in the picture of the shed door, which I was initially expecting to look a little less natural) and I can see myself revisiting some of the techniques used in future projects.
Quality of outcome I feel generally satisfied with the connection between the various photographs in terms of their theme. Although the end results are not entirely homogeneous in subject and sometimes diverge in  the quality of illumination, I am satisfied that they conform to the main idea of being ordinary, mundane objects that I have attempted to portray under a different light. One of my ideas with this project was to achieve the correct balance between the light falling on the main subjects and that of its surroundings. While in some cases the main flash also provided some degree of fill light for the background, for most pictures my approach could only be attained by increasing ISO, and this inevitably led to some pictures exhibiting relatively high noise levels, which are thankfully not particularly noticeable at the size of the submitted pictures, except perhaps for the second picture, when there is clearly some noise visible on the sky.
Demostration of creativity Leading to the look of the final pictures, I took a number of shots under several combinations of flash, artificial and ambient light, both as part of exercise 4.4 and in subsequent experiments (see for instance exposing for the highlights, combining natural and artificial light and flash in daylight). Ultimately, I believe whatever creativity can be attributed to the final shots comes from that experimenting, which was primarily aimed at finding a look that expressed what I wanted to achieve: giving a platform to the ordinary and the neglected. In this process, the initial ideas came from pictures and photographers mentioned in previous blog entries, but the final look is primarily derived from the empirical process of throwing my subjects under what I believe was a similar light – ignoring in many cases what the original lighting arrangements were – and then changing the conditions until achieving something which hopefully was sufficiently different to stand on its own. In some cases, this involved trying different angles for the flash, in others changing the colour of the flash to try to match that of the ambient light or the subjects.
Context Compared with previous assignments, the theoretical research in this case was particularly limited. I did some initial search work and looked at some of the names mentioned in the course guide, some of which partially influenced the final look of my pictures, but I actually ended up doing a lot of exploratory work with the camera itself, looking at issues such as under exposure, exposing for the highlights, the combination of natural and artificial light and the use of flash to complement available light, prior to deciding which of exercises 4.2 to 4.4 I wanted to explore further. Once I settled on 4.4, I did a bit more of theoretical research, primarily around the names included in an exhibition on flash photography held in the Photographer’s Gallery in London in the early 1980s, and then tried to adjust the techniques used in exercise 4.4 to the look I felt more comfortable with from the photographers I had looked up. In the end, however, I wanted this assignment to be a personal journey of discovery of light and what the camera could do, and this is reflected in the predominantly empirical approach I took to give context to the project.



Exercise 4.5

For this exercise, I have chosen to continue my exploration of the humble onion, also my subject in exercise 4.4. This time, I am looking at different ways to photograph an onion that is not “conventional”.

Googling “onion” yields the photographs shown in the screen grab below:


Onion pictures in Google – grabbed on 18/02/2017 at 20:39

Most of the photographs have a white background, which indicates that these were mostly shot for “stock” photography applications, which just show the subject in its cleanest, most distilled way. Some pictures show a whole onion, others a section cut of the onion or slides, and some others just show a bunch of onions together.

If we scroll down, we can see other types of pictures:

  • We see onions with their leaves attached, just taken off the ground
  • We see drawings / designs based on onion shapes
  • We see close-ups of onion rings / onion parts
  • We see sacks full of onions and pictures of hundred of onions together
  • We see food prepared with onions
  • We see people dressed up as onions.

One of the approaches suggested by the coursebook was to make the subject incidental to the picture. Looking at Chris Steele Perkins and John Davies approach to Mt. Fuji, I believe this mostly works in cases where the incidental object is easily recognisable and / or is sufficiently unique to be able to counterbalance the main subject. For example, in John Davies “Fuji City” (see here), if any other generic mountain was at the back of the picture, it would not be considered as an alternative way of portraying that mountain, but it would just be considered truly incidental to the picture, in other words, completely dispensable.

The question then becomes, if a subject is just something generic or ordinary, how do you make the “incidental” approach work? One way of looking at it would be to make the object incongruous to the frame. In a way this is a bit dangerous because it may be interpreted as making the object stand-out and then it ceases to be incidental. The approach, for it to work, would require a balance between subtlety and assertion.

Based on the above, I attempted a series of shoots where I placed onions in places where we would not expect to see them. Some of the better shots are included below:


“The bookends” (1/50s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – I took a series of photographs using onions as bookends, a use for which they are not particularly well suited given when shape and lightness. This is one of the better shots of this series, showing the onions as a small part of the frame and plenty of other objects more overwhelming in size. Yet the onions manage to become the subjects by virtue of the unexpectedness of seeing them being used as bookends.


“Failed bookend”  (1/50s at f4. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – As expected, during the shootout some of the books ended up falling because the small onions were not heavy enough to support them. I took some pictures of the fallen books and the onion, such as the one above, but in my opinion these, while aesthetically pleasant, give too much prominence to the onion, which no longer can be called incident to the picture.


“Fruit bowl” (1/60s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – Another idea was to make the onion the odd one out by placing it inside a bowl of fruit. I like the simplicity of this concept, but in the end I deemed this too subtle.

Another approach I wanted to try for this exercise was the “lens vision” concept used by Bill Brandt successfully in many of his nudes and body part studies (see for instance here and here), where the use of a wide-angled lens in close up results in distorted, slightly surreal images.

I took some of these shots with a combination of lenses mounted on extension tubes to achieve extreme close-ups and also with a compact camera in 1cm macro mode, which only worked at the wide end of the lens, allowing for extremely close wide-angle shots of the onion. Here are some of the resulting photographs:


“The top end” (0.4s at f22. ISO 800. 43mm mounted on extension tubes) – This shot is a more than life-size close up of the top end of the onion, where the leaves were cut. It has quite an abstract quality to it, but it is hard to tell it is an onion.


“Top end, too” (1/60s at f2. ISO 500. 6.1mm lens (equiv to 28mm in full frame)) – This shot, also of the top end of the onion, was taken with a wide-angle macro lens compact camera. The extreme close up allows for the narrow depth of field, in spite of the small sensor, which gives a pleasant background blur; but the background is too bright and clean which makes this picture look too much like the ones in Google.


“Sideways” (1/60s at f4. ISO 1250. 6.1mm lens (equivalent to 28mm in full frame) – also taken with a wide-angled compact camera in macro mode, this was one of my favourite shots, as it shows a bit more clearly that is an onion, but at the same time, it is not embellished like in the shots at the top of Google. It shows the rough, ageing skin of the onion and does not hide its blemishes.

The final shot I selected for this exercise was taken with a 135mm telephoto lens mounted in extension tubes to allow a closer focusing. It is shown below.


“Cracked skin” (0.8s at f11, ISO 800. 135mm lens mounted on extension tubes)

It shows a close up of the side of the onion, where the outer skin is starting to crack. In spite of the close up, the contour lines and the crack would make the image instantly recognisable as an onion to anyone who has ever handled one in the supermarket or the kitchen. To me the crack signifies both the imperfection of real life – it is hard to get an onion as clean as those found at the top end of the Google search – and provides a focus point which is slightly different from the object itself: it is an onion all right, but the onion becomes a bit incidental to the crack in this instance. There are close-ups of onions in the Google-searched pictures, but these tend not to be as close as my picture above and tend to focus on more harmonious aspects of the onions, such as the concentrical inner rings, and not on the imperfections of its outer parts, as in here.

Assignment 4 – Shooting and selection

Shooting was completed in three separate sessions, all of them outdoors at night. Lighting was provided by the ambient (a combination of artificial and natural moon light) and an electronic flash strobe mounted on a light stand capable of being raised to about 2 meters. Three light modifiers were used: a conical snoot, some 30cm long with a front opening of about 1 cm, a cylindrical snoot some 23 cm long (both of which were hand-made with black card board) and a yellow colour gel filter for the flash (only used in one of the three sessions). I used two different cameras for this assignment (one of them weather resistant because it was used under sleet), but both of them were equipped with 41 ~ 43mm equivalent lenses.

All photographs were taken in my garden and in the driveway in front of my house. The idea was to identify items that I would pass on a daily basis and then try to photograph them under strong flash light to see if they could be made to look differently. A total of 173 photographs were taken during the three days, of which 12 shoots were pre-selected and a final of 7 photographs were chosen for final submission on the basis of their consistency of look. The annotated contact sheets can be found here.

The photographs were only adjusted for light (black / white point and shadows), noise reduction/sharpening, vignetting and cropping. It was necessary to colour correct a couple of photographs that were taken with the yellow filter gel on the flash (more on this below).

The final 7 photographs are shown below, together with a brief discussion of the shooting set-up


Image 1 – 1/8s at f16, ISO 6400. 27mm (equiv 41mm in full frame)


Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

The first photograph is of a small weed plant growing next to a pond. The flash was set with the cylindrical snoot about 1 meter above the floor level and some 2 meters in front of the subject. Shutter speed was set low in order to allow in as much ambient light as possible, but the floor in front (the plant is on a step) was rendered pitch black. There are still some details on the periphery, some of which were darkened down slightly in post-processing with a vignette. Schematics are shown to the right.





Image 2 – 1/4s at f5.6. ISO 6400. 27mm (equiv 41mm in full frame)


Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

In this photograph, I tried to highlight the end of a tree branch. The flash was set again with the cylindrical snoot at a height of about 2 meters and pointed directly at the relevant branch. The exposure was set so that the ambient light, coming from street lamps shining at a distance, would illuminate the background clearly. Schematics are shown to the right.






Image 3 – 1/8s at f5.6. ISO 6400. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

This image of an old shed door was taken with the flash pointing downwards from its stand at about 2 meters high. The flash had a cylindrical snoot on, and a yellow gel filter, which gave a warm tone to the light (later brought back slightly to balance it with the slightly cooler ambient light). The light was placed in front of a small pine tree that grows next to the shed, with the tree branches blocking and modeling the light in some areas. The flash was moved slightly over several shots to ensure that the door handle was fully lit. Schematics are shown on the right.


Image 4 – 1/8s at f5.6. ISO 6400. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

The image of this abandoned football (left by the previous tenants and never disposed of) was taken with the flash at about 1m height over the ground and some 1.5 meters away. The flash had a cylindrical snoot on and was feathered towards the brick wall, thus minimising the highlights in the shiny ball surface. The ball is naturally yellow and the flash was equipped with a yellow gel filter which gave a slightly warm tone to the light (it was later balanced back in post processing to bring it closer to the cooler ambient light). Schematics are shown on the right.



Image 5 – 1/20s at f11. ISO 6400. 43mm full frame

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

The next image of a dead shrub was taken under sleet, which can be seen falling against the dark background at the top. The flash was set at about 0.5 meters high and some 0.75m away from the subject, with the head covered with a cylindrical snoot and “feathered” slightly to the front and up, so that only the top of the shrub was illuminated, with the ground below only being hinted by the effect of the ambient light (mostly from street lamps). The camera was set almost from the top. Schematics are shown to the right.





Image 6 – 1/25s at f22. ISO 100. 43mm full frame

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

side view

In this photograph of a wild shrub growing in my driveway there is almost no impact from the ambient light but the reflections from the flash provide some background texture. On this occasion, the flash, with a cylindrical snoot on, was set about 30cm directly above the shrub, while the camera was shooting from the front. Schematics are shown on the right.






Image 7 – 1/25s at f22. ISO 100. 43mm full frame

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

top view

The last image selected was of a plastic bag in the middle of the garden. The flash was set just 15cm above the ground level and its light was modified by a cylindrical snoot. It was placed less than a meter away from the subject and iso was set relatively low because I wanted to minimize the details away from the beam of the flash, providing a faint sense of directionality. Schematics are shown to the right



Assignment 4 – Initial thoughts

Before starting shooting for assignment 4, I did try various ideas around natural and artificial light and their combination. Some of these experiments are summarised in previous blog entries (see for instance my entry on exposing for the highlights, combining natural and artificial light and flash in daylight), with the connection between them leading me to the final idea for this assignment, which was to explore flash light in the night. In consequence, this assignment is an extension and, hopefully, an improvement on some of the ideas explored in exercise 4.4.

In exercise 4.4 my subject was a red onion, which is a common vegetable, and I was quite surprised at the different results that could be obtained by modifying the light source and the angle of view even slightly, some of which were quite dramatic and unexpected. For this assignment, I wanted to try to do the same with everyday objects or things that surround me but that I would not normally pay attention to or even care to stop and photograph, but that could be made to stand out by virtue of the flash light.

My choice of subjects is in part inspired by the work of Keith Arnatt and Fay Godwin, whom I have researched earlier on this course and who worked with rubbish and other unglamorous objects to create something different and attractive, in some cases (as in Arnatt’s “Boxes” series – link) by using artificial illumination. In terms of light, I have decided to go for direct flash without using any light modifiers except for a couple of hand-made snoots (one cylindrical, another one conical) and in one session, a yellow colour filter. The look I was aiming for is something in between Bill Brandt headlight series and Lisette Model’s interior shots of people eating and drinking in public places (as commented in this blog entry): high contrast light with clear direction and reach, but exposed in such a way as to show some background information, even if faintly.

Research notes – flash in daylight

In earlier post (see here and here), I took a series of shoots looking at the combination of natural and artificial light. The problem with natural and generally available artificial light is that it is not always possible to change its configuration. Some things can be done about it, with reflectors and other light modifiers, but major changes, like for instance to make natural light strike an object at a particular angle, are only possible at certain times of the day and for a limited period which can be just down to a few minutes or seconds depending on the season. These limitations could potentially be overcome by using our own artificial source of light, like a flash.

The following series was taken with a single external flash during daylight. The first shot was taken indoors, in a partially covered tunnel with one of the walls removed to allow daylight to come trough. The light falling on the shot was only natural and indirect (ie reflected from the adjoining surfaces, which were dark).


1/60s at f5.6. ISO 400. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)


In the above, the flash was set in a slightly “feathered” position by moving the head slightly up (pointing towards the reilings rather than the pack of crisps). The flash head was covered with a home made snoot, made with black cardboard, to give more directionality to the light. The flash was set at about 4 meters from the subject. Schematics are shown to the right.

In the resulting picture, the flash light is a bit overpowering and there is almost no background light from the ambient. This creases quite a dramatic shot which focuses attention strongly on a subject that under regular daylight would look mundane and would normally be ignored.


1/180s at f8. ISO 200. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

project-9The next shot was taken on broad daylight wiht no artificial light involved other than from the flash. The flash was put on a stand and placed about 1 to 2 meters away from the plastic cup. No modifier was used, but the head was pointing slightly upwards so that it would not illuminate much of the ground. The schematics are shown on the right.

On this occassion, the flash light and the ambient light were more or less balaced, with the ambient light primarily setting up the road and the reflection of the building above (it just stopped raining a few minutes before) while the flash provided the ilumination of the plastic cup, which stands up in contrast with the dark grey of the road surface. There is less drama in here when compared with the initial shot: there are no long shadows and the highlights are more subtle, but there is still a high level of contrast and separation between the subject and its background.


Research notes – combining artificial and natural light

Following from the idea of underexposing from my previous entry, I decided to take a series of shots under natural light (both on overcast and sunny days), as well as combining natural and artificial light. Some of these shots are shown and discussed below.


1/60s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The first shot was taken indoors, in a corridor which is lit with a combination of artificial and natural light (from openings in the ceiling). There is a very subtle colour cast on this shot which I find quite attractive. The top end of the light strip has a bluish tone coming from the natural light, which is partially diffused through glass panels, which may further cool its tonality, whereas the bottom half of the strip has a slightly warmer tone, coming from the less intense artificial lamps, with incandescent bulbs, fixed to the ceiling. I initially had though about converting this picture into black and white, to emphasize the shapes and the contrast of the light, but I decided against it in the end because the subtle colour hues of the light would be lost with this.


1/2000s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The next shot was taken outdoors with only natural light. It was sunny, and consequently, the light had a slight golden colour cast. Exposure was set not to blow the highlights, creating a nice, soft graduation from dark to light gray (the light was coming from under some arches, hence the shadows on the left). While I like the overall look of the picture, it does lack the hue variation of the previous one due to the single light source.


1/30s at f5.6. ISO 3200. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The last shot in the series combines again both natural and artificial light, but this time there is a combination of direct and reflected / diffused light. There is also a clear distinction between the sections of the frame which are illuminated by the different sources, so that there is almost no spill or mixture like in the first shot. With each light source having its distinct colour temperature, the result is a picture of parts that cannot be separated but complement each other and allow the view to wonder from one segment to the next and back. I find it quite pleasant to look, if it was not for the slightly irritating bit of dull highlight at the bottom (water reflection at the corner of the wall), which could be corrected in post-processing, but I am showing here for completeness.

Research notes – exposing for the highlights

Looking at the idea of what the camera sees versus what we see, I came up with the idea of doing a series of pictures well underexposed to only show highlight values. Sometimes our vision is too centered in what we have ahead and we forget that there are things on the side that are often overlooked, but the camera will always see that. The expectation is that by underexposing, those extraneous highlights will be made more apparent, showing us something abstract, which sometimes would be harmonious and other times would be disturbing. Here are some examples of this that I have taken:


Barbican Centre, London. 1/60s f5.6 ISO 500 18.5mm (equiv to 28mm in full frame)

The shot above, which was approximately 3 stops underexposed, is one of what I would call “disturbing” shots, as it has quite a lot of bright extraneous lights, some of which are close to the border of the frame, and the lights themselves show very little sympathy in shape or colour. But is perhaps the fact that there is still details in the shadows and dark areas that make this picture even less harmonious. In post-processing I underexposed the picture even more while boosting the white point. The resulting picture is shown below:


Barbican Centre, London. -5 exposure adjustment +60 white point adjustment in Lightroom

The picture still looks all over the place, but it is easier to see, more harmonious, now that the colour and shadow details have been greatly reduced to black.

Following from the experiment above, and equipped with a camera with electronic view finder, I then took a series of pictures from normal exposure and then progressively underexposed until shadow details were rendered mostly in black. All the pictures were taken with a 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm in full frame) set at an aperture of f5.6 and base ISO of 200, with the only difference between them being the shutter speed. The series is shown below:

As the shutter becomes faster, the shadows growth deeper and only scattered highlight remains, until those start to become subdued as well, almost disappearing by shot 6. The scene is transformed from an ordinary indoors shot into something more abstract, something else which is about form and colour. In these shots, like in the previous Barbican Centre one, the light has different colour characteristics, but the latter effort combines both natural light (from the light wells to the upper left) and artificial light, and this is something I would like to experiment with next.