Coursework

Exercise 5.3

The following comments are in response to Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson (link).

What attract me the most in this picture at first glance is the reflection on the pool of water. It is created by the man jumping, captured at the right time, but it could have equally been created by a static object, for what matters to me is the clean shape of the man’s reflection against the still water of the pool, almost mirror like. The photograph is unbalanced, with the action happening very close to the right hand side of the frame. The middle portion is quite cluttered and undefined, only saved by the figure of another person and his (less clear) reflection,  while the top  contains some nice recession of tones, but not much else. After surveying all that, my eyes keep returning to the dark silhouette in the front and his reflection. This for me represents the defining part of the image, and what is quite remarkable is that there is almost no information in that part of the image: it is just black or grey, with slightly blurred edges, but the visual contrast dominates the rest of the image and as an element remains imprinted in my mind, like the piece to be inserted in another puzzle. Looking through my old pictures, I managed to find many with reflections, but one of them resonated the most with this feeling:

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1/50s at f5.6. ISO 64. 35mm full frame

Sometimes the dominating part of a picture is the one that contains less information, but also serves an ulterior purpose. As in the case of Sugimoto’s Theatres series (link), which are dominated by a large white space with no purpose other than to shed light on the beautiful interiors, to which my eyes are constantly moving, the black silhouette in HCB’s picture primarily serves the purpose of creating the perfect reflection, to which my eyes keep going back.

Exercise 5.2

The first time I looked at the picture of World Trade Centre by Hiroshi Sugimoto (link), what immediately came to my mind was how unreal the picture looked like. It was like it was made from a model of the buildings rather than the actual thing, the lack of focus robbing the details one would expect to see and reducing the structures to outlines and swaths of solid grey tones. It so happened that I looked at this picture shortly after looking at the work  of Thomas Demand, who builds intricate paper models of places and situations and then takes pictures of them (see for instance here and here) and it occurred to me that it would be possible to still take a similar picture to Sugimoto’s by building a paper model of the World Trade Centre.

I looked at the internet for a neutral, frontal picture of the twin towers, preferably in black and white. The best I could find was this low resolution picture accompanying  the relevant entry into the Skyscraper Museum (link)(1). I copied the front side of one of the towers and enlarged this so that details became blurred and pixelated. I then proceeded to copy this four times and made a tridimensional model of each tower. These were then glued on a paper base on the position of the original buildings.

The background and sky were hand painted on A4 using an electronic illustration application and then reduced to a scale that was commensurate with the paper tower models (the reduction was to about A6). The background had to be widened to more or less fit the position of the buildings in Sugimoto´s. This was done by cutting and superimposing two copies of the background, which were then scanned and re-printed. The set up was illuminated with natural shadow light from the front, and an array of LED lamps on the back of the picture, showing through the paper background.  A picture of the set-up is shown below.

 

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The picture was taken on a full frame camera with a 50mm lens set at f8 and back  focused just behind the plane of background. Sugimoto took the original picture by focusing at twice infinity and in his picture the background looks as unfocused as the foreground. I tried to replicate this as much as possible but in any case, the background was originally drawn without clear building outlines and deliberately blurred to help achieve the effect. My response to the picture was primarily driven by what Barrett calls “Internal Context” – what I viewed in the picture itself, but was also modified by the original context based on how and why Sugimoto took the pictures (discussed here). It also contains elements of original context from Thomas Demand’s work.

The final picture, shown below, had limited post processing manipulation, primarily to correct verticals, crop and adjust the lighting, both generally but also by selectively burning some parts of the picture (particularly the bottom and to vignette the corners). Nothing was cloned out or added in post processing.

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Towers (2017) – After Sugimoto (and homage to Demand)

With this picture I wanted to test both my initial reaction to Sugimoto’s but also to understand whether other people had similar feelings. The final picture still looks unreal to me, although the towers in Sugimoto’s version have less detail than my fake models, and are heavily cropped at the top. The background is perhaps more obviously fake, but the sensation that my towers are slightly more realistic than the original left me a bit startled. I casually showed my picture to a friend and to him it was not immediately obvious that my picture was a fake. It seems to me that, just perhaps as Sugimoto’s original intention with these pictures was, we immediately recognise famous shapes by just a few traces, regardless of how blurred or distorted they are and not always question whether what we see is true or not.

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(1) Skyscraper.org. (2017). The World Trade Center: Statistics and History. [online] Available at: http://www.skyscraper.org/TALLEST_TOWERS/t_wtc.htm [Accessed 31 Mar. 2017].

Exercise 5.1

I took a sequence of shots of my wife while we were waiting for our food at a local restaurant. As usual, she took her sketchbook out of her bag and started to draw, and I took my camera and started to fire away. I had a 35mm equivalent lens on at the moment, which enabled me to have a relatively wide point of view without introducing too much distortion. The shots were all taken at the largest aperture available, f/2. They were only corrected for white balance and exposure.

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1/1000s at f2. ISO 6400. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/60s at f2. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

Of the sequence, my favourite is the last one. The pictures were a mixture of candid and posed shots and at the time I took them I did not notice the expression my wife had on the last one, half way through between disgust and a shrug.  I cannot recall, when looking at the photographs, what we were doing at that particular moment, whether her expression was a reaction to something I had said or if she was thinking about something in particular. This adds a degree of enigma to the photograph that is not there in the other shots, as well as summing up, for me, what the distance between me as a photographer and her as the subject is, not only in terms of what was unnoticed at the time I took the shot (her expression), but also the erosion of information created by the passing of time.

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:

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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:

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“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.

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“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.

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“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:

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

Exercise 4.4

For this exercise, I decided to take various pictures of a red onion. My initial ideas were to create a series of shots over a white background, emphasising the shape of the onion but also playing with the effects of direct light when creating shadows, to give a more of an abstract, unnatural feel to it.

My first idea was to use a flash ring to shoot and illuminate the onion from above. The onion itself was going to be suspended on a small stand, about 5cm tall, to create separation from the white surface below (a sheet of white A3 printing paper).  I was expecting the onion to show right in the middle of the shot, with its hard, dark shadow symmetrically surrounding it on the white paper below. A diagram of my initial set-up and what I expected would be the results are shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Initial idea for harsh light picture of an onion

After initial testings, I concluded that the ring flash created a far too big and diffused light source for it to cast a hard shadow and that I would not be able to get the results that I wanted from it. I then decided to modify my set-up slightly by using the flash from my mobile phone (single LED light) as the light source (in continuous mode). The modified set-up was as follows:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Modified set-up for harsh light picture of an onion

With this set up, because the flash was not exactly aligned to the camera lens, I could not replicate the idea of a symmetrical shadow, so instead I tried to explore the movement of the shadows as I moved the light source around the onion:

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Red onion 1 (3s at f8, ISO 100) – This was taken with the LED light right above the onion

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Red Onion 2 (0.3s at f8, ISO 100) – for this shot, I moved the LED light downwards and towards the front of the onion.

In this first session, I used a 100mm macro lens (full frame) set at an aperture of f8 to ensure adequate depth of field. ISO was set at base level of 100.

The first image was shot straight from the top. The single LED light (a very small light source) creates a very well-defined shadow, which size was increased by the separation between the onion and the surface below. Although this is different from my original idea of the symmetric shadow, I was quite pleased with the result and particularly liked the soft rim of white light surrounding the onion, which helps delineate its contour against the dark shadow below.

The second shot plays a bit more with the angle of the light to create something more abstract. This was achieved by lowering the light source while maintaining the camera above the onion. The final result still shows a very harsh light, but the contours are not as defined as in the first shot and the onion’s shape is slightly less obvious. Because the light was lateral rather than from the top, the background is slightly muddled rather than white.

I completed a further session on this subject to explore subject isolation against a dark background (rather than the white surface used in the first session). For this, I used two different types of light: a small LED reflector, of the type used to shot videos, and a light box (with a permanent lamp inside). The first shots were done using the led light modified with a paper cone (like a snoot), which reduced the size of the light surface by a factor of 10 approximately. The onion was set on a table on top of a dark tea towel. A diagram of the set up is shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for harsh light picture of an onion against a dark background

On this occasion I used a camera with a 43mm lens (full frame). With this set-up, I took photographs from two different angles: from the top of the onion and from the front looking upwards. Some of the resulting pictures are shown below:

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Red Onion 3 (1/5s at f4, ISO 3200) – Taken from the top, the light was hitting the onion from the top and sideways, creating the long shadow and reflection seen at the bottom.

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Red Onion 4 (1/15s at f4, ISO 6400) – Taken from the front of the onion, looking slightly up

The first shot was taken from the above and with the aid of a tripod. The ISO was set at a relatively high level to show some of the background, particularly the light reflecting on the tea cloth. This shot was partly inspired by the earlier lateral shadow photograph, and I particularly liked the effect of the long shadow eating into the illuminated strip, rendering the effect a bit like the tail of a comet, the whole thing taking a bit of an abstract turn. As the light source is small, the shadow is strong and well-defined while the light is highly directional.

The second shot was taken from the front. Here the idea was to shot the onion as close as possible, with the small light from the snoot hitting it just on the top and the camera looking slightly up. This shot reminded me of the photographs of planets from deep space when the sun is just partially illuminating them.

——————- oooo ——————-

Following from the shots above, I proceeded to remove the cone from the front of the LED light source in order to increase its size. As the light was now more powerful, it was spilling towards the back of the room and illuminating the background slightly. In order to minimize this, I feathered the light by moving it against the onion and placed a piece of black foam board in front of it to stop the light from bouncing against the walls. The set up is as shown below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for onion illuminated by full led panel

The resulting photograph is shown below

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Red Onion 5 (1/50s at f4. ISO 800)

Even after removing the paper cone, the LED light source (about a 10 x 10 cm box) is relatively small and consequently the shadows remain well-defined and the highlights are focused on a small area of the surface of the onion. The slightly larger light source, however, allows for a better definition of the contours of the onion and a better separation of this from the background of the photo, though it also results in a harsh, clinical look.

Next, I decided to increase the size of the light source considerably. I used a soft box with a square opal white front of approximately 70 x 70 cm. The light in this case proved to be quite strong and was illuminating a fair amount of the room’s background. Since I had no way of regulating the intensity of the light source (a plain lamp), I decided to cover about 2/3 rds of the box surface with the black foam board, as shown diagrammatically below:

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Set up for onion illuminated by soft box

The resulting photograph is shown below

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Red Onion 6 (1/60s at f4. ISO 800)

The longer, more diffused light in this case has produced a more organic result, with a less defined contour and softer shadow. The highlights also cover a larger portion of the face of the onion. The whole picture has a more “painterly” feeling, as opposed the more abstract results of the first session.

——————- oooo ——————-

The photographs I have taken for this exercise are generally distinct from the shots taken in exercises 4.2 and 4.3. In all the shots, I used only one light source, thus avoiding the mixture of colour temperature lights that prevail in the shots taken for 4.3. By using a single source and setting the shutter speed relatively high for some of the shots, I also managed to obscure the background in some of the studio shots, which would not have been possible in the daylight shots of 4.2. Above all, the light in this excercise was highly directional and in most cases quite harsh, which contrasts with most of the light in the shots I took for 4.3, which was more colourful but reasonably self-contained; although in both cases the light was capable of generating strong contrast, high dynamic range shots. Similarly, most of the shoots I took for 4.2 have a light which is less directional, more diffused and has less contrast than the shots done for 4.4. Having said that, I believe it would be possible to achieve similar results to the ones obtained with controlled light sources in this exercise by using both artificial and natural light in an uncontrolled scenario (eg by making use of harsh mid-day light flowing through a window or a sky-light, for instance), and in return, it should also be possible to imitate a natural light source or to complement an artificial one by making use of flash or other controlled light sources while achieving a natural result. This is what I intend to explore in assignment number 4.

Exercise 4.3

For this exercise I took a series of shots both indoors and on the street under various artificial light conditions. Here are some of my favorites:

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18.5mm (28mm equivalent). 1/100s at f5.6. ISO 1600

This is a picture of a zebra crossing light post against the cinema marquee, in central London. The shutter speed needed to be relatively fast in this case to capture the crossing light full on. What I particularly liked about this set up was the simplicity of the shapes and the color contrast between the warm glow of the lamp-post and the mainly cold light coming out of the marquee.

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27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 6400

In this picture of brickwork in the Barbican estate, in central London, what captured my imagination was the rim of cold light created by the street lamp-post directly above it. I tried to render it as dark as possible while still showing some shadow detail.

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27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 6400

This is an indoors shot of the ceiling of the Barbican centre. Light is filtered to alter its colour when reflected on the concrete shades. I like the combination of warm and cold light and this is what pulled me to this scene in the first place.

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27mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f2.8. ISO 6400

Returning home on a foggy night, I started by capturing the lamp posts only, but then was dragged down by the contrast between the warm glow of the lamps and the cold, blue light coming from the cars’ headlights.

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18.5mm (28mm equivalent). 1/100s at f5.6. ISO 3200

As part of this exercise, I did a series of night shots of traffic signs. Many of these are self-illuminated and come in bright blue or red colours. In the night they stand out against the dark background. In this shot, like the in the previous one, there is a combination of warm and cold light that blends together well.

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18.5mm (42mm equivalent). 1/30s at f8. ISO 400

The above is another indoors shot inside the Barbican Centre and is the only one that combines natural and artificial light. Once again, the cold light of the ring lamp surrounding the lightwell contrasts clearly with the warm light coming from this art installation (by Omer Arbel – see here for more details) and the neutral light from the skylights above.

—————— oooo ——————

The light in this pictures shows very little in common with the daylight shots I took for exercise 4.2. Other than perhaps the warm / cold contrast present in the early morning shot, which is also a feature of the artificial light shots shown above, daylight is much more diffused and results in a lower level of contrast than artificial light, which is much more contained or even directional. The lack of an even illumination also allows for the shapes of subjects to be more clearly defined under artificial light under certain circumstances, but this does not always work perfectly well. In the first shot of this series, the light coming from the top of the zebra crossing lamp-post is too weak to illuminate the entire top of the fixture, resulting in an area that the viewer is left to guess. Some subjects, particularly those which may be self illuminated, may exhibit better colour definition under artificial light, and when these are combined, like in the last two pictures in the series, they generate interesting colour combinations that cannot be easily perceived under daylight.

Exercise 4.2

For this exercise, I took several photographs of an office building near where I work. The pictures were taken over two days, both of which were sunny. Here is a set representing the best pictures from various times of the day.

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29-12-2016, 8:42:24 – 1/60s at f8. ISO 200

Early morning light, with the sun still rising and directly hitting just part of the building, with many other parts receiving limited light and being partially in shadow. Light has a warm glow, it is intense but not particularly harsh.

The low position of the sun creates an area of focus in part of the building which is quite pleasant, giving something for the eye to rest after surveying the frame. Elsewhere, the light reflected from the sky gives a subtle fill which allow the viewer to have a good idea of the shapes without these becoming overpowering.

 

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29-12-2016, 12:58:28. 1/125s at f8. ISO 200

Just after midday, the light reaches directly many parts of the building. Being winter, the light is still lateral rather than coming from above, but is significantly less warm than in the early morning shot.

Overall, the midday light, even during winter, lack a clear sense of direction and does not create the areas of focus we saw in the early morning shot. It is an intense, honest ilumination that makes the whole subject stand out against the background blue sky, but does so at the cost of excesive contrast, particularly in the front side of the building, and perhaps lack of pictorial interest.

 

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02-01-2017, 15:17:40. 1/60s at f8. ISO 200

Late afternoon shot, with warm, soft light illuminating the side of the building from a relatively low angle. The light is more subtle than in the early morning shot, both in warmth and intensity, but fills a greater portion of the frame. Contrast is lower than in the mid day shot, but still more marked than in the early morning shot.

The glow here is subtle and too disperse. The light has now entered at such an angle that is iluminating not only the main subject but also some of the adjecent structures, creating a bit of a distraction, rather than the clear, intense focus provided by the patch of warm light in the early morning shot.

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29-12-2016, 16:07:02. 1/60s at f8. ISO 3200

This shot was taken right after sun set, with the illumination mostly coming from the reflection of the sun in the sky. The light is noticeable colder than in previous cases and there is less contrast in the building.

The low intensity and relative coldness of the natural light here accentuates the contribution of the artificial light elements (which are present but less noticeable in the other shots) to the overall aestetics of the image. The light conditions also make the viewer more concious of the border features of the main subject, particularly the details of the roof which has an intresting crown-like shape that is less noticeable under the harsh midday light.

 

When considering the subject and how it is illuminated, out of the four shots my favourite is the early morning one. The reflected light from the sky creates enought detail in the shadows for us to have a clear idea of the main shapes, while the warm, direct sun patch of light makes the subject stand out without significantly overpowering it.
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