Being discrete

a game of pool - table corner with side lighting

Pool

How do you preserve confidentiality and tell a compelling story? This photo is my answer to that question in a very specific context.

Recently I have been working on a set of photographs for the Levenmouth Foodbank which will be used in a new brochure they are producing. One of the challenges of this project was to illustrate aspects of the work of the Foodbank whilst preserving the confidentially of those who use it. It’s important to be able to tell a story through these kind of images which, for me, fall into the genre of documentary.

Why the need for discretion? It’s probably well known that people who use foodbanks are not doing so through choice but because they have fallen on hard times financially, perhaps temporarily, or perhaps more long term. There is a natural stigma about this and, for the most part, no-one forced to use a foodbank would wish to be recognised as doing so. The trustees and volunteers at the foodbank, quite rightly, also wanted to protect the identity of their clients.

One of the surprising things for me was to find that there is so much more going on at a foodbank than handing out food. I can’t be sure if this applies to all of them, but the Levenmouth Foodbank also runs a café where clients can come in and get a cup of tea or coffee, a hot filled roll and biscuits or, occasionally, some cake. It’s also a social time when clients can meet with each other and chat with Foodbank Volunteers who can guide them with things like budgeting, job seeking etc.

During a shoot at the café I was attracted to the pool table where clients can have a relaxing game with one another or, typically, challenge a volunteer to a game. I wanted to be able to capture this and illustrate the importance of human interaction in a supportive way. I also had to be discrete.

I knew this would need to be a tightly focused shot (and I’m not talking depth of field here) closing in on the detail rather than going wide. The set up for this was pretty simple. I set up my light source (one speed light mounted on a light stand bounced into an umbrella) to the side of the table. I used a wireless trigger to allow me to roam around the table looking for compositions that would work.

The single light source allowed me to create a clear focal point for the image and the shadow cast by the player on the left emphasises the light on the table. I like that the eye is drawn to the action on the table and the cue of the player on the left provides a nice leading line into the composition. It’s obvious that there are two players here and, in the background, there is also one spectator clearly visible. Immediately, there is a sense of what’s going on here without having to reveal any faces.

One of the bonuses for me is that I feel the depth of foreground shadow helps to accentuate the action and perhaps this gives a sense that out of the darkness of despair, there is always the hope of light and better things to come.

 

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A personal project

Here we are behind the scenes at an outdoor photo shot for a personal project which I intend will result in a set of themed images. A little more on that later, let me first tell you about the planning and the shoot.

It’s easy to think of photography as just pointing a camera at a subject and taking a photo. Of course, if you’ve done more serious photography you know about the need to compose the shot, decide on your camera settings, desired depth of field and all that stuff. When it comes to realising an idea the amount of time behind the camera becomes such a small part of the whole process.

For a while I have been thinking about a concept for a series of images. At the moment I have no idea how many that might stretch to as it all depends on how creative I can be in exploring and illustrating the theme. A few months ago I had one very definite image I wanted to create and that was the driver for this photo shoot. I was clear in my own mind what I wanted to express in the image, how the composition would look, where it should be shot and what the general look of the image would be. To make that happen, I needed several things to come together:

  • some assistance
  • a couple of models
  • the right props – a card table, two chairs, a deck of cards, the relevant costumes a picture frame
  • and not least, a low or receding tide coinciding with either sunrise or sunset

This took weeks of planning through the summer and I realised that August was probably going to be the prime time to get the shot. During the planning, I developed another couple of ideas on the same theme, which meant that I could aim to create three or four images out of the one shoot.

While negotiating with friends, aiming to persuade them to help/model for me, I set about looking at tide charts and comparing those with times for sunrise and sunset to find the optimum dates on which to get the shoot done. A narrow window of opportunity appeared and a shoot time was set for 8pm on Tuesday 9 August. Sunset was due at 9pm and the tide would be receding, leaving me the wet sand I was looking for.

After a very dry summer, the days leading up the shoot were overcast and wet – it was entirely possible that the shoot would need to be abandoned if the weather didn’t improve. On the day of the shoot, the morning was wet and windy but the forecast showed this passing with sunny intervals appearing from around 7pm and, thankfully, the forecast was right.

So we set out a tarpaulin on the beach (sand and salty water are no friends to photographic equipment) in order to keep all the important things as well protected as possible.

And now, I am warmly sat before my computer doing the post-shoot editing and processing. This is definitely going to take longer that the shoot, but hopefully I will end up with some inspiring themed images which will be available as fine art prints.

The theme, I will tell you, is an exploration of the concept of absence. Perhaps my next blog post will be something about the creative process for this and maybe something on the editing work – what would you like? Please let me know by leaving a comment, or feel free to ask a question and I’ll do my best to pick those up in a future post.

Meantime I am grateful to my friend, Abbie Nelson, for the behind the scenes photos (above) and for helping me in bringing the shoot to reality.

Shadows and textures

It’s amazing what sometimes catches the eye making you stop and look closer. This morning when out walking the dog on a favourite route among the trees, I was enjoying once again the way light filtered through the leaves when I spotted strong light falling on a tree trunk casting clear leaf shadows onto the bark. I had to stop and take a closer look and became captivated by the number of textures I was seeing: light and shade, colour, contour, shape, rough and smooth.

The only camera I had in my possession was on my smart-phone, so I took the chance to take a shot and see what I could do with it. This shot was processed firstly in my phone using Lightroom CC then I picked it up back at base in Lightroom Classic on my computer where I made some fine tuning adjustments I just could not do on the phone.

leaves, shadows, bark, tree, textures, colours, nature

I love images with texture and, for me, that’s the main feature of this shot. Compositionally, it could be argued that the photo lacks a clear subject so there’s no natural place for the eye to settle and therefore you end up scanning round the image. Well, for me, that’s just fine as it hopefully helps you to appreciate the textures which are, in a sense, the subject of this image.

In any event, I like it and I hope you do too. If you like enough, you can buy a fine art print here.

 

The things you do

How do you illustrate an After School Club without using photographs of children doing what they do in the club?

I’m working on a project for a client to provide illustrative photographs for a website redesign and this is a question to which I’ve needed to find an answer. Why? Well, the obvious thing is to take a photo of the club in action but that would require shots of children and for that I’d need to get parental permission for every child in the photograph and that’s a logistical nightmare.

So, to avoid doing the obvious, I decided to ask the basic question: what is it the website needs to convey? Answer: that there is an After School Club. That opened up the opportunity to approach this in a different way. My original idea was to photograph a sign on a school gate and add some graphics to it so I set off in search of something appropriate that would also not identify any specific school. The answer ended up staring me in the face as I drove towards a school:

School street sign

I immediately envisaged a nice tidy crop on this with a graphic treatment that would clearly say there is an After School Club.

This is the end result:

Street sign composite

So how did I get there? Let me take you quickly through the process.

I did some initial work in Lightroom which involved slight adjustments to tone and contrast, lens corrections, straightening and cropping. The rest then happened in Photoshop where I worked with layers.

Photoshop layers

I find it helpful to name the layers so that it’s easier to make sure I am working on the correct one at any given time. As I drove home, it occurred to me that the background would be cluttered and distracting so when I got back I took a shot of the clouds which I intended to use as a background. That became a layer called Background copy (it now occurs to me it would have been easier to call it sky, but there you go; wise after the event).

I made a selection round the sign and used that selection to create a new layer via copy which I called Layer 1 and stacked that above the sky layer. I wanted to create a mixed approach to this graphically so decided that it would be good to have the word “Club” contained in a box like “School”. To do this, I made a careful selection round the “school” lozenge and again created a new layer with that. This one I called lozenge (finally getting down to one word labelling!). That was OK but it still contained the word School so that needed to come out. The easiest way to do this was to make a selection surrounding the word (but not touching the letters) and using the edit menu select fill/content aware. After that it was a simple job of tidying up some loose pixels using the clone stamp tool. Next I created a new text layer and typed the word “Club” which helpfully automatically renamed the layer. I moved that layer to overlap School and adjusted font and size until I had the closest match I could find. Then I moved the Club layer into position below School.

The next step was to create another text layer for After where I used a handwriting font, and free transform to place it just where I felt it had most impact. I was almost there, but two things still troubled me.

If you look at the original image you can see that the pole to which the sign is attached is off-centre. I decided to cut this into a new layer then reposition it centrally. That brought a better balance to the image.

Finally, I felt the sky was just too distracting so applied a gentle blur to make sure all the attention went on the actual sign.

And these, my friends, are the things you do to deliver on a brief.

One to go back to

rock, beach, water, calm, sky, low tide, ripples

Rock, water, sky

It was low tide this morning when walking the dog along the beach so we went a little further than usual to where I know there are rocks and pools. This mini scene caught my eye and I was struck by the calmness of the water in this extensive but shallow pool left by the receding tide. Immediately I was thinking about a possible photographic composition but this was no more than something I might end up noting for the future – potentially one to go back to with the proper gear. All I has was my ‘phone but it’s invaluable for recording possible compositions.

This one needed a good focal point and I thought the seaweed covered rock offered a decent subject reflecting gently in the water. I felt this needed a low angle of attack so I walked into the water and crouched as low as I could to get the foreground filled with the pool and the include the sky where the cloud offered a nice “sandwich” effect with the bright horizon more or less central.

Given that this was a “scouting” shot” you might ask if it’s worth doing any processing on the phone image – yes, absolutely it is because, for me at least, it helps me see more of the potential of the composition and what I might look for in going back. Of course, anything I later do will be different, because the conditions will be different but, having gone through the full process, I have a much better idea of the possibilities.

So, I thought I would take you through the editing adjustments I made to get the final “scouting” shot above. First of all, here’s a before and after comparison to show how the image looked straight out of the phone compared to the final result:

rock, beach, water, calm, sky, low tide, ripples

before and after

All the editing was done in Lightroom and the comparison above is taken from the Lightroom Before/After function. The red area in the “before” shot is showing up as I keep highlight and shadow clipping switched on, so this is showing areas of sky that are blown out. So, where did I begin and what adjustments did I make to end up with the final “after” image?

First of all, and I pretty much always do this, is I made lens corrections and ticked to remove chromatic aberrations. After that I went into the basic menu in Lightroom and selected the auto tone option. I don’t always do this, but on this occasion I felt it would give me a decent baseline to work from. Working sequentially, I then did the following:

Exposure – dropped by about half a stop

Contrast – reduced slightly

Highlights – to deal with the blown-out area I used a brush adjustment to localise the effect only where I wanted it – in specific areas of sky

Shadows – slightly lightened

Whites – slightly lightened apart from the sky where, as part of the brush adjustment, I also dropped the whites slightly darkened

Blacks – were slightly darkened

Clarity – go carefully with this, but increased it slightly

Dehaze – as with clarity (both of these affect contrast)

Vibrance – slightly increased

I then made some colour channel adjustments, increasing the saturation of green while also adjusting it’s hue. This was to help make the rock stand out a little more as the key subject. I also made some slight adjustments to purple and magenta (hue and saturation) to bring about the effect I wanted in the sky and the sand below the water.

Finally I added a slight vignette to draw the eye towards the centre of the composition.

Having done all of that I feel this is one I might return to with the full gear even though I know it will inevitably be different. Rehearsing the whole process has encouraged me to think there is some potential here.

It also occurs to me that this shows there is much more to photography than just “taking a snap”.

 

The importance of story

I am currently working on a project to provide photographs for a website redesign. One of the challenges is that I can’t identify people within the photographs unless I have their written permission. Normally that’s fine and permissions can be obtained. But one aspect of what I needed to shoot required absolute confidentiality, for good reason.

One of the areas I needed to cover is a Foodbank. For many people the Foodbank is a genuine life saver  but it’s something no-one really wants to have to rely on and there’s a potential embarrassment in being known to use a Foodbank. When I turned up I was given a tour and explanation of what happens when people come in need of the help that’s available. They are generally referred and will have a voucher to use the Foodbank. They are met and gently welcomed by volunteers who appreciate how difficult this might be for the beneficiary. First off, they have a chat with a volunteer over a coffee and usually some biscuits. Here the Foodbank volunteer tries to create a friendly and compassionate conversation which allows them to do some of the necessary things such as checking for food allergies and dietary intolerances etc. Generally though, the beneficiaries just need to talk with someone friendly, have their story heard and be taken seriously.

This was what I felt I needed to capture in a photo and, especially when you can’t show faces, story becomes really important. So, while this shot was carefully set up, I think it manages to tell the story – of course, the context in which it finally sits will help and hopefully will inform the photo as much as the photo informs the context.

a confidential meeting over a coffee and biscuits

meeting in confidence

I entitled this photo “meeting in confidence” as the meeting is both confidential and one of it’s aims is to give the beneficiary confidence.

Foodbanks are run by The Trussell Trust and do a brilliant job. The project I am working on is not for The Trussell Trust but the Foodbank in question is directly related to it.

 

Refreshing, inspiring and prompting thought

Clouds part to reveal the Mont Blanc Massif

Mont Blanc Massif

This image is available to buy from my website as a fine art print. Perhaps at this point I should be clear that if you buy a print, it will not have my signature watermark so it is a clean image.

There are differing opinions about what constitutes a fine art photograph and this is largely due to the fact that there is no universally agreed definition. Fine art photography seems to cover a wide range of subject matter and can almost be seen as anything that isn’t otherwise categorised, such as: photojournalism, science photography, portraiture etc. A broad consensus seems to lie around the idea that a fine art photograph is more generally about the vision of the photographer and their creative input to produce an image they have preconceived in some way. Personally, I think there’s more subtlety to it than that. Any time I take a photograph, be it documentary, portrait, product or anything else, I am always thinking about how I want the final image to look and I think that’s true for most, if not all, serious photographers.

Taking all of that as read, I believe that fine art images are those that refresh, inspire and prompt us to think. They are images that communicate and hold an inherent beauty in the eye of the beholder. Essentially they are images you would want to hang on your wall and look at, and the image above, of the Mont Blanc Massif emerging from parting cloud, hangs on my wall at home.

I took this photograph a few years ago when visiting Chamonix. There is an element of serendipity about it as I happened to be in just the right place at just the right time to capture the drifting clouds revealing the mountains beyond. To get to the image above, though, I needed to do some work in Lightroom to create the mood and atmosphere I remembered at the time I fired the shutter.

I appreciate that we don’t all buy images on a regular basis but if this photograph refreshes and inspires you to thought, then next time you are looking for a picture to hang on the wall, why not remember this one and maybe also look at the others I have available.

Thank you.