Category Archives: documentary

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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Changing your point of view

When you are prepared to change your point of view, things sometimes just look better.

“Better”, of course, is subjective and what I think is better, someone else might not. The point, photographically, is that it’s always worth scouting around a subject and not just accepting the first view offered. To illustrate this, here’s an example.

Recently my wife and I were exploring the East Neuk of Fife and we had parked by the harbour in Anstruther. As we walked towards neighbouring Cellardyke we were faced by this intriguing sculpture virtually on the border between the two towns and giving a clear indication of their fishing tradition.

sculpture of fish, nets and boats

A fishing heritage

This photo was taken exactly in the direction we were facing as we approached. My concern at the time was to try to frame the shot so that the fish were nicely contrasted against the white wall of the house behind. Fair enough, but at the time I thought, “pretty standard stuff”. It shows context and is maybe the kind of shot that would make it into a brochure advertising the area.

I didn’t find it all that satisfying at the time, and thought there must be something different to be had here. As you can perhaps detect from the picture, the light was from behind and left. This was evening and the sun was going down.

I’m generally on the look out for different views and perspectives (seeing the familiar differently) so I did what now comes fairly naturally and walked round the sculpture to see what other views had to offer. And that led to this:

sculpture of fish, nets and boats in close-up

fishing heritage

Now, I find this much more creatively and artistically satisfying. This was taken from the other side of the sculpture, looking back towards where the previous one was shot from. Now we are shooting much more into the light and creating more contrast. I decided to get in close and fill the frame with the fish and net. The lamp posts in the background are enough to indicate that this is outside and I deliberately chose a wide aperture here to minimise depth of field and throw them out of focus. In post, I was tempted to emphasise the contrast and go for a black and white finish,  but I like the subtle colour in the evening sky and, when you look, there are also subtle hues to be picked up on the sculpture. I thought it was worth preserving those and adding to the interest.

So there we have it. Changing your point of view when photographing a subject can radically alter how you portray it. I said at the start that when you do this things sometimes just look better. Well, I have my preference, but what do you think? I’d be fascinated to see some comments.

Of course, much depends on what you are shooting the image for – there’s my caveat.

 

 

Focus folly

two men standing in a doorway at night

two men and a doorway

Here’s a curious one, which I’m calling a focus folly.

I was in St Andrews to get some photos of their St Andrews Day celebrations, but mainly the fireworks. Walking along the street my attention was taken by these two chaps standing in a doorway having a smoke. My line of sight was across the rooftop of a parked car and the way the light was falling on the raindrops intrigued me as a foreground. I had no time to set up a tripod so getting anything here was reliant on being quick and hand-held with a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake. This meant a high ISO of 10000 and the inevitable grain that would go with it. I quickly chose my composition and, using an aperture of f5.6 took two shots – one with the foreground droplets as the focal point and a second with the two men as the focal point. At this time I had no idea what I might end up doing with the shots, if anything.

Getting the shots on screen I really liked the way the foreground raindrops worked with the deep bokeh of the background. The trouble was, that this meant the two men were also out of focus and they really made sense as the subject of the photo. I did, however, have a second image in which they were in focus. At which point I was straight into Photoshop and working with layers and a mask to produce the end result we have here.

Why am I calling this a focus folly? Simply because this is a manufactured effect but I think it works with the foreground leading you directly to the main subject without all the other background distractions.

Now, after all of that, did I get any shots of the fireworks? I certainly did….

St Andrews fireworks-4988

Fife Heritage Railway

What could be more entertaining than a photography enthusiast doing his thing while some railway restoration enthusiasts were doing theirs? That was the joy when I recently had the opportunity to do a shoot at Fife Heritage Railway. This one was especially enjoyable as I regarded it as a documentary shoot – capturing something of the story and it’s context.

Here are some of my personal favourites from the shoot.

fading,and rusting train engine

Old engine

coupling two trains

coupling up

reconditioned old train engine

Old steam engine

cleaning a steam engine

cleaning

how railway wagons are coupled together

coupled wagons

checking the train engine

train engineer

life on the footplate

train driver

All the photographs were processed in Lightroom with some further, minor adjustments for tone in Photoshop.