People and the Environment – Living on Water in an Urban Landscape – Short list

My research has led me to explore contrast, colour, but above all, narrative through the final submission for project 1 ‘People and the Environment’.  Choosing a subject which gave me the most photographic opportunities was key, in being able to provide a narrative to the shots.  Following my ‘Don’t give up’ moment, I settled on shooting ‘Living on Water in an Urban Landscape’.  While not a particularly provocative subject, I felt my research and development in photography was best supported through choosing a more simple subject which could allow me to develop the ideas that have hit home the most over the last few months.

Most of the photographers I have researched have used medium format cameras to allow various facets of their respective work to be best demonstrated to the viewer.  Shooting with a digital SLR, I decided to use a medium focal length prime lens as this would have far fewer elements, providing greater colour saturation and tonal range.

Armed with a 135mm lens (only 4 elements) from the 1970s and a modern day wide angle (so I could revert to my photographic comfort blanket), I headed for Little Venice, close to Paddington station in London.  My aim was to provide a narrative to the back drop of life on water (Adams, Koudelka, Freeman) but explore contrast and colour (Eggleston, McCurry, Lachapelle).  I was minded of Cartier-Bresson’s comments of a splice of time and the rather melancholy moralistic view ‘On Photography’ of Sontag as I travelled closer to the waterways.  Below are the shortlist shots from that day:

In exploring the themes of contrast, colour and narrative the latter has posed the biggest challenge, but something which can’t be ignored, and ultimately pleased to have grappled with.  This particular element of a cohesive work is embodied and second nature to all those artists I have explored and feel those shots in the submission shortlist are cohesive, with the exception of the sunset landscape shot (my preferred area stylistically and in this case not a great image anyway).  As I started reviewing the shots for submission, I became acutely aware of how my photography is changing.  The narrative through the shortlist has been a success for me personally as I came to terms with this crucial concept.  In the final submission post for the first project, I will reference my research on narrative, colour and contrast and evaluate the shots for submission in this context.

Criteria 2,3,4,5

Lighting and Exposure taken steadily to extreme

Following my initial investigations it was time to start delving into the technical elements of high dynamic range in a single shot, by putting research into practice……

Ansel Adams worked to develop exposure groups in his compositions (initially 10 in total).  These eventually fell into seven zones and gave rise to the celebrated ‘Zone System’.  Many of the modern matrix metering systems used today incorporate similar methodologies by looking at the mean light levels and evaluating light and dark tones.

In my first test shoot, I wanted to explore a cityscape which gave the mood and feel associated with film noir.  To achieve this I was going to shoot in B&W and incorporate a high dynamic range.  Most of the compositions I was not entirely happy with, but my final shot did capture the mood and compositional elements intended (including the deliberate leading lines towards the subject).  A long exposure of 50s and low ISO of 100 at night gave the smooth water effects.  A clear sky would not normally result in an interesting sky/backdrop to a cityscape.  In this case, I think the shot worked, as it added to the high dynamic range.  Unfortunately, however, in my final test image, the highlights are clipped on the right of the image by the river bank.

In evaluation of the shots, and as Farell, Freeman and Peterson specifically comments on, exposing for the highlights in chiaroscuro type images is a must.  If this shot below had been exposed just one/two stops down, the dynamic range would have been better, but more importantly, enhanced ‘The Shard’ further as the subject.  In future, I will look for the highlights, check histogram, but expose specifically for the highlights in the frame.  An unexpected observation was that so much of the work Adams and other rely less on rule of thirds, leading lines etc, but that the viewer is drawn into their subject through very skilled exposure.  That doesn’t mean to say these other elements were absent, far from it, but that exposure was the chief proponent.

Millennium Bridge View 2

Millennium Bridge View 2

A weekend R&R was in order, but of course, stayed calm and took a light camera bag with only a few lenses.  Suffolk was beautiful and fully anticipating great colours and shapes in shots ready to challenge Dykinga.   But really struggled and later realised, forgot the polariser….

My second idea was to capture human interaction with the environment in its most obvious form – farming.  This set of test shots all fell a little flat.  The shapes were all there, but the contrast was not in the images at all, lacking vibrant colour and in the end lead to quite dull subjects.  I could have looked towards the shadows formed by the hay bails really close up and filled the frame or got closer to the machinery and contrasted that with the  natural colour around them.

Later in the evening reflecting on a poor shoot, recalled a group discussion about letting your subject come to you.  Sitting in front of a wood burning stove, with the moon and stars out (with no light pollution), I had natural high dynamic light levels all around me!  Pushing the sensor in the DSLR to pick up stars or the  stove and exposing for the highlights was much more in keeping with looking at high dynamic ranges or extremes of light.  The wood burning stove was an interesting subject to include, I really like the red and black contrasts as well as the moonlight hitting the roof, despite the flare in the lense.  It was an interesting concept to consider, how photography can elicit these kind of responses to our environment, in this case the feeling of heat in low light levels.  The test exposures against the night sky, I suspect is the most extreme test of modern day sensors.   I was not really concerned with composition in the astro shots,  I just grabbed the opportunity as the area did not suffer from light pollution and not often shooting in areas that dont suffer from this.  At ISO1600 or 800 and the fastest wide angle with me being a 20mm f2.8, I had expected quite a bit of noise in the shots.  Was pleased, at least, to pickup the milkyway dust cloud .

Fire Shot 2

Fire Shot 2

In the most recent of my test shots, I wanted explore light as it falls  during the day and exposing specifically for that.  I follow a local photographer, Alex Saberi, given the way he has shot light falling in Richmond park.  While this is a slight deviation from chiaroscuro, I feel its an exceptional use of light to create both contrast and texture in his work, displaying stunning natural beauty of his local environment.  The early morning light in Suffolk did not disappoint and attempted exposing specifically for the light as it passed the leaves in a tree.

Suffolk Morning Mist 1

Suffolk Morning Mist 1

Suffolk Morning Mist 3

Suffolk Morning Mist 3

Despite shooting multiple exposures of the light falling through the trees, the shot ‘Suffolk Morning Mist 1’ did not have the degree of contrast I was after.  Using a good 50mm f1.4. I was exposing for the highlights, but had to stop down in ‘Suffolk Morning Mist 3’ to get the mist and murky atmosphere.  Plenty of followup work and practice here for me to really take this forward.


  1. Adams, A ‘The Camera’ (Bullfinch Press, 2003)
  2. Adams, A ‘The Negative’ (Bullfinch Press, 2002)
  3. Adams, A ‘The Print’ (Bullfinch Press, 2006)
  4. Freeman, M ‘The Photographers Eye’ (Focal Press, 2007)
  5. Farrell, I ‘Complete Guide to Digital Photography’ (Quercus, 2014)
  6. Langford, M ‘Langford’s Advanced  Photography’ (7th Ed., Focal Press, 2008)
  7. Langford, M ‘Langford’s Basic  Photography’ (10th Ed., Focal Press, 2015)
  8. Peterson, B ‘Understanding Exposure’ (3rd Ed., Amphoto Books, 2010)

Criteria: 1,2,4,5