Assignment 4: A sense of place

Assignment brief

This assignment will draw together all of the various strands explored so far including the skills in camera handling, observation and reaction, and the underlying appreciation of what spaces and buildings mean for the people who live in and among them. Imagine that you are on an assignment for an intelligent, thoughtful travel publication (not tourism promotion) and demanding considered, in-depth treatment.
Aim to produce sufficient images on specific location to fill, say, six pages. This would mean about six final images as chosen, but at least twice this number of good, publishable images from which to make the final selection. Decide on a place that you know well, or are prepared to take the time to know well, and have sufficient access to in order to complete a strong selection of a dozen images. It could be a town, village, the borough of city, or any area that you can define well enough. Aim to show the character of the place and of the people who live there with as much visual variety as possible. ‘Variety’ should include variety of subject matter and of scale.

When you have completed the photography, write a short assessment in your learning log of:

  • what you set out to achieve, including a description of how you see the essential character of the place
  • how well you think you succeeded, including opportunities that were not available to you because of lack of time or access
  • how you might have approached the assignment if you had simply been taking photographs with no end-result in mind (meaning an article to be published).


Click any image to view full size in a new window. 


A4-A: 67mm, ISO 100, 1/80@f8

Image A4-A is an establishing shot, it sets the context for the image series.  The South Bank is a place for strolling, it’s iconic and bounded by one of the world’s most famous rivers.  The Lowry-esque figures provide a sense of business and of scale – similar to the ‘small and many’ people anonymous project.  Their clothing communicates the time of year and, the fact that some are pausing to take photographs, tells the viewer that this is a notable destination.  The paved path and the receding line of street lights make it easy to understand that this is a pathway.  This image was made from a high vantage point on Tower Bridge, I think that it works well as a scene setter.


A4-B: 85mm, ISO 100, 1/160@f8

A4-B is a close up of a temporary outdoor exhibition that took place, albeit on a different date, in the background area of A4-A.  I think the individuals looking at the photographs are locals rather than tourists.  The fact that the children within the buggy are looking at the children in the display appealed to me. The woman too is clearly paying attention to the display, reading what it is about, and so the image provides a sense that this is a place with thought provoking things to see.  The figures in the background continue the sense established in A4-A that this is a popular and well used place. The baseball-hatted foreground shadow, (which isn’t me), adds further interest.


A4-C: 24mm, ISO 400, 1/200@f4, flash

Within my selection I wanted to ensure that both local people and visitors were included.  These BMX riders, below the Royal Festival Hall, provided the opportunity both to capture their activity and also its context.  It’s my understanding that the graffiti in this area is tolerated and so it provides a great backdrop to the cyclists.  I took many many photographs at this location honing my ability to fire the shutter at the right moment.  I have chosen this particular photograph because the onlooking participants in the mid-ground and background add a sense of the experience shared by the cyclists. There is some motion blur as the shutter speed needed to synch with the flash was not fast enough to freeze the movement within that part of the exposure lit by the ambient light.


A4-D: 55mm, ISO 400 1/125@f8

The brief stated that I should use all the skills developed in the course so far and that of course includes candid photography as here in A4-D.  It would be easy of course to simply photograph the various street entertainers who frequent the South Bank.  Instead, I set out to capture the interaction between visitors and entertainers.  This candid shot is open to the accusation of being something of a cliché but the look on the girl’s face and the reaction of her mother convinced me to include it in the series.


A4-E: 105mm, ISO 200, 1/125@f8

In A4-E, I have chosen to change the balance between the people and space.  This composition also helps to suggest, as I believe was the case in reality, that these two are so immersed in their conversation that they have temporarily become unaware of the place and even of the temperature – witness the woman’s frozen right hand.  In an ideal world I would have preferred the lighting to be reversed i.e. a lit foreground and a darker background – see my notes further below on how well did I succeed.


A4-F: 105mm, ISO 400, 1/200@f8

As the sun sets at the Westminster end of the South Bank, particularly in winter, very long shadows are thrown.  This change in the light also brings about a change in the mood perceived within the images.  The people seem more relaxed as they stroll in the low sunlight.  There is a warmth to the colour temperature of the image and the long shadows add graphic interest.  There is a sense that these visitors are calm and content.


In order to separate out my ‘second’ six images I concentrated on looking at how a ‘first’ six selection might work as a sequence for the purposes of the magazine article.  This proved a helpful technique although I believe that some of the images from the ‘first’  six could be substituted by some of the ‘second’ six and that there would still be a meaningful sequence.


A4-G: 98mm, ISO 400, 1/100@f6.3

I made images of this scene from a variety of positions including behind the crowd, within the crowd and along the line of the crowd.  I preferred this image because the frontal view allows us to see some of the reactions within the crowd, and what they are focusing on.  Although the individuals in the crowd are relatively anonymous you can tell from their body language that some are engaged in what is happening on the beach.  From the point of view of the travel article I would hope that this image provides the writer with a surprising and unexpected scene to write about.


A4-H: 50mm, ISO 400, 1/125@ f8

A4-H is a relatively close 50mm shot showing a visitor literally engaging with a street entertainer!  By keeping the image simple and uncluttered I hope to convey the surreal and eccentric nature of this scene.  In this example, the river and background buildings are recognisable as London but simple act as a backdrop to the scene set up by the entertainer.


A4-I: 40mm, ISO 400, 1/200@ f8

I followed the principles of the ‘a single figure small’ project for this image.  It attracts very positive feedback from those I have shown the series to and is one of my personal favourites.  When viewed at full size, the inscription. ‘There are two things scarce matched in the universe, the sun in Heaven and the Thames on Earth.’ seems especially apt as the figure faces the densely built panorama in front of him.  The red bus, although a small detail on the right hand side, instantly identifies the location as London. I originally took this image because to me it suggested that a little peace and solitude is possible even amidst the hustle and bustle of the South Bank at weekend.  I’ve included it in the ‘second string’ because the writer would also need to be covering that angle – which may not be the case.


A4-J: 40mm, ISO 3200, 1/500@f5

This ‘close and involved’ image captures something of the nature of Borough Market.  In the foreground we see some of the ‘goodies’ that are on sale.  The buyer looks pleased with his deal and the crowd in the background suggests the business and popularity of this location.  The strip light also serves as a nice compositional device to lead the eye towards the contact point between the two people as money changes hands.


A4-K: 105mm, ISO 800, 1/50@f8

There are many people trying to sell things on the South Bank.  The red colour of this woman’s mat, tights and hair immediately draw the eye in this scene, especially in view of the dark winter clothes of everyone else. The fact that the passersby are literally passing her by makes this woman seem even more out on a limb.  The similarity in texture and pattern of her fur coat and the background silver birch trees also adds a sense of quirkiness as does the yawning man on the right hand edge.  Perhaps this image is a less obvious one to include, but for me, part of the attraction of the South Bank and of the people present there are the slightly oddball scenes that I encounter as I walk along. I hope that this might also be true for some of the readers of the travel article.


A4-L: 82mm, ISO 1250, 1/40@ f5.6

I am also taking a slight risk with this final image A4-L.  I was keen to capture people eating and drinking on the South Bank – although the winter weather limited my subject matter!  The strength of this image is that there is a lot to see both outside and inside -the expression on the nearest man’s face, the man in the window showing photographs on his phone,  and the mixed medley of external and internal people and their reflections.  The South Bank is a place where people socialise and talk and this image captures quite a number of people engaged in just those activities.

The downsides of this particular image are that its letterbox format may not suit the magazine and the use of a diagonal viewpoint means that there is a considerable amount of unused space on the left hand side.  Perhaps the designers could use this for words for the heading – but perhaps I kid myself!


What I set out to achieve

The South Bank is quite a diverse area with many different things happening at any one time. I tend to walk it from West to East and then back again, but with an additional stretch near the London Eye on my return leg. This means that broadly I pass through:

  • the formal arts and concert area
  • the ‘tolerated’ graffiti and skateboarding zone used by some very skilful people
  • the edgier arts area of Gabriel’s Wharf
  • the design shops of the Oxo Tower
  • the tourist areas around London Bridge and Borough Market
  • Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge
  • Tower Bridge and More London
  • Shad Thames
  • The London Eye area.

This meant that I had plenty to go at during each of my visits to the area. I was quite concerned to ensure that I met the magazine brief and sought additional clarification from my tutor. I set out to show people experiencing this place. These people were an eclectic mix, tourists, visiting Londoners and a few locals. Even in January, there are plenty of people out and about on the South Bank and the place becomes busier and busier as the day progresses. I approached the assignment by pre-thinking the range and types of shots I hoped to secure. These included:

  • a scene setting wide shot establishing the context
  • people interacting with each other
  • a person or people interacting with the location – its environment or facilities
  • the range and variety of events, activities or pastimes around the location
  • a sense of the iconic location
  • a close up of someone engaged in an activity in the area.

How well did I succeed?

This project proved more challenging than I expected on a number of levels. One constant challenge was the light. By definition, the South Bank faces north; it is also a relatively narrow strip of open space bounded by dense and high buildings to its south. This means that in January, when I was shooting, most of the South Bank is in day-long shadow with only a few places that have light by virtue of gaps between the boundary buildings.  Although, over my visits, I began to learn those places where light does get through, more often than not I simply had to use higher ISOs, wider apertures and try to make the best of the available light.  The same was also true for camera positions where the narrowness of the pathway, bounder by river and buildings limits the options and range of backgrounds.

Prior to beginning the assignment I drafted some storyboards of the subjects I might photograph and also brainstormed a list or two of potential topics and ideas.  I thought about actually outlining the article in order to make sure my images would ‘flow’.  With the benefit of hindsight, I think that it would have been worthwhile writing that outline – however, in practice, I would assume this would be part of the journalist’s role.

In carrying out this assignment I added to the approaches in earlier projects and learnt by doing so.  For example, I ‘staked out’ certain areas, pre-framing, pre-focusing and then waiting, hoping for a jogger, a cyclist or some other relevant subject to appear.  Non of these images made my final selection but I did learn from the experience, in particular I learnt to compose my images in a way that maximised the chance of a successful image whether the random subject appeared from the left or the right etc. etc.  A similar pre-framing approach was used to capture images of skateboarders and BMX riders where trying to catch the action through the viewfinder was simply not possible.

It also became clear to me during the assignment that when I had a clear idea in mind, my photography was more engaged, more productive and more likely to result in a successful image.  During those periods when I was less focused, without a developed idea of what I was looking for, the photography was more difficult and less successful.  Of course, there were moments of inspiration during such times, luck does favour the prepared!

The final point I would make is that, again with the benefit of hindsight, I invested too much time in certain areas seeking particular shots.  For example, I spend pretty much a whole day at Borough Market but in the end used only one image from that long day.  I enjoyed myself whilst I was there but by committing too much to that location, I actually limited my options for my final selection – I could have generated more choices and more variety – lesson learned!

If I had approached the assignment with no end result in mind

With no end in mind, I imagine that I would photographed the area in a reactive way, responding to events or scenes that caught my eye in passing. Doubtless some such images would have some visual interest but I doubt that they would be less likely to work cohesively as a whole. Moreover, such an approach is likely to be less telling, in the sense that I would be engaged in reacting rather than communicating my own viewpoint.

Summary and conclusions

I hope that my learning log notes on this assignment are  reasonably comprehensive.  The key learning point for me was to reinforce the idea of ‘start with the end in mind’ –  the clearer I am on this the better my results can be.

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