Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Assignment 1: Commentary


Approaching this assignment, my initial thoughts were to trawl around the city trying to capture scenes that individually expressed the adjectives stated in the contrasts and then pair them together. Whilst this would offer the opportunity to create some interesting images it did not seem to capture the essence of photographic contrast. Around the same time I was studying Johannes Itten’s book, Design and Form, referred to as the inspiration for this assignment. His approach centered upon teaching his students to fully explore the concepts behind design, texture, colour, structure and how they interrelate in the creative process, working with many different materials and art forms. For Itten, photography would simply be one of a multitude of creative tools to achieve contrast, for this project it is all that is available.

In photography we simply have light and a means to record it; however, how we record and even create the light is the essence of the art form. In this assignment I have attempted create the contrasts using the basic tools of photography: exposure, focal length, lighting, processing, vantage point, and time, but in each case utilize exactly the same subject. The only change to the subject that I permitted was background.

The challenge was then to discover subjects that would allow me to create the contrasts. I have split the pairs evenly between found situations in the city and created situations using a tabletop studio. The final contrast combined within a single image stretched this concept somewhat.

I have detailed the lens and exposure details in each pair. All photos were taken with a Canon EOS 5D MkII. For the studio based images I utilized a pair of Speedlite 580EX’s with an ST-E2 remote trigger on the camera.


This combination was shot in a foot subway under one of Munich’s main roads near the river. The subway is heavily covered in graffiti which is quite rare in Munich, normally a very clean city. I started looking at the vertical lighting that stretched all the way along the underpass and the contrast that the brightly painted graffiti made with the grey concrete walls.

An image taken with a high shutter speed reduced the lights to vertical lines on a black background. As the shutter speed decreased, the lights blew out, but allowed the shape and colour of the graffiti to come through. Combined with the shadowing of the lights the overexposed image emphasizes curves, as opposed to the straight lines of the underexposed image.

Variable: Exposure modified with shutter speed

Camera Settings:
Straight: 17-40mm f/4L, 24mm, f/4.5, 1/100s, ISO 100
Curved: 17-40mm f/4L, 24mm, f/4.5, 1/2s, ISO 100


For the past three years a major project, no more than a block from where I live, has taken Munich’s inner ring road and placed it underground – great improvement in the local environment, but also offering interesting photo opportunities.

We frequently use words associated with continuums such as a liquid to describe what are essentially discrete moving objects, such as cars, aircraft, or production lines. At the most basic level all physical systems are particulate by nature, it is only the time frame we choose to measure them with that determines whether they are continuous or intermittent. With this sequence I wanted to demonstrate this contrast with a camera comparing the traffic flow with the individual nature of the cars within the stream.

It took a couple of visits to get the right position and lens, at first I tried a wide angle (17mm) portrait view which failed as the foreground had too little content. I think a slightly wider framing might help, the road entering from the right would add a little more interest to the image, perhaps a 200mm lens rather than the 300mm.

Variable: Exposure, primarily shutter speed, but also aperture and ISO

Camera Settings:
Continuous: 300mm f/4L, 300mm, f/25, 30s, ISO 100
Intermittent: 300mm f/4L, 300mm, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 6400


This pair was taken at the Munich “Haus der Kunst”, now a gallery dedicated to modern art in all its forms, However, it started life with the very opposite intention. This building was the first of the Nazi regimes monumental building projects and built to house the new correct “German” art. One of the first exhibitions held there was of degenerate art, either modern or created by people of the wrong ethnicity. So it is quite ironic how it now promotes leading edge artists.

The exterior of the building is grey and forbidding, massive columns dominating the front of the building. The pair of images are taken to illustrate the transformation of this hard exterior into a massive work of art. On October 12th an exhibition opens by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist noted for his criticism of the regime there. As part of this exhibition the entire fa├žade of the gallery has been covered with a wire mesh on which coloured school childrens rucksacks were being attached spelling out a series of huge Chinese letters. These bags symbolize the scattered belongings of the Chinese school children who died in the recent earthquakes. Ai Weiwei was one of the few people in China openly critical of the government over their handling of the Earthquake, and was much moved when he visited the collapsed schools in the disaster zone.

This contrast chronicles the covering of the austere hard exterior of the Haus der Kunst, with the soft school backpacks. However, in a sense the contrast could be reversed, the museum is now the soft friendly gallery open to all, whilst the rucksacks symbolize the death of many children as a result of lack of investment by the hard government. Finally Ai Weiwei was badly beaten prior to coming to Munich to oversee this exhibition requiring brain surgery!

Variable: The elapse of time as the building is covered by rucksacks

Camera Settings:
Hard: 24-105mm f/4L, 47mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO 200
Soft: 24-105mm f/4L, 35mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 200


Fortunately the work for this assignment coincided with the annual madness that is Munich’s Oktoberfest, providing me with the opportunity for some interesting night photography. Although most famous for the 6 million beer drinking visitors it is also one of the largest non-permanent fairs in the world.

For this pair I wanted to capture the brilliant colour of the fairground rides against black night sky, using shutter speed to either freeze the frame or provide movement blur. In theory this is pretty straightforward, a sturdy tripod, careful selection of lens and then patience to create the shots. In practice it is anything but, by the time the light was dark enough to shoot at around 8pm, the Fest had been open for 10 hours of serious drinking, resulting in an ongoing game of take a picture of me and my inebriated mates! The other challenge is framing and finding an angle that dramatizes the rides. The most obvious attraction was the big wheel, but any plan view would result in severe perspective distortion due to the sheer size of the wheel and the lack of a distant viewpoint. Thus, I chose to shoot from almost under the wheel and to position the wheel at a slant in the frame to create more drama. This also had the advantage of being out of the crowd!

Variable: Exposure, primarily shutter speed, but also aperture and ISO

Camera Settings:

Still: 17-40mm f/4L, 17mm, f/4, 1/320, ISO 6400

Moving: 17-40mm f/4L, 17mm, f/18, 4s, ISO 100


Prior to working in the IT industry I spent some time as a scientist working in the field of solid state physics. A major interest then was the changing nature of matter as the scale of view changes, something smooth at a macroscopic level could be extremely rough at the microscopic level. For this pair I wanted to illustrate that comparison by imaging pebbles at different magnifications.

After a short search I managed to find suitably smooth and rough subject matter. The smooth shot was fairly straightforward, just a case of setting up the lighting and selecting an angle that emphasized smoothness. The second rough shot was more challenging as working at 5X magnification is challenging, the frame only covering 7mm width and depth of field measured in microns. I used a macro rail offering very fine adjustment, the canon 65mm macro lens is not autofocus and the only effective way to focus the lens is to select the magnification ratio and then move the lens back and forwards relative to the subject. The final image chosen is a close up of a small crack in the pebbles in the top right hand corner of the image showing the crystalline nature of the rock and a vein of impurity. I have cropped a little to frame the crack better.

Ideally I would have selected a material with a greater surface roughness such as pumice stone, but I was unable to find a good sample. I also liked the reflective surface of the pebbles.

Variable: Magnification

Camera Settings:

Smooth: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/32, 1/125s, ISO 100

Rough: 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro, 35mm, f/16, 1/125s, ISO 100


This pair was inspired directly by the teaching of Johannes Itten. Essentially it reflects the fact that the property that is Light or Dark can only be defined in relation to another shade. An object on a black background will appear light, if placed against a white background it will appear dark.

I found an interesting object with a fairly neutral shade (no idea what it is) and a shop that sold sheets of felt. Armed with black and white felt I then took a series of photo’s of the object placed on each material. The principal challenge was to provide even lighting that also avoided significant shadow. On the black background I was able to achieve fairly uniform and pleasing lighting. On the white background I had more difficulties and the lighting solution that minimized shadow has left the right hand side of the object too bright. However, this is my humble homage to Johannes Itten.

Variable: Background

Camera Settings:
Light: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 100
Dark: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 100


In this pair I have primarily used lighting to create the contrast, reflective versus transmissive. An object is only opaque or transparent by degrees. As an example of this whilst clean water is usually viewed as transparent it has significantly different effects on different wavelengths. In the ocean red light is more or less absorbed within 10m of the surface whilst blue light will penetrate 100’s of meters into the depths. This is the reason why underwater scenes have a blue caste and why scuba divers taking photographs below 10m must use flash lighting for acceptable results.

My inspiration to create this particular image is the huge amount of source material at hand right now with dead leaves lying everywhere. By positioning a flash gun in front of a leaf the reflected light will only record the surface structure of the leaf. However, by placing the flash gun directly behind the leaf and heavily overexposing the image the only light recorded by the camera will have passed through or around the leaf, revealing the internal detail of the leaf. To produce the transparent image I hung the leaf on one side of a light tent, whose white sides do not reduce the flash intensity by a great deal. For the Opaque shot I changed the background to black to provide some contrast and ensure no reflection of the light.

Variable: Light Direction and Intensity

Camera Settings:
Transparent: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 100
Opaque: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/8, 1/60s, ISO 100


After a series of largely monochromatic images time for some colour. This contrast uses angle of view or vantage point to develop the contrast. Using a box of colored pencils and imaging them from the side the points dominate the image and define the structure of the image. Photographed head on it becomes clear that the points are in fact quite blunt, again a matter of degree of scale at which an object is imaged.

For this contrast I originally planned to use my high magnification macro lens and image just the point of one pencil. This was very visibly blunt at this scale, however, the image was unsatisfactory as the depth of field did not produce an attractive or balanced image. The chosen image is a little less suggestive of bluntness, but is a much more pleasing image. Here aesthetics won over pure contrast.

Variable: Angle of View

Camera Settings:
Sharp: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/22, 1/125s, ISO 100
Blunt: 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 100mm, f/16, 1/125s, ISO 100

Combination: Much/Little

With the overall concept of using the degrees of freedom offered by the photographic process as the creation of contrast the combined image presented something of a challenge. In a single image the contrast would need to be something that would only exist briefly and preserving it would require use of a camera. The contrast I selected was between the poverty of a person begging in the street and the relative wealth of a shopper passing by laden with bags of newly purchased items. The shopper would represent Much and the beggar Little.

The trick then was to find an appropriate beggar and wait for a conjunction to happen. This proved far more difficult than I expected as the police had pushed most of the beggars off the street for the duration of the Oktoberfest – trying to present a clean image of the city to visitors. The other challenge was that some of the beggars in Munich are organized and their minders might not appreciate someone taking photos from a distance. I certainly noticed when I first went out with a nice shiny white telephoto that I was too visible and people did not enjoy my photographing them.

Rather than try to be completely unobtrusive I opted to ask if they minded me taking a photo and showed good will by providing a couple of coins. I then backed away to the other side of the street and waited until a passerby crossed my line of sight. The image I selected was of a guy holding out a cup leaning on the wall of a bank with two shoppers approaching. The way the shoppers are almost avoiding looking at him emphasizes the contrast as does the fact that he has a giant credit card in the windows of the bank behind him. The downside is that the image is not sharp, poor light combined with a panned hand held telephoto has limited the quality.

Variable: Conjunction of Subjects

Camera Setting: 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, 130mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO 400

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