Simon Lewis

P & P Assignment Two

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ii. People & Activity

The purpose of this exercise was to plan and shoot a set of images showing people involved in a meaningful activity. I started out by making a short list of ‘must haves’ for the project. Top of my list was finding an activity where I could shoot a good variety of images. I also wanted a topic where permission to photograph was implicit in the activity. For example, in this day and age it would be hard to turn up at a local park and expect to photograph children at play. Finally, I wanted to find an activity that was repeated regularly in case my first or second attempt was unsuccessful. A number of possibilities presented themselves; for example a local sports event such as a Sunday game of football or rugby. This type of activity was discounted as I felt the time needed to gain permission and the limited choice of vantage point (sidelines only) outweighed the likely benefit. The same was also true for other types of performance such as music or art. I also discounted street events (markets, parades and so on) as I felt these had been covered sufficiently during the exercises for this module. After a great deal of thought I decided to research the idea of photographing the Changing of the Guard at either Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. Pending further research I pre-selected Buckingham Palace as it was easier to reach and I was more familiar with the general surroundings than Windsor.

The good news is that there is plenty of information online about the event and timings together with some useful background and history. I found very useful in my research. There are also helpful videos on the website and this proved essential.

Essential because it turns out that watching the Queen’s Guard change at Buckingham Palace is a popular tourist attraction. This was news to me; being a Londoner and never having been, I had no idea! On my first visit I encountered thousands of people (around 5,000 according to a Policeman I spoke to) with more or less the same idea as I had. There was no way I could even get up to the railings let alone shoot what lay beyond. Luckily, my earlier research on the website revealed there are often less than a dozen spectators who watching the St. James’s Palace Detachment change Guard at St James’s Palace only a 2 minute walk from Buckingham Palace. This is where I completed my assignment. Access was restricted somewhat, but I was able to get very close to the action for much of the time. It was certainly better place to shoot than at Buckingham Palace.

Lighting on the day was very flat (overcast) so I had to push ISO just to get sensible shutter speeds from my camera. I selected 1250 which gave me up to 1/800s to freeze my fast camera movements needed to capture the marching and stamping feet. It would have been tremendous for the soldiers on duty to have worn scarlet tunics (for colour and context) but unfortunately not on the day I visited. Combined, these two factors gave me fairly flat results when viewed in colour - so I decided to boost contrast and convert to monochrome. This greatly improved results, adding a bold grittiness to the images and took advantage of slight noise creeping in at the high ISO.
In the event of errors on this page you can download the entire assignment by clicking the button opposite.
You can download a copy of my tutor report for this exercise by clicking 'Tutor'.
You can read a summary of my learnings from this assignment at the foot of this page.
Sentry (above)
What does the moment tell?
St James’s Palace, London. An armed guard of the St. James’s Palace Detachment patrols between his sentry box and gates into the Palace. Although dry, the weather is quite cold: the guard’s bare sentry box provides no shelter no matter what the weather. Unlike the prestige and glamour attached to patrolling outside the Palace, the environment here is somewhat nondescript.

Critical assessment
While the image is not blessed with the grand backdrop of Buckingham Palace, it still clearly illustrates the story as a whole and the action taking place within the frame. There are three visual clues to support the story; the sentry box, the marching guard and the iron railings. The guards uniform, 'ER' above the sentry box and tell-tale bearskin clearly indicate this is a British soldier. The road sign above his head places him (for those that know) in London. Having said this, there's little here to convey anything Royal. St James's Palace (on this side of the building) is decidedly uninteresting visually. I decided to exclude it from the image entirely and concentrate on the brick wall behind the soldier. I think this was a wise decision and I like the anonymity the wall provides. I also like the fact that there is no grand palace behind the soldier. It makes for a far more interesting image. There's good balance in this image and the lack of 'clutter' helps to emphasise the action taking place. It would have been nice to have had brilliant sunshine and the red jackets/uniform normally seen but this would have given a predictable image. I like the mono version as a refreshing alternative. The contrast and mono conversion work well here. Blacks are crisp and the sentry box stands out cleanly from the bushes behind.
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What does the moment tell?
How many miles has this Guard marched since starting his duty? And how many miles have been marched along this very path since the Guard last changed? Each step, each stamp, each turn about face is executed with the precision expected of one of Her Majesty’s soldiers.

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Critical assessment
I wanted to try emphasise how hard the soldiers stamp when coming to attention or changing direction. This low angle works well - though it was hard to frame accurately with the viewfinder on centimetres off the floor. My camera does not have a rotating LCD screen so I had to pull very wide (17mm DX), point and hope for the best. Focus has suffered a little and I would have preferred a very crisp image. Already at ISO 1250 I was struggling to get 1/800s at f3.5. I did not want to sacrifice speed any further so could not stop down to aid depth of field. Nonetheless the emphasis here conveys pavement, boot and the distance the falling boot has to fall - just what I wanted. The image is reminiscent of the style of Alexander Rodchenko,Russian artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer (1891-1956). My thoughts on some of his work is referenced in the 'Photographers' section of my learning log, accessed here P&P>Reference>Photographers...
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What does the moment tell?
The long bladed bayonet is fixed to the Guard’s semi-automatic weapon. Both are ready for use at a moment’s notice against any unwelcome intruder. They are a stark contrast to the Guard’s ceremonial busby and formal uniform. The Guard is standing to attention, eyes fixed forward in the traditional sentry pose.

Critical assessment
This image uses the longest focal length in the series (200mm DX). It's thrown the textured background nicely out of focus to allow emphasis on the soldier's face and, more importantly, his blade. Bearskins are not the easiest to work with; light seems to get soaked into the fur all over the hat - which closely overhangs the eyes either throwing them into deep shadow or obscuring them altogether. I'd like to see slightly crisper focus in this image overall - but perhaps one solution would be to focus only on the blade with everything else blurred.
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What does the moment tell?
The replacement Guard arrive at the Palace. This small detachment from the main troop have marched along the Mall from Kensington Barracks . They will remain at St James’ for the next 24 hours, rotating shifts to stand sentry. A small gathering of bystanders look on as the platoon march in step. A mounted police escort can be seen in the background.

Critical assessment
This image neatly captures the moment when the new Guard arrive. The soldiers are all in sync. and there are enough onlookers to give a sense of ceremony and context. Although the platoon passed only a few metres from my position I wanted to time my shot carefully to not only reveal the group in full march (i.e. arms and lents outstretched) but to see enough detail on the soldiers faces. As you can see from one or two soldiers, their busby hats have slipped down right over the eyes. a little more room at the foot of the shot would be helpful here.
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What does the moment tell?
Security is everywhere these days and even the Queen’s Guard is watched over by police. There’s a fascinating contrast between the formal pose and dress of the Guard standing to attention outside his sentry box versus the casual informality of the local Bobby. Their dress, stance, pose and expression are all different.

Critical assessment
The advantage of choosing St James' Palace is clear here: I had virtually unfettered access to the scene unfolding before me. Unlike the tall railings at Buckingham Palace, the only barrier separating me from the Guard was this policeman. I'd prefer a slightly less cluttered background here to emphasise the juxtaposition between the policeman and soldier. Nevertheless I'm happy at how the pose, informality and scale come across. The more I study this picture the more I find. For example, I read the soldier as an 'Action Man' character here set against a 'real' policeman. i'd like to spend more time exploring this type of situation in future.
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March Past
What does the moment tell?
Changing the Guard is steeped in tradition and formality. As the new Guard march past, the Sentry ‘present’s arms’ in salute and recognition of his incoming comrades. He allows them access to the Palace without let or hindrance.

Critical assessment
This image works for the narrative - which is why I included it in this series. However I find more wrong with this image than right. Aesthetically I'm not too happy about seeing the backs of all these soldiers. while the story is clear, I'd rather know where they are going or see them approach me. Equally, the Guard's action is not totally clear. Shooting from further to the right would have given me a better angle on his face and weapon - Perhaps with the others passing in front. Staying with this angle I see strong leading lines into the image (kerbstone and other converging lines) but they don't seem fully executed or utilised.
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All Change
What does the moment tell?
The relief Guard approaches the sentry box while others from his platoon look on.

Critical assessment
This is another example of the narrative working well. It's clear to see the incoming Guard approaching the sentry position whilst a small detachment looks on. Artistically speaking, there's not much to report and I suppose that when action unfolds in front of the camera it's often hard to predict, move or compose in sufficient time too make each shot a compositional masterpiece. Again, trimming was an issue here; I wanted to see the new Guard marching - but the timing was such that he appears right in front of the ornate gate post behind. The lamp appears to grow out of his head. Some selective focussing/depth of field would be an advantage here - though I have tried in Photoshop but with unsatisfactory results.
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Move Over
What does the moment tell?
The incoming Guard takes up position in the sentry box...

Critical assessment
I prefer this image to the last two. The narrative is perhaps a little clearer but I like the way the two Guards appear to be communicating. I was standing perhaps less than 4 metres from the pair of soldiers when i took this picture and I did not hear a word uttered. I think the set of each jaw and glance from the sentry on the left of frame give the impression they are muttering to one another. No matter - I like the end result! A slight move to my right might have revealed more of their faces but I like the profile at this angle; it's helped set the jawline and made benefit of the simple background. A shot from directly in front might have made better use of the sideways glance shown above - though this would have put me 'off side' i.e. in an out of bounds area.
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What does the moment tell?
The new Guard is now on duty at his sentry box. His supervising NCO makes a formal inspection of both the Guard and his post before passing on final instructions and written notices about the days comings and goings.

Critical assessment
I like the fact this image is dynamic, not static. One of the problems of photographing sentries is that they spend long periods of time still as statues. Here we see a different aspect to their work; a soldier under supervision. I like the clipboard here and the inspection of both the soldier and his place of work. For me this moves the soldiers out of fairytale and into the real world. At first glance my reaction to this image was that it would be nice to see more of the faces but I actually prefer the geometry more than the detail. I love the long stride made by the NCO and how the angle of his leg matches the slope of his gun. This tells me that sometimes it's more about the overall effect of the image/message than it is about the fine detail.
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Heading Out
What does the moment tell?
The outgoing Guards return to Kensington Barracks for a well earned rest. As with their arriving relief party, the Guards present ‘eyes right’ in salute and acknowledgement of the Guard now on duty.

Critical assessment
Here is an example of how the opposite can also be true. What I'm happy about here are their three faces of the soldiers as they return to the barracks. I shot a whole series of the platoon as they marched past - from long shot to close-up. While I liked the group of soldiers as a platoon moving as one, I didn't think those images were nearly as strong as this one where I could catch the faces on these three as they passed by. Each of them has a different expression and each one a story. My favourite is the centre/farthest soldier. His eyes (clearly seen this time) have a certain effort behind them. I'm reminded here of someone in the gym trying to push himself even harder. But why does the smallest soldier have the biggest hat? As in all the images, the black and white works well, adding a sense of grit which enhances a street feel to this image.
Here's what I've learned from this assignment
  • Do plenty of research. Visit in advance without a camera if that helps
  • Be prepared to shoot more than once if necessary
  • In situations like this you have limited control - sometimes none. Work with what you can use (ISO, abstract, detail, geometry) and crop out what you can't
  • It's always possible to get a strong image - but the one that works is not necessarily the one you planned in advance. Go with what works best on the day

And here's where I plan to explore further…
- Finding other public events. With the Jubilee & Olympics this year I should have plenty of choice
- A good look round before uncapping the camera
- experimenting more with juxtaposition & shapes
- Paying attention to all technical details