Simon Lewis

OCA Learning Log


Train Your Gaze

Angier, R (2007) Train your gaze. A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Switzerland: AVA Publishing


This book appeared on the reading list for my "People and Place course". At first I found it somewhat daunting inasmuch that there was a lot of 'artistic interpretation' of the images referenced. Frankly I wondered whether the author and those who referenced were looking for meaning that just wasn't there. Take for example Eugene Richards “nursing home resident", Dorchester, Massachusetts 1976 (below). As the text says:

“The frame with the image, particularly the top edge, which cuts off the top of the subjects head, grabs at the old woman in much the same way that she herself clutches at the edge of her dress–or, more precisely, the way she holds onto her own right hand as he clutches at the edge of her dress. It's a layered gesture."

All true. But consider the following text immediately afterwards. Is that also true or is the reading more into the image than just a badly composed frame?

“The act of photographic composition here is aggressive. The photographer's own gesture, his act of framing, literally marginalises his subject, implying thereby an opinion, certainly feeling, if not a judgement, about the nature and quality of her life as represented in this moment."

Richards, Eugene (1976) Nursing home resident from Dorchester Days, as referenced in Train Your Gaze.

However the book quickly moves on to illustrate how a photographer can and must use all of the elements available to him in order to bring meaning to his images. Framing, composition, light, dark, action/movement (or the opposite) all play a part. Each of these elements is discussed and analysed in various chapters throughout the book.

As early as page 36 Angier is at pains to illustrate how the photographer's relationship with his subject and composition play an integral role in the result, Citing Garry Winogrand's procedure to “pounce on the subject with a 28 mm wide-angle lens" in order to “quickly discover that close physical proximity is crucial for achieving a feeling of contact with their subjects". Angier explains that “Winogrand's rule of thumb seems to be that if his subject, can't reach out and actually touch him, he's not close enough." This is effectively an exercise taught in people in place where we are encouraged to get in as close as we can using just the wide angle setting on our zoom lenses.

There is further explanation on proximity elsewhere in the text using 2 images to illustrate how one image can be regarded as inclusive to the viewer whilst the other is exclusive.

TheBlackKiss ricasyfamosas
Ralph Gibson untitled from The Black Kiss (1972-76) (p65). Daniela Rossell, untitled from Ricas y Famosas (1994-2000) (p66)

In Ralph Gibson's black-and-white image from his book The Black Kiss (1972 to 1976) we see a tightly composed image. The content is intimate yet our participation is in itself just as intimate. Contrast this with Daniela Rossell's image from her 1994-200 book 'Ricas y Famosas' where our subject is literally and figuratively out of reach, and we see that both treatments were deliberately intentional by the two photographers.

I particularly enjoyed chapter 8 entitled “Out of focus: the disappearing subject". This section forces us to question conventional photographic wisdom. Should the subject of the photograph be in the foreground? Should it be sharply focused? And why must the background be assumed to be an area of no importance?

In essence this book is all about noticing established conventions whether they relate to technique or content. By noticing these conventions one can make a conscious decision about how to make use of them. In other words it's all about being deliberate in one's approach. And of course deliberation has the implied meaning of time and thought as well as intention. It's the realisation of this that will help me to see and react to the world and people around me far more consciously in my photography. At first glance perhaps the environment I'm in or the sitter in front of me is “ordinary". But with deliberation, with the ability to notice detail, understand - and sometimes break - convention I can choose to create something far more considered in my work.

Perhaps the whole essence of this book–and indeed the “People and Place" module is summed up in this quote on page 79: “The question of identity is central to the practice of portrait photography. Who am I looking at? Who is doing the looking?"

Food Styling

Custer, D. (2010) Food styling. New Jersey, USA: John Wiley & Sons


This is a fascinating reference book and encyclopaedia for anyone interested in photographing food. I made good use of it for an assignment I carried out in “the Art of Photography”. In the assignment I decided to shoot the preparation of a meal and, with Custer’s help, was pretty happy with the results (see image below).


However Custer’s book not only reveals how complex it can be to photograph – and get it right - but also provides a very useful how to section. Need to know how to thicken a tomato sauce? Page 238 has the answer. Want to learn how to make the alphabet in my soup float? It’s all on page 211.

This is a very good reference book covering everything from ingredients to styling and props as well as a comprehensive section on how to make the food visually appealing in front of the camera. I’m looking forward to experimenting with some of her suggestions and techniques in the near future.

Light it Shoot it Retouch it

Kelby S. (2012) Light it shoot it retouch it. USA: New Riders


What I like about Kelby's book is that it is a straightforward no-nonsense approach to getting 1st rate results. Every aspect from lighting a portrait set up through to retouching it afterwards are summarised in short simple to follow steps.

I'd come across Scott Kelbiy before in relation to his excellent training videos on Photoshop. However the problem with Photoshop is that there are so many options, so many ways of achieving a particular result that it's often difficult to remember which option to follow.

This book takes away all the mystery and all the confusion with a series of simple guides and techniques. They can easily be copied to other images. So for example the method for brightening eyes or reddening lips applies no matter whether you are shooting an image from his book or one of your own.

This is an excellent reference book covering a variety of different types of studio shot where Kelby cleverly shows you the actual settings he uses for his lights and camera settings. Again all confusion and complication is removed, but for those, like myself, who can't resist tinkering the ability to experiment away from the Kelby's baseline is very easy.

Fundamentals of Creative Photography

Präkel, D. (2010) The fundamentals of creative photography. Lausanne: AVA Publishing


The Fundamentals of Creative Photography is a short, sharp walk through the world of imaging. I actually found the early sections of the book far more interesting than the latter. Präkel (p26) notes that:
Photography 101 is simply learning how to make a piece of well browned-toast. What you need is a source of controllable heat. Say you use an electric grill, you can choose to turn heat up high or leave the heat set low. To produce exactly the right degree brown toast, you need to leave the bread longer under the low grill than when it is set to high. It takes longer to reach the perfect brown under a low heat. Substitute light for heat and you have photography.

Whilst I doubt the author is trying to trivialise the techniques needed for good photography, I do think his quote and approach is a successful way to demystify what could otherwise be a hobby, art-form or indeed a profession muddled by complex technicalities.

As this book relates to people & Place, I struck gold a few pages further on where Präkel (p33) cites Andreas Feininger’s advice to photographers; ‘explore - isolate - organise’. His stance is quite simple; do your research for shooting. Study the space, examine the area, see how people interact with it and then–only then–decide how to photograph it. Since reading this chapter I’ve managed to put this idea into good practice, particularly in my People and Place work. A good example will be seen in assignment three where I discovered that having researched this as Feininger’s suggests, one simply has to wait for the right moment.

Meanwhile, in chapter 2 Präkel (p41) examines interpretation and narrative of images, referencing Duane Michael’s (1973) “Things are Queer” (gelatine silver print). Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. (accessed Sep. 2012). This relates to a fascinating series of images with each successive part of the narrative both adding information and context, whilst at the same time creating visual confusion and surprise. The short but puzzling journey taken by the viewer over these 9 images is mysterious, fascinating, contradictory and thoroughly enjoyable - all at the same time!
I found it fascinating how Michael even came up with the idea quite apart from the execution thereof. The series succinctly demonstrates how photography can do so much more than simply report on the world around us.

Colour Light & Composition

Bishop S. (2010) Colour light and composition. Lewes, East Sussex: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications


I picked up this book last year on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. This was at a time when I was midway through my “Art or Photography” course. Sue Bishop’s book is an excellent accompaniment to that course and I found very many useful sections to accompany the various projects and exercises in the OCA module.

What fascinates me most about Bishop’s work throughout the book is how many of her images have a soft pastel glow. Golden wall, Venice (p41) shown below is the perfect example as is “Stone bench with flowers, Tuscany” (p64).

Golden Wall, Venice Stone bench with flowers
Golden wall, Venice (p41), Stone bench with flowers (p64)

She doesn’t reference this technique in her book and unfortunately neither does her website ( so it’s hard to tell whether the glow is as a result of a slight soft focus at the time of capture, or whether it’s added digitally. Many of the images have been shot using traditional film (and Fuji Velvia seems to be a favourite) which means the inclusion of exposure information alongside the text is a rarity. Where her images include flowers, trees or landscape I can easily imagine a combination of gentle breezes and long exposures as the source of the glow. In other work I can only assume a Photoshop action.

But I’ve also discovered 2 really interesting things about Sue Bishop and her work: firstly her book contains a whole series of impressionistic images of trees and some of these reproduced on her website ( This excites me because I’ve also been experimenting in exactly the same way.

Screen Shot 2012-09-11 at 12.40.59 (accessed Sep 12)

DSC_0582 DSC_1619
Simon Lewis. Woodman’s wood, Trees

Secondly it turns out Sue is a regular speaker at the Epson Print Academy whack is literally no more than 10 min from my home. I expect to be a regular visitor at their various seminars over the coming months…

As Bishop’s work relates to “People & Place” I found the image “Gateway, Venezuela” (p.122 & 123) fascinating. Not only is there a tremendous use of colour, composition and light but there’s also a fair degree of luck too.

Gateway, Venezuela (p123)

Bishop notes: "On the day I took these photographs I had my compact camera but no tripod with me. When I saw the gorgeous colours of the gate and the wall outside I knew I wanted a picture, but had to wait for quite sometime for a gap in the line of tourists going in and out before I could get a clear view. I liked the way the mirror on the left was reflecting the blue wall outside, so I decided to include that in the photograph too. I took the 1st of these pictures, but because I was handholding my camera, I wanted to have another go, so I waited again for the next lull. Just as my opportunity came, a lady walked into the gateway and looked out–I took one photograph, then she turned and saw me at the moment was over. By pure serendipity, she has provided the perfect balance to the photograph, providing a focal point and also a counterpoint to the mirror."

Bishop's paragraph really sums up the entire “People and Place" module. She has managed, in one image, to illustrate how several factors combine, indeed must combine, to bring meaning to spaces and meaning to images. Were we to take away the lady from this picture the composition would not be so strong. Neither with the meaning–would be left with a nice picture of a gateway. But the inclusion of the lady gives us the human context necessary to really bring out the image from the meaning and the meaning from the image. Change the lighting, change the colours, change the ladies clothing, change the composition and all will have an effect of some sort or other. As Bishop explains there is a fair degree of luck by waiting for just the right moment. And of course there are no guarantees.

The real question I ask myself is how can I notice these elements converging around me in order to make the most of them? Where are the spaces, were the shapes, where is the light, were as human element? How does Bishop use her eyes and her observation to see an image coming together? Did she start with a light, was at the composition, how important was the colour and would she have even bothered to capture this image without the subject lady present?

How do I train my gaze to recognise these photographic opportunities which must exist all around me?

Light-Science & Magic

Hunter, Biver, Fuqua (2007) Light-science & magic, an introduction to photographic lighting (3rd edition). Burlington, MA: Elsevier


At first I was put off by the fairly technical nature of this book; initially there's quite a lot to take in. I'd left my physics education firmly back in the 1980s and it was something the struggle to re-familiarise myself with the basic concepts in “What is light?" (p14). Luckily I have sons in their GCSE years meaning I had access to plenty of current schoolbooks to help me with the theory.

Yet the authors quickly move on to discuss brightness and colour with reference to photographic lighting. The book really started come alive for me in the section on contrast (p19) were only a few sentences were needed to convince me how much variation can be made between hard and soft lighting. And, as I've learned, the closer the light source is to the object the softer is the result. My reading coincided with the section on lighting in the "Art of Photography" course where there was discussion on how cloudy days or shaded areas can often provide the most interesting and subtle light. And no sooner had this sunk in did I find myself on a course run by Jayce Clark entitled “Lighting on Location – Ambient Light Only". This course will be reviewed elsewhere in my learning log but suffice to say we spent much of day shooting in shadow as the image below indicates.

My Jayce Clarke Image
Simon Lewis, shot during "Lighting on location - ambient light only"

Light–science and magic contains plenty more theory: the inverse square law and the family of angles are 2 such examples. But you know what? I discovered these were 2 vital pieces of the lighting jigsaw. Just a rudimentary knowledge of these principles (plus hard versus soft light) have completely transformed my ability to light images. With the family of angles alone, knowing where reflections will or won't fall has made an enormous difference to me. Okay so one could argue it's just common sense, and indeed it is, but there's nothing quite like seeing some examples on the page where judicious use of lighting demonstrates both positive and negative effects on the subject.

Science and theory take up approximately one quarter of the book with the following section a study on how lighting could and should be modified to bring out the best features or indeed hide the worst features in any given situation. Yet I found chapter 5, revealing shape and control, to be one of the most helpful. Again, this starts with some theory but by this point I had enough of a grasp of the issues to not only understand why this was important but to also begin to pre-visualise the initial problem and the lighting solution. A simple example on page 83 (image 5.4) of a chessboard shows how simple lighting can present the object in three dimensions.

Chessboard 1

I particularly enjoyed the section on dark field lighting (P156) And indeed the whole section on lighting glass in such way that either the shape of the classes defined or is removed altogether to just reveal the contents. Fascinating.

The book contains helpful section on lighting for portraits and this has already been put to good use in my “People & Place" images.