The language of photography

I’m learning a new language. I’ve previously tried Italian and the language of nursing, pedagogy, teaching, health economics, statistics, and research to name a few.

However,  my new language is about light, colour, contrasts and shadows. It’s technical too with shutter speeds, f stops, depth of field, ISO’s focal points and even hyperfocal. distances. There’s a whole lot of mathematics in this language including Fibonacci numbers, which even  Melvin Bragg has identified as being significant.  Rules abound; thirds, odds, symmetry, orientation and shape. And then there’s the equipment, DSLR’s, SLR’s, bridge, compact , small, medium and large format ones, mirrorless, and I’m sure there’s many more awaiting my discovery. Oh, and there’s accessories (bare necessities) such as lenses. It’s understood by the language experts, that the general lenses you get with a camera package are pretty nondescript, but they do give you a starter for 10. Then, when you develop your language skills further and know what type of photos you want to take you need to buy different lenses: prime, zoom, telephoto, wide-angle, fisheye, etc., all of which have different numbers on them to signify aperture and help with focal length calculations. Oh, by now you need a bag to carry them around. Perhaps a tripod to hold them steady when taking a long duration shot, say anything longer than 1/100th of a second.

It’s a challenge, and, that’s before you’re wanting to know which button, menu system or number on your camera you need to get a photo.

If you were writing a theory now around f stops indicating the size of the lens aperture I’m sure you wouldn’t start from here. When f2 means the aperture is larger than f8 and way larger (more open) than f22 which is a pinhole size, this is when  you realise that latin verbs are actually quite logical.

cropped-cropped-sam_0505.jpgI just didn’t get it until I saw some maths. At f1.0 there’s diameter of 50mm and a radius of 25mm with an area of 1,963 sq. mm  potentially in view. There is no way all of this can be in focus at any one time so only part of it will be focussed and the rest will be blurry. exhib 1This can create a great effect. whereas at f22 the diameter is 23mm, radius 1.1 giving an area of 4 sq. mm and therefore all of this can be in focus all of the time. I’m sure this differs with specific lenses but this is what helps me remember a little bit about focal length.

Oh, there’s so much more to this language. I’m reading a little book by Ansel Adams ‘The Camera’ where he asserts that there is a ‘magical potential’ to the creativity of photography and its outlet as a form of expression. He questions  the prevailing impression that the acquisition of equipment and the following of rules assure achievement. He quotes Edward Weston; ‘ composition is the strongest way of seeing,’ and sees rules as no more than artifice.

Well, I’m finding rules very useful as a beginner, a novice. However, I do relate to Adam’s when he says that his photographs ‘represent me, not photography.’ I’m certainly not fluent in the language of photography. Having just completed a couple of superb photography courses at  ‘The Artworks‘ in Halifax, W. Yorks., I’m just getting to recognise light and shade (I honestly haven’t really noticed it before), understand my camera a lot more, and have the confidence to get out and about and take photos.


My teacher reckons I have a way with taking pics of people. I’ve included a couple here for you to see and judge for yourself. If you want to see more of the photography work that goes on at ‘The Artworks’ they have an exhibition currently on until 2 August.

Go see.


Yawning and slow education

Today is a slow learning day. A little tweet by @alisoniredale on a Slow  Education event up here in the NW reminded me of a lovely little hardback I have on my shelves.  The authors state in the introduction that the book’s purpose is ‘to prove that the best things in life really are free … and that we can enter a world of joy and freedom.’ The contents include such delights as; cloud watching, sticking matchsticks in vegetables to make vegetable aliens, waiting for the tea to brew, philosophising, building houses of cards and yawning. I’ve already achieved 3 of these today and aim to get a few more in before bedtime. I’m not aiming for any specific one’s I’m just relying on serendipity. I just hope it’s not ‘watching hail bounce off the pavement.’

Anyway, back to the tweet. I followed the link to the Slow Education movement and really love its stated beliefs:

Promoting deep learning in the context of a broad curriculum that recognises the talents of all students.

We believe the quality of the educational engagement between teacher and learner is more important than judging student ability by standardised tests.

We support investment in education and in teaching as a profession as the essential moral foundation of society.

There’s a tab to a few videos , who’s involved and links to media coverage. The Independent newspaper link didn’t work for me but I found it here. It does appear to have intermittent linking errors tho’. Is Tom Hodgkinson of The Independent the same Tom Hodgkinson who co-wrote my book ‘The Book of  Idle Pleasures?’

I’m wondering if there are connections between ‘slow learning’ and the conations mentioned in experiential learning. See previous blog. You might want to look at other resources too:

What is slow learning?

Finding the time for slow education

Are you ready to join the slow education movement?

Imagine looking through a window. The window has a set of curtains which you are holding in your hands. Those curtains are closed. You hear a car outside and you want to see it. If you open and close the curtains very, very quickly you might not be able to tell if the car is moving or not. You will see there is a car there, but the length of time you were able to spend looking at the car might not have been long enough for you to determine whether it was parked or in motion. If you had kept the curtains open for a little longer, you would have been able to see clearly whether the car was moving.

This is a beautiful explanation of controlling shutter speed in photography. A slow shutter speed or keeping the curtains open for longer gives an image of movement.  I think, in education, we sometimes close the curtains too quickly either on our students or on the topics, and, whilst we need to keep them open longer we also need to let students have some control over how long they wish the curtains to be open.

Now, where can I find a box of matches?

Dipping into photography

My ‘perceptual consciousness’ is literally buzzing with learning stuff today. I’m writing this a little late tonight as I’ve just got home from a photography course at The Artworks in Halifax. More about this another day as I’ve yet to process all the information which is competing for my brain space at the moment. Oh, I will just mention though that on the website link above you’ll see that there’s a photography exhibition coming up very soon.

However, I do feel that the two photography courses I’ve done at The Artworks: Beginners and Intermediate, although I like to call the last one the ‘Not quite such a beginner course,’ have been true examples of experiential learning. I’m using Tom Boydell’s definition here, ‘ the learner is involved in sorting things out for himself’ through consciously generating cognitions, affects and conations. I identify with Boydell giving the student some responsibility, especially for the why, the purpose. I also just love the image of ideas as non-physical realities, flying about inside one’s mind and how this confusion is the very essence of the learning process. I’ve written before about troublesome learning spaces. I admit to being seriously confused by the buttons and menu systems on my DSLR camera. It’s taken me  8- 10 weeks to learn focussing, and this isn’t a reflection on the tutor or the course, it’s just that I needed experience and time for it to become internalised and part of me. Paul had lesson plans and objectives for each session, but as we began to share our images we discovered photographers, art, how to see beauty in images and developed the confidence to go out and take photographs. I’m sure we learnt far more through our meanderings and serendipitous conversations than he’d initially identified in those plans!

The goals set have been invaluable; week 1 let’s go out and take some photographs and then come in and share the one we like the best. How scary is that? It’s the first week! The homework that week was off the scary scale: take 36 photos. But guess what, most of us did! The following week the homework was to take just 1 photo. I know what you’re thinking “Simples,” but we were expected to explain the composition. The thing is that most of us have done our homework and, may have 3 photos to display in the forthcoming exhibition. Imagine that. After just 12 weeks! This has been a course where we’ve had a sharing and supportive climate. We look at each other’s photos every week and my fellow students and Paul see things in them we haven’t seen ourselves. We can be critical, but there’s always a reason for a photograph not quite ‘doing it,’ and we are beginning to see why.

I think we all ‘tuned in.’ Paul, created a climate where he knew and sensed what was needed. We ‘tuned in’ to Paul.

Oh! I mustn’t forget to mention coming across Fibonacci’s numbers. Paul did warn us that there’s a lot of maths in photography.

I realise I need to include a photo or two now, so here you are.

Media City_          Market St fashion window

Chiaroscuro and muesli

No worries today. Continuing my learning from yesterday around Itten’s contrasts, Michael Freeman’s book ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ triggered a photography trip to Salford Quays. It’s not one of my favourite places as it’s always windy, has rather grey buildings and mucky canal water but is rather fortunate in its modernist architecture. I don’t know why but Manchester’s adopted colours for its new buildings appear to be many shades of grey. Also the main colour of the trams on MCR Metrolink until very recently.

Anyway, what have I learnt today? The answer is ‘chiaroscuro.’ Literally light/dark. It means illuminating a dark scene, often a painting, with shafts of light. It’s a combination of two Italian words:

chiaro – pronounced kyaa-roa – meaning clear; pale, light, plain, distinct


scuro – pronounced skoo-ro – meaning dark, obscure

Joshua Itten identifies it as ‘ one of the most expressive and important means of composition’ as it controls the three-dimensionality of an image, the structure and which parts draw the attention.  There are many examples of its use in paintings  and this recent photograph by Paul Railton certainly seems to have all the 3 aspects of Itten’s contrast of light/dark.


I’ve also spent some time learning Flickr. An account I set up a few years ago whilst on an on-line learning event but didn’t have any pics to add. Well, I’ve been asked twice now where I’m putting my photos so here they are.

My trip to Media City  included discovering a little bistro and coffee shop called Pokusesvski’s which is well worth knowing about if you’re in the windy climes of Salford Quays.

I’ve also learnt that Alpen now does a version which contains swirls of dark chocolate. Unfortunately, without my varifocals, when making my choice from the extensive variety of Swiss style muesli, the box just looked like the Original Alpen. I have to say it’s horrible! Especially with my preferred liquid, orange juice, not like Terry’s Chocolate Orange at all. Inevitably I have spent mindless minutes of my precious time picking individual chocolate swirls out of the wheaty flakes. It does seem to have a slightly different taste though and, the swirls taste quite nice on their own! They just don’t belong in Alpen!!


As today is the first day of my learning challenge I’ve been anxious about not learning anything and therefore not having anything to write about. I needn’t have worried.

I’ve just stumbled upon Johannes Itten’s table of contrasts which formed a major aspect of his Bauhaus foundation course. It’s said that his theory of composition was rooted in one simple concept: contrasts. Contrasts between light and dark, shapes, colours, and even sensations. His intention was to ‘awaken a vital feeling for the subject through a personal observation.’ In thinking about contrasts his students were ‘to experience them with their senses, objectivize them intellectually, and realize them synthetically.’ The process for this was three-fold:

  1. Get a feeling for each contrast without thinking of it as an image
  2. List ways of putting this sensation across
  3. Make a picture.

In my current photography course I’m taking photos of people, often in busy streets or markets.  I’m wondering if the contrast here is the small moment of stillness captured when an individual is looking at my camera and the business of the street or market context. Using Itten’s contrast table perhaps it’s a ‘still/busy’ contrast. Thanks to the folk at Bolton markets for this one.






I’ve also learnt that my local Tesco store stocks these sweets from my childhood. Barratt seems to have morphed into Candyland but the best thing is that they don’t seem to be smaller!