Reading and Research: Jay Maisel

With the terror of a massive hard drive failure here at home, work on my colour exercises has taken a temporary hiatus whilst we are in the hopefully magic hands of the data recovery specialists. A new backup strategy has already been deployed to avoid future repetition of this crisis in the future.

At the suggestion of my tutor I’ve been taking a look at the work of Jay Maisel, an acknowledged master of colour and specialist in street photography for many years. I’ve found reading his perspective on a variety of photography related subjects both enlightening and challenging. Jay has been a photographer for over 50 years and has consequently seen a series of dramatic revolutions in photography, not just the inevitable evolution of hardware but more the rise of colour film and the move from film to digital to name just two examples.

Jay talks a huge amount of sense with regard to the application of the variables available to you as the photographer but at the same time challenges much of what you may have already been taught or read. He is a strong advocate of getting the shot ‘right’ in camera, something not untypical of photographers brought up with the constrains of film rather than limitless memory cards. Perhaps not surprisingly for someone of his age Jay is not a huge fan of extended period of time in the ‘digital darkroom’ but more from a perspective of its ability to consume time than anything else. I’m not suggesting he is a technophobe, he is patently able to get his in camera shots much closer to what he wants to achieve than many of us currently.

I was refreshed by his openess to the use of all the variables to get the exposure right, don’t be afraid of the higher ISO values in particular. It certainly had been a significant change for Jay when digital gave the opportunity to shoot in light levels impossible to succeed with in film days, especially the ability to shoot at night.

So what about the photos themselves. His work throughout his career has involved pieces for various magazine covers and daily life portrayals, he has explored various cities for his work despite being forever associated with his home city of New York.  His style doesn’t vary much whether its a commercial shot or something more personal. The style is one of simplisticity but with real thought and ‘life’ behind each one, the simplisticity makes even the small details stand out. The element that I found most appealing was how colour and light are key to the success of the photos, not just what happened to be available. There is often use complementary and contrasting colors to make clear the subject and allow it to be what sticks in your mind. Often colours used both within the key subject and around it would in description seem to take the stress away from the subject but they are actually always plain colours devoid of distracting texture or design. Despite this simplicity  subjects are detailed and life-like.

The other element of the photography is what it depicts. Known for capturing daily life thi is often depicted with either a flow on sense of movement.  This means people working rather than posed, movement, happiness, angst, a piece of their lives.  You do start to feel  the experience of the subject. This really feels like the magic ingredient but in reality it only works because of the control of the rest of the variable mentioned earlier.

I’ve picked three of my favourite shots to show here, all feature those elements mentioned above. Great to view the work of an acknowledged master of his craft.

Exercise: Control the strength of a colour

So onward into part three, colour.

I am really looking forward to this part of the course. Having given most art related study at school a pretty wide berth, my understanding of colour is non-existent (just ask my wide when it comes to choosing paint colours at home!). In photography terms, this is possibly best evidenced by my natural gravitation towards black and white or simpler compositions in colour terms.

This first exercise looks at the strength of colour, the five shots below were taken with 1/2 stop intervals, the images were JPEG format taken straight from the camera with no post processing. All the photos were take with the shutter speed of 1/10 and ISO 800 and a fixed focal length of 50mm (using a 50mm prime lens).

Aperture f4

Aperture f4.5

Aperture f5.6

Aperture f6.7

Aperture f8

The transition through the shots is interesting. On initial inspection there appears to be a number of aspects changing from one frame to the next. Having then looked at the images in a bit more isolation to my eye it is the brightness that it most obviously altered, the actual colour saturation seems quite constant. Initially the latter three (‘darker’) shots (f5.6, f6.3 and f8) appear more saturated but when all the shots are looked at as individual frames this was actually true.

One thing that really stuck out was the histogram view of each photo. I suspect it is very rare I’ve taken photos containing a single colour but to see the three peaks of red, green and blue in the combined view in Photoshop was fascinating.

Assignment 2: Elements of design

The aim of this assignment is to bring together all the elements of design covered in this chapter through a set of photos. I chose to select my own specific subject matter for this exercise, largely because of an unexpected opportunity to photograph the former US airbase at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. The site, semi-derelict for a number of years offered an interesting range of subjects and despite a chilling wind, we were blessed with a sunny afternoon in early January.

The first image illustrates curves, a suggested triangle and the size of the hanger in the frame means it completely dominates the image as a single point.

ISO 200, f9, 1/160, 15mm

The second image shows a single point. Whilst it is clearly the focal point of the image it doesn’t dominate the photo, the road running past the derelict building creates a strong diagonal line through the frame.

ISO 200, f9, 1/160, 21mm

In this image we have two points. Whilst the hanger and the rusty ‘box’ are of very different scale, the composition allows both to occupy key points in the frame and both to be focal points for the viewer.

ISO 200, f6.3, 1/50, 24mm

Another image of the hangers. This time the two hangers fill a significant portion of the frame and give two points to focus on. The use and positioning of the sunlight draws extra focus to the smaller of the hangers in the frame, the sunlight creating a diagonal line to this hanger too.

ISO 200, f9, 1/250, 31mm

This image taken earlier in the afternoon has more hangers in the frame, multiple points. The position of the hangers splits the image in three, despite them being orientated differently. The road/runways in front of the hangers give a strong diagonal line to the bottom right corner.

ISO 200, f11, 1/160, 20mm

Moving away from the hangers, a different kind of derelict building. I’m not altogether sure what this building was used for. Inside it had been stripped of all traces of previous use. The combination of pillar, balcony, ladders and railings gives a strong linear feel of rectangular lines.

ISO 200, f9, 1/20, 35mm

Looking from a control tower, a very different view to the desolate runways and hangars. This view shows part of the former airfield in use as a car store. The strong diagonal runs from the left hand bottom corner. The clusters of cars offer a multiplicity of points.

ISO 200, f9, 1/200, 15mm

Picking a more detailed view, a very obvious collection of lines were under our feet on the tarmac, curves and in this case diagonals.

ISO 200, f6.3, 1/80, 31mm

Back to the hangers, a well positioned puddle gave a chance to illustrate the curves. Combining the hanger and its reflection creates an oval, additionally the puddle perimeter itself features curves. A single hanger gives a single point of focus to the image.

ISO 200, f10, 1/250, 15mm

Another detailed view, here a collection of angular but distinct shapes have come to rest and settled in a unordered pattern.

ISO 200, f9, 1/50, 53mm

Another detailed view, one that in my eye implied two opposing triangles. I’ve illustrated these by red lines in the second image.

ISO 200, f9, 1/60, 15mm

A different view of the hangers as the sun began to set. Using the silhouette effect caused by the contrast between light and dark, the hangers seemed to connect together in a stretched implied triangle, an effect partly achieved by removing the details in the buildings.

ISO 200, f8, 1/3200, 28mm

Another detail shot, this time the top of the roof line of the hanger. Heavily cropped, the shapes suggested a rhythm along the line, almost like strange musical notation.

ISO 200, f8, 1/800, 70mm

The final image, picked out in the concrete wall of a building shows a repeating pattern formed from strong diagonals.

ISO 200, f5.6, 1/100, 46mm

Exercise: Rhythms and patterns

In this exercise (the final exercise within Elements of Design) the study was focused on repetition. The course notes suggested a contrast with the creation of a rhythm or repetitive beat in music. This was something that struck a chord (no pun intended) with me as a musician although looking at my photography prior to this piece of study, it has not been a particularly strong element of my composition skills. That said, I found it much easier to identify repeating patterns!

As suggested in the course text, the repeating pattern extending across the full frame helps the eye extend the idea of the pattern.

ISO 800, f4.5, 1/40, 35mm

I found cutting a rectangle frame out of an object (in this case a round ‘bowl’) changed the way I looked at the pattern.

ISO 800, f5.6, 1/25, 78mm

This image crossed the boundary for me, perhaps it’s my legacy of computer based music making but the patterns of circles immediately suggested a rhythm (straight 4/4 of course). I filled the frame using a diagonal to make the most of the available natural light that fell on the subject.

ISO 200, f32, 1.3″, 100mm

This image for me says rhythm, again my musical background is probably playing a part but the drying patterns on the concrete look like musical waves.

ISO 200, f9, 1/90, 53mm

This time a different kind of rhythm, perhaps syncopated.

ISO 800, f5.6, 1/1600, 200mm

This final image was all about a rhythm. A new set of coloured pencils at Christmas had already been put to work by my eldest daughter and picking carefully I was able to arrange similar lengths and sharpened/un-sharpened pencils to form a repeating pattern.

ISO 800, f5.6, 1/125, 85mm

The example photographs here although split into pattern and rhythms show there is definitely a crossover of rhythm and pattern (and also subjective views no doubt of what forms an optical beat).

Exercise: Real and implied triangles

An exercise as part of the chapter on shapes. Here we were looking at triangles, both of the actual variety and the implied.

The first two examples here are ‘real’ triangles. The first shot was taken on Coombe Hill near Wendover. Using partly perspective but also the shape of the construction, this forms a triangle.

ISO 400, f9, 1/60sec, 15mm

This second shot was taken looking up through a car park staircase, the centre cut-out being a triangle.

ISO 1600, f9, 1/40sec, 15mm

Next it was the turn of implied triangles, here three faces (thanks Annie, Immy and Rosie) make an implied triangle by connecting the focal points of the three faces.

ISO 400, f4.5, 1/100 sec, 35mm

The last two images show a ‘still life’ arrangement (of the contents of our fridge fruit/veg drawer) arranged first to imply a triangle with apex at the top…

ISO 1600, f4.5, 1/20 sec, 28mm

and then inverted.

ISO 1600, f4, 1/20, 26mm

After this section of the course, I realised just how many triangles are out there, especially of the implied type. They are actually seem more prevalent than circles or rectangles. Interesting.

Exercise: Implied Lines


This exercise, in three stages looked at implied lines in photography, lines that aren’t specifically captured in the photograph but are suggested.

The first two photos in this exercise were provided as good examples of implied lines.

Using the arrows in yellow I’ve indicated the line implied by the action in the photo.

In this example I’ve used the longer lines to indicate the overriding implied line (in this case the horses).

The next three photos I’ve taken from my existing photo library as examples of photos with implied lines. These were not taken with any specific intent but retrospectively demonstrate the idea.

Here the photographer is creating an implied line (indicated in red) pointing the camera very specifically at a view out of the frame.

In this frame the mother and child meerkats are focused on something again out of frame. Using two sources of the implied line increases the intensity of the implication.

In this example, there are several different lines going on, I’ve tried to show them using different coloured lines. In actual fact the two pairs of children are created implied lines between them.

The final two photographs were specifically taken after reading this part of the course with a deliberate intention of an implied line.

ISO 200, f20, 1/125sec, 18mm

The first example is of an eye line, the subject creates this through an implied line from the subject’s line of sight into the scene.

ISO 200, f9.0, 1/40 sec, 50mm

In this final example, the line is created by lighting in the scene, an arrow shape being created under the bridge and drawing an implied line from left to right across the frame.

Exercise: Curves

So given I’ve looked at lines, horizontal, vertical and diagonal, I guess curves was the only area left to look at before piecing stuff together.

The photos below look to illustrate how curves can be used to indicate or emphasise movement and direction.

This first shot was a piece of field picked out because the usually straight tractor lines had been distorted through the need to navigate around the fact the field wasn’t rectangular. I thought it kind of emphasised that despite the ‘go anywhere’ nature of farm machinery, once the tracks have been set down and a field planted, they need to stick to the tracks else the crop is going to be damaged with each pass!

ISO 1600, f/11, 1/200 sec, 300mm

In this shot I liked the fact I had double curvature! The spherical ‘bollards’ following a course of curvature in the road. The circles helped emphasise the curve.

ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640 sec, 44mm

This view was taken looking upwards through the banisters in my office building. Whilst various curves are on show, the aim of the shot was to emphasise the cycling back and forth so the viewer gets the sense of the journey as you navigate the stairs with a turn at each end, indicated by the curvature in the banister.

ISO 1600, f/13, 1/10 sec,13 mm

The well known view of Royal Crescent in Bath (on a chilly Saturday in late March!). The curvature of the crescent is well known but taken from this angle gives the crescent a bit more depth and dimension I hope leading the viewer on a journey around the first third of the crescent. Pity it was a bit overcast!

ISO 800, f/13, 1/60 sec, 14mm

Exercise: Diagonals

This simple exercise looks at the use of diagonals in photographic composition. The photos below illustrate the fact that most of the time, diagonals are created from viewpoint (angle and perspective rather than genuinely existing!).

In this first shot taken in the London Underground it is the viewpoint creating the diagonal although arguably the movement of the train has emphasised it.

ISO 800, f/11, 1/3 sec, 10mm

The next photo using the compression effect of a telephoto lens.

ISO 200, f/11, 1/50 sec, 225mm

In this shot of Pitstone windmill again I’ve used my viewpoint to arrange the sails to create a diagonal.

ISO 200, f/11, 1/250 sec, 14mm

Finally, slightly less pronounced but again utilising viewpoint is Worthing Pier, the diagonal of the pier and its reflection converging due to the perspective.

ISO 200, f/14, 1/5 sec, 14mm

Here I will add references to great examples of diagonals I’ve spotted elsewhere in other photographic resources:

Exercise: Horizontal and vertical lines

The first exercise in this project simply requested four photographs of horizontal and four of vertical lines. The photos below were chosen as examples where the intention is that the first thing the viewer sees is the line and the rest of the image is subordinate to it.


In amongst the trees of the Ashridge estate, I was actually on the hunt for bluebells but the strong verticals of so many straight trees seem to dominate this view.

ISO 200, f/9, 1/200 sec, 35mm

On a slightly cloudy day, I was drawn to this street (in St Mawes, Cornwall) by the strong pull of the double yellow line. This was further enhanced by taking the shot at very low angle to the ground.

ISO 200, f/10, 1/200 sec, 10mm

This is the perimeter of a car park in Aylesbury, it is a set of simple lines but with plenty of photographic opportunity and something different to the usual view simply up a tall building.

ISO 200, f/9, 1/400 sec, 35mm

Here my daughters and cousins set off (like a scene from an Enid Blyton book) along the canal side. The flat plane and the symmetrical positioning (not staged) made this an ideal case for verticals. This is further enhanced by the reflections.

ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/400 sec, 55mm


A classic example of the horizontal horizon dominating the shot (Dartmoor).

ISO 200, f/16, 1/320 sec, 10mm

Something a bit different, strong horizontal lines of corrugated iron. The initial interest in this shot was lighting and texture but the lines are actually more of a draw.

ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/64 sec, 18mm

From the amazing selection of foliage on display at the Eden Project in Cornwall, I deliberately shot this leaf this way around to emphasise the dominate ‘band’ of the central stem in the leaf.

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/50 sec, 46mm

The final horizontal view is this sunset from Ivinghoe Beacon, the multiple bands of light caught just as the sun was setting. An alternative to the horizontal horizon.

ISO 200, f/13, 1/100 sec, 210mm

Exercise: Multiple Points

The exercise for multiple points used the construction of a single ‘scene’ to develop understanding of how multiple points can imply shapes and lines. This was about building an effective still life. The photos below document the building of such a photo using a series of objects (in my case, tools from my tool box) using the camera in a fixed position (tripod mounted). By using a prime lens (35mm) I was unable to adjust the framing as the scene developed, instead I had to experiment with the position and location of objects to create a final grouping that hung together visually.

The photos represent each major change or addition to the composition.

All shots ISO 200, f/13, 1/30 sec, 35mm (prime lens)

Using a combination of my garden and trusty toolbox as a backdrop, I began by placing a chisel in the frame.

Next I added a small spirit level and mallet, I chose to place the mallet this way up in contrast to the chisel for the sake of interest.

I tried the hacksaw behind the mallet and chisel but it was lost, even at this stage. Attempts to balance it worked better with the mallet reversed in position so that was the first change. I quite liked the ‘N’ created by the chisel, mallet and hacksaw at this stage.

Adding the plane, I decided the chisel and the ‘N’ it created looked great but only whilst there were few objects in frame so I reconstructed the arrangement putting the ‘business end’ of the chisel and mallet together with the aim of keeping the view looking towards the middle of the frame.

I began to add some smaller tools, pliers and a screwdriver. Initially I stood these against the toolbox but that didn’t look great as the composition started to look like a row of tools in a catalogue, not a photo!

Tape measure and spanner were next to join, the smaller tools were starting to feel a bit lost as they lacked the black background of the toolbox, at this stage I decided to complete the initial placing of the tools in the frame before trying to correct.

With the final tools added, I tried to ‘tighten’ the arrangement up by moving the tools a little closer together. This helped but I started to feel things were a bit too linear again and a bit untidy. The red of the plane was also distracting. I could see a triangle in the arrangement but it wasn’t clearly coming through.

So the final image, I’ve moved a couple of objects, first I changed the position of the black multi-tool to break the linear feel in the centre of the frame, I also turned over the plane taking away the red. In the process I realised just how many of my tools are black and yellow (no, its not an advert for Stanley!!).

The final composition has two triangles implied (annotated above), the first to the outside of the arrangement, the second within it. Although all the tools are quite angular, the combination of vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines breaks the image from just looking like a row of tools.

As the exercise suggested, this took a while to put together and to be honest, I had two completely false starts before achieving a result I was happy with. The complexity generated by multiple points, particularly when the objects are all different shapes and colours presents an interesting challenge but quite enjoyable to final resolve.