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How to make a Camera Obscura

“The best thing I did during my time at School was turning the entire classroom into a camera” – One of my Yr13 Students

The Camera Obscura is fun to make, interactive and is always a hit with students and staff alike.

What also makes this activity fantastic for schools is that it employs Physics in order to work which opens the door for cross-curricular activities. Physics students can learn how light moves, Art students can learn how master painters understood scale – Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer have been ‘accused’ of using a Camera Obscura to ‘trace’ their paintings. Members of staff and other students often come to experience it purely out of curiosity, it’s a fantastic talking point across the school.

At the end of my first year of teaching a student wrote in the yearbook that the classroom Camera Obscura was the most fun activity she had undertaken during her time at the school. I’ve repeated it every year since.

Day one of sixth form can be tough, a new environment, new teachers and for some students, a brand new school. This is a fun activity and is intended to get students moving, interacting and developing their understanding of photography. Many of them will have no idea what a Camera Obscura is and are mesmerised by the results. Students have to interact and work together, helping break the ice and allowing them to bond.

You will need:

  • Black out cloth/cardboard/rubble sacks
  • A classroom (less windows the better) ((North facing/not looking into the sun))
  • Scissors/craft knife
  • Sellotape/Gaffer tape/Magic tape – careful of the paintwork!
  • Glue gun
  • +1 close up filter or pinhole in tin foil if strapped for cash.
  • Huge sheet of white paper/white cloth/white shower curtain
  • A sunny day!

Find a classroom in the building that ideally has few windows, is big enough to fit your class into and where the windows don’t face directly into the sun.
It’s worth noting that when the windows and doors are light tight, the room will get hot very quickly, particularly if you have a large class. A room with fans or air conditioning is a bonus.

Roughly measure the window then cut out the light tight material to a size a bit larger than the window. Decided where the lens will go relative to the window (avoiding sash window bars etc.) Cut out a circular hole in the cloth that will cover the window and sellotape/glue gun the lens filter in place.

Cover the windows with the black out cloth/rubble sacks. The material you use isn’t an issue, the room however does have to be 100% light tight in order for this to work.

Turn the lights out an allow your eyes to adjust. In modern buildings there are often blinking lights on computers and motion sensors that may interfere with the outcome so be sure to turn off all electronics.

Once the room is completely light tight erect the projector screen a metre or so away from the window. Using cloth, paper or a shower curtain allows for the image to be seen on the reverse. This means the class can stand at the back of the room looking towards the aperture.

If you are fortunate enough to have a very sunny day, then there is no need for a screen at all. Given long enough your eyes will adjust and the outside will be projected on the walls on the opposite side of the aperture.

Students can go outside and move in front of the aperture in order to be projected into the room upside down! This then leads to conversations on Mozi and Sir Isaac Newton. Students can then be introduced to the fundamental principles of photography and aperture. Conversation can then be directed to developing ideas using this technique and understanding that the miracle of Physics occurring before them is what happens in every SLR camera. I structure my lesson plans so this leads nicely onto the next lesson, where students will make their own pinhole cameras, make a miniature Camera Obscura and take their first photograph!

Lens positioned on window

how to make a camera obscura

Image projected into the room

abelardo morell camera obscura

National Geographic on Youtube
If you or your students have Netflix, the Cosmos series by Neil De Grasse Tyson is fantastic, the episode ‘Hiding in the Light’ is where this clip comes from and has much more detail.
In depth guide to Aperture
Photography project ideas
Camera Obscura artist Abelardo Morell

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To fully understand this article, you will need to know the following information.

The A-Level is a two year course.
The first year is not assessed.
The Personal investigation commences in the September of your second year of study. It is worth 60% of the final grade.
The Externally set assignment commences in the February of your second year of study. It is worth 40% of the final grade.

To do A level photography did you have to do it as a GCSE?

In my experience this varies depending on your own particular school/college. In my case the answer would be no as the school I teach at does not offer Photography at GCSE level, however we do at A-Level. Instead what we recommend is that you will have studied an Art based course and have a genuine interest in photography. Knowledge of an art based course will give you a base knowledge of what to expect. You will have to conduct artist research, analyse work, link and develop ideas, exactly the same as art, textiles or ceramics.

The new linear A-Level means your work in year 12 won’t be assessed. This gives you the time to practice and develop your skills before work starts proper in year 13.

I didn’t do any of the arts for GCSE can I still study A-Level Photography?

This will be entirely up to your teachers. If you can demonstrate a genuine desire to study Photography at A-Level then they may allow you. My advice, make a strong case. Show them a portfolio of images, ask other students what level they are at and consider what you would have to do to catch up. Be proactive in your learning. If you can demonstrate that you have conducted research, know how to use a camera in manual mode and understand composition before you even meet with your tutors, they will no doubt be impressed and be much more inclined to let you study the course.

I want to take A Level Photography, but I’ve read the specification and I’m still unsure exactly what the course is about. Can anyone who has done A Level Photography tell me what it contains?

The full A-Level course allows you to study any area that you’re interested in. There are no restrictions providing you are able to follow the mark scheme. If you are studying the full two year A-Level course you will have all of year 12 to practice before deciding on what area to focus your personal investigation, which starts in year 13. What is a personal investigation I hear you say. It is exactly as it sounds, you choose an area or topic that is or personal interest to you and conduct a photographic investigation. It may be on any subject you choose.

It’s not clear whether it’s digital or film based?

The area of study is driven by the student, if you wish to shoot film, then shoot film. If you wish to shoot digital, then shoot digital. The photography course also allows for video and animation.

Do you photograph what you want or are there set tasks to complete?

The course is not a tick box exercise. No one will say ‘photograph ten pictures displaying your knowledge of depth of field, and that box is ticked for two marks’ it simply does not work like that. Your investigation is driven by you. You conduct the research, you choose the area of study and you ask questions and generate ideas. Your tutors are their to guide you and make sure you are following the mark scheme, the ideas should be all yours.

What do you have to submit for Photography? Do you have to do drawings as well as photos or can I submit a portfolio of photos?

The personal investigation is not a portfolio, it is an investigation. In the same way that a detective may scribble, doodle and use scrap bits of paper, you can do the same. If you only present a collection of images with no research and no annotations, you will fail.

What do I write in my photography research pages?

Typically you should have a biography of the photographer/artist. This should include details on where they studied, their influences (if you can find them) and an overall summary of their style. This is all very basic, you should instead use this as an opportunity to show off your analytical skills and the depth of your technical knowledge. Firstly, why do we conduct research? What is the point? It’s not to look at cool pictures and copy them, it’s to understand WHY someone has created the work they have. You can tell me what they have created and how they have created it quite easily, once you crack the ‘why’ then your project will be elevated to the next level.

Here’s a post on understanding how to analyse a photograph and why a photographer creates work which will hopefully help.

If you can understand why someone has created work in a certain style, then you can take the basic premise of their work, their ideas and philosophies and apply that knowledge to your own responses. Anyone can copy work, your job is to understand it and then develop an idea from it.

Consider this analysis of Victoria Siemer’s work:

victoria siemer
Image analysis: “reminder”
Within the photograph ‘reminder’ it displays a morbid, nostalgic mood, to somewhat signify how nothing lasts forever; everything must come to an end at one stage in everyone’s life, this situation can be fulfilled either with happiness or with great sorrow and disbelief.
Typically when looking at any Polaroid picture, we associate it with a previous generation, therefore we immediately assume it is old; so in this instant, within the image “Reminder” you are able to recognise how this frequent fact of life: “Someday you will be dead” is repeating itself throughout previous generations, and it will continue to do so in the future.

Also with Polaroid’s, the photographs are ironically printed instantly to capture and to preserve a moment, a memory, as a hard copy in comparison to the unreliability of a modern technology such as a mobile phone.

This instant nature of a Polaroid photo can also be compared to the message displayed which is short and sharp, instantly grabbing the viewer’s attention. However once the photograph has the viewers’ attention, the bleak and morbid quote contrasts with the fast characteristics of both the Polaroid photo and the profound message, by making the viewer reconsider and indulge in deep thought over the drastic issue mentioned. This contrast therefore marries both speed and long contemplation in one image.
The blue tones of the image give it a sad, depressing quality; the presence of fog possesses a cold quality to the image which matches the blues in the sea. The shallow depth of field suggests a large aperture of possibly f2.8 or f4 which in turn creates a sharp drop off in focus. This aids the overall feel of the image, suggesting there is little hope, or that our lives are fading away in front of us.

This student has successfully analysed the work and uncovered why Victoria Siemer has created work in this fashion. We now have words and phrases to stem new ideas from:

Signify how nothing lasts forever
Someday you will be dead – the memento mori
Unreliability of modern technology
Bleak and morbid quotes
Marrying speed and contemplation in one image
Lives fading away in front of us

Each of these could stem an entirely new project.
This is the level of depth you should be aiming for in your analysis. It demonstrates a command of a specialist vocabulary, technical and conceptual knowledge. It also shows that you can develop your ideas, which is key to hitting the high marks.

Would it be appropriate to take it as an A Level even if you do not wish to use it for the future?

I’m a great believer that all schools should be art schools. All of life is problem solving, if you can think creatively, you can solve anything.
A better question would be “does my university accept Photography as an A-Level” because some universities don’t. If you want to study medicine or law, then it’s worth investigating before you start. Equally some universities prefer A-Levels over BTECS, so check before you commit.

How do I generate and develop ideas?

A student asked this question in an online forum and said her topic was “Unseen Personality”.
So where to begin?

My two favourite books. The Dictionary and The Thesaurus.



The imaginary self. The invisible self. The imagined self. What visuals does this conjur? Portraits? Self portraits? Long exposure/ghostly pictures?

I always encourage students to turn their topic into a question, it focusses the mind in a way that a statement can’t. If you are answering a question, you are looking for an answer.

How to photograph the invisible self? – This topic as a question is going to stimulate the mind more than “unseen personality”

So what is invisible? The things we hide, hidden personalities. Why do we hide our personalities? Fear? Fear from what? How does hidden personalities make us feel? Do we have a different personality for our friends versus our nan? Why?
What else is invisible? Ultraviolet and Infra Red light? Can you take a photograph using these wave lengths? Yes, yes you can – and they are really cool.

Now we have a vague idea that we are looking for portraits or self portrait photographers/artists. GO TO A GALLERY. Googling will only get you so far. To understand art and photography, you have to experience it. Prints, paintings and canvases have texture, you don’t just see them, you experience them. Look up ‘Guernica’ on Google. Sure you can see the depiction of it. But it’s seven metres long. You will never feel the true impact of art if you don’t see it in the flesh.
So we’ve gone to a gallery. Who did you see? Francis Bacon? Cindy Sherman? Nigel Parry? Lucien Freud? Now you have to analyse their work, understand why they created work in the way they did, this will then influence your next step. Once you understand why they have created their work, you can then apply those ideas, principles and techniques to your own work. See the page on analysing a photographers work for more help.

I don’t understand Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO, what should I do?

Look at these pages that explain Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO in detail.

Where do I find more information on composition, rule of thirds etc?

Go to our page on everything you need to know about composition.

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What’s the point of analysing someone’s work?

If you don’t understand it, you can’t create an in depth response to it.

No-one cares about your opinion unless it is based upon evidence, and saying ‘i like it’ and copying the image exactly won’t score you any marks.

You need depth, demonstration of knowledge and use of a specialist vocabulary. That’s what get’s you a high grade.

How to analyse a Photograph

Images are loaded with codes, signs and signifiers. Some come from ancient history, others are loaded with religious meaning. This language of signs is called semiotics, understanding semiotics and representation is key to properly understanding and analysing an image.

Once you have uncovered why a photographer or artist has created a certain piece of work, then you can take that ‘why’ and apply the principle of it to your own work. It will allow you to explore different subject matter, themes and methods of picture taking, all whilst maintaining the same fundamental idea.


This is a sign, it represents something and has a meaning.

When you see it on the road, you are supposed to stop.

It’s written in the English language, so you need to know English in order to understand it.

If you speak Arabic and have never seen an English word before, would you know what it means? Universally the colour red is associated with causing alert or is associated with danger. Even if you do not know the language you may be able to decipher it’s meaning. Red can also be associated with love and passion, but not in this case. The sign is placed on a road, so this gives it context and frames it’s meaning.

The possible associations and representations of a literal sign, language and colour are numerous. Even in as something as simple as a road sign a great deal of knowledge is required to know it’s meaning.

You have to know:

  • the language
  • the meaning of the colour
  • understand the context the sign is in

And that is just a road sign.

stop sign

This can also be a sign:

red apple

It’s an apple, but it can represent different things depending on the context.

  • The colour – does it represent anger, love, passion, desire, danger?
  • An apple can represent:
  • the apple not falling far from the tree (knowledge of local sayings, folk tales and language)
  • tree of life – fertility, bounty, plenty
  • religious symbolism – story of Adam and eve and forbidden fruit
  • health – healthy eating
  • in Norse mythology it is associated with immortality (knowledge of cultures other than your own)

You can begin to understand that even simple objects in isolation can have multiple meanings.

The setting that the object is then placed in can have an effect on that reading of that object and it can effect the overall interpretation of an image.

How then do we piece together the meaning of an image with many objects?

Analysing an image

So how do we tackle an image with many objects, all interacting and potentially changing the meaning of the image?

When analysing a picture, it’s a good idea to consider it in the same way you might when writing an English or History essay. You are exploring a statement or a question and you gather evidence either supporting or contradicting that statement or question.

The same is true of an image. The question ultimately is what does it mean? or what is it trying to express?

We need evidence to support our own theory on that image.

This is our picture to analyse, let’s go through it, step by step.

What tools to use to analyse a picture?

The Supper at Emmaus 1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

carravaggio painting

Let’s start at the beginning.

We know it’s painted by Caravaggio, what information can we find on him?

Online search reveals plenty of articles and videos. I like documentaries so I watched ‘who killed caravaggio?’ on Youtube.

Ok so I’ve watched that, and I’ve learnt about him and his relationship with the Medici family. Andrew Graham Dixon (presenter of first video) has other videos on Caravaggio, The Medici and The Renaissance, so I watched all of those.

I now have a basic introduction to the life and works of the painter – his general style, his attitude towards life and the mysterious circumstances around his death. Cool.

Let’s look at the picture.

Understanding it’s construction

I struggled with this picture, I mean really struggled, there is something about the composition that I jut couldn’t get for a good few hours. It annoyed me considerably, but I think I’ve got.

When I first look at a painting or photograph I squint at it.

This is a neat little trick that my lecturers taught me at university. The idea is to remove all the mid-tones and be left with just the highlights and shadows. The brightest parts of the picture are where you eye will naturally be drawn to, being able to see only the brightest parts helps understand and appreciate where the artists intended your eye to go. Not only that but also the balance of the picture will be revealed (or not of course) as having a single bright spot will draw the eye in a single direction, it needs to be counter weighted inn order to create harmony in the image.

Squint at the picture to reveal only the brightest parts

carravaggio composition analysis

This instantly helps to understand the composition and the construction of the image. The cloth on the knee balances the cloth on the mans head. The red in the bottom left is the same brightness as Jesus’ robes and of the man’s gesturing hand. The red tones are also echo’d in other elements of clothing and items on the table.


relative brightnessEchoing the colours creates a sens of rhythm from left to right.

carravaggio composition analysis

Cutting out the mid-tones also reveals a strong triangle that is created between Jesus and the table cloth.

carravaggio composition analysis

Other elements echo each other in order to create harmony. The shell on the clothing and the white patch on the elbow.


carravaggio composition analysisHere the struggle to piece the composition together continued. I just couldn’t see what was holding it together.

I placed a red dot over all the important action areas of the picture to try and grasp what was framing the image. A triangle framing Jesus is what emerged.

carravaggio composition analysisThere was still something that I couldn’t quite get. After staring at the painting for about an hour, it became apparent that the subtle use of light on the left hand side of the image was creating the balance.

carravaggio composition analysisTo demonstrate, here’s what happens when I remove it. The image as a whole shifts ever so slightly to the right and unbalances the composition.

carravaggio composition analysisThe shadows in the top left and bottom right mirror each other, but the subtle use of light over the green jacket helps pull the whole composition to the left that then puts Jesus firmly in the centre of the frame.

carravaggio composition analysis

It took a while to work out how the bottom left was interacting with the image. Through observation it became apparent that his angular momentum as he springs up from his chair is what moves the eye up to the next figure.

Examining the direction in which elements in the frame are moving helps decipher the natural flow of the image. The structure of the frame around Jesus has been revealed. This took me four hours.

carravaggio composition analysisThe single greatest thing about analysing paintings is that you know every choice was made deliberately, not a single brush stroke was random and it gives a genuine insight into the genius of the creation.

To summarise.

The insinuated upward movement of the figure on the left helps to create an imaginary barrier and leading line up towards the standing figure. His gaze coupled with the shadow creates another leading line for the eye to follow across the picture. This is countered by the figure on the right who redirects the gaze across the image creating three points of tension that keep the eye moving dynamically across the image whilst framing the central figure. The shadows in the top left and top right of the frame create balance and the greatest areas of contrast create another dynamic frame that frames the central figure.

Now we have taken apart the composition, let’s examine it’s contents and their potential meanings.

The signs in the picture

List the items/objects/people in the picture:

Denotationor first level of signification identification and definition of elements. This is dictionary level outlining of what is in the image. Denotational readings will be common to a large number of people. A piece of bread is food, glass of wine is a drink, the word represents the thing and is the first level of it’s meaning.

  • Jesus
  • Grape vine
  • Bread
  • Fruit
  • Wine
  • Chicken – is it a chicken? I don’t actually know and can’t tell.
  • Shell badge on jacket

Explore and research the meanings for each object. This is referred to as Connotation or second level of signification. Connotation begins when you link an object with other signs and meanings – the bread might be. It is red, therefore it is bright and eye catching and might therefore connote that its owner is an extrovert. If you once fell off a bicycle yourself and smashed your leg up then you may associate this bicycle with negativity and pain.

Connotations are numerous, and vary from reader to reader.

When analysing an image we examine how the different elements, arranged and framed in the way that they are, combine to form meaning.

Google ‘the object’ and ‘represent’ or ‘symbolise’ and you’ll find your answers:

  • Jesus – Christ the saviour. Search bible verses that have Jesus and bread in them: “…he took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight’ (Luke 24: 30-31)
  • Grape vine – In the bible Jesus says ‘I am the vine’.  The vine can symbolise gods chosen people. Often linked to fertility and prosperity. Associated with Dionysus or Bacchus in Greco-Roman tradition – the god of wine making, fertility, religious ecstasy.
  • Bread – the body of Christ? fecundity or fertility. abundance. new growth. becoming new
  • Fruit – abundance. plenty. harvest
  • Wine – the blood of Christ? friendship and love.
  • Shell badge on jacket – scallop shell in Christianity is a symbol of the pilgrim, it symbolises them having completed their pilgrimage.

Explore the context in which those objects are placed:

  • Jesus
  • Grape vine – Jesus is in the picture, ‘I am the vine’ is essentially saying ‘I am Jesus’ – we know from our earlier research that this is the moment that Jesus reveals himself.
  • Bread – On the table, for sharing? The picture has Jesus in it, bread is associated with miracles, consider the feeding of the five thousand. Is the scene depicting a miracle? The moment he reveals himself.
  • Fruit – Almost falling off the edge of the table. The direction of the figures in the paintings suggests sudden movements, bowl about to fall – suspense and tension.
  • Wine – In the presence of Christ. Christ is believed to be present in the Eucharist.
  • Shell badge on jacket – Christ appears. The shell symbolises the end of a journey.

Did I know the answer to what the objects represent?

No, not all. I had to Google what they symbolised. With my new found knowledge, I can now piece together the story of the image.

Piecing it all together

Every element of this picture tells the story of the moment that Christ reveals himself to the three men around the table.

Jesus appears in this image without a beard, so it isn’t immediately obvious that it’s him, however the elements in the picture tell us that it definitely is.

In the bible Jesus says ‘I am the vine’, bread is associated with miracles, becoming new or re-birth as well as the body of Christ. Wine is associated with the blood of Christ. The vine is also associated with religious ecstasy and the shell represents the end of a pilgrimage or end of a journey. Each item on the table represents Jesus Christ and the shell tells us that the characters within the image have reached the end of a journey, in this case, the moment Jesus reveals himself and then vanishes.

What is the core meaning of this piece?

This will always be open to interpretation which is why it is imperative you base your analysis on evidence rather than your opinion.

The painting by Caravaggio is allegorical, i.e, the signs and symbols within the picture convey a hidden meaning. If you had no idea what this painting was about, using the evidence gathered, you can piece the story together.

The ‘why’ – using symbols to tell a religious story.

How does this help you?

Ultimately, the point of analysing works is to understand how history, religion, society, culture etc. effects out understanding of images. When you know what objects represent and the possible interpretations of an image you understand it’s core meaning, and when you have that information, you can apply it to your own work.

This painting is allegorical and draws upon religious representation to tell a story.

This part is key.

If I gave you this picture and told you to create a response, chances are you would get four friends and sit them around a table and take a photograph. After that, you would probably get stuck.

Now however, you know that the objects within the frame tell the story, this gives you room to experiment and develop a new idea.

  • What other objects represent Christ?
  • Do you need people in the frame?
  • Could it be a still life project?
  • What other religious passages could you explore?
  • What other religions could you explore?
  • What other cultural representations could you explore?

Many more questions, many more directions for you to take a project.

Not only that, but you have also gained deep knowledge about the painter, his work, life and history. His techniques and use of light, assuming you absorbed the word ‘chiaroscuro’ somewhere along the way (it means extreme contrast) – use that in you analysis of future works.

All of learning is interlinked, one idea will lead to another. New inspiration develops your vocabulary, better vocabulary develops your ability to understand other works but also understand your own. Go forth and create, feel free to paste links to your own work in the comments below.









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Photography Reading List

Starting a photography course in the new year? GCSE? A-Level? Degree? Need a photography reading list to get you started? Good, here you go.

Congratulations, you are at the start of a wonderful journey. Cherish these years as you will look back upon them as a time when you could fully indulge in your practice, undisturbed by the outside pressures of money and family.

Devour as much information as you possibly can. Read, read and then read some more. Make notes, record videos, document the whole lot.

Have a dictionary on hand – not your phone, it’s distracting.

There will be plenty of words that you don’t understand, maybe even entire passages, but this has to happen in order for you to learn. You don’t read the same books from when you were a child over and over again do you? why not? because you have extracted the information from it, you know the morals or the facts contained within it. You are hungry for more. New information, new tales and stories, new inspirations!

Learning, and I mean real learning, happens right on the point where you know a bit of what you’re reading, but not all. Only then will you engage your brain to understand the core meaning. This is why revision is boring and rather unproductive. You know the information already, so you’re just re-reading the same thing over and over. Delving deep into a subject is what keeps the magic of learning alive.

Here is my photography reading list, some books are more challenging than others. By the time you reach the end of your degree, you should have read them all. Also included in this article is a list of relevant other resources such as galleries to visit, websites to get inspiration from and popular magazines with latest news and reviews.

Books – reading list

John Berger
Ways of Seeing (1990)

Also available on Youtube:

Cataract (2012)

Understanding a Photograph (2013)


Roland Barthes
A very short introduction

Camera Lucida


The Rhetoric of the Image

The Photographic Message


W. Baart
Photography – A Concise History
Pub: Laurence King, London


Graham Clarke
The Photograph
Pub: Oxford History of Art


Susan Sontag
On Photography

Regarding the Pain of Others


Vilem Flusser
Towards a Philosophy of Photography


Michel Foucault
Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias


Douglas Crimp


Laura Mulvey
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema


Books on Photography Technique

Michael Freeman is a great communicator and offers plenty of useful information that’s easy to digest.

Michael Freeman


Timeless art of Monochrome


Perfect Exposure


A Photographers eye


Alternative Processes

This is literally the alt bible


Magazines and Journals

The British Journal of Photography – Incisive Media (Professional Weekly)

Portfolio (Contemporary Photography)

Practical Photography
WH Smiths

Digital Photo
WH Smiths

Amateur Photography
WH Smiths


Galleries and Museums

Check for all current exhibitions

BFI Southbank Gallery
Belvedere Road, SE1

The British Library
Euston Road, NW1

British Museum
Great Russel Street, WC1

County Hall Gallery
Westminster Bridge Road, SE1

Getty Images Gallery
Eastcastle Street, W1

The Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road, SE1

National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place, WC2

Royal Academy of Arts
Piccadilly, W1

Whitechapel Gallery
Whitechapel High Street, E1

Tate Modern
Park Street, Bankside, SE1


Photography Equipment

Camera Price Buster (price comparison site)

MPB Photographic (second hand gear)


Mr. Cad


First Call Photographic


Research – useful websites



The eye of photography
Features the greatest practitioners of the camera
Pinhole photography my professional photographer Justin Quinnell
Community of Lomographers
Digital archive and public library
Digital camera news, reviews etc…


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A-Grade Photography A-Level project example

In this post we exhibit an exploration into PTSD and the human condition through Tintypes.

Why did this project receive full marks?

The project is incredibly well researched, technically well executed and ends with genuine discovery. Successfully capturing a tintype image on a mirror to my knowledge is completely unique, for an A-Level student to achieve such a feat is genuinely incredible.

The area of study is sophisticated and handled with maturity.

The style is consistent and well considered given the subject matter, even down to the careful selection of the font.

A mastery of technical language is evident throughout – read the accompanying unit 3 personal investigation essay here.

A mastery of technique and visual language is evident throughout

All components compliment each other; the technique chosen resonates with the underlying concept

Development of project both conceptually and technically is evident, students progress from early mistakes to mastery is well documented

Devin Mitchell photography project research

Devin Mitchell.
Born in 1987, Mitchell aspired to follow his own approach in the photographic world. He taught himself in order to create his art. Mitchell’s self-professed devinography work is a composition of Photoshop illusions and surreal imagery, with often controversial results.

Mitchell’s artwork in ‘the veteran art project’ shows the two sides of U S servicemen, often fairly surprising and contrasting to their military lifestyle.
What Mitchell successfully depicts is the controversial side of the soldiers in their casual lives, out of uniform. Mitchell has captured the Individuality and the contrast between the two sides of a member of the armed force’s lives. The images are as if they examine what lies beneath the beret or garrison cap; what they experience and their individual personality outside of their occupation. The series successfully challenges stereotypes within the forces, revealing the vulnerability of service men and women despite the stoic façade.
This image of Marine Ivanchan shows how even after receiving a double amputation, he cannot help but realise he is still that Marine. This photo is very interesting as it presents the reality of how hard many Servicemen find it to leave their band of brothers – to re-join civilian life. Looking in the mirror, the reflection is leaning forward, like in an interrogating or intimidating stance, pressuring the marine; this somewhat presents the effects of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), controlling the individual internally.

Photoshop software is used to change an image to the operator’s liking. Many professional and amateur photographers, in a range of varying camerawork, employ it to edit their images. Graphic designers also use Photoshop to create and change images. The software is widely known and criticised for the ability to change the image of models and celebrities, causing major ethical issues.


Tom Hussey photography project research

Tintype instructions

Ed Drew tintype photography project research

Ed Drew
Born in 1981 – began his career by joining the military a month after graduating from high school. While stationed in Japan, Drew discovered his passion for art.
Tintypes were first patented in 1856 and were very popular in the United States during the Civil War. Made by creating a direct positive on the dark iron, Tintypes are technically negatives. Collodion processes can register microscopic detail, giving the resulting photographs a remarkably high-definition look.
Drew’s Tintypes portraits of his fellow soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are the first known Tintypes created in wartime since the American Civil War.
Drew’s use of Tintypes – a photographic technique common place in conflicts such as the American Civil War – in Afghanistan, creates an eerie feeling of ghost like figures. The standard issue M9 Beretta holstered across his chest is the remnants of its ‘6 shooters’ ancestor; their m4s are the replacements of Winchester rifles and APCS the modern day pack horse. His photos present the surreal aspect of using such aged equipment, in such a modern conflict.

The essence of the Tintypes emphasizes the true grit of the subjects and the environment. Drew uses his colleagues, rather than the destitute landscape of Afghanistan – a relatively alternative concept being that most photographers that travel all the way to the front line take images of the conflict, of casualties, of the battlefield. His subjects. Despite being alive and unwounded, seem to express the horror, the pain and the threat of war.


Ellen Susan tintype photography project research

Ellen Susan.
Born in 1969 – Susan began working with wet plate photography on her own, reconstructing the process and taking inspiration from former legendary, wet plate photographers. Susan can be seen as one of the initial individuals to revive wet plate photography.

Each individual image is incredibly refined and detailed in a way in which it allows for entire lives and narration, through use of attire, expression & minute detail.
The physical expression exhibits an intense stare through the camera – his forward leaning posture, and tight-set shoulders adjacent to an almost Roman-like sculpted face, resting upon tightly compressed hands creates an incredibly imposing, intimidating image. However, the prayer Resembling expression of his hands suggests some sort of gracefulness and solidarity. What is odd is that his facial manner is somewhat confusing; his mouth, cheeks and forehead relaxed in a non-threatening manner, yet his eyes, brows and posture conflicting such a condition.

Susan took advantage of living near the Southeast Georgia Army Base, photographing the military personnel that occupied the local residential and commercial areas; meeting soldiers at grocery stores, delving into their story and grasping such experiences in a single mastered Collodion plate image. Despite minimal interjection into the individual’s personality, each image still carries huge character.
This image was particularly appealing due to its social context that is incredibly significant within this day and age: the abundance of conflict between the Western world and radical Islam, yet this photographic portrayal is a statement conflicting with such an idea of peace as idiotic between the two Cultures. The 3rd infantry Division – a unit held in an almost constant state of readiness, if not deployed – patch suggesting the likelihood of the individual having fought against such beliefs, yet such a solidarity between the Arabic scripture tattoo appearing so blissfully at ease upon the Kevlar, despite the war of an obviously apparent irony.


Victoria Will tintype photography project research

Victoria Will.
Born 1981 – began her career at the New York Post, as a staff photographer. Will honed her skills and sense of humour in articles such as “headless body in Topless Bar” and other such pieces while working solely for the NY Post. However, her exploration progressed into Tintype portraitures of the rich and famous, from the red carpets of the Sundance festival.
Will’s coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival gave her unprecedented access to some of the 21st centuries biggest cultural icons. The images possess an eerie, surreal quality. The juxtaposition of celebrity and antique process removes any idea of social status and allows the viewer to examine the face. Because of this a depth of character, that is otherwise invisible, is revealed
Kristen Stewart’s eyes suggest loss and isolation, re-enforced by the darkness surrounding her. Jesse Eisenberg has a look of despair, almost childlike, and in a sense, lost.
The chemical marks across the image exaggerate the sometimes unpredictable nature of Tintypes. This however adds to the uniqueness of each piece, each image is removed from time and immediately placed within the historical context of the process’ origins. In Addition, its effect resembles being burnt. As if saved and now remains the final, haunting relic of a nightmare. The subject’s hands are crossed over her heart, often symbolic of purity or vulnerability. Her fragile appearance is further emphasised by the framing of the image: her face centred, surrounded by negative space making her appear further engulfed, overwhelmed and defenceless.

Haunting in a literal and metaphorical Sense; Phillip S. Hoffman’s recent death elaborates the impression of deterioration and demise of the relic photographic process. The absent appearance merging into the background. His expression: apathetic and inert, unable to conceal or disguise his grief. With many of Will’s images, there is a certain amount of obvious acting and attempt to obtain what the individual believed to be the necessary expression, yet with Hoffman’s his composure is delicate and seems accepting of exposing his blatantly miserable fragility.


Louie Palu tintype photography project research

Louie Palu.
Born in 1968 – graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1991. His accolades include five nominations (2004-08) for the Visa Pour l’Image AND OTHER PRESTIGIOUS INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVALS. It is incredibly important to note his self- sacrifice and investment into war journalism.
During Palu’s excursion to Kandahar, he carried two still cameras with one lens each – a 50mm and 17-35mm. the compact and minimal nature of the his equipment and essentials was not only down to having to cram into a hot and confined Armoured Vehicle, but also the dreadful heat; he was rehydrated via Intra-Venous bags numerous times by the combat medic of the unit he was embedded with.
The Horrors of war emphasized by Palu: “I want to eliminate the romance and humour of war coverage right here. This may sound exciting but it is not. I saw things that have changed me forever. Some memories never go away.”
Within this image, the bearing of the marines gaze directly down the lens creates unease and intimidation towards the viewer. His mouth forms something of a malevolent smile; or is this merely false, in order to project a hardened exterior to hide a juvenile, lonely and scared individual? The rim of his Kevlar Helmet shields his eyes, darkening his face, making us question, ‘what is he hiding from? Or what is he hiding?’… This Marine’s facial expression is conflicted: tension in his nostrils and mouth imply some sort of resentment toward the camera or the audience. His face has something of a pitying look, almost to suggest that we the viewer could never know his reality.

The image portrays the individual’s stoic nature which is often associated with marines. The young man displaying what is commonly referred to as the ‘thousand yard stare’ of a battle weary soldier. Through the lack of contrast, the lack of emotion is accentuated, bringing to question what could cause a young marine to become so fragile and exhausted.

The inscription on the front of the Marines helmet:
“Front towards enemy” (a reference to the somewhat satirical instructions found upon a deadly and tactless “claymore” anti-personnel explosive device) could represent how the man is merely a tool, a lifeless object designed to kill.


a grade tintype photography project example

1st Attempt
Having coated the plate in Collodion, the plates were then placed in the silver nitrate for varying times: the first and second images were exposed to the solution for approximately 3-4 minutes, whereas, the third to the fifth were sat in the solution for 4-6 minutes. A Collodion plate was also then left in the silver nitrate solution – for experimental purposes – for approximately 40 minutes. Surprisingly, having repeated the rest of the process as closely as possible to the previous 5 photographs, there was no image upon the plate having exposed it in the same scenarios; it did not seem to be over-exposed or under-exposed – interestingly, it was no longer reactive or sensitive to light. Quite clearly, the Collodion plates, which were mixed with the solution for the longer period of time, have resultantly had a far higher level of contrast and subsequently a more aesthetically pleasing photograph.
The success of these images were in correcting the timing of the process. Future development will require perfecting the process of applying the Collodion, creating an even coat, rather than that of the images of the first attempt which are often ruined by chemical and water marks. Additionally, perfecting focus is necessary as the focal plane is no longer in an exact location as the film holder has been adapted to take the metal plate.


a grade tintype photography project example

2nd attempt
These images have made significant development since the first attempt. Having further practiced applying the Collodion reduced the damage to the edges of the image which the plate holder contacts with. Furthermore, refining the timings of the process improved the sensitivity to light. All images were allowed 4 and a half minutes in the silver nitrate solution. This was most effective when exposing the images at 2 seconds with two simultaneous 400 watt flash bulbs. During this shoot, experimenting with backgrounds, distances and depth of fields gave an understanding of what works most effectively. for example: image 2 & 3 were taken against a white background, which produced an image lower in contrast compared to previous attempts, however it did allow for casting of a shadow which was of good effect. also, in the second image, shooting from a distance of approximately 7 and a half feet (camera) and the lamps 3 and a half feet, away from the subject meant that the image was not as underexposed because of the light not being as intense. Light obeys an inverse square law, as the distance from the subject is doubled, the light intensity drops to a quarter. This is valuable knowledge when undertaking a project such as this which is heavily dependent on intense use of light.
Success of this shoot came from exploring the correct depth of field for each individual. For example, the subject in image 3’s facial hair and stare add texture as does 4’s hair covering her face.


a grade tintype photography project example

3rd attempt
The third attempt at ‘no, you can’t be that original’ focused particularly upon framing the individual positively. For example, image one works on the basis that the light hits her cheek and her flowing hair disperses into gradual darkness; highlights her most prominent feature of her thick, curled hair creating texture in the image. The offset is successful because of the fade from contrasting black and white, and the detail of the individual hairs, into a near pure darkness. On the other hand, image four is set centre and has light going across most of his face. It crops out the ‘dead space’ of his forehead and sets below his throat and above his collar. This image is an imitation of images similar to that of Don McCullin or Louie Palu, resembling that of a young, First World War soldier. His gaze fixating through the lens; he has the ‘thousand yard stare’, that is so often associated with trauma and loss.
Additionally, the focus of these images are far superior to those of the 2nd attempt; for example: image five focuses particularly at the depth of her eyes and brows, as this is her most prevalent feature. Whereas, image three’s contours and wrinkles are in focus, as it presents wear and the fading of his youth – further exaggerated by the aged technique of wet plate photography.


a grade tintype photography project example

4th Attempt

The 4th attempt at ‘No, you can’t be that original’, concentrates more on capturing individual’s characteristics. While image one and two are teens of soft skin and highlighted by the near-pure black of their glasses; there is a sense of irony with photographing such youth with such an aged method of photography. Contradicting this however, the other four images convey more mature individuals. These four focus particularly upon how their features have aged and corroded through time and experiences. For instance, the third image presents the creases of skin that is brought by age. Effectively, the composition of the image and characteristics of the subject combined with wet plate photography, creates an image that would closely reflect a Native American like personality, minus feather head-dress and ritual war paints.
Additionally, the images are a considerable improvement upon those of the previous attempt: the focal points are far more accurate and relative to the desired depth of field; the composition of each image is considered, reducing neutral space and deliberately focusing upon photographing the individual’s distinctive features, which overall permitted more effective images.


tintypetintype portraitphotography tintype project

Attempt 5.1
The contact print of a negative onto the black background of the plate, meant that the image would also appear negative (but technically will be a positive), likewise a positive contact print will result in a ‘positive’ image. For this reason, the confusion of the technique meant that contact prints had to be attempted – upon the metal plates – using positive as well as negative acetate images.
It was necessary to experiment with contact printing, however it was just as easy to take a standard image, without having to be shut in the dark room for a prolonged period of time.

Attempt 5.2
Reintroducing the use of mirrors was done to refer back to the ‘mirror, mirror’ project. However, rather than considering reflections of the individual in the image, it now reflects that of the viewer. Its purpose was to create an understanding of the similarities between their own lives and that of the subject, attempting to construct an empathetic association.
Additionally, having obliviously named the project – no, you can’t be that original – after being told and the self-belief that it was near impossible to create a never-before-attempted idea, I then by chance created that ‘never-before-attempted idea’.


tintype on mirror

6th attempt

The images are beginning to appear more refined and obvious upon the mirror, regardless of colour of reflection and positioning of light (upon viewing). Additionally, beginning to consider the composition of the image: the framing of the portrait, the covering of the light and shading, as well as trying to negotiate depth of fields precisely. This however is proving to be difficult as the mirror is set-back from the desired position by a few millimetres, which off-sets the focal point.
These images were still slightly under-exposed, having been exposed for 8 seconds, with the lamp and two 400 watt flash bulbs.
Chemical marks were considerably worse on these three images. Additionally, despite being the ‘highest quality’ of the images, the image on the opposing page is not well composed. Preferably, the subject will be larger, cropped and far more apparent in the image.
In order to improve, lengthening the time for which each image is exposed, in order to obtain a clearer photograph. Also, washing with white spirit or water before use and leaving the mirror in the fixer for longer before varnishing.


tintype on mirror attempt 2

7th attempt
Extended initial experimentation of underexposed images, has finally lead to this point of minimal success. Personally, this only exaggerated the feat over an original idea and accomplishing an ideal outcome.
These images were accomplished using the same equipment as the wet plates. The settings were: 6 seconds exposure time, aperture f5.6, 2 400watt flash bulbs and 5 seconds with the lamp on prior to flash.
Problems encountered were that the collodion-silver nitrate solution was not bonding to the mirror like it would the plates and would peel off when being developed, fixed or washed. Additionally, the outcome of acquiring chemical marks seems to be inconsistent and as of yet unpredictable as the answer is not obvious.
In order to improve, the ‘peel effect’ needs to be resolved, perhaps by employing some form of grit or liquid glue, to allow for better binding to the mirror surfaces. A more refined photo will prove easier visibility on the mirror.

tintype on mirror attempt 3

8th attempt
In this shoot there was a consistent outcome of successful images. The detail is far clearer and refined due to progress found within the aspect of the timings of exposures and developing stages.
During this attempt, adapting the lights slightly, resulted in a better portrait. The lights were set-up as one flash bulb at 35o and a second flash bulb/lamp at 55o, in hope that this would illuminate the entirety of the subject’s face.
Unfortunately, still encountering issues concerning chemical marks that do not disappear, despite cleaning plates pre-coating and leaving in the fixer for an even further extended period of time.
Necessary improvements are to clean properly with white spirit or similar cleaning agents. Also, experimenting with smashing the glass for dramatic effect. And finally, further investigation into composition and depth of field. While it is still a struggle to coordinate finding the correct focal point, it is possible to calculate the difference necessary to achieve the desired image. Composition is essential in order to gain a well manipulated image.


tintype with bulletholes
9th attempt
Fulfilling a renaissance of the military/conflict aspect of mirror, mirror, incorporating a ‘fracturing’ effect by initially, manually smashing the mirror. However, in order to further develop the subproject, employing various forms of equipment to destroy the plates.
The plates were perforated by a .22 Roundhead, lead air rifle shot. This coincides with the conflict concept, puncturing the plate symbolic of those exposed to war and horror. The thought behind it originates from the idea that after damaging the fragile and delicate, thin metal plate, it will be permanently disfigured. Much like the minds of the youthful soldiers which are sent to fight foreign wars, witnessing horrific injuries, death and utter mutilation of human life; the young men that return with corrupted minds and tainted habits, in the form of PTSD. These men struggle to reintegrate with civilian society, out casting themselves and leading a life of struggle, fear and anxiety. Their hardest battle not fort in compounds in Iraq, or mountains of Afghanistan, but in their own minds.
Improving the images requires configuring the individual and composition to reflect that of damage and pain – i.e. using costumes, props and lighting etc.

Once again, returning to collaborating with mirrors, emphasising the point of addressing self-consciousness and self-worth. The reason being no matter how much we try to persuade others of our perfection and success, looking upon ourselves in a mirror will rightly convey just how damaged and we all are in some way.


photograph on mirror

10th Attempt
The mirrors were first taped (on the back) to reduce the time and difficulty of rearranging the shards after shattering. They were then hit in various points, depending on effect, by a hammer.
The size of the mirrors which were available did not fit in the silver nitrate tank, nor the back of the large format camera. Also, circular mirrors were the only ones suitable in dimensions, which were available and acquirable under the time restraints.
Improvements can be found via shattering the images post photographing, allowing for choosing of position of the centre of the damage. Additionally, improvising some sort of tanks for silver-nitrate and attaching o the rear of the large format camera, with the dimensions of the mirrors.


photograph on a mirror

11th Attempt
These images were completed by firstly exposing the photograph upon the mirror’s surface, before then shattering at a precise chosen point.
For example, with the first image, the aim was to achieve a fracturing – cracking – across and down the face; her facial features relating to that of a china doll, therefore a cracking of her ‘glaze’. In other words, her beauty, replaced by ageing and its subsequent aching.
The neutral space on the left of image two’s face seemed like an adequate and justifiable position to aim to get the centre of the shattering. The effect of shattering – rather than cracking – was a result of angling the mirror against two perpendicular surfaces and hitting far harder so that it not only initially cracks but also fragments.

View this students Unit 4 externally set assignment


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