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What you need to know about A-Level Photography

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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