Q&A: Taking great location photographs of WW1 battlefields

Arras Road British Cemetery. Roclincourt. Near Vimy in France Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Visiting the WW1 battlefields offers the opportunity to take some stunning photos, such as at Arras Road British Cemetery, Roclincourt, Near Vimy in France

Photographer Matthew Marschner has produced a series of pictures of World War One battlefield scenes which can be used as a resource for School Reporters producing reports about the World War One centenary.

As a cameraman with years of experience of working in the field he has also provided some top tips for taking photographs when on location.

Q - What preparation should be done before setting out on a shoot?

A - Before setting off I'll always try to do as much research about the subject and location as possible using the internet, books and maps, so I'm not wasting time trying to get to the place I really want to be.

I look at the weather forecast to check what the weather will be doing, as there's no point in getting up at 05:00 to photograph a sunrise if it's going to be raining!

I check all my camera gear very carefully to make sure I've got everything I need. I make sure all the shots on my memory cards are backed up and then the cards are completely erased and reformatted so each shoot day, or project, starts with a clean card.

I also make sure all my camera batteries are fully charged and all my lenses and filters are clear of greasy fingerprints!

Q - When you arrive at the location, what's the first thing to do?

A - If I haven't done a recce of the location before the shoot I try to relax and not to attempt to take in everything in an instant. I try to have a good look around and build up a picture of how I would like to portray the scene.

After that I might take a few 'snap' type shots or what appears to be the most obvious frame. Then I can concentrate on finding something more interesting and visually challenging.

Finally, I try to step away from the crowds and poke around a bit. Often the most interesting visual stuff is hidden away, or not in the most obvious place.

Q - So, you've checked out the location - now what?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Setting the scene, especially if you do it in an interesting, graphic way, can say as much, if not more, than written words

A - The next thing to think about is what I am going to try to say with the photograph. This means what sort of message I am trying to communicate with the viewer of the picture. I then try to convey that idea in the most visually economical or clearest way.

It's almost like you have to look beyond the immediate image in front of you to find visual elements that can convey an emotion or story to the viewer. These might be solid things within the frame like a person or a building, but it might also mean using other elements like shadows or the way sunlight is falling across something, to where you might place someone or something within the frame.

I took the picture of the Arras/Lens road sign for a number of reasons.

Firstly it was a good way of signposting the location geographically as the main road runs along what was the front line.

Secondly, the names of the towns would have been synonymous with any soldier who was coming to, or fighting on, the front, so I was trying to imagine what those names might have meant to a soldier, for example fear, trepidation or refuge. I also liked the graphic simplicity of the two signs back-to-back and pointing in opposite directions.

Q - Is the type, or amount, of available light important?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Careful use of light can create lovely shadows, with side lighting especially effective

A - When taking photographs I always tend to try to make sure the sun is behind me, or to the side of me. This usually means the subject will have some direct sun falling on it. If I am shooting into the sun it is normally for an 'effect'-type shot, as the subject will invariably be rather dark and silhouetted.

I would suggest if your camera or phone camera has an HDR setting you try to use it, which will hopefully mean that things will be much better exposed against all those big bright skies of the battlefields of northern France.

Q - What are the key things about framing a photograph?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Getting down low and focusing on details and textures adds an interesting dimension to your photographs

A - When looking for ways to frame a photograph I always think about the height of my camera relative to my subject.

It's always the easiest shot, but try to get out of the habit of shooting everything from eye-level. Sometimes you might have to get down to the same level as your subject, which means if it's at ground level you might just have to lie down on the ground as well!

Try to mix wide shots with interesting close-ups of details, or even just textures or colours, to make your series of shots more interesting to the viewer.

I have a rule when filming something like an old building, for example, that I take three or four really interesting close-up shots as well as the 'wide'. These shots could be something like a detail of the corner of a window or a bit of old guttering, but they tell the viewer something about the building as opposed to the 'wide-shot' that generally sets the scene.

Q - Should people be included in any of the pictures?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Including people in photos can give a sense of scale, as well as adding human interest

A - This is largely up to you. Some photographers see everything from a human angle and see people as essential in their pictures, whereas others might see humans as disrupting the visual order of a photograph.

Sometimes it's just really good to put a human in a shot to give some scale to the scene so the viewer can see how big or small things really are.

At other times for example, a single figure lost in thought amongst the headstones of a WW1 cemetery might say a lot more than a beautifully framed geometric shot of the lines of headstones - you just have to experiment a bit to see what works for you.

Q - What else can improve the content of a good shot?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Try using a wide angle lens, or panorama setting on your camera to add depth - and don't always place the horizon in the middle of the frame

A - I'm always thinking about 'what is most interesting' within the frame. Sometimes this might mean turning the camera on its side (portrait shot) so there is more interest in the vertical part of the frame, such as a tree or a tower. If you are using a wide lens this also means you have a lot more interesting foreground in your frame to consider.

If I am photographing a landscape then the camera will probably be in the normal horizontal position (landscape shot) to get a wider horizon and more sky.

Try not to be tempted to always put the horizon across the middle of the frame. If the sky is really interesting then pan the camera up to show more of it. Should the sky be really uninteresting, push it right to the top of the frame and concentrate on the more interesting stuff in the foreground. And if your camera has a 'panorama' setting, that gives a great idea of space and location and the shape of the picture is great.

Also, getting down low and photographing subjects like used shells from ground-level means they take on a much more dramatic three-dimensional shape as they stand out from the background of the fields and sky. If they had been photographed from eye-level they just would have appeared flat and rather uninteresting against the gravel background.

Q - Do you always need an SLR camera to take good photos?

A - I like to use my digital SLR camera to shoot the main or key images but I always carry my mobile phone camera with me, as not only do I use the 'panorama' setting but I also use it to document my day.

It's always great to have a bit of a record of your day out taking photographs as well as the more considered shots.

Q - What other special camera functions are useful?

Image copyright M MARSCHNER
Image caption Putting your camera on a tripod, a wall or against a tree helps to reduce camera shake and blurry shots

A - If your camera has a steady-shot function I would suggest you keep it switched on to get the sharpest wobble-free pictures.

If you don't have a tripod to hand and you feel the need to steady yourself to stop the camera moving around, try leaning against something, for example a post, a tree or the top of a wall.

If the light at the location is really dark, increase the ISO (film speed) rating on your camera settings to increase your camera shutter speed, which hopefully means your pictures will be less blurry!

Q - And finally, do you have any other handy bits of advice?

A - When I go out on photo assignments, especially those outdoors, I always make sure I've got the right clothes with me. In the summer this might mean a hat or wearing something with a collar to stop your neck burning, but more importantly in winter, boots, a good coat, gloves and a hat are essential.

Often you end up in places where there is nothing to eat and drink for miles around so I always take a flask of coffee and lots of tasty things to eat!

I know I've been going on about try this and try that, but I think one of the main things is just to really enjoy taking the photographs. I always think a photographic trip is a bit like going on a voyage of visual discovery as you never quite know what you'll find around the next corner!

Matthew has made his photographs available to School Reporters to include in their reports about battlefield visits as long as his credit is present on each usage.

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