Art lesson resource: Film Noir Photos


Here is  a recent project I have completed with Year 9 GCSE Photography students based on the theme of Film Noir imagery. Developed from a project created many years ago for the NCFE level 2 course, there are a few essentials needed but basically it is about interpretation of the visual style. The examples presented here were all produced this half term by the students working in teams of 4 or 3 (there are 27 in my class).

What you will need:

  • Ideally DSLR cameras but use what you can
  • Photo editing software, ie. Photoshop
  • Battery torches – even cheap £1 LED ones work well
  • A studio light would be great
  • Black sugar paper and masking tape
  • Costume props: police-style caps, Macintosh coats, long gloves
  • Props: plastic handguns (must be relevant style to 1940s USA), plastic Tommy guns, plastic handcuffs and/or police badges.



As a starting point we looked at clips from some of the best Noir movies of the ’40s. We used collaborative team methods to identify the key elements common to each of the examples (lighting techniques, good guys, dubious gals, the femme fatale etc). We also looked out for common costume, make-up and hair as well as props. Students went from there to research contemporary artists (and movies) that employ some of the iconography of the 1940s Noir. The mood board above shows that a student has identified Noir ideas in the work of Vandervell and Carr.


Usually in a photography project, I will start students with idea research to get visual prompts for the imagery they will go on to experiment with and develop in their own way. However, the Noir style is quite intuitive once you have the props. It is surprising how many members of staff had a classic Macintosh coat hiding (probably hardly worn) in a cupboard and I sourced three. The handgun props I found at Poundland and even got a Police Set that included a badge and cuffs. Tommy guns were trickier; eventually I got some made in Hong Kong in bright blue and orange that took an age to arrive in the UK; cost just £5 each including p&p. Trilby hats and police-style caps we had in school already from drama performances.

So session one included the smaller teams of 4 wearing/using props in a drama studio and basically improv acting, more accurately ‘acting up’! Cameras were gradually introduced to the teams who were starting to get it. These were photography students after all and didn’t want to be the ‘models’.

After a review of the first shoot, students identified what did or didn’t work the first time. Here we introduced lighting effects. Bringing in their own family torches (and the odd Pringle tube*), we blocked out all the natural light in the studio to get a more developed contrast in tone. Using our two studio lights too and lots of black sugar paper also helped create more abstract tone shapes.

*Empty Pringles tubes with a torch gaffer/duct taped to one end make a makeshift snoot or mini spot-light.

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Sample contact sheet

Contact sheets of the second shoot were compared to inspiration and to a checklist of creative studio techniques. What was missing? How could we develop further using adjustments to light meters, aperture, ISO etc.? What can be done in post-production to create a Noir look and feel?

An in-depth analysis of the projection room sequence from Citizen Kane (1945) helped us to understand how important a range of grey tones can be in obscuring detail. How could we do this without a smoke machine? This informed our next two studio shoots before post-production editing.


To help develop the Noir style, students used monochrome, spot colour, curve/level adjustments, fog layers and when a neutral back drop had been used, replaced backgrounds. The editing and refining aspect took a number of lessons to get right.

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Specific skills lessons were undertaken on picture planes (creating depth), cutting out around hair and rendering lighting and clouds.

Kids’ Feedback

“Best project so far; really enjoyed the studio sessions especially dressing’ up”

“Made me use my imagination”

“I can’t draw so this is my most creative piece of work as I could imagine being a character in an old film”

“I liked using the lights to make a Noir scene. Not using Photoshop all the time”


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Five Things (2016)


Five things achieved this year:

  1. Photography courses at GCSE and A level; planned, implemented, delivered
  2. Jungle Book sets
  3. Expressive portraits of 100 staff (not corporate ones)
  4. Focus on mastery and craftsmanship in Fine Art teaching
  5. Exhibit, exhibit, exhibit!


  1. It had been a while since the last time I taught GCSE and A level Photography (A level 2008 and GCSE 2010) so it was with a little trepidation that I undertook a one-year GCSE group and the new specification A level. Some aspects were a little trial and error but I had access to new equipment (15 x Canon 1200D and an A3 printer mostly) and very enthusiastic students. Although three hours a week for a GCSE is not ideal, students enjoyed the projects I put together, the photoshoots I arranged ( live ‘gig’ in Mansfield and street photo tour in London) and the method I selected for presenting coursework (Pink Pig black A3 ring bound sketchbooks). Some of the A level students seized upon the use of technology and creative approaches to fine art photography with impressive results. Amazing outcomes at GCSE has led to a boost in take-up for the two-year GCSE and exemplars to share with students.screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-16-46-21
  2. Involvement in school productions is an essential aspect of life in a small performing arts faculty and art teachers usually end up doing sets, costume and make-up. With our production based on the Jungle Book, my colleague focussed on 3D costume (superb elephants and snakes) and I delivered the set designs for floor to 8 feet flats as a series of scruffy felt-tip sketches! I wanted to avoid Disney cliches and my felt-tip designs were intended as aide-memoire rather than polished final ideas, however, enlarged and printed using the academy vinyl printer they turned out much better than expected! What a time saving alternative to spending weekends and buckets of acrylic paint as per usual.
  3. Obviously I can’t share any staff portraits on here (as much as I would like to as some came out absolutely awesome!). This was a case of ‘money-where-your-mouth is’ – our corporate academy photos are highly distorted (end of nose point and shoots), usually with breeze-block backgrounds and poorly lit. I had said that I hated them and that if admin wanted new ones I would use studio lights, backdrops and a DSLR. Oops. Over a hundred staff in a 2 hour block was less than fun and after two of my bulb kits popped during the shoot (no spares), portraits became considerably more dramatic and moody let’s say. Remember this was no fee job so purely in my eyes for a bit of fun. Some crackers I can tell you and I learned a lot in the process.
  4. Over the past few years we have taught GCSE fine art in a single year; amongst the many cons to this approach is a lack of mastery and craftsmanship. The two year course (year 9 and 10) has improved this a lot by giving us the chance to revisit projects and improve them using some incremental gains in application and skill. I have blogged this year about craftsmanship  and the chance to cognitively engage with process has been a highlight.
  5. Running three sets of GCSE and an A level course has given more opportunities for exhibition, an aspect of art teaching I resolutely adhere to. My thoughts on student exhibition as a way of critical analysis can be read here from 2013. Within the classroom this is a weekly activity for my students and the chance to use dedicated space is vital. The area for exhibition is becoming squeezed though, metaphorically and physically. Due to student health and safety and access to fire doors, my main area is now a through-corridor. Industrial exhibition stands (£££) aren’t designed for teenagers or enthusiastic cleaners and have fallen to the wayside. I am currently dual-using platforms from school productions by hanging paintings from them but these too are pushed aside. In the post 16 space, A level work had to be removed as soon as parents left the building even though ingeniously put together with invisible fishing nylon by my colleague. Exhibitions of student outcomes has still happened though and I hope I will be able to continue this practice in years to come.




About craftsmanship

In a recent blogpost I discussed aspects of using technology that do not require elements of craftsmanship. I think this idea is worth further thinking.

In the first instance I want to define my terms; craftsmanship (along with workmanship) is, I think, gender neutral despite having the ‘man’ in it. It refers to the artisan skills of mankind as a whole and besides craftspersonship is too mealy-mouthed. Artisanship also doesn’t encompass the element of labour contained within the craft. Craftsmanship is an attribute relating to the knowledge, skill and performance of a task. The type of work may include the creation of handicrafts, dramatic/dance/musical performance, art, cooking, writing, using tools and machinery and other products in which quality is imparted into a product.

Historically we have gone through different phases of appreciation for craftsmanship in Western culture. Early Classical periods sang ballads in appreciation of ceramic and sculptural ability that in late Greece and Rome was thought only to be the undertakings of slaves. The peace and prosperity of the late middle ages in Europe led to formation of guilds (akin to union apprenticeships) and an era of handicrafts prior to the Industrial revolution. Machine-driven processes began to displace the need for quality workmanship but many of the common people appreciated skills themselves and resisted industrial practices where possible.

For example, when workers accustomed to practicing high standards of workmanship were first recruited to work on production lines in factories, it would be common for them to walk out, as the new roles were relatively monotonous, giving them little scope to use their skills. After Henry Ford introduced the first Assembly line in 1913, he could need to recruit about ten men to find one willing to stay in the job. Over time, and with Ford offering high rates of pay, the aversion of labor to the new ways of working was reduced.¹

The influential Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, arose as workmanship began to be displaced by developments like greater emphasis on process, machine work, and the separation of design and planning skills from the actual execution of work. William Morris,  John Ruskin and others laid emphasis on design and social reform often arguing for a return to the cultural handicraft of medieval guilds. Interestingly, in Asia, such as Japan, craftsmanship has retained its value in society not least in reproduction of artefacts like metalware and ceramics. It wasn’t always so; greatly threatened by industrial practices, the Mingei movement which promoted folk art from the 1920s onwards, was influenced by the writings of Morris and Ruskin. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe, Mingei sought to preserve traditional crafts in the face of modernising industry.

Using technology to replace mundane and repetitive tasks, not unlike using machinery in the past, intensifies the design aspects with added bonuses of speed or reproduction, uniformity of presentation. Within my teaching experience it is simply exemplified by comparison of first year (16 year old) photography students and the skills developed by first year fine artists. Skills are hard to measure and compare. Hours of mundane painting (of still life perhaps) will eventually lead to art technique improvements.  Will repeating a similar task on a camera and Photoshop similarly lead to photographic craftsmanship? In an eight month period, the photographers may be able to mimic aspects of photography seen by expert practitioners (true craftsmanship in the art of photography) such as lighting techniques, aesthetic compositions and basic camera functions. This is a digital darkroom course so many will delve into Photoshop workflows and possible fixes in Lightroom. Have they learnt the ‘craft’ with a press of a button and a click of a mouse? Steve McCurry argued recently for the ‘truth’ of photojournalism and use of analogue film and was subsequently exposed for manipulating the integrity of recent images in Photoshop as an aspect of “visual storytelling”². There is no ‘truth’ in photography, we choose what to select, crop and leave out as soon as we raise a camera. However, the skill of the craftsman, Steve McCurry, is the cognitive and imaginative connection between the efforts and end products. Incidentally, on an exam-board professional development day, a moderator for the photography course suggested that maybe using analogue was a better foundation in the skills needed to be an outstanding photographer. Lomography anyone?

I think that rather than become neo-Luddites, turning back the clock on technological developments, we should teach the use of technology not as ‘quick fixes’ but as an aspect of a cognitive, imaginative and creative process. It’s not just about the intent of the artist but the connection between skill, effort and end product. I am calling for a definition of digital-craftsmanship; using the technological tool to impart quality through a thorough mastering and knowledge of processes and accounting for reasons for their use³.



¹Matthew B. Crawford (Summer 2006). “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. The New Atlantis (journal)

²The Case of Steve McCurry: What is ‘Truth’ in Photography? 12th May 2016

³Apple is trying to turn the iPhone into a DSLR using artificial intelligence 8th September 2016



You wake up tomorrow morning to find all your plans have been cancelled for the next seven days and £20,000 on your mantelpiece. What would you do with your week?

Can you imagine such a great opportunity for CPD? The time and opportunity to practice your own art skills (with a budget!) would be an amazing windfall. Here’s what I would do… Urban sketching and photos.

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First: go shopping. I’d want that 100-400m L series lens that I can’t afford and maybe a Moleskine watercolour pocket book and some quality waterproof pens and watercolour half-pan sets. Buy a copy of  The Art of Urban Sketching to take with me. I have been looking at Schminke travel sets as quality watercolours at about £50.

I think then I would start to plan the journey; maybe get a flight to Lisbon to start with.

My continued professional development (CPD) opportunity would be to travel across Europe with camera and sketchbook completing my own Urban Sketchbook as I go!

I’d need a range of memory cards and maybe pre-booked accommodation but other than that, the travel would be as fast or slow as needed within the 7 day timeframe.

Cities would be my priority. After Lisbon, I would then take in Madrid and Barcelona. Hopping over to Paris, Berlin then down to Vienna and finally Rome. Of course there’s so much more and you would have to be selective in a seven day trip. With unlimited time, a train journey would be a better pace. Better for drawing and reflecting on the experience.

What would you do with a CPD windfall? let me know in comments or on Twitter using #CPDwindfall. Looking forward to your ideas…





Art lesson resource: Photo Serendipity




Here is a great photography task for students of all ages; indeed, it was introduced to me on an exam board course I attended in Manchester last year. I have since tried out variations with Year 7, 11 and sixth form photographers.

Run outside. Take a picture of the first thing you see. Run inside. Take a picture of the second thing you see. Write about the connection between these two random objects, people, or scenes.

The example above was basically “take a photo every 15 steps”. The key is to keep looking for the correct ‘feeling’ of a point of interest; ask why it is interesting, refine your composition using your camera controls and (most important) TAKE it. The annotation exercise helps the student draw contextual ideas not just formal descriptions.

In my exemplar, the Manchester Chinatown scene has an emphasis on yellow/red typography but also the serendipity of the guy with the red top who walked into my frame. A typically rainy Manchester scene also has a person with a long green ‘mod’ style parka. The second photo mainly shows the back of people’s heads (both people holding mobile phones to the ears as they walk) with some pleasing watery reflections on the pavement. The main interest being the bearded man with the pushchair. Connections between the two images can be drawn out such as thirds-composition, vertical lines, street photography, contrasting empty streets with pedestrians etc.

A variation on this idea is to use random-ish objects for mini still life set ups. This is particularly useful for younger photographers who cannot simply wander around your school or local environment.


Again, my example came from an exercise in Manchester. This one being: “be creative”. Presented with a glass, mug and spoon, can you take something interesting? This becomes more challenging if you try to over analyse the task. Merely looking at formal elements, camera technique etc are not enough on their own: happenstance and the creative flow have to play their part. Getting annotations and connections is surprisingly easier with the younger students who were much more open to ideas. Of course, you can influence the amount of randomness by being a bit more selective with the objects available. I tried seashells and metal tools as a starting point for instance.




Five Things (2015)


Five things achieved this year:

  1. School residential to Berlin
  2. Using the 3D printer for more art resourcing
  3. Instigated and supported Photography web resources
  4. Been working on ‘teamwork’
  5. Reactionary teaching (aka forcing ‘square pegs’)


  1. To enable more students to attend a residential trip to Berlin, I was approached as a potential ‘extra’ staff with the added incentive of a pop-up gallery visit for the GCSE history students attending. Berlin tops my virtual bucket list so I jumped at the chance. It has been years since my last residential (my art gallery trips are usually day trips). The coach journey was a killer but luckily a great team of staff and some enthusiastic students made it more than bearable. I got some great city life/street photography and enjoyed the cultural tour elements. I had a great experience exploring The East Side Gallery with a small group of kids. There are loads more galleries/museums for me to visit next time but maybe I should fly.
  2. The relatively low cost of 3D printing means that design objects can be quickly manufactured using something like 123D design app from Autodesk. Some D&T students fashioned playing characters for boardgames and spray paint or acrylic accomplished the right amount of finishing. Ever tried to get a left-handed artist to draw a left hand from life? A model can be printed within 1/2 hour; really useful. Of course, more detail from bigger prints and these take a lot longer. I even took on creating class sets of Michelangelo’s David which were incredibly useful to practise drawing and spatial measurement.
  3. Due to demand at my school, my colleague and I have resourced GCSE Photography as a new option and we have found the PhotoPedagogy site really helpful. It is a great place to explore lesson plans, resource books/sites and share experiences. I placed a few lesson plans on there and even contributed a guest blog post this year.
  4. Why is ‘teamwork’ on my achievement list? I must note for the benefit of my blog that although being a team contributor is something I have always seen as important, experiences such as UK Rock Challenge and helping my friend @jobaker9 out with #artcubed have given me an added understanding. Firstly, Rock Challenge is a performing arts competition that my faculty have done reasonably well in. This is due to all the little cogs contributing to the bigger machine. I’m not comfortable on the stage and quite frankly some of my Rock Challenge experiences during 2015 were ‘way out of my zone’. But by winning our region and going on to national achievement I experienced how important my minor contributions (make-up, assisting the student video director, spot lights) were to the whole group who actually did the show and were truly awesome. Secondly, as Jo is a singularly motivated and inspirational art teacher, sometimes she needs a little extra help in getting the weekly #artcubed organised. My contribution every other week by uploading from the hashtag to has shown just how powerful a resource this can be, and is so useful to those of us sharing ideas.
  5. My major preoccupation and final achievement of the year involved what I call reactionary teaching; not proactive as I would prefer in a situation I could control but totally ‘fire fighting’, after the barn door was left ajar and all those analogies. The situation came about when a cohort of students were identified who were about to ‘fail’ a GCSE (i.e. not get a c grade and had no chance of getting one). I was taken out of teaching GCSE Food to 13 year olds (not my forte) to offer a quick course to Y11 students (16 year olds) in GCSE Graphic Communication. Who wouldn’t?! Unfortunately the group was comprised of non-attending, low self esteem and low attention span. Most difficult of all, not remotely interested or able to do art and design. I started in November and it was all over by May; what a rollercoaster. This took more time, effort, resource creation, solution building and every trick in the art teacher’s book than any class I have taught in the past 20 odd years. It was intensive and emotionally challenging and also wouldn’t have been remotely successful without the help of colleagues (to whom I owe my sanity). I questioned whether I wanted to continue with my employer and even if I was even able to be channelled into any kind of success with this group. In August, 60% passed (got a c). I haven’t been able to reflect on it as part of my blog until now. And I still hope it doesn’t happen again. What a year.


Top 5: Photography Teaching books



When you’re looking at resources to help develop a new course or just out of personal interest, often you browse Goodreads or Amazon looking for that perfect book. As can be read in a previous post, I found websites that really helped me focus essentials for a GCSE Photography course. Looking across my bookshelf, I realised I had quite a few photography resources already (see image above). How do they compare with supposedly more ‘current’ information on the web?

Here is a quick round up of my top five.


The Photography Book Ian Jeffrey

  • Paperback: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Phaidon Press; mini format edition (30 April 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 071483937X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0714839370
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 3.2 x 16.5 cm
  • Review: 5/5 Perfect! Pocket sized and alphabetical for quick finding inspiration.


The Photographer’s Eye Michael Freeman

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Ilex Press; First Edition edition (11 Jun. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1905814046
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905814046
  • Product Dimensions: 23.7 x 1.4 x 25.9 cm
  • Review 4.5/5 Superb for intruding design and composition creativity with the not-so artistic. Amazing examples.


Teaching Photography Rand & Steven

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Focal Press; 2 edition (8 April 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1138838543
  • ISBN-13: 978-1138838543
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 18.5 x 2.3 cm
  • Review: 4/5 Includes advice for questioning, photographic technique & creativity. Edtech section will date fast.


Collins’ Complete Photography Projects Garrett & Harris

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 000750926X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007509263
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 17.8 x 22.2 cm
  • Review: 4/5 Good catalogue of ideas and Quick Tips per section. Needs more Photoshop/Lightroom projects to be truly complete.


Understanding Exposure  Bryan Peterson

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Amphoto Books; 3 edition (7 Aug. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0817439390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0817439392
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 1.1 x 28.1 cm
  • Review: 3.5/5 Comprehensive but would have benefitted from being bundled with his book on composition and further aperture advice.


What would be in your Top 5 Photography teaching books?