So it’s been extremely quiet here at Shuttercount for the last 12+months. It’s not because of another blog going downhill – it’s more that real life gets in the way sometimes.
Way back in 2010, I made the decision to begin an A level in Photography. I received my A* last week so I thought I’d write a little about it. Setting expectation about what’s involved would also have really helped me in the beginning, so here we go… (Non-UK readers – I apologise in advance!).
A-Levels were changed back in 2010 to split them out into two separate qualifications. The first year of an A Level is known as an AS and it stands in its own right as an individual qualification. The second year is known as A2 and when combined with the AS gives you a final A-Level grade. It’s usually not possible just to take A2 unless you’ve taken the AS previously although I’m fairly sure you can have a gap between AS & A2.
Each year is split into 2 modules. In Photography (AQA exam board) these are known as ARTF1, ARTF2 (for the AS), ARTF3 & ARTF4 (for the A2). Your AS grade is an average of ARTF1 & ARTF2 and your overall A Level grade is an average of ARTF1, 2, 3 & 4. There is no exam for photography – all the marks are awarded for coursework.
A Level Photography – What You Need
Because I took my course as an evening class, and because I have a full time job, I had to pay. Each year costs about £340. Additionally, you need to find the funds to print your work (either home printing inkjet costs, or high street/online printers). There is also the cost of submitting your workbooks. I used Blurb for ARTF2+ after having a bad time with pritt stick and the usual format of A3 art books. This was quite expensive as each module book cost in the region of £50-£70. If you have a creative flair though, the A3 Presentation portfolio (example linked here) will do a much cheaper job.
When I took my course, I also had access to their darkroom and Mac-labs. At home, I have Lightroom and Photoshop and the beauty of taking an A Level is that it is an official recognised student course with Adobe, allowing you to purchase both the above programs at student prices. I did write about his some time ago here if you’re interested in further reading. If you need justification, then the cost saving alone in being able to purchase this software will pay for the course itself!
Lastly, the first part of ARTF1 was working with film photography. The college will usually provide SLRs for this, but you will be expected to provide black & white film (such as Ilford HP5+), and Print Paper (not inkjet paper – but proper photographic paper for darkroom printing. Something like this)
I work full time, and was told that doing this A-Level would equate to an additional 7 hours/week on top of the 3 hours tutorial. This is actually about right, and what I found a lot of people doing was lots of last minute work. I ended up taking two weeks off work just to be able to get all the writing done for the deadline dates. I would strongly recommend avoiding this tactic, as it can get a bit panicky at the end, and I personally suffered from photography “burnout” with so much to do.
Additionally, most courses run September – May so if you work all day, your “shooting time” may be limited by the dark nights in the winter. This means (potentially) setting aside weekends for shoots.
You don’t need a DSLR and fancy lenses to complete this course. However you do need a camera with the ability to have full manual control. You cannot complete this course on “Auto” settings as it is important that you show that you understand the relationship between ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture and Focal Length. The A-Level is not about how great your pictures are – it’s about understanding what you’re taking a picture of, why, and how you did it with manual control.
Also, part of ARTF1 included film photography so you’ll need at least one roll of film and a pack of darkroom photographic paper (see “Money” above)
You will also need a computer unless you are bonkers. Having a computer allows you the luxury of being able to type up your findings, email your tutor, organise your photographs, research other photographers… The list goes on. If you are a complete technophobe and plan to do the whole A Level on film (which is certainly do-able) then I would strongly suggest investing in home development materials so that you are not limited by the 3 hour window once a week to use college facilities.
Our college had no pre-requisites for the course, but it is probably advisable that you have a general understanding of how ISO, Shutter Speed, Focal Length and Aperture all relate to each other. You can learn as you go, but the difficulty curve can be quite steep. The AS is much more forgiving in terms of learning how to use a camera, but if you haven’t got it by A2 you’ll struggle with the volume of work required on top of learning how to use the camera. I’d heartily recommend this book as a great introduction to basic photography skills.
You’ll also need to be confident with writing. I was amazed by the amount of writing in the course but every shoot has to be followed up with a specific format of review. You’ll be reviewing other photographers, critiquing your own (and others) work, writing statements of intent, conclusions, explaining your techniques. The A Level is all about showing that you understand what you’re doing, and that you are learning. Photographs are a secondary importance next to the words that prove you are learning.
Finally you’ll need to be either a) quite arty, or b) computer literate. Your work is presented in a workbook (as detailed above) with a presentation of a number of prints. I chose to present my work in a Blurb book as well as framing my own prints (see my article on how to do this here). Others used desktop publishing packages to create their “workbook” then printed it out and had it bound. The majority though wrote their essays, printed them out, then stuck them in the workbook with pritt stick alongside prints etc.
Yep. Lastly you will need a desire to keep at it. It’s actually quite a long slog, repetitious, and there’s a lot of writing. It’s not simply a case of taking your shots, sticking them on Flickr, then waiting for the “great shot” comments to roll in. Every image has to be compared, contrasted, critiqued and analysed.
You face many “self-directed projects” where you will have to go through the same rigmarole again and again with a different theme. In some cases you will have a wide ranging subject choice, in others it may be quite narrow and if you’re easily un-inspired you may struggle.
After taking AS, I was tired, but happy. I managed an A grade (91% & 100% for ARTF1 & ARTF2), but during the first part of the AS I really struggled with motivation. With one theme a week for the first 6 weeks, it was very very hard work. My ARTF3 module suffered as a consequence (87%) and only the final project pulled it up (97%) giving me an A* overall. The grading system of A levels means that if you have a “terrible” module, it can bring your grade down.
It’s also not as social as some other photography evening classes. The first 6-8 weeks of each year were classroom based, but when you move on to self-directed projects, you can go for weeks without seeing anyone.
A Level Photography – Course Structure
All I can really talk about here is what I experienced doing the AQA module, and how my college went about it. The key to a good grade though is to write everything down. When I messed something up, it went in the book along with how I learned from it. When I was undecided about whether something worked, I wrote about it, and how I came to a decision. When I suffered from “photographers block” I wrote about that too. It’s a bit like what my Maths teacher used to say. “There’s no point in writing the answer down without showing your workings”. If the examiner can’t see how you reached a conclusion, you’ll only get half the marks. If you get the answer wrong, you’ll get no marks!
AS Level – ARTF1
This first module comprises two pieces of work. The first is a film based and requires you to shoot, develop and print your own images. You’re walked through it though and only limited by darkroom time. This is the only part of the course where you’re stuck with college resources so if you have your own home-developing/darkroom, you can get much more practise in.
Taking a digital camera along so that you can catalogue your progress (taking pics of development tanks, how to load a film etc) is also key. In fact, I used my phone camera for a lot of it because they were just for illustration of how I did things. I also used my phone camera to take pictures of college lectures written on the whiteboard – it saved me taking notes…
For this first module of ARTF1, there was a requirement that half the final images were darkroom prints. We were expected to submit 8-10 final enlargements, so 4 of these had to be “presentation worthy” from the darkroom. In all cases – it’s worth cataloguing your failures so that you can write about how you “learned from your mistakes”. This should be your mantra throughout the A Level as it shows you are learning.
The second module is a self-directed project. You are given a title (in my case it was “Me, Myself & I”) and you go off and write about it. More on self-directed projects later, as these all follow the same format. There is a deadline for this project, but that is usually a college initiated one. Any “gaps” can be filled in over the course of the year.
The focus of ARTF1 is on consolidating basic techniques such as understanding high/low ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed as well as understanding focal lengths and why you would choose one over another.
Each of these two modules are marked, then added together to give you your ARTF1 score. If you started in September, it’s now January.
AS Level ARTF2
Somewhere in January/February, you’ll be given the “exam question”. This is usually 5-6 topics and you get to choose 1. Topics are wide ranging. Examples of such topics are “Travel”, “Water”, “Facial Expressions & Body Language”, “Surrealism”, “Portraiture”, etc. You treat this topic as a large self-directed project, doing research and usually 5-6 independent shoots.
There is little technique based education at this stage. You are expected to learn yourself, making use of college facilities and the lecturer (as well as other students!) and your research on other photographers.
You work to a deadline, this time set by the exam board, and both ARTF1 & ARTF2 need to be complete by this date.
Your results are posted out in August, and the average of your ARTF1 & ARTF2 become your AS grade.
A2 Level ARTF3
Your second year begins with a bang. Again this is similar to ARTF1 by being split into two modules. The first module is a frantic mini-series of self-directed projects. We had (if memory serves) 6 projects over 8 weeks. As a full time employee and family man, I found time to be extremely limited here.
As if that wasn’t enough, the second module is a “Personal Investigation” which draws on your experience of the first module and asks you to take it further with another self-directed project. This personal investigation required a formal (1-3,000 word) statement of intent.
As in ARTF1, there is a college-set deadline, although work can continue on with this until the exam-board deadline if necessary.
A2 Level ARTF4
Very similar to ARTF2, this is the final exam question. It is expected that this final self-directed project will be the “pinnacle” of your photography work. It follows the same structure as all self-directed projects.
This is handed in on the exam-set deadline, and both units are scored, and averaged along with ARTF1 & ARTF2 from the AS. This becomes your final A Level result.
Throughout the course, you will need to present a series of self-directed projects based on a theme. Occasionally you will be given a theme, and sometimes you will be able to choose a theme from a list.
Initially I would have found it difficult not to be able to shoe-horn anything into a theme heading, but it can get a bit difficult. That’s because of the specific route that you must take when investigating any theme.
1. The Initial Idea
Before you take any pictures you need to set the groundwork for your idea. This comes in three flavours. First, you do an “Ideas Blast”. This is a form of brainstorming, or Mind Mapping – this software does it well (and it’s free!) as an example, but people can come up with all sorts of creative stuff.
Once you have a big pile of words down, you create a “Mood Board” which is a collage of images that relate to your theme. We’re talking about images from other people, rather than your own images at this stage. These could be famous photographer images, web images, snips from magazines etc.
Then you need to look at photographer research. This is one of the toughest parts to the A level as you’re constantly looking at other famous professional photographers’ work. Usually you pick a couple that you like and have a look at some of their photos, critiquing and commenting where necessary and relating them and their work to your chosen theme.
After all this – still not a shot taken – you write a statement of intent – detailing what you plan to do, and how you plan to do it. Important things like the equipment you’ll use, the techniques you’ll use and the photographers you’ll use as a reference are all important here. On the longer self directed projects (ARTF2 & ARTF4) you’ll need to go into more detail about planning your shoots and how you intend to schedule your time.
2. Taking Pictures
Images are taken over a series of “shoots”. The idea is that you go out, take some pics, come back, review the pics, then go out and take more/better/different pics. Rinse – repeat. I went with the rule of thumb of no more than 36 shots/shoot, but others did many more. 6 shoots with 24 shots/shoot is far better than 1 shoot of 100 images because you learn more with the shoot-review-research-shoot cycle. Now you can begin to see how time evaporates!
Your initial shoot should be relatively exploratory. You get home, make a contact sheet, then analyse your shots. Compare the best, critique the worst and review what you’re going to do differently/better in your next shoot. Always, you compare your images to other famous photographers. New techniques might be a shoot to itself.
You are aiming to build a portfolio of “presentation worthy” images. For very small self-directed projects (like the mini-series in ARTF3) you could be looking at 2-3 shoots per theme with 2 prints to display. For larger projects (ARTF2 & 4) you would be expected to do 8+shoots with a varying number of prints.
Having to do many “shoots” of the same theme can get quite staid, so if you live near a river (for example) and choose “Running Water” as a theme, you need to conceive of how you’re going to photograph the same thing in many different ways. You don’t want to get “boxed in” with a theme that has only limited opportunities (for you!).
As another example, a Landscape theme may sound great if you live near the lake district but if you have to do 8 shoots in 12 weeks, that’s a LOT of travelling/time out.
3. Review & Conclude
Once all your shoots are done, you need to describe your “final image” selection. You need to write a conclusion as to what you learned, what you could have done better and what you would change if you could.
This is why it’s so important to document failures. You then have something to write about in your conclusion. If you discard all the rubbish and present just your best stuff, what are you going to write at the end? “I didn’t learn anything because I knew it all.”?
The examiner wants to see that you’ve learned from your work. You need to show failure as well as success – and really emphasise your success too! This is where the comparisons to other photographers comes in.
In ARTF4, I did steps 1 & 2 for four of the themes before I was satisfied with my final choice. I was desperate because time was running out, but I documented the whole thing, and in the end, my “failure” got me 97%! I even made it a feature of the final project!
What Do You Get Out Of It?
At the end of the day, this A level was tough. it was my first A level though, and my first A* (not bad considering my history of GCEs).
I have learned the value of looking at other photographers work and using their techniques to improve my own style. And this is the key – to find your own style. It’s not about “copying” other work – it’s about learning from the experts and applying that knowledge to your own style.
So my photography has definitely improved. So has my CV! And best of all, I made some good friends along the way – all who share my passion and my love for this hobby.
I know I’ll never be a professional, but I can be a good amateur.
Give it a go. It’s hard work, but that exam slip can be very rewarding.
Thanks for reading!