10 great sources of photographic inspiration for the summer holidays by Neil Alexander

Expecting to find yourself with a rare few spare hours over the summer? I know I'm hoping to! Then check out these photography related resources guaranteed to provide you with a little inspiration for your photography somewhere.

First up, a few websites:

1. Bruce Percy is a Scots adventure photographer who has had his work published all over the world and has an extensive client list ranging from Fujifilm to American Express, though he now primarily runs workshops in Scotland, Iceland, Norway and South America. His work is absolutely stunning. Spend a little time going through his portfolio and you can’t fail to be impressed. He also puts together short slideshows complete with his own narrative. I find these incredibly inspiring aided considerably by his soft spoken voice and artistic insight - See them here.

2. According to the website, Lenscratch "is considered one of the 10 Photography-Related blogs you should be reading by Source Review, Wired.com, Rangefinder and InStyle Magazine.”. There’s more incredible art on this site than you could shake a stick at. Originally created 7 years ago with the aim of showing a different photographers’ work each day and gaining a deeper insight into the thoughts of the artist, there’s now work from thousands of photographers on here and it’s well worth subscribing to the Lenscratch RSS feed for daily updates. 

3. David duChemin is a legend in his own right. I love this guy. His lengthy thought provoking blog posts are only superseded by the quality of his photography and the amount of effort he goes to to give back to the photography community at large. On top of being one of the best humanitarian photographers in the world, he’s also an international workshop leader, a best-selling author and the founder of the amazing resource that is Craft and Vision. Not only does he give the impression with being totally in tune with himself but also with mankind as a whole.

And so now onto some eBooks. These can be read on a laptop, iPad or any other device (a smartphone may be a bit tricky) and are all either ridiculously cheap or even free!

4. I’ve been a fan of Martin Bailey’s for some years now. An expat from Nottingham now living in Japan, Martin has risen his way from mediocrity to a global leader in the field of nature and wildlife photography. This latest eBook of his on the Craft and Vision label is his best to date and jam packed with inspiration. And it’s only $8!
Striking landscapes by Martin Bailey - Check out the contents here.

5. Scott Bourne, an industry legend, who has now officially hung up his boots, has long been prolific on the old social media front. Scott, who started shooting long before I was out of short trousers, has had his work reproduced in just about every manner and medium possible. His thoroughly engaging manner is only outdone by his loathing of social media trolls and naysayers and this free PDF is well worth a read for the novice and seasoned pro alike. 
Scott Bourne's Essays on inspiration, creativity & vision in photography - Download it here.

6. Trey Ratcliff, one of the pioneers of good looking realistic High Dynamic Range photography is another star on the rise. Trey is a photographer, artist, writer & adventurer who runs the number 1 travel photography blog on the net. His work became popular after having the first ever HDR photograph to hang in the Smithsonian. Rather extraordinarily, Trey was born blind in one eye and has a background in computer science and mathematics so he brings a somewhat different slant to the world of art. Trey releases all his work under the Creative Commons licensing standard which means that anyone and everyone is free to use and distribute his work as long as it’s not for commercial gain and currently resides in one of my must visit locations, New Zealand. This brilliant article titled "10 Principles Of Beautiful Photography", which starts "There is a fine line between a photo that is quite nice and one that is quite breathtaking” is really well worth a read if you’ve a spare 15 minutes or so. This used to be an PDF format, but now is up there as a plain old web page to make it easier for you.

And onto some movies:

7. Tim Hetherington- Restrepo

Tim Hetherington was a Birkenhead born photojournalist, who in 2007, won the World Press Photo competition for his moving photo of an American soldier in Afghanistan and proceeded to win many more. In 2010 he went on to release Restrepo, a joint project with acclaimed director Sebastian Junger which was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award. Sadly he was killed by shrapnel doing the job he loved while covering the civil war in Libya a year later. In the movie, the two directors take their cameras into the trenches for a "day in the life" look at what it's like to fight in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, nicknamed the most dangerous place on earth. It’s vivid, intense, unvarnished stuff, and the two filmmakers won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance this year for their troubles. 

8. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

I love Hitchcock, his use of minimal lighting and ability to create something out nothing. Suspense is his middle name and his ability to leave so much to the viewer’s imagination is something that many photographers could learn from. Rather than a stock thriller, this particular movie is more about the viewer’s interpretation of the relationship between the photographer and his wife, how he copes with his acrophobia (fear of heights especially when one is not particularly high up), and his obsession with his old friend’s wife. Featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly the film has gone on to be nominated and win more awards than I’d care to mention. It’s slow and not a great deal happens but is still a stunning piece of film.

9. The Bang Bang club

This is a movie based on the real-life experiences of 4 combat photographers set in South Africa during the final days of apartheid directed by Steven Silver and released in 2010. The film goes to some lengths to build the back story of the 4 photographers and then follows them as they try to document a situation that was clearly terrifying to be anywhere near. 
"After proving his worth with a Pulitzer prize photograph of a burning man the four young men bond closely as the Bang Bang Gang and proceed to capture all of the fighting and incomparably cruel hostilities as the three fighting forces in the struggle for power in South Africa create the chaos of 1994. In a particularly touching scene Kevin photographs a starving child being stalked by a hungry vulture and his photograph wins a second Pulitzer Prize for the group. But war is war and takes is mental and physical tolls on the Bang Bang Gang and only two survive to write the book whose journal like content provides the story for the film."
It’s quite a harrowing film and not easy to watch, but well worth the effort.

10. David Lidbetter

And finally, just for the beauty of the colours and simplicity of the compositions, you have to check out David Lidetter's still life work.
I stumbled across his work pretty much by accident, but never fail to be entranced by his use of colour and the beauty he creates from such simple items. A still life photographer based in London, David’s work has "a keen attention to textures, colours and the smallest of detail, he has a simple yet fun style”. Fun it most certainly is. And inspiring too boot.

So there you go. That lot should keep you entertained for a bit. If there's anything you'd like to send my way for me to consume over the summer, then just leave it in the comments section below.

Using nature to frame the subject by Neil Alexander

Stirling Castle, Scotland. Prints and canvases of this and other images of castles can be seen here.

A simple skill for any photographer to improve their compositional skills is to learn how to frame a subject. It can focus the viewer's eye on an area of the photograph where you’d like their eye to fall initially. But why bother? Because as photographers, we’re visual storytellers and in our photographs we have to be able to clearly demonstrate to the viewer what the subject is to draw them in to our work. Popping a frame of some description around it simplifies matters for the viewer and helps to focus (excuse the pun) the eye on what I intended to be the key element of the photograph. Clearly, the castle is the smallest element in the photograph but you see it first. It’s a very simple lesson and very easy to do.

Taken quite literally at the side of the road, the gaps in the trees either side of this spot were either too big (I couldn’t get enough of them in the frame) or they were too close together (and the castle become a much larger element in the image). By just taking my time to assess the scene before I planted my tripod gave me the opportunity to make a much better photograph than if I’d just jumped out the car and started shooting at the first scene I saw. 

Why HDR is a valuable tool for the photographer. by Neil Alexander

Lonely tree at sunset, near Bakewell, Peak District. Photographed with 24mm TS Lens. Bracketed exposure processed in Lightroom and LR Enfuse.

I regularly read statements from other photographers stating that they hate HDR. That it all looks so over processed and downright wrong and they’d never ever go there, but I have to disagree. In my opinion the ability to combine different exposures into one final image is a particularly important tool in the photographer’s arsenal. It all depends on the method that you use. I’ve tried Nik’s HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix's HDR Soft and Photoshop, but my go to HDR application of choice is the LR Enfuse plugin for Lightroom. The fusion plugin creates a far more realistic conversion than any of the other programs do by default. I’m sure that with some careful tweaking you could get any one of the others to do the same thing, but LR Enfuse does it straight out of the box. Over time I’ve tweaked the settings slightly but it still beats the others hands down in my opinion. The additional ability to batch convert groups of images is also a huge time saver I’ve found. In Lightroom you simply group all the bracketed exposures you want to use, check the batch more processing option and off I go and have a brew or two.

Below are some sample images processed in their respective applications using the default settings.
There’s just too much clarity, over processing and just eugh for me. As a result the first thing I find myself doing is trying to tone them down. Pushing the sliders the other way just results in images that are simply put, frightening. And it’s these over processed, dayglo nightmares that give HDR a bad name. Just search Flickr for HDR and have a sick bowl at the ready.

An example of LR Enfuse default processing

An example of LR Enfuse default processing

An example of Photomatix's HDR Soft default processing

An example of Photomatix's HDR Soft default processing

An example of HDR Efex Pro default processing

An example of HDR Efex Pro default processing

An example of Adobe Photoshop's default HDR processing

An example of Adobe Photoshop's default HDR processing

Only the other day I was working a job for a local pub which has just undergone an extensive make-over. I’d done the interiors one day, some lovely sunset shots another evening but the client also wanted some images of their new beer garden in the sunshine. This meant that I’d be shooting in the worst light possible - the midday sun. But in the middle of a lovely sunny day is when people are most likely to be looking for a beer garden to sit in and enjoy a nice cold pint, and of course, the client is always right. Eek! Flash was out. I’d have needed more power than the Hadron Collider to produce enough light to cover the necessaries and over power the sun, so combining bracketed exposures* was the only way to go. A “correctly” exposed image simply blew the sky off the chart. Tweak it the other way and parts of the building were total black, but by shooting bracketed exposures I was able to merge these in LR Enfuse back at the ranch and produce images that were far more akin to what my naked eye was seeing. The reason being that the naked eye can see a range from dark to light over roughly 27 stops, but most digital camera sensors can only see between 9 and 13. So if I’m looking at the scene below of the lone tree at sunset in the High Peaks, my eyes can see the details in the sky of the clouds and the vapour trails and at the same time it can see detail in the tree. The camera can’t. It’s a technology thing. Digital sensors aren’t anywhere near as good as the marvellous feat of engineering that is the human eye, yet. So if I set the camera to expose for the sky, then the tree is in total black with little definition, and vice-versa, if I expose for the tree, then the sky ends up completely white. So by making a series of exposures across the spectrum, the software back on my iMac can merge them all together and produce a “realistic” image. 

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject. HDR is a tool like anything else; tripod, lenses, software, they-re all their to be used how you see fit. Discount them at your peril.

* Bracketing exposures means taking a series of images of the same scene but under and overexposing. My ageing Nikon’s will, with a quick toggle of a dial, shoot a series of up to 9 bracketed images, 4 stops over and under. This used to be my method of working but I found that I often ended up with tons of images in the bracketed series that I simply didn’t use. If it’s a 4 stop over and under bracket that I need, then I’ll manually dial in the exposures and shoot -4, -2,0, +2 & +4 meaning that I’m only filling the card with 55% of the space I was previously using. Over the course of an extended shoot, this can be GBs of data I’m saving. But that’s my preference. Auto bracketing works very well too!

Lonely tree at sunset, near Bakewell, Peak District. Processed in LR Enfuse and Lightroom.