Snappy Tips

Six simple secrets to a better photograph by Neil Alexander

I thought it about time I did some more tips for you dear reader, so I’ve popped together six simple secrets to help you make better photographs. Whilst the majority are geared towards portraits, they all also apply to all other areas of photography. So whether you’re shooting the kids in the park, or the Eiffel Tower at sunset, they’re all tips worth learning. So here goes, in no particular order:-


1.  Get down to their level
When photographing kids, pets or generally anything smaller than you, get down to their height or even lower. Photos, particularly of kids from above don’t do them any favours, nor do they make great images. Your photos are better when you show engagement with your subject and this is much harder to do from above. They don’t have to look directly at the camera, the eye level angle by itself will create a personal and inviting feeling.
 

Looking down on the children doesn't make the most engaging of photographs. Image courtesy of the  UN

Looking down on the children doesn't make the most engaging of photographs. Image courtesy of the UN

This image shot at eye level engages the viewer far more than the image on the left. Images courtesy of the  UN.

This image shot at eye level engages the viewer far more than the image on the left. Images courtesy of the UN.

2.  Move it from the middle
There are so many rules of composition, thirds, golden spiral, foreground and background elements etc etc but one of the first things you learn as a professional photographer that once you’ve learnt all the rules, start breaking them, but know when and why.
That doesn’t mean that putting your subject anywhere in the frame will make a good photo. Sticking it  drop dead centre will undoubtedly create a weak image. Try moving them to the left or right so that they are a third of the way into the frame. 

The viewer's eye is instantly drawn to the brightest part of a picture and in this image it is the doorway which I placed in the bottom left hand corner of the frame. 

The viewer's eye is instantly drawn to the brightest part of a picture and in this image it is the doorway which I placed in the bottom left hand corner of the frame. 

And here it is without the thirds lines. Had I placed the doorway in the middle of the frame, the photograph would be considerably less appealing.

Similarly in this image I placed the model to the right of the frame focusing on her eyes and placing them to the top right.

Similarly in this image I placed the model to the right of the frame focusing on her eyes and placing them to the top right.

An example of the crop overlays available in Adobe Lightroom. Placing your subject on one of the intersections will create a more appealing image. It's all to do with the brain and the way the eyes see things. Don't ask me to go into more detail, it's more than my little brain can cope with.

3. Move in closer - zoom with your feet
Particularly relevant if you're using a camera phone or a camera that doesn’t have a zoom. I know that most phones have a digital zoom, but don’t use it. You’d be far better off using your feet. Legendary photographer, Rick Sammon, puts it quite succinctly: "The name of the game is to fill the frame”. By doing this you will eliminate background distractions and show off the details in your subject. 
 

Image courtesy of  Viewminder

Image courtesy of Viewminder



4. Use the flash outdoors
Even outdoors, using the fill flash setting on your camera will improve your images. Use it in bright sunlight to lighten dark shadows under the eyes and nose, especially when the sun is directly overhead or behind your subject. But know the range of your flash. Keeping it on whilst you're taking photographs of Ryan Giggs taking a corner at Old Trafford from Row ZZ isn't going to do a whole lot.
 

You will see from the shadow that the net has cast on the ground that the sign is very high in the sky. The girl's helmet puts her face completely in shadow making it difficult to see her face properly. Image courtesy of  Soe Lin

You will see from the shadow that the net has cast on the ground that the sign is very high in the sky. The girl's helmet puts her face completely in shadow making it difficult to see her face properly. Image courtesy of Soe Lin

Here, and in the same harsh direct sunlight, the photographer has used on-camera fill flash to put light into the shadows caused by the girls' helmets onto their face. Image courtesy of  Soe Lin

Here, and in the same harsh direct sunlight, the photographer has used on-camera fill flash to put light into the shadows caused by the girls' helmets onto their face. Image courtesy of Soe Lin


5. Direct
Take an extra minute to become a picture maker rather than a passive picture taker. Add some props, rearrange your subjects, or try a different viewpoint, up high or down low or even a different angle. Bring your subjects together and let their personalities shine. 

Careful orchestration of the models enjoying the food makes for an engaging photograph. Publicity shoot for the Castlefield Hotel, Manchester.

Made as part of a series titled Crime? This carefully choreographed image creates mood and intrigue. See more of the series here.


6. Watch the background
If you’re portrait subject is stood in front of a telegraph pole, your photo may look like the pole is coming out of their head. Take a minute to look at your background and try and avoid any distracting clutter or bright colours. 

An excellent example of "pole in head" syndrome. Moving subject backwards a foot would have made him look less afflicted. Image courtesy of  Christian Bardenhorst

An excellent example of "pole in head" syndrome. Moving subject backwards a foot would have made him look less afflicted. Image courtesy of Christian Bardenhorst

Despite being deliberately done, this image shows perfectly the need to check the background before clicking the shutter. Image courtesy of  rawdonfox

Despite being deliberately done, this image shows perfectly the need to check the background before clicking the shutter. Image courtesy of rawdonfox

So there you go. 6 simple steps.... Any questions or feedback, feel free to comment below or email me direct.

Snappy Tips for Better Photos - part 5 - Composition by Neil Alexander

For this fifth and final post (for the time being in my Snappy Tips series), I'm going to focus on composition and some simple do's and dont's. Learn the rules and then learn why and how to break them.

rule of thirds grid
  1. Rule of Thirds Imagine splitting your frame into 3 equal horizontal strips, and then 3 equal vertical stripes. This will give you the basic layout for the  "rule of thirds" which basically states that in order to make your frame more appealing to the eye, you should place the focal point, or primary element of your photograph on any of the 4 inner connecting joins.

Salford Quays at sunset

  1. For one reason or another (too complicated to go into here), this generally makes your image more aesthetically pleasing. However, this is not always true but you need to learn why it works, and when to break the rule. For the image below of the bridge in Salford Quays at sunset, I have purposefully placed the bridge in the lower third of the frame which also gives me more room to show the magical colours in the sky.

  2. Balance- this is simply the arrangement of shapes, colours, or areas of light and dark that complement one another and make sure that the photograph does not have an uneven feel to it. For this image below of "Dawn in the Peak District", I have used the rising sun in the top left to balance the munching sheep in the bottom right. Without the sun in the frame, the image appears lopsided, and bottom heavy.

    [caption id="attachment_759" align="aligncenter" width="590" caption="Dawn in the Peak District"]

  3. Simplicity- Make sure that your frame is free from clutter, and always make sure to check the edges for intruding elements. If you could lose that telephone pole by taking two steps forward, then do it. Telephone poles, random tree branches, power lines are all examples of elements that if included in an image, often provide distraction inevitably detracting from the final quality of the image. These are also all things that can often easily be removed by moving your feet a few paces forwards or backwards. In this image of Sarah below I have gone in close to remove some distracting grafitti on the wall just to the camera left. This image also incorporates elements of point 4 below using the lines of the brickwork to lead the viewer's eye up to the subject.

Sarah

  1. Using lines - Lines can often be used to draw the viewer's eye into and around the image. These don't just have to be clear lines like roads or paths, but they can be more abstract such as the line of a subject's gaze, or the pattern created in a cloudy sky. The more of a path you can create for the eye to follow in an image, the longer you will keep the viewer engaged, and the stronger the image will be. In the image below I have used the windy line of the road to lead the viewer's eye from bottom right round and up to the tree.

View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning (Click to view larger)

  1. Using lines - Lines can often be used to draw the viewer's eye into and around the image. These don't just have to be clear lines like roads or paths, but they can be more abstract such as the line of a subject's gaze, or the pattern created in a cloudy sky. The more of a path you can create for the eye to follow in an image, the longer you will keep the viewer engaged, and the stronger the image will be. In the image below I have used the windy line of the road to lead the viewer's eye from bottom right round and up to the tree.

View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning (Click to view larger)

wpid758-Best-of-2009-Lge-1-590x401.jpg
  1. Simplicity- Make sure that your frame is free from clutter, and always make sure to check the edges for intruding elements. If you could lose that telephone pole by taking two steps forward, then do it. Telephone poles, random tree branches, power lines are all examples of elements that if included in an image, often provide distraction inevitably detracting from the final quality of the image. These are also all things that can often easily be removed by moving your feet a few paces forwards or backwards. In this image of Sarah below I have gone in close to remove some distracting grafitti on the wall just to the camera left. This image also incorporates elements of point 4 below using the lines of the brickwork to lead the viewer's eye up to the subject.

Sarah-41-590x404.jpg
  1. Using lines - Lines can often be used to draw the viewer's eye into and around the image. These don't just have to be clear lines like roads or paths, but they can be more abstract such as the line of a subject's gaze, or the pattern created in a cloudy sky. The more of a path you can create for the eye to follow in an image, the longer you will keep the viewer engaged, and the stronger the image will be. In the image below I have used the windy line of the road to lead the viewer's eye from bottom right round and up to the tree.
View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning (Click to view larger)
  1. Using lines - Lines can often be used to draw the viewer's eye into and around the image. These don't just have to be clear lines like roads or paths, but they can be more abstract such as the line of a subject's gaze, or the pattern created in a cloudy sky. The more of a path you can create for the eye to follow in an image, the longer you will keep the viewer engaged, and the stronger the image will be. In the image below I have used the windy line of the road to lead the viewer's eye from bottom right round and up to the tree.

View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning (Click to view larger)

Windsor Castle by Neil Alexander (Click to view larger)Here I have used the path of the staircase bottom left to lead the viewer's eye into the frame

Snappy Tips for Better Photos - Part 4 - Landscapes by Neil Alexander

For part 4 of this series, I thought that after the basics of camera control, The Holy Trinity and portrait tips the next logical step would be to focus on landscape photography but there are so many possible tips I could mention that I could well get 2 or 3 posts out of this topic. But today I'll try and stick to the (relative) basics.

Tree in the Derwent Valley, High Peaks. Shot as usual on a tripod with a cable release

  1. The first and most important tip for any semi-competent landscape photographer is to stabilise your camera. More often than not, I shoot landscapes at shutter speeds that are far below the recommended minimum for hand-holding a camera1, so the best way to try and get a sharp image is to use a good solid tripod. This means that (unless I'm shooting on an exposed mountain top in a howling gale) my camera will be anchored down, and with the use of a cable release I won't even have to touch my camera to make a frame. The reason for this lack of contact, is that every time I come into physical contact with my camera whilst making a photograph, no matter how hard I try, I will effect motion. Even the action of pushing the shutter button can cause the photograph to blur ever so slightly.Ashley sunset, Cheshire
    Ashley sunset, Cheshire - This image wouldn't be the same without the setting sun between the trees
    View up The Struggle towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn, Lake District

    View up The Struggle towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn, Lake District - I spent a great deal of time researching this area before travelling up to the Lakes.

  2. Research locations & Leg work - This is probably one of the least / most fun parts of landscape photography depending on your point of view. Personally I love pouring over maps, using apps to work out sunrise and sunset times, their expected azimuths and so on. However I expect if you're not quite as nerdy, then this would be a rather dull and uninspiring task. It's not quite so necessary to do this obviously if you're familiar with the area you plan to shoot, but if you have to travel some distance as I often end up doing up to the Peak District or the Lakes or abroad, then a little planning is essential to avoid completely wasting one's time.

  3. This next tip is one I learnt from amazing landscape photographer, Adam Barker from Utah when we were out in IndoChina last year and it's saved my bacon on more than one occasion. When I'm setting up a shot of some great vista, or even something as simple as a tree, in order to guarantee I'm going to get the shot in focus, I'll temporarily put my camera into live view (which means a real time image of my scene shows up on the camera's LCD), put my cursor where I want to zoom, and then zoom in on the LCD screen as far as I can go. I'll then put my camera into manual focus and tweak it until I can visually see on the screen that I've got it perfect. I then go back to mirror lock-up or whatever mode suits, leaving the camera in manual focus and shoot away. Guaranteed 100% sharp images every time. The other option if your camera doesn't have live view is to zoom in on the images as far as you can after you've taken it and verify that you have a crisp sharp photograph.
  4. Finally for today, I want to talk about filters. On this point alone I could prattle on for hours, but to save your sanity I shan't. There are two types of filter (IMHO) that are essential to landscape photography, and these are the circular polariser and the graduated neutral density filter. A polarised filter works exactly the same as a pair of polarised sunglasses. Used correctly, it can reduce reflections from water and windows, enhance the blue in the sky or bring out the green in the foliage amongst other uses. Very handy. Good ones aren't cheap.... Graduated neutral density filters or Grad NDs come in an assortment of different shapes and sizes. Generally these are used when you have too great a contrast range between your sky and your foreground or background. They can tone down the sky to varying degrees, even enhancing the cloud structure adding a little more drama to your image. They often allow you to avoid blowing out your highlights and shadows in what would appear to be a very high contrast scene. I personally only use Lee filters and currently have 4 or 5 ranging from 0.3 stops to 0.9, hard and soft (meaning that the join between the normally and the filtered part is either a sharp hard line or a softer graduated transition. Another tip I learnt from Adam, is that it's actually far less faff to physically hold these in two hands by the corners with a cable release in your hand than you'd expect and negates the need for fancy filter holders (which just adds yet more cost).

    Phnom Bakheng in the background, Siem Reap[

    Phnom Bakheng in the background, Siem Reap. Made using an ND Grad filter


  1. Next on the list, and probably actually more important than a stable camera is the light, and specifically the time of day. 99% of all the best landscape photographs were shot at either sunrise or sunset. This is because the light at this time is soft and golden, giving these times of day the affectionate term of "golden hour". Harsh summer midday light is an absolute no no for any landscape photographer. To verify this for yourself, just head outdoors just after dawn on a clear day and look around, then compare this to the same scene around midday - the sun will have risen much higher in the sky, and will therefore be much warmer and produce much harder shadows due to its elevation and brightness. Short winter days are a bit of an exception as the sun is in the sky for a much shorter time, and therefore doesn't climb to quite the same elevation. So it is possible to make acceptable landscape photographs pretty much all day in deepest winter, but even still those made in the middle of the day are unlikely to be award winners.