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.

The beautiful Algarve by Neil Alexander

At the beginning of August the family and I, along with some friends all jetted off to the Algarve in Portugal, and I've finally manage to make time to edit all the images and drop them into a book using Lightroom 4's new Blurb integration. You can also now convert to an eBook for downloading to an iPad with a couple of clicks, and I'm giving this one away free! The links are down at the bottom....

But first, a little about Luz.

Luz is located down in the South of Portugal in an area knows as the Algarve (from the Arabic for "The West"). Tourism makes up the bulk of the Algarve's economy and it's easy to see why. The climate is warm Mediterranean often accompanied by a nice cooling sea breeze, the vibe of the place is really relaxed and unlike many of the other Mediterranean places I've visited, there is an emphasis on good food. And I mean more than a fancy olive and feta cheese salad. Unfortunately to many Praia de Luz will only ever be associated with poor little Madeleine McCann, but only those that have never visited the area. The landscape itself isn't up to much - it's predominantly dusty scrub, but the little towns and villages are really what caught my eye, and obviously the whole area is steeped in history.

Then the gear

As usual, I couldn't bring myself not to take a bunch of gear, but after some careful deliberation, I decided to travel as light as was possible. Rather than my modus operandi, in which I pack my Think Tank roller until it's bursting at the seams and hugely overweight for a carry-on, I decided I was only going to take two cameras, two lenses, a strobe, a few filters and a tripod all tucked neatly and with space to spare in my Billingham 550.

My ultimate aim was to travel as lightly as possible and only with gear that I would definitely use. So rather than take the 70-200 2.8, the 17-55 2.8, the tilt-shift and the kitchen sink (I have a collapsible one…. honest), I simply took my new go-to street camera, the Fuji X-Pro1 with 35mm F1.4 and a trusty D300 (without grip) with even trustier 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 IS lens. Oh, and two polarisers, some ND grads & Big Stopper, an SB900, LumiQuest Promax Softbox III, gorilla pod, Giotto carbon-fibre tripod, cable release, bubble level, laptop & usb hard drive. I didn't even take a card-reader! I know. How could I? I often hear photographers beat on about using a card readers as they're much faster, don't drain the camera's battery etc etc, but I thought I'd throw caution to the wind, and just for one week I'd go direct. I convert everything to DNG on import. Quite why, I'm not really sure any more. It's just a decision I took some years ago when the format came out and have just stuck to it ever since. The downside is that there's a whole load of crunching goes on in Lightroom when I import and convert, so I've just got it into my workflow that I go off and make a brew, or in this case plonk myself by the pool with a VAT and just let it run. So I really didn't notice whether it was much slower, but it felt good leaving just one more gadget behind.

I didn't push that shutter enough.

I only shot around 100 shots a day total, including multiple frames shot for HDR and Panos, which is really rather low for me when I'm doing travel work. My main goal this trip, was to spend as much quality time with my wife and kids as possible. Anything photography related was a bonus. And it worked for me. On occasion there were times when I should have made photographs (food in particular springs to mind), but to be honest, we were too busy enjoying ourselves and generally soaking it up that I didn't really beat myself up about it.

I had done the usual research, using Evernote to collate locations worth shooting, sun times, weather predictions etc etc and I did manage with a few solo excursions, to manage to tick most of the boxes. The one place I didnt manage to get to, that I would really have liked was the lighthouse at the "Edge of the World" at Cape St Vincent near Sagres.

The Book

Over the years I've put several different books together of my own photographs over the years, but having played around the new Blurb integration with Lightroom a little, and then discovering that you can now create an epub book which you can open in iBooks on the iPad, it was time to do another one. The fact that you can now send as an eBook, (and incidentally you can also charge for it) means it gives me a beautifully easy way to share it with friends and family simply by emailing a link to their iPads (I think almost everyone I know has one these days). I then decided to swap out the family pictures and put more of a travel book together. The images in this post are a sample of what I've put together over on Blurb - why don't you grab a copy for your coffee table, or your iPad? In fact with the first 5 print book orders, I'm giving away a free A3 signed print. How's about that for an incentive? Get the printed options here, and the eBook for free here.

Anatomy of an interior shoot by Neil Alexander

The Pyroclassic IV - a clean green highly efficient heating machine.

Several weeks ago I was asked to shoot a range of fires for a New Zealand based manufacturer, PyroClassic, for a UK marketing campaign they were looking to launch and as it was something a little out of the ordinary for me I thought I'd write up a post on it.

However before launching  into that, a little housekeeping. You're going to see some changes around here shortly. I'm really struggling to keep up with weekly posting at the moment due to business commitments, so I'm looking to scale back blog posts to fortnightly, and revert to releasing these on a Friday. I'm also going to change the URL that my RSS feed is on to something a little less misleading. It will be http://feeds.feedburner.com/NeilAlexander so go ahead and add it to your RSS reader now to avoid missing new posts when they come out.

Finally my Image of the Week newsletter that I send out on a Friday is going to cease in it's current format. I'm changing it to an Image of the Month. As I'm going to keep the Monthly Desktop Wallpapers going (which currently seem to be some of my most popular posts), I'm thinking that I'll release the newsletter around the middle of each month. With a little more time to prepare, it's going to have more in it every month - each one will have a coupon for a discount on prints and will only be available to newsletter subscribers. And to mark the relaunch, there'll be a chance of winning a prize or two......

If you're already a newsletter subscriber, then don't worry - you're still on the list. If not? Why not? Head over here to subscribe right now!

The Pyroclassic IV Fire - photograph of the unlit fire placed in the room

Now that that's out of the way, back on topic.

The Pyroclassic fires are manufactured with a range of different flues to cover all the differing global regulations. We wanted to cover as many bases as possible and as the fires also come in a plethora of different coloured panels, we had a combination of around 60 different parameters to photograph. The property in which we shot the fires had a large atrium in the middle of the room and it was one of those days when the sun was forever going in and out of the clouds, which made lighting somewhat problematic. Normally I'd work a shoot like this in manual so I know that once I'm dialled in, nothing's going to change. But the levels were dancing all over the place. I took a base exposure with the camera in aperture priority and then set the strobes (SB900s) to remote TTL. This saved me constantly having to change lighting levels. In order to get through all the various parameters (I'd prepared a little printed matrix in advance to make sure we didn't miss anything out), we had to shoot a completely disconnected, stand-alone fire. Then I made a bunch of measurements for the distance and angle that the camera was from the front of the fire so that a couple days later I could go and photograph a lit stove replicating the positioning. Then with some careful Photoshop work, layer the flames into all of the base shots.

We worked a couple of different set-ups. In the first setup  (kitchen layout - immediately above) the sunlight works quite well when it came in through the atrium. However the second set up, shooting into the living room (top most image), the sunlight began to cause no end of problems with reflections off the windows and the glittery wallpaper. It was so problematic that we ended up having to get someone up on the roof to place are a large sheet over the atrium window.

For the second part of the shoot, the lit fire, we typically ended up doing this on one of the hottest days of the year. It was quite a small kitchen and the client wanted an image of the fire going full tilt. Even though it was just a case of setting up the camera on a tripod using the measurements from the previous day, it was still very hot and sweaty work.

A lit Pyroclassic fire shot on a different day

With hindsight there are probably a couple of things I'd do differently next time. The first would have been to get hold of another light or two so that I could control the light coming through the atrium myself - this would have made things a lot easier in the long run. The second one probably would have been to start earlier  - we tried to pack an awful lot into one day and it did all begin to get a little rushed towards the end.

Real flame set up shot

So there you have it. Both myself and the client are extremely pleased with the final images and I look forward to sharing their ad campaign with you.

Finally,  I have to say a huge thank you to Diane from Amelia interior design for her expertise onset, without which my photographs wouldn't have looked anything like as good!