portrait

My favourites from 2011 by Neil Alexander

It's that time again.... In keeping with the last couple of year's reflections on the year that was (2010 here, and 2009 here) below are my 12 14 favourite images from 2011. Slightly different from these previous entries though, I haven't picked one image from each month, I've simply tried to pick my 12 (which ended up being14) personal favourite images from this year. It's always an interesting exercise and I find it really quite rewarding to see how my skills have developed from the year before. So here they are, although not in any order in particular, other than chronological.

First up is an image I made in Spinningfields, Manchester that I submitted in the Urban View category of the Landscape Photographer of the Year 2011 competition, which was subsequently shortlisted.

The Avenue, Manchester - Shortlisted for Landscape Photographer of the Year 2011

Also in January I made the image below with Charlie in Castlefield with one of my favourite modifiers, the Lastolite Ezybox. Details here

Charlie, Castlefield

Patrick with his guitar on the roof of the Arndale car park before the security guards came along. Blog post here

Patrick with his guitar on the roof of the Arndale Car Park, Manchester

Maltese street scene - First trip to Malta this year. Blog post here.

Typical street scene in Victoria on the Island of Gozo, Malta

Kayleigh, Trafford Park with the moon. Blog post  here

Kayleigh

Zejtun, Malta

Second trip to Malta this year. Blog posts here and here

Doorway, Zejtun, Malta

Anna - "Waiting for a bus?" with some very carefully placed SB900s - blog post here

Waiting for a bus?

Lighthouse, Vilamoura, Portgual. Blog post here and on variable neutral density filters here

View of the breakwater at Vilamoura, Portugal with a lighthouse at the end

Manchester Central Library - post here

Manchester Central Library at sunset

Jenson Button in his McLaren Mercedes tears up Deansgate, Manchester. Post here

Jenson Button in his McLaren Mercedes tears up Deansgate, Manchester

The Lake District. Post here

View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning

Derwent Valley. Post here

Tree in the Derwent Valley, High Peaks

And finally a shoot I did with Sophie and Pat in mid December that I haven't yet blogged about. Post to follow in the New Year.

Pat & Sophie

So in retrospect I'm more than happy with the quality of what I've produced this year, though I do feel that I need to up the quantity next year. And in upping the quantity I'm pretty certain that this will also see an improvement in the quality too. I ought to write a post on my plans for 2012 too. For one, it'll give me something to be held to, and it'll also help me to thrash out my thoughts and plans for the next year of my business and where I want to take it. So you can look forward to this in the coming weeks.

Finally, for 2012 I'll be releasing desktop wallpapers for your personal use. You can download January's here in 3 separate sizes. There's 2560 x 1440, 1920 x 1200 & 1440 x 900. Simply click the appropriate link and right click to save to your desktop.

NeilAlexander_JanuaryDesktop - 1440x900

As this'll be my final post for 2011, I'll sign off by saying that it's been a fantastic year for me photographically speaking and I hope that 2012 is even better. Enjoy the celebrations, and I'll see you on the other side.

Wishing you a prosperous 2012. Neil

Snappy Tips for Better Photos - Part 3 - People pictures by Neil Alexander

Hopefully, having been enthralled by my two previous Snappy Tips posts on Snappy Tips for Better photos and Snappy Tips for Better Photos – Part 2 – The Holy Trinity, you'll now have been brave enough to venture out the safety of automatic even if only for a frame or 2 and see where you end up. Photography is all about experimenting and trying new techniques and ideas. It's the best way to learn.

So it's now time to work on your portraiture skills. Whether it's making a cute photographs of your kids opening their Christmas presents,  or photographing a super model for Vogue, the basic practices are still the same. But we're not aiming to create a National Geographic or a Harpers Bazaar cover here. Just a good solid portrait.

  1. First up is framing, specifically filling your frame and throwing out unwanted elements. What I mean by this is that a photograph of someone is no good if they are a dot in the corner. They need to take up a significant proportion of the frame. You could use your camera's zoom, but you might find zooming with your feet better. It's harder to interact and instruct someone if they're on the other side of the room. There's also compression and camera shake and a host of other things, but let's just keep it simple. You also want to make sure that the background you are shooting them against is free from distracting clutter, especially bright colours and lights. For example if you've got the choice between posing your subject in front of a bookcase or a white wall, then go with the white wall every time, that is unless you are making a portrait of an Oxford University professor for the Sunday Times magazine, in which case context is everything. But I'm making the assumption here that you're not. In the first example below, I shot Amy against a fire escape with the sun setting behind her. She was also lit from the front and sides to lift her from the background, but even still the fire escape is too prominent and I feel it is distracting. For the next image, of Karolina shot on the South Bank in London, I deliberately used a shallow depth of field to make sure that the background was completely out of focus and didn't distract the viewer's eye in anyway.
wpid1167-Amy-by-Neil-Alexander-Lge-1-590x405.jpg
  1. Secondly, you need to take control of your subject. By this I mean instruct them. The majority of people are not used to being in front of the camera and will unlikely adopt poses that suit or are appropriate for your image, especially if it's kids we're talking here. You need to direct them to do as you want. Learn a little about posing and what works and what doesn't. There are some great tips over here.  Obviously the rules are a little different for posing formal portraits to kids in the park. For this photograph of Kayleigh, I'd seen that the moon had appeared in the sky just as we were packing up, but felt that this was worth trying to get something out of. I cajoled her a little into one more set up, sorted my lights and asked her to look off into the distance to get an almost vacant expression.
  2. Third on this list is lighting, but this by no means reflects its level of importance in respect to previous two. Lighting and composition are the two primary keys to any good photograph. Johannes Vermeer, widely renowned Dutch master painter from the 17th century is often referenced by photographers and their lighting techniques. Vermeer primarily used plain simple old diffused window light to light his subjects, and it is because of this and the manner in which he did it, that the window lit portrait is often one of the most popular portrait styles today. There are some great examples here. You don't need any fancy lighting equipment, softboxes or modifiers. Just a window, and if the light is too harsh, then maybe a white sheet over the window to diffuse it a little.
  3. Next up, is your point of focus. This has to be the eyesof your subject. They are what the viewer is instinctively drawn to when viewing a portrait. You can help lead the viewer's eye here, but ultimately this will always be the primary point of focus. The upshot of this is that they need to be sharp, or at least the eye  nearest the camera. Do this by placing your autofocus point over the eye before shooting. The image below of Charlie is a great example of several of the points above - I've filled the frame so there is no distracting background, it's shot using completely natural light with a sheet over the window to soften it a little, and the main point of focus is the eye nearest the camera (I really ought to have used a slighly longer depth of field to get both eyes in focus - but you live and learn eh?)
  4. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. Next up, is your point of focus. This has to be the eyesof your subject. They are what the viewer is instinctively drawn to when viewing a portrait. You can help lead the viewer's eye here, but ultimately this will always be the primary point of focus. The upshot of this is that they need to be sharp, or at least the eye  nearest the camera. Do this by placing your autofocus point over the eye before shooting. The image below of Charlie is a great example of several of the points above - I've filled the frame so there is no distracting background, it's shot using completely natural light with a sheet over the window to soften it a little, and the main point of focus is the eye nearest the camera (I really ought to have used a slighly longer depth of field to get both eyes in focus - but you live and learn eh?)
  2. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?
  1. [/caption]

  2. Fun. The most important point is to have fun and enjoy your shooting. This will reflect in your pictures. A wise man once said "The camera looks both ways" and this is very true. It's hard not to react to a smile with a smile. Smile at your subject, make a joke, and they'll smile back. Frown, complain, be in a bad mood and guaranteed your subject will reflect this, and ultimately your portrait. And really if you're not having fun and enjoying making photographs, what's the point anyway?

South Bank Portrait Shoot - Karolina Szwemin by Neil Alexander - blurring the background to bring out the subject

So that's it for today, and I hope that you're finding these useful. I look forward to receiving any comments or questions as usual. Also feel free to send me some images to peruse if you feel that you've learnt anything.

Finally, I thought I'd share this little video from the guys over at B&H in New York on caring for your camera. Now you may think, why on earth have I started putting links to a camera store over in the US on my site when the majority of my audience is based in the UK. The answer is simple. They're fantastic. It's often a real struggle to get gear over here in the UK, especially stuff that isn't your typical tripod or lens. Black Rapid straps, Lowepro S&F vests, Westcott modifiers - all very tricky to come by in the UK. I've ordered from B&H 3 times now all proving to be extremely satisfactory experiences. My last order was placed on a Sunday evening, the gear arrived Wednesday afternoon and even with shipping and import duty I saved 15% on like for like items from Calumet. It's a no brainer. So anyway, here's the video. It's quite informative.

Anna - Part 2 by Neil Alexander

This is the second part of this shoot that I did with Anna a couple of weeks ago. I've been longing to use this brick pre-war bus shelter on Wicker Lane in Hale Barns for a model shoot for ages and this particular afternoon fitted the bill perfectly.

Anna by Neil Alexander (Click to view larger)

My original plan had been to place a light stand either side of the open windows and light Anna in through the open windows with a close crop showing only the edges of the structure. Alas one of the ends has been filled in, presumably to provide a little welcome shelter to any occupants, but foiling my initial plan. Plan B involved simply placing an SB900 in either corner on the floor inside the shelter at the front directed up and back towards the ceiling, but this looked bloody awful. It made Anna look like some horrendous green vampire as it cast a horrible green glow from the ceiling and the bench everywhere. Plan C took a little more effort, but worked a treat. I rigged two SB900s with Pocket Wizard MultiMaxs and bungeed them to the middle rafter on the ceiling either side of Anna.

SB900 and Pocket Wizard bungeed to the rafters

I had to use the Pocket Wizards because with the flash units being hidden up in the rafters, I no longer had line of sight from across the road rendering Nikon's iTTL useless. The only way to trigger the strobes was using these radio triggers. Unfortunately for my legs though, these lil' fella's are certainly not the new all singing all dancing TTL units that Pocket Wizard are currently flogging around. It's all manual with these babies. Which meant lots of to-ing and fro-ing across the road to get my levels just where I wanted them. The final image was shot at 1/125 sec F2.8 at ISO200 - it was a bright day, but I found that at this point I could avoid blowing out the background around the shelter and still have enough control over the ambient inside to avoid showing the back wall too much. Angling the strobes forwards slightly, so that they were aimed directly at either side of Anna and slightly towards the camera also helped here. Had I placed them on the front most rafter I would have had too much spill onto the background and I feel the direction of the light on the model would have been much less dramatic. I then applied a little dodging and burning in Silver Efex Pro 2 in post.