I recently made it onto the television news, appearing in the BBC’s Spotlight Southwest programme to discuss my trio of books about southwest England.
Spotlight Southwest is the BBC’s daily evening news programme for the southwest of England, attracting quite a significant regional audience. As a result, this provided me with major exposure for my books.
The three titles in question are Wild Southwest, Beautiful Devon and Beautiful Cornwall, each of them covering different aspects of the the southwest region. The spur to this publicity is the recent publication of the newest of these books, Beautiful Cornwall, which came out at the end of March.
All three books are widely on sale, and you can see more details of all three by clicking on the link below:
For any photographer, finding the perfect photographic composition can be just about the hardest part of any form of photography. Admittedly, a few people have a natural gift for creating great compositions, and hence images, but for most it is a question of practise and hard work.
It is a crucial skill to acquire, of course, because being able to find perfect photographic compositions lies at the very heart of great photography, far more so than any technical knowledge surrounding whatever camera you may be using. For sure, most people who regularly use a camera will stumble upon a great composition by accident from time to time, but what is needed is an ability to keep extracting those great compositions time and again, deliberately and to order. As I’ve already said, it is a skill that lies at the very heart of great photography.
So why is it so darned difficult? This two-part article aims to provide some answers and pointers towards the skill that is so important in finding the perfect photographic composition.
So what’s the problem?
The essential, basic problem is that the photographic image simply doesn’t represent the real world in the way that we see and experience it. When we visit a place we have the real world all around us in 360 degrees and three dimensions, and what we see with our eyes is only a part of the ‘picture’ – our minds are also fed an enormous amount of non-visual stimuli, such as noises, sounds, smells and temperature, that combine with sight to complete our experience of any given scene.
Point a camera at that scene, press the shutter and Hey Presto! We’ve captured a representation that is two-dimensional, covers only a small part of what we could see (and even then restricted within a tight frame), and has thrown away all those non-visual stimuli that were so important in our interpretation of the place. Small wonder, then, that such a photograph frequently fails to convey anything close to what we thought we saw. In fact, it is amazing that anyone ever comes even close to success here!
Working towards the perfect photographic composition
Given that when we press the camera’s shutter button the resulting image contains visual information that is just a fraction of what we experienced, we need to make the best use of what remains in the picture to compensate for everything that has been thrown away. In other words, we need to use a host of photographic techniques that take the surviving visual information and change it from being simply a mundane representation into a fantastic composition with impact, style and some kind of message that elicits a reaction in anyone who looks at your photos.
In the remainder of this first article on photographic composition, I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the most important of these photographic techniques: keeping the compositions simple.
Keep it simple!
One of the biggest mistakes people make when using a camera is to try to fit too much in the frame. Everything looks great to the eye, so they want to try to record it all at once, cramming everything into a single frame. The result, more often than not, is an image with no visual impact, filled with clutter and everything quite small. The eye skips around the image, unsettled, dissatisfied and unable to find anything to home in on.
The solution is always to keep the compositions simple: just have one single subject dominating the frame (though not necessarily filling it). This gives the viewer’s eye something to really latch onto, so instead of skipping aimlessly around the frame it comes to rest on that subject, generally ignoring anything else in the frame. The result then is an image that communicates a message to and has an impact on the viewer. An image that stimulates an emotional reaction in a viewer is a successful image.
Everything else in the frame (the ‘negative space’) should either disappear from conscious view, through being either out of focus or a very simple backdrop, or should in some way support the main subject, helping to guide the viewer’s eye towards it. More on this supporting role in the second article.
What you absolutely don’t want in the negative space is anything that distracts the eye – random clutter or any elements that draw the viewer away from the main subject. As soon as this happens, the image’s impact is weakened.
To get some ideas of what I mean in my photography feel free to take a tour of the image galleries on my website. Click on the link below:
Of course it’s one thing to say that you should aim to produce such simple compositions, but quite another to spot them within the chaos of our world, and yet another to successfully extract them from that chaos and distil them into great photographs.
The search for those simple compositions within our environment has several major implications, which are:
Generally speaking, really wide views of a scene risk both introducing too much clutter into the image frame and making the intended subject too small, and if not handled very carefully will result in weak, chaotic images;
As a result, most of the time the search for the perfect photographic compositions involves picking out little cameos, vignettes from within the wider scene, those elements that we recognize can be arranged through careful choice of lens and perspective into a great, simple compositon;
The previous point leads us to recognize that even when we’re in a scene that all looks beautiful to the eye, most of it just will not work photographically. We need to find those few cameos that happen to do so. Just because something looks fantastic doesn’t mean that it will translate directly into a great photo;
Famous views and sites may or may not translate into great photos. Just because a place is famous doesn’t automatically mean that it is highly photogenic. However, it is also true that a place may become famous simply because it is widely photographed, generating some great images because it does happen to be photogenic;
Many of the greatest photographs can be generated from very mundane scenes, places that most people – including a lot with cameras – would normally just walk past without a second glance;
We all see the world rather differently. As a result, two photographers shooting the same place at the same time will spot and extract great compositions that are surprisingly different. In the courses I run I am constantly surprised by the great compositions that my students come up with, compositions that I myself had not spotted;
The very first point in this list might imply that we don’t, or shouldn’t use wide-angle lenses much for good quality photography. Nothing could be further from the truth – I use wide-angle lenses most of the time – but they have to be used with care and in a certain way. This will be covered in more detail in the second article.
As this article has described, one of the first and biggest steps towards creating great photos is to keep the compositions simple, with a single strong subject, and nothing in the frame to distract the viewer’s eye away from it. It is something easier said than done, of course, but hopefully the few points given in the list will help start you along the road.
The next article
In the next article, to be published in two weeks’ time, I’ll go into rather more detail, explaining – among other things – situations where you might have more than one subject in a frame, how the negative space can be used to support the main subject, the importance of diagonals, and the use of wide-angle lenses.
Yes, my latest book, Beautiful Cornwall, is finally published and available through all good book shops, both high street and online. Coming out on 28th March, it was published bang on time, and since then it has been slowly working its way into bookshops across the southwest of England, as well as to the usual online sites, including Amazon.
What you can find in Beautiful Cornwall
At just 80 pages, this is quite a short book, but it is packed with my photography, showcasing many of Cornwall’s most beautiful locations and some of its most popular annual festivals. It is, in short, a very colourful book, and one that shows off Cornwall to be the truly spectacular region that it is.
Beautiful Cornwall contains five chapters, the first a mix of text and photos that sets the scene, introducing its landscape and wildlife, people and culture, and some aspects of its economy.
The remaining four chapters take a tour around Cornwall, looking at East Cornwall, the North and Bodmin Moor, the South Coast, and the Far West. The last chapter also includes a section on the Scillies.
Beautiful Cornwall makes a stunning memento of the county, both for visitors and residents alike.
Finding out more and buying Beautiful Cornwall
I hope you like the few sample pages shown here, but you can see full details of Beautiful Cornwall online, including sample pages and photos, by clicking on the link below:
In this post we bring you a selection of latest news snippets, namely that finally we have joined up with YouTube, and that both current book projects – Beautiful Cornwall and Wild Philippines – have been sent to the printers.
Yes, after so many years of prevarication, we’ve finally opened our own YouTube channel, kicking off by loading up all the video diaries I shot last year while photographing for the Wild Philippines project. You can find our channel by clicking on the link below:
In loading up all the Wild Philippines video diaries I discovered that I had forgotten to publish the very last of those diaries. So here it is now:
I hope you like it!
Beautiful Cornwall heads to the printer!
Yes, we’ve finished working on the next book, Beautiful Cornwall, and it is now with the printer, in Exeter. The book will be published and available through all book shops, high street and online, at the end of March. So it’s all getting quite exciting!
Sample photos and pages, plus lots of other info about the book, can be seen on the website You can also pre-order your copy there.
Work on this truly mega-project, which totally dominated my life last year, is finally drawing to a close. The files have finally headed to the printer. I know I’m biased, but I think the book is looking quite fantastic!
The book will be published in August, at which time we’re hoping to have a launch event in Manila.
Full details of the book will be posted on the website in due course. In the meantime, you can see a gallery of sample photos.
So here’s something a bit different from my usual, an aspect of my photography that may not seem so glorious but which pays the bills – interiors photography.
For the past couple of months I’ve been doing quite a lot of photography for AirBnB Plus, shooting some of their more upmarket holiday lets in southwest England. This is an ongoing project, and is likely to continue for some time.
As you can see, I’ve included a few shots here, but you can see a much bigger gallery on the website by clicking on the link below:
Yes, Beautiful Cornwall will be our next publication, set to hit the book shops from 29th March 2019. A lovely photographic book about this famous British county, we’ve almost finished designing the pages. What’s more, there is now a page on the website dedicated to the book, along with a gallery of sample images.
About Beautiful Cornwall
Beautiful Cornwall will be similar to our previous book Beautiful Devon, part of our new Portrait of a County series, and will be a largely photographically led book, showcasing some of the most beautiful landscapes in this famous county, as well as many of its well known harbours, moors and festivals. Essentially, although Chapter 1 will be text-driven, giving an overview of the county, most of the book will be a series of photoessays, each concentrating on a different part of Cornwall. I think you’re going to really like Beautiful Cornwall.
All writing and photography is by myself.
It’ll be a great souvenir book of Cornwall’s great beauty, for both visitors and residents alike.
Finding out more about Beautiful Cornwall
Sample pages will follow in a week or two, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll love the photos. A few are shown here, but to see a much larger gallery click on this link:
Neutral density graduated filters (usually shortened to ND grads) are one of the most important little add-ons for landscape photography. Anyone shooting in this genre will need to have a couple in their kit bag. This article describes what they are, what they do and how you can use them.
So what are ND grad filters?
ND grad filters are a rectangular sheet of optical quality plastic, with one half darkened and the other half completely clear. There are essentially two types: hard and soft, terms that describe the type of transition from clear to dark in the filter’s central area. Not surprisingly, hard filters have a sharp transition between the two zones, whereas soft filters have a gradual transition. Recently, leading filter manufacturer, Lee Filters, have introduced medium and extra hard filter types.
In addition, the filters come in a range of darkening grades, usually termed 0.3, 0.6, 0.9 and 1.2. These equate, for the 0.3 filter, to a one-stop reduction (ie a halving) of the amount of light passing through the dark part of the filter. For the 0.6 it is a two-stop (four-fold) reduction; for the 0.9 it is a three-stop (eight-fold) reduction; and for the 1.2 it is a four-stop (16-fold) reduction.
What are ND grad filters used for?
Everyone who has taken a landscape photograph has had the experience where in the final photos either the land is well exposed but the sky is burned-out, with all cloud details lost, or the sky looks great but the land is lost in a dark, almost featureless zone. This can happen even though the view looks just fine to the eye.
The explanation is that, although the eye can handle a huge contrast range between, say, a bright sky and a darker landscape just fine, the digital sensor is just not up to that. As a result, it can correctly expose either the land or the sky, but not both.
What ND grad filters do is, by putting the dark part of the filter over the bright part of the view, they greatly reduce that contrast range. This brings it down to something the digital sensor can cope with, enabling it to capture all the detail in both the bright sky and the darker landscape. The result will be a photo more closely resembling what you saw with your eyes. Essentially, ND grad filters are an important technical fix for a major failing in the digital sensor.
They can also be used to exaggerate the real situation, for example increasing the apparent storminess of a cloudy sky, helping to increase the sense of drama and/or mood in the photos.
How do you use them?
You fit these rectangular filters to the front of your lens, using a special holder, which itself needs to be fixed to the lens using a threaded adaptor ring. When first kitting up, these will need to be bought in addition to the filter(s). Make sure to buy adaptor ring(s) of the right thread size(s) for your lenses.
When mounting the ring and holder onto the lens, you should first remove any circular filters you may already have on your lens (eg a UV filter). If such filters are left in place, there is the danger of vignetting – ie having dark corners – in your photos, especially if shooting with a wide-angle lens.
After sliding the ND grad filter into the holder, look through the camera’s eyepiece or at the live screen view, and slide the filter up and down until its light/dark transition zone matches up with the landscape’s horizon. Of course, this is much easier if the camera is rock steady on a tripod with the image view already composed, but you can also do it with the camera hand-held if done carefully.
Once everything is lined up, you can shoot normally. The in-camera exposure meter works perfectly well with the ND grad filter in front of the lens.
The choice of ND grad filter to use becomes easier with experience. Generally, a hard grad is the one to use when you have a distinct horizon (such as the sea against sky), whereas you would use a soft ND grad when it is not clear where the horizon is, such as in woodland or in misty/foggy weather. In terms of what grade to use, of course this depends on how big the view’s contrast range is. However, generally, the 0.6 grade is the most useful.
The types of cameras ND grads can be used with
ND grads have, in general, been developed with DSLRs in mind. For use with these, although filters can come in a number of different sizes, it is best to use filters that are 100mm wide and 150mm long. This size covers use with just about any lens available on the market, including those with very wide-angle views. Smaller filters (often called A and P sizes) can be useable with smaller lenses, but can be problematic with a very wide-angle lens, oftern causing vignetting (darkened corners) in the photos. Larger filters are also available for those using medium format cameras, such as Mamiya, Hasselblad or Phase One cameras.
Recently, Lee Filters has also started to produce smaller filters specifically tailored for use with the more compact mirrorless cameras, though these cameras can also take the standard 100mm filters just fine, provided the right thread size adaptor ring is used.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to use ND grads with compact cameras. For one thing there is no lens-front thread that can take an adaptor ring and holder, and secondly the lens can quite radically change length when zooming and/or focussing, making it almost impossible even to hold the filter in front of the lens.
Equipping yourself with ND grad filters
Several manufacturers produce ND grad filters, principally Lee Filters, Cokin and Hi-tech. The first of these produce what are generally considered to be the top-of-the-line, industry standard filters, whereas those by Cokin and Hi-tech are rather more budget products. That said, all ND grad filters can be quite expensive, so if your budget is limited there is no need to splash out on a full set right away. Just invest in the holder, adaptor rings and one, or maybe two filters initially – the 0.6 hard and 0.6 soft are probably the most useful filters in the range.
Caring for your ND grad filters
These filters are quite fragile and can be easily scratched. Handle them carefully, by the edges, and always keep them in the pouches provided. They also readily attract dirt, particularly if you’re shooting by the sea. Finger prints and salt spray can be remarkably difficult to remove. A good quality fibre-free lens cloth can help remove the former, but generally just smears the latter. To remove salt spray rinse the filter in warm soapy water and then dry with a very soft towel. Don’t use hot water as this can warp the filter. If this happens then put the filter under some heavy books for a couple of days. Don’t try to bend the filter back into shape by hand.
Learning more about ND grads with Nigel
To find out more about ND grads with me, you could sign up for any of my 2019 one-day photography workshops.
Well into October already, and my programme of autumn one-day photography courses is steaming along. In fact, there are just two left to go: 20th and 27th October, covering Exmoor and Dartmoor in Autumn, respectively. We still have spaces on both, so if you’d like to come along get in touch.
Photography courses for 2019
When it comes to next year, I’ve managed to pull together my programme of 2019 one-day photography courses, and it’s all now up on the website, along with details of this year’s two remaining courses.
Building on what I learned in the survey I ran during the summer, I’ve introduced a couple of new courses, one of which will be a low-light photography workshop. This will in fact be the first workshop of the spring, kicking off on 30th March with some late afternoon, dusk and night photography. Another new course will be on South Devon coastal landscapes, to be held on 4th May.
For the second time, I’ll be running the architectural course in Bath, and there will also be the usual Dartmoor, Exmoor and Jurassic Coast workshops. The year will round off in November with a wildlife photography workshop, somewhere in Devon, though I’ve yet to decide exactly where – details will follow in due course.
Finding out more
Details of most of next year’s courses are on the website.
To find out more about all the courses, both those remaining this year and all those so far listed for next year, click on the link below:
I’m making progress! Yes, the material for the new Wild Philippines book is starting to come together, which is just as well because the deadline is starting to loom!
So the latest development is that I’ve processed images far enough that I’m now able to publish a gallery of sample images. Yippee! That’s not an ironic yippee, I have to say – I’ve been struggling to reach this point for ages!
Anyway, you can see a few images here, but I’ve put together a much bigger gallery, of 40 photos, on the website. You can see all these photos by clicking on the link below:
There’s no formal system of putting in advance orders for Wild Philippines as yet – that will come later – but if you think you’re going to want a copy (or copies even) then get in touch and let me know!
I’ve just posted to the website a gallery of photos of Philippine hotels. These hotels all gave me a huge amount of help during my recent Wild Philippines photo shoots, providing not only great accommodation, but also transportation and scuba diving.
They really pulled out the stops to help make my work so much easier, hugely contributing to the great success that the photo shoots were. So a big ‘Thankyou’ to all of them!
It also has to be said that many of them were so comfortable that there were times when I was rather reluctant to leave my cosy room for the sweaty heat of the rainforests! So, all in all, if any of you is thinking of making a visit to the Philippines, I can thoroughly recommend all these hotels.
I’ve posted just a few images here, but you can see many more on the website by going to: