The perfect photographic composition – part 2

In the first part of this article about creating the perfect photographic composition I described how you should keep your compositions simple in order to maximise impact. In this article I’ll describe further techniques that help support and enhance that fundamental aim. These techniques will help to achieve such goals as:

  • direct the viewer’s attention towards the main subject;
  • help to establish mood/atmosphere;
  • give the illusion of three-dimensional depth;
  • add a feeling of drama, dynamism and energy to your images;
  • give a feeling of movement.
Icelandic iceberg in stormy light
The use of diagonal lines in the clouds and the sea to direct the viewer’s attention to the iceberg.

Directing the viewer’s attention to the main subject

In many good photographs the main subject dominates the frame and grabs the viewer’s attention without any help from the rest of the image – the ‘negative space’ as it is sometimes called.

In others, however, and particularly in slightly more complex compositions, that negative space can provide some pointers, literally leading the eye to that subject. Those pointers can take any number of forms, such as diagonal lines in cloud or water patterns (as in the image above), or perhaps the line of a rural wall or hedge, a meandering stream, or even the line of a sweeping and zig-zagging road. All these can reinforce the importance of the main subject, helping it to stand out even further than it already does from the background.

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. You really don’t want too many such pointers, each one increasing the risk of criss-crossing conflicts that just add to the image’s complexity and confusion. So keep them under control!

Trees silhouetted at sunset, in Turkey
A limited colour palette and simple silhouettes to generate mood.

Establishing mood

Establishing mood is one of the most important steps towards creating a great photo that anyone viewing it can empathise with. The first requirement is usually a simple composition (as outlined in the first article), but this then needs to be accompanied by an appropriate type of light and colour palette.

Strong, angular, low sunlight is of course good for generating some kind of a stormy atmosphere, particularly if accompanied by scudding clouds, but rather useless if a calming, peaceful mood is required. For that you need a scene that at least appears in the photo to be motionless, usually bathed in a soft light that generates a very simple and limited colour range. A simple silhouette in a calm sunset or dusk is a typical example, as in the photo above.

Some of the most effective moody images are created with a very limited, simple colour palette, making them almost monochromatic, not necessarily in the black-and-white sense, but rather in consisting of just one or two colours. An image that consists of multiple, wide-ranging colours is almost inevitably a lot more complex in appearance, and may be enough to defeat any kind of simple composition, ruining any possible mood that you might otherwise want to establish.

Tracks in snow in a country lane on Exmoor
Using a strong diagonal to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

The illusion of three dimensions

One of the biggest drawbacks of photography is that the resulting images are simply two-dimensional representations. If only we could create genuinely three dimensional images!

We can of course partially overcome this limitation by creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth in our photographs. This can usually be achieved using diagonal lines that literally lead the viewer’s eye from the ‘front’ of the image into the scene, giving a sense of depth and structure.

In the image above the three-dimensional illusion has been created simply by using tyre tracks in snow. By crouching down low and using a wide-angle lens I’ve been able to create some very strong diagonal lines that head straight into the depths of the scene, giving a strong sense of three dimensions.

Georgian houses in the Royal Crescent, Bath.
Use of a strong angle to create a sense of drama or dynamism.

Drama, dynamism and energy

A simple straight-on record shot of a stationary scene will generally result in a very dull, static image with limited appeal. Such a scene needs some livening up; the introduction of a bit of dynamism, or energy.

There are a number of ways to do this, but among the most effective are the use of a low-angle view (for a high-up subject at least), coupled with a wide-angle lens, and perhaps a dash of tilting camera. Suddenly a potentially dull image can become quite lively.

The reason for this? All these little techniques help to generate, or exaggerate, diagonal lines in the scene, lines that naturally tend to generate a sense of energy. This is provided they are coordinated diagonals, of course: a mass of criss-crossing lines just results in chaos and a very jumbled photo!

A waterfall near Hartland Quay
Providing a feeling of movement by blurring moving water.

The feeling of movement

Coupled with the addition of a sense of dynamism and energy is the feeling of movement. Photography of even dynamic scenes filled with movement and excitement can result in dull, static images if shot in the wrong way. It is important to be able to really capture and put across the sense of movement in those shots for them to live up to their dynamic potential.

One of the most common solutions is to introduce some deliberate motion blur, in which either the moving subject or the background is partially or even totally blurred. This is achieved not through differential focussing of course, but by the use of a slow shutter speed, something that does not completely freeze the movement.

This is most commonly seen in landscape photography with the blurring of moving water, such as with photography of waterfalls (as above), rivers or shoreline waves. However, it is also frequently used in sport and wildlife photography; indeed just about any kind of photography that involves action.

Beach picnic at sunset
Use of diagonal lines, exaggerated by a wide-angle lens, to lead the eye to the main subject, to give the illusion of three dimensions and to add dynamism to an otherwise static scene.

Wide-angle versus telephoto lenses

In this article I’ve mentioned the use of diagonal lines quite a number of times: in generating an illusion of three-dimensional depth, creating lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject; and to introduce a sense of energy and dynamism in an otherwise static scene.

So clearly, diagonals are pretty useful in greating great photos, and one of the best ways to create diagonals – or at least exaggerate those already present in a scene – is to use a wide-angle lens. And sometimes the wider the better, if you really want to create a lot of drama.

Of course the downside of a wide-angle lens is that it opens up the possibility of allowing move distracting clutter into the image frame, as well as making the subject much smaller. The solution is to step closer to the main subject, something that a lot of photographers fail to do. And sometimes you need to step a lot closer than you might imagine. There are many times, of course, when you simply cannot get as close as would be desirable, in which case you may need to consider shooting in a rather different way, or even change the subject altogether.

For certain kinds of images where you want to introduce drama, telephoto lenses work quite well. Their ability to fore-shorten distances, crowding elements closer together than they actually are can have a powerful effect, enhancing a sense of strength and power, say in vertical walls or cliffs.

The telephoto lens can also be very effective in photography of water, capturing droplets of water in mid-air, and enhancing the apparent size and power of waves. However, for this to work the lens in question has to be quite powerful to allow you to home in on details, and it needs to be used with a very fast shutter speed.

Waves and spray on rocks
Use of a telephoto lens to capture a sense of drama, power, energy and movement.

A final word

I hope this article, along with the previously published first part, helps to give some pointers towards how to create impactful images. Needless to say, in this short space it is impossible to cover everything; the ideas given here are generalisations, but they should give you some thoughts on the way forward to improve your photography.

Get out there shooting and enjoy your photography!

Courses, tours and books

If you’d like to come along on any of my photography courses (which teach the principle points outlined in these articles) find out more by clicking on the link below:


To get more deeply into the photography with me, and to visit some fantastic locations in the UK and overseas, find out about my tours by clicking below:

Photography tours

To find out more about my books click on the link below:

Nigel’s books

The perfect photographic composition

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.

An image with a single subject as its 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!

A single strong subject dominating the frame, with no distractions.

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.

A photographic composition containing one single strong subject and a simple backdrop.

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:

See photo galleries:

A strong subject in this photographic composition dominates the image frame.

Seeking out those simple compositions

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.
A tropical coral forms a superb single subject in this photographic composition.

Final thoughts

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.

Please enjoy.

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Using ND grad filters: what you need to know

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.

Soft (left) and hard (right) Lee ND grad filters.

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.

A basic ND grad filter kit, consisting of two Lee filters (hard and soft 0.6 ND grads), a filter holder and adaptor ring.

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.

A camera mounted with a Lee 0.6 soft ND grad filter.

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.

To find out about the workshops, click here…>

Hopefully, these notes will help get you up and working with ND grad filters. Don’t be shy to get in touch if you have any queries.

A future article will cover the related subject of neutral density filters (ie all-over ND, not graduated).

The last of the autumn photography workshps

The last two of this year’s autumn photography workshops were held at the end of October, on 22nd Oct the Exmoor in Autumn course, and on 28th Oct the Dartmoor in Autumn course.

Exmoor in Autumn photography course

Scheduled originally for 21st Oct, the weather forecast for that day had it set to be such a wild and windy day that I thought is wise to postpone the workshop by a day. It was probably the best thing to do, but in fact things were hardly any better on the Sunday – with howling winds and frequent showers making the photography quite a challenge. We did get to see quite a few rainbows, however, which was good.

Porlock Weir, Exmoor National Park, Somerset, Great Britain.

The morning started off with some beach and harbour shots at Porlock Weir, on the Somerset coast. The hill behind the village gave some protection from the worst of the wind, but nevertheless we were battered by frequent showers alternating with some sunny spells. Photography consisted mostly of trying to capture in various ways the waves crashing over the harbour mouth groynes.

Then we moved up onto the hills at County Gate, a place with wonderful views of deep valleys, moors and woodland. Here, we found out just how windy it really was, and with the showers getting ever more frequent, we soon gave up on this site.

Landscape at County Gate, Exmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.

Much of the afternoon was spent at Watersmeet, a deep and sheltered valley, filled with woodlands and a white water river. Quite apart from photographing the waterfall here, and the river flowing around rocks, we were also treated to canoeists shooting downriver and, near the end of the day, a heron posing nicely by the river bank for us.

So, despite the conditions, in fact it was quite an interesting and varied day.

East Lyn River, Watersmeet, near Lynmouth, Exmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.

Dartmoor in Autumn photography course

Held the following weekend, this was a much calmer day, the morning spent in the sheltered woodland valley of the Teign River, at Fingle Bridge in the northeast of Dartmoor. Lots of photography of trees in autumn colours hanging over the river, etc, though the very gentle breeze was just enough to ruffle the leaves, making it difficult when shooting with slow shutter speeds.

The River Teign in woodlands near Fingle Bridge, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.

The second part of the day was spent on the open moor, on the hills above the village of Chagford. Here, the elements turned against us again, with heavy, drizzly cloud moving in and a nasty little wind getting up. We managed some handy photography of the Scorhill stone circle, as well as shots of a lone hawthorn tree on some marshy moorland, all aimed at demonstrating how to get worthwhile shots on an otherwise desolate moor.  We didn’t manage to get too far with this, however, as with the weather deteriorating and both temperature and light levels dropping we all eventually decided to call it a day.

Marshland on Gidleigh Common, near Chagford, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.

The joys of photography in England in late autumn!

Sets of photos taken by me during the day – along with those from several of the recent courses – can be seen on the website. Just click on the link below.

See Exmoor and Dartmoor in autumn photos

The River Teign in woodlands near Fingle Bridge, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.



Competition judge!

Judging the 2017 Southwest Coast Path photography competiton!

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and Great Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) flowers on Berry Head in June, Brixham, Torbay, Devon, Great Britain.

I’m very pleased to be able to announce that I’ve been asked to be the principal judge on this year’s annual Southwest Coast Path photography competition! The competition, run to promote the loveliness and importance of the landscapes along the southwest peninsula’s southwest coast path, will be on during the autumn, starting from now and ending at the beginning of December. I’ll be selecting the winner out of a shortlist of – hopefully – fantastic images. So start submitting really soon – not to me but to the Southwest Coast Path organisation. For more details click on this link:

Find out more about the competition

Along with this article are a few of my own southwest coast path landscape photos here, just to whet your appetite – at least I hope it will!

On the beach at Westward Ho! just before sunset, north Devon, Great Britain.





Torquay harbour at dusk, Torbay, Devon, Great Britain.

A dusk view of the harbour at Ilfracombe, Devon, Great Britain.

A highway code to copyright

As a professional photographer one of the biggest issues I’ve had over the years is getting people to understand copyright. In other, less diplomatic words, getting people to understand that they have to pay to use my photos!

This always seems to be a difficult concept for some people to grasp, but the British Copyright Council recently came up with a wonderfully simply and clear ‘highway code’ to copyright, to help explain to creatives like me what is protected for my benefit, and to explain to anyone who might like to use my work what they have to pay for and why.

A link to their site given below, but here is a summary of that code, supplied courtesy of The Photographer, the magazine of the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP):

  1. Copyright is a legal right – given automatically to authors of original literary, musical, visual, dramatic, artistic and other creative works and productions – to control copying, and therefore exploitation and activities such as publishing and posting on the web, of their works. This includes books, articles, reports, poetry, plays, music, paintings, photographs, illustrations, sculptures, text messages, games, web pages, videos and computer programs.

Creators of films, sound recording producers and broadcasters also receive copyright in their productions and performers receive similar rights in their performances. A person, a group of people, or a company can own a copyright.

2. Something becomes protected by copyright as soon as it is written down, drawn or recorded in some way. There is no requirement to register a copyright but it is good practice to mark ownership using the © symbol, the owner’s name and the date of first publication

3. The author of the work is the ‘first owner’ of copyright, unless the work is produced during the course of employment, in which case the first owner is normally the employer. Copyright in freelance or commissioned work belongs to the author, unless the terms of a contract specify otherwise.

4. As author, you can ‘license’ or sell (‘assign’) some or all of your copyright. A license my stipulate territory, media, duration etc, and whether on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis, and it should be in writing but doesn’t have to be (unless exclusive)…. but you remain the copyright owner. An assignment must be in writing and means that, apart from moral rights to be identified as the author and to control changes to the work, you no longer have any rights or claim on the copyright as it has a new owner.

5. Even if it is readily available, to make use of someone else’s copyright work or performance you must have permission (and may have to pay a license fee) unless your use is one of a limited set of exceptions such as those concerning fair dealing. You ask for permission by contacting the author or performer or an organisation that looks after permissions on their behalf.

6. Copyright in most kinds of work lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. After this time work becomes freely available.

This highway code is itself copyright the British Copyright Council, but I’m allowed to reproduce it without alteration.

As can be seen in this highway code, my work as a photographer falls under the protection of the copyright laws, and as such anyone wishing to use my photographs must ask my permission first, will usually need to agree a fee to pay me, and agree to the terms of a license.

Clearly, the details of the copyright highway code as described above refers to the law as it is in the UK and it does not purport to offer any legal advice.

Many other countries have very similar laws protecting copyright.

For further information on the British Copyright Council and on this copyright highway code click on the link below:

Go to the British Copyright Council



Springtime photography

Getting to grips with the blooming new life

At last the cold, dark winter days are past, and things are definitely improving quite rapidly. I can actually get up in the mornings now, which is always a sure sign that spring has arrived, aided by the wonderful songs of the robins competing for space in my back garden.

With all the new activity and lengthening daylight hours there are fewer and fewer excuses for not getting the camera out, dusted off and charged up. There is just so much stuff waiting to be photographed, I hardly know where to start.

The River Dart flowing through the Dart Valley Woods, near Dartmeet, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, Great Britain.


There are plenty of views that work all year round, views such as the dawn or dusk on the coasts and across the moors, surf rolling across rocks, moorland and woodland streams splashing downhill over and around boulders. All good stuff at any time of year. My tip when photographing moving water is to put the camera on a tripod and slow the shutter speed right down. The resultant blur in the water really puts over the sense of movement.

As we come further into spring, the difference now is that – having just past the spring equinox – the sun is rising and setting further and further to the north, changing the lighting angles at different times of day, and allowing sunlight onto those awkward north-facing subjects, at least early and late in the day.

Bedruthan Steps, near Newquay, Cornwall, Great Britain.


At the end of March and into early April these are still looking a little wintery, but that won’t last a whole lot longer. By late May the trees will have leafed out – even on Dartmoor – putting a magnificent cloak of irridescent green across our landscapes. This is a time for some great woodland photography, both landscape views and leafy details (the latter particularly when the sun is backlighting the leaves) greatly showing off this new life.

Until then, concentrate on the woodland floor, and plethora of flowers that will be taking advantage of the early spring light, before the woodland canopy closes over. Slowly drawing to a close now are the wild daffodils and wood anemones. When photographing either of these these (or indeed any ground-level flower), don’t just stand over them and photograph from the upon-high human perspective: get down low and intimate with the flowers, to really home in on their beauty and detail. You might get wet knees or a soggy bum, but you’ll have images that really capture the flowers’ loveliness.

Bluebells in flower at the base of a young beech tree in woodland, near Teignmouth, Devon, Great Britain.

In a few weeks’ time bluebells will carpet many of our woodland floors, a hazy layer of blue-cum-violet mixed in with the vibrant greens. Again, get down low to get a flower’s ‘eye-view’ of their world and shoot across the tops of the flowers. You may want to use a telephoto view in order to crowd the flowers together in the final image. Although this results in a narrower view of the woodland, it enhances the sense of a dense carpet of flowers. Use a wide view and you’ll see a lot more of the woodland in the image, but the bluebells will appear to be much more spread out and fewer in number, losing the sense of a dense blue carpet.

The back garden

Finally, never forget your own back garden. Not only are those robins singing like crazy, but they and a host of other birds are getting quite frantic with feeding, territory, courtship and nest-building. The activity in the garden can be quite amazing, particularly if you have bird-feeders set up, and many of the birds will be so busy they’ll hardly notice your presence, provided you sit still and quiet. Having the camera at the ready on these occasions can result in some great, surprisingly intimate shots of all this spring activity.

These are just some ideas for all the nature photography you could be doing in the coming weeks. So, get that camera going, get your walking shoes on, and get out to enjoy the spring weather and nature’s new life!

Long-tailed tit, Bishopsteignton, Teignmouth, Devon, Great Britain.

Wild Southwest

The images in this blog are part of Nigel Hicks’s Wild Southwest project, a book about the landscapes and wildlife of southwest England.

You can find out more about Wild Southwest  by clicking here…>

Published by Aquaterra Publishing, Wild Southwest is priced £14.99, and is available from all bookshops in the southwest. Online it can be bought from Amazon and at

What to look for in a photography tour

There are lots of professional photographers out there – including me – offering some great photography tours to the keen enthusiast, promising to lead the way to some pretty exotic and sometimes remote destinations. So I thought I’d put together a few words on what I – as a tour provider – think the ingredients are for a successful photography tour. After all, they’re not cheap, and so anyone considering signing up for one wants to be sure that their money is going to be well spent.

Fjord and mountain scenery around Berserkjahraun lava field, near Stykkisholmur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

Looking for the right ingredients

Naturally, different types of tours will appeal to different types of photography enthusiasts, but here are a couple of things to bear in mind with any tour:

  • Select the right subject matter. Make sure that the tour(s) you’re looking at cover(s) the subject matter that’s of interest to you. It’s no good signing up for a tour that will concentrate on photography of people if it’s landscapes that you’re into.
  • Get the right destination. Ensure that the offered destination(s) are right for you, whether that means the climate, the food or the general environment. This is important not just for your interest as a photographer but also for any health issues you might have.
  • Get the travelling right. Is there the right balance between time spent travelling from place to place and time spent photographing? You really don’t want to spend hours travelling in a minibus, or indeed hiking over rough terrain, to get to a photo location and then be told that you’ve only got 10 minutes there. Travel times should be relatively short and not arduous, allowing plenty of time and energy for photography.
  • Check the time of year. Has the tour been arranged to happen at the right time of year? You don’t really want to visit a tropical country at the height of the rainy season, for example, or go photographing wildlife when the animals have all migrated away.
  • Is the accommodation all right? This is a pretty difficult one to be sure of until you’ve done the tour, even for those arranging the trips, but do your best in advance to check that the accommodation being offered is of the standard you’d like.
  • Is the photographer/group leader up to the task? I’ve saved this one for last, but for a photography tour it’s obviously of huge importance. If the photography tour includes photography tuition then is the leader sufficiently knowledgeable about photographic techniques to be able to teach? And more than this, is he/she able to give leadership, companionship and encouragement in unfamiliar environments in a foreign country? This issue goes well beyond their ability to take photographs and/or teach photography, but is about their people skills.

Northern Lights over Kirkjufell, near Grundarfjordur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

What I offer on my tours

My two 2017 photography tours to Ladakh (Tibetan India) and Iceland have both been put together with all the above points closely in mind. Here are a few pointers to my thought processes in designing both tours:

Ladakh; 1-11 July 2017

  • Subject matter. This tour is a very varied mix of both landscape and cultural/people photography, covering both the rugged Himalayan landscapes and the unique Buddhist culture of the region’s Tibetan peoples. There may also be some wildlife photography, but that is likely to be a secondary feature of the tour.
  • Time of year. Although most of India will be deluged with heavy rain during July, Ladakh is shut off from this by the Himalayas, ensuring clear, dry weather, and hence maximising photographic opportunities.
  • Local travelling. Although overnight stops will often be several hours’ drive apart, there will be plenty of photography stops along the way, each with more or less open-ended amounts of time to shoot. There will be little or no hiking between sites – a vehicle will be used at all times, at least in part due to the high altitude that will make walking quite tiring.
  • Accommodation. Hotels are quite thinly spread in Ladakh, but what there is are largely of a high standard. Everywhere we stay will be 3-4 stars on an international scale, so comfort will be assured.

To find out more about the Ladakh tour click here.

Changla Pass, Ladakh, India.

Iceland; 21-26 Sept 2017

  • Subject matter. This will be largely about the rugged volcanic landscapes of the west coast of Iceland, including some dramatic lava fields, coastal cliffs and the Snaefellsjokull volcanic ice-cap, as well as numerous waterfalls and lakes. The Northern Lights will also be a significant feature, assuming that we have clear night skies and some activity. There will also be architectural photography around some of the stunning buildings in Reykjavik.
  • Time of year. I’ve opted to run the tour during the autumn, around the Equinox, largely to ensure a reasonable chance of seeing the Northern Lights while at the same time not risking really cold or extreme weather. The downside of this time of year is that we won’t see a great deal of wildlife, the huge flocks of breeding seabirds that nest on Iceland’s coast in the summer having already departed by this time.
  • Local travelling. Iceland’s main roads are very good, helping to keep travel times down. In this year’s tour I’ve opted to spend most of our time concentrating on photography in the Snaefellsnes peninsula, ensuring that distances between photo locations are really quite short.
  • Accommodation. Hotels in Iceland are generally rather expensive, making Icelandic tours quite costly. However, I always want to make sure that everyone is comfortable, so we don’t skimp on quality in order to save a few Pounds. Hotels are generally of at least 3-star quality even in the remotest areas.

To find out more about the Iceland tour click here.

Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss Falls, seen in early morning, near Grundarfjordur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

About me as a tutor and leader

Obviously, the question about me as a tutor and leader applies to both tours, so I’ve left this part to last.

I have been working as a professional photographer for over 25 years, I am a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), the highest qualification in one of the UK’s leading professional photography bodies, and I shoot for the USA’s prestigious National Geographic Creative. So, I’m hoping that these qualifications confirm me as a very skilful and knowledgeable photographer.

In terms of my ability to teach photography, I have been running my own photography workshops for over 10 years and overseas tours for about five years. So I believe I’ve learned what it is that most photography enthusiasts struggle with or want to improve in their photography, and have worked out a number of successful ways to put over a wide variety of techniques and skills. Although during my one-day workshops the tuition I deliver is by necessity quite intensive, during the tours I tend to take things more slowly and drip-feed information, giving everyone in my group time and space to simply enjoy their photography while at the same time learning.

As for my ability to lead a group in overseas locations, I’ve worked in a huge range of environments – some of them quite hostile – in a large number of countries, and have spent plenty of time interacting with a wide variety of people in those countries. As a result, I’m comfortable working in a great many places, and so am able to help those in my groups feel at ease and confident in unfamiliar environments.

A final word

A photography tour overseas is a fantastic way for a photography enthusiast to get to practise and enjoy their photography away from home, provided of course they choose the right tour for them.

Needless to say, I’d love to hear from anyone that feels my tours are just what they’re looking for. I believe I offer some great photography in fantastic locations, with plenty of expert guidance and tuition, all for a reasonable cost.

To see galleries of my photography go to

To see specifically our photography tours section click here.


Getting the most out of winter coastal photography

Though it’s true that you need to be a little hardy to do it, the winter months can be one of the best times to photograph Devon’s coasts. Not only are they much less crowded than in the summer, but the low sun (when you can see it at all), gives great lighting angles and a rich golden hue. What’s more, frequent storms ensure that the sea is constantly in a rolling, roaring state, which – along with some ragged, wind-blown clouds – lend an appropriately wild and rugged feel to the scene and your final images.

Using the winter light

All too often in winter there simply isn’t any worthwhile light to use. I wouldn’t recommend coastal photography on one of those flat, lifeless days when the sky is a uniform, almost smooth grey sheet. Grey sky, grey cliffs, grey beach and grey water generally aren’t a good look! Strangely enough, even the opposite extreme can be problematic – a completely clear blue sky can in itself make for some surprisingly monotonous landscape photos. But definitely much better than the flat grey days!

Sunset view on the beach at Rockham Bay, nr Morte, nr Woolacombe, Devon, Great Britain.

The best kind of winter light, for landscape photography at least, is what follows a storm. The wind is still strong, but not too strong, the clouds are stormy, but broken and ragged, allowing plenty of sunshine through, and together they provide the suitable rugged, wintery conditions that go so well in coastal photography. This does mean risking the occasional shower, but the reward is the potential for some wonderful rainbows, the icing on the cake for some excellent coastal scenes.

Particularly if you’re photographing cliffs, it is generally easier to shoot when the sun is out over the sea, illuminating the cliffs with its golden light. If you photograph when the sun is over the land, the cliffs are likely to be in shadow, which is not always a great look. So, if you’re on Devon’s south coast that usually means shooting in the morning, reverting to the north coast for the afternoon. If you’re photographing a beach or dunes, this is less of an issue, of course, but it’s still worth bearing in mind.

A quick word on filters

A keen photographer will want to know about neutral density graduated filters, mercifully shortened usually to ND grads. These are a rectangular filter, with one half completely clear and the other darkened. Placed in front of the lens it allows you to darken an area of the scene that is much brighter than the rest. It’s a common problem in landscape photography, usually due to the sky being much brighter than the land or seascape. In coastal photography, the sea will always be much darker than the sky, and although it’s no problem for the human eye, it can be for a camera sensor, frequently exposing the sea correctly, but leaving parts of the sky too pale or even burned out. An ND grad filter will fix that problem. On top of that it can also make an already dramatic scene look even more so in the final pictures, darkening clouds and making them appear really threatening and stormy. It is one technique commonly used to enhance the mood in a coastal photo, helping to compensate for the loss of the three dimensions and all that wind, noise and spray that help create mood in real life.

When light levels are low

You don’t have to shoot only when the sun is above the horizon. Before sunrise and after sunset can be fantastic times to get really moody images. You will need to put the camera on a tripod (and it will need to be a fairly sturdy one to avoid vibration in the wind) because exposure times will be long, but the rewards will be great.

A slow shutter speed will of course blur the movement of the water, enhancing the sense of energy and movement in the final photos. The exact kind of effect will depend on just how long your exposure time is: something of about 1/8 to 1/15 of a second will blur rolling waves and flying spray to give the appearance of shards of flying glass, creating images with a very agitated, fast-moving, energetic mood.

With an exposure time of anything over, say, five seconds, the sea will completely blur out into a lovely silky smooth finish, all sense of the waves lost, the sea topped instead by what appears to be mist, wrapping itself around rocks like some ethereal gossamer blanket. Quite surreal and perhaps not terribly realistic, but highly atmospheric nonetheless.

The former exposure time is the type you might get on a very dull day or just before sunset, while the latter is what you can expect to achieve before sunrise or after sunset but while there is still some daylight.

This is the one technique that can lead to great photos even on one of those flat dull grey days. By homing in on the waves crashing over rocks and having little, if any, sky visible in the frame, you can use long exposures to produce fantastic shots of the water swirling around and flying across the rocks.

A word on safety

The coast is never a wholly safe place, especially in winter. Coast paths can be slippery, the waves (particularly following a storm) powerful and not always predictable. Take huge amounts of care. Check tide times before you head out, and use them to your advantage and to keep you safe. Avoid clifftops and shoreline rocks at the height of a storm – no photo is worth your life, no matter how stunning it is.

After any coastal photo shoot, and esecially if it has been windy, your gear will probably be caked in a layer of salt. So wipe off your camera and lens bodies as soon as you can. Lens faces and filters can be tricky to clean as the salty water just smears as soon as you try to wipe it. Careful use of warm soapy water will shift it. Wash off your tripod to get salt and grit/sand out of the joints and locking nuts.

Ready for the winter coastal photography challenge? Get shooting!!

Wild Southwest, a new book

The photographs used to illustrate this blog all appear in Nigel’s latest book, Wild Southwest, about the landscapes and wildlife of southwest England, published in October.

You can find out more about Nigel’s Wild Southwest, and buy online at and at

Wild Southwest is also available at all Waterstones and many WH Smith stores in the southwest, and online at Amazon.