Improve your holiday snaps

8 top tips to improve your photos this summer

Summer time is here again! That time of year when some of us are loking forward to heading somewhere with guaranteed sunshine, whilst the rest of us are hoping and praying that our Northern Irish summer will at least give us half a day of dry weather for a quick scoot out to the beach!

But whether it's vacation or staycation time, no doubt the cameras will be out in force to record our trips. But what if you're interested in taking more than the pool side selfie - or that picture of your dinner with #ramoretime underneath it? Whether you're headed somewhere new or revisiting well known locations, you may well want to try to capture something of the beauty of the scenery around you.

In this blog, I'm going to share a few tips about composition that might just help open your eyes a bit more - and help you capture a photo or two that you'll be really proud of when you get home!

1. Stop, look and notice before you take any photo

My favourite quotation about landscape photography is this:

A snapshot says, ‘This is what you would have seen if you had been with me’. A photograph says, ‘This is what you wouldn’t have noticed, even if you were standing right beside me.’
— Anonymous

I like that mostly because it encapsulates the essence of all great photography: the vision behind the shot. What sets apart a photo that really makes an impact from all the others is in large part the care and precision that goes into selecting and arranging the elements in the shot.

It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time.
— Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

So, when you come to a location that you want to try to capture, stop. Look around carefully. How does the view make you feel? What catches your eye? What subject elements do you want to include? What do you want to leave out? Vision comes first.

In the first instance, photography is about selecting - choosing elements to include, arranging them in an aethetically pleasing way - and deselecting - removing the non-essential elements.

The work of most photographer would be imporved immesnely if they could do one thing: remove the extraneous.
— William Albert Allard

Take a moment to study the view - and live deeply in that moment before you take your shot.

Okay, so you’re stopping and looking at the scene. But what are you looking for? Thankfully, there are a few ‘rules’ of photography that can help you. Once you start noticing these, you’ll begin to notice them in photos taken by serious landscape photographers - and you’ll begin to notice them in the landscapes in front of you too!

2. Use the 'rule of thirds' to help assemble the main subject matter and elements of your shot.

Imagine a grid dividing your image into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Try placing your main subject matter on the intersections of these grid lines. Try not to have your horizon line in the middle of the shot, but along these lines. This works as it creates a dynamic in the shot, making your eye move around the image, rather than staying statically in the middle.

Notice the placement of the elements here: I'm standing on the bottom left intersection of the grid, and the summits are towards the top right intersection. Often, if you can find counterpoints like these, they will help the composition of your image.

3. Look for leading lines to guide the eye around the shot.

Another way of helping the eye move around is to look for leading lines. Are there ways you can help guide the viewer around the image? Often, diagonal lines leading in from the edge of the image can be very good for that.

The leading line of the rock in the foreground guides the eye from the bottom left of the image around, out of the foreground, and towards the cliffs of the Giant’s Causeway behind, producing a big ‘S’ curve sweep through the image.

4. Find something of foreground interest to include in your shot

This is often one of the best ways of setting your image apart. Okay, so we all see that massive mountain in the distance. But what about this boulder right beside me? Can I incorporate it into my image? One thing with foregrounds though, be careful not to let them get too messy. Try to tweak your composition just right to allow you to include those elements you really intend to include and to remove clutter as much as you can.

I was attempting to create a sense of depth in this image by not only including the great light over the background mountains and mid-ground hill, but also the foreground boulder. I had to work hard to find a composition for the foreground that wasn’t too cluttered!

5. Pay careful attention to the corners and edges of your shot

Linked to tip 4 is the corners and edges of images. If you have lines leading in from the corners, try to arrange your composition to have the lines coming right in from the corners. Also, if there are boulders at the edges, try not to have them cut off by the edge of your shot.

Anyone who has been up the summit of Glyder Fach in Snowdonia will know how many shards of rock there are there. When I was going for my own take on this classic shot, I was trying to pay as much attention to the composition of the corners and edges as possible, to try to get it as clean and uncluttered as I could.

6. Get low - and move around

We all see the world from head height. If you take your photos from head height, then they will look like how we see things around us. But what if you crouch down? All of a sudden, you’ve got a different point of view to the normal - and that might help make your photo stand out just that little bit more. And, while you’re down there paying careful attention to all the elements in the tips above, move a little: left, right; up, down. Those few inches of movement can often be the difference between getting all your elements lined up just perfectly and a shot that just doesn’t quite work as well.

Clearly, there was some great light flooding the valleys in the distance, but I wanted to try to give some sense of scale and place for where I was standing by including the foreground rock. I had to get down low and move nudge a bit left and right until I got it into the shape I was after - to create a leading line into that amazing background.

Clearly, there was some great light flooding the valleys in the distance, but I wanted to try to give some sense of scale and place for where I was standing by including the foreground rock. I had to get down low and move nudge a bit left and right until I got it into the shape I was after - to create a leading line into that amazing background.

7. Seek out originality

If you're away off somewhere on holiday - or even if you're staying at home - you'll no doubt be visiting some of the famous touristy locations. And you will probably have seen hundreds of photos from there that all look ... somewhat similar! It's the classic shot to take. Now, it's a classic shot for a reason - it has been proven to work.

And when you're there, take that classic shot too. Other may have taken it, but you haven't. Go on and add it to your collection.

But, then, pause again and have another look around. Can you see a take on the location that hasn't quite been done before? If photography is about vision before it's about anything else, can you bring something of your unique vision to the spot you're in? Can you take a photo from an angle not quite seen before? Maybe not - maybe there really in only one way to take a photo from that location. But, you know what, I really doubt that! Why not have a go at putting your stamp on the place!

I have taken the 'classic view' of the Giant's Causeway more times than I care to remember - as have probably hundreds of thousands of other photographers over the years. But, if you look hard enough, there's always a fresh take to be discovered. Happy hunting!

8. Break the rules too!

Having said all of that, of course, please feel free to break each and every one of those 'rules'. There is no such thing as rules in photography. What they really are is an attempt to reverse engineer. They have been seen to have worked before in photos that are captivating, and observant folks have tried to figure out what works about those photos and have drawn out principles from them.

But photography is not formulaic. So, let me finish back where I started: before you take a photo, stop and slow down. What moves you about this view? What emotions does it stir? Then use the above principles to guide you in the creative choices you make. But, ultimately, a photograph is not an exam answer that will be marked against a mark scheme of the photo rules. If they work to help improve your composition, great - use them. If not - break them!

A technically perfect photograph can be the world’s most boring picture.
— Andreas Feininger

What feels right and best to you? What gives the most impact?

I thought this image would work better if I put the silhouette of the ruins of Dunluce Castle front and centre. The Castle acts as a magnet - your eye starts here, but then is drawn out to the colours of the sky, before being drawn back in again to the castle. In that way, a dynamic is created in the image, without the need to put Dunluce to the side (I thought the image may have been a bit imbalanced then).

Enjoy your trips this summer, wherever they take you. And good luck with seeing the world with photographer’s eyes!

In my next blog, I'm going to take one of these images and analyse it in more detail, pulling back the curtain a bit to let you see what exactly I was hoping to achieve.