Thursday, February 11, 2021


Today I will discuss the importance of background in photography composition illustrated with some examples of mine.

Part of a larger series covering elements of composition in photography for which you’ll find links at the end of this article.

I taught myself photography in quite a specific order, I navigated / progressed through various urban photography genres:

Graffiti Photography > Urban Landscape Photography > Street Photography

It’s the reason I realised early how important an image’s background really is, allow me to explain:

I took-up photography as I used to have an obsession with graffiti, around 2006. I was like a trainspotter but instead of obsessively shooting trains, I’d hunt for new graffiti art around London which would be cleaned or gone just as fast as that elusive locomotive.

I had to find them.

After exclusively shooting graffiti up-close, photography itself became my passion. I realised I loved graffiti because of how it sat within its surroundings and its environment.

I therefore decided to improve my photography by taking a step back in order for the graffiti to only represent a part of the photo. It felt more relevant and logical.

Clouds can make for interesting backgrounds.

I did this for a while and naturally began searching for other types of effective backgrounds, not just graffiti (or skies), for my urban photography such as the lines of shop roller shutters, colourful walls and other textures such as concrete omnipresent in urban settings.

My passion had shifted from graffiti to photography.

How many of you can relate to that? You begin by shooting what you love: graffiti, cars, babies, flowers, insects… and before you know it you are a photographer specialising in that very niche.

The third stage of my photographic development was when I eventually realised that I needed life in my shots to reflect the buzz of the city and so in came people, walking through my pre-composed frames.

Using these ingredients I now had an urban / street photography recipe I was happy with.

Talking of ingredients and recipes, and in fact there are many similarities between cooking food and photography. You mix the right ingredients which you arrange within a composition, in photography it’s the frame, in cookery it’s the plate.

But back to photography…

Focus on a strong background whenever possible and add life or wait for it to present itself, but almost in such a way that the background and what appears to be the subject are equally as important, they balance each other.

Let’s look at some more examples showing the importance of background in photography composition, how they should balance other elements of a photo and their impact on the shot:

In the photo below of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the building still visible in the background is balanced with the light trails from a double-decker bus which also act as leading lines guiding the viewer’s eye towards the landmark.

In the next image we have in the background a modern building, The Gherkin, contrasted with a more traditional building in the foreground both in terms of texture and lines. Contrasts between background and foreground are effective composition techniques.

In this photo, taken on the London underground, the background / the character in the middle only represents a minuscule portion of the shot and yet they are key, without it the photo would have absolutely no reason to exist.

I like to call it “Underground Renaissance”.

Whereas in this photo below, the background is the main part of the shot with in the foreground only the unrecognisable ghostly figure of a commuter which clearly has freaked out Pharrell Williams, here in the advert.

It is a form of juxtaposition in street photography, something often sought after by street photographers.

In these two colourful images, I deliberately went for a minimal look, making full use of negative space. I thought these gloriously colourful walls made for a beautifully simple, stripped-down photograph which could be perfect as a framed photo print for an urban interior.

There are many ways to use the right backgrounds your advantage.

Using a wide aperture (low f. number) while focusing on your subject at the front will create a background blur from the shallow depth of field. This blurred background is usually a lot less busy than if it’d been left sharp, it helps the subject you are shooting stand out better. Works great for example with people portraits, animal portraits and botanical photography.


Select your background first, frame your shot, maybe from a lower angle or straight on and wait for someone to enter the frame you carefully composed… take that shot. You can either freeze their movement like in the colourful pink shot above or decide to deliberately capture motion with a slightly slower shutter speed such as in this example:

Practise this many times and you’ll end up with some strong images.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


                                                                                                           Catchlights are the lights reflected in a subject’s eyes. I normally use strobes to capture them. Catchlights add life and sparkle, while their absence can result in dull, lifeless images. There are no hard and fast rules, and sometimes you may want dead and lifeless. It’s all about knowing what you want, why you want it and how to create it. But portraits are almost always better with catchlights.

Single vs. multiple catchlights

Regardless of the light source used, the goal remains the same: replicating what exists in nature. In nature, we have only one light source, the sun, and there’s only one. I’m not a fan a multiple catchlights. There are exceptions to this, notably in the studio with certain fashion, cosmetics and beauty lighting applications, so we’ll look at them both ways. While studio lighting is a bit more forgiving in the catchlight department, my preference is still a single catchlight created by an overhead keylight. A single catchlight is more natural looking. Multiple bright lights reflecting in a subject’s eyes screams artificial lighting.

Positioning your catchlights

Catchlights are best positioned in your subject’s eyes at either 10 or 2 o’clock, just like the ideal hand positions on a steering wheel. Use 10 and 2 as your catchlight position guideline. There’s one more position, the one you never learned in driving school but use every day: the 12 o’clock position. You want your catchlights creating crescent shapes at the tops of the eyes. So 10, 2 or 12 are the ideal positions for catchlight reflections in a subject’s eyes. As long as you stick with those three positions, you’ll be on solid ground.
Rarely do you want a catchlight in the lower portion of the eyes, under the retina. This occurs when a light source is placed below the subject’s eye line. We’re attempting to replicate what happens in nature, with light always coming from above. Lighting a subject from below creates a ghoulish effect
, but there are exceptions to every rule. When you add a second light above that acts as a dominant keylight, you get a pleasing over-and-under effect known as clamshell lighting. I cover other lighting patterns and their catchlights below. In any lighting pattern, any secondary catchlight should be subtle and subordinate to the power and appearance of the keylight.
The position of the catchlight reflected in your subject’s eyes is a direct result of the height, angle and position of the keylight in relationship to the subject. The 10, 2 and 12 catchlight positions are created using these classic lighting patterns: Paramount/clamshell light (12 o’clock) and Rembrandt/loop light (10 and 2 o’clock). If you want a catchlight at the 2 o’clock position in your subject’s eyes, move your light to the same position left or right around the circumference of your subject. The same is true for the 12 o’clock position of the catchlight created with Paramount and clamshell light—simply position your light source above your camera positioned directly in front of your subject. To control where the catchlight falls height-wise, raise and lower your keylight until the catchlight is where you want it. For me, that’s a crescent shape at the top of the eyes.

Filling in the shadows

To fill in the shadows on the side of the face opposite the keylight, you’ll need a reflector, which provides subtle fill without distracting secondary catchlights. Reflectors are incredibly flexible despite the fact that they don’t have their own power source or light modifiers. With reflectors, you use distance to control the amount of light they contribute. The closer a reflector is to the subject and keylight, the brighter the fill light. Conversely, the farther away the reflector is from the subject, the less light it contributes. You also have a range of fabrics to choose from that reflect light with different efficiency, intensity and contrast. The basic rule of thumb is white fabric for a softer, more subtle effect and silver when you need more light and contrast.
The ideal catchlight shape is a matter of personal taste and is dictated by the shape of light modifier on your keylight. There are a few modifiers that are perennial favorites based on the more natural-looking catchlight shape they create. Octabanks were invented for this very reason. Their octagonal shape creates a natural-looking reflection in contrast to that of square or rectangular softboxes. The beauty dish is another modifier favored for the circular catchlight it creates. Umbrellas are another option; they don’t provide a lot of control in the way of light spill, but they are a large round ball of light not unlike the sun. Square and rectangular softboxes can be used, but the reflections in your subject’s eyes will mirror those shapes. It’s all about individual preference.

Ring lights

Ring flash and ring lights are niche lighting tools that are in a category all their own. These lights create a signature doughnut-shaped catchlight dead center in a subject’s eyes. Stylistically, there isn’t much middle ground with ring flash and ring lights; people either love or hate the catchlights they create. I love them.
Catchlights are also useful when you’re trying to decode how an image was lit. They provide telltale clues about the lighting tools and techniques used. You can make educated guesses about what kinds of lights were used, how many were used, how they were modified, what their positions were and how far they were placed from the subject. So when you’re trying to reverse-engineer lighting you see in a magazine or on a movie poster, look to the catchlights.

Friday, February 5, 2021


I have worked my ass off building a successful business. But it hasn’t been easy. The last year has been enough to break the strongest-willed person.
So, what do you do? I am sure as you read this you can relate on some level. You have had things go wrong in your life or business. We all have. I don’t have all the answers. All I can do is share with you my lessons learned and how I have managed turmoil, adversity and negativity in my recent past.

Roll with the punches.

One thing I have come to realize is that you just have to roll with it. I don’t know, maybe it’s just experience that has led me to this conclusion, but what are you going to do? Give up? Whatever you are doing in life or business, it is going to be met with some level of friction. It’s impossible for it not to. I stress this to myself and my team constantly: “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
That’s not just some cliché line. Think about it. The people who are successful are there not because they are the best or the smartest. Many times it’s because of their sheer will to do things that others are unwilling to do.
All too often, I see entrepreneurs struggle when they hit pain or friction. The first “no” they hit, they just sort of panic and give up. You just need to tell yourself, “I got this” and roll with it.
Don’t let the negativity get you off your game. And by the way, that negativity can come from friends and family, not just “haters.” Once you start climbing your success ladder, people will become very negative and very few will truly be happy for your success. I have found that circle in life to be very small.

It’s not me, it’s you.

When adversity strikes, you have a choice to make: cower in the corner with fear and panic or strike back. My philosophy has always been: I didn’t start this, but I sure as hell am going to finish it.
We are all entrepreneurs. The challenges I am speaking of impact you whether you are building a business or a career. The corporate world is cutthroat. I know, I spent 40-plus years in it. Climbing that corporate ladder? Rest assured, there is someone trying to chop your legs out from under you. You have either felt it or experienced it. If not, then I promise you, you are not the rising star in your circle.
I believe in success for all. I don’t believe your success comes at my failure or vice versa. Not everyone feels that way. Is it jealousy? Or is it pure laziness? I believe it’s laziness. You may want success but are too damn lazy to go out there and work your ass off to get it. Many of us make excuses to make ourselves feel better. “Oh well, he got the promotion because he is a kiss-ass. I am more qualified”—I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Or, “He got the promotion because he spent more time selling himself, making sure the people in the office knew how qualified he was, and spent time networking with the key people in the office.” See my point?
Is photography really any different? I had to laugh when I was reading in a local Nottinghamshire photography forum about a photographer who was a guest at an event I was shooting. He was mocking me and my business because we were supposed to be a high-end studio, but I was wearing Chino’s at the event. How unprofessional of me. Really? That’s all you got? You are sitting home broke, your business is failing or struggling, and your thing is I am wearing Chino’s. So you are better than me because of that?
We all know what it is like to deal with the cattiness of our peers. Do not let it break your spirit. Instead, realize that this comes from a place of negativity and a refusal to accept that they are where they are in life and business because of the decisions they make. It’s not you. I promise you. It’s them.
Keep that in the back of your mind. These people are pathetic, they are jealous, they are a cancer in your life. Disconnect from them. Disconnect from these groups. Focus on what you are doing because you are doing something right.

Deal with the hand in front of you.

I have learned in both business and in life that I can’t always control what lands on my doorstep, but I can sure as hell handle how I respond. I believe in fighting fire with fire. You come at me, I am bringing the heat back at you. I will never run from a fight. I am just not wired that way. Now, that might lead you to think I like conflict or adversity.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I would much rather have peace around me. You can’t control what the people around you do. I have learned that over and over again. But you can control your own destiny. You will be dealt a hand and then have a choice to make. Fold and run or stay and play it out.
If you decide to fold and run, you are not meant to run a business and you will struggle your entire life to find success at any level. Harsh? Perhaps. Reality? Most definitely.
Success is not easy. It’s hard. It’s messy. It’s a struggle to get there and even harder to stay there. You need to learn how to fight for what you want when it gets tough. Most importantly, you need to learn when to bring some offense to the fight so you’re not always playing defense. An attack will come fast and furious at times, and you will need to take what you have been dealt and make the most of it.
Fight the fight, and, most importantly, fight to win. Let everyone around you know that you are in this to win and that if they come at you, you will push back on them even harder.

Shit happens—keep pushing forward.

On your journey through your career, you will be faced with adversity on many levels. Do not let these moments break you. It’s hard, I know. But it gets easier with every passing day. You are not alone. Everyone’s dealing with their own demons. It can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders at times, but you can do it. You can push through this. Just stay positive and surround yourself with positive people who want the same things. You will soon realize that your circle should remain tight. Keep the cancer out.
Remember: If it were easy, everyone would do it. It’s true. People are lazy. They want the fruits of success without the incredibly hard work that is required to get there. If you are one of those people who gets this and understands that success is not about luck but about working longer and harder than your peers and doing the things that no one wants to do, I am speaking to you.
Success is there for you. Work hard, and when you feel like quitting, push even harder. Pull an all-nighter. Do what you need to do to achieve your goals. When those around you are laughing at you, mocking you, telling you it can’t be done, use that as fuel. Prove them wrong. Be motivated to show them you will succeed. The ways you handle the pressure will become your defining moments. I believe in you.
And by the way, I am wearing Chino’s as I write this.


Today I will discuss the importance of background in photography composition illustrated with some examples of mine. Part of a larger series...