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3 rules for better portrait photography (and when to break them)

9 Feb

Portrait photography tips

Last weekend I headed north with a group of friends to explore the Scottish Borders. We might not have experienced weather as relentless as that which has been battering Bethan down in Somerset, but we had our fair share of extreme precipitation! I was hoping I might be able to share some dramatic landscape photos with you, but as the snow closed in we were struggling to see more than a couple of meters in front of us it became quickly apparent that it wouldn’t be a weekend of magnificent vistas!

Portrait photography tips

Photography is all about capturing light, and sometimes to get the best out of a session you need to adapt to the conditions you are presented with. Often it’s bright sunshine which makes for a dramatic picture with shadows creating texture and definition, but when you’re taking pictures of people it can create shadows on the face which can be unflattering. So when you’re faced with overcast weather, it’s a great opportunity to look for people to use as your subjects as the clouds will effectively act as an oversized light diffuser. On Saturday we battled through eye-stinging blizzards to return back to base and I thought it worthy of taking my camera out to grab a few snaps.

Portrait photography tips

Rules to follow:

  • Get closer: the mantra of “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is certainly one which is overused in photography, but it does have its merit when capturing photos of people. Getting closer to the subject will also increase background blur which pulls the focus of the image to the subject.
  • Use the right lens: The difficulty with getting close is that you will need a lens with a longer focal length. If you are buying a lens for an SLR camera then this is one with a larger mm number. Compact cameras will normally boast a wide angle lens which is great for taking expansive panoramas, but will give close up photos a “fish-eye” effect which you want to avoid when taking portraits. This doesn’t mean shelling a lot of money. I bought a manual focusing 50mm lens for my Nikon for under £85.
  • Spot Focus: if you set your camera to portrait mode it will probably do this for you, if not change your camera from area auto focus to spot focus. This will allow you to focus on the eyes of your subject using a single point (usually the centre) of you camera. Left on auto mode, your camera will usually focus on the nearest point: the nose!

Portrait photography tips

Rules to break!

Sometimes if you want your photos to stand out, you need to do something a little differently. A perfect, smiling portrait shot might be perfect for a school photo or holiday album, but in my opinion a great portrait is one that captures the essence of the subject or situation.

  • Portraits don’t have to be portrait: this might seem a controversial tip, but there’s no reason to take a portrait photograph in portrait orientation. The pictures here were taken in portrait before I cropped them into a square, or experiment with landscape images with the subject off-centre.
  • Get even closer: To take this a step further, get so close that you crop the top and/or bottom of the face. This will really focus in on the eyes and can make for an intriguing composition.
  • Stop smiling: It’s almost an in-built instinct to smile when a camera is pointed at you, and there’s nothing wrong with this. However, you can add some intrigue to a photo if your subject relaxes their face and mouth to a neutral position.

scotland photography

{all photographs by Joe John for Decorator’s Notebook}

Off to the Lakes: Joe’s fell-walker’s kit list

23 Oct


The transition between seasons never seems quite so stark as it does between summer and autumn. As we creep past mid-October it seems that in just a matter of days the leaves have turned and it’s time to light the fire in the evenings. It won’t be long before we’re waking up in the dark. For me though, nothing is more symbolic of autumn than the annual family excursion to the Lake District.

In recent years, Bethan and I have reignited a family holiday from the days where we had to be coaxed up Scafell Pike with the promise of a Mars bar (now it’s a pint in the pub)! In preparation, I’ve put together my hiking kit list (ok, wish list) to set the mood for our Lakeland adventure.

numbered Fell walker's kit list Decorator's Notebook

1) A good rucksack is an essential for your day-long fell walk but, let’s face it, Gore-tex doesn’t score well in the style stakes. This Cherchbi tweed pack is made from the wool of the often seen (and always smiling) Herdwick sheep, making it a far more appropriate choice.

2) A Thermos flask is vital to warm the cockles on those cold autumn mountain tops, but if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try investing in a Kelly Kettle. This ingenious device consists of an outer metallic water jacket which acts as a chimney for a small fire which is lit at the base. Because the water is spread so thinly around the fire it can boil enough for several mugs of tea in a few minutes using nothing more than a handful of dry twigs.

numbered Hiker's kit list Decorator's Notebook

3) All packed up, but where to go? You can’t beat a great walk as mapped out by the legend that is Alfred Wainwright who wrote a definitive 7 volume guide to the 214 fells of the Lake District. Such a Lakeland hero is he that he even has pubs named after him and a (less impressive!) MBE.

4) Walking will keep you warm but you’ll need some fuel to keep you going. Before setting out on one of our walks, I’ll always grab a bar of Kendal Mint Cake. Nothing tastes of the Lakes quite like a minty bar of solid sugar… apart from maybe some delicious Grasmere Gingerbread. The recipe’s secret but Jamie reckons he’s sussed it.

5) A whole week of walking is enough of a treat for Lottie, the faithful family hound, but if she’s really lucky maybe she’ll get something tasty from our friends at Houndsworthy too.

numbered collage walking essentials Decorator's Notebook

6) Serious walking types say to pack light, but I can always find room for my trusty DSLR camera. I’m not usually one for scenic photos but when I’m at the top of the mountain even I can’t resist a panorama! Windows Live Photo Gallery makes it easy to stitch photos together.

7) We’ve encountered everything from glorious sunshine to sleet, fog and snow in the Lakes in October. Be prepared: bring a hat.

8) If we’re lucky enough to get a bit of sun, there’s nothing like a hilltop picnic halfway through our walk to get us through to the end. And if we’re not so lucky, we could always use this rug as a blanket to huddle under!

9) Ahhhhhhhhh, home sweet home. Our honoury local for the week is the cosy Britannia Inn in Elterwater. Roaring fires, Herdwick lamb pie and a pint of Bluebird will most certainly be on the cards.

Want to come too? Follow DecoratorsNotes on Instagram to keep up with us while we’re away.

On the Road: St Davids, Pembrokeshire

31 Jul

At Decorator’s Notebook we love visiting new places and we’ll be sharing our travel stories with you. But to kick off our ‘On the Road’ series we’re starting with an old favourite.

Every summer of our childhood, Bethan and I would go on family holidays to St Davids in Wales. We’d stay on the campsite that our Mum had gone to with her parents when she was a girl, overlooking Ramsey Island and the Celtic Sea.

DSC_25872 (700x460)Last week I got a chance to return to St Davids for the first time in nine years and had a fantastic week revisiting all of our old haunts in the glorious July sunshine.


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picmonkey-collage-700x700Going back to such a familiar place, I felt bound by our old annual traditions. Fig rolls on the beach,  crabbing from the lifeboat station, welsh cakes with a cup of tea and fishing from St John’s Point. Trying my hardest to stick with tradition, I did my best to lose as much tackle as possible without catching any fish, a feat which I’m glad to say was achieved!

DSC_2466 Stitch (700x271)DSC_2418 (467x700)Not for the faint-hearted (particularly with some of the lowest tides of the year), we also found time to visit the Blue Lagoon at Abereiddy. Though we didn’t quite match the efforts of the Red Bull cliff divers, it was certainly high enough to get the heart racing and the legs wobbling!

2{all Decorator’s Notebook}

What better way to calm the nerves than a trip up the hill behind the campsite to watch the beautiful sunset accompanied by a glass of something warming. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another nine years before my next visit.

5 ways to make your holiday photos more creative

16 May

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I’ve just got back from a week away in Moscow and Bethan asked if I’d share some tips for getting more out of photographing new places. Next time you’re on holiday, try out these simple tricks to break the habit of seeking out the classic postcard shot and come home with something a little more more exciting on your memory card!


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I’m a big fan of setting myself photo projects as it helps to focus my mind and hone my eyes as I explore unfamiliar places. A theme can be anything from trying to get as many pictures of one thing, like street vendors or transport hubs, or concentrating on the medium of your photography like black and white, tilt-shift ‘miniatures’ or shooting on film. This Photography Monthly article has some great ideas.

For my trip I thought about what Moscow meant to me. Having been previously, I was aware that whilst Russia has become a very different place over the last 30 years, the footprint of the Soviet regime in Moscow remains overwhelmingly apparent. I wanted to try and capture the city with in a way that would reflect photography from that era, so bought myself a plastic Holga lens to fit onto my DSLR for about £15. Effectively a pinhole lens, it’s small and lightweight and great fun to attempt to use.


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The Robert Capa quote: “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” has become a bit of a cliché in photography, but it’s something we can all learn from. I prefer the notion of zooming with my feet and only took a lightweight prime lens alongside my plastic Holga. Using your body to move your camera, forces you into new and dynamic positions and gives a fresh new perspective on the well-known sights. Standing in the middle of Red Square I could see hundreds of people with their cameras trained directly at St Basil’s looking for that famous picture above. My view is that if you want a postcard photo, then buy a postcard! Instead I captured something different by getting down on the ground and looking for interesting people or objects in the crowd which other people might discard as in the way.


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Thinking about photography every minute is hard, especially when you’re on holiday. I find that having my camera in your hand, rather than around my neck can make a big difference. Just loop the neck strap around your wrist and you’ve got your camera at hand for all of those blink-and-you’ll-miss moments. This also has the advantage of making you look less like a tourist, which can be less intimidating for local inhabitants.


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It’s so easy when walking from one destination to another to stride forward and never look back. In short, you’re missing 50% of everything there is to see!


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This is probably the hardest one and can be even harder somewhere like Russia where smiling often rouses suspicion! But I think the best photos you can get when travelling are of people rather than things. Unlike a monument which is photographed hundreds of times a day, photographs of people are both rarer and more interesting.

It’s essential to be culturally aware of local customs and always best to ask permission, but no photograph will capture the feeling of a place quite like one of someone who lives there. A good tactic I picked up in Bali is to speak to people who are selling things, close the deal, then casually ask for a photo before you leave. If you negotiate a price that’s good for them, you might get a priceless smile for your extra pound!

DSCF0247 (738x750){all Decorator’s Notebook}

Print any photo as a polaroid: free template!

25 Apr

When my brother Joe came up with this simple method for turning some favourite digital snaps into perfect Polaroids for the backdrop of our Showcase stand, I knew you’d love to get your hands on the template. So, I’ve invited him to do his first guest post here and share the DIY – over to you bro!

Print any digital photo as a polaroid free template from Decorators Notebook blog

Hi, Joe here!

If you love Polaroid format pictures as much as I do, you’ve generally got two options: buy a bargain Polaroid camera then shed tears over the cost of the film, or shell out almost as much on send-away Instagram printing.

Now, I print my DSLR photographs for the princely sum of 10p each at my local Asda, so the above options just didn’t add up for me. So instead, I decided to have a go at designing a Photoshop template that meant I could print any digital photo I liked as a Polaroid – and it worked!

Print any digital photo as a polaroid free template from Decorators Notebook blog

Turn any digital photo into a Polaroid print

Your photos as jpegs

Photoshop (or if you want almost the same thing for free, I recommend GNU GIMP)


1. Download my free Polaroid template PNG image and open in Photoshop or GIMP
2. Drag in your photograph as a layer* and re-order the layers so your photo is behind the Polaroid template
3. Select your photograph layer and use the re-size and move tools so that the desired section of the image appears in the square portion of the Polaroid template. It’s likely that your photo will be huge compared to the template, but just shrink it down to size**
4. Save or export image as a JPEG
5. Put the pictures on a memory stick and take to your local photo processing place or use your home printer
6. Use a guillotine or craft knife to trim the bottom white portion from the photo, leaving a thicker border at the base than the sides

*Need help with layers? Watch this YouTube video for Photoshop or this one for GIMP.

**The template size is 12×8 inches which will automatically be scaled down to 6×4″ by the photo processor but allows the file to be a higher resolution to start with. If you chose to print it in a different ratio, the Polaroid image will no longer be square.

I really hope you like it – I’ll be on hand in the comments section to answer any questions!

– Joe

If you found my post useful, please share it! Buttons below…

Print any digital photo as a polaroid free template from Decorators Notebook blog

{Photographs, tutorial and template © Decorator’s Notebook}

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