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Get expert photography tips

We’re sharing some advice on how to take the perfect picture, with the help of Photographers Jack Lowe and Nigel Millard.

Jack Lowe is currently in the process of visiting all 237 RNLI lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland, photographing the view from each station along with the crew and the coxswain or senior helm. 

Photographer and RNLI supporter Jack Lowe
Photographer and RNLI supporter Jack Lowe.

Jack’s tips for coastal photography

Tip one: find an emotional hook

‘When you take photos, you should endeavour to make your audience feel something – whether that’s warmth, joy, sadness or a sense of being there.

‘The most powerful photographs tell a story. You’re hit by what’s in the image and you want something that makes you engage with it on an emotional level.’

Tip two: pack lightly

'A good photographer can take a great photo with whatever they’re handed, whether it’s a phone or an expensive SLR.

‘You really don’t need a lot of fancy kit - in fact, a bagful of gear can be distracting and you risk missing the moment while you’re worrying about which lens to use.

‘If you use just one lens and one camera for a month - even if it’s just your phone -you’ll sharpen your senses and improve your eye for a good photo.’

Tip three: look for an original angle

‘Think about how you can depict the scene in front of you in a unique way. What hasn’t been done before?

‘This is one of my challenges with the Lifeboat Station Project, as photos of crews, lifeboats and stations could feel repetitive. You need variety, or it gets boring. I try to broach my subjects in a different way to keep them interesting and engaging.’

RNLI crew members from Mallaig, sitting by the harbour.

Tip four: don’t use flash

‘If your attention has been caught by a dark, moody scene, it’s because of the ambience from the dim lighting. Don’t use flash in these situations, as any new light you introduce will kill the mood and atmosphere. Instead, build up your photography skillset and learn how to use your camera in low light.’

Tip five: just choose one photograph

‘Learn to recognise which is your one good photograph that tells the story you want to tell. Avoid posting lots of photographs from the same series, as it weakens the impact of your work.’

Tip six: don’t go overboard with editing

‘Digital images can seem quite sterile, so my goal is to bring a bit of soul back to them. But don’t go overboard - the key with editing is to make a good representation of what you feel the scene looked like. Avoid the Photoshop aesthetic of overly edited, unrealistic images.

‘Top tip: when I’m taking photos on my phone, I use the Snapseed app (get it on Google Play or the App Store) to edit my photos.’

The old boathouse at Mumbles.

Tip seven: study the greats

‘To improve your own photography, look at photobooks of great photographers. I’d recommend Stephen Shore, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jacques Henri Lartigue. They’ll keep you grounded, make you aware of photography’s roots and help you to appreciate what makes a great photograph.

‘Ultimately, a new lens won’t improve your photographic skills – but looking at the work of great photographers who have gone before you will.’

Tip eight: always photograph in colour

‘Taking a photo in black and white? If you’re working digitally, keep your options open by shooting it in colour and editing to black and white afterwards.

‘Black and white is probably the most challenging way of taking photographs. Try to think about the movement of tones across the image: there should be a nice flow from deeper shadows to the brightest highlights.

‘Top tip: if you’re taking a portrait, it’s most powerful in a simple environment - detail and clutter will distract from the subject.’

A portrait of John Fox, Lowestoft Coxswain.

Tip nine: learn to print your work

‘Knowing what makes a good print will help you to take better photographs. Think of it this way: if you’re not willing to print it, is it worth photographing?’ 

Nigel Millard is a professional photographer and a lifeboat crew member at Torbay. Nigel's book The Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts tells the RNLI story through almost 500 stunning images. 

Photographer and Crew Member Nigel Millard

Photo: Nigel Millard

Photographer and Crew Member Nigel Millard.

Nigel’s tips for coastal photography

Think about composition

‘The classic advice for composition is to follow the rule of thirds, so if you’re photographing the coast, you’d put your horizon one-third or two-thirds of the way down the screen.

‘However, you shouldn’t be afraid to change things around. If things can be at an angle, put them at an angle. If you’re photographing a person, try putting them one-fifth of the way across the screen instead of one-third. A huge sky with a thin bit of sea can look good, and vice versa, a vast expanse of sea with a slither of sky. Experiment, see what works.’

Think about your subject

‘Hold the camera up to your eye and see where the subject sits best - it’s quite intuitive but the more you experiment with taking photos, the easier this becomes. Choose a subject that’s interesting - maybe they have a big beard or a colourful item of clothing. It’s all about constructing the image so that the person is the centre of attention, without physically being at the centre of the picture.’

a child plays beside a lifeguard flag on scarborough beach

Think about your lighting

‘The most common advice you’ll probably hear for lighting is: “don’t put the sun behind your subject”. Actually, I think you should try experimenting - you can get a nice starburst effect in your image by doing this.

‘To understand how light affects the subject and the composition, try photographing someone in a bright jacket from all directions. You’ll soon see the impact it has on the photo. The beauty of digital photography is that you can snap away and delete whatever isn’t good.’

Get the most from the coast

‘First of all, my biggest piece of advice is: don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation to get a photograph.

‘Secondly, try going out in different weather to see how this affects the photo. And, if you live near to the coast, select a seascape (or whatever your subject may be) and try taking it at a different time of day - the lighting is completely different between early morning, midday and evening. You could also experiment between tide in and tide out - you might see a causeway, pier, breakwater or beach. Look at the natural changing elements - they can make a fascinating subject.’

Two lifeboats and a hovercraft head out to Burbo Bank wind farm.

Protect your camera

‘If you’re using your phone at the coast, get a waterproof cover to protect it. When you’re around the water, there’s always a chance you could drop it. The same goes for your camera - a tea towel or chamois leather can make a good temporary cover; just drape it over the camera.’

Get a good portrait

‘Most importantly, make sure the person wants to have their photo taken. Once you know they’re happy to be photographed, give them some time to relax – that could be by talking to them or keeping quiet, whichever puts them at ease.

‘Think about how the light falls on their face, the same goes for shadows. Do you want the light to be hitting their face directly? Would you like the photograph to be backlit? You don’t need sunlight for a good photo. In fact, the best light is a flat light, which you get on an overcast day.

‘You’ll want to make sure the face is sharp – and make sure the eyes are in focus if it’s a close up. However, some photos look interesting out of focus. Imagine a kid with a bright hat or jumper running towards you, blurred because of their movement, with a wonderful sea and sky in the background. That’s a different way of using a portrait, it’s not about the face, it’s capturing a moment – it’s about the colour and the shape. Using the burst mode on your phone (if it has one) can be good for capturing movement. Again, just experiment.’

Tenby Crew Member Alan Thomas

Keep it simple

‘If you’re a novice, keep it simple. Don’t complicate and overthink it, just have a go. Experiment with different lighting, focus points and compositions. At the end of the day, you only need one photo – you can delete the other 99.’