Tag Archives: rules of composition

Hints and tips

Here are a few articles to show how to tackle common problems in English, Maths, French, Verbal and Non-verbal Reasoning and photography.

General

Parents at school gates with children

 

 

 

 

 

How do I know if my child will get a place?
This is the question I get asked the most as a tutor. And even if parents don’t ask it directly, I know that it’s always lurking in the background somewhere…! more

English

 

 

 

 

 

Americanisms
In the words of Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw or James Whistler or Oscar Wilde), Britain and America are “two nations divided by a single language”. Quite a few of my pupils live outside the United Kingdom and/or go to foreign schools but are applying to English schools at 11+ or 13+ level. One of the problems they face is the use of Americanisms. more

 

 

 

 

 

Colons and semicolons
Using colons and semicolons is often an easy way to get a tick in your homework, but it still involves taking a bit of a risk. If you get it right, you get the tick, but if you get it wrong, you’ll get a cross. This article will explain how to use both colons and semicolons so that you can be confident of getting far more ticks than crosses! more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explaining humour
The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but who, whom, who’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used. more

Who-or-whom

Who or whom, who’s or whose?
The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but whowhomwho’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used. more

Could vs might

Could or might?
Could and might mean different things, but a lot of people use them both to mean the same thing. Here’s a quick guide to avoid any confusion. more

Homophones

Homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same even though they’re spelt differently and mean different things. Getting them right can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the end. more

Creating off-the-shelf characters
Common entrance exams have a time limit. If they didn’t, they’d be a lot easier! If you want to save time and improve your story, one thing you can do is to prepare three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters that you can choose from. more

Books
Children’s reading list
I’m often asked by parents what books their children should be reading. Here’s a list of my favourite books when I was a boy. Maybe a few of them might be worth ordering online…! more

John McEnroe
Describing feelings
In many 11+ and 13+ exams, you have to talk about feelings. Yes, I know that’s hard for most boys that age, but I thought it might help if I wrote down a list of adjectives that describe our emotions. Here we go… more

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How to write a letter
Writing a letter is not as easy as it might seem – especially if you have to do it during a Common Entrance exam! In this post, I’d like to explain the typical format of formal and casual letters and the decisions on wording that you’ll have to make… more

Grand Central
Descriptive writing
Exams at 11+ and 13+ level always let you tell a story in the writing section, but they sometimes provide a picture and simply ask you to describe it or to ‘write about it in any way you like’. Writing a description is obviously different from writing a story, so it’s worthwhile pointing out the differences and the similarities… more

SVO
What is a full sentence?
Teachers often tell pupils to use a ‘full sentence’ in their answers, but what is a full sentence? more

Apostrophe
It’s all about the apostrophe
The apostrophe is tricky. It means different things at different times. This article is meant to clear up any confusion and help you use apostrophes, which might mean you get straight As in your exams – or should that be A’s?! more

Keep calm and check your spelling
Spelling rules
The problem with the English is that we’ve invaded (and been invaded by) so many countries that our language has ended up with a mish-mash of spelling rules… more

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parts of speech
English exams often ask questions about the ‘parts of speech’. This is just a fancy term for all the different kinds of words, but they’re worth knowing just in case. Just watch out for words such as ‘jump’, which can be more than one part of speech! more

Letter N
Capital!
The three main things to check after writing anything are spelling, punctuation and capital letters, so when do you use capitals? more

speech marks
Speech marks
Speech marks, inverted commas, quotation marks, quote marks, quotes, 66 and 99 – does any other punctuation mark have so many names or cause so much confusion…?! more

Essay writing
Essay writing
There comes a point in everyone’s life when you have to undergo the ritual that marks the first, fateful step on the road to becoming an adult. It’s called ‘writing an essay’… more

Commas
Commas
If you had the chance to take a contract out on one punctuation mark, most people would probably choose the comma. Unfortunately, that’s not possible, although modern journalists are doing their best to make it into an optional extra… more

Poetic devices
Poetic devices
It’s important to be able to recognise and analyse poetic devices when studying literature at any level. Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet, and he uses so many that I decided to take most of my examples from his writings… more

Story mountains
Story mountains
Everyone needs a route map, whether it’s Hillary and Tenzing climbing Mount Everest or an English candidate writing a story. One of the ways of planning a story is to create a story mountain, with each stage of the tale labelled on the diagram… more

Remember the iceberg!
Remember the iceberg!
To pass Common Entrance, you have to be a scuba diver. Only a small part of any iceberg is visible above the waves, and only a small part of any answer to a question is visible in the text. To discover the rest, you have to ‘dive in’ deeper and deeper… more

Maths

SOHCAHTOA
SOHCAHTOA
SOHCAHTOA (pronounced ‘soccer-toe-uh’) is a useful ‘mnemonic’ to remember the definitions of sines, cosines and tangents. Amazingly, I was never taught this at school, so I just had to look up all the funny numbers in a big book of tables without understanding what they meant! more

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Long multiplication
You can use short multiplication if you’re multiplying one number by another that’s in your times tables (up to 12). However, if you want to multiply by a higher number, you need to use long multiplication. more

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How to add, subtract, multiply and divide
The most important things you need to do in Maths are to add, subtract, divide and multiply. If you’re doing an entrance exam, and there’s more than one mark for a question, it generally means that you have to show your working. more

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Long division
Long division is on the syllabus for both 11+ and 13+ exams, so it’s important to know when and how to do it… more

maths trick
Maths trick
Here’s a Maths trick a friend of mine saw on QI. Who knows? It might make addition and subtraction just a little bit more fun! more

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Simultaneous equations
Why do we have simultaneous equations? Well, there are two ways of looking at it… more

Prime factors
Prime factors
Prime factors have nothing to do with Optimus Prime – sadly – but they often crop up in Maths tests and can be used to find the Lowest Common Multiple or Highest Common Factor of two numbers… more

negative-numbers
Negative numbers
Working with negative numbers can be confusing, but a few simple rules can help you add, subtract, multiply and divide successfully… more

maths
Useful terms in Maths
Maths is complicated, but a good first step on the road to understanding it is to get to know the most useful terms. There are lists in the front of the Bond books, but here’s my own contribution. I hope it helps! more

algebra
Algebra
Algebra is supposed to make life easier. By learning a formula or an equation, you can solve any similar type of problem whatever the numbers involved. However, an awful lot of students find it difficult, because letters just don’t seem to ‘mean’ as much as numbers. Here, we’ll try to make life a bit easier… more

Divisibility rules OK
Divisibility rules OK!
Times tables can be tricky, and there’s no substitute for learning them by heart. However, the divisibility rules can at least tell you whether an answer is definitely wrong. I’m a great believer in ‘sanity checking’ your work. Just ask yourself, “Is this crazy?” If it is, you’ll have to do the question again! more

Back-to-school-blackboard-chalk
Tips for the QTS numeracy test
The QTS numeracy and literacy tests are not very popular, but trainee teachers still have to pass them before they can start teaching in the state sector, so I thought I’d try and help out. There is always more than one way of doing a Maths question, but I hope I’ll demonstrate a few useful short cuts and describe when and how they should be used… more

Here be ratios
Ratios
Hundreds of years ago, it was traditional to put dragons on maps in places that were unknown, dangerous or poorly mapped. Ratios are one of those places… more

Fractions, decimals and percentages
Working with fractions
People don’t like fractions. I don’t know why. They’re difficult to begin with, I know, but a few simple rules will help you add, subtract, multiply and divide… more

Number sequences
Number sequences
Number sequences appear in Nature all over the place, from sunflowers to conch shells. They can also crop up either in Maths or Verbal Reasoning, and both are essential parts of 11+ and other school examinations… more

Fractions, decimals and percentages
Fractions, decimals and percentages
Pizzas are very useful, mathematically speaking. However much we hate fractions, we all know what half a pizza looks like, and that’s the point. Numbers don’t have any intrinsic meaning, and we can’t picture them unless they relate to something in the real world, so pizzas are just a useful way of illustrating fractions, decimals and percentages… more

Useful formulas
Useful formulas
What is a problem? A problem = a fact + a judgment. That is a simple formula that tells us something about the way the world works. Maths is full of formulas, and that can intimidate some people if they don’t understand them or can’t remember the right one to use… more

Short cuts
Short cuts
There is always more than one way of solving a Maths problem. That can be confusing, but it can also be an opportunity – if only you can find the right trade-off between speed and accuracy… more

French

French verbs
French regular verbs – present subjunctive tense
The subjunctive in French is generally used in the present tense after expressions such as ‘il faut que’ and certain verbs that also take the word ‘que’ after them. These are generally the ones that express feelings or doubts (eg craindre, vouloir), especially when two parts of a sentence have different subjects, eg ‘I want her to be happy’ becomes ‘Je veux qu’elle soit contente’. Verbs ending in -er or -re have one set of endings, but  -ir verbs have another… more

French verbs
Preceding Direct Objects in French
Forming the perfect (or pluperfect) tense in French is sometimes made harder than necessary by what’s called a Preceding Direct Object (or PDO). The object of a sentence is whatever ‘suffers the action of the verb’, eg the nail in ‘he hit the nail on the head’… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – conditional tense
The conditional tense in French is used to show that someone ‘would do’ or ‘would be doing’ something. All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and the endings are different (as shown here in red)… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – future tense
There is only one future tense in French, and it’s used to show that someone ‘will do’ or ‘will be doing’ something. Verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, but the endings are the same… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – past tense
Here are the basic forms of French regular verbs in the past tense, which include the perfect (or passé composé), pluperfect, imperfect and past historic (or passé simple). All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red… more

French verbs
Common French verbs – present tense
Language changes over time because people are lazy. They’d rather say something that’s easy than something that’s correct. That means the most common words change the most, and the verbs become ‘irregular’. In French, the ten most common verbs are ‘être’, ‘avoir’, ‘pouvoir’, ‘faire’, ‘mettre’, ‘dire’, ‘devoir’, ‘prendre’, ‘donner’ and ‘aller’, and they’re all irregular apart from ‘donner’… more

French verbs
French regular verbs – present tense
Nobody likes French verbs – not even the French! – but I thought I’d start by listing the most basic forms of the regular verbs in the present tense. All French verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red… more

Learning the right words
Learning the right words
One of the frustrations about learning French is that you’re not given the words you really need to know. I studied French up to A-level, but I was sometimes at a complete loss when I went out with my French girlfriend and a few of her friends in Lyon. I was feeling suitably smug about following the whole conversation in French…until everyone started talking about chestnuts! more

Non-verbal Reasoning

Non-verbal Reasoning
Non-verbal reasoning tests are commonly found in Common Entrance exams at 11+ and 13+ level, and they’re designed to test pupils’ logical reasoning skills using series of shapes or patterns. It’s been said that they were intended to be ‘tutor-proof’, but, of course, every kind of test can be made easier through proper preparation and coaching. more

Photography

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African field guide
Find an alphabetical list of the most common animals seen on safari in Africa, including mammals, reptiles and birds. more

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Basics of photography
Learn all about the basic aspects of photography, including types of camera, types of lenses, the Exposure Triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO), focus and other settings. more

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Game drives
Read all about the best gear, equipment to take with you on safari, learn the rules of composition and find out the best workflow for editing your wildlife images. more

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How to stand out from the herd
Read this quick guide to improve your wildlife shots by setting up something a little bit different, from slow pans to sunny silhouettes. more

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Introduction to Lightroom
Learn how to import, edit and organise your images in Lightroom, including the main features available in the Library and Develop modules and a summary of keyboard shortcuts. more

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Making money from photography
Find out how to start making money from your photography with this quick and easy guide to entering competitions, putting on exhibitions, selling through stock (and microstock) agencies and more. more

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Rules of composition
Find out the rules of composition to help you get the most out of your photography, including the Rule of Thirds, framing, point of view, symmetry and a whole lot more. more

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Safari pub quiz
Challenge your friends and family on their wildlife knowledge with this fun quiz. more

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Wildlife photography
Learn how to take great wildlife shots by preparing properly, taking the right equipment and getting to know the rules of composition. more

Verbal Reasoning

VRTypeO

Verbal Reasoning
Verbal Reasoning (VR) tests were invented to test pupils’ logic and language skills – although they do sometimes includes questions about numbers. In order to do well in a VR test, the most important thing is to be systematic, to have a plan for what to do if the question is hard. Here is a guide to the different kinds of problems and the best ways to approach them. more

Rules of composition

As everyone knows, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” – but that doesn’t stop me trying to do both!

Whatever kind of photographer you are and whatever kind of pictures you take, you always need to pay attention to composition. As an introductory guide (or a reminder), here are a few principles of composition to help you take better pictures. Just make sure you break all of them once in a while!

Rule of thirds

The most common rule in photography is the rule of thirds. The aim of the game here is avoid taking pictures that are too symmetrical. For some reason, the human eye doesn’t like that, so it’s usually best to place the subject off-centre. The rule of thirds is just one way to do that. Others include the golden ratio or the Fibonacci curve, and you can find them in Lightroom if you really want to, but the rule of thirds is the best and the simplest. The idea is that you imagine that the viewfinder is divided up into thirds – both horizontally and vertically – and place the subject at the intersection of two of those invisible lines in order to give it more impact. The lines also help you to place the horizon when you’re taking a landscape shot. If the horizon is in the middle of the frame, it looks a bit static. Instead, try to establish whether most of the interest is in the land or the sky. If you want people to focus on the land, place the horizon on the lower imaginary line; if you want people to focus on the clouds in the sky, place it on the upper one. Just make sure that it’s straight!

Moth on a daisy

‘The Decisive Moment’Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer considered a master of candid photography. He pioneered the genre of street photography. The Decisive Moment was the title of a book he wrote, and his idea was that timing is the secret of a good photograph. This is obviously more important in certain types of photography (such as wildlife) than others (such as landscape), but it is still a useful guide to taking any kind of action shot.

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth


Framing

Every photograph obviously has a frame, but have you ever tried using a ‘frame-within-a-frame’? Photographic frames come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the ones you find in real life. It might be the branches of a tree or a doorway or a window – the point is that it adds depth to a picture and focuses the viewer’s attention.


Negative space

I don’t know why people call it ‘negative space’ rather than just ‘space’ (!), but the idea is that a picture with a single subject can look more balanced if there is empty space on the other side of the frame. This is particularly useful for portraits if you want to stop them looking like ‘passport photos’! It’s also a good idea to allow space for a moving subject to move into. It just looks weird if a person appears to be ‘walking out of the frame’, so try to position the subject around a third of the way across in order to draw the eye into the picture rather than out of it.


Leading lines

Leading lines are supposed to ‘lead’ the eye of the viewer into the frame – and ideally towards the main subject. They don’t have to be straight, but they tend to work best when they are. The obvious examples are railway tracks or a long, straight road stretching into the distance. S-curves can do the same job as leading lines, but they also add dynamism and visual interest to a photograph, particularly if it’s a landscape. Again, it might be a road or a railway or even a winding river. All that matters is that the line is roughly in the shape of an S, meandering left and right into the distance.


Symmetry

The rule of thirds and others are meant to stop pictures looking too symmetrical, but sometimes symmetry suits the subject matter. If you have a reflection in the water or a human face, for example, you can’t really avoid it, so it’s sometimes best to make the most of it. That might mean positioning the line where the water meets the line exactly in the centre of the frame or choosing a square aspect ratio for the picture to enhance the symmetry of a face.

Juvenile rufescent tiger heron stretching its wings


Point of view

I’m a wildlife photographer, and the most important rule of wildlife photography is to get down to eye-level with the animals. It makes a huge difference to the composition and elevates a quick snap to an intimate portrait. Taking pictures at eye level sometimes means getting wet or muddy – especially if you’re taking pictures of insects on the ground! – but it’s the best way to go. The same applies to portraits, which usually look best taken at eye-level or above. If you get down any lower than that, you take the risk of ending up with a close-up of the model’s nostrils!

Close-up of lion lying in golden light


Motion blur

A photograph is just a static image, so it’s sometimes difficult to convey a sense of motion. One way to do that is to use a slower shutter speed in order to create motion blur. Different subjects require different shutter speeds, depending on how fast they are moving, so you might need to experiment a little bit to find that sweet spot between too much sharpness and too little. You could start with 1/4 of a second for a pedestrian walking along the street, but a Formula One car would disappear if you didn’t cut that down to 1/250 or slower. If you want to go the whole hog, you might try the ‘slow pan’. Panning just means moving the camera from side-to-side to keep a moving subject in the same part of the frame. The ‘slow’ bit relates to the shutter speed. What you get with a ‘slow pan’ should be a recognisable subject with relatively sharp eyes but blurred limbs (or wings) and a blurred background. I warn you that this is a tricky business – I once took 1,500 slow pan pictures of guillemots in the Arctic and only kept four of them! – but it’s worth it when it works…

Male azure hawker dragonfly flying through undergrowth


Depth of field

Another crucial element in wildlife and other kinds of photography is depth of field. To make sure the focus is on the subject and separate it from the background, you can use a larger aperture (such as f/4 or f/2.8). That will blur anything that’s not in the same plane as the subject while keeping the focal point sharp. The eyes are always the most important part of a portrait – whether it’s of an animal or a person – and we will always see something as being ‘in focus’ as long as they look sharp. Depth of field is just as important in landscapes, but what we generally want now is sharpness all the way through the image, so it’s better to start with a smaller aperture such as f/11 or f/16.

Cobra held by snake charmer


Odd numbers

One of the funny things about the way people see the world is that we seem to like odd-numbered groups of objects more than even-numbered ones. It doesn’t really matter why, I guess, but it’s an important point to remember when planning something like a still-life shoot. Just make sure you have three or five tomatoes rather than two or four!


Fill the frame

Everyone has a camera these days because everyone has a mobile phone, but one of the problems with using your mobile to take pictures is that it’s hard to ‘fill the frame’. It’s all very well taking a selfie when you’re only a few inches from the lens, but trying to zoom in on a distant object or animal is difficult when you only have a few megapixels to play with. It’s important to remember here the difference between ‘optical zoom’ and ‘digital zoom’. The optical version is what you get naturally with a DSLR lens when you zoom in by changing the focal length; the digital version is when a phone or a bridge camera fools you into thinking you’re zooming in by focusing on a smaller and smaller portion of the sensor. It’s great when you look through the viewfinder or look at the back of the camera, but the image quality is a lot poorer. Anyway, the point is that what you really want to do is to make the subject dominate the image by making it as large as possible. If you’re taking a picture of a cheetah, you don’t want it to be a dot in the corner of the frame! You can always crop the image later using Lightroom or another editing program, but that means losing pixels, so the quality will suffer. It’s always better to get it right in camera if you can. You just need to be careful not to chop off body parts in the wrong place when you’re taking a portrait. Generally, it’s fine to crop in on someone’s face so that the top of the model’s head is not shown, but it’s not a good idea to crop people’s bodies at the joints. It just looks odd if the edge of the frame coincides with the ankles, knees, waist, elbows, wrists or neck.

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight


Aspect ratio

For some reason, taking a picture in landscape format just seems more ‘natural’ than turning the camera 90 degrees for a portrait, but it’s important to choose the ‘right’ aspect ratio for the image. A photographer once advised me to make sure at least a third of my pictures were in portrait format, but the point is to look at the subject and decide what’s best. If there are a lot of horizontal lines, then landscape is fair enough, but if there are more vertical lines – such as tree trunks in a forest – then you should probably choose portrait instead. If you really want to emphasise the length (or height) of a subject, why not try a panorama instead? Different cameras have different set-ups, but the average aspect ratio of a DSLR is 3:2, which doesn’t suit all subjects. I’ve set up a 3:1 template in Lightroom to use for images in which nothing much is happening at the bottom and top of the frame.

Pig peeping out from behind wall


Foreground interest

When we see a beautiful view, most people’s instant reaction is to take a picture, but what we end up with a lot of the time is an image without any focus. Placing an object in the foreground can lead the eye into the frame and give the image balance. A picture taken on the beach, for instance, might be improved by getting down low in front of a weird rock or piece of driftwood.


Balance

Speaking of balance, it can be a good idea to have the main subject on one side of the frame and a smaller subject on the other. Again, it’s just a matter of what looks most satisfying to the human eye.


Juxtaposition

Old and new, blue and orange, large and small – all these are contrasts that a photograph can pick up on and emphasise. This kind of juxtaposition can be made the point of an image. Think of an elephant beside a mouse – it’s not a picture of an elephant or a picture of a mouse, it’s a picture of the contrast between the two.


Patterns, textures and colours

Sometimes, you don’t need a traditional ‘subject’ to make an image visually interesting. There are plenty of patterns in Nature or in the man-made environment; the trick is to find them amongst all the surrounding clutter. Whether it’s the bark of a tree or paint peeling on a wall, you can sometimes get a very effective abstract image out of it. Black and white images tend to emphasise patterns and shapes, as there is no colour to distract the eye, but colours can form patterns as well – it just depends on the subject and your personal preference.


Simplicity

It’s hard to produce a visually striking image if there is no focal point, or if there are too many competing centres of attention. By creating a simple image – in terms of colour and/or composition – you can remove the distractions and focus on what’s important.


Background

To increase the focus on the subject of an image, it’s a good idea to remove any distractions in the background. It’s obviously not a good idea to take a picture of someone with a telegraph pole sticking out of his head (!), but it’s easy to pay too much attention to the subject and not enough to the background unless you consciously check the viewfinder. One useful way to reduce the chances of an embarrassing blunder is to reduce the depth of field by increasing the size of the aperture. The traditional way of taking portraits of animals or people, for instance, is to use a ‘fast’ lens, which means one that has a very wide maximum aperture, and shoot wide open. That reduces the depth of field, thus blurring the background and adding to the impact of the main subject. If you have lights in the background, you can even get a nice effect called ‘bokeh’, which works well for something like a bauble with Christmas tree lights in the background.

Malachite kingfisher on dead branch facing camera


Humour

Whatever you’re photographing, there are always odd moments of humour to be found. People and animals are usually the best sources, but it doesn’t really matter what the subject is. If there’s a visual joke to be made, why not have a go? I laughed when I saw these penguins together on South Georgia. It looked as if the female was confused by the rock. Was it an egg she was supposed to hatch, or was it just a rock? She spent about five minutes looking at it and examining it before the male came up and said something like, “Come on, darling. It’s just a rock…”

King penguin stepping over rock with another


Breaking the rules

Having said all that, it’s important to break the rules once in a while. Rules tend to set expectations, so breaking them can make an image seem fresh and original. Why should the horizon be straight? Why should we see the whole face rather than just half of it? Why should the sky start two-thirds of the way up the frame? If you can’t answer these questions, then why not take a risk? It’s a bit like being a painter: you have to be able to follow the rules before you can break them!

If you’d like to know more or want to book a photography lesson with me, then please get in touch.

Good luck…