Helen Al-Najjar


Fine Art Photography

Helen P.I. – A Secret Proposal

I recently did a small job for a client who was over in London from L.A. with his girlfriend which was certainly one of the more interesting (and stressful) assignments I’ve had to date.

He was planning to propose to her on a bridge in Regents Park and wanted me to take candid shots to give to his Fiancé on the day of their wedding. It was only arranged a couple of days beforehand but I was well prepared. He’d given me the details of exactly which bridge (as there were a couple) and what time they were going to arrive. I made sure I got there with about ¾ of an hour in which I could check out any potential hiding places as well as the best vantage points, vantage points weren’t a problem, hiding was! There was absolutely nowhere for me to hide without potentially being seen (or restricted to taking photo’s of the back of the lady’s head).

Having wandered round (a lot) there were quite a number of tourists milling around taking pictures of the park as Queens Gardens is a particularly picturesque part and a small number were taking photos of the rose bushes (of which there were plenty). I decided the best course of action would be to just blend in with the other sightseers and keep watch while the couple were on the bridge. Unfortunately, the little wooden bridge was only open on one side which I couldn’t take photo’s from as there was a very large willow tree who’s branches were dangling almost to the ground so I was restricted to taking the shots from the other side which was covered in foliage, but from there I would also be able to manoeuvre around the surrounding rose-bushes and take some of the lady head on.

The couple soon arrived and I blended in well, taking close-ups of flowers just as a few other people were and before long, the couple were on the bridge as planned. My heart was going crazy at this point as I was worried about making myself obvious but at the same time, I HAD to get some good shots. I started by the rose bushes and took a few head on when I was spotted. I carefully moved around the roses to the other side of the bridge and positioned myself.
It was then that the gentleman went down on one knee and of course from the side I had selected, all that was visible was his head, hovering above the foliage. I took the shots anyway and then I heard a small squeal from the lady (an obvious yes!) at which point they embraced and the gentleman stood up. I did get some pretty nice shots then, of them both embracing on the bridge which was a lot easier for me as they were both too wrapped up in the moment to even think about anything going on around them. It was actually a really touching moment and very romantic.

As I usually do when I get home, I uploaded my photo’s straight away and had a look on the big screen and was pretty pleased I had managed to capture that special moment. I can’t say I did it perfectly, but it was my first job of this nature and like all first times, they are also a learning experience!

 

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Ella and Adam, a fun-loving couple married at Fonmon castle, Barry.

Fonmon Castle in Barry, South Wales is a wonderful stately home set in acres of beautiful grounds, it’s no wonder Ella and Adam made it their venue of choice. It’s the furthest I’ve travelled for a wedding and had to stop for two nights but it was well worth it. Although the weather had been forecast to be overcast and dull, it turned out to be anything but and only added yet more joy to an already very happy occasion. It was a very intimate wedding with a relatively small number of guests and Ella had added many nice little touches, a jenga set for guests to write messages on to ‘build their future’ to a vintage bike with a basket of flowers atop holding the seating plan (it’s very important to photograph these details as a lot of time and effort has gone into them and photographs are the means in which they last a lifetime). The ceremony was beautiful, both bride and groom had written their own vows and as Ella was Italian, Adam had learnt and written his vows in Italian which brought a few tears. Even I was moved by this and I’ve found on many occasions I’ve almost shed a tear myself, I do get quite absorbed in the occasion and I find it actually helps me to produce better photo’s, it gives me an extra push to really capture the emotion and to be able to give the couple something really special.

The day went really smoothly and both bride and groom thoroughly enjoyed their day, including the groom and grooms-men kicking a football around between the meal and the first dance! They both had a great sense of humour and a lot of fun, though it was nice when they took a break from the celebrations for a short while to take a walk around the grounds. I was able to tag along and take some natural as well as semi-posed shots for them.

All in all, a great time was had at Ella and Adams wedding, by me as well as the wedding party!  The couple had asked me if I would take some humorous shots for them which I was happy to do, one being the bride, groom and grooms-men being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex (which was photoshopped in afterwards) not normally my style but was great to do and they loved the result. It actually was a really fun way to end the day!

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I’m no flasher!

Every time before a wedding ceremony (either when visiting a church beforehand or talking to the registrar on the day) the topic of using flash has come up and it’s usually in a negative sense. Not that the registrar/vicar doesn’t want it to be used but rather they prefer that it isn’t used at certain times or that it’s used a bit more ‘selectively’. I understand this completely because I think using flash is not only intrusive and off-putting but I also believe it to be completely unnecessary, particularly in this day in age with the advances in photographic technology that we have.

I currently use two cameras, a canon 5D mk II and mk III, both are capable of producing great results at high ISO’s, the mk III more so. I also primarily use three prime lenses, a 28mm 1.4, 50mm 1.2 and 85mm 1.2 (my fave!), these low apertures make low-light photography even easier (although I rarely use them at their widest unless I really want a very narrow depth of field). They can be hard to focus in low light, particularly on the mk II (as my assistant recently discovered!) but it’s something I’m very adept at now, thanks to a lot of practice.

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Katy & Graeme, a traditional English wedding

It was nice to be doing a traditional English wedding, after having done so many other diverse ones, and even better, this one was close to home.

Katy and Graeme were such a lovely couple, full of smiles and playfulness, and their guests were super too.

The day went off without a hitch (for both me and newly wedded couple) and I was able to get some lovely shots which I think they will like as much as I do.

Seher & Aaqib, an Indian wedding over 3 days

Seher and Aaqib are a lovely couple who I met when I was photographing her sisters wedding previously.

As seems to be common with Indian weddings, it was spread over a number of days, with the initial civil service, followed by the henna party and finishing with the traditional wedding on the third and final day.

With such a lovely array of colours and styles it made for some beautiful photos capturing a beautiful occasion.

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In the beginning……

Beginnings.

I’ve always enjoyed photography since I was a teenager, it seems to be a family thing as my grandfather was a photographer for the RAF and my father was a very keen amateur who frequently did weddings for family and loved getting out in the middle of nowhere for landscapes. It wasn’t until about 8 years ago though, that I decided to pursue it with more zeal but as I had a young daughter, I never really thought about making it a career choice, instead opting for a few courses and taking some nice snapshots whenever I was out and about or socializing with friends.
Well the next few years dragged along and my daughter was growing up so I was running out of excuses to find a job. I did a few part-time jobs which unfortunately (probably due to being my own boss for so long) left me feeling very bored and frustrated (with the exception of my car delivery job, the highlight of which was being chased by a police van in Tooting, it was a brand new unregistered AUDI TT and I was too lazy to put the trade plates on, coupled with the fact that I had the radio too loud to hear the siren…oops!). During this time, my interest in photography as well as my skill was improving significantly and so my better half (who had always been encouraging me to get some interests) bought me a canon 20D and a couple of lenses. Unfortunately (or even fortunately!!) we were burgled, bye bye camera. This turned out to be a blessing in reality as we were well covered by insurance and were able to replace the 20D AND I gained the one lens I had coveted for a long time, a 100mm macro!
For the next couple of years I was taking photographs of every interesting plant, flower, fungus and insect, chasing bees around my garden for what seemed like hours to get that perfect shot. I was quite pleased with my results as was my husband and friends, but it was hardly career defining. Around 2007, the perfect opportunity came my way in the form of an art and craft market. It was quite an expensive outlay for us at the time, so my father very generously helped me out. The manager of the market had one space for an art stall and was keen to fill it before he opened for business a couple of weeks later, so I was quite easily and foolishly convinced.

‘Stuff’ Marketplace.

When ‘Stuff’ indoor art and craft market first opened in Croydon, me and my fellow traders were buzzing with energy and optimism. There was a grand opening with coverage from local media and the general consensus was that it would be a great success, after all, it was just the kind of market that not only Croydon, but South London needed! The manager was very careful in the traders he had allowed to rent a stall, and the goods offered were of a very high standard and the opening day, everyone did pretty well with one exception, me! Until the last 15 minutes before we closed. I then got lucky as a very nice couple bought not one, but two of my fine art prints! Totaling about a quarter of my weekly stall rent. I had done a little market research and I don’t believe my product was over priced. My husband had been very careful in selecting a high quality print service (whom I still use to this day) as he also was with the mount provider. We had carefully mounted each print with the correct tape and placed them in clear cellophane bags in display racks, it all looked very professional.
Over the course of the next few months, my luck didn’t get any better though many of my fellow traders were doing pretty well, luckily, the manager was very keen for his business to succeed and let me off paying any rent on several occasions (I suspect that this was partly due to my good humored enthusiasm in using a megaphone to encourage the folks of Croydon to go and have a look inside ‘Croydons new undercover market’ which sadly, benefitted everyone except of course, me!).
One thing I noticed over the course of the next couple of months was the amount of people coming in carrying Primark bags. Now you may think I’m being a little stereotypical here (to put it politely) but I heard on several occasions the question ‘Do you have any pound stalls’? in fact, the only stall (on my floor) that was making any real profit, was one selling traditional sweets. Needless to say, I swiftly came to the conclusion that Croydon really wasn’t ready for a high quality art and craft market and by the time the market closed a few months later, most of the stall holders had lost money and I was actually relieved that the manager went out of business. The only sad part for me, was losing the great sense of community we had all built up, though I have remained good friends with one young lady, whose business is now booming.

Back to square one.

For the next few years, I faffed around a lot and flirted with ideas but just didn’t have the motivation to do anything whatsoever about it. What I didn’t realize at the time (which was the main contributing factor) was that I had developed Pseudo Cushings Syndrome, caused by undiagnosed Coeliac disease and Anorexia which led to secondary diabetes(another long story). I was eventually diagnosed and managed to overcome the eating disorder and other health problems and finally felt well enough to get my brain in gear and try to make some money out of photography.

The road to weddings.

Due to my lack of confidence and failing health, I could never bring myself to try wedding photography. I had done a couple as favours for friends and family, but my nerves would never allow it to progress beyond my immediate circle. Photographing a strangers wedding? Seriously? The one big day in every couples life? The one day that everything has to be perfect? Absolutely not! Not me, never! I’ll find a way of making a career taking photos some other way thanks! Yeah right…
One evening, good old supportive husband and I were out celebrating a friends 40th birthday and I happened to see a young lady who bore a remarkable resemblance to Lauren Bacall, Ahaa! thought I, What a great subject she’d make for some portraits! I had a few drinks and with the help of husband, I was able to strike up conversation and ask her if she would model for me. She didn’t seem very keen on the idea which wasn’t surprising when she explained that she worked for an art gallery and was constantly approached and had done a significant amount of modelling for a number of photographers. After chatting for some time she informed that if I want to make any kind of income from my hobby, I need to do weddings. Now I don’t know how true it is, but she explained that many top photographers supplement their income this way. Bugger, the one thing I’ve been avoiding for god knows how long is the one thing I really should be doing, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear but at that moment I decided to bite the bullet and give it a go. Husband bought me books, constructed my website and generally tried to encourage and support me as much as he could but it wasn’t until many months later that I felt mentally capable of motivating myself. Once I’d geared myself up and my health was on the up, I started to consult my many informative book on how I should start but because there was next to no info, I found I was in a real quandary. I had about three weddings on my website so I hardly looked experienced even though they were of a good standard. How am I supposed to get more wedding pictures on my site when nobody wants an inexperienced photographer? so I decided to wing it a bit. Hubby managed to get my website some exposure and I had an enquiry! I arranged to meet the prospective clients and despite my nerves, it went pretty well, at first….. Then the prospective groom asked the million dollar question ‘How many weddings have you done’? I suspect he was picking up on my nerves and inexperience as it turned out, he was a lawyer. I tried to lie, I really did but I’m so crap at it especially when I’m nervous that even my slight exaggeration of ‘oh about 5 or 6’ probably translated to about zero! I came away from the meeting deciding I would never lie again
A few months later I was sitting at my laptop when out of nowhere (brain functioning finally returning to normal) the idea came to me to advertise ‘free wedding photography for the purpose of expanding my portfolio’ so there and then, I put an ad on gumtree, as simple and obvious as that! It gave me more than enough wedding to build up a good portfolio and was completely invaluable for gaining experience and although I was a little nervous, it wasn’t overwhelming and I was able to provide a good quality service and product with which every client was very happy with. It wasn’t the nerve-wracking experience I thought it was going to be and as it turns out, I actually thoroughly enjoy weddings! It’s very hard work, exhausting sometimes, but when I’m behind the camera I’m completely absorbed in my subjects, I give it 110% and I don’t stop working until the couple are happy that their day has been fully covered. I love uploading the photo’s when I get home and looking through them until sleep takes over so I can see the shots that make me want to shout ‘yay’! and of course, I love knowing that my client is happy with the end result.
I now see that wedding photography gives me the opportunity to express my creativity in many ways. It isn’t just about photographing a couple and some guests. I’s about architecture, nature, landscapes, portraits but most of all, emotion and being able to incorporate all of these elements into one couples special day, is a great experience indeed!