You probably don't need a masters' degreee in photography

by Fred Showker

Fred Showker's 60-Second Window colum, since 1988 The ever increasing popularity of digital cameras is making picture-taking easier and easier. Since the pictures no longer 'cost' to be processed and printed, the digital-shutter-bug can shoot away and have a ball. If you don't like a shot, simply delete it.

Digital Photo Vacation

If you're going to take pictures -- don't just take a lot of pictures... take great pictures. There's always something you can do to improve your photos.

Without sending you to ten-thousand web pages to get the full education on taking great pictures, I'll share just a few fundimental rules to shoot by. If you can remember just a few of these, your pictures will improve along with your photography experiences.

Look twice, shoot once

While you can shoot numerous shots of the same scene -- and you may well want to -- first take a real close look at the scene and ask three questions. These four elements have a dramatic effect on all photos -- whether digital or not.

#1: Is there anything distracting in the scene?
      Anything that is present or happening behind your subject can steal the viewer's eye. Things like mirrors, glass windows, crowd activity. Try to eliminate that distraction by stepping to the left or right a few steps.

Look for stray objects that may detract from your subject. If there is anything else that isn't part of your picture's focus, see if you can eliminate it.

#2: Where is the primary light source?
      If the sun, or daylight is the primary source make sure it's not behind the subject to blind the camera. Yes, you can fix it later, but it won't be nearly as good as if the lighting were in front or to the side of the subject. But also be aware of sun-squint. The last thing you want is your subject squinting because the sun was blinding your subject. Also be aware of the too-deep shadows created by the sun. If your beautiful companion has on a wide-brimmed sun hat, beware the part of her face in the shadow may be too dark!

#3: Should I get closer, or move further away?
      Always look at the borders of the scene. Get your eyeball into the view finder until you can see all four edges of the picture area -- and then LOOK at those edges. Quickly ask questions about those borders: Is there enough to trim out later? Are the borders meaningful? Is there something at the edge that I don't want to show?

#4: Do you have everything you need? More than you need?
      Remember you can always crop the photo to eliminate unwanted parts of the scene later -- however you cannot add more to the photo later. Best policy is to over-shoot, and under-deliver!

  • Shoot before you eat, not after! Spoiled plates don't speak well of the dinner.
  • Shoot from above, never below; the worst thing to show are huge jowls, double-chins and nostrils. Get just high enough above your subjects so that no nose-holes show.
  • Are there obstructions? Should the wine bottle be in the middle? Should the flower arrangement be moved to the side?

To Flash or Not to Flash

If time permits, I always try to shoot a no-flash version, and then a fill-flash version -- whether indoors or out. If you turn off your flash you may get a great shot that avoids the harsh and unnatural look associated with flash photography. Always try to use natural light if you can.

If you have control over the setting -- as in a picture of a person, try moving them close to a window for that wonderful indirect natural lighting. Flash tends to 'flatten' the subject because of even lighting, and is almost never flattering to people. Indirect lighting on the other hand, tends to accentuate the contour and 'shape' of the subject with subtle shadows and more natural coloration.

When you do use the flash, be careful to avoid bright or reflective backgrounds behind your subject. These could easily bounce the flash back into the camera and spoil the shot. When shooting with flash, watch carefully through the view finder. If you see a hot spot, or flash, then shoot again after changing locations slightly. Remember that if you can see yourself in mirrors, glass windows or store fronts, then that flash will bounce back. Move until you cannot see yourself.

Rock on, Rock Steady

If the photo is supposed to show detail, then it needs to be as sharp as possible. If the shot is supposed to be blurry and vague, you can do that later.

Your camera may capture perfect light settings, but if it moves it can blur the shot slightly no matter how bright the lighting is. People think the point-n-click cameras are fool-proof. Think again. The more steady the camera is, the better the shot will be.

Stand with your feet firmly on the ground -- avoid being out of balance. Get into the habit of snugging the camera against your face. As you prepare to shoot, take a breath and gently squeeze the shutter. Don't try to push it or press hard. Be gentle. Pressing too hard causes the camera to move.

Carry a tripod. There are mini-tripods that can be carried in a cargo pocket, purse or camera bag. Next time you have the opportunity to shop anywhere camera equipment may be sold, try out a mono-pod. This is a tripod with only one leg. Many photographers will carry one like a walking stick, and when time to take a shot, the monopod telescopes up to shooting height, and has a pop-up screw-mount to secure the camera.

If you don't have time to grab the tripod, or monopod, stabilize yourself by leaning against a tree, wall or other immovable object. Many times I've been known to place the camera on a car, wall, a table in a restaurant, or other solid surface so that the timed shutter makes the exposure. That way the shot is really rock steady. (If you like, run over and get in the shot yourself!)

Take Five: Tell the story...

Whatever you do, document the session with multiple shots. If you're strolling along the harbor pier, don't just get a shot of the pier. That's boring. Tell the story of your stroll along the pier. I like to say: never take only one shot. Take at least five.

1. Intro: try an overview shot of the place where you plan to take pictures. If it's the pier of the harbor, perhaps the street leading up to the pier. If it's the barbecue at the neighbor's pool, try a shot walking up the driveway or walk to their house. This will the be "approach" or "establishment" shot.

2. The Action: get a shot of what happened. Okay, it's a bit difficult to show a walk on the pier, but perhaps there's a spot where you can place the camera for an timer-shot so that you can be 'strolling' in the picture. Try to show "here's what happened."

3. What did you see? Find an interesting aspect that will typify or represent the whole experience. At the pier we see rows and rows of boats. Perhaps a shot showing boats all lined up. Perhaps a picturesque boat will be pulling up to the dock. Capture the crew member as he leaps over to receive the tie-off rope.

4. Unique perspective: find some interesting detail you can zoom in on and capture close-up or from an interesting angle. Perhaps zoom in on a seagull perched on the pier. Perhaps a brightly polished brass light or textured coil of rope on the deck of one of the boats. How about the shiny captain's bell? Give the viewer something to "feel" about the series of images.

5. Resolution: provide a 'closer' for the story. Okay, sunsets may be a bit over-done, but look for an opportunity to show the 'end' of the story... packing up into the car? Carrying shopping bags? Shaking hands with the skipper. Be creative.

Don't forget people...

One of the primary reasons for taking pictures is to remember what happened, or to share the experiences with others. My father always said:

Quoting  begins What good is it if there's no one in the picture? Buy a post card! Quoting  ends

Give your viewer a reason to care. Put yourself, a companion or family member into the scene. Not only will it give the shot scale, it will provide a reason for taking the shot -- other than a picture postcard! If you have no one to be in the picture, ask someone else... the waitress, the driver, the doorman. Too many travel and vacation photos are of uninhabited places. Have a great time...

If you try to remember a few of these tips, then you probably don't need a masters' degreee in photography. Try to integrate the camera and photo-taking activity into the overall experience. If you approach it as an integrated part of the trip, you'll have more fun and your photos will give back later with enjoyable reminders of the experience.

NOTE: This article continues at: Digital Cameras On The Go

And, thanks for reading

Fred Showker

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