Photography 101 - Tips for the Holidays
Originally posted Dec 21, 2012
There will be a lot of photos taken between now and the end of 2012. Some of them will be pretty good, and many others not so good, but they'll all be precious to the person shooting them. With that in mind, let's take a look at holiday photos taken with simple cameras and see if there are some basic things that can done to make them a more engaging and interesting record of individual and family activities around this time of year. I'm going to assume in this post that you are taking pictures with a digital, point-and-shoot camera. In other words a small camera with a simple electronic menu, or not,...or even a phone...that all you really have to do is aim it at your subject and push the button. Some of these cameras will allow you just a little more control over them if you want, but all of them up to and including the single lens reflex equipment offer the "full automatic" option.
And they do a great job. Digital has not just effectively put the old Eastman Kodak out of business but has paradigmatically expanded the quantity and improved the quality of what are essentially snap-shots taken by the average person. That revolution notwithstanding, a lot of these pictures could be markedly improved with a few simple steps.
1. Composition. This is probably the single greatest threshold between some really great photos and those that in future years will serve only as a record of who was there and what we did this holiday season. First of all, if your pictures don't grab you, stand closer to your subject. In the viewfinder or on the monitor on the back of the camera, look around the edge of the frame. Is there stuff in there that doesn't really need to be, much of it actually distracting from what you are trying to feature? Move in a little and crop it out right there in the camera. And if you are taking a photo of a person or person, where are their eyes in the frame? Without thinking about it, the casual picture-taker will almost always center the eyes right in the focusing dot, right in the middle of the frame. The problem with that is that, again, if you look around the edges of the frame, you'll notice that there really isn't any subject matter included above the subject's head...just an area or empty space. When taking a picture of a person, put their eyes on a horizontal line 1/3 of the distance from the top of the frame. You'll be amazed at the difference this makes.
2. Light. This is tricky, and gifted photographers spend their creative lives attempting to make artistic use of it. For most simple cameras, you have to depend on a flash (strobe, actually) built right into the front of the camera. In the bad old days, each flash unit had a "'guide number" and you had to divide the distance to your subject into that number to give you an f-stop on which to set the camera lens to get a properly exposed photo. I'm serious. These days, virtually all strobes...on camera or off...measure their own output as it's reflected back from the subject and then they automatically cut it off when the subject has had enough illumination to be sufficiently lit. Unbelievable, huh?
The only problem...well two of them actually...with these on-camera strobes is that they light the scene in a harsh, flat manner, creating deep background shadows. And, they produce the dreaded red-eye. They are so fast that we humans can't close our iris fast enough to prevent them from lighting up the back of our eyes. If your camera has an on-camera strobe, there isn't a whole heck of a lot to do about this, but there are a couple of things that can offer hope. For one thing, READ YOUR CAMERA'S MANUAL (duh) and if it has a red-eye setting, use it. (Because the "manuals" that come these days with even the most expensive cameras are written by folks to whom English is most decidedly a second language, check Amazon.com to see if there is an independently published manual for your camera. If there is, buy it and read that one.) In red-eye mode, the strobe will blink a bit before actually firing, which is supposed to warn and close down the iris. Never works on dogs, but sometimes will on humans, so it's worth a try. The other thing you can do to make the lighting in your indoor photos a bit less harsh is to turn on all the lights in the room just as high as they'll go. That can illuminate the background just enough to take away some of the very dark shadows. (Yeah, I know - I can hear the environmentalists cluck-clucking right now about this energy use, but hang it, Scrooge, it's Christmas. How often are you gonna to this?)
If your camera's strobe...on-camera or off...happens to have a tilt feature, you've got it made. Tilt it in the air at about a 45 degree angle above your subject and look at the difference in your photos. Also, if your flash has an opaque plastic diffuser that can be fitted to the flash, put it on and leave it on. Note that after-market diffusers are available (check Amazon.com) for many flash units that don't necessarily come with them. I sometimes have to pick up one of these even though I already have a lot of them... spread from one end of Nebraska to the other. They can fall off, so maybe you want an extra one.
One last word on flash. I don't want to make this post a pitch for you to spend your dollars on gear (the photo mags already have that hustle covered in spades), but if your camera does have a "hot-shoe" where an external flash can be mounted, and if you can find one that is "dedicated" to your camera model (so that it works automatically) you might want to think about buying it. They don't have to cost that much - especially the after-market ones - and because they typically come with a variety of tilt and angle possibilities, as well as an optional diffuser, the can make a huge difference in your photos. Really.
Finally, you don't always have to pose people before taking their picture. Some of the best and most charming people pictures that are ever shot are of folks just doing what they were doing right before somebody pointed a camera at them. If they are facing away from you, and you want their face in the picture, just say their name in a voice not intended to startle them and fire. Even when you pose folks, it's not absolutely necessary to say, "Everyone say 'cheese' (I once knew a person who insisted that everyone saying "peaches" produces a nicer smile than "cheese") If you want to give your subjects just a bit of warning, all you have to say is something like "Okay, nice smile" and fire away. And to be fair to both the subjects and the photographer, take several shots. The key to being remembered as a photographer...and everyone who makes a living with a camera knows this...is to take a whole lot of photos and throw most of them away!
Happy Holidays, everyone, and good shooting.
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