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Capturing Better Pictures

People often claim they're constitutionally incapable of taking good pictures — that they're not technical enough, not artistic enough, or just don't have access to good subject matter. Well, guess what — those people are wrong on all counts.

A rich profusion of subject matter surrounds each one of us, from luminously quiet moments of family life to the play of light in backyards. You simply don't need exotic places or people to make great pictures. And, thanks to point-and-shoot technology, you don't have to be the slightest bit technical to get good picture quality. Exposure, focus, flash — you name it, it's all handled for you, and the results are remarkably consistent.

Which leaves the artistry of photography. It's time to let you in on a little secret. You don't even have to be artistic to take good pictures. You just have to use some visual intelligence. You have to think with your eyes, in a sense. And much of that visual thinking can be reduced to handful of simple notions. Keep the following tips in mind and you'll be surprised — shocked — at the difference in your pictures!

These pointers apply to any kind of point-and-shoot, from fancy "designer" cameras to simple, one-time-use models. You don't have to have a pricey point-and-shoot to make them work for you; you don't even have to have an autofocus model.

Capture the moment

Not to co-opt Kodak, but most of personal photography is about moments. Keep in mind, though, that moments can be unique or everyday. Don't wait for a specific occasion to take your pictures; find the telling moments in seemingly ordinary events. Also remember that moments are by definition fleeting. To catch that perfect expression or charming interaction, you have to anticipate it — keeping your finger on the shutter button, your eye to the viewfinder, and your patience.

Don't use the viewfinder like a gun sight

"Shooting" is an apt description of the way most picture-takers compose, placing their main subject dead-center. (There might as well be crosshairs in the camera's viewfinder.) The most common instance of this is the way people's heads always seem to end up smack in the middle of the picture, with empty space above. For people pictures, vertical or horizontal, try placing heads near the top of the picture area.

Photographers often get so caught up in the moment they're trying to capture that they forget they're also putting a frame around it. Thinking about how to frame a subject when you're trying to capture a moment is a little like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. It takes some concentration!

Get close

Try to fill the frame with your main subject. Most pictures suffer from the subject's being too small. In most cases, the best way to fix this — and the only way, if you have a nonzooming camera — is simply to move in closer. Unless you're shooting a tight portrait, zooming to fill the frame is often not a good idea. In fact, your own two legs are the most important photographic tools at your disposal: Use them to move in and out, and thus to control the subject's size in the frame.

If your point-and-shoot is a non-autofocus model — often called a "focus-free" camera — you shouldn't get closer than about four feet from your main subject. If the subject is closer than that, it will probably end up unsharp in the print. The same thing goes for one-time-use cameras.

Shoot from a low or high angle

There's nothing sacred about your own eye level. If you've ever stooped to shoot pictures of kids, you know this instinctively. Shooting from a child's-eye level helps you make more intimate contact. And with taller subjects, human or inanimate, aiming the camera up from a low angle can create an interesting monumental effect. (Again, legs are your tools here. Squat!)

Shooting from a high angle is a little trickier. You may have to get up on a wall or a car hood, or perhaps shoot from a deck or window. But even a little extra elevation on a subject can keep foreground and background elements from overlapping confusingly, and add depth to an image.

Use flash outdoors

Your point-and-shoot automatically fires its flash in dim light, but you shouldn't think of flash just as a way to add light to a subject when there isn't enough to shoot by already. Flash is actually a great idea when you must shoot in direct sunlight, because it "fills" the dark, unattractive facial shadows created by a subject's eye sockets and nose. Flash also helps brighten a "backlit" subject that would otherwise end up too dark.

On the other hand, if an outdoor subject has delicate lighting that you think might be overpowered by flash (rosy light at the end of the day, for example), don't use it. And if you're shooting a landscape, don't bother — it's too far away for the flash to make any difference. When in doubt, shoot pictures with and without flash and then compare the final results.

Keep flash backgrounds close

Otherwise, the print may make your subject appear to be surrounded by a dark void — a background too distant for the flash to light. (Photofinishing machinery worsens this effect, trying to compensate for all that darkness and, as a result, making the main subject too light.) While you're at it, choose a colorful background. And if you don't have the luxury of moving the subject around, two other things can improve background detail. One is to use slow-sync flash mode, if your camera has this mode. The other is to switch to a faster film.

Use a fast film

Don't be talked into a print film that has a lower "speed" than ISO 400 unless you plan to make big blow-ups from it. Current fast films — ISO 400 or even ISO 800 — give you prints of exceptionally high quality. And their extra sensitivity to light not only reduces the risk of slow, image-blurring shutter speeds, but lets you shoot without flash in a wider range of existing light. Just as important, it improves background detail in flash shots.

Place the main subject off-center

Whether you're shooting a person or a mountain, try not to center the subject in the viewfinder unless you have a compelling compositional reason to do so. A centered subject makes the picture more static in feeling. A subject placed to one side of the frame usually creates a more dynamic design.

Move from side to side

A small shift sideways can make a huge improvement in a picture, preventing objects at different distances from overlapping horizontally and creating visual confusion. Study the viewfinder as you move to see how a change in lateral position can change the relationships among elements of the scene.

Experiment with the horizon line

Usually, anything is better than placing a landscape's horizon line midway up the frame. Put it at the bottom instead, and you can emphasize a sky, for a "big" effect. Place it near the top, and you can create a strong feeling of depth.

Take lots of pictures

Film is cheap. Photography's great pleasure is that you can learn what works by trying it, for the cost of a frame of film and a 4 x 6-inch print.

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