Family picture-taking season is just about here. The kickoff event is Easter (April 12), when little girls parade around in new dresses and bonnets and little boys tame cowlicks and don clip-on neckties.
As the weather warms up, people turn into shutterbugs, clicking away at weddings, graduations, reunions, company picnics, and seaside vacations.
Some amateur photographers take wonderful snapshots, but most could use some pointers. To provide solid counsel, we turned to several seasoned professionals for advice.
Our panel of experts includes Craig Alesse, a publisher of photography books in Amherst, N.Y., and author of "Don't Take My Picture: How to Take Fantastic Photos of Family and Friends (and Have Fun!)" (Amherst Media, 1989); Katie Freeman of Image Artists, a wedding and portrait photographer in Santa Cruz, Calif., with nearly 20 years experience; and Bud Prince, a retired Eastman Kodak employee who serves as an "ambassador" for the Rochester, N.Y., company.
Among their key tips for the point-and-shoot crowd are these:
Be prepared. "We always tell people to have their camera with them," says Mr. Prince. With today's compact cameras, it's easy to keep one available, in a glove compartment, tote bag, or coat pocket. (This writer is partial to the silverware drawer as a central home location.)
Having the camera handy, though, is only half the battle. Being familiar with its operation is equally important.
Know how to load and unload film, how close objects can be to the lens and remain in focus, and how to use the flash in daylight conditions (more on that later).
Move in. Many family photographers don't get close enough to their subjects. Ask a waiter to take a picture of your table, Prince says, and he backs up "somewhere between Chicago and Detroit."
When you photograph people, you want them to fill the frame, Mr. Alesse says. He suggests composing the shot, then stepping forward, or simply zooming in if the camera has that feature.
Of course there are situations where seeing people head to toe works best. Other times the focus should be from the waist up or on the head and shoulders.
But even when context is important, closer can be better. Ms. Freeman occasionally photographs children with a musical instrument. "You want to get some of the keys if they're at the piano," she says, "but if you try to get the whole piano and the child in the frame it's kind of boring. You just want some idea of where they are."
Promote naturalness. This means knowing how to work with the people being photographed, either for posed or candid shots.
When posing people, Freeman says she's not fond of "cheese" as a smile cue. "It's rather worn out," she says. "If I'm working with young children, I may ask if they've had a chocolate pizza or seen a purple elephant. That makes them laugh."
Our experts agree that the most natural picture often occurs the instant after the shutter clicks. "The secret is to take the picture and then take another right after that, so that people drop their guard," Alesse says.
Catching the moment, he says, is what's electric about good photography. "You need to train yourself to keep an eye out for catching a peak expression or smile. It requires a little experience to do this, he says, but the results are very gratifying.
Alesse finds it helpful to hang out until people get used to him. "Actually act like you're not taking a picture," he recommends. Maybe even act disinterested or look the other way until those being photographed relax.
Letting people chat with the photographer can also help, as can props. Freeman says she's generally not fond of props, but finds they can work well with younger children. "Books are good because it gets them to sit still," she says, adding that having an older sibling read to a child can create a wonderful and honest interaction. Toys are OK, too, so long as they aren't overly large (such as a giant stuffed animal) or so engaging that the child won't accept directions.
Take plenty of pictures. Professional photographers advocate snapping away, knowing that multiple images of the same subject are the best way to ensure a winning photo.
This is virtually a must in shooting a group, since it's hard to get everyone primed together.
Work with the developer. What you get when you pick up your prints is not necessarily what you must accept.
"These automatic machines [in the labs] use a particular exposure for printing and sometimes it doesn't work out well for your pictures," Prince says. "You can ask them to redo pictures that don't come out well, and many times they'll do it, especially if you're a regular customer."
This is when it can help to have a working relationship with a photo shop or lab rather than just being a faceless, drop-the-film-in-the-slot type of customer.
Use the flash. A built-in flash goes off automatically indoors in most point-and-shoot cameras, but it frequently can be set to go off even when light is plentiful.
"You usually can't control the exposure with point-and-shoot cameras," Alesse says, "and in bright sunlight you get rather harsh shadows. By turning on the flash, you get a burst of light that knocks out these shadows."
Be aware of composition. A common mistake in taking group shots is to line up people in a row. Some simple strategies for creating greater visual interest are to create depth by having people stand on stairs, or have some sitting and others standing.
When outside, position your subjects so that poles, swing sets, and trees don't appear to grow from heads.
Think creatively, too, perhaps asking a youngster to sit in a wheelbarrow or straddle a bike.
* Don't shoot down at children. Get on their level or lower.
* Change angles.
* Think of creating small photo stories with several images.
* Use morning and early evening light. This can yield excellent results, as can pictures taken in shade. Indoors, suffused light coming from a window can be good for taking portraits.
* Avoid red eyes caused by flash photography by having the subject look away.
* Play peekaboo with a child around a tree or corner to capture natural expressiveness.
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