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December 22, 2002

Want to give your holiday photos some professional flair this season? SFSU photojournalism professor Ken Kobre says paying attention to a few details can make a big difference.

"The first step in becoming a pro is to shoot twice as much," says Kobre, whose book Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach is a standard text at more than 125 universities around the country. "The difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional shoots and throws away more."

Kobre offers these 10 tips for transforming ordinary snapshots into memorable images.

  1. Get closer. This was the advice of legendary war photographer Robert Capa, who said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Often the key to giving a photo pizzazz is to move in and capture the details of your subject, leaving out extraneous things in the background.

  2. When you're photographing people, have patience. Let people get used to you before shooting pictures. When they start to forget the camera is there, you can take more natural candid shots.

  3. Before you shoot, look at the corners and edges of the frame, not just the center. Find interesting and complementary shapes along the edges to keep the shot from looking either dull or too cluttered.

  4. Avoid the "jungle effect." This happens when surrounding shapes and colors compete for attention with the subjects of the photo. One trick is to leave the background out of focus by staying close to the subject and moving them forward, away from walls or other distracting backgrounds.

  5. Don't use flash if you can avoid it. It looks unnatural and washes out colors and facial features. If you're using film, try 800-speed films, which are widely available and allow you to take sharp indoor photos without a flash.

  6. Avoid outdoor shots in broad daylight. Bright daylight, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is unflattering and washes out your subject. Instead try capturing your subject in the rich tones and long shadows at sunrise and sunset. If you must shoot during the day, move your subject into a shaded area out of direct sunlight.

  7. Try more night pictures. Nighttime offers interesting shadows and light for taking unique shots. At night you can use flash, a street lamp or even holiday lights if they're bright enough. In low light you can use a tripod to allow longer exposure.

  8. For more interesting shots, don't insist on having people pose. Instead, capture them in the middle of an activity so the photo says something about their personalities or interests.

  9. If you want your subjects to pose, have them find a comfortable, natural position. Here's when a little leaning or slouching is permitted. Avoid having someone stand or sit straight up, because these tense postures look uncomfortable and don't say anything about the person.

  10. If you're taking a portrait, include a telling item in the picture. A favorite toy or an item related to the person's hobby or business will make your photo tell a compelling story.

As digital cameras become more common, many people wonder whether digital works better than film. Kobre shoots with both digital and standard film cameras and says each format has its strengths.

"One main advantage of digital photography is you can see the results immediately. The disadvantage is, for the more inexpensive cameras, there's a delay between when you press the shutter and when the actual picture is taken."

That makes it harder to take candid pictures. One solution, he suggests, is to see whether your digital camera can prefocus by pressing the shutter halfway before you take the shot. Prefocusing can cut the time it takes to shoot the picture because the lens is already in position.

Another remedy is to buy a more expensive camera that has a faster response time, but that can be cost prohibitive.

"Per dollar it's still much cheaper to buy and use a film camera," he says.

But Kobre says you can still get good quality from a digital camera. "The digital cameras can make incredibly beautiful pictures with five-meg chips," he says, but adds that even three-megapixel cameras can deliver nice results.

The SFSU Public Affairs staff put Kobre's advice into practice and came up with the photographs below.


Before and After Ken Kobre's Advice

Example of typical indoor bad picture
Example of indoor photo taken using Ken Kobre's tips
Our staff took this picture from too far away, showing too much of the room and too little of the subjects, who are posed rather than behaving in a natural way. Here, our staff did a much better job by moving in to frame the picture around the models and then waiting for the subjects to relax and play in a more natural way.

Example of outdoor picture with common mistakes
Here our photographer posed the subject facing the sun and stood too far back, resulting in a stilted and unnatural photograph that tells you nothing about the squinting model and her dog. Learning from Ken, the picture-taker put the model in an evenly lit area, framed the background and got the subjects to play. This picture tells us the two subjects are good friends, not strangers.

Need a larger version of our staff's before and after pictures? Indoor Bad (2.14MB), Indoor Good (554KB), Outdoor Bad (2.85MB), and Outdoor BGood (1.63MB).

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Last modified December 22, 2002, by the Office of Public Affairs