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Spruce up your holiday snapshots



Matt Itelson
SFSU Office of Public Affairs
(415) 338-1743
(415) 338-1665


Press Release published by the Office of Public Affairs


SFSU photo expert Ken Kobre gives 10 tips for taking unique, memorable pictures

SAN FRANCISCO, December 19, 2002 -- Want to give your holiday photos some professional flair this season? San Francisco State University 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, frame the background first through the viewfinder. Make sure the corners and edges of the photo frame are interesting, not just the center. Find interesting and complementary shapes along the edges to keep the shot from looking either dull or too cluttered. Once you frame the background, then place the subject.
  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. The light 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 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 time delay between pressing 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.


NOTE: Ken Kobre can be reached at (415) 931-6720 or

Student writer Scott Heil assisted in writing this press release.

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Last modified April 23, 2007, by the Office of Public Affairs