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10 Tips for taking memorable pictures

Want to give your photos some professional flair? San Francisco State University photojournalism Professor Ken Kobre says paying attention to a few details can make a big difference.

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“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. With the advent of affordable digital photography, you can easily take lots of photos — increasing the odds that you will come up with a gem of a photo. Kobre says, “The difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional shoots and throws away more.”

Turn ordinary into extraordinary

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. Digital photography offers a wide range of options to help you make the most of lower-light situations. Experiment a little! (If you’re using film, try 800-speed films, which are widely available and allow you to take sharp indoor photos without a flash.) Also consider different types of flash that offer more natural light. 
  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.


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