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Take a Picture, Win an Assignment
by Linda H. Setzer

Have you ever lost an assignment because you couldn't furnish a picture to go with the article? Or have you ever tried to use one of those point-and-shoot cameras and been disappointed with the result?

Not everybody has an array of high-priced cameras, light meters, lenses, tripods and professional film lying around--nor the know-how to use them. But almost everybody has a point-and-shoot camera (in the writing profession they're called PHD cameras, for "push here, dummy") or can make the small investment in a disposable camera available at most drugstores and variety stores. We're talking here about the average photo Joe, like you and I, who barely know one end of the camera from the other.

PHD cameras look and sound simple and mostly they are. But many a would-be photographer has been disappointed with the output from them simply because he didn't know a few tricks of the trade. Maybe these tips will help:

1. FILM: The kind of film you buy makes a big difference. Most newspaper professionals buy ISO 400 so they can take photos under natural light conditions whenever possible. It works in almost any situation. Be sure to read the box to see if you're buying color or black and white, slide film or print film. The editor will tell you what he needs.

2. BATTERIES: I can't tell you how embarrassing it is to get to an assignment and be unable to shoot the picture because (a) the batteries are dead and (b) I don't have a set of spares. If you haven't learned how to load batteries in a camera yet, learn it NOW!

3. SHOOTING INDOORS: Shooting indoors isn't much of a challenge. PHD cameras are basically what they're purported to be: point and shoot. If there's enough light, the flash on the camera will stay put; if not, it will pop up to give you the light you need.

4. SHOOTING OUTDOORS: If the sun is bright and leaves shadows on the subject's face, force the flash by covering the viewfinder with your hand and softly, just barely pressing the shutter button. When you're shooting, put your finger over the light sensor (you can find it by experimenting which window it is, or reading the instructions) and forcing the flash to go off. It's called "fill flash."

5 ARRANGING YOUR SUBJECTS: Depending on what the picture is for, try not to get no more than three or four people in a picture. Of course there comes a time when you have to shoot a crowd, such as a family reunion or business meeting. Try to get them close together, with as little space as possible between them. Look through the viewfinder with a special eye toward that one wandering soul who is standing apart from the crowd or who is hiding behind a colleague because she doesn't like to have her picture taken. Develop a good sense of humor and get everybody laughing with lines like, "Debra, you're hiding! Come on out and join the crowd!"

People who are being photographed don't know what to do with their hands. That's why an arm around the shoulder, hand gestures, or holding a cup of coffee works most of the time, especially in a casual setting. Otherwise you get six people lined up against the wall with their hands crossed in front of their laps. There's a need for the humor again. Tell them professional photographers call that "the fig leaf position" and urge them to do something with their hands, even if they only drop them to their sides.

Avoid a line-up type of shot, the kind that looks like you're placing them against a wall to be executed. Some suggestions:

(a) Turn several sideways with their hands making a gesture, as if they're telling a story.

(b) Line up all four people with their arms around each other's shoulders.

(c) Place one person in a chair and have the others crowded around, their faces close to the sitting person's face (this is especially good when it's a family picture and there's a parent or two and several children; the children can also sit on the arms of the chair and put their arms around the parents).

(d) And hint number one of all hints: never shoot tall and short people together without making some kind of allowance for height. The tall person can sit or the short person can stand on the top riser of a staircase. Your objective here is to eliminate space between people. Get everybody as close together as possible without cramming them.

5. PHD cameras are built for shooting from six to 10 feet away. Less than six feet and you're liable to get washout (too much flash on parts of the subjects and not enough on others) and more than 10 feet makes it highly likely that you won't get enough flash on anybody. Get closer than four feet and everything will be a blur, regardless of flash capacity. If you find you can't get everybody in that 6-10 feet, split them into two groups or take them outdoors and rely on sun and shade for your lighting.

6. PHD cameras are auto-focus and the focus is on the object nearest the camera. If you have several people in front of a wall and you focus between them with the viewfinder on the wall, the wall will be in perfect focus and everybody else will be blurred.

If you've never used a PHD camera before, buy a couple rolls of film and practice the above techniques to see what works on your camera and film and what doesn't. No two cameras are alike; each has its own peculiarities, minor though they may be.

This exercise will be the cheapest photography lesson you will ever take.

© Copyright 2001, Linda H. Setzer

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