Helpful tips to capture better holiday images

Katherine Mickle

Katherine Mickle, SRU associate professor of art, teaches traditional and digital photography.

Dec. 18, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. ¬- Whether your holiday gift list includes a new smart phone with camera, a digital SLR camera, GoPro, Drone cam or even the new "retro" Polaroid Socialmatic Instant Digital Camera you're not alone.

In fact, market experts say the digital camera market is projected to grow to 138 million units this year. The purchase or gifting of new cameras is being influenced by incorporation of new technologies like touch screen user interface, high definition video, wireless connectivity, advanced image detection and improved zoom lenses among others.

Yet despite all the bells and whistles, there are still a bazillion "bad" images filling up hard drives just waiting to be "Photoshoped."

"Unless you want to chain yourself to your computer to fix something that could have - and should have - been resolved before the shutter release was even pressed," said Jeff Meyer of "Digital Camera World. "You need to lean less on technology and more on learning how to produce better shots in-camera."

Katherine Mickle, Slippery Rock University associate professor of art who teaches photography, couldn't agree more.

"To get the shot to begin with is always going to be best," she said. "Technically speaking, when you can capture it in the camera, it is going to be more sound and accurate - the lighting and the density of the image, the brightness, things like that. You can adjust them during editing, but if they're not right in the original image, even if you adjust it, the photo is not going be the best it could be if you had done it properly to begin with."

Mickle said novices pining for graduation and holiday shots should gravitate to the "program" user mode instead of automatic. In general, automatic produces too much color saturation, contrast and blown out highlights. Unlike auto, program mode allows a user to adjust lighting, called ISO, color, white balance and exposure.

Another Mickle pointer is to shoot multiple images. Unlike film photography, digital photography doesn't cost more if you take more pictures.

"Don't expect to get the perfect shot by taking only one photo," Mickle said. "Many photos should be taken to find one or two great images. Trying different compositions of the same subject will provide more chances of finding the right shot."

Mickle said the subject matter should determine a vertical or horizontal composition.

"Is the main subject taller than wider? Then go vertical," she said. "Try minimizing backgrounds, unless they add significantly to the subject or mood of the photograph. Determining what is important about an image can also help decide camera orientation."

When shooting holiday photos you should strive for "good expressions," Mickle said.

"Sometimes to get good expressions from people, don't be afraid to joke or tell a story," Mickle said. "The photographer often sets the mood, so use what you know about the subjects to try to get the desired expression. Want a genuine smile? Ready the camera by preparing all camera settings first. Then say something that you know will make them laugh, taking several consecutive shots as you do."

A great holiday shot will emphasize endearing aspects of the season, she said. The composition of the photograph should capture dynamic views of whatever the subject: from snow covering the landscape to lights, decorations or home cooking.

Laura Vernon, SRU clerk typist II for the Office of Communication and Public Affairs, and a professional photographer, agreed that in-camera is best.

"The key is to get it right in the camera first, so you don't have to spend time editing," she said. "Overworking a photo in editing software very rarely looks good, unless you are trying to achieve a super-artsy effect. If it takes you longer than ten minutes to alter your photo, maybe think about going back out to re-shoot it."

Vernon said several simple composition techniques would help improve anyone's photos. "One simple techniques is to move in closer to your subject to eliminate undesirable elements in the background."

"Make sure there isn't a tree coming out of the top of your subject's head or garbage cans in the background," she said.

Another easy tip, she said, is to avoid always centering your subject. "Moving your main subject to the left or right can create more interest in your photo," she said.

Photos don't work if a subject is out of focus.

"Make sure your focus is locked on your subject if they are not in the center of the picture and not another object in your photo, otherwise your subject will be blurry," she said. "To do this, first lock focus on your subject, then recompose the photo so the subject is away from the middle. To lock focus, center your subject, press and hold the shutter button halfway down and then reposition the camera while holding the shutter."

If shooting in full sun, use flash, Vernon said. "Full sun creates awful shadows on people's faces and it can also create raccoon eyes. Using a flash fills in any shadows and makes the subject look much more appealing."

Photographers need to know their flash's range. A good rule of thumb is to be no further than 10 feet way.

"Watch your light," she said. "Harsh shadows on a person's face can make them look much older and enhance wrinkles, whereas, soft light on a cloudy day can subdue wrinkles. Also watch out for dappled sunlight on a person's face. If you don't like the light on a subject then you need to move yourself or your subject to a place with better light. Pay attention to the light in relation to your subject."

She said photographers should mix it up with different viewpoints.

"Don't always just stand erect when taking photos," she said. "Squat, bend, sit or lay down to get a different view for your photographs. Get down to the eye level of your subject. Move around a lot."

Vernon said to adopt the mindset of becoming a photo 'director' instead of a passive photo taker.

"A photo director takes charge," she said. "A photo director picks the location, arranges people into pleasing positions or groups and add props if necessary."

Many photographers talk about photography being all about light. A camera's ISO controls the amount of light let in by the lens.

Factors for ISO selection include whether you're shooting inside or outside, whether it's sunny, cloudy, shady or dark.

"If you are shooting outside during the middle of the day, use a lower ISO such as 100 or 200," she said. "If you are shooting at night without a tripod, you will have to increase the ISO to a higher number to be able to record the light on the camera's sensor. If your subject or scene is too dark you will need to use a higher ISO such as 800 or 1600."

As a general rule, photographers should try to get as low an ISO as possible for better image quality.

Many beginners struggle with motion blur, she said. A camera's shudder speed controls sharpness and motion.

If shooting a sporting event or children running around in the backyard and you want a crisp focus, use a shudder speed between 1/500th and 1/2000th of a second, she said.

"If you want to capture the long streaks of a car's taillights running through your shot, change your camera's shutter speed to a long exposure. This might be one second, ten seconds or even longer," she said.

Aperture controls background blur. Most cameras offer an aperture range between f/2.8 and f/16 or f/22. If you want a tight focus on your subject and a blurred background, called bokeh, use a small numerical aperture.

The smaller the numerical value, the more background blur the camera will achieve.

"My 'go to' aperture is f/5.6," Vernon said. "I can get background blur and also separate my subject from the background. But each photographer is different so find an aperture that works for you."

Vernon's last and most important tip: Read the manual.

Jamie Greene, an emerging technology and multimedia major from Moon Township who shoots SRU events for the Communication and Public Affairs Office, said composing a shot is just as important as the camera settings needed for the right exposure.

Greene advocates filling the frame, while avoiding unwanted elements in the background. A photographer should considering using the rule of thirds, which teaches that off-center subject focus creates a more dynamic image.

"You don't want too much in the frame, but at the same time, you don't want too little," Greene said. "One of the things I do when I shoot landscapes and cityscapes is I go to the location knowing the kind of shot I want."

"With digital it's easy to do trial and error because of you don't have to worry about wasting film. Don't just go somewhere and expect the ideal shot to happen," he said. "Lens filters can sometimes be your friend if you are trying to capture moving water or something like that in the middle of the day."


MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 | gordon.ovenshine@sru.edu