Tips for the taking the best photos, or at least passable ones

When I went to Bern, Switzerland by mistake once (I meant to go to Lucerne, but ended up on the wrong train), the only picture I took was of the bear in the bear pit. Because my own camera had broken when I dropped it on the stone floor of the church where William Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, Great Britain, I was using a borrowed, cheap one on this Switzerland jaunt.

How did I drop my camera? I was donating money of all things. And what was my payback? My picture of the bear looked like it was of a dog–a mangy dog at that. What was I thinking?

See what I mean? And this is the enhanced version!

Why was this the only picture I took in the entire country? Maybe because I didn’t plan ahead about what pictures I’d like to take. I didn’t even know that a bear was the symbol for Bern and there was a live one in the center of town. Plus, I only had a couple hours. I was on my way to Lucerne, after all. I was too busy having an experience to snap pictures of my experience. Still, how depressing.

Gadling reader, Jeff Nolan dropped us a list of picture taking tips that might have helped me out in Bern. One of the tips he passed on is to plan ahead. He suggested that as you look through guide books to plan a trip, think about what photos you want to get beforehand. Then you can decide what time of day will give you the best light. I also would have known why the picture was doomed from the get go. The contrast was lousy. A brown bear next to dull grey cement in late afternoon lighting is not the best. Plus, the bear was so far away, the perspective was off. And I was looking down on him. He was in a pit. Admittedly, I took this picture before I had taken a photography class.

What I also discovered with this class is that it’s important to sweep the edges. That means have your eye look at all sections of what is framed to look for things you don’t want in the picture. Pay close attention to all the edges. Sometimes, we’re so focused on the main subject, we miss what else is in the picture. Move what you don’t want, or adjust. For example, a backpack thrown down in the foreground of the shot might detract from what you want as the focal point. Sometimes you can crop those details out or mask them, but a shot is better if you notice those details in the beginning. Digital photography, I’ve found, makes this a bit trickier because of the lag time.

The above photo was taken at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio this fall. Yep, those are pumpkins. When I was framing this I was paying attention to getting both pumpkins in the shot, the men along with their feet –plus the sign. I didn’t notice the little girl at all until I saw the photos later. Also, what’s that yellow thing on the stage? A piece of trash? I should have moved it. In another photo of the same subject, a woman’s arm is in the frame. She was also taking a picture. I wonder whose picture I was in? It doesn’t hurt to take several of the same shot so you are at least assured of one turning out okay. The men were important to provide scale for the pumpkins. The little girl actually added interest since she indicates the presence of spectators. Because one man is looking at his watch, and the other man is looking at him, that shows natural movement instead of a posed shot.

Now, I know to check to the background contrast when I take portraits, and if necessary move people into better lighting so that their features show up. This is particularly important when taking pictures of people with very dark skin, or when people are wearing wide-brimmed hats.

Even though this picture (a scanned photo just like the one of the bear) was taken at the Bay of Bengal in India at dusk, there was enough light that it worked. Plus, the boy with the darkest skin’s head was framed by the lightest portion of the sky. His blue shirt, helped provide contrast, as did the other boy’s tank top. If they had all been without their shirts, this would not have turned out that well.

Jeff’s main point is that if you are cognizant of the shots you take, you can bring home images that will heighten your experience after the fact. I agree, but sometimes, if all you have is a picture of a bear in a pit, it’s better than nothing. That in itself makes a story.

(When I took the photo of the bear out of the album I made, I verified that this is indeed the only photo I took during my short time in Switzerland. Since I was on a tight budget, I only was in Switzerland for a day (night train from Rome to Bern and from Lucerne to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Denmark. That’s one way to save money. )

Jeff also suggested the HP Web site link to “Digital photography tips and techniques: How to take better photos.” This link leads to other excellent photo tips. Thanks, Jeff!

400 Pound Plus Pumpkins and a Carving Knife

Gus Smithhisler carves pumpkins like nobody’s business. I saw him at work this past Saturday at Jack Hanna’s Fall Fest at the Columbus Zoo where Gus was turning the most enormous pumpkins into animal art. Being ever so on my toes, I grabbed his card and contact information.

Gus has emailed me back to let me know of his upcoming engagements. If you get a chance to see him at work, don’t miss it. Since fall is officially here, consider this a fall festival kick off. Gus is appearing at a few festivals in addition to his Las Vegas gig. By the way, if you go to his Web site, you’ll see his handy work. He started out a few years ago at the Indiana State Fair and his business keeps growing.

If you do see Gus, he may give you some pumpkin seeds so you can grow your own monsters at home. The photo is from last year’s zoo event. Gus’s daughter helps him from time to time.