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It's Our Turn: It’s never been easier to take poor photos

Everyone is a photographer nowadays.

Even if you don’t have a fancy new camera, you probably have a cell phone with a built-in camera. It’s never been easier to take photos and share them with others.

For someone who has been into photography for a long time, I think modern cameras, including some cell phone cameras, are almost miraculous in their ability to produce high-quality photos.

When I first started seriously taking pictures, about 35 years ago, photography was a lot harder, with more controls to master and decisions to make. First you had to decide what kind of film to use. Next you had to set exposure manually. Then, while shooting, you had to constantly focus the lens. Of course, you never really knew if you got it all right until the film was developed.

Over the years, photography has been getting technically easier. Cameras now automatically focus, adjust to varying light levels, set overall color cast, and even stabilize themselves. The camera will make many of the decisions for you if you let it.

However, there is one important thing that even the newest camera can’t do. It can’t think for you.

That’s where many people run into trouble with photography. They assume that because their cameras often do such a good job, they shouldn’t have to think or do anything but push a button and have a photo appear.

I’m the same way, sometimes. I tend to get lazy and just do what’s easy. I’ve made my share of silly mistakes as a photographer. Back in the old days when we used film, I made the classic mistake at least once of shooting without any film in the camera.

I still make mistakes all the time when taking photos. Most are simply the result of not thinking. After all, that’s the real challenge. Photography is about knowing when to override those automatic settings to get the effect you want. It’s about figuring out how you can best communicate in an interesting and unique way. It’s about taking enough photos and sticking with it long enough to get what you originally pictured in your mind.

Here at the Echo Press, it is my job not only to take photos but also to process most of the photos that come in. Sometimes I’m amazed at the high quality of the photos we get. However, more often I am dismayed at how poor the photos are.

One of the biggest problems with contributed photos is that they are often way too small. I don’t know if the computers and e-mail are sizing down the photos, or if the photographers are deliberately doing it, but the result is that the pictures have to be enlarged and aren’t nearly as sharp and clear as they could be.

Another obvious problem is the use of date stamps. Unless you are in the FBI or are a private investigator, there is no reason to ever have the date stamp on. There is no quicker way to ruin a perfectly good photo than to have a line of big, ugly, orange numbers running across it. If you really need to know when a digital photo was taken, it’s easy to tell by looking at the photo information on your computer. Or, better yet, use software that catalogs your photos for you.

One of the easiest ways to dramatically improve your photos is to get closer to your subject. When you think you are close enough, move in a little closer. There are times when you want to include some space around your subject, but in general, if you get close and fill the frame, your photos will be much stronger.

One final thing to learn is how to turn off the flash. Most flashes aren’t made to reach farther than about 10 to 15 feet. If your subject is farther away than that, the flash won’t help and may even ruin your photo. If this is the only control you learn how to operate on your camera, you’ll be way ahead of everyone else.

If you follow these four rules you won’t immediately become a professional photographer, but your photos will look a lot better and will certainly reproduce better in the newspaper.

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“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.