Picture perfect

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We asked Jim Miotke, author of “The Better Photo Guide to Digital Photography” (Amphoto, $24.95), for some basic how-to info.

Want more? Sign up for one of his 50 online courses at betterphoto.com.

What are the basics of taking great pictures?

• The easiest way to make a photo jump out is simply to move in closer to your subject.

• Don’t use the LCD screen as a viewfinder. Even though it feels more comfortable, your pictures will turn out blurry because of camera shake. This is accentuated with telephoto shots, because it’s hard to hold the camera steady without a tripod.

• For scenic nature photography, the best time of day is a half-hour before and after sunrise. That’s when you get the magic light. Photographing people right as the sun is setting produces a wonderful glow. Turn in the opposite direction from the sun and use that pink light.

• When photographing kids, take many, many pictures. On a good day, it takes seven to 10 exposures to get one that really works.

What is the “rule of thirds”?

A compositional principle originated by the ancient Greeks, this rule has been used in paintings for centuries.

You imagine two lines dividing your photo horizontally and vertically, like a tick-tack-toe pattern. Instead of placing your subject in the center, use these guidelines to place it in one of the inner sections or on one of the lines.

Generally, you should move in one-third from the left or right and one-third from the bottom or top.

What kind of digital camera should I buy? What features are “must-have”?

• Certain cameras fit certain people better. Are you a soccer mom? A nature enthusiast? What kind of pictures do you like to take? Ask yourself those questions and then look for features for your application.

• To take pictures of friends and family, it’s essential to have a fairly large camera center with a high-quality zoom lens so you can get closer to your subject.

• Megapixels are overhyped. A pixel is a picture element, like a tile on a mosaic. Megapixels are a million pixels; the more dots, the bigger you can make the picture. If you use your camera to print 4-by-6 photos or to e-mail photos, a 2- or 3-megapixel camera is fine. If you’re going to print 5-by-7 or larger photos, get a 4- or 5-megapixel camera.

• If you want to get creative, the most essential feature is the ability to control aperture (lens opening). Look for a camera that lets you control it with a dial or knob.

• For really great pictures, I recommend an SLR (single lens reflex) camera rather than the more common compact model. SLR gives you the ability to see exactly what you’re going to get. In a compact camera, you’re not looking through the lens, but through the viewfinder, and you just trust that you’ll get what you’re seeing. You can also add lenses to an SLR. However, SLRs are a bit bulkier.

What is the best camera for taking everyday family-and-friends shots?

I like Nikon and Canon for SLRs and compact digitals and Sony for compact digitals.

Ask the salesperson to line up different cameras and press the shutter button on each one to see how long it takes to take the picture.

I’ve heard the term “raw” associated with digital photos, but I don’t know what this is. Can you explain?

Raw is a file format popular among professional photographers, where no processing is done to your photo in the camera. You get to make the choices for how your photo looks afterward on the computer, like a digital darkroom.

Most people should stick with JPEG (a storage and compression format developed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group). It’s a fantastic application.

How do I get my pictures off my camera?

Some come with docking stations. But what’s best for anyone halfway comfortable with computers is to get a little card reader, $30 to $40, that plugs into the USB port. You take out the camera’s memory card and plug it into the reader and your images are on your screen.

If that’s too intimidating, take the memory card to any photo lab in your neighborhood.

You also need software programs to organize your images and to make small changes like cropping and resizing. Programs such as Adobe PhotoShop Elements and Google’s Picasa do both.

How do I get hard copies for my photo album?

It depends how much control you prefer to have and how fast you want your prints.

• Take the whole camera or the memory card in to any local developer. (First delete those photos you don’t want to print.)

• Use one of many professional online printing services (POPS), such as shutterfly.com or yorkphoto.com. You upload the images to an online album, then use a credit card to order prints that come in the mail about a week later.

• Buy your own digital photo printer. I really like the Epson line of inkjet printers. The one I use (the Photo 2200) is in the $700 range. I also highly recommend the Epson PictureMate at about $150. This makes 4-by-6 printing so easy!

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