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Hit them with your best (vacation) shots

If you want to show off your photography skills and photos to family, friends or strangers, follow some guidelines.

December 27, 2009|By Mark Steinberg

"Step back from the button, sir."

That's my initial piece of advice to any amateur photographer intending to foist his vacation photographs on the folks back home.

In 30 years of travel, I've found an inverse relationship between the number of photos I take and the likelihood that I'll cull them into an appealing collection.

When you have friends with the attention spans of gnats and a comparable interest in your photos, fewer is not just better, it's essential. And if fewer is the sine qua non for getting an audience to pay attention to your photos, you need to figure out how to do that.

Thus, self-restraint is the first rule.

My second rule is a corollary of the first: Take nice pictures.

There are people more qualified than I -- indeed, there are some very smart dogs more qualified than I -- who can tell you how to capture with beauty and grace whatever your aesthetic leads you to conclude is worth the candle.

I do, however, have one thought to help guide that aesthetic: Take shots that aren't trite. By that, I mean pictures of things or scenes that everyone in the world has already seen. The fact that you've visited a place in person is not going to make it more interesting to your mailman.

Trite also means camera angles or views that have become common currency in the amateur picture-taking world. A shot of a long alleyway with angular shadings cast across its length is trite. A picture of your kid appearing to hold in her hand the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or the Taj Mahal is trite. Think: "Am I taking this picture, or taking this picture from this angle, because I saw it on a postcard or on Aunt Mabel's wall?"

If you blow the first two rules, there's an alternative: Edit photos in your camera. In hotel rooms and on buses, planes and donkeys, I erase shots. This is easy when part of a subject is unfocused or when I've duplicated shots. It's harder when two photos are fine on their merits, but you know you need only one to make your point or, more accurately, to inflict your point on others. In these instances, I either bite the bullet at the scene or wait to make a decision in the privacy of my garage.

Rule 3: When you get your photos home, be brutal. Not to the Komodo dragon that's eaten your cat, but to the 1,734 pictures you now have to deal with. Once you get the hang of it, it's still nearly impossible. But I do have a few suggestions.

First, don't try to do it all in one pass. You are not Doug Flutie. See this as a process of successive reduction. Narrow the number of candidates by repeatedly reviewing what you've done. Let the results sit for a while, then come back to the job. Maybe go on vacation between cuts so you can generate more pictures.

Second, ask yourself why there should be more than 30 photos left when the process is complete. I've found that's the maximum number people are willing to thumb through, and that's when I'm looking over his or her shoulder.

Finally, and most important, pick photographs that require a minimum of narrative for someone to understand them. Ask yourself whether your great-grandchildren are going to "get" or be moved by what you've done if you're not there to explain it. And while I suppose you could leave a long note for them, there's no guarantee they'll be able to read your handwriting.

Rule 4: In making your choices, don't reflexively adopt the notion that you must present a chronological story though your photographs. Perhaps conveying a feeling of what you saw or experienced is more important than telling the "We went here, then we went there" story. In the case of my trip to China, my final cut grouped faces and foods, often ignoring the chronology or context in which I encountered them. Because you probably took your trip to see or experience something new, don't revert to thinking inside the box when you get home. Hold off on that until you return to work.

There's a final suggestion I feel compelled to pass along. Don't buy a silly camera. By that, I don't mean pink cameras with Hello Kitty pictures around the viewfinder. Rather, I mean cameras with lenses that are 16 inches long and make the photographer hunch over. Although the quality of the resulting pictures is indisputable, it's also true that those pictures tend to be limited to things the photographer can see from the waist down.

You can do better.

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