Want to take better holiday photos this year?
Don't say cheese.
That was one of the simplest pieces of advice we got when we asked professional photographers for suggestions average people can use to improve their picture-taking.
The problem isn't in the word, explained photographer Mike Cardew of the Akron Beacon Journal; it's in drawing attention to yourself as the photographer. Capturing candid moments, when the subjects aren't looking right at the camera, almost always makes for better pictures, he said.
We gathered a number of ideas from the pros for getting better results behind the camera. Here are some other suggestions to put to use when snapping pictures at holiday gatherings.
1. Get close: Many amateurs shoot their subjects at what photographers call middle distance -- not close up, not in the background. That usually results in boring photos, said Joe McNally, a photojournalist who was one of Life magazine's last staff photographers. He's also the author of a new book aimed at amateurs, "The Life Guide to Digital Photography: Everything You Need to Shoot Like the Pros."
Instead, bring the camera close enough to be right in the middle of the action, McNally said. Get at eye level, which may involve kneeling to shoot a seated person or getting down on the ground to shoot children. "Get on your knees. Get on your belly," he said.
Fill the frame with the action, he said. "If you step back and try to get everything in the photo, most likely you'll get nothing," he said.
2. Bring subjects forward: Sometimes you want to get more of the scenery into a photo -- say, your house all decorated for the holidays. In that case, avoid lining up the subjects right in front of whatever it is you're photographing. You'll barely be able to see them in the photo.
Instead, McNally said, bring the people closer to you, and shoot them with the scenery in the background. Adjusting the zoom so you get a wider shot helps you bring in more of the background, he said.
3. Anticipate the moment: One tricky trait of a camera is the momentary delay between your pushing the shutter-release button and the camera's capturing the image. That's because when you push the button, the camera has to focus first, Akron, Ohio, photographer Dale Dong explained.
When you know you'll be taking a photo momentarily, get the focusing out of the way by depressing the shutter button halfway and holding it there, Dong said. Then, when you press it all the way down, the camera has only one thing left to do -- take the picture.
4. Put people at ease: Many people feel uncomfortable in front of a camera. That uneasiness tends to subside after a while, so spend some time shooting your subjects as they're doing things before you gather them for a posed shot, advised Bob DeMay, the Beacon Journal's photo editor.
Talk to them as you're shooting, DeMay suggested. They'll think more about what they're saying than about having their pictures taken.
Paying the person a compliment or cracking a joke can help, McNally said. Avoid making negative comments, such as looking at a completed photo and criticizing it in the subject's presence.
5. Tell a story: When he's photographing an event such as a holiday party or family gathering, McNally likes to think in terms of telling the story of what happened that day. That helps him determine what images he wants to photograph, he said.
For example, he might shoot the Christmas-morning excitement by getting up early, turning on all the lights and shooting an overall photo of the empty living room before the frenzy starts. Then when the room fills up with people, shoot it again from the same angle.
As the story unfolds, get closer and closer to the action, McNally recommended. Shoot people's faces as they're opening gifts, then maybe get close-ups of their hands in the process. Don't forget to shoot the room's littered aftermath after all the gifts are open.
Shooting a holiday dinner might involve photographing guests as they arrive, the preparations in the kitchen, Uncle Harold tippling in the corner and finally a shot of everyone around the table, he said.
6. Get off center: Often an image is more pleasing if the subject isn't centered. Photographers and other visual artists call it the rule of thirds, but basically it involves not putting the subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame, particularly in a horizontal shot, Dong said.
That rule can also help you avoid leaving too much head room in a picture. You want the subject's head to be higher than the middle of the photo, Dong said.
7. Know your camera: Most of us buy a point-and-shoot camera because we want it to do the thinking for us. We don't have the interest or the patience to study the manual and master all the settings.
That's understandable, Dong said. But he said learning how to control just a couple of camera functions -- the automatic flash and the ISO, which measures sensitivity to light -- can make a big difference in the quality of your photographs.
Sometimes a flash is too strong, so learn how to turn it off, he said. If you always leave the flash on automatic, "it's just like having someone who doesn't know you order food for you in a restaurant," he said. The results are iffy.
When you turn off the flash, turn your camera to its highest ISO setting, he suggested. That will let in more light to make up for what you lose from the flash.
8. Watch the background: We've all seen otherwise good photos ruined by an unfortunate element in the background, such as a tree branch that appears to be growing out of Aunt Margaret's head. Avoid those mistakes by getting in the habit of pausing to look all around the edges of the frame before you press the shutter, McNally advised.
Making that effort will draw your attention away from the subjects to the background, which you might overlook otherwise, he said.
9. Shoot, shoot, shoot: A benefit of digital cameras is you don't have to worry about the cost of film or how many rolls you have on hand, Cardew noted. You're limited only by the capacity of your camera's memory card and your supply of batteries.
Digital cameras also give you instant feedback, so you can easily delete what doesn't turn out well and make adjustments to improve the next shot.
So shoot with abandon, Cardew said. The more photos you take, the more good ones are likely to result.