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Originally published July 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 19, 2009 at 7:13 AM

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Travel-photo tips from a pro: Don't just point, shoot

Travel photos: Tips for improving your digital-photography skills.

San Francisco Chronicle

Digital photos by the numbers

27 billion: Number of digital photos that will be taken in the United States this year

8.7 billion: Number of digital photos that will be printed this year

78: Percentage of U.S. households that have a digital camera (not including phones with cameras)

25.7 million: Digital cameras expected to be sold in 2009 (down from 27.7 million in 2008)

$224: What buyers paid, on average, for a digital camera in 2008

412: Pictures taken per year in the average household (roughly 1.13 shots per day).

Source: Photo Marketing Association

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Vacation photos: Love or hate them, but you can't avoid them.

Digital-camera owners in the United States will shoot 27 billion photos this year, according to the Photo Marketing Association — roughly 856 pictures every second. Odds are the majority of those images are related to travel in some form, an occasion when bringing back a tangible memory is the long-term payoff.

"Travel and photography are so intertwined they're almost inseparable," says George Schaub, editorial director for Shutterbug magazine and Shutterbug.com. "Most photographers I know, what turned them on to photography is that somebody laid a camera on them before they took a trip. It changed their experiences. You get into it more. You engage somehow more in the place."

It's also likely, however, that many of those photos (give or take a billion) will be bad. Twenty minutes browsing Flickr.com will tell you that many of them will be really bad.

The upside is that it takes very little effort to make big improvements in your photo skills; in some cases it might be something as simple as turning around to look the other way.

Schaub and Marin County photographer Robert Holmes, whose office on any given day could be a slope in Patagonia or a back alley in Vietnam, contributed to the following list of basic, relatively easy tips aimed at beginner and average camera users who just want to get a little better.

SHOOT STEADY. A lack of sharpness due to camera shake or blur is a common mistake, says Schaub. "Avoid holding the camera out. It's probably the least steady posture for taking a picture."

LEARN TO LOOK AT LIGHT. Daylight is best during the first and last hours, says Holmes. "Get up early and stay out late. There's no secret to great landscapes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Make sure you know what time that is."

ANTICIPATE THE SHOT. With point-and-shoot cameras, it's easy to miss the picture because of shutter lag, the "delay between when you think you're taking a picture and when the camera actually takes the picture," Schaub says. Engage the shutter halfway and allow the camera to focus, then press the rest of the way slightly early.

DON'T TURN THE SUBJECT INTO SCENERY. We've all taken the picture of a loved one — 30 feet away — standing in front of some monument or cathedral. What's the point if you can't make out the person's face? Fill a third of your frame (left side or right) with the person standing 3 to 5 feet away, then fill the remaining two-thirds with your scenery. Shoot from a lower angle if necessary.

GET CLOSER. Most photographs can be improved if the photographer moves closer to the subject.

OUTFLANK YOUR SUBJECT. Instead of shooting buildings head-on from the front, move to one side or the other (depending on the light) and shoot across the front. You get more of the building without a wider lens and the picture shows depth.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. "Don't get hung up on equipment," says Holmes. "Learning to see is the important part of photography, not the amount of equipment you have."

ALWAYS BE AWARE OF WHAT'S IN YOUR FRAME. You are responsible for everything that appears in the final photograph. Learn to see like the camera and you won't get nasty surprises.

LOOK CAREFULLY FOR GESTURES. When taking pictures of people, a simple hand gesture can make or break a shot. Be preoccupied with detail.

EXPLORE THE SCENE MODES. "Introduce yourself to image effects," says Schaub. "You should understand what those things do so you can translate it when you get a little more savvy."

SIT A SPELL. People make better subjects when they're comfortable, so spend a little time and get the shot when they relax.

LOOK TO THE SKIES. Stormy weather combined with dawn light is a winning combination for landscape, says Holmes.

SHOOT A LOT. Digital-camera memory is cheap, much cheaper than film ever was. Shoot intelligently, but don't be afraid to keep shooting until you have the shot you feel expresses what you want to say.

About preparation, Holmes is emphatic: Back up your files as soon as possible, and carry spares of everything essential to shooting, including batteries, cables and even a spare camera. Probably the most important tip, says Holmes, may be the easiest: Just have fun.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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