You get the pictures back from the family reunion. You thumb through, and image after image yields sighs of "if onlys" about shots that could have been better.
Why is Aunt Elma's head blocked by Uncle Gene's hat? Why is everybody's head the size of a pin? Why is your perfect action shot of the cousins' sack race blurred? Why does the picture of Grandma's perfect peach pie look anything but?
Quit whining, and do something about it.
The camera controls are in your hands, says longtime professional photographer Nick Kelsh. His best quick fix: "Get closer to the subject" figuratively and literally.
In his instructive and entertaining book "How to Photograph Your Family" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95), the photographer gets at the heart of what makes a picture good.
His book is a compilation of show and tell and do's and don'ts. One section showcases work by amateurs in his circle, including a middle-schooler, a dentist and a grandmother. It illustrates mistakes and winning ideas and contains explanatory foldouts on various photographic situations. There are clever pointers, from how to deal with subjects of different ages to capturing the perfect moment at an event.
Anyone can become the family photographer, but often one person is dubbed the photographer based on personality and how the photos come out, Kelsh says.
"There's something slightly aggressive about the person who takes the photos," Kelsh says.
"The person has to always be in control, always focusing on getting an image that people will like. It's not a job for the chronically shy."
It's hard to get people to forget about the camera and be spontaneous.
"I've been known to say after I've completed shooting, 'I'm finished,' and after hanging around gotten my best shots after the formal session," he says. "People may at first be conscious of the camera and may think about their actions, but if you hang around long enough, they forget you're there, and you end up getting what you came for."
Extra time helps, Kelsh says. Know when to keep your mouth shut, and shoot a lot of film.
For instance, if you're at home with your baby and have an hour to observe the child, turn the time into a photo session. "Shoot at least one roll or more," Kelsh says. "Bad shots can always be tossed.
"It's always amazed me when people will come from miles away, from all over the country to a family gathering and you get everybody together for the one group shot and the family photographer shoots one frame."
When it's time for a group photo for the family reunion, plan how you want the picture to look before everyone gathers.
"Plan your background, your lighting, whether you'll be on a chair looking down. If you're not prepared, the directing thing gets really old when you're fumbling around making it up on the spot. You'll lose your subjects."
Kelsh urges shutterbugs to try turning off the flash.
"I realize that is a tough thing to do if you're inexperienced. But playing around with light is a nice surprise." Think about what light will substitute for the flash and where it's coming from, he cautions.
Also, try black-and-white film. Color can be a distraction. If someone in the family portrait is wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt, the eye is immediately drawn to the shirt, not the family as a whole. That shirt in black-and-white garners a completely different reaction.
Black-and-white photography makes it easier to produce higher-quality pictures, Kelsh says. It is very forgiving, particularly when lighting the photograph is difficult.
Tips on recording your family's lives
Nick Kelsh has been in the picture business for 30 years, and his work has been featured on the covers of several books in the "Day in the Life" series. He also worked with author Anna Quindlen on "Naked Babies" and "Siblings." Here are his opinions on recording your family's lives.
* The self-timer: Go ahead and be narcissistic. It's OK for the family photographer to get in the picture. Sometimes the self-timer is the only way to do this. Plan for a logical, nearby space for yourself as you set up the photo. A tripod helps with positioning. Nowadays, even the inexpensive point-and-shoot models come with a tripod plug.
* Face it or not: Photographing someone from behind can communicate a lot of emotion and be a pleasant break from pictures of faces."
* Digital photography: The digital camera is a grand opportunity to preserve family memories. It's becoming easier to use and cheaper, and photo quality is better. Plus, there's a variety of ways to use digital photos on the computer. For about $7 more than the processing fee, you can store your roll of film on CD. Think of the physical space savings if you have a large family.
* Vertical vs. horizontal: If you're going to make a computer slide show of your work, consider how your verticals will be cropped on the PC screen. If you're shooting digital pictures specifically for a computer screen saver, take horizontals only.
* Video vs. still: Video gives an instant idea of what it was like to be there. It's a nice complement to still pictures. But it does not substitute for a single image sitting in a frame on a desk. Still photography pushes emotional buttons harder than video and has stood the test of time.
* Filing sans shoebox: Filing photographs can be a nightmare. Kelsh recommends culling 10 photos a year. Put them in a binder with your best negatives. Store the outtakes in an old shoebox, give them away or toss them if you can stand it. Another idea is to store all your pictures on photo CDs.
-- Knight Ridder / Tribune