How to Take a Picture, by White House Photographer Pete Souza

Photograph by Pete Souza

Pay attention to what’s in the background. The subject is most important, but surroundings can make or break a good photograph. If there’s clutter behind the president or it looks like a street sign is sticking out of his head, I step to the left or right until it’s no longer in the way. And if you take all your pictures at eye level, they can start to look the same. Bending down or getting up a bit higher can make a big difference.

Don’t just rely on posed pictures. Candid moments are more memorable than people smiling stiffly into the camera. Patience is everything; I spend most of my time watching and waiting.

Get in close. People think standing back to see as much as possible will make for a better picture, but photos are usually more interesting when the subject—your wife or kid or cat—fills a good part of the frame. If your camera has a zoom lens, zero in. If you’re using an iPhone, zoom with your feet. I take a lot of pictures with my phone—never in the Oval Office but all the time to grab shots of Bo or Air Force One.

Early morning and late afternoon light is usually the best time to take pictures. Sometimes bad weather equals good photos. Rain, snow, and fog can lead to moody, memorable shots. Beautiful sunny days at high noon can produce the worst pictures of people, because the bright light makes for harsh shadows on faces. It sounds counterintuitive, but when the sun is high, turn on your camera’s flash. That small burst of light will fill in shadows and add a twinkle of light in the subject’s eyes, as long as you’re close enough.

The most important tip, learned the hard way: fresh batteries. If your camera’s out of juice—or the memory card is full—you’ve missed the moment. —As told to Weston Kosova

Souza is the chief official White House photographer for President Obama.  

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