Perhaps this sounds like a strange topic to be writing about at this time of the year, but isn't Christmas a time for taking pictures?

I don't profess to be an authority on photography, but I have spent a big share of my life studying the art of photography, taking pictures, developing and printing them (both black and white and color), showing them in contests and even winning some prizes.

I have had the privilege of hearing personally some of the world's best photographers and, so, for whatever that is all worth, I will share with you some tips which might make your photography more fun and maybe even a little better.

Why do you take pictures? Going back many years, Eastman Kodak, in their advertising, used this little slogan: "If you want a photograph tomorrow, you have to take it today." We can't dispute that fact. But it does have meaning for us today.

For example, most of us now have digital cameras with which if we don't think we want to print and keep a certain shot, we can erase it.

Looking back on the pictures we took years ago, aren't they meaningful to you now, even those you have to laugh at and probably would have erased them then if you could have? I can honestly say that I have never taken too many pictures, but I have known many times when I wish I had taken more.

Kodak used to develop and print a big share of all pictures taken in those days. They said the biggest problem they found in pictures was because the camera had been slightly shaken or moved when pressing the shutter.

Be sure to hold the camera firmly before pressing the shutter. I have a suggestion that helps: Take a deep breath and hold it when pressing the shutter button.

If you want sharp pictures, use a tripod. A simple substitute for a tripod is to make a small bag of beans, lay it on something, then place your camera on the bag. It will keep the camera from moving. This idea probably applies more when taking outdoor pictures of what you hope to be prize-winning photos.

Don't stand too far away from your subject. Too many times the subject turns out to be only a small part of the picture when they were the real reason for taking the picture. Move in closer, and I am sure you will like them more.

Another reason for moving in closer is the flash on your camera, which is quite small. The flash does not extend out far and your picture will be underexposed. The flash on most small cameras does not usually extend out more than 15 feet or so.

Here is another suggestion that many times will improve your picture. We can improve a picture many times by changing the angle from which we are taking the picture.

For example, I have seen pictures where the subject (like one of your relatives) was standing directly in front of a telephone pole. When we look at the printed picture, the pole appears to be growing out of his or her head. A simple step to one side or the other many times improves the picture.

The same suggestion applies to pictures of nature. The angle from which the picture is taken often makes the difference between a fair photo or a good one.

Notice where the light is coming from. Is the sun shining into the eyes of the subject, causing them to squint? Is your subject in the shade or in partial shade? Remember that pictures can be taken only when there is light. Light can be your best friend, and it can be a problem.

Speaking of light, don't stop taking pictures because it is cloudy. That's when the light is even with no shadows. Be alert to the background for your subject.

Some backgrounds are so "busy" with a number of things that, when looking at the photo, one wonders what the real subject was meant to be. I have heard a number of professional photographers say, "keep it simple." When one looks at winning photos in a contest, we find that this rule is a good one.

We could go on and on with the subject of photography (and I would enjoy every minute of it) but where would we stop? Photography is a field with all kinds of special uses, each of which calls for special equipment and skills. And they are all fascinating and useful in fields such as medicine, crime, astronomy and many others.

When working with 4-H members, we used four areas to consider when taking pictures. They can be useful to all of us.

No. 1 is composition. It asks the question, "Is it pleasing?" Does it have a center of interest? Is the camera angle good? Is the lighting and the background good?

No. 2 is, "Does it tell a story?" I remember one of our judges at the Five State Photography Contest, which is conducted here in Hays each year, who said, "When I walk by a series of photos, most of them are good, but it doesn't tell a story. But then I walk by one which says something to me." This is a good point to remember if you plan to enter a contest -- let the picture say something.

No. 3 is, "What is the quality?" Is the picture sharply in focus? It also includes most of the things mentioned above such as lighting, contrast, angle, etc.

No. 4 is, "Was the developing and printing of the picture good?" We have all had pictures come back from the printer that were not pleasing because of careless printing or because of the printer's mistake. For example, we have a silver-haired cat. When I got a picture from the printer, our cat was yellow. I took it back and showed the actual color to him and he corrected it,

My hope is that you will have a fun time with all your photography, both now at Christmas, and in the future. Just remember, if you want a picture tomorrow, you must take it today.

Arris Johnson, Hays, is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.