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iReport boot camp: Taking better pictures

By Mark Hill, CNN

Welcome to the CNN iReport boot camp photo challenge! Our goal is to give you some tips on how to improve your image-making and help you be a better communicator with your camera. To do that, we've brought in none other than CNN's Director of Photography, Mark Hill. Check out what he has to say, and then try out his tips with our three-shot photo challenge.

(CNN) -- One topic that has dominated my career is how to photograph a scene that quickly gets to the heart of the story without explanation or embellishment. So how do you do that? Well, the answer doesn't lie with a fancy camera. Excellent visual communication is primarily driven by your unique visual sense, the time spent shooting and a deep connection to the story. In essence, you must do more than take pictures: You must make them. Images that transcend snapshots require extra effort.

Once you pick your subject and set aside time to shoot the story, you need to make compelling images to draw in the viewer. What are the elements that make a good picture? Good exposure and strong composition work together to make a complete image. Strong composition will quickly make a mundane scene more interesting and help communicate your story theme.

But how exactly do you go about getting strong composition in your image? We've put together this photo gallery (above) that will show you the most important elements of composition and examples of how they work. And please remember: These are guidelines, not rules. Sometimes intentionally breaking the rules can make the most impact!

Once you've gone through the above gallery and learned how to compose your images, you may find the following technical tips helpful to take your pictures to the next level. These will help you expose your images better, especially if you are not shooting in the "P" or program mode:

Read the manual. Knowing your camera is the first step to successful image-making.

Learn how to suppress or turn off your flash. The on-camera flash can override the ambient light in your scene and make it look more like a snapshot. Turning the flash power down or turning it off entirely can eliminate this issue.

Have a tripod handy. Once you stop relying on your on-camera flash to expose your images, you might find that it is hard to get sharp pictures due to camera shake. Having a sturdy camera platform can eliminate this problem.

Charge your battery and have a spare digital card. Nothing will stop your shoot faster than a dead battery or a full memory card.

Pick a compelling story. Our iReporters create images every day that educate, entertain, inform, stimulate or otherwise create a connection with the viewer. Choosing a compelling story you want to tell is critical to making this connection.

First, ask yourself, what is the story about? Is this story interesting and relevant to the audience? When thinking about how I want to approach a story, I often try to condense the idea into one sentence. This usually helps strip away the less important elements and identify the true essence of the story.

Once you have identified the essence, make images that show the emotion. The portrayal of emotion that is common to everyone who will see your images is the hook that will draw people into the story by making it relevant to their past experiences.

Storytelling is more than shooting random images. It is an exploration with enough depth to find the frames that capture the real meaning of the situation. Sometimes this requires a greater time investment, but it should pay off in the long run. Finding a great image also requires careful observation. Sometimes it is beneficial to spend some time with your subject without your camera to build trust and make a visual roadmap for your shoot.