If a picture's worth 1,000 words, the photographer who took it is good for about 500.

From the president, at least.

That's about how much Ronald Reagan offered last night in his brief, humorous and well-received appearance with his wife Nancy at the $85-a-ticket annual White House News Photographers Association dinner at the Shoreham Hotel.

The event is known as an opportunity for heavy-duty partying, and this year's edition lived up to the billing. It was the shutterbugs' night off, and all evening long greetings were exchanged, backs were slapped and glasses were filled.

Reagan's first joke was in reference to the man who introduced him, association President Ken Blaylock.

"By the way, Ken," said Reagan, "I understand you're the first president of this organization to serve a third consecutive term . . . A third term? That's not a bad idea."

That started the audience chuckling.

And although Reagan didn't stick his fingers in his ears and wave at the cameras, as he did at the 1983 dinner, he did try to stick it to the 1,200 dressed-up photographers.

"I guess I'd better begin with an apology for being a little late. I told the man at the hotel desk I was looking for a room full of people in blue jeans."

The photographers, who ordinarily are casual dressers, appreciated it.

"Actually, that's very appropriate," Newsweek's chief photographer, Wally McNamee -- who took this week's cover shot of Richard Nixon -- said later. "But I think it was the second time he used it. I think he needs a new writer."

"You have to understand we're crawling on the ground a lot of the time," said another Newsweek photographer, Larry Downing, who wore tails to the party. Downing, in fact, doesn't always wear jeans.

"I was in Korea yesterday and I walked into the tailor and said I need a flashy tux," he said. "And I told him I need three cummerbunds -- black, blue and red. I got the whole deal for $100."

And Jodi Cobb, a National Geographic photographer who last year was Photographer of the Year, saw nothing wrong with casual dress. After all, "Reagan wears jeans."

But clothes were just one Reagan joke.

"There isn't a person here who isn't willing to go to great lengths to get a good shot," he said. "Just this afternoon I stepped outside the Oval Office to feed the squirrels. Six photographers came out of the bushes. It's okay. I had enough peanuts to go around."

The audience howled with laughter. And Reagan then turned to more political repartee.

"It's not easy having so many photographers around," he said. "For instance, I told everybody -- my right side is my good side. My far right side. Keeping my right side to the cameras is no problem when I walk home from the Oval Office in the evening. Morning's a different thing. You know what it's like to start the day by walking to the office backwards?"

And, of course, there was an age joke:

"Tip O'Neill once asked me how I keep myself looking so young for the cameras. I told him I have a good makeup team -- the same people who've been repairing the Statue of Liberty."

The president closed with praise for the picture-takers.

"To be serious for just a moment, your work has an appeal and a power all its own," he said. "The TV reporter's on for a few minutes and then he's off. Your work lasts. The print journalist may be able to analyze and explain a story at length. Your work presents a story in a second, vividly, unforgettably."

Reagan and Blaylock then presented awards to Steven Affens of WJLA for Cameraman of the Year, Tape/Film Division, and Frank Johnston of The Washington Post for Still Photographer of the Year.

One serious-minded photographer had referred to the evening as "a large photographic social event." Another guest said he was looking forward to "the cheapest drunk in town." The night opened with a cocktail reception that was followed by, in order, the president, dinner, the awards and entertainment. By the time the crowd adjourned, many on their way to after-parties, the mood was merry.

A highlight of the night was a special taped tribute produced by ABC News called "Over the Years," featuring photographs and TV segments from several decades of presidential campaigns, speeches and public appearances. There were serious, touching and dramatic moments as well as bloopers and spoofs, one of which featured designer jeans with a "Khaddafi" label sewn on the pocket.

Sen. Richard Lugar, one of the very few members of Congress present, came at the invitation of one of the photographers. He said the photographers had taken good pictures of him.

"I'm indebted to every Hill photographer for doing the best he or she could," he said with a laugh.

Or as Jodi Cobb put it: "You see these people once a year. They're great people. Photographers are wonderful."