Q. While on vacation I saw an exhibit of beautifully executed, soft-focus portraits. I was impressed because the pictures were not blurry, or simply out of focus; they were sharp under that soft focus.

I have read that you can smear Vaseline on a lens to make the picture soft, but that seems dangerous to me. Do you have any idea how these shots may have been made?

A. I don't advise smearing anything on your lens. I have used that Vaseline method on a Skylight filter placed in front of the lens with some interesting results.

The modern way to produce soft-focus photographs is with the use of soft-focus filters. They come in various grades, ranging from just a little softness to extreme softness -- a blurry effect.

I like a medium-soft or an "outside soft" filter. The latter leaves the center of the picture unaffected and makes the outside portion progressively softer.

The filters are great not only for portraits, but for outdoor shots. With the correct soft-focus filter, you can create misty scenes on gray days with no rain.

Q. I went to look at cameras last weekend and found myself overwhelmed. It was mostly the terminolgy that confused me, such as AE program, DX coding and ISO numbers. I mostly want to take nature pictures and photos of my grandchildren.

A. AE program means automatic exposure program, and is a recent development in cameras. Before the advent of AE, photographers properly balanced exposure by changing their lens aperture and camera speed. If a wider aperture or slower camera speed were used, more light would enter the camera and provide more exposure. It was up to the photographer to decide on the best way to do it.

Now, the photographer simply programs his camera and can be reasonably sure that he will have a properly exposed picture.

DX coding allows the camera to set automatically the speed of the film. When the camera knows the film speed (measured in ISO ratings), it can function with the AE program.

Don't look at only single-lens reflex cameras. All these wonderful high-tech devices, plus a great many others such as auto-focus, are now available on "point-and-shoot" compacts. You should examine some of these before you buy.

Q. I want to give your readers some advice. I recently returned from a trip to South America that had been planned for about three years. And, although I didn't skimp, money was not unlimited.

I took a single-lens reflex camera with a 35-70mm zoom lens. I decided against taking a second camera and long-range zoom lens.

What a mess! I kept finding the need for that telephoto lens almost every day. On top of that, 10 days before my return, the shutter jammed on the camera. I was able to buy a couple of disposable cameras at a store in Panama and limped home on those.

Oh, how I regret not taking that extra camera and lens. Tell your readers that spares will be worth their weight in gold.

A. How true. Never put all those photographic eggs in one basket.

CONGRATULATIONS are in order to area high school photographers who were winners in the Photography Division of the Scholastic Art Awards Program.

More than 8,000 high schools from around the nation submitted more than a quarter-million examples of their students' best works.

Brant Edwards, a graduating senior from Monacan High School in Richmond, was one of 12 national winners of the Ricoh Merit Award for best of show.

Two other Virginians, Brendan Holland, 16, of Washington & Lee High School in Arlington, and Steven Nissen, 17, of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, won gold medals.

Gold medal winners from Maryland include Adam Altman, 17, of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville; Patrick Hearty, 14, of the Suitland Center for the Arts in Forrestville; and Julie Stegman, 17, of Towson High School in Towson.

Jessica Howell, 15, of the District's Maret School, also won a gold medal.

Write Carl Kramer c/o Weekend, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.