Just because you've got a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot camera and not a $US1500+ DSLR rig doesn't mean you can't take awesome photos. Here's a look at how you can elevate your regular old point-and-shoot shots to greatness.
As popular as they've become in some circles, most people don't own a DSLR camera. They're expensive, they're bulky, and they're entirely inconvenient for toting around in many situations. I'm a professional photographer, but despite owning multiple DSLRs and a bevy of lenses for them, I often slip my daughter's Finepix Z30 or my wife's Canon PowerShot SD780 into my pocket before we go out for dinner or on a walk. You can't stuff a DSLR in your pocket, even with cargo pants on. Photo by CarbonNYC.
Since a point-and-shoot is the camera most likely to be with you, even if you own a DSLR, squeezing the most photo-taking-greatness out of your point and shoot is a worthwhile endeavour. The following guide covers several key areas for moving beyond basic snap shots and moving towards taking photos you'd want to do more than update your Facebook status with.
Know Your Camera
Read the manual: No amount of reading tips and tricks guides is going to help you if you haven't read the manual. While similarities abound between cameras and manufacturers do their best to make it so that picking up a point and shoot from a different lineup or brand isn't like learning a new language, every camera model is still unique. Start by reading the manual. It's not a sexy start, but even if you consider yourself a master of your chosen camera, you'll be surprised when you learn something new about it.
Know your menus: Once you've read the manual, start exploring the menus and settings. It's one thing to know that your camera has a special setting for what you want to do; it's another thing to find it in the field when the opportunity to take the photo you want is rapidly fading. Fumbling with the camera is a great way to not get the shot you want. Since most of the time the shots we want are of kids doing cute things and other fleeting moments and not of rocks, even two seconds of lost time messing with your camera can lead to missing a holiday-card worthy photo.
Take photos when it's not important: Don't buy a camera and then only take it out when you're at a family gathering. Your skills will be on par with those of a pianist who only sits down to play once a year. You're shooting with a digital point-and-shoot camera — what do you have to lose but a few cents worth of electricity stored in the battery? Try out all the settings, take pictures of everything, fill your memory card up with practice shots using this mode and that, far away subjects and close up ones, low light snaps and sunny scenes. You'll keep taking craptacular photos unless you practice with your camera.
Stop Sniping Your Subjects
Before we even get into anything technical about flashes or shooting modes, it's important to focus on technique. For one: Stop sniping your subjects. If nothing else, you need to stop framing the people and objects in your photos like you're a big game hunter and their head is going over your mantle. Centre-weighted photos are boring. Taking a photo of someone staring into the lens, with a half smile, and their mug dead centre and generically framed against a washed out background is a great way to add a completely uninspiring snapshot to the history — and it's a long history! — of uninspired snapshots. Photo by ex_magician.
What alternatives should you try, if you stop taking centre-weighted photos? Everything else. Try experimenting with the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that every scene you look at through your viewfinder is overlaid with a tic-tac-toe board. You want to capture interesting things in the intersection points of this 9-square grid and avoid putting things into the centre square. In the photo above the rugby player is offset to the right of the photo and "captured" by two of the points on our imaginary grid. Start looking for the Rule of Thirds in photography, advertising and other visual media. You'll find it everywhere, and with good reason: It breaks up the monotony of centre-weight focus and it's visually pleasing. Photo by pAkNgaH NaZRi.
Along with the Rule of Thirds, explore using different angles. The average person is about 5'7" or 170cm (men tend to be a few inches taller, women a few shorter) so people are used to seeing photos taken at roughly five and a half feet off the ground.
You want to get away from taking photos in tired and conventional ways. Ditching centre-weighted photos with the Rule of Thirds is a great first step, and breaking out of the habit of always taking photos at head-height can also add a lot of visual interest to your pictures. Try getting up high and shooting down — people look great when shot from a few feet above their heads (it does miracles for double chins); get down low and shoot kids and pets — the world is different on their level. Don't be afraid to climb, kneel, lean, tilt the camera, hold it over your head, shoot from the waist, or any other unconventional things to get a photo that's interesting.
In the photo, shown above left, do you think the photographer would have gotten that shot without breaking away from the traditional camera-at-face, standing-up-tall stance? She had to get down to the child's level, rotate the camera to break out of the traditional portrait view, and capture him in the lower part of the frame for a Rule of Thirds-based complimentary view of the child and the ocean stretching out behind him. Sure a plain old snap shot of the kid would still be cute enough for his parents to keep, but it wouldn't be an interesting or frame-worthy photo. Photo by motherfcknprincess.
Go in Fear of the Flash
For all the awesomeness they've packed into point-and-shoot cameras — you can get a 10MP point-and-shoot that's smaller than a deck of cards — spectacular flashes are rarely found in point and shoots. It's not really the fault of the camera companies; you can't escape having the flash right next to the lens on a camera so tiny.
The problem with your point-and-shoot's flash: When the flash is right by the lens, it shoots light forward parallel to the lens. This results in flat and nearly shadowless photos like the one seen above. Ignoring the entertainingly bad timing of the photo — behold, the zombie girl! — the technical problems stem from the flash. Her face is devoid of any depth-giving shadows, she's washed out because the photographer is too close, and the background of the photo is underdeveloped because it's night time and they're outside with no strong fill light. Photo by olliethebastard.
Getting good photos without flash: Unfortunately you won't find a silver bullet for the flash problems that plague point and shoots, but you can work around them. The best way to deal with flash issues is to ditch the flash all together. Do your best to shoot photos in light where you can avoid turning the flash on, brace yourself against buildings, tables, hold the camera tight to your body for additional stability, and breathe properly so your low-light shots don't turn out blurry.
On the other hand, you shouldn't neglect to take the picture just because you have to use flash. It's worth taking a technically deficient photograph of a family gathering just to have a nice clear photo of your great grandmother with all her great great grandchildren. When possible, however, avoid using the flash. Practice at home in various lighting conditions to see how your camera handles less than stellar lighting.
Diffuse the flash when you don't have a choice: When ditching the flash isn't an option you can always diffuse it. Diffusing your flash cuts down on the distance it can reach and, since the camera has no idea that you're using a business card to bounce it off the ceiling or that you've taped a piece of tissue paper over the flash window, it can mess with the exposure leading to a slightly or greatly under exposed photograph. It's easier to fix under exposure in a photo editing application than it is to fix over exposure — you can rarely fix over exposure — so error on the side of under exposed when you have to error at all.
Diffusing the flash with tissue or other semi-opaque materials (in the photo above the photographer used a frosted film canister to cover and diffuse the pop-up flash on his point and shoot) helps with cutting down on the harshness of flash on close subjects. If you're going to be tricky and use a business or index card to bounce the flash up, make sure you've got something to bounce it off of. Low white ceilings are great, open air in a park won't help at all. Photo by Brad K.
What your flash is actually good for: Flashes are great for balancing exposure between a too bright background and a too dim foreground. If you're photographing someone in front of a sunny window, standing under the shade of a beach umbrella against the brightness of a sandy beach, or any other situation where the subject is in an area of shadow against a large area of direct or reflected light, you need a flash.
The flash fills in the exposure and ensures you see the detail in the subject as well as the background. Check out the photo at left to see an example of two photos shot in the exact same spot but with the flash on and off. Photo by daveynin.
Ditch Bells and Whistles, Use Presets Efficiently
Point-and-shoot camera features are either rock-solid and necessary or advertising fluff. Getting to know your camera through our earlier advice (read the manual and shoot, shoot, and shoot some more) will help you figure out which features on your camera are useful.
Lose the digital zoom: One feature you should turn off immediately is "digital zoom". Digital zoom is universally terrible, and you want nothing to do with it. Optical zoom is where elements in the lens actually move to bring the object closer. Digital zoom is where the optical zoom maxes out and the camera starts doing some questionable CSI-like zoom and enhance nonsense. You can do a better and more detailed job with a photo editing application after the fact than any camera can do on the fly. Never trust the digital zoom to do a good job. Stick with the optical zoom and do your own cropping and enhancing at home. Photo by jurvetson.
Blink and smile detection: Other bells and whistles of of questionable utility are features like blink and smile detection. Nikon, for example, recently took a bit of flak in the press and photography circles for rolling out blink-detection software that was incapable of determining if someone was blinking or Asian. You should get in the habit of taking two to three photos minimum of groups anyways just to be sure to get the best shot, making marketing gimmicks like blink detection irrelevant.
Know your presets: While people tend to over use the gimmicks on point-and-shoot cameras, they under-use the presets. If you've been experimenting with your camera, you've discovered a variety of presets like Landscape, Portrait, Sports and so on. These modes are great for their named functions. For example, using Sports mode to take pictures of your kid running around at the park with a soccer ball will normally work great. Sports mode usually increases the shutter speed and engaged continual focus for a higher chance of nailing an action shot. Photo by madmack66.
Clever uses for presets: You can also use the presets for less obvious purposes. The landscape mode is set up to have a wide depth of field to keep the whole picture in focus, close up trees, distant mountains and everything in between. You can use the landscape mode in a situation where you want the your subject and the background to be in focus. You can also use the Portrait mode to reverse the effect, decreasing the depth of field so that an interesting tree you want to isolate from the background will stand out against an unfocused and distant mountain.
Although it's more ideal to use manual and priority modes on a DSLR, many point-and-shoot cameras do have these modes available. Priority mode allows you to put priority on the aperture — the opening of the "iris" of the lens — and shutter speed. Tinkering with those two allows you to do things like alter the depth of field in portraits and keep the shutter open longer for night time exposures. Manual mode simply allows you to adjust both at one time.
No amount of reading tips or tricks will make you a better photographer or fill up your memory card with great shots, but practice and experimenting will. Scribble down a few tips you want to try out from our guide, grab your camera and start shooting. If you try a new technique, whether you ditch the flash, shoot from a new angle, or try out the priority modes on your camera, we want to hear about it — with pics! — in the comments.
If you're away from your camera but hungry to learn more great techniques, check out our most popular photography hacks from 2009 or browse the photography tag to catch up on the newest photography tips.