Tips for Using a Point & Shoot Camera

Written By Caesar Soes on Tuesday, September 01, 2009 | Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tips for Using a Point & Shoot Camera


Do you feel inadequate because you have a puny Yashica T4 in your pocket but your no-dick friend is lugging around a Canon EOS-1 SLR, Tamron 28-200 zoom lens, and moby flash?

You can get a better picture than he can, for the following reasons:

Your camera weighs 8 oz. and is weatherproof so you have it with you at all times.
You have a decent lens in front of the film; like most first-time SLR owners these days, he has a cheap low-contrast zoom lens.
He is using that moby on-camera flash as his primary light. You would never be that uncreative (at least not after reading the rest of this article).

Your camera has a better system for combining light from the flash with ambient light ("fill-flash").
A professional photographer with a pile of $1500 lenses and a tripod is going to be able to do many things that you aren't. But rest assured that he carries a P&S camera in his pocket as well.
The photo at right shows Bill Clinton handing out a diploma at MIT's 1998 graduation ceremony. I was in the press box with a Canon EOS-5, 70-200/2.8L lens, and 1.4X teleconverter ($2500 total). In the upper right of the frame is a woman with a point and shoot camera. I would venture to guess that her pictures of Clinton are better than mine.
Think about Light

"He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it."
-- Joseph Romm
My personal definition of photography is "the recording of light rays." It is therefore difficult to take a decent picture if you have not chosen the lighting carefully. (I've written an entire tutorial on light.)

Just say no
Just say "no" to on-camera flash. Your eye needs shadows to make out shapes. When the light is coming from the same position as the lens, there are no shadows to "model" faces. Light from a point source like the on-camera flash falls off as the square of the distance from the source. That means things close to the camera will be washed-out, the subject on which you focussed will be properly exposed, and the background will be nearly black. We're at a theater. Can't you tell from the background? That's me in the middle. The guy with the flat face and big washed-out white areas of skin. Part of the problem here is that the camera was loaded with Fujichrome Velvia, which is only ISO 50 and therefore doesn't capture much ambient light (i.e., the theater background). [Despite this picture's myriad faults, I'm glad that I have it because it spruces up Travels with Samantha, Chapter III.]
Virtually all point and shoot cameras allow you to control the on-camera flash. What you want to do most of the time is press the leetle tiny buttons until the "no flash" symbol is displayed. The "no flash" symbol is usually a lightning bolt with a circle around it and line through it. Now the camera will never strobe the flash and will leave the shutter open long enough to capture enough ambient light to make an exposure.

A good point and shoot camera will have a longest shutter speed of at least 1 second. You can probably only hold the camera steady for 1/30th of a second. Your subjects may not hold still for a full second either. So you must start looking for ways to keep the camera still and to complete the exposure in less time. You can:

look for some light. Move your subjects underneath whatever light sources are handy and see how they look with your eyes.
load higher-speed film. ISO 400 and ISO 800 color print films are the correct emulsions for P&S photography. ISO 400 film can get the same picture in one quarter the amount of time as ISO 100 film.
steady the camera against a tree/rock/chair/whatever as you press the shutter release
leave the camera on a tree/rock/chair/whatever and use the self-timer so that the jostling of pressing the shutter release isn't reflected on film. I often use this technique for photographing decorated ceilings in Europe. I just leave the camera on the floor, self-timer on, flash off.
use a little plastic tripod, monopod, or some other purpose-built camera support
Yes it was dark in Bar 89. But I steadied the camera against a stair railing and captured the scene with my Minolta Freedom Zoom 28-70. Note that not using flash preserves the lighting of the bar.

Just say yes
Just say "yes" to on-camera flash. Hey, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (Emerson; slightly out of context).
The on-camera flash on a P&S camera is useful. It just isn't useful for what you'd think. As I note above, it is not useful for lighting up a dark room. However, it is useful outdoors when you have both shaded and sunlit objects in the same scene. Photographic film and paper cannot handle the same range of contrast as your eyes. A picture that is correctly exposed for the sunlight object will render the shaded portrait subject as solid black. A picture that is correctly exposed for the shaded portrait subject will render the sunlit background object as solid white. Here the chess players are being shaded by some overhead screens while the background foliage is not. The on-camera flash makes sure that the foreground players are bright. In fact they are a bit brighter than they probably should be and note the washed-out highlight on the leading edge of the table, which is close to the camera. This picture was taken by prefocusing on the shirtless player on the right, then moving the camera with the shutter release half-depressed to the final composition. Without the prefocusing the camera would have latched onto one of the chess tables in the center of the picture, quite far away. The foreground men would have been out of focus and also tremendously overexposed since an amount of flash adequate to illuminate a far away subject would have been used. [Note that most $1000 SLR cameras would not have been capable of making this picture except in a completely manual mode. Their flash metering systems are too stupid to couple to the focus distance. An exception is the series of Nikon SLRs from 1994 on with "D" flash metering.]

Pressing the little buttons on a P&S camera until a single solid lightning bolt appears in the LCD display will keep the flash on at all times. Note that a side-effect of the "flash on" mode is that you also get the same long shutter speeds for capturing ambient light that you would with "flash off" mode. The standard illustrative picture for this has an illuminated building at night as the background with a group of people in the foreground who've been correctly exposed by the flash. Sometimes it all comes together, as it did here in Coney Island. Without fill-flash, the ride operator would have been a silhouette. Prefocussed on the human subject's face. "Flash on" mode.

The best-composed photographs don't usually have their subject dead center. However, that's where the focusing sensor on a P&S camera is. Since the best photographs usually do have their subject in sharp focus, what you want to do is point the center sensor at your main subject, hold the shutter release halfway down, then move the camera until you like the composition.

Virtually all P&S cameras work this way but not everyone knows it because not everyone is willing to RTFM.
A side effect of prefocusing is that most P&S cameras will preset exposure as well. Ideal exposure with a reflected light meter is obtained when the subject reflectance is 18% gray (a medium gray). Exposure isn't very critical with color negative film, but you still might want to attempt to prefocus on something that is the correct distance from the camera and a reasonable mid-tone. I.e., avoid focusing on something that is pure white or black. This becomes much more important if you are using slide film.

Burn Film
If a roll of film is lasting three months, then something is wrong. You aren't experimenting enough. An ideal roll of film for me has 35 pictures of the same subject, all of them bad. These prove that I'm not afraid to experiment. And then one good picture. This proves that I'm not completely incompetent.

It takes at least 10 frames to get one good picture of one person. To have everyone in a group photo looking good requires miles of film. You should have pictures from different angles, different heights, flash on, flash off, etc.

My personal standard film for P&S photography is Fuji ISO 400 negative film. It enlarges very nicely to 8x10 and is great for Web presentation.

Try to Buy a Decent P&S Camera
You can read my buyer's guide. Basically what you want is a reasonably wide angle lens to capture your subject and the background context. Focal lengths beyond 70mm in P&S cameras are not useful. My personal ideal camera would have a 24-50 or a 24-70 zoom though actually in many ways I prefer a camera with only a single focal length because it is one fewer decision to make at exposure time. Zooms are more useful with full-sized SLR cameras because the user interface is better/quicker (i.e., you can turn the ring on the lens instead of pushing little buttons to drive a motor).


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