Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

15Jul/09Off

Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Just because you may not have an expensive D-SLR camera, doesn’t mean you can’t take incredible photos.  Compact point-and-shoot cameras are capable of capturing extraordinary images, and their quality gets better and better with each new camera.  I’m taking a different approach for this latest article, and writing a tutorial aimed at those who shoot primarily with a compact camera. Using some of the tips I present below, you’ll be able to take photos with much more impact.

Compact cameras have some distinct advantages over D-SLRs in a few respects.  Firstly and most obvious, is their size.  Because of their size, it’s easy to take one wherever you go, and you’ll always have the opportunity to take a great photo should something amazing unfold in front of you. Their zoom lenses generally cover a wide range so you can take wide-angle shots of landscapes and buildings, and telephoto shots of distant subjects, sports, etc.  Because the sensor and lenses are physically smaller than D-SLRs, you’ll often be able to get everything in sharp focus, from objects right in front of you to distant mountains (this is not always easy to do with a D-SLR).  Compact cameras almost always have a built-in flash for when you need it.  Most compacts are also great for close-up macro work of flowers and other small subjects.  All of these factors combine to make a compact a great camera to have, even for those who already own D-SLRs.

So what can you do to take your photos from simple “snapshots” to amazing photos worthy of framing on your wall?  Below are a series of tips and techniques to help you get the most from your compact camera.  Some are “technical” ways to operate the camera, while others are tips related to composition and how to “frame up” your subject.  If you combine them all, you’ll be on your way to capturing incredible images.

First, let’s talk a little about focal length.  Focal length just refers to how much or how little you’ve zoomed in or zoomed out.  If you’ve zoomed your camera all the way out, you’re taking wide-angle shots and capturing a wide area of space around you.  This is a short focal length.  You’re probably used to doing this if when you’ve taken a picture of a large group of people, or you’re taking a wide-angle photo of the Grand Canyon or a big expanse of beach.  On the other hand, if you’ve zoomed all the way in, you’re bringing far away objects closer to you, and you’re using a long focal length, a.k.a. telephoto.  You probably use this at a sports event or ballgame to bring players closer to you and make them bigger in the picture.  Many people think of zooming in and out in terms of those two types of situations:  “I need to take a picture of a wide area of space so I’ll zoom out” or “That person is really far away so I’ll zoom in to make them bigger.”  While that does work, there are far more powerful ways to use focal length to your advantage.

Rather than thinking of zooming in and zooming out in just the two types of scenarios described above, it’s useful to understand some additional, more creative concepts related to focal length.


Let’s start off with a straightforward one.  While you may be used to the idea that zooming out wide captures a wider expanse of the scene, you may not always be thinking in terms of the opposite:  when zooming in, you’re taking in a lot *smaller* portion of the scene.  Most of us are used to thinking in terms of zooming in to bring far away objects closer, but just as important, if not more important, is the fact that zooming in reduces the area of the scene that is being captured (in addition of course to making the object seem closer).  You may be asking, so what?  What does this have to do with my photography?  The answer is this: armed with this knowledge, you now have the choice of what background you want for a picture of any given subject.  It can be incredibly helpful for clearing up clutter, simplifying your pictures, and making them better.  Let’s use an example to illustrate.  Let’s say you’re taking a picture of your friend in front of a beautiful mountain, from a scenic overlook on the road.  You stand a few feet from your friend, zoom out nice and wide to make sure you get all of the mountain in the shot, and you take the picture.  You know what else you probably got in the shot besides your friend and the mountain?  …the trash can 15-feet to the left, the telephone pole behind your friend about 20-feet to the right, and who knows what else.  Because you’re using the wide-angle setting, you’re capturing a very wide expanse of the scene… this expanse may include objects that you don’t want in the picture.  Here’s where zooming in and its ability to *reduce* the scene can be helpful.  Instead of taking the shot from a few feet away and zooming out wide, step really far back from your friend and zoom all the way in.  You need to take the picture from farther away, because as you know, zooming in will make your friend bigger in the picture.  You want to counteract that and keep them the same size in the picture by taking a few steps back.  But in the process of zooming in, you are reducing the area to the left and right that is in the picture.  If you’ve zoomed in enough, you will completely eliminate the trash can and the telephone pole from the shot, leaving just your friend and the mountain.  This is one of the most fundamental techniques in photography and one you should master through practice.

In addition to its effect on how much or how little of the scene gets captured, focal length has another important effect, and that is its effect on “perspective”.  Perspective refers to how far away from each other any two objects look in a photograph.  You may be surprised to learn that zooming in and out has a HUGE impact on how far apart objects “appear” in a photograph.  Keep in mind that how they appear in the photo has nothing to do with how far they appear in “real life”!  Let’s use the example we used before with your friend and the mountain.  Let’s say that the mountain is about two miles behind your friend.  Just looking with your eyes (no camera), the mountain will appear, as it should, to be two miles away.  If you zoom your lens to somewhere in the middle of its range and take a picture, when you look at that picture, the mountain will appear to be two miles from your friend.  That’s a “normal” focal length.  However, if you zoom out wide and take the same picture, the optical qualities of the lens will in fact exaggerate that distance greatly.  If you take a picture and look at it, you may be shocked to see that the mountain now “appears” to be five, ten, or even twenty miles away!  Wide angle lenses exaggerate distance.  On the other hand, if you zoom all the way in and take the picture, you will see that the mountain may appear to be directly behind your friend, maybe a few hundred meters or less!  It may appear that your friend is literally standing at the base of the mountain.  You can use focal length to adjust the closeness of the background to exactly how you want it.  Just remember that if you want your friend to be the same size in the picture, you may have to step closer or farther away from them, depending on how far you’ve zoomed in or out.  This perspective effect is why you sometimes see pictures of people with a sunset, and sometimes the sun is a tiny yellow dot in one picture and in another it’s a huge orange ball.  In the picture with the huge sun, the photographer has stepped all the way back and zoomed in as much as they can, making the sun appear much closer.

Sunset, NYC

Sunset, NYC

One of the most important tips I can give for shooting people is also related to perspective... and that is: take photos of people's faces from far away and zoom in!  Pictures of people taken from farther away with the lens zoomed in are much more flattering than pictures taken up close.  Have you ever seen a picture of a person taken up close with a wide angle lens, or been out with friends and tried to hold the camera in your hand with an outstretched arm, pointed at yourselves?  You'll notice that your noses look bigger than they really are and your facial features are exaggerated.  This is because the camera is close to you and the wide-angle lens is exaggerating distance... in this case it's exaggerating the distance from the tip of your nose to the rest of your face!  It will look larger than it really is.  If you stand back and zoom in, you reduce this effect and the face will have normal proportions.  Did you ever wonder why Sport Illustrated photographers are standing half-way across the beach shooting the models with a huge telephoto lens?  Perspective is part of the reason...

The next tip is a brief one, but it can be invaluable for architecture photography and photos of buildings or other tall objects.  (You may want to use software to crop the picture after using this technique, but most people are familiar with basic cropping.)  The tip is this:  whenever possible, when taking photos of tall subjects like buildings, do not tilt the camera upward to make sure you get the “top” – instead, keep the camera level (not pointed upward) and zoom out as wide as you can (in order to get the top of the building) and take the picture.  The reason for this is because tilting the camera upwards causes the walls of buildings and vertical objects to point inward like a pyramid.  The building may appear to be leaning back or falling over. 

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

If you keep the camera level, this won’t happen. 

Straighter version of the photo above

Straighter version of the photo above (this was fixed in software to illustrate, but the effect is the same)

You may however, have a large expanse of ground in front of you, which you can then simply crop out later.  With high-mexapixel cameras these days, cropping should not affect picture quality unless you’re making massive prints.

Now let’s talk about flash.  Built-in flash can come in very handy when you need a little bit of extra light, but flash is often not used to its full potential, and sometimes it’s used when it shouldn’t be.

First I’ll make one important comment.  The light from the flash on your camera probably only “realistically” reaches about ten feet or so in front of you.  After that, the flash has no effect.  If you’re taking pictures of something that is more than ten feet in front of you, turn the flash off (you may need to refer to your camera’s instruction manual to determine how to turn it off, as many times it comes on automatically).  Sometimes I go to a baseball game and a famous pitcher will be put into the game and everyone in the stadium is taking pictures of the pitcher from hundreds of feet away, but all I see are flashes going off.  Every one of those flashes is illuminating the back of the head of the person in front of the photographer, and not much else.  I can assure you that flash is not reaching the pitcher’s mound.  Worse yet, with the flash on, the camera is making decisions as to how to expose the photo.  It “assumes” that the light from the flash is reaching the subject, and thus it darkens the photo in anticipation of it being lit by the flash – however the flash never reaches the subject, and now you’re left with a dark photo (or a perfectly exposed picture of the back of someone’s head).  In these situations, it’s best to turn the flash off.

On the other hand, one of the best places to use flash is actually in bright sunlight.  When the bright sun is overhead, it can cast shadows under the eyes and generally result in an unflattering picture.  Turn your flash on and the flash will brighten up the shadows resulting in a much better picture in broad daylight (refer to the manual to learn how to turn on what is often called “Fill Flash”).  Similarly, if you’re taking a picture of a person in front of a bright background, like a sunset, turn on the flash.  Without the flash, it is likely you’ll just get a silhouette.  That may be the effect you're going for, and if so, leave the flash off.  If you want to see the person’s face, turn the flash on. 

Flash is also useful for close-up shots of flowers.  Not only will it brighten them up and help with shadows, but the flash will help “freeze” any movement of the flower caused by wind.

Whenever possible, I’d recommend taking two shots – one with the flash on and one with the flash off – in any situation where the flash might be helpful.  You never know which one you’ll like best, so it’s best to have both.

Now let’s cover some technical tips about night photography.  In this case, I’m referring to nighttime shots of city skylines, buildings, landscapes, etc. (and not necessarily pictures of people).  Night photography can produce some truly spectacular images.  It is however one of the most “technically” challenging types of photography.  It’s all too easy to wind up with a blurry shot or poorly lit shot.  Here are some tips:

Most importantly, it’s virtually impossible to take a sharp night shot while holding the camera in your hand.  You’ll need to find a place to put the camera down.  If you don’t have a tripod, just look for a bench, a railing, a tree branch, a soda bottle, anything to prop the camera up on.  Even if the camera isn’t pointing “exactly” where you want it, you can always crop out parts of the picture later… resting it on something will always result in a better shot than you trying to hold the camera.  The second piece to this tip is that you *must* use the camera’s self-timer to take the picture.  All too I often I see people going out of their way to prop the camera up on something to hold it steady, only to use their finger to press the shutter button.  Using your finger to press the shutter button will completely blur the shot and negate and beneficial effect of propping the camera up.  So just prop the camera up pointed in the right direction, set the 10-second self-timer, and let the camera do its thing.  Also ensure that the flash is off.  Going back to our previous discussion about flash – we know it only reaches about 10 feet, and having it on negatively affects the brightness of the picture, so turn it off.  If your camera has any kind of “Night Scene” mode (and most do), then definitely feel free to use it.  Most “Night Scenes” modes instruct the camera to leave the shutter open for a longer period of time than it normally would – the longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in, so you get a better, brighter picture.  Just make sure the night mode doesn’t automatically turn on your flash – if it does, make sure you can turn it off.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

For situations where you're handholding the camera in dim lighting, for example when taking a picture of someone blowing out candles at a birthday party, you may wish to take the picture without flash to preserve the "ambience" of the scene.  You may also be too far away for the flash to reach, for example taking a picture at a concert or school play.  Any time you're handholding the camera in dim lighting without flash, it's possible you may get a blurry shot due to camera shake.  The camera needs to keep the shutter open longer to let more light in so the picture is bright enough, but the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there is of the camera recording any slight movement (of either the camera OR the person you're taking a picture of).  You can help fix this by manually adjusting the ISO if your camera allows you to (many do).  ISO is used to magnify the amount of light entering the camera -- the more light the camera gets, the less time the shutter needs to be open, resulting in less blur and sharper pictures.  ISO is rated in numbers, usually around 100 at the lowest, and going up to around ISO 800 or so on compact cameras.  The higher the ISO number, the more light gets in the camera and the faster the shutter speed.  The tradeoff with ISO is that picture quality is best at low ISOs, and deteriorates at higher ISOs, so you only want to use the highest ISO that eliminates the blur, but no higher.  Personally I recommend not going above ISO 400 on compact cameras.  So how do you use it?  If you find yourself in a situation like the ones mentioned above, where you want to take a picture in dim lighting without flash, but the picture comes out blurry, then simply raise the ISO number in your camera.  You may need to consult your camera's manual on how to do it.  Many cameras just have a button or menu item that says ISO.  Start at ISO 100 to see how sharp the shot is, and if there is any blur.  If it's a little blurry, then raise to 200 and take a test shot.  If it's sharp now, then leave it at 200 and you're ready to go.  If the shot is still blurry, then raise to 400 and try again, and so on.  You'll see that raising the ISO can really help in getting sharp shots in dim lighting.  Keep in mind that the picture quality will not be as good as if you took the shot at ISO 100, but in many cases, a little less picture quality is worth it to get a sharp shot, because a blurry shot may be unusable entirely!

The final “technical” tip is about “Exposure Compensation”.  If your camera has exposure compensation, and many do, it’s worthwhile to learn how to use it.  Exposure compensation simply lets you adjust the brightness of the picture to your liking.  Under normal circumstances, when you press the shutter, your camera looks at the scene, performs some calculations, and determines how bright the shot should be.  In many cases, the brightness level it chooses is pretty good.  Sometimes however, the camera can be thrown off in certain situations.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture on a ski mountain, the camera can be “fooled” by all the bright snow.  The camera says “wow this is really bright out here” and so it darkens the picture thinking that’s what you want.  You may wind up with snow that is more of a “light gray” than white.  In this case, you may want to use exposure compensation.  You might see it as a +/- where you move the arrow toward the “+” to make the picture brighter and the “–“ to make it darker.  Take a look in your camera’s manual to learn how to set it for your particular camera.

OK, let’s move on from the technical details and cover some pointers related to composition.  Composing the picture just refers to deciding what to include or exclude in the photo and where to position the subjects in the frame, the angle of the shot, how much you’re zoomed in, etc.

The most useful compositional tip is probably “The Rule of Thirds”.  It’s not really a “rule”, but rather a guideline to keep in mind when you’re taking pictures.  The Rule of Thirds is designed to help you determine where to place your subjects in the frame.  It’s easy.  When framing your picture, mentally draw a tic-tac-toe board over the scene – so there will be two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dividing the picture into thirds.  When taking a picture, try to place your subject along one of those lines.   (Some cameras even have a feature where you can turn on a Rule of Thirds grid that appears right on the LCD -- you can check your manual to see if yours has it).   Notice how the horizon is on the lower horizontal line and the bird is on the left vertical line:

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

What you’ll see is this helps you avoid putting your subject dead center of the picture, which is often the worst place to put the subject.  The subject can be a person, or a sunset, or anything else.  If the subject is small in the frame, like the moon, you can place it where two of the lines intersect, which is even better than just putting it on one of the lines.  The next time you’re taking a picture of a sunset, instead of putting the horizon straight through the middle of the picture, cutting it in half, try putting the horizon one-third from the top or one-third from the bottom and you’ll see how much better it looks.

The next compositional tip is called “Leading Lines”.  Leading Lines refers to using objects in your photo to lead the viewer “into the picture.”  It can be a pathway, railroad tracks, a pattern in waves, etc.  You place the leading line so that it starts in the foreground (the bottom of the picture) and your eye follows it further into the picture.  It’s often best to put leading lines a little bit off to one side and to lead your eye diagonally into the frame, but experiment to see what you like best.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

 

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Another simple tip is related to moving objects such as people running or cars moving.  Always allow space for the moving object to “move into”.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture of a car moving from right-to-left, make sure there is room on the left side of the picture for the car to “drive into” (otherwise the photo will look cramped).

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Patterns are all around us and can be used to create amazing photos.  No matter where you are or what you're doing, have a look around and you'll see patterns, many of which can be great photo opportunities.  The pattern can be anything from a repeating line of sun umbrellas on a beach, to an interesting row of trees, a fascinating pattern that all the windows of a skyscraper make, or something as simple as some cherries in the market.  The key when looking around for patterns is to avoid getting caught up in the "wide expanse" of the scene where it may be harder to recognize patterns, but rather focus in on small areas of what's around you.  In the photo of the cherries below, it could have been easy to miss it in the hustle and bustle of the market, with the flowers right next to them to the left and the pile of onions to the right, but if you take the time to look, you'll see patterns everywhere.  When you do, you can either take the photo of the pattern in the larger context of the whole scene, or focus in and create a more "abstract" photo.  Each can produce interesting images.

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

The final compositional tip is to make use of “Natural Frames”.  A natural frame is something in the scene that you can use to literally “frame” your subject.  It helps draw attention to the subject and adds a lot of impact.  You can use archways, tree branches, anything at all really.  Step forward or back as you need, to place your subject in the natural frame, and take the shot.

Pool, Dominican Republic

Pool, Dominican Republic

With a little practice of the technical and compositional techniques you’ve read here, you’ll find that you can take amazing shots with a compact point and shoot.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know.

Best,
Paul

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