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10 Things Every Point & Shoot Digital Camera Owner Should Know

  1. Most consumer-level digital cameras don't provide a way to manually override the focus. Instead, they focus on the object at the center of the frame. So, if you want to focus on an object that isn't in the center of the frame, compose the scene such that your subject is in the center, half-click the shutter to engage the autofocus, then move the camera to recompose the scene and click the shutter the rest of the way to take the picture.
  2. It may seem obvious to some but not to others -- the built-in zoom lens on your camera can be used to make the composition of your picture more interesting. For instance, if you are taking a picture of a mountain and it only fills up part of the frame, you can zoom in to make it fill up more of the frame. This generally makes for more dramatic and pleasing shots. Remember the Rule of Thirds.
  3. Even if your camera doesn't provide manual aperture control, you can still control the exposure of your shot by using the "exposure bias" setting. Even the lowest-end digital cameras have an exposure bias setting, and your camera's user's manual will indicate where it can be found in the menu system.
  4. If you focus on a distant object (see #1 above), most point & shoot digital cameras will automatically narrow the aperture to achieve a long depth of field and will adjust only the shutter speed in response to the light. So, by adjusting the exposure bias when focusing on a distant object, you are effectively adjusting only the shutter speed. If your camera has a "Landscape" or "Scenery" mode, this generally will achieve the same effect.
  5. If your camera has a white balance control, you can use it to gain some creative control over the scene. Set it to "Cloudy" if you want to warm up the colors in a scene (even if the sky isn't cloudy, this will bring out the red in desert rocks, for instance.) Use the "Daylight" setting to keep the colors from washing out in bright sunlight, but don't use the "Daylight" setting in the shade. In the shade, configure the camera for "Auto White Balance", or if you want to warm things up, set the white balance to "Cloudy."
  6. If your camera has a histogram feature, use it. The histogram shows the distribution of brightness within an image and is the easiest way to verify whether a picture has been overexposed. If the histogram touches the right-hand side of the window, particularly if it shows a pronounced spike, then the sky (or something else in the scene) may have whited out. Some cameras will even flash the over-exposed pixels when you play back the image. If you see over-exposed pixels in the image, then keep lowering the exposure bias by 1/3 EV and retaking the shot until the histogram doesn't show any spikes on the right-hand side.
  7. A $10 backpacker's tripod (available at most electronics stores) comes in handy for taking quick photos in dim light (such as in a forest or a canyon, or even night shots.) If you're taking night shots, you'll want to find a level surface, free from vibrations, on which to set the tripod. However, for dim light shots, the tripod doesn't necessarily even need to be free-standing. You can usually just extend the tripod, hold it against a steady surface (even a vertical surface, such as a tree trunk, works), set the camera to use the 2-second or 10-second timer, press the shutter, then quickly remove your finger to allow the camera to stabilize before the timer goes off. Take care to hold only the tripod -- don't touch the camera while it is shooting.
  8. Disable the flash unless you're taking shots of people (or other moving subjects) in dim light. If you're taking shots of stationary subjects in dim light, use your mini-tripod (see above.)
  9. Digital cameras will try to automatically determine the brightness of a scene and set the exposure accordingly. This is called "metering." Most digital cameras can be configured to meter light in one of three ways:
    • Matrix metering (AKA "Evaluative metering") -- this analyzes the brightness of the scene using some sophisticated voodoo. Matrix metering often works well with backlit scenes and scenes with unusual lighting conditions but is probably not the best choice for most shots.
    • Center-weighted averaging -- this sets the exposure based on the average brightness of the whole frame. It works well if the frame is of fairly uniform brightness.
    • Spot metering -- this sets the exposure based on the object at the center of the frame. As with autofocus, you can compose the frame such that the subject is in the center, push the shutter button halfway down and hold it in that position to read the brightness of the subject, then recompose the scene and click the shutter button the rest of the way to take the picture.

      If you're lucky enough to have a camera with spot autofocus or zone autofocus, you can configure spot metering such that it reads the brightness at the focus spot or the focus zone instead of at the center of the frame.
  10. Most cameras have a digital zoom feature. Disable it. It's useless. You can achieve the same effect by cropping the photo once you load it into your photo editing program of choice. Having a higher-resolution camera (i.e. more megapixels) comes in handy here, because even if the optical zoom lens on your camera can't get in far enough to make your subject fill the frame, you can still usually make the subject cover enough of the frame to get a decent cropped image out of it. Even if the cropped image is only 1 megapixel in size, that's sufficient for posting to a web site, sending to people through e-mail, or making small prints.

Recommended Reading

Digital Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers

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Page last modified on October 30, 2012, at 09:30 PM