Taking Better Photos With Your Point and Shoot Camera

An award winning photo taken with a Olympus tough 6000 waterproof point and shoot camera, photo by Brenden Sherratt

Some of you might look at pictures taken with a DSLR with a bit of envy, imagining that the camera is somehow responsible for getting better photos.

Well, here’s one the dirty secrets that the High Council of Jedi Photographers will likely not like me telling you, but these days there is not a great deal of difference between many point and shoot cameras and high end DSLRs.

In fact, mirrorless cameras like the Sony Nex-5N, Pentax K-01 and Samsung NX-11 have the exact same sensor size as my Canon 7D (compare) and they’re a lot easier to carry around. Though they lack some of the other features like weather sealing and build quality, they all can take amazing photos. All you need are a few tips for getting the most out of your point and shoot camera.

Read The Manual

read the manual
It's boring but you must read your camera manual

No amount of coaching will help you get the most out of your camera if you don’t understand how it operates and the features it provides. I’d be willing to bet a good 75 percent of camera functions never get used and half of the time because their owners had no idea their camera could even do that.

You’ll need to know how to set your camera to shutter and aperture priority modes, how to change the shutter speed and aperture manually, and how the exposure compensation features operate. If your camera has a built-in flash and how to change the flash compensation. All that knowledge is yours for a 30 minute date with the owner’s manual.

Shoot Everything

I recently calculated that National Geographic photographers are taking anywhere from 350 to 1,000 pictures a day, depending on the assignment. At a recent wedding, the prime photographer and I were taking around 200 photos per hour, each.

The more pictures you take, the better the odds of getting one that’s amazing. Some of my best photos were ones I remember wondering why I even bothered to take that shot. You just never know. Shoot everything, sort it all out in post.

Stop Taking Pictures of People Sitting On The Couch

people on couch
Taking pictures of people sitting on the couch is now banned - by Simon Law via Flickr

The photography world is flooded with pictures of people sitting on couches and, frankly, we’ve had enough. Get pictures of people doing something, anything. Get a picture of them playing a game, riding a bike, cooking, or engaging in some hobby that tells us a little about them as a person.

Besides, it’s a great excuse to get everyone off the couch and up doing something.

Your Camera Is Not a Rifle Sight

Stop treating your camera like a gun sight, putting your subject right in the middle. Take a look at this article on the Rule of Thirds and remember, it’s not the Helpful Hint of Thirds or the Recommendation of Thirds, it’s a rule. Get the subject over to one of the thirds.

This is why taking pictures of people doing things is so helpful. If you center the activity, frequently the person doing the activity will be off to one side of the photo. It’s a good way of training yourself to frame better.

Flash Off Inside, Flash On Outside

fill flash
Everything done right. Subject doing something, interesting angle, plus use of fill flash in daylight - by Aske Holst via Flickr

For all the amazing features of point and shoot cameras these days, the built-in flash is probably the worst light source in the history of photography. Turn it off whenever you possibly can. Get your subjects over by a window, or even better, outside to some open shade. Then turn the built-in flash on and make it fire.

While the internal flash is a terrible light source, it is quite a good fill light for outdoor portraits.

Lighting Portraits With Candlelight

lighting by candlelight
Valentine's Day is a good opportunity to experiment with lighting by candlelight - by Chantel Beam Photography via Flickr

Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to experiment with a really old-fashioned light source; it’s one of those days a lot of people choose candlelight.

There’s something visceral about fire in the human psyche and candles provide a single, pure pinpoint of fire that is both warm and intimate at the same time. You know you’re a real photo geek when a romantic candlelight dinner inspires you to break out the camera and tripod!

One of the really amazing things about new digital DSLRs is their low light performance. Just a few years ago trying to light exclusively by candlelight meant risking a house fire. Today even APS-C sensors like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D (compare) can yield decent results in low light and full frame cameras like the Canon 5D MK II and Nikon D700 (compare) can shoot in extremely low light.

Don’t Worry About Noise

This is one time you can forget about the ISO. Most digital cameras start showing low light artifacts anywhere over ISO 800. But candlelight portraits are one instance when the noise can actually add to a photo, so don’t be afraid to experiment with higher ISOs. If the pictures are too noisy you can always add more candles.

candlelight 4
Low light noise can actually add to a candlelight photo - by Miss Baker

Use a Tripod

Trotting out a tripod for some candid shots may not be the most romantic gesture, but it’s still better than hand-holding at slow shutter speeds. Even a gelled fill flash will spoil the effect, so there’s no real option here.

I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/15 of a second with a human subject as it’s hard for anyone to hold that still.

Use Reflectors

A white tablecloth actually works quite well as a natural reflector. A mirror will give you sharper shadows and strong directional lighting. Your standard photographic reflector clamped to a light stand will also come in handy to fill in the deeper shadows.

You can use aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard if you want a more irregular effect. If there’s a whiff of breeze, a flickering candle with an aluminum foil reflector can look like a campfire.

candle 3
Candles can function equally well as foreground or background lighting - by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr


There are two ways you can go with candlelight photos: You can expose for the subject and overexpose the candle flame or you can expose for the candle flames and deliberately under-light the subject.

Try it both ways and try different combinations. You can sometimes use LED or incandescent bulbs as background light if you need more depth.

Do remember that a couple pictures of a special occasion is one thing, but a good photographer also knows when it’s time to hang up the camera and enjoy the moment.

Take Better Travel Photos Today

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster in London, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

One of the biggest mistakes most people make in the pursuit of travel and holiday pictures is overlooking the fabulous in a quest for the trite and cliche. Every photographer in the business has made that mistake at one point in their career, so make a pledge that the pictures you take on holiday this year will be different.

Everyone knows what the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument look like. Any photos you could take will probably look just like hundreds of others of the same exact thing. Yes, take one or two, just for the scrapbook value, but don’t stop there. Find a unique angle, a different way of looking at something familiar.

Reflection of the Washington Monument in an eye. Photo by Jennuine Captures

When I used to work on a military base the building we were in had a peculiar paint job around the front door. Otherwise, it was just another nondescript government building designed and built by the low bidder. But the front door was distinct. So when I took a picture to remember my time there, I took a picture of the door handle. The handle that I reached for every morning for years and years and eventually came to dread touching. So many emotions all tied to an object that I looked at every day and almost failed to notice.

When you’re on vacation, get a shot of the touristy things, then try to find little details that define your experience. Maybe it’s a unique cab driver, or a street vendor, or some other details that normally get lost in the background clutter.

Faces in Temple Bar, Dublin, Photo by Brenden Sherratt
I have a friend with a large family who recently was able to get four generations of daughters together for a photo. He took the predictable group photo, then took one of everyone putting just their hands in a circle over a black background. Guess which picture was the most popular?

It’s the details that seem inconsequential today that spark the most vivid memories tomorrow. There was a stand of trees where we used to live, nothing particularly special about them, just trees. One day I fired off a shot just to check exposure levels of that stand of trees and forgot to delete it. It got mixed in with the assignment that day and I ran across it days later processing the pictures for the customer.

tree photo
A photo of a stand of trees that I almost deleted ended up meaning more to me than I would have thought at the time

To this day that’s one of my favorite shots. Just some trees, but I saw them every time I went outside and, even today, that shot can bring memories of that place flooding back.

So this year, don’t just take the obvious shots. Take pictures of hands, feet, dog toys, crumpled wrapping paper, and the millions of other little details you see but don’t always notice. Instead of just looking at the tourist attraction, look to the left and right, look behind it. Find a unique angle and tell a different story the next time you are on a trip.

Three Common Photo Mistakes and How To Fix Them

When you look at a lot of pictures, you begin to see trends in the mistakes.  Look at enough pictures over a long enough time and you’ll start to see the major trends fall into just three or four broad categories.

Anyone can take better pictures by following a few simple guidelines that will help you avoid the big three mistakes that are most common as you look across hundreds of images.

Get In Closer

wide shot
This is as close as I could get without getting wet

Probably the most common mistake I see in photos is that they were taken from too far away.  There’s a huge amount of background and right in the center is the little tiny subject.

The easiest way fix that is just to zoom with your feet and walk up closer to your subject, cutting down at the amount of background in the shot.   Sometimes, like when you’re shooting at the beach, you can’t always do that.

cropped surfer
Now the picture is more interesting with less background

For the times you can’t walk up closer to the subject, you can use your camera’s digital or lens zoom to frame the picture a little tighter.

Okay, you’re as close as you can get on foot and your camera lens is zoomed all the way and it’s still not close enough.  From there you can bump up the image size your camera is shooting to its absolute maximum, and then crop out parts of the picture you don’t want later on your computer.

Use Fill Flash During The Day

fill flash
The lighting is good but there are too many shadows around the subject

It’s ironic that most digital cameras are optimized to take their best pictures at a time of day that the light is less than perfect for taking pictures.  Well, it is what it is and you have to deal with the harsh shadows, ball caps, and squint-eyed subjects that are the result of direct sun.

Fixing direct sun involves a device called a scrim which is a lot of work to set up and take down.

fill flash
Fill flash, a little cropping and this photo is much better
Another option is just to move into a shady area and turn on your camera’s internal flash or use an external flash.

Remember to ask your subjects to remove their sunglasses unless you want them to look like mobsters.

The Point of Interest Does Not Go In The Middle

rule of thirds
The eyes are the subject of a good portrait and don't belong in the center of the photo

It’s called the Rule of Thirds and not the Suggestion of Thirds for a reason.  So many times people will zero in on the subject and want to put it right in the middle of the shot.

In a portrait, the eyes tend to be the point of interest, so make sure they’re not right in the center of the picture.  Put the subject or the point of interest at the intersection of one of the thirds and compose the rest of the shot around that.

If you follow just these three rules, your shots will be better than 90 percent of pictures ever taken.


Fun With Filters

neutral density filter
A neutral density filter is one that you'll still want to have in the digital age

In the old days film photographers always carried a little wallet full of filters. You had an 81A for a warm up that made photos in full daylight a bit warmer, and an 80A, FLD, and 85C for correcting different types of artificial lighting. If you’d been in the business for a while, you may have had one of those boxy filter holders more common on movie cameras and a set of the square glass filters that might have included gradient filters for making the sky more dramatic when the foreground was lighter colored.

Digital cameras have done away with most types of filters. White balance on pictures in RAW format can be made after the fact and there’s little need for filters to correct lighting. Gradients and other effects are now easier in post-processing and few photographers bother with gradient filters anymore.

Yet, even in the digital age, there are still a few filters that are nice to have.

Skylight or Sky 1A

broken filter photo by Patrick Lauke

When is a filter not really a filter? When it’s a sky filter. A skylight or Sky 1A is really just a clear piece of glass, yet it’s one of the most important investments you can make. A sky filter isn’t on the lens for your photos, which it doesn’t change at all, it’s there for the lens. Specifically to protect the front glass of your lens from dust, dirt, sand, scratches and forward impacts. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the cheapest insurance you can buy for a lens.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are a big help getting the sky colors more saturated on a sunny day with haze. It also helps saturate other colors and cuts reflections from glass and metal.

Polarizing filters come in two flavors: Circular and linear. A linear polarizer is a rotating element that lets light aligned along a single axis into your lens. A circular polarizer has a polarizing element, just like a linear polarizer, but behind that is a quarter-wave scrambler that depolarizes the light.

Photo by Doug Kukurudza

The circular polarizer is the most common, but I use them both. The circular polarizer is supposed to be more consistent for beam splitting cameras, but really it helps the auto-focus more than the exposure. I use a linear polarizer when I don’t care about predictable results, when I want to shake things up and get a different perspective on a scene.

A polarizer can also function similarly to a neutral density filter on sunny days, cutting the exposure up to two stops.

Speaking of Neutral Density

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is very handy to have, particularly on bright days. It will cut the available light and let you select a wider aperture on a sunny day. ND filters come in multiples that provide a predictable reduction in the amount of light staringt at 0.3 (one stop),

A neutral density filter can make water look silky-smooth. photo by Paul Bica

and go in steps like 0.6 (two stops), 0.9 (three stops) and 1.2 (four stops). ND filters go all the way up to specialty filters like the 3.6, which is a whopping 12 stop reduction. You need a really bright scene for a 3.6. Think white cat on a snow field in broad daylight using an arc welder as a fill.

Those of you using your DSLRs for video, this is not an optional investment. You’re limited in your selection of shutter speeds and the only way you’ll get the f-stop you want in some shots is with a neutral density filter. Very seldom have I needed more than a 0.9 shooting video and, if that situation arose, you can stack ND filters for even more light reduction. Most of the video shooters I know carry a 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9.

So, there are still places for filters in modern digital photography, just not as many as the old days and the filters serve a different purpose.

Before and after with a neutral density filter. Photo by Ram Toga