How to Get the Most out of your Pocket Camera

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If you have a pocket camera, you might have spent hours pouring over reviews, spec sheets, and comparisons trying to find something better like a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera. Too often we dismiss our humble pocket cameras because they don’t have big lenses, flash mounts, custom exposure controls, or even enough buttons on the back to do what we really want. While there are certainly good reasons for shelling out hundreds of dollars for a fancier camera, chances are your pocket camera can do a lot more than you might think. Let’s explore a few tips that you can use to get the most out of it, and even take some professional-style shots without spending another dime on new gear.

Bird in flight

Use the Zoom, but not for zooming

Many pocket cameras have a significant advantage over DSLRs because they often come with a built-in optical zoom that covers a much greater focal range than a standard kit lens. And while this can be nice for, say, shooting closeups of trees or buildings that are far away, it actually has a much more practical feature that is often overlooked. Instead of using your camera to get nice and cozy with faraway objects, you can actually use it to get professional-style shots of things that are much closer to you.

Pocket headshot

It’s amazing what you can create with a $125 pocket camera set to Auto and a lot of sunlight

In the shot above I used my old Panasonic ZS7 point-and-shoot to take a portrait by standing about 10 feet away from my subject and zooming in as far as the camera would go. Because the background buildings and foliage were so far away from her, it created a very shallow depth of field. Of course you can only do this if you have a great deal of available light, since pocket cameras are much less sensitive to light than their larger counterparts, but if you have never tried this technique you might be surprised at the results you can get. It also helps to have a tripod since it can be difficult to keep the camera steady on a single subject when zoomed in that far, or you can simply place your point and shoot on a hard surface like a bench, railing, or brick wall.

Turn on the flash during the day

When it comes to camera flashes, we usually think about how they can be used to brighten up a dark scene – particularly if you are using a pocket camera, most of which are already not very sensitive to light. But flash can also be used to enhance a perfectly well-lit scene, and produce some very good results that you might not expect. Shooting in the daylight can cause harsh shadows to appear on your subject, which is why many photographers like shooting during what’s called the golden hour – the time right after dawn and right before dusk.

Most pocket cameras allow you to force the flash to fire, even when there is plenty of light available. This is a technique known as “fill flash“, and it is a great way to eliminate some of the shadows from harsh lighting that can often happen during the bright afternoon sun. You can also use it to help get better photos when your subject is backlit, as often happens during the daytime. In these situations your camera takes a look at the overall scene and thinks there is enough light, so it won’t fire the flash. But since you know better than your camera just what type of picture you want to take, overriding the camera’s decision and forcing the flash to fire can help you get much better results.

Magnolia noflash

This photo of a budding magnolia seed pod, taken on my pocket camera in Auto, came out a little too dark.

Magnolia flash

My solution was to force my camera to use its flash, which allowed it to maintain a good overall exposure while eliminating the harsh shadows on the seed pod.

Using fill flash takes a bit of practice. But once you get the hang of it, you will find creative ways of using it to get a lot more mileage out of your pocket camera than you might have thought possible. Alternatively, you can instruct your camera to keep the flash off even when it thinks it must be turned on. Remember, you know better than your camera what kind of picture you want to take, and somehow all you need to do is give it a little nudge in the right direction.

Wwii memorial

Forcing the flash to stay off can also be a useful technique to get just the right shot.

When I took this photo of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., I wanted to capture the arcs of water as they shot out from the fountainheads. To do that, I left my pocket camera in Auto and told it to keep the flash off. In order to compensate for the lack of light, my camera left the shutter open longer which gave me the exact image I was looking for.

Use the camera’s built-in scene modes

By far the most utilized shooting mode on pocket cameras is Auto; in which the camera does its best to evaluate things like the amount of light, as well as the movement of your subject, to pick the optimal exposure settings. The camera also decides whether it thinks a flash should be used, unless you have specifically told it to do otherwise. And for the most part, Auto can produce some good results. But a camera is only a tool, and it can only take its best guess as to what you really want to photograph. It doesn’t see a flower, a tree, a child, a car, a birthday candle, a waterfall, or anything else. It only sees bits of light hitting its sensor, and tries to capture the incoming light as best as it can given the information it has to work with. This is why Auto sometimes works, and sometimes produces a blurry mess.

Landscape

The Scenery or Landscape mode will help your camera choose optimal settings for these types of photographs.

However, there is something you can do about this even if you aren’t familiar with exposure settings and how to adjust them. Almost every camera today, whether it’s a tiny compact model or a big DSLR, has built-in scene modes that are little icons on your camera that look like a face, a mountain, a tree, a child, and more. Camera manufacturers pour millions of dollars and years of researching user behaviours into developing scene modes, so the next time you pull out your pocket camera, try switching to one of the little icons based on what you are shooting. Utilizing these scene modes is a way for you to give your camera a bit of help in interpreting the incoming light, so it can try to take the picture you really want instead of the picture it thinks you want.

Flower

Setting your camera to Macro mode will force it to focus on close-up subjects, whereas normally it will focus on things a bit farther away.

Let’s say you are photographing a youth soccer game, and using Auto because it generally gives you decent photos. The problem is, your camera doesn’t know you are at a soccer game! It only sees bits of light, not a green field of grass with individual players and a ball. But if you use the scene mode to tell your camera you are photographing a sports event, it will tweak its own internal exposure algorithms by increasing the shutter speed, widening the aperture, etc., to give you better results. The same principle applies when you are shooting a portrait, a flower, a beach, or the nighttime sky: by using the scene modes, you are essentially making your camera a little bit smarter, which can make a big difference.

Bottle

While pocket cameras have physical limitations, such as tiny image sensors and low ISO sensitivities, that will always put them in a class below DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds, and other more expensive cameras, this doesn’t mean they can’t produce amazing results. Hopefully using these tweaks will help you get even better pictures with the camera you already have, without spending a dime on new equipment.

Editor’s note: Do you have any other tips to share? Please do so in the comments below. Do you take your compact camera along on vacation too, for those times you just don’t want the big DSLR? I do!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • Keith Starkey

    Nice work. Very nice!

  • Amaryllis

    I’ve had plenty of little pocket cams before I got my first DSLR, but even after I got my DSLR I bought myself a compact cam for the portability. It was hurting me to bring my DSLR with me everyday at my job (which isn’t related to photography just yet) so bringing the compact one saved my back. That, and I got plenty of good shots while I had it with me, since it was closer. I have to admit that my cam has manual controls, so it’s not exactly a ‘pocket’ camera, but I use it in aperture priority most of the time and I just tweak the ISO if I need it (I wanted it just for the RAW possibility).

    That, and I have my old pocket camera to someone who works with me, and they took great shots with it, so the camera doesn’t make the photographer X3

  • Mulyadi Subali

    To fully reap the benefits of a compact camera, buy one that can take raw format, such as the Canon PowerShot S series, or Sony Cyber-shot RX line. This feature alone will level the playing field even more.

  • Char

    I have a power series ELPH150 IS and what exactly is ISO?

  • ISO is a measure of how sensitive your camera is to light. On your ELPH you probably cannot adjust it, but on most DSLRs you can. Photos taken at higher ISO values do not need as much light, but they will come out more grainy than photos at lower ISO values.

  • Jonas Thorsell

    I just picked up the new Canon SX400 IS the other day as a fun camera for my children. It’s a fun camera especially with the 30x zoom, but the picture quality is very bad. However, using the scene modes helps it along the way as is stated in the article and it has a lot fo fun features like miniature mode, fisheye mode etc. It was super cheap and produces much better images than a smart phone camera though, so all in all a good fun thing that will help my children enjoy photography.

  • I’m glad to hear it, Jonas. People sometimes overlook pocket cameras because they’re not as fancy as DSLRs, but they can be fantastic tools to help introduce people to photography. Especially children! My son is 3 and loves playing with our old PowerShot pocket camera, and one day he might get a DSLR of his own.

  • Good idea, Mulyadi. Pocket cameras that shoot RAW are not as common, but they will certainly give users a leg up over the competition when it comes to producing good images.

  • I do the same thing. I recently took a vacation and left my DSLR at home, because my pocket camera could do all I needed. While the quality is certainly no match for one of my DSLR bodies with a nice prime lens, the portability mostly made up for it. I like the idea of having a pocket camera like yours with manual controls, too. I don’t want my camera making all the decisions for me when it comes to getting a properly exposed photo.

  • Guest

    Picture taken with Minolta Dimage G500 P/S camera

  • Guest

    Picture taken with Minolta G 500 Dimage p/s camera

  • “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” -Wayne Gretzky
    I think even professionals should have a pocket camera to always have on them for when a picture presents itself and the DSLR is at home. I like the Canon Powershot S series but switched to a Lumix LF1 (which obviously is geared as a S-series competitor). It stays in my car and goes to my pocket wherever I go. I’m amazed at how good the pics from it are, just be aware of the DoF and low light limitations and work around them.

  • Sanjay Garg

    I took the same picture of the WWII memorial in DC, with a point and shoot canon itself

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150397894248162&set=a.10150397893263162.404769.606893161&type=3&theater

  • Rachel VanRinsum

    I use a Nikon Coolpix L610 and LOVE it. I’m very active and carry it in my hiking pouch. I borrowed a friend’s DSLR for a trial run and it didn’t suit me at all. The photo quality is better, I won’t argue that but I basically had to lay full body in the sand to take my morning macros of shells vs being able to squat and stick my camera next to the shell. Also the need to switch lenses just didn’t work at all. On my hike I had to keep the DSLR elevated over my head so the dust didn’t get on the lense. I wanted it ready for quick shots of my team and fiddling with the lens cap wasn’t an option when watching my footing on the steep dusty trail. When I find the DSLR that meets my needs I will upgrade, but for now I’m sticking with my POS and all the settings. I’d add to your article to play with your camera. Run through all light conditions and settings to really learn it. You can get high quality images knowing your equipment’s strengths.

  • I like what you said at the end: know the limitations of your camera and learn to work around them. Point and shoot cameras simply cannot match DSLRs or other high-end devices thanks to features such as sensor size, lens optics, etc. But if you are aware of these limitations, you can learn to adjust your photograph style to work around them and learn to produce good photos given the constraints you have. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • Hmm…it says the page is not available. Do you have the image posted at another site?

  • Khaz

    “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” -Wayne Gretzky

    Let’s expand this to using your cell phone. Things like instant upload, access to countless app editors, and oh yes… verbal shutter activation are predominately unique features of mobile devices.

  • Khaz

    Drove around an entire day, window down, camera app open barking “Capture!” to activate the shutter on my Note 3. Going through around 400 exposures of pot shots that evening was one of my most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had with my hobby. Even if it was a lot of powerlines and traffic signs in the end.

  • Prajwal Pokhrel

    photo clicked by samsung mobile( galaxy s7852)

  • Jonas Thorsell

    Thanks Simon, yes it’s great fun to see the children play around and discover what they can do. The possibilities are fantastic nowadays with all the technology available.

  • I’m kinda in the same realm. I have FujiFilm S4800, which is somewhat compact and I can carry it around all along, not to mention that it’s pretty light. That way, when travelling, I quite simply don’t miss the nice stuff I see.

    For now this is great solution to the amateur photography I’m entitled for, and at the same time the bridge PAS cameras do have some manual control options – I have full control over exposure, macro mode, aperture and shutter speed, as well as ISO.
    Example of what’s achievable is attached.

    That being said, when you get used to the compactness of the camera, you can’t simply jump to DSLR (I can’t and I don’t need). Hence, the natural next step is mirrorless camera. Or at least that’s what I think.

  • That’s pretty cool, Khaz. I would have never thought to do something like this, but it seems like a fun experiment to try. Especially because you never know just what you might end up capturing 🙂

  • Khaz

    It was arbitrary capture for the most part; driving between unfamiliar places for work. The short focal length was great for wide angles but it took a while to find a mounting position that didn’t capture some of the cars interior.

    All in all though it worked as anticipated with uncanny consistency. Doing more than 45 Mph blurred objects close to the roadside, coasting down your local Main St. could freeze vehicles moving passed in the opposite direction. Wind noise had no effect on voice recognition if you spoke up-which at times did get awkward when I knew at times I looked and sounded quite mad.

  • Sanjay Garg

    Had to post it on my ‘dormant’ flickr account. Here you go

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/sanjaygarg04/14853592817/

    I’m just surprised that i’m not the only one with this pic, that too taken with a point & shoot!

  • Jim VanDuzer

    Piggybacking on your “turn off your flash at night” here are two tips that I’ve used to take nighttime city shots like this one:
    1. Use a tripod – I use a cheap 4″ one, just make sure it holds your camera
    2. Use your self timer – To keep the camera still because even the most steady of us move the camera when we click the shutter.

    Put the camera on your tripod, frame your shot, set the self timer (most have a 2 or 3 sec setting), trip the shutter and back up.

  • Albin

    Canon PowerShot users can install the CHDK enhancement to their memory cards for RAW/DNG output, provide manual overrides for cheap cameras that don’t otherwise have them, and offer a range of time lapse, motion detection (lightening flash or wildlife) and exposure or focus bracketing. It’s amazing what can be added to even an $80 camera with CHDK, worth googling and taking time for the learning curve. (It does not affect firmware or void the warranty.)

  • Wow, you’re not kidding Sanjay–that’ is almost the exact same photo! I wonder who else has a similar picture 🙂

  • You’re exactly right about these, Jim. I’ve got a $10 SunPack tripod on my trunk because I don’t like lugging my big Manfrotto tripod around all the time. And if you just need a way to keep your camera steady, a cheap tripod will work just fine. The self-timer is a good tip too.

  • Grasmith

    I often use an aged Nikon Coolpix S210. An overlooked feature that I cannot see mentioned, is that the ISO can be adjusted for most ‘point and shoot’ cameras. My Nikon will adjust down to 64 ASA thus providing longer shutter speeds for smoothing water flow etc.

  • It seems like nowadays most pocket cameras don’t let you adjust the ISO, but if you find one that does, I agree–it is an incredibly useful feature.

  • Lolly

    I just purchased the Sony DSC-WX350 for a business/vacation trip to Rome. I didn’t want to take my Canon 30D as it’s heavy and cumbersome. I was told this camera was a great substitute yet I am having difficulties with the usage and choice of modes to shoot with. My concern also was getting good shots in low lighting. If anyone has tips and advise please help me out! I am an advanced beginner photographer and worried about my purchase of this camera.


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  • That is a nice camera for travel, especially with the long optical zoom. But like most pocket cameras it has a very small image sensor, which means it’s not going to do very well in low light. It’s one of the trade-offs with a pocket camera: you can get a long zoom, but at the expense of the image sensor size. Your best option to get good shots in low light is probably going to be increase the ISO or use a tripod.

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