How to Get the Most out of your Pocket Camera

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!

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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 and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.