10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Compact point-and-shoot cameras

Pretty much everybody has a compact, even if it’s only the one built into your phone. It’s no good for serious photography. Or is it? You might find yourself using it more if you try some of these ideas…

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My favorite compact – Ricoh GR Digital III.

10: Carry spare batteries. One in the camera, one in your pocket or one charging. This lets you keep going – especially important since compact battery life is often terrible.

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Crossing thoughts. Ricoh GRDIII

9: Use the hand strap. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many people don’t, and then land up having to buy new cameras.

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Car reflection. Ricoh GRDIII

8: Shoot bursts, if you have a useable buffer. Without the buffer, you’ll just have to rely on timing and counting shots – think of it as a revolver rather than a machine gun. The same rules about the middle shot being stable and sharp in a burst also apply to compacts.

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Zoom. Ricoh GRDIII

7: Keep ISO as low as possible, and make use of the stabilizer. Most good compacts have stabilizers; this is because even with the 1/focal length rule, there’ll be enough camera shake to blur things – you’re holding a light object at arms’ length and trying to keep it still. Granted, there’s no mirror slap, but there’s also nothing to brace against, either. Keeping the ISO as low as possible lets you maximize image quality. There’s usually a big difference between even base ISO and one stop up; know the limits of usability and don’t exceed them.

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Crossing, London. Ricoh GRDIII

6: Look at the whole frame. I’m not sure how to say this more succinctly: there are things compacts can do that larger sensor cameras can’t – think of telephoto/ compressed perspective shots where everything is in focus, for example – and vice versa (shallow depth of field, wide FoV). Look at the whole scene, and see how you can use these strengths to your advantage. Images shot with compacts that work actually force you to have a much stronger composition, because you cannot rely on the crutch of bokeh or let the lens do the talking.

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On set in the afternoon. Ricoh GRDIII

5: Spot meter. Dynamic range on all compacts is limited because the pixels are small. This means losing the shadows or the highlights is inevitable under most situations; you need to decide which one is important. The spot meter (and a half press to lock exposure) helps you to do that. High key = keep the shadows and lose the highlights; low key = keep the highlights and lose the shadows; most important however is making sure the subject is properly exposed – use the spot meter over faces, for instance. The other alternative is to use the spot meter on highlights and add a stop of exposure compensation – the meter will try to average a middle gray exposure out of whatever you place the box over; you know the camera has a little more tonal range in it if the highlights are at middle gray, so you can safely add some positive exposure compensation. This generally makes the rest of the image a little dark – especially under harsh light – but it also has the side benefit of making the colors richer.

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The fountain of capitalism. Ricoh GRDIII

4: Use P mode. I’d say leave it in full auto, except most of the time that doesn’t let you control exposure compensation and metering – those are important. Why not use aperture priority, as I’d recommend with a larger sensor camera? Simple: there’s no point. The real focal length is so wide and the lenses usually so slow that DoF is enormous, and changing the aperture isn’t going to do anything other than reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Great if it’s bright, but if you stop down too much, you’re going to to induce diffraction and just land up with soft images.

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Affection waiting for the bus. Ricoh GRDIII

3: Keep the lens clean. I’m constantly surprised by how many people have dirty lenses on their cameras and then complain that the images aren’t sharp, or that they can’t see anything in the finder – but there’s fingerprints all over it. It’s especially important on a compact as the small sensor and high pixel density are very demanding of lenses; the more aberrations you have on yours, the lower resolving power is going to be.

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After prayers. Canon SD780IS

2: Prefocus. Although focusing speeds have improved dramatically, what’s really nice about most point and shoots is the half press to full press lag is actually quite low – but you need to be prefocused first. In any case, the huge DoF will cover any minor focus errors. Most fleeing moments can be captured with a compact and a little anticipation.

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Break. Ricoh GRDIII

1: Set up your camera to either shoot raw, or output as neutral a jpeg as possible. If you can’t get a raw file, there’s still a lot that can be done with a good jpeg – what I usually do is reduce contrast to minimum to preserve the highlights and shadows; turn saturation down, and lower (but not zero) sharpening. Reason being that if you zero sharpening, you do generally lose some detail on compacts as this step is applied to the raw data in the imaging engine before being saved as a jpeg. You’ll be surprised how much you can do with one of these files afterwards in photoshop. Similarly, avoid those fake HDR or extended dynamic range modes; they might appear to help but what they actually do is make highlights look very unnatural because the tonal values overlap with other parts of the luminance range. MT

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Vehicular architecture. Apple iPhone 4

See more of my small-sensor compact camera work here on flickr: click here


  1. grintch says:

    Very interesting and helpful article.
    I’ve been using a Panasonic DMC-TZ4 as a carry-around camera for several years, after trying several others
    .I leave it on automatic mode and the only settings I change are the zoom andthe auto/no flash.
    I keep a spare battery and a spare SD card in the case.
    Years ago I had a Rolleiflex and a Nikon F with zoom lens and macro.
    How much easier it is today, with no film/processing cost and large capacity cards, and compactness,and automation.
    And people today show most of their stuff to others online, so graininess and heavy cropping are not big issues.
    I’m by no means a professional, but at age 72, I wish the digital age had come years ago.

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