Tips for Using a Point & Shoot Camera (or Smartphone)

by Philip Greenspun; revised August 2018

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Do you feel inadequate because you have a puny Sony RX100 or iPhone in your pocket while your friend is lugging around a digital SLR?


You can get a better picture than he can, for the following reasons:

MIT Graduation 1998 A professional photographer with a pile of $1500 lenses and a tripod is going to be able to do many things that you aren't. But you might find a P&S camera in his or her pocket as well. Pros take a lot of smartphone pictures too!

The photo at left shows Bill Clinton handing out a diploma at MIT's 1998 graduation ceremony. I was in the press box with a Canon EOS-5 (film!), 70-200/2.8L lens, and 1.4X teleconverter ($2500 total). In the upper right of the frame is a woman with a point and shoot camera. I would venture to guess that her pictures of Clinton are better than mine.

Think about Light

"He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it."
-- Joseph Romm

My personal definition of photography is "the recording of light rays." It is therefore difficult to take a decent picture if you have not chosen the lighting carefully. Read this tutorial chapter on light.

Just say no
Amy, Philip, Paula, at Aspects of Love in Minneapolis Just say "no" to on-camera flash. Your eye needs shadows to make out shapes. When the light is coming from the same position as the lens, there are no shadows to "model" faces. Light from a point source like the on-camera flash falls off as the square of the distance from the source. That means things close to the camera will be washed-out, the subject on which you focussed will be properly exposed, and the background will be nearly black.

We're at a theater. Can't you tell from the background? That's me in the middle. The guy with the flat face and big washed-out white areas of skin. Part of the problem here is that the camera was loaded with ISO 50 film and therefore doesn't capture much ambient light (i.e., the theater background).

Virtually all point and shoot cameras allow you to control the on-camera flash. What you want to do most of the time is press the tiny lightning bolt button until the "no flash" symbol is displayed. The "no flash" symbol is usually a lightning bolt with a circle around it and line through it. Now the camera will never strobe the flash and will leave the shutter open long enough to capture enough ambient light to make an exposure.

A good point and shoot camera will have a longest shutter speed of at least 1 second. You can probably only hold the camera steady for 1/30th of a second. Your subjects may not hold still for a full second either. So you must start looking for ways to keep the camera still and to complete the exposure in less time. You can:

Yes it was dark in Bar 89. But I steadied the camera against a stair railing and captured the scene with a Minolta Freedom Zoom 28-70 (current eBay value $5?). Note that not using flash preserves the lighting of the bar.

Just say yes
Just say "yes" to on-camera flash. Hey, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (Emerson; slightly out of context).

The on-camera flash on a compact digital camera is useful. It just isn't useful for what you'd think. As noted above, it is not useful for lighting up a dark room. However, it is useful outdoors when you have both shaded and sunlit objects in the same scene. A JPEG photo or a print cannot handle the same range of contrast as your eyes. A picture that is correctly exposed for the sunlight object will render the shaded portrait subject as solid black. A picture that is correctly exposed for the shaded portrait subject will render the sunlit background object as solid white.

Manhattan 1995. Here the chess players are being shaded by some overhead screens while the background foliage is not. The on-camera flash makes sure that the foreground players are bright. In fact they are a bit brighter than they probably should be and note the washed-out highlight on the leading edge of the table, which is close to the camera. This picture was taken by prefocusing on the shirtless player on the right, then moving the camera with the shutter release half-depressed to the final composition. Without the prefocusing the camera would have latched onto one of the chess tables in the center of the picture, quite far away. The foreground men would have been out of focus and also tremendously overexposed since an amount of flash adequate to illuminate a far away subject would have been used. [Note that many $1000 SLR cameras would not have been capable of making this picture except in a completely manual mode. Their flash metering systems look for light reaching the central area of the image rather than computing appropriate flash power from the focussed distance.]

Pressing the little buttons on a P&S camera until a single solid lightning bolt appears in the LCD display will keep the flash on at all times. Note that a side-effect of the "flash on" mode is that you also get the same long shutter speeds for capturing ambient light that you would with "flash off" mode. The standard illustrative picture for this has an illuminated building at night as the background with a group of people in the foreground who've been correctly exposed by the flash.

Sunglasses & ferris wheel. Coney Island. Sometimes it all comes together, as it did here in Coney Island. Without fill-flash, the ride operator would have been a silhouette. Prefocussed on the human subject's face. "Flash on" mode.

Market Street, San Francisco The best-composed photographs don't usually have their subject dead center. However, that's where the focusing sensor on a P&S camera is. Since the best photographs usually do have their subject in sharp focus, what you want to do is point the center sensor at your main subject, hold the shutter release halfway down, then move the camera until you like the composition.

Virtually all P&S cameras work this way but not everyone knows it because not everyone is willing to read the owner's manual.

A side effect of prefocusing is that most P&S cameras will preset exposure as well. Ideal exposure with a reflected light meter is obtained when the subject reflectance is 18% gray (a medium gray). If you don't want to wade into the exposure compensation menus, try to prefocus on something that is the correct distance from the camera and a reasonable mid-tone. I.e., avoid focusing on something that is pure white or black.

2018 update: What's most important in a typical image is a face in sharp focus. If your point and shoot camera has a face-d etection option, make sure that it is enabled! Smartphones do this by default.

Burn Memory
Stockholm airport, hopskotch If a memory card is lasting for months, something is wrong. You aren't experimenting enough. An ideal memory card for has 50 pictures of the same subject, all of them bad. These prove that you're not afraid to experiment. And then one good picture. This proves that you're not completely incompetent.

It takes at least 10 frames to get one good picture of one person. To have everyone in a group photo looking good requires holding down that shutter release button. You should have pictures from different angles, different heights, flash on, flash off, etc.

Buy a stack of 2 GB SD cards and challenge yourself to fill them up!

2018: Re-reading that 2007 note about 2 GB memory cards is funny! You probably won't need a "stack" of today's 256 GB cards unless you're capturing a lot of video!

Try to Buy a Decent P&S Camera
You can read our buyer's guide. My personal ideal point and shoot camera would have one of the following lenses:

Sadly, the marketplace doesn't agree with me and compact cameras with these lenses aren't available. Almost always you get a zoom lens, which would be more useful on a full-sized SLR camera because the user interface is better/quicker (i.e., you can turn the ring on the lens instead of pushing little buttons to drive a motor).