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5 Ways to Tame Your Compact Camera

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If you just press the button and let your intelligent camera do the rest, you're missing the funnest part of photography, and better shots, too. In five quick steps, I hope to show you how to tame your compact camera and get the most out of it!

Break free from auto

In the past, it was the cheaper cameras that were all manual, and only the more expensive would have auto modes. Now it's the other way round. There are new intelligent cameras that do everything for you.

Some even know if the people being photographed are smiling (and some even measure how broad they smile). These days, if you want a compact camera that lets you have some control, you need to pay extra. Strange days we live in, really.

Camera makers have got their priorities all wrong. There's no way around auto settings with some cameras. The marketing for different brands tells us that their cameras do everything for you, can make intelligent decisions. Someday they will tell us that we're not even needed anymore. Someone has to take stand against this. We want full manual control back.

Still, there's some hope: some compacts have a manual mode. That means you have to choose a camera wisely. Compacts usually are limited in terms of aperture (just two or three choices, from wide open to, usually, f/8), and slightly more flexible with shutter speed. But if you get one, you will be able to get the cameraa to do what you want instead of the "artificial intelligence." Let's see what can happen then.


This set of photos of a coastal zone in Sintra, Portugal, is an example of the classic image of vacation. Taken at the day's end, the Automatic mode in the camera opted for 250 ISO, 1/60 at f/3.3, and overexposed the lighter area to get the detail on the coastline.

I decided to use the Landscape mode, just to see what I would get. The result is an exposure at 1/60 at f/3.3 and 160 ISO. This is very colorful, but not what I had in front of my eyes. So I ditched the intelligent modes and used my brain. I switched to manual and went with an exposure of 1/100 at f/3.3 and 100 ISO. I forced the flash to fire to get the right amount of light on the area closer to me. It is the best of the pictures, and I made it all by myself!

Flowers on wide angle and close

Flower photography is a passion of mine and in my eBook about flowers I use a few pictures taken with compacts. The trick, again, is to understand what can be done and explore the ability of compacts to go close to the subject in the wide angle setting.

For this picture I opted to use a small aperture, f/10, to get most of the flowers in focus. The shutter speed was set at 1/60 with with ISO at 160, although I tend to not go over 100 ISO on compacts, to get the maximum detail.

This was a compromise between depth-of-field and speed that works fine as long as you're aware of what you're doing.

Zooming for flowers

Using the longer side of a zoom lens on a compact is a good way to get rid of disturbing backgrounds. This was taken at a focal length that equals 300mm on 35mm format. Exposure was 1/320 at f/5.9 and ISO 100. You just have to check that the background is at a greater distance from the main subject. This lets you get the separation. This and the previous technique will give you new options in your flower photography, and in other subjects, too.

Flashing the sky

Photographing flowers against a blue sky with the sun in a corner of the frame is a total disaster if you let the camera define exposure. I worked to get the ambient light exposure right, with some underexposure to get the sky darker and then started to do my thing.

In manual mode, I arrived at an exposure of 1/1000 at f/7.9 and ISO 100. The flash was set to -2EV and forced to fire. You will have to adjust for different conditions but no auto setting will do a picture like this one. And again, you can use this for any situation with other subjects.

Wildlife on a compact

Birds in flight and wild animals running are not a subject that a compact can do easily, but bees and butterflies are within the scope of these cameras. As long as you have the patience to get close. The main advantage of compact cameras is that most let you focus very closely. Again, it's better to think beforehand what you want to get in your picture and work from there.

For the following butterfly shot, I am worked at the longest focal with an exposure of 1/500 at f/5.9, while on the bee I am at the other extreme of the focal length with 1/250 and f/10. I knew I needed the extra depth-of-field as bees are "fatter" than a butterflies when photographed from the side.

Make sure your gear lets you control it

These tips are examples that can help you to get better results from your photography, even with a compact, and not just for the type of situations shown here. The tips can be applied to everything from street photography to portraits or landscapes.

as long as you've got a camera that will let you control shutter speed and aperture, you can repeat these techniques. Knowing what these settings do is essential to get the most of all equipment. The more you know, the easier it is to get the gear to do what you want. Remember, if you're ever tempted by an all automatic camera and think that it's the way to go, it isn't!

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