Winning with a Compact camera – James Allan

Using your compact camera to score in Photo competitions

Compact Camera Picture2Although I currently use a Nikon D7000, most of the images  in the last 6 years have been taken with a variety of compact cameras.  I started with a Nikon Coolpix and then progressed to a Panasonic TZ1 and then a Panasonic FZ100.  I remember people saying to me things like, “you shouldn’t get away with what you do”.  The presumption being that you need a dSLR in order to take competitive images.  Apparently this is not so.  The modern compact cameras offer excellent quality for their size and it is possible to use them in a wide variety of settings. I personally have used them to take landscape, portrait, wildlife, sports photography, night photography and Macro.   It is even possible to get 10’s in competition against images taken with a dSLR.  So how is it done?  What are the tricks?  I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, however in this article I will summarise  some of the things I have done.

Firstly a few advantages.  Compact cameras are cheaper than digital SLR’s.  They are small and easy to carry around with you.  The camera in your pocket is more valuable than the one sitting at home.  They are light to hold and less prone to shake.   They are sealed and do not get dust on the sensor.  In Macro photography they have a better depth of field than many professional macro lenses.

The lens and the sensor are smaller than an equivalent dSLR. Despite their small size, the nuts and bolts of image making are essentially the same.   You achieve your exposure by altering either the ISO , the aperture or the shutter speed.  Each has both pros and cons.

Most Compact cameras have a selection of automatic modes that make all of these exposure decisions for you.  There is a mode for landscapes, another for portraits, one for sports and another for macro.  These are worth utilising as they often contain hidden features that can improve your photos.  For instance the portrait mode may activate face recognition, which in turn will ensure that the focus and exposure is correct for the faces in the picture and not the background.   The sports mode will not only select a fast shutter speed, but will often utilise burst mode where the camera will take 5 or 6 shots at the same exposure allowing you to capture multiple views of the sequence of movement.  I quite liked the museum mode in my first camera.  This would allow slow shutter speed photography without the flash.  This mode took 4 to 5 photographs and then selected the image with the least hand shake to keep.  Another iteration of this feature (on Frances’ camera) would align and fuse 4-5 underexposed images to create 1 sharp correctly exposed image.  These features would be hard to replicate without the software in the camera.

Compact camera - Picture2Museum mode on the Nikon Coolpix   would take 4 to 5 photographs and then selected the image with the least hand shake to keep.

Compact camera - Picture3However many interesting photographic techniques require more control over the ISO  the aperture and the shutter speed.  All of my cameras made this available through the PASM modes.  P= program, A = aperture priority, S= shutter priority, M = full manual mode.  For instance if I wanted to freeze the motion of a waterfall I would place the camera on a tripod.  I would select shutter priority and slow the camera down to 2 to 4 seconds.  I would set the ISO at 100 and turn off the automatic ISO compensation mode.  I would need to ensure that the exposure was adequate, and if over exposed I would use a polarising filter or neutral density filter to reduce the light entering the camera.  Not all compact cameras will take filters.  However you can buy a cheap filter and hold it in place with some masking tape.  The camera manual will often suggest you use a cable release when your camera is on the tripod to prevent camera shake.  Unfortunately these can be expensive, or not available for compact cameras.  I prefer to use the time delay mode.   This feature is on most cameras and seems to be designed for self portraits and group shots.  I find that a 2 second delay will avoid the vast majority of shake from pressing the release button.

Compact camera - Picture1

Macro Photography is easier on the kitchen table with desk lamps  to light the subject.



One annoying feature of compact cameras is the shutter lag or delay.  At times I might press the button as a bird leaps from a branch, but only get a picture of an empty branch.  This delay is caused by the processor undertaking the various tasks like focussing and exposure.  The delay may be greater when the object is moving.  The larger dSLR camera has a more efficient and faster processor.  I have found that pre-focussing helps.  Half pressing the shutter release will cause the camera to focus on the bird and hold that setting until the button is fully pressed.  The other strategy is to use burst mode and capture the movement as a sequence of images.  This usually improves your chance of getting a good image.

In fact the exposure lock can be quite handy.  A burnt out sky can be a real problem with landscape photography.  However, pointing the camera at the sky, exposing and then recomposing will often result in a better exposed picture.  I sometimes look at the display and if the sky looks burnt out, retake the picture with exposure compensation of say -1 stop.  The other strategy would be to bracket the photo.  This is a function that will take 3 photos, one correctly exposed and one each deliberately over exposed and underexposed.

Low light photography without the flash is a particular problem for compact cameras.   (You have to remember to turn the flash off.)   I find that they are more prone to noise and lack that silky smooth finish that some of the dSLR cameras can produce.  The small sensor will mean that you can not push the ISO as high as with the average dSLR.  If you are taking scenery shots the answer is to use the tripod and put the ISO back to 100 and use a long exposure time.  If it comes to moving subjects, for instance concert photography or street photography, you will have to accept a grainy image.   Personally I would prefer a sharp but grainy image to a silky smooth blurred one.  You can always post – process the image to remove unwanted noise.

Compact camera - Picture4It is worth exploring the different flash settings.  This includes turning the flash off.  You can use the flash to reveal/freeze a moving object in a long exposure.  Great for taking kids writing their name with sparklers.  You can reduce the harshness of the light from the on camera flash by taping bubble plastic or even polystyrene foam over the flash.  This is particularly useful when you are doing Macro photography.  Portrait photography often requires “off camera flash”.  Some compact cameras come equipped with a hot shoe from which you can fire an external flash.  Even if you do not have this capability, you can get flashes that will fire in slave mode, triggered when the on camera flash fires.  It is worth experimenting.  There are a lot of professional looking shots you can take with very simple lighting arrangements.  A word of warning.  Be careful of using the in camera exposure meter with off camera lighting arrangements – it will often get it wrong.  You will probably find it best to work in full manual mode and work out the correct exposure by adjusting the aperture until the image looks right on the screen.

Compact camera - Picture5

Polystyrene Foam makes a cheap diffuser for the flash.  This is particularly useful for macro photography where the on camera flash tends to be harsh and too bright.

At the end of the day, a good picture is not about the camera, but about what you can do with the camera.  The camera has the ability to transform the mundane into something of interest.  However you have to realise these abilities through the choices you make.  What is the subject?  How should I take the picture?  How shall I present the resulting image?  You have to experiment and see what you can “get away with”.  Try and increase your repertoire.  Find new ways to do old things.  Best of Luck.

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