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Buying and using a compact camera


Many people have asked me what I would look for, if I had to buy a cheap compact camera. The obvious first thing to be aware of, is that at a price tag of $200-400, you shouldn't expect it to be good at everything at once. Most compact cameras seem to try to cram in as many features as possible, because the normal consumer just wants features rather than quality. Personally I would rather buy a camera that is really good at one thing, than a camera that is really bad at ten things.

One thing you can do to improve the inevitably poor quality of a really cheap camera, is to manually adjust every single parameter instead of using "auto" settings. This takes time, and if you don't have patience for that, you will never be able to use any camera to its full potential. In other words, I would probably always go for a camera that has manual focus and an "M" mode, so that it allows me to freely and manually set all of the five parameters of photography. These are:

The 5 fundamental settings of a camera

  1. Focus: To adjust how far away the subject is.
  2. Aperture: To adjust how wide the lens opening is, and thus how much light comes in.
  3. Exposure time & shutter speed: How long the camera lets light come in. Too long at things that move start to blur.
  4. ISO: How sensitive the "film" is. Larger numbers gives you more light, but the image can get noisy and grainy.
  5. White balance: Compensates for daylight versus indoor light in order to prevent orange or blue images.
On most cameras you will also see a wild amount of other exotic settings, such as "portrait mode", "sports mode", "red-eye reduction", "sepia", "digital zoom", "denoising", "exposure compensation" and many more. Most of these settings are actually just ways to automatically adjust the 5 settings listed above. For example, increasing the "Ev" setting will open the aperture more and/or use a longer exposure time in order to make the image brigther, while using one of the automatic modes. In other words, these features are nice to have but not as crucial as the fully manual mode.

Depth is your friend

Make sure images don't look flat. There are several ways to avoid this:
  • Built-in flash never looks good. If you must use flash, either point it away from the subject so that the light bounces off the walls or ceiling, or use an external flash (and never place this too close to the camera!)
  • Don't place the subject in front of a flat surface. If you take a picture of your family, don't put them up against a wall. Make sure there's some space behind.
  • Open the aperture all the way, to get a blurry background. This will also give more depth.
Typical way people take pictures of something:



If you follow the above rules using the same camera, you get:

Both images were taken with a Nikon D60 using the kit lens.

Website by Joachim Michaelis