The latest compacts are as well specified as many DSLR cameras, and can produce equally impressive results. Keith Wilson passes on four ways to extend your compact’s creative abilities
There is an incredible amount of technology packed into today’s digital compact cameras. With that technology comes plenty of creative potential. But if you want to fully realise your camera’s quality and capability, you need to step out of the comfort zone of always shooting on Auto.
Now is the time to explore some of the other settings by experimenting with cropping, close-ups and long exposures, and approaching your subject from a completely different angle. Not only can it be fun, but you will find that your compact is more versatile than you realised – and you’re more capable than you think!
Many digital compact cameras now have a choice of formats in addition to the main 3:2 aspect ratio. Typically, the other format options available are 16:9 (panorama), 4:3 and 6:6 (square).
But how often do you consider whether your composition could be improved by choosing one of these alternative formats when framing your subject? For example, for a tighter crop with less background, use 6:6 (called 1:1 on some cameras). For enhancing the sweep of a wider view, choose the 16:9 crop for a panoramic result.
What many people don’t realise is that the 4:3 format uses all the pixels available on the image sensor; the other formats, including the 3:2 aspect, are actually cropped frames of the sensor’s total array. The live view on the camera monitor adjusts accordingly to show the new framing whenever the format alters. Although the dimensions of your image (and therefore its enlargement potential) are affected by cropping in this way, the overall image quality is not.
In most compacts the choice of formats is accessed by scrolling through the menu, but some models have an external slider switch, which offers a more immediate way to compare how your composition is changed by being framed differently.
Use the panorama setting, in order to get a more sweeping image of your subject.
The best pictures are often those where the subject or setting features strong angles and diagonals in the foreground. Sometimes these are an obvious feature of the picture, such as the outstretched arm of a dancer in a street festival, the tethered line of camels in the desert or a husky sledge on the ice. At other times the angles are more subliminal and exist as a result of three separate points of interest in the composition forming the three points of an imaginary triangle.
The distortion that occurs at the edges of the frame when using the wider end of a camera’s zoom will exaggerate any visible angles and lines the closer the subject is to the lens. As a result, the exterior lines of buildings and other manmade structures, (bridges, pillars, piers) converge towards the centre of the frame to form lead-in lines that add depth and inject dynamism into the composition.
When photographed from the ground, nearby towers and other tall buildings will always appear as if they are leaning over. In that case, especially if you are struggling to fit the full height within the frame, exaggerate the effect by tilting the camera to represent the structure as a deliberate diagonal.
That little flower symbol on the camera menu is often misunderstood. This is the picture scene mode for close-ups, also known as the Macro mode – it’s not just meant for photographing flowers!
True Macro photography involves making an actual life-size image of your subject and is usually done with a DSLR and specialist Macro lens. On a compact camera it is the mode to select for making accurately focused close-ups. Digital compact cameras can focus more closely than their film counterparts, but how closely you can focus is also determined by the zoom lens setting – the wider you zoom, the more closely you can focus.
Some digital compacts even have a Super Macro mode, which locks the zoom at the widest setting, but allows you to get even closer. This gives a unique perspective and opens up possibilities for wonderfully detailed close-ups of colourful subjects such as fruits, flowers, food, fabrics, prints and other textured surfaces.
Even at wide-angle, depth of field will be narrow, so focus carefully and try to support the camera on a tripod or monopod if you can. If you are hand-holding the camera, ensure the shutter speed remains fast enough not to blur the result.
Use the picture scene mode (marked with a flower symbol) to take Macro photos.
A tripod is definitely needed for taking long exposures at night or in very low light. Ignore your camera’s flash warning symbol here. Indeed, turn the flash mode to ‘Flash-off.’ Switch the exposure mode to ‘S’ for shutter priority or ‘M’ for manual. In either of these modes, you have total control of the shutter speed and can set the camera to its slowest speed of 30 seconds, or even 60 seconds. Your light will be whatever is available – moonlight, street lamps, shop windows, floodlights – so set up the tripod, fix the camera to the tripod, compose the scene and select your shutter speed.
You’re almost ready – but don’t press the shutter yet! Instead, select the self-timer and then gently press the shutter button. Some cameras give a choice of a 12sec or 2sec delay on self-timer settings. Choose the longer delay – this gives you more time to stand back, and more time for any slight vibration caused by pressing the button to dissipate.
Without changing the composition, try a range of different exposures – altering the shutter speed each time – and compare the results. There is no real ‘correct’ exposure when making pictures this way as you are ignoring the camera’s meter reading. Choosing the best image is purely subjective and not a decision based on exposure technicalities.