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• How to get more from your compact

Compact cameras, or point-and-shoots, are those that have no interchangeable lenses. It is essentially a light-tight box to hold your film, a lens and a shutter mechanism to let light onto the film for a brief moment.

Which all means that shooting with a compact can be pretty restrictive. Unless you use the camera within the confines of its ability.

We know the advantages of compacts: that they are, well, compact and easy to cart around. Convenient, small and instantly ready to shoot. And of course, they don't require a helluva technical mind. They're not called "point-and-shoot" cameras for nothing, you know.

So what are the disadvantages? Firstly, they mostly have fixed focal length lenses (whoah, big words!) with essentially means they're stuck on wide angle.

Now wide angles are normally fine to do landscapes etc., but a characteristic of such lenses is that they produce a degree of image distortion. So if you brought them too close to the subject, they would distort someone nose, for instance, and make you very unpopular.

Secondly, their lenses are focus free. That sounds quite cool, because these days, nothing is free! But what it really means, if you can see past the advertising blurp for just a second, is that they're actually unable to focus.

Wide angle lenses naturally have a large field of focus, which means that if set on their infinity setting (your compact is set to this already) everything from a meter away from the lens to infinity will be in focus. Again, this is cool. But what if you want to creep up really close to your subject for a nice, tight shot of a flower or the new puppy's cute little face? It'll be out of focus, that's what.

Thirdly, compacts rarely have exposure compensation in the form of different shutter speeds. To reduce costs, their shutter speeds are set to around a 125th of a second. In normal daylight conditions, this will allow just enough light onto the film to expose your pictures correctly.

However, if the light levels drop, you cannot increase the time the shutter is kept open to allow enough light onto the film. That would account for those nasty, grainy pictures taken at your sunset picnic, won't it?

The fourth drawback of compacts is that their flashes are mostly inadequate for lighting subjects further than 2 to 4 meters away from the lens. This leads to, as above, underexposed film and murky pictures.

OK, hope I haven't made you sell your compact by now. I also own a compact and I'm very happy with the results I get. In fact, I've shot quite a few magazine cover pictures with my Olympus MjU II.

Simply recognise the limitations of your camera. And shoot accordingly. Some hot tips:

  • People look best when photographed with a medium telephoto lens. This is so because of the compression of the perspective such lenses allow, which basically means that the picture is flattened, not distorted into a bulbous shape.
  • So if your compact has a zoom facility, use it. It may even have those funny little numbers on the zoom - like 28mm, 35mm and so on all the way up to 105mm or longer. Zoom in until you reach 85mm or the equivalent of 75% of the available zoom length.

    Here's a nice tip: the best zoom is your feet. Lift your camera, look through the viewfinder, then step further back or forward until you frame your subject tightly. Remember that you are photographing people. You want to see their expressions, their character. Not the horse in the paddock behind them as well.

    So go in tight. And hold your camera in portrait format, in other words vertically, not horizontally. This will enable you to go in even tighter and enlarge the size of the image on your film to the maximum.

  • If you are too tight, step back, but do not zoom back. Don't be lazy - use your feet. You want to use the perspective compression ability of your zoom lens. Zooming out negates that.
  • And what if you do not have a zoom? Live with the fact that your compact is not ideal for portrait work. At least not for flattering portraits, anyway!

    But there is a way around the typical distortion of a fixed focal length such as the ones you'll find on zoomless compacts: make sure you stand far enough back from your subject. Give yourself at least a meter and a half. Make sure you still shoot in portrait format, and frame the shot so that you frame the sitter from head to hip. This way, you can have the image cropped tighter in a lab later, to give you that nice, strong and tight image a longer lens would have given you.

Overcoming inadequate flash power

Most compact flashes are quite weak and only OK for work up to around 2-4 meters. If your subject is further away, the flash beam will have to travel all the way there, get bounced back and expose the film correctly. This is a highly unlikely event, given the strength of these little flashes.

On-camera flashes are designed to only light subjects within a perfect distance from the lens. If you're too close, your film will be overexposed. If too far, the opposite will happen. So experiment with ideal flash distances. Actually pace out the distance from your subject and remember to check your pics later for the best results.
If you're seriously underpowered on the flash end, consider buying an cheap extra flash and a slave unit, as well as a miniature tripod. A slave unit (that's the little 'eye' underneath the flash in the picture) detects your camera's flash and pops a signal to the flash unit attached to it, causing this flash to fire simultaneously.

If you placed the slave to 45 degrees to your left or right, it will be able to "see" your flash and fire accordingly. The result is a more evenly lit subject, with virtually no ugly shadow behind.

Experiment with the position of the flash - hold it higher than your camera flash for even better results. The ideal position is 45 degrees off camera axis and 45 degrees up as well. Just be careful of bring the slave too close to your subject. This could result in overexposure. Try fitting some tracing paper over the slave flash to soften the light for still better results.

Overcoming camera shake

Camera shake is caused by shooting in low light level conditions and moving the camera while the shutter is open. To counter it, you have to learn the rifleman's technique of "shooting" film: take the full weight of the camera in your left hand. Now depress the shutter button with your right hand index finger, with only your thumb pressed underneath the camera body to help. Don't stab at the shutter - depress it gently. If you grip the camera in your right hand, you tend to attack the shutter button, whereas if you steady the camera with your left hand and squeeze the "trigger" with your right, you cause minimal camera movement.

Choosing the best compact Compacts are essentially as good as their lenses. When you choose one, always look at the lens and find the scribblings that will tell you more about the lens' pedigree. There should be a number of figures such as f=5.6 or 4.5 or 3.5. The lower this figure, the "faster" the lens, or put differently, the better the optic, therefore allowing more light through (hence "faster").

I like the Olympus MjU II because it sports a whopping 2.8 lens - one of the fastest in the game. The quality is therefore superb.

Like to join us on a proper, certificate photographic course? The next online course starts soon - mail us at jaco@pictureperfect.co.za now for more information and payment details.