Zooming in on a subject not only magnifies the subject, it also magnifies camera shake. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be faster than the 35-mm equivalent focal length of the lens. The widest lens setting on most P&S cameras is about 35 mm, and most zoom in to at least 120 mm. Hence, you want your shutter speed to be 1/30 s or faster for the wide angle shot or 1/125 s or faster for the telephoto shot to capture a sharp image. Any slower, and you'll most likely get a blurry photo.
Many cameras now have some sort of built-in mechanical stabilization that can compensate for this shake (digital image stabilization doesn't count—it simply raises the ISO). You can expect to beat these shutter speeds by a factor of four (two stops), so 1/30 s becomes 1/8 s and 1/125 s becomes 1/30 s.
The on-camera flash is counterintuitive. It's very useful for filling in harsh shadows in bright sunshine. It's not useful for lighting up dark scenes.
Our eyes can capture a much wider range of brightness levels than a camera or printer. Suppose it's noon, and a friend is standing in the shade with a sunlit landscape in the background. You can see the detail in your friend's face, but your camera will register him/her as a black silhouette with a properly exposed landscape in the background. In this case, turn on the flash and fire away. Your P&S camera will balance the exposure and capture both the landscape and your friend. Look through the manual for a fill-flash setting—this is what you want in these situations.
As for lighting up dark scenes, the light from a P&S camera's flash falls off very quickly (1/r^2 for you geeks) and dies out after a few meters. It’s not going to light up the Eiffel Tower. Hence, if the flash is the primary source of light, subjects close to the camera will be washed out and your background will be black. Furthermore, the flash on a P&S camera is mounted right next to the lens, which means that the lens does not capture the shadows cast by the flash. You're left with a flat, two-dimensional image where your subjects will look like a deer in the headlights. Not using the flash in these situations will often result in a shutter speed longer than the guidelines mentioned previously. To compensate for the lack of light, brace yourself against something solid while taking the picture, crank up the ISO, or put the camera on something stable and use the self timer. You may need to put your camera in its night mode once it gets past twilight to ensure that the shutter stays open long enough.
ISO measures the camera's sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the shorter the shutter speed needed to make a given photo. A photo that requires 1/15 s at ISO 100 only requires 1/60 s at ISO 400. The tradeoff is that increasing the ISO also increases noise in the image. P&S cameras tend to look rather grim by ISO 400, and even small prints may look objectionable at ISO 800.
Camera Support and Self Timer
As the light dims, another option is to rest the camera on something solid and use the self timer to trigger the shutter. Something solid could be a pocket-sized tripod, the travel photographer's secret weapon, or a table with a pebble under the front of the camera to orient it slightly upward. Whatever the case, always use the self timer to trigger the camera when it's supported. Most cameras have both a short delay setting (perhaps 2 s) if you don't want to be in the picture and a longer one (perhaps 10 s) if you do.
Turn off the camera's image stabilization function and drop the ISO to the lowest setting when using it on a support to get the sharpest image.
P&S cameras tend to focus on whatever is in the center of the frame, like the horizon between the heads of the two friends you're photographing. In that case, center one friend in the viewfinder, hold the shutter release halfway down, recompose the image, and then push it all the way down. If it's quiet, you'll likely hear the lens focus during the half press.
Make Lots of Pictures
Unlike film, there's no cost associated with a bad picture other than a second or two to delete it. Don't blast away mindlessly, but don't be afraid to make multiple pictures of the same subject. This is doubly true when photographing people, as it can take a dozen tries for the subject's expression to come together. A burst mode setting is particularly handy in these situations.
Start with Making Photographs for an overview of making pictures.
Sidebar: Megapixel Madness
Camera manufacturers have successfully convinced a gullible public that the quality of a camera has something to do with the megapixel count of its its sensor—a ten megapixel camera must be twice as good as one with five megapixels. The fact is that contrast, color, and tonal reproduction are equally important in perceived image quality, and that all of these qualities suffer as the megapixel count increases. However, they can't be quoted as a number and therefore have zero marketing value.
Packing in more pixels also increases noise in the image. We're now seeing cameras with obvious noise reduction artifacts at their lowest ISO setting. What's the point of all those megapixels if the image processing pipeline smoothes them together to control noise?
Here's a great example. The images on the left come from the Fuji F50fd, which has 12 megapixels. The ones on the right come from its predecessor, the F31fd, which has 6 megapixels. The images from the 6 megapixel camera look a lot better to my eyes. There's also a great editorial on Adorama's web site from early 2007 about this nonsense, and David Pogue wrote about it here and here.
How many megapixels do you need? I can't answer that for you, but I've made beautiful 16"x20" prints from my 6 megapixel Fuji F30.
Which current P&anp;S models are worth considering? Most of them pretty much suck once you move off the base ISO. The Panasonic LX–3 and Canon S90 both look like steps in the right direction.
Last edit: 21 December 2009