If you got a new digital camera over the holidays, you probably got a point-and-shoot model. True, if you point that sort of camera at something and push the big button on top of the case, you will take a picture.
That doesn't mean, necessarily, that you will have taken a good one. The not-so-dirty, not-so-little secret about even the simplest point-and-shoot cameras is that they work best if you know just a tiny bit about what's going on when you snap a picture.
Otherwise, even scads of megapixels and image stabilization and other ballyhooed features can't save you from overexposed images and washed-out colors.
Below are some basic tips and tricks. They apply to most of the cameras on the market today, even if the manufacturers have different names for their various features and settings (word to the wise: don't throw away the owner's manual). Putting this advice in action won't make you a great photographer, but it will elevate you to the glorified realm of the "not bad."
SETTING UP YOUR SHOT
Photography is, at its core, about making the most of light. All cameras include a fully automatic mode that sets optimal exposures based on lighting conditions, but most also give the user some degree of manual control to adjust settings.
Scene modes: The entry-level, basic snap-shooters may offer little to no manual control, but all cameras include scene modes. These are presets that adjust the camera to perform best in a given situation.
Typical scene modes include party, night, portrait, snow, beach, sunset, fireworks, sports and kids and pets. In sports mode, for instance, the camera will automatically set a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.
Scene settings are a great place to start experimenting because they help you capture the best shots in specific shooting conditions, and you don't have to know a thing about exposure.
ISO: One of the most basic ways to control the light is to adjust the ISO. Doing so will make your camera more or less sensitive to light. Cameras use lower ISO settings of 80 or 100 for photographing in bright conditions like sunny days. Higher ISO settings -- 400 and up -- enable the camera to capture the details of subjects in lower light. Today's cameras may include ISO settings of 3200 or higher, but use them judiciously -- you'll start to see "noise," or multicolored specks in images, starting at ISO 400.
Exposure compensation: Exposure compensation can save the day in difficult lighting conditions, such as bright sunlight and strongly backlit scenes. For instance, if you photograph a friend with very bright lighting behind her, the details of her face will probably be in shadow. Set the exposure compensation to a positive value to capture more details of the foreground and her face.
White balance: Another useful setting that is available on most cameras is white balance, which ensures that the light source -- fluorescent or tungsten lamps, for instance -- does not apply an artificial color cast to your image. For instance, white objects snapped under fluorescent lighting often exhibit a greenish tint. To correct white balance, simply select the correct light source from a list that typically includes tungsten, fluorescent, shade or sunlight.
Flash modes: Most people set their flash to Auto and don't think about it again (unless they're trying to sneak in a few surreptitious shots in a museum, in which case they turn off the flash). But auto flash isn't always the best flash, which is why cameras typically offer a couple of flash settings that can greatly enhance photos.
For instance, if you're taking an outdoor photo of someone whose face is in shadow, using force flash (or flash on) will coax your subject's face out of the shadows. Many cameras also enable you to adjust the brightness of the flash, which is useful when snapping shots of subjects in close range. You'll want to decrease the brightness of the flash so that the image isn't washed out.
Another useful flash setting is slow synchro (also called nighttime mode), which slows the shutter speed in combination with the flash. With slow synchro, you can get more background detail in dimly lighted scenes, such as portraits shot outdoors at twilight or indoor shots where you want the right amount of flash for your subject, but don't want to wash out the whole room with a bright flash.
SNAPPING THE SHOT
Now that you understand the adjustments to make in order to capture the right exposure, you're ready to shoot.
Auto-focus: Auto-focus is a two-step process. First, press the shutter button halfway to focus on your subject and set the correct exposure. You'll hear a beep to indicate that the lens has focused and that the automatic exposure is locked. Press the button all the way down to snap the shot.
Optical zoom: Most basic point-and-shoot cameras have an optical zoom range of 3X to 5X, which enables you to zoom in (or out) on your subject. Many models also include a digital zoom.
You can tell the difference when zooming in because you can feel and hear optical zoom -- the lens is actually moving. If you zoom in after that, it will be silent, because digital zoom is happening deep inside a microchip in the camera.
It's best to ignore digital zoom because it simply enlarges the pixels and results in inferior images. Also, zoomed-in shots are more prone to the blurring caused by shaky hands. So if you are in close, make sure that your camera's image stabilization is turned on.
Macro mode: Macro enables you to move in as tight as an inch to take extreme close-ups of objects. You'll need to enable Macro mode to ensure the proper focus.
Burst mode: Most digital cameras have a burst mode that snaps off a series of photos in quick succession. It's a useful feature for capturing a soccer goal or Junior's quick smile. A caveat is that many cameras will save burst-mode shots in a lower resolution. Also, continuous shooting will not work with flash, because the electronic flash cannot recycle that quickly.
Movie mode: Just about any point-and-shoot camera will record a movie with sound (digital SLRs traditionally have not offered video, although high-end models are beginning to add movie capabilities). Increasingly, newer cameras let you capture video in high definition.
Movie mode is typically selected on a top-level dial. To use movie mode, depress the button halfway to focus and set the exposure, then fully depress to start recording. To stop, fully press the button again. Note that most cameras do not allow you to use the zoom while you're recording a movie, so you'll need to decide on focal length before you begin.
Another thing you can and should do: Take a lot of pictures. A whole lot. Play with the settings and see what kind of pictures you get. After all, you're not going to have to shell out for extra film.