It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer


Owning a professional quality camera doesn’t make you a better photographer any more than buying a Steinway makes you a better piano player.

Either you have an eye for photography or you don’t. In photojournalism, you either captured the scene with a camera – any camera – or you didn’t. And if you’ve got a great photo, who cares what kind of camera you used?

In 1953, Walter and Virginia Schau were driving on a highway in Northern California when a semi-truck in front of them crashed through a barrier and ended up dangling over a lake far below. In the trunk of their car, Virginia had an old Kodak “Brownie” box camera with a partially-used roll of year-old film. She grabbed her camera and took a photo of the truck’s drivers being pulled to safety just moments before the cab of the truck broke loose and fell into the lake.

Virginia Schau’s photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. It was the first Pulitzer Prize in photography won by a woman, and the first winning photo that wasn’t taken with the quintessential press camera, the Graflex Speed Graphic.

Since 1954, most Pulitzers have been won with SLRs (single lens reflex cameras). But one of these days, I think someone’s going to win the Pulitzer with a point & shoot digital camera. For one thing, they’re easier to carry around.

My full-size digital SLR can do some nifty things, but it’s pretty bulky. So I don’t take it with me all the time, but I almost always bring my point & shoot camera (a Canon Elph with just 4.0 megapixels) when I’m not planning to work – and that’s often when you happen upon the most compelling images.

Check out my photo of Mount St. Helens letting off steam (above). I took that photo with my point & shoot through a dirty, scratched window of a jet. The same camera captured the toad and the cabbage field.

This photo of Mount St. Helens was shot with a point & shoot camera from a jet window

By Barney Burke

1. Don't use the "digital" zoom.

The term “optical zoom” means a traditional zoom lens. Watch out for “digital zoom,” which is not the same thing and not nearly as good. “Digital zoom” means the camera creates the illusion of a telephoto lens by using a smaller portion of the imager (the device that records the photo). Digital zooms have mediocre results because, in effect, it’s like severely cropping a photo to “zoom in on” something in the background.

2. Use the viewfinder, not the LCD screen.

Remember that the LCD (liquid crystal display screen) uses up your batteries faster than any other feature, so use it only briefly (e.g., to check photos you've taken). Using the regular viewfinder aids in composition; it helps you stay in the habit of “seeing” the picture you’re about to take. And while many LCDs display data on the exposure setting, et al, it can be hard to see these when you’re working outdoors; besides, the same data is displayed in the regular viewfinder of most cameras.

3. Anticipate "digital delay."

Most point & shoot digital cameras don’t take the picture until a moment after you’ve pressed the shutter. Consequently, you have to get ready to shoot before the action happens, even for a “grip-and-groan” shot. If your camera has a multiple exposure setting, use that mode because it’ll let you fire off more shots in quick succession.

4. Be aware of parallax.

Unlike SLRs, what you see in the viewfinder of a point & shoot is only an approximation of the image being recorded because you’re not looking through the lens. The closer the subject, the greater the parallax effect, although some cameras compensate for this problem. Shoot some test photos to see the difference between what the viewfinder shows and the captured image. When in doubt, back off or zoom out a little to avoid cutting off part of the image. Also, this is one case where there’s an advantage of using the LCD screen because it shows exactly what the lens sees.

5. Watch your batteries.

Digital cameras use a lot of batteries, and photographers sometimes stuff them in pockets or backpacks without covering the electrical contacts. If your keys or coins short-out a battery, it can explode. Also, don't store batteries in extreme cold (they lose power) or heat (they can explode). Always pack a spare battery.

6. Learn all the settings.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about having your picture taken is waiting for a photographer who hasn’t mastered their equipment. Don’t assume that a digital camera will automatically choose the best settings –they don't. At the minimum, learn the flash settings (red-eye reduction, fill-flash, no-flash, etc.) and how to adjust the white balance for fluorescent versus outdoor lighting, as well as the “film speed” and image size settings.

7. Get an auxiliary flash.

Even on digital SLRs costing $1,000 or more, the built-in flash is of limited use. With most point & shoot cameras, it’s difficult to illuminate subjects more than 10 feet away with the built-in flash. The other problem with built-in flashes is that when you take a close-up of a person, you can get the “watching an atomic bomb” effect because it creates unnatural shadows. So get an auxiliary flash, preferably one that flips up to bounce a more natural-looking flash off the ceiling. Another good tool is a flash cord that lets you position the external flash with complete flexibility.

8. Memory cards can be quirky

Sometimes, memory cards act up, causing you to lose photos because you can’t download them from the card. One thing that reduces errors is to push the “format” button on your camera after downloading the images; pressing the "erase all images" button does not clear out the card to the same extent. Always carry at least one extra memory card in case you get an “error” message. And if Elvis shows up, an extra card ensures that you can take plenty of photos.

9. Bigger images aren't always better.

Larger images take more space on the memory card and in your hard drive, and are slower to process and download. If you’re going to use the image for a magazine cover or a poster, pick the largest file size to maximize quality. But for most snapshots, a medium size is plenty – and helps prevent filling your hard drive with huge files of the family dog.

10. Higher “film speed” means grainier photos.

Just as with film cameras, there is a trade-off between “film speed” – expressed as ISO rating – and image quality. Also, images shot at higher film speeds require more memory. Generally, an ISO of 200 is plenty. But if you find that your camera has to use too slow a shutter speed or too big an f/stop, you can always turn the film speed up. OK, what’s an f/stop? It’s the length of the lens divided by the opening of the lens aperture. The smaller the aperture (denoted, inconveniently, by a larger number like f/16 or f/22), the sharper the focus and the greater depth of field. A small aperture helps you get everything in focus, although in some cases, it’s more attractive to have, say, the background out of focus. But a small aperture with greater depth of field requires a slower shutter speed.

A couple of tips on “point & shoot” digital cameras:

This toad was caught on camera with a point & shoot digital camera

A cabbage field near Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington

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Canon “Elph” digital point & shoot camera

Kodak “Brownie” box camera

Graflex “Speed Graphic” press camera