Your Point & Shoot Isn't a Second-Class Citizen!

 "The best camera is the one that's with you." -- Chase Jarvis

This quote is constantly referenced in numerous photography forums, across all corners of the internet. As soon as the topic of discussion turns to camera size, traveling, or point & shoots, that quote is bound to appear. It's an excellent lesson for a photographer to remember, but the unfortunate problem is that the quote is often used as an excuse to purchase the latest and greatest form of small camera gadgetry. When a hot new point & shoot camera is announced, every DSLR-wielding photographer starts to have wandering thoughts:

If only I had a better pocketable camera to carry with me every day, then I'd be able to capture all those little scenes I see all the time just going about my daily business! Maybe my vacation photos will get better if I weren't burdened by all this heavy gear? Perhaps I could get some better street photos if I were to use a smaller, less noticeable camera?

I'm one of the worst offenders when it comes to this. In fact, when the revolutionary Canon Powershot S90 compact was announced back in the Autumn of 2009, I was one of the first to buy one. It was an incredible little camera, and I was very happy with it for three and a half years.

Canon Powershot S90

That little camera came with me on all sorts of adventures. I brought it hiking, snorkeling, into clubs & restaurants, and across foreign countries. It was my primary social activity camera, used to document all sorts of life events like birthdays, barbecues, and parties. It was fantastic for those things; I have countless photos of myself and friends that were taken with that camera. It's done a great job of documenting those memories and moments.

Yet, over the course of those four years, I have less than a handful of images taken with the little S90 that I'd be happy to print and put on display. However, over the same period of time, I made dozens and dozens of images with my DSLR that I would be more than happy to display. So, what's the problem? Why was my camera so underutilized for serious photography? Was the hardware simply not capable of producing what I wanted? Well, point & shoots will never have image quality as good as their equivalent-generation DSLR counterparts, but most that have been made since around 2010 are more than capable of producing beautiful images. Sure, they may not be quite as detailed or as noise-free as the latest DSLR, but that's not what photography is about. Photography is about creating or conveying feeling using imagery, and modern point & shoots are more than good enough for that task. If the issue isn't one of hardware or equipment, what is it then?

Red as Roses, October 2010, Toronto (Canon S90)

The Hike up to Mittersill (Sony RX100)

"Every photograph you've ever admired was taken with past equipment, not the thing you're waiting for someone to announce." -- Thom Hogan

The real problem with picking up a point & shoot instead of a DSLR, is that the mind dismisses it as a toy. It is immediately compared to a serious DLSR, so the mind turns it into something that's not up-to-par for serious photography. Of course, it's not a toy. It's precision photographic instrument that's incredibly capable when placed in the hands of a proficient photographer with the right mindset.

The key to using a point & shoot effectively is having the right mindset. Picking up a point & shoot shouldn't turn you into a snapshot shooter. Adopt the right mindset, and stop treating your small camera as a second-class citizen to your DSLR - it's simply a different type of tool to be considered when something lighter and more compact is necessary.

With this in mind, here are two things that I regularly do when using a DSLR, which I nearly always forget to do when I use a compact camera:

  • Previsualize: What story are you trying to tell? What feeling should be conveyed or triggered? Consider the positioning, framing, camera settings, and all elements which are necessary to make it happen.
  • Work the Scene: Don't just put the camera away after a first attempt. Slow down and work the scene, taking multiple photos, trying to improve upon each previous shot.

It all boils down to this: to take fantastic photos with your compact camera, then slow down, and use it just like you would your DSLR.

JPEG, RAW, Digital, and Film: a Short, Imprecise Comparison

A much debated topic in photography is the issue of RAW vs. JPEG files. Jim Goldstein of JMG Galleries provides an excellent technical comparison of RAW vs JPEG here. The takeaway is that RAW files provide much more detail and dynamic range, but they also require lots of know-how and time to process (or "develop") correctly. JPEG files typically have more "pop" straight-out-of-camera than untouched RAW files.

I've seen lots of discussion and discourse about the advantages of RAW over JPEG all over the internet, but I've seen few direct comparisons. This is a short, informal comparison of RAW, JPEG, and even film, in the same scene and shooting situation.


#1: D800 out-of-camera JPEG (lightly edited with Picasa)

Photo #1 is an out-of-camera JPEG taken with a Nikon D800, set to "standard" picture control, with D-lighting off. I massaged the file it a tiny bit using Google's Picasa editor. The adjustments were very minimal (Picasa is a very lightweight editor), took less than 30-seconds, and amounted to a slight exposure correction. As you can see, it looks pretty decent for a mostly untouched file, but both the city skyline and the foreground trees lack shadow detail, and the rest of the image just doesn't look complete or professional.


#2: D800 RAW, unprocessed (Adobe Lightroom 4.3)

Photo #2 is the exact same photo as the first, but it's the Nikon RAW (NEF) file, converted directly to a JPEG using Adobe Lightroom 4.3 with no adjustments. As you can see, it looks much flatter than the JPEG. Again, it's a bit underexposed (I did this intentionally to preserve the light-trail highlight of the car tail-lights), but as mentioned above, RAW files contain fantastic amounts of infomation, which make them much more "develop-able". Let's see how that works out on the third image...


#3: D800 RAW, carefully processed / developed (Adobe Lightroom 4.3) [click to see it large]

Photo #3 is, again, the same Nikon RAW file. This time it has been carefully adjusted (or "developed") using Lightroom 4.3. I've adjusted the exposure, shadow levels, highlight levels, tone curves, white balance, saturation, color hues, sharpness, noise, and more. I probably spent over half an hour tuning this image to get it to look like this. The result is an image that pops much more than the undeveloped RAW, or even the out-of-camera JPEG. It's an image that I'd have no problem showcasing in my portfolio or handing to a client.


#4: Fuji Velvia 100F film [click to see it large]

Photo #4 is is a bit of an outlier since it was taken on film, from the same place, within 10 minutes of the digital photos above. I used a Mamiya 645 1000s medium-format camera, and Fuji Velvia 100F 120 slide film. I had it developed at a local professional lab here in San Francisco, and scanned it using a Canon Canoscan 9000F. Other than some scratch and dust removal, the file is untouched, and it looks fantastic. That's the magic of slide film: not much development required for great looking results. The downside is that slide film like Velvia doesn't have much dynamic range, so the exposure isn't very correctable, and the shadows tend to be clipped. This can be remedied to a certain extent by using different kinds of film when shooting with an analog camera.


#5: D800 RAW, processed to look like Velvia (Adobe Lightroom 4.3) [click to see it large]

Finally, we have another digital file. Again, it's the same Nikon RAW (NEF) that I started with in #2 and #3, but I've developed it (using Lightroom) to look more like the Velvia photo: higher contrast, clipped shadows, blues shifted to violet/magenta, and more vibrant colors. The result is another pleasing photo; one which really showcases the flexibility of shooting RAW.

How-To: Shoot Long Exposures

Long-exposure photography can turn night into day, stillness into motion, and the mundane into the beautifully abstract. It's one of many techniques in a photographer's collection that can help to transform what the naked eye sees, and what the mind's eye envisions, into a photograph. As with any technique, there are numerous variations and small nuances to be learned. However, there are a few guidelines that can help get you started along the way to becoming proficient. Remember: this is not by any means a complete set of guidelines that will work for everyone's equipment and shooting style. Take what you learn here into the field and expand upon it by learning from your own experiences.

Cidade Maravilhosa (Rio de Janeiro)
Six Seconds on a Thursday in June


This may seem obvious, but the first thing that you'll need is a camera with a manual mode, to allow for fully manual control of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. A digital SLR camera is best, but you can also do long exposures with a point & shoot as long as it has an "M" mode.

The second thing that you'll need is a stable tripod. Unless you're doing some seriously abstract work, the camera needs to remain perfectly still while the sensor gathers light during your long exposure. Even the smallest jostle or vibration during exposure can mean significant blurring in the resulting image. If you're serious about photography, I recommend spending at least a few-hundred dollars on a solid set of tripod legs, and another few-hundred dollars on an excellent ball head. This may seem like a lot of money, but a high-quality tripod and ball head will last you a very long time if you take care of them. These things don't go obsolete every few years like most digital camera bodies. Do your research carefully as there are many different features to consider when looking at tripods. Roger Cicala, owner of, has a very comprehensive article about tripod selection here: Choosing a Tripod.

Besides your regular extras like spare batteries and memory cards, the third thing that you'll need is a remote. This is somewhat optional, since you can get by with the camera's self-timer, but most cameras limit exposures to 30-seconds this way. If you want to take photos with truly long exposures (like star trails) or in very dark environments (like the deep woods at night), you'll need a remote. Many remotes offer all sorts of convenient features like backlit timers, wireless connectivity, and interval timing for time-lapse photography. The other important thing about using a remote is that you won't jostle the camera while pressing the shutter button.


Once you get on location, carefully setup your tripod and the rest of your equipment. Unless you absolutely must have the tripod's center column extended to achieve a certain composition, leave it down. Leaving the center column un-extended will help minimize vibration and camera movement. Another trick that can help to stabilize the tripod is to hang your equipment bag from a hook on the bottom of the tripod's center column. If you're shooting from a soft surface like sand, snow, or mud, then make sure the tripod legs are properly entrenched in the surface so they don't sink or move during the exposure.

Once your tripod is set up, go ahead and mount your camera to it. I won't go into detail about composition here since that's a topic that has already filled volumes, but take your time and carefully envision the resulting image; think about your framing. You may need to reposition your tripod if you're not quite happy with initial composition.

Put your camera into manual mode (M). This will allow you to control shutter speed and aperture manually, instead of letting the camera control it for you. Turn auto-ISO off, and set it to the base value, which is usually 100 or 200. If you have an optically stabilized lens (often called IS, VR, OS, or VC), or if your camera has in-body stabilization, turn it off. Stabilization is fine for shutter speeds around 1/2 second or shorter, but during long exposures the camera remains perfectly stable, and slight movements in lens elements or the camera sensor can cause a reduction in sharpness. Unless you're trying to create a specific creative effect, leave the camera flash off.

White balance can be an important consideration, since it's difficult to correct and change in JPEGs. If you are shooting RAW files, then it's less important to get this setting spot-on in the camera. I highly recommend shooting RAW, but if you'd like to do more reading on the differences between JPEG and RAW, here are two informative articles to get you started: [1] [2].

Since we're doing long exposures, the sensor can heat up and generate some pixel noise, even at base ISOs. Most modern cameras will have a long exposure noise reduction mode. When enabled, it will trigger a second exposure of equal length to your initial long exposure, except this one will be taken with the shutter closed. This "black" frame contains the image sensor noise pattern which will then be subtracted from your actual long exposure image, reducing its noise characteristics. The only downside of using this mode is that exposures take twice as long: a 30-second exposure takes a total of 1-minute because of the second 30-second dark frame exposure. This isn't so bad for shorter exposures, but can be frustrating during exposures that last many minutes (like star trails). Despite this, I highly recommend enabling it for better image quality.

If your camera has live-view mode, use it to focus, since it's the most accurate method. If you don't have live-view mode then use the most-accurate center focus sensor. If it's completely dark outside, and you're not able to autofocus on your subject, I recommend trying to focus on something far away like the moon, and then switching to manual focus and dialing it back just a hair. If you're going to focus the lens manually, be very careful not to turn the focus ring until it reaches the hard-stop. For most most modern lenses the hard-stop is a focus point that's slightly beyond infinity, and focusing there reduces sharpness considerably. If you're an advanced user, it's important to consider hyperfocal distance while focusing. If you're more casual, then it's usually just fine to focus right on your subject.

Get out your remote remote trigger/shutter, plug it in, and make sure that your camera is in "bulb" mode, which means that the shutter will be open as long as the remote is triggering it. If you don't have a remote, or don't want to use it, then set your shutter speed in-camera (up to 30-seconds on most cameras), and use the 2-second self-timer. If your camera has mirror lockup mode (MUP or MLU), enable it. This is yet another trick to reduce vibration. Mirror lockup mode will force you to trigger the shutter twice: once to flip up the mirror, and again to open the shutter. Wait a few seconds between flipping up the mirror and triggering the shutter, since mirror slap can cause small vibrations that reduce sharpness. If you don't have a remote, then mirror lockup mode isn't helpful, since you have to touch the camera body in order to trigger the shutter. In this case, I'd recommend just going with the self-timer. Some cameras even have an exposure delay mode, which waits one or two seconds between flipping up the mirror and triggering the shutter.

Finally, it's time to set the exposure on your camera. Since most lenses are sharpest 1 or 2 stops down from their maximum aperture, use that as a guideline. Most modern-day long-exposure and landscape photographers shoot somewhere between f/4 and f/8. You can go past f/8, to f/11, f/16, and beyond, but be aware that diffraction will start to rear its ugly head. At apertures beyond f/8, you'll really begin to notice a loss of sharpness with each stop down. I only recommend going beyond apertures of f/8 if it's absolutely critical to achieve greater depth-of-field or longer exposure times.

Now you can go ahead and snap away! Use the camera's light meter and tune your exposure using shutter speed and ISO. After taking your first image, use the histogram to verify that the exposure looks correct. Don't rely on the LCD screen brightness, since it can be misleading in dark areas. If your exposures are going to be far too long to double-check, then first shorten them with higher ISOs, and then adjust the shutter speed and exposure together in 1-stop increments. For example, an exposure of 2-seconds at ISO 6400 is equivalent to an exposure of 4-seconds at ISO 3200, and so on, until you get 2-minutes at ISO 100.

Shooting Checklist

This checklist is a summary of the above, and is meant to serve as a very broad starting point for you. Take it and modify it so that it works for your equipment and shooting style.

  1. Set up tripod, leaving center column un-extended if possible.
  2. Camera to manual exposure mode (M).
  3. ISO: base value (usually 100 or 200), and Auto-ISO OFF.
  4. Aperture: between f/4 and f/8 for best sharpness (on full-frame or APS-C sensors). Use diffraction-prone apertures of f/11 and higher only if necessary for greater depth-of-field or very long shutter speeds.
  5. Flash: OFF (unless you're trying to achieve a stop-motion effect).
  6. White balance: as desired (JPEG shooters should pay more attention, RAW shooters can adjust more easily during post processing).
  7. Lens image stabilization or vibration reduction (VR / IS / OS / VC): OFF.
  8. If you have a remote, use it and set your camera to bulb mode! If you don't have a remote, use the 2-second self-timer.
  9. Enable mirror lockup mode (MUP / MLU) or exposure delay mode if you have it.
  10. Enable long exposure noise reduction mode if you have it.
  11. Autofocus on your subject with live-view, then switch to manual focus and adjust for desired hyperfocal results (don't forget to refocus if you change your lens focal length). Do NOT focus beyond infinity, since this will reduce sharpness.
  12. Stabilize your tripod by hanging your camera bag from it, and shield the tripod setup from any heavy winds with your body.
  13. Take some test exposures observing details in the photo for sharpness and the histogram for desired exposure (as opposed to the LCD screen brightness).
  14. Adjust exposure with shutter speed and ISO.
  15. Adjust depth-of-field with focus adjustment and aperture adjustment.

After you're done, don't forget to change your settings back to the usual that you shoot with (Auto-ISO enabled? VR on, self-timer off, MUP off).

I hope you've enjoyed this short tutorial. Good luck out there!

Underground Rail