Compact cameras are commonly considered as something that is only good for holiday family pictures and party shots. While there are many technical reasons why Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras produce better images, quality compacts pack enough technology to capture great photographs and the attention of your audience.
In order to be able to produce good pictures, you need to be able to control picture quality in your camera. Some compacts offer settings to control noise reduction, color saturation and sharpening, while other hide these settings behind ambiguous terms and it takes some time to figure out how these settings actually work. Either way, you need to find a way to change some of the parameters described in this post in order to be able to capture good pictures. If your camera doesn't offer some degree of such control, you may need to consider buying a better one.
ISO Sensitivity and Noise
The sensor in a camera consist of analog light-sensitive photosites, which eventually become pixels in the captured image. The more light falls on each photosite, the more signal it generates, the brighter will be the image pixel. In theory, in total absence of light a photosite does not produce any signal, yielding a black pixel. A well-lit photosite generates the maximum possible signal it is designed for, yielding a white pixel. In practice, however, photosites are affected by various factors, such as sensor temperature, electromagnetic fields, etc, and generate very small signal even in complete darkness. This small signal is called noise and appears in images as random variation in pixel color and intensity.
Sensor's light sensitivity is controlled by setting an ISO value, which dictates the amount of signal produced by the sensor given a certain amount of light shining on the sensor. Higher sensitivity numbers mean that the signal from photosites will be amplified to a larger degree, so images can be taken faster, which is important when taking action shots. However, this also means that the noise signal will also be amplified, yielding less clear images.
Here's an example of a macro scene shot with DMC-ZS1 at ISO 80 and 800, cropped to 524x712 and scaled to 375x500. Move your mouse pointer over ISO-80 and ISO-800 under the image to see the difference.
You can clearly see how noise affects the image - not only small details become extinct, but you can also see that colors in the image shot at ISO 800 are faded and not as bright as in the image shot at ISO-80.
[Update November 2018]
There are two types of image noise - luminance and chrominance noise. The former increases image grain and the latter increases random variations of color values between pixels. Compact camera manufacturers aggressively apply noise reduction, which smooths out images and reduces the level of detail and makes colors look washed out.
Always control your ISO setting and give preference to lower ISO sensitivity when possible, keeping in mind that lower ISO numbers mean that images are captured at a lower speed, so moving subjects may come out blurred.
ISO Sensitivity and Shutter Speed
The higher ISO sensitivity of the sensor, the less light it needs to produce an image. Less light, in turn, means that the shutter may be open for a shorter period of time, which makes it possible to capture motion with less blur, at the cost of noisier image.
For example, this shot was captured at ISO 80 in bright daylight, but the camera was pointing at relatively dark leaves and the shutter speed was only 1/160th of a second, so the image shows very little noise and a lot of motion blur in the wasp's wings:
Here's an example of image captured at ISO 1600, which made the camera to reduce shutter speed to a mere 1/2000th of a second, which guaranteed that there is no motion blur, but produced an extremely noisy image that lacks colors and detail.
While one may think that less blur is good, to put things in perspective, a shutter speed 1/1250th of a second is sufficient to capture a hummingbird in flight with little motion blur in the wings and the shutter speed of 1/2000th was an absolute overkill when photographing just a moving car.
Many compact cameras, such as DMC-ZS1, do not provide shutter speed and aperture control and the only way to change shutter speed is to adjust ISO sensitivity. If your camera displays shutter speed on the screen when you depress the shutter release button, note the speed and adjust ISO sensitivity to make sure that it's about 1/125 to 1/250 to shoot walking people, 1/250 to 1/500 to shoot running people or moving vehicles in the city and 1/800 to 1/1250 to shoot fast moving vehicles and birds in flight.
Shooting at 1/30th of a second and below takes a steady hand and some practice. For example, this shot was taken late at night and there was so little light that I had to increase ISO to 800 just to be able to take pictures at 1/20th of a second. The image has so much noise, that it's only usable when significantly scaled down from the original size.
If you find yourself in similar conditions, make sure to shoot continuously, so you have more shots to choose from. Putting camera on something like a newspaper box or leaning against a tree will also help.
Investing in a small tripod is always a good idea, especially if you shoot a lot of landscapes and night scenery, which will allow you to keep ISO at a minimum. Compact cameras are lightweight and almost any tripod will do. However, look for one with a detachable mounting plate - it makes it possible to keep the plate on the camera and put the camera on a tripod and detach it in seconds.
Image Quality Settings
Compact cameras are primarily designed for people who want their cameras produce images that can be immediately taken to a local photo store for printing or posted without any changes on Facebook. Consequently, they often produce over-sharpened and over-saturated images by default.
Most compacts provide some level of control over noise reduction, saturation and sharpening. Surprisingly, my old Coolpix 5900 provided full control over all of these settings and produced great images, often better than those captured by the new DMC-ZS1 when shot at a comparable zoom level.
DMC-ZS1, on the other hand, combines sharpening and saturation into a single Color Options option, which has three levels - Natual, Standard and Vivid. The image below shows the difference between these three modes. Move your mouse pointer over Natural, Standard and Vivid below the image to see the difference.
The image shot in the Natural mode may look as if it lacks color, but notice how Standard and Vivid images distort the texture of the miniature and produce exaggerated colors. It is often more difficult to make Standard and Vivid images usable because it is not easy to reduce the effects of in-camera sharpening, while it is quite simple to add saturation where it matters in an image captured in the Natural mode and then sharpen it using more powerful computer-based software.
Try to keep your in-camera processing to a minimum and use computer software to finish your shots. If your camera supports RAW mode, it's a good idea to use it, even though RAW images cannot be shared with others as easily as JPEG images.
Compact cameras provide multiple shooting modes. The most simple mode is to take a single shot, which quite often results in an unusable picture because of some small annoying detail, such as somebody's blinking just as you press the shutter release button. Instead, set up your camera to shoot continuously, so you can capture a sequence of shots instead of one and pick the best one later.
Coolpix 5900 had two usable continuous modes, one was called 5-Shot Buffer and the other one was Continuous. Similarly, DMC-ZS1 offers a mode that takes three shots in rapid succession and another one that allows the camera to shoot until the memory card is full.
The important difference between these modes is that in the first case the camera will measure the light and focus only once and will take all three shots with the same settings, which yields the fastest possible shooting sequence and works great with most scenes with slow subject movement and no significant changes in lighting. Always keep your camera in this mode and get it into habit of shooting 2-3 images in succession. It is easier to delete unwanted images than to miss an opportunity.
The continuous shooting mode is not as fast the three-shot mode because the camera has to measure light between the shots, but it works great when you can't predict subject's movements or lighting conditions. The picture below was taken at sunset, when people were constantly moving from areas well-lit by the harsh sunset sun to dark shadows, but continuous mode kept adjusting the exposure as I kept shooting, so I could later choose a usable picture out of dozen and dozens throwaways.
One thing to remember when using continuous shooting modes is that they usually disable flash, so if there is not enough light and you would like to use flash, you will need to switch back to the single shot mode.
Exposure and Focusing Modes
Exposure and focusing are usually tightly coupled in compact cameras. That is, the camera focuses and measures the exposure at the same time and at the same spot. Some cameras, like Coolpix 5900, do provide an optional way to use two separate points for this, but moving two points on a screen with small increments usually ends up to be counterproductive.
All compacts nowadays provide multi-area metering and focusing, which can be easily identified by multiple green rectangles shown on the screen when the shutter release button is depressed half way. Multi-area metering is essential to pointing and shooting - the camera usually picks the subject that matches the shooting mode (i.e. macro, portrait, sports, etc) and attempts to adjust shooting parameters to make the selected subjects are in focus and properly exposed.
For example, in this macro scene the camera chose the right miniature as the subject, even though the center of the sensor was pointing between the the two. Sometimes cameras will cycle between possible subjects, so each time you depress the shutter release button, you will see different set of green boxes.
Another aspect of multi-area metering is that the camera will try to make sure that the parts of the subject covered by the selected zones are properly exposed, which may lead to overexposed or underexposed images, depending on what is selected.
You need to control what the camera focuses on, which requires two steps, commonly referred to as the focus-and-recompose technique, when taking a picture. While this technique will work with multi-area focusing as well, it will produce better results when one-area focusing is used. Different manufacturers may give this feature different names or even have multiple ways to do this. For example, DMC-ZS1 has three one-area focusing methods: 1-area high-speed focus, 1-area focus and spot focus. The first method combined with the three-shot burst usually provides best results because the camera doesn't have to refocus between the shots.
Point the camera at the subject and depress the shutter release button half way. The camera will focus on the subject and select the appropriate shutter speed. No picture will be taken at this point.
Note the shutter speed in this snapshot - it is 1/80th of a second, compared with 1/125th from the image showing multi-area metering. Extra metering zones covered more of the white background, which would result in the miniatures underexposed in the captured image.
Keep the shutter release button half-way depressed and move the camera to frame everything you want to be in the shot and then press the shutter release button all the way.
This is the resulting image, slightly adjusted in GIMP. The miniature in front is in focus and the one in the back is slightly out of focus (compacts have greater depth of field - you would see much more blur in the left miniature if this picture was taken with an SLR). Move your mouse over the titles below the image to see 100% crops of each miniature.
With a bit of practice, focusing and recomposing will become quite natural. When taking pictures of people, birds or animals, focus on the eyes. Not only this provides good contrast for auto-focus to latch on, but it also produces better pictures in most cases because the camera measures the exposure where it matters the most.
If the subject is located meters away from you, you can focus on any part of the subject to obtain better exposure measurement without losing any sharpness in the subject. For example, if you are shooting a person wearing bright and dark clothes, you can focus in a boundary between the dark and bright areas, so the camera could average out the brightness. Try a few times focusing on different areas, depressing the shutter button half way every time, then pick the best spot and take the final shot.
Measuring exposure at the most important point in the picture helps in many cases, but in pictures where the focusing point isn't indicative of the overall image exposure, it may not work as expected. In this cases you need to give the camera a bit of a nudge in the right direction. This nudge is called exposure compensation and it instructs the camera to make the image lighter or darker, compared to the exposure measured at the focusing point.
For example, no matter where I placed the focus point on this locomotive, the engine itself came out well-exposed and showed good detail, but everything around it was severely overexposed, ruining the picture.
In order to make an image darker, find the exposure compensation control in your camera, which usually is bound to one of the four directional keys and marked with a little +/- sign. When you activate exposure compensation, you will see a ruler with markings from -2 to +2. You can move the selection point either to the left, making the picture darker or to the right, making it lighter.
Note that after I compensated the exposure for this shot, the camera changed the shutter speed from 1/100th of a second to 1/320th of a second, making it darker.
One thing to mention here is that while you can see the effects of exposure compensation in the camera screen, remember that many cameras use very simplified brightness adjustments for display purposes and the compensated image may look quite bad on the screen. This is certainly the case with DMC-ZS1. However, the image will be properly captured when you take the shot. Give it a few tries to see the effect.
Quite often people ask in discussion groups whether it is possible to achieve background blur with compact cameras. If your camera doesn't allow you to control aperture size, then the only way to make background more blurry is to shoot the subject at the maximum zoom in macro mode.
For example, this image was taken at the minimum zoom, a few centimeters from the four berries in front. The angle of view in this case was about 72 degrees and many background objects are clearly visible in the resulting image.
This image was captured at the maximum zoom, about one meter from the same four berries. The angle of view in this case was mere 7 degrees and those few objects that got into this shot are blurred, nicely separating the subject from the background.
If your camera does allow you to control aperture size, which is usually indicated by the letter A or Av on the mode dial, you can achieve even better blur by selecting the aperture with a smaller numeric value.
Every camera has an internal buffer used to keep image data before it is copied to the memory card. This buffer can usually accommodate about 3-5 images. Once the buffer is full, the camera cannot take pictures until more room is made available. The faster the camera can transfer images to the memory card, the faster will continuous shooting work after the buffer has been filled up.
The card shown below can transfer images at 30 MB/s, which is about six 10MP images per second and can fit about 1300 images.
Note that older cameras will not work with high-speed SD cards, so make sure to read the camera manual before buying a new card.
There is always something that can be improved in an image that came out of any camera, especially when you turn down in-camera sharpening, saturation and noise reduction. I use GIMP to edit all of my images taken with a compact camera. I also occasionally use Noise Ninja to remove noise from some images, especially those that I crop at 100%.
When editing images, never overwrite the original, but instead save copies under different names, so you can redo some of the editing later if you need. I usually add what was done to the image to its name (e.g. cropped, curved, saturated, sharpened, etc).
Compact vs. SLR
I always wondered how a scene captured by a compact camera would compare to the same scene captured by an SLR camera, so I took a picture with a Canon EOS 7D and another one with a DMC-ZS1. Both shots were taken from the same spot on a cloudy day and then edited to adjust color balance, saturation and contrast. Can you tell which one is taken with a compact camera?
Hover your mouse over each image to see if you got it right. Naturally, the difference in quality between the two is quite noticeable when images are viewed at 100%, but the image produced by DMC-ZS1 still looks great when scaled down to anything below 1920x1280.
Compact cameras are great when something happens around you and you can just pull a 200 gram camera out of your pocket and start shooting. It would be great to have an SLR at that moment, but just in case you don't have your 1.5 kg of high-precision glass and metal at that very moment or it has the wrong lens attached, a quality compact may just save your day.