Simon Cygielski
A Dummy's Guide to Cameras

The basics

This is a quickie guide to taking decent pictures with even the most basic point-and-shoot camera. Remember, the thing that really matters in a camera is the lens. If your camera has a crappy lens (all your pictures are fuzzy, regardless of the lighting), throw it out.

A decent new one will run you some $100-200, depending on where you buy it. But don't get too hung up on equipment-some of the world's best pictures were taken with equipment so basic, that few photographers today would know what to do with it. Then again, many of the world's top professionals now rely on automatic equipment that leaves little in their control, just like your handy point-and-shoot. OK, their lenses are better.

Learn to use your camera

The first thing to do before taking any pictures is to carefully read that boring instruction book that came with your camera. There are several handy acronyms in photography, with one of the most important ones being RTFM -- Read the Fucking Manual.

Most P&S cameras need only batteries and film to operate. If you do nothing else, read the section about how to load these two things properly. In 99 percent of the cameras made today, it should be a breeze, and it will make your life easier. At least you won't have to embarass yourself by asking random strangers if they know how to load your camera.

Taking pictures

Most P&S cameras will awaken in the standard automatic mode. This is all you will need for now.

Now, look in the little window in the back of the camera. You will see a picture of what the lens sees. There are usually also some assorted pointers, lights or number displays, but they are too many types of cameras to discuss individually here. For now, disregard everything but the main picture, or if you're consumed by curiosity, consult your instruction book.

The viewfinder should have a central spot, where the camera sets the focus.


This is where you want to place your main subject for now. (It's not the most exciting place for it, we will remedy that problem later). There is also usually a little partial frame that indicates the portion of the image that will end up on film if you shoot REALLY close up (a half a meter or so).


The main thing to remember is what you see is what you get. If your subject is small in the viewfinder, it (he or she) will be small on the picture. The most common mistake most people make is that they try to include everything in their picture. For instance, you want auntie Bertha in front of the Palace of Culture, and you try to get the WHOLE palace. Now auntie Bertha, despite her respectable dimensions, is tiny compared to even a small skyscraper.

What you get, then, is a picture of a building with a speck at the bottom. All you have to do now is to explain to everyone that that's auntie Bertha down there. Don't count on anyone recognizing her.


So get closer

The solution to this all-too-common problem is to get a picture of Bertha close-up, and to settle for only a small piece of the Palace of Culture.


But when you think about it, the tip of the thing is the most characteristic part anyways, so it really should do.

Most people shoot much too far away from their main subject. A good rule to follow is IF YOU THINK THINGS LOOK GOOD IN YOUR VIEWFINDER, TAKE A STEP FORWARD. Then shoot.

Oh yeah, one more thing -- try to keep your camera steady when you press the button. If it takes more than a light touch to set the shutter off, get your camera fixed.

The finer points

Now that you are familiar with the basics of your camera's operation, it's time to begin thinking what should end up on your pictures.

The choice of subject

A good place to start is to pick a main subject for your picture. This could be anything: uncle Bob, a rock, or a tree. Even a landscape


picture is better when it has some main object that a viewer can anchor on to, for instance like so.


Another thing to think about is how to get a nice, concise picture that will give the viewer a good impression of the main subject. For example, a picture of a building might be boring if it doesn't concentrate on any single thing. Just a building, like millions of others. But a quick look will probably let you select something characteristic about that building in particular, like an unusual gate, a gathering of cats, or some such thing. You will do your picture a world of good by concentrating on these details.

The same goes for people. Most portraits try to say something about their subject. This may be a riveting gaze, but could also be a gaudy brooch on someone's collar. Everyone has seen pictures of work-worn hands that say more about the person photographed than a thousand pictures of their faces. The main thing is to look, and to think.


When taking pictures, you should remember that the end product is a colored paper rectangle, no more, no less. If all your pictures look something like this,


you should think about what you can do to liven them up. Much of the time, getting your main subject away from the center should do the job. But try to work in some more interesting backgrounds, too.


The trouble with moving your subject off center is that, as we have said, the central focus spot is where your point-and-shoot will set its focus. However, most cameras will have a way of circumventing this.

Often, you will set the focus by pressing the shutter button half-way, and then re-compose your picture, and release the shutter by pressing the button all the way. Various cameras can deal with this in a number of ways, though, so read your manual for details.

A handy rule

After long and exhaustive experiments, some wise folks came up with what's known as the Rule of Thirds. To use it you have to pre-visualize your picture. Like we said, it's a rectangle like this.


Then you slice it into thirds, vertically and horizontally, like so.


The rule then says that the best place for your subject is in one of the four points where the lines intersect. For instance like this:


As with all rules, this one is meant to be broken, so don't get too anal about getting things on the dot. If it looks good, it's good.

The horizon

When you go out to take pictures of landscapes, one of the main things you encounter is the horizon. It generally ends up splitting your picture into two parts like so


This tends to be a bit monotonous. Its good to look for things above and below to make your pictures a bit more lively. For instance, a good cloud formation will make any landscape more palatable. All you have to do is point your camera higher.


On the other hand, there is usually plenty of groovy stuff below the horizon, too.


And one more thing about the horizon -- it only needs to be level in real life. Sometimes tilting the camera will add zing to an otherwise boring picture.



Today's point-and-shoot cameras are invariably equipped with flashes. They are great for taking pictures in dimly-lit places, but they create several problems, too. The main one is that they add to the already high level of unpredictability inherent in this type of camera. They are also mounted within several centimeters of the lens, and tend to produce harsh, flat lighting, which is about as unflattering as you can get.

Most cameras will automatically turn the flash on in dim light, but on some you can turn the thing off when you want to. This is worth trying out, especially when the existing light looks good and isn't too dim. You have to hold your camera REALLY steady and press the shutter button GENTLY to avoid moving the camera during what could be a very long exposure (in some cases more than a second).

I'll gladly buy a beer for anyone who shows me a good flashless night or indoor shot.

Another reason for turning the flash off could be excessive distance from your subject. A point-and-shoot's flash is an anemic little thing that is next to useless beyond three-four meters or so.

Some cameras also have a full-time flash mode, sometimes called fill-flash. It is useful for taking pictures of subjects lit from the back, wihich would normally turn out as featureless silhouettes. Taking auntie Bertha's picture against a maritime sunset in Szczecin? Fill flash will most likely be essential.

There is another feature that deserves mention here. Some later-model cameras have a night-shot mode that combines flash and a long exposure to produce a rather interesting effect, where the main subject on the foreground is flash-lit, and the background is exposed for an additional amount of time (once again, often more than a second. Hold your camera still.)

This does away the black backgrounds of most flash pictures. The effect is fairly unpredictable, though, so don't forget to take the same scene in auto mode as backup.


One of the beginning photographer's biggest problems is the fact that most subjects just don't want to keep still. This tends to result in blurry, unreadable pictures. But with a bit of practice and experimenting, motion can be tamed. It can even be used to produce some really strong effects.

The main thing that determines how motion will affect your pictures is the amount of time the shutter stays open while taking the picture. The problem with point-and-shoot cameras is you really never know how long that will be -- everything depends on the amount of light available.

At noon on a sunny day in Phoenix this might be fast enough to stop the motion of helicopter blades. In the fall in Warsaw, it would likely result in blurry pictures of your pet turtle.

Anyway, a speeding car shot in full sunlight might look like this:


On the other hand, in the usual gray mess we get most days around here, it would likely look like this:


There is a simple way to overcome this, though. It's called panning, and only means that you follow the subject's motion smoothly as you take the picture. REMEMBER, it's rather important not to jerk the shutter button, but to press it smoothly as you do this.

The above-mentioned car would then look something like this:



The general idea behind this whole rant is that even with the most basic equipment, it is possible to take interesting pictures, often no worse than ones shot with $3,000 cameras. As a wise soul once said "It's the photographer, not the camera that counts."

Experimentation is the best way to see what can be done. Film is cheap (relatively speaking), so don't be afraid to keep taking various shots of the same subject until you are satisfied that at least one will be good. No one will ask you how many frames you wasted before you got that gem they like so much.

One word of caution, though: While you let the creative spirit carry you away, try to get at least one boring, but safe shot that could be used if that particular round of experimenting fails.