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Get good photos with point-and-shoot auto-focus cameras

John Rollins

Every parish publication or website is made more interesting and inviting with good photos. Even though you don’t have a really sophisticated camera to capture just the right shot or don’t have a professional photographer to call on when needed, you can get good photos using what’s available.

Almost everyone has access to a point-and-shoot camera, whether it be a smart phone or the popular low-end digital camera. Getting the good photos just requires some extra attention to how they are used.

Here are some pointers which will help get surprisingly good photos in almost every situation.

First, the obvious.

  • Read the manual of the digital camera or the tutorial of the smart phone to be acquainted with its features.
  • Wipe the lens regularly to avoid blurs and streaks.
  • Turn off the sounds to avoid distraction if shooting at public events.
  • Hold the camera well, and use the viewfinder if available to increase steadiness.

Next, plan ahead – for yourself or to give direction to someone helping you.

  • Think about what shots you want and where you need to be to get them.
  • What framing do you need? Horizontal or vertical? Close-up or panoramic?
  • Will this be a live event or can the photo be used at a later time?

When it comes time to shoot the photos, you will want to be as close as possible to the subject to get the clearest shot. Even though the camera may have a zoom feature, if it is not an optical zoom, don’t use it. Trying to get a shot using the zoom feature is like enlarging the image in an editor and cropping out the edges. The results will be grainy.

Being where you need to be to get the best shot can be a challenge. If it is to get the photo of someone in a procession, you’ll need to know the route. If it’s to be a shot of a speaker at a rally, you’ll want to be in front of the podium way ahead of time. (An experienced New York Times photographer recently described the planning he undertook to get a shot at the Comey hearing.)

The question of framing the shot is answered by the intended use. Horizontal (landscape) works best for groups or panoramic views, vertical (portrait) works best for individual, close-up shots.

If it is a live event to be covered, it is most important to pay attention to the available lighting. If the subject is in front of a bright background or window, the auto-focus may result in a darkened image of the subject. In that case, try to shoot from the side of the subject.

Sometimes it will be possible to arrange for photos to be posed before or after the event. Controlling the lighting is much easier in such events, but still must be given consideration. If using flash, try also a version using available light, as the flash may wash out the picture or cause the dreaded “red eye” effect.

Even though the cameras and smart phones are auto-focus, it is possible to set the focus to obtain the desired effect – such as a crisp foreground and blurry background. Every digital camera will have its own directions for setting the focus, so you’ll need to check the camera’s manual.

Many smart phones, both iPhones and Androids, have the option of turning on a focus option, which looks like a square icon set in the center of the camera when opened. Moving the icon to the area of the screen where you want to set the focus will result in sharp detail in that area. (The brightness of the photo can also be set manually with the same icon.) Once these have been set, tap to take the photo. The following links describe this process in greater detail:

In summary, it is possible to get excellent photos using low-end digital cameras and smart phones. Planning ahead so that you can be closer to the subject(s), being aware of lighting conditions, and using focus techniques where possible give the best results for all point-and-shoot options. You’ll be surprised at what you can do!

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