I am putting together a short talk which I'm going to give to some non-photographers.

I'm going to talk about things they can do with their compact cameras to make their images nicer. I have a bunch of ideas / tips to pass on to them, but I need to cut out most of them (it's a short talk - 20 minutes or so).

What are your top tips for "normal" people who own a compact camera (or even just a phone)?

Also, any tips for talking to these guys? Any pitfalls you've encountered?


8 Answers 8


Unless it's a specific event "for compact/phone camera users only", don't stress the equipment part that much - that's not what photography is about, and some normal people have dSLRs too.

Since you have a short talk, choose 3 to 5 ideas and cover them with examples rather than dash through as many tips as you can. You can't fit a whole beginner's course in that time-frame anyway. I'd choose something from

  • composition (placement, clutter in background, using perspective)
  • lighting (golden hour, avoiding ugly shadows, using light to lead attention)
  • post processing (choosing "keepers", fixing horizon, cropping)

Tell your tips, show samples (random snapshot vs. same shot using your tips) and only later tell them the samples were taken with just a compact/phone camera. Name the ideas shortly again in summary speech and there's a good chance some of them will stick with some listeners.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for not bringing up much exposure stuff. Most compact cameras get exposures right enough on auto (especially with no really thin DoF available on a compact), that composition is paramount IMO. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 15:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rfusca, "enough DOF" - fab point. I had forgotten. Many thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 9:35

About 2 years ago I found myself in exactly the same situation and created a PowerPoint show of points with images to show the good and the bad of each subject. I found the key is KISS ... Keep It Short & Simple!

Here is the text from my presentation, I hope you find it helps ...

Digital Is Free! (virtually)

  • Taking one shot or twenty shots is practically the same cost
  • The cost of experimentation is close to zero
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, that is how humans learn

Have Patience, Take A Moment

  • Take your time
  • Look behind and beside the subject for obstructions or obstacles to the eye
  • Wait for the moment, the smile, the sunset
  • Taking an extra shot because something was not right takes a few seconds … trying to fix something afterwards can take hours!

Fingers, Fingers, Fingers … And Thumbs!

  • Look at your camera to find all holes & lenses
  • Identify the lens, flash, sensors, buttons, etc.
  • Find a comfortable grip that does not cover or obstruct any of these items
  • Practice ‘the grip’ so it is second nature

Give Time For The Timer

  • Learn how to set your timer
  • Join in the photograph via the timer
  • Pressing the shutter button can cause movement in long exposures, the timer can avoid this
  • Either a tripod or use of the timer will greatly improve night photography

Control That Flash!

  • Learn how to turn your flash off … PLEASE!
  • Flash only works between 3 to 10 feet
  • Flash never works through glass!
  • Available light photography has a more natural feel
  • Only use flash if it I really needed at dark night or for fill in light

Camera Scene Modes

  • Auto Mode – let the camera decide
  • Portrait Mode – blurs out background so make sure subjects are identified
  • Landscape Mode – everything in focus but needs lots of light
  • Sports Mode – freezes motion but can be grainy and/or have reduce depth of field
  • Night Mode – fires flash to get foreground then leaves shutter open for background
  • Macro Mode – enables very close up shots
  • Movie Mode – as it says on the box, takes movies
  • Snow/Beach Mode – allows for shots in bright light
  • Indoor Mode – changes white balance and shutter speed for artificial light
  • Fireworks Mode – for no light shots so shutter open for a long time, hence must use a tripod

To Zoom Or Not To Zoom?

  • Optical Zoom uses physical glass to zoom
    • No loss of quality
    • Requires space and movement
  • Digital Zoom uses electronics to zoom in
    • Visible loss of quality
    • Can exist with no physical requirements
  • Learn how to tell when digital zoom kicks in or how to turn digital zoom off

What Is Shutter Delay?

  • Shutter Delay is the time between pushing the button and the picture being captured
  • Pressing the button halfway pre-focuses
  • Hold button halfway while framing, waiting for the smile or the action
  • Fully press button to capture the moment

Beat The Shakes

  • Also known as Vibration Reduction, Shake Reduction & Super Steady Shot
  • Only some compact digital cameras have this
  • Compensates for shaky hands
  • Reduces blurry photos
  • Usually has to be enabled

That's All Folks!

  • Remember no course, book or $,$$$ of equipment can make your photographs immediately better ... only personal practice and experience will give you the results you search for.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Much appreciated, @Barry. Useful stuff. I'll post a link to my powerpoint when I've finished. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Barry: Really comprehensive list. I have learned more from your answer than from a couple of photo sessions with a thinks-he-knows-it-all instructor, or a two hour talk with a pro photographer. I would only add a few tips on composition. (It's already covered elsewhere in this thread). By the way, does your name has something to do with "Very Simple"? (given the KISS acronym) :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Jahaziel
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 16:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ AJ Finch - you're most welcome :) ... JZL - the name is just my family name from Scottish decent \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 20, 2011 at 1:54

Some things I always stress are:

  • Expect a delay between when you press the shutter release and when the image is captured and learn to anticipate it.
  • Be certain to remove the images from your memory card, transferring them to the computer.
  • Try to focus on the image you are about to make instead of admiring the previous one you are looking at on the LCD viewer.

You'd be surprised how many "normal" people have the sum total of all their images on one card that remains in the camera. Even more so for phones.


Some things that come immediately to mind:

  • Rule of thirds - don't always center the "subject" in the frame.
  • Don't try to frame too closely in camera - given the high resolution of most cameras these days, better to leave a little space around the edges, rather than accidentally cut off someone's head.
  • Learn what the "modes" on your camera are for - if you're shooting fast action, use the "sport" setting, for example.
  • Change your viewpoint - take shots from close to the ground, or higher than eye-level, at least some of the time.
  • Include some foreground elements in your landscape photography - Inexperienced photographers tend to take landscape shots where everything in-frame is at infinite distance, which makes them look flat.
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for learn the modes. I'd add RTFM to that, but most folks will have already lost the fine manual, and the typical manuals aren't all that fine in the first place. \$\endgroup\$
    – RBerteig
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 1:30
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'd also suggest trying the opposite of your second tip - use a tighter composition. Head-to-toe, 1/10th of the frame filled by person is nice if your subject wants to show off her outfit, but a waist-and-up or shoulders-and-up shot is more personal. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 6:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Evan, I think that's actually not contradictory - if you're taking a head-and-shoulders shot, you still want to leave some "padding" around the edges. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 21:59


When people complain about the quality of photos when using a flash, I always advice on putting a white (or yellow) thin piece of paper in front of their flash to difuse the light.

This avoid those completely overexposed white areas due to the harsh in camera flashes. And generally I've heard some pretty satisfied results.

I do explain to them that they'll have to experiment with different paper thickness due to strength of flash.


When people complain about not getting the background or the foreground exposed, I explain them to aim the camera on the area you want to expose and avoid having the wrongfully exposed part in the scene, then focus (and meter) and than reframe to your original picture.

If more advanced computer user I would explain they could use Photoshop or a specific fusion blending application to merge the two pictures.


If you have access to a laptop or something so that you can show good and bad images to the participants it might be good to try and cover 3 or 4 common mistakes that are relatively easy to fix.

  1. (Direct, non-diffuse, non-bounced) Flash off indoors. I know, you can use rear curtain and slow exposures to get enough ambient light to make a decent shot, but that's a lot for people to remember. Instead, you can just show bad washed-out faces against a black void (flash on) and compare it with a more evenly lit party shot (flash off, but higher iso, additional lighting, or some other solution)

  2. Fill flash or shade for portraits in the sun. You can compare portraits with really unflattering shadows and compare them with those taken with fill flash on.

  3. Exposure compensation and the importance of getting it right. You might want to show how other things such as color temperature and composition can be altered in photo editing software, but how your camera's sensor can't capture anything outside of it's dynamic range, meaning it's important to set exposure compensation properly.

  4. Getting sharp photos. Maybe a minute or two on proper technique, tripod use, etc.

I'd imagine those probably have the highest rate of image improvement potential to difficulty.


Nice question!

One tip that comes immediately to mind: most compact cameras and camera phones can achieve a nice background blur by switching to macro mode and/or getting in close.


To press the shutter release half way first and let the camera focus, rather than just pressing the shutter release all the way down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Alas, that often doesn't work with compacts, but a jolly good point for DSLRs! \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AJ what—in my experience it works more often with compacts than with DSLRs: DSLRs may have the AF-trigger set elsewhere or a manual lens attached, both of which are rather rare among compacts. I've yet to see a (digital) compact without autofocus, but your mileage may vary. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 10:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.