“Can I take good pictures with my point and shoot digital camera?”

A simple question asked by an online acquaintance of Elizabeth. The answer is: it depends on what you think makes a good picture.

Photography as an art is about making an image of a scene in such a way that it evokes an strong emotional response from the viewer. There are many ways to achieve this, and a point and shoot camera need not stop you from being able to do so.

For example, this photo of a passionfruit is one of my favourite photos I have ever taken. Partially, it’s because I like passionfruit, but putting that aside, it has good lighting, sharp focus, nice colours, and even a nice background blur. And I took it in December 2001 with a camera I had owned for less than 48 hours, that wasn’t a digital SLR. My only criticism of it is that it is in 4:3 ratio, not 2:3 ratio. Even if the camera doesn’t support 2:3 ratio photographs, try imagining the top and bottom of the photo will be cut off, and you can do it in post production..

I took 6000 photos with that Canon G2 over the next 5 years (even though I paid $1990 for the camera, I think I got my monies worth, and it’s still going strong with my Dad), and eventually discovered it had one weakness – really really really poor handling in low light – it would put about 14 vertical bars through any short shutter speed low light situation. Back in 2001 when I bought that camera, there were a lot of crappy cameras on the market, even from companies like Sony. But today, in the right conditions, any modern name brand digital camera can take a great photo. The question is, what is required to make a nice image like that one?

The easy answer is light, and lots of it. Either natural (preferred) or from a flash, or from an external light. The quality of the colour is based on the type of light. Natural light is very wide bandwidth, so is nice for photography. Flashes are also pretty wide bandwidth, as are studio lights. Problem comes from home lighting fixtures, especially compact fluorescent ones, which are somewhat narrower, leading to colour reproduction problems. You know how some parking lots have lights that make everything look yellow? Well, think of poor quality lighting like that – the human eye + brain generally doesn’t notice the smaller gamut, but the camera will, and may try to correct colours, with varying levels of success.

Flashes are nice, but not generally pointed directly at what you want to photograph. This is where point and shoot cameras have a problem, since their flashes generally point straight ahead. You want the light to be softened, and coming from all directions (maybe pointed in one surface specifically, but you will often still want it in other places). The way to do that is by using bounce flash. My usual trick is the reverse ceiling bounce with my digital SLR + external flash. Point the flash backwards and upwards over your head, and towards a white surface. The light reflected will be diffused, and look nice. Like this one.

Some non digital SLR cameras take external flashes. If nothing else, if you want to take photos indoors, I would recommend getting one of those, and an external flash. Be aware that the flash may cost as much as the camera, but it’ll be worth it, and still probably cheaper than buying a new digital SLR.

So, light = good, and good light = good colour.

Focus is generally pretty easy to deal with – every camera or lens will have a minimum focus distance stated somewhere. Do not try to photograph closer than that, and the camera will probably take care of it ok. In my camera, I have it set to auto-focus on the centre point only. I focus by holding the shutter button down part way till it focuses and gets light levels right, then while still holding the button down, recompose. On the subject of composition, the rule of thirds is pretty twee, but not a bad starting point.

Background blur (or bokeh) is a little harder to manage, and is another area where digital SLRs can help. Camera lenses have a depth of field, or how deep something is in focus.. closer or further away and it’ll be blurry. This is a function of aperture and how far away from the subject you are. Lower aperture number = physically larger aperture = smaller depth of field. Physically larger aperture = more light gets into camera, and as we recall, light is good. So you can do it two ways.. either have a low aperture lens, or move the background further away from the object (or vis-a-versa).

Point and shoot cameras will often have higher apertures, meaning bigger depth of field, which makes it easy to get everything in focus, which is the first thing many people will notice about a photo. They’re also easy to build, since the size of the internal diameter of the lens can be smaller. For example, Elizabeth’s P&S camera has an aperture range of 3.2 – 5.8, which isn’t bad, but isn’t great either. My nifty-50 lens has an aperture of 1.8, which means it can take photos in reasonably low light. For insane sums, you can buy 1.0 and 0.95 lenses, which combined with a good camera, will let you take photographs using candles as lighting.

You can make up for a camera that is less sensitive to light by increasing the shutter speed, but past a certain point the photos will blur because the camera or the subject will move. A longer shutter speed also won’t help with aperture or background blur. A tripod can help here if it’s going to be the camera that moves, but not if it’s the subject. To make up for cameras moving, some point and shoot cameras and some digital SLRs have image stabilisation, which uses gyroscopes or adaptive optics or both to keep the image fairly still even when the camera moves. Then you just need to worry about the subject moving..

Which gets the to crux of the question – digital SLRs vs point and shoot cameras. You for the most part, get what you pay for. How much do you want to pay and what do you want to get? Find the intersecting point, and buy that. If you can’t find that intersection, change your price point or your desires, or wait a while.

What makes a camera cost what it does – what’s the difference between a $20,000 Hasselblag H4D medium format camera, and a $120 Canon A480? Sensor size is one of the keys. Bigger sensors = larger pixels = more light gathered per pixel per second = less noise. They often try to express this as ISO light sensitivity. Small sensors make up for this by running more electricity through the sensor to detect light, but at the trade off of having a more grainy image. They deal with the grainy image by having in-camera noise reduction, that essentially blurs the noise away if it’s too bad, or by taking the photo with a high enough megapixel count that when printed or scaled down, you’re not going to notice it. A bigger megapixel number, like the megahertz myth of computers, gives an easy number for the uneducated to compare and base decisions on, but it’s not that important. As long as it’s over 6MP and you don’t want to print giant posters, it’s all good.

The other cost input is lenses. Point and shoots have small non-interchangeable lenses which don’t let in much light, but they’re cheap to make. Digital SLR lenses are bigger, heavier and thus more expensive to make and distribute, but they make some that let in a lot of light, so they have that going for them. Also, being inter-changable, they don’t have to be a "jack of all trades, master of none", but you can buy digital SLR lenses that are. 

So what should you buy? Digital SLRs are big and bulky, and relatively expensive, but it’s easier to take nice pictures with them. Point and shoots are cheap and can take nice pictures, but it’s harder, and you will eventually reach a point where your creativity will be limited and there’s nothing you can do to help. If you want a digital SLR but have sticker shock, consider secondhand ones. Anything from 2006 onwards from Canon or Nikon is a good option. Take a photo of a white wall and look at it up close in an image viewer – see if there is any dust or dead or bright pixels. You’ll know them when you see them. Even those don’t make it a walk away deal, just something to negotiate on. 

If you can’t buy a digital SLR, but you care about making nice images, buy a Canon G11
. It’s a point and shoot with a lot of features from a digital SLR, including support for external flashes. It has a larger than average sensor (and in the most recent revision, grom G10 to G11, they actually decreased the megapixel count, to make a better sensor), a larger aperture range (2.8 – 4.5), and it doesn’t cost the earth (like my Canon G2 did back in 2001..). 

So that’s my thoughts on the question “Can I take good pictures with my point and shoot digital camera?” .. what are yours?