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In general, the menus and exposure options found on point-and-shoot digicams are not all that different. If you can get one up and running, chances are you can get most any of them up and running. The shapes, locations, and nomenclature of the menu buttons and icons vary camera to camera, but the logic behind them are pretty much the same.
Skipping over the basics, e.g., how to install the battery, set the time, put the strap on, use the power zoom, etc, we thought it would be a good idea to explain the differences between the various exposure modes, scene modes, flash modes, etc, and how to choose the best settings for any given occasion.
As coincidence would have it, the 'camera fairy' left a Nikon CoolPix P6000 on my desk to test-drive as I began this project, which I put to good use while composing this article (Nice camera!). And fret not if you don't own a Nikon P6000, since similar principles apply to most any P&S digicam you might own or plan on buying.
Most point-and-shoot P&S digicams shoot JPEG-format image files, which are perfectly fine for most applications. JPEGs (short for Joint Photographic Expert Group) can be set in a choice of Fine, Extra Fine, Basic, and Normal compression ratios.
If you want to get your money's worth from your camera, stick to the highest quality (resolution) setting. Higher-resolution image files produce the best prints, and allow for wiggle room if you need to crop into an image for esthetic or other reasons.
As for smaller file sizes, use them when shooting subjects of lesser importance, or when shooting images that will only appear on a computer screen or be posted on the web.
A few of the more advanced P&S digicams also offer the option of capturing RAW files. JPEGs are pre-edited at the time of capture according to your choice of menu settings. RAW files capture and retain all of the image data. The downside is RAW files are larger and therefore fill up memory cards quicker, and they require post-capture processing before you can print or post images. The upside of RAW capture is that the quality of images processed from RAW files are actually better (sharper, better details & color) than camera-formatted JPEG or TIFF files.
Some advanced P&S digicams offer the option of capturing RAW + JPEG images simultaneously, which gives you the best of both worlds. Just keep one thing in mind when choosing a JPEG setting - Downsizing an image file is easy. Upsizing is where it gets tricky.
ISO is short for the International Standards Organization. Like the American Standards Association (ASA), the ISO is an international organization for setting and upholding the standards we live by for measuring the weights and measurements of all of the things we hold dear. Aside from determining the precise spectral composition of 'Standard White", the ISO also determines the sensitivity characteristics of imaging sensors.
Back in the good-old-days you loaded your camera with 'slower', fine-grain film (ISO 50-100) on bright, sunny days, and 'faster' film (ISO 400-1600) for low-light shooting conditions. The faster films were noticeably grainier, but that was the price of nailing sharp pictures under low light. Nowadays we 'boost' the sensitivity levels of the imaging sensor when the light levels drop.
The base, or native ISO of most digicams, is in the neighborhood of ISO 64-100. If you want the best quality from your camera, stick to the native (slowest) ISO setting. When shooting under lower lighting conditions, the sensitivity of the sensor can be 'pushed' to ISO 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, and beyond. Is there a price to be paid for this convenience? You betcha'.
Just as faster films tend to be contrasty, grainier, and not as sharp as slower films, digital sensors begin to loose sharpness, get noisier, and start looking mushier when you push the ISO sensitivity of the average P&S digicam past ISO 400-or-so.
The good news is that the manufacturers have greatly improved the technologies that tame noise levels to maintain better image quality at the higher ISO ratings. And remember - It's better to have an amazing 'noisy' picture than an almost-amazing, blurred picture.
'Noise' or as it's known in the electronics world - gain, starts becoming noticable when you start pushing the ISO levels beyond the camera's native ISO speed. While most P&S cameras control noise and artifacts automatically as part of the process, a few allow you to manually adjust noise reduction levels.
An option found on many digicams is the 'Auto ISO' setting, which maintains lower ISO settings for outdoor shots and automatically raises the settings when shooting under lower light levels. Auto is a better choice than full-time noise reduction, which isn't always necessary, and in some circumstances takes away from image quality.
Unlike film, which requires you to match your choice of film (and or filters) with the lighting conditions, most P&S digicams offer you the ability to set the White Balance (WB) to pre-set measurements (i.e., Daylight, Indoors, Fluorescent, Cloudy, etc), Auto, or a Custom setting.
While Auto is often a practical default setting, it's not bulletproof. As an example, the Daylight settings on most digicams is set for 5500° Kelvin, which is the color temperature of daylight as measured mid-day on the summer solstice (usually June. 21-22). If you shoot earlier or later in the day - or anytime in the winter months - the light has a warmer tonality that you don't necessarily want 'corrected'.
If you set your camera to 'Auto WB', the image processor will read the scene, determine the overall tone is too warm, and 'correct' it by adding a tint of Blue. However, when you set the WB to 'Daylight', the color temperature is locked in place (5500°), allowing for the warmer, natural tones of early morning and late afternoon light to remain faithful to the original scene.
For mixed lighting situations, or times when you want the most accurate WB, follow your camera's instructions on how to create a Custom White Balance. It takes an extra step or 2, but is well worth the effort if you want faithful color rendition. It's important to keep in mind the best color and exposure settings are often subjective, which means the 'correct' color or exposure is not always the best color or exposure.
One should also keep in mind that the color, tone, and exposure settings of RAW files are established when you process RAW files, which is one of the prime reasons pros prefer shooting in RAW. Analogous to a film negative, RAW files are merely electronic negatives from which you create new files and save them as JPEGs, TIFFs, or other imaging formats. When you save changes to a JPEG, it's for keeps. When you adjust and save the settings on a RAW file, you still get to keep the 'original'.
Exposure meters 'read' ambient (or flash) light, and by design, convert this information into a medium-gray, or 18% gray exposure value. This is why older, less sophisticated exposure systems render both snow and dark shadow areas as the same shade of gray. Pre-defined exposure parameters, based on the scene being photographed, make it possible to capture properly exposed photographs.
Scene modes are presets designed to optimize the exposure, color, white balance, ISO rating, and optical parameters to best match the scene you are photographing. For example, in Portrait Mode the color is set to 'Neutral', a wider f-stop (lens aperture) is set, and the flash (if engaged) goes into Red-Eye Mode. In Landscape Mode, the focus goes to infinity, and the AF-assist illuminator is turned off (it's not necessary). In Macro Mode, the lens shifts into a configuration and focal length range for optimum close-up photographs.
In Sports Mode, faster shutter-speeds and wider (faster) lens apertures (f-stops) are the priority; the AF system goes into Continuous mode and locks onto the subject as long as the shutter remains depressed. When shooting in Dawn/Dusk or Sunset modes, wider (and faster) apertures are employed, warm coloration is maintained, and the ISO ratings are given a boost to better ensure sharp pictures.
Some cameras will also warn you to turn on the camera's flash, engage the Image Stabilization (IS, a.k.a. Vibration Reduction) system, or in the case of Night Landscapes, use a tripod. In the case of Museums, where you cannot use a tripod, the Museum mode boosts the ISO and turns on (or recommends turning on) the IS/VR system.
Basic exposure modes include Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Manual. In Program mode, the camera automatically chooses the best combination of f-stop and shutter-speed based on the lighting conditions.
In Shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed, and the camera chooses the corresponding f-stop (lens aperture). In Aperture, you conversely choose the lens opening (f-stop), and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter-speed, and in Manual you choose both the shutter-speed and aperture. If you enjoy driving stick-shift, chances are you'll enjoy shooting in Manual mode.
When shooting in Program, most digicams also take other factors into account to determine the optimum exposure. For example, if you're shooting at a longer focal length, the camera will choose a faster shutter speed to compensate for any increases of camera shake due to the increases of image magnification. On the whole, Program can be used as a reliable default exposure setting.
Just as Program should be considered a default exposure setting, Matrix metering, which analyzes the scene in sections, is the best selection for most shooting situations. Center-weighted, which bases the majority of the exposure based on what's going on in the center 75% of the frame, is also a reliable metering selection for average-lit scenes. And if your subject is backlit, or performing on a darkened stage, try Spot metering, which takes the exposure reading from a small portion of the total scene.
Autofocus Modes (AF)
If you've ever photographed 2 people positioned dead-centered in a frame there's a good chance you've ended up with pictures where the wall behind them is in focus, but because the camera was set to 'center focus', the people you were trying to photograph were blurred. Just as it's important to choose proper Exposure modes and Scene selections, it's equally important to select the proper AF mode.
If you're shooting moving subjects, choose 'Continuous, (Full-time AF), which follows the subject as he/she moves about. If your subject is static, you might want to select 'Single' AF, which would also be a good idea when photographing 2 people centered in a frame. (Lock the focus on one person, and then recompose the picture while half-depressing the shutter button.) Face priority technology is another workaround when shooting portraits of randomly placed subjects.
When contemplating the above, always keep in mind it costs nothing to shoot tests with a digital camera. Every time you go click it's free. So try different settings, either beforehand, or 'on the job'. Once you learn the 'personality' of your particular digicam, your pictures will be – technically speaking - on the money. The creative part is up to you.