Compact Cameras - What they are, where they came from, what they can be used for, and some tips on using them

A compact camera is an "all in one" camera. This type of camera is (as the name implies) small and compact. There are many different types and qualities of compact cameras, from your average run-of-the-mill camera that you might get for free when you subscribe to a magaxine, to highly expensive and advanced varieties.

The compact cameras is today, in year 2001, mainly split into three different cathegories, namely by their form of storing the pictures. The three varieties are APS, 35mm or digital. All three kinds have their pros and cons - to find out about these, I would strongly suggest you read up on those three nodes.

It can be argued that disposable cameras are compacts, but for the sake of simplicity, we can just say that disposables are very simple compact cameras who use 35mm film (or in some rare occations, APS), and concentrate on the more interesting features of compact cameras:

Short history of the compact camera

The history of compact cameras is indeed a bit vague. To be honest, one of the very first cameras that was sold in volume, the Kodak Brownie, was a compact camera. The real distinction for the compact cameras didn't begin until 1936, when Germany's E.H.G introduced the world's first 35mm SLR. When the big companies, like Nikon, Canon and Leica started introducing SLRs in the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, the difference between compact and SLR became more important.

By the mid-1970s, fully automatic compact cameras started appearing, a type of camera that would now be referred to as point and shoot.

Historically, the compact camera has always been the tool of the person who "just wanted to snap pictures" while photographers use SLR, Medium Format or a variety of other types of cameras.

Lately, the digital cameras have made an introduction. Ironically, history repeated itself: The first true digital cameras* were compacts, and it wasn't until recently (mid-1999) that there was a digital camera that was good enough to be used by the press and other serious photographers

*) I am happily ignoring the fact that there were digital backs to medium format cameras available. These first digital cameras would cost the same as a medium-class sportscar, and have nothing to do in this node about compact cameras. So there :)

Characteristics of a compact camera

Currently, most compact cameras are electric, meaning electronical light meters, electrical film advance (winding the film to the next frame, and rewinding the film when all the frames have been filled) and everything. Usually you have not many choices when it comes to taking pictures, except from turning the flash off and on. There are a few of the top-range models that can have more advanced things, like shutter time, aperture settings etc, but in general, these cameras are for the "specially interrested", as the price of these cameras usually supersedes that of an entry-level SLR, and most users in that price class will probably chip in a few extra dollars (or pounds, kroner, kronor, gulden, drakmer, whatever your unit of currency might be) to get a full fledged SLR system.

Tips on using a compact camera (or: how to get more out of your camera)

Using a compact is not hard - and you can't really do anything wrong. However, here are a few tips on how to improve your picture-taking with a compact camera:

  • Take many pictures - Obvious as this might sound, if you take many pictures, you will get used to your camera, and you will know its strenghts and weaknesses after a while. Besides, the more pictures you take, the bigger is the chance of one of them being really good.
  • Don't zoom in - walk closer - Due to physics, zooming in and walking closer are two quite different things. Just try it - look through your viewfinder, and zoom in on, say, a coca-cola bottle. Then, zoom out, and frame the picture just as you did. In about 90% of the cases, the second picture will just look better. Without explaining why (look for some of my later photography writeups :), this is a general rule - it's just the way it is. Besides, most compacts are constructed in such a way that if you zoom out, the lens has a bigger aperture. This means that it lets more light through, and that you get less depth of field - usually this is a good thing.
  • Zoom in on portraits - Flatly contradicting myself, I know. However: when shooting 35mm film, it is generally recommended to take portrait pictures on between 100-200mm length. If you take a look at the front of your compact, it will probably say something like "35-105mm" or "28-70mm" or something like that. Most compacts (with a few exceptions, just to make things more complicated) only have a limited maximum range - but zooming in all the way usually makes for better portraits. (this has the same reasons as above, but don't take my word for it - just try it yourself)
  • Get some different film! - If you have a decent compact camera, then get some decent film. Try getting some faster (ISO 800, for example) film for indoors use. Or shoot a roll of E6 (slide) film, just to see what it is like
  • Get some black and white film! - Some people might tell you that it's cheating - just ignore them. Most pictures will look more like art if they are in black and white. Don't bother doing this if you are going to take pictures at a party, but if you want to take portraits, landscapes, or basically whatever else where it is more the shape then the color - go for it! Most labs develop black and white film - if they don't buy some bw film that can be developed in C41 (color process), like the Kodak Portra BW.
  • Make sure you don't suffer from the Red Eye phenomenon. There are many ways to avoid this - have a look at the node about the red eye effect and how to avoid it

Well.. That should get you going!



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