A guide to getting the best photos from your point-and-shoot camera

The chances are that you have at least one compact point-and-shoot camera (and if you don’t, then you should read our guide to buying a point-and-shoot digital camera). And if you're like most people, you're alternately amazed at how easy it makes taking and sharing photos, and also disappointed that many of your images don't turn out the way you expect.

There isn't any single piece of advice that guarantees you'll capture great images every time, but in this article I'll give you some easy-to-implement tips on getting the most out of your digital point-and-shoot camera – and even some thoughts about buying a new camera if you're considering upgrading yours.

Hold your camera like you mean it

By far the largest source of trouble with digital photos is camera motion. Holding your camera still is essential, especially with point-and-shooters, which take some time to focus and capture an image. When you see pro photographers shooting, you'll notice that they hold the camera carefully, keeping it pressed against their eye. That isn't just so they can see through the viewfinder. It keeps the camera stable so that they can get sharp images. But often if you watch non-pros, you'll see them waving their cameras about at arm's length. If you're holding your camera in one hand or at arm's length, you're much less likely to get a sharp photo than if you're holding it close to you with both hands. If your camera has a viewfinder, use it when you can.

Holding the camera against your forehead will stabilise it. And if you keep your elbows against your sides, then you'll have a full "triangle" of stability and the best chance for a sharp image. Of course, these days most compacts don’t have a viewfinder, but you can still hold the camera carefully in both hands with your elbows against your sides. While many current point-and-shooters boast image stabilisation, this isn't a substitute for good technique – but it can certainly help make up for the difficulty of holding a small camera steady, particularly if you're on a moving vehicle or outside on a windy day.

Pre-focus for quicker shooting

All cameras are slowest when they've been turned off or idle. With point-and-shoot cameras, waiting for the camera to warm up can make taking a photo feel nearly glacial. But if you not only have the camera on but can pre-focus in advance (by holding the shutter button halfway down and letting the camera focus on your subject), then when you snap the shot, you'll get the fastest possible response. With most point-and-shooters, the focus indicator will stop blinking when you're good to go.

One trick is to remember is that focus is related to distance. For example, sports photo pros know that if their subject isn't in position when they're getting ready they can pre-focus on something at the same distance as where their subject will be. Then they can take the image as soon as the subject appears.

Kill that flash!

How often have you watched thousands of flashes go off at a night-time sporting event? Was one of them yours? It's pretty obvious that those flashes aren't really helping anyone get a better picture, but did you know that leaving the flash turned on may in fact prevent you from getting a good photo? It can, because if your flash is on, the camera will wait to recharge the flash each time you press the shutter. Firstly, that means a longer lag until you capture your image, and therefore more of a chance that you'll miss the action you're trying to get. And secondly, most point-and-shoot cameras will not operate in continuous mode with the flash turned on. So you'll only get one chance for your image instead of being able to fire off a burst of images. The lesson: When you're in a large venue at night, turn off your flash.

Check image size and quality

Before you get serious about taking photos, you should make sure that the image resolution (the number of pixels your camera captures) is set to the maximum, and do the same for the image quality setting. (The factory default the camera shipped with may not be the best). This will make your images much larger and better looking – especially if you print.

Obviously enough, though, you’ll need to buy a decent high capacity card to have space for all your high-res photos – in fact, you should probably buy two so that you have a spare in case something goes wrong or you accidentally leave one in your computer.

Another quick tip: Be sure to check how many high quality images will fit on your card before you go on a trip. It is amazing how many people I've run into in remote locations who are suffering because they don't have enough flash cards to capture all the images they want to keep of their trip of a lifetime.

About that manual...

As confusing as reading through a camera manual can be, you'll find it almost impossible to get full value from a modern camera without doing so. There are just too many different settings and indicators to figure them all out by trial and error. One trick I use to make consulting the manual less painful is to download the online version of the manual to my laptop. That way I can have it with me wherever I go, without having to drag the paper version along (if indeed the camera comes with a paper version).

Make a scene

The smaller your camera, the harder it is to set the controls quickly, even if you know what you want. Fortunately, camera makers use Scene modes, which group related settings together into a single simple button. Typically, you’ll have Scene modes for everything from Beach to Sunset. You may also have useful settings like a Museum mode, which turns off the flash and any sounds the camera makes, so you can quietly take pictures inside a church or museum, or at a performance.

You need to experiment a little with the Scene modes, though. For example, with my old camera the Fireworks mode forced a very slow shutter speed, making it impossible to capture clear images without a tripod. When I was photographing fireworks with that model, I found the Night-time Landscape mode was better, and you may find similar quirks with your camera.

Go vertical

People are usually vertical, which is no doubt why vertical photographs are referred to as being in "portrait" mode. But nine times out of ten, when I see someone taking a photo of another person with a point-and-shooter, they're holding the camera horizontally. If you really want to capture the scene around a person, or capture a large group of people, then "landscape," or horizontal mode, is appropriate. But if you want to feature one or two or even three people in an image, consider turning your camera vertically and framing the image to take advantage of your subjects' natural orientation. Of course, if you have only a moment and aren't comfortable holding the camera vertically, go ahead and shoot with your camera held the way you're used to, and allow plenty of room around your subject(s) so you can crop the image later.

Get the right camera

When the subject of learning to be a digital photographer comes up, many people confess that they have an older point-and-shooter gathering dust and feel that they should really figure that one out before they consider spending money on a new one.

While their instincts are admirable, clinging to an older camera can make it much harder to take satisfying images. Digital cameras are improving so quickly that a new camera will often be much faster and more flexible than an older one. If your digital point-and-shoot camera is more than a few years old and you don't know how to fully use it already, consider passing it on and investing your time and money in a new one.

If you're comfortable with your camera, however, the opposite advice applies. A new camera means a new learning process, so you're likely better off staying with the one you have unless there's a specific feature you want from a new one. In particular, trading up to a newer camera to get more resolution is usually a waste of money. Unless you produce a lot of large prints or have a really old camera, the extra megapixels generally aren't worth the effort. There are more important factors than the almighty megapixels – such as features, speed, and low image noise.

Another spec that can be troublesome with digital cameras is their physical size. Everyone is charmed by tiny point-and-shooters, but until they use an ultracompact camera they may not realise the trade-offs. In general, the smaller the camera, the harder it is to find and operate the controls – and the harder it can be to hold the camera still. So make sure you test the camera you're planning to purchase to be sure you can use it effectively.

Of course, the one major advantage of a smaller camera is that the camera you have with you is better than the one you don't! Many pros actually have more than one point-and-shooter for that reason. As digital cameras can be nabbed so cheaply these days, buying more than one isn’t as extravagant as it sounds.

For more on making the right choice when it comes to a new snapper, see our guide to buying a point-and-shoot digital camera.

Get out and shoot

The best piece of advice for any photographer – pro or amateur – is to get out and take pictures. Even if you throw them all away you'll learn what you like, what you don't like, and how to have confidence in your camera and technique so that you can get the photos you want, when you want. And if some of your images don't come out the way you wish they had, try to spend a little time figuring out why – and then try again!