Photo Tips Series – Pt II, Compact Cameras

It’s been a longer time than I initially anticipated getting this second installment of the Photo Tips series up but you’re getting a 2 for 1 special. :-)  This article on still photos and a second one the day after this one’s posted on video.  In this article we’re going to talk about some of the issues that people have with compact cameras.

The pixels on the digital sensors of compact cameras are tiny.  Obscenely tiny.  The pixels on all digital sensors are tiny, for that matter, but particularly so on a compact camera.  The sensors in compact cameras and camera phones are smaller than the fingernail on your pinky finger.  Imagine cramming 8 or 10 or 12 million pixels into that small an area!

Pixels on a digital camera sensor have something called a ‘well capacity’.  That is a technical measure of how much light (actually light photons) the pixel can capture before it becomes full and you get overexposure.  Larger pixels on larger cameras like the SLR models have a larger well capacity.  That is, they can capture more light before getting full and moving into overexposure.  The tiny pixels on compact and phone cameras have a pretty small ability to capture light, by comparison.  The amount of light that can be captured determines what is called the ‘dynamic range’ of the sensor.  The dynamic range is the breadth of light that can be captured from shadow to highlight without getting underexposed, black shadows or overexposed, white highlights.  Larger cameras with larger pixels have a larger dynamic range.  Compact and phone cameras with very small pixels have a smaller dynamic range.

One of the big problems people have with their small cameras is overexposure in the highlights, and to a lesser extent underexposure in the shadows.  They take a picture on a bright, sunny day and when they look at that picture the sky or lighter areas of the picture are just blank areas of white.  The shot below is an example.

Scene with too broad a dynamic range

This is exactly that situation.  A bright, sunny day with no clouds.  You can see that areas of the sky and some of the flowers are just blank white areas of overexposure.  This is too wide a dynamic range for the sensors in this camera (my smartphone) to capture.  Conversely, if we look at a similar shot taken with a full size SLR we don’t have the same problem because the larger pixels are able to capture a wider range of brightness.

Larger pixels can capture more light

So what do we do with these smaller cameras with smaller pixels?  Stop taking pictures in daylight?  No!  All we need to be aware of are the limitations of our equipment.  And then take steps to try and compensate.

In such bright conditions we can concentrate on smaller, less expansive shots, like the one next.

Concentrate on smaller areas

Even this one has some strong brightness from the sun reflecting off the white petals but it’s not nearly as much as the earlier, wider shot.

If you want to take pictures that include people, place them in the shade of some trees where there may be less bright sky in the photo.  You can also take your ‘people pictures’ in times of day with less harsh light – earlier in the morning or late afternoon/evening.

There’s nothing wrong with using a compact camera or phone camera.  Nothing at all.  There’s also no need to run out and buy an expensive SLR camera to get good pictures, either.  As with any piece of equipment, you just have to be aware of the limitations and take steps to compensate.  The shot below was also taken with my phone but because it was taken in more subdued light the exposure is fine.

Camera phone shot in subdued light

What do you do to compensate for the limitations your camera may place on you?

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