Do you feel discouraged because you have a small compact camera in your pocket, while your friend is showing off with a 6 lb. DSLR? Don’t! Here are just some of the reasons why you can get better photos than your gear-toting friend can:

  • Your P&S camera is light and compact enough so you can take it with you at all times.
  • Your lens is almost as good as his: like most newbie DSLR owners, he hasn’t changed the default zoom lens in his camera kit with a more specialized lens.
  • Your friend is now more worried about the camera gear than about the picture, and so misses all the good shots because he’s so busy worrying about getting RAW files with lots of data.

Obviously, a professional photographer with a bunch of $2,000 lenses and a tripod will achieve many things that you won’t be able to do with a P&S camera. But you can probably do a lot more than you think with that little pocket shooter.

The following digital camera tips can help you tackle the limitations of your compact camera and get results that will amaze everybody.

Understanding compact digital camera shooting modes

Here is a breakdown of the shooting modes on compact cameras, and where and when to use each mode:

I. Automatic Modes

1.     Auto Mode

In Auto mode, your camera tries to find the best exposure setting and automatically selects the:

  • shutter speed
  • aperture
  • white balance
  • flash
  • ISO

Auto mode is sometimes enough to capture a moment in time, but if you want to get creative, you’ll need to explore the more advanced settings. 

  • When to Use Auto Mode: When you’re on the go and have no time for choosing the settings (e.g. you just saw a squirrel in the park or your child started making soap bubbles). 

digital camera auto mode - the louvre

2.     Portrait Mode

In Portrait mode, the camera will attempt to use a big aperture (small f-number) to decrease the depth of field and isolate the subject from the background. If there are several objects in the frame, the one closest to the lens will be in focus.

Portrait mode also softens the skin tones, especially if you fill most of the frame with your subject.

  • When to Use Portrait Mode: When you want to capture a single object (like a face) within close range. 

compact camera portrait mode - smiling little girl

3.     Macro Mode

Macro mode is ideal for taking close-up shots.

When you use this mode, you’ll see that focusing becomes more difficult as the depth of field becomes very narrow. Whenever possible, try to keep the camera lens and your subject parallel, otherwise much of it will be out of focus.

Also, turn on image stabilization to reduce camera shake, which becomes more noticeable the closer you get to your subject. Most compacts won’t be able to focus on objects closer than 2 inches from the lens, so make sure to take a step back.

When you’re taking close-ups, the flash will attempt go off automatically. This will wash out most of the details, so you might want to turn the flash off.

  • When to Use Macro Mode: It’s great for capturing flowers, bugs or other vivid close-ups, like the bark of a tree trunk or the unique patterns on rocks and minerals. 

compact camera macro mode - bee on a flower

4.     Landscape Mode

Landscape mode is the opposite of Portrait mode, in that it tries to use a small aperture to keep as much of the scene in focus. The lens will focus on the horizon and keep the foreground, middle ground and background in focus.

Exposure tip: if you want correct exposure in the clouds, point the center of the lens toward the sky and the foreground will become darker. Conversely, if you want more details of the land (trees, houses, etc.), then point the camera down to get more land and less sky.

Using the Landscape mode will trick the camera into photographing through car or train windows. When you are shooting in Landscape mode, you don’t have to worry about focusing as long as there is some distance between you and the subject.

  • When to Use Landscape Mode: Great for shooting wide scenes, especially those with points of interest at various distances from the lens. 

landscape mode - elephants on the side of the road

5.     Sports (Action) Mode

When shooting in Sports mode, the camera will try to use the fastest shutter speed to freeze motion and capture sharp images of moving subjects. When the subject is moving, the camera will follow it and try to keep the subject in sharp focus. In sports mode, the flash will not pop up automatically.

  • When to Use Sports Mode: When you want to capture sporting activities, kids running and playing, pets, moving cars, wildlife, etc. It also works great outdoors, where more light can hit the sensor allowing for faster shutter speeds and minimizing blur. 

sports mode - running dog

6.     Night Mode

Also called “slow shutter sync”, Night mode is great for taking longer exposures and shooting in low-light situations. The camera will use longer shutter speeds to allow more light to hit the sensor. By using flash, you will light your subject in the foreground and still capture the lights in the background. Make sure to brace your camera against something or use a tripod to minimize blur.

  • When to Use Night Mode: When photographing buildings or cityscapes once lights are on in the evening. When you get really blurry and dark shots in other modes. When you want to photograph people against city lights (turn on the flash). Also great for parties and dance floors. 

compact camera night mode - city lights

II. Semi-Automatic Modes

7.     Aperture Priority Mode (AV)

Aperture priority is the most convenient mode for capturing a wide range of subjects. Changing the aperture gives you control over the depth of field, while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. This mode is useful in low-light situations, when you need to widen the aperture to get the fastest shutter speed with no shaking.

If you lower the f-number by one stop, the camera will increase the shutter speed by one stop to counteract the extra light. For example, f/11 and 1/125 sec gives you the same results as f/8 and 1/250 sec. This mode is a great way to experiment with different f-stops and depths of field without having to constantly change the camera’s other values.

The main concern when using AV mode is the shutter speed going below values that can avoid camera shake. If that happens, you can either boost the ISO (which allows you to use a faster shutter speed at the same aperture), or keep the settings and use a tripod to minimize camera shake.

  • When to Use Aperture Priority Mode: When you want to emphasize the subject and blur background details.

8.     Shutter Priority Mode (TV)

Shutter Priority mode is the opposite of Aperture Priority mode: instead of controlling the aperture, you pick the shutter speed. This mode is useful when you’re photographing movement and want to freeze the action. Conversely, if you want to photograph a waterfall and create a beautiful silky effect, lower the shutter speed and the aperture will adjust accordingly.

  • When to Use Shutter Priority Mode: When you are photographing moving subjects (e.g. sports, dancing, birds in flight, race cars, etc.) and want to freeze the action. 

shutter priority mode - planes

9.     Program Mode (P)

Unlike Auto mode, Program mode allows you to control flash and a few other settings. All the decision-making is still on autopilot — the camera chooses both the shutter speed and aperture – but now you have a little more control.

The main advantage of using Program mode is that (unlike Scene modes or Auto mode) it allows you to use exposure compensation (especially when shooting mostly light or dark subjects that can trick the camera’s metering).

  • When to Use Program Mode: When you don’t have time to think about the best aperture or shutter speed (e.g. street photography and candids). Photographing stationary subjects that don’t require either a very fast/slow shutter speed, or manual control over depth of field.

III. Fully Manual Mode

10. Manual mode

When you use Manual mode, the built-in meter will give you a reading of the scene, but it’s your job to pick both the aperture and the shutter speed. This may seem challenging at first, but after a while you will understand how each setting affects your exposure, which will help you to better use the other modes.

Manual mode works great in home photo studios and for still-life photography where you have uniform light. It’s also useful for taking a series of overlapping shots and stitching them together as a panorama.

Your key ally in using the Manual mode is the histogram. It tells you the exact distribution of tonal values, so you’ll know if your shot is under- or overexposed. Remember, it’s easier to fix underexposure in post-processing than it is to fix overexposure.

  • When to Use Manual Mode: When you have time to think about exposure settings (e.g. shooting landscapes). For long exposures or when the camera’s metering is not reliable. When shooting action shots where light is constant, but the background colors or lighting are changing. Studio photography or low-light situations. Shooting through glass (in conjunction with a wide aperture). Photographing silhouetted subjects. 

digital camera manual mode - landscape

IV. Pre-Focus to Combat Shutter Lag

Most digital compact cameras have one big problem: shutter lag. You release the shutter button, expecting the shot to be taken, but the camera waits just a little bit before it actually clicks. The result is a blurred shot and a lot of frustration.

The solution is to “pre-focus” your shots: point the camera toward your subject, press halfway down, then move the camera until you compose the shot. Only depress the release button when your shot is nicely composed. By doing this, the camera will capture the scene the moment you fully release the button, which minimizes the shutter lag.


With a little practice, you too can achieve amazing results with your compact camera. Experiment with each mode and you will begin to love changing the settings and playing with different results in the most challenging lighting conditions.

About The Author

Maggie has been working as a freelance writer since 2007. She got her certificate from Art Image School of Photography in 2009.

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