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How to take better pictures in your camera’s automatic mode

Digital camera dial: Auto mode

Photography experts are always imploring people not to rely on a camera’s full-automatic mode – you know, that magic green icon that makes our lives easier by not asking us to fuss with the settings. After all, having control over how the camera shoots lets you produce better-looking photos. But what if your compact camera only offers an auto mode? Can you still take great photos with a digital camera that lacks any advanced features?


When you shoot in full-auto mode, you are telling the camera to pick what it thinks are the best settings. That means your camera decides everything concerning shutter speed, light sensitivity (ISO), aperture, focus, white balance, and even when to fire the flash. Auto mode is easy to use and convenient, but it isn’t foolproof, and a few simple tips can help you make the most of it. Here’s how to shoot great-looking photographs, even when the camera is doing all the work.

Hold steady

Camera shake causes blurry images. The slightest vibration to the camera as it’s capturing an image can affect how sharp the photo looks. Keeping still is even more important in low-light situations, because the camera keeps the shutter open longer to take in as much light as it can. Some new cameras offer image stabilization to help compensate for shaky hands, but it isn’t perfect. Here are some things you can do to prevent blurry photos.

Use a tripod. A tripod keeps a camera steady, but it’s not always a convenient accessory to lug around (mini desktop tripods like Joby’s GorillaPod, however, are great tools to keep in a camera bag). As an alternative, find a level, non-moving surface to stabilize the camera, like a kitchen counter, a ledge, or a stack of books.

Don’t move. Keeping your body still before, during, and after pressing the shutter button will help minimize image blur. Because a digital camera continues to process the image after clicking the button – especially if it’s gathering light in dark environments – you want to remain motionless for a few seconds afterward, depending on your camera’s lag time between shots. Of course, no person can stay completely stiff, so look for extra support (like keeping your back against a wall or leaning against a pole) to stabilize yourself.

Use the camera’s self-timer. By using the self-timer, you give yourself a few seconds to position yourself and avoid any movement from having to press the shutter button. You can also use this feature when using a tripod or any stable surface, as it would eliminate nearly any vibration caused by your body.

Bring the camera closer to your body. If you’re using the camera’s LCD screen to frame a picture, hold it with two hands and bring it as close to your eyes as possible (without affecting your vision), tucking your elbows and arms all the way in. You can minimize body movement this way, as opposed to having your arms stretched out.

Focus on the prize

Before you press the shutter button, you need to focus on the subject. Nearly every digital camera utilizes autofocusing, but here’s how to use it properly.

Press halfway and hold it. To tell the camera where to focus, lock in on the subject by pressing the shutter button halfway without letting go (you can feel when the button is physically at the halfway point). The camera will signal when something is focused with an audible beep or green indicators on the LCD display, for example. When you are ready to shoot, press the shutter button all the way. The key is to never let go of the shutter button from the halfway point, unless you want to refocus or reframe your shot.

Point the camera at what you want to be in focus. A digital camera doesn’t always know what to focus on in the frame. If you want to focus on a subject in the side of a frame, for example, your camera might focus on something dead center in the background instead. The easy way to fix this is to center your subject in the frame and then focus. Without letting go of the shutter button, you can pan around until you are happy with the shot, keeping your intended subjects focused wherever they end up in the frame.

Look ahead of moving objects. Most of the aforementioned tips require the subject to remain stationary, but what if you are trying to capture your kid playing ball or some sort of action scene? Most digital cameras that lack user controls, especially entry-level models with slow autofocusing, have a hard time capturing these types of scenes. To achieve this, autofocus on a point where the object in motion will end up, then snap the photo when the object reaches that point. With some luck, you’ll get that shot.

To zoom or not to zoom

Through software enhancement, fixed-lens cameras use digital zoom as a way to get closer to a far-away object. Cameras with an optical lens also use digital zoom to go beyond the physical max zoom. When should you use it? Never, because the resulting image taken with a digital zoom will always be pixelated. If you can, you should physically get up-close to a subject instead of zooming in digitally.

Making a scene

In addition to a full-auto mode, some cameras include a selection of scene modes. Although scene modes aren’t manual controls, they offer the user a way to tell the camera what type of shooting environment it’s in, such as low light, under direct sunlight, portrait, and landscape. The camera then adjusts its settings for these conditions.

Some cameras may also let you adjust the exposure compensation. If available, use this option to play with the lighting conditions.

Flash yourself

Digital cameras tend to always fire the built-in flash when in auto mode, whether it’s necessary or not. But camera flash is not always a bad thing. The best way to know your camera’s ability is to experiment by taking photos in various conditions with the flash on and off.

In dark scenes, the camera may activate the flash to compensate for weak low-light performance, but this could cause your subjects to look way too intense when lit. Without a flash, your photos could look fuzzy due to the lack of light. You can achieve better results by deactivating the flash and using all available light in the room. Hold the camera as still as possible until it has finished taking the photo (see earlier).

Believe it or not, the flash works well for bright conditions. For example, shadows on a subject’s face that’s caused by strong sunlight can be compensated with the use of the flash in “forced flash” mode. 

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