Understanding automatic settings on a digital camera

Automatic functions are the core of a pocket camera's existence (thus the name, "point-and-shoot"), but maybe they don't always do what you want them to do. Thus, it would be wise to understand what they do and what you can do to alter them.

The majority of point-and-shoot cameras come with a plethora of preset functions for the amateur photographer. As there are so many, you'll probably never even get to them all and some aren't even necessary.

The "auto" functions are the core of a pocket camera's existence (thus the name, "point-and-shoot"), but maybe they don't always do what you want them to do. Thus, it would be wise to understand what they do and what you can do to alter them.

Depending on your camera model, you can customize your options in either the main menu or on the icon buttons on the rear side of the camera (if you haven't already upgraded to a touchscreen-only camera). If you want to make the most out of your little camera, pay attention to these customizable settings:

  • AF Mode: The Autofocus setting automatically adjusts the lens to focus on a determined subject. However, it doesn't always focus where you want it to, so if you're not careful, the intended focus will actually turn out blurry.
  • Metering: On a DSLR, the photographer usually manually determines the aperture and shutter speed to get the best exposure. On a point-and-shoot, the metering modes calculate the amount of light and exposure value for you. There are three types of metering: Evaluative (best exposure based on entire frame), Spot (all weight is thrown at center of frame/determined AF point for best exposure; the rest of the frame is ignored) and Center-Weighted-Average (extra weight is given to the center of the frame; good for portraits).
  • ISO: This refers to the camera's "film" speed, meaning how sensitive the image sensor will be to the amount of available light. If you're outdoors and have plenty of light, keep this around 100 or 200. If it's overcast or potential for the subject to move, bump it up to 400. I typically only use 800 or 1600 (or more if your camera supports higher ISO levels), if there's very little light/indoors or if the subject is moving very fast (i.e. sporting events).
  • Flash: Digital cameras come with a whole bunch of flash settings, most of which I ignore as I'm usually just flipping between "On" and "Off." But there's also red-eye reduction (which does the obvious, although it takes longer to actually snap the photo so your subject(s) have to be still), and Slow Synchro, which forces the camera to use a slower shutter speed when combined with flash. This is preferable for indoor or dimly-lit outdoor shots for capturing extra detail, particularly in the background which usually gets blacked out by the flash. But it's better to combine this one with a steady surface/tripod.

For further studying, read up about understanding white balance, macro mode and some tips on taking better photos in general on a point-and-shoot camera.