Using a compact camera creatively...A free online photography course - Part 1: Focus & Composition

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

How many of you have thought "if only I had a better camera my pictures would be so much better"? I know I have - frequently . This summer however, I discovered that the the smaller compact or "point and shoot" cameras when used together with some "big" camera thinking and guidelines can produce some excellent, "hang on your wall", shots.

Let me say up front that I am a self confessed Canon 30D DSLR "big" camera user, some people even call me an addict. I had spent a lot of time this year with my camera and so this summer I promised my family that I would not bring my camera with me - for three whole weeks - and would spend my time focusing on the family.

My wife and I agreed that we would buy a compact camera to replace the one that recently broke and in the end we brought a Sony DSC-W170 compact camera in Hong Kong. I was not looking forward to having to use this camera - cause it wasn't big enough!

With the recent studies I have been doing from for off-camera flash I was curious to see what I could do with the small on-camera flash, which is typical of the majority of modern compact cameras. This idea then led me to challenge myself to see if i could get some good quality photos with a very limited set of tools - one compact camera - by getting back to some of the basics of photography.

I was amazed with the results of some of the images. Just by putting some of the basic skills and concepts into action when shooting, it was possible to get some great shots.

Don't get me wrong, I took many mediocre and less than average shots. One thing about the compact camera is that I found it was too easy to take shots without thinking about the image. This is good in certain circumstances, but I think that the ease of use for these kind of cameras is a main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images (snap shots).

In the end I found that if I took a bit time and put some thought into taking a shot, I could get some really good shots. With this in mind I decided to put together a few guidelines and hints and tips for people who want to take better pictures with their existing camera. My aim for everyone is to take the tips and learnings over this series of articles and go out and shoot better images which people will proudly hang on their walls - physical or virtual :-)

Of course we have all heard of the saying that "guidelines are made to be broke", which of course is true. But before you break them, you should know two things (1) what the guidelines are, and (2) why you are breaking them - "just because I want to" doesn't count!

This free online photography course is about helping you understand and practice the guidelines and giving you one-on-one feedback about your photos.

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you can email me your images and I'll give you feedback to help you improve. All of this is FREE, no strings attached and I won't sell your email address to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots
Ideas for creating better memories

This lesson covers focusing and part of composition.

Guidelines for taking better shots


If I had to decide which part of photography was the most important (and I'm glad I don't) it would be focusing on the image. More precisely it would be correctly focusing on the correct part of the image. If a photo is incorrectly focused everything else becomes irrelevant and 99% of the time will end up discarded.

There are things in pictures which are considered 'the correct thing to focus on'. For instance , when taking portraits, it is people's eyes that are most important to focus on. And for portraits of people who are looking to the side, it is focusing on the eye nearest to the camera.

In the photo below I have focused on a bee, but unfortunately the wrong bee is in focus. If the bee in the front of the image was in focus the image would have been much better, as it is though, the out of focus bee is just annoying to the eye.

Image 1: The front bee should be in focus not the back one

One of the 'bad' things about the compact camera is that using the screen on the back of the camera to check for the focus is a bit of a hit and miss affair. The screen on the back is difficult to use in the sun and is too small to see really what is in focus. I used the macro mode on the camera for the above shot and realized that the depth of focus was much shallower than I expected.

One Thing: To be honest I thought that the bee in the front was in focus, because the screen on the camera was so small I didn't notice it. Lesson learned if in doubt take a few images refocusing each time.

The statement I made above about 'correctly focusing on the correct part of the image' can be seen below. The plaque below was dedicated by the local community to my Grandfather - standing on the left in the background. I wanted to capture the plaque but also have my grandfather and wife in the image but not in focus - Why?

People's eyes will always lock onto the part of the photo which is in focus - apparently we can't help it. Therefore in the image below, people will be drawn to the plaque first and then to the people in the background.

Image 2: Correctly focusing on the correct part of the image

This technique if used properly gives you a lot of power about where you want the user to look at in your image. Used properly can make an average image into a great one. To make the shot I used the macro mode to get as close as I could to the image which throws the background out of focus. Using the "speed" mode on cameras would probably achieve a similar effect. I focused on the writing on the plaque first by pressing the shutter button lightly, then, without taking my finger off the button, tilted the camera up to get my Grandad and wife in the shot. Had I taken three more seconds to think about the image I would have asked my daughter to move her arm out of the picture :-)

One Thing: If I had taken a few more moments to think about this image I would have asked my daughter to move from the right (the pink elbow) and asked my grandad and wife to smile :-)

I am the first to admit that the image below may not be the best image in the world, but it tells a story that I wanted to tell. It's not a great story, but a simple one that meant a lot to my family and I. What do you think the story is that I'm trying to tell?

Image 3: Focusing to tell a story

The story is simply that we had a great cup of coffee on a really nice sunny day while sitting on a bridge over a canal. This image is meant as a personal reminder of a great time we had relaxing on that bridge. It's not meant for anyone else - unless the makers of Illy want to pay me for the photo :-)

To make the above shot I did three things (1) focused on the cup, then tilted the camera, (2) stepped down the exposure by one stop and (3) used fill in flash - you can read about these techniques later in the series.

One Thing: I would have cleaned the saucer, put the cup in the middle of the saucer and centered the cup in the image.

Overall focusing with a compact camera can be tricky depending on the available light, for both the camera to focus on and the viewer to see what's in focus. Pressing the button softly to allow the camera to focus before hand as well as keeping the camera steady, either with a tripod or proper holding technique, will help you to get shots which are well focused.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a portrait of someone - make sure their eyes are in focus
  2. Shoot an image with two images, one in the foreground and one in the background. Ensure that the image in the foreground in is focus.
  3. Shoot a close up of something - get as close as you can whilst ensuring the image is in focus

Send the images to with a subject title "Focus" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

Composition - Part 1

Whilst focusing rates the most important part of photography in my books, composition is by far the most common reason why images fail to 'wow' people and friends. The biggest culprit of bad composition is what I call 'centeritis'. How this disease infects people is still a mystery, but the affects can be seen everywhere.

Don't get me wrong, I am not perfect either and often have bouts of centeritis and find that the compact camera mentality of taking snap shots makes it too easy to take a shot without thinking about composition. This next section covers some of the common composition guidelines that will help you create more exciting and dynamic photos. After some practice, you should start to hear less excuses from you family and friends why they can't come round to see you holiday photos :-)

Further Reading: One of the greatest online courses, which is free, which covers the subject of composition is Jodies Coston's Free Online Photography Course

Fill the image
One of the easiest way to spot 'centeritis' is that there is a lot of space at the top of the photo. Very often a side affect of this is that people start losing parts of limbs at the bottom of the image, which can look very painful!

The image below was taken of my grandfather, my daughters and me at a plaque that had been dedicated to my grandfather as an appreciation to all the hard work he puts into the community. He's 90 years old and still keeps himself busy 6 days a week doing community work. He also cycles and swims everyday and still plays badminton weekly - not someone to mess with :-)

Although the image below may not be a write-off, it does show early warning signs of not thinking about composition:(1) the sky the top and (2) missing limbs at the bottom.

Image 4: not filling the frame with the subject

The solution for this problem is quite simple, most of the time. By simply moving in closer and filling the frame with as much of the subject as possible, you easily create a more pleasant image and ensure that everyone's limbs are showing, as shown below.

Image 5: filling frame with the subject

One tip about if you have to cut off limbs in a shot - don't cut them off at the joint, but rather above or below the joint. Cutting people's limbs off at the joint looks like a mistake, cutting them above or below the joints look like it was done on purpose. (This last paragraph sounds like something straight out of a horror movie).

One Thing: Things I could have tried to improve the images given some more time are (1) move everything round so that people are not squinting in the image (2) waited till a bit later when he sun was lower in the sky to give it a softer light.

Filling the image with the subject is not that hard to do, but does take some practice, which is what i would like you to do to get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a full length portrait of someone or a group of people - make sure they are in focus and they all fit in.
  2. Shoot a close up of something making sure that the whole object is in the image

Send the images to with a subject title "Fill the image" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

Get in close

The next guideline is one of my favourite. Getting in close does two important things:
(1) Gets rid of busy/messy backgrounds
(2) Focuses on the main subject in the image.

This one guideline would help save many a family member falling asleep during the typical photo show and tell from a recent holiday. My rule of thumb here is "if in doubt get closer". If you struggle doing this, afraid of missing something, get a wide shot after the close up shot, then watch which photo your friends and family spend time looking at.

The image below was taken on a recent trip to visit my brother in the Netherlands. We found this great fancy dress shop in a small side street in the Hague and my eldest daughter instantly headed for these feather boas and got into the middle of them. My instant reaction was to switch on the camera and take a quick shot. Of course the default lens setting when you switch on a compact camera is wide angle and so I ended up with the following shot:

Image 6: Not moving in close on an image can end up with a noisy background

It's a fun image, but the background is very noisy (messy), with the chairs, the red clogs, the shirts, the signposts and the menu board on the left. All the these things are immaterial to the image and stop the viewer from focusing on what I am trying to capture, i.e. my daughter having fun being surrounded in these feather boas.

Fortunately I did take another minute to think about the image and I zoomed in close to capture my daughters face surrounded by the feathers. there is nothing distracting from this image as there is only her face and the feathers - both of which are important to the image.

Image 7: Zooming in close to the main subject helps the viewer to focus on what is important.

One Thing: Things I could have tried to improve the images given some more time are (1) move everything round so that people are not squinting in the image (2) waited till a bit later when he sun was lower in the sky to give it a softer light.

The next three images are more examples of getting in close to the subject - which also helps to fill the frame :-)

This was a photo of my daughter looking out of the window on the train in Holland. She was looking at lots of these that we don't usually see her in Asia, e.g. windmills, canals, cows, flowers, etc. The instinct is to take a wide angled picture to get more of my daughter in the image and with the train. However the bright outside and dark inside would have messed with the exposure of the image. Getting in close to the picture helps focus on the image as well as making the exposure accurate for her face.

Image 8: getting in close helps to get the correct exposure and focus on what is important.

One Thing: After looking at this image I realized that I didn't see the reflection of my daughter in the window, which is another reason to take a few extra seconds to look at the image before pressing the button. Next time I'll look for reflections in windows and move more of the reflection into the image, which would help with the rule of thirds guideline which I will talk about next time.

The next image would taken on the beach and I wanted to get a picture showing my daughter having fun on the beach, but wanted to get something different. I saw my daughter's crocs on the sand I thought that they would add an extra dimension to the image. Most people take their shoes off when walking on the sand in the beach and each time I see people doing this they can't help but smile - probably because it brings back good memories. The image was trying to capture that memory of taking our shoes off to have fun on the beach.

If I had tried to do this image any other way it would not have worked. Getting down low and close helps to add in a fun and dynamic dimension to this image.

Image 9: getting in close can help to trigger good memories :-)

One Thing: In this image I did move the shoes together and purposely left the sand on the shoes, however if I had thought a bit more about the image I would have put the shoes more towards the centre and also possibly moved around to take the pier out of the image in the background.

This last image here is one of my favourite which I'm proud to say was taken by one of my daughters. Coming in this close for flowers is one of the most rewarding techniques to improve photos of these beautiful things. Too often we try and get the whole plant in the photo, which is a guarantee to put your viewers to sleep. Coming in close to flowers allows you to seethe soft texture of the petals and the amazing details of the stamen and center area.

Image 10: coming in close to flowers allows the viewer a glance at something that they don't normally see.

One note of warning. Coming in close to flowers makes imperfections 100 times worse. imperfections come from damaged flowers, dirt, dust, cobwebs and small bugs, which you easily glance over when looking at the flower. However when these are captured on a photo they stand out something terrible.

You can do three things to help improve this (1) choose a flower which is perfect, (2) bring a brush with you and try and clean the flower before taking the picture, (3) spend a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning up the photo afterwards. This last option can take up a lot of time!

One Thing: One little trick you can do with flowers is to spray them with water so that water drops form on the petal. This adds a very pleasant dimension to the image.

Getting in close is not always a very natural thing to do, but just like filling the frame, it creates a really exciting image. This is not obviously something you would do for shots of landscapes, sun sets or group shots, but getting in close should be one of the first thoughts you have when taking an image.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Take an abstract image. this could be of anything in your house (to keep it simple), but you should get close enough so that the object is not easily recognizable but yet in focus.
  2. Take a few shots of an object. Take some shots from a far and some from up close to see which images you prefer.
  3. Shoot a close up of a flower. get in as close as you can to reveal as much of the detail as possible.
Send the images to with a subject title "get in close" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In Part 2 of this free online photography course will focus on other areas of Composition:
  • The rule of thirds
  • Looking into open space
  • Angling the image
  • Angle - Get down low
  • Angle - Go up high
  • Leading lines
  • Using Frames
I hope that you have enjoyed this first part of the course. Please feel free to leave comments or questions you have about this course below or email them to me