Photography Article
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Photography Article
Article 7
'The Point and Pull Tool'
Getting to grips with the Point & Shoot camera

By Rob L. Suisted

(Originally published in New Zealand Outdoor magazine)

In this article I’m going to give some advice on how you can make improvements to your photos if you’re using a simple point and shoot, instamatic type camera.

Firstly though, I hope the festive period was good for everyone? For me it meant a long overdue trip to the West Coast and a chance meeting with one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers.

It all started with Xmas Eve next to the beautiful Heaphy River on the Heaphy track with some very 'hard-case' people from Dunedin, while I was in photographing the amazing red rata and Nikau palm forest.

Next was a flight in with James Scott into the Douglas River, Karangarua, to chase the Tahr for a week of glorious weather. No big trophies were taken or even seen this trip, but the photogenic nature of this spot more than made up for it; ‘photography was the winner on the day’ as they say!

Then a few days fly-fishing with the famous Paul van Klink (or ‘Paulus Andreas van Klinkenhoffen’ for short) confirmed that he still has the knack of casually extracting lots of huge brown trout from little pools, while he’s on holiday from extracting large 12 pointers out of the scrub. Haast made the call and I cruised around taking it’s photos for a while before packing up again for North Island, enroute having a chance meeting with Hiroya Minakuchi, one of Japan’s (if not the world’s) foremost wildlife photographers at Kaikoura.


It was certainly a privilege to spend a day with Hiroya Minakuchi in Wellington. He runs a Japanese Geographic type magazine called ‘Sphere’ that focuses mainly on high quality images of whales, dolphins and marine life. To view his work is truly inspirational. Hiroya travels the world for 6 months of every year shooting film and video.

One thing of interest was that he uses relatively old Canon manual focus equipment for all his stunning wildlife action shots. He says that auto focus is not fast enough! He showed me one shot of a large Manta ray that was jumping clear of the water. ‘They only jump once’ he said. I found out that he often shoots by reflex. His technique is to estimate the distance, manually focus the lens by instinct, and snap the shot all in a split second - sometimes without even looking through the viewfinder! For this shot he had been out in a boat and had just seen the front fins of the Manta ray break the surface maybe 50 metres away. Up came his 300mm lens by instinct and a truly amazing photo was created! Hiroya, who is in his forties, says regretfully that he cannot maintain the speed required for this technique as he could when he was younger!


Kea (Nestor notabilis) having a morning stretch. Canon EOS, 400mm lens, Kodachrome 200.


We also spoke of a friend of Hiroya’s, another well-known Japanese wildlife photographer, Hoshino, who met with an unfortunate end. Hoshino was known for his pictures of large mammals such as bears. He had spent a long time photographing brown bears in North America and his knowledge and familiarity of their behaviour allowed him to get very close to his subjects. However, he was on a trip to Russia to photograph brown bears also when the unexpected happened. Although the bears were exactly the same species as in America, Hoshino was not fully aware that their behaviour was very different for two reasons: firstly they often fed on food scraps; and secondly they were hunted. One night Hoshino retired to his tent, as he preferred the solitude to that of sleeping in the hut with the others. In the middle of the night his colleagues were awoken by fearful screams as a bear ripped into his tent and attacked him. Apparently the bear was shot later and most of Hoshino was recovered from it -a rather sobering story for the Wildlife photographer!

I think about the most dangerous situation I’ve been in recently was a Himalayan Tahr kid that accidentally launched itself off a cliff 50m above us.


Anyway, the idea of this article is to provide some advice on how to get the best out of your everyday, ‘run of the mill’ point and shoot camera (or ‘Point and Pull Camera’ as a good friend says).

I’ve had a lot of readers approach me and ask questions about improving their photography. Many of these people only owned small instamatic type cameras and felt they had little scope to improve their photography - Wrong!

Of course there are certain benefits and limitations with point and shoot cameras.

The benefits are of course ease of use, and their lightweight compact nature; heck some of them are smaller than the light meter I carry.

But, the biggest improvement in your photography is likely to come from your understanding of their limitations. These disadvantages are really in two areas; lack of manual control over the camera when you need it, and small lenses that may be restrictive in the amount of light they allow through (generally zooms).

Paul van Klink with another awesome sea run brown trout hen before it was released back into secret river #7, West Coast. The photo was taken in very harsh direct sunlight so a burst of fill in flash was used to reduce the harsh shadow on the face and a long focal length lens was used to crop in tightly and reduce the background. Canon EOS, 135mm lens with polarizing filter, Ektachrome 100S, 1/125th sec @ f5.6.


When I refer to manual control over your camera, I’m referring mainly to your ability to influence the camera’s light meter.

In my recent column dealing in depth with Exposure control (Article #4), I explained how camera light meters are fooled by very light or dark subjects - like white snow when you’re skiing (ever notice how snow always seems to come out a sickly grey rather than pure white?). You have to help the meter out in these situations and you’re often limited in you choices. What’s needed is for the film to be slightly overexposed for light subjects and slightly underexposed for dark subjects.

Fortunately many manufacturers include a ‘Backlight’ button that can be a real blessing. Essentially this button will instruct the camera to overexpose the photo by around +1.5 stops. “When do I use it though?” I hear you ask. You need to use this button every time you have a photo that consists largely of very light tones (such as snow), or when you subject has a background that is a lot brighter than it.

Another way that you can vary the exposure on your camera is by adjusting the film speed dial to influence the camera’s light meter. Many P&S have DX coding which automatically sets the film speed off the film cassette (that’s what the black and silver checker pattern on all rolls of film are), but many give you the ability to set the film speed manually. If you can adjust the film speed then this can be a bonus.

If you were using 200ASA film then you could adjust the film speed setting to 100ASA and that will force the camera to overexpose by one stop (just what you need if you’re skiing because of all the bright toned snow). Similarly, if you adjusted it to 400ASA, it will underexpose one stop. Remember though to adjust it back after the shot. Read the previous ‘Exposure Control’ column if you’d like to fully understand this aspect.


Because P&S cameras tend to have less well developed exposure meters and less manual control it is far more preferable to use print film rather than slide through them as any exposure variations can be ‘ironed out’ when the negatives are being printed onto paper.

While on the subject of film, I strongly urge you to go for a faster film than 100ASA. Print film technology appears to be increasing at great speed and some of the faster films are quite outstanding. I recommend that you should commonly be using 400ASA film in your P&S, especially if you’re taking it into the hills with you, and certainly if your camera is a zoom model. I know a lot of people will argue that using 400 is too grainy, but this comment is irrelevant now - have you seen the results lately? And bearing the added advantages in mind I wouldn’t use anything else - and I don’t in my trusty old Olympus XA (the tried and true grand father to current Olympus P&S models).

Next, most P&S are rather limited when it comes to lenses. Generally the fixed focal length lenses are no problem, but the zoom models start to get really limited in the size of the aperture. A 38mm to 115mm looks great in the shop and is often very handy, however it is not often explained that most P&S let in very little light at their maximum zoom range. The minimum aperture may only be f11. Compare this to a normal SLR zoom which is typically f5.6 and you’ll see its 2 stops slower (that means it only lets a quarter of the light through in comparison!).

Here you can see that you’re going to greatly benefit from using a faster film speed (say 400ASA instead of 100ASA), and only using the maximum zoom on bright days. Most people don’t also realise that with the lens zoomed out camera shake becomes critical and you can really do yourself a favour by concentrating on steadying the camera.

Dramatic clouds over Lake Douglas, Karangarua River, Westland. Bronica ETRSi, 150mm lens with polarizing filter and graduated neutral density filter. Fujichrome Provia 100

One technique that P&S users should get into is using the auto focus and exposure lock that most cameras have when you half press the shutter button half way down. Most cameras will auto focus only on subjects centred in the middle of the screen. Likewise most of the exposure metering is likely to be taken in this area also.

However, most times we don’t want to place our subject smack in the centre. A handy trick to use is to put your subject in the centre of your camera screen (thereby allowing it to focus on it), push the shutter button down half way (or until a green light or what ever lights), hold your finger there, recompose the picture as you want it and then fire away. This way you are sure to have the subject in focus and exposed correctly even though it is off centre.

One bonus is that most P&S have a built in flash. This can be really handy but it is important to understand its limitations. Most people just turn the flash on and blaze away - no problem if you’re at a party where the subjects are close and well exposed and the background goes dark black because the flash light is not powerful enough to reach that far.

This is a problem though when you’re photographing say a fireworks display that maybe a lot further away. The camera uses a fast shutter speed in expectation that there is a close subject that the flash will illuminate. This is not the case and the photo will come out blank. What you are trying to capture is the ambient light of the fireworks and you will need turn the flash off if possible and let the camera use a longer shutter speed (on a rest or tripod of course).

Flashes are very useful things during the day though. If you are taking shots in bright sun you will notice the dark shadows that are about. Film will capture those shadows even darker that you see them so it is good to try and destroy them when possible, especially when taking photos of people as big dark shadows around eyes is not attractive (well, most of the time). I would suggest that you could improve almost every photo taken in this situation by turning on the fill in flash. What this does is to pump a little extra light directly into the subject and lighten the dark patches. Don’t worry about ‘red eyes’ from the flash, as the subjects’ pupils should be closed right down because of the sun.

With every camera lens we should take care not to take photos with any sunlight falling on the glass as it tends to scatter around inside and cause a bad reduction in the contrast of the shot - loosing you any deep rich blacks and crisp whites. This is especially true of P&S cameras because they often don’t have the same level of multi coating on their lenses as SLR cameras do; multi coating, the coloured film (normally blue, purple or green) on lenses is there to control the transmission of light through the glass. Therefore it is useful to use the old rule of thumb by shooting with the sun over your shoulder when possible.


A bonus is that many P&S cameras are now available that claim to be waterproof. This is a definite advantage in Fiordland or if you take the occasional shallow underwater photo, say of a trout being released. They have the ability to bring an exciting new dimension to your photos, however a word of caution in this area as manufacturers’ claims regarding waterproofness of their cameras can be highly optimistic, and I’d hate to see good cameras drowned without checking whether they’re up to it first. If you are to use them underwater I’d suggest going for a faster film (at least 400ASA) and you’ll probably get better results by leaving the flash off because it is relatively close to the lens and this causes light scatter off all the minute particles suspended in water; the result can look like a snow storm. Also note that if you’re holding a camera underwater and aiming it without your head in the water then your aim will probably be a little wonky due to the refraction of the image above the water.

APS camera or a normal 35mm camera? Many of you will know of the new type of film and cameras that were introduced a couple of years ago called Advanced Photo System (APS). This system offers a dummy proof film system that uses drop in film cartridges that can be swapped mid roll. The APS negative is actually a lot smaller in size than the normal standard 35mm negative but apparently new technology gives it similar results as 35mm film. Because of this the camera can be made slightly smaller. You might like to consider this system if you’re carrying a camera in the hills, however I would point out that developing may not be as readily available as 35mm and that the APS film technology is starting to become available in 35mm film types. In the end which system you select is up to personal choice but it is clear that for the P&S user the selection of APS is a lot more straight forward that the SLR user who may already have a considerable investment in 35mm gear. All I recommend is that you sit down and wade through the pros and cons when making a decision, not with a salesman trying to ram one or the other down your throat. (Post script - APS seems not to have become very popular, and of course digital is now an important consideration also.)

An interesting facility you get on some P&S cameras is a panorama option. This produces a long thin image. There is nothing special here, all it does is use the middle of the negative and blow it up several times so that it covers the size of 2 prints. For this principle to be really useful it normally requires a much wider lens than that normally built into such cameras, however this can be an interesting tool to experiment with and I’ve seen some really interesting images result.

The slow flowing Oparara River, Karamea. Here I used a long shutter speed to detail the slow movement of the water, and a polarizing filter to remove the reflections off the water and to deepen the colour saturation of the wet vegetation. Olympus OM4Ti, 24mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia 50. 2 sec @ f16..

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to use lens filters on P&S cameras. With P&S cameras, the light meter is normally one of the odd little gizmos that sit up above the main lens (there are normally others also for the auto focus). As long as the filter (say a polarizer, or warm-up filter) you’re placing over the main lens also covers the light meter you will generally have no problems (as it will cut the level of light evenly for both).

Fortunately if you own filters already then they’ll probably be more than large enough to cover both the main lens and light meter.

A quirk of P&S cameras is that they usually have a parallax error but it’s normally corrected for normal shooting distances. This is because most viewfinders are offset to the side of the main lens. If you’re taking photos of people at normal range they’re normally pretty good, however if you are photographing closer then the camera will normally shoot slightly to the right, and might shoot slightly to the left if you’re taking landscapes; normally it’s not a problem though.


People often ask me if I can recommend a P&S camera that they should buy. While I am not fully familiar with the full range of P&S cameras (believe me there are many) I have been recommending people to check out the range of Olympus Mju cameras. While I’m not going to recommend a particular brand or model I am willing to promote this brand as one you should make comparisons against - for price, features and results. I’ve been really impressed with the latest Mju II as it is extremely compact and packs most of the features you should require and it has the bonus of a reportedly very good f2.8 aperture lens (this allows considerably more light through than many of it’s rivals). It has a fixed 35mm lens that is pretty standard for P&S, but there are zooms in the range also, if you are so inclined.

Well that just about covers it. As for the photos with this column, I thought it would have been a bit boring to fill the pages of pictures of P&S cameras. Also, who knows if they’ve been shot on a P&S or a SLR, so I’ve just included a few of my holiday piccies to keep your attention; I hope you enjoy.

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This article and images are copyright to Rob L. Suisted - Nature's Pic Images.  All rights reserved.