Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan once spoke the immortal words, “A man’s got to know his limitations…” These simple words can arouse insightful pondering to expose the heart of an issue. They also can be valuable to divers who use point-and-shoot cameras.
Owners of high-end, digital single lens reflex (SLR) camera systems get great images from their superb and versatile lenses and sensitive sensors. They also must open their wallets wider than most of us would deem sensible to pay for it all, and travel with all the extra weight. Fortunately, many modestly priced, light-weight, point-and-shoot systems have image sensors almost as good as their bigger cousins, and they are so much less expensive and so compact that they are the best option for many divers. They are, however, distinctly less versatile than SLR systems.
SLR lenses come in a great variety of zoom ranges, focal lengths and minimum focal distances, and it is possible to select a lens for just about every application. Point-and-shoot cameras generally come with only one lens that is permanently attached. My first suggestion to get better images is perhaps the hardest to do–read the manual. I don’t just mean how to load batteries, download images, etc. You should read the technical specifications of your camera to create boundaries in your mind for what it will or will not do well.
The first specification to consider is the minimum focal length. This is the closest distance to the camera that your lens is capable of focusing. To get the best images possible look for subjects that fill the frame near the minimum focal distance. It makes no sense to snap an image of a nudibranch, regardless of how colorful, at one foot if your lens will only focus to three feet. (Note: You should verify if the minimum focal distance is presented in measured or in apparent feet, realizing that the apparent distance to the camera will be 25 percent closer than the actual, measured distance.)
If the minimum focus distance is small for your camera you have some flexibility. Remember that the closer you get to your subject (up to the focus limit) the sharper your image will be regardless of which camera system you use. Some point-and-shoot systems have supplementary lenses, and some are “wet swappable” underwater that add a great deal of flexibility to your photography. Most do not change the minimum focal distance, but they widen the field of view such that you can switch between macro/fish portraiture/wide-angel by simply trading out supplementary lenses. Remember to read the manual and understand what each lens will do, or not do, for you and to use the widest angle lens setting available to get as close as practical to your subject to get the sharpest image.
The other limitation of point-and-shoot cameras is their flash systems. They are normally very low power and very close to the lens. The latter feature just about guarantees a lot of backscatter unless the water is crystal clear. The best solution is to acquire an off-camera slave strobe. These normally have a slave sensor that fits over the camera’s flash, effectively blocking the light from the on-camera flash and providing more powerful light, and remote positioning to minimize backscatter (See CDN March 2008 for more a detailed discussion of strobe positioning).
If you don’t have an off-camera strobe, try turning the flash off altogether and shooting natural light or silhouettes. If you are in shallow water you will be surprised how much color you can capture.
You will be amazed at the quality of the images you create if you take the time to understand the limitations of your system and choose to work within them. Just because you have an inexpensive system does not mean you cannot get great images.