Check Your Settings Before You Press the Shutter
No matter if you have a basic point-and-shoot like the Canon PowerShot 300 HS or an advanced Nikon D7000 DSLR, the first thing you absolutely must do is check your camera settings right after you press the "on" button. The last time you used it might've been at night or indoors and you left the settings for that type of shot. Or your kids/partner/whomever was using it and fiddled with the buttons and dials. This can ruin your next series of shots if the conditions aren't right, perfect for a Homer Simpson D'oh! moment.
Make sure you start off in Auto/intelligent auto then make the changes you like—if any at all. Many of today's newer cameras have very sophisticated intelligent auto settings. Make sure you use them to avoid "shoulda coulda" moments.
Speed Up Your Camera
One of the biggest camera complaints—especially for affordable compacts—is speed or lack of it. You can't turn a Focus into a Ferrari but you can enhance shot-to-shot time so you aren't twiddling your thumbs waiting for the camera to take another photo.
First find the "burst" or continuous mode in the menu system and engage it so the camera automatically clicks as fast as it can. Then make sure you disable the Review Photo setting which automatically puts your last image on the LCD screen for you to check out. These two changes will make you feel like you have a new camera. And while you're at it, make sure you have a "speed rated" memory card which will also improve response as it takes less time saving images to the card. Since they're so affordable, look for Class 6 or greater SD cards.
Great Portraits—Almost Every Time
Your camera's built-in flash should be used for more things than indoor birthday parties. The next time you're taking a portrait, make sure the flash is set to "Fill Flash" or "Forced Flash," depending on your specific model. Now the flash will fire when you press the shutter and evenly illuminate the targeted face, eliminating any shadows.
Also use this setting when you're outdoors at the beach or a picnic, especially if there's strong sunshine and harsh shadows. Simple but it works like a charm.
One of the Biggest Things To Avoid
Digital Zoom. Although you can extend your camera's basic zoom using this feature your pictures will look awful. With a digital zoom a center portion of the view screen is enlarged, adding loads of yucky digital artifacts especially at extreme ranges. Make sure it's turned off.
There's nothing worse than a dead battery at the critical moment. Obviously, charge your camera overnight before you hit the streets. However there are ways to squeeze some extra life from your battery if you see a warning. If your camera has Wi-Fi or a built-in GPS, turn them off completely. Also if you have optical image stabilization, turn that off too. You may get a shaky shot but at least you'll have something.
Turn down the brightness of the LCD screen too. Remember that Review Photo setting mentioned earlier? Make sure that's turned off as well. Don't turn your camera on and off in hopes it'll last longer—it won't as you use more juice booting up your camera. Also most cameras have a sleep mode; cut the time to around a minute.
Turn This On
Grid Lines are hidden on many cameras and they're well worth using. Typically when you're framing a shot on the LCD screen, you should keep the horizons straight but it's hard to do properly. With grid lines--typically a white tic-tac-toe pattern overlaying the screen—you can do it easily by lining up the horizons. Landscapes, group shots and vertical images will look much more professional.
Always Shoot Best Quality
You would think manufacturers set cameras at best quality as the default for stills and videos but unfortunately this is not always the case. Make sure image quality (resolution or pixels) is the highest available then check compression, if it's available. Here you might see a number of stars, or words like Good, Better, Best. Always choose the highest level since less compression means fewer digital artifacts--in other words a more accurate image. The same holds true for movies.
Remember it's always better to have a high-quality original and downsize it using your own software after the fact. Social media sites will automatically re-size your shots for quick uploads so quality isn't super critical here but if you want to make big prints for an album or scrapbook, it's important to have as many pixels as possible.
Don't Be So Sensitive
Manufacturers love to brag about the sensitivity of their cameras, claiming they can shoot in very low light. In some cases this is true but in most it's not. Sensitivity is measured by an ISO rating, ranging from 100 to 16,000 or more. When a camera is in Auto, it'll pick the ISO setting and in low light, it will use the highest number. For many models, particularly point-and-shoots, this is a recipe for disaster as digital noise—speckles—are introduced to the image and color shifts so it's barely recognizable.
If your camera has an ISO limit, set it to a maximum of 400 or 800 since your results will be much more pleasing. If you're feeling adventurous, I suggest you do some informal testing of the various ISO settings indoors without the flash. Review them on your monitor and see where the quality falls off. I've used cameras where 400 is the limit, others where 3200 or 6400 is solid.
Hollywood DPs (Directors of Photography) work for years perfecting their craft but you can capture clips that are just fine for YouTube and the family HDTV. First, keep your camera horizontal at all times, set to best quality and with image stabilization engaged (if available). Resist the urge to quickly zoom in and out and do not abruptly move it from side to side. If you want to pan a nice landscape, always move the camera from left to right and do it slowly.
Play Is Good
The beauty of every digital camera is the simple fact you can take hundreds of shots almost instantly. You can press any combination of buttons you want and even if your photos are ready for the Delete pile, just erase them and start all over again. Cameras are very forgiving, even if you think they'll never work properly again.
Press Menu, go into Setup and hit Reset All if you're really lost in the digital woods. Your camera will now have the manufacturer's defaults and you can start all over again. And in the rare instance your camera freezes up, take out the battery, pop it back in again and hit the power button. Things should be as good as new.