In order to unlock the true potential of your point and shoot camera, it's important to understand how to shoot using the camera's manual settings. Shooting in manual gives you total control over how your images are exposed. While this might take some getting used to, the freedom to capture images the way you see them will make for a more rewarding photographic experience.
There are three interconnected settings to consider when shooting in manual on a point and shoot digital camera: shutter speed, ISO and aperture. Understanding these settings and learning to balance them is the key to producing properly exposed photographs. The best point and shoot digital cameras have easy-to-use manual controls, but because every camera is different, you should consult your manual to find out which buttons adjust what.
Shutter speed is probably the easiest of these settings to understand. Essentially, it is the amount of time that the shutter is open, exposing the sensor to the image that you wish to capture. When the shutter is open for longer periods, more light gets to the sensor for brighter photographs. If you leave it open for too long, however, you can run into a couple issues.
Firstly, leaving the shutter open for too long can lead to overexposed photographs. On a bright day, a very fast shutter speed is necessary to insure that the sensor is not open to too much light. Secondly, any movement while the shutter is open can lead to blurring in your photographs. In order to minimize motion blur, it's a good idea to shoot with as fast of a shutter speed as light will allow.
Aperture is another important determiner of how your images will turn out. Aperture works like an iris, constricting or expanding to control how much light makes it to the sensor. Aperture is represented with an f-number or f-stop like f/2.0. Smaller f-numbers equate to larger apertures, and larger apertures mean more light. The best point and shoot cameras often have large maximum apertures of around f/1.8. In low-light situations, having a large aperture can make all the difference in properly exposing a photograph.
Large apertures also make for images with a shallow depth of field. In order to achieve sharp images with appealingly blurred backgrounds, you'll want to set your aperture to a low f-number. When taking landscape photos, it's often a better idea to set your aperture a little higher, in the f/8 to f/11 range, to ensure everything is in focus. Higher f-numbers mean less light, though, so you may need to compensate with shutter speed or ISO for proper composition.
ISO in digital cameras determines how sensitive the sensor is to light. When selecting ISO you'll notice a variety of options, such as 100, 200 and 1600. Higher numbers amplify the output of the sensor for brighter images. When shooting in low-light conditions it can be beneficial to select a higher ISO.
Unfortunately, setting the ISO to a high number also amplifies the amount of grain and noise you'll find in your photographs. For this reason, the clearest images are produced at the lower end of the spectrum. Whenever possible, it's best to leave the ISO at around 100.
When applying these concepts in the real world, you'll notice that shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all interdependent. If you increase your shutter speed for capturing action shots, you may have to increase your ISO to compensate for the reduced amount of light making it to the sensor.
Similarly, you may be shooting portraits and want a large aperture for a shallow depth of field. If it's bright outside, you'll need to a fast shutter speed and a low ISO setting to keep from overexposing your images.
Figuring how to balance these settings in a way that allows you to craft photographs to your liking is all about practice. Above all else, it is important that you experiment with different combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings. Over time, you'll find that shooting in automatic mode isn't quite as appealing as it used to be.