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Top 10 Tips to Improve Point-and-Shoot Travel Photography

by Karen M. Cheung, July 2008 (updated August 2008)

photography by Josh Root and Hannah Thiem

Do you flip through your photo albums and/or online gallery and sigh at the fact that all your photos look the same? The vacations all might blend together into an array of similar photos. It’s easy to fall into a rut of taking the same types of travel pictures, especially when our point-and-shoot cameras seem to do all the hard work of shooting. That’s the fun of it though. Rather than photographing the same old pictures from summers past, try out some of these improvement techniques from our top 10 tips for using your digital point-and-shoot this travel season.

1. Use the manual modes

Make the bold move to switch the camera dial from “Auto” to “Manual.” More point-and-shoot digital cameras these days come with built-in manual modes, depending on price and manufacturer. Some point-and-shoots cameras include manual features in which users can control aperture and shutter speed, features that were once only limited to higher-priced SLRs for advanced users. That isn’t the case anymore. Some point-and-shoots now carry manual functions that give users the benefit to control shooting capabilities in varied lighting and speed situations. Users can access aperture and shutter speed usually through menu settings and then via a zoom button. Although not all compact cameras have aperture and shutter speed controls, the majority of point-and-shoots include controls for ISO speed (usually 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and sometimes 3200), flash (On, Off, Auto, Red-eye Reduction), and sometimes exposure stops (+/- 2).

Experiment with the manual modes by first playing with the menu items. Change your menu settings by pressing the zoom toggle or main four-way controller, depending on the layout for your camera. If you have more time before the trip, remove the plastic wrap from the manual guide for some light reading about your camera’s full feature set, usually listed in the index. If you’ve lost the manual, access the manufacturer website for the online version to your camera’s guide.

2. When to turn off the flash

Point-and-shoots tend to employ a flash-on setting as the default mode. For travel photography though, most situations will call for little flash compensation since most vacationers spend their time outdoors that is already well lit. Those with a traveler’s heart, though, should shut off the automatic flash or suppress the pop-up in situations with plenty of light. To turn off the flash, hit the multi-controller button marked with a lighting bolt icon, which is oftentimes the preferred method that point-and-shoots identify the flash setting. Change the “Flash On” setting to “Flash Off.” Use natural lighting shining through a window during the daytime in lieu of the flash.

You can also turn off the flash for nighttime shooting. To compensate for the lack of light and flash, the camera will boost ISO or slow down the shutter speed, usually automatically, unless overridden in manual mode by the user. You might want to also use a mini travel tripod or simply set the camera to an automatic timer that is included on almost every camera for the increased time it takes to capture the night picture. Turning off the flash captures the ambient light for more natural-looking pictures.

3. When to turn on the flash

Some situations do call for the extra help of a flash such as the standard indoors settings or even outdoors in bright sun or shady days. For those outdoors situations, users should consider turning down flash to fill in for overcast or shady conditions. Not all point-and-shoots offer this adjustable feature to increase and decrease flash increments, but if your cameras does, use it. It can help properly expose your outdoor photos for even lighting.

4. Remember the zoom

Do a practice run on your zoom by photographing objects like flower buds and engagement rings. Sometimes, you might notice that your point-and-shoot sets off a ”!” alert that indicates the image might be blurry. Instead of putting the lens too close to the subject, move back and then zoom in using the lens.

This technique is also particularly useful for portraiture. Pulling back away from the subject allows the person to feel more relaxed for more natural smiles, but also provides less foreshortening of noses or foreheads for more realistic and prettier faces.

5. Get a new perspective

One of the easiest ways to vary your shooting involves some exercise. Photograph from below or shoot from above. Try getting down on the ground to spruce up landscape photography that can make small churches look like cathedrals. You can kneel or simply crouch similar to the way baseman empires do. Point your camera upwards to make things in the foreground appear much bigger than they really are. Look for things like street signs with the city behind it or flowers in the foreground with the grassy knoll in the background.

Also consider shooting overhead for a bird’s eye view. Climb to the second level of a shopping mall or other multi-floor venues, and shoot down below. Zoom out, and keep your camera parallel to the ground. This will get the tops of people’s heads, which is interesting for big crowds or people in formal wear. This is particularly effective for wide shots in banquet halls for weddings or rockers at concerts. Get the muscles moving for new perspective shooting.

6. Steadier landscapes and night scenes

Tripods are helpful for nighttime and landscape photography. Bolt the point-and-shoot to the camera socket. Be careful to twist just enough for stability, but not too tight, particularly if the socket is made from plastic, which can peel if worn away from over usage.

During nights, turn off the flash for some long exposures. The tripod will steady the camera. Try shooting cars zooming by on a busy city street. The long exposure will make the cars look like streaks and the light posts like starbursts.

You can consider using the tripod for landscape shots. Rotate the camera horizontally using the tripod. Take a series of photos at the same level for a 180-degree, panoramic view. If you choose to, you can use this series of photos for a post-processing stitching to create one long, wide photo.

7. Creative subject framing

To get a little more creative, try framing your subjects off center. Try depressing the shutter halfway to focus. Recompose the photo off-center, and take the shot. This should keep the focus on the subject, even if it is not at the center of frame, adding a dynamic element particularly to your portraiture photography. This should work with most point-and-shoots, but some cameras will default to the center as the point of focus. In that case, change the AF setting to “Spot” or “Tracking AF” via the menu system.

8. Find some red

Look for interesting points in a landscape or street scene with a flash of red to make subjects stand out from their surroundings. Ask your portrait subject to wear a red scarf or hat or switch shirts to a red color. Just as in car colors, people are more likely to be drawn to red.

9. Always be ready to take a great photo

If you are using the manual mode on your p&s, make sure you have the settings correct for the environment you are in (i.e. ISO set to 100 for broad daylight, or 800 for nighttime, aperture and shutter speed appropriate for action or still shots). If you are suddenly inspired to take a photo, or something interesting happens, be ready to capture that moment instantaneously without fumbling to change the settings.

Also, it may seem obvious, but all users should remember that battery life during vacation is the key to successful travel shooting. Charge your batteries the night before your hike for the full amount of required time that your manual dictates. Most chargers have a blinking light that signals when the charge is complete. Remember that overcharging your battery can also lead to damage to your battery. Read the fine print on your camera’s battery charge times, as spelled out in your manual specifications.

10. Submit your photos for critique

There’s no better way to improve your travel photography than sharing your photos with other photographers through a network. Try submitting your favorites to Photo.net’s Photo Critique Forum or even informal person-to-person feedback. You’ll find that other photographers—novice users and professionals—have plenty of travel tips to offer.


Travel time is playtime and what better time to experiment with your point-and-shoot than on your vacation? Remember that a new environment means a new kind of shooting. Practice these tips prior to the trip, and then use them for live event. You might be surprised at how easy some of the techniques are. It merely requires you getting to know your point-and-shoot better to take advantage of its full feature set of manual modes and customizable settings. Beyond the camera itself, remember to mix it up a bit with varied angles. In addition to thinking about what kind of shoes to pack, consider the places of travel when deciding on what camera equipment to bring (camera bag, extra batteries, and memory card reader). A little planning can go a long way when it comes to travel photography. Using these tips can help capture you to fully capture your travels.


About the Author

Karen M. Cheung—is a photojournalist and graduate of the Boston University College of Communication. Before working as a current associate editor for HCPro, Inc., a healthcare publisher, Karen served as the news editor for Reviewed.com (including DigitalCameraInfo.com), providing unbiased tech reviews for washingtonpost.com. Having trained with The Washington Post photo department and a earning a B.S. in Journalism, Karen has experience with news and commercial photography. During her time in D.C., she covered Capitol Hill and the White House for daily New England newspapers. Before roaming in the House and Senate, Karen photographed food, fashion, and Boston life. Karen loves to photograph everything from babies to the President. More »

Text ©2008 Karen M. Cheung. Photos ©2008 Josh Root and Hannah Thiem.

Article revised August 2008.

Readers' Comments

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George Slusher , August 21, 2008; 05:30 P.M.

Great tips! Even though I have a good DSLR (Canon 30D) and a plethora of lenses, if I travel overseas, I'd be more likely to take my Canon S3 IS, for lots of reasons: - MUCH lighter & smaller - Less valuable (concerned about theft) - 36-432mm equivalent zoom with f/2.7-3.5 -- none of my DSLR zooms are that fast - good IS - 52mm adapter for filters, add-on lenses (e.g., 0.65x WA for 24mm equivalent, 1.54x tele for up to 665mm equivalent) - Extensive controls, including full manual - SD cards (lighter, smaller) - AA batteries (BIG factor--can get them anywhere, if needed)

Disadvantages -- no RAW capability, no hot shoe, EVF, ISO only to 800 (and noisy)

I'd probably also take my Canon A570 IS, to keep in my pocket all the time.

Master Faster , September 08, 2008; 06:30 P.M.

Great tips for everyone and for me. Every photographer should have a compact digital camera with manual controls as a back up body. Sometimes less is more, as I frequently experienced. When there is no appropiate position and time to change your lenses ,within a heavy loaded bag, your compact one can be a life-saver. The whole article looks much alike the way Philip Greenspun did, but has different aspects and different way of guiding. A guide that novice photographers should listen to...MF

Karen M. Cheung , October 25, 2008; 05:25 P.M.

I agree! Although I love my two DSLR bodies, it's somewhat awkward bringing those around the beach or at parties. That's where the point-and-shoots cameras come in.

Thanks for commenting!

To George Slusher: You might also be interested in Canon's G-series. These cameras are portable point-and-shoots with RAW capabilities.

George Slusher , November 21, 2008; 01:36 A.M.

Re: Canon G series

The G10 is nice, but, I'd rather take the SX10 (successor to the S3 & S5): - 20x zoom ratio (28-560mm eq) vs 5x (28-140mm eq) - AA batteries vs special Li-ion batteries (use rechargeable NiMH batteries, but can also buy alkaline AAs about anywhere in the world) - Ergonomically superior for me - I probably wouldn't use RAW that much--it would greatly reduce the number of shots per card - H.264 .mov movies rather than Motion JPEG--better quality at smaller file size

Of course, if the CMOS HD-movie version comes to the US, that might be even better!

Point and Shoot Photography Blog , November 17, 2012; 09:44 P.M.

Another useful post for point and shoot photography. One of the main problems I find with using a basic point and shoot camera compared to a DSLR is the image quality when using flash. Especially at night I can have trouble so this was a good read. 


Sam (Point and Shoot Photography Blog)

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