The Anatomy of a Compact Camera

Compact-Camera-ShootingForm factor is a primary consideration when shopping for a compact camera. Is it small enough to accompany you during your daily life? You’ve wasted your money if your point-and-shoot is at home on the dresser when your child takes his first steps at grandma’s house. These devices are intended to fit in our purses, backpacks, briefcases, jacket pockets, and bike bags—make sure the camera you want fits in your typical carryall.

Next, consider how you’re going to view your pictures. If your primary method of sharing is via the computer—email attachments, slide shows, and web pages—your camera of choice should be compatible with the computer you already have. Ideally, you should be able to connect your camera and let the software you use recognize the camera and offer to upload the pictures.

Many photographers prefer prints and aren’t as interested in digital manipulation. If you feel the same way, look for a compact camera that makes it easy to connect directly to a printer and produce 4″ x 6″ prints (or larger, if you prefer). You don’t need a computer to enjoy digital photography, and there are some great compact printers out there.

Pocket cameras have also become quite adept at capturing video. You may not be using this function right now, but I hope to inspire you to capture movies as well as still photographs. Sometimes a video clip is worth a thousand pictures— isn’t that how the saying goes? When the best man gives that perfect toast, you want to have your digicam in movie mode. But video capabilities vary greatly from model to model, so this is something to add to your checklist of features to compare.

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Finally, figure out how much you can spend on your point-and-shoot, add the cost for a spare battery and memory card and a dedicated printer (if that’s how you plan to share your images), and then study the following features lineup. With a little research, you’ll be able to find the right compact for you at a cost you can afford.

Once you settle on the right compact camera, spend some time with the owner’s manual to become familiar with its unique design and how to use its controls. After studying the manual, keep this guide in your camera bag—not only does it provide a quick reference for the major components, but it will also help you understand how to use those features to take better pictures.

Here is a short video tutorial on what to consider when buying a compact camera:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LuPAy09ocU]


The flash provides additional light for pictures taken indoors or at night, and for outdoor portraits. Look for flash controls that are quickly accessible and not buried deep within a menu system.

Focus assist light

The focus assist light helps your camera focus in dim lighting by projecting a white beam, or a subtle pattern, onto the subject. This light may also shine when you’re using the red eye reduction flash mode and serve as the warning light when the self-timer is activated.

Microphone port

A tiny opening on the front of the camera is used to record audio annotations and to add sound to movie clips. Some cameras that have a movie mode also have built-in microphones, but not all do.

Optical viewfinder lens

The optical viewfinder lens enables you to compose the picture by looking through the viewfinder lens instead of viewing the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. Using the optical viewfinder saves battery power, but it isn’t quite as accurate for framing precise compositions or close-ups.

Picture-taking lens

The picture-taking lens projects the image you’re shooting onto the electronic sensor where the picture is recorded. This lens also captures the image you see on the LCD monitor on the back of the camera.

Confirmation light

The confirmation light shines when the camera is focused and ready to fire, or when the flash is ready. Blinking indicator lights usually suggest that you need to make an adjustment before taking the picture.

Display control button

You can turn off the display to conserve battery power. This button often has a third option that provides for the display of camera data on the screen while composing the picture. You can typically cycle through these different settings by pushing the button repeatedly.

TIP: Top 5 compact cameras in 2013-2014:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1iOdBX7aac]

LCD monitor

The LCD monitor allows for precise framing of the subject, because the image is captured directly through the picture-taking lens. You should always use the LCD monitor in macro mode (for close-ups). The LCD monitor is also used for reviewing pictures you’ve already captured. Most LCD monitors, however, aren’t effective in direct sunlight—the image is hard to see. If you shoot lots of outdoor pictures, make sure your camera has an optical viewfinder as well. Camera manufacturers are also starting to provide models with 2″ (measured diagonally) or bigger LCD viewfinders. If you spend more time viewing your images on the camera than on a computer, you should give the size of your camera’s LCD monitor important consideration.

Menu button

The menu button activates the onscreen menu that enables you to set the various functions of the camera. Most likely, you’ll use the multifunctional jog dial to navigate through those menus.

Mode dial

The mode dial allows you to switch among various picture-taking and picture-reviewing modes.

Multifunctional jog dial

The multifunctional jog dial allows you to navigate through onscreen menus by pressing the four directional buttons. Sometimes, jog dial buttons have two sets of functions: one set for changing settings while in picture-taking mode, and the other for making adjustments in picture-viewing mode. Look for little icons next to the jog dial buttons. These icons usually represent the functions associated with those buttons in picture-taking mode. Here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Burst This setting enables you to take a sequence of shots by holding down the shutter button.
  • Close-up Sometimes called macro mode, this setting allows you to focus your camera on subjects that are only inches away.
  • Flash modes All digital cameras provide you with flash options, such as flash on, flash off, and red eye reduction. This button allows you to cycle through those options and choose the best one for the situation at hand.
  • Metering modes Some cameras provide more than one metering mode, such as evaluative and spot. You can choose which mode you use via this control.
  • Self-timer Use this function to delay the shutter firing for a few seconds after you’ve pressed the shutter release button.

Set/OK button

Press the set/OK button to confirm a choice. Most cameras insist that you confirm all selections before enabling them. This button is particularly important when erasing pictures, as it makes it impossible to delete a picture by inadvertently pressing the erase button.

Trash button

Pressing the trash button removes the current picture displayed on the LCD monitor. This button doesn’t usually remove all pictures on a memory card; for that, you have to select the “erase all” function via the onscreen menu.

Computer connection

The computer connection is used for transferring pictures from camera to computer. Most cameras provide a Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable to make this connection.

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1iOdBX7aac]

Shutter button

The shutter button trips the shutter, but it also provides focus and exposure lock. For the best pictures, press lightly on the shutter button and hold it in the halfway position to lock the focus and exposure. Once the confirmation light comes on, you’re ready to take the picture. Then add more pressure until the shutter trips. The trick is to not let up on the shutter button once the focus is locked, but to keep the pressure on in the halfway position until the exposure is made. Almost all digital cameras use this type of two-step shutter button.

A handy tip to ensure that the camera focuses on the area you want is to point the camera directly at what’s most important, hold the shutter button down halfway, recompose the picture, and then depress the shutter button the rest of the way to make the exposure.

Tripod socket

The tripod socket allows you to attach the camera to a tripod or flash bracket. Metal sockets are more durable and therefore superior to plastic ones.

Video out connection

The video out connection allows you to connect the camera directly to a television or other monitor to display pictures on a larger screen. Using video out is an easy way to show your pictures to a large group of people.

Zoom/magnify lever

Use the zoom/magifiy lever to zoom in and out when composing your image in picture-taking mode. (Your camera may have buttons instead, but they work the same way.) When in picture-review mode, this lever also allows you to magnify your image on the LCD monitor for closer inspection.


The battery provides the power for camera functions. This is one feature that every digital camera must have. Common battery types are alkaline (for emergencies only), lithium-ion, and nickel-metal hydride. The latter two are rechargeable.

Direct Print

Direct Print is a standard developed in 2002 that enables a common printing protocol between camera and printer, eliminating the need for a computer to produce prints. Original adopters were Canon, Epson, Fujifilm, HP, Olympus, and Sony. Many consumer cameras use an evolution of this technology called PictBridge.

Image sensor

The image sensor converts light energy passing through the camera lens into a digital signal. Sensor capacity is measured in megapixels. Look for a compact with at least a 3-megapixel sensor.

Memory card

Memory cards store the picture data captured by your camera. Nearly every digital camera contains some type of removable memory. When the camera takes a picture and creates the data for that image, it “writes” that information on the memory card. This enables you to retrieve or transfer your electronic pictures long after they’ve been recorded.

Camera type (megapixels)

3-5 MP

6-8 MP

8 MP and up

Minimum card512 MB1 GB2 GB
Recommended card1 GB2 GB4 GB


PictBridge enables direct printing from your digital camera to a printer. You simply view an image on your camera’s LCD viewfinder and select “print,” and the camera sends the required data to the printer via the USB cable. This eliminates the need for a computer and photo-editing software to produce prints. Both the camera and printer must support PictBridge for this to work.

RAM buffer

The RAM buffer stores image data in the camera’s Random Access Memory (RAM) before transferring it to the memory card. The RAM buffer enables advanced functionality, such as burst and movie modes. The camera can move picture data to the RAM buffer much faster than it can write data to the memory card. So when you use burst mode, for example, the camera captures a sequence of shots in the RAM buffer, then transfers the data to the memory card after you’ve released the shutter button. RAM buffers can be as large as 32 MB. The larger the buffer, the longer your shot sequences can be.

USB Mass Storage

USB Mass Storage device connectivity enables the camera to connect to a computer without using any special drivers, much in the same way that you mount an external hard drive by plugging it in. You can then “drag and drop” your pictures from the camera to the computer, or use an image application to download them.
Digital cameras that are USB Mass Storage devices can be connected to computers running the following operating systems without installing any special software: Windows XP, 2000, ME, and 98 SE, plus Mac OS 9.x and Mac OS X 10.1 or later.

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