How to Take Great Photos with a Bad Camera

Someone in your life still uses a crappy, ancient, point-and-shoot digital camera. Maybe it's you. Maybe it's your mom. And at some point, on some vacation, or some holiday dinner, you're going to get shot with it—the digital equivalent of a FunSaver.

Don't just sit there ridiculing the poor machine. If you help it along, and give it every advantage, it can potentially take an interesting and beautiful photograph. Here's how to pull it off with the most basic equipment imaginable.

Basic rules

Charge it.
Your camera is useless if it doesn't work. Small, bad cameras have small, bad batteries. Be vigilant about charging. Get an extra battery. Turn it off between shots. Don't burn up your charge zooming in and out and editing on-screen—just squeeze off as many shots as you can before it dies.

Put the light behind you.
Light sources should be illuminating your subject. The light should not be behind your subject or between you and you subject. This is not the right time to attempt an artistic silhouette effect.

Get a big SD card and shoot a ton.
Take the same photo multiple times. It's better to choose the best photo from several similar shots, rather than get stuck with one crappy photo. Most cameras have a continuous shooting mode. Turn it on and fire bursts. Remember, you can always delete photos. (Even a pro shooting an event will only use a tiny fraction of the shots. Sometimes ten percent are used; sometimes it's as low as one percent.)

Use flash when it's bright outside.
On a bright sunny day, when the sun is directly overhead, use flash to illuminate the shadows that form around people's eyes.

But don't use the flash in the dark.
Chances are the flash on your dinky digital camera doesn't work very well, so you should avoid using it unless you cannot get a good photo without it. Always try to see if you can make a photo come out without flash. Or at the very least shoot one with flash and one without so that you can choose later. Over the last few years, cameras have been coming out with special low-light settings—if you can't find better light for the photo, try that.

But skip the other "creative" modes.
They suck and they look terrible so don't use them.

Hold steady.
Cheap cameras don't have very good image stabilization. Hold your camera steady with both hands to avoid blur—especially in darker conditions with no flash. If your shots are still coming out shaky, try bracing yourself against a fixed object like a wall, signpost or table.

Think about composition for exactly one second.
You do not need to rewrite the rules of modern aesthetics. You just need to make sure that your photo tells the story you want to tell. Capture your subjects in their entirety. No missing limbs, no half buildings. Also, make sure there's no distracting heads or protruding objects in the background. Try multiple angles to see which one looks best.

Bad camera photo ops

The bad camera tends to emerge at predictable occasions. You know who will bring it, and you know when they will want to use it. Sure, you could be a jerk and tell them they should get a better camera. Or you could try to help Aunt Betty just get a decent shot of the family with the bad old camera she already bought. Here's how to handle a few common scenarios:

Family photo in a restaurant.
The shooter should lean against a wall for support, and try taking the photo without flash. Watch out for backlighting from bright outdoor light, and try not to include stray body appendages from other patrons or the wait staff.

A picture of your kid in front of a giant church.
Get low so that both your progeny and the giant bell towers are in the photo. Make sure the sun is behind you—or as behind you as possible. Watch out for passing tourists in the background. The same advice applies when posing in front of a pier, palm tree, statue, or giant costumed Mickey Mouse.

Little league action shot.
Set your camera to continuous or burst mode if you have it. Take lots and lots of photos. If you only want one, take fifty. Rather than relying on the zoom, get as close to the action as possible. But watch for foul balls.

Image via Capt Kodak/ Flickr