Still there comes the inevitable "what camera do yo use?" comments because some people, inexplicably, like my photos. To this I answer that I use a Sony Cybershot DSC-W150. There are many fine point and shoot cameras on the market but for my money, the Sony's are the way to go. A dear friend was a professional for years, routinely used cameras that cost more than my first, second, and sometimes third car (combined!) and Sony Cybershots are her "pocket camera" choice. Good enough for me right?
My only two words of advice for ANY model of point and shoot manufactured by virtually anyone is 1) turn off your red-eye reduction. Do it now. I'll wait. Yes, I know, it seems like an AWESOME feature but that red eye reduction is probably responsible for every frustrated "aarraggh!" of shutter lag I've ever heard. If you point your point and shoot camera at a subject you understandably expect it to "shoot" the photo when you push the button. If it doesn't, but instead does this annoying little pause where it first seems to flash and THEN, finally, when your toddler/dog/other has wandered out of the frame grabs a quick shot of their retreating back (or butt) you can thank your red eye reduction. It stopped the shot to "flash" a quick pre-flash at your subject's eyes so that the retina would restrict or what have you. THEN it took the picture. I like to think of red eye reduction as the "no eye reduction." So named because if you use it, most of the time you won't see eyes at all. Just grimaces of pain and/or retreating rears.
Then, turn off your digital zoom. Yes, I know, again it seems AWESOME but what it will probably get you is lots of cool shots of pure fuzz. As your camera moves in on a subject with digital zoom you will likely end up with a photo so pixelated (broken up into little dots and squares) that it will be useless to you as anything less than weird modern art that nobody understands. Hardly your goal when photographing your six year old's soccer game. Stick with optical (ie real) zoom and turn your digital zoom off. Sorry I can't tell you how to do that for every model manufactured. You are going to have to crack open that little book that came with your camera and read up. Or, alternately, just start poking buttons and see if you hit upon something in the "menu" area that fits the bill.
Finally, whenever possible shoot with your flash OFF. Yes, I know. I blaspheme. Seriously, the most flattering light is "real" light and if you have any - even candlight - try it sometime. The key is to invest in a lightweight tripod, learn to balance yourself perfect taking not even a breath as you depress the shutter button, or, set the camera on a steady surface and use the timer (when available) to snap a shake-free shot.
The beauty of digital is you can delete your mistakes and no one's the wiser (or out any money). Still, if you experiment with what a birthday cake or Christmas lights look like when you photograph the actual glow rather than a harsh burst of bright flash glare - you might be pleasantly surprised at what an awesome photographer you are almost without even trying!
The final key to certain success that will have friends and family asking "how do you do that?" is to take too many photos. Seriously. I will take 300 shots to get the 30 or so "great ones" that might actually see the light of day. Of those 30 exactly 3 will be true "masterpieces." So just so we are all clear, in pursuit of the "perfect photo" I will, in fact, abuse my family.
My children have been photographed so much they think they're being followed by the Paparazzi. Worse, at an early age my son was so adept at dodging the roving photographer also known as mom that he would fling his arm, coat, baby sister, in front of his face to shield himself from the camera's prying eye and unrepentant glare. He was kind of like our own, pint-sized Sean Penn.
Finally, I need Photoshop. You need Photoshop. We all really need Photoshop. Life is just prettier with Photoshop. It allows you to tweak a photo. Remove blur. Punch up the color (or tone down the zit). Virtually every published photograph you see has probably been run through some sort of photo editing program and Photoshop is the granddaddy of them all. I use Photoshop Elements because it does everything a non-pro photographer would want and the price tag doesn't require my selling a kidney.
Granted, it's a fine line between slightly punching up a shot so the photograph better resembles reality and turning your elderly Aunt Pearl into a virtual clone of supermodel Heidi Klume. Our goal is to enhance photographs so they better match reality - not fabricate reality into a wholesale lie.
Example: Below I have taken a SOOC (straight out of the camera) shot (1st photo) and punched up the color and sharpened the image in PSE (2nd photo). The entire process took maybe a minute and, if I do say so myself, was very much worth it. In Photo #2 at the right my creepy old santa head full of candy canes just SHINES. In photo one you just really don't get how maniacal that little dude really IS.