February 8, 2013

Shooting Close-ups with Compact Digital Cameras

One of the most popular types of photography among my students is close-up or macro pictures, especially of flowers. But often people are frustrated in their attempts to get large images of small subjects. The key is knowing how to use the Macro or Close-up setting on your compact digital camera.

Close shot of a small sunflower taken with Macro focus
on a compact digital camera

In this article I'm talking about making big pictures of small items. One way to accomplish this is by zooming in on your subject from a distance. This technique can enlarge an average size subject but may not provide you with as large an image of a small flower as you would like.

Using the telephoto zoom setting and normal focus
to enlarge a small subject
Using the wide angle zoom setting and macro focus
to enlarge a small subject

The other method to make a big picture of a tiny subject is to move the camera physically closer so that the subject appears large in the final shot. The problem for many people is that the resulting picture has a clear background and an out-of-focus subject, as in the picture of a May apple blossom below.

Close-up shot with the subject out of focus
and the background leaves sharp
using normal focus

The solution is to change how the camera focuses. In regular autofocus, the camera is able to focus on subjects no closer than 2 to 3 feet. But when you want to photograph a small wildflower, you have to move the camera so much closer to the subject that the only thing that remains two or three feet away is the background, such as the leaves in the picture above.

Close-up shot with the subject in focus
and the background out of focus
using the Macro setting

Setting your compact digital camera to the Macro or Close-up setting changes how autofocus works. Now the camera can focus on subjects 3 feet and closer (instead of 3 feet and farther). Then you can put the camera super close to the flower and get the picture you expected. How close your camera can be and still achieve focus varies with the model. Check the manual under the macro or close-up setting to find out the closest distance the camera can focus. For some models, the camera's lens can be within a half inch of the subject!

Macro or Close-up Focus Icon

There are some additional things you can do to help you make the most of your compact digital camera's close-focusing abilities.

Set the lens zoom to the wide angle setting (usually labeled with a W). This is easy because when you first turn on the camera, the lens is already at this setting. On most compact digital cameras, the wide angle length is where you can get the camera the closest to your subject. It also means you can include more of the surroundings of your flower to place it in its environment.


Macro shot of flowers using the wide-angle
lens setting to include the surroundings

Move the camera physically closer to or farther from your subject to achieve focus. Many times people don't get their cameras close enough to their subjects when using Macro focusing. You must still press the shutter button halfway down to ask the camera to focus, just as with subjects farther away. If the camera does not bring your flower into sharp focus, release the shutter button. Move the camera slightly closer or slightly farther away and press the shutter button halfway again. When the camera locks the focus, take the picture. Remember not to move the camera after it focuses or your image will be out of focus again.

Avoid using the flash. The best distance for good exposure with flash is usually 2 to 3 feet or farther, just like regular autofocus. But when you are using Macro or Close-up focusing by definition your camera is 2 or 3 feet or closer. So you run the risk of over-flashing your subject and washing out the colors. In addition, because the camera is so close to your flower, the lens can block some of the light from the flash, causing a shadow in the bottom of your pictures.


Using flash with the Macro setting
produces a shadow from the lens
in the lower right corner of the image


Turning off the flash prevents both of these problems.


Flash turned off with the Macro setting
prevents the shadow from the lens
as well as producing softer lighting
from the surrounding shade

Use a tripod or other support in dim lighting. When you turn off the flash to prevent shadows or overexposure, your camera may have to take longer to make the picture. If you are holding the camera, you may jiggle during the exposure, resulting in a blurry photo from camera shake. Putting the camera on a small tripod or other support and using the self-timer allows the camera to take as long as it needs for the picture without your having to touch it.

Don't try to photograph distant subjects with Macro focus on. When your compact digital camera is set for Macro or Close-up focusing, it can NOT focus on subjects far away. Imagine you are quietly photographing wildflowers in the spring in the forest and look up to discover a deer with fawns. If you quickly snap the photo with Macro focusing still turned on, the deer will be out of focus. You have to turn off the Macro setting before you can get a clear shot of a distant subject.

Macro shot of backlit red leaves

While I talked about photographing flowers close-up throughout this post, all the suggestions apply to other small subjects, too, like leaves, coins, stamps or tiny critters. You can use your compact digital camera's Macro focus setting for all kinds of subjects. If you have a digital SLR camera (one with interchangeable lenses), you need to use different techniques than I've described here. See my article on macro equipment for SLR cameras.