Macro Photography Without a DSLR :: Digital Photo Secrets

Macro Photography Without a DSLR

by David Peterson 3 comments

If you love those wonderful, close-up photos of flower stamens, insects and lizard skin, but you don't own a DSLR, you may be under the mistaken impression that you'll only ever be able to enjoy other people's macro photos... you'll never be able to shoot any of your own.

Lucky for you, nothing could be further from the truth. Macro photography is open to everyone, not just those fortunate enough to own an expensive DSLR along with an expensive macro lens. Most modern point-and-shoot cameras, in fact, have macro capabilities built right into them - but to get the best macro shots out of your point-and-shoot camera you have to know how a few tricks. Read on to find out what they are.

  • Canon PowerShot SX110 IS
  • 400
  • f/4.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 6 mm

Green spirals by Flickr user readerwalker

Macro modes

Some point-and-shoot cameras have a basic macro mode, while other point-and-shoot cameras offer more sophisticated macro capabilities. Newer Olympus model point-and-shoot cameras, for example, often include a microscope mode. In microscope mode, you can get very close to your subject—within a couple of millimeters—which means you can take macro photographs that rival what others are only able to do with a DSLR.

Regardless of whether or not your camera has microscope mode or something similar, you're still going to be able to get pretty close to your subject by engaging the macro mode setting. The icon for macro mode is typically a flower (for microscope mode it’s a microscope) and it tends to be one of the more visible modes, sometimes with its own button (if it doesn’t have its own button you’ll need to access it through your camera’s menu system).

Selecting macro mode lets your camera know that you plan to get close to your subject, so it will choose the best corresponding settings to allow that to happen. All cameras have different points at which you’ll start to lose focus, so make sure you look at your manual and find out what the minimum focusing distance is for macro mode. You’ll be able to see the point where the object starts to fall out of focus on your LCD as well, if you shoot with live view.

Just because you’re using a point-and-shoot doesn’t mean you’re immune to camera shake. While it is true that it’s easier to hand-hold a point-and-shoot during a long exposure than it is to hand-hold a DSLR, you’re still going to have problems just based on how close you are to your subject. When you get very close, everything is magnified—not just the subject itself but also movement in your camera. So even though you’re shooting at a shutter speed that would normally result in a very sharp picture, with macro you may still get some camera shake if your camera isn’t mounted on a tripod.

Another problem with macro is that your hands are going to have a tough time keeping the focus point locked, just based on how close you are to your subject. Try this: put your point and shoot in macro mode and then get very close to an object. Try to keep the object centered and stationary in the frame. Can you do it, or is there noticeable wobbling around the edges of the frame? I’d bet money that you’re getting wobble, for the simple reason that most normal human beings can’t keep perfectly still even for short periods of time. And the closer you are, the more severe that wobble is going to look.

When your camera wobbles, so does your focus point. So you may think that you’re locked on to the eye of your pet snake, for example, but by the time you press the shutter button your focus point has moved to the end of his nose, just as a simple symptom of you not being able to keep your hands perfectly still.

A tripod can fix this—mount your camera on a tripod and your focus point will stay exactly where you want it to be, provided your subject doesn’t slither away between the time you locked on to his eye and the time you made the exposure.

Tripods go hand in hand with remote releases, but the problem with point-and-shoot cameras is that you often can’t use a remote release. Instead, use your camera’s self-timer function. Set it for five seconds, which should be plenty of time for camera movement to stop between the moment you press the button and the moment the self-timer engages the shutter.

Aperture

In macro mode, your camera will choose an aperture for you. But depending on what your subject is, you may not like the choice it makes. If your camera gives you control over your settings, it’s often best to simply choose the smallest available aperture. That’s because at macro range, depth of field can be measured in millimeters, so even a tiny object may be sharp in front and blurry in back. A smaller aperture can minimize this, but when you get very close even a very small aperture might not be enough.


Koruclean by Flickr user Scott.Symonds

Think first about what you want to do with your depth of field. If you want to completely isolate part of your subject from everything else in the scene, choose a larger aperture. But if your subject has some depth to it and you want it to remain in focus from foreground to background, choose a smaller aperture instead. If you’re still not getting enough depth of field, you’ll need to change the way you compose the image. Placing the object parallel to your lens is one way to keep everything in focus (for example, shoot a butterfly from the side of its wing instead of from its head, looking towards the end of its abdomen). Alternately, you can also hang back a little so that you get more depth of field. You’ll need to crop in to show detail in the final image, so if you go this route shoot in raw or at your camera’s maximum quality setting.

Focus

Most point and shoot cameras don’t have a manual focus setting, but if yours does you should try and use it. This is for a very similar reason as the one above—you want to make sure that you can lock focus on a single part of the subject and keep it there. Some cameras will let you manually select your focus point, so use that feature if you can. If not, you can usually count on the center of the frame as a focus point—line up the part of the shot that you want to be sharpest under that point, lock focus, then recompose if necessary and make the exposure.

A busy background can really interfere with a good macro photograph, and when you’re up close just about everything is a busy background. Try to keep your background as plain as possible—that shallow depth of field is going to help you here because it will blur out more distant objects, thus simplifying your composition. Do make sure that you’re always paying attention to what is in the background, so that you’re never called out by those distractions when you view your photos after you’ve already shot them.

  • Sony ILCE-6000
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 141 mm

flower microcosmos by Flickr user Schub@

The light

Since you are going to be using pretty small apertures, keep in mind that you’re going to also need to choose well-lit locations when you shoot macro. A lot of point-and-shoot cameras don’t give you much control over your flash, and the last thing you want is for that flash to fire when you don’t want it—so don’t give it a reason to. Shoot in well-lit locations and use a reflector to bounce light into the shadows if you have to. Because you’re going to be very close to your subject, firing the onboard flash is going to result in a washed-out image with lost detail, so if you can turn off your flash, make sure you do.

Conclusion

Often, the best answer to any photography problem is to just keep trying and experimenting until you start to understand both your camera’s strengths as well as its limitations. It is certainly true that most point-and-shoot cameras cannot take photos equal in quality to the ones that you can get from a DSLR, but it is also true that you can come pretty close provided you understand exactly what you’re doing. So the best advice that I have for you is to simply get your point-and-shoot out, find some good macro subjects (hint: go for nonliving ones first until you master the art) and take a lot of photographs. Pay close attention to the settings you used that got you the best results, and try to use those settings going forward. Once you get a good handle on what you need to do to get the best macro images from your equipment, your macro photos will improve exponentially.

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Comments

  1. Federico says:

    Thank you. From your comment, the explanation may be as follows: The stamen at the bottom of the photo is closer to the periphery of the flower, and peripheral stamens are shorter than those close to the centre of the flower, compensating the different filament distance from the lens. In this particular case the stamens are distributed somewhat irregularly, with some of them more developed than others, creating this preculiar effect. I've tried to sketch this below, where "s" means stamen

                                     Lens
    
          s      s
    s                 s
    

    s s
    flower

  2. Federico says:

    I wonder how in the last example the stamen at the right bottom is so focused. Is it on the same plane than the central ones or they are just two photographs combined?

    The photograph seems to have been taken from some angle so the bottom should be closer. It's intriguing

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Federico,

      It's likely that stamen happened to be the same distance from the camera as the others, which is why it's in focus.

      Alternatively, you can use a technique called "Focus Stacking" to combine multiple images together to create a photo with a larger depth of field.

      David.

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