There was once a time when you needed a DSLR and a pretty expensive macro lens in order to capture excellent macro photos. Sure, you could add screw-on close-up filters and extension tubes to a regular lens and use that to get pretty close to your subject, but that still required that you own a DSLR. If all you had was a point-and-shoot or other camera without interchangeable lenses, you were pretty much out of luck.
The digital age has brought lots of innovations in camera technology, and one of those innovations is that you are no longer required to own an expensive SLR camera in order to take amazing close-up photos of small objects. Today, most point-and-shoot cameras have a macro mode, which allows you to get anywhere from 10 cm to up to 2 cm away from your subject. That means you can focus in on incredibly small objects and get richly detailed photographs of those objects without having to spend a fortune on equipment.
Where to find macro mode
Most point-and-shoot cameras have a menu of different settings or modes that can be used in different shooting situations. The icon marking each individual mode may vary somewhat from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in most cameras macro mode is marked by a flower icon. You'll dial this in using a button on the back of your camera, a switch, or by going a little deep into the menu system. Once you have that macro mode switched on, your camera will change the focusing distance, which means you'll no longer be able to take photos of subjects at standard ranges.
How to use macro mode
One thing you may notice when you first engage the macro mode is that your camera seems to have greater difficulty focusing. It may exhibit those hunting behaviors as it tries to determine which of parts of the very close object should be the focus point. Take care that you are not too close to your subject, that is, that you are within that minimum focal range that your camera is capable of in macro mode—if you're not sure, check your manual. Because your point-and-shoot camera may be a little slower to focus in manual mode, you probably want to avoid fast-moving subjects such as winged insects or other living things, unless they tend to be a little on the pokey side. If you do want to photograph living things in macro mode, it's best to set your focus point before framing your photo with the subject included. Try to find an object that is the same distance from your lens as you expect your subject to be, focus on that, then recompose and make adjustments to the distance between your camera and subject in order to fine-tune the focus, rather than trying to engage your autofocus.
Once in macro mode your camera makes most of the settings decisions for you, such as which aperture and shutter speed to use. Aperture is especially important with macro photography because the smaller your aperture, the more depth of field you're going to get. This can help you avoid the problem of, say, trying to photograph a coin at an angle and having only the front edge of the coin in focus. Check to see if your camera will allow you to use a macro mode with aperture priority, that way you can set your aperture to the narrowest possible point that your camera is capable of. That's going to give you more depth of field from foreground background, although remember that the closer you are to your subject the less depth of the field you're going to get overall regardless of how narrow that aperture is. So a narrow aperture may give you more depth of field, but it may not be able to give you as much as you want. If this is a problem, try angling your subject so that it is more or less parallel to your lens, that way you'll be able to capture detail across the entire subject. If you can't use aperture priority with macro mode, see if you can adjust the ISO. Selecting a higher ISO will force the camera to choose a narrow aperture, which may help you get that depth of field you're looking for.
Now, remember that high ISO often corresponds to lower image quality, so especially if you are using a point-and-shoot camera, don't choose a very high ISO to help improve aperture. Instead stick with ISO 400 or lower so you won’t negatively impact the quality of your macro images.
Maintaining your focus point
One thing that you may notice when shooting macro images with your point-and-shoot camera, especially if your camera allows you to get very close to your subject, is that you have a difficult time maintaining that focus point when you are handholding your camera. That's because the movement in your hands is also magnified along with the subject that you're trying to focus on, which makes it extremely difficult to keep the focus point where it needs to be. I always at recommended using a tripod whenever you're shooting macro, whether you have a DSLR or a point-and-shoot, just because it is so very difficult to keep your hands still at a very close ranges. The great thing about point-and-shoot cameras that you can use a lightweight, flexible tripod like the Gorilla Pod, and you can use it just about anywhere. These flexible tripods are great because you can wrap them around tree branches, fence posts or whatever object happens to be nearby, or you can simply use them as tabletop tripods.
Remember that in order for tripods to be effective you really need to find some way to remotely release your camera's shutter. You can buy remote releases for some point-and-shoot models, but not all of them are going to have one available. What most of them do have is a self timer function, which can serve as a stand-in for a remote release. The self-timer feature was originally designed so that the photographer could get into the photograph with her subjects, but it is also useful because it counts down from the time that you touch the shutter to the time the exposure is actually made. That means any vibrations will have time to stop before the camera actually fires. Remember that even a very small shift in camera position or a little bit of vibration can radically throw off the focus point when you are close to your subject.
Of course the self timer technique is really not going to be very practical if you're shooting living, moving subjects such as insects, because your subject is likely to move between the time you press the shutter button and the time the exposure is actually made. So if you can't find a remote release for your model camera or if you're shooting insects and other moving things, consider either choosing subjects that don't usually move quickly like caterpillars and other non-winged insects, or, try to shoot on chilly mornings when it insects tend to be a lot more sluggish. The nice thing about a chilly morning is that it also tends to have less wind, which means that you won't have to worry about the breeze throwing off that focus point during your self-timer countdown either. And as a bonus, you may find dewdrops on flowers, spiders webs, or other macro subjects when you go out very early in the morning on a cool day.
Your focus point
When choosing your focus point, remember that you will get some areas of sharpness in front of that focus point, and some areas of sharpness behind the focus point. The length of this area will depend on aperture, but generally speaking about two thirds of the depth of field area will be sharp behind the focus point and about one third will be sharp in front of the focus point. If your subject is an insect it's generally best to focus on the eye, but keep in mind that some of what is in the front of the eye and a little more of what is behind the eye will also appear sharp. So you may want to adjust your camera angle depending on what other parts of the photograph you would like to be sharpest.
Thick gerbera 6 by Flickr user tanakawho
Camera technology is a wonderful thing, because it opens up brand new universes of photographic opportunity that did not exist for hobby photographers even a very short time ago. If your camera has a macro mode and you've never used it, now is the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Start with subjects that are small and don't move, and first master some of the focusing techniques we've discussed. Then move on to living moving subjects if that is your ambition. Remember that the more you use your macro mode, the happier you're going to be with your photos and at some point the average viewer won't even be able to distinguish those macro images you got with your point-and-shoot camera from the macro images that were shot with a more expensive DSLR equipped with a proper macro lens.
- Where to find macro mode
- Look for the flower icon
- How to use macro mode
- Stay within the minimum focal range
- Avoid fast-moving subjects
- If your camera lets you control aperture, choose a narrow one
- If you have to, change your aperture to achieve a narrow aperture
- Maintaining your focus point
- Use a tripod to stabilize your camera
- Use a remote release or your camera's self-timer
- Your focus point
- Remember that you will have some sharpness in front of your focus point and about twice as much shapes behind it
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