DCR Workshop: Take Better Macro Photos with a Point-and-Shoot
by Howard Creech -  9/29/2011

The tiny zoom lenses found on many point-and-shoot cameras are much shorter in focal length than the APS or 35mm format lenses used by larger interchangeable lens systems. Shorter focal length zooms found on digital compacts can focus closer and provide greater depth of field (the zone of sharp focus) than the longer lenses found on larger cameras. What this means, in practical terms, is that point-and-shoots are capable of producing sharply focused close-up and macro images with greater depth of field than an equivalent lens on a larger camera would produce, everything else being equal. Compacts can easily capture first rate close macro shots - even if the person using the camera doesn't know the difference between an aperture and an enlarger.

Casual photographers love zoom lenses because they can stand back at some distance from their subject and zoom in. Typically, casual shooters don't like to move in too close to their subject (also known as zooming with your feet) and that's too bad because one of the major factors separating photography enthusiasts from casual shooters is their willingness to move in close to their subject.

Good macro images (like good portraits) eliminate everything except the subject and their immediate surroundings from the composition. The macro photographer's job is to tame that chaos by eliminating the visual clutter and to reveal a world that goes largely unnoticed.

If you search "macro photography" on google you'll retrieve a list of "how to" sites that have one thing in common - they'll generally tell you that you need (at a minimum) a DSLR, a good quality dedicated macro lens, an expensive and complicated external flash unit, and a sturdy tripod to shoot macro images. What most of them won't tell you is that you can get some pretty darn good images with nothing more than a handheld point-and-shoot in Auto mode.

Every picture that illustrates this article was shot with a point-and-shoot - here are some tips to get you started.

Today's point-and-shoot cameras provide an amazing range of image-making options, but most casual shooters never explore most of the creative possibilities available to them. The first (and most obvious) step in becoming a good macro photographer is to select Macro Mode from the list of creative options. The universal macro icon is a flower and this icon often appears on the compass switch (also called the control pad). Simply press the icon (or select macro mode from the menu) and your camera is ready for close-up shooting.

A little DIY
I rarely use flash in my close-up photography, but there are scenarios that call for a little additional lighting. Point-and-shoot cameras generally feature built-in flashes, but those small fixed position flash units cause more problems than they solve. The light from these flash units, up close, is harsh (creating burnt out areas and hot spots) and often uneven (due to flash placement) creating unnatural looking and illogical lighting. However P&S flash units can be used to provide more natural looking and even illumination with a little low tech innovation. Cut a small square piece of white paper towel that is marginally larger than your unit's flash head. Attach a small strip of double stick transparent tape to your square of paper towel and stick it over the flash head. You now have a diffused flash that will provide more attractive and natural looking illumination with no hot spots and no directionality.

Now it's time to learn how to compose a macro shot. This works best with a static subject, like a single flower. Make sure your shooting position provides the most dramatic aspect on your subject. Hold the camera as steadily as you can while shooting and if your camera provides Image Stabilization select "shoot only" IS. Frame your shot the way you want it to appear and move in close - once you have your shot set up just the way you want it and everything is in focus, press the shutter button. Move inside or to a shady area and review your image on the LCD, zooming in to make sure that it is sharply focused.

Making Adjustments
Is the image too dark or too light? If so access the exposure compensation function and dial in one incremental step of minus exposure compensation if your image is too light with burnt out details and faded colors or dial in one incremental step of plus exposure compensation if your image is too dark with blocked up shadows and dense colors. Go back to your subject and try it again. Be ruthless in your critical assessment of your images and take several pictures to insure you get a keeper.

Now you're ready to try something more challenging. This part is pretty easy - any group of flowers will attract bees and bees are too busy collecting nectar to worry about macro shooters - so you can get very close. Move in as close as you can and focus on one or two flowers and wait for the bee to come to you. Remember to make sure that clutter in the background doesn't rob your primary subject of attention. Butterflies are almost as easy as bees. Move in slowly and keep your camera on the same level as the butterfly. Butterflies are very wary of shadows, especially those coming from above them.

If you have no interest in bugs and flowers close-up/macro photography with your point-and-shoot can still be very rewarding. Learning to utilize your camera effectively at close quarters will also allow you to take very good auction pictures for e-bay, get super tight portraits of your kids, capture those hilarious faces your dog makes, and share your new tattoo with your friends on Facebook.

The key to making good macro photographs is to get in close with your camera. Once you are comfortable with the idea of isolating your subject from the larger environment you'll start capturing great close-up shots of hundreds of different subjects and you won't have to spend two grand on a basic macro photography kit. Not yet, anyway.

Good Luck and good shooting.