The Art and Craft of Point-and-Shoot Macro Photography

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I’ve been a fan of pocket-size cameras since they passed the six-megapixel mark some years ago. Since then point-and-shoot digital cameras have become progressively better with every round of upgrades which, depending on the company, can be as be as often as two or three times a year. Aside from the fact that there’s little excuse for not having one with you at all times, the pictures they take can be pretty remarkable, and despite any performance and imaging deficiencies point-and-shoots often have compared to larger cameras, they’re more likely to be within arm’s reach when you need them.


Other than their compact size, one of the cooler aspects of smaller cameras is their inherent close-focusing abilities. Because point and shoots typically contain lenses with extremely short, single-digit focal ranges, they can focus closer than the longer focal length equivalent lenses found in Four Thirds, APS-C and full-frame digital cameras. Although larger-format cameras require macro lenses in order to capture life-size close-ups, most point-and-shoot cameras can focus down to a few centimeters from the front lens element right out of the box. That makes capturing macro stills and video easier than one might expect. 

It’s important to note the closest focusing distances of point-and-shoot zooms are invariably at the zoom’s widest focal length. What that means is, depending on the camera, you’ll be capturing close-ups at field-of-view equivalents of 38mm to 22.5mm wide-angle lenses. With that in mind, it’s important to note that wide-angle lenses often introduce distortion factors that can make photographing certain subjects challenging. If that’s the case, it’s often a good idea to back away from your subject a bit and zoom in to a longer focal length, and simply crop off any unwanted edge detail in post production for a tighter composition.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras that are Macro-Friendly 

As previously mentioned, most point-and-shoot cameras can take lovely insect and flower close-ups right out of the box. Even so, there are a few tools worth having, and tricks worth trying, which can make capturing macro images a lot more manageable and successful.

A frequent challenge when engaging in close-up photography is keeping the shadow of the camera, lens and sometimes the person taking the picture out of the image area. If the angle of the sun is positioned off to the side, it’s usually easy to find an agreeable middle ground between the position of the camera, the sun and your subject. But sometimes you end up casting shadows across your taking area regardless of how much you try to duck, tilt or hide.

In cases like those, turn on the camera’s built-in flash and after running a few tests, dial in just enough flash to open the shadows and illuminate your subject in a manner that balances with the ambient light of the background areas of the image.

If your camera’s flash (or LED array) is mounted flush to the front panel of the camera, chances are it will light your subject evenly. However, if your camera has a flash that pops up from the camera’s top plate, there is a strong chance its light path will overshoot your subject. If that’s the case, depending on your choice of camera, you’ll have to purchase or devise a small diffuser or bounce device to disperse the light from your flash to envelop your subject. For more on diffusion devices for electronic flash see the section on Flash Diffusers, below.

One camera that happens to be particularly macro-friendly is the Pentax Optio WG-2 , which in addition to having a built-in flash, also has six LEDs surrounding its zoom lens that create a continuous, ring-light style daylight-balanced light source that can be used for capturing stills and video as close as 0.36” (0.91 cm) from your subject. And because LEDs—unlike flash—are continuous light sources, it’s possible to preview the results in real time rather than after the fact. As an additional bonus, the Pentax Optio WG-2 is waterproof, shockproof, crush proof and freeze proof. It is available in a choice of black, red, orange and white, of which the latter two models are GPS-enabled.

          

Another LED enabled point and shoot is the recently announced Panasonic Lumix TS4 (available in black, blue, orange and silver), which features a single daylight-balanced LED adjacent to its flash and, like the Pentax Optio WG-2, is water-, shock-, dust- and freeze proof.

Setting up Your Camera Controls for Macro Photography

The steps involved in optimizing your camera settings for macro capture varies from camera to camera, but the basics hold true across the board. Assuming your point-and-shoot camera has a macro focusing mode (and most do), it’s commonly set by clicking on a flower petal icon that’s usually nestled among the camera controls located on the rear of the camera (see your owner’s manual for the specifics). Once in macro mode, your camera will be able to focus down to its closest focusing distance, and in most cases will still be able to hit the infinity mark on a moment’s notice without having to reset your camera.

Unless you’re working on a tripod, which is preferable for macro photography but not always practical, make sure you have your camera’s image stabilization system turned on in order to minimize camera shake, which becomes increasingly magnified the closer you get to your subject. For additional information and recommendations concerning camera supports see the section on Tripods, Tablepods and Camera Supports, below.

As for exposure modes, some cameras offer a specific exposure mode for shooting close-ups. If not, the most commonly used exposure modes for macro photography are Program, which will usually establish a satisfactory exposure setting, or Aperture Priority, which allows you to pre-determine the best depth of field for the photograph you’re attempting to capture. If camera shake is of particular concern, it’s better to increase the ISO sensitivity than increase the shutter speed, which can compromise the amount of depth of field you need to keep the entirety of your image in focus.

Note that the closer you focus in on your subject, the narrower your depth of field becomes. In the case of macro photography, focusing accuracy becomes quite critical, especially at wider apertures.

Depending on the ease and usability of your camera’s focusing system, you might also want to shoot in Manual mode, which can often be more accurate—and far less squirrelly at closer camera-to-subject distances.

If your camera has a tiltable or variable-angle LCD, this is the time to make use of that feature. Rather than creeping around on all fours or trying to peer at the camera screen in an awkward position, being able to twist and turn the screen to a position that suits your stature is a far better means of going about your business.

Lighting Aids for Macro Photography using Point-and-Shoot Cameras

With the exception of bracketing, point-and-shoot cameras are typically limited in terms of light control. With few, if any exceptions, they also lack the ability to tilt or bounce the light emanating from the camera’s fixed-position flash or LED array. The spacing and positioning of the camera’s flash in relation to the camera’s lens often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to evenly illuminate subjects located millimeters from the front element of the lens. To alleviate these issues, we offer the following tools and tricks.

Flash and LED Ring Lights

To get around the lighting problems inherent to point-and-shoot macro photography, it’s often necessary to resort to auxiliary flashes and accessory reflectors. The big challenge of macro imaging is being able to get in close enough to the subject without crossing the light path of the lens, and this is where ring lights enter, or rather, don’t enter the picture.

Unlike conventional accessory flashes and LED arrays, which reside on the camera’s hot shoe or on a bracket, ring lights, which are available with flash or LED lamps, are circular and mount to the filter threads of the camera lens, creating a shadowless light source that literally wraps around your subject no matter how close it is to the camera lens. The catch is that in order to use a ring light, you need a lens with filter threads, which most point-and-shoot cameras do not have. With the exception of the Lomography 4-Color Ring Flash, which features four individual colored-gel flashtubes, flash and LED ring lights are daylight balanced.

At the time of this writing, point-and-shoot cameras that have filter threads or have provisions for attaching threaded accessories include Nikon’s CoolPix P7100 (and its predecessor the CoolPix P7000), Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX5 and Lumix DMC-FZ150, Nikon1 series cameras, Canon’s PowerShot G1X and PowerShot G12 and all previous generation Canon PowerShot G series cameras.

If your camera does not have a threaded filter mount or similar provisions for attaching a ring light, an alternative approach is to use a gooseneck-mounted ring light such as the Sunpak LED Macro Ring Light that can be slipped into the camera’s hot shoe and lowered into place in front of the lens for close-up imaging.

Current point-and-shoot cameras that feature hot shoes include the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Nikon CoolPix P7100 (and its predecessor the CoolPix P7000), the Olympus XZ-1, Canon PowerShot G1X and PowerShot G12 and previous generation Canon PowerShot G series cameras.

For cameras that have neither hot shoes nor threaded lenses, there are also gooseneck ring lights that can be screwed into the camera’s tripod socket, such as Bower’s SFDRLM LED Macro Ring Light for Point-and-Shoot Cameras.

Similar custom-designed arrangements can be created by using a Novoflex 18” Flexible Arm with Small Ball Head Socket and Flash Shoe or the shorter Novoflex Short Flexible Arm with Ball Head & Flash Shoe (11.6”), both of which feature a ¼”-20 thread on one side that screws into the camera’s tripod thread on one end and a small ballhead-mounted accessory shoe on the other. By mounting a small slave flash or LED array to the shoe, it’s possible to position the light source in an optimized position for lighting small objects at close range.

A good companion flash to go along with Novoflex’s Flexible Arms is the Novoflex Slave Flash for Macro Photography, which is triggered by the camera’s built-in flash.

Yet another option is to attach a compact slave flash or LED array to a comparably small bracket that can be mounted to the tripod thread of your camera, angled inward toward the lens and triggered by the camera’s flash. A bit of practice and flash positioning is most likely in order, but the results can be quite good. And because the light strikes the subject from an angle, there’s an element of light modeling that is not possible with most ring lights.

Slave flash units of this sort include Canon’s HF-DC1 and HF-DC2 High-Power Wireless Flash for Canon PowerShot Cameras and the Bescor LED-25 25W On-Camera Light with Universal Shoe.  Nikon’s SKE-900 Flash Bracket works in a similar fashion with most Nikon Coolpix cameras, but does not include a Nikon Speedlight. Stratos FBX Folding Mini Brackets and the Kirk FB-8 Macro Flash Flip Bracket with 1/4"-20 Screw can also be used in this manner with the slave compact accessory flash or LED array you currently own.

A bit more adventurous is the Digi-Slave Flex-Ring 6400 Macro LED Ringlight with Twin Lights, which in addition to an LED array that surrounds the lens, features two additional LED arrays that extend from the port and starboard sides of the main light on flexible arms that enable you to add a number of additional lighting effects to your otherwise evenly lit subject.

Owners of Canon’s PowerShot G1X can also make use of Canon’s extremely versatile MR-14EX and MT-24EX Macro Twin ring lights by using the optional Canon MLA-DC1 Macro Light Adapter for the Canon G1X.

Freestanding LED Lights

Though not necessarily designed for macro work or point-and-shoot cameras, Joby’s Gorillatorch LED Flashlight is a free-standing, tripod-style lamp that delivers 65 lumens of continuous daylight-balanced light. As with all Gorillapods, the Gorillatorch can stand on its own or be wrapped around any stable support within striking distance of your subject. For times when you want additional candlepower, Joby also offers the Gorillatorch Flare LED Flashlight, which outputs 100 lumens of light.

As a bonus, the ends of any of the Gorillatorch’s three legs contain strong magnets that allow you to firmly attach the lamp to your tripod (assuming magnets stick to your tripod) or any other magnet-compatible surface, and both units can be powered down as needed in order to create more realistic, natural lighting effects.

Small Collapsible Reflectors

Supplemental lighting need not be electronic. If the sun is shining it’s easy work to redirect the rays of sunlight onto your subject using portable folding reflectors.

Easy to pack, easy-to-use lighting tools that can come in handy for fill and bounce-lighting smaller subjects in the studio or on location are 12”collapsible reflectors, which fold up to about one third of their working diameters (about 4”) when not in use. Collapsible reflectors are available in a variety of colors, including gold/silver, gold/white, silver/white, sun/silver and sun/white, depending on the specular quality and color hue desired.

By positioning the reflector at an angle opposite or adjacent to the angle of the sun, it’s easy to bounce sunlight onto your subject. Depending on the distance of the reflector to your subject and the nature of the surface of the reflector (gold, silver, white, etc.), it’s possible to create a wide variety of fill-light effects. And because you’re using ambient light, the light you see is the light you can expect to see on your final image files. Best of all, collapsible reflectors don’t need batteries.

Flash Diffusers

If you go the flash route, you should take advantage of any flip-down or snap-on diffusers that might be built into or included with your flash as a means of softening the blow of the flash when it fires close to your subject. If your flash doesn’t offer any diffusion options, you still have the choice of purchasing any number of plastic and fabric snap-on / slip-on bounce diffusers for shoe and bracket-mounted accessory flashes.

Depending on the size and model of your flash, accessory diffusers are available in a variety of designs,  including plastic snap-on bounce diffusers, folding flat-panel diffusers, wide-angle diffusers, mini softboxes and reflectors. By introducing these devices into your workflow, you can achieve better-lit, pro-quality results.

Tripods and Camera Supports

In a perfect world, we should be able to handhold cameras in a rock-steady manner under the most trying circumstances, especially when it comes to macro photography, which can be challenging under the most ideal conditions.

Choosing the best form of camera support for macro photography depends greatly on what you’re shooting and where you’re shooting it. Full-size tripods are fine and dandy except when shooting subjects beyond the reach of a camera that’s mounted on a tripod that’s grounded on terra firma. At times like this your choices are hand-holding with your camera’s IS system turned on (see Setting up your Camera Controls for Macro Photography) or circumstances permitting, a tabletop tripod.

Portability aside, the advantages of tabletop tripods is that they allow you to position your camera in extremely close proximity to your subject. And unlike bulkier, full-size tripods, a tabletop tripod is less likely to be compromised when your subject is located in a hard-to-access location.

In addition to the more traditionally designed, three-legged variety of tripods, there are also support systems that feature flexible legs such as Gorillapods, the Looxcie Table Top Tripod and the Flip Video Mini Tripod. The advantage of flexible legs is that you can mold them to fit into or around irregular surfaces, which isn’t always possible with rigid supports. Also easy to stow and easy to use are Gary Fong Flip-Cages, which allow you to position your camera nose-to-nose with your subject in vertical or horizontal positions, and they fold up flat for easy storage.

Other small camera supports worth investigating include the Manfrotto 355 Table Mount Camera Support with 234 Tilt Head, the Kirk Low Pod Camera Support and the Novoflex Bean Bag, which allows you to stabilize a small camera at ground level, something that’s especially challenging with most of the other camera support options in this product category.

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Such a great comprehensive article. It would be great if it could be updated to reflect the newest camera models and accessories!