Macro Photography with your Digital Camera

Poor Man's Manual Focus

I was picking tomatoes in my garden the other day when I came across this big ol' dragonfly. He must have been a sucker for attention, because not only did he stick around while I fetched my digital camera, but he also cooperated for a few shots.

This got me to thinking that a brief howto on taking close-up shots with everyday equipment is sorely needed. Sure, you could rig up a laser-guided super camera, the likes of which will plant you on hackaday, but there's a heck of a lot you can do with an average consumer-grade digital camera if you follow a few general tips.

Enable Macro Mode

Enable Macro Mode

Most digital cameras have a macro photography setting. Every camera brand I've seen, be it Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, or Sony, uses a flower icon for this setting. When you switch your camera into macro mode, it will adjust the optics in the camera so that the focal distance is very short.

When you are in macro mode, there will be a sweet spot very close to the camera where objects will focus clearly. If you are very nearsighted, it's a bit like taking off your glasses – things up close are very highly resolved. What you will also notice is that anything in front of or behind the focal point will be blurry. This is called depth of field, and you'll have a limited amount of it in macro mode.

Many digital cameras have a second setting, sometimes called super macro mode. This is similar to macro mode, but you will be able to focus on items almost until they hit the end of your lense. Lighting and motion blur can make super macro mode even more difficult to take photos in, but used correctly, it's like looking at the world through a magnifying glass.

General Focus Tips

General Focus Tips

Because your depth of field is so reduced, it's absolutely essential that you focus on the element that is most important in your photograph. For me, this is most easily done by putting my camera in manual focus mode.

If your subject is well lit, your camera's autofocus can also work pretty well. Typically, you'll want to center the camera on the subject and depress and hold the shutter button half-way. The camera will focus on the item and then you can move the camera to frame your subject as you see fit. The camera should keep the same focus as long as the button remains half depressed.

Poor Man's Manual Focus

Poor Man's Manual Focus

If a camera doesn't have a manual focus, there's a simple trick that I like to use. First, lock in the focus as best as you can using the autofocus mechanism described above. Because you are only dealing with a centimeter or two between “in-focus” and “out-of-focus”, you can then physically move the camera a little closer or further away from the subject until it becomes crystal clear.

Positioning The Subject – Dealing With Short Focal Length

Positioning The Subject - Dealing With Short Focal Length

The short focal length can become an issue in your photos if you don't accommodate for it. Items even slightly in front of or behind the point on which you are focused will appear blurry.

The trick is to imagine a plane which is parallel to the plane of your camera's lense and that intersects your point of focus. Anything that you want to be in focus will have to sit on this plane.

You can also use this quirk in your favor. Sometimes you can draw more attention to a particular detail in your subject by having the rest of the subject fall on either side of the focal plane. The detail you are calling attention to will be in crisp focus, while everything else blurs into the background.

Ditch The Flash

Ditch The Flash

While the flash will occasionally come in handy by casting the background in shadow, I've found that in most cases my photos taken with a flash just don't look as nice. The subject ends up uniformly washed out. If you are really close to your subject, there's a good chance your flash will completely miss the target, as the bulb is a couple inches off to the side.

The best thing is to turn off your flash and light your subject as best as you can. If you are outdoors, the sun will be your best ally. Indoors, experiment with pointing a lamp or two at the subject.

You'll have to be careful not to stand in between the light source and the subject. This is a good thing, though, because it will force you to try and find an angle where the light hits your subject at a different angle from where the camera is positioned. The angle of the light will help give your photo depth and contrast.

Stability Issues

Silhouette camera on the beach, Thailand

When you photograph something really close, any small movement can mean a large shift in the position of the subject in the frame. In other words, the slightest camera movement during exposure will cause significant blur.

If you have a tripod, use it. You can also try stabalizing your camera on another fixed object like a desk, a book, or a bean bag.

Another variable that you are dealing with here is exposure time. The longer the exposure, the more time is available for the camera or the subject to move, causing a bummer of a blurred photo. Want to know the easiest way to reduce exposure time and minimize motion blur?

The Importance Of Lighting

The Importance Of Lighting

Sufficient lighting is especially important in macro photography. Here's why:

  • The more light you have, the shorter your exposure time will be, consequently reducing motion blur.
  • The better your subject is lit, the better your camera's autofocus will work and the more responsive your camera will be. This is especially important when taking photos of living things, which may decide not to stick around for long.
  • On cameras with a manual exposure setting, you can shrink the camera's iris down to a pinhole by setting your camera to its largest f-stop. This tweak will dramatically increase your depth of field, but you wont get decent photos unless you have a lot of light.

Give It A Shot

Go take some close-up photos, make sure to post your favorites, and give us a link in the comments. I'd love to hear your macro photography tips and tricks as well. How do you take your best shots?

Written by Jason Striegel

C/C++, Java, Python, Linux developer for 18 years, A-Tech enthusiast love to share some useful tech hacks.