Getting The Most From Macro Mode

All Photos © 2004, Jon Canfield, All Rights Reserved

Many of us enjoy macro, or close-up photography. The ability to extract small details from a scene, whether a single flower, an abstract pattern from some common item, or detailed images of small items for online auctions, is the forte of many digital cameras. SLR style cameras have special macro lenses, some of which allow you to get larger than life reproduction, and many of the compact digital cameras offer a Macro mode that is optimized for close-up, if not true macro captures.

Basic Techniques
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on the compact digicam. I'm using a Canon PowerShot Pro1 for the examples here, but most compact cameras have a close-up mode. Usually, this is represented by a flower icon on the mode selector. This mode optimizes the camera for use when only one to three inches away from the subject.

The actual steps may vary from one camera to the next, so be sure to check your manual if you need specific directions. To get started, select the Macro mode and set your camera to auto exposure. If your camera has an auto-flash feature, you'll want to turn this off for best results--more on that in a bit. You'll also want to use the highest quality mode your camera supports to take advantage of the detail typical of macro photos. Finally, use the lowest ISO setting possible in order to keep noise to a minimum.

Since macro photography usually requires more depth of field to get the maximum of the image into focus, exposure times are generally longer than normal. Every increase in f/stop doubles the length of exposure. For example, an image shot at f/5.6 might take 1/30 second, while increasing this to f/11 (a two stop increase) would require a 1/8 second--too slow for a sharp image when hand holding your camera. Mounting your camera on a tripod will prevent blurry images and allow you to have more of the image in focus, giving you the best results.

Most compact digicams, such as the Canon PowerShot Pro1 shown here, have dedicated Macro modes that allow extremely close focusing. The adjustable LCD display is a great aid in composing images, especially when shooting from awkward angles.

You'll also find it much easier to compose and focus your shot using the camera's LCD display rather than the viewfinder. This is one area that the compact cameras have a big advantage over the DSLR, which doesn't have a live preview. Many of the higher end digicams, such as several of the Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, and Konica Minolta models offer swiveling LCD displays, making it possible to compose your images regardless of where the camera is positioned, something you'll appreciate when the alternative is lying on the muddy ground!

When your goal is a close-up that really stands out, minimizing clutter and distraction can make the difference between a successful photograph and a so-so image. Often, by repositioning the subject you can eliminate everything that might compete with your subject matter and increases the apparent detail.

Same shot, different focus point. I think this works best with the focus on the stamen, separating them more from the flower background.

What about those times where repositioning the subject isn't an option? If you have the option of setting the aperture, you may be able to throw the background objects out of focus enough to avoid the major distractions. Another method that I've used with success is to bring my own background. Dark poster board works very well to isolate the subject, while a light colored background can help isolate and reflect light back onto the subject.

This same technique can be used to great advantage for photographing items for online auctions. Using a simple backdrop such as a sheet or piece of velvet will make your item stand out in comparison to other similar items.