Think small. Really, really small. That’s macro photography in a nutshell.
Cute ladybug close ups, details of the human eye, fine hairs on a bee, and pollen grains in a flower are all visible with macro photography. That is the allure of macro photography, you get to see this semi-invisible world that’s in right front of us every day.
“Macro” photography is creating an image of a subject that is life sized or greater in magnification; it’s not just photos of small things. A “life size” image means that if your camera sensor is 1 inch and you have a 1 inch subject, that the subject or part of the subject would completely fill the frame. There are some technical aspects to sensor sizes and magnification, but we don’t need to go into those details.
What you need to know is macro photography can capture incredible details and that you can achieve this with your smartphone or DSLR using very inexpensive accessories. And bonus, you don’t even have to leave your house or yard to get amazing images!
The goal of this article will be to give you some pro tips for shooting macro, as well as a list of budget friendly accessories for both DSLR/mirrorless cameras and smartphones (iPhone and Android).
Let’s start with the “gear.”
You need your DSLR or mirrorless camera or a smartphone. Then you need one (or more) of the following types of accessories:
When purchasing any of these accessories, be sure to check carefully that they are the right size and fit for your device. If you need help, reach out to us! Or take a Macro class with us where you get to try some of this equipment first hand.
For smartphones, each of three items listed above basically do the same thing. They attach or clip on or slide over your phone’s camera and magnify the image – kind of like looking through a magnifying glass.
For about $15 you can get a small clip on lens or a band. For a bit more, you can get a lens case or set of clip on lenses that includes other types of lenses as well, such as wide angle or even telephoto. There are even some pricey options like the Moment lens and case which will set you back about $150. There are so many options, I cannot possible discuss them all, but look at reviews and sample images from buyers and compare the magnification you will get with each lens (4x, 10x, 15x) as well as how close you have to get for the lens to work (usually a few centimeters to a few inches). Make sure you get a case or clip that is compatible with your phone model. In the case of macro “bands” they are universal and just stretch over the phone including in most situations the case, too. Clip on lenses may require you to take your camera out of the case and macro lens cases require you to swap phone cases completely.
The products below are some of the smartphone accessories used for many of the images in this post.
With a DSLR or mirrorless cameras, there are options that are simply magnifiers, like those for phones. These include macro close-up filters (diopters) which screw onto the end of the lens the way a UV or ND filter would. They come in magnifications of +1, +2, +4, +10, and can be stacked, for example a +10 and a +2 together. Another options is a clip-on or add-on “lens” such as the Raynox DCR-250. The advantage of a clip-on is that you can use it on different lenses of different sizes, whereas the filters have to be bought for each different lens size. We did a review of the Raynox DCR-250 on our YouTube channel if you want to learn more about that option. Filter sets cost around $20 and the Raynox is under $75 (a bit pricey, but still far less than the cost of a dedicated macro lens).
The disadvantage of any type of magnifying accessories, whether for smartphone or camera, is distortion. Because the glass on these items is curved, you can end up with a center area that is in focus, but everything else on all the edges is blurry. The higher the magnification, the more curved the glass will be, the more distortion you may experience. This is where reading the reviews and looking at the specs of the product will be important.
In the case of extension tubes, you can purchase sets with a variety of lengths which can be used alone or in combination. Some of the less expensive extension tubes cost around $15, but these will not give you autofocus controls. More expensive versions will give you autofocus functionality. Personally, I find myself using manual focus so much when shooting macro that I would not bother to invest in the more expensive versions. (We’ll cover that manual focus stuff more in a moment).
Reversing rings allow you to put your existing lenses onto the camera backwards which then gives you magnification; however, it opens the end of your lens to dust and moisture. It is effective and works well, but it’s not my favorite option to use with expensive lenses. You can get reversing rings for under $15.
So that covers the inexpensive gear. In the photos throughout this post I will indicate which type of accessory was used for each shot.
Now let’s cover subject matter.
It can be anything really. That’s part of the fun of macro, even your boring old carpet fibers look interesting under magnification. Your yard is probably overflowing with possible subjects. Flowers and insects are common subjects in this genre. Whenever you go out looking for bugs, it is important for you to slow down and stop moving. It is only when you are still that you begin to see all the tiny life in a small section of grass or leaves of a flowering plant. If bugs make you feel “buggy” then you can find things like feathers, shells/coral, water droplets, rocks, flowers, leaves, bark, mushrooms and fungi. Inside your house on a rainy day, fabric textures, foods (like strawberries), even eyes and skin can make great macro shots.
When you get in really close, your images begin to look like abstracts. You may not be able to tell what the “whole” object is because you are focused in on tiny details. This abstract look appeals to many photographers. Another reason your images may look abstract is because of the shallow depth of field that occurs in macro photography.
So how do we shoot effectively with macro’s shallow depth of field?
Macro photography has an extremely narrow plane of focus or what photographers call a shallow depth of field. This means that a bee’s eyes may be in focus while the rest of it is not. The depth of field may be as slim as a millimeter. The larger the magnification, the smaller the area of focus. While this makes focus a challenge, it also means you get a nice blurry background. Making sure your subject is in focus is the hardest part of macro photography. You may have to focus on only a small part of the subject. For example, one petal or the center of a flower may be in focus, but the rest is blurry. This can give images a surprisingly ethereal and abstract feel (which I personally love).
Keeping your movement to a minimum while taking the photo is crucial. Any movement at all, even breathing, will quickly send your subject out of focus and result in blur. A windy day is your nemesis. You need to have good proper handhold. A tripod might help, but often with macro you are down in the grass with the tiny things where tripods become a hindrance. Instead you can use a bean bag to rest the camera on, or use a 5 section monopod in its most closed position. It is easier to steady your shots with a smartphone since they weigh less and don’t have heavy lenses attached.
Since camera shake is an issue which causes lack of sharpness, using a remote or timer with your phone or DSLR can benefit your macro shots. It can also allow you to back away from skittish subjects after you get your tripod or beanbag and camera/phone set up. Camera shutter remotes are available for both phones and DSLRs. Some apps for smartphones include timers as well.
In my experience the best way to get good focus on a subject is to set the DSLR or mirrorless to manual focus (with smartphones this step is not necessary). Then I move myself away from the subject until it blurs, then I hold my breath and slowly move forward again until just the part I want in focus becomes crisp and that’s when I snap the shot. It may take 10, 30, or even 300 tries to get it right.
If your camera or smartphone has a “burst” mode (takes photos in rapid succession), this can be used to increase your chances of landing the focus. As you move in toward the subject press and hold your burst mode. Older cameras or phones may not have this feature, in which case, just take lots of photos! Burst mode can also be helpful if the subject is moving, like a bug or a flower in a slight breeze. Don’t be disappointed if you have a lot of “misses.”
Some photographers compensate for the narrow depth of field by “focus stacking” Focus stacking is like having a macro photography “super power.” To create a focus stack, multiple images are taken at different focus points along the subject then merged (or stitched) in an editing program. The resulting image is then focused throughout. It sounds more complicated than it really is. We have a YouTube video that demonstrates the process if you are interested. Some newer cameras even have this feature built into the camera. Focus stacking can be done with traditional DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or with a smartphone.
To do focus stacking most effectively you would use a focus slider or rail. However, focus rails are usually used in the studio in controlled conditions and not lugged out on site or into the field. I have seen examples where photographers have done a focus stack handheld (no slider or rail) or with the help of focus stacking features built into their DSLRs. Using a burst shooting mode can make a handheld focus stack easier to accomplish.
It is very difficult to do a focus stack in the field because insects move, wind makes flowers move, etc. Unfortunately, that is why some photographers “recruit” insects to be their models and then they refrigerate them to slow them down before taking photos in studio setting. I personally, do not do this and I don't recommend it.
Stationary items can also be used for a focus stack, like this sleeping snail (below) who came to no harm. As described before, move away until the subject is just out of focus, then start moving slowly toward the subject and use burst shooting take a long sequence of images until the focus has moved beyond the subject.
The benefits of manual mode and manual focus.
If you have a smartphone that is newer, you probably have a pro mode that allows manual controls as an option. If your phone is an older model you may need to download an app like Moment or Halide to get more manual control. On your DSLR or mirrorless there are settings for the mode (usually a dial on top) and for lens focusing (autofocus and manual focus -- typically a switch on or near the lens or in the menu). You can consult your manufacturer’s manual if you aren’t sure how to make these adjustments.
Manual mode always allows you as the photographer more control over your images. Whether you are using a smartphone or camera, use your controls to set a fast shutter speed for macro photography. This will help eliminate motion blur from hands shaking, breathing, wind, or if the subject is moving. Set it at 1/250 or faster for smartphone and 1/500 or faster for DSLR/mirrorless (cameras with lenses attached are heavier and more prone to camera shake, especially at the magnification levels and shallow depth of field in macro photography).
Faster shutter means you may need to make adjustments to aperture (wider for more light) or ISO (higher for more light sensitivity) to get enough light for proper exposure. Manual control lets you decide which one you want to adjust, or allows you to adjust a little bit of both. The newest models of smartphones have excellent low light technology and shooting at fast shutter speeds is usually not an issue. You may find you don't need to make any adjustments at all other than the shutter speed.
Autofocus is not the preferred method for macro, but if that is what you are comfortable with, then be sure to set your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s Autofocus Mode to Single Shot and select a single autofocus point. Keep your subject under that point. If your smartphone or app allows you to select a focus point, select one point and then keep your subject under that point.
I usually find myself using manual focus when shooting macro on my DSLR. Some of my accessories do not allow for autofocus communication and most of the time the autofocus does too much "hunting" for focus or won't focus on the right part anyway. Among macro photographers, manual focus is very normal. When I use my smartphone, the camera usually focuses just fine with the macro attachments as long as I get the proper distance between my phone and the subject. As mentioned before, I take many, many shots so that at least one of them will have the focus nailed where I wanted it.
Use your camera’s focus aids. For example, on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, use your LCD screen and zoom in (or use picture in picture if available) to check your focus. Some cameras and phone apps will allow you to turn on Focus Peaking. This feature turns on colored lines or highlights that outline the areas with the sharpest focus. It can help you get crisp focus and also help you see what depth of field you are working with.
Small working distance is a challenge.
When taking macro photos you often have a small working distance. Working distance is the distance between the front edges of lens (whether camera or smartphone lens) to your subject. This can be a small distance of only centimeters. What this means is that you have to bring your camera and lens, or phone, very close to the subject. Sometimes this distance is so close it is almost touching the subject.
It is important to understand what the working distance measurement will be for any lens or magnification accessory you purchase. You can get this information in the specification section of the item’s description. Before you buy, determine what types of subjects you might want to photograph to help you decide what working distance you need and buy a lens or accessory that fits those parameters. For example, when taking macro photos of flowers you can use a lens with 3 cm working distance, but for photos of bees or dragonflies you need to be farther away or you will scare them off.
Lighting is a challenge.
Achieving proper lighting can be difficult in any type of photography, but macro has its own unique set of challenges. When your macro lens or attachment requires you to get close to the subject, you may find the camera, smartphone, or lens is so close that it is actually blocking the light. Or you may find on bright sunny days that direct sunlight creates terrible blown out highlights and harsh shadows. How do you find the right balance?
Let’s go back to shutter speed for a moment. You will need a fast shutter speed so you have to get your light from somewhere else. With a DSLR or mirrorless, you can open up the aperture, but since depth of field is already so shallow you may not get anything but a sliver of focus if you go wide open. You can raise the ISO, but that can add digital noise or “grain” to your images. When you are on a smartphone, the manual controls are limited and aperture is usually not an option, so your only choice would be to increase ISO. None of these are great solutions because they all require some compromise in the final image.
The better solution is to shoot macro outdoors on bright sunny days and fully block your subject with your body or your other hand. This way you get the best of both worlds. You have plenty of light but no harsh highlights and shadows.
Another great option is accessory lighting or small reflectors. There are many different options and styles available that are also budget friendly. If you think you will be crawling around under bushes and in darker areas you might want to consider a headlamp. You can buy one of these at a hardware store and use it with a smartphone or DSLR.
There are special lights that clip onto your phone or attach to the end of your DSLR or mirrorless camera lens. These lights can be continuous or flash and are commonly called macro ring flashes. These are not the same as the selfie ring lights used for video conference calls or vlogging, but they do have some similarities. As an example see our video on the Neewer 550D Ring Flash for macro (this cannot be used with the Raynox DCR-250 unless you hand hold it off camera).
There are also LED lights like the Ulanzi VL49 which can be used with smartphones or DSLR/mirrorless cameras. With a DSLR or mirrorless you can attach it to the camera’s hot shoe, hand hold it, or set it up where you need light. With smartphones you hand hold the light or place it where you need light (or if you have a small “rig” for your phone you can connect it to that). Of course, you don’t have to buy any special lights, you can just use a flashlight.
Whatever lighting product you buy make sure that it won’t get in the way of what you are shooting and that it is maneuverable so you can get light where you need it. Another simple option is to get some very small reflector panels. These are used to bounce light into areas that are dark or shadowed, or to even out light.
Demonstrating scale is a challenge.
No one can truly appreciate how “close” you are to a subject if they cannot even tell what the subject is.
When composing your image or cropping your image try to make sure at least one distinguishable or familiar element is clearly visible for context and reference. For example, on a bumble bee, a close up of the fuzzy abdomen with no other reference won’t look as impressive as a close up of part of the bee’s eye or wing. Some objects lose their form completely when shown close up. In these cases a series of images taking the viewer “in” to the subject can help both identify the subject and appreciate the tiny scale.
In the image below of a tiny flower, no one would know it was only 2-3mm in size based on the final image. For this reason, photographers sometimes include water droplets or insects of “known” size like ladybugs. You can easily add water droplets to your images using a spray bottle or medicine dropper. In some cases, the image is abstract enough that the scale or knowing the subject doesn’t really matter. The same can be true when the close up is obviously a magnification even when we don’t know exactly what it is.
Camera Apps that allow you to shoot in RAW.
For all types of photography, I recommend you shoot in RAW. RAW files allow greater ability to control or fix white balance/color temperature, color saturation, exposure, and more. There are camera apps for your smartphone that will allow you to take your photos and/or edit in RAW. Lightroom, Darkroom, VSCO, and Snapseed are a few examples.
On your DSLR or mirrorless, you have to change the file type in your settings. If you have the option of RAW + JPEG you can select that as well, then you get both file types.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom?
Don’t use the zoom on your smartphone for macro. Zooming will degrade your image quality in this case. Get close to the subject. With a DSLR or mirrorless, depending on which accessory you are using, you can use a zoom lens. Just be aware with long lenses, the zoom may affect your working distance and you may find that once your accessory is in place that your focus point is literally touching the lens. If that happens, decrease the zoom. For example if your 18-200mm won’t focus at 200mm because the lens is touching the subject, then back off to 100mm and try again.
Editing your macro photos.
There are lots of editing programs that will allow you to make edits for free. These programs are available for smartphones as apps, as well as software applications for your PC or Mac. Some apps we recommend are Lightroom Mobile, Snapseed, and Pixlr. Not all apps allow RAW editing so check carefully for which features are in the free versions (and check out our videos on Best Editing Apps and Best Graphic Design Apps).
All of the editing suggestions made here may not be possible in all programs or apps, or the feature may be known by slightly different names. Make sure the app you are using is “non-destructive” meaning the changes are made to a copy, thereby keeping your original file intact. That way you can always revert back to where you started.
When editing your macro photos, first correct your white balance/color temperature. This will remove any overall color cast in your photo. Many macro photos can be improved by warming up the color temperature.
Check the exposure of the image (use the histogram if available). Make sure your details are not lost in highlights or in the shadows. If they are, make adjustments until those details begin to reappear. In the adjustments sections of your software or app, considering “painting” more light on the subject if needed. If you choose to use a vignette, be subtle with it.
Most editing programs allow you to adjust hue, saturation, luminance, or vibrance. Luminance will bring up the intensity of the pixels (similar to the “lux” slider at the top of the editing screen on Instagram) and this can benefit your macro photos. Avoid strong colors and oversaturation of colors and don’t use filters or presets. These typically do not improve macro images.
When you use sharpening, don’t overdo it. Use the masking effect to make sure you are only sharping the edges of your subject and not globally sharpening everything. Sliding sharpening to 100% is never the right thing to do.
You can, of course, make other adjustments as you feel are necessary, just use moderation.
Finally, crop your image to emphasize the subject. You are already close, so there is no need to overdo this aspect of editing either. You can use the crop feature to get rid of any distractions or to place your subject off center for dramatic effect (along a rule of thirds line) or leave it centered to create symmetry.
Hopefully these tips will convince you to try macro and help improve your images. Macro doesn't have to be expensive. You can get started for less than $20 using your phone! Of course, once you begin macro you are likely to fall in love with it. If that happens, you may want to invest in a dedicated macro lens for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. These will provide better image quality overall, but they can be quite expensive too.
In the meantime, go explore the tiny world around you and when you share your images on social media, please be sure to tag us (Twitter @focusedcamera and Insta @_focusedcamera and #photofun). We'd love to see what you create!
If your camera could actually talk to you and give you advice on how to improve your photography game, these are the 12 things it would tell you.
1. Focus Modes are not created equal and they are not scary.
DSLR camera manufacturers may have different names for their autofocus modes, but in general they all offer 3 main focus modes: Manual, One Shot/Single AF, and Continuous AF.
As a basic rule, full manual focus is best saved for professionals or after you have some experience, one shot is for stationary subjects, and continuous is for when either the camera, photographer, or subject are moving. Let’s look at each briefly.
Manual focus allows the photographer to use a focusing ring on the lens to focus the image. The camera has no control over focus at all. It is easy to “miss” your focus in this mode, especially with subjects that are moving.
Single or One-shot AF is useful for many types of photography where the subject is static or motionless. Portrait, product, landscape, and macro are a few examples. It is not a recommended choice for action, wildlife, or sports photography. In one-shot mode, the camera focuses when the shutter release is half-pressed. After focus is locked, it will stay locked as long as the buttons stays half-pressed. It will not adjust if you, the camera, or the subject moves. If you need to refocus, you must release the button and half-press it again.
This autofocus mode can be used to “recompose” the image. Center your subject, press the shutter release halfway to focus, and then while the button is still half-pressed reposition the camera to get the composition you want. Then fully press the button the rest of the way (do not lift off the button before taking the shot as this will cause the camera to refocus again). You must keep the distance to the subject the same, but this way you can position your subject on the left or right, top or bottom of the frame.
Continuous AF (known as AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo AF on Canon) is the best choice for subjects that move (or if you or the camera moves). The camera continuously checks and adjusts focus as long as the shutter release button is half-pressed. When used with continuous shooting mode (burst mode), you can take a series of images with the focus automatically adjusted in between shots. This is a great mode for kids, pets, sports, and wildlife, or anytime a subject may be moving towards or away from the camera. The camera continuously checks focus and anticipates the direction the subject will move, but it is not fool-proof. It is also not a good mode to use if you need to focus and recompose your subject, because as you move the camera it will automatically refocus.
Some cameras have a combination mode. On Canon cameras, this is called AI Focus. AI Focus is considered a multi-purpose mode where the camera switches between single and continuous as needed. If the subject is static, the camera will select one shot. If the subject moves, the camera will select continuous. This seems like a “one-size-fits-all” or “set-it-and-forget-it” mode that would be the solution to all focus needs, but it is not. While it is convenient, you are leaving the decision to the camera and the camera does not always interpret the situation properly. There can be delays as the camera switches modes and this can cause you to miss shots. It also does not work well when you try to recompose your shot. In most situations, you should select one shot or continuous depending on your subject and not rely on the multi-purpose option.
If you want a handy guide to keep in your bag, print out the cheat sheet below.
2. Please don’t fill me with cheap memory cards.
Investing in quality memory cards is important! You spend all the time and effort to pick a good camera, please fill it with good memory cards. You wouldn’t buy a Lamborghini and then fill it with cheap gas would you?
Your camera manual is the first place you should look before buying a memory card. It will provide you with the type of card (CF, SD, etc.), and a list of suggested/compatible memory cards and their card classification. Once you check compatibility, there are several other factors to consider.
The next factor to keep in mind is capacity. More capacity isn’t always better. If you have a small point and shoot with small file sizes, you would probably never need a memory card that holds 8,000 images. You would be paying for capacity you never use (like buying a 8 bedroom home and only using one of them). Consider your shooting style and file sizes to pick a card with the capacity you will use. For example, if you plan a trip to Italy, you might want a different smaller capacity card for each day so you can keep your images and locations organized. However, if you do video or large file sizes you might need one larger capacity card so you don’t have to split your work session onto two different cards.
Next, consider the writing speed. This affects how quickly the card can store the images as you shoot. And higher read speeds will speed up file transfers and workflow efficiency once you get back to your computer. Look for write speeds of at least 30-60MB/s and for video over 60MB/s is even better.
Look for a card that can withstand repeated use. Check for the number of duty cycles (10,000 or more). This represents the lifespan of the card in terms of the number of insertions and removals (with reading and writing of files). Try to find a card with ECC (Error Correction Code) which can help detect and fix transfer errors, as well as “wear-level management” which writes data evenly across the card potentially preventing sections of the card from corruption from excessive wear.
Lastly, depending on your photography genre, you might also need to look for a card that has increased durability, such as water resistance, can last in extreme temperatures, or survive drops and crushing.
Excellent resource from B&H Video:
3. Don’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault.
Sharpness in your images has little or nothing to do with the camera or camera sensor so don’t blame the camera. Lack of sharpness is either because of the photographer (camera shake, missing focus) or because of the lens. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and all lenses are not equally sharp at all focal lengths and distances.
Lack of sharpness may be related to the lens, but even more likely, it is the fault of the photographer or not understanding the difference between sharpness and depth of field (focus). Knowing how aperture and depth of field work are critical to getting good focus and crisp images. We’ve covered these concepts in other blog posts in the past:
4. We like to feel secure (just like you).
Your camera likes to be adequately secured. Nothing will “end” a camera’s life faster than a 5 or 6 foot drop out of your hands or off of an unstable tripod.
When using a tripod, make sure you purchase a sturdy tripod that is built to hold the weight of your camera and lens. After you invest all that money into camera and glass, don’t skimp out on investing in the tripod, getting one that will last and is constructed out of strong materials. There is such a thing as “catastrophic tripod collapse” and it is just as bad as it sounds.
If you are a tall person, be sure to buy a tripod that will get to your height using the legs only, without the need of the center column. Using the center column extended is usually a bad idea. It makes the tripod more unstable and more prone to tipping over.
Learn the proper hand grip for holding a camera. Two handed grip is always more secure! One hand on the camera body and one hand supporting the camera/lens from underneath. If you have a mirrorless camera, there are “grips” sold as accessories for some models to make them easier to hold.
Get a neck strap, wrist strap, or sling strap. These clip to your camera so that even if you lose your hand grip the strap can save the camera from dropping.
Lastly, never walk around with the camera up to your face/eyes. This is a sure way to trip and drop your equipment.
We can help you pick the right gear for your needs. We even have “Try Before You Buy Classes” where you can test different equipment and leave with a customized list of recommended gear for your photography genre and style! And in an upcoming blog post we will share some tripod buying tips.
5. You don’t need to ditch me for a new model
Camera manufacturers make lots of money every time they get you to buy a whole new camera. The honest truth is you don’t need to buy a new model, get an upgraded model, switch to mirrorless, or even have a DSLR camera to get great images. Any camera type (even crop sensor and low megapixels) or model (even a phone!) is capable of quality results when in the right hands. Think about it this way, if you gave Ansel Adams a point-and-shoot camera or your phone, he’d probably still create fantastic images. Give a beginner the most expensive camera on the market and their images won’t be that good. You are better off to work on upgrading your knowledge base and invest in better lenses.
Some often overlooked aspects of photography that will improve your photography game are composition, lighting, and exposure (not just the exposure triangle). Take time to analyze images you like and learn all you can about how they created it. Join photography learning and sharing groups where you can get constructive criticism and ask questions. Get some old fashioned books on these subjects. The underlying concepts behind good lighting and proper exposure don’t change, so these books can be used editions that you can pick up inexpensively from resellers.
If you’d like to read up on some Composition Basics, see our previous blog post or consider taking a Composition Basics Text message class (1 month for $5).
The other way to improve your photography is to buy better glass. “Faster glass” with wide maximum apertures, crisp prime lenses, and fixed aperture zoom lenses for full frame cameras are good places to start. However, it is easy to fall into “GAS”—known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Afflicted photographers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of buying more and more photography gear (ex. lenses). Save up and buy one good lens for each prime focal length or zoom range that serves well for your photography style and that is it. Once you have a great lens that covers the 24-70mm range, a 35mm prime, and a 50mm prime, you really don’t need a 35-70mm zoom because you already have it all covered with what you already own.
This link will take you to see some great examples of images posted on 500px that were taken with point and shoot cameras: https://iso.500px.com/15-awesome-photos-captured-on-point-shoot-cameras/
6. Know my size. Am I full frame or crop?
Camera sensors come in different sizes. Larger sensors are usually in larger camera bodies and smaller sensors are usually in smaller, more lightweight and compact camera bodies. But that is not the only difference. The sensor size and camera type can affect what lenses you can use and they will definitely affect how that lens performs.
Some full-frame cameras are not compatible with crop sensor lenses which are constructed for optimal performance on smaller crop sensor camera bodies. Trying to use them on a full-frame could cause damage to your camera. See your manufacturer’s camera manual to see which types of lenses you can use.
On the other hand, you can use full-frame lenses on crop sensor camera bodies, but the image will be cropped to the smaller size of that sensor. The “crop sensor effect” refers to how the resulting image appears as if it was taken using a longer focal length lens. For example, a 50mm full-frame lens on a full-frame camera will give you a greater angle of view than using that same lens on a crop sensor camera. On the crop sensor camera the angle of view is more similar to an 80mm lens. If you full-frame camera does have a setting that allows you to use the crop sensor lenses safely, then it will still have this cropped view since the lens was design to cover a smaller sensor size. Our blog article “FocusEd on Focal Lengths” goes into this in a bit more detail and the cheat sheets below can help you see the concept visually.
7. My Self-Timer isn’t just for “selfies.”
The self-timer camera function allows you to set the shutter to release after you have stepped away from the camera. Depending on the manufacturer and model, this is most commonly a two second timer or a 10 second timer, but there could be other options. Most often, the timer is used so that you can get a picture with you in it. You set the 10 second timer then jump into the frame before the shutter releases.
However, there are other great uses for this timer, the main one is that it can be used to reduce camera shake. With your camera set up on a tripod, set the timer for the 2 second delay. This way your actual finger press up and down on the shutter are not vibrating the camera as the image is taken because the image is taken a few seconds after the shaking is done. This is especially helpful for longer exposures and will ensure your images are as crisp as possible.
For instructions on how to use low key lighting and your camera's timer to make images like the one below, sign up for our mailing list.
8. Know the different File Formats I offer
Most cameras allow you to choose whether your images are saved in RAW (NEF, CR2, etc) or JPEG, as well as the size of the JPEG files – small, medium, or large. These choices affect your final images, how you can edit them, and the size of enlargements you can create while still maintaining a quality image.
RAW files should never be left RAW. They need to be edited in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, otherwise they may look a bit dull.Then they can be saved in a format like PNG, or JPEG, to be shared on social media.
Shooting in RAW has many advantages in post processing. A RAW file contains all of the data from in the camera which allows you to recover shadow and highlight details, choose white balance, apply LUTs and profiles, choose your own level of sharpening and noise reduction, and more. RAW files are like negatives and allow you to make edits that are non-destructive, meaning you can revert back to the original at any time. They are “lossless” files and don’t have compression issues. JPEGs are simple, ready to go files. You have less editing ability and you should never edit a JPEG, save, then reopen and edit more and save again. Each time a JPEG goes through this process it loses detail to compression which leaves artifacts in your image (simply opening and closing without making changes or saving does not create loss). Shooting in RAW+JPEG gives you the best of both worlds (but it does use more memory so consider that when buying memory cards). You end up with a “ready to go” JPEG file that you can post and saves time, but you also get the “digital negative” of the RAW file that you can edit when you do have time later on.
Some people will tell you that editing is cheating. Basic editing like correcting white balance, improving the color (by bringing down highlights or changing vibrance), sharpening, or applying noise reduction is not cheating. JPEGs are RAW files where the camera has made all of those post processing decisions and applied them for you. RAW files allow you to make those decisions and apply those changes yourself. Post processing can be time consuming, so if the image looks great in JPEG then save time and just go with it!
9. Use my AE/AF Lock feature!
AE/AF lock is a commonly overlooked button. Auto Exposure (AE) lock will freeze the exposure and Auto Focus (AF) lock will lock the focus. These can both be helpful for recomposing a shot for difficult lighting or when a focus point does not exist where you want focus to be.
Have you ever tried to take a photo where the camera can’t decide whether to choose the lighting of the sky or the lighting of the person or landscape for the exposure? Half press your shutter while focusing on the area you want to base your exposure from. Hold the AE lock button and keep holding the half pressed shutter. Reposition the camera and fully press the shutter. The exposure will stay locked where you set it.
AF lock works similarly, except for focus. Have a shot where you want something in the foreground in focus and the camera keeps switching to the background or it won’t focus because there is no focus point on that spot? AF lock is the solution. Lock your focus, then recompose your shot.
Not all cameras have an AF lock button. If you are using one-shot/single focus the half-press of the shutter button functions as an AF lock. A separate AF lock button is only helpful if you are using a continuous/servo, or combination/hybrid mode. (See #1 – Focus Modes above).
These buttons are located in different places on different models and brands and may have slightly different names (or in the case of Canon AE-L is an asterisk * symbol). In some cases you may have to assign which function you want the button to use. Consult your camera manual for guidance and see the photo below for some examples of these buttons.
Your camera may also have an AF-ON button. This can be used for “back button” focus which allows you to set the camera focus button in this position instead of on the shutter release. The shutter release will no longer control focus. Focus will only activate using the AF-ON button. You won't know whether you will love or hate back button focus until you test it out, but many pro photographers use this feature.
10. I can save you so much time in editing, if you just spend a little time getting to know me.
Metering Modes, Histograms, White Balance, and Exposure Compensation all sound complicated (or terrifying), but a few times using these with your camera manual in hand and your images will be so much better in the camera that when it is time to edit there is much less to do!
Metering modes are how your camera chooses proper exposure. Your camera’s built in light meter then uses this mode/setting to indicate whether you are under or over exposed.
Common modes for metering are Zone, Partial, Averaging (or Matrix), Center, or Spot. Spot metering does exactly like it sounds. It takes a light reading from one small spot of the frame. The is most useful when there is one important area you want to make sure is properly exposed, like the face of a person. Matrix/Averaging tries to balance exposure by averaging the brightest/lightest and darkest parts in the frame. Landscapes are one example of where this metering mode can be very useful.
Perhaps in a future blog post we will go into metering modes in more detail, but for now, your camera manual is your best resource.
Once you understand basic metering, know that sometimes the camera exposure is not what you want – you want darker or lighter. This is where exposure compensation comes in. You can adjust more positive (lighter) or negative (darker) exposure. Not all cameras have this function. Those that do, most often allow you to make adjustments of 3 stops of light (positive or negative). How the camera creates this compensation will depend on what mode you are in. For example, if you are in Aperture priority, the camera will adjust ISO or shutter speed, but not the aperture. In shutter priority mode, it will adjust ISO or aperture, but not the shutter speed. A few practice sessions with your camera manual and you will have this function in your arsenal of tools to use in complicated lighting situations. The exposure compensation button is usually a square symbol with a plus and negative inside. You will need to consult your camera manual for the location of this feature and how to operate it.
Now, you have exposed your image, it’s time to review it. Learn how to read the histogram. The histogram is that scary looking graph that sometimes pops up after you take a photo (you may have to go into settings to be able to view this on your LCD after each shot). This graph represents all of the pixels in your image based on each shade of gray (the camera basically looks at all colors as grays – that’s why there is that 18% grey card in white balance card sets – but this is a whole topic all its own). A good exposure still has details in the darkest and lightest areas and on a graph this might look like a bell shaped curve, or even multiple spikes along the graph center, but not at the extreme left and right . If you see a graph where a lot of pixels are all the way over on the left (black) or all the way over on the right (whites), then “clipping” has occurred. This means the details of the image in the dark and light areas will be lost and most likely cannot be recovered in editing either. A “blown out” white sky is a common example of this. A few basic histograms are show below.
11. I need you to pick Focus Points/Autofocus Area Modes or I will have to pick for you (and I am not really very good at this).
One final, overlooked area in your settings are Focus Points and the Autofocus Area Modes. Again, these sound scary, but they aren’t and once you know how to use them they will help you achieve crisp focus! These are not the same as setting Auto focus (Servo/Continuous, One-shot) or Manual focus from our first section above, and this is not the same thing as selecting a Metering Mode. Metering modes as discussed above are related to light and exposure.
Your camera allows you to specifically pick which parts of the image you want to have in focus by using Focus Points. Focus points are the spots that cover your frame of view and blink or light up when you half press the shutter button. (If you have never seen this “blink” you may have it turned off in your camera settings). Unless you make a selection, all off these points are active by default. Having all of these points active or “on” might seem like a great idea, but it does not mean the camera is focused in all of those places. They are active, but when you go to take a photo the camera will select one of them, usually whatever it locks focus on first, whether that is your intended subject or not. Often it is the wrong point or wrong part of the subject and that is where choosing your point or Autofocus Area becomes important.
There are three common modes for selecting an Autofocus Area among most camera models and brands.
Single Point AF Area means you are selecting one single focus point. If you want a “set it and forget it” setting, then you’d be best off to choose this one and select the center point. The center point is most accurate and as long as you always put your subject smack in the middle then it should work 90% of the time (as long as you ½ press and make sure your camera locks focus before you take the shot). With Single Point AF the camera will focus on the subject under the selected focus point only. You can select which point this will be. This mode is best for stationary subjects like portraits, landscapes, macro, studio work like product photography, and architecture.
Dynamic or Expansion AF Area expands your point selection. The camera will focus based on information from surrounding points if the subject wobbles or moves slightly from the selected focus point. Many newer cameras allow you to choose how large of an “expansion area” you want. A smaller area (9 points) would be useful for predictable movement, like runners on a track. A larger area (21 or 51 points) is more useful for erratic and unpredictable or very quick movements, such as soccer players or birds in flight. Therefore, the Dynamic Mode is great for wildlife and sports photography. Of course, you will still need to pan or “track” your subject by moving the camera along with your subject to keep it inside the selected focus area.
Automatic AF Area is just like it sounds. This mode lets the camera make the decision about which point to use and what area to focus on. Unfortunately, the camera can focus on the wrong area. It decides what area is most important and it may give priority to a bicycle rider behind your child on the swing. This mode is best for beginners or when you need quick focus on something that is easy and close to you.
Your camera may also have a Group AF Area or even Eye AF, and new modes are being developed and added all the time. Some additional details about these are in the cheat sheet pictured below.
12. Shoot more than you need, because unlike film, digital is basically free.
Digital photography gives you a freedom that traditional film photographers never had. They didn’t know for certain how their images would turn out until they were in their darkroom waiting for their composition to appear. Nowadays, you can review your images, but even then, those little LCDs will lie like politicians, and when you get home you come to realize that you missed your mark. So consider all the previous tips in this blog and use some of those settings to lower the risk of this happening to you.
Shooting more than you need doesn’t mean 18 straight shots of the same thing without making any changes. It means take lots of photos with some adjustments in between each one. Shoot in burst/continuous mode or change the exposure with exposure compensation. Try a different metering mode, adjust your angle, or use a different auto focusing mode, AF point, or focus area mode. And always shoot in RAW (or RAW + JPEG)! If you are ever unsure about your results, shoot more than you need. It costs very little and whatever that cost is will be worth it when you only have one opportunity to catch the moment.
What is ISO? What does ISO mean when it comes to photography?
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation part out of the way. You will hear people pronounce ISO as “eye-so” or “eye-ess-oh.” The correct pronunciation is “eye-so.” Some may argue that ISO stands for International Standards Organization and therefore as an acronym it must be “eye-ess-oh.” This is incorrect. The actual corporation is the International Organization for Standardization and the founders gave themselves the short name ISO from the Greek “isos” which means “equal.” Since ISO is short for “isos” it would obviously be pronounced like a word and not as an acronym. You don’t pronounce all the letters of a word unless you are spelling it. Therefore ISO is pronounced “eye-so.”
Now why is the photography term ISO (which is part of the exposure triangle) related to this corporation anyway?
The International Organization for Standardization sets standards for all sorts of manufactured products, including film and photography products. Their purpose is to make sure everyone around the world uses the same measurements and regulations and thus whatever product you get in one nation is “equal” to what you would get in another nation on the other side of the world. For example, the steps on ladders and stairs in factories are standardized. Imagine what would happen if every staircase used different distances between steps. Lots of accidents! We take for granted that printer paper size is always 8 ½ x 11 (in the US) or that a 3-hole puncher will punch 3 holes in the same places. These “standards” are the work of ISO.
Many decades ago, there was a need to standardize film speeds. Enter ISO. They created a system to numerically measure film’s sensitivity to light. There were also a competing standards known as ASA and DIN which were combined into ISO standards in 1974. So since the 1970s no matter where you bought film and no matter what brand, you were assured that it would work in your camera the exact same way. Boxes of film were sold in 4 common speeds (and some faster and slower speeds that were not as popular). These speeds were 100 (slow), 200 (slow), 400 (fast), and 800 (high speed).
Now don’t be confused by the word speed – this rating system has nothing to do with shutter speed! So what is film speed then?
The film speed indicated how sensitive the film was to light. The slower the film, the less sensitive it was to light. You would use a slow film speed when you already had good lighting, like a bright sunny day. You didn’t need the film to be sensitive to light because you had plenty of it. The faster the film, the more sensitive it was to light. You would need a faster film when you had darker or low light conditions (or for fast moving subjects). You wanted the film to react more intensely and more quickly to the limited light you had.
How do the “speeds” of film work? How did they get the film to react to light differently on those different speeds of film?
Film was created with millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals called “grains” on the surface. A film that was slower/less sensitive had less “grains” on it. A film that was faster/more sensitive had more “grains” on it. A faster film picked up more light, but it was also more visible in the final image. Once the film was developed, images that were shot using 800 speed film appeared grainy compared to 100 speed film. The grain in a developed film image is from the crystals of silver on the film.
How do the “speeds” of film relate to digital photography?
Today’s DSLR cameras use a sensor instead of film with silver halide crystals. Digital cameras convert the light that enters the camera and hits the sensor into a digital signal. The digital (or electronic) signal is then converted or processed into a visual image. On a digital camera, increasing the ISO setting “turns up” the signal. As the signal is amplified, the increased electrical charge makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but as a consequence digital noise is created. Digital noise has a noticeable “grain” to it that is similar to what is seen in higher speed films. The digital noise may be luminance noise which affects the brightness of pixels (but not the color) or it may be chroma noise which is highly undesirable. Chroma noise consists of colored grain or specks. While both of these can be mitigated to some extent in post editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, at a certain point the image quality becomes significantly degraded. The threshold of where this degradation takes place will vary depending on the camera’s processor, sensor size, and megapixel count. Additionally, noise reduction processing is now built in to some digital cameras.
How does the size of your camera sensor and the amount of pixels affect how much digital noise you see?
On a point-and-shoot camera the sensor is very small. It is larger on a compact camera and largest on a full frame camera. When you pack a bunch of pixels into a smaller sensor area you will produce more grain. As you increase the ISO on a point-and-shoot camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a compact camera. And as you increase ISO on a compact camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a full frame camera. The larger sensor of a full frame camera allows for lots of pixels and larger pixel size. These larger pixels are more capable of gathering light so the reduced electrical charge required in low light does not create as much digital noise.
So what does all of this mean for your photography?
ISO is one of the three aspects of the Exposure Triangle. Knowing what you now know, that higher ISO creates grain in your images, you will want to try to keep the ISO as low as possible. This means you may have to balance the aperture and shutter speed (the other parts of the exposure triangle) to get proper exposure.
Just like in film, ISO 100 is only good when you already have lots of light. If you don’t have lots of light you will have to open up the aperture (small f/#) or increase shutter speed, or both. Depending on your subject, this is not always possible and adjusting ISO may be the only solution.
Here are a few scenarios. You want to keep ISO low, but it isn’t very sunny. You can use a longer shutter speed as long as your subject is stationary like a landscape or a flower. But if you subject is moving, like at a sporting event, you may have to adjust the aperture, or increase the ISO. You can open up the aperture to f/5.6 or maybe even f/4, but if you widen it to f/2 you may end up with a depth of field that is too shallow to get your entire subject in focus. The Exposure Triangle is a balancing act, like a 3-way see-saw, and sometimes increasing ISO will be the only way to get the image. (See our website for a free Exposure Triangle "Sliders" Cheat Sheet)
Doubling your ISO from 100 to 200, for example, doubles the amount of light sensitivity. Therefore you only need half as much light from your other settings, so you could change the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6 to get greater depth of field, or you could change to a faster shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250th. Sports photographers will consistently use higher ISO settings than landscape photographers. Photographers that photograph in low light situations will consistently use higher ISO settings than photographers that always take photos of flowers on sunny days.
What is the takeaway?
Lower ISO is always better for your image quality. Increasing ISO will add noise to your images (how much noise will depend on the ISO level and the camera specs). Just remember, when faced with a choice of getting the shot versus only using low ISO, always get the shot even if you have to turn the ISO way up!
If you’d like a hands-on lesson with some practice using ISO settings check out the Free Lessons section of our website. There you will find lessons on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more.
All this talk about film bringing on some nostalgia? Want to try some old fashioned film photography?
Pull out that old vintage film camera or purchase one online! You can easily find vintage film cameras to purchase online from many sellers like Tommy's Camera Shop on Etsy, used sellers like KEH (affiliate link), or on Ebay. Film is available at B&H Video and Adorama. You need fast film for overcast days, fast moving subjects, or low light. For fast speed films, try Ilford HP5 Plus 400 or Kodak Portra 400. For very low light, try Kodak T-Max P3200. You can use low speed film for situations with lots of light, such as very bright days. Try Ilford Pan F50 or Ilford FP4 Plus 125. You can use these handheld, but a tripod can help reduce camera shake. Good luck!
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