Macrophotography with just a point-and-shoot

I started out using a Canon Powershot A95 camera, which is now seriously obsolete. Most of the things I say will apply to other, more recent-vintage point-and-shoots, although I don’t have much direct experience with any cameras other than Canons.

Unmodified Camera
For largeish insects, such as mantises, grasshoppers, butterflies, etc., the built-in macro mode on the Canon Powershot A-series is generally pretty good. Read your camera manual to find out if you have a macro mode and how to activate it (on the Canon cameras, it is indicated by the button with the little stylized flower on it).

Get into macro mode before you do anything else!

After this, the key things to watch out for are:

1. Light levels. You want bright, yet diffused light (direct sunlight makes harsh shadows that obscure detail, while dim light means long shutter times and high likelihood of blurring when your subject moves). And, if you are sneaking up on an insect, try to keep your shadow from falling on them, because this generally alarms them enough that they fly away. As for using the flash in low light, you can do that if you like, but it usually isn’t satisfactory because the flash is overpowered for very close objects, and it tends to wash out (and if you are using any accessories like I will talk about later, they will block the flash anyway). Sometimes, you can get away with using the flash if, instead of getting right up close to the subject, you back off a bit and use the camera’s optical zoom to enlarge the image. So, for example, if you have a 4X optical zoom, the bug will look just about as big from a distance of 20 cm as the un-zoomed image looks from 5 cm. Sometimes, this is far enough back that the flash is OK. Still, if you need supplemental light, you might be better off with a strong spotlight, although I haven’t managed to make this work very well outdoors yet.

2. Focus. Autofocus performs poorly on close-up macro shots, mainly because it’s hard to make sure the camera is focusing on the insect and not on the background. This is particularly bad if you are trying to photograph an insect on a window, because the autofocus will keep trying to focus on what you see through the window. It helps a lot to use the manual focus mode (if you have it) instead of autofocus, for this reason. It is often hard to tell from the camera’s LCD screen whether you are in focus, though, because your depth of field at close focus is only a few millimeters, so very tiny motions will take your subject out of focus. It helps to get what you think is in focus, then take a series of pictures while moving the camera slightly towards and away from the subject (moving the camera is faster than trying to adjust the manual focus, which on the A95 is a slow process).

Unfortunately, I understand that more recent point-and-shoots typically don’t have a manual focus mode, and also have an annoying tendency to decide for themselves what part of the scene they are going to autofocus on.  For the Canon cameras, they generally show a little box indicating the chosen autofocus point, which in the default mode varies from shot to shot.  In a lot of the cameras, though, it is possible to reset it so that the autofocus spot is always in the middle of the picture.  Check your manual to see if you can to this, and if you can, then do it.  It makes getting the autofocus right much easier.

3. Stability. Hand-held macro photographs are a lot easier if you have some sort of support. Either bracing against a solid object, or mounting the camera on a monopod or one of those baby tripods, makes it a lot easier to hold your focus, and to tolerate slower shutter speeds when the light levels are low (which is most of the time).

So, what can you photograph with your unmodified point-and-shoot camera?  In general, anything longer than about a centimeter can be photographed with reasonable detail.  This is fine for larger beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, and the like.  You won’t be able to get those marvellous closeups showing the facets of their compound eyes or anything like that, but any insect that looks pretty or interesting to the naked eye can look at least as good in your pictures.  You really only need fancier equipment if you want to get into detail work.

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