If you find yourself taking lots of pictures with a cheap phone camera then presently I would advise buying a pocket camera since these are almost guaranteed to produce better results if you learn how how to use it properly. If you are not sure what to do with your camera start by reading the manual. It will not take long and could save much wasted effort. I describe here one instance in which having some understanding of how my tiny pocket camera behaves was beneficial.
Recently when visiting friends, I saw 2 beautiful shells on their hall table. As on many occasions when I see a beautiful object, I wanted to capture an image and take the best shot I can with the equipment available. At the time I was carrying a tiny Canon camera in my trouser pocket (IXUS 240HS, 16 MP, touchscreen). The camera is nearly always set to manual so that I can capture with maximum control; ISO 100 (lowest) for maximum quality and focus set to touch screen control. In order to get close I set the zoom to wide angle. If you want to do close up photography with a compact camera then setting the the lens to wide angle is really important. One would think that ‘zooming in’ would be best, however this does not apply with compacts. If you zoom the lens you will need to hold the camera further away and so make ‘close up’ subjects smaller. This applies to every compact I have tried, although not to SLRs.
A large shell photographed at a distance of 20 cm with the lens set to wide angle. The area of focus was on the upper part and chosen with the touch screen.
I needed to find a place with good light and a simple background. Simple is often better in photography as extraneous detail is often an unwelcome distraction. The modern white plastic double-glazed window frame can be excellent for close up photography, so that is what I used in my friends’ house. (Back home I might have used a SLR camera, studio lighting and a paper background). The light is at its strongest for any indoor location when near to the window. The light is also directional and so produces ‘contour modelling’ shadows. As the day was overcast I set the colour balance to cloudy. In fact Scotland is so cloudy much of the time that I use this as my default colour balance setting on this camera. When using a compact camera that does not save RAW files it makes sense to try and get the colour balance the way you want it. I also often deliberately under-expose pictures to maintain highlight detail. However in this case I overexposed by two thirds of a stop because of the white background. I could later have differentially brightened the background and might still yet do that.
Of course I also did some post-processing as you can see by comparing the upper image with the one below. I never expect to ‘take’ a picture. Instead I anticipate ‘making’ the picture by processing the original image according to my taste. In the upper picture the top part of the shell has been lightened and contrast enhanced by using a levels layer and a mask.
With close up photography it is also a very good idea to photograph the object of interest with something that will tell you how large it is. I therefore put the shell on the internal door mat and photographed it beside my foot. I could later work out that it was 16.5 cm long by measuring my foot with a ruler when I got home. I then measured the features in the images with the electronic ruler in Photoshop and did a very simple calculation: ( shell length in pixels/ foot width in pixels) x foot width in cm.
By using a series of contrast and local contrast enhancement steps to emphasize the ridges, I produced this close up of the shell as it sat on the door mat. Again it was lit from above by windows.
It is of course possible to take the camera nearer, when the lens is set to wide angle, so that the much finer detail is revealed. In the image above additional sharpening was applied. By comparing the last 2 images you will see that it is easily possible to create images with a very different contrast and brightness range even from the same object without recourse to any lighting equipment. In the last image I wanted much less contrast so I used a luminosity masks to selectively lighten the shadows only. In order to make that process easier I used one of Tony Kuypers ‘actions’ in Photoshop, which generated the mask with one mouse/stylus click.
As you can see all of the above was extremely easy to do with the minimum of equipment and a little relevant knowledge.
Points to remember:
set wide angle for close ups with a compact camera
read the camera manual if you do not know how to adjust the settings
‘window light’ is often very useful indoors
simplicity of composition can be helpful
photograph a reference object to later measure size
use manual camera setting for maximum control
learn to process in order to ‘make’ pictures from images