Close Up Photography By Window Light With A Small Compact Camera

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.

Large sea shell on window sill

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

Steve Campbell

The Future of Photography and Cameras

(Updated 30th July 2013)

The aims of this post are firstly to  consider very briefly how can we predict future changes in technology and then secondly to make some predictions about future photography and cameras based on these ideas.

Predicting the future is an interesting game (and also of great commercial significance). There are 4obvious ways to try making future predictions.

1) The simplest and in some ways the most productive method for short term prediction is to look at recent trends and extrapolate forward by a few years.  For example it is easy to envisage that cameras will be routinely equipped with cheap 128 and 256 GB memory (cards) within 5 years since card size has increased spectacularly in recent years. At some point, camera manufacturers will offer cameras with lots of built in memory both for image processing and storage.

Another way of looking at trends, particularly in photography and image processing, is to find out what is  happening in the science lab in software and hardware development. Do you remember when NASA had to deblur images from the Hubble telescope?  Delburing became  a function within the well known computational and engineering program Matlab. Now you can do the same with an inexpensive piece of software.  In terms of Hardware, the German company Kontron many years ago had a patent on a Pixel Shifting Cameras that moved the sensor by a minute amount to increase resolution on composite images taken for research purposes.  Now you can buy a top of the range Hasselblad digital camera that uses this trick. Technology trickles down, or in the case of Hasselblad up, at least in terms of price.

2) Another approach is to decide what is defective or limiting at the moment and might be changed in future.  Good cameras of today are too large, too heavy, not sensitive enough, too expensive and so on. Even professionals would carry something lighter than  a 1.34kg camera body if they could.

3) The third way of trying to see into the technological future is to imagine in an unconstrained way: as a kind of daydreaming. This attempt is  intrinsically limited because it does not and cannot anticipate the interaction of things that are yet to happen.  I may or may not be able to wirelessly connect  a portable roll up screen with my camera in future to look at an enjoy in-camera processed images.

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High Contrast Subjects in Photography: The Coal Pulverizer Ring

The main photographic aim of this post is to explain how to photograph scenes that have a very large brightness range, which include bright highlights and dark shadows.  The other more general aim is to explain a little about how coal is used in a power station since the images used here are related to that subject. At the end,  I also explain how to correct distortion of  converging parallels introduced by tilting your camera horizontally upwards.

Pulveriser Ring and Balls

Have you ever thought about how coal is used in an electrical power station? Is is it just a scaled up version of a steam locomotive?  Are there hundreds of half-naked stokers or firemen shoveling coal into boiler furnaces under incredibly hot conditions? No.  In order to make the coal burn efficiently in a power station the coal is mechanically crushed then pulverised into a very fine and highly inflammable powder that is blown directly by fan into the coal-fired boilers.  Indeed,  a long time ago General Motors had the idea that it would be  possible to have a coal powered car using very finely pulverised coal powder. This material is so inflammable that  the humidity of the air is regulated to prevent premature explosions.


Very heavy steel balls rotate between 2 rings in a Ring and Ball Mill to pulverise the coal into a fine powder.  The picture above  was taken in evening light with the sun low in the sky so there was a large  brightness range. Continue reading

The Basalt Columns of Giant’s Causeway, Ireland

My aims in this post are  firstly to give the reader a feeling for what Giant’s Causeway is actually like, since most brochure and publicity pictures record the same small spot on the site. Photography can become so cliched and driven by herd mentality at times, just like newspaper journalism.   Having some wider knowledge of the site might help you if you are planning a photographic trip there. My second aim is to give some indication of how the images were produced. Thirdly, I have tried to give a little explanation about how the basalt columns form and have referenced  some research papers at the end. This post includes a large number of pictures, so that  the reader will have a better understanding  of what can be experienced on a brief visit.  I cannot show stunning pictures, since the weather and visitor numbers were unfavourable on my visits. On my first trip I was also using a Canon Powershot G9 Compact Camera.  On the second very brief stop the weather was a little better and I was using  an SLR  with 3 lenses which allowed more detailed pictures.

Where is Giant’s Causeway ?


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