One of the complaints I get most frequently in my pocket camera flower photography classes is “my camera won’t focus where I want it to” when shooting close-ups. It doesn’t matter which brand of compact camera people have, it’s a universal problem. I deal with it, too, and I use a nearly top-of-the-line Canon G12. So what’s the solution?
Many of the better compact cameras allow you to switch to manual focus. That puts you, the photographer, in complete control of what’s sharp and what’s not. I searched the DP Review website for compact cameras with manual focus and came up with 93 models, about a third of the 315 total compact cameras listed.
On my Canon G12, and on the S70 I used for several years, there’s a button labeled “MF” to put the camera in manual focus mode. Then it’s a matter of rotating the dial on the back of the camera to focus the shot. With the G12 the center of the frame is automatically magnified to make it easier to judge critical focus. My camera also has a scale at the right side of the display which shows the focal distance. In the photo above you can see the focus is set for less than 4 inches. The finished photo is below.
Manual focus on compact cameras is not as easy and intuitive as it is on a SLR, which has a big and obvious focusing ring, but it does work. Like most everything else, a little practice helps. I focused on the stamens in the middle of the blossom on the left.
There are a couple of techniques I use for extreme close-ups.
- First, I can focus manually as close as the camera will allow, then move the camera closer or farther from the subject until it is sharp. This is the technique I use when hand holding the camera. It’s particularly useful when you’re trying to get the greatest possible magnification. You may find that your lens is almost touching your subject.
- Second, I position my camera for the composition I want and then focus the lens on the most important part of the subject. For extreme close-ups, where every millimeter of movement matters, I’ll use a tripod and hope there’s no wind. That’s the technique I used for the two detail photos below.
While manual focus can be used at any zoom setting, remember that compact camera focus closest at their widest zoom setting. That means you’ll be creating wide-angle close-ups with these cameras. Watch out for distracting elements in the background and take the time to clean up the shot before you press the shutter release. That’s another reason to use a tripod. You can keep referring back to your shot to see whether it’s cleaned up without worrying about getting the framing right every time.
If you’ve been having trouble getting sharp focus on very small subjects, give manual focus a try if your camera offers that choice. You may be surprised at the possibilities that open up for you when you do.