Here's an area where some compact digital cameras have a definite edge over DSLRs and interchangeable-lens compacts: the ability to easily capture dramatic, challenging wide-angle macro photos.
Many compact digital cameras, when at their wide-angle setting, can focus to as close as one centimeter, or roughly half an inch, from the front surface of the lens, putting wide-angle macro photography in the palm of your hand. The image captured is true macro (or very close to it) 1:1 magnification, but because you can only focus this close in the the wide-angle setting, you can include some background that, while not in focus, is identifiable and becomes an element in your composition. It's a unique look that is relatively difficult to get with an interchangeable-lens camera (you need extension tubes to convert a standard wide-angle lens into a macro lens), but it's amazingly simple with the compact digital cameras that you can buy at Adorama. Read more about Wide Angle Macro Photography in this Adorama Learning Center article.
Our "studio": I chose this flower bed at Rutgers Gardens, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, knowing I'd be spending time lying on my stomach comparing different kinds of wide-angle lenses. I liked that the scene had interesting colors, forms and lines in the middle and distant background as well as the flowers that I could get up close to.
Standard Macro Lens: I shot this version with a Sony 30mm f/3.5 macro lens mounted on a Sony NEX-7, available at Adorama. The lens is designed for the NEX line of interchangeable-lens compacts and an APS sensor. It's a bit wider than typical macros so the depth is already a bit more than usual. Still, the background is thrown nicely out of focus. Use a 100mm or longer and the background would be a complete blur!
Wide-Angle Macro: Here I used the Pentax WG-2, supplied by Adorama for this article, and took advantage of its 28mm (equivalent focal length on a 35mm camera) lens set at “1cm Macro.” The flower is approximately the same size as the above photo, but notice how the wider angle of view allowed me to change the composition to include more of the background and put the flower in a different context. Different pictures, different approach. Both valid.
Standard Macro=Shallow Depth
With an interchangeable macro lens, which typically ranges from 50-200mm, when focused to 1:1 magnification (1:1 means a life-sized image is projected on the sensor and is the indicator of true Macro; 1:2, 1:4 and lower magnifications are technically close-up, not macro.), depth-of-field is very shallow. Even at a fairly small aperture setting, depth of field can measure a small fraction of an inch. Focusing properly for standard macro photography takes patience and practice. Read the Adorama learning Center's Macro Lens Quick Buying Guide.
The narrow area of focus also means anything in the background will be thrown into an unidentifiable blur. This is usually a good thing, since an in-focus background might fight for the eye's attention. However, some photographers use reversal rings and wide-angle lenses in order to compose images where tiny items in the foreground are in focus, but the background is not so out of focus as to be unrecognizable. It's a unique look that, when used properly, can be dramatic.
Here's why it's easier to create wide-angle macro images with compact cameras. Sensors in compact digital cameras, such as the Pentax WG-2, available at Adorama, which I used for the images in this exclusive Adorama article, are much smaller than those in DSLRs and most mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras. This means to get the equivalent angle of view of a 28mm lens on a 35mm sensor, you need a much smaller lens. Thanks to physics and optics, the smaller the focal length of the lens, the greater its apparent depth of field when focused at the same distance as a longer focal length lens, all other factors (aperture setting) being equal. If you could get pretty good depth of field with a 28mm lens on a full-frame DSLR using a reversal ring, you can get even better depth using the much shorter lens on a typical compact camera.
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Is your camera macro ready?
The bad news is that not all compact digital cameras offer a true macro setting. The good news is a growing number of them do. How can you tell? Check the specs! Look for a macro setting that brings the camera that allows the camera to focus to within an inch of the lens. Many cameras have a standard “macro” setting that gets you fairly close, but they may also have a “super macro” or some similar variation that fixes focus at 1cm or half an inch. You may not be able to fine-tune the focusing, but you can move the camera until the subject comes into focus.
Another example: First, here's a tiny flower, which measured less than an inch across, shot with the Sony 30mm macro lens.
Watch the background: Using the compact camera supplied by Adorama, I pulled back slightly to a bit smaller than Macro. Now we can see that there's a tree behind the flower and—oops! A red car! (If I wanted to I could easily crop it out, but I wanted to illustrate why you need to be careful when composing a wide-angle macro shot.)
How to do it
As you shoot, make sure the lens is at its widest setting, otherwise the super macro mode may not work. Be aware of background shapes, colors and larger details as you compose your image, and incorporate interesting blocks of color, lines and so forth into the image to take advantage of the added depth of field. For optimal results, keep in mind that since your camera's sensor is small, you should use the lowest ISO setting for the best image quality, and use a tripod for extra sharpness. This is especially true when working in the shade or indoors. If your camera has a flower/close-up mode, use it! This will instruct the camera to select the best combination of aperture and shutter speed to get the shot.
Yes, you can do this sort of thing with a DSLR; image quality will be better at lower ISOs, and if you're willing to invest in a set of extension tubes it may be worth trying, if you already have a wide-angle lens. But you may already have a camera that's wide-angle-macro photography ready right out of the box, with no accessories needed. Check your specs! If you want to do it quickly, easily, and conveniently, nothing beats a compact for wide angle macro photography.
One of the unique advantages of the Pentax WG-2 (available at Adorama), and one of the reasons I chose it to illustrate this how-to article, is that it has an array of LED lights circling the lens that are designed to light up close-up subjects, the only compact digital camera besides its predecessor, the WG-I, to offer this feature. In this case, the light helped to give the subject some “pop” and keep more of it in focus thanks to a smaller aperture, while giving the background a darker, more dramatic look.