Mobile Macro Madness (Part 2)

I thought it might be worth returning to macro again immediately, having started touching on the subject yesterday.

When writing yesterday, I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras such as SLRs / DSLRs / CSCs or bridge cameras.  I thought, since this is a budget blog, I should return to the more accessible end of the market, using a mobile phone or cheap compact.  In both cases, many have macro modes which allow you to get surprisingly close to small subjects.

“I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras”

Here comes the science bit…  I have included this under the title “Macro” because it is generally used to refer to close-up photography. Strictly speaking, though, the term macro isn’t right for most mobile phones or compact cameras, but it is the technical difference which gives these cameras some interesting properties.

Macro: A technical definition. – The ratio of the subject’s size on the film or sensor plane to its actual size is known as the reproduction ratio – macro normally describes reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.

So – now we’ve got this out of the way, why are mobile phones not macro? And what difference does it make?

Well, if you’re old enough to really remember 35mm film, you’ll know it was called this because each shot was taken on a 35mm wide piece of film. This is the same size as the sensor in expensive DSLRs.  So, for a photo of a 20mm long insect to fill roughly two thirds of a photo, you would have needed a 1:1 (macro) reproduction.

Your mobile phone, though, will have a sensor which is considerably smaller, typically 1/3 inch, which is just 8.5mm across.  This changes the reproduction ration from roughly 1:1 to 4:1.  Don’t worry too much about the numbers themselves, but the point is that the insect you’re trying to shoot is now larger than the sensor you’re shooting it with, rather than the other way around.

Now, this reproduction ratio doesn’t mean you will actually be able to focus on something at very close distances (so you may struggle to shoot an insect which fills your whole frame, without some sort of adapter), but it will drastically increase the depth of field which can be achieved at the shortest distances your phone can focus at.

Here is an example, shot using my mobile phone, where you can see that nearly all of the flowers in the photo are in fairly sharp focus:

Honey Bee
A honey bee, shot with a Nokia Lumia 800.

This increased depth of field is, in my opinion, generally a bad thing in macro photography, where you often want to remove distracting backgrounds with a tasteful blur.  However, it does have some interesting applications, and you can have a lot of fun with them.

One of the great things about using a mobile phone is that you can often achieve greater depth of field from close-up of objects that otherwise would be impossible to keep in sharp focus when shooting at a short distance.  This might be useful when shooting models, dolls houses, chess boards, or other miniature environments or landscapes.  This can create some great fun opportunities to create some fun composite images.  (See my articles on software such as PhotoScape or GIMP for some free applications to do this).

Fungi under a tree
Fungi under a tree, shot from a few inches away using a mobile phone but providing a wide depth of field.

And the same shot after playing around with it in some software:

...and a fun guy under the fungi
…and a fun guy under the fungi
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Maddening Macro (Part 1)

If you’re anything like me, you will doubtless have found yourself drawn in amazement to some of the photos out there of the very tiny, from very close up.

An ant in a wildflower
Wildlife can be found on your front doorstep, and shot with the simplest of gear.

One of the great things about photography, is that it allows you to see things which are very difficult to perceive with the human eye, either because you simply can’t get close enough to focus well, or because you can’t “freeze” something whilst moving, and your eyes can’t keep up with it.

This is where the wonderful world of macro photography comes in – and there are some true masters of it.  If you want to explore a vast array of images and techniques, the Flickr macros group is one of the largest on the site and is well worth a browse amongst its 300,000 or so photos (at the time of writing).

However, as with all things in photography, there is a catch.  If you start getting serious about taking macro images and read all of the magazines, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that you can spend a LOT of money on gear.  So is there any way to avoid this?

The short answer is yes – so long as you know and understand your equipment and its limitations.  I am therefore intending, over a series of articles in the next few weeks, to cover off some of the ways you can achieve great results without splashing too much cash.

Supplementary Lenses (also known as diopters, close-up or macro filters, or simply close-up lenses)

Being a stickler for technical accuracy, I’m not keen on referring to these little beauties as macro filters, as technically they don’t filter out any light – they simply act as magnifying glasses.  They are referred to as filters, though, as they tend to screw into the filter ring of your camera. (This is one of the reasons I recommend buying a bridge camera with a filter ring, or an appropriate adaptor).

As a general rule, you cannot use these sorts of lenses with more basic point and shoot cameras or mobile phones, which I will return to at another time.

There are a few reasons why I love these handy little tools, though, and why they formed part of every camera bag and setup I have ever owned:

  1. They are really cheap (under £10; definitely the cheapest way of getting into macro photography to start with).
  2. They can generally be fitted to any lens in a kitbag (either by choosing lenses with the same thread size, or a step-up ring, which can be bought for next to nothing).
  3. They hardly take up any space, so you can have them with you all of the time.

The third reason, although not technically a cost saving piece of advice, is definitely one about getting value for money.  One of the things I love about wildlife (particularly macro) photography, is that you can find things to take pictures of everywhere.  Ants, spiders, wasps, bees, even common houseflies become a hundred times more interesting seen from close up.  What you will find happens, is that you’ll go out with your camera and just stumble across things which you think are beautiful and interesting, and would love to take a photo of, but can’t because you don’t have the right lens, because it was too big or bulky.  With these little screw-on lenses, that needn’t happen, because they’re tiny to start with.

But seriously – are they any good?

In all honesty, yes they are – so long as you know their weaknesses.  Here are my “top tips” for getting the best out of your diopter lenses (with a few examples along the way):

Tip #1: Don’t just buy one diopter – by a set of three.

Or even a set of four!  You will normally find that these are sold in sets of +1, +2 and +4 (sometimes +3 or +5), and some sets come with +10.  I have a set of four, including a +10, but, to be honest, it’s a pretty crumby bit of glass, so stick to the lower numbers.  You will also read that you can “stack” these lenses (with the largest diopter closest to the lens) but don’t bother doing that either, as it will rapidly degrade your image quality.

Tip #2: Keep your subject centre-frame.

Unless you can afford to buy a two-element diopter lens (also known as an achromatic lens), which are quite a bit more expensive, then these lenses suffer from chromatic aberration especially closer to the edges.  This basically means that areas of high contrast end up with fringes of colour which should not be there.  With an out-of-focus and even background, this won’t matter, but if it’s a key element of the photo, you will begin to notice.  Therefore, when shooting (particularly in bright, high contrast conditions) try and keep your subject fairly central.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bombus terrestris in flight.
Shot with a +2 diopter from a £10 set of 4, on a basic canon 75-300mm lens (available new for about £70 and second hand, potentially a lot cheaper).

In this shot, you can see the chromatic aberration occuring on the right hand edge of the flower, though in the context of the shot, it detracts little from the action.

If you compare this with the following shot of a cricket, however, you can see how the image quality degrades as you reach closer to the edge of the frame:

A cricket
Shot, again, with a +2 diopter on a 75-300mm lens, but with a closer working distance (and a larger insect) filling the frame. You can see how image quality degrades further out (particularly around the legs).

However, if you shoot your subject dead centre, and against a low contrast (or single colour background) then you can hide the effect almost entirely:

Ladybird
A common English ladybird in a bush in my back garden. The same set up (75-300mm with a +2 diopter) but more even, green background without bright highlights.

Tip #3: Shoot on bright days!

There are a lot of comments out there about needing overcast light to shoot nice macro images, which is fine if you are able to shoot with an expensive ringflash or build complex artificial environments, but as a general rule, bright days are best if you’re on a budget.  This is because they allow you to shoot your subject at a high enough shutter speed to freeze your action, and to give you more flexibility on the aperture you use.

Tip #4: Try using a longer focal-length lens, with a lower diopter number.

Especially if your subject is moving! This approach should allow you to shoot your subject from a sufficiently distant position, without scaring the subject off – it also means you won’t block out too much light by casting your own, huge shadow over the subject thereby extending shutter speeds.  Also, the closer you get to your subject, the worse DoF problems can become making it hard to get what you want in focus.

Tip #5: Buy a mini-clamp tripod

These really are, cheap, low end bits of kit for about £5 – and would be rubbish for shooting birds, but for the small things they’re brilliant.  They’re also really good for quick snaps on a self timer and attach to pretty much anything (and have tripod feet if needed).  Again – they can be carried anywhere and used with any camera – so there’s not really any downside.

Mini clamp tripod
A mini clamp tripod you can just hang off your camera bag – available from amazon or ebay for around £5

Until next time – happy shooting!

Software for the more advanced user

“a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP”

Yesterday, in my post “The hard truth about software“, I highlighted PhotoScape as a good piece of free software which will meet the needs of most budding photographers.  It is intuitive and simple to use, but it has its limitations.  Today, I want to highlight another good free option, which is a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program).

GIMP is a much more complex program than PhotoScape, and as such it can be a little bit harder to find your way around.  It has a number of features which are comparable to Adobe’s Photoshop suite, such as the ability to use layers, to manipulate sections of the image selectively using lasso tools and to carry out levels and importantly curves adjustments.  It is therefore a far more complete overall image editor.  Unfortunately, in my eyes, it’s similarity to PhotoShop leads to one of its downfalls, because the way that you access all of these options is quite different, and therefore those who are used to using Adobe software can find it quite difficult switching between the two programs.  This won’t be a problem at all, though, if you don’t have access to Photoshop to begin with!

GIMP - GNU Image Manipulation Program
A serious contender as a free competitor to Adobe’s photoshop

The problem can also be avoided by using a related free program – Gimpshop – an amended version of GIMP specifically set up to look, act and feel a lot more like Photoshop.  Gimpshop has taken advantage of the open source nature of GIMP and has used its architecture to build out this rather astonishing piece of (presumably legal) plagiarism.  I can’t claim to be an expert on using it – but if you’re looking for a free Photoshop alternative, it would be totally remiss of me not to highlight this particular piece of software.

I will probably return to the subject of software in later blogs – but for now, I think that’s a good place to start.  I would love to see some of your “before and afters”, to hear your experience using these programs and any other alternatives.  Please feel free to share!

The hard truth about software

“inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye”

The hard truth about software is that you need it. There are purists out there who argue that an image should be left as taken and that any form of digital manipulation or post processing is somehow cheating.  Frankly, I think that’s rubbish.  Digital cameras are all driven by software (firmware) specific to the camera, which helps them capture the images, setting the white balance, giving an interpretation of the dynamic range of a scene, carries out the automatic light metering to set the exposure etc. This inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye – the camera may therefore not be able to capture a scene the way that you can in your mind’s eye.  Software allows you to make adjustments to the brightness and contrast of images, selectively adjust the levels to change the depth of shadows or brightness of highlights, crop images, straighten them and to sharpen them as necessary.  In short – software helps us ensure that our images are as good as they can be – and photos from all sorts of different cameras will benefit from this process.

So; the question is, what software?  And how much does it cost? Well, like so much else in Photography, the answer is as much as you want to spend.

Probably the most famous single piece of software for photographers is Adobe Photoshop, but it doesn’t come cheap.  It is now primarily available through monthly subscription (of £7.49 per month) so over the course of a year you’ll be paying around £90, and this would be an ongoing commitment to stump up that sum each year.  Photoshop Elements is a simpler version (and my preferred software) but even that will set you back around £60.  There are a number of other programs, such as Adobe’s Lightroom (£100) that many photographers swear by either alongside or instead of Photoshop, so you can see how costs can quickly escalate.

PhotoScape
PhotoScape is a free online photo editor with a selection of basic and useful tools.

It doesn’t have to be one of these expensive programs, though, and there are a number of free programs out there which can be extremely useful if you’re trying to avoid costs.  One that I think is particularly worthy of mention is PhotoScape. This free software includes RAW conversion to JPG and a competent photo editor including resizing tools, brightness and colour adjustment, white balance, backlight correction, cropping, various filters, red eye removal, blooming, paint brush, clone stamp and an effect brush.  It’s certainly no Photoshop, but for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!

“for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!”

Use software to turn this:

Manhattan (unedited)
The Manhattan skyline, but the white balance is a little off, and the image lacks contrast.

Into this:

The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased.  The image has been cropped and sharpened.
The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased. The image has been cropped and sharpened.

This shot was taken using my trusty Fuji bridge camera – but one of the great things about software like this is that you can use it to enhance images from any sort of camera (or cameraphone) really helping you get the best from modest equipment. An example of this is given below, shot on an old Pentax Optio E50 – a basic “point and click” compact:

Santa María la Real de La Almudena unedited
This image suffers from the shadows being too dark, and having an ugly date stamp on it.
Santa María la Real de La Almudena  edited
This image has been straightened and had its vertical perspective corrected, as well as the shadows lifted, date stamp removed and cranes in the background removed.

 

 

Cameras… What cameras?

…use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

As this blog is about photography, I guess it’s only right that my first proper post should be about cameras.  With all the thousands of different types of cameras out there, what on earth should you use?

The shortest and best answer I can give is – use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

I’m not saying that to be frivolous or to avoid answering the question – but after all, this blog is about doing things on a shoestring and frankly, I don’t know how long your shoestrings are.  Of course, I could recommend you a particular make or model of camera, but if I did, for some it would be too expensive, for some too complex, for others it may be too basic, or not powerful enough, or not carry the right features.  If there are any camera snobs reading this, my recommendations could even seem too “cheap” – but if you fall into that category, this blog probably isn’t for you.

Instead, I think it’s important to work our what sort of photographer you are, what sort you want to be and what sorts of cameras will best meet your needs. Note my use of plural here, as some of you may well want to use more than one type of camera depending on circumstances.- and this doesn’t need to be expensive…

A few tips on different types of camera:

Compact / Point & Click cameras:

  • Don’t write these cameras off as no good simply because they are (normally) at the cheaper end of the market – there are some excellent cameras out there.
  • Don’t get sucked in, looking for the highest number of megapixels. It is far more important to get a camera which is optically good (with a good lens) and decent response to different light conditions, than getting a high resolution JPG of an image which looks bad.
  • If you don’t mind buying second hand, you can pick older ones up really cheap. (I recently bought a 7mp camera for £6 and use it a lot).
  • Obviously, they fit in your pocket.  This is great as it means you can always have one with you; you never know when you’ll find the “perfect” photo opportunity, and kick yourself for not having a camera.
  • If you get a cheap second hand one, you can try things and take it to places you may be unwilling to take more expensive gear (out sailing, diving in a cheap plastic cover, up a mountain etc.) 
  • They normally run on AA or AAA batteries that you can replace anywhere in the world.
  • They tend not to have powerful zooms.

Look out for: Optical zoom. A decent ground glass lens. A view finder or electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you can find one. At least some level of manual control. A tripod mount. 

Avoid: Digital zoom only. Small or poorly manufactured lenses. Cameras overladen with “gimmick” features but little manual control.

Always try before you buy – and zoom in on a test photo all the way to see the sharpness of the image captured.  If you can, try the same in low light.  Often the big names, like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji etc are good bets, but they have also made some dogs!

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6 before my last trip to Greece – it was intended for use diving in a simple plastic case (and lives to tell the tale!)

Mobile Phones / Camera Phones

  • Some purists amongst you may object to their inclusion here, but let’s be honest, we nearly all have mobile phones, and nearly all of them have cameras these days. A lot of them are really very good.  In fact, the cameras in phones have come on so far that these days, that sometimes the design is clearly more camera than phone.  (Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 to see what I mean).
  • Of course, top end phones and/or camera phones don’t come cheap, but a lot of you will have access to them anyway because of your mobile phone contracts – so don’t be shy about using their cameras to their full capabilities, because it’s almost a camera for free.
  • Even older phones with less high quality cameras can still be very good, especially in good light.
  • One key benefit is that you will nearly always have your mobile phone on you, so you never need to miss that golden opportunity for a shot.
  • New phones can be loaded with loads of cool (and free!) photo apps for editing and sharing on the internet.
  • Because they tend to have small sensors, they can actually be really, really good for close-up work which dedicated cameras can’t achieve without spending quite a bit of money.
  • They often only offer digital zooms, which can be a pain (though some newer models buck this trend).

Look out for: Decent low light sensitivity. A powerful flash. Macro focus mode. A reasonably wide field of view.

Avoid: Poor low light response (like the plague!!). Poor field of view. Poor autofocus.

St Paul's shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.
St Paul’s shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.

Bridge Cameras

  • Bridge Cameras are called this because they bridge the gap between Point & Click cameras and interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and CSCs).  They offer far greater manual control than most simple compact cameras, normally offering independent shutter and aperture controls and quite often they offer “manual” focus (thought this will be achieved digitally).
  • They normally have significantly better zooms than compact cameras, starting from around 15x from a few years ago right the way up to a whopping 50x available today.,
  • They have large ground glass lenses so their optical quality is normally much better than compact cameras (even on older models with lower pixel counts).
  • They are incredibly versatile, offering a wide range of shooting options in a single camera and lens.
  • They are therefore great travel cameras covering a wide range of situations.
  • Like compact cameras, old ones are now getting really quite cheap (though I’ve not seen one for £7 yet).  If you shop around you can start finding pretty decent ones from about £50.
  •  As you start pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, you are likely to start wanting to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.

Look out for: A decent zoom range (anything from about 18x is pretty good for older models). Full manual controls including manual focus. RAW image capture if available. A threaded filter ring (or one capable of having a filter ring adapter added). A snug fitting lens cap. Optical Image Stabilisation. 

Avoid: Anything with a scratched lens (if buying second hand).  This is common in cameras of this type. Any versions that don’t have an EVF.

Fuji Finepix S8000fd
One of my favourite travelling companions, which has travelled pretty much everywhere with me since 2008. This little bridge camera is only 8MP and would be dirt cheap today, but it’s still got a great lens and is a real workhorse.

Interchangeable lens cameras

There’s so much to say about these, that they will need another blog entry, but they fall broadly into two types – DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and CSC (Compact System Cameras).  Both types vary greatly, and the modern high spec versions can be pretty pricey.  At the lower end, it’s much easier to find second hand DSLRs, as they have been around for a lot longer (basically since the early days of digital photography) where as CSCs are only really becoming mainstream now.  It is therefore also much easier to buy second hand lenses for DSLRs today…  

Looking at ebay today – you can buy a 6.3MP DSLR for under £50 but you would be lucky to get a decent lens with it, and the light sensitivity will not be as good as a more modern camera.

If you are really, really serious about photography, it’s likely that you will want to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera at some point because the range of different lenses you can use ultimately gives a greater range of shooting capabilities than even those offered by a Bridge camera – but it can therefore be an expensive journey to set out on.  If you’re total budget is £100, you are much better off sticking with a Bridge camera.

 

Conclusion?

I can’t tell you what to buy – I own variants of all of these, but I would suggest to anyone that a few quid on a compact camera with a decent lens can never be a waste of money… If you learn how to make the most of it, you’ll be able to get some great pictures.  If you’re a little more serious but still just getting going – an upgrade to a bridge is a massive step up in terms of the capabilities of the camera.

 

 

It’s all about… making photography as cheap and accessible as possible

Hi everyone,

I say everyone, but I’m not sure that anyone will find this straight away.  This is my first entry in my new blog, Shooting on a Shoestring, and well, my first blog entry ever!  I’m new to this, so bear with me…

Over the next few months and years, I’d like to invite you all on a journey in photography, helping everyone to take the best pictures possible on a tight budget.  I would welcome comments and advice from any readers (so feel free to leave comments etc.) because I am always looking for new ideas, and I know a lot of other photographers are too.

One of my biggest bugbears as an amateur photographer is asking about equipment and being told the only way to achieve something is by spending lots of money.  A classic example is wildlife photography, where you often want to take photos of something very close (macro) or very far away (telescopic).  In these areas, lens prices from the major brands can get pretty astronomical, pretty quickly.  These are areas I will return to (probably several times) – but this blog isn’t just focused on specific lenses or SLR equipment.  It will also look at software, the web, cameraphones, point and shoot cameras, cheap printing methods, scanning techniques, classes and a whole range of other items that I haven’t thought of yet.   It will also cover challenges and games for those who want to get involved.

So – who am I?

I’m Alex Denny, and I’m a keen (and still learning) amateur photographer.  When high street camera shops still existed, I used to work in my local one in Tonbridge in Kent (called Camera Gear).  We sold new and second hand cameras, as well as developed colour prints on various automatic processors and black and white prints in a dark room on site.  My early days in photography were therefore very much based in film (and as I’m in my 30s, I still remember the days when digital wasn’t really around) – but these days it’s nearly all digital.  The focus of this blog will be mainly digital as it’s quite a bit cheaper these days, but I will look at techniques for film as and when it comes up.

I’m interested in all sorts of images and types of photography – but in general I want to capture the wonder of the world around me.  I’m a keen naturalist and animal lover. I’m fascinated with wildlife large and small, but also the great expanses of the countryside, of the night sky, of mountains and rivers and of all sorts of travel. I love diving and I love flying, so nothing is therefore off limits.

I can’t claim to be an expert at shooting any of these things. I’m still learning. The aim of this blog is to help us all get to the stage where we can capture the images we want to without breaking the bank.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey!

Alex Denny
Alex Denny is a keen photographer, diver and animal lover and the writer of this blog.

Photography on a tiny budget