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Small but perfectly formed: getting the most from a compact camera

Philip Smith
19 May 2014
Blog team: 
Big, expensive macro lenses are an essential part of the pro photographer’s kit when it comes to plants. But what if you can’t spend thousands of pounds on the right lens and the right camera? Philip Smith offers some advice.

Compact cameras

One of the biggest developments in photography technology in recent years has been the emergence of compact cameras as a high quality option for the photography enthusiast. Even some professionals have ditched their heavy DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) gear for the handier compact system cameras - much smaller but you can still get a wide variety of lenses and accessories to give lots of options for your photography.


So are there limitations with these compact cameras when photographing plants?

Yes. But if you get to know what the camera is good at – and develop techniques specifically to get the best out of what you’ve got – then you can create images just as wonderful as those created with much more expensive kit.

The right position

Firstly, the sensor on a compact is smaller than a big DSLR camera. That means that it is much more difficult to get the kind of blurred backgrounds that enable us to isolate the plant from its environment, and enjoy the colour and shape of the plant without distractions.

So what can be done about this?

Well, we have to be more selective about the position that we take up when framing up the shot – and make sure that we pay as much attention to the background as the subject itself.

Look at these two shots. In the first I have taken up position at what seems like the most convenient point to photograph this iris.


Photo of an iris
Iris with obtrusive bench in the background

When I look at this iris without the camera I don’t ‘see’ the bench in the background. My brain edits this out. But the camera sees everything equally. The bench is a strong shape with those vertical slats, and so our enjoyment of the iris is disturbed by the bench. Result is a so-so image.

Moving slightly to the left - not even half a stride – just a small movement of the feet – and getting a little closer has got rid of the bench.


Photo of an iris
Iris without bench

Result – a much more successful image where I am asking the viewer to enjoy the flower untroubled by distractions. You can see how near to each other these two camera positions are by the presence of the small pink flowers in both shots. This tiny change makes a huge difference.

These shots were taken on a compact system camera with a 14-42 mm zoom lens – a mile away from the traditional combination of a long focal length lens and macro capability.


So how close can you get with the small zoom lens on a compact camera like this?


Photo of an iris
Close-up of an iris (42mm lens, 1/320 sec at f/9)

About this close. Not bad.

Auto or manual focus?

But it does become tricky. At this distance with no viewfinder, and with the camera wobbling about in your hands, focusing can be a nightmare – especially if the plant is swaying in the wind. There is very little margin for error.

You might think that autofocus might be best and yes, it can be helpful. But autofocus looks for spots in the picture to lock onto - if it can’t find a spot then the shutter won’t work. This problem comes up more often with close-ups than with general views.

So you can end up changing the composition just because autofocus doesn’t work! And with these close-ups it’s all about very precise composition - so this can be frustrating.

It's often better to go with manual focusing. Most cameras will give you a zoomed-in version of the scene so you can check focus very precisely. After you press the shutter, check the resulting image carefully. Yes, you may have to try again, especially if it’s windy. But at least with manual focusing it is under your control – not the camera’s.

Wide shots

But do we need to get in close all the time?

My compact camera is much happier in wider views and I’m happier if I know I’m using it for what it does best.

Rather than struggling with big close-ups your small camera will produce some lovely images of plant combinations, or garden views. In this example it’s possible to see the context of the plant – its flowers and foliage. The aperture chosen has made the foliage just slightly out of focus, so that the lovely blue of the flowers comes to the fore in the viewer’s mind:


Photo of Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’
Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (42mm lens, 1/320 sec at f/6.3)

Putting things in context

By pulling back from the big close-up view, we can enjoy the growing habitat of the plant. And we can explore the relationship between plants in the garden – the combinations of colour, texture and form.


Photo of Jacob's ladder
Photograph showing wood spurge in surrounding habitat (14mm lens, 1/80 sec at f/14)

So all is not lost if you don’t have thousands in your back pocket. Just know what your camera is good at – and spend more time getting yourself into the right position, at the right angle.

Need more inspiration?

  • International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) Competition 8 is now open. 'The Beauty of Plants' category includes a wide variety of approaches to plant photography with a huge range of techniques and camera set-ups used. Have a look on the IGPOTY website.
  • The book of last year’s competition contains stunning examples of plant and garden photography to inspire you and get you snapping. It contains useful information on how each photograph was created.

- Philip -

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