Monday, April 1, 2013

Nail the Focus with Live View

Well it looks like wildflower season may actually arrive here in East Tennessee before summer does.   The day time temps are forecast to be 50 - 60 this week with some sunny days.  I saw my first wildflowers last Friday.  With the wet winter-spring and extended cold weather we've had I expect the blooms to start popping out all over any day now. 

Wildflowers are great macro photography subjects.  I suspect many of you will be like me out in the field (literally) with your macro lens trying to get that great image that is perfectly focused on exactly the right spot to make your composition.  If you're like me, you'll struggle with the focusing.  Here's some tips to help you "nail the focus" on your macro shots.

First, put your lens on a good sturdy tripod.  Good macros can be made hand held, but they can be challenging.

Second, use a wired or wireless remote shutter release. If you don't have one, use your camera's shutter timer so you are not touching the camera when the shutter trips.

Third, turn off auto-focus and set your lens to manual focus.   When you're shooting a small intimate scene like a wildflower your depth of field where the subject is in focus will be extremely shallow.  It is important to compose your shot and manually focus so that the most important part of the composition is in focus.  The auto focus may be great, but it will often focus on the wrong thing, ruining the shot.

There are a lot of factors working against you being able to manually focus a macro shot.   The camera may be low to the ground, requiring you to either lay on the ground or get into a contorted position that makes yoga look easy in order to be able to look through the viewfinder.  I wear glasses with the "no-line bifocal" feature, which means the focus on the bottom of my glasses is different from the middle or top.  If I'm in a position where it's difficult to line up my glasses with the viewfinder then manually focusing through the viewfinder is frustrating because it never appears to be in focus.

Fourth, manually focusing a macro shot involves minute manual adjustments. It's hard to tell when you have the focus where you want it.  Any slight movement of the focus ring, camera or subject can ruin the focus.

The good news is most modern DSLRs have a Live View feature that can help over come the manual focus challenge.   In Live View mode you're seeing what will be in the image before you take the shot, but you're seeing it on the camera's LCD.  Live View enables you to view and compose the shot without fighting to get in position to look through the view finder.  You see the image while you manually focus so you are able to get the focus right and on the right spot.  If you have a camera with an articulating LCD display then you have even greater flexibility.

Both Canon and Nikon DSLRs have a digital zoom feature while in Live View mode which works like zooming in to the image in post processing.  What I do is pick a place where I want the focus to be as sharp as possible then use the Live View zoom to get down to where I can see the smallest details on the LCD while manually focusing.   You'll be able to see how just touching the focus ring on the lens can change the focus.

Of course, to make this possible your camera must be on a tripod.  Any camera or subject movement will make manual focus nearly impossible.  If you are hand holding and/or the subject is moving you might be better off in auto focus mode.

Live View manual focusing is not just for macro shots.  I've been using it to get more accurate manual focusing in my landscape shots.

The way Live View works varies by manufacturer and camera model.  You'll want to break down and actually read your owners manual and then practice a bit before heading out into the fields of flowers, bugs and other subjects in the intimate world of macro photography.

These and other macro flower photos are available online in the flower gallery on my website.

Like this blog post?  Share it with your friends.  Want to know when new posts are out?  Sign up in the Subscribe Via Email box on the blog website.


  1. Great advice and stunning images Richard !!

  2. Thanks Bernie. I'm looking forward to some of your shots from a little further north.