Getting Close – Using Your Camcorder’s Macro Feature

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2005

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

Have you ever tried moving your camcorder really close to your subject? I mean REALLY close. Most camcorders’ auto focus mechanisms adjust to provide sharp focus to within millimeters of your subject. This opens a whole world of opportunities to bring breathtaking images to TV screens.

Imagine the impact on your viewers as your move your camcorder in so close to a flower that they can see the pistils and stamens. Treat your audience to a spectacular view of ice crystals, water droplets or mist on a window like they have never seen before.

With your macro lens you can simulate your dog’s eye view of a scene, as he sniffs in the grass. How about an extreme close-up of your actor’s lips as he emphasizes a point?
The possibilities are endless. Using the macro feature of your lens enables you to magnify nearly any small object and give it a colossal perspective on a large TV screen.

Practical Business-like Applications of Macro Lens

It doesn’t all have to be about creative expression of your inner artist. Your macro lens can show text on paper for a training film on filling out forms or can help you create inexpensive titles for your video. Just print out bold text on paper and position the cam close to it. Bring your camcorder close to a computer screen to show how software works. LCD screens work best, as the older CRT screens’ scan rates may interfere with those of your camcorder.

Want to produce a commercial or promo DVD for your local jewelry store? Show the jeweler how close you can get with your macro lens. Shine lights onto the jewelry from the sides, because when you get close, the camera blocks the lights. They will be delighted to see their diamonds enlarged on a monitor.

Macro lenses have industrial applications. A camera may be positioned to closely examine products as they come off an assembly line. Cameras are sometimes remotely controlled and sent inside of a pipe or large container to look for cracks or other anomalies.

People whose eyesight is severely limited are able to read books using a camera in the macro mode, mounted above a book. If you want to demonstrate to your sewing class how to thread a sewing machine needle, a camcorder’s macro lens may be just the solution.

Working in the Macro Mode

The macro mode works best when you keep your camcorder zoomed back to the wide-angle position. Your images will look better if you mount your camcorder on a tripod. Even if you have a steady hand, any slight movement is magnified in the macro mode. Close-up photography takes practice; it’s like working with jewelry or small objects. You need to work more slowly and deliberately than when shooting subjects at normal distances.

One of the characteristics of macro photography is that you will be working with a shallow depth of field. This means that only objects the same distance from the camcorder will be in sharp focus. Objects in front of and behind your main point will probably not be sharp. If you are videotaping a close-up of someone’s nose, probably only the tip will be in focus. You can use this shallow depth of field to your benefit because a soft-focus background helps draw attention to your main subject; it’s a technique frequently used in portrait photography.

If your camcorder lets you manually select aperture and shutter speed, you can increase or decrease your depth of field as needed. A smaller aperture lets in less light, but allows for greater depth of field. To compensate for the reduced brightness, you can select a slower shutter speed, or if inside, just add an auxiliary light or two.

While we tend to focus on our main subjects, don’t forget that a distracting background could spoil your shot. Try to compose your picture so the background is not brighter than your subject. To isolate the subject from any background at all, photograph it from below, pointing upwards to reveal an unobstructed blue sky or a white ceiling.

Lighting Your Subject When in Macro Mode

Before you start shooting, position the camcorder and look at your subject. When the camcorder gets in close, there is a good chance it will create a shadow and block most of the light.

One solution, if you are outside, is to position a reflector to bounce light towards the subject and fill in the shadows. If you are inside, you can use any kind of light and position it low and to the side of the subject. Two lights will help balance the illumination. Some photographers use diffusers to soften the light and eliminate harsh shadows.

Transferring Photos

Photo montages on video are a popular way to add life to old photos and rekindle happy memories. You can copy photos individually using the macro feature, or you can arrange the photos on a table and pan from picture to picture. To achieve a zoom effect, rather than use the zoom lens, keep the camera in the wide-angle mode (remember, have the zoom control all the way back for macro video work) and simply move the camera closer or farther from the photo. You can also pan or tilt a little within a photo.

With a little practice you can create movement in each photo and create a dynamic video with music worthy of burning onto a DVD. Add some special effects either in the camera or with an editing program, and your work will rival that of Ken Burns, whose popular PBS documentaries use the pan and zoom effects on historical photos.

Video Art

Unshackle the chains that hold back the budding artist in you by using the macro lens to get in close to abstract objects. A close-up pan of an oriental rug set to Eastern music can become a relaxation video. Get in close enough to a large screen TV monitor so you can see the pixels, and pan and tilt around for a kaleidoscope of colors. Move along a printed circuit board, and with the right sound effects, your viewers just might think it was shot from a helicopter cruising above a city. At the end of each shot, you can move the camera back to reveal to your audience what they really see.

Years ago I saw a film clip that was nearly all bright orange, with fibers and occasional sprays of liquid. The camera pulled back to reveal the thumbs and fingers that were separating the sections of an orange. The camera was so close that you could almost smell the orange aroma. Have you ever looked closely at a slice of an onion or a half of a purple cabbage? Mother Nature has provided us with artistic imagery, as well as tasty foods.

The next time you look at a leaf, examine the vein structure. Hold it up to the light, and you can see even more. To give flowers a fresh look as if they were covered with dew, spray them with a plant mister, or fine spray bottle.

Getting in Even Closer – Close-up Lenses

If your camera lens has screw threads on it (most do) you can screw on special lens attachments that will further magnify your image. These simple lens add-ons act as high-quality magnifying glasses that you screw onto the front of your lens to get close shots. You can get them to fit camcorders with lens fronts as small as 19mm, and you can stack together two or more of these lens adapters. The front of your lens will usually indicate the screw thread size. You can take your camcorder to your local camera shop and try one out.

These accessory lenses, known as macro zoom attachments, go as high as 7x magnification and let you use your camcorder’s zoom feature. Century Precision Optics makes the AD-3725 +2.0 Achromatic Diopter (MSRP $99.95). It comes with adapters to work on lenses with screw mounts that range from 27- 37mm. Century’s Achromatic Diopters have two glass elements which, according to the manufacturer, minimize chromatic aberration and distortion.

Single lens element attachments also enable you to focus at close camera-to-subject distances. Cambridge World makes close-up adapters for camcorders with lens fronts as small as 19mm for MSRP $49.99. Hoya makes close-up lens adapters (MSRP $49.95) for camcorders with lens fronts starting at 43 mm. The company makes a set of three adapters for close-up work: +1; +2 and +4. Each close-up lens may used separately, or they may be stacked together.

Bring your camcorder to your local camera store and try close-up adapters designed for digital still cameras. We contacted Kodak about using their close-up adapters on video camcorders, and they said they have not tested them with video cams. They make a set of two close-up lenses: +7 and +10 (MSRP $29.95 for the set) that may be combined together for a +17 effect. Maybe you can do the testing for them.

Close-up, or macro photography as it’s technically known, can produce some spectacular images. Viewers may be fooled into thinking they are seeing a mountain range only to have the camcorder pull back to reveal grains of sand. Tiny water droplets could look like asteroids in a science fiction movie. Nature’s symmetry revealed in a close-up of a flower or fruit can be awesome. We rarely take a close enough look at everyday subjects to notice their levels of detail.

It’s fun to fill a frame with something we ordinarily think as small. However, you can take macro photography a step further by transforming everyday objects into abstract imagery. A cross-section of a cabbage or a grapefruit, when magnified loses its real-life connection and becomes simply a thing of beauty. With enough magnification your audience won’t be able to tell what the original subject was.
The macro lens feature on your camcorder gives you an opportunity to experiment. You can look at the world from an entirely different perspective and delight your audiences when tiny objects take on vast proportions. The possibilities of macro photography are limited only by your imagination.

Manufacturers of macro lens attachments discussed in this article are: (Hoya)

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