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by Bart Arondson

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Background

I have a Panasonic DMC-FZ20, however I would imagine this question applies to most point-and-shoot cameras with a built-in macro mode.

I accidentally left my camera in macro mode while taking some landscape shots today. Most of the pictures look "ok" from an initial glance, but I wonder if I actually have lost any potential sharpness in these images due to my mistake.

Question

In light of the above I'm curious as to what macro mode actually does in cameras such as mine. Is it perhaps simply biasing the auto-focus, or is something else mechanical happening in the lens?

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2 Answers 2

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I'm curious as to what macro mode actually does in cameras such as mine. Is it perhaps simply biasing the auto-focus, or is something else mechanical happening in the lens?

  • I have outlined the two main areas that Macro mode affects in general terms below under "Background".

  • Following is a general comment on macro mode and how this may affect your images and what to look for to see it it has had any effect.

I have copied DPReview comments on the DMC-FZ20 macro facility - from here at the end of this post. It's surprisingly uninformative re what actually does happen to achieve the effect and what the limitations are, but does discuss results.

The most important answer to your questions is that

  • if the photo is in focus and correctly exposed then it will be acceptable regardless of macro mode having been used.

Setting the camera to macro mode may have affected certain camera settings but these will have been in the acceptable range if the result is acceptable. There will be no "hidden affects" which are not obvious from a general inspection.

The two factors that are most liable to be noticeable (but still not "bad" is that the aperture may have been set to achieve largest possible depth of field (see below) and shutter speed may have been set to a specific value or range of values (also see below).

Some cameras when in Macro mode will not be able to focus to infinity - this may be the case with your camera and you may have been lucky wityh subject distance, or it may not apply in your case.

Wikipedias 'definition' is useful but not hard and fast

  • Macrophotography is extreme close-up photography, usually of very small subjects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than life size.

    1 Classically a macrophotograph is one in which the size of the subject on the negative or image sensor is life size or greater.

    2 However in modern use it refers to a finished photograph of a subject at greater than life size.

    [3] The ratio of the subject size on the film plane (or sensor plane) to the actual subject size is known as the reproduction ratio. Likewise, a macro lens is classically a lens capable of reproduction ratios greater than 1:1, although it often refers to any lens with a large reproduction ratio, despite rarely exceeding 1:1.


Background:

(1) The most fundamental requirement which applies to (almost) any "Macro mode" settings, is to arrange the lens elements so that the minimum focus distance is "low enough" to allow a "usefully small" object to appear "large enough" in the image.

If the camera cannot achieve this is "normal mode" the manufacturer may move or insert lens elements to reduce the minimum focusing distance of the lens. The resultant arrangement may or may not allow focusing at infinity. It is possible that this lens arrangement makes results less acceptable distortioin wise at certain apertures but if so you would expect the manufacturer to also constrain the available range to suit.

I used the wonderfully vague low enough / usefully small / large enough on purpose. There is no absolute definition of where the boundaries are in each case and generally if a camera has a "mode" that improves macro (= "small object") photography then it is probably a compromise camera and a compromise macro arrangement. That is not meant to denigrate such cameras - simply to note that adding the facility to the camera as a whole is not the norm with top end cameras where the lens will be removable* and the macro capability is a lens function.

I say "almost any macro mode setting" as I have seen lenses labelled as having macro capability which do indeed allow small objects to be imaged at large size BUT have an extremely large minimum focus distance. I recall a 70-300mm "macro" zoom I owned which had a minimum focusing distance of about 3 metres / 10 feet but which was in fact still useful for photographing small objects.

(2) All that said, there is a separate related set of functionalities that a manufacturer may add. They may decide that to obtain an acceptable depth of field at small distances the aperture will be limited to smaller values or even the smallest available value (larger /f numbers). They may make decisions about white balance, shutter speed, ISO and more. Such decisions are specific to each manufacturer and even to each camera but will be aimed at optimising small object results.

SO your camera may be "good enough" with respect to 1. above that no action is needed to adjust the lens system to achieve closer minimum focus and all actions may be in the area covered by 2. In which case "macro mode" is usable to infinity. Trying this before you next need to use the feature 'in anger' would be wise.


I once owned (and still do - somewhere) a Sony Mavica camera with 640 x 480 maximum image size and floppy diskette storage. File size was typically a massive 50 -100 kB/photo. The Mavica had the ability to focus on the inside of the lens cap if you could work out how to get light in there !. This was without any advertising of a "macro mode". Very useful.


  • A very few "top end" camera have fixed non interchangeable lenses, but these are usually niche specialist cameras and/or produced to address an enthusiast market - eg the APSC sensor rangefinder cameras being produced by several manufacturers with appearances and "optical feel" similar to those of the classic 35mm film rangefinders.

DPReview comments on DMC FZ-20 macrofocus capability:

From here (same web page as above).

  • The FZ20 has a rather unusual approach to macro focusing. There is no macro button, and in A, S and M modes the full focus range (from 5cm to infinity at the wide end of the zoom) is available all the time, whereas in P (fully automatic) mode you can only focus down to 30cm; presumably to speed up focusing in everyday snap shooting situations.

    Then there is a separate macro mode (on the main mode dial) that offers fully automatic exposure - just like the P mode - but focuses down to 5cm (again at the wide end of the zoom).

    As is common in zoom cameras the FZ20's macro capabilities are much better at the wide end of the zoom (5cm subject distance capturing an area around 43mm across), and there is inevitably some barrel distortion (and some color fringing). At the full 12x zoom position the close focus ability is less impressive - a subject distance of 200cm capturing an area around 12cm across, but there is no distortion at all.

enter image description here enter image description here

  • Left hand photo above: Wide macro - 43 x 32 mm coverage 59 px/mm (1488 px/in) Distortion: Average Corner softness: Average Equiv. focal length: 36 mm

    Right hand photo above: Tele macro - 116 x 87 mm coverage 22 px/mm (557 px/in) Distortion: Very low Corner softness:Average Equiv. focal length: 432 mm

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Wow, little did I expect such a comprehensive answer! Thanks a lot. Upon review it seems that indeed, most of my pictures seem fine (thank goodness), just a couple are obviously out of focus. –  MattJ Jun 10 '12 at 1:49
    
...and the Sony Mavica! My first encounter with a digital camera. I still have the stack of floppy disks I used to feed it somewhere. Good times. –  MattJ Jun 10 '12 at 1:50

This is a frequent questions from my photography students who get even more confused when they learn about macro lenses and wonder if they have to take macro shots with a macro lens in macro mode or do not need a macro lens because their camera has a macro mode. The real answer actually depends on the camera but most only do two things in strict macro mode:

  • Allow the camera to search for focus closer than normally. This is an optimization so that normal autofocus works faster by not searching for a focal lock at close proximity which requires much more precision. Even some DSLR lenses have a Focus-Limiter switch which serves the same purpose.
  • Pick a smaller aperture to increase depth-of-field. Depth-of-field is notoriously shallow at close focusing-distances, so most cameras in macro mode will prefer a smaller aperture. Note that I did say prefer, if there is not enough light pretty much all cameras prefer a well-exposed image than a under-exposed one with more Depth-Of-Field.

Pretty much all cameras are capable of focusing to infinity in macro mode but there are a handful of exceptions, particularly if your camera has a Super Macro Mode too. There are more variants such as Flower Mode which may also boost color saturation of reds and greens.

Some cameras have a separate Macro focus and Macro exposure modes. Usually, Macro exposure modes chooses a narrow aperture and also enabled close focusing. While macro focus mode only enables close focusing. If you are control exposure parameters, particularly the aperture, then chances are your macro mode only affects focus. If resulting images of far away subjects are not severely out-of-focus, then there is probably not ill effect.

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