Questions on improving my photos

Feel free to refer me elsewhere if I am asking questions that have already been answered. I use my smart phone to take pictures for iNat and I have a 30x zoom. Trying to take photos of a spider, I noticed that at 20x zoom it was difficult (almost impossible) to get the photo in focus. It was focused better using 10x zoom and moving closer to the spider. (I also noticed this before when trying to get a photo of a harvestman.) I do have a couple of clip on macro lenses but to focus them, I have noticed that I have to get right on top of the insect and they don’t usually sit still for that.

A day or two ago I was trying to get photos of ladybugs outside and it was really difficult to get the picture to focus when the beetles were in full sun. It was a very sunny day. Is that typical?

Any other guidance for getting photos of the little things?

I use a (now old) smartphone for my camera (i’ve had it since it was new in 2016), i don’t use digital zoom since I crop all my pictures later anyway, but instead get close. I have a handheld 10x loupe that i hold over the lens for macro. Full, overhead sun is very tricky, the picures don’t look great but usually are at least IDable. I If i can, I use my body to fully shade the target and background (like for plants) for far away things like birds and skittish animals, I take pictures through my spotting scope or binoculars. over the years I’ve just gotten used to carefully approaching insects so they don’t fly away, but still I don’t get every one


I don’t think any phone has a real 30x zoom, so you’re just having a bigger photo being cut to a smaller one.


One thing to try is to get a camera app which allows you to change the focus manually, and then you can adjust it to try to get it in focus.

You may however be running into physical limitations of the zoom abilities of you camera at higher magnifications.


If you gave your phone model, people may be able to give more specific suggestions. With most, 20x or 30x are not going to give much real details. Mine has a macro mode, normal, 2x, 5x. Only normal and 2x are really useful if details are important.


Based on the metadata in this photo it looks like the android app is being used with a Samsung Galaxy S22.

It looks like it has 3 cameras which may make using a clip-on tricky. Otherwise, I think the android app uses the smartphone’s camera API, meaning that if your camera app doesn’t support manual focus, it wouldn’t support that in the iNat app either.

In such cases, a 3" x 5" index cards with a grid can act as a background for focus, for example this photo:

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This is the way.


Well, there are limits in how close an object the camera can focus on. I don’t think there is an easy way to overcome those limitations, except from getting equipment specialised for that purpose. There are lenses to stick on your camera, but you already mentioned the issue of being required to invade the animal’s private space. Digital zoom usually does not bring any benefits (except if you are trying to focus on a small object in front of a distant background, such as a grass inflorescence). Sometimes, it can help to use a handheld magnifying glass, but this is also often a cumbersome exercise, especially with a moving target…


Smart phones are often not bad at all at macro, and can even be better than many ‘real’ camera setups that are not particularly suited to it (since phones can often focus closer than many general purpose lenses). For medium sized spiders and ladybirds, they should be perfectly adequate without additional equipment, keeping in mind a few important points:

  • Be careful to distinguish between digital zoom, and true optical zoom. The former should be avoided except as an aid to composition in cases where you really can’t get any closer and would be cropping the end result in any case.

  • Learn about the camera details for your particular phone model. If it has multiple camera modules, than learn which one works best for macro and how to make best use of it. Information and phone reviews on the internet typically do a poor job on this, and so you will likely have to test it for yourself.

  • Make use of manual focus. Look for e.g. a ‘Pro’ mode in your camera app, which will often have a way to set the focus manually. Set it to the closest focusing point it can do, and then move the camera back and forth (towards or away from the subject) to achieve focus. I will typically take quite a few shots moving back and forth and then check afterwards which ones came out the sharpest. It will take a bit of practice to get used to this, and get a feel for what the distance should be. For more skittish subjects, I will typically take auto-focus shots from a greater distance first as ‘bankers’, and then only once I can get close enough I will switch to manual focus to get the best possible final result. …And when using auto-focus ensure that you are selecting the subject to focus on by tapping on the screen, rather than relying on the camera to try to guess what the correct subject to focus on is.

  • Be very aware of lighting – even the slightest bit of shade can have a massive impact on the quality of the end result on phones. Be careful to stand in a position that is not shading the subject (it can be rather a challenge to avoid this while also getting close enough in many cases!). Turning the flash on can help a lot, particularly if indoors (though can also create issues with reflections and excessive contrast). I tend towards slightly underexposing my shots (typically there is a way to adjust the exposure both in Auto and Pro type modes), and then brighten them again afterwards in a photo editor before uploading. This helps to keep the ISO value down and protect highlights, but more importantly for wildlife, it helps to keep the shutter speed higher and reduce the likelihood of movement blur.

  • I wouldn’t even consider a clip on macro lens attachment until you are very comfortable with all of the above. Most of them are not very good, and are more sold as toys/gimmicks than anything else. There are some better ones, but still, the increase in magnification will always come with a reduction in the depth of field, making them more difficult to focus, and often with impractically close or short working ranges. I have seen people get good shots of much smaller subjects like aphids with them, but they are very tricky to use in the field, and are really best suited for static flat subjects that you have full control over (like seeing the fine details on paper/plastic monetary bills).

As a quick example, here’s the most recent set I can find of an outing in the woods with my Samsung S7 Active phone from 2016:

They may be considered poor in comparison to photos taken with my dedicated camera and macro lens, but still perfectly adequate for ID purposes.


The number one way to improve is PRACTICE!
I use a clip on lenses, rather inexpensive, as I tend to lose them.
The learning curve got high with a new iPhone with 3 lenses, but with frustrating hours of practice either the phone or I did improve.
Close in shots always limit depth of field. I tend to focus by pressing the appropriate place on the screen and hold my finger there as I move the camera to best position. PRACTICE!
Take your time. You’re no longer a point and shoot and leave photographer. I first practiced on plants, mushrooms, whatever cannot leave.
Practice and play. Practice some more.
I’ve been able to video a ladybeetle catching and consuming aphids and a slug eating leaves. You can too.


I’ve gotten some okay-for-ID-purposes photos with an old phone and just the default camera app. I kinda wish you could manually set the focus depth but as it is, you can force it by putting your hand or something close to the camera and locking the AF (by tapping and holding the screen on iphone). It likes to focus on the background if it’s busy (other plants can be an issue) so you may need to block it from the shot using index cards as others have said, or I just use my hands.

I usually take photos from progressively closer as I approach to avoid scaring them away, but you might find you can get right in their face surprisingly often. I usually look for nectar feeders and most of them don’t mind if you carefully stabilize the plant they’re on, which helps a lot with the photo quality if there’s a breeze.

This obs has some photos of an incredibly tiny wasp, which I held the plant in place and used the AF lock trick for. It’s got about ten pixels but you can tell what you’re looking at, and it was identifiable to family at least. I’m sure modern phones can do even better with something this size or smaller.


Is it a Samsung S22? Is it the base S22 model, the S22+ model, or the S22 Ultra?

Only the Ultra supports ‘auto-macro’ – that is, as you zoom and move in, it automatically switches to the wide lens for easy macro.

Of course you can also use the 3X telephoto lens in the other models if you don’t move in so close. If I’m using my Samsung (an earlier model) for a macro shot, I prefer to switch to ‘Pro’ model in the camera app and set the focus mode to manual (all the way to the left) – then move the phone to focus.

Here’s what that looks like on a test I just did on my Samsung 10+ plus some Photoshop tweaks:

And this one? Shot as a 5 sec 4K video clip for focus stacking:


Honestly, I have no idea. My friend mentioned that Best Buy had a phone for sale that had 30x zoom and since I had been taking photos with a phone with only 4x zoom I immediately dashed out to buy it! I am confident that it is a Samsung Galaxy S22, but I will have to search for the paperwork that came with it to get any more detail.

Thank you so much for this information! I just kept tapping the screen and it never focused.

I will look for such an app. I actually seldom use the 30x zoom, but the 10x and 20x have been a big improvement for me.

Thank you! That’s a lot to unpack.

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You can just open the About Phone section somewhere in your phone settings.

It doesn’t say, so I assume that means it is a S22.

Apologies, and in all that I forgot the most important point! Take lots of shots, and some will typically come out much better than the rest just by luck alone :smile:

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When using a phone camera turn the phone in other directions, my favorite is upside down. Changing your point of view!

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