Images and text by Paul Illsley
Macro photography allows us to peer into the wonders of the tiny world around us. The term macro generally means photographing objects that are smaller than a credit card down to the size of the sensor in the camera you are using (this is called 1:1 image ratio). If you photograph objects smaller than the size of your camera’s sensor this is generally thought of as photomichrography.
In order to get into macro photography you will need some specialized equipment. This equipment can range from an inexpensive reversing ring that costs about $10.00 to a specialized macro lens that can run you $1000.00 or more. If you are just starting out it would probably be a good idea to go for one of the less expensive options to see if macro imaging is for you.
Reversing Ring: This is a simple adaptor with a camera mount on one side and a thread for the front of your lens on the other. By reversing the lens and attaching it to the camera you can record close up images relatively inexpensively. However, there are some limitations. It’s usually best to reverse prime lenses (not zoom lenses), these prime lenses tend to give you better image quality when reversed. Also, the automatic features (focus and aperture) won’t work anymore because the lenses’ electronic contacts are now detached from the camera (additional accessories are available to resolve this issue). Also, the magnification ratio will be fixed so you will need to find subjects that fit within that specific magnification range.
Close–up Filters: These are simply a set of magnifying lenses that screw onto the front of your lens. They usually come in sets and are marked with values from +1 to +10 (the higher the number, the higher the magnification). These are a great choice if you want to explore the macro world because they are inexpensive and easy to use. Unfortunately many of these filters are not that good optically so you will often notice your images can be a bit soft. It is best to use a smaller aperture (F8 – F16) when using these filters to increase the depth of field and lessen the softening effect. Some camera manufacturers sell very high quality (and expensive) close-up filters which are worth considering.
Extension Tubes: These are hollow tubes that fit between your camera and the lens. By moving the lens away from the sensor you decrease the focusing distance and increase the magnification. They are simple to use and work quite well on many lenses. One disadvantage of moving the lens away from the camera is that the image gets dimmer the farther away you go. They come in two styles; auto and manual. Auto simply means the tubes allow connection between the camera and lens so the auto functions (aperture and focus) still work (these are the ones to choose). They usually come in sets of different lengths so you can create the magnification you want. This is an easy and inexpensive way to get into macro photography and the image quality will depend on the optical design of the lens you use.
Macro Lens: If you want to really get into macro photography, this is the way to go. Macro lenses are specially designed to give you high quality images when focusing on small objects. They will usually allow you to focus from infinity down to 1:1 magnification and they often have an option that locks the focusing in the macro range so the autofocus doesn’t need to travel all the way out to infinity when it hunts for focus. Unfortunately these lenses can be expensive but you really do get what you pay for. Most macro lenses come in the 50mm to 100mm focal length range and the 50mm version is best suited for copy work or small object photography while the 100mm version is most often used for nature photography and situations where you need to move the camera farther away from the subject.
Depth of Field: Depth of Field (DoF) refers to the amount of space in front of and behind the point of focus that will also be in focus. DoF becomes a real issue when you get into macro photography. The higher the magnification, the less DoF you will have. In some cases the DoF will be just millimeters so if you are trying to photograph a moving bug on a leaf, the bug will be coming in and out of focus making it very hard to get a sharp image. You could (and often will) choose a small F stop (F16 or F22) to increase the DoF in order to get the bug in focus but that means you are letting in very little light which could lead to a blurry image due to motion (this is when a flash can come in really handy). One drawback to using a small F stop is that it can often make the background sharper than you might want which can distract from the object of interest. Often it’s nice to have your subject in sharp focus with a smooth (and a bit darker) out of focus background.
Lighting: Good macro images can be recorded in the field without a flash (you can increase the ISO setting to increase the shutter speed and use a smaller aperture) but most of the time you will want to use some type of flash. If you use the flash on your camera you will probably get a harsh and unnatural lighting effect but there are simple options to help give you much better results. I have often used a simple 14 inch square collapsible soft diffuser panel placed at a 45 degree angle between the cameras' built in flash and the subject. This diffuser is simple to carry around, inexpensive and very effective. It does take a little practice to get the hang of holding it in the right position but within about 10 minutes you will be a pro at it. Of course you can purchase special dedicated macro flash systems that attach to the front of the lens which usually have two flash heads that can be angled toward your subject (they are expensive and work really well). Another option is a ring flash (this may not be the best option for nature photography). This is a specialized flash system that illuminates the subject with a flash tube that encircles the lens. This is a great flash option if you want to create even lighting without any shadows (commonly used for medical and forensic imaging).
Technique: You might think that auto focus would be the way to go with macro photography especially since you have such a narrow depth of field (and often it is) but more often than not you will find yourself setting the focus at a specific magnification (manual focus) and moving the camera back and forth until you have the subject in focus. This sounds counterintuitive but often the frustration of having the autofocus search when it goes out of focus can be more irritating than productive. Watch your background and pay close to the out of focus objects as they can pull attention away from your subject. I will often choose a large aperture like F4 or F5.6 specifically to make sure the background is out of focus. If you are trying to photograph an insect (say a bee), pay attention to its activity as it is sometimes easier to sit and wait until it lands on a favorite flower or plant instead of chasing it around from flower to flower. Try and get out on a cool and calm morning. Insects are often more sluggish when they are cool which makes them easier to photograph and if you are lucky you just might get some nice images of dew on flowers (and insects).
Macro photography can be challenging but the rewards are amazing. Once you start to look into this tiny world you will be amazed at all the wonders you will observe. Take time to get down on your knees (or stomach) and start observing nature in its most delicate splendor.
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