- Macro Is More than Close Focus
- Macro Photography Lenses Characteristics
- Flat Field Focus
- Auxiliary Macro Photography Lenses
- Prime Macro Photography Lenses
- Macro Photography Gear for Steadiness
- Lighting for Macro Photography
Photo by lirtlon via iStock
Ultra close-up photography, macro photography, is a fascinating art form that photographers of all types can enjoy. Have you tried out some close-up photography but been a little disappointed in the results? Are you looking at macro photography lenses and a little confused as to what to choose?
In order to have success at macro photography, you will need to have the right macro photography gear and a good understanding of the basics of ultra close-up imaging. Let’s get you set up with some awesome macro photography lenses and other items and methods that will assist.
Table of Contents:
Macro Is More than Close Focus
Photo by digihelion via iStock
To get started, let’s get a few terms and ideas clear in our heads. Macro photography is more than merely getting closer to a subject and having it in focus. It involves getting extremely close and thus requires some different methods and quite often some different gear than you might already have.
The kit lens you have with your new camera is a great lens. It can take you from a wide-angle, through normal, and up to a little bit of telephoto. It’s also pretty sharp and even allows a fairly decent close focus.
It has a few limitations, however. The wide-angle end is pretty wide, but the telephoto side of the range usually seems a little limited. The maximum lens aperture (or f-stop) is also pretty slow. Finally, that close focusing ability always seems to be not quite close enough for certain subjects or photo ideas.
So, if you’re thinking about expanding your camera’s capabilities, you are likely thinking about adding new lenses and some other gear to that great camera you have. Macro photography lenses are a good idea if we want closer focus.
As said earlier, though, close focus isn’t all there is to macro. How close is macro supposed to be anyways? In addition to macro photography lenses, what other items should be in your macro photography gear bag?
Macro Photography Lenses Characteristics
Macro photography lenses have two main characteristics that make them different from non-macro photography lenses. One is the extremely close minimum focusing distance, the other is flat field focus.
The close minimum focusing distance in macro photography lenses is usually not specified in inches or feet, but rather in a reproduction ratio. The ratio is based on the actual size of the subject and how it’s recorded on the imaging sensor or frame of film.
The reproduction ratio is usually referenced with life-size being the common denominator. A ratio of 1:4 is ¼ life-size, 1:2 is half life-size, and 1:1 is full life-size. A full life-size ratio means that the subject photographed is the same size on the film plane as it is in real life. So a 1” wide circle would be captured as exactly 1” on the camera sensor.
It’s important to realize that this ratio is how it reproduces on the film plane, in the frame of the camera sensor, hence the term “reproduction ratio.” Once you enlarge the image file, whether on a computer screen or as a physical print, the subject matter will appear many times life-sized.
Which part of the appeal of macro photography lenses. If you took a macro photo of a tiny ½” flower bud at 1:2 macro photography reproduction ratio, then the resulting size of that bud on the sensor is ¼“, or half of the life-size of the subject matter.
Blowing it up to an 8x10” print means you’re enlarging the image file to that size, making everything bigger than what the size of things on the sensor image is. It isn’t noticeable with regular photography subjects because it’s a reproduction of a real-world scene we expect to see.
But when it’s a macro photography image, that tiny real life thing is now reproduced many times bigger than how we see it in real life. So the impact of the image is substantially different than more mainstream subject matter.
Flat Field Focus
Photo by Sinan Kocaslan via iStock
Flat field focus is where true macro photography lenses separate themselves the most from regular lenses. Most lenses project from the rear of the lens a plane of focus that is slightly curved. Simply a matter of basic physics. The lens elements curve light rays.
In regular photography at common focusing distances, we rarely notice this effect at all. Since depth of field (or depth of focus) is controlled by focusing distance as well as lens focal length, lens aperture, and format size, focusing closer narrows that depth of field. Not just as a function of focus but also as how it projects onto the sensor.
Macro photography lenses are specially designed to project a flatter field, meaning there is less curvature to the plane of focus. What would happen if you took a regularly corrected lens and tried to photograph a stamp or piece of paper money at a focusing distance that gave a 1:4 to 1:1 reproduction ratio?
If the center was in focus, the edges would be blurred, and vice versa. With macro photography lenses that are corrected for flat fields, the edges and center are both in focus at the extremely close focusing distances of macro photography.
So, a flat field is actually more important than merely how close the lens lets you get to the subject. Which is why macro photography lenses and other macro photography exist.
Auxiliary Macro Photography Lenses
We can adapt virtually any lens with a filter screw mount into allowing closer focus. This is done with filters called Close-Up Filters, Close-Up Lenses, Diopters, or Auxilliary Macro Lenses.
Many of these close-up lenses (like this one from Hoya) are extremely well made and well corrected optically, but they will still leave a curved image field at the film plane. So, while they can be used for many macro photography subjects, such as that flower bud, that don’t have much along the edges of the frame, their limitations will be obvious for any frame-filling object of any flat artwork.
They are a great way to get started in extreme close-up imaging, though, so you may want to try them out before investing in true macro photography lenses.
Prime Macro Photography Lenses
Since you know what it means for gear to be actual macro photography lenses, let’s see a couple great examples you can purchase for your interchangeable lens cameras. One lens for Full Frame format and one for a crop format camera.
Canon RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM lens is a medium telephoto prime focal length lens for Canon R mirrorless Full Frame cameras. It focuses so close, you can achieve a greater than life-size reproduction ratio. The medium telephoto focal length also makes it a good lens for portraits and other photography.
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G lens is made for crop format APS-C format Nikon DSLRs. It is extremely lightweight and very budget-friendly besides being super sharp and a great example of the many macro photography lenses available for all the camera brands, formats, and types.
Macro Photography Gear for Steadiness
One of the first things you’ll notice about macro photography is that it’s hard to keep the camera still when working at the high reproduction ratios and close distances of macro photography lenses. Subject matter moving (like a bee flying) is a different problem altogether, but your camera’s image stabilization can help with that.
Camera shake and your hands moving imperceptibly will show up in a major way when engaging in macro photography. Anything you can do to combat that should be considered.
A piece of macro photography gear that I absolutely love is the OctoPad camera mount. OctoPad is a unique mount. It is a compact, semi-rigid, circular disc with a tripod head on top and a non-slip pad underneath.
With the OctoPad camera mount, you can place your camera and lens on almost any surface, indoors or out, even surfaces angled up to 45 degrees. Since it is lightweight and inexpensive, you could take advantage of having 2 or 3 OctoPads to hold lights and maybe a microphone for video recording.
A regular style tripod can be extremely useful as well, but I prefer the style of tripod that has a horizontally adjustable center column as macro photography gear. A good example is the Neewer 79 inch aluminum tripod with horizontal column.
That horizontal center column works well for those stamps, documents, and other flat art mentioned earlier, as well as for other macro photography. A wireless remote release is another vital piece of macro photography gear that you will find very useful to reduce any camera movement.
Lighting for Macro Photography
Another aspect of macro photography gear is finding lighting gear you will be comfortable using. Since you’re so close to the subject, an LED ring light that fits on the end of the lens will be a great assist. The Neewer 48 Macro LED Ring Light Flash is super versatile, offering both continuous light and flash.
You can also get a lot of value out of a collapsible reflector such as this 5-in-1 oval reflector from Godox. Besides its use as a lighting tool, a reflector like this can also make a fine windbreak when photographing macro subjects outdoors.
With these or similar macro photography lenses and macro photography gear for your personal camera brand, format, and type, you will be very well equipped for all sorts of serious macro photography.