For many years I have been focused primarily on the wonderful world of bird and nature photography. It has provided me with countless hours of fun and many memorable photographs. I have travelled to many places around the globe and carried a lot of heavy gear along the way. It is something I have always loved and will continue to do the rest of my days. At times I have thought to myself how great it would be not to have to travel so far and carry all of that expensive, heavy gear with me. How nice would it be to handhold lighter equipment and to use a tripod that does not have to support 20 plus pounds of equipment! Welcome then, to the world of macro or close up photography.
Follow along with me as I delve into this new and fascinating world of photography and we will learn together as we go!
Macro or close up photography, as it is commonly called, has opened up a new world of fascinating and creative opportunities to see and photograph the smaller world around me. There is a whole world of creative and dramatic photos at your fingertips and at your feet if you just take the time to look around you. Flowers, butterflies, frogs, plants and insects can all make for some really fun and relatively easy photo opportunities. The best part is that it does not require extensive travel and the more expensive and heavy gear often associated with bird and nature photography. You can do macro photography in your own backyard, local parks, local ponds, streams, lakes, etc.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to take a look at the basics of this type of photography. What equipment you will need and, of course, some technical information and techniques.
Lets first look at what macro or close up photography is. Simply it is the close up photography of usually very small subjects. In a scientific sense it is a photograph of a subject in which the size of the subject on the sensor is greater than true life size. The ratio of the subject size on the image sensor compared to the actual subject size is commonly known as the “reproduction ratio”. Therefore, a macro lens is a lens that is capable of a minimum of 1:1 reproduction ratio or greater.
When choosing macro equipment the first consideration should be the lens you will use. Some lenses claim “macro capability” but for best results I would recommend purchasing a true macro lens. Macro lenses are specifically designed for close up work. The lens will typically have a long barrel which enables close focusing distances. These macro lenses are optimized for high reproduction ratios. The true macro lens tends to perform best at its highest magnification capabilities but as an added bonus because the optics in these lenses are usually so good, you can also use the lens for other types of photography such as portraits with great results. Typically, most macro lenses will have 1:1 or 1:2 ratio capabilities.
When you first look at macro lenses you will see that they are offered in a variety of focal lengths such as 60/90/100/150/180mm. Here is a quick look at what the different focal lengths do differently from each other.
60mm range. Usually used for photographing objects or insects that are not made uncomfortable by a close approach. Also, this focal range will tend to give a very natural looking background. These lenses tend to be less expensive and a bit lighter but you give up some of the ability to stay farther away from your subject than macro lenses of a longer focal length.
90/100mm range. Great for photographing flowers and insects from a comfortable range, better working distance than a 60mm (meaning you can get the same magnification without being as close to your subject). This range of macro lens will be a bit longer, a little heavier and usually a bit more expensive than the 60mm range lenses. This is my focal length range of choice as it offers a good working distance capability, it is still very light and manageable when hand holding and it won’t break the bank.
150/180mm range. Excellent for working with subjects where you want to achieve maximum distance from them. Very high quality. Longer, heavier and more expensive than the other ranges. This focal length will also blur the backgrounds quite nicely which can be a very desirable effect with some images.
Flash for macro.
Flash for macro photography can be very confusing when you are just getting started in this type of photography so let’s try to simplify it here.
There are a few different flash options when doing macro photography. My first choice is usually to use natural light when you can get enough of it to have a small aperture setting. Depth of field is always a challenge in macro photography and we usually need as small an aperture setting to get as much of the subject in focus as possible. This is when using flash becomes necessary for good macro images. Using flash will give you the light you need to use small apertures. It is likely that quite a few of you already might own external flash units for your existing digital slr equipment. This is what I use and I have been quite happy with the results. When using an externally mounted flash you might want to consider a flash bracket to enable you to raise the height and decrease the distance between the flash and your subject. I also have found that using a flash diffuser can help immensely in diffusing the harsh light from the flash and giving the image a more realistic look. A diffuser can be something as simple as a tissue, a cut out plastic bottle or something more sophisticated like the Gary Fong unit (which I use).
There are special flash units for macro photography called ring flashes. These specialized flash units attach to the end of your lens and therefore are very close to your subject. They can be a great tool for macro photography but they are usually quite expensive to add to your bag if you already have another external flash. For this reason, I would try diffused external flashes first and then if you are loving macro photography, look at some of the ring flashes as an option to move you along in the medium.
The type of camera body is a lot less important in macro photography than it is in say bird and nature photography. Pretty much any of today’s digital slr camera bodies will allow you to take some wonderful close up images. One thing you will want to consider or at least know about, is how the sensor size of your camera body effects the magnification capabilities of your macro lens. Here are a couple of examples.
If you own a digital slr camera body that has a full frame sensor then your magnification ratio will remain true to the lenses reproduction ratio capabilities. So, if your lens is capable of photographing at a 1:1 ratio then that is exactly what you will get from your full frame sensor. Let’s say that you have a camera body that has a 1.6 crop factor sensor. In this case you will actually increase the reproduction ratio of the lens by 60%. So the 1:1 reproduction ratio has now become 1:6:1. You could say then that smaller sensors can increase the ratio your lens can shoot at by the same percentage of crop factor. Understand? Good.
Handheld or tripod?
Both. Depends on what and where you are shooting and how quickly you may have to move around to follow your subject to get a desirable image of it. I much prefer to handhold as it gives me freedom to move around and change my direction of shooting very quickly. On the other hand, if I have the luxury of a subject that does not move or change positions very often, then I would opt for and also recommend using a tripod set up. Using a tripod for any kind of photography will always decrease the probability of an out of focus image due to movement or camera shake. Sometimes space and time just do not allow for a tripod to be used effectively and handholding may be your only option.
Tips for Macro Photography Beginners
Being curious about how digital cameras can capture macro so easily I investigated the subject. Here are my findings, gained by chatting to the tech expert at a major camera company.
Engage macro mode on a digicam and the system adjusts the lens elements to re-arrange them into an array that best suits close focusing. Quite a feat, as even simple camera lenses have a surprising number of lens elements to juggle.
Unfortunately, by engaging macro mode with the vast majority of cameras you lose control of both the lens aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.
Why is this so important?
The best macro photography — regardless of camera — requires that you use the smallest lens aperture to gain optimum image sharpness and depth of field. Using a small lens aperture means you need more light, so you need to extend the exposure time to make a correctly exposed photograph.
So you can’t reduce the lens aperture to a smaller, more favourable setting; nor can you slow the shutter speed to permit the use of a smaller lens aperture.
For the keen macro makers I’ve discovered a few digicams that do allow the use of macro mode and lens and shutter speed adjustment (see Chosen Few).
With DSLR cameras the macro operation is somewhat different. Select macro and you activate a different chain of events: with any lens fixed to the camera, engaging macro mode on the camera commands the lens aperture to close to its minimum, so extending the depth of field and allowing you to move closer to the subject.
Shooting macro with a compact digicam is easy but you have to forgo a fair bit of control and you need to understand that the demands of an amateur as far as resolution and colour quality are less stringent than the pros.
The pro approach would be to use a purpose-built macro lens on a DSLR. Dedicated macro lenses are not cheap but they are optimised to operate at closer than normal distances. With macro lenses you are unlikely to experience problems such as colour fringing and optical distortion; many macro lenses also compensate for the additional exposure necessary when racking out the lens to distances very different to those used in normal photography.
Keep Your Distance
In macro shooting the optimum camera-to-subject distance is a long one. Place the camera too close to the subject and there’s a good chance you’ll throw a camera shadow onto it; at too close a distance you may distort the subject.
Using the macro mode on a compact or DSLR and wanting to capture a very, very close detail of your subject, it’s most likely you’ll move the lens to the widest angle/shortest focal length setting. This also presents the possibility of optical distortion.
Macro lenses for DSLRs are best chosen in the longer focal lengths: many lens makers market a 100mm macro — ideal for the task.
Canon and others make stabilized macro lenses. The idea is sound in principle: if you have to handhold the camera/lens combo while you snare close shots of a bug, a stabilized lens would seem to be the answer to the need for a steady camera.
The truth is that there are too many variables in the equation: moving camera, moving focus, moving subject. And then you have to frame the shot properly.
The best approach is to keep the camera steady.
There are some cameras that offer lens/shutter speed adjustment in macro mode.
The Canon PowerShot S5 IS has a long 12x optical zoom lens along with 8.0 million pixels of image capture.
And it has a terrific macro mode: unlike most others digicams this camera’s macro button is a separate control placed on the lens barrel and not on the mode dial. With this arrangement you can select shutter or aperture priority and macro simultaneously.
Now you can reduce the lens aperture to a minimum setting and attain the optimum depth of field when the camera is close to the subject.
Another macro-friendly model is the Canon PowerShot SX100IS. It is unusually well set up for macro shooting: with the SX100IS you can engage macro mode along with aperture priority, allowing selection of a small aperture for depth. This camera has a 10x zoom and 8.0 megapixels of image capture.
Another contender in the maxi macro stakes is the Olympus’ SP-5500UZ. There are others that have the same benefit. Aside from an extraordinary 18x optical zoom lens it has 7.1 megapixels on its CCD. When selecting macro the camera still allows you to use the zoom, so you can back off and yet still take big closeups.
In a slightly different fashion, the Ricoh Caplio R6 helps you light subjects in macro mode, an often difficult chore with the camera positioned so close to the subject. The Ricoh’s Auto Soft Flash function dampens the output of the camera’s flash. This avoids ‘washing out’ the subject at close range.
When shooting macro with a digicam always use the LCD screen for viewing — never use the optical viewfinder. Use the optical finder and you will encounter parallax error … what you see in the finder is not what the camera will photograph.
Digital compact camera optics are a compromise between size and price. With budget cameras you will probably encounter spherical distortion: shots taken at the wide end (even in macro!) of the zoom will barrel out at the edges; shots taken with the zoom set to tele may show distortion which forces the picture edges to bow inwards, like a pincushion.
Try shooting a square subject — like a stamp — and you’ll see what I mean. The solution is to use the Spherize filter in Photoshop to straighten the barrel distortion on the affected image.
Depth of Field
This is possibly the core factor in successful macro shooting. When you focus, the depth of field includes the plane you focus on plus an area in front of and behind that plane. Half of the sharpest area will be in front of the plane and half will be behind it.
Depth of field varies with the lens aperture, focal length and the camera-to-subject distance. Competent use of it will give you a subject in pin-sharp focus with the background in soft focus: a soft focus background isolates a subject, making it stand out sharply.
Take care to position your macro subject against an appropriate background: no confusing fuzz, no bright spots; dark backgrounds for light subjects and vice versa.
You’ve probably set up the camera only centimetres from the subject. Flash is useless at a close working distance — it would overexpose the shot. If you’re working in filtered daylight (my ideal) you can help by scattering small reflectors around the subject. But in most cases you’ll have to live with the existing ambient light level.
Arguably the optimum light for macro work is to set up a scrim of translucent material (like rice paper) over the subject. In this fashion you can shoot in bright sunlight, with the subject illuminated by soft light.
If you’re working with a DSLR you might like to use extension tubes or close up bellows to shoot macro. If you do, you will encounter one problem: the further the lens is extended from the image sensor the more you will encounter light loss, requiring the camera to use a larger lens aperture.
In macro photography it is advantageous to have full charge over focusing — especially when you want to have control over that part of the subject you want in focus. If your camera allows manual focusing, use it and manually focus on the part of our subject that is the main point of interest. Auto focus can also work well depending on the camera body and lens combination.
MOVE IN ON TINY AREA OF SUBJECT Set your camera on the “A” mode for aperture value and chose an ISO of 400-800 (or even higher) for more depth of field.
Choose a medium telephoto macro lens (about 90-180mm for full frame cameras or 60-90mm for small sensor cameras). A comfortable working distance (distance between the front-end of the lens to the subject) gives you the necessary room for lighting and other gadgets that you may need for extreme close-up photography.
Get yourself a sturdy tripod to eliminate possible camera shake during long exposures which is common in close-up photography. High magnification also increases the effect of camera shake.
Carefully choose your camera position. Do not cast your own or the camera's shadow on the subjects. Look for the most pleasing lines and shadow pattern falling on the subject.
Switch to manual focus. Autofocus often does not work well in extreme close-ups that are half life- to full life-size shots. Focus on the middle area of the subject and stop down the lens aperture as much as the light allows (try to reach F/16 or F/22 if possible). This will give you the most depth-of-field possible (zone from front to back that is in sharp focus). If your camera is on a tripod, the long shutter speeds are fine, so long as the wind doesn’t blow, moving the subject.
Bracket your exposure in half-stop increments under and over exposed. Take at least two under steps and two over steps.
Two-stop over-exposed image of a rose (BELOW) gives you yet another lovely impression.
Place a piece of colored paper behind a flower to let the flower stand out in the picture. Colored paper also eliminates a busy background of unattractive branches, etc. Support the paper with a couple of sticks securely planted in soil behind the flowers.
Place water drops on leaves with a spray bottle to give flowers the look of early morning dew.
Do not take any flower pictures aimlessly. Pick one flower and concentrate on photographing it.
Photographs by Photography Talk member David Hemmings
Written by: David Hemmings. David owns and operates Natures Photo Adventures and has been published by National Geographic and many other magazines and books.