Macro photography is all about getting in close and looking at details. It generally refers to things like insect photography or flower photography when we are trying to look at small subjects up close. True macro photography means reproducing the original subject at its original size on the sensor, or possibly even bigger. This is a 1:1 ratio. To do this you tend to need some specialist equipment and a good understanding of depth of field.
Equipment for Macro Photography
Ideally you will need a macro lens. These are lenses that enable you to focus much closer to your subject than normal – often around 30cm away. The distance at which you can focus varies according to the lens type, including its focal length. Longer focal lengths enable you to get the same magnification as shorter lenses from further away (e.g. 105mm can achieve 1:1 from further away than a 40mm lens). The advantage of this is that you are less likely to disturb any creatures you are trying to photograph. It also makes it less likely for any camera-mounted flash to be blocked by the lens, casting a shadow over your subject. Longer lenses are more expensive, but they make life easier.
If you don’t have a macro lens then there are a few other options available. You can buy close-up filters that screw on to the front of your lens to enable you to focus closer than usual. These will restrict the range of your focus – you cannot focus to infinity while using close-up filters. They can be a very economical option if you are interested in testing the waters before spending more money on a dedicated macro lens. The cheaper close-up filters can have a negative effect on image quality.
An alternative to close-up filters is extension tubes. These are hollow tubes (with no glass in them) that fit between your camera body and your lens. They also allow you to focus closer than usual. Similarly to close-up filters, extension tubes will restrict your focussing range (no infinity focus). Some sets of extension tubes will not allow your camera and lens to communicate and so your automatic exposure and other automatic functions will not be available. However, there are also extension tubes that do permit all of the normal functions. Look out for ones that are labelled “automatic” or that allow “ttl” (through the lens metering). I use a set made by Kenko for Nikon cameras and these allow autofocus, metering and everything else you would normally expect. Tubes do mean that slightly less light will reach your sensor, so you will need to compensate for that in your exposure. One big advantage of extension tubes is that you can use them in addition to a specialist macro lens to get extreme close-up images without losing image quality. So, they are one of the most sensible ways to explore macro photography as they work with pretty much any lens and won’t be redundant once you get a macro lens.
For more extreme magnification you can try things such as reverse mounting lenses (which need to have a manual aperture ring), macro bellows and other more specialist kit. However, most people will never need to go this route and it is more difficult this way (although you can get better close-ups once you know what you are doing).
A tripod is often very handy, especially if you are photographing something that won’t run off or fly away. Sometimes you have to shoot handheld or you will go insane setting up and re-setting your tripod as your subject moves about! However, for best results and sharpest images, shooting from a tripod really helps as it keeps the camera steady.
Flash guns or speedlights or even continuous lights (such as portable LED panels) can be very helpful. To get a big depth of field in macro photography you tend to shoot with small apertures, which reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor. You can compensate to some extent by raising the ISO, but this can only go so far without ruining the image. An additional light source such as a powerful flash helps to keep enough light for a balanced exposure. Flash can also help to freeze any slight movement in your subject, again aiding you to create sharper images.
Macro Photography Technique
Focussing is probably the hardest part of macro photography. The closer you get, the more difficult it becomes. This is one reason why it can be useful to shoot from a tripod. Autofocus can still work, although sometimes using extension tubes may make it less reliable as there is less light for the camera to focus by. Some macro lenses have focus limiters, which are very useful. The focus limiter restricts the range of focus of the lens so that it doesn’t hunt all the way from infinity to closest focus and back. For most macro photography, however, I prefer to focus using manual focus. If you are using a tripod then you may find that focussing using Live-View is easier. This enables you to zoom in even more on the most critical part of the image and check your focussing. It isn’t really practical hand-held – using the viewfinder is best as it is easier to keep yourself still.
Sometimes you will find that the difference between in focus and out of focus is the tiniest of movements. If you are struggling with this and particularly when you are after maximum magnification, set your focus manually to the closest it will go and then gently rock forwards/backwards until you find the sweet spot. If you are still getting all your images out of focus when shooting handheld then you can try setting your camera to rapid fire and taking several in quick succession as you may just rock in/out of focus slightly as you move.
Depth of field is another critical issue for macro photography. The closer you go, the smaller your depth of field becomes. Even when shooting at apertures such as f/8 or f/11, which would normally keep everything in focus in studio or for a landscape, you may only get a tiny proportion of the image sharp when shooting macro. You will need to use a smaller aperture if you want to get a greater depth of field (more of the subject in focus) – perhaps even f/22 or smaller. The downside of small apertures is that you can start to get diffraction, meaning that the image is not as sharp. So, it is a trade-off between depth of field and sharpness for single image shooting. Experiment to find the right effect for you for each image.
If you want to get more depth of field without the problem of diffraction you can try shooting several images at a wider aperture when the lens is at its sharpest. You will need to take a series of images where you have focussed at different points on your subject to build up layers of focus. These images can be combined using specialist focus stacking software or in Photoshop.
The angle of your camera is of great importance for close-up photography. It will make a difference to your depth of field if you have your sensor parallel to your subject or at an angle. If you are finding your depth of field is too shallow, try moving so that your sensor is as close to parallel with the subject as you can. Alternatively, if you want a stark contrast in depth of field, choose an angle that puts the part you want blurred further away from the sensor.
© Joe Lenton, May 2015
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