For a photographer who wants to lean over the small details of environment – such as flowers, leaves, colorful insects – awaits a whole new, rich world of possibilities. Macro photography requires time and diligence. It typically can’t be done quickly. Many of the objects are fixed, so we have plenty of time for accurate placement of everything and waiting for the appropriate light or set up our own light sources. However, while photographing insects and everything other that moves, we need to operate quickly.
When we take macro pictures, we have three choices of optical solution: special macro lenses, intermediate rings (extension tubes) or bellows, and macro filters, which are screwed to the lens, just like a typical photographic filter. And please remember about a tripod. It seems essential to use the SLR, because even though compact cameras usually have the macro mode, it usually doesn’t allow taking pictures of smaller flowers or insects (not to mention overall quality of the photos).
This option is the easiest and quickest to use, but at the same time the most expensive. These are essentially normal lenses, which glasses, however, can be put much further in the direction of a photographed object. These lenses usually provide excellent picture quality, and at the same time are brighter than the other optical options.
How does it work? To have your photographic subject accurately mapped on a 1:1 scale (so the actual size of the photographed subject and its image on the sensor or film frame will be the same), its distance from the very center of the optical set must be equal to the two focal lengths of a lens. While, for example, photographing with a lens of 55mm focal length, the subject should be located at a distance of 110mm from the optical center of the lens, and if it is a lens of 105mm focal length, this item should be removed from it by 210mm. And here doesn’t count the size of the digital camera sensor or the size of a film frame. This is a general principle – applies to all lenses and to all cameras.
Using lenses designed specifically to carry out macro pictures you can take advantage of the full range of automatic light metering and focusing. The most popular macro lenses have focal lengths that are in the range from 50mm to 105mm. Also, some zooms provide focus range in a macro mode – but usually this is not really a 1:1 reproduction ratio. For example, photographers who are using lenses of fixed focal length may use a macro lens of 50mm or 55mm focal length as a standard lens as well (this applies only to holders of digital SLR cameras with a sensor size corresponding to the 24x36mm large film frame). For photographers using other digital SLRs with smaller sensors, this focal length is a bit too long for a standard lens.
If you want to do a lot of close-up photos and it will be your important theme of photos, it is definitely worth to invest in a close-up lens. Prices of very good quality close-up lenses (e.g. Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di, Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro, Tokina AF 100mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro D macro) fluctuate around 400 euro. We can’t say that they are visibly worse than the more expensive 1:1 macro lenses from brands such us Canon, Nikon or Olympus. While the photographers who want to buy a macro lens with a longer focal length (e.g. 180mm or 300mm) which allows them to take pictures on a 1:1 scale from a larger distance from the photographic subjects, will have to spend around 1000 euro or more. It is worth to find a second hand lens on the Internet – it will be cheaper and probably in good condition.
Both types of this equipment work in the same way: while holding the lens further from the surface of the camera’s sensor (or a film frame), it allows to increase the scale of mapping. It is a little unhandy solution, but cheap, and allows us to use other, non-macro lenses with fixed focal length that provide a good picture quality. Bellows and intermediate rings, however, cause loss of light (the further the distance between the lens and the camera, the larger loss of light). Unfortunately, with the increasing loss of light simultaneously depth of field remains the same.
Also light metering becomes more difficult – we can’t enjoy the full automation of measurement – the best in that situation is to work with the camera in manual mode and set the aperture manually on the lens as indicated by photometer. Similarly, the same applies to focusing – it needs to be set manually, but in the case of macro photography it gives us a lot of advantages. Only a few and expensive tools like that, designed for each camera system provide an automation of light measurement and autofocus. Usually this hardware has a very simple design – these are uncomplicated mechanisms which are put between a lens and the camera body.
We should also take into account that the longer focal length of a lens, the more intermediate rings we have to use to keep the same mapping scale than with the shorter lens.
This is the cheapest option for close-up photography, but allows to achieve a satisfactory optical effects. It is the only solution that can be used for most compact cameras, which lenses aren’t possible to be changed. They are just magnifying glasses of different magnification magnitude, fastened to the front of the camera lens or other filters. Additionally, you can combine them together in order to intensify the magnification. It must be remembered that the more additional layers of glass (or plastic in the case of the cheapest close-up filters) will be put in front of the camera lens, the worse optical quality of the pictures. For those wanting to receive a picture of the highest optical quality, such magnifying lenses are not the best solution.
However, when you want to photograph a very small object, such as an ant, using only the macro lens for 1:1 mapping scale is not enough – in that case you can fasten an extra macro filter to the close-up lens.
Irrespective of our optical solutions when doing macro photography we should take into consideration that the closer the photographed object is to the lens, the less depth of field we can utilize. As far as possible let us set photographed object that all or the majority of it would be located in the plane of focus. If we want to have a whole photographed object sharp – in other words it would be located in the depth of field range – we should use the small aperture diaphragm (thus, rather f/11-f/16 instead of f/2.8 or f/3.5). It should be remembered that usually lenses provide the best picture quality with the aperture around f/8. Aperture higher than f/16 (macro lenses often have even f/32 aperture) causes a noticeable deterioration in image quality.
But not always a strong depth of field in macrophotography is what a photographer really needs. Very often we prefer to have only one fragment of a sharp image (e.g. a single flower or its small detail), and the remainder of the picture we prefer to leave as a blurred background. Thus, having aperture diaphragm around f/5.6- f/8 we try to maneuver the camera that the selected object remains in a narrow plane of focus, and other elements of the background as far away from it as possible. The best approach is to try to set the camera in a position that the most important for us part of the photographed scene remains parallel to the camera sensor (or film frame). Initially, it seems quite difficult, but quickly becomes easy.
Looking for the best shot in macro photography it would be better to initially hold the camera in a hand and when we find the best position of the camera to the photographed object, we set the camera on a tripod exactly in the same place.
Probably only photographers of insects do not agree with the statement that without a good tripod it is difficult even to talk about macro photography. If we want to have stronger depth of field, we have to use higher apertures, which usually prevents us to take a shot by hand. In the case of macro photography exposure time is typically much longer than in other types of photography. In addition, in this kind of photography even the slightest move of the camera or your subject during exposure time, not only leads to change the frame, but above all causes severe loss of sharpness.
A tripod should be heavy enough so that the camera doesn’t move when the wind blows (because it may change the frame – obviously we are trying to release the shutter while the wind doesn’t blow). Weight of a tripod is also important during macro photography because we often stand on soft ground, which may not provide sufficient stability. However, if the tripod is heavy enough, and we are also strongly pushing it when putting on the ground, it should provide firm stability to our camera.
A tripod should also allow both to firmly anchor the camera just above the ground or at photographer’s eye level as well.
Tripod head should allow the camera to move in all directions, while ensuring stability. Its parameters should correspond to the total weight of the camera with all mounted on it tools for macro photography. In case of macro photography I would suggest not to use monopods.
We don’t need to worry if we can’t afford the highest quality, expensive tripod. Just like in any other kind of photography, the most important are our photography skills, followed by quality of camera sensor and lenses.
Using the long exposure time, we shouldn’t push the camera’s shutter manually, because even in case of solid tripod, it still can cause vibrations of the camera. So we should use the self-timer – the best would be the remote self-timer, because it allows us to take a picture at exactly the selected time (wind factor at this point is quite important). If we don’t have the remote self-timer, we use the built-in, set for at least 2 seconds – to avoid any vibrations from our touch. By setting the self-timer for too long while photographing in the open air, you risk that in the meantime the wind breaks and spoil our frame.
In older models of cameras we can use a camera shutter release cable, through which we can take a picture in strictly selected time. But even through a camera shutter release cable (especially if it is short), we can cause the camera move slightly, so just before the shot, let’s keep the shutter release cable still.
(Mainly apply to the outdoor macro photography of flora.)
For macro photography usually the best is soft, diffused light, especially in the case of plants which aren’t very bright and lack of saturated colors. The easiest way to have such a light is to take outdoor pictures in the early morning or during about one-hour time just before sunset. In the early morning we have a chance to have on the photographed objects dew or frost, which are often considered as elements enriching the aesthetic qualities of close-up photos. It is hard for us to simulate frost in the open air, but in the case of dew it is very easy – just take along a water-filled condenser (e.g. the used condenser with liquid to wash windows). But do not exaggerate this effect…
Beware of contrasts. Illuminated by direct sunlight part of the photographed object will be even a few aperture degrees brighter than the rest of it remaining in the shadows. Neither photographic film, nor the sensor in digital camera can balance that and the picture would be too contrasty, even with the lack of any details in highlights and shadows. However, it can be easily mitigated, and even in the case of very intense midday sun. On the one hand, we can use a reflector, which reflects sunlight, and kept at the proper angle makes shadows brighter. On the other hand, we can diffuse harsh rays of the sun while holding over the photographed object a diffuser, such as a thick, matt foil or matt glass.
It would be the best to use both mentioned above solutions at the same time – then we will have a very evenly illuminated object. With the camera on a tripod and with a little practice we will be able to simultaneously hold a reflector and a diffuser in both hands, and meanwhile be able to release the trigger (or self-timer). Avoid taking pictures of objects located entirely in the shadow, even with the use of reflectors, because pictures come out flat and dull.
While setting the focus it is often more convenient to slightly move the entire camera toward or from the photographed subject than to use autofocus or focus adjustment ring on the lens, that could slightly change the mapping scale of your subject and affect the composition.
Wind is an important, disturbing factor in macro photography. Even the slightest gust during shutter release can completely spoil a picture. But even during very windy day there are moments when the wind stops for a moment, and a trembling leaf or a flower became still for a moment – so we should just wait with everything already set up to be ready for this moment and take a picture. Usually, the wind is the weakest in the morning and late afternoon when we also have the best lighting conditions (warm, soft, low angle sunlight). It is advisable to check the weather forecast while scheduling the outdoor macrography sessions, and if it indicates strong and moderate wind, it will be better to change those plans.
While photographing plants let’s make sure there aren’t any stains on them or dirt, scratches, etc. (unless they make a desired effect). We should select plants very carefully – apparently there is no difference between one flower and another one, but if you look very closely, as you should while doing macro photography, you will see the difference. On the final close-up picture, particularly at high magnification on the screen or as a printed copy, they will be utterly visible. To avoid this situation it is always worth to have in your bag a rubber bulb or a can of compressed air.
© 2015 by Artur Matusik