One of the most rewarding, accessible, but technically challenging forms of photography is macro or extreme close-up photography.
True macro photography requires high magnifications, usually in the range of half (1:2) life size, meaning that the photographic area covered is only about twice the size of your actual sensor area and can go into the many times life size (1:1 to 10:1). Higher than 1:1 is technically micro photography, but Nikon uses that term for their macro lenses, so we will not get too hung up on specific terminology.
The reality for many of us is any image taken at 1:5 to 1:3 life size (roughly credit card to post card size area) is close enough to be thought of as macro imaging.
Macro photography throws us a few genuine challenges that can seem daunting at first, but if you take these on with an experimental and open frame of mind, good results will happen sooner rather than later.
The challenges are;
Depth of Field. Depth of field (amount of in-focus area either side of the focus point), gets shallower directly on proportion to an increase in magnification. Very high magnifications always give you very shallow depth of field to work with. An aperture of f11, for example, that may offer several metres of in-focus, depth of field at normal shooting distances, may only give you millimetres of DOF at high magnifications (see the Depth of Field tutorial for some tricks to help increase effective DOF).
Focussing. Because of the limits of DOF, accurate focussing is crucial. If you can miss focus by mere millimetres, then focussing has to be perfect to place the very limited DOF where you want.
Movement and vibration. Small apertures for maximum depth of field, low ISO settings for maximum quality and often limited light all add up to slow shutter speeds, which in turn increases your likelihood of movement or vibration blurring. High magnifications increase blurring effects exponentially.
First lets look at two distinct forms of macro imaging to identify their levels of challenge.
The Scientific Macro Photographer
The scientific macro photographer needs to record their subject (insects, flowers or smaller objects) with an eye for detail and accuracy. Deep depth of field is often not a creative choice, but a requirement.
Scientific macro shooters are at the pointy end of the photographic difficulty curve, often employing lighting, controlled environments and techniques such as stacking multiple images to achieve their results.
The images above (supplied by John Douglas, author of two books on Tasmania spiders) show the level of detail required for scientific identification. Especially difficult is the deeper side on or length-ways view. To get full focus on all elements of these tiny creatures, some only millimetres long, often requires 12 or more focus stacked images, as well as controlled light and a cooperative subject.
Scientific macro is often more labour than creative fun, but the results, when achieved are very satisfying and most of all need to be accurate. Creative effects are less important, but will help to engage the viewer.
The Creative Macro Photographer
Creative macro shooters have a much easier time of it technically.
Treating the massive amounts of inevitable blurring as a creative tool rather then a technical hurdle, allows for hand held, wide aperture techniques, often avoiding the need for lights and tripods. This makes the experience more fun and un-predictable. Often with this style of macro work, mistakes are as good as successes.
Macro Lens Options
Lets look at the options available to you for macro magnifications.
A true macro lens. Often doubling up as a useful portrait lens and likely the sharpest and best corrected lens you will ever own, these are the only option for seamless, accessory free near to far focussing. Most macro lenses will achieve 1:2 magnification without any accessories, some are capable of even greater magnification. These are also the best options for micro photography with magnifications of x5 to x10 as they are fully corrected for best results at close distances.
Pros; Very convenient and efficient, best optical performance, multi purpose lens
Cons; Usually the most expensive option, often a heavy and slower than some, maximum aperture portrait lens (and some photographic models would say they are too sharp).
A close focussing normal lens. Many lenses, especially zoom lenses are capable of up to 1:4 (1/4 life size or credit card area) magnification without any accessories. This is often enough for the creative macro photographer, especially with the cropping capacity current cameras offer. Occasionally, a lens will have a special “macro” setting such as the Olympus 12-50 premium kit lens.
Pros; You may have one already and they are easy to use. Non macro lenses are often stabilised, true macro lenses are sometimes not.
Cons; Limited strength and mixed optical quality for close distances (some are great, some not). Sometimes the close focussing distance is at the wide angle end of the lens forcing you to use odd, slightly wide and distorted perspective for your close up images.
A close-up diopter. Close focus diopters are magnifying filters that screw into the front of a lens. They have a fixed focussing distance, which is usually closer than a regular lens, but not much better than a true macro lens. The focal length of the selected lens they are screwed onto determines the strength of magnification, with longer lenses offering the most effective results (a 70-200 high grade zoom is ideal). These come in sets of single element diopters of varying strength, for adequate results or much better (and heavier) twin element types, one element providing the magnification and the second correcting introduced flaws. Often a set of single element ones is about the same cost as a single twin element one. Best results usually come from high grade single focal length (prime) lenses or pro grade zooms used with quality twin element diopters.
Pros; Often one of the cheaper options, they do not reduce the mount of light that gets to the sensor and they are generally easy to use.
Cons; Fiddly to apply (like a filter), mixed results, especially with single element ones on lower grade lenses and many twin element ones can be too heavy for some AF focussing motors. It is not possible to take normal images with these on.
Extension Tubes. Hollow tubes of 8 to 50mm, often sold in sets, placed between the camera and lens. These work in the opposite way to diopters, by separating the lens further away from the camera sensor, close focus power of the lens is increased, but like diopters, you cannot photograph at normal distances. Contrary to diopters, extension tubes are more powerful with shorter lenses and are often standard accessories with true macro lenses. For really high magnification work (x5 or greater), stacked extension tubes or bellows are often used.
Pros; Cheap and effective, these do not use any glass, so quality is entirely up to the attached lens.
Cons; Tubes do reduce light in proportion to their strength (length), are often used at close distances and they are fiddly to use. It is not possible to take normal images with these on.
Teleconverters. A teleconverter used with a long lens will multiply the focal length of the lens by x1.4 to x2, but will not effect the minimum focussing distance of the lens, so in effect the lens focusses 1.4 or 2x closer. Like tubes they cut down on light, but quality is good. Even poor quality teleconverters, which are usually a bad choice for normal photography, are often quite ok for macro work (punching out the glass and turning them into extension tubes makes them even better!).
Pros; Good ones make a good and versatile combination with a matched long lens, so make a good lens better. Infinity focus is kept intact.
Cons; They are expensive, are only worth buying with the right lens and only add 1.4 to 2x maximum magnification to the base lens.
Reversed Lens. An older idea, but still a good one, is to attach a lens backwards on to the front of another lens or even directly on to the front of a camera. Best tried with a “nifty fifty” prime lens, it turns the lens into a powerful close-up lens, similar in effect to a powerful diopter. A lens is designed to focus what is in front of it onto a sensor directly behind it, so reversing it makes the rear-now front focussing distance (1-2 inches) it’s natural rear range. These are often more powerful than diopters and are usually very well corrected lenses, but are often short range options. You may even want to try “free lensing”, which is holding the lens reversed in front of the open camera mount, or a phone lens, then moving the lens and camera backward and forward to focus.
Pros; Makes a good low light prime, a genuine macro option, allows lots of combinations of lens and aperture combinations (new electronic aperture controlled lenses usually only work at wide open aperture, but older ones will let you control the front lenses aperture as well as the shooting lens aperture). It only costs about $20 for a reversing ring and makes dad’s old standard lens useful.
Cons; Gives mixed results (experiment) and can be fiddly.
The following techniques for macro photography are designed to increase control and reduce the many variables to a manageable few.
Aperture Priority mode will allow for deep (f11 to f32) or shallow (f1.8 to f4) depth of field control.
Low ISO settings will produce the best quality, but this may be a little out of your control, so ISO selection should be as needed.
Use Manual focus, also using the rear “live view” screen and magnified if possible. Live view with an SLR (or normal operation on any mirrorless camera) focusses directly off the sensor, so accuracy is assured and magnifying the viewer (usually the same control you use to zoom in on an image in review), increased viewing magnifications to x5 or x10. This allows you to see very accurately where you are focussing, determine movement from wind or vibration and check exposure. It also automatically locks up an SLR cameras mirror to reduce vibrations.
Subject movement, and AF are often at odds, so manually controlling focus removes one variable.
When hand holding, “drifting” backwards and forwards, then shooting when things come into focus can sometimes be more accurate than trying to auto focus and shoot immediately.
Delayed shutter release through setting the self timer on the camera, a remote cable or an app will reduce vibrations from touching the camera.
Electronic shutter and/or mirror lock-up (automatically applied in live view) reduce vibrations at very low shutter speeds and high magnifications.
A tripod is best to handle the slow shutter speeds that deep depth of field shooting will force on you and allow for exposure bracketing and stacking techniques to be tried. They also allow the most accurate focus. If going for creative blur, a tripod can still be handy for maximum focus accuracy, but is not necessary.
A cable release, remote timer or phone app helps reduce camera vibrations.
Diffusers/reflector panels can even out difficult light, by diffusing bright light or bouncing the available light into shadows and can help block slight breezes. An over cast day can also help.
Lighting* can help increase shutter speeds, reduce ISO settings and/or increase depth of field.
When introducing lighting it is important to try to do one or more of the techniques below to avoid ugly shadows, flat light and un-even exposures;
diffuse the light through a soft box, diffusion screen or diffuser attachment,
bounce the light of another surface, including a bounce panel built into the flash,
change the direction of the light by taking the light off camera,
change the light strength by turning it down (or up) on the flash/LED or in camera.
On camera flash units may shoot over the target area, be too strong or even cast a shadow over the subject from the lens. On camera flash units, especially build in ones, work well enough for suspended subjects like spiders, but are best turned down in strength or diffused.
Off camera flash* is ideal, but will create strong side lighting unless diffused, balanced with other light or bounced off a reflective surface.
Ring flash units (attached to the front of a lens) are often used for scientific macro as they create shadow free light, but are creatively bland.
LED panels or ring lights* do the same as off camera flash, except that you see the results first and can be adjusted to different strengths and directions visually.
*These two may also need their own support or someone to hold them.
Sensor size. The size of the camera sensor has an effect on the native close focus capability of a camera. Smaller sensor cameras, like true compact cameras and phones often have naturally closer focussing distances than larger sensor cameras, but this is sometimes at the wide angle zoom setting, making for oddly distorted images. New purchasers of SLR cameras are often disappointed that their new camera cannot do what their compact or phone cameras could naturally without another lens or accessory, but the bigger sensor camera will potentially produce better quality.
The 1” sensor, high quality compact cameras (Sony RX, Canon G and many of the Lumix models) are often an ideal compromise for occasional macro shooters, offering excellent quality and reasonable close focus.
Cropping. High pixel count cameras allow you to shoot at greater distance and crop. This makes taking the image easier and often helps to make the perspective more natural.
Bokeh. Due to the un-avoidable reality of lots of out of focus area in macro images, Bokeh is usually excellent on macro lenses. Some other macro methods may create odd Bokeh effects as weird combinations of lenses and accessories are used together.
We hope that you are now excited about the potential of macro photography and will give it a go.
On any given day, in almost any circumstances, macro images are possible, so next rainy day, try out some water drop images or go insect chasing in the back garden.