Macro photography is technically defined as photography where the subject’s size on the sensor is the same as or greater than its real size. However, the term macro is often used interchangeably with close-up, where the subject is within 2 feet of the lens. The ideas in this article will be useful for either case.
Anyone considering macro photography will be well-served to have a good grasp of basic photography. A good review is given in the course Understanding the Basic Elements of Photography. This will give you a basis for choosing your camera and learning the fundamentals of focus and exposure. You can get started with macro by reading the article Top 10 Macro Photography Tips.
Equipment For Macro
Macro photography will require some specialized equipment. You need to get closer to your subject than the typical DLSR lens allows. A macro lens is designed to allow the subject to be focused at a much closer distance than the standard lenses. If you want to photograph subjects such as insects that do not allow close approach, you will need a longer focal length macro lens. Macro lenses are designed to give good sharpness all the way to the edge of the image, assuming that the depth of field allows for it.
Standard lenses can be given close-up or even macro capability with add-ons such as extension tubes and closeup filters. Extension tubes are spacers with no optics that are mounted between the lens and the camera. They push the lens farther out from the camera which has the effect of allowing the camera to focus at a closer distance and thus making a larger image size. The lens is no longer capable of focusing to infinity when an extension tube is in place.
Close-up filters are screwed on in front of the lens. They come in single element and two element designs. The single element filters work on lenses with focal lengths in the 35-80 mm range. Two element filters can be used with 80-200mm focal lengths. These filters will show a slight decrease in quality toward the edges. This can be acceptable in nature shots but these filters may not be a good choice for subjects such as stamps or coins.
When you are this close to your subject, lighting can get tricky. Your shadow may become a problem and the camera may block some of the light from the built-in flash. This is often solved by having a flash unit mounted on a bracket to position it away from the camera. To avoid harsh shadows, 2 flashes are often needed. They are balanced so that the lighting is stronger to one side, and the shadow side is filled in to the proper extent. A third flash may be required to provide lighting on the background. All of this will need to be synchronized with remote units. You can learn more about flash options in the course Mastering Flash Photography with Charlie Borland. If the available light is good, you may only need simple reflectors to help you to get balanced lighting on your subject.
Support is critical for macro photography. When outdoors, you will often be photographing subjects at ground level. Your tripod must allow for easy positioning near low subjects. Hand holding will be rarely possible because the extreme magnification of the image also magnifies any camera movement. One alternative support for ground level work is a beanbag. It is easily positioned and supports the camera firmly. Avoid camera motion by using a remote or cable shutter release or by using the timer.
For true macro, the depth of field can be so small that a tripod cannot be positioned with enough precision. In this case focusing rails are used. The camera is mounted on the rail and focus is changed by physically moving the camera back and forth in very small increments.
Today’s cameras with swivel view screens are a great asset for working in odd positions while doing macro photography. If you are using an older camera with a fixed viewfinder, consider a right-angle viewer. This clips on to the standard viewfinder and can be rotated. This allows for more comfortable viewing and framing the shot while the camera is on the ground.
Techniques For Macro
Once you have some equipment, you are ready to head out and use it. Many techniques help with the limited depth of field in macro work. Usually you will work in manual focus. Autofocus will rarely put the focus just where you need it. Use your depth of field preview feature on the camera as you work to get the subject focused in precisely the right spot. Getting the eyes focused is usually necessary for animals, and it is very frustrating to find that you have just missed while viewing later at the computer. Check focus using the review feature on the camera while on location. Magnify to 1:1 or 100% but no further. Larger magnifications will look soft even if the image is sharp.
Your choice of focal length will also greatly affect the depth of field. Selective focus with soft backgrounds is attained with telephoto lenses and extension tubes. Wide angle lenses give detail in the background with the subject exaggerated in size. This can be great for a photo of something showing its environment. Point and shoot cameras in macro mode naturally take this type of picture. Their macro mode only works at short focal lengths.
Another factor in getting those nice soft backgrounds is the distance from the subject to the background. If you are shooting flowers from above, for example, the background will be fairly close and will not be that soft. If you get down to flower level, the background may be several feet behind it and be pleasingly soft. You may be able to get different background distances by moving your camera position just inches to one side or another.
Shooting in continuous mode can help with focusing trouble. If you cannot seem to get the focus just right, try shooting a burst while moving the camera slightly. One of the exposures may turn out with correct focus. This technique will take some practice. A similar technique, without camera motion, may help when a slight breeze is moving the subject. Again, one frame may turn out just right.
In today’s digital world, depth of field does not have to be a limiting factor. There are several software packages available that allow you to take many images, each with a different zone focused, and combine them into one image that is focused front to back, or as much as you choose. This is known as focus stacking.
At the other extreme are soft focus techniques where nothing is perfectly focused but there is a center of attention that is attractively blurred. One way to do this is to put the “wrong” closeup filter on your telephoto lens, in this case, a single element filter. Nothing will be sharp, but if you explore with this setup you may find some eye-catching photos. Another way to get soft focus is to deliberately shoot through something that is close to the lens. Perhaps focus through a nearby flower to one behind it. You will get an image suffused with the color of the front flower and the rear one will be softened. Other soft focus effects can be had by using add-ons such as Lens Baby.
In macro photography you can easily experiment with lighting. Merely by walking around the subject you can move from front light to side light to back light. You may be surprised at how much light can vary over short distances as the angle of the ground changes, or as other objects cast a bit of shade.
Insects are a popular subject for macro photography. However, they often will not be comfortable with a huge photographer and camera nearby and will move to the opposite side of the flower or leaf. You can influence their behavior by reaching behind the plant, perhaps with the aid of a nearby stick, and make some motion that will persuade the insect to choose to stay on your side. A willing friend may also help with this. Beetles will often move to the highest point of their perch before taking off. You can use this behavior to anticipate an action shot showing the moment of liftoff.
Macro photography allows you to explore abstracts and patterns in ways that are not possible with larger subjects. One creative challenge is to define a limited area, perhaps 10 feet by 10 feet, and spend 30 to 60 minutes finding the possibilities. Perhaps set a minimum number of unique images you will make in that time. In this case, you are looking for photographs, not for subjects. Explore the area through your lens. If anyone wonders what you are doing, you can tell them, “There’s a photograph lost in here that I’m trying to find.” With this type of photography, composition is crucial to a winning photo. You can learn more about composition with the course Composition: From Snapshots to Great Shots.
These ideas should help get you started on your way with macro photography. You can take your macro work to even higher levels with the course Mastering Macro Photography.