Above photo by Monica Wilkinson
Macro digital photography involves images that are magnified to life-size (1:1) or larger when reproduced on a 4×6 print.
Well, all geekery aside, taking yourself on a macro journey is one of the most sure-fire ways to break yourself out of a creative rut.
The first time a photographer looks through a macro lens is invariably a moment of artistic epiphany. You notice details you never noticed before, find a renewed appreciation for the subtleties of light and shadow, and discover that a slight twist of the focus ring or shift in your position can make for a completely new work of art.
Your first day out with a macro lens is FUN – a day of exploration, experimentation, and discovery – but it’s not long before you realize that macro photography involves a whole new level of patience and precision.
There’s nothing haphazard about it. If you want to consistently deliver quality images, you’re gonna have to work for it!
Not quite sure where to start? Here are twelve tips to help you take your work to the next level:
1. Get creative.
This is your big opportunity. Sure, bugs and flowers can make for AMAZING macro subjects, but it doesn’t end there.
Explore textures and patterns. Find beauty in something the naked eye is unlikely to notice. Macro work can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. Train your eyes to see the world a little differently, and then set about capturing it!
2. Try a new vantage point.
Get under it, get over it, get level with it for a bug’s eye view. Macro means getting up close and personal with your subjects and trying to see the world from a new perspective – embrace it!
3. Get parallel.
Hey portrait photographers! You know how you need to keep both eyes on the same plane to ensure that they remain in focus when you’re shooting wide open? The same logic applies here, especially since you’re often working with just a sliver of focus.
Orient yourself so that the face of your lens is parallel to the most important detail(s) of your subject. This increases your subject’s focus area, because more details of that subject will lie along a single plane.
4. Close down your aperture.
The closer you get to your subject, the shallower your depth of field will be.
When using standard lenses, an aperture such as f/8 usually affords substantial depth of field, but when you’re shooting twelve inches away from your subject with a 105mm macro at f/8, your total depth of field is only a slim 1/10 inch. f/11 is a good place to start as you get accustomed to doing macro work; from there, open up or close down as desired.
You’ll want to keep all critical details in focus but want to avoid emphasizing background clutter that distract from your subject. As you become more familiar with this type of photography, you’ll get a better feel for the aperture that is going to best complement your vision.
5. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
While you need to be aware of shallower-than-normal depth of field at the various apertures, don’t be afraid to play around with super-selective focus.
Working wide open at extremely close distances can be a great way to throw much of your image out of focus and create creamy, primarily abstract images, with just one or two facets of the subject in focus.
As already mentioned, macro work gives you a great opportunity to use that creative license!
6. Manage the noise.
Watch your ISO. Light loss when working at close focusing distances is considerable, and you’ll have to close down significantly to get more than a sliver of your subject in focus … which means you’re either going to have to bump your ISO or reduce your shutter speed.
Ask yourself what your goals are for the shot – many times, macro photographers seek to capture the minutia of their subject matter, and such a goal is best served with crisp, clean images … so keep your ISO low, and slow down that shutter.
7. Brace yourself.
So you’ve closed down your aperture and are holding firm at a reasonably low ISO … unless you want a pitch black image, you’re probably stuck with a slower shutter speed than you’re used to.
Camera shake will yield soft focus, so tuck in your elbows, buy yourself a tripod, or set the camera on a steady surface. If you’re working at a shutter speed longer than one second, consider using your timer, cable release, or remote to fire the shutter.
8. Switch to manual.
Manual focus, that is. By manually focusing your lens, you have precise control over which details are sharpest – and thus which draw the viewer’s attention first.
In many cases (especially if you’re not working with sufficient light), you’ll have no choice but to resort to manual focus; it’s not at all uncommon for a macro lens to hunt endlessly when it can’t grab onto your preferred detail.
In most cases, I don’t even attempt to allow the camera to autofocus; I rotate the focus ring until nothing is in focus, then gradually adjust it until my subject pops into focus.
Manual focus is often painstaking business, and it’s another good reason to work on a tripod; if your hands shake a bit or your body sways, delicate focus attempts can be a real exercise in frustration.
9. Shoot in bursts.
When working with razor-thin depth of field or handholding, focus can be elusive. I often set my camera to burst mode and fire off several shots in succession while barely adjusting my focus ring when I know I’m very close; odds are, one will be in perfect focus.
Use caution with this method when you are working with a very slow shutter speed, however; you don’t want to be changing focus in the middle of the exposure.
10. Chimp … at 100%.
Sometimes it’s difficult to ensure that you have nailed focus when focusing manually. The tiniest bump or slip when taking your hand off the focus ring can make you lose focus on the critical element at the last second.
Preview your image in your LCD and zoom in to 100% to confirm that your subject is in focus. I have my camera set to automatically zoom to 100% when I press the middle of my multi-selector; check to see if your camera offers a similar option.
11. Light the way.
I’m talking to you. Yes, you, the “I only do natural light” photographer. If your object is stationary, more power to you: get out your tripod, and set up a long exposure.
However, in limited-light situations where a tripod is impractical or your subject is in motion (such as an insect or water droplet), supplemental lighting is critical.
Neither your basic speedlight nor your popup flash is going to cut it when you’re focusing so closely that the lens itself is going to block some of the light from illuminating your subject. As a general rule, you’ll need to get your speedlight off your camera, add enough constant light to allow you to use a shutter speed that can freeze motion, or use a dedicated macro lighting system.
12. Stack your focus.
Sometimes, even your smallest aperture isn’t sufficient to bring your subject(s) completely into focus.
In such a situation, you can digitally expand your depth of field by stacking multiple images, each of which captures a different plane of focus. Basically, you are bracketing your focus: adjust your camera until the frontmost plane of your subject is in focus, and take the shot; reset your focus so that the plane that was just starting to get soft in the first image is now the sharpest point, and take a second shot; repeat until you have captured all of the necessary “slices” of focus from front to back.
Combine those images in Photoshop. The method is similar to that employed by HDR photographers when combining multiple exposures, but instead of puling optimum exposure from multiple images, you are incorporating optimum planes of focus to take your depth of field beyond the limits of your optics.
BONUS GUIDE: What’s in a macro photographer’s bag?
You can try reversing a lens or using extension tubes on a standard lens (50mm + extension tubes is a common pairing), but for the best results, invest in a dedicated macro lens.
For still subjects, a shorter focal length is fine (such as a 60mm macro); for subjects that are jumpy or otherwise may need a little more personal space, consider longer lengths (105 or even 200mm).
Longer macro lenses require a greater focusing distance, but they do not provide greater magnification; all standard macro lenses max out at a magnification level of 1:1.
You can add one or more extension tubes to a standard lens to turn it into a macro lens capable of closer focusing and high magnification. Want to up the ante? Add extension tubes to the macro lens itself, and revel in magnification greater than 1:1.
Keep in mind, however, that these additions compromise light gathering ability in order to gain greater magnification; you will lose significant depth of field. Kenko offers very popular extension tubes, but Nikon and Canon carry their own extension tubes as well. I have my eye on Nikon’s PK-13.
An alternative to extension tubes, a teleconverter will increase the magnification of your lens without affecting your focusing distance. If you get a 2.0x teleconverter, for example, your 105mm macro lens becomes a 210mm macro capable of achieving 2:1 images.
Teleconverters are more versatile than extension tubes, since they can also be used to increase telephoto range when focusing at infinity (such as when shooting sports or wildlife). However, when you use a teleconverter, you lose a few stops and sacrifice some sharpness, so extension tubes are best for dedicated macro work.
Both Canon and Nikon include teleconverters in their product line. Nikon, for example, offers 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2.0x teleconverters; for my purposes, I’ve found that using a 1.7x teleconverter gave me the best tradeoff between sharpness/light and magnification.
Tripod and/or beanbag:
Macro work can be tenuous business. In order to minimize noise and retain sufficient depth of field, you’ll often find yourself having to shoot at a speed to slow to handhold.
Get yourself a good quality tripod, ideally one which has legs that splay so that you can shoot at nearly ground-level. In a pinch, a beanbag can also be a useful solution.
Focusing rails afford you an unsurpassed level of control when trying to precisely control your focus distance. Instead of rotating your focus ring, you can simply slide your entire camera back and forth along the rails until exposure is spot-on.
Focusing rails are also fantastic when creating multiple exposures at slightly different points of focus in order to digitally stack your images during processing.
For dramatic or directional lighting, an OCF or constant lighting setup may be your best bet. Alternatively, a ring flash produces flat light that will help to eliminate shadows (this may or may not be desirable).
Both Nikon and Canon also make speedlight systems specifically for macro work. Nikon offers the R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System; Canon offers the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX.
Right angle viewfinder:
Ever try getting your eye up to the camera when your DSLR is low to the ground or when you are otherwise in a tight spot? A right angle finder fits over your viewfinder and allows extends your eyepiece at an angle.
When you are shooting grass-high subjects at eye level, such a tool is invaluable. Check out Nikon’s DR-6 or Canon’s Angle Finder C.