Macro Photography

With Spring upon us, it is the ideal time to take an interest in Macro Photography.

Entering into this world can lead to some fascinating and truly spectacular images, and with a few tips you can achieve these results.

So, there are a 3 main ways to perform Macro Photography;
  1. With a Macro Lens
  2. With Extension tubes 
  3. With Focus Stacking
There is also a secret 4th way of getting great results without the expense, which I’ll share further on, but first let’s start with 1. A Macro lens.

Each manufacturer has a range Macro lenses to choose from. Naturally if you are willing to pay, there are different levels of lens to select, which from the main brands, are as follows:
So as you can see, Canon has quite a selection with Nikon and Sony only having 2 respectively. The main lenses are the ones that center around 100mm as this allows you to be close enough to the subject but also far enough away as not to disturb what you’re taking a picture of.  The third party lens makers also do equivalents and sometime you can pick up a bargain Macro lens if you do your research. The Tamron 70-300 macro is a great lens if starting out and quite inexpensive.

On to 2. Extension tubes:

These allow you to get extremely close to your subject, therefore greatly increasing your magnification, even over some of the actual Macro lenses, but you will only have manual controls. Meaning patience IS paramount.

And finally 3. Focus Stacking:

This option is probably the most time consuming, but your results will be amazing. To achieve this you will ideally need a Macro lens and your subject to be stationary, not so easy with an insect! The method to use is to take a picture of your subject and then slightly move the focus on and take another picture and so on until you have covered the whole thing. Then you composite them in Photoshop (other programs are available) and at the end you have an extremely high focus and detailed image. It is doable with insects, but you’ll either have to subdue the animal by cooling it down in the fridge/freezer for a few hours or have the patience of a saint and the reflexes of a fly, ironically.

So let’s talk about taking a picture. You’ve got your camera, you’ve got your lens, and you’ve got your flower. But the most important thing, which I can’t stress enough to have, is light. Without it, your image will be very difficult to capture. So a decent flashgun is a must. Nikon’s SB-700 or Canon’s 430EX will do the job perfectly if you've yet to pick one up. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a studio flash head system, these will be ideal, when shooting inside.  But nothing beats the Sun. So when you’re outside, try to capture images on a bright day, but watch for harsh shadows from yourself when maneuvering for the right angle. A flash/Sun combo to complement each other would be great! If out and about, get a diffuser for your flash and a flash bracket, as this allows you to position the flash next to the lens to achieve the best results.

OK, equipment set, now the execution. Most photographers that specialise in this field will use manual focus when taking the picture. This allows you to make very subtitle movements to get the right area in focus. Which is very freeing if the wind is moving your flower/plant around, it can take some time however to get the shot, so take your time and don’t rush. Play around with just moving your body, not your arms or head, back and forth and see how this affects what you can see in the viewfinder. You’ll want your hands holding the camera as usual, cupping the lens etc. But your arms tucked in to your torso to make you as stable as possible.

Autofocus will obviously be quicker and if you have to take a shot on the, ahem, fly, it’s great; you can always crop your picture in later. However, manual focus will usually allow you to focus in closer than AF will, as the lens will have an AF limit, which you can change, that isn't always your friend.

Now what aperture should you use? As you can see, all the lenses listed above have a max f/2.8 aperture. This is great for allowing light in, not great for sharpness. I would go for no lower than f/4. This gives you more depth of field to play with and therefore more of your subject in focus. Obviously if you just want the tip of the petal or just the center of the flower in focus, then by all means use the f/2.8. Just be aware that this could be the difference of getting that spider’s eyes in focus and focusing on the top of it’s head. Which isn't a great shot believe me.

So that’s it. Not difficult, but it does take practice and patients to get right. Once you do, you’ll start to get the pictures you've seen and want. Start with easy things first. Jewelry, flowers, textures, models. Then move on to the harder stuff like wildlife and wildflowers. I can recommend Kew Gardens, especially the Climate house, as there are lots of flora and fawner to choose from and lots of insects fluttering and buzzing about. Particularly in Spring.

Oh yes! I almost forgot the secret 4th way of taking Macro pictures.

Not a lot of people know this, but the chances are you have a Macro lens already. In fact you probably bought one with your camera and it’s just been sat there all along. I’m talking about your kit lens. Usually an 18-55mm.  Yes, that cheap, starter lens could actually get you great Macro results.

The way to get these marvelous pictures is to reverse the lens and shoot through the front. Yes it is possible. This technique works particularly well with older lenses that have an aperture ring, but with the modern ones, I find Nikon the easiest to do it with as they have a little switch located on the back which opens the aperture that you can manually operate/hold open.

Now bare in mind you will have not electronic controls for focus and aperture making this probably the “hardest” to fiddle around with, but the results are worth the effort.

So to begin with you’ll have to manually hold the lens, reversed over the mount on your camera and, if using a Nikon, with the hand that’s holding the lens, hold the switch open at the point that you feel comfortable with. It works the same way backwards and forwards the darker/smaller the aperture, the more is in focus. But you’ll definitely need a light source. Bumping up the ISO will help as well, but flashgun/LED lights are a must. With Canon lenses there is no switch so you’ll have to just use the ISO and a flash to get the same effect.

Once you have got used to the set up, is much the same as using a Macro Lens and manual focus. Just move back and forth to get what you want. It’s again not easy to master, but the end images can be amazing if you get it right. You can even buy an adapter ring to attach the lens backwards on your camera, which only cost a few pounds. Just make sure you get the right mm, which you’ll find the other side if the lens cap, it’s the same as the filter mm.  I find 50mm lenses work really well with this method.

And there you have it, Macro photography. It’s a great field to get in to and you get to view everyday things from a whole new perspective and learn to appreciate the details of a flower’s petal, the diamond in the ring or the complexity of a fly’s eye.

There are plenty of sources on the web and YouTube to help along the way and Park Cameras regularly has Macro workshops involving live insects in both of our branches. So check out the website and our social media pages for all the up to date information. Also if you want to see any of my Macro work please check out my website www.davidhillphoto.london and go to the Nature section. I use a Nikon D800 and a combination of the Nikon 105mm f2.8 and reverse 50mm f1.4.
You can even reverse attach the 50mm to the 105mm, but that’s for another time.

I’m David and I work in the London branch of Park Cameras, so please come in to see me if you have any questions about technique or the equipment.

Thanks for reading.

David Hill
Park Cameras

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