Macro photography is much like a meditation practice: there must be a willingness to experiment outside your comfort zone, practiced patience, and a dedication to learning. The genre has been a popular niche for decades and now with easier accessibility to the tools it takes to create this kind of photo, there are a few ideas it is best to understand first. With its popularity there is a lot of technical information available that can be difficult to understand when you are first starting out. Whether you are shooting detailed still lives or capturing your environment in a new perspective, there are certain things to consider that will aid in your success and help you avoid defeating frustration. Understanding the most important questions to ask yourself and why its important to know the answers before you even pick up your camera is the first step. Let’s take a closer look at the best tools of the trade, tips, and tricks to get started in macro photography.
What Exactly Is Macro Photography?
Macro photography has been in pop vernacular for some time now and is the close-up photography of very small subjects captured life size. You will often hear the terms magnification rate or reproduction rates when referring macro photography, which translates the size in which the subject is being captured in relation to their actual size. A ratio of 1:1 is imagery true to life in size, 1:2 is half it’s size in reality, and so on. You can tell the ratio you are able to shoot by reading the markings on the side of a macro lens. For the best results you will want a system that will allow you to focus no further away than 20cm- being that the closer you get to the subject, the larger it is in your final frame.
Why Shoot with Macro Lenses?
One of the most popular uses for macro photography are for nature and bug lovers who are granted access into a tiny world unobserved by most. Second to that, it is also great for shooting detailed images that tell a story. For example, the wrinkled fingertips of a newborn, the eyelids of a bride having her makeup done, and keepsakes are all popular subject matters. Product and food photographers who need the utmost in clarity to capture details of covetable goods find use in macro lenses, as do those in scientific and forensic fields who want the most accurate recordings of their research. Artists by large have boundless uses for macro lenses, as the lines, patterns, and textures can be inspiring on their own or used in conjunction with all types of design work.
Which Lenses to Consider
There are several options on the market for macro lenses and deciphering which are best for your needs is the first question you must ask yourself. All macro lenses are manufactured with a flat field that allow for edge to edge sharpness and close-up focusing capabilities.
The Zeiss 50mm Makro-Planar f/2 is an ideal lens for studio still life work that isn’t incredibly small. This lens will allow you a tack sharp image and decipherable yet soft background when shot at f/8. Another benefit of this lens is it can be easily hand held, allowing for flexibility to capture the perfect angle and/or background for your image. A drawback would be the closeness you would have to get to your subject in order to capture a 1:1 ratio or 1:2 ratio and the heightened potential of interfering with the light you are using. One way to trouble shoot this issue is to back-light your subject and bounce light back into the scene by using a reflector, minimizing the chances of blocking your light source.
Professional photographers shooting macro, whether nature or studio work, will stick to the Canon 180mm Macro or Nikon 200mm Micro lenses as they are the industry standards. These lenses enable you to shoot far enough away from the subject, not to interfere with lighting or bother a live subject, while maintaining a tight frame. Subtle movements make a big difference when shooting with these lenses, and the slightest of movements can drastically change the composition. Being telephoto lenses, the compression of space is much greater and the depth of field is practically non-existent when shooting close-up to your subject. The background will be nothing more than a color palette and should be carefully considered when composing your image. These lenses take practice and a steady hand when attempting to nail focus; to avoid frustration mount a tripod to the lens collar which will inhibit lens shake when fine tuning focus.
The Canon 100mm and the Nikon 105mm lens are a happy medium between standard angle of view macro lenses and the more high end telephoto options. You can maintain your distance from the subject and avoid casting shadows as long as you are aware of your surroundings. If you are becoming more serious about macro photography, this series of lenses can be coupled with a 1.4x or 2x Teleconverters to bring you even closer to your subject without being limited to the telephoto focal range (auto-focus is disabled when teleconverter is attached.) This lens is a go to for wedding and new born photographers whose job it is to capture even the slightest of details, and is light enough to travel with.
One thing you will definitely want to avoid when it comes to macro work is shooting from a distance and cropping in post-production. You will lose pixels information and degrade the quality of your image. A secret weapon to avoid this when needing to get extremely close to the tiniest of subjects is the Canon 65mm f/2.8 lens that works between the life size 1:1 ratio and five-times life size.
Aperture Is King
When you are ready to shoot, the first thing to decide is what aperture you want for your desired outcome. Shooting wide open will give you a super thin plane of focus, while shooting at f/32 will give you a deeper depth of field but will not guarantee total sharpness.
The closer you are to the subject, the less depth of field there is. You you will need to stop down your aperture to increase the amount that is in focus. The angle of the camera also affects the sharpness of an image and the focus will be at the same parallel as the rear of your camera. It’s recommended to use a tripod to aid in your quest for sharpness when shooting at smaller apertures, as well a geared tripod head or focusing rack to fine tune composition and focus.
If you are hand holding your camera, composition is your key to success. Arrange your subject or find an angle where everything you want sharp is equal distance from the lens. It may be wise to raise your ISO which can increase grain, however, sharpness will still be intact. Another option is to take several shots each shot focusing at different distances. In post-production you can merge the different photos and mask out any information not wanted.
As you are beginning to tell, nailing your focus is everything in macro photography. Understanding the basics are essential to your success, such as always using manual focus. This method gives you the utmost control over the image you are creating by choosing what you want to have in focus and is overall faster than auto-focus trying to choose what it thinks should be in focus. If you are shooting with a lens that has image stabilization or vibration reduction, turn that function off! Those stabilization mechanisms are not calibrated to work at such a short focusing distance and counteracts your effort to obtain crystal clear imagery.
When a tripod is needed for smaller apertures and longer exposures, trigger your shutter with a cable release or the built in camera timer to further reduce accidental camera shake. If you have the option of live view on the back of your camera, you can use the +/- controls to zoom into the exact point you would like to fine tune. Using the live view option to focus can be difficult if are shooting at a small aperture; the trick is to open your aperture to focus and then stop back down when you are ready to take the shot.
If tripods just aren’t your thing, you may want to investigate your lighting options. Off camera flash freezes any action or camera movement and let you shoot at a f/32. You can mount small flashes on Gorilla Pods along with the use of Pocket Wizards to add light into your scene. For more even lighting there are also the Canon MT-24EX Macro Ringlite Flash and Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Flash. Avoid shooting with a built in flash or mounting a flash to your camera, as it will wash out your image and degrade the inherit texture of your subject.
Macro photography isn’t as easy as it looks! After deciding on your subject you must consider if you would like to include background context, prefer to mount your camera on a tripod, and whether additional light is necessary. Answering these main questions will lead you to choosing the gear that will best fit your needs. The same rules apply as in all photography- while you are experimenting with new equipment keep in mind your framing, background elements, color, and form. Make time to truly experiment; the more time spent actually shooting will inspire you to to take more chances and create rewarding images you can be proud of. Please share your own tips and tricks that you have learned while shooting macro photography in the comments below!
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