The world of macro photography has been an interest for me ever since I got my first camera. That camera was a little Casio point and shoot that was maybe 2 or 3 megapixels. I was out shooting that first day with it and noticed on the mode dial a little flower icon and thought I’d set it to that and go shoot some flowers. I was several feet back from some Clematis (yes, I remember the exact flower) and the camera would not focus. After some trial and error I realized I needed to be closer to get focus…a LOT closer. I had accidentally discovered macro mode! Since then, it has been a wonderful journey down the road of the minuscule where I explore the “rarely seen” subjects. Here I will be discussing macro photography with the Olympus line of micro four thirds cameras and lenses and why that system is well suited for this genre.
What exactly is micro four thirds? Micro four thirds (or MFT) is a standard developed by several camera manufacturers with an emphasis on slim design (via the removal of the mirror and prism found in dSLRs) and lens design based upon a purely digital platform. Another one of the ways this slim form factor is achieved is through its smaller sensor. This smaller sensor is roughly half the size of a full frame camera’s sensor (full frame being the equivalent of 35mm film – so imagine a sensor about 1/2 the size of that) and thus requires much less space inside the camera body. This smaller sensor is what we call a “crop sensor” as it will present a “cropped” image of what you might get from a full frame camera. Another way to explain this is as follows.
A 35mm lens on a full frame camera becomes a 70mm lens on a MFT camera because it has a 2x crop factor. So what you end up seeing is what you’d get if you cropped out the outer portion of your 35mm full frame image and kept the inner half (in this case, only 50% of the 35mm frame). By losing the outer 50% of your frame, your scene appears to have been closer to your subject than you actually were, which is why we say that a 35mm lens behaves more like a 70mm lens on MFT cameras.
Now how does all this crop factor stuff come into play with macro photography? It comes into play in a wonderful way! Let me show you how and explain why a MFT might be your next macro photography choice.
Above I mentioned that due to the 2x crop factor of MFT you get more “reach” from a lens. This can come in really handy if you are shooting insect macro photography and your subjects are easily scared from their resting place. For example, the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro will give you the same effective reach as a 120mm lens would on a full frame camera, but it will also provide the same depth of field as an f/5.6 lens would thanks to the smaller sensor (the smaller the sensor, the less noticeable background blur is – learn more about this in The Bokeh Effect: How Sensor Size Affects Background Blur).
Now I know some of you will be asking, “how is MORE depth of field a good thing?” When shooting macro we want as much depth of field as possible because when shooting at such magnifications the narrow depth of field is already exacerbated. You maintain the same light gathering ability of the f/2.8 aperture but the depth of field is effectively doubled when working with micro four thirds sensors.
Now I know that last part will stir some controversy with the technical people out there so let me quickly explain. The lenses that are designed for MFT are made to provide an image circle that covers that sensor type (learn more about this in Transitioning from Point-and-Shoot to DSLR: Understanding Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors). So if a lens is designed to be f/2.8, then it will provide the amount of light needed to its sensor to be rated as an f/2.8. So not everything doubles in a crop sensor – just the apparent field of view (increased reach) and apparent depth of field (decreased background blur). That is a perk for us macro shooters who need to get close to subjects without scaring them and who need to maintain as much apparent focus as possible without sacrificing exposure.
With the technical details of MFT out of the way, let’s look at a few photos and talk about the specific equipment and techniques used to make them.
The image above was shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M10 and a 60mm f/2.8 macro. Because I wanted a really deep depth of field, I shot it stopped down to f/8. Now if you have ever stopped your lens down that far you know that very little light is making to the camera’s sensor. In order to get a good exposure I had to use some off camera lighting. In this case it was an Olympus FL-600r that was kept off-camera to the side and triggered via the small FL-LM2 accessory flash that comes with the camera. In order to soften the light from the flash and give a more natural appearance, I attached a cheap softbox modifier to the flash. For just a second let’s remember that I shot at f/8 which is equal to the depth of field of/16 for a full frame camera. In order to expose that properly on a full frame camera we’d need either more light (more flash output) or a much higher ISO than the ISO 200 used here. Both of the solutions can bring with them their own sets of problems that could make this shot a little more difficult to achieve.
Another benefit of using the Olympus MFT cameras for macro work is the in-body image stabilization. The OM-D E-M1, E-M5 II, and E-M10 II all have image stabilization that offers 5 axes of stabilization to allow for shots like the one above to be done hand held. Granted, you need to keep from rocking forward towards your subject (which risks moving the focal plane), but all of the up, down, left, right, and roll movements can be compensated for by the camera. This stabilization, since it is in the camera body, means you can even adapt old legacy macro lenses to the body and still achieve sharp imagery.
The following images showcase what, to me, is the most exciting development in macro photography to come about in ages and it is currently exclusive to the Olympus OM-D E-M1. What you see above is a comparison of a single photo shot at f/5.6, and EIGHT images shot at f/5.6 with each of those nine images having its focal point moved further back on the skull. The movement in focal point is done automatically by the camera rapidly. Those eight images are then merged together IN THE CAMERA to make a focus stacked image that offers a depth of field equivalent of f/44.8.
Without the focus stacking feature, and shooting a single frame at f/5.6, you end up with a very narrow depth of field as you can see from the image below.
Focus stacking can be done manually, too. It involves placing your focus on each part of your subject to be manually layered together in post afterward to achiever a completely in-focus shot. When working with tiny subjects at close range, it is nearly impossible to get the entire subject sharp – the depth of field window in those circumstances is simply too large. Unless you intentionally want only a portion of, say, a bumble bee to appear in-focus, focus stacking manually or automatically with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is essential.
There are of course some other benefits to the MFT system for macro work as well. One of them is that these are mirrorless cameras, so they use an electronic viewfinder. With an electronic viewfinder you can do things like magnify your view to allow for a very fine tuning of your focus – something that is not currently possibility on a dSLR without having to rely on the live view screen (and using that on a sunny day is no fun). Another perk of the electronic viewfinder is that many of the cameras offer focus peaking. That is a system that overlays a color in the viewfinder that highlights what areas are actually in focus. So as you start to focus you will see a band of color moving across your subject and this tells you exactly which parts of your subject is sharp. This makes it much easier to get incredibly sharp and well-focused macro photos, especially if you don’t full trust your own eyes.
Those are just a handful of ways MFT is changing how we take photos. And for those of us who love nature, and especially macro photography, MFT is making it easy for even a first-time macro shooter to get incredible images.
Learn more about macro photography:
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