While I’m usually a portrait or wedding photographer, there are lots of other areas of photography that really interest me. One of the first was macro photography. Certain aspects of practicing macro photography helped me in portraiture as well, such as how to effectively use a manual focus lens and a real concentration on composition. While addicting, macro photography can also get very technical. The options for budget friendly macro are endless and so are the problems that come with it. That’s not to say good results can’t be achieved from those methods… often people who use extension tubes, reverse rings or close up filters get results far more beautiful than people who have a true macro lens and don’t know how to use it.
A “macro” lens is also a bit of a misnomer. There are lots of lenses ranging from cheap point and shoots to more expensive primes and zooms that bear the marking “macro,” but are not quite macro. By definition a 1:1 reproduction ratio (the image on the sensor is identical in size to the object’s size in real life) is the minimum for real macro. There are lenses and techniques which will get you even larger magnification but for this article’s purpose we’ll be simply talking about 1:1 macro lenses. Yes, I know, I said that reverse rings, extension tubes and close up filters work just fine. That’s all true, but the techniques will be largely the same. Also, if you can afford a true macro lens I think it’s worthwhile for the control it offers (you’ll often lose control of autofocus, aperture and be significantly limited in the focal distance of your lens with other methods).
There are different focal lengths for macro lenses and the biggest difference will usually be working distance (the distance from you to your subject). Something around 50mm will therefore require you to get pretty up close and personal with your subject and something closer to 200mm will give you a little more breathing room. 90-105mm seems to be the most commonly used focal length and will give you a reasonable working distance while maintaining a good size and weight and also easily doubling as a portrait lens. They also tend to be 2.8 lenses but beware that shooting wide open will be very difficult. They can often close down much further than f16 or f22 like other lenses, but you’ll need quite a lot of light for that. You’ll want to make sure to keep a relatively high shutter speed as well because although they often come with IS (or VR, VC…) at such close distances things like handshake are extremely noticeable and stabilization will hardly make a difference. This is another reason that you’ll need more light than usual to capture a high aperture macro image. There are plenty of lighting options you can use for macro but for now I won’t get into that.
One more quick note here about the benefit of a true macro lens is that it’s specifically designed for macro photography. That means a few things. Obvious points would be that it can focus to 1:1 without any other accessories, has a focus limiter to avoid crazy hunting with AF, and it will allow you to close the aperture much further than f22. It’s also designed to perform it’s best at or near minimum focus, even wide open. Many lenses, both cheap and expensive, will struggle a bit in one or both of these situations. Lot’s of lenses will also start to fall apart after f8 or f11 whereas macro lenses tend to hold up quite strong when stopped down even further (often a necessity for macro photography). Adding things like close up filters will only amplify these imperfections, especially if they’re of low quality. While you can still close down to the lens’s strongest aperture (typically a few down from wide open) and sharpen up any remaining softness in post, a true macro lens will likely give you breathtakingly sharp results straight out of camera in nearly any situation. Reversing your lens and using (some) extension tubes will also mean you’re lens will be stuck wide open or closed all the way down (depending on your brand of lens). Not the ideal situation for most lenses.
While I did just mention that AF was a benefit of a true macro lens, it’s also not necessary. It will come in handy though when you want to use the lens for other purposes (macro lenses are usually very sharp and do quite well in most situations). When you’re so close and focusing on such a small (often highly detailed) subject, autofocus can easily get confused. It will sometimes miss focus and sometimes end up racking focus all the way out to infinity and back again trying to find it. Some macro lenses will have focus limiters on them to avoid this to some degree but it’s still quite annoying. Also, when using autofocus you won’t be sure if the image you’re capturing is truly the maximum magnification of your lens.
What I would recommend, is turn AF off and manually set your focus to 1:1 (the closest possible). If you want something less than 1:1 for whatever reason, just set it to what works for you and then don’t touch it anymore. That’s right. With macro, “manual focusing” is often not so much focusing as it is moving. You’ll want to make sure that you stay at 1:1 magnification (or whatever you have set) so just get closer and closer until the image appears sharp in your viewfinder (or on your LCD screen). When you think you’ve got it try to steady your stance and breathing as much as you can and take a series of shots while rocking your body very slowly and very slightly in one direction or the other. The idea is that somewhere between that first shot and last shot you’ll have captured the perfect point of focus. The tiniest shift of your body or the subject can cause it to lose critical focus, so this is the easiest way to raise the odds of hitting your mark. During all this be sure to keep an eye on your composition because with such a close subject, it’s easy to accidentally cut off part of what you’re trying to capture.
The reason I mention it’s often incredibly hard to capture your subject perfectly in the plane of focus is because at such close distances, your depth of field will truly be razor thin. Even stopped down quite a lot you’ll still find a LOT of falloff.
In order to get more depth of field in macro shots, photographers will often use what is called “focus stacking.” This is when you capture a series of shots focused on each “layer” of the subject and then use photoshop or another program to blend the layers into one image which effectively has the entire subject in focus. Naturally you need (at minimum) a tripod for this as well as a stationary subject. Again, there are loads of accessories which can help achieve this but I won’t get into that now.
For handheld macro you’ll be limited to one shot, so choose your aperture wisely. Wide open shots can be very artistic depending on the subject, but beware of having no real point of focus in your image. Stopping down to f8 or f11 will give you a bit more depth of field while still keeping a creamy smooth out of focus background. Again, you’ll need a good amount of light to keep your shutter speed around 1/400s or higher so don’t go searching for subjects in the shade unless you have an additional lighting source. I’ve been told that 4x the normal recommended shutter speed is a safe bet for macro. My lens is 100mm, so (4x 100) 1/400s has worked well enough for me so far. This is just a recommendation though and may differ depending on both you and the subject.
Macro photography can be a lot of fun and I’d highly recommend trying it out. There are lots of options as I mentioned so go with what works for you and your budget. As is true of any kind of photography, the only limit will be your creativity and motivation. A true macro lens may open more possibilities (or make things easier) but the cheaper options by no means should stop you from getting an awesome image.
One warning: it’s addicting.
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