Macro photography is one of those things that leaves many people, both photo enthusiasts and non photographers alike, picking their jaws up off the floor. Yes, while pictures may be worth a thousand words, macro, or extreme close-up pictures, are probably worth a few million, or just one: incredible. Whether it be nature on a small scale or ordinary objects from a close-up perspective, macro photography both amazes and leads many to want to try their own hand at it, too.
So how does one become a macro photographer?
Well, the one thing required to shoot macro photos is a macro lens, namely one that has a magnification factor of 1x or a reproduction ratio of 1:1. In fact, these two things are the same, but different manufacturers/retailers may express them using either one, so be aware. Unfortunately, many lens makers, in order to drive sales, attach a “macro” designation to any lens that has even somewhat reasonable close-up abilities. In fact, it is not uncommon for “macro” lenses to have magnifying powers as low as .3x or 1:3, which is close up, but no macro. Lesson of the day, be sure to know your photography lingo and read the fine print!
Okay, you have your 1:1 macro lens, now what?
The second big challenge to macro photography ia a little thing called depth of field. When shooting at macro distances, the depth of field that's in focus is very, very thin. While I could go on and on about the value of stopping down your lens, let's just let the above set of photos do the talking. In this shoot, I shot the quarter at 1:1 distance from about a 45 degree angle. Note, only at f32 is the whole quarter in focus! Now, obviously, controlling focus is very important, which brings us to our next point:
To AF or not to AF?
In macro photography, forget the AF. With the depth of field so tiny, in macro photography, it is vital that you, the photographer, control the point of focus by doing it yourself and not trusting the camera to do it for you. Besides that, the buzz of a focus motor (if your macro lens is a micromotor/mechanical drive) may scare away a live subject. In contrast, manual focus creates neither of these problems. When it comes to focusing, my favorite technique when I want to get as close as possible is this: set the lens to closest focus and then move the camera back and forth to get the focus point where I want it. However, I do recommend using your camera's focus confirm function for macro if you don't have the ability to change to a more MF friendly screen.
The basics covered, how about some more tips and tricks?
First, don't get in the way of your own light. Being so close to your subject, it is very easy to get in the way of one's own light when doing macro photography. This is the reason why those expensive, 200mm-ish macro lenses are so popular, they allow some working distance. However, as such big macro glass is out of the budget for most of us, just be mindful of your light and where it's coming from so that you don't get in your own way.
Second, let there be light. Obviously, when working with small apertures (you'll be in the f8 to f16 range, guaranteed), every bit of light is vital for getting an acceptable shutter speed, especially if your subject is alive. While not blocking your own light is a good start, you still may need to throw a little more light into the scene to get a reasonable shutter speed. So, instead of dropping wads of cash on expensive macro lighting rigs, why not use a piece of white paper to reflect light into the scene? It's cheap, the lighting is soft, and it works. Try it and see.
Third, get a mini tripod. When shooting macro, especially inanimate objects that afford you the ability to frame and move around at will, a tabletop tripod really makes things easier. First, because you're on a tripod, you can stop down to very small apertures to make sure that things are in focus as they should be because you can shoot at shutter speeds that would be impossibly slow (for macro) hand-held.
Fourth, itchy shutter finger. When shooting live subjects at mid apertures, the key to getting a good photo is to shoot a lot of pictures. Believe me, those little bugs moving around can be a real pain to capture in focus where you want the focus to be. In my experience, it is not uncommon to dump 75% of my bug photos simply because the focus point is just a touch off true (remember, you're focusing manually and the focus confirm lights in today's digital cameras are no substitute for a good, old-fashioned MF screen).
Don't cut the crop. Today's digital cameras have a lot of megapixels, which means a lot of cropping room. So, with all that resolution, don't hesitate to move out a bit and snap from a longer distance to help guarantee better luck with focus (more distance = greater depth of field) as you can always crop the image to a more macro-esque shot in post processing. Last but not least, when at true macro, don't hesitate to crop, either, as some amazing details can be seen this way!
For more info:A macro lens buyer's guide (with complete list of manufacturer macros)
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