So you want to dive head-first into the great big world of photographing little bitty things? That’s great, because macro photography is interesting, fun and rewarding, and it doesn’t take too much expertise to make awesome images right off the bat. What it does take is a bit of planning and the right equipment. Here’s what you need to know, followed by some essential gear.
So you’re ready to go macro, but how do you actually do it? Here are five tips for better macro results.
1. Understand depth of field and use DOF preview. Depth of field becomes increasingly important with macro subjects because it’s so limited. Even at ƒ/22, you’re bound to see parts of the scene that fall far out of focus. It’s no problem if those background elements should be out of focus, but what about the parts of the subject you want to be tack-sharp?
Let’s say you’re photographing a flower bud the size of a quarter. In order to ensure the whole thing is sharp, you first need to focus (using manual rather than autofocus) one-third of the way into the area you want sharp. So determine a point one-third of the way into the flower and then adjust your aperture until the whole thing is sharp. To check it, utilize the depth-of-field preview, or simply make an exposure and check it on the back of the camera. You’ll have no problem minimizing the depth of field in a macro shot, but if you’re not careful you can create a narrow field of sharpness and render the image a little too abstract. When it’s necessary due to shutter speed constraints, boost the ISO so you can use a smaller aperture without decreasing the shutter speed.
2. Shoot stationary subjects, especially early on. There’s never wind when you want to fly a kite, and there’s always wind if you want to shoot a macro image outdoors. Even a light breeze can translate into big movements when your subject is tiny.
If you’re shooting a leaf, for instance, a subtle sway on a breezy day can blow your subject wildly in and out of frame. If things are moving more than you want them to, consider incorporating another piece of gear, the Wimberley Plamp. It’s ideal for holding subjects steady while you shoot. A fast shutter speed also can be more crucial with macro shooting, as the subtle movements of a small subject become much bigger close up. So with unsteady subjects, use a faster shutter speed to ensure those movements don’t translate into blur in an unsharp final image. Or you always can do whatever is necessary—like just packing up and moving your subject indoors—to get it to stand perfectly still.
3. Backlight for depth; add frontal fill for color. One of the most popular macro subjects is the flower. Positioning your camera so the sun is backlighting the subject not only creates beautiful flower photos, but it has the added benefit of keeping your own shadow out of the scene. What can happen, though, is the color may appear a little washed out due to backlighting. To compensate, add a bit of fill light from the front. This can come from a ring flash or a reflector. The important thing is that you balance the light and create a pleasing contrast ratio to keep from under- or overexposing a crucial part of the subject or background.
4. Use your macro lens to find unseen beauty. One of the neatest things about macro photography is that it brings a whole new, very tiny world into sharp view. You’ll see details you never knew existed, and you may discover colors that only bugs ever get to see. Bugs are actually a great macro subject, especially if they’re more exotic than gross. Discovering the beauty in a common fly or a plain old plant leaf represents what’s so great about macro photography: exploration. Anything up close can become an interesting abstract work of art. So don’t be afraid to experiment with subjects
that may not seem so great when viewed life-size. That’s part of the beauty of macro photography.
5. Tether your camera to a computer. Sometimes the hardest thing about macro photography is physically getting your camera in position and then getting your eye in position behind the camera while you compose, focus and check the depth of field. This can be even trickier out in the field. Whether you’re set up far from home or you’re shooting around the house or in a studio, consider tethering your camera when you make macro exposures. Not only will the massive enlargement of the screen make it easy to check critical focus and sharpness (almost as if you were working with a large-format film camera and checking sharpness on the ground glass), the subtle compositional adjustments will be easier via the big screen. Working via tether makes the whole process easier and more comfortable, which is bound to allow you to spend more time perfecting the ideal macro image. The only problem is if you’re working far afield and weren’t planning to carry your computer. Closer to home, though, be sure to test the power of shooting with a tether.
ESSENTIAL GEAR FOR MACRO
Macro Lens. This one is sort of obvious, right? You need a macro lens to do macro photography, but there are lots of options. There are prime, fixed-focal-length macro lenses, often in the 50mm, 60mm and 100mm range, but there also are zooms with close-focusing capability built in. A dedicated macro lens usually will offer more powerful magnifications, as well as the flatter focus field that allows you to maintain precise focus across the frame. The best news is that all your favorite lens makers offer dedicated macro lenses for practically any interchangeable-lens camera. Some even have extra bells and whistles like image stabilization built right in.
Tripod. The lens is doing most of the heavy lifting in the macro setup, but the tripod is the piece of gear that separates great macro photographs from bad ones. When you’re focused so close to a small subject, every miniscule movement (including every breath you take) can create huge vibrations in the lens. To eliminate this, a tripod is critical. A full-sized tripod works just fine, particularly if the legs can spread wide enough to get the camera just a few inches from the ground. Failing that, some tripods have a center column that can be inverted to hold the camera low. If you don’t have these full-sized options available, consider a compact tripod designed to steady the camera less than a foot from its feet.
Cable Release. Cable releases are ideal for situations in which the slightest camera shake can ruin an image—and that’s certainly the case with macro photography. The simple pressure of finger on shutter release can be enough to t
Ring Flash. When you need to add a light source to a small subject, particularly when that subject is only a few inches from the front of your lens, a regular hot-shoe-mounted flash just won’t work. Even if you pulled your flash off the camera, it can be tricky to get the light exactly where you want it when the lens is so close to the subject. The ring flash solves this problem by putting the light source around the lens barrel. The ring flash is ideal for macro illumination, but you also can get an adapter like the ExpoImaging Ray Flash flash attachment to modify a hot-shoe-mounted flash into a pseudo-ring light.
Light Modifiers. In many macro situations, a flash isn’t necessary—especially if shooting outdoors in sunlight. What’s more necessary, though, is a light modifier to allow you to tweak the daylight exactly as you need it. To create a more directional light, to fill in shadows from the close camera setup or simply to add some pop on an overcast day, a collapsible reflector (in silver, white or gold for warmth) like a Westcott 14-inch Illuminator allows you to add a small item to your gear bag that can do a lot to improve the lighting in a macro image. A collapsible diffuser can be used for similar reasons in the exact opposite situation: On a bright and sunny day, the contrast between shadow and highlight can be too much for the camera to handle. With a 12-inch diffuser, though, soft lighting can accompany you anywhere.