Macro photography in the wild is not for the faint of heart. If there is one thing nature photographers know, it’s that nature rarely plays along. On the small scale, things get even worse. The tiny world is very dynamic—everything feels fast-paced, your camera is shaking with every breath, bugs race by in a split second and flowers blow wildly around the frame in the slightest breeze. To the casual observer, these motions are barely perceptible, but when your world view is only a half-inch across, these tiny movements appear very large.
If you’re just starting out, I would recommend practicing on stationary subjects like flowers in a vase, moss on a rock or mushrooms poking through the leaves. As you get more comfortable, start shooting low-lying flowers, or pick windless days. Moving subjects like insects or tall flowers add a layer of difficulty to the shot and can quickly get frustrating when you’re not comfortable with your camera. Take the time to get to know your camera and experiment with different settings.
Your camera is your first step in exploring the macro world. The number-one comment people make about my equipment is how expensive or complicated it must be. It doesn’t have to be, anyone with a camera can try macro photography. These days most consumer cameras come with a macro setting built in. For those with removable lenses, there are some easy ways to get focused, up close. For less than $10, you can buy a lens adapter that allows you to mount your existing lens to your camera backwards. Reversing your lens instantly turns it into a macro lens, allowing you to focus up close. This can produce great results, but you lose features like autofocus and auto aperture.
The best way to turn your everyday lens into a macro lens is to buy an extension tube. Extension tubes move your lens away from your camera’s sensor, automatically allowing you to focus closer to the subject. This is, by far, the best way to get amazing macro ability without the cost of a new lens.
Another way to adapt your lens for macro is to buy a clip-on lens, which attaches to your filter threads. You have to be careful to buy an optically corrected lens like the Raynox 250, which has two lens elements. This was one of my earliest purchases and something I still use today when traveling light. Avoid macro filters with a single glass element as they may create color and optical distortions that degrade the quality of your photo.
If you have the budget, buying a prime lens with macro capability is your best option. You might be surprised to find that your current lens already has macro capability. If you can’t tell, just experiment to see how close you can get to the subject and still focus. You’ll know you are in the realm of macro photography if an inch-wide subject like a daisy fills the frame when focused. You will need to be anywhere from around a foot down to an inch or two away from the subject.
Generally, longer lenses allow you to shoot macro farther from the subject, handy for flighty insects. If you are shooting a live subject, move as slowly and steadily as you can so that you don’t scare it away. Insects watch your silhouette against the sky, so sudden changes like sticking your arm out to the side will give them a fright. Always be sure to respect animals, and if you capture them for a shoot, always make sure that they are released again exactly where you found them. Some insects and animals rely on specific types of plants or food sources to survive, not to mention being able to find a mate!
FOCUS & LIGHT
With tricky subjects, the easiest way to find your focus is to turn off your autofocus. Things get very confusing when you are moving, your subject is moving and the lens is hunting around for focus. Instead, set your lens manually to the closest focus point and slowly move your camera toward the subject until it comes into focus. If you would like a wider field of view, after you find focus, simply move your camera away slowly as you adjust your focus.
When you finally do find focus, one thing you’ll notice is that things look very blurry around your subject. Even if you achieve perfect focus on one part of the subject, other parts ahead of and behind it are blurry. This is the effect of shallow depth of field, and the closer you get, the shallower it gets.
For me, this blurring effect can be very pleasing. I like to use it to draw attention to the details of my subject, as the viewer’s eyes tend to settle on areas of detail first. Leaving areas of soft focus around your main point of interest helps people to see what you want them to see. As an artist, I’m more concerned about the quality of the image, creating depth and beauty rather than showing every last detail. Some people, however, enjoy a more "documentary style" showing as much clarity and detail as possible by pushing for a greater depth of field.
Achieving a greater depth of field is challenging, and the closer you get to the subject, the harder it becomes. To correct this, adjust your aperture. Typically, in natural light, I shoot with an aperture setting of ƒ/5 to ƒ/11. By making the aperture smaller, you block out more of the blurred light, creating greater depth of field. Unfortunately, some of the focused light is also blocked, causing your photos to grow darker.
To counteract this darkening, you will need to increase the amount of light getting into your camera. One way is to slow down your shutter speed. The longer your camera has to record the image, the more light it can register. With moving subjects or a shaky camera, these longer exposures can cause motion blur in your photo. For stationary subjects, camera shake is relatively easy to fix: use a tripod.
Shooting moving subjects is a bit harder. The best solution is to handhold your camera and get more light on the subject so that you can use a faster shutter speed. For most shots, 1/125 of a second or less works well, but I have had some luck as slow as 1/50 of a second—luck being the operative word.
There are several ways to get more light on your subject. You can bring along a reflector or white card to bounce natural light into the scene, but this isn’t always enough. When you want to get really close and still keep a decent depth of field, you will need to bring in artificial light. A lot of amazing macro images are taken using a normal camera flash and diffuser. Anything white and translucent will work as a flash diffuser. Diffusers soften the light, making it look more natural and pleasing. Remember, your field of view is very small so you don’t need huge lights or reflectors. Even an LED flashlight works great if it has a pleasing color spectrum.
As a last resort, you can increase the sensitivity of your camera. By doing this,
you are able to use a smaller aperture and a faster shutter speed. Typically, I shoot naturally lit scenes at around ISO 1600, but some newer cameras are capable of extremely high sensitivity of 12,800 and beyond. The drawback with high ISO settings is that as you increase your camera’s sensitivity, your photos will have more noise, which compromises color, detail and sharpness, degrading the quality of the image. Experiment with your camera to find a noise level that is acceptable to you. If you only print smaller photos or share them online, noise is less critical than when producing a large, detailed fine-art print.
Even with all this extraordinary effort to optimize your light, you will still be lucky to have an 1/8-inch depth of field. At normal scales, depth of field can be thought of in terms of distance from the camera. With macro photography, focus is achieved within such a thin plane that I find it easier to visualize it as a flat sheet floating a few inches in front of my lens. Changing the angle of your camera will change the orientation of this plane relative to your subject.
If you’re just starting out, I would recommend practicing on stationary subjects like flowers in a vase, moss on a rock or mushrooms poking through the leaves … Take the time to get to know your camera and experiment with different settings.
Find details on your subject that you want to show and move your camera until the invisible plane of focus falls through them. For example, with a flat subject like a butterfly with open wings, position the camera as close to perpendicular to its back as possible. This will ensure that all wing surfaces fall within the plane of focus.
With macro photography, your compositional options are limited by the orientation of the plane of focus. You will have to compromise between having all details in focus and having a pleasing angle for your subject. Take lots of shots and play with angles and composition so you have lots to choose from.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE BACKGROUND
Even small camera angle changes have a huge effect on the background of your shot, bringing new colors, textures and highlights into your field of view. With macro’s extremely short depth of field, the background is often blurred to abstraction, making for beautiful backdrops.
Play with angles to find a perfect look for your subject. Try to find contrast between your subject and the background to create pleasing depth and clarity in your photo. Bright points of light or specular highlights in the background will blur into beautiful spots of light, sometimes referred to as "bokeh". These spots of light are the exact shape of the aperture in your lens, so those lenses with more aperture blades tend to have a rounder bokeh. Sunlight shining through leaves or refracting in water drops can create intense bokeh, adding interest to your image. Make sure whichever background you find works with your subject to complement it, not compete with it.
PRACTICE & PATIENCE
The keys to macro photography are practice and patience. If you’re like me, you won’t have a hard time losing yourself in the macro world for hours at a time. Shooting macro takes immense concentration. Time seems to pass by very quickly. I often spend hours exploring through my lens without even planning to. When I finally do look up and return to the human scale, I feel a kind of culture shock, as though I’ve been far away.
If you feel the need to travel and explore new and exciting places, grab your camera and head for your backyard. You won’t be disappointed.
Damon Clarke, a macro photographic artist and instructor living in Ontario, Canada, is recognized internationally for his macro artwork, which is on display in private, corporate and hospitality collections throughout North America, Europe and Australia. He has specialized in macro photography for 15 years and is the owner of MacroPhotography.com.