A closer look at Macro Photography

What is macro photography?

Macro photography is the act of photographing very small objects in a way that magnifies the subject to appear life sized or greater. The goal is to fill the dimensions of the film or digital sensor with the subject.

Now that we know what it is, let's look at a few ways to achieve this.

Disclaimer: This lesson was written with the digital or film single lens reflex (SLR) camera in mind. So if you have a camera with an interchangeable lens then these tips should apply. If your unsure about your camera, I would suggest reading (or at least skimming through) your camera's user manual.

First of all don't be fooled in thinking that this is going to require a tremendous amount of money. Some up front cost are expected but you don't need to rush out and get the macro lens with the heaviest price tag. Even though a dedicated macro lenses like the Canon 100mm 2.8 L macro lens is a fantastic piece of hardware.

Of course other brands have there own dedicated macro lenses like the Nikon 105mm 2.8 AF-S VR , or the Sony 90mm 2.8 macro G OSS

Canon 100mm 2.8 L macro lens

There are numerous alternatives available.

Some of the least expensive options are sets of close up filters. These filters screw onto the threads on the front of the lens and consists of magnifying glass elements. Hoya makes a great set and you can find those HERE.

Close-up photography filters and examples.

Another option is a lens reversal ring which gives you the ability to fit the lens to your camera backwards. What this does is reverses the optics so instead of decreasing the size of the view being projected onto the film or sensor it increases it. The reversal ring screws onto the front threads of the lens and has a camera body mount on the other side so it can attach to whatever camera system you use. They run about $10 or so and you can find them easily on Amazon or you can follow this link to a 58mm theaded filter.

Diagram of how lens reversal macro photography works.

The next option is a set of extension tubes. These tubes come in three different sizes 12, 20, and 36 millimeters and go between the lens and the camera body. By increasing the distance between the lenses rear element (glass) and the film or sensor plane you can get extremely close to your subject. I use the Kenko Auto Extension Tubes and I highly recomend that you get a set of all theree. I say get the set because there will be times when you'll need to stack them and other times when you can't.

Kenko auto extension tube set for macro photography.

You typically want to use a longer focal length lens with any of these options to stay further away from your subject. I suggest 70mm and longer. Especially when it comes to living creatures. They will get nervous with someone sticking a lens in their face.

Another advantage to using a long lens is allowing more light to reach the subject. With the increased distance between the front of the lens and whatever it is you're photographing, you'll be letting in more light and that will give you more room to play with the exposures.

Speaking of light, due to how close you can get to the subject, there are times when the lens blocks any natural light source from reaching it. To overcome this problem you can utilize one of many different ways of redirecting the light with a reflective surface such as a reflector. I prefer the 5 in 1 folding reflector shown here.

5 in 1 folding reflector kit for studio photography.

As for reflectors, these types really are the best bang for your buck. The reflective surfaces wrap around a translucent disk. The disk itself is a light diffuser which is very helpful if the light source is harsh and direct. As the light passes through the material the rays get scattered and as a result the light becomes much softer. The reversible outer "shell" has different surface types that will either simply reflect the light or change the quality of it as it's redirected. The most useful of these, in my opinion, are the gold reflector which will warm the light as it reflects or the silver side which makes the light colder.

Another option for lighting a subject for macro photography is using specially designed flashes. These flashes attach to the front of the lens in either a ring or a dual flash configuration.

YONGNUO YN24EX Ring Flash and Canon MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite

The prices for the flash option ranges greatly from around $200 for the well reviewed YONGNUO YN24EX TTL Macro Ring Flash to well over $1000 for the Canon MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite. I've never used either so I can only encourage you to do your homework before investing any money. And remember, you usually get what you pay for!

Using a tripod for macro photography is situational. If your photographing a stationary subject I highly recommend using one. Along with a cable release. My cable release of choice is the Canon RS-80N3 Remote Switch

Benro Mach3 tripod and Canon rs-80n3 cable release.

This will allow you to take the image without touching the camera removing any accidental camera shake that will blur the image. On the other hand, if your photographing moving subjects the tripod will quickly become too cumbersome and you'll be better off hand holding the camera for quicker response time.

Tripods like the Benro Mach3 2 Series Aluminum Tripod are great if you require great Depth of Field (the amount of the image that's sharp.) Depth of field is a subject of so much frustration in macro photography especially when photographing a living subject. Like portrait photography, macro photography of living things requires critical focus on the eyes of the subject. Unless of course it's back is to you. In macro photography, because of the use of optical lenses and mechanical apertures, the closer the subject is to the lens, the narrower the band of sharp focus will be creating a very shallow depth of field. even increasing the aperture to maximize the depth of field will yield only marginal results.

In order to create the best look when shooting macro photography, patience is the key! I cannot stress enough just how critical it is to be patient! Even when taking photographs of stationary subjects in the studio the focal point needs to be an important element of the subject and it will take patience to get the look that you want.

For moving subjects like flowers that are being blown around by the wind or animals and insects a lot of images may be required to get the focal point where it needs to be. Some animals and insects will carry on with their daily activities and ignore you. Forcing you to constantly move to keep up while trying to get as close as safely possible. Others with get stressed and run away as you approach if you do it too quickly. Patience may mean that you have to move very slowly and in small increments allowing the subject to get comfortable with you or it could mean that you have to come back several times over the course of time.

As an example, here's a story. A few weeks ago my wife and I did some location scouting out in the open desert about seventy miles north of Phoenix. It was late afternoon when she spotted two horned toads (or horned lizards if you like). One was sunbathing on a rock and one was very active walking along the ground. I wanted to photograph the more active of the two up close and in its natural environment. So I attached my 20mm extension tube between my 70-200mm lens. This allows me to get well within the 6 foot minimum focus distance and fill the frame with the subject.

Nature photographer Thomas Watkins photographing a Horned Toad Lizard in the Arizona desert.

To show the animal in a different perspective than most people will see them, I decided that I wanted to photograph them at their level. Laying on my stomach, I started about ten feet away and began to slide towards the lizard slowly using my elbows to pull myself closer inch by inch.

Horned toad lizard in the Arizona desert.

All in all it took me was about twenty minutes to get close enough to the lizard for the shot that I wanted before it ran away. But it watched me almost the entire time wondering what I was and what I was doing.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave any comments or questions below!