Coming In Close: Getting To Grips With Macro Photography

Wanting to get in close to photograph some details? Or perhaps you want to photograph some beautiful butterflies? Or anything that’s small and needs magnification. This is the world of close-up, or macro photography, a whole field of photography and photographic skill in itself.

Most people's initial attempts at macro photography end in failure and frustration. This is because the obvious choice of a telephoto lens to do this work gives – at best – very disappointing results. You just can't get the lens to focus at the short distance needed to capture the subject large enough in the image frame. You've hit the main, fundamental barrier to successful macro photography: all lenses have a minimum focusing distance inside which they just will not focus. And that minimum distance is just too far to capture small subjects sufficiently well.

The solution? Dedicated macro equipment and techniques that allow close-up focusing. This article aims to equip you with the knowledge of both.

 

Equipment explained: static subjects

Firstly, let’s look at a few pieces of equipment that you're most likely to need. Static objects such as flowers are usually shot with the camera on a tripod. Although in principle, they can be shot with the camera hand-held, since the camera is inevitably close to the subject, focusing is critical, and so is much easier to manage with the camera locked rock steady.

Another very useful piece of kit is a focusing rail. This track fits between the tripod head and camera, allowing the camera to be slid forward and back over very small distances. It’s a simple yet very useful device that allows for some fine focusing, achieved by moving the camera back and forth once the camera is securely held on the tripod.

Then, there are the lenses. As already mentioned, the fundamental problem for close-up photography is that you need to come very close to your subject to get the necessary magnification. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible using standard telephoto lenses as their minimum focusing distance – the shortest distance from the lens to the subject that they’re able to focus at is too long. You need to be able to focus at a much shorter distance.

This problem can usually be overcome in one of two ways:

  • By use of a dedicated macro lens. This is a telephoto lens specifically designed to focus at very short distances. They’re generally available with focal lengths ranging from 60 to around 180mm. The lens can also be used for standard photography, and its autofocus works throughout its focusing range, right down to the closest distance and smallest subject. This is the more expensive and bulkier but more versatile option.

  • By use of an extension tube coupled with a standard telephoto lens. This tube contains no glass but with all the necessary electrical contacts that fit between the camera body and a telephoto lens. The effect allows the lens to focus much closer to a subject, providing it with an effective close-up facility. This is a small, cheap and highly convenient piece of close-up kit, but it does have limitations. A lens cannot be used for standard photography while coupled to an extension tube, and the autofocus usually doesn’t work reliably. Focusing is usually achieved manually if using a fixed focal length lens (a prime lens) through a combination of moving the camera (e.g. on the focusing rail) and by hand turning the focusing ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, the most convenient way to focus is to turn the zoom ring, though this will also change the magnification.

 

Equipment for photography of moving subjects

When photographing moving subjects, such as insects, amphibians and small reptiles, the photographer needs to be mobile, so the tripod and focusing rail have to be dispensed with. This is almost entirely the realm of hand-held photography.

The same focusing limitations apply, so we’re still using macro lenses or extension tubes with a normal telephoto lens (zoom or prime) with this technique. In addition, it is also useful (though not always necessary) to have a flashgun attached to the camera. There are several points to bear in mind when using a flash for close-up photography:

  • The flash is usually fired in such a way that it balances with the ambient light, removing any shadows lying across the subject and providing even illumination. Only occasionally is it used as the dominant light – in poor natural light conditions or at night, of course. Although the subject will be well-lit on those occasions, the background will come out very dark or completely black.

  • Another reason to use a flash is to help reduce the risk of camera shake and hence blur to the images. Inevitably, when using a telephoto or macro lens and coming in so close to a subject, the risk of camera shake being visible in the images is quite significant. Removing that risk ordinarily means using a fast shutter speed, but this would then make it difficult to maximise depth of field through the use of a narrow lens aperture. The very short duration of a flashgun’s flash (about 1/1000 second) helps to mask any camera shake, thus making it possible to use a significantly slower shutter speed.

  • Rarely fire the flash directly at the subject, but instead either bounce it off a reflector or fire it through a diffuser. This will help to reduce or completely overcome the risk of hard flash-induced shadows around the subject. The best flash usage in this kind of photography is where you cannot tell in the final images whether or not a flash has been used.

  • The only occasion when you might fire the flash directly is when shooting in very bright sunlight and the flash is struggling to generate enough power to balance with that sunlight. This may seem rather counter-intuitive, as your initial thoughts might be that bright sunlight would result in a small amount of flash power, and low light levels would require a high flash output. However, in this technique, we're trying to balance the flashgun's output with the power of the ambient light. Therefore, to balance against bright sunlight, you need a major output from the flashgun. On the other hand, low ambient light levels are easily balanced by a relatively weak flash from the flashgun.

  • The flash needs to be mounted either some way above the camera or off to one side, or perhaps with a special mount near the end of the lens. Shooting in one of these ways will ensure that the flash does not put a shadow of the lens across the subject – remember that your subject is very close to the lens, so a lens shadow could easily reach it if the flash is in the wrong position. Do not be tempted to use the pop-up flash found on top of many cameras: this does not give you enough control of the light, it only fires directly at the subject, and because it is so close to the camera body, it will fire its light along the lens, generating a long lens shadow that may very well reach the subject.

  • Because the flash and camera are so close to the subject (usually significantly less than half a metre), there is a risk that the flash will overwhelm the subject with too much light, even though the flash may automatically quench its power output to try to cope with this short distance. Therefore, it’s important that your flashgun has a dial-down facility, enabling you to greatly reduce its output to a level that enables the flash to deliver the right amount of light.

Apart from these flashgun rules, techniques are similar across both static and mobile close-up photography and are described below.

 

General macro photography techniques

Close-up/macro photography, whether tripod-mounted or hand-held, is best done in soft or even flat light. It’s tempting to do it in bright sunlight, simply to have higher light levels (and hence either faster shutter speed or narrower lens aperture), but then there is the risk of bright highlights and/or shadows being thrown across your subject.

With the subject being so small, even what appears to us to be a small shadow or highlight area can have a dramatic negative impact on the subject’s appearance in the final images.

That said, if photographing animals and so shooting hand-held with a flashgun attached, sunlight can be very effective as long as the flashgun has enough power to provide lighting that balances with that sunlight. If it does, then there’s a good chance that deep shadow areas will be removed by the light of the flashgun. This won't help with any bright highlight areas, of course. In fact, the flashgun could make them worse.

Naturally, if you’re photographing plants, you also need to have windless conditions as any movement will result in blurred images, especially if slow shutter speeds are being used (as is usual, especially in soft lighting conditions).

Remember also that the closer you come to any subject, the smaller is the lens’ depth of field (i.e. the amount of a view that can be sharp). By the time you come down to close-up photography, for which the lens is usually a lot less than a metre from the subject, the depth of field is generally only 1cm at best. To maximise depth of field, it’s usually necessary to use a very narrow lens aperture – such as f/16 or 22 – something that will further lengthen exposure times and so increase the need for windless conditions. It will also, of course, further emphasise the need to use a tripod.

It’s also possible to improve the situation by increasing the camera’s ISO – the sensitivity of its sensor – thus reducing the amount of light the sensor needs to be correctly exposed. However, the problem here is that as ISO increases, image quality reduces, so there is a delicate balance to struggle with. There are occasions when the only way to get a useable image is to put the ISO up, but I would do so only very carefully and to the absolute minimum needed. I firmly recommend that, as far as possible, you always shoot using the camera’s lowest ISO setting, increasing it only when necessary.

And, finally, a word on composition.

Since the depth of field is so small, it can be challenging to get your whole subject in focus. However, for some flowers, for example, this is not always bad, as having a small part of the flower a little blurred can help direct attention to one particular part. However, that still leaves the challenge of ensuring that the right part of the flower is sharp!

Things are a little trickier when it comes to photography of insects, like butterflies. It’s quite common to see images in which one end of the insect is sharp and the other end blurred – which can be rather off-putting and dissatisfying. This happens when the insect is at an angle to the lens: the head is a few millimetres closer to the lens than the rear end of the wings, for example – enough to throw one or the other out of focus.

Ensuring maximum depth of field by using a very narrow lens aperture can help you overcome this, though even this may not be reliable. The most effective solution is to have the insect’s body at exactly right-angles to the axis of the lens, ensuring that all parts of the body are roughly the same distance away. This, of course, requires that you get yourself and the camera in the right position – the insect certainly isn’t going to do it for you. However, this can be tricky, especially as any movement you make when close to your subject risks frightening it away.

 

A final word

There’s no doubt that macro photography can be a challenge. The difficulties created by short focusing distances, minimal depth of field, awkward lighting, wind, and rapidly moving (and easily spooked) subjects all culminate to make things difficult for you as the photographer.

However, once you have a few pieces of critical kit together and then make the time to practise, practise, practise – the techniques and success will come together.

Get stuck in and enjoy it!

 

This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.

Nigel runs regular photography workshops in southwest England. To find out more about these, go to https://www.nigelhicks.com/photography-workshops-courses/.

To find out more about Nigel's work in general, feel free to take a tour of his website at www.nigelhicks.com.

 

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