Monday, June 21, 2010

Get Up-Close: Macro Photography Basics

By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner
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In photography, there are always some photographs that capture our imagination, that unleash our creative instinct and make us want to create works of art ourselves. The greatest thing about macro photography is that for a close-up photographer, everything around them is full of hidden detail, intricate angles, and fascinating features that go mostly unobserved by the naked eye. The test of the close-up photographer is to bring out the details in these small things; because whether it is leaves or flowers, antiques or insects, macro photography will bring out the tiny elements and wonder in the world around you.


There are actually quite a few options available for people who want to get into close up photography, but don't know where to start, or what equipment they will need. This guide will focus on rules that apply mainly for SLR photography, but it should be noted that quite a few models of compact point-and-shoot cameras offer outstanding close focusing. Check our product reviews on current cameras like the Nikon Coolpix S8000 or the Canon Powershot SD1400IS for info on two models with great macro modes. For the best results however, you will want an SLR camera. This will allow you to use specialized macro lenses, or even try alternative methods of close focusing using existing lenses.

The least expensive option is to use close-up filters (also called close-up lenses or diopters) that will allow for closer than normal focusing. The benefits of these are their size and ease of use - just thread onto any lens you currently own and it will let you focus slightly closer. Usually sold in sets, these will offer different levels of magnification, and can even be stacked to further increase close focus. The downside is that these are typically lower quality, and adding too much extra glass can cause problems in the photo like glare or distortion. On the upside, you don't lose any light by added them to your lens.

Another option is using extension tubes. These are usually fairly inexpensive since they have no glass inside them. By increasing the distance between the lens and camera, extension tubes allow for closer focusing. This can be especially useful if you have a fixed lens like a 50mm that takes great photos, but isn’t a macro lens. By proper use of extension tubes, you can achieve macro focusing, making your tiny subjects life size, or a 1:1 ratio. Basically what that means is that your small subject, when filling your frame, is represented life size, or in other words, the same size on your image sensor. It is possible to get even closer magnification, to make your subject appear “larger than life”, though it is usually easier just to make an enlargement of the photo. Even a 5x7 size print of a tiny object taken at “life size” or 1:1, can make the smallest detail jump out, and create quite an effect. The best way to do this though is to use a true macro lens, and maybe even some off camera lighting. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you will experience light loss by one or two stops depending on how long the extension tubes are.

There are some great options available out there if you are ready for a true macro lens. Lenses like the Nikon 105mm f2.8 Micro or the Canon 100mm f2.8L Macro are the perfect compliment to any body, like the Nikon D700 or the Canon 5D Mark II. If you use a crop size sensor camera like the Nikon D90 or a Canon Rebel, a better choice might be a lens like the Tamron 60mm f2.8 or the Tamron 90mm f2.8. If you want the very best quality close up shots, this is the way to go. These lenses will allow you to get close, but still keep some distance from your subject. Now you just need to use the proper camera settings.

  1. Your best friends will be manual controls. Be sure to choose a camera that allows you to control the aperture and shutter speed.
  2. Make sure to use an appropriate depth of field to bring out the proper amount of detail.
  3. Manually focusing will also usually be your best bet, since auto-focus often struggles at close distances. Of course, if you have a flower or object that is blowing in the wind, continous auto-focus could be a big helpful if the camera can be set to fire only when in focus.
  4. Using an off-camera lighting source, like a supplemental flash, and a reflector can allow you to control the light, eliminating shadows and casting a pleasant, even light. For more information on using flashes for better macro photographs check out our Off-Camera Flash blog.
  5. Use dark cardboard or background material to eliminate distractions if you like close up photographs of flowers. Oh and don’t forget the spray bottle, just a couple sprays of water can give you that early morning dew effect at anytime during the day.
  6. As with most types of photography, a tripod can be your best friend. To eliminate camera shake, and help you get those low angles, a tripod is a must.  
With the right equipment, a little bit of knowledge, and a willingness to just experiment and have fun, anyone can learn to take great macro photographs. If you want to learn more, visit the classes sections on our website for information and dates on classes and mini-seminars. Have fun, learn, and keep shooting!