A quick how-to on macro photography

A quick how-to on macro photography

It is finally summertime in Alaska.  Time for hikes in the mountains or woods, time for gardening, time for things to grow and be green.  It is also when I start thinking macro.  And this thought process continues on through the end of summer and into the autumn.

You do not need a dedicated macro lens to do macro photography.  Many newer DSLR lenses have a macro feature that essentially bypasses the normal minimum focal length of your lens so you can move closer to the subject.  And that is the key challenge to taking macro photographs – your focal length.  The minimum focal distance of your lens depends on the focal length; that is, whether it is a 24mm lens or a 500mm lens.  The higher the number, the farther away the minimum focal distance is.  That is why many times you have tried to take a close up picture but realize that you need to back off to get in focus.

So, aside from having a lens with a macro feature built-in, there are other ways to reduce that minimum focal distance without having to have a dediced macro lens.  My favorite way is to use extension tubes.  Extension tubes are added onto the body just before the lens and, depending on the number of tubes and their size, can allow you to greatly reduce the minimum focal distance.  I have used extension tubes with my 300mm lens to produce great macros.  But the key for good images is to use them in conjunction with a lens that has a lens collar.  This allows you to shift the center of gravity to accomodate the extra length added on to the lens.   To further boost the power of your extension tubes, you can also add a standard 1.4X  teleconverter on the camera body before the extension tubes.  What does this do?  Like with a lens, it magnifies the power by 1.4X of anything that is added on after it.

Another good way to boost the macro capacity of a standard lens is to add a close-up lens to the end of the lens.  Screwing on much like a filter, a close up lens looks very much like a magnifying lens, only thicker.  While I am a Nikon shooter and use Nikon lenses, my favorite close-up lens is a Canon 500D.  So, for some really crazy magnifiying power, you can add a couple of extension tubes on in front of your lens and a close-up lens at the end of it.

But reducing that focal length is only one piece of the puzzle.  The other technical part involves stability.  You generally must have a solid tripod in order to produce quality macro images.  This both provides stability and allows you to take the time necessary to compose a good image.  In addition, you need a shutter release cable because even the act of pushing a shutter button (even if you do it gently) will produce camera movement.  Finally, if you have a camera body with a mirror lock-up capability, engage that when taking macro photos.  Every time you take a picture, the mirror that bounces light into your viewfinder flips up when the aperture opens to allow light into the camera.  That creates a slight amount of movement that could be the difference between a sharp image and slightly fuzzy one.

Now you are ready to take pictures.  There are no hard and fast rules of composition when it comes to macro photography.  There are many general elements of composition that you should always consider, even when taking macro photos.  The main elements of design are typically texture, color, lines, patterns and contrast.   A good example of contrast would be including warm (reds and yellows) and cool (blue) tones within the same frame.  You also want to control your depth of field and framing in order to manage your background.  Many times, macro subjects will have a lot of distracting elements (grasses, stems, twigs, branches, etc.) in the background, and choosing a shallow depth of field (f/4.0 or f/5.6, for example) will eliminate those elements by bringing them out of focus.

When working with such shallow depths of field, it is also important to control the angle of your camera with regard to the subject.  When shooting at a very shallow depth of field, only subjects that are parallel to the plane of your lens will be in focus.  For example, if you are taking a picture of a flower and you want the entire stamen area to be in focus, where you place your camera depends on the angle of the flower.  If the flower is opened straight up to the sky, then shoot straight down on the flower.  If the flower is tilted to the side at a 90 degree angle, then you need to get your camera low to the ground so that it is level with the flower and pointing straight at the face of the flower.  If you are shooting the underside of a fern to photograph its spores, then you need to get your camera under the fern and shooting up at the underside of the ferns.  Otherwise, you will not get the full face of your subject in focus.

The final issue to consider is lighting.  Bright mid-day sunlight does not do flower subjects any justice because of the harsh shadows and washed colors.  You want either diffuse light or early morning / late evening light.  This type of light will give you a better opportunity to highlight the colors and textures of your subjects.  If you find a great subject but it is mid-day light, you can still control the lighting to a certain degree.  Create a shadow to cover the subject (standing in between the sun and the subject is one way of doing it) or use a diffusing screen that distrupts the sunlight.  Such screens are commercially available or can be made at home using nylon mesh (like the type used to screen hops for making beer).  You can also consider directing light onto the subject.  If you have a backlit subject in the morning or evening and want to take advantage of that golden light, use a reflector to bounce light into the shaded areas.  In overcast light, consider using a little fill flash to add a pop of light to bring out the color and texture of the flower or plant.  The goal is to produce a lighting effect that is barely noticeable.  Using a TTL, off-camera flash with the exposure compensation set around -1.0 or so is a good start.  You will also want to use a soft box with the flash to avoid harsh shadows.

Now the only thing to do is get out there and look for the many subjects that await you on the ground, in bushes, and in trees.  And don’t forget to look at rocks, too, for lichens and interesting patterns in the rock itself.

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