Having recently purchased a Nikkor 105mm Micro lens (Micro is the Nikon term for Macro) I decided it was time to try and really get to grips with macro photography. Macro photography is always popular and impressive as it is often used to create an image that is more detailed than the eye can see on its own.
Macro is defined as of very large scope and is simply the process of getting very close to your subject to produce an extremely detailed image. Most macro starts at a 1:4 ratio which equates to the subject in the photography being a 4th of its life sized self. The macro lens I’m shooting with shoots has a maximum of 1:1 meaning that it shoots at life size. You can then zoom in in post production if you wish to make the subject even bigger than that. You can get lenses that shoot 2:1 (twice life size) or even more.
The main challenge with macro photography is getting the focus right, which also means being able to get enough light onto the camera sensor even there is little distance between the subject and the lens. With my 105mm lens I was setting up the lens around six inches from the subject. In order to explain the process, I have broken it down into five key elements:
2) A macro lens or macro attachement to a standard lens. Please note that normal lenses can’t cope when they are this close to the subject as there is not enough distance between the lens and the sensor to be able to focus the light from that close
3) A tripod – not essential but very important in order to get quality results
4) An independent flash unit or macro flash ring – essential for good results even in bright sunlight. Note that a built in flash in unlikely to give you good results as the angle from the flash to the subject is too steep and the light does not land where you want it.
Using the autofocus is not an easy as usual with macro photography as the camera can struggle with what element on the frame to focus on. The slightest movement of the camera can through the focus well out. Many macro photographers opt for manual focus at all times to be over come this and this takes some real practice. If you want to use the autofocus then the addition of a tripod is pretty essential. Getting prefect focus results every time is pretty impossible so be prepared to take lots of pictures.
With the camera being so close to the subject you’ll always get a very narrow depth of field in your focus. The only way to overcome this is to use a very small aperture on your lens. A small aperture increases the depth of field which means that more of your image will be in focus. Most macro photography is shot at around f11 but can even go as small as f22 or even f32 which are both tiny. Remember though that this also reduces the amount of light you will get into your camera so you’ll have to decrease the shutter speed to compensate.
Due to the smaller apertures as described above, a slow shutter speed is required to get enough light onto the sensor or your result will simply be a black image. This is where a tripod is essential as the slightest camera shake will ruin your photo as it is exaggerated by being so close to your subject. The only other choice is to increase the ISO (sensor speed) setting to a very high value which will reduce the quality of your final photograph. Will need to reduced to speeds such as 1/50 of a second to get enough light at ISO’s of 100 or 200 but this can be very trial and error led unless you have a light meter on your camera to assist you. If you do have a light meter then simply keep slowing the shutter until your have a good rating or you can put your camera into aperture priority mode so that the camera chooses the right shutter speed for you. Be aware that if you are shooting outside, the slightest gust of wind during the exposure will ruin your image. Much of the professional macro images you see are shot in a studio to control these elements.
This image (click to enlarge) was shot at f25 with a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second at ISO 100 with no flash being fired.
One of the most classic macro shots is the photography of a bee on a flower which is what I have featured in this blog. Bees and insects etc move extremely quickly which means you need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second or even higher to avoid any unwanted motion blur. This will cut the light again to an unworkable level so unless you increase the ISO to a setting which means grainy results or add flash units, you’ll have no choice but to widen the aperture. This reduces the depth of field meaning you’ll have to be very selective about that will be in focus so bear this in mind when thinking about the composition of the photograph.
This next image (click to enlarge) was shot at a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second to freeze the bee’s movement. Aperture was f4 with ISO at 100. You can see that the bee is in focus but the shallow depth of field means that the lavender plant is soft in focus as a result of the wide aperture setting.
Lighting and flashes
So, how to achieve the best of all worlds? By this I mean a fast shutter speed, a small aperture and ISO at high quality to get great results. This is where additional light is the key. If you have a macro ring flash then you are golden. This flash sits on the front of the lens itself and adds loads of additional light which means you can have both a small aperture and a higher shutter speed. If you do not (and I don’t) then you can use an independent flash unit which you can use hand held or on a flash stand and position it very near to your subject to add the light you want. For this to work, the flash unit will have to be able to be fired remotely but but many DSLR cameras and their flash units give you this option. With any flash unit, the fastest you’ll be able to shoot is at 1/250 of a second but if you set the power of the flash to a lower level (eg 1/32 of full power) this will mean a very short flash duration which will effectively freeze the action for you.
This next sequence of 2 images were shot outdoors in very bright sunlight but still required the addition of two flash units. One flash unit was position (by hand) extremely close to the subject (literally just out of shot) plus the second unit was placed above and to the front of the flower but further away just to fill in dark areas and shadows. Both flashes were ste to 1/32 power to freeze any motion of the insects.
For both images (click to enlarge) I used a tripod and the camera was set to ISO 160, aperture f22 and shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. It took an amazing amount of light to get these images but the results are far better than you can get any other way. Remember that is the flash that is freezing the action rather than the shutter speed.
There is no quick and easy way to get good macro results but the feeling of satisfaction is well worth the effort!