II. Equipment For Macro Photography–
Many thousands of dollars can be spent on gear for macro photography. However, with a few initial investments many great images can be made.
Today’s market is flooded with an overwhelming selection of camera styles, makes and models. When searching for a camera, be sure to first define what you will be using the camera for and take the time to do the appropriate research that is needed to make an intelligent decision. Otherwise, one may be tempted to purchase a camera based on ‘bells and whistles’ that may prove to be unsuitable for a particular application.
There are two main types of camera body styles: Point-and-shoot and S.L.R. (Single-Lens-Reflex). Most pros use the S.L.R. style of camera because of the flexibility that it offers the user. However, if the price of an S.L.R. doesn’t fit within your budget then I would recommend purchasing a point-and-shoot which comes packaged with the following features: 1) A macro or close-up setting 2) a tripod socket 3) a timer (to alleviate camera shake on long exposures) 4) an option to shoot high-resolution images (preferably raw files for the more serious amateur) 5) The option to shoot in manual mode and 6) a variety of flash settings. Many fine macro images can be made with an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera if it is loaded with at least some of the these features.
The advantage of S.L.R. style cameras is that they allow the budding macro photographer to have more control over the types of images that they make. They are designed to give the photographer an opportunity to swap and stack lenses as needed to improve or alter magnification. This very important feature (which I’ll address in more detail later) is very desirable for the macro photographer. Other important features found on most S.L.R. cameras are 1) Depth of Field Preview: This allows you to view what the camera is actually “seeing.” 2) Through the Lens Metering (may only work with automatic lenses) 3) Cable Release Socket: Allows a cable release to be attached which helps to eliminate ‘camera shake’ during long exposures 4) Professional style tripod socket. 5) Metering mode options 6) Raw capture: essentially a digital negative format which is very flexible when outputting images. The following items are not critical for the macro photographer but can certainly enhance images if they are used in conjunction with the items above: 1) Mirror lock-up 2) Through-the-lens-flash (TTL) and 3) a motordrive.
2.) Lenses (for the S.L.R.):
There are a variety of different ways to get close to your subject matter. However, the best methods always start with selecting the appropriate lens for the job.. Since this workshop is based on macro photography, I am going to discuss the lenses that will give you the best shot at that unforgettable image.
Macro Lenses: These specialized lenses can often be one of the most expensive pieces of gear in your bag. Fortunately, a great majority of these indispensable tools offer incredible clarity and image quality. One of the best focal lengths for clarity is the 50mm macro lens (it also makes an excellent portrait lens). However, the shorter the focal-length, the shorter the working distance. Working Distance is defined as the amount of space that exists between the lens and your subject. This factor becomes very important when you are dealing with live specimens. If you don’t believe me, try walking up to a dragonfly in mid-day. Although field craft and knowledge of your subject-matter can greatly increase your odds of making a nice image –regardless of the working distance– some situations simply require a longer focal-length. 100mm and 200mm lenses offer a great amount of working distance and the quality will usually be there depending on the make and model.
Zoom Lenses: Zoom Lenses are incredibly popular amongst pros and amateurs alike because they typically present a great deal of flexibility when it comes to how a subject can be approached. A very popular range of zoom is 80-200mm. With this focal-length, most ‘macro-worthy’ subjects can be approached with relative ease. If used in conjunction with an extension tube (see below) and/or a teleconverter (see below) greater magnifications can be achieved. Another advantage of zoom lenses is that they ‘compress’ your subjects. For example, if you are photographing a group of wildflowers which are spaced apart, a zoom lens will create the illusion that the subject matter is closer together than it actually is.
Standard Fixed-Focal Length Lenses: Although fixed focal length lenses (50mm, 120mm, 200mm, etc) aren’t especially suited for macro photography, with the addition of supplementary diopters, teleconverters and extension tubes it becomes very possible to create some really nice images. This is especially true with longer lenses around 300mm.
3.) Extension Tubes:
Extension tubes are literally what they appear to be; tubes of differing lengths which extend the length of a lens. The extension tube moves the rear of the lens further away from the film plane or digital sensor. When this distance is increased, it allows a lens to focus more closely than when used in its normal range of focus.
These handy devices –which are basically extension tubes with glass elements– can be a great way to increase the magnification capabilities of your lenses. They are available in two powers: 1.4x and 2x. By connecting a 2x teleconverter to a 300mm lens, for example, you will essentially upgrade your magnification to 600mm. This same multiplier (a term also used to describe teleconverters) can also allow you to increase a 1:1 ratio to 2:1 (or 2x life-size) when making a macro image. The downside of teleconverters is that they decrease the amount light coming into to the camera (because of the extra glass) which forces the photographer to either open up the aperture or slow down the shutter speed to compensate for this loss. There is also an increase in the amount of noise in the image. I have personally found that the issue with noise isn’t as noticeable with digital captures.
A great tripod cannot be underestimated when it comes to making professional quality images. Although sharp images can be created by hand-holding a camera (especially when flash is used), a tripod becomes quite handy when photographing close-up subjects with available light. There are many, many models to choose from and choice is based on personal preference. However, for the macro photographer, a model that allows the legs to be extended to so that the camera can sit just inches above the ground is a very nice option. Most professional tripods do not include a tripod-head and, once again, a wide array of options are out there for the choosing.
6.) Cable Release:
This is an simple, yet invaluable, device that allows the photographer to activate the shutter without actually touching the camera. It basically consists of a long cord with a cable running through the inside. One end of the tool is screwed into the cable release socket and the other is held in-hand where a button is located. This serves to trip the shutter when it is pressed.
7.) Close-Up Diopters:
Diopters are glass elements which can be screwed onto the end of a standard focal length lens; essentially converting it into a macro lens. This option provides a photographer with a relatively inexpensive way to capture small subjects. However, the quality is often not that great and the resulting images often appear soft on the edges.
The use of a flash or flashes can really enhance a close-up image. Some subjects actually require the use of flash because of the lack of light that is often found at higher magnifications. There are many different ways to position the flash. When one off-camera flash is used the background will often appear black. Although in some schools of thought this approach has become undesirable I still believe that in many situations beautiful and striking images can be made. The black (or dark) background comes from light fall-off behind the main subject. For a more natural approach, dual off-camera or ring flashes can be used. This approach allows one flash to be focused in on the main subject and the other on the background which in-turn creates the impression of a more naturally lit scene.
Fill-flash is also a powerful effect to use on certain images. This technique employs a flash –not as a main source of light– but as an extra bit of illumination to fill in shadows and improve color definition.
9.) Using Reflectors:
Reflectors are white, silver or gold pieces of material which are used to bounce light into shadows or add warmth to an image. In macro photography –because of the small size of most subjects– something as simple as a piece of white card stock or the back of a hand can be used. If one is forced to make an image in mid-day harsh shadows can dominate your image. A reflector can really save the shot by opening up those blocked, dark areas with light