Macro photography is one of the most alluring and intriguing styles of the medium for many. This is not surprising: one of the things photography is really good at is allowing us to examine things and look more closely at them. Macro photography does this literally, allowing one to delve into an object and examine it in exquisite detail.
Traditionally, macro photography is an extreme close-up of an object with deep depth of field. In other words, almost all of the very-magnified subject is in focus. Depth of field is harder to achieve in macro because of how close you are to your subject. I enjoy shooting both - some macro photography where there is a shallow depth of field and some where there there is lots of depth of field. I also like some images where the subject is extremely close up while other images work better with the object a bit further away and with a bit more in the scene to give it a sense of place - like the comparison images later in this article. Each to their own.
Subjects for macro photography (let’s just call it macro from here on, shall we?) are as broad as ones imagination. if you can find it you can take a super close-up of it. If you can imagine it, you can create it on a mini-stage in your living room.
I personally enjoy photographing watches and objects like fruit and flowers. Mainly watches. I have two addictions - cameras and watches. May as well combine the two right?!?
As far as cameras go, you are in luck. A huge number of cameras allow you to take macro photographs - from the lowly Point and Shoots to Mighty and Pricey DSLRs. In fact, your cell phone camera can do a bang-up job too. I’m going to shoot similar subjects with a range of cameras so that you can see the difference the different tools make to the shot as well as their strengths and limitations. Remember, the most important tool here is your imagination not your gear.
But if you were to create a wish-list to make an awesome macro set-up I would recommend the following as a starting point:
A sturdy tripod. Get one that is big enough for the camera you are using.
A suitable lens that allows for close focusing.
A cable release or self-timer.
Let’s look a bit closer at each of these.
If your subject is keeping relatively still, a tripod is one of the best ways to make your images sharper and your nerves less frayed. A tripod allows you to set-up and control the scene a bit more allowing you to worry about the other important aspects in the shot like the lighting, subject and perspective. A tripod is not essential with current image stabilisation in lenses and if you can keep your shutter speed quite high, but it really helps.
As long as it can focus closely, many cameras are fine for macro work. Better tools do make a difference but work with what you have. Point and Shoot cameras and cell phone cameras have tiny sensors and this actually helps you get close focus with their built-in lenses. Some have amazing macro capabilities, arguably better than a DSLR. If you have a camera that takes interchangeable lenses like a DSLR you need a lens. Obviously. I personally love the look of film and love the beauty of mechanical film cameras. You can get a really great and surprisingly cheap macro set-up using older film cameras too, just remember to factor in the cost of film and developing.
The lens you choose will have a big impact on what and how you will be able to photograph macro subjects. Try get a dedicated macro lens that provides 1:1 magnification - that simply means it creates a life-size image of the subject on your sensor. Many zoom lenses say “Macro” on them. They are not true macro lenses but do get you pretty close. You can also use extension tubes or bellows to help you use standard lenses (like a 50mm prime lens) to get really close. Sometimes, the close focus limit on your kit lens or standard lens is pretty good.
Pick one you like, you’ll be spending a fair amount of quality-time together. And that hopefully sits still. And that you find interesting. I am a fan of watches.
The most important part of the equation. Light is the basis of this addiction we call photography. A nice window light on one side is a good way to start. You can start experimenting with on-camera flash (which is OK but not great for macro) and then move on to off-camera lighting using strobes and modifiers. Again, start with what you have and move on as you decide you need a new look.
Cable Release or Self-Timer
In addition to your tripod, the cable release helps you to trip your shutter causing minimal camera movement. A self-timer on your camera does a good job too. You want your camera as still as possible during the exposure since, when you are so close, minute vibrations will result in a lot of blur in the final image. Mirror lock-up is also useful to keep vibrations at bay. In fact you can combine some or all of these suggestions. Test and see what works best for you.
Visualise what you would like your final image to look like. Is the subject in sharp focus throughout? Is just a sliver of the subject in focus? Is the shot in black and white or in colour? What colours? What else is in the scene? Are you focussing on the subject alone or is the subject amongst other objects. Does this relationship tell a story? You can be as intricate or simple with this as you like, but have an idea of what you want to achieve in your finished image.
The Set Up
If you are looking to create a more controlled scene, you may want to invest in a product tent or carefully construct a scene either in an environment or on some seamless paper or material. Pay very close attention to tiny details - they will be very obvious in the final images. If you are shooting a flower in a field for example, you are at the mercy of your environment to a degree. Once your scene and subject are ready, place your camera on your tripod and attach your cable release or set your capture more to self-timer. Check your exposure reading with either a hand-held meter, a meter on your smart-phone or use the camera’s built in meter. Shoot!
As mentioned above, the light in your scene plays a very important role. The light you choose literally shapes your subject and allows you a lot of creative control of how you will depict your subject. Well chosen light coming in through a big window can be beautiful. Or you may wish to control the light completely using off-camera lighting. Experiment.
Once you are shooting, you will see what works through the viewfinder and what doesn’t. Make small changes and tweaks to both your camera and light settings and your subject’s position and environment until you end up with the composition and look you had in your head when you first started.
Take your images into your favourite editing application. I use Aperture and Photoshop. Now we can look at the images properly and evaluate them. You will probably have to clean them up a little since even the smallest bit of dust is visible at these extreme magnifications. If you shot on film you will have a fair amount of dust to remove off the negative. I like to make a big pot of tea and take my time working over the images. Once they are clean, you can tweak the look and feel of them using exposure and contrast adjustments. Then work on any specific areas with dodging and burning and mild sharpening if required. Do not overdo the sharpening! You want a kiss of detail enhancement not a psychedelic horror show. Err on the side of little to none, your images will be more natural and have better longevity for it.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Examine your finished images and give yourself a pat on the back. Well done! Now think about what you’d like to change and do differently next time. What did you get right? What did you get wrong? Where could you have made changes to make the images better? Start again with another subject and another set-up. The more you shoot, the more you’ll get consistently pleasing results.
Let’s look at a few images I have photographed as examples to discuss what camera I shot them with and how I lit them.