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Macro Photography

Macro or micro photography is all about photographing small items, it may be product photography, showing the detail in a small product or part, or it might be the exploration of the world around us from a completely new perspective.

Every day items in this case dandelion seeds are detailed when you enter the macro world.

Large items get photographed all the time, and you will be more familiar with photographers of a tiger than a fly, although the tiger is rare while unfortunately flies are not. Go a stage further in both directions and I am sure you will recall seeing the view of the earth from space, but have you seen the eye lashes of a butterfly, they are long and shaped. This is even more surprising when its unlikely that you could go and take a space photo but need very little to photograph the miniature world around you.

There are many other uses for macro photography, take for example one use I made of it many years ago. Advertisements on the front page of a newspaper was expensive but inside was far cheaper, so I photographed everyday items close up and put a small photo in an advertisement on the front page, and the page number  where they could see what it was. Running a whole series over a period of time. I included the ball of a ball point pen, the points of a table fork, the eye of a needle, the wing of a house fly, bread up close, paper so close you could see trough the gaps in its structure, and a lot more. It worked in that people became used to seeing the picture and immediately turning to my advertisement inside, I had more effective advertising than if I had used a large front page advertisement. I have recently been looking at an internet project that will use a similar technique, again with macro photographs, so perhaps you will see this some time soon.

Getting Close

To get close to a subject we need either a macro lens, close up lenses, or to use a spacer between the lens and the camera as with a tubes or bellows. We can use a combination of these, plus reverse the camera lens in some situations.

All lenses have a minimum focusing distance, and some manufacturers class this as macro when it gets to a 3:1 ratio, by this we mean that an item the size of a cameras sensor will take up a third of the width of the sensor. Some others will not class this as macro and refer to macro or micro when its 1:1, where the item is the same size as the camera sensor and now filling the frame.

We have an article Macro or micro photography taking things close up. Advantages and effect. Differences in terminology between manufacturers, and example images, including such items as the ball of as ball point pen and images of sugar and salt together.

Exploring the different equipment we have an article on Close-up Lenses, although no longer used by many, as most people now interested in the photography of smaller items have macro lenses. Close up lenses can also be obtained for filter systems.

The article Stepping rings   explains how you can connect filters, close up lenses, reversing rings or other items to a different sized lens thread.

The next step to the macro lens is using tubes & bellows, although these can be used with other lenses as well. Tubes and bellows allow us to move into the miniature world going well beyond what you would normally see. In the Tubes & Bellows article we look at using just tubes, the two together and using a reversing ring as well, so as to gain more working distance, plus explain why using a wide angle lens produces an even closer view, allowing you to go right down into a world normally invisible to you.

Photographic Challenges

Challenges for the photographer involve being able to hold the camera still, being able to move the camera and/or subject, the background for macro shots, lighting, getting the colours right and coping with the limited depth of field available.

For a lot of macro photography we need to hold the camera still, and a tripod or clamp with a head is necessary. Outside we will often use a tripod but when in our homes or studios we can come up with a range of working options including using clamps and devices that are designed to hold multiple cameras.

Moving in small steps, without needing to jump the tripod forward and back can be achieved fairly roughly by using a tripod where the column turns to run horizontally instead of its normal vertical position. To be able to move more accurately and in small amounts so as to precisely focus, requires a special unit that fits between the tripod and camera. Given the general classification of focusing racks there are a variety available, most slide or move back and forwards but some also have sideways adjustments. The one I use is the Novaflex Castel-Mini , and this allows back and forward movements. As I have several other uses for this is justifies its space in my camera bag. Given that its in my bag most of the time, its available to use, where a more specialist unit would be far more likely to live in the cupboard and be used in the studio.

In many situations when dealing with a lot of cameras and attachments all connected up and a small item, its easier to lock the camera in a fixed position and move the subject instead.

Your miniature studio

For backgrounds with studio macro shots, I can use a light cube , or other similar device, but I may also use a special small close up studio device we call our, macro background system, that we have made, this is ideal for items like the heads of flowers, and small products. Instruction on how to make one of these and what it does is in the projects article Macro Background System.

Depth of Field

Depth of field is reduced when you are working very close, and the greater the magnification the lower the depth of field, so we often have difficulty when working with something that is very small to get it all in focus. We can use a small aperture (towards f22) to maximise the depth of field available to us and we may be able to turn our subject so that more is near to a flat plane so that we don't need so much depth of field.

If we still have a problem and with extreme macro we are likely to have, as well as with macro of some large items close up, then we are going to need to turn to a technique called slicing. Slicing involves taking a series of photos at different focus points and putting the images through a special piece of software that pulls out the sharpest piece from each photo to produce a single sharp image throughout. See more in the article, slicing.

Getting the colour right

Getting the colours correct involves using the PRE white balance setting , the PRE needs to be set in the same light conditions that your subject is going to be under, and you may need to give some thought as to how best to achieve this as often the light is concentrated on the subject and this light may be completely different to the background lighting that you are working under.

Lighting the subject

When photographing something very small we need quite a lot of light to get a good photo, both because the amount of light reflecting from the subject now has to be spread out across your picture area, but also as we usually will want to use a small aperture to get as much depth of field as we can. We are often limited in how much light we can use, not only technically but also as we don't want to burn our subject, and light always produces heat. Flash will usually be the best choice as it can produce a lot of light for a very short burst. The Nikon R1 kit and R1C1 kits, which is the same thing with a commander unit, and designed for macro photography. You will find an article on all the current Nikon Flash units including the items in the R1CI kit in Comparing Nikon Flash Units. Other units, except the SB400, can be used as apart of the creative lighting system, a system that has no wires between units and allows groups of flashes to be controlled from the camera or a commander.

Another possibility, although not producing as much light on the subject are cool-lites, these use a number of low energy bulbs so produce a lot of light with less heat, although it is still some heat. The largest problem in using these for macro photography is just the size of the units and how you manoeuvre them to a position that produces light where you want it.

The background

Usually with macro we want an uncluttered background, as its usually out of focus this is not a problem. We may also choose to have a light or dark background to provide contrast to our subject, or use a light background so as to get as much light as we can within the setup.

The magic ingredients

There are two magic ingredients that will make your macro photography better, the first is practice and the second experimentation, trying out different ideas, setups and angles, looking at new ways to view your subject and investigating possibilities that may or may not turn out as something very special. A lot of times you will be surprised by what you find, and discover a world that you were only part aware of.

Macro for all seasons

As we can undertake macro photography in a studio or our homes and by definition its small, and therefore needs little room, we can take macro photos any day of the year, perhaps buying a flower, or capturing a small creature. Everyday items from ball point pens to breakfast cereals can all be investigated, and perhaps we should consider nothing to be too small or difficult, just a challenge that we can overcome.

In the summer months when out and about its probably not practical to get into extreme macro, but I have found that a macro lens even with tubes attached can be handheld allowing a range of interesting items to be photographed when I come across them. Other items like grasshoppers, bees and butterflies can be photographed with the macro lens alone.

Handheld Macro

While many think of macro, especially close-up macro being done with a tripod or in a studio this is not necessarily the case. All of the photos below were taken handheld.


The spider above is a section from the spider image below.



See Also


By:  Keith Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: Macro_Photography Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 06/2013

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