Long time EWG member and nature photographer extraordinaire Nigel Bewley has put together two new photography tutorials for us! This one is about macro photography, perfect for up close shots of insects and other small creatures. The previous one is about photographing birds in your garden. Check out his other tutorials Birds in Flight and Photographing Wildlife in its Environment. Thanks Nigel!
Macro photography generally means close-up photography, usually of very small subjects such as insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is the same or greater than life-size. It’s a specialist area of photography and special kit is required, but it needn’t cost the earth. Remember that most compact cameras have a macro mode, allowing the lens to focus at a short distance. Many standard lenses, fixed focal length or zoom, will focus close enough to photograph natural patterns, groups of flowers and fungi and larger insects etc. No further kit is required. Interchangeable macro lenses for DSLRs come in different focus lengths and most can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses. I own three macro lenses: a 100mm which I use generally. I also use it for other applications: portraiture and for photographing large format vintage glass negatives in order to digitise them. I have a 180mm macro lens which is more unwieldy than the 100mm but has the great advantage of having a longer minimum focus distance: I can stand further away to get a macro shot – ideal for skittish subjects that will flit off if I get too close. My other macro lens is very specialised and difficult to use. It’s a Canon MP-E 65mm and can go up to 5x life size.
Use extension tubes – these are simple metal tubes with no glass, weigh very little and are easy to use. They fit between the camera body and lens and increase the close-focusing of the lens with no effect on optical quality. It’s best to use ones with contacts between camera and lens so the metering system still works. Autofocus remains but it is always best to use manual focus with macro photography. If you buy extension tubes, make sure you get ones for your camera system – Canon, Nikon etc. Mine are third-party but work very well. If you are unsure buy ones made by your camera manufacturer.
Use a supplementary close-up lens – These are magnifying lenses that fit onto the front of standard lenses to facilitate close-focusing without any significant decrease in image quality. Canon make excellent two-element close-up lenses that can be used with any manufacturer’s lenses and work very well with telephoto zoom lenses. Make sure you buy one with the correct filter diameter to fit your lens and they come in different focal lengths. Canon make single element lenses, too, but these aren’t quite as good. Look for the identifier “D” which signifies a two element lens. Supplementary close-up lenses can also be used with macro lenses to great effect. I use a Raynox DCR-250 close-up lens. It clips to the front of a macro or zoom lens to magnify the image by about x3 and works very well.
Invest in a macro lens – The greatest benefit of a ‘proper’ macro lens is that they will provide at least a life-size magnification (1:1). Some will go beyond life-size, up to 5:1 (which makes a spider look very scary). Supplementary close-up lenses can be used with them to great effect and can increase the magnification of the bare lens tremendously.
Choose a focal length that suits you best. 50mm macro lenses have limited use as they force you to set up very close to your subject which isn’t always practical. Your subject may be scared off, for a start. Mid-range 100mm lenses are probably the most versatile and the most cost-effective. Lenses in the range of 150mm to 200mm allow a greater working distance and will also provide a more diffused or blurred background to make the in-focus subject stand out. Macro lenses are designed to provide the best image quality at close-focusing distances but will also focus to infinity, so can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses.
Tips – Try and use manual focus rather than auto-focus. The depth of field is often very shallow and the camera’s auto-focus system can be confused and doesn’t know what you want to focus on. Use your camera’s depth of field preview button to see what’s sharp and what isn’t. If your subject is moving around, try continuous auto-focus. You may get lucky, especially if you fire a burst of shots. Firing a burst may be a good option when using manual focus, too. When in manual focus once the focus has been found try moving your body, and therefore the camera, very slightly closer and further away to fine tune the focus. Take a breath, breathe out slowly, lock your arms, brace your body and gently press the shutter. If the subject is still consider using a tripod. If you are using a tripod enable mirror lock-up. This means that when the shutter is first pressed the camera’s mirror flips up (the viewfinder goes black), then wait a moment for any in-camera vibrations to subside and press the shutter again and the photograph is taken. Consider using a cable release to reduce vibrations further. Often it is best to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and spiders first thing in the morning when it’s chilly. They tend to keep still at such times and may also have a coating of dew which can be visually very interesting. Wait for a still day, too. Choose a fast shutter speed, 1/500 sec is a good starting point with an aperture of f/8 to f/16 to get a reasonable depth of field and try and get your subject in the same plane of focus – that is to say parallel to the camera and not at an angle. If your subject is parallel with the camera you stand a good chance of getting the head and tail sharp otherwise it will be one or the other. Practice, practice, practice. Bring a small flower indoors and in a bright room practice with that.