by Tim Farmer
Spring is right around the corner and the Orchid show is in full bloom at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It is time to dust off that Macro lens and get close to your subjects. The official definition (or the best I can find) of a macro lens is a lens that is able to reproduce a life-sized image of an object onto a recording medium – in this case the image sensor. True macro lenses offer a magnification factor of 1.0x or 1:1 at its closest focus setting. Older definitions included 0.5x magnification. So how do you get the best possible images when that close in?
First, what is macro photography and why is it not called micro photography? “Micro photography” is used when a microscope is used to photograph objects too small to see with the naked eye and uses larger magnification ratio such as 10x, 25x or greater X-factors. Macro ratio of 1:1 is life size and super macro, which can be up to 5x greater than 1:1. Macro photography is photographing small objects that are still easily seen with the eye such as details of flowers, bees and other such things.
Every lens manufacturer makes some form of macro lens and often in several different focal lengths. Canon offers 60mm, 65mm 1-5x, the beloved 100mm f/2.8 and a 180mm. Nikon, Sigma, Sony, Fuji and Tamron all offer similar lenses. Pick a lens that also works for your other styles of shooting to be economical about it. I have the 100mm macro, not only is it a great macro, it is also a very good portrait lens.
Extension tubes and close-up filters can be used with your normal lenses and are a less expensive way to start shooting macros. They allow you to use your current lenses and in place of a macro lens. The tubes and filters come in a few different magnifications allowing you to adjust to your subject. I carry a set of diopter filters with me just in case. It is a set that has +1, +2 and +4 dioptre magnifications. While these filters do not give me the same quality as my 100mm macro lens, they can save the day when I was not planning on shooting macro but needed to.
You want to make sure you have a good and sturdy tripod. This is mostly when you are shooting flowers or more stationary subjects. When I try to take photos of bugs I find the tripod not as useful, but when you have a still object, you will have a greater success rate because depth of field and focus becomes hyper critical when you are shooting in the macro world.
I, myself, prefer to use natural light whenever I can, but sometimes the subject or the client demands lighting. A small ring light on the lens can really save the day. When you are shooting in tight you often end up blocking the natural light with your camera and body, plus you want to be able to use a small f-stop for greater depth of field control.
The few other things you might consider are a little sprits bottle so you can add some water droplets for interest, a small can of air or blower to remove dust and dirt, a shutter release cable and something to kneel on. You will be getting close and often that means getting on the ground. Having a little pad will help save your knees and keep your clothes dry and dirt free.
When shooting macro, I find using the aperture to control my depth of field really helps to bring out the subject matter. Often there is a lot going on right around your subject: other flowers, dirt… Having a shallow depth of field will help to bring your point of interest into the forefront.
Come in tight. Don’t be afraid to get super close. Showing a whole flower may not have the same impact as focusing on just the center. I love this tip from National Geographic: “Get creative with macro photography by shooting the subject from an unexpected angle. Try different lighting, as well, using front lighting for deeper color saturation and side lighting to highlight texture.” One of my favorite things about shooting macro is spending hours exploring the same subject from different angles and focusing on different parts of the same object.
Another great tip is to find a simple background. A repeating pattern can help frame the subject while giving context to the photo. Do not complicate it, keep it simple. Being close in is like being in a different world. The viewer is already looking at the subject from a different perspective, so you don’t need to overdo it.
Lastly, it can be a challenge to photograph something like a flower outside. Even a slight breeze can throw your subject out of frame and out of focus. Find a stick to push into the ground and stabilize the subject or bring a third hand: something you can place next to the flower and attach to the flower keeping it from moving.
Come in and talk to any of our staff if you have questions. We will help get you set up and going. We also carry macro lenses in our rental department, so you can test some out.