Shooting Macros Section 1 – Equipment
by Peter Zack
This is a subject that many people have a great interest in and offers photographic opportunities when other shooting conditions are poor. For example, it’s raining outside and you want to shoot some interesting subjects indoors.
Since there is quite a bit of detail to this subject, I will break it up in 2-3 more manageable sections. The first being equipment and some terminology.
-Macro Photography, is generally defined a creating a minimum of life sized (1:1) image to 10 or 20 times life sized on the film or sensor. For practical purposes, anything more than 5 times life sized is going to push today’s optics beyond their resolving power and the image will be unsatisfactory.
-Stop down Metering. This is when you manually adjust the exposure settings for the camera and lens. In a fully automatic setup, the camera knows what aperture setting the lens is at and adjusts the exposure settings. When a fully manual setup is used, the lens information is not transmitted to the camera. So in most systems, you set the lens to the desired aperture, and shutter speed, then take a meter reading and lock that setting in the camera. You then would open the aperture to the widest setting for framing and focusing the shot. Stop the lens down again just before the shot. Some digital camera makers do not allow this feature on some models.
Note: Not to disparage today’s lens manufacturers (including the camera makers lens offerings) but many lenses are labeled as having a ‘macro’ setting. In reality, it’s a close focus setting that is generally between 1:4 (25% life sized) to 1:2 (half life sized). There are a few zoom lenses that offer good quality, sharp images at 1:2 and I would consider these an excellent close up tool for several subjects.
Some of these suggestions may not work with your particular brand and you may need to investigate the metering and compatibility to your camera brand. I come from the Pentax background which may offer more flexibility with some older equipment. Some of the suggestions below will offer a very inexpensive option to trying macro shooting and should be considered before getting a dedicated lens. Below are several equipment suggestions that require a lens to be attached or an attachment added to a lens. In all cases, a prime lens (one that has a fixed length and does not zoom) is best. The faster (widest possible aperture) the lens is, the easier it will be to focus and compose a shot. With most brands, each will have a good fast (more than f2) 50mm lens is available. This is an excellent lens to start with that is commonly available for most brands and can be adapted for macro shooting with extension tubes and other parts.
Extension tubes. These are a simple, inexpensive, fixed length, hollow tube that mount to the camera and then the lens you will use is mounted to the front of the tube. You can use your existing lenses in most cases with no added expense. To get 1:1 macros, you need an equal extension to the focal length of the lens. IE: using a 50mm lens you need to add 50mm extension to get 1:1 macro. Extension tubes generally come as a kit of 3 or 4 sections. That way if you don’t want to get that close you can just use one section. Also to get even closer, you could get 2 extension tube sets and extend even further. Average sets are about 60mm so 2 (120mm) with a 50mm would give you 2.4 :1 or almost 2.4 times life sized.
One issue with these sets are that you will loose metering on many of them. Some offer electronic coupling between the camera and lens, but most do not. Some allow aperture connection for stop down metering between the lens and camera. So you will have to manually adjust meter settings for the scene. With any device that extends the lens away from the body, there is light loss. Every lens and tube extension will vary but using 50mm of extension with a 50mm lens will cause about 2 stops of light loss. Some of the incoming light is lost or dissipated inside the tube. You will also loose auto focus with extension tubes.
Diopter lenses. There are a number of types and also offer an inexpensive macro option. Canon has a clip on version that will increase the magnification of a given lens to 1:2 or 1:1, it can be added to any brand of lens and the specs can be found here: Canon 500D. Image quality is very good and they can be used on any camera/lens combination. There is very little light loss but slight image quality loss. There is a similar set by Raynox DCR-250 that clips on the front of a lens like a lens cap. Diopter Filters. Another version screws on the front of a lens like a normal filter. They come in various magnifications from +1 to +10 with kits of 3 or 4 filters in each set. They can be stacked one on top of the other to increase the magnification. Again, very little light loss but image quality can suffer especially with more than one filter attached. The Raynox/Canon (pictured) version is of superior quality to the screw on filter version. But the screw type can be found for under $10 used and offers a cheap introduction to close up shooting with little expense.
Macro 2x helical converters. (There are a few 3x versions) These are a type of extension tube. A little less common today but many are still available on the used market. Canon does have the Life-Size Converter EF which will do 1:1 Macros. Some will contain glass elements that help increase the magnification and others will not. The difference from an extension tube is that the converter will extend or retract when you turn the barrel (similar to a focus ring on a lens). This allows you to vary the magnification from about 1:10 to 1:1 and can be more convenient than a fixed extension tube. If the helicoid has glass elements, there will be some image quality loss but the unit will double as a 2 or 3 x converter. With either design, there is light loss just as there is with all extenders. Some of these units offer full camera to lens electronic control, while others will only offer aperture linkage and you will have to do stop down metering.
Macro bellows. Probably one of the oldest designs for macro work. I use one that is nearly 35 years old and it can produce excellent images. Bellows come in various lengths and generally consist of a camera mount on one end that is attached to a set of guide rails which stick out from the camera. Attached to the opposite side of the mount is a Kraft paper, accordion style expandable mid section. On the opposite end is the lens mount that is also attached to the guide rails. Bellows are generally 150mm in length but they can exceed 300mm. Using a 50mm lens, you can get at 3:1 x with 150mm of bellows. But at full extension, a 50mm lens could be as close as 2-5 cms from the subject. The average lens used with a bellows would be 75-135mm. There is light loss but like the extension tubes, no image quality loss.
Reversing rings. This small ring will have a camera mount on one side the same as your lens has and a screw thread on the opposite side. You can then screw a lens on the camera backwards. Take your 50mm or similar length lens and look at your fingertip while holding the lens backwards close to your eye and finger. You can clearly see the grooves in the skin up close. Reversing a lens is probably the cheapest method to try macro photography. Approximate magnification is 1:1 or greater with a reversed 50mm lens. You loose all connections to the cameras electronic controls and there could be some corner softness in the image but the results can be quite good. They are available in many sizes to fit the front filter thread of various lenses. For about $20 you can do some excellent close up shooting using a lens you already own.
Macro lens. (Sometimes called Micro.) These are the lenses that are dedicated to macro photography. They are generally the best way to get the sharpest images with complete connections for metering and other camera controls. Mot modern versions are also auto focus and can be used as a mid length telephoto prime lens. The typical focal lengths are 35mm up to 200mm. Most are quite fast at f2.8 and will stop down to f32 or f45. The main advantage of these lenses are, they don’t suffer image or light loss and they are designed as flat field lenses. That is to say the image should be equally sharp in the corners as it is in the center. Optical engineers have many choices when designing a lens. A typical fixed length lens will be sharper in the center than the extreme corners and a macro lens will be designed to be sharp across the entire frame. Why the difference? A dedicated macro lens is primarily used at distances of 10cms to 30 cms and is designed for this use. They often do not work as well on a subject 30 meters away. Some lenses will have a ‘floating’ element that is added to compensate for telephoto use. This helps the lens to focus more sharply on a distant object as well as take macro images. Whereas a non-macro fixed or zoom lens is primarily designed for subjects greater than 3 meters away from the shooting position. These lenses may have a ‘macro’ setting but it’s generally a compromise that is there for occasional use if you want to take a close up shot once in awhile. To get a sharp image at infinity, these lenses follow certain design parameters that will slightly compromise the edge sharpness for greater center sharpness and better infinity focus.
Macro ring lights are a flash or LED constant light that mounts on the front of the lens to add light to the scene. These are very important where light is an issue or you are getting very close to a subject. As mentioned in several notes above, Light loss is an issue. Quite often we need to use a flash or other reflected light source to the subject in order to get a good image. A ring light can make a big difference when shooting macros. The second use is to freeze an insect or other moving subject. A flash has the ability to illuminate the subject at speeds of 1/1000th to more than 1/10,000th of a second and can help to freeze the butterfly approaching your flower.
Focus rails. Originally designed for bellows, these can be used with any macro setup. They are simply a tripod mounted unit that has a set of guide rails on top of the mount. On the top side of the rails is a camera mount. On the guides would be a knob that allows the forward and backward movement of the camera. Some rail units will have a side to side second set of rails. This allows even more precise framing and focusing of a subject. Imagine that you have just spend 2 minutes focusing on the bee and then just as you want to take the shot, he moves to the other side of the sunflower. With the side movement, you can slide the camera sideways while leaving the tripod in one place.
Tripod. This is a critical tool for good macro shooting. Hand held shooting is possible for many stationary subjects but it is difficult to get a full 1:1 shot and stay sharp on the subject. Macro shooting involves very thin depth of field (DOF) ranges. It might mean that you have the lens stopped down to f16 and have an in focus or DOF of 7mm. That is very difficult to hold steady and keep sharp when hand held. A tripod will make sure your camera doesn’t move after you have focused on the subject. There are a few manufactures that make some excellent tripods for general use and have some macro features. One I use allows the center post to be removed and a second head and short post to mount in the head stock. The legs will move out till they are almost flat to the ground. Others have an ‘arm’ to get the camera away from the tripod. The center post can be drawn up and then mounted horizontally to extend the camera out. This allows some reach into the flower garden.
Cable release. Or a wireless remote. Maybe not a must have but vibration is the enemy of good sharp images. Macro is very sensitive to camera shake. So if you can trip the shutter without touching the camera, you will get better results. If your camera has a mirror lockup function, that should be used when the subject permits.
Reflectors. These could be simple pieces of white cardboard, crinkled aluminum foil or even part of those car sun reflectors (used to keep the car cool in summer). The inside of a large potato chip bag could be used. getting light bounced to the area is important much of the time. Make a few simple DIY reflectors that bounce the light in. They make for nice natural light macros instead of the ‘flash look’
Right angle eye piece. These are very handy little add on units that look like a small periscope. When shooting a macro subject you can often find yourself down on the ground or at very odd angle. Getting your eye to the viewfinder can be difficult. They slip on the rear viewfinder and allow you to look down on the camera to line up and compose the shot.
Flash bracket. If you have a regular flash but not a ringlight style, A flash bracket can get your flash in close to the subject. you will most likely want a flash diffuser as well to even out the shadows and make the light less harsh.
In the next section here I will discuss actual shooting macros, exposure and things to look for.
Thank you for reading and comments are always appreciated.