Macro Photography – Show the World Detail not Visible to the Eye
Quality macro photography enables you to illustrate nature in a way that is not known to the world. It is like showing your little sister that scary spider as a child. You get a kick out of showing off nature’s little uglies!
It can be a daunting prospect. Approaching that scary spider and trying to get closer and closer. However, it is more scary to get home and look at your photos and to see the following:
- Too narrow depth of field
- Camera shake due to handholding in bad light
- Not enough detail due to equipment with insufficient close-up ability
- Weakly composed pictures
Enough to drive any aspirant macro photographer to suicide!
However, spend some time reading the advice in this section, and you won’t be in that sad situation that I often found myself in.
This section of Africa Nature Photography discusses the techniques and equipment necessary for quality macro photographs. You will learn how to approach that colourful butterfly or that spider with more confidence, and to get a much better picture than you did previously! The discussion on this page mainly focuses on the “with what” part of macro photography. Equipment is important here. More so than for the other types of nature photography.
The how, what and where parts will be covered in the macro photography articles that I write periodically and publish at the bottom of this page.
So you require some specialist equipment. This is sad. You have to spend money… But, didn’t you say you like spending money on photography equipment. Me too. So this is not sad.
Without some form of macro photography equipment, you will not be able to produce photographs of a high enough quality to please yourself. So, you are thinking about publishing our work? Need to dig even deeper in your pocket.
If you are not concerned with the possibility of someday having some or all of your pictures published, you can use a compact digital camera with a close-up lens attachment for macro photography. Also, if you do not yet have a quality digital SLR system but are planning on getting one soon, a compact digital camera could help you get some practise in the meantime.
I feel that a good consumer or professional digital SLR will do the trick as far as a camera body goes. This setup will enable you to produce images fit for publication. Such a body is in any case a highly recommended for the other types of photography discussed on this site (apart from landscape photography where one of the larger formats is also a good choice).
For macro photography (as in most other forms of photography) the camera body is not as important as a quality lens. The ideal setup for macro work will include a dedicated macro prime lens. A few examples include:
Canon EF 50mm F/2.5 Compact Macro lens (1:2)
Canon EF 100mm F/2.8 Macro USM lens (1:1)
Canon EF 180mm F/3.5L Macro USM lens (1.1)
Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX Macro lens (1:1)
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro lens (1:1)
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 EX Macro lens (1:1)
The L series Canon lens will most probably be your best choice here, but it is very expensive. They market it as a lens that doubles nicely as a good quality telephoto. I don’t know. I prefer much longer telephotos.
The EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM will also equip you nicely for macro photography that will raise a few eyebrows (some people believe that this lens should get the L label). It is a very decent, fast aperture short telephoto lens, that can be applied in numerous situations.
What I appreciate about the Sigma range is that all the lenses are EX series, guaranteeing professional quality craftsmanship (sturdy lenses not breaking easily) and performance (producing the images you want).
When buying a dedicated macro lens I suggest you go for one that has at least 1:2 magnification. I strongly recommend those with the ability to magnify 1:1. Watch out for lens manufacturers terming normal lenses macro lenses due to an ability to focus slightly closer than normal. These are not proper macro lenses and normally offer only 1:5 or 1:4 magnification.
A very nice professional application specialist lens (only for macro) is the Canon MP 65mm f/2.8 Macro 1x to 5x lens. With this lens you can fill the frame with a subject one-fifth the size of your digital sensor. This is tiny! It is a difficult lens to operate, and you will probably need a very still subject that you can get really close to get real value out of it. Ideally suited for someone operating in a studio (not us nature freaks).
Studio work does have some purpose in nature photography. This is mostly true for macro photography. You can show off the really micro stuff (why they called it macro photography the devil only knows). If this is what you want to do, the MP 65mm f/2.8 is the obvious choice. Studio work and macro photography in general is also possible with a cheaper setup.
If you already have a normal lens (zoom or fixed focal length) you can use extension tubes with the lens to enable it to focus closer. For every 12mm of extension tube you put between your camera body and the lens, you shorten the closest focusing distance by 25%. This means that if you have a 400mm lens able to focus down to 1.8m, you will need a 12mm extension tube to focus as close as 1.35mm meaning you can fill the frame with more of your subject. Now add three 12mm tubes and we are starting to talk macro.
You can also use a close-up dioptre. This is a glass element that screws onto the front of a normal lens like a filter. It helps by enlarging the subject and enabling you to focus closer.
The final piece of equipment I deem necessary for good macro photography is decent lighting equipment. Especially if you are going to do a bit of digging around to find good subjects. Your subjects won’t always be in perfect light. Flash! A-haaa! And you can still get a good shot…
The best flash options for macro photography are the macro ring lights or macro twin lights. With one of these two lights the sky is the limit, especially the latter. You will never again need to worry about slow shutter speeds, or a too narrow depth of field. You simply stop your lens down enough to get sufficient depth of field, and add enough flash to still have a fast enough shutter speed.
Another option would be to attach your normal flash to your camera with a cord, and position it to the side of the subject.
Enough about equipment. Why does equipment always try to dominate photography discussions? Beats me, I guess we like talking about nice-to-haves… I discuss what distinguishes a good macro photographer from a struggling one in my Macro Photography Technique article (see link below).
- Macro Photography Technique
I will write articles on other aspects of macro photography that I deem is necessary to help you improve your macro pictures from time to time, and also as I experience certain hardships myself and feel the need to share my solution. Therefore watch this space, or subscribe to my RSS feed and you will be the first to know.
For further advice on nature macro photography, I can recommend Nature Photography Close Up: Macro Techniques in the Field by Paul Harcourt Davies and Peter Parks. This book presents a “think small” approach to nature photography that helps you discover a nature photography goldmine. It is sure to get you all fired up and ready for macro photography in nature.
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