by Dr. Robert Berdan
April 20, 2017
Most folks when starting macrophotography aim their camera at flowers, but there are many subjects that become interesting when viewed up close. If you don't have a macro lens or you want to introduce children to the closup universe start by purchasing a magnifying lens and inspect nature in your backyard.
Macrophotography refers to taking pictures that magnify the specimen between about 0.5X and 10X with most of the photographs being taken at 0.5X to 2.0X. Macrophotography can be accomplished using a variety of camera lens combinations. The two most common camera types today are compact digital cameras and digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR). Most of the techniques covered in this article will also apply to film based cameras, but film is now getting scarce and digital cameras offer many advantages over film such as instant preview, no film cost or processing fees and usually better image quality. Even a cell phone camera can be used, though its difficult to control depth of field, focal point and composing outdoors in bright light can be tricky.
Compact digital cameras for macrophotography
Pentax Optio camera allows you to come within a cm of your subject and also has lights around the lens to light up your subject. This camera is 16 Megapixels, offers video and is even waterproof down to about 10 meters. I like to use this camera to take macrophotographs in tide pools.
This closeup of a robin's nest with young was taken with the Pentax Optio in my Garage using a small tripod and a remote trigger. .
Blooming Malus "Pink Spires", also called Siberian Crab Apple in my backyard taken with macro mode using the Pentax Optio camera shown above. This compact camera is capable of getting very close and provides good detail and depth of field for a compact.
Moon jelly taken from the back of a boat on the West coast using a Pentax Optio. The ability to take closeups in water is an added plus of this economically priced camera.
Compact digital cameras are capable of taking excellent macrophotographs and because they have relatively small sensors some of these cameras can be held as close as 1 cm from the subject. Some (e.g., the Pentax Optio) even include LED lights and are also waterproof. The quality of the images from most compact cameras is not as good as images from most DSLR cameras because the sensors are smaller resulting in more picture noise or grain. Only a few compact cameras offer higher quality RAW files and interchangeable lenses. For many folks these limitations are only minor inconveniences and compact cameras can produce great photos. Some compact cameras permit manual focus and control over the aperture, others have zoom lenses and most offer screw mounts for a tripod.
Advantages of compact cameras:
1. They are small, compact and can fit in your pocket.
2. In macro mode most compact cameras can be positioned very close to the subject.
3. Compact cameras are usually lower in cost ranging from about $200 to about $1200.
4. Some compact cameras are completely waterproof and can be used to photograph in ponds, lakes, tide pools and in harsh weather conditions.
5. Compact cameras have smaller sensors resulting in a large depth of field even up close.
Disadvantages of compact cameras
1. Only a few offer interchangeable lenses.
2. Few have a depth-of-field preview button.
3. Few allow you to attach a cable release, though most offer self-timers and some have remotes.
4. Viewfinders, if present, tend to be small and LCD screens are difficult to view in bright sunlight.
5. Due to their smaller sensors and pixels, image quality is poorer than those produced by DSLRs.
6. Very few models offer the ability to shoot RAW files, which are better quality files and allow
more flexibility in post processing.
7. Only a few compact cameras permit the use of filters or an electronic cable release.
Some cameras and lenses have a macro - symbol shown above that will allow the lens or camera to focus closer. Interestingly, some SLR cameras also have such a button or camera setting (e.g. Nikon 5100), however
on a DSLR camera, it doesn’t affect how close you can focus; it may only pop up the on camera flash.
Getting started in macrophotography
If you use a compact camera, then the main control you need to find and learn how to activate is the
macro shooting mode. It usually will appear as a flower symbol on one of your camera buttons.
Features to look for in a Compact Camera if you with to shoot Macro
1. Zoom lens with ability to focus in close: i.e., should have macro mode option.
2. Ability to shoot RAW files for higher quality images (only a few compact cameras offer this).
3. Ability to use a self-timer to reduce camera shake, or accepts a remote control to fire the shutter.
4. Look for a camera with lights around the lens to light up the subject when you are in very close.
5. Determine whether the camera allows you to focus manually and also select the focus point.
6. All good digital cameras should offer exposure compensation.
7. Live view is a nice feature where you can see the image through the back LCD screen to avoid
parallax error associated with small viewfinders and most compact cameras.
8. A tilting LCD screen makes it easier to view when your subjects are positioned low to the ground.
9. Consider a waterproof camera for shooting in rain, tide pools and other bodies of water.
10. Choose a camera that offers 24-30 frames per second high definition (HD) video.
11. The camera should include a tripod screw mount to attach the camera to a tripod.
12. Choose a camera with a minimum of 10 megapixels to allow 8 x 10 enlargements or greater.
13. Camera should not be too slippery in your hands some offer rubber grips to prevent the camera from slipping out of your hands.
14. Ideally the camera should have some means to protect the front of the lens – glass or cover.
15. Select cameras with vibration reduction to reduce camera shake in low light.
Prairie Crocus flowers are the first to bloom in spring ( mid March to end of April). These were photographed along the Bow river in Silversprings, Calgary in late evening light with 60 mm macro lens. They are out now as this article is being written.
Digital single lens reflex cameras, aka DSLRs
DSLR cameras are the most popular cameras among serious photographers and professional nature
photographers because they offer a wide range of features, interchangeable lenses and the ability to see
the image clearly through the lens. There are many brands to choose from, so my advice is to stick with
one of the major brands. Canon and Nikon are the two most popular brands and offer the widest
selection of lenses and accessories. Other brands, such as Pentax (Ricoh), Olympus, Sony, Leica,
Samsung, Fuji and Samsung, offer good quality camera equipment but often only a limited number of
lenses and accessories. Regardless of the brand of camera you choose, the most important factor in
producing high quality images is the photographer. Before purchasing a camera, consider renting if possible to
try before purchasing, and certainly read reviews on web sites such as www.dpreview.com. Sometimes
what we want and what we can afford are two different things. If you start making money with your
photographs, then it’s easier to justify spending more money on camera equipment. If you already own
some camera equipment, start with what you own and add lenses and accessories as your interest
Economic Methods to Photograph Specimens up Close
The most economical way to get into macrophotography is to have: 1) a reverse lens adapter, 2) closeup
filters and 3) extension tubes. If you really become interested in macro-photography then you might consider a macro lens, extra flash, bellows, or stereo microscope.
Nikon reverse lens adapter
A Reverse lens adapter can be purchased for some cameras and lens and cost between $20-$100 and fit on the camera lens mount and screw on the front lens filter attachment. The disadvantage is that you lose the ability to automatically close the iris diaphram and it exposes the front of the lens. Personally I don't use this method but have seen some really excellent photos with this technique. See photographs of Spiders and video by Thomas Shahan on this web site.
Above Left: shows bunchberry flowers taken with a 50 mm lens Right: shows a closeup shot after attaching closeup filters to the front of a 50 mm normal lens. Note when the closeup filter is attached the lens will not focus at infinity.
Closeup filters screw on the font of your lens, any lens that fits will work. They come in high qulaity (Left: 2 Lens version from Canon cost about $200) and cheaper single lens element filters a set of three for about $100. The nice thing is that they are light weight and can fit in your pocket. The downside is that pictures are not sharp around the edges but for flowers and many subjects that it is OK. If you need sharpness at the edge, you need a macro lens.
To Determine the Magnification you can achieve with closeup filters you use the following formula:
Magnification = Focal length of camera lens
Focal length of closeup lens
e.g. 50 mm Normal lens = 0.25 X 200 mm Telephoto lens = 0.4 X
250 mm (+4 closeup) 500 mm (+2 closeup)
Image showing a closeup filter on the front a lens - image used with permission from Wikipedia
On the left is an Olympus variable length extension tube, and on the right a set of three Kenko auto extension tubes.
Another way you can move your camera closer to your subject is to place an extension tube between your camera and lens. Extension tubes are hollow and do not contain any glass elements; therefore, they do not degrade the image produced by your primary lens. The amount of magnification you can achieve will depend on the amount of extension and the focal length of the lens you use them with.
Longer focal length lenses require more extension to achieve the same amount of magnification. Extension tubes come in fixed lengths (e.g., 7, 15, and 25 mm are common sizes). You can combine two or more tubes for greater extension. Generally, the greater the extension the greater the magnification achieved. Olympus makes an auto extension tube that varies in length like a set of bellows, and it is great for working in the field. Extension tubes reduce the amount of light entering the lens but result in no appreciable loss of sharpness. In this respect, extension tubes are superior to closeup filters.
Diagram showing use of extension tubes on a DSLR camera - with permission from Wikipedia
Another advantage extension tubes entail is that they can be used with any lens you own to make it focus more closely including your telephoto lenses. A set of three extension tubes costs about $200 new, $100 to $150 used. Because they contain no glass elements, brand names are not important, so long as they fit on your camera and permit the metering system to work. Auto extension tubes are preferred – these allow you to view your image with the aperture wide open. I recommend testing them in the store with your lens before you buy a set. You can also buy just a single tube. The great thing about extension tubes is you can attach them to a wide angle lens, normal lens, macro lens and even a telephoto lens, and they will permit all your lenses to focus more closely. They are a great way to get started in macrophotography.
Olympus auto-extension tube placed in front of a 75-150 zoom lens on an Olympus OM-1 Film camera. The extension tube permits closeups of butterflies and has a large working distance (distance from subject).
Using Bellows - flexible extension
Another way to add extension is to use a bellows in front the of the lens. This setup is on my older Olympus OM-1 film camera and includes a macro lens on the front, rail and lens mounted flash. I also attached a right angle viewer to the viewfinder so its easier to focus. This setup can permit maganifications between 2-10X. The main problem is that the magnification is so high that it is very difficult to use outdoors because wind will blow subjects in and out of focus. Bellows are suited for photographing in a studio.
90 mm Tamron Macro lens and 50 mm Olympus Macro lens. Macro lenses are among the sharpest lenses you can buy. They also provide built in extension which allows the lens to focus more closely. They can also be used for landscapes and portraits.
Lichen on the Arctic Tundra photograhed with a 60 mm Nikon Macro lens on a full frame digital camera.
Macro lenses are generally available in three common focal lengths: 50-60 mm, 90-110mm and 200 mm.
The greater the focal length of the lens, the longer the working distance you will have between your camera and the subject. Longer focal length lenses also have a narrower field of view, allowing you to isolate a subject against the background more easily. The downside of a long focal length macro lens is sometimes you need to be too far away to focus. For photographing the ground, including lichens and mushrooms, often a shorter focal length macro lens works the best in my experience.
Water drop on grass - the drop act like small lenses. Taken with my 60 mm macro lens.
The 50-60 mm macro lens can also serve as a normal lens for taking landscapes or anything else you might like to photograph. Macro lenses often have additional f-stops, such as f/22 or f/32 for greater depth fo field, though the increased depth is often accompanied by a reduction in sharpness due to the diffraction (bending) of light around the small lens diaphragm. Most lenses tend to be their sharpest in the middle range of their focal length, such as f/8 or f/ll. Opening the lens wider then this or closing it down further usually results in a slight loss in sharpness. Rather than carry around a normal 50 mm lens I usually use a 60 mm macro lens as my “normal lens” and use it for macrophotography and landscapes (I learned this from John Shaw).
Closeup of mushrooms growing on a fallen tree in Ontario taken with my 60 mm macro lens at F11 on a tripod.
A 90-110 mm macro lens is ideal for photographing insects or any subject where you need more working
distance. When attached to a camera with an APS-sized sensor it results in about a 150 mm macro lens
which has even greater working distance. This 100 mm macro lens also serves as an excellent short
telephoto or portrait lens.
Closeup of a Ox-eye daisy showing a logarithmic spiral pattern 100 mm macro lens.
When purchasing a macro lens look for one that has an f/2.8 wide aperture. Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 will allow less light in and, therefore, the subject will be darker and harder to focus through the viewfinder..
I photographed this prairie rattle snake at Red Rock Coulee with my 100 mm macro lens. My friend stood nearby to create shade. The 100 macro lens on a crop body was equivalent to 150 mm focal length so I could keep a safe distance while still getting a reasonable close photo.
The 200 mm f/4 macro lens produced by Nikon is a beautiful lens and I would love to own one, but can’t justify buying it now that I can put my 100 mm lens on an APS body. The main advantage it offers is greater working distance for skittish animals and dangerous insects, such as hornets. Still, I find I can achieve similar working distance by attaching extension tubes to one of my telephoto lenses (e.g., 70- 200 or 300 mm f/4 lens). Canon also offers a 180 mm macro lens.
Some of the newer macro lenses have vibration reduction, and while this feature is nice for hand holding telephoto lenses, I find that most of the time I use my macro lenses with a tripod. Vibration reduction would certainly be helpful if you are chasing butterflies and have a flash attached to your camera, but I don’t think it's as important on a macro lens as it is to have on a telephoto lens. It doesn’t hurt to have it, but even having autofocusing features isn’t critical with a macro lens. I find that I usually switch my lens to manual focus most of the time so I control what is in focus more easily.
For serious macrophotographers a tripod that is able to get low to the ground is essential - look for a tripod where the legs will spread out flat. For other tripod recommendations see my article on how to choose a tripod.
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens - this lens permits high magnificaitons up to 5X. However, you need a strong light source and Canon offers a special Flash that attaches to th front of this lens. The view through the lens is dark, small and an ant will move out of the field of view in a second or two. I recommend this lens for experienced macro-photographers that want high magnification in the field. I will present a separate article on this lens in the future.
Lichen growing on Mountain ash in my backyard at 5X photographed with the Canon MPE 5X using a flash.
Portrait of a Tiger Beetle about 5X magnification taken with a flash
. Lighting can be natural or via a Flash and they produce a different appearance as shown above. I usually perfer the natural light, but a flash can freeze moving subjects and create a black background. Soft, diffused or overcast light is best for flowers, if its sunny - create your own shade.
For most flowers, soft overcast light, especially after rainfall provides the most flattering light. If you don't have shade create it using an umbrella or reflector or have some one stand in front of bright sunlight to create shade.
Photographer using an umbrella to create shade in order to photograph this Lady's slippers at Emerald Lake.
The magical thing about macro-photography is that you can find subjects almost anywhere including your backyard as I have shown some photographs I have taken in my yard. Macrophotography isn't dificult, it requires a few more accessories and tripod is used more often, but it also a lot of fun. Be prepared to get down on the ground and little dirty - if you are interested in learning more I offer a Wildflower Macrophotography workshop every spring, the next one is in early June - see my workshops page. If you don't own a macro lens, but use Nikon or Canon, you are welcome to try my 60, 100 mm macro lenses in the workshop. If you would like to learn more about macrophotography see my ebook you can download from here for only $9.95. RB.
TIP- Some photographers use Focus stacking to create much greater depth of field in their macro-images. Basically you take several pictures by focusing on the front, middle and back of the subject and then stack all the images in layers in Photoshop and blend them. This technique works with both macrophotography and landscapes.
Learn more about Macrophotography
Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.
Email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.canadiannaturephotographer.com
Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.
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