Shooting macro has always interested me. Since I was a kid I tried to shoot bugs and other small creatures with a standard film camera… which failed of course. My father owned an SLR camera (which was old even for those days), but he had a bellows and managed to shoot a wasp up real close. Looking at that shot surely got my brain spinning 🙂
Years later I seriously delved into shooting macro myself. Starting out with my Canon EOS350D, a Canon EF70-300 IS USM (non-L) and a set of tubes of 12, 24 and 36mm. I actually got some nice macro shots while on travel in South America, through the jungle of Guyana. But looking back at macro shots from then, I now see how I could have made the shots so much better… But of course I use different equipment now, and I am still finding more clever ways to come to the perfect macro setup for small critters.
Phases in macro shooting development
I believe that everyone goes through a number of phases. If you went to school or good courses that focus on macro photography, you may skip a few of these phases. But I never attended any kind of photography school or courses, and have learned all techniques by trial, error, trying again, failing, goggling, correcting and succeeding. Is this the end of my adventures? I bet not, but so far I’ve come pretty far I thing. How many phases will follow? Well, every time I decide to change the way I shoot macro, I think I found the perfect setup and way of working. And every time I prove myself wrong later on. It really is a journey, and I have a feeling that the last few phases will be the most expensive ones…
PHASE 1: Get a compact camera that has “the tulip”
My first phase was getting a digital compact camera that had “the tulip”, an almost universal icon for macro mode on compact zooms.
This will allow you to have the camera focus up closer, and it really is the first phase in macro shooting: Getting a camera that allows you to get your critter filling the frame. Limitations? Tons. But ey, the first step has been taken, so I shot, I learned. A lot.
This phase ends somewhere at “I managed to capture that insect!”
PHASE 2: “I managed to get that insect IN FOCUS!”
Tons of pictures like this on the web. People who manage “the tulip” and even people having more “pro” gear are often found stuck in this phase. It is the phase were you learn to sneak up to an insect, manage to focus correctly, and presto! You have a fully sharp top view of a butterfly. Cool stuff if you want to see the colors of the insect, but exciting? Not really. These pictures are colorful, in focus, the critter mostly fills the entire frame and… They’re boring.
Just google for “butterfly” and switch to images to see what I mean. Nice shots? yes. Room for improvement? Definitely.
PHASE 3: Buying cheap things to improve macro shooting
Want to get close to your subject without breaking the bank? Using a screw on macro filter is the cheapest solution you can find. I have been looking at the results people get with these lenses, and that makes me SO happy I skipped this step! Buying slightly more expensive tubes will get you SO much further: I got a Soligor/Kenko tubing set for a fair price. This enables your standard lenses to focus up closer, at the cost of loosing infinite focus.
Still, you can produce amazing results with cheap lenses and tubes IF you advance a few phases 😉 .
PHASE 4: Getting even better hardware
This is where phases start to mix a bit. In my case, this was the next phase. For others, the phases may be swapped. Just as I got to know how my setup (popup flash, 70-300 lens plus tubing) could produce useable images, I still had no real clue on how to improve, or what change would implicate what. Yet I was not too happy with the sharpness of the setup (I would learn later that that has probably to do with PHASE x: Understanding DOF and diffraction though). Anyway, it was time for new hardware. I upgraded my set to the amazing Canon EF100mm f/2.8 macro (non-L) and I bought a Canon Speedlite 270EX. The Canon 100mm produced beautiful images without tubing, and the 270EX allowed me to have the flash positioned a little higher, eliminating the harsh shades in some of the shots (although I still was not aiming to miss those harsh shadows…).
No matter how you look at it: Buying a macro lens will improve your macro image quality in almost any case over standard lenses with tubes (or even worse: macro screw on filters). But remember, all of this hardware still does not produce cool looking macro images; it merely enables you to be ABLE to shoot cool macro images. Up next: personal development and understanding!
PHASE 5: Learning about angles and frog’s perspective
By shooting macro and shooting more macro, I learned that the angle at which you look at the critter makes all the difference. I was amazed at this almost lucky shot I made early on, which made an impression on me to use a frog’s perspective on small critters to greatly intensify an image:
As you can see I shot this spider as if I was 100 times smaller than the spider itself. It immediately struck me: This makes for really impressive shots; the angle is SO important! As you can see in the image above, the image is not sharp where I’d want it to be. I still did not understand DOF, diffraction or even how to focus right when shooting macro handheld.
PHASE 6: Learning how to zoom and focus while shooting handheld macro
I never was one of those guys setting up a tripod, balancing three flashes or reflectors to create that perfect shot; I am more of a “I search, I find, I shoot” kind of guy. I learned a really cool trick to zoom and focus my 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. Yes zoom. Even though this lens is a prime lens (100mm fixed), you CAN zoom with macro perfectly. I learned this trick and actually I still make a lot of use of it; it is one of the greatest tricks for shooting handheld macro:
This trick reverses the functions of the prime lens: I use distance to the subject for focusing, and I use the focus ring as a zoom (you need to set your lens to manual focusing of course). So first I determine how big the critter is, and how much environment I want to shoot. This determines the zoom range, and I set the focus ring (!!) accordingly. Next, I focus the image by moving slightly back and forth. I press the shutter as soon as the eye of the critter is in focus. This takes a lot of practice, and in the beginning it is extremely hard to even find the subject in focus… You have no idea how far the focus is in your particular setup when you first start out. But just keep trying, you’ll get the hang of it! In time, you’ll learn to adjust the focus ring and move back and forth at the same time to get to the composition you want even quicker. Handy with flying bugs! Remember, in general getting really close to bugs will make your Depth of Field (DOF) very tiny, even below a millimeter at times. Be prepared to drink less coffee when shooting handheld!
Another cool trick when using this handheld macro shooting is using a monopod. Not a tripod, that will limit you too much, but a monopod. You can slightly tilt the monopod to work on the razor thin focal plane in most cases, but it will stabilize your setup (especially handy when shooting with a lens without Image Stabelizer (IS)!
PHASE 7: Using flash the right way
Using a standard flash unit can create pretty good macro shots. There is one thing to consider though: The flash will cast very harsh shadows. The higher your flash is on the camera, the easier it becomes to avoid having these harsh shadows in the composition.
Especially when you use a frog’s perspective on bugs (see PHASE 5) it is relatively easy to miss the harsh shadow. At this stage I decided to buy a cheap macro flash unit (Bilora D140RFC macro flash). Why a cheap unit? Because I did not want to break the bank, and shooting macro is mostly fully manual anyway. I have never really missed any TTL metering on the macro flash unit and have been happily adjusting intensity manually. Maybe if I upgraded to for example the Canon macro flash I’d wonder why I did not upgrade before 🙂 . Anyway, for me, a manual flash works perfectly.
I used the flash in all of my macro shots. A lot of pretty shots came from this setup, and I thought I had reached the final phase in macro photography. As you may have guessed: No such thing as a last phase 🙂
PHASE 8: Understanding DOF and diffraction
So what is DOF and diffraction all about? I will zoom in on this after the “PHASES”, but it is of vital importance to understand this as you progress in shooting macro. DOF or Depth Of Field is the distance in front and behind your point of focus that will show as being sharp. The DOF depends only on a few parameters: focal length, aperture, distance to the subject and sensor size. You can quickly calculate the DOF if you know these parameters. Just click the DOF calculator button on top to go to the online calculator. What it shows you can help a lot when shooting macro; realizing just how razor thin your DOF generally is helps as well.
Diffraction is an even less known “feature” of an optical system. Put simple, diffraction is the effect in which light shooting through a tiny hole will disperse. Looking at the DOF calculator, the simplest solution to making your DOF larger is to make the aperture smaller. But as you pinch the aperture down further, not only do you need more light for your shot, you can also start to see diffraction stepping in as the dispersion of light grows bigger than a single pixel on your sensor. Make no mistake, most camera’s are already suffering from dispersion above f/8, especially the higher resolution ones (as their pixels are smaller). SO now you know why a shot always comes out blurred if you shoot at f/20, even though you were SO sure you had focus!
PHASE 9: The background matters too
As I shot more and more macro, mostly relying on the macro flash unit, background would mostly turn fully black. This can be a cool and impressive effect, but a shot could look so much better as I started to learn… At some point I had so much light, that my flash was only filling in at let’s say 1/32th of its full potential. It is then that the background turns from black to an actual background, and I was very happy with these results:
How cool is this? Yet another set of parameters to care about: Yes the angle on the critter is important, but so is the background. Now I had to find a way to get the right angle AND the right background colors, which can become really beautiful and creamy (and this is where a better lens matters!!). On top of that, I also had to learn to work with the available light more, and start to use the flash as a fill-in flash rather than my primary light source. The plot thickens 😉
PHASE 10: Getting it right the first time
This phase is an important phase in almost any kind of shooting: Shoot less, keep more. In general, you are really urged to just click away. Especially with digital photography nowadays it is SO easy to just shoot and shoot some more. But as you will learn at some point, an EOS 7D shooting away at 8fps at a mediocre composition will generate a lot of work just discarding images. I have now come to the point that at times I do not even bother to shoot an image, knowing it is never going to be an image that will have the WOW effect. It saves you a lot of time, and it will get you thinking more on where you should be to get the shot right.
PHASE 11: Doing more advanced shots
So at one point in time you are pretty confident shooting macro. You manage to get most critters from the right angle, with a good background, properly exposed. Then you decide “let’s capture a bug while in flight!”. This is the phase I am getting into. I could off course setup my camera next to a beehive, set all to perfection, and shoot away blindly knowing I will eventually capture some great images. That is not what I am talking about here. I mean to get out my camera, wait for a bug to hoover close to me, then aim, focus and shoot. This is harder than you think! On my first attempt, I spent several hours just to figure out what settings to use. Even hooverflies are a pain to capture this way. As do it more often you’ll get the hang of it… You just need to accept that it is almost impossible to get a flying bug full frame in the picture with the focus where you’d want it. Instead, cut yourself some slack and trust those megapixels… And crop later.
As you start to figure out shots like this, you get more and more crazy ideas. Cool to do, but often a lot of work and a lot of luck is required. You could for example try to capture a bug as it flies away from a flower in the early morning looking in against the sun. Sounds cool, but is amazingly hard to accomplish. There are so many parameters involved, including the bug’s mindset on you building out your macro setup around him or her 😉 I’m glad I now am able to at least capture some stuff in-flight!
PHASE 12: It is not just the critter; it is the composition and the viewing angle.
This phase is not really about hardware, or technicalities such as DOF or diffusion. As you learn how to shoot better macro, you tend to go in full for the macro part. How cool is it that you shoot only part of a bug like its head? At some point you discover that stepping back a bit, and introduce some more surroundings can be cool as well.
And as you get into this phase – you can also do the old “part of a fly” but now properly once you master the technique:
PHASE 13: Truly inside the world of the insects
Right now I am looking into what I call “macro nirvana”: What I want to achieve is a fish-eye view of the world of bugs. I want to be in the picture and looking out to that spider that hangs over me. However, this seems impossible to shoot with any regualar setup. I would need a fisheye lens, that can focus from around 1cm distance lens-to-subject, build a near-180 degree viewing angle, and have proper lighting. To accomplish this, I’d need a lot of things I do not have right now… And 8mm lens woudl help, so would a full frame camera. I would have to squeeze in lighting somehow, that will properly light my subject without being in the shot itself, and sitting in between the lens and the subject (which distance is only around 1cm!). Yes I am thinking to bounce lighting off the surface of the lens here. Also, this super wide lens would have to be able to focus from 1cm… I could use tubing here, but I am guessing my smallest 12mm tube would be way too much. I am now looking into the 8mm Samyang lens, to probably be used on a full frame camera (yes I know the image will show a vignette but we have software and cropping to cope with that). I am preparing myself for the need of a tube that is no more than a thin ring between camera and lens, not really a “click on” tube. I won’t need electronic contacts, as the Samyangs are full mechanical beings anyway. Anyone got a 8mm Samyang I can borrow? 😉
Any info anyone has on this subject would be more than welcome! Still trying to raise the funds to afford a full-frame camera (like the 5DmkII or the new 6D) and the 8mm Samyang at the same time. I’m also thinking about buying the 8mm and to see if I get anywhere on my 7D with this type of shooting.
Some settings to get you started in macro
Regardless of the phase where you’re in, as soon as you have a (D)SLR camera or even a compact that has manual settings, you start to wonder about settings to use. Here are some settings I generally use to get you started:
- For shutterspeed, I use twice the number of millimeters in focal length. So for a 100mm macro lens, I use 1/200th. When you use a monopod or a lens featuring IS, you may be able to lower this value to maybe even 1/100th;
- For aperture, I used to use f/16. On my 7D though, this blurs the pixels way too much, so today I generally use f/9 or f/10 to shoot. Use a DOF calculator that features CoC (Circle of Confiusion) or just try it out;
- I used to be a real fan of tubes. I still use them, but please consider to use less if possible, as you will be going closer to your subject, your DOF will plummet too. Sometimes it is just better to CROP;
- For focal length, I love my 100mm macro lens. If I need to shoot even more details, I sometimes sneak in my 1.4x Kenko/Soligor PRO teleconverter (see the flies head above). I found that best results are obtained by putting the TC on the camera, then any tubes, then the lens;
- If i NEED to shoot larger “skiddish” insects, I sometimes use my 100-400L with some tubing just to get a lower minimal focal distance (by default the 100-400L does not focus closer than 1.8 meters). A tube can lower that number a little to just get it onto nice levels for shooting bigger (skiddish) bugs;
- When shooting insects: If you scare a bug away, just hold and stay at the same place… Insects often have the tendency to return to the same spot where they took off!
This should get you started!
I decided to leave the more gory details of DOF, diffraction, distance to subject and focal length alone for now. However, I will include them in a future blog post for those interested in the dependencies and the “why doesn’t any combination work like I want it to”.