I see a bug or a fly, that irritates me and I swat it away, but others get down on their hands and knees and bows down… setting up a shot with their macro lens, and shooting the eye of that same fly… and then when I see it, I am astounded and motivated!

Getting to chase down a Cheetah kill requires a lot of money, patience, effort and equipment not to mention the skills involved to handle the equipment and track down the cheetah, but macro is something you can get into quite easily with a bit of patience and actually, a very small investment. Although a dedicated macro lens is definitely the way to go when you start shooting a bit more commercial work, or want to specialize more, most of us can use the equipment we have on hand and adding one or two elements will give you very good results indeed.

I have to confess, that I am not an advanced macro shooter, but I have used my Canon 50mm f/2.5 extensively in various situations to shoot close-up details in various situations. It has served me well, but wanting to get a bit more out of it, I paired it with a set of Kenko Extension tubes. What makes the extension tubes so valuable is that there is no lens in the barrel that will degrade the optical performance of the lens you are using. That means that if you use a sharp, high quality lens, even with the extension tubes you should be able to get good quality images under most scenarios. The extension tubes (not to be confused with Extenders, which does contain lens elements) can be fitted to almost any lens. But before I get ahead of myself, let me try and break down a setup in order.


Olympus uTough 8100 P&S resultAny SLR type camera will do. Obviously, you can also shoot macro and super macro with some P&S cameras, but if you want to be able to get a bit more creative, then you will need a DSLR. I work with a Canon 7D as well as the Canon 5DmkII the Canon 5DmkII works very well at higher ISO settings (which you often require when your subject has movement) or when light becomes an issue.. . which is almost always!

Because a macro lens tends to work very close to ver small creatures, the Depth of Field (DOF) will be very shallow. depending on your set-up, you will most probably be working in millimeters or parts of a millimeter for most of the shots… the good thing is that like a human, where you would like to get the eye in focus, the eye of a bug (for instance) is also extremely small, so the DOF should just be enough!

The benefit of a crop sensor camera like a 7D is that you win on the cropping factor, so you win on the effective “enlargement” of the final image as well. The downside is that you tend to pick up digital noise a bit faster on the smaller sensors, and this interferes quickly when you go to extremes with your macro images. Keeping the ISO settings low (when possible) will still give you exceptional results.

Depending on your chosen subject, you might also benefit greatly from a camera that features a “LiveView” on it’s LCD. In some situations, It allows you to zoom in up to 10X to check your focus. Something that is very handy for somebody like me, but a fair pain to try and do in bright sunlight! The other great benefit of the LiveView system is that you focussing mirror is lifted by the function, which means no movement from mirror slap when press the shutter (something that could also be achieved by the Mirror Lock-up function if your camera has it.)

Macro Lenses:

Canon MP-E 65 f2.8Best bet, start with the right stuff. All the major lens manufacturers makes 1:1 and 1:2 macro lenses in various shapes and forms. what it comes down to at the end of the day is the distance that you are going to be away from your subject (or want to be away from your subject) when you shoot. For some items, the distance makes very little difference, close or far (and by far, I mean that you win a few centimeters at best) Distance is a factor to keep in mind especially when you shoot living subjects. It’s difficult not to chase a fly away when you have to be 4cm away when you shoot it.

Nikkor AF-S 105mm VR II f/2.8D MicroWhen you want to get in closer though, the only option is extension tubes or something like Canon’s MPE-65. This is a monster of a lens in the Macro world, with what is essentially, a built in set of extension tubes on a very crisp lens with an aperture to match, giving you an amazing 5:1 ratio on the maximum settings.

There are a few nifty macro lenses like the Micro Nikkor 85mm f/2.8 Tilt-&-Shift which really helps in “extending” your DOF over a subject as it allows you to angle your DOF over a sideways subject, creating the effect of bigger DOF

Extension tubes:

kenko Extension TubesThe “poor man’s” solution to macro works extremely well for most people getting into macro. Essentially what extension tubes do is to simply move the lens away from the sensor, forcing the focussing of the lens to occur at a closer distance to the front element of the lens – getting a closer focussing distance means you can have a bigger image on your sensor, and viola… macro on a budget!

The advantage is that you image will retain all the quality of the images created by the original lens, but the disadvantage is that you can’t use the lens in ordinary situations… the focussing shift will not allow the lens to function normally, requiring the extension tube to be removed before shooting normally with a lens. Luckily this is as simple as changing a lens, clip in, clip out so no real downside there.

Canon EF25II Extension tubeAnother advantage is that you can ‘stack’ extension tubes to give you an even smaller focussing distance, increasing the macro ratio. Where this becomes a problem is with the effective f/stop your lens now has. Every time you move the lens away from the  sensor, your effective f/stop reduces, requiring more light for the same aperture, and at a certain point, the aperture becomes so small (in effect) that it starts to show diffraction on the image (literally, the light gets influenced too much by the edges of the aperture blades) If this is where you regularly need to shoot, then a dedicated macro lens is the way to go.


Kirk Focusing Rail_FR-1WGet the best you can for the equipment you will be using. In the case of Macro Photography, this is even more critical as the slightest movement during the shot will cause movement-blur. The other serious consideration is that more often than not, you will need to do a lot of your focussing by moving the camera, not turning the focussing ring.

Let me explain that a bit more. In many fixed focal length lenses, turning the ‘focusing ring’ actually adjusts the magnification of the lens. Focussing is only a by-product because the lens physically comes closer or moves further away from subject. If a certain magnification is required (for instance, true macro or 1:1) then the lens needs to be set for that size, and the camera needs to be moved around either by moving your tripod, or by using a focussing rail on your tripod head. Kirk makes a very nice single rail system, the Kirk FR-1W that runs on a geared track. Manfrotto similarly has the 454 Micrometric Sliding Plate.

Manfrotto 454 Micrometric Sliding PlateWhat both these systems do, is to mount your camera/lens on a moving plate that allows you to move the whole body/lens forward and backwards to achieve focus.

These systems work very well, especially with lenses that have a mount point on the lens barrel, but if you are stacking extension tubes on a lens like a 24-70 f/2.8 then the whole system becomes very lopsided and awkward. I have found that a simple beanbag that can support the body and the lens, seems to work much easier in many conditions.


Wimberley plampDepending on what you are shooting, you could use natural light and some reflectors. The Wimberley Plamp is ideal for moving small reflectors into place to direct light onto your subject. That said, chances are very good that you will run out of light sooner than later if you will shoot anything above 1:1 macro. As mentioned above, there is a difference between the actual f/stop (also called the “nominal f-number”) what is marked on the lens or shown on the LCD display, and the “Effective” f/stop (more accurate to the light reaching the sensor as the aperture is moved away from the sensor to decrease focus distance)

The rule of thumb to work out how much light you would need is:

effective f/stop = (displayed f/stop x Magnification) + 1x f/stop

so at f/5.6 at 2 times magnification your “effective f/stop” would be = (5.6 x 2) + 5.6 or f/16.8

Maybe easier to remember is to increase you exposure by approximately 2 stops more than magnification (1:1 increase by 2 stops, 3:1 increase by 4 stops)

Getting back to the lighting part of macro, you can see from the above explanation that if you shot a bug at f/8 at 1/250th of a second, and then move to 1:1 macro, you will need to reduce your shutter speed to either 1/90th of a second, reduce your f/stop to f/2.8 or push your ISO from ISO100 to ISO400. Adding extension tubes or shooting with a 3:1 macro requires a 1/30th shutter speed, a drop to f/1.2 or an ISO of 1600 (or a combination as your equipment allows)

Empty Nest by PottieMIt soon becomes apparent that extra light is the best solution! There are various dedicated macro flash solutions out there, that is designed to fit 2 or 4 separate flash heads around the front of your lens. These flash units are not extremely strong, but considering they only need to be a few centimeters away from the subject, they are more than powerful enough for our needs.

For the more casual macro shooter, I can suggest 2 options, the first is a standard flash unit, like a SB800 or Canon 580EXII which you tilt away from the subject, and bounce the flash from a reflector. This is the cheapest but most difficult solution as you need to get a decent sized reflector (anything is big if you are shooting an ant) positioned at the correct angle to give maximum light on the subject.

The second solution is a bit more expensive, but works very well. I have simply taken my 580EX units off-camera and triggered them with a wireless remote (Pocketwizard PlusII’s) against a standard strobist umbrella or softbox. The umbrella works nice on a small light stand as it allows you to move around a bit underneath with a more or less constant and wide light source. The softbox worked better for closer and lower side-lighting. I could literally put it down sideways on the ground next to me and still have the black sides of the softbox shield stray light from the lens.

Whichever route you go though, consider that you will most probably need to set up your flash units for manual power instead of e-TTL to be able to get any kind of consistency.

Post Processing:

No different from your regular post processing procedures… for the most part, that is. There are various techniques to increase your perceived DOF on a static subject shot. One is to simply move your point of focus, front to back, a fraction of a millimeter at a time, stack them and mask out the out of focus areas. This is an extremely time consuming process unless you have Adobe CS4 or higher, which has this feature as a built in plugin. So the hard work is automated.

If you have a good set of images for Adobe to play with, then you will get a pretty decent result. Unfortunately this will not really work well on moving subjects

Bee Wolf Wasp by ZaneCHWhat is considered Macro actually?

If we ignore the stickers added to our lenses and cameras by the marketing department about which lenses and cameras are capable of “Macro Photography” then it’s more or less a simple statement.

If a camera and lens combination can capture an image that is exactly the same size on the sensor as in real life, then it’s a  1:1 Macro (also known as 1x enlargement or actual size macro. Some refer to it as “Life-size”)

If a camera and lens combination can capture an image that is actually enlarged on the sensor twice as big as in real life, then we have a 2:1 macro or 2X enlargement, and so on and so forth.

1:1 is macro, 1:2  is close-up, 2:1 and higher is considered as “super” macro, although those shooters simply call it ‘macro’

Some tips on correct f/Stop for Quality:

By now you would have grasped the fact that we are using extremely small apertures to get the maximum Depth of Field and that when I say ‘Maximum’ I still refer to 2mm or less. Now, as we push the boundaries of what the lenses actually can do, we start to experience defraction in the image. That means that all the light is not focussed at a single point anymore, and the scattered light is causing a bit of softness in the image.

Feathered Droplet by JCSNow, at which point this happens, has a little bit to do with how well your lenses are manufactured and a lot to do with physics and the properties of light as we currently understand it. Therefor, as you use your kit in various circumstances, you will soon learn that to get bigger enlargements of your subject matter, you might need to actually increase your f/stop to still retain sharp images.

So a 1:1 macro can maybe be shot at f/11 but a 3:1 Macro (now with the lens moved further away from the sensor and the “Effective” macro starting to kick in) might give you an overall sharper image at f/8 even though your DOF is reduced, your diffraction from using a larger aperture is also reduced, ending up with a sharper image in the areas that is “in focus”

Be that as it may, expect a lot more images for the bin than keepers, especially as you get your head around the minute spaces you will be working in. But trust me with this:

It’s an experience to shoot macro, It’s like shooting the old medium and large format view cameras. Everything slows down, and you have to think about what you are doing. It brings photography back to the little joys of creating images!

By Sean Nel


images © Shoots Imaging
© ZaneCH
© PottieM

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