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Maybe the title should be "Introduction to Macro Photography" but that sounds too grand. The trigger for creating this page was a session held on macro photography at a weekend away for some photo club members in NSW, Australia. There seemed to be great deal of interest in the subject even though it can get quite involved at times. Here is my attempt to help spread some more light on the subject. It will be information that will help beginners understand what you can and can't do with 35mm SLR macro photography and some of the methods that can be used to achieve results. People who aren't beginners may also find some useful information.
There is no really easy
way into macro photography, all the normal rules of everyday shots seem to fall
down and life gets more complicated and expensive if you want to do it
correctly. The invention of automatic cameras and TTL flash photography has made
life easier when dealing with macro photography. Now of course with just about
any compact digital camera life is quite easy. In general these notes will be
about SLR film cameras which of course also now means digital SLR cameras. More
about digital at the end of the article.
Mirror lockup is a topic often discussed in relation to macro work.
The mirror slapping up in a film or digital SLR before the exposure causes vibration in the camera
and may cause sharpness problems due to camera shake in the shutter speed
range of about 1/30 to 1/8 second. Either choose much faster or much slower
shutter speeds than that troublesome range or use flash as the main
light source where the 1/1000 sec or faster flash burst stops any camera
Older SLR cameras tend to have very noisy mirrors generating lots of shake, modern cameras have a better designed mechanism and shake is not so much a problem now.
This page is aimed at people who have SLRs with through the lens metering of both incident light and flash. Older cameras require more calculations and effort to get decent results. If you are attacking macro with older equipment (or even new equipment) it is important to keep notes on what you do so that future setups are easier and mistakes are minimised.
The term "macro" is used very loosely and tends to mean any photographic
situation where you get close to the subject.
Real macro photography is where you are working around 1:1 ratio and closer thereby giving an image on film that is equal in size or larger than the subject being photographed. The range from life size on film (1:1) up to ten times enlargement on film (10:1) is be the strict definition of macro photography. The range from 1:10 (1/10 life size on film) to 1:1 on film should properly be called "close-up" photography.
Most lenses don't get very close at all so that close-up you tried of
that nice flower or interesting bug often turns out disappointing.
Zoom lenses usually have a "macro" setting where they may get close enough to give maybe 1:4 ratio (image on film is 1/4 the size of the subject). Any normal 4"x6" print made from that negative will yield a picture of the subject about life size due to the approximately 4x enlargement needed to make the print. But if it was a small flower/bug it still will be a small flower/bug on the print.
Life gets more interesting when you get closer to the subject and get closer to the 1:1 image size. Enlargements made now will start to be spectacular as the image on the print can be much larger than life size.
Understand that in all macro photography as the lens gets closer to the subject and the image gets larger on the film, the light reaching the film is lessened. Also the depth of field gets very shallow and to combat this, very small apertures are called for which lessens the light to the film even more. Both these things in combination mean that normal hand held exposures are usually out of the question. A tripod is needed for steadiness plus flash is needed in nearly every circumstance to give decent illumination.
Often the image size on the film is the important feature so the focus is done manually to get the size of the image correct then final focus on the subject is done by moving the whole camera to and fro. To make life easy a mechanical attachment is added to the tripod head to allow smooth movement of the camera making the final focus easier.
What you need to get things happening is a camera that can be used in aperture priority mode and manual mode and preferably having TTL control of the flash. A good sturdy tripod is essential as camera shake is magnified greatly when working in macro. To avoid shaking the tripod you need a remote release, this may be a mechanical or electronic release, or you can employ the self timer and use the 10 second delay until it fires to let the arrangement stop shaking after touching it. A TTL controlled flash, two are better, can be of another manufacturer as long as all the TTL extension cables fit and work correctly. And the focussing rail mentioned in the above paragraph makes focussing easier, this can be store bought or made by an enthusiastic handyman. The rest of the macro equipment needs to be chosen after reading the descriptive text.
There are many ways to attack macro photography and some are much more
expensive than others. I'll try and list them starting from the cheapest
method. The main text areas linked to will explain better the good and
bad points of each method.
|Let's talk about flash. Very important first paragraph to consider for all methods below.|
|Get your prints enlarged more and trim back to 4"x6" size.|
|Add a close-up lens to the front of a normal lens.|
|Add another camera lens back to front to the front of the lens on the camera.|
|Reverse the lens on the camera body.|
|Add extension tubes to extend the lens further from the camera body.|
|Use a bellows unit between the lens and the body.|
|Use a dedicated macro lens that is designed for the job.|
|Attach the camera body to a microscope. Although this is micro not macro.|
|Bringing It Up to Date. A little more discussion on digital cameras.|
|About Macro on the Olympus C-730 Digital Camera - This other page may help with other digital cameras.|
Ring flashes are often pushed as the best way to do macro, but all they provide is convenience and very flat, uninteresting lighting plus weird highlights if there are water drops present. Also, because the flash is right on the lens front, the light falloff is very noticeable towards the background - foreground very bright, subject OK, background very dark. A very unnatural illumination. It is best to persevere with the single or twin flash setup, it is more flexible and the results look better, and it's usually cheaper than a ring flash. Ring flashes were really designed to give flat lighting for medical work.
The calculations involved in getting a manual flash to give the correct illumination can be a little daunting so the only sensible way to attack macro photography with flash is to employ a dedicated flash that can be extended with the appropriate cord and give proper TTL flash operation. For the beginners, this means that the circuitry in the camera will measure the light received in the camera via the lens during the exposure and send a signal to turn the flash off when enough light has been received. This way means that no calculations have to be done by you and the success rate improves dramatically.
With manual flashes (full output at each firing) there needs to be many wasted test photographs getting it right, and that will only be right for that exact same setup each time. Or you can buy an expensive flash meter to see what output the flash gives and set the appropriate aperture, but this also has complications because when you focus closer in the macro area the aperture of the lens is effectively made smaller thus not agreeing with the markings on the lens. Some more modern cameras will show you the true aperture on their LCD readout, but if the camera is that advanced you should be using the TTL flash operation anyway so you don't need to know the true aperture.
One feature of using the flash very close to the subject is that closer than maybe 600mm (2') with some close-up and aperture combinations the flash may not be able to turn off fast enough and will cause overexposure. This is usually fixed by always using very small apertures when using flash very close and/or by maybe backing off the flash a bit further and/or adding some diffusing material (tracing paper or milk bottle plastic) to lessen the flash intensity.
Another thing with flash is that the quality of the light will now be bright where it's needed but have very dark shadows thereby creating an artificial look to the macro scene. Reflectors made of white cardboard or aluminium kitchen foil can be placed to reflect light back into the shadow areas. This may be easy for table top ventures but gets harder when chasing active insects. The normal solution to this is to add a second flash wired up to the first to achieve full TTL operation for both and position the second flash so that it gives slightly less illumination and now the shadow area from the primary flash is not too dense or not too light.
For convenience these two flashes should be mounted on a custom made bracket fixed to the camera so you can move about and use only the normal number of hands to control everything. I didn't say this was going to be easy!
Upside. Well illuminated shots if done properly. Can approach
a "natural" look.
Downside. Costly if done properly. Some effort required to make custom brackets to hold everything.
Upside. Cheap macro extension by maybe up to a 2x factor, also
a tele lens extender. Often adds no extra cost to a reprint.
Downside. Grain enlarged, dust on negative enlarged, lens faults enlarged. Might be hard to find a lab to do this.
The effect of these close-up lenses increases as you add them together. The +1 and the +2 screwed together will yield +3. Be aware that although you will get greater magnification, you will also get greater image deterioration. If you do try this the usual method is to put the strongest one closest to the lens then the lesser one. For the above coupling you would screw the +2 on first then add the +1 to that, then any filters or lens hoods.
The close-up lenses have more effect on longer focal lengths. Attached
to a 50mm lens on the camera the +4 close-up will yield closer focussing
but nothing amazing. Try a +1 close-up lens on a 200mm or 300mm lens and
the effect is much more exciting.
This situation makes the decision of what thread size close-up set to buy a bit more interesting. If you intend to be mildly involved with macro using close-up lenses then it would be best to buy the set that fits your 70-200 or 75-300 lens then buy adapter rings to make the close-up lenses fit your other lenses with maybe smaller thread sizes. They are called step-up rings and are much cheaper than buying a second set of close-up lenses.
Even though I own macro lenses and bellows I also own a +2.9 coated double element close-up lens (expensive) that with the appropriate step-up rings will fit nearly all of the lenses that my wife and I own. The one close-up lens and the few lightweight stepup rings take only a small space in the camera bag for those times I don't want to carry the proper macro lens.
Upside. They are relatively cheap, are light and don't take up
much room in the camera bag and the normal camera internal TTL light metering
takes them automatically into account and no adjustments are required.
Downside. More stuff added to light path adds more optical problems, flare, distortion etc. If used on tele lenses you really need to have the more expensive double element models that are also hard to find. The more powerful the close-up lens, the worse the image. Try to use around f/8 or f/11 on the lens to make the best of the situation.
The best effect is obtained by using a long focal length on the camera body and have a short focal length lens reversed in front of it. Say a 200mm lens on the body and a 35mm lens reversed in front. Some experimenting is possible just by holding the two lenses together or maybe by taping them together with gaffer tape.
Upside. It's cheap because you probably already own the lenses
and only need to get the coupling rings. You can test the effect by carefully
holding them together. Can use any brand lens as the front lens.
Downside. The image will suffer a bit due to the many extra glass elements you have added, extensive experimenting is the only way to see what happens. Prime lenses will yield a better result than zoom lenses. The front lens has no aperture control so you may have to manually set it (if possible) to experiment with the possible combinations of aperture settings in both lenses.
The theory behind reversing a lens is to realise that normally the rear of the lens is close to the film and distant from the subject. When you get into macro-land the reverse is often true so the lens performs better when turned around so that the rear of the lens is pointed towards the closer subject. Usually have the lens right way around for anything down to about 1:1 then reverse the lens when trying to achieve enlargement onto the film ie. the image on the film will be larger than the subject.
It works best with simple lenses like primes but zooms can certainly be used. For example, my Nikon 28-105 zoom already focusses normally down close enough to achieve 1:2 (half life size on film) but the image is not so good around the edges. By reversing the lens and using the zoom function a better result was obtained plus also more spectacular close-ups were obtained by zooming towards the 28mm end. See my page on the 28-105 for some example shots.
In Nikon-land when the lens is reversed you have to manually focus with the aperture set wide open then move the aperture ring to the desired setting (usually try around f/8 to f/22) before shooting. With available light the camera must be in aperture priority mode so that it knows to accept what's coming through the lens and only vary the shutter speed for exposure control. With flash in TTL mode, go to camera manual mode and set the camera to the flash sync speed or slower.
Be aware that once you reverse a lens you normally lose all control of the lens unless you have the expensive reverse attachments with contacts. For the simple adapters like Nikon uses you can employ any brand lens reversed as long as you can manually control the aperture. Usually the reversing attachment bayonets into the body and provides a male thread (Nikon = 52mm) that the lens filter ring screws onto. Nikon also makes an adapter to change the 52mm to 62mm to allow most of its other lenses to fit. It would not be recommended to use large and heavy lenses this way as all the weight is carried by the filter thread and may more easily damage the lens if roughly handled. See if you can get a simple reverser for your camera and then seek a cheap used lens (manual focus quite OK) around 28mm to 50mm to experiment with.
Speaking Nikon again there also exists an adapter to place on the now reversed lens so that filters or lens hoods can be attached to the now exposed bayonet end. There is also an adapter to place on the exposed rear of the lens to control the aperture shutdown with a cable release. This makes it easier to focus wide open then close down to shoot. There is less chance of disturbing the focus or alignment using this attachment.
Upside. Cheap way to get results, can try most of your normal
lenses this way.
Downside. Some camera types lose aperture control and may need expensive adapters.
The simplest types make you lose all contact with the lens so that auto focus and aperture readout and control are lost, therefore the camera has to be in aperture priority for ambient light and manual mode for TTL flash and you have to remember to focus manually with aperture wide open and then set the aperture down before shooting. More expensive tubes will provide electrical and mechanical control of the lens to make life easier. Often there are independent manufacturers of these tubes (Kenko for example) so you are not always tied into buying expensive brand name parts.
Prime lenses like 35mm or 50mm focal length tend to work better than zooms but zooms make life convenient and easier to frame the subject.
Realise though that most lenses are not designed for close-up work so when they are extended like this they are not giving their optimum performance. Maybe try tubes plus reversing the lens to improve the situation.
In my case I have the Nikon reversing ring BR-2A and the adapter BR-3 to hold filters on the bayonet end of the lens. These two can be screwed together and used as a short extension tube. Once you get all these odd bits you tend to find new ways to use them.
Upside. Relatively cheap, they don't introduce optical distortions.
Downside. Fiddly and may need to uncouple or recouple a tube or two a few times to get the image you desire.
Some bellows again lose contact with the lens so you have to operate the focus and aperture manually. More expensive versions will have electrical contact with the lens for full control. Auto focus is a pain when doing macro work as it tends to get in the way by focussing on the wrong part of your subject, always use manual focus for macro, and focus by moving the whole camera-lens combination to and fro or by moving the subject, if that's more convenient.
All the lens reversing stuff also applies here and is really appropriate to use it as the bellows provides quite powerful magnification when extended and the lens employed will work better in reverse. Again, any brand lens can be used in reverse and a clever thing to do is use an enlarger lens with a custom adapter. Buy the normal T-mount adapter for the bellows fitting then get a friendly machine shop to make a simple adapter to screw the enlarger lens into and then pop into the T-mount adapter. Enlarger lenses are designed to work close up and will provide excellent results. About 90mm to 150mm would be the best focal length range to try.
Shorter focal length primes work better and true macro lenses are preferred when using a bellows unit. My favourite lens on the bellows is the Nikon 55mm f/2.8 manual focus macro.
I have only had experience with the Nikon bellows and know that the latest version (PB-6) has a front plate that can be turned around to provide a lens reversing adapter already built-in. The earlier version that I own (PB-4) does not have that and you need to buy the reversing adapter to plug in the front of the bellows. The advantage of the older PB-4 bellows is that the front frame that holds the lens has sideways shift and tilt, plus the camera body can be rotated 90 degrees so some depth of field manipulation and distortion correction can be applied.
Upside. Great magnification, smooth and easy to adjust image
Downside. High cost, may also need to buy reversing adapter, best used with a lens designed for extreme close-ups, ie a true macro lens or enlarging lens with a custom made adapter. Cumbersome to use at times.
|More on bellows....
The other day I chanced on some little toadstools about 3/8" high in my garden, getting the macro lens close enough was a problem as I needed to use the 55mm macro lens reversed and the bellows extended a little to get enough size in the frame. The bottom of the bellows kept hitting the ground or the wood where I wanted to shoot from. A bit of lateral, or more like inverted, thinking and the problem was solved. A couple of bits of scrap aluminium and an hour or so in the workshop and I made a bracket that attaches to the 3D tripod head and holds the bellows upside down. That way the front of the lens can get closer and lower to get a better view.
OK, it's a crummy shot taken with a very cheap digital camera, but you can get the idea.
The SB-28 flash has a Lumiquest softbox on it and had to be that close
to get enough illumination, it was used in a more pointing straight down
fashion, it's just left to flop in this photo. The washed out overexposed
"L" shape is the aluminium bracket I made to do the job. The bellows base
can be twisted on the overhead bracket to allow the camera viewfinder to
be accessable. Probably the bellows set at 45 to 90 degrees to the top
bit of channel extrusion makes use and viewing for focus easier. You may
need a little mirror to see the camera settings on the body LCD. If you
twist the camera body through 90 degrees for a portrait shot then the camera
settings are visible.
And the result of getting in close with the above arrangement...
The top section shows the pair and the bottom the junior one. They have been cropped a bit from the original 4"x6" prints to save bandwidth. Bear in mind the diameter of the top of the big toadstool is under 4mm and the total height maybe 10mm. The actual shots look much better than these compressed versions.
Used my N8008s Nikon in manual mode at 1/60 sec with the old PB-4 bellows
and a Nikon manual focus 55mm f/2.8 macro lens mounted in reverse using
the BR-2A ring. Focused at f/2.8 then shut down to f/22 (as shown on the
aperture ring). SB-28 flash on TTL with softbox attached held about three
inches above the toadstools, tried it about five inches away and got underexposure
indication but the negative looks OK. Also for some shots I used a diffuser
made from a large plastic milk bottle, that white diffused plastic probably
worked better then the expensive Lumiquest softbox.
Macro lenses should provide a smooth focus extending from infinity to life size image 1:1 ratio. Some lenses will go from infinity to 1:2 (half life size) and to get all the way to 1:1 you have to attach the appropriate adapter lens on the front or employ an extension tube. Read and understand what the arrangement is with the lens you intend to buy. Get it demonstrated properly and get a feel of how it works on your camera. Forget auto focus, it is more bother than it's worth for macro, but you may have to buy the AF model to get all the latest lens features. If you intend to use the lens as a general lens then auto focus is appropriate to have. By the way, macro just means that it will focus down to very close-up and doesn't mean it can't be used for portraits or scenery etc.
If you only intend to use the lens for copying flat work like old photos, slides and stamp collections or cataloguing dead insects then a short focal length like 50mm or 60mm is appropriate. If shooting nervous live insects then the working distance needs to be greater so a lens around 100mm to 200mm would be better. The most popular macro lenses seem to be 90mm to 105mm as it can double as a portrait lens and provide reasonable distance from the front element when working at 1:1. The cheapest 100mm lens is Cosina (also sold as Vivitar, I suspect) which is a 100mm f/3.5 lens that focusses down to 1:2 and is supplied with a screw in front lens to get down to 1:1. Magazine tests have shown it to provide very good performance and it certainly is the best value for money macro lens available currently (1999). The results from this cheap macro lens will be better than using an ordinary lens with extenders or close-up dioptre type lenses but not quite as good as the very high cost camera manufacturers' macro lenses.
Again when using reversing rings, extension tubes and bellows the macro is the proper lens to use and best to reverse it when getting better than 1:1 ratio. It's expensive getting into macro properly.
With a macro lens directly on the camera body all controls work correctly so no manual fiddling with aperture and focus is needed if you wish to work all automatic. When you get close and use flash then you have to watch out for the lens shadowing the subject. You have to get the flash off the camera using an appropriate TTL control cord. Sigh! More $$$$.
Upside. Great results, convenient to use. Macro lens also can
be used as a normal lens.
Downside. Great expense unless you choose a cheaper third party model.
Again a custom adapter is needed, usually the microscope maker has various common camera brand adapters available. Otherwise you have to seek or make a camera mount that will slide in a light tight fashion over the eyepiece tube. I found an old fashioned East German made microscope adapter on a camera store specials table. It fitted the microscope eyepiece tube OK but only provided an old Exacta bayonet fitting. Luckily it was made up of a combination of screwed sections, so I made an adapter (a metal lathe is very handy!) for a Nikon T-mount so that the T-mount would now screw onto the top of the microscope adapter and the camera body goes onto the T-mount. All lens filter and camera attachment threads so far seem to be 0.75mm pitch, by the way.
For different magnifications you can usually use the setup with or without the eyepiece. Some eyepieces will provide only a narrow field so you will get vignetting of various degrees. The best eyepiece to use is a deliberately designed wide field, flat field type.
Once you have the camera on the microscope, you will need aperture priority mode when you use the microscope lamp or manual mode with a cabled TTL flash. Magnification is up to you but be aware the light falls off dramatically and the flash may indicate underexposure so you have to move it even closer to the subject. If using the normal microscope lamp then introduce a blue filter into the light so some correction will be made for the yellow incandescent lamp output.
Also depth of field is measured in fractions of a millimetre so you have to arrange subject material carefully. Once I tried this years ago with an early model centre weighted TTL ambient light meter SLR and it was not very successful. When I got my Nikon N8008s I started to get great results, the exposures were perfect every time with either microscope lamp or flash. I guess the more modern light metering will handle the low light levels better.
Upside. Want to photograph a bee's knee?
Downside. Can be costly and cumbersome, very shallow depth of field. Adapter parts may have to be searched for or made specially. Things need to be very dead, ever tried chasing a live ant using a microscope?
it up to date.
though this set of notes was written with film cameras in mind, the same applies
to digital SLRs which have the added advantage that instant results are
available to know whether the lighting setup and focus and depth of field are
correct. You can take literally hundreds of digital shots trying to get it right
and it doesn’t cost anything apart from your time and patience.
digital cameras often have a macro mode that indeed lets you get close to the
subject and get a good image but they usually end up with the lens very close to
the subject and that can annoy insects and alter their behaviour, plus make
lighting difficult. The better solution is to use screw in close-up lenses and
the longest focal length if the camera does have a filter adapter available.
compact cameras look for the “macro” mode (usually a tulip symbol) and maybe
also a “super macro” mode (tulip plus a ‘s’ is one way to show it). With
Olympus compact digitals at least, the Macro mode usually allows the full zoom
range of the camera to be used, and the camera just allows a closer than normal
focusing range. To get closer the super macro mode usually limits the camera to
one optimized focal length (in Olympus it seems to be around 60mm focal length
when equivalent coverage of a 35mm camera is considered) and allows extremely
close focusing. This is great for flowers etc but as mentioned before, insects
hate the big glass eye so close to them.
the flash is automatically disabled on compact digital cameras when working at
the “super macro” distances, as the subject is too close for proper
coverage. Make sure you have some other means of lighting in that case. There
are reasonably priced slave flashes available now that will remote trigger off
film or digital cameras so if you can manage to use the normal or macro mode
with an attached filter holder and an auxiliary close-up lens then more
interesting lighting can be achieved.
digital cameras allow the in-body flash to be set at lower output in order to
still trigger the slave flash but not produce too much light from the position
of the camera.
truly spectacular close-up and macro shots can be achieved with a digital camera
and added flash(es) or using cheap desktop halogen lamps adjusted to get the
effect you want. Of course the beauty of digital in this case is that the white
balance can be automatically or manually set to suit the warmer colour
temperature halogen lights.
a digital SLR and a macro lens there is a sort of bonus in the macro department.
The macro lens may provide close enough focus to get 1:1 on film, and be aware
that the digital cameras with a reduced sensor size (like Canon 300D, 10D, Nikon
D100, D70, Pentax *istD etc) do have a multiplication factor for the focal
length due to the reduced coverage compared to 35mm film. Be it film or digital,
it is still 1:1 life size at the film or sensor, it’s just that the reduced
size image sensor of the digital looks like it yields about 1.5x more
magnification when printed to your usual size, ie it appears to be about 1.5:1
macro, you have to focus the lens a bit differently to get exactly the same
image coverage as film.
matter what camera and what lens arrangement you have, the distance of the lens
front to a nervous insect needs to
be maybe 100mm or greater. This is where the screw-in close-up lens works well
with lenses of 200mm to 300mm focal length or the digital lens with that 35mm
focal length equivalent – you end up with an enormous working distance between
the front of the lens and the subject. Nikon, Canon and Hoya make a selection of
the good double element close-up lenses in various filter threads and dioptre
strengths, but they are harder to find than plain lenses. This is definitely the
easiest way to start with close-up and macro, whether it is film or digital.