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Today's e-tip:

Open up a new
world of Photography -
with Macro Photography!

Open up a new world of Photography with Macro Photography!
If you haven't shot macro images before, this eTip will open up a whole new world of photography for you! If you have shot macro, we will be giving you some ideas on how to improve your images.

The world of macro photography allows us to see a new vision - something that we typically can't, or choose not, to see. Macro subjects are very small, and, unless we walk around with a magnifying glass, it's unlikely we have a conception of what this amazing world contains.

Shooting macro images is really easy and can produce some spectacular results.

What is a MACRO image??
Macro images are "close-up" images - but, they are taken VERY close, so that the image appears to be magnified.

A 1:1 (one-to-one) ratio is the minimum for macro images - that means that the image that gets recorded on the camera's sensor is the same physical size as the image you took. If your camera's sensor is 1 inch wide, then the largest macro object you can take is no more than 1 inch across. Since you always view images larger than the sensor size, macro images appear to be larger-than-life on your computer screen.

In order to achieve a 1:1 ratio, lenses need to be able to focus very close. Most lenses can't do this. There are, however, certain lenses DESIGNED to do this. They are often called "Macro" or "Micro" lenses. These lenses usually are designed for close-focusing, and they are often very expensive.

What's the difference between Macro and Close-up images??
Close-up images are less than a 1:1 ratio - in other words, the subject is photographed less than full size on the sensor. Typically, close-up images are taken between about 8 inches and 3 feet from the lens, and macro images are taken between 1 and 6 inches from the lens, but those figures aren't exact.

There are some very good alternatives, however, that allow you to get great macro images without having to spend a fortune.

This eTip will tell you everything you need to know to get great Macro images, however, there is a caveat. This eTip applies to Digital SLR cameras - cameras where you can change the lens. Although compact digital cameras can shoot close-ups, they are not capable of shooting true macro images, even though they may have a "macro" mode.

Difference between a
"Close-up" and Macro Image

Closeup vs Macro

1:1 Reproduction Ratio

Macro Focusing vs Normal Focusing

To give you an idea of the difference between Macro and Normal focusing, I took a picture of a parrot feather using a 50mm lens. I focused as close as I could using that lens and took a picture of the feather (smaller top image below). I then adapted the lens (as described below) to use the same lens to take a macro image (the larger bottom image). The smaller upper image contains lots of background - the macro image (bottom) focused close enough to capture just a small portion of the feather - thus showing detail you would never see in "normal" viewing.

(click for a larger view)
Ring Light

The 3-Basics of Macro Photography
There are 3 basic things you need to be able to get great macro images:
  • The ability to focus very close
  • Lighting (macro photography has unique lighting requirements)
  • Stabilization

Close Focus - Fake Macro
Although some zoom lenses claim to have a "macro" mode, they most often don't. What these lenses do is allow slightly closer focusing, but nothing close to true macro. The only way to get true macro focusing is with one of the methods described below.

Close Focus - A Dedicated Lens
There are several ways to achieve the ability to focus very close. One is to buy a lens designed to do this. Both Nikon and Canon sell lenses that do this. The best lenses for this is the Canon 100mm/f2.8 macro or Nikon 105mm/f2.8 micro lenses. These lenses sell for between $900 and $1000. These lenses have a long enough focal length (~100mm), so you can get a large enough image without having to get EXTREMELY close to your subject.

But, there are several other options that are far-less expensive.

Close Focus - Close-up add-on lenses
For between $35 and $150, you can purchase a set of close-up lenses. These come in different "strengths" and attach to your lens. By stacking one, two or three lenses, you can choose how close to focus.

Extension Tubes

Close-up lenses have a major drawback, however. Because you're adding one or more lenses to your existing lens, there can be a significant degradation of quality.

Close Focus - Extension Tubes
You can purchase a set of "extension tubes" for your camera for under $60. These are just what they sound like - hollow tubes. But, they also have the electical contacts designed for your camera so you maintain automatic exposure and focus. The idea is, that if you move your lens further away from the sensor, you'll be able to focus closer. The hollow tube(s) allow you to do this.

They come as a set of 3 tubes:

Extension Tubes

Each tube "stacks" on each other so that you can "extend" your lens a little or a lot. You can use any of the three tubes alone, or stack two or all three of them. The more you stack, the closer you can focus.

Here's what they look like "stacked". One end attaches to your camera and you mount your lens on the other end.
Extension Tubes

Extension tubes work best with a lens that's about 50mm. So, if you have a 50mm prime (non-zoom) lens, it's ideal for use with extension tubes. If you have a zoom lens, just set it for about 50mm to use it with the extension tubes.

Extension tubes are superb for getting high-quality macro images. Some tips for using extension tubes:
  • Use small lens openings - f11, f16 or f22 (note: although small lens openings often create a "softer" image, they do provide more depth of field)
  • Use a tripod or other stabilization
  • If using a tripod, turn AutoFocus OFF - you'll find that focus is very critical, and is best acheived by either moving the camera or subject.
  • Use a ring-light (see below)

Lighting for macro images has it's own requirements. Because you are focusing very close to the object you're photographing, your built-in or extenal flash won't be able to provide light on your subject, because your lens will block the light and create a shadow over your subject.

There are two ways to sucessfully light a macro subject.

Lighting - Ring Lights
Ring lights are made for macro photography. Until recenetly, ring lights were extremely expensive - some well over $500. But, with LED lighting, ring lights have become very affordable - a really good LED ring-light can be purchased for under $60. A ring light is basically a ring of LED bulbs that mounts to your lens where a filter would mount. Here's what a ring-light looks like:

Ring Light

Ring-lights aren't like a flash/speedlight - first, they are a continuous light, so you can actually see the lighting effect before you shoot. Second, because there are so many LEDs arranged in a circle, shadows are virtually eliminated.

By design, ring-lights attach nicely to the front of your lens. When mounted to the lens, the subject will be very evenly lit. When focusing very close, a ring-light can be the only way to illuminate your subject.

Here are 2 examples of flowers that were shot with a ring light, extension tubes and a 50mm lens. The camera lens/ring-light was about 2 to 3 inches from each flower. You can see how evenly the rose is illuminated.

(click for a larger view)
Ring Light
(click for a larger view)
Ring Light

Lighting - Back/Side-lighting
Some subjects can be back-lit or side-lit. This works especially well with translucent subjects, such as leaves and flower petals. One of the nice things about the LED ring light, is that you can manually aim the light wherever you want. Since it's a "continuous" light, you also have the advantage of actually seeing what you're going to take thru the viewfinder.

Here's an example of a back-lit macro shot. In this case, the ring light was held behind the flower petals.

Ring Light (click for a larger view)
Ring Light

But, you'll find that most macro subjects require front-lighting.

Because you'll be focusing very close to your subject, the Depth of Field (how much of the image will be in focus), will be quite shallow. You may find that the depth of field is only about 1/8 of an inch! That makes focusing critical. If hand-holding your camera, you'll want to use continuous focus mode, and will probably have to take quite a few images in order to get one that has good focus. That's why you need some form of stabilization. A bean bag can be an inexpensive alternative, however you'll get the best results with a tripod. You'll also want to use a cable release.

The mirror and shutter in your DSLR camera vibrate every time you shoot a picture. Under normal picture taking, these vibrations don't impact the image. But, with macro photography, where your shutter speeds can be slow and you're focused very close, they WILL blur your images. So, use the following tips to minimize vibration:

  • Mirror Lockup: If your camera has a mirror-lockup capability, use it. With this feature, you press the shutter twice. Once to raise the mirror, and again to take the picture without the mirror vibration.

  • Exposure Delay Mode: If your camera doesn't have a mirror-lockup feature, it may have a feature that delay's the shutter from opening for a few seconds. Turn this on for your macro images.

  • Cable Release or Remote Control: These devices allow you to take a picture without physically touching your camera. This can also help prevent bluring.

Here's the setup I use:

Camera Setup

Tips for great Macro Images
Here are some tips that will help you get great macro images. Here's a list of suggested equipment:

  • Lens: Ideally you want to use a lens with a focal length between about 35mm and 100mm. Prime (non-zoom) lenses are best, but zoom lenses will work. Using a 35mm lens you will need to get very close to the subject, so a 50mm or longer lens is ideal. A 100mm lens lets you focus further from the subject and works well for super-macro work, where the magnification can be increased significantly with closer focusing.

  • Extension Tubes: Extension tubes allow you to select how close you want to get and don't reduce image quality and they can be reasonably priced.
    (we sell extension tubes for Nikon and Canon cameras (US customers only) on our web site - see the bottom of this eTip)

  • Lighting: We recommend using an LED ring-light, however a more powerful LED light that can be hand-held would work fine, and would allow shorter shutter speeds. If there's enough distance between your subject and the lens, try hand-holding the LED light and moving it around the subject as you view thru the viewfinder. When you get an effect you like, take the picture.
    (we sell LED lighting (US customers only) on our web site - see the bottom of this eTip for suggested lighting.)

  • Stabilization: A solid tripod works best, but a bean bag can also work well. We recommend using mirror-lockup and/or "Exposure Delay" mode and a cable release to minimize movement, as even the slightest movement can cause a blurred image.
  • Focusing: Unless you are hand-holding your camera, shut off the AutoFocus on your camera. Focus is extremely critical with almost no depth of field - I find it best to move the subject closer or further away until it is in focus. You can then manually focus to fine-tune.

  • Exposure Mode/Aperture: You should use Aperture Priority Mode and use an aperture of f11 or f16. This will give you a reasonable amount of depth of field.

  • Post Processing: Although this isn't necessary, almost EVERY digital image can be significantly improved with some post-processing (Adobe Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, etc.).

Here are a few more sample macro images. All of these were taken with an inexpensive 50mm lens, extension tubes and a ring-light. Click on the images below for a larger version.

Rose sprayed with water (front-lit)
ISO 100, f11, 1/15 sec - 50mm lens, extension tubes and ring-light
Ring Light
Backlit Flower Petals
ISO 100, f11, 1/2 sec - 50mm lens, extension tubes and ring-light back-lit
Ring Light
Backlit Flower Petals
ISO 200, f9, 1/80 sec - 105mm macro lens, with ring-light
Parrot Feather
ISO 800, f9, 1/40 sec - 105mm Macro lens and hand-held LED light Ring Light
Tree Fungus
ISO 100, f11, 1/15 sec - 50mm lens, extension tubes and front-lit ring-light
Ring Light
The pistil of a lilly
ISO 100, f11, 1/20 sec - 50mm lens, extension tubes & ring-light
Ring Light
The pistil of a lilly
ISO 100, f11, 1/50 sec - 50mm lens, extension tubes & ring-light
Ring Light
Super Macro of the pistil of a lilly
ISO 100, f13, 1/8 sec - 105mm lens with extension tubes and hand-held LED light
Ring Light
Super Macro of the pistil of a pink daisy
ISO 100, f32, 1 sec - 105mm lens with extension tubes and lens-mounted ring-light
Ring Light

In Summary....
Shooting macro images can open up a whole new world of photography for you. You can never run out of macro subjects! And with the right tools, macro photography can be very rewarding and doesn't have to be outrageously expensive.

You can take great macro flower pictures in the winter - all of the flower images above were taken in my kitchen. I just purchased a bunch of flower for about $5.00 at my local grocery store, which provided me with infinite opportunity for macro shots!

What you will need to get started:
  • A DSLR camera;
  • A lens with a focal length in the range of about 25 to 50mm;
  • A set of extension tubes made for your camera;
  • A ring light; and
  • Some way to stabilize your camera (tripod, beanbag, etc.).

Happy shooting!!

Related products to help you take better pictures:

The Green Pod
THE GREEN POD is a product I've used for several years now that can be used as an alternative to a tripod to get really sharp pictures.  I find it to be one of the BEST inexpensive ...

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