Macrophotography is a photographic world within a world, and one that holds an almost infinite variety of subject matter and themes. It is a place where a few square centimetres of moss become a jungle, or the beauty of an insect’s compound eye can be discovered. With so many subjects available, it is not hard to see why some photographers are drawn in… me included. Years ago, I assembled a full macro system to support my leaning and development needs and found most of my photographic effort was being spent capturing things that usually go unnoticed. As my own techniques developed, I soon learned that there was much more to macrophotography than simply magnifying a subject. Within a year I had gained a host of peripheral gear that assisted in my efforts, some of which was critical to success. Based on my own experience, I have put together a list of equipment that you may wish to consider if thinking of branching into the world of macro.
- Close Up Filter
It is easy to be blinded by the power of a dedicated macro lens, as it is often considered a pre-requisite for getting up close and personal. But if you are merely wishing to ‘dip a toe’ into the macro universe to see if you are going to like it, it can be a very costly method of entry. Hence a close-up filter makes an inexpensive alternative. Similar to other types of filter, they attach to the end of a lens to magnify the image. It is important to select a high quality multi-coated one that, where possible, is composed of more than one element. Close up filters tend to come in various strengths, indicated in dioptres, so consider purchasing a couple of different strengths which can be combined to produce a more magnified result. Unlike extension tubes or teleconverters, this type of filter does not affect exposure. I once owned a macro lens that allowed for a dedicated close up filter to be attached to it (taking the magnification from 1x to 2x life size). As the items were matched, the optical quality was stunning. As with most things photographic, buy the best you can afford.
- Lens Reversal Ring
This is another inexpensive method of obtaining close up results easily. A reversal ring allows a lens to be attached to the camera body via its front filter ring, thus exploiting the close-up properties of a lenses optical configuration when looked through it from its front element. A 50mm lens when reversed, can provide magnifications close to true macro (i.e. 1:1 or life size). Of course, the downside of using this method is that all electrical connection between camera and lens is lost therefore the lens will need the ability to manually focus to be of any use. Another point that should be considered is that a reversed lens is open to the possibility of water and/or dust ingress, so think carefully if you intend to use the method outdoors. Good results can be achieved, even if the rig does look a bit odd.
- Macro Lens
Anyone serious about macrophotography will be prepared to spend money on a dedicated macro lens. By far the best solution, things can get expensive, so it is very important to fully understand your requirements. A true macro lens provides or exceeds life size (1:1) magnification and should not be confused with a lens that offers close focus abilities. Having owned high power lenses that exceed 9 x life size, I soon realised that this magnification propelled me into a realm I seldom needed. Most of my work was executed with magnifications of up to 2:1. For this purpose, my macro lens was truly dedicated… in other words it could not focus beyond a few inches therefore could serve no other function than for what it was designed. More recently, I have been happy using a short telephoto macro that also provides 1:1 magnification – a far more versatile solution.
Consideration should also be given to subject matter. Insects frighten easily so you are going to need to give yourself as much distance as possible from the subject, therefore a telephoto macro is most suitable. Macro lenses with shorter focal lengths i.e. 50 or 35mm are excellent for static subjects as the lens to subject distance is a lot shorter, which can help when using modelling lights. Typically, shorter focal lengths are not quite as expensive as their telephoto counterparts.
Don’t get too hung up on fast apertures; while a fast lens allows easier manual focussing due to more light entering the lens, aids such as focus peaking help to mitigate this. A life size image taken at f2 on a telephoto macro will have such shallow depth of field, and can create beautiful artistic effects, but often requires stopping down to f4 or f5.6 to provide sufficiently deep results. A 20mm f2 macro lens I once owned lacked adequate depth of field wide open (at 9 x life size) to be able to fully focus on a bee’s claw, so we are talking of less than a millimetre here!
For more information about Macro Lenses, check out our Buyers Guide's.
- Extension Tubes
An extension tube is nothing more than an empty tube that is placed between the lens and camera body to increase magnification by moving the rear lens element further away from the sensor or film plane. The further the distance between the two, the greater the magnification is. For this reason, extension tubes come in a variety of sizes, for example 7, 14 and 25mm, and can be used individually or together, depending on the desired magnification. They provide an inexpensive way to get close up as existing lenses can be attached to them without the need to buy a macro lens. Results can be very good if the aperture is stopped down a little and some of the results can be surreal, especially where a wide-angle lens is used. I used to use a 21mm f2 lens stopped down to f16, in conjunction with a 7mm tube. This allowed me to get close-up pictures of orchids with their environment perfectly in focus, including distant hills… almost an insect’s eye view of the world.
Some macro lenses are designed to be used only with a form of extension and these will give the most favourable results. Back in my film days, I used three of these (Olympus Zuiko 20mm f2, 38mm f2.8 and 80mm f4) and the results were among some of the best I have taken. Used with a telescopic extension tube (also made by Olympus), I could achieve magnification from 0.5 to 9.5 x life size.
Bellows are a less portable form of extension, allowing more incremental and higher degrees of magnification. They are cumbersome to use in the field and better suited to studio environments. Most sever electrical connections between camera and lens, so focussing and stopping down becomes a manual affair (some extension tubes also do this so check before you buy).
- Focus Rail
A particularly useful device when working at higher magnification is a focussing rail. It sits between camera body and tripod to allow very fine focussing of subject matter by changing the distance between camera and subject. Because of the static nature of a focussing rail, it is not really useful for capturing images of busy insects out in the field, but is perfectly suited for indoor use with plants, gemstones etc. (Basically, anything that is not running off or flying around). I have found them to be particularly useful for 1:1 and beyond magnifications.
Beware of inexpensive brands, or at least try them out before buying. Experience of these has been one of slight backlash when adjusting the travel, which means that it is more difficult to obtain accurate focus than not using one. Novoflex produce excellent focus rails but they are costly. Some offer lateral movement as will as forward and backwards which is a brilliant composure aid, especially at high magnifications. Used in conjunction with a good ball head, they make focussing and framing a pleasure.
There are many lighting methods available on todays market, from small standalone LED modelling lights to dedicated ring flashes. As with most photographic genres, good lighting is key to success and this is even more important with macrophotography. Inadequate lighting results in flat, confused and murky images where interesting points become lost in the general noise of the image.
Whether to choose a camera mounted flash system or standalone lighting is ultimately driven by the type of macro photography you will be doing. If you already have a flashgun, the most cost-effective method is to use this either on the camera, or if possible, off camera via a remote trigger or cable. Using off camera techniques allows far more control as it is easer to angle the lighting and incorporate reflectors into the process.
Ring flashes are excellent and allow greater versatility, particularly those that have two or three smaller flash heads attached to the mounting ring. Some of the more advanced models can also trigger slaves that help to fill in oblique shadows. I once owned a ring flash that supported this, which provided me with the most flexible macro lighting rig I have ever used.
Standalone lighting units have come a long way in recent years, and there are some excellent choices available today. For true portability, check out Lumecube (www.lumecube.com) who provide very powerful lighting in a tiny package – superb if you are requiring additional light out in the field as they take up so little space in a bag. Adaptalux also have a great modular LED driven system, allowing additional units to be added that emit different colours (www.adaptalux.com).
For those who wish to get into small product photography, a portable studio is worth considering. There are some great complete systems available which include lights, stands, backgrounds etc. – basically everything you need to get up and running. We have used a Novoflex Magic Studio for many years which helps deliver professional product photography results (www.novoflex.de).
Do not forget that natural lighting is also a great inexpensive friend for static subjects, assuming it is no too harsh. Experimenting with reflectors and diffusers can be very rewarding after a little trial and error.
If you are not stalking live prey out in the field, you are going to need a tripod to provide the required stability to keep subject matter in focus. Camera or lens stabilisation will help here, but it is no substitute for a sturdy tripod. The chances are you may already be using one for other subjects such as landscape work, so there may be no additional outlay. But if you do find yourself wanting, like most things, buy the best you can afford and pay particular attention to the head. A well-made ball head is more useful than pan and tilt as it offers the most flexibility which helps with composure. Also, I recommend that you look at models that provide low angle shooting as this is invaluable when wishing to get up close and personal to things like fungi and other low-lying subjects.
Remember to disable the lens or camera stabilisation when using a tripod as this will be ‘expecting’ a certain amount of movement and be trying to correct it, resulting in unsharp images.
- Angle Finder
Before the days of tilting LCD screens, this was a very important macro accessory, especially when working at high magnifications. An angle finder is a device that slips over the camera viewfinder to allow the photographer to focus, compose and shoot from above, similar to viewing an image through a film TLR camera. Some have features such as magnification selection which is superb for extra critical focus at high magnification. I used one with this ability when photographing subjects at 3 – 9 x life size and found it invaluable. Another useful feature found on some is the ability of the main barrel to rotate 360 degrees which will allow you to compose in situations when peering into the finder from above is not practical.
The latest generation of cameras have high resolution tilting rear screens that, coupled with focus aids such as being able to enlarge parts of the screen and focus peaking, make the use of an angle finder less attractive. However, an older style camera, particularly a film body, will likely be from a generation where angle finders were more of a requisite for high magnification work. And they are great fun to play about with!
- Cable Release
Another accessory that used to be invaluable for macro photography but gets less use today is a cable release. Years ago, nearly all cameras had a threaded shutter release button allowing one to be attached to help combat camera vibration at higher magnifications and longer shutter speeds. As cameras have evolved, many have done away with the threaded shutter release concept, so you need to check that the camera supports one. If not, there are a few cable release brackets on the market that allow their use, but this will invariably push up the cost.
Different types of release mechanism exist that consist of a standard ‘plunger’ (sometimes with a locking pin for long exposures, i.e. for when setting the shutter to ‘B(ulb)’, or an air release version that is activated by gently squeezing a rubberised bulb. I have used both and prefer the plunger style, although it is worth mentioning that some of the budget ones are a bit counterproductive in action and actually introduce vibration as the plunger needs to be pressed hard in order to release the shutter. If you find yourself buying one, see if you can try the action out first – it doesn’t need to be screwed onto the camera, but the action should be very smooth.
Of course, many newer cameras support remote shutter release, effectively making the cable release redundant. Or if you can work with the delay periods defined by the camera’s self-timer mechanism, it is possible to deploy this.