A GUIDE TO MACRO
Macro photography is one of the most interesting and beautiful genres. It takes you into an almost abstract world often invisible to the casual observer. We walk past pretty flowers or shoo away a bug without giving it a moment's notice. It's not until we get up close and personal that we can begin to marvel at and appreciate the intricacies and wonder of nature and the world around us on a whole new scale.
So what do you need to start doing macro photography? Ideally you want a dedicated macro lens. This is one that will produce 1:1 ratio life size images or better. A lot of lenses out there have a "macro" feature but, aren't in themselves true macro lenses. If anything they are just close focus but, come nowhere near to being macroscopic.
There are a multitude of macro lenses out there. Some will cost you less than £100, some will run you more than £1100! You can even convert every day lenses into a macro lens so the good news is that macro photography doesn't have to be hugely expensive.
First lets look at the dedicated ones. As I'm a Nikon shooter I will focus on those available for Nikon bodies, although many are available for Canon, Sony and Pentax too. Starting at the shortest focal length we have the following OEM glass. Some are old but still quite readily available:
Micro-Nikkor 40mm f/2.8G (DX)
Micro-Nikkor 50mm f/3.5 (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 Ai-s (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AF
Micro-Nikkor 55mm f3.5 Ai (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G
Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D
Micro-Nikkor 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-D
Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5G VR (DX)
Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Ai-s (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G VR
Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4 Ai-s (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 Ai-s (Manual Focus)
Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 AF-D
There are also a multitude of 3rd party lenses too. I won't catalogue them all here but will give you a list of the most commonly available and useful. Just be aware that there are different versions of each model. Older ones will not auto focus with entry level Nikon DSLR that lack a focus motor. Others may not meter, so be sure to research any potential purchase thoroughly before parting with your cash!
Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 (Adaptall 2 Mount - 1:2 ratio. 1:1 with optional extension tube)
Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 DI and DI II
Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 VC USD
Tokina 100mm f/2.8
Sigma 105mm f/2.8
Sigma 150mm f/2.8
Tamron 180mm f/3.5
Sigma 180mm f/3.5 OS
All are fantastic optically and vary in price from about £100 for the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 up to £1200 for the Sigma 180mm with optical stabilization. With so many lenses to choose from it's easy to get confused as to what to buy. To make it even more confusing you can convert regular lenses into macro lenses with extension tubes and reverse adapters!
Okay, first the extension tubes. Basically extension tubes move the lens further away from the sensor, which creates a magnifying effect. We can turn something like the very cheap but sharp Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D into a decent macro lens with a set of AF extension tubes. Although AF isn't necessary, indeed for best results you should aim to use manual focus to hit the precise area you want in focus, for maintaining automatic aperture control and meter, it's handy to have the AF tubes with the electrical contacts.
For even greater magnification, we can use an old manual focus 28mm lens with a reverse adapter ring screwed into the filter thread. This creates a very powerful macro lens albeit with a short working distance. You can increase the effect by again connecting extension tubes between the lens and the camera body. This is best utilized when your subject matter is very small or you need extreme magnification.
As the lens is back to front and the lens is manual focus anyway and void of any electrical contacts, you don't require AF tubes which cost around the £60 mark. Instead just regular extension tubes will suffice which can be had for about £10.
If you're really cash strapped, you have the option of buying magnifying lenses that screw into the filter thread of your lens. These can be a pretty effective and very cheap option available on Amazon or eBay for just a few pounds. Optically they aren't bad and overall image quality will depend on the lens you are using them with. Obviously things are never going to be as sharp as with a dedicated macro prime lens which are designed to have exceptional resolving power.
Whatever lens you choose will depend upon your budget and also what you're shooting. If you only want to do inanimate objects then working distances aren't really that important, so you could go for 40mm f/2.8G or a reversed 28mm lens. If however you're wanting to shoot skittish insects that fly away when startled, then ideally you want something with a greater minimum working distance. I'd suggest the 85mm f/3.5 VR or SP90 as the shortest lenses to get for this. If you can afford more, then go for the 105mm or even 150mm Sigma.
Although incredibly fascinating, macro photography can also be one of the most difficult and frustrating types of photography to do well. Patience is a prerequisite, particularly if photographing insects, which are unpredictable at best. On the technical side, difficulties arise from working with such shallow depths of field from the close working distances and high magnification. As you'll discover, things fall out of focus very quickly, affording sometimes millimeters or less to play with. To address this, macro photographers employ a couple of different techniques. The first is simple - just stop the lens down. Smaller apertures equal deeper depths of field. Unfortunately it also means loss of definition through diffraction, once we pass the optimum sharpness of a lens.
The second technique is to use focus stacking and it's exactly what it sounds like. We take a series of photos starting with the closest point to the camera. The camera is then incrementally moved forward, thereby shifting the focus point further back by the same amount. This can be repeated dozens, even hundreds of times. To keep everything as accurate as possible, focus bellows or sliders are employed so the lens can only move in a linear motion. The images are then combined in post processing by stacking software like Zyrene Focus Stacker. The result is an incredibly sharp and detailed image from back to front. This is a more advanced technique so I'd recommend just getting to grips with single shots for now, before moving on to stacking images.
Due to working with such small apertures to create larger depths of field, macro photography can also present another problem in the form of blur. Closing the aperture down to f/32 and beyond cuts out a lot of light and so we either need to raise our ISO to help combat this or use a slow shutter speed. The problem with these are two fold. Firstly, by upping our ISO we begin to reduce image quality. Modern DSLRs are capable of handling higher ISOs quite well but it does come at the cost of a loss of sharpness and digital noise. The second problem is that using a slow shutter speed to allow enough light in for a correct exposure will result in blurred images if the camera or the subject move while the shutter is open. So what is the solution? In a word - FLASH!
Yes, our trusty old friend the speedlite can save the day once again. By simply killing all ambient light with a combination of shutter, aperture and low ISO so that a resulting non-flash image is completely black. Then use the flash to correctly expose the image.
The benefit of doing this is that the flash essentially becomes the shutter speed and as it fires so quickly, we can get some awesome action stopping ability resulting crisp images.
We can use the speedlite by hand holding it (best with TTL and not manual flashes due to exposure/inverse square law issues), mounting it on a camera bracket or placing upon a light stand.
Another and probably better option is to make use of a specialized macro flash like the Sigma EM 140-DG.
A good quality, sturdy tripod and head also comes in very hand when doing high precision macro work. There are many brands of tripod out there, like Gitzo, Manfrotto and 3 Legged Thing. One of the best tripod heads out there for macro work is the Manfrotto 405 gear head, which enables you to adjust the 3 axis very accurately. Its not the cheapest at £300 but, quality equipment never is. A sturdy tripod like the Manfrotto 055 XProB will run you another £130 new. Of course you can always grab a bargain on eBay.
Okay so you're probably thinking "Wait a minute! This is all looking extremely expensive!!" And you'd be right. Macro photography can be very expensive, just as any other genre of photography can be. It all depends how far you want to go in it and what you are shooting. However, before you're put off because of prohibitive equipment prices, you can get into macro photography for £100. This would include the aforementioned 28mm lens, reverse adapter, extension tubes, camera bracket, flashgun and softbox diffuser.
Now that sounds really low tech and basic and you'd be right, it's a pretty budget setup. Will it bring you less than impressive results? That's entirely down to you and your abilities. Remember photography is not about the gear, it's about you and how you use these tools. If you still don't believe me, I'd suggest you watch the following short video by a fabulous macro photographer called Thomas Shahan. This is exactly the same setup he uses. Prepare for your jaw to hit the floor!
I hope this guide has proved useful and given you some idea of what equipment is available out there and how even cheap gear can deliver incredible results. Once you understand the technical challenges you face and how you can over come them, it's then just down to you to find some interesting subjects to photograph. Persistence is the key and the more you do it, the more you'll refine your technique and the better your images will become. Good luck and happy shooting!