One of the greatest joys of photography lies in the way it can be used for different purposes by different people. While some use it as an artistic medium, by producing abstract images while others use photography to create detailed and accurate representations of real life. I am always amazed at the superbly shot wildlife photos or close up photos that appear in National Geographic or Nature magazine. These photographs never fail to fascinated me and leave me wondering how much effort and skill is needed for that one elusive shot. Recently, I happened to meet a good friend of mine who gave me the low-down about such photographs. These shots are taken by a technique known as macro photography.
What is Macro Photography?
The word macro means ‘large’, or ‘of great size’. In photographic terms, it can be called a type of close-up photography that normally tries to produce images on a 1:1 ratio. In other words it tries to create images that are of the same size as the objects or subjects they represent. These techniques are popularly used in nature photography, wherein it is often required to produce images that exhibit the true detail of a plant or animal that is being photographed. Nowadays ‘point-and-shoot’ digital cameras come equipped with in-built macro functions making it easier to photograph close-ups. However, a single lens reflex (or SLR) camera is generally considered superior for such type of photography. This photography is especially useful in forensic science, where small details at accident or crime scenes may often be substantial. Fingerprints, skid marks, or trace evidence which are vital to any crime case are easily recorded using macro photography.
Macro Photography Equipment
The following equipment is generally considered essential for macro photography techniques.
As said earlier, many point and shoot digital cameras nowadays have remarkable macro capabilities making them an obvious choice for beginners. But for best results you should opt for a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) or if your budget permits a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). The latter allow you to attach special-purpose macro lenses and show you in a bright optical viewfinder that are very useful for close-up photography.
These lenses are also, confusingly, sometimes called ‘micro’ lenses by manufacturers. These are one of the most vital macro photography equipment. Macro lenses are generally fixed focal length lenses that are particularly designed to produce sharp images at a magnification of 1:1 or higher. Latest available macro lenses can even produce magnification ratios far higher than this. Generally most macro lenses are fixed, you will be required to choose the focal length that best suits your purposes. for example, a focal length in the region of 50-60 mm would be sufficient for fairly small objects, whereas 100 mm focal length would suffice for things such as insects and details of flowers.
Flash and Diffuser
Lighting is very important in any type of photography, a hand-held flash comes in handy for lighting your subjects and is powerful when used just a few inches from your subject. While sometimes a flash might give you a sharp and noticeable shadow, giving your picture a harsh, stark effect. For softer light, try to diffuse the light from the flash, by using transparent white cloth or paper for example, colored gels. If you are keen on capturing close-ups of small things then you may experiment with different lighting techniques and get amazing results.
Tripod and Other Equipment
A tripod or monopod will decrease the risk of camera shake. The movement by the subject is also an important element, as this type of photography enlarges the subject, thereby leaving a possibility for blurred photos. Tripods or monopods could prove to be useful, especially while taking photos of flowers. Though flowers, unlike animals, are usually very patient and if there is no wind they stay still. People use different techniques and ideas like, using paper clips to keep a grass leaf still while taking a photo of some insect on it. Or the use of dead flies to feed spiders or other “deadly” insects which might make a great shot. A bottle of honey to feed butterflies or some other hungry beasts out there. Be creative and think about what you may need before you go on a hunt.
Macro Photography Ideas and Tips
Here are some DSLR macro photography tips that can spell the difference between ordinary and excellent close-up photographs. Also some lighting tips are provided.
One of the basic necessity of any photography, let alone macro or close-up photography, is focus. While shooting at 1:1 or higher magnifications the distance in front and behind the subject of focus is extremely narrow. So, one needs to double-check if the subject is in exact focus or not. Check the image in your LCD screen, if you’re using a digital camera. Zoom into it as far as your camera can zoom, this will let you to confirm that your subject is in exact focus.
Eliminate Background and Foreground Clutter
A thumb rule in photography is that the viewer’s eye, naturally, gravitates towards the brightest spot in a photo. So, while shooting in mixed light, bear in mind about what’s in the background, change your point of view or move closer and fill the frame with your subject in order to negate the background. Another idea is to hold a sheet of plain white paper or any branch or leaf foliage behind your subject. One smart tip to control background clutter is by shooting at wider apertures. This reduces background focus, using a ring light is a nice way to eliminate the background since a ring light throws most backgrounds into darkness. While shooting through dense foliage trim away blocking branches or leaves if they are hindering you view of the subject or try to find another angle. The essence is to keep on trying till you get the perfect frame for the perfect shot.
Get the Correct Exposure
The correct exposure can make or break a near to perfect setup. One has to be especially careful about exposure, greater the distance between the film or sensor and the subject, the longer the exposure or wider the aperture. If your camera has exposure metering through the lens, then your task is much easier, somewhat. A tip for correct exposure will be to check your histogram repeatedly.
One of the toughest task in photography is sufficiently and evenly lighting the subject. In extreme close-up photography it is impossible to place a light between the camera and a subject that close. Nowadays some cameras can focus on subjects so close, that they almost touch the front of the lens. Using off camera flash is the next lighting tip, as the subject will be so close that the light on your camera will fall beyond the subject, hence this flash needs to be off camera. Besides, extreme close-up work means that there is almost no natural light falling on the subject. Using a ring flash or a two-flash, lens-mounted setup can help to achieve greater depth of field and sharper focus. Sometimes overhead sun causes harsh shadows, diffuse it with a translucent white umbrella. Right lighting will enable you to exhibit greater details in your subject thereby enhancing your shot quality.
Get Real Close
Close-up shots require you to get down to the subject’s level which might mean getting dirty, but it’s worth the effort. Not only does it produce a more dramatic point of view but also adds to the area of focus. Getting your lens parallel to the subject enables more of the subject to be part of the frame reducing background and foreground clutter. Moreover, while being parallel, the subject is more in focus than if the lens were angled with you looking down. One of the best option is to use the right tripod, the one whose legs can spread out almost flat enabling you to get right down low. Another tip is to get the heaviest tripod, though it might not be fun to carry around but you’ll be rewarded with better quality photographs.
Shutter Speed and Self-timer
If you cannot shoot faster than the length of your lens then use a tripod. A general rule of thumb for hand-held macro shots, is that if your lens is 100 mm focal length, then the shutter speed should be 1/100th of a second, or faster, to achieve a sharp image or photograph. If you are shooting in a spot which has shade or indirect sunlight, use a tripod to achieve great results. An important tip is regarding the use of the camera’s self-timer. This feature is vital in limiting vibration and camera shake while pressing the shutter button. A self-timer is basically a delayed shutter release that allows jerks and vibrations to subside before the actual photo is taken. Refer to the manufacturer’s manual to see how it works on your particular brand of camera.
One of the most vital yet oft-ignored asset is learning to be patient. In my experience, there is no point in chasing an insect, like a mad photographer, that won’t sit still. It simply doesn’t work! You’ll be surprised to know that many insects are just as curious of you, as you are about them. Try to make good use of morning sunlight to capture details or bring out certain aspects of the subject that may not be seen otherwise. While many photographers don’t like shooting into the sun, when it comes to macro or close-up photography, I find it can often help highlight a feature or characteristic of the subject. For instance, early morning light can be used brilliantly to capture dew drops or an insect’s tiny hair. You do need to be careful not to capture lens flare though. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does. Trying numerous angles and distances to help you find the best position and capture the best shot.
These were some of the close-up photography tips and techniques which I found extremely helpful in improving my photography skills. Enough of the theory, it’s time to have fun. Get out and keep shooting, don’t be afraid to experiment, Shoot closer, still closer and then some more. The closer you shoot, the more you will be rewarded for your patience and toil. Get clicking and enjoy exploring and photographing the tiny world that awaits you.