After receiving several questions about my macro set-up and technique, I decided to write a short hand-out for those who want to learn more. It won’t be a laborious and exhaustive ‘how to’, but more a handful of tips and tricks and some insight in how I do my macro work. I feel there is still much to improve in my macro work, and I do my macros more or less as a ”one trick pony”. Don’t ask too much about optics and that kind of stuff, because I won’t be able to answer your in depth questions… Just see this article as an exhibitionist attempt to show you – as nameless voyeurs – the way I shoot small worlds. This first post will be on gear, the second one will be on technique. That makes this first one less interesting, but still I hope you enjoy!
My gear – body and lenses.
Probably I have to say something about the gear I use. Not because I think you can’t shoot good macro photos with other gear. Not at all! But I can show you some other things when I tell you what I use for macro photography. I am using a Pentax K20D body, and I think this is a good choice for macro photography, but there are many more good choices. There are good reasons however why to choose a Pentax. A first one is the wheather resistance of the later Pentax bodies (K10, K20, and K7). However, no-one likes to shoot macro in the rain, so this is not the best reason to buy a Pentax body for this kind of photography. There is another reason though, and that is the unique shake reduction of Pentax, not in the lenses, but in the body. This has two big advantages: first, you only have to buy it once , and second, you can use old lenses with shake reduction. Surf the big anonymus web, and you will find that this will deliver you 2 or probably 3 extra stops, and these can hardly be missed in macro photography, because the shallow depth of view and the high F-stops that are needed most of the time.
More important than the body is the glass you use! When I started with macro photography, I bought me a Super-Multi-Coated Macro Takumar 50mm F4, an old M42 lens with a magnification of 1:2 (yes, the older ones are 1:1, but not mine). About 60mm of extension tubes brought the magnification to 1:1, or even slightly better, but the drop of light availability with this combination (~f/8!) is not very convenient, and this resulted in many OOF photos. For insect photography I bought a SMC Pentax-A 100mm F4, because of the larger working distance. This is convenient for insect macro photography, because the distance between the lens barrel and the subject is often too small when using a 50mm macro lens (but not always!) In the end I like this lens, but still there the results were mediocre, and I think this is due to the magnification ratio of this lens – still only 1:2 – and the maximum aperture, which is still f/4. When a friend of mine bought a 55mm F2.8 macro lens, I was sold instantly, and as a result I bought a Vivitar 55mm F2.8 1:1 auto macro, and this is where my macro photography grew exponentially! Not much later I added a Panagor 90mm F2.8 to my collection, with the same results.The lesson from this: if you want to make stunning macro photos, you should buy a lens that goes 1:1, and that allows you to focus accurately. This last thing means you should have enough available light when focussing, so buy a f/2.8 lens!
My lenses are all old manual lenses. I never use the focus ring on my lenses, and I think auto-focus is redundant in macro-photography. I always focus by moving the camera forward and backward, and this is how almost all (all?) macro photogs do it. Don’t invest in AF - infest in optical quality, in magnification ratio, and in light-availability. If you find a good AF macro lens in terms of optics, magnification and f-stop, buy it! But don’t buy it because of AF. It’s useless for macro photography. (Okay, of course you can use the lens for other things than macro, and probably, who knows, AF has it’s purpose for those things….)
More magnification can be obtained by using extension tubes, and these have a greater effect when used on shorter lenses. Without maths 50mm of extension tubes will bring a 50mm 1:1 macro lens to about 2:1, and a 100mm 1:1 macro lens to 1.5:1. About! I have several sets of tubes: for my M42 lenses, for my K-mount lenses and even one of 25mm for my few AF lenses. They are cheap, and they can turn a usual ‘not macro’ lens into a great lens for macro work. For all kinds of very small insects, I use them in combination with my macro lenses, just to get magnificent magnifications. Disclaimer: working distance is getting less and less when using tubes, so scary insects and all kinds of poisonousness or otherwise dangerous creatures are not to be approached with these mounted!
One of the main problems in macro photography is the light: where to get it? This has to do with the shallow depth of view, as said before, and the relatively high f-stops needed. It means that, unless you shoot at bright sunny days, you have to make your own! I think macro photos shot in natural light are often better than those made with artificial light sources. This is especially so for the background lighting, which is much easier when using natural light. My tip would be: shoot with natural light when possible, but don’t hesitate to use flash light when necessary. Probably you should start with shooting macros with flash though…
Flashes...they are quite expensive, and this is more so when looking for dedicated macro flashes. Most macro photographers use ring flashes, because of the even lighting. However, I don’t like it (and please, feel free to disagree!). It’s too flat for my liking, and with reflecting surfaces – like those cute jumping spider eyes! – you get ugly ring reflections. So I use my often maligned pup-up flash, with a DIY home made diffuser! I’ve written an entry on my blog on how to built it before, you can find it here. This is the second step in which my macro photos got better. Please, built yourself such a diffuser, and you will surprise yourself! BTW: the idea for this diffuser was stolen from a talented Polish guy, which is known on the internet as grzehoofr. Try to google him, and you will be astound by his great macro photos!
Vivitar 55/2.8 + home made diffuser
I never ever use a tripod for my insect macro work thus far. Flexibility has gone when using a tripod, and fiddling around with such a large thing disturbs most shy insects, at least when I do it (probably you are the quiet guy or gall who can handle it, but definitely I can’t!) For mosses and other stills I always use a tripod though!
Have fun shooting!