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Ready for a close-up: macro photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Ready for a close-up: macro photography Eduardo Ramos
17 Feb
2020
Whatever your subject, looking through a macro lens provides an entirely different way of seeing the world, says Keith Wilson

As we enter the final weeks of another winter, the lengthening days are becoming more perceptible and with it the anticipation of spring fills our minds with images of new growth when white snowdrops give ground to the first green shoots of early spring flowers.

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Of course, February and March remain among the coldest and wettest months of the year, but even now in a seemingly colourless landscape of grey skies and bare trees with only a chance layer of snow to provide relief, it is still worth venturing out with a camera. An ideal time is a dry, frosty morning for a woodland or riverside walk when the sun is still low in a clear sky, providing enough light to pick out the details along surrounding trails close to your feet. For it is here that subjects can be found, simply by pausing to look around and explore your local environment.

It is because of the lack of spring colour that you start noticing simpler and more elemental forms as possible subjects, such as a brown leaf coated in spiky hoarfrost, the coarse grain of wet tree bark, pine needles and fallen cones, reflections in puddles. For subjects such as these, and especially later when the colours of spring transform our surroundings, photographers can operate closer to home, or spend the whole day in one location, focusing on the subjects that demand closer scrutiny.

Macro is the name given to this type of photography, which involves focusing closer to get a magnified view of small subjects and details. However, what many people don’t realise is that to focus close-up to small subjects, a specialist fixed-focal length macro lens is essential.

AN ORIGINAL PERSPECTIVE

A true macro lens is designed to focus within a few centimetres of your subject for a life-size reproduction on the camera’s image sensor. This image magnification capability is measured as a ratio of 1:1. However, there are other lenses, notably telephoto zooms, that claim to have a macro facility, but the reality is that many so-called ‘macro zooms’ offer a ratio of around 1:3 or 1:4, so just a quarter life-size.

Macro lenses are mostly used for natural history subjects such as flowers and fungi as well as insects, but even man-made objects can take on a different perspective when focusing on small sections of a surface that is then enlarged beyond the actual size.

Because of its close-focusing, life-size reproduction capability, a macro lens gives the photographer greater technical potential to produce images vastly different to the usual perspective offered by other lenses, thereby resulting in images that can surprise and add greatly to your creative repertoire.

web jill heyer Ladybird

However, the technical downside of this ability to focus very closely is a lack of depth of field. Macro lenses operate with a very shallow focus plane, so critical adjustments to focusing are a huge test of any camera’s autofocus sensitivity. Even with the lens stopped down to the smallest aperture, depth of field is extremely narrow. For this reason, most macro photographers prefer to switch off the autofocus and make precise adjustments manually, with the camera and lens secured on a tripod.

Image magnification also means any slight movement of the lens or alteration to the focus plane is also magnified, so it is advisable to use a separate remote release or the camera’s self-timer to trip the shutter to ensure sharpest possible focus.

IMAGE MAGNIFICATION

Using a macro lens with its close minimum focusing distance is a polar opposite to photographing natural history subjects from a hide with a long telephoto lens. The optical characteristics of a macro lens necessitate photographers making close observations of their immediate surroundings. As a result, rather than travelling to some far-flung exotic location, macro photography means exploring the wealth of subjects found in your own back garden or local park.

Possible subjects become even more abundant in spring and summer months, even in an urban environment, when carefully arranged gardens in cities and towns add welcome natural colour to offset the otherwise dull background of modern office towers and apartment blocks. By adopting a low viewpoint and moving up close to your subject, any natural colours, subtle tonal variations and slight shapes take on greater prominence within the frame, thereby influencing the way you balance the composition.

Backgrounds become less of a concern too because the narrow plane of focus depicts everything beyond as a soft, blurry expanse without any shred of definition. Macro lenses are particularly good for isolating a single plant or object – or just a part of it – within the frame. For example, the image magnification capability of these lenses means it is relatively easy to focus so close to a flower stamen or petals that, with the addition of extension tubes, it is then possible to attain an image several times larger than life-size.

IDEAL LIGHTING

As with all outdoor photography, the quality and direction of natural light plays a key factor in macro work. A clear day with the sun high in the sky might seem an ideal time for photographing the natural colour of plants and insects, but the resulting contrast levels mean shadow areas may be too dark and highlights too bright. The tell-tale proof lies in areas of ‘burn-out’ – the complete loss of detail in image highlights.

A reflector is a handy accessory to fill-in dark shadows, by reflecting light to the area of darkness, but burn-out is much harder to correct. Therefore, the best lighting condition for macro photography is an overcast day where the clouds diffuse the sun to create an even, shadowless light with low contrast.

eucalyptus bark

With your camera set up on a tripod and with little or no breeze in the air, you can have all the time you want to photograph, varying your point of focus and composition, altering the height and angle of your camera, and experimenting with apertures and shutter speeds, to see the effect of depth of field and image blur.

There is another reason to give yourself plenty of time on one subject: even the softest of breezes can exaggerate the movement of flower petals and leaves when viewed through a macro lens in the camera viewfinder. Patience therefore is key as you wait for things to become still again. Be careful also not to knock your tripod or lens with hasty adjustments.

CROPPED-SENSOR ADVANTAGE

There is no doubt that the onset of digital imaging and other recent developments have improved the success rate and overall quality of macro photography. While full-frame digital cameras have become more widely available, the cheaper and smaller cropped-sensor DSLR cameras have a distinct advantage for macro work. Typically, most cropped-sensors are approximately two-thirds the size of the full-frame versions, which means the focal length of these dedicated lenses increases by a factor of 1.6x when used on a cropped-sensor camera. In the case of macro lenses, this means the 1:1 magnification ratio of a full-frame macro lens becomes 1.6:1 – larger than life-size – when attached to a cropped sensor DSLR.

Professional macro photographer, Paul Harcourt Davies, who began his career using film, says the advent of the digital camera image monitor was a real game-changer, particularly for accelerating the learning process. ‘Digital not so much changed as revolutionised my work,’ he says. ‘So much of what I do is experimental and the capability of a digital camera to turn dreams into reality is profound. The magical factor for me is immediacy. I can now see what I have done and act to correct where needed.’

Davies works with a number of specialist macro lenses, all fixed focal lengths, ranging from the Chinese-built Laowa 15mm f/4 wide-angle to the 200mm micro-Nikkor telephoto, made by Nikon. These produce markedly different effects, but what is consistent between the two is their close-focusing ability and true 1:1 life-size image capability. Another valuable digital development is the use of touchscreen focusing on the camera monitor when using the camera’s Live View mode.

TRIPOD ALTERNATIVE

Although a tripod is an essential tool for macro photography when shooting only with available light, there are circumstances when it is possible to handhold the camera or use an alternative means of support.

This is certainly the case when flash is used as well as daylight to illuminate the subject, as Paul Harcourt Davies explains: ‘My macro shots mix flash and ambient light. The flash tends to freeze action and thus minimise shake, but one must use a high enough ISO and shutter speed to avoid ghosting.’

pine cones in forest

Although he seldom uses a tripod for his macro work, preferring instead to handhold the camera with his tried and trusted macro flash set-up, Davies still recommends a tripod when shooting only with available light. ‘When using any telephoto lens and natural light I use a tripod because, under critical scrutiny on-screen at 100 to 200 per cent in Lightroom, I see the differences when I try to cut corners,’ he says. ‘I have two tripods, both old and very solid and heavy, but when walking I take the smaller tripod. I can steady this on the ground, on top of my camera bag as a kind of giant beanbag, or on a smaller beanbag.’

With these words, Davies is revealing another important requirement for successful macro photography: a preparedness to improvise while also ensuring his attention to detail doesn’t waver. These are not technical considerations but personal attributes, which are vital for anyone dedicating themselves to a genre of precision photography that makes focusing a pain-staking task rather than an automatic, push-button function.

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