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Macro(1:1) Photography - by Kev Vincent

If you want to get in really close and produce shots like the one on the right, as well as some extra bits of equipment, you need to learn to work in a meticulous and careful manner, paying attention to the minutest details.

Red Centre Macro 06T

All the basic fundamentals of regular close-up and still-life photography also apply to macro 1:1, but with a few extra hurdles thrown in for good measure.

Here is a list of what I consider essential equipment for optimal macro 1:1 photography.

  • A sturdy tripod
  • 3 Way geared head
  • Remote, or cable shutter release
  • Viewfinder eyepiece magnifier
  • Focusing rail
  • Dedicated macro 1:1 lens

The Dedicated Macro 1:1 Lens

The dedicated macro 1:1 lens is obviously the key component as it allows one to actually take the shot at such a close range (1:1) and also offers continuous focusing from that distance to infinity. Which basically means one can choose any shooting distance/ratio from the subject between the 1:1 (life-size) value and upwards. Macro lenses by design are usually tack sharp with good color rendition and contrast, so they are also very popular as a short telephoto lens for more general use, such as portraits. Both Nikon and Canon make a series of pro quality macro lenses ranging from the standard 60mm up to 200mm in length. I personally use the Nikon 105mm 2.8 VR macro lens. The majority of macros are prime lenses (ie: a fixed focal length), there have been a few zoom macros over the years but these are far more difficult to manufacture, so for the most part the camera companies seem to have dropped that approach, for now anyway. Third party companies such as Tamron and Sigma also produce several good quality macro lenses. Notably, the Tamron 90mm, and Sigma 150mm macros are very popular and have a good reputation amongst photographers.

Different Focal Lengths

I personally prefer the 105mm focal length because it offers me a slightly longer shooting distance from the subject matter. Although in reality it's still only about 4 inches from the end of my lens with the hood attached. For me, a 60mm macro just doesn't allow enough distance from whatever I'm shooting, which can also effect the lighting setup, as often one cannot get the required amount of light onto the front of the subject if the lens is too close. A longer, 200mm, macro is very useful for capturing nervous critters (ie: insects) outdoors because it affords one an even longer working distance. However, for taking pics indoors, that lens may be too long if space is limited.

Focusing Rails

Castel Q

One of those very important extra bits of equipment is the macro focusing rail. Here's a picture of the Novoflex Castel Q focus rail that I use which allows for extremely fine, precision focusing by moving the camera back and forth in tiny incremental steps thus eliminating the need to actually turn the focus ring on the lens itself. This actually does two things. It helps minimize any camera movement and the often related focus-fall-away by actually touching the lens, plus it allows the photographer to set the desired ratio on the lens, eg: 1:1, prior to focusing and then simply move the entire camera and lens back & forth until the subject comes into 100% sharp focus. This way is much more accurate than using the traditional hand-turn method, and is especially useful when utilizing the live view mode. There are only a few different high quality focus rails on the market today. This one is made in Germany by Novoflex and costs around $475 here in Canada, which includes the APL-1 connection adapter plate for my Nikon D300 body.

3 Way Geared Head

Manfrotto 410 Mini Geared Head

The other, crucial, piece of kit is the 3 way geared tripod head which enables me to make small, precise adjustments when framing the shot scene without any of the ”‘slack” return movement that is nearly always present when using a standard ball-head. In the world of macro, even the slightest change in position can completely effect the end result. The ability to compose the frame exactly as needed, and to focus accurately and precisely where desired is paramount. At such close range the smallest amount of movement is exaggerated ten-fold and can result in unwanted blurring, or a loss of detail, or depth of field, which of course will ultimately ruin the shot.

For this I use the Manfrotto 410 Mini Geared Head which supports a payload of about 6 Kg (13lbs) and is suitable for most DSLRs and even some medium format setups. It's relatively lightweight (1.6kg) and offers the usual 3 way (pan, tilt and side to side) motion. It also comes with a nifty quick release camera plate system which I find really convenient and very easy to use. There are of course a wide range of similar products on the market so finding the right head to satisfy your needs shouldn't be much of problem. Just one word of advice though; if one is truly serious about macro photography, I wouldn't try to be too budget conscious, because the cheaper accessories probably won't have the necessary build quality and so will not perform to a very high standard, which of course will only result in one very frustrated person behind the lens. As with anything these days, you get what you pay for.

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