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.
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.
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
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.
Macro 1:1 (explained)
So, what exactly is macro 1:1? Well, this means that the image on the sensor (or film) is exactly the same size as the object being photographed, whereas macro 1:2 would indicate that the image on the sensor is half the size of the object captured. Many folks seem to be somewhat confused between real macro and just a close-up shot. There is no absolute dividing line between the two different perspectives, however macro 1:1 is technically considered the true macro starting point.
Here are two working examples. The top image is merely a close up (1:4 ratio) image. The second image below was taken at the macro 1:1 distance. To many casual observers there might not seem that much difference in size/ratio, etc., but from a technical standpoint the top photograph is really just a close up shot and not a true macro.
Manual Focus versus AF
The main challenge we face when shooting at this distance is obtaining a truly stellar sharp image, obtaining an interesting depth of field, and being able to focus exactly where we want without experiencing any type of residual blurring at all. Aside from the obvious camera & equipment related movement issues there are also the human factors to take into consideration as well. Eye fatigue being one of them, not to mention individual visual acuity performance and other such vision associated elements. Many cameras today offer the live mode whereby one can view the object via the larger LCD screen, and also use the on-board (+-) zoom functions, in order to obtain a magnified image and more accurate manual focus.
Manual focus is really the only way to go when shooting macro. Yes, I know that the new, high-tech camera bodies do offer excellent auto focus systems, however, at macro 1:1, the depth of field is so tiny (only 4mm at f/16 or 4.8mm at f/22) that I think it's unreasonable to expect any camera focusing mechanism to be 100% reliable or accurate. At such a close range, even the best camera can become confused because there is often almost no contrast between fine details and different regions of the subject. Therefore, I highly recommend that one use manual focus mode only and practice at getting the very best focus possible. New lenses may offer VR (vibration reduction) or IS (image stabilization) which is intended for hand-held use, but in my opinion this is rather redundant for macro work. I personally would never even consider shooting a regular flower shot hand-held, without a tripod and remote shutter release, let alone a macro shot.
AF Focus Point Test
To test just how good (or bad) auto focus is for close ups, I decided to conduct a simple test using the Hibiscus Stamen, pictured below, as the subject. I chose this specific type of flower because I thought it would be a reasonable challenge to the Nikon's advanced AF system as the Hibiscus has a rather complex structure. I also used the black background as this would offer some very distinct color contrast/resolution between areas within the flower head itself. To view a much larger picture of the test shot click here.
So, using the AF Focus Point Selection feature I selected a series of places on the subject to see just how it would perform at this 1:1 distance. Well, as you can see (by the white text “here” points written on the test photograph) I could only achieve one AF Lock (on the red-rounded stamen head), which wasn't that surprising to me as this was obviously the most contrasting region (ie: red against black). None of the other points that I attempted to obtain an auto focus lock on were successful. The camera AF system simply became disoriented and could not distinguish between the chosen focus area and the nearby surrounding background. I did think that it would probably work OK when fixed on the yellow stamen buds as they were quite a different color to the red stem directly behind them. However, it would not lock on target, no matter how many times I tried it. In conclusion I will only say that if one can obtain an exact desired lock onto the subject, then by all means go ahead and use the AF mode, however, I think at present there really is no substitute for manual focus because even the most sophisticated AF sensors are just not consistent enough at this close range - yet. Here is the final result (without the text) on my website Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis
As I mentioned, using the live view mode can improve focusing ability and overall results although, in my own experience, having compared the two techniques, I seem to be able to obtain just as good an image by using the viewfinder. However, you may find that the live mode approach works best for you. There are also a few magnifier aids available that one can use to assist with focusing. Both Canon and Nikon offer a right-angle viewfinder accessory, plus a variety of diopter and magnifying eye pieces. Any additional device that will help our aging and often tired eyes to get a better & clearer view of the subject, is a welcome thing in my book.
To the right is an image of the Nikon DR-6 Rectangular Right Angle Finder which is real handy when the camera is positioned low to the ground or at waist height. It not only magnifies the viewfinder image to 2:1 size (double) but also has a built-in acuity diopter which allows the individual to adjust the Rx according to their own specific visual status. There are also a variety of custom-made focusing screens that can be inserted into your camera. I haven't gone this route yet, as it may void the Nikon warranty, but it might be something worth looking into later on. Also, don't forget to use the mirror up feature if your camera has it. This way the camera mirror is already locked up before the picture is taken and thus helps reduce any potential camera shake. A sturdy tripod and shutter release are both of course an absolute must, as with any floral or still-life shot. Whilst sometimes using a large aperture (ie f2.8, f4, f5.6) may produce a very interesting shallow depth of field, many shots will also require as much DOF as possible, up to even f32 and beyond, so the tripod is a necessity.
Depth of Field (DOF)
As the world of macro 1:1 has an inherently small depth of field, due to the very tiny distances involved, we are always faced with a compromise of sorts, and choices to make. Do we shoot the subject head-on with a rather flat focal plane in order to show more detail and obtain a greater DOF, or do we angle our shooting to say, 45º or 90º from the object to create a very shallow depth of field, which in turn may produce a far more interesting perspective? Or perhaps somewhere in between these two options? Another aspect to also think about here is how well your macro lens performs with regard to the transition from the out of focus regions to the sharp in focus areas. This is important because ideally that transition should be smooth and not rough or abrupt. Some lenses offer a much nicer transition than others. It is impossible to obtain a really deep DOF with macro 1:1, so it's vital that we make exactly the right part in focus to draw the observing eye in and to create a pleasing overall effect. This also raises another question, do we select the most interesting bit of detail as our main focus point, or should we choose the region that the eye naturally falls upon when viewing the picture as a whole? This is a judgement call, because these two can be quite different.
Another aspect to be aware of is that your lighting parameters and environment will also change when shooting macro. Often the lens is very close to the subject matter, especially when shooting items like jewelry, rings, flower centres, etc. That's why working distance now becomes very important. With the lens hood a mere few inches from the object to be photographed it may be difficult to get sufficient light onto the frontal areas, and just not enough room to place a reflector or diffuser panel where you want it. Sure, one answer may be to use a ring flash, which attaches to the front of your lens, however, if you prefer to use a diffused lighting setup (like I do) then this is not a viable option. If not enough light is available this will, in turn, create another problem, image noise, which will be present in the shadow regions of the image and will require some additional noise reduction in post-processing. This, again, will degrade the fine detail result. Remember, the better the overall lighting is, the less shadow recovery (to bring out the lost detail) will be needed later on, and ultimately less sharpening will be required in the final output stage. All these things directly impact on image quality and the more you get right at the source, the better the end result will be - period!
Pay Careful Attention To Detail
One last point that I would really like to emphasize here is that, with the extra magnification and fine details involved when shooting at close-up macro 1:1 ratios, one really has to be extremely thorough and meticulous in the setup and prep work stage - before pressing the shutter. There's nothing more frustrating and annoying than thinking that one has everything just right only to later find out (in editing software) that the composition scene was far less than optimal. At macro 1:1 distances you just won't be able see all the bits of hair, dust and other unwanted artifacts through the camera viewfinder. Therefore it is crucial that you take a couple of test shots first, then zoom in (either in the camera or on the PC screen) to get a close-up look at exactly how the shot will look. It's a disaster when, after carefully taking 50+ pictures or so, having put everything away, you discover that long piece of dog hair, or something else that has completely ruined the entire work. OK, in certain instances one will be able to get rid of some of these things with the touch-up/clone brush feature in your editor - however, there will be times when this is just not possible and by doing so it ultimately reduces the overall quality of the shot. Also pay close attention to the condition of the subject you are photographing, make sure that everything is absolutely perfect. For example, that flower bloom may look just fine at a normal viewing distance but under the 1:1 range microscope you may notice a lot of dead bits or blemished areas that will create a very unattractive end result. Everything is magnified x10, so pay very careful attention to the tiny details, it's always much easier to get it right the first time around than repair it afterwards.
To summarize, like I always say when referring to flower photography principals in general. None of this stuff is super difficult nor rocket-science, but it does require a high level of precision and I still believe that the most important aspect of all is the human element. Yes, we certainly need the appropriate tools to get the job done properly. However it is our ability to visualize an interesting composition, and to apply a 100% meticulous dedication to the task at hand which ultimately enables us to capture that truly amazing and unique shot. On closing, if you want to get great pics of insects, get up and out of the house well before sunrise, because that's when the little critters are in their dormant, non-mobile, docile mode, and just right for photographing. Me, I always make it a golden rule never to get out of bed before 10:00 am, so I guess that's the reason why I'm not a bug kinda bloke.
Here's the link kvincentphotography.ca/macro to my macro gallery which shows a series of shots that I have taken recently.
If you enjoyed this page you might
be interested in my eBook
Learn Photography with Geoff Lawrence
Other tutorials in this section
A few tips for the budding wildlife photographer.
Lighting and perspective.
What you need and what to watch out for.
All the settings you need.
Photograph flowers like a professional, what you need to know.
For when you need extra depth of field.
How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.
Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.
Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.
Getting the exposure right in all that white.
Tips on how to capture fast action.
Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.
A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.
Bribing people to sit for you.