Macro photography is extreme close-up photography. And since it's autumn as I write this, it's the ideal time to point out the possibilities of looking far closer at what you see. The great thing about macro is that you can do it at any time of year, in almost any light and you can even do it indoors.
Imagine the beauty of frost or ice, a newly opened spring leaf, a midsummer flower, or a tree stump with autumn leaves. Now imagine getting even closer: every grain in wood, every mark in metal and the fine veins on leaves, or perhaps the incredibly brief and delicate texture of frost or ice. Or maybe you're stuck in the house: no problem. With a little imagination, you can improvise and photograph items of interest in your home.
A close up of one of my guitars
Regardless of weather, light or time of year, there's always possibilities for macro photography.
So what do you need to take macro images?
Firstly, a pointer about what is macro and what is not. Technically, macro is images at 1:1 size or larger. That means life size. Whilst many lenses claim to be macro, in reality a macro lens is a dedicated extreme close range lens, often allowing you to get within inches of the subject. Most manufacturers make a macro lens and they tend to range from 50mm to 150mm. Any longer than this, and their extremely shallow depth of field at close range becomes a problem. Read on for an explanation...
Close up of guitar, showing very shallow depth of field: notice the very narrow band actually in focus
As usual in photography, we rarely get something for nothing. Macro is no exception. In exchange for the ultra close-up detail, we endure very shallow depth of field. Depth of field (article coming soon!) is how much of the image is actually in focus. Several factors dictate this:
1. The length (in mm) of the lens. Wide lenses have lots of depth of field (a lot in focus from front to back), and longer lenses have less depth of field.
2. The f-stop (aperture) used. DSLR cameras and 35mm etc have F-stops to allow the photographer to have more control over depth of field. The f-stop is like the pupil of the eye: the smaller it is, the less light it lets in (but the greater the depth of field) and the bigger it is, the more light it lets in (but the shallower the depth of field). Also, as F-stops get smaller, shutter speeds drop correspondingly. Read on...
3. The distance from the camera to the subject. The closer we get to the subject, the shallower the depth of field becomes. At macro level, it can often become very shallow indeed. See image above.
4. Camera type. Most compacts have small sensors, and the bigger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field for any given lens, F-stop or distance. A full frame camera will have far shallower depth of field than a compact or cropped sensor.
However, this can have a creative effect.
Problems with macro and possible solutions
The first problem is keeping the camera steady enough to stay in focus, especially given the extremely shallow depth of field. It can be very challenging to do this when you're only a few inches from a subject! Possible solutions and their downsides:
1. Use a tripod. Not always easy, especially when subjects are low down or in hard to reach places.
2. Use a monopod. A little easier, but still far from ideal. The camera still tends to move a little, rendering the photos out of focus.
3. Push up the ISO settings. But since macro is about detail, noise can ruin a macro image and often, high ISO settings are lower contrast and under-saturated compared to lower settings.
4. Use a flash. Not particularly viable, since most flashes cannot cope with such extreme close up work and tend to "wash out" the image. Also, if it is mounted on the camera, the flash will cast "top down" shadows and these may ruin any ambient light.
5. Use a ring flash. This is a flash unit that actually sits on the end of the lens, and creates an "all round" light with almost no shadows. Whilst this can have a lot of uses, it is still far from ideal due to the same problem as a regular flash: it ruins ambient (available) light.
6. One item I have found to be extremely useful for macro photography is an LED light array. This is a cluster of battery powered LED lights and mine came with a soft filter (to make the light much softer) and a soft gold coloured filter. These are relatively low cost (about £30) and have the great advantage of being able to be mounted on a small tripod, or in the hands of a willing helper. What's more, because they need not be attached to the camera and don't have any leads etc, you can light your scene as you like, and most are adjustable in output and you can actually see their effect, unlike flash. You could even use several and they make a great home studio. The images above were taken with an LED light array.
Whilst you may get lucky enough to get enough ambient light, nevertheless, using some of the above, or a combination, will help you to get macro images you can be proud of.
Another bonus is that a 50mm lens is an excellent "head and shoulders" portrait lens, since its field of view is close to that of human eyes and hence images look natural. Similarly, I've found a 50mm macro to be ideal for car and vehicle photography, as outlined above. Their natural perspective but ability to get really close really do lend them to much more than nature photography.
So, next time the weather is not behaving and you're in the depths of winter, get out there and do some macro! Fungi, dead leaves, spiders webs, frost and ice, and interesting items indoors open up a wealth of opportunities.