Macro photography: What and how?

I have experimented rather little with macro photography. I’ve read articles about it, I tried out some techniques and some gear, but I never did find it to be “my thing” and so I never really explored it. I want to try to explain the technical concept of what a macro photography is, but I personally find the “rules” to be so varied that it’s not easy to give one single definition of it.

Here goes though. In Layman’s terms a macro photograph is a picture taken very, very close to the subject. “Ok, like when I zoom really far in?” You’re not wrong, but not necessarily correct either. As far as I’ve come to find, there are conflicting definitions of what macro photography actually is. One definition is where the subject covers an area of the camera sensor that is the same size as the subject’s actual size (ie. 1:1 scale) or greater. In other words, the image “burned” into the sensor, or the “reproduction”, is the same size as the subject in real life. The other definition is where simply the end result (ie. the processed and printed image) gives an image where the size of the subject appears greater than it’s actual size.

All this means that a lens that is called a macro lens is technically a lens that allows for a 1:1 scale representation of the subject on the sensor. Imagine you take an image of a wasp which is about 2 cm long. When you take the shot, the wasp covers 2 cm of your sensor, giving it a 1:1 scale reproduction on the sensor. It is now by definition a macro picture. Why is this hard? Because most normal lenses will not allow you to get a focused image when you’re as physically close to the subject as you need to be to fill the sensor with a reproduction. A true macro lens will allow you to get so close to your subject that you obtain the 1:1 scale reproduction on the sensor, and still also get a focused image. The funny (and by funny I mean confusing) thing about this is that many lenses that call themselves “macro lenses” does not actually fulfill this “requirement”.

A "macro" shot of a ruler

A “macro” shot of a ruler

Take for example the image to the right. This was taken with a Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Macro” lens set at 300 mm as close to the ruler as possible without losing image sharpness. If this had followed the 1:1 scale definition of “true macro”, we should have seen the ruler go from 0 to 2.2 cm before reaching the other side. Clearly it does not, yet the lens is defined as a macro lens on the market.

If we printed this image on a piece of A4 paper, we’d lose about 40% of the image. To give an idea of what that means the ruler would go from 1.1 cm to about 4.9 cm (ie. a grand total of 3.8). If you imagine putting the ruler on top of that image, you would find that it would appear much larger on the paper, than in real life. Therefore a macro photo by other standards. Personally, I call this more of a close up than a macro shot, but I’m not going to start a semantic discussion regarding this.

“Ok then, I want to try macro, but I don’t have any macro lenses. Is there an easier way?”

Well, yes and no. There are a number of tricks you can use and a number of extra equipment that you can get that will help you take proper macro shots. Some of these techniques can be rather “fiddly” and some require you to actually buy something. Buying the right gear will also make macro shooting much easier for you. Yes, that’s right. The more money you put into it the easier will the job be. Who would ever have thought a thing like that about a branch of photography? (Yes, I’m being sarcastic).

The cheapest option: Guess what. You already actually have a macro lens, even if your lens doesn’t actually say “macro” on it. No, I’m not pulling your leg. Take the lens you have. Any lens will do. Now detach it from the camera. Turn it 180 degrees around and manually hold it in place over the opening to the mirror and sensor. Yes, I am aware that it is now pointing the “wrong” way, but for our intent right now it is in fact the correct way.

Important note: When having your lens reversed like this it is pointing some rather delicate parts out into the world. Take care to not bump your lens into anything, and for the love of God, whatever you do, don’t drop it!

As I’m sure you also will find out pretty fast: The lens will in fact not stay in place by itself unless you hold it there yourself. Now turn your camera on, set the shutter speed to about 1/50, move very close to your subject (like just a few centimeters close) and look through the seeker window. You will probably see a haze of different lights, and now comes the tricky part.

Reverse lens macro of frost crystals

Reverse lens macro of frost crystals

While looking through the seeker window, move the camera just a little bit closer and then farther away. You are trying to find that sweet distance where what you want to photograph will be shown sharp(ish) in the seeker window. Because the camera is not connected, the camera cannot use the focusing function on your lens. It cannot find out what aperture you have set either, and so you must use a manual program to control the shutter. Shooting like this requires often a bit of light depending on how close you get, so you need to adapt your ISO and shutter to get a good exposure. To get your subjet into focus, alter the distance to your subject. The really difficult thing about this technique is also that your depth of field can become extremely short, so you may find that you cannot get your entire subject in focus.

Consider the image above to the left (the frost crystals). This is an image I shot outside using this reverse lens technique of some frost crystals. Notice how it is only barely in focus and how the details disappear quite fast the deeper into the image you go.

It is important to note that the wider the focal width of your lens, the closer you need to go in order to get sharp details. By selecting a lens with a more narrow focal width (higher number) you can pull farther out and get more of the subject onto the sensor. The funny thing is however that the focal width of your lens doesn’t necessarily guarantee a certain distance from the subject. Observe the example below where I compared the Canon 50mm f/1.8 to the Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Macro while using the reverse lens technique.

1: Canon 50mm f/1.8, 2-4: Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3, respectively set at 50mm, 100mm and 300 mm.

1: Canon 50mm f/1.8, 2-4: Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3, respectively set at 50mm, 100mm and 300 mm.

Notice how image nr. 1 and 2 are both taken at 50mm, but the Tamron telescope lens gets much closer to get a proper shot. In fact, using the Tamron at 300mm still gets us a closer shot than what the Canon 50mm does. Despite this, the Tamron shot at 300 mm has more depth of field than the Canon 50 mm has. The explanation for this is that when you disconnect the lens like this, the lens will (usually) set itself to the widest possible aperture. On the Canon 50mm this is f/1.8, while at 300 mm for the Tamron it is 6.3 which will give more depth of field. This only goes to show that you simply have to try it out with your own lenses and figure out what works for your equipment.

Finally, also note that there exists a thing called a lens reverse ring. This is something you attach to your camera and allows you to attach a lens the “wrong” way without having to manually hold it in place.

The second cheapest option: For this technique you actually need to spend a bit of money. Go to your local photography store and ask for something called “extension rings”. An extension ring is simply a kind of empty lens that you put on your camera. It attaches itself to the camera on one end, and allows you to attach your lens on the other end of it. What it effectively does is getting the helical point (the bit of the lens in charge of getting the image into focus) farther away from the sensor, allowing it to get objects much closer into focus. You can get both a simple extension that is one set size, or you can buy a set of rings that can connect to each other and get a range of possible extensions. I would personally recommend the last of these two options. It will cost a bit more, but you will never find yourself in that annoying situation where you can’t get the shot you want because you didn’t buy the right size.

Macro shot of a motherboard in a computer using extension rings

Macro shot of a motherboard in a computer using extension rings

What is great about this technique is that many of the modern extension rings contain circuits that allow the camera to communicate with the lens. This means that it is still possible for you to take macro shots, while also being able to manipulate the aperture and having the lens try to find sharp focus using the auto-focus. In many ways you end up with a result that may only be a little bit better than using the cheapest technique, but it will save you a world of trouble and annoyance. The reverse lens technique will however get you closer, but it is also more fiddly unless you have the reverse ring.

The next level: Two lenses!

There is one more step you can take before going so far as to purchase a good (and expensive) macro purpose lens.

You can use the first technique, only don’t just hold the lens against the camera body. Instead, hold the reversed lens in front of another already attached lens. There are any number of possible combinations you can use here, but I would recommend letting the lens connected to the body to be of at least 70mm or greater. The reversed lens can also be anything but should be of a lower focal width.

Reversed lense (50mm) in front of another lense (set to 80mm) where we unfortunatly see the edges of the 50mm lens.

Reversed lense (50mm) in front of another lense (set to 80mm) where we unfortunatly see the edges of the 50mm lens.

Now, the reason why this technique cannot always be used is that you kind of need two lenses that have more or less the same size at their “business ends”. I personally don’t actually have this and end up with a problem of catching the sides of the reversed lens in my shot, like seen to the right here.

It is also worth noting that if you have two lenses that have the same width at their ends you can buy a coupling ring that allow you to screw the two lenses up against each other as if the reversed lens was just a filter. This allows you to have your hands free and don’t risk bumps and scratches on the glass through shaky hands and what not.

Another thing you need to be careful about is the same as previously: The backside of the lens with all its delicate parts are sticking out. Be careful not to bump it into anything. You may accidentally scratch the circuits or scratch the glass. If you have an extension ring you can connect a short extension to the backside of the lens and protect it that way. (Yes, the circuits on the extension ring can also be damaged, but I’d damage my extension ring over my lens any day.

The last alternative (that I will talk about): Allright so we reached the last alternative. The most expensive one, but also the one that will likely give the highest quality results. Buying an actual macro lens. Like I said earlier, there are many lenses that are branded as macro lenses, but that doesn’t truly give that 1:1 scale. This may not be what you want either for all I know. Like I said to begin with, I never adopted macro photography much and I never did buy a macro lens. It’s just too expensive for me when I almost never shoot macro.

As such I recommend that if you want a macro lens, go to the great internet and do thorough research as you would with any other lens. I have read that usually, most macro lenses are pretty good, as opposed to like 90% of normal lenses being bad. That said you can still be unlucky, so do your research before you buy. Make sure that your money goes into something that won’t annoy you in the long run.

Actually shooting macro: Ok, now we have covered a couple of techniques and equipment that can be used to get the camera close enough to take a macro shot of your subject. There is however a couple of more things I want to mention before you go experimenting.

Going this close, and also using some of these techniques, are bad for your light reception. You may find yourself needing more light than what is readily available. To remedy this you can use anything from a flashlight to a camera flash gun. I will however say that you will find it hard use a flash sitting on the hot shoe. It will likely not reach all the way to your subject as it will be located very close to the lens. (In other words the lens will cast a shadow over your subject). You may therefore need some extra equipment that allows you to fire your flash from somewhere away from your camera.

A macro flash ring on a Canon camera

A macro flash ring on a Canon camera

The second problem with this is that unless you buy a macro flash which is fitted as a circle around your lens (see the picture to the left), is that you risk some pretty sharp shadows when firing a flash from just one side. This can either be remedied by using two flashes, or you can try using a soft box of some sort. This can either be a proper, professional soft box or simply just something you MacGyvered together. There are several recipes online for different kinds of builds you can make to improvise different kinds of soft boxes and/or macro flashes.

Examples of such builds can be both easy and more complex. All in all they are only limited by how much work you feel like putting into it.

(Sidenote: It is worth noting that a macro flash ring has more uses than just macro photography. Some photographers actually use this when shooting dramatic portraits to get a certain circular light reflection in the model’s eyes).

With lighting covered there is only one last thing I would like to point out. If you are able to control your aperture, try to keep in mind your depth of field. Sometimes we only want like a millimeter sharp depth, but other times it would be nicer with more. Think about how close you are, how close you can get, how much light you have available and what your aperture is set to. Always try to push the ISO as low as possible as you always want your image as clean as possible.

And with that said, you’re good to go! Good luck!


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