First, what does <macro> mean?
Macros are essentially photographs depicting very small objects. Like an insect, or a flower, part of a plant, showing lots of detail that escapes the eye when walking past.
There is actually <real macros> and <close-up-photography>. What most of us label as macro, is more often than not actual close-up.
The difference is in the gear. A real macro uses a lens with a magnification factor of at least 1x1 or higher, anything below that is technically close-up.
1x1 means, if you have a rice grain, 10 mm long and use a lens with 1x1 factor, the image of the rice grain will also take up 10 mm on your sensor.
Real macro lenses are pretty expensive. Many lenses carrying the name <macro> are actually below 1x1. But close-ups aren’t any less impressing.
I don’t own any dedicated macro gear myself, so I make do with what’s at hand:
First, any lens needs a minimum distance to the object you want to photograph.
This is what makes the magnification factor difficult. Say you have a nice big zoom lens, so you could just zoom in on an object till you have it as close as you like. Good plan, but, say a 150-600 mm lens (my biggest one), needs some 5-10 meters distance on 600 mm. Hard to even see a bug at that distance.
So, a long lens might not be the way then. But there is a way to overcome such issues, without investing too much.
Extension tubes. They enhance, physically, the distance between lens and sensor (or film in the old days). They fit between your lens and the camera.
The result of this is, you can go considerably closer to the object you want to photograph, but the tubes also flatten the depth of field - DOF considerably.
I found, for my personal setup, a fast 50mm Canon prime lens the best solution. The one I got is the EF 50mm F1.8. This is actually my cheapest lens, I think it’s under $250 new. There is also a F1.4, but this one is considerably more pricy and it’s less sharp on the edges.
You might find that the kit lens that came with the camera is actually sufficient, but I suggest for a start, you set it to around 50mm. You can later experiment with that.
I also use a mid-price set of extension tubes. Metal, and all the contacts of the camera properly forwarded to the lens. The price should be around $100 for a set of 3. Extension tubes contain no optical elements whatsoever, they are just tubes.
You would also want to use a tripod. On such a small scale the slightest movement shows – this can be a cool effect though.
Any macro or close-up also needs more light, partly because being very close to an object casts your shadow on it and partly because of how optics work.
So you have a camera with a sufficient lens, extension tubes, good lighting and also a hopefully still object. The rest is pretty much experimenting. Aperture wide open flattens DOF to a millimeter size or less, which can cause a nice creamy bokeh effect. Not using a tripod can cause some motion blur which can add interesting effects.
The angle on the object can cause some cool spatial effect.
Closing the aperture will widen DOF, showing more of the object itself, but will also need more light.
Focusing can be pretty difficult in such a setup. I found it easier to turn off auto-focus. You can actually focus via changing your distance to the object, which is quite useful if you shoot handheld. Just go closer till the part you want is in focus, then hit the trigger. On a tripod you can use manual focus.
I hope this helps some of you. As we are still in lockdown for a while, this sort of photography might help to keep you busy, and it’s perfectly safe as you can do it at home.
Here some of my late experiments:
Here the lens and extension tubes I use:
Depth of field, or DOF, in photography defines how much of a scene in a photograph is in focus, relating to the distance from the camera.
Sounds complicated, but it’s actually not that bad.
Let’s assume, in a landscape, you want to take a picture of a tree, the tree is, say 10 meters away from your position.
If you want the foreground, tree and background all in focus, this would be a deep DOF.
If you want to <isolate> the tree from foreground and background, it’s a shallow DOF.
There are of course lots of variables in between.
So, how do you generally control DOF?
For once, the aperture in your camera does that, similar to the iris in your eye (one of the few actual similarities).
The further you open the aperture, the shallower the DOF.
The settings for this are a bit confusing though. Low <F-number> means wide open, high <F-number> means tighter – and with that a deeper DOF.
Another factor to control DOF is the distance to your subject.
A wide open aperture has less effect the greater the distance between you and the subject is.
For example, you shoot a portrait, your model is 1 meter from your position. You have a <fast> lens, which means the aperture can open very wide, somewhere around F 1.4-3.
If you open it say to F 2.8 (like my lenses), the DOF will be extremely shallow. This means, the tip of your model’s nose is in focus, all the rest fades into the out-of-focus area. For such short distances you would need to close the aperture more, say F 5 or so.
If your model is some 6-10 meters away, this effect is not so severe. You can open the aperture wider. The model would still be in focus, but anything closer or further would be out of focus. This <isolation> effect is often used in portrait photography and some landscape setups.
It’s also an interesting effect in macro/close-up photography. In fact, for macro and close-up, DOF can be a serious issue. Due to the physical closeness to the subject, the depth can shrink to a matter of millimeters, which makes focusing rather difficult. There are techniques to overcome such issues, and I’ll write about those later on.
Here an example of a portrait. Using a long lens, the real physical distance was some 4 meters, so I could open up the aperture to F 2.8 without losing any focus in the model's face.
In the second image, my subject was about one meter away. Opening the aperture to F 2.8, you see the strong effect. The tip of the beak in full focus, everything else out of focus. In this image it works well enough.
The third image is a typical landscape. This setting needs a deep DOF, so the aperture was much tighter, at F 8. All parts of the image are pretty much in focus.