Lift your gaze and you will see everything within your range of vision which is of a scale your eyes are able to perceive. People, animals, landscapes, everyday objects – these are the most common things which our eyes, and respectively our cameras, tend to focus on. But is this all that there is to the world around us? Of course, we all know that some animals see in black and white, others see a different spectre of light, and those much smaller than us see things in a different scale. Probably all of us have experimented with the magic of the shapes and graphic images of black and white photography or with the incredible world hidden invisible in the infrared spectre of light. Often, while looking for the new and the unconventional, we try to change perspective and shape using wide-angle or telephoto lenses which see differently from our eyes. We also try to enter into the world of small things which we could hardly see without the required equipment.
People have always been fascinated with small things. Stories like the ones of Tom Thumb, Gulliver and Nils Holgerson and sci-fi comedies such as Honey I Shrunk the Kids, are all evidence that the human imagination has never ceased to be fascinated by the wonderful, romantic and yet real and tangible micro world.
Looking at interesting macro photographs which reveal the magical colours of the brightly coloured insects balancing on the petals of a garden flower or the incredible gleams of light and reflections in a single drop of water, an amateur photographer will feel a mixture of admiration and a little jealousy. They will also wonder what methods and equipment are necessary to shoot such a picture. It is true that years ago not everyone could afford to take macro photographs. It was almost impossible to take a good-quality macro photograph with an ordinary amateur camera. One needed expensive macro lenses or a single-lens reflex camera equipped with a macro extension bellows or rings as a minimum. These or similar accessories are in use even today but with the mass advancement of digital technology and especially of compact digital cameras with small sensors and lenses with short focal lengths able to focus at very small distances, even amateur photographers were given incredible new opportunities to enjoy a whole new photography genre without further investment.
What do we mean when we say macro photography? There are different opinions as to when a photography can be called ‘macro’ and what the magnification of the main object should be in order to say that the photograph is ‘macro’. For many amateur photographers a macro photography is better if the magnification is greater. They are constantly looking for greater and greater magnification, they add several special macro lenses in front of the lens of their compact camera or even reverse lenses from single-lens reflex cameras, only to achieve that close-up shot of the facets of the eyes of the fly or the hairs on the legs of the grass hopper. This type of photographs has more to do with microscopic photography for scientific purposes than with artistic photography. For me personally macro photography is not necessarily a constant longing to show the physiology of an insect as close as possible. In the world of small things we can also become witnesses of interesting scenes, landscapes, still life or even reportage photography.
All composition rules and specifics of colour harmony are applicable for macro photography just as they are for ordinary photography.
There is hardly a portrait photographer who would like to shoot a model in а way which makes skin pores or skin imperfections on the face even more visible. Then why do most beginners, and sometimes even advanced photographers, try to show us the face of the otherwise quite amiable grass hopper magnified to an extent where it seems more like a hairy monster… It is much better to make a skilful portrait of said grass hopper including some of its natural environment and following all rules of composition, correct lighting and colour harmony.
There are thousands of small things which look surprisingly different through the macro lens of your camera. An old nail hammered in the cracked door of the barn or in the wall, a machine part detail or even matchsticks ordered in an interesting way against a suitable background – these are all potential subjects of your macro still life photographs. Opportunities are endless. You can look for your subjects and experiment freely. Your digital camera allows you to take hundreds of free photographs while you are studying.
There are a couple of tips on how to work with your camera when shooting macro.
Hold the camera steady. Keep in mind that in macro mode you can blur the image very easily with a single shake of your hand.
If the camera has image stabilisation, you must use it, regardless of what the ambient light is.
Lean on something or, if possible, find some stable support for the camera. Use a tripod, conditions permitting. In many cases small pocket-sized tripods will do the work.
Focus precisely and try not to move the camera even slightly before shooting because at such distances the depth of field is particularly shallow. Even the slightest shift of the camera will lead to loss of focus.
Close the aperture as much as the light conditions permit in order to have greater depth of field.
Use manual focus if the auto focus is hesitant or the light is insufficient.
Use the tilt display of the camera (if available) for a more comfortable viewing point.
What equipment do you need for macro photography?
If you have selected a compact digital camera, you will probably not need any additional equipment. Most compact digital cameras have a good macro function and it is enough to activate it from the menu. Many manufacturers speculate in their advertising materials regarding the distance from which you can shoot your object in macro mode. There are cases when they mention distances as short as 1cm or even 0cm. You should know that on the one hand, when shooting from such distances you will be casting a shadow over the object and you will not have enough light to take the photo; on the other hand, shooting from such close distances, you will have pronounced barrel distortion of the image and good sharpness only in the middle. Not to mention, that if you are shooting a living creature from such a distance, you are very likely to scare it away. For me this mode is mostly unnecessary and a marketing trick. It is much more important for your camera to perform well in macro mode with settings in the middle range of your zoom lens so that it can cover a larger area, where possible. There are models which will produce greater magnification in macro mode when the lens is in some telephoto position from a distance of 20cm and not with wide-angle settings from a distance of 1cm. Take active interest when buying a camera and demand to try out as many models as possible even if you are met with less than friendly attitude from the shop assistants. You are giving your money and you have the right to be well-informed. More and more producers are equipping compact models with optical image stabilisation. This is an important advantage when you shoot macro photography because in such scales even the smallest shake of your hand will blur the image.
Good manual focus is an advantage but unfortunately, you will rarely see that in compact cameras. A tilting display is an invaluable assistant, especially when you need to shoot the object from a very low viewing angle and it spares you the trouble and inconvenience of lying in the wet grass. If your camera model allows it and it has threading for filters and other accessories, you can use the so-called close-up or Proxar lenses which will further magnify the scene depending on their dioptre power.
Do not forget about the tripod. It is a must when you shoot static objects in poor light conditions and especially for object macro photography.
If you have decided to buy a single-lens reflex camera, you will have to invest in special macro lenses. They are far from cheap, but they will give you the highest possible quality. Big producers of photographic equipment like Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, Pentax, Tamron, etc., produce a wide variety of normal to telephoto lenses with macro capabilities. Telephoto macro lenses are preferable when you shoot small animals because they give you the chance to achieve high-quality magnification from a greater distance without scaring away your models. Of course, stabilization is a great extra for a macro lens which is worth the additional price.
As a compromise you could use zoom lenses with macro capabilities. They are not comparable in terms of quality and magnification to prime lenses, but they are much cheaper, universal and sometimes do a great job.