As a photographer, sooner or later, you’re going to either want or need to dive into the world of close-up photography. I say want, if you want to grow photographically and develop the technical skills necessary for close-up work and need, if a commercial client wants to show details of their product whether it be something like a watch for an ad or an insect for a textbook. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to forego the usual definitions and the macro vs micro discussions and just get on with getting great shots of really small things. I’m also going to skip the part where we try various ways to do close-up work with conventional lenses and assume we’re working with true macro lenses (Hint: it’s not about magnification, it’s about flat focusing fields and edge to edge sharpness at close range). For macro, as for most other areas of photography, I’ve developed standard approaches that I use as a starting point and fine tune for each assignment. Let’s look at three of them here.
Assignment #1 – The Japanese Beetle
Insects, spiders and flowers are what many photographers envision when they think about macro, so that’s where many flock to in search of rewarding images. But beware, once you venture outdoors, the pitfalls and challenges are many. Movement, caused by either the subject, or wind induced, is a big problem and so is lighting. You need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any movement, small aperture to achieve the necessary depth of field and keep it all balanced with the ambient background so as to avoid that flashed look so prevalent in early macro attempts. That’s done by varying the only other parameter at your disposal – the ISO setting. The shot of the Japanese Beetle was shot at: 1/180sec, f/22, ISO 2000. The beetle was lit by a speedlight set to -1 EV in a softbox held above the camera on a flash bracket – of course, the whole shebang is on a tripod. Having everything mounted together like this allows you to make small adjustments in angle and position to follow a moving subject while maintaining consistent lighting and exposure. As with all of my macro work, focus and exposure is set manually. Also critical to the success of this is the angle at which it was shot. It ensures that the subject is more or less parallel to the film plane for maximum depth of field and such that the background is far enough away as to be completely out of focus. Although I have no affiliation with the manufacturers of any of the equipment I use, many readers are interested so here’s the list for this shot with links:
The beetle is an example of a shot where we want maximum sharpness and depth of field. But that’s not always the case as we’ll see in the next example.
Assignment #2 – The GV2 Phantom
This commercial shot of a luxury watch uses macro and selective focus to highlight the brand while still providing a sense of the craftsmanship and complexity of the watch. Since we’re now in the studio, we have complete control over the environment as well as lighting so no concerns regarding shutter speed or ISO. The challenge here is getting the high magnification required for the layout while maintaining a practical working distance for lighting. I achieved that by using a 200mm lens with two extension tubes between the lens and camera totalling 44mm. This gave me the close focusing distance provided by the extension tubes for greater magnification and the increased working distance provided by the longer lens. You lose some light using the extension tubes but in the studio that’s not an issue. For the shallow depth of field, this was shot at f/5.6 and lit by a softbox to the right and a reflector to the left for fill.
So far we’ve seen two examples of macro photography highlighting both maximum depth of field and shallow depth of field. But what if the depth of field you need is greater than what can optically be achieved by the lens – either due to the shape or positioning of the subject, or the magnification required? That brings us to:
Assignment #3 – Grape Hyacinth Cluster
The Grape Hyacinth is a small purple flower that’s very common in ornamental gardens and I wanted to show the detail of the individual flowers in the cluster. The problem is that at the magnification required to show detail, even the smallest available aperture is insufficient to provide the necessary depth of field to keep the individual flowers sharp from front to back. To get that depth of field here, I used a technique called focus stacking. In a nutshell, you shoot a series of images at slightly different focus points and combine them in software to produce an image that is in focus from the first to the last focus point. Think of it as focus bracketing. For this image, I used a series of ten images shot with a 200mm lens at f/22. To carefully adjust focus and to be able to equally space the ten images through the field of focus, I used a focusing rail. An X-Y rail like this allows you to focus by moving the camera and lens toward and away from the subject in very small increments and also allows you to move the camera side to side for small adjustments to framing. I focused on the closest point I wanted in focus using the focus ring on the lens and then used the rail to focus on the farthest point I wanted in focus, noting the number of turns of the focusing knob that were required. In this case, it required four full turns. So each of the ten shots would require a focus adjustment of 1/4 turn between shots. So the sequence is:
- Focus on the closest point using the lens
- Shoot frame 1
- Turn the focus knob on the rail 1/4 turn
- Wait a few seconds for the assembly to settle and stop shaking
- Shoot frame 2
- and so on for ten frames
For those that specialize in focus stacked macro work, this process can be automated using a device like the StackShot. Note that vibration and camera shake can be a big problem so a cable release is essential as is allowing the camera to settle between adjustments. Also, a lightweight tripod won’t cut it for the precision and stability required for this. I used my studio tripod which weighs a ton but is rock solid. Lighting for this was from a softbox to the right and a reflector for fill. The images were then combined in Zerene Stacker to produce the final result.
So there you go. Three ways to do close-up work for different effects. There are, of course, many, many others as well as all sorts of ways to break the rules to get creative results. Some of my favourite macro shots have come from shooting hand held and wide open for example.
Hope you got something out of this and please share any insights or techniques you may have developed.