Macro Photography for Beginners
It’s been over 6 months since I bought my first macro lens, therefore, I decided to write about my experience with macro photography and share some insights for all of you photographers out there thinking of taking some macro shots in the nearest future.
Macro photography is a kind of close-up photography that deals with capturing small objects at big magnification levels. This kind of pictures are usually captured with a macro lens. There are other ways of taking macro pictures, using extension tubes with an ordinary lens, reversing lenses etc. but this post will focus specifically on macro photography using a macro lens such as Sigma and Nikon 105mm.
As I mentioned before, there are many ways of taking Macro pictures, however, a true and quality 1:1 Macro can be only achieved using a macro Lens. Therefore, if you want to capture stunning macro images, you should definitely invest in one. The decision which one to buy will be obviously determined by the kind of budget you have available. If you have plenty of cash at your disposal, go for the more expensive brand names such as Nikon or Canon, as they are definitely worth paying a little bit extra and the image quality they produce is exceptional. However, if your budget is limited, then definitely go for a third-party macro lens. Here the market is largely dominated by two names Sigma and Tamron. Before I bought my Macro lens, I did a great deal of research. Reading countless reviews and internet forums dealing with Macro photography, I came to conclusion that they are both good and deliver great images. The only drawback they have is that, unlike Nikon or Canon, they do not always have internal focusing.
Another essential thing you need to consider, when buying a macro lens, is the focal length. The longer the focal length of your Macro lens, the greater working distance you will be able to achieve. This means that the minimum distance between the lens and the object you are photographing will be greater. This is very important for two reasons. First of all, the closer to your object you get, the more natural light you are likely to block. Secondly, if you are planning to shoot insects and other skittish creatures, you will be able to keep a reasonable distance without risking to scare them off.
Most professional macro photographers will tell you that 105mm is an ideal focal length to start macro photography. Unfortunately, 105mm Nikon Micro or 100mm Canon Macro lenses cost a little fortune, compared to cheaper third-party ones such as Sigma or Tamron. Now, you may compromise and get a shorter focal length such as Nikon 60mm or 85mm but this will significantly shorten the working distance. Like I said, the decision which one to get will be determined by your budget. Also, ask yourself what kind of photography you want to capture. If you are going to photograph mainly flowers, the shorter focal length may not be that much of an issue. If you are going for nature insect macro, then longer working distance is absolutely essential.
Since macro photography captures images at great magnification levels, even the slightest and insignificant camera shake will affect your images. Moreover, you will probably shoot your pictures handheld, without having to carry a cumbersome tripod with you. Therefore, you will need to shoot at shutter speed ranging from 1/100s. to 1/200s. Additionally, to achieve reasonable depth of field, your aperture will range between f/8 to f/10. At this shutter speed and aperture, even on a sunny day, you won’t be able to lit your subject without an external source of light, such as a speedlight. Use a professional range speedlight such as Nikon Sb-600, Sb-800 or Sb-900, which all have a TTL shooting mode. Once you have a go at macro photography and decide that you want to pursue it further, you may want to invest in the Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-up System. If your camera has a pop-up flash which can be used in ‘commander’ mode, you can trigger these two flashes with it, without the need to buy the SU-800 controller.
Lots of patience
Macro photography requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. It’s not easy to capture great macro images due to the fact that this kind of photography is fast paced and you have limited control in terms of composition. If you are shooting nature macro, including insects and other skittish creatures, you can’t simply ask them to pose for your pictures the way you want them and a good photo opportunity doesn’t last long. Insects get scared off easily so you can’t even manoeuvre around them to get a good angle. Also, the time of the day you going to take pictures also matters. If you are shooting insects, you may want to do it early in the morning (around sunrise) or late afternoon (before sunset). Insects tend to be much less mobile when the temperature drops slightly during these times of the day. However, bear in mind that the sky needs to be clear otherwise there won’t be much light around.
A good technique
Apart from the technical knowledge, you will also need to work on your individual technique. As I mentioned before, initially you will be shooting handheld. Therefore, you will need to shoot at 1/100s. to 1/200s shutter speed, depending on the level of magnification you are using. Then, if you want to achieve really shallow depth of field, blurring everything in the background, use f/4 to f/6 apertures. Remember, big apertures achieve shallow depth of field but retaining only a small area of the image in focus. Therefore, if your object stretches across the image in a perspective manner, you will need to use smaller apertures such as f/8 to f/10 to get everything sharp. Again, a little experimentation will get you there.
Getting the right focus is probably the most challenging part of macro photography. Most macro photographers say that autofocus in Macro photography is useless and focus manually. I rarely have problems with autofocus and use it quite often to fine tune the sharpness in my images but that’s due to the fact that I use a good lens. However, I use it only when I shoot at 1:2 magnification levels. The technique I use is a combination of manual and auto focusing. First, I set my lens and camera to manual focus. Then, as I get closer to the object I’m photographing, I focus by turning the ring of my lens. This also allows me to control the level of magnification I want to achieve. Once I achieve a sharp image, I turn the switch on my camera to autofocus and press the shutter half way to autofocus. Once my camera is focused, I take the picture. This is my individual technique I managed to improve and achieve good results with. Like most Macro photographers, you may want to try to focus manually. Just set your camera and lens focus mode to manual, press the shutter button half way through and focus by getting closer to or further away from (rocking forward and backwards) to the object. Once you achieve a sharp image, press the shutter release button all the way.
You may increase the magnification level of your lens by attaching extension tubes to it. If you are interested in trying them out, please read my previous post on Extension Tubes in Macro Photography. Personally, I find extension tubes extremely difficult to handle out there in the open, while I’m photographing insects. They extend your lens, shorten the working distance and make it difficult to get close.
For inspiration visit the following Flickr groups dealing with Macro photography:
Once again thanks for reading and good luck with your photography.
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