Advancing your Macro Photography
Pursuing my strong interest in Macro photography, I decided devote some more time to advance my Macro skills in photographing insects, some with extension tubes, and here’s just a couple of thoughts for anyone interested in doing the same.
If you are completely new to Macro photography, read my previous post on Macro Photography for Beginners and Extension Tubes for Macro Photography. If your macro skills are already advanced. you may find my Setup for Macro Stacking post interesting.
First of all, I have to say that photographing insects is the most challenging kind of photography I’ve ever tried and there are several reasons for that. In my opinion, the most difficult aspects concern the fast nature of this kind of photography and composition.
As you would imagine, insects are not going to pose for your pictures and a good photo opportunity doesn’t last long. This is exactly what makes this kind of photography fast paced. Therefore, when approaching your object, you already have to be prepared, having the right settings, as you won’t have a great deal of time before you press the shutter release. It’s a good idea to take some test shots first and decide on the right aperture, shutter speed and the flash power (if you choose to shoot Manual). Obviously, you can always fine tune the setting before the final capture but, like I said, you won’t have a lot of time to do this.
Secondly, depending on how close you want to get, you have to bear in mind that some insects can be quite skittish so you always have to keep a reasonable distance. This is also what limits your control in terms of composition. As I said before, you have very little time to decide on the settings and composition so the longer you spend positioning your camera, the more you risk to lose your subject. Speaking from my own experience, it’s best to start shooting from a reasonable distance and then slowly get closer and closer, trying to make as less noise as possible, until you are satisfied with magnification and composition. Remember, it’s always better to shoot from a greater distance and model the composition by cropping your picture in postproduction, than get too close, scare your subject and not to take the picture at all. Also, bear in mind that your gear can sometimes make some noise which may scare off your insects. That’s why I bought a quiet lense with internal focusing.
Finally, using extension tubes gives you greater magnification but makes the process far more difficult. The closer you get the smaller the aperture you have to shoot with, in order to get a reasonable DOF (depth of field), and the smaller working distance (the minimum distance between your subject and the lens) you have to work with. Secondly, when using extension tubes, autofocus is absolutely useless and you will have to focus manually by either turning the focus ring or by moving your camera closer or further away from your subject. Remember, at great magnification levels even the smallest and insignificant shake may affect the sharpness. I personally find the tubes really challenging and would recommend some kind of support such as a tripod or at least a monopod. Obviously, tripods are too bulky for this kind of photography but a monopod may be a good idea. If you are using tubes compatible with a CPU lens, such as Kenko extension tubes, macro photography is way easier. These tubes transfer the information from the lens to the camera and vice versa, making it possible to shoot with small apertures but still gat a clear view through the viewfinder. However, these tubes are far more expensive than ordinary extension tubes. Shooting with non-CPU tubes makes it more difficult as you will have to control the aperture manually on your lens and smaller apertures make the view much darker. However, they are far less expensive making macro photography affordable. I personally ditched the tubes and invested money in a 2x teleconverter.
Remember, do not expect perfection and don’t get discouraged if you fail to take perfectly focused and exposed pictures at first. Practice makes perfect and this should guide you throughout your macro experience. There is a lot of things you can tweak in postproduction such as exposure, clarity, sharpness, saturation and even depth of field and composition. Like other kinds of photographs, not many macro shot come out perfect straight from the camera. Postproduction is an important part of macro photography and there are many ways you can improve your pictures. Just remember to shoot in RAW.
Final word of advice. At some point in your Macro journey, you will probably experience an irresistible urge to get closer and closer. You will consider attaching sets of extension tubes, teleconverters and reversed lenses to your macro lens (which all cost money and make your setup bulky) and, if you are a Canon shooter, even consider buying the MP-E 65mm lens to get 5x magnification level. Remember this though. The grater the magnification level the more challenging it becomes to capture a sharp image handheld. It is very difficult to capture an insect at 3x, 4x and 5x magnification level out there in the open with the light you have available as it requires a great deal of skills. Instead of launching straight into extreme macro, start with a 1:1 magnification levels. Once you get the hang of it, then attach one extension tube to see what results you can achieve with it and what you need to learn and improve. Once you are happy with your pictures, attach another one and so on. What I’m trying to say is that launching into extreme macro straight away and not being successful may quickly discourage you from macro and you may abandon it altogether. Learn step by step and develop the skills leading to greater magnifications.
For more insights, ideas and inspirations visit the following Flickr groups:
as well as some of the most talented macro photographers on Flickr (my personal inspirations):
Finally make sure you have a look at the following sites full of useful tips and advice on Macro photography:
Thanks a lot for reading and good luck with your Macro photography.
Update: As of 2016, I’ve had the most success with the setup pictured below (especially when I’m shooting out in the open). I’m using a dedicated 105mm Macro lense with a 2x teleconverter on a full frame body. It’s not the lightest gear for shooting outdoors but it delivers very good results and a decent magnification level. I have seen people using a mirorless camera with dedicated macro lenses to reduce the size and the weight but this may be quite an expensive option. The teleconverter doubles the focal length and significantly magnifies the objects, while keeping the same working distance (unlike extension tubes). A full frame body produces an image big enough to crop it in post production if you fail to frame your subject properly the first time. Finally, the wireless speedlight system delivers consistent, reliable and strong source of light which is very important. I also started to shoot with larger apertures f/12-20 and bump up my ISO to 1000+. I also had very little success with tripods and some success with monopods so now I’m wearing knee pads to make sure I can comfortably kneel on the ground and stabilise my camera with my elbows resting on my knees. I’ve heard criticism regarding this setup saying that a teleconverter produces inferior images and larger apertures produce diffraction but to be honest with you I never noticed anything inferior about my macro shots and I always compare them with the ones I captured at smaller apertures without a teleconverter.
and the result:
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