Review: Macro Photography

Macro photography is one of those things that I think you either love or hate. It’s not for everyone (just google Trypophobia), but with the right subject, a good macro photo can be one of the most satisfying photos to take.

The definition of a macro photo is one that is taken of something at an extremely close range (typically of small subjects -- think flowers, and insects). The practice has been around at least since the beginning of the 20th century, when lenses were manufactured with much more precision and for specific purposes.

What do you need to take Macro-Photos

Taking Macro shots is a little more difficult than one might expect, and the barrier for entry usually requires spending a little bit more money than for a decent portrait lens, for instance.

Macro Lenses Usually these lenses have a 60-85mm focal length, with about an f/ of 2.8. Having a focal length in this range is typical for optimizing high reproduction ratios (image size: subject size), and for maintaining a proximity where you’re not too far, but not too close to your subject. However for insects or smaller subjects, macro lenses at 150+mm focal lengths are common (to limit proximal length). The nice thing about these lenses (at least more modern lenses) is they usually include focusing up to infinity, with very crisp focus-points for autofocusing, making them speedy and precise prime portrait lenses.

Alternatives: Telephoto Lenses For professional shots with the most crisp focus points, you really can’t avoid using a a macro-specific lens. This doesn’t mean that you need a macro lens when you’re starting out though. On most telephoto lenses (budget or otherwise -- Canon is most known for this in my mind), on the underside of the lens, you will see a suggested macro length. For canon this is usually spelled out as “MACRO --m/--ft.” This gives you an idea of how far away you should be from the subject when attempting a macro shot. Typically, when shooting macro with a telephoto, you’ll want to use a base or tripod to avoid any shaking. You’ll find you can still take some passable shots with this system, but your level of detail and depth of field will not be as great as it could be with a true macro lens.

Depth of field is the big issue here. When you’re taking a macro shot of saw a flower with a telephoto lens, at a higher focal length, depth of field is significantly reduced to possible mere millimeters, which is a problem for maintaining a crisp shot through out. You can get a little more depth by reducing the aperture, but this can drastically limit the amount of light coming in.

This photo, taken with an Olympus OM-D EM5 MKII, with their 60mm F2.8 Macro lens would not be possible with a telephoto. There would be no way to keep most of the petals in focus at a greater distance.

Alternatives: Lens Stacking Another method to take a macro shot is to use a lens directed backwards by placing it at the end of a standard lens (i.e. stacking lenses). For the best results, the lenses should have an offset of focal lengths by about double (the inverted lens needs to have a smaller focal length of the standard-mounted lens). A “Macro coupler” (a double sided threaded-cap to threaded lens adapter) can be used to join the lenses together in this way. If for whatever reason these are hard to find, you can also make them yourself from two sets of old lens filters by gluing them together. But you must ensure these can handle the weight of the backwards lens. Reverse rings, a mount which attaches to your camera, with a threaded connector on one side can also work (but the magnification will be significantly less when compared to a macro-coupled system).

Backward lenses can create some beautiful effects, however the level of image distortion can in some cases be undesirable (just too much for a clear shot). You will also need to make sure you have ample light in your scene. This is true of all macro photography, but for reversed lenses, to get the right depth of field will require a narrow aperture, which means more light than you might think is typically needed.

-- article by Alexander Tri