Friday, April 11, 2014

Very Small Rocks: Macro Photography Basics

Macro Photography Basics

Baby reduviid 

You may have noticed that I kinda have a thing for arthropods. Okay, maybe not "kind of", but definitely certainly. Quite frankly, I love bugs. And while I believe that insects are amazing photography subjects, I realize that macro photography is not as intuitive as other forms of nature photography. Firstly, you need specialized equipment (should I do a post on this? Let me know). Secondly, you need to understand the technical hang-ups with macro work. Finally, you need to really like small things.

So what even is macro photography?

There is actually a technical definition of a "macro" lens - it must render the subject with a 1:2 or 1:1 reproduction ratio. In other words, the subject must be at least half as large on the film as it is in real life. Make sense? (Note: Some sources only consider 1:1 ratios to be true 'macro', but I believe that this is nitpicking).

Dew-laden flowers

Okay, so besides being small, what's the difference?

The main technical difficulty of macro photography is learning how to handle the magnification power of the lens. In short, the extreme magnification creates problems for the photographer.

1. Focusing Problems

At very high magnifications, the depth of field becomes very shallow. Thus it is imperative to focus your images carefully. A few millimeters' change in the focal plane can create entirely different images. Pay close attention that your desired subject is actually the point in the frame you are focusing on. I would recommend using manual focus. As a corollary to this tip, a tripod is helpful in ensuring that you don't accidentally twitch and move your subject out of focus.

Hornet Clearwing Moth
You can see in the image above how shallow the depth of field is. Unless this is the look you are going for, I would suggest stopping down to a very small f-stop to maximize your available depth. 
(If the above discussion about depth of field is confusing you, you may want to head over here to read my article about f-stops.)

2. Choosing the Right Subject

I've spoken (and written) before about how I believe there are 3 main components of a good photograph: lighting, subject, and composition. Depending on the type of photography, these individual elements attain greater or lesser importance. For macro photography, I believe that choosing an appropriate subject is paramount.

Parasitized Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar
You should seek out subjects with interesting patterns, textures, or behaviors. Okay, you say, I'm supposed to be doing that anyway. And that's true -  but the key here is to discover subjects that are not easily appreciated with the naked eye. With the magic of your macro lens, you are transporting the viewer to place she cannot otherwise go. In short, your camera becomes a tool with which to expose a hidden world. In my obvious opinion, insects make wonderful macro subjects, as their bodies are etched with color and detail we rarely notice at our native scale.

Hover fly
3. Lighting Difficulties

Because of the issues discussed in tip #1, macro photographers often stop down very far. This results in little available light to shoot with, and thus blurry images. To combat this problem, many photographers choose to use flash to illuminate their macro images. Personally, I prefer the appearance of natural light in photographs. However, if you like flash - go for it! But don't let anyone try to convince you that you "need" expensive lighting gear to undertake macro photography. None of my images are shot with flash.

Parting words:

So there are a few technical challenges posed by macro photography, but they are not insurmountable, even for beginning photographers. Overall, the same basics of light, subject, composition hold true with this, and any, genre of photography. While equipment can be expensive, there are entry-level devices that can help elevate your images to the realm of small (macro lenses are even available for smart phones now). Would you like me to write a post about macro equipment? Let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, it's insect season again! Get out there, and get CLOSE.

If you're interested, in this article, I talk briefly about finding great insect subjects.

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