Macro photography adds a wonderful dimension that allows us to see beyond the norm, no matter what your interests may be, natural or man made. And you don’t have to spend a lot of time traveling, backyards offer a huge number of potential subjects. Don’t have a yard, head to a nearby park. Let’s see what we need to have some fun with this.
Now you need to have a SLR(single lens reflex camera), film or digital because there are a few lens options you might want to explore. Having said that, a “normal” (not macro, which just has built in extension to focus close) lens can work for many macro applications. Starting with the simplest and generally least expensive way to get a closer view is to use screw- on lenses usually called diopters. They come in increasing magnifications, listed as +1,+2, +3, etc. These can be stacked for additional magnification, start with the strongest next to the lens, add the next strongest and so on. Easy to use but with a very real caution, adding another layer of glass to even a good lens can degrade the resulting image. The best of the diopter add- ons are two-element lenses and are corrected to give better edge to edge sharpness and will give better results than the less expensive single element lenses. Nikon no longer makes their iteration of these but they are still available on line. Canon still manufactures a two-element supplementary lens.
Now for the standard way of gaining extension for close focus work. Extension tubes and or a bellows unit which fit between lens and camera allow a lens (normal or macro) to focus closer than the lens alone but will not allow that lens focus to infinity. A bellows unit is an adjustable device that, if you work close to home can be a useful addition to your photo tools with a couple of caveats, they are rarely meter coupled and are somewhat fragile. Novoflex does make meter coupled bellows. With several extension tubes a wide range of magnifications are possible as they come in a variety of lengths from very thin (small extension) to quite long (more extension) and they can be stacked to gain even more magnification. We have found that tubes of 27.5mm, 14mm, and 8mm seems to offer the variety necessary. They are usually meter coupled, are easily transported and so are much better for field work than bellows. Meter coupling is important because it allows you to focus and frame with the lens wide open as additional extension allows less light to reach the viewfinder and a bright viewfinder is a godsend if you are trying to capture images of moving subjects.
What you want to shoot is what will define the equipment you will need. If you are a dedicated generalist, like me, you may need to cover all the bases. Good images are not possible without a SLR, so that different lenses with some form of extension can be used.. A good tripod (inexpensive will suffice for a bit, but they are not stable enough for quality work), and some way to control light are also necessary. Close up flash is somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but it is very useful to know how to use flash, both for fill or to stop movement. A very beneficial item for light control is a reflector, to open up shadows, could be anything that directs soft light (not a mirror) but be careful of colored reflectors, you don’t want to overwhelm natural color, unless that is what you intend. Something to shade the subject and surrounding area is also needed for cooling hot spots or giving even light, an umbrella works very well for this, a white one can be excellent.
To reduce camera movement, some way to trigger the shutter without actually touching the shutter release at the moment of exposure is needed. A self timer or shutter delay works well for static subjects, a remote, either wireless or electronic is far better as either will allow you to view the subject up to the moment of exposure. To keep things from swaying in the breeze a unique item, called the Plamp, plastic camps joined by a jointed arm, will allow you to safely clamp a plant stem (among other things) to stabilize the subject. Another item I find very useful when working on static subjects is a focusing rail. This is a rack and pinion device used for precision focusing when using a tripod. If you have spent time continually adjusting a tripod to frame the subject perfectly then you will appreciate a focusing rail.
While I enjoy photographing stationary objects, the real fun of macro is to use camera and lens to stalk and capture moving critters, outside, in the “wild”. This is where working distance is very important. Working distance is simply the distance from lens to subject. For some subjects that distance is not too important, other than possibly affecting your ability to control the light if the lens to subject distance is quite small. Try getting close enough to, say a butterfly moving from flower to flower with a 40 or 50mm lens. So, the shorter the lens, the shorter the working distance. Macro lenses are roughly in the 50-60mm, 90-105mm, 180-200mm range, and while a 105mm lens can be adequate for camera hunting, a lens in the 180-200mm gives you a lot more breathing room. If you aren’t using a full frame camera you also reap the benefit of the additional punch from a smaller sensor. For example, the Nikons we use have a “crop” factor of .5 so that 200mm lens becomes in effect a 300mm lens with no loss of lens speed.
There is little difference in photographing an insect moving through its world and trying to get an image of any other wild animal. Knowing something of the behavior of your subject, your ability to approach and capture an image that tells of a life far different than ours are the same, no matter how large or small.
I love the sense of freedom hand holding my camera following a subject without the hassle of a tripod gives me. For a still life image capture autofocus isn’t very useful. It may not focus on what you feel is the strongest element of that image. AF is a life saver when chasing down that butterfly. The real game changers in all of this are the high ISO, low noise cameras and optically stabilized lenses giving us fast, stable, very portable tools to chase down our vision.
An old photography saying has been “get close and then get closer”, now you can get closer still.