Macrophotography Workshop - 2015

In the old days of film photography and non-TTL flash, macrophotography was quite a big challenge... nowadays it has become so much easier that everybody is tempted to capture the microscopic world!

I definitely remember those old days... I was doing a lot of macrophotography back then.  The microscopic world was fascinating me!  I was so excited that I built a special macro gun and invented flash TTL even before Olympus to capture macroscopic living creatures!

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I have recently organised two macrophotographic workshops in Fernkloof Nature Reserve for the Hermanus Botanical Society and the Hermanus Photographic Society and I intend to organise another one in Silvermine, Cape Town before the end of November.  The workshop will be 4 hours and will cost R650 per person (min 4 - max 6).  Contact me if you are interested.

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By the way, "microscopic" and "macroscopic" are antonyms; the word "microscopic" describes something that is so small that it can only be seen with the aid of a microscope, while "macroscopic" refers either to something that can be seen with the naked eye or, alternatively, something that is large or immense in scale.

In photography, however, the terms "microscopic" and "macroscopic" are often synonyms.  Nikon even calls its macro lenses Micro-Nikkor!  Canon calls them macro lenses.

To make things simple, let's use the following conventions :

  • close-up photography for objects such as flowers or insects in close range so the subject you are photographing fills the frame
  • macro photography for subjects taken with a dedicated macro lens which has the capability of achieving 1:1 magnification without any accessories
  • micro photography when the camera is attached to a microscope

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Macro Gear

Once again, nowadays you will be able to do amazing close-up photography with any decent camera, even a smartphone with a good camera.  However, if you are really serious about getting even closer and getting high quality shots of the macroscopic world, then you will need to get some dedicated equipment.

  • macro lens... at least 200 mm dedicated macro lens - pro uses 200 mm
  • teleconverter... convert your 100 mm macro lens to 200 mm and increase the camera-subject distance
  • remote shutter release... cable or wireless 
  • articulated arm... to keep and place your subject in perfect focus plane
  • beanbag... useful for ground level shots
  • macro flash... dedicated macro flash if you budget allows or powerful LED ring flash
  • tripod... useful for high magnification factor above 1:1
  • extension tubes & bellow... for the expert only and magnification factor above 1:1
  • focusing rail... for ultimate comfort at magnification factor above 1:1

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Smartphone vs mirrorless vs DSLR

It is very tempting to use a smartphone to take close-up shots... I am often amazed by the quality and simplicity of shooting with my Samsung Note 4.  What I surely like the most is the live image of the subject on its huge 518 dpi OLED display... I would love that on my Nikon D800!  However the delay between pressing the shutter and the moment the photo is taken is often too long for moving subjects.

Soon we will have more and more full frame sensors on reasonably priced mirrorless cameras.

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Manual Focus vs Autofocus & Back button Focus

In general, I would advise you to keep the camera on manual focus, as the autofocus can often get lost in macrophotography.  In that case, you will first adjust the focus on the lens to compose the image at the correct distance, and then fine-tune the focus by varying the distance between the lens and the subject. And as you need to have a good grip on the camera, it is often easier to move your upper body with the camera... and hold your breath!

If you are a bit shaky and your camera offers burst mode, take several pictures so you can select the sharpest ones on the computer afterwards.

You can also use a monopod which combined with your 2 legs will make a quicker tripod instead of using a bulky tripod.  In that case, I would certainly recommend the type that can expand and collapse very quickly by simply pulling the telescopic tubes out or in by pushing on a button.

Image stabilization (IR) and Vibration Reduction (VR) are useless with live subjects like flowers, bugs and animals which are always moving. IR/VR can only counteract camera motion, not subject motion.  So you can shop for a second hand manual non IR/VR macro lens if your budget is tight.

There is another technique called back button focusing that advanced photographers use to focus by separating the focus and shutter activation of the shutter button.  It is very useful if the distance between the camera and the subject does not change.  If you use back button focus you can leave your finger on the focus button when in servo mode and it will automatically track the subject but if you take your finger off you then have instant manual focus.  Also if you’re doing macro work you can just focus with the lens and not have to keep changing your camera from autofocus to manual focus.

The following article explains how to set up back button focus on various Canon & Nikon cameras.

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Hand held vs tripod

With digital photography and good quality high ISO, the tripod often becomes cumbersome, even obsolete, especially for pictures taken in nature.  It is so much easier to hand hold your camera!

However, for serious macro photography with magnification ratio greater than 1, a tripod and focusing rail, or macro gun are a must.

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Natural light vs flashes

Once again, if your camera offers high quality high ISO, then go for it and compose with natural light.

Your camera popup flash will only help for close-up shots but not for macro as the lens will probably project a shadow on the subject, unless you can find one of those adaptors that channel the light to the subject.

Dedicated macro flashes are the best.  I personally use the Nikon Creative Light System with the R1C1... but this is quite an expensive option!

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Depth of Field (DOF)

The Depth of Field (DOF) is very shallow in macrophotography.  So the first temptation is to shoot with a very small aperture such as 16, 22 or 32, even sometimes 45 on very good macro lenses.  In such case, you must always keep an eye on the background so it is not getting too busy and distracting.

Because the DOF is so small, you should pay attention to keeping all of the important details of your subject in a plane parallel to the sensor.

In many cases, however, you can be very creative with larger aperture that creates a very soft focus effect.

Here is where you will have to experiment a lot...


Author: Paul Godard
Published Date: 21 Oct 2015
Tags : nature, wildlife, photography, macro, macrophotography, macro gear



Aimée Frederich on 01 Nov 2015

Paul, you do take this to a new level. Would be interested in a Macro Workshop, although I do not have a SLR camera, only a compact.
It would have to be in 2016. Till then, kind regards, Aimée.

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Paul Godard - Soul Photography, Cape Town - Windhoek