Close-ups, photos with a short distance between the lens and the subject and a large image scale, are commonly referred to as macro images. We have put together some tips for you below so that you can capture really nice macro images.
Flowers and insects are by far the most popular subjects in macro photography. Close-ups are particularly effective in capturing nature scenes rich in color and detail. And if you first start “practicing” with stationary objects, such as leaves and flowers, you’ll have plenty of time to make thorough preparations.
The macro range
Photographic images are categorized according to the size of the image scale, which is defined as the ratio between the image size and the object size.
Image scale = Image size / Object size
In other words, the image size is the measurement of the film negative or the size of the image sensor with digital cameras.
Example: When using a 35mm camera (image size 24x36mm), we achieve the image scale 1:1, if we capture our subject in full-frame exposure 24x36mm, i.e., the entire matte screen surface is covered. Digital cameras that usually feature a smaller sensor allow you to capture correspondingly smaller subjects with an image scale of 1:1.
“Normal photography” uses image scales less than 1:10. Macro photography ranges between an image scale of 1:10 and 10:1. An even larger image scale (larger than 10:1) is referred to as micro photography, which can only be achieved using special macro lenses or microscopes.
If the captured image is subsequently printed or enlarged on photographic paper, the original image scale compared to the photographed object naturally changes again.
The minimum focus distance
Each lens offers a focus range within which images can be focused. The shortest possible adjustable range is the minimum focus distance. It is always measured from the film or image sensor plane, which is marked on the housing of many cameras. All distance specifications on the lens focusing scale refer to this plane. The front lens or lens hood is also significantly closer to the subject than the distance set on the lens.
Depth of focus
Due to the low depth of focus in the close-up and macro range, images must be precisely focused. With three dimensional subjects, you must carefully consider which area is to be focused to capture the best image possible. You frequently have to stop down several apertures, for example, to 16 or 22, in order to render a sufficiently large focus range.
The “what” and “how” of a macro image also influences the out-of-focus effect: the right combination of aperture, focal length and shooting distance, etc. makes up a key artistic element. An out-of-focus background removes insignificant distracting details from the main subject and produces a much more vivid image.
The image’s out-of-focus areas play a key role in its composition. These image properties, however, are more aesthetic and therefore purely subjective. The benefits of using out-of-focus areas cannot be as easily described with figures as in the case with the focused image.
Don’t let your own photo experiments make you insecure. You should hone your technique regularly and experiment with your own style. You will gain greater insight, allowing you to correctly capture your images.
Due to the parallax between the image seen through the viewfinder and the detail of the photograph actually captured, analog range-finder cameras are not very suitable for macro images. Although compact digital cameras display the exact image section on their monitors and close up as well as frequently offer lenses with a very good close-up range. The integrated flash, however, is usually not very efficient for close-ups and in most cases external (macro) flashes cannot be used with these cameras. As a result, you have to rely on one or more continuous light sources to illuminate smaller subjects.
Reflex cameras and mirrorless system cameras
Analog and digital reflex cameras (SLR = Single Lens Reflex) and mirrorless system cameras (e.g. MFT, Sony NEX models) are best suited for macro photography. In addition to the advantages provided by the viewfinder or in the display, for example, optimum control of the image section and distribution of sharpness, there is also a wide range of special macro lenses, extension tubes, bellows, close-up lenses, macro lenses and other accessories.
Anyone who enjoys macro photography will most likely consider acquiring a special lens at some point. Don’t try to save money at the wrong place here, as macro images not only immediately reflect the photographer’s skills, the lens’s quality also play a vital role in taking nice pictures.
Macro lenses usually have fixed focal lengths, such as 50 or 100 mm. Compared to zoom lenses, the advantage fixed focal lengths offer is that they have a very precise construction and allow you to optimize the spherical aberration (imaging errors) and bokeh.
Bokeh comes from Japanese and means “out of focus” and “blur”. When people discuss bokeh, there are referring to the quality of the image’s out-of-focus areas: how the out-of-focus areas look correlates to “good” or “bad” bokeh.
Schematic bokeh diagram for point light sources:
Left: Bad bokeh typically has light scattered in the shape of a donut. There is a bright ring on the outer edge and the center is darker.
Center: Neutral bokeh, light is scattered uniformly and is clearly defined.
Right: Good bokeh, light is scattered uniformly and softly disappears.
The bokeh a lens creates depends on many factors, such as the behavior of the spherical aberration. The shape and number of aperture blades also play a role. More blades provide an opening approximately circular in shape – with 5 blades, the opening has a more square effect than with 7 or 9 blades. All ZEISS SLR lenses have 9 aperture blades. Highlights in the fore and background are rendered in a more circular shape and therefore appear more harmonious. But that’s not everything. Other factors, which are not even influenced by the lens, also play a role.
The following aspects affect the phenomena outside the focal plane, i.e., the blurriness or bokeh. However, only the points listed above are directly caused by the lens:
• Camera format
• Focal length
• Focal ratio
• Distance between camera and main subject
• Distance between fore and background
• Shapes, pattern and colors of the subject
• Brightness in the fore and background
• Aperture shape (which is formed by the number of aperture blades)
• The lens correction
• The initial opening of the lens
• Lens quality (glass purity, type of coating)
Thanks to the extra long helical mounts, modern macro lenses can achieve an image scale of 1:2 without requiring any other accessories. Their imaging properties are especially optimized for short distances, making them the first choice for most close-up applications.
Macro lenses with various focal lengths are used, depending on the application. Using the same image scale with a macro lens that has a shorter focal length, you have to zoom in closer to the subject than when using a lens with a longer focal length.
The Makro-Planar from Carl Zeiss
Both models use a newly developed optical design with floating elements for superior imaging performance throughout the entire focusing range. Together with their high resolution capability, minimum distortion, very low color aberration and extremely little vignetting, these macro lenses are reference lenses in virtually all areas of photography, even outside the close-up range.
The Makro-Planar T* 2/50 achieves its largest image scale with a minimum focus distance of 24 cm. This puts you right up close to your subject when capturing macro images. This lens, for example, is excellently suited to render all possible patterns, such as postcards, photos and drawings. You can also use this lens as a lightweight telephoto lens for portraits with digital cameras featuring image sensors in APS-C format and an apparent focal length extension factor of 1.5 to 1.7.
The Makro-Planar T* 2/100 is a true all-rounder and an excellent choice for digital cameras with a 35mm sensor in particular. The extremely precise focusing mechanics feature an especially large rotation angle and the one-of-kind brightness of 1: 2, allowing you to focus on the subject’s important details. Due to the longer focal length, you’ll find yourself considerably farther away from the subject with the largest image scale possible. The minimum focus distance is 44 cm. This allows you to zoom in on animals without having to get very close. You can also maintain a comfortable distance to your model when taking portraits.
Bellows and close-up lenses
When it comes to macro photography, extension bellows are the most flexible assistants a photographer can have. They can be used with practically all fixed focal length lenses, macro lenses and magnifying lenses, allowing you to push the limits of macro photography with an image scale of up to 10:1.
Close-up lenses are screwed onto the front thread of the lens and also allow you to zoom in extremely close to the subject. Due to the enhanced imaging quality, an achromatic lens (made of two lenses bonded together) should be considered a close-up lens.
In the next segment of our tips and tricks article on macro photography, we will cover practical aspects and provide examples explaining how to take full-frame pictures of small subjects as well as provide you with more useful tips and tricks.