Now that you have learned the technical fundamentals and about macro lenses in the first installment of our Tips and Tricks in Macro Photography article we would like to show you some practical aspects in the second part. We will use some examples to explain how to take full-frame pictures of the smallest subjects.
Capturing images of small and minute subject details largely plays a pivotal role in medicine (e.g., pathology, dermatology, forensic medicine), botany, zoology, paleontology, mineralogy, material testing, criminalistics as well as semiconductor technology and electronics. The imaging and lighting technology required for this are also excellent for recreational photography. For example, for documenting collector’s items, reproductions or for delving into the fantastic world of insects, surface structures or miniature technology. Macro photography can create a completely new perspective both for the photographer as well as the observer.
Depth of focus and light loss in the close-up range and some more theory
In order to achieve sufficient depth of focus when taking pictures of three dimensional objects, the lens must frequently be significantly stopped down, e.g., aperture 11 or 16. If possible, the aperture should not be closed any further (e.g., to 32). This indeed increases the depth of focus, but the diffraction effects reduce the image quality.
For good general sharpness, select the optimum or a medium aperture, for example, one between f/4 and f/11 with ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/50 or ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/100 (each with an aperture range of f/2 – f/22).
Light loss also occurs in the lens with large reproduction scales. For example, with a reproduction scale of 1:1, an exposure time must be increased by two time steps or the aperture must be opened by two stops for capturing an image outside of the macro range with identical lighting conditions. If the camera’s TTL internal metering is used, it automatically takes the light loss into consideration accordingly.
Even with good lighting conditions, this frequently leads to exposure times that make it difficult to keep holding the camera steady or result in motion blur, even with leaves moving slowly in the wind.
When capturing macro images by hand, there is also a risk that you may move the depth of focus range that you just carefully selected when taking the picture. A photographer should therefore use a tripod or at least prop up the camera or lens.
You should also use the delayed action shutter release or remote release so that no blurring occurs when triggering the exposure. If your camera features this option, select the mirror-up mode so that the camera’s flap cannot cause any vibration.
Preparing the set-up
Before you start the photo session, arrange everything you need for the picture. For example, large sheets of colored or black paper as the background, a water spray bottle for dew effects on the blossom and a soft brush to remove dust. You can then focus on capturing the image without being distracted searching for accessories.
When setting up the macro image, also consider the apparent naturalness, such as dust particles or finger prints on smooth surfaces. If you want to take a picture of a blossom, make sure to find nearly perfect healthy petals. Every small flaw in close-up photography is highly visible and particularly conspicuous.
The right light
Make sure the lighting is even and soft. You can do so using professional studio lights or with external flashes with advanced soft boxes that produce a particularly soft light. You can, however, also use daylight or household lights. Here, it is import to create the correct white balance that is adjusted to the light. Also pay attention to how the shadows run. In particular, artificial light sources with a small reflective surface can also create hard shadows that can be distracting in the image. Brightening elements made of Styrofoam, a white box or aluminum foil soften shadows and reduce the lighting contrast without creating additional reflections.
Ring flashes are very practical as universal light sources for the macro range. They usually consist of the actual ring flash, i.e., one or more curved flash tubes, whose mount is attached on the lens’s front thread and the control unit with the controls and power supply.
The flash power of a ring flash provides lighting up to a distance of approximately 1.5 meters. Flashes have the undisputed advantage that they can be used on the camera with short exposure times thanks to their high light output (e.g., the camera’s synchronous time is approximately 1/125s). This allows you to take sharp pictures of moving subjects, such as insects, even in the macro range.
Special macro flashes featuring two or more separate small reflectors allow very creative directed lighting. You can set up the shot using main, fill-in or background light and the associated brightening elements in a miniature scale similar to a large studio flash system with several flash heads.
With still life shots, reproductions or professional photos, however, the exposure time only plays a minor role. Here, you can easily use permanent light sources, such as daylight tubes or electroluminescent sources. The character of these lighting sources, which is similar to daylight, allows you to capture images on common film material without any color cast or requiring additional filters on the lens. It also lets you perform an automatic or manual white comparison with digital cameras. This also allows you to use them with flashes.
The image’s sharpest point is an important creative element: that is where the viewer’s attention is first drawn and he continuously wanders back to it.
Sometimes using a large depth of focus can be quite effective in macro photography, but it is not always possible. However, it frequently does not yield a desired effect. As an image usually does without superfluous elements or only shows them subtlety and guides the viewer’s gaze to the key aspects of the subject.
Make sure to consider exactly what part of your subject should be focused. Carl Zeiss lenses that can be manually focused with extreme precision are the first choice when purposefully setting the focal point. Even with autofocus lenses, it is wise to switch off the autofocus function, since the desired focal point is usually not directly an autofocus field of view.
Emphasize the details
The depth of focus range with a large aperture, such as f/2, is particularly small. This deliberately draws the viewer’s attention to specific details. Take your pictures with aperture priority (Av or A) – this lets you control the aperture as well as the depth of focus. The camera’s automatic functions perform the rest and provide the correct exposure.
Practice objects and image design
The technical know-how and the suitable equipment alone are no guarantees for good macro photos. It takes more than technical precision to take a successful captivating macro photo. It also requires the photographer’s unique perspective. The “aha effect” triggered in the viewer when he looks at this image for the first time also plays a role.
When you take an exact look at each plant and every animal, you will find an abundance of shapes and structures and therefore a number of possibilities for pictures. Leaves provide a particularly good example of this. You can continuously find new, graphic and structural expressive details.
Since plants and leaves are usually rather patient subjects (at least with little wind) and there is usually light outdoors, they are an excellent choice as practice objects to put the technical knowledge you have have gained into practice.
The basic rules for image design should be taken into consideration here. Dividing the image according to the “golden ratio”, placing the subject outside of the center of the image so that there is more space visible in the image “towards the line of sight” and deliberately selecting the section usually dramatically increases the image effect.
Taking pictures of small animals requires somewhat more practice, as they rarely “stand still”, making the image design and focusing more difficult. By quickly reacting, using a smaller aperture for a larger depth of focus and using flashes, you can take spontaneous pictures with your hand.