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Last Update: 07/23/13

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Macro Made Easy with a Digital SLR Camera:
I often get asked what techniques and equipment I recommend for someone new to macro & close-up photography.

So, here are a few of my personal thoughts on the subject. I hope to evolve this tutorial over time, but also want to keep it simple.

    
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What is Macro & Close-up Photography:

Basically, when you take photos of small things and make them look large. The appeal is allowing people to see details that are normally difficult to see with the naked eye.
Which lenses can I use with my DSLR:

Really Close

Crab Spider

Here are a few options as I see them:
 
Method Difficulty Results
Zoom lens with macro capability medium fair
- to -
good
Dedicated macro lens easy
- to -
medium
good
- to -
great
Zoom or Prime (fixed focal length) lens with extension tubes and/or teleconverters medium
- to -
difficult
fair
- to - great
Zoom or Prime lens with another prime lens reversed in front difficult fair
- to -
great
Which lens do you recommend:

Cardinal Profile

Clematis Up Close

Grasshopper

Grasshopper

Since this article is about "Macro Made Easy" I would recommend a dedicated macro lens.

To take it a step further, I think the easiest macro lens focal length range to use is 90mm to 105mm. This allows easily handheld shots at a good working distance. Yes, I said handheld!

A shorter focal length macro lens (50mm to 60mm) requires that you get closer to the subject to achieve highest magnification. This can be a bit more challenging with skittish subjects. Also, the wider angle will include more of the potentially distracting background making it harder to isolate the subject.

On the other hand a shorter focal length macro lens makes it easier to take handheld shots since you can use a slower shutter speed without seeing camera shake in the photos. They also may do better with diffused onboard flash since you are closer to the subject.

Longer focal length macro lenses are a bit harder to handhold because they tend to be heavier and require faster shutter speeds to avoid seeing camera shake in the photos.

On many DSLR systems (Canon, Nikon, etc) a shutter speed faster than 1/200 of a second (or so) requires high speed synchronization which some flash units (especially onboard units) cannot do.  If this is the case then you may need to use a tripod or monopod to effectively freeze the subject with a longer focal length lens.

Also, with a longer focal length lens the "external flash in the hot shoe with Softbox" solution I recommend below is not as effective since the working distance between the lens and the subject is greater. Using flash with longer focal lengths will tend to flatten (less depth) the look of the image since all of the light comes from the side.

On the other hand, a longer focal length lens will isolate the subject better resulting in a less distracting background in the image.

Should I use Flash:

Flower

Jumping Spider Story Part - 6


 

Flash helps freeze the subject which makes it much easier to handhold. So, keeping with the "Macro Made Easy" theme, flash use is recommended to keep things easy.  It also helps brighten the shadowy details that are often lost in natural light macros. It is best to diffuse the flash so that it is less likely to "blow out" light colored areas or reflect off shiny parts of the subject.

With the focal lengths suggested above, an external flash in the hot shoe, with a LumiQuest Softbox, make an excellent combination. If you still find the flash too strong see if your camera or external flash unit has Flash Exposure Compensation. I usually set it to -1/3 stop.

If you do not have an external flash, the onboard flash can be used. It is a good idea to still use something to diffuse the light. A sleeve made out of folded and taped thin paper (such as a coffee filter) can help. Try doubling up the material if you need more diffusion. You can also see if your camera offers Flash Exposure Compensation for the onboard flash to reduce the amount of light output if necessary.

Another option to diffuse the onboard flash is the Lumiquest Soft Screen. (No, I am not paid by Lumiquest, I just like their products)

There are times that natural light is preferred for macro. One example is when you want a brighter background since using flash often darkens the background. When this is the case use a tripod and use a low ISO to allow for greatest dynamic range. Your subject should be stationary so that you can use longer shutter speeds. Or you can use a wider aperture, to keep the shutter speed faster. Just remember that your depth of field decreases the wider the aperture setting.

One more note about flash use... check your histogram for proper exposure. If you need a bit more light (histogram is bunched to the left side) it is often best to use "flash exposure compensation" rather than changing the aperture or shutter speed. Some flash units have controls for this, otherwise you can make the adjustment in your camera. 

Auto focus or manual focus:
Tiny Hopper
That really depends on the lens you are using and the situation at hand.

Some macro lenses hunt for focus which makes it difficult, so manual focus ends up being easier. Other macro lenses auto focus quite well... at least in most situations.

When you are in low light conditions manual focus is usually required regardless of which lens you use.

What is the best way to manual focus:

Curious Mantis

Place the lens in manual focus mode. Frame the subject using the manual focus ring, press the shutter half way, and then move the camera slightly toward and then away from the subject until you see it in focus in the viewfinder. Then press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the photo.

This approach takes some practice, but offers reliable results. Just remember the slightest camera movement (like when pressing the shutter button) can drastically affect what ends up in focus in the resulting image.

What camera settings should I use:

Dreamsicle

Here are some settings to start with:
  1. Set the camera in manual exposure mode
  2. Turn the flash on and use a diffuser
  3. Set the shutter speed to your camera's maximum flash sync speed. If this does not effectively freeze the action then you may need to use high speed flash synch and a faster shutter speed if your flash unit allows.
    If using a 90mm to 105mm lens use 1/200
  4. Set aperture between f/11and f/16
    If your subject is further away then try f/8
  5. Set ISO to 100
What else do I need to know:

Lotus Elegance

Damsel Face

A few more things to consider:
  1. When working close with high magnification the depth of field becomes very shallow.  Often only part of your subject will be sharp which requires careful focusing to ensure the important things are in focus.
     
  2. If your subject has an eye, be sure that it is in the depth of field and sharp. This will give the impression that the image is sharp overall.
     
  3. With Digital SLR cameras diffraction starts to degrade the overall sharpness of the image starting with apertures higher than f/11. So, even though f/22 will give you more depth of field, the resulting image will be fairly soft.  On the other hand, the lower the aperture setting the shallower the depth of field. So, an aperture of f/2.8 will result in very little of your subject being in the acceptable depth of field.
     
  4. If your subject will not move or your macros are not coming out sharp, you may want to try a tripod and use the camera's timer or a shutter release cable. This will eliminate the chance of blur being introduced by camera movement and will let you experiment with different settings to help get sharper results.
What setup do you use for easy macros:

Huntley Meadows Park

I use the following for an easy macro setup:
  • Canon DSLR
  • Sigma 105mm dedicated macro lens
  • Canon 420EX or 580EX Flash with Lumiquest SoftBox
  • Handheld - shutter speed 1/200, aperture f/11 - f/16, ISO 100