5 Major Tips For Shooting Great Macro (Close Up) Photography

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Macro (close up) photography is extremely rewarding when your audience is blown away and captivated by the unique perspective and amazing fine details of your captures. You will find some really great reasons to follow the recommended tips below and hopefully discover some tricks and techniques to help improve your Macro Photography.

1. Make sure you have the proper gear to shoot macro

  • Get a true high quality Macro Prime Lens. These lenses are designed to capture high quality photographs at a 1:1 reproduction ratio which is a huge technical engineering achievement in itself. Also, a macro lens can shoot much smaller aperture settings without too much diffraction (softening) to maximize the depth of view and capture as much close up detail as possible. Furthermore, because these prime lenses are fixed focal length, you do not have to worry about the variable in-camera micro fine tune focus adjustments necessary (assuming your camera can has the option to set this) to obtain optimal focus as you would across the focal range of a zoom lens.
    • When selecting a macro prime lens, try to pick one that has a focal length of 90mm or more. The longer focal length will provide you with a bit more working distance between the lens and the subject when shooting animated objects such as insects which will be scared off by a lens protruding towards them.
    • Considering price, picture quality, focal length and features, I recommend the new Tamron AF SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro lens. It not only delivers superb macro details at a 1:1 reproduction ratio, but also conveniently doubles up in use as a great portrait lens with an ideal 90mm focal length, pleasant bokeh results, fast constant f/2.8 aperture for low light captures and very impressive built-in vibration control for hand held shots. Click the following links for more details and pricing:
    • Macro filters and extension tubes can be used on your regular lens, but the results will never match a quality macro lens. Macro filters stack a secondary magnifying lens on top of your existing lens which is like trying to see through 2 glass cups. Extension tubes move your lens farther from the camera’s image plane thereby increasing the magnification, but at a great loss of light (requiring a longer exposure time) and loss of the camera’s auto focus feature unless you buy the really expensive extension tubes.
    • Macro photography can also be attempted with the “reverse lens technique”, but again it is difficult to produce the same results as a true macro lens and certainly not with the same ease.

  • Get a sturdy tripod. To get great close up images, you will most likely not be shooting by hand. You will need a sturdy tripod that will not buckle and shake in whatever environment you are shooting in. Try to buy a tripod that can be set up to shoot vertically as well as horizontally at all angles to ensure your photographs are not limited by restrictions of your tripod configuration settings.

Recommended Tripod

 

2. Camera and lens settings to preset before shooting

  • Disable the Vibration Reduction/Control or Image Stabilization on your lens. Although at first this may seem counter intuitive (doesn’t this feature help ensure sharper photos), but this feature is mechanically induced which at extreme magnifications can cause camera shake and blur your capture. Plus, if you are already using a sturdy tripod [see recommended tripod above] then you effectively do not need this feature turned on.

  • Enable Mirror Lock Up on your camera. Mirror lock-up (MLU) is a camera feature that will allow the mechanical mirror to be flipped up well before the shutter opens, allowing potential resonating vibrations from the mirror movement to dissipate before exposing the capture. This will reduce the risk of what is commonly known as “mirror slap”. Note: Ensure you have composed your shot before engaging MLU. While MLU is engaged, your subject is no longer visible through the viewfinder. Again, the use of a sturdy tripod [see recommended tripod above] is advised when using enabling MLU.

  • Set output file type to RAW or RAW + JPG mode. Shooting in RAW allows you to capture the raw image details as a foundation for lossless detail post processing (ie. color / tone / exposure adjustments). If your camera does not allow you to capture RAW photos, then use the highest level of quality and largest mega pixel JPG your camera can produce. Note: RAW file sizes are substantially larger than JPG files. You may want to invest in a larger memory card to compensate for this. Many professional photographers who shoot RAW never go back to shooting just JPGs because of the flexibility RAW provides in post processing.

  • Set ISO to the lowest ISO setting. The lower the ISO value used to capture of your photographs, the more details the camera will be able to write to the image. The lowest natural ISO for DSLR’s is usually between 80 –  200 ISO. Do not use auto ISO as you may end up with very grainy photographs if you do not have sufficient lighting.

  • Use manual focus instead of auto focus. Again, something that may seem counter intuitive and also more effort than it is worth, but with extreme close up photography pin point focus is the ultimate goal. Hence, there is no better substitute that your own judgement when it comes to what needs to be in focus for a great image. If you wish to shoot with auto focus, make sure you micro AF fine tune your lens as indicated below.

  • Micro AF fine tune your lens to your camera. Some DSLR cameras allow you to fine tune your lens to camera focal plane distance in order to correct front focus or back focus issues which may be caused by the specific camera body and lens in use. AF fine tuning settings are registered in your camera against the specific lens you are adjusting and these settings are automatically recalled whenever you attach this lens. It is worthwhile to micro AF fine tune all your lenses to ensure that you are getting the sharpest photographs from your equipment. The process is a bit of a subjective art, but I use Reikan Focal which is a software you can install on your computer and then link up to your camera to fully automate the process to take the guesswork out.

 

3. Macro Photography is all about details in the final output, so what else can you do to maximize the level of detail captured

  • Shoot with small apertures. If your goal is to maximize details of the subject then you will likely want to shoot with apertures of f/10 and higher. The smaller the aperture, the larger the field of depth is, which equates to getting more of the intended subject in focus. At extreme close up ranges, you may require extreme settings that conventional lenses are not capable of just to get a few more millimeters of your subject in focus. Most conventional lenses have a aperture limit of f/16 – f/22. True macro lenses have a limit around or beyond f/60. Another reason you need to buy a quality macro lens [see recommended macro lenses tip above]. The trick will be at what point does diffraction (softening) due to the smaller aperture become a bigger problem than the amount of detail you are trying to capture.

  • Use your camera’s live view. Viewing the subject through the camera’s eyepiece can prove difficult to observe the exact focus plane, as well as possibly scare off any animated subjects when you near them, so previewing the result on the camera’s live view screen (which also allows you to zoom in for even more precise focusing) can provide you more confident results.

  • Tether your camera to a laptop/tablet. Even better than using your camera’s small live view screen would be to tether your camera to a larger laptop/tablet screen to even further enhance your ability to judge exactly what is in focus for the ultimate micro level details. There are many programs that will allow you to do this. Check out the following recommended products to tether your camera to your laptop, tablet or even smartphone.

  • Shoot inside a light box. Photography in general has almost everything to do with lighting. Macro Photography is no different. Since you are generally capturing smaller items up close, there is generally an opportunity to utilize a light box to provide the optimal lighting necessary. Light boxes are great for providing abundant light without casting dark shadows which would high important details. Good light boxes can be bought for less than 50 dollars. It is a worthwhile investment especially if you decide to shoot MicroStock Photography and/or Product Photography.

  • Use off camera flash, diffusers and reflectors. If you cannot shoot inside a light box then you need to bring the light to your subject in whatever environment you are shooting in. Off camera flash with a diffuser, simple lighting umbrellas and reflectors are probably the easiest lighting equipment to carry around to perform this job. Since you are generally only lighting up a small area of interest to shoot Macro Photography, larger studio lighting equipment may be a bit of overkill.

  • Consider shooting HDR if there are a lot of shades in your composition. Depending on your subject or environment, you may end up with an unsightly amount of shades in your capture which can hide interesting details from your audience. Try shooting High Dynamic Range (HDR) which is the technique where you combine shots of the same scene taken with different exposures settings (ie. -2, -1, 0, +1, +2) to compose the ultimate detailed image with the clearest details from each individual image. There are many software programs that can help you fine tune HDR processing and some cameras have built in HDR functionality. Caution: do not over do the HDR processing because it may make your composite image appear artificial.

 

4. How to reduce human and environmental causes that contribute to blurry macro photographs

  • Do NOT trigger your camera’s shutter button by hand. By touching the camera physically you are introducing at least 2 distinct nudges upon pressing and releasing the shutter button that can cause a blurry macro image.
    • Use alternate means such as a cable release or a remote trigger. I prefer a remote trigger as there is nothing touching the camera that could cause movement.
    • If you don’t want to buy additional equipment, set up your camera to shoot on a custom timer (set the time delay at least 5-10 seconds to provide enough time after you release the shutter button for any induced camera shake to dissipate.

  • Be very mindful of the type of flooring you set the tripod legs on. Consider whether this type of flooring has any give or elasticity (ie. plush carpet, grass, etc) because if you step towards or away from your camera and you might be inadvertently introducing movement to the camera enough to blur the shot or recompose the focus entirely. If you can find solid flooring, you can mitigate this risk.

  • Remember to block the wind when shooting outdoors. Strong and untimely wind gusts will surely ruin your macro images if you are shooting outdoors in the elements, whether it shifts your subject and/or your camera. If you can set up behind a large wall to block the wind that will probably work best. But, if you have no option out to be in the open, then you might want to consider blocking the wind with an umbrella. Those large golf umbrellas are great for this or you can even use your lighting umbrella if you have them with you and do not need the extra lighting.

 

5. How to reduce unnecessary distractions in your image output

  • Clean your lens with a lens cleaner. These are inexpensive tools and a must haves for anyone that hopes to take crisp photographs. Be mindful though, if you have a UV protective filter on your lens as many people do to protect their precious lenses, you may need to unscrew it and clean both sides of the filter as well as the underlying lens to rid all the annoying particles.
    • Here is a good low investment cleaning kit I recommend every photographer have readily available in their camera bag:  Giottos Rocket-Air Blower Professional AA1900 PLUS, Lenspen Cleaning System, Precision Design 5-Piece Lens Cleaning Kit, Cameta Microfiber Cleaning Cloth. Click on the photo below for more details and pricing.

Recommended Cleaning Kit

  • Clean your subject with pressurized air and/or a microfibre cloth. This will remove dust and other small particles that will inevitably show up in your photographs (assuming it is an inanimate object and won’t be scared off by your attempts to clean it… lol). You could use the above recommended air blaster bulb to blow off particles and some unused everyday household microfibre cleaning cloths.

  • Use a polarizer filter for reflective subjects. When shooting items that reflect light easily such as liquids, glass or metallic items, use a quality polarizer filter to avoid reflections blowing out highlights or masking details in your close up images. Be mindful of macro lenses that have barrel tubes which extend and rotate when focusing. The polarizer filter fitted to the end of your lens may rotate as a result and may not be in the optimal position to remove reflections when you decide to take the shot. You should always fine tune the polarizer filter after you have focused your lens.

  • Last resort is post processing.  The last thing you probably want to do is spend hours after you take a well thought out and composed photograph “fixing” it up with post processing software. But almost every photograph, especially in Macro Photography, can benefit from some post processing due to the level of sharp details involved. Pixel creeping is important to remove atomic items such as dust, hairs, reflections, etc that would otherwise distract from the spectacular details in your capture. Software programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom make this task a breeze with tools such as the Spot Healing Brush. I would recommend Adobe Lightroom for most photographers because it is cheaper, has many of the most desired features of Adobe Photoshop but is easier to use.  I could probably (and will probably in the future) write dozens of how-to articles on this topic.

I hope this article has given you a bit more information on Macro Photography. Please feel free to comment or ask questions… :)

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