Tips and Tricks in Macro Photography – Part 1
Read part 1 of our Tips and Tricks tutorial to get expert advice on what constitutes a macro image and how to get started in macro photography. You’ll find out which cameras are best for macro shots. We discuss specific macro lenses and why ZEISS Milvus macro lenses are so good. Discover how to work with a shallow depth of field and why the minimum focus distance is important. We also look at the quality of bokeh and use of other kit such as bellows or extension tubes.
Tips and Tricks in Macro Photography – Part 1
Close-up photos with a short distance between the lens and the subject and a large image scale are commonly referred to as macro images. Macro photos capture image details barely visible to the naked eye and so reveal a whole new world of fascinating subjects.
The first part of this two-part article explains what makes a true macro image, the challenges of macro photography and talks about what equipment you need. In the second part we give you lots of useful tips on lighting, composition and focus for improving your macro photography.
Close-ups are particularly effective in capturing nature scenes rich in colour and detail. Specifically, flowers and insects are by far the most popular subjects in macro photography. We suggest you start with still life objects, such as leaves and flowers, as you can practice without worrying about the subject jumping, running or flying away, giving you plenty of time to set up your kit and try different camera settings.
What makes a true macro image?
Photographic images can be categorized according to the image scale. This is defined as the ratio between the image size and the object size. The image size is the size of the film negative – or the sensor in the case of a digital camera.
Image scale = Image size / Object size
- A landscape image of a tree may have an image scale of 1:1,000
- A head and shoulders portrait might be 1:20
- A shot is considered macro when it is less than 1:10 usually around 1:1.
- Micro photography uses image scales larger than 10:1 only possible with specialized lenses or microscopes
Example: When using a 35mm camera (image size 24x36mm) if we capture our entire subject in full-frame we achieve the image scale 1:1. Digital cameras with a smaller sensor capture correspondingly smaller subjects with an image scale of 1:1.
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
Every lens offers a 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 therefore significantly closer to the subject than the distance set on the lens.
Working with a shallow 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 of the final image. 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 aesthetic and therefore purely subjective. The benefits of using out-of-focus areas cannot be as easily described in numbers unlike the quality of the focused image.
Macro photography can be frustrating due to the technical limitations of the craft. The best thing to do is to keep trying. Hone your technique regularly and experiment with your own style. You will gain greater insight into what works and what effects are most pleasing to you.
What type of camera is best for macro photography?
1. Limitations of rangefinder cameras and compact digital cameras
Due to the parallax between the image seen through the viewfinder and the detail of the photograph captured, analogue range-finder cameras are not very suitable for macro images. Compact digital cameras display the exact image section on their monitors and frequently offer lenses with a very good close-up focus distance. 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.
2. Suitability of SLR 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. These have the advantages provided by the viewfinder/digital display, 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 that can be used with these cameras.
Specific macro lenses
Anyone who enjoys macro photography will most likely consider acquiring a special lens at some point. Don’t try to save money here, as macro images not only immediately reflect the photographer’s skills, the lens’s quality also play a vital role in taking satisfying pictures.
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 usually have fixed focal lengths, such as 50 or 100mm. 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.
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 quality of bokeh
Bokeh comes from Japanese and means “out of focus” and “blur”. When people discuss bokeh, they 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.
The bokeh a lens creates depends on many factors, such as the behaviour 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 squarer 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.
Factors affecting bokeh
- Camera format
- Focal length
- Focal ratio
- Distance between camera and main subject
- Distance between fore and background
- Shapes, pattern and colours 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)
The macro lens solutions from ZEISS
The Milvus 2/50M and Milvus 2/100M are available with mounts for the F and EF bayonet for Nikon and Canon cameras. Both models use a newly developed optical design with floating elements for superior imaging performance throughout the entire focusing range. Their high-resolution capability, minimum distortion, very low colour aberration and extremely little vignetting, make these reference lenses in virtually all areas of photography, even outside the close-up range.
The Milvus 2/50M 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 rendering patterns, such as postcards, photos and drawings. You can also use this lens as a lightweight telephoto lens for portraits with digital cameras featuring APS-C format image sensors giving an apparent focal length extension factor of 1.5 to 1.7.
The Milvus 2/100M is a true all-rounder and an excellent choice for digital cameras with a 35mm sensor. The extremely precise focusing mechanism features an especially large rotation angle and the one-of-kind brightness of 1:2, allowing you to focus more easily on the subject’s important details. The minimum focus distance is 44cm. Due to the longer focal length, you can be further away from the subject than when using the Milvus 2/50M still with the largest image scale possible. This allows you to zoom in on small creatures without having to get too 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 tubes or 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 then 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.
Tell me more
In part two of our article, we cover more practical aspects of macro photography including lighting, focus and composition. You’ll also find plenty more useful tips and tricks, so Read on here.