Making Macro Easier

Macro work can be one of the most fascinating, yet most frustrating, aspects of nature photography. Depth of field is always extremely short, so focus is critical, yet this is the hardest thing to control in the field. Small animals and insects tend to move fast and not pose, and even plants can be stirred by a faint breeze. Plus, getting a camera rock-steady in a position to capture your subject can be a chore in itself, especially when your subject is a few centimeters off the ground.

One big tip, right from the start: Remember that with macro, your field of view is exceptionally small, so use this to your advantage. Settings and backgrounds don't have to be elaborate. This page is a good example — the set is only a potted plant on the porch.

Also, lighting is a serious challenge, part of the very nature of macro work, and there is now an entire page dedicated to the details of having adequate and appropriate light.

Since I do this on a regular basis, you can also search blog posts tagged with 'macro photography' to see ongoing pointers in this subject.

Now let's look at different approaches:

Studio Macro — One method for controlled results is what I call 'studio macro' work. Don't go to your subject, bring your subject to you. And there's lots of ways this can be done.

The primary one is to use a small aquarium/terrarium, 5 gallons or so. You can shoot directly through the glass, and keep insects, reptiles, fish, and even small plants in a restricted territory handy for your camera. Place it on a tabletop or counter to keep it at a better level for your camera (easier on your back and neck!) and fit it out with whatever 'decor' looks like a natural environment for your subject. It usually doesn't take much — just a plant or two, and a little dirt, leaves, branches, pine needles; whatever kind of flooring is familiar to your subject. Don't overdo it, or your subject may remain hidden all the time and make it difficult to set up a good shot.

You have the ability to set up lighting as you need it, including rigging diffusers to soften light, white cards to bounce it or even it out, and even natural light through a window. Be very careful with this technique, though — in a closed aquarium, even one with ventilation, the temperature can shoot dangerously high in minutes, and kill your subject.

By the way, I'm a strong proponent of capture, photograph, and release. I prefer to interfere as little as possible with the lives of my subjects, and recommend it to anyone else as well. It's virtually defeating the purpose of nature photography to do it any other way.

With aquariums, the big thing to watch out for is reflections from the glass. Be aware of all surfaces at all times — your flash may bounce off of the back side of the tank and provide an unusable background or glare. This can also occur from the bottom of the tank, when shooting downwards, or off the surface of the water if you have any.

It's very important to aim your lens directly through the glass, never at an angle — the distortion that angles can introduce can easily ruin your shot, especially when shooting into water. Because of this, and the reflection issues above, it's better to have your flash at an angle itself, and this means using an off-camera cord. An off-camera cord is so useful that, if you do any kind of macro work, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't have one.

Another trick is to use a slave flash. With the upsurge of 'redeye special' digital cameras now, slave flashes are becoming readily available in many places, and pretty inexpensive. A slave is simply a self-contained flash that triggers when it receives light from another flash unit nearby. It therefore needs no connection or cords to the camera, and can be freely positioned anywhere. The triggering happens so quickly that there is no delay that will affect your photograph at normal sync shutter speeds (depending on the camera, typically no faster than 1/250 of a second, but usually 1/90 to 1/125).

But you would still need a flash connected to the camera to trigger the slave, and this brings us back to the reflection issue. Except — the flash doesn't have to be aimed at your subject to trigger the slave. Usually it's enough to simply go off nearby. A small piece of white card can be used to bounce the light away from the reflecting glass and still trigger your slave.

And there's also the infra-red trick. Most slaves are sensitive to infra-red, where film won't pick it up (unless you're using IR film). So an IR filter over your on-camera flash will prevent its light from hitting the glass while still triggering the slave. The really neat part? There's no need to buy any fancy kind of filters — a piece of unexposed but developed slide film blocks nearly all visible light but lets IR through. A black frame, or simply the black part of a film leader, works perfectly, and doesn't cost a thing. I love this trick.

When shooting through glass, a rubber lenshood to press againt the glass can be priceless. It serves to block extraneous reflections from ambient light and can prevent you from getting an unwanted image of your camera or shirt overlaid on your subject. And in cases where you have to use on-camera flash, you at least prevent reflections from the glass you're shooting through. This also helps if the glass isn't perfectly clean or unmarred, like in a public aquarium. Preventing the light from hitting the glass will greatly reduce ghosts and diffusion from scuffs and dirt.

A small related tip: When you know you're going to be shooting through glass, wherever you might be, wear dark clothes with nothing bright or shiny. Just that much less chance of unwanted reflections.

The image above, taken in a shallow bowl, shows the water tension supporting the spider. Unfortunately, it also shows the texture of the dark cloth I used to disguise the bowl. Below, I used a couple dead leaves for the 'natural' background of a stagnant pond where these water striders are usually seen (This image was shot specifically for a national magazine about pond gardens, and netted me my first sale).

Another helpful method: Block the back side of the home aquarium with something, preferably something natural-looking. I use a bit of brown camouflage cloth in a soft pattern, but many things will work. With the very short depth of field in macro, the background will usually go well out of focus. However, be careful — cloth patterns have a way of showing up even when out of focus, and will look bad. Also, simple green cloth rarely looks natural — it reacts differently to flash than real foliage does, and usually takes on an unconvincing hue. Whenever possible, go with the real thing. Again, it doesn't take much to disguise a background.

With aquatic subjects, it can be handy to slope the bottom forward, leaving a higher mound of sand, leaves, or rocks towards the back of the tank. This provides a useful background and gives the appearance of a slight downward angle, even when shooting dead-level through the glass.

For aquatic subjects, if you don't have an aquarium handy, many things will do in a pinch. I've used Tupperware, deep lids, and shallow bowls. A benefit of this is that you can easily adjust the water level until it barely covers your subject, so the effect from sediment and distortion is minimized.

A variation of the aquarium method is to use a couple of sheets of glass or Plexiglas to restrict your subject in the field. This is tricky, but it can lead to some solid photos if you're careful. There's two things to be aware of: the first is to hide the edges of the glass well outside of your frame; and the second is to avoid reflections that will produce a softening haze or even a ghost image across your subject.

And then there's yet another variation: Making a very small water tank to photograph small subjects in a restricted environment. This has the added advantage of being able to be placed anywhere to get the lighting and background you desire. Details on making your own, how to use it, and examples of the results can be found here.

When using natural light with glass sheets or aquariums, your type of light becomes crucial in many respects. You may have heard that a hazy or overcast sky is much better for photographing outdoors, softening shadows and reducing contrast — this does not hold true for photographing through glass (or through the surface of water). Direct sunlight will usually overpower any reflections, but the softer light of an overcast sky will produce distinct reflections from the glass or water surfaces, making them almost impossible to see through. A polarizer can sometimes help with this, but that naturally introduces less light to the film and can lead to problems with exposure times. You're better off using small white card reflectors to even out direct sunlight on your subject, if you feel the contrast is going to be a problem.

Small, rapidly-moving subjects such as lizards and insects can present great difficulties when you're trying to obtain a photo in serious detail. It's almost a necessity to immobilize them in some way, unless you're rich and can afford to waste reams of film on chance (Film? Good gravy, what's that?!) I'm not rich, so I looked at alternate methods.

One method that has been touted by others, which I strongly recommend against, is the 'freezer' method. Both reptiles and insects can be slowed to a state of sluggish response or torpor by reducing their body temperature, but this is dangerous to the species and can kill them easily, or even induce damage to the nervous system. It's unnecessary and inhumane — you can get decent photos without jeopardizing your subjects.

Most insects, which have a strong exoskeleton (chitin, or simply 'shell') can be held in place easily with thread or monofilament, provided you have a small amount of dexterity. While the joints between body sections seem like an easy target, they can be delicate in some species and are therefore a bad choice. I try to run a binding line around the thorax between legs, where the chitin is strong — the legs and wings can often hide the thread, and clear photos can be made of other body sections like the head without any concern of seeing the thread. Be careful of the delicate wings, which the insect is quite likely to thrash around as you're attempting this. After you get your photos, it's usually a simple matter to slice through the threads on the underside of the support that you tied to (such as a stick or plant stem, for environment) to free the insect — that way, you don't run a further risk of injuring the insect while releasing it.

I've used a variation of this with lizards too, though thread or monofilament runs a risk of injuring the lizard by cutting into the delicate skin if it struggles. Instead, I've used soft felt cord. Lizards also run a risk of suffocation if you restrict their ribcage too much, so I aim to immobolize them around their abdomen, hips, or shoulders. If you can see movement from the ribcage the lizard is okay — quite angry, perhaps, but unharmed. This method was used to obtain the image at the top of the page.

For either one, it's easy to choose a natural background, and it has one more important feature: you move the subject into position in front of your camera. This is worlds better than trying to position a camera in a good framing position for your subject.

I can't stress this enough — any time you can move your subject, instead of the camera, you're much better off. I've moved single plants, strapped lizards, aquariums, et cetera; rotating, elevating, angling — it's all so much easier than trying to reposition the camera. Only rarely do I use a macro 'slider' platform, since the available motion is limited, but I have actually looped a cord around a plant stem and drawn the plant, with the insect riding on it, closer to the camera.

By the way, the device holding the branch in the photo above is a soldering jig from Radio Shack, consisting of a couple of alligator clips on an adjustable locking arm, with a weighted base. Little things like this can be extremely handy with macro work.

You can also take advantage of the natural, and safe, form of the 'freezer' method by getting out early in the morning after a cool night. Insects, reptiles, and amphibians will often be warming themselves in the early sunlight to get warm enough to respond, and before they get fully functional you can often get very close without spooking them. Avoid touching them — you may find they have the ability to move quickly if threatened by immediate danger.

Making it easier in the field — There are a couple of ways to smooth out the chore of getting good macro shots in the field. The first is to use a flash to eliminate the necessity of a tripod, so you can carry your camera and quickly position it for your subject. The idea is, the flash will bring your shutter speed up high enough to prevent any camera shake from blurring the photo. There are some issues, though.

Direct lighting from a flash unit mounted on the camera often produces flat, unrealistic effects in the image, eliminating any shadows and gradients that communicate shapes and texture — this is why studio sessions have myriad lights. You're unlikely to set up anything of the kind in the field, however, and will likely want a rig that can be carried around. The one benefit to macro work is that the flash does not have to move very far away to produce much improved results, and numerous forms of flash brackets can be found that remain attached to the camera and move with it. Be warned that the weight is increased, and most especially the leverage since the weight of the flash becomes offset to the side — you may try a lot of different variations before you find the ones that work for you.

A little tip: go for as much flexibility in positioning and aiming your flash units as you can find, since conditions may be tight and you're almost certainly going to desire changes to bring out your subjects in their best light. Ahem.

The blur from this lady beetle's wingtips comes from them being illuminated by natural light during the 1/100 second exposure time, too slow to stop the motion at this distance — the sharp image overlaid at their edges comes from the flash burst. This was an attempt to capture ambient light rather than producing a dark background with a small aperture and fast shutter, but it has limitations.

When shooting with a handheld camera, even with a flash rig, being as steady as possible is paramount, for two reasons. The first is that, high magnification creates a short depth of field, and not even a very small aperture will correct this much. This means that only minor twitches closer to or further from your subject are usually enough to wreck focus, especially if you're doing as you should and picking the eyes for your focal point.

The second is sneakier. Because of the way camera shutters work, at least in SLRs (and this includes DSLRs as well,) there is a maximum shutter speed that the flash can be synchronized with, called the sync speed — this is typically from 1/90 to 1/250 second. This is slow enough to allow blur from camera motion if any part of the exposure is ambient light, especially since that high magnification of macro also magnifies tiny camera twitches. It can produce a bizarre effect, where the very brief flash duration provides the main illumination and freezes any motion, but the shutter speed allows other light to be gathered as well and makes a secondary image. You may see streaks of reflective highlights produced by sunlight and motion, with a distinct image from flash illumination overlaid. So remaining as steady as possible is important to cultivate.

A quick related note: many dedicated flash units allow for high-speed sync, meaning it communicates with the camera to allow for very high shutter speeds such as 1/2,000 second or higher. For reasons that I will someday illustrate in detail, this actually robs your flash of power and shortens its effective distance. For macro work this might be okay — or it might not, since the small aperture that you'll likely be using (the reason you even need the flash in the first place) usually demands a lot of flash power.

Once again, see this page for a more in-depth examination of macro lighting.

Also, while a tripod is difficult to use, often you can get away with a monopod. Make sure you have something with quick and easy height adjustments, and be aware that it does not have to be used soly on the ground — you can adjust the head so that the pole aims forward, or to the side, and brace it against a treetrunk or rock face for some added stability. It may also give you something else to mount lights onto.

Sideline: I read a magazine article (which I unfortunately can't quote since I no longer have it handy) where a photographer was getting handheld photos of insects in flight with a simple rig. He created a wire 'frame' from coathangers that extended out in front of the camera about 50cm (20") and marked the sides of an imaginary box, just outside the view area of the lens he was using. This frame marked his focus area, and his focus, flash, and exposure were all preset for any subject that fell exactly between the coathangers. He could then walk around pursuing flying insects, and would simply manuever the camera until the insect fell between the coathangers, then trip the shutter at that precise instant. The camera would never have to be raised to his eye at all, so he wasn't hampered in any way by the viewing area of the lens nor the effective focus.

Another method for easier field work is using long focal lengths with extension tubes. Extension tubes allow any lens to focus much closer than designed, so your minimum focusing distance becomes much less, and magnification of your subject that much better. This can be handy for spooky subjects such as insects that will fly away if you get too close. The benefit of this is that you can position yourself, on a tripod, within an area ripe with subjects (pondside for dragonflies, or in a field of flowers for butterflies and bees), and get closeup shots in all directions without ever shifting the tripod. It's unlikely you'll get anything considered 'true macro' (1:1 magnification), but you can certainly get some tight shots without a lot of fussing about.

A variation of this, which can often be used in combo, is a teleconverter to increase magnification. Both teleconverters and extension tubes reduce the light reaching the film, but with a fast lens (and higher ISO) this often isn't too much of an issue. My 105mm f2.8 macro lens becomes a 210mm f5.6 with a teleconverter — better reach, and a maximum (effective) aperture that still isn't too hampering. This naturally becomes less effective when stopped down for greater depth-of-field, a necessity in most closeup work, but it can still be a useful tool.

Another word about extension tubes: Not only are they an inexpensive way of producing decent closeup and macro photos, since they work with any lenses you already own, but they can also provide framing opportunities you wouldn't have with a dedicated macro lens. It can be very difficult to get the right conditions for good composition with macro, and the more options you have at your disposal, the better. While often recommended against, I've used extension tubes with all of my present zoom lenses. Extension tubes with zooms have an odd effect — while the focus range can drop down to tiny amounts, changing the focal length by zooming can move this narrow range into something appropriate for your subject distance. So using a zoom with extension while on a tripod can eliminate the need for adjusting the tripod in minute amounts to get your subject in focus, something that extension tubes on a fixed-focal-length lens cannot do. And this is a real help in field work, especially with spooky subjects or in areas where tripod movement is difficult. Quite often, at the distances you have to work with in the field, the tripod legs may extend alongside or past the plants that either support your subject, or are your subject, so moving them can disturb things and ruin your shots. Trust me on this one.

Moreover, with a moving subject, such as in a fishtank (see the jellyfish here), the ability to zoom and follow a changing subject distance, as well as using a shorter focal length to allow framing in the distance you have to work within, can be a major boon. While I adore the sharpness of my dedicated 105mm macro lens, there was no way to get the jellyfish shot without being on a ladder above the tank. The 28-105 fit the bill nicely, and the small loss of sharpness was insignificant compared to getting the shot.

Be creative, and take a little time to think about what you're after. You will probably come up with a few tricks of your own to get the photo you want.

One handy technique to make your macro photos more impressive to the viewer is to include something that shows scale.

Now, this isn't the best way to do it, and I was actually attempting to show both the tiny teeth of this Brown Anole and how harmless his bite was. But the apparently huge presence of my fingertip does serve to show just how small my grumpy subject was — you just held up your own finger to compare, didn't you?

Blades of grass, grains of sand, common flowers, and coins can all serve the same purpose. For scientific illustrations a measuring rule works better.

And yes, this is the same subject as the top of the page, and the one tied to a stick further down. He was my captive for no more than ten minutes as I got these photos, then he was released back where I found him.

The image below was taken within a piece of Tupperware. All that was used was seawater, a small amount of sand, and a rock appropriate to a seafloor. Since my goal was the pseudopods, I wasn't too worried about looking perfectly natural. The water level was dropped until it just exposed the pseudopods, which provided clarity without distortion or sediment, and allowed some reflective highlights off the pseudopods. Care was taken to keep the light from reflecting off of the water — sidelighting is best for this, and can show contours better as well.

Good luck!

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