How I go about Macrophotography (a long post with a number of examples)

Halloween-7To view more of my photography please click on www.rakmilphotography.com

The title includes a caveat, which is that this is not a universal approach just the one I find successful. There will be three parts to this essay: 1. The Gear; 2. The Technique and other considerations and; 3. The Hard Part.

In the first section I will discuss my approach with my Nikon equipment (although brand or type of camera is not an issue). The second section deals with the technicalities of macro photography and how to beat them into submission. Finally I will talk about the hard part.

First let me spell out my objective with respect to my macro work; I aim for a sharp photograph of an insect or other animal in a natural environment, totally free from the hand of man in an interesting pose or position. I am not an entomologist and the necessity to get photographs that help identify the insect is not part of the objective, nor is it to scare people with photographs of menacing animals.

Secondly I want to make it clear that great macro work has been done with point and shoots and without much of the equipment mentioned below. I am just going through what works for me. If I had invested in Canon I would have an Mp 65-e lens, an all-manual lens, and probably the best macro lens ever made.

Jagged-Ambush-Bug-1

I use a Nikon D7100: it has several things that make it ideal for macro. The APC sensor means deeper depth of field than a full frame camera and the ability to crop further in camera from 24 megapixels to 14 megapixels an added bonus. Megapixels are crucial as significant cropping is almost always necessary with macro. The D7100 allows back focusing and its auto-focus system with my macro lenses is exceptional. I seldom shoot in manual focus. The light meter and the auto-white balance work really well.  It permits back button focusing, where you can divorce the autofocus from the shutter button and focus without pressing halfway down on the shutter. Its continuous auto-focus function is superlative. I like single shot over burst shooting best as it gives me control not the camera. I also use a wired remote control for the shutter when the camera is on a tripod.

I use 105mm Nikon lenses. The D version has an aperture ring perfect for reversing (see below) and for bellows where manual exposure by altering the aperture on the lens is necessary. Choice of a macro lens is important; the longer the lens the more working distance there is between you and your subject. If you go lower than 105mm, you may have to get too close to an insect to get the kind of pictures I take. Yes, I would like a Nikon 200mm F4 macro lens, but they are very expensive.

Reversing lenses on the camera or back to back with another lens can give you incredible possibilities in magnification. The wider the lens reversed (e.g. 20mm) the greater the magnification and the less the working distance (that is the distance between you and your subject).

Dragonfly-5

While I prefer to handhold my shots (ISO 400 helps me maintain a high shutter speed) there are times when support is needed. I use arca-swiss quick release plates from Markins, Ball Heads from Markins on a Gitzo traveller or Gitzo 2541 tripod. Buy a cheaply built tripod and you will end up buying many more over time, you get what you pay for. Many makers today make great tripods, and Gitzo, while superb may be overkill. I have a Wimberley Plamp, a plamp is an arm that attaches to your tripod and helps hold a plant steady for example, or it can hold a diffuser or reflector to help light your subject, it has a claw at one end and clamp at the other. The plamp is not used often but when the wind kicks up it is essential.

I am not alone in wishing we could shoot everything in natural light. I have two systems I use. The first is an Sb-900 on the camera inside a Lastolite softbox. The softbox is 8 by 8 inches and is double diffused.  I can and do stuff more diffusing material like silk into it when I know more diffusion is needed. This is my regular gear, and I sometimes use a Wimberley macro arm to put the flash off camera. I had a long discussion with Wimberley to find out if the arm would be long enough to hold my Lastolite softbox off camera, and it is, just a bit unwieldy. Secondly, I also have Nikon’s specialized macro flash, the R1C1 and have designed my own diffuser for it built around some Gary Fong diffusers. This gear is more for forensics and entomology than common photography, however it has its uses.

I swear by Kenko extension tubes. These move your lens away from the focal field allowing you to focus closer than 1:1 (in other words larger than life). Kenkos permit full AF and metering, unlike the Nikon tubes. I seldom use all three of the tubes that come in the kit, I use one or two at a time. After some experimentation the only diopter (close up filter) I can recommend is the Raynor/Raynox 250. Most diopters kill your image quality. I also use a focusing rail by Kirk Enterprises, it helps stabilize the camera on a tripod and helps with focusing with extension tubes. With tubes you can no longer shoot at infinity and you are restricted to a narrow field of focus; a focusing rail can help move the camera within that narrow field. I purchased some bellows, (extension tubes on steroids) but have not had the opportunity to use them, as I would wish. I would argue that for most people bellows are a step too far.

A-Rabble-of-Painted-Ladies-3-2

2. The Technique

I strongly advise anyone interested in macro to look at the tutorials on Cambridge in Colour, they explain the math and have calculators you can use. Basically the closer you get the narrower the depth of field for any given F stop. In other words at 1:1 f11 gives you millimeters of focus depth. Another phenomenon is that even on a bright day there is less light than one would like. Thirdly, at 1:1 any movement is magnified and ruins your efforts.

While macro is normally defined as 1:1 (life size), I almost never shoot at that level of magnification. At 1:1 it is very hard to include context in nature and my goal is to show a beautiful creature in its habitat. I want my audience to know what I am shooting and something about where I am shooting. So maybe calling this macro photography is a bit misleading, but some of the subjects I take are only millimeters long.

Halloween-3

I try get as much working distance between me and my subject that I can while ensuring I have detail,; in practice this means the difference between less than an inch and six inches and in post processing I crop. I shoot anywhere between F11 and F16 and do not expect everything to be in focus (e.g. the face is in focus but not the back of the insect).

When the light is poor I use flash and I worry a great deal about the diffusion of that light, so that it looks natural and that there are as few highlights as possible created by the flash. Starting at 1/250th of a second I figure out what shutter speed will work best, usually I try to go much lower in my speed and bring in ambient light. Flash used properly can freeze motion but it is sometimes a trade-off between freezing motion and realistic light. To avoid this, and to ensure that I have as little light fall-off as possible I may use two flashes, one for the subject and another for the background (at which point bystanders gape at my set up).

That said 1/250th is a good place to start. I do a lot of testing of my flash in the field before I see my first insect, just to make sure I remember what to do and accommodate the light, as it exists at that moment in time. If I go under cover of trees I will test all over again. The human eye makes for a lousy light meter as it compensates and fools you into thinking the light has not changed.

Now that you know most of my secret formula, let us move on to the really important bit, the hard part.

Clowning-Grasshoppers--1

3. The Hard Part

The hard part consists of finding a subject, manhandling the light, ensuring a Zen-like instant where nothing in the universe moves and getting the focusing point on that part of your subject that matters. This is precisely why all of the gear you have is meaningless if these three things do not happen. There is nothing to process or show if there is no subject or if the subject is blurry or out of focus. The more complex your gear, the harder it is to balance all of it and get a good result. Come winter there are few if any insects to photograph outside and in the spring I have to learn to work with my gear all over again. The advantage of more advanced gear comes with your mastery of it.

Lots of people catch insects and then shoot them. This is not something I do or want to do. Captured insects lend themselves to techniques like focus stacking –where you take a succession of shots at different focal points and combine them in post processing so that everything is sharp regardless of the fstop you used. I would like to try it, but it could get awkward in the field.

The best place to find subjects is in transition areas, e.g. shorelines, edges along a forest. It is even better if you can find out what plant a specific insect likes. However, you can visit miles of goldenrod and miss every ambush bug (they, like most insects, are camouflaged for a reason).

Your greatest enemy is the wind, even a soft breeze can be hellishly annoying. There are plans on-line on how to build windbreaks, really good for flowers, less useful for animals that are on the move. If you have a friend or patient spouse they can hold steady a branch you are focused on. However, once they discover that they were holding still a bush in which there was an insect whose bite is one of the most painful in nature they are likely to be very wary the next time you ask for help!

So here is a huge unbelievable tip. Wide-angle lenses, including kit lenses tend to be able to focus closer than other lenses; you can get very close to something and still be in focus and use all of your resolution. It might be a good place to start. Use this tip to take macro pictures of still life objects, like flowers, before venturing into taking pictures of moving animals. If it works for you, you could get a cheap adapter and reverse the lens on your camera if that lens has an aperture ring (see above). If you succeed with a still life, with or without flash and with or without a tripod then maybe you want to go further.

Good luck I hope you find this helpful.

71 responses

  1. Very informative, many thanks for posting, Viktor. I rarely shoot macros, but it is interesting to see how others go about it

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 6:37 am

  2. Thanks for sharing so much information about your approach to taking macro shots of insects, arachnids, and other such small creatures. Much of this information is available elsewhere in bits and pieces, but you have managed to consolidate a lot of information and tips in a single posting. When the weather starts warming up, I’ll be switching back from my telephoto lens to my macro lens as my lens of choice as I too go off in search of cool bugs. The one area that you cover that I need to work on is artificial lighting. I am a huge fan of natural light, but know from experience that it is insufficient, especially as you get closer to the subject. I’m pretty sure that I will come back to this posting as spring draws nearer.

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 8:16 am

    • When you get to that point, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Its a whole other level of complexity but loads of fun!

      Like

      January 31, 2014 at 8:50 am

  3. Very interesting and informative! Well written. I want to shoot droplets … at this point in time I don’t own a macro lens at all. The ones I’ve shot so far, have been lucky shots … hit and miss …

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 8:53 am

    • I have never tried droplets, probably should. A macro lens is great to have but not essential.

      Like

      January 31, 2014 at 9:15 am

  4. Very helpful post. I had not seriously thought about trying extension tubes but I might do that now. Do you have a rule of thumb as to when you use an extension tube versus reversing the lens? Your best secret, I think, is “The advantage of more advanced gear comes with your mastery of it.”

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    • Extension tubes if they have the Af and Exposure contacts, like Kenko, are a whole lot easier to use than a reversed lens which will be manual. Extension tubes can be used on any lens the longer the better as it increases you working distance for the same level of magnification compared to a shorter lens.

      Like

      January 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    • I find reversing lenses more complicated to use in the field, so for the most part I use tubes. The important thing to remember is that we can magnify to the point of not having context, or where our subject is hard to figure out. Therefore if you want your subject known and some context you will want to go lightly on magnification, and if you are doing this in the field, reversing may pose challenges though many do it. Reversing is very cheap. The adapters are small and inexpensive. But your lens needs an aperture ring or you will not be able to expose or focus properly. Hope this helps.

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 2:25 am

  5. Hi Victor!

    Great to hear about your setup and technique, like you say there are many different methods for macro photography so it’s great to see your approach. Some fantastic shots too. Just a quick question, I’ve seen people mention “reversing a lens” before and don’t really understand what it means. Should I read it quite literally as you somehow fit your lens the opposite way round to the camera body? Any further information would be really appreciated.

    You mentioned the Raynox DCR-250, I know you have already seen my post but for the benefit of your readers here’s an example shot using the Raynox Diopter:

    http://onathaniel.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/imagine-having-a-hairy-eye-2/

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    • Thank you, very helpful to have an example of the Raynox.
      Reversing means getting an adapter for the front of your lens that allows you to literally reverse it and attach it to your camera backwards. To make this work the lens needs an aperture ring or you will not be able to control the Fstop. Another way of doing this is stacking lenses, is using a different adapter goes on the front of a long lens and you screw in a lens of shorter focal length reversed onto the long lens, again an aperture ring is required for fstop. Lots of tutorials on the web. These may be the cheapest but most difficult ways getting greater magnification as you are now going fully manual. Tubes cost more but are easier to use. Hope this helps!

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 2:13 am

  6. Victor, you’ve put some wonderful info here and the photos are amazing. I really thought you were an insect-capturer and am amazed that you get these shots in the field. I too love Kenko’s ext tubes but haven’t conquered them as you have. But you’ve motivate me to give them another try. Great post!!!

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    • Great news. In the spring as I am getting used to extension tubes again, I start with the shortest ring only and work my way up to the middle ring which is the one I use the most. Its a matter of re-learning how to hold the lens for stability. When I combine tubes I use a tripod. You lose the ability to take pictures at a distance. The farthest distance you can focus on may be only a few feet with tubes. Hope this helps.

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 2:18 am

  7. Deep appreciations for sharing this knowledge and know how. I marvel at yr skill and patience and love every single one of yr images. Thank you: )

    Like

    January 31, 2014 at 11:13 pm

  8. How generous of you to spend the time to explain macro – I am a reluctant tripod user so the idea that I might be able to use my wide angle 10-20 sounds very interesting – will not stop using tripod on occasions
    You always take such superb pictures

    Like

    February 1, 2014 at 9:02 am

    • You are welcome. 10-20 should work fine, just remember you can get too close at 10, you may be millimeters from the front of your lens. One of the best insect photographers only uses a wide angle lens.

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 9:17 am

  9. Fabulous post Victor. Thank you so much for this. Macro is an area of photography I love but not one I have tackled. This is so informative!

    Like

    February 1, 2014 at 11:36 am

  10. Jocelyne

    Now that I have read this post I am very admirative of your work in macro photography. I don’t know much about macro and didn’t know it could required all this equipment, and just the mastery of the equipment is already something ! It kind of discourage me a little when I think of all the equipment so maybe macro is not for me, I don’t know. The photos you posted here are extremely beautiful, wow !
    Thank you so much for sharing all this information, I think I’m going to print this 🙂

    Like

    February 1, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    • Discouraging people was not at all my intention. My intention was to explain how I do it and show how you can ease your way into it. A wide angle lens focuses very close and should be where you start. Getting close to things should not be daunting. Extension tubes are easier than they sound!

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 5:45 pm

      • Jocelyne

        I know you didn’t wanted to discourage people, that’s just me 🙂 And by sharing this information you certainly make it so much easier to ease the way into it for people like me who knows nothing about this type of photography. Thanks so much again Victor !

        Like

        February 1, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    • It’s really not a lot of equipment. You probably already have a tripod, then get either a set of extension tubes or a close-up lens. Later you can get a macro lens if you get into it.

      Like

      February 1, 2014 at 6:01 pm

      • Jocelyne

        Good advice, thank you ! I should also try to be less intimidated by the equipment 🙂

        Like

        February 1, 2014 at 6:15 pm

  11. Nice job explaining all this Victor. I haven’t done any serious macro for awhile. I need to get back into it. I didn’t even realize people capture insects. Guess that explains some things. Sort of like baiting owls and such. You can sorta tell when the image is made this way but you can’t be sure, and that’s a little frustrating/confusing. Great shots.

    Like

    February 1, 2014 at 6:03 pm

  12. What a great post.. lots of good information.. I have never tried any Macro shots( i swear I don’t think I have the patience for it ;-)..so I enjoy others photos and now that I know abit more of the “behind the scenes”, I have a whole new respect for Macro work..

    Like

    February 2, 2014 at 10:46 am

    • Thanks. If you have a wide angle lens or a wide angle zoom, try just using it at its minimum focus, just get closer, you will be amazed!

      Like

      February 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

  13. Thank you for a very well written post. I find macro photography to be the most challenging part of photography.

    Like

    February 2, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  14. Pingback: What Size is that Image | Leanne Cole PHOTOGRAPHY

  15. Argus

    I just dabble. Without knowing why or how I’ve serendipitised sometimes on a nice shot, but most times the wind intervenes. I have no idea why or how but the convergence of my camera, myself, and a good subject for a macro triggers wind.

    Thank you for a very helpful post.

    Like

    February 4, 2014 at 2:39 am

  16. Thanks for the post – I’m always interested in another photographer’s technique (especially when they know what they are doing).

    Like

    February 4, 2014 at 6:38 am

  17. Good summary. I use Live View a lot and find it very helpful. I focus manually when I need. My biggest issue is getting satisfactory diffusion. I’ve tried stacking in the field with mixed results. But right now it’s the bird season 😊. Macro starts again in May.

    Like

    February 4, 2014 at 8:26 am

    • I should try live view. If you look back in my archive you will see a number of articles on flash and diffusion. Its a complicated subject.

      Like

      February 4, 2014 at 8:58 am

  18. Stunning images!

    Like

    February 4, 2014 at 5:32 pm

  19. That is a fantastic explanation of your process. Good for you to keep the persistence to do all that for your photos which are great. This past year I noticed that my macro lens never leaves home so I’m selling it.

    Like

    February 4, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    • Discouragement was not my intention!

      Like

      February 5, 2014 at 3:06 am

      • Not at all. I think we need to focus on the beauty that motivates us and then there is motivation to overcome and create. You do very well in that area.

        Like

        February 5, 2014 at 11:53 am

  20. Great article, Victor! And some beautiful photos, too, of course. I just got around to reading it. I’m hoping to use some extension tubes this year with an old prime lens I want to reverse, possibly might even try reversing my 35mm f/1.8 lens with the tubes.

    I was curious, are the Gary Fong diffusers you use with your R1C1 anything like this:

    http://www.garyfongestore.com/inverted-dome.html

    I saw someone who uses those on his Canon MT-24EX flash, and he gets great results for diffusion. I’m considering incorporating one of those or similar onto my setup.

    Like

    February 5, 2014 at 1:12 am


    • Sorry my bad these are what I am using, not great they fall off a lot, but then so do the Nikon heads. You can stuff them with diffusing material, or as I did build another dome on top for more diffusion.
      The lights were designed for forensics and entomologists. There was a discussion of cannon diffusion on Beetles in the Bush, Good luck.

      Like

      February 5, 2014 at 3:14 am

  21. Thanks for the post and for de great pictures.

    Like

    February 5, 2014 at 6:50 am

  22. excellent macro work victor

    Like

    February 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    • Thanks. Not all I do, but I do enjoy it a lot! Glad you like it!

      Like

      February 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm

  23. How beautiful. I just got my first Canon, looks like I can learn a lot from you. I’ll keep watching 🙂

    Like

    February 5, 2014 at 5:17 pm

  24. A super post, and I enjoyed reading your approach, not least because it is almost the same as mine, except I only use natural light. I have no objection to flash when properly diffused, as yours obviously is, but I just found the extra bulk was spoiling the fun for me. My camera handles noise at higher ISOs quite well so I usually shoot at 800-1600 to get the shutter speed I need. I am so glad to read that you do not move your insects. I am the same. If I can’t make a shot without disturbing the insect, then I don’t make a shot. Like you, I am not interested in making record shots for scientific purposes.

    Like

    February 6, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    • We agree on just about everything, including natural light, and weight of gear! Thanks for the follow. More to come.

      Like

      February 6, 2014 at 3:43 pm

  25. This is the 3rd time I’ve read this Victor and I glean a little more information every time. Thank you for the significant effort of sharing your knowledge!

    Like

    February 8, 2014 at 8:08 am

    • Feel free to ask questions. There is also lots of information on the web.

      Like

      February 8, 2014 at 8:19 am

  26. Thank you for a very informative and helpful post!

    Like

    February 18, 2014 at 3:01 pm

  27. Sign me up for the 200mm, as well! Hah! Thanks for the info about your flashes. I have the 910 and now I want that softbox for it! 🙂

    Like

    February 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    • Back in my archive are some posts on lighting, including about light fall-off. Hope all of this helps.

      Like

      February 24, 2014 at 6:42 pm

  28. Truly amazing information about macro photography! I’d like to get a lens someday to try it out. Mostly for flowers. And I just found out we have the same camera! 🙂 Your shots are truly magnificent and detailed.

    Like

    February 28, 2014 at 11:02 am

    • Thanks and good luck, flowers are a wonderful subject.

      Like

      February 28, 2014 at 2:27 pm

  29. Reblogged this on Howard Simpson and commented:
    Fantastic macro shots. Astounding quality!

    Like

    February 28, 2014 at 1:35 pm

  30. Pingback: Flies (a new gallery and a bit more on macrophotography) | Victor Rakmil Photography

  31. Excellent, informative article!! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise!! Your pictures are gorgeous and so very sharp. I am glad it is not me that finds a little breeze ruins everything. Thanks again, Victor!!

    Like

    April 15, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    • Thanks. Plamps to hold your subject, and or using reflectors to block the wind, or as some do building a box to shoot into, are some of the options with wind. I find the plamp idea easiest, and you can build one yourself if the cost is to high to buy brand one.

      Like

      April 15, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      • Thanks for the tips. I’ll look into the plamps. Much obliged!

        Like

        April 15, 2014 at 8:59 pm

  32. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

    I am amazed how clear these images are. Very nice.

    Like

    July 1, 2014 at 8:17 am

  33. Angie

    Absolutely wonderful and honest information. Thank you for sharing.
    @lentillelooking (instagram)

    😊🐞🐝🦋🐛🐜

    Like

    September 19, 2017 at 4:06 am

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