Last week we talked about using fisheye and ultrawide lenses; this week we're visiting the opposite end of the lens spectrum, and taking a peek at the Lilliputian world of macro photography. Macro photography is simply the art of taking close up photos of subjects, the details of which might otherwise slip past the naked eye.
Why pursue macro photography? For starters, you don't have to go far to find interesting subjects. If you're a landscape shooter, there are only so many mountains, rivers and scenic overlooks within easy traveling distance. When you're photographing tiny things, even your backyard can provide for hours of opportunities! Some everyday objects that make for fascinating subject material when seen up close include: flowers, insects, vegetables and other food items, children's toys, coins, collectibles, snowflakes, bubbles and even the edges of a weathered old book.
The good news is that you can get started with macro photography very inexpensively. Following are some of the common macro options, starting with the least expensive:
- Close-up Filters: You can buy filters that fit most any standard lens. These filters are screwed onto the "business" end of detachable camera lenses. Prices typically range from $10-$30 for a set of filters that provide incremental degrees of magnification. You can also stack multiple filters for extreme closeups. Image quality is going to be limited to the quality of the filter itself, but these are an inexpensive option for the casual shooter.
- Photojojo Smartphone Lenses: Mobile photographers also have options! Photojojo sells a variety of accessory lenses that attach to your iPhone or Android. One of these is a combination wide angle / macro lens. These $20 lenses attach to your phone by means of a magnetic adhesive backing, making for quick attachment and removal. The glass isn't professional quality, but the macro part of the lens will take impressively close-up photos. As a bonus, you'll get a cheap wide angle lens as part of the deal (unscrewing the top half of the lens switches from wide-angle to macro).
- Extension Tubes: These are simply hollow, lens-like tubes that go between your camera body and an existing lens. You'll need an SLR or DSLR to take advantage of extension tubes. The tubes contain no glass of their own, so the quality is dependent on the lens you attach. Like close-up filters, extension tubes are commonly available in sets that provide increasing levels of magnification. The longer the tube, the greater the magnification. Extension tubes are made to fit specific lens mounts, so be sure you get tubes made for your specific lens type. Prices vary widely, but expect to pay anywhere from $15 at the extreme low end, up to $150 or more for name brands. Even at these prices, however, extension tubes are still a relatively economical way to achieve quality results.
- Dedicated Macro Lenses: If you're a professional photographer who does regular macro work, then you'll probably invest in a dedicated lens and skip the add-on options. Fortunately, many telephoto and zoom lenses on the market have a macro function built in. Sometimes this function is activated by a switch on the camera or the lens itself. Sometimes what's called "macro" isn't true 1:1 magnification, but it's close enough that it's not likely to matter to the casual user. Prices vary too much to even suggest a range. If this is a form of photography that interests you, then you'll want to take the time to research candidates and look at the specifications that most closely fit your needs.
There are a couple issues to consider when diving into macro photography. The most important consideration is that you'll want to use some means of stabilizing your camera when taking close-up photos. Traditionally photographers have used tripods when precise focusing counts. If you don't have a tripod, you can usually make do by resting your arms and/or camera against a sturdy surface. Keeping the camera steady is important because your depth of field (the range of the image that's in sharp focus) is extremely narrow in macro photography. Sometimes that range is nearly paper thin, so even the slightest movement can completely knock the photo out of focus!
The other thing to consider is movement on the part of your subject. If you're trying to photograph wildflowers, for example, even a slight breeze can make the task nearly impossible. (From personal experience, I can tell you this is made even more difficult when the flowers are on the side of a busy highway.) Photographers try different ways of blocking air movement, but sometimes you have no choice except to take a LOT of photos to get one acceptably sharp image. It may be worthwhile to come back to a location when the air is more still. If it's not illegal to do so, the easiest solution is to pick some flowers and arrange them in a vase indoors, where you have more control over environmental factors, as well as the ability to choose your own background and lighting.