Friday, 28 March 2008

Macro Photography | Help | Tips | Advice | Perils | Physical Exercise

The Perils of Macro Photography
In my last post I talked about shutter speed and how it can be used to freeze or blur the action in your photographs. I have also discussed aperture and depth of field in my previous post and also covered ISO and some aspects of getting a good exposure. I have decided to take a break from the technical aspect of macro photography for this post and take a look at the physical side of macro. This is an often over-looked factor of macro photography which can cause all manner of problems. A high percentage of macro photography is conducted in outdoor conditions. Some of the most popular subjects for macro and close up photography are insects, spiders, wild flowers and fungi. Getting these images can be a real challenge. Setting up the equipment can also be difficult. In addition some photographers have to cope with health problems and disabilities. I know of some excellent outdoor and wildlife photographers who are disabled. Something that you can not buy that is needed for photography is patience. This is very important and without it you will probably fail or just get very average results. Persistence may not always pay off but there is always a chance that it will and it is this that makes the whole process worthwhile. There is no feeling in the world to match getting an absolutely stunning shot. This is why macro photography is one of the best forms of art to be associated.

The Physical Challenge
Believe it or not Macro Photography can be quite a physical past time. Some of the awkward positions you have to get into can be a real challenge. The physical side of macro photography is often overlooked or dismissed. Just spending a long time behind the camera can cause all kinds of aches and pains. There is a price to pay for carrying all that heavy equipment for miles around the countryside. Do not be fooled into thinking that macro photography is an easy option. To get some of the really interesting photographs you will need to get into some fairly strange positions. A contortionist would make the perfect macro photographer! Some days it is like playing the children’s game “twister”. I suppose we should all do some warm up exercises before attempting those close to the ground awkward shots. It is however, a pointless suggestion because who is going to take this advice? A tweaked back muscle can be very painful though and is well worth avoiding.

I once tried to photograph a spider in my garden which was nestled quite deep in a large prickly bush. I carefully manoeuvred my camera equipment into position. I was working at a height of approximately 1 metre which is a good comfortable height. I was working hand held at the time and just had to get close enough. There was a nice gap to get the camera though safely and I was all set to get started. I took one shot and then moved slightly to the left for a better composition. I large Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica brushed against the side of my face and neck. This took me by surprise and I leapt backwards landing on the ground with my camera firmly clutched to my chest. On this occasion no harm was done apart from the painful rash all over one side of may head and several small cuts and bruises. It just goes to show that one minute you are minding your own business and the next you are rolling around in pain wondering what has happened! What really annoyed me about this whole incident was that the only picture of the spider that I took was all fuzzy!

Outdoor Photography Advice and Tips
I enjoy working outdoors but sometimes it can be a very challenging. The weather conditions can be beneficial and a total nuisance all at the same time. Wind, Rain, Cloud and Sun can all influence the results of photography. This could be in a positive or negative way depending on the situation. It is a well known fact that water adds interest to the composition of many subjects. It is really useful to find yourself a fine water sprayer. Give some of your subjects a fine spray of water to see the effects of this technique (or take a look at my apple experiment). Nature does this for you in the form of snow, rain and frost which can result in some good opportunities. If you plan to work outdoors for long periods in cold weather conditions you will need some addition gear. You should think about adding a high quality waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers and some decent boots to your shopping list. In recent years I have started wearing base layers as well. I would also recommend a good quality camera bag and your feet will thank you for a pair of good hiking socks. In summer weather you also need to look after yourself. Wear a high quality sun hat (Tilley Hats are excellent), sun glasses and use sun block to protect yourself from the suns harmful UV rays. This advice applies even when the sun light is not direct. In hot weather always carry water and make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. In basic terms look after yourself otherwise you will not be able to take any macro photographs!

Field Craft
I am very interested in wildlife and nature and this is how my interest in macro photography began. Field craft is an essential code of practice for anyone who works or spends time in the countryside. Good field craft skills will enhance your chances of getting better wildlife photographs (not just macro). Land owners are more likely to grant permission for you to work on their land if they see you have good field craft skills. Respect all living wild animals and plants and their natural habitats. Try to have as little impact on the environment as possible as this will help conserve the area. This means you can come back each season and get similar or better shots of the same species. Wildlife photography is a very rewarding field and well worth the effort. Here are some important points to consider before venturing into the countryside.

  1. If you go through an access point always close gates behind you. If you open any doors or slots in a bird-watching hide close them when you leave.
  2. Never throw litter – people who throw litter spoil the countryside. Litter can cause horrendous problems for wildlife. Put your litter in a litter bin (if available) or take it home and recycle it. Litter bins on nature reserves attract vermin such as rats. It helps in the management of nature reserves for you to remove your own litter from the site. This will also benefit the wildlife.
  3. Do not light fires unless allowed to do so. If you do light a fire, maintain it and put it out afterwards. Avoid damage to the environment and do not burn toxic materials.
  4. It is important when attempting botanic photography to avoid damage to the plants and their habitats. Never pull up wild plants or take seeds, berries or fruit from the site.
  5. Be compliant with all local rules and by-laws for the area where you are working.

Camera Bags
Now a good bag is not just to protect your camera equipment, it is also to make carrying all that heavy camera equipment easier. This will take some strain off your back and make walking more comfortable. I do harbour one concern with regard to some expensive camera bags. Some designs stand out more than others which could attract attention to the expensive gear you are carrying it. I often see photographers with the brand name of their cameras splashed across the entire bag. The last thing you want to do is advertise the fact that you have some items with you that are worth stealing. My tip here is to try and look like you are a walker or bird-watcher and keep a low profile if possible. If you are concerned about being out in the middle of nowhere make sure you have a phone or a radio. If you clip a radio to your belt it looks like you are part of a team of people. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but people do occasionally get attacked so always be alert and keep an eye on your surroundings. Most people you meet will be polite and civilised and take an interest in what you are doing. Binoculars are useful for spotting potential problems for example some large energetic dogs charging towards you along a barren cliff top! It’s time to collect up your gear and make a run for it, now do you see how important it is to be physically fit?

A Rubbish Idea
I have a friend who takes a bin liner with him when ever he goes out. He uses this to keep his equipment dry (no, no, no, his camera dirty minded souls). It is a good idea to put a bin liner (or any other waterproof material big enough for the job) in your camera bag. Instead of buying a waterproof camera bag just grab the bin liner and place your entire camera bag inside it when the rain comes. My friend also uses the bin liner to protect his clothes when lying on the ground. I usually forget to take a bin liner (or two) with me and usually go home caked in mud, sand and grass stains! So there is another great idea on how to keep your expensive camera equipment dry. This post is actually turning out to be quite useful after all! It is easy to make camera covers from plastic food (freezer or sandwich) bags. Always protect the body of your camera from harsh elements (such as water) and protect the lens from sand, dust and grit. It is easy to damage the lens when hunting for your subject, due to disorientation. Some people use a filter that screws into the end of the lens which acts as protection. A lens hood will make it more difficult to scratch the glass but will reduce the amount of ambient light. So you are on your own with this one…just take care where you stick your lenses!

Things with Stings
Some people like taking photographs of wasps and hornets. You have to be careful when working with some wildlife subjects. I know of plenty of photographers who have returned with stings and bites from wildlife shoots. There is a small minority of people who react badly to insect bites and stings due to an allergy. In such cases it is important to find medical assistance as soon as possible. If you suffer from an allergy make sure other people know about it before setting out. My advice would be to keep your distance with stinging and biting subjects. There are some areas where you would be considered insane if found absent of insect repellent, so throw some in your kit bag. There are lots of poisonous plants and fungi as well, if you are unsure just take care about what you touch and always wash your hands before eating food.

A few last thoughts…
Who would have thought that Macro Photography could be such a dangerous and physical activity? Obviously with the correct planning and some common sense macro photography is a perfectly safe pursuit. I hope you enjoyed this less technical post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. For quite a long time I have debated (with myself) whether or not to make an online portfolio of my photographs. Now that my website is up and running I am thinking of joining Flickr which is owned by Yahoo. This would make it easier for me to post examples of my own work using web-links. My next post will address some of the problems of exposure. If you have any questions, queries, suggestions or comments please feel free to use the comment box or send me an email. I promise that I will not SPAM you ever. Nobody hates spam more than me. Thank You for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners Website, I hope you found this article insightful and interesting. Please remember to look after yourself and the environment, most of all enjoy taking your macro photography. Good Luck and happy shooting!

Marvin Africa

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Shutter Speed | Macro Photography | ISO

Shutter Speed
In my recent posts I have explained aperture and depth of field. Now we will get to grips with shutter speed. In my first post I suggested that beginners use aperture priority mode for macro photography. This is good advice but there will be times this mode is not adequate. This means you might have to use full manual mode. In this mode you can enter the aperture and shutter speed settings yourself. It sounds quite scary but once you understand how to use the shutter speed settings it will be a piece of cake. This is a good introductory tutorial because it is based on general photography techniques. In other words this will benefit your general photography skills. Knowing how to select and use the correct shutter speed will make a lot of difference to you photographs. Firstly the shutter itself is just a mechanism that opens and closes when you take the picture. The button you press on the camera to take a photograph actually operates the shutter. On many cameras you will hear a distinctive click as the shutter opens and closes. Some cameras allow you to add or change the shutter’s sound effect. The shutter allows light to enter the camera when it is open and is used along side the aperture to get a good exposure. Fast shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds. Slow shutter speeds are measured in decimals of seconds or whole seconds.

The Horrible Mathematical Bits!
Shutter Speed can be confusing to the mathematically challenged such as me, because anything that involves numbers makes my brain ache. What is worse is that shutter speed is expressed in fractions of seconds. Different makes of camera display the shutter speeds differently, which adds to the confusion. When shutter speeds are written in a list on a sheet of paper they are quite easy to understand. This is because you can retain their proper format. Fast shutter speeds that are measured in fractions of seconds are displayed as 4000 (1/4000) which is one four thousandth of a second. Slower shutter speeds are measured in whole seconds. The fastest shutter speed on my camera is 1/4000 of a second. The slowest setting is 30 seconds, although I can set it to “bulb” and hold the shutter open for longer if required. In general day to day macro photography you will only use the range of more moderate shutter speed rather than the extremes. There has to be a huge amount of light available to use the very fast shutter speeds. The very slow speeds can be used to take photographs in low light conditions.

One of the great innovation of a modern digital camera is that it measures the light available. This is not always accurate but you can use the figures the camera displays in auto mode to work from. If the image is under exposed the shutter speed is too fast and therefore not enough light is entering the camera. If the image is too light with areas that are bright white the shutter speed is too slow and therefore allowing too much light is entering the camera. Adjust the shutter speed and recompose and take the photograph again. If you find it difficult to tell if the photograph is correctly exposed using the cameras LCD screen try using the histogram feature on your camera this is the best way to check the exposure. I plan to cover exposure in more detail in a subsequent post.

There are a total of 55 shutter speed settings on my camera listed here from fastest to slowest. 1/4000 (4000), 1/3200 (3200), 1/2500 (2500), 1/2000 (2000), 1/1600 (1600), 1/1250 (1250), 1/1000 (1000), 1/800 (800), 1/640 (640), 1/500 (500), 1/400 (400), 1/320 (320), 1/250 (250) 1/200 (200), 1/125 (125), 1/100 (100), 1/80 (80), 1/60 (60), 1/50 (50), 1/40 (40), 1/30 (30), 1/25 (25), 1/20 (20), 1/15 (15), 1/13 (13), 1/10 (10), 1/8 (8), 1/6 (6), 1/5 (5), 1/4 (4), 0.3 (0”3), 0.4 (0”4), 0.5 (0”5), 0.6 (0”5), 0.6 (0”6), 0.8 (0”8), 1 (1), 1.3 (1”3), 1.6 (1”6), 2, (2), 2.5 (2”5), 3.2 (3”2), 4 (4), 5 (5), 6 (6), 8 (8), 10 (10), 13 (13), 15 (15), 20 (20), 25 (25), 30 (30) - bulb

Figure 1. Illustration of Shutter Speeds (Click to Enlarge)

ISO Speed
ISO is a standard set by the International Organisation for Standardization and is used to measure the sensitivity of camera film. Digital cameras inherited the term ISO and it is used to measure the sensitivity of the camera sensor. This is quite a big advantage in digital macro photography because you can select a different ISO easily between shots. In a film camera this would mean having to stop to change the roll of film! This allows the photographer to use a faster shutter speed in low light situations with or without using a flash. There is one draw back with using higher ISO settings. When the sensor is made more sensitive to light it has a tendency to create noise (speckles) on the picture. This is more noticeable at very high settings of 1600 and 3200. The use of higher ISO speed can be used to overcome lighting problems in macro photography. This in turn is a useful way to reduce camera shake, which will ruin your shots by making them blurred. The low and moderate ISO speeds do not create as much noticeable noise. Always use the lowest ISO number possible to retain the highest quality image. Increase the ISO as a last resort so that a faster shutter speed can be used without altering the aperture. I hope to cover this subject in more detail at a later date.

Controlling the Exposure with Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the amount of time that the shutter remains open during an exposure. Using the correct shutter speed and aperture will result in a good exposure. This is what all photographers are aiming for when they take a photograph. A good composition with the subject in sharp focus and an overall good exposure is the recipe for a great shot. The shutter speed can be entered manually on most cameras. In shutter priority mode (marked as TV or S on most cameras) this will select the appropriate aperture on your behalf. I have had some fairly mixed result using this mode and much prefer to use full manual mode as it offers much better control of the camera. If you set the shutter speed too fast not enough light will be able to enter the camera and your image will be too dark (under exposed). Setting the shutter speed too slow will allow too much light to enter the camera causing the image to be too light (over exposed). It can be difficult to see whether the exposure is good or not using the LCD screen on the back of the camera. I suggest using the histogram feature if your camera has one. This is the best way to quickly check that your image is exposed correctly. Make adjustments to the shutter speed to correct under and over exposure problems. If the image is under exposed use a slower shutter speed to allow more light to reach the sensor or film. If the image is over exposed use a faster shutter speed to allow less light to reach cameras sensor or film.

Creative Uses of Shutter Speed
Shutter speeds can also be used to add creative and artistic flare to your photographs. When taking photographs of moving objects you can freeze or blur the action to suit your preference. Use fast shutter speeds to freeze the action in a shot or slow shutter speeds to add motion blur. In macro photography these techniques can be applied to insects to freeze or capture wing movements. This is can be very effective with large insects such as Dragonflies, Bees and Hoverflies.

What we have learnt so far about Shutter Speed
In this introductory tutorial we have learnt that fast shutter speeds can be used to freeze action. Slow shutter speeds can be used to add motion blur giving the impression of movement in the photograph. In macro photography this can be used to get impressive shots of insects. My personal preference is to freeze the action as this makes identification easier. Some insects have very intricate detail in their wings that will be lost if you use slow shutter speeds when the wings are moving. In addition any unwanted movement will be captured and could ruin the shot. If your subject is around long enough it might be possible to get both types of shot. As a photographer you have to make the decision of what type of shots you want to take. This tutorial has also briefly looked at ISO speed. Increasing the ISO setting will make the camera more sensitive to light. This can be really useful in terms of macro photography when finding enough available light can be a problem.

Hopefully this tutorial has been a good introduction to shutter speeds and has opened your eyes on this subject. Knowing how to set the correct shutter speed is guaranteed to improve your photography skills. This will enable you to overcome exposure problems with your images. Never be afraid to take a lot of shots of the same subject using different settings to get the best overall image. This is one of the advantages of using a digital camera. If it is helpful you are welcome to print my illustration to shutter speeds.

Coming Next…

In my next post I will be writing a much less formal post about some of the perils of macro photography. I do not want to give away too much about my next my article but it will be a good way to take a break from all this very technical information. It will be still be a useful source of information.

Thank you for visiting my Macro for Beginners Website. I hope you found the information that you were looking for. I will be adding new and interesting articles to this website regularly. If you have any questions, queries, comments or suggestions please leave a comment or contact me by email:

Free photography tips and advice – what more could you ask for?

Read about the Physical Challenge of Macro Photography in my next post.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Depth of Field (DOF)

Depth of Field is another area where some beginners to macro photography begin to feel confused. After reading through some of the explanations available on the internet this is understandable. You would need a degree in mathematics and physics to understand some of the information available in some books and websites. I hope to explain Depth of Field in the simplest way possible so that my readers are still with me at the end of the next paragraph! Depth of Field is the area you see in your view finder and resulting photograph that is in sharp focus. In macro photography depth of field is always going to be small and can be determined by the amount of magnification of your subject, the distance to your subject and the aperture value used. Remember that the aperture is measured in f numbers or stops. The area that is considered to be in sharp focus will be indicated by your cameras auto focus points. The camera will do this even when you have set the camera lens to manual focus. This is a good way to double check that you have manually focussed correctly. Now you may be wondering why it is better to use manual focus, especially after buying a lens with an expensive super sonic auto focussing motor. It is simply quicker and more reliable to focus manually then to use auto focus. If your subject is very small it is difficult to prevent the camera from auto focussing on the surroundings. In outdoor photography this could be a branch, stone or blade of grass!

Shallow Depth of Field (DOF)
It has already been established that there is never going to much depth of field in macro photography. This has to be accepted at the beginning and used to your advantage. It is this lack of depth of field that makes macro such a challenging form of photography. To keep this as simple as possible the closer you get to your subject the lower the depth of field. In macro photography the distance between the subject and lens could be very small indeed. If you increase the magnification the depth of field will decrease further. A small area of the frame will be in focus. This is why it is difficult to hand hold at high levels of magnification. At very high levels of magnification it can be difficult to actually find the subject in the frame!

Plane of Focus
The film or sensor in your camera is considered to be a plane. This is where all the light is brought together to form the image. The Plane of Focus is a parallel plane to the film or sensor in front of the camera. The size and exact position of the plane of focus can be altered by using different lenses on the camera. Some poor quality lenses have a tendency to produce a curved plane of focus which causes spherical aberrations. This is known as curvature of field. In other words it will cause straight lines to look curved in your images.

The basic principle to learn from plane of focus is that you can use it to get the most out of your small depth of field. To do this all you have to do is align your camera focussing plane (film or sensor) parallel with your subject. I will not dwell on plane of focus too long. This is all I wanted to say about it for now. Remember that when you set up your composition to align the camera with the subject. This is another important law of macro photography that can have an enormous effect on your results. This is one reason why setting up a macro shot can take such a long time. This is a very intricate business and every millimetre counts. You have to be precise when setting up the camera equipment to get a quality end product.

Circle of Confusion
I really do not want to add to the confusion! There are some people in the world who believe that to fully understand Depth of Field you first need to get to grips with the circle of confusion. Yes, it is a real name and not something I made up for a joke. The circle of confusion is actually more to do with human vision and optics than photography. I have brought it up here so that it has been mentioned. At some stage if there is little else going on in the world I might return to this subject.

Working Distance
Working distance is the shortest workable distance between the lens and your subject. This is 150mm (15cm) on my lens. This is a benefit when photographing insects because I can work without scaring them away. This is one good reason why you need to think about what you would like to photograph before buying your macro lens. The working distance is simply the space between the end of your lens and the subject. If you have a very small working distance there will be less light available and more need to use some type of artificial lighting or flash. Moving the camera and lens further away from the subject and using lower magnification will increase the depth of field resulting in a larger area of the frame being in focus.

Try the Technique for Yourself
This theory is easy to test with your own camera and lens. Take a picture in each position and compare them afterwards. Make sure that you have a subject that can be measured from the front of the frame to the back of the frame. I often use children’s toy figures for this experiment. Another way is to lay a measuring ruler along the frame. Every website that shows depth of field uses a plastic ruler or a sheet of graph paper. I decided to use something a bit more colourful, a procession of “little people” toys. Technically these pictures are quite poor but they show the depth of field quite well. The camera was set up on a tripod and focussed on the front toy. Only the aperture was changed between each shot. The camera was pointing towards the toys at an angle and therefore not parallel to the subject.

Figure 1. At f2.8 most of the front toy is in sharp focus, everything else is blurred.

Figure 2. At f11 more of the image is in sharp focus but the toy in the background is blurred.

Figure 3. At f22 a much greater area appears to be in sharp focus.

The images could still be improved by aligning the camera so that it is parallel to the toys. This was just a simple test to show the depth of field and how to control it using different aperture values. Figure 3 also shows that my camera sensor is still in need of a clean! When using small aperture values any dirt, grit, grime or dust on the digital sensor of your camera will be visible in the resulting photographs. I will address this problem in a subsequent post. It is possible to remove the specks of dirt from digital images with image editing software such as Coral Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop. This can be less expensive than damaging the sensor or sending the camera to be serviced. It is a dilemma that faces us all, even though new camera’s now have self-cleaning sensors I feel sceptical as to how effective they will be once the more extensive grime and grot finds its way into the camera.

I could have done this experiment differently and focussed on the toy in the centre of the frame. I would recommend that you copy my experiment using anything you have to hand. This set of pictures was taken indoors in poor light and without the use of flash. The camera was approximately a metre away from the toys. This is just a quick example and is not intended to show the maximum or minimum depth of field. There are lots of books and websites that show the depth of field in much the same way. A page of text such as a newspaper column or any type of measurement or scale are popular (but bland) ways to show the depth of field.

Summary of Depth of Field

  1. For a small depth of field move your camera closer to the subject and use high magnification and a large aperture. (f2.8)
  2. For a large depth of field move the camera further away form the subject and use low magnification and a small aperture. (f22)

This is clearly a very basic explanation of Depth of Field. It is important not to under estimate the importance of Depth of Field to macro photography. To blur the background of your subject use a large aperture (example f2.8) and to make the background and foreground sharper use a small aperture (example f22). Using the correct aperture setting for your subject and magnification will yield much improved macro photography. Make sure when setting up your macro shots that you have aligned the plane of focus with your subject. This will increase your chances of getting the subject in sharp focus in the frame.

I hope you found this explanation of Depth of Field informative and useful. It is a difficult subject to portray in basic terms. If you feel it is too basic or not covered fully enough please add a comment and I will address all reasonable requests in my next post or a relevant subsequent post. In my next post will cover shutter speed. This is much less complicated subject than depth of field and should be a much more enjoyable introductory tutorial. There are some good effects that you can gain by understanding how to use shutter speeds. I plan to revert to some general photography basics to help illustrate how the correct shutter speed can improve your macro photography. Hopefully I can shed enough light on this subject to make it easier to comprehend. I am still thinking about the best way to illustrate shutter speed on here. I used to have a really good illustration for this but it has gone missing! With all this new found knowledge of aperture and depth of field you should be already seeing some better results in your macro photography. If you have made it through all to the end of this post you may need to sit quietly in a darkened room for at least a couple of hours!

Thank you for visiting my macro photography for beginners website. If you have any questions, comments, queries or suggestions please contact me via the comments box. I am always interested in the camera equipment other people are using, particularly for their outdoor wildlife macro photography. What do you use for a light box? I’m thinking about building a light box from a clear plastic storage box. This would serve two purposes as it could also be used for carrying photographic equipment and/or my sandwiches. I will let you know how I get on with building this light box nearer the time.

Marvin Africa

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Aperture Values

How to Use Aperture to get better Macro Photographs
The dictionary definition of an aperture is a hole or a gap. In photography the aperture is a variable opening that allows light to enter the camera. This means that you can control the amount of light that enters the camera by adjusting the aperture value. Aperture settings are calibrated or measured in f/numbers also known as "stops". Light enters the camera through the lens and finds its way to the film or digital camera sensor. When you adjust the aperture on your camera you are actually controlling movable blades (sometimes called a diaphragm) within the lens. Aperture is often the cause of confusion for beginners because the scale is written in reverse order. A large aperture of f2.8 would open the blades and make a larger hole. A small aperture of f22 would close the blades making the hole smaller. Take a look at the simplified illustration of aperture values in figure 1. Note that some camera lenses will operate at larger or smaller aperture values than in this example.

Figure 1. Simplified Illustration of Aperture Values (click to enlarge). This illustration is not to scale.

Understanding Aperture Values (Av) is an important step towards improving your macro photography. Below is quick summary of what we have learned about aperture so far.

  1. Aperture means small hole or gap and in photography it controls how much light enters the camera through the lens.
  2. Aperture is measured in f/numbers or stops
  3. Try to remember it as a scale – the lowest number represents the largest aperture and the highest number represents the smallest aperture.

If you have not found a way to memorise this summary I suggest you copy it down, take it your nearest tattoo parlour and have them tattoo this on the inside of your eyelids. This is possibly the single most important law of macro photography to learn.

Aperture and Macro Photography
Knowing how to control the aperture value is very important when it comes to taking macro photographs. I would recommend setting the camera to “Aperture Priority” mode, this will be marked Av or A on your camera. In this mode you can select an aperture value and the camera will select an appropriate shutter speed. This will enable the camera to take a picture with the correct exposure. The correct exposure means that when the picture is developed, viewed or printed the colours will look true to life. A picture that is too dark is under exposed and a picture that is too light is over exposed. This once again comes down to how much light has entered the camera. Too much light and the image will be over exposed and too little light the image will be under exposed. There are lots of elements that make up a good macro photograph. Exposure is another subject that requires a full introductory tutorial of its own! In simple terms the shutter speed controls the duration of the exposure. Although it is called shutter speed it actually refers to the duration of time that the shutter remains open. It follows that when you reduce the amount of light that can access the camera, longer shutter speeds are required. This allows the camera to collect enough light to create a properly exposed image. It should be starting to dawn on you by now that everything in photography is linked to the availability of light.

Fast Camera Lenses
A digital SLR camera body "knows" the minimum and maximum aperture of the lens attached to it. The camera will not allow you to enter an aperture value outside these figures. Once you understand aperture and how it will affect your photography you can use this knowledge when choosing a new macro lens. Unless you understand the f/number scale you will not realise the limitations or benefits that one lens may have over another. Luckily I have explained all this to you and now you can buy a new macro lens and understand how it will work on your camera! When photographers refer to a lens as being “fast” they do not mean it will auto-focus quickly. What they are describing is the large aperture size which will allow the lens to operate in low light conditions. This can be very beneficial in macro photography and this attribute is sort after in macro lenses.

I know that starting out in macro photography can be a daunting task. I say this quite often but macro is such a fascinating form of photography that you feel compelled to succeed. Provided that you follow my guidelines your macro photography will start to improve quite dramatically. I am confident about this because knowing how your actions affect the results will vastly improve your confidence. Just knowing this information about the aperture will give you much more control over the camera. At the end of the day a camera is a piece of equipment like any other and once you have mastered the controls taking macro shots will become second nature.

Use a Tripod
To accommodate for longer exposure times and small aperture values a tripod is generally required. A tripod will reduce the chances of your photographic work suffering from camera shake. A sturdy tripod is a not just useful during the shot, it holds your camera for you while you are working, leaving your hands free. I read recently that one photographer enjoyed the fact that his tripod made him slow down and compose his photographs more thoughtfully. This is a good point and not something I had really considered before. Using a tripod is a great for getting your camera where you want it. When photographing wild flowers this can be a real challenge. Often more time is spent on the set-up than actually taking the shots! It can take a long time in some cases to get the set-up and light how you want it. If at the end of the day you get the “money shot” than it will be all worthwhile. Setting up the camera and tripod is part and parcel of the process and will pay off once you get the hang of it. I have found that wild flowers can be difficult to photograph from above. I now always try to take a side view and then gradually move further outwards. I Always take several shots in the same position before moving the camera. This increases the chance of getting a good shot if one of the images is spoiled by camera shake or a sudden gust of wind.

Figure 2. Illustration of LCD display - highlighting Aperture Setting of f2.8

Looking at the illustration of the camera LCD screen, an aperture value of f2.8 is being displayed. The camera is being used in “aperture priority” mode. This means that the aperture value is entered into the camera manually. The camera will automatically select an appropriate shutter speed. When the shutter button is depressed half way the shutter speed will be calculated from the amount of available light. This tends to work quite well although there is no guarantee that the settings will produce an adequate exposure. Sometimes the camera will get it wrong due to the fact that light reflects from some surfaces differently than others.

TTL Flash
TTL flash operates through the camera taking into account your aperture value, shutter speed and ISO speed. A non-TTL flash uses its own metering system. I would recommend a TTL flash for beginners to macro photography. Most flash guns and macro ring lites are TTL compatible. A popular choice for insect or bug photography is to attach a flash gun to a bracket and then diffuse the light. This means to make the light less intense by placing a cover over the flash. This will let less light through when the flash operates. Depending on the operating mode, the camera will akes into account whether or not flash will be used when the shutter is activated. Flash is important in macro photography, even in good light it enhances the picture by picking out the details in the subject. The fact is that if you are serious about macro photography you will need to get a decent flash system so that you can use faster shutter speeds. Long exposures and large apertures make macro photography very difficult as proved in my last post. At this stage I have established all the basics facts about aperture values.

Depth of Field!
In my next post I will be covering Depth of Field (DOF). This is controlled using the aperture so it should follow on quite well from this post. I realise that getting started in macro photography can be frustrating and difficult. It is quite important that you try to get all the equipment necessary to take a good macro picture. If you can not afford to get new digital SLR equipment have a look for some second hand gear. Most photographers take great care of their gear leaving it in tip-top condition. Another option is to have a look at the bridge or compact cameras. I have seen some very good macro photography taken with these cameras in recent years. Unfortunately photography is an expensive occupation. There are lots of websites that claim that you can make cheap equipment and get good results. This is partially true, but you generally need to invest in some good camera equipment if you want to get consistently good macro images. It is better to learn how to do this properly with good equipment so that you are not missing good photographic opportunities. In my next post (as stated above) I will explain how aperture can be used to control the depth of field.

I hope that this has been a useful source of information for you. If you have any questions, queries, concerns or comments about this article or website please feel free to contact me. Thank you for visiting and reading my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa

Monday, 10 March 2008

Macro Photography Tips

A Beginners Guide to Macro Photography
Welcome to my Macro Photography for Beginners website. I decided to write this basic guide for amateur and novice macro photographers because there are far too many very complicated books and websites on this subject. In my opinion beginners do not want complicated; they want some simple information to get them started and improve their photography technique. If you are someone who enjoys the art of macro photography and want to improve your technique then naturally as you advance you will want to learn more about the subject of photography. If you are starting out from scratch or having disappointing results from your set up then you have arrived at the right place. It is my intention to write a very basic photography guide for all the essential elements required to improve your macro photography written in a way that makes it easy to understand.

Firstly what is Macro Photography?
True macro is defined by the ratio 1:1 and above which means the subject is life size (or larger) in the frame and on the film or sensor of your camera. Strictly speaking anything below 1:1 is considered close-up work. On a modern lens built for a digital SLR this will be indicated on the lens itself.

My Method of Madness!
I am an amateur macro photographer myself and have been experimenting with macro photography for a number of years now. I have been interested in nature and wildlife photography for a long time. I prefer to provide the information and show examples of how I got the results. It is optional if you want to copy my example but this site is not intended as a “how to” site because frankly, there are too many of those already. I will describe some of my pages as tutorials to make site navigation easier. Photography is about “expressing yourself” which can not be done by copying someone wholesale. It is a proven scientific fact that people learn and remember more from “doing” rather than from “reading” but just this once, please put the camera down for a minute and continue reading my website! I will be using a four year old Canon 300D (AKA Rebel XT, Kiss) and a Sigma 150mm 1:2:8 macro DG HSM lens. The only additional equipment that I will use initially is a Benbo Trekker tripod (and head) and a remote switch (cable variety). I am using this older camera because I have one lying around and to show that it is not always the brand new swanky camera that gets the best results. At present I will not be using any flash guns, ring flash or twin flash systems. This is because I know that as a beginner you may not have bought a flash yet. So initially we will only work with ambient light(natural) and artificial lighting. Later on, I will introduce some kind off-camera flash into the mix so that the difference it makes can be compared and discussed.

News Flash (get it!) Kenro has just released a ring flash on to the UK market at rrp £128.00 I am fairly sure this is the lowest priced ring flash available. At present I have not read any reviews of this new product.

Macro is difficult without a tripod but you can use other methods to steady the camera. Mono-pods and beanbags are good ways to do this if you are determined to do macro photography without a tripod. Tripods can be expensive but I would recommend getting one as they are very versatile. It is worth paying for a good one because the cheaper tripods often wobble, will not take the weight of a big lens and have a tendency to break. This could cause expensive damage to your camera equipment. When attempting insect or other wildlife shots there is not always enough time to get a tripod set up. Hand-holding is very difficult, I would not recommend this for long exposures or high magnifications, but it can be done under the right conditions. If you do not have a remote switch you can use the camera’s self timer feature instead. OK, I think that is everything required to do some basic macro photography!

Budget Macro
There are lots of ways to get involved with macro photography without spending heaps of cash. If buying a dedicated macro lens is too extravagant or you only want to take macro shots occasionally, you may be interested in getting some extension tubes. Extension tubes connect between your camera and lens’ allowing you to take acceptable close up shots. This is probably the best alternative to buying a dedicated macro lens because you make use of your existing camera equipment. I will discuss extension tubes and bellows in another post. It is possible to reverse a lens but this is not something that I have done. Reversing a lens involves adapting a lens so that it operates back to front on the camera making it into a makeshift macro lens. I have seen excellent results from bridge cameras fitted with macro attachments. Many compact cameras come with macro features and can be used to get adequate images.

Sensor Cleaning
Bridge and compact cameras may have their limitations, but they do have one big advantage over digital SLR. Swapping lenses on a digital SLR camera can lead to dust getting into the sensor compartment. This shows up more with the smaller apertures used for macro. No matter how carefully you look after your camera and equipment there will come a time when the sensor requires attention. This can be done by sending the camera away to be serviced or if you are brave (or mad) enough you can clean the sensor yourself. Be warned, damage the sensor and the camera becomes an expensive paper weight. One problem with using my old camera for this websites example shots and tutorials is that the camera sensor is filthy. I have taken great care to keep my camera and lenses clean over the years but dust has gradually found its way in. I have never attempted to clean the sensor on a digital SLR camera until now. I will obviously have to write this up on here when I get around to doing the job. Talk about added pressure!

Update: You can find out how I got on with sensor cleaning here.

Glossary of Terms
Hopefully my writing style will make it easy for beginners and amateur photographers to understand without referring to a dictionary too often. I will do my best to explain everything as clearly as possible. Most of the terms will be self explanatory and as back up if it does all get too complicated I will publish a full glossary of terms.

Getting Started - Help and Tips
If you are already set up and want to get started I will provide some quick help and tips. In my next couple of post I will explain “depth of field” and “aperture”. When you first pick up your camera it can be quite a daunting task, a modern camera is covered in buttons, dials and knobs. Knowing what to press and when to press it is going to vastly improve your skills. First you need to locate Aperture Priority mode. This is intended for DSLR users, but anyone can have a go with macro. Some of the best nature pictures I have seen lately were taken using bridge and compact cameras. In the main it is the person behind the camera that counts. The equipment is not important but it can help you to set up quickly and take better macro pictures consistently. The fact is you could take 100 very good macro shots handheld whilst someone else takes 10 excellent shots using a tripod. Who has the best set of images? In most cases you miss a lot opportunities using a tripod but you get sharper images. It all depends on you, the photographer and what it is that you wish to achieve. Once you have experienced the difficulties of working outdoors you can appreciate great insect and plant photography much more. All wildlife photography is difficult and takes a great deal of patience. Sometimes it can take hours, days, months, or years to capture the image you want. The buzz from getting a great shot makes it all worthwhile in the end. One great shot is worth more than a 1000 average images.

  1. Use Aperture Priority or mode. indicated Av on Canon or A on Nikon
  2. Use a tripod or any other acceptable method to steady the camera and have a go without a tripod. Compare the results.
  3. Switch to Manual focus and practice focussing manually. When you get the image sharp in the frame depress the shutter half way and the camera will beep if you are in focus. Just the same as when auto-focus is switched on.
  4. Use a box/tent/windbreak to protect your subject from the elements when working outdoors.
  5. Keep your camera clean, free of dirt, dust and grease. (sand and grit can cause a lot of damage to your camera equipment)
  6. Keep your camera dry. You should use your camera in the rain but always protect the camera body and lens from water.
  7. Use a remote switch (or the self timer) to reduce camera shake.
  8. Try different aperture settings for your subject.
  9. Try and fit your subject in the frame even if you have to trade some magnification.
  10. It’s better to attempt a shot and fail that not to try at all. Practice, practice and practice but most of all, enjoy your yourself.

Do not worry if the results are still not brilliant at this stage. Just get used to setting up your camera and equipment. The images are likely to be poor at full magnification until we introduce some flash techniques. In the meantime try and get some acceptable macro shots using natural sunlight. You can use deflectors (anything big and shiny) to reflect more light onto your subject. I think that I will leave it here for now. That is quite a lot to digest.

Coming Next
In my next post I plan to explain in simple terms (and illustrations) all about aperture and how important it is to macro photography. Macro is probably the most difficult type of photography to use outdoors. The slightest movement of camera or subject will ruin your macro shots. Therefore the key is to find a way of keeping the camera and subject still. Photographers usually develop their own methods of getting good results over time. Remember that we are talking about macro in general terms inclusive of close-up. This means not strictly 1:1 which is equivalent to life size. Macro beyond 1:1 can get very difficult and therefore is not really the domain of the beginner. In addition this type of extreme magnification is most often used for medical or dental photography. Nature and wildlife photography is most often done at close-up range to get the entire subject sharp in the frame whilst retaining some background. Do not be afraid to trade magnification for a better Composition.

Macro Photography Tips
This is just my introduction page. In my future posts I will be writing introductory tutorials on how to improve your technique using basic photography equipment. I will look into every aspect of close up and macro photography. In future posts I will address the following subjects Depth of Field, Shutter Speed, Aperture, Exposure, f numbers/stops, tripods and heads, monopods, bean bags, filters, flash guns, twin flash, ring flash, camera settings and set up, soft-box and tents, bellows, extension tubes, focussing rails and anything else deemed to be relevant. I will outline all this information in a plain and understandable format. In addition I am going to provide example photographs and images to illustrate my posts. If you feel I have missed something or not covered something properly, let me know by email or in the comments box and I will cover it in my next or subsequent post. Thank you for reading my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa

If you enjoyed this article about macro photography tips why not read some of my photography articles on: Aperture Depth of Field Shutter Speed Exposure Composition