Saturday 13 December 2008

Black and White Macro Photography

Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. My last post concentrated on a specialised way of capturing small objects using the "pedestal technique". In this post I will be discussing the benefits of using Black and White photography for Macro shots. When photography first began it was only possible to take monotone images. In actual fact the images do not consist of just black and white but are made up with various shades of grey. In image editing terminology this might be described as greyscale. The more precise term for this type of photography is monotone. A benefit of digital photography is that image can be manipulated afterwards. Colour images can be made monotone and then be made more authentic by adding tone and grain. This can make a photograph taken today look like it was taken in the earliest days of photography.

Black and White was once the only type of photography available and is still the one of the most powerful way to portray many subjects. To remove the colour from an image can have a very dramatic effect. In many images it makes them appear timeless, in that they could have been taken in any decade. In image editing software further pseudo effects can be added including dust, grain, scratches and small surface damage.

Many rules that apply to conventional photography do not always apply to macro photography. In terms of photography, Macro has always been the odd one out. Maybe this is what makes it appeal to a certain type of person rather than to everybody. Black and White (or Monotone) is accepted and extensively used for popular forms of photography including landscape, wedding, fashion, fine art, abstract, portrait and creative. It is rare to find outstanding black and white macro photography now that most photographers shoot in colour only. It seems that photographers are reluctant to strip out the colour or perhaps when you get very close - colour is more important to the composition. So this begs the question, is macro photography dependant on colour or can it be just as effective in black and white monotone? I recently did a couple of internet searches for the term “monotone macro” and “black and white macro” and was quite surprised at the results. The images that I did find were actually quite impressive but it also has to be noted that they were actually close-up rather than true macro shots. I’m usually not bothered about this distinction between these two terms but today I want to look at shots taken at 1:1 (true macro shots).

As a photographer I am always on the lookout for unusual subject to photograph. Luckily (and at great expense) I recently came into the possession of a brand new road racing bicycle. It is a very impressive piece of equipment . I actually use a bicycle to get around a lot of the time and find it a great way to find photographic opportunities. The great aspect of this bicycle being brand new is that it is allowed to "live" in the house. I’ve been looking it at most days very closely and decided to write a review about it for another website. Then I thought maybe I should take a few photographs of it as well - and perhaps get some close-up shots of the important bits. There are some details that are important but are very small and hard to see. This is when I realised that this would make an ideal subject for this macro photography experiment. So I took several macro photography shots at 1:1 of different parts of the bicycle. Most of the shots I would use for the review that I am writing for another website. The spare shots (that might otherwise have been deleted) have been salvaged and converted into monotone. All the pictures were taken on location (in my kitchen) and the ambient light can only be described as dismal.

Macro of Bicycle ValveFigure 1. A Bicycle Valve in Monotone (Left) and Colour (Right) – I’m sure you could have worked this out for yourselves but I’ve got to write something under the pictures! In my opinion this is a poor composition and looking at it in monotone or colour makes no difference. Unless of course you have a strong passion for bicycle valves.

macro of bicycle hexnutFigure 2: This is a hex nut(I think!) - this image is over-exposed but has a more interesting composition than the valve due to greater differences in contrast.

Macro of Bicycle Brake CableFigure 3. This image of a brake cable has been included simply to add some much needed tension.

Macro of Bicycle SprocketFigure 4. This image is the gear cassette or to put it another way a bunch of cogs (or sprockets).

I soon discovered that taking images of a bicycle at 1:1 ratio is quite a difficult task. It was not long before my Benbo tripod, bicycle and my limbs were intertwined. Somewhere amongst it all there was a man sprawled on the floor trying to operate the camera. I don’t know why but no matter what I set out to do there is never quite enough space. There is always an obstacle such as chair leg, hairy Labrador or other immovable object where my tripod needs to stand. Despite these difficult circumstances and the normal household disharmony (fighting and shouting) in the background, I managed to get all the shots that I needed for my project. It has to be remembered that all this images featured here have been taken from the cutting room floor. They are the out-takes from a productive photo-shoot. Macro Photographers delete a much higher percentage of their images depending on their standards of acceptance. I got all the images for my bicycle review and normally all these extra images would have been surplus to my requirements and deleted. My point being that you should always consider carefully which images you keep and which images you delete. If you are uncertain keep the images and review them in a few days time. Preview all your images in monotone as well as colour if your software allows this option.

There are some macro images that convert to black and white or monotone better than others. This is generally images that contain a lot of contrast or where large differences in levels can be seen. I believe that the best black and white photographers actually see the world in monotone. When done correctly and with the right image it can be very powerful. I often convert images to black and white but usually return them to colour or use duotone! I found that only a few of the 1:1 macro images converted made good viewing. The problems seems to be that when you get very close to most subjects you need the colour differences to assist in isolating the main point of focus. In most cases converting to black and white or monotone will distract from this effect and make the image less convincing. Images that have a large difference of contrast should convert to monotone with better results.

Converting to monotone does not just have to be a last minute rescue attempt for the landscape photographer. There is definitely a place for the monotone macro image even when taken at a very close range. On reflection I have learned that close-up photography tends to make for better monotone images due to the large areas of negative space around the subject. In a good composition this should help to draw the observer to the focal point of the image. I tried composing frames that I thought would convert into good monotone images. The whole season was spent thinking about the conversion to monotone. I didn’t feel too well on the day and I was surrounded with general household chaos at the time. My concentration was therefore not as sharp it should have been. It has been difficult finding time to get these pictures done because I am very busy writing articles for other websites.

Macro Photography for Beginners - Feedback and News
I've had quite a few technical problems with my website recently. In addition my computer will be celebrating it's seventh birthday soon! You can only imagine the amount of noise that it makes when it is running... all the cooling fans are broken and it produces more heat than most ovens! The good news is that a new machine is on the way but I might vanish for a short time during the cross-over period. Please note that I'm not ignoring you if you do not get a response by email or in the comments.

I’ve had some interesting feed back recently and found some new friends and cool places to hang out.

Thanks to Larry Hnetka for dropping by, if you want to read an interesting weblog direct yourself to this place on the internet.

Larry Hnetka Goes HMmmm

...and I got an amusing email from Roz

I like Roz, she has a great sense of humour and is also an excellent photographer and digital artist. I wanted to post this email because it came at time when I was feeling a bit low and it cheered me up. It was only a few words but it really lifted my spirits after a really tough week.

Hey Marvin,
Just thought I'd send you a quick email to say I thoroughly enjoyed your Macro Photography for Beginners
particularly loved the bit about the chocolate underpants .. lol ..!!
anyhoooooooo .. have a good weekend ..
from roz ..

If you want to know more about Roz follow these links here:-




I also landed at this website recently:- nicholas-hendrickx where images of flies have been manipulated. If you like pictures of flies playing the piano or riding bicycles this might be a good site for you to visit.

Please note that this artist has used image manipulation and assures his readers that no flies where harmed in the making of his images. I think he needs to read my website to get those images a bit sharper and then he may be on to a good thing!

Just a quick word – I’m not an expert on SEO (obviously) but if anyone wants different anchor text in their links to suit their keywords please just ask. I don’t mind changing the anchor text. For the uninitiated, anchor text is the words that the link is applied too, for example some people will use “click here”. In terms of SEO links that use relevant words for the website they link to are more valuable. In return please choose a reasonable keyword if you want to provide a link to my website.

Well that’s another post…

Thanks for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa

Sunday 26 October 2008

Close-up Photography of Small Objects

Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. In my last post I wrote about a lot of different subjects but mainly concentrated on still life and to a lesser degree product photography. Today, I am writing about a technique of photographing coins or other small objects of interest. This post is not just packed full of macro photography tips and information about photographing small objects it is also based around a story of how this particular collection began.

My eagle-eyed four year old daughter began collecting coins after taking an interest in the pictures and designs on them. She has now amassed approximately 20 of various shapes, sizes and designs. I decided to photograph and catalogue her collection to ensure that we have an accurate record of them. None of the money in this collection is valuable and mostly they have been taken from circulation. There are one or two interesting specimens that are no longer in circulation which I have donated to boost the collection. I’m sure that if we promoted her interest in collecting metal money she would soon have a lot more donations from further a field. Although her collection is not worth much in financial terms the majority of this assemblage was put together by my daughters Grandad who sadly passed away last year. As you can imagine this set of coins may not be “special” to anyone else but to my daughter they are very special indeed. So much so, that whenever anyone in our household goes to the bank to pay money in to an account my daughter has a minor “panic attack“ over the whereabouts of her collection!

I suppose we are all money collectors at some level with most of us collecting for different reasons. I’ve known a few people who refer to their hard earned money as beer tokens. If you take the time to observe more closely the contents that pass through your hands each day, you will be surprised at the variety of different designs in circulation. The main problem seems to be that there just doesn’t appear to be enough of them coming my way. So there will be little chance of any new camera equipment in the foreseeable future! Luckily, I found a simple and effective method of using my macro lens and ring-flash to photograph the entire collection. It is a great technique that I derived from information on other people’s photography websites. I wanted to take a shot of both sides of each one. To use the correct technical terminology this would be the obverse and the reverse. I try as much as possible to avoid mathematical calculations on this website but I think we can all cope with this one. (20 x 2 = 40 shots). To save as much set-up time as possible all subjects of the same (or similar) size (or type) will be photographed and catalogued at the same time. Then the camera position will be re-set so that all the compositions are full frame. There is a cropping factor to consider if you want to get the object completely full in the frame, but be careful not to allow any overlap over the edge at all because this always looks a bit strange (a bit like a car with a flat tyre).

Even the smallest radius of these objects is usually too large to photograph at 1:1 but this is not important for this type of work. The main intention here is to capture the entire subject in the frame with as much detail as possible. This means ensuring that the details are in sharp focus and easily legible in the final photograph. In older metal coins it is important to capture any damage which may be present on the specimen. There may be a few notches, surface scratches or discoloured areas. In extreme cases in very old money there may even may the occasional hole!

Why use a Ring Flash?
It is a well known fact that the ring flash has a reputation as being as useful as pair of chocolate underpants. I seem to be one of the few macro photographers prepared to stand up for this much maligned device. In my opinion it is much more useful than you could ever imagine if you are prepared to use it in an unconventional manner. In addition you may have to build some additional equipment such as a (home made) diffuser to get the most out of it. I made mine from an empty “Vitalite” margarine tub. You do not need to worry about diffusers today because this is not required for this type of photography. I will come back to this in another post if anyone wants to build a similar device. It does not take a genius to work out that in certain situations a ring-flash will direct the light to the wrong place and ruin the image. In these situations you have to detach the flash unit from the macro lens and hold it in position (most often at an angle of 45 degrees). The flash does not have to be held steady as any shake will not be picked up by the camera (unless it is extremely violent, such as an earthquake or the shutter speed is very slow).

The Pedestal Technique of Photographing Coins
This technique may sound complicated at first but in fact it is very simple and easy to accomplish. The basic principle of this technique is to isolate your subject on a small pedestal from the background. To do this you need to erect a small cylinder or tube to a height of approximately 5 ½ inches (or 14 centimetres). Ensure that the pedestal’s diameter is smaller than your object so that it will be hidden from view in the final images. Use a matt background around the base of the pedestal. The distance between the subject and the background is what makes this technique work. Set-up the camera and (macro) lens to focus on the pedestal. Use an appropriate aperture value to throw the background out of focus. Ensure that the value used keeps the entire subject (or object) sharp in the frame. See illustration in figure 1. Reflectors can be used to direct more light to the subject. Place reflective material in an appropriate position to bounce light onto the subjects surface from your light source.

Figure 1: Illustration of Tripod and Camera Set-up (Marvin Africa, 2008)

There are two way to photograph your subject using this technique. You can use one side of a ring-flash to fire a burst of light across the surface or use some type of continuous lighting. I have taken pictures using both techniques and found the ring-flash method more reliable. The only major problem with this set-up is that the subjects are often all different shapes and sizes. This equates to a lot of setting up and re-focussing the camera. Another time consuming problem is keeping track of all the heads and tails. The only reasonable method that I have come up with so far is writing down the image number (with a pencil) on a piece of scrap paper. Which is not very technical in this digital age! Another minor problem to overcome is that some of the subjects have very bright surfaces. This occurs when a coin has not been in circulation long enough to loose its surface shine. A very newly minted piece of metal will be much more reflective than an older piece that has become dull with time. Adjustments to the ring-flash or (continuous lighting if your using it instead) need to be made to accommodate this variation. Changes need to made for objects with different surface colour as this may require a different lighting set-up to get the best image. This is often a matter of changing the angle of the lighting or with the ring-flash changing the intensity of the flash. I found that for some items with silver surfaces it worked best to use both tubes at different intensities for the best results. This took a lot of trial and error and moving the ring-flash around to many different angles.

How to set the Ring-Flash to Fire one Tube
To set the ring-flash (Sigma EM-140DG) select on (you won’t get far otherwise) and then select M (Manual Mode). Once in Manual Mode you can change the intensity of the flash on both tubes. Select until the left tube’s value flashes, it will begin at full intensity. Use the (-) minus button to reduce the intensity to a lower amount, which will be displayed as 1/64, 1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1/1 (lowest to highest). To turn the tube off press (-) button again and the line that represents it on the LCD screen will disappear. This indicates that it has been disabled. I am sure that the settings are similar with other manufacturers of ring flash.

This was very much an unplanned post about a project that I ended up doing. In the end I found it so enjoyable that it became worthwhile writing a post on this subject. In addition this experience has made me more aware of the different designs on the money in circulation. My aim was to try and take a flat image of these diverse and interesting objects. This was not an artistic shoot and I did not want to make them stand out too much. All I needed was a scientific record of their existence in case they are ever lost or stolen. I recommend taking a closer look at the contents of your own pockets and see if you can find anything worth capturing this way. I’m now considering using this same technique for other small subjects including stamps. I hope you found some of the information in this post useful. Thank You for visiting my Macro Photography website.

Marvin Africa

Tuesday 30 September 2008

Still Life Macro Photography

Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. My last post was all about macro lenses. In this post I am going to write about still life and macro photography. Still life is a form of art that captures or creates images of stationary, still or static objects. This can be achieved in several different ways and by using all kinds of techniques. Many still life images are actually taken as close-up rather than true macro. Remember that images taken at the ratio of 1:1 and above are true macro and images taken below this ratio are considered “close-up”. Many photographers are very particular about this and will condemn close-up photography for not being true macro. In my opinion photography should be judged on other factors and not the ratio at which the photograph was taken. On the other hand I can understand how macro photographers get annoyed when their complex art is confused with a less technically difficult one.

If you understand composition and know how to set up your camera, you should find still life relatively easy. This being the main reason that students of photography become involved in this type of art. Almost any nondescript object can be brought into the limelight and become a point of fascinating interest.

Why is Still Life Macro Photography So Simple?
The answer to this question is within the title itself, the subject is still. Therefore there is no prospect of any movement. Motion blur is caused when the subject moves during the exposure. This is much less likely to happen when you are not outdoors fighting with the elements. When you arrange a still life composition the set-up can be left in position for as long as required. The camera can be supported on a tripod or attached to a frame using a bracket. A remote switch is an inexpensive way to reduce any chance of camera shake. This will enable you to get consistently sharp still life images. If you do not have a remote switch you can use the cameras self-timer function. Even the action of depressing the shutter button can introduce enough camera shake to ruin your images. Try not to introduce any vibrations as these will be magnified. The key to sharp still life macro photography is (perhaps ironically) keeping the camera still.

Incandescent and Fluorescent Light
When photography takes place in a studio environment natural light (also called ambient light) is not used as the primary light source. This means that an artificial light source must be used in its place. Most studio close-up or macro still life photography is composed against a clean white background and lit by a number of diffused lamps. This gives a soft even light for the subject and eliminates colour casts from the background. An incandescent lamp or light bulb has an element that gives out light when it is heated by an electrical current passing through it. Fluorescent lamps or light bulbs (often in the form of tubes) are more efficient. They are also known as gas discharge lamps because of the way that they work. In basic terms, when an electrical current heats the gas inside the bulb it causes it to fluoresce (glow brightly). The problem with artificial lighting is that it does not replicate white light naturally and the camera picks up the difference. Light has a colour temperature measured in Kelvin. A combination of the colour temperature of the lighting and the cameras white balance setting that can create an unwanted colour cast. Warm temperatures are seen as yellow or orange whilst cold temperatures are seen as blue or green. One way to combat unwanted colour casts is to add corrective filters to your camera lenses. You can buy expensive studio lamps that are designed to provide continuous light. Although they can be expensive to buy, continuous studio lighting is more reliable, flexible and generally safer than home made systems. If you’re planning on taking a lot of product or table top studio photographs it is going to be well worth the initial financial outlay.

It can be difficult finding the right lighting for a home made macro studio. Many amateur photographers use 500W halogen work lamps (or site lamps) to provide the lighting for their home made (self-build) light-boxes and light tents. The lamps are free standing which makes them easy to position at either side of the light-box or tent and they will provide an even diffused light. You can find this type of lamp at hardware/DIY stores or building merchants. They are relatively inexpensive to buy.

Squidoo and Hubpages
I recently visited an internet hubpage that used Macro Photography for a competition. It was very similar to those well known magazine competitions where you are invited to guess the identity of an obscure object in the photograph.

Hub pages (if you are wondering) are a type of internet community with social networking. To become a member you need to sign-up and create your own profile. When you have logged in you can begin creating your own hub pages on any subject you can imagine. It is very similar to Squidoo, another online community where you create your own web pages called lenses. This is done by adding and editing selectable modules. If the pages that you create are popular you can make a small amount of money for your efforts. Obviously to make successful lens or hub page means putting in some hard work. Pages and lenses need to be kept up to date and routinely maintained to retain popularity. Obviously you stand a greater chance of success if you write an original and entertaining page. So you need to put your creative thinking caps on! I’ve dabbled with Squidoo in the past but have as yet ventured into the realms of hub pages. Hubpages have a good reputation for showing up in search engine results and this has increased their popularity.

Squidoo, Hubpages and all other similar Internet communities or social networking websites can be written on any subject imaginable. Digital Photography is a very popular subject and therefore an ideal subject to cover. If you are interested in writing Squidoo lenses or Hubpages I would recommend reading some of the most popular pages for inspiration and to find out what is required. It appears that making your lens or page popular will involve entering into the social networking side of these websites. In essence you have to actively make friends and influence people. If your creation is successful you will gain a percentage of advertising revenue or affiliate sales.



Stock Photography Libraries
If this has whetted your appetite for making money from your digital photography I will briefly draw your attention to stock libraries. Stock photography libraries accept images from photographers and display them in a researchable on-line database. Methods of payment vary between different stock libraries but you can usually find payment rates somewhere on their own websites. I have only recently decided to get involved with stock photography libraries myself and have not formed an opinion as to whether or not they are worthwhile from a financial revenue point of view. It is surprising how popular stock photography has become with webmasters. It is obviously much easier to grab a couple of images from a library rather than set off down the high street with a digital camera in hand. Looking at this realistically it does make quite a lot of sense. Stock Photography is probably not going to make you into a millionaire but equally there is no reason not to get involved and see how it all pans out. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

One point to consider is that the quality of the images has to be very high. The images need to be of a subject that will be popular. If you can specialize into an untapped niche here you may be onto something. I’m not known for posting many outward links in case my loyal readers venture off and fail to come back. I will chance it this time and post a couple of links for a couple of popular stock photography websites. Don’t forget to come back to read the rest of my post. It is not just photographs that are popular with webmasters. Vector art is also a sought after product for stock libraries. So if you’re good with graphics you could find a way to supplement your income. There is always a slim chance that you will be spotted and become the next “big thing” in this lucrative industry!

Here are few links to some popular stock photography libraries.




There are plenty of others out there too!

White Balance (WB)
If you are taking still life macro images of any type you will need to understand white balance. Luckily the concept of white balance is not difficult to comprehend. White balance (WB) is the term used to describe the process of correcting unwanted colour casts.

One of the most considerable advantages of shooting in RAW format is that you can adjust the white balance afterwards. However to gain confidence as a photographer it is important to know how to get the white balance right without using image editing software for corrections and adjustment. Remember that changes to the white balance during post processing affect the entire image. This means that you may not be able to edit the background without altering the subject to some level as well.

The aim of studio still life photography is to get a clean image without any colour cast. To do this you can set the white balance to compensate, add a corrective filter to the end of the camera lens or select a source of lighting that does not produce a colour-cast. It may be possible to eliminate the unwanted cast by re-positioning the lights, using a different type of light bulb in your lamps or using a gray card to adjust the camera’s white balance setting. The gray card can also be used in post processing for RAW files and in some cases JPEG files as well.

The problem of colour cast is likely to be seen with home built or experimental macro studio systems. If you plan to take a lot of close up studio macro or product shots it may be a good idea to invest in a macro studio and an adequate continuous lighting system. As I said earlier, this will be expensive but as you know, photography is an expensive business.

Gray Cards
This is an inexpensive and extremely useful piece of photographic equipment. It is in fact exactly as the name suggests a gray piece of card or material. However it will remain neutral gray under any type of illumination. It is used to set a custom white balance for the lighting conditions that you are using. Gray cards are described as 18% gray and often referred to as the last gray card. This is the cause of much entertainment between photographers as they all pertain to have the last gray card! Digital cameras have sensitive light meters and their is some evidence that a higher reflectance is required. There are specific gray cards available that have been designed to be used for digital photography that have a higher percentage. (approximately 36%.

The use of gray cards will yield far better results than depending on the camera’s default or automatic settings. It may sound complicated at first but let me assure that using a neutral gray card is very simple indeed. Place the gray card within the area of your light source and ensure that it fills the frame. Take a shot of the neutral gray card and use the resulting image to set a custom white balance in your camera settings menu. The camera will now use this new setting for all subsequent images until you input a different or default white balance setting. It really is that simple. It is also possible to use the neutral gray card during the post processing of images to adjust the white balance of a batch of images.

Macro Photography for Beginners
Thank you for visiting my macro photography for beginners website. It has been a long time since my post due to some problems that I have recently encountered. I would like to thank readers for their feedback in the way of comments. Talking of feedback, it is a well known way of promoting your website or blog to leave comments on other peoples websites. This became a problem for webmasters because spammers began to use this method to promote their scams. In response to this the “no follow” attribute was introduced. To put it another way these comments and the link they create are now totally pointless. In the past I’ve ignored some of these comments on my own website but will now delete them as soon as they are posted. Genuine comments are obviously welcome as always and I’m sorry to have bored you with the tedium of dealing with spam comments, which has sadly become one of my recent pass-times. I hope that this article will prove to be useful and insightful, despite it spanning quite a large array of topics not all of which include Macro Photography.

Marvin Africa

Sunday 17 August 2008

Macro Lenses

Digital Macro Photography Lenses
Welcome to macro photography for beginners. This post is all about macro lenses. To achieve good macro photography you will need a decent lens. The highest quality macro lenses (also called micro lenses by some manufacturers) are usually quite expensive to buy. This is because of the way they are designed to gain high magnification without impairing the image with aberrations, ghosting, vignetting and distortion. The end result should be a crystal sharp image throughout the entire focal length of the macro lens. It is not possible to create a perfect lens but the manufactures of camera lenses strive to make them as good as possible. To achieve this manufacturers need to incorporate expensive components into their lens technology.

On several occasion within this blog I have described the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro and 150mm APO Macro DG HSM lenses as excellent. In fact what I have meant by this, is that they are both extremely good value for money as lenses for beginners (and beyond). This is because they both share a high standard of build quality that produces a sharp image (the 105mm just sneaks it for sharpness but it is very close indeed). These lenses are made in almost every mount imaginable. So they are accessible, affordable and take sharp macro photographs. The Sigma 150mm APO Macro DG uses Sigma 's HSM motor which is very quiet when auto focussing, this can be a real bonus when photographing nervous subjects. It is also a fixed length (not a telephoto) and this is also a benefit for nature photography. A lens that does not rotate is more suitable for use with polarizing filters. These are some of the reasons that Sigma's range of macro lenses have become extremely popular with nature and wildlife photographers. The great aspect about both of these two particular lenses from Sigma is that they can be used for general day to day photography as well. They are both very good prime (fixed focal length) lenses. In fact most fixed focal length macro lenses can be used in this way.

Photographers may question the weight of a particular lens as being too heavy. In my experience, I actually find the heavier lenses easier to use. This is because it can be difficult to hold a very light camera and lens steady. I believe that it is easier to hand hold a heavier lens than a light lens.

Personally aesthetics of a lens are not really important when making a decision. The lens elements, components, and auto focussing motor and price are all important factors. I suppose that if a lens look great on the camera this may create a feeling of confidence that results in a burst of inspiration. If the lens makes you feel good then this is bound to have a positive effect on your photography. It is very difficult to find a poor quality macro lens on the market, the established brands all make very good macro lenses. I can highly recommend The Sigma 150mm APO Macro DG HSM lens for beginners, particularly those interested in wildlife photography. The Sigma 150mm APO Macro DG HSM is a very good macro lens and as stated earlier, it is perfect for beginners to macro photography. It has an aesthetic appeal, admittedly not strictly a criteria for a good lens it is definitely a good looking piece of kit. I have never experienced any problems with this lens and I use it most days and often for long photography sessions. It is a good lens for capturing insects, dragonflies, butterflies, moths etc. Equally it is a good lens for still life and flower photography. If you have the opportunity to try before you buy be sure to take advantage of the opportunity. If you have a Canon camera consider the EF 100mm f2.8 Macro USM. If you have a Nikon camera consider the AF-S 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF VR Micro. (note: VR stands for Vibration Reduction, IS stands for Image Stabilisation)

Some of the best macro lenses available:-

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 105 f2.8G DX ED-IF VR Micro
Nikon AF Nikkor 60mm f2.8 D Micro Lens#

Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 Macro USM lens
Canon EF 100mm f2.8 Macro USM lens
Canon EF 180mm f3.5 L Macro USM Lens

Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG Macro
Sigma 150mm APO Macro DG HSM

Canon also make the ultimate macro lens with their MP-E 65mm 1:2:8 1-5x 65mm. This remarkable lens begins at 1:1 and will take macro images at a magnification of x 5. I would not recommend this lens for beginners as it can be a difficult lens to use.

The Different Types of Lenses Explained
Camera lenses come in a multitude of shapes and sizes and are designed with different styles of photography in mind. Many of these forms of photography overlap so you can buy a lens for one purpose and find that it is also capable of another. However it is best to buy lenses that have been designed for the purpose that you intend to use them. This will provide you with the best results in my opinion. I know that when you step into the world of digital SLR photography for the first time the large array of lenses and their terminology can be a little bit confusing.

Fixed Focal Length (also known as Primes). This type of lens as the name suggest has a fixed length. For example a 50mm Prime lens will always have the same focal length. To frame your subject you have to move the camera and lens closer or further away from the subject. Generally a prime lens will be (slightly) sharper than an equivalent zoom or telephoto lens but this is not guaranteed.

Telephoto lenses. A telephoto lens is a type of zoom lens. This means that it does not have a fixed focal length. Instead it has a focal range that will be displayed on the lens barrel itself, for example 70mm-200mm. Telephoto lens are physically shorter when at the lowest end of their focal range (70mm), when extended to the highest end of the focal range (200mm) they are physically longer. This type of lens can be difficult to use in certain circumstances.

A typical zoom lens also has a focal range but it operates differently. The lens elements move inside the lens housing which means that the physical length of the lens remains the same when the lens is fully extended. Some zoom lenses are known to create a vacuum effect that draws dust and debris into the camera. This can be a problem when taking photographs in places where there is a lot air born dust. This could be a motor-sports event like an off-road rally stage or where there are dirt bikes, mountain bikes or motorbikes etc. This is not so much of a problem for macro photography but if you use your camera for this type of event you can expect more sensor dust and that can be a real problem for macro photography because it shows up most when smaller apertures are used.

Most compound lenses are made from a number of optical lens elements. Each element is carefully engineered to reduce unwanted aberrations, reflections, ghosting or distortion in the image. However there are also some lenses that are designed to actually cause distortion of the image. Fisheye lenses are an example of this type of lens. A fisheye lens purposely produces a very distorted image. (for example:- Nikon AF Nikkor 105 f2.8 DX Fisheye Lens)

Weight – Sometimes Heavier is Best.
In basic terms the lens elements are either plastic or glass (sometimes other materials and coatings are used such as fluorite in expensive lenses). Cheap and cheerful lenses often use plastic internal elements to reduce weight and overall cost. However in a lot of cases they are adequate for the casual or amateur photographer. High quality lenses have a better build quality for professional use, which means the lens is made to higher standards. A professional quality lens has to withstand the vigour of being used (and abused) on a daily basis. This is often what you are paying for when buying a very expensive lens. It is not just the optical quality but also the built quality, which means having better seals etc. Higher quality lens elements mean better image quality and usually more weight.

Summary of Macro Lenses and their uses based on their focal length and working distances.
50mm [Short working distance] This lens would be ideal for small objects, still life photography. A good example would be product photography for auction or retail websites.

100mm [Medium working distance] This lens would be suitable for small objects, flowers and insects. Although the working distance may cause some problems for some subjects. An ideal lens for coins, stamps and flowers)

150-180mm (Long Working Distance) This lens would be the best choice for insect and small animal photography.

Working Distances
The working distance of a camera lens is the shortest focussing distance between the lens and the subject. This means that if you move the lens closer to the subject you will be unable to sharply focus on the subject. To retain full magnification (typically 1:1 on most macro lenses) you must maintain the working distance. Simply keep the camera and lens at the same distance from the subject. This can be difficult when hand holding for insect photography. This is why it is important to buy the lens that most suits your subject matter. Insect macro photography requires greater working distance so look at lenses that at least 100mm. If your photography interests extend to dragonflies, moths and butterflies and small animals then you should consider 150mm – 180mm macro lenses.

Still life macro photography is much easier to accomplish than wildlife and nature photography. It can still have it's challenges though! Working distances are less important and a shorter lens (typically 50mm Prime) is an adequate lens for studio macro photography. A studio does not have to be fancy for macro photography either, a soft box (or a light box) can be obtained or created quite easily and without a lot of expense. To get consistent results it is better to provide evenly diffused lighting for the subject against a plain background (usually white). This works better than using flash photography as this usually casts hard shadows when the light hits the subject and can be reflected back towards the camera if the subject has a reflective surface.

A serious word of warning: If you attempt to build a still life studio, softbox or lightbox yourself, please ensure that any electrical wiring and the situation of bulbs is safe. By this, I mean ensure that light bulbs will not come into contact with any flammable materials. Still life macro photography is a lot of fun, burning down your house is not! If you are not certain that your creation is entirely safe you can ask a qualified electrician to check it for you.

If your lens requires a lens collar make sure it come with one.
A light weight camera lens with a short focal range (for example 18mm-55mm kit lens) will not require a lens collar for attachment to a tripod. They are designed to be used for hand held photography primarily. When used with a tripod the camera is connected directly to the tripod head or via a quick release plate.

A heavier lens with a longer focal range will require a lens collar to attach it to a tripod. Lens collars are simply a detachable ring with flat connection plate that contains a female threaded connection. Lens collars are surprisingly expensive so make sure that your lens comes with one as standard. The lens collar can be connected directly to a tripod or tripod head. I recommend that you use a good quality tripod head with a quick release mechanism to reduce the chances of damaging the collar's thread. A top tip here, is that you can actually make your own reduction rings (from household materials such as cardboard and duck tape) to use a larger collar on a lens with a smaller diameter. This is relatively easy to do and can save you a lot of money. Make sure that the reduction ring holds the lens as tightly as an original component before using it because camera lenses do not tend to bounce too well.

I hope that you have found this article interesting, useful or entertaining in some way! ...and a quick thanks to everyone who has sent feedback recently.

Marvin Africa

Saturday 12 July 2008

Digital Cameras for Macro Photography

The Rapid Evolution of Digital Cameras and Macro Photography
Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners in my last post I wrote about RAW conversion software and how it can be used to improve your digital macro photography workflow. I have also written a closely related post about image editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop CS3) and how it can be used to enhance your macro photography. In the past I have covered a diverse range of subjects including photographic composition and helpful macro photography techniques. This post however is going to address a subject that is much more exciting...cameras! You will never get far with macro photography without a descent camera. There are literally thousands of cameras on the market of all shapes, specifications and sizes. Your job as a consumer and photographer is to sort through them all and find the best one for your requirements. This is a difficult prospect if you are new to photography altogether, or maybe less so, if you are upgrading or migrating from film to digital. Remember that this is a macro photography website and as such all information is tailored towards obtaining better macro photographs.

The most significant challenge of finding the perfect camera for your requirements is that it does not actually exist. This means you have to find the digital camera that comes closest to perfection. When it comes to macro photography you need to look for some specific features on the camera that will make much easier. Since the onset of the consumer Digital (Single Lens Reflex) SLR boom there have only really been two camera manufacturers in the race. Canon and Nikon have totally dominated the market for SLR cameras. There are a lot of camera manufacturers developing digital SLR technology in an attempt to get a foothold in this lucrative market. Up until now non of the pretenders to the thrown have been able to better the Canon and Nikon cameras who have interchanged the trophy for best Digital SLR throughout the entire range. The arrival of Sony, Fujifilm, Sigma, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Leica and Olympus barely ruffled any feathers. All were making good high specification cameras but they always seemed to fall just short of the mark. The market leaders seemed to be untouchable with both Canon and Nikon developing the most advanced camera models. It was going to take an innovation a little bit special to spoil the party. In an attempt to reel in th
e bigger camera companies, manufacturers began to jointly develop digital SLR technology. Pentax and Samsung have joined forces in this way. Konica Minolta, a major innovator of photographic equipment, began jointly developing digital camera technology with Sony. In 2006 Konica Minolta pulled out of the camera and photography business. In doing so, they sold most of their digital SLR technology to Sony. This is one of the reasons why Sony was able to hit the ground running with their range of Alpha Digital SLR cameras. It has been Sony who have finally managed to build a camera good enough to pour cold water on the Canon and Nikon parade. The NEW Sony Alpha 200 has been awarded as the best entry level consumer Digital SLR camera by the Technical Image Press Association (TIPA) for 2008. Proclaimed to be as the most coveted photo and imaging awards in Europe. TIPA editors judge on quality, performance, and value criteria that are very important to the end user.

If your starting out from scratch I would recommend that you investigate the Sony Alpha 200 and Alpha 350 as a potential purchase along with the equivalent Canon and Nikon cameras. As the owner of a Canon camera I fully understand the frustrating and persistent problem of their cameras underexposing images due to the metering system being easily “fooled” by difficult lighting (for example a bright sky). The Sony Alpha 350 certainly has an aesthetic advantage over the Canon 450D and the Nikon D60. It also has an impressive specification with a 14.2 MP sensor, that's more mega pixels than a Canon 450D (12.2) Canon 5D (12.8), Canon EOS 1D MKIII (10.1), Nikon D60 (10.2), Nikon D300 (12.3), Nikon D3 (12.8). Mega pixels are not everything, but this is an example of how hard Sony and other manufacturers are pushing this technology along.

A contentious argument against buying the a Sony (or most other Non Canon or Nikon brands) is that they do not have a large choice of high quality lenses available. Sony manufacture their own range of lenses and third party lenses are also made in this mount by Tamron and Sigma. I do have some reservations about the Sony 100mm f2.8 Macro Telephoto lens. Note the word “telephoto” this means that the lens barrel extends as you zoom closer to your subject. I would prefer a fixed lens for macro photography, particularly for shooting insects. If I was in the market for a Sony Alpha SLR camera, lenses would be my main concern. Fujifilm have been clever in this regard and made their SLR cameras with a Nikon F lens mount. This means that their digital SLR cameras are compatible with the entire Nikon (Nikkor) range of lenses from past and present. It is interesting to note that Fujifilm do not currently make an entry level digital SLR camera. Whether or not consumers will buy the Fujifilm over the Nikon is the main question. Fujifilm are one of the companies involved with the development of the four thirds system, perhaps they will introduce this lens mount on some of their cameras in future. If you are thinking about buying a SLR camera for macro photography keep in mind that Canon and Nikon have some of the best lenses available and most third party manufacturers make lenses for these mounts.

What is the The Four Thirds System (4/3)?
The four thirds system is a standard created by Olympus and Kodak that allows for the interchange of lenses from different manufacturers. Several companies support the standard but this not mean that they make cameras that use the 4/3 system. Ko
dak, Fujifilm, Leica, Panasonic, Olympus, Sanyo and Sigma are all involved in developing the 4/3 system. Olympus, Leica and Panasonic all currently manufacture digital SLR cameras that use the four thirds (4/3) system. The system itself is called the Four Thirds System because it uses an aspect ratio of 4:3. This may seem familiar as it is the same ratio used by standard television and is also used in a lot of computer monitors. Most digital SLR cameras use an aspect ratio of 1.81:1 which is very close to the 16:9 ratio, the international standard format for high definition television(HDTV). The Four Thirds System uses a physically smaller sensor, most often found in point and shoot compact cameras. A consequence of using a 4/3 sensor in a digital SLR camera is a larger depth of field. This is a real advantage for macro photography where depth of field becomes very narrow at high magnification. The small components are also the reason that Olympus has been able to develop the worlds thinnest digital SLR camera . The Olympus E410 weighs only 380g. A major drawback and concern for consumers who may be thinking of buying a four thirds camera is the lack of lenses available. There are only 4 macro lenses to choose from at time of writing this article. Luckily two of them are the very reasonable Sigma 150mm f2.8 EX DG HSM and Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG.

Digital SLR too much for you?
The technology that made the Sony alpha digital SLR cameras a force to be reckoned with is not the only legacy that Minolta left behind. Minolta were also responsible for introducing the first superzoom compact cameras with their Dimage cameras. Superzoom compact cameras are getting more and more like SLR cameras all the time. They do not have interchangeable lenses and are often considerably lighter to carry. They are very capable cameras and are great for people who do not want the problems of having a heavy, cumbersome digital SLR camera to carry around. These compact cameras are often called bridge cameras because they span the gap between an SLR and an ordinary compact camera. A benefit of a b
ridge camera is that it will shoot in RAW file format, whereas many point and shoot cameras do not have this feature.

Taking an SLR with you on an outing, journey or expedition takes a lot of planning. You need a whole load of stuff including a camera, tripod, lenses, camera bag and external flash gun/s. On top of all that, your electronic equipment needs to be charged or fitted wit
h batteries. It all adds up weight wise and can be difficult to carry for long distances over rough terrain. It also adds up cost wise as each component will be expensive to acquire. This can take time to build up all the kit that you require if you have a low initial budget. A compact camera may solve some of these problems but not all of them, for example you will still need a tripod for those longer exposure shots.

Fujifilm currently appear to have the upper hand in this market with their excellent Finepix S100(FS) being the latest addition. It is for this reason and this reason only that I have singled it out for attention. The obvious attraction to photographers is their high quality Superzoom lenses but they also have Macro (and Super Macro) functionality built in. Some cameras have additional screw on macro filters that can be added for increase
d magnification.

  • 2/3 “ High Resolution 11 Megapixel Super CCD VIII HR

  • 28-400mm F2.8-5.3 High Performance 14.3x Zoom Lens

  • Optical Image Stabilisation

  • ISO 100 – 10,000 [ISO 6400 at 6MP or Lower, ISO 10,000 at 3MP)

  • Unique Film Simulation Modes

  • RAW mode

  • VGA Movie Mode

  • Comprehensive Photographic Controls

  • Multi-bracketing and high speed continuous shooting

  • 2.5” tiltable high resolution screen

For an absolute beginner to macro photography the a Superzoom camera is a good way to get started. You have to accept that you will not have the same amount of control as you would with a digital SLR camera. This is not as much of a drawback as you might think because as your photography improves you can always upgrade to a new digital SLR later on
. I have no preference for any particular product or manufacturer. My main point in this post is that you have to take a long hard look at the camera market, read as many camera reviews, blogs, forums, websites and magazines as your brain will allow. Try and find example shots taken with the camera that you are thinking of buying. Despite the great advances in super zoom cameras, I would always feel a bit restricted without my SLR camera. I have spent a lot of time studying and learning photography and finding the limitations of my camera. This is how I know that it is time to upgrade to a new model. My lenses all have a canon mount so my decision is already made. The main problem is finding a reasonable second camera that can be thrown into your top pocket for backup, emergencies and general photography – there a certain situations and circumstances where a large expensive digital SLR camera could attract undesired attention. Remember that many mobile (or cell) phones now have high quality cameras built-in which are great for covert photography.

I hope that you have found this article about the rapid evolution of digital cameras and macro photography interesting. There is certainly a lot more to digital cameras than meets the eye. I'm not sure if it is just me, but I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! In this post I have mentioned quite a few lenses and this has been the inspiration for my next post which is going to be about...[drum roll please] macro lenses. In the meantime thanks to everyone who has emailed me and left comments on my blog. I am currently editing some of the older posts so it may take a while for new posts to be added. Thank You for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa

Saturday 7 June 2008

Digital Macro Photography

In my last post I wrote about the use of computer image editing software and how it can be used to enhance digital macro photography. The post was written with the aim of assisting in the choice of which image software to buy for post processing digital images.

This post is going to be about the software required to process RAW data files. Most cameras that are capable of high quality macro photography will be able to produce RAW data files. This means that the camera records the data exactly as it appears on the camera sensor. When the camera records JPEG files it uses file compression to make the files smaller. The camera will also make changes to the original date by applying a set of parameters to it automatically. All this is done instantly as the image is captured and written to the memory card. Some photographer are happy with the quality of the JPEG images.

There are some real advantages to working with the cameras RAW file format. The RAW data on your memory card will have additional information that has been recorded and attached when the image was captured. The image remains editable without loss of data from the original image and the original data can be changed and converted to a JPEG (lossy conversion format) or TIFF (a loss less conversion format) as many times as you like. This means that you can change the white balance after the photograph has been taken without any degradation of the image. In fact the change will be exactly the same as if captured within the camera itself. As the photographer you have ultimate control over the amount of sharpening applied to the photograph. Changes can be made to the exposure and contrast levels ensuring that every photograph you take is has perfect exposure. The advantage of being able to convert a RAW file multiple times makes it possible to combine aspects of the same image with different exposures. Making it possible to solve problems of overexposure and underexposure by using a combination of RAW file conversion software and image editing software. Converting the RAW files to JPEG or TIFF file formats makes them readable by your image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Coral Paint Shop Pro. With this type of image manipulation it is possible to rescue digital images that would have gone in the bin if taken as JPEGS. I just want to reiterate this point about converting RAW files multiple times using different settings. This is a powerful tool for salvaging under and over exposed digital images. It is obviously best to get the image right with the camera as this saves post processing time. One of the biggest challenges for landscape photographers is dealing with an extremely bright sky. The bright sky will often confuse the camera's metering system into underexposing the landscape. If these digital images are captured in JPEG format there is only a limited amount of post processing that can be performed to rescue the photographs. A similar situation exists in macro photography with dark backgrounds. The use of RAW data files can be of real benefit in these situations. Knowing how to get the most from RAW data files will give you a real advantage as a photographer. All you need is a keen eye and the ability to know when to stop making adjustments and save the file.

RAW conversion software is available from several different software developers. Like image editing software the various free conversion software is generally fairly average and usually not worth the time and effort of downloading and installing it. Adobe Photoshop CS2 (and onwards) has a built-in RAW data file converter(Adobe Camera RAW) and is a good example of why you should avoid free conversion software applications (although not strictly free it is not very good – unlike Adobe Photoshop itself which is absolutely excellent!). The main problem with RAW file conversion appears to stem from the fact that all the major camera manufacturers are pulling in different directions. This means that a really good RAW conversion program for one camera may be poor with another brand of camera. There could even be a big difference between the cameras of the same brand or even between revisions of some camera models. This makes recommending a particular RAW conversion package a difficult task. Instead I will try to give as much information as possible about the most popular conversion software currently available.

It really is remarkable that so many photographers are reluctant to post process their digital images. In such a competitive field as macro photography this can prove to be a huge advantage. If you are new to digital macro photography I suggest that you begin acquiring your set-up with RAW data files in mind. This means ensuring that you have adequate file storage and processing of large file sizes.

Lossy File Compression
The term “lossy” is applied to file compression when data is lost during the saving process. When the file is saved data compression takes place making the file smaller as a consequence. An example of a lossy file format is a JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group). This file format was designed to be compressed to make smaller files that could be transferred more easily. JPEG and similar lossy file formats are used for websites images because they retain enough quality and are quick and easy to upload. The main advantages being that they take less space on the server and ensure that pages load quickly in internet browsers. This was an important development in the dark days of 56k modem speeds using dial-up connections. Even with the advent of broadband internet connections web surfers are not prepared to wait for pages to load. When building websites it is worth remembering that there are still people using slow connection speeds.

The data lost during compression process will gradually cause degradation of the digital image. Each subsequent time the .JPG image is saved further data will be lost and the file size will continue to decrease along with the quality. Although this is not specific to macro photography it is useful to know the difference between “lossy” file formats and “loss less” file compression. If you are working with lossy files it is important to make sure that you do not save your work more times than is necessary. In fact I would recommend working in a loss less format until the work is completed. Save the work in a loss less format and then save a copy in the lossy file format that you require.

Loss-Less File Compression
The difference between lossy and loss-less file compression is fairly obvious. The loss-less compressed data allows the original data to be accessed. Loss-less compression often results in larger file sizes although it is possible to compress files further using archival algorithms to create ZIP and RAR archives. Loss-less compression is also used for graphic files such as GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) and PNG (Portable Network Graphics) files. These are often used on websites for logos, avatars and graphics. Some files can fall into both categories and be lossy and loss-less. A good example of this would be a TIFF (Tagged Image File Format). Using a loss-less compression format for your digital images throughout your photographic workflow makes it possible to retain fine details captured within your photography. This can be a very significant difference in the world of macro photography where fine detail is of utmost importance.

RAW Conversion Software
I recently downloaded as many trial and demo RAW processing programs as I could find and have diligently tested some of them. I am not going to write a comparative review of them all but will instead point out some of the good and bad points of each software program. To test them I would take a macro photograph (of a house fly) and adjust the exposure and white balance before sharpening the image and converting to JPEG and TIFF file formats.

DxO Optics Pro
This is a very comprehensive piece of software with an impressive and professional slate grey user interface. It does not just look good but has an array of detailed and powerful filters and tools. I have read on internet forums that the program is not intuitive to use but I had no problems setting up a project, making a few small exposure adjustments and converting RAW files to JPEG and TIFF formats. If you were to find the program confusing to use you may find it comforting to know that it comes with an 58 page user manual! I was very impressed with the speed of the file browser and the general smooth running of the software. To fully discover the potential of this software would take a long time. The program runs downloadable modules for the camera and lenses that you are using. The modules can be quite large and I was unable to find one for one of my lenses. This is the only concern that I have about using DxO Optics Pro as my main RAW conversion software.

Bibble 4.9 Pro RAW
Bibble is a smaller and less comprehensive RAW file editing software program. It has an adequate user friendly interface and is intuitive. Bibble Labs have included some interesting, useful and innovative features. I like the inclusion of Noise Ninja for the removal of digital image noise. This often occurs as a result of using a high ISO value in low light conditions. Bibble Pro RAW is not a very comprehensive software package in itself but has been developed to be customised by the addition of plug-ins. There were a couple of features that I really liked about Bibble Pro RAW, specifically the “fill light” filter is very good. I noticed that the software allows image adjustments to JPEG files. This is not always possible in RAW conversion software. Lens correction and highlight recovery are both notable features of this software. Although Bibble did everything that I had asked of it, overall I felt disappointed by the programs performance. I found Bibble to be a little bit too slow with a distinctive time lag when making image adjustments. Overall it is still a very good RAW converter and worthy of consideration if you are looking for a RAW conversion program that is less expensive than the brand leaders.

Phase One - Capture One Pro
The best raw conversion software that I have used (by a country mile) is Capture One Pro developed by Phase One. In recent weeks I have downloaded as many trial copies of RAW conversion software that I could find on the internet. Out of all the programs that I have used so far Capture One Pro came out on top. I wouldn't go as far as saying that it was perfect because it isn't by any means, but it does everything well enough to meet my exacting standards. I find that I can utilise the workflow side of the program because it suits my own personal way of working. The output option allows multiple file types including JPEG and TIFF which makes life much easier. Capture One Pro is available for both windows and apple mac computers. Phase One state on their own website that “Capture One is recommended and used by professional photographers around the world”. I have little doubt that is the case but it is also a great program for amateur and semi-professionals to use as well. This is because the software has a more intuitive interface than some of the other programs on the market. If you are a perfectionist looking for pixel perfect digital images and a quick and painless photographic workflow solution, this is the software you need. Like all top software developers and manufacturers you can get a trial (or demo) copy. I fully recommend that you try before you buy just to make sure the software is agreeable with your computer system.

I hope that you found the information in this article useful. There are still several RAW conversion programs that I have not got round to testing. Hopefully I will find time to review some more programs in a subsequent post. Lasersoft's Silverfast DcPro Studio and Silkypix Development Studio 3 both have a good reputation for RAW conversion but I have not got round to installing and testing them yet.

Marvin Africa

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Corel Paint Shop Pro – Photo X2 | Adobe Photoshop CS3 | Image Editing Software

In my last post I wrote exclusively about tripods, tripod heads, focussing rails (micro positioning plates and quick release plates. I gave you my honest opinion when I recommended a tripod and head combo for macro photography. Just to clarify, I recommended the Manfrotto 460mg and Benbo Trekker as a versatile macro tripod and head combination. You wont find many tips on macro photography in this post because I am going to write it exclusively on the subject of image editing software. Unless you have been living under a rock for several years you will have realised that software is an important tool in digital macro photography. It is important as a photographer to understand the benefits that imaging editing software has to offer. Failure to enhance your digital macro photography with software will leave you with frustratingly dull images. It is all part and parcel of the post processing procedure for digital photography. The ability to sharpen an image, adjust the levels for more accurate exposure and alter the saturation for more vibrant colour is why you need to invest in the best image editing software that you can afford. Some photographers have no idea how to manipulation or enhance their photographs with software and are immediately at a disadvantage. Make sure that you do not fall into this category because no matter how hard you try to get the perfect image it will always look less vibrant, sharp or incorrectly exposed. The better you are as a photographer the less time you will have to spend on post processing with software. If the image is excellent to begin with you can make a few adjustments to give it masterpiece status. This is one of the benefits of digital photography. It is surprising how far you can go to restore a very bad exposure, particularly from a RAW file.

There is always a lot of talk about pixels yet few people understand what a pixel actually is, or their importance in digital photography. The word pixel is derived from Picture Element. A pixel is a point in a graphic image. Pixels are arranged in rows and columns. So now we know that a digital image is made of pixels and want to find the image editing software to gain control of these pixels. This way we can get much more from our digital images. If you are not post editing your digital images with software you a not utilizing the full potential of your digital camera. Post-editing is an essential way to make your digital image really stand out.

One of the greatest advantages of digital photography is the ability to crop the images. This means that you cut out the part you want to keep and remove the rest. If you read my post about composition I briefly mentioned this technique. It is quite obvious that by cropping the image you are making it smaller and it will therefore contain less pixels after the crop. Most image editing software will have a crop tool but when it comes to post image processing you need a powerful piece of image editing software.

Adobe Photoshop is the best Image Editing Software
If you take the time and learn to use Adobe Photoshop properly there is no chance that you would ever want to use any other software program. The incredible range of filters, tools, utilities and plug-ins make it a very versatile piece of software. If you are prepared to learn how to use this software it is definitely worth paying the extra money for it. The software is quite obviously complex and you would probably benefit from a photoshop tutorial or training course. The program has many tools and filters that are especially useful for fixing photographs.

There are several image adjustments in Adobe Photoshop that I find extremely useful for post processing macro photography. Replace Color is useful for making adjustments to backgrounds especially for product shots that require a clean background. This is one of the image adjustments that I use a lot and might post a tutorial on how to clean up backgrounds in the near future. Replace color can be used for a whole host of other scenarios. Shadow and Highlight is a brilliant adjustment tool and can be used to bring some lost-by-shadow detail back to your images. Many of my macro photography disasters have been rescued by this image editing tool. Over use of this filter can cause the image to have an unnatural appearance. It is worth getting the image right with the camera first time, this will save you time with post processing your images. Saturation can be used to increase or decrease the color in an image. This has to be done with some degree of caution if you want the image to look realistic. The list of features within this software is endless and I have no intention of writing them all down. I think that most of us understand about adjusting the levels in a digital image. This is just a quick and simple way of altering the overall contrast (lightness and darkness) of an image which is depicted by a curved graph. There are numerous ways of doing the same task including entering the new values manually, dragging the curve to new position or using the sliding control bars. Although this is one of the most simple image adjustments that you can make it is also one of the most effective.

There is no doubt that Adobe Photoshop is the crème de la crème of image editing software. It is the software preferred by professionals. However, this website is for beginners to macro photography and I want to bring to your attention another powerful image editing software program that cost a fraction of the price of Adobe Photoshop. The first one of course is Adobe Photoshop Elements which is a cut down version of Photoshop. Elements has enough features to keep most photographers happy but like the full programme you need enough computer memory to run it. Both programmes use a file organiser (Adobe Bridge for Photoshop), although a very useful program in it's own right it means that both have to run at the same time. This can be the cause of a slow down on some older or less powerful computers. There is good news for Mac users (I may be joining you soon!) because Photoshop Elements is available for Mac computers as well as PC.

I would recommend buying the most up to date version which is currently (at the time of writing this article) Photoshop Elements 6. This will ensure that the software is compatible with your operating system, this is important if you are running Microsoft Vista. Adobe Photoshop Elements has a user-friendly interface with a distinctive slate gray background. The tool palates can float or be docked and are very colorful in appearance. The software program has three main modes that are EDIT, CREATE and SHARE. In edit mode you are able to make changes to your images such as sharpening, exposure, scratch removal etc. In create mode you can make a photo book, collage, on-line gallery or flash slide shows. I have to admit that the online gallery and slide show features that use templates are not really my cup of tea. Some people might enjoy using these over simplified features but they really are nothing to write home about. In my opinion if you are interested in making online galleries or slide shows there are much better software programs available to do this than Photoshop Elements. It is far too basic to be considered a serious application feature in this software but it may come in handy for wasting a rainy afternoon or entertaining the children for an hour or so. Share mode makes it easier to send your images by email etc. The file organizer (based on Adobe Bridge) runs very slowly and can be difficult to navigate. To make searches easier you can add keywords and tags to your images. This is a very useful way of locating a batch of images taken with a particular macro lens (for example) or with a very specific photographic set-up.

Overall Adobe Photoshop Elements is a good value for money piece of software that has gradually improved with each new version. It certainly has enough filters, tools and features to keep most beginners to digital photography busy. I have used Adobe Photoshop elements quite a lot in the past and found it very easy and intuitive to use. Adobe must have thought it was easy to use as well because there is very little help available for the computer illiterate amongst us. If you find yourself within this category you may be more interested in Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2. Originally this software was developed by JASC. I have used Paint Shop Pro on my PC for several years and only recently bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop. Paint Shop Pro is a brilliant application and in my opinion much better to use as a beginner than all the others. It is an intuitive program and also has some very useful features for image editing and image manipulation. I really like this software for its simplicity and ease of use but if given the choice between the two I would buy Coral Paint Shop Pro – Photo X2. The main reason for this decision is that Paint Shop Pro runs quicker and smoother in my experience. They are pretty much even in most respects but I have occasionally experienced glitches with Elements. Although they were not too serious it is frustrating when the software hangs or has to be restarted.

Adobe has a new image editing option for us all to consider. Photoshop Express is still in the pipeline at the moment but is due to be unleashed very soon. It is a new innovation by Adobe that incorporates online photo editing and an online image gallery. The software allows very basic image editing options that might keep some snappers happy. This will include crop, rotate, red eye removal, black and white, saturation and white balance. It is definitely not aimed at serious photographers who will find this software option far too limiting. However, this may well be the way that we are destined to edit our images in future so it's worth keeping an eye on developments. The release of Adobe Lightroom 2 is also imminent. Lightroom was developed with the help of professional photographers. It is described by Adobe as the professional photographers toolbox. Essentially Lightroom is designed to work with Photoshop. Adjustments to images in Lightroom will not alter the original data. Adobe has also added Photoshop CS3 Extended to this growing family of programs. This software allows you to edit 3D and motion based content.

As this website is called “Macro Photography for Beginners” I want to offer some advice regarding photo editing software. If you are happy to learn how to use Adobe Photoshop CS3 and can afford to buy a legitimate copy then this is all you will ever need to edit your images. If you are working on a lower budget buy a copy of Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 or Adobe Photoshop Elements. Avoid all other imaging editing software like the plague. Ensure that your computer has a specification capable of running the software that you have chosen. Photo editing software uses a lot of computer memory especially when working with large file sizes.

Thank you for visiting my website, I hope that you found this information helpful.

Marvin Africa

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Tripods for Macro Photography

Which Tripods are best for Macro Photography?
A very important aspect of macro photography is finding a way to support the camera whilst also allowing you as the photographer, to make precise movements to the cameras position. To get consistent results this has to be done in a way that is fast, simple and accurate. To get this type of camera positioning control you need to invest in a sturdy tripod. A tripod does not necessarily have to be expensive to be effective for macro photography. The very cheap unbranded all-in-one pan and tilt tripods are best avoided because they are simply not good strong enough for the job. This type of tripod is designed for much lighter cameras and camcorders rather than heavy digital SLR cameras with macro lenses and flash units connected. It is likely that the excess weight would break the tripod and could result in damage to the camera, lens or flash unit. It is therefore a good idea to find a tripod that is strong, sturdy and designed to take the weight of all your expensive camera equipment.

There are thousands of different tripods on the market and the only thing that they have in common is that they all have three legs. A tripod is the only realistic method of getting consistently sharp macro photographs. However, this cannot be guaranteed when working with outdoor subjects such as plants, flowers and insects. Still life Photography is relatively easy in comparison and a sturdy tripod is almost guaranteed to give crystal sharp results indoors. This of course is only possible if you are using an adequate camera and lens combination with good lighting and a remote switch. Another way is to achieve consistent sharp still life images is to attach the camera to a stand or bracket.

Nature and wildlife photographers often use their cameras hand held (without tripod support) for flexibility. This can be a difficult skill to learn and often requires the use of flash which allows for quicker shutter speed. Unless balanced with ambient light this may result in pictures that have an unnatural appearance. My own experience of hand held macro photography has been disappointing at times but with practice has gradually improved. I found that it involves taking a lot more shots of the subject in the hope of getting at least one that is sharp. On reflection you can have a lot of soft images of the subject or use a tripod in the hope of getting at least one acceptably sharp image. The argument against using a tripod is that they are rather restrictive, cumbersome and time consuming. My response to this would be that this is the price you pay for seeking consistently sharp images. Your strike rate may be lower but the pictures you do manage to get will be of much higher quality. Also the composition will usually be better due to the slow and thoughtful way that you are forced to work with a tripod.

One of the tripods that I have found that is suitably flexible for outdoor wild flower photography is the Benbo range by Paterson Photographic. These tripods have a unique design that makes it possible to get your camera very close to the ground. In fact the Benbo Trekker will allow you to get lower than ground level if your subject is in a hole (below ground level). There are other tripods that can do this by reversing the central column. Reversing the central column means that your camera will be upside down. In addition the legs may obstruct your view and make it difficult to see through the view finder. If macro photography is your sole purpose for buying a tripod and your subjects are likely to be on the ground or close to it, a Benbo is probably one of the options to consider.

Benbo tripod are not always the easiest piece of equipment to use. I have found the Trekker II that I use to be quite a challenge to set-up quickly. The lower leg section are sealed and waterproof so that the tripod can be stood in shallow water. Although I recommend this tripod (the current model is the Benbo Trekker Mark 3) I would not buy the tripods standard ball and socket head and also consider whether to avoid the swivel joint. The swivel joint is available in the centre column and allows the camera to be adjusted from horizontal to vertical. However, many photographers have indicated that this additional joint adds a weak point in the tripod. I can confirm that in my own experience the swivel joint does affect the overall weight capacity of these tripods. In macro photography ability to use precision to fine tune your composition is very important. Any weak point or vulnerability will become apparent very quickly. Benbo tripods are an adequate tripod for beginners but you have to accept that they do have limitations. These tripods can be improved by the addition of a third party head such as the Manfrotto 460mg (or similar) rather than a low quality standard ball and socket head. Poor quality ball and socket tripod heads will make framing your subject a very frustrating exercise, particularly if the camera is facing downwards. In this position the ball and socket joint will be under a considerable amount of stress.

Manfrotto 460mg - 3 Way Tripod Head
This is a very innovative tripod head made from light weight magnesium, it weighs 0.4 Kg (0.9 lbs). It can be moved in 3 different directions using independent adjustments. This flexibility makes it possible to move the camera to any position imaginable. The head will pan through 360 degrees and has frontal and lateral tilt. The Manfrotto 460mg has rubber grip fine adjustment knobs rather than levers so you cannot poke yourself in the eye! The head is supplied with a PL 200 quick release plate. It has a load capacity of 3.0 Kg (6.7 lbs) which is enough for most camera, macro lens and flash arrangements. The combination of the Benbo Trekker and the Manfrotto 460mg gives you an excellent and balanced set up for macro photography. There are plenty of alternative tripods heads in all shapes and sizes. Geared heads offer more precision and are popular but also very expensive in comparision.

Please Note, that to use the Benbo Trekker tripods (with 1/4" thread) with a Manfrotto tripod head (3/8" thread) youwill need to purchase an additional adapter. Benbo Trekker tripods have 1/4” male thread, this requires the addition of a Bogen/Manfrotto 1/4” to 3/8” adapter. This inexpensive adapter will make the Benbo Trekker tripod compatible with 3/8” tripod heads made by other manufacturers. There are two different types of this adapter. One of them is a simple adapter that threads directly over the original 1/4” thread converting into a 3/8” thread. The other type is virtually the same except that it has a flange (or disc) around it. Neither are expensive and both will allow you to convert a 1/4” thread to a 3/8” thread allowing you to use a Manfrotto tripod head with a Benbo (or Uni-loc) tripod. I found that Kaiser also make a very inexpesive 1/4” to a 3/8” thread adapter.

The Benbo Trekker range is also cloned as the Uni-loc Major System - so these tripods are essentially the same product using the same or (very similar) design. They both meet high standards of quality (some say that the Uni-loc has a better build quality). Trekker tripods are sold with or without the controversial swivel joint in the centre column. It is also possible to purchase replacement centre column. If you have a Benbo with a swivel joint but want a straight column you can buy a replacement from Paterson Photographic.

Also I have read that some photographers are unhappy that the camera has to be supported when you undo the tension nut. This is actually no different to most other brand of tripod, I am not aware of any tripod that can be operated any differently. I have found that the Benbo tripods are easy to set-up if you slacken the tensioning nut very slightly (just enough to move the legs or the centre column into a new position). I accept that for some people the Benbo is just right for them. In fact as you begin to more proficient as a macro photographer you may decide to look for a more proffesional tripod for your macro endeavors.

If you want to avoid the Benbo/Uni-Lock style of tripod and would prefer to go straight for the proffesional tripods here a a few brands to consider.





(Aluminium).Gitzo get very good reviews for their Explorer Range of tripods most notably for macro photography. A popular choice and currently still available is the Gitzo Explorer G2220 Another popular choice but with mixed reviews from photographers are the Manfrotto 190X Pro B and the larger 055B tripods. My only advice is to try before you buy or at least read as many reviews as possible, not only about the products but the company behind them. Customer Service should always be considered as you will need this when seeking spare parts, repairs or even a refund if the product does not live up to expectations.

Macro Focussing RailsI have already outlined a fairly reasonable tripod (either the Benbo, Manfrotto or Gitzo) and tripod head (Manfrotto 460mg or better) for macro photography. This combination is especially suited to outdoor field work such as wild flower (botanic), insect (bugs), fungi (mycology) or similar types of field photography. It is actually possible to improve the equipment's flexibility further by adding a focussing rail (also known as a micro positioning plate). The difficult and frustrating part of macro photography is focussing on your subject. To do this manually without a focussing rail means moving the camera backwards and forwards to bring the subject into focus. To adjust the focal distance you have to move the tripod and camera closer or further away from subject. To maintain a particular ratio i.e 1:1 you might have to resort to adjusting the extension of the tripods legs or the centre column. This can be a frustrating and difficult procedure without a foccussing rail. The focussing rail connects to the tripod head and can be used with a quick release plate. This enables the camera to be moved in small increments backwards and forwards for quicker and more precise focusing. Manfrotto/Bogen make an acceptable micro positioning plate for this purpose. In the UK it is branded as the Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate and in the US as the Manfrotto/Bogen 3419 Micro Positioning Plate. It is an outstanding piece of kit and a perfect compliment to the set-up that I have described in this post. This labour saving device is ideal for macro photography because it can be used to make precise positioning movements with fingertip control. It is small at 180 x 77, 5x6mm in dimension and does not add much weight at 0.5 Kg (1 lbs) because it is made from extruded aluminium. It is strong though and has a maximum weight capacity of 8.0 Kg (17.7 lbs) which is easily enough for a Digital SLR camera, Lens and off camera flash unit. When using the fingertip control for ultra-fine positioning the Manfrotto Micro Positioning Plate has a simple lock-release lever for fast set-up. It is common sense really, but it is important that you support the camera if you have it positioned facing downwards whilst using the lock-release lever. It is also possible to fix two Micro Positioning Plates together so that you have the same control over left to right movements (but this is over kill in my opinion and not really necessary - each to their own).

Quick Release (QR) Plates It is always worth paying for a good quality tripod head to use with your tripod. Remember that you do not have to buy the same brand of tripod head as your tripod. The flexibility of being able to mix and match provides the photographer with a much wider choice of selection. Quick Release (QR) Plates are a simple device that make it easier and faster to attach or remove the camera from the tripod (via the tripod head). This means that you spend less time setting up each composition and more time taking photographs. Macro Photography without a quick release plate is awkward and fiddly to accomplish. If you do not use a quick release plate there is a strong chance that you will eventually damage your camera, tripod or lens collar connection. This will come about through repeatedly attaching and disconnecting the camera to and from the tripod manually. The end result of this would be having to buy a new and expensive lens collar for your macro lens. The worst scenario would be the camera, lens and flash unit coming away from the tripod and getting damaged. You always have to consider the stability of the the system you are using and quick release plates makes a lot of sense. Many of the high quality tripod heads come with a quick release plates but you can also buy them separately if required.

I hope that you found this post about tripods, heads, focussing rails and quick release plates useful. If you begin using (or upgrade to) a set-up like the one I recommended it will make a lot of difference to your macro photography. In my next post and possibly several subsequent posts (hey, its a big topic) I will be writing about image editing software. Thank you for visiting my macro photography for beginners website.

You may also be interested in my blog post about Macro Tripod Problems (or the day my tripod broke, may have been a more accurate title)