Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Macro Photography Tips for Beginners

Welcome to my macro photography for beginners website. The title of this post is self explanatory. I am aiming to address some of the problems that lead to poor results in macro photography. In my last post I showed you my apple experiment and wrote about the virtues of manual focus. In this post I will give you some tips on finding the right camera equipment for your budget. I also want to spend a little bit of time on using TTL ring flash for macro photography. In previous posts I have mentioned ways to harness ambient light (available natural light) which makes it possible to avoid using flash photography or a high ISO setting. To get as much natural light you can use reflective material called deflectors to direct more light at your subject. The position of the camera will make quite a lot of difference to the amount of light available. It is best not to point the camera into direct sun light as this will cause the dreaded silhouette effect that we all aim to avoid. A lens hood can be used to minimise the amount of direct sunlight entering the camera. The main problem with macro photography is gathering enough light to get a good exposure with your desired settings. As a photographer you have to choose how to overcome these problems. I will tell you all about how I tackle some of the problems that I have encountered. In doing so, I am not saying that it is the best way to do it or the least expensive. It is merely the path I have chosen and is based on my own personal experiences. A good way to learn about macro photography is to read other photographers websites (like this one!) I often look at how other photographers capture subjects that I am interested in. Most photographers are keen to inform others how they achieved their best work. I’m not saying that photographers like to boast… actually that is exactly what I’m saying. Most photographers are keen to talk about their achievements and the equipment that they are using. You can find some good information on file sharing websites and photography forums (please finish reading my article first!) Sadly many of the best photographers are using equipment outside of my financial budget. However, I strive to get the best results from the equipment that I have acquired. It has taken me several years to collect, build and bodge together the items that I use for my macro photography.

Macro Photography Gear

Figure 1. Some of the Macro Photography Equipment That I am Currently Using.

There is no doubt that your personal budget will dictate what type of macro photography equipment you can use. This certainly applies to my own set-up and most photographers that I have come into contact with over the years. How you distribute your budget is entirely up to you but I will offer you some suggestions. Most compact cameras have a macro mode and are capable of taking close-up photographs. It is possible to get some very good close up pictures with some of the better cameras in this category. I find this type of camera a little bit difficult to use but they have some good qualities too. I envy the fact that you can fit the camera in your pocket. Most very small cameras are not great for macro because they have poor aperture control. They are really designed for day-to-day photography. The aperture on most compacts makes them more suitable for home and leisure photography. Bridge cameras are a different kettle of fish altogether. These cameras resemble the SLR but have fixed lenses. With the addition of a close-up filter it is possible to get some exceptional macro photography with these cameras when fitted with a close up filter. The added bonus is that you never have to change lenses or worry about cleaning the sensor. (I am about to embark on cleaning the sensor in my own camera very soon. When my cleaning kit arrives I will write a detailed post about my experience of cleaning the sensor…oh dear!) I have seen some stunning macro photography taken with bridge cameras recently. If you have a low financial budget I would recommend that you consider a bridge camera. A bridge camera has some limitations but is better than the very compact cameras for macro photography. If you are really serious about macro photography you need to think about getting a digital single reflex camera (DSLR).

How to Divide your Macro Photography Budget
Most photographers buy a Canon or a Nikon camera. The reason most people buy Canon or Nikon brands is that they are better than the rest and have a better range of lenses. [Yes they do…] I don’t want to argue about which is best between the two brands! They both have their admirers and considering all pros and cons they always come out fairly even. It usually turns out that once you buy one brand you are stuck with your choice. This is because your accessories are not usually interchangeable between brands. A canon mount lens will not fit a Nikon camera and vice versa. Sony, Olympus and Pentax all make quality cameras and are a suitable choice if you are determined to be different. Entry level cameras upwards are great for beginners to learn their respective arts. The current crop of Canon digital EOS cameras and Nikon D-series are all perfect for macro photography. Choose any of these cameras and get a decent lens and you will not be disappointed (with the camera, the photography is another matter…read my website regularly and you might not be disappointed with that either!)

So my overall advice is to buy a good SLR camera and put a highly rated macro lens on it. This will give better results than an expensive top of the range camera with a poor quality macro lens combination. Divide your budget in a way that will produce good results out of the box. Photography is not about showing off or having more expensive camera equipment than someone else. In saying that buy the best equipment you can reasonably afford and avoid buying items or products that you can make for free, pick up second hand or do without. If you do not need the lens that comes with your SLR package buy the body only and get a quality macro lens separately. Most of all do some research and read as many camera review websites and camera magazines as possible before making your final choice. It is a very difficult decision and a very expensive mistake if you get it all wrong. I recommend buying a camera from a well know retailer in your own locality rather than taking a gamble on internet auctions and “moon-on-a-stick” websites.

Buy a Dedicated Macro Lens
I bought the Sigma 150mm APO Macro DG HSM because it suited my budget. If I had a larger a budget I would have probably bought the equivalent Canon, although the longer working distance of the Sigma is a real benefit for insect photography. As it turns out the Sigma is an excellent lens and from what I read on photography forums on the internet so is the Sigma 105mm. One of the advantages of macro equipment is that manufacturers rarely produce poor quality macro lenses. Most of the lenses you can buy today are built for digital photography and are of excellent build quality. Always read reviews before paying for an expensive lens.

Flash Photography |Twin Flash or Ring Flash?
Most beginners are reluctant to spend a lot of money on a flash system. This is until they realise how much they need one to get good results. Ring flashes are the most popular choice for macro photographers. Twin Flash is a more expensive option. A twin flash is two small flash units mounted on a ring fitting, the same as a ring flash. If they are used properly these types of flash can give excellent results. In addition they can be used in conjunction with a flash gun for even more lighting control. Usually the ring flash is set up as the master unit and the flash gun as the slave unit. This can be done as a wireless configuration when compatible flash units are used together. I have read a few reviews that condemn twin flashes for being two harsh. Ring-flash also gets a bad press for giving flat results and adding weird lighting effects to the images. In most cases the equipment is set up incorrectly or may even be damaged. As for giving flat lighting that is what it was it was designed to do!

Still life Photography Lighting | Buy of Build a Light-box
If you are only interested in still life photography such as products for internet auction sites you only need good lighting. This can be achieved by building a small studio and placing adequate lighting for your products. This can be done for relatively low cost and will give very good results. There are lots of books and websites that will tell you how to build a studio or light box for free. I have built many structures of this type and it really does give superb results. Building a light-box is an education in itself about lighting and macro photography. I would recommend that you try building a light-box and take photographs of products as if you wanted to sell them on a website. I am going to build a new light-box this year and may well document it all for this website. I have not decided on this yet but it will probably be at the end of the summer. (A sad time for macro photographers)

Please note:
To use the Sigma EM-140 DG Ring-Flash with the Sigma 150mm 1:2:8: APO Macro DG HSM you need to purchase a 72mm adaptor ring separately. The adapter ring screws into the threads at the end of the lens and connects to the ring-flash assembly unit. I bought the sigma lens due to its reputation as an excellent wildlife macro lens. Let me assure you that I was not disappointed. Since acquiring this lens it has been almost permanently attached to the camera. I bought the Sigma Ring-flash for similar reasons and for compatibility with the lens. In addition I prefer to take scientific photographs of plants for identification and the "flat" even lighting is required for this type of work.

A high quality sturdy tripod is essential kit for a dedicated macro photographer. Consider the top tripod brands such as Gitzo, Manfrotto etc. I use a Benbo because it is a flexible piece of kit. Some photographers dislike Benbo tripods because they can be a bit of a handful. I recommend that you borrow one or try one in store before spending your money. I think they are better when used with a decent ball head. A focussing rail is another way to improve the flexibility of the tripod allowing the camera to slide in small increments backwards and forwards. Remember that at high magnification moving the camera is the best way to focus on your subject. It is possible to get a fairly decent tripod for quite reasonable money. Avoid the really cheap trashy tripods with the all in pan-tilt heads. These are designed for camcorders and have a tendency to break when used with heavy equipment. If a tripod is outside of your budget you might want to consider getting a mono-pod. A good mono-pod is a cost effective way to steady the camera. There are plenty of macro photographers who prefer to operate the camera hand-held.

Additional Equipment and Accessories
There are plenty of ways to keep the camera steady without using a tripod. A couple of popular options are to place the camera on a beanbag or use a Gorilla Pod. It is quite easy to make your own bean bag if you know how to sow. A beanbag is a small soft pillow with a pliable filling (usually small plastic balls). It can be placed on a post or on the ground and the camera can be nestled into it. They are brilliant for low to the ground photography. A beanbag can save you a huge amount of set-up time. It is simply a matter of throwing it down and putting the camera on top of it. They come in all shapes and sizes and are available from all good camera shops and retailers (and probably some rubbish ones as well). Gorilla Pods (also known as Gorilla Grips) are a relatively new invention. They are miniature tripod like structures made with pliable (bendable) wire legs. The legs can wrap around other structures such as branches or sign posts. The camera attaches to the Gorilla Pod with a traditional quick release plate mechanism. I have never tried using a Gorilla Pod but they do look like a useful piece of gear. I am sure that there are plenty of similar products with equally imaginative names. If a product has the word Gorilla in it you know its going to be a winner! I am thinking of changing the name of my website to Macro Photography for Gorillas! That might increase the traffic. Another useful item is the "Plamp" (I think that is what it is called). This device is a bendable or pliable structure with crocodile clamp on either end. It can be used to grip and hold objects. A bit like having an extra arm to hold items in place for you. The name is not quite as good but these are very useful items put them on your shopping list.

A remote switch makes life much easier so opt for the one that suits you best. My preference is for the cable type because it can be operated from behind the camera. The infared switches have to be operated from in front of the camera. (this may be different for your camera, I recommend that you check the manual) This would obviously cause a few problems for macro photography. The reason of course is that you spend most of your time behind the camera making fine adjustments to your camera set-up and settings. If you find that you are spending a lot of time on your knees you can make life a little bit more comfortable by wearing a pair of knee-pads. You can even try wearing them whilst doing some macro photography! (LOL) Knee-pads are usually available from merchants that sell health and safety equipment.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my macro photography for beginners website. If you have any suggestions, questions or comments please feel free to contact me by email or via the comments box. Cheers and happy shooting.

Marvin Africa



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, but you should also be aware that there are macro filters as well. They are much cheaper and much more convenient to carry. I have been able to take some pretty decent macro shots with them.

Marvin Africa said...

Hello (Anonymous)

I'm fully aware of macro filters. In fact I would like to write a post on them at some point in the future. I am always interested to learn the type of equipment other photographers are using and more importantly achieving good results with. Thanks for your comment.

IseNiki Banigo said...

Wonderful tips for person learning beginner photography , specially i like your way to present the things. You start with the right basis , from person budget and how to allocate it. Many blogger ignore this and just start posting the tips.

Marvin Africa said...

Hello IseNiki Banigo (interesting name)

I don't usually allow embedded links through the spam filter but I've made an exception to the rule here. Thanks for the comment/feedback. I try to get as much informaton into an article as possible. Good luck with whatever it is that you are doing and remember that photography is a tough nut to crack!

Simplyfood said...

I am reserching cameras for closeup food photography, I am swaying towards Canon EOS 1000D as it fits into my budget.I am a complete novice .I do not know anything about cameras or different lens attachments.Can you suggest if this lens will be good for food pics and what macro lens to buy???
This is my site if you need to see what type of pics I need to take.
would appreciate some good advise.