Comprehensive Guide to Improve Your Macro Photography - Small Snail on a Red Flower
Macro photography is a very satisfying form of photography. It is fairly easy to capture an amazing macro photo. The macro photos show elements the naked human eye usually does not observe. I will give some information that will help improve your macro photography. I will discuss some gear needed for macro work, the background and how it affects the photo, point of view, lighting and the minimal depth of field associated with macro.
You do not always need a ton of fancy gear. Macro tubes and Macro Filters are very inexpensive. While it is not possible to get high quality photos with macro filters, macro tubes coupled with high quality glass can produce excellent shots. An extension tube is basically a small tube that fits between the camera body and the lens. This increases the distance between the camera’s sensor and the lens creating a closer focusing distance. Extension tubes come in varies shapes and sizes and depending on the lens’s focal length the magnification is affected differently. Here is a great explanation to extension tubes (https://www.digitalphotomentor.com/hot-to-use-macro-extension-tubes/)
I really recommend getting a specialised macro lens if you are interested in macro photography. You really do not need to buy the best macro lens. I use the Tamron 90mm SP VC Macro lens and I can highly recommend it.
The focal length of macro lenses can range from 50mm to about 200mm. True macro is referred to as 1:1 or higher (e.g. 2:1). These ratios are referred to as the magnification. If you buy a macro lens a 100mm is usually suitable for overall use. The 150mm and longer macro lenses is usually very expensive and not really always necessary.
How I took the Snail Photos
For these snail photos I used an external flash with a small soft box on to take these photos. The flash I used was the Canon 430EX II and I used my Canon 5D mkIII with my Tamron 90mm SP Macro lens.
I saw the snail on the flower and immediately got my camera and external flash to take some photos. This snail was really small. It is not really possible to see it from these photos. Some of the photos was focused at closest distance on my 1:1 macro lens and full frame camera. As I was taking photos the snail moved around and I got a chance to take pictures at varies angles and using different angles for the lighting. For the white background photo I used backlit flash and the white is actually the mini softbox.
The Background and Point of View (POV)
In macro photography the background usually is completely out of focus thanks to the extremely shallow depth of field. In photography to create a compelling image attention on an appropriate background is key. Maybe even the most important part in any form of photography.
In macro photography as with most forms of photography the point of view (POV) is crucial. The angle between the lens and the subject changes the background and with macro photography it can make a huge impact on the distractions. A small object your naked eye identifies as unobtrusive can negatively impact the photo. Everything is magnified and enhanced in macro photography. Every dust particle is visible if zoomed in close. The idealistic macro photo has a clean background and no obtrusive elements. In some of these snail photos you can identify the dust on the snails shell. To the naked eye you could not even see it.
As always shooting eye level produces the most pleasing images. Even if your subject is a tiny snail. Lucky for me the snail was on a potted flower on a table making it easy to shoot at such a low angle.
Minimal Depth of Field
The most unique problem of macro photography is the extremely shallow depth of field. When you get really close it becomes a massive problem or advantage depending on how you want to see it. In landscape photography with a wide angle lens and f/8.0 aperture you can easily get most of the scene in focus. In macro photography at just 1:1 magnification f/8.0 which normally sounds like a small aperture with a big depth of field, is now an extremely shallow depth of field. If you go down to f/22.0 at a very close focusing distance you definitely need some form of stabilisation and preferably a flash. The flash helps to increase the brightness for you to use a faster shutterspeed.
The most important advice for increasing that minimal depth of field is to keep the subject perpendicular to the lens. i.e. to keep the subject in the same focus plane throughout. With this snail it was not that easy. A moving subject meant I could not really use a tripod but actually there was also a limited space around the potted flower that hindered me from using a tripod. Then the other problem was the shell of the snail is not in the same focus plain as the eyes and body. Therefore the eyes are in focus but then the shell was not perfectly in focus. And these photos were taken between f/11.0 and f/25.0.
When using a small aperture in macro photography you will need a ton of light. Unfortunately getting very close usually causes you and your camera to cast a shadow on the subject. It is preferable to change your position. But to get a great shot you need the perfect point of view as discussed earlier limiting your moving abilities.
That is where flash is handy. Unfortunately you cannot use your built in flash or a hotshoe mounted speedlite as the lens will cast a shadow and the light will really not look pleasant. You can get a dedicated macro flash which costs a fortune or you can do what I do and use your external flash. I use my external speedlite with a small soft box and trigger it with a radio trigger. I usually hand hold the flash as close to the subject as possible but you can mount the flash on a light stand which ever you prefer. In this photo I rested the flash on the table which the potted flower was on and in some of the photos the flash was also the background. A very simple technique and can be used towhen photographing almost anything small.
It is important to hold the flash close to the subject. The closer the flash to the subject the softer the light and less shadows on the photo and thus a more pleasant photo. There could be scenarios in which harsher light is desired.
Focusing Technique for Macro Photos
Now focusing is probably the hardest part. Unless you have a Lytro camera with which you can refocus in post production. Auto focus usually does not work with macro photography especially if the scene is dark and/or you are darn close to the subject. I advise immediately switching to manual focus.
How I focus with macro photos: Firstly I switch to manual focus. Then I manual focus to approximately the desired focus distance (usually the closest possible). Then I physically move the camera back and forth and take bursts of pictures. I move slow and in very tiny increments. This ensures that at least one of the photos is sharp and in focus.
Macro photography unfortunately needs some specialised camera gear. An unmodified iPhone will unfortunately not supply a perfect macro shot unlike with landscape photography. The key is to take lots and lots of photos. And as with anything in life. Practice, practice and practice.
I took more than a hundred photos of the snail and only about ten of them were great.
The 3 photos not part of the snail series, where taken with similar techniques as discussed in this article. Have fun trying to capture stunning macro shots.