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Macro Photography

June 8, 2010 - Dave Hecei

I'm back, after a long hiatus from this blog. I guess I just don't think too much about photography in the winter (yes I hate winter). But spring is here, trees are blooming, and the grass is growing. The earliest of spring flowers in our area have already come and gone. There are still plenty of things out there to photograph.

Flowers are a great subject to photograph. They are easy to find, and unlike birds or other wildlife around here, they don't fly or run away. This doesn't mean that flowers don't move. Trust me, even the slightest breeze can cause problems.

Ideally, you will want to use an SLR camera and a lens that allows for very close focusing. You can use a good point-and-shoot camera but an SLR is more versatile, so you can be a bit more creative. So let's assume you have an SLR, digital or film, it doesn't matter.

Most SLR lenses can focus fairly close. Some zoom lenses may even say macro on them. Macro is just another way of saying close-up. A typical zoom lens may have a macro rating of 1:4, or one-quarter life size. What this really means is that the image you are shooting is 1/4 its real size on the film, or sensor. One-quarter life size is actually pretty good. If you were to enlarge that image to an 11 by 14 print, the image would be many times life size. To really get close you will want to use a lens that gets down to 1/2 life size (1:2) or better yet life size (1:1).

For the more serious macro photographer, a true macro lens is for you. This type of lens, typically a single focal length lens, can focus very close. The best macro lenses will focus down to life size, or 1:1. This means that you are getting very close, and thus very high magnification.

When shooting up close macros, you need to think in the same way as you do when shooting telephoto. Since both a macro lens and a large telephoto lens greatly magnifies the subject, any camera movement is also greatly magnified.

If you try and handhold a macro shot you need to use a very fast shutter speed to help stop any shake you induce in the camera. The problem is that the depth-of-field (DOF), the area of sharp focus in front of and behind the subject, is very narrow when shooting macro, or telephoto. To compensate, you use a higher aperture number (a smaller lens opening) to increase the DOF. This lets less light through the lens making it necessary to use slower shutter speeds. It all sounds like a trap, doesn’t it.

There are two ways to get around all this. The natural way is to use a tripod and a cable release. A tripod fixes the camera to a point and allows the use of slower shutter speeds. I like to photograph wild flowers on bright overcast days. I also like to shoot at 100 to 200 ISO for the best quality digital image. At these settings I will often have to shoot with a shutter speed from 1 second to 1/8th of a second. The lens aperture is usually around f/11 or f/16, but it all depends on the amount of light available.

The other way is to use artificial light. This could be anything from a flashlight, spotlight, or the easiest way, electronic flash. Electronic flash is the easiest to set up. It’s portable and with today’s modern cameras and computer control, is fairly easy to use. This is not to say that you can just pop a flash on your camera and get perfect photos, if only that were possible. To get the best images using flash there are some important things to know and techniques to follow.

First thing is to get the flash off the camera. A typical shoe mounted flash sits high atop the SLR. If you are shooting a subject that is just a couple of feet away, or less, the light from the flash will miss the subject – it is pointed too high. By using an extension cable, the flash can be mounted to one side or tilted down and pointed to the subject. Having the flash off to one side allows for more interesting lighting effect, either to the right or left.

A typical flash unit has light that is a bit harsh. If you are in a room the light from the flash can bounce off of walls and ceilings, helping to soften the effect. Outside there are no walls or ceilings and the light can be quite harsh looking. There are a few accessories you can use to soften a flash.

A very cheap and simple item can be a white plastic shower cap. Yes one of those cheap things with elastic around it. Just pop this over the flash and it can act as a diffuser. There are several companies out there that make diffusers for shoe-mounted flashes. There are different designs like a hood that is used to bounce the flash into, a rectangular shaped ‘soft box’, or an inflatable balloon that you shoot through. Each of these can accomplish the same thing, softening the light to make it look more natural.

Next time we’ll get into some shooting techniques.


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